On the first occasion of my nineteenth, I was a college freshman, as full of self-doubt and angst as I was of acne. Bespotted where now I’m beamish, confused where now content, frustrated where now fruitful.
M and I had already dated throughout that school year, and at the time, nineteen was legal drinking age. Not that the milestone mattered to me, as I was a teetotaler for those four years. (I gave up not-drinking after college, when traveling through Europe.) I made the mistake that birthnight of abandoning M to head to a Thomas Dolby concert with my roommate, and returned to find that Marci had gone on a bender in my absence and wouldn’t speak to me until the next day.
Today I am nineteen yet again, having been married one less than twenty sun-go-rounds to my beautiful Marci, and in the kind of heaven that I would create were I the creator’s creator, I would inscribe for us a lifetime of lifetimes. Being limited to just one with her is not enough.
In my first XIX, I doubted I would ever be content, much less happy. On this second XIX, I may not be smarter, but I know better. And were I to travel back in time to frighten the earlier me, looking parentally old to my younger self though seeing the world similarly askew, I would offer this advice:
“Don’t worry, kiddo! Relax and have a good time. Be open and try to connect with people. It’ll all work out just fine.
“Oh—and buy some stock in Apple and Microsoft.”
On second thought, best not to change a thing. No idea what I’d inadvertently alter. I’d probably just watch my younger self from behind a tree and let the younger me continue to muddle through. Him with his t-shirt and flared-leg jeans, splattered with twenty colors of oil paint, wandering through campus feeling generally outside. No sign yet of a spreading middle and thinning hair–not that it’s hurt my looks, of course. Right? (To be sure, I peaked some undefined while back, but the lack of women throwing themselves at me now that it’s too late is offset by the lack of women throwing themselves at me back then when it wasn’t, so it all balances out.)
A bit over half a decade from now, I’ll be nineteen yet again: I look forward to reaching my nineteenth anniversary of fatherhood. I like the sound of that. B will have stopped having birthday parties by then—or at least parties that his parents throw—but that’s no reason for me to stop celebrating my own anniversaries of parenthood! And once again celebrating a nineteenth, five years further down life’s chute-the-chute, as G heads to college and we empty our nest. It seems as far ahead as my original nineteenth seems past, but it’s close, close, close.
In a long enough life, so many opportunities to be nineteen again. Gladly, only one full of my own teen angst and acne, my existential crises and frustrations social and sexual. The subsequent years have been increasingly mellow, even if I retain enough of my youthful intensity to frighten the natives on occasion. Luckily, I’ve had a wonderful partner to help me through the years, to look forward to our twenties with, and to make me a better person than perhaps I’d have been otherwise, if, just before my first nineteenth birthday, confused and crazed, I hadn’t fallen in love with the beautiful girl with the amazingly curly and thick brown hair.
Comic books and electronics. Costumed kids and well dressed suits. Free Hugs, albeit often from kids born around the same time as the iPod, hanging out on the streets wearing hoop skirts, manga costumes and nose-obscuring bandages. Often simultaneously.
I’ve spent several weeks in and around Tokyo over the past two visits, including side trips to nearby towns and a bullet train to Kyoto. Interesting and accessible culture, beautiful sights, great food. Somehow it all works, and I find the youth culture—in a country with a birth rate just this side of the Vatican—quite fetching. So cute. Even the prostitutes wear outrageously fancy dresses, like Little Miss Muffet dressed for a remake of Gone With The Wind.
I imagine giant container ships in San Francisco Bay, now emptied of their Toyotas and riding high like Borg cubes upon the seas, setting sail from the Port of Oakland to carry back to Japan all of the once-worn U.S. prom dresses, freshly cleaned and pressed and ready to highlight the tiny waists of the evening girls in the Kabuchicho red-light district, who stroll up and down with parasols in front of the dive bars, just down the street from the glitter and glow of the multi-story, smoke filled Pachinko parlors.
