Last night, after work, I had the pleasant surprise of receiving from my friend Scott the dozen-or-so letters I wrote him when I lived in France, from 1986-1987.
I had an exhausting yesterday, and wanted to just lie in bed and shut my mind off. I didn’t have the emotional energy to expend on the letters. So, this morning, after a walk around the neighborhood on a nice Spring day, I sat on the couch for the last hour or so, and read six of them. It’s very rare that you get to glimpse a younger-you. What was I like? What were my concerns? Looking at my correspondence from the time let me sink back into those years and examine myself, maybe a little too harshly.
Here are a few thoughts about 18-year-old me:
- I used every scrap of space. The outside of the envelope would have comments. The margins of the stationery (which was generally lined notebook paper). I’d draw pictures of math problems I was working out, or quote funny moments from George Carlin albums, or occasional inside jokes Scott and I had shared. Most of them I remember (some quite vividly). There are one or two that have faded back into history.
- I made lots and lots of racist, homophobic comments, and racist, homophobic terms. Used the word “beaner” to describe a dear Mexican friend, and (once) the n-word to describe the very lovable Liberian-American Todd. It kind of makes me queasy in retrospect. I have no excuses for it, except, maybe, I was trying to impress Scott. I new better. Even then, I truly didn’t think of others in a disparaging way. If a person can be ashamed of a 30-years-younger self, I guess I am, but that was a long time ago on a continent far, far away. I was a jerk when I was 18. Who wasn’t, I guess…
- I caught myself in a couple lies or self-aggrandizing moments. I told Scott at one point that I was dating my Dutch friend Astrid. I wasn’t. I asked her out, and she didn’t want relationship like that. Thank *God* we didn’t, because her goodwill and tenderness as a friend got me through a really tough time a few months later. I mentioned, in a letter about 3 weeks after I arrived in France, that I was having a hard time thinking and writing in English. Ludicrous. And, again, self-aggrandizing.
- I was occasionally funny, but not quite as funny as I thought. Maybe I was trying too hard.
- I was quick to point out stuff, usually couched in comical imagery and terms, stuff that I “hated.” Foods, classes, certain professors. I was trying to be funny. Sometimes I developed a liking for the very stuff I professed to hate. Maybe I already had.
- I really didn’t approach, with any degree of frankness, some of the more depressing times of culture shock, even though letters were written right around those moments. No mention of my host mother badly spraining her ankle on a dismal trip to Paris around Christmastime. Or my massive faux-pas of tearing down the Christmas tree before Three Kings Day. It caused a huge, angry stir in my family, totally unbeknownst to me, because I was spending the weekend with Astrid. Around that time I cautioned Scott to not spell my name in silly ways, on the envelopes of the letters he sent me. I was sternly reprimanded for his writing of “Carp Brianpter” and “Carpochev Brianov”. I thought it was hilarious, but apparently the post office didn’t. It was around that time I started getting literally sick from the tension in the exchange-family.
- Scott and I had lots of inside jokes. Vern Stewart, who we irreverently called “Stewie”; a porter with a weird vocal cadence on the Amtrak train we rode together to Denver; George Carlin quotes were scrawled on every part of the letter.
- In that time,Scott had transferred from Oregon Institute of Technology, to the University of Oregon. He roomed with Rusty Casper, another high school friend. There was lots of partying going on in Eugene recently.
- There were a couple frank admissions. One letter I told him (paraphrasing) when I get back to the states, and I go to college, I want to be smart again. I’m not smart in France. I’m the huge, strong American. In France, I was near the top of the school in all aspects of physical education: Football, volleyball, basketball, running, discus and shot put. In the USA, I was smart, but (comparatively) terrible at sports. I got kind of a mental whiplash from suddenly being the popular athlete. In the United States, I was Dilton Doiley; in France, Moose Mason.
- I talked about music and how much our French school jazz band sucked. I played piano. I was making much ado about nothing. We were regionally acclaimed as pretty dang good.
I’m thankful–profoundly gratified–really, that Scott kept these letters all those years. People change. I know I did. Back then, I was much less apt to tell people how I really felt. I hid things behind a mask of brusqueness or humor. I’d make myself bigger than I needed to be. But there was something genuine about younger-me; something a little heartbreaking actually, between the striving.
If I ever wonder if I’ve found what it is 1986 Brian was looking for, I can say “some of it,” I guess. We keep growing, all of us, until we don’t. Lord don’t ever let me stop trying to overcome my weaknesses and anger. The worst sin of all is giving up when there’s still a chance of betterment.