Thursday, May 21, 2009

Forgetting How to Ride a Bike

I haven’t been to a high-school reunion in a few years, think the 20th was the last. The 25th didn’t happen – apparently not enough interest. The old class seems to function better on the zero years, and 10 years is a nice round number to see people again. But this isn’t about high-school reunions, per se.

I commented a few weeks back about Facebook – the concept of our lives turning into permanent high-school reunions by constantly keeping in contact with people from our past. When I first moved to New York, and even now, it felt important to me to maintain contact with people “back home.” Some people move to cities to leave their pasts behind, but that always struck me as foolish. You can’t escape it. Whatever you were there, you’ll still be that here, no matter how hard you try to bullshit yourself. New York is crawling with douchebags – a lot of them were born and raised here. And you get that certain kind who moved here, who would be chased out of any town where more than a small circle of acquaintances and coworkers knew who they were. They move here to escape, not realizing they can’t escape themselves, that it’s not where they’re from, it’s who they are that’s so troubling.

Going back home these days implies knowing a lot less people: a handful of old friends and immediate family members. This has been the case for a long time now. There was that era in my 20s where there were still plenty of other guys in their mid-late 20s at relatively loose ends (unmarried, going to bars, etc.), but that scene faded out over time as people either got married or moved away. I go back home to clear my head out for a few days in a rural area as much as anything else. But it’s still important to me to maintain that connection. What something like Facebook would do is point out numerous, maybe dozens of, other people back there whom I’ve lost contact with and put them back in my life in some respect.

While that would feed my ego in terms of hang-out options, I’d also have to wonder how genuine it all was. I don’t crave having dozens of people I’ve lost touch with pushed back into my life – the concept neither offends or appeals to me. It’s just not something I’d do on my own … so why have a website do it for me? I’d see through the ruse and realize this “homecoming” of sorts would be more a tribute to social networking websites than any real urge I had to know these people again. I’d rather a relationship developing like that be more organic – you meet someone by chance, hey, we still get along, let’s keep in touch, here’s my email address, etc. This is what high-school reunions are for: to meet with these people again, have some drinks, kick back, talk about old times, then all go our merry ways again for another 10 years.

I don’t think that particular social construct was meant to permeate our every-day lives. It’s a privacy issue at heart. Or maybe just relates to the kind of person you are. I’ve come across many people in New York offices who don’t seem to have any real sort of relationships: the ones they do appear to have are related purely to what the other person can do for them. That may sound mildly evil – it’s a way of seeing the world I’ve never quite accepted – but that’s just how some people are. They’re “networking” sort of people no one ever really gets to know. They don’t know you – they network you, in hopes that if they scratch your back, you’ll scratch theirs somewhere down the road.

And that odd way of seeing the world is in synch with horseshit like Facebook, Twitter and the Permanent High-School Reunion these things hope to perpetuate. You’ll never really get to know anyone, but you’ll “know” hundreds of people. In effect, everyone you know will be an acquaintance, and only in way that somehow serves your sense of well being, with little regard for theirs. It’s an extremely mercenary form of friendship that, as noted, I’m already familiar with via dealing with business people in NYC offices. The focus is on self, not on others, not on how self and others interact. It’s all about you, which is why this stuff gives me so much trouble. The ruse, the selling point, is that you’re building this wonderful world of people around you to help each other get through with life, when the reality is you’re only building a monument to insecurity.

What are real friends? That’s always a good question to ask. I look at my own life and can see how these situations change over the years. It’s obvious how it works when you’re a kid, and well into your 20s: these people are around you, you spend real time together, you go through a lot, most importantly, at times in your lives when you’re far more open to trust people and create lasting bonds that could run the rest of your lives. Before you get out on your own, you’re forced into these relationships simply because the people are physically there in your life, in the same house, or street, or town, or home room, or math class, etc. You find some like-minded individuals, and you bond, in ways that you think will last forever, but you’re not fully aware that the simple passing of time will push you in different directions, with some of these relationships ending, some going on.

It’s not as easy after that. You get exposed to the world; you move around in it. You see how genuinely awful some people are, and this taints your view of humanity. You become more careful with whom you trust. Some of the people you trust turn out to be awful; some would die for you. Some people you thought were assholes turn out to be all right. Most are varying mixes of both. Chances are good that the physical sense of everyone you know in your life being right around you will disappear – either they will, or you will, or you’ll just stop knowing each other once you no longer have reason to be in regular contact. Marriage, kids … things like this tend to take up people’s every waking hours on top of work. Some people will work like fiends, with time for nothing else.

