Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thinking About Rewards, Plus Other Stuff

Last night, I was simultaneously winding down from my compulsive search through Facebook, desperate for content and connection, and mulling over, in the back of my mind, what I might want to write about today.  Then I hit on a brilliant idea.  Brilliant, for me, that is.

I took a creative writing class in Rochester NY, years ago, while I was waiting for John to finish his doctoral work at the Eastman School of Music.  He was studying, oh, 18th century polyphony or something like that; I was sitting with a group of women, learning about the craft of creating a personal essay.  My teacher, a delightful, tiny bird-like woman, with red hair (name, of course, obliterated -- I think I have a piece of kneaded eraser in my head, where name retention normally resides), gave us the most interesting assignments -- most of which, of course, I have also forgotten. (Job security for her, I suppose)  The one I do remember was just this simple: write an essay, and there must be a broom in it.  I still love the piece that I wrote, and if I can ever find it again, I'll put it here, so you can see for yourselves.

So, last night, after I finally wrenched myself away from the great wasteland that is Facebook (I can see it now: a topographical map of cyberspace, with Facebook as an enormous, featureless expanse, like the Sahara across the top of Africa.  Only bigger.  And I'll be out there in the middle somewhere, crawling, crawling...), after I finally clicked on the little inverted triangle, and signed out, I opened a Word document, and began to create... The Hatchery.

In honor of my anonymous, but dearly respected writing teacher, I'm building a repository of notions and themes and ideas, which I hope will serve as springboards for me, at moments like... this, for instance, when the world seems as blank as that cyber map of Facebook.  And I've already spooled out at least eighteen topics, around which, I hope, will coalesce some things of interest for you, the viewer.

Today's topic, then, is going to be 'Rewards'.

But first, a commercial, while I plug... someone else's blog.

Go to 'People I Want to Punch in the Throat', on  I think I love this woman, though if I were to meet her, I'd want to wear a kevlar turtleneck, as I'm sure I'd probably fall into her target audience.  Today, she was expatiating on The Christmas Elf phenomenon, about which (as a childless elderly man) I knew nothing, but the gist of which was easy enough to pick up. 

[My own suggestion for a great way to use the Elf for maximum good-behavior-inducement, with minimum stress on an already holiday-crazed mom: tie said Elf to a non-flammable support surface, and strap little Elf-bombs across his little Elf midsection.  A small timed Elf-detonator would be a nice touch.  At the slightest sign of prepubescent misbehavior, said mom gets to have at the vulnerable little Elf, using a handy household blowtorch (Mapp gas burns especially hot) (or even the mini-version so popular for crisping the top of your creme-brulee, you bourgeois swine), and reducing said Elf to nothing more than a charred midsection, with the inane, grinning head left, lolling off to one side.  Presto!  Deep psychic damage, and no more shopping for presents!  It's that simple!]

But, as usual, I've digressed -- check out 'People I Want to Punch in the Throat...' -- I think she's scary hilarious.

And now, 'Reward', by Walter Zimmerman, at BadSadBlog.  Sponsored by caffeine, indoor plumbing, fluorescent light, and Dr. John Sheridan.

When, I wonder, did I first learn about the concept of 'reward'?  It seems so deeply ingrained, and so simple, I suppose.  But, on closer examination, the mechanism of reward seems, to me at least, to reveal a surprising complexity.

The earliest, and most gratifying rewards I can recall were the good grades I got in school.  (Or, more properly, 'schools', as there were an even dozen of them, before I walked across the stage and got my high school diploma)  And even those rewards were, I think, more like moonlight than sunshine -- for myself, those little letters on a piece of paper called a Report Card were fairly meaningless, but it was clear that, for my parents, these marks had great significance, and I quickly learned to love the reflected pleasure -- I do well in school; I get 'good' grades; parents approve of grades; parents approve of me; I feel good.  It's that easy.

