October 20, 2008

a la recherche du temps perdu

In lieu of Proust's madeleine, what would probably trigger my generation's collective consciousness would be a bong hit, a line snorted, or some recreational pharmaceuticals consumed. At that point, we would all realize who we were, if we couldn't see who we've become.

It has been reunion season chez Alice, and in the past month, she has attended two 30th high school reunions. One was at the prep school from which she actually graduated; the other, from the public school system Alice fled in 1975, but where Alice spent most of her childhood. In other words, Alice went back to see her kindergarten, elementary school, and junior high school class. These were the people who knew Alice before we had permanent teeth, much less tits.

Herewith the report on public school reunion, an opportunity sought out through the Web, not from any list of invitees for whom the organizers had addresses.

You might call this, About Last Night. I got on the train to the once-upon-a-small-town White Plains. The cab driver who took me to the hotel was Haitian, and together we mourned what has become of his country, the one he has fled and to which I can never return. I also didn't recognize the town through which he drove me. It is calling itself a city, which I find to be at misnomer at best.

Driving through urban renewal land with a Haitian driver lent is an odd perspective from which to begin the evening -- to remember who I was for many years as a facet that none of my public school friends would have recognized.

It was weird to me that no one said, you look great or you look pretty -- which is S.O.P. for all the prep school and college reunions I've attended. Plus, there was a cash bar. Usually I don't drink, but I was also really surprised that no one offered to buy me anything, although my one friend from my street, did toss $40 my way when I said I needed cash. I was grateful, but once again, it appeared I'd landed firmly in DIY land, a surprising place considering how many married and traditional women were present.

Since I have put reunions together, I was really surprised that there were no hors d'oeuvres; dinner was buffet-style, and for drinks, it was strictly a cash-only enterprise from a less than complete bar. All this, for $100 a head.

Alice has planned reunions before, and at that price, even accounting for the venue rental, Alice knows you can get a lot more for your money -- and if your ticket prices breaks $100, an extra $20 for adult comforts isn't going to make or break the attendance records.

Then, too, the organizers knew I was coming, and that I hadn't graduated from the school, but the only name tags created were copies of people's senior year yearbook photos along with their names. My name tag was hand-printed, which didn't exactly feel welcoming. Granted I may be more than a little sensitive about some of this, but this was my take on the evening. Truly the best time I had was late in the evening, when the DJ was playing music I loved to dance too, and I just hurled myself on the dance floor, partner be damned. There, at least, I felt like myself.

One of the women at the reunion, Trisha C, whom I remember vaguely, recognized me as "you were the smart one." I must have recoiled slightly, because she added, "I meant that as a compliment."

Maybe now, but back in 7th grade or 8th grade, I remember becoming acutely aware that my spoken grammar was impeccable and that in junior high school, that was simply another mark of how different I was, and I had enough of those marks against me as it was. There I was, the last of the late bloomers, being more intelligent than most of the people in my class, not knowing what that meant, and not having the social skills so many of my classmates seemed to have -- not to mention not having a clue about, say, boys.

I did confess my 6th grade and my 9th grade crushes to the boys who had grown into men. And I grant you I was looking for what can only be called the fuckability factor -- a resounding zero, unless someone expresses subsequent interest in Alice, which she is not anticipating.

No one seemed to see the humor in my observation that I knew these people before I had my period and now I'm going through menopause. Or something else I've commented on before: I went to kindergarten with many of these people, so we all knew each other before we had permanent teeth, much less boobs and hips. (I never could wear those junior-high-school-hip-huggers that went with the huckapoo shirts, since I lacked the body curves. I do remember those shirts, though: 100% genuine polyester, guaranteed to go up in flames if the wind were blowing in the wrong direction when you lit a cigarette.)

I'm glad I went to the reunion, but I can't say I'll be back again. I thought there might be some variety in the stories I would hear, but the $100 ticket price pretty much guaranteed that the stories would be homogeneous, surprisingly so. Everyone, male and female, was married, with 2 or 3 children, most of them living in the 'burbs, or "locally," as one woman I went to elementary school with put it. Professionally there were, I was not surprised to find, a lot of lawyers. Most of the practicing ones were men.

There were a fair number of women who hadn't been in the workforce since shortly after they either conceived or delivered their first child. It felt to me like they had all drunk the same Kool-aid, and turned into their parents without a question. Probably not surprisingly, the women all looked great and the men weren't aging well -- a lot of rotund bellies coupled with major baldness or very short gray hair. I looked at the boys I had had crushes on in elementary school and junior high school and wondered, what was I thinking? (Not that I would have known how to handle a relationship then if someone waved it under my nose.)

