Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Decade Passed

A decade ago, my brother, who has lived in Texas much of his adult life, told me a joke about "Paper Bag Pete," in which a man walks into an empty bar and asks where everyone is.
The bartender answers "gone to the hangin'."
"Who are they hanging?" asks the man.
"Paper Bag Pete," says the bartender.
"Why do they call him that?"
"Because he wears a paper hat, paper shirt, paper tie, and paper pants."
"So what are they hanging him for?"
The really funny thing about this joke is that few of the people I've told it to in Ohio get it! They don't know what rustling is (stealing cattle). So I wonder if that's the reason why Per Petterson, in his novel Out Stealing Horses, feels the need to explain to the modern audience that "stealing horses, that was the worst thing of all. We knew about the law west of Pecos, we had read the cowboy magazines....with that law there was no mercy. If you were caught, it was straight up in a tree with a rope round your neck; rough hemp against the tender flesh...."

The narrator of Out Stealing Horses is a sixty-seven-year-old man, Trond, who intersperses what happens to him in the present with what happened to him the summer he was fifteen. There's no great revelation, though; he's realizing the ways that summer shaped him and deciding what his life means. It's a dreamy story, in some ways:

We smelled the horse droppings and the wet boggy moss and the sweet, sharp, all-pervading odour of something greater than ourselves and beyond our comprehension; of the forest, which just went on and on to the north and into Sweden and over to Finland and further on the whole way to Siberia, and you could get lost in this forest and a hundred people go searching for weeks without a chance of finding you, and why should that be so bad, I wondered, to get lost here? But I did not know then how serious that thought was.

The reason the thought is serious is because, as the novel goes on, we learn that one of the things that happened when Trond was fifteen, in the summer of 1948, is that he found out his father worked to resist the Nazis, taking things and people across the border to Sweden through that immense forest. The code phrase was "we're going out stealing horses."

The novel is not about Trond's father, though, so it's only incidentally about his anti-Nazi activities. It's about the last summer Trond saw his father. The last time he saw him, he'd just gotten onto a bus:

"and then the bus moved in a big semicircle out to the road. I pressed my nose against the glass and gazed into the cloud of dust slowly rising outside and hiding my father in a whirl of grey and brown, and I did everything you are supposed to do in a situation like that, in such a scene; I rose quickly and ran down the gangway between the seats to the last row and jumped up on it knees first and placed my hands on the window and stared up the rroad until the shop and the oak tree and my father had vanished round a bend, and all this as if I had been thoroughly rehearsed in the film we have seen so often, where the fateful farewell is the crucial event and the lives of the protagonists are changed forever and take off in directions that are unexpected and not always nice, and the whole cinema audience knows just how it will turn out. And some cover their mouths with their hands, and some sit chewing their handkerchief with tears running down their cheeks, and some swallow in vain to get ride of the lump in their throat while they squint at the screen dissolving into a jumble of colours, and others again are in such a fury they almost get up and leave because they have experienced something like this in their own life which they have never forgiven, and one of those jumps up from his seat in the dark and shouts:
'You damn prick!' at the figure under the oak tree now showing against the back of his head, and he does it on behalf of himself and on behalf of me, and I do thank him for his support. But the point is that I did not know how things would turn out that day. No-one had told me! And there was no way I could know what lay behind the scene I myself had just been through."

The novel does reveal more of what lay behind that scene. Trond realizes that he's like his father, and that "what I was most afraid of in this world was to be the man in Magritte's painting who looking at himself in the mirror sees only the back of his own head, again and again." When his daughter tracks him down, though, Trond sees more of what his actions in the world mean, and how reading Dickens can show him how to be "the hero of my own life" at last.

Looking back on the decades of your own life can give you some perspective on how far you've come. Harriet tagged me for another meme, and the first question is "What was I doing 10 years ago?" I was trying to commute 40 minutes each way and teach two composition classes in the morning Monday through Thursday while 5-year-old Eleanor was in preschool and 2-year-old Walker was at a babysitter's house with 3 other children. I was also dealing with both kids' childhood asthma and what turned out to be Eleanor's enlarged adenoids that caused her to get sinus infections every time she caught a cold. I was carpooling Eleanor and 4 of her friends from preschool to afternoon kindergarten, and playing with Walker in the afternoon, because he didn't nap after his first year of life. It was 1998, and I was so busy that the newspaper headlines about Matthew Shepard in October didn't really penetrate my consciousness. (It was 2003 before I read the play The Laramie Project and started finding out what I'd missed in the fog of young motherhood.) A decade ago I wasn't yet taking my kids to our town's Memorial Day parade, but we did go to the local Ice Cream Festival held on that weekend every year.

So what am I doing in this decade? Five things on my to-do list for today are:
1. As a student employer, I have to attend a meeting about student employment at the college where I'm underemployed.
2. Take Eleanor the clarinet she forgot to take with her this morning, ask the band teacher about a missing tape she turned in, and go to the office to find out about her schedule for next year and when she can take the test-out option for a newly required "technology" course that she doesn't need, as there are only two dates listed during the summer and she can't make either of them.
3. Ask the middle school about Walker's schedule, and make sure the special courses he has signed up for won't knock him out of any of his other gifted classes, as happened to his older sister in 8th grade (he benefits from her experience).
4. Order a birthday present for Ron.
5. Find a place for the paint and varnish I've been using, so that I can begin cleaning up the deck and garage for Ron's birthday party and then a farewell party for one of his co-workers who is moving away.

Favorite snacks? I eat anything except turnips. When I read about food, I want some of it, especially when I read Peter Mayle's Provence books or anything by M.F. K. Fisher.

What I would do if I were a billionaire? I'd travel. I'd go to every country in the world and take all my friends and relatives who want to go. In between trips I'd find a place to read books and swim in the ocean. When I read about a worthy cause, I'd contribute.

What are all the places I have lived? Madison, WI, Nagadoches, TX, Cape Girardeau, MO, Conway, AR, Middletown, RI, Pensacola, FL, Laurel, MD and Mount Vernon, OH.

People I want to know more about? Anyone who thinks that some perspective on the past decade would help them move forward at this point in their lives. And sometimes, moving forward just means you get more of the jokes.


harriet said...

Thanks for doing the meme! And also, I thought the joke was hilarious.

Jeanne said...

Ron and my brother have both told me that I told the joke "wrong." I am notorious in my family for not being able to tell a joke. They exaggerate, I think, when they say that I would tell the joke that ends with "Jose, can you see?" as "Gonzalez, can you see?" But I do tend to have an abstract overview of the gist of a joke that distracts me from sticking to the details that make it funny.

Anyway, maybe one of them will comment and correct my telling of paper bag Pete.