Tuesday, June 21, 2011

In Which the Author Opens a Time Capsule

This is the greatest idea I've ever had (there is going to be a renewed emphasis on positivity on the site henceforward).

Each of the two yearbooks I have preserved from high school contain a two page spread dedicated to the various phrases and words which defined the year. These phrases are not listed in any kind of linear order but float over grainy images of largely unidentifiable groups of students. Some of them are strictly school or regionally specific references, while other are broader in origin and would be familiar to anyone inhabiting this country in a state of reasonably developed consciousness at the time. I thought it would be curious to examine whether they signify anything now. For what it is worth, I went to a public high school in Portland, Maine from 1986 to 88. Like most places, Northern New England seemed at that time much more culturally remote and isolated from the rest of the country, to say nothing of the world, than it is now. I gather that for most intelligent people, the intervening political and social and technological changes have greatly improved the quality of their mental lives and social discourse, and they have no desire to go back. Neither do I, of course. I only spend most of my writing energy in the past because that is where such paltry references and experiences as I have primarily reside. I regret to report haven't found much of life that I have discovered after age 30 to be terribly interesting compared to what I did up to that point.

Without further delay, especially as there are so many of them to break down, here are the vital terms of 1986-'87.

Staph Infection. This is a local reference, there being an outbreak of this malady during the winter. Its ravages were mostly limited to the wrestling team. I remember that their mats had to be burned, or something like that.

Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill. The now legendary album of course, which famously "caught the guardians of popular culture napping" in 1987. We did have MTV (and not much else) in Maine, so we knew about the Beasties.

Mousse and Styling Gel. It was certainly big with the girls at the time. Is it still? Perhaps not. One does not see the rather spectacularly teased hairdos among the younger set nowadays that were so prevalent in the 80s. I tried to put some gel in my hair exactly once and predictably, it was a disaster, unless you consider looking like a regular on Dance Party USA to be a triumph.

Converse High-Tops. I assume this refers to Chuck Taylors? That retro fashion statement lasted well into the early 90s, at my college anyway. I never had Chucks, because I had an idea of presenting myself as a quasi-"real" athlete in those days and considered most of the people who wore them to not belong to that category. These are many of the people same however who now run triathlons and eat gluten-free diets. I currently dent the scales at 230 and can barely run 200 yards without collapsing, though I'm pretty sure I can still beat 85% of the 'men' half my age in a footrace at that distance, as well as 99% of the guys who actually are my age. Not that this means anything.

Driver's Ed. I took driver's ed the year before, when I was still in Pennsylvania. If you're usually in the 'college-bound' track, this was one of your chances to take a class with the regular population. It was not an inspiring experience. Looking back of course I should have taken the opportunity to try to bond with the two girls in the class who were fellow refugees from 'honors' English, etc. and who clung to each other pretty tightly in their revulsion at everyone around them, not least the teacher, who was one of those unctuous JV coach types whom no one was ever going to entrust with running his own program. It was really dismal.

Homecoming. I didn't go.

Feathered-Back Hair. I associate this more with the '81-'84 period, though I guess a few laggards were still squeezing the last dregs of fashion out of the style in the winter of '87.

Intense. A popular catch-all adjective of the season, applicable to the gamut of teenaged experience. I used it sparingly, and almost certainly never accurately.

It's Harsh. See entry for "intense". There was one very cool and decidedly affluent guy, who wore plaid shorts and sunglasses with straps around his neck and knew all about Camper Van Beethoven and even Vigil (to be honest, I'm not sure that he really belonged at our school), who expanded this to the--when he spoke it--somewhat hipper sounding "You're harshing my mellow", which no imitator among our student body could really pull off. I can't find this guy on Facebook, but I have no doubt that his current profession involves words like "investment", "securities" and such.

The Iran-Contra Scandal. I cannot pretend that I was paying terribly close attention to this at the time. My main association with this episode of history involves a kid who was called "The Dumpster". This was the most accurate and all-around brilliant nickname given to anybody I have personally ever known, by the way. By the time I came along no one could even remember where it originated; the second you heard it, it was immediately obvious to whom it referred, and why, such the word could never thereafter be separated from the image of the man. The Dumpster was a rather intelligent, if strange fellow, who looked like and carried himself in every way like a 46-year old man who had been working in some dreary bureaucratic office for seventeen years, never married, or remotely close to being married, ate a greasy grilled meat and cheese sandwich every day for lunch, manhandled multiple newspapers daily while reading them front to back, and took driving tours to famous battlefields on his vacations. He was a diehard Republican, champion of Reagan and sworn enemy of communism in all its forms; the stridency with which he expressed all this was decidedly singular at our school. Along with lunch, it appeared to be the great joy of his life to shake his head with a bemused smirk at such effusions as the various committed liberals of the class--mainly earnest girls, several of whom I was mildly in love with at the time, fey boys, and a handful of would be rebel boys whose fury at various social injustices came across to me at least, who was admittedly jealous of them, as slightly put upon (they certainly did better with the chicks than either I or the Dumpster)--were wont to make. When the scandal broke big, I remember that he took to regularly wearing an Oliver North t-shirt to school both to show his solidarity with the president and to antagonize his political enemies. Update: I have found the Dumpster on Facebook! And he has 30 more friends than I do! It looks like he is a high school teacher in rural Maine, which I would not have thought would be his destiny (the teaching part). His info also says he has been to China seven times, which I really would not have thought to be his destiny.

