The spring before their 25th reunions, Harvard College
classes publish a giant crimson-bound volume of classmates’ reports of a form
made familiar by Christmas letters: the overlong account in restrained,
enthusiastic tones about how pediatric medicine has been an adventure, or
quoting Thoreau while informing your readers that you now own three companies
and your daughter has lately gotten into Harvard and climbed Rainier.
One of my fellows from the Class of ’76, the comedy writer
Stephen O’Donnell, calls this book “the Torah.” My Torah arrived a couple
months back, and I was surprised by how many people remembered Harvard differently
from me. They were grateful to Harvard; they felt blessed by Harvard. Myself, I
remembered mostly the slights of my smarter (if equally arrogant) classmates,
my social failures, the inability to get laid (this was before the Galbraith
Committee hammered out the Exchange of Undergraduate Privileges agreement with
local women’s colleges). Harvard was the zone of ferocious competition and
status anxiety, which I was determined to put behind me. My wife anchored these
feelings when she got pissed off over the paltry $35 I gave to the Harvard
College fund each year, or railed about the tons of junk mail the class sent
proselytizing me to come back to the reunion. The reunion was a no-brainer: I
wasn’t going near that snakepit.
And so I drove up on June 7, and checked into a dormitory in
What had changed my mind? Vanity, and spiritual blackmail.
First, a classmate e-mailed me to ask if I was available to participate in a
panel on the “writing life.” Why, I’d love to, I e-mailed him back. Saturday, huh?
Is that before or after the clambake?
Right, sure … of course ….
As for the psychic push,
a close friend who’d been to his two years ago commanded me to go to mine. The
reunion had forced him “to own my history and who I am today,” he said. While I
wasn’t sure I needed closure on my personal journey yet, still I sensed that in
my Harvard hatred there was some gritty shrapnel of truth that I’d do better
not to avoid.
I walked in at the end of Commencement, in time to catch a
picture from a religious album: Fond Al Gore pushing his mother in a wheelchair
out from under a great white tent. He seemed ridiculously happy. Then I came
upon a bunch of former friends of mine whom I barely recognized, clad not in
jeans and long hair but absurd fairy-tale black hats and morning coats, and
standing atop the dais as if at the threshold of heaven. They were class
officers, escorting the Class of ’76 up to heaven. The top hats fell across
their lined foreheads as the tails fell over their slack butts-footmen to august
King Harvard, never seen though his works were everywhere, benevolent and
I sat with my class on
the dais as Robert Rubin spoke, and reminded me of everything I disliked about
the place. That they’d chosen a globalist tool, that I could understand. But 30
minutes in the absence of any humanity or poetry began to feel desolating. Oh,
there was one anecdote: The philosophy professor had upended a wastebasket on
the desk to serve as his rostrum, and rubicund young Robert had learned all he
needed to know in that class. But the connection between Spinoza and the
Mexican bailout-that eluded Rubin’s verbal powers. Between yawns, a wag in the
next chair handed me his annotated program: “1. Life is complex. 2. Make
I stayed up late that night drinking whiskey out of plastic
cups in a girls’ dorm room. By now I’d gone through the looking glass into my
undergraduate years. I was as uncomfortable as I was then, sitting on the
floor, flanked by two guys who were much cooler than I was. Or at least one of
them had been. In college he’d had long hair and worn a spangled T-shirt; I
know because he passed around a photograph where he was hanging out with two
beautiful girls from our class. I’d wanted to date one of them, the smart one.
Hadn’t given me the time of day. I remembered the name I’d come up with for
her, the sullen voluptuary.
Spangles was now in high-end real estate. In the Torah, he
bragged about his toys-an automatic weapon and an S.U.V. Cool? Not cool? Not.
Stretched out on the bed as we drank was a woman who had
almost relieved me of my virginity when I was 17. We had both been drunk, she
more than me. She had told me to go, and then, a minute later-much worse-her
roommate from the other room called out to me to leave. I slunk away. My
virginity had to wait another year or two. I felt that night with fresh shame,
and hoped she’d forgotten.
Across the room were the famous O’Donnell twins, Stephen and
Mark. They had M.C.’d the talent show that night, which had been a tremendous
success. They had introduced acts they’d never seen with droll one-liners.
Mark was the star of our class, the most talented person I
think I’ve ever met. I’m sure others have had the same impression, and I can
only imagine what a burden this has been to Mark, making his way as a
playwright and novelist in New York. I still remember some of his jokes. “Big
feet?”-this said with a sexual twinkle in the eye-”Big shoes.”
Or, “Sarge, get me out of this chicken outfit!”-a cartoon of
two soldiers, one in a chicken costume. During the talent show, I studied the
similarities and differences in the O’Donnells’ styles. Mark was touched in
college and was still touched. He had an earnest way of stretching his neck out
like an eaglet and raising his eyebrows as he looked for the precise insight,
which he then produced, from another world. His voice was a little breathy and
ethereal. Stephen was more matter-of-fact, earthly and hairy.
The differences were less pronounced in college. They were
often confused, and sometimes used this confusion to their advantage, as when
Mark filled in for Stephen at a kitchen job-or was it Stephen Mark? Now they
were both successful writers who live a few blocks from one another on the
Upper West Side. During the talent show, I’d watched them looking at one
another, saw what sly affection was in their eyes, the surprise and delight one
experienced at what the other said, and felt a little excluded, as from a
higher species. At the end of the evening, they danced with one another on the
And now I must draw a
curtain on middle-aged dorm life. Suffice it to say that literature has
not treated the theme of a dozen graying, middle-aged men sharing a
bathroom-men who, if they have one thing they can count on, it’s some privacy
on the throne ….
