The Autumn of the Year, Rich Paschall, Sunday Night Blog
When I was seventeen, it was a very good year…
As I turned seventeen, I had finished my Junior year in high school and was looking forward to Senior Year at a new school. It was a bit scary, I admit. No one wants to leave his mates behind and start again, but that was my fate, not my choice. At least the new school was in the neighborhood, and I already knew a few students who were going there. Although we did not admit at the time, the final year of high school put many new thoughts in our heads.
You may think sex or sexual orientation, but those thoughts had already arrived years earlier. All the passing of a few years meant was these thoughts and curiosities intensified. As you might imagine, a few of the boys and girls were a little more advanced than the others. I think that stands out to you a little more at seventeen.
The new school brought new friends, new interests and new teachers. There were subjects and activities the other school lacked. It also proved to be, as I suspect it did for many of my friends, one of the best years of my life. Some of those friends and those memories stuck with me over the decades. I had no idea then I would look back on it as the “best of times.”
When I was twenty-one, it was a very good year…
Four years later, brought a similar situation. It was time to move on to Senior Year of university and hopefully finish my degree on time (I didn’t). It did not hold the lasting thrills of 17, but it did seem in a certain way to represent the transition to adulthood. In reality I was no more adult than at 20 or twenty-two. It was just a symbolic thing. The “coming of age” also allows you to drink legally, but that did not mean too much. I was days, weeks or months older than the friends I hung around with so it is not like we all headed off to some bar. Still, the year seemed to hold a certain energy young adulthood will give you if you let it.
When I was thirty-five, it was a very good year…
I had finally earned my Masters Degree. It was not about career advancement. It was about reaching a goal I had set years earlier. I sometimes studied for the Comprehensive exams with a woman in her 70’s. She was pretty much doing the same thing, reaching for a past dream. I could tell her of courses I had and of books I read, and she pushed me to study things I was certain would never be on the exam again. She was right about the exam questions and perhaps the reason we both marched up to receive our diplomas.
It felt like I had hit my stride at 35, although I can not really point to other reasons why. If you have good friends, good times, and a reason for doing things, all seems right with the world. Well, almost all seemed right. I never found the one right person to share my very good years. Honestly, I can not say I looked all that hard. I guess I was having too good of a time.
But now the days are short, I’m in the autumn of the year…
One thing that you become acutely aware of as you get older is that the days are short. They don’t seem to last as long, you don’t seem to get as much done and you certainly don’t feel thirty-five. You realize, no matter how desperately you try to suppress the thought, that the days are indeed numbered. Even if you are optimistically believing that there are, let’s say, thirty-five years left, you know none will be like the year you were thirty-five. With any luck at all some will be very good.
If your life is like a fine wine, there will be many years that were a good vintage. This wine aficionados will refer to it as a “very good year.” I seem to still have them. None are 17 or 21 or 35, nor will they be again. With any luck at all, I will be able to drink in the rest and enjoy them as if I were sitting in a vineyard in France with one of my best friends while we recall our great adventures together.
And I think of my life as vintage wine
From fine old kegs,
From the brim to the dregs,
It poured sweet and clear.
It was a very good year.
Although many had recorded this song, it won the Grammy Award for Best Vocal Performance, Male in 1966 for Frank Sinatra.
It Was A Very Good Year, by Ervin Drake, 1961, lyrics © SONGWRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA OBO LINDABET MUSIC INC
The biggest and most damaging lie we tell our kids is this:
“If you want it bad enough and work really hard, you can achieve anything.”
We all bought into it as kids. Even though life has taught us it’s not true, we still try to sell it to younger generations. It’s the worst kind of lie. True enough to sound inspiring, yet deeply misleading.
You can try until your heart breaks, but to succeed you need more than a dream and determination. You need the right skill set, the right instincts, and actual talent. Luck helps too.
We cannot always achieve what we want because we want it a lot. You can’t be a blind artist. You can’t be a tone-deaf musician. You can’t write without a gift for words. Some things can’t be taught. Yet these days, anyone who objects to the lie that hard work alone is always enough is called defeatist — or elitist. I am neither, but I am a realist.