Football Games. Our program was not very powerful in those days; the team went 1-8 both of my years at the school, which was pretty pitiful considering we were the 3rd largest high school in the state and were close to twice as big as most of our rivals. I never played organized football. I thought about giving it a try before both my sophomore and junior years but due to various circumstances, I was not settled at a school in either of those years until the day or two before classes started, long after practice had started. So I gave up the idea.

Macdonald's. I think it is supposed to be McDonald's, isn't it? I'm not sure why this made the list. Obviously people went there, but they went to other places just as much, and which were much more conducive to hanging out, and had more poignant atmospheres as well.

Couching. Must have been a slang term, but one that seems to have passed me by.

Snow Days. This was actually notable, as the Portland schools hardly ever closed since A) most people lived within a mile of school, which was considered walking distance, and B) people expected it to snow in the winter in those days, and nobody seemed to worry too much about the roads and accidents and slipping on ice and all of that like they do now. The school had to close because the roof was leaking as a result of all the snow that was piled up on it; not the roof of the original 1924 building of course, but the one on the addition that had been put on the back and was less than 10 years old at the time.

Tretorns. I have no idea what this is (ed--I looked it up and it apparently is some kind of sneaker). Whomever these were a big deal among, I did not know them.

Ronald Reagan. Wasn't this around the time that he really began to be affected by his condition and largely cease to appear publicly though?

Penny Loafers. They were kind of a trend among a certain crowd that seemed to me to have something going for them, though exactly what I do not remember at present, and I must admit I had a pair myself, and put the pennies in them. They probably were an improvement over whatever shoes I had been wearing to school before, but they didn't propel me into a new realm of social success or anything like that.

Road Trips. When you live in Maine, you do get in the habit of roadtripping quite a lot, even in high school. The main destinations on these trips were Boston and the beaches further south (i.e. Mass and even New Hampshire!) where inherently tougher and sexier people and more dangerous vices were supposed to be found. Montreal, which is 4-5 hours away, was also popular, among other things because the drinking age is 18 there. There are also lots of strip clubs and I suppose other illicit entertainments to be had as well, and at discount Canadian prices. The Mexican versions of these expeditions for the underaged crowd--Tijuana, Cancun--are more celebrated in popular lore. I suppose they are technically more wild, more decadent, and host more spectacular physical specimens than their Canadian counterparts. As is the case with Las Vegas and bascially anywhere warm however I cannot imagine myself among such scenes having any fun and suspect I would have been totally lost in them. Therefore the Montreal/Niagara Falls-type drinking and (attempted) whoring weekends have always held a greater interest for me. I never went on one of these trips myself, it probably goes without saying.

MTV. It was a big part of day to day life. '87 was the year they started switching heavily to the pop metal bands (Def Leppard, Poison, etc), which most people I knew were not too happy about. There was still hope at that time that it would become cool again, maybe another girl like Martha Quinn would be hired, and so on.

Platoon. The movie. Won the best picture at the Oscars that year. In case you have forgotten, it was directed by Oliver Stone and starring Charlie Sheen, and I am guessing this has contributed to the eclipse of its reputation as a significant work of art in the ensuing 25 years.

Denim Jackets. These were pretty big.

Norweigan Sweaters. I guess these were big too, though I did not notice it at the time. I assumed everybody wore them all the time because it was a cold climate. In general, during the vital years of my youth--approximately 1985-95--young women really were not flaunting a lot of skin in public. Anytime you look at pictures from 1990 or so, they've all got the heavy sweatshirt over turtleneck look going on, and the stirrup pants. It's probably for the best that girls were not regularly going around in heavy cleavage-revealing tank tops with visible thongs in the places I was when I was seventeen, eighteen, nineteen. I probably would have had to be institutionalized.

