Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Guest Post by W. Jack Savage

A while ago I sent out a request for guest posts. I asked that they be either inspirational or informative, and I wanted them to be personal, because I didn't want something I could have written.

The guest post below is one of my favorites. It's raw and honest, and it shows how it you can learn something in the most surprising places if you just pay attention. It also shows how one person can have a long-lasting impact in a teenager's life.


The Crown of the Road
By W. Jack Savage

            I’ll never forget Mrs. Johnson, my art teacher in high school.  I liked her at a variety of levels.  She had a good sense of humor, she didn’t take any crap, and she would make observations about you through your artwork that went beyond the usual critique.  “You’re my dreamer,” she would say.  “Your work has a dream quality to it.”  I found her comments useful because in high school my whole life had a dream quality to it.  But her observation, using the vehicle of a drawing I was working on, gave substance to what I was feeling without judgment.  “Don’t be such a dreamer,” other teachers might say.  As if to dream was the enemy of one’s education.  Indeed, it may have been.  It was in my case.  But, at times, to dream was all that allowed me to survive.  When she said it though, it was just another word used to describe something—in this case a drawing.
            One spring day she came in and began our day with this sentence: “No matter who you are, you have to be pretty comatose not to have noticed the budding of the trees and bushes today on your way to school.”  I hadn’t.  It wasn’t the first time the winters of my youth had instilled in me a paralysis of observation that lingered through late spring.  But, again, her giving words to my affliction made me notice it.  Her speech preceded our first outdoor sketching assignment of the spring.  I remember thinking a lot that day about why I hadn’t noticed these obvious signs of spring.  As time went by, I began to realize that whereas a nuance or an inflection of speech, a side-ways glance, or even a conspicuous silence could never escape my notice; the terrain or background against which these little dramas played out was less significant to me.  Therefore, now in my fifties, it came as somewhat of a surprise to me when I became aware of the crown of the road.
            Mind you, I don’t know if engineers or the people who work on roads even call it that.  But, to me, where the curve of a road from curb to curb meets its highest point is what I consider the crown of the road.  If it had ever occurred to me in the past, and it never had, I would have assumed that the crown of the road for the most part was always in the middle of the road.  I would have frankly doubted any idea that the crown of the road could be as near to one side as five or six feet in some cases.  But it is.  As an avid runner, I became aware of this one day.  I recently brought this observation up to someone in passing, who, having given it some thought, wondered out loud who could possibly give a damn about such a thing.  I then pointed out that it was my opinion that observing such a thing was no less poetic in nature than noticing the budding of the trees in spring.
            “Who says budding trees are poetic?” he asked.  “This is California for Christ’s sake.  We don’t have a ‘budding’ spring as such anyway.  I can’t remember noticing a budding tree since I left the Midwest, and now this…this crown in the road business.  What the hell are you talking about?”
            “I’m a runner,” I said.  “You know that.  I run everywhere: streets, trails, up in the mountains, in your neighborhood, too.  I’ve never been known as the most observant guy around when it comes to outdoors anyway.  I’m just telling you that I noticed something about the streets.  They’re a part of our world that we take for granted and drive on every day.  The crown of the road, or at least its high point, is different.  Sometimes it drifts from side to side depending on how they want the water to drain off.”
            “What water?” he asked.  “I’ve lived out here for sixteen years.  It didn’t rain at all for the first four.  If it did, I never noticed it.”
            “Yes,” I said, “but when it does, and real hard I mean, like the flood years, that’s what the crown in the road is for.  If you live on a north hill that slopes to the south, and the street in front of your house goes east and west, the crown of the road is almost certainly nearer to your house and your side of the street than the other side.  You see it impedes the water flow a little and drains it east and west to a natural flow point on either side.  There they put storm sewers or something to catch the majority of the run-off.”
            He just looked at me.  “I don’t live on a hill,” he said quietly.
            This man clearly had no sense of wonder.  Or if he had, it was long gone.  I tried for a little longer but it was no use.
            Not long after that, I began again with a woman I had known for some time.  Perhaps, unconsciously, I chose her because I wanted a woman’s opinion to begin with.  Secondly, being a woman, I reasoned that even if my observation held no particular interest for her, she would at least assess what I had to say with less antagonism.  The possibility that it might even be of interest seemed increased by the fact that she had once been a runner like me.
