Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Practice Makes Permanent

When my wife was a small child, she had a coloring book that showed every profession she could imagine. There were images of a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher, a dentist, a pilot, and, of course, a writer. As my wife tells it, she thumbed through the book, studied all of the images in their outlines and chose, as if to foreshadow her own destiny, to color in the lines of the writer’s desk, his jacket, his chair, his well-coiffed head from which those literary ideas would emerge, and of course, his typewriter. She filled in the lines carefully, circling the crayons around and around for the smoothest possible blend of color. She stayed within the lines, as best she could, steadying her hand against excitement now and again to avoid straying outside the lines.

When the page was filled with the brightest colors possible, so that the writer’s smile seemed to her almost to gleam, my wife was finished with the book. She did not move on to the doctor or the lawyer.

Because, even then, she knew.


This past Saturday, I drove my wife, our niece, and my wife’s sister south along the eastern edge of Ohio to an enormous high school in the middle of farm country. Our niece had her first dance recital. Personally, I’d never been to a dance recital before and had no idea what to expect. My wife, on the other hand, had participated in countless recitals, having studied ballet from a time when she was too young to write full sentences until she left home for college. Still, I don’t even think she was prepared for what we saw.

The program, such as it was, consisted of more than 50 performances by a variety of girls of different ages and abilities and one tiny boy in a tumbling routine. Our niece participated in two routines—one for ballet and one for tap. Thankfully, her second routine was just after intermission, so the family was able to make a quiet escape shortly after her ballet piece.

Prior to Saturday, I never thought I’d see anyone dance to “Little Red Corvette” while wearing ballet shoes. I never thought I’d see anyone tap dance to the “Cotton-Eyed Joe.” I never thought that a dance school would focus on teaching the one-handed cartwheels a high school girl might need to make the cheerleading team. I never thought that routines performed at any school for dance might resemble any kind of routine you’d find at a strib club at the edge of town. And yet, that is precisely what we saw. And it was mind numbing.

Of course, in the midst of that four-hour ordeal, we witnessed the most curious of phenomena. The youngest of the dancers—no older than 6— broke their slow, confused steps once in a while with sideways glances to the teachers showing the steps in the wings. They tried, in their multicolored, sequined outfits to synchronize their movements, but every once in a while, when one of the little girls had trouble telling her left from her right or missed a shuffle here or a missed plie there, they would fall out of synch and continue dancing—only to leave the stage to the smiles, camera flashes, and applause of the audience.

We, the audience, forgave these smallest children their missed steps.


When I was in 6th grade, my Reading class wrote stories near the end of the term. I don’t remember why writing a story was part of the curriculum or what our stories were meant to entail. I do, however, remember small slivers of the story I wrote. Set in a random metropolis, the tale followed the exploits of a superhero and his sidekick; they were, if I recall correctly, some errant combination of Superman with Batman and Robin. I cannot, for the life of me, remember what ferocious animal-like names I gave these characters. More, I cannot remember what type of foe they had to face. But they did face their foe—tragically. The ending, I suspect largely because I didn’t know how to end a story, was likely the bleakest ending I have ever written: the young sidekick perished in battle. And that was that. No foreshadowing. No denouement. No examination of the consequences of the lad’s death on his erstwhile benefactor.

He was dead. And that’s all there was to it.

In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t phone my father. Why wasn’t I called into the office and sat down before the school counselor? Why didn’t she smile at me from behind a stack of papers that only served to make her look busy, and ask, point blank, is there something going on with you at home? Is there something you’d like to talk about?

I suspect, very strongly, that a child writing such a story nowadays would be faced with a series of questions, and perhaps, a prescription or two to keep things ticking as they should. Still, you have to admit, I did write a story with an ending. And endings are difficult.


Poetry is, I suppose, something we expect children to read. Even from the first moments a child is read to (if he is lucky), a child will delight in the sonorous words that fall from the lips of his mother or father. Although he will not know what to call it, a child will giggle at the use of a pun or imitate the play of consonance and assonance in a favorite line. A child, among other children, will continuously play with words, belting out rhymes as she skips rope on the sidewalk outside her family’s home.

What happens between those moments and adulthood to make our view of poetry any different? Do we somehow lose touch with the innate metaphoric qualities of language the moment we realize the moon is not, in fact, made of cheese?

Why do you suppose so few adults read poetry?


Post a Comment

<< Home