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            Just back from my 40th college reunion.  If such occasions don’t drag out the deepest feelings in a person, nothing will.  In my case, there was a thin veneer of enjoyment, but a much thicker layer of gloom just beneath it.  The enjoyment came from the party, from seeing a few old familiar faces, and from drawing in a few breaths of the vitality of the place.  

            It was the reminder of how old I’d become – and how quickly – that sucked so. 

            I don’t wish to minimize the fun of the party and the old faces.  But there were, at least for me, a couple of reasons why I wasn’t delirious from what the party and my fellow-alums contributed to the experience.  I attended one of the great research universities, and, inevitably, I’d drawn my circle of friends from a small group, many of whom were not even in my class.  So my intimate friends weren’t there; obviously some of the others were luckier in that respect than I was.  But I think what I have to say might hold for them as well as me. 

         The Open House Visa

            When a great university holds a campus-wide party, the returning alum will almost certainly be exposed to parts of it he or she never experienced when young.  In my case, over two days, I: a) attended a marvelous photo exhibition in an art gallery, b) watched a panel discussion at the business school in which weighty issues of business ethics were debated, c) got a chance to play along with a student jazz ensemble, d) heard the university president present the institution’s recent staggering successes, e) listened to a glee ensemble sing and a marching band play, f) sat in and gossiped at a writers’ house, g) likewise gossiped at the student newspaper, and h) looked in on the university press and chatted with the staff about the future of scholarly publishing.  

            How much of this was revisiting old haunts?  Almost none of it.  I’d written a bit for the student newspaper.  Other than that, I was visiting little worlds within the vast universe of a great university that in four years there I had never been to before.  Some had certainly formed since my time.  But the fact was that for me, and probably for most of my fellow-undergrads, there had been an unreflective choice of but one world or two at a time when it might have been possible to become a citizen of many.  And now we could only cross those borders under the temporary visa of an open house. 

            Doors we had never even thought were open had closed behind us, years ago.  And now we could see them, quite clearly. 

           Naming the Wound

            The university president, in her early-morning talk, had diagnosed very precisely the discontent engendered by visiting all of this magnificence.  We would love to come back and be young here again, she said.  But, she added, that was not possible, so we would have to content ourselves with other things, like, of course, staying identified with and contributing financially to, the institution. 

            I shall do those things, naturally, and I’m sure they will help.  But they will not eradicate the really burning frustration at having squandered all those riches of experience when there was a chance to enjoy them more fully.  It is, after all, our 40th reunion, and we cannot truly go back.

            In fact, we are truly growing old.  This fact kept peeping out from the faces of my fellow-alums.  Age has differentiated us from each other much more than youth did.  If you look at our freshman facebook, which I still keep, we look so similar!  Almost all the girls with long straight dark hair, all the boys well-kempt and with miraculously unlined faces.  As we get bald, and our hair makes various compromises with grey and with white, as the spots and the wrinkles visit us, we are a more varied lot; we differ from each other as our parents and grandparents did. 

            And I catch us sounding like parents and grandparents as well.  Many of us are retired, and many of those who are retired seem content to be so.  And the calendar says this accession to done-with-ness is justified.  Twice 40 is 80, and few of us will attend our 80th; we are, most of us, more than halfway from the cap-and-gown to the grave.  So here we are, becoming the done-with-it generation, in the very place where youth and possibility are most celebrated and fostered. 

            It is hard, given that juxtaposition, not to be mournful.  

          Ankles Be Damned

            What did lift the spirits was the dance on the second night.  We partied for a little while like it was 1969.  And we still could, still had the capacity to do so.  Let this be reported: we truly could still dance the night away.  I’m sure there were some sore ankles the next morning.  I know mine were sore, but I can recall ankles like that at much earlier ages.  We had the youth and vitality left to party hearty.  For that I am truly thankful, and I intend to hang onto that capacity for as long as I humanly can. 

             Indeed, I’d make so bold as to wonder if some of this widespread resignation to the dying of the career light may be only a breather.  Modern medicine is apt to keep us here, if not quite to our 80th reunions, still through a substantial number of intervening ones.  I continue to hope against hope that the world can reconcile itself to finding ways other than manufacturing party-times for us, to accommodate our continuing curiosities, energies, and need for the validation that only the workplace provides, through the many anniversaries that we incipiently old alums are likely to enjoy. 

            Until we each are felled by whatever nastiness fate has stored up for us, I anticipate that each of us will say with Tennyson’s Ulysses: 

Though much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are,
One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn

The Closeup Page | About Life Page

One Comment

  1. Fiona says:

    “Of all sad words of tongue or pen
    The saddest are these:’ it might have been'”

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