On the Occasion of my 25th High School Reunion, Words From the Teenage Me

My high school class is having its 25th reunion this weekend, which I will unfortunately not be at (I had that little book deadline, you may remember, which played merry havoc with my scheduling), but the side effect of which is to have a number of my classmates post pictures of our high school days on Facebook. Here’s one from Scott Moore, of yours truly. I don’t know the exact year, but given the shirt and hair, I suspect it’s sophomore year, i.e., 1985, and I would have been fifteen or so in that picture.

I know some of you will ask what I was like at fifteen. The best answer to that is to say you should ask my classmates, since my own memory of myself would be at this point highly revised and edited. I will say that by fifteen, I was already writing short stories and imagining myself being various types of writer: A columnist, mostly (I had discovered H.L. Mencken, Molly Ivins and P.J. O’Rourke by this time) but also a novelist and even a lyricist, heavily informed at the time by Pink Floyd and Depeche Mode, a dangerous combo if there ever was one. I had already decided that I was going to be a professional writer when I grew up, because when you’re fifteen, you can make decisions like that, fully ignorant of what such a decision entails. On the other hand, I have been a full-time, professional writer all of my adult life, so well done, fifteen-year-old me! You showed me a thing or two.

I am not going to show you today the writings of the fifteen year old me. However, as it is the 25th reunion of my class, I am going to share with you something from the seventeen year old me: My chapel talk. At my high school, we had (non-denominational) chapel three days out of the week, and during the year, every senior who wanted to could give a chapel talk. Often it was a summation of their high school experience to that time, and sometimes it was just what they were thinking about that day. It really depended on the senior. This is what I was thinking about when I gave mine.

Please note that aside from small spelling and punctuation errors, I have resisted the urge to clean up the piece in any way, so what you’re getting is genuine 17-year-old John Scalzi. Have fun with him. Don’t tell him what happens to his hair.

And to my friends and classmates: Have fun at the reunion. I wish I was there, and you have my love.

—-

I would like to write about a topic that I have always had a fascinated interest in. That topic is time.

I looked up the definition of time in Webster. Webster said that time is “the measured or measurable period during which an action proceeds, or a condition exists or continues.” The subject of time is a subject in which we, human beings in general and students in particular, are particularly interested in. We spend it, waste it, give it, take it, ask how much we have left, and ask for more. Somehow we never seem to have enough time.

A man named Bernard Berenson wrote, “I would I could stand on a busy corner, hat in hand, and beg people to throw me their wasted hours.” How many of us would do that if we could? I would. Actually, it depends on what kind of time it was. Time is relative, it seems, and I would be happy to take all that time I spend in a particularly bored state of mind and transfer it to when I could use it; for example, I could always use a little more sleep or a little more study time. First, though, I would use that saved time to do those things which I enjoy: playing drum, reading or writing, or being with my friends.

However, we cannot transfer time. So we exist, and our time is terminally short. The time we seem to have the lest of is the time that is the most important: The time spent doing what we wish with those whom we wish to be with. Anyone who had had a friend or relative pass from their life, by death or some other circumstance, knows this to be true. We never seem to take the time to say what we have to say to those people. Then they are gone and there is nothing we can do about it. Nothing hurts worse.

Our culture is riddled with examples of man’s wish to suspend time. Peter Pan lives in Never-Never-Land, forever young. The six-foot rabbit in “Harvey” can stop the clock with a mere glance in the clock’s direction. Jim Croce wrote a song in which he wishes to save time in a bottle. Our religions have eternal paradises, where we live forever, unto infinity.

But we are finite creatures, moving through an infinite amount of time, and while we would reach out and grab as much of that eternity as we can, we cannot. We run out of our allotted time and slip away, our affairs and concerns uncompleted, our dreams and desires, for the most part, unfulfilled. If there is a Heaven, I believe it is filled with men and women bitter with the knowledge that they could have done so much more and could have meant so much more during their lives if they had had just a little more time.