Dances. The dances at my high school were actually really lame, which surprised me, and still does surprise me a little. People just didn't know what to do at them, there was no organization or direction emanating from anyone enough people trusted, and the majority of the attendees suffered from bad inhibitions. They (the dances) were just a mess. It didn't help that the all-boys Catholic school and statewide sports powerhouse a half mile away threw dances open to any girls who wanted to come to them which were major and much looked forward to happenings as far as many of the ladies were concerned for miles around, especially when they were scheduled on the same night. Especially when they were scheduled on the same night that this rival school beat us in basketball 92-59.

SATs. The yearbook was run by the ambitious, GPA-calculating, prestigious university striving crowd, so they made a lot of fuss about the SATs. Believe it or not, I was not part of this crowd. I wanted to get high test scores and go to a hoity-toity college and all that, but I kind of kept that to myself, mainly because I knew my effort would have looked pretty ridiculous compared to these people, and I didn't want to expose myself to having that pointed out.

Benetton. I didn't realize anybody at our school actually wore this. Whoever it was never came anywhere near me.

Funneling. Now this was an activity that I achieved a reasonable amount of proficiency in, enough that I was a little disappointed that the opportunity to demostrate my prowess never came up in college, the drinking culture there being too sophisticated I guess for the introduction of silly contraptions into the process. Of course I could have made my own funneling apparatus and brought it to the party, but you see that would not have worked, because I certainly would not have been the best or most prolific funneler, the idea was merely to show modestly that, yes ladies, I do know my way around the world of binge drinking and wild parties and thus if you feel the urge to indulge in a session of sloppy, non-committal sensual intimacy, you can trust that you will be in secure hands. Needless to say, this idea was never effectively communicated.

Closing the Gym. I cannot remember if this was on account of the staph infection or the leaking roof. Perhaps both.

College Application Deadlines. See SATs, above.

Macbeth. This must have been the drama club's offering that year, which I would have ignored, being preoccupied with my own obsessions. Our school was the kind that always had a pretty good drama program however. The auditorium was part of the original 1924 building, maybe even its highlight. It was beautiful. It had a balcony, arched stone doorways, plush red seats. Portland is a comparatively liberal and cultured city, or at least a significant part of it is, so any stigmas that existed against boys acting in plays, or even presenting themselves as pretty blatantly gay, were somewhat less pronounced than they would have been in many other places, especially at that time.

Skiing. I never learned how to ski, though it is still a big social thing that normal people do in New England. My wife of course knows how, and I've had my two oldest sons take lessons through their school the last few years, and I'm told that they're very good at it, so that pleases me. It is one of those things, like piano playing, that it is good to know how to do. It is done all over the world in invariably pleasant places by good-looking, healthy, affluent, and usually reasonably well-educated people. Skiing locales in Europe, especially, are filled with gorgeous women looking to party and whatever else, but you're kind of cut off from this pleasurable scene if you can't ski yourself. This all sounds calculating, but I don't mean it to be. As somebody who doesn't have, in the parlance of Napoleon Dynamite, a lot of skills, I would like to see my kids be a little more able than I am, especially in areas like skiing that are easy to learn when you're six, not so much when you a long-legged 6'3" adult with a high center of gravity and precarious balance.

The Red Sox in the World Series. This was of course the infamous 1986 World Series when they lost to the Mets. This all took place about a month to six weeks after I moved there, so it was a good introduction both to the relationship and its accompanying angst of the Boston Red Sox to the collective life of the entire New England region. The spring of '86 had seen the last, and most dominant, of the Larry Bird championship Celtics teams, following shortly afterwards by the drafting of Len Bias and his death by cocaine overdose the very same night. So I missed that, but the spirit was still high through '87, when the Celtics miraculously beat Detroit in the Eastern playoffs and lost to an admittedly superior Lakers team in the finals. I was at a party the next year when they lost to Detroit in the rematch in the Eastern finals and the minute the game ended everybody knew immediately that that was the end of this team, which it was. The point is, for all these people Larry Bird, Parish, McHale had been around since they were little children, 8 or 9 or so, and now they were finally vanquished and done and it really was like a part of their life, albeit a minor one, was over. It was actually kind of dramatic, not in a hysterical way, but it was sad (and yes, those players played on for a few more years, increasing old and injured, but they were no longer a great team after '88).

Sweet! Another popular expression. I think this was in one of those army bootcamp movies, Full Metal Jacket or one of those. I did not use it. My word I liked to throw out was "treacherous" which is really an awful word, especially when it's being flung around indiscriminately by a 17-year old.

