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One Evening at the Center of the Universe

This was a scene that I wrote for an American Culture Studies class assignment about a community or subset of society to which we felt we belonged. I wanted to explain the unusual nature of the group I hung out with while showing how well we got along despite our differences. Hopefully you'll like it.

It was six o’clock, and I had just arrived at Jeff and Tammi’s house, the ‘Center of the Universe’ as we often called it since most of our social gatherings started, ended, or took place there. The social gathering for this particular evening was a joint birthday party for our friends Brendan and Jerry. Normally, a birthday celebration for some member of ‘the Network,’ as we called ourselves, would not be uncommon, but this event was different. Brendan had returned to Toledo for the first time in over two years and after another week of visiting would return to Berlin.

Brendan had been living in Berlin for nearly four years at that point, but we all remained very connected and up-to-date on each other’s lives. By this time, we had all grown very used to the idea of being separated by great distances. At one point only two years previous, Brendan had been living in Berlin, Jerry in Tokyo, I in Chicago, Christiana in Dallas, Brian in Atlanta, and Jeff in the Navy. Great distances separated us, but we shared a bond that goes beyond friendship, and we could spend years apart with just visits and regular phone calls or messages. Invariably, however, we all were drawn back to Toledo because that was our connecting point, and Jeff and Tammi’s house being our common meeting place was because of this termed the ‘Center of the Universe.’

We were always more than simply friends, we were a community, even a family. I entered the house as always: a quick little knock on the door, and I let myself in - we all had keys to Jeff and Tammi’s. As I opened the door, I was quickly greeted by Roarshack and Rexy, the most affectionate dogs on the planet. I pushed my way in and said hello to Lisa, Brian, and Brian’s boys Patrick and Ian. They were the only people in the living room at the moment, but I could hear voices from the kitchen and the dining room, so it was obvious that others were busy preparing dinner.

I sat down and joined into the conversation, wrestling with the boys occasionally, as they became impatient with listening to the grown-ups. Tammi came in from the kitchen to say hello and, seeing the boys fidgeting, took them downstairs to play on the computer. Jeff, meanwhile, had joined us in the living room and struck up conversation.

Brian began by described the part he had recently been given for the next season at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He had been singing for years in smaller circuits, but now he would perform in the big time. We talked about the opera and then about politics and finally about a new laptop computer he was planning to purchase. Jeff then described an accidental spill of molten glass, which had overflowed the molds the previous day at Libbey Glass where he was a supervisor. I asked Lisa what was new with her, and she told us about her new program studying for certification in Medical Transcription, a skill that would offer her new job opportunities. Lisa then stood up and took a few steps across the room. Not probably a big deal for most people, but Lisa suffers from a degenerative disease of the cartilage that has forced her to walk on crutches all her life. The previous spring, she had had her second hip surgery, and her rehabilitation now allowed her to actually stand and move on her own. I gave her a big hug and we talked about upcoming surgery on her knees, and about my plans for returning to college. From there, the conversation continued on into a variety of other topics.

Our conversations were typically like this, ranging across broad subjects, finding out about each other’s lives and what new things we had all learned, and having intellectual discussions about politics or society. In fact, once Jerry and Steve arrived, we were likely to have no end of discussion regarding politics and society. Jerry simply loved to be a part of debates and Steve, who was about as anarchistic as you can get without being a threat to society, would always add his thoughts to any discussion regarding the government.

Our conversations aside, the greatest connecting aspects of ‘the Network’ have always been the way we treat each other and the way we not only respect but also revel in each other’s individuality and experiences. In fact, I had coined the name ‘the Network’ years before when my friend Wallace and I had had a conversation about the varied interests and talents within our group. We had realized the value of having a person you knew fix your car or your computer, get you books or copies for free, rewire your electric or fix your plumbing, or make a new painting or a computer program for you. We had all of those possibilities and more available to us. And while we didn’t exploit each other, we saw the benefits of networking our talents and the talents of all of our friends. Since that time, we have benefited greatly from each other’s help, but the concept has fallen away because of our greater connections to each other mentally and emotionally. The name, however, still remains.

The strange thing about ‘the Network’ has been, in fact, the amount of difference among all of us. Most communities or groups of friends revolve around focused ideas and shared interests, but we all put our attention into very diverse activities and ideas. Not to say that we don’t have shared interests, but any interests we share are few and casual and generally don’t apply to all of us. In fact, we often are more interested in what is different about each other than our similarities. We all like to learn and experience new things, and the diversity of our group allows that. We all come from different races, religions, sexes, and sexual orientations; we are all different ages, sizes, and shapes; and we all have different background in education, jobs, and life experiences. And even after spending years together, we continue to learn new things about each other.

