Sunday, January 29, 2017

The High-School Journal

Something cool happened while visiting Pennsylvania over the holidays.  Just before then, one of my high-school English teachers got in touch with me to let me know she still had my senior year high-school journal, and it was time she gave it back to me.  I recall back in 1982 thinking the journal was too “wild” to have around the house, that if my mother ever found it she’d read it, and, I don’t know, maybe spontaneously human combust?

We eventually met up for a good night at the Greystone in Pottsville: she, her husband, my old high-school friend whom I often meet there, various bar folks I’ve gotten to know on my visits.  I thought I “couldn’t wait” to read this thing, but it took me weeks to get around to it …

… and, man, when I did, what a slog!  If you think it would be a cool idea to revisit yourself at the age of 17, you need to think again.  My version of “wild” at the time appears to have been knocking out numerous half-assed William S. Burroughs vignettes that are just senseless to read now … and insulting the hell out of other kids, rarely by name, but occasionally so.  Usually employing terms like “jocks,” “brown nosers,” “druggies,” “rednecks” and such.  It wasn’t just my English teacher reading this at the time.  Other “hip” kids knew what I was doing, and I let them read along as I wrote, probably about a dozen classmates.  I was writing for an audience and trying to impress upon them how “wild” and “crazy” I was.

That’s the most irritating thing about reading these passages: the constant, heavy-handed qualifiers I injected to that effect.  Similar to Steve Martin sporting a fake arrow through his head.  While I claimed to loathe and disregard the teenage standards of my classmates, I was judging myself by those very standards.  And finding myself “wild” and “sick” and “insane” by their supposedly tame standards.  It wouldn’t occur to me to create my own standards until I got into college and then adulthood.

I read this stuff now, and a lot of it feels like a lie of omission.  I was constantly underlining my idiosyncratic rebellion without quite realizing, much less being able to admit to, just how conservative and plain I really was.  Still am!  I’m not William S. Burroughs or Hunter S. Thompson.  I don’t want to be. 

Back then … I wanted to be.  Lord knows, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas will always be my favorite book, but it seems to me like Thompson lost his way a few years after that and dove into sports and politics, both of which he thought he knew a lot about, but never truly grasped and fell into clichés and bad writing.  (He seemed to be a bit of an asshole, too, in his personal life.)  Burroughs?  Had I known the sole reason he was able to go on these years-long international drug sprees was a healthy trust fund his parents left him, it might have dawned on my working-class mind that it just wasn’t in the cards for me to be a globetrotting heroin junky.  Let’s not even get into the episode in Mexico where he got high and, mimicking William Tell only with a shot glass and loaded hand gun, missed the glass and shot his wife in the head, killing her, and not seeming much worse for wear afterwards.  It's hard to tell when someone was a junky before, during and after something like this.

I was a pretty normal kid (who didn’t want to be normal).  I was a happy kid (who didn’t want to be happy).  It’s telling to me that not once in that whole year of writing did I mention my parents.  I mention my siblings once, noting when brother M moved out of the house to start his life in Harrisburg, PA, and how overjoyed I was.  (Actually, I was … M was being a bit of a prick at the time, not happy where he was at, pulling away from his touch-and-go “problem” years, and clearly desperate to get out on his own.  Whatever issues he may have had those first few years of his young adult life, I’m sure the sense of freedom he felt was infinitely larger.)

Why didn’t I mention them?  Part of that was kids at that age are burning to establish their own identity and don’t want to acknowledge something as trivial as family.  (A lot of artists of varying sorts never get over that phase, spend the rest of their lives either having or feigning non-interest in immediate family.  Something I’ve always considered strange and mildly repellant.)