I don’t know when realism became politically incorrect. It’s cruel. It takes people with potential and makes them feel like failures, not because they can’t succeed, but because they are doing the wrong thing.
When someone tells me I shouldn’t give up whatever because if I keep trying, I will surely succeed, it annoys me. I’m a very hard worker, but I’m old enough to know that hard work only takes you so far. I would rather work on something at which I have a chance of succeeding.
Yet we keep hearing the same enticing lie. “Don’t give up your dream! You can make it happen!” We always read about the successes. What we don’t hear about are the myriad failures, those who tried their hearts out and were defeated. We waste years trying to achieve the impossible while dismissing the achievable. We ignore real gifts in favor of magical thinking.
Creating a good and satisfying career should be part of everyone’s life plans. First though, we need to figure out what we do well, then focus on it. Hone talent and build a future that works. We need to help our kids do the same. Then network like mad and hope to get the Big Break because the wild card in the mix is always Lady Luck.
Don’t buy a lie and don’t foist it off on your kids. Help them be the best they can be. Help them succeed.
I’m not one of those people who romanticizes the 1950s, but there are some truths worth remembering and revisiting.
I grew up in a very different world. Play meant using imagination. It mean physical activity. Jump rope, hide and seek, tag, Stick ball (no one owned a real bat). Stoop ball, jacks. Building a “fort” or climbing a tree. Cowboys and indians. Toys were simple, not electronic. Getting a new doll was a real thrill. She never needed a reboot, unless you count having to find her lost shoe.
If you were having a hard time with the bullies in school, you got up, got dressed and went to school. It didn’t mean you weren’t scared. I was plenty scared. It simply wasn’t a parent problem … it was mine. Yours. Ours.
You didn’t get a lot of pats on the back for “trying hard.” You might get an “attaboy” for doing exceptionally well, but you were expected to do your best. Nothing less was acceptable. Doing your best was your job. You took it seriously.
You learned your lessons in elementary school so you could go on to junior high school and then high school. You had to do well in high school because if you didn’t, you couldn’t get into college. We all knew — with 100% certainty — if you didn’t go to college, you wouldn’t go to heaven.
My son commented the other day we are raising — speaking of my granddaughter’s generation — a bunch of weenies. We are protecting from them everything, effectively from acquiring the coping skills they will need to survive when mommy isn’t there to bail them out.
I said this to my granddaughter too, because she needs to hear it:. No one gets a free pass. Even being rich doesn’t guarantee bad stuff won’t happen, that you won’t get sick, lose a loved one, a child, or for that matter, your own health. Nothing prevents life from happening. Pain is part of the package. Learning to deal with adversity is called “growing up.” If you don’t learn to fight your own battles, when you get “out there,” you won’t survive.
Just about every family has some members who didn’t make it. The ones who never got a real job, formed a serious relationship, accomplished anything much. If they happen to be our own kids, it makes us wonder what we did wrong … and usually, we have a sneaking suspicion the problem isn’t what we didn’t do. It’s what we did too much.
I don’t think we should be mean and uncaring. Nor am I an advocate of corporal punishment. But I think it’s important to recognize we didn’t get strong by being protected from every pain, every hurt. We didn’t get everything we wanted the moment we wanted it. Or at least I didn’t. If I got one really cool present, that was a big deal. Now kids get so much, it’s meaningless. They don’t appreciate anything because there’s always more where that came from.
So, in memory of the good times, the bad times, the hard times, the great times. The schoolyard battles we fought and sometimes lost. The subjects we barely passed or actually failed and had to take again. The bullies who badgered us until we fought back and discovered bullies are cowards. Getting cornered in the girls’ room by tough chicks with switch blades, wondering if you can talk your way out of this one.
Being the only Jew, Black kid, Spanish kid, fat kid, short kid or whatever different kind of kid in a school full of people who don’t like you. Getting through it and out the other side. Being the only one who used big words and read books when everyone else was watching American Bandstand. Being the klutz who couldn’t do those dances and never had the right clothing or hairdo.
Then, finally, getting to college and discovering the weirdos and rejects from high school were now the cool people to know. Magically, we were suddenly part of the “in crowd.” Metamorphoses. No longer were we outsiders. What had made us misfits were now the qualities that made us popular. And eventually, successful.
