Sunday, July 29, 2012

Instant Mythology

With the recent Penn State media circus, there’s one thing I’ve seen repeatedly put forth by sports writers and columnist that I’m not quite grasping.  It’s this: that we should never view anyone, especially celebrities of any sort, as anything more than human.

While I agree with that wholeheartedly and have reached the same conclusion here every now and then, it strikes me as curious because these people are employed to do just the opposite of that – make someone, especially a celebrity, appear larger than life and infallible.  It’s called instant mythology, and it’s been a bedrock of our pop culture since at least the 1940s, and in existence for all of mankind’s history.

Sports writers do this constantly.  As does anyone writing about musicians, actors, authors, politicians, athletes and any other number of high-visibility people in our society.  Legendary college football coaches, sure, them, too.  No one would care about sports without mythology tied into their histories.  The sports writers will claim now, in their chaste phase of seeing reality clearly thanks to Paterno and Penn State, that they don’t see the world this way and have never engaged in this sort of false-god worship.

Which is utter bullshit.  This is their stock in trade, and they’d be lost without it.  They’d have no job.  Instant mythologies are not built by grand proclamations and writers raving uncontrollably about someone we must now worship.  It’s much more subtle than that.  It often takes years.  In the case of actors and musicians, not so long, as one key performance, or song, or album, can catapult the performer to that exalted level.  And the artists will often respond by maintaining a high level of excellence that cements the legend … which can then be used for decades afterwards, despite declining interest or quality.

But the real myth making happens on a small, daily basis.  Every sports writer now tearing down Paterno, I can assure you, has more than a few positive pieces on him in his canon.  If he’s done this for any length of time, possibly dozens of pieces.  And if you were to read the pieces now, you’d see there was no conscious myth-making going on.  They were simply writing about how special Paterno was, with his emphasis on learning, nearly unheard of in Division I-A football programs.  Or his cantankerous character.  His record of winning.  His longevity.  His storied past, tough Italian street kid from Brooklyn taught by Jesuits, played football at an Ivy League school, came to Penn State with a few dollars in his pocket and a room to sleep in at night while he learned to coach under his mentor, Rip Engle.

Taken in and of themselves, the pieces will be complimentary, expressing a mild, tasteful sort of admiration.  Joe’s taken his shots over the years, without a doubt, but a vast majority of the press that’s been written about him before this incident was overwhelmingly positive.  Again, quietly positive.

What happens is that this acceptable, obviously positive feeling towards him becomes his image, slowly over the course of decades.  It’s not who he is.  It’s who we want him to be, this ideal, and the writers want us to see the same things they do, too.  And so we do.  Before you know it, the myth is created.  And fed.  And fueled over the course of years.  Are we inhumane to do this?  Probably not.  We want examples of human beings “rising above” in some inspirational sense, and it’s pretty easy to point at people living lives like this and imagining that they must possess some higher level of understanding of the world that makes them this way.

But the truth is they don’t: we give it to them.  And what we give them isn’t real.  It’s mythology.  It’s what we want to believe.  It’s ideals we create out of hand-picked qualities of people’s realities, that we then write or talk about.  And not just one person.  Dozens or hundreds will then pick up the torch and write similarly positive takes.  Their consensus feeds the myth.  To the extent, as we’ve seen, that it becomes nearly impossible to imagine the person we’re mythologizing being anything but this shining avatar of the best human beings can be.

If it makes you feel any better, it’s much worse with musicians.  Most of whom wouldn’t cross the proverbial empty street to piss on you if you were on fire.  Most people I’ve come across in the arts are profoundly self-absorbed and keenly aware of their image.  You better believe they nurture it.  As with sports, you have plenty of willing accomplices in the press to build the myth.  Since so much of music is tied in with youth, even better.  Nothing, and I mean nothing, is the base of more mythology than our youths, than the past.  Where we like to believe we were better people, in a better time, in a better place.  But when we sit down to really remember, to recall what our lives were like, the truth often is it was no better or worse than our lives are now.  Just different.  Obviously more simple in ways we probably miss, but there are often good things about our lives now, as we age, that we could have no way of seeing or acknowledging at earlier points in our lives.

