Postcards Hung on A Distant Mirror

imagesThere is an ancient oak on the corner of my rural street that is always first to turn its back on summer. The pastel colors appear unobtrusively frosting the highest branches and whisper that change has once again found me. Life in a small New England town has its own predictable rhythm of seasons and stages. The dog days of August have been reduced to a collage of digital pictures littered across Facebook pages – a happy memorial to moments when our family once again finds each other for adventures across lakes, mountains and across two coasts of America.

My body and my priorities are shifting with middle age as I become keenly aware of the passage of time. As a helicopter Boomer, I have spent two decades along a thousand green grass sidelines and silhouetted in the deep recesses of school auditoriums. I did not want to miss a single moment of my captive constituents. It is in sharp contrast to my own childhood where we were released into the wild as soon as we could master a Schwinn bicycle. Fathers were only seen after 9PM at night and on weekends.

My Dad chuckles at the myriad photographs of our teenagers logging more frequent flyer miles than a traveling salesman.  He wonders whether my insistence on work life balance is an improvement on his T-Rex parenting or perhaps a sign of the permanent blurring of the lines between parent and child and as such, the decline of Western Civilization.

“You don’t see the Chinese attending every school concert.”  It’s always about the Chinese.

“Well, Dad, I don’t know.  I’m not living there.  And besides, most families have only one child.”

We usually end up tangled in a kite string knotted with political disagreement.

“I was not supposed to be your friend. I was preparing you,” he would retort as we argued over his logic enforcing some nuclear punishment for a molecular misdemeanor. Ah yes, grasshopper, times have changed.

I now find no greater pleasure than sitting around an August dinner table becoming the butt of my adult Millennials revisionist recounting of any day spent together – unplugged and in close quarters. As they grow old and leave our nest, the house has transformed into a listless museum of artifacts from an earlier time. I am reduced to a mere curator.

I am the ornithologist who, having spent months feeding his captive condors with a bizarre plastic hand puppet, must now release them into the wild. Our drop-offs at college have now become emotional pilgrimages as we take endless iPhone photographs and splash them affectionately across social media documenting our fledglings in their new nests. This sits in sharp contrast to 1979 when my parent’s loaded up my possessions in large hefty bags — barely slowing their car down to 15mph before shoving me out on to the curb of a blazing hot suburban, Claremont College street.

I could have sworn I heard Dad say, “Have a nice life!” as he whistled “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” My mother yelled something about not mixing colored and whites ( she meant laundry)  and my father reminded me for the millionth time of the myriad sacrifices he had made to finance my expedition into a private college education. Within days, he would turn my bedroom into a third home office. There was no such thing as a living shrine to his collegiate children. It was his house and he was taking determined to take ground lost to his teenaged parasites…damn straight!

An hour away, I was optimistically navigating a phalanx of young men moving toward what I thought was a keg of beer but turned out to be the only good-looking girl on our entire campus. I was on my own.

My roommate, Donald, was a circumspect academic who instantly assessed that I was going to be a problem. He had arrived hours before me – with both parents. His side of the room was outfitted with a mini-refrigerator, coffee machine, photographs of his family and a stereo system that resembled a NASA workstation. He was an only child.

After living wild among four feral boys, an insane cat and a promiscuous dog, I was unprepared for this massive dose of personal consideration and responsibility. I was a slob and could leave a trail that Helen Keller could follow. I was Oscar and Donald was my Felix. I am not sure which of us was more distressed by the fickle fates that lashed us together. He was a soft, erudite Eloi – spending his early mornings reading the Wall Street Journal in the dining hall, and faithfully attending 8AM classes while I led the sullied life of a carnivorous Morlock, laboring at night – refusing to rise before the sun had arced above the trees to remind me that lunch was being served.

Over the year, the room became a collision of ideologies. One roommate – a German laser guided missile who would make provisions for events that might be years away; the other, a loud Irish skyrocket with no discernable trajectory. Donald was a genuine passive aggressive. He would not have survived a nanosecond in the house of my father. He looked at me as if I was an I-5, ten-car pile up and would talk to himself in first person when he was upset with me. As a single cell paramecium that moved only toward light, food, Grateful Dead music and the opposite sex, I was an alien – an extraterrestrial from a universe that seemed content with chaos and the sybaritic notion that tomorrow was at least 12 hours away.

I caught him one day dressed in his “church clothes”. It was a Tuesday and it seemed odd that this organized Lutheran would be attending a religious service.

“Did someone die? Are you, like, going to a funeral?” I asked.

“I’m interviewing for a summer internship with Goldman Sachs.” He sighed in the mirror as he looped his foulard tie under his collar.

I was perplexed. “Why would you want to work at a department store for the summer? I mean you could do much better working in a warehouse or washing windows.”

He started talking to himself again. “He thinks it’s a department store…a department store…” He left the room. I waited a few minutes and then helped myself to some Chips Ahoy cookies from his refrigerator and turned on an old episode of the Twilight Zone on his television. I laughed to myself thinking of Don working in the Men’s department in some lonesome mall.

It all flooded back to me as I dropped my son off at college this week. In many ways, he is my carbon copy – and each of his life experiences flood me with déjà vu moments of amusement. His departure has left our home with only one child remaining – me. My sixteen year old is unervingly responsible to a point where I am uncertain whether he was a changeling from the hospital.  There is now no one to blame for a mess or accuse of eating the last cookies. My collegiate was my air cover and my deflection and I was now releasing him into the wild.

We lugged his bedding, lacrosse gear, clothes and yes, coffee maker up to a pleasant two-bedroom suite on a heavy, humid afternoon. Students swirled like fireflies in blazing red shirts flashing smiles that masked apprehension and nervous sense of adventure. His roommate arrived – another lacrosse player and wide-eyed freshman excited to be free of his hand puppet feeders. Once the all-important beds were made and clothes put away, it was time to leave. The Resident Assistant stopped by to remind them of an orientation session while they stared out the window at a gaggle of girls confidently moving across the quad toward the cafeteria.

He seemed happy. I leaned in, “Be a good roommate. Don’t be a slob. Don’t waste this opportunity.” I was running out of advice – since most of it had already been heaped ad nauseum on his shoulders through four years of high school micro-management.

I turned one last time.

“Hey, if UBS or any of the local business guys interview on campus, let me know. You should get an interview.”

He gave me an odd look. “Why would I want to work at a postal company? I’m wanna make money. Besides, next summer is so far away.”

I opened my mouth and instead just took a deep breath.

Yep, that’s my boy and I already miss him.

Chasing Pan’s Shadow

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.”