I’ve always loved being a peeping tom, and it’s even better in a small town. Don’t misunderstand, I’m not some kind of sleaze. I just mean, if I’m not the one doing the driving on the way home, I will gaze out at the night-lit windows as we pass and make note of what I can see inside.
It’s amazing how often I don’t see people in the lit rooms. Where do they go? Back to the kitchen? To bed and left the living room light on? Are they settling down after a long day or getting dressed to go out and release some tension?
That’s one thing about New England – there are still plenty of houses that sit barely back from the road — those roads that used to be quiet lanes that rarely saw a vehicle during the day, never mind at night. Now ‘traffic’ (hardly worthy of the word) goes on all the time, even late into the night. Yet often they leave their draperies open to the street view. And I appreciate it.
I study the different tastes in wall covering, furnishings, lighting fixtures. I try to guess how many people live there. And I wonder why they are still up so late, or alternatively have already gone up to bed when the sun’s barely behind the hills. I read books that still mention the blue-tinted light of TVs, but that hardly applies now that black-and-white is retro. With more and more realistic color, it’s the movement, the flicker that I see now. And it gets easier to see what they’re watching with the great screens that are hung up on a wall because they’d be too cumbersome as a piece of furniture. It’s wall art, ever changing and intriguing.
Sometimes I see heads above the backs of sofas and easy chairs. I wonder what they’re talking about, or what they would talk about without TV. That’s not a criticism, there was radio before that. The Lone Ranger. Dragnet. The Boston Pops. So to sit quietly and just listen isn’t really new.
There are anomalies that fascinate me, that stay with me. The other day I took a walk along a different small-town street, looking in the cafe windows. At least, I think it was a cafe, although I could find no sign hanging out. It may have been someone’s home made over from a long-ago cottage industry. It was a gloomy brick building with no draperies, very little furniture and nothing to be seen on the far wall to break up the pale expanse. In one window a woman sat angled so that she seemed engrossed in something to her right along the intervening section of wall. As I walked on past the next window, I saw that another woman sat in the left corner, looking back in the direction of the first woman. It certainly looked like they could be having a conversation, but the separation of the two windows had to be ten feet. Why sit so far apart? Was there a table between them pressed against the inside of the wall? It had to be a long table. Or was it two separate tiny tables, with each woman’s companion crammed in between them? I hovered, waiting to see if anyone joined them or if a waiter came up, but eventually I felt I’d better move on before I got arrested for standing there staring at them.
I suppose my favorite peeping is when we coast along our own main street, pretty much the only street of what you might call ‘town’. It runs about half a mile west before it rolls on out past the volunteer fire department and then the farmlands. The ‘business district’ consists of a tiny post office, cafe, and a small grocery which all share the same long building. The library’s around the corner, a little bank branch is right on the corner, and “Mike’s”, a four-pump gas station with portable potties outside and a deli and wine selection indoors, is a very popular stop for skiers and folks hauling boats and campers out to the lakes. The hair salon and barber shop are tucked in between old and stubborn clapboard homes, and it’s all overlooked by two historic mansions up on the hills – for sale, at very modern prices. There are no traffic lights, just three or four stop signs in unexpected spots that generate a lot of consternation in people if it’s their first time through.
We skirt the hundred-year-old imposing brick town hall and roll on past the three-room cottage labeled “Historical Society – call for appointment” (if you look close, they are open Mondays at certain hours which aren’t exactly peak tourist times). The recreation center is on the other side of the street, with a park, playground and ball field stretching behind it all the way back to the library. Not much for peeping there.
After that comes the pretty homes in wide lots with their porches full of rockers and potted plants. The garages are always unattached and out back, with some of them sitting right up close to the ‘crick’ that runs through the trees. A few houses might be a hundred years old, others maybe just fifty or so. But they all have the tall, wide front windows of a friendlier, less fearful time, and I can glance in as we cruise by. Living there, you could wave from your living room window to people across the street, or stroll out to have your coffee on the porch and speak with passersby.
At night the lit-up homes always look as open, warm and inviting as I remember my grandmother’s house. So I happily peep and try to imagine the stories going on behind the windows.
When we get older we sometimes participate in a kind of disconnect without realizing it. I don’t mean things like politics or music; with a little effort or enthusiasm I can keep up my end enough to carry on a conversation about most things with my grown grandchildren. But sometimes I have to remind myself that my memories and my opinions are based on a much longer base of experience. They are looking at the world through a camera lens, while I am zooming across nearly seventy years.
Last week I attended a Meet-Up with a local group of writers I hadn’t met before, and I was pleased when four of our seven turned out to be young – that is to say, twenties? It gets harder to judge at this end.
Conversation was invigorating. At times these “kids” reminded me of my old friends who camped outside the store back in the Eighties so they could be the first in line for the latest Piers Anthony or Stephen King or a particular fanzine. It was when the talk moved on to editing manuscripts that I was pulled out of my no doubt condescending amusement.