The fifties and early sixties were not idyllic. Especially if you weren’t middle class, white and Christian. Yet it was a great time to be a kid. Not because we had more stuff, but because we had more freedom. We had time to play, time to dream. Whatever we lacked in “things,” we made up for by having far fewer rules. We were encouraged to use our imagination. We didn’t have video games, cable TV, cell phones and computers. Many of us felt lucky to have one crappy black and white television with rabbit ears that barely got a signal.
We learned to survive and cope, and simultaneously, learned to achieve. We weren’t scared to try. We screwed up enough to know if it didn’t work out, we’d get up, dust ourselves off and try again.
When we got out into the world, for at least a couple of decades, we had a blast.
Here’s to us as we limp past middle age into the laughingly so-called golden years. We really had great lives. We’re still having them.
Now that my high school reunion has passed and I’m no longer besieged by nostalgia from a half century ago, I feel safe in saying it. I haven’t any idea in what world my classmates were living, but I’m sure it wasn’t the same one I inhabited.
I understand that time can cast a gentler light, a rosy glow over events that took place in one’s youth … but there’s a difference between a rosy glow and a full revision.
For months, I have been bombarded by email from people with whom I attended high school. They are sure they remember me. They recall the fun stuff we did together. After giving it careful consideration, I have concluded they are deranged, on drugs, or senile. Whatever it is they think they remember, it didn’t happen.
Who are these people? Why do they keep talking about relationships that never existed? These people were not my friends. I remember them. They didn’t like me. They either ignored me, made fun of me, or conscientiously ostracized me. I belonged to no cliques, no fun groups. I wasn’t invited to parties. I was not popular.
I had a few friends, but these people who are so happily remembering me? They weren’t among the few people I counted as friends.
Did someone — me or them — slip through a wormhole into an alternate reality? That must be it.
High school was not a good time for me. Neither was junior high school or elementary school, for that matter. Even amongst the unpopular kids, I was unpopular. By the time I had survived junior high, I’d learned how to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and over-crowded if you kept your head down, no one would notice you.
I was a klutzy kid with no athletic prowess, I avoided the humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. Every semester, I showed up at swimming class.
“You again?” said the coach. “Just keep out-of-the-way,” It was a win-win for me. I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of the pool and completely avoided gym class. I believe I was technically on the swim team, but I never actually swam in an event. I was a bench warmer. That was fine. I liked the water, but I wasn’t going to win any medals.
All I had to do was get acceptable grades, not fail math courses after which I could go to college. I heard from other survivors that in college I might meet people who I’d like and might like me. That sounded too good to be true, but I had it on good authority. It turned out to be true so I guess making it through high school alive was worth it.
This was not the first time I’ve had to fend off a reunion. I dodged the 10th, 15th, 20th and 25th. I think there was a 40th too. But like a bad penny, it keeps coming back to haunt me. On the up side, we are now all so old, there is very little likelihood of any more such grand events.
I have repeatedly gone over this in my mind. I know with absolute certainty that high school wasn’t a fun time. It wasn’t only not fun for me. It wasn’t fun for most of us. We were young, hormonal, lost, unsure where we were going or how we would get there. Everyone felt ugly or deformed. Many of us had dreadful home lives that we hid from everyone else.
Yet now those years have become one long golden memory. At the reunion I did not attend, they actually got together to sing the school song. Never once in the years I attended did we ever actually sing the school song. It was a joke. We used to make fun of it because it was so dumb. Now, it’s a warm fuzzy memory. Bizarre.
My husband says this is typical of reunions. He says that when he went to his reunion — he actually attended one — people were reminiscing about the great times they had together, none of which he could remember nor could he recall the people claiming to have been there with him.
He says people need to pretend that they had a great time. It makes them feel better.
Not me. Even after fifty years I can’t think of a single reason to revisit a time and place I would just as soon have skipped in the first place. Oh, and to put this in perspective, our high school prom was cancelled due to no one but me and my date signing up for it. So exactly how terrific was the experience really?
Does pretending the past was perfect when it wasn’t even close make you feel better about your life? It doesn’t work for me. But maybe I’m the one with a problem. What do you think?
