Reverberation

I’ve read a ton of books on writing in the past year.  Too many to count.  In one of them, about writing memoir, the author explains that writing about your memories has the effect of replacing them.  You end up remembering what you wrote more than what you actually experienced.  I’m sorry I can’t remember which book it was, so I can’t attribute this point to the author – if I do remember, I will update this later to give credit where credit is due.

I can imagine how this could happen.  You put so much time into thinking about what the right words are to capture some thought, feeling, or experience.  At least I do.  My tagline on this blog is ‘Me and my battle with words,’ for a reason.  I fully believe the right words are out there – it’s just a battle to figure out what combination is best.  And, there’s probably more than one combination that will work, but there are a zillion that don’t come close enough.  That’s what makes writing worth it – finding the right words.  It’s also what makes reading a great book so exhilarating.  Anyway, back to memories and how they change…

In The Black Swan, Taleb speaks of memory, in a section titled ‘Memories of things not quite past.’

“Conventional wisdom holds that memory is like a serial recording device, like a computer diskette.  In reality, memory is dynamic – not static – like a paper on which new texts (or new versions of the same text) will be continuously recorded, thanks to the power of posterior information.  (In a remarkable insight, the nineteenth-century Parisian poet Charles Baudelaire compared our memory to a palimpsest, a type of parchment on which old texts can be erased and new ones written over them.) Memory is more of a self-serving dynamic revision machine: you remember the last time you remembered the event and, without realizing it, change the story at every subsequent remembrance.

So we pull memories along causative lines, revising them involuntarily and unconsciously.  We continuously renarrate past events in the light of what appears to make what we think of as logical sense after these events occur.

By a process called reverberation, a memory corresponds to the strengthening of connections from an increase of brain activity in a given sector of the brain – the more activity, the stronger the memory. While we believe that the memory is fixed, constant, and connected, all this is very far from truth. What makes sense according to information obtained subsequently will be remembered more vividly.”

I’m sure I’ve solidified mis-remembered memories as things I now believe to be true simply by remembering them repeatedly.  In fact, I’ve had odd discussions with both of my parents about two stories I remember hearing of my falling very ill as a baby and as a toddler.  Each parent remembers one story, but not the other, and they both swear by the story they remember, even though they are entirely different stories.  Neither has any recollection of the version the other believes, while I always thought both were true.  Maybe that says something about why they divorced.

Man, I’ve got to get better at remembering birthdays!

I’ve written before about how I sometimes forget the right words to use – especially when I’m tired.  Well, I also am horrible about remembering some birthdays.  Today, I stepped out of the office for a few minutes in the afternoon to call my grandma and say “Happy birthday,” even though I knew I was a day late.  Weekdays are hard for me when it comes to calling home – they are all in Central time, I’m in Pacific time. If I have anything to do after work, they’re in bed by the time I get home, and that’s how yesterday was.  So, I ducked out today instead, knowing it wouldn’t be a huge surprise that I was calling a day late – most of my family expects me to be late with these things, or forget them altogether, which is odd, since I’m early or on time and completely organized for every other thing in my life.

I called and my grandpa answered.  “Hi,” I said.

Grandpa replied in his voice that has gotten soft and far away, “Oh, hi.”

“Are you busy?” I asked, more out of habit than because I actually thought he’d be busy.  He answered, perhaps one decibel above a whisper, which made it even harder for me to comprehend his answer.

“Actually, right now I am.”  Even he sounded surprised that he was busy.

I paused, then recovered and asked, “Is Grandma around?”  Again, an almost rhetorical question.  My grandparents don’t do much these days.  They’re approaching 80 and my grandpa in particular is quite frail.  Then I heard him say to whoever was with him, “My granddaughter…  from California…”  And there was a collective, “Ohhhh!!!” from the background, like I am some sort of celebrity or something.  I think it’s just that I live in California.  Long distance still matters to people that never understood the cell phone.  Grandpa hollered as best he could for Grandma who was upstairs, and said I was on the phone.

