Personal Archaeology, 9: When I Was Twenty

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The poster behind me is a Blues Brothers poster.  I still have the 1986 Mets pennant and the I-495 sign.  That sign is worth its own entry.

There’s been this thing going around the internet this week where people post pictures of themselves at the age of twenty. It’s coincided with people sharing their senior class photos, which was some sort of “solidarity with the class of 2020” thing that I didn’t understand*, but I don’t know the reason behind the twenty-year-old thing other than it’s 2020. The picture with this post is one from when I was twenty and a junior in college. It was the only photo of myself that I could find in an old scrapbook** that had nobody else in it. In fact, it was one of the few photos of me at all because I usually was the one taking the pictures and not in them.

In case you’re wondering what’s happening in this picture, the caption I wrote on the page says something about a late night. That means that I’m very likely drunk or if I wasn’t drunk, I was at least pretty exhausted. This would have been the fall of 1997 and around a time when I was not getting along with anyone, including my girlfriend. Those relationship issues would fix themselves pretty quickly, but the fact that I was starting to get very irritated by my roommates and friends would continue to the point where I don’t even like to think about much of my senior year of college. In fact, I think the one year where I wasn’t being treated like shit by those people was probably my sophomore year (I’ll take “things that should have been a fucking sign” for $400, Alex).

Anyway, as I flipped through that old scrapbook, I remembered that my journal from the late 1990s is still in the documents library on my computer, stored in ancient MS Word files that I’d type up on occasion. And I really mean “on occasion.” Between my twentieth birthday on June 23, 1997 and my twenty-first birthday on June 23, 1998, I only wrote eght journal entries. To compare, I’ve written in my journal almost every day since the beginning of this year, and the irony of that is that my life is way more mundane than it was when I was twenty.

Okay, that’s completely false. I mean, yeah, I live a pretty ordinary suburban life, but my life at twenty was as a mundane, boring-assed college student so I shouldn’t make it sound like I was doing anything important other than playing NES Golf or Dr. Mario. But twenty has so much more promise than 42, which is the age by which I should have figured out the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Of course, I still don’t know what the fuck I’m doing, but that’s a whole other conversation that I’m currently having with my journal and my therapist.

I looked at those journal entries and they weren’t so much journal entries as they were very personal essays, as if I was writing my student newspaper column for an audience of one. A lot of it was complaining. I complained about my job (with some really unsavory and offensive things to say about my co-workers), my internship, my roommates, my relationship … I was so much of an entitled asshole that upon my first glance at these old journal entries, I want to hit 88 miles per hour just to go back and have a nice chat with him.

We’ve all seen that television episode, of course–the one where the older version of someone gets to have a moment with the younger version of themselves and the younger version has no clue who he’s talking to. And I suppose that there are those of us out there who don’t feel the desire to do this because they can laugh at whatever silly mistakes they made at twenty***, but those of us who have been spending way too much time trying to not beat ourselves up over whatever it is we did in the past have definitely dreamed of that moment.

But if you were given that opportunity, what would you say? That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it, especially when you consider the consequences of such a conversation. Say I were to go back in time and tell myself to really think about what I wanted to do after college instead of taking the internship in publishing that I honestly only took because it felt like something I was supposed to do. Or say I were to tell myself to put a little more effort into the local newspaper internship that I had so I could build a better portfolio and then, when I got back to college, find someone right away who could offer advice on how to start a writing career right then and there. Or say I were to tell myself to enter the roommate lottery at the end of junior year because it would be so much better for my mental health. What, then, would happen? I mean, I have always kind of regretted staying with my high school girlfriend through my freshman year of college, but the circumstances of the end our relationship directly preceded me meeting my wife.

So this is a serious decision to make. And yes, I realize that I’m not actually making this decision because I don’t actually own a time machine, but I’m being figurative and using that conversation as a symbol for working through one’s past or getting over any regret you possibly could have.

I mean, the journal entries aren’t that bad. I cringe at my selfishness, sense of entitlement and my lack of empathy or understanding of other people. I won’t use “but I was only twenty” at the time because that’s a terrible excuse; however, I will say that in the time since I can say that I have definitely grown in my political and social views as well as how I conduct myself in the world. There’s a part of me who feels as I went through adolescence later than everyone else, and it took me until well into my twenties to work through my immaturity. Yeah, yeah, I know I’m still not 100% mature, but I feel like I was such a late bloomer that it took me longer to get my shit together than a number of other people I knew.

I also can say that I still regret not standing up for myself when I should have or not taking enough risks at the time. Maybe that’s not the right way to phrase it? I guess there’s something to be said about adventures that could have been but weren’t when I was in the latter half of college because I was still acting as if I was going to get in some sort of trouble if I didn’t do exactly what I thought I was supposed to. This is still a huge hangup of mine, but as I consider that year, I wonder what I can learn from all of that. Is my anger at others misplaced? Is my anger at myself misplaced? Should I feel ashamed or can I simply take this moment here, at 42, to contemplate the questions I need to ask myself rather than tally up all of the wrong answers I’ve come up with?

I can say one thing for certain. Before I closed out my junior year at Loyola, I wrote an entry in my journal that was more or less a contemplation of the entire year. I think that I sent part of it to my friends as a “farewell and I’ll see you when the summer is over” email, but since that email account is long gone, I can’t confirm that. Anyway, amidst all of the rather balanced mix of good memories where I was laughing to myself about the stupid crap we did and the lamenting about how terribly I was treated by people who were supposedly my friends, I put some serious thought into the concept of home and where that was. I was in a long-distance relationship, I was sick of the people I was living with, and while “home home” on Long Island felt familiar, I didn’t feel like that was where I belonged. At 42, that uncertainty isn’t there and I know where I want to be.

* And therefore didn’t participate in. Why would my seniors feel better if they saw my photo? Plus, it’s been an excuse for people to show off how attractive they still are and … yeah, whatever.

** Yes, I made scrapbooks starting with my senior year of high school and ending with my senior year of college. It’s no wonder I went on to be a yearbook advisor.

*** Mostly the really attractive, popular people I went to high school with.

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