This is the story of how I survived my husband’s 50th high school reunion. It is also a book review of my new favorite book: “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” by Yuval Noah Harari. And, yes, the two are connected.
First, the back-story: Jack, my husband of 43 years, graduated from Wheeler High in Fossil. Fossil is located in Central Oregon and is about an eight-hour drive from Redding.
For those of you lucky enough to have never made this drive, (something I have done 32 times) here are the directions: Drive to Bend, turn right on a twisty two-lane road where the town of Willowdale used to be, and about three hours later you arrive in a hamlet with one store, one stop sign, five churches and about 400 people. Oh, and there’s a bar. Thank God. I’m not a huge drinker, but somehow in Fossil, well, it’s a survival mechanism.
I tried to get out of going to the reunion, but Jack bribed me by promising two days in Ashland including play tickets and shopping. I agreed, but upped the ante and made him agree to listen to the audiobook of my choice. (Jack only reads non-fiction; I prefer novels.) I was going to choose something I knew he’d hate, but I considered how I’m not quite ready to die in a car accident caused by him falling asleep at the wheel.
Just for the record, I did torment him for a few minutes with a Jane Austen selection. That was so he could be truly grateful (and attentive) when I turned on “Sapiens”. I should not have worried; within minutes, we were both mesmerized. Harari suggests that what propelled homosapiens to the top of the food chain was their unique ability to create fiction.
Animals live in an objective reality. There are trees, rivers, monkeys and lions. Animals can communicate, i.e. “Look out! There’s a lion by the river–climb a tree!”
But they cannot fabricate; a human can tell six lies before breakfast. People also have an objective reality, but the nuances of human communication allow for the transmission of stories. This led to a cognitive revolution because with these stories sapiens created social constructs and imagined realities — like government, money, hierarchy and gods.
Humans are primarily social animals and yearn for connection. We actually get a little surge of oxytocin when we converse with someone who agrees with us. Shared delusions, whether it be religious beliefs, cultural mores or nationalism, allow populations to cooperate and engage in group think. Thus armed, sapiens took over the planet. The author speculates that this was not a terribly propitious thing for earth or other living things.
I could insert some interesting quotes here—I liked the audiobook so much I actually bought the hardback version—but I hope I’ve told you enough to entice you to listen to or read this for yourself. I was so entranced by my foray into non-fiction that I went on to listen to “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared Diamond—also excellent. And I’m on the library waiting list for “Tribe” by Sebastian Junger.
I don’t know about you, but I really get into my reading/listening material. I was so excited by the concepts in this book I thought I could apply them to my life. And specifically, maybe I could use what I learned to survive yet another bout of what I sometimes call “Fossilization.”
By now, you have probably surmised that I’m not fond of our trips to Fossil. I always start out OK and then I get really startled by something I consider aberrant. And I freeze. Like the time I asked for a martini (they didn’t have wine; they did have vodka) and it came with a black olive in it. That’s just so odd.
Once, in a neighbor’s front yard, I admired a hutch of bunnies. I was just being nice. The woman said, “pick one.” I said that I really didn’t have a place for a pet rabbit. She said, “Naw, I meant for dinner.” What happened next was violent and graphic. We did not stay for dinner.
Then there was the time we went to the Shamrock (the bar) on a Saturday night and there were about seven women with curlers in their hair. Yes, hair rollers with hair nets. You have to admit, that’s like Twilight Zone weird. I didn’t know you could even buy those brush rollers anymore. I asked Mac, a friend of Jack’s, about it. He explained that they were Baptists. I was still confused, so he elaborated, “They want to look good for Jesus tomorrow morning.”
I have hundreds of these little vignettes. But the endings are pretty much all the same: me, wide-eyed, slack-jawed and speechless. Not a way to win friends and influence people.
But that was years ago. I like to think I’m a better person now. And after spending several hours listening to “Sapiens” I thought I could improve my behavior. I would find connection. I would be convivial. At the very least, I would not embarrass Jack.
And everything was going rather well until this old guy in a vest flashed me. More about this later.
I skipped the first two hours of the event. I know my limits. When I arrived, I found Jack, who introduced me to many, many casually dressed people. Who knew that camo and shorts were the dress code? Not I. Did I mention this was not just a 50-year reunion? Anybody who ever graduated from Wheeler High was invited. There were attendees who graduated in the ’40s. That’s why they held it at the fairgrounds. There must have been a hundred people there.
I made a valiant effort. I smiled, I listened, I nodded like a bobble-head doll. Jack had abandoned me, but I could see he was laughing and having a wonderful time. I was wearing my most comfortable cute shoes, so even on concrete floors I was doing pretty well. I heard stories about people I did not know or care about with punchlines that didn’t make much sense to me. But I was doing fine.
I was feeling a bit cornered by a pot-bellied guy in a pocketed vest (fishing vest?) He had spent several minutes regaling me with an in-depth explanation of why his venison jerky was the best in eastern Oregon. I had smiled so much my teeth were dry and my lips tired.
I thought I was saved when the self-appointed Master of Ceremonies decided to give a spontaneous invocation before dinner. Everyone bowed their heads, so I had a chance to look around and give my smile a rest. He went on quite a while because he wanted to let everybody know he had quit drinking and had accepted Christ as his personal savior and we should too.
I felt very tired then, as I remembered this was a dry event. And then again, maybe I wasn’t saved as vest-guy gestured that we should move to the line snaking out from the buffet. I explained that I really should find my husband. He then gave me a gold-edged grin and said, “Nice talking to you, pretty lady, I’d like to give you this . . . ” and then he flashed me. No, he didn’t reveal his genitals. No indeed. He jerked open his vest to show the large red, white and blue campaign button on the inside: VOTE TRUMP 2016. “I have a bunch of these out in my truck.”
And it happened again. I was Fossilized. My eyes glazed over, my mouth dropped, and I just stared at him. As he was fumbling with the pin, I made an indecorous retreat. I found Jack already in line for the meal and I joined him. On the bare banquet tables there were large metal rectangular vats with boiled sliced beef, boiled sliced ham, boiled sliced white potatoes, canned green beans, and carrots. And Jell-O salad.
I thought, “ewww.” But the man next to me said, “Oh, boy! Comfort food!”
And then I laughed. What can I say? If the worst that happens to me is I’m mistaken for a Trump supporter or served “comfort food” in the company of really very nice and well-meaning people, well, I suppose I’ll survive. Not everybody is going to be part of my tribe. At home in Redding I rather make it a point to surround myself with people that share my delusions. It’s very comfortable. But being comfortable does not initiate growth and even at my age I’d prefer not to stagnate. So, I’m chalking this up as a “growth experience.”
Still, I did talk Jack into not spending another night in Fossil. We drove on, listening to the soothing words from an audiobook with which I was in perfect accord.