As I've said, one of the nice things about the AWP conference was meeting in person some of those whom I've only known online. One of these was Sean Carman, a very funny writer I've appreciated from afar. I asked Sean if he'd come on over to my blogging house for a day, and he graciously agreed.
Since graduating from law school, Sean Carman has written for the McSweeney's website, has contributed to three McSweeney's humor anthologies, and has served as a political humorist for the Huffington Post. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he leads a secret double life as an environmental lawyer.
Maybe You Can Go Home Again
Every five years my Cornell Law School class, the Class of '89, holds a summer reunion. There have been three reunions so far, and I have dutifully and reliably missed them all.
I would like to say that I am not really opposed to long weekends with friends I have fallen away from, that it was more that I just never got my act together. But the truth is I've consciously avoided my reunions. It would be romantic if this avoidance grew out of some rock-and-roll-like defiance of the idea that I have ever become respectable or, you know, old. But the answer lies closer to the bone: I fear nostalgia.
Nostalgia: "a wistful or excessively sentimental, sometimes abnormal, yearning for a return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition" (Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary).
Nostalgia: my life's enemy.
My aversion to nostalgia naturally grows out of a larger aversion to sentimentality. I'm all for true emotion, but anything the least bit cheap and I start to roll my eyes. At the first hint of it in a movie or a novel, I shift uncomfortably in my seat. And this is why, I think, I've avoided my law school reunions. It all boils down to the fear of being caught, even for a minute, in a maudlin and inescapable conversation about the past.
But the things you should not shut completely out turn out to be the things you can't escape. Seventeen years after my graduation from Cornell, Karen C_____, the law school's dean for public service, invited me back to talk about careers in environmental law. It was too good an offer to refuse. Cornell paid my airfare and booked me into the campus hotel. All I had to do was tell a classroom of students what a great job I have. I felt pretty smug as the commuter flight descended over campus, wagged its wings, and then touched down. Seventeen years after graduation I had arranged my return, and without even having to attend a class reunion.
As an unsentimental person, I expected that, in talking to the students, having breakfast at Collegetown Bagels, and maybe doing a little reading in one of the college libraries, I would have a relaxing break, but not much more. So I was surprised to find myself spending most of those two days staggering around the campus, practically in tears.
My nostalgia flowed from a myriad springs: My first real sight of the campus, as the airport van passed under a fraternity house perched on a dramatic slope, its Tudor facade pitched against the sky; the spring day that made the lawns so green and the sunlight glint off buildings; and my constant realizations, which came like hammer blows, that during my time away a lifetime had somehow slipped away from me, and without my even noticing. When I had last flown out of the Tompkins County airport, on my way to Denver and my first real job, my dad was still working, my mom was still alive (I spoke to her every week on the phone), and my brother had only recently met the woman he would marry, and who would give birth to their two children, my niece and nephew.
When I looked at Myron Taylor Hall, the law school building constructed on the plan of a Medieval church, I didn't really see the law school. Instead I saw myself arriving from Wyoming, my possessions crammed into the back of my powder-blue VW. I didn't see the students, I saw my friends, carrying their books to class. I looked to the left, down the Collegetown Bridge, and there we were on our way to the Royal Palm, a smoky dive with picnic tables carved with student names.
Every sight brought something back. My former life, that had done me the favor of fading slowly over many years, so I would not notice its passing, had returned in spectacular clarity, as if it had happened only yesterday.
The pull of these emotions bent toward a downward spiral. Naturally, I surrendered. Soon I really was weeping for the idyllic student life that, in my new way of thinking, I had naively taken for granted. Reading, listening to lectures, and fooling around with my girlfriend in the late evenings and afternoons: This was how I remembered my law school life. How could I have ever complained? How could I have seen it as anything less than perfect?
But memory is a tricky thing, and nostalgia, ultimately, isn't real. Law school was tedious, exhausting, and a great source of stress. Somehow charting a course through unfamiliar professional terrain, I found a job and a career that made me happy, but it was no easy thing. And it really was for the best that my girlfriend and I split up.
Two years later I was invited back to speak on the career panel. Thankfully it was January and the campus was buried in snow. Or maybe the heart can only take so much. For whatever reason, the experience seemed less cathartic and profound. There were no wistful strolls amid the grounds, no tearful epiphanies in the shadows of bell towers. Instead the walks were slippery and the wind cut through my coat. I looked around and thought, "OK, this is more like how I remember it."
All this has, I think, been good for me. My recent experiences seem to have erased my fear of reunions. I'm going back to Cornell this summer, for my 20-year class reunion, and I'm looking forward to the trip. Maybe we all just need a good nostalgia bath every 20 years of so, to cleanse the soul. My feeling now is this: I went to law school with a bright and gifted group of students. It will be nice to see some of them again, and hear what they've been up to.