The Stupid 365 Project, Day 3: El Sombrero

October 3rd, 2010

Boy.  Yesterday was only two days in, and people were already carping.

“Use the 300 words a day to write the new Poke,” says Gary.  Laren’s on me about using two subjects in a single blog, which suggests that he shares my skepticism about whether I’ll be able to sustain this mindless marathon. Pat says, “I’d rather you wrote 300 words a day on a new Simeon Grist novel . . .”  She also says, ” . . .everybody and his dog is writing about writing. Maybe you could just tell us about your life.”

Breathe deeply, Tim.   They mean well.

Gary, Poke is taking a break right now.  He and the family continue to marinate in Bangkok, and I make notes on them from time to time.  I know what the next two books are, and they’ve even got tentative titles: The Fear Merchant and The Growing-Younger Man. But it’ll be a bit before I begin to write them, because (are you there, Pat?) I’m writing a new Simeon, Pulped, which is unlike anything I’ve ever written.  It’s going to be published as an e-book because the first three Simeons are doing so well on Amazon and there’s obviously a readership, hard as that is for me to believe.

Okay, Pat, you want my life?  I’ll give you my life, a childhood incident that scarred me for years.  It even has a title:

El Sombrero

When I was in elementary school, there were no intercultural sensitivity issues because there were no other cultures to inter with.  Where I lived, we were all white except for the relatively small number of us who were black, and we all spoke English, with varying degrees of proficiency and verve.  What I learned about Mexico can be summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased from one of my second-grade textbooks.  Mexicans used something called a tortilla instead of a spoon.

There was no picture, which would have helped.  There may have been Mexican restaurants where we lived back East, but my parents, who were whiter than Moby Dick, wouldn’t have frequented them.  I conjured up probably hundreds of mental images of what a tortilla was and how it replaced a spoon.  (Remember, I was in second grade and my experience of the world was somewhat limited.)  And then I learned one more thing about Mexico: It had a dance that was really easy to do and it was danced to a catchy tune called “La Cucaracha.”  My teacher either didn’t know or didn’t think it was necessary for us to know what a cucaracha was.

So, in the darkness fate moved its heavy hand and the Mexican Hat Dance was selected as the second grade’s contribution to the annual School Show, which — now that I think about it — must have seemed decades long to the parents who suffered through it.  The choice of the dance meant I needed a sombrero (I’ll dispense with the italics), and that, in turn, gave my mother a jolt of inspiration.

My mother dabbled in oils.  She painted either the sea at night under a full moon or vaguely Hawaiian mountains, all steep green slopes and pillows of fog under a sky the piercing blue-green of a Korean pottery glaze.  And, once in a while, she did a still life because fruit and vegetables don’t move around much.  So, in an imaginative breakthrough, my mother decided to paint a still-life on the front of my sombrero.

She decided to do this on the night before the show, and oil paints take a while to dry.  When I got on the bus the next day, wearing my gaily decorated sombrero, I was in the center of a pungent sphere of linseed-oil fumes that cleared the seats on either side of me, in front, and behind.  That was the first indication that the day was going subtly wrong.

And then came the performance.  All the boys were wearing sombreros, although none was as distinctive or as aromatic as mine, and all the girls’ mothers had gotten them white peasant blouses from somewhere, perhaps a failing little boutique called La Peasante or something, because I never saw another peasant blouse again as long as I lived there.  We second-graders gathered backstage in our orderly little lines, the music started — da dump, da dump, da dadadada da dump — and we trotted into the light for our moment of glory.

It was immediately obvious that we should have rehearsed the dance with our sombreros on.  The hats made the boys a good four inches taller, and when boys and girls faced each other so the girl could curtsy and the boy could bow, there was a lot of whoops, and a couple of hats hit the stage, knocked off when they brushed against the front of some little girl.  My sombrero was fastened beneath my chin, and I suppose I was congratulating myself on not losing my hat as I moved down the line to the next little girl, and the girl to whom I’d just bowed began to cry.

I bowed to Girl Number Two and looked over my shoulder at Girl Number One as Girl Number Two also started to cry.  They both had vivid streaks of oil paint in the most primary of colors down the front of their white peasant blouses.  From then on, things got blurry.  I remember girls scurrying backwards to get away from me as it was my turn to bow to them and seeing them bump into the kids behind them, and one or two kids doing impromptu sits on the stage, and then someone in the audience (me, if I’d been old enough and fortunate enough to have been sitting there watching instead of up there dancing) began to laugh.  Laughter is, of course, contagious.  Even the boys onstage were laughing.  The girls were not.  I was not.

Kids teased me about that damn hat until fourth grade, when something much worse happened — but if you think I’m wasting that now, you’re nuts. 362 days to go.