            “When you used to run,” I began, “did you ever notice the crown of the road?”
            “I’m not sure what you mean.”
            “Well,” I explained.  “You know how most roads have a sort of arc, a slight rounding to them in the middle from curb to curb.”
            “Yes, that is, I suppose so,” she said.  “That makes sense for the drainage, I’d guess.”
            “Okay,” I said.  “As you get up in the hills, the crown of the road varies a great deal.  Sometimes the crown or high point is as close to the curb as six feet.  As the street continues, sometimes the crown will change completely to the other side.  If it winds up a hill or something, it will change from side to side.  It’s not always in the middle is what I mean.”
            She looked at me.
            “Did you ever notice that when you were running?” I asked.
            “No, I was too busy noticing suspicious cars or vans that might follow me and want to force me in if I wasn’t paying attention.  In other words, I was trying not to get raped while I took my morning exercise.  Now that you mention it, I didn’t notice anything about the roads or my neighborhood either.”
            “You weren’t by any chance listening to music, were you?” I asked.
            “Not then,” she said.  “I power walk now.  It’s easier on the knees.  I have a headset that I listen to now and then.”
            “I see. Ever notice the budding of the trees in spring?”
            She shook her head. “Not the budding exactly, but the purple Jacaranda trees bloom in the spring.  I always notice them.  What did you call it?”
            “I’m sorry?”
            “The crown,” she said.  “Was that it?”
            “Yes,” I said.  “I don’t know what road engineers call it.  I mean, I don’t know if that’s what it’s called.  That’s just what I call it.”
            “Was there something else you wanted to ask me?”
            “Well, no not really,” I said.
            “Are you sure? You know if you change your mind, you can call me at home.”
            “Oh,” I said.  “Okay.”
            I next called my son who listened to my observation and said, “Is there a point to this Dad?” 
            My daughter wondered if I might be getting high again after all these years and said, “That’s the kind of thing someone who’s high would notice.”
            A part of me wanted to argue with both of them.  But since the lion’s share of their up-bringing was done by their mother, while my contribution could be measured more in canceled checks, I was not unaware of the futility of attempting communication with those for whom their own luminescence provides a shield against official and, in my case, semi-official points of view.  Much the same as ours did in our youth.
            Finally, I attempted to call Mrs. Johnson.  From time to time, actually once after I got home from the service and again fifteen years after that, I looked up Mrs. Johnson just to say hello.  In so doing, I hoped this would indicate my affection for her.  Her somewhat sarcastic nature made telling her of my affection more difficult than any “three times in thirty years” phone call should be.  If she couldn’t figure out that I still thought of her fondly enough to call, she wasn’t as sharp as I’d always imagined.
            I called long-distance information expecting to get her number as I had done in the past.  But I was unsuccessful this time. She had always been listed under her first two initials, but it seemed this was no longer true.  I sat there, trying to remember her first name (if ever I’d known it) and theorized that, because she had long since retired from teaching, it was possible that she had gone back to using her first name.  I tried again and again but had no luck.
            This might well have been the end of my effort to get someone—anyone—to appreciate the fact that the crown of the road varies with the terrain and the various undulations it passes through, but my daughter’s observation kicked off something in my memory.
            “The crown of the road,” she rationalized, “might be something that someone who was high might take notice of.”
            Naturally, being an avid runner, I am no stranger to the endorphin high.  It is a heady state that can be achieved by prolonged exercise, usually by runners.  Indeed, I have felt it often.  Not consistently but often nonetheless.  I tried for a moment to remember exactly when it was that I first noticed the crown in the road.  I could not, at least not exactly.  Therefore, it’s at least possible that I was in the state known as “the runner's high” when it first came to me.  But although the crown of the road itself may be a somewhat offbeat observation, the way I presented it was not.
            I first chose a friend over drinks.  The fact that we were drinking alone should have at least paved a surface conducive for such an observation.  The nonsense I have listened to over drinks down through the years could fill volumes with observations less astute than mine.
            “Ever notice how people who drive yellow cars are all assholes?  If they’ve never seen Pluto, how do they know it’s there?” These two were just off the top of my head.
