Saturday, 2 June 2012

Neither Empty Nor Full

Working with high schoolers, I get to hear quite a bit about their future hopes and dreams; they're not always interesting or inspiring to me, but they do throw me back to when I was in their position, looking only forward. And almost all my colleagues are still students (I got a small shock the other day when I realised that after me the next oldest person present wasn't even 21 yet, thus 8 years younger than me), and their chatter takes me back to my own varsity days. I have a lot of nostalgia forced on me at work, and the nature of tutoring is that this will never change; the kids will always stay in the same age band, the majority of the other tutors will always be students looking for pocket money, and I'll just keep getting older until I eventually find my own exit.

All of those thoughts congealed in an interesting way recently, and I thought I'd get them out of my head by putting them here. Enjoy.

I tend to have rosy memories of my 4 years at university. There were certainly good things to be had then. I met some great people, and I'm even still in touch with a few of them. We had The Table, which I shall write about separately one day, which was our general social group's fantastic-and-awful regular spot. I had a lot of time off, compared with high school, which I always appreciate. I learnt a lot (which is probably the main point of an educational institution). I became a relatively experienced GM during those years, including running my first properly regular long-term campaign (a Star Trek series titled Last Voyage of the Rutan, and a sort of sequel with the same crew but a different ship, titled Quantum Anomalies). I went vegetarian and then vegan. I had a fucking 30cm-tall Mohawk for about 10 months. And we had our semi-regular social soccer Saturdays, which were great and, together with my habit of walking 15km home from varsity, probably got me as physically fit as I've ever been (that's declined now, but not as badly as most of my friends' fitness declined over the same period, so I'm still alright). And beer! There seemed to be a lot more parties and clubs and booze back then. Where'd that all go?

But it wasn't all dandy back then. I had some serious problems with depression, low self-esteem and social awkwardness (especially around women), which led to poor academic performance (because of several things, ranging from lack of motivation to a phobia-like inability to go into the bookshop and buy the necessary textbooks) and an awful lot of soured social opportunities. I'm always most sorry about the needless aggression I directed at my (mostly innocent) friends. I still enjoy a vigorous, healthy debate (which some people will never be comfortable with), but too often back then I was excessively stubborn, pushy and unreasonable. A lot of the time, I was also just wrong.

But the same problem extended to most of my social or potential social interactions. I mostly just avoided people, because I felt that was easiest. It took me a long time to re-learn how to socialise properly after that. One good example was a sociology prac we did one day, where we had to each compile a list of everyone in class we'd like to meet ("over a beer," I think was the circumstance they specified); I forget exactly what the stated purpose of the exercise was, but something to do with social networking, back before that was an internet wossname. Soon, everyone was talking back and forth, exchanging names with people they hadn't met yet. It'd be fascinating to pick all of that interaction apart, to see why people felt like approaching some peers but not others, and why everyone automatically reciprocated, always getting the name of each person who'd just taken their own name. Except me. At least half a dozen people approached me (quite a feat, considering the impenetrable wall of empty seats and deliberate eye-contact avoidance I normally built up around myself), and I intentionally didn't get any of their names in return, nor approach anyone myself. I just sat there, feeling increasingly uncomfortable, hoping it'd all end quickly. I felt like that a lot of the time back then.

And then there were women... I'd love to have a better understanding of exactly why I was so very awkward with women (and especially with romantic or potentially romantic situations), but it was really awful. My prime randy young bugger years were squandered staring at my feet. And let's be clear, I'm a real catch: Handsome, intelligent, witty, healthy and not excessively modest. I had a fair number of women throwing themselves at me. Some literally (actual literally, not metaphorical literally) just fell into my lap. And yet I spent pretty much all of 2002-2008 inclusive as a complete celibate, not even a single little kiss. I kick myself now, thinking back on all the missed opportunities, and should probably also apologise to everyone who tried with me. (Would it be crazy to offer second chances this late?)

Perhaps my "favourite" story of that sort was the time I'd arrived at The Table between lectures, to find only 2 people there (unusually empty), one of whom was a young lady I'll keep anonymous. She was writing a poem and I was kind of reading it over her shoulder, and eventually she asked what I thought of it. I said, honestly, that I liked the first verse, but the second seemed too bleak and depressing by comparison. So she took it back, crossed out the second verse and replaced it with one line that read, "So what I'm saying is, will you go out with me?"

My brain literally (metaphorically this time) froze. Absolutely no thought went through it for a period of time that I'm not actually sure about. Could have been half a second, could have been 5 minutes; I blanked out too completely to notice time passing. Just as gears started turning again and I was gradually forming a thought similar to "Say Yes," she obviously decided that my silence was a negative response, and instead made a joke of it with the other guy at the table. It never came up again, as I always felt too awkward around her to correct my mistake.

By the time I got to honours year, my mind was on the mend, and while there were still some bad patches ahead, honours was a fantastic year, full of hard work, fun people and the greatest period of learning I've yet had. So even if everything before it was shit (which it wasn't), it would still have been completely worth it. And now I feel mentally quite healthy again, so that's nice.

But my general point is this: I've been forced by my current work conditions to mentally re-live my youth a lot. And the conclusion all of that remembrance has brought me to is that those were neither the best nor the worst years of my life. Or they were both simultaneously. Neither extreme is appropriate on its own. But I can't even bring myself to fully loathe the bad bits; they're a part of who I am now, they shaped my mind and I learned a lot from them. While I might point at some specific bits I wish I could do over differently (specifically, having lots of sex with lots of pretty ladies), I don't think the current version of me, the one writing this, would want to miss out on all of those experiences and thus become a different person. If anything, I'd want more bad (or rather, challenging) experiences earlier in life, so that I could have learned from my mistakes earlier and enjoyed my 20s more. But that's life: There's always something you wish you'd learned after it's too late, and the best we can do is to keep learning as much as we can and make the best  of whatever opportunities arise.