You want life?  I’ll give you life.  Life at its rawest.

11 Responses to “The Stupid 365 Project, Day 3: El Sombrero”

  1. Beth Says:

    I have been laughing for an hour. As a mother who figured out how to make clothing for the apostles and for medieval knights from bath towels, I know full well that those school productions are the source of nightmares.

    I have been the teacher trying to keep the kids in line until it is time to dance, then pray that while they are dancing they don’t fall off the stage. I have been the mother told by her daughter that I have to make a costume for her that represents her favorite character in a book, request coming two days before she needed said costume.

    This entry will be worth reading countless times over the year. Maybe I can get to the point that I can read it without laughing so much my eyes tear.

  2. fairyhedgehog Says:

    Do you know, I didn’t laugh at all I felt too sorry for you. Maybe it’s the wine. Yes, I’ll blame it the wine tonight.

  3. Phil Hanson Says:

    That’s okay, Tim, give us life at its rawest. One day at a time. The countdown continues.

  4. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Beth, I’m glad it rang true. At the time it was appalling, especially because I was a really, really shy little kid, but I have to admit I laughed out loud when I wrote it.

    FHH — well, I felt sorry for myself, too, at the time. And I was furious with my mother, whom I blamed for everything. She didn’t make things any better by laughing when she saw me after the stage. But my mother was a lot tougher than I was.

    Phil, I’ve got material so raw it makes Chuck Pahlaniuk read like Louisa May Alcott. This is just a sample –even grittier stuff is on the way. After all, I’ve got a YEAR to fill.

  5. Pat Browning Says:

    ROFLMAO. About those peasant blouses — believe it or not I was still wearing them my senior year at Okla. A&M College. And for what it’s worth to anyone, Oklahoma is still about 50 years behind the times.

    Jumping from Mexico to the boot known as Italy, are you sure about La Cucaracha? Doesn’t “cucaracha” mean tarantula? When I was in Sorrento umpteen years ago, I attended a tourist special at a local hot spot and heard that the dance began when a local beauty tried to escape from a tarantula.

    Of course, I also have learned that tourism guides and hawkers will tell you anything as long as it’s a good story.

    But enough about you,let’s talk about me —

    I loved your blog, and am glad to know you’re working on a new Simeon Grist e-book, and jealous to know you have 2 other books with titles awaiting your attention. Don’t know how you do it! But keep it up, and write faster.

    Pat Browning

  6. Pat Browning Says:

    Abject apologies. The Italian dance I misremembered is the tarantella. That’s what I get for being such a smart aleck. I’ll sit down and shut up now.

  7. EverettK Says:

    I both wanted to cry (as I for-saw the coming troubles) and burst out laughing as I read the actual denouement. The best humor is rooted in the pain of someone else. What is it about pain that makes us laugh so hard? The ability (or need) to do that must have evolved as a psychological survival tool, to keep us from killing ourselves before we managed to procreate.

  8. EverettK Says:

    I, too, am happy to hear of the new Simeon Grist you’re working on. As for e-book only publishing of it, I have no problem with that since that’s how I read 99.9% of my books these days. 🙂 But you might find of interest this article about Barnes & Noble setting up their program for authors to “self-publish” in e-book form:

    Amazon is great and will likely remain your major seller of e-books, but no sense locking yourself into just one distribution channel and losing out on a few sales. It’s something to keep your authorial eye on, anyway.

  9. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    Pat — you caused me a queasy moment of uncertainty (three days in and I’m wrong already) but then I remembered the tarantella and relaxed. The city in which I lived at the time was the (then) lily-white suburb of Chevy Chase, Maryland, and peasant blouses were in short supply, possibly even scarcer than in Oklahoma.

    Everett, just remember what Mel Brooks said: “Comedy is when you trip going downstairs and tumble all the way down and break your neck. Tragedy is when I get a paper cut.”

    We’ll see how the new Simeon turns out. I’m becalmed at the moment, about 35,000 words in, and the fact that this happens every time I write a book doesn’t make it feel any less terminal. And I’m looking at all e-book venues, although Amazon and Apple, together, sell about 85% of them.

  10. Beth Terrell Says:

    Tim, what a charming story. Charming, yet subtly horrifying. I’ve done a few oils in my time and could see the potential for mayhem as soon as you said your mother had decorated the sombrero in oils. Ah, the smell of linseed oil.

    I loved your description of your mother’s paintings.

  11. Timothy Hallinan Says:

    I still have a couple of my mother’s paintings, and the description is pretty much literal. I wish I’d foreseen the havoc. I would have faked the stomach flu, which I was very good at, and stayed in bed all day.

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