Friday, August 21, 2009

Stag Funerals & Pine Needles

I’ve attended funerals by myself before. As a 37-year old markedly and unfailingly single woman, I’ve done almost everything there is to do by myself, including going stag to a funeral.

Going to a funeral stag is unlike attending any other rite of passage alone. Going to prom stag can be done as a social protest. Going to a wedding stag can be an attempt to hook up with an attractive stranger from the other side of the church aisle. But going to a funeral stag is only done out of necessity. Because unlike a wedding, prom or even a company holiday party, if you don’t have a significant other likewise invested in a particular funeral, you really can’t go trolling for a last-minute date.

Another way that attending a funeral stag is different than those other types of events is because kind people go out of their way to make you feel like you’re not alone. Choosing to be solo at a prom takes a lot of concerted effort to maintain your look of lone superiority and that really cannot include meeting new people. Going to a company party by yourself usually means being the third wheel to an office friend and his or her bored spouse or getting to know the bartender pretty darn well. And if you’re alone at a wedding, you’ll either end up scoring big time or sitting at the kids’ table by yourself while everyone else laughs their way through the chicken dance and electric slide. Moreover, the worst part about being stag at a wedding is the number of times you have to answer the question: “so, when will we dancing at *your* wedding?”

But at a funeral, nobody is worried about your love life. There’s an almost tranquil sense of collective loneliness. Because mourning is an individual experience, even the in the closest families, members mourning the same loved one in the same room each feel that loss individually. So, even the largest funeral congregation is really just a gathering of lonely people. So, when you’re alone at a funeral, oddly, you’re part of the group.

So, while technically I had flown by myself to North Carolina to attend a funeral alone last week, I was hoping that once I got there, I would feel like a part of a group, or to be more specific, a family. I went all that way to say goodbye to the man who called himself my “father-in-law“. Although, this was not a legally recognized familial position, he had wanted to be my “father-in-law” and called himself that. Just because his son never got around to asking me to marry him before he died didn‘t keep him from assuming that position in my life. And I love these people like they were actually my in-laws and probably more than many people love their real in-laws. So, there was no question that I needed to be there to help support my “mother-in-law” at this time.

I felt confidant about my decision to spend the money on the trip across the country until I landed in Raleigh and called to tell my mother-in-law and whoever was already gathered at the house that I was on my way. But the phone was busy. No problem, I thought. She must be talking to somebody else. So, I picked up my luggage and headed to the rental car shuttle. I called again. The phone was still busy. Okay, I thought, she’s still on the phone. Fifteen minutes later I was settled into the rental car and about to start the two hour drive to Lexington and I called again. This time it just rang and rang and rang and nobody answered. So, I tried her cell phone, which she rarely uses, and it went straight to voicemail. Now, I was starting to get worried. Maybe they forgot I was coming. I set out on the highway and proceeded to call both numbers every ten minutes throughout the drive. The cell phone always went straight to voice mail. The home number was either busy or rang with no answer. Maybe they weren’t expecting me. Or maybe they didn’t want to see me. Were they avoiding my call? I was feeling abandoned out there on the highway as the sun was setting on a state I’d never been to before. And I was relieved that I had insisted on getting my own hotel room instead of staying at the house. Even though I couldn’t get in touch with anyone, at least I would have someplace to spend the night.

The rain storm started about a half-hour before I got to the hotel. There’s nothing quite as lonely as being in a hotel room, in an unfamiliar place, with nobody to greet you, during a rain storm. Even though I was really feeling unwelcome and questioning the trip at all by this point, I mustered my courage, looked up directions to the house on my blackberry and set off in the rain down Route 8, a rural, unlit, two-lane road with no shoulder to speak of. The speed limit was 40 mph, but I was driving about 20. Unsure of my directions, destination and the wet asphalt, I slowed down at every country lane, and every driveway that looked like a country lane, looking for any street sign that would indicate I was headed the right way.

