Thursday, August 2, 2012

Elegy for Mr. B

This is an essay I never wanted to write. My dear friend, John Bogert, succumbed to cancer on July 29, 2012. He was 63, a longtime newspaper columnist, Pasadena resident, and devoted dad to his three darlings, Caitlin, Rachael, and Ian. I was a latecomer to his life, having met him in 2010.

Just prior, a longer-time friend, Frankie Stearns, had recommended I buy the book, GROUNDED, by John Bogert. Duly I went to Vroman's and ordered a copy. It's a collection of columns--humorous, musing, ruminative, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. One day my daughter Eliza came home and said, "Whose book is that?" "Mine," I replied. "Mrs. Stearns told me to get it." "But that's Rachael's dad's book!" "Rachael who?" (Come now! I have four kids and I'll wager each has had a friend named Rachael.) "MY RACHAEL FROM SCHOOL!" she corrected. Then the dots began to connect. This was the Rachael whom Eliza had met at University of Edinburgh when they were comedic Improverts together, another local girl who had ventured to Scotland for college. The Bogerts were as colorful a family as ours, I deduced from John's book and Eliza's anecdotes. I just had yet to meet them.

I did meet John at a St. Patrick's party. He was both a late arrival and the raconteur who said all the funny lines first. Usually I like to be the one to toss the bon mots, so I was amused to be displaced. We chatted, discovering we had many mutual acquaintances, parenting similarities, and East Coast origins. We parted ways. But I did start to read his Daily Breeze columns online. His writing became a compass for me sometimes, his prose elevating the prosaic, his distillations of events becoming droplets of significance. Through the written word did my affection for him grow.

Eight months after we met, John was hospitalized with acute gut pain. Appendix? Maybe. But it was much worse. I remember the rainy afternoon Eliza phoned me. I was on the way home from school and I pulled over near the Langham Hotel. She informed me of the cancer diagnosis, and I crumpled in the car, crushed. Everyone who knows cancer understands that its diabolical reach must be countered as craftily as possible. John enlisted a top-notch doctor at Keck. Our erudite Everyman kept springing back from every bodily insult. Surgeries. Chemotherapy. Nausea. Weight loss. During 2011 he was able to resume work on a limited basis. He saw one daughter marry, another daughter move into television work, his son enter senior year of high school. Life ambled on.

But as 2012 progressed, so did the illness. If I ventured to say maybe we'd all see each other when we were stardust, John would tersely text:CUT THE CLICHES. I visited a few times; we'd just sit and reminisce, or not. "How are the cactus?" he would ask. We remembered the July day he had brought a load of cuttings to my Altadena backyard and dug them all in. "Now once in awhile, ya gotta flood them," he advised. "Flood them."

In my experience, when one is dying of cancer, the circle tightens to family. It's serious work to die, and all energy is concentrated on the process. I never saw him again after April. I'd text. Once or twice a week, I made my backyard bouquet stealth drops on their front steps. Eliza saw John in May at Ian's graduation party, and she conveyed my love to him. John's final newspaper column was published on June 24, coincidentally my birthday. Despite all pain, he wrote heroically, capsulizing a life of language and love, exactly as great journalists strive to do. How I miss him. He was my wonderful cranky friend.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Like a Phoenix

I traveled to Phoenix over a recent 3-day weekend. While visiting my college roommate Robin, I also managed to fit in a little time travel.

Robin and I met 41 years ago as freshmen at Arizona State University. We lodged in Dixie Gammage Hall, the original bargain dorm, for the rate of $160 a semester. Our hall was outfitted with two stories of what were essentially dressing rooms. The beds were located in a nearby sleeping porch, likened by some of us to a Girl Scout camp or reminiscent of the garret in the Madeline stories. And most of us dragged our cots into the small rooms during the first two weeks of school. Voila! Dorms as nature had intended.

We also had some quaint practices that smoothed the rougher edges of first-time communal living. Our R.A. instructed us to shout MAN IN THE HALL if we were lucky enough to have one to walk to our rooms. What was intended as a warning actually conveyed bragging rights. We also learned to shout the cautionary HOT WATER when flushing. The adjacent showers immediately reacted with a hellish blast, and who wanted to be scalded and then drop her glass Prell shampoo bottle?

Gammage Hall had a careworn living room of good intentions, a place I imagined where gentleman callers of the 1940s waited for their dates. It also had an expansive grass backyard, now a Phoenix luxury but one I took for granted. The dorm was centrally located. You could practically tumble over to Hayden Library to read or to the Memorial Union for meals, walk to class in five minutes, strategically lounge on the mall, ready to meet all those new people streaming into your young life.

Gammage girls were an eclectic bunch, from Montana and Idaho, Arizona and California, even faraway New York. In contrast, the glamorous blondes we stereotyped as Barbie dolls lived in modern dormitories like Manzanita Hall, the fancy housing that sported elevators and its own dining room. But we could climb in and out of our low-slung windows if someone forgot to prop open the security door. Gammage was so uncomplicated.

But it is 2012 now, meaning Robin and I rode a sleek metrorail through downtown Phoenix and eastward. (We reminisced about the 1973 Bette Midler concert where I saw my first transvestites in ballroom gowns.) We alighted in Tempe. And now I genuinely believe in what Rip Van Winkle felt. Any familiarity of place had been overlaid with "progress." The local Mill Avenue district of bong shops and dusky taverns had become a glittering Emerald City of high-rises and upscale chains. Our university burgeoned with strange edifices. The local apartments once collectively known as SIN CITY looked tidy, sedate, and adamantly sinless.

We walked into the campus and by degrees discovered our past. Having a companion who shared experiences made the journey all the more comprehensible. Here was the boys' dorm, the WPA project called Irish Hall. Here was the Language and Lit building where we learned to be English majors. Here was Gammage Hall, now repurposed for administration. By gum, its door was unlocked! We entered, as if to sanctuary. The living room has been walled off as a Dean's office. To the left we counted the doors. Mine was open, and we startled an employee toiling at her desk. She allowed us to see the room, the tiny room that had served as my portal from childhood to whatever the heck I was about to become. We went to see the infamous toilets, the sleeping porch, the yard now known as The Secret Garden. Everything was ordinary and everything was profound. How often do we have the privilege of revisiting those places which shaped us? How lucky I feel. How lucky I am.