By the end of high school I was a very unhappy person and had been so since our family moved from unincorporated Kane County to Park Ridge, Illinois when I was ten. At the outset the unhappiness was basically consequent upon leaving a rural setting, small school and friendly, integrated working-class neighborhood for a reactionary suburb, large school and unfriendly upper middle-class populace whose children were, by and large, just as thoughtlessly racist and conservative as their parents were.
On the one hand, it had a lot to do with not having had a girlfriend since Lisa in the first grade. On the other hand, and this was more prominently to mind, it had to do with the reasons, the serious reasons, for not having one. They were that I was unusually slow in physical development and unusually short in stature. In my mind, I was uncontestably unattractive. If any girl would like me it would be because of personality and intelligence,
I had no insecurity about intelligence as a teen, but quite a bit about personality. Feminism didn’t become an issue until college, but I was ashamed about thinking of women sexually when it seemed clear they would be offended or disgusted were they to know of it. I developed the practice of not looking at females unless speaking with them. I walked with my head down, eyes to the ground, in order to avoid such guilt-ridden gazes. While other guys played around with the girls in our circle, I maintained a generally grave persona, holding “serious” conversations or reading while they flirted. A feeling of superiority was confusedly mixed with strong feelings of inferiority to these other, more comfortable, persons. While it was easy to dismiss most of the “straight” kids at school as mindless, this was not possible with many persons in our circle, particularly some of the older ones whom I admired for their learning and critical intellects.
The other, philosophically deeper, dimension of this unease was that I myself was so “critically intelligent” that I had no ground upon which to stand. I had strong moral feelings but I was unable to convince myself that they were more than personal tastes. My early public school education had emphasized the sciences. While I could understand human values as having some meaning in terms of biology and evolutionary theory, I could not fit myself positively into that picture. I certainly wasn’t biologically “fit”. Thoughts of suicide were frequent.
Thus I was drawn, upon being exposed to them, to the existentialists, particularly Camus. They alone seemed to be trying to speak openly about the actual human condition
I recall reading “The Myth of Sisyphus” while seated in our family’s red Opel Cadet station wagon across from City Hall, at the curb of Hodge’s Park on a beautiful spring day. Our friends were all about this area between Bob Rowe’s Evening Pipe Shop, Park Ridge’s Community Church and the Cogswell Dance Studio (our indoors hangouts), but I was avoiding their frivolity, engaged in serious study, while, obviously, inviting an invitation to join in–which, in my moral confusion, I might well have declined.
Just as I was concluding this essay of the collection, the part about Sisyphus being happy with his absurd work, Lisa Cox walked in front of the car, headed west towards the church. Now, Lisa was just another pretty girl in our group, not the particular object of any attention from me. Indeed, she was too young, being two years behind in school. But, not being an intimate friend, she was one of those girls I would tend to guiltily objectify as sexual.
Here, however, it happened differently. She was beautiful, simply beautiful. Her long, tightly waved brown hair and matching corduroy pants, all bathed in sunlight dappled by the new leaves of the elms filling the park, were lovely. I didn’t feel guilty for thinking this. I noticed the absence of guilt feelings. It seemed quite paradoxical, just as Camus’ comment about Sisyphus had appeared, but true.
I’d call this an ecstatic experience. It didn’t last more than a few minutes at most, though the memory of it, and experiences like it, remains clear and cherished.