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Jun 7, 2014 5:02 pm


25 Things I Learned at My 25th College Reunion (Well, OK, only 16)



25 Things I Learned at My 25th College Reunion

(Well, OK, only 16)


1.     25 is a big number. Set realistic goals. 

2.    If you are going to attend, never mind try to write about, your 25th reunion, you should immediately abandon compulsive past efforts to dodge exact reference to your age. That is, unless you want to iron a disclaimer onto your reunion sweatshirt reading something along the lines of “PLEASE BELIEVE ME: I went to college when I was ten.” (I can only add that in this day and age, it is far more difficult to find iron-on patches than it used to be.)

3.     Slurping large bowls of pasta “al dente” causes less of an insulin spike than doing the same when the pasta is fully cooked. In the former case, the pasta’s outer crunchy rind is not immediately digested but instead makes its way into the gut, furnishing your intestines with crucial bacteria. Turns out tradition-bound Italian grandmothers knew what they were doing.

4.     Unless you’re a full-time day trader, buy blue chip. No gimmicks. No emerging markets. Reinvest your dividends. Time is your friend. 

5.     It’s not “Buffy and the Vampire Slayer.” In fact, referring to the program in such a way (even with incredulity) is apparently the equivalent of boasting about your prowess searching on “the Google.”  Don’t do it. 

6.     Reunion nametags should, in the future, be worn as headbands, preferably with backlighting options. And while we are on the subject of product development, perhaps we might consider the invention of portable, personalized “filter” lights, designed to surround individual wearers at important social functions with a softening glow. (To quote the fading Blanche DuBois, “there’s nothing I hate more than a naked light bulb.”) 

7.    Speaking of naked, only 1% of our class claims to have sex every day, and the rest of us are convinced they’re lying.  

8.     A colleague who individually donated $150 million dollars (!) to financial aid in the run-up to our reunion is rumored to have “missed a lot of classes as an undergrad because he was too busy doing trades from his dorm room.” Personally, I’m very shocked and appalled at the news. (What I actually learned here is how physically dangerous it can be to almost lose a lung laughing at someone else’s tone of gentle, sad reproof in relaying such information. As in: “He’s such a nice boy – if only he could have managed to behave with just a bit more responsibility!”)

9.     If you don’t have a spare $150 million, the line “I flew all the way from Kazakhstan for this party” will generally serve to get you at least one foot in the door. (Of course, following it up with the comment that “I live in Cambridge now but am moving to Worcester for financial reasons“ may serve to get that foot kicked right back out again, but at least people will look at you with sympathy as they sidle away.) 

10.     Food pacifies a potentially restive populace. Stalin knew this. So, too, did reunion organizers stuck trying to ferry some 1200 participants on busses between Harvard Yard in Cambridge and Boston’s Symphony Hall. (And yes, I have also learned how to confidently spell “busses” without feeling the need to double check on “the Google.”) Revolution may be averted by roomfuls of dessert. Or in the case of the 1920s USSR, by a slightly more generous meat ration. Like one-eighth of a salami. 

11.     Despite the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, Russian history – at least for, ahem, those minions we exalted scholars like to refer to as “non-specialists” – really only sounds interesting before midnight and when the “Talking Heads” are not playing. The subject of rumored KGB cameras in Sochi hotel bathrooms, however, can potentially sustain conversation into the early-morning hours (although it does tend, and I say this from a point of friendly scientific observation only, to make those engaged in the aforementioned conversation much more aware of urgently needing to go to the bathroom). Lesson: conversational choices, like many retrospectively momentous events throughout history, can carry unintended consequences.  

12.     If you write 893 words a day, you can crank out a 300-page book in 12 weeks and even give yourself 16 days for revision. Yes, and Alexei Stakhanov only had to mine 17 tons of coal an hour for six hours, too – and he became a Hero of Socialist Labor and ended up on a 1935 cover of Time Magazine! Easy. 

