You know that expression, "Like a bull in a china shop" ? As I understand it, this describes someone who is so gangly and uncoordinated, that he or she often spills and breaks things, and trips or falls on a frequent basis. A few times I have heard it used to describe someone who simply makes brusque movements. Okay, this expression has been applied to me, I admit it, and I have been and continue to work on it. (The fastest solution is to simply stay in bed, alas, I can't reconcile the rest of my life with that.) Truth be told, sometimes I feel like that surly bull raging at all that finery, and at the pointlessness and folly of easily breakable dishes, but I digress. I wonder if the bull can be applied to the socially inept too. What I mean is that when I have conversations with people, there are questions that pop into my head and somehow circumvent what filters a normal person's brain possesses, and come straight out of my mouth. If, say, the person's face shouts "I'm dumbfounded!", I try to save myself, "Uh, you don't have to answer that if you're uncomfortable." Lots of times, people don't answer. But sometimes, the most interesting conversations imaginable can take place.
Martin, a 40 year old man with the use of only one and a half limbs (right arm and rudimentary movement in the left arm) was one of four students in an intermediate English class I taught last year for a government agency. Martin is in a wheel chair and as we entered the classroom, we all made special attention to where Martin would sit, and arranged the chairs at the table thusly. Then I gave my typical first class speech, and how we would all introduce ourselves, that we would talk about where we come from, why we are here, what our family situations are and what we do for a living. I always start in order to make them comfortable. They find out why I moved here (they ask immediately after I tell them that I'm from Southern California) and I always say, "Okay, I'll tell you. I don't tell everyone this right away, but I get a good vibe from you guys," (sometimes we'll discuss the word "vibe" as well at this point) and then I tell them the whole story of Serge and me and they feel like they've been let in on a secret. Also, this (usually) prevents them from making gay jokes during the course. Anyway, the other students told their stories and then Martin told us he was single, worked two days a week and had never been married. He described his job and detailed his hobbies. At the end I said, "But I think what everyone is curious about is why you're in a wheelchair." One of the students gasped. "Uh oh," I thought, but before I could say a thing, Martin started his story. At 18 years old, he was racing cars on a country road and his car flipped and he broke his neck. It was many years before he was in a functional state. His was a tale of terrible tragedy, arduous recovery, and finally of acceptance and glory of being alive. It moved us all.
Then there was Phan, a computer programmer for Croesus. His English was excellent and his French impeccable, but his native language was Cambodian. When I asked how he ended up in Montreal, he said "It's a long story." Not picking up on this vague clue that maybe he didn't want to talk about it, I asked the other students in the class "Do you already all know Phan's story?" They all shook their heads, no. So, like the proverbial bull, I said "We've got time, and we want to hear it." He spoke for almost two hours. We hung on his every word as he told us about Pol Pot's rise to power, and of the torture and murder of his family members. He talked about how he and his sister had been slaves in the rice fields for 5 years as children and about his harrowing escape to Thailand at the age of 12. We peppered him with questions throughout. What stunned me the most about him was his incredible humility and gratitude. How could he come through such an experience and not be even a little bit mad at the world. We were all inspired for weeks after, so grateful for our lives of little suffering. I still think about him and his story frequently.
At a dinner party of 10, the conversation is sparse and the room small. When the conversation lulls, most people talk about movies or music, but personal stories are always better, so I try to get something going. I'll say something like, "Let's all talk about our first sexual experience," or first kiss, or even if you've ever taken it up the ass. (I'm shocked, yes shocked at how many women say that heterosexual men enjoy doing this to them.) Sometimes, it doesn't work (everyone will simply ignore the question entirely, or politely laugh at the audacity) but more often it becomes the highlight of the evening, as we tell our stupid adolescent stories of discovery. Anyway, it's infinitely more interesting than the latest Spielberg film and the new Janet Jackson CD.
Sometimes the broken china makes a beautiful mosaic