Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Our Teddy Bear Is Short and Fat

The past persists in catching up with you as, indeed, it has for much of your life. Why, then, suspect it will not continue to do so for the remainder of your stay here on this remarkable, orbiting planet? 

When you were a junior in high school, as full of yourself as high school juniors of your wonkish sort were wont to be filled, you were aware of the offered course in public speaking as a prerequisite to the class you wished to take, dramatics. Being in the dramatics class meant at least a walk-on in the main event before graduation, the senior play.

You already had in mind a play for which you rehearsed in your imagination, your role to be that of The Stage Manager in Thornton Wilder's Our Town, which may well have the record for being the quintessential senior class play of all senior class plays. Of course you were jumping the gun; you'd yet to enroll in public speaking, much less were you to have earned the grade of A in it, all but a guarantee of acceptance into the dramatics course.

The junior year semester began, with you finding yourself in the public speaking class as taught by an agreeable woman of her mid forties, whom you set about convincing by words and deeds of your meriting a grade of A, your sure passport to the world of drama.  

While Miss Cline, the teacher, began to lay out the structures and concepts of public speaking, your determination and energy began to manifest itself in your searches for materials by which you would convince Miss Cline and future audiences of your sincerity.

Your first presentation was from Winnie, the Pooh.  "Here is Edward Bear, coming down the stairs now, Bump. bump. bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin." You'd practiced for a week, trying to get what you believed to be at the time a realistic rather than exaggerated English accent.

"B+," Miss Cline said.

Daunted, but not discouraged. you decided to stay with Edward Bear and his creator, A.A. Milne, for your next, in no small measure because Miss Cline praised your choice of material. You began:
"A bear, however hard he tries,
Grows tubby without exercise.
Our Teddy Bear is short and fat,
Which is not to be wondered at;
He gets what exercise he can
By falling off the ottoman,
But generally seems to lack
The energy to clamber back..."

"B+" Miss Cline said.

Okay, time for the big guns.  For your midterm exam, you chose a work you knew at some level to have been the launching pad for a writer you'd come to admire more than most, suspecting this author might last you into your thirties, perhaps beyond.  You built a slight presentation around "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," which you'd read once or twice and saw as a vehicle to put your latent dramatic abilities to reveal themselves, whereupon you would later prove to be a credit to your high school.

"A minus," Miss Cline said.

There were a few other A minuses, but no, you did not earn the grade A, which meant no dramatics class, which, unbalance turned out well because it seemed to you, almost without exception, you did not like the persons who did, nor did two other individuals whom you quite liked, each of whom went on to a semblance of success in the world of entertainment.

"The Celebrated Jumping Frog" did, over the next few years, win you over to the point where you set its creator to be your literary pole star. Being dead for some years before your birth, he had no say in the matter.

These past few days, you have "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" in front of you, printed in a large enough type face to eliminate any need for glasses. You are soon to not only read the story to a group of youngsters, you've even built a bit of a story about it, necessitating your best estimation of Mark Twain's voice and, thanks to a marker pen, your cueing the manuscript to replicate Twain's sense of timing as the narrator.

In so doing, the past and present have caught up with you once again with your awareness that "The Celebrated Jumping Frog" had a certain familiarity about it, which you dissected as follows: "The Jumping Frog" is the story of a man who is pranked by an acquaintance to call upon and present himself to a person the pranking friend knows to be unable to either stop talking or to stay on any course of logic.

Two of your favorite Twain short pieces, well beyond "The Jumping Frog," are "The Grandfather's Ram," and "The Mexican Plug Horse," both of which involve the same device, of Twain himself being trapped by a garrulous older man, who appears able to go on forever, spinning out a shaggy dog story of excruciating length. 

The more experiences you have with Twain, the more you find common resonance with his slow, dead-pan delivery. And the more events you recall of your father, himself a natural at the dead-pan pace, the more you see the pattern of your own approach to any narrative.

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