This summer, I took a trip. My travel plans directed me away from home, out of state, for about ten days. There were activities a-plenty planned. Even though I had my laptop with me, I knew that I would not be blogging in any traditional way.
Knowing this, I devised a patently non-traditional, pre-programmed series of posts. These posts would appear at specific times during my trip, aligned with the schedule I had made before my departure.
But I did not stay up late for several nights writing ten or more posts with carefully crafted language. I was, in that manner, lazy. Knowing roughly what I would be doing most of my days away, I selected songs that commented on the activities of my trip. I then scheduled them to appear at about the time that those activities would be taking place.
Some of the songs were sharply specific to what I was doing. Some were only generally related. Some were tethered lightly to some pre-conceived notion of mine regarding what might happen on that day. Some songs were related to a memory, accurate or faulty. At one point during my trip, I checked online to see the progress of these posts, and had the sensation akin to witnessing a wooden-headed ventriloquist’s dummy mouthing a prepared script, shooting over the heads of the audience, only occasionally hitting its mark.
But when the script hit its mark, it was dead-on. And not always in the way I had anticipated.
My journey was taking me to southern California, my birthplace and home of my youth. The event that propelled me there was the 30th year reunion of my high school class.
I had not been to California since a visit eight years earlier. Eight years earlier to the week, in fact, when I buried my father. So, this was not just a reunion of high school chums, but also a reunion with my past, and with family. The anticipatory emotions were varied and strong.
But I’m not delving into that particular labyrinth right now. This is an examination of how my series of lazy posts mirrored the events of the trip. And of how they didn’t.
Some of the posts were dummy-proof (to appropriate an earlier allusion). For instance, the very first one was “California, Here I Come” by Al Jolson. Or, on the following day, I scheduled Carole King singing “The First Day in August.” Duh. It was going to be August 1st that day, no matter what happened to me.
I had been telling everyone I knew that one of the things I was most looking forward to on this trip was indulging in the bounty of good Mexican food. Particularly, a basket of fish tacos. Preferably, hot off the grill, not fried, with a healthy side of salsa fresca, a view of the ocean, and a whiff of salty sea air. [Imagination is a wondrous thing, isn’t it? Oh, yes, waiter, please add a thousand dollars in twenties to my order, wrapped in a crisp white linen napkin…no additional charge, thank you very much.] My anticipation for fish tacos was so amped up that I thought maybe I’d have some that very first day. I pre-posted a song called “Fish Tacos” by Caramelize, a San Diego band who ought to know what they were singing about. Did I have some? No, not on that day. Instead, I had a dry, flavorless burrito at a touristy restaurant in San Diego’s Old Town district. My fishy dream for that first day came to a splat on the asphalt outside of the La Piñata restaurant.
On the evening of August 1st, I was to attend the first in a series of high school reunion events. I had no idea what to expect. I’d had next to no contact or communication with most of these people in the thirty years since our graduation. A few of us had re-established our relationships in the months leading up to this trip, but there were several classmates who I envisioned to be still in that 18-year-old state. Frozen in time, as it were, in my mind. That was understandable, I guess, since I had no information at hand beyond what I remembered of them. The songs for that night were “Friday Night, Saturday Morning” by The Specials, and “Bridges” by Blood Oranges (with its refrain, “you can’t build bridges in the dark,” being a sort of commentary on my isolationist state).
Covering the weekend, there were posts suggesting fond reminiscence (“Schooldays” by The Kinks), of rebellion (“High School Drag” by Phillipa Fallon), and of high school affections travelling over the years (“Old Flame” by The Church). One of these posts, meant – unwisely – as a screed against a classmate whose shrill manner leading up to the reunion was eliciting the worst kinds of emotions within me, ended up taking on a life of its own.
