Friday, September 30, 2011

"All I want to do, is to spend some time with you..."

For all the philosophizing, soul-searching, and navel-gazing that the onset of online social networking has brought about in the realistically short time it has existed, I've considered it nothing but a gift. Much as I can't be content to just enjoy a movie and leave it behind like the disposable entertainment item most others view it as, I cannot do so with the people in my four decades of life who have had the remotest amount of positivity for me. Thus, any time one of them chime in on a video I repost, or type out reactions of laughter if I make a particularly strong wisecrack, I feel very happy. It's a small daily validation that just as these people contributed to what I became, and what I am now, in a small way, they're letting me know I'm doing a small, similar amount for them as well. I am quite aware that most likely almost none of the people I went to high school with read this blog, since I'm waxing on subjects for which they don't share my deep enthusiasm, but I do know that they are happy for me and encourage my writing from the little pokes and comments they leave in the short bursts of correspondence such websites thrive upon.

It's hard now to contemplate that even a decade ago, for all purposes, unless you really worked at maintaining communication, that whole cross-section of your friends, of your life, could essentially be left behind for good. It was that heavy notion that came to my mind on a late-night drive home in August of 2001, when I began thinking of a friend that I had lost too soon...

Maria Olberding was one of the upperclassmen in my high school days, my superior by two years. She was active both in the drama guild, which was my strength, and in high-endurance sports, which was my absolute weakness, and worked both disciplines with enormous enthusiasm. Thus I was an enormous fan of hers. Were she not slain in a robbery attempt in 1994, no doubt she would still be working those talents. As such, to quote David Simon & David Mills, once her life ended, all of us who loved her joined a club. It's a very exclusive club. But the funny thing about the club is that none of the members want to belong. It's like some sort of secret society where only the initiated can recognize the other members.

Thankfully, because the majority of her life was so upbeat and energetic, so has her memory been kept in such a fashion through the Reggae Run, a yearly event in Cincinnati that continues to both draw over 8000 first-class runners from around the world for a daunting 5-kilometer race through the hills of the city, and raise large sums for the Make-a-Wish Foundation. As Elle Woods observed years ago, exercise raises your endorphins and your subsequent attitude, and to not enjoy a large spread of good food and solid reggae music is nigh impossible; with these two elements in tandem, it's a fine way to remember a great lady.

In 2001 however, I was far away from all of that. I only had sporadic contact with Maria's younger sister and my graduating classmate Patti Olberding, and I knew about the race from clippings my dad sent me, so in those days before Zuckerberg's Famous Ping, there was a feeling of being cut off from that section of my history. And while now I can message with Patti frequently and keep up with her and all our mutual friends from school, and I'm able to use my blog to eagerly promote this race in Maria's legacy, I thought it would be interesting to go back to that pensive night before all that was possible.

It was during that long late night drive from work when I was inspired to write this posthumous note when I got home. I didn't know if I would ever show it to anyone, especially on the public scale which I'm presenting it now; I think I just wanted to document a moment lest it get lost. With all the renewed cameraderie that I'm amidst today, I feel okay in sharing it with the world. Aside from some grammatical fixes and strategic hyperlinks, I am presenting it as is from a decade ago:

When I was first made aware of you, and who you were, I could tell you were one of the cool people.

I don’t use that term to imply some sort of exclusive cabal, the kind of mythical illuminati that run the high school in so many people’s troubled memories of their adolescence. I mean that I could tell you were one of the interesting people in the universe of our high school.

I think the initial instance of seeing you was in a play my freshman year, which meant already that I idolized you because at that time I still entertained notions of acting. At that time, the school was not co-ed, and I was still navigating the strange new world of high school (and in candor, doing a horrid job of it), so thoughts dissipated. After all, out of sight, out of mind. Then I tried out for the spring play, and made it in. And you got cast too. You and your sister. Although I look at the person I was back then and shudder at my maladeptness, you both seemed to see some good in me, and I was invited to socialize with you with regularity since.

When I became convinced of your coolness was at a cast party for another play. We were in your basement, listening to a mix tape you had made. Since you were older, you were getting hip to the really good music, the stuff that wasn’t getting played on the Top 40 parade I was still paying attention to. I remember it had all the now classic alternative hits that were still fresh and new and making all of us teenagers feel we were discovering something—Depeche Mode, Modern English, etc. It had an extended mix of Tears for Fears’ “Head Over Heels,” that had an intro and exit that sounded diametrically opposed to the short single version that was sandwiched inside, but that captivated me. That, and it had a song I knew existed, but had never heard, or at least, never listened to properly: “Red Red Wine” by UB40. By the time the toasting bridge portion of the song came on, the addictive chant of “Red red wine you make me feel so fine, you keep me rockin’ all of de time…” I knew in my heart that you were hip. You were pretty, smart, athletic, artistically inclined, and now, I knew you had the best taste in music.

