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September 13, 2007

Reunions 2: Guy-Happiness and More

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A few final reflections sparked off by a recent visit to my high school class's 35th reunion. (Class of 1972 -- gadzooks!) Earlier reunion reflections can be enjoyed, or at least found, here.

Great seeing the old crowd; quite hilarious the way everyone instantly eased back into casual-kid-friendship mode (we know each other far too well to try to get away with putting on airs); and very, very pleasing the way so much of the sturm und drang of adolescence has been left behind. What was all that about?

One of the things that struck me most about the get-together, though, was the way that a hierarchy of life-satisfaction has emerged among the guys. This was something new, it seemed to me. Perhaps it takes a few decades for the impact of the bigger life-choices to play themselves fully out.

In any case, what seemed apparent to me this time 'round was that there was one group of guys who seemed content with their lives, as well as another group of guys who seemed far more restless and unsettled.

Curious, I poked around a bit. I found that I couldn't discern any such pattern among the gals. I couldn't formulate any generalizations at all where gals and life-satisfaction went, come to think of it. (Aside from "Don't become an alcoholic.") Though some of the ladies certainly seemed more comfy in their lives than others did, I couldn't make out any pattern. Divorces, kids, jobs -- sometimes they were a positive, sometimes a negative. Where the guys clustered in easy-to-identify groups, for the ladies happiness seemed a flukier, one-by-one thing. Is this because guys are more black / white, on / off creatures than those ever-morphing, ever-complicated gals are?

By contrast, the pattern behind the guys' life-happiness rankings stood out clear as day. Namely: Now that we're in our early 50s, the calmest and least-troubled guys are the ones who are working in technical fields. Without exception, these old classmates are now mellow and happy souls. They have the contentedness of people leading comprehensible, satisfying lives, lives characterized by finite obligations and dependable rewards.

At the other end of the mood-spectrum are the angst-ridden bunch: namely, guys who long ago fell in love with the arts. (I count myself in this group, by the way. I'll talk about them / us in the third person for the sake of convenience, though.) The guys in this group are jumpier and more tormented. They may perhaps have known giddier highs, but they've also experienced darker and more frequent lows, as well as far fewer steady, count-upon-able stretches.

Where the tech guys keep on a dependable plane -- they have routines, and they enjoy them -- the arts guys are still living like post-grads, moment to moment. Most are still caught up in the "doing my art" vs. "keeping up a day job" plight. Little has settled down for them over the decades. They've done what they could to make space and time for art and creativity -- yet to what end? Perhaps, despite all its ravished-by-aesthetic-bliss moments, the love affair with art has finally been more like a bad and humiliating marriage, wrecking one's chances at what might have been straightforward happiness.

A small discovery: By one's early 50s, emotional rollercoastering will have taken a toll not just on the nerves but on the body. Many of our artsguys these days seem exhausted, strung out, even physically twisted.

Once you're beyond your middle 30s, banal happiness can start to look mighty good. Unfortunately, right at that same moment it can also start to look mighty unattainable. You've taken one path instead of another, and there's no longer any way to make it back home.

As far as I could tell, this general guy-happiness pattern held even when I made allowances for other factors: kids, marriage, divorce, place of residence, physical health ... As The Wife likes to say: "Guys need to be doing something." I take her to mean that guys are what they do, where women often get caught up in (and flourish in, and find their real existence in) all that bewildering "being" stuff.

Maybe the engineering types are happier because they "do" a lot more than the artsguys. At work, they confront and solve problems; perhaps life as an engineer means less in the way of egos and politics to deal with than many other jobs do. Skillful technical problem-solvers are guaranteed a decent-enough salary; they also know that they'll always be employed.

As one old buddy said to me, "Governments are always going to need to have bridges built and roads repaired. Corporations are always going to need to have problems fixed." Engineers, scientists, and researchers spend their work hours being useful, y'know? Then they set it aside, go home, and enjoy the house, the spouse, the kids, the yard.

Meanwhile, the arts guys are still restless. They've never settled; they're always uncertain whether their lives are working out. The day jobs they work at for money are seldom anything they care much about even when the pay is decent. Satisfaction is in short supply. And the time and energy for art and creativity is always limited. One of the sadder lessons of growing up: How exhausting -- as in time-sucking, energy-sucking, and soul-sucking -- a modest fulltime job can be.

Even when the arts guys are in a genuinely "doing" phase -- even when they're being productive with work they're proud of -- they're still bugged by the question, "Is what I'm doing of any use to anyone?" Ego gratification means less the older you get, unless you're a true egomaniac. (None of those in my class.) So if you're not doing it for yourself, then who for? What does a song, or a painting, or a movie mean in terms of real utility to anyone else? And then it's back, always back, to the resented day job. I have a strong hunch that the artsguys have had a lot more "Jesus Christ, what have I done with my life?" moments than the tech guys have.

Of the arts guys, the one who seemed least troubled was the one whose life is the least enviable in most ways. A musician, he plays bass with jazz, rock, and funk bands two or three nights a week, and has been playing professionally for decades. Despite the steady gigs, however, his musician's earnings have never paid many of his bills. So he works a day job as a "custodial engineer" -- make that, as a janitor -- at a local hotel. This is a guy with no wife, no kids, not even a steady girlfriend ... His music really is his life, in other words. Yet where the rest of us are still grasping and seeking, running off in too many directions, our bass player is simply living the life he has chosen. Is he as content as the tech types? I doubt it very much -- but in his Zen-ish case (and in only his case) the question of "contentedness" almost seems irrelevant.