Third grade, however, threw a big monkey wrench (have I ever seen a monkey wrench?) into what I thought was reliably well-oiled machinery.   Actually, at first my third grade teacher (name, of course, forgotten -- I seem to remember a smallish, dark-haired woman with a tendency to scowl) --  wasn't especially unpleasant.  Plus, in addition to the standard report card, she had her own system of rewards -- rewards that didn't involve taking anything home to our parents.  She had sheets of little glue-backed stickers, with any number of pictures on them -- pumpkins or turkeys for the Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving seasons, candy canes or big red stockings for Christmas, butterflies or birds for more generic times of the year -- and when we'd done well on an assignment, there was a sticker, prominently displayed, beside the letter grade, as the papers were returned, passed hand to hand, down the row of little desks.  

As the year developed, however, this teacher grew to seem especially displeased by almost anything I did.  We had to fold our sheets of paper for a spelling test, for instance, creasing them neatly and vertically down the middle to make two columns, but my columns were never straight enough to suit her.  And of course, the harder I tried to make the paper fold evenly, the worse it got.  Then I misspelled my name 'Watler', and she trumpeted my stupidity to the class.  This boy can't even spell his own name!  I wasn't liking the third grade very much at all.  It was going to be a long year.

Arithmetic assignments and tests were particularly bad.  Now I seem able -- to my lingering amazement -- to do simplish multiplications in my head, but back in that third grade class room, I was terrible at arithmetic.  And in what I guess was a mathematical relationship, the more disapproval I felt, the worse I got.  It was just a perfect little storm of 5's and 7's, multiplications and divisions, gathering darkly over that one desk in the back of the classroom.

Worst for me, though, was the empty space at the top of every single arithmetic paper I got back that year.  Because I sat in the back of the class (alphabetical tyranny), I could see my paper making its way down the row -- usually be the only one unadorned, standing out sadly among a crowd of bluebirds or sunflowers.

At first, I stuffed these shaming papers into the space under the seat of my desk, where my textbooks and lunch were supposed to go, and I soon had quite a collection -- a little sideways cyclone of failure.  Then I decided, in a kind of subliminal kinship with non-violent resistance movements everywhere, to create my own pictures.  From then on, on the tops of all my dismal arithmetic papers, I drew the most elaborate designs I could imagine.  Working away with my standard yellow number two pencil, I drew sailing ships, and dragons, and lots of horses -- I was in a big horse phase then -- or swans.  Maybe no one would ever see these drawings, but somehow I had blundered onto a kind of covert reward system, known of, and valued by, me alone.

(And by the way -- in high school? Algebra was a snap)

By the time I was 12, paper stickers wouldn't have been as effective, in terms of validation.  I'd been through some changes that couldn't be easily altered by a picture of a pretty rose, or a robin.  My family had blown apart, and my brothers and I had been institutionalized.  After eighteen months there, I'd been taken out of the orphanage, and a year later, my brothers came home too.  Because I was the oldest, I was given a job, in the restaurant owned by my step-mother's parents.  Every Saturday, I was allowed (as I think it was put) to clean, sweep and mop the restaurant floors.  Some Sundays, I was also taken up the road, to clean the floors in a bar they also owned, next to  bowling alley.  And unfortunately, as with third grade arithmetic --  but with far heavier consequences -- I did a terrible job.

The sweeping went all right -- it was pretty straightforward, and even I could tell where the dirt was, and where it wasn't.  In the orphanage, where all the kids had chores to do, I did my share of clean-up, like everyone else.  But for me, oddly enough, it was the whole mopping thing that I seemed unable to grasp.

Actually, I'd never mopped a floor.  At the orphanage, we'd done all the floor cleaning on our hands and knees, with a rag and bucket, Annie-style.  And, whenever we had to scrub, we only cleaned our own narrow upstairs hallway, or the bathroom where we all brushed our teeth in the morning.  This restaurant I had to clean each week was, by comparison, vast, and complex.  There were the booths to contend with, and tables and chairs in the back room.  The greasy, high-traffic space behind the counter, where the grilling was done, and where there were sinks and shelves and other things that got in the way.  The whole back-kitchen area, with the big industrial mixers, and the slop sinks and ovens, posed a maze of things to work around and under and behind.  Every Saturday.

