Friday, August 14, 2009

The Man Who Wouldn't Smile: Thoughts on Family, Friends, August 13, and Breaheimfullerbar Hills

Fall must be on its way. I hear chanting in the stadium, half-muted tubas warming up to play those songs from the seventies (when you're in a college marching band, does it seem strange to be playing songs that, with just a few exceptions, were popular before you were born?). I run into new transfer students asking for directions to the "brick building" they were told to find (that narrows it down to about 47 buildings.) I recall my deep sleep from last night and realize that I'm finally getting those cool coastal nights I was promised upon subletting.

But then I look on the calendar and it's August 17. There's still a lot of summer. And as someone who will always prefer November to July, as someone who wishes February had 31 days and May had 28, I've got to not get ahead of myself. (I know - if February had 31 days, it would just push March and April and the rest of them forward and things wouldn't change that much.)

Speaking of August 17... last Thursday was August 13. In 1988, shortly before my first (of 3) moves to California, I wrote a poem called August 13th. It was a rambling, jaunty piece about my Minnesota life: 1984 to 1988 - four pivotal/seminal years of transition. I wrote that poem intending it to be a prologue to what was to follow - my life in California, my coming adventures as a new young man in a new new place.

To be honest, I was both excited and terrified in 1988. My family - far-flung in its international-ness since the day I was born - had fractured itself further the previous summer. My parents moved to Singapore on the day of my graduation from the University of Minnesota. The rest of my relatives were also far from me in the Twin Cities - the 96 or so relatives in Egypt, the four in Sweden, the three in Austria, the Disappeared Uncle in Parts Unknown, and, finally, the Others in Southern California. I chose to join the Others and attend California State University, Fullerton, entering their research-focused Masters' program in Psychology.

Normally, people don't come from nearly 2,000 miles away to pursue graduate work at CSUF. Sure, they may come from as far as Chino and Cerritos and Corona. But they don't generally come from Minneapolis. But there I was on a late August evening, orienting myself to this strange university by the freeway, with is boxy white buildings and its wholesome lack of tradition. I may have been a stranger to California and to Orange County in particular. I may have not known what the hell was happening in my life. I may have felt disjointed, disconnected from my friends (the ones I left behind in the cities I kept leaving), my new classmates, and my family. But really there was no better place/time to feel like an unknowing disjointed stranger than that college campus at that particular time.

By the time I settled in that fall - matriculating in Fullerton, residing in Brea, one town to the north, I have to admit that a geographical "home" was being built but in a haphazard way. My friend John from Minnesota joined me in Orange County. We made some new friends pretty quickly by indulging in late-night conversation at Denny's. And whether I accepted it or not, a good portion of my family was around me, dotting the hilly landscape.

My aunt and cousins were the first to arrive in California, back in the early 80s, settling in the city of Orange and eventually in Anaheim Hills. I lived in the latter place for a few weeks while I settled into California life and found that amazing apartment in Brea. It was a nice house, memorable for being smaller on the inside than it ever seemed from the outside. If I remember correctly (and I'm sure I do not), the house was on two different cul-de-sacs - dead-ends in two directions. Despite their Anaheim address, both cousins went to school in Fullerton, in the fancy college-prep public high school across the street from my university.

My sister and her new husband lived in a white-furnitured, white-walled, white-carpeted, white condo in Diamond Bar, north of the Orange County line, in an exotic land called L.A. County. They would eventually grow bored of their Mad About You couplehood and dive into Everybody Loves Raymond parenthood (with my mother playing the role of both grandparents).

We all lived in a mythical land called Breaheimfullerbar, straddling the L.A./O.C. County border and never more than a stone's throw away from the 57, the 55, the 91, and the inappropriately named Imperial Highway. Actually - make that Breaheimfullerbar Hills.

It was really a fruitless attemt at familial connection. It took all the effort in the world for the aunt to want to see any of the rest of us. The sister and brother-in-law would have been happy to never have to invite anyone up to Diamond Bar but eventually they had kids and realized that people liked to give gifts to their kids so they released the floodgates. No, without my own parents running the show, there was no point in pretending we were a unified force. Yes, I needed a family and yes I had a good friend (John) helping me along in the transition. But something was way off - the geographical structure was false, the center wouldn't hold...the college was an odd fit and Imperial Highway (the through-route between the families) kept burning down.

So I think I know why I made an interesting impression on a friend of mine who attended that same psychology master's program. She told me recently (August 13, 2009, to be precise) that she had a clear memory of my presence at CSUF. She told me that I was always around, in the corners, writing something down, not smiling.

