Thursday, August 21, 2014

Part 22: “Once More Unto the Breach,” or How to Survive Your 25th High School Reunion

Sunday, August 2, 2014

Part 22:
Once More Unto the Breach,” or How to Survive Your 25th High School Reunion

"Why haven't you written any more Texpatriate essays?" asked Bonnie, an old friend from Duncanville whom I'd known since kindergarten.

Quite surprised, I responded, "I wasn't aware you'd read any of those pieces...frankly, I wasn’t aware anyone had."

In truth I hadn’t written anything since my youngest daughter was about a year old, shortly after Friday Night Lights concluded in 2011 and I went into a deep TV funk. (Only Walking Dead revived my enthusiasm for entertainment, but I’ve lost my weekly lifeline to Texas.)

Since my last essay Rahm replaced Daley at City Hall; I sold my dumpy condo at — or at least near — the bottom of the housing market and moved into a gorgeous but expensive high rise farther north; I changed jobs; and more generally I'm three years older and grayer. Quite a lot grayer. All in all, life is much better three years later, not that I had really changed…but do we ever really change? Indeed, that is the question.

Flying back from Big D en route to O’Hare, looking down on southern Missouri and reflecting on my 25th reunion celebration the night before, I begin to sink into a deep melancholy reminiscent of my teens. Last night I joined a few dozen former classmates from Duncanville High School. Class of 1989 to be precise.

Twenty-five years ago the world was smaller. Much smaller. And perhaps less complex. However, I'm not sure it felt that way at the time. I’m quite certain it felt the opposite, but fortunately I’ve forgotten much about this period in my life — though not nearly as much as I would like, perhaps.

At 43, my high school friends and I seem to have settled in to our chosen paths with a certain peace or resignation that comes with age. We are all a little softer, a little slower, and hopefully a little wiser. Overall the reunion was an almost subdued affair, though I did manage to skip the Friday night drunkfest and the Saturday afternoon pool party (thank God and Sam Houston!).

Compared with high school on a Saturday night, there were far fewer fights (i.e. perhaps because reunion wasn’t held at the McDonald’s parking lot), less cliquish behavior, bigger guts, less hair, much less hairspray, and roughly the same amount of alcohol consumed—though the quality of the booze was much better, albeit more expensive.

As enjoyable as it was to see old friends, the event was accentuated by the absence of several others. In particular, I missed Marcus, Todd, Billy, Andrea, Gary, Jerry, Bronwyn, and many others. Indeed, the absence of many old friends was palpable — and as much as I enjoyed reuniting with those present it reminded me how much I miss those who were not. Spending precious time with Brad, Carla and Bonnie and several other dear friends who knew me when I was a five-year-old blonde, illiterate, obnoxious little Texan made the trip worthwhile. But it also brought on a surge of old memories and emotions.

As one of only a handful of Duncanville classmates I know living abroad as a Texpatriate, even the concept of a high school reunion stirs long-dormant emotions in dark recesses of my memory that generate many more memories and thoughts that lie too deep for verbal expression. Along with the routine high school bullshit and antics — drinking beer and smoking cigarettes with Todd, Billy, Brad and Jerry behind the baseball field, in the McDonald’s parking lot, and on top of myriad water towers throughout Duncanville; skipping class in Case’s yellow convertible to ride around Joe Pool Lake; going to silly high school dances in the east campus cafeteria with Todd’s older sister (Amy) and raging to the latest Depech Mode tunes; and listening to hours and hours of classic 1980s rock and roll (mostly Rush, Van Halen, U2, and Pink Floyd, but also the occasional punk band like Violent Femmes, the Cult or Jane’s Additction) — I vaguely remember going to class and studying for exams. However, I also vividly recall the complex, ugly social politics we engaged in—including the occasional cruel act and nonsensical behavior in which we all participated.