I did the best I could.  I suppose I thought that everyone else knew how to do this, kind of automatically, and I just had to figure it out for myself.  I filled the big metal double bucket, with the squeezy-thing on one end, to wring out the mop.  I added some soap, to make it sudsy.  Pulled the sloshing thing to the far end of the restaurant, and started working.  Pushed with that heavy old mop, squeezed it dry, dipped it in the water (which was already getting murkier by the minute) and started again.  Intermittently hauling everything back toward the slop sink, so I could haul the bucket up over the edge, spill out the dirty water, add some clean, and pick up where I'd left off.  (Violins, please?  I'm not hearing any here...)

I don't remember how long the job took, on average.  Sometimes, during bad weather, the floors were dirtier than usual.  When the restaurant had begun to fail, there was less and less foot traffic, so my job was, comparatively, easier.  But it always took the better part of the day.  And it was never done correctly, according to the woman I will forever refer to as my Horrid Grandmother.  She would stalk around the place, hands on her hips, shaking her head and clucking her tongue.  Not good enough.  Not clean enough.  'When it's done right, the water in the bucket should be clean,' she said in disapproval, week in and week out, and often enough I had to do it all over again, still not grasping the concept of mop water turning clean.  Jesus, in spite of the water-into-wine stuff, wasn't about to bother Himself with my mop-water problem.  

There was a reward for this work, though.   I was paid $5 every week.  The money went into a bank account, in my name.  The closest I came to having any actual contact with this reward was a weekly trip to the local bank branch, with a passbook, and a $5 bill.  The summer after I'd completed the eighth grade, and still couldn't mop the floors correctly, I was directed to take all that money out of the bank, and to use it to purchase a round-trip bus ticket to Clearwater FL, for a two-week visit with my father's parents.  The trip took 3 days, and the sandwiches I had to eat, prepared ahead of time at home and packed into my step-mother's blue vinyl vanity case, tasted of lipstick and perfume.  When my Florida stay ended, I begged my grandfather to let me stay.  The request seemed to pain him.  He said no.

There had been one silly little reward, though, in all that sweeping and piling of chairs, all the scrubbing and mopping -- a reward something like the drawings I did on my failed arithmetic papers.  While I was laboriously doing everything wrong, I decided to use the restaurant floor as a kind of checker-board canvas.  With the soapy mop and the grey water, I created swooping, impermanent paintings -- swirls of soap suds swishing this way and that over the dingy red-and-white squares.  The celery-stalk shapes I could make were especially gratifying, both physically and aesthetically -- you push the mop and soap up away from yourself, jiggle the mop-head around a little, side to side, and then pull the mophead back toward yourself.  A quick pull made crisp lines; a leisurely pull left a soapy trail of something softer and more languorous.  Celery!  I would make rows of these bubbly shapes, and then pile other suds marks on top of them, until I had to obliterate it all, and move on.  I also stole ice cream sandwiches out of the back freezer, hoping no one would take inventory, but who could count the number of celery marks I made, every week?  They were mine.

(Note to self: potential autobiography title -- 'Laugh, or Die')

One last reward for today.

It was the late spring of 1964, and I was finished with high school.  I had done well enough, I guess.  I'd been made a member of the National Honor Society, and on the day of the announcements, the gym teacher himself excused me from class, so I knew that was special.  I'd been considered for a scholarship from a local civic group, but because I didn't have any funding yet for college, they gave the money to someone else.  I also got a Letter of Commendation from some scholastic achievement group, along with an invitation to attend, with my parents, a big award ceremony, to be held in Pittsburgh, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, in the Cathedral of Learning.  The thought of entering that mythic building nearly made me sick with awe.  Much more to my surprise, both my father and my stepmother not only agreed that I could go, but decided to take me there themselves.  (Evening bus service between McKeesport and Pittsburgh being what it was in those days, I guess)  The ceremony was to begin late on a weekday afternoon.  The trip to Pittsburgh, with traffic, would take an hour.

I'd loved going into Pittsburgh, on my own, on Saturdays, on the rare occasion when I was given permission.  I always went to the Carnegie Museum, to look at the natural history displays.  I was drawn to the dioramas of ferocious beasts.  Hulking bison.  Saber-toothed tigers attacking giant sloths in pits of tar.  It all seemed dreamlike and strangely reassuring to me.