Along the side of the road there were all kinds of hand-written signs advertising just how the recession has hit this part of the country. People were selling fresh eggs from their chickens, fruit from their trees and quite a lot of guns and ammunition. Was that legal? I wondered. Why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina gun laws before I came? Was it possible these people angrily passing me in their trucks as I crept along reading signs were also carrying guns?

One sign in particular captured my imagination more than the others. Unprofessionally written with a thick sharpie, it sat conspicuously underneath one of Route 8’s extremely rare street lamps, reading only two words: PINE NEEDLES.

Without any other information, I don’t know whether the sign meant that the pine needles were for sale or were free for the taking. Moreover, I have no idea what someone would want with a bunch of free pine needles, let alone why anyone would pay for them. My experience with pine needles comes from my childhood in California. They were abundant during camping weekends. Dry ones were fire hazards and fresh ones always stuck to sleeping bags and ended up in my hair. At the beginning of December, we used pine needles to decorate Yule logs as an annual craft project in Sunday School. But at the end of December, pine needles were an undeniable sign that the Christmas tree was dying. They were supposed to collect on the old bed sheet wrapped around the tree, but ended up stuck in the carpet anyway where even a vacuum had trouble picking them up.

Driving down Route 8, I felt like those advertised pine needles. Unwanted and useless, yet glaringly announced by a sign under a bright light. Here I was everyone, hard to miss, inching down the road, headed to a place I’d never been before, not knowing if anyone there wanted to see me, or if anyone was there at all. I felt simultaneously obvious and unwelcome. I was a big sack of pine needles about to be dropped at a front door and somebody will just have to figure out how to get rid of me.

After some time and a couple of wrong turns, I found the street I was looking for. And after some effort and a lot of squinting in the dark, I found the address. To my surprise, the porch lights were on, the front door was open and there was talking and laughing loud enough to be heard from the end of the long gravel driveway. This was not a house where nobody would answer the phone. Why hadn’t they answered the phone? Surely they really had been avoiding my call.

I cautiously made my way from the rental car to the front door, suddenly wishing I had a flashlight for my safety and a gift for my “mother-in-law”. Why hadn’t I thought to stop at a gas station and buy flowers or a bottle of liquor? And why hadn’t I googled the North Carolina liquor laws before I came? It wasn’t too late. I had service on my blackberry even out there. I could get back in the car, look up a nearby store and come back, so that I wouldn’t arrive empty-handed. Even if they didn’t want to see me, who wouldn’t want to see a nice bottle of booze or wine the night before a funeral?

But it was too late. I heard the squeak of the screen door opening. Someone had seen the headlights in the driveway and was coming out to investigate. “It’s Rebecca!” the female voice shouted back into the house. “Rebecca’s here!” Was she happy to see me? Or alerting the rest of the house as if in a horror film to either arm themselves or run for cover?

No, believe it or not, they were all happy to see me. I was greeted with strong-armed hugs and poorly aimed kisses that landed nearer to my chin and forehead than to either cheek. I believe this was the result of the many empty beer and wine bottles scattered about the kitchen. Those who knew me already exclaimed, through the confusion of their beer goggles, how beautiful I looked. Those who I was meeting for the first time said how wonderful it was to put a face to the name. Or in the case of those who had heard my NPR piece about my deceased boyfriend - their deceased nephew or cousin - how wonderful it was to put a face to the voice.

After the excited greetings had settled down, the questions began: Where had I been? Why hadn’t I called? No. Nobody had been on the phone. Yes. They had been waiting for my call. Which led to a fast-forward Benny Hill style race around the house (minus any saxophone playing or toplessness) to find the busy signal culprit and cause of my anguish. But no, none of the phones were off the hook. Everything seemed to be in working order. But wait - somebody had turned the cell phone’s ringer volume down. And wait - someone had apparently slammed the door on the way back from getting beer in the garage and knocked a rarely-used wall phone down from the wall. Everyone but I looked accusingly at one particularly soused family friend who agreed it must have been her fault. And with the mystery solved, I felt welcome, except for the fact that there was no red wine in the house. But I had a beer. And I had my hugs. And I felt at home.

