Monthly Archives: October 2021

I’m Alright

Watching Rope, a Hitchcock film. Thinking of death and life instinct, as is my wont. Diffused? As Freud wrote. More like blended, intertwined, bonded. Two characters loom over a body they’ve just strangled, their heads nearly touching; their bodies almost inseparable. They are breathless, fearful, yet still excited. One lights a cigarette, like he just came.

I’m alright, don’t nobody worry about me. Why you gotta give me a fight? Why don’t you just set me free. I woke up with those words swimming in my head, leftover from a dream about which I’m still chuckling. My wife rises with me, picks up her thought from the night before, about my aged dad and his chuckling, teasing ways. He mumbles like Popeye, dribbles asides that few around him hear. I’m distracted. He wasn’t in my dream, I say. Jason was. Again. Really? My wife asks, like she’s surprised. It is surprising, actually—the clarity of the scene anyway. It was like the kind of political rally I don’t attend: boisterous, right-wingish, congested with people, specifically people who look ill in mind and body. They’re excessively round, swollen, circumscribed by bad body odor, and with their words they emit bile.

Ostensibly, this is a light hearted gathering, eliciting daisy smiles and cheerleader glee. On stage there’s an entourage of performers surrounding a protected, totemic figure. A pocket of circus freaks, including thwarted dancers treading tiny steps in tight spaces, lumpen musicians protruding brass above heads, consumes a platform. There are tiers to this cake-like riser, as if this band/invading force is atop a battleship that has impaled an arena that is vast yet closeted, spurring claustrophobic feeling. A victorious troupe is onstage, rousing the population with a triumphant song that boasts of something untrue: we’re all alright. For some reason that dreams don’t bother explaining, my back is to the stage, not a part of all this. I don’t wish to be part of all this, I should amend, if I am to accurately, theoretically reflect my conscious mind.

My unconscious friend. Where is he? Oh, that’s right. He’s not here. He’s gone now. But wait, is he here? In coded form, condensed or transformed, repressed but still living in this scene. About this totemic figure on stage: where’s he at? When is he going to show his face, reveal his identity? I see him finally, as I glance over my shoulder at the stage and look up. I am in the front row, like I’d gotten there early (as is my wont), like I’d been eager to attend this monster-truck atrocity. Now I can’t look at all the ugliness I chose. I glimpse the figure’s image through bodies, smiling at me, catching my eye, like he’s spying. He’s also singing, albeit lightly, barely above the crowd, despite being the only one with a microphone. Kenny Loggins. Eighties icon, only just. The song suggests Kenny Loggins, though the figure I see in slivers is a hybrid of Jabba the Hut and John Sebastien, a sixties willow who sang of love, magic and, I don’t know…hippy shit.

What are you looking for? Hard to say, but that might have been the pissy, quarreling question I’d directed at my wife. She is also in the front row, looking down, fussing with her purse, looking for something, attending to a detail I might have overlooked. It may have been important, but it distracted me from something important. Within a compressed, discontinuous moment the Kenny Loggins figure was away from the stage, leaving the arena through a giant door that suggested a fortress. I become excited as I glance around again, regarding the bemused looks of the assembled trolls, the disappointed, professional wrestling crowd of which I was not a part. Me? No way do I belong here, with these people.

I’m alive. I think that’s what I want to say. That’s why I shouldn’t be here, having this dream. It’s not happening. Well, what happens next is the return of the repressed. The guy, the totem, the Kenny Loggins whatever: he’s back; back in black, as Jason might have quipped, singing a different tune. Da-nuh, Da-nuh, Da-nuh: wish I knew how to write the chord sequence. Jay might have known, though he’d have preferred his amendment of lyrics. Fuck chicks, drink beer, do cool thing with the guys, yeah!: the screeching essence of classic rock, he’d opine. Or would that have been me analyzing his bit? That would be me trying to keep up. When he was truly on, Jay’s quips and other jests fell like rainfall. With him, droplets dashed at you, made you laugh and follow along, but were too numerous to retain. That’s one reason Jason didn’t write, actually. He had too much to try and capture in print. Anyway, back to my dream. Kenny L re-entered the arena, dressed in formal black attire, flanked by a posse of similarly dressed roadies. They form a phalanx at the base of the stage, clear a path for the totem to rise again and seize his ceremonial role. Who knows why he left in the first place. Perhaps he was dissatisfied—disgusted even, like I was—by the obnoxious brays, the fascist “We Will Rock You” atmosphere.

