I recently attended my thirtieth high-school reunion. It was an odd dose of reality. I don’t feel that old and I certainly don’t act like it. Perhaps I should, but I don’t.
The thirtieth reunion is supposed to be the big one. at least I’ve gotten it into my head that it is. I suppose that’s because my father went to his thirtieth back in 1979. He wouldn’t have gone unless he thought there were some importance attached to it.
Dad had few kind words for his high-school days, and why should he? He grew up in the Imperial Valley, downwind of the Salton Sea where temperatures routinely top 110 degrees and surrounded by people without the good sense to move somewhere else. Perhaps he considered the experience as a rite of passage and a time to reflect. At the very least, he was amused to see the senior voted “Most Likely to Succeed” pumping gas at a local filling station.
Self-assessment is a cinch when someone else takes the brunt of life’s little ironies.
I, on the other hand, did not spend my high-school years in such a hell on earth. I spent them in Santa Barbara, which can only be considered hell in a “Hotel California” sort of way. With beautiful beaches, a near-perfect climate, and a multitude of idle rich living in the hills surrounding the town, it was almost a forgone conclusion that Santa Barbara would have a soap opera named after it.
So in some small way, those of us who grew up there learned to think of ourselves as better than everyone else. Don’t blame us though. It isn’t our fault. It’s yours. If more of you were better at hiding your envy when I mentioned my hometown, I might have learned to temper my arrogance. It’s not like where you grew up is that awful. Where was that again? Oxnard? I suppose that isn’t such a bad place, not that anyone would ever name a soap opera after it or anything. Let’s be serious.
Most of my friends haven’t attended any of their reunions and never plan to. I can understand their reasoning. They have no desire to relive a period of their live when jocks, cheerleaders, and other subhumans ruled their world. However, it could have been a lot worse. If you clump a bunch of people together who are full of herd instinct and insecurity, then add hormones to the mix, some cliquishness and dysfunction are par for the course. We should consider ourselves lucky our situations didn’t deteriorate into Lord of the Flies with erections.
Also, no one takes the old social strata seriously anymore, not even the once popular kids. The real world, even what passes for it in Santa Barbara, has thrown icewater of our preconceptions of society and for the most part, people have adjusted accordingly. I have actually experienced nominees for homecoming queen treat me as an equal, and if I was feeling charitable, I have returned the courtesy.
I’ve attended all my reunions that end with a zero. The tenth came when I was still young enough to want to impress my old classmates. I was more or less a non-entity in high school. I was in a bunch of school plays where I was cast in small supporting roles and wrote fluff pieces for the school newspaper during my senior year.
So in 1990, I showed up in a nice suit and spoke about my fledgling career as a computer programmer with sky’s-the-limit enthusiasm. I made it a point to only get moderately drunk. Sure there were people who were more successful than me but that didn’t matter. I was had turned out OK. I was somebody, sort of.
I reappeared after another decade had passed. During that period, I had done a fair amount of traveling and showed up with my then wife I had met in Amsterdam in 1993. I was also on the verge of becoming filthy rich, at least I thought so at the time. I was working for a dot com and although the boom was beginning to falter, I shrugged it off as a minor hiccup in an era of unparalleled prosperity.
I felt I didn’t need to impress anybody and it showed. Those who remembered me as a nice enough if somewhat nerdy kid were now faced with a fat drunken slob who hadn’t had a haircut in over a year and said “fuck” far more often than was absolutely necessary. Looking back, it’s amazing what lengths I was willing to go to show that I had nothing to prove.
In the next couple of years, I lost my wife, my job, and what little direction I had in life. I still had a penchant for debauchery and threw myself into it with a single-mindedness I have never exhibited for any pursuit before or since. After years of this nonsense, I settled into my current existence as a functional boozehound. I wouldn’t consider myself a success story but I manage to hold a job and my episodes of being a public embarrassment are kept to a minimum.
So it was with this modest sense of accomplishment that i showed up for my thirtieth reunion. My girlfriend Paula came with me, which was a definite plus. I saw my classmates as I’m sure they saw me, youth and potential bitch slapped by Father Time, and I needed a co-conspirator in my corner with whom I could talk smack. Also, Paula has genuine social skills. She is good at carrying on a conversation on some pleasant but mundane topic at length, a talent that has eluded me. When cornered by good and decent people, my fight-or-flight instinct kicks in and I’ll try to back them off by telling them how I found Jesus after dropping eight hits of acid and microwaving my cat.
With Paula pinch-hitting for me, I was allowed to sit back and take in my surroundings. Or better still, get up and move among these people with whom I had little in common except for some distant memories and a grim slide into middle age. We wore nametags with our senior pictures on them to help people recognize us. Even with that hint hanging from my lapel, I had to remove my glasses while the person squinted at me, scratched his or her head, and ultimately took my word for it.
Music I never liked played on a sound system at adult-friendly volume while a slideshow of images of “Mork and Mindy” and other cultural icons of our youth were projected on a screen above the dance floor. People ate, drank, danced, and chatted with each other. Most seemed to be having a good time. We may not have happy to have gotten older but we were plenty happy to still be alive.
I headed off to the bathroom and snapped a photo of myself in the mirror. The paunchy nearsighted me standing in front of the toilet stall didn’t look much like the fresh-faced kid on my lapel. I was OK with that. I didn’t think I would be but I was.
I left the bathroom to go find Paula and let the evening wind down.