Thursday, February 25, 2010

"A Story...and maybe something about writing"

At home, when I work out on the treadmill, I do it listening to books-on-tape on my Sony Disc Man. I don’t have the other thing. Where you have to upload the stuff onto your computer, and then download it onto the thing. I don’t know how to do that. And why would I want to do that, when you can simply stick the disc into the Disc Man and press “Play”?

The one drawback is there are a lot of wires involved, wires connecting the Disc Man to the headphones, and separate headphone wires as well. Sometimes, these wires get snarled up. It doesn’t affect the sound or anything, you don’t hear a strangled voice because the wires are all tangled, but it does shorten the wires, which means, because I’m holding the Disc Man in my hand, that I have to bend over while I’m listening.

This morning, it became too much. I’m busting my hump on the treadmill but, because of severe “wire tangle”, I am so hunched over, I look like an Orthodox Jew engaged in aerobic prayer.

I needed to separate the wires. But I’m not good at that. I have little manipulative dexterity, no patience, and no idea how to do it. I’ve tried this before. I’d pull wires when you’re supposed to push them, and the tangle simply got tighter. Some people are good at stuff like this. They look at the mess, and know exactly what to do.

My grandfather (my mother’s father) was one of those people. Zaidy Peter. (Zaidy, or some variation thereof, is Yiddish for grandfather.) Zaidy Peter came to Canada from Russia when he was twelve. Though curious, I learned nothing about his earlier life.

“What was Russia like, Zaidy?”


That’s all he ever told me.

My grandfather became a dress designer. (His brother, Benny, was reputedly the first Jewish architect in Toronto. It was an artistic family.)

Zaidy Peter was meticulous. I remember how he’d approach to his allotted portion of Sabbath boiled chicken (Zaidy Peter had an ulcer which required a bland diet). With laser-like precision, my grandfather would slice off a small morsel of chicken, insert his fork at the precisely determined spot, and deliver the morsel to his mouth, where he’d chew each bite the exact same number of times.

At the end of the meal, after his immaculately cleaned plate had been removed to the kitchen, Zaidy Peter would gesture grandly to the area of white, Sabbath tablecloth directly in front of him. The ironing crease remained fully intact. And not a food stain in sight.

Meticulous. Was Zaidy Pete. Also painstakingly patient.

Perfect attributes for a dress designer. Equally perfect, it turned out, for unsnarling tangles.

When I was about ten, I had a toy puppet, or, more precisely, a marionette, because it wasn’t a hand puppet, it was a two-foot high molded doll you manipulated through four separate strings stapled to two plywood sticks, each string activating a different part of the doll’s anatomy – the mouth, both arms and the legs. My puppet was an Indian.

I enjoyed playing with my puppet. It was a pretty elaborate toy for a kid. I was proud of how I could bring this dummy excitingly to life. I’ll stop right there. It’s getting a little creepy.

The problem came when I set the puppet down. Somehow, because of I put it down carelessly, when I returned to it later, I found the puppet strings all knotted together and snarled. The tangle affected the puppet’s position when at rest. Its arms were bent in at an alarming angle, its legs hung awkwardly in the air. It looked like my puppet had really bad arthritis.

I couldn’t fix it. Whatever I tried made things worse. Responding to my counter-productive efforts, you could almost hear my puppet screaming, “Stop!”

I carried my mangled plaything to my grandfather. “Zaidy, can you fix this?” My grandfather gently lifted the contorted puppet from my hands, meditating on the problem for a quite some time. Then, with the nimble fingers of a man who sewed for a living, he went to work.

Slipping things through, pulling things under, twisting things around. I can’t give you the specifics, because I had no idea what he was doing. But whatever it was, it was working. You could see the snarl cluster get gradually smaller, and eventually less tangled.

And then, he was done. My puppet was once again standing upright, its strings separate and distinct. I thanked my grandfather for his miraculous efforts, and went back to play. After which, I put my puppet down, the strings got re-tangled, and I returned to him for help. Which he always provided.

My grandfather had the gift. I didn’t. Or so I thought.

We now return to my exercise room. My Disc Man’s wires are irretrievably intermeshed with the headphone wires. The thing’s just a clump of knots. My grandfather is nowhere in sight. I have to deal with this crisis myself. If I don’t, my books-on-tape habit would induce a permanent stoop.

I sigh, externalizing my dubious hopes for success, and I get down to work. I examine the catastrophe, and consider what needs to be done. I move a wire. I flip something under. I pull something through. I spin something around.

And after ten or so minutes,

The problem is fixed.

I stand there, holding my fully rehabilitated Disc Man, my mouth hanging open, amazed by what I had just accomplished.

I had untangled the wires. Me. Alone. With no help whatsoever.

And you know what?

It wasn’t that hard.

Now here comes the part about writing. If I wanted to end this on a moving and sentimental note, I might say that I realized there was a part of my grandfather that still lived inside me, the part that untangles knots. The problem is, that wasn’t how I felt. There was no spiritual uplift. What I felt was a sadness. With a soupcon of regret.

Why? Because now, my grandfather’s accomplishment was no longer that special. Even I could do it. Sure, he took the time, and that was nice. But the gift, the thing that distinguished his achievement, had lost some luster. The memory would never be the same.

That’s the difference between writing fiction and chronicling events as accurately as possible. One yields – by design – a satisfying conclusion. The other…it’s what it is. As a chronicler, I’m confined to writing what actually happened. Even if it’s a letdown.

It’s a good thing I don’t charge for these things. I might have had to give you your money back.


Diann said...

If it makes you feel better, I can untangle headphone cords, necklaces, and many other things with relative ease but I finally had to cut the strings on my daughters marionette and put it back together because I couldn't get it untangled. So, I think your grandfather had a pretty special skill!

Pidge said...

When you get finished feeling bad, could you please try to untangle the necklace I spent an hour working on this morning, to no avail?
By the way, just because YOU can do something, doesn't mean it isn't special. Maybe your Zaidy's talent is in your genes (maybe?) or you are channeling him. I am also haunted by my Zaidy, but in a different way. I have his roasting pan (for the best brisket) and his recipe for gefilte fish for Passover.
As well, he guides me especially in my reluctance to believe authority. He didn't like living in Poland, for some reason.
I really miss those old guys. Are we old guys, now?