I have to see a thing a thousand times before I see it once.
Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again
The group that put the high school reunion celebration together has posted photos from the weekend on social media. The photos reminded me of photos from friends’ parties that I hadn’t attended and where I was viewing photos of people I didn’t know, yet was somehow being introduced to them.
Rather than evoking a sense of nostalgia the photos generated other reactions. One of the first thoughts was “who are these people?” I had suspected, prior to the weekend, that I would have had that same feeling even were I to have attended and now it showed it up just by viewing photos.
It wasn’t just that I wouldn’t have recognized the faces because so much time has elapsed: it was more that I didn’t see myself as part of that group. I didn’t identify with the body shapes – although I certainly have one – of people of that age. I didn’t identify with the conversations they were having – although I certainly have those chit-chat conversations when I attend a cocktail party. There was something else at work that caused me to experience this dissociation.
It appeared as if the weather cooperated perfectly, everyone had a glow as the sun set on the harbor and most everyone looked relaxed, as if they were enjoying the event. There were photos of people backlit by the warm rays of a setting sun, holding glasses of wine (mostly) and cocktails (fewer), standing in semi-circles with pleasant and pleasing expressions. I am not a good survivor of cocktail parties: based on the photos I would not have found myself either pleased or happy after the party, as I would have mulled over what I had said wrong, questioned how I ended up not talking to those I wanted to talk to, wondered who I had offended or slighted. Had I been there I would have felt as one feels when they have just joined a company are attending the company picnic the day after starting the job: everyone – but you, who knows no one – knows everyone.
It was amusing to see photos of women who had always been blonde, who now had dark hair, hair that photographed a darker shade than any teen’s. With their handlebar mustaches, many of the men looked as if were attending a gathering in America’s Old West.
I didn’t have the feeling that I had missed an important event. I didn’t feel sad that I didn’t attend. There wasn’t a connection between me and the people in the photographs. Why?
Based on comments one sees from members of my generation on websites such as Youtube, music ended in the 1970s and today’s performers can’t sing in the way that Presley or Sinatra or Streisand could: musical acts can’t hold a candle to the Temptations or Beach Boys or the Shirelles. After dark those same smiling faces in may have been dancing to music from eras other than the ’60s, but I suspect not as the only song referenced was “Build Me Up Buttercup.” For me sounds are like paint and just as some people paint over the old coats, so new sounds are layered over old. I cannot listen to music without hearing the layers, whether it’s contemporary music (with layers from the past) or music from earlier eras where I can anticipate the layering. When I hear a Beatles song, I hear not just the Beatles: I also hear the Bee Gees, Lady Gaga, Nirvana, Sonic Youth, The Clash, Blondie, The Pretenders, Machito, Buddha Bar, Air, Grace Jones, Garbage, K.D. Lang, Cris Williamson, Joan Armatrading, Beyonce, Donna Summer, The Pointer Sisters, Selena, Jennifer Lopez, the new symphonic music, recent jazz, and new operas – all the sounds that I’ve absorbed over the years.
So perhaps music was the disconnect between me and the people in the photographs. But I think not. There was something else.
We did not have a lot of people of color in our high school class – that reflected the nature of Greenwich – and the percentage of people of color in the reunion photos appeared to be even smaller than was the high school class. I wondered whether a disproportionate number of the black kids ended up in Vietnam. I wondered where the black women were, as it was only the black guys who I saw in the photos. As I now live in a Latin country and prior to moving here I lived in two cities with significant non-Euro populations (Chicago and Oakland, California), the sea of whiteness was something I had forgotten.
That wasn’t it, either. I then thought about teachers. More than talking to former classmates, I would have liked to have talked to those teachers who had opened my life to so much. While that wasn’t the answer to my question about the disconnect, I felt I was getting closer. And then I had it.
There was so little I shared with the people in those photos, either when in school or later in life. While in school I wasn’t a member of teams, groups, performing arts, cheerleading, service organizations – none of those activities that bring people together and create bonds. During the high school years I went to class, worked after school hours, read an inordinate number of books. After leaving home I rarely met up with former classmates. I shifted allegiances from one group to another: from neighborhood to punks to preps, never feeling a closeness that could transcend all these years. Without my few close friends in attendance at the reunion, there was nothing for me to reminisce.
From that recognition came the reality that it wasn’t I who spent those years with those people; it was a shadow of myself, a shadow that moved from classroom to classroom and from boat to beach, barely noticeable, nothing for classmates to interact with. The shadow, now has a different shape and is far less noticeable than is the person.