Monday, January 9, 2012

Readers and writers

I'm reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and it's one of those books that depresses me profoundly. This, I am quite certain, was not Egan's intention; or, at least, the causes of my anxiety are not the ones she was endeavoring to achieve.

In the novel, we get to see the main characters, who have grown up to be successful if troubled adults, as their younger selves. Bennie and his high school friends do things like join punk bands, dye their hair unnatural colors, smoke pot, and have tortured relationships. In other words, they are the kids that I thought were way cool back in my own high school days.

This was the early 1990s. I suppose I had part of the act down - a fine collection of KMFDM, a pair of 18-eye Doc Martens, the requisite black-and-white striped tights, and a copy of the Death Sandman comic. But my hair was its natural blond, I didn't smoke anything at all, and I certainly wasn't in any bands. Sometimes I thought about starting an underground school paper; instead, I edited the literary magazine. I do have, to my credit, a few copies left of the comic book three of us made, which featured a gender-balanced, multiracial cast, starring a pair of alternatively-styled friends on a hospital adventure. I'm sure it's quite the collector's item.

Yeah, I wanted to dye my hair blue, but my parents didn't allow it, so I didn't. Besides, I worked after school at the local newspaper. I had no desire to smoke anything at all. I only skipped class twice, and once was with my parents' permission - they were smart, I'll give them that: Let her skip school to buy Nirvana tickets, and she'll never ask for a nose ring … And the one time I wore my Docs on a hike, I conceded afterwards that they were inappropriate footwear. Real Goths Up Trees would never admit that. My friends were mostly other good students who participated in decidedly uncool activities like quiz bowl and math team. One was a cheerleader. Some of them even prayed together during class breaks.

No, I was never one of those cool kids. Not like Egan's characters, and (I assume by way of "write about what you know" plus jealous projection) presumably she was. Which is probably why she's a writer today, and I'm a management professor. Sure, China Mieville got a PhD, but it was in Marxist economics, and he proceeded to promptly not use it. It's a little-examined tenet of my worldview that writers necessarily have had interesting lives - you know, so-and-so "has worked as an emu wrangler, circus contortionist, food taster, seasonal park ranger, receptionist at a buggy whip factory, and ankle masseuse."

And what about those cool kids, the real ones I actually knew? Some of them grew up to be soccer moms. Some are community activists or professors (in non-applied disciplines). At least one is trying to be Charles Bukowski. A lot of them, I have no idea.

Me, I'm temporarily indisposed because I wasn't rebellious enough in high school but was always fundamentally square, well-liked without being popular, and now I don't have any of the major neuroses that either drive achievement or burn you out. Really, all you need to know about me is that, when it came time to pick a New York apartment, I opted for the Upper West Side over the Lower East. And my barometer of what's cool is still the LES, when today all the writers live in Brooklyn.

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