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Grave Old World

’Cause she’s so high

High above me, she’s so lovely

She’s so high

Like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite

Ah-ah-ah, ah-ah

She’s so high

High above me.

— Tal Bachman

Earl Fowler

Friend shows up from the old hometown. After a few beers, talk turns as ever to the unattainable girls we fantasized about in high school.

Yearbook comes out. Man, we was babies. Not to mention goofs. And there she is.

The flirtatious soubrette who had appeared with him 50 years ago in a drama-club presentation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He played the straight-as-an-arrow, noble “savage” John; she the promiscuous Lenina, whom he attacks when she tries to seduce him. He being high-minded and all.

In the real world, as a poet once said, she looked at him and he felt a spark. Tingled to his bones. Suspected, hoped, desperately dreamed she might have felt the same. Lacked the courage to ask her out, of course.


Tosser.


Kind of funny that he played a back-to-nature guy, since my friend wound up living 20 years in a teepee in northern Saskatchewan. But that’s another story.

Moved back to the city and opened a shop, where he was taken aback to be told by the wrinkled, white-haired old lady he was serving the other day that it was she who had once played Lenina to his John. Could see right away that he had unintentionally hurt her feelings by failing to recognize her. Couldn’t do much about it.

Welcome to Grave Old World, that galaxy once far, far away to which those of us north of 60 are consigned and condemned to spend the rest of our diminished and dwindling days.


I recently came across a perspicacious observation in Jess Walter’s hilarious novel, The Financial Lives of The Poets. Walter suggests that the reason so many of our peers spend so much time “responding to ass-sniffing inquiries from old friends on classmates.com and Google-imaging people” we used to know isn’t truly because we’re looking for the people we once knew. Rather, we’re really looking for the people we once were, some happier version of ourselves living better lives than what we’re actually living.


While pedalling my stationary bike and listening to some old Elvis Costello tunes this morning — typical of the useless old-fart ways I spend my time — I then came across this stunner posed by one of the characters in Richard Russo’s brilliant new novel, Somebody’s Fool:


No, I mean really. Think about it. You do everything right. You never fuck up. People respect you. Love you. Then one day you wake up dead. Couple days after that, you’re in the ground next to somebody who never did anything right and couldn’t even be bothered to try. Same result. What’s it all supposed to mean?


Search me.

My Grade 12 yearbook includes the valedictory address by a guy I knew a little who, I hear from friends, has lived a perfectly ordinary middle-class life since we graduated in 1972.

I recall that as this handpicked speaker read his short speech to our class of about 400, few of whom were ever to return to the cafeteria or our lockers or the theatre where Brave New World was staged, the principal’s face grew redder. And redder. And redder. You could see he desperately wanted to intervene, but his hands were tied by the context. Here’s how the speech began:


Fellow students:

Tonight marks the end of four years of high school. This period of our lives has had untold effect in shaping our future roles in society.

The transition which takes place during these years is so complete as to be almost unbelievable. We were taken into the school as freshies who admittedly didn’t know too much. Now four years later, mature, responsible members of society are hopefully emerging.

Naturally, the people in charge of the education system want to produce graduates who will fit into society, people who will live and work within the present system.

To achieve their goal, they have created their own model society which contains most of the things we will find once we enter the “outside world.”

The only fair way to run an education system is to have as your underlying theme the wish to give students the background and character they may need in order to make various decisions which will face them in life. What our education system wants, however, is to make students follow only one path.

The education system is aimed to create a legion of unquestioning citizens who upon graduating will fit easily into the 9-to-5 working world.


Students are trained to work regular hours. Their movements are controlled by an outside force and they are constantly subject to a complex chain of command which stretches on to unknown heights.

The discipline aspect of school is very important. From it we learn that if we ever break anyone’s authority, our mother will be sure to get a note the next day.

The education system is obviously designed to produce materialistic citizens. High marks are our main objective in high school. Achievement of this goal results in such benefits as recommends and scholarships.

This attitude towards high marks will simply be replaced by a similar attitude toward high salaries once we enter society. …

And so on. I looked around and noticed that hardly anyone was paying attention, which was sort of the point, I guess. What was that line from Brave New World? Oh, yeah. “If one’s different, one’s bound to be lonely.”

Anyway, now that we’re mostly done with our careers and exiting civilized society, en route to permanent engagements in the big dirt basement, it seems clear that our commie valedictorian had a point, the dirty red. Most of us have fulfilled the purpose and roles laid out for us in school, give or take a little tap dance at tax time or the occasional surrender to on-the-job indolence.

Now that it’s 2023 and the madness has come on us for our sins, as it were, it’s less clear what we’re supposed to aspire to any more. I really don’t know. To looking like Willy Loman on long, medicated walks around well-manicured grounds with high fences? (Leaf blower in the distance. Sound of.)


Soma, anyone?

Couldn’t help noticing just before closing the yearbook that the girl I deemed the most perfect creature ever to walk the Earth is still biting her lip.


It’s like a high school. A high school confidential.


That next sock hop is going to be a lulu.






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