But the larger reason was because to do so would have been to acknowledge how well-adjusted I was.  To read this journal, you would think the exact opposite.  Frankly, even following me around at the time with a camera crew, you might have thought otherwise.  But my family life was so squared away that I never once thought of it as a “problem.”  I had a small, steady, supportive group of friends.  I took a vague leadership role in that group that was far more benevolent than the petty bickering and in-fighting teenagers fall prey to.  For all the bitching I did in the journal, I was known for being a smart, responsible, studious kid.  I knew kids who weren’t as well-adjusted.  Some died along the way through misadventure.  Some spent years lost in drug and alcohol hazes and could still be there now.  Some just had relatively hard lives filled with varying levels of difficulty.

None of that was clear to me at the time.  And it should be recognized now, the home my parents gave me, the stable setting my siblings and friends provided, because I’ve seen what can happen without that sort of secure environment.  It would have pained me to admit as much at the time.  Then again … this is the way of teenagers, the blind narcissism, the faux empathy, the feigned compassion.  I’ve noted elsewhere on this site, most teenagers see themselves as this font of open-hearted goodwill, the only people who are really cool in the world and not out to screw everyone over.  But, as I noted, mercenary is a much better word to describe them.  We didn’t fully sense our power, what made us good, the things that made us who we really were, and thus felt a profound insecurity.  (Those kids who did fully sense their power … I suspect they had a whole different set of issues to blow out of proportion.  Even now, I envy them!)

It really is instructive to go back and get a clear view of who you were at seventeen, because what you mainly see is a veil, a slightly opaque curtain that you were trying to hide behind in vain.  And a lot of that simply comes down to not being a fully-formed being and trying out different sets of clothes to see what fit.  Not a crime, but awkward as hell to ponder decades down the road.  (I often feel the same way reading my college writings, although I was clearly further down the road and had a better sense of self.)

I’m going to outline a few passages that really struck me, some trivial, others less so, but understand most of my time spent with that journal, the actual contents?  I was more amazed at the amount of time I spent hand-writing in the notebook, pre-computer age, and we only used typewriters for formal school assignments.  At the very least, I can take away how dedicated I was to the act of writing, as this consumed so much of my time on those “wild” teenage nights that were not so wild!  Living in the city for so long, I’ve forgotten the abject boredom teenagers in small towns often feel.


I’ve been having the strangest daydream going around my head lately.  It goes like this.  I’m out driving around the parking lot, “behind the wheel” drivers ed, and Mr. D is by that little shack giving instructions on the C.B. radio.  The first time I drive by him he’s sweating profusely, moonie under arms.  The second time, he’s taking rapid, spasmodic seizures and making strange gurgling sounds in the back of his throat.  Halfway through the third time around, he screams, “Stop!” runs into the little shack and slams the door shut.  All the cars are now turned off.  Slowly, a small sound starts to build.  It sounds like an avalanche just beginning.  Steadily, it grows, louder and louder until it fills my ears.  Then, equally as loud, I hear “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix blasting from the shack.  The tension in the air has the hair on my arms standing straight up.  The walls of the shack start trembling, then KA-BOOM! The shack blows to pieces!  And there is Mr. D, straddling a huge Harley Davidson chopper with three wheels, his glasses replaced by mirror shades, stark naked except for the spike-top German army helmet he’s wearing.  He guns that bitch all the way and pops a wheelie the length of the parking lot.  He then goes ripping by at  a speed of at least 100 mph, whipping all of us the bird as he screams by.

Synopsis: Mr. D, the driver’s ed instructor, was known as a staunch Christian and strict disciplinarian.  His daughter was in our class, an extremely clean-cut, smart student.  I was clearly projecting this strange alter-ego onto him as I obviously had minor issues with his teaching style.  (Although I now can see, “strict disciplinarian” teachers aren’t necessarily bad, and kids in general are in no position to judge them.)  I think I pulled the imagery form Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell album cover.


