Wednesday, January 1, 2020

I love this life

To paraphrase humorist Lewis Grizzard's book, Bob is dead and I don't feel so good myself.

Bob was one of our regulars. He would come into the library every day. He was 83, usually wore a Berkeley ball cap, and would walk slightly bent over in a kind of shuffle. Short steps. Out of the corner of my eye I'd recognize his gait immediately.

He acted like he was going to live forever. He was curious about everything. Science, human nature, politics, movies. He was auditing a class at Pomona College on physics or genetics or something, taught by a 92 year old professor. He was so impressed with this 92 year old's mental acuity, I think because he saw his future in the guy.

Libraries have a lot of regulars. We desk staff give them nicknames, since we often don't know their real ones. I have found, through Facebook, that this habit is universal among library staffs. Humanity is on full display in a library, and not always at its flattering best, so the nicknames tend to be negative. More so if the person is difficult to deal with. 

Bob did not have a nickname. He was Bob. He would come up to the Reference desk three or four times during my one-hour shift, to tell me about a movie he loved, or hated with a passion, or the things he was learning at Pomona, or a trip he took to Yosemite with his nephews. He loved Yosemite. Snow. Mountains. The Sierras. He was having a house built up in Northern California, one of those where they join two prefab pieces together. He would regale me with problems he had getting the locals to hook up the plumbing, the electrical, make it inspection-ready. 

"I don't know why I talk so much," Bob would say often, with a smile, curious even about himself. I got the sense there was no one else in his life who was listening, truth be told. He mentioned a wife on the east coast. I didn't pry.

He was kind of a sprite, with an elfin face and a ready smile. He showed me an application he had printed to audition for America's Got Talent as a singer. I questioned him about his vocal training. Those singers on that show are as good as it gets, I said. He was mildly offended that I would insinuate that an 83 year old with no training might not make the cut, entirely confident in his skills. He thought they wanted him to sign away too much privacy in order to get on, though. Eventually he backed out.

You can hear Bob sing. He had a YouTube channel. He liked to upload videos of himself talking about different topics. In one, he stands outside his house and sings "What A Wonderful World." He did have a nice baritone, untrained though it was. He would not have gotten on TV with it, but that song, in particular, absolutely summed up his philosophy of life. 

Bob was an elementary school teacher in Berkeley in the 1960s, during the school busing era which Kamala Harris mentioned often in her recent presidential bid. He had mixed race classes, and was fascinated and angered by the differences the economic situation of a kid could make in his educational progress. He wrote a book a few years ago which details his philosophy of educating children, and thoughts on race. He was not a talented writer, I'll be honest, but he makes clear that injustice really upset him. 

Nevertheless, he was a born optimist. "I love this life," Bob would say almost every day with a smile. It is what I will remember him most for. 

He was a veteran, and proud of it. He was also proud of still being a federal employee; he led large group tours at a famous landmark several times a month. He loved interacting, loved answering questions, loved sharing his enthusiasm for the epic science and art which went into constructing such a wonder.

A year or two ago, late at night, Bob heard a commotion outside his house. He stepped out to see a teenage boy a few doors down, naked, handcuffed, being held by police on his front porch. They were searching his house for the drugs he was reportedly dealing. It was a freezing winter night. Bob was outraged that the police felt it appropriate to display him to his neighbors that way, in what seemed like intentional humiliation, intimidation. He resolved, on the spot, to become a lawyer. To fight the injustice he saw not just that night, but from people in power at many levels in our country.

Turns out no law school wants an 83 year old student. His travails in applying and getting rejections became another topic of our daily conversations. He did not think in terms of well, even if I get a degree, I'll be 85 or 87, and how many years could I actually practice? It never crossed his mind. The point was, he needed to have the power to right wrongs, and this was the way, and the math did not come into it. 

It is why I am writing about him. For Bob, the math did not come into it.

He shuffled when he walked, but he might as well have been 20 in attitude. He did not seem to be ignoring reality. It just didn't occur to him he should consider his age in making decisions. 

In November my fellow librarians began to ask each other, "Have you seen Bob?" Several weeks went by, and I noticed he had several books and a DVD overdue, something which would never have happened were things O.K. I began to hope he was laid up after a car accident up north, or sick with a bad flu. 

