Friday, January 21, 2011

Becky's Wedding

A Vintage Contrarian

This originally appeared in NUVO Newsweekly in April of 2001

Couple years back my family converged on the tiny town in Tipton County where we lived when I was small. My younger cousin Becky had been a missionary in the environs of New Guinea for several years and come home to marry a wonderful black South African man she’d met there. The wedding reception was held in a park that was built on the site of the school where I went to first and second grade. It was across the playground from the ball diamond where my big brother played little league, across the street from the house where our doctor lived and saw patients, a half block down from the house where my mother left me with a baby sitter, a block down from the corner diner where we often ate and the volunteer fire department that my father had served with, and a block from the water tower I used to lay under on my back with friends at noon to see if we could stand the ear piercing blast of the siren that was tested each day. But that was nearly forty years ago. It is a different place now.

Beside the park where the wedding reception was held stood the gymnasium, the only part of the old school that was saved. As the wedding reception wore on, as people took pictures of each other with the disposable cameras on the table, my older sister and I wondered into the old gymnasium and studied the giant, framed, black and white photographs of the Pep Club taken more than three decades ago. We searched for my aunt and finally found her in one of the groupings from the early ’60s. She sat in the bleachers among a crowd of teenagers; all seemingly wearing painted corduroys and saddle shoes.

As we wondered through the darkened, cavernous gymnasium, I found myself studying my sister – this remarkable woman, as she walked about. Now in her forties, once she was a little girl taking gym classes here, playing in this innocent place, still unaware that she was a lesbian and that the world would hate her for it.

She and I and my brother and my other sister grew up in this town and went to school in that long gone building that was once next door. My sister and her companion live in California. She’s a nuclear engineer with an MBA – the only woman on her company’s board of directors. My other sister is also a wonderful success in life, a woman who has overcome great struggles to be happy. My brother is a college grad and an incredibly talented artist. I am a schoolteacher, a Realtor, a writer. We four are all college grads, all homeowners, all gamefully employed.

What I was thinking as I studied my sister and remembered this place is that we all found success in life, having been educated at a school that would be considered substandard today. There were no TVs hanging from the classroom walls continuously running PBS specials. There were no computer labs with Internet access, no planetariums or indoor swimming pools. There was no robotics labs, no greenhouse, and no security guards, not even air conditioning. Unlike my own children today, we did not come home each day from elementary school with an hour or more of homework.

When you consider what is believed to be necessary to insure the success of the average child today, my siblings and I should be utter failures.

After school our parents didn’t drive us around to endless enrichment activities - ballet, piano, gymnastics, soccer and baseball (in overlapping seasons), indoor soccer and basketball (in overlapping seasons), computer camps, space camps, horseback riding lessons. Sure, we did some of that, but just a little. In those days summer was 12 weeks long. We filled our spare time riding bikes, flying kites, fiddling with frogs and fish in a stream and playing basketball on a dirt court against our garage. We camped in the back yard and read comic books. We actually played hide and seek and kick the can – games that are foreign to most children today. We had no cable TV, no VCR, no Play Station. When we went on long trips, we didn’t have a mini van with a TV/VCR for the kids to watch, no Game Boys to pass the time. We had to look at the countryside, play word games and use our imagination. Yet, I don’t feel cheated. Quite the contrary.

In that distant town that was once in this place, low calorie diet foods were almost unheard of, yet children then were far less likely to be obese. In this weird world where we grew up there was a commercial area at the edge of our neighborhood that children were free to interact in and we could walk to school – two things that would rarely be designed into the average new community today.

Still, in some ways I know it is a better place now. My sister is less likely to be ostracized here and my white, freckle faced cousin can marry a black man from South Africa in the park and cause little or no commotion.

Yet, in my childhood here, considering we were so deprived of what are considered necessities for any middle class kid today, how did we become computer literate breadwinners who know how to set our VCRs?

