Stranger in a Strange Land: November 2006

Monday, November 27, 2006

Bringing the Revolution (Over Lunch)

High school reunions do not excite me. Who needs them? We all did our time, why relive it? When I get the sudden urge to contact a high school buddy I simply log onto MySpace and send off a short, to the point “hello”. It gets the job done while successfully avoiding those awkward periods of silence when you and a barely recognizable classmate both stand staring into empty beer bottles, discussing the weather and secretly plotting how best to move on to the next awkward conversation.

Being socially awkward as is, I typically do my best to avoid purposely placing myself in such social settings. Nonetheless, I decided to attend my reunion. However, this was not your typical reunion, as the invitations were sent to a select and chosen few. It was a reunion of the secret-society sorts. Our gathering was held late at night, in a small corner room located at the end of a long, empty hallway of the Holiday Inn. The room’s walls were cluttered with magic-marker colored political propaganda and the tables covered with aging photographs of frizzy-haired youth. Inside, I joined this gathering of high-school superpowers. We were the movers, the shakers, and the geeks who thought something called a “spirit stick” was nothing short of a sacred icon. I was at the Hempstead High School Student Government reunion.

Like everyone else in the room, in high school I was a genuine Max Fischer. I was involved in everything. I was vice president of the student body, president of the young democrats, president of the cultural diversity club, captain of the cross-country squad, member of the track team, and student representative to the Student/Teacher Advisory Council. I played trumpet in both the marching and jazz bands, donned an embarrassingly revealing Speedo for the swim team, and was a founding father of the fictitious Six-Pack Club (which, I must add, became one of the largest clubs at school). Being involved was my way of making a difference. I was a revolutionary, leading a revolution that would rock the cubicle walls of Hempstead High and send waves of change around the world-or at least end the prohibition against drinking soda in classrooms.

So what the hell happened? Instead of being obsessively-compulsively involved in everything, I now find myself highly selective in my community service endeavors. For the things I am involved in, I go out of my way to avoid monthly meetings - even going as far as volunteering to clean out the cat’s litter box, something that has been neglected since I used this toxic chore as an excuse for missing last month’s meeting. Today involvement equates to less time to do the important things in life, such as eating, drinking or watching 1 vs. 100 in disbelief that Bob Saget will just not go away. So what happened to my initiative? Who stopped the Nick revolution?

I’ll tell you what happened. Time happened. Or more appropriately, time stopped happening. In high school, time seemed infinite, there often being too much of it. To fill up time, I became involved. But, as time goes by there becomes significantly less of it. It goes from being the cause of boredom to being a cherished luxury. Time becomes a limited resource that, unlike other limited resources, is not hoarded by a small, impoverished nation that can be readily invaded and available for the taking. All in all, the situation seems a bit hopeless.

But not for me. My student government reunion has inspired me. I will once again raise the flag of revolution. I will become involved in anything that needs involvement and usher in an era of change. I will take to the streets and fight such injustices as prejudice, poverty, and the forced unemployment of East Dubuque strippers. “My revolution may not be televised but it will most certainly be heard,” I declare as I march into my office chanting Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Grabbing my daily schedule I sit down to plan the revolution. “Not this week,” I mumble as I scan the page for a blank space. “Ooh, next week looks bad with that luncheon and haircut.” I keep flipping, and flipping, until I finally find a small, single-spaced half-hour time slot over lunch where I lightly pencil in “viva la revolucion”.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

I Dream of Bishop's

Another birthday, another year. Not being particularly fond of this “growing older” thing, I find myself acting nostalgic every fall. I don’t know why, but birthdays cause me to long for a time when birthdays were actually fun. I miss the days when birthdays were a personal holiday. A day filled with cake and ice cream, lots of friends, sleepovers, scary movies, and staying up all night due to the consumption of obscene amounts of soda. I’d even settle for going back to college birthdays, which are more or less the same as grade school birthdays except the soda is replaced by obscene amounts of alcohol. Unfortunately, these golden years of birthdays are a thing of the past.

“Excuse me, sir, the line has moved.”

I snap out of my daydream and shuffle three steps forward. “I am a victim of nostalgia,” I think, trying to justify why I am currently waiting in a line slowly snaking its way through an obstacle course of guardrails and black vinyl ropes. My ultimate destination: the Bishop’s lunch counter. Yes, you read that correctly, I am at Bishop’s. Bishop’s, the legendary smorgasbord frequented by Dubuque’s large senior citizen brigade. No offense to Bishop regulars, but it’s just not my flavor. Something about buffets and cafeterias frightens me. Perhaps I suffer cafeteria shell shock dating back to my dorm food dining experience? Nonetheless I am here, at the mercy of nostalgia.

Lunch at Bishop’s was a recurring highlight of my childhood. Like any normal kid, Bishop’s was nothing short of a little slice of heaven tucked into a shopping mall. It was a place of little formality. There were no menus, no waiters to take orders and no limit on the amount of soft-serve ice cream sundaes I could stuff myself with. Most importantly, Bishop’s was a magical fantasyland of endless choices. I would pick up my orange, rectangular tray at one end of the mile-long gastronomical runway and slowly slide it towards the cashier waiting somewhere across the room. Along my journey I was greeted by chefs wearing comical hats, politely asking me “what would you like, dear?” It was a daunting challenge for a kid. For once, I was in charge--my first encounter with responsibility. It was up to me to make a choice from a multitude of choices. Chicken, beef or ham? Corn, potatoes or carrots? Milk, water or soda? Jell-O, pudding or fruit salad? The world, at least over lunch, was my oyster.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that as you grow older your choices diminish. Although childhood is a Choose Your Own Adventure book, age tends to take away the available adventures. Perhaps the choices don’t really disappear. More likely they are forced into retreat by an always-expanding battalion of excuses. Commitments, insecurities, reality, fear, happiness, connections and lack of imagination slowly predetermine the answer to this multiple-choice test of life.

So I have triumphantly returned to Bishop’s because I want choices, and lots of them. I pick up my cream-colored tray and slowly slide it along the bronze railed, self-propelled conveyor belt. I stop every few feet and make an important choice. With childish pride I choose, “Chicken, please,” and later, “Milk, thank you.” Finally, my legs weak and my head spinning, I reach the final pit stop: Desserts. Before me, safely concealed behind a protective Plexiglas shield, sit rows upon rows of delectable pies. Banana cream, pumpkin, cherry, chocolate pudding, and French silk. I become giddy with excitement as I salivate at the prospects. I am again an eight-year-old kid. “Nicky, you have to pick one,” my grandmother says from my right. “How about the apple? You like apple,” my mother chimes in on the left. But I barely hear them, as my mind is focused on the single most important choice of my life. I lick my lips with excited anticipation as I look over the cream-covered and sugarcoated world spread out before me.