Finally I typed up a letter asking about him, looked up his address, and dropped the note in his porch mail slot. I discovered he only lived a few blocks from the library. A few days later, his friends, residents of the house where he lived, came to the library and told me the bad news. A few weeks earlier, Bob had apparently felt poorly, called 9-1-1, and had been taken to the hospital. He died after a heart attack. 

It was hard to believe. He was thin, like a distance runner, and never got sick. He was going to be that lawyer. I believed it. He had a former student, now 60 years old, who was a lawyer, and maybe he would sponsor Bob for law school, he said. Always working an angle, philosophical about any setbacks. He was so much about the future, I believed if anyone could finally manage to live forever, it was Bob.

And then he was gone. His house up north, nearly finished, will never be lived in. The group tours will go on without him. I will not see him come around the corner of the reference desk, his signature ball cap bobbing. The idea is appalling.

The last books he had checked out, and never gotten to finish, were both stories of racial injustice in America. 

I am not surprised. 

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Upended

My cell phone buzzed. 

"I just got hit by a car," my wife said. "I'm in an ambulance." 

She said it with a tone of wonder in her voice, and a touch of adrenaline-fueled excitement, as if she might just as easily have been saying, "Turns out Moon Smurfs are REAL, and they're not blue, they're actually orange!"

The Saturday after Thanksgiving, heading to yoga class with her mat under her arm, Jen was hit by a car in a crosswalk. It was an actual, painted crosswalk, with the "Walk" symbol lit, and a green light, but a guy in a minivan made a left turn right into her. They locked eyes at the last second, she says, and he looked horrified, but could not stop in time. One witness said she was thrown about six feet. The impact gave her what they call a "crush fracture" just below her left knee. Her tibia and fibula were not broken so much as punched into bits. Her hip is the color of eggplant.

She remembers as she flew threw the air, she had the distinct thought, "Oh my god. I was just hit by a car. Am I going to die?" Being forced to think that thought 25 years earlier than you expected to is not cool. Finding yourself doing "downward-facing dog" pose on the asphalt 100 feet from your yoga studio is also not cool. 

Onlookers rushed to her aid and helped her to the sidewalk. The driver parked and came over, saying "I didn't see you!"

Jen replied, "Obviously!" which still makes me laugh. 

The officer on site said it was all "100% the driver's fault."

We did not do family Thanksgiving on Thursday like most people. We could not all get together, so Saturday was going to be the big family feast, and Jen had gone to an earlier than usual yoga class so she would be free to start the turkey work mid-morning. She was not supposed to be in that crosswalk. But you zig, and the universe smirks and zags.

And by zagging, I mean the universe says George, now you have to prepare a turkey for the first time ever. And hey, George, it’s about time.

From the emergency room, Jen texted me, "Watch the Gordon Ramsay video." Ramsay is a British chef, famous on TV for his tantrums, but he is passionate about preparing Thanksgiving turkeys. It's kind of like if I really, really mastered the art of a great Guy Fawkes Day Parfait. 

Not sure that's a thing.

Anyway, Jen's dad was coming up from San Diego for the gathering and my mom, who is 97, was coming, and who knows how many more of these she will be able to enjoy, so it was full speed ahead family feast. 

I watched Ramsay's turkey video, which was very detailed, and he made lifting a turkey's skin so you can rub your butter-garlic mixture underneath look effortless. Let me just say that lifting an animal's skin is another thing not cool. 

I picked Jen up from the hospital, her leg in a brace, thigh to ankle, late that afternoon. It was harrowing, her trying crutches for the first time on our rain-slick front porch, which is made of smooth, uneven little river rocks. She insisted on donning her new holiday find, a dress with adorable sloths all over it. The dress was part of the original plan when she woke up that morning, and the Grinch (the inattentive driver in a minivan) would not stop Christmas (Thanksgiving) from coming if she had anything to say about it. 

Our grown kids pitched in to set the table and make the dressing and potatoes and other assorted things. We feasted as planned, Jen's leg sticking conspicuously out to the side. It was a good time. Then she fell. 

