Saturday, September 27, 2008

Dawg day afternoon

We interrupt this introspective and moderately cringey travelogue to bring you a glimpse of today's festivities: namely, the triumphant return of the Bulldogs to a spectacularly renovated Garfield High School.

It's hard to describe the experience of wandering around, inside a building whose shell and staircases were familiar, but whose interior was foreign, slickly modernized. Garfield: tasteful and contemporary and as shiny clean as it is ever, ever going to be again. This is not your father's Oldsmobile. I ducked into one of the girls' bathrooms, expressly to see the spotless tile, the amazing toilets that actually flushed. I can remember girls crying, in those bathrooms, and smoking, and trying on prom dresses my friend Gwyn capably sewed herself...but actually using the facilities in the manner in which they were intended was a calculated risk. If you could, you held it.

Anyway. I bumped into my 11th-grade English teacher, Ann Schuh, who insisted that she remembered me and in fact had thought of me just the other day. "What on earth for?" I asked her helplessly. Of course it's possible that she proceeded on down the hall saying that to every single person who exclaimed at the sight of her, but in the moment I allowed myself a tiny glow. Ms. Schuh, if she ever Googles herself, perhaps will see this, and so here are two stories for her:

  • On one of my essays, she once scribbled a comment claiming that she expected better than "this Holden Caulfield whining" from me. I hadn't read Catcher in the Rye at the time and so this meant little to me, though whining ensured that I caught the gist of it, gee thanks. A year or two later, when I actually read the book, I was happy to take it as a stupefying compliment: she was comparing me to Salinger!

  • Every year Ms. Schuh chaperoned a group of students to the Ashland Shakespeare Festival in Oregon. I did not go. But I remember that the boy I pined and longed and humiliated myself for did...AND he secured special permission and another spot in the group for his girlfriend, who didn't even attend Garfield. OH. THE. AGONY, of sitting in her class aware that the mumbly metalhead of my dreams was about to set off for a romantic weekend of theatre, instigated by (and, granted, under the watchful eye of) Ms. Schuh, who I adored and feared in equal measure. Did she have any inkling of her betrayal, the melodrama playing out in my pointy little head? Cripes, let's hope not. Already she is reading this and, no doubt, detecting traces of more whining.

I had to orient myself by looking out the windows, time and again; even the dimensions of the classrooms have changed. The south annex to the original building is now seamlessly connected, so I found myself walking through hallways that did not previously exist. The dank and forbidding gym has been replaced by an immense new complex, the walls spotless white and soaring overhead. A group of folks from my class stumbled across the new weight room and screamed in awe; it's nicer than the gyms most of us belong to.

Someone picked up a copy of the school paper, the Messenger's latest edition, and in it I found a hilarious article that I sincerely hope they post online eventually, about the myths and ghosts of the old building. One section deployed every possible double and triple entendre to talk about the little balconies up behind the old auditorium stage, where you could access the light grid and run backdrops up and down on cables. The speculation in the article was that more things were...erected, up there in the rigging, than mere stage sets. Ahem. To my surprise, these ribald tales had their doubters. So it falls to me to tell you that, yes, there was a distinct underground student lounge operation on the eastern balcony. A couple of cots, a red light bulb for atmosphere. The most exciting thing to happen to me up there, given that I was a pretty big dork (and the tightly-wound valedictorian) was that a couple other kids smuggled in a microwave stolen from the faculty room, and so we laid around in our little opium den making...popcorn. Other things may indeed have been made, in the Lounge, but nerdly I was not privy to them. Also, we would never in a million years have gotten away with writing such hilariously filthy punning in the school paper, so well-played, student journalists. A master stroke, you might say.

At any rate, y'all have to find a new spot to get busy:

The sexy sekrit popcorn-and-cot area? Now a grand, sweeping staircase down to the student commons and cafeteria. The underground student lounge IS NOW A LOUNGE, for reals. Hilarious and bizarre. (It would be the staircase on the left, if you're wondering. Oh, horny and otherwise maladjusted teens...where will you go now?)

Chicklegirl, who I met wandering the halls, called it Closure, what we were feeling, and I suppose that's accurate. It was Garfield, but it wasn't. It certainly wasn't the haunting Gothic brickpile of my anxiety dreams...and now that I think about it, I don't remember the last time I had one. It didn't smell right. It was a dazzling new building, plopped down inside the shell of the old one...and I was pleasantly surprised to find that comforting, instead of unsettling. "It isn't mine any more," I said aloud, with a kind of relief. It belongs to new kids, now: a dazzling new facility in which to daydream, and get takeout mashed potatoes from Ezell's, and get into melodramatic mayhem, and get their hearts broken and mended, and maybe just possibly sneak a little education into their brains around the edges. Good times, good riddance, good luck.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Time travel

I took a short but much-needed vacation last week, spending a long weekend in Portland, Oregon. I had multiple agendas, for a brief trip: to revisit a place I hadn't been since I was a dorky adolescent; to indulge myself at Powell's, where--inexplicably--I had never been; and to visit my father's grave...incidentally, where I had also never been. We'd had the service, at Willamette National Cemetery, but they hadn't yet placed his ashes in the ground. So. Complexity. High stakes, a lot to accomplish in 72 hours. I've been meaning to write about it since, and finally figured I'd have to take it a day, and a Significant Task, at a time. Here's part one.

