Friday, April 18, 2014

Cliché---until it happens to you

It’s the stuff of chick lit and rom-com. An event so cliché-encrusted it sinks right down, sucked into the seabed of ready-made metaphors. 

But that’s the thing about clichés.  Like many life events (divorce being another notorious one) it’s a commonplace---until it happens to you. 

This one is a marker you can’t avoid.  Not a wedding or a funeral---no relatives involved either.  Still, you casually check out plane fares online.  Then in a moment of merlot-induced nonchalance, you snap down the credit card (metaphorically, that is), locking in a five-bill ticket to fly across the country for it. 

Even if you cancel, you’ll be upset for a week just because you got the news.

Welcome to your high school reunion!  The fiftieth.  The merlot does not help with the number.

So, dear reader, I went.

My experience with reunions is limited. The first one was ten years ago---the fortieth from this high school. I confided my apprehensions to my Michigan dental hygienist, Annette.   Italian and well-traveled, Annette immediately grasped the import of the situation.  She geared me up with a regimen of professional grade Crest white strips so I’d be in good toothy shape for pictures.  I wore black and swathed my neck with a silk scarf.  Bella figura, said Annette.

This reunion was hosted by a classmate, Wally, at his historic home in the town of Ross, the most secluded of a string of once sleepy summer towns that stretch across Marin County, just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.

The town was named for Gold Rush era adventurer, James Ross, a Scot who’d first tried his luck in Tasmania, and then struck his own gold in California as a wholesaler of wine and spirits.  He took his fortune and retired to the Rancho Punta de Quentin---part of the huge land grant parcel that later became Marin County.  He died in 1862 at the age of fifty.

Over later decades, other settlers followed. The newly prosperous from San Francisco built summer estates in styles that reflected their aspirations and fond recollections of the East they’d left behind. The 1906 quake and fire brought another wave.  Prescient city fathers enacted ordinances to protect trees and prevent noise at the first Board of Trustees meeting in 1908. 

Today large wooded parcels of land still shield residents from highway sounds. The leaves of tall, dense hedges obscure street numbers.  This enclave of old affluence looks untouched since the nineteen sixties when I was in high school.
And so it begins. 

An unseasonable heat wave has settled on Marin County this September Saturday, just when people celebrating fifty years of anything in their lives struggle to look their best.  Small consolation that even residents of Eden suffer summer weather from time to time.

My partner, Dennis, is driving me to the shindig.  His nature is frank and forthright and he’s a reunion veteran, having attended two high schools.  Classmates from both keep in touch and get together every year.  His complete lack of anxiety bolsters my spirits.  “Guys can always shoot the shit,” he says. 

Hand this man a beer.

Meantime, we’ve found what Google maps says is our destination.  A gate opens.  In we roll. 

Velvety black asphalt guides us along a graceful curve and past a gate house to the right.  Beside it, in the dappled shade of the trees, I can just make out a small cannon resting on a two-wheeled gun carriage.  We dead end at a turnaround.  A carport sheltering antique cars on one side, a fountain on the other.

I open the window and ask for guidance from a woman stepping smartly across the pavement, a small florist’s arrangement clutched against her robin’s egg blue shirt, fine dun-color hair pushed back behind her ears. 

“Parking is supposed to be down at the school,” she says, probably exasperated at having to repeat this yet again. I mumble my thanks and close the passenger window, relieved to seal in coolness and composure.  

Dennis backs and fills.  I recall that we’d passed the Episcopal Church down the road on a corner.        

We are not here yet. 

It’s trickier now to retrace the driveway and exit; people spill out of the gate house, clusters  gather on the pavement.  Clearly, they all must have parked somewhere else.   

I turn my head and look back across the grass toward a rambling three-story Victorian house.  Freshly painted and startlingly bright, its wrap around verandah and white wicker furniture inviting on this hot day.  I’ve lived so long in the East that I recognize where these multi-storied frame houses with their Queen Anne turrets and elaborate friezes came from. 

Tables are set for dinner out on the grass. It is the deep, even green of professional landscaping, a miniature of the perfect English lawn that gardeners mow and roll with heavy metal drums for generations.  Across the grass and opposite the house is a pool, its corners bracketed with ornamental cypress like a Roman villa. Beyond the pool two pergolas extend from each side of a pool house. 

I live in Flint, Michigan, a notorious rust-belt GM town. Over the last thirty years it’s become my home, its grit and catastrophe my “normal.”  It is a place pervaded by economic decline that seeps into daily life.  Without realizing it you choose your route to the grocery store by how much urban blight you are willing to pass along the way. 