Our culture would feel empty without these myths.  For the most parts, we love these myths, provided they don’t backfire on us, in which case all hell breaks loose, and we must go to great lengths to destroy the myth, not just to punish the person for letting us down, but to show everyone else that we’ve distanced ourselves from the myth, and are good, real, little people, just like you, who never fall for shit like this, no, not us.  We’re better than that myth we created.

I just read a long piece in The New Yorker on Bruce Springsteen … and this is a shining example of myth making, as is nearly everything written about him.  (If you think it isn’t, that we’re finally getting insight to the “real Bruce,” ask yourself why touchy subjects like this and this aren’t discussed.)  While I love Bruce’s music, have for decades, and suspect I’d like him just fine if we met, I can’t stand articles like this.  Because it’s clear to me that Springsteen believes wholeheartedly in the myth of himself, the one created by fans and critics over the years, and when he speaks in these stories, he always speaks in this character, even if he’s being honest.  He’s like an actor who played a role that was so striking and impressive, so representative of the best he had to offer, that he never learned how to break character, or wanted to, and decided to be that character for the rest of his life.

This guy really does think he’s some berserk hybrid of Superman and John Steinbeck.  He’s a millionaire many times over.  He has what looks like a pretty good life for himself: multiple homes in exclusive areas, a wife who understands him based on who he was before all this happened, kids who appear pretty well adjusted, a job he loves, that has granted his family generations of wealth and fortune, endearing him to millions of fans over the course of decades, creative outlets that suit his every need, the unbelievable proposition that what he set out to do as a pimple-faced kid, this thing he loved more than life itself, rock and roll, has granted him everything he ever wanted, and then some.

And he suffers from depression!  Why is that.  Could be because he’s so obsessed with this asinine, overly serious image of being everything to everyone, that it now feels like a prison, that it’s not really him, and he suspects if he was really himself, wrote about the confusion he feels over being a working-class kid set adrift in a world of wealth and affluence he couldn’t have possibly imagined when living in a surfboard factory in Asbury Park, that no one would care.  That people want the myth he’s created far more than they want him.

Or maybe he’s just genuinely depressed, chemically imbalanced, genetically acquired from his troubled father, and this could have happened whether he was this successful or not.  Who knows.  I’d say who cares, but obviously, a lot of people care.  Most mythologies aren’t as carefully crafted and nurtured as Springsteen’s is; they just happen.  And when they happen, it only makes sense for the person being mythologized to ride the wave.  Why not?  It beats obscurity or treading water.  Ride the wave, until it stops.  And we’re finding it never stops anymore, unless, as we’ve seen with Paterno, a situation presents itself that drops the person back down to earth and reminds us that he’s only human, prone to error, and possibly prone to doing whatever it takes to keep the myth alive.

I’m all for bringing it back down to you and your own life.  Don’t mythologize anyone.  Forget about rock stars or football coaches.  I mean even within your life.  Don’t mythologize your parents, or kids who died when you were young, or old girlfriends, or yourself, for that matter.  Accept people for who they are.  Accept yourself.  Understand that you’re going to fuck up, terribly some times, and provide for it, make sure the act of fucking up isn’t some cataclysmic event that drops you in your tracks and renders you incapable of moving forward.  You’re going to do plenty of things wrong and right in your life.  Everyone you know will do the same.  Keep as many people as you can in your life, but don’t hesitate to lose people who only drag you down or mean you harm.  Be reasonably honest with yourself and everyone you know.

But this is all bullshit!  Not in and of itself … those are some pretty good ideas.  But I’m not kidding myself: life is easier with myths.  Be they personal or cultural.  They guide us at times, like guardian angels we want to exist.  My life is filled with mythical rock stars, movie stars and writers, too.  The occasional athlete.  Various other people who do something extraordinary in their lives, that even if it was the only good thing they’ve ever done, that thing strikes us all to the core of our humanity and makes us want to be better in some sense.  That’s what myths are for, the good they serve.  The trick is to instinctively grasp there’s a difference between the myths we’re presented with, and the real people behind the myths.  Sounds easy?  To judge from what I’ve read about Paterno over the past few weeks, it isn’t.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

So Long, Joe III

One more time, Joe Paterno is center stage after this week’s release of the Freeh Report and the renewed shitstorm put forth by the temporary moralists of the world.  Well, “temporary” isn’t the right word.  Rogue moralists would be better: opinion columnists and commentators in general who see themselves as the floating vanguard of morality, able to parachute in on any moral quandary at a moment’s notice and point out to all of us what the easy, black-and-white answer is to the given situation.

