I just got back from a mini-high school reunion in Highland Park, Illinois. It’s been 45 long years since I left that cushy upscale suburban enclave near Chicago to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. I returned at age 62 (soon to be 63) not as the prodigal son, but as a wiser and definitely more arthritic version of my former self. My long hair is now long gone. The hippie-esque bell bottom jeans and puka shell necklace have been replaced by clothes meant to produce a subtle “slimming” effect”. My wise-ass attitude, rapid fire sarcastic speech and sometime condescending voice tone have given way to a sincere interest in hearing about my high school peers and learning about their lives. It seems we’ve all been on some epic journey and like Odysseus have returned home bruised and battle weary but with quite a Homeric tale to tell. The fearlessness and You Only Live Once (YOLO) type thinking endemic to youth is now tempered by a host of health concerns common to aging Baby Boomers including free floating anxiety, i.e.,”Gee, I wonder if I remembered to feed the dog before I left?” or “hey is that lump under my armpit?” and even worse by the realization that some high school classmates have passed away or are currently suffering from illnesses which they may or may not recover from.
How can this be? I thought we were immortal like the Greek Gods we studied in freshman English class. I thought life was going to be a relatively predictable affair, a linear trajectory like climbing a ladder or taking a long hike on a reasonably well marked trail in one of the many forest preserves in or around Highland Park. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I figured I was well prepared not just by my excellent education at Highland Park High School but also by my mastery of “life-like” board games including Risk, Monopoly, Stratego and Life. How much tougher could the adult world be then all those plastic cone obstacles, confusing road signs and simulator tests we’d already faced and overcome in Coach Wisniewski’s Drivers Ed class? Maybe I should have noticed other more subtle “signs” like how in the board game “Life” with it’s twists and turns and plastic cars full of acquired family members certain peg people would fail to stay in their designated peg holes and repeatedly fell out onto the increasingly cluttered game board. Were those Parker Brother type premonitions about some future divorce, death in the family or need to send an unruly kid to residential care or rehab someday?
Regardless of the many games I played, at age eighteen I still believed life was going to be a predictable algorithm not too different from any of the card or board games we played back in the day: deal the cards, play the odds, buy up property, stocks, utilities, and other important material “stuff “, or just assemble a vast army and proceed to “take over the world” (win). Now that I say that aloud it sounds silly but also suggests that certain individuals (like Donald Trump) are likely still stuck in their immature teenage head… seeking to “win” at all cost while munching on pretzel sticks, sugar cookies, Hostess Twinkies and playing some megalomaniacal Parkers Brothers game in a friend’s dark dreary wood paneled basement. Unfortunately, at age 62, I’ve also learned it’s not quite that easy to “win” like that in the real world and many of us don’t have the time, energy, bank account or endless reservoir of narcissistic supply necessary to lose a billion dollars like Trump in one year…or even eighteen billion. Furthermore, to then consider that experience as somehow “brilliant” is a delusional despot bridge too far for most of us. In the end, however, accepting the various ups and downs of a meaningful life still rather early in the fourth and final quarter of the “game” (of real life) is quite acceptable to me. Frankly, at this point I’d rather be hanging out with my close high school friends talking, eating Chinese takeout or deli food, and swapping funny stories than be a Pol Pot or POTUS. That said, maybe I did learn a few good tricks and pertinent life strategies playing ‘Risk” at Billy Terman’s house with Mark Scher, Joel Pathman,Todd Logan, Mike Lembeck, and Harlan Bass while Bill’s highly oversexed schnauzer Skipper tried to hump our legs ….but that’s a whole ‘nother story or at least another CaptCliff blog.