I went out with the boys on Saturday night, and it was like taking a step back in time to the days of the old West, when anything went and nobody really gave a damn if you shot someone in the back.  It was outrageous.  For starters, T, the driver, tried to impress us all with his reckless “I don’t give a damn” form of driving.  I was really impressed.  I’ll be even more impressed when he totals his Mom's car and has to hawk his balls to pay her back.  Then there was Hickey Lips, but he wasn’t so bad.  He just sat there holding his quart in his hand with a kool-aid smile on his face.  Then there was S, who was king for the night.  He was blasted.  He smashed his quart bottle in front of W's house and then we peeled out, yelling obscenities all the way.  Me?  I just sat there laughing most of the way.  I don’t drink, so everyone else called me a redneck, and that’s just hunky dory by me.  After the football game, T drove up to Ashland just to park by L's house to try to “catch a glimpse of the fair maiden” in a window.  I felt like a dick.

Synopsis: this sounds like a fairly typical “night out with the boys," senior year of high school.  More of often than not, it involved copious amounts of time at Holiday Lanes, the bowling alley/pool hall just outside of Shenandoah, PA where we all honed our anemic pool-shark skills.  My first drunk makes for a good read – I’m guessing I was still smarting from that horrendous night when I wrote this.  “Hickey Lips” was our friend L.R., who would later check out of life in a haze at 19 years old.  T drove us around in his Volkswagen Rabbit, forever blasting Van Halen from his Big Brute sound system.  He, S and I would navigate through all of high school and a large chunk of our adult lives before various issues arose (in that strange way they sometimes do in long-term relationships that dissolve).  I remember this night, S smashing that bottle, laying rubber, baying out curses.  The few times we did this as teenagers, at the homes of kids or teachers we had issues with, it always struck us hilarious and incredibly exciting.  With W, just the week before this, I had some type of issue with him in the journal that had me angry with him.  But I recall him approaching me after this in a very hurt manner and asking what the hell happened that night.  And T pining over that girl!  It seemed awkward and creepy at the time … but now seems like just the sort of thing a guy with teenage blue balls would do.  I can still feel that sense of quiet desperation in that car, looking, waiting for something that just wasn’t going to happen.  That’s one of the binding emotions I still feel regarding my teenage years.


Thursday was Punk Rock Day in school, and I was out in full force.  Holey t-shirt with no sleeves, scummy-looking torn jeans, cat-eye bifocal shades and 50’s style hair.  I was one of three guys who rose to the occasion, and the other two couldn’t rub weenies with me.  I out-punked them by a mile.  You should have seen the reactions I got from people.  They’d stop talking and start laughing when I walked by.  Everyone looked at me (I could stare at them through my shade without them knowing it).  I felt like Lawrence Welk, Live at Budokan.  Then lunch came.  The guys at the table made a few comments that someone would probably tear the shirt off my back before the day was over.  I thought they were joking.  Walking to my locker after lunch, not expecting anything.  Suddenly, I feel someone grabbing the back of my shirt and then a tearing sound.  Those bastards from lunch had me surrounded in the hallway.  Trapped like a porcupine.  I started screaming “Rape!” but it was hard to do because I was laughing so hard.  It was a unique moment in history of North Schuylkill.  Something you will not read about in the yearbook.  Something which I, and many others, will remember when we are shitting in our checkered pants in some nursing home.

Synopsis: I have zero recollection of this happening.  As I recall that last half of my senior year, I was pissed because all my close friends had first-period lunch, so I had to make-do with a bunch of guys whom I knew, but weren’t really friends.  It was strange but got along better as time passed.  It somehow was a big deal that you spend that 45-minute lunch period conversing with people you genuinely liked.  (It didn't occur to most of us that the larger our circle of friends, the more people to converse with.)  Most people always had the same table staked out and knew where to sit.  High school was like that, as I recall, people marked their territories.  And it was a pecking order of sorts.  We got respect simply for being seniors, but within that bunch of guys there were a few jocks, a few brains, and some indiscriminate vo-tech kids sent back to the main campus to finish out their high-school careers, a motley crew.  I would guess that I instigated the whole shirt-ripping thing as I thought it would make me look even more punk … I can’t recall how I spent the rest of the day.  But much like the time I jumped off the swimming pool’s high dive in a kid’s lion Halloween costume (to win a $1.00 bet), I’m sure this went down as described.  Sprinkled throughout the shyness, good manners and studying were these berserk incidents.  I’m just wondering now who else dressed up like punks as I can’t even recall myself doing it!

