Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Well, I admit I was a little nervous getting out of the car and moving across the parking lot. I brought my sunglasses, even though the sun had nearly set (and it was cloudy anyway), and I think the question Why am I doing this? went through my head twenty times. My wife looked terrific, and she had that this oughta be fun grin that one gets at an amusement park entrance. I figured, Well I've got nothing to prove -but I do have a pretty wife. Ten seconds later: twenty people whom you haven't seen in twenty years looking twenty years older greeting you enthusiastically. Like out of a fast-moving dream. With 80's music.

You just start chatting away, eyes open. I learned fast not to try and guess people's names and to just go ahead and ask for help. It's fun to see old classmates, but less so to be mistaken for one (you're not sure if the person you're talking to and the person you've mistaken them for ever got along.) One old friendly acquaintance after another crosses your path and it's the same set of questions, repeated endlessly: Where are you living now? and What do you do? and Kids? But I found myself genuinely interested. Then there are the moments of uncertainty when you're talking to someone you swear you sat behind in English, but it turns out to be that person's spouse from Illinois, but ah well. Everyone was smiling.

The first guy I saw, I knew in high school and wondered whatever happened to him. The second person I saw, I knew in high school and wondered what happened to her. And then the third, and then again and again, all together. It was like, let's go find out! I mean, what else are you going to do? At the check-in you were handed a badge with your high school photo on it, and no one complained when you approached them by leaning down to check the badge -as long as you laughed about it after. Everyone did, and it was like an icebreaker game at a youth group meeting, but we were all in costume, dressed as adults.

The party was held at sunset at the beach clubhouse of the prestigious and exclusive Jonathan Club, with all of us shuffling around barefoot in the sand and yet otherwise capitulating to the sternly enforced dress code. The hors d'oeuvres were of a veritable shwankness, served to us by well-groomed, attentive servants, and the lot of us stood around with champagne and cocktails, so the whole event had a Beverly Hills 90210 - Twenty Year Reunion Episode! air about it. A good number of people had made the event the cornerstone of their Southern California vacation, and who could blame them? But it could've been held in the old high school gymnasium and been every bit as fun, if not more so. (I mean, doesn't everyone want to live out the John Mayer song?)

Actually, there weren't really any of the old cliques -with the bitter caste system of adolescence that makes that regrettable impression you carry with you all your life. I was grateful for it. We all were, I think. Rather, it was just a group of about 150 adults looking for a good time, and having one. No one wore a letter jacket, there weren't any cheerleaders, and the last report card anyone at the party had seen or cared about was their five and seven year-old's. There was a slideshow of old photographs from pre-digital times, and God bless the hands that went through the torture of scanners and emails to make it, but few of us paid much attention. We were all showing off our own kids on our camera-phones. My, times they had a'changed.

At least a couple people had found me on the blog and complimented me on it, which was nice, and a few were wondering what happened to my film career, which I claimed I abandoned for the suburbs. "I have achieved normality -and it was a tough climb," I announced more than once. People found this both amusing and impressive. (For me, it is.)

The high point of my night was when I was reunited with a girl I'd had a crush on for years. She was happily married with a few kids now, of course, and I was sincerely happy for her. She smiled and introduced herself to Mrs. Ditchman and leaned in to tell her, "You're really lucky. You married a terrific guy." I was walking on air.

By the end of the night, most people gravitated to those they were closest to in high school, and stories old and new were shared until the Last Call. Mrs. Ditchman (who was patient and charming, God bless her) and I stayed to the end, catching anecdotes on the old hometown and those who didn't show. One was in prison, another killed in a car accident, and another taken by that unpredictable cancer. One jovial old friend was in the Air Force flying gliders and training cadets. Was he in the war? Yes, but the first one -the Gulf War. (Seems like ages ago.) Yet no one talked politics, no one talked religion. It was just families and jobs and you-can-never-go-home-again type stuff. Most of us never can, having been priced out of the village we were raised in -a place where the average property is now valued in the multi-millions.

I think a big reason people avoid their class reunions is the I've got nothing to prove mentality, which assumes that everyone there is trying to prove something. Perhaps some are, but those two groups tend to be the same people, and so wouldn't materialize at such an event in any case. What I saw was largely a group of otherwise ordinary folks who enjoy life, who enjoy other people, who wanted to entertain that enduring curiosity, that American tradition of the Class Reunion. There's nothing else in life like it. Weddings and funerals, maybe, but those are people who know you well. These are people who, well, know you. Weddings and funerals are in honor of you, whereas a class reunion is in honor of... what exactly? You take a group of people, raise them together, disperse them, and then bring them all back again every ten years. It's one of life's few legitimate benchmarks. You go to the reunions and you see life actually moving along beside you. Where else can you get that kind of perspective?

I regret not having committed to going to the family picnic that was held the day after the reunion. Other obligations and commitments -they weren't as important, I should have known better. I was with my own family -and I loved it- but these other people seemed so new again... Other people, whether family, friends, or forgotten classmates, are the source of the only lasting joy in this lifetime. If you don't enjoy other people, expect a slow dispassionate decay. Expect to die younger than those who do.

Anyway, it was a high school reunion. What do I have in common with these people? Nothing significant, really, we just went to high school together. But there is something... We all seemed to be people genuinely interested in life itself, wanting to watch it float gently past like the mighty and beautiful river that it is, and get swept up in it. And swept away not like in some unstoppable, calamitous flood, but rather as on a hot summer day at thirteen again, standing on a log, skinny and shivering, hooting and hollering, and leaping in.