She picked up, and I pulled my cell phone away from my ear as she yelled into the receiver, “OK.  I got it!”

“Did I miss your birthday by a day?” I asked?  Grandma laughed a pretty big laugh and said, “Honey, it was a week ago!”

“What? You mean it was the 18th?!”

More laughing.  “No, it’s the 17th.”

“Dammit, I never get it right, do I?” I said, laughing back.

She said, “You know, I sent you the list.”  A few years ago, she hand-wrote all the important dates I should ever need to remember on a piece of paper and mailed it to me.  The  list has birthdays and anniversaries on it – for my aunt and uncles, my cousins, of course my grandparents – and my grandma even included my sister, my mother, and my sister’s kids on the list – birthdays I don’t generally have trouble remembering.  I know exactly where the list is.  It’s within arm’s reach of my desk, yet I never get it out in time.

“I know, I know,” I said.  “Well, did you do anything?”

“Your uncle came on Saturday and we went out for Chinese – you know we finally have a new Chinese restaurant in town.”

“Really?” I said.

“Yes.  He had to travel the next day, so he came early.  Then on Sunday I fixed dinner for your sister and mother and everyone.”

“Shouldn’t they be fixing dinner for you?” I joked.

“Well, yes, now that you mention it.  I think we should do it that way from now on.  Grandpa cooked a turkey outside, and we had mashed potatoes and vegetables.  It’s too much work.  I just can’t do it anymore.”

I understood, but the thought of Grandpa’s turkey grilled on the Weber and Grandma’s mashed potatoes and gravy started my mouth watering and reminded me of how someone has to watch over the mashed potatoes around my uncle and I, or we’ll empty the bowl and no one else will get any.  Our conversation ended just a few seconds later.  It’s impossible to get my grandparents to talk on the phone for more than about three and a half minutes.  They think long distance is too expensive, even though I’m the one calling, and I try over and over to tell them it doesn’t cost me any more to call them than it does to call someone on my own street.  I think they don’t believe me.  Still, it was a nice break in my hectic work day.

The thing is I don’t forget all birthdays – just some of them, which somehow makes it all seem worse.  I never forget my grandpa’s birthday – perhaps because it is near my mom’s – but I have a feeling I have never remembered my grandma’s birthday on time.  Lucky for me, she doesn’t seem to hold it against me.

This is almost as bad as a recent experience I had with a friend’s birthday.  I tend to associate birthdays together when I can, because it helps me come a little closer to remembering them, and I have a friend whose birthday I had associated with one of my sister’s kids.  In September, my niece’s birthday was coming up (which I remembered to call for, but I still haven’t sent her birthday present to her).  This triggered my associated memory of my friend’s birthday.  I had an odd nagging feeling in my mind that I might not be right about the exact date in relation to my niece’s birthday, and even though I hated to admit it (this friend never forgets my birthday), I broke down and sent an apologetic email saying, “I know your birthday is soon, but I can’t be positive it is today – so I apologize for that, but I wanted to say Happy Birthday even if I have the date wrong.  I hope you’re doing well.  We should get together soon.”

Later that day, I got an email back.

“Hi!  You are very thoughtful; your birthday is super easy because [it is the day after a holiday], but my day is a lot harder to remember.  My birthday is actually in April, but your email has put me in a totally celebratory birthday frame of mind, which I was not at all in, for my actual birthday. I think I am going to go to Cost Plus World Market this weekend and buy myself presents, and I am going to buy a whole box of Whole Foods vegan donuts (instead of a cake, because donuts really are even better than cake).”

Christ, it’s my nephew’s birthday that my friend’s birthday is next to, not my niece’s!  I explained.

“You know, after I hit send, I thought – wait, maybe it’s in April.  The issue is, I’ve associated your birthday with my nephew’s before, because his is in April – and yesterday was my niece’s birthday, and somehow the association got switched in my mind between the two of them – man, I’m not even 40 and already my mind is completely going!  I’m glad that you are now in a celebratory mood, though – that makes my huge mistake somewhat more tolerable.”

