The Jag'ed Edge of Peary Street

Symmentropy's fourth guideline has four sets of stories that show the need for fuzziness in the rules we make about turning our ideas into stories.

Fourth rule of nonlinear storytelling

Rules for turning thoughts into stories.

By Lee McGavin

April of 2008 began a new chapter for the seven children of Peary Street. One year before our father had pneumonia that turned to sepsis and the doctors prepared everyone for the worst. I guess he had unfinished business because, next morning he propped his eyes open and began to fight his way back to vertical. By late spring, he was back on the golf course getting lots of exercise because his diminished strength took quite a few swings to get to the green. His last days were about the things that he loved the most golf, puttering in his work shop and his grandchildren and great grandchildren. During those last months, he would head out in Jaguar XJS convertible, top down, whenever possible. He had that car for 15 years and never got close to 100,000 miles because our mother would not ride in it. When they went places together, they took her car.

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When he returned, he would pilot that car into the garage to keep it out of the elements. Then came the real challenge, climbing the stairs from the basement. You cannot understand the post drive stair climb unless you saw my father's feet. He was short, maybe 5' 6” on a good day, so he did not need a huge base of support. Improbably, he was blessed with an 11.5 AAA shoe size. His toes were always the first thing to enter a room. The stairs from the basement were built to a different set of codes than current stair treads, they were much shorter than today's minimums. When he put those 11.5 AA's on a step, he had to angle his shoes so that he could get enough sole on the step to avoid slipping back down. For most of the last year of his life, he did not have the strength to make it up the stairs without leaning one hand on the steps ahead. Why did he continue to fight those stairs? He loved driving that convertible and the convertible needed to be garaged. He was not about to give up his ride for a set of stairs.

I was not the only member of the family to take delight in the thought of our father spending his last days zipping about town in his beloved convertible. My mother took her time beginning to sort out the remains of my father's life in those months of sadness and sweet reminiscence, so the car sat idle in the garage. Every couple of months someone would ask her about the car, did she ever drive it and what she planned to do with it? At first, she would make a noncommittal comment that made it clear she was happy to have the Jag sitting quietly in the garage. Gradually, the response became that the older of the little brothers might want it. She just wanted him to have enough time to make up his mind. It took almost two years for a couple of the Big Kids to cajole the little brother and the mother into making a decision. We found a buyer and my father's prized Jag went on to a new purpose.

This story begins the fourth guideline of symmentropy. Nonlinear storytelling assumes that we tell stories to turn our thoughts and feelings into something that we can share. When I discussed this idea in class with my students, I would ask them to describe what their ideas looked like or felt like. At first, I got those looks that asked if I had wandered off the reservation again. As the discussion progressed, they began to see that they all had very different ways of understanding what was going on in their heads. An electrical engineering student spoke of visualizing electrons as they navigated through a circuit. A graphic design student saw colors changing to fit textures and shapes. Some even saw their ideas as words (obviously budding writers). Turning those flitting electrons into a story that a graphic designer can understand remains the biggest challenge for storytellers. We have to find stories that capture our ideas, feelings and emotions for others to understand.

The story about my dad's Jag expresses a fond memory of his passion for life's little pleasures at the same time that it captures a sense of loss that we all felt. It is also the story of my mother coming to terms with the changes that came with his death. Little stories of everyday activities define who we are to the people around us and make our stories vivid. We can also add more detail to the stories to completely change their character. There is more to the story of selling the Jag that moves from my father's character into defining my younger brother's role.

Number six of seven envied our father and his ability to be a free spirit. He watched his 85 year old father tooling around with the top down and imagined himself sitting in the driver's seat with that same swagger. He fancied himself as the head of the family and really wanted to be able to park that Jag in the garage of his own home. All he had to do was take the car home with him and use it while our mother decided what she wanted to do next, but he could not pull the trigger.

To truly appreciate my brother's dilemma, let me take a moment to discuss my father's wardrobe. His sense of style was biblical. By that, I mean that at some point he heard the story about Joseph and the coat of many colors and decided that he needed to adopt it as his personal fashion statement. He must have spent hours searching through close outs and returned goods sections to find his sport coats as they all seem to have been made from cloth left over from the set of a bad movie. His smiles while wearing one of his multicolored geometric designs let you know that, yes, he liked it and, yes, he wore it on purpose and, yes, he was having a wonderful time. He could put on one of those coats, climb in his Jag and tell everyone around him the story of how one man embraced life to its fullest.

Here is the problem. The sixth child of Peary Street has not embraced life. He wears gray suits. He pins his conservative bona fides on his jacket every morning so that passers by will immediately know that his story lacks color and style. He wishes he could be like his father. He wishes that he had the joy in his heart, but my brother learned storytelling from my mother. Instead of allowing the world to see some portion of his personality, he hides himself behind the grays of the dust in a legal library. He wanted that Jag and what it represented. He wanted to free himself and enjoy a little midlife crisis. But in the end, he could not. It just was not a story he could tell.

On Peary Street, we all had to find ways to overcome our mother's disregard for letting anyone see inside our thoughts. Some of us took to our father's little rebelliousness, while others adopted gray flannel storytelling. Of all of the divisions between the siblings, this is the one that is most telling. Every time we try to reach a consensus, we divide along the lines of rebellious storytellers and compulsive secret gatherers.

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