08 July 2008

Youth’s Fleeting Golden Hours

Miss Emily Wissemann Consents to the Honor of This Dance
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©

Circumstances and a couple of gently nagging e-mails remind me that I have not yet written here anything more than a couple of references to one of the most significant events of my year, the 25th reunion of the Class of 1983 at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. This is inexcusable, not because my words on the subject have any deathless value, but because the brilliant photog­ra­pher Catherine Karnow has granted me the exclusive right to run several of her pictures.

Failing to provide Cathy with a setting for her work would be like telling Michelangelo that, no thanks, you’d sooner use wallpaper in the Sistine Chapel.

I’ve shared with you something of my mood during Reunion Weekend, necessarily somewhat melancholy as I recalled friends whom I’ll never see again on Waterman Street or anywhere else (David Dornstein, Brian Greenbaum, too many others); as I wrote, I was returning to New York to attend the memorial service of another friend, Madeline Gilford. Yet the days were far from sad, as a few anecdotes will demonstrate. Moreover, I recall that, during Orientation Week, 1979, a distinguished professor I never saw again addressed the incoming freshmen and told us that “The unexamined education is not worth having.” Only by providing an account of Reunion Weekend will I truly examine it and learn anything from it.

Faunce House: Getting ready for the big event
Photo by WVM


I rode to Providence with Elise Goyette, whose zest for life makes her a boon companion at any time, and whose boundless compassion makes her precisely the right escort for a journey like this one. Moreover, she’s a whiz at organization: she set up the whole trip for me, sparing no detail, allowing me to focus on the poetry and philosophy of the occasion instead of the logistics and bookkeeping. In a word, she coddled me. And on top of everything, she has provided me with two of the best godchildren any man ever had. Though my godson was traveling abroad, my goddaughter would join us in Providence; I was looking forward to a dance with her at Campus Dance.

As Elise drove, we talked about our college years, and she impressed on me that my experience was exceedingly rare. Though I screwed up constantly, squandering opportunities and blundering even where I succeeded, I somehow developed a support system that continues to sustain me today. Together we ticked off a dozen names of close and enduring relationships that I formed while I was at Brown. Though I’m not in constant contact with every one of them, each passes what Merrill Gruver used to call “the burning-building test”: if this person were trapped in a burning building, would you risk your life to save them? Though I had a few nemeses, for the most part I was accepted, and as a result I will be much in demand in case of conflagration. The concept of “the Brown community,” much vaunted by the school’s admin­is­tra­tors and counselors, was no mere slogan for me. I arrived as an outsider, yet soon enough I belonged.

Ever true to Brown: Dean Bruce Donovan
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©


Some of the bonds I forged with my professors have proved equally enduring. (Prior to Reunion Weekend, however, I had kept up with only one of them, John R. Lucas, whose courses in technical theater I never took and thus whose student I never really was.) I’ve written about four of these teachers: Sears R. Jayne, Barbara Monahan, Bruce E. Donovan, and James O. Barnhill. Each provided me with tools to understand the world and myself. Not everybody in the Class of ’83 can say as much, Elise pointed out.

When we arrived in Providence, Elise and I teamed up with Cathy Karnow. To my surprise, these women, who have been so important to me, beginning at more or less the same moment in my history, barely knew each other, and there was immense pleasure in watching the two of them hit it off. We rediscovered Loui’s Restaurant and Thayer Street, we shmoozed with people we hadn’t seen in a quarter-century, we took pictures, we laughed and soul-searched. Balking at the exorbitant price for the Class of ’83 Alumni Dinner, we went to an Indian restaurant. In the mêlée of returning alums, in the sonic morass of “How are you? What have you been doing?” it seemed vital to preserve some moments of intimacy, and we had ours.

Elise and Cathy
Photo by WVM


Then it was off to the Campus Dance, where we found my goddaughter, effortlessly chic in the way that only 15-year-old girls can be. Together we caromed around the Green, and at last Emily consented to a dance with her godfather. (To represent her absent brother, I wore a shirt he had given me.)

This was the first of many incidents of uncommon patience on Emily’s part: never once did she roll her eyes while her elders gassed on, never once did she fidget, fume, scream, run away, or murder us, as any normal teenager might. Neither she nor I know the correct steps for the Big Band numbers being played, but it didn’t matter. We made a cute couple — so cute that people we didn’t know took our picture, and strangers smacked their teenage children and said, within our earshot, “Why don’t you dance with your father like that?”

If there are compensations to growing older (and I’m not sure that there are), this must be one of them: you can dance with your goddaughter.

Like something you would see: Campus Dance 2008
Photo by WVM


All evening, I heard that my freshman roommate was somewhere about, though I never tracked him down. According to rumor, he had hired a limousine to circle the campus, so that whenever he reached his hand through the fence, the driver might hand him a drink. Not for him the long lines for drink tickets and the long waits at the bar! I recount this rumor not because I believe it to be true on its face, but because it gives you an indication of the kinds of things people say about him, and that in turn says a little about his true character. Already as a freshman he had a Fitzgeraldian approach to life, an epic grandeur that nobody else possessed, and least of all his roommate. Paul was handsome, sophisticated, whip-smart, not a little dissolute, and a full year older than I. Between Deerfield and Brown, he’d spent a year in England, most often in a morning coat. We were monstrously ill-matched, and yet I liked him. I’m sorry I didn’t get to see him.