My own three children wondered into the old building to find us. They looked about that old 1930s-era gymnasium, that aging temple to a Hoosier God, and wondered at its foreignness. There were no practice gyms off to the side, no state of the art sound systems, no health club-quality weight lifting facilities. The looks on their faces said it all, “What a strange . . . primitive place.” They looked into the old Pep Club pictures and giggled. These children, grown up with fashion trends like the plumber’s-butt, low rider pants of hip hop culture, face piercings and the unfortunate return of bell-bottoms and clogs, dared to say, “Why did they dress so funny?”

With everything my children have I sometimes worry what will become of them. They’ve come to expect so much of life – materially. Granted, they have some very valuable things I didn’t have. I would have never been taken to an interracial wedding in my childhood, nor would two of my most beloved relatives be an “out” lesbian couple. Still, as we left that old gym, I wished I could give my children what little I had when I was their age. In some ways it looks more valuable than the material things they have. Less is more? Perhaps.

Later, as I sat among the wedding crowd looking at what remained of the place I once new so well, I thought that perhaps the worst thing we could give our children is the best of everything.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Found In Translation

The night before New Years Eve my son’s Japanese girlfriend, Machiko made dinner for our family. Afterwards, Greta and I, Cal and Machiko downloaded Toy Story 3 to watch together.

As the animated film unfolded, I could hear Machiko quietly quizzing Cal about what was happening in the story. Her English is good, but when the dialogue is complicated she loses detail.

I’m missing some of the movie myself thinking about something connected to this moment that I saw that day on Facebook. Scrolling through the posts I see a list of people who “have the new profile,” and see a familiar face: Florence.

When I arrived in London for the first time in 1982, Florence was sitting behind the hotel desk, a lovely, aloof French girl with shoulder length, coal black hair, dressed in a style that would later become known as “Goth.” The Austrian night clerk told me in his broken English, “She like to play hard to get.” Once I got to know her I told him, “No, she just is hard to get.”

In the months I lived in that hotel Florence and I became close friends, drinking gin into the night in her room where the walls were plastered with David Bowie posters, a fragrant vile of ground flower petals sat on the window sill, and Ricki Lee Jones played from a cassette deck.

One night Florence and I took the subway to Piccadilly Circus and saw, “On Golden Pond,” a late career film for both Henry Fonda and Katherine Hepburn.

I have vivid memories of sitting in that theater with Florence. As the film unfolded, she quizzed me about what was happening in the story. Her English was good, but when the dialogue got complicated, she lost detail.

At some point she quit asking questions and watched quietly at my shoulder. Near the end, in an emotional climax when both Fonda and Hepburn’s characters are forced to confront their aging, ever-limited abilities, I saw Florence wiping tears from her face. The pantomime of action, the gentle flourish of orchestral strings meant to tug at the heart, punctuated by the nouns and verbs she was getting were enough. She understood pretty much what we English speakers in the theater were getting.

When we emerged from the dark theater onto that glimmering circle of the city, I asked if she understood what she had seen. “I didn’t understand everything they said, but I understood the meaning,” she said to me.

When Florence friended me on Facebook a year ago, it had been 23 years since I last saw her. The year after Greta and I were married, we backpacked Europe and Florence drove up to meet us in St. Raphael on the coast of France. I scanned her FB photos and saw recent vacation pictures that, if I had to guess, looked to be taken on the coast in northern Africa – there is a handsome husband in the photos and two teenage girls who look like they must be Florence’s daughters. The voyeuristic miracle of Facebook – to be able to peak into the lives of old friends from thousands of miles and a quarter century away.

At the end of Toy Story 3, when the grown up Andy handed over his own childhood toys to the little girl, I looked back over my shoulder at Machiko, snuggled up against my son and see that she’s wiping tears from her cheeks. I’ve had enough conversations with her to know that the dialogue is going too fast for her to understand all that’s being said, but that doesn’t matter. She understands.

Language and meaning are funny things. So essential, and at other times not so necessary.

At the end of the movie I accessed Facebook on my cell phone and sent a message to Florence: “I wish all the best for you and your family in the new year.” And a day later she responds in pretty darn good English, “My best wishes for this new year also. I think of you all very often. With all my friendship.”