Five decades away from my native land, its vernacular and costume, and today I feel like a tourist on formerly home turf.  

We find the church parking lot, ditch the car with relief, and walk down Shady Lane (yes, a two-lane road arched with trees), and re-enter through a gate hidden in the hedge. 

From the gatehouse across the grass, a woman calls out my name, her arms raised in joyful recognition; unease evaporates and I am captivated. No one has called out to me this way for many years.  I am here at last.  More exclamations follow, like pops from small fire crackers.  We hug and clutch one another’s hands, reluctant to let go. 

I am moved to see so many people and to remember them by name, to see their faces contoured by time but their eyes and smiles immediately familiar. 

We query one another with a kindly curiosity, gesture our empathy with sighs and laughter,  and then cut short our conversations each exclaiming to the other, “I want to talk to everyone.” 

Our age feels comfortable, while our high school years seem (as indeed they were) closer to childhood than to being adults---so much younger than we thought we were, with our striving to be older.  Some in our class had met in first and second grade.  Others felt like outsiders when they confronted uniformed dyads and triads of primary school friends.  No matter now.   As Dylan wrote in the mid-sixties, “Ah, I was so much older then / I’m younger than that now.”

A male classmate reminds me about a time when he’d brought me home after a dance.  All I remember is that I had a crush on him; of the dance or the impressive, gentlemanly transport home?  No recollection.  Again no matter.  As he says “this time our achievement is just getting here, upright and coherent.”  We are grateful.

The classmates who still live nearby get together between the big landmark dates.  Widow and widower, divorced and remarried. Some now tend one another after surgeries. Parkinson’s and MS have appeared. I watch as a former football player gingerly supports the arm of a former songleader. 

As dinner begins, one of the organizers calls for our attention.  In a little speech he asks us to remember those of our number who have died, and also our parents and to think of them with thanks for having sent us to this school.  Succinct and effortless, without pretension.  Better than academic receptions I attended before retirement. 

It is dark when we leave.  The clusters of people standing on the lawn or seated in the white wicker chairs on the porch have vanished; the driveway is quiet.  Lights from inside the carriage house suggest lingering conversations.  The small illumined structure glows in the darkness like paintings of nighttime scenes in Japanese landscapes. In the shadows by the tall hedge I can see five or six people huddled together beneath pool house pergola.

I am tired, my conversation spent.  I want to absorb all the sensations and impressions and then spread them out before me all over again.  To stand back while the others talk and laugh, to have the afternoon linger as the sunlight fades.  To savor it bit by bit, like the concluding moments in a movie where the story has found resolution, and in slow motion the last frames seal the image in our minds. 

Months later the many close-up pictures that Dennis took now roll across my computer screen saver.  Each morning when I open my laptop I greet my classmates as we greeted one another that hot day. Again and again, I look at the faces and the smiles.  And wish them well.

The California that I left no longer pulls me back.  

And Dennis?  He met everyone---not with me, of course, but on his own. Now he’s looking forward to the next one.  Besides, he’d like to talk more to Wally about that cannon. It’s a Civil War replica and Wally fires it---minus the cannon ball---on special occasions.   

Read more essays like this one at like this one in East Village Magazine at

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Traditional Chinese Medicine

I’ve known my friend Geri for over 40 years.  Our friendship dates back to the mid-1960s when she came from Taiwan to the west coast to study biochemistry at the University of California Medical Center at San Francisco.  

My parents had signed up for a program to host international students. I’ve no idea which one. I was not involved.  Their charge was to befriend this young female doctoral student and provide a temporary home for her until she could get settled on campus.  Naturally, their first task was to meet Geri at the airport.  

But there was a back story.  It was awkward and confusing.  I still wince when I remember it, at least the parts I can recall.  

I had just left home.  Two college girlfriends and I had rented an apartment in an old Victorian house, the three of us resolved to share these digs for our upcoming senior year.  Like school girls holding hands, we embarked on our road to independence by setting up house.

Not a big deal, really.  I was twenty, after all.  Just part of the process of working out my timid---by ‘60s standards---rebellion from parents, the middle class, and a small Catholic college.  Still a school for women and as yet untouched by student activism.

An only child, loved and cossetted, I had exhibited moderate promise in high school. Adept, but alas, absent some overriding talent or single-minded passion.  Now I was adrift in the liberal arts and close to college graduation. 

This apartment announcement alarmed my Mother and Dad.  Three years of private school tuition payments suddenly jeopardized. My grades had already dipped. And they did not know, I think, about the chilly interview I’d recently had with the college president---called in privately after some protest statement I can no longer remember. 