Of course, it might also be that settled and contented types go into engineering. Horse, cart, who knows? Still, I don't think that's it. One old bud who is now a civil engineer is still the goofy and happy-go-lucky guy he was as a teen, for example. He still likes backpacking, traveling to offbeat places, smoking pot, and indie rock. Though as a suburban daddy he's living a life that's a long way from the cultural edge, you don't feel in any way hemmed in when you hang out with him. Similarly, if in reverse, few of the artsguys were complete flakes as teens. The torments that afflict them today really do seem to have been brought on by art itself.

* Another thing this particular riven-by-torments artsguy noticed during my visit upstate was a change in my own experience of the place. In the past, visiting the Ol' Hometown was always a bittersweet and unnerving experience. Dueling voices would rise up inside me: "Such a sweet and lovely place to grow up!" "Yet so limited too. The bigger world has so many things to say for it." "Yet, really, what's wrong with this place? Why did I ever think I needed to leave?" "Oh, it was inevitable. You had interests! What was a person with interests to do sticking around here?" "Oh, come on, get a grip. Let's not be grandiose." "OK, but something was calling me. I know it was." "Even so, once you'd done your exploring, why didn't you go back home?" On and on these conversations would go, over and over.

I was always pleased and moved to revisit the Ol' Hometown -- it left me feeling connected and grounded. Yet the experience was always a little dread-infused and emotionally-fraught too. Yearning, notalgia, pleasure, outrage, and bewilderment would hit me one after another, like ocean breakers. There seemed to be no way to resolve anything, let alone to move on.

But this recent visit was as calm and lovely as a modest spring day. I looked around the old place benevolently. Everything seemed fine -- flawed, perhaps, but pleasing. The old "I had to leave" / "Why did I go?" clash was notable only by its absence. In its place was a serene feeling, something along the lines of, "How lucky I am to have had this place and these people as part of my life. And how lucky I am to have it and them still to revisit."

Age and energy levels can of course explain a lot. Even so, a visit I made only five years ago had landed me in the usual melodrama, despite a previous bout of cancer that had shaken a lot of the childish angst out of me. (Read about my cancer adventure here. Don't run away -- it's a good posting!) So what had happened or changed in the last five years?

Flailing a bit, here's what I came up with: Yoga and Vedanta, blogging, creative work. Yoga suits my body; Vedanta nourishes my spirit; blogging is an outlet for my mind and lets me interact with many fun and bright people; and creative work with The Wife has given my imagination a chance to run free, perhaps even to be of some use.

If there's anything to this general hunch of mine, then maybe what has changed is that, after many decades of blundering about, I've begun to find the beat of whatever rhythm it is that I was meant to dance to all along. Maybe not, of course. Maybe I'd have done better to skip the French movies and get an engineering degree instead.

* Speaking of the Ol' Hometown, I don't have a label for it any longer, and I wish I did. When I grew up, the Ol' Hometown was a fairly clearcut thing: Though it was a jumble -- much of it was small-town, much of it was forest and farmland, and the suburbs were encroaching -- it still qualifed, in U.S. terms anyway, as "a town."

These days, though, what on earth to call it? It's something far more undefined. The small-town bit has been buried and eradicated. Traffic throughput having been optimized by our dimwitted town fathers, there's no town-town giving it a center any longer. McMansion-pods have infested a good many of the old cornfields and forests. So the area is just a square on a map. Zoom in and you'll see a lot of random-seeming straggliness: farmland, 'burbishness, cemetaries, churches, schools, and malls.

(Minor aside: Good lord but life is easy in much of the U.S., isn't it? Shopping, schools, housing, visiting with friends ... It's all so quick and simple. Big-city me forgets how cheap space and land can be, how car ownership is taken for granted, how sweet and helpful most people are. Life is never without its challenges and tragedies, of course. But in the heartland, everyday life is soooooo much less stressful and "aggravating" than it is in the big city, where bullies, antagonism, dirt, noise, crowds, and physical impediments are always getting in your way.)

For me and my classmates, the Ol' Hometown still has the looming, fairy-tale quality that places where you grew up can have. But for most people, it probably qualifies as "someplace unremarkable that you whizz through on your way to someplace else."

So what to label it then? It isn't dynamic enough to be a Joel Garreau "Edge City"; it isn't paved-over or commercial enough to qualify as sprawl; despite the McMansions, it still has working farms and ample countryside; and it certainly isn't the small town it once was. Yet, whatever strange creature it has become, it isn't all that uncommon in the U.S. -- surely there are thousands of places like it. Why should such a typical set of arrangements go without a good name? A pop-sociology book contract with a big advance to the person who comes up with the catchiest label for it.

Semi-related: I rhapsodized about my beloved Central-Western New York State back here. The bard of the region is the very eloquent Bill Kauffman. The book of Kauffman's that most directly concerns the region is his funny and heartbreaking "Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette." 2Blowhards did a five part q&a with Bill: Intro, part one, part two, part three, part four, part five. I wrote a posting on the theme of "Weirdos and Culture" that can be read here.

