May 14, 2008: Perspective
Princeton is my life coach
A guilt trip to Reunions
By Jeff Gordinier ’88
Jeff Gordinier ’88 is the editor