The adventures of a New Jersey college professor with very strange friends, colleagues, and family members.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

“And The Children Were Singing, You’ll Be Back At Christmastime”

“It was long ago, and it was far away
And it was so much better than it is today.”
--Meat Loaf

Yes, I know, I promised to talk about my grandfathers this time, but I’d much rather tell you about Ken, with whom I had an incredible strange friendship for more than a decade.

First let me tell you that out of all my friends, Ken was the most stable, reasonable, logical, and down-to-earth one I had. Ken was sort of like St. Jude; if one of my other, high-maintenance friends was acting up and nothing I did to help was working, I would inevitably call up Ken and tell him the problem. He’d have it solved in minutes.

Ken was a year older in repertory, but because we competed in a lot of the same events, we found ourselves being thrown together a lot. He was extremely intelligent (he could write speeches worthy of presidential candidates) and had an incredibly dry sense of humor that almost nobody picked up except for me. he was kind of like Ben Stein. I laughed hilariously at everything he said, causing people to stare at me.

We became friends in repertory, but never really hung out together; he was a year older, had a different set of friends, and the only time we ever really saw each other was at rehearsal. He wasn’t the best actor in the troupe—sometimes his line delivery was a little flat, but at least he was consistent. He always knew his mark and his lines and didn’t have the usual actor’s attitude problem. If he was playing the lead, fine. If he was just in the crowd scenes, that was also fine.

One day near the end of the school year, Ken called me at my house. This surprised me because I never expected him to have something to tell me that was so important it couldn’t wait until rehearsal that night. After determining nothing was wrong, Ken finally got around to asking what he wanted:

“Would you like to get together and discuss Science Fiction?”

This was extremely odd. First of all, I had no recollection of ever telling Ken that I was a big Science Fiction fan (which I was), and second, why did he want to “discuss it” with me? I was more than a little curious, so I said, “sure…come on over.”

Ken lived exactly five minutes away from my house and when he climbed up the front steps he was carrying two large shopping bags from Macy’s. “What’s all that about?” I asked.

“I thought you might like to read some of my books,” he said, “so we can discuss them.”

The Macy’s bags contained everything from Frank Herbert’s entire Dune series to Harlan Ellison’s Edgeworks to Bradbury, Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Vonnegut…all the really heavy hitters. I couldn’t think of a way to explain to Ken that it would take me months to get through them before we could “discuss them.” For the remainder of his visit, we talked about Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.

The very next afternoon, Ken called wanting to discuss Science Fiction…again. I told him that, not having speed-reading abilities, I had not been able to really delve into his collection yet, but that didn’t seem to bother him. I shrugged and said, “come on over.”

He did and we spent the afternoon playing Scrabble. I’m still not sure how that happened.

Now, while all of this was going on, the repertory was preparing to go to a tournament in Pennsylvania. One of the events they were hosting was called “Dramatic Pairs.” It was pretty much self-explanatory. Two people acted a scene together (props and costumes encouraged).

After a week of not discussing Science Fiction, Ken finally caved and asked me, “would you like to be my partner in Dramatic Pairs at the Mansfield tournament?”

I was so stunned that Ken thought so highly of my acting abilities that he wanted to be my partner that I completely missed that the whole “discussing Science Fiction” thing was a ruse to get to know me better and to make sure I wouldn’t go bonkers during the tournament. Flattered, I said I’d be happy to partner Ken. “Good!” Ken said, all excited. “I’ve already got a scene picked out!”

We ended up doing a scene from Same Time, Next Year. In particular, it was the scene in which Alan Alda’s character breaks down while telling Ellen Burstyn that his son was killed in Vietnam. It was an incredibly powerful scene. Remember that Ken, up until this point, had little actual acting experience—he was mostly an orator. But something happened when we took the stage; we played off each other beautifully. We wound up winning a very respectable third place.

Since rehearsals for Same Time, Next Year had been so frequent, Ken and I got used to hanging around together. After the season was over, he would continue to come over to my house every Friday night, eat pizza, play Scrabble, and make fun of MTV. This went on for three more years until Ken left for college.