Moreover, I was reminded of the deep sadness I experienced beginning freshman year when my parents separated and eventually divorced. My yin and yang of high school always balanced the exuberance and joy I experienced with close friends coupled with the immense pain and melancholy I suffered at home — a pain that I rarely shared with friends at the time but have since dissected like the various specimens we encountered in Mr. Kennemer’s infamous Biology 2 class.

In her insightful and fascinating article in New York magazine (January 2013) entitled “Why You Truly Never Leave High School,” Jennifer Senior explains that we never really grow out of our high school personas. Our teenage self persists into adulthood and is inexorably shaped by the social dynamics we encounter during adolescence, only with less acne, less hair and a much nicer car. According to Senior, “Our self-image from those years, in other words, is especially adhesive. So, too, are our preferences.”

She continues to explain:
“It turns out that just before adolescence, the prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain that governs our ability to reason, grasp abstractions, control impulses, and self-­reflect — undergoes a huge flurry of activity, giving young adults the intellectual capacity to form an identity, to develop the notion of a self. Any cultural stimuli we are exposed to during puberty can, therefore, make more of an impression, because we’re now perceiving them discerningly and metacognitively as things to sweep into our self-concepts or reject… “During times when your identity is in transition,” says [development psychologist Laurence] Steinberg, ‘it’s possible you store memories better than you do in times of stability.’

At the same time, the prefrontal cortex has not yet finished developing in adolescents. It’s still adding myelin, the fatty white substance that speeds up and improves neural connections, and until those connections are consolidated — which most researchers now believe is sometime in our mid-­twenties—the more primitive, emotional parts of the brain (known collectively as the limbic system) have a more significant influence. This explains why adolescents are such notoriously poor models of self-­regulation, and why they’re so much more dramatic — “more Kirk than Spock,” in the words of B.J. Casey, a neuroscientist at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. In adolescence, the brain is also buzzing with more dopamine activity than at any other time in the human life cycle, so everything an adolescent does—everything an adolescent feels — is just a little bit more intense. “And you never get back to that intensity,” says Casey. (The British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has a slightly different way of saying this: “Puberty,” he writes, “is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness.”)”

No wonder I was a complete and utter freak in high school who still remembers every 1980s song lyric from Q102 by memory.

Being a Texpatriate who physically moved away from the homeland, these adolescent memories are perhaps even more robust and important. Not only is this period “stickier” in my brain, I am perpetually trying to hold on to my Texanness even as my 21 years away from the Lone Star state are dangerously close to eclipsing my 22 years in the homeland. My private insecurities are amplified by my fear of losing my identity as a Texan. Indeed, when I’m traveling and someone asks me where I’m from, I routinely say I’m from Texas but live in Chicago. Anyone else I know in Chi-Town or any other city — regardless of where they grew up (i.e. other than Texas and possibly NYC) — would immediately say they are from Chicago. Not us Texans…at least not this Texpat.

Kurt Vonnegut argued that high school “is closer to the core of America experience than anything else I can think of.” Ultimately, the lessons we learned at this period prepare us for life, for better or worse. Considering my education included a full year of Texas history (albeit in 7th grade) coupled with two decades of Dallas Cowboys games and innumerable meals consisting of chicken fried steak, Tex-Mex, barbeque beef brisket and Frito Pie, it’s no surprise that the lessons I learned taught me to be a Texan regardless where I hang my (cowboy) hat.

With respect to the reunion, it was fun and I’m glad I flew home to attend. Yet, I can’t escape the nagging feeling that Facebook has essentially nullified any reason to stage or participate in future reunions. Not only do I know what my high school classmates are up to, I know what they ate for dinner last night.

As the plane begins to descend toward O’Hare, I’m excited to see my family and return to my life as a Texpat in Chicago. Of course, I’m listening to Joshua Tree on my iPhone and reminiscing about lazy drives down Wheatland Road toward my old Duncanville home with U2 blaring on the radio.

Fortunately, some memories will never die…