Thirteen hours from hearth and home we fetch up on the island of Alameda sited but a few feet of water away to the west of Oakland, Calif.; it hangs appended to the riotous mainland by 2 bridges and 1 tunnel, but it is a different world, almost a small town. Pat grew up here and has the same love-aversion for it that might have been engendered in others by their own not-quite-city growing-ground. Loathing and longing all in a soup.
An odd change, being here. Chickens, Boxers, torty cat, greenhouse are all 3000 miles away now. Things should go well with them. Pat found us a house and animal sitter at the YMCA, another slightly bent and slowing peer exercising her way toward an informed senescence, a woman willing to walk dogs, collect eggs and empty the cat box for two weeks. The upsides are several; mainly that she likes doing this and that she is made of competent stuff - plain strong North Eastern fiber. (As I write that I am reminded of the phrase 'moral fiber' and how as a secular commodity it has nationally vanished.) It pleases our 'sitter', Ruth, to be living rough at the micro-farm, but then again it should please all right-minded folk to have such chores to look forward to. Animals do not need to supress yawns when arthritis is mentioned, sometimes frequently. One day at a time is the animal motto; they are our 12 step grief counsellors urging us to take one more breath and buck up.
The woman Pat found to hold down the domestic front is our age. She is one of these people who are real. There is substance there when you talk with her. No fluff, no polite - deemed socially necessary, deceits, no smiling evasions where one thing is said and another meant. I like that. Real people are in short supply. Sometimes gruffness, or a self-centered take can fool you into thinking you have found a real person, because real people can grate, but being loud or crass is not what makes someone more real. There are attitudes that can certainly disrupt polite society, but the disruption I cherish is the one that offers honest, possibly disquieting, appraisal. Bad manners and pointed self-interest are not the same thing; they are just disruptive without offering any insight.
We long for the company of real people. How tiresome the stifling cloak of appropriatness fanning out in the breeze of conversation, swirling around our words, letting only what is considered acceptable past, other possibilities stiffled. The sharp edges of intelligence obscured, much care is taken to appear presentable; what lies inside us nesting on our tongues would have us banished if known.
Having never seen a reality t.v. show I cannot truly know what they are like, but I do guess. My guess is that highly choreographed melodrama replete with shocking revelations that titillate, a splash of sex, and scripted anger are the stuff of that reality. All this is brought about by a stressor; I understand the audience even participates by adding to the stress with electronic votes of disapproval and calls for greater hardship. Lo and behold "real" people emerge to show us what life is like in its raw and primitive passions. The viewer is led to feel he knows these showsters, has an intimate relationship with them, shares tribulation and triumph with them, and is then relieved that as friends they are completely safe since any accountability for their behavior is precluded both by their distance, they are not approachable in the flesh, and by their public stature - their sins and deficits are too public to decry. Nationally viewed shame and failure to thrill, actual complications precluded. I am just guessing that this is what a reality show is all about; I don't know. But I can guess that it is make-believe life suffused into the airways to placate people who don't have enough of that commodity. People who lack reality watch. They are looking for a spark. I fear it isn't there. More likely it is around a kitchen table with an honest friend. (Is it only the older folk who would rather entertain around a kitchen table?)
There are probably semi-reasonable defenses for watching such shows. They may be quite entertaining. I would rather be entertained by a woman who will be kindly honest in telling me what life has imparted to her, and how it applies to me when necessary. And such shows are probably very diverting for those who feel they have nowhere left to turn. More and more people are getting to that place. Such viewing may be healthier than intemperate use of strong drink. The cathartic moment sans hangover!
Our hotel here is nice. We have purchased the use of the following: a t.v. in the bedroom, a t.v. in the parlor, a microwave and fridge, windows that actually open, a spa and fitness center, off street parking and a decent free breakfast each day. Oh, there is a large bathroom with the usual stuff in it emollients, lotions, salves and soaps in fancy little containers, and we also have wireless Internet. It would be nice to look out the window and into the jungle of a greenhouse, to see chickens merrily scratching and pecking just outside, but we must content ourselves with traffic noise, sirens, walking and talking bipeds. I do not complain. It is lively living across the street from a firehouse. I think of London during the blitz.
