The Joy of Being Alive

March may have blustered into San Diego like a lion more than once but never often enough to earn a cuteism like June Gloom or May Gray. Nothing like, “Ah, yes, just like clockwork every year: March Mayhem in the Mesas. Snow in Kearny Mesa, sleet in Clairemont Mesa, hail in Otay Mesa — same every year!” Maybe it will happen, what with the polar ice cap melting, but before we hear that, we’re more likely to see billboards reading, “Welcome to San Diego: Home of Abbie Hoffman University and Amusement Park.”

While I have no idea how March might be coming in as this sees publication; out the window to my left is every sign of a fine day in May. Of course, much the same can be said for most days in this part of the country, which is, oddly enough, such a huge market for pharmaceutical antidepressants.

In a previous column I was discussing the phenomenon of weather as a kind of memory trigger in general. For example, I mentioned that day as being a fine one, extraordinarily nice, really, and just the type we San Diegans take for granted. That may be a little more difficult for me and others who migrated from Chicago, a city whose denizens consider the idea of a winter vacation in the seaside resort of Vladivostok to be a kind of retirement dream. But today’s weather, here and now, reminds me very much of a day when I was 17 and truly understood that I was alive, and something of what that meant. It was the day I was kicked out of high school, senior year, because I refused to cut my hair.

It was spring of 1968 in Mundelein, Illinois, a Ray Bradbury kind of small Midwestern town. I had been sent to the disciplinarian’s office of Carmel High School for Boys for staring out the window on our first real spring day. This was during economics class, under the gaze of Brother Mel. The disciplinarian, Brother Justin, was less interested in my choice of scenery than my hair length (it was getting really good in the back) and handed me a credit chit for a local crew-cut stylist. I was told not to return unless defoliated. This was a Friday afternoon, so I had until Monday.

I walked the sparsely developed acreage between the school and the town: some cornfields newly planted, grazing areas still damp from winter, but overall a day much like this one in North Park in 2011. Illinois is not completely flat, and the phrase “rolling hills” can fit nicely into descriptions of much of it. When I approached the crest of a long, slow incline, maybe gaining 50 yards of barely noticed altitude as it ascended so slowly, I remember finding myself among a stand of three trees, maybe maples, all of them leaning to the southeast after months of winter wind. A wind came up again. Stronger than a breeze, less than tornado class. The wind whipped my Catholic school necktie over my shoulder, and my hair, at its seditious length, lifted, swayed, plastered itself over my face and waved its freak flag in the direction of Libertyville, the next town over.

It is difficult to describe the exhilaration I experienced that Friday afternoon in Illinois. It was a surge of energy, sheer gladness about something and a need to celebrate. I have said that I felt truly alive for the first time, and that was true, along with its attendant realization of its finiteness, a sense of mortality, but not one that depressed the spirit in any way. This experience had nothing to do with drugs, by the way; they were seldom around when I was interested during that period, and I still thought of booze as a cornball and crude high.

I associate a piece of music with that moment, though I probably could not have actually been hearing it at the time. It is the Who’s “I Can See for Miles”; and though I believe it came out that year, unless I caught some strains of it from a passing car radio almost a mile away, I could not have been hearing it in real time. Still, if I hear that song today, I’ll immediately remember that day I got kicked out of school and felt terrifically happy about it.

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