August 30, 2011

Dropping the MacGuffin

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I’ve slipped into one of my spy phases so even though I am compromising security, it’s currently the only thing on my mind.   For purposes of this blog, all use of the word “drop” should be considered what Alfred Hitchcock called a MacGuffin: the plot device of using an often ambiguous thing which the characters  will sacrifice almost anything to get their hands on.  It doesn’t matter so much what the thing actually is, only that everyone wants it.

This spy phase began–we who go into espionage have such varied motivations–when Genevieve of the unearthly beautiful voice  ( ) came in carrying a Dorothy Sayers book under her arm which in itself could be a coded message.  She was re-reading Murder Must Advertise in which mentioning the product Nutrax for Nerves in the correct pub would bag you a half ounce of cocaine in your jacket pocket.  Genevieve and I got to talking about Dorothy Sayers and that was enough for me to review all the old Lord Peter Wimsey BBC productions and to re-read The Dawson Pedigree and Murder Must Advertise. 

Then it was nothing to move on to “‘Allo, ‘Allo,” a sort of French resistance Hogan’s Heroes where they spend nine seasons trying to airlift the same two British airmen out of France; and where German, French, British, and various Communist groups all try to leverage their lives after the war by passing around the valuable painting they call The Fallen Madonna with the big boobies.

Wish Me Luck is a series about British women spies made in the 1980’s in England.  It had me preoccupied for days until I had watched all 23 episodes.   I watched them a second time.  Then I started in on The Sorrow and the Pity.  I usually watch sub-titled movies with my neighbor Gwen who knows something about just about everything, but I have kept my espionage interest to myself.  It’s one of the first things you learn: keep your mouth shut.

Especially with my good neighbor, Gwen.  There’s a high fence around her yard.  She says she is doing a lot of reading over there, but who would know?  Someone who knows something about just about everything?  That’s a useful skill.  Then every so often she gets all dressed up and goes somewhere.  She says she goes out to lunch with a former co-worker, but I wonder.

My painting buddy Madelaine paints beautifully.  But then she draws wickedly funny cartoons and signs them Hilaire Squelette.  That’s a cover story if I ever heard one.

I don’t even want to get started with Chris, the unclassifiable but who was in the Army.  There’s a reason she was in the Army and is now unclassifiable.  Oh, wait.  I guess I am the one who calls her that.

I myself have a sweet set-up.  I could write counts under the fifth measure of the first two-page song in a lesson book as a message that sets off a chain reaction resulting in a drop. The only drawback is that it uses children.  My voice students are adults, though.  I could write vocal exercises for them to hum as a secret signal like in The Lady Vanishes.

After spending way too much time reading mysteries and watching spy movies, I don’t see brick walls any more.  I see crevices where a message could be lodged.  And the cemetery behind my house is a perfect drop-site.  Although generally speaking, when something ends up in the cemetery, it has already dropped, so to speak, anywhere from one to five days previously.

The other Sunday in church after I played the hymn before the sermon I went to sit in the back row even though my little friend Marvin, wasn’t there. ( I wanted to get a closer look at The Hair that was sitting three rows up.  There was about a foot of hair sitting on top of a woman’s head and I wanted to figure out if it was teased up like we used to do in the 60’s or if it was a wig.  My re-con was inconclusive but it did occur to me that she could have a whole drop lodged up there.

I come from a family of robust paranoids so I think I understand something about the popularity of spy novels, crime literature, and mysteries.  Concentrating fear and oppression into stories neutralizes them somewhat.   Not because everything turns out all right in the end because so often it doesn’t.  But the story contains itself in such a way that I can think.  The ability to think is its own freedom.

I believe that safety and freedom begin in our own heads.  The more we can acknowledge our full humanity–the good and the bad–and accept that we all have a spectrum of motives, the less there is to fear outside our own heads.  That drop is not a MacGuffin.


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