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Dear Nostalgia: No Regrets

Max: I’m too nostalgic. I’ll admit it.
We graduated four months ago. What can you possibly be nostalgic for?
I’m nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I’ve begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I’m reminiscing this right now. I can’t go to the bar because I’ve already looked back on it in my memory . . . and I didn’t have a good time.
Kicking and Screaming

Growing up, sometime in the mid-90s, I had a white T-shirt branded with a stickman sporting crazy hair and holding a surfboard under one arm with “No Regrets” embossed next to his head. The two words were multi-colored and in a funky font inside a wacky circle. I wasn’t entirely sure what the phrase meant. But I made sure to jump extra high on my trampoline and climb my neighbor’s fence with an extra disregard for property lines when I wore it. “Ben, why did you steal Mrs. Clarke’s lawn flamingo?” “No regrets, Mom.”

Through middle school and a portion of high school my family lived across the street from an elderly couple. I went fishing with the man, John, a couple times on his boat. We didn’t have much to say to each other, that about being the point of multiple males fishing. His wife, Sally, was of poor health. She rarely left the house. I’d visit her on occasion, in part because I felt bad and in part because my parents were always too busy. We’d sit in her kitchen. She’d have a long, skinny cigarette in one hand (another reason why my parents didn’t visit often), she’d be wearing a nightgown, and she’d force-feed me ice cream sandwiches. She was born and raised in South Carolina. Her drawl had the aristocratic lilt of Southern women of a bygone era. She told me Charleston was being “ruined by the Negroes.” They were making the city “dangerous.” I’d guess she once considered herself beautiful; the timeworn idea gave her voice a certain authority. “High school was the best time of my life,” she told me, smoke drifting from her nostrils. She died last year.

After my senior year of high school five baseball teammates and myself took a trip down to Panama City. Before we left, one of our teachers, who was also an assistant football coach, gave the most mature and athletic member of our group — and therefore the de facto leader — an industrial-sized box of condoms. This coach was my keyboarding instructor junior year. One day in class, while I was copying and pasting the day’s assignment, he coerced the two most attractive girls into pushing a penny across the floor with their noses. When he gave my friend those condoms he probably said something like, “You’re going to need these where you’re going.” Or, “Make sure to wrap it up, son.” Or, “Let Galaxy at Tan Fannies know the statute of limitations has done come and gone, and so tell her she can go to hell.”

My condom-receiving friend dumped his girlfriend a couple weeks before we went to the beach. Several days before the dumping he took her to see The Breakup starring Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Anniston. Just so happens a girl not her, a girl he’d been liking from afar, was going to be in Panama at the same time we were. “no regrets man,” he texted.

What I wanted to be when I grew up, age 8:

1. Auburn Football Star

2. Civil War Hero

3. Jedi Master

4. Martyr for an outnumbered and hopeless cause

5. Veterinarian

What I want to be when I grow up, age 23:

1. Alive

2. Content

3. Getting Money, yet retaining modicum of respect necessary for “self-fulfillment”

4. International Man of Mystery and Leisure/ Eccentric Millionaire

5. Auburn Football Star

My family lives in Sevierville, Tennessee. Sevierville precedes Pigeon Forge which precedes Gatlinburg. Now, for a family wearing vacation-themed airbrushed T-shirts or a World War II veteran or an Eastern European stacking cash during the summer by helping tubby tourists get tubbier at faux-Western steakhouses, the Sevierville/Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area is a regular cornucopia of wonder. There are go karts and drive-thru wedding chapels and “the Titanic of Pigeon Forge” and, most importantly, Dolly Parton, her cleavage, and all they’ve accomplished together.

But for a 23-year-old recent college graduate staying at his parent’s house for what amounts to an interlude between youth and official adulthood there’s not too much. And what is available is expensive. And even if it wasn’t I can’t help but look upon the masses of tourists with pity. And then my pity turns to self-reproach and the self-reproach to self-pity. I mostly sit alone by the pool.

My best friend Chris lives in the area and we often wander the GOP’s wet dream of gaudy capitalism together. Chris recently graduated from the University of Tennessee and is going through an interlude of his own before law school. We eat food, we sneak onto golf courses and have involved discussions about shiftless youth and the potential existence of aliens, I reassure him about the future ascent of Tennessee football, we get nostalgic for the very recent past.

At night we sometimes sit upstairs in my parent’s house and watch television. I don’t watch TV, except when I do. I suppose that’s everyone. But I’ve taken a certain liking to the Sevier County public access channel (officially the “community channel”). One afternoon I watched the second half of a girl’s basketball game between two local high schools. Another night I watched my former eighth grade science teacher distribute science fair ribbons to sixth, seventh, and eighth graders inside what was my middle school gym.