Do you ever get back to the town where you grew up? If not, why not? If so, how does the revisit affect you? And what do you notice about the life-satisfaction ratings of people your own age?



posted by Michael at September 13, 2007


Well, I grew up on what used to be the eastern edge of the New York-Penn League, where we were rivals to Kauffman's Clippers. (Now Muckdogs.) I go back regularly to visit, and little has changed, except the ambitious keep moving out so the ratio of normal-folks-to-snotty-aging-hippy declines with every year. Also, nearby Cooperstown has lost nearly all its normal small-town business to chains 20 or 30 or even 40 miles away, and the vacuum has been filled with too many "baseball boutiques". (And the countryside with horrifying new "training camps" for spoiled suburban brats.)

I was surprised to learn from Kauffman's book that upstaters drank "pop" instead of "soda". In fact, they only do that in the western extreme of the state, or "out in the snout" as I like to call it. Check out . That led me to look for other differences between eastern and western Upstate. E.g., the New Englanders blended in more smoothly, with the wackier ones heading for the "burned-over" district. And there's more of a nuanced love/hate relationship with NYC in the east than in the west, where it seems to be pure hate. The city annoyed-- and scared-- us as well, but many of us were drawn to it for television and professional sports, so it had its useful side, too.
(Also, eastern Upstate is nearly 200 years older than western!)

Posted by: Reg C├Žsar on September 13, 2007 11:33 PM

The report on my recent (last weekend) 50th reunion is written and waiting in the posting queue, and it'll probably go live Sunday.

As readers will learn, my class was large -- around 670 graduating and perhaps 750 in the flow at one time or another. About 240 were at the various reunion events -- probably a lot more than Michael had at his shindig.

The sheer numbers would have limited opportunities to probe the way Michael did. But the truth is, the idea of asking about life-satisfaction never entered my mind. (Michael, Friedrich and I seem to have distinctively different minds, you might have noticed.)

However, a classmate produced a book about our class, and one section contained biographical notes by class members who chose to send them in. Okay, this is a self-selected sample that doesn't necessarily represent the "universe" of the class. And what follows are my impressions of what I read without doing a thorough re-reading. Keep in mind that my group is basically 68 years old and nearly all are retired.

One thing that struck me was that the women tended to focus on grandchildren, if they had any. And grandchildren were a source of satisfaction to those who bothered to mention them. Women also tended to mention family as a satisfying thing.

A number of men and women mentioned participation in religion or religion-based charities or outreach organizations.

Others mentioned travel and hobbies and some said that they were simply happy to be alive and reasonably healthy.

Unfortunately, I don't have enough information to examine my class using Michael's categories.

It'll be interesting to learn what Michael finds at reunions once his class enters the retirement years and careers are abandoned.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on September 14, 2007 12:35 AM

As far as personality types go, maybe the engineers you reacquainted with have learned through endless meetings to suppress the appearance of weakness or indecision. Tolerating interminable boredom (during meetings) while maintaining alertness for that one scrap of relevancy is the life that noble-minded college grads often find themselves working as senior engineers.

So they have a more practiced calm-face than those who haven't been buffed and worn down by their profession. It doesn't mean that they are happier, just abler to subtly redirect conversation.

Posted by: Ed from Malabar on September 14, 2007 12:40 AM

I'm wondering how many of those restless artsy types have kids. I know in my class, most of the artsy types are still childless. Those of us artsy types who do have kids are far more grounded, I've found. We tend to weave our art into the fabric of making money and being a parent. I think just having others to look after helps shake you out of all that self-indulgent angst.

That said, it's relative, as compared to the tech/fireman/cops/teachers, we're still flakes.

I should add that I attended my 20th high school reunion last year.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 14, 2007 1:40 AM

I have never attended a high school reunion, and I never return to my home town of 5,000 people in rural Illinois. No connection, especially since my best friend in high school died.

There's just nothing there. My connection to Illinois is the University of Illinois and the blues clubs along Halsted Street and on the South Side of Chicago. And, every time I go back, fewer guys are alive. The music biz is a killer.

The art world is a terrible grind. I'll write today in my blog about an incident in Woodstock that brought this home to me. When Myrna entered my life, she tried to turn my work as a musician to service. Since she was Filipino, she saw service as the best goal. So, she tried to pry me away from music as the expression of my ego, and to redirect me toward serving others. Not that she was entirely successful.

Since she departed this world, I've been trying to move my work as an artist more toward service. I do more volunteer work for the Catholic Church, even though I am only a lukewarm cafeteria Catholic. So, I'm doing the website for one parish, and I play benefits for any parish that asks. I try to subdue my desire to scream at the audience that I want to be entirely a creative musician, and I play the tunes (happily, if I can) that they want to hear. God help me, I sometimes hope that in the next life the oldies are erased from existence. How many times can a person want to hear "Brown Eyed Girl?"

Since I also work as a techie, I can attest that those men who work solely in technical fields, without the artistic aspirations, really are happier and more at peace. Their achievements are more concrete. Many of these men are also great craftsmen, carpenters, and mechanics.

I wish that I had had more children... maybe five or six, instead of only two. My hopes for grandchilren are pinned on my two daughters, and that's a little unfair to them. Why didn't I have more children? Well, the women weren't that cooperative. And, I was adversely influenced by the anti-kid hysteria of the hip communities where I lived... San Francisco, New York City and Woodstock.