Thank God we live in a world where these selfless heroes are here to protect us from, well, I guess our own personal values and judgment systems.  We’re not smart enough to read that report on our own, study the overall situation carefully, weave it into the dozens of articles we’ve already read over the months on the topic and draw our own conclusions.

As you could imagine, I read that report and feel awful.  Clearly, Joe knew something had happened with Sandusky and a kid in the coaches’ locker-room shower in 1998.  That’s one thing – at the very least a warning sign of a situation that, while not illegal and extremely hard if not impossible to enforce in a court of law, was surely so far out of bounds and disturbing that it should have warranted Sandusky being booted from Penn State for eternity.  (If you’re not aware, Sandusky showered with and bear-hugged a boy while both were naked in the shower.)  Then in 2001, Joe was directly informed of a clear sexual assault in the same showers by Sandusky, and the net effect, whatever else happened, was that nothing substantial happened to this monster.  This second known incident, with some knowledge of the first, should have been a declaration of war and complete disclosure that something terrible had occurred.  Joe should have resigned right then and offered up an affidavit as to exactly what he knew.

I have to face the fact that Joe made terrible errors in judgment at that time, most likely to preserve his legacy, and think about it.  If it wasn’t for Sandusky fooling around with a kid on a wrestling mat in a central Pennsylvania high school in 2010, and that story leading to the unraveling of this past 2001 incident, none of this would have come to light.  They, meaning Joe and his administrative supervisors, would have quietly buried this thing, as was clearly intended, whether that was Joe’s call alone, or a group effort more likely.  For all the power Joe is posthumously granted by so many people, if he really had that sort of power, he would have buried the 2001 incident immediately by not reporting it to his supervisor, which he did.  What influence he exerted after reporting the incident, I don’t know.  None of us really do at this point.

They clearly didn’t understand the scope of this thing, how damaging it would end up being.  I’m guessing Joe’s life was an endless series of major issues and concerns as a Division I-A college football coach, and those two incidents, at the time and in the context of the dozens of other issues he surely dealt with routinely, seemed like side issues that concerned his program tangentially, but not directly.  He paid dearly for his arrogance and the blinders he applied to his life, which didn’t allow him to fully gauge what was going out outside his program and family.

The whole thing smacks of that smothering university inertia, the belief that their system is superior to any outside force, that they can handle any situation on campus internally far better than the outside world.  I’ve seen that mindset in effect a few times in my life, as noted, it’s another world unto itself, with its own set of rules, many of which have little to do with reality.  Throw in a highly-successful football program run by a legendary coach for decades, and you have a perfect storm of cloistered unreality for those involved to make grave errors.  They clearly had no clue how awful this thing was going to be when or if it ever came to light.

Joe’s legacy?  His family wants us to believe he’s the same person he always was, and I can’t fault them for that.  This report is another piece of the puzzle, and I’d rather not make any grand pronouncements about his character or legacy after this recent addition.  This will be an unfolding story for a long time to come, and this media furor, as we’ve seen, will die down as the vultures find another carcass to pick at.  I wouldn’t say it’s a good thing that his legacy is severely tainted, but it surely makes him a lot more human, and when you get a person living on that level of fame, the mistakes are that much larger and intensified.

While it doesn’t trouble me as much, I’ve pointed it out in the past how aggravating it’s been to see how the media and internet handle a situation like this.  The faux outrage from people who don’t care about anything.  The proud declarations of personal integrity, bravery and fortitude from writers who put themselves above the situation and see themselves as having an all-knowing view of what is going on.  That strange herd mentality that encourages everyone to band together and have uniform opinion on an issue, or otherwise be branded as some sort of nut or pariah whose vision is clouded.