I left my phone on the plane when we switched in N.Y. It was probably already on ebay by the time we crossed the Rockies. At a local Verizon office here I was given a new phone; our contract was up so the timing was serendipitous. Pat was offered a new phone, too. She asked why she would need one; the salesman pointed out the stubby antenna on her phone and said that the new model was sleeker, had no antenna. Pat looked him straight in the eye: "But I like the antenna - I use it to clean out my out ears." Her comment didn't quite clear the store, but there were certainly lifted eyebrows and feet shuffling away. It was like she had "swine flu" written all over her. Want company on your next shopping trip? For a good time call Pat.
A couple days later and I have been up the steep, clanking climb - maybe roller coasters don't clank like they were chain-driven artifacts of the late middle ages any longer, and I have plunged down the shrieking, testicle-shrinking far side where the car barely seems to be in contact with the thin rails. (That is meant to be an emotional metaphor.)
Pat had suggested a visit to the USS Hornet, a WWII aircraft carrier nearly identical to the one I had served 30 months aboard in '62-'64. I am sure I have twisted your by-now-deformed ears before with stories of the callow young man and the aircraft carrier. Fear not! Even though I failed 8th grade algebra, hoisted my short pants, moved on, never studied geometry, but do love a good tangent as much as any one I won't throw you one here. Remain seated.
This visit intrigued me. I had flown off the Ticonderoga in the late summer of '64, my hitch up and discharge looming, and I felt at that time as if I would rather be eaten by the worms than go back aboard such a vessel. Now, 45 years on, I am climbing the gangplank and crossing the quarter deck of just such a one, eyes wide open to see what I had seen so many years ago, but now from older eyes graced with some sense of relativity. The decades do wonders in establishing relative values - is this what the wisdom of age is? I always thought it would be more and have waited for it to arrive with some anticipation - ah, the disappointment. To think that it might only be realizing when you had been well-off, or at least not so badly off as you thought.
We bought our tickets, $12 each at the senior discount rate, and fell in with a group that was forming up on the hangar bay near us. I asked if this was a tour group and the gentleman in a pin and patch infested windbreaker agreed that it was. The group we were joining were all as old, and older, than we were. Several of the men had on their baseball caps and jackets that showed what ship or unit they had served with. Our tour docent told us about the ship and planes as we slowly went down the many hundred feet of hangar bay. I asked questions and might have mentioned a thing or two that came to mind, and those things might not have entirely agreed with what Lt. Docent said, but I was feeling oddly at home and a bit loquacious. I had the impression our guide wasn't all that interested in my reminiscences, but several of the old guys and their wives in the group were, so I began to comment on more things to those around me. They seemed to love it and asked me to continue. I was offering the somewhat pithy view of the life of an enlisted man in a navy far removed from what we have today. The docent said he was a naval officer in the late sixties. One of the ladies asked me what rank he was; she pointed our the two gold bars he wore. I said he obviously was not retired navy as he had only reached lieutenant, a very junior officer, and had probably just served a hitch and left. So someone asked him what his rank was. He, I thought somewhat sheepishly, said he had been a lieutenant in the Naval Reserve.
Belowdecks I continued my commentary with more facts relating to living conditions of the ordinary seaman; I think it fascinated them that if you bunked in a lower rack while in the S. Pacific the sweat of the two men above you soaked their thin mattresses and soon began to drip through onto you all night and the corpsmen would paint all the fungal growths on your body purple with benzoin. Another fellow chimed in with his own comments on just how funky life could be belowdecks. The docent then announced that he welcomed, and encouraged, all comments from those who knew such details. I felt the tide was turning just a bit.
A few compartments on Pat noticed that everyone but us had on a name tag and put that together with the announcement that we would be served lunch in the Chief Petty Officer's mess in a few minutes. She, good citizen that she is, spoke right up: "I think maybe we aren't a part of this group and should not get the lunch." In an effort to stave off disaster I said "Aren't you hungry?" When she agreed she was, the group all watching us, I said "So shut up." Ever the master of the smooth saving gesture am I.
Nothing was said, but the ball was in play. I knew then that my voice had been stolen and my group of buddies was soon to disappear. One of them said, "Even if you aren't in the group stay with us." But it needed clearing up before we got jammed somewhere down the line. I had noticed the name tags and figured out that we had fallen in with a group tour of some sort and that a lunch deal was included; not finding myself averse to the free lunch and loving be a semi-tour leader I was willing to tag along. My thought was that we could fake it until questioned and then be surprised. Not now. The bird was out of the cage. I asked Naval Reserve Lt. Docent if this was a special group or the lunch was standard with the price of admission. He said "Aren't you members of the senior group?" I admitted to him that we weren't members of anything, we were just touring the Hornet. He looked stunned: "But you seemed to know everyone..." "Just being friendly," I said. "No lunch for you," he said and hurried off. I watched the tour group disapper down a passageway aft, to have lunch.
