Jim, a high school friend and fellow altar boy, recently wrote me when a predatory faux social website which I mistakenly joined sent him an invitation to replicate my folly. He was wise enough to decline the opportunity. We have maintained desultory contact since high school, moreso in the last 20 years than earlier.
I don’t remember when we met. It was at some point in grade school as our unified school district began collecting the pupils of small public schools in the area into larger groupings, culminating in my fourth grade year in the building of a single one-story sprawl designed to house all the kids from two townships in a single building, providing education for grades K through 12. Actually, there was no kindergarten before this big school was built, so I never had the doubtful pleasure of attending one, but was thrown willy-nilly into the shark pool of first grade untempered by any earlier exposure to other kids who were neither relatives nor neighbors.
I had ‘best friends’ in the earlier grades, but by the time I reached Junior High School, I really had no one that I would call a best friend – at least not in school itself. I did have a younger neighbor boy to whom I was passionately attached for about a year, after which he chose to spend most of his time with my brother Gary and his best friend Alex Westfall. But at best, in high school years, I had only what might be termed better friends and less close friends. There was no one with whom I hung out outside school other than my brothers and a neighbor or two. There was a loosely-knit group in my class that attended a few parties together – usually at the new suburban home of the Riggs family, which had an oldest son my age and his four younger siblings. We were hardly a collection of the popular kids, which would be the cheerleaders and other girls considered pretty, and the better sports guys: we were rather a collection of somewhat socially oriented ‘brains’, not quite the super-nerds, but close.
Jim was not of this group; he was more like one of the outer fringe guys of the popular group. He did not play sports – I found out recently that this was largely because he had a ‘lazy eye’. I had thought these were what is known as a ‘cast in the eye’ – that is, one eye wandered aimlessly while the other focused – a very visible problem that looks like, and sometimes is, crossed eyes. But Jim’s problem is not visible; apparently just one eye does all the work and the other just sits there matching the first in alignment, but not really doing much in the way of vision duty. He is, for all practical purposes, blind in one eye, which eliminated him from playing most sports. He was a little more refined than me, from a family that was better off financially, and he was less prone to follow extreme fads or to behave without forethought (or any thought at all) than me. So, if a girl on the outer fringe of the popular group had a choice between dating Jim or me, she’d choose Jim. All of this is kind of laughable in retrospect, because although I hadn’t a clue about this in Jim’s case, we were both gay.
I really got to know Jim more because we were both chosen to be altar boys at St. John the Ashamed, and both elected to be regular servers at the Sunday 8 o’clock mass. True, one could loll in bed and serve at 10, but the 8 o’clock mass was a low mass and therefore significantly shorter than the 10 o’clock high mass; besides, it got mass out of the way and left more of the day for the thin pleasures of our youthful Sundays. Jim and I were both in the “A” group at school. These were the college-bound kids who would take the New York State Regents exams in certain subjects at the end of certain school years – we were classed among the “Brains”. The “B” group kids were sort of the college-optional kids – they had the option of taking the Regents exams or not and were encouraged to apply for college, but no one was terribly surprised if they did not. This group held the bulk of the sports crowd, although some of the A group were on some of the teams. The “C” Group were non-Regents students. They took the core curriculum classes, but then had a lot of shop, agriculture and vocational classes for the boys, and typing, shorthand and home economics classes for the girls. In order to take typing classes, an A group kid had to stay after school and take it as an after-school elective. This turned out to be a bad strategy for training the brainy kids who were going to be launched into a world where computers would become important and keyboard skills would be highly helpful. Who knew?
There was also a “D” group, which consisted of those, nearly all boys, who would drop out of school as soon as it was legal. They were more or less encouraged to drop out, in that harsh triage of the 1950s where leaving a child behind was considered to be a damn good idea. They were dumb, or otherwise ineducable, and no one could see spending up resources on them, even in that era where nothing was too good for the educable children in the suburbs.
In the 50s, even before Sputnik shocked the country, people had no thought – at least in our area – of the arts as a career. I had a teacher, a wonderful woman who taught me English and Latin, who encouraged me to write, and I actually had a vague idea that writing could be a lifework, but I had not a clue how one went about making it so. Mrs. C would probably have been of great help in helping me through this, but I was way too immature back then to ask (or want to ask). A large number of the A and B group kids who finished college went on to teach, and Jim was one of these. He spent his teaching career in Chicago, but not, I gather from the little we have discussed it, in the inner city. He told me when he retired, as a lot of my other teacher classmates have also said, that toward the end each year got worse and worse. The constraints placed upon teachers to restrict innovation and individual style grew, and the mighty threat of lawsuits and politically-motivated activist parents and school boards intent on correct thinking in preference to open-ended inquiry reduced teacher flexibility to near zero.