My children are the greatest source of satisfaction in my life... not because they revere me or even come around that much. They are my link to the future. I didn't realize when I was young just how important this is.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on September 14, 2007 8:46 AM

About the agonies suffered by art-type guys: isn't it a matter of commitment? Once the decision has been made that this is it, this is what I'm going to be doing for the rest of my life - be it paint, write, compose music, make films - and damn whether it's necessary or not, well, a lot of the torment falls away and is replaced with the hard slog of any other hard job. The issue is not what the world thinks of it, the issue is whether it's necessary for you.

There's a great story by Saroyan about when he was young and poor and saw a sharp looking suit in the window of a men's clothing store and had to have that suit. So he hocked his typewriter to buy the suit (this was the Depression so maybe a suit was the price of a used typewriter). Anyway, now he had his suit and it felt great to be wearing it...for a while. But soon he started feeling like...a ghost. So when he had the price he went back to the hock shop and reclaimed his typewriter and now I'm not a ghost anymore, now I'm sitting in front of my typewriter and writing and I'm real again.

That's how you know. If it's necessary for you.

Posted by: ricpic on September 14, 2007 9:05 AM

Your experience is largely the opposite of what conventional wisdom would expect us to encounter. Why, the technical types should be soulless corporate drones, ground down to nothing by years of clock-punching and reduced to counting the years until retirement, while the artsy types should be happy-go-lucky folks reveling in their freedom from stifling corporate culture. It seems as if the conventional wisdom may not be so smart after all.

I've never been to any high school or college reunions myself, and indeed my interest in doing so is pretty close to zero. About a month ago, I went back to the city where I grew up for the first time in over two years. It's only a couple hours away, but I no longer have any real ties there and hence no reason to visit. There were quite some notable changes, both good and bad. The good part was that there seemed to have been a flurry of house contruction in the outlying parts of town, along with a good deal of new retail development. The bad part is that the downtown area, which has been struggling for years, has gone completely down the toilet.

Posted by: Peter on September 14, 2007 9:11 AM

The hometown thing is alien to me, not that I wish at times that it'd been different. Seems each major stage of rising from the primordial pool of kid-dom to college graduate wise-ass was spent in a different locale. As we moved around quite a bit, long-term friendships never formed. I did make it all the way through high school attending only one school, so I'd guess central Jersey could come as close to a hometown locale as any. Only made it back for one reunion at the all boys Catholic prep school I attended. We were a motley bunch. Some veterans of Woodstock, other veterans of Vietnam, one guy was a short-lived porn star, 2 West Point grads (both bitter of their life choice commitments), one guy in a leather coat dragging on the floor was, among other things, a bouncer at a strip club in Newark, two guys working at NPR in Chicago, 3 (or was it 4?) suicides, a few college professors, one guy (you know the type) married well and was helping run a horse farm in Nebraska, 2 priests, and a guy who was in the "arts" and then decided to become a professional wrestler in Japan. He attracted most of our attention as his story-telling skills combined with his demonstration of various "killer" grips were the (excuse me, here) "bomb".

One guy that I remember the most was a tall heavy-set goofy looking guy. In high school days he was the designated lug, the good-natured soul we dragged around to parties or soccer games for protection. Wouldn't hurt a fly, but looked as if he heave VW vans with no problem. Turns out he graduated with a degree in Geology, married, and is happily raising kids. He lived somewhere out West, forgot exactly where. Utah? Montana?
"Would you come back to Jersey?", I asked him.
He looked at me with weary eyes and said, "I came back to see who was still alive. The guys I liked still are and that's enough for me. Those were dark days back then; I don't need to see the physical reminders again. Ever."

He shook my hand and said he was glad to have seen me again and to have met my wife.
"I probably will never see you again. Have a good life", he said.
He hasn't and I have.

He was the most memorable person of all of the memorable people from that HS reunion. I haven't gone to another one since. I always wondered if the reason I haven't been back was because of the tone of his goodbye.

Posted by: DarkoV on September 14, 2007 9:29 AM

great musings. totally in accord with the reality i see around me. guys with artsy temperaments do have one thing on the contented problem-solving 9 to 5ers -- more exciting sex and love lives. whether this makes them happier is up for debate.

i once traveled back home to the place that made me who i am. the house i grew up in was repainted. seemed fitting.

Posted by: roissy on September 14, 2007 10:49 AM

This is the big Five-Oh for my high school class and the Reunion people have been after me for months to sign up and get there. I don't have enough money to go back to Portland (I'm in Montana) if I wanted to, but I don't want to anyway, so that's fine.

I was a drama student who thought about it one day, decided I wasn't much of an actor and that it was smarter to live an actual dramatic life -- take the risks. That meant no kids. But it also meant that if I survived (and I don't mean combat or drug use -- just the unexpected and the committed), I'd have something to write about. This worked and my first "published" book will come out next month. ("Bronze Inside and Out: A Biographical Memoir of Bob Scriver" -- he was my husband, first and only.) I was one of four wives -- some say the "best" one. It's not that I was that good -- just the least destructive and crazy.

