June 29, 2008

The Best Years of Their Lives


Not long ago, I opened up a ratty-looking, hand-addressed envelope with a return address I didn’t recognize. It was from Green Bay, but I couldn’t read the name. Apart from my folks or my sister, I couldn’t recall ever getting a letter from Green Bay before.

            Inside was a badly Xeroxed piece of paper. At first I thought it was another chain letter (hadn’t seen one of those in awhile), or maybe another screed from a paranoid schizophrenic who’d just discovered numerology. Upon closer inspection, however, I realized that it was in fact an invitation, informing me that my twenty-fifth high school class reunion was fast approaching. Not surprisingly, it looked like it was going to be a pretty low-rent affair at a third-rate supper club. But still—it would be a chance to relive all those glorious, fun-filled days at Green Bay East, and catch up with all those old friends I hadn’t seen since graduation. Why, if we were lucky, the East Beast—our school mascot—might even make a surprise appearance!

            Yes, well. I didn’t bother to respond. The invite was in the trash with the coffee grounds and empty cigarette packs before I even finished reading it.

            The same thing happened after I received invitations to my twentieth class reunion, and tenth, and fifth. I found nothing attractive in the prospect of spending an uncomfortable evening making drunken small talk with all the VandenBoobens and Dekonops and Haakenssons and Czieszlwiczs again. I had enough of them when I was in my teens. The only people from those days I would’ve been interested in seeing these days are either dead, or in prison, or, like me, would have absolutely no interest in reliving any of those days with a bunch of old fat people we didn’t like when we were seventeen.

            Over the years I have on occasion heard from someone from my high school, but in the end it always leaves me saddened and empty. Even people I got along with in high school have become such normalized good citizens with jobs and families and houses. It didn’t take long at all, whether on the phone or via email, to realize that we had absolutely nothing to say to each other. I don’t like kids, I don’t like sports, and I don’t understand business. Might as well stop a stranger on the corner and try talking to him about some long forgotten shared experience.

            It’s not that I feel I’m better than these people in any way (well, maybe a few of them)—it’s just that I have no interest in remembering those days, let alone clinging to them. They were awful, awful years. I was miserable and awkward and confused in high school, and my classmates didn’t exactly help matters. I’m actually surprised we don’t hear about more Class Reunion Massacres (though there were a few slasher films along those lines that I always kind of enjoyed).

            I think I still have my old yearbook around here someplace for some godforsaken reason. A document of the damned is what it is. My picture’s in there as part of the math club and science club. Both clubs only met once, and nothing happened at either meeting, except that I left feeling insulted and depressed. Lord knows back then I never had any Idea I’d turn out the way I did—but you know, that’s kind of a relief.

            That’s the funny thing. In so many of those encounters I’ve had with former classmates, while I usually end up feeling drained and bored after listening to them prattle on about their kids and office jobs and yearly vacations to Florida, they in turn usually seem pretty horrified to learn what I’ve been doing with myself. Most, in fact, never bother to call or write again. Hell with ‘em—I got few regrets. I may be a fuck up, but at least I . . . well.

            It’s no secret that I spend a lot of time scanning the obituaries. Mostly I’m just looking for names to add to my annual dead celebrity list. But after reading obituaries on a daily basis for so long, I’ve noticed something.

            About half the obits I read are like this: The corpse in question is someone, say, who died at the age of eighty-five.

            But ninety percent of the obituary will be devoted to a detailed recounting of some long-forgotten high school football game the deceased won in 1942. That always saddens me. It was obviously the only achievement in this person’s life worth mentioning. Their jobs and families are mentioned only in passing, but boy, that sure was some football game wasn’t it? Nothing else they’d done had ever topped that fucking game. Sixty years after the fact, they probably still had the trophy on display.

            Ask yourself this question—when you die, will you want your greatest achievement—the reason you will be remembered by others after you’re gone—to be something you did when you were in high school? The thought makes me shudder. Yet that seems to be the case with over half the obituaries I read. What horrible, pointless, wasted lives these people must have led.

            That’s exactly what I can’t help thinking when I see announcements about another class reunion. I’m not, as the dusty sitcom chestnut would have it, concerned about being fatter than I used to be, or embarrassed that I’m not making as much money as the rest of my former classmates. I’m pretty sure most of them are probably fatter than me, and I’m sure most of them make much more money than I do. I don’t care about that. No, instead I think: “my god, I would be stuck in a room full of people whose obituaries will focus on something that happened in 1982.” Why else would they go to a class reunion if they didn’t think those were the best years of their lives?

            Even sadder still, thinking about those few former classmates I would be interested in seeing—the dead ones and convicted felons—it occurs to me that they might well feel that their high school days were the best days ever, too, albeit for other, more obvious reasons.

            In the end, it’s all a mighty grim lesson about the lives most people lead.


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