            After that I choose a fellow runner: a woman fellow runner, but a runner anyway.  She should have registered something approaching an affirmation of my observation; instead, I came away with the feeling she thought I was hitting on her.  And, upon further thought, had I been hitting on her, I might have done so successfully.  I could still call her.
            That my children were unresponsive was a surprise something akin to the sun coming up each day.
            And yet, perhaps my observation was the kind that never quite lands when you bring it up, but one that you never forget either.  I was riding a bus down University Avenue once, going to a job that I hated.  Actually, it was a bus ride with a transfer, and University was the final leg, making the fact that I hated the job worse because the commute was tedious as well.  Anyway, I’d get on the bus that was always full, and there were a number of retarded riders from some group home; each morning they took this bus to where they all worked.  I enjoyed this leg of the ride because, since the bus was usually full, the retarded riders couldn’t sit together.  They were scattered around the bus.  Being that I was in my twenties, during the seventies, and less than enamored of my employment status quo or prospects, I got high on marijuana every day before going to work.  And while I’ve grown tired of the debate over what, if any, benefit may be gained by staying in such a state, being that I no longer use it; it seemed at the time to provide great theater now and then, and this bus ride was an example.
            First, with no obvious signs of mental retardation, it was fun trying to decide who in fact was retarded and who wasn’t.  Everyone sat quietly on the bus and unless someone had their hat on sideways or slept so that one side of their hair stood straight up, given my own state of impaired reality, it was hard to tell.  Under these circumstances, a man I may otherwise have pegged as a shop foreman or even small business owner of some kind might just get up and shuffle off at their stop with the other mentally challenged riders.  Then, who’s to say they were all a part of the same group just because they got off at the same stop?  You get my drift.  Over time, of course, you could kind of tell.  After a while, my daydreams concerned themselves with other things.
            One day, as happened occasionally, I was lucky enough to get a window seat for this last leg of my commute.  Another guy, who had been standing as well, took the seat next to me as I got in.  In moments, I was in that reverie aided by a window view I knew I had been lucky to get.  As we approached Fairview and the stoplight there, the fellow on my left leaned forward a bit.
            As we stopped, he suddenly blurted out “A gas station!”
            I immediately knew he was one of our challenged group and I, challenged in my own way but part of the larger whole nevertheless, responded with good-natured stoned affirmation, “Yeah...a gas station.”
            “I’ll bet they have road maps in there,” he said.
            “Yeah,” I bet they do.”
            But it was more than that.  Over the years I believe it was far more.  To begin with, given both my state of general dissatisfaction and marijuana impairment, this young guy’s progressive observation has stayed with me for thirty years. 
          At the time it was just something funny that happened on the bus.  But, after a while, it seemed like an answer to a prayer somehow.  A road map could get you anywhere, and they were available at the nearest gas station.  Too simplistic to be profound you say?  Nonsense!  It’s as simple as this: if you don’t like your situation--job, relationship, prospects, whatever--and the process of change seems too complex, leave!  Maps are available.  They chart a path of both escape and renewal.  Moreover, they are proof positive that wherever it is, you can get there from here.  I have used this metaphor countless times to kick-start my life whenever I felt trapped.
            I’m not saying that the “crown of the road” will one day compete with “road maps available at your nearest gas station,” but, over time, it may find meaning for someone.  Consider that a path—any path—leads somewhere and can therefore lead you back if necessary.  But taking your eyes off the path to a point too far ahead can lead you off the path in a hurry; looking back can as well.  Therefore, staying to the rounded apex of the path and following that apex or crown as it moves from side to side can not only provide security against leaving it but also allows you to go faster.  That is, should you desire to.

            Well, I’m not saying that it will keep anyone up nights.  But the first of many springs in my life, where I failed to notice the budding of the trees, spawned in me enough of a sense of wonder to notice the variances in what I have now dubbed “the crown of the road.”  And if the “rounded apex of the path” thing seems too contrived, then consider that the crown of the road is only my observation.  What you do with it is your business.  I’m staying with “road maps available at the nearest gas station.”

W. Jack Savage is a retired broadcaster and associate professor in Film Studies who now writes full time. The Children Shall Be Blameless is Jack's third novel and fifth book. He and his wife Kathy live in Monrovia, California. You can find out more about him by clicking here.

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