March 1, 2006

venti anni fa


Exactly Twenty Years Ago: March, 1986

I had always seen the "makeover" scenes in movies, you know, like the one that had just been in "The Breakfast Club" a year before, but I always figured they were for other people. Twenty years ago, I was eighteen years old, and Christmas 1985 had been one of the worst scenes you could imagine: my parents throwing antiques at each other, culminating in my dad walking out forever, and my mom descending into temporary madness. When I trod out into the snow in Morristown, NY (where we were living for that brief period), I looked at the heavens and decided I needed a makeover.

I was still wearing the worst Coke-bottle glasses with a frame style from 1977, still cut my hair like Shaun Cassidy, had some of the worst clothes on earth, and terrible acne. I didn't figure I had much of a chance getting into Chi Psi, which was an amazing fraternity full of independent minds and mysterious traditions. At one of the rushee functions - well, hell, I'll just show you a picture:


That is with Kendall Crosswell (we're still great friends) before I managed to rescue myself from corduroy sport coats and knit ties for good. The day after that picture was taken, I asked Kendall's roommate to cut my hair. It took her three tries, and the dorm floor was completely covered, but I'd managed to accomplish what several tens of people in my high school had begged me to do since 1980.

That night, I noticed that the Accutane I'd been taking for five months had finally worked: I was free of zits, probably forever. After battling God on this one for so many years, pharmacology won out.

The next day, I went to the UNC Memorial Hospital optometrist and got my first pair of contact lenses - they were weighted for astigmatism, and it took me an hour to get them in, but I could see my own actual eyes for the first time since I was a kid. Then I got a sophomore to drive me and the Budster to University Mall, where I bought a couple of shirts and some awesome leather shoes from that men's shop that is surely gone by now.

And in that weekend - 20 years ago from last weekend - my entire life changed. When I went to class on Monday, nobody recognized me. I had to tell my teacher who I was, it was that drastic. That night, there was a rushee mixer with the Pi Phis (then and now an amazing sorority full of smart, intensely beautiful women), and I noticed that girls were actually looking at me.

One of them came up and smiled and talked to me. TALKED to ME. Three different women openly showed interest in me romantically and I COULD NOT BELIEVE IT. Nobody had ever glanced in my remote direction before this night. I immediately filed it under Why The Fuck Didn't I Do This in Seventh Grade.

From then on, for better or worse, I never believed I was out of anyone's league, never cared if I thought if I was cute enough. I was a quick learner, and since I'd come to the world of women so late, I decided I would go about "dating" and "sex" the way a cultural anthropologist would: trying to learn every last thing about it with my platonic girl-friends as tutors. It put me in good stead for years, even if it did ultimately eat me alive.

Twenty years ago tonight, I sat in my dorm room Hinton James, when Chip came over. This was rare, because he lived in Lewis Dorm, which was 78.4 miles away, and he got lost easily. He was supposed to pull some stunt where he would say that Chi Psi had decided to pass and I wasn't supposed to come around anymore, but he couldn't pull it off, and just told me that I had gotten a bid. And thus I hugged the Chipper.

me (with joke glasses) and the Budster, summer '86

In two weeks, I'd gone from fashionless zork with terrible skin, zero affection, and accoutrements stuck in the mid-1970s... to being a happy, wine-cooler sipping fratboy with a hot date to the pledge formal. I know it sounds like the plot to a bad episode of "The Brady Bunch," but for me, escaping the saturnine gloom and hollow-eyed asexuality of adolescence meant everything. I couldn't take my parents' divorce. I couldn't stomach another fantasy about a girl I'd never talk to. I wasn't going to be watching everything through a rainy window anymore, god dammit. The era of the violin dork who got beat up was OVER.

What dreams and joy all of you experienced at summer camp in ninth grade, I finally understood in 1986. And like the movie we watched over and over, it became My Favorite Year.

Posted by Ian Williams at March 1, 2006 11:50 PM
Posted by: Laurie from Manly Dorm at March 2, 2006 4:33 AM

I think that you were cute even before your transformation.

And, hey, what is all this talk about the Pi Phis? I always thought you were partial to the Kappas!

