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Klatch as Klatch Can

By Steve Watkins

It was a little after ten o’clock on a Wednesday morning, and I was a few minutes late for the Zoom. The boys were already in the middle of something. I think it had to do with what Ernie could or couldn’t eat because of this or that, which had sparked a conversation about everybody else’s dietary restrictions. We’re all getting older and we all have stuff going on, a medical textbook’s worth of failing parts and maladies. One of the good things about this weekly Zoom we’ve been doing for the past several years is the reminder that aging might suck, but at least we’re not going through it alone.

Plus, now that my younger daughters are older, in college, living semi-adult lives, and with my wife Janet busy working her real job, it’s easy for me to feel isolated at times—and self-focused and compulsive and weird–during my seemingly formless days as a writer and editor. 

So thank god for the klatch.

There were nine of us logged on—if you count Lee, who showed up briefly with a kid’s sticker on his forehead, affixed there by his granddaughter who had come over for a play date. Lee’s a retired Coastie–short for U.S. Coast Guard, and not to be confused with “Coasty,” a pejorative term some Midwesterners use for their betters who live next to one of the principal oceans that butt up against mainland America (and the noncontiguous states, too, come to think of it). Lee still had the sticker on when his granddaughter tracked him down out on his back deck and made him bug off from the call. He clearly had his priorities straight. Lee holds the klatch record for most surgeries, and has dialed into our weekly Zoom more than once from hospital beds at Walter Reed. 

Besides Lee and Ernie and me, there were Patrick, Ken, Stew, Bob, and the two other Steves, one of whom, Steve R., joined the Zoom call on two different devices for some reason, neither of which had working video. Patrick, who started the klatch with Ken a dozen years ago (“Ken at Ten”) and has been point man for this Zoom version since the pandemic, muted one of the audios because the echo was driving everybody nuts. Steve R. was on a train to D.C. for a lunch assignation he’d arranged through an online dating service, which was supposed to explain the echo and the lack of video but didn’t, really, and also didn’t account for why he had logged on with two separate devices. Steve R. is a retired East Asian Studies professor from Brown, a jazz pianist, and a septuagenarian who doesn’t drive but still manages to keep up an active dating life thanks to buses, trains, and no age limit on Tinder. Sometimes—and I don’t think he’d mind me telling you this—he Zooms in his boxers, though not when he’s riding the train.

We try to be big tent in the klatch, but it doesn’t always work out. A few guys joined us for awhile but stopped after a couple of Zooms. We had to uninvite another friend a year and a half ago, an anti-vaxxer (even after a two-week stint in the ICU with Covid) who kept hijacking conversations and driving them down the same one-way street until they dead-ended into laissez-faire capitalism, tiny government, and the Wit and Wisdom of Ayn Rand. 

I’ve been friends with several of the klatch guys for decades. Ken and I are the southernmost members of the group, the only ones who know that the correct pronunciation for “barbed wire” is “bob war.” Paddy, father of two, put me up for awhile when I was going through a divorce 25 years ago. We had a single-dads-with-daughters club going for a couple of years until we both remarried. We once took the girls wilderness camping only to discover when we set up camp that they had backpacked in with all their Barbies. Ernie and I have been pals since 1990 when I finished grad school and got a job here in Virginia where he was already teaching at the local college. We bonded my first year over gin and tonics and those little cocktail wienies you spear with toothpicks out of a vat of molten barbecue sauce. It was at a faculty reception thrown by the dean. The drunker we got the more it turned into a combination of log-rolling and bobbing for apples, only with fumbling hands. All these years later, you still probably shouldn’t leave cocktail wienies and gin too close to Ernie and me unattended.

Others in the klatch I’ve gotten to know more recently, including the two Johns, neither of whom could make it this week. I wished they had been there–not just for the company, but also because I wanted to ask them about the mounting environmental horrors that we’ve brought on ourselves and all of Earth’s nonhuman inhabitants thanks to carbon emissions, and poorly controlled methane and natural gas mining, and overuse of pesticides and fertilizers, and catastrophic deforestation: the crushing heat, the Canadian wildfires, the boiling seas, the melting ice caps, the apocalyptic flooding, the inexorable sea-level rise, the poisoned rivers, the depleted reservoirs above and below ground, the mass extinctions. Both Johns used to work for the EPA and have long known, and tried to warn us all, that this shit was coming. We’re talking worst-case scenarios–as John C. stressed and John G. concurred when the subject came up a few weeks ago (and how could it not come up?)–not as remote possibilities, but here, now.