Now he is back with dignity, portending a solemn requiem, something that would be in keeping with his status, at last. I waited, I think, in the temporal blur of dream space, for him to ascend the tiers of the battleship stage. At the summit is a cloudy white surface, puffy and smooth, like a parody of cartoon heaven, with brass pillars framing its shape. A bed. Brass of another kind, trumpets, sound out from the bloated figures below. The dancers spread out, find their feet as their limbs come alive and the music swells. Then, at its climax, the totem lays himself down upon the bed and sinks into its mist. A deputy steps up with a speaker and in a moment’s silence as the music lulls into a false ending, he says the following, “And now, ……. (the figure is not identified in the dream) will perform an impersonation of a man in an ICU”. I woke up, laughing darkly. I’m alright, I think.

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Who the f is Sir Walter Raleigh

You know, I think it’s best to remember people when they’re at their best, not as they are at the end: struggling to breathe, to look lively and motivated, like they don’t want to live anymore. He had so much life in him, my father exclaimed, upon hearing the news of Jason. Jason, my friend of over thirty years, passed away last Saturday morning after collapsing into a diabetic coma. He was not at his best, it’s fair to say. He had a habit of not returning calls, of ignoring texts for extended stretches, ghosting me; now he is really ghosting me. He may have wanted it that way, or at least he may have longed for a state in which he might watch others who could no longer watch him. See, he’s no longer on show, displaying his inimitable wit, or his elastic, toothy smile; his shining blues eyes below arched, Jack Nicholson eyebrows. Actually, if watching and listening or reading, he’d frown at this point, complain that he more closely resembled one of his idols, David Bowie (sans the bad teeth), than the guy who threw an axe at a door in that film about the Stephen King novel.

             Jason liked books more than he did movies, even great movies. He also preferred science over religion, though he’d given the latter a good, loving shot, I think, largely because he once met and fell in love with Monica, an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike with an air of Snow White whose sweet nature he found irresistible if not exactly like-minded. He remembered lyrics more than he did melodies; liked football more than soccer, kicking and punching more than wrestling or throwing balls; dogs more than cats, disliked rapists more than murderers, liked pizza more than steak, hard liquor more than beer (okay, not by much), esoteric words, plays upon words more than simply dirty ones; inside versus shared jokes, heroes more than lovers, brunettes more than blondes. To my surprise, he liked me more than he did his other friends. At first, it wasn’t flattering. Despite being two years my junior, Jay affected a superior, big brotherly air from the outset, sort of adopting me when it seemed to him that I was dour and brooding, if smart and therefore worthy of his interest. During our shared twenties, conversations with Jason were dizzying, sometimes marathon efforts, reflecting an array of interests and desires—more his than mine, though I often thought him a dilletante, too easily bored. Compared to him, I was a bamtamweight intellect, but it seemed I was a useful ear and competent foil, managing to spar with him evenly when we bantered. Our back and forth jabs would have few witnesses over the years, but those who did observe our private dialect tended to withdraw, feeling like third wheels. The odd woman or two got in the way of this, which elicited jealousy on occasion, mine and his. Some of these women fell away, moved on in life. The ones that stuck around knew to not devise so-called double dates very often. The result was a friendship that lacked an adjoining circle; a bond and rapport that was too difficult to share with others.