Balancing on one leg with crutches takes practice, and Jen leaned too far left. There was nowhere to go but against the dining room wall and down onto the floor. We all just gaped. She was understandably embarrassed, but also upset. Upset that some careless stranger had put her in this position, our dog rushing to her side in sympathy. Or to get petted. Probably to get petted. If you are on the floor in our house, it means you are in petting position. It was sweet and irritating, both. 

She insisted on getting herself up. The evening went on. We bid goodbye to everyone, and made the couch into a bed since it was low and easy to get into and out of. 

Apart from yoga, Jen takes walking seriously. She likes to get to 10,000 steps a day. If she has only walked 8,000, and it’s after dark, she will still go out and walk 2,000 more. Consulting her walking app Walkadoo on her phone the next day, she saw her meager step total:

"Yesterday you took 1400 steps" the screen said.

To which she replied, F**k you, Walkadoo." 

Weeks earlier, she had bought tickets and planned to fly to Denver to see a concert. Now she had to cancel.

A lady from the driver’s insurance company called her with a slew of questions, like was she wearing headphones in the crosswalk? Basically poking around for any reason to deny her claim. I am pretty sure if you are in a crosswalk with a green light, you can be moon-walking and if a guy hits you with his minivan, he is at fault.

The thing with HMOs is, you can't just go get surgery because the ER doctor who x-rayed you says you need it if you ever want to walk normally. You have to go see your primary doctor, who will look at the x-rays and say you need surgery. So she did, and her doctor did. 

Five days after the accident, they knocked her out with anesthesia and she had a plate and a pin put in her upper shin. Thankfully it was done by a surgical clinic, not at a hospital, so she was in and out in five hours, a nerve block in place which rendered her entire leg down to her toes numb for what turned out to be about 20 hours. 

Woozy, she wanted me to drive her around a bit, thinking the movement and scenery would speed her lucidity. We had gone a couple of miles when there was a tremendous boom ahead of us, and we saw a car spin to a stop across the street, having been in a head-on collision with a pickup truck. Both drivers seemed O.K., but it was as if the universe was saying "Enough with the cars and the hitting already. Maybe bicycles?"

I became her caregiver. I made "Misery" jokes (a reference to the Stephen King novel in which an insane caregiver sadistically tortures her patient whose legs are incapacitated.) These jokes did not go over as well as I'd hoped. 

She has some PTSD. She revealed later that the car ride on the freeway to her primary doctor was terrifying. The speed, the proximity to cars. Getting back to normal will take some time. This is another thing not cool. 

Once the nerve block wore off, the pain was intense, "like someone is skinning my knee." Luckily the meds worked well, and half the prescribed dose every few hours turned out to be enough to keep the worst of the pain at bay, and to keep a clear head. 

She has gotten good with crutches, but you cannot carry a plate of food with them, so she was rendered joyful when I brought home a little office chair on wheels which she can sit in and scoot with one foot. You do not realize how much you take mobility for granted until it is gone. 

A week has passed since the surgery. No bathing is allowed. A friend drove her to Supercuts where they shampooed her hair. She has a follow-up with the surgeon next week, and six weeks on crutches keeping her weight off the leg. Six weeks for a teacher means missing the end of the semester and finals, and then the beginning of the next one. 

There will need to be physical therapy to bring back strength and flexibility to the weakened leg. That's more weeks. I'm sorry the humor has drained out of this column. Really, it's just a reminder that your life can turn on a dime, and it's not up to you. Jen is very grateful for not being killed, for not hitting her head, for having insurance and friends to help. 

My coworker was going to lunch today with a few others, just across the street. I warned her, "Watch your back in the crosswalk. Drivers do not see pedestrians. They just don't." She assured me she always does. 

When she got back from lunch, sure enough, she said she began to step into the street but stopped herself and looked left just as a car turning right at the corner blazed past where she would have been standing. The driver looked horrified (sound familiar?) and gestured "sorry" as she drove on. 

Everyone you know has as near-miss story, or a didn't-miss story, or you do. I don't have a funny wrap-up here. I guess I will just quote the old "Hill Street Blues" TV show police chief as he sent his officers out into the world after every morning briefing:

"Be careful out there."


Sunday, November 10, 2019

40th High School Reunion

In kindergarten you don't know that your beloved teacher, who cast you as the ferocious lion in the class circus pageant specifically because you were so shy, will one day die of cancer. 

