Friday, March 15, 2019

Defying the Laws of Physics

Imagine you're speeding down the highway and a police car suddenly appears in your rear view mirror, lights flashing. You panic. With pounding heart and a mouth as dry as the Sahara you frantically try to pull over--right as the cop screeches past you into the night.

I felt sweaty just writing that! Look, I've gotten a ticket before and it's no big deal but the lizard part of my brain freaks out anyway. You'd think I had a body in the trunk or something. Which leads me to my point--how detective shows want us to believe a person would just go about their business after committing a heinous crime. When the worst thing a character ever did (before committing murder) was jaywalk, how did they suddenly turn into a sociopath? Where's the guilt, the remorse? Where's the Lady Macbeth trying to wash the blood off her hands, or the narrator who hears the tell-tale heart of his victim beneath the floorboards?

Every work of fiction asks the reader to suspend their disbelief to a degree. The author may condense time or sprinkle in some amazing coincidences, but the reader doesn't mind. The reader wants to believe. Otherwise, there would be no Harry Potter, no Game of Thrones. But there is a line that cannot be crossed, at least for me. Okay, two lines. The first is the Hannibal Lecter syndrome I just described. The other is when the writer defies the laws of physics. When a hundred pound woman kills her rival and moves her body down several flights of stairs and then hauls her away in a car to bury her in the woods I lose my mind. I can't even carry ten pounds of groceries that far. Yet it happens all the time, people effortlessly moving bodies hither and yon without anybody seeing them. Not only that, there's an episode of Castle where a woman supposedly hangs a body upside down from a catwalk. I need to know who her personal trainer is. Why isn't she entering body-building competitions instead of murdering people? She missed her calling.

One of my favorite scenes of tongue-in-cheek self-awareness is from the film, My Cousin Vinny, where Vinny questions a witness.

Vinny: How could it take you five minutes to cook your grits when it takes the entire grit-eating world 20 minutes?
Mr. Tipton: Um... I'm a fast cook, I guess.
Vinny[across beside the jury] What? I'm sorry I was over there. Did you just say you were a fast cook? Are we to believe that boiling water soaks into a grit faster in your kitchen than any place on the face of the earth?
Mr. Tipton: I don't know.
Vinny: Perhaps the laws of physics cease to exist on your stove! Were these magic grits? Did you buy them from the same guy who sold Jack his beanstalk beans?

Yes, Vinny, the laws of physics do cease to exist on TV, but if you miss them you can always switch off the TV and pick up a book. No, that won't work either. Why don't you carry a heavy bag of groceries up and down the stairs and then bury it in the woods? I promise you the laws of physics won't disappoint.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Safe :-)

Those of you with overseas relatives may remember a time when communication with loved ones was not so easy. There was no internet, texting, instant messaging, WhatsApp, Facebook, or cell phones. Sure, there were landlines but calls were expensive. (Were you expecting me to say telegrams? Carrier pigeons? How old do you think I am anyway?) What we did have were those tissue-thin, faded blue, self-folding aerogrammes, the cheaper way to send a letter. The aerogramme is one of many things I learned about from my husband. (Others include: hot lemonade is good when you're sick, and for some reason beyond mortal comprehension Australians love Vegemite).

I used to watch my future husband dutifully write to his parents each month filling the aerogramme front and back with his neat handwriting and then carefully folding it up and sealing it. It would take a week for that flimsy piece of paper to reach India and it was nothing short of a miracle that it did. His parents always wrote back, sometimes separately, and those letters also took a week to arrive. As a native Floridian attending college in New Orleans I saw my parents frequently and couldn't imagine being so far away for such a long stretch; I also spoke with them every Sunday. This formal process of communication that took weeks to complete was fascinating to me. It was like looking up at the night sky knowing the light you saw had taken thousands of years to reach your eyes. That star could already be a supernova but it would take generations to find out. In other words, it was old news.

My husband would let me read the letters he received and explain to me who everyone was and their backstory. It took me a while to notice that every letter from his mother had the same word at the top right corner--Safe. When I asked about it, he said that's how he knew everyone was okay and the letter wasn't bad news. Even then, when I was only 24, I thought that was wonderful. Isn't that the first thing you want to know about your loved ones, that they're safe? In their case, of course, a lot could change in the week it took a letter to arrive--but that's what telephones were for, right? Now, 33 years later, I reflect on all the times I've received bad news and how the delivery was never fast enough to keep my imagination from running wild. Once, my mother called me up crying and I thought something had happened to one of my sisters. By the time she finally got around to telling me my 87 year old great-aunt had passed away, I was faint with relief. Safe, why couldn't she just start with that?

After my husband and I were engaged I started writing to my future in-laws on aerogrammes. I soon learned that if you try to erase a mistake, you'll tear the paper and have to start over. When I was a kid I had a pen-pal I never met so I had experience writing letters to strangers, but it was weird to do it as an adult with your future mother-in-law. We got to know each other though and soon felt comfortable enough to joke around. When she wrote to me that we would have to work on my handwriting, I responded good luck with that.

Now I can communicate with my mother-in-law in India instantly and by Skype. Sometimes when we're chatting on Facebook my brother-in-law in Australia will jump into the conversation, all of us in different time zones, one waking up while the other gets ready for bed. It's amazing and I love it but the best thing is I don't have to wait. I always know everyone is safe.