             A memory from our early days captures the essence of us, maybe. When he was younger especially, Jay was insomniac, which was convenient as it meant that I could come over to his house at any time of night, which likewise suited my then nocturnal habits. He lived with his father and older brother, who seemed to keep similar hours, on a hill with a driveway and walking path that speared up toward a doorway that would often be left wide open, as if inviting the neighborhood to enter. This was not friendliness but rather inattention and apathy. I recall one of the first times I gingerly crossed the threshold to their home. Jay had paged me and directed me over, after which I appeared in minutes and stepped inside. I saw a light down a hallway of an otherwise dark residence and heard the soft hum of a television. From above, the silhouetted figure of Bart, Jay’s brother, appeared half-dressed and holding a rifle in his right arm. “Who is that?” he asked with flat menace before adding, “Oh, hey Graeme” with only slightly more warmth. “I dunno” he said when I asked after Jay’s whereabouts. He might not even be home, he suggested. I got it. This was a decidedly femaleless home in which independence and granted space reigned and so no one knew where anyone else was at.

             I ventured down the hallway, heading toward the light, half-thinking this was the politer choice but knowing it was wrong. Jason didn’t really watch television. His father did—incessantly, in fact. Therefore, it was him that I found amid the glowing light, couched in an armchair, watching a military documentary on the history channel. He didn’t seem to know where his younger son was either, but he didn’t seem to mind my sticking around regardless. Actually, had I asked a question about the documentary or else just stuck around for a further thirty seconds, I’d have gotten an impromptu lecture on the uses of the Sherman tank during World War II. Like Bart, Jason’s dad permitted my heading upstairs, and for a moment he seemed to glance in its direction as if contemplating an unprecedented curiosity.

             When I got to Jay’s room I nudged my way in, not bothering to knock because a) Jason usually didn’t answer, and b) he seemed to not care what anyone would see anyway. Once inside, I saw him in the corner of the space smoking, bathed in black light and sat in a quasi lotus position, appearing to commune with something unseen. He softly invited me forward, speaking quietly as if the onus would be upon me to approach him and join his rumination. Entering his thought-in-progress, I gleaned that he’d been listening to a collection of songs over and over again. The current selection was by The Cure, the notoriously morose eighties band whose leader, Robert Smith, had essentialized gothic depression for a generation of listeners alongside performers like Morrissey, who wasn’t on Jason’s playlist. Another song in the mix was “No One Lives Forever”, a mischievous pop ditty by the contemporaneous Oingo Boingo. With his own precise diction and versatile expression, Jay could easily mimic that group’s lead singer, a leeringly clownish Danny Elfman. Then came a Beatles song. “I’m so tired”, by John Lennon, featuring a second verse that sent Jay into peels of delight. “That’s so awesome!” he enthused, regarding one line in a stanza: “And curse the walls to rally, they’re such stupid gits”. Even if he wasn’t quite sure of the second clause, he baritoned it with conviction, this not being the first time he’d ape British slang with glee. But it was the first part that truly stirred him, capturing the hallucinogenic ethos that was guiding Jason’s feverish mind. Yes, we must bring to life the inanimate…rally the walls, and so on. Had I been more sensitive and less pedantic I might have refrained from bursting Jay’s bubble. “It’s not curse the walls to rally”, I said primly. “It’s curse Sir Walter Raleigh, he was such a stupid git!”.

             Jay looked at me blankly. Who the fuck is Sir Walter Raleigh, his eyes asked? “Sir Walter Raleigh”, I repeated, undeterred. “He either invented the cigarette or first brought tobacco back to England—something like that”. Cigarette. “See, it’s in the previous line”, I said, like that was proof of my argument. It took another 4-5 repetitions of the song before Jay begrudgingly admitted that he might be wrong about the lyric. Still, it doesn’t matter, he concluded. His version of the lyric was better regardless—John Lennon be damned.

             Not one to accept things simply for the way they are: that was Jason Stephens. In thinking of him now, I conjure another band and one-time singer, plus a song that was close to both of our hearts. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond”, a two-part epic from Pink Floyd’s 1975 album (yeah, I had to mention the date, didn’t I Jay?), features melancholic lyrics of tribute for the group’s original singer/songwriter, the mentally wayward yet beautifully-minded Syd Barrett. Beyond words about reaching for life’s secret too soon, the music ebbs and flows, soaring with classic rock guitar one moment, then sliding into eloquent diminuendo the next. My favorite passage is the last section in which a drifting synthesizer floats a final melody towards the piece’s end. Give it a listen. Actually, you might summon it right now from Spotify or whatever, let it serenade you as you read my last few lines on this matter. Pay attention to the last minute of part two in particular. The soft strains wind down the song, sounding like a ghosting soul leaving the stage, and as we listen to the last few bars, we dreamily flatline along with the music, finding rest at the end of our collective breath.

