This summer, I’m going to bring back Off-Topic Tuesday on a regular basis, more or less every week, because I have a stash of non-music, non-radio pieces, failed freelance pitches and half-baked ideas, that somebody besides me ought to read. This first piece is not as off-topic as some are going to be. It’s based on something I wrote in my journal many years ago, after being asked to serve as banquet MC for my high-school reunion.
One way to think about class reunions is like slowing down at a car wreck. You want to see what happened, and what you see makes you glad it hasn’t happened to you. At worst, it can be like a freak show—a voyeuristic experience full of illicit thrills. But if it’s a car wreck or a freak show for you, so it is for the other people there, only to them, you are one of the victims, one of the freaks. And who wants to be either one?
There was a time when such thinking would never have occurred to me. I am a person who once believed that there was meaning in the shared history and memory of my classmates from the age of 5 to the age of 18—meaning that could help us make sense of our lives and our place in the universe.
On May 30, 1978, I gave a speech at graduation. I told the audience I would not claim that everything was wonderful and nothing hurt. And that was true . . . for as long as it took me to read my script. For years thereafter, I believed that very thing. I forgot most of the pettiness, the cruelty, and the disproportionate passions that shot through almost everything. And that’s just my own life I’m talking about. Never mind the other 250-some classmates of mine who committed similar sins of romance and forgetting.
After a while, it occurred to me that maybe we should acknowledge what really happened: that we often acted unconscionably for what we claimed were good reasons, even though we knew those reasons were morally suspect. That we treated people terribly, sometimes for no reason at all. That we expected more of others than we had a right to. That we expected less of ourselves than we had a responsibility to.
I used to deride the false family solidarity that was fostered in the dorms at college. “This isn’t a family,” I once said, “it’s an accident of geography.” But isn’t our identity as a high-school class founded on similar accidents of geography . . . and time? If my parents had gotten married earlier or later, or if my mother had married a guy from her home town instead of the next town over, or if my grandfather had been the one to stay on the home farm in Illinois instead of moving to Wisconsin, or if my Norwegian forebears had gone to Iowa or the Germans stayed in Pennsylvania, what then? The shared history and memory of this group of people, which once seemed so profound and rich with universal meaning, would be entirely different.
A better metaphor is that we were a group of strangers on an airplane, people who bought tickets to a particular place at a particular time for various reasons having nothing to do with the fact of the journey. Maybe the journey, far from explaining Life’s Big Things, is only important for the simple things—we were thrown together, we had some laughs, we shed some tears. Some of us made broader, richer lives together, but many more of us scattered in the wind. In the absence of those deeper bonds, whatever remains to hold us together is only what’s left after fate and time have done their work. We shouldn’t mistake what it is. For most of us, it’s no more than a ticket stub.
The fact of having been there is what made it feel as if it meant something. The tree fell in the forest and we were there to hear it. Had we been in a different forest, we would have heard a different tree fall.
But I couldn’t possibly stand up in front of my reunion and say anything like that. People would rather hear about our being bound together for all time, and about the sweetness of the way we still turn up in each other’s dreams. It’s the sort of thing people want to hear at graduations and reunions, even if they recognize it’s so facile as to be false. It’s what I wanted to hear, after all—so I said it to myself over and over again, until I believed it.