Sunday, August 30, 2009

Collegehood's End

To the friends of our youth we often ascribe virtues far in excess of their merit. I feel that my college friends were smart, witty, true leaders and wise. I remember many deep, wise and/or humorous discussions late into the night; if recorded for posterity, these would have revolutionized the course of civilization!

Or something.

The more likely explanation is that, at the time, I had actually met rather few people and acquired not very much wisdom. I had few social skills, in part having been raised by an alcoholic millworker and in part to having attended a religious highschool that valued unquestioning obedience over personal hygiene. However, having nothing to compare my condition to, I naturally felt rather sophisticated although, mysteriously, not well accepted by people who wore nice clothing. (Didn't they know that inner qualities are more important than knowing about taking a shower regularly? How foolish of them! or so I felt.)

That I can look back over the decades and understand the mere facts of my youth does not overcome my still firmly-felt belief that the friends of the time were exceptionally fine.
This may work in reverse. I had a roommate enrolled in courses that I'd taken the year before. I helped him whenever he hit a snag and thereby acquired an entirely undeserved reputation for knowing what the hell I was talking about. I hope he never figures this out ;-)
Over time, we grow. We meet more people and realize that the chance acquaintances of a large but mediocre university are no longer the smartest, most clever or even the most interesting people we know.

Pre-internet, we'd gradually move apart, as we moved to different cities in pursuit of romance, career or better karma. The gradual attenuation of relationships is almost painless, as others better suited to our maturing selves fill any gaps. Eventually there may be a 25th-year-reunion, at which we jovially note our receding hairlines/expanding waistlines, promise to stay in touch, and rarely do. Eventually, with few exceptions, the things of the extended childhood we called college fade away like the Earth of Clarke's greatest novel.

Email changed this natural process by radically cutting the overhead of staying in touch. Now we are limited not by the effort of sending messages, but by that of reading them. This can be great for that keeping in touch with those friends of our youth who have continued to grow up; I'm quite happy to have regained contact with many. But when the natural filter of time and effort is removed, too often our inbox is clogged with those whose glory days were those we should have grown past.

This became painfully evident during the run-up to Bush's invasion of Iraq. In an extensive discussion on a college-friends listserve, it became clear that some of my college friends are simply bellicose assholes who have not earned one point of wisdom since high school; some others were BMOCs who couldn't come to grips with the fact that this mattered nothing anymore. I'm not gonna name any names because what would be the point? In my experience, most assholes are perfectly happy being assholes, and of those who aren't, very few grow up through nagging. Self-knowledge comes other ways.

Of far greater interest is why should this have surprised me? There's no reason to suspect that a randomly selected set of attendees of a mediocre college would not roughly reflect the population from which it is drawn (despite my still fervantly-felt but intellectually-unsupported belief that the friends of my youth have superior qualities.)

This might not be a problem in a social-networking situation where I could filter out the assholes, e.g. facebook, twitter. However, listserves don't filter except at the level of membership admission; if your admission criteria is simply to have been a member of a group at some point in time, you're stuck. Worse, there seems to be a form of Gresham's Law operating: bad writers drive out good writers. This makes it rather profitless to participate in a listserve-style networking beyond a periodic "Hello, here is how to contact me" message; such occasional pinging lets those old friends with whom there is a point in having a discussion to do so in other, more efficient venues.

I enjoy staying lightly in touch with many friends of my youth. They've moved on, grown up and (based on their Facebook pages) gathered many accomplished friends, in whose company I am proud to be numbered. Those who first encouraged me to try martial arts and amateur theater are still inspirations; my first lover is still the standard by which all others are judged (and all but one fell short.) If they happen to travel to my vicinity, we enjoy a coffee together, or some drink a little stronger. But frequent contact via listserve? we don't need it.

Childhood must end.

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