I guess worse things could come of forgetting someone’s birthday.

My sixth grade teacher and The Jackson Four

In sixth grade I had a teacher that I think may have been senile – or, on her way, anyway.  I have no idea how old she really was, but to an eleven-year old, she looked ancient.  I remember brown hair, so maybe she wasn’t so old as I thought, but she always seemed to be missing something – focus, or sharpness, alertness.  She was off in outer space all the time.  She wore glasses with really large frames, had a short haircut that was obviously permed – no way curls would look so tight and fuzzy on the top of someone’s head, yet the hair at the nape of the neck so straight.  She had a hunch in her shoulders which may be part of the reason I remember her as old – she was a tall woman, though, so maybe she just carried herself that way to look less imposing.

She was a fan of Carly Simon – she used to hum or sing You’re so Vain under her breath all the time.  Then she would laugh at how clever she thought the song was, and try to explain it to us in detail.  None of us knew the song, and although we could understand the concept of the term “vain,” it wasn’t really a vocabulary term that we heard used in real life.  We just thought she was crazy, but to this day, I cannot hear that song without thinking of my sixth grade teacher.  I can’t for the life of me remember her name, but I can hear her voice…  “You’re so vain.  You probably think this song is about you. You’re so vain.  I bet you think this song is about you… don’t you… don’t you…”

She read to us after lunch every day, and though that reading time was meant to be fairly short – maybe 15 or 20 minutes, she often got so engrossed in the book that she’d kill an hour or even more.  No one ever stopped her.  The only book I remember her reading was The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende, and that may be because I had read it already and begged her to read it to the class.  If you’ve only seen the movie, you’ll think it was a cheesy story, but the book is actually quite good – especially for kids in late grade school.

Our crazy teacher didn’t make us sit with our desks in straight rows facing the front of the room.  We got to split off into groups of four and arrange our desks in little pods in random places throughout the classroom.  I’m not sure it was the best idea to let us all sit in groups like this – we did spend tons more time whispering to each other and ignoring what the teacher was saying.  In fact, many of my memories of that year don’t even feature her.  It’s as though she wasn’t even in the room.

Of course, we got to choose a name for our group and hang a sign from the ceiling above our little cluster of desks.  Not surprisingly, most of our group names were tied to whatever music we were into at the time.  I remember a Motley Crew group, and my group was The Jackson Four.  Thriller had been out almost two years, but we were still fanatical about that album.  I only wish MJ had made a dozen more albums like Off the Wall and Thriller.

In sixth grade, I was a bored student.  There wasn’t anything about school that challenged me.  I talked to my teacher about it once, but she had few ideas about how to challenge me, and my small rural school didn’t have the funds for any kind of advanced kids.  In the end, she told me I could work ahead of the class in math if I wanted to – at my own pace.  That seemed cool.  I finished the entire year’s worth of assignments in about a month.  The rest of the year, when other kids were doing math, I got to read.  So, while in some ways, I didn’t get challenged in terms of the difficulty of the work I was doing, I did get hours and hours of additional reading time in, which I’m grateful for.

I remember that we had salamanders as pets in the classroom.  We kept two or three of them in a glass aquarium and fed them crickets, kept their water fresh in a shallow dish, and cleaned the cage regularly.  Until they disappeared.  Seems someone left the lid off of the cage and they found their way out – or maybe someone took them out to let them walk around and they got lost – either way, we were stuck with an empty cage for the rest of the year.  At the very end of the year, we all chipped in to help clean up the classroom – organizing bookshelves, taking down our super cool signs hanging from the ceiling, sweeping up in hard to reach corners.  That’s when we found the salamanders – very dead, very dried up.  They had found their way behind a bookshelf and that was that.

