Ken Harrison 7:48 a.m., Dec. 7
By the beginning of June, classes were over at the two colleges where I teach part time; one was actually over a bit before that. For many years I taught summer sessions in the evening at one of them. This still gave me several weeks-long chunks of time to travel, with the days free while in San Diego, which for me is home but for most people is a vacation destination in its own right. Thus, summer has always been a leisurely time. There's plenty to do if I choose to take it on, but usually I choose to revel in my lack of responsibility.
For the past two summers, this tendency has intensified. I've just taken the whole summers off, and without a wife and kids to... um... make my life fuller... there are weeks on end where I can do (or not do) absolutely anything I feel. Often I'll landscape around our condominium, using surplus materials from my rentals and the round river rocks found in abundance on the hillside, stopping occasionally to pass the time with the retired fellow on the other side of the complex who does similar things there. Once in awhile I'll pop a beer at 10 AM--just because I CAN--and watch a movie on my sofa.
In a way, this is the fulfillment of a dream I've had since about the summer of 1965, when I was ten years old. My mom took my brother and sister to Indiana to visit the grandparents that year, and my dad and I were "bachelors" for four weeks at the little house on College Avenue where our family lived then. He taught summer school himself, and I went to it at a different location. We'd usually go to the beach in the afternoon, then in the evening I'd put on some clothes not quite as nice as for church but better than what I usually wore to school, and we'd go out someplace to eat.
Though it's going on fifty years ago, I can still remember all the news and the popular culture stuff that provided the background to that very cool time. Dad hated rock 'n roll to the end of his life, but he'd let me turn on the hi-fi in the living room some evenings and listen to KCBQ, where the brand new top hits included the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction," Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (which I thought he'd written to annoy Mick Jagger), and the Beatles' "Yesterday." Then I'd go to bed and listen some more on my little egg-shaped radio, one of those cheap plastic things with an alligator clip and an earplug. There really was a time when those songs weren't nostalgic oldies, but top-ten recent releases.
The most haunting thing is that you can STILL turn on a radio and hear those same songs on a pretty regular basis. Yet they aren't the only reverberations from that summer that we still feel the rumblings of today. LBJ, the last public figure I would ever look up to in a child's way as an infallible adult, dominated the national scene, seeming larger than life as he signed legislation that summer that affected Medicare/Social Security and civil rights. To this day I remember him mainly for that, and as the reassuring leader standing at the microphones at Andrews Air Force Base a year and a half before, expressing how we had suffered a loss that could not be weighed and that he would do his best. Yet during that fateful summer, he would also make the decision to "go big" in Vietnam, and the very small bursts of protest against that decision seemed quite insignificant at the time.
In that same way, I feel like for most of my adult life I've been trying to speak to the ten year old kid I was then, the father-to-the-man. I keep wanting to reassure him that I know there's a part of him still alive in me, banging on the walls of my soul and trying to get out, telling me that there's so much to be joyous about and that I shouldn't be so jaded by the realities of life. It's as if I've spent much of my adult life trying to impress that little kid inside me with all the cool things I've done since, knowing I'll never top the feeling of being alive and aware of the new and the wonderous that I carried in me then.
Alas, I became an adult. I still snorkel and boogie board and jog at the same beach where my dad and I, and later the entire family, spent much of summer '65 and many before and after. There are kids with their parents all over that beach in the summers, and I wonder when being an adult devolved into giving your kids pretentious names, hovering over their every move, and talking in cliches taken from pseudo-hip TV sitcoms and other mainstream media flotsam. To my recollection, my own mom and dad never behaved like that, much less thought themselves with-it for doing so. Is that really all there is?
My own parents passed away not long ago, my mom in 2006 and my dad in 2011. There at the south end of the beach, their names are engraved on a plaque with many other donors to that crummy "map" that keeps washing out and having to be roped off. It's a nice looking memorial to them in a place they loved, but the plaque is afterall mounted on the wall of a glorified public toilet or "comfort station," one of those dumb euphemisms middle class white people are so fond of. It doesn't help ameliorate the is-that-all-there-is(?) feeling.
From time to time after stretching exercises in preparation for my jogging, I'll go up to the plaque and run my finger over their names, and from time to time I'll get one of those squinty-eyed paranoid looks from parents as I do so, the sort of thing that makes me want to tell the nearest "community activist" to cram his hurt feelings over clutched purses and clicking door locks right into the place where the sun doesn't shine. It isn't easy being a middle-aged white guy with no wife or kids, who hasn't shaved in a few days and would rather work out in the summer sunshine than exercise in a gym while standing in one place like some sort of automaton. Once I even had to answer a police officer's questions when some paranoid pseudo-adult parent felt I "looked suspicious" or "didn't belong there."
Does an experience like that make me feel like pounding such an ignorant twit's head into the concrete on the spot? You betcha! Yet my parents never gave me "the talk." I just patiently answer the questions like any mid 20th century educated adult would expect a normal person to do, and get a polite apology from the officer who answered the call. I mull for awhile the sort of people who resent paying taxes, but expect the cops to show up pronto every time they don't like the way someone looks. Then I chalk it up to life in the USA, circa early New Millenium.
What the hell happened to this country in the past fifty years? I really wonder about that too sometimes, and get genuinely annoyed. Then I go back to enjoying the thought that I'm detached from so much of the chronic B.S. that plagues our society nowadays, and the stupid people we keep electing because they are more or less perfect reflections of that society. In fact, I'm doing exactly what I used to dream of doing. I listen to my music, drink good beer and scotch, eat whatever tastes good, commit occasional random acts of kindness, and take long trips to Europe or the Grand Canyon or such for several weeks, just to break the monotony of the endless, brainless summers.