Orestes has steadfastly written from overseas, coming to the keyboard only at a coffee shop or hotel room overlooking a 14th century city, a jungle prospect, a seaside café. Today’s note is domestic—unless you want to consider it time travel to another decade 50 years ago.
Let’s do that in honor of my fiftieth college reunion, the first I have attended. As far as I could see, there was only one older group—the class of 1956. Otherwise, the classes got younger, fitter, less gray, less male. Two new residential colleges opened the year I arrived in New Haven—1962—and two more will receive students in 2016, increasing Yale’s undergraduate body by some 800 students. Harkness Tower still skies above the campus; down the street, the Starbucks at the corner of High and Chapel contends to be the new center of the intellectual universe as it hosts informal conferences, study groups, research projects, bright children who will supplant us. Across the street the Yale Center for British Art has re-opened after sixteen months of rehabilitation. Kitty-cornered from Starbucks, the Yale Art Gallery has recently completed its restoration. Both are abidingly rich and beautiful. (Both are also Louis Kahn buildings, rather boxy and unprepossessing on the outside and wonderfully flexible, airy, and well-arranged indoors.)
I recall the Yale Art Gallery as an ornament, a place to visit from time to time, a way to break the ice with a blind date from Vassar. Now, the museum has become a major teaching tool. More than 200 undergraduate courses use the collections as part of their curricula. Most impressive, the major temporary exhibition, right there on the main floor, is a show entirely curated by three undergraduate art history majors. The show focuses on the paintings, decorative arts, silver that one might have seen at Fontainebleau. Upstairs, the major exhibit of Dada art is a collaboration between the museum’s professional curators and graduate students in graphic design. It’s all a treat. See some samples below.
One expects intersections at reunions: seeing classmates for the first time in fifty years has its charms, its lapsed memories, its anecdotes. One, who knew my sister during their Oxford years, asked for her, not knowing she died five years ago. Another who remembers me via my translations of Chinese poems turns out to live close enough for a day visit. My freshman/sophomore roommate has mellowed into a complaisant conversationalist, a far cry from the authoritarian intellect he betrayed in 1964 when he told me that that Faure Requiem I had just performed wasn’t worth hearing. If he still dis-relishes the piece, he kept it to himself. DP has sold his mules, but he trains the boys who care for them now, and he promises that he will still send reports on their pastimes.
Serendipitous intersection: two classmates and I stopped a young, trim runner to ask where we might find water. She told us, and my colleagues wandered away. I asked, and she told me she was a PhD candidate in music history. She’s writing on Robert Wilson, the theatre and opera director. Music of the Ottoman Empire first attracted her, so she invaded Istanbul before Wilson and Berlin drew her away. Was a mandatory stay in Barcelona required for yet another prospective topic? I don’t recall; I was too distracted by the pleasure of watching her skip over, dive into, surface from the cultural fascinations of place, art, music, stage. And then she loped away, eyes still darting from one delight to the next.
Later, a couple of classmates gave short talks about unlikely preoccupations that have accompanied retirement and age. The first, a steely grey, broad-shouldered, strong handed, eminent vascular surgeon has found a sport that his new knee and two titanium hips allow him to pursue: croquet. Most of us might be content with a backyard game with our pre-adolescent grandchildren. Some might play at a assisted living facility. Not RD. He has sought out the four or five best croquet clubs in the world, courses that make the greens at Augusta look like jungle vines, players who practice hours a day, devotees who know all the rules of the several variations of wicket placement and circuit. Somewhere during his talk and slide show, he so wavered on the cusp of storytelling that we could not tell if he was about to slide into complete whimsy or if he might plunge headlong into obsessive dedication. I’ll ask him if I ever need him to repair my pulmonary artery. At the moment, it’s enough to know that he has joined the rarefied coterie of US ranked croquet masters.
Another—and who knew we had a daredevil test pilot among us—could not give up speed, so he tinkered with the engine, the transmission, the tires, the weight, and the distribution of weight until he could motor his ’64 Corvette through the quarter mile at a world record speed of just over 11 seconds.
Another dazzled us by refusing to retire. Instead, he has split his time between Chicago and the Swiss-French border. Now that the Higgs Boson has been detected as he projected it would, perhaps he’ll join RT on the croquet range. He’s already working with objects a million times faster than a ’64 Corvette.
Life intersection which should not be serendipitous but was: In two weeks I will fly off to Istanbul where I plan to volunteer at a community center devoted to supporting refugees who have escaped from Syria, Iraq, perhaps Afghanistan, perhaps Somalia. The refugee catastrophe and my hope to improve the life of refugee children by building a small library at the community center were the subjects of several conversations with sympathetic classmates. Several suggested that I should track down L, a diplomat who worked with the UNHCR in Hong Kong in the early ‘90s. This was a missed intersection since my own involvement with Vietnamese boat people began the year after L left that stage. Now, in New Haven, I missed him again. But as I left town, I stopped at a gas station for directions. The owner couldn’t help me. I ran across the street to the Marriott where I was successful. When I turned from the counter, I saw a vaguely familiar face, as did he. “Stambler, right?” he said. “L, right?” I answered. He and his wife, also a UNHCR officer, were checking out and had ten minutes before the cab arrived. They explained what I never knew about the situation in Hong Kong. I explained how I had considered the agency a kind of antagonist in 1995 even though, as L’s wife maintained, we were all on the same side. They counseled me that the situations in Istanbul, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia were a hundred times more complex than what we had faced in Hong Kong.
A taxi’s horn honked outside. “Be careful,” L. said. “Do good work.”
The wisdom of fifty years. Out the door. And we’re gone.
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