Tuesday, May 22, 2007

reunion secession

Every summer thousands—maybe even billions—of high school and college reunions are staged at venues across the US. Optimistic ex-students, usually larger, older, and more garrulous versions of their former selves, show up in a variety of hotel ballrooms, country clubs, and probably even high school gymnasiums and subject themselves to different forms of nostalgia and ritual humiliation. There might even be some self-administered anesthesia to numb the pain and a deejay who can spin Truckin’ without grimacing.

Why do they do it? Why?

I’m missing one of mine, a significant college reunion, right now. There was intense speculation beforehand about who would show up and who would shirk. I was lucky. I was irretrievably and uncontroversially busy this week, so I didn’t have to think about whether it’d be a good idea or not.

I neither had to goad myself into it nor talk myself out of it.

In fact, the only reunion I’ve ever attended—willingly or otherwise—was a high school reunion marking one of those decade anniversaries. And that was quite a few years ago now.

My high school no longer exists, at least conceptually. Physically, the small complex of penitentiary-like buildings on the corner of Hawthorne and Silver Spur is still standing, is still the same ugly colorless color, and still has the capacity to evoke my high school days, both pleasant and not so pleasant. The buildings have no street-facing windows: perhaps that’s why I think of them as penitentiary-like; it’s not as if there’s actually razor wire and guard towers, although it’s easy to sketch them in to round out my recollections of the place.

The only thing that’s changed is the name. The school board renamed the school in 1991, probably in honor of the Gulf War. Rolling Hills High School became Palos Verdes Peninsula High School and the mascot changed from a generic Greek mythological figure to a generic predatory feline. I think the school colors were ditched too, which was probably for the best, since blue and gold seem awfully dated and mid-century by now.

Judging from the website, the core nature of the students may have changed too. They look to be more ambitious, more driven, more achievement-oriented. Not so apt to stroll into Biology with bare sandy feet and a lame excuse:

“Oh? Me? I went to the beach. I, like, totally forgot there was school today.”

Unlike the hard-toiling pioneers of yesterday or today's Ivy League bound scholars, my class was not afflicted with any work ethic. We had it made and we knew it.

I was bounced from school near the end of my junior year. I’m still not sure why. I blame society.

I’ll spare you the details. But for one reason or another, I did not graduate with my class. In spite of this, I have a very strong sense of which class is mine. The year I left RHHS, gracelessly, with no-one’s particular blessing, without a handshake and sans diploma, was NOT my senior year and the graduating class that year was NOT my graduating class.

Period. End of story. If I’d been in that class, I would’ve gotten a senior picture, one of those marvelous black-and-white headshots with all of the zits airbrushed off. Furthermore, I had to carve out my own fucking-off time; real seniors had a sanctioned period—from receipt of college acceptance letters to graduation—to exist in a sublime state of apathy.

I had to make my own disaffection and keep it fresh.

Yet, unlike many of my fellow geeks and perpetual misfits, I didn’t hate high school.

And because of all this, I’ve always had LESS incentive to go to my high school reunions. It seems like people go to these things because they’ve changed. They’ve lost 100 pounds. They’ve made 100 million dollars. They’ve married Heather Locklear. They’ve had 10 kids. They’ve found God. They’ve come out. They’ve survived a life-threatening illness. They’ve found their true calling, be it real estate, face reading, prostitution, ambulance chasing, or performing a sword balancing dance.

They’ve been busy, but it’s rewarding. Or so they say.

I haven’t changed a bit. Not really. I’ve done none of the above. I'm not particularly busy and it hasn't been particularly rewarding. And I’ve barely even bought new clothes or parted my hair differently.

Nothing to show. Just a few wrinkles and some keratosis. Go home folks. There’s nothing to see. Just go home.

I went to one of these dreadful affairs anyway, against my own better judgment. Robert Chess had something to do with it. “I’ll go if you go,” he told me. It was before he’d met his wife and before his wife had the triplets. He was still up for a dare.

So he went and I went too.

It’s just like your mother said: “If your friends went out and jumped off a bridge, would you jump too?” It’s an important piece of wisdom about social dynamics and the nature of peer pressure.

The reunion was in a ballroom at the Bonaventure Hotel in downtown LA. That was a peculiar venue for the event and most certainly should’ve been seen as a warning sign. Why would a high school reunion be held 270-odd blocks from the actual scene of the crime? Especially in LA, where none of us had probably spent any significant time downtown when we were growing up.

Robert and I arrived together, looked in at the registration desk, did a snappy about-face, and took the express elevator up to the top floor bar.

Did I mention that I crashed my high school reunion? Just for old time’s sake. I’ve always been a determined and exuberant party-crasher. It’s a symptom of my low self-esteem: It’s not going to be much of a party if somebody’s thought to invite me.

Once Robert and I had overcome our initial resistance and walked in to the hotel ballroom, I realized I knew almost no-one. Who were these people chomping the cherry tomatoes off the top of the baby spring greens on their salad plates? Party hearty, dude! Did I actually go to high school with a guy who looks like a game show host?

Oh. That’s the waiter. A hotel staffer. Oh.

He did look a little less bleary than everyone else. His face had less sun damage. And he was circulating from table to table with one of those gravy boats of vinaigrette.

Not in my class, nor the one before. A waiter. Should’ve figured that one out.

Most of my reunion-ing female classmates had the great good sense to wear generic black cocktail dresses; and most of my male classmates had the great good sense not to—not a cross-dresser visible in the bunch. The women showed a tasteful amount of décolleté. They’d applied evening make-up. In fact, they knew what evening make-up was.

Me? Still clueless after all these years.

