Archive for Sunday, November 2, 2003

No time, or need, for petty squabbles

November 2, 2003


We may lose touch with them. Our interests may diverge, our characters and tastes may change. But no one can stir quite the same sense of commonality as our original friends.

We may be strangers in the present, but we're held together forever by the bonds of the past. We knew one another back when, before we'd honed our personalities and assumed our adult disguises, tailored with the care of Saville Row suits.

We had a reunion of such friends a few weeks ago at Cocklebur Farm. Most of us had grown up in Kansas City. Some had known others since kindergarten. We shared the same talismans of youth. The Yule Tide Tea Dance, Sputnik, Elvis the Pelvis, cigarettes in the print shop, frostees at Winstead's. We were kids when it was still OK to say, "neat," instead of "cool."

It was a feast of memories. We recalled the classmate who crawled under Doc Foster's desk and tied his shoe strings together in Latin class. And the birthday party food fight, featuring pickles dripping with mustard and catsup launched by plastic spoons, when the birthday boy's mother reduced us to paroxysms of laughter by asking, "How many of you boys would like your buns dipped in grease?"

We passed around a mimeographed class roster, paid homage to the once ubiquitous, now obsolete ditto machine, and actually sniffed the precious artifact to see if a trace of the blue ink's ether-like aroma remained.

We were stamped out of the same mold. We grew up in the halcyon, homogenized '50s when conformity was king and the moral imperative was, "Be nice." Our parents were middle class Midwesterners. We ought to have turned out interchangeable, like standardized parts. And yet, we've ended up on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum, split about 50-50 between hidebound conservatives and bleeding heart liberals. Why? Perhaps because of some minor differences in our digestive tracts.

The conversation at dinner unfolded like a piece of chamber music. Round and round the table we went. Someone would make a pronouncement about globalization and free trade or John Ashcroft and the Patriot Act. And each pronouncement would be answered by a contrapuntal, "I disagree."

After an exchange of thesis and antithesis, we paired off in murmuring dialogues and developed related leitmotifs, until someone made another solo assertion, prompting another chorus of agreement and dissent. Beneath the music, on an octave too deep to hear, an unknown accompanist bowed a deep bass viol that kept our strains connected and coaxed a subtle harmony out of the dissonance.

A few years ago, we might have raised our voices. Tempers might have flared and the evening might have ended on a note of ill will. But we've crossed some imperceptible threshold. We've entered a stage in life where the friendships count for more than the differences. "Mellowed" is the word that comes to mind. We've ripened, like the last grapes the Germans pick to make their auslese wine. Autumn harvest is upon us, with all the bittersweetness that implies.

We parted that evening in a scoreless tie and I suspect no one had persuaded anyone else to change his mind. No argument is powerful enough to penetrate the wall of our convictions. Dividing into "us" and "them," is one of our deepest instincts, whether it's Republicans vs. Democrats, Red States vs. Blue States, believers vs. infidels, Tigers vs. Jayhawks, or those who shake their martinis vs. those who stir. Today, when most Americans have every reason to rejoice in our commonwealth, we're more than ever polarized and at each other's throats. You're either for us or against us, as someone said.

The memory of that pleasant evening came back the other day when a sudden, inexplicable schism visited my chickens. The two hens and a rooster had lived together in apparent harmony for at least a year, sharing the same roost, eating from the same feeder. All their needs were attended to. It was utopia. Then one night, the rooster refused to return to the coop and spent the night in a tree. Subsequently, he was joined by one of the hens.

I suspect that the dominant scolded or pecked the others once too often. Now, they'll have nothing to do with her. They've forsaken the comfort and safety of the coop and would rather sleep out in the rain or end up in the talons of an owl than live in prison with the other bird. She has the coop all to herself. She's shown the others who's boss -- and now she's completely alone. Someone always has to ruin Paradise. It's never good enough.

This fowl spectacle reminds me of Jean-Paul Sartre's play "No Exit," about three quarrelsome human beings, in which one of them utters the immortal line, "Hell is other people." To paraphrase Rodney King, "Chickens, can't we just get along?"

The bass viol is humming beneath our petty squabbles and it is played by time.

We aren't going to live forever. Best to make music while we can.

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

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