As you can tell, I have spent much of my time think about time. I am painfully aware of the fact I don’t have enough time. I joke to my friends about being immortal, but that is only because I am not, and it infuriates me that I am not. I have very little time, as do we all.

So I have decided, over the course of time, that I wish to live my life in such a manner that when I am on my deathbed, I will be able to say to myself, “I have lived a good life. I am content with how I lived.” And when I am called on the carpet by God, Yahweh, or whoever it is that is controlling our little machinations, I will walk through all those bitter people with a smile on my face.

This is a philosophy of life which I urge everyone to follow. Take pleasure in your life, now. Tell jokes. Play music. Dance. Stay on the phone until two o’clock in the morning. Laugh and live life. Most of all, let those you love and who love you know what they mean. Hold them to your heart and tell them what you need to say: That you need them, are glad to have them, and love them. Do these things. They are more important than you may think.

Ben Hecht wrote: “Time is a circus always packing up and moving away.” I would ask all to use their time so that when it is packed up and sent away, they can watch it go with a smiling face and content heart.

 

65 thoughts on “On the Occasion of my 25th High School Reunion, Words From the Teenage Me

  1. I don’t know, Chad. I think the talk, suitably lyricized, would make a fine Bieber ballad. And if he recorded it, then it would pay for Athena’s college!

  2. [Deleted because, JvP, seriously? Cutting and pasting a comment from an entirely separate conversation elsewhere on the Web to here just because it's vaguely near the topic? Don't do that -- JS]

  3. I don’t know you personally, but based on your writings it seems to me that you’ve lived up to seventeen-year-old you’s proposed philosophy quite well. I think he’d be proud of you. :)

  4. It was specifically about High School reunions, and why some people have said on line that they would not go to theirs for a million bucks. Would you like one small part of my actual comment, without that context?

  5. What I would like, JvP, is that you not treat my site as just another receptacle for words, any words, as long as they’re from you. Blithely cutting and pasting from elsewhere indicates “Aha! Here’s a chance to recycle my words on subject [x] in yet another forum!” and shows contempt for both me and the other people here, because you’re making it clear it’s not about the discussion, it’s about you.

    If you can’t make up a wholly new comment here, on the topic being discussed, then you should consider not making a comment.

  6. “we are finite creatures, moving through an infinite amount of time, ” I love this.

    Also, it is wonderful, and probably also unfortunate) that you discovered at such a young age how little time we really do have in this world.

    I’m pretty sure, at 15, I still thought myself immortal, telling myself I’d be the one person that the old Grim Reaper would decide to pass over.

  7. Yes, sir. Reasonable points.

    I no longer have most of my High School essays. I’d love to have, for example, my book review of Roketship Galileo, as it was about 1966, and Science Fiction as Literature was not ioften taught in public schools back then.

    As to Time — That has been central to my education in Physics (as well as Literature). Of interst to me back then, for example:

    For example, John McTaggart Ellis McTaggart [1866-1925] was a Fellow of Trinity College, Lecturer in Moral Sciences, and a Nonreductionist. He was the author of “Studies in Hegelian Cosmology. The Philosophy of Hegel” [Dissertation, 1898; 1901; Garland, 1984]. This work explored application of a priori conclusions derived from the investigation of pure thought to
    empirically-known subject matter; human immortality; the absolute; the supreme good and the moral criticism; punishment; sin; and the conception of society as an organism. McTaggart was controversial for claiming that time was unreal: “The Nature of Existence” [Cambridge University Press, 1921]; “The Unreality of Time” [Mind, vol. XVII].

  8. My understanding of past, present and future self was largely determined by that Calvin and Hobbes strip where Present Calvin decides to play outside and screw Future Calvin when it came time to turn in the homework he didn’t do. I figure high school me would quite reasonably note our obvious failure at global domination and disappointedly go back to his mix tapes and Monty Python. But we’d both know whose fault it was. Hair’s. It was hair’s fault. Sell out.

    I think Croce did a lot of mescaline. Which would explain catching time to put in a bottle.

