Archive for the ‘reunion’ Category

If you are interested in how people age, a school reunion is ideal for observations – especially if several decades have passed since graduation. The types are quite distinctive, although since my own recent reunion, I am still puzzling over what the physical changes indicate. However, I am starting to believe that George Orwell was correct when he wrote in his journal that, after forty, everyone has the face they deserve.

In my experience, people tend to age in one of two ways: either they continue to look much the same as ever, or there is a drastic change in them. Very few are anywhere in the middle, and those who are likely to have had major upheavals in their lives. Their bodies, for example, may be similar to what they were when they were young, but a stiffness in their walk may indicate knee replacements, or deep-set lines in their faces a prolonged illness or trauma.

Those who continue to look much the same are often those who take exercise and diet seriously. These people are rather strained – threadbare around the edges is the phrase that comes to mind – but usually move well and seem lightly brushed with age, either mentally or physically.

More often, those who look much the same are heavier set than when they were young, but are still recognizable. They may be bald, or have a limp, but you can easily subtract such incidental changes to see their younger selves beneath, and, once you do, they remain unmistakable. Some of them seemed to have grown into their bodies, so that what what seemed like too large a nose now seems to suit them. If they were clumsy, they have developed, if not a grace, but an appropriateness in their movements. Somehow, they have learned to accept themselves.

In contrast, others look so different that you would never recognize them without a name tag. Often, they have gained considerable weight, as people tend to do as they age because few of us realize that our eating and exercise habits need to change as we age. However, those who greatly changed also tend to be more careless in the way they dress. It is not that they are eccentric so much as they no longer worry about the image they present to the world. To my eye, they seem tired and often colorless

Very occasionally, you do find someone who has changed for the better, but, after several decades, they are the rarest type of all. Often, they have overhauled their lives because of a premature heart attack or some other crisis, becoming slim where they were once chunky, and outgoing where they were shy To be honest, this type often disconcerts me, because I feel that I have never known them at all.

These categories are fairly complete in my experience. However, what I am less certain about is what to make of them. I tend to think that those who look basically the same have been true to their natures, while those who have greatly changed have given up on life, and are preparing to follow the chalk marks on the floor for the rest of their lives.

However, this may be my own prejudice. In theory, those who have greatly changed may have matured, and now please themselves instead of doing what every one expects. Yet judging from their conversation, which is all about retirement and their empty nests, that doesn’t seem to be so. Perhaps Orwell was more accurate than I first imagined.

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My younger ghost is walking,
He kissed you against the wall,
I hear he looked a lot like me,
Would you know him now at all?

Last Saturday, I went to my high school reunion. If that sounds unlike me, that was the point. However, what struck me most during the evening how varied and sometimes strange the opinions about me were. Walt Whitman may be vast and contain multitudes, but I could only wonder how one uncomplicated person could inspire so many opposing opinions that were at odds with my self-image today.

I went to a large high school, and it has been (mumble, mumble) years, so I wasn’t surprised that some people failed to remember me at all. Another person remembered me as a basketball player, pretending to remember only when I said that I had always lacked the coordination for basketball. I tried to demonstrate my clumsiness by make dribbling motions with my hands, but either I had drunk too little or too much to get my point across, because the person with the faulty memory wandered vaguely away, leaving me to imagine myself Afro-American and fifteen centimeters taller.

Almost as bad were the women with whom I had once been infatuated. One I saw across the room, but she seemed defeated by life, putting in the time until her death; I waved at her, but by her lack of enthusiasm I might have been inviting her to a meal of slugs and tripe, and I inferred I was not a welcome memory. Another women, whose last exchange with me involved me angrily unfriending her on Facebook arrived late, watched me all evening the way a squirrel would watch a hawk, and left early, possibly fed up with the dance of keeping away from me.

A long-ago friend was more accurate and more enthusiastic describing how I used to run everyone else into the ground at track meets “Oh, thank you very much,” I said, referencing my bad knees and suggesting that, these days, a two legged dog could outrun me without breaking into a pant.

Still another went on in embarrassing detail about how, when I ran, I wore a look of concentration that nothing could shake. That was news to me, but when they went on to say that my example had inspired them later in life, I wanted to cringe. Ten years ago at another reunion someone had professed to admire me, but they had built me up too much in their own mind, and my ensuing fall from grace was as quick as it was inevitable. I didn’t want a repeat, and was embarrassed to be someone else’s example, because I was sure I would sooner or later fail to match expectations.

Then there were those I had gone all the way through school with, or known even earlier. They knew who I was, but their assumption of my intelligence and abilities made me squirm, making me squirm with the knowledge that at best I had only feebly fulfilled whatever promise I might have had. We were glad to see each other, but after the initial welcome, we didn’t have much to say. The mutual sympathy was there in several cases, but our meeting sometimes felt like a convocation of our younger ghosts than a meeting of our current selves – wistful and even pleasant, yet always with a sense of a gulf that would take more than good will or a single evening to cross.

