Don’t call it a comeback
About a year ago I was invited to join a Facebook group to help plan my ten-year high school reunion.
Cue wave of nausea.
In the movies, people always say “Ten years! How can it possibly have been ten years!” I don’t exactly feel that way. I mean, I definitely feel a decade away from high school. I’ve lived in a lot of different places. I’ve met scores of interesting people and made some excellent friends and dated so many guys it’s mildly ridiculous. I’ve gotten myself good and unemployably educated. Basically, I’ve been busy and I feel like I have something to show for the past decade. I don’t feel some cliché like “But my life isn’t nearly where I thought it would be in ten years!” In fact, if you sat my seventeen-year-old self down and told her what she would be doing today, she would probably be pleased as punch.
So I don’t know exactly what undergirded the denial that resulted in a swift click of the “decline” button on Facebook. I didn’t know why, but I knew that I didn’t want to be part of that noise. Not one bit. I managed to blissfully ignore the whole event, until the well-meaning individuals responsible for organizing the group concluded that I must have declined in error. I received three more invitations to the group, each of which I swiftly rejected. The last time I was invited, however, I made the decidedly creepy decision to poke around the group. I was flabbergasted to discover that nearly two hundred people from my graduating class had coagulated and were eagerly discussing banquet venues and family picnics.
The whole experience threw me. I didn’t recognize a lot of the names, until it slowly occurred to me as I scrolled through the photos that many of the women had changed their names when they got married. And a lot of them are married. Many of these women’s profile pictures are professionally-shot family portraits in which children—and I mean full-fledged, walking and talking, personality-possessing children, not just recently acquired babies—frolic in matching outfits and fake snowscapes. Some of the people I went to high school with own houses. Houses with furniture, some of which has been scotch-guarded, and not because of all the tequila-drinking that is going on. Many of these people would be horrified by the fact that my largest financial investments are in books about psychoanalysis and French handbags. These are not people who go to the grocery store and walk out with only a bottle of Maker’s Mark, a jar of cornichons, and pre-prepared tiramisu cups to show for it. These are not people who have to ask their parents to go to Costco with them when they need new tires. These people have their own Costco cards.
There is no lure more putrid than internet voyeurism. How on earth did people go about nosing about in other people’s business before this generation? Gossip at the country store? Letters delivered by pack mules? Must have been nice. Now, a startling amount of information is available to anyone with an internet connection and fingers and the desire to know. Know what I’m not entirely sure. All I know is that I have spent too many late nights, damp with the sweet sweat of stalkerdom, combing Google for insight into the lives of people who have absolutely no relation to my current situation whatsoever. I suspect I’m not alone in doing this. I certainly hope I’m not alone in doing this.
But in a funny way, doesn’t all this information kind of obviate the need for high school reunions in the first place? Aren’t high school reunions all about seeing what became of the people who consumed those highly fraught, emotionally charged years of your life? It isn’t really about getting back in touch – if you’d wanted to stay in touch, you would have. Especially with Facebook – it isn’t really like anyone loses track of anything unless they want to. I’m “friends” with most of the people I would be curious about. If I really wanted to get in touch with someone, a banquet hall with mini quiches certainly isn’t where I would want to do it. It seems to me that high school reunions are about showing off and showing up and showing yourself that the choices you’ve made for yourself in the past decade were the right ones, or at least not as bad as they could have been. High school reunions aren’t really about other people, they are about giving an account of oneself to oneself. Right?
The upsetting part is that I wasn’t feeling bad about not being married, not having kids, not owning a home, or having to ask my dad if I can borrow his Costco card when I need new tires. It isn’t like I haven’t had the chance to have these things. A few years ago I found myself in a position where I could have been settled with someone and on my way to the lawyer husband/2.5 kids/Orange County mega-mortgage/Costco-card equation in no time. I bolted, quickly and unceremoniously. I might as well have been looking down the barrel of a gun. When I found out I got this job in Paris, I found myself immeasurably glad not to have a husband or baby who might change my decision-making process. I felt positively liberated when I sold all of my Ikea furniture, packed my books into boxes in my mom’s garage, and moved to Europe for an indeterminate length of time.
