Planning a high school reunion is not, as Ed Norton might put it, “all beer and skittles.” The process, in which a small group of classmates and I are now engaged, forces a person to confront certain inconvenient truths, including the passage of time and his own age. Our class, the Class of 1960, had 299 members. Organizing a reunion makes us confront the fact that at least 44 of those classmates are dead. It makes us face the fact that the 22 or so we have not been able to locate in these 50 years probably are lost to us forever. And it forces us to accept the fact that many classmates don’t share whatever feelings make other classmates think of themselves as having something more in common than the date and place of our graduation.


None of us believes that a man or woman has an obligation to continue any connection to the class. If anything, it makes sense to us that people have had far more experiences, relationships, successes and problems since high school than they had in the first 17 years of their lives, and that high school has become a relatively unimportant part of a bigger picture. In fact, it has occurred to me, at least, that those of us who persist in keeping this circle intact are driven by emotion and perhaps by an insecurity that makes us reluctant to put behind us the last stage of our lives in which we were not wholly responsible for our own fate. High school, for most of us, is one of the last places, as Robert Frost might have observed, that when you go there, they have to take you in.


Still, there is another factor that must explain why some members of our class or any class turn their backs on the rest of us for good even before the recessional has ended. I started thinking about this last weekend while I was listening to a song called “Crazy Mary” that, it happens, was written by Michael Smith, who graduated from the same high school but in the Class of 1959. Michael, a folk singer who has lived in Chicago for many years, writes lyrics with a poet’s skill, and many of them can reach deeply into the psyche and the soul. “Crazy Mary” — not the Victoria Williams/Pearl Jam song — is about boys who torment a woman who lives in their neighborhood. The boys don’t understand this woman, so — like Scout and Jem Finch — they compensate for their ignorance by inventing explanations that satisfy their morbid, childish curiosity. When they no longer need her to entertain them, they forget her.

As I look through the yearbook, literally or in my mind, I can place my finger on the boys and girls in our class who were not treated well by the rest of us. Some of them suffered cruelty, some of them suffered ridicule, and some of them suffered indifference. Would they want to join us as we reminisce about those days? I remember the mother of one boy confronting a group of teenagers on the street and demanding to know why they had mocked her son. I was an adult and had children of my own before the recollection of that scene broke my heart. I wondered what had become of that boy; I never wondered when we were kids what would become of him.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to high school. Misunderstanding, or choosing not to understand, people who seem to hear drumbeats that elude the rest of us may be an inevitable part of growing up. There was an elderly man in my neighborhood when I was a boy who seemed to be perpetually angry and who would shout and flail at us kids if we came within  a perimeter that only he could see. We, of course, did our best to invade his space just enough to set him off. I wonder what became of him.

In the lamplight burning low
And dimly thru enchanted woods
We think about the sins that we commit
Along the green and golden paths of growing up
We light the fire
And say a prayer for Crazy Mary.

(Copyright, Michael Peter Smith)

The complete lyrics to “Crazy Mary” are at THIS LINK.

Biographical information, lyrics, videos, and touring schedule of Michael Smith can be reached through THIS LINK.

Poster from a previous Michael Smith concert

Who’s that knocking?

April 10, 2009

vampire-power-1One of my literary disappointments was Bram Stoker’s novel “Dracula,” which I thought was one of the clumsiest works of fiction I had ever read. I came to it sort of in mid life. I read more non-fiction than fiction, but when I finally got around to Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” I was enthralled, and I naively thought I’d have a similar experience with “Dracula.” It was not to be. The book is awkwardly written with unnatural dialogue and none of the philosophical depth of Shelley’s work. Of course, the idea that Stoker’s work should have any of those qualities originated only in my own mind, so I suppose I was disappointed more by myself than by the writer. 

Maybe it was because of that experience that I find myself on the outside looking in at the current fascination with vampires, especially among young people. Obviously, I’m missing something. NPR this week ran a review by John Powers about a Swedish film “Let the Right One In,” that was intriguing. Powers calls it “the best vampire movie in the last 75 years.” It had only limited release but is now available on DVD, which was the occasion for the review. The principal characters in this film are a 12-year-old boy who is alienated from his parents and rejected – even tormented – by his schoolmates, and his new next-door-neighbor, the lonely girl Eli, who has been 12 years old for the past 200 years. Their mutual isolation draws them together into a relationship that apparently succeeds artistically on several levels.

It was a coincidence that I happened to hear that review, because vampires have been on my mind for several weeks, since we heard Michael Smith give a concert in Morristown. One of the songs he performed that night was “Vampire,” and it’s been churning around in my mind ever since:

Your life’s too short and love is gone too soon
Come with me and fly the dark of moon, the dark of moon,
Life’s not life if you must lose it
Death’s not death if you refuse it
Who can blame you
If you choose the vampire
Forever young
Forever young

As with most of Michael’s songs, this one means far more when you hear him deliver it – plaintive, chilling, moving.

Excuse me. I think I hear someone at the door.


Michael Smith’s lyrics: http://www.artistsofnote.com/michael/lyrics/vampire.shtml

NPR: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=102909283&ft=1&f=1008