I couldn’t figure out why he didn’t have a girlfriend. Like I said, he was intelligent, funny, witty, and quite handsome. (Of course, I couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have a boyfriend, either). But every Friday, there we were.

It started to get weirder. When Ken would come home from college for winter break, I would be the first person he’d call. Often he’d call before he had even unpacked. And, because he was a terrible correspondent, I didn’t hear from him much during the academic year.

“Hi!” he’d say, enthusiastically. “I’m home! Let’s do something!”

Let me explain something here. Due to a combination of jobs and grants, I had a ridiculous amount of money. Yet, Ken refused to ever let me pick up a tab. We’d go out to diner; he’d pay. We went to the movies; he’d pay. We got popcorn at the movies; he’d pay.

I was confused. Were these “dates?” We certainly acted like we were on a date—I would do full makeup and hair and he’d put on a very nice sweater and cologne. We never argued, we liked the same things and had friends in common. The one thing missing, of course, was that nothing physical ever happened. We would hug hello as soon as he got back from college, but aside from that, I can think of only two other instances when Ken touched me: When he told me Victor had died he held me, trying not to freak out. The second time was when I danced with him at his wedding.

We went on these weird “pseudo-dates” for seven years. I loved it. I missed him so much that I would break my leg answering the phone when I knew he was coming home. He was my best guy friend, that’s all there was.

And then he met Lucy. And it was all downhill from there.

Now, I’m not the brightest bead on the rosary and sometimes I can be as dumb as a box of hair, but I still can’t figure out why a guy can’t have a girlfriend and a “girl friend” at the same time. It’s happened with all of my male friendships. Hell, it’s happened with most of my female ones, too. I seem to be the only one capable of having a romantic relationship (with my ex) and maintain my platonic friendships with both sexes. Why was I the one to discover the magic button? Didn't anyone else know where it was?

My ex was never threatened by my relationship with Ken. If Ken and I wanted to go bowling, we went bowling. It seemed simple.

Lucy, however, was very threatened by me. I couldn’t understand why—not only wasn’t I dating Ken, I had never dated Ken, nor did I want to.

It is perhaps best summed up by Ken’s friend Frank, who said: “Lucy has taken Ken’s penis and put it in her purse. And she says, ‘you can have this back when I’ve decided you can handle it.’”

Ken’s wedding was awful. I felt like I was burying a friend. I knew I’d never see him alone again. No more Friday night Scrabble marathons, no more MTV, no more spending hours on the phone solving each other’s problems. He was gone.

My ex and I tried to do things with them as a couple, but it wasn’t the same. It would never be the same. I guess part of me always figured that I would somehow wind up with him since we were so good together. But then he began being a “family man,” and with the news of Lucy’s first pregnancy, I wrote him off for good. We even stopped sending Christmas cards. I don’t know where he is, what he’s doing, or who he’s with.

All I know is that I lost something special when that woman walked down the aisle.

And I haven’t forgiven her for it.

Next time: My grandfathers. I promise.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Great Michael Jackson Incident Of 1983

My high school is in “Trivial Pursuit.”

No, it really is. And it’s all Michael Jackson’s fault.

The vast majority of my blog readers are significantly younger than me (about 15-20 years younger) and therefore they don’t remember the Great Michael Jackson Incident of 1983; hell, half of them weren’t born yet. So get comfy, settle in. I’m going to tell you the story of how a single white glove divided teachers, students, parents, and administration in a very small town in New Jersey, all those years ago.

In 1983, I was a junior in high school and worried about what all juniors worried about: Would I pass my driver’s test? Would I get my license? How was I going to do on the S.A.T.’s? Would I get into a good Ivy League school? Oh, and yeah…was I ever going to get a date? With an actual boy?

It was also my third year of repertory, and I was pretty much calling the shots. Although Joe was nominally in charge, he didn’t actually do anything and left most of the fundraising and publicity and news articles to me. This annoyed me, but since I was so in crush with Joe, I forgave him.

Two important things happened in 1983. The first was that our repertory was finally asked to attend a very prestigious competition held at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia. It was by invitation only, and for years Victor had been trying to sneak our way in by blatantly lying to the board of directors and telling them we were a “prestigious private school located by a serene babbling brook.” I don’t know if the board just got so sick of Victor’s whining or if they just finally gave up, because they finally caved and we got our invitation. There was much rejoicing.

