Chasing Pan’s Shadow
True terror is to wake up one morning and discover that your high school class is running the country. ~ Kurt Vonnegut
Every five years, we are summoned by our past: We receive phone calls and formal invitations to high school and college reunions. Like mythological sirens these gatherings call to us, beckoning us to return to a gilded past that no longer exists. Yet nostalgia is a potent opiate. It deceives, ameliorates and intoxicates. It is Peter Pan chasing his shadow but never quite being able to catch it. It is initials carved deep into the ancient bark of a century-old magnolia. It is a 60 watt light bulb and a Long Island Ice Tea. It is an airbrushed view of life accentuated by the strong scent of jasmine and raw emotion – it is youth.
Reunions spin through our lives like tornados – pulling us toward a vortex filled with the promise of lost horizons. Some boycott these nostalgia festivals because they dreaded every minute of their painful adolescence. Others agonize over whether attending the gathering of ghosts is worth the energy spent to get there and stay awake through dinner. There are those whose high school or college days were life’s high-water mark; they long to regain their lost alpha status. It’s all so emotionally charged.
Thankfully, mathematicians and psychologists have recently teamed at Cal Tech to develop a complex algorithm that can objectively assist any person uncertain about attending a reunion. The psycho-social formula requires adding one’s age, waist size and years of marriage, then dividing the sum by the number of times you’ve googled an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend or corresponded innocently with an ex on Classmates.com. If your score is over 20, have fun. However, if your score is 19 or less, you may be unprepared for this journey through the looking glass. Consider the following scenarios and proceed with your eyes wide open…
You still carry a torch for that certain person and hope you can cross paths and innocently bask in the warmth of your old flame. You joined Reunion.com ostensibly to see what others are “up to.” Is this an innocent titillation with the past or a walk down a dark dangerous alley? Answer: Dark dangerous alley. It starts with an email exchange and ends up with an invitation to “have coffee” at some place called the Honeymoon Motel in Newark, NJ. The reality is you will not find your old squeeze but instead someone who has inflated to 3000 psi and appears to have eaten your ex. You must disguise your initial shock when hugging him/her, as you are now clutching a back that has wider landmass than Asia Minor. Run away.
You want to once again see if you can drink keg beer, wear wrinkled shorts and flip flops, play Frisbee, climb over fences and stay up past 4 a.m. doing whatever it is one does after midnight. Do you have what it takes? Answer: You do not. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Fat, drunk and stupid still remains no way to go through life. You have infinitely more to lose now than when you were 20 years old, including what little dignity you have left. Instead, just get hair plugs and buy some golf clubs.
You want to experience just for 48 hours that feeling of invincible abandon that was a trademark of your college experience. You were young, cocky, bounced more checks than a security guard at a Prague nightclub and ate cafeteria food that even your carp-like Springer Spaniel would not ingest. Will you find your mojo? Answer: No. You had your “mo” snipped during an elective medical procedure in 1997. All you have left is your “jo” (your wife’s code name for your belly). Take the money you will otherwise need to pay for marital counseling and go to a New York Mets dream camp for 50 somethings. You may take a hard line drive off the teeth or pull a quad muscle but hey, it’s better than having a divorce attorney hitting fungoes at you for six months straight.
You yearn to be autonomous again – independent in your thoughts and actions, candid in your points of view and idealistic in your pursuit of truth. You listen to David Byrne of the Talking Heads lament your affluent conundrum: “And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile, and you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife, and you may ask yourself, well…how did I get here?” You reflect on this song over and over again. You come to believe your reunion is a portal to perhaps a more innocent time. Answer: This sounds like a mid-life crisis to me. The reunion is merely cover for you to begin indulging your self-pity, hubris and diminished self-importance. Autonomy is not all it’s cracked up to be. It means going home alone 99.9% of the time, eating Lean Cuisine dinners and sorting your own socks.
You want to reassemble your old posse – you know, the group you called “the knuckleheads.” You were madcap, outrageous pranksters – pulling stunts, throwing parties, occasionally missing a class or a urinal. You now lead lives of quiet desperation and own the DVD Old School, which you can quote verbatim. Each of you thinks you are the Luke Wilson character, but you are really Will Ferrell. Can you gather one last time to recreate that old black magic? Answer: No dice, Wyatt Earp. Your posse is now too heavy to ride horses or even sit on a wooden bar stool without breaking it. Most of your caballeros want to strap on their guns and join your lost cause, but in the end, they can’t get a hall pass from la seňora. The others are unwilling to sleep in a dorm room bed made for dwarves.
You miss “working with kids” and are interested in getting back involved with your school and alumni. You crave deep intellectual conversation and feel you missed your calling as a teacher – perhaps you could guest lecture on macro economics, corporate finance or how to conduct an analyst call for over two hours without really saying anything of substance. You want to connect with students and establish a strong bridge to this so-called Generation Z. You see yourself as a critical facilitator in their journey. After all, you’re an alumnus and share a common bond with these students. Answer: Face it; you could not get into your alma mater today unless you could run a 4.4 40-yard dash. Most of these kids believe the only thing you have in common with them is that you both breathe – although you do it more heavily. Your university alumni office is delighted to meet with you to discuss a major financial contribution. They’re intrigued by your ideas around guest lecturing and will be “certain to get back to you”…just about as quickly as you get back to those people who call at dinner time asking for donations to help save the endangered Connecticut Spotted Skink.
Tom Stoppard once said that “age is a high price to pay for maturity.” Yet for all its traps and trepidations, a reunion’s lure is deep and compelling. It allows us the chance to recapture old feelings, to make amends or exorcise old demons. For most of us, it’s a pleasant Sunday afternoon ride down a reassuring and familiar street. Here’s my only advice as you cruise down Memory Lane: keep your hands and feet inside the car, don’t drink and drive and never, ever pick up hitchhikers. Do not forget nostalgia is driving the car and, as a wise man once remarked, “she is a seductive liar.”