Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Virtual time travel

So I've been on Facebook for about two months now and I'm just getting to the point where I'm tentatively reaching out to people I haven't really had any contact with at all in decades. I assume this is fairly typical for everybody these days: first I friended my family, and my close friends, and my internet acquaintances, and people I went to college with, and now I've worked my way back to people I went to high school with. Which is an entirely different ball of cyber-wax.

(I skipped the part where I would have friended my current work acquaintances, because I worry slightly that my laidback interwebs persona might be somewhat at odds with our corporate policies on social media, so best not to intermingle the two worlds too much. And the gig I had prior to this one was one in which my co-workers were people I went to college with, or close friends to this day.)

By the time I graduated from college, and certainly by about the point that I had been living and working in the real world for five years or so post-college, I no longer had any real relationship to speak of, passing or otherwise, with anyone from high school or earlier. I'd like to be able to say this wasn't a conscious choice, that it was just one of those sad facets of modern life where people drift apart and life inexorably takes some of us down different paths than others, but that would be letting myself off the hook way too easily. It was a conscious choice, or at least a semi-conscious one, or at the very least a series of somewhat conscious choices that were never intended to have the cumulative effect that they did, and yet. When I look back on it now with fifteen or twenty years of perspective, here's what I can see:

1. My family moved shortly after I graduated from high school, from Jersey to Connecticut. So I had to say goodbye to the town I had lived in since fourth grade, and I did make a very conscious goodbye tour that summer. There was much "let's keep in touch" sentiment exchanged between me and my friends, but I did a lot of mental processing of a sense of ending, as well.

2. Then I started college, and I really liked it, and I immediately made a lot of new friends and kind of threw myself wholeheartedly into that world. And on college breaks I wasn't going back to my old hometown, I was either going to the town my parents had moved to, where I had very little connection beyond family, or I was visiting my new college friends in their hometowns, mostly in northern Virginia (where I would end up hanging my hat before too long)

3. My high school girlfriend and I started seeing less and less eye-to-eye as I started hanging out with different people, being exposed to new ideas and exploring new interests in college. She spent a lot of time with my best friend.

4. About halfway through my freshman year of college my parents decided to get divorced, and it was a done deal by the following summer. Despite the fact that my parents' marriage was never perfect and domestic tranquility was never a bedrock foundation of my childhood, the divorce was still a pretty huge line of demarcation in my mind, in my life, between "growing up" and "grown up". My mom moved back to the old NJ hometown, but to a much smaller house, where I never quite felt entirely at home.

5. My Little Bro started dating one of my close female friends whom I had bonded with back in middle school and stayed tight with. I was completely on board with this, as they were pretty happy together (it seemed to me) and a good match, and obviously I loved them both.

6. My high school girlfriend and I eventually broke up, which erected another huge barrier in my mind between "everything that happened before" and "everything that happened after", putting high school and such on one side and my life as it was progressing on the other.

7. Complicating things was the fact that all that time spent together led to my ex-girlfriend and my best friend getting together. And moving in together. And getting married and having kids. Granted, I'm jumping ahead a bit now, those things took years. But not that many.

8. Also, eventually, Little Bro and my friend (who was now much more in the role of "sibling's significant other" than "hang out buddy" she had once been) broke up. It was pretty rough.

9. I graduated college and was soon faced with a choice between living with one or the other parent in NJ or CT and trying to find a real job, or moving into a four-way split townhouse in northern Virginia and getting any joe job to pay the bills and the bar tab. As we all know, the latter seemed like a no-brainer move to me.

10. About two years after graduation I got married, which had two huge effects on severing ties to the past. Up to that point I had actually been keeping in contact with my ex-girlfriend, but she was extremely weird about meeting my fiancee, said and did a lot of things that seemed to be gloating over the fact that she had dated me first, and that was not cool in my book. But more to the point, that was extremely not cool in my fiancee's eyes. Then again, very little of my past was cool in my fiancee's eyes. Basically she was extremely insecure and anyone who was going to stay in my life once we were married needed to be personally vetted by her. That was at least feasible in the case of other people in the northern Virginia sphere of my life, but highly impractical for old friends from my hometown. I was a doormat back then and I let her call the shots, to my own ultimate chagrin.

