Years of reunion

Another reunion. Another? Like I’ve been to so many. “This is my second,” I said to—I’ll call him Steve for now. His stats were better. He’d been to every one since the first one at year five. They’re supposed to happen at five-year intervals, so what gives, I thought, when I saw the e-mails three months ago, only a year and a half after the last event. This was a multi-plex, multi-year reunion, I soon learned: a gathering of all classes at Acalanes from the eighties. That may have promised a bigger turnout to come, but it didn’t seem to be the case. The numbers seemed roughly comparable to those of the 21’ reunion of my one and only class, I casually observed. Something homeostatic, maybe? More people from across the years means more people you don’t know; more of a crowd to wade through before seeing a familiar face. That would be my truth regardless, so I’d be no more deterred than I ever was. Some may not have preferred this promissory more. Others would be drawn by the structure, perhaps: an admirably designed tripartite of loose gathering in a park, boozy clique-seeking at a bar, and then a presentation, featuring a panel of alumni giving their high school testimonials.

I saw a familiar face at the first get together, and I mean a face as the body had changed significantly. That was to be expected, of course, given the passage of time—thirty six years, I’m now bound to say. Regarding bodies, I’m not one to talk, I think is the expression. Anyway, Steve had a hanging back, been-here/done this look about him, about which I got the story soon enough.

“Which reunion’s been your favorite?” I asked, talking smallishly.

Steve made an impressed noise. A good question, he evinced. After all, he’d been to every one so far. He wasn’t boasting. “Um, the thirtieth, I think,” he said with some conviction. Then he paused, thought again. “No, check that. The twentieth was the best. I met my wife at the twentieth”.

“Ah-hah”, I uttered, also impressed. Then I paused. “I agree that’s a good reunion. Sound criteria for a great reunion, actually”.

Steve nodded, just about registering my drollness.

“Um, that thirtieth one must’ve been something to rival the one where you…ya know”. I didn’t get more on that subject. No intriguing or salacious story was forthcoming there. Perhaps Steve had looked over his shoulder while talking, having caught sight of his more gregarious other half moving towards us. She appeared moments later, showing some manner of need for him, then a perfunctory interest in me. Also a former classmate, she rang a bell for me, though the feeling did not seem mutual. Before I moved on, I scrolled memories of them, wondering if they’d seemed a match as teens. Had they long harbored secret admiration for each other? Or, were they one of those couples who meet later in life, with one or both scoring a more pleasing re-assessment.

That’s one of the reasons for H.S. reunions, I will have thought. I mean, it’s a cliché, isn’t it? You attend in order to show off what you are today, not just to reminisce on what you were decades ago during the awful stage of life called adolescence. And if you attend a reunion when you’re much older, perhaps more attractive, however that is indexed in later years, and you find someone who is available, jaded by the dating battlefield or been there/failed that at marriage, then a second look at once-upon-a-time “crushes” may be called for. Good for them, I thought. Speaking of crushes, there would be more on that later at the panel discussion, which I learned I might have been a part of but for the decisions of the event organizer. At the same gathering, I’d seen Matt floating about in his ubiquitous way and called out to him. We had a few moments recalling the last time we’d spoken, which had been at a nearby hotel about a year ago. Matt, Mayor Matt of Acalanes alumniville, had been impressed by my recall of an old TV appearance of his pertaining to his career as a journalist. He’d enjoyed my write-up of the last reunion of the 86’ class in 21’, and in particular my light-hearted parody of his good image. Now, in our few minutes together, I came to understand that our follow-up talk in a hotel bar was an interview of sorts, about taking part in the future in the kind of public discussion he’d facilitated at the last reunion. It’s not that I failed that interview: it was more of a keep you on file sort of thing because I didn’t quite make the cut. I was a back-up, Matt now said—on deck should any of the panelists of this event drop out.