    What were we talking about?

  9. Interesting that a lot of what 17-year-old-Scalzi had to say is echoed in your Whateverings here decades later. Other than putting the professional writer experience toward improving the execution (which is already good to start with), would today-Scalzi say anything different?

  10. Dude, the 17 year old me would have totally crushed on the 17 year old year old you and thought that the entire talk was just for me since all the other girls were so shallow. Plus, cute hair!

  11. Does this OP by Mr. Scalzi fall into the interesting category of letters sent backwards in time from the older version of yourself to the younger version? What would the 17-year-old-Scalzi have said, handed a printout of this thread?

  12. It makes me wonder at what point did “Websters defines _____ as…” become cliche? Or was it always cliche, but no one ever bothered telling us in high school because I’m sure I used that opening in a speech or two back then as well.

  13. Wow, that sounds so very much like a 15-year-old you. I mean, obviously it sounds *exactly* like a 15-year-old you, but I think it’s *recognizably* a 15-year-old you.

  14. URGENT MESSAGE TO 17 YEAR OLD SCALZI:

    What happens to your hair is for science. Do not be afraid. Also, think nice thoughts about the middle of the country. Trust me on this.

  15. Ah, Webster. How would we begin speeches without you?

    Intimations of Adult Scalzi definitely come through in the last few paragraphs. “I joke to my friends about being immortal, but that is only because I am not, and it infuriates me that I am not.” That’s a pretty good line, in plain-spoken English.

  16. Referencing Jim Croce, in the 80’s? For what it’s worth, graduated in ’85 and had Best of Jim, vol. 1 and 2 (Bread as well but let’s not taulk about that).

  17. @ Other Bill

    My understanding of past, present and future self was largely determined by that Calvin and Hobbes strip where Present Calvin decides to play outside and screw Future Calvin when it came time to turn in the homework he didn’t do.

    OMG, I remember that strip!

  18. As someone who used to work in a college Public Safety office, I’ve dealt with too many people in their late teens and early twenties who seemed to think they were going to live forever, and behaved accordingly. It’s refreshing to be reminded that not all teens have thought so.

  19. Wow, you are a brave man showing us your 17-year-old-self’s writings. It’s fascinating to read, though, so thanks! Now I’m wondering if I should dare peek into the file cabinet in the garage, the one with all my old high school and college letters, papers and junk in it or just let it quietly rot in peace.

    I’m glad to hear you were into Mencken, Ivins and O’Rourke back then. I was as well. How did we find them, though? They sure didn’t show us that stuff in school…

    Maybe that’s why we like them. They were better than the stuff we were reading in school I guess.

  20. If the 17 year old me were to meet the 51 year old me, well let’s just say WTF wasn’t a phrase back then, nor was ‘Dude, what happened?’ I’m just sayin’ that most people don’t get to live their dreams as well as you so good job Sir. And for the record, the job I do these days is me, me personified. I do it well and I like what I do. The journey is part of the process.

  21. I wish my now 17 year old knew the then 17 year old you. Because insightfullness at that age is important and I wish the 17 year old who is so focused on today would reflect just a little more on what could be tomorrow. He’ll get there I’m sure. In time. But sometimes his cavalier approach to things makes me froth at the mouth. He definitely takes pleasure in the now and loves on those who matter so I may be an overly anxious parent of a soon to be college bound son.

  22. I’m curious to think what Athena thinks about 15-year-old you. My daughters are always shocked by images of their dad as a teenager. (I, OTOH, haven’t changed that much except for getting fatter and greyer.)

  23. Well, now we know you didn’t waste that time you spent thinking about time as those musings likely formed the basis of Old Man’s War

  24. With specific regard to your fantasy about panhandling for wasted time, have you seen the marvelous (to me, anyway) film “In Time”, in which time *can* be transferred from one person or institution to another, and has in fact become the world’s currency?

  25. Wait wait…John, did you attend *my* former high school, Concord Academy? Or is there a different school out there that does non-denominational chapel talks three times a week given by seniors?