 

 

Jobs from my youth – Younkers, 1992 & 1993

I recently wrote about one job I had in 1993, waiting tables at a restaurant/night club.  I had many other jobs that year, though.  I started the year working at Younkers, a department store in downtown Sheboygan.  Socially, it was a pretty fun job.  My best friend and roommate at the time worked there with me, and we made a handful of new friends there, too.  I have never been a very fashionable person, but J was.  He had that gay man’s touch when it came to clothes and hair.  He could make rags seem trendy, and I became fully reliant on him to maintain a “look” after we became roommates, though I had never had a “look” before.  When I had to start my shift earlier than his, or work when he had a day off, I woke him up in the morning so he could do my hair.  He was such a good sport about it.

I still can’t do anything with my hair – every time I get my haircut, I walk out looking how I want to look, and every time, I go home and take a shower because I hate having itchy hair around my collar, and I am hopelessly unable to recreate whatever my hairstylist has done with just a few waves of her fingers through my short hair a half an hour earlier.  The accompanying picture gives you an idea of what J used to do – remember that it was the early 90s, and we liked to think of ourselves as “alternative.”  Not goth, not punk, nothing so specific – just alternative and definitely NOT mainstream.  That was the thing to avoid.  I am fairly confident there is little chance anyone would recognize this photo as me.  As I said, the only time I had a “look” was when I had someone to put it together for me.

Younkers had an old-fashioned lunch counter.  When I worked there,  I could order a chicken sandwich pretty cheaply with my discount.  I ordered a chicken sandwich with cheese every time I ate there – with mashed potatoes and gravy, of course.  Even today, I have this puzzling tendency to eat the exact same thing day after day for lunch, but when dinner time rolls around, I’m rarely content with the options available to me in the kitchen.  My current lunch streak consists of a turkey sandwich with a slice of swiss cheese on potato bread.  I bring potato chips so I can put them inside the sandwich just before I eat it.  I get an unusual amount of satisfaction from the crunch of potato chips inside the sandwich.  I also bring a pear or a nectarine or some other kind of fruit.  I bet you are picking up on the potato trend in my life.  I blame it on my great-grandfather, who is rumored to have reached America as a stowaway on a ship carrying potatoes, which were all he had to eat on the way from Romania.

It was actually sort of an odd family affair to work at Younkers.  My mom worked there part-time behind the jewelry counter for a while.  My great-uncle also worked there.  He was an interior decorator and spent some of his time selling expensive furniture to the handful of wealthy families in the area.  He is also the only other gay person in my family that I know of, and the first time I ran into him at the local gay bar in Sheboygan, he was so thrilled he bought my friends and me drinks all night long.  Even my great-grandmother worked at the store years earlier, before it was called Younkers.  She sold fancy hats and china.

Younkers used to be called Prange’s back then.  It was a well-loved local store because it was part of a regional chain that began in Sheboygan in the late 1800’s.  The local store remained intact for just over 100 years before it was bought by Younkers.  I remember going to Prange’s as a kid to visit Bruce the Spruce – a talking Christmas tree alternative to visiting Santa Claus at the mall.  I was probably as scared of Bruce the Spruce as I would have been frightened by a strange Santa Claus, but as I re-imagine the past, I think Bruce was more welcoming.

There were plenty of negatives about working in retail, though, such as aching feet at the end of a day, utter boredom from wandering around the department and refolding every piece of clothing a customer picked up then tossed like a wet towel onto a table, and constantly reordering all the hanging clothes by size.  I did leave the industry with fairly particular ways of folding clothes, though.  My partner often marvels at my ability to quickly fold a shirt with the arms tucked in back and the front perfectly displayed, all without the use of a table or other surface.  Such important things I learned in the jobs of my younger years.

Revisiting the 80s: Video Games

I grew up LOVING video games.  I still love them.  It’s my uncle’s fault.  One of the best birthday presents I ever got was $20 worth of video game tokens and an afternoon at the arcade with him.  My favorite arcade sized game is Galaga, and luckily, it was the favorite of enough people that you can occasionally still find it in an arcade.

