The Everyday Schoolbook
Essay 1: The Lap Swimmer
The Lap Swimmer swam in the same pool his whole life. Every day he swam for so much time as his schedule afforded him. He was known as ‘The Lap Swimmer’ because no one knew him as anything else, or if they knew of his real name, no one used it.
He was a man of even temperance. Despite his eccentricity and habits, he was never known to be discourteous or as particularly unpleasant. He was simple and kept to himself.
He never left the pool, really. It fascinated him, whether he was inside it or out. For the Lap Swimmer every motion, every stroke was tiny art, and true meaning. He once remarked to a friend, or as close as a man such as he has friends, that “Every time my head goes under, it is like a little death, a small drowning.”
All the pool veterans left his lane empty, though there was no official rule. As well, that his lane was off limits would be whispered to newcomers or they would sense it, so that even at the height of the busiest day the lane would be eerily barren. It was as if the lane itself had become fitted to the Lap Swimmer. One daring new swimmer ignored the veterans. Very flamboyantly he went into the lane and swam only one lap before he came out badly shaken. The water grew thicker, he claimed.
The Lap Swimmer had memorized each of the black and white tiles on the bottom of his swimming lane. Often he wanted to touch them with his fingers. He would not let himself do so because to stop swimming from side to side would mean for a heart to stop beating. Each push from a pool-edge was, to him, a pumping of blood. Every time he placed his foot in the water, he could not remember ever having left it. It was not unnatural for swimmers to leave at night and return in the morning to find him still there.
In his twenty-seventh year, at once, he forgot who he was outside of the pool. He simply continued to swim. After a few days the pool maintenance noticed and learned to work around him, out of respect.
Days became weeks, and weeks, months. Someone may have complained as the owner of the pool, an elderly man, paid a visit. The owner shouted something down to the Lap Swimmer. The Swimmer did not visibly response. The owner, seemingly satisfied, left. It is not known what the owner’s words were, but one who heard him said the words did not sound of this world. Other than this the Swimmer was treated with a passing indifference. As much attention was paid on him as one might pay to a poolside that had faded. Years passed and the man continued to swim, not having concerned himself with those things changing around him.
The Lap Swimmer, in these later years, noticed the tiles had been weathered with the passage of time. The pool had been re-tiled during his early days. Since the time the people of the pool had forgotten him, though, they had fallen into disrepair again.
The Lap Swimmer again began wondering what it would be like to touch them. After several days of thought, he decided he would. He slowed his pace, stuck his head underwater and had the familiar sense of a tiny drowning. He allowed himself to sink down. The drifting went slowly, and it wasn’t until he had nearly reached the bottom that he realized his heart had stopped beating.
Essay Questions (50% of Grade):
What color was the pool? (5%)
What caused the pool to act in such manner? (15%)
Was the pool just? (20%)
Activity (10% of Grade):
Close your eyes and stick your head underwater. Think of God.
Essay 2: My Work as an Art Appraiser
Working as an art appraiser, I have often wondered if the work I do contains meaning. The nature of civilization’s evolution for the past century gives me little comfort. It has, without notice, changed so that people no longer expect to get meaning from their work. In fact, many would be surprised if they arrived at a job that had both promising pay and gave them joy. Instead people search for joy in their private lives or elsewhere and detach themselves all but physically, from their working bodies.
I have spent a long time studying the structures and techniques of the artistic craft, know my own feeble work was pale in comparison. I have been asked to decide how much particular artists will receive in return for time struggled with their form.
Oftentimes, my consultations would be checked with two or three other appraisers or, if the client was particularly cautious, as many as seven or eight. Most times in the past our numbers would come within a hair’s width of each other. If there was any discrepancy we would meet briefly and look at the painting, talk about abstract feelings within the painting that the artist did not intend, and the audience did not notice. Most times, my own numbers would come closest to the work’s sale price. This was not because of any serious deep understanding of esthetics, but because I could tell what price the painter would be willing to sell his piece for while leaving the buyer feeling as though he had received his money’s worth.
I was a small time art appraiser when I worked at the Gallery, one of my first jobs. My post was so close to utter insignificance that it was only through a mistake in bureaucracy that I received my job. The Gallery already had a full time experienced art appraiser as well as several, equally qualified assistants.
