Monday, November 24, 2008

Last Song at the High-School Dance

I have a hard time killing spiders in my apartment. They do good work by killing insects, particularly ants. I’m always finding ant mummies underneath an intricately-spun web. I guess the bad rap comes from a handful of poisonous spiders that can kill people, but most spiders are harmless to humans, particularly the kind that take root in the corner of a bathroom or by a window. They seem like gentle, quiet beings with a really dark side, much like cats, who also get bad raps. You have a cat around, mice are not a problem. You learn to live with the rock-star attitude, or more like a bored teenager who runs hot and cold in terms of emotions. Spiders and cats are like those friends everyone says are assholes, but you go on being friends anyway, because you see the good in them.

A few months ago, while reading on the can in the morning, I watched a spider take down an ant in its bouncing web over the course of about 15 minutes. I felt like a National Geographic camera man watching a lion take down a zebra. Should I have intervened? No, it was just nature taking its course, but I did feel odd watching a killing play out. I kill insects routinely in my place, particularly ants, but the occasional roach, too. But spiders, I can’t bring myself to kill. When I clean, I’ll knock down their webs, watch them scurry away, but invariably, weeks or months later, a web will appear again in that general area, I guess the spiders sensing that’s a good killing field for them. Wouldn’t know what to tell someone who saw those webs and assumed I was a slob – just isn’t true, and I note as much being a reformed slob who rarely cleaned.

I noted in a piece awhile back the passing of Randy Pausch, with my thoughts on death being it’s a natural part of life, whatever darkness and negativity we may attribute to it, mostly because we don’t know what happens after we die. The drama of dying violently? I can only imagine how that pans out against dying slowly from a slow-burning disease, but I can gather a few seconds of pain and confusion , and only momentary knowledge of impending mortality, can’t be that bad in comparison. But we’re trained through movies to see this as some horrific finale with entire lifetimes flashing before our eyes. Got to believe if your lights are about to go out, the only thing you’re thinking will be, “My lights are about to go out.” If you’ve ever been in abject pain, the only thing you’re thinking about is abject pain. It tends to erase all other thoughts and emotions.

I should have known I’d have questions regarding pre-conceived notions about death, having been raised in a town where the main features were a hospital on the edge of town, and a Catholic/Protestant cemetery on the hill. As kids, we used to play hide-and-seek in the cemetery all the time, particularly at night. Telling ghost stories there also worked to maximum effect.

Sidenote: I strongly doubt Catholic/Protestant cemeteries exist anymore. The concept with ours was each branch of Christianity had a side of the cemetery, divided by a rickety wooden fence painted white (that we loved to play on, particularly when re-enacting Civil War battles). Unlike a Northern Ireland set-up, one side was no more or less attractive than the other. The fence came down a few years back. Most visitors who didn’t know of the divide saw virtually no difference, and in my mind it wasn’t like the Berlin Wall coming down. Just one of those weird little markers of passing time, what with Catholic schools and churches consolidating or closing due to under-attendance. Progress or tragedy, you decide.

I’m still trying to suss out the teenage attraction to graveyards. You have the famous graves of rock stars, kids hanging around late at night, getting high and such, in honor of the free spirit’s resting place. I don’t think people make pilgrimages to these places to honor the dead. They do it to bolster the same free spirit in themselves, remembering that this person influenced them to be as reckless, and that by hanging out in a graveyard at night imbibing, they somehow share in that radical glory. But, when you get down to it, it’s just a bunch of kids hanging out in a graveyard. This is worth noting though, because I think most people seriously visiting a graveyard in daylight hours are there to remember – the kids at night see themselves as part of some spirit that hasn’t departed and simply carrying on a rebel tradition. They’re not there for anybody but themselves, which is pretty much the M.O. of youth, for better or worse.

Sometimes the kids would vandalize tombstones – happened a few times in our graveyard, and they were invariably caught, because who in the hell is hanging out in a graveyard after dark? Unless you’re very quiet and careful about it, you’ll probably get nailed. Kids would go there to get laid, too. I still recall one of my high-school friends sheepishly knocking on our door at 10:00 one cold winter’s night in the middle of the week, his girlfriend skulking in the shadows behind him, asking, uh, er, uh, if we could, uh, help him get his car started, it was, uh, er, um, up in the cemetery. I don’t think kids screwing in cars in graveyards have death on their minds – they’re simply trying to find a quiet place to fuck, a randy 17-year-old’s quandary. But probably not a good idea to use a graveyard. Again, your car is there after dark, anyone passing by is thinking, what’s a car doing in the graveyard at night and is more likely to report that to the local cops.

