Saturday, May 16, 2009

WAG #12 Walls-in-law

“WAG #12: Memory Lane” Thanks to Lulu for the topic idea! For this week, describe something by memory. It can be a place, a person, whatever you like. Include as much detail as you can as well as your impressions. If possible, then go and see this thing, and also describe how your memory of it was different from the current reality. What had you left out? It also might be interesting to include how your memory of it is different from someone else’s! No limits on this one! No rules to break! (Yes, I’m talking to YOU, Jon.)

A Scot by birth, I have many fond memories of that beautiful country from my childhood. On one return visit I had the opportunity to revisit two places holding a special place in my biography, one was the home I remember and the other was the residence of my maternal grandparents. In both places, a wall is at issue.

My father was a stone mason in Scotland but for a time he worked in my grandfather's fruit and flower shop in a small town called Galston in Ayrshire. There he drove a van to the surrounding farms selling fresh fruit; and both he and my mother worked in the shop arranging wreaths, selling flowers, fruit, and confections. While we lived in Galston, we had a townhouse just a few blocks from the shop. Galston was not a large town and a few blocks from the shop in just about any direction would have taken you past its limits; at any rate, I wasn't too aware of that particular fact as a child.

The first wall in question is a wall my father built at the back our our lot in Galston. It took him about a week of working on it after his job at the shop, as I dimly recall, to build this wall. It served to close off the back of our property to the road that gave rear access to the houses and also to the large flower field owned by a man named Pollock; it also served to keep me and my sister in the yard, which was probably the reason for building it. It was built with red brick and the newness of the brick and wall were accentuated by the newly painted green gate and the light joints of gray mortar. From the back road, our house stood out with a newly constructed brick wall and from the inside the towering wall proved a formidable barrier to escape. The lock was too high for me to reach and it was extremely difficult for me to climb over; but then I discovered a gap in the hedge we had in common with our next door neighbors, the Gemmels.

The other wall was also one that my father built but he built it to border the front yard of Jonadab, my grandfather's house in Cardross, Dunbartonshire. The circumstances of the building of this wall were that my uncle George had bet one of his friends that my dad could build it in a weekend, which he did but not without a great amount of toil, effort, and family dissension. Again, the wall was a grand edifice and graced the old house well.

Owing to the fact that both of these places held special memories for me, they were definitely on my list of sites to see when I returned for a visit a few years ago. Eager with anticipation and flooded with nostalgia I walked up Brewland Street in Galston and around to the back road; much had changed; Pollock's flower field was now filled with houses, the dirt road was paved, and the houses didn't look quite so bright. I scanned the edge of the road as I walked in the direction of my old house, looking for the red brick wall that towered above the hedges, knowing it would be the identifier of my old residence. "Hmmm the new owners must have taken it down," I thought as I continued down the road. I got to the area in the road where I believed our house should be and stopped, looking at each house carefully only to discover that there was a house with a brick wall, but the wall was barely waist high.

The day soon came on our holiday when we made the northwest drive from Hamilton up to Cardross in Dunbartonshire. Let me note here that the Dunbartonshire of my childhood has since been split into east and west and that my visit to Cardross is included in West Dunbartonshire--a change not subject to perception. The road pretty much follows the River Clyde as it winds its way to the sea, starting near Leadhills, which is southeast of Hamilton, and bordering the orchards of Lanark. The estuary of the Clyde has the port of Greenock on the west and directly across from it on the east is the small town of Cardross. When I was growing up most of the houses in Cardross had names, not numbers; and Jonadab was my grandfather's house.

We came in from the south on the A814, a narrow two-lane road that continues into Helensburgh, where I love to get my favorite ice cream treat, a double nouget, and easily found Jonadab on the left just beyond Barr's Crescent and Darleith Rd on the right. It didn't look as clean or grand as it did when we were staying there before leaving to come to America; indeed, the wall was even shorter than the one in Galston.

