Sometimes, during a rare moment of solitude, I turn my attention to the people I used to know and will never see again. I know that sounds overly dramatic in the hyper-connected world of Facebook, email, Twitter, and all that jazz. I mean heavens to Betsy, for Christ’s sake! What do you mean you’ll never see them again? You can see anyone anywhere any time you want to, for as long as you’d like.
Let this crooked-fingered old curmudgeon with the wizened lizard-like eye-bags pop your shiny bubble for you. I’m not planning on contacting any of these folks. Like me, they’ve moved on, and we’re all in different contexts right now. I was delighted to be reached by a friend I hadn’t seen in twenty-five years, and we’ve had a pleasant, ongoing email exchange since he got in touch with me. I also tracked down another old friend from college, and a few former colleagues, and those correspondences have already fizzled out, probably because everyone is so goddamned busy these days, scrambling around like blood cells or the people in the movie Koyanisqaatsi. I’m the same way, especially living in Seoul, Korea, land of uptight, pronto-if-not-sooner-demanding, “bali-bali” overachievers. I’m impatient myself, as is my wife, who/s even more impatient than I am. In fact, she might even be the most impatient person I know.
The other afternoon while she was away doing some bullshit for church, I took the opportunity to conduct a few Google searches on some old friends I used to go to school with. I found out what a couple of them are doing today and what they look like. I shook my head and chuckled at the memories I had of them. Thought of getting in touch, but I really don’t want to get bogged down with some social network. It might interfere with the flow of loneliness too much, or feel too retrograde.
Philip Larkin has a great poem called “Places, Loved Ones” (whose title has a double meaning, for all you flamboyant theater directors out there) in which he advises against getting in touch with people from your past–especially if your goal is to retrieve something that’s already been carved into something new by the winds of time and change. My parents (and several older relatives) are exemplary in the loyalty they show friends from their youth, despite our having moved all over the place in the past several decades. Now that they’re back, essentially, where they started from, it’s easier for them to get together than it was before, and they manage to do so at least a few times a year.
I’m what my dad once described as a “gregarious loner.” I love other people, but I hate myself–unless it’s the other way around–it’s hard to tell. Seriously, I’m very outgoing and sociable, but I get attached to people and it’s always painful to say goodbye. Sometimes it’s just easier to stay home and let life pass you by the way it’s going to anyway. And being stuck in a mephitic swamp of a marriage makes reminders that there are seemingly happier people and couples out there too piquant, poignant, excruciating, or some other high-falutin’ adjective, to bear or else rectify your (read “my”) own defective situation.
A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with a retired punk rocker whose sister I’d gone to school with. He mentioned in passing that she’d died; I thought, “Holy shit! When? How?” Of course, since he was on the radio, I couldn’t exactly ask him–or if I had, our exchange might have resembled one of my wife’s one-sided conversations with God (even though she insists He’s improbably voluble with her).
I found out during the web search. It turns out she died with her husband in a mountain-climbing accident sixteen years ago. I was sad to read the “news,” even though I hardly ever think of her. Didn’t know her that well. We were never romantically involved. She dated a friend of mine for awhile, and I went on an unforgettable camping trip with them and two other friends to some of the American Southwest’s most spectacular national parks–Arches, Canyonlands, and the Grand Canyon–in that order. The trip lasted for two weeks. (I haven’t been paying close attention, but I’ve garnered that the past several U. S. presidential administrations have been working overtime to ruin whatever natural beauty remains in the country by selling off as much public land as they can to oil-drilling and coal- and uranium-mining companies. Nice work, fellas! Thanks a million!) I’d pulled two all-nighters in a row beforehand scribbling answers for my Russian literature final, an essay test written in those insidious little blue booklets, and had come down with a nasty case of bronchitis.
I spent the first several days of the trip chugging cough syrup, accidentally doubling the dose when I misread the label (I thought “tspns” had meant “tablespoons” instead of “teaspoons”). No wonder I felt so woozy in the car. Good thing I wasn’t driving. I chewed gum containing aspirin and ate raw garlic cloves, none of which quelled the hacking maelstrom that rose from my lungs.
Meanwhile, we were all surrounded by a lunar or otherworldly landscape of breathtaking beauty, reddish sandstone and rock formations like something off the cover of a Yes album. We washed our dishes with sand.
It wasn’t until the second week, as we trekked into the Grand Canyon, making it to the bottom and our campsite by the Colorado River after a day’s rigorous hike, that I managed to shake the cold. I woke up the next day feeling absolutely fantastic.
Talking to dead people is another lonely, one-sided conversation, but I’d just like to say: “Jennifer, I’m sorry you didn’t make it. You were a nice, pretty, intelligent woman who had the decency to laugh at my jokes and say ‘I love it!’ in an endearing way. Thirty-three is too young to die. I will do my best to appreciate the life I still have that you can’t anymore, that you already haven’t had for almost half of the short time you had it. Although I don’t believe in heaven, hell, or any of that rubbish, my mortal vision is clouded by my own dim-witted perceptions and prejudices, and I hope that if there is a heaven, you’re up there with your husband, Elvis, Old Shep, and Jesus Himself. Please ask the latter if the rumors circulating on the Internet that he was gay are true (I’ll let you readers know the Alternet link later), and if they are, tell him to ask his followers to lighten up and stop being so goddamned hypocritical and preachy. Either God loves everyone–including his son–or we want nothing to do with him. (Praise the Lords!)
“By the way, if you see Levon Helm or Earl Scruggs, please tell them, ‘Thank you for the music,’ but don’t tell the members of Abba if you see them eventually. John McCain will probably do it for you if he ever makes it there; apparently, ‘Dancing Queen’ is his favorite song.”
Although it’s a grim reminder of how cruel life can be, the death of a friend can also remind you why it’s a good idea to stay in the game while you can. That way you can be more laid back and even get laid, before you’re either laid to rest or to waste, whichever sinks your boat.
Singer Taj Mahal, quoting Carole King, whom writer Joe Queenan blames for turning Americans into saps with her album Tapestry in his book Red Lobster, White Trash, and the Blue Lagoon, says “There is just no percentage in remembering the past.” I disagree with Taj and Carole. Not only because the present for some of us feels inadequate and the future looks absolutely appalling for a lot of us, but because we can all learn where we’re going from where we’ve been, and also celebrate who and what we are right here, right now. I mean now. No–now.
See what I mean how the past keeps growing? Which one do you focus on the most–past, present, or future? Why? Which of the three commands the least of your attention? Also why? (20 points.)