             *Rest in peace my friend. You’ve broken my heart, and you will be missed and unforgotten.

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Out of the Blue

It wouldn’t have been my idea for a yearbook title. Too banal, I’d have sneered had I been a member of Aklan, the body that produced the annual volumes that no one seemed to have brought a copy of. I was snotty then, in 86’. I’m still snotty, but out of the blue I appeared at my high school reunion, the first one I’d attended in 35 years. Out of the blue: I think the meaning was layered. We were out of the blue, as in graduating from a high school whose colors were blue. The other meaning was…well, maybe that was it, actually. Were we really coming out of nowhere, as the metaphor implies? Anyway, fast forward 35 years to the present, to the reunion with blue Acalanes. The first setting of two planned events was strange enough: a tidy picnic area within a park ensconced within a retirement community that portended our shared future. The roughly one hundred-deep residue of our class of 86’ from Acalanes High had gathered with some looking a bit paunchy and slow while others seemed lean and bouncy, pushing back middle-age with new age diets and Peleton vigor. Amongst the women there was a disproportionate wash of blonde hair suggesting a camouflage of grey terrain. The assembled men seemed less defended against age, allowing fringes of salt to pepper the flanks of hairstyles that hadn’t changed much since the mid-eighties.

I have to say that in this respect I hadn’t changed much either. With my own budding paunch and snowy edges to an auburn hairline, I waded into the picnic area, penetrated pockets of chatter, moving freely, glancing about for a recognizable face before hitting a dead end. Actually, the cul-de-sac came in the form of a wide-eyed, friendly figure name Chuck whom I knew to be a one-time football player, which allowed for an immediate point of conversation. That plus the obligatory review of marital status, family stats and career bullet points consumed roughly ten minutes, after which Chuck genially moved on to other reunion potentials, people he knew or remembered more than he did me. That would’ve meant just about anyone, I thought at this point. I was new at this, I declared, and in thinking that I’d exhaust my familiarity within an hour, I’d planned a soft getaway—a discreet sidling away, disguised by a detour to a bathroom that gated the park’s entrance.

It was time to get a drink, the first of many that someone else had generously proffered. There were soft drinks on offer and I had a hand-preoccupying water bottle with me, but with a long hour or so to go, I looked for green or brown glass buried in ice containing a bitter yet smooth brew that would stir a gentle, mind-lubricating buzz. En route to the chest of chilled libations I heard my name being called. It was one of the organizers, an amiable leader when he was thirteen, never mind what he would be today. What was he today? I didn’t actually find out, but Matt had the look and sound of someone who was either a city mayor, head of a board of trustees, or a president of something. Inviting me to don a nametag, he enjoined me in an exchange with someone who also seemed to recognize me, though the feeling wasn’t mutual. John, the second figure, reminded me of one of the guys in my men’s therapy group: shy, taciturn, and a bit awkward, he’d be the kind of guy I will have sat next to in electronics class—not saying much but still doing better than me in that class.

Matt was just like he once was: a chameleon at ease with the full spectrum of high school personalities, from the so-called jocks to the nerds, the troublesome bullies or stoners; the mean-spirited yet popular girls; the decent, diligent, middle-of-the road pack that somehow ended up leading things at my school. As dusk fell, Matt gathered the pockets of alum for a structure of activity. First up would be a quiz about high school and middle school trivia. Unbeknownst to me, the evening would conjoin those who had attended the middle school that fed Acalanes as well as high school alumni, so there would be a surprise or two in the offing. In the meantime, the exercise that privileged the once-involved and therefore more knowledgeable of school folklore proceeded. I didn’t know a single answer to the questions posed, though in keeping with the memory of many classes I took at Acalanes, I’d recognize the answers after they were given to us.