It’s fucking disgusting.  Granted, nowhere near as disgusting as what happened in this god-awful scenario.  But it’s disgusting.  It’s not morality, although we’re presented with it as such.  If you’re wondering how Jews were slaughtered in concentration camps by the millions in the 1930s and 40s, it was like this: group consensus shaped to give the illusion of easy answers.  If you don’t see the same sort of diseased group-think in the way our media operates, the way it mass manufactures opinion as fact and slanted reporting as knowledge, then you’re not paying attention.  I don’t think there is any great unseen hand guiding the media on this Penn State story – it’s simply people who run the media, the editors in high positions and such – knowing what type of story sells newspapers and ad space, and accordingly, taking stories like this and amplifying them a few thousand times louder and larger than they need to be, in easy-to-understand broadstrokes, so we can all rest easy knowing that real good and evil exist in the world, and the evil is being vanquished.

As if the world is ever going to be that easy.  I have my own buttons that get pushed, too.  I recently saw a clip on youtube of an elderly woman who was a school-bus monitor being abused mercilessly by the kids on the bus, in ways that made me feel like attacking those kids physically.  It’s a natural reaction to feel some sense of outrage.  I try not to expose myself to these sort of videos (which are legion on youtube, people acting crudely), because I know, all they’re going to do is wind me up needlessly over a situation that I have no control over.

Evil exists in the world, on a nonstop, 24-7 basis, whether we’re exposed to it or not, whether we choose to care about it or not.  This is why the Penn State story isn’t blowing my doors off morally and causing me to don my Superman’s cape to take down Paterno and the university, so mankind can feel that much more safe, thanks to my noble efforts.  You better believe the story upsets me.  As an alumni, deeply.  It’s a bad situation that has caused me to re-appraise a man I once viewed as a minor father figure of sorts.  It’s caused all of us to do that, in one way or another, whether we’ll admit that to anyone else or not.

But seeing as my pajamas no longer have feet, I think I can handle this.  I can live on with Joe Paterno’s legacy, knowing he dropped the ball terribly towards the end of his tenure.  He did a phenomenal amount of good in his life, tempered with this regrettable lapse in judgment and morality in 2001 and thereafter.  Ask me 10 years from now about this, and I’m sure I’ll have a different answer.  Maybe better.  Maybe worse.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned about this story, it’s that I’m not willing to offer final pronouncement, that the story keeps unfolding, and may do so for years to come.  It took a very bad turn for the worse this past week, but again, come back in a decade and let’s talk then.  The people having temporary moral shit-fits over this will be long gone, mind you, still having moral shit-fits, but about other stuff they only care about temporarily.  And only the people who cared about the man in some sense will have an honest opinion about him.

I’m not worried about legacies, not even my own.  Legacy implies that you’re dead, and here’s what people remember about you after you gone.  Most of us will be forgotten.  Famous writers, artists and musicians from centuries ago … most are forgotten.  Only small handfuls of people study their work in some cases.  And we’re talking some of the most influential people of their time.  Every-day people, like me writing this or you reading this?  Time passes, and in decades or centuries, we will be forgotten.  That’s how it works.  Whether you were a villain or a saint, famous or nobody, you will be forgotten.  I don’t mean that as an insult: I mean it as a fact of life.  Or more accurately, death.  Very few people span generations, decades and then centuries, in terms of being remembered.  And I suspect they are then remembered in highly inaccurate ways that fit some easy-to-grasp story we must be told about the good or evil this person did in his time.

Your only legacy should be how you live your life from one day to the next.  That’s what Joe seemed to lose track of somewhere along the way.  This thing he built over the course of his adult life became more than it was ever meant to be.  He was meant to coach a college football team.  You get that sense seeing interviews of him in the old days, in the 60s and 70s, this animated, sharp-as-a-knife, no-BS guy in his 30s and 40s having the time of his life, shaping his teams from one year to the next.  But in the 80s, after the two national championships, this thing got heavier.  And heavier in the 90s as coaching records were now in view to be chased.  In the 00s, this cumbersome weight, must coach until that dying day (which he nearly did), can’t retire and take it easy, must be this benevolent entity that people understand and look up to so easily, because it’s all they understand about him, and all he understands about himself and his relationship to the outside world.

