ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

Remembering Luke, Two Years On

Reflections Through an Unlikely Lens

photo by Alan Light on Flickr

Luke Perry, the man who lit the way for many Gen X coming-of-age moments through his television portrayal of rebellious Dylan McKay, didn’t live long enough to experience Covid-19 alongside the rest of us. If he had, I’m sure he’d have also shown us a better path through the defining event of our midlives, undoubtedly rocking whatever face-covering he chose to don with his trademark carefree swagger intact.

He’s been on my mind since a photo surfaced of Beverly Hills 90210 castmates Jason Priestley, Ian Ziering, and Brian Austin Green having lunch recently. Heartwarming in its depiction of old friends forever bonded through the cultural phenomenon that was 90210, the photo was also a fresh reminder of Perry’s glaring absence and untimely death two years ago at age 52.

I’ve always been fond of remembering my past but am prone to full-blown bouts of nostalgia now that my hair is transitioning from salt and pepper to pure gray, my mortality present to greet me in the bathroom mirror every morning. Even events that didn’t grip me at the moment they occurred generate these misty-eyed remembrances.

Thus, I recently spent the better part of a weekend binge-watching the first couple seasons of 90210, hoping perhaps a few of Dylan’s exploits could help me recapture something of my lost youth. I’m aware admitting this viewing choice might be one of the most reputation-damaging revelations any self-proclaimed man’s man ever uttered, but so be it.

Current nostalgic pull notwithstanding, I wasn’t an avid viewer during the show’s 1990s heyday. By all rights, I should have been. I was firmly entrenched in its target demographic — a barely 20-year-old college student, away from home for the first time and dealing with all the messiness of young adulthood. Perhaps my inability to fully connect had something to do with my Appalachian roots.

Sure, I saw enough bits and pieces to know the characters and to be aware of plot lines. I couldn’t help being slightly tuned in living in a house full of other decidedly more hip twenty-somethings than me in our little version of Melrose Place meets Animal House.

In contrast to the show’s stylish characters, my fashion sense was limited to a closet full of t-shirts I rotated throughout the week. In a nod to grunge, another early 1990s cultural phenomenon, I donned a flannel shirt, the only type I owned with buttons, on those rare occasions I needed to “dress up.” I drove a maroon 1978 Chevy Impala station wagon, the car my mom graciously passed on to me after she’d wrung most of the life out of it she could.

My idea of a hairstyle was to scrape together gas money for my Impala so I could drive it to the mall once a month and let the lady at Supercuts (they’re anything but) do whatever she wanted to make me presentable. I didn’t even know how to ask for Dylan’s chic sideburns or his James Dean-Esque pompadour — a term I, to this day, had to look up. Even if I could have asked for it by name, I’d have been embarrassed drawing attention to myself wearing my hair so conspicuously.

Appearances aside, my real divergence from the heartthrobs of 90210 manifested in my lack of polished social skills. I possessed not an ounce of either Dylan’s aloof charm or Brandon’s ability to speak from the heart.

Though not a bad-looking kid, even with my awkward bowl haircut, my cool factor was a zero — a truth I was painfully conscious of but not yet worldly enough to remedy. I saw myself as more tortured and self-aware than my peers, and less able to fit in with the group. Now that I think about it, that sounds a little like Dylan.

What it boils down to, however, is that I wasn’t all that interested in the lives of the kids from Beverly Hills at the time in my life when I should have been. Its characters were too wealthy, too sophisticated, and too glamorous to resonate with this kid from West Virginia’s hills spelled not with a capital “H” but, at least in the eyes of the rest of the world, with a decidedly lowercase one.

Yet here I was, suddenly driven by a simple photo of a lunch date to go back as a middle-aged man and revisit teen drama I’d long ago left behind. Why was I so affected, and what was I searching for in those quarter-century-old episodes that I hadn’t extracted the first time around?

As I dug through them, I found some unexpected answers.

Relatability

On second viewing, I actually could relate to those highbrow characters much more easily. They could be a little irritating with their fixation on materialism and status, but that’s not so different from my experience with people from all walks of life.

Living here today on what’s called the Main Line, an affluent suburb of Philadelphia, status certainly matters to many people. Luxury vehicles with payments as high as mortgages are practically the norm on our streets, and women and men alike dress as if for a night out at the club, even to pick up a few groceries or get in a quick workout.