And I was cheerfully accepting of this having not expected any contact on the matter for at least another three years. Truth be told, I might have been more equivocal about the suggestion in the first place, and that equivocation was further stoked when I attended the panel-discussion portion of the reunion. It would be too facile to say that I didn’t enjoy the two-hour discussion that took place at the Acalanes Performing Arts Center; equally unfair or imprecise to say that I was envious of the speakers, Matt included, or otherwise thought myself inadequate compared to my peers. Well, in some respects, I thought that. The issue is complex and it depends on everything from taste to some manner of ethics to determine what makes for a good high school testimonial. For sure, Matt had done due diligence—his homework, as we’d have said back in the day—and made not only a fair selection, but to an extent a diverse and star-studded one. At least two of the panelists were celebrities, or near-celebrities—both in a writerish, behind the scenes sort of way. Another was a former mayor of our hometown, and a figure who rubbed shoulders with Matt in political circles on the east coast. Matt himself had rubbed shoulders with a stable of household names in his career, from Presidents to California governors. With his ease on the mic and before an audience, he seemed like he could add talk show host to his resume, if he hasn’t already. He put together a nice movie and music collage, and kept his poise when the AV technicians played the wrong video. He prefaced introductions with fond tributes, and made clever asides, like juxtaposing quotes of German philosophers with those of obscure punk bands. He exuded a kind of Charlie Rose-like charm—or, at least the kind of charm that man had before we learned he wasn’t so charming. 

With each panelist, Matt drew upon past conversations and preparatory questions, sounding like a seasoned therapist at times. He teased out disclosures that panelists might not have wanted to share; perhaps broke tacit agreements over don’t go there details. The fourth member of the panel was a self-identified social underdog, a girl from the other side of the tracks who didn’t fit in with popular kids, and didn’t fare much better with teachers and principals. Karen is the owner of the Round-Up Saloon, a rather creaky if stalwart fixture that is sandwiched between a spread of luxury condos on Lafayette’s main strip. In recent years, Lafayette has not so much grown as bulked up, which has no doubt helped the nightlife business in the heart of town. Karen recalls being terrible at math at Acalanes, but that didn’t stop her diving into the pool of small business, and has apparently thrived in it ever since, with an anachronistic, “cash only” policy no less. Still, the reason she was behind the microphone was to share about high school’s more shadowy memories. She was a “stoner”, I guess, a runaway, and during one spell anyway, a victim of a kidnapping gardener employed by the school (incidentally, in writing this, I’m gambling on an impression that Karen has reconciled herself to the semi-public disclosure of her story, and seems at peace with it. Besides, the readership of this untagged blog entry will be quite modest in its numbers, and likely not of interest to non-alumni. That’s my rationale, at least). While some panelist recollections were comic in purpose, like covering the being-high-in class category of anecdote, for example, or the weight-gaining properties of past cafeteria snacks (funny asides, both), the women’s stories were somewhat haunting. Allusions to bullying, sexist teachers embedded within a sexist eighties pop culture, took center stage with the other female panelist complaining that “boobs” had dominated the decade.  

I’m not quite sure what to say about eighties culture. It’s not my favorite decade in that respect. It seems the zeitgeist to celebrate its music and maybe some of its movies, but not so much its values. I didn’t even like the music that much. My sporty friends liked some of the bands mentioned the other night, like Van Halen or Journey. I have memories of working out in the school gym, listening to those bands, AC/DC, or other such acts whose raison d’etre was fuck chicks, drink beer, do cool things with the guys, etc. I patronized the noise but hadn’t yet developed my taste—ever a later bloomer, it seemed. I am reminded that when Steve mentioned that he’d soon be attending a Deff Leppard concert in Sheffield, England, I nearly faux pauxed with “I’m sorry to hear that”. That thought was partly about Sheffield, England, actually. Anyway, like many dweebs or nerds (or whatever the terms were in that Ferris Beuler inventory), I didn’t notice the values that some of those bands implied, and therefore I didn’t object much to the boob-exposing or beer-centric culture they glamorized. I wasn’t that into the genteeler options either, such as Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, English Beat, Spandau Ballet and others of that cool and epicene ilk. For a hot minute I liked Queen, long before they were fashionable to like, and for a while because I couldn’t get that insistent beat from “Another One Bites The Dust” out of my head. Later, I noted amongst my peers the cool indifference towards theirs and Freddie Mercury’s beyond America, worldwide fame, and sort of inferred that pre-Aids homophobia was the reason. The Go-Go’s were another guilty pleasure. I liked their bouncy, fun energy, wanted to get in my pajamas and join the slumber party. But, for reasons to do with sex I suppose, I also felt like an uninvited guest whenever I listened to them, like I was a younger brother who had sneaked into my sister’s room to hang out with her friends. Meanwhile, I loathed Iron Maiden, thought them ridiculous, a Spinal Tap prototype, and I’m pretty sure that saying so was the reason I was not invited back to a regular Dungeons & Dragons game circa 1984. It didn’t matter, I sucked at that game anyway. About Maiden, I understand they are getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Kudos for them, I think now that my musical snobbery has softened, but I’d still love it if a three-foot replica of Stonehenge dropped down behind them during their acceptance speech.

