Friday, July 29, 2005

Word of Mouth

I'm in the middle of transcribing a roundtable discussion for an architectural client. Over the years I've been a "fly on the wall" -- listening in on tapes of conferences, focus groups, interviews, lectures, and radio programs. In addition to writing and editing, transcribing forms a large part of my business.

It's better than a free education. It's being paid to get an education -- in areas that have included architecture, education, environment, gardening, medicine, religion, and others. It's inspired some of my creative writing as well. People can tell wonderful stories on tape.

Before I got into the business I transcribed stories -- mine and others -- by hand, into my journal. I still do. The excerpt below is a non-taped architectural tale told around dinner at a convocation....

February 22, 1987

Steve lectures on occasion at Harvard's Graduate School of Design, trying to draw the students there away from theory and into practice. His child's school had once had a series of lectures given by fathers (Steve didn't mention mothers) on what they did.

He'd asked his son's teacher, "What amount of time do I have?"

"As much as you want," she told him. "The surgeon took 20 minutes."

"I'd like all day," he said.

First he'd gone out and gotten housepaint brushes. He attached those to long sticks and put up large pieces of paper in the classroom. "I wanted to get them away from the smallness of holding a pen and peering down into a book. I wanted them to work with something where they could stand back and see what they were doing. Where they had to hold the stick with both hands."

The children loved it, and spent all day designing their dream houses -- and, Steve said, teaching him. "One kid was there -- I swear, he could be a great architect some day. His house went straight up -- like one large chimney. He had a fireplace, and through the living room he had a river running. And I said, 'You know, that's great. Because see here -- you have this river gurgling away in the living room. And you can look beyond that to fire burning in the fireplace. And then, in the winter time, you can look through the fire in the fireplace and watch the snow falling.'"

Later on, Steve had actually found a fireplace with a window, which fueled itself on the cold air from outdoors rather than using the heated air in the house.

We talked around the dinner table about Christmas. Steve had grown up where there was a ritual: you could not open your presents until everyone in the house was up.

"That left Grandma," Steve said. "We'd all start pounding on the door -- us kids -- saying, "Wake up, Grandma, wake up!" Then we'd all line up on the stairs beside the living room, facing in, the youngest being the first in line which we all grumbled about." His sister, six years younger than he, stood in front.

"I must have been 9 or 10," he continued, "just getting to the point where I no longer believed in Santa Claus. In a very special way my father believed in Santa Claus, so we all did. But that year, all of us older kids were losing it."

His father had been working outside that Christmas morning, and no one really missed his absence. "My mother would raise her arm by the window, and that would be our cue to go into the living room. On this particular morning she raised her arm and we all trotted in -- but we saw a pair of black boots -- just a flash of them -- whooshing back up the chimney. And all the soot started coming down and forming black clouds in the living room: on the tree, soot on the presents, and the rug and the couch. We didn't realize until years later that my father had stood on the roof and lowered the boots on a rope, then got down outside and stood by the window. And when my mother raised her arm that was his signal to pull on the rope. I believed in Santa Claus until I was nineteen."


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