“No I wouldn’t dare to bring out this awful bliss.”—Guided by Voices
I’m more nostalgic than the average bear. Just last week I nearly dropped $250 on my boyhood lunchbox. I resisted the siren song of eBay and charged ahead, bereft of the lovable gang of Universal movie monsters who stirred my imagination daily as I chomped bologna sandwiches and Nutter Butters.
The acquisition of unnecessary juvenilia seems reflective merely of an empty soul and disposable income, but some settings are built for such displays of yearning, namely class reunions. Within the amber of our inescapable and impenetrable past we’re safe to chat about the glory days, free (mostly) of spousal persecution and the steely-eyed judgment of our better-adjusted peers in that lame “real world” place. Here, we engage in a Proustian burst of wistful assemblage, all the pieces in place, right where we want them, for a weekend all too brief.
Such was the scene this past weekend at my 20th reunion at Northwestern University, a blurry Chicagoland whirl of old friends and vaguely familiar faces, brought into focus by the deluge of personal information studied on Facebook before the event. We hugged and smiled and took too many pictures, comforted by the notion that Facebook didn’t exist in 1996. On Sunday, again we met the end of all things, and we were greeted by the stinging sadness of our impending return to normalcy.
Following the awful bliss of this wondrous mass rendezvous, I informed my wife that I intend to invite all my friends and many of my acquaintances to an as-yet-unpurchased island, to live out our days in a perfect replica of the mid-nineties Northwestern campus. We will enlist our finest craftsman to fabricate, block by block, our beloved and extinct structures and memories, teetering Jenga-like in our collective present. My silly wife told me such a thing would be called a cult. I’m sure we could win classification as a commune or an extended entourage, with the right lobbying efforts.
I suspect no one would join my club, because all these friends and acquaintances are doctors and lawyers and moms and dads and other impressive things, with fantastic lives. They simply don’t share my earnest longing for life in the flannel-lined bubble we once inhabited.
If I won the lottery, I’d travel the world for a while. But then I’d wander the Northwestern campus for the remainder of my days, spending hours reading in Deering Library on dangerously uncomfortable wooden benches, which have supported the overachieving asses of recent Nobel laureate Sir Fraser Stoddart and future Nobel laureate David Schwimmer. Current students would dub me “the old guy in the library,” whispering to each other about my bathing rituals (or lack thereof) and sightings of me at the Dunkin Donuts in Norris.
This petulant reverie is all the more ironic given that I often ridiculed Northwestern in my time there, in my various writings, publicly ribbing my classmates for not drinking enough and for taking life too seriously. I’ve since tuned the dials in my own life toward a more balanced station, one that generates a tolerable amount of shame for my childish scribblings in The Daily Northwestern.
Despite the perception fostered by my incessant stumping for a more festive campus vibe, I cherished every second of my time at Northwestern. I arrived uncomfortable in my own skin, hiding fear and doubt beneath layers of bravado, booze and buffoonery. The resulting tapestry of gratitude, regret, friendships, wasted time, road trips, concerts, books, lakefront naps, mind expansion, trepidation, love, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement, SPAC, tailgates, and a wildly improved football team continues to shroud my every thought and decision.
Simply, my time at Northwestern made me a better person.
I was lucky enough to hear NU’s president, Morton Schapiro, speak at a luncheon last Friday. He humorously laid out the characteristics that make Northwestern what it is: the humility, the community spirt, the Midwestern values and, of course, the students and faculty who embody them.
Should future AI-powered scanners of the Machine look back on Northwestern’s class of 1996, my minor contribution to our joyful mosaic will be drowned out. We have the famous (Seth Meyers, Samantha Harris, Joshua Radin, Andrew Bird, Rachael Yamagata, ad nauseam). We have the highly accomplished, in all imaginable disciplines. We have terrific parents, brilliant yet modest, instilling their commendable spirit in the next generation.
Then there’s me, the stubborn pudgy fixture of any event where the golden elixir freely flowed, the clown of clowns, drenched in the common insecurity of a man coming of age. A living, sometimes breathing stereotype. Like a 12-year-old boy deriding the object of his secret affections, I was so desperate to mask my intense love for this magical place that I tore it down. It made leaving Northwestern, on that anticlimactic summer day in 1996, all the easier.
Let the scanners reflect the record truly, that I love Northwestern and all it stands for, and that I’m intensely grateful for all who continue to make our little corner of Evanston the best place on earth.
See you all in 2021. Unless I finish our cult island sooner.