The familiar faces I did see, that night and the next day, were sometimes overwhelming. Reunited with Jennifer Moses after many years, I nearly burst out crying. Diana Revkin’s husband generously shared her exquisite company with me, though he knows we used to date. Beth Zalusky, the funniest woman at Brown, was perfectly serious when she told me she was coming to Paris: I’ll see her this weekend. Cary Twichell and Emily Bower were so uncannily beautiful, and as always possessed of such serene grace and wisdom, that I’m not fully persuaded I didn’t dream them. When it came time to dance with them, I became the clumsiest, least imaginative dancer in America. Better luck next time. Sue Klawans, whom I hadn’t expected to see (she was Class of ’84), turned up, completely unchanged, as if she’d just stepped out of the Film Society office. Perhaps there is no need to change, when you get it right the first time.

Some of the familiar faces I wanted to see were not in Providence. I arranged for dinner with Mark Dennis and Beth Chapman in New York (a great success, as always) and for lunch in New Haven with Alan Organschi (fell through). Steve Biel and Melia Bensussen contrived to get me to Boston for a day. The absence of two others was so keenly felt that I had to telephone them: the reunion was incomplete without Merrill Gruver and Andy Weems.

Elise and Emily flank Jim Barnhill
Photo by WVM


At a theater department reception, I encountered John Lucas and Don Wilmeth, merrily comparing medications like alte kakkes and bickering with well-practiced ease. Years ago, they were among the most forbidding people I knew, yet now they’ve become rather sweet. Jim Barnhill was there, and as I observed in an update on my earlier blog entry, he turned out to be sharp, fully up-to-date on the activities of everyone I know, and far from the forgetful character I remembered.

All weekend, I heard that Bruce Donovan was looking for me: he’d read my blog entry on him, and he wanted to see me. I didn’t know how to contact him, but such obstacles are trifles for Cathy. Naturally, she found him, then called me in Boston and handed the phone to Dean Bruce. I nearly fell over backward. In less than three minutes, he made four classical allusions, spoke profoundly about life, and hectored me to vote for Obama.

I’d been anxious, in the days leading up to the Reunion, because, let’s face it, a lot of my classmates are painfully successful, some of them in fields where I’d like to excel: Rick Moody, Jeffrey Eugenides, Todd Haynes, to name three. Another three are writers for some of television’s biggest hits, and they spoke at not one but two panel discussions during the weekend: Jonathan Groff (How I Met Your Mother), Ian Maxtone-Graham (The Simp­sons), and Kit Boss (King of the Hill). And mean­while, I’m unemployed, unpublished, and struggling. I was prepared to brandish my French residency like a shield, and although folks did seem pleased to know, and they did seem to consider it an achievement, I had no need to be defensive. Nobody high-hatted me. Indeed, I felt less snobbishness now among my classmates than I felt 25 years ago. Are we growing up?

Melia, photographed by some doofus she dated in college

I spent most of my Sunday in Boston with Melia and her family, terrific people in the aggregate — and what’s more, I realized afterward that each of them had reached out to me individually. In little Ilana’s case, this consisted of locking me in her room and insisting that I read her a book — not a story, but a 300-page book — while she shouted, “You’re mine! You’re mine!” In husband Chuck’s case, this consisted of going for a walk and talking quietly about Guy Stuff. And in young Jeremy’s case, this consisted of reciting Marx Brothers routines together. Out of all my friends’ children, Jeremy is the only one who’s “inherited” my love of the Marxes, and as a result ours is a special relationship. Shortly before it came time for me to leave, Jeremy found me in the dining room. He sort of butted against me, and only after his arms slapped hurriedly against my sides and he backed abruptly away did I realize he’d just hugged me, the way 12-year-old boys hug.

Melia and I went next to Steve Biel’s house, where he was throwing a Brown Reunion of his own, a barbecue that in many ways resembled the kinds of parties he used to throw when we were at school, with many of the same faces, and my college girlfriend at my side. We talked into the night as if we were still undergraduates, and I caught the last train back to Providence, and climbed College Hill to my dorm room in West Quad. The next morning, I returned to New York, and a more-present past.

I am a camera.
Cathy Karnow takes better pictures, though.

©Catherine Karnow

So what did I learn from these encounters? Perhaps not lessons but reminders of lessons: after all, it’s been clear to me for some time that my education at Brown was not merely intellectual or cultural but also social and sentimental. The books and ideas I found there are still with me, and so are a great many of the people. Some of the friends are like books that I read and then place on a shelf, then return to years later and find every bit as valuable and enriching as before, with new insights waiting to be gleaned among the familiar. Others of my old friends are like whole libraries to me, from whose shelves I have yet to stray, and at any moment I may find among them the stories I need.

Yet perhaps I’m struck most profoundly by what Elise said at the beginning of the weekend: other people do not have this experience of college. If I thrived at Brown, if I have carried its treasures forward to the rest of my life, I like to think that this is a function not of any quality of my own but of the eternal and virtuous brilliance of the men and women I met there. What extraordinary people they were and are! It’s strange to recall that I applied to any other school, so right was Brown for me, so much did it shape the person I am now. Though I seldom return to Brown itself, the Brown Community is never far from me.

Bill and Cathy

UPDATE: Merrill Gruver informs me that all three of her children are Marx Brothers fans. This raises the distinct possibility that, at my funeral, an entire chorus of my friends’ children may sing “Hello, I Must Be Going.”

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