In many cases, we share similar beliefs, but in greatly varying degrees. During part of our conversation after dinner, Jeff commented about his disdain for the way the press had treated President Clinton’s impeachment. This led to a discussion of our government in which Wallace expressed his belief that our government is imperfect and needs to return to the concepts proposed by the founding fathers in the Federalist Papers. My personal viewpoint was that a small revolution would have to occur to effect any change upon a government that has grown so huge and uncontrollable. Steve, on the other hand, believed that people would be better off without any government in their lives. He doesn’t really want anarchy, but he has no amount of trust for our government (which is frightening considering that while he was in the Air Force he worked at NORAD, the center for U.S. strategic air defense). On the other hand, our friend Mark sees a need to modify the system from within, and he feels that he does so as an officer on the Toledo Police Department. Strange as it may seem, Steve lived in Mark’s house for a little over a year, despite their diametrically opposed viewpoints about many things. This debate about our government was like many discussions we have shared over the years. All of our opinions differed drastically, but this was a social dynamic for us rather than a source of discord. We might not agree with each other’s viewpoint, but we would always respect the views of others and consider their merit, possibly learning something and growing as individuals in the process.

Perhaps the connection for everyone in ‘the Network’ was never so much our shared interests or our interest in our differences as much as it was a sense of our existence as a counter-culture to the norms of society. Most of our views would be considered radical by many (although not liberal, because some people in ‘the Network’ are as staunchly conservative Republican as you can get). Certainly our views on education and social reconstruction would never see the light of day in any political platform. And in the entire group, none of us have ever cared about appearances or what’s popular. Current clothing styles, popular television programs, and fads like the ‘Beanie Babies’ have no lure for us and are often subjects of ridicule or humor in our conversations. We are all very literate, often debating and discussing new books we have read or sharing new scientific discoveries we are following. Further, we are often each involved in various aspects of what are considered sub-culture as opposed to mainstream: science-fiction fandom, role-playing gaming, computer hacking, historic recreation groups, paintball, and underground or alternative music (punk, techno, ska, etc.). We in ‘the Network’ tend to want to share our unconventional views with each other since the mainstream of society doesn’t generally understand or accept them.

People in ‘the Network’ are all very aware of popular culture and generally are disinterested in mindlessly engaging in the same activities and beliefs as everyone else for apparently no better reason than because such things are a fad or popular. We all feel that you always need to be yourself. The people in ‘the Network’ strive to have intelligent, informed opinions and find it difficult to relate to the masses of Americans who will make Adam Sandler a box-office hit, not know the capital of their own state, and believe that they will be millionaires if they play the lottery often enough.

‘the Network’ is more than a group of friends. We share a variety of beliefs and behaviors, and we are interested in learning from each other and also in seeing the world through each other’s eyes. And moreover, we see ourselves as the "true family" suggested in Illusions, a novel we have all read by Richard Bach about realizing your potential and affecting your world. Bach writes, "The bond that links your true family is not one of blood, but of respect and joy in each other’s life. Rarely do members of one family grow up under the same roof." Like a family, we care for each other and about each other, and we learn from each other while teaching one another. We take on each other’s problems by loaning money, providing a home for each other for however long it’s needed, and helping each other work through emotional troubles and personal or family tragedies. We make meals for each other, take vacations together, and work on each other’s homes. And in some cases our closeness creates real family. Jeff and Tammi married each other after getting to know each other as part of ‘the Network,’ and Wallace has recently proposed to Jeanne after knowing each other through years of ‘Network’ social gatherings.

The party for Brendan and Jerry included only a handful of us, including Jerry and his wife and kids, Brian and his boys, Brendan’s mom, Jeff, Tammi, Lisa, Wallace, Jeanne, Steve, Mark, Christiana and myself. On the larger scale, ‘the Network’ has always comprised many people. Each of us meets new people all of the time and have regularly invited them to our get-togethers, eager to share ideas with someone new. And sometimes these new people have formed a bond with everyone and become a regular face in our crowd. Some people in ‘the Network’ have moved away, some have moved back, and some remain friends over a distance, such as when my friend Tijuan visited from Chicago on many occasions and gained a close connection with everyone here. The connection we have made with each other is stronger than friendship and thicker than blood. We share something we actively work to maintain because it is so exceptional and so necessary for us.

Those few of us present at the party were simply enjoying each other’s company: our conversation, our similarities and our differences, and our connection as a family. This was not unlike our normal get-togethers, but it was special this time because of the guests of honor. As we all lined the table and sang, the lights were turned out and a cake was brought to the table, lined with candles. With a dramatic breath of air, Brendan and Jerry blew out the candles and for a moment, everything was quiet at the ‘Center of the Universe’ – but fortunately that could never last long.


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One Evening at the Center of the Universe, by Paul Cales, © October 1999