The next day, as I got ready for the funeral in my hotel room, I noticed that last night’s rain had turned into an actual storm. I also noticed that I had only brought open-toed shoes with me. I was about to introduce myself to a Catholic church full of strangers with muddy, grass-soaked toes. But before the service began, to my own surprise, while voluntarily manning the guest book, I had actually known - or at least recognized - many more people than I expected. Sadly, the reason why we were familiar to each other was because we had all attended the other funeral four years earlier. But while those are still difficult memories for me, recognizing people actually made me feel even more a part of the family. After at least a half-dozen people have said to you, “I’m so glad to see you again… even if it is under these conditions,” I couldn’t help but feel connected to a familial history. I belong, I thought, even if it is as an indelible memory in the scenes of their tragedies. And nobody had even mentioned my inappropriate footwear.

After the funeral and a buffet lunch where I barely ate anything, the family, including me, headed back to the house. There were so many people this time that instead of even trying to learn names, I just smiled a lot, and tapped people on the shoulder on the rare occasion I needed someone’s attention. Mostly I stayed in the background, drinking glasses of Jack Daniels and ginger ale, playing with dogs, making trips to the outside coolers for more beer and refilling bowls of potato chips. Mostly I was trying to look occupied while keeping others from wanting to give me plates of food or talk too much about my dead boyfriend. This part was particularly hard considering the many photos of him and the display of his medals, certificates and personal belongings right next to the kitchen table.

But then something interesting happened. It appeared that three family members - a son, a son-in-law and a grandson, I think, but don’t quote me - were setting up in a circle in the living room with three acoustic guitars. I thought perhaps they had prepared a performance in honor of my “father-in-law”. Perhaps a beautiful, strumming version of “Cat’s in the Cradle”? So, I took off my shoes, sat down on the floor by the coffee table, set my sweating glass of Jack & Ginger on a coaster and settled in for the performance.

With the first song, which was something I didn’t recognize, I realized that this was no performance, but rather an impromptu sing-a-long. I had no idea that I had been welcomed by a family with the kind of musically talented members that can enliven any gathering with spontaneous music. As they moved from song to song - even taking requests yelled-out from other rooms - different people joined in singing when they knew the words. A few songs in, I knew the words to “Norwegian Wood,” so I trepidatiously moved a little closer to the guys with guitars and sang on the verses and added harmonies to the choruses. Nobody gave me confused glances or the full-out evil eye, so when it was over, I moved a little closer still and hoped that maybe I would know the next song, too.

As the guitarists strummed and brain-stormed, somebody suggested they play something with a straight ahead rock-blues feel, to which the obvious leader of the group responded with: how about “Route 66” in G? And without thinking, I excitedly blurted out: “That’s my song! And my key!” Everyone looked at me, so I quickly explained that I had been singing “Route 66” with bands for over ten years and, serendipitously, I sing it in G. Without a pause, the group leader smiled and said, “well, great! It looks like we’ve got a lead singer on this one. We’ll give you a few bars and you come one in.” Sitting there on the living room carpet, leaning back on the floor with one hand and holding my drink in the other, I sat in that family circle and belted out a song I’ve been carrying in my proverbial vocal pocket for most of my life. But rather than feeling like I needed to perform, I felt like I was sharing myself and being accepted by others.

We made it through the tune top to bottom two full times, including a few guitar solos and a big finish. By the end, almost everyone had moved into the living room and their applause was full of familial affection, outright praise and even a little surprise. Somebody shouted out that I sounded like Shirley Bassey, which was a lovely compliment, and others asked if I had any CDs they could buy. This would never happen while singing Christmas carols at my parents’ house, since amongst my real blood relations, everyone knows that I sing and that I don‘t any CDs for sale. But here my singing was mostly a revelation. Except for the fact that my “mother- and father-in-law” had come to see me perform twice in Las Vegas, bringing me flowers and accolades both times. And at that moment, I could hear my “mother-in-law” bragging to nobody in particular, “see, I told you how talented she was,” and I felt so pleased that I could make her smile and give her something to be proud of on the day of her husband’s funeral.