The things I did along the way were about as much accidental as choices: I mean the possibilities that turned up were accidents and then I chose from them. Not conventional (dog-catching, Unitarian ministry, teaching on a reservation, marrying an old sculptor) but in retrospect all oddly satisfying.

The thing is, when I go to reunions with some of those old 500 classmates, they can't relate. The only ones I care about are the ones in the "drama department" and they never attend. None of them went into theatre. I relate to the teachers, but they're all dead of old age. My college class might be something else. I tried linking up to my seminary cohort (only 6 of us) and they were not interested. They're busy. Happy? Who knows? Doesn't seem a relevant question to them, I think.

My grade school class meets for dinner once a month over there in Portland. Our neighborhood slid into being ghetto and now is slowly rehabbing. I think the class meets as a way to go to a place that no longer exists. They are overweight, red-faced, good-natured, and have no memory of being vicious to me in the primary grades. I remember. I forgive them -- mostly.

My real cohort is the Blackfeet kids I taught in the Sixties. We still have a lot in common. Sometimes they swing by the house, which is why I live here. Lots of little reunions all spread out.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on September 14, 2007 11:17 AM

I'm on both sides, professionally a software engineer, and a committed musician since I was 11. I get satisfaction from the job for all the reasons you mention. Having a good job (and kids) puts the arts stuff in perspective, as someone said above. I would say for me it's like blogging is for you. No hope, or interest, in making a career of it, but a great way to share with others.

I think most of the artsy sturm and drang comes from not winning fame. That is ultimately what so many go into the arts for. Those who don't get it by middle age are sure to be bitter. Since I gave up the idea of being a professional musician, I've felt a lot less of that. I enjoy music and I'm engaged in it now more than ever.

An artist buddy of mine from high school is a good example. He went off to New York to set the arts world on fire in his mid 20s. Nothing happened, probably in large part because of his screwy personality. Now in his mid-40s, man is he ever bitter. Even though he hasn't painted in years he still self-identifies as an artist. He became so wedded to hitting it big that he's a mess now that it's clear it'll never happen.

Posted by: Todd Fletcher on September 14, 2007 12:40 PM

A lot of teenage boys unconciously fear that they aren't smart, tough, or "alpha" enough to compete with other men in conventional careers and convince themselves that being an artist is their shortcut to status.

I don't know Todd Fletcher's friend but he seems to fit the profile of some of the guys I've known.

Posted by: PA on September 14, 2007 1:14 PM

Reg -- There *is* a dramatic diff between eastern and western upstate, isn't there? East has all those English and Dutch ghosts. West is almost like Ontario or Ohio. Our idea of "the big city" wasn't NYC -- it was Toronto. Nuances, nuances. Funny the way NYC people tend to think "upstate" means Scarsdale.

Donald -- Looking forward to your reunions posting. That's a big school, and a big turnout. As for my own methods ... Well, let's say all I do is meander around and form impressions. Science be damned!

Ed -- That's a funny snapshot of one of the skills engineer-types pick up, tks.

Patriarch - So how'd the old classmates seem to you?

ST -- I know what you mean about not having a connection ... Though I like my old town and public high school, I feel only the slightest connection with the prep school I attended and the college I went to. A few lasting friends aside, they're over and done with, as far as I'm concerned. The kids thing ... I wonder if there are good general rules about that. My guess is that most people oughta go for kids. But not everyone. I've certainly seen kids who hated their parents and/or turned out to be bum kids, parents who thought their lives had been ruined or at least cripped by their kids ... Hard to know. In the artsworld, parents and kids often have a terrible time. The kid hates the parents for making a prioirity of the art, the parent hates the kid for getting in the way of all-too-rare art-time.

Ricpic -- But do you find that that one-time making of a commitment ever really does it? Or resolves anything? Seems to me that most times people have to commit themselves to a life, then recommit to it, then re-re-commit to it ... With each effort involving more and more in the way of misgivings and regrets. The handful of people who seem to have committed once and for all tend to turn out like Townes Van Zandt, drunk and out there (great though he was). The other 99% of us seem to be stuck with far more divided lives. But maybe I'm just making excuses...

Peter -- Funny, isn't it, the way the artsworld often gets portrayed as the free and easy alternative to conventional life when the reality often is that it's pretty hellish by comparison? I have no idea whether to blame that on the artsworlds (false publicity?) or on the fantasies of the convnetional world (people dreaming that somewhere, someplace, they'd be freer and happier than they are, and projecting that onto the arts) ...

DarkoV -- I think you've got subject matter for a novel there.

Roissy -- Thanks. And then you wind up paying for all the youthful sexual hijinks. But why not enjoy them while they're there, of course?

P. Mary -- I like your idea of many different kinds of reunions. Ain't it the truth.

Todd -- There's a lot to be said for balance and perspective, isn't there? I marvel at the people who manage to establish and find it.

PA -- So true. The funny thing is that some of them actually do succeed in the arts. And, oh, doesn't the ego come out then!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 14, 2007 1:40 PM

I went to my tenth, fifteenth, twenty-fifth and a more impromptu thirty (first? fourth?) reunions. Traditionally the class officers arrange them, but our class president agreed to turn undercover informant rather than do time when arrested for pot. Just before graduation about thirty kids were caught up in a "major" (by suburban small town standards in those days) drug bust. He left town immediately after graduation and wasn't going to get very far arranging any class reunions. In the end a loose confederation of cheerleaders and similar "in crowd" types tried to do a fifth. I was still living in town then and actively hid from them ... five years is too soon for a reunion.

