As I draw on to the end of my fifth decade, I’m feeling reflective. Indulge me in a little reminiscence, and by all means come to my birthday party.
The insufferable nerdiness of being
At ten years of age, I was a big nerd. Big? Sure, I was almost five feet tall. But the true magnitude of my nerdiness was measured in other ways.
Other kids wanted to be firefighters or race car drivers. I wanted to be nuclear physicist. I could tell you anything you wanted to know about electrons, protons, and neutrons. My 4th grade science fair project on atomic fission won a blue ribbon.
I had 50 cents to my name, which I kept in a little safe labeled Fort Knox. On the side of the safe, I had one of those molded rubber fridge magnets, a yellow one picturing a lightbulb, with the slogan, “Whatever Turns You On.”
It was the 1970s, after all. I made ten in ’77, the same year the Sex Pistols came out with Never Mind the Bollocks. But I didn’t know anything about that until later.
I was into planets and space exploration. When the rings of Uranus were discovered in March of ’77, that made my diary. When I discovered a discrepancy between our textbook and my Dad’s Time-Life encyclopedia regarding the number of moons orbiting Saturn, I confronted my fourth grade science teacher. She just stared at me.
A huge, insufferable nerd. I haven’t changed much over the years.
Hard out here for a nerd
It was much harder being a nerd back then. “Nerd culture” wasn’t a thing like it is now. The very word, “nerd,” was only an insult, not a term of endearment. When my classmates taunted me, it stung.
In middle school, the teasing became more severe. It got physical. I fought back occasionally.
In addition to being scrawny as hell, I had other physical challenges. Mild scoliosis. Migraine headaches. Then I fell off the bunk at church camp and had a seizure; I would suffer from gran mal epilepsy for most of the next twenty years.
The ultimate fragility of our physical bodies was brought home to me when my grandfather perished in a farming accident. I found myself curiously unmoved, until the church service. When we heard the bells ring, my cousins and I all burst into tears. We’d helped him ring that bell many times over the years.
I was deathly afraid of death. It became a preoccupation. I reflected on my mortality daily, and it filled me with horror. I was also anxious about sex. The neighbor boys showed me a girlie mag and explained how it all worked. I found their explanations so far-fetched as to be utterly implausible.
An angst-filled teen
Carl Sagan’s Cosmos aired on PBS, and I thought it was the best TV show ever. Ronald Reagan was elected, the first president of whom I was cognizant in a political sense. I was confirmed in the Lutheran Church; I gave a little speech, and everyone said I should be a minister. I enrolled in high school. My other grandfather died. The ARPANET converted to TCP/IP, establishing the architecture of the internet as we know it today. Girls seemed to grow simultaneously more interesting and more remote. We attended the World’s Fair in Knoxville, but not the one in New Orleans. (Sorry y’all.) Pioneer 10 passed the orbit of Neptune, becoming the first human object to leave the solar system. Reagan was re-elected, to my chagrin, but I was still too young to vote.
Somewhere along the way I grew aware of how fundamentally unnatural our way of living was. I became aware of the tragic aspects of our existence. Was this a product of industrial society, or part of the human condition?
At least I had the redemptive power of art. I wanted to be a writer. I started keeping a journal in earnest. I also had the authoritative teachings of the church, and the comforting thought of eternal life.
But then I lost my faith. I was sitting in the balcony at church when it happened. It seemed to come like a bolt of lightning — a single, powerful, visceral moment when the logical contradictions and sheer improbability of my beliefs collapsed. I kept these thoughts to myself, for the most part, but everything changed for me. I would spend the rest of the decade and a good chunk of the next coming to terms with the philosophical, ethical, moral and (dare I say it) theological implications of this shift in my understanding.
In the short term, as I tried to make sense of a world without God, I embraced alcohol with a reckless hedonism. I was lonely. My closest friend had moved away during my junior year. I longed desperately for companionship.
Then I met a girl and fell in love. But before that relationship could truly blossom, I moved away to a foreign country.
My year in Sweden
After I graduated high school in the United States, I went to study for a year in Sweden as an exchange student. (No, not in the Alps — that’s another country that starts with “Sw.”) As fate would have it, I was placed in the far north, up by the arctic circle, in a tiny town of about 7,000 people.
It was a cold, harsh, lonely winter. In the long darkness, I wrestled with my new conception of a life without meaning or value. It was a difficult year, mentally and emotionally. I had to move twice because of conflicts with my host families. I never made a close friend.
On the positive side, I learned a foreign language, though I’ve forgotten most of it. More importantly, I learned about another culture: another way of being in the world, another way of doing things, another way of relating.
For example, my fellow students went on strike, part of a brief national crisis. In our tiny town in the boondocks, we marched and demonstrated and met with administrators. The same thing happened all over the country. It was my first protest, and it was instructive.
Another lesson came when I got an ingrown toenail and had it treated at the local hospital. Afterward, when I asked how I should pay, they just laughed. The joke’s on us, America.
After a year in Sweden, I spent the summer riding trains around Europe. In Greece, of all places, I finally picked up a cassette tape of Never Mind the Bollocks. The rage and alienation of punk rock spoke to me.
I came back home. Enrolled in college. Reunited with that girl I met just before I left. Any ambiguities regarding my status as a virgin were favorably resolved.
I was still living the comfortable life, a privileged child of the middle class. I considered myself to be materially rich but a spiritual pauper. At the end of my second decade, it seemed that the spark of romance was all I had to live for, the only thing that gave my life any purpose or hope.
Tune in next time for the wild and wooly tale of my third decade!
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.