The guitar-playing trio asked me to keep singing with them, but I just told them to keep doing their thing and I’d join in on harmonies and such if I knew the tunes. Mostly I didn’t, but that didn’t matter to me. But as people were getting ready to head home, I did get to lead a rather rowdy version of “King of the Road” that almost everyone joined in on. Oddly, this was part of the regular set I did with a swing band back in the late-90s and I’d always felt a little uncomfortable singing it while in a vintage cocktail dress. But in my black sundress and bare feet, sending family off, encouraging them to drive home safely as the rain was finally letting up, it seemed like the most appropriate, comfortable and fun song to shout out with this tipsy - or in some cases very drunken - post-funeral group.

A little while later, I headed back to my hotel, as well. I was staying in North Carolina another two days, so there would be plenty of time to spend with this family. But at that moment, after two long days and several sleepless nights, I wanted some time to reflect on my own, write for awhile and hopefully go to bed early. I drove the rental car back toward Route 8 and took a left toward town.

Soon I came across the “PINE NEEDLES” sign, but this time there had been something added to it that I couldn’t quite read. I found a place to pull over, turned around and went back to investigate. In the bottom left corner, someone had added a piece of paper that read: “DEER CORN APPLES”. Was this advertising three separate things: deer, corn and apples? Or was it just one thing, a rare variety of apple: the deer corn apple. Or maybe it was two things. Either a type of corn - deer corn - and a general variety of apple, perhaps a red delicious? Or else they had deer available and something called “corn apples” which could have either been a type of corn or a type of apple that maybe deer enjoyed eating?

I got back in the car and started laughing to myself as I debated all of the possible meanings of this sign. And then it occurred to me that I definitely no longer felt like that unwanted, useless dead pile of pine needles. Now I felt like deer corn apples. Maybe I wasn’t immediately definable. Maybe my place or purpose was suspect at first. But, in the end, I was interesting, useful even and people were glad I was there. I’m still not sure what “deer corn apples” actually means and I don’t really want to know. Because I have my own definition for it. Deer corn apples are me, going “stag” to a family funeral in North Carolina.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Prime Birthday

I like to think about my birthdays mathematically.

For example, on Monday, August 3rd, I turned 37. A prime number.

Metaphorically, I imagined this would mean I had reached my prime. You know how they say that women reach their prime – in a variety of ways – later than men? Well, I was prepared for that. And excited about it. I was ready to begin this year with gusto and vim and zest and all kinds of underused words.

But if what happened on my actual birthday is emblematic of the year to come, then 37 isn’t the prime year I was so looking forward to.

I should have known things were doomed when I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was supposed to be sleeping in a hotel room in Anaheim with my friend Tim and it was important that I sleep since the alarm was set for 6:30am. We were determined to get to Disneyland by 7:45am, so we could be in the park at the moment it opened at 8am. But even with two sleeping pills, I couldn’t sleep. And the one time I ventured out of my ineffective bed, I walked right into a chair, painfully stubbing my toe. On the way back to the bed, I stupendously did it again. But this time to a toe on the other foot, thereby successfully ensuring that I would begin my day of Disneyland walking with the faint linger of throbbing within both feet.

Once the sun came up, things seemed a bit better. We got our free continental breakfast (bagels and cream cheese in foil packets – the cream cheese, not the bagels) and caught the Anaheim Resort Transit (ART) to the park. (Which, by the way, has no redeeming sense of “art” about it.) I got my free birthday ticket with no problem and we were standing in the midst of Main Street U.S.A. when the celebratory opening of the day music began at 8am. We ran to Tomorrow Land and things appeared to be going smoothly: Buzz Lightyear’s Astro Blasters quickly followed by Star Tours. But when we took off for the coveted Space Mountain, we were met by a human wall of costumed 20-year olds who were informing everyone that Space Mountain was not open “yet.” They had been told to inform guests that it might be open within a few hours.

