Friday, April 29, 2011

Middle-aged golden boys and girls

Given my last two posts, it's appropriate that this week delivered to my doorstep the alumni report for Cosimo's college class: a big red book containing contact information and vital statistics for everyone the university has on record, as well as individual narratives for everyone who chose to submit them (I'd estimate 70%). Since Cosimo is several years older than I am and this year is a big round-number reunion, there's a lot of stock-taking and self-appraisal going on.

Some people's narratives are thoughtful, others are merely informative, and still others are hilarious and self-deprecating. However, to a snarky non-classmate like myself, the most fun are the writers who conform to every stereotype I've ever had about people of their age and class (which is to say, basically, my own age and class):
  • "Although I still work in corporate litigation, my real passion is for Iyengar yoga."
  • "After living in eight countries since graduation, I've finally put down roots in Vienna, the most beautiful city in the world."
  • "I recently stepped out of the rat race, took a 50% pay cut, and moved to Albuquerque. What I lost in prestige I gained in sanity. Try it, you might like it!"
  • "Even though I'm now 'just a homemaker,' I sit on the board of both our children's schools, I'm involved in fundraising for the civic opera and the art museum, and I mentor young women thinking about careers in journalism."
  • "How to pick out the high points of the past five eventful years? Summitting Kilimanjaro was definitely a memorable moment, as was being profiled in the Wall Street Journal."
  • "We recently relocated back to the States, and now live in D.C.--well, the 'burbs, a decision prompted by a great French immersion program and our desire for our girls to remain bilingual."
  • "Believe it or not, I've really gotten to have it all."

I realize that reunions cause some people great anxiety, and that much of this boasting or defensiveness can be ascribed to preemptive worries about being judged, personal fears about not having lived up to their potential, or maybe just a radical miscalculation about the tone or genre of the alumni update. (Unsurprisingly, the classmates who have achieved actual fame tended not to write in at all.)

Still, it's rather fascinating to see 1,000 people of the same age and educational background wrestling, collectively, with early middle age and what they have or haven't yet achieved in their lives. Only a few people mention setbacks or disappointments (divorces, lost jobs, stints in rehab) and even those narratives all have happy endings. Many people refer to their "blessings" or "good fortune," and a fair number announce how happy they are and how much they love their lives. I assume that most of that happiness is genuine, but it does often seem to be tinged with nostalgia or the fear that this--however good this is--may be it.

It's both touching and insufferable. I can't wait to meet them.


Renaissance Girl said...

Dude, such a quandary. Give top billing to summitting Kilimanjaro or to the WSJ profile? Sporty? or Important? Exxtreme? or filled with Gravitas? So hard to tell.

Historiann said...

Love this.

My husband went to a college whose alumni magazine contributions are along the lines of those you suggest above, plus "my four children, Parker (14), Kate (12), Pierce IV (10), and Kieran (5) keep us all very busy! The highlight of 2011 for us was our epic trip to Whistler, where we were joined by my father (Pierce II, class of 1960) and his wife."

I'd love to do a parody of this college's alumni contributions on my blog, but I'm afraid that it would be too easy to guess which college alumns I'm mocking out.

Flavia said...


That is TOTALLY the quandary. As it is for a lot of these people, who in one breath will announce their company's IPO and rhapsodize about the healing properties of Reiki and eating locally.


Exactly! And as in your example, I'm really struck by how many of Cosimo's classmates have 3-4 children. I suppose it still averages out to less than 2 per alumnus, given that some people have none or 1--but it reminded me of an NYT article from several years ago that suggested a trend toward larger families among educational/economic elites.

It's a weird feeling, reading this volume. These people are a number of years older than I am, and their names mean nothing to me, so the absurdities of their personal narratives aren't tempered by a sense of who they actually are or were--but since C & I went to functionally identical colleges, these might as well be my classmates. It's like SEEING THE FUTURE!

As I said: insufferable. And/but somehow also touching.

Historiann said...

Flavia: You've given me an idea for a blog post: write an alumnae/i magazine/Major Reunion version of my autobiography. Tag 4 or 5 other bloggers whose autobios you want to read in the style of their alumni mags.


Doctor Cleveland said...

You know, the Renaissance scholar in me wishes that they had books like this for Oxford and Cambridge alumni in the 1590s. "After a stint in the Low Countries with Lord Robert and a quick trip overseas with Sir Francis, I decided that orders weren't for me after all. I'm currently at Gray's Inn, but am hoping to get back to my sonnet sequence, 'Philogynus and Misnadri' one of these days." Instead, I can just envy the social historian who digs up those red books one day, and gets a trove of information on the educated upper classes.

