Balancing acts

Telluride Daily Planet, Sunday, July 26, 2015

On our street, growing up in Seattle in the ’60s and ’70s, the big old houses are still filled with Catholic, Presbyterian and Mormon families, so there’s nothing really special about five or six kids at a time having the same last name. During the summers — for a brief, spellbound number of ’70s golden years — all these kids band together, about a dozen 13- to 17-year-olds, rubbing up against each other, trading pheromones like baseball cards.

We’re addicted to each other and our stories, to the houses and the families we talk about as if they’re connected to us, but only very remotely, as if their blood isn’t ours, their dysfunction exotic and interesting rather than inflamed and endemic.

Yes, we stray far from our families in the summer. Long days are spent roaming the neighborhood, clumped behind some mean guy’s house, or at a pier down by the lake, or sort of heaped on a mound of grass where our hormones rise and condense into clouds of pink and blue and pink and blue and purple. Our sub-addictions — game after game of truth-or-dare and dancing to a pile of vinyl 45s for hours at a time — occur in my best friend B’s basement, a room her beyond-lenient parents have provided to us as a sort of halfway house, bridging the correctional facility of home life to the real truth of a world full of choices. We paint it purple and yellow and put up Hendrix and Peter Max posters.

There’s a veritable double rainbow of archetypes within our tight little mob. K, the picked-on skinny kid who gets his sweats yanked down on a regular basis. The quiet girl, L, who hides behind the veil of her long, straight hair. The promiscuous sprite J1 and her goofy, attention-desperate older sis, J2. The three Mc-sisters who live in a man-less mansion, three generations of women, most of them snarky and sarcastic but sharp. The Ph boys, all redheads, who live a bafflingly Mormon life, all except K, the neighborhood heartthrob, who knows more about belt-notching and making out than the rest of us put together. There’s S.O., the pretty girl with thick calves. And A, the token older guy who needs to feel good about himself and dates one of the Mc-sisters, a Wiccan before the word is even in use. And there’s S.M., the irresistible blond boy I really like who never says a whole lot about his gigantic, badly-tended house and hard-ass father. And, of course, there’s the above-mentioned best friend, B, whose liberal father and mother are probably the front-door key to this whole house of baseball cards.

Every one of these players comes with me in the satchel of my adolescent heart as the golden years fade and we, all of us, simultaneously exit our looking glass world, stepping out into different compass directions.

Fast forward forty years: I pick up a vintage sweater in a thrift store, made in the USA of 100 percent Orlon and boasting one large stripe of black and white in a gray field, with the words SKI BUM written in orange across the chest. Instantly attracted, I put it on and like what I feel. I don’t know why. Sure, I may have approached a ski bum lifestyle in my early years in town, with crack-of-noon-at-Chair 8 days and working nights and splitting town for long bouts in April and October, but I’m not by nature anything remotely “ski bum.” I’m an imposter. A wannabe. Nothing consciously strikes me about liking and wearing the sweater until one day when a particular friend smiles at it and says, “Now, there’s a balancer.” In other words, my personality, seeking a turn for the lighter, more carefree and less mental, has tried to self-correct with and sleeves and a slogan. Something I actually wear, my heart not on my sleeve but my chest. I love it.

I start thinking about “balancers.” What’s the balancer for this moment — laughter or silence? This meal — sour or sweet? What’s the balancer for this day, this year, this life, this personality? What weight and component does the scale need to set itself sinking or rising to a more beautiful equilibrium?

Now, in remembering the glistering summers of my halfway-house years, I can see — in an expansive and liberating moment — all us kids as we really were: living, breathing balancers for each other, softening each other’s stories into a life putty we could actually work with a little better in life.

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