11. And then three years later I was divorced and back at my mom's, but the last thing I wanted to do was reach out to anyone I had known in high school because (as anyone who's ever gotten divorced will attest) it was hard not to feel like a failure and a deserving object of scorn. I spent a year, year and a half living with my mom, working a crap job, and living in fear that any time I would show my face in public I might run into someone who hadn't seen me since I was 17 and full of promise. I felt sick to my stomach at the hypothetical thought of having to answer "So what have you been up to?" because none of it was good.

11a. I did actually hear through the grapevine that around the same time I got divorced, so did another one of my good old high school buddies. And I should have at least been able to reach out to him in solidarity or something. But I didn't. I berate myself for it to this day, but I didn't. I have no particularly good excuse except that those were rock bottom days.

12. Finally I repaired some of the damage my doomed marriage had wreaked and patched things up with just about all my northern Virginia friends, and re-relocated back there by moving in with some friends. And got a much better job and my career back on track. And bought my own place, and got together with the real love of my life, and got married, bought a bigger house, three kids, a gaggle of pets, and here we are today. But again, for a stretch there from about 1992 to 2001, whenever I reached a decision point as far as whether I should hold on to my hometown childhood connections or let go, I doubled down on the present and distanced myself from the past.

The problem, of course, with life in a small suburb, where the graduating high school class is about 90-some people, is that everybody knows everybody and it's orders of magnitude easier to bow out altogether yourself rather than try to pick and choose whom to cut out and whom to keep. I've told stories hereabouts before about me and Scud and Boomer and Kingsley; Scud was my best friend who ended up married to my ex, and Kingsley was the one who got married and divorced in the same timeframe as me and whom I felt I let down terribly by not being there for him. Boomer and I never beefed or anything, we just drifted, partly due to the nature of life and partly because I torpedoed two sides of the foursquare knot holding us together. And I had other female friends besides the one who dated my Little Bro, but they were all friends with each other too, so they tended to take my friend's side in the break-up whereas I was never going to do anything but unconditionally support my brother. And so it goes, and the geographic distance only made it easier for me to draw the lines that I did. I had friends, I wasn't sitting around miserably bored and lonely and wondering where things had gone wrong. I just didn't have any friends from before I was 18.

And lately (read: since the advent of Facebook, mostly) it has occurred to me that I'm the anomaly. Although many if not most people tend to roll their eyes with self-deprecating mortification at the mention of high school, middle school, or any other segment of their pre-adult past, many if not most people also have at least some living connection to that time outside their immediate family. Coincidentally, a lot of the people I hang out with now I met during the college years even though they never went to college, so for a while I thought they had maintained a lot of the same high school social structures through the years because they never had the opportunity to replace them with college versions. But no, that's a gross over-simplification, they've made new friends as well, and other people who went to college, including those who were right there alongside me, at least have a handful of people they go way, way back with. That includes the people who loathed high school in general, and yet I liked high school! I didn't have too terrible or traumatic a time there! I just went through a really weird stretch there immediately after high school.

But say this for Facebook: it makes renewing contact after ridiculous intervals a little less awkward. I can't imagine calling anyone on the phone after not speaking to them since the early 90's. An e-mail I might be able to manage, but there's no universal directory for looking up e-mails of people you've fallen out of touch with. Plus I'd be tempted to write looooooooong missives attempting to cram in the past twenty years all at once, and then I would never hear back from anyone because tl;dr (and also, kind of creepy). But a friend request is easy to send, and easy to respond to, and then you're just plunked right into the update feed stream along with everyone else, and you have a starting point at least to proceed from.

So yeah, that's where I am. Mostly it has been pleasant enough, sometimes better than pleasant, sometimes disappointing in terms of people not accepting a request. (Looking at you here, Boomer. Not that you can hear me.) But the strangest part is just that there's this huge twenty-year bubble between me and all these people. I try to latch onto common ground again and I'm forced to rely on extremely out of date memories. It's like I time traveled from 1992 to today and I have the constant urge to ask people if they are still really into Gorilla Biscuits or Twin Peaks or whathaveyou. Although, to be fair, we are at the point in the cycle where 90's nostalgia is probably at or near its peak, so there are outside reinforcements as well. Still disorienting, though.

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