I have spent nearly my whole life either enrolled in a school or working for one.
So, August is always the beginning of a new year for me—the hours of anticipation, the new space full of new supplies, the fresh start, the fear of failing, the return to routine and assignments and work.
I’m resurfacing three of my essays that live in that back-to-school world and the anxieties of beginning again:
I fell in love with Burt Reynolds in 1972 on a CYO field trip.
An eighth grader at the time, I was too young to wonder why the Catholic Youth Organization of St. Catherine’s Church in Kansas City had included among their schedule of mixers and amusement park field trips, a few outings to the local theater for first-run films like Deliverance and Cabaret.
I’ll bet that sounds downright Jetsonian to you as a 17-year-old in 1975.
So I’ll settle one big question at the outset: we do not have flying cars.
There is, come to think of it, something called a personal computer that I know you’ll appreciate for at least a couple of its features in particular: it will check your spelling for you. Hold your tears. I know you’ll love that.
And then there’s the Internet, which is also hard to describe, but it will eliminate the need for the family’s old Encyclopedia Britannica. And there’s a whole lot of, well, anything you might ever want (publicly or secretly) on the Internet, such as movies and music and travel guides. And, umm, well, let me just say, kids your age today aren’t even thinking about agonizing over how to convince the sales clerk at the 7-Eleven to sell them a copy of Playgirl.
Yeah, I know about your secret Playgirl stash.
See, I’m you, grown old. I’m you 40 years from now.
The first little paint stroke of Mercurochrome to my upper lip seemed like an interesting idea at the time. I, after all, had grown my first mustache and beard over the summer of 1972, between eighth grade and my freshman year of high school. To my adolescent mind, it was a badge of maturity that went with leaving behind Catholic grade school and the redneck bullies I had endured for eight years. The next day would be my first day at Rockhurst High School, Kansas City’s Jesuit high school, several miles and mindsets away from the Hickman Mills area where my family lived just at the edge of where the suburbs met the cornfields and hunting woods. Grateful to be moving on, I had spent the summer gearing up for what I hoped, if not was almost certain, maybe, would be a new life, and part of the passage included not shaving for three months just to see what kind of beard I could grow.
When Jesus Christ Superstar was released as a concert concept album in 1970, I was 12 years old. I first heard about it on a public TV special that featured most of a London concert performance and interviews with members of the cast like Ian Gillan, Murray Head, and Yvonne Elliman, as well as with the lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Weber who created what was being presented as the first “rock opera.”
I watched the TV special as if I was hearing a call.
This piece appears as one of the two introductions to the art anthology Hair, published by Bruno Gmünder in 2010. The book is in its second edition, and the introductions themselves received callouts in reviews.
The Hairy Pendulum Swings: How culture has embraced male body hair over the past century
When I was a child the world was warm and furry, from shag carpeting to suede bean-bag chairs to shing-a-ling trim to the long manes on everyone young. No one but competitive bodybuilders and drag queens would have considered shaving or waxing their bodies back then, and actors and athletes, like Sean Connery, Joe Namath, Burt Reynolds, and James Caan bared their luscious chests proudly on screen and in the pages of the magazines as often as possible.
In 1960s and ’70s America, chest hair was not only popular, it defined masculinity. The opposite of idealized stone-cold waxed muscle, the mysteries of adult male sexuality lay hidden deep within the thick matted diamond of hair between a workman’s pectorals, or under an athlete’s arms, or in furtive glimpses of bushy crotches in locker rooms. Hair softened the hard parts of men’s bodies, gave shape and expression to those that would otherwise have been shapeless, and suggested raw animal attraction waiting to be discovered.
36 years ago today, my mom and dad drove their 18-year-old son across Kansas to drop me off in Denver at the Jesuit novitiate. The three of us sailed across the flat hot Plains in their recreational vehicle (a retirement investment that they never quite got to use in retirement) for arrival day the next morning. The two of them sat quietly in the driver and passenger seats below, while I perched on the bed above them, peering out the long narrow window, watching for the first sign of the Rocky Mountains to appear on the endless horizon ahead. Years later my mom would tell me how worried she and dad had been for me throughout the whole 13 hour trip across Kansas and eastern Colorado, something they kept to themselves at the time, allowing me to be deep in my own feelings.