So why are some pictures of other peoples’ lives leaving me unsettled? I don’t know any more about their situation than they do about mine. I have no idea what it would have been like if I had settled down with a guy I knew when I was nineteen, if we had kids together, if we had a mortgage and a tube of toothpaste together. I would say that from my perspective now that I would resent him, and resent those kids, and resent that mortgage and the fact that he might squeeze that tube from the middle and not the bottom. But maybe I had that husband, those kids, that toothpaste and that mortgage, I wouldn’t resent not having scads of time to myself to read novels or go to museums or learn about Italian cinema. Maybe if I had those other things I wouldn’t care less about having a preposterously expensive purse or the time to attend Zizek’s lecture. I don’t know, and I can’t know. I guess it’s the not knowing that makes me somewhat melancholy. And unfortunately you can’t Google that sort of thing.
Photo courtesy of the unflappable M. Starik, whose photostream you should visit.
You really should not feel bad about these feelings you are having. I think even people who have everything in life always look at other people and wonder if their lives could be different – it’s human nature.
Seven of my closest friends got married last year, and they all bought houses. Three more just got engaged. A couple of years ago a friend of mine married someone that I used to date and who I stopped dating because she wanted a more serious relationship. You can’t help thinking about where you might be in other circumstances, but in cases like ours (which are really pretty privileged when you think about it) it helps to remember that those other circumstances presented themselves once and were extremely unappealing. Even if I were ready to be married with kids now, I’d have to start that part of the journey now rather than regretting that my twenty-two year-old self didn’t hold on to a potential wife way back when. That guy would have been divorced in six months, and it would have been his fault. So anyway, this shit’s natural, it’s exacerbated by facebook, and it’s really not made any better or worse by high school reunions. I went to my reunion and one thing that was really fun was seeing how much prestige being a Ph.D. student has. It’s nice to be reminded that outside of academia people still find us sort of impressive, even if they get bored fifteen seconds into our explanation of what we do.
I can totally relate. I tried to have both, the settled married life and the sort of mercenary academic existence, because I felt like I would miss out on something important if I chose one over the other. But when it fell apart, it was clear that trying to compromise between the two lifestyles inevitably made both suck, and my ex and I were pretty miserable. Alot of my friends are happily married, and are probably happier than I am because of it. But that’s them. I don’t think anymore that it’s a question of which life is more fulfilling, but more a question of how we can be happy doing the things we are naturally drawn to. Of course, we both know there’s no such thing as total fulfillment or happiness… you’re always going to have that emptiness, “there’s no end to want.” But, as weird or dishonest as it may sound, the truth is that I prefer my melancholy in Paris to their happiness in the midwest: I feel like I am more myself here than I did when I was trying to be someone else’s husband. And even if I am not completely satisfied with my life, even if I never will be, I know for a fact that trying to live someone else’s idea of happiness is a one way ticket to pain and disappointment. True, you’re always going to second-guess yourself on what it is you really want, and that can lead to depression and doubt, but maybe it’s that questioning that drives us forward in the first place and makes us become who we really are. If I hadn’t second-guessed my life a few years ago, I’d be in a loveless marriage now, probably frantically looking for an office job so I could pay my mortgage. Instead, I get to be moody and confused in Paris, and I get to meet great people like you. I think I made the right choice.
Just wanted to chime in to say that you don’t HAVE to share toothpaste. yuk. I never do. 🙂
Seriously though, isn’t it one of life’s greatest ironies that married with kids crowd wonders what life would be like if they weren’t and single crowd wonders what life would be like if they were? (warning-cliche Lennon quote ahead) Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. It is what it is.
I don’t regret spending time convincing a toddler @ 2am that it is not time to watch Thomas the train or play with girl trains but I also recognize that I would probably be just as happy in my alternate universe living abroad, traveling, discussing frivolous things like fashion and meeting new people. (Or then again, maybe I have watched the new Star Trek just one too many times…) 🙂
Thanks for the detailed, awesome comments you guys. I’m glad to hear I’m not the only one feeling this way!