But maybe it’s good that they missed this week’s klatch. There’s only so much stress any of us can handle, and the third Steve—Steve E.—already had his hands full, or empty, with The Case of the Missing PODs. Steve E. and his wife are moving two-thirds of the way across the country to be close to their kids. The POD people came for all their stuff a week ago and are supposed deliver the containers on a set day and time to the place they’ll be renting out West, only now the POD people say they don’t have it. And not only do they say they don’t have it, they also say that Steve E. never put their stuff in the containers to begin with, so those must be empty PODs being transported across the Great Divide. And since that’s the case–or so they say–the PODsters are maintaining that they have no responsibility and no liability, and Steve E. is shit out of luck. Steve–also a retired federal worker (General Accountability Office)–told us all this during the Zoom call, though he was surprisingly calm. He and his wife are getting in their car just a few days from now for the cross-country drive, and while all of us on the Zoom were as worked up as could be, Steve E. was the very picture of Zen. Or maybe he was just so tired he could barely keep his eyes open. Either way.

Of course, we flooded him with suggestions: Get a lawyer. Check your Ring camera for proof you loaded the PODs. Get signed affidavits from witnesses. File a lawsuit. Write it off as an extreme example of Norwegian Death Cleaning. That last one was my idea. It didn’t fly. The only thing anybody could say for sure was that the minute Steve E. and Diane break down and buy furniture for the new place, and have it delivered, and pay for it—that’s when the missing PODs with all their stuff will turn up. It’s the immutable law of umbrellas.

Patrick, meanwhile—the Zoom klatch host as well as a retired doctor and volunteer medical director at the local free clinic—followed Steve E. up with his own container story: about a 40-foot long metal storage bin he’s let a young friend of his have hauled onto a remote corner of Patrick’s rural property for stockpiling the young man’s pyrotechnics a safe distance from anything habitable. Patrick said he went inside the container the other day to explore and it creeped him out. I got claustrophobic just listening to the description, and said it sounded too much like the kind of thing a serial killer might have hidden somewhere, maybe buried underground, for stringing up, torturing, and dismembering his victims. Patrick throws a massive Guy Fawkes party every November, something he’s done for years, with a bonfire, and burning of the Guy, and extravagant fireworks display put on by his pyrotechnic friend. The container will make for convenient fireworks prep on the next Guy Fawkes Day, but I told Patrick I’d still check now and again to make sure no Hannibal Lectors have taken it over in the meantime.

Talk pivoted abruptly from there—talk in the klatch often pivots abruptly–to somebody asking Ken how things had gone for him at the cardiologist. Most of us have been dealing with bum hearts, and Ken is no exception. There’s also plenty of old man talk about prostates, sleep apnea, hip replacements, and colonoscopies. Ken did a nuclear stress test earlier in the week on the emphatic recommendation of a physician’s assistant after Ken suffered a bout of chest pain that came on when he accidentally mowed over his wife’s tulip bed, even though she wasn’t even all that mad about it. The pain resolved itself, the stress test came back negative for anything hinky, and Ken said he wondered if it had even been necessary. Patrick said he thinks the less training medical professionals have, the more likely they are to order expensive tests, and he lamented the uncertainty inherent in so many diagnoses, those accursed gray areas, which is the kind of thing he’s always writing about in his columns for various local publications and also in a book he wrote called Managing Your Doctor which I’m guessing some of Patrick’s colleagues appreciate him for having written, while just as many curse him for having given away too many of their secrets and too much of their authority.