One of the questions pertained to standard awards that were given at the end of school years and then posted in yearbooks. The best-looking couple in 8th grade, or simply girl and boy (don’t know if they were a couple), included a girl I only vaguely remembered, and a boy that I most certainly did remember. As his name was read out, Grant raised his hand to recognize the crowd, his burly frame and bald head fronting a sheepish acknowledgement. Grant would later say to me that he hadn’t taken the best care of his physical life, but truth be told, I’d always thought him humble and wary of a spotlight regardless. The speeches, games and reminiscent mischief continued while I was distracted, thinking I’d approach Grant and ask whether he’d remember me. After all, he and I had not been close friends, and he’d not even known me in high school, so the prospect of a gleeful reunion seemed thin.

But that proved to be irrelevant. Spotting a gap in social movement, I moved toward him, re-introduced myself and began a dialogue that proceeded intermittently over the next two hours, interspersed with an exchange with another unlikely reunion prospect—a guy named Rick—who found himself reflecting on a broken marriage, half-spurred when he learned I was a psychotherapist. During that spell, Grant listened in, adding his perspective, which also featured doses of romantic heartbreak, and demonstrated an adult version of the generous, giving spirit he’d exhibited as a kid. When the opportunity came, I took a moment to observe this to him, and in particular, to remind him, whether he was aware of this or not, that I was one of his peers who was once bullied in a raucous and tense school atmosphere, but felt safer because people like him existed who had the backs of underdogs.  

Grant was moved. Grant bit his lip, pressed a fist to his chest and then shook my hand, giving me brown-eyed blessing. Hey, if I’ve helped just one person in this…that sort of thing, he said. He asked for a business card, was gonna supply me with a client or two, he hinted. Rick nodded in agreement. The next night, the latter flicked his chin at me, satiated by my serene listening, and asked if I accepted Venmo for the impromptu session about his broken marriage. Of this group, only Grant and John stuck around for a joker in the pack, an eccentric named Eric who came down from the hillside to wax metaphysical with the beery entourage. Whether he’d had a few or more seemed not to matter. Eric had had plenty of beer perhaps, but more especially plenty of life, it seemed, and would spend the remainder of this night and much of the next regaling entrapped onlookers about…well, that would be hard to say, actually.

Having ducked out around ten, I resolved to return the following night, if only to reunite with the reunion crowd, especially Grant, the fraternal, salt of the earth savior from sixth grade, who earnestly requested to meet my wife, who wouldn’t come the next night because she didn’t want to play wallflower, nodding along at platitudes about the bygone pleasures and stressors of adolescent life. So I showed up all alone at the Round-Up Saloon, clutching a copy of my 86’ yearbook entitled Out of the Blue. By this time, I was nervous anew, thinking patterns that my psychoanalysis has called into question: namely, the tendency to expect sophomore efforts at joy to collapse into anti-climax. I figured I’d see Grant again at some point, and maybe connect with one or two from the night before whom I’d sort of recognized but not spoken to. Again, I’d given the evening short-shrift, allocating just two and a half hours before which I’d abscond and head back home. I may have been out of the blue, re-entering the fray of an old ambience with a new middle-aged persona, but this was just like the old me: ever looking for the exit door.

My next dose of pleasure came in the form of Steve, another gentle soul whom I remembered as a gentle soul who resembled a blend of Steve Martin and Rick Moranis from some eighties movie that only those who were teens in the eighties would recall. With Steve I got a proper reminiscence of teenage life, eighties style, with Bay Area centrism. There was mature recollection, a meaningful insight or two about teenage group psychology. This was my kind of talk, I thought—the kind I started back in high school, as a matter of fact. It was in the cuts of the hallways that such talk occurred, or else in the woody barracks of drafting class: I spoke incipient philosophy amid languid senioritis, and played old soul with others who othered themselves from the amoeba circles of popular gathering. Back to the present day: By mid-evening, the replay of aged group dynamics began to pall slightly. There were isolated dyads of stalled conversation, bereft expressions; people wondering in the back of their minds whether something else from back in the day would get replayed. Would anyone get left out before this night was over?