I was truly heartbroken. I am not a joiner. I don't do groups. But somehow I had cathected with all these old guys and their wives in a matter of minutes, and I was really happy. It truly meant something to me to tell these folk what it was like to be 18 and in the bowels of the beast. And suddenly it was all gone. I was silenced. They went off to lunch and there we were standing in a passageway by ourselves. My voice was stolen; I was helpless to regain it.
I fear I was almost pissy about it. So, so angry at Pat for stealing a moment that I was very pleased to have. Not able to stop myself I communicated this to Pat. First stricken she quickly shifted to anger. It is easier for her to be angry with me than to offer an apology that isn't immediately and graciously accepted. Of course she hadn't done it out of malice, and that is my basic test with what people do: was there malice involved, or were they just dumb? But I couldn't shake the anger. I was pretty stuck, suddenly a kid with his candy stolen.
Pat was hungry and wanted to go ashore and find lunch - hey, is that irony? She was both sorry for cutting my moment in the limelight short, and angry that I was upset and being quiet. Quiet is extremely verboten in times of stress. I really didn't want to be pissy about it, but I felt so bad. Why? It was such an odd thing that going back in time 45 years and finding these 'peers' to talk to and bond with meant so much to me. What had happened? This wasn't the me I am used to. This was some guy who drifts with the herd, fluent in common-speak and common-thought; this was some guy who marched with the crowd. Not me.
Driving to a restaurant Pat wanted to visit, one we both like, I found I had tears in my eyes and a profound sense of sadness. Since I am not one to dwell on the past or find the seeds of sorrow in what is long gone I was amazed. What was the sorrow for? It wasn't just for having my voice stolen on a tour. No, it had something to do with the 18 year old who had spent 30 months in something like hell belowdecks on such a ship and the connection I now felt with that lad. I can only think that we are barely conscious of who we are and that the past can creep up at any moment and mug us. Susceptible to sorrow - that is the old guy's condition.
In Berkeley we parked and walked to Pasand's. "Closed On Monday" Pat shrieked, then said, "see how well I handled that?" We walked on down the street to see what other possibilities might present themselves. A block down a voice came from a man seated on a planter box. "Don" he called out. I stared at him trying to place the face. He was obviously a street person who knew me from my days in Psych Emergency. I couldn't place him and stared. "Ben" he said. Wow! It was a nurse I had worked with in Psych E.R.
We went over to say hello and I invited him to have lunch with us. Ben looked great. He was relaxed and seemed very content. That is saying a lot as the Ben I had worked with was a tense and melodramatic soul. I was the nominal boss of the unit, and ever the target of Ben's disapproval. If he could be difficult he would. Ben was an angry soul in those days. And lazy? Oh, Ben would go to lengths to avoid work. I generally just considered Ben a 'queen' and tried not to get into confrontations with him. He was an absolute 3 year old tyrant when he got wound up. The one thing about Ben that had earned my absolute admiration was that he had stuck with his partner, Steve, through all the vicissitudes and horror of dying of AIDS, stuck to the very end, to the last breath. It was a loyalty and love that always caused me to give Ben a lot of slack when he was giving me hell. You cannot deny what a person is made of when they demonstrate it so absolutely as he had. Ben could be a queen and throw crap at me and I would see someone else behind that face; in all honesty I had to.
So, we had lunch in a falafel joint on Shattuck and caught up, and I was truly pleased to see my old part time nemesis Ben doing so well and easy with his life. To round it out I will say that he is on a meds to control the HIV that killed Steve and infected him, and he is living close to the bone, but he seems very content. That is a lot. I know people with more money and better health and cushier places in the world that aren't nearly as content as Ben is. We exchanged info and will keep in touch.
A side note is that Ben was saying how thankful he was to the god, goddess, or whoever was out there that wasn't him, for the way his journey had gone. Pat interjected 'the not-Ben' and we laughed, but I liked it. What better way to indicate a possible deity? It is the agnostic's answer to god: the not-Ben, the not-Don, the not-Pat. I love it. I now have someone, or something, to whom I, as an agnostic, can address my prayers: the not-don. How cool is that? Instant perspective. Can you hear me not-don? I am thankful for my next breath, my next meal and my next sunrise.
