On Not Going to a Reunion (08.15.11)

It’s been reunion week at my old high school.  The class of 1971 invited the classes on either side of them to join them for their 40th, and though I was going to show up, when the time came I decided not to.  I worried that some of my schoolmates were going to bring their children, and that those children would be depressingly middle-aged.  I worried that the beautiful young men and women who had entered high school just as I was leaving it would be old, obese, wrinkled, bald or grey, and that they might not recognize me.  I worried that the in memoriam page on the reunion website would finally deliver its burden of suicide and malignancy and inconsolable grief to my consciousness.  Such are the hazards of an open bar matched with a suddenly open past.

My high school was a small one—classes averaged seventy people or so—but that didn’t keep us from forming a rigid class system based on family wealth, team sports, car ownership, and physical and social attractiveness.  My family was relatively poor, my sports long-distance running and skiing, my social skills nonexistent, my sexuality repressed. When I did go out on a date, it was usually because well-meaning friends were trying to get two losers together—at least that’s what I thought at the time, and I was at least half right.  Adolescence was not kind to me. 

It would have been a great comfort to me to know that adolescence wasn’t kind to anyone else, either.  But I couldn’t see beyond the boundaries of the self.  I ignored the evidence that I wasn’t suffering alone and concentrated on my own misery.

So you would think that after forty years of mostly deliberate self-improvement I would have ignored my fears and grabbed Julie, a few of my books, my English professor’s tweed coat, and headed for the reunion, there to erase as much of my high-school’s class system and social shame as possible.  I’m not as poor as I was in high school. I have a car, rudimentary social skills, and I weigh the same as I did in 1971.   My hair is gray but it still covers my head.  Julie is an attractive woman who could have found someone else to marry, but our dates turned out well enough that she married me. I’ve memorized some jokes.  And some of the people I thought were gods and goddesses back then have turned out to be ordinary mortals, subject to the same human foibles and infirmities as I have been.

But as I’ve gotten older, I keep coming down on the avoidance side of approach-avoidance conflicts. It’s easier to stay home, with familiar books and websites and projects, than it is to go into an arena where you have to deal with other people and their triumphs and tragedies. It’s easier to think things through than act them out.

It’s occurred to me that writing is the ultimate solitary sport, the ultimate form of thinking things through, and the ultimate form of avoidance, and that even though my life has gone better than it appeared to be going when I was in high school, it hasn’t changed all that much. I’m still standing on the outside of things, half-wishing to get involved but aware that it’s likely to be more trouble than joy.  It’s easier to write about people than talk to them, easier to imagine doing something than to do it, easier to write dialog than engage in it, easier to go on an assignment from an editor than on intuition or impulse.

These thoughts and inactions describe a pitfall of writing, not a benefit.  If you use your writing to cut off the outside world, you end up in solipsism, your interior life moving in smaller and smaller circles, your writing finally focusing on what Hannah Arendt called “the gruesome silence of a completely imaginary world.” 

So it’s going to be important for me to go to next reunion that comes along.  There will be some people I want to see, and some memories I’d like to compare notes on. Odd as it may seem, there are probably people who want to see me as well.  It’s useful to plow the compacted earth of memory, even if it does bring up moments you’d rather forget, and it’s comforting to have company when you do. 

If I’m still kicking, I won’t let the mori—or even inertiaget in the way of the memento, when my 50th reunion comes around.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Rita Vail August 16, 2011 at 9:33 am

This is hilarious. So true. Next time remember Rita’s Rule: The thing that requires the most effort is probably the best thing to do.

Janet Caplan August 16, 2011 at 2:35 pm

Good of you to voice many of my own thoughts- discussions with myself. I enjoyed this.

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