I was reminded of my 80s video game craze tonight when I was doing some random web surfing.  I came across this site, retrojunk.com, which I believe could entertain me for hours.  It is not the most aesthetically pleasing site, but who cares when the content is this good?  Paging through old commercials for video games reminded me of Intellivision.  Unbelievable to look at that game console now and imagine the hours of entertainment it provided.  Do you remember the little plastic overlays that slid over the button pad on the controller?  They always ended up with permanent indentations from pushing so hard on the buttons with my thumbs.  I vaguely remember being scolded about that, but I would’ve been so zoned in on the game, it probably barely registered.

I loved Pitfall, but who knew Jack Black was in one of their early 80’s commercials?  As I watched this commercial, I could feel myself leaning heavily to the right, as my body willed Harry to make it across the pond full of alligators, my muscles tense like rubber bands until I dropped him safely on the other side.

And what about Burger Time?  I could play that game for hours.  Listening now, I’m not sure how I could handle the music for so long, but check this out – even if you only listen for a few seconds, I promise, it will take you back.

I eventually got a Nintendo when I was in high school, and mastered games like Super Mario Bros., and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out (which you can still play as a retro game on Wii, but now it’s just called Punch-Out since the game’s namesake bit off someone’s ear).  I spent way too many school nights up into the early morning hours hooked on this one.  I can’t imagine how many hours it took me to get through the whole game and beat Mike Tyson.

As I said, I still love video games, and I now play the kind that take months to get through (especially since I’m no longer in high school with hours and hours to spare), but there’s something to be said for the magic and simplicity of games from the 80s.  Despite the now simplistic graphics capabilities, the concept of home video games was still so new, you felt like maybe Star Trek would become a reality someday.  What were your favorites?  Were you an Intellivision nut, an Atari kid or did  you have a Sega or ColecoVision?

Las Vegas

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.  That’s the party line, but some of my random trips to Sin City were in my mind lately, so I thought I’d toss a few thoughts out here.  I’ve been to Vegas a number of times, for a number of different reasons.  Conferences, work assignments, pleasure trips with friends, and an odd semi-family reunion with my grandparents and mother.  Each experience was quite different.  Don’t worry, they’re all tame stories.

At a developers’ conference, I spent more time than I like to admit actually attending the conference sessions.  There are only two things I remember that weren’t work related.  One, I dragged an Indian co-worker to the Star Trek casino at the Las Vegas Hilton.  Sadly, the Star Trek experience is no longer, but I thought it was the best thing ever when I first visited.  Who can resist the slot machines activated by hand motions or the soothing blue and purple haze that defied the standard casino assault of horrific bright white lights everywhere?  My Indian friend indulged me, but being from India, Star Trek wasn’t to him what it was to me, having grown up with Star Trek: The Next Generation.  Two, I went on a helicopter ride with another co-worker at night where we cruised at such a slow speed I was convinced we’d simply drop out of the sky any moment.  I’m not a fan of flying in general, and the two times I have been in helicopters, I’d have tried to climb up to the ceiling if I weren’t buckled in, just to be a slight bit further from the point of impact if we crashed.

Many years ago, I went to Vegas because my grandparents and my mother and then step-dad were going to be there.  My grandpa used to go to Vegas every year for a sportsman’s show.  It was a business related trip, so they got to write off practically everything they did.  For years, my grandparents had a big glass vase on a shelf that was full of quarters.  Every quarter they got back in change from some random purchase went into the jar – it was their gambling money jar.  My grandparents are thrifty.  They never had much money to spare, but I think Las Vegas was my grandma’s favorite place to go.  I don’t know if she actually went anywhere else outside the immediate Midwest, now that I think about it.  She loved the slots.  She generally stuck to the penny and nickel slots, and she was disapproving as slot machines became more modernized and you could spin by simply pressing a button.  Pulling the handle was what it was all about, and she thought the buttons took the fun out of it.  More than once, she won enough at the slots to practically pay for their entire trip.

