Immediate Nostalgia

pott-mar11-sourgrapes

Angie never married. At least twice a year she declares that’s a good thing, supporting her statement by adding that she makes a better girlfriend than spouse.

Doug and his wife don’t have children. They raise purebred long-haired dogs. Doug tends to say about himself that it’s a good thing he never had kids, because the sight of a baby doesn’t trigger any cuddle-response in him the way a glimpse of any puppy will.

Are these examples of what Aesop meant by sour grapes? Does each in fact acknowledge a failure to obtain, and then claim they really didn’t want to obtain anyway? They do sound like short foxes disparaging tall fruit…

But there seems to be more to it. Such statements carry the idea that wherever we are is where we were somehow meant to be.

I don’t buy it. I look around at most peers and I see non-starters. I remember being kids with them; everybody tried some things then. What stopped most?

I’ll look at Angie and Doug. I’ve known them almost all my life. I went to school with them.

We met in third grade. I was new to the school and to the grade level. This was in January 1959.

The date is marked in my memory because my family moved from New York to California in October 1958, when I was starting third grade. I was too precocious to stay with my cohort in the southern California school. They pulled me out and gave me a series of tests (I remember sitting at one of those combination chair/desk things, in the little room outside the principal’s office, filling in boxes and writing short answers with a number two pencil. The following week I was placed in Miss Daniel’s fourth grade class, next to short blonde Angie and diagonally across from freckled Doug.

It was a bit of a dizzying experience. I knew no one and I’d never heard of multiplication tables. The class was already up to their sixes. I was always good at numbers, but to this day I’m a little weak with sevens and eights.

We three became friends. We were not popular kids but we weren’t losers either. We were each odd enough to stand apart but not so much that we were bullied or teased more than most. I was bright/insolent and too ready with indignation to be quiet. Blowhard. Angie was blonde and blue-eyed but she was a little overweight and completely uncoordinated; she attracted the fat-mockers and invited disdain from the athletic. Chubby. Doug’s ears stuck out like pitcher handles. He was a cub scout then, and sported a crew cut (his hair was blondish but tending toward red) that did nothing to minimize the ear protrusion. Dumbo. He wasn’t fat but he wasn’t a sportsman either; back then I could run faster and I used to make a game of catching him by his yellow neckerchief on Thursdays, when he and the rest of his den came to school in scout shirts.

What began in the classroom, because of our seat proximity, continued on the playground. This was suburban southern California, so schools were new and playgrounds were unscuffed. We were immediately so crowded that the administrators came up with the idea of split sessions. Even then our classrooms topped thirty students each, and every teacher had at least one aide.

Doug and Angie and I hit the white-lined asphalt with the rest of our class each recess, but we often wandered to the periphery of the four-square court, and talked. We agreed that tetherball was the most dangerous game at school; sometimes we hung at the edge between blacktop and baseball diamond, watching the jocks hammer the ball rocketing around the pole.

We also agreed that school was mostly boring. We looked forward to summer vacation but were ready to return to class after less than a month of leisure. We all tested as above average. There was no Gifted-And-Talented-Enrichment (GATE or TAG) program by name, but the designers of our curricula tried to stimulate us, and eventually placed us in college prep classrooms. I never had to do homework. Doug skated through most. Angie was the least scholastic of us but she rarely needed our help.

We tried to fall in love with one another. Doug and I went on a “date” the summer before seventh grade (the local movie house Saturday matinee: two westerns and a newsreel and cartoons; Jujubes and Sugar Daddys to make our nickels go as far as possible). He even did the corny “big yawn with arms out so that the near one ended up along my shoulders,” but that’s as far as we went. Angie asked Doug to the Sadie Hawkins dance in eighth grade but they never touched except when slow-dancing. Later on, when we were in high school and Angie and I were inseparable (Doug was still our afterschool buddy but he had discovered sci-fi by then, and had acquired a few guy friends), some of the popular kids called us Lesbos. We considered it, but we agreed even then that sexual orientation wasn’t a matter of choice.

No, we were friends and it never included the “benefits” part. In fact, I think I was the only one of us interested in sex, and I was a little obsessed. I early learned the ways of my own body, and I would have taught Angie if she hadn’t made sounds like when she was scared by a spider. I talked to both Angie and Doug about sex as much as they’d permit, sharing my conjectures and inviting theirs. I’m sure my chatter elicited more than silence would have; eventually I learned that Angie liked to get off but not by herself, and Doug liked cuddles and foreplay more than intercourse.