It took a few friends I wanted to see returning to town for the tenth reunion that I otherwise would have missed to get me to the tenth. It proved to be fun and interesting. I discovered a handful of classmates whose lives had gone in directions dramatically different from what one might have expected from their high school personas.

At the last reunion I attended, close enough to Michael's at 30+ I noticed something similar about who seemed content and who didn't, although it didn't surprise me. I've always thought of those with an "artistic temperament" as different than those without, regardless of what career paths they choose to take. Artists (whether they paint on canvas or are carpenters) are about innovation, personal expression, craftsmanship, communication and so on. Non-artists like to fit in, be sociable and do a good job.

After years of working in the arts and with artists I have a different take than some of the comments here. Where an engineer MIGHT decide to set up in the basement and solve a set of engineering problems for the challenge of doing so, it is highly unlikely. They'll get a job and be given a specific problem or set of problems to solve. If they do, they'll be given an "attaboy" and another set of problems. Marketing and human resources and all the other aspects of the business will be handled by other specialists leaving the engineer to, well, engineer.

Artists are most often in the position of simultaneously making art and doing all the entrepreneurial tasks associated with running a small business. "Fame" is not so much a goal in itself as an analog of the "attaboy" the engineer gets from their supervisor when a project is successfully completed and a means to make a living from their passion. There may be plenty of jobs that tap artistic talents ... copywriter, graphic designer, jingle composer ... but these are not the same as creating art. For the most part artists are always struggling to balance their aesthetic goals with the need to sell, sell, sell in order to survive. In short, being an artist is a long hard slog. Furthermore, there is always more to say, more to express. It isn't like an artist gets regular up-ticks in their pay grade or a new title and better office.

Posted by: Chris White on September 14, 2007 7:25 PM

I skipped out on my 5 and 10 year class reunions, and from the report of the one friend who did go, three quarters of the class skipped out too. Michael, I wonder if there is a generational change here, that younger folks don't keep up with class reunions that their parents do? Interesting to speculate they might see community more as a self-selected, technologically enabled, global phenomenon and less of an accident of where you attended school - and therefore it's less worthwhile to keep up with your high school mates than it is your Myspace friend list. But then again it might be just a Cape Cod phenomenon. (Also interesting to compare private vs. public school reunion attendance. Which was yours?)

In terms of the friendly, laid back, good living atmosphere of country vs. the expensive and competitive city, I've had a different experience moving from the Cape to Boston. Of course neither of those is what you'd call affordable. And the Cape isn't really small town rural any more, but it's still quite a contrast from downtown Boston.

We've found downtown city folk to be helpful, friendly, and community oriented, and that these positive traits cut across the more more diverse racial and economic barriers. Maybe it's just that there's more people overall, and since we're in love with the place we're more willing to see the good sides. But still...

The small town folk we've co-existed with (well, the Cape Codders, and that's the limit of my experience) are just plain mean. At least in public, and exceptions allowed for, of course. But we didn't realize how mean Cape Codders were until we'd been in the city for a few months and it really sunk in how much happier we were. We can have conversations with strangers here, for example, and walking our dogs to the park is like getting an instant invitation into an exclusive, but unpretentious, country club.

Do you really find life simple and easy in much of the rural U.S.? Are people there really more "sweet and helpful"? I'd resisted leaving the Cape for ten years after high school because I'd always assumed life would be so much harder in the city, but after making the change I'm coming around to Sherlock Holmes's view:

"It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside."

Posted by: Nate on September 14, 2007 11:20 PM

Nate -
Could the attitude problems of so many people on Cape Cod result from the fact that it's a tourist area?

Posted by: Peter on September 15, 2007 10:42 AM

Peter -

Yeah, I think so. You've got a pretty big divide there between the well-to-do retired population and the service class who can barely afford to live there while they wait on them. Then theres throngs of tourists making life miserable in the Summers, and then lonely desolate winters (my favorite time there, actually).

Certainly not a typical rural experience, but it's all I've got. So I was curious to see how it compares to others' experiences of rural vs. urban living.

Posted by: Nate on September 15, 2007 11:51 AM

Michael, this posting was really good.

It makes me think of a couple of observations I have made of people in arts professions.

-- First, your reflections on the restless/troubled arts people, uncertain whether their lives are working out, support my view that any artist who manages to make a respectable professional career of their art, is deserving of very deep praise. In our celebrity-loving, honor-obsessed U.S. culture, we tend to focus on superlatives ... But there's a lot of admirable discipline and accomplishment in just being a minor writer or painter who has built a steady career out of doing what they love. As an artist, you have to impose order upon chaos not only in your works, but also in your life, and it's very hard to do.

-- Second, your observations show, I think, that settling into a routine has a long-term salutary effect on an individual's well-being. The techie types, who seemed so untroubled, are beneficiaries of that. They are in careers where the expectations are clear, the career path is pretty standardized, and what counts as success is pretty well-defined. In the arts, everything is so fuzzy, that I think it creates torment in people who are not able to create/discover/impose their own rules in their own careers. Read about accomplished artists, and more likely than not, they imposed a pretty impressive discipline upon themselves; they worked steadily; and even if they fretted over the fuzziness of standards of success, they kept working anyway. I think artists are happy to the extent that they can impose some kind of routine and discipline upon themselves that resembles the discipline of the techies.

