Monday, April 17, 2006

Spring 1989 - The Lost Episode

I’ve been trying to figure out how to (or even if I should) respond to your most recent post. Part of me thought that it should be left to stand on its own. Another part of me felt compelled to respond as perhaps an addendum or footnote to your recollection of all that happened January through May 1989. I was also unsure how to post my response. I figured it would be too long to qualify as a “Comment” so here you go for what it’s worth.

It seems you’ve done a great deal of introspection since 1989 likely the result of trying to figure out what the hell happened all those years ago. I’d also expect that there is a little bit of “And how did I get so lucky to be where I am today?” going on as well.

For better or worse your post has been a catalyst bringing back (or perhaps dredging up) all sorts of memories. Some things I hadn’t thought of in years, many I suppose long repressed. My frame when thinking about those days has always been as it relates my own situation Senior year: my father announcing his plans to divorce my mother a week before sending me back to SLU for one final late-August trip North; the gut-wrenching news of Mom’s terminal cancer the following February; the final insult of her chemotherapy-caused stroke that paralyzed her right side effectively eliminating her ability to speak; and her inevitable death three weeks after graduation. Even without those extreme circumstances it would have been a difficult time – the dissolution of (or perhaps more accurately the eviction from) a familiar, secure and coddling environment and the ushering-in of adulthood and the “real world.” Divorce and cancer aside it would have been unsettling.

I don’t remember much of our friendship and interactions during our final semester probably because there really wasn’t much of either. I remember being excited to see you after your semester in London and looking forward to hanging out again. I remember sitting at a local bar sipping a beer watching a breaking news report about the Lockerbie flight and rushing home to call your house to make sure you were OK and the relief I felt learning from your Mom you were fine. I remember our first “reunion” in the mailroom and your rather disaffected reaction to seeing me again contrasted with my enthusiasm. And I remember you spending lots of time in your room. I don’t blame you for what seemed at the time like the terminus of our friendship. There is more I could have done had I simply taken the opportunity. I could have spent time talking to you and trying to figure out what was wrong. I could have tried to help you. There is so much more I could have done as a friend but I was too wrapped up wrestling my own demons I was incapable of being supportive.

I also remember your brief stint as Phi Kap’s housefather and unceremonious replacement by me. At the time I am sure this felt like a betrayal. I honestly had no plans to step into your shoes when I drove north from Syracuse that weekend. Like you I had nowhere to go – Mom had died three months prior and Dad was engaged to Gwyneth making me as welcome as a houseguest who has overstayed his already unwanted visit. I had packed my Honda and was planning a trip west to see what would happen. Having no plans made the opportunity to live room and board free in that familiar and coddling environment very appealing. So off you went out the side door by the pool room in your packed Blazer to Boston. And there I was in the House Father Suite in Phi Kap. I suspect neither of us had any idea what to do next. So we drifted for about five years with little interaction. The interaction we had was forced at best – pleasantries extended more like muscle memory than an honest dialogue.

Finally, I remember getting your phone call at my apartment in St. Louis the summer of 1994. I remember hearing the hesitation in your voice. Your wondering if I’d be happy to hear from you or give you an earful of vitriol. I tried to act pissed but I couldn’t. I was so happy that you had finally crawled out of your cave. There was a flurry of phone calls between the two of us for a week catching up and then one Thursday morning you called me asking what I was up to. You’ll recall, at the time I was unemployed having been laid off from an ad agency. When your call came I was folding laundry and told you so. “Well, why don’t you drive on out to Denver,” you asked. I considered it for a couple seconds and thought when else would I have the chance to simply drop everything, hop in a car and hit the road for what I expected to be a 12-hour road trip? Less than 30 minutes later I was driving out of St. Louis headed west in a 1985 Honda Accord with no air conditioning and an AM-only radio for company. About 14 hours later I arrived at your doorstep in an overheated car having driven through a tornado in Kansas, blown a tire and replaced it with the donut in the pitch dark on I-70, listened to hours of country-western and the occasional fire-and-brimstone preacher. It was as if the time between 1989 and 1994 never happened. We instantly slipped into our familiar banter and picked up where we left off.

(As an aside, you probably don't remember but that Honda ran hot and in order to keep the engine from completely blowing I had to run the defroster to bleed heat off the engine block. As a result I had to drive with the windows down to keep from roasting alive. No mean feat while driving around the perimeter of a tornado and the associated rainstorms. When I finally emerged from the car wet and sporting a cab driver tan (left arm only) I was hard-of-hearing in my left ear from all the wind noise that resulted from an 80 MPH sprint across Kansas. While a pain in the ass at the time it was a great adventure that bears retelling from time-to-time.)

We haven’t seen each other for several years. We speak occasionally. But we have the Bitter Buffalo where we can joke, observe the absurdities of life, share opinions on music and books, flex our wit and continue a dialogue that began the fall of 1985 in Sykes Hall. I’m not sure why I have written all of this. It certainly isn’t the full and complete record. It certainly isn’t meant to dispute your most recent post. I guess I just wanted to let you know how things looked from my point of view. And I suppose to offer a long-deserved apology for not being a better friend to you when you really needed one. I also want to let you know that while we are both carrying on our lives as husbands and fathers I will always consider you one of the most important people in my life. I’m pretty proud of the way you managed to pull your life together. Finally I’m impressed that you had the guts to peel back the scar tissue and publicly share your perspective on all that crap that went down shortly before and after we graduated. Not that you need me to tell you but you’re doing pretty damned well.

posted by MGSoden, 11:24 AM | link | 2 comments

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

My 80's: The The

"Perfect" (1983, from the CD, Soul Mining)

It's a chilly English winter,
And solitude is never easy to maintain,
Except when it rains.

