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.