He Sucks and I Hate Him! Oddservations from Life

March 5, 2010

Read a lot and hit the streets. A writer who doesn’t keep up with what’s out there ain’t gonna be out there.
• Toni Cade Bambara

The growers’ market opens in our town tomorrow and I can’t wait. We’ll be there, looking over the plants and planning the garden, buying something fresh for supper, and having a tamale for brunch. I never know what I’ll find as I keep my eyes open for interesting things. Sometimes I find notes or shopping lists that people have dropped. I’m fascinated by these things that provide a glimpse into someone else’s life.

One of my finds from last year is a stream of consciousness list that doesn’t seem to distinguish among the places the shopper is going: “pork tamales for lunch-spinach for Jack, goat food, rabbit, salsa, jack cheese, carrots, screen for hutch, catsup, green and red thread, pork chops, milk, two baseball bats, 3 yds. flannel, green beans, butter, black buttons for MR’s coat, stop at pharm. Jack’s prescr., oranges, lunch stuff, magnifying glass?, kids need glue, bd gift for mom, aspirin.”

I like this list because I can imagine a harried mom (and yes, I realize that the gender of the writer is indeterminate, but this is my fantasy, so MYOB) trying to juggle lots of stuff on her trip around town, getting back in time to feed the family growers’ market tamales for lunch. I hope she was done with her errands when she dropped her list at the tamale stand.

Lucy Maynard Salmon, a social historian, was also fascinated by informal historical records and taught a course at Vassar in the early twentieth century entitled “Historical Materials” in which she encouraged her students to explore artifacts such as laundry lists. An ad for the course noted that “[l]aundry lists, being closely and continuously connected with daily life, reflect custom and change in social conditions, industry, or in language, with a detail and rapidity which other sources seldom do” (www.vencyclopedia.vassar.edu/faculty/prominent/).

My favorite find from last year’s market is a folded Post-It® that just says, “He sucks and I hate him!” Was this a note someone wrote at school? A reminder? A stress-management rant?

I still have these things because I stuck them into my journal. I was reminded of them by a book I bought this week, Davy Rothbart’s (2009), Requiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities & Civilians Tell Stories of the Best, Lost, Tossed & Found Items from Around the World. My list is small potatoes next to the fascinating items that Rothbart has chronicled in the book and in Found Magazine. The magazine publishes notes and letters that people find on the streets and for the book, Rothbart asked some of his favorite writers, musicians, entertainers, and artists to tell him about the best things they’ve found.

Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief, contributed an essay, “Shreds and Shards,” to Rothbart’s book, and notes that her “entire professional life has revolved around finding things” (p. 63). She goes on to say that “[y]ou have to really train your eye to find the things that lead to great stories. I think it’s a bit of an instinct that you either have or you don’t, this curiosity for the seemingly mundane. To me, the most interesting things often seem utterly ordinary at first. The trick is to develop the habit of paying attention and poking around. I can’t walk past a telephone pole with things stapled to it without stopping and reading them” (p. 64).

I think you can train your eye and your mind to wander and wonder and to make unexpected connections. This connectivity is a skill that can transfer to school and work and is an essential part of building your creative abilities.

This weekend, keep your eyes open and see what you can find.

Vision is not enough. It must be combined with venture. It is not enough to stare up the steps, we must step up the stairs.
• Valav Havel


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