And when he got into that supposedly safe haven of legend, that’s where he lost his way, although I never would have pictured it playing out on the level it has.  But it has, and we’re left to move forward without him, taking all the good and bad things we’ve picked up from him along the way, and using them however we choose.  I’m not even sure if that’s the right take.  Maybe he was so homed in his program that he wasn’t even thinking about his legacy … he just didn’t care about anything or anyone else outside his program.  In either event, he paid for it, as did the victims of this monster.

I just can’t wrap it all up in a neat little package that makes you feel better about yourself.  Or me better about myself.  Or any of us better about the world in general.  It’s not my job.  It’s not anybody’s job, despite the valiant efforts of so many out there who see themselves this way.  It’s my job here to let you know how someone who has an emotional investment feels, a lifelong Penn State fan, who gets blind-sided by this awful situation that presents shadowy opposites to the images of integrity and action we’d been taught to hold true.  We expect this shit in our every-day lives, in our work places, where we see microcosms of this sort of abusive, secluded power routinely, where we accept it with deep reservations, grumble about it, put up with this shit, but somehow expect people like Paterno and his program to be above it all … when the reality was he was just as susceptible to radical errors in judgment and anywhere from mild to blatant disregard towards humanity in others.  It happened here.  Boy, did it happen here.

And I wish he was still around, so someone who could reach him could confront him like this and just speak openly, to get his take on all this now, to allow him the opportunity to drop all pretense and honestly appraise the situation.  But he’s gone.  We’ll learn more as time goes on, for the rest of our days, about this, about ourselves, about how we pick up and move on when life gets strange and ugly like this.  I’m far too close to this to give you a simple answer.  And I know too much about the world, about the darkness in it, and the darkness in myself, in all of us, to offer any sense of closure or finality with some damning conclusion.  If it works that way for you, have at it, my take on the world is no more or less valid than yours.  It surely works that way for Sandusky and me, no question about it.  Paterno and me, that’s going to take much longer to figure out, if I ever do.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Used Cars

Well, we just had our big 30th high-school reunion this past weekend.  It was a blast, as usual, a strange and wild night that left me feeling exhausted the following day.  And the thought occurred to me: at this point in our lives, we’re all used cars.  Got road miles.  You can find some devious way to roll back the odometer, but there will still be telltale signs of how far we’ve traveled, in our eyes, how we see the world.  The good thing about used cars is, no matter how hard you kick our asses, we keep on running.

Being a used car is a good thing.  Valuable beyond its dollars, it gets from Point A to Point B many times over, probably to work, places one has to go to get things done.  Road miles.  No frills.  Probably still has a cassette deck and manual windows.  Just gets it done.  That’s us.  Or maybe that’s just me.  I can’t speak for everyone!  But that’s how I feel now, and I’d call it one of those small victories you don’t realize until someone points it out to you, or you look in the mirror and realize things are all right, despite all the dumb, embarrassing, weird shit you’ve done or gone through over the years.

That’s why I go to these things, that sense of recognition I won’t find in the city, that sense of being from somewhere, and somewhere that I’ve learned to appreciate.  I may live in New York City.  But I’m from this small town in Pennsylvania, and there’s no denying it, I’m always going to be from there.  That thought terrified me in my 20s.  Now it guides me, the same way the World Trade Center did when it was around, coming out of a subway station downtown, trying to figure out which way to go, and I’d look up, see the towers, ah, that’s south, now I know where I’m at.  It wasn’t lost on me coming back this time that the “Freedom Tower” (or whatever they’re calling it) is at full height now, gleaming in the sun from my bus window as we rounded that New Jersey curve into the Lincoln Tunnel, and I’m now going to be able to use that building the same way, which made me feel good.

