May 15, 2016

You can go home: Just take Memory Lane

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer

By Jack Smith

This Norman Mailer quote pretty much sums it up.

My heart longs to write for a living, but my head says I’d starve.

I almost went to law school, but I hated my first job. I worked at the biggest firm in the state in a job I started a couple days after graduation. They stuck me in a room with no windows and not enough straight jackets to do tedious discovery work defending an insurance company—a massive company that ripped off a bunch of poor people who didn’t know better. I was miserable.

My girlfriend was four hours away that summer. The whole thing triggered one of my first bouts with major depression in my early 20s. I’d struggled before but never like that. I could not get off the couch except to go to work.  I had no idea why and never told anyone.

When I told the firm I was leaving, one nice lawyer said it’s a shame. He said I wrote good memos and summarized things well. I didn’t take it as a compliment. I remember wondering why he didn’t say, “You’d make a good lawyer, Jack.”

That’s all I wanted to hear. I have enough lawyers in my family to field a basketball team with good subs to come off one heck of a bench. For years, I’ve wondered why I was too scared to become one. I recently figured it out: I was too scared to become one.

So I did something I swore I’d never do. I went home and settled on a career as a journalist at a community newspaper. They were the best 10 years of my life and career. And the hardest. It’s not easy being Superman’s son, but flying is fun even if you’re afraid of heights.

Oh. I almost forgot about the third part of the quote up top: I have a tremor that on some days makes it hard for me to drink coffee in front of other people. Being a surgeon was not an option, even if I hadn't stunk at science my whole life.

I’ve sat through hundreds of lunches and dinners at restaurants and eaten entire meals without taking a single sip of water. That’s what I used to do when my tremor was bad and the waiter filled my glass too close to the top. I was worried I’d spill it everywhere.

I was mocked as a child just a few times and never really got over it until fairly recently. If someone were to make fun of me tomorrow, they might get a shaky middle finger back in their face. It feels good not to care what others think again. I know that's crass and I'm sorry to sound that way. Honesty is liberating, and that's honestly how I feel. And the rest of the truth is most days I do care what others think. And that's misery. 

You may have heard what Norman Mailer said about going home. Or was it Tom Wolfe, who stole his line and put it on the cover of his best book? Either way, I made up a word just now for what at least one of them did: Plagiarism.

“Don’t you know,” a lady once allegedly told Tom Wolfe, “you can’t go home again?”
Cue Phil Collins’ velvety smooth voice, his revolutionary drum reverbs and one of my favorite songs of all time, "Take Me Home." (Sorry if you don't know this need to find it first and listen or this will make no sense).

Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.

I agree with those haunting and simultaneously stirring Phil Collins lyrics. I don't agree with the lady who said you can't go home.

I want desperately to go home again, because there is so much I don’t remember. I’ve been chasing memories for a long time, because my memory doesn’t work right. I’m like a father in search of a lost child. Sometimes it’s all I think about.

There was the time shortly after returning from treatment when I took my son and a buddy to a movie on a Friday night. By Sunday morning, I could not remember the buddy’s name. That used to happen often and is not a big deal. But I couldn’t see his face, either.

I had no idea who we’d taken to the movie 36 hours earlier. He was just a small shadowy figure who haunted me in the night for days. I furiously searched the farthest reaches of my mind and flew into a panic. It wasn’t there. I never found it.

Wondering where in the heck my keys are and whether I actually wrote that email are the easy ones. I use the Sent folder and search options dozens of times some days. I have only fractured memories of the past few years…they flicker and short circuit my brain. It’s sort of like being Jason Bourne. Except he’s the biggest stud in spy movie history. And I’m not.

That’s why I write down everything I have to remember. But that’s a pain in the neck, because you have to remember which notes are where. I waste a lot of time rifling through notepads just like I did as a reporter in search of the perfect lead.