The prize exhibit at the Gallery was always full. This pleased the artist immensely. The exhibit’s title had been splashed on the cover of the Chronicle.
There were two entrances to the exhibit. Half the audience would go in through the right door and the other through the left door. While the exhibit was the same, it was a unique experience depending on the side you chose. One art critic, originally going through the right side, and giving the exhibit its first wholly negative review, was convinced to try the left side and from there changed his mind completely and even returned several times in the coming weeks.
People entered into the right or left room. At first, the room would always feel smaller than it was, as it was always so full of people. Soon you could grow comfortable. Unlike the other rooms in the Gallery the walls here were totally bare. The walls would seem naked without their assuring solid colors, blue and red. The color choices showed the mastery of the exhibit.
Next the viewers, or experiencers (as the artist like to call them), would see a sheet of glass separating the room they had entered, presumably allowing the experiencer to look at those who had entered into the other room. They would stare at each other with great interest and occasionally glance at the title of the exhibit People looking. Next the title would be the word blue or red, indicating the color of the room they had chosen. It was of great importance, claimed the artist, in understanding the piece that one room was painted blue and the other red. His first color choices, those of green and blue, had admittedly come off a disaster.
On and on each side would look at each other, both sides sometimes wondering which side was art and which side was humans looking at art. Some of the individuals in either room would secretly think themselves better than the rest. I could tell these when I was looking at them. They were aware that they were being stared at, and were studying themselves being studied. This, they seemed to think, made them appreciate the exhibit more.
One such intellectual made a comment similar to this to me after leaving the exhibit. He was wearing fine clothes, though they were worn in a shabby manner. He spoke to me because I was available.
“What’s better,” I responded. “A rock, or a rock that knows it is a rock?” He turned away to better matters and other company.
A week before I quit, an old lady came in to ask me how much a painting was worth. It was a simple drawing of her when she was a teenager. Her boyfriend had done the drawing. It was a line-heavy sketch, done with charcoal. The paper it was drawn on was yellowing. The drawing showed only modest potential talent and less realized talent. The eyes, though, affected me in a very dramatic manner. It told of a simple love that the suitor must have. It showed one genuine emotion, simply and beautifully. By then I had even studied the dust mites of the paintings in the gallery, nothing else could compare to that simple drawing.
“I don’t expect that my bosses would give you more than a cup of ale’s worth,” I told the old lady.
Dejected looking, the old lady turned away from the store. Full of all the value the picture suggested, she was a work of art. If I had seen her through the glass I would have missed it. The glass did not hide anything noticeable at first glance, but those on the other side lose their humanity in the eyes of those watching. I may not even recognize my relative or wife if I saw them on the other side of that glass. People, at most, appear to be strangers with some distance semblance of those I knew.
Essay Question (30% of Grade):
Did the artist use a window or a mirror to separate the rooms?
Essay 3: Thrill of Your Life
S.W. Burnham, writer for The Post, had seen many attractions. The ad for this one was a simply written THRILL OF YOUR LIFE in eight font, all caps. It had run in his paper for the last six months. As he read his paper over breakfast, whenever he flipped the pages the ad persistently caught his eye. It had become an irritation.
He decided to call the phone number.
A recorded message gave a time, address and working hours. He wrote down the information on the back of his old business card. The ink from the pen smudged on his thumb slightly. During his ride to work, the smudge nagged him as a reminder of the ad. Instead of work he decided he would go to the place the phone indicated, with the intention of reporting to his readers the relative joy of the event.
It was on the poorer side of town. He watched the better aspects of the streets strip away. He lived in a small city of modern success, and the older factory district had become outdated beyond usefulness. The address was of the old steel mill. Outside a new plaque read THRILL OF YOUR LIFE.
S.W. Burnham opened the door. An official behind a counter turned. He was dressed in fancy clothing. The light in the room hid the left side of the man’s face for a moment. The man looked Burnham up and down. While he did, Burnham realized what was so odd about the man. He was missing his left eye. A simple, smooth indent of flesh was all that replaced the spot. There was no hole or anything to indicate it was proper for a human eye to belong in that place. It made Burnham uneasy that it looked so correct that a man had no left eye. The official was even handsome.