I don’t think I had too many embarrassing moments this time around.  We botched the photo ID badge of one of the people attending, as she had the same name as another classmate.  I felt so bad when she walked in, and I could tell by the look on her face, she already knew.  (Sorry, SFJ, if you read this!)  And in that early part of the reunion when only a handful of people were there, man, the song “Black Sabbath” by Black Sabbath came blasting over the speakers.  Just listen to it.  It was my idea to include a healthy dose of metal in the mix … but probably not a good idea to include a song that sounded like what Satan might play if you’re unlucky enough to meet him at the gates of Hell one day.  From that point forward, I don’t think anyone even noticed the music, as people were talking so loudly and excitedly with each other that it drowned out the music, and that was fine by me.  Can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a bar or club where the volume of the music made it impossible for me to hear a person less than a foot away screaming into my ear. 

As with all these reunions, I felt guilty and stuck-up the next day, too, because I didn’t make time to talk to everyone.  Sometimes because I didn’t know what to say, or we just never connected back then and felt weird about approaching each other, or simply never met physically in the crowd.  I know how these things work – you start talking to somebody, anybody, and there’s just about always something worthwhile and interesting that’s going to flow out of that conversation.  It can’t help but happen with anyone who’s lived this long.  But I had a terrible night sleeping afterwards, with the dozens of conversations I did have rolling around in my head, not to mention it was hot as hell that night and bad sleeping weather.  At least I wasn’t hung over.  A group of folks had tried to talk me into the after-party, but I’m not kidding, I’m too old for this shit!  Hanging out from 6:00 until 11:00 had me feeling wiped out.  I’ve spent more than a few Saturdays and Sundays in my life, all day, performing mental road repair after a hard night out.  Been a long time since I cooled my fevered brow on the smooth porcelain of a toilet bowl rim, after putting my face where it should never go, and hopefully a long time before I do so again!

But overall, a great time.  What struck me this time was having unexpectedly deep conversations with people about their kids, many of whom are at or near college age.  (Meaning these folks had them in their 20s … a lot of people my age at work started in their 30s and have kids still in grade school … and then there are weirdoes like me with no kids.)  One really stuck out for me.  I was taking a leak in the men’s room when J walked in, called out my name and said, “You and me, buddy, we’re going to have a beer when we get back out there.”

The correct response to that is “O.K., man” and so we did.  J then explained to me that his daughter had just graduated in what had to be the top 1% of her class and was on her way to a fairly prestigious local college.  It made him feel a little befuddled … because here he was, working these outrageous hours in a local factory, his wife working just as hard, too, and their kid, somehow, had become a borderline genius for whom it made perfect sense to go to college.  Befuddled, maybe, but obviously proud, too, that he had laid the groundwork for this to happen, worked his ass off, saved, tried to give her everything she wound need to face the world.

And it made think about my late father, who was in the same boat J is now.  I wasn’t as smart as his kid in high school, but smart enough.  Expected to go to college.  So I did.  And had a great time while I was there.  Really spread my wings in a lot of senses, got some kind of bearing as a writer, a taste of what I could do, an introduction to a whole bunch of people who “got me” on some wavelength that didn’t always happen back home.  Got good grades, too, although I’m not sure what all that means now.  It was more the experience of being there and feeling another level in my life that seemed crucial at the time and made me feel like I could go into the world and try anything (which I did, after a few stumbles).

But I never forgot Dad, and bless him for getting me work inthe factory those two summers, as it set me up financially for most of my college career.  I can only imagine how he felt the day he watched his youngest kid graduating from college.  He had tried college fresh out of the armed forces in the 1950’s, but didn’t care for it, and eventually fell into the factory work, on which he raised a family and left Mom a pension she still lives on today.

Whenever I’d come back from New York in the late 80s and for the rest of his days, he loved to drive up to Hazleton and pick me up from the bus station, just so we could talk and relax together on the way back home.  That’s where I really got to know Dad, as a fellow man, as someone I could speak with on some type of equal ground, and oddly enough, find that we got along even better like this.  But the one thing that always stuck in my craw was when he’d say something like, “Bill, go for the money.  I’m so glad you’re doing something in your life that allows you to make some real money.  That’s all I ever wanted for you, not to end up like me.”