* * * * *

I stayed at the Benson Hotel for several reasons: it's centrally located, it meets my aforementioned standard re. bathrobe provision, and it's where we stayed on a lone trip when I was 14 years old--me, Mom, Sis, and Grammy. We were there to attend some figure-skating extravaganza that did not have a Seattle tour date that year. The Benson was swanky then and is swanky now, and so I'm not sure how we managed to afford the arrangements. We must have had a coupon. At any rate, we went clomping into the lobby in our puffy down ski jackets, me toting the brown paper grocery bag that contained Grammy's vacation staple: clanking bottles of tequila and margarita mix. I am sure that we made nearly as great an impression on the Benson elite as the joint itself was making on me. Doormen! Valet parking! Room service on a little cart, the plates covered with shiny silver domes! It was the nicest place I had ever been.

In our short, alcoholically musical stroll through the lobby, I developed an instant obsession with the grand marble staircase that curved down from the mezzanine level. Just the word--mezzanine--a whisper of exotic opulence! God knows what Hollywood musical I'd seen such a staircase in--probably all of them--but I knew immediately that I had to come swanning down that staircase like a debutante, when we were going out for the evening. I would glide across the mezzanine, pause in front of the gigantic gilded mirror on the landing to ensure all eyes were on me, and then sweep down the last stairs into the walnut-paneled lobby. Before spinning through the revolving door and folding myself into the backseat of our 1980 Ford Mustang, I guess. (The pony car and me: both going through our Awkward Years.)

And bless my Grammy, because she indulged me. Part of our trip included a visit to some department store or other, where I selected, and she bought me, the most glamorously mature outfit I could conceive of for the occasion. This was: a teal-green corduroy shirt dress. Worn over a pale yellow Oxford button-down with blue pinstripes. Also, I am sure, suntan nylons, and some wedge-heeled sandals that were, at the time, the tallest shoes I owned. Oh, honey, I think on behalf of my adolescent self. It was so bad. I see this now. I saw it relatively soon then, when I wore that same ensemble to my eighth-grade graduation ceremony a month later, and all the other girls turned up in white summer dresses. Oh, I remember the gravity of that error, of realizing it just...too...late. Age 14, dressed like a 30-year-old secretary, and with the social and fashion acumen of a ten-year-old. Oy vey.

But I didn't know it right in the moment. I felt beautiful, when I pressed the "M" button in the elevator and tottered out on that half-level above the lobby. Where was Mom, while I was dorking around on the mezzanine? Probably out adjusting the driver's seat of the Mustang back to midget range. Where was Sis?...and more importantly, what was she wearing? I have no idea; they're both just gone from the memory. What I remember is only Grammy, standing at the foot of the stairs--sadly/mercifully without a camera--her face upturned to mine, rapt, as I came wobbling down the steps. She, and I, thought I was beautiful. We might have been the only ones, but it was enough.

* * * * *

When I was checking in, the desk clerk asked "Have you stayed with us before?" and I nearly laughed. "Years ago, when I was a kid," I hedged. It was juuust possible that he was not born, yet, when I last came unsteadily down the grand staircase. "Well, welcome back," he said. Indeed.

* * * * *

Do we change, much, in a quarter-century? Yes, and no. I am accustomed, now, to traveling alone; there are things I like about it, and things I don't. Nonetheless, here are some of the things I packed, on this trip: all black undies. A black negligee to sleep in. And a dress, a teal-green sweater dress that Joan Holloway would be proud of. Just in case. Just in case I needed to get Fancy, just in case I needed to imagine myself sexy. In case, in case, in case.

I didn't end up wearing it, this trip, for whatever that's worth.

