Mom used to say that, if you want to know who you're friends are, get into trouble and see who sticks. When I was in grade school, I found this to be so true.
Most of my buddies, a small group of miscreants, all shared my distorted sense of humor and implacable curiosity. We wondered, for example, what would happen if you put a box of crayons in the dryer, tied your little red wagon to your Dad's truck as he drove off, or covered yourself with ketchup and laid on the floor pretending to be dead when Mom walked in?
Answering these and other questions caused us to, collectively, be grounded for about seven million years. In our defense, some of these notions were never actually put into practice. But other “super-neato ideas” were... and became part of our family's naughty narratives.
One such story began when I showed my friend Chris how to tie a hangman's knot. He looked at the knot, but doubted it's authenticity.
“It looks OK,” Chris said. “But will it work?”
“Well, yeah!” I said.
Chris folded his arms and shook his head.
His challenge stumped me for a moment, then I flashed on one of my great ideas! I was going to give him a practical demonstration.
“OK. I'll show you,” I said.
I snuck into my kid sister's room and seized her brand-new, humongous doll. This life-like figure was Pat's major Christmas present, and it cost my folks a bundle. But they bought it because, “A” she'd fussed for months and, “B”, Mom and Dad thought the doll was sooooo-cute because it shared many of my sister's features. Even I had to admit it was the “spitting image” of my six-year-old sibling.
With the our prize in tow, we raced to tree-house. I slipped the noose around the doll's neck, and tossed it overboard.
Alas, Chris and I weren't the only witnesses to history-in-the-making. Our tall Mulberry was clearly visible to a nosy neighbor, and Mrs. Keisner watched, horrified, as a small body plunged from the tree and disappeared from view.
Hysterial, she phoned my mother.
My parents came screaming into the yard and found Chris and I scrambling about, our arms full of plastic body parts. We were frantically reassembling Pat's prized doll, which had exploded on impact. Chris could have split, but he stayed by my side and got in as much trouble as I did.
So on that day, Chris made the A-list of fast friends, and he's still there. I just hope he never calls and needs me to help him gather up body parts.
Sometimes, being a best-bud means taking the heat all alone and keeping mum about it. When the feces hits the oscillator, it can be every man for himself and sometimes you draw the short straw.
Case in point. There was the time a bunch of us pre-teen boys tried to sneak-a-peek at our neighborhood's alleged nude sunbather. We used the ring-and-run method to get her to the door, with high hopes of her appearing in the buff. Two attempts were semi-failures. She arrived wearing only a bikini.
Our group reconnoitered and decided to try again. When I lost at roshambo, I was chosen for go-round number three.
I tip-toed to the porch and rang the bell. But before I could take off, “Bikini,” wearing a bathrobe, flung the door open and tried to grab me. I squirmed free as the group scattered.
Then I ran for my life.
She chased me down and broke a yardstick over my head before I evaded her.
Oh, and here's a useful tip.
If you're going to act up, don't wear a ball-cap bearing your name and address. It can be knocked off, discovered, and used as state's evidence. This I learned when Bikini appeared, hat-in-hand and fully clothed (sigh), to ring my doorbell and have a terse talk with my mother.
I took the heat alone—didn't rat anyone out—and that cemented kinships with my un-indicted co-conspirators.
Despite these and other setbacks, my mildly felonious friends and I survived our elementary and middle-school years. But when we hit high school, we grew up, hunkered down, got better grades, and stayed out of trouble.
Actually, our behavior improved slightly only because we were too busy daydreaming about girls to cause anyone much grief. But, alas, freshman females all seemed more interested in varsity lettermen—even if the sport was ping-pong. Our math-geek and science-freak skills rendered us invisible to these females.
It wasn't until much later, college in fact, that I learned how to befriend women, and in so doing, made the best friend I've ever had—Karin.
Many people have told me that my wife of 32 years must be a saint, and indeed she is. She's also something else, the #1 reason that I have many of the friends I do today.
That's because Karin and I represent two extremes on the social networking, and friend-making scale. In kindergarten, I was the kid who got negative comments on “doesn't play well with others.” It wasn't that I beat anybody up, it was more a matter of being more interested in other stuff, like lint on the floor. Even now, when I want to shop, go the movies, or walk, I do it in much the same way I used to run the San Francisco Marathon. I'd put my head down, ignore the mob, and just keep on moving as fast as I can.
But not Karin.
She's gregarious and delights in lingering. She navigates crowds the same way a child plays red-light, green-light. The movement is there, but it's usually imperceptible. This is because Karin genuinely cares about people she's just met. It may be part of being a nurse, but it's also just who she is. So no matter where we are, she'll stop and chat up strangers, commenting on the weather, their gardens, clothes, cars, pets, kids or almost anything at all.