I was in a very different place in my life now.  I'd been lectured, from eighth grade, on the importance of earning good grades so I could go to college.  But when I started that last year of high school, the concept of college seemed to have vanished.  The word was never spoken.  There seemed no possibility that 'college' could be a topic of discussion.  With the help of my high-school art teacher, I'd managed to complete and mail in one application form, but months later, I heard from that school that I'd omitted something important from my package.  I had to beg my parents for the $10 application fee; by the time it got to the school, the next fall's applicants had already been chosen.

So.  Now I was done with school, and classes and homework were no longer useful as a shelter, any talk in our house, referring to me and my future, circled more and more tightly around two options: get a job by the end of August, or enlist in the military.  The most guidance I got was my father's assurance, as I was looking through local want ads ("Stock boy wanted, local menswear shop"), that I could support myself on $60 a month.  I had no idea what that meant.   

So, on that drive into Pittsburgh, I was wrapping a lot of hope around this letter of commendation, and on the awards that were to be handed out that evening.  As usual, I held my breath when we drove through the Squirrel Hill tunnel, and I kept a lookout, first for the Orthodox Cathedral, with its odd cross, over to our left, and then for the cleft in the hills on the right, framing Oakland, and the Cathedral of Learning.  We arrived in plenty of time, for a change, and found some seats up on the third tier of the main hallway.  There was already a group of students up on the stage with the announcer.  I hoped that didn't mean what I was pretty sure it did.

Who could remember what anyone said, or who got what prize?  Who stumbled over his chair, or who put her hand over her face, and so on and so forth?  I do know, though, that I was strained to near bursting with expectation.  I was certain that, any minute now, they would open the special hidden envelope, tucked under the podium, and holding two or three extra-special names. kept for the very last.  One name, even.  One.

The tone and rhythms on the stage signaled that the ceremony was about to end.  I'd seen one other kid I knew -- a really smart boy, from the sixth grade I'd attended -- sitting with his folks, down on the ground floor.  His name hadn't been called.  Neither had mine. My father wanted to go and get to the car before traffic got too bad.  I hung back.  I kept looking through those tall sandstone openings, still hoping that there would be one last surprise -- a surprise that would give me a third choice, instead of having as my alternative these two: either shelving shirts and sweaters in a men's store, or putting on a uniform.

To all appearances, certainly, there was no reward for me that night (aside from that useless letter) -- not even as desperate as my home-made arithmetic drawings, or those sudsy shapes on the restaurant floor.  In late June, I did get a summer job, working in a ratty local amusement park.  In September, when the park closed for the season, my father took me downtown to the Air Force enlistment office.  He signed the papers committing me, at 17, to a four-year tour of duty.

Now as it happens, I've come to believe that, if I'd gone to college immediately after high school, I might have experienced a kind of 'dry bends' -- that the sudden release of the relentless control and disapproval with which I'd lived at home might have proved either toxic, or fatal.  Death by freedom?  Is that possible?  What I do know, for sure, was that military life was considerably less constrained than living under my parents' roof, and later, my service provided actual monetary support, when I did finally go to college.

But on that spring night in Pittsburgh, leaving the cool stone halls in the Cathedral of Learning, I felt abandoned.  I was experiencing, I guess, a kind of dreamer's disappointment.  It might seem surprising that, given what I knew about life and betrayal by that time, I would still entertain much of anything in the way of expectation.  I seem to be a very fertile ground, though, for the propagation of hope.  Hope, that I once described in a letter as 'a snake in a clown's hat'.   Now I think of it as an unreliable weed, an alluring but toxic sort of raspberry/poison ivy hybrid of the soul, digging in and popping up, stubborn and prickly, in the least likely places.  I wouldn't even mind its perennial failures, if it were just a little more productive of something nourishing -- something just a little bit amusing, or with a prettier bloom.  When hope does turn treacherous -- as I'm sure happens to most of us -- I have at least been able, sometimes, to cobble together a clumsy proxy as a consolation prize, even if it's only made of a few pencil lines, or impermanent patterns of dirty, soapy water.  And then, sometimes, not.     

© 2011     Walter Zimmerman

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