Monday, April 03, 2006

My Twenty Year Reunion Weekend

From the strip clubs, pawn shops and adult book stores, I knew I was in Houston. As I drove out of the south side and into the western suburbs, the strip malls gave way to giant trees, leafy canopies, and mega-mansions. I was home.

The Friday event was a casual affair in a popular bar. The football team met early, before the rest of the class got there, and as I entered the bar I stepped back twenty years. There was Mark, Bill, Matt, Joe and the rest, just as I remembered them. Well, maybe they were a little grayer, balder, or heavier, but everyone was recognizable. And although we haven't been in the same room in two decades, there was immediate acceptance; the conversation was easy, as if we were in a huddle only last week. We watched the game film and were amazed at our own abilities from over half our lifetime ago.

Ninety minutes later the rest of the class started filtering in. The Friday event was sans-spouses, and by 10pm the evening essentially turned into a high-school keg party. The beer gave way to tequila shots, couples from twenty years ago were together in corners of the bar frantically whispering to one another, loud music was blaring.

By 11pm the place was so crowded no one could move. I looked over the sea of 38-year olds drinking, talking and dancing and decided that the Class of '86 still knew how to party. I left at 1 am, leaving dozens of people still going strong.

I nursed a hangover most of the next day, feeling fresh enough to go to the formal event the next evening (formal as in "official", not dress, which was "business casual"). It was what everyone pictures when they think of a reunion: a cocktail party where most people bring spouses, a buffet is served, and a DJ plays music from your high school years. It was held at a very nice country club.

This event was bigger and had a larger cross-section of the class than the night before. Truth be told, the majority of the people at the Friday party were mainly the people who went to the keg parties 20 years ago. At the official reunion were those people plus everyone else. It was a little more formal and stuffy, but it was a nice party and I think a successful evening.

Those are the particulars, but what did I think of the reunion experience?

The word everyone kept using was weird. We all have memories of our high school years - good and bad - although I think the bad are mostly forgotten and the good are enhanced as we get older. Whatever those memories, they come into direct conflict with the present in a situation like a reunion. As Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby (the second time on this blog I have used this quote):

It is sadder to find the past again and find it inadequate to the present than it is to have it elude you and remain forever a harmonious conception of memory.

Fitzgerald's point is that we all have memories that don't stack up to present reality, and sometimes it is better to leave those memories in the past. But I lost my hang-ups on high school some time ago. Sure, it took me until I was past 30 to get closure on some of them, but as I close in on 40 I have no Gatsby-like yearnings, regrets, or illusions. So instead of finding the event sad like Fitzgerald, I found it an interesting chance to compare the kids I knew at eighteen to the adults they are today. And here is what I observed:

  • Everyone's basic personality really hasn't changed except in one way: certain aspects have been amplified over the last twenty years. For example, I talked to one guy I used to know pretty well, and the thing that struck me about him was that he was so sour about his life. He described his wife, kids, good job and house in a nice Houston neighborhood, but he acted like he was living in a slum in the Philippines picking through garbage to feed his family. I thought about it and decided that this seed of his personality was already there in high school. It's just more amplified now.

    As I went through the two evenings I kept seeing this over and over and over again. People hadn't really changed, just certain aspects of their personality have become more dominant over the last twenty years, as if it were distilled.

  • The men are aging gracefully. The women are not.

  • While the women aren't pushing 40 with a lot of grace, I didn't complain when women who never talked to me in school came up and gave me a big hug, telling me how wonderful it was to see me. I wanted to say: You wouldn't give me the time of day 20 years ago, and now you're Mrs. Friendly?!? But hey, they did seem genuine. The highlight was when Lisa, the most popular and most beautiful girl in our class not only hugged me, but talked to me for 10-15 minutes. These were the first sentences she had ever spoken to me.

  • I either knew people right off, or not at all. I was honest one time, telling a girl not only did I not remember her name, but I had no memory of who she was. I watched her face sort of unhinge as I told her this, so I went to "Oh, HI, I remember you!" even when I didn't.

  • There were a lot of people in high school you knew but they weren't friends. Sort of like colleagues from work. So what do you say twenty years later at a party to the people who you sort of remember, but won't see or talk to again until the next reunion? I basically had a standard list of questions I used over and over and over again throughout the evening, pretending I was a talk-show host:

    - So, you still in Houston?

    - What are you up to these days?

    - Married? Have kids?

    Which isn't too different from any other cocktail party. I also developed my own "elevator pitch" telling people where I was and what I did. All I can say is that people seemed to become more interested once I said I lived in "The OC" (about the only thing that lousy soap opera has been good for).

So I had a good time and interesting experience. While most of the people I won't see again for five or ten years until the next reunion, there are actually about a dozen people I will stay in touch with, thanks to this new-fangled internet email that wasn't around when I was a kid. And the football team seems determined to have another keg party before the next reunion.

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