Okay, I thought, nothing to panic about. It’s just that Space Mountain is the most fabulous ride in the park. And it was my birthday. So, it had to open eventually, right? It would. I was sure of it. I just had to stay positive. Positive, positive, positive. But on the inside I had already started freaking out.

We continued our counter-clockwise journey: the Matterhorn, Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Thunder Mountain Railroad. Then all the way to Splash Mountain, back to the Haunted Mansion, the Pirates of the Caribbean, Indiana Jones. And then it all fell apart at the Jungle Cruise.

The Jungle Cruise is one of my favorite rides in the park. It’s absolutely unique as amusement parks go: relaxing and hilarious. I’ve been memorizing the guides’ patter since my first trip to the park in 1977. And the fact that it’s rarely changed in 32 years is comforting and amazing, since it’s still just that funny.

“If you look over here, you’ll see some beautiful limestone. Although most people just take it for granite.”

I love that joke.

But I didn’t hear it on my birthday. Because of Kelli.

Kelli with an “i” from Portland, Oregon. Kelli with an “i” hates her job. One of the most coveted jobs at Disneyland and she hates it. She is ruining visitors’ vacations with her rude, flippant, childish assault on possibly the best patter in tourism history. She tells jokes incorrectly when she tells them at all, which most often she doesn’t. And she races right past whole sections of the animatronic tour without saying anything. She complains about how she always gets the bad boat and how things don’t work. The only saving grace is that she mumbles, so some riders don’t have to hear her at all.

But then Kelli did something unforgivable. She announced to the boat full of paying passengers that she once fell in the water and “they” – meaning the park management, I guess – made her go get a tetanus shot. She continued, “so, if you fall in the water, they’re going to make you get a tetanus shot, too. So, try not to fall I the water because the water at Disneyland will give you tetanus.”

She actually said that! In the happiest place on earth! On my birthday! So, for the first time in my 32 years of blissfully going to Disneyland, I went to the Town Hall of Main Street. I stood in line for 30 minutes. And I made an official complaint. If Kelli with an “i” hates her job so much, then she can get fired, I thought. She’s ruining my favorite ride, my birthday and my non-tetanus view of Disneyland and this needed to go in her permanent record.

But I wondered to myself, as I stood in that line, had this happened before I was 37, would I have bothered. Would I have been so angry at the immature, ill-trained, selfish Jungle Cruise mean girl when I was younger? Or was this ire related to me reaching my “prime”?

When I reached the front of the line, Jason, the prince charming of customer service, wrote everything down, was appropriately appalled at the tale of Kelli with an “i” and promised that she would be reprimanded. In addition, he gave me something to hopefully make my day better: a magic fast pass.

A magic fast pass is apparently something you can only get if you make a complaint or have some upsetting thing happen to you during your visit to the happiest place on earth. It allows you and your friends or family to cut to the front of any fast pass line. Instead of having to get a fast pass ticket and then wait for your turn to come back, you can present the magic fast pass at any time and go right into the fast pass line.

With the magic fast pass glowing in my hand, I asked Jason if he knew if Space Mountain was open “yet.” One quick phone call later, he exclaimed: “It just opened! Rebecca, go now!”

So, Tim and I ran from the head of Main Street to the tip of Tomorrowland, panting with excitement. We weaved in and out of the ever growing mid-day Disneyland throng. The crowd navigational gods were with us as we were reaching Space Mountain in record time. But just as we arrived, we noticed something was wrong. The line was moving toward us down the ramp, not up the ramp toward the elation of the Mountain of Space. Jason hadn’t lied to us. Space Mountain had indeed opened. It’s just that it had closed just as quickly. And everyone was being evacuated from the line.