The next morning, half of them have checked out for the
At breakfast I entered the reunion’s Dante-ish space. I was
in the afterlife, populated by ghosts, and doing the business of the afterlife:
being acquainted with my disappointments.
It seemed like every guy who in his 40′s was half-broken by
crisis seemed to find me, or I found him. It wasn’t as if the entire class was
this way. No, most of them were making tons of money and doing just fine. They
were the wheels of capital or the instruments of law, the forceps of medicine
or inkblots of the press (that metaphor was actually teetering a long time ago
…). They were making a median income of $160,000 a year, and they were
beginning to coast. “Hey, I heard that you’re still working hard,” one of them
said, casually and sincerely, to another in the breakfast line. They were the
tough, boring, balding fiber of the social carpet.
The guys who came looming up to me were the seekers. A tall,
handsome former Catholic, spun out by divorce and now studying, at the feet of
his younger son, how to live in the moment-or as the boy says, “in the thrum.”
A blond guy who I had last seen beside me 27 years ago, washing dishes in a
dining hall, who was about to go into a monastery after a career in I’m not sure
what, politics maybe, he mumbled but didn’t want to say. He and I stood around
wondering how much of our college sexual experience had been date rape.
And I spent an hour with
a starfucker who had stopped believing in the stars ….
These ghosts did a ghostly service: They acquainted me with
my own denied disappointments (my failure to write intelligible, or
publishable, novels). And I did the stuff you do in the afterlife. I apologized
sincerely to a woman I’d screwed over, and she, ever kind, accepted it. I put
my arm around my fiercest college rival, for one sweet moment. I looked up from
my conversation with the former Catholic to see a beautiful child at the next
table. As it turned out, he was the child of a friend. I wanted to touch his
hair, and I wondered if he was as interior as I was as a child. Then I thought,
if I hadn’t been so immature, I might have had kids ….
That was when I ran into my first love. Mike Brown was
long-nosed, blue-eyed and thrilling. His eyes were as blue as the waters of
Seagate, Coney Island, where he grew up and played the violin. Mike was my
first tough Jew, and my first genius; he was someone who had fully and
unapologetically occupied himself.
Now Mike stopped outside a doorway in the Yard.
“Right in there, I got on
an elevator one day with a dean. I’d had crabs a few months before, and the
only way to get rid of them is with this stuff called Pyrinate A-200. Which
stinks. And on this elevator was the unmistakable odor of Pyrinate A-200. So I
said to the dean, ‘You have my sympathy. It’s no fun. But if you want a better
method, you should shave one half of your pubic hair, light the other half on
fire, and get them with an icepick when they come running out …. ‘”
Mike still talks like that, even though he was successful in
Seattle. I walked him back to his dorm, two gray ghosts going down the
spiritual Jewish elevator together, stinking of nostalgia, and remembered who
I’d been when I met him, a nerdy kid from a strong but narrow background.
I’d wanted Harvard to make me worldly, and it did. My
in-laws were impressed by the fact that I’d gone to Harvard. So was my first
daily newspaper editor. So is the King of
Tonga. I’ve pulled out my golden passport up and down the line. Considering
that, I felt a surge of gratitude to Harvard. Tears came to my eyes, and I
grabbed Mike with tenderness.
“What is it with all this hugging?” he said.
As Mark O’Donnell was
the star of our class, so he was the star of the afterlife. On my writing
panel, he gave a wicked insight. Writing should be play, he said. “You’ve never
heard of play-block …. You never hear girls who are playing with their dolls
say, ‘I just don’t know what these dolls should say!’” Middle age had improved
the O’Donnells, like some old cheese. They looked a little more like cheese,
too, as we all did: crumbled and pale, a yellowy blue streak here and there.
Stephen, the hairier, squintier, darker-voiced cheese, sat on a media panel. He
said the reunion had moved him to treat his classmates with more charity.
“You’ve tried everything else,” he said. “Why not try
plainness and truth and even mercy with one another?” Well I don’t know,
Stephen-maybe because Harvard didn’t encourage plainness and mercy?
The O’Donnells dazzled me partly because of their story.
They were from Cleveland, their dad was a welder, there were 10 kids. And from
early on these two too-funny boys-”my truest friend and a most remarkable and
entertaining companion since we shared a womb during the first Eisenhower
administration,” Stephen said of Mark in the Torah-had been dynamic Harvard
success monkeys. Yet Stephen’s report in the Torah brimmed with sadness, too.
“I made two terrible mistakes. Getting married when I really
shouldn’t have (bad). And not getting
married when I really, really, should
have. The second is much worse, a much bigger loss. I suffer over it all the
time. Why do I mention it here? I don’t know. It seems big to me. The useful
message to you all might be to bravely go with your heart always and
everywhere. I wish I would’ve operated that way starting about, oh, 1954. I’ve
paid attention enough to know regrets don’t do any good, but I’m still in the
woods on this one …. “
His words came down over you like grace. They offered things
Harvard never taught: going with your heart, clemency for failure. But then,
how had I made my connection to the O’Donnells? I suppose I ought to have mercy