Harking back to my youth in West Virginia, powerful families and cliques dominated the social scene. The kids who couldn’t afford Air Jordan’s and had to settle for those bobo knockoff shoes from Payless were at a distinct disadvantage.

It’s everywhere, and while I wish the world was a lot less superficial, dismissing the concerns of people to whom status matters rejects a huge segment of the population on that one fact alone. In high school in particular — the very setting for the show’s early seasons — popularity is everything.

That’s true in Des Moines and Cleveland and Minneapolis. And yes, I’m sure it’s true in Beverly Hills, as the Walsh kids quickly discovered.

Once you get past the bling or lack thereof, people are people as the cliché goes. Just as I did, the show’s kids worried about grades, relationships, peer pressure, fitting in, standing out, drinking, sex, birth control, body image, and all the other emotions and experiences people are having for the first time and trying to figure out how to process at that exciting age.

In hindsight, many of my idiosyncrasies I stubbornly thought made me so different from them didn’t differentiate me much at all. I may have slanted a bit more toward introversion, but as I sat watching over the weekend I saw 90210’s angsty teens grappling with the same insecurities that plagued me as a young man trying to slam the door on adolescence once and for all.

Sadness

Adding to my puzzlement over my more intense than I expected reaction to revisiting Perry’s death was my prior attitude on mourning celebrity deaths. A few years ago, I wrote in a blog post about how irrational it was to me that someone would give more than a passing thought to the death of any celebrity.

This seemingly harsh viewpoint emerged through my lens as a father whose young daughter died abruptly. In the wake of that life-altering experience, I couldn’t understand how someone could mourn the death of a person they didn’t even know when the much more impactful deaths of our real friends and family members happen frequently all around us.

I kind of get it now.

Since going back and reflecting on the show’s themes, I see that Perry and the teen coming-of-age show he starred on, really was a credible — perhaps even culturally significant — marker for our generation. Is he iconic, as many in the media who likely dismissed 90210’s importance at the time of its original airing now claim?

I’ll leave answering that question to those with a broader pop culture perspective, but what I do now clearly see is that the regular characters were so ubiquitous, invading our living rooms more often in a decade than many of our family members, that we felt like we knew them. When the actor who played one of them dies in real life, it actually can hurt.

Though I professed annoyance with the show, I rarely changed the channel when friends gravitated to it either, and I experienced many of the milestones its characters experienced right alongside them in my little world. Thinking about one of them moving on to the next world this early has been harder to process than I realized it would.

Youth, Mortality, and Legacy

Perry embodied the possibility youth holds to conquer universal rights of passage and determine our elusive purpose in the world. His death is a reminder we’re not so young anymore, that a little of whatever remaining possibility our lives hold is slipping away each day, and that we’d better do any of that important legacy stuff we still have to do before it’s too late.

The desire to leave a piece of ourselves behind is another thing most of us have in common, regardless of our other differences. That thing could be our children, something we write, something we build, or something we give away.

For some of us, it’s not something one can so easily touch. Perhaps we see the type of kind and generous and patient teacher we want to be — a person who puts others’ needs ahead of our own — but right now we’re falling short of that ideal.

If Perry’s death speaks to nothing else, it certainly should serve as a wake-up call that youth doesn’t last forever. At some point, it fades and is replaced by an urgency to finish things, to make whatever mark we’re going to make.

Perry himself knew this. Following a cancer scare in 2015, he began using his fame to promote early screening. He also wrote a will naming his children, his proudest creation and lasting legacy, sole beneficiaries.

Of course, this desire to forge our legacies must be tempered. On the journey to that inevitable finish line, we still have our everyday lives to lead. Something tells me self-assured and affable Perry understood this tricky balancing act. If he could speak to us now, I bet he’d advise us all to strive to both enjoy being in the moment while also pushing through on those legacy projects that little voice in our heads is telling us we need to finish before it’s too late.

My perception of Luke Perry began with a few eye rolls during moments like the early episode in which the boyish version of him donned a pair of fashionable overalls with one strap dangling, peculiarly unhooked. On those rare occasions I force myself to look at long-haired, earring-adorned photos of myself from the same period in my life, they are often equally cringeworthy.

Though the verdict is still out on my evolving self-assessment, my appreciation of Perry grew just as he grew into a father figure for a new generation in his last television role on Riverdale. My weekend binge ended with a nod of respect for the man he became and the legacy he left us through his memorable television personas and an off-screen life well lived.

RIP, Luke.

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