Sunday, November 13, 2005

Homecoming: A Second Look

While I am supportive of my alma mater, I actually didn't take yesteday's loss that hard. As many who attend homecoming, who you visit with and see at the game is more important than what the team actually does on the field. At many universities, the party-like atmosphere is so compelling that many homecoming attendees don't actually make it to the game until the second half. We did make it to the game for the opening kickoff, but I honestly can say that the company we kept transcended the gridiron activity and made the day an outstanding one. Nothing -- from a 63-0 Princeton victory to a 58-7 defeat -- would have darkened this gorgeous fall day in Central New Jersey.

The reason is simple -- who you hang out with at homecoming and what you do. My family and I got to Jadwin Gym on the Princeton campus a few hours before game time. My kids played soccer behind some dividers with the children of some classmates, and by the pink-ish looks on their cheeks it looked like they had a great time. The reason that we were inside Jadwin was because that's where many classes have their pre-game tailgate parties. In mid-November, inside parties are a safe bet, because the weather could be cold or rainy or both, and having stood outside in less than optimal conditions in the past it's more fun to be inside, even in a cavernous gym that had women's and men's hoops practices going on at that time.

Friends came from all over the east -- Boston, Connecticut, Albany, Westchester County (NY), Northern NJ, Central NJ, suburban Philadelphia, Baltimore and parts midwest and west, and we spent a lot of time catching up. We occupied about four rows of bleacher seats on the home side, watched our children (ranging in age from 5 to 17) interact and talk about the things that interest them. The sun shone brightly for a short while, but, as it can inevitably do on the home side of the field, it went in early enough to compel the fans to put on sweaters or sweatshirts, but, absent any wind, it was still a great day weatherwise. (That the visiting fans sit in the sun happens, according to conventional wisdom, because it isn't so pleasant to sit with the sun hitting you right in the eyes, so the home fans would rather not have to get blinded by it even if they have to endure chillier temperatures). On this particular day, there was even more orange than blue on the visitors' side.

My friends and their kids shopped at the University Store before the game, and both kids and adults donned the latest in Princeton wear. We ate hot dogs, soft pretzels and popcorn, as well as cotton candy. We wore reasonable amounts of orange and black, enough to support the home eleven without reincarnating Halloween. The kids were particularly well turned out.

Lots of lengthy conversations took place about life, and we did watch a football game at the same time. We tried to call plays, analyze penalties, and explain the nuances of the Wing-T offense to the kids (without mentioning Tubby Raymond and the Delaware Blue Hens), and we wondered aloud whether the home team would stop turning the ball over enough to win the game (they didn't and they didn't). Were we undergrads, this loss would have sat as badly with us as a meal of meat of unknown origin from the dining hall known as Commons. As alums with lives that range far beyond Princeton Stadium, we shrugged off the loss with an attitude of "well, it would have been nice to win, but we didn't." In our day, a few of our crowd played football until either injuries or getting stuck at fifth on the depth chart convinced them that their time would be better spent on other endeavors, but there really isn't a rabid football alum among us. I'm sure that among groups with staunch football alums, such as Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich (Princeton Class of 1979), the feelings were much different. Some former gridders we ran into after the game wondered aloud as to why the playcalling was so conservative. My view was at least the playcalling had some method to it; when we were undergraduates, the coaching was so bad that its method was undiscernable to everyone but a math major with an undiagnosed case of ADD and an alcohol problem.

After the game we repaired (that's kind of an Ivy League word, isn't it?) to our old eating club on Prospect Avenue, where we ran into grads of all generations eating and drinking and just catching up. There wasn't much talk of the game, it was rather crowded, my daughter almost had the chance to shake hands with a U.S. Senator and I explained to her a few fine points about 8-ball. Both kids thought the place was cool, we hung out with our friends a bit more, and then it was time to gather for dinner.

Dinner really proved how special the gathering was. There were about forty of us at a restaurant in Princeton, in a private room, with one table for the kids and one table for the adults. My kids didn't know some of the other kids who were there as well as they knew one another, but it didn't matter at all. They blended in very easily, and while the adults sipped draught beer at their table, the kids sampled root beer and Shirley Temples at theirs. Football didn't come into the conversation that much, as the talk turned to the professional teams in our hometowns, schools, summer activities and the type of things you talk about when you take time out from your busy lives to share them with those with whom you go back almost three decades.

There were several toasts, including a champagne toast with the bubbly courtesy of a buddy who couldn't make it in from Norhern California (he had teed up the restaurant beforehand to fete us in his absence -- a very nice gesture indeed). People do look a little different more than two decades since graduation, but the core attitudes and values are there, and they remain strong and vibrant. These get togethers just help solidify them even further.

Even if the football team were to go 0-10 every year.

The kids finished before the adults, and they went outside on the pavement outside the restaurant and hung out. We could watch them through the window, and then I and a classmate, the father of the only other five year-old who was there, stepped outside to make sure the youngest boys didn't end up playing in traffic. My son then told the other five-year old boy, who lives outside Boston, about his birthday party that's upcoming in about a month. He invited him, and I offered that we couldn't expect him to come because he lives hundreds of miles away and his family is very busy. I then looked at my son and said, "It's really too long a drive."

Whereupon, my friend's five year-old, a budding Theo Epstein, said, "I can fly."

That was among many lines of the night.

After dinner, we went to a combination candy store/ice cream shop to sate everyone's sweet tooth. The ten- and eleven year-old boys were allotted a certain fraction of a pound to pick candy, and, as you could guess, they opted for the biggest jawbreakers that they could find. Some of the smaller kids opted for ice cream, and we windshopped the candy as we talked about how much fun a night we had and when we were going to get together in the future. The kids were making plans of their own, too.

As with many great experiences, it was the company that mattered.

Because, in the end, it's not so much about who won or lost or even how they played the game. Or even about how the weather was. It's about the game as the magnet for a brisk type of renewal that gives us something special to fortify our lives for a while.

That's what homecoming is all about.


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