You don't know that the nap time you take for granted during class, where you pull out a beach towel and chill on the floor for 10 minutes, will sound pretty good to you again in your 50s when the afternoon rolls around. 

You don't know that while you spend that kindergarten year watching a bean plant grow in dirt in a clear plastic cup, watch the roots spread down and the sprouts shoot up, more than 3,000 American boys will die in Vietnam, boys who once spread beach towels too.

In kindergarten, where your two forehead cowlicks still defy gravity, giving you the appearance of a great horned owl, you can't know that 52 years later you will attend a 40th-year high school class reunion. Or that several friends from that same kindergarten will be there, armed with pictures of their kids and even grandkids of their own. Reunions are surreal events, like something out of Poe, where the past shimmers in the same physical space as the present. This is not a criticism.

There are people whose names you recognize on their name tags but not their current faces, and people whose faces have barely changed in 40 years but whose names you cannot possibly dredge up. There is that moment where you have to decide whether it's rude to check the name tag, as if somehow after 40 years, after 14,600 days, you should still be required to remember a name you last heard as you sat in your sweltering seat on that graduation lawn.

There by the bar is the one dude in the whole school who could run faster than I could in sixth grade. By the buffet, wait, is that the girl who was the first in our grade to develop breasts that same year? 

There is a guy I remember mostly from P.E. class, taller than I remember, who tells me he spent the last two years caring for his dad at the end of his life. "He was there for me when I needed him, and I promised him I'd be there for him."

I remember the first reunion, 10 years after graduation, having a vibe of "what have you made of yourself?" A kind of posturing. Some of us were still single, some had four kids, some were already divorced. I remember one guy made fun of me for not remembering his name even though we spent years on the same track team. He was a hurdler. Who remembers hurdlers?

At the 40th there is no such vibe. There is only warmth, a feeling like gratitude, of still being around when quite a few of our class are not. By the entrance is a poster board showing dozens of classmates we have lost, posed in their senior portraits, forever young. Now and then a group will cluster around it. "I didn't know that," one will say. "Oh my God, I just ran into him a couple of years ago."

I visit the buffet table and grab some hors d'oeuvres. I talk to my buddy I remember better from junior high, who just lost his wife a few months ago, the pain still clear in his voice. He played high school football and coaches it now, a mentor to boys just like he was, a halfback whisperer. 

California girls. They make you feel sad for all the other states. I'm sorry, but that song nailed it. Some of these ladies have still got it going on. Gone is the sense of vanity, though. They are comfortable in their skin. It's nice to see.

I chat with one old kindergarten friend, who has recently left his career and moved home to care for his elderly mom. The kindness in his eyes has never changed. It is amazing how we may develop crow's feet or lose our hair, but the eyes stay the same. I notice it again and again.

I spend a minute with a woman who was a ravishing girl in school. She is still lovely and now a successful writer-producer in Hollywood. I would never have said a word to her in high school, but now casually ask her, since mutual friends have posted updates about her career online, how the TV business is. She describes another epic series she is working on. Nice, I say, well good luck, and then it's my turn to order at the bar.

Reunions are full of these moments with people you didn't really know, but with whom you went through something together and feel comfortable. I expect Titanic survivor reunions were much the same. 

There is the guy who accepted my friend request on Facebook a few years ago, but I notice we are not currently friends there, and so I guess he was just being polite. There is the person I un-friended because they "liked" a friend's blatantly racist comment about "sending them all back to Africa." Online life makes real life weird, but often only once a decade. 

There's my fellow runner who, like me, became a librarian, still hilarious as ever. And my theater friend, who recounts getting kicked out of a show "for good cause," he admits, because the pain of his parents' divorce often caused him to "just check out." 

Perhaps the most valuable single thing about aging is the perspective you gain on your younger self, something our friends on the remembrance poster never got to do. 

There are other conversations. There are also people I saw from a distance and recognized but didn't approach. Reunions are inherently weird, and maybe doubly so for us introverts. If you are reading this, and I never talked to you, rest assured I was glad to see you. Genuinely. It's not you, it's me.