On the whole, it was easier to deal with people with whom I had struck up a casual exchange with over the Internet, involving a lot of jokes and little beyond the present. That was a persona I could slip into easily, enjoying and, I hope entertaining others without giving too much away.

The exceptions were one or friends from long ago with whom I could simply talk. Soon after arriving, I had a long conversation about F. Scott Fitzgerald and Charles Dickens, and later on one about British punk-folk bands. The kindness of these friends was part of the reason I could relax, but another part was that these topics bridged the past and present for me. In these topics, my authentic self (or what I imagine to be my present self) was to the fore, and I could relax.

Unfortunately, a reunion was not the place for the deeper conversations I would have preferred. On the whole, the evening was enjoyable enough, but, on the long taxi ride home, I kept thinking that while many people go to reunions to reconnect, or to prove something to others, I must be one of the only ones to have brought home the rags and tatters of former selves, many of which had never fit, and most of which certainly did not any more.

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“And when you leave your body on your bed at night,
And you drift away to somewhere like you do,
In the morning when you open your eyes,
Do the lovers in your dreams wake up, too?”

– Ray Wylie Hubbard

One of my favorite works by Neil Gaiman is the graphic short story “The Hunt,” which is collected in Fables and Reflections. When I read the story, what I enjoy the most is the humor in the interaction between the old man who narrates the story and his teenage granddaughter, who thinks herself too old for stories but is interested despite herself, as well as the gradual revelations about who the protagonist is and about the true nature of the old man and his granddaughter. Still, last fall at my high school reunion, I was surprised to find myself suddenly taking a life-lesson from the story.

In “The Hunt,” a young man comes into possession of a locket that contains a portrait of the local duke’s daughter. He stares at the locket constantly, and, dreams of the woman portrayed. Finally, in payment for a piece of magical business with the personification of Dream, he is transported to the woman’s bed chamber. When he sees her, she is “everything he had dreamed of,” but all he does is hand her the locket and walk away. Defending the story to his cynical granddaughter, the narrator says, “It was about what he saw when he looked at the sleeping woman. Why he turned his back on her. It was about dreams.”

At the reunion, for the first time in years, I saw the adult versions of several girls who — unknown to them — were the recipients of my first crushes. In fact, off and on, I spend the better part of the evening with several of them. It was all very Platonic, but initially made pleasant by nostalgia and alcohol.

Eventually, though, the encounters were more sad than wistful. Two of the women had foregone the music careers they wanted, one because she was shy about performing, the other because of her family. A third seemed more successful, but in subsequent months, her business proved shaky, and she revealed an unpleasant side that I would probably find intolerable if I were ever to see her again. For that evening, though, she made a pleasant enough companion.

Then, halfway through the evening, my adolescent crush of crushes arrived. I had spent too many of my early teenage years obsessing over her not to recognize her immediately. But even if I had never been infatuated, I would have recognized her, because she looked younger than most people in the room and was still very fit and animated. Almost immediately, she dove into a corner talking with someone I didn’t recognize.

For a while, I waited for an opportunity to approach. I wasn’t so foolish as to imagine any romantic interest was possible, let alone desirable — I’m the sort who is so married that the fact might as well be branded on my forehead. I even wear an engagement wedding ring, which is not that common among men of my age (the engagement was a good excuse for my partner and I to buy the West Coast rings we had always wanted). Still, this was the latter day version of a girl who had occupied much of my thoughts at one time, and who still made occasional guest appearances in my dreams as an obvious Anima figure. What better closure, what more fitting sign of maturity, I thought, than to meet her as an adult and recognize that she was simply another woman, and most likely someone I had nothing particularly in common with?

After about an hour, I realized that I would have to interrupt the discussion. I ran through a few fitting phrases of introduction in my head, and was starting towards her when Neil Gaiman’s story popped into my mind.

Abruptly, I realized that I had no reason to talk to her. I had long ago lost touch with the woman, and the dream images that began with her had long since assumed an independent identity of their own. What possible good would come of having the two meet? I knew the woman and the mental images weren’t the same. In the end, I smiled at myself, and turned to talk with someone else. For the rest of the evening, I barely looked in her direction.

Probably, some people would say that I had a juvenile mind, to take a life-lesson from what they would dismiss as a comic book. But you take your epiphanies where you find them, and that moment of revelation has done me good service in the months since.