We should all have such problems, but it does make me think: does anyone ever exactly live up to their youthful promise? I feel that many people exceed that promise, and many more (no matter how successful) fall short of what seemed like their potential at eighteen or twenty-one. But almost no one ever becomes exactly the person they were expected to, and I can see why these people would find themselves wrestling with that.

And, as the guidance counseling cliche about gifted children goes: having so many options can be a burden. If you seem like you succeed at more than one path you have to pick one. Maybe that's actually harder for the middle-aged adults that gifted people grow into, nagged by the paths not traveled. Again, we should all be so lucky as to have these problems, but I think at a round-number reunion for one of the instant-name-recognition universities, you're likely to find a lot of the jazz singers wondering if they should have been lawyers, and plenty of the lawyers yearning to sing the blues.

Contingent Cassandra said...

Ulp. Both the thick book of profiles and the alumni magazine Historiann mentions (a weekly, perhaps?) sound a bit too familiar (and the not-quite-parodies are spot on). And I just agreed to be on an alumni panel about higher education, precisely because I suspect that my own experience as a full-time contingent at a state school is different enough from that of many of my classmates that I want to make sure it's represented. But looking through the thick book and realizing who else might be on the panel isn't helping my confidence level.

On the other hand, I also received an email this week encouraging the people listed in my own thick book to come to our big-round-number reunion (which is probably 5 to 10 years less than Cosimo's) even if we aren't quite where we thought we would be round-number years ago. There's even an acknowledgment that some class members may not be employed, and a discreet offer of assistance.

It's a weird demographic, and I, too, can't figure out whether I'm actually part of it, or just wandered in and hung around on the margins for 4 years, enjoying the library and the professors, then wandered out again, not fully realizing where I'd been.

RLB said...

Oh, you've brought back happy memories of my post-college editorial assistant job, where I proofread so many of these profile books for the *business school* of Cosimo's undergrad institution. If you think the ones you are reading are snark-worthy, when you don't know the authors personally, you should have seen those. We had a blast with that project, for which said business school outsourced proofreading and book layout to our company every year. "Oh, it's that time of year again! Hey everyone, listen to THIS one!" And you're right, the alums who were truly famous never did write in.

the rebel lettriste said...

As my crunchy alma mater SLAC defines itself by its sheer crunchy do-gooder-than-thou ethos, our alumni bios read somewhat differently.

There are:
women handwringing over being SAHM's who aren't "contributing" to the betterment of the community

lots of people studying things like "soil culture"

lots of people living abroad doing impressive work for 3rd world NGO's

much congratulatory hoo-ha over the queers who marry! and have babies!!

Flavia said...


Like it or not, I think it is our demographic--whatever backgrounds we come from (or futures we go off into), I think the values and expectations absorbed in college do leave a mark. And kudos to your alma mater for explicitly encouraging you to come and be counted, regardless of what you're doing.

If your college is anything like mine (or Cosimo's), I've found that my classmates have a reflexive respect for the less-traveled and less remunerative paths in the arts, education, and public service. At my 10-year, lots of people with what I think of as prestigious jobs said things like, "oh, I'm a lawyer, like everyone else"--and seemed genuinely interested in and enthusiastic about what I was doing.


Heh. There's a little of that in C's book. It's definitely not the dominant strain, but it's there all right--usually in the form of people leaving their high-powered jobs to work on behalf of migrant farmworkers, or the former SAHMs whose desire to feed their children naturally led them to start a (wildly successful!) online all-organic babyfood company.

That's what makes these narratives not just risible to me--the writers tend to have a sincere, if sometimes ham-fisted, desire for Meaning and Significance and Purpose in their lives.


I didn't know you did that at your first job! And really: why doesn't our alma mater produce these 5-year bound updates? We must have, once. I'll probably have to break down and write my second-ever alumni note in the near future, but I'd enjoy the chance to compose a fuller narrative in as obnoxious a style as possible.

Ianqui said...

Th real question here is, what did Cosimo submit?

RLB said...

Yes, Flavia, I almost asked you the same thing -- why *doesn't* INRU produce these update books? I would certainly enjoy reading them, I think. Then again, I would be extremely intimidated to have to write my own contribution for such a thing. Mostly because I'd be imagining the proofreaders snickering over it as they prepared the book for press. :)

Flavia said...

Ianqui: that is a question!

His narrative is very brief. Basically, this: "The past five years have been happy and busy. I got tenure and my book, [title], was published by [press]. And I've condemned myself to sitting on the [INRU] side of the stands at [Big Football Game]--I hope for the rest of my life."

That last part is pretty cryptic, requiring people to gather that he's referring to a romantic relationship (I think the submission deadline was before we got engaged)--but I suppose it's better to leave 'em wanting more!