Kids don’t have a clue about death, which is the way it should be. I can still remember the first time someone my age died, a friend and fellow classmate in high school killing himself a year after we graduated, apparently despondent over a failed relationship. The most shocking thing I remember about the whole incident was seeing him in his coffin at the wake, how odd and unreal he looked in death, his peach-fuzz mustache still growing, or much more pronounced than I had remembered it. Afterwards, a few of us drove around listening to heavy metal tapes, our minds blown by seeing one of our own in that lifeless state, and of course, the only option at that point was to build some sort of shrine to the person, emotionally, because it is a relatively odd, special experience when someone that young passes on for whatever reason.

At our 10th high school reunion, I had a blast, despite not being Mr. Popularity in high school. That didn’t seem to matter anymore, and we were all looking at each other as young adults (28 years old) moving on from our former selves, but glad to come back for a night and take inventory, in my case realizing most of these people were fine and just trying to get through life the same way I was.

One table was set aside “for those classmates who couldn’t make it” – with a candle for each person who had died in our class. (Never mind that there were a shitload of living people who couldn’t make it – gay kids, kids who got picked on, adults who just had no urge to see anyone again from their old high school, etc.) I think there were four candles – two suicides, one girl who had a congenital heart disease, and a guy who was in an automobile accident. It seemed cheesy, but even at that age, the shrine of four candles was intimidating, a dead zone most people avoided. Rather than someone wisely saying “fuck this,” blowing out the candles and sitting at the table, that table sat there undisturbed and, I guess, when people weren’t having a blast and caught a quiet moment, looked over and thought, goodbye __________, sorry you’re not here. Nearing the end of the reunion, which felt like a high-school dance with alcohol, most of us were pretty hammered, the DJ, who had been doing pretty well all night, stopped and announced, “And now, one more song, this one goes out the classmates who couldn’t be here tonight” – and he read off the names of the four dead classmates.

And then he played “Stairway to Heaven.” There was nearly a riot. Couples stormed off the dance floor chanting “fuck this” and “you’ve got to be kidding.” It put a real damper on the evening. It was as if he had played "Highway to Hell" instead in tribute. I had a beer in each hand – last call had come minutes earlier – and all I could think was … if you grew up in the 70s, EVERY high school dance ended with two songs, in no particular order: “Freebird” and “Stairway to Heaven.” This went on well into the 80s, too. If the DJ had just foregone the dedication, he’d have ended the reunion in grand fashion. But something about tying that rock-and-roll chestnut into the passing of these four young people, must have struck plenty of classmates as offensive. (A year later, another of our classmates, who was there that night, a kid nick-named Squirrelly because he was a little guy always getting into trouble, took his life. I’m guessing at least another five or six classmates must have died since then, too.)

Man, you get older, people just start dying. Nothing grandiose about it, no great mystery about the process. When it’s happening, you know it. If you experience it enough, you can look someone in the eye who’s going down that shit road with a loved one and know how it feels to watch someone fade away. It blows, if you haven’t already surmised this. But there’s no easy way out. We tend to have these wonderful visions of ourselves quietly passing away in our sleep some time in our 80s, still sane and self-supportive, sort of kissing the world goodbye in a sweet dream, but, man, from what I’ve seen, you get ridden out of this world on a rail. The door hits your ass on the way out. Hard.

I’ll be back in Pennsylvania this time tomorrow, plenty of opportunities to go up and visit Dad’s grave, but it’s a pretty rare occasion when I do. I know Mom rarely goes up there, too, as stirring up those sort of emotions will always be too raw. It’s not so raw for me, but I don’t need a physical visit to the gravesite to hold onto that sense of passing. I’ve also noted earlier that when someone passes, they follow you the rest of your days like a shadow, the memory always there, sometimes as clear as if the person was still there, others hardly there at all. It’s a strange thing to have that sense of life carrying on with vestiges of those no longer living. A huge draw for me as a writer originally was to have my name “live on” after I die, to have people remember what I wrote years later.

But I’ve become much more a “here and now” person since and am more than content to leave behind a bag of bones and sundry items for people mentioned in my will. (Whoever gets my music collection is going to feel all right.) I know I’ve left some things behind, some words, many more actions, memories people are going to carry long after I’m gone, hopefully in a good way. Whether 50 people, or five, or five million are tapped into that, what does it matter. Legacies are for assholes, people looking to amplify their meaning in the world, to extend their power beyond their lives, and that feels meaningless to me now. It seems like you get busy living, it’s better to let other people decide what you mean to them than try to place your stamp on them. Like those kids screwing in the graveyard and blowing out the battery, with the heater on all night, listening to Journey and Styx. They surely still remember that night, and I do, too. Better than most things I've read in history books!

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