Posted by: James on September 15, 2007 12:27 PM

RE: The Perils of the Artistic Life.
Man do I relate to a lot of what Michael, Thomas, Mary and the Patriarch have to say. Its good to know that one is not alone. And it is true how the flakiness and obsessiveness are serious obstacles to settling down into some kind of normalcy. I'm only in my early thirties and I can already see how the life artistic has taken its toll on my career. My first attempt at a real job was as a lawyer (after a very flakey decision to go to law school) and that was a complete disaster. I'm a pretty smart guy, so I could have done OK, but I would have had to commit totally to it. No art. The second thing is that its not really a career for a creative, slightly flakey guy, its about dotting those i's and crossing those t's. Not my strengths. The only good thing I can say about the experience is that it taught me a lot about discipline and hard work.

The art thing has also been an stumbling block to long-term relationships. As Roissy points out there are a lot of bad girls out there who are happy to give it up for you. But if you are a church guy who really isn't into that whole casual sex thing you are pretty much SOL. Nice church girls want a steady provider not some half crazed artist, however otherwise attractive. Its not entirely surprising that artists have such furtive sex lives, cheap sex is about all they can get.

I do think that artists tend to be a little crazier than in other professions. Or at least crazy in a way that's different from other professions. For coming up with new ideas, it helps to be a little off-centre. But there is also a tendency going the other way: the great art really strives to express human universals. Its about what comes home to men's bosoms. All mens' bosoms. So, while minor artists tend often to be quite mad, its not entirely surprising that those at the very top, Shakespeare, Bach, Spielberg, have tended to be surprisingly normal middle class people. And good businessmen.

Posted by: Thursday on September 15, 2007 1:46 PM

A great post and so many interesting comments. Too many hit-the-nail-on-the-head observations from all of you to mention, but I will give a shout out to commenter "Peter," a fellow exile from The Brass City. Going back there for visits always brings the conflicting homecoming feelings Michael talked about. I last visited a couple years ago (still have family there). But as for "the downtown going down the toilet," I'm not sure what you mean, unless it's a reference to all the crack-heads, political corruption and abandoned buildings. ;)

Ah, but what else is new? Actually, what was new to me was meeting a younger generation of enthusiastic local musicians and artists who seemed kind of upbeat about the local scene -- something I never experienced growing up there.

Should I have told them to quit while they're still ahead and go become engineers for the sake of their future happiness?

I really don't know. As a single, poor and, to be honest, increasingly bitter artsy guy in his mid-30's, I'm actually typing this comment from the desk of one of my soul-sucking day jobs, and I have nothing much to add, except this link to a poem, in which Charles Baudelaire, the spiritual godfather of every modern tormented bohemian loser, describes the doomed trajectory of that "artsy guy" prototype, Icarus:

Posted by: N.C. in L.A. on September 15, 2007 10:06 PM

What about guys on the power/money track? Bankers, lawyers, managers? More or less happy?

Posted by: SFG on September 15, 2007 10:26 PM

NC in LA: Thanks for the very apropos Baudelaire reference.

I'll provide another one: Julian Barnes' great first novel "Metroland", which describes exactly this trajectory and even counterpoints the difference between the protagonist, who has left Bohemia and is satisfied and at peace, and his boyhood friend, who has not and has developed some (fairly mild) antisocial habits.

Very nice post, MvB. Thanks.

Posted by: jult52 on September 16, 2007 11:38 AM

What about guys on the power/money track? Bankers, lawyers, managers? More or less happy?

My guess? If they didn't burn out and had the right temperament for high-pressure work, they're quite happy by the time their 35th reunion rolls around. Especially if their career progressed from high-stress middle management up to more senior levels.

Posted by: PA on September 16, 2007 11:43 AM

To echo SFG--did your classmates really divide so neatly into engineers and artsy types? No professionals? No small businesspeople? No farmers? No corporate executives?

Sticking to your original point, however, I wonder if most of the problems in the contemporary art world don't come down to its lack of a stable business structure. Read about Renaissance artists and their workshops and it sounds like, well, somebody running a subcontracting business (with the Catholic Church and the City Fathers as the client/prime contractor.) Nothing terribly Romantic about it, very practical, down to earth, and political in the way that contracting is always political (it matters who you know, you've got to be adept about kickbacks, etc.). And yet out of a very down and dirty, "businesslike" workshop like that of Andrea del Verrocchio's come creative oddball/geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci. The problem with post-Romantic art is that it lionizes the Leonardos and dismisses the Verrochios, without realizing the link between them. It makes one wonder if the creative angst of Post-Romantic art isn't a matter of the collapse of the traditional petty-bourgeois artistic workshop ethos in the "modern" capitalist world.

Funny they didn't talk about this stuff at our Lousy Ivy University!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 16, 2007 12:29 PM

A subject dear to my heart. I attended my 10 year reunion (my 20 year is next year). I was surprised to discover that my ex-girlfriend (the impractical musical hippie type) had turned into a business-oriented person, and I had turned into a geek-wannabee. In contrast, many people with more conventional career paths were turning toward travelling, religion, arts, crazy hobbies.