I declaim to the warm Kabuchicho night air an impromptu street haiku:
wearing prom dresses
red lips on alabaster
Six or so of us were in Tokyo doing research on a then-upcoming version of Adobe Flash Professional. It’s the sort o’ management thing I like to do between all the writing, sleeping, fathering, spousing and carousing. Tokyo is a wonderful city to visit. If the world hadn’t ended last year in an economic catastroclysm I’m sure I’d be heading there again soon. But what with the banks all ablaze, the polar bears melting and all of the swine coming down with New AIDS (or is that New SARS? I really can’t be bothered, though everyone keeps trying) it doesn’t look as though I’ll be headed to Japan again soon.
But the trip was fascinating. In the mornings en route to meetings, we headed upstream like salmon returning to spawn, through the glorious Shinjuku Station, the busiest train station in the world, through which nearly four million people travel each day. The press of the crowd is unbelievable, rivers of humanity flowing to and fro with astonishingly little friction, endless schools of self-synchronized minnows describing an intricate dance.
We all remarked on it: it’s unbelievable that so many people can move through this space at once without causing the world’s worst human gridlock. Were this anyplace else, people would be stomped to a pulp twenty times a day, like a never-ending Wal-Mart on the morning of the Black Friday sales. But people in Japan are not built that way. They move quickly through Shinjuku, but don’t shove. They don’t cut each other off. They don’t jockey for position as they queue up for escalators. They’re polite to one another at the turnstiles. It’s downright freakish.
The invisible little devil on my shoulder—who is, I should note, generally balanced out by another devil of roughly similar mass on my other shoulder—whispered in my ear and I started to grin as we headed through the morning crush. I was walking at the side of the lovely Emmy H, and we were talking about the experience of being there, in this surging sea of rapidly moving politeness. So unlike the States, and probably anywhere else.
I noted that even when we drifted briefly out of our flowing river and into a mass of people flowing in the counter direction, we still avoided accidents. “It’s amazing we can get through this crowd without hitting anybody.” Emmy said something about Brownian Motion as I pointed out the seeming impossibility of our little group making such rapid progress moving amid hundreds of thousands of others, all heading in different directions.
“Let’s do an experiment,” I said.
“What kind of experiment?”
“Well, I bet that if you and I move a few steps to our right, directly into the path of the oncoming flow, we won’t run into anybody even if we don’t look where we’re going.”
“How could we do that?”
“Simple,” I said. “We’ll just carry on a conversation and look each other in the eye as we walk, and be completely oblivious to the million other people walking straight at us.” Emmy demurred at first, but the thought had stuck in my mind with little fishhooks and wouldn’t let go. “C’mon, it’ll be fun.” She agreed, under duress. I have an a-hole’s idea of fun, sometimes. Decidedly not Japanese.
Our course set, we waited for the briefest of lulls in the crowd. We started talking animatedly and eased rightward, away from the rest of our companions and directly into the oncoming path of the multitudes, but ignoring everyone except each other in our conversation. The tension was high: it wasn’t easy to keep walking at a brisk rate while failing to look ahead, and we laughed nervously as we talked about nothing at all while assiduously avoiding looking anywhere other than at each other. On and on we walked, maintaining a rapid pace with both our feet and our conversation.
Not once were we stopped, shouted at or denounced by the crowds, the omnipresent loudspeakers or the giant, talking billboards. We never came within more than a few feet of any other traveler. It was like we possessed an invisible force field that radiated out ahead of us in a wedge pattern: the crowd smoothly and seamlessly parted for us without a trace of effort, merging together just behind.
We repeated the experiment over the next day or so, with the same results each time. Ugly Americans, perhaps. But hey! Anyone could get caught up in a conversation, right? It’s only ugly when you know we were pranking. Now, I don’t recommend this behavior in others, of course. It’s just like what they tell you at the National Parks: if everyone took home a pretty, shining rock, pretty soon there’d be none left.
(That was the National Park Service that said that, right? Could have been the time I saw the British Crown Jewels. Anyway, same concept.)
I tried the same trick again in a different train station. Didn’t work. I was in New York, walking through Central Station during the morning commute. In under three seconds, I was shoved to the ground, kneed in the groin and trampled to death while buskers from Trinidad played a rousing funeral march on the steel drums. After a while, someone came and helped themselves to my wallet. In the evening, a recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic in search of the American Dream came with a pressure hose and washed the remaining blood stains into a drain while she whistled a popular merengue from her youth.
My body was never found.