But all of that came later. We were three virgins when we headed to college. We were into other new experiences before then.

Doug took up pole vaulting in eighth grade. He would have continued it in high school but he grew too tall for the pole (this was shortly before the development of the fiberglass gear that would have taken his weight). He switched his sport to diving. He surprised himself and us by being good at it. He also developed an impressive physique at it.

The diving led to other sports. He became almost fanatic about cycling, taught himself to unicycle, and got into skydiving. As soon as he tried hallucinogenic drugs at Cal, he picked up a Rapidograph pen and started his hyper-detailed dot drawings. He also got into box-folding like it was origami.

Angie’s big interest was child development. She started summer camp counseling at fifteen. She was already a diligent babysitter at home and for neighbors. She majored in sociology at Cal and was one of the first Big Sisters in our area when that program expanded (we were around twenty then). When she dropped acid she tended to talk about the kid-centered narrative-based, dance-filled school she planned to establish. After college she got a county job in social services and she worked toward getting into the kid programs while she tackled her weight. By then she had about sixty pounds to lose. She joined a gym and hired a nutritionist, and she was almost thin when she tried an accounting class in night school, which didn’t pan out.

I wasn’t standing still myself. In fact, I was conscientiously raising myself. I had definite ideas about what constituted a successful adolescence, and so I made sure I tried some drugs and sex and getting away from my parents. I sampled my friends’ interests (got into the biking but not the kid thing), but mostly embarked upon my self-designed courses of study. Things like memorizing the structure/habits of DNA and the ways of photosynthesis, reading and writing backwards, inventing language and creating myths. I picked traits from novel characters, and strove to acquire them. I was on a mission, to grow up into someone I’d like and be in charge of myself. I ate that elephant one chomp at a time.

When I was young I sampled life, and so did Doug and Angie. I didn’t dream that any of us would stop.

But they did. Somewhere in our mid to late 20s, Doug and Angie stopped trying new things. Along with most of our peers. It was like the two-way valves in their brains shut off the incoming function; they knew, they knew, they knew, and that incessant proclamation blocked the entrance of any new information.

I was dismayed. I kept trying to jump-start them. Over the ensuing decades, Doug and Angie each gained weight and lost optimism. Doug married a good friend and enjoyed a companionable mostly sexless marriage. Angie had long on-and-off affairs, first with a alcoholic depressive and later with an alcoholic married man. Both of my friends started acting cynical, watching televised sports like they mattered, and attributing other people’s actions to avarice.

Looking back on our school days I see something I never noticed at the time. We were three bright kids, and the school curricula tried to stimulate us. It tossed art and music programs at our cohort, and new math. America’s kids were found to be unfit when we were thirteen or so, and whole programs in PE were launched. Doug and Angie and I sat at our desks, responding with bored expressions to most of it, but now and then getting excited enough about a subject to exert ourselves.

I received the schooling with my habitual judgmental tendency to indignation. I found it wanting and I supplemented the hell out of it, mostly with library books. Doug and Angie were passive compared to me. They let information pass in front of them, and that’s exactly what most of it did.

Now and then I still try to get my old friends started on something. Doug says he wants to learn guitar and I keep encouraging him. Angie is considering joining a gym. I prefer to work out alone, at home, but I’ll join up too if that will get her going. It’s so weird to me, the way they resist. Angie has succeeded before, losing all her excess weight for awhile; she knows she can start something and get to a goal. And like any cyclist, Doug understands that the upcoming hill always looks steeper as you approach than it really is when you’re climbing it.

I distrust nostalgia. I think it’s emotionally dishonest and manipulative. I want to remember my life accurately. That’s why I keep journals. And reread them.

When I hear Doug saying it’s just as well he has no kids, or Angie arguing that she wouldn’t have been a good wife, it sounds like nostalgia to me. These are statements that ignore so much reality! But they’re immediate. They don’t even require the lapse of time that goes into making nostalgia.

I can hear it now. Both Doug and Angie would take offense at my suggestion that their acknowledgment of their current life situations sounds like sour grapes. They’d argue, if we talked through the offense, that they didn’t strive for the states they don’t have and are better off without.

Still, they resemble grapeless foxes. It’s as if the fox never tried for the fruit at all. He saw the grapes above him, and certainly would have ingested any that fell into his hand or his mouth, but he never reached for them. He didn’t seek them. And at the end of his fox life, looking back on all his time under the trellis, the fox concluded that he was probably grape sugar intolerant, anyway.

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