Later that week, I’d go to see The J. Geils Band, my first big concert, and a similarly wild experience.  In the journal, I had earlier mentioned a band called Freefare playing the high-school gym on 12/18/81 and having my doors blown off.  (I just did a web search and came across this strange story from 1973.  Apparently, this band had been playing the high-school gym circuit for quite awhile!)  I remember the excitement of that night, but virtually nothing about the band or its music, save they were a long-haired power trio playing pretty standard hard rock, and that a beautiful junior with blonde hair named Janine made a major play for the lead singer (which probably happened all the time).  I do recall they were Born Again Christians (their songs didn't seem to be, although we couldn't hear the lyrics), so I suspect the guy probably gave her a pamphlet to read.  Or who knows, might have gotten a nice blow job in the parking lot, an experience many of us wondrously imagined at the time!  No skin off my nose, nor God’s!  But I do recall driving around on that winter's night with my friend G afterwards, pumped, excited as hell, sensing the possibility of the world in front of us.


Mr. C keeps telling us to take aside a few moments every day, find some place where you can be alone, and just sit there and talk with yourself, about anything at all.  Religion, creation, wars, what you want from life, who you really are, so on and so forth.  Well I’ve been there.  Take my word for it: if you want to stay sane, don’t even think about doing it.  You are what you are, the world is what the world is, what you believe in is what you believe in.  Don’t get down into the heart of all those tangled thoughts, never ask why, or your mind is going to get so fucked up that you won’t know what is or isn’t real.  If C sits around thinking to himself like that all the time, he must be one crazy bastard.  I understand the concept of developing theories on life and yourself.  But only go so far.  Go too far, and you may never come back the way you went in.  Ask Merv Griffin.  He knows.

Synopsis: Mr. C, along with his sister, Mrs. G, were our class advisors, good people, friendly, smart, helpful.  C was a bit more of a hard-ass as he was also a football coach, but I recall him having a relatively open-minded and positive coaching and teaching style.  I wonder about him, and my favorite teachers, and the way their lives worked as teachers.  You age, but the kids you teach, for decades, stay the same age.  I imagine it gets boring.  It bends your mind.  It gives you insight to teenagers and how they see the world.  But you see the same shit, emotionally and mentally, over and over.  Which I would guess changes incrementally over time, but is essentially the same each passing year.  I would guess how the kids see the teachers slowly evolves over time.  I recall these people as being in their late 20’s and early 30’s.  In some kids’ memories, these same teachers will be in their 60’s, and thus they’ll more than likely have a completely different perception of them.  I'd wager we felt closer to our teachers, in age if nothing else, because most of them had graduated college in the early and mid 1970's and were just starting their teaching careers.

Those teachers would see us in a very different light now, as middle-aged adults who’ve passed through so many positive and negative things in life to get where we are.  When I saw my old teacher at the restaurant, I didn’t recognize her until I took a good look at her face, and there it was, the same person.  I could see her looking at me and that quizzical moment, “That’s Bill?!”  In my mind, my looks haven’t changed that drastically (after dropping serious weight a few years ago).  But my hair line’s pulled back from what it was as a teenager (not to mention combing it straight back as opposed to the shaggy 70's look I had), I no longer weigh 165 lbs. or possess that angular teenage gauntness.  And I don’t doubt, the hardness of living in a major city, burying both my parents, dealing with all the insane, unanticipated shit that goes along with being an adult … it surely registers physically.  I like the kid I was in the journal (with some minor reservations), but I had so much to learn.  I suspect the person I am now, the way I live, would make no sense to that kid in 1982.  A time when I couldn't imagine spending one night in New York, much less living there nigh on three decades!  It wasn't what I thought it would be, and I'm not who I thought I was.  How the world goes.

Monday, January 02, 2017

Worst Year Ever?

