Thursday, November 8, 2012

Institutions and Conventions


You have difficulty now remembering an institution you disliked so much as you disliked your years in junior high school.

Your luck of the draw saw you experiencing your first venture into this hated institution in Miami Beach, Florida, a direct consequence of your graduation from a school directly across the street, Central Beach Elementary School.

Your animosity—even in memory—is less directed at Ida M. Fisher Junior High School and then, later, John Burroughs Junior High School, in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles.  For a time, you were so relieved to be back in Los Angeles that any dislike of the institution of junior high school was minimal.  But puberty and hormones and internal issues with simultaneous wishes to belong and be an individual apart added their voices to the growing parliament that was you.

This panoply of inner conflict revisited you when your memory directed you back to a scene from one of your all-time favorite television dramas, that magnificent creation of David Simon, The Wire.

The principal character is the cop, Jimmy McNulty, whom you recall having a conversation with one of the young black kids, of all things Snot Boogie, which of course was a name tagged onto him by the System of which he is a part.  In actuality, his name is of even more consequence; it is Omar.  No, not the Omar, not Omar Little, but more a potential Omar Little, a foreshadowing.

“So your boy’s name was what,” McNulty asks.
“Snot Boogie.’
“God.  Snot Boogie.  This kid, whose Mama went to the trouble to christen him Omar Isaiah Betts—You know, he forgets his jacket his nose starts running and some asshole, instead of giving him a Kleenex, he calls him ‘Snot.’  So he’s Snot forever.  Doesn’t seem fair.
And the kid, not impressed with any concepts of fairness, because, like junior high school, the system rules, replies, “I’m sayin’ every Friday night in the alley behind the Cut Rate, we rollin’ bones, you know?  I mean all them boys, we roll till late.”
“Alley crap game, right?”  from Mc Nulty.
“Like every time, Snot, he’d fade a few shooters, play it out till the pot’s deep.  Snatch and run.”
“What, every time?”
The kid allows of Snot, “Couldn’t help himself.”
“Let me understand.  Every Friday night, you and your boys are shootin’ craps, right?  And every Friday night, your pal, Snot Boogie—he’d wait ‘till there’s cash on the ground and he would grab the money and run away?  You let him do that?”
Patiently, the kid explains to McNulty.  “We’d catch him and beat his ass but ain’t nobody ever go past that.
“I’ve gotta ask you:  If every time Snot Boogie would grab the money and run away—why’d you even let him in?”
“What?”
“Well, if every time Snot Boogie stole the money, why’d you let him play?”
“Got to.  It’s America, man.”

In your time as a junior high school student, you were all these characters and as well several more, your name not Snot, but variously Shorty and Tarzan, your roles shifting even though you did not at the time understand the dynamic of the shifting politics much less the tides of your own wants and attitudes.

Now, you are more used to being all the characters in settings of your own creation.  These settings are, in their way, remarkably like junior high school was for you in their relationships to the characters.  There is more involved here than you, having moved from a position of little power in a microcosm to a position of little power in a reality of greater potential for inventiveness.  The crux of the matter is the need to take in the dynamic of the settings in which you find yourself, noting the internal politics and your own response to them.  There is an important balance to be struck. You must neither demonize the junior high school bullies who chased you down the corridors or the teachers with whom you got on at such intense chemistry nor deify the individuals you so admired and sought to emulate.

Of course your characters should be larger than life to distinguish them from the characters you consider of life size or less, and indeed from the individuals you meet in Reality who are every bit as larger than life as a robust character from a writer you admire.  No patience whatsoever for clich├ęs or zombies.


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