Overheard snippet of conversation at the health club:
"So at lunch today I was chatting with the couple next to me, and when they left, they paid my bill! I couldn't believe it! That was so nice! I can't wait to do the same thing for someone else!"
Last Tuesday we had some extra time in my fiction workshop, so I gave the students an exercise. I put a list of six abstract nouns up on the board (things like honor and poverty), and told them to write a scene, using only concrete nouns, that would illustrate the concept they'd chosen without ever naming it explicitly.
I listed three positive nouns and three negative ones. All but one student chose to write about one of the negatives.
On Thursday, we did the same exercise again, but I gave them only positive nouns. They found this more difficult, and we talked about why: because nice things are less dramatic and therefore less story-worthy, because the students were afraid of sounding corny, and -- most interesting to me -- because writing happy stories makes them feel childish, since happy stories were what they wrote when they were kids.
When I was in graduate school, I wrote an essay called "Poisoning Peter Pan: the Inner Child in the Academy," about my own experiences with academic contempt for anything "childish" -- i.e., emotional or enthusiastic or un-ironic -- by way of earlier observations on the subject by Alice Miller and Jane Tompkins. I never tried to publish the essay for a number of reasons, including the improbably-optimistic hope that maybe this kind of thing only happened at Yale. (My advisor's tart warning that I should only publish the piece posthumously was also a factor.) After listening to my students last week, I wonder if the topic's more relevant than I thought. Hmmmm. I do have tenure now. Maybe I should dig it out and look at it again. Or maybe I could post it here. Hmmmm . . . .
Anyway, during the conversation last Thursday, I told my students that lots of nice things happen in the world that we'd never buy if they were fiction. The rickety contrivance I overheard in the health club is a perfect example; if anyone wrote that in a story, the readers would all be saying, "C'mon, doesn't work, why would the couple buy this woman lunch? What's their motivation? Are they really white-slavers or something? Are they crazy? Are they going to stalk her and kill her? Are you going to try to sell the movie rights to Quentin Tarantino?"
(Yes, I remember when Pay It Forward came out, although I didn't see the film. I also remember that many critics made merciless fun of it.)
But now the woman who was unexpectedly treated to lunch wants to do the same thing for somebody else, and maybe that person will be similarly inspired. This could start a trend of kamikaze kindness: walk into a restaurant at lunchtime, strike up a conversation with a stranger, pay the stranger's bill, and walk away.
Bwah hah hah!
I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to do this myself, although I'm not sure why I wouldn't. Is anybody out there braver than I am?