Posted by: Greg T. at March 2, 2006 5:29 AM

Fantastic. I've enjoyed every installment this week, I can't wait to hear what you were up to 35 yrs ago today.

Yesterday's entry got my wife and I musing about what we were doing 15 yrs ago. For me it was probably the most life changing month of my life. Thanks for sending me on that trip down memory lane.

Posted by: caveman at March 2, 2006 6:06 AM

was 1986 the

It that is too personal, no problem, just answer it anyway. Cheers.

Posted by: lee at March 2, 2006 6:36 AM

Yaay for 1986! The cool thing is, though, that your home boys met you BEFORE the big change and had probably already made up their minds about you then.

And as a lesbian Kappa, I have to agree with Ian about those hot PiPhi's! haha!!

Posted by: Greg from Winston Dorm at March 2, 2006 7:11 AM

If you were to set your story to a musical montage, a la all teen 80's movies, what song or songs would accompany the Hollywood version of your makeover, including the haircut, the contacts and the shoe and shirt buying?

Posted by: salem's little sister at March 2, 2006 7:43 AM

I'm hearing The Dream Academy "Please, please, please let me get what I want"

Posted by: Anne D. at March 2, 2006 9:03 AM

I was a late bloomer, too, Ian. College was awesome, risky behavior and all. :-)

Posted by: GFWD at March 2, 2006 9:52 AM

Salem's Little Sister, there you are--my long lost soulmate and the only other person I know who loved THE DREAM ACADEMY. What album is the song on that you reference?

Posted by: nb at March 2, 2006 10:10 AM

hooray for accutane!! I say if your thinking about killing yourself while on accutane, you don't really need it. Unfortunately, doctors were very reluctant to perscribe it for girls because of the birth defect thing. Believe me, I sure wasn't getting any before that life saver!

The smiths sang "please, please, please let me get..." not dream academy, unless they had a remake of it. I should know, it was my anthem

Posted by: Bud at March 2, 2006 10:23 AM

The Dream Academy version of "Please, please, please let me get what I want" is on Somewhere in the Sun: Best of the Dream Academy.

I've always been more partial to the original Smiths' version, which can be found on Hatful of Hollow.

Wow. 1986. So much to answer for.

I think of my happiness in the 80s sometimes a stock market graph, with the Happiness line right at the very bottom of the chart in 1980. It rises steadily, with only a few bumps, between there and the end of 1985, where my happiness market crashes. '86 had a few bright spots, but mostly it was a trough. It seemed to me like popular culture was in sync with my mood, too. The movies and pop music of 1986 no longer had that same "anything can happen" sheen of the early 80s.

To paraphrase Yogi Berra, in 1986, the future just wasn't what it used to be.

Things rebounded by '87, only to crash even harder in '89. Fortunately, it's all been uphill since then.

Ian and I were talking about this recently. It's funny how most of his best years were my worst years, and vice versa....

Posted by: CL at March 2, 2006 10:54 AM

Caveman, "it" happened later...geez, guess I read this thing too closely. Hmm, I shouldn't answer this question. OK, I won't anymore.

>>"what several tens of people in my high school had begged me to do since 1980."

Omigod. I was just telling someone on Sunday a similar story about me. I grew up watching Brady Bunch reruns, where all the pretty girls just had straight, long hair. My hair was always straight and long in the '80s, and it seemed perfectly fine to me.

Around fifth grade (circa 1982/3) girls in school started saying to me, "Are you ever going to do anything with your hair?" I had no idea what they meant and found it pretty obnoxious. (It is kinda obnoxious, actually). I had long straight hair and it was fine for me and fine for Marsha Brady.

Then suddenly, one day, I looked around the room. EVERY girl had perfectly parted, layered-back feathered hair. When did this happen? Why did everyone else know to do this, and I didn't?

I still didn't care, though. I didn't think you should be judged by your hair. I kept my hair straight and long until college, at which point I got a haircut. Only problem was, I was finally getting '80s layered hair, but it was the '90s and straight hair was coming back in.

That concludes today's installment of, a loser and her hair.