“Sir,” Burnham said. He had no clear idea of what he would say next.
“It’s twenty dollars,” said the man.
“But what is it?” Burnham asked.
“The thrill of your life,” mumbled the man.
“I’m a reporter, I’d at least like to know what I am reporting on before I give business funds.”
“It cannot be described in words,” said the man.
Burnham laid his money on the counter. The one eyed man stuck it away somewhere, and ushered Burnham through a nearby door. It led to a large warehouse. Burnham could barely make out the pasty, light yellow ceiling.
The center of attention was what Burnham noticed first, and that was a towering roller coaster, of sorts. It was disjointed, here and there the track ended randomly, only to begin again many feet higher and later. There was no visible pattern or order to the design. Burnham saw a roller coaster was coming, for a moment he was in disbelief that the track was even letting it run.
No one in the coaster was screaming. It was full of men and woman, children and elderly. All wore fancy suits and had their hands folded in their laps calmly.
The coaster went off the track and fell swiftly downward. From nowhere a giant steel hand swooped down and grabbed it. The hand delicately lifted the cart and placed it on the next section of track. This act was repeated at various points, until the cart finally stopped safely at a loading area. As the fourteen or so riders exited, another finely dressed group entered.
“What is it?” Burnham asked again.
“The hand,” the man said. “We don’t know much about her. Rumor tells us that her own children died long ago and this chosen profession was the only way to deal with her guilt and pain. She wishes only to save and save and save. It is a job she loves. You can tell this from the hand’s grace.”
“Is it safe?” Burnham asked.
“One in ten coasters crash,” the one-eyed man said. “Some die during a successful ride. This is why you are here. When a person sits in that seat, he thinks himself already dead, and he knows peace. He has insight. It is by the grace of a mother’s love that he is saved, and held up. For a moment that man is free. Some believe the more properly you sit the less likely you are to crash. I find that unlikely.”
The one eyed man left Burnham in the waiting area where the participants were loaded. Burnham’s mind did not accept what was happening. The lady across from him gave him a smile. Burnham barely noticed the next group was standing in an orderly manner and ready to load. The bright green color of the lady’s dress seemed not of this world. She smiled again, kneeling down to scratch her leg in a peaceful motion. He saw black specks dotting her leg. Instinctively, he looked at his own leg and saw there were fleas. It itched. His leg was swelling at spots, this indicated that he had been unconsciously scratching his leg for some time. He told himself he would leave when his turn came. He was unbearably itchy and was disgusted by what a disgrace to good morality this machine was.
The girl’s green dress looked as though it was the only thing that had real color in the room. He stared at it rudely. She began walking in a meaningful manner. He followed after the dress that seemed to flow out from her. He meant to touch it. He reached out and caught the slightest cusp of the fabric between his thumb and pointer finger.
“Squeeze it tightly,” the girl said, and smiled at him. “Things feel more real when you squeeze tightly.”
She grabbed his hand and applied just the correct amount of pressure in the middle of his palm for him to feel what she meant. He looked at her mutely. His mind began to think again, slowly. He had followed her to the front row of the waiting crowd. Looking around himself he saw that he would have to push his way out. He began to, but those behind him would not budge. The other riders became so densely packed around him that he could not even begin to get away. He realized he would be forced to take the trip.
“Let me go!” he screamed. “I want to go! You can keep the money. I’ll even pay more.”
“People have paid thousands to be in the front car,” said the girl into his ear. “Count yourself lucky.”
No one else paid any attention. Burnham looked again at the roller coaster. Its chaotic randomness now appeared carefully designed. It looked intriguing, almost aesthetically pleasing. The wiring that held the track up was hung from the ceiling in places, and in places steel supports reached up from the floor.
Burnham felt only a distant nervousness when the coaster stopped at his feet. He entered the coaster and sat calmly. He was seated in front, next to the girl with the green dress. The coaster began to ascend. The sheer soundlessness of the situation made it all the less real. He found himself looking at the ink smudge from the morning. It had spread and faded slightly. He then cupped his hands as if he were cupping water. A smile slowly crept into his lips as inevitability set in.