It was on this trip that I found what is still my favorite casino.  Slots-O-Fun.  The name alone gets it points in my book.  This place is a complete dive of a casino situated next to Circus Circus and across the street from The Riviera, which is where my grandparents always stayed, even as it declined and became a pretty crummy hotel.  I’m a fan of most things dive-y, except, of course, hotels.  Dive bars and dive diners rank high on my list, as does this dive casino.  Slots-O-Fun is particularly great on weeknights because it’s not so busy and all the table games are much cheaper than anywhere else on the strip.  Who can argue with quarter roulette?  I spent hours and hours at a roulette table with my mother one night, and walked away a few hundred dollars ahead.  Not bad for a quarter table.

A few years ago, I went with my partner to Las Vegas for a weekend, ahead of a work assignment I had for the following week.  It was one of the most relaxing and enjoyable weekends I’ve had, even surrounded by the steady bombardment of screeching slot machines.  We saw Love, the Cirque de Soleil show set to Beatles music, and it was amazing.  I highly recommend it to anyone who is even slightly a Beatles fan.  My uncle turned me into a die-hard when I was only a kid, so it was heaven to me.  We rode the roller coaster at New York, New York.  We went to the Fine Art Gallery at the Bellagio.  We stayed until closing at a Piano Bar where we had to pay $20 apiece just to get a seat.  I blew $20 more bribing the piano guy to sing Bon Jovi so I could scream it at the top of my drunken lungs.  I hadn’t been dating my partner for very long yet, and she had to head back home before I did.  She left me a note scribbled on tiny pieces of paper from the hotel’s notepad telling me how much fun she’d had – it was during that trip that we both stepped over the line from dating to being unable to bear time apart from each other.  I still carry that note in my computer bag.

Anyone else have some Vegas stories to share?

A funeral in winter

A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.

My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.

We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.

In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could.  The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.

I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening.  For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon.  She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.

The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once.  The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it.  I just felt it in every bone in my body.

After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone.  Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons.  We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home.  Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill.  After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired.  It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house.  It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.

Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us.  Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself.  When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary.  I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life.  It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband.  Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.

You don’t like grass?

I have a friend who doesn’t like grass. Actually, she detests grass. When she first confessed her disdain for the odd patch of green we had come upon in the city, my face crinkled up in confusion. “What do you mean, you don’t like grass?” In fact, my face is now crinkled up in confusion as I write this. Who hates grass? I guess I can understand not being excited by it, but to hate it, despise it, as she does – I mean, come on. Seriously?

Grass is not a subject that comes up often in our conversations, but when I have the opportunity, I mention it. Sometimes, I bring it up in the company of others – just to see whether I’m the only one that thinks it’s crazy to hate grass. Sometimes, I mention it to my friend as a reminder to myself that our friendship is true – so true, I have intimate knowledge of her weird grass phobia. We have certainly graduated beyond the deep things in life and on to the completely random and mundane. To me, that’s a sign of a good friendship.

A few weeks ago, we attended the wedding of a mutual friend that took place on the lawn outside a log cabin in the Presidio. As we were walking to take our seats, it occurred to me she was walking on grass, and in high heels, to boot! I grabbed her shoulder from behind as we were nearing our row of folded metal chairs and said, “How are you handling it? Are you doing OK?” I didn’t have to mention the word grass – she knew exactly what I was talking about. She said she was OK – she knew she only had to step on it for the ceremony, and when that was over, we’d be inside the log cabin drinking the night away. She did say she wished she’d brought her flask, but she thought she could handle it. I was glad.

I’m still unsure why she hates grass as much as she does. She did grow up around LA. Maybe that’s at the root of the problem. I grew up in the Midwest where there is more grass than you could ask for. There were things about the grass I hated – mowing it weekend after weekend when it was supposed to be my step-dad’s job. Being harassed if I didn’t walk the mower across the lawn in exactly the right pattern. Inevitably spilling it on the driveway when trying to empty the unwieldy canvas bag that caught the clippings. It’s impossible to sweep freshly cut grass from concrete, by the way. It just sticks, sometimes moves an inch or two, always dying the concrete green the more you attack it with a broom. You should just skip the broom and go immediately for the garden hose on high pressure. I hated cleaning up the dog crap in the back yard before I could run the mower, too – although it was easier than chiseling it out of the frozen snow in the winter. But none of those things made me hate grass itself. One of these days I’ll have to ask again why, exactly, she hates grass. Oh well, to each his own, I guess.

