Joseph O'Brien 2:30 p.m., Nov. 25
- Community Blog
Every Story Needs a Title
I tell my students such things. Some are very educated in their native languages, but many not. I do my best to impart to all of them the most rudimentary conventions of writing in English. I was a linguistics major who used a formal background in how language works to become a better than average world traveling English teacher, and somehow never outgrew it.
My last job abroad paid pretty well, and made it possible to do alright working only part time for the past 15 years. Actually, I don't even have to do this stuff at all anymore. Having little to spend my money on other than food, fuel, utilities, and ridiculously expensive medical insurance, I already have more than I need. No wife, no kids, just several rentals that are paid off and from time to time hit me with a major maintenance expense that I try to stay ahead of.
In June dad passed away, and I'm in the process of buying the family house from the estate as another rental. Because I have the most free time of the three siblings, I've handled almost all of the paperwork involved with our last surviving parent's death. Luckily, my brother and sister trust me and we get along reasonably well. It also helps that none of us, especially me, really needs anything that the estate will eventually provide when the paperwork is sorted through. Actually, it would be cheaper and easier to buy a modest but nice place in Southern Florida, not too far from the oceanfront, but my incentive to move there someday has died as well. It seems my destiny lies in overpriced San Diego, perhaps right here in this neighborhood on the outskirts of SDSU.
That's my life, then: a couple of part time jobs, plenty of creature comforts, and a lot of free time. Once in elementary school, I got into trouble during a career week activity where we were supposed to state what our future ambitions might be. My best buddy had a sabot at the Mission Bay Yacht Club, and his mom would take me along to sail with him about once a month in the mid-to-late sixties; he became a Coast Guard officer eventually. At any rate, the vending machines there intrigued me, selling soft drinks, coffee, and ice cream. So, I told my teacher that I wanted to own a bunch of vending machines some day, live off the money from them, and hang out all day by the water. She actually called my parents about that, and they all bawled me out for having such pud-in-the-mud aspirations. I saw nothing wrong with it, and still don't.
Going on fifty years later, it's not unlike the kind of life I've set up for myself.
Two days a week I have to be up bright and early for a morning class. The other class is in the evening, so most of the rest of the time I'm free to go to bed when I wish and wake up when I do. For six long years in the army I got up at the crack of dawn, and that was quite enough. Left to my own devices, the natural cycle is to fall asleep in the wee hours and wake up around eight, give or take an hour or two. The coffeepot is on a timer and stays hot for three hours. Sometimes I miss it and wake up to a cold bitter brew that promptly gets poured down the sink, but usually not.
Some of the neighbors who haven't known me since I was a kid used to think I was a bum or something, but now they just know that I'm me. I get my hair cut four times a year, and it's very abundant on my head. Strangers often compliment it, but my last girlfriend--the ill-fated Southern Florida connection--couldn't shut up about how much she hated it. A Cooke Street aloha shirt and dockers for me are dressy, my usual work clothes and one of the few things about me she found acceptable. Around the neighborhood it's a T-shirt, shorts, slaps, a floppy hat, and usually a long-sleeved shirt to keep the sun off my forearms. All of it's quality stuff that's seen better days, usually bought for a couple of bucks at Salvation Army.
On the rare occasions I'm romantically involved, the woman tends to end up whining at me incessantly about the way I think my life's just great when everything about it is wrong-wrong-wrong. Generally she's just being obnoxious rather than actually trying to end things, but whenever the non-stop whining starts I am quickly outta there. Platonic relationships, like with my female colleagues, are quite OK. We go out for lunch or for drinks sometimes after evening class. It's kind of a professional thing with a little bit of human warmth mixed in, and everybody feels free to just be cool and enjoy the camaraderie.
Romantic encounters are rare to non-existent nowadays, though. The concept that somebody somewhere may be happy seems to bother much of the female population terribly; at least it does once they've taken a vested interest in you. Many a guy friend and several female colleagues have told me at various times that women latch on to losers because they figure they can change them; it becomes a kind of project for them and the man's annoyance is a sign that he cares. So, what's the point with a guy like me who's doing fine, doesn't want to change anything, and won't even bother getting mad?
The result of all this, my dad's passing and the latest extended whine from a woman with a vested interest in me, is that I've been in a months-long existential funk. The thing with the woman was a kind of on again/off again lifelong dream for both of us that started in high school, finally seemed to be working out, but now is just as finally, definitively over as my parents' days on earth. Her obsession with my hair, and with a sandwich she somehow took exception to that I'd ordered after waiting five hours for her to show up on the next to last day of our relationship, seemed borderline psychotic--or at least was driving me crazy--and the timing of our breakup was cosmically cruel. Yet the gloominess of losing a parent and a lover within days of each other doesn't even seem like a problem, really. It's more like a game of self pity that I feel I owe myself and play for fun.
My sister and niece advise that women just get that way sometimes when they're under stress, which I'll concede the woman was. On the other hand, my sister has forgotten, and my niece never knew, that dad was kind of like that himself. From the mid-sixties to early seventies, he took out his frustrations with a public school career he was sick of by going into hours-long nightly rants, usually directed at his eldest son (me), covering virtually everything I said, did, ate, or wore. Nowadays my tolerance for such stuff when I have any control over it is virtually non-existent, and I've concluded--if not yet come to terms with--the fact that I'd rather spend my life alone than serve again as a target for abuse. I just wish the breakup had happened at a time when I wasn't so damned vulnerable and burdened with conflicted feelings toward my second deceased parent.
Last week I rallied for the deep cleaning of my little college area condo that I do three times a year. It's a nice place, and an old female friend from graduate school days that I get together with from time to time tells me it's a soothing place to hang out in, which is what I've been doing a lot of lately. The four-speaker stereo pipes music around when I feel like hearing it, though often I prefer the ebb and flow of the traffic sounds along University Avenue. I sip good scotch with lots of ice cubes, and snack on chips or nuts... pistachios, almonds, cashews. I feel like a baby in his playpen, without a care in the world but wondering why no one ever picks me up to give me a hug and why my hand gets burned every time I reach out with it.
That's how this evening again will be. In spite of myself, I'll think of Southern Florida and a woman who, like my dad, made choices that led to a much harder life than my own, and try to force such things from my mind. Then I'll wake up when I wake up, and drink a pot of coffee with my favorite flavored creamer. I'll sit around a bit and try to figure out what I want to do, and if I just don't want to do anything I might go back to bed, enjoying the 1200 thread-count sheets and the sound and feel of the fan washing cool air over me. I know I'll have to rouse myself out sometime to get serious about things that matter, but for now I have the luxury of tuning out the world's headache like a bad TV program.
Maybe that's what I've always wanted to do, even when I was that kid dreaming of owning vending machines and hanging out all day by the water while my best buddy took his first steps toward his own dream of a career in the Coast Guard.
He died a few years ago. We hadn't seen each other in decades, yet I felt the loss intensely. Everyone I know goes away in the end, as Johnny Cash sang toward the end of his own life. When I think of those days of sailing around Mission Bay in his sabot and buying Dr. Pepper (10-2-4) from a vending machine on the shore, when most of life lay ahead and my dad--despite being a frequent burr in my saddlebag--served as a role model and our moms were the only women whose opinions we cared about, I really miss the simple purity of our childhood bond.
Aside from the oft-flouted rule that sentences shouldn't start with "and" or "but," I've broken all conventions of good writing in this piece, and wonder what kind of title I could give to something so rambling and introspective... But, I never was like everybody else.