I’ve watched as my friends and I have passed various milestones over the past few years: marriage, a fortieth birthday, divorce, a twenty-year high school reunion, the death of a parent, children learning to drive or themselves graduating from high school. We talk — or don’t talk in some cases — about these events in terms that remind me of pedestrian versions of lifetime achievement awards.
Predictably someone is happy, “We made it!” Devastated, someone else wails, “What happened!? Where did it all go?”
In cases of tangible loss the reaction is understandable, but there are imes when the emotional response seems out of proportion with the event itself. These intrigue me: a particular birthday springs most prominently to mind. Yeah, so you’re forty. That does happen. Despite all our poetic attempts to describe it as otherwise, time is one of those universal principles that progresses at a regular pace. We know it’s coming. It doesn’t sneak up on us, appearing at our doorstep in a bizarre costume crying, “Surprise! Gimme all your birthdays!”
Time is fundamentally linked to change and movement. There is change precisely because there is time.
Whether we arrive at this conclusion rationally or empirically is irrelevant. It is the inevitability of the conclusion that I want to emphasize.
I want to emphasize it because I want to convince myself that I’m acting like an idiot when I think about Wabash at twenty years gone. Unlike the other milestones — lifetime achievements — this one tripped me up. I was able to navigate the others with flinty-eyed composure. Not this. The twenty-year reunion has come and gone and I am no closer to understanding the causes, catalysts or components of my reaction. It was like I’d lost my mind. “Twenty years. It can’t be twenty years. We just graduated.”
I took stock of what my world looked like twenty years ago. I remember trying to study for finals while every television in the house was tuned to coverage of the riots consuming Los Angeles. Where were you during those days following the jury acquittal of four LAPD officers accused of beating Rodney King? Do you remember the video footage? Bill Clinton was in the middle of securing the Democratic presidential nomination to challenge the “unbeatable” George H. W. Bush. Bush was flying high on 80% approval ratings after the Gulf War. Almost no one had email and absolutely no one had email on their phone. Kurt Cobain was still alive. The country’s economy was still suffering under the tenacious recession following Black Monday. My class was entering the workforce after several years of high unemployment, and massive government budget deficits. Generation X.
I continued to speculate about my reaction. Had I noticed a critical mass of cultural touchpoints similar to that spring in 1992? Was it the fact that I’d spent the same amount of time alive after college graduation as I had before? Was my college experience so formative that it has become viscerally knitted into who I am as a man? I start to systematically dismiss them. Some of these notions strike me as overly romantic. Others require a powers of observation I think exceed my capabilities. I just don’t think it’s about the math. There’s nothing particularly magical about years.
Eventually I gave up. I abandoned the task of trying to figure myself out. Socrates can apologize all he wants. I’d come to the end of this diversion of my unexamined life.
I accepted my fraternity brothers’ invitations and hopped on the bus to Indianapolis for a three-day weekend of reunions. I spent Friday and Saturday on the Wabash campus in Crawfordsville and Sunday with my fraternity pledge class in a backyard cookout outside Indianapolis. Some of these men I’d seen from time to time in the interim. I hadn’t kept in contact with most of them. And again I don’t know the reason for that. Was it apathy? Embarrassment? I honestly don’t know. After the initial guilt pangs subsided I settled in to enjoy just being with them again. We spent time catching up with each other and the college. I attended some colloquiums put on by fellow alumni. We sang Chapel Sing together.
Wabash is a small liberal arts college of between 800-900 students. Reunions for all classes on the five-year graduation interval are held simultaneously, and the class celebrating its 50th (1962 this year) is the highlight and typically has the highest percentage participation. Out of a graduating class of 153 men, 47 came back to Wabash for the 50th reunion. In contrast, my class at 17 attendees. The obvious reason for the smaller turnout is children. Many of my classmates commented on the number of games, matches, camps and activities they and their children were involved with that conflicted with the reunion schedule. That made sense to me, nor do I fault them for prioritizing those things over the reunion.
The highlight of the weekend for me was the cookout on Sunday. Eight fraternity brothers from my class, along with their wives and children converged on PJ’s place outside Indianapolis. I’d lived with these guys for four years while at Wabash. While some of us had gone overseas for a year during college, I still think of it as a four-year stretch. I can’t quite put into words how comfortable I felt seeing them again. I’ve already mentioned the inevitability of change, and things had changed. What surprised me more than anything, given that brace of change and my accompanying anxiety about it was how quickly those fears evaporated. How quickly I realized I was truly among friends.
I suppose that what reunion means. To capture again, for a weekend or a single, sunny afternoon, that state of friendship and harmony experienced in years now long behind us.