That traditional way of defining friendship no longer applies to my adult life. Most of the people I know are spread out. Some back home in PA. Some are in NYC. Some were, but most moved around the general area, so that even being 30 miles outside the city represents a travel scenario that's a pain to deal with. My neighbors are pricks and weirdos for the most part – I’m not going to befriend them. It would be nice to meet people around where I live, but as noted, the casual trust that’s so abundant with kids fails me as an adult. I find it a lot harder to make real friends as I get older. They seem to spring up here and there through various circumstances, but again, the way these things go, it’s never in that traditional way.

I recall in the 80s TV show Thirtysomething, there were the friends in that age group, all living in the Philadelphia area, who always seemed to be constantly, and physically, in each other’s lives (not relatives either). I feel like seeing Joe. Hey, I’ll just get into my car and drive over to his house, and we’ll have some beers in his den!

Does your life work that way? Man, mine doesn’t! I have to make appointments days, more likely weeks, in advance to hang out with people, and half the time those plans get jumbled or tossed along the way. I get the impression if you, as an adult, live where you grew up, you do have a more built-in network of people constantly in your life. I also get the impression you wish you could kill some of these people, and both they, and the concept that you never moved, gets to you after awhile. I like the idea of portraying myself as a rural sort of guy, but part of that is being in a city and really appreciating certain aspects of that way of life (more space, less traffic, more greenery, etc.) … while conveniently ignoring certain aspects that would drive me nuts were I to live there all the time. This last trip, I couldn’t stop noticing how trashy so many people look back there these days: missing teeth, idiotic tattoos, dingus facial hair … and this was just the women. I’m usually against using a term like “white trash,” but man, there were a lot of trashy white people around! Much more than a decade ago, much less two. And these folks seemed to be not just self conscious over how grubby they were, but taking a perverse sort of pride in it, too. Soap, deodorant and toothpaste are your friends, folks!

Every so often, “Bob Dylan’s Dream” will come up on the iPod, and it always gets to me:

While riding on a train going west
I fell asleep for to take my rest.
I dreamed a dream that made me sad
Concerning myself an' the first few friends I had.

With half damp eyes I stared to the room
Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon.
Where we together weathered many a storm
Laughing and singing till the early hours of the morn.

By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung
Our words was told, our songs was sung
Where we longed for nothing and were satisfied
Joking and talking about the world outside.

With hungry hearts through the heat and cold
We never much thought we could get very old
We thought we could sit forever in fun
And our chances really was a million to one.

As easy it was to tell black from white
It was all that easy to tell wrong from right
And our choices they was few so the thoughts never hit
That the one road we traveled would ever shatter or split.

How many a year has passed and gone
Many a gamble has been lost and won
And many a road taken by many a first friend
And each one I've never seen again.

I wish, I wish, I wish in vain
That we could sit simply in that room again
Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat
I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.

I guess these days with that group of friends, one would be Twittering on his iPhone, while another sends a text to someone he'd be meeting in five minutes, while another cuts off one who was talking to take a meaningless call, and the last two would be stone-faced in front a TV set with a Playstation for hours on end. None of them would give a shit about each other. Dylan wrote this in his early 20s, a time in which I knew what he was singing about, but never would have come near defining it as well. The song means a lot more to me now. Of course, I also think if you reunited those friends in a room with Dylan, he’d shuffle around uncomfortably, making goat sounds, and would excuse himself after five minutes. He longs for that feeling of seemingly endless stability and certainty more than the friends. Another song by Jonathan Richman, “That Summer Feeling,” hits the same nail on the head with the great line: “Do you long for her?/Or the way you were?”.

A few weeks ago, I youtubed my old high school and town names around that area, and came across this: two teenage girls goofing around to 60s songs on an iPod. What really struck me was that both girls had memorized the lyrics to ALL the songs, so they knew how to anticipate each line and silly mannerism. And they're listening to great pop music that's 40 years old! I can guarantee you, we weren't sitting around in the 70s with megaphones crooning Rudy Valee and Bing Crosby songs... but I think their love and appreciation of the music is a very cool thing.

It was also a nice little moment, documented for all time, the kind of moment you rarely have as adult, but seems like second nature when you’re growing up. Every high school reunion aspires to a drawn-out moment with the same feeling these girls have effortlessly clowning around in the living room on a boring Friday night. What happens to that feeling? I don't know, but it gets harder to find with passing time. Call it forgetting how to ride a bike.

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