I brought up the fact that one college-age person who had attended my other group for a short time did her “critiquing” entirely on my punctuation and had laboriously gone through and “corrected” where I had double-spaced after every period at the end of a sentence. I said that when you’ve been taught and have practiced that double-space for so long, it was damn near impossible to make your thumb hold at one space when your mind has already moved on to the next sentence. And what was the big deal, anyway?
One of the young women explained to me that one space was insisted on because many people would “pad out” their work in order to make it look longer. This seemed to make sense; at least it was the first actual explanation I’ve ever received. So I nodded and conceded that it was a good point.
Then I got to thinking about it.
The fact is that the double-space at the end of a sentence has been the rule since manuscripts were first submitted to publishers in typewritten form rather than long-hand. In other words, by insisting on one space you are not restricting anyone from doing it differently — it’s the one-space that’s different. If professors today don’t want padding in their college papers, they might concentrate on overworked themes and drawn-out conclusions rather than focusing on something that has been in place for upwards of a hundred years. Or simply make the guidelines involve word-count and not pages, just as any publishing house does.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we need to stick with the double-spacing after a period. I really don’t care. I am saying that there is a reason for it just as there is for double-spacing the lines. I don’t even want to picture a manuscript submitted with the lines single-spaced. Double-spacing between lines was required because editors (or professors) did not want to strain their eyes trying to read however-many submissions day after day. From experience I know that sentences can start running together if they are crammed in elbow to elbow, top to tail. And you need space to write comments, insert corrections, add or delete. This is incredibly frustrating with a single-line-spaced manuscript, and I can’t think that having only one space between sentences would be any help either.
But rather like the little boy who ran home from school and exclaimed, “Mom! Did you know that Paul McCartney was in another band before Wings?”, these younger people were looking at the world through a zoom lens that didn’t extend into the past much further than, possibly, ten years before their birth. I guess us old folks have to keep remembering that.
By the way, there’s a double space after every sentence in this post. So sue me.
She crouched behind the thornbush and heard him croon her
name in the night. His silhouette
crossed in front of the backyard security lamp, and she clenched her eyes tight
so he wouldn’t see her tears reflecting the light. At first the thunderous rain had masked every
sound, but now there was silence except for the crack of the stick when he
lashed out at something.
She couldn’t tell anyone what he’d done. She would curl up and let the earth absorb
her. The cold was sweet and forgiving,
and the yard lamp shone through the thorns like a star.
Yesterday I read a great newsletter/blog post by Marcy McKay, author of “Pennies from Burger Heaven”, and it started me thinking about the haters out there, especially the ones trolling posts by authors, be they famous or wannabes. And that started me remembering many things.
In his later years, my father became critical of everyone — I learned to dread the first few hours after we came home from any kind of a gathering. He paced like a caged tiger and let us know what was WRONG with each and every person who had been there (and some who had not, with his nasty speculations as to why). It invariably ruined even my mother’s enjoyment of the day, patient as she was of his shortcomings.
Back when I was growing up, he kept his criticism to just my sister and me — or maybe just me. I seemed to be the one who could never live up to his expectations. So I grew up self-conscious, insecure and had no self-esteem, and yet something deep inside me stood up and fought back. Not hate, exactly, but definitely something that was always there between us, keeping us from becoming really close. Then slowly I came to realize that he, like all of us, carried the criticisms of his own childhood on his back. His coping strategy was to point out everyone else’s faults, so that he could feel better about himself by comparison. That’s a sad thing, and after that I just pitied him. And that’s what I do with haters. Or at least all but one:
A few years ago I was in an online writers group on Facebook that welcomed beginners. Some obviously had no background at all in the craft of writing, but they all had a story they wanted very much to tell, and the more experienced of us worked at being encouraging. We’ve all been there, right? Then we got a hater. Every time one of these hesitant, diffident people posted about what they wanted to write, this person replied with the most virulent abuse: how could they even think they could be writers, they were obviously stupid and inept and knew nothing and would never be successful at it, on and on. They should take her advice and quit trying, because after all she was a real professional author. The rest of us told these “youngsters” over and over to ignore her, but many simply dropped out. And many more just couldn’t help crying out things like “I don’t understand, why are you saying this to me?, I know I’m no good but . . . ” You could hear their pain, and it was heartbreaking. Their answers and our own pleas just drove her into greater heights of sadistic pleasure. I got so desperate to drive her off before she ruined the site that I went looking for the books this “professional real author” had published and found that she had one book that had been published ten years before by an outfit I never heard of. It had nothing but bad reviews, and from the remarks it appeared she had sold maybe five copies and nothing in the last nine years. So although I felt bad for shaming her right back, I posted my “research” with no additional comment. Wow, you can imagine what she had to say about me after that!
But at least she forgot about the newbies for a while. Finally we got the attention of the site monitor and they got her blocked, and the last thing I heard was that FB had blocked her altogether. I have always felt that it was a shame we had to do that, and yet, there are times when, if someone is dragging you under, you just have to kick free and let them drown in their own unhappiness.