The convenience of driving loses to pleasures the train ride affords; reading a book, writing an essay, or catching up on work. Forward motion of the boxcar feels like an airplane lacking energy of flight. The trip races the Hudson south, twists past rocks cut from water a million years ago, and slides past cliffs embellished with garish cottages, gardens, West Point Military Academy, and spiraling roads that close with the first flake of snow.
Train conductors are a different breed, set apart from us by unaffected cheer, no matter what abusive passengers play, and they always know which minute past-the-hour they must arrive at Grand Central Station. Calendar years mean nothing to them. "Year 2000? Bah, humbug, that is a human phenomenon," they'd say. "Trains don't care." Seasons don't care either, but unlike trains, seasons are rarely on time.
My mind records events in terms of decades. A MUSAK dance song trips me back to the 1970s, and I recall my Aunt Shirley teaching us to do "The Hustle." Such analytical talent have I to think in tens. Years pass from one to ten, and then repeat -- divisible by twos and not complicated. So, the coming year is the end of another decade known as the 1990s. What memories will serve its fame? Can't use the "Gay Nineties;" the term was taken some ten decades ago. Maybe we will remember the decade as the "Inspirational Nineties," for our humanitarian work -- people helping people I mean. Probably not. Helping our fellows is not sensational enough for the media. Instead, the 1990s will likely be called the decade of precocious wealth -- the overnight billionaire who has not yet turned 30. Someone must be impressed by their accomplishments to revere their egos.
I remember how my generation thought of growing-rich-quick in the early 1980s -- a scheme called "The Pyramid." Remember that? Mother's facial expression seared my brain when she heard I was off to a pyramid meeting at age 17. She was practical, and it didn't matter her friends played, "You'll lose all of your money," she said. Well, not all, I started with $100 and already won back $50. All I have to do is show up, say the Pledge of Allegiance, and soon I'll have $1,000, I said. I hoped. So, she was half right, I only lost $50, because the meeting collapsed two nights later during a police sweep of the neighborhood.
There is only one difference between the Stock Market and the pyramid scheme; the Market is legal. How did we grow addicted to this ferocious investment gamble? Companies start up, go public, and suddenly the founders are worth $6 billion without selling a product, and the investors are the only ones left out cold. We have shed traditional ways of doing business in this year which ends our decade. The balance of nature transcends seasons, and gravity and history only record the inevitable after the fact. Didn't Isaac Newton tell us, "What goes up must come down…?" I predict a huge separation of social class and great indifference from the workforce as backlash to the wealthy '90s. Only top executives will stay in; the rest of us will be adding new jobs to our resumes faster than area codes change. Just wait until traditionally more productive countries like Germany, Japan, and Korea catch up and start buying us again the old-fashioned way.
Corporate climate is fast leaving me sour. Management's denial about competition, and about how fast Internet technology is really changing perceptions of services, further compounds my growing distrust. My weekends have grown short, and weekdays are wished away until Friday; by then, I realize I've wished away five more days of my life -- in exchange for a barely liveable wage.
There is another green however, that I enjoy discussing -- plants. Living in southeastern New York state offers a mild climate and acid soil -- the best mixture of elements for gardening enthusiasts. When I purchased my home, I saw the potential for its yard, and sometime mid-August that potential beamed. Almost like a picture from Sunset magazine, my backyard transition from the flat turf of the previous owners, into a winding patchwork of perennial beds fully bloomed with hibiscus, daisies, blue veronica, yellow coreopsis, black-eyed susans, pink spider mums, purple, lavender, and rose budellias, and a color pallet of cosmos and impatiens.
Our summer was not mild. Much like the climate of inland California or West Texas, June and July were hot and dry. For two weeks running, drip irrigation soothed my wilting trees and bushes. Most lawns turned to straw. As we grew weary from each of 34 days topping 90 degrees, and three above 100, my neighbors, Ann and Don, kept me cool with generous afternoon swims in their pool. August grew more hospitable to plant and human life. September brought milder weather, until the 16th when hurricane Floyd decided to trick Mayor Guiliani's prediction and slam into Northern New Jersey and the Hudson Valley rather than Long Island. I stayed on top of emptying the garden rain gauge to record 9 inches. The county lost power from wind damage, and many basements sucked in water.