    I too was an aspiring writer in high school and still am. I spent months writing and re-writing my chapel talk. I’m still happy with what I wrote – it certainly ended a chapter of my life and summed up my feelings at the time, even if they were slightly misguided. I suppose that’s part of being seventeen.

  26. @ MikeB-Cda

    Hannu Rajaniemi employed the idea first in his novel The Quantum Thief wherein time is currency on Mars. I do love the movie In Time, but I can’t tell if scriptwriter Andrew Niccol ripped Rajaniemi off. The release dates for the movie and book are close enough for causality, but just far enough apart for Niccol to have read the book. On the other hand, I’ve riffed on the expression time is money myself, and would be very surprised if others have not done the same, albeit perhaps none so literally as Rajaniemi and Niccol. Anyway, looks like Scalzi beat us all to the punch :)

  27. I really like this post. Being a very recent graduate with two Degrees I’m struggling with this exact same thing. I like to think that I am living my life in a way that I won’t regret, but at the same time there is so much opportunity and possibility to change that I always fear I am wasting my time pursuing the wrong thing.

    Also, you were quite the writer at 17. I wish I could say the same thing about 17 year old me.

  28. Keith:

    In fact, in my senior year of high school I played Elwood P. Dowd in our school’s presentation of Harvey, so I was well aware of the play (I liked it before then, however),

  29. Okay, the mad writing skills (for a 17-year-old), not only playing Elwood P. Dowd, but being the rare boy who likes old movies (or old plays?), plus the cuteness? I would have been fighting with MNmom over you…except that I graduated HS class of ’84 and only had eyes for older guys back then…fortunately I changed that silly rule years later, when I met my husband…who graduated class of ’87. ;-)

  30. Like you, John, I knew in high school that i was not immortal. Perhaps that is why I made my dream job my reality, again, like you. In reference to time though, I have never forgotten what you told me once…..”time’s fun when you’re having flies”. Although i think the 17 year old Scalzi got it from Letterman. :)

  31. If the 17-year-old me met the 53-year-old me, he would a) be astonished that he lives to be 53, and b) kill himself rather than become me. OTOH I might be able to give him some good advice: Take up running NOW. Maybe weight lifting. That will make you more popular, but don’t go crazy with the sexing; there’s a Bad Thing coming (remember, it’s 1976). Take a computer science course, at least one, your FRESHMAN year of college. Give up music and concentrate on writing; your talents for the former are barely above average, and you need more time to practice the latter.

    As for YOU, pretty intelligent comments. And the 15-year-old you…at 15 I’d’ve spent as much time in his company as possible and tried my best to conceal my crush. At 53 I just want to muss his hair and go “awwww,” which would probably be seriously annoying!

  32. Anything I’d tell my teenage self would probably change my life enough that I wouldn’t end up with my current wife and kid, and I wouldn’t like that.

    That said: If that were not a concern, if he were going to grow up on some branching timeline and I wanted to optimize that, I’d tell him:

    1. Interact with women as if nobody is keeping score. Don’t sweat your lack of romantic experience; it doesn’t matter.
    2. I know it’s hard, but try to take dating opportunities as they come instead of going on pining after the same person. Women who don’t immediately thrill you may turn out to be more than you expected.
    3. If you’re going to stay in science, you probably want to go into astronomy or astrophysics rather than particle physics. Climbing the Matterhorn of quantum field theory is a fascinating challenge, but the payoff is low; progress is slow and big budget crises are coming. Astronomy gets much more exciting over the next 20 years, and it’ll be easier for you anyway.
    4. Do keep the summer job in computer graphics for as long as you can. This is potentially lucrative if science doesn’t work out.

  33. I’m not going to live forever? Who knew? Actually, I’ve rarely expected to live through the next five years, although I’m beginning to hope I might reach 70. Wait, that’s less than five years. Anyway.

