A thought occurred to me one Saturday morning, and the moment was important enough that I internalized it and still remember how it played out. I was at work, as usual, and made the mistake of going on Facebook. Saw my friends comment and post photos of their latest vacation, party, or whatever they had done with their free time; read their comments on how difficult college was, and various First World problems like fussy smartphones and long lines at the campus Starbucks. And I thought: I am not anything like this.

I am five years older than my classmates. I finished high school when they were 11 years old, usually. I enlisted in the Navy afterward, and served abroad for five years. I worked, I traveled, I got hitched. My experiences and my knowledge put me in a different category from my younger peers. Many of them grew up in Arizona, and already had decade-old cliques when I arrived as a veteran.

My thought: if life is an ocean, then these college kids are reef fish sporting in the shallows, and I am some grotesque thing gliding through the sunless depths. Our motivations are different, as well as our behaviors and ideas. And there is an enormous gulf between. No wonder I never get invited to their parties.

The common fangtooth

I was always an outlier on the graph. When I headed the Society of Professional Journalists student chapter, I was working with students who were 18, 19, 20 years old. I turned 21 when they were in middle school, and that particular birthday, so important for a college junior, is an opaque memory for me.

They mostly lived in Phoenix, in the dorm next to our school. I have an apartment in Tempe, 30 minutes away on the light rail. The leadership experience was a mixed one, and I think my faults stem from not having a greater connection with the members. How to motivate them when I am present only a few hours a day, for two or three days of the week? How to make them care, when I am only an abstract? That gulf got in the way. But other times, working in a more administrative role, behind the scenes, I got things done. I was in my element, those deeper, darker waters. You have to want to descend that deep.

The stonefish

In an odd way, I am proud of it. I make no apologies for being true to myself, even if that means self-imposed seclusion and thought patterns too different for most others to understand (such as comparing myself to a deep-sea fish). Of course, this only applies to my friends from college. I have friends from high school and the Navy, older folks like myself; closer, more meaningful relationships.

I have some friends who are like me, deep-sea thinkers. There’s not many of us, just as those unusual creatures dwelling miles beneath the surface are rare. We’re too weird to belong anywhere else, and too many of us would diminish that. The reef fish don’t want us up in the sunny bays, where life is easy. That place asks for no contemplation. You can’t keep secrets when the water is transparent, and everyone is always there. I’ve tried that, and it wears me out.

The coffinfish

I am an introvert; I am inward-looking. I am no good with crowds. I don’t enjoy huge public events, and big parties sap my energy. I wouldn’t go to the college parties anyway. I wouldn’t belong, because my appearance and being wouldn’t fit.

So, my metaphysical imagery.  Campus was the reef, and the schools of brightly-colored fish were in the hundreds. The underclassmen flocked and gathered, and their movement between the campus buildings was not unlike a crowd of fish zipping past a coral head. Me, I moved alone and silently, something right above the sandy bottom, drifting. When you look over the side, and see that big, inscrutable shadow moving ponderously below the surface: that was me, each day of school. I shifted the waters a little, and moved on to deeper ones. I had no place in the shallows. Sometimes my passing was noted, but memories are short and there is always something new to excite the fish.

So here I stay, down, down, down below where it’s comfortable. There’s no light, so I make my own. That kind of mind is unwelcome up in the bright reefs. Those fish don’t come down; they don’t know how, and the distance is too great anyway. They belong in the reefs, where they can show their colors and socialize. And I belong down in the solitary depths, to be myself and reflect; and occasionally be pulled up to the surface to remind the people there that individuals like me exist, that we live outside their social circles and think in ways that apply only to us. And it will always be like that.