13.     People change. And people don’t change.

I realized this with myself, when I slept through one morning reunion panel and skipped another to finish a conference proposal due the next day. (A member of the first class to abandon our freshman-year typewriters for the 1986-produced “Macintosh Plus,” I returned to group festivities in time for an animated discussion about the perils of our old dot-matrix printers, which had required at least half an hour to churn out a five-page essay, inking back and forth over each separate line multiple times. These “modern” devices were consequently responsible for any number of missed deadlines and dormitory dramas, often involving concerned roommates screaming “Save it, save it. You have to print it NOW.”) In any case, although I have a far better track record of making it to my own classes on time today than I did as a student to my undergraduate ones, my family and friends would in all likelihood attest to a quality of, say, “flexibility” in my approach to deadlines that has managed to endure across the years.

Furthermore, while our bodies may have changed, our minds in some ways don’t seem to have evolved all that dramatically. For example, our 1053-page “Anniversary Report” – shipped to all classmates – contained a copy of every student’s senior yearbook photo juxtaposed against a snap (if provided) of him or her today. Somehow it did not take long before one colleague, now an esteemed professor of economics (who incidentally did not send in a recent headshot), ran a “systematic data analysis” on the entries designed to measure the “correlation between attractiveness 25 years ago and today” and posted his results on Freakonomics! Admittedly, the article was entertaining. And no specific names were named. But it did otherwise recall late-night scenes from my first month in college, with guys poring over our so-called “Freshman Facebook” and loudly debating which girls were “hot” (the same impetus that brought us, of course, the virtual Facebook in 2004).  At bottom, it seems, we continue to all be motivated by a handful of pretty (no pun intended) basic things. And even if we can couch those things, today, in far more intellectually “exalted” terms, we’re still all – to quote Blanche once again – little more than guests hanging out at “this party of apes.” (OK, guests who, at this point, at least according to our class survey, seem to collectively crave sleep more than sex, now that they’ve got that whole “food-and-shelter” thing out of the way… but still…. ) 

And yet, I have also seen many, many profound transformations over the years. A high-school cheerleader from Atlanta moved to an Indian ashram after graduation and now leads spirituality workshops around the world. A hard-drinking, macho Massachusetts boy, who hated himself for his closet homosexuality, has become the most caring, responsible, dynamic, and deservedly popular city counselor in the entire state of California and is about to marry his partner Sean. A roommate who once struggled with her weight is now the owner of a gym franchise and capable of morphing, weekly, into a legendarily terrifying boot camp instructor whose 90-minute classes inspire accomplishment through fear.  (Let’s just say, she doesn’t show a lot of sympathy for the words “I’m tired.”)

Willing or no, we all have passed through changes, and the miracle of human nature is that we can continue to grow and to change, for better or for worse, over the course of the years to come.  (“Change” in this case, however, should be distinguished from “inevitable physical decline,” which is an altogether different story outside the topic of this uplifting essay.) And yet there are stark continuities in our baseline selves, even more palpable than usual at an event like our 25th, where people still remember us as we were then, sometimes more clearly than as we are now. (And they like us anyway… or at least a few forgiving souls with very poor judgment do…)

In Russia, there’s a saying that a person’s greatest weaknesses are almost always excess manifestations of that person’s greatest strengths. Admittedly, Russia has a lot of good sayings, including “In every joke, there’s a grain of joke” and (as regards post-Soviet success) “Never ask about the first million.” But this one is perhaps my favorite, explaining as it does how a charismatic individual can often come across as overbearing, or a person who appreciates complexity can consequently suffer from crippling indecision. Understanding this principle of strengths-as-shortcomings can help us accept who we are, and work on smaller adjustments while staying true to ourselves, rather than embarking on take-no-prisoners full-scale excision and reinvention efforts that we all know, even as we attempt them, are doomed to failure.  That was how I came to Harvard, as an unhappy, socially awkward 17-year-old, who had grown up in a ruined house that could rival that of Miss Havisham – wanting to escape, to completely re-make myself into a “cool person,” and then tumbling into depression and shame when such makeover eluded me. One thing about the reunion that I took away as so affirming was the sense that I, like many others, can make peace with that 17-year-old self, accepting (if not outright cherishing) those qualities that continue to link us, even while appreciating the opportunity to present as someone different, and new. 

