SportsProf

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Sunday, June 04, 2017

College Reunion

My drive to my old school never fails to inspire and amaze me.  There's a small town on the way that hosts a prestigious independent school, replete with a few restaurants, the obligatory pizza joint and, now, horrors, the seemingly standard issue Starbucks that announces to the town that well, it's not a charming, isolated small town, just another small town that Starbucks has found.  There are old colonials, a high-end golf course and some farms, a nursery, an imitation Versailles mansion and lots of greenery.  The rain had been ample, lately, and the bushes, plants and trees responded in kind.  Nature created a beautiful gauntlet to guide me into the old college town. 

It's a lot different from when we graduated.  The restaurants then were of two kinds -- stodgy and mediocre or just mediocre.  They tried, mind you, but they were nothing special and a far cry from the offerings of the cities from which many undergrads came.  Some marquis retailers have taken up prominent spots, as have gourmet ice cream stores, one of which charges almost five bucks for a small and a sign that your college town has arrived -- a restaurant that offers small plates.  Mind you, the ice cream would make an all-star team for ice cream were one to exist, but almost five bucks is a lot to pay for a small.  A used book store manages to thrive, testimony that the need for hard copies to grab onto and sit in a oversized leather chair in the corner of the library on a rainy February afternoon outweighs the typical campus concern for sustainability and eBooks.  (When we were there, there was no such thing as an eBook and it wasn't apparent that anyone was conceptualizing it -- perhaps because of a healthy fear of Orwellian editing that might persistently change sacred texts to conform to the morals of the day).  And, of course, there's a university store that sells everything imaginable in the schools colors.  The cooler reunions weekend is, the more swag they sell.  As my better half observed, you cannot buy things at the store to make you cooler, but you certain can to make you warmer.  The store should have thrived and perhaps set a record this weekend.

We did not go near it, as we're at an age where you try to shed things from your house, not add to them.

What I thought about driving to the reunion was how time had flown by, how we went to college and didn't have our own personal computers or cell phones, and whether I had made good choices since graduation.  (Spouse -- most definitely; community -- yes; profession -- probably, although friends tell me I would have thrived doing something else -- something which my kids are going to pursue).  You can drive yourself nuts with the latter, especially because there will always be someone to compare yourself to who has more, whether it's money or problems.  I tend not to do that, owing to some time-honored advice that one should never say he wants someone else's life because you have no idea of what goes on in that person's life.  And because, well, you have to have confidence in your decisions and know what you are doing.

Age is something we all try to defy and sometimes lie to ourselves about, that we feel as good as we did when we were in college, that we feel better than ever, that we look the same.  What brought home the fact that decades have transpired since graduation was the offer of the use of a golf cart on campus should we need one.  I doubt that the kids five years out had that put in their registration packets.

Decades out, you go back, and, well, you don't know totally what to expect.  Will the truly famous alums deign to come back, stepping down from their luxury condos built on a contemporary Mount Olympus with a foundation of society's contemporary values and visit with us?  (They didn't).  Will we feel badly because other classmates' kids got into the school and yours didn't, with the result that when asked where your kids go to school you get a socially conventional but forced, "oh, that's great?"  (Human nature being what it is, only in the case of someone we did not like)  Were some of the football players dealing with the consequences of banging helmets for much of their young lives?  (Not apparent) Or, did they lose a lot of weight and look thinner than some of their formerly smaller teammates (a resounding yes; a tight end looked like lineman and an all-league tackle looked like a small forward on the basketball team).  Or were people, well, just people?

For the most part, they were.  I had all sorts of conversations, some fraught with worry, others with happiness, others with an obsession toward one aspect of one's life or another.  One classmate worried about retirement as a teacher in a troubled school district and the ability to procure health insurance.  Another talked about the effects of a history of concussions on his once star-athlete son.  There were recent separations and divorces and reminiscences of classmates who passed away since the last reunion -- from cancer and from an accident.  Talk about those people centered around their kindness and their decency and that we should all do more to keep in touch and enjoy life because, well, you never know.

There were the former athletes with their encyclopedic knowledge of knee and hip anatomy and when someone needs a replacement.  There were people who were with the same company for a long time and those who were constantly on the move.  The finance guys seemed among the most content, and perhaps a cushion of tens of millions does that to you, although one allowed that he was so consumed with work that he lost touch with many of us and had to do a better job.  Wistfulness colored that comment; I could read in that friend's eyes that he was sorry that he lost some precious youthful time that he could not get back.  The doctors worry about the future of medicine and how and why the best country in the world, so to speak, does not offer the best healthcare.  As for the lawyers, there seem to be a lot of them, the competition is fierce and artificial intelligence and predictive analytics could fundamentally and inexpensively guide clients in ways to make some of their services obsolete.  Plus, decades of figuratively banging heads tends to wear down all but the predatory.  Those folks might not be worried potentially about the head banging the football players are concerned with, but years of aggressive advocacy can take a toll on one's psyche.