Well, I’ve been reading that trope about 2016 occasionally over the past week or so in various posts.  A New York Times editorial ran a piece on it that actually was level-headed.  The Washington Post ran a much better piece that points out some hard truths about history and what a “worst” year really constitutes.  (The writer of that piece, Max Roser, seems like a pretty interesting character well worth reading up on.)  The Post liked where they were going so much that they did it twice.

I’ve always been more interested in personal experience, i.e., I have a hard time with people carrying on about the state of the world, generally because I recognize that they’re pouting because things beyond their control aren’t going their way.  Shit, that’s the nature of the universe.  Get used to it.  Or don’t.

My short list of things that would constitute a “bad year”: your physical health failing (either radically, like cancer, or even something more routine, like a broken arm), your mental health failing, an immediate family member dying or suffering from failing health, a friend dying or suffering from failing health, a pet dying or suffering from failing health, a relationship disintegrating (be it a marriage, long-term friendship, familial relation), losing one’s source of financial income, having one’s source of financial income become intolerably stressful and/or negative, losing one’s home through fire, natural disaster, accident, financial failure, becoming a victim of a violent felony criminal, becoming incarcerated or otherwise forfeiting your personal freedom … you getting the picture?

And even when these awful things do happen … how do you respond?  I look back over the past decade or so and can check off a few of these things on that short list of misery.  You can wander back through my posts and see how I handled each.  Which is to say I’d rather examine these things and put them in the context of my overall life, and the world in general.  Because that’s reality.  My problems matter to me.  Maybe by seeing this, you can divine some type of empathy and grasp that we all suffer from these universal hard truths of life, sooner or later.  Do I belabor the points?  Sure, but I try not to.  When bad shit happens, you tend to dwell on it for awhile.  How you dwell is a mark of how you see the world.

I’m supposed to feel bad because David Bowie, Prince, George Michael and Carrie Fisher are dead?  Well, I don’t.  And let’s face it, when you talk about celebrity deaths this year, it always seems to come back to these four people and no one else.  Poor Glenn Frey … even in death, everyone is still convinced he was a massive jerk who shouldn’t be on this level.  To me, that’s the most humane realization I’ve seen about celebrity deaths: that even in death, this person was so real, so obviously complicated, that it makes more sense not to think about him because doing so might inspire negative emotions.  That’s humanity!  That’s who we are!  God bless Glenn Frey!   (Fuck him, too, the nasty little prick.)

I gather there’s a few things at play when a cliché like “worst year ever” is thrown into play.  The worst aspect is the word “ever”: one of those crappy internet words that’s used constantly in post and headline titles to underline the writer’s and/or editor’s insecurity.  Like “awesome.”  Like “epic.”  Like “like.”  One of those loaded words that when you hear someone utter it … you just know the person is full of shit.  They’re over-compensating for lack of … talent?  Common sense? Intelligence?  You tell me; I don’t care.

It seems like the larger aspect is that one’s supposed to feel a connection between his personal life and the world at large, the “personal” becoming “political, “ etc.  After a few decades of being around people like this all the time in NYC, I’m just not buying it.  Nor would I be buying it if I was around a bunch of staunch conservatives in the Midwest.  I don’t feel connected to anything via politics: if I’m being honest, I never have.  I never will.  It’s a game for con artists and sociopaths.  That’s the great failing of my lifetime, which spans the 60’s through now: that politics has turned into professional wrestling, nothing more or less.  (I put a lot more stock in socio-economics.  Want to get a play on me?  I have just enough money to feel minor comfort, and not enough to feel extremely distrustful.  That tells you more about me than any political shadings and rantings ever will.)

How do I feel connected to the world at large?  Here’s a good example.

I had no idea this was happening, but back when Mom and Dad were alive, I would “borrow” Mom’s car every time I visited them in Pennsylvania.  From 1988 up through their passings in 2004 and 2013.  At some point in the late 90’s, Dad bought Mom a used Chevy Cavalier, I think it was 1994 … at the time, a reasonable purchase, a car a few years out of date and in pretty good shape.