Well, I got bad news for Dad … I’ve ended up a lot like him.  Which is good news for me, because I’ve always known he was a good man, and whatever quiet senses of resolve and personal responsibility he carried through life, I’ve aspired to carry, too.  We’re worlds apart in some ways, but most of them very surface.  I turned into him, for better and worse.  My mom, too.  I can see so much of how I am in her.  More and more each day, which comforts me, because that will be how they live on.  And I always wanted to tell Dad, “You know, this life you envision for me, you have no idea what I’m dealing with.  Nasty pricks.  Ruthless people.  The kind you wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with for five minutes, much less spend eight hours a day working with for years on end.  This ‘upper crust’ life you picture yourself missing out on is packed with headaches, greed, insecurity and dishonesty in ways that would make you cringe and run straight back to the factory you know so well.  My life ain’t as great as you think it is.”

But I know he didn’t want to hear that.  He wanted the illusion that any sort of white-collar work was far beyond his blue-collar work in terms of personal happiness and fulfillment.  In some ways it is, in others it’s far from it.  Everyone’s life has problems, and you better believe, people with more money often have more problems.  I don’t even have that much, been hanging on to this way of life by my fingertips for a long time now, and I can see, the people who are successful in some easily identifiable way often have mountains of personal and financial issues that I would find crushing and oppressive beyond belief.  Generally speaking, the more you make, the more you want, and it never stops.

So … I often look back to Dad’s way of life and romanticize it as being far more simple and honest.  But I’m not kidding myself these days.  I’ve written many times before: sane, healthy and solvent.  You got those three things, the world can say anything it wants about you, but it can’t tell you jackshit.  And I think that’s what I’d tell Dad now if I could.  That’s what he lived by, that’s what he taught me (by example … I know he wasn’t even aware of it), that’s how I try to live, too.

All this came bubbling up inside as I spoke with J.  And I guess the main thing I wanted to get across to him was the simple act of recognizing he was sacrificing so his kid could live a better life was about the best he could do for himself, and that his kid could pass along if she wanted.  The act of sacrifice, parental sacrifice in particular, is a beautiful thing that speaks volumes about a person’s character, and something I saw in J’s character, immediately, could see it in his eyes when he spoke about her, and I knew that was how Dad talked about me when he was bragging to the guys in the factory about me and the Dean’s List at college.  And how they looked when they got to  know me those summers and felt some kind of personal stake in my beating ass out of the world they knew so well.

The truth is a kid who’s raised working class, goes out into the world and gets into ways of life that aren’t working-class, sort of finds himself playing it by ear, making it up as he goes along, hoping he’s doing it right, but not really sure if he is.  Hell, I’m still not sure!  But I know I’m living the life I want to, mistakes, missed opportunities and all.  Punching a clock in many senses, just like Dad did, but I’ve also learned just answering the alarm clock, getting your ass out of bed … may not seem like much, but that sense of routine keeps all of us going, no matter how good or bad we feel about it.  It’s work.  I learned over the course of 9/11 in New York, when my world felt empty and shattered, when that sense of routine was blown away for close to a week, I was yearning to get myself back in the office.  We’re conditioned to think the routine is embarrassingly dull and unimaginative … but try living life without it, especially for a reason like that.

There were moments like that all night.  Where I was simply talking to somebody about their kids, or work, or crazy shit we’ve done … and this door quietly opened in my mind or heart to see these other things that come out when you talk about simple things with people who knew you before you were all grown-up and putting on such a brave face.

And that’s why I go to reunions, in a nutshell.  Sure, there’s the flirting, fun, crazy stories, drunken revelry and occasional screwed-up memory that comes flashing back after a few beers and leaves you wondering “where in the hell did that come from.”  But most of it is this strange sort of time travel, where you recognize you’re in the here and now, but someone says something that takes you back to another place in your own life, maybe theirs, too, and makes you see some good things about yourself, the people who brought you along in the world and the person you’re talking to in that given moment.  So it’s not all beer guts, gray hair and gossip.  Well, sure it is.  But this is what you find when you stop paying attention to those things and start to absorb things that really matter, when you learn how to listen, to other people and yourself.