I was saddened; I could make up stories about the Galston wall having been torn down by new owners but the new next door neighbor turned out to be an old family friend with whom we enjoyed a drink in her garden and she assured me it was the same wall. However, I couldn't even make up stories about Jonadab because it was clear from the architecture that, apart from the visitation of ruin by time, it, too, was the same wall.

Here were two walls and one mason; the first erected in response to love and the other in response to hubris. The first was able to assume the proportion needed to see its duty through and then shrink in size to a more moderate dimension once its charge had been fulfilled; the other, crumbled in disrepair as though the skilled hands of the mason crafted a timely demise into the wall itself as payment for abandoning love in favor of pride.

Both these walls were built by my father; and both fell into compliance with the law that says "love never faileth" and that makes them walls-in-law.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

So Many Fears, So Little Time

“WAG #110: Scaredy-Cat” Another people-watching exercise! Choose a stranger and observe him/her for a little while. Now give them a phobia. A full-on, jump on the chair, scream like a little girl, unreasonable fear. (Or however you imagine them to respond.) Try to choose something that fits the person you’re watching, and let us know what it is about them that clued you in to their secret fear. The object is not just to describe the fear, but to make us understand why it fits with this particular person.

The term "neurosis" flashed brightly across the night sky of the American culture in the late '50s and into the '60s; a comet whose tail illuminated every ilk of ill that could possibly befall the stressed out suburbanite reeling from "keeping-up-with-the-Joneses" syndrome. As a word, it seems to relate to the nervous system, but as a concept it encapsulates all the traits that triggered the emergence of the "hip" generation, now known as "hippies." Among the grocery list of ailments that this word captures is the term "phobia," which means "fears." But these are not just any old fears; nope, they are very special and coddled fears; indeed, they are fears that, in many cases, arose within us between the ages of 5 and 7 and we have carried them secretly since then. According to their discoverer, our reluctance to face a certain natural fact causes us to displace that reluctance onto something else; this "something else" is termed the phobic object. If we encounter that object in our day-to-day routines, we fear it in a kind of irrational way; not because it actually poses an immense physical threat to us but, owing to the leverage it has, having been so deeply seated in our consciousness, it casts a much larger shadow than should be warranted by its physical presence. This brief background should help us with the following.

About two days earlier from May 11, 2009 a sports reporter was giving her live report after a hockey game when she suddenly screamed and jumped off camera. She continued jumping around and screaming "Oh, my God, it's a rat; Oh my God, it's a rat; Oh my God, Oh my God." She was visibly agitated despite the fact that it was live TV (I caught the replay the next day). There had been a rat running across the ice right at her feet and had caught her completely unawares; however, the great lengths to which she went to protest its presence betray the fact that something other than a surprise was afoot. Now, to be sure, the presence of a rat on ice is, in itself, somewhat surprising; maybe it was an Eskirat just out trying to find food to take back to its ratgloo or even just out for a leisurely skate; there was no word as to whether the rat was dressed in hockey colors, had a stick, or even a whistle (on the off-chance that it was a referrat).

These telltale signs identify this situation as one involving a phobia: 1) it is very unlikely that the rat could have wrestled the reporter to the ice or even checked her against the wall; 2) none of her protestations actually described any danger because the fear loomed so large in her own mind that she assumed that the danger was clear, present, and obvious to the others standing around (the cameraman, the sound crew, etc.); 3) the appeal to deity was a stark admission of helplessness and also a confession of a self-created, but denied, danger. We always fear that which we, ourselves, have created but whose existence we deny because it is our denial that gives it a power we cannot vanquish.

In our unrefined psyche, we are, mostly, a ganglion of fears; some rising to the level of neuroses, others just nuisances. The reporter I used as my subject seemingly evinced an irrational fear of rats on ice but it could have been spiders or the number 13 (triskaidekaphobia). What is important is not that we have fear nor even what it is that we are afraid of; what is really important is that the presence of fear is a barometer of the level of self-denial in which we engage. The struggle required to get to the center of consciousness where there is no self-denial is rigorous and strenuous; but well worth the trip. I don't want to give away the surprise by telling you what you'll find there, but as a clue let me just say the "I" you find will not be in the third person.