14.     Bad things happen. And if we are not either very oblivious to the world around us or perhaps very, very secure in our religious convictions, then we are all growing increasingly afraid of those bad things happening to us.  Our parents will die. We will die. Sometime far, far, far in the next thousand years, our children will die. Of course, we do not think about these things much of the time. And no sane person would admit that they go to their 25th reunion in order to share in the experience of impending death. But it is at this exact stereotypical moment of mid-life crisis, where the race to establish professions, homes, and families may have eased up just a bit, that we all confront the struggle to construct meaning in the face of our own mortality. Sometimes this struggle hits home more solidly than others – listening to a mother describe holding her child down for leukemia treatments or to a governor-appointed expert on education reform sing a funny song about waking up one morning with a brain tumor.  Then there are more muted conversations about divorces, lost jobs, and efforts to start over in middle age.

And here’s the other thing about the reunion.  Much as I loved it, it didn’t solve anyone’s problems. In all honesty, sometimes it was difficult – while meandering up stairs in unusually high heels or searching for at least one more bacon-wrapped date to help absorb unusually high quantities of wine – to even begin to acknowledge another’s troubles, never mind do them justice.  Such is the truth of group events like reunions or even group experiences like college.  Connection is one reality, disconnection another.

15.     A lot of life happens alone.  (Yes, Cynthia, and there’s this thing that’s called “the wheel,” too.) As someone who has long been afraid of isolation and wasted a great deal of time and talent trying to run away from that reality, I am struck anew by how central being alone is, both to accomplishment and to suffering. We, as a group, can admire, and we can sympathize. But the nitty-gritty of achievement and endurance and pain – not to mention the banality of driving to work, doing laundry, brushing our teeth (38.5 days over the course of a lifetime!) – is something we go through on our own. 

Loneliness and alienation was a big part of college, certainly for members of our oddball class, as any number of recent post-reunion Facebook comments can testify. One woman described an event in which students who felt they were in the majority at Harvard were asked to identify themselves, and no one raised a hand. “Everyone was fixated on the ways they were different from everyone else, which basically was a testament to how they perceived themselves in isolation, regardless of how they were perceived by others,” she wrote.  I knew, even then, that everybody was struggling with their own private demons (they don’t call it “superiority-inferiority complex” for nothing), but at this reunion, I learned to be more patient with surface small talk and fleeting connections, and more trusting of others’ good intentions. Let’s be real – it wasn’t as if we were all collectively transported off into some bright and sparkly outer-space world where our heads and hands magically melted together or even where we all engaged in deep and meaningful philosophical discourse 24/7.  I, for one, still had moments of walking into the dining hall and thinking, shit, who are all these people, and basically every conversation I had felt partial and incomplete, albeit in a “there’s so much more ground to cover” way. What I did get was a sense of uplift at being in a rarified environment where I could more or less be myself and pretty much at least potentially like every single person in the room, and where I wished I could hang out for, oh, say, another four or so years.  Of course, we were all on our best behavior, fueled by copious amounts of food and drink, and I’m sure two months and a reality television show later, and we’d be competitive, in cliques, and at each other’s throats.  But I’m not a flossy, buoyant, cliché-loving person, and I tend to have an allergic reaction to the jargon of self-help and group-speak – and yet I found myself incredibly moved by the waves of good will I felt rolling off the audience at points during the weekend. (Yes, the “little green men” in the Crimea had obviously put some little green pills in my drink, and I was feeling those waves…) At the happiness panel, at the Boston Pops, at the magnificent late-night dance party where I vaguely remember screaming with joy to hear “The Human League.”

We all hunger for the transcendent moment and yet, an aware bunch, we all realize how fleeting such moments are and how limited our ability to connect in a way more profound or enduring than a standing ovation is. But you know… that’s ok. I realize that Harvard as an institution is flawed and that reunions are money-making junkets, and in regard to Evan Mandery’s article on skipping our celebration in the Huffington Post, I’m personally very concerned about the increasing disparity in quality education between our nation’s public and private schools, long before the college years. I’d go so far as to say that in fine soft-Soviet fashion, I think a little bit more economic equality would serve our society well, even as I envy, I mean admire, those of you who have gone out and made millions.  But the politics of education, while critically important, is not here so much the point. This is personal. I came back to Harvard, and I felt happy, if wistful about opportunities both passed and past, and if all I can do is give a standing ovation to those who went through that experience with me and who are all stumbling forward in a search for meaning and at least making gestures of friendship across the great time and space divides… well, I’ll take it. And say thank you.

16.     We are all on our own journey. We are all on the same journey.  May we continue to learn from one another along the way.

 

 




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