Well, Mom never got another car.  My siblings implored her, Mom, that Cavalier is getting old, why not buy yourself a new car for once in your life?  She wouldn’t.  In her mind, it made more sense for her to make-do with a nondescript used car than to spend money on a new one.  That way, she’d have more money to leave her kids when she passed on, which mattered much more to her.

But something was quietly happening all those years, with my going back there and using her car to get around.  I never thought to question what would happen if I wrecked the car.  I knew I hadn’t done anything to get insured; I simply assumed Mom had the situation covered, and it was no big deal.  As I drove so comparatively little, it didn't seem like a burning issue.

When Mom passed on, she willed the car to me, which was fine: all I needed was wheels to get me around while I was back there.  When I came back for Christmas that year after Mom passed, I stopped in with her insurance agent who told me I could get a very lightweight insurance predicated on the concept that I’d be driving the car back in Pennsylvania (and not in New York, where insurance is much more of an ordeal).

This happened, for something like $380/year, which I was glad to pay just so I could have a car to get around in while visiting.  Flash forward two years.  I sold Mom’s car to a friend whose son was in dire need of a car to get to work: any car, even a 20-year-old junker.  (That insurance agent, who Mom thought the world of, was a bit of a prick during the transaction, suggesting that I charge her Blue Book value, which was outrageous.  I charged her $200, like I said I would, as a favor, and not worried that the state was going to track us down to pay Blue Book value taxes on the transaction.  They never did.)

I bought my brother’s much more amenable Toyota Corolla as he decided to buy a new car.  Almost immediately the insurance company started harassing me via mail, convinced that I was chiseling them by driving the car in New York on Pennsylvania insurance.  I wasn’t.  The car stayed there.  I can’t imagine driving a car in New York City; it looks like a nightmare to me.  Want no part of it.  But I guess for every person like me … there probably are thousands of customers claiming Pennsylvania’s much cheaper insurance while driving in New York or some other less car friendly urban environment.  It reached the point where I was going to physically attack anyone from that insurance company if they showed up at the door: I was on the way out with them and would be uninsured shortly.

So my sister made the nice offer of putting me up on her insurance policy the same way Mom had.  This past Christmas break I got back there, and on one of her lunch hours we went over to a local notary to transfer title and update her insurance.

And it’s one of those surreal smalltown experiences.  An elderly, wise-cracking woman, like so many rural notaries, working out of a small office in the front of her house.  I could see the burnished dark wood and wall hangings through the living-room entrance, the carpeting and leather sofa, the cuckoo clock, family pictures.  A dog started barking, ran up and parked his front paws on my lap, a scrappy little rat terrier named Frank Lloyd Wright.  This is how you get a document notarized in rural PA!

We learned from the insurance agent over the phone that my sister’s insurance would go up $300 annually by having me on her plan for the Corolla, which she’ll now own.  And it hit me right then … this is what Mom and Dad were quietly doing all those years, paying out that money because I was their son, and they were glad to have me come home to visit.  I suspect even if I had been fully aware of this and mentioned it while they were alive, they would have blown it off and told me never to mention it again.  As it is, I’ll be paying my sister close to $100 less than where I was headed with the previous insurance company.  It was both a learning moment and a time of quiet reflection, like so many I’ve had in the past few years.

When people ask me what kind of year I had … I don’t think Donald Trump, or David Bowie, or race relations, or exploding smartphones, or refugees, or cyber security, or terrorists.  I think of situations like this, which are legion in our lives, and piece them together over the course of days and months.  No truly awful situations went down – as they surely have in certain years in the near past – so I don’t feel myself struggling and learning how to live with major, life-altering issues.  I’ve been doing that.  Quite well, too, gleaning whatever unwanted wisdom I can from whatever shit sandwich life has force-fed me.

The worst year you’ll ever have will be the one in which you drop dead.  You’re living wrong if you see it otherwise.