And now, a word from our sponsor:
With the big day coming up — the 50th high school reunion to which I am not going — I’m getting deluged with emails from The Reunion Group. I no longer read all of them, but every once in a while, I open one up and I’m always sorry I did. The primary area of discussion has moved on from each person telling the story of his or her way better-than-mine life to reminiscing about the school song, almost the definition of “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”
We never sang that song. Not at assemblies, not in chorus, not at all. Almost no one knew the words. I knew the words because they were so funny to me, given the real school and who we were, that I memorized the words for kicks and was usually the only kid who knew all three verses.
Here’s to her the school we love,
Jamaica, tried and true – oo,
Source of all our dearest aims,
Dear School of Red and Blue.
Red and Blue
Red and Blue
School of Red and Blue!
In love our hearts go out to her,
Dear school of Red and Blue!
If that doesn’t make you cry, you have no soul. It makes me laugh, so what does that make me?
What compels otherwise sane folks to transform a mixed experience rich with the good, the bad and a big dollop of indifferent, into “the best years of our lives?” It wasn’t. Not for anyone. They cancelled the Senior Prom due to lack of interest. I know because I actually had a date for the prom, but he and I were the only two people to sign up, so they cancelled it. What does that say about reality versus memory?
A few people go way back. We didn’t merely attend high school together. We also went to elementary school and junior high school in one big batch. We got to know each other a lot better than we wanted, a huge dose of too much information. By junior high, I was too miserable to remember much of anything and was being actively bullied by the same mean girls I swear are still hanging around hallways and school yards today. Maybe they are clones of the same girls.
Thank God for the special program that got me through three years of junior high in two years. At least the misery was shortened by a year. Pity about never learning fractions and all. It certainly didn’t improve my shaky math skills.
So all of these people are singing (literally in some cases) the praises of the school and the school system. It was a better than average school academically, but fantastic? It was huge, crowded and if you didn’t measure up and get yourself into the “brainiac college-bound” group, you got nothing from the school except a place to sit in class. The school was academically better than most, but otherwise was no better than every other overcrowded New York city high school. I had some interesting teachers. I had a few really good teachers, and at least one that seriously influenced my future. There were also one or two memorable ones, though not always in a good way.
With current planning involving all these aging nerds and geeks singing the school song, I cannot begin to imagine myself standing around (probably sitting since my arthritis is pretty bad) howling a school song no one ever sang while we were going to school. I think I’d collapse from laughter, genuine ROFLMAO stuff.
What urge makes people cast a rosy glow over a time that wasn’t rosy for them? So many of my classmates seem intent on reliving a past that didn’t happen at all. Is it because we are getting old and want our youth to have been much happier than it was?
Life was what it was. I am not a fan of revisionist history. I occasionally get an email from someone who has found my blog or my Facebook page. They want to renew our friendship. But we weren’t friends. Ever. Some of them are from that group of “mean girls” who turned my life in elementary school and junior high into a small personal hell. Now they want to be my pal? Really? Why? Have they actually forgotten the way it was? Why does no one ever talk about the one really cool thing we had: a gorgeous Olympic-sized swimming pool. Maybe I was the only one who always chose swimming instead of gym. I didn’t mind getting my hair wet, but apparently I was unique that way.
Is this whole collective stumble down memory lane a bizarre form of self-hypnosis whereby we erase real memories and replace them with stuff that never happened? Are we that old and out of touch?
I remember. Many of us suffered from, as did I, difficult home lives. We did a lot of acting out, each in our own way. I buried myself in books and didn’t emerge until college. Fortunately, that turned out to be a lot less destructive than other possible coping mechanisms. I’m watching my granddaughter do her own version of self-destruction for reasons painfully similar to mine, minus the abusive parents, but adding in social ostracism impossible until computers and cell phones. I have serious doubts about the human race and supposed social progress.
But here I go waxing philosophical again. Hell, I’m still trying to figure out exactly what point God was making when he took Job, beat him to a pulp, then told him he had no right to question why it was happening to him. That’s my very favorite Bible story. Life in a nutshell. Shut up Marilyn. Apparently everyone but me has been highly successful and had insanely perfect lives. It’s just possible that I didn’t live the past half century on the same planet as they did. It doesn’t sound like my planet. Does it sound like yours?