With this classmate in mind, I had programmed Mick Jagger’s “Old Habits Die Hard” instead of other possibilities, which could have included ELO’s “Evil Woman” or The Rolling Stones’ “Bitch.” I knew I needed to dial the nastiness and judgment down a notch and act like an adult, not the teenager that those pre-reunion exchanges were resurrecting. The morning after the big reunion ballroom event, Sunday morning, the post appeared on my blog site, at 10:00 a.m.
A couple of hours before that, I rolled out of bed in a vague state of health, went for a swim in the hotel pool and shook the ache away, then went back to the room to see if I was still the only one awake. My friend Mike, with whom I was sharing the room, was nowhere close to being roused, so I dressed and went in search of coffee.
I found a little coffeehouse on a wharf behind the hotel complex. It was a bright, white, sunny shop, with the sound of beans being ground, and sputtering coffee brewers. I ordered coffees and muffins (I’d take some back to the room to help Mike overcome what was bound to be a monumental headache), and stepped to the condiment table to get a shot of cream. The woman in front of me was doing the same thing as I, it seemed, as she had three coffees in a carry-away tray. She spilled a few spots of beverage on the counter and, before walking away, grabbed a towel from behind the counter to wipe up her barely perceptible mess.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said to her. “That’s what these folks get paid to do.”
She smiled at me, shrugged, and said, matter-of-factly, “Old habits die hard, I guess.”
Thus, I was freed from my cage of arch criticism by a complete stranger, who had totally changed the meaning of that morning’s post with one gentle statement. I breathed a sigh of relief that my sin of judgment – which I had already regretted deeply – was lifted out of my sack of burdens. (Sin, burdens…Did I mention that I went to a Catholic high school?)
I returned to the room, coffees in hand, and the clock struck 10:00 a.m.
On August 3rd, “Margie,” a scratchy old instrumental from 1920 by The Original Dixieland Jazz Band appeared on the blog. I was eagerly anticipating an overnight visit with my cousin and her husband. Never mind that her name is spelled and pronounced differently. I knew it would be a high point of my trip.
On August 4th, I posted the 5th Dimension’s “On the Beach (in the Summertime),” but not once during my trip did I set foot on the beach, even though it was indeed summertime.
“Diamonds on My Windshield” describes a drive up the California coast with the line, “Oceanside, it ends the ride, San Clemente coming up,” in the sandpaper jazz voice of Tom Waits. I took that drive, all right, but there were no ‘diamonds’ on my windshield. Each day of that trip was a clear, sunny beauty.
Nick Drake’s “Fruit Tree” was one of the songs posted on August 6th, for I knew that sometime during that week I would go to see what had become of the 36 fruit trees that my family had planted in front of our old house. I spent my childhood tending these trees: watering, weeding, trimming them, harvesting their fruit. I found them all gone, replaced by a garish house that looked like a boat.
Can you go home again? Of course, you can. And even when the fruit trees are all gone, or it doesn’t rain on your coastal drive, or the fish taco turns out to be an arid burrito, there may be happy surprises. For instance, the following, almost unnoticed, little detail surprised the hell out of me.
After noticing that the fruit trees had all been removed, I drove up the long driveway to take a closer look at our old home. This house was a family project. We would spend our weekends at its hilltop location, putting up fencing, rat-proofing the pipes, tarring the foundation, planting fruit trees. Outside of the garage, we had installed a little black lamp that reminded me of a spire rising from the skyline of a Bavarian village. It had a fanciful character, and was a welcoming architectural detail to the house, the mental image of which has stayed with me over the years. I could see this little light shining outside the garage door when I approached the house late at night. It welcomed me home in the dark or through the fog.
And it was still there, 38 years after it had been fastened above the door.
If I had been all-knowing – which, thankfully, I am not – I would have pre-programmed the following song to post on the afternoon of August 6th. The song repeats the following words in the refrain:
Follow the lights that line the streets connecting telephones
Follow the lights from house to house and they will lead you home
They will lead you home
‘Cause there was never anywhere to go
There was never anywhere to go but home
“Follow the Lights” (2007), by Ryan Adams