Monday, November 19, 2012

I'm Older Than the Internet - Thank God.

A running gag among friends and acquaintances, a joke I often play into, is reference to my extremely advanced years. The premise is I'm a very old man, ancient, aged far beyond the known limits of a human lifespan. The jokes, ribbing and needle-sharp sarcasm arising from that can be a lot of fun but the real punchline is I'm not really that old at all... at least a decade away from what used to be considered the age of mandatory retirement.

I'm not so old that I was born, as my friend Jessy Jones once remarked, "by candlelight because electricity wasn't invented yet." I'm in my mid-fifties so yes, electricity was already invented when I was born... but the internet wasn't.

It may seem strange or incomprehensible, perhaps even unbelievable to the young twenty-somethings of today's plugged-in modern world but it wasn't too long ago there was no internet... or cell phones. When I was a young man in my late teens and early twenties things like computers were still far from being a household item. Nobody had cell phones. If you wanted to call someone you had to be at home or find a phone booth. The internet? The TV only had a couple channels and you had to get up, cross the room and turn a dial to do that. High-end TVs weren't monstrous seventy inch 3-D plasma screens with nine hundred pre-programmed channels with built in PVRs which record ten different shows at once. In those days a high-end TV was a color set with a remote control.

I'm glad there was no internet during those strange wild years of my adolescence and early manhood. There are uncountable incidents and situations from that time in my life which might have carved a few interior scars but left no permanent tangible evidence of them ever happening. And for that I am grateful. Sure, there might be a few old friends, acquaintances, family members and others whose memory holds a faded image of some coming-of-age embarrassment I might have endured but it's unlikely their recollections will ever see the public light of day.

The more I think about it the more grateful I am there was no internet around during my final grades of high school and the years immediately after. I was lucky there was no internet back then... or cellphones with their high-def camera and video capabilities. I had a lot of embarrassing moments... epic displays of dangerously stupid and/or ridiculous behavior... and of course borderline-disturbed gang hazing from my peers which might have scarred my psyche permanently had real-life nightmares not already done so. Lots of embarrassing life moments.

Had there been an internet with a YouTube and a Flickr, imgur or other photo sharing site, I would have been a prime candidate for those funny (albeit slightly pathetic) photos of drunken idiots jumping off houses or passed out with one eyebrow shaved off... both things I have personally experienced. Thanks to there being no internet or instant wireless connection to others via cellphone, no video cameras in every hand (or on every corner), no means of passing gossipy news to the whole world with the push of a button, my wild and crazy years went mostly unnoticed by the world at large. 

My friends, family, schoolmates and area acquaintances might have witnessed or heard tell of instances where I acted a complete fool or possibly harassment-victim-as-butt-of-"harmless"-joke but complete strangers would never see evidence of such (unless they happened to actually be there at the time)  because there was no internet, no global interactive data transfer and storage medium available to anyone with a cellphone. Back in those days things got forgotten and embarrassing moments vanished in the mist of past history. And that's a good thing because some of them were not what you'd like to see photo or video evidence of thirty years later! For example...

Back in the days when I and my regular group of friends would get together on weekends and party ourselves exhausted it wasn't uncommon that someone would drink or imbibe other substances so much they required a period of unconsciousness and ended up passing out in the wrong place, or in front of the wrong people, or both. It was something I usually tried to avoid. Passing out in front of my crowd was dangerous. Friends could be deviously sinister and twisted when it came to tormenting any member of the group too incapacitated to defend against them. I was often among the tormentors but sometimes I was the victim.

The weekend of this particular embarrassing experience my friends and I were party-hopping, moving from one party to the next and all the while I was eating magic mushrooms and drinking whatever alcoholic beverage I could get my hands on. I got ridiculously intoxicated and at some point during that Saturday I blacked out. A couple hours and a couple parties later I passed out. My friends had their fun with me then left me sleeping in a basement room of the house we were at, abandoning me there when they all left to chase another party.