This is far too weird for me though it makes good fodder for writing. And inserting lots of question marks in my tired old brain.
There’s no way around it. I was not good with money, so in retirement I am not exactly where I wanted or hoped to be. That doesn’t mean I’m unhappy with my life. I’ve had a lot of fun, adventure and a pretty good career. Both life and career were different than anything I imagined. I became a writer — which I did plan and wanted — then fell into technical writing because, against all logic and reason, I am good at it. For a kid who could barely pass basic high school math courses, elementary physics, or any other hard science, winding up in the high-tech arena was a surprise. That I liked it was even more of a surprise.
It turns out that I could learn anything, including math and science, if it was explained in such a way that I could see its purpose. What I couldn’t do was manipulate numbers or concepts in a vacuum, which is pretty much how math and science were taught back in my day. I suspect they aren’t taught much better now as I watch my granddaughter struggling with the same stuff with which I struggled 50 years ago.
The thing is, that my high school’s 50th reunion has come around. No, I am not going. It’s too expensive in view of the fact that I don’t remember anyone from high school. I recognize some of the names, but we weren’t friends. We didn’t hang out. We have no shared memories except those shared by everyone who went to Jamaica High School during those years. I wasn’t friendless. I had some good friends, but we haven’t kept in touch and none of them are attending this reunion. There’s no reason for me to go.
Jamaica High School is huge. Was huge and over-crowded too. My graduating class was slightly more than 1200, in which I was something around 280 or so. The entire school (10th through 12th grades) was just shy of 4,000 students shoe-horned into a building meant to handle 1300. We were packed solid.
For all that, it was a better school than most and more forward-thinking than most schools of the period. Possibly more forward-thinking than many schools right now. Academically, girls and boys were treated equally. No girl was told not to aim for medical school or an engineering career because it was for boys. If we had the will and ability, there was support.
I was not a super achiever nor overly ambitious. I was an educational minimalist, an under-achiever par excellence. I did exactly enough to get by unless I was particularly interested in a subject or it was one of those so easy for me I could have aced it in my sleep. I never bothered to study for English or history (Social Studies, back then). Math and science were my nemeses and I was glad if I could merely pass. Languages were also difficult for me. I don’t have an ear for languages, something that I proved conclusively by living in Israel for 9 years and never mastering Hebrew.
I graduated with a B+ average, got an early acceptance (11th grade) to Hofstra University (then Hofstra College). I had no passion for higher education, but I just knew if I didn’t go to college, I couldn’t go to Heaven. Can’t get through those pearly gates without showing your diploma. Besides, I was barely 16 when I graduated high school, so what else was I going to do? I had managed to score a couple of scholarships based on competitive tests, which made the choice easier. I always tested well, probably because I didn’t much care. I just assumed I’d do okay and for the most part, I did.
I wanted to be a writer. Or a musician. Or an artist. As soon as I learned to read, I started writing. I’d been playing the piano and studying music from age four. And I had a good eye, could draw and paint pretty well, an itch that has been well scratched by photography. In the end, writing was the thing I did best and came naturally to me, so that’s what I did. Tech writing was a sideways drift, but turned out to be a good fit. I’ve had a long, if somewhat peripatetic career that apparently isn’t quite over yet.
I thought I’d done pretty well until this reunion thing came up.
In the movies, people go back to their high school reunions. They were nerds and social outcasts in high school, but now are successful, attractive and get to feel superior to their former classmates. There are so many movies with this plot that one might think this is a typical reunion experience. Not me. Mind you, I’m not going to be there, but I have not escaped unscathed. The organizer of the event has sent us all a questionnaire, a “what have you been doing for the last 50 years?” thing. So I filled it out. Why not? I’ve had an interesting life and a long career. I got to be a player in the birthing of technology that now rules the world.
Then I started getting other people’s filled-in questionnaires. With each email, my ego has gotten thumped.