Californians don't understand the concept of basements. During an earthquake, such hollowed space below the house would cause implosion. And while basements are normally dry, as mine had been before and after Floyd, there is no greater horror than watching packing boxes capsize, freeing trillions of Styrofoam popcorn to float across the makeshift reservoir covering drowning paperwork, books, and belongings below an icecap of foam.
As the area approached 20 hours without power, my neighbors, Mary Ellen and Jack, offered a hookup to their generator to pump out. Some residents of the community were without power for five days, and some watched their homes collapse into deceptive streams swollen beyond decades of undeclared war. My neighborhood was lucky. Inspiration for me came despite dry expectations. The first tulip and forsythia blooms in March, cashing my IRS refund check, watching fish in my pond, cooking a gourmet meal in my renovated kitchen, and any trip into the city. Watching the Thanksgiving Day parade on Broadway was a lifelong dream come true.
Too much anti-inspiration in 1999 made it difficult to offer condolence for my trite woes -- high school massacres in Littleton, CO, Glendale, CA, Forth Worth, Atlanta, and Honolulu, and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo added more questions about our future. And the realization that this train ride we call life is speeding past the stations of peace and reason only escapes our view as we compete against the natural flow of decades and seasons.
At the close of the 1980s, I recall admiring a woman who had inspired me and others through difficulties of recovery, Oprah Winfrey. As we enter the final year of the 1990s, I think of someone far less known, yet exceeding any and all celebrity admiration. She was someone I grew up with, and Renee Bondi defines the inspiration Time magazine should reward for "Person of the Decade."
When we were children, our fathers were volunteer firemen at station 7 in San Juan Capistrano, CA. We'd catch each other at grammar school following a big alarm fire to share stories our dads brought home. I hold a mental image of Renee, riding horseback through her parent's orchard on a warm summer afternoon in this town of -– then -- 10,000. It's a cliché to say Renee was on top of the world. As she grew older, she offered up a powerful singing voice, which she shared with our Mission Parish. At least for me, as I encountered troubling high school years, listening to her voice, and singing with her sometimes at church, was what I looked forward to on Sundays. She cared about the people in her life, especially children. She was someone I knew who would never hurt a child. As we grew older and in separate ways, Renee earned a college degree and eventually taught music at San Clemente High School. In the flash of one May night in 1988, a freak fall from sleep bounced her into uncertainty.
I remember visiting her at Long Beach Memorial at the beginning of her five-month stay. In a special bed she lay, shockingly motionless, paralyzed below the neck -- not the same jubilant woman who, only six weeks earlier, was planning her wedding. The slightest movement to her body made her nauseous now. She was no longer flattering my memory at church socials where she would dance with awkward me. I wondered whether or not losing her ability to move would cancel her ability or willingness to sing.
To say someone recovers simply belittles an extraordinary effort. From anguish one feels during recovery, I'm not sure one truly recovers inasmuch as we may simply heal or change. For Renee, those trying years ahead did not hinder her ability to evolve or to find within her a renewed self. She released her first album entitled "Inner Voice" in 1992, four years after her fall. By then Renee had married Mike, the man who never left her side, and together they shared a son named Daniel. And for the rest of us, Renee gives inspiration through a voice grown out of adversity. She travels the country inspiring others with her faith, her music, and her daily struggle. In February 1999, Renee received the Walter Knott Service Award from Goodwill Industries in Orange County in honor of her work to improve the quality of life for challenged people. The tribute took place in the same hotel ballroom she and then-fiancé Mike last danced one night before the accident that immobilized her external shell. "Surrender Your Love" is her third album, released in October 1999.
I'm sure she'll continue to inspire us into the next decade, just as sure as a December breeze blows into Spring. (Please visit Renee Bondi's page: www.reneebondi.com)