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Wood Working: You have to look at it this way: Things can always get much worse

"Gee, Prof, why do we have to read all this literary stuff? What good'll that do me?"

That's a question a myriad of students asked me during my 30-year teaching career.

And so I always trotted out the answer given by critics Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren. They said that literature was valuable because reading it helps us broaden and deepen our perceptions about life and the way we live it.

Or something like that.

I almost forgot about that question and that answer because I've been too busy worrying about pension plans, asphalt or concrete driveways, how much Metamucil to imbibe and the aches and pains that old age is heir to.

My pals and I sit around Earth Angels, the South Fork or the Dish and the Spoon and complain about our knees, our hips, our cataracts and our general ill health probably more often than is good for us.

Then one day, at the Wellness Center, I was pedaling away on the Nustep, when I complained to Bob Smith about how I had stood too long the day before and now my ankle was just about killing me.

Bob allowed as how he had lots of pains too, but that he had read a short story in Harper's magazine that made him reassess his attitudes toward his own pain. He said it broadened and deepened his perception about life as he was living it.

Or something like that.

Lo and behold, the next week dawned, and Bob brought me a Xerox of the short story. It was by the renowned fiction writer T. Coraghessan Boyle, an author I had scrupulously avoided reading, probably because his middle name was so imposing.

Bob said, "Whenever I'm feeling sorry for myself, I read this story. Take it home, it's a heckuva read."

It certainly was. It was entitled "My Pain is Worse Than Your Pain."

Its narrator is an early retiree who lives in a tiny forested development in the Pacific Northwest. His wife had been ignoring him. He feels like a piece of furniture in their rustic cottage.

So one wintry night, he leaves his cozy home, climbs up the roof of a neighbor, a beautiful fortyish widow named Lily.

Lily has had her share of pain. She married Frank, an older man, who went fishing one day, fell off a bridge, broke his leg, tried to crawl to safety, but had his eyes pecked out by a bunch of ravens and his body mauled by a bear.

And that wasn't all.

Lily had suffered mightily for years because her stepson Frank Jr. had gone to the San Diego zoo and a polar bear had torn off his arm and part of his shoulder. He was sore about that and took it out on those around him.

And that wasn't all.

More recently Lily had been popping corn when her foot got tangled in the electric popper cord and her back was badly burned by hot oil and she couldn't afford plastic surgery because the dead husband hadn't adequately covered her for such eventualities.

So there was our narrator, up on her roof, hoping to catch a glimpse of her in pajamas and maybe even drop into the house for a little hanky-panky (the narrator was an optimistic guy, but not for long).

Well, you know what happened: The roof was icy and he slid off, fell two stories and broke a leg. The entire neighborhood gathered around him.

His wife came over in a housecoat and spit in his face as he left on a stretcher and then began divorce proceedings.

By the time he recovered to return to the rustic cottage, the ex-wife had removed his new plasma TV and all the frozen dinners in the freezer. So he had to sit and stew alone.

Finally, he got well enough to take a walk and he hoped by now Lily had forgiven him, so he made his way to her rustic cottage, where she was grilling steaks and the crabby stepson was preparing a salad.

("Maybe she'll invite me to dinner," he thinks. Remember: He's an optimist.)

It doesn't happen. The stepson smacks our narrator on the kisser with his good hand, the narrator falls off the deck and breaks his leg "with a crack you could hear in Sacramento."

As he lies there for the second time, he looks up and sees Lily planting a big wet kiss on her stepson. They're in love.

Back at his rustic cottage, the narrator concludes: "Bad luck can change. I sit here in my rented wheelchair and tell myself it has to, because nobody, not Lily with her scarred back or Frank Jr. with his missing arm could stand to be as lonely and miserable as this."

See how his perceptions have been broadened and deepened?

Or something like that?

Dave would like to hear from you. Phone him at 715-426-9554.