    What I would have told 17-year-old me … he wouldn’t have listened. I was really good at not listening to others. I had the social skills of a raw stone, still haven’t gotten my “Pet Rock” diploma, and probably never will. Fix those skills. Start playing the piano again. You -do- have ADHD. Learn how to deal with it.

  34. When I was a senior in high school, having been assured that “professional writer” was Not A Career and writing my ass off anyway, I penned a schmalzy, AA/BB nightmare of a “To the Class of ___” poem as a throw-away for a Creative Writing assignment. It was, from the perspective of then-me and now-me, the second-worst thing I wrote that year.

    The yearbook committee, without my knowledge or consent (and truly, with the best and kindest intentions), selected it to accompany the class photo on the center spread. At 17, I was immortalized for something I wrote while sitting on the toilet. Literally. I didn’t have the heart to tell the committee…

    Dear Teen Me: Don’t worry. Your guidance counselors may have no idea what to do with you, but the internet will provide a fulfilling career and a place to write. People *will* pay you to do what you love.

  35. “I know some of you will ask what I was like at fifteen. The best answer to that is to say you should ask my classmates”
    I can answer this one: He was exactly the same, only more so.

  36. (“exactly the same, only more so” was often heard from the mouth of 15-year old Scalzi, and I now use it as often as possible, giving him full credit of course.) Yes he was already this wonderful back then. Great human being straight through the ages :) Just ask him, he knows.

  37. Well said, John. And well timed. I sit in a condo we rented for the weekend on the beach along the coast of Washington, trying to put a eulogy together for my Father. He died past his 80th year of life, and he chose this to be his time, such was the lack of quality to his life at this point.

    Still, when I look back on his life there is much that leaves me bewildered. Yes, I want to be brave enough to call my life’s end when there is nothing left for me to do but suck up resources. But, no, I don’t want to pass from this life without having felt I’ve contributed to and been thankful for this existence with others. To pass on a little deeper perspective or knowledge, and radiate a little more love, that would be good. I would like that.

    So, yes, time is on my mind as well. As well it should be, until then.

  38. That’s awesome! My 25th reunion was last year. I dug out some of my 15-year-old writings too and found an interesting mix of cringe-worthy cliches and insightful wisdom. I remember being so sure I was going to be a professional writer as well. Unfortunately, due to major life issues, I had to actually get a real job before I could finish my creative writing degree. The things that life throws at you… But I’m excited to know that sometimes those determined 15-year-olds actually make it (you) and (me) because I started writing seriously again a few years ago.

  39. I think most seventeen year olds aren’t able to put thoughts together as coherently as that, which is to say, I think it may have prognosticated, if not your career as a writer, at least your potential to be one.

  40. 15 year old me would have — and indeed, did — chased after a kid who looked like that. Now I’m tempted to Google him and see if his hair’s done that too, but I prefer the memories.

    Do kids still do “Harvey” in high school? 15 year old me played Elwood’s sister (Elwood was 6’4″, so actually taller than the rabbit; we decided Harvey didn’t count his ears and was thus about 6’8″).

  41. “Harvey” is still a hit, and with the Broadway revival (Jim Parsons & ….) now closing, I expect there will be a boom in high school productions in the spring. Some of the language is dated, some of the stage business with phones would have to be updated a little. People have changed very little since then, you know, and Harvey, well, of course, pookas don’t change at all! What’s that you say? Oh, yes, unless they want to.

  42. There are three approaches to Immortality, I realized in my elite geek-heaven heaven high school. First, there’s having children. That wasn’t in the cards right away, as Stuyvesant was an all male school. So me and two of my classmates got into Caltech. Which was all male…

    Second, through immortal work. The Nobel-prizeworthy science. The Pulitzer/Nebula/Hugo trifecta.

    Third, as Woody Allen said: “I don’t want to be immortal through my works. I want to be immortal by not dying.”

    Which is why, Physics-Math guy that I was, I started taking graduate seminars in molecular Biology. And wrote the first PhD Dissertation on what are now called Nanotechnology, Artificial Life, and Synthetic Biology. And continued publishing Science Fiction in major markets, as a hedge.

