Jan 1, 2014

When past and future merge

A beginning or an end?
If you ask me, New Years is overrated. For starters, you awake blurry, hating light and sound, only to realize you've spent most of this new year in bed. So you must muster whatever ubermenschian willpower you can to meet the day. What's left of it. Of course, by that time, the sun is high and most of it is down the drain. Just like that you've botched another beginning. What's the point anyway? It's just another day. Why not just stick with the tatters of the past year? I mean you're not going to catch up.

Most years I can recover moping between football and the fridge. However, I will snack on a few black-eyed peas just in case. I'm not actually superstitious, but there's no point in point a jinx on your luck.

Not this year. This year we're hosting our New Year's event. It's a tradition that Lilalee trots out every few years. She's inspired by the clamor and gaiety of our friends. "You won't have to do a thing," she promises nullifying my every objection. But she didn't need to. But for Lilalee's social program, I'd have morphed into a growling misanthropic zombie long ago. Besides, I like seeing our friends. It's a comfort.

I have my assignments. I set up the folding tables and chairs. I built the fire. Now I'm up in the attic wearing my new Black Diamond headlamp searching through dusty boxes for party streamers. First time I used it. As advertised, the Black Diamond provides an even, soft illumination perfect for reading and a bright spotlight for night hiking. It was my last hiking purchase before the leg went wonky. Maybe I'll use it one day.

Lilalee is calls to me up through the hatch. "Siobahn called," she says. I don't often see Lilalee from above. It reminds me of when we first met. "She's bringing a girl friend of Julie's. She's new in town." Julie is the Swonk's oldest and our goddaughter.

"It's OK with me."

"Julie says she's a writer and a hiker."

"What restaurant does she work at?"

"Just be nice. I know you will."

The day has been a bright. The shadows long and dark. The San Gabriels are glowing orange. Everyone arrives just as the dusk is gathering the last colors and shadows of the day.

It's the usual list: Swonks, Bob and Pattie, Connie, Addie, Jim, Nancy, Michael, Dave and Carolyn, Betty and, of course, this new girl. It's an over-educated group with settled lives rich with disappointment and tragedy. The Swonks are empty nesters. Connie is free spirit with three ex-husbands. Addie does makeup for the industry. Jim is a substitute teacher and a bright light in local theater. Nancy, Michael and Dave are attorneys at big firms. Nancy has recently divorced. Hank, her philandering ex, is properly not invited, but missed. Carolyn does social work with Lilalee and Betty has a trust fund that allows her to travel to exotic places that I can only hope to read about. We've spent many a lively holiday together.

We introduce ourselves to the new girl. She is tall, athletic, alert, about 30, with curly blonde hair, round light-blue eyes, and a hiker's deep sunburn. She wears a shapeless turtle neck, jeans and boots. Her name is Jennifer. She hands Lilalee a hostess gift of flat water and says, "Thanks for having me." She looks around as I shake her hand. "Nice place."

"Let me show you around," says Lilalee. She hands me the bottle and takes Jennifer by the elbow for a tour of the rooms and the art, most of which I haven't noticed.

I head for the gathering in kitchen and start opening the wine and beer. Lilalee has put out quite a spread: honeyed ham, garlic-infused roast, olives, cheese, green and pasta salads, chips and dips. Everyone is hungry. In short order, the plates and glasses are filled and we settle into little groups divided by gender. I note the festive laughter and animated talk and feel a wave of relief — aside from the clean up, little will be required of me today.

I fill my plate and find a chair behind the circle of women. Nancy has captivated the group with a story about a cancer tragedy at work with the fate of young children in jeopardy. There is sighing and head shaking with every stab of pathos. Over in the kitchen, the guys are laughing.

I finish eating and start for the laughter when I catch a glimpse of Jennifer. She is holding down a corner of the couch, smoothing a pillow looking bored,detached and out-of-place. If I were her, I'd be counting down the minutes to my polite escape. I was once new in town; a stranger to all, isolated, lonely. I, too, accepted invitations from well-meaning acquaintances to events where I felt awkward and wanting to flee. LA can be very cruel. I wonder if she has a job or rich parents. Maybe she's tough enough to survive here and find friends. The process is slow and painful. If not, she should just go back from where she belongs while her spirit is still in intact. Or maybe it's already ruined. I'm glad it's not my problem.

Just when the party has settled comfortably into that phase where the talkers are talking and the listeners are listening, Lilalee calls us all together for the evening's special event. Lilalee insists that all our parties must have a tradition that makes them special. Sometimes it is charades. Sometimes it's a performance like the reading of a poem or the singing of a song. Sometimes it's a double-elimination poker tournament. The New Year's tradition, "The Resolution Game" is especially noxious. According to this tradition we each jot a resolution on a slip of paper and put it in a bowl. The resolutions must be genuine, the real deal. They are drawn from the bowl and read aloud. We then guess who wrote the resolution. The person who takes the most guesses wins the prize. This year's it is a $25 certificate for an In-and-Out Burger.

This business of playing around with resolutions is misguided; it invites a jinx. I look around at our friends and wonder what the future holds. What's really to be? Some will tap into a vein of good luck. Some will fall to misfortune. That's just it; the balance hangs on luck and fortune. Why jinx it? And a month from now, I get a big needle stuck in my back. Will I even be here next year? Why tempt fate. Shouldn't resolutions just remain secret like the wish on birthday candles?