* * * * *

The first night, I walked back to the hotel tipsy and blissful from one glass of pinot noir and too much excellent risotto and bread at Pazzo. On the sidewalk, just before the doors to the lobby: an Elvis-impersonating busker. Fat Elvis, with cape and jumpsuit and a stuffed toy hound dog (?) in front of his displayed hat. He had a little karaoke-style machine set up with an instrumental track, and was inexplicably singing the Beatles' "Something." Okay, then. I was tempted to make a request, but what? I believe Dad originally seduced Kathy with "One Night With You," but that seemed inappropriate. Me, I favor "Suspicious Minds" or "I Can't Help Falling In Love With You." But there was a clutch of couples coming the other way up the pavement, so I smiled but did not break stride. "Thank you. Thank you verra much," he boomed into the mike behind me, someone else's change plinking into the bucket.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Worst float ever, though

I had a minor professional disappointment last week, something I'd planned on not panning out. Not important, really. Ask Huey. But when I was lamenting this setback with Sis, she told me this excellent story about a similar conversation she'd had with our dad, a great little bead of hilarity and quintessential Dad Advice wrapped in black-humored hindsight.

Until very recently, Sis had not been employed by The Man, in a corporate environment, for some 14 months--the first half of that deliberate, the latter half increasingly, desperately not. Because they were both home all day, she found herself with many opportunities to chitty-chat with Dad on the phone, such that he was quite invested in her job search. I'm envious of these circumstances now--not the unemployment, duh, but of their regular, if random, conversations. Of how keyed in he was to her career trajectory, because I doubt my dad was ever really sure just what it is that I do for a living. "Write computer books" was about as close as he got to the truth. I do remember that when I went into management, I called to tell him the news. When I said I'd been promoted to manager, he exclaimed with pride--and extreme astonishment--"For all of NerdCo?!?" I can't describe how that irked and tickled me both: that my dad somehow thought I'd been plucked from obscurity to lead, like, 36,000 people for a multi-billion-dollar corporation, because, CATCH UP, DAD...but also that he sincerely believed I could do it. It was not outside his realm of possibility, for me. That's a vote of confidence I need to hold onto more tightly, now.

Anyway. So one day this spring, Sis happened to be on the phone with Dad at the precise moment she got an e-mail turning her down for a job she'd genuinely longed for. They'd gambled on the Other Guy, and she was devastated. Here is the first thing she says our father told her, in that moment: "You need a beer! Do you have any beer?"

Dad was never much of a drinker, to my recall; he might crack open a lone beer if the temperature got above 95 degrees. Or, on New Year's Eve, he'd consume a single shot of Bailey's Irish Cream, before tucking into bed. At 9:00 p.m. It's midnight somewhere. At his funeral, in the photo albums on display, I found snapshots of him in the mid-70s, sporting his Afro perm and brandishing a beer bottle, but that was not the man I knew.

This was, though: his immediate follow-up suggestion to Sis was "Go up to the Husky Deli and have a scoop of coconut ice cream!" Yeah. There is not one doubt in my mind that I inherited this gene from him; it's only slightly less obvious than the eyebrows, the considerable nose, that I see every morning in the bathroom mirror. There is never a wrong time for ice cream--any season, anywhere, any flavor, I will need no persuasion and I will not turn it down. Beer OR ice cream = not a contest. Also, surely someone must make beer ice cream, so point me at it, interwebs, and I will gladly taste it so you don't have to.

Dad had a longstanding relationship with the Schwan's delivery guy in his area. La Center isn't all that rural any more, and Schwan's is now a purveyor of frozen lasagnes and pizzas and chow mein and god-knows-what-all...but their legacy was ice cream, and Dad never didn't have half a dozen boxes of fudge pops and Neapolitan sandwiches stashed in the freezer. Or we'd drive out to this gas-pump mini-mart at some forgotten crossroads in farm country, where they had a drive-up window dispensing soft-serve cones: vanilla, chocolate, or "twist," the two flavors spiraled together in a frozen helix, the chocolate with flecks of real cocoa, rich and dark and gritty on your tongue.

When the funeral arrangements were still being determined, I made a joke about having a Schwan's truck in the cortege, or interring the ashes in a cardboard pint container. Sis got mad at me, and I regret that, I do...but I still find it funny, too. I'd like to think Dad would laugh. You could do so much worse, than to be delivered to your eternal rest in an ice cream truck. I might want that as my own second choice, right behind the Viking funeral with the boat and the flaming arrows.

Beer and ice cream. It's so him, it's so Dad, and in that it makes me laugh and wince both, not least because massive heart attack, you say? hmmm. In reading the Schwan's history linked above, I discovered what is surely no more than an unsettling coincidence: that Marvin Schwan, the company's founder, died on May 9 (my father's birthday), 1993. Of a heart attack. At the age of 64. Ice cream: a dangerous, delicious business.

But I am treasuring this little second-hand nugget of irrelevant career advice, Dad's best effort at long-distance comfort in a moment of crisis. I'm so grateful to Sis for sharing it with me, because it reminds me that, whatever conversations we did or didn't have, Dad is still in me. In the mirror, in the music, in the firm conviction that there is no ill so grave that a frozen dairy treat can't cure it, can't at least put you on the mend. Except, well, that one ill, I guess.