The English Nerd Emerges on Route 28

I was driving home from Pittsburgh this afternoon and by the time I hit Kittanning, I was tired of listening to the same old overplayed Zeppelin, Petty, Genesis and Eagles. I had another 45 minutes to kill and I didn’t want to drive in silence because I knew I’d think about all the things that needed my attention when I got home and I’d get tense and anxious, and I’d study the traffic too intensely and let the slow and obnoxious drivers bother me more than is healthy.

I turned on one of two NPR stations on Sirius. “A Prairie Home Companion” was just ending. I didn’t want to listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” because I savor that for listening on my iPod in the gym. I slipped over to the other NPR station and the announcer introduced a show I’d never heard of called “Selected Shorts” sponsored by Barnes & Noble and I thought how much I love being read to and how pleasant it would be to spend the rest of the way home immersed in a story. Score! That’s exactly what “Selected Shorts” is: actors reading short stories or selections from novels by famous authors. First up on today’s agenda: Kate Chopin’s “A Pair of Silk Stockings.” (Click the link to read the complete text. It’s not very long and is very good.)

Perfect.

For 20 miles I listened to Susanna Thompson’s lovely articulation of the story of a woman (specifically a wife and mother) in possession of an extra $15 (about $150 in today’s market) and how she spent it.

I went into English major mode, specifically the literature nerd part. Yes, I write (and write and think and read and write some more), but the study of literature is still what I secretly savor, like Valrhona chocolate. It was the best part of my high school English classes and the best part of my English major studies. It can be selfish and absorbing, but studying literature is what makes someone a good writer. Weighing words and experiences against the written words and experiences of others is the only real way to further express our mutual human existence, because clearly nothing any writer writes is new.

Take the Chopin story. A contemporary middle-class Mrs. Sommers with an extra 150 bucks would dream of outfitting her children in clothes from the Gap, but something takes hold of her and she finds herself in Victoria’s Secret buying a thong and push-up bra. While the story would be called “A Pair of Silk Panties,” it’s clear that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

I love comparing things like that. I love reading the words from decades, centuries or millennia ago and comparing them to the present and finding common threads in my life and in the lives of my friends and family. Call me a nerd, but that excites me more than any television show, video game, and yes, even sex sometimes (but only sometimes and it has to be really good literature).

It was a great trip home. The old man driving 45 miles an hour from New Bethlehem to Clarion didn’t piss me off nearly as much as he would have if I hadn’t heard the story. I’m ready to tackle the to-do list I left on my desk yesterday morning before I left for the now infamous girls’ day and night in Da’burgh.

Thanks to Kate Chopin and Mrs. Sommers and my English major inner nerd, I’m thinking quite clearly. I love when that happens.

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