So far, I’d left out the women, and you might admit if you’ve made it this far into this thing that you’ve wondered the same. With all of this male-bonding, mansplaining and woman excluding, like it was all a Drones club scene from a P.G. Wodehouse play, you might wonder where all the women were on this second night of happy reunion. Well, they were there all right, mostly schooled in the center of the bar’s patio, looking huddled and ready to pounce outwards. Above the music, which got steadily louder as the evening wore on, there were bursts of cackle and shriek. The gals: they seemed to have more to laugh about, to point fingers at. With conspiratorial gazes, they peered about the milieu, appearing to scrutinize the wanting males who stood upon the periphery, stroking chins in poses of erudition while others gaped and ogled in dazed awe.

See, the thing about leaving early is not to get out when the going is tough, it’s to quit while you’re ahead. So far, my milk was not sour, I was still ripe and the feeling—a well nurtured and not excessive buzz—was riding the crest of a wave. But I caught the whiff of gender politics in the air, be it the shadow of feminine rivalry or a touch of epater le masculine ego, and I’d not gotten the requisite vaccination for that. Even the women I did speak to at close quarters seemed to be on recess, taking a break from a dense rapprochement. I know. What’s with all the French all of a sudden? Must have been a class I once took that didn’t prepare me for life after high school. Anyway, it was a once Russian but then British (or was it the other way around?) woman who was drifting between packs who gave me an impression of fraught history. Nadeen was the first of two that cast a distrusting eye over the sisterhood, implicating a past unforgiven. She had been shy, soft spoken, Nadeen said. Damn right, I thought. Couldn’t hear a word she said. I didn’t remember her, and no, that’s not because I only remember girls I made out with. That’s what I’d have said had the imputation of not listening to women been directed at me. I never even made out with girls in high school, I might have said.

I would have liked to make out with the last woman I spoke to. Back in high school, I mean, not today. I wouldn’t do that today, buzzed or not. Never. Wait, is my wife gonna read this? I’m not giving the full names, and even the first ones may bring trouble. However, after a group picture with its collective squeezing in, I turned to my right and stabbed a guess at the name of the woman before me. No multiple choice. No sliding scale. No subsequent four years at Cal reflecting the privilege of kids from mid-Contra Costa. Yes, she was remembered, her big bright eyes exclaimed, giving me an A for social achievement. The eyes, my eyes, had not left hers before saying this: there had been no scanning the downstairs for the nametag that spread across the banks of the…you know what I mean. It was eyes up here all the way and I was rewarded with a rich talk about rock and roll, a boozy bout of twenties collapse (hers and mine), followed by our redemptive thirties, then the winning slide into war weary middle age.

Ugh, it was 9:30. Time to leave. Yeah, who leaves this kind of party at 9:30? I do. I do because I’m a good boy, a good man. So, despite permission from you know who to stay as long as I liked, I cut out, taking my monogamous behavior if not quite monogamous thought with me. That lasted for about a minute before my unconscious was betrayed by a policing reminder. My yearbook. I’d left the yearbook somewhere in the mix of the patio, there to be passed around, my gift to the throngs. For a moment I thought to leave it behind, not bother with its rescue. It wasn’t selflessness as much as embarrassment. See, you can’t go back. Not really. Once you bail you gotta keep going, otherwise it’s bad form; shows you don’t mean it, that you can’t let go. I couldn’t let go, so I sneaked in, brushed past folks whom I hadn’t spoken to, then evacuated a second time. I didn’t quite get out untouched. Eric, eccentric, lost Eric, paused me at the door, and while he scrambled for my name he nonetheless spread his arms, proclaiming his indiscriminate, democratic love for an Acalanes brother. I skipped past without a goodbye, just a shallow, 21st century “gotta go”, with a glance over my shoulder at his seeming disappointment. Don’t take it personally pal? That’s what it says in the self-help books that I won’t write but I’ll say it to you now. I’ll be back—I think—five years from now, I was poised to say. Right then, as the buzz was already fading, I needed to get back, back out and drive away. I think I sped.

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