My favorite program on the community channel is the “advertisements” it airs for each of the area schools. In each, the school’s principal recites various facts and attractive aspects of the school as the camera wanders the halls and classrooms capturing students of all ages eating, talking, and listening to focused teachers with great intent. From what I can gather, these short segments are trying to attract undecided students to select the area school that best fits their needs. But only if these prospective students are awake at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday. The actual viewers: those brewing meth in various lawless hollers, shut-in insomniacs, and me.

My sister was a senior when the Pigeon Forge High School promo was filmed. She’s a smart girl, good student, involved, well-liked, and so she was one of the students PFHS highlighted in its tour. The principal doing the narrating was the first and only in the school’s history. (The school opened in 1999.) Everyone called him Coach [Surname] even though he hadn’t coached in a couple decades. He had a large, bushy, Tom Selleck mustache. Hearing his voiceover describing the many educational and athletic available at PFHS reminded me of four years of morning announcements. His voice always promised authority. It was the voice of commanding officers. It was the voice of someone totally in control of his life.

Coach retired this year from principaling. Next year he will be the head of maintenance for the county schools. More bluntly put, King Janitor. He shaved his mustache and bought a motorcycle. My sister saw him the other day at a local restaurant. He was insistent she step outside and see his new ride. It’s a Harley, large and loud. The back of his helmet reads, “I Live Life My Way.” Coach was dating my sister’s friend’s mom for a while. She kicked him out recently. He’s been trying to repent for whatever mistakes he made. He often repents in public. My sister and her friend refer to him as “octopus hands” due to his grabby public displays of affection. He’s no doubt doing his best like all the rest.

What’s more earnest than a mid-life crisis?

To my pre-college self:

(I’m writing about and to me. But it’s in the hope you’ll recognize some part of yourself in the words — supplying the specific hoping to appeal to the general. Can’t quite remember Emerson’s words, but it’s something similar: What is true for one man is true for every man. Grandiose, I know, but I’m doing what I can. At least believe me when I say it comes from a decent place.)

Leave your apartment spring semester freshman year. The three-season box set of Battlestar Galactica will never cheat on you.

Don’t let your surly 8-11 year old miniature schnauzer Cooper keep you from talking and interacting with neighbors.

Don’t leave that box of Daylight Donuts on the kitchen table. Cooper is crafty. He will eat all the donuts. He will then almost die. You will spend the first month of your junior year in fearful mourning. His near death will also be very pricey.

Talk more in class. No one cares.

Talk to more people in class. No one cares.

Your opinions are as worthwhile as the rest of your classmates. Don’t be intimidated by their bluster.

Everyone is afraid of public ridicule. You’re not alone.

Attend fewer classes.

Study less for multiple choice tests and BS more on English essays. Bump up the symbolic language and archaic word choice.

To succeed: Reword the professor’s nonsense. Always feed the vanity. Most need the reassurance and protection against insecurity.

Write how you want. Accept the consequences, positive and negative. No one cares.

Take off the stained white hat before the end of sophomore year. Can does not equal should.

And either get a haircut or let it grow out. The in-between is not a great look.

Realize no one is going to make you do anything. Success is in large part a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Set aside the results. Work hard. But work with purpose.

Talk to more professors during office hours and in general. They are friendly. Don’t talk about grades or assignments. No one cares.

Take more classes in different majors. Don’t specialize your knowledge. (Mainly applies to the free-wheeling liberal arts types. You with the actual job security, you with the hopes and dreams of a stable financial future, should approach all this with skepticism and hesitancy.)

Spend more time talking to Dr. James Ryan of the English Department. Likewise with Dr. Christopher Keirstead.

“Don’t judge people just because their beliefs teach them to despise you.”

Be less arrogant. These people know things.

Practice skepticism and selective learning.

Never refer to yourself as a member of the Auburn Family.

Find some sort of on-campus group to join before your junior year. Helps with the moving and the shaking.

Enter relationships with coworkers and those in your major with caution. You will see these people often.

Read more widely.

Take more walks.

Engage in the community.

Talk to old people.

Actually listen when people speak.

No really, listen.

Eat breakfast occasionally.

Control your anger when Cooper barks during naps. He perceives himself as an alpha male. It’s called protection and love.

More naps.

Spend more time in the library browsing and reading on whim.

Playfully mock those who take their intelligence and book learning too seriously.

Which includes you. Try to keep it light.

Be friendly to strangers, especially campus employees, especially Karl, the (perhaps) mentally deficient janitor who work(ed) outside The Plainsman office. Even if every interaction you have with him involves Karl grabbing you by the arm and telling you how “[Auburn’s every opponent] is gonna beat that ass.” Always return his “Roll [blanking] Tide” with a “War Eagle.”

Stealing from the library is stealing from yourself.

Spend less time on Facebook and mindless Internet browsing.