Oh, I agree with Laurie - you were cute before the transformation. But as you can tell from above, my opinion is warped and unrelated to the rest of society. ;)

Posted by: eric g. at March 2, 2006 11:20 AM

Ian, are those the Chi Psi letters on your t-shirt in the second photo? As the Leefer would say, "What's up with that?"

Bonus points for casual use of the word "saturnine," however.

Posted by: Laurie from Manly Dorm at March 2, 2006 11:31 AM

CL! You made me laugh! I starred in my own drama, called A Loser and Her Hair, the Morris County, NJ Version. I looked kind of like the female version of Ian, sorta. . . red hair, thick glasses, but I was (am) short with really curly hair. The kind of curly hair that did not work well with the feathered back styles that were in vogue. Oh, the hours spent crying over my hair! All I ever wanted was straight, long hair (like your's)! All the horrible hair cuts! With no benefit of mousse or other modern hair products! The frizz! The afro-like effect! And, I arrived at Carolina only to see that everyone was sporting different variations of the same straight, long shiny hair. During college, all I wanted was a smart little bob haircut, that would bounce and sway in the sunshine. You know what happens to curly hair in the NC humidity? It's not pretty.

I still want that smart little bob haircut. Curls be damned!

Posted by: Laurie from Manly Dorm at March 2, 2006 11:37 AM

And, the funny thing is that my little first grader has suddenly become obsessed with hair! Helen has beautiful straight hair, with a hint of curl. Living vicariously, I decided to cut her hair in a smart little bob style! She is the picture of adorableness! Her hair swings in the sunshine! Just this week, she told me that she wanted to "grow her bangs out" and grow her hair long so that she could tuck it behind her ears just so, like the classmates that she admires. She wants very long hair, like the American Girl doll that she wants to buy. If this is first grade, I am afraid to see what kind of primping obsessions middle school will bring.

No matter what the decade, it is ALL ABOUT THE HAIR.

Posted by: CL at March 2, 2006 12:50 PM

Well, maybe Helen will be more popular than all of us were! My drama took place down in Monmouth County.

Yes, I imagine having curls was tough. Now kids can just pay $300 to get it straightened. Well, kids like Chelsea Clinton, anyhow.

Posted by: Ian at March 2, 2006 1:44 PM

1986 was not the year "it" happened. "It" happened on my wedding night in 2003, in missionary position. Jesus said it was okay.

Gribster, yes, those were the letters. My mom made me the shirt as a congratulations present, and I know we're a "secret society" and all, but I was too psyched.

Oh, and Greg - the song playing during my makeover was Chas Jankel's "Number One (Man in the Making)" from the montage scene in "Real Genius" when they are trying to figure out the laser:

Number one is a hard time in the making
Don't give (Don't give)
a damn (a damn)
what else (what else)
I am (I am)
I am (I am)
the man in the making

Posted by: LFMD at March 2, 2006 4:05 PM

CL - Monmouth County. . . Morris County. . . apparently hair has always been an issue in Jersey! Which town in Monmouth County are you from?

Yeah, the late 70's and 80's was NOT the time to be sporting the Little Orphan Annie look! I wanted to look like Farrah Fawcett or Dorothy Hamill.

Ian, I think it is very sweet of your mom to make that shirt. All of your stories about your mom are very sweet. . . and I know from her earlier comments that she rocks! I am sorry to hear about the antique throwing. You know, now that I have 11 years of marriage and parenthood under my belt, it pains me to hear you tell about your parents' divorce. Partly because I have moments when I am just a few steps away from antique-throwing myself! It is a thin line between love and hate, you know? Hypothetically, I am not sure how I would react to reading Helen's account of her parents' lowest marital moments. . . Would it break my heart or be a reality-affirming experience? I dunno.

And, . . . .I don't get it. . . so, frat boys are not supposed to wear their letters, but sorority girls have their letters emblazened across their bosoms? No wonder I never went Greek. . .I did not know the rules, plus I had the Little Orphan Annie look! Ha!

Posted by: Nope at March 2, 2006 5:09 PM

Boy, Ian, you really let it all hang out there. I would feel far too vulnerable to bare my soul to the web about the sensitive topics you've covered this week. Very brave.