Meanwhile, I'm single, never married (in my 20s most of my relationships were with women, so marriage wasn't really part of the picture), and have no progeny. Plus, I live in the big city, know nothing about cars, and was genuinely perplexed when some of the conversations turned to cheerleaders and football -- that seemed like something out of the 1950s. The one thing I do have in common with most of the people with whom I spoke is we all have aging parents. I, however, had to tell so many people my dad had died that I had to retire to the ladies' room for a brief cry. You can only clutch the windshield sticker that summarizes your life in 30 years and 30 words or less for so long before the glass breaks.

A good portion of my elementary school was present, and a fair number from junior high. Since I was only at WPHS for one year, and that was the year that pushed me over the edge to get the hell out of suburbia, I don't remember too many people I met that year.

I don't know why I thought I would feel more connected to the people I had known as a child, but the reunion didn't bring that out for me. What it did bring out was I suppose I've always been a nonconformist, but never felt it so acutely as I did last night. Some people have kids; I travel.

Where there were supposed to be a few years after college that we were equal with our parents, and neither of us had to take care of the other, I missed that experience. I went straight from graduation to feeling like Queen Victoria, not amused that my dad and brother were getting high together. Nancy Reagan might have been shouting just-say-no into a windstorm, for all it affected my family.

My family dynamics are not quite out of a Tennessee Williams play, but on the other hand, June Cleaver or Donna Reed would have been a far cry from any scenario I saw as a child.

I do think it important to revisit my past, if only to satisfy my historical curiosity, my wanting to know for posterity what has transpired.

I've been emailing an old friend I tracked down, who decided to sit out the reunion at home in her sweats eating chocolate. We've gotten below the windshield sticker arena, and, as I wrote to her, "as for your feeling you went through a phase of "mediocre mom and student," I'd say you came out pretty well. I have a friend who, at the the age of 40, had already raised 2 teenagers (with the help of her ex-husband and then current one) and published 5 books of fiction; her take on how she had achieved all that was that she had done it all badly.

"So it's a matter of perspective. No one's perfect, and I would bet that over the long haul, your kids are probably proud of you. From what I saw at the reunion, very few women had switched gears since the first "I do," and it takes guts to go against that tide.

At any rate, I'm very much enjoying our correspondence, and I hope to hear from you soon. I'm glad you come into the city, because after last night, I don't want to get on a commuter train again for many moons. I hope this missive makes sense to you -- I feel like you didn't drink the Kool-aid and hence might have a clue about my life, and perhaps an interest in it, for I would really like to see you, now that we are past the windshield-sticker level."

As for my prep school reunion, the day after, I was completely depressed. Like the public school gathering, this was filled with those who drank the Kool-aid. Once again, I was the only person who had failed to get the marriage-will-make-you-happy memo, and, apart from one friend, I was carried the childless banner solo. She was gracious; when asked whether she had children, she didn't say, "I had cancer, not children." In her shoes I'm not sure I would have been so polite.

Here is what perplexes me: we were raised in the 1970s, with The Rocky Horror Show our backdrop. It was, in essence, the anthem for nonconformity. I took it to heart and I have never felt like a solo operation at a college reunion, but the lack of diversity at either my prep school or public school reunions makes me think, the only reason people attend these gatherings is to show how much they have taken the current social zeitgeist to heart, fallen down a rabbit hole I have scrupulously avoided.

No wonder I have become Alice; I cannot think of anyone else in history, real or imaginary, with whom I share so many traits.

Questions, comments? Post here or go ask alice, at alice dot uptown at gmail dot com.

Incidentally, Alice will swear that the logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead. She echoes the door mouse's plea, "feed your head." And she blesses the Western pharmaceuticals that have made it possible to Alice to remain here, to share a thought or observation or two, no matter how infrequently.

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Blogger The Misanthrope said...

Great post. Your observations are spot on for anyone who avoided the kool aid, or who drank it and found it spiked with propaganda, and ended up with a life-long hangover.

11:33 AM  
Blogger the only daughter said...

My brain may be a bit muddled what with the return from sweet but all too brief travel, cold temps on the homefront and too much paper on my desk, but, I enjoyed this post immensely.

I have not gone to one reunion. (last year was 30th HS). Don't know why I didn't in the beginning, but by last year I knew...I couldn't go back.

5:25 PM  

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