Doctors have said many things contribute to my memory issues. Some blame ECT (the shock treatment I had several dozen times), major bouts with depression and too many meds for too long a time. They’ve done scans to make sure nothing is seriously wrong. About six months ago, my psychiatrist asked me a bunch of bizarre questions. He later told me he was making sure I didn’t have dementia or early onset Alzheimer’s. I don't. 

It's a filing problem, stupid

My brilliant therapist who knows me as well as anyone says I don’t have a memory problem. She says I have a filing problem. The memories are there…I just can’t find them sometimes. She said it’s like putting files in the wrong folder. It makes it a heck of a lot harder to find them later.
Now that I am free of so many things I was held captive by for so long, I want to remember more than ever. So I went to my alma mater on a perfect autumn Saturday for a reunion a few months ago. I didn’t know if any guys my age would show up at the SAE house.

Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.

It was such a spectacularly beautiful day I didn’t even care if my "boys" (the kids nowadays call it a squad) were there or not.

The sun was shining brightly, but not so brightly you had to squint. The drive west on US 280 was heavenly…the golden sunlight was soft that day and a cool breeze gently shook the Southern Yellow pines, which paint the landscape evergreen most of the year in Alabama. 

Pine trees that were so much a part of my childhood are the perfect backdrop to God’s great canvas, providing contrast to the pale yellow and rust colored trees mixed in along the way.

It was perfect. I thought of one of my sentimental work friends telling a story about blaring Rick Springfield and singing like a fool who didn't care if anyone was watching, or, heaven forbid, listening.

I opened my sunroof and breathed the cool air deep into my lungs. I had forgotten my car had a sunroof, just like I forgot how different living is from suffering.

I opened my sunroof and breathed the cool air deep into my lungs. I had forgotten my car had a sunroof, just like I forgot how different living is from suffering. Just like I had forgotten how living is so very different even from surviving, which can sometimes feel like the worst of the two options. Surviving is not living. At least we feel something when we suffer.

Music & Memories

Music was blaring from my new songlist. I named it “Inspire.” It has everything from Johnny Cash and Ed Sheeran and Bette Midler to N’Sync and Phil Collins, from the Zac Brown Band and Alabama to the Original London Cast of "Phantom of the Opera". Don’t tell my doctor that. He might ask more weird questions.

They are all songs I connect with a memory or a feeling, sometimes both. Those are the best kind of songs, and I love music. I love it so much I recently embarrassed myself at my first real guitar lesson. Now I can play a Buffet song and "Brown Eyed Girl." Sort of.

As I drove onto the beautiful gate on campus, memories came rushing back. A lot of things look different, but a lot of it looks just the same.
Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.
The dumpster fire of a fraternity house where we all acted ridiculous but somehow grew up at the same time is gone. A new one was built a mile or so away, and it’s already a disaster. That made me smile.

I felt like a fool walking in because I didn’t know a soul, but within five minutes the current guys were showing me my "composite," which is basically a picture of our fraternity squad," tons of tiny head shots of the greatest characters God ever put on this earth.

They pulled out an absurd photo album that had pictures of me and my friends having the time of our lives. Before long, 10 of the current fraternity "actives" (that means they aren't pledges anymore) were hovering around me on the couch, begging me to tell more stories.

Memories came rushing back! They were all there, locked in that cabinet. They had just been filed in the wrong place in my mind. It’s a legitimate miracle they didn’t lose that scrapbook, which somehow made it from the old house to the new one.

Jarhead, Batman & Muslim

There was Jarhead, my roommate of four years and best friend from Chattanooga. He intimidated the heck out of everybody and always had my back. I could pick up girls with big boyfriends and not be scared.

There was Charlie S., who dressed up like Batman at every party and actually repelled down a rope from the top of the house. He would raise his wings, and girls would be utterly disgusted. He was often naked underneath.

