SHOCK AND HORROR AT 50TH YEAR CLASS REUNION

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It happened this summer, on a seemingly innocent trip to the ladies room.

The 50th was my first ever class reunion.  I’d brushed aside notices for earlier ones, but when the invitation came, with a warning that it might be our last, I thought what the hell.  Give it a shot, though I’d been less than two years at East High, transferring from another high school in Washington State.  My stepfather had been promoted and we were settling into our best-ever home when he had a bad accident, lost his sanity, and was institutionalized indefinitely.  My mom, a licensed practical nurse, found us a small rental unit within walking distance of the school, barely affordable on her tiny salary.

In my mind, the only people who’d visited us in that spartan little place were a few family friends, my brother when he was on leave from the Coast Guard Academy, and my only boyfriend before college—a fellow nerd who came to do homework together when he was competing with me to get straight A’s.  I couldn’t think of anyone else, having assumed the place wasn’t presentable like the home we’d been forced to leave.

At the reunion memories were jolted by name tags that reproduced our high school yearbook photos.  One stylishly dressed woman peered at mine, shouted my name and gave me a hug.  I quickly scanned her name tag, pulled a blank, but greeted her as though we’d been pals.  Another woman remarked cooly that I used to teach her younger brother to play the drums. At once a buried memory arose of a series of determined little boys who’d come for drum lessons with me in the tiny living room of that modest rented home. How could I forget?  But I almost had, having given up playing drums to study the piano and survive in a tough college.

The most fun was standing in line for the cash bar, shooting the breeze with folks who did not recognize each other.  This required us to gamely summarize what was noteworthy about our lives.  We looked out over the room and concluded that, all things considered, we’d held up pretty well for our age.  Pretty soon all class members were called to assemble outside for a group photo. Several amateur photographers appeared besides the one hired for the occasion, so it took time.

After the group photos I headed straight for the rest room in a cluster of unfamiliar women.  Two of us were washing our hands at the sink when one caught my gaze in the mirror and said, “I know you.  You invited me to your house one day with two other girls. When I slid over on your sofa to make room for them I accidentally sat on my glasses and broke them.  You said to me, ‘You’ll pay for that,’ and none of us could think what to say. I was never in your place again.”

She walked briskly alongside me as we left the restroom, looking into me for an explanation.  This was clearly unfinished business, as raw and deep for her as it had been half a century ago.  Honestly, I could not recall the episode, but was stunned to hear about my ancient gaff.

“Wow,” I said, glad to be five decades removed from it.  “What a DUMB thing to say!”

Instantly, she responded as if to console us both. “We were children.”

Well, I said to myself, 17- or 18-year-old children, not toddlers.  For her sake I tried to sound upbeat, stretching toward philosophical.  “Life sure is amazing.  I have no memory of this, and you’ve remembered it for 50 years!”

Unsatisfied, she looked back expectantly, as though we both knew it was our only chance to settle the matter.

“It’s true we were children,” I said, “But I don’t know why I would say something so stupid.  I would not have wanted you to feel bad about breaking your glasses.”

She nodded, and made a guttural sound. “Maybe,” she suggested, “you were attempting some kind of humor?”

I recognized the truth.  “Yes, that had to have been my intention.  Obviously, I failed.”

No comment, but affirmation in her silence.  I wanted to know who she was, but couldn’t bring myself to cheapen the exchange by looking at her name tag.  We’d been walking briskly, and before I could think of anything more to say she disappeared into the ballroom.

Within a few days the episode and the mortification I’d felt afterwards had resurfaced. I wished I could have told her: “I was so horrified that I’d dropped that bomb, I was sure you’d want nothing more to do with me.  So I avoided you and didn’t have the nerve to ask you over again.”  But it takes time for such thoughts and words to form.