Even more disturbing for them was the shadow of the young man whom I was dating.  He was five years older than me, involved in the civil rights and anti-war demonstrations.  They supposed (correctly) that my apartment idea was bolstered by romance.  The lofty moral tone of “the movement” already pervaded my language in family apartment discussions.

Still, along with parental confused disappointment, there was the vacant bedroom I’d left behind.

Geri was about my age and, as things turned out, she helped fill the void my move created. 
Deeply absorbed in my modest rebellion, I have no memory of my parents’ preparation for their student guest. But I was on hand at their house that first day when Geri arrived after a twelve-hour flight from Taipei. 

In contrast to the recent months of family tension, this day my parents were upbeat with anticipation. Smiles all round.  A relief for me, but tinged with a creeping sense of my outsider position. 

Conversation was animated, arms gesticulating and eyebrows rising like commas to assist communication.  Moments of mutual comprehension eliciting bursts of elation. Getting accustomed to Geri’s accented English.

By late afternoon, Geri was exhausted; she had a headache.  My Mom’s offers of aspirin (in these pre-Tylenol days) were politely declined.  Geri retreated to her suitcases and boxes deposited in my old bedroom.  She delved into her pharmacopeia brought from home and produced a small hexagonal jar of a glistening, milky salve.  She rubbed it on her forehead and lay down to rest. 

Tiger Balm had entered our lives.  It never left my Mother’s medicine cabinet.  Decades later, when moving my Mom to an assisted living apartment, I found three jars in different strengths.  

Geri completed her PhD and then worked in research labs.  She too shared an apartment with her campus girlfriends.  She met her future husband, also from Taiwan, who had come to the US to study engineering. 

With longtime friends of my mother and dad as surrogate family, Geri was married in my parents’ garden.  My father gave her away.  I was a bridesmaid along with her Chinese girlfriends.

The Taiwan graft onto my family brought many joys to my parents in later years.  Photographs show visits with two little boys born in America bringing afternoons of boisterous family life to my parents.  

I was not there. I had married the unapproved young man.  The anti-war movement and the counter culture swallowed up the next three years of my life.   

But that was long ago.  

Geri and I are retired now.  When we meet our main topic is health.  

It is time for TCM, traditional Chinese medicine.  

At the computer, Geri rolls through screen after screen of Chinese text. After much searching she finds it:  a picture of ten hand exercises to stimulate the body’s meridians.  You know, she says, gets the chi going in the channels that govern our internal organs: the small intestine, large intestine, stomach, liver, spleen, kidney, heart, lungs, bladder, and gall bladder.  Then there’s “the triple warmer” (cavities of thorax, abdomen, and pelvis) and the governing and conception vessels through which yin and yang flow.  Of course.

The simple, black and white thumbnail sketches on the left side of the page are easy to follow.  The Chinese characters on the right?   Not a clue.
It looks like this: 

Every morning you firmly tap parts of the hand, punch the palm of the hand, and tug the earlobes and press the palms to your face.  And whatever else you can figure out from the pictures.  

Geri advises:  “You can just do it when you first wake up, when still lying in bed.  Gets you ready for the day.”   Your chi will decline in late afternoon.  No exercise after 7 pm. 

Several times a day Geri lies down for twenty minutes on a contraption to stretch her spine and legs.  It looks like a padded ironing board attached to a second board at a right angle. Keeps the hip joint flexible and extends the lower back.  We compare notes; my yoga poses have a similar effect.  

My partner Dennis is hugely skeptical.  Geri---a scientist---smiles subversively.  “You have to believe,” she says.

I understand.  

My own inherited health traditions have returned to me in later life.  Advice remembered from my southern grandmother.  Use cold pressed castor oil for all skin irritations.  Wear a broad-brimmed hat in the sun.  Choose an “osteopathic” physician over a medical doctor.  Remedies from her Kentucky childhood and her experience of married life in frontier Idaho.  She had a midwife for childbirth---three times. 

Not much compared to over two thousand years of TCM.  But it brings me closer to my forebears.  My grandmother was just a few years older than I am when she repeated her remedies to me---who ignored them.  

So I do the hand exercises and use the castor oil.  And think about traditional medicine.  I’m in another phase of change now.  Just one year short of 70 and once again things are awkward and confusing.  Funny thing, though. I’m beginning to look back more gently at my youth.  I think it must be TCM. 

Read more essays like this one at like this one in East Village Magazine at