This is not, for obvious reasons, a reunion of the entire graduating class of 1963. These people are a subset of the class, the group into which I fell by virtue of winning a Westinghouse Scholarship (proving I actually knew more science than I realized) and having a high IQ. I was counted as a brainiac, but I wasn’t really one of them. I had brains. Theoretically I still do though there are days when I wonder. What I lacked — something apparently everyone else had — was ambition and drive. I didn’t want to be a doctor. I never aspired to be a professor. I wanted to be me, whatever that was, and one of my goals was to find me. I wanted adventure. I was going to write novels, do exciting, creative stuff. I was more into living than studying.
As far as I can tell, the small percentage of my “group” that are not medical doctors, have doctorates in chemistry, physics and so on. No more than a handful of humanity or arts degrees in the crowd. No one has less than a masters, except me. And as far as I can tell, everyone went to Princeton, Johns Hopkins, Albert Einstein, Harvard. If not Ivy League, than at least prestigious. Everyone but me seems to be having a comfortable retirement, if they aren’t a professor or still practicing medicine. The one or two people who went into the arts have multiple best sellers or are managing editors of major publications. It’s demoralizing. The one other woman who went to Israel married a diamond cutter and is apparently wealthy beyond my imaginings … and even she’s got a masters.
Every time another filled-in questionnaire arrives in email, I swear I will not further torture myself by reading it, but a certain morbid curiosity forces me to open it despite myself. Oh, I forgot to mention that everyone has beautiful and extremely successful children.
I am glad I’m not going to the reunion. I don’t think my ego can take much more of a drubbing. If I needed humbling, I’ve gotten it. What is success anyhow? Do you gauge it by financial well-being? By awards won? Personal satisfaction? Experience? Friends? Fame? I think this will be the last reunion, so I’m safe from having to again calculate the value of a life richly enjoyed, but somewhat lacking in material wealth … otherwise known as money. I think I’ll go take some pretty pictures now.
2013 is the 50th anniversary of my high school graduation. That’s five zero. Half a century.
After so many years, one might suppose my memories would be fuzzy enough that I could delude myself into believing I had fun in those opening years of the 1960s.
This has come up because a few of the people with whom I apparently attended high school want to have a reunion. Not the entire graduating class of more than 1200 people. This is a smaller sub-group of people who claim to actually know me and want to see me again. They say they remember me and all the neat stuff we did together.
I think they are deranged. Whatever they think they remember, as far as I can tell, didn’t happen. I do not want to go to the party. I said no when I was contacted by phone, but they keep sending me invitations by email … endless variations of the same thing. Lists of names I don’t recognize. I know I’m not young, but I’m not senile either. Who ARE these people?
I am considering the possibility I slipped through a wormhole and am in an alternate reality, which would explain how come they know me, but I don’t know them. Yeah, that’s probably it.
I was not a popular high school student. Even amongst the unpopular students, I was unpopular. Fortunately, by the time I had survived junior high, now known as “middle school” but back in those good old days, referred to simply as Hell, I had learned to be invisible. Attending a really huge school helped. It was so big and crowded, you could slither through all three years (10th, 11th and 12th grades) and if you kept your head down, no one would know your name. I only got attacked by junior thuglets once (not bad considering what an oddball I was) and participated in group activities only if dragged screaming and kicking, usually because someone needed an accompanist and I played the piano.
A klutzy young thing, I avoided the traditional humiliation of the athletically challenged by claiming I didn’t know how to swim. When I showed up, the swimming coach would say “You again? Just keep out-of-the-way,” and thus I got an hour a day of private swim time alone in the deep end of our Olympic-sized pool. I think I was on the swimming team, but I didn’t actually ever swim in an event. I was a bench sitter. And, apparently, the only girl in high school who didn’t care if my hair got wet.
So all I had to do was get decent grades, try not fail my math courses, and then I could go to college where I heard I might actually meet people who I’d like and might like me too. It turned out to be true, so surviving high school was probably worth it. But now, like a malevolent spirit, fellow graduates of Jamaica High School want me to come to their party. They even think I should pay for the privilege.
If I could remember any of them, I might consider it. No, that’s a lie. You’d have to drug me then drag my unconscious carcass there before I regained consciousness.
High school wasn’t a fun time. Not for me. Fifty years later I can’t think of a single reason to revisit an experience I would as soon have skipped in the first place.
And now, a word from our sponsor: