Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Own Version of '56 Up'

How much do you believe you change every seven years? Does your personality, the essence of who you are, evolve? Or is it simply the surface stuff—your demeanor, knowledge, looks, attitude, situation--that shifts?

If you aren’t sure, or want to see that question played out cinematically, catch 56 Up. Currently playing in some U.S. theaters, 56 Up is an acclaimed British TV documentary series. It began in 1964 with the release of 7 Up, a look at a group of U.K. children at age seven. The filmmakers asked them what their dreams were for the future, what they liked, disliked. The same group of Britons have gone before the cameras every seven years since. With the recent release of 56 Up, we see how those cute kids have evolved in middle-aged adults. 

The entire series is a powerful, unique record of how we age, the choices we make, the dreams we defer, the relationships we develop. The movie left me wondering: What would my own 56 Up look like? 

Age 7. I’m a gregarious kid living with my family in Greensboro, N.C.. I wander the neighborhood, entering neighbors’ homes through their unlocked doors, asking what they’re having for dinner, and if it pleases me, asking if I might join them. Miraculously, no one seems to mind in the least. I spend hours drawing cartoons using the downstairs hallway as my desk, causing everyone to step around me. Here, too, no one seems to mind. I feel safe, loved, and because I’m the only boy with four older sisters and I'm the youngest child, special. (My sisters would lovingly add “spoiled.”) I’m having a great childhood.
Me at about 6 years old, on "The Old Rebel" TV show
Age 14. I'm skinny, with braces and a bad shag haircut, and most of the time, I want to disappear. I've become the butt of jokes in school, the last one to be picked for any sport in P.E. I’m completely inept at sports and not doing well academically. I spend many hours in my room, drawing cartoons, writing plays and stories. Not even the teachers in my school seem to be on my side. During a social studies class, everyone has to go to the front of the room and present a book report. As I try to present mine, homophobic hecklers in the class mock me, calling me “Sweets” and other such names loudly enough for everyone to hear. The teacher tells them to stop, but they don’t, and he says nothing more. I can barely speak as I stand before the class, fearful and hurt. This moment creates a dread of public speaking that remained with me for decades. Completely alone, the only thing that gets me through is the knowledge that one day, I'll leave my hometown forever. (Note: Not surprisingly, I haven't found any photos of me around this age. But if I find one, I'll upload it.) 

Age 21. I’m an English major at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. I’m running and working out, to build up my ‘stick arms’ and fill out my spindly legs. My grades are excellent. My teachers praise my term papers. I have many friends. I visit New York City for the first time, tagging along with my roommate’s drama class. For four or five days, we go to Broadway shows. My love of the theater is set afire. And one day, bored in biology class, I make a list of the things I want after graduation: 1. To be a professional writer. 2. To live in a big city. 3. To have a lifelong partner. 

Circa 1979, striking a pose with my sweet grandmother "Sissie"
 Age 28. I’ve achieved all three things on my to-do list. I’m employed as a correspondent for a computer business weekly, and I write travel and other freelance articles for national magazines. I live in Atlanta with Nick, who has been my partner now for five years. My job requires me to travel frequently, which I love to do: New Orleans, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Chicago, Boston, New York. And yet, I’m discontent. As I sense 30 approaching, something seems missing—until I visit California for the first time, on a vacation with Nick and our good friend Edward. 

With my friend Edward, my first trip to San Francisco, 1986
Age 35. By this point, Nick and I have been living in San Francisco for six years. I’m working at the best job I’ve ever had, as an editor for Macworld magazine. During those heady economic times, the magazine takes the editorial staff to a working retreat in Hawaii. I love my co-workers; there are few if any ‘divas’ to make life miserable. Nick and I had made three ridiculously fun trips to Europe by now. I have everything, it seems. 

With Nick and our pet ducks Dickie and Dee Dee, Florence, 1992
Except, as events unfold, my father. As he’s dying of cancer, I fly to Greensboro for a visit. My family and I have decided it’s time to bring in hospice care. The last time I see my father alive, he's in bed, surrounded by my sisters and my mother, making jokes with the hospice worker who’s come to meet him. I look into my father’s eyes before I leave to catch my plane back to San Francisco. He knows, as do I, that this is goodbye, yet we don't say it. Off I go to the airport, only to discover my flight has been delayed, and then delayed again, and once more delayed. I spend at least five hours waiting in the airport, all the while thinking: I should be with my father. Finally, I board the flight, I return to San Francisco, and I live with this regret (and others) still, 20 years later.

Age 42: I’m self-employed and doing well. Nick and I have bought a condo in San Francisco with great views of the city. I’ve been writing a novel for two years and enjoying it immensely. One Friday, in July, Nick tries calling his mother, as he does every Friday. But Mrs. P, as we called her, doesn’t answer. That’s not too unusual. On Fridays she is usually getting her hair done and after that, buying a sub sandwich for lunch. Or she’s playing golf. As night falls and there's still no answer at Mrs. P’s home, a sense of dread creeps in. We make up reasons why she might not be answering—she has been known to accidentally leave the phone off the hook. The next morning, I awaken uncharacteristically early. Immediately I dial Mrs. P’s phone; no answer. Nick calls his former sister-in-law, Margaret, and another family friend, Nancy Lee. Together they go to Mrs. P’s, as they have a key to her apartment. They find her, still in her bathrobe, on the bed. Mrs. P’s death leaves a void in my life that has yet to be filled and never will be. During her memorial, I am one of the eulogists. As I walk to the podium, my mind flashes back to that horrible social studies class when I was 14. None of that matters anymore. Before a chapel packed with mourners, I tell my favorite Mrs. P stories with ease (see the video clip of my eulogy, below). I talk about the unique relationship she and I had, and my heart is full of loss and gratitude.