I woke up suddenly on Sunday morning with the immediate realization I had no idea where I was or whose basement rec-room I spent the night in. I could hear voices and movement upstairs and panicked. I didn't remember coming to this house or why. For all I knew I might have broke in to rob the place. Still slightly wasted and fearing discovery I quickly found my shoes and fled the house through the basement door, pausing only to ensure the coast was clear before hot-footing it through the yard, out the driveway and down the street.

I was relieving myself in a vacant lot and congratulating myself on a successful escape from my mystery roof-for-a-night lodging without being discovered when it finally dawned on me where I was... about eight miles down the highway from the village I lived in. I'd have no choice but to start walking and try my luck at hitchhiking. Cursing my friends for deserting me I started on my journey. I wasn't happy about being left passed out and helpless in a strange house with no back-up should any of our sworn enemies happen by.

Soon enough a car came by and the driver stopped to my thumb's-up hitch a ride gesture. I climbed into the front passenger seat and thanked the driver, a guy maybe in his mid-thirties, for picking me up. All I got in return was a puzzled stare. It seemed to take a few moments longer than it should have but he eventually put the car into gear and we made the short trip into town in relative silence. Other than a grunted "yes" to my request to "bum a smoke" from the pack on the dash he never said a word to me. He did however, keep shooting puzzled glances my way, almost like he wanted to ask me something. He didn't ask anything though and all I got for my "thanks for the lift" remark when he dropped me off was another lingering strange look.I quickly stopped thinking about the driver and began thinking again about my lousy friends. I had a few choice words for them and I had a pretty good idea where to find them at this time on a Sunday...

I marched the two blocks which encompassed the downtown area of my hometown, passing probably half a dozen people along the way. They all reacted in some way to seeing me... a quick double-take... a look of confusion... a head turning almost fast enough to conceal a widening grin. I registered these various visible notations exhibited by the random townfolk that saw me but I was so focused on getting to the village mall, finding and confronting my so-called friends, that I didn't pause to wonder why everyone was looking at me strangely. Too bad. I might have saved myself further embarrassment...

I strode as confidently as physically possible into the mall, a task that took some effort given I hadn't slept off all the effects of my earlier mushroom and booze-fest. The place was quite busy, there wasn't a lot else to do on a Sunday in those parts and many people treated a trip to the mall like a picnic with friends in the park. I was looking for my friends and sensed I was close so I have no idea what reaction I may have sparked among the other mall visitors I passed. I was only interested in getting to one group of people and I knew just where they'd be... at the last window table in the mall cafeteria.

Sure enough, the turncoat friends who had deserted me the night before were at our regular cafeteria hangout. Sitting with them were a couple others of our gang who'd skipped or missed the fun and games of the previous twenty-four hours. I started down the length of the cafeteria toward them, righteous indignation bringing heat to my face as I anticipated the tongue-lashing I was about to unleash. As I drew closer to them my friends began to nudge each other and grin. Then they broke out into gales of laughter, a rising wall of sound that brought me to a complete stop.

It was only a second that I stood there bathed in the laughter and ridicule of my friends, supplemented and augmented by the collective derisive mirth from other cafeteria goers, before all thoughts of revenge were vanished in the realization I was the butt of a joke far more insidious than abandonment in a stranger's house... and that joke was ongoing. Things were just starting to get interesting.

It didn't take a mirror to figure out somebody had messed with my face while I was passed out. I know my friends did it but in the light of subsequent events nobody ever copped themselves to it (but a couple did rat out others.) Not that I was particularly anxious to see what they'd done to my face but I had to assess the damage and see if clean-up or repair was possible so I headed straight for the cafeteria washroom. There were mirrors, sinks and soaps I could use in there... but most importantly, it was imperative to my self-esteem that I get away from the taunting laughter and the restroom provided a sanctuary of sorts..