You are obviously at peace with many of your toughest life moments; maybe it's because you now have your Incredibly Happy Ending that you can pour your stories onto these pages with such sensitivity. If I were blogging, I could not do what you've done this week (and so often before now). In fact, I can't even put my name on this post! What a loser!

In fact I force myself to "hum" when I think back to the countless things I have done or said in my life and now regret. It's the only way to hide my audible cringe. It's maturity that makes us wiser about these things and causes us regret. In fact, I bet I am creating fodder on a daily basis for some future "hums," to be experienced ten or twenty years from now.

My own "extreme makeover" occured before my freshman year of high school. You know, the usual: vowed to drop the paralyzing shyness, lost a lot of weight, shed the coke bottle glasses and got new hair (so many stories that sound the same!) I was a rising HS junior the time at which our paths crossed, and that was likely the peak of my young social status.

In the end, we all are the people we have become today because of these experiences. Who would have it any other way?

Posted by: eric g. at March 2, 2006 5:13 PM

Ian, that's a great story about your mom making you the shirt. I remember how psyched I was, too. Chris Landgraff came to my room in Morrison to tell me. I think Shaun McCarthy might've been with him.

(On a side note, were you at the Lodge the time the guys from Stevens Tech showed up with satin baseball jackets that said "Lodgers" in "Dodgers" script?)

Posted by: CL at March 2, 2006 5:20 PM

LFMD, I was in Freehold.

Yep, hair was a big issue - it was the '80s! I think the hair nuttiness reached its peak when boys were shaving their sideburns all the way off late in h.s.

But then again, there were all the 'n sync dye jobs ten years ago from the new generation.

Posted by: Greg from Winston Dorm at March 2, 2006 7:33 PM

Ian, get out of my head. I was going to mention the exact song from REAL GENIUS (okay, I didn't know the name of the song), but that montage is classic. Showing the kid in his math class surrounded by all the tape recorders until finally the professor's lecture is a tape recorder. The only reason I didn't mention it is that I figured it would be too damn obscure even for this list. I'm not holding back in the future.

Great song to have as your montage.

Posted by: cullen at March 2, 2006 8:40 PM

Maybe I'm a little jacked up (it's late) & I guess it's still a little early since the big "I" is likely blogging manana, but I think I'm gettin' onto Ian's extremely deep motivational techniques; his introspective-pretty-talk-waxing-poetic about good long time hell and well spent on the THrill is only meant to stir your soul and get your dang ass up. I mean get the F_ _ _ up. I'm all for mine and yours and OUR posterity and POSTERizing and putting puky punks on their POSTeriors and hitting the F'in floor. It's as always and it ever will be, Heaven Vs. Heathen.

All the baby blue babies in the house say .....


Sleep tight all.

Posted by: jif at March 3, 2006 4:14 AM

i love this story. i am compiling my list of favorites and this is now on the list along with your tomato tom tom.. have to go back to complete list. still no clock, looking looking xo jif

Posted by: Bill at March 3, 2006 9:40 AM

Hey, LFMD --

Another Morris County, N.J., commenter here -- Chatham, in my case. And you?

And in another parallel universe, my six-year-old daughter told me this morning that she hates when her hair sticks up, and she spent the whole ride to school smoothing it down. Probably because Naomi, the alpha girl in my daughter's kindergarten class, has her hair nice and smooth.

Posted by: Kellen Dunlap at March 5, 2007 11:43 AM

I was searching for a gift on google for my new little brother and your blog came up. I enjoyed reading about you getting your bid. My own bid story is not as interesting as yours. Reading about your experience brought a smile on my face. I will send the link to the brothers and pledges of our alpha because I am sure they would love to read it too.

Kellen Dunlap
Alpha Omega Delta '08
Philanthropy Chairman

Posted by: Laura Joyce at March 14, 2007 2:51 PM

Thanks so much for the Block update. I'm a huge fan. I was working at a small music mag in Boston when I discovered him. We were all sure he'd break through on the strength of "I Used to Manage PM Dawn," but so goes the music biz. Shame. Anyway, glad to here things turned out well for him. Thanks again!

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