Monday, August 4, 2008

Fifty

This is the last day on which my daughter’s age is the square root of my age. I have realized this just today, so have only a few hours in which to contemplate it. Tomorrow, August 5th 2008, I turn fifty. The square root of fifty is something with too many digits I suspect. Besides contemplating the ratio of my daughter’s age to mine I suppose I should be contemplating the Great Moments Of My Life. Or the Moments That Changed My Life or Shaped My Life. It’s all quite accidental probably though I do detect a certain pattern, not of deliberate Fate but of certain opportunities taken and certain pitfalls avoided. The opportunities missed and the pitfalls into which I have fallen, let us pass over. I have a habit of going back to seemingly quite small incidents. I was living in London and had been fired from a job (yet again) and went in search of something to pay the rent. I interviewed for a short term position overseeing a painting competition. Of course they asked if I had any experience in fine art or painting (the two, presumably, not necessarily coinciding) and I said I did not. Because I needed a job quickly I took the first offered, working in a wine bar in Covent Garden. The painting people called back, to my astonishment, and offered me the job there. I would have much preferred to spend my time with artists and because I have a knack for convincing people that I am competent, even truly efficient and dedicated, I imagine I would have found myself immersed in the world of London Fine Art. I might even have stayed in that grey and lovely city, though the UK at the time was a place of anger and violence, most of it perpetrated by the government and I was exceedingly unhappy there. So I served the avaricious new Conservatives their Rioja, a word none of them could pronounce, and planned to get out.
My first memory is of visiting my Uncle Bill on his deathbed. I didn’t know it was his deathbed, I was just doing my duty, but he died soon after. Bill and Aunt Alice gave me a child’s knife and fork. Which had blue handles. I like to think that having this as a first memory has shaped my life. I’m sure that’s nonsense, but nonsense is as true as anything else. My big brother mentioned something about the street where I was born while I was home this year. I thought I couldn’t remember anything about the three years we lived on that street but he mentioned a neighbor who used to cut our hair with hand clippers. I had this sudden surge of memory. Hughie Cooney was that neighbor and we used to play in some old abandoned houses at the top of the street, on the Stratford Road. We called them the haunted houses. We used old mattresses as trampolines and played Doctor. Hughie’s kids, Mick and Veronica, were always there. They knocked those houses down and built apartments. Even though they went up about forty years ago I still call them the new flats. Veronica is now terminally ill I learned on this trip. I am still trying to accept that. I think we were bouncing on a pretend trampoline about ten minutes ago.
When I’m home I usually stop in to the church I attended as a kid, where my mom and dad still go. I always have a very strong memory as I pass the priests’ house next door of standing on the semi-circular step in front of that house waiting for the housekeeper to open the door to our ring of the bell. My mom and I that is. I’d told mom and dad that I wanted to be a priest and so we went to see the parish priest, Canon Hirrel, a large, intimidating Englishman – you have to remember everybody where we lived was Irish, maybe an Indian or Pakistani or a West Indian family or two, but mostly Irish – and Hirrel was doubly intimidating, being educated and an Englishman. No one can talk down to others like a pseudo-educated English Catholic priest when dealing with Irish people straight off the boat. I loved the story of My Uncle Pakey, one of those single men who stood at the back of the church, ready for the run out the church door to the pub as soon as communion started, and the Sunday that Canon Hirrel approached him and the group of similarly single and thirsty men at the back. At Hirrel’s insistence the others had moved into the pews but Pakey stood his ground and Hirrel insisted one more time – Mr. Lee, please take a seat. Pakey hitched up his trousers and uttered the immortal phrase – Bollocks to you, Canon – and left the premises. My mother and I were ushered into the presence of the man defeated by my uncle, though I knew nothing then of the incident. He was delighted I felt I had a vocation. He suggested I take the exam for a boarding school in Staffordshire, fifty or so miles from home, where I would be educated while being groomed for the priesthood. As I remember he had gone there. So I did and passed with flying colors (where does that phrase come from, the Navy?). I learned Latin, the Catechism, that people can be inordinately cruel to each other and equally kind. That there is no way to describe the feeling of homesickness a boy has who faces the privations of a down at heel boarding school which delivers far less of an education than it promises and far more punishment and belittlement than most people we know have experienced. Or maybe they have, but at least it was at the hands of their parents whose job it is to kick us while we are down.
Maybe a life should be measured in jobs. One of my first and still most hated was in a car silencer warehouse. After leaving the school of Latin and belittlement, before starting college. I remember my first pay packet was eighteen pounds and forty six pence. I loathed almost everybody there and was loathed in return. When one foreman threatened to fire me I begged him to do so. He didn’t in the end. I have packed razor blades. Changed light bulbs. Cleaned toilets. Picked fruit. Sold tickets. Cleaned dishes. Cooked burgers. Worked for a lobbyist. Moved furniture. Worked in law offices, insurance companies, schools. Been a publicist. Worked in bars. Worked construction. Worked for an animation company. Painted houses. At the razor blade plant the foreman, looking disappointedly at a group of us working a packing machine and failing even in that, said, “I’ve worked this machine, a monkey could do this job”. I said, fearing that I would regret it forever if I did not say it, “Well, you’re proof of that.” Next job was laying cable for cable TV. I liked that job. I worked in administration for a theatre and became great friends with the manager there. We went drinking a lot. One morning he said – that drink last night went straight to my head. I replied – Well, Nature abhors a vacuum. He is still my closest friend. He interviewed me for the job because he thought a man named Lee must be Chinese and it would look good on the affirmative action/racial diversity report. He makes me laugh like no other person on earth. I gave up a perfectly good job changing light bulbs to go into theatre. I’d even unionized the light bulb changers – yes, there were several of us. They make a good wage now and have fabulous benefits. I have never loved anything as much as the theatre. It has given me everything valuable, including two of my wives. And with one of them I have become a father and loved another human being more than I ever thought was possible.
I am building a shed in the back yard. That’s what I will be doing on my fiftieth birthday. With help from a friend or two. It is almost beyond imagining that I live in Los Angeles, that I own a house here, that I am enjoying building a shed. I will look forward to my daughter’s coming home and my wife’s return from work and I will have dinner with them and a friend or two and a glass of wine or two. I have said, now and again, that if I had had my life to choose, I would almost certainly have chosen this one.

