My 30th high school reunion is coming up this August. As a result, a couple of people I went to school with have contacted me, including an old boyfriend (that phrase takes on a completely different meaning at this point). This is traditionally a time when people look back on their lives and often wonder where their dreams went. I haven't been doing that, but in writing back and forth to the old BF, I've been thinking about how different my life is from most of my friends, from the "norm," whoever Norm is.
I'm 48, unmarried (not divorced or living in a state where gays can't marry, not in a relationship, just single), no kids, no pets, don't own a home or a car, living in the city not the suburbs or rural area, no real "career" and not even a job right now. By most economic measures, I'm among the working poor. My parents are both deceased and I'm pretty much alone, relative-wise. About the only way I'm average is my weight gain and my sexual orientation. Yet the only thing I'm even vaguely unhappy about is that I don't have cats at the moment.
My dreams have changed, but are still fairly intact and if not
fulfilled in a grandiose manner, are pretty comfortably realized: I
live in New York where I've always wanted to live. I write and publish
a bit, I have a great circle of friends, I have fulfilling work (teaching). I make art. I have a
comfortable home and good health. I travel a bit and have seen some of
the world. I get to read a lot. I see plays and movies and dance and
listen to music. There are museums everywhere for me to visit. Life is
good. I'd like to be a little more financially secure, but that'll happen, one way or another. And I've been here before. Besides, I want and need so much less than I ever have before.
I'm not going to our reunion, mostly because I haven't the least desire to go back to Oscoda ever again, and because I've kept in touch with the two people from that period of my life who matter to me: Mel and Paul. Every now and then I hear about some of my former classmates from one or the other of them, but that was a different life for me, one I'm not all that interested in revisiting. I wasn't that interested in it when I lived there. And I've never been much interested in being or even acting like everyone else, or fitting in. But I've been thinking about how odd my life must look from the outside, especially to the people I grew up with in that little two-lane tourist town.
The last job I had was full of lovable, geeky misfits, and we liked to refer to ourselves as "not like the other kids." That would have been me in school, too. I think I was only acceptable by virtue of being the best friend of the smartest kid in class and the two biggest band nerds. I worked on the yearbook, went to games, did a little bit of drama, painted some murals in the school and had a good time, but I think I managed to carve out my own niche without succumbing to the crushing conformity of high school. I was sorta smart, sorta arty, sorta musical (sang in choir for a bit too), liked going to games even if I wasn't a jock, and was voted one of two class clowns (I actually campaigned for it).
But I knew I was never going to stay in that part of the world. I always knew I was going to go to college and move away, to do something different with my life. Most of the people I went to high school with went to college (or didn't), stayed or moved back, got married, had kids, divorced, remarried, in short, did all the average, usual things. The ones who left tended to be kids from the Air Force base that was still open then. When I was working on my long-abandoned Ph.D. in English at Michigan State, I ran into a woman from town who had been a very close friend at one time. We'd been like the characters in Starsky & Hutch, our favorite TV show at the time. When I'd gone to college, she'd married the GI she'd been dating our senior year and went around the world with him while having and raising two kids. Then he cheated on her and she left him, moving back to Northern Michigan where we grew up. When I saw her again, the base was still open and she was cleaning the barracks for a living and living in a small cottage on one of the little lakes. She actually liked it, she said, because she got to meet guys that way. I realized at that point that we had nothing to say to each other.
That story has become one of the defining moments in my life; it's Why I Left Oscoda.
That's not to say that everyone there is like that. Mel's the prime exception to the rule, and some of her friends are, too. Most of them come from somewhere else though, and Mel is just too darn smart and curious to stagnate anywhere she lives. She's about as conventional as I am, and has never been afraid to be exactly who she is. That's one of the greatest things I learned from her, growing up: be who you are, stick to what you believe in. She's attracted like-minded people as her friends.
The Times had an article, a review really, about a book called The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is tearing Us Apart, by Bill Bishop. This seems like a really familiar idea to me, having grown up in two fairly narrow-minded places: the church I belonged to and the community I lived in. Bishop says, “Mixed company moderates; like-minded company polarizes. Heterogeneous
communities restrain group excesses; homogeneous communities march
toward the extremes.” Apparently, as a nation we're "balkanizing" into more and more like-minded communities and this is part of what's making our politics so extreme. Having grown up in a small, white, tourist town, I can agree with this. It's one of the reasons I left. But the result of leaving is that I changed and grew. I became more myself and less what others thought I should be. This is one reason I live in the city. I'm exposed to new ideas and opinions all the time, constantly stimulated, shaken up, jolted out of complacency. It's not a quiet life and it's not conventional. It's also not for everyone but it does have what I see as some advantages.
For one thing, I don't have the responsibilities other people have, but
that was a choice, too, not to have kids, or buy a house or a car. Is
that selfish? Depends on what you think "selfish" is. Why should I have
kids when (a) I have the means to not have them and (b) I have no
desire for them? I should reproduce because that's what women do? Um,
no. There's this thing called Feminism which is all about choice. This
is my choice. As for car and house ownership, I'm laughing up my sleeve
right now at the car owners and who says owning a house is all it's
cracked up to be? Paul Krugman actually wrote a great editorial about this. It's another responsibility I've never wanted, another material object that I, as a good consumer, should go out and buy, mainly because it will give me "equity" in case I need money some day. Or as something to leave to my non-existent kids.
Otherwise, I'm pretty much like everyone else in the responsible adult category: I pay my taxes and bills, I work, I give back to the community, I'm respectful and law-abiding. Isn't that what's required of citizens? Oh wait. I forgot that Protestant Work Ethic thing.
One of my friends who's worked very, very hard for herself and as a result has an extremely successful business and a very fat bank account was moaning to me the other day about how she can't wait to retire. Having worked part-time most of my life and never having had a lot of money, I can't say I identified with her. I don't really plan on "retiring," per se. The life I've got now, as I said to her, is a lot like most people's idea of retirement. Work a bit, play a bit, do things you want to do, make sure you have enough money to live on and to hell with the rest. Why should I wait for retirement? I may be too sick or old by then to enjoy my free time. This is what happened to my mother. And as a writer and artist, I can't imagine a day when I would stop writing, or stop making art, unless I become incapacitated.
And of course, that's the difference. Jobs and careers are things you retire from, even if you really love the work. At some point it becomes drudgery: exhausting, tedious. That's the difference between being something and doing something. My friend makes her living writing, but I'm not sure she defines herself as a writer, certainly not in the same way I see myself as a writer. The idea that she will eventually stop writing the stuff she does now does not appall her as it would me. This was always one of the attractions of academic life, too. You might retire from teaching and administration and chairing committees, but you never have to stop thinking or publishing. Conversely, writers may decide to stop publishing, but you never stop reading or thinking about books and ideas, any more than artists stop thinking about art, even when they physically can't make it any more.
When your greatest pleasure comes from ideas and thoughts in a materialistic society, you're bound to be an outcast, or at least thought a little weird. And choosing to be single, let alone childless? That definitely puts you in the Quirkyalone category (my score on their quiz was 107=Very Quirkyalone. as the site says, "All those nights alone—they bring insight." I'm pretty sure not everybody lists insight as one of their goals in life, but it's always been one of my big priorities. I don't ever remember not asking myself who I was, what I was supposed to do, or what life was all about, or how my brain worked. Those are the questions you get to tackle when you're live the kind of life I do. You can do it as part of an average couple, but as one of my students said the other day, "What's philosophy for?" If you're not asking what the world around is like and what makes it tick, you don't care. If you do, it takes time to figure it out, if you ever do. But at least the effort is fun, whether anyone else sees it that way or not.