A blessed day off today; you would think a day off only applied to the working life, but vacations need them as well. Obligations are tiring even when fun. Yesterday we hooked up with Pat's H.S. friend, Bill. Our destination was a morning rehearsal of the S.F. symphony. While I like a lot of classical music, by no means all, I don't connect with it beyond just liking to listen. Bill connects in an almost spiritual fashion. He can actually tell the nuances of what is going on; not just the emotional tone the piece offers but the shades of interplay the musicians are setting up amongst themselves as they perform. I have little idea what that actually means. Twice in my life my brain has done something very strange for a heartbeat, and then it was gone: I have those times had the experience of completely understanding what I was hearing. When it was over, and it was only milliseconds long each time, I was left only with a sense of absolute wonder, and a sense of great loss. It was as if I lived amongst people whose language I did not speak, and with whom I had not in my entire life ever communicated with beyond grunts and signs, and then, amidst the babble, someone spoke a single sentence of clarity and depth in English. I understood that one sentence and with a recognition of unfathomable loss I was plunged back into isolation. What amazes me as much as having touched the language of music for a moment is the fact that I see my brain can do that, but it won't. This gift is inside my head and I am refused it. I'm gonna tell the not-don!!!
The rehearsal was great fun. The conductor would stop everyone in the middle of a passage and explain/admonish/lecture sections of the orchestra and have them play it all over again. So the piece is very broken up, but so much is going on, and hearing the passages again, and sometimes again and again, was not unpleasant. I liked seeing them all in mufti, too. The world-famous little Chinese pianist who played the Prokofiev Piano concerto was in jeans, T-shirt and hideous pink crocs. It was as if she had just stopped by our house and sat down in the front room to bang out some tunes. I would have offered her a coke and a small smile that didn't imply familiarity.
This is something I would do again and might even prefer over the dress-up night time performances. We had neat box seats with movable chairs at a reasonable price. A great deal. Bill's wife, Carol, was there too. She left after the performance; I didn't get much a feel for who she is: probably rather fierce, strong-willed and very smart. Not unsure of who she is or what she is worth. Pat had hoped I would like Bill; I did. He can be a bit didactic, but then that is a feature of smart people who have no doubts about it. As well, he is easy-going, almost diffident, and amiable. If we lived close I would probably hang out with him some; there are very few I would say that about. He bought us lunch at some place on Market Street called Zuni's. It is a place with a very well-known chef that serves more presentation than food; a place where you go to see famous people. I think maybe I prefer the Hole-in-Wall Taco joint. I remain unashamedly plebeian.
We got in late last night after baby-sitting in Marin. So many grandkids! What was Pat thinking? Slept in this morning and I was lying in bed making up pillow chit-chat for economists. The love-phrases they might use would include: pink slip, stimulus package, laid off, downsizing, and the green shoots of recovery - sort of in that order. There must be a world of others. See Greenspan is really just a regular Joe.
I was sitting in a parking lot later while Pat shopped, watching the extremely nubile young women come and go. Speaking of presentation!! These girls are wall-to-wall in a place like this, and they have their "look" down cold. There is the no-bra, very tight T-shirt look, a.k.a. wild squirrels, the poured-into jeans look, a.k.a. camel toes, and to bottom it off the fuck-me shoes. I can see every male within sight, and maybe scent, wanting to mount these honeys, and then half a second after orgasm saying "WTF?!?!" as a semblance of sanity seeped back in.
Exactly! I know the feeling. There is no emotional U-turn like apres sex with someone you don't love, maybe even know. No imperative so great as to greet these girls flesh-to-flesh to check out their advertised talents, and no sinking feeling so great as when it is over and you suddenly see what you have just done. The possibilities are horrific as you realize that: she is underage, she hasn't washed in weeks, those are bugs, she is your friend's wife, she has probably had multiple partners in the last 12 hours, she is clinging, needy and easily dangerously obsessed, and your wife will surely find out. Yeah, a true WTF-time moment.