BTW, Apted's Up Series documentary has given me insight into how people's early decisions change them and don't change them. Watching 42 Up a few years ago made me, that's how I'm going to be in 2008. 49 Up from last year helped me to see what to expect.

I personally love reunions. They are indispensable to understanding characters if you are a writer or screenwriter. The Before/After glimpse really helps.

the artistic life has involved varying levels of commitment and sacrifice (both mental and financial) over my life. Some times (like now for instance), it has been extraordinarily difficult. And yet I feel the most "free" at the moment. Is that a contradiction?

Posted by: Robert Nagle on September 16, 2007 3:04 PM

But what we were really waiting to hear, Michael, was how you handled the reality that those girls you always had the hots for were shall I put it?...less than what you had remembered? (Or was it the other way around?)


Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 16, 2007 4:26 PM

Nate: You may be on to something. I skipped my 5 and 10-year reunions with extreme prejudice, and a friend of mine - the only high school friend I still see - sent back the unopened 10-year invitation marked "Deceased: Return To Sender". I'm New Jersey so it may just be the Northeast we're discussing.

City and country? I grew up in an ultra-prim small town that was sullen and withdrawn on a good day, prying and judgmental on a bad, and soul-crushingly dull no matter when - lives of quiet desperation indeed. My Manhattan neighborhood has a goofy friendliness about it, without ever being intrusive or violating one's anonymity. It's heaven on earth, except for the rents. A power failure in the city saw everyone checking up on their elderly neighbors, then rushing to the pubs for drinks and laughter; a power failure in the small town saw everyone sitting at home in the dark.

While I'm being iconoclastic, how about a counter-example to Michael's trend? My dad was an engineer and about as far from content as one could imagine. He was the dreamy type - prolly an INFP for you Myers-Briggs fans - and totally unsuited for lock-step normalcy. I take after him and make my living more or less in the arts world and on the whole I'm happy as a clam.

Maybe the happy artists don't go to reunions?

Speaking of Myers-Briggs, I'd bet that the countryside, suburbs, and technical jobs are filled with SJs, the so-called Guardian types who make up 50% of the population, while big cities and the arts are filled with NTs, NFs, and SPs. So I guess it's a matter of finding one's niche.

Posted by: Brian on September 16, 2007 6:10 PM

I went to one grammar school reunion (20th) and one H.S. (10th).

The grammar school was by far the more interesting. I went to an all-girls Catholic (non-parochial) school for eight years with pretty much the same 40 girls, give or take. We had one evening of all-girls, which I organized, and had fun at; it had been preceded by an evening of co-ed drinking/dining with our brother school, which was planned by a more popular girl when she found out I'd planned an all-girls get-together.

The result? Sadly, the steam was taken out of the latter affair because of the former where, even more sadly, a lot of the old sturm und drang and social jockeying was still very much in place.

The H.S. was an interesting novelty event, but with a graduating class of 1000, it was hard to reach critical mass. I had more fun in the prearranged carpool with a couple of girlfriends.

Maybe it's different if you come from a small town; having grown up in Chicago with a four-year sentence in Evanston (huge suburb bordering Chi just to the north), going "home" is fraught with a whole lot of things besides nostalgia.

Posted by: communicatrix on September 16, 2007 6:47 PM

"Maybe the happy artists don't go to reunions?"

That's a very good point. A few guys in my class and the classes right before and after mine have gone on to be very successful artists, mostly in music. None of them have gone to any reunions, save one guy who finally showed up at our 20th last year and absolutely lapped up all the attention.

Posted by: the patriarch on September 17, 2007 1:28 PM

I have gone back to my hometown both intensively (89-98), and sparsely (99-07). I mostly visit family - I don't connect as well with old friends as I would like (mostly because my wife doesn't seem to like them much).

My hometown is Williamsville. It was the edge of the northeastern suburbs of Buffalo when I was a kid. It is now one ring in. For those who know the area, I grew up in, and identify with, the village, not the postal area or school district.

Since I left I have lived a nice life in Tuscaloosa, Salt Lake City, New Orleans, and now tiny, remote Cedar City.

I went back a lot from 89 to 98 because it was easy: we were dink academics ... why not go back to BFLO for 3-6 weeks a year. After we had kids, we decided to seriously cut back - time for people to visit us. We've been back 3 times in the 9 years since, and once was for a quick demise and funeral.

What struck me the most was how extraordinarily easy and comfortable life was in affluent, suburban, upstate New York.

What also struck me was what sticks-in-the-mud the people who stayed behind, or returned there, turned out to be.

They aren't necessarily unhappy, but they seem to have a limited vision of who they are and what they can be. They lead similar lives to me, but their world doesn't seem new and inviting. I've lived in a small (!) and remote (!!!) city for 7 years now, and it seems brand new almost all the time. Do I have that sense of wonder because I moved, or did I move because I have it?

One other thing ... what is the fascination in upstate New York with relocating to North Carolina? I'm sure it's a very nice state, but there are a million other nice places in the world too. It's like there's a wormhole in one of those science fiction movies, but all it does is suck people from BFLO to Charlotte. WTF?

Posted by: David Tufte on September 22, 2007 1:42 AM

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