College Reunion Blues

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My dear ever-loving Alma Mater, the University of Redacted, sent me at least three notices that the Class of ‘XX would celebrate the XXth anniversary of their graduation. I doubt if the language of celebration exactly resonated with my feelings. I wondered if the class of ‘XX were ambulatory. I envisioned platoons of corpulent, gray/ bald white males with white shirts, tight collars, and Men’s Warehouse suits, fossilized history, even old when young, mostly business majors.

I even doubted the motives of the University for inviting this motley crew. A month before the ordained date, in addition to the written notices, I received two telephone calls, at dinner time when I was least guarded, from persons who identified themselves as University undergraduates, who solicited contributions. The thrust of each call rendered in the dulcet tones of young coeds was approximately “So the class of ‘XX can report it has reached its objective, would you prefer a five hundred, one thousand, or five thousand dollar donation?” I quickly grasped the import of the question and wondered if she meant for me or for the school. These thoughts coexisted with feelings of paternal imperative, “This young woman could be my daughter and I am depriving her of an education.” No doubt every other Men’s Warehouse suit had already coughed up, or even graciously volunteered, generous donations in excess of the paltry five hundred dollar minimums, “Let me call my accountant. Can I offset my capital gains by a roll-over loan off-set by a cash equivalent after January first?” I began to feel my outsider status, like freshman year in high school, and I could hear my mother repeat the familiar refrain, “You are so selfish. All you care about is yourself.” As my mental equilibrium teetered on the brink of accelerating self-pity and accusation, I countered with what any other normal scoundrel would do in such a situation, I retorted, “Hasn’t my check already arrived?” Of course, I had not technically lied and was protected by the principle of double effect, yet I knew however cunningly I had evaded the immediate request, I had not evaded deeper issues.

As much as I would wish otherwise, the motley crew is my cohort, my reference group, my peers, and as much as I disdained business administration majors as an undergraduate, I must face the music now. Perhaps I was wrong, perhaps the psychology majors ought to have reaped the true disdain. Did I not read a decade ago in the New York Times that one of those business administration majors was president of a Fortune 500 company? And agony of agony, is not a former rival., lap dog though he was, the lionized chronicler of a state’s geriatric rich?

And as if the outstanding achievement of toads were not enough, I can imagine other equally painful cases of fortune. Little Boy Pete. archetypically Italian with a cousin in the Mafia whose complete name I fear to divulge and whose girth is about equal to his height which is about four feet reputedly had five children. His wife left him so he got the children, but five children! In addition to money, career, and achievement envy, I had fertility envy –and, maybe, even victim envy.

As I’ve wrestled with the daemons that reunions conjure, I had a discussion during the weekend following Thanksgiving with James S, a San Diego friend, who actually had the fortitude to attend not one but several reunions. James, brave soul, waxed forth observations that probably can only arise from the courage to mingle with one’s arthritic cohort. James suggested that the value in reunions was the experience of denizens of the “formative matrix” of which one is a member. One sees in others the effects of shared social conditions and constraints, and so the reunion group provides both a mirror and standard of sameness and difference. That is, to know one’s self is to know one’s self in relation to roots and beginnings –and to labor the metaphor, to observe the sprouts, and how they blossomed or withered. Of course, I added the bit about “withered”.

From his experience with his peers, James believes that the core self and values observable in adolescence are still evident in mid-adulthood –as if essence precedes experience. The passage of time provides the place and material for the unfolding of what was present in statu nascendi. If high school or college is chapter 3 or 4, then a reunion provides a synopsis of later chapters –please not the conclusion! And, finally, a reunion provides an opportunity to comprehend persons and connect with conditions which were unknown or unappreciated in their influence and importance at adolescence or young adulthood.

While my philosopher-optimist mindset strongly resonates with James’ perspective, my dark side asserts itself. His peers were not my peers, and what I experienced in the pre-Cambrian days of my education was a standardized mentality nurtured by the twin deities of opportunism and tribalism. No doubt the seeds of nascent individuality were present but constrained by a truncated horizon: young men’s life choices were yoked to money, status, and progeny, and in true Hegelian fashion, my reaction to the values of my peers carries their values.

Perhaps my reluctance to reunion rests in my jealousy that they did it better than I. They did it better than I because they had a family, father or mentor, or money, or god-knows-what. Therefore, the success of my peers (especially when it exceeds my success) is not their success, but fortunate circumstance.

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Life is chaotic and life events are not entirely predictable, and so fortune visits one person and not another. Sickness, death, and loss are inevitable accompaniments of life. Therefore, the success or failure of one peer or another may have little to do with effort, intelligence, or good-will, and while this premise is the mirror image to fortunate circumstance, this too may account for differential success.

Lives through time are determined by inner and outer circumstance –by the warp of internal disposition, hopes, and illusions, and by woof of community, family, wealth, and the vagaries of fateful events. My account differs from James’s, perhaps only in emphasis and perhaps only on paper, because I believe that we are as much “lived” by life, as life is lived by us. I think James would agree too.
As I have pondered reunions, I think I may not miss the next one. Regretfully, my reflections revealed I’m just a chip off the old cohort. The very recognition of my not-so-covert grasping permits an easier acceptance and ease with my cohorts but I draw the line at the Men’s Warehouse. I have met the enemy and he is me.