I skipped my 20th high school reunion that happened last weekend. I had somewhat mixed feelings about it, but not 50/50 mixed, more like 5/95. Some small part of me was almost morbidly curious about it, but the rest of me has already been in Portland recently, and it’s hard to get away from work for stuff I genuinely want to do, much less a markedly ambivalent happening like this. I don’t remember the names of people I met last Sunday at our friend’s barbecue, so 20 years seems like a stretch. And the pragmatic part of me figures that if I haven’t been in at least occasional touch with someone during some tiny portion of the last 20 years, maybe there’s not much to talk about anyway.
If I were single, I probably would have hit it. I’m not. I’m not ashamed of my life, nor am I so unabashedly proud of it that I’d share it with people who are have morphed over 2 decades from relative strangers to complete unknowns.
If I’d been in Portland, I probably would have hit it. I am not. I floated around and went to college and worked for a couple years after high school, and I split and haven’t been back much. As much as I feel like an “Oregonian” and love “Oregonian things,” I was pretty happy to get out of there. It’s a big, beautiful world, and there are so many interesting places (and ways) to live that I needed to get out. I was on a track to being a local music guy, getting good gigs at the good places, and talking to the older guys who were always that awkward combination of thankful-for-living-off-music and regretful-at-not-doing-it-elsewhere. I left a semi-sure thing for the unknown, and as a result I set my music interests back by 10 years. (And each move to a new region is more or less a music career reset button.) It’s judgemental to feel sorry for people who will never live more than 4 miles from where they grew up, and I don’t exactly feel that way anyway. But for myself, I would only be able to enjoy a safe and sane life in Portland, my home town, if I’d felt like I’d been out in the world for a while and tried some other stuff out. And that’s what I’ve been doing, and I love it. And the more I do it, the longer my eventual return to Portland gets delayed because there is so much to do and so much to see and so much to try out there.
I found some pictures after the fact posted on Facebook, and what I didn’t anticipate was how DIFFERENT everyone would look. Duh, of course, but until you see photographic evidence of it, it’s pretty crazy. In the back of my mind, I guess I filled in the blanks with some senior year dance B-roll, and I completely left out the fact that every single person I was around is totally different now. Sure, I mean jobs and education and travel and family and surgery and loss and victory and all that, but the most jarring thing is pure human physicality. I mean, I know – academically – that I look different, but since I see myself every day and the changes are subtle during short samples, it’s harder to notice the damage. But some part of me believes that I haven’t changed that much; I still get carded buying beer, for God’s sake. I haven’t shaved my eyebrows or lost or gained a hundred pounds or gone totally gray or totally leathered up in my skin or changed my hair color or shaved down to the skull or bulked up or gotten noticeably tattooed or otherwise modified. So having to consider my own changes through my reaction to the changes of others has been a little taste of mortality, a reality check that time is indeed passing, people are living lives and doing whatever they do wherever they do it. I’m rapidly approaching a time where I’ll have lived away from Oregon longer than I lived in it, a time where I’ve been with my wife longer than I lived with my parents, a time where I’ve had a kid longer than I was in high school. Pretty odd, not a terrible thing to realize or anything, but we’re all getting older.
I keep learning this truth over and over, so there’s a lesson in there for me somewhere. The Portland I would consider moving back to hasn’t existed for 15 years. The New York I left isn’t there any more. The Santa Fe that we lovingly migrated to a mere 3 or so years ago is even different than it was, and any nostalgia is based on something that was only there for one moment in time. The friends I miss from Back In The Day are still back there; the people they’ve become are here and now, and they’re largely undiscovered. It’s probably sad if you think of it a certain way, but it’s pretty exciting to me. It’s easy to get jaded and take on that wearisome “been there – done that” attitude after you’ve lived in several time zones, but living in calm Santa Fe has helped me to learn – AGAIN – that nothing is static. It’s never the same river twice, as the saying goes. It’s almost harder to see in New York, the pace is manic and constant, so change becomes so predictable that it feels static. Out here, spaces are wider, air is thinner, and quiet is plentiful, so it’s easier to remember and witness that the sunset is different every day, and as nice as memories are, nothing is ever as vivid or amazing as right-here, right-now.
