Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Boundaries (3 of 5)

"You can pick your friends, and you can pick your nose, but you can’t pick your friends nose.”

For me, that goes down as one of the all time great truths. Seriously. What it says is, no matter how close you are to someone, there are still boundaries. There will always be things that keep you at arms length.

Those boundaries get more pronounced over time. Absence can make the distance greater.I’ve gotten used to that distance, and saying goodbye. I left friends in high school. I left friends in college. I left friends at Marvel, and at every job I've had since. And in so doing, I've compartmentalized a part of myself, putting it into a little box, enabling me, requiring me, to go out and reinvent myself once again. Do that many times, and you start to mix up the boxes, confusing them, not knowing precisely which part goes where, or is from when. You get lost. It’s good to look through those boxes from time to time, and put them in a context. That's another aspect that my high school reunion was good for. Through reconnection, and a reshuffling of the boxes, I got to see what parts of myself I value, and thereby what connections still remain with those parts. I got to see how strong the boundaries had become, and how difficult the connecting would be.

What I found was the joy of knowing that, between some, those boundaries dissolve at first sight. Sometimes, years fall away, and an embrace is as instantaneous as it is natural. That is true, and it is amazing, but it is not true not for many. It's a bond between a select few. You can feel it in the welcome, the level of natural warmth in the greeting, the recognition in the eye that remains unwavering and comforting and welcome.

There’s a way I like to think of it: in some peoples near-death experiences, they report walking into a light, and being greeted by dead friends, welcoming them. If life is like that in parallel, then your best friends are those you’d want behind you, alive, calling you back to them. Aside from family members, they are the people you’d most want to see and talk to, one last time.

And that was another reason that I wanted to go to my high school reunion. To see who among this mental group I would see again, and with whom that connection would still be alive. It’s pretty amazing when that bond can survive, and even a hint of it can exist.

You can’t pick your family, and hell no, you can’t even pick our high school. And when they tell you you can pick your friends, really what they mean is “from the available resources.” You make friends with those who you hang around with the most, right? It’s chance, and convenience, and the same kind of dumb happenstance like that which first brought together the raw amino acids that sparked life of a dead rock in space. Right?

Personally, I don’t believe that.

Take the idea of a soul mate. Some ridicule the idea that there’s one special person whose soul connects with yours in a way that can’t be explained; a person without whom you feel empty, and lost. Some say, even if such a thing is true, the chances are astronomical that you could find that living in your same generation, and living near enough to you and in enough time for you to meet them, and know them and connect.

But I believe in that ideal. I believe you can find that person, because there is a guiding hand involved. Whether you want to call it Fate or Destiny or God or simple hormonal chemical connection, or even invisible strings running through every living thing in the world, connecting ne to another. Whatever you choose to call it, I believe it, because it does happen. There is a reason, and an order to it.

And it works the same with friends. I believe you are led into concentric orbit with friends you are meant to know, who are meant to teach you something and share something with you. I believe you connect with people—specific people—over the course of your life because you are meant to. And connections are made that are unseen, and often unspoken, but nonetheless real. Connections that overshadow boundaries. You may subsequently be pulled in another direction, but the connection that is there means—requires—that you will reconnect one day, with those with whom you’re meant to. And when that happens, those boundaries of time dissolve, on contact, and you are drawn back into that connection, past the ideas and ideals of beauty and popularity, race and gender, to a real core of people drawn to each other because of who you, and they, really are.

Those are the people you pick.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Shuffle (2 of 5)

One of the things that bothers me about reunions is a little dance that I call “the Watchadoin’ Shuffle.” Everyone wants to know what you’ve been doing with yourself since the last time they saw you. That’s entirely reasonable. But the problem is, and always has been, how to respond. Which little dance to perform?

I mean, there’s the guy who has little success, and wants to play it up as larger than it is. Conversely, there’s the guy who’s had great success, and is out to impress, flaunting his success, rubbing their noses in it. Then there’s the guy who’s really successful, but who downplays it with false modesty. And of course there’s the guy at the end of the bar that keeps drinking, watching everyone else out of the corner of his eye, and studiously avoiding the dance, altogether. I honestly didn’t know which version of the dance, of that shuffle, I wanted to perform.