It was a very long competition—four days. We would be leaving Thursday evening, competing over the long weekend, and the awards ceremony was scheduled for Monday morning. We’d all be back in school by Tuesday morning, each of us only missing two days of school. Because we were all exemplary students, none of our teachers had a problem with this and said we could make up the work any time.

Now, while all this was going on, something else was brewing in 1983. And, if you’re anywhere near the age of 40, you will remember it as: “The year Thriller came out.”

Even if you weren’t even cognizant of music in 1983, I’m sure you all know all about Thriller. Along with the title track, there was, of course, “Beat It,” “Billie Jean,” “The Girl Is Mine,” “Want to Be Starting Somethin’,” “Pretty Young Thing,” and the list goes on and on.

I should say at this point that I never actively disliked Michael Jackson, I was just more of a Bruce Springsteen girl (hey—I’m a Jersey girl!). In fact, graduation from my high school was contingent on how loudly you could scream “BRUUUUUUUUUCE!” at top volume.

Now, apparently, here’s what happened. During the long weekend the repertory had been away competing, the Grammy awards had happened and Michael Jackson won every single award that he could possibly win. At that time, he was starting to dress a little oddly—remember those weird military-type ensembles with the red sequins and the gold fringe? Yeah, that. And there was something else, too.

He wore one white glove on one hand. That was all. It wasn’t flashy, and I was never clear as to what it stood for. But apparently, over the weekend, the entire high school went insane and decided to start showing “support” for Michael Jackson by wearing one white glove to school.

And then the madness started.

Tuesday morning came and I strolled into French class for first period. My French teacher asked me (in French) how I had done in the competition and I replied I had done tres bien, mais je suis tres fatigue. There were only six students in French IV, and by the time we were all there, chaos had erupted out in the hall.

There was a thunderous sound of students running. Bright lights flashed in the halls. There was yelling. My French teacher, terrified there was a fire or something even worse, fought her way out of the classroom.

Way down at the end of the hall, we saw huge, glittering klieg lamps, television cameras, microphones, headsets and Extremely Famous Newscasters. Keep in mind—I had been away and had no idea what was going on. I shanghaied my friend Cheryl who was coming out of the biology lab and asked what it was all about.

Before she could answer, the fire alarm went off. All the teachers emerged from their classrooms and shooed us out onto the front lawn where I was finally able to get the truth from several trustworthy teachers.

It seemed that the previous Monday, an enormously large group of students wanted to pay “homage” to Michael Jackson’s Grammy upset by wearing his trademark one white glove to school. The principal, a senile, alcoholic (but previously fair) man had decided that “such attire was inappropriate for school and that all students sporting one glove in honor of Mr. Jackson would be sent home immediately to change.”

You think I’m kidding. But I‘m not.

Well, you can imagine what happened. The pro-Jackson camp had called up the local town rag and insisted the principal’s edict had violated something in the Bill Of Rights, and because Michael Jackson was very big news at the time, the story immediately went out over the wire to the national news. I’m talking ABC, CBS, and NBC here—the real heavy hitters.

The godawful part, though, was when the reporters interviewed the students, who fell apart at the sight of a TV camera in their face. Ironically, a lot of the girls being interviewed were simultaneously trying to dress like Madonna.

I sat in front of my TV that night, watching in horror as Honor Roll students—Ivy League tract students—tried desperately to explain that wearing a glove wasn’t going to cause gang violence, or a turf war, or make people bang heroin into their arm. And it wasn’t just the news—this crap was in the paper for weeks.

I got my say in, though. When a well-known female anchor asked me, “do you, BeowulfGirl, as a high achieving student, think that a point was being made here?”

To which I replied: “I’m not sure. I was out of state, winning actual awards for the glory of my school.”

So…yeah. We’re in “Trivial Pursuit.” When you pick the “Entertainment” Category and you get the question, “What high school went under intense scrutiny in 1983 when its students attempted to emulate Michael Jackson?” The answer is, “BeowulfGirl’s.”

If they don’t accept that as an answer, screw ‘em.

Next week: Searching for my grandfathers.