Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Catalyst

Melvin Shaw, your downstairs neighbor when you lived at 6145 1/2 Orange Street, Los Angeles, in what was to become postal zone 90036, loved board games.  He had dozens of them, most of which he leveraged against you.  You play a board game of his, he'd be willing to discuss playing one of your games, which was more or less an ad lib or improv on some theme of adventure.

On a given day, you'd have to play a round or two of Parchesi or Chinese Checkers in order to get him to play Lewis and Clark, in which you were out looking for The Northwest Passage, or The Lone Ranger and Tonto, looking for injustice.  Thus were you and Melvin Shaw defined by your approaches to play.

On a particular day, your life was forever changed when a complete stranger wandered westward along Orange Street, saw you portraying Merriwether Lewis (because Melvin could not or would not pronounce Merriwether) and Melvin in costume as William Clark.  The stranger was of medium height, with a gray-and-brown mustache and steely blue eyes.

"Boys,"  the stranger said, "I want you to sit down and listen, because I am going to teach you something of great value.  I am going to teach you all about catalytic agents."

You have no idea why he singled the two of you, nor did you have the wherewithal to wonder how many other little boys he initiated into the rituals of the catalyst.  But single you he did, seating you both on a gentle slope of lawn, while he stood a foot or two away, on the sidewalk, his bony hands dangling at his sides like the dead chickens depending from hooks at your grandmother's favorite butcher.

"Boys,"  the mustached stranger said, "a catalyst is a thing that causes something else to change without itself being changed.  Do you get that?

"Do you like to play Monopoly?"  Melvin said.

"A catalyst is a force.  Can you see that?"

When you nodded, he seized on you.  "Show me you understand," he insisted.

You said a catalyst would set you in motion if it pushed you while you were in a swing, waiting.  Inert.

"You boys understand what it means to be inert?"

"Do you play The Uncle Wiggly Game or Sorry?"  Melvin said.

"Inert means having no life or maybe means not having any propelling force."

"I see,"  the stranger said, "that I've got me some smart boys here.  Now listen to me.  An agent is a person or substance with the power to cause something to happen."

"I have a pocket chess set,"  Melvin Shaw said.

"A catalyst,"  the stranger said, "causes things to happen.  A catalytic agent transfers momentum from one thing to another."

"The bell ringing at recess,"  you said.

"That's right,"  the stranger said.  "The bell is a catalytic agent."

"Do you think," Melvin Shaw asked, "Old Maid is a girls' game?"

A few years later, your teacher, Margurite O'Reily, sent home a note to your mother, wondering if your mother knew you were using words such as catalytic agent.  Your mother answered the letter by replying that neither she nor your father knew what you were going to say.

Your mother might have said you did not always know what you were going to say.  You didn't.  The words were there; in a way, they made sense to you.  They came from somewhere, after the equivalent of having to playboard games with Melvin Shaw.

Catalyst and catalytic agent stuck with you as a force or, as you would later come to call it, conceptual energy.  Such energy drives story, separates it from the "and then,"  of one event as another, packaged as story, when all the while, story was something else.

At about the time you were learning about catalytic agents and having your life changed, trigger was a level you pressed on either of your faux pearl handled Gene Autry cap guns.  Doing so would bring the desired noise, an approximation of the things passing for gunshots in the Western movies you were so fond of.
Western movies always had a strong lead character.

At about the time you were enjoying Western movies and the triggers on your Gene Autry faux-pearl-handled cap guns, you understood that the strong lead character had by way of distraction a romantic side story which you had to suffer to get back to the real and more temporal point of the story, which was in one way or another, getting a specific chore tended to, a chore that meant a face-off with an opposing force. Let the record show  that at the time, the most significance the word trigger had for you beyond being the lever on your cap guns was that the name of Roy Rogers' horse was Trigger.

While we're on the subject of records,  let the record show:  You were all for the face-off between the strong lead character and a shrewd, calculating opposing force.  The romance was to be suffered in silence.  Perhaps if you timed it correctly, you could avoid it by going to the candy bar.

Let the current record show your belief that the romantic interlude is as fraught with story as the face-off between the strong lead character and her or his opposition.

And let it show as well that story is an orchestrated series of events, each triggered or impelled or, dare you say it, catalyzed by an agent.

You knew these things through muscle memory, although you could not smooth their definitions out from a balled-up wad of paper, tossed away in the frustration of not being able to get its definition down on paper in any way close to your true understanding of their concepts.

You knew what story was.  Thus you were sent to lead the expedition within your own experiences and learning and the result of having your play sessions interrupted with occasional, memorable lessons from unknown and unknowable adults.

This is how it works.  All you need do is pursue the essence of that process until you have it installed as muscle memory.  Helps for you to understand it to the point of being able to write about it with an illuminating clarity, but not in any absolutist way necessary for you to do so.

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