I’m not a pet person. Pets smell, they never grow up and have their own lives, and if you eat them your family gets really upset. Fish meet one of my personal standards for pets: flushability. We also keep an ancient pile of hair and dander, beneath which you’ll find our arthritic cat. She’s grandmothered in, though, part of the family longer than our kids.
But other pets, no. Dog? Too loud and excitable. Potbellied pig? C’mon. A walking sausage. Fatty but definitely edible. Giant Galapagos tortoise? You can’t keep a pet that will outlive your grandchildren: a giant tortoise keeps you. Hamster? Well, a hamster is a reasonable pet for people who don’t really like pets. I mean, they’re cute, and they’re cuddly, and they die at the drop of a hat. Life span somewhere between a fruit fly and a Saturday Night Live sketch.
When Ben was in kindergarten, and the school kept hamsters, I figured the school sent them home with the children on the weekends just to teach the kids early life lessons. Mortality. The ultimate futility of everything. Stuff kids need to know. “Grandpa could go at any time, just like Harry the Hamster.” But, oddly enough, the kindergarten hamster made it through the first few months of the year. We’d even taken it home ourselves, and it was still breathing and quivering fearfully when we gratefully returned it on Monday morning.
One week later was a milestone in little Ben’s life. In kindergarten, Ben would never ride in anyone else’s car. Separation anxiety. Childhood road rage. But Marci, uncomfortable at the tail end of her pregnancy, got Ben to agree to carpool with a kindergarten friend. How had she worked this magic? Harry the Hamster would be there!
Our friends Barbara and Fred had taken home Harry the Hamster the week after us, and it was now Monday morning. Barbara’s car rolled up in front of our house, Marci walked out holding Ben’s nervous little hand, and Barbara opened the rear door. Whereupon Ben’s kindergarten friend Bradley threw open his arms in welcome and screamed out, “The hamster DIED!!!”
True story. Harry the Hamster’s number was up the very next weekend after we’d taken the little fur-ball home. Thank goodness we weren’t the ones who’d drawn the short straw. I’d still be paying for therapy. The kids in the class were devastated. Enough so that the school decided that a hamster lending library was probably not a good idea.
Soon after the Loss Weekend, Geran was born. Suddenly ex-utero, he spent most of the day drinking, pooping and sleeping. As Marci said, “He takes after his father.” Geran missed the demise of Harry the Hamster, and as a consequence is untroubled by the thought of death. Though, oddly enough, he nevertheless fears furry creatures.
A few weeks after Geran’s birth we were visited by Barbara and Fred, who kindly stopped by to bring us dinner. Their daughter Emily was four; her older brother, Bradley, was in kindergarten with Ben. We had a nice visit, talking and laughing in the living room while the three bigger kids played on the floor behind the couch.
All of a sudden, in the middle of a sentence, Barbara sat up straight as a lodgepole pine and looked quickly back and forth, head sweeping the living room, her eyes like spotlights at a prison camp. “Where’s EMILY?”
“Huh? She’s behind the couch with…oh. Dunno. She can’t have gone far.”
“Emily? EMILY?” Barbara jumped up in a panic, and her husband followed her with uncharacteristic grimness. I looked at Marci, who shrugged back at me, and we got off the couch.
“I’m sure there’s no trouble,” Marci called out, as Barbara headed for the back hallway. We followed our guests into Geran’s room. No problem: he was sleeping peacefully in his bassinet, little Emily peering at him over the top.
“Emily! Come away from there right now!” Barbara grabbed her daughter by the arm and pulled her out of the baby’s bedroom. Luckily, the noise didn’t wake Geran, who could cry loudly enough to rupture eardrums and shatter Hummel figurines. (As an aside, I consider the shattering of Hummel figurines to be a worthy skill, and since scarcity brings value, suggest eradicating as many as possible.)
“No harm done,” Marci said. “Geran’s fine, he’s sleeping. Emily was only watching him.”
Barbara, still holding firm to her daughter’s arm, just tilted her head downward and cast a meaningful glance at us over the top of her glasses. In a lowered voice, she asked, “Remember the hamster?” Turns out, Harry had not died of natural causes. Unless having sticks shoved up your nose by a four year old is a natural end for a hamster.
That became our rallying cry for some time afterwards. Remember the Hamster!
Qu’est-ce que c’est?