Sunday, February 17, 2008

More than One Way

I took one of those aptitude tests in high school and I scored in the third percentile. That mans that if there was a hundred guys, two of them would be dumber than me. And I could be their leader… --Bobcat Golthwait

Every high school is a small town, an enclosed community with its own rules and customs, some universal, some idiosyncratic. Joss Whedon famously pitched “Buffy, The Vampire Slayer” as “High School is Hell.” The response was almost universally, “And…?”

For a few, most often jocks and cheerleaders, at least in popular imagination, high school is the peak, and it’s all downhill from there. This also happens in college, of course, and all of this applies to the college experience as well. Irwin Shaw’s story, “The Eighty Yard Run,” is about a college football player who recognizes his peak experience many years after it occurs: a spectacular play in his last college game. It seems to offer him the future, but ultimately it becomes nothing but past glory.

For the rest of us, high school and college are prologues, where we are “cursed with great potential,” as Charlie Brown used to say. But even high school and college have more than one hill worth climbing, more than one status pyramid to scale. It is a tad ironic that the highest status for students at an institution of learning is seldom bestowed on those who, you know, actually learn, but there are usually some perks and privileges involved in being a high ranking member or the geek clique, maybe not enough to offset the danger of being bully bait, but you don’t have to be smart or good in school to be bully bait.

Besides, these stereotypes aren’t set in stone. There was more than one jock at Donelson High who was plenty smart and got honestly good grades. There was also my own idiosyncratic, Clark Kent-ish existence, where I compartmentalized my athletic identity at the downtown Nashville YMCA, accepting the bookish knurd label at my high school. I also avoided the awkward high school social scene by almost exclusively dating girls from other high schools.

There have always been these little private retreats from small communities. If one wants a more general escape, one could go to the big city, whichever one that might be, although for centuries that merely meant getting stuffed into some encapsulated community within the city. But at least cross-fertilization was easier. There are a lot more Juliets for the Romeo to find in the big city. Cities are big markets, and one of the markets is in spouses.

Modern transport and communication has broken down the practical barriers to escape from even the most isolated village, at least in this country. But more than that, modern American society has vastly multiplied the number of status hierarchies there are to join and climb.

In The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby and later, The Pump House Gang, Tom Wolfe chronicled the emergence of strange and exotic sub-cultures in the U.S., hot rodders, surfers, and paparazzi, as well as profiling the icons of those sub-cultures, “Big Daddy” Roth, Dick Dale, Phil Spector, Murray the K. The books were revelatory, in the smacking-hand-to-forehead-and-exclaiming “Of course!” kinda way.

If I get a small enough group, I could be their leader…

Science Fiction Fandom was a very small pond until SF hit television and what would once have been cult movies began making mega-bucks. Fandom began as small clubs of geeks (almost exclusively male) who met through pulp magazine letter columns, then ironically bulked up as the magazine slowly died. There was also a time when it all melded, with comic books and D&D gamers side by side with costumers, RenFaire prithee-speakers, and Heyer Teas. Now, disaggregation is the order of the day, and comics or gaming conventions easily top the SF Worldcon in attendance. Moreover, the SF fan base is aging almost as rapidly as the Fox News viewership, and most under-30 convention attendees are legacies, the children of the earlier generation of fans.

Still, I expect the readership at least to get a nice final kick when the Boomers retire, giving many of them the time to catch up on their reading. So I still have some time to sell Dark Underbelly.

And anyway, there’s always Aikido. And I have this essay thing going on...


Kevin Standlee said...

As it happens, I sometimes feel like the peak of my life, like that 80-yard run, was the five days in 2002 when I co-chaired Worldcon. And I sort of was thinking at the time "It's never going to get any better than this," which made the Closing Ceremonies that much more melancholy.

James Killus said...

My recollection of the 2002 Worldcon was that the melancholy was built-in, owing to the dot com crash that hovered in the background. So many of the people I saw their had been recently laid off that it was hard to completely kick back and enjoy things.

I didn't get laid off until 2 months later, so the retrospective memory has more solidarity to it.

I had a pretty good year from 1983 to mid-1984, and then I became badly ill, trashing all sorts of plans etc. I don't think it pays to focus on the 80-yard runs. That tends too much toward the jackpot kind of mentality that I've been railing against for some time. Still, peak experiences are, ah, peaky.

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