South of France 1983

A photo Florence sent me on Facebook last year, one she took of me in the garden of her parent's hotel in St. Tropez in the summer of 1983.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Conspiracy Theories and Dirty Underwear

Many years ago, soon after moving into a new home, a neighbor waved me over. He’d read my newspaper column in that day’s paper and said it made him think of something he wanted to share. But there was no connection whatsoever between what I wrote and what he told me.

He claimed NASA never landed on the moon. “It was all filmed in the desert in Texas,” he said. He claimed that governments of the world were controlled by a triumvirate of Jewish businessmen who adjust world events for profit. You think you’re voting for this person or that, but elections are fixed. The fake moon landing was simple misdirection, devised to distract the world from what was really going on.

As this hallucinogenic riff built up steam, I began to suspect he was nibbling at the edges of Holocaust denial. That’s when I lied that I heard the phone ringing and headed back in the house.

Some years later this neighbor concocted a conspiracy theory about me built on an ironic grain of truth.

“Who do you think you’re fooling?” he sneered. “I know you’re up to something. I’ve seen you sneaking around.”

I actually had been sneaking around.

After that first loony tunes conversation I’d avoided him at all costs. If he walked down the sidewalk while I was doing yard work, I’d walk casually into the garage, as if looking for a tool, then watch from the window until he passed by. I’d do anything to avoid the crazy talk. He apparently caught that vibe and thought it looked sinister rather than what it really was: pathetic.

In December of 2001, just 3 months after 9/11 I arrived at a banquet hall in Indianapolis for 2 days of classes to renew my real estate license. As the room filled with nearly 100 people, I noticed everyone avoided seats near a Middle Eastern-looking man. I felt bad about how Muslim-Americans were being treated in the aftermath of the attacks and decided to conduct a random act of kindness. I right next to him. He looked up with wide, gentle eyes that seemed to say, “thank you.”

During the morning break we chatted about his childhood home in Afghanistan, the cold shoulder he’d gotten from his neighbors since 9/11, and news he was hearing from family back in the Middle East. As we gathered our things to break for lunch he leaned close and whispered to me, “You know, on the morning of September 11th, the Jews who worked in the Twin Towers didn’t go to work.”

“You gotta be f’in kidding me,” I thought to myself.

I’d heard this little lump of horseshit already. The conspiracy theory that Israel was behind 9/11 – did it so that we’d go ape-shit on the Arab world, doing Israel’s dirty work for them.

I nodded a thoughtful, “Hmmmmm,” in response. Returning after lunch I sat far, far away from the Afghani man.

On one hand I’m embarrassed for conspiracy theorists. But I know that believing the conspiracy satisfies something in the believer. As they say of those cheated by a con man, “You can’t be conned by a con man if you don’t really want what he’s selling.”

I have to admit I have my own proclivities. If I could choose what was true, I’d believe a lot of things I can’t prove. I’d love to believe in ghosts. But I’ve been living in old houses my entire life and still haven’t seen anything remotely passing as proof.

I’d love to believe in UFOs. When I was a kid I laid on the grass in the backyard endless summer nights staring up at the sky with my brother and sisters, looking for proof – “Please, please, please let me see something flying in the sky that’s unexplainable,” I’d plead silently to the great beyond. Never saw a thing.

So if a UFO landed in the street and a ghost appeared nearby, a part of me would be ready to believe. But another part of me would quickly suspect a car crash resulting in smoke from an engine fire.

Wanting to believe something isn’t enough to make it true.

My conspiracy theorist neighbor eventually moved away. Who knows, maybe I scared him off. The new neighbor is a lovable smart ass. He found a pair of the previous owner’s underwear tucked in the old plaster walls around a window for insulation. He knew it was the guy’s underwear because it had his name sewn along the back label (I promise, I’m not making this up). Also knowing of the animosity between myself and the old neighbor (as it is now legendary in our neighborhood), last year the new neighbor gift-wrapped the underwear and left it on my front porch at Christmas as a joke. It was labeled, “To Kurt, from Santa.”

I will gladly take dirty underwear over conspiracy theories whenever given the choice.