BLAST FROM THE PAST: (BITTER) SWEET SIXTEEN (or Nirvana in the Bananas)
(As an attempt to re-enter, perhaps in a different way from before – I thought I’d start by updating some previous offerings made to the internet. This blog post was written for a show in 2012 exploring homecoming and teenage nostalgia. In my usual cavalier
manner I had pecked it out really quickly and not really thought much about it. I thought I’d aim for a re-entry by going back in time so I might begin to move forward.)
There wasn’t much that was sweet when I was sixteen.
Living in a small coastal town near Woolgoolga in the banana belt of NSW, there was little that linked me to the outside world. TV was limited to 4 channels, I was secretly obsessed with Paul Reiser from Mad About You, I was glued to Helen Razer’s voice and song choice on Triple J like a grommet clings to his surf board at Woopi Beach.
All the while my face was buried in suspiciously pristine ancient history text-books provided by the high school with the vain hope that education would set me free from the shit hole I was trapped in.
It was the 90s.
The dawn of the information age. The Gulf War. The Chechen War. The Bosnian War. Kosovo. Australia was having a recession it had to have. Bill Clinton played the sax and his sperm was found on a dress owned by a woman he did NOT have sexual relations with. Kurt Cobain had moaned his way through gritted teeth and a floppy fringe, then blew a hole in his head.
Sixteen, in Woolgoolga, was not so sweet. For many it signaled a grand leap into an unplanned pregnancy, a sensible apprenticeship, or the school certificate or suspensions for crafting bongs out of orchy bottles in full-view of a lunchtime supervising teacher.
Sixteen was my year of joining a punk band, writing abusive songs, the obligatory occasional social binge drinking, studying Hamlet, unrequited love affairs with boys who listened to Pink Floyd, memorizing slabs of T.S Eliot – all while topping my class and dreaming of my emancipated adult life.
I dreamed of a bright future where I didn’t have to ever, EVER confront the boring, dull, flat unprofitable world I was forced to grow up in.
I dreamed of never having to run (or walk) the cross country, attend a swimming carnival or sports carnival ever again.
I feared that my future grown-up self would have to navigate a school reunion. I hoped I could forever avoid it. And earnestly hoped by the time it rolled around that I had made something of my life. Something. Anything better than the here and now.
At high school, kids wearing an improvised uniform sucked smoke from juice bottles and grinned through red eyes at their future. Flannelette shirts flapped as teens set fire to bins. Grunge was born. I dressed in my grandfather’s clothes and listened patiently as boys my age fumbled around with Metallica riffs on nylon string guitars. River Phoenix died and girls at my school attempted suicide. We were lectured on AIDS ad nauseum and spent long afternoons rolling condoms onto bananas, whilst the cooler kids were practicing the real thing in the bushland that surrounded my school.
It all felt pointless really.
Skinny girls with no opinions got the boys, then had scrag fights on the school bus. Their earrings ripped out of ears. Blood. Torn singlet tops. Swearing. The boys would look on with dull eyes and would not dare intervene. I sat quietly and wrote letters to people I had met who went to ‘other’ schools – a life line to the life outside my hometown.
Inevitably, someone’s cool parents let us have a party at their place. I’d sit planning my future escape and watch as others had fun: Passion pop and Jim Beam. Malibu and Coke. Bongs. Magic mushrooms. Teens gnawing sloppily at each other’s faces, having a casual vomit, a micro-sleep, then continuing. At some stage a posse would form and we’d go on ‘missions’ stealing street signs or garden gnomes from unsuspecting homes. We ventured into the banana fields and sang Nirvana songs to keep each other awake. Lying on the ground on deserted country roads under the stars, we soaked up the warmth from the black bitumen and raged over arguments about reality and perception (teenage philosophy a plenty.) We knew it was all empty, all pointless – the universe too big, the world uncaring. Everything had been thought of before, everything had all been said before. We knew poverty could not and would not be ended by Bono or any other aging rock star who chose to wear rose-coloured sunglasses.
It wasn’t sweet. It was bitter.
Flash forward 16 years.
At the start new millennium the school reunion is unavoidable. It’s not a physical thing – it’s the casual surprise of a Facebook ‘friend’ request… sometimes from someone who has changed their name and judging by their photo has either regressed thirty years or had a baby.
Although I’m a world away from a drunken pash in the banana fields, the sting of school remains: the pointlessness, the feeling of being trapped in a shit hole, the dreams I had, the pressure I felt, the boys I loved, the friends I had. I watch the film clips, sing along to Hole or Pearl Jam.
And suddenly, even mentioning it, here and now, I find the memory is not bitter. Not at all.
The further away one has from the heat of the moment – the awkward daily agonies of being sixteen – the more remarkable those moments are. The moments in which we determine our future, assert our identities, decide on a direction.