Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Story That Nobody Wanted to Write

"I want to be dismal when I grow up", says no child, ever.

I went off to college without a declared major and without a real solid idea of what I was going to be when I grew up. During my very first semester at college, I took an Economics class and realized that the Dismal Science Department was going to be my home for the next four years. Econ was a great combination of math, analytics, history, government, business, and people - right up my alley!  For a liberal college, Smith had a fairly diverse group of academics in its Dismal Science Department: Keynesians and Reganomics groupies alike, game theorists, designer-dressed finance-types, the blue jeans wearing pro-labor union set, the pro-developing world aid set, the Monetary policy wonks who worshipped Alan Greenspan, we had it all. And I wouldn't be surprised if the foreign-born Econ majors outnumbered the U.S.-born Econ majors 2 to 1. Never again in my life, thus far, have I been in a room with so many female Economics students since those college days.  The coursework was very objective, highly quantitative, and in completing the 40 credits required by the department as one's major, I may have written seven papers all in all. 

In order to round out my college studies, I took a writing class called 'The Short Story and Its Writer', taught by a very memorable Professor Patricia S. (last name withheld because she doesn't know I'm giving away her syllabus, albeit from 1997). Pat was a force to be reckoned with. She was a petite lady, who often wore floral print dresses and skirts, offset by her icy blue eyes and steel-graying hair. Not that she came off as cold or disinterested, quite the opposite, I think she used her 'steel magnolia' fa├žade to both guide and challenge, to deconstruct and construct, to correct and redirect students in their writing.  She spoke with a slight accent, I think she was originally from the South, that was more pronounced as she would slow down her speech for emphasis, or in the few times that she was annoyed with us, when we begged her to hold class outside, as spring brought the most pleasant of days after a bitter New England winter. "Class", she would start loudly and then pause to look around the room, "Will be held inside.", she would finish more softly, after her Southern-ness would add some flavor to that w.

Our class consisted of reading short stories and a few novels which were basically a compilation of essays or short stories, and we had to write two short stories of our own and keep a journal. Pat never limited our writing topics, but one day she made a specific request for one of our journal entries.  She  asked the class to write the story that nobody wanted to write: "For your next journal entry", she would start loudly and then pause to look around the room while a beguiling smile formed on her face, "Please write about how you believe your parents conceived you".

I think the room collectively giggled until we realized she was serious. Then came the laughter out of fear, the nervous laughter, the eye rolls, the confused looks. There is no way I could write this story!

I'm sure I went about my day and just filed that assignment with my other assignments, and as the days passed, and I had the choice of writing that essay or doing something else, I would always choose the 'something else'.   How could she ask us to write about that topic? Doesn't Pat know I went to Catholic school and no one ever talks about that.  Out loud.  Doesn't Pat know I'm an Economics major?  The Dismal Science Department would never ask its students to ponder that event.  Besides, when you start to bring up sex and childbirth among Dismal Scientists, the conversation often turns to the pros/cons of the legalization of prostitution for taxable revenue, and/or the human trafficking business, and/or the lifetime production/consumption of said child.  Either way you slice it, it's not a light subject.  And Pat wasn't asking for some essay about sex, she was asking for an essay about your parents (my parents!??) having sex, and this was giving me a real knot-in-my-stomach feeling that made me quickly think about something else (anything else!!).  Besides, I am pretty sure the stork delived me! 

(Sixteen years later I honestly don't remember what I wrote, and back then in the Alan Greenspan days, my assignments were saved on a floppy disk, which even if I could find that disk today, I am certain my current computer, here in the Ben Bernanke days, does not have a disk drive for such an outdated piece of plastic.)

I went to class with a completed assignment. I don't remember what I wrote but I remember I calculated that nine months before I was born would roughly put you at the end of September, 1977, very close to my dad's 34th birthday. I avoided addressing the topic of the actual conception, like the Catholic church avoids addressing its abusive priest issue, and hypothesized some story about a 34th birthday celebration for my dad in Brooklyn in the late Seventies.  I'd bet my essay included things like my dad's sideburns and my mom wearing bell-bottoms, or something polyester. Late September is a nice time in New York, the oppressive humidity from the summer has usually left for the season, the air is crisp but not yet chilly, sunset and dusk linger late enough for a nice walk home - maybe they went out for surf & turf, maybe there were cocktails, maybe they went to a movie, maybe all of Brooklyn was dancing around like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever and they were just out for a good time.

I can write about people and places and I can tell you that my parents enjoyed a good seafood dinner now and then but I cannot go any further. I can guarantee you I did not call home and I did not make this a matter of investigative journalism.

I went to class with a completed assignment. I prayed that the Professor of Steel would not call on me to read out loud in class. I made eye contact with no one. Several other classmates had the same wallflower look to them as well. Yet a few students were actually eager to read their stories (I doubt they had gone to Catholic School). One classmate, a fearless platinum blonde with chunky glasses named Angie, had brought a photo of her parents to add to her essay. She believed the photo to have been taken around the time of her conception and in the photo, her parents were sitting, or rather straddling, a large rock, and were dressed for a hike.  Angie's essay weaved a story that she was conceived after her parents were on a cross-country road trip and stopped to take a rest on this 'phallic rock'.  Pat was eating this story up - she loved it!  I thought to myself, how could I impress this revered professor with my John Travolta antics?  Angie was filling in the blanks of her conception story, demonstrating a level of worldly experience I was not familiar with.  The vocabulary used in Angie's essay did not overlap with my choice of words, and as the Phallic Rock story diverged further and further from my let's-count-the-days approach, I prayed even harder that Pat would not ask me to read aloud. 

I went to class with a completed assignment, but I was so naive, so literal in my interpretation.  I thought to myself, 'what is a phallic rock'? I've never seen rocks like that. Maybe Angie's parents lived out west in the big mountain states. We don't have rocks like that in sea-level Brooklyn. I was pretty sure Angie wasn't an Econ major. 

I made it through class without having to read my story.  I think Pat was aware that this topic may  not have been for the squeamish, and she was merciful.  I really, really enjoyed that semester.  I wrote my two short stories without ever revisiting the conception topic again: one involved a journalist who makes front-page news, not with her writings but with her death.  The second short story was more of an unrequited love situation.  But hey, those stories were more up-beat than consumption and taxes!

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