The best birthday present my folks gave me when I was growing up was a pretend radio station from Sears complete with a microphone, headphones, turntable, and a station manager's board to write down all the programming. I would take my tape recorder and record many a day's programs altering my voice to mimic the different DJ's and newscasters on WQSR-AM. The station had a dynamic afternoon lineup featuring the wacky comedy of Benny Gideon and the hits of the day played by Shotgun Smalley.
WQSR's music collection was a combination of 45's my mom had given to me and records I had spent many a week's allowance purchasing. One of the songs that was played often on the station was Gordon Sinclair's "Americans" which was a Mom donation to the station. The 45 wasn't exactly music- it featured Sinclair, a Canadian, bestowing the virtues of the United States above the background music of the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I'm not exactly sure why Mom had bought the record in the first place and I'm even less sure why it always stirred such a strong reaction in me. Besides its patriotic tone the essay was the first I had known of redemption, of being able to pick yourself up and not kicking others while they are down.
I'm not exactly a patriotic leaning guy. I have problems with any large group thinking (and as too often the case with patriotism it isn't even about thinking but rather feeling) in mass. One of my assignments at this year's State Fair was to interview kids about some of the issues that have been swirling around the Legislature. One of the questions was about whether or not students should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I was heartened by the answer from one Elizabeth Arnold, an extremely articulate and opinionated young lady from St. Paul. Elizabeth had just spent the year studying in Venezuela and was able to pick up a broader perspective than the other kids I interviewed.
She said that making the kids say the pledge was a rather pointless exercise unless you were also going to teach them what the pledge meant, its history and the ideas it presents. Making kids say anything by rote wasn't exactly the type of behavior our forefathers founded the country upon, Elizabeth said.
One undeniable outcome of the terroristic attack of New York and Washington DC is that it has forced people to think a little bit about what being an American is about. The senselessness of the violence and murder made us want to pull together and mourn as a nation.
Likewise one of the things I've learned as I've struggled to deal with my grief over my Mom's death two years ago was that seeing her die, holding her hand as she breathed her last breath forever changed my perspective on things. It wasn't as if I could ever just go back to every day life and get as upset about trivial things especially after losing such a valued perspective and close friend.
In a way the current national tragedy touches a similar vein. Life long irritants and pet peeves like people who don't use their turn signals, people who don't return phone calls, people who make promises they fail to keep aren't worth getting upset over in the long run. Life is too short to let yourself be bothered by such things.
Reading the news and seeing that awful video of the destruction it's all been rather difficult to think about anything else. Thus I was glad when my favorite new mother who lives on the mansion on the hill asked if I wanted to go with her to the service being held Sunday on the Capitol steps. We walked down the hill in the drizzle and were immediately impressed by the fire trucks from cities throughout the state, lined up and down John Ireland Boulevard with their ladders extended and flags atop each one. Equally impressive was the huge flag on the roof of the under construction Cathedral.
Though the service itself was a tad long, it was nice being able to share in the moment with 35,000 others (and one of my best friends). And if I needed to be reminded about what is important in this life I even got to hold the divine baby (albeit not exactly voluntarily or without some awkwardness) and to have lil Henry Louis look up at me with the bluest of eyes and then grin was a remarkable breathtaking moment.
That lone smile would have made my day memorable but it was just the beginning of things. For the past twelve years I've had a shadow next to me existing wherever I went, whatever I did, whoever else I may be with (even in the darkness). A large part of this shadow was composed of the biggest regret of my life, of a friendship I let get away in an entirely self destructive, selfish manner. The regret was not only based on the loss of a dear friend, but also by the way I treated her and what I put her through and not having any opportunity to say how sorry I still am and how thankful I remain that the spirit of this shadow has lifted me time and time again and has helped me achieve some of my proudest accomplishments.
I've written about her often here, and not always intentionally and seldom directly. Her influence was tremendous. We met at Cheapo. In a period of my life when the thing I couldn't feel was my old self she immediately restored that part and my sense of humor and adventure in a quiet and simple way. She left for Australia but when she returned she brought back for me my still proudest possession, a rock she found on her last day on the beach. We took a trip together. I fulfilled a life's dream by writing a novel and without her it would not have happened. Then I shattered and some of the chards were sent her direction. We lost touch as her last words to me echo, "I still feel the same as always." I was even able to convince myself at times that she never existed that she had always been a character I created in my novel. I let go and moved on and yet I didn't.
Over the years as I pulled myself up I hoped I would somehow run into her and she could see me for what I was now capable of being. I sometimes found myself looking for her in an otherwise anonymous crowd. Whenever I had access to a database of people's names hers was among the first I would type in. But I couldn't find her. I figured she had gotten married, that her name had changed and that the opportunity to express anything from remorse and regret to thankfulness and appreciation was long long past.
Besides the lucky rock (which I lost for a while but thankfully was able to find again and hold on even tighter to) the lone times that this person was truly with me was at every Sandra Bullock movie. The first Sandra movie I saw was Sylvester Stallone's Demolition Man, in which she had a minor role. The first time I saw her, the first time Sandra spoke she reminded me for whatever reason of my friend. Was it her voice? Her face? Her facial expressions? Her character's charming personality? I wasn't quite sure but I was in tears. I forgot about Sandra didn't even bother remembering her name until I saw Speed and the same reaction happened. Sandra's goofiness, her immediate awkward ease? was so much like my friend's personality. And over the years as I have made it my duty to see every Bullock movie as soon as I can it hasn't always been due to my admiration of her work or even how much I like her as an actress. It often is because the spirit it evokes and how much that spirit continues to make me smile.
I've been working in a data base these past few weeks that is a pretty comprehensive list of the adults living in Minnesota. One of the fun things about working with the information is typing in old friends' names to see where they are and if they are still in the state. I had reached a point of so accepting that this person wasn't around anymore that hers was a name that I didn't even think of trying to search for. But I came across a similar name of another person so I typed in her name not expecting any results to pop up. When I saw the first, middle and last name, and the date of birth my jaw dropped. Forgetting about the time, about the difficult circumstances of the end of our friendship I knew, just knew I had to call her.
To tell the truth I didn't even think that much about what I would say. My only focus was to somehow not startle her too much, to keep it light but to ultimately convey how very sorry I felt for what had happened.
I recognized the voice immediately. Her reaction was about what I expected- "Oh my God," she said when I identified myself. She thought I had tracked her down because ironically she had been in town the day before selling records to our store. Our conversation was a bit awkward as we struggled to convey what we were up to. She was understandingly reluctant to reveal all about her life. And I did detect a bit of anger in her voice when she asked if I was doing better. She said she was the same person that I had known. She's living in Duluth working as a seamstress sewing purses. And she's married.
As our conversation was wrapping up I asked her if anyone else had ever told her she reminded them of Sandra Bullock. "Only about 150 times a day," she said. "In fact the guy at the liquor store told me that yesterday and then he tried to short change me." Although we may never talk again (I extended an invitation to see my house and meet Mr. Max whenever she's in town) I was so glad I called. She seemed touched when I told her what a wonderful influence she has been. And she has and will always be.
Things are a bit frightening out there and it's sometimes hard to see any beauty amongst the senselessness of it all. But the smile of a beautiful little baby, and the restoration of a proper tone of a friendship long gone makes me think (and believe) just about anything is possible as long as you keep plugging along with the right perspective.