For instance, when the third crush revealed her unpleasantness, I had a momentary pang, but, once I realized my reaction was based on a confusion of past dream with present reality, it seemed unimportant. That’s not to say that, were I to hear from her again, I would immediately walk away or hang up the phone. After all, literary analogies only go so far, and I hold grudges in the abstract far more easily than I do in person. Still, I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do one of those things, either — or that, if I never encounter her again, the disappointment will be unbearable. Learning to negotiate the interplay between fantasy and reality is an important lesson, no matter where you learn it. Frankly, I consider myself lucky to have learned it at all.

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If friendship went by logic, then I would hate Brother Charles. Where he is Quebecois, I am le maudit anglais. He sounds like a Boston Brahmin, while I come from a long line of dissenting ministers and trade unionists on one side and small tradesmen and farmers on the other. While he writes books on the history of rum and the papacy, my publications are articles that are here today and gone tomorrow. Worst of all he’s not only a political and social conservative while I am decidedly leftist, but he’s an ordained monk and Catholic apologist to my Protestant upbringing and adult agnosticism. By rights, we shouldn’t be able to tolerate each other in the same room without shouting. Yet, despite everything, we remain friends over the distance and the years.

Part of the reason is Charles’ combination of innocence and charm. He seems to assume — apparently with never a doubt — that everybody he meets will be enchanted by his friendliness and slightly old-fashioned glibness — and, as a result, everybody is. Time and time again, I’ve seen him draw out people from whom I’d be lucky to get a non-committal grunt. Another large reason is that he is one of the half dozen best-read people I’ve met, and can talk knowledgably and engagingly on dozens of topics.

But the main reason is that Charles is an eccentric, and in my experience that always trumps politics and beliefs. Since he’s an original, I can almost forgive him for being an imperialist running dog lackey.

I first noticed the mad monk at a Mythopoeic Conference, the annual academic conference devoted to Tolkien and other members of his circle. He had some of the better material at the roundrobin bardic circles run by Paul Zimmer, and knew how to deliver it, too. He later made himself conspicious by constructing a food sculpture and parading it around the tables during a lull in the banquet. We had a mutual friend in Paul, but, even without that connection, he was offbeat enough that we would have hooked up sooner or later.

Over the years, we’ve learned that visits with Charles are always as unlikely as our first encounters. Since he’s a monk, he can’t make women part of his holidays except in the most fraternal way — but wine and song always are, and who knows what else besides.

At another Mythopoeic, we joined forces to give long-suffering children’s writer Sherwood Smith a history as an international truffle smuggler, with a heroic pig as a sidekick, just because we thought her daughter deserved a mother with an adventurous youth. I remember we serenaded Sherwood in the hotel lobby with a tale of her adventures set to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” But maybe you had to be there.

Another time, Charles visited Trish and I in Vancouver. I still remember trailing behind him through Vancouver’s more-radical-than-thou east end with him in full morning dress and top hat on way to a folk concert. He affected a lordly disdain for the catcalls of the locals about his costume to encourage them; we shuffled behind and hoped we were unnoticed as we almost doubled over laughing.

He was in morning dress because, with his belief in the mystical power of monarchs, he had cajoled the Monarchist League of Canada into letting him be aide-de-camp to the exiled king of Rwuanda for a few days while his majesty raised money to stop the genocide in his country. Inevitably, this escapade drew us in, and we staggered out to the airport at 3AM so that Charles could greet the king as he came through customs. The king, a tall thin African who apparently lived with his secretary in a small apartment in Paris, was more than a little bemused to get royal treatment for once, and kept looking at Charles as though he couldn’t quite believe him. When we got to the Bayshore Hotel, the entire staff turned out in the lobby to greet the king while we watched our lives get a little surrealer.

That was the same visit where Charles dragged us to a performance of “Ain’t Misbehaving,” a Fats Waller revue before we had time to eat after work. At the time, few restaurants in Vancouver were open after midnight on a Monday, and, in our half-starved state, we must have reached the door of a dozen eateries just in time to see the Closed sign flipped over. We finally found a fabulous northern Chinese hot pot restaurant.

That’s another key to Charles: luck seems to attend him in the little things. Left to ourselves, we probably would given up and bought chocolate bars at a corner store, just in time to witness a holdup.

For a while, we went through a period where our main contact was our annual Christmas cards: Charles’ inevitably religious and usually depicting the Virgin Mary, and ours a joke one with “Season’s Greeting” crossed out and replaced by “Season’s Gratings” and a baggie of cheese parings.

But, last summer, he descended upon us again, and our lives became tipsy again for a couple of days. One night, we watched him charm first the waitress and then the manager of Rasputin’s, both of whom swore that he should be a standup comedian (he already had been). The next night, he used his club’s reciprocal dining privileges to treat us to dinner at the Vancouver Club, where even the formal waiters were no match for his aimiable chatter. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we would have preferred an ethnic restaurant that was more casual and had better food, although the way I discarded my shoes for sandals and shucked my tie before we went on to a Celtic Night at a local pub probably tipped him off. But the conversation was the point, and, when we dropped him at the hotel room he was sharing with his monastery’s prior, he gave us a copy of his encylopedic history of the papacy. The next day, he was scheduled to go to Victoria to give a copy of his book the lieutenant-governor of the province, so we were in select company.

