Tuesday, April 20, 2010

124 days to Bar Mitzvah: what's it all about?

After we moved to California in 1976, insomnia became my constant companion. From age 11 until about a decade ago, I just couldn't figure out how to organize myself enough to fall asleep. We're not talking days without sleep here; just about an hour or so of randomly-ordered thoughts flying through my head, keeping me awake each night.

My benchmark was the "spring ahead" to Daylight Savings Time day in 1978. That night, I fell asleep at 3:00 a.m. I can still hear the faint noise of my digital clock counting off the minutes.

Huge plot twists, clever asides, an entire campaign strategy for seeking the office of Ninth Grade President; these were the things that occurred to normal people by the cheery light of day. I mapped them out in the dark, carving up the lonely hours after going to bed with endless visions of what could be and what I hoped never was.

Sometimes, just to freak myself out, I'd start thinking about life and death. I didn't want to. I could see it lurking around the corner, this terrible subject that would wind me up worse than anything else, leaving me sweaty and restless and nowhere near sleep. But I couldn't resist. It would be years before I taught myself how to, as Sandra Bullock so succinctly puts it, "shut my brain off."

Sandra Bullock, by the way, started having bouts of sleeplessness after the Jawa was born. Plagued by incomplete renovation plans, small Bar Mitzvah details and long-term career goals, her battle involves trying to cram even more work into her day. For her, insomnia is an opportunity to address things that need to attention, like the ever-changing bathroom remodel scenario.

Me, I'm more of a classic Existentialist non-sleeper.

Over time, I've figured out ways to defeat the ogre that is insomnia. Starting about a decade ago, whenever I felt myself spinning out of control, I'd start trying to name the starting lineups of every National League team in 1974 and 1975. By the time I got to Pete Mackanin, second base, Montreal Expos, I was out.

In three weeks, I will be 45 years old. To prepare, I decided last night to have an explorative "what is life" session instead of sleeping, to see how much things had changed since 1978.

It was just like the old days. It dared me to engage. "Come on," it said. "Forty five is not young. By now you should know what it's all about." Earlier, I'd scanned the obituaries, which I used to do to make sure there were still people older than my grandparents dying. Now I do it out of habit.

Yesterday, I read about a woman who was 57 when she passed. She was born in 1953. That means she was 12 years older than me, the same difference between me and a whole lot of 30-somethings I have been known to hang out with.

What if there's only 12 years left? What if there's less? Wells Twombly went at 42, but not until he'd redefined sportswriting. Rod Serling was 51. John Lennon, of course, was 40. Kirby Puckett was eight days short of 46. My mom's dad, Lou Brenin, was 52 when he had a fatal heart attack.

when I was a kid, late night freakouts focused on a simple question: what happens after you go? Do you just wake up on the other side and continue on to eternity? Or is that it? You're nothing, just dead weight in the ground. Either explanation seemed equally frightening.

These days, I'm less concerned with questions about what happens afterward than I am with ones about what's supposed to be going on right here and right now.

They go like this: "Well, okay, your body's starting to break down. You need reading glasses and are somehow working out five times a week and still gaining weight. That one magical night that blows away everything that came before and launches you into a new consciousness, the one you were meant to have all along, well, it's starting to look like it's not going to happen. You're not someone who 'lives each day as if it were his last,' so what gives?"

Well, what have you done with your life? And what are you going to do? How am I supposed to shephard a wide-eyed Jawa into "manhood" when I don't have the slightest idea of what the concept means?

Once I thought I would be one of those guys who gives up everything they own and lives an austere, spiritual life. That lasted about a week, which is a good thing, since every time I go to a Bar Mitzvah I feel incrementally less spiritual than I did the week before.

Besides, it sounds like a lot of work, you know, being austere, taking vows of silence, doing calligraphy with fountain pens, sitting on top of mountains and walking around among big oaken vats of wine. I like TV way too much to get anything out of that.

And I actually do believe that by buying stuff, we're weiling power, as I told my Jawa while screening the disturbing documentary "Food, Inc." Ours is a democracy, but my one vote for Peter Ueberroth in 2003 sure seemed like pebbles in a well compared to the power I exercise by choosing one business, item or service over another.

Of course, it's not like you get real meaning out of stuff you buy, no matter how many sleepless nights I spent as a teenager thinking, "If I could only have those cool shoes, everything would be great."

That coat I bought a couple of months ago, I felt pretty cool for about four days. Then I was just me in a really cool coat.

I'm not knocking purchasing power. I've spent (hopefully, part of) a lifetime watching to see how people choose to spend their money because I really do think it says something about them.

Or maybe it says something about me. That lady in the Porsche who berated me for driving too slowly up Downey Street while looking for a parking spot and then snagging the last spot-and-half which was "hers?" I probably would have moved my car if she hadn't been driving a Porsche. Of course, I'm also thinking she probably wouldn't be someone who drives six inches from someone else's bumper were she not driving a Porsche.

Yeah, yeah, these are just "things" and it's a shame that someone who knows so many words is so shallow. I don't really care about politics, either. Everyone around here is into them, which to me seems to unintentionally end up a real easy way to reveal you're hypocrisy without trying. It's hard to be "good."

What it boils down to, for me, is this: everyone gets their heart broken, whether they fly to work in a private jet or clock in for the night shift at Wal-Mart. That's what I'm interested in, why I spent eighteen years sitting in classrooms, paying more attention to my classmates than I was to the material being taught and why I sometimes walk around downtown with my headphones on and my iPod off, listening to other people's conversations.

That type of stuff leads to a 2.4 GPA, by the way. I wouldn't recommend it for serious students.

In three weeks, I'll be 45. There was this one moment, I remember it very clearly, sitting in my dorm room sophomore year, looking out the window from my bed, where I thought I had it all figured out. But then someone honked a horn, or a girl I liked walked by and it was gone. Just like that.

One thing I do know is that I'll never pitch for the Mets. Maybe I'll just start from there and work my way outward.

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