On the values question, I have a few thoughts to offer, some of them not so with it with the times that aren’t a changin’ as much as some think. Firstly, on the not noticing front: I realize that it’s not good enough to say that you don’t or didn’t notice things like sexism, or racism. It’s a poor excuse, like when German citizens post WWII said they didn’t know anything about the camps. Same concept anyway—denial, I mean—so chill if you think the analogy distasteful. But here’s the thing: I wasn’t in those PE classes where some football coach told the girls to bend over, and I wasn’t at the parties where beer-soaked stripteases and date rapes were happening. I know. I’m being defensive, and it’s not all about me, I hear you saying. And the ladies, by which I mean all or many of them, not just the two panelists plus the feminine hmming of last Saturday night, aren’t saying that gentlemen drop the ball by not calling out their creepier brethren on bad behavior. But they are, sort of. It’s like that song from one of those quintessentially eighties films that wasn’t just about lewd behavior and cheap laughs: “I need a hero”, from Footloose, which sits alongside Breakfast Club, or Say Anything, as cinematic odes to sensitive yet heroic eighties guys.  See, some ideas still sell: someone’s got to step up and be that cute but decent, sincere, libidinally-restrained guy that will do the right thing for, as ever, women.

I did not particularly like Rebels with causes films featuring James Dean heir apparents, and I liked even less films that were about drinking, peeping in shower holes, hunting gophers on a golf course, or animal housing. I simply was not a party animal, so had my peers not talked about Porky’s whatever year it came out, I might have thought it a Porky Pig cartoon also. Those things about the eighties, or our high school experience of that era, have indeed not aged well. I don’t suppose they were ever meant to. But before I peel off into another pop culture spiel, here’s another point of view: I think there are elephant-in-room-sized holes in the current dialogues about men, women, and sex. The holes are the result of censorious rules of engagement, translated as cultural sensitivity for those who support that sort of thing. For example, Helens of Troy, as in women who like and therefore enable crude, mesomorphic men, still exist. But they’re a media-protected species (the women, not the mesomorphs): it’s acceptable to lament their victimizations at the hands of shallow or cruel men, but—for male observers, at least—it’s not okay to point out that they chose those men originally and it was never shocking that such men would misbehave. Plus, there are those who will speak of being objectified one minute, and yet squeal at Rob Lowe’s image the next, or even join Will Forte in a conjured (and perhaps lustier) memory of Mathew McConaughey’s bare chest. In high school and beyond, these women turned their attention to guys who were over six feet tall and had broad shoulders, or dreamy eyes and six pack abs. So, you think that a deep gaze into nice eyes is nicer, more humane or romantic than a glassy-eyed scan of a chest? Well, maybe you’re right, but maybe not by much. After all, you’re still privileging the physical, or assigning personal qualities based on that dubious linkage. And really, after all this time, what do you expect us nerds and dweebs whom you looked past once upon a time to say about this? If, one day, college coursework will teach something else about objectification—namely, that’s it’s a concept drawn from pre-twentieth century philosophy and psychoanalytic theory, not post-modernism, and means reducing a person to a thing or an idea, then that which makes us mad may actually broaden. 