The chairs are pulled in a semicircle around the fireplace. "Has everyone done their resolutions?" shouts Lilalee. "Ok. Here's the first one. Ready?" She reaches into the bowl and carefully unfolds a resolution to nervous laughter. Then she reads, "I resolve to lose 10 pounds and eat 5 vegetarian meals per week."

"That's you," I say from across the room. Our friends laugh.

"Why would you say that?" says Lilalee.

"Because that's was your resolution last time."

Lilalee gives me a disapproving mock smile and says, "Wrong as usual. Any other guesses?"

"I think it's Addie." says Carolyn.

All turn to Addie who looks around and then shrugs. "Yea. That's mine."

"No In-and-out for that girl," chimes in Dave ironically. The smattering of claps becomes hoots and razzes.

Lilalee passes the bowl to Addie who reaches in and reads, "I resolve to hike again this year."

All eyes turn to me. There's instant laughter and jeering. Nancy raises her voice above the din. "I guess we all know who that is."

Addie passes me the bowl. I reach in and unfold the paper slowly for maximum suspense.

"Get on with it," shouts Swonk which starts up another round of good natured jeering.

I remove my glasses to see what's written. I read to myself and immediately I know. And, I know I shouldn't, but that I must read this resolution. Everyone grows quiet, "I resolve," I say in an elevated voice, "to sell my first screenplay this year."

Siobahn jumps up and points to Jennifer. "She's our writer. She's the next big thing." Most clap because that's the spirit of the game.

She takes us all in with a slight, but defiant smile and reaches out in my direction. "Hand me the bowl."

In the end, Nancy wins the game with a resolution to hike Kilimanjaro. Makes sense in retrospect. Her life has been turned inside out.

I make coffee while Lilalee puts out the desserts: Pumpkin cheesecake, flourless chocolate cake, pecan pie, whipped cream, Carmela's brown sugar vanilla bean ice cream and coconut sorbet. There is another piling on of plates and a lull as each savors the thrilling and shameless ecstasy of each sweet bite.

I take my coconut sorbet to they first available chair which happens to be next to where Nancy is quizzing Jennifer.

"What kind of things do you write about?" asks Nancy.

"Whatever. I've always written," says Jennifer. "I always knew I would write."

Her answer reminds me of the outward confidence and inward uncertainty when I was her age. I still had potential then. How much time, I wonder, is there before her well of potential runs dry and she will be like the rest of us locked in the realities of house repair and utility bills.

Nancy nods in appreciation and continues. "And now you're trying to break into the business? That bastard ex of mine is an attorney at Paramount. It can be pretty tough."

"I know. But you can't live off writing stories or blogs," says Jennifer. "I'm not worried. I'm very determined. I'm prepared."

"How will you get by?"

"Some friends I met on the PCT a letting me stay with them till I get a place. They're helping me get a job at Whole Foods."

"Pacific Crest Trail," I interject even though Nancy knows perfectly well what the PCT is. "Have you sold anything?"

Jennifer sits a bit straighter and says, "I make some money from my blog. I've got a 500 followers. You should check it out. Comet's Trail. Comet is my trail name. So what about you, "she asks me. "What do you do?"

Nancy interjects, "Don't you keep a blog about hiking?"

"Sometimes," I say.

Jennifer leans back on an arm. "So you're a hiker?"

"Not really. Not anymore."

"I met a lot of guys older than you who are thru hikers. You should get back out there. You can do it. That's what you learn out there." Jennifer then turns to Nancy, "And you can do Kilimanjaro."

It's ridiculous claim. "They didn't call it "kill-a-man" for nothing," I say sarcastically. "Don't underestimate. You don't wake up one day and say, hmmm, I think I'll hike to the top of Kilimanjaro."

"That's just negative." she replies with an edge of irritation. Turning to Nancy she says, "Tell yourself you can and you can. I know you can."

Jennifer has struck a chord with Nancy, but I am outraged by the impertinence. This young woman knows nothing about us. Nancy is much too vulnerable to hear this nonsense. "I don't mean to disparage, but there's being positive, and there's getting reckless." For good measure I add, "Bad advice could cause someone to get hurt."

"That's just fear monger talk," she replies and stands. "I don't care that you're old or that this is your house and your party. You shouldn't be spewing negativity."

"Some people get very sick at 18,000 feet," I say. "It's not for everyone. There's more to it than just thinking you can. Do you think you're going to sell a screenplay in a couple months? Get real. These things take time. And luck. It can takes years. Or, never, ever happen. I don't care how talented you are. That's being realistic!"

Jennifer turns livid. "That's insulting. Excuse me."

We watch as she gathers her purse, pays her respects to Siobahn and Lilalee and walks out the front door without a look back.

Nancy grabs me arm and squeezes it hard. "You shouldn't have said that," she scolds. "You're old enough to know better."

I knew that the instant the words were out of my mouth, but at that point it was too late.

The next day before Lilalee is awake, I check out Comet's Trail. It's beautifully written and evocative of life and feeling. The girl has talent, real talent.

When Lilalee awakes, we sit down for coffee.

"Wasn't that a great party?" she says.

"As always," I say but inside I feel a sense of remorse. It seems this year my future is in the past.