Beginning in August, 1988, my senior year at St. Lawrence, I spent a semester in England. I stayed with a friend named Biff (no kidding) at a rather eccentric family's house in Hampstead. The family had a son, Tinker, who lived at home and stayed in a room on the top floor of their large apartment house. Tinker was handsome, extremely intelligent, and charming, and he taught English at a local school for foreigners, mainly Italians. Mainly extremely attractive female Italians, to judge from the impressive and seemingly never-ending parade of hot women he brought home. Biff and I spent many hours in Tinker's room, hanging with Tinker and his Italian sweeties, smoking hash sprinkled over elaborately hand-rolled tobacco cigarettes.

So I hang an empty smile beneath my empty eyes,
And go out for a walk.
The wet morning sun reflects off the paving-stones,
While a little dog barks its head off,
In the distance.

For the final month of the semester, Biff and I stayed with another family in Oxford, where we "studied" architecture in that storied town. Our lone assignment was to work with a team of colleagues to produce a brochure about the distinctive and historical architecture on Oxford's High Street that could be sold at gift shops and used as a sort of hiker's guide to fancy buildings. Before we left London Biff and I hooked up with Tinker's brother, Dom, who sold drugs. We purchased a block of hash the size of a bar of hand soap, about two inches on a side. While we were able to successfully beat our deadline and get our guidebook published, the relish with which we consumed that $300 chunk of THC gave the whole "Oxford High Street" guidebook assignment a juvenile second meaning. At least one occasional reader of this blog was there with me. I'm sure he remembers it better than I do.

Passing by a cemetery,
I think of all the little hopes and dreams,
That lie lifeless and unfilled beneath the soil.

I came back to school, back to campus in Canton, NY, in January. I wasn't feeling well. I withdrew into my room and spent little time outside it. I went to very few classes, and eventually stopped going to them altogether. I spent nights drinking, mostly, and days staring at the ceiling of my room until I could muster enough energy to get some more beer and start the cycle again.

I see an old man fingering his perishing flesh.
He tells himself he was a good man and did good things.

Fred was a mentally disabled man who delivered newspapers in Canton. He walked the same route daily, delivering his papers, and thus could be relied on to walk in front of our house at almost the exact same time every day. We learned (from the janitor, who grew up in Canton and went to school with him) Fred had always reacted strongly to hearing his name called out loud. When he was in school, for instance, kids would taunt him by yelling "Fred!," which would often cause him enter a semi-catatonic state and bang his head against his locker. Inevitably, he would have to be physically restrained and calmed down by the school nurse.

Lacking anything better to do (I wasn't going to classes anymore), my friend and I went into the attic of our house and waited until Fred came around the corner. It was spring, and the snow was melting. A little river was coursing down the sidewalk, which Fred navigated with klunky-looking moon boots. We screamed "Fred" from behind an ornate cutout in the gable. We were hidden in the shadows; he could not see us. Fred stopped, looked skyward. We yelled "Fred!" again. Fred grabbed his glasses and tore them off his face. He threw his arms in the air, and his mouth dropped open. He held that pose for several seconds. Then, without warning, he keeled forward, face first, arms still above his head, into the river of melting snow. He stayed there for a minute, maybe two, until a Samaritan in a passing car got his face out of the water and helped him up.

Amused and confused by life's little ironies,
He swallows his bottle of distilled damnation.

The excessive drinking was certainly a problem, but it was just a symptom of something much bigger, much more sinister. I was fortunate to have a girlfriend who insisted on getting me to a doctor. (I was fortunate to have a girlfriend at all, as shitty as I treated her -- Carol, if you by some strange twist of fate you are reading this, you need to know how grateful I am to you for your support, and how sorry I am to have put you through all that horrible shit. I hope you've forgiven me.) The doctor told me I was bipolar (manic depressive, as they called it in the olden days), and put me on lithium. I began to feel better. I convinced my professors to let me do the work I missed (essentially, I argued, I had a note from my doctor that entitled me to such special treatment), and I finished my classes in 6 weeks, passing enough of them to graduate. Though the next few years were, at times, pretty difficult, that was my turning point. With the help and support of my friends and family (without which, frankly, I'd have been completely screwed -- and you probably wouldn't be reading this), my life eventually returned to normal.

Oh, what a perfect day,
To think about my silly world.
My feet are firmly screwed to the floor.
What is there to fear from such a regular world?

"Perfect" appeared on 1983's Soul Mining LP. Strangely, the song isn't included on the remastered version that was released a couple of years ago (I think that's because "Perfect" was a single tacked on the end of the original US release, and the remastered version is of the original UK release, but that's pretty much speculation on my part -- don't go trying to settle any bar bets with that tidbit). That's too bad. "Perfect" is one of Matt Johnson's best songs.

Furthermore, I've always thought the title was apropos.

posted by Bill Purdy, 7:45 PM | link | 1 comments