There was Christian, who we nicknamed Muslim. He’s a brilliant and funny guy who married a professional football cheerleader. He’s the one who named me Skeletor for the psychopathic look I get on my face after four beers. (Relax. I quit drinking two years ago).

There was Shady Grady, a friend I’m still close with, photobombing every picture of me before we knew what photobombing was.

There was Jarhead at K-mao, this ridiculous party where we dressed up like Polynesian warriors in grass skirts and painted our entire bodies and literally paraded around campus with hundreds of people watching. That would not go over well nowadays, but we actually thought a lot of the great Hawaiian king. I like Hawaii so much I got my dad to pay for a honeymoon there.

Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.

Swamp Thing, Pan & History

There was Allen Collinsworth, who we called Snipper for some reason I can’t remember. Snipper dressed up as "Swamp Thing" and harassed the fraternity across the street, where it really was low and swampy. He played on the tennis team and was really fast.

I remember chubby security guards with clubs they never got to use chasing him one night. Snipper scaled the fence like a monkey on meth, jumped down and ran off. About an hour later, he called the house phone from a service station two miles away. I went and picked him up in my red Ford Tempo.

We used to laugh until our chests were heaving and no noise was coming out when I’d drive The Tampon around the campus loop…in reverse…at about 20 miles per hour. Driving well in reverse is one of the few skills I have. The look on people’s faces was priceless.

Pan was the baddest guy I ever knew. He had curly blonde hair and blue eyes, and the girls loved him. He became a Marine because he couldn’t get his act together as far as the world defined it (I always thought he had it together and had life figured out)  and he was shipped off to Paris Island. He came back a different person, with the famed “Thousand Yard Stare.” Then President George H. W. Bush went on CNN and declared war on Iraq.
Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.
War was new to us then, and we were scared for Pan. He wasn’t scared in the least bit.  We had a big bonfire in front of the house the night before he left. Our best couch ended up on the fire in a heaping mess, just like Pan’s girlfriend did as the night went on. At least that's what I think I remember. I just remember a pretty girl crying and wanting to give her a hug. I don’t remember her name, but I'll never forget the way she made me feel.

On that spectacular fall day a few months ago, I eventually walked to the BSC football game with one of the actives and ran into some old friends there. Nobody gave a damn about the game, and it was nice. Folks sit on the hillside on blankets, sipping Chardonnay and soaking in the sun. It might seem like a joke to some, but it’s pure and beautiful. It's the way God meant sports to be.

After maybe two quarters of the game, I took off by myself for the quad. I went straight for Munger Hall, the towering red brick Greek Revival building now bathed in the golden sunlight of late autumn afternoons.

I took my first class there with a hangover so severe I could not understand anything the guy was saying. It’s also where I took my last history class as a much more mature and interested senior who had come to love history and political science.

I walked to the other side of the building, where I routinely parked illegally and got $5 tickets that nearly prevented my graduation. Mom and Dad were there the day before when the Business Office called and said I couldn’t walk until the bill was paid. Dad was so proud he wasn’t even mad. Man, I miss him.

The drive home on that amazing fall day of memories and songs and laughter was even better. I could remember so much more than when the day started.

It took me three hours to get home because I kept thinking of songs. I pulled over at the Home Depot in Sylacauga, Alabama, and then again at a wretched looking Huddle House God knows where to download music on my phone. The songs took forever to come through, but I didn’t care. I had nowhere to go and nowhere to be. It was quite nice.
Take, take me home….because I wanna remember….take, take me home.
I cried happy tears as Phil Collins sang one of my favorite songs. They were the best kind of tears. The kind that flush the poison from your heart but don’t sting.

The unique punch of the percussion in his music and his smooth voice soared right out of the sunroof and into the night sky. My soul soared with it.

And it suddenly hit me. You can go home, and you can remember.

I tried to describe to myself what I was feeling but couldn’t come up with the right word. Then I realized something I had forgotten for so many long and hard years.

This is what happiness feels like.