On Employment

Employment has been on my mind quite a bit lately, for a handful of reasons.  First, I’m currently unemployed (though, hopefully, not for much longer) and have been looking for work for the past couple of months.  Second, I picked up Then We Came to the End yesterday, which reminded me of my past job in a marketing agency.  I shared an excerpt of it that made me laugh. Third, I heard from a friend today who just got a new job. Finally, I just finished Before We Get Started, A Practical Memoir of the Writer’s Life, by Bret Lott. In it, he devotes some time to explaining that characters in stories need jobs, and the best place to find jobs for them is to steal your own work experiences.  That could be particularly interesting for me, as I’ve worked in a toilet seat factory.  That’s a story for another day, though.

As all these thoughts about jobs, work, careers, and employment turned over in my mind, I thought back to high school.  I was very bored in high school, but I was pretty good at it, so occasionally, a teacher took an interest and tried to give me something more challenging to do.  In sixth grade, my teacher let me work ahead in math.  I finished the entire year’s work in a month.  I didn’t have to do math for the rest of the year, so instead, I read when everyone else was stuck doing long division or whatever it is you do in sixth grade math.  As a sophomore, a guidance counselor thought I should take the pre-SAT a year early, just for fun.  I did it and it was not fun.

I expected to go to college, but I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.  No idea.  None.  My school offered a test that was meant to help you determine what job you would be good at doing.  It was a sort of affinity test.  You answered a ton of questions, and it spit out the ideal job for you at the end.  Mine was … believe it … garbage collector.  I’m not kidding.  That’s totally for real.  I wish I had a picture of what my face looked like when my counselor shared that potential career path with me.  Needless to day, I stopped going to her for help, but I still had to figure out what I was going to study.  I liked math, science was OK, and I loved flying in airplanes, although I’d only done it once.  So, the logical conclusion was that I should be an aerospace engineer.  I’m not sure who came up with that, but that became the plan.  I applied to Purdue, got in, was all set to go, but it wasn’t meant to be.  That is also a story for another day.

Suffice it to say, I ended up not going to college, working in factories and restaurants for a few years, and eventually found my way to San Francisco, where opportunities abounded.  I still had no idea what I wanted to do, and almost just stuck with restaurant work.  I thought it would be interesting to work in an office, though, so I signed up at a few temp agencies, and landed a filing job that led to another job working on a big software project.  I’ve worked in technology ever since.  It was purely by accident, and sometimes I’m not sure I really want to work in technology anymore, but it is what it is.

Thinking back to high school again, I remember that we actually did have a computer programming class.  It was early in the PC revolution, but we had a few computers in a lab that used floppy discs – the original floppy discs that were big and actually floppy.  It was still early enough that the poor teacher that had to instruct us had no clue about programming, though.  He sat at a terminal just like we did, cranking out the same assignments so he could try to get a half a step ahead of us.  We were generally instructed to write BASIC programs that spit out various characters in lines on the screen so that they made pictures.  A smiley face, a very square looking dog or cat.  Some of us spelled our names so that each larger than life letter was made up of a bunch of small versions of itself.  Maybe we wrote a program that added up every number from 1 to 100.  Nothing more useful than that, though, and never did it occur to anyone that there might be careers in this newfangled technology.  I wonder if they’ve gotten any better at helping kids figure out what they want to be when they grow up.

Remembering teachers

Well, I’ve had to skip another writing prompt from Old Friend from Far Away.  This one was : “Give me a picture of a teacher you had in elementary school.”  I don’t remember a single teacher from elementary school.  In fact, I can barely remember any from junior high, either.  I do have some high school teacher memories, though.

