Three Essays

Christopher J. Stephens

© Copyright 2006 by Christopher J. Stephens

Pack Your Bags and Don't Be Late

 My late father was a list maker and planner. Whether it was a business trip or family vacation, he was never without a carefully drafted and executed itinerary, in perfect print on college-ruled white business paper. Nothing was sacrificed to the altar of spontaneity and surprises. Every item carefully packed in durable suitcases [two in baggage and one carry-on] had a purpose. Each moment, from the early morning of departure to the comfortable certainty of a safe return, happened for a reason. Even in his final years, when his perfectly-printed, bullet-pointed handwriting suffered from the ravages of ALS symptoms, the intent was clear. This was the plan of action.

This approach rarely made for an enjoyable vacation time. It never seemed like fun was allowed in the schedule. Our summer vacations were long and arduous journeys, six kids and two parents packed tight into a five year old 1967 Chevy Vista Cruiser, toys and clothes piled high on the roof rack. Any toys that fell as my father maneuvered through traffic during those drives up north or halfway across the country to the heartland of St. Louis, Missouri, were surrendered to the cruel fates of interstate travel. Potholes swallowed up hubcaps. Birds targeted our car with expert aim and precision. Through it all, my father drove headfirst into the maelstrom, cursing under his breath and threatening us all along that there would be pure hell to pay if we didn't shut up, sit down, and count our blessings we lived in a land where we could appreciate this particularly American style adventure.

The highways seemed to have limitless potential in those days before the energy crisis, that summer before Watergate exploded into the national consciousness. Think of it as the wild west, not fully explored, every orange-roofed "Howard Johnson"'s restaurant offering fine food at affordable prices, the occasional glimpse of a rated "R" movie from the glow of an occasional drive-in movie screen on a route off the straight and narrow. Gas was approximately fifty cents a gallon, and speed was not a problem. Even when we got stuck in a massive traffic jam in the Pocono mountains of Pennsylvania caused by an Alice Cooper and Rod Stewart rock festival, it was all part of the plan, all written into the rigid itinerary. The Chevy Vista Cruiser may have been a wood-paneled relic of the era, seen now only in re-runs of “That Seventies Show,” but it was ours, a birthright of the suburban family vacation.

Driving lost its romance a few years later. Our family grew up, people moved away, and the country as a whole lost its innocence when it came to long car trips. In the innocent days, it seemed gas was as plentiful and cheap as water. It was our American entitlement to wander aimlessly through clogged highways, breathe in the noxious gas fumes, and never think twice about what all these metal beasts were doing to the ozone level. We were road warriors, and an efficient route from here to there was our only objective. Pack some snacks in the trunk, tune the radio to a great AM Top 40 station, and never roll up those windows. We may have had the urge for going onto those wide open roads, but my father was no fool. Air conditioning might have seemed comforting, but only suckers fell for it.

The summer vacation of 2006 will never be like it was for many families thirty-five years ago. Round-trip adventures on the back roads of small-town Illinois or under covered bridges of some long-vanished bucolic Madison County have been replaced by small day trippers to the beach, or train and bus journeys to the crowded city streets where Grandma lives. The trip is something to be endured, a painful necessity best experienced in the back seat, with our eyes glued to a DVD player and our ears plugged into an ipod, We are rushed and frantic today, but there is no turning back and any yearning for the romance of the old times is both foolish and unrealistic. Summer vacations are a blessing, a chance for excitement and surprises, with or without a carefully planned master itinerary. Hold tight to your siblings, even if they might turn rank and rude as hours pass without a chance to bathe. Sing songs. Compel truck drivers to blow their horns. Take that sudden exit off the AAA map route, and see what happens.

For The 2006 Graduates: Here Is A World For You

Spring guarantees more than a few things in a typical college town. Snow thaws lead to mud puddles. The crisp winds and rains of a usual April seamlessly segue into May flowers and couples hopelessly in love, holding hands and whispering secrets and making plans for an uncertain future. It’s a season of pristine hope, when out of town tourists replace the dread-locked, ripped-jeaned, “my-space”obsessed text-messaging college students on the subway. They may be packing up and heading out for another year, but the class of 2006 will not be forgotten.

