20 Year Itch
Fellow members of B-- S-- High School Class of 1984,
I won't be attending the reunion this weekend. But I've been thinking about you.
Imagine my surprise a couple of months back when my wife handed me the phone: Ted A--? How the hell are you, man? It just so happened that the recent death of a friend had started me on about all those things that those of us nearing forty are supposed to ponder mortality, The Path Not Taken, have I fucked enough people? and among them, although not specifically Ted whom, truth be told, I hadn't thought about since, well, high school, was a curiosity about the receding personae of my past. We had some nice chitchat and I naively still harbored the assumption that his call was somehow borne of a similarly curiosity. It wasn't until well into the conversation that I realized: this is about the reunion, isn't it? Indeed it was and is twenty years since we were last an accidental aggregate of acquaintances. And since Ted extracted my email address in a moment of weakness, so your names have flickered intermittently through my inbox, sparking little firefly flashes of memory.
I've had this feeling that I can't shake that somehow I share some intimacy with you--at least those whose names I remember--a feeling due, possibly, to the wondering that we all do about where we come from and what we once were. That we have no real ties to the past, every cell in our bodies has regenerated ten times over, our identities are simply continuities of consciousness, that there is nothing physical that binds us to our past besides our artifacts--except perhaps those whose divergent paths might be followed back to that former intertwining. So when we are pondering the halfway point of our lives, after we've discovered even our spouses and children to be strangers, and I haven't thought of any of you for twenty years, I can't escape this strange feeling of communality with you, a feeling which is of course ridiculous. Christ, some of you will be voting for George Bush.
Since graduating, I've encountered perhaps half a dozen of you, and two of those I lived with in college (confidential to MH and LS: I'm sorry for being such a lame roommate). Thus, when I started receiving transmissions from the reunion listserv, I was hoping to hear some adult-type revelations/insights/transformations about the lives you've since led. Matt H. is a minister (quite possibly the most unsurprising outcome of any of us given the gentleness and sympathy I remember of him); Ann-Marie W. has without fanfare outed herself and (perhaps) made us think about how difficult it must have been back when to be unable to express such a fundamental component of self (Here's hoping they'll let you get hitched, Ann); a few of you live in another country. But apart from these tidbits I've been disappointed; the irregular influx of "hey whats up"s has left me with the banal realization that adult life is merely an echo of chatter in the hallways. I hope you'll indulge the following report from the dusk of my thirties.
For all the time I've spent revisiting the past, high school was and remains a giant blank in my memory. For me it was junior high school where my adult neuroses were formed. For example, the embryonic class consciousness ignited by my apprehension of the palatial houses that the bus I now rode passed. How funny that must sound--I mean, I still lived in a demographically significant zip code (property values now through the roof, Mom's golden if the house doesn't fall down), it's not like I was being bussed in from the Brewster projects. Yet, for me in my uncertainty of place, there couldn't have been any more perceived difference between the single parent chaos of my world and the imagined happy family country club idylls of my new peers. The sudden inadequacy of my cookie-cutter bungalow neighborhood stood as shorthand for all my familial discontents, and the lack of any sensible countervailing influence to disabuse me of such phantom laments is something that to a degree corrodes my subconscious still.
It was also junior high where I found myself susceptible to the strictures of conformity. I can pinpoint with comic accuracy the moment of infection: several weeks into my first year, outside on the campus at lunch. Suddenly realizing after a few manic scans of the playground that I was the only one out of hundreds wearing plaid trousers. I'd happily wear such a pattern today, but any ironic detachment merely belies an unsettling intimacy with the demands of fashion. Consider me in partial remission.
Not least of all, those years were a primer of adult cruelties administered with the brutal frankness of children. I'm not exaggerating: I administered some of them. For my part I remain deeply saddened and ashamed.
High school? The casts cure; here's your diploma. Now what?
(ACT ONE CURTAIN CLOSES ON intervening period of continued confusion, menial employment, existential despair, dead-end psychopharmacology, profligate drinking, suffering for art, tawdry affairs, minor epiphanies, cocaine, etc.)
I still don't feel like an adult. Let me clarify: I simply can't accept the world as it is. I am yet puzzled that all those sacred promises (democracy, love, the benefits to the consumer from competition) could turn out to be such an inside joke with such very fine print. I am shocked anew at the needless cruelty, the celebrated mediocrity, the pandering venality and willful ignorance of those who seem to make the world. My threshold for the ridiculous is at a nadir: hence a life of semi-voluntary poverty. How can one take oneself seriously doing any of the things that respectable affluence requires? My attitude is still that of Lloyd Dobler:
I don't want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don't want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed. You know, as a career, I don't want to do that........
I now work in a museum as a photographer. I take pictures of pictures: how very meta. I'm married to a woman of whom I can say with humbling gratitude: she comes from my planet. A librarian, a former biker groupie with a physics degree, she, too, is very meta. Along with my daughter, in whom I have discovered a capacity for love that is terrifying in its depth, we make (to adapt from Vonnegut) a little nation of three. I can't say that I have really learned anything, besides why Ayn Rand novels aren't considered literature, or that women often actually like sex. Perhaps it's because I have so much difficulty remembering who I ever was or what I believed at any particular moment of my life. I mostly remember, with relentless acuity, the consequences of my failings.
Here's hoping that your reminiscences are, if not deeper, sweeter and lighter.