Anyway, this is why people don’t invite me to parties. Or, it’s a reason I don’t go. It’s a chicken or egg thing, really. Conscious fear tells me that my voice or my opinions are not worthy of a hearing. Freud’s descendants tell me that I shut myself down lest something dangerous and wrong gets out. If I attend the bashes and do what I want to do—have quiet conversations about these sorts of things at close quarters—I’ll either behave as a pedantic, boorish guest, or else I’ll inhibit myself and become boring precisely because I don’t want to be an obnoxious, boring guest. And was I like this as a sixteen or seventeen year old? (I graduated H.S. before hitting 18) Not really. Back then I was rather wooden and bland; a mediocre if budding intellect. Not a terrible student, but not a great one either. Meanwhile, I was quite unschooled in peer mini-culture. I’m not sure if I belonged to any clique, or category of human, cool or not. I was ordinarily conformist, having no dyes or gel in my hair or piercings anywhere on my body. Fashion bored me, so my clothes were non-descript, lacking anything pastel, studded on leather, or padded on the shoulders. I may have gone to a dance or two, and tried to ape the dance styles the eighties prescribed. So, like everyone else I jerked and twitched with quasi-geometric movements to pert, synthy pop songs, but I was no one’s ideal dance partner. On the whole, I may have felt like an outsider, but I didn’t even know what “smoker’s corner” was, nor did I frequent principals’ offices to face severe chastisements or disciplinary actions. And yet, looking back, it was a chastening time for me at Acalanes. I felt dull, a spiritless non-entity. Despite a modest political bent*, which inspired awkward diatribes about the politics of places like Nicaragua, which I aimed at hapless listeners like Ralph Chase during my senior year, I lacked abiding interests or passions, which is a terrible thing for a youth. Actually, what’s terrible is to be young and not know what you’re good at, what you’re interested in, or what you want to do with the life that’s about to change.

There’s one thing that each of the panelists spoke to that I will heartily agree with: teachers, who will also agree that one should not finish sentences with prepositions, are indeed the unsung heroes of our high school experience. I can think of few things about them that have not aged well. My memories are of kind, patient, good-humored people who cared about kids and likely could not afford to retire in a luxury condo in Lafayette. Seriously people, especially those of you who live and work in D.C., let’s do something about that. For me, a special shout out goes to Mrs. Meek, a lovely, soulful English teacher. And even the curmudgeonly types (messrs Fee and Dietz come to mind) deserve a place in my heart, whether they thought highly of me or not. So, what is left to say about high school that wasn’t said by someone at this event? There’s more to come, Matt promised to an appreciative audience and panel. For now, this reunion had a little of something for everyone who attended any eighties year at Acalanes High in Lafayette: A few stories about alcohol and hallucinogenic drug misadventures; a rumination about ethics in auto-shop; memories of rivalry and back-stabbing in high school journalism; a bad review of the Cow Palace as a concert venue; social commentary about digital media, the black hole of the internet, changing parental styles, and with a nod for those who remember Stan Oberg’s AP class in French, a touch of epater le patriarchie. What did I get from this? Well, if Matt’s remarks about all-nighters at the Round-Up or at someone’s nearby home are anything to go by, then I got another enactment of that not-going-to-parties FOMO thing. Think I need to figure that one out. Other things I have figured out, maybe, which is why I’m okay showing my face at these things now, however much I mingle amongst the crowd. See, I figure that reunions like this are partly about being pulled back into something. You come to have some fun, show off your better-aged self maybe, or share a little wisdom, get a few things off your chest, or effect a little reckoning on some issue or two. We think we have moved on from the past, but if I may play my seasoned therapist card here, I’ll share that we’re never really moving on when we’re looking back. These last two years have been our years of reunion amid an era of revision. Me too. I’ll slip out the back again, got a beer to drink, a wife/chick to go home to and kiss, and a gopher in my yard to hunt.

*Actually, I was quite outdone in this respect by an Israeli foreign exchange student whom I met senior year, whose name I can’t recall– I lost touch with him– and I can’t find him in the yearbook of 86′. Anyway, his knowledge of and seriousness about politics was on another level. While my classmates were enjoying or languishing away the last days of senioritis, we’d hang out and talk in the library at lunch and he’d practically pin me against the book stacks, giving me his doomsday, pro-Israel vision. We were still talking about it on the last day of school. In fact, I think the last serious words that any classmate said to me at Acalanes while I was still at school–and I now think the meaning more contextually layered than what was then intended–was his gravely spoken pronouncement: “Graeme, you know that there can never be any peace!”


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