August 7, 2011

POSSIBLY IRRITATING ESSAYS: Poor Doesn’t Mean “Without a Sense of Humor” or “Unable to View Society with Wisdom”

Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Octavia Butler.

Stephen King.

Jane Austen.

What do these people have in common?

Probably the same thing that this person did…

On my way to work a few months ago, I was driving through a neighborhood that many of my students come from. The major features of that neighborhood are a small plane airport (purported to be busier than Minneapolis/St Paul International), an abandoned lot that once held an egg-packaging plant, a revamped apartment complex that has been renamed four times since I was in high school, an international medical supply company that has slowly taken over all the buildings near it, a strip-mall with an UNbank, a hair salon specializing in weaves and a convenience store, and a burned-out gas station. In this neighborhood, there have been two murders in the past five years, uncountable assaults and two OTHER shootings (besides the murders).

As I said, a large number of my students come from this neighborhood and I have driven through it and to it for years.

Gas prices had been shooting through the ceiling for some time, but the corner gas station caught fire when prices were $2.59 a gallon (oh, for THOSE days again!). The sign was untouched for months as weeds grew around the station, the police investigation tape blew away and the plywood over the shattered windows below the smoke-stained exterior started to discolor and warp.

One afternoon on my way home, I turned the corner and caught sight of the price sign. Some wag had rearranged the numbers to read: $9.52 a gallon.

At first I paid it no attention – kids getting a kick out of rearranging the sign.

Then I started to think about it. While it was a simple rearrangement of numbers – actually only TWO were switched – what it said was profound. As long as I was paying attention.

It said to me that satire doesn’t have to be book length (like Pierre Boulle’s MONKEY PLANET (aka PLANET OF THE APES) (“a wry parable on science, evolution and the relationship between man and animal.”)), and it doesn’t have to be a political cartoon (Like Richard Guindon drew ( It can be a very simple statement in a very simple neighborhood in a very simple city – and it can have a very profound impact. At least on one person.

The moral of this parable for me is that I don’t HAVE to write long to say a lot.

Now I just have to apply it. I agree with Princess Mia Thermopolis in PRINCESS DIARIES 2 when she says, “The concept is grasped. The execution is a little elusive.”


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