Just about everybody in the klatch is retired, some more than others. I’m still writing books and editing. Steve R. teaches part time at the local college. Ernie, a ukulele aficionado and the most generous man I know, ended his teaching career a dozen years ago as a professor emeritus of computer science. Ken’s a historian and preservationist with a specialty in landscape architecture who gave up Southern living a while back and now Zooms with us from Vermont. Bob, a newspaper photographer in a past life, still monitors the police scanner and shows up with his camera at the occasional crime scene or house fire or car crash or flood or hurricane or rural Guy Fawkes fireworks display. Stew’s had several careers: Navy, retail, manufacturing, software development, tax prep. In 1990, he said fuck all and quit working and has been happier ever since. His Zoom background is a panoramic photo of Glacier National Park where he worked summer jobs at the inn a long time ago when he was a much younger man. Patrick, who often sits quietly during the klatch, eating a late breakfast while the rest of us yack away, is the paterfamilias who keeps things running—not just the Zoom calls, but also a longer-running Friday morning klatch with a handful of guys that meets in-person at a downtown bakery. He’s the one always checking up on everybody to see how they’re doing–if they’ve been having health problems, or haven’t shown up for awhile, or are going through a hard time. 

When our friend Don was approaching 90 and lost his brother, his hearing, and much of what remained of his health, it was Paddy who reached out—him and Steve E.—and got Don to join us. This was during the pandemic. Don had a hard time following much of what was said, but he was happy to share stories about his brother, about growing up on a commercial farm managed by his dad, about being sent off to boarding school, about coming back to Virginia years later and working for decades as one of the few psychiatrists in the area. In quieter moments, he talked about the dark place he’d been in for awhile, approaching the end of his life, and the emotional toll on his family. We listened, asked some questions, mostly just let him speak, and empathized as best we could–none of us too far from there ourselves. 

The surviving members of the klatch met up at Don’s memorial service where his children told more sweet stories about him and we sang some of his favorite songs. I thought about the final passage in James Joyce’s “The Dead,” which begins with the line, “One by one they were all becoming shades.” I memorized it years ago and have always found an odd comfort there, especially at funerals. Or maybe it’s not so odd. I looked around at my friends. The pandemic was mostly over, finally, and it was nice to be all together again in the flesh. Don, too.

The New York Times recently reported on something called a “friendship recession” that’s plaguing the men of America. In a 2021 survey, fewer than half the men who responded said they were satisfied with the number of friends they had, and 15 percent said they had no friends at all, a fivefold increase from twenty years before. Not surprisingly, guys in the survey reported being less likely than women to share their feelings or rely on friends for emotional support. 

The story quoted an expert who said there were four things men might do to make friends, especially if they’re having a hard time of it–and, I would add, especially as we get older: Practice vulnerability; don’t assume friendships happen organically; connect through shared activities; do casual check-ins. 

Sounded like the klatch to me.

*** 

POST SCRIPT

“Klatch” or “Klatsch”? An actual email thread from a bunch of guys who clearly have a lot of time on their hands:

Bob: I liked your draft of the Klatsch* (sp!) article (* discuss with Ken).

Ernie: I agree with Bob about the proper spelling of klatsch. It is a German word meaning to gossip. A part of kaffeeklatsch. Check derivation at https://germanfoods.org/german-food-facts/kaffee-und-kuchen-klatsch/. Merriam-Webster allows klatch but it is a relatively modern spelling, first appearing in 1941. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/klatch. Perhaps it is my German-Hungarian heritage taught to prefer klatsch. The street I grew up on is called Plauderville Ave. Named because Plauderville loosely meant a place that folks could chat, gossip.

Steve R: As the one who chose the name for us, I agree to go along with Ernie and spell it “klatsch” from now on.

Patrick: I’m definitely in favor of “klatsch” spelling (per Oxford dictionary of language).

Steve W: Even a cursory examination of the various learned sources (Cambridge Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, the random blog of some guy who thinks he knows everything) shows us that “klatch” has become the commonly accepted Americanized (if not more broadly Anglicized–though seemingly that, too) variant of “klatsch,” or “kaffeeklatsch.” Here’s Merriam-Webster on the subject: Klatch. Note the “or less commonly.”

Ken: Actually I prefer “clutch.” 

Steve R: Or maybe “crotch.”

John C: This link suggests there are different ways to pronounce the word. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/klatsch

Ernie: Great! Now we can have a discussion over the preferred pronunciation for the name of the group.

(P.S. Looks like they finally found Steve E’s PODs.)

*** 

Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a retired professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, three of which are scheduled for publication in the coming year.