Go back to your freshman year. These are the students I handle, the scores of petrified faces who enter my classroom suffering side-effects of college bookstore sticker shock. Their roommates are crazy. The Residential Assistant is a tyrant. Mom and Dad have cut off financial aid and the various food possibilities in and around campus are poor substitutes for the real thing. Booze and sex and testing limits and finding a sense of spiritual purpose [if only during finals week] are all ingredients of that first year, and much of their education that first year has nothing to do with me.

In year two, they are more hardened and focused. They return to the campus determined to set straight the mistakes of that first year. Not all who started a year earlier come back that second year, and the sense of accomplishment from returnees is palpable. It isn’t just their academic program starting to take shape. They seem more aware that their mere status as college students is no guarantee that will open every important door. It is about what they do while in the classroom and how they absorb their academic program that makes the difference.

By year three, these students once so innocent when I first knew them are firmly grounded in the lives they’ve fashioned for themselves. Once they floated around the Quad, assuming the personas of any character attracting a large crowd and discarding them as fashion dictates. Now, they walk tall. Their faces are clear, eyes less hazy, and most of the electronic gadgets of their freshman year have been put away. They see the facts that life after college might mean having to move back home with their parents, and they will try everything to ensure that doesn’t happen.

For the class of 2006, I offer a tip of my extra large hat and a world-weary smile from a veteran of the academic wars. Now, your journey starts. Graduation is not called “commencement” just to confuse matters. Your four years may be followed by two more. You may have opted for the ten year [or more] plan to earn that diploma, Van Wilder. No matter your situation, you should leave college forever and never look back. Join alumni groups if you must, but a life forever stuck to your alma mater is pitiful. Your formal post-high school education has ended. Now, go out and start learning.

Marriages and Other Things That Never Die

A month best known for weddings can be depressing for the eternally single among us. Happy couples stroll through city streets and department stores, blissfully unaware how drastically they affect the happiness curve in their immediate area.

Like an innocuous pair of ecstasy-intoxicated Waldos hiding in a motley collection of real people with profound problems, happy couples can drag all of us down. There they are, picking out silverware patterns. Quick, there’s another couple sharing an umbrella as they glide down rain-drenched streets. Happiness makes them lightweight and carefree, unencumbered by anything but the limitless potential of their dreams together.

My parents would have been married fifty years this month, May, and it is a milestone worth noting. You probably did not know them. They were an unassuming couple with St. Louis in their hearts who came up north in the mid-fifties to start a family. He was an engineer, and she was a homemaker with a love for learning and an awareness that the world in which she was raising her children was dangerous and difficult. Theirs was the first marriage I knew and it formed the basis of everything I hoped to know about relationships.

The seriousness of a marriage means that it never really ends, especially with children involved. Take sanctity out of the equation, and what remains is the tangible certainty of a legal arrangement. We sign contracts, share names, bank accounts, and raise children with equal parts of our genetic lineage running through their veins. We may physically go our separate ways, dissolve the contract, and hope to re-build a new identity somewhere else. No matter what we do to erase the bond of a first mistake, the connection remains, albeit tenuous and slippery, but it is strong.

My father died on June 20, 1997, in the home where he raised his children, in the arms of the woman he’d married forty-one years earlier. One person may have been gone, but the marriage remained deep in my mother’s heart for the rest of her life. She was not forever in black, or ever visibly lonely, but she grieved in her own subtle way. Where many widows might have picked up with somebody else shortly into their new life, my mother put her own affairs in order during the time she had remaining. When she died on October 29th, 2005, the union was even stronger in the hearts of her children.

Nothing and nobody cherished ever really dies. The power of our memories and the willingness of our hearts to make room for happiness makes sure of that. Congratulations to all the young happy couples, intoxicated by the first wave of infatuation and the undeniable attraction of first love. We can all easily surrender to it and sometimes turn off our brains in the process, and sometimes the risk of taking that plunge is worth every price. Cherish the strength and power found in marriage, however it takes shape for you. When it works, nothing is better.

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