Back to school, samurai-style

Everyone likes a good revenge movie. They are tops on my list, especially old samurai flicks. The best ones take place after the warrior system has broken down, when the ronin (masterless soldiers) are wandering aimlessly through Japan trying to drum up work. They're trying to hold on to their pride while attempting to feed their families, the perfect recipe for vengeance born of desperation.

It's no coincidence, then, that I've been experiencing my own private samurai film festival in the weeks before I'm supposed to go back to Illinois for my high school reunion. When we were still students, my classmates and I fought it out for four years, taking our places within a caste system, only to be thrust into the big, bad world alone. I've been wandering now for 20 years, trying to find my footing. Now I'm being asked back into my old world. I'm going to have to sum up my life in a few sentences after people ask me the dreaded question, "So, what have you been up to?"

That's where the revenge fantasies come in. It would be great to be able to tell Mr. Most Likely to Succeed that I have been on The New York Times best-seller list for 12 weeks, and didn't he hear me being interviewed by Terry Gross?

"You'll be fine," my friend Michelle said. She always says what I want to hear. We were sitting in the bar area of Zuni Cafe, a pretty uninviting space that looks like an upscale airport lounge. The ceiling is very high, and the room is set in a triangle, with a large open area in the middle and tables around the perimeter. It isn't cozy. Still, we ordered a cozy roast chicken for two that was supposed to take an hour to cook, and settled in with some drinks. We were going to the samurai exhibit at the Asian Art Museum afterward.

I remarked to Michelle that Japanese culture was so advanced back in the day. While my people were festering with sores and tossing chamber pots out into the open streets, the Japanese were exceptionally clean, sleek, and ordered. "Try coming from Viking stock," she interjected. "The villagers could smell them coming for miles."

The waitress brought us bread after a bit of a wait. When I go to fancy places in S.F., it's as though the Clampetts hit the Brown Derby. The people who never go out to nice joints are the pickiest, and I'm no exception. I have an idea in my head that the service will be exceptional and the food will be sublime; the slightest mistake gets amplified in my head. You forgot to bring me a soup spoon? What is this, Denny's?

I looked around the restaurant and saw a bunch of couples eating lunch and one family of Mennonites. At least, I think they were Mennonites. The women were dressed like Laura Ingalls Wilder, with lace bonnets on their heads. The men all had beards and looked like they should be at a barn-raising. I tried to picture them thumbing through a guidebook and settling on Zuni. Later, for dinner, maybe they would be hitting AsiaSF.

A regular came and sat at the table next to us. The waiter brought him a drink without taking his order, and the two were friendly with one another, checking in about their weeks. The customer was gay, if I may be so bold, and so was the waiter. The man had invited the server to a dinner party that Friday night. "It will be an eclectic mix," he promised. "I like to get a whole bunch of wildly different people together around a table." I had a twinge of longing to be a part of this dinner, to be one of the interesting gay men in attendance. What is it about social groups that makes us want to join them? (Although it must be said that when I saw the Mennonites, I didn't exactly feel envious of their gathering.)

Oh Jesus, I thought, I am back in high school. I hope I'll be more relieved than jealous when I get to the reunion. Isn't that how these things go? You end up hitting it off with the cool guy who was captain of the chess team, and the dude who was voted Best-Looking has somehow turned into Abe Vigoda. All of which leads to the samurai movie concept of "saving face." Hara-kiri, or seppuku, the ritualized suicide by disembowelment, is an attempt to save face and die a brave death. I don't care how advanced, therapized, or medicated you are — at your high school reunion, you'll be trying to put on your best face. And, if you want to get literal, throwing yourself back into that mix is a bit like cutting yourself open and slowly bleeding to death. Who in their right mind wants to go back to high school?

Apparently, me.

After lunch, Michelle and I hit the museum. The exhibit was pretty cool, especially since we were being shadowed by two dudes we dubbed Beavis and Butt-head. They were no doubt doing research for their black metal band with a feudal Japan theme.

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