Monday, September 20, 2010

Slouching Toward Preppiness

Lisa Birnbach is back.  Thirty years after the 1980 publication of her original The Official Preppy Handbook, she is out with a sequel:  True Prep:  It's a Whole New Old World.  I haven't read it yet...I'm not sure I will bother.  That's what book reviews are for (like here).  However, it occurs to me that its arrival is poignant -- not just for our society as a whole, but for me, personally.  After a summer of revisiting my formative years thanks to ten boxes of stuff transported from my parents' basement in Massachusetts to the family summer camp in Maine for the express purpose of a) finally getting them out of their house and b) me going through them, I came face to face with my teen-aged ambition in the context of a middle-aged lack of the same.

And there it was:  my very own dog-eared copy of Lisa's social critique of an American sub-group at the dawn of the Reagan years.


My 14-year-old brain didn't see the irony then; to me, it was a road-map to be dutifully followed.  The son of a recently-divorced, single mother of reduced financial means, who had been removed from his childhood suburb in New York State to rejoin the maternal clan back in a down-at-the-heels mill town in central Maine, I desperately needed to connect to a narrative that lifted me out of my situation.

The book has since sold 1.3 million copies, so clearly I wasn't the only one.

The fact that I couldn't sail, play tennis or locate New Canaan on a map did bother me, but I figured these were simply hurdles to be addressed later on a sort of master to-do list.  Picking and then getting into the right college was the first item on the agenda; until then, trips to the conveniently-located L.L. Bean and an over-active fantasy life would have to suffice.

Being accepted at Bowdoin College was like winning the lottery and proof that all my hard work was finally being recognized. Confronted with fellow students who were actually -- and, as such, unself-consciously -- of the preppy tribe was something of a body-blow and effectively took the wind out of the sails of a boat I neither had nor knew how to pilot.  The fact that we read Great Expectations my freshman year was incredibly apt.

I pretty much gave up after that.  Fortunately "life" intervened in the form of a German professor who announced that I would be going to Germany for my junior year.  Being removed from the reality I thought I knew, I realized that just being me -- however difficult -- was infinitely more engaging and interesting than trying to be what I thought I was supposed to be.  During the course of that year, I shed my preppy uniform, grew my hair, came out of the closet and changed my political affiliation from Republican to Democrat.  My mother positively had whiplash when I came home for my senior year.

The 1990s in NYC were also decidedly unpreppy, what with ditching the idea of law school, gay activism, AIDS activism, graduate studies at NYU and night classes at FIT.  Getting into Yale for architecture in 1997 would seem to have reversed this trend, but, let's face it:  Yale's only really preppy if you're there for college, right?  We architecture students were pretty dorky and were housed at the edge of campus in what was no doubt universally considered the ugliest building on campus.  It might as well have been MIT for all Lisa Birnbach would have cared.

What came later was a blur of graduation, 9/11, ending a relationship, starting a new one, losing my father, ending another relationship, leaving NYC, moving to Florida, starting a new relationship, and leaving Florida to live with the new guy in Chicago.  The one constant was being a student of, then working in, architecture...and not enjoying it.  Cosmically, the universe clearly decided I had had enough and conspired with the Republicans to run our economy off a cliff resulting in my involuntary, yet welcome, early retirement from architecture. Equally convenient is the fact that I have no interest in future architectural work as there are no such positions to be had at the moment.

Enter Lisa Birnbach's timely sequel.  What the pages of this new book contain is irrelevant.  To me, anyway.  The fact that it pops up now, is.  With deep irony, I find that, in many ways and without consciously trying, I have actually become a particular species of the genus she described thirty years ago.  Unlike this "new prep" that is being bandied about now (a kind of we're-in-the-money escapism for a gloomy economic time?), "old prep" was (in the words of Benjamin Schwartz in his article linked to earlier and re-linked to again here) "cracked heirlooms, threadbare antique rugs, sturdy L.L. Bean boots, duct-taped blutcher moccasins, and workhorse Volvo station wagons".  Switch out the station wagon for a sedan, and this is my life!  I didn't plan it, but here I am -- the fecklessness, the promise squandered, sometimes happily oblivious, set in my ways, an opera-singing boyfriend, two dogs, summer trips to (central) Maine and winter trips to Palm Beach (County), and all in a small but deadly-cute condo on the lake in the suburb of Evanston.

If you squint a bit, I've become more of what Lisa actually described than what I thought I wanted her to be describing as a frustrated kid.

I still don't know how to sail...maybe in the next thirty years.  I suppose I should get a job first....