Still, I want to believe that this frank soul got what she needed from our brief encounter.  Chances are, it was not by chance that we met in the ladies room.  She must have seen me leaving the photo shoot and seized her only opportunity to solve something she’d puzzled over for 50 years.  It could have been the reason she’d attended the event.

This person drew my attention to something that had caused her pain and made her feel rejected.  I didn’t catch her name, but she knows mine, and by some miracle I hope she reads this.  So that I can thank her and say it was my loss that we did not become friends.

When Attending To Something Is a Puzzlement

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Attention can be a puzzlement. (‘Just saw a revival of “The King and I” and couldn’t resist.)

M-J, a close friend, recently confided that within the past year she—not a fan of whodunits—saw a cheap copy of a John Grisham mystery at a recycled book shop and got an inexplicable urge to buy it. She only dimly recognized his name. But the book was only a couple bucks, so she indulged the impulse. In a day or two she’d finished it, and found herself returning to the shop for another. Then another. In almost no time she’d bought and read all the pre-owned Grishams at that place, and was determined to find everything else he’d written at other spots around town.

At this stage in her strange quest M-J began to wonder if she ought to feel guilty. She had more serious books to read, and what about her devotion to Bible study?

Funny thing, M-J noted: even when she’d more or less invited guilt to rise up within, none did. What arose instead was a hunch that her obsessive consumption of bestselling thrillers was for a purpose yet to be identified.

So in one year M-J plowed through all twenty-seven of Grisham’s oeuvre! Twenty-six novels and one non-fiction whodunit, “An Innocent Man.” She also learned that the initial print run of Grisham’s first book, “A Time To Kill,” was only 5,000 copies. The author—a practicing lawyer at the time—had been rejected by many publishers before one took a modest chance on him. But those 5,000 were not selling well, so Grisham spent his weekends drumming up readers at garden parties and county fairs, hawking copies from the trunk of his car. People took a chance, liked what they read, and word got around.

Finally I had to ask M-J, “Why do you think you were drawn to this guy’s books?” She was sitting at my kitchen table at the time. As she answered I noticed goosebumps on her arms.

“Eventually I realized that what I was learning was what it takes to write a page-turner…and that I’d need to know this if I was going to be any real help to you.”

Now it was my turn to get goosebumps!

In truth, a year before M-J’s marathon of crime thrillers, she’d read a previous draft of my memoir, and noticed that she was simply checking for typos and marking the occasional unclear reference. Anyone could do that, she thought. If she wanted to provide more useful feedback—something to increase my chances at getting an agent and a publisher, she told herself—she had to get a feel for pace, flow, and punch.

I’d seen Grisham interviewed by Charlie Rose, and recalled him saying that he relies on his wife—who reads everything he writes—for just this kind of advice.

When M-J read the manuscript I planned to submit to an agent, she scrutinized it like a seasoned editor. The shorter chapters flowed better than the longer ones, she said—pointing to lines she thought packed enough punch to end right there, not pages later.   She circled telling phrases in the text that could serve as chapter titles, drew arrows to connect paragraphs that belonged together or elsewhere. In short, she functioned as a pro, with no previous background in the field—except for Grisham’s 27 thrillers.

You can bet I’m taking M-J’s advice, because I know how smart and good a friend she is. Which is to say: I value the quality of her attention.

Which brings us back to puzzlement. Here is someone who followed a weird (for her) but not harmful inclination, though clueless where it might lead. All she really knew was (1) she had no desire to waste her time, and (2) somehow her time would not be wasted.

Do you have an urge to attend to something that is a puzzlement? Do you wonder if you ought to feel guilty for indulging this impulse, but no guilt seems to arise?

Well, if you’re not harming anyone or anything, why not go with that odd inclination?

High quality attention does not always indicate why it’s happening. The fact that you want to pay keen attention to anything is promising and mysterious in itself.

The reason you’re being drawn to it may be a puzzlement, but if you don’t allow your powers of attention to focus where they wish, how will you ever find out what purposes lie waiting to be identified?