To understand my feelings approaching this, I should reveal that, from a young age, I had a sense that, being the youngest; I was my Mom’s “favorite.” I was a late life baby, in a lot of ways an only child, and her last chance at a baby. All my other siblings had to share my Mom with each other. I got her all to myself. And I came to value how important a thing that was, as I got old enough to appreciate it. That led to a constant downplaying of that important relationship with my siblings, throughout my adult life. Confident that I was in a good position, I had no need to flaunt it. But in more recent years, as my mother’s health has faded, and I’ve been farther away from her, what was a conscious downplaying of our relationship has become reality. Now I’m keenly aware of not being the favored son, a false modesty replaced by real displacement. Something was lost, through my lack of emphasis. It’s kind of jarring, making one appreciate what a stupid conceit false modesty is.

I noticed the same thing happened with my job, and my performance of the Shuffle, in describing it to others. At my first High School reunion, I had my dream job. I was working at Marvel Comics, something I’d wanted and worked toward as a dream since I could dream. I was golden at that reunion. So, naturally, I played my shuffle down. Yeah, I worked at Marvel. No big deal. No thing. While secretly, inside, I was a peacock strutting proudly, handing out those little Spider-Man business cards.

At the next milestone reunion, ten years ago, I’d been downsized from Marvel, and was working at a publisher in Western Mass that no one at the reunion had heard of. I liked the job okay, and I had as much responsibility. But what was really working in my life was that I was making as much money as I had been at Marvel, but in an area where I could buy a house and raise a family. it wasn’t New York, and I missed that, but I also appreciated it as a gift. I was living a rural lifestyle that I found idyllic. I took a lot of comfort in the simple joy of this, laying the false modesty on once again. Only by the end of the evening of that reunion, again, false modesty was replaced by real displacement. No longer did I have to downplay my success, because that success downplayed itself. The life I'd gained was too personal for comparison, and the loss of "status" was all that I felt was perceived. I didn’t have a great time.

So, at this reunion last week, time came for the shuffle, again. Now I’m actually employed at a company that my former classmates will have heard of, and more important, it’s a job that I love. It’s not my dream job, but it has a high potential of becoming such. Certainly it’s a greater challenge than I’ve had in over a decade, and a place where my contribution and my effort, is valued. And without money coming into it, which it shouldn't in the context of a tactful shuffle, it’s still more than I made at Marvel. I’m happy.

So what kind of dance would I do?

What I did was to downplay this success in the fact that, having this job means I’m away from my family for four days a week. Now I live nearer Boston from Monday through Friday afternoon, and spend four hours a week (2 hours each way) commuting to the area away from my home, where I love to live, and would like to die. The good balances the bad, but the bad is certainly there. I went with sincerity. I laid it on the table that it wasn’t ideal, but I loved what I was doing.

I started going into some detail, but after the second go through, I realized I was talking to myself, not anyone else. I wasn’t being falsely modest, I was being straight-forward, but forgot one important element in the dance—my partner. Being objective, nobody cared. At this stage of life and living, you are where you are, and you’re doing what you’re doing, and the question is asked as a point of reference more than to gain real knowledge. There were no subliminal comparisons going on. There were just people who used to know me, whom I used to know, who were just wondering how I was doing. And the answer “Fine,” was just …fine.

I suspect, as most things in life, the more you get good at something, the more natural and effortless it becomes. And consequently, the less important it becomes in occupying your mind, it’s not something you have to do, just something that you are. And the shuffle becomes as simple and natural as a walk in the park, with nothing to prove, and nowhere specifically to go. The shuffle becomes a stroll. And you finally get to see the scenery, instead of paying so much attention to your own two feet.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Five Things about my High School Reunion (1 of 5)

The weekend after Thanksgiving I had my high school reunion. I’m not going to tell you what number, for fear that it’d date me more than the grey in my beard. Let’s just say it’s the kind of anniversary where, if it were a marriage, some serious money ought to be spent.

Before I went, I had some trepidation. At first, I was, “of course I’m going. Absolutely.” But that unhesitant answer was re-examined as the event got closer. Why was I going? Was there anything to be accomplished? Is a high school reunion like a distant cousin’s wedding, something you go to because you’re invited and because there'll be drinks?

Of course, it’s not. We go, or as often we don’t go, because there's an emotional investment involved. Not going is as conscious a decision, often made out of anger, or fear, or anxiety or self doubt. I know many people who, once past high school, couldn’t be paid to go to a reunion and see “those people” again. Many probably abstained from attending this one. But with either choice having internal repercussions, I’d always choose (I hope I’d always choose) the one that offers an opportunity for growth. As nervous as I got as the day approached, and as many unanswerable questions as arose, I still knew without question, that I would attend.