Through internet phenomena of “social networking,” I’ve actually reestablished contact with a couple of people from my high school past. And despite Cynical-Me’s prejudgement that I would have already been in touch with any people I was meant to have been in touch with, I’ve come across a couple people who I’m genuinely happy to hear from. All of them, actually. While I publicly espouse a detached approach to relationships and life and whatever, I seem to lose sight of a related idea or ideal that I also learn again and again; it’s hard to put into accurate words, but it’s the idea that sometimes you don’t measure a friendship by the frequency of physical visits, sometimes you measure it by how well you connect after you have not “hung out” for quite a while. You know what I mean – there are people, nice people, likable people, who you sort of forget how to hang out with if you don’t see them for 3 weeks, and there are other people, also nice and likable and all that, who you’d have a 3 hour talk with if you ran into them after 10 years. (Or 20. Maybe.) So “out of sight, out of mind” is only a small part of the picture. And for those other relationships, where you never were and never are going to be the chummiest of chums, that’s actually pretty OK. I’m a person who tends to have a small, close group of friends rather than a loose, gigantic circle, but exposure to and interaction with good people isn’t the worst thing someone can go through.
At the end of the day, there are a couple of kinds of people. (People who lump everyone into 2 or 3 small groups, and people who know better?) In this case, what I mean is that there are people who drop everything and don’t hesitate to attend their 20th high school reunions. To someone like me, they seem hopelessly nostalgic, possibly even naive or trapped in the past. This could be true, potentially, but upon honest examination of the idea, it’s a pretty gross oversimplification. Some people like other people and relish opportunities to be around them. I sort of get that. Academically, at least. Anyway, back to “kinds of people.” There are those people who are on the fence and make the call at the last minute, and to someone like me, I figure if you don’t want to go, don’t, if you do, do, but the middle of the road seems like the worst place to be. Again, careful examination of this idea reveals it to be thin and largely untrue. As I mentioned, if I was in Portland, I might have gone, and I probably would have remained comfortably on the fence until the last minute. Pragmatically, birthday parties and sales at IKEA and summer colds pop up, and it would actually be great to have the situational flexibility to commit without committing. Socially, you’d have the time to gauge your expectations and up until the last minute, you’re free to choose if your attendance feels like a good thing, or it would be better to just Make It A Blockbuster Night. And then there are people like me who never considered going. Until it was over. Living life making decisions made with no intention of looking back, coldly judging those who don’t appear to live that way, and then occasionally looking back anyway. (You know, just to see how effective those choices really have been.) And secretly clinging to the idea that the most interesting people are the ones who might have not gone. True, or not. I’ve had a pretty interesting 20 years, but the fact that someone else is outgoing enough to actively seek out a reunion like this doesn’t make them automatically less interesting.
And at least some portion of the never-were-going crowd secretly wants to find out that they were missed by at least someone. Asked about. Wondered about. It doesn’t really happen that way, any more than quitting a hellish job teaches your former employer a lesson. But – and this is probably weird – some small portion of us want to express our outgoing side by being introverted; in some obtuse way, we want to attract attention by not being there to attract it. In a potential group of several hundred people, it’s a pretty narcissistic notion that YOU’LL be missed, and to assume this to be the case for a 20 year reunion where everyone is bearded and bald and differently-weighted and aged and whatever is pure madness. You’d be fortunate if someone recognized you in person, much less noticed your absence. It doesn’t appear to work any better than showing a girl you’re interested in her by ignoring her used to. Back In The Day. So I guess some things don’t actually change. Maybe that’s reassuring.
Everyone’s looking for something different, and it’s always interesting to examine (and blindly guess) what it is that drives others. As it is right here right now, I have no regret for not going, and the fact that I’m in touch with a couple really good people again makes me feel even better about it, and finding out that at least some of the few people I know I would have specifically sought out didn’t even make it themselves seals it.
A friend of mine who quotes self-help books all the time once paraphrased a story for me that ended with the quote, “My parents don’t have any influence at all over me; after all, I fight every single thing they tell me to do!” So I say, high school had – and has – no influence at all over me at all. After all, I still fight everything that it tries to bring into my life.