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. 

Sunday, August 25, 2019

A reminder to remember

There are two kinds of people in this world; the kind who check their children's pants pockets before doing laundry, and the kind who don't. (All right, there is a third kind, the kind who don't have children, but you are not reading this, because you are golfing.) 

List of people in the first category:

Gandhi
Mother Teresa
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (I'm guessing)

List of people in the second category:

Hitler
Pol Pot
Most of my friends (I'm guessing)

I have always wanted to coin a term for the kind of person I am, the kind who is simultaneously fastidious AND sloppy. Attentive AND oblivious. I am sure my more literate friends are right now screaming the term which already exists and which I can't think of, which is probably "Man! The word is 'man!'" 

I check pockets for important documents before doing laundry. I have never found a kid's mash note or an early draft of the Magna Carta, but I'd feel sick if I pulled one out after a load, the paper pulverized into a wet cylinder. I am fastidious. I am also sloppy. I am someone who has found a three year old "to do" list buried in a stack of my papers on a table, a list of things never accomplished but now rendered irrelevant by time, which is SWEET, let me tell you. 

I write myself notes throughout the day, reminders, things I know I will forget if not committed to paper. These notes pile up at home in several locations, and every couple of months I make a pile of them and transfer all the reminders to a yellow note pad, which I then place on the floor propped against the leg of a coffee table to age like whiskey. 

"Why don't you write notes in your phone instead?" my wife asked recently. This was a good idea, but quickly dismissed on spousal grounds. If you start implementing your spouse's advice, it's a slippery slope. Soon you are putting glasses in the dishwasher correctly, and it's all downhill from there. A husband needs to maintain an aura of bemused disinterest in the  household. I think Kant said that. Or Dave Barry. 

I made an end run around my wife's idea, and googled "best to-do-list apps." I downloaded one and transferred all the tasks from my scraps of paper and yellow pad, both. Now everything I need to remember to do is organized and not littering the house. When I finish a task, I click it and—poof—it disappears. Some of the items involve work that the homestead needs and some are more esoteric; admonitions to do more writing, exercise, taco truck field research. 

Having no excuse when you forget something is a daunting new reality for me. Now my reminders can't fall behind the sideboard or get kicked under a chair. We're in 21st Century George territory. I have resolved to check the app once a day to keep up with things. It's foolproof, too, because I've stuck a Post-It note on the fridge to remind me. 


Sunday, July 7, 2019

Would you Kondo your condo?

Whenever I hear the word "condo," I remember the best use of a condominium reference ever in a movie, in the original "Rocky." Rocky has had success, and a guy is advising him to invest his windfall. "Condominiums," he suggests. Rocky looks left and right, then leans in and, mistaking the word for "condoms," whispers "I never use 'em."

So in recent years when Kondo became a verb I had to smile. By now you have heard of Marie Kondo, home tidying specialist. Her book and TV show on Netflix have been read and watched by millions. To "Kondo" your house is to rid it of junk, and render it organized, user-friendly and joy-inducing. 

Hack! What is that? Oh, a hairball, sorry. 

There has been a predictable backlash by the lazy and the rule-averse, but the truth is, since Kondo-ing I have never had easier access to my underwear. It sits now in a tidy row of little ball shapes like dim sum, next to my little sock balls. These don't take up less room. That would require a shift in physics. But they are easily 80% cuter in there. 

My t-shirts also sit in neat rows on their sides, using the vertical space of the drawer so efficiently I can also fit pants in there now. My previous pants organizing system was to toss them in layers on top of the vinyl-to-digital transfer record player I never used. In the dark, I could find the pants I wanted just by feel. Life was sweet. 

Now my pants are in a drawer, folded tightly. Now I have to remember which drawer. Now I have to see that record transfer thing and feel guilty that it's been sitting unopened on my bedroom floor for five years, next to the unplayed guitar. Worst of all, they say vinyl is coming back, so now can I even get my money back by selling the transfer thing online, or did I miss my window?

Kondo's philosophy is to remove from your dwelling anything which does not "bring you joy." This is a tall order, especially since none of my clothes brought me joy even as I tore the tags off them. I am hoping joy has a slightly different definition in Japanese. Like maybe "the satisfaction which comes from not leaving the house naked." 

I have not gone full Kondo. I have a plastic tub of clothes in the garage, winter clothes at the moment, which in November will be swapped with my Hawaiian shirts and shorts. I am sure I could release some of what's in there to the larger thrift store-frequenting public, but that requires the will to make decisions (see above—lazy and rule-averse.)

Plastic tub manufacturers are enablers, you know that?

The garage itself screams out for Kondo-ing. I expect that small emergency tsunami rafts could be built from all the VHS tapes and forgotten Happy Meal toys alone. As someone who has grown up in a consumer society in the great consumer age, I feel simultaneously the guilt and the paralysis which comes from too much stuff to deal with. I think there should be an app to find other people to come to your garage and brutally, indifferently do what needs doing. And you could go do their garage.

Human nature, of course, suggests that a lot of "Ooh, that's cool, I'm taking that home" would go on, so basically your garage would stay just as full, just with other people's stuff. 

Marie comes off sweetly on TV, and I am sure she means well. I just hope she's not as perfect as she seems. I hope there is one drawer in her house where earth worms could thrive. She has children. I hope every drawer handle in every room is sticky. 

That would bring me joy.