He closed his eyes and the ride went on.
Multiple Choice (20% of Grade):
Choose the words Burnham overheard while waiting in the train station on the way to the attraction:
- “Let me off this train it makes me feel like I’m in a cage.”
- “The train doors won’t open because they don’t like you.”
- “Don’t bother trying to leave down the stairs, the stairs lead nowhere.”
- “No matter how little you are eating, it is probably too much.”
- Burnham drove to the attraction, but thought all of the above absently even though he was a very thin man already.
Extra Credit Activity 1:
Circle as Many Anti-Social Words as You Can Find in Five Minutes
During my flight home to NYC, someone in the back of the plane pointed out something that was not remotely funny. Someone else laughed and we all realized we were part of a line-heavy sketch. The drawing we were part of hung in an airport boarding area. We stared out at all the people sitting, bored and unfocused. They were waiting and occasionally twitching. We could only pray that we would someday crash. The ink that created us showed no wish of decaying. We could not even move. We were just left to stare out of our glass pane into the disinterested eyes of the dazed multitude.
We tried as hard as we could to attract the eyes to ourselves so that they may see our plight. We hoped they would yell out what a monstrosity it was for the airport to place a picture with conscious beings in it right in their departure area. Yet whenever we did manage to catch an eye and hold it, which was about twice a week, the viewer would always shake their head and look away, convinced that it was only an advertising gimmick that they had seen a hint of life in the photo.
Soon it was the time alone at night that we most looked forward to. The room would still have people, but not nearly as many. The stench of the cleaning fluids filled our nostrils. We could occasionally get that fitful sleep, of flights, that does not rest you. The peacefulness came from the calm that came over the city at night.
On someone’s suggestion, not my own, we began trying to shift our weight in time. Using this method we were able to get the picture frame to “Click, click, click” out a SOS signal.
Extra Credit Activity 2:
Cross Out All Lies
- I am sitting in a classroom, trying to devote absolute attention to the teacher. Suddenly the student in the seat next to me slumps over. I see blood begin cover the parts of his shirt. He looks at me distantly. The class continues. There is no sound. Another student slumps over, the teacher must know this is happening, but does not let it interfere with her class plan. I sit back, assured, listening to the lecture as the film scene pans out further and further. The classroom can still be made out from the recorder that is outside the window. I am sitting there, with my hands folded perfectly, and all of my classmates are slumped over. Because of my doubled efforts at paying attention, she does not even complain about the lack of class participation.
- I’m on a tiny raft with a stick to push with and I float past giant marble heads of De Galle and Stalin and Hitler and Kennedy.
- I am walking with my father and I see this old tool shop that he had believed had been torn down years ago. He, gleeful as a young child, searches through the store for new tools for nearly an hour. It is by the Brooklyn Bridge. I am strangely sad. We leave without buying anything.
- I am sleeping with someone I hope to become lovers with. In my dream I see a serpent coming out of the back of her head. I awake with a start that startles her. She tells me later that she dreamed of kissing me.
- I am a man, sixty years old, who has been working my whole life shelving books. I find out today that all along all the pages have been blank. This does not at all deter me from my labors, rather I redouble my efforts with the thought that a true books meaning comes from the very grains of the paper.
- In the future, humanity spreads across the universe. A group of rogue scientists begin to believe the universe is a conscious being. It is the protagonist’s role to find a link to communicate with the creature. The protagonist and her group are successful after a heroic struggle. The creature tells the protagonist that humanity is a parasitic disease that is killing all of existence.
- A girl who only makes a single type of clay sculpture over and over again: A sexless figure huddled in fetal position.
- A school with no exits or windows. A sound that slips suggestions of advertised products into dreams.
- A world famous model who does not exist.
- Rows of identical objects. A great idea that simply would not work in practice.
- Talking calmly as a brutal act of violence happens nearby. A dry mouth suddenly makes speech difficult.
- You notice, distantly, that the events on the TV happened in a place you once knew. Even the news anchor, an ageing female, looks familiar. Then you notice you are staring in the bathroom mirror.
- Humanoid creatures that climb up the sides of buildings.