Age 49: The year before, I'd faced one of the biggest challenges of my adult life: My sisters and I had to move our mother, against her will, out of the home she’d lived in for nearly 50 years, due to her advancing dementia. And so, at age 49, I join a therapy group. I'm fearful of doing it, and yet, I knew I had to. It is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Every week, for the following five years, I learn a little more about how to undo the old behaviors I developed when I was younger—things that protected me then but got in my way now. I learn how to be vulnerable in front of others (not easy for me to do, when I had to present the strongest possible fa├žade to survive my teenage years). 

With my sweet (and feisty) mother, 2007
Since I was 49, my life has been filled with many positive changes. After all those years, my love for theater was rekindled during a trip to New York when I was 50. Since then, I’ve written a full-length play and have had, to date, four productions of my short plays. A fifth one is scheduled this April. I co-authored a book for Random House. I started this blog and have met many fabulous people through it. My relationship with Nick grows stronger and deeper every day. I am blessed with loving friends and family.

Having turned 55 this week, days after seeing 56 Up, I couldn't help but look back at where I've been, and ahead to where I may be going. Have I become a different person throughout my own seven-year intervals? In some ways, yes. But in a sense, everything that’s happened has helped me return to the seven-year-old I once was: a boy full of hope and without fear, a kid who sprawled out on the floor drawing for hours, contentedly lost in a world of his own making.


What would your version of 56 Up look like? 

Friday, February 15, 2013

What's Your Honey Boo Boo Nickname?

While looking at my Google Analytics, I discovered that a sizable number of people have discovered this blog by doing a Google search for Honey Boo Boo name generator.

I had no idea such a thing existed, though I have written a couple of Honey Boo Boo-related blog posts, so I guess Google took a wild leap of faith sending those unsuspecting searchers to my blog. I've since learned that Honey Boo Boo Nickname Generator is a Facebook app that, when you input a name, automatically creates the kind of nickname Honey Boo Boo might give you.

Naturally I wanted to see what HBB might call me. The answer: Jabber Maverick. I didn't care for that one, so I tried again. The second time around, HBB called me Jaclynn Mamie. On the third-ground, I became Jinxy Mini-Belle. I'll go with that one.

Curious, I typed in the names of some other Southerners. Here's what Honey Boo Boo would call them.

Scarlett O'Hara: Skylar Oinker

Blanche DuBois: Boo Boo Doodle

Tennessee Williams: Tutu Wonderful

Bill Clinton: Beauty Crustie

Rosalynn Carter: Raspberry Crybaby

William Faulkner: Willy Fairy

Lee Thompson (the real name of Honey Boo Boo's 'Uncle Poodle'): Love Trouble

Alana Thompson (Honey Boo Boo's real name): Aishlynn Trixie

It's not quite as funny as I was hoping, though I did get a chuckle out of "Raspberry Crybaby" and "Boo Boo Doodle." If you give it a try, please share your Honey Boo Boo nickname in the comments below.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Should You Friend an Old Acquaintance on Facebook?

A few months ago, I received a Facebook friend request from someone I worked with 30 years ago. We weren't friends per se; we were work colleagues who hung out a few times together. I hadn't talked to him in decades.

I learned earlier this week that he has died. And I'm left with questions.

When I received the Facebook friend request from Frank, I deliberated. If I haven't talked to a former work colleague in 30 years, what was the point of connecting now, I wondered? Was he simply trying to grow his Facebook friend total? And what if he's one of those extremely chatty Facebook people who fill up their friends' news feeds with endless minutiae? I know that you can hide posts from people, but still.

And yet, I was intrigued. Frank's Facebook page said he was living in Cuenca, Ecuador. How did he wind up there, I wondered? Why was he there?

I couldn't decide what to do at that moment, so I took no action. I would decide later, I thought. Later has turned into "too late," as it often does.

I feel a twinge of guilt. Did Frank feel rejected by my inaction? More than that, however, I feel regret. What might have happened had I accepted his friend request? I might have learned something from him, he might have learned something from me. We might have connected in a deeper, more meaningful way than we did 30 years ago. People can change a lot in 30 years.

On the other hand, none of that might have happened. I'll never know, because I took no action. I can take comfort, however, in the words of a mutual colleague from 30 years, who sent me this message after I asked him about Frank's death:

"Frank had been living all over the past 10 or so years – in California, in Mexico, in Arizona, and as of a few months ago, in this beautiful small city in Ecuador. Apparently he was very happy there. So he took his leave in a fine state of mind." 


A question for you: How do you respond to Facebook friend requests from people you didn't know all that well and haven't seen in years? Do you have a story to share about your acceptance, or rejection, of that friend request?