Expand the wardrobe beyond T-shirts, athletic shorts, and flip flops. Just on occasion. The “I’m not trying, I dress for comfort” look is a choice, no matter how often you tell yourself you’re opting out and trying to attract friends and those of the opposite sex through force of personality.

Eat more shrimp.

Start a serious petition to keep Nihon Express on Opelika Road from closing.

A real review of Nihon’s fine dining experience:

This place is the SHIZNIT. My typical weekday night. 2 tokes from the Volcano packed with some AK48 X BlueBerry (my personal strain, hit me up if your interested) Then I turn on Adult SWIM and watch a few episodes of AquaTeen Hunger Force.. followed by you guess it Nihon to get rid of those muchies.. then i **** my girlfriend and pass out..

Don’t be afraid to engage former classmates in conversation. Assuming they won’t know you and then avoiding eye contact and crossed paths on campus makes your fifth year unnecessarily stressful and convoluted.

Show up later to Auburn home games with fewer people. A team of two can almost always get a great seat 30 minutes before kickoff if you’re willing to boldly walk the aisles.

Don’t sing “God Bless America” in a loud mocking falsetto while whipping the back of the girl’s head one row below with your stringy shaker before the Arkansas State game. That’s just rude.

Be generous.

Guard your free time.

Write more.

Realize the good times don’t end with graduation.

Don’t let the pursuit of grades blind you to the enjoyment of youth and the freedom of university life.

Gather enough willpower and self-confidence to stumble through your post-grad years.

Try to avoid acting out of insecurity and fear as often as possible.

Realize it’s all just a ride.

Help others enjoy their ride.

Buy more candles.

Stay curious.

Eat less Taco Bell.

Some say time is a river, and that we’re propelled along its course like sad sacks of debris. Time cannot be slowed, sped, or stopped. Time moves, we move, clouds gather and dissipate, birds poop on windshields, lions maul newborn wildebeests, children in Africa learn basic English to develop e-mail frauds in an attempt to steal money from old people.

But memories trick time. That which was is. And that which wasn’t is too. Memories trick time and people. Memories are not “real.” They didn’t happen. You don’t actually know what you know. Blame science. For everything. These untrue true occurrences mix and mash inside your head to become something entirely new: your brain filtering unfettered reality into recognizable bloops and blips for categorization and future recall.

Some other thoughts that may or may not be true: Memories exist outside time, consider vivid dreams. Negative memories occupy more space than positive. Planet of the Apes is the real story of humanity’s origin. Gene Chizik led Auburn to a national championship.

Here’s one last allusive (elusive?) tidbit glancing off whatever theme you happen to think I’ve been driving toward.

Sometimes I take a walk at the Sevierville city park. It’s a typical park — pool, playground, baseball fields, basketball and tennis courts. It’s situated in what I suppose would be called the poorer section of town. Lots of intricate leg tattoos, smoking, and stringy-haired women with intricate leg tattoos juggling screaming babies and cigarettes. It’s also where I played 11 and 12-year-old baseball. Back then, it seemed expansive and full of wonder and potential. But so did the cardboard box the refrigerator came in.

I’ve been back many times over the years, mostly under the pretense of jogging. But last week was one of the only times I’ve been back while baseball was being played. The implications are obvious. The kid in the green jersey pitching from the eroded half-mound wasn’t some other 12-year-old, it was me. The coach wasn’t a construction worker begrudgingly coaching his girlfriend’s son, it was my dad. The river was damned, time slowed.

After two laps on the path orbiting the park’s center, I called Chris. He asked what I was doing. I told him and he laughed. “Mommy, why is that man leaning against the tree crying?” he said in mock child’s voice. “Mommy, now the man’s collapsed to the ground. Is he hurt, mommy?” we were both laughing. “No honey, that’s just a boy, and he’s not right. He has issues. Promise mommy you’ll never do drugs.” “I promise.” “That’s my boy. Let’s go get my big man a chili dog.” “Yay!”

I left the park before someone mistook me for a pervert.


During the Roman Empire, the life expectancy was 22 to 25 years. In 1900, it was 30 years.

Still waiting on that epiphany.

Keep Reading:

* Friday Night Lights Life
* The War Eagle Jeep in Vietnam
* 78 never-before-seen photos of the Kopper Kettle explosion of 1978

* Rare candids of Pat Sullivan at the 1971 Heisman banquet
* That time Green Day played an Auburn house show
* The G.I. Joe from Auburn
* Two campy degrees of separation between Auburn and Swamp Thing
* I Survived the Kopper Kettle Explosion and all I got was this T-shirt
* “Alabama Polytechnic is the best…” for Eugene Sledge in HBO’s The Pacific
* The Ron Swanson Pyramid of Auburn
* The Auburn plaque in 1984′s Tank

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About Ben Bartley

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