But I have the answer! It is the P.O.A.P.: Post Orgasmic Attitude Pill. You take one and are immediately thrust into the attitude of post-orgasmic recognition wherein you clearly appreciate all those terrible possibilities that exist if you do manage to get into the saddle with that lovely tidbit before you, and these possibilities weigh on you like driving home from the ocean in sand-filled, wet trunks. You shrink away from the encounter. You are so turned off you go instead to the library, pick up a book and read. The acronym would be pronounced 'pope' as his eminence will surely welcome this pill as leading to a god-approved abstinence. The Church of Rome will want to fund the development of this. Invest now; it is bigger than a cancer cure. Prolonging life is peanuts compared to halting inception when it comes to saving the planet.
There are the plain vanilla beards, such as I have, and the very individual. I look over other men's beards, perhaps the way women assess each other's hair styles. In Maine beards are very common. Fewer to be seen in the south, which is really Northern Massachusets, and far more in the North, which is the other side of nowhere. I say that about the North with full certainty. No, I have never been north in Maine; it is a long, long ways off, another planet, and I plan to go there someday. Other Mainers won't recognize me as having any connection with them when I go north. Down here, southish, I am, and always will be 'from away'. Up there, in the North, I would be as foreign as a Bulgarian gypsy on acid. This was a tangent. I really started out to talk of beards. Here in Norcal beards are the province of the homeless, eccentrics, academics, and psychiatrists - I think that covers it. I don't normally feel myself looked-at because of my beard, but that changed the other morning, at least here in the hotel. A fellow my age, equally nondescript and greying, showed up at breakfast in the sort of sweat shirt Pat fears I will someday start wearing. Dark with large gold letters on the back; the top line said something like: ORLANDO BEACH K9 SEX POLICE, and the line below DOGGY STYLE UNIT. I thought the only thing missing was a third line which would read PRESCHOOL DIVISION. I am sure some in the hotel now think I am that guy. He only showed up once, but I am here everyday for two weeks to reap the scorn heaped - in my mind - on oddball old guys. The supple young maids have been warned not to go inside a room if they see a bearded man lurking there. That's not Windex she carries; it is Malfactor Defense Gas, the geriatric formula, milder, less likely to cause stroke, dribbling or cardiac events. The hotel's lawyers have advised this. The dead are not litigious but they have voracious children paralyzed by the sudden loss of a loved one - someone, a survivor with a sense of humor, giggles into her hand and is shushed by older sibs. This is better than the lottery....
Vacation drifts down from its high perch toward the ground. Last Saturday morning I awoke and wanted greatly to be home. The heights achieved we travelers now sink toward the quotidian earth of that home: the house in Maine that promises growing things, chickens, dogs, cat and abundant greenstuff. The breeze of visitation no longer lifts us. This morning I am dispirited. I don't want to do "anything" but am antsy. I am restlessly bored. My skin says I am cold. The sun is out; it is warm; for days I have strolled here in comfort in a T-shirt while the natives shuddered in arctic gear, the killing temps in the low fifties. But today I shiver. Pat asks me how I feel and I tell her. "It is a good thing," she replies, steely-eyed "that this is a non-smoking hotel....or I would be forced to throw large glass ashtrays at your head." She confesses to feeling the same as I do. Tomorrow night we fly I tell myself and bury my face into a grisly paperback for balance.
Pat had asked for two weeks of unfettered blood-kin contact for her birthday. The culmination came last Sunday; the apex of familyness. The three daughters, with their men, and seven assorted grandkids showed up at one of their homes for a mini reunion. Only four of the dads were missing; extended family means so much more now than it did when I was a kid. Pat's ex and his current wife were present. It was the complete spectacle. The star was Baby Jack Robin, he of the pudgy flailing limbs and blue, blue eyes - all pinch his bulging flesh and coo over what a fine lad he is. Am I the only one that looks ahead and sees teenage hell written on this milky being like the mark of the beast? Probably I am just bent. But I believe men ascend Everest with greater grace than they raise children. If getting girls pregnant wasn't such immediate fun the race would die. But John counters my argument; he really did want to be a dad; mid sixties and parent of a teen? Is that a future? I think not but wish them well; everyone deserves whatever relief they can find in this life. May the journey be soft, as soft as Baby Jack's cheeks, fore and aft. The uber-matriarch watched it all and was more satisfied than not.
Home a couple of days now and getting reoriented. The end of the red-eye journey left us ragged and out of sorts. All is well here. Plants in the greenhouse 3 feet tall - how the hell am I supposed to transplant them?? The editor approves of this message and feels her b-day present was a fine success. We are all happy as pigs in mud. don and pat and such.