Who knows when I’ll see Charles again? But, when I do, I can be assured that our conversation and relationship will pick up exactly where it left off, and, for a few days, my life will become stranger and more exausting.

It’s people like Charles who shatter my incipient misanthropy after experiences like trying to get in touch with my high school friends after my reunion. Unlike them, people like Charles know what friendship is about — and, for that, I can forgive even starry-eyed conservatism.

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“Days when we lost it laughing,
One thing was kind of clear,
Whatever it was you’re looking for,
You wouldn’t start from here.”
– OysterBand

I couldn’t wait to leave high school. It wasn’t unpleasant; it just lasted about two years too long. Come graduation, I bolted. I avoided the university that most of my classmates attended, and, within two years, I left my home city, coming back only to visit family. But last year, I started wondering whether I’d missed anything. When my class reunion arrived in October 2006, I decided on whim to go.

That’s one mistake I won’t be making again.

Like high school itself, the reunion wasn’t unpleasant. Contrary to my brother’s predictions, the event wasn’t full of people boasting of accomplishments and children — just people out for a good time. I was greeted warmly by several women who had been in my class all through school, many of them miraculously unaltered since their teen years — at least to my eye — and by men whose younger selves had been close enough to me that they still make guest appearances in the occasional dream.

I revelled in the petty vanity of observing that I was in better shape than most, and the satisfaction of realizing that people who had once secretly intimidated me were now simply tiresome. The adult version of a girl I’d often chattered at in elementary school turned out to have had a similar career path to me, and we spent about half the evening talking, and later split a cab fare. All in all, it turned out to be the most pleasant evening out I’d had in months. For a while, I even managed to believe that I had effortlessly brought my past and present together.

My mistake was thinking that the warmth expressed throughout the evening was anything other than nostalgia mixed with alcohol.

After the reunion, I tried to keep in touch with a dozen people with whom I’d spent time at the reunion. I emailed some of them directly, and others through websites like Classmates and LinkedIn.

Not one of those efforts resulted in a lasting correspondence, let alone a renewal of friendship.

One or two never responded to me. My best friend when we were growing up was uncomfortable with email and gave up the correspondence after a single exchange. A former friend I’d protected against bullies lasted two emails. Several lasted a little longer. One bestirred herself enough to suggest who might have reunion photos, but ignored a LinkedIn invitation. One said she would accept an invitation from her home address, but never did. Still others accepted invitations to LinkedIn, but without comment. Once everybody was sober and back in their daily routines, keeping in touch with somebody who was no longer part of their lives was unimportant to them. Some of them may have planned more of a response, but chose to be too busy.

(I say “chose,” because, when people say they’re too busy, what they mean is that they don’t want to shift from their habits. People who say they are too busy to read, for example, inevitably spend free time they could use to read parked in front of the TV.)

For several months, I did scrape together a correspondence with the woman who’d befriended me at the reunion, but the exchange was ruined by differences in expectations. She thought an email a week made me high maintenance, while I, after a decade among geeks, who consider email slow compared to IRC, thought that rate exceedingly casual. For my part, I was wary about what her exaggerated praise of my writing concealed. She seemed to nurse an idealized image of me that I was too full of human faults ever to match.

For her part — well, I’ll never know, now. Did she worry whether my scattergun friendliness masked deeper feelings? I’m an old-married, so I overlooked such possibilities at the time. All I know is that, faced with problems at work, she chose to be busy. Her emails became full of icy thank-yous, and the correspondence faltered. Finally, in a flash of temper — possibly caught in a lie — she formally closed the connection.

Compared to the trauma I’ve experienced and witnessed, these failures hardly register. I have no shortage of other correspondents, after all. Still, after the last failure, I deleted the emails I’d received and purged my address books. I cancelled my Classmates registration and severed some LinkedIn connections. I started working out daily at the gym. I noticed that the cherry blossoms were adding the first dash of springtime color to the city. In short, I moved on. But the experiences leave my world a colder place, and I regret the wasted time.

Most of all, I regret my quixotic efforts to look back. I should have known that I lost touch with my acquaintances for a reason. The accident of going to the same schools was simply not enough for friendship. Nobody’s to blame for that fact, but it didn’t go away because I ignored it, either.

In the end, for all my good will, my former classmates and I were like planets in eclipse. From a narrow perspective, our shadows might fall on each other, but, fixed in our orbits, we could never actually touch.

That’s why I won’t be going to another reunion. I may change my mind ten years from now, but why should I? I’ve been there, done that, and long ago worn out the T-shirt.

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