With all those elements in your favor, long before Nick Hornby quantified it in literature, it was inevitable: I had a crush on you. You and your sister. Actually, in honesty, I had the bigger crush on your sister, because she was my age, in the same classes as me, and it seemed more plausible to possibly date her than you. By the end of my sophomore year, you were already on your way to college; it would have been totally impractical to attempt anything. But each time you came to school wearing those electric blue running tights under your uniform skirt, I always mused a little on the “if onlys.” Nothing ever materialized with your sister either.

I keep using the phrase “you and your sister.” If I can indulge in a sidebar, that last sentence is the title of one of my favorite songs. It does not actually apply to my musing, because the song is a plaintive ballad of a man who only wants time with the object of his affection, trying to counter the warnings of their sibling, whereas outside of perhaps some private comments about my overall sanity or lack thereof, I don’t think your sister has ever voiced any derogatory feelings about me. I bring this up because this is a song I discovered after college that I would have expected you to know, with your exquisite taste. Or perhaps one I would have tried to turn you on to, to make some sort of repayment for the music you introduced me to in my formative years.

I felt a great deal of sadness when you were murdered. I was in my 20’s, in another city, and I hadn’t seen you in a couple years, but when I got the news from my parents, I felt deep grief. For the family, for the friends, for never getting to see you again. And that’s where I felt an even deeper sadness, because I had to stop and consider that for all intents and purposes, I would never have seen you again anyway. By the time you left school, you were already on a different path in life than me, connected only tenuously by my friendship with your sister, our common friends and school experiences. Now we were in different cities, different lives, likely only to meet or hear of each others events through rumor and five-year reunions, seeing as a similar divergence occurred with your sister. Short of some radical change in either of us that was not a plausible possibility, we would have no reason to be in each other’s lives. My time of being part of your world had ended long before your untimely death, and it made me miss you more.

You see, some people are content to leave even the most idyllic of pasts behind, to be reduced to anecdote, a couple funny photos, maybe an occasional lunch, and staying smartly and rigidly focused on the present and future. The recent movie CHUCK AND BUCK is very uncomfortable to watch for the fact that it captures the awkwardness of what happens when two childhood friends meet again: one is still living in those memories and wants to behave accordingly, while the other has a new and different life and does not have feasible room in said life for that kind of friendship. Indeed, while I strive to maintain better than average contact with people from my past I consider significant, I’m smart enough to know that significance has diminished for us both. We have lives that don’t mesh, newer and more convenient friends, families of our own (well, they do anyway – I’m still single with no dependents and living a bohemian life, so I could be in an arguable state of arrested adolescence). The past is always pleasant, and we like to be updated on the present and future, but the relationship from long ago has become the acquaintanceship of today – it ain’t the same anymore. But those “if onlys” do stay the same. We are always drawing speculative maps for those roads we didn’t travel, the choices we couldn’t make because they weren’t available. And memory operates in such peculiarity, the most mundane elements can trigger the most deepest recollections.

Like tonight. I was inspired to write this because driving home tonight, “Red Red Wine” came on the radio. By now I’ve heard it over a thousand times, and it often just goes in one ear and out the other, like anything else we’ve heard in excess. But tonight, and frankly on many occasions before, when it played, I thought about the first time I heard the song; how I was at a party in the basement of a girl who was pretty, smart, athletic, artistically inclined, and at that moment, had the best taste in music. The embodiment of everything I looked for in a girl.

And even though I am now twice the age I was when I first received this hormonal epiphany, I still search for a companion with cool tapes and clingy opaque tights, and I begin to think maybe you still are.

I would likely never say this to you if you were still alive, because it would be inappropriate, or uncomfortable to hear, although I would like to believe you would smile and laugh and pat me on the shoulder afterward. And if you were still alive, some other man would be able to revel in that wonderfulness about you. Or at least I could think that the next time “Red Red Wine” came on the radio.

So, if you're in Cincinnati this Saturday and feel up for some heavy breathing in a forward motion, or just want to bypass the race and get to the music, please head down to Ault Park and enjoy some good fellowship. If you're not in town but want to put in, the Reggae Run website has plenty of merchandise for sale that will help the cause too.

Otherwise, just tell a friend you haven't spoken to in a long time that they still mean something to you. And maybe try listening to a special song as if it were the first time you heard it.

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