Falls High School was the kind of place that teachers stayed at for entire careers.  A handful of my teachers had also taught my step-dad twenty years earlier.  One of the more colorful characters was our algebra teacher, who proclaimed loudly every day that there were only three certainties in life – death, taxes, and algebra homework.  His motivation techniques were a bit suspect, though.  Almost daily, he yelled at the class, telling us if we didn’t get our act together in algebra, we’d grow up to be nothing more than basket weavers.  His comb over prevented us from taking him too seriously.  My sister had an English teacher she had wrapped around her finger.  She regularly told him she had a headache and could she put her head down on her desk during class.  Every time, he agreed, and often went so far as to ask the rest of the students in class to be quieter in their discussions so they didn’t disturb her while she was resting.  Every couple weeks he told her she should have her mom take her to see a doctor because she had so many headaches.

In my senior year, my Spanish teacher had to take most of the year off for health reasons, so we got a long-term substitute.  Our sub was an elderly lady who had already retired from teaching, and she had no interest in actually teaching us any Spanish.  Every single day we played bingo in Spanish – yelling “¡Loteria!” when we filled a row on a card.  Most kids couldn’t even get that part of the game right.  It was too instinctive to yell “Bingo!”  Spanish was my first class of the day, and occasionally, I skipped it.  A good friend of mine wasn’t in school anymore, and she picked me up in the morning so we could run to McDonald’s and get breakfast.  The nearest McDonald’s was in Sheboygan – a 15-minute drive one way.  We had just enough time to get to there, run through the drive-through, and make it back to school as my first period was ending.  After missing class a couple times, my teacher asked me what was going on.  I told her that I was going to McDonald’s to get breakfast and, since we were only playing ¡Loteria!, I didn’t think I was missing much.  I wasn’t disrespectful in my tone.  I was just being honest.  She agreed, and told me that as long as I brought her a danish, she wouldn’t mark me absent.

My chemistry teacher was by far the quirkiest of them all.  He must have owned a half dozen of the exact same suit – or he literally wore the same suit to work every single day – it’s hard to say which.  The suit was a dark navy blue, and hung big and baggy on his tall but hunched over frame.  He had white, disheveled hair, thinning on the top of his head.  His glasses were a little crooked, low on his nose, and he personified the cartoonish figure of a mad scientist.  He was known to be a packrat and filled his pockets with oddities.  Rumor had it his need for large pants pockets was satisfied only when his wife replaced them by sewing tube socks into his pants.  These new pockets were constantly filled to the top, so his legs looked lumpy from the knee up.  He was also a photographer, and for some reason, he needed to have a few cameras on his person at all times.  He slung the camera straps over his shoulders underneath his suit jacket, which added another odd bulkiness to his appearance.  He drove a small pickup truck with a camper in the bed of the truck that extended over the cab.  We could never figure out why, but the thing must have had a dozen antennae sticking off the roof.  We could imagine having one or two for a CB radio or something, but why so many?

He was the hardest teacher in school, and graded strictly on many things besides the actual content of the course.  Most of the time, he had us grade each other’s papers.  We’d pass our papers one person back in the row, and we had to use red pen to mark each other’s answers wrong.  If, as a grader, we didn’t use a red pen, that resulted in a dock on our own test scores.  If we didn’t write our names on our assignments in exactly the right way, we’d get docked for that, too.  He was also a pilot, so we had an aviation class in school, an odd elective for a small rural high school.  I took the course because I thought I wanted to learn to fly one day, and part-way into the first term, I dropped the class, because no matter how hard I worked, the grades I got made me think I was going to fail.  He graded on a curve, and I found out after I dropped the class that I was getting an A, because despite my low percentages scores, they were still at the top of the class.  Our assignments often seemed impossible.  Make a paper airplane that will sail down the stairs at the end of the hallway.  The stairs doubled back halfway down, though, so the plane had to somehow make a 180 degree turn halfway through its course.  No one succeeded.