In Between College and Death

I’m musing about a thoroughly satisfying 10-year college reunion and forming a thesis on why it was so satisfying. First, I didn’t realize how special Northwestern was to me until this past weekend. Two memories fundamental to the university experience resurfaced in conversation, and I will never allow them to drift very far from quick retrieval again:

1. Per Dillo Day tradition, a hardcore pornographic film was shown in the tech auditorium senior year. As the male star audibly labored toward ejaculation, students began the often-tried, seldom-perfected technique known as the slow clap and timed the staccato crescendo seamlessly with the money shot. Any way you want to dissect this ends up being funny. There was a creative brilliance to the scene that makes me so proud of my higher education.

2. I reconnected with a great friend from New Orleans nicknamed “Giant” freshman year. Back then he was near the peak of his weightlifting commitment and could really do some damage to a bunch of nerds playing midnight tackle football on Deering Field after the first snowfall. On one play he absolutely steamrolled a poor kid 65 percent his size, leaving him incapacitated on the ground and encircled by concerned players. Meanwhile Giant jogged away shaking his head and saying to no one in particular, “That’s what happens when you get in front a Mack Truck.” How douchey can one person be with one sentence? As someone occasionally accused of the sort, I am so happy to have witnessed this.

I ran into a steady stream of good people during 24 hours at the reunion. They all seem to be doing well, but not so well that I feel bad about myself. Frankly I expected more from some of them. Maybe the ones who truly excelled had something better to do than fly to Chicago for three hours of open bar and shots of Fireball out of Solo cups at 7:30 the next morning to make cheering on teenaged football more compelling.

Still, even if I had interacted with the Zuckerberg of our class, whoever that might be, my satisfaction would remain intact. I think at age 32, I’m coming to a more stable peace with who I am and who I am not.

Probably the most famous commencement speech — with apologies to our articulate speaker in ’06, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) — was delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford a year earlier. A recording of it has 25 million views on YouTube.

Jobs made an indelible impression in reminding some of the most promising kids in the world that they were going to die not too long from that day. This fact should propel them to seize courage and opportunity, to shed fear and inertia, to follow their heart and live the life they truly want.

Thinking about this will make any reasonably self-aware person feel like a worthless turd. But what if you thought about it the other way? What if the fact that death is inevitable and imminent actually relieved pressure?

Because no matter how much money or impact you make, fame or change you achieve… you’re going to die sooner than you know it. This kind of feels good to me, a reassurance that it’s OK sometimes to just enjoy being comfortable.

Some early fighting in my nascent marriage centered around what I perceived to be a lack of inspiration and willingness to work for great things. And no, having a child is not a great thing. It’s just not. I know it’s the most important thing to most people, but they overlook the low barrier to entry and abundance of those reproducing who should not by any objective measure.

From now until the moment I die, if the greatest thing I have to look forward to is having a child, I would feel sad. To me, working for something great means never being satisfied. Not with your body, your mind, your career, your salary, your ideas, your abilities. It can be an exhausting method of getting up for life, which is why death comes in handy.

I went to journalism school at Northwestern with no journalism experience because I followed my heart and intuition. I wanted to raise a middle finger to 9-to-5. I wanted be a mother effing star, the Asian Bob Costas, I told my AP English teacher Mrs. Stanton. I tacked on an economics degree in case I wanted to pivot into being a corporate tycoon who owned sports teams rather than reported on them.

A decade after graduation, I am nowhere near even the beginning of either route. I work for a digital ad agency and like it. I certainly wouldn’t do it for free. And if I were to peer into the depths of my heart and soul, I wouldn’t find an unquenchable desire for website development and media campaigns.

I like my colleagues and clients and friends. I like my wife. I mean I actually love her as a person on a whole other level, but just as important, I like being around her day-to-day. She takes an already extremely high quality of life to something I’m still learning to comprehend. I am good at appreciating things while concurrently pushing for more, but I also need to let go of this inferiority complex rooted in not doing something great.

The prospect of death helps me relax, even though that was the opposite interpretation Jobs had in mind. And the reunion also had the same effect, even though it was the prototypical setting for possibly the best quote I ever saw posted on Facebook: “Comparison is the thief of joy.”

In talking to former classmates, some of whom I hadn’t seen since I was getting blacked-out drunk and naked (so anywhere from 2-12 years ago), I felt more camaraderie than comparison. We are all in this together, trying to carve out our little existence the best we can.

A guy I used to play pickup basketball with went to Harvard Business School and started an investment firm in Africa. A guy I used to cover varsity basketball with now teaches journalism to high school students who might want to be the next Bob Costas.

A girl who lived on the floor above me freshman year worked as an organic farmer for five months in Spartan conditions that almost made me spit up my seasonal draft beer. The lovable goons down the hall in the same freshman dorm became the most unpretentious doctors on the East Coast.

The couple whose couch I slept on during the reunion went on their first date weeks after our graduation, married, bought a place downtown, and own two Shih Tzus that proactively cuddled me so hard I acquiesced to my wife’s longstanding request for a dog. (I later took it back but really do treasure the feeling of a human or animal burrowing its body into mine without my having to initiate first.)

Reconnecting with classmates, however brief or superficial the conversation, felt satisfying. Walking around campus and inside buildings felt satisfying. Reminiscing through old pictures that illuminated why I could never get laid felt satisfying.

All this satisfaction was surprising, especially given the delta between my vision as a freshman 14 years ago and my reality today. For someone prone to whiney introspection, I should have felt more angst during my 10-year reunion a.k.a. peer benchmarking. Yet I was able to fend off the feeling with two perspectives that come with age, one that acknowledges even the most special lives have a finite end, and one that celebrates how four years can be special enough to never quite fade away.

 

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