Saturday, January 8, 2011

Stranger Than Fiction?

Frank Black--"Los Angeles" (mp3)

I saw a man I knew last month. He was at the bowling alley, actually just a lane or two over. I did not speak to him. I have known him for over 25 years. At times, he has been very important to me. In very tangible ways, he has been a mentor. There is no anger, no bitterness between us. In fact, there has hardly ever been a cross word between us. But I didn't speak to him.

He really wasn't bowling very well (not that I displayed the skills of a champion), so there wasn't even cause to congratulate him across the lanes. We never even made eye contact. But that isn't what this is about.

I am writing this play. It uses my basic work setting as a foundation. It is also inspired by aspects of people that I know. And in this play, I have used him, this man, to suit my purposes, and those purposes, quite frankly, involve him dying in the 2nd Act. The circumstances of that death are unclear, but it is very, very clear that he is dead.

So, imagine my surprise. To see him up, walking around, still doing quite well was, to say the least, disconcerting. I think he was joking with his teammates and drinking beer. I think he had a special shirt that he wears for bowling. I had no use for that. I didn't know what to say. I couldn't say, "I thought you were dead." How would that go over? I couldn't ask what he's been up to. That didn't fit, either. He wasn't supposed to be doing anything.

And so, I ignored him and went back into my play, stalled as it probably is until Spring Break when I can think for long stretches of connected time.

Take this little scenario, if you like, as some kind of convoluted allegory for retirement and what happens to those who do. That was not my original intent; I was just trying to work through something in my head.


There are two things that I am pretty certain happens when you retire: a) you become what you once were, or b) you become what others want you to be. I am thinking from the perspective of the place where you once worked. As in, when your name comes up, it is in connection to things that you said or did years ago. Or, you may serve some institutional purpose by becoming a narrower version of yourself. You might be held up as a paragon; you might be thrown out as an example of an employee gone wrong in any number of ways. You probably won't be seen as both simultaneously.

But you do not become what you are. You can't. Because what you are doesn't fit.

I mean, you can't just bust back onto the scene and yell, "Hey, I'm doing great, having a great time, living a really meaningful existence now that I am away from the rest of you and the petty contraptions of this place where I once worked." How would that go over?

And so, the fledgling playwrights and the cynical bureaucrats have taken control of you in your retirement. And you probably don't even know it. But it's probably better that way. While you cavort about in relative freedom, parts of you are trapped forever, or maybe not forever, just until they are forgotten altogether.

If you're wondering why the classic Frank Black song accompanies this post, listen to the words and it becomes simple: "I want to live in Los Angeles, but not the one in Los Angeles." That says it all, doesn't it?

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