High-brow, low-brow, it's all beautiful
June 23, 2010
"The silver-bellied leaves weave about around the crown of the ancient maple tree, a loose and fluid drunken dance before the storm begins."
The sentence brings a smile to my face. I'm laying in bed looking out a high window on the south side of the room. It's early evening and I'm welcoming the relaxation that comes at the end of another productive day.
An hour or so ago, I was listening to a friend read contemporary literature out loud—with some practiced conviction. Now I'm left with the echo and the melody of language ringing in my ears. Prior to that I'd been the reader. Out loud I shared a new list of summer fiction must-reads compiled by Alan Cheuse for NPR. Cheuse is a man with a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature (from Rutgers); a writer who's been there and done that in terms of being published and read; a former U of M professor who now teaches at George Mason University; a person who understands the beauty of language.
The recommendation list reads like a piece of finely crafted literature itself—you are raised up just reading it.
"Beattie tells the story of promising magazine journalist Jane Costner in a cool style, tamping down the fires of heartbreak that are always flaring up on the edges of her life," Cheuse writes.
"Did he just say 'tamping down????'" my friend asks.
"Yes. 'Tamping down the flames of heartbreak' or whatever," I respond. "I mean when was the last time you even heard anything remotely like that? Don't you just love it?"
Admittedly "tamping down" is not in most people's everyday vocabulary. But the carefully chosen words when added to other carefully chosen words (the fires of heartbreak that are always flaring up on the edges of her life") paint a picture (ugh! but what an apropos cliché) that is unmistakable. Perfect, even.
Now the challenge begins. We start taking turns one-upping each other with these high-brow-type sentences. Though we are laughing, the exercise is challenging and a reminder—albeit tongue-in-cheek—that stretching one's vocabulary is a good thing.
"The young man wished he could tamp down the embers that glowed like cooling lava around the edges of his stomach, which roiled like an acrid pot of boiling ....," my friend attempts to say. By now we are both laughing.
And soon enough, we regress. Like walking, breathing stereotypes we're low-brow again, all black and white and 1950s.
"Ya. The dame dumps a bucket-a col wata all ova that sappy flamin' heaaht stuff. Bada bing!" he says.
"It made so much racket she had to wawn heaself to pipe down othawise she'd neva, eva meet heah dreamboat," I say.
Soon enough I realize this is an exercise too. An exercise in language that is helpful when telling stories.
I stopped telling stories here a few years ago. I mourn the loss sometimes, but mostly not. There are people out there who've used the sharing attempting to bully. They 'tamped down' my trusting nature which is now buried deeper than coal in a mine. My stories are reserved for people who don't hurt me; my family, my friends—as it should be.
Now I suffice with telling other people's stories with attempts at passion and humor and empathy and interest and hope I succeed at least at that.
How would Alan Cheuse describe it?
"With determined fingers she clicks the cool, familiar surface of her smooth keyboard, returning over and over again to the predictable, dependable letters, embracing the page like an old and trusted friend."
Well...maybe not. How 'bout this:
"She was off her nut but the dame hadta make a livin somehow else she'd be close to pushin up daisies like the otha fossils she knew so she pecks at her trusty Undawood like an old hen."
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Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.