I put my magic fast pass safely in my wallet and we moved on, just a little more dejectedly. The anger from Kelli with an “i” combined with the melancholy of the closed Mountain was putting a particularly non-prime mood on my supposedly prime birthday.

Next, we moved on to Toon Town. I thought the wackiness of Roger Rabbit and talking mail boxes might lighten my mood. But as I stood in line for the diaper-smelling, toddler-raging Toon Town bathroom, I made the mistake of checking my email on my Blackberry. And that’s when I got the news that Stan Lapinski had died.

Surrounded by screaming children and wacky bulbous architecture, I collapsed on a bench to take in the news that the only man who has ever called himself my “father-in-law” had died on my birthday. My 37th birthday. My birthday that clearly wasn’t shaping up to be very prime.

It should have been perfect. What’s better than doing something that makes you feel young on a day when you would otherwise feel pretty old? Isn’t that the idea? Shouldn’t you try to convince yourself on your birthday that you are still in your prime? And that age isn’t going to catch up with you? But how am I supposed to fool myself into believing that when, on my birthday, death gets this close?

Getting the news that someone dies is bad enough. But on your birthday, while at Disneyland, it feels even more devastating. And it wasn’t just anyone. Stan Lapinski was a man who had drunk from the fountain of youth. A man who survived World War II, competed in the Olympics and worked as a golf pro well into his 70s. If a man like this can die, a man that never looked his age until the last few weeks of his life, then what chance do the rest of us have?

I did have the chance to recover some of my birthday spirit. And what better place to do it than Disneyland, a place of fantasy, adventure and a cartoonish future? A place where I could have fun while simultaneously feeling cloudy and mystified by the sad news about Stan.

I don’t remember exactly what we did next. I know we rode more rides. I know we took the Monorail to Downtown Disney, had cocktails and artisan cheese at the Grand California Hotel and did a little shopping. And I know that when we got back to the park, that Space Mountain had finally opened!

This was going to be my salvation. There is hardly any mortal experience more liberating, refreshing and air-conditioned than the thrill of a roller coaster – this particular roller coaster – in the dark. Of course, mere humans were forced to wait in a line for two hours. Slightly more clever folk were getting there fast passes to return at 11pm. But we were different. We had the magic fast pass. We were going to jump right into the front of that line.

We ran up the wide cement ramp, handed over the red piece of paper and rushed into the final stretch to greatness. And that’s when it happened. The final straw. The final realization that 37 isn’t a prime year at all. It’s a year burgeoning on old. A year when your body begins to fail you. A year when running to ride Space Mountain begins to seem like the folly of youth.

As I came around a sharp corner on my way to the front of the Space Mountain line, I felt a sharp pain. I can only describe what happened like this: my left calf seized. All of the muscles in my left calf just gave up and screamed in pain. Now, I have a high threshold for pain. But when I tried to put weight on my left leg, the sharp intake of air accompanied by my scrunched eyes indicated to Tim that I wasn’t kidding.

But there I was, so close to Space Mountain. So close to that roller coaster in the dark, where age doesn’t matter. Where my screams and laughter are just as young and prime as everyone else’s. I wouldn’t miss this for the world on any day, let alone this not so prime birthday.

So, mustering the Keri Strug inside me, I started to limp. Slowly, but surely, I was going to make it to the front of the line. I could feel the impatient courtesy of the line slowing down behind me. People desperately wanted to pass me, but they didn’t want to be rude to the injured old lady. Well, that and “line jumpers may be evicted from the park.”

I did ride Space Mountain that day. And I did manage to limp around the park until 11:30 that night. After all, it was my birthday. And I was going to celebrate it no matter how many deaths or injuries or Kellis with “i”s tried to get in my way. It was a despondent, gimpy, annoyed celebration. Certainly not the prime celebration I had envisioned. But unforgettable and I suppose prime in its own way.