Jim, I think, liked me better than I knew. He once said, much later in our friendship, that every so often he got a student that reminded him of me, and that these were the real reward of teaching. This was not meant in a personal or sleazy way. I think he referred (although I never look too closely at a compliment) to my somewhat untamed ways in school, and my slightly disruptive approach to classes. I know Jim thought I was a terrific writer. But I was a real disciplinary problem to teachers who expected – and got – the perfect patterns of behavior that made up the 1950s A groups. The boys in my class, to a man, had crewcuts or a short haircut brushed to the left from a part on the right (girls parted on the left; this was a STRICT rule), but I had the ‘50s greaser look, the elaborate front curl coiling its oily way (thanks to Vaseline!) to a point between my eyes, with the upswept shining sides. I couldn’t afford a black leather jacket, but I got a black jacket that came as close as possible. Today, I would probably be a Goth; in those days I perplexed my teachers by easily getting A’s – at least in English and History and courses I liked – like the other A group boys, but dressing and acting like D group boys did.
At our tenth class reunion, I saw Jim again and it was then that I became aware that he was gay as was I. He made some effort to broach the subject, but I was still deeply ashamed and embarrassed by the topic, although I had met Tumwell the previous year and lived with him, so I pretended not to understand what he was getting at. In fact, although we have each known about the other since that time, it is only within the last year that I finally wrote him a letter and referred to the elephant in the room openly.
What I am getting to is the fact that I got an e-mail from Jim the other day, saying that he thinks we are both happy people, and that is why he thinks we have stayed friends and had reasonably good lives. I hadn’t ever thought of myself as a happy person, but as a whole I think he is right. I am an optimist. I assume things will work out or change for the better, despite gloomy times (which usually happen to be when I blog the most) like the time I last wrote in my blog. Jim says he thinks that is why we make friends, and I guess he is right. I know people really do enjoy being around people who are more up than down. I certainly do. I just never thought of myself as being one of the up ones. However, my gloomy times are usually when I am alone. As soon as there is someone in my orbit to talk to, I can become quite the Pollyanna.
This is the latest in a series of – I guess you might call them insights – that I have been having lately which are leading me to realize that I am a completely different person than who I always thought myself to be. I have gone along since I was a kid with a certain image of myself, and with certain beliefs about the world around me, that I am suddenly realizing are not at all correct. About ten years ago or so, I began having these sudden new looks at life. I had always assumed until then, that if a person took the time to love me, and to become my partner or the like, that he was getting someone pretty darn good. I thought of myself as easy to be with. I am not sure what was the cause (maybe because Tumwell made it seem so easy), but it suddenly struck me that, no, I was a very high maintenance partner. I don’t mean I require gifts or a high-flying lifestyle, but that I am moody and changeable and have a big requirement for alone time when I want it and not when it is mutually convenient. I can hide or moderate some of this, but the more comfortable and secure I am with someone, the more I let those parts of me show that I know I wouldn’t like too well if our positions were reversed. I think that realization was the first time I was actually a little rocked by a new view of myself.
Lately the revisions in my view of myself and my world have come thick and fast. I realize I don’t really like a lot of the people that I am in the habit of thinking that I love. I am finding family functions more stressful than happy. I always thought I was exempt from that angst that so many people express about family behavior. I truly wanted to own a big place back in my home town and to have it be the gathering place for family when they are in town, or when a big event occurs. Now I have all that, and I am finding that I don’t really like these people all that much. Things I imagined to be peripheral behaviors and characteristics in some family are actually core parts of their personality. Even when I like family members, I am not that interested in their life choices. But this applies equally to me. I think a big part of denial in addicts or racists or whatever, is the belief that ‘well, yeah I do this or that, but that isn’t the real me.” Well, yes, that IS the real you (or me). We are defined by our behavior, not by the motives that lead to it. I have come to believe that we are that which other people see, not who we imagine (or ‘know’) in our mind’s eye. That damn Catholic upbringing that has made me look to my deepest, secret and most unsavory motives in any act has previously permeated all my self-examination. There is always an element of self-interest in even the most generous act. So what? It doesn’t define, mitigate or deny the generosity or the benefits of that act, and contrariwise, it does not sweeten our bad behavior. Consider if a serial killer said he only kills on Tuesday but six days a week his behavior is exemplary.
Anyway, this is where my thoughts are trending. Life-wise, the major events in la vie Shaughnessy have been that I joined a gym in March and have been faithfully (somehow) visiting it three times a week, with a single 3-week layoff, since then. I have more energy and feel better, not least because of the annoying sense of virtue that now attends me during every waking moment. And then a few weeks ago, out of a clear blue sky, I was contacted on a social website which I no longer even bothered to visit (an e-mail told me I had a message) by a man who found me interesting. This man turned out to be so far out of my league in physical beauty, not to mention being 27 years my junior, that I looked – so far, in vain – for a base motive, or at least a flaw. I actually have a friend with benefits! And he has a good job and a new car, and has shown no interest whatever in what I can do for him in any way other than the mutual physical relationship. He is a completely nice man. I know this is not “The One” because he has no interest in what the ads call an LTR and is quite honest about that, but it is damned pleasant to be found attractive and to have a partner, however uncommitted. I am getting quite above myself in my own esteem.
So forget all that angst that riddled my last entry. Whereas I know I am not where I want to be exactly, I am in pretty good shape. And it seems like there IS a tomorrow after all. What’s better than that?