My creased trousers and enormous David-Byrne style suit coat in last year’s color (remarkably close to the color of the high school itself) put me squarely in the small camp of Out Lesbians. Not even the fashion no-nothings wore outfits like that: they overcompensated by wearing what looked for all the world like souped-up versions of their high school prom dresses. Poufy and foufy. Acres of sherbet chiffon.

I ducked under the table when someone came around with a camera.

But it was all right. Why would I care? Besides Robert, only a couple of my old friends (Jim Swift, Sarah Susanka (nee Hills), Linda Satchwell, and Bruce Mirken) saw fit to show up. Pictures should’ve been the least of my fears.

The thing is, everyone else we hung out with in high school had figured out that you don’t go to reunions.

This is where all the guys who went to USC and majored in Business surfaced. It was a big high school and a 700-person graduating class, but you’d think I’d know more than 5 people at the reunion.

Maybe I didn’t go to high school at all. Maybe it was all a simulacra, like Las Vegas. After all, my high school years marked the period when Baudrillard and hyperreality were really taking hold.

Or maybe the reunion itself was the simulacra, a phenomenon that takes advantage of the fact that we never really recognize our classmates at these things. Instead we rely on implanted memories stirred by the bio-sheets the organizers collect beforehand. There’s really only one reunion for all of the high schools in LA and all of these middle-aged people at this one are actually strangers.

High school? What high school? Reunion? What reunion?

This is just a Twilight Zone episode, a failed Candid Camera stunt.

By the time the next reunion came around, when I asked Bruce whether he was going again, he said, “Part of me is tempted, but the more sane part of me says I have better things to do.”

So he didn’t go and neither did I.

But you might argue, this time you’re skipping your *college* reunion and college reunions are nothing like high school reunions. Nothing at all.

Of course, I know nothing of the ways in which college reunions differ from high school reunions; I’ve never been to one. In my imagination, these reunions are venues for intense networking with past and future Nobel Prize winners and captains of industry. You clink glasses with Ed, who sat in front of you in sophomore physics recitation. Back then, you fixated on the large pustulant boil on the back of his neck, along a 30 degree arc offset from his right earlobe. Now you are listening with fascination as he details his results on identifying the Higgs Boson.

Or you sit opposite from Bill, who has launched five ridiculously successful technology ventures and now sits on the board of Fortune 100 companies when he’s not racing in America’s Cup. You note that he’s no easier to converse with now than he was at Frosh Camp. Not a bit easier. That doesn’t mean that he’s silent. Oh no. Anything but. He holds forth. You’ll get your turn to hold forth too—just hang on. The airspace between you will open up for your own monologue in another five minutes.

See? My imagination has done a swell job of dissuading me.

That and the Seminar Day booklet which promises me technical and scientific talks offered up by other alums and current faculty. One demystifying snowflake formation. Another about the hindgut microbial communities of termites. A third about stress accumulation at tectonic plate boundaries.

You get the picture: talks aimed at the people who remember the math and science they learned during four grueling undergraduate years (or twelve grueling undergraduate years, depending).

Me? I travel light. I’ve likely forgotten everything I learned in four years of a powerful science education that left me reeling and listing 84.5 degrees off the horizontal toward the humanities, a cognitive Tower of Pisa. I’m better off with the Discovery Channel. Really I am. Seminar Day is a waste on me, an absolute waste.

I’m not much of a networker either; I liked the people I knew while I was a student at Caltech, but—like high school—those aren’t the people who’ll go. You go to network with the people you didn’t meet in college because they were in their rooms, busy studying, achieving, striving, fulfilling their academic ambitions.

The people who don’t continue to be a source of disappointment to their advisors well into their advisors’ emeritus years.

The people who’ve schlepped down to Pasadena for this thing are the same people who were attacking those problem sets that I was trying desperately to avoid. The students, in fact, who were attacking them with relish, since I know that even my favorite source of completed problem sets, Jeff (not his real name) Klein, isn’t going. And they can probably still do second order partial differential equations or Fourier Transforms. They remember more than the right hand rule for sorting out the direction for the magnetic field and force.

Damn them!

Yep. They were off trolling, while Gesine, Big Doug, and I were in the Dabney House lounge pretending we were a Sixties cover band.

And that’s the thing: the reunion I’m missing isn’t just a Caltech reunion, but a Dabney House reunion.

Unless you went to Caltech, there’s no reason you’d know the significance of the student house reunions. The idea of student houses isn’t all that unique—lots of universities have these residential arrangements that are more frat-like than dorm-like—but, as the Alumni Association has sussed out, the student houses are at the root of alum allegiance and thus alum fundraising.

Yet I have the feeling that the reunion effect will still hold true; you’d be going to reclaim something that isn’t really there anymore. The fact that wine and cheese are the refreshments they’re serving at the reception says a world about then and now. And you can bet it’s not Night Train Express and Cheez-Whiz.

Although… if I went, at least I could get away with not wearing my little black cocktail dress.

3 Comments:

Blogger Razzle said...

I gotta say, it took me some serious thinking to realize you were right, there were no street facing windows at RHHS. Although I suspect that maybe I had a classroom that faced out to the parking lot on Silver Spur.

6:57 PM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Oh! I just looked at the north and south orientations in local.live.com and Razzle's right. There are indeed a few north and south-facing windows on the Silver Spur building (although none actually fully facing the street).

Still... It has that cheery minimum security prison look to it.

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Nancy WEST Johnson said...

I never thought about the lack of windows onto the street before! I guess the windows facing Senior Park were all we needed...LOL! What years were you there? I'm an old-timer: Class of '69.
I went to the 20th but wasn't impressed. Now the 40th is coming up and some of us have connected on a Yahoo group. I'm getting to know folks I never knew when I was there and it's not so bad!

9:20 AM  

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