Thursday, April 30, 2015

Places, Everybody.

During the times of your matriculation at the University of California, Los Angeles, state law and university policy required your class participation in the ROTC or Reserve Officer's Training Corps, a requirement you'd hoped to avoid by arriving at UCLA with enough credits to qualify for enrollment as a junior.

The registrar in effect, said Not so fast, enrolling you as a high sophomore, a designation you were soon to assume in an unanticipated, figurative way.  Being a high sophomore meant you were required to take one semester of the ROTC, meaning you were issued a uniform you could wear every day if you chose, and were to attend two hours per week of classroom study and two hours related to drill.

Early into that venture, you discovered a group of friends who were members of the ROTC band, resulting in your invitation to weekly pre-drill festivities, which meant reaching the proper degree of being stoned to make the drill experience more amusing than dreary.  Your band-member friends shared your passion for the burgeoning development in jazz known as bebop, in essence a dramatic revisiting of melodic structure and chord progressions.  

How reassuring, then, to hear the military cadences of Sousa marches, augmented by the occasional flatted fifth or some unaccustomed harmony as, say, a sharp ninth.  And how amusing to the borders of mischievous to wait for these tonal surprises, smiling at their discovery.  There is something about having to march in rigid cadence, knowing that nearby there are others like you, mindsets altered, senses attuned to the potential of nuance and surprise.

The ROTC classroom experiences signified hours of great boredom until the curriculum shifted in your favor in a most unanticipated way.  Map reading.  Learning to orient a map with the lensatic compass issued to each cadet.  Learning the most intriguing thing of all, triangulation, whereby, using a map and compass, one could learn to discern where one was, using readily available reference points.

Difficult to say who was the more surprised, you or the instructor, Lt. Col, Van de Graff, when the study shifted to maps and your grade level shifted abruptly from C to A.  Difficult as well to pin down the parallel lines of association beginning to form within your eager sensitivities, but they were with certainty beginning to form right there, within that ROTC class.

Talk about the unintended virtues of the liberal arts education.  You took to the concepts of orientation and triangulation, of using your compass to position a map so that it was not only a depiction of Reality, it was Reality pointed in the proper direction.

Somewhere along the way, it began to come to you that you not only could do something similar within the created worlds of the imagination, doing so in actuality gave you a better sense of the available reference points.  At one point during a marching session, adequately prepared in your pre-drill gathering, you understood what Hemingway meant about writing about a thing or place not as description but in terms of what it is.  Your epiphany showed you the importance of not trying to describe a thing or event or person into being but instead of writing about it how and as it existed.

You still recall that day, blasted warm with dry Santana winds, your heavy wool tunic the agent of beads of sweat running down your back and pooling under your cap.  No matter.  You understood one of the great mysteries of dramatic narrative, a now literal and figurative high sophomore, appreciative of the need for a writer to be as oriented within Reality as he was within the landscapes of his own creation.

In the intent and spirit of reliable narration, you were in fact less well oriented within Reality than within your own imagination.  High though you might be at the moment, listening for those bebop nuances to John Philip Sousa marches, you were for long moments that afternoon convinced of the effect of being oriented within your stories and what a freeing sense of discovery this was.

Later, when you discussed this discovery with some friends who were Theater Arts majors, expecting to cause great ripples of excitement among them for your discovery, they in effect showed you another aspect of triangulation and orientation in Reality.  "The process you describe is well known to us and would have been as well known to you if you'd been a Theater Arts major instead of an English Major,"  they said.

They also said the process of which you spoke was known to countless generations of actors, directors, stage managers, and playwrights.  "It is called blocking.  Not football type blocking, you understand, but blocking as in noting on images of the stage, superimposed over graph paper.  From the moment the actor enter the set, he knows where he will stand, what he will do, how and when he will move."

Another one of them asked you if you'd ever seen an actor become lost on a set.  When you said no, she explained how this was no accident.  "Actors may appear lost, but they know where they are supposed to be when they give that appearance."

You could accept that, because you had already decided she was smart as well as talented.  What you could not accept was her observation that Writers pretend to know where they are, but often have no idea of how they got there.  

That stung.  And so you remembered it, these years later.

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