I defensively cringed at this good-natured feedback. Always around? Where else was I supposed to go? In the corners? Maybe - but I wasn't facing the corners. Writing something down? Poetry! Manifesto! Ideas for theses. Not smiling? Well...

Not smiling. I had been told that before. When I stalkerishly located (i.e., Facebook search) a person I knew in Minnesota back in the late 90s/early 00s, she told me that I was remembered as the guy who wouldn't smile. So clearly, despite 10 years passing between the latter and former person's recollections, I hadn't learned how to display my inner joy and utter happiness to the observing world.

So, on this most recent August 13, reminded of my lack of smiling, I attempted an escape. You see, the person who told me this is someone I greatly admire. And my morose public persona is not something I've voluntarily cultivated. I gave her excuses - due to my full lips and big face, it takes more work for me to smile visibly. She wasn't buying the invisible smile theory. Okay, it was just shyness I said - once I overcame the shyness, I was a big wide-grinning happyman, No, she knew the truth. I didn't smile on the first day of classes at Fullerton in August 1988 or the last day in June 1990.

She said that she remembers me being heartbroken over a lost love "back home." Now, this could have been one of two different girls back in Minnesota. The fact that I can't remember which one makes me think I wasn't really heartbroken. I don't know if I said this to project an air of mystery or to explain my shyness but it was all a front. My heart was open, not broken. My eyes were open, not closed. My mouth wanted to speak, to smile. And though there were some memorable exceptions, it (I) didn't speak, didn't smile.

And why is that? I've covered the topic of my childhood shyness, my Engligh-is-my-second-language status here in this blog. But I should have been over that by 1988. I was an adult, a grad student. I had been in a real-life true "relationship." I was an overly social person back in Minnesota. I not only had friends but I had enough of them that I would make weekly Top 20 Friends lists in my graph paper journals of the mid-80s. (Yes, this fact is kind of disturbing.) Why didn't I smile? Why was I a corner guy - sulking into the lined paper of my spiral bound? Why did someone else make the same observation 10-12 years later in my third incarnation as a Minnesotan?

Was it that my family life ended? Did I lose something - slowly, methodically, deliberately - in those transitional years beginning in 1986? (sister leaves, parents leave, I leave and I leave again and I leave again... years later... father dies and mother returns and I retreat and I build something new and I get married and I come back. Here. And then the new life, the new family, ends and whatever is its substitute seems eerily familiar.)

Last year, my work supervisor handed me my annual performance review. On one page were anonymous quotes from co-workers describing their work relationship with me. Most were positive. One quote shocked me. This person said "You wouldn't know it by his normal demeanor but sometimes at meetings Ali can be quite funny." I'm staring at those words right now determined to know who said it. Not because I disagree with him/her. But I just want to know what my normal demeanor is and why it's so shocking that I can be funny. Doesn't he/she read this blog? Has he/she not read the story of Grandma and her stockings... the Sbarro Incident... the Singer and the French Fries? I guess not.

On this year's annual performance review, there were no co-workers surprised that I had a sense of humor. No, the lack of notable statements made me feel kind of like a cipher, like rather than being taken for granted, I'm simply not being remembered. Time to change that.

On the subject of "annual reviews" - I mentioned earlier the poem I wrote on August 13, 1988 titled August 13th. I would do the same thing - write a poem called August 13th - every year on that date through 1997. A few of those poems were great ones, notable for their perspective how things evolved from one 8/13 to the next. Others were placeholders that didn't need to have been written. I'll try to collect them all and put them on the poetry blog.

But back to Breaheimfullerbar Hills. I was in the heart of that place yesterday. I met my Mom for lunch at the Brea Mall. Most of our lunch was spent with me refreshing my iPhone so I could give her updates on how Tiger Woods was doing at the PGA back in Minnesota. ("One stroke back after 16... they both bogeyed 17.... he lost.")

After the meeting with my mother (Brea, it turns out, is yet another in one of our many "halfway points" between La Verne and Long Beach), I later drove east down Imperial and farther south and east to meet that same person who told me just last week that I was "always around, in the corners, writing something down, not smiling." I would be meeting her for our second date in the 21 years we've known each other. Now, my time with her last night - from the initial ringing of the doorbell to the extended goodbye on Loretta Drive - deserves a blog entry and a wistful recollection of its own. But what's important to mention here is that apparently I am now smiling freely, that my mouth is not too big to smile, that my head is not too large to hold that smile, that my fractures are not too permanent, and that summer is not so bad even if I like the colder seasons better.


Jason B. said...

Why is no one paying for this shit?

Jason B. said...

You can have your extra long February, by the way, but May must stay the way it is today.