5 comments:

David Byron said...

Happy birthday, John, I hope there are many more and, I repeat, you have a wonderful fluid style and the text is both witty and serious - a desirable combination. I am so looking forward to the novel...

Deke said...

Happy birthday you old bogbrush!
Love to all.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes, another thing we have in common besides loving your wife and child: August birthdays.

I adore your blog. I just wish there were more of it, greedy wench that I am.

Seattle is calling y'all to visit with warm blue skies, a soft breeze and luminous mountains floating like preposterous snowcones inverted on the horizon.

Happy Birthday to you, bright spirit, and hugs to our beloved, saucy, brilliant and delightful C & H. Tip up a glass of something in my honor on the 10th and I'll do the same for you today.

Fifty! Oh, my.

Huge hugs,
J in Seattle

Anonymous said...

Again, Happy Birthday John! Thank you for sharing your writing and for sharing you, all the years since we met.
I remember a rocky start but thank goodness we found a way to tolerate one another......
Don't worry too much about left over shed pieces - always possible to make a plaque declaring: 'This shed was condensed by John Lee on his fiftieth birthday."
Love to you my friend.
cherylcheryl

Anonymous said...

Dear neighbor,

It's been 2 months since your birthday, but I have come back to read this page more than once. I love this essay. You've reminded me not to question 'why' I love theatre. Just to love it. How lovely to read something so resonant and good.

Many happy returns,
Bridget