Dissecting in Biology. Something else the smart kids did. Obviously I did this too, but it would not have stood out to me as a vital memory. The only thing I remember from high school biology is the day the teacher, who was the kind of guy that you just knew hadn't had sex in 30 years, and maybe never, talked about animal reproduction, sperm-and-egg, testes-enlargening nuts and bolts kind of stuff, with diagrams on the board and all the rest of it. Naturally this now conjures up the vision of a certain blondish individual who sat in the front row of the class in the far left seat with her well-formed face visible to me in profile, the rows of chairs being arranged in semicircles as in an amphitheatre or traditional lecture hall. This was not one of those girls you consciously connected with animal behaviors though the instant you saw her, at least I didn't at that age. The association was doubtless always there, but had always been convoluted, and the two memories maintained separate existences. Until now.

Crew Cuts. I had one. It did not look good, and I have never gotten another since. It took six months for my hair to grow back to a normal appearance, so I guess I saved some money on haircuts. Looking back, it is odd that this fashion statement suddenly became popular again. I don't know what I was thinking when I got it. I have always had a certain amount of angst about my hairstyle, and believed there was some elusive look I could capture that would make me appear more commanding, dapper, serious, or whatever. Doubtless some guys I thought possessed a winning look had gotten the buzz cuts and these seemed to be working for them, and I figured I had nothing to lose. It didn't work.

PDA. I don't remember much of this going on at our school, with the exception of the (admittedly sizable) heavy metal contigent. As I thought these people, the females included, were almost uniformly gross, I suppose I tended not to count them. No one could deny however that on the whole they were getting a lot more action than the more conventional community was, for whatever it was worth.

Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet. Had to have been the album of that year in Portland for 1987 (the album of the year for 1988 will be revealed in that year's post). It was almost all because of the girls of course, and not just the metal ones (though nowadays, judging from the size of the hair, they all look like potential metal girls, there were major gradations of metaltude within the female population, and one learned pretty easily what these were) though Bon Jovi himself was not as widely despised among the males at our school as elsewhere. This was because a lot of the male social leaders were Italian and they thought he was cool. Unlike at the school I had gone to in PA, where only fat people and obvious losers listened to music a mainstream person would ever have heard of, in Maine there were really pretty girls who not only listened to lame contemporary top 40 pop but even old stuff like Simon and Garfunkel. I cannot overstate the extent to which this state of affairs struck me as almost quasi-miraculous at the time.

Parking Bans. I don't remember this. I didn't pass my driving test until around April, so these did not effect me.

"Twist and Shout" I assume this refers to the Beatles version of the song becoming a minor hit again that year due to the Ferris Bueller movie, which (the movie) I never liked.

Guess Jeans. Needless to say, I wasn't getting close to any girls who wore these.

The Health Clinic Controversy. I didn't even know we had a health clinic. Wherever you are, it turns out there is always something going on with the health clinic that is enraging certain people, and I never have any idea what it is.

Detention. I never had detention in high school. I had it once in 7th grade for throwing a couple of tomato slices at a girl who physically excited me. I have no recollection of what the thought process was that inspired that particular gesture.

The Bonfire. I missed the bonfire, both years. Once I had to work, and the other time I think I was depressed or something. They had them in mid to late October. In New England this is an extremely poignant and sentimental time of year anyway, and I think something about the whole scene, and feeling that I was not really a part of the community, was somehow too much for me at the time. I kind of regret not going now. The poignant falls of youth are fleeting.

Chemistry Labs. I wish I had done better in science throughout my life. I suppose I could try to learn it now, but given that guys who are science whizzes in high school go to college and are immediately slapped down and told they don't understand anything, it seems that any self-taught knowledge I might acquire would be unreliable.

Bruce Springsteen Live 1975-1985. This album had like 5 records in it. And everybody got the set with the records too, never the cassettes. A lot of people got this as a Christmas present from their parents or other older family member, I think. I did. The package was substantial, the perception of Springsteen among adults was that, unlike say, Billy Joel, he was cool enough that a teenager could play his records among friends without becoming a social outcast, but also acceptably retro and unannoying, unlike the Beastie Boys or Guns and Roses. I have dragged the thing around for all these years and probably still have it, though I haven't listened to it maybe even since before college. When I did show up at college, I actually made small talk about this album with a guy who spotted it in a crate I was carrying in who became one of my best friends and remains so to this day, as far as I know (there was a moderately unbalanced girl who tried to convince me that he was not my friend and had done terrible things to me, but she wouldn't specify what they were, I never received any other hints or clues as to the veracity of her accusations, and the man himself seemed genuinely puzzled and bemused when I related the story to him, so I did not bother myself about the matter any further). I don't know that we ever got around to listening to any of the album, though. Maybe briefly that very first afternoon, but I'm pretty sure some real music aficiondos arrived and took over the record player.

That marks the end of this journey into the depths of lost time. It took me an embarrassingly long time to write this post.

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