A physics professor wanted to catch up but had to go Skype on a project.  A roommate who teaches law talked of life on a college campus and advisory committees he served on.  Time and Outlook calendars didn't seem to put his brain in the vice that those in the commercial, capitalistic world have to contend with.  A close friend's company is struggling mightily; he's been in an industry where people who help run companies get used to it.  My guess is that he'll have a different job in eighteen months.  Those in the not-for-profit world worry about donations and governmental support. 

We talked of our communities, our lives, our kids.  Many have lost both parents; others have to look out for them.  The kids are in their formative years; New York remains a mecca for the young professional as it did in our day.  While many cities need their best and brightest to return, the kid from Sheboygan or Shamokin does not want to return.   As we advance in age, the parties don't tend to go as late, and the luster of hanging out at a party with a loud band and trying to talk over it and into the ear of an old friend dissipates.  Some migrated to local restaurants or to a quieter place -- yes, there is a Starbucks in this town as well as a charming town square -- just to talk. 

Even if the beer they serve is a lot better than the lowest-common-denominator Schlitz they liked to serve years ago.

The spouses get high marks for putting up with the long days and trying to summon facts about old friends from the last reunion so that they can engage in conversations and do more than just imitate a bobbing head doll and nod constantly.  My spouse did a particularly good deed when an irritating classmate gave us a big hello and wanted to engage in a conversation about a problem that he created and found tremendous resistance on.  She pulled me onto the dance floor, and while we didn't quite re-create the scene near the end in "Dirty Dancing," we did enjoy some pretty good imitation old Motown. 

The alumni processional is a particular highlight.   The 25th Reunion class leads it off, followed by the Old Guard.  The dazzling moment of the weekend was when a 102 year-old alum -- the oldest returning alumnus -- walked the entire route.  People always stop their conversations to witness the Old Guard, perhaps wondering who among us will live that long and be able to return to march, or perhaps excited because you never know how many alums you will see in their nineties and what shape they are in.  After the Old Guard passes, you resume your conversations.  One old friend shared that he really didn't enjoy the place, just never got traction there.  Another wore a spectacular outfit in the schools colors.  One guy walked by smoking a stogie, perhaps more popular a half decade ago than now.  Hugs abounded, a genuine happiness that life seemed to be treating an old friend well.

We wore masks then and perhaps do now.  Then, we all wanted to do our best to excel, get a leadership position and fit in -- unless one really wanted to be a counter culture kid at a time when it wasn't as cool to be so as it might have been in the 1960's.  The masks then were to show that we could be super young people, ready to join the most competitive places in the world and be the best of their best.  The college told us that we could and needed us to do so in order to fill the coffers and pay for future excellence.  Not making it and failure were things that happened to other people, but not everyone was meant to be a top fund manager, litigator, research physician, company founder or executive. 

The masks today are harder to fathom, because we don't know why some who don't return do not do so.  Do they not return because they hated the place then and did not have a good time, because their kid was not offered admission or because they do not think that they have much to talk about, especially when they read about the classmates who became well-known journalists, a popular writer or an actor?  Or those who have donated a lot of money? 

It's hard to know.  Keeping score to me is when I go to a baseball game with a friend and do so because my father taught me and he's been dead for a while so it's still a good connection.  It's not about anything else.  The first international golf star, Harry Vardon, once wrote that in match play, which frequented his day, that one should play the course and not his opponent.  When I read that wisdom several years ago, I nodded with a smile.  Vardon was exactly right -- do the best you can with what you have and make the most of it.  Don't worry about the other guy -- even if he gets publicity, his kids got into the school and yours won't or a number of other factors.

At the end of the day, well, it's a reunion.  You travel back to when you were young and in formation, you tell stories of the professor who had a stamp that said "Avoid Passive Voice" and once shielded his eyes and then pointed to a part of a classmate's paper to point out a flaw, of another classmate whose compulsion with his band obscured his academic efforts, of the classmate who, when shorted flakes in a box of raisin bran, wrote a passionate letter to the cereal company, which rewarded her with cases of cereal (she subsequently became a plaintiff's lawyer).  You laugh, you hug, and you take some measure of satisfaction in that there is some part of life that you'll always have, where you'll be accepted for the person that you are, and welcomed because if you were a nice person then people still will resonate with you now. 

As with life, as quickly as the reunion comes up on you, it ends.  There is no opportunity for a grand goodbye, as you're saying hello and goodbye at the same time, because after a conversation ends you don't know if you'll visit with that person again.  Sure, you keep up with your friends, but this time you vow that you'll get together, touch base when you're in the other person's town or make a better effort to keep current. 

For us, we danced, we walked, we talked, we ate ice cream, and we reminisced.  It was fun and it was tiring -- you're on your feet a lot.  But it also was a way to stop and turn back time, to be warm, to be caring and to savor the connection between the past and the present, to be grateful for everything you have.

To talk about how the younger classes look, well, so darned young, and to wonder where had all the time gone. 

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