Back in the '70's, every graduating class had a slogan based on its year of graduation. Ours was "'79 is fine." It had been preceded by "'78 is great," which is inarguably better, but you can't choose when you were born. I always felt sorry for the class of '80. They ended up, I think, with "8-0 is on the go," which is painfully vague, and should have been reason enough for abolishing the practice altogether.

Do they still do it? Is next year's class slogan "'20 is plenty"? Minty? Flinty? Linty?

I did a lot of plays in high school. In one, at age 16, I played an old man looking back on life. A few of his lines touched me, even then, and I have never forgotten them: "How many of us would settle, when we're young, for what we eventually get? All those plans we make. What happens to them? It's only a handful of the lucky ones who can look back and say that they even came close."

The event was held after dark in a local botanical garden, just across the street from our old high school. The party site was quite a ways from the parking lot, so at the end we were shuttled back to our cars in one of those electric golf carts. Those go pretty fast. Whizzing past the foliage in the dark, it felt like a scene from "Jurassic Park," as if a velociraptor might leap out at us at any moment. Or one of our old teachers, beard down to his knees, sprung from his grave by our merry-making, still waving a protractor in the air. 

For the record, I had only been drinking soda.

I drove away down the main street and a memory came to me of a spring night 40 years earlier, when the same street had been completely flooded, filled curb to curb from a rainstorm as I drove my date to a formal dance. Or my dad drove us. I don't remember which date or which dance. But I remember the water, and our car like a ship cutting through it. Apocalyptic. There was a drought then too. One's home town, I guess, is full of visions like that. 

We danced to this thing they had back then called rock music. It's not around any more. Kids at our old high school these days have heard of it, no doubt, but probably regard it the way we used to think of ragtime. Half a century from now, hip-hop will likely elicit an eye-roll from teenagers. So it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut used to say. So it goes.

1979. Jimmy Carter was president. He's still around, you know. So are we. And the class of '79 is still fine.


Sunday, September 15, 2019

Hawks and omens

I started listening to an audiobook recently which came highly recommended. It was called "H is for Hawk," and I listened to it for a couple of days but decided to bail. It was just too dry for me, and I still have 255 other books on my "to read" list.

The next day, driving down the freeway, I saw a hawk circling above me and took it as a sign to give the book another try. I like bird omens. Even if they end up wrong, they're pretty. 

I still didn’t like the book, bailed again. This morning, a week later, I looked out my front door and, I kid you not, a HAWK was sitting in the center of my front lawn. Never happened before, in decades living here. It turned its head from side to side, then flew away after 20 seconds or so. I saw the distinctive tail feathers. It was a hawk. 

O.K., universe, I get it! It’s a great book! I’m not reading it. H is for "hard pass."

I am not a big believer in omens, but they certainly go way back. Humans have tried to make sense out of randomness forever. Eclipses were interpreted as a sign, abnormal births too. Even, according to one source I read, "the behavior of a sacrificial lamb on the way to the slaughter" was an omen.

Behavior. I'm guessing...oblivious or petrified? Which one was a bad omen for the slaughterer? Maybe if the lamb suddenly starts moonwalking, get out your locust nets? Maybe if, on the way to the slaughter, the lamb runs over and bites the lion in the butt, you know you'd better clean out your rain gutters for the coming frog-pocalypse. 

After the slaughter, things got even wiggier, apparently. They would call in the entrail expert to intuit the future via guts. If the guts looked weird, it was bad news for actors, at least in one culture. I read that if the experts thought signs pointed to the king being in danger, they would put a fake king on the throne until they thought the danger had passed.

Who do you get to play a fake king? An actor. Imagine the casting notice: "Wanted, for a one week to one year run, middle aged, beard preferred, must resemble the currently sitting monarch. There is a stipend, and we absolutely WON'T kill you once your part is no longer needed."

They'd totally kill him. And, to be honest, during the gig, the mead was only so-so. 

I do not think a pristine set of lamb entrails ever ensured a good harvest. It did mean a good dinner that night, at least, and a solid future for mint farmers. 

This is all by way of saying, I'm not going to read that book. 


Monday, September 2, 2019

Rick's van and the Eagles song which turns me 14 again


Just a note to say this week's column is exclusive for my Patreon supporters, who will be reading my riff on the topic of how music, specifically one song on this album, can transport me back in time to a particular moment at age 14.