And it gets better.
We can be in a stadium crammed with people, and Karin wants to talk to them all. For example, when we go to a local high-school football match, and I swears she knows everyone. For her, every game is homecoming. She will be chatting someone up and not notice that the game has ended until they turn off the field-lighting.
And when she sees people, she usually remembers their names, their spouses' names, the names of their kids, parents, cousins. Hell, she remembers the names of their pets.
On top of this she remembers birthdays, anniversaries, and pending special events like weddings or baby showers.
This humbles me greatly.
Yes, I can describe in great detail all Ford Mustangs made from 1964 to 1972, or the differences between AM and FM radio waves, and how they propagate through the ionosphere. But even on a good day, I struggle to remember the names of everyone our extended families. So I've learned to sit next to Karin, and let her talk for a while in hopes I pick up the flow.
And the most impressive thing to me is that when she stops to talk, she actually listens. She notices subtle details and reads expressions and non-verbal gestures like a trained investigator.
Since she's a public health nurse, I suppose she is.
I, on the other hand, could probably pass by someone with their head swaddled in a blood-soaked bandanna, and as long as they told me they were OK, I'd smile and just keep on trucking.
It's a wonder I have any friends at all—sometimes I shock myself at how oblivious I can be. I've had people—family members even—comment with exasperation: “But you're a communication teacher??”
Yes, and it's said that the best way to learn something is by teaching it. I'm still a student in the school of life... and communication. I know how vital it is for the health of an individual, a family and a community. And promoting it—through humor—has been one of my goals in writing this column.
So I want to close my weekly columns with with an expression of deep gratitude for the new friends I've made and the existing relationships that have deepened in the course of writing these pieces. This includes friends from school, work, church and all over the community. I value you all, and I'm gratified that this column has allowed me to become closer to many of you.
In the words of the theme song of the Golden Girls:
Thank you for being my friend.
Traveled down the road
And back up again
You heart is true
You're a pal and a confidant.
I'm not ashamed to say
It always will stay this way
My hat is off,
Why don't you stand and take a bow
Song and Lyrics by Andrew Golden
So, who deserves specific recognition? Tricky question, because it's so easy to omit people. My apologies in advance if I blow it, but I'm thinking, specifically of writing-induced or -intensified friendships.
But I'll take a stab at it.
I'll start with Doni Chamberlain and Joe Domke. They've been more than helpful. They're gracious, patient, kind and fun to work with. I've had a great time hitching a ride in their “little red wagon” that is anewscafe.
Then there's Karin and my family, who've allowed me to include them in my fun-house-mirror take on reality. Sure, they're kin, but they make the cuts as friends, too because being with them is a blast. (Just, please, kids don't cover yourself with ketchup and lie on the floor. It only makes Mom laugh when the dog starts licking you.)
I've not talked much about my writing group in this column, but they're my secret-weapon in the battle to improve my prose. These intrepid souls--Jim Dowling, Kathryn Gessner, Carla Jackson, Melinda Kashuba, and Charlie Price—are truly a gift. I'm so lucky to have you all in my life. You've lifted me when I was feeling low, and held me to the professional highest standards to help me grow.
You five can ring-and-run with me any time—I've got your back.
And before I go, there's one more group of friends I want to thank. You all. The readers.
Some of you have suggested ideas. That was a big plus when the well went dry on deadline. Others offered comments, and these, too, were helpful. I enjoyed your insights and viewpoints, and suggestions. It's all good. I hope you'll continue to keep in touch and continue to share your thoughts with me via email at email@example.com.
Finally, I want to thank those of you who stopped me on the street or in a store to chat about my stories. It's great to get that kind of feedback, and you've helped me stay grounded with the real world beyond my laptop's small screen and worn keyboard. Now and then, these encounters allowed me to make a new friend, and even introduce you to Karin. I appreciate these opportunities to connect her and the rest of my family to my writing world.
Heading off to do my novel- and non-fiction writing is an exciting change, but it's a bit scary, too. And I suspect it also will be lonely at times, too. So, please, do keep in touch.
To show my gratitude, I'll offer you one last bit of free advice. In a not-recent non-scientific survey, all parents polled agreed:
It's best to keep your crayons out of the dryer.
Robb has enjoyed writing and performing since he was a child, and many of his earliest performances earned him a special recognition-reserved seating in the principal’s office at Highland Elementary. Since then, in addition to his weekly column on A News Cafe - "Or So it Seems™" - Robb has written news and features for The Bakersfield Californian, appeared on stage as an opening stand-up act in Reno, and his writing has been published in the Funny Times. His short stories have won honorable mention national competition. His screenplay, “One Little Indian,” Was a top-ten finalist in the Writer’s Digest competition. Robb presently lives, writes and teaches in Shasta County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.