    I do recall the default feeling of immortality through bad risk-evaluation of teenagerhood. See also my times in the hospital for motorcycle injuries. That one time, doing several mid air somersaults on a rush hour freeway, I was quite sure that I would die upon hitting the ground, or being struck by an oncoming car. I have described my out-of-body experience elsewhere. In brief, I did review my entire life. But not like scrolling a Facebook timeline. More like looking at a 4-D sculpture, that (as Heinlein said in “Life-line”, 1939) started thin, thickened, lasted many years, and then grew a bit thinner. It was okay. A little banged up and scuffed in places, but good enough. So I was totally relaxed when I hit the road. And survived because by helmet split like an eggshell, and someone stopped their car to block traffic in the lane until I could be evacuated. Everything since then has been icing on the cake.

    Note to 17-year-old me: Wear the damned helmet every time. And pay no attention to bloggers who consider you a troll. We’ll see which of us wins The Big One first.

  43. JvP, we don’t think you’re a troll. We’d just like you to be a bit more on topic, not tangential to it in 11-D hyperspace. And we’d appreciate it if you’d write comments for the thread we’re all reading, not just drop in something you whipped up elsewhere.

    Look at it from our perspective. We’re reading a conversation and in comes a nice, bright guy, but, most of the time, instead of joining the conversation, he has a device that exudes longish canned responses that only he knows how they sort of kind of relate to the conversation. We mention this, and he responds by giving us longer excerpts rather than focusing. He thinks of this as giving us context, but the context we want his comments to pertain to is the context of the conversation in the here and now. So instead of wading through and trying to untangle his monologues, we tend to skip them more and more, because, even though half the time they’re somewhat interesting, when we’re hear we’d prefer to enjoin the conversation rather than solve a puzzle.

    I know you’re big on getting your thoughts to as wide an audience as possible. But when you alienate the rest of the community, you defeat your own purpose as more members filter you out. What’s signal elsewhere is noise in the wrong context. If you focused less on volume and more on clarity, you’d reach more ears and garner more support, which is a two-way street.

  44. That writing from 17-year-old Scalzi is fantastic. I want to steal a couple of quotes from there and print them out so I can stick them near my work desk and in my study at home, because they’re inspiring to me. Do you mind, John?

  45. Lot of impact for me this line: “However, we cannot transfer time. So we exist, and our time is terminally short.” For some reason I didn’t expect the word ‘terminally’ from the flow and got hammered (In a good way, of course)
    So did people politely clap, or say “Amen!” after Chapels Talks? I went to school in California and things were different there. There was no sense of the finite, let alone of using it to inform us about what comes after.

    “Time” is such a great Pink Floyd ballad and such a central scientific concept in Science Fiction and here at 17 you’re writing about Time and it does not suck. I infer also that there was no chance you would kick around in your hometown, not with this kind of skill and curiosity, and for that I’m selfishly glad. Just be sure to always leave Time Enough for Love (Sorry, CA public education peeking though).

  46. Read this earlier today but had to run while the sun was shining. I appreciate it John. Too many of us people do not take advantage of the time we have and that there may not be a tomorrow for us. I remember being in my mid teens and was struck by the reality of death when a friend of mine was killed. That experience certainly shaped me and I’ve made a point to live large and enjoy. Even then I let it get away from sometimes and need to be reminded. Thanks for doing that today.

  47. As a person who has taught public speaking at college level for far too many years, let me assure you that “Websters defines …” is still alive and lurching out of its grave, moldering cerements dangling from its blueblack spoiled flesh. When I was starting out, a colleague from whom I learned a great deal told me it was one of the Ten Openings That Must Be Suppressed, of which he gave me a list, which I seem to have lost, and that his teachers had told him, when he was starting out, that it was old an moldering. That puts it back before the Great Depression.

    On the bright side, one hardly ever hears “Wake up, America!” as an opening anymore. On the dim side, it has been replaced by “How many of you here ….”

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