I think it started when I was in high school. I would borrow the family station wagon for an evening with friends, detouring traffic. The first stop would be a place where there was road construction, complete with Detour signs and sawhorses with blinking lights. We would throw them into the back of the car and set them up again to detour traffic into the driveways of our friends. Funny, right! And what could go wrong? The entertainment came to an end when, within a week, we were chased (half-heartedly) by the local police, and at a Christmas party be asked by some parents if I wanted to put some blinking lights on the tree.
I suspended this kind of activity when I was in college – too busy studying, playing sports, and I can’t remember what else. There was a good effort from some classmates when Walker Hall, a large neo-Gothic building, was being demolished to make way for the Robert Frost Library. Somebody, somehow, arranged the large stones into a replica of Stonehenge, though Professor Sale complained that it was not lined up properly for the Spring Equinox. And then there was the Chapel Dash, won by the person who could leave breakfast at Valentine Hall last and still make it on time to our required-but-non-religious chapel service. I rented a gorilla suit to harass the runners, but a bad case of poison ivy quashed my plans.
I continued my efforts in this vein when teaching high school in Ann Arbor, though at this point I was in a position of authority. Students, led by Sarah, asked me to sponsor the Armadillo Club. We researched armadillos and gave presentations at our meetings. (They cross rivers by holding their breath while walking across the bottoms, and they may carry leprosy and are therefore useful in research.) We had a University of Michigan professor give a talk, and we watched a video of armadillo races. Kim designed t-shirts and stationary with our logo and motto: “Tough on the outside, tender on the inside.” Why armadillos? It was the 70s. The Armadillo Club, by school policy, had to have a Mission Statement. Our mission: To be the largest club in the school. We managed to defeat the Ski Club by declaring that every student in school was a member, and they had to petition us to leave the club. We knew we achieved our goal when we pretty much emptied the school for the outdoor yearbook photo. The Armadillo Club ended after one year when Sarah graduated.
A couple of years later some students and I started the Apathy Club. I’d heard colleagues complain that high school seniors were apathetic. One of our rules – our only rule, come to think of it – was that if you came to an Apathy Club meeting, you were kicked out of the club. Our idea for the yearbook photo was a shot of an empty room, but the photographer lost interest and didn’t show up. The Apathy Club did not last very long.
The A.P. Pep Rally, however, had a run of 5 or 6 years. Huron High School had a lot of students take and do well on Advanced Placement Exams, so I thought we should celebrate our efforts with a pep rally, mocking the football pep rallies. Instead of a marching band we had a girl with a violin and a guy with a flute. Isabel, our A.P. French teacher, held forth with great enthusiasm in a language few could understand. A girl recited pi from memory for a minute or so. A chorus of A.P. Chemistry students chanted Avogadro’s Number. I led a cheer encouraging students to “Think Good!” A parent complained to our Principal that one of the school’s teachers was using incorrect grammar. Our Assistant Principal suggested to the A.P. leadership that the Pep Rally might explain why Huron High School did so well on the tests.
What’s the point? A large part of the pleasure, I confess, derives from being on the inside of the joke. This gives me a feeling of power, perhaps missing in what passes for my Real Life. But there is more to it than that.
It’s is a form of theater. In my first year of teaching, I was assigned to teach “drama,” and to me that meant giving students and awareness and appreciation of audience – just as it is with any writing. So I assigned them to perform “happenings,” improvised street dramas that, for my students, involved such things as clown suit, a pig on a leash, and a telephone cord connected to a girl’s navel. (My Principal’s response after a newspaper photo: “Very creative. Don’t do it again.”) My efforts were a lot like happenings. I was creating a form of theater as distinct from the Real Life going on around me. And in that theater, I was a character as well as author.
Real Life these days involves cancer, aging and mortality. In the face of that, Kim and I are staging a drama, or at least a happening, that involves building our home on the lake, planning for our life there, signing up to do a butterfly survey, and taking an Audubon trip to the Upper Peninsula to photograph warblers. We like the element of defiance involved. Yesterday Kim asked how my balance is, thinking we should probably get a paddleboard for our summer fun, and we are talking about the rocks we will move to create a courtyard. And the audience for this drama? I suppose this blog creates an audience of sorts, but our real audience is ourselves as we watch ourselves appreciate each day. And the awareness of looming Real Life makes the drama, and the defiance, even sweeter.