What I saw in the mirror explained everything I'd seen and encountered that day. The strange silence from the guy who gave me a ride, the various odd reactions from people I saw on the street and in the mall, the mocking, cruel hilarity of my peers triumphant game which left one of their own a publicly mocked village idiot. I stood trembling in rage and humiliation at the mirror. The door behind me opened and shut as whoever was going to enter decided (wisely) against it. I was on the verge of completely losing it. I had been humbled, scorned as weak, defenseless against their laughingly applied emotional graffiti which was far uglier than the fool's mask they painted on me when I was a tranquilized human mannequin the night before...

They hadn't used make-up or lipstick. The girls who hung with us learned pretty quick that personal items used for the group's make-over on a passed out victim were usually returned in an undesirable or unusable condition, if they were returned at all. I would have preferred make-up because it's relatively easy to remove but I wasn't so lucky. My tormentors weapon of choice was a permanent black marker, one of those big white cylinders with the two inch black cap covering the nib, a giant piece of hard, turpentine-smelling leather or something. Schools and stores used them all the time. They wrote on anything and resisted water and anything else that tried to remove the ink once it dried.

My tormenters deserve marks for creativity. Instead of the black-eyes, black-noses, mustaches, beards, scars, pimples, bugs and other simple things usually scribbled on the face and other exposed flesh of passed out targets, there was some actual artistic effort applied to the unwanted mask of shame they drew on me. Special attention to detail made the stuff on my cheeks really stand out - never mind that it was crudely drawn male genitalia - each erect penis was in almost perfect symmetry with its counterpart on the opposite cheek... Pointed from jawline to the corner of each eye (testicles on my chin) each cartoon phallus was oozing drops which dripped back down my cheeks like the real tears I was shedding. That wasn't all the art displayed on my face... one of the more calligraphic-inclined attackers had printed the word "FAG" across my forehead. Staring at myself in the mirror I could think only one thing... thank God they didn't take an eyebrow.

After a lot of vigorous scrubbing I had successfully smeared the drawings on my face to make them unrecognizable as anything but smudges but there was still more work to do once I got home and into the industrial strength cleansers in dad's garage. By the time I exited the restroom my friends had left the cafeteria and nobody remaining stared openly at me as I walked out but naturally I was hypersensitive to the furtive glances and tittering whispers in my wake. I walked home with my head down, shoulders hunched, not so much worried people might see the remaining blackened smears as I was shamed that the red heat of my embarrassment would show through.

I could relate the eventual confrontations and ramifications stemming from that successful attempt by my friends to make me look like a "dickhead"... or talk about the gamut of emotional turns their "FAG" label created, in my own head and in others of my small coastal fishing and logging community once the story started making the rounds... or ruminate on the coulda-woulda-shoulda things memory brings but it's not necessary to the point of this story....

Eventually people stopped talking about my penis-face, stopped using that incident as emotional ammo during insult wars, forgot about it entirely in the face of new hilarity, new follies, new victims being publicly raped of their dignity. In other words... it happened and then it was forgotten. Had there been an internet and cell phones back in those days it's likely a picture of me in all my passed-out phallic glory would have been posted for the world to see before I even woke up. The artistic attack itself might have been filmed. My victimization, my shame, my humiliation and embarrassment could have been uploaded to the web... to remain there forever in some ethereal electronic shadow... waiting for discovery at a moment when past embarrassment coming to light would be most inopportune.

That kind of thing happens every day. Compromising photos and videos are uploaded by the millions, the internet is loaded with people's embarrassing moments and forever on... with a few simple clicks... they can come back to haunt you. There are moments in everyone's past that should remain there but the internet has created a means for the follies of history to remain with us... It can mean anyone may in their future be called to answer for, or be judged on, youthful mistakes, transgressions and behaviors which are no longer part of who they are, what they believe or how they live. Victims can be victimized again... and again... and again...

I am older than the internet.
Thank God for that.

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