See, my high school experience was unique from others in a lot of ways. Some I’ll go into in the future. But the tenth-story overview is that I had a good time in high school. I had an awareness that it was a golden time in my life, a period to be savored for its brevity. From a young age, I’ve been cursed with an anti-zen knowledge beforehand of the greatest moments of my life, of being able appreciate them really and fully only just before they came, and then again just after they’d gone, but barely able to experience the moments at all as they passed. High school was like that for me. But like that experience, I looked forward to the reunion as an opportunity to be savored, but one I knew I would not be able to experience as it passed, but only afterward.

But then, that’s one of the pleasures of blogging, isn’t it? For me, anyway. Over the next week or so I’m going to post some observations from that reunion. Five seems the magic number.

The first thing I’ll note about my reunion is vanity. Specifically, mine. Vanity is like a nail. It’s imbedded early on, and driven in daily by your own perception of how others see you, hammered into your self worth as you perceive yourself through others. I once heard an expression; “I am not who I think I am. I am not who you think I am. I am who I think you think I am.” That idea was formed, if not written, by someone in high school.

I was rather surprised by how many people told me I looked the same as I did in high school. I couldn’t agree less. Even when I pulled out an old yearbook that someone had brought, and saw a picture of me trying to look my coolest, and said, “See? That is not me, now.” I couldn’t get agreement. Maybe it should fall into the “take the compliment and shut up” category, but it bugs me, still. I barely recognize the guy in the photo as me. Part of me would like to be him. He looks pretty cool. But he’s not me. He’s just a fucking kid. A primping, prissy, kid. But he does look good.

I think everybody looks good at their reunion. Okay, as good as they can look in the one-month between getting notice that the reunion is coming and actually attending, anyway. The best looking guys at the reunion were the guys who looked like themselves, only older, more mature. One old friend looked great, but was taken aback when I said he looked the same, only older, like his own father. I really meant it as a compliment. But in retrospect, I can see how it would be hard to take it as offered. My point is, I don’t think I look exactly the same. And maybe that’s not so bad.

I made none of the vain primping efforts I might usually perform before big events. I didn’t get a haircut, to be as perfectly coifed as possible. I didn’t even shower and shave, just before. I had another party to go to, a friends Thanksgiving-for-friends, and after a busy day at Big T’s swim meet, I had no time. Time is at a premium these days. But I had no concerns about not being dolled enough for the reunion. I went prepared to be me, for good or ill.

That said, I should note I’m aware that I’m a reasonably okay-looking guy, I think. I mean, I like me. And I’m getting okay with how I look, now. But frankly, I think I looked better as a young guy. I had a lot more confidence in my looks, then. I guess that’s in tandem with pursuit of the opposite sex. You want to look attractive to get women, or, at that age, girls. But as I grow older, that becomes less important. As an adult, it’s most important to remain attractive to a specific person, not all people in general. With that comes a degree of laziness, sure, but also comfort. I find that comfort..well, sexy in other people. I like those with a casual elegance, who look good in any light even when—especially when—they’re not trying. My love looks most fantastic when she first wakes up in the morning, refreshed and glowing, and would fight you tooth and nail to disagree if you told her so. If you were lucky enough to see her then.

But I digress. I was told I looked good, that I looked young, and that I hadn’t changed. Is that a good thing? I think I’d more prefer the compliment that I gave, better—to look good, but older, like my own father. A look that says experience, and confidence, and a bit of self-knowledge that even the most self-actualized teen can’t claim. Part of me believes that the sexiest, coolest, handsomest thing there is, is to be able to feel good about yourself, even if you don’t believe you’re perceived as sexy, cool, and handsome. That's a nail you can hang something good on.

This was made real in a conversation with one of the most beautiful girls in our class. With flame red hair, skin like alabaster, and eyes as blue as the bluest azure, she was so striking-looking that she always had people around her in school. She traveled with an entourage. One of those in the entourage, unfortunately, was her twin brother, who perhaps kept the guys at arms length. At the party, she talked about how she didn’t have any dates throughout high school, and how she felt ugly. I found that the saddest thing to hear, and was more surprised to hear her rebuking me for disagreeing. She is still a striking beauty, and her high school picture still shows how striking she was, even then. But she herself cannot see it, blinded by a nail that penetrated her soul and makes her feel rusted, blinded to her own physical beauty. She’s coming into her own, now, developing confidence in who she is, as much as I could tell in a five minute conversation. Yet it will always strike me that the vanity we have, or don’t have, in high school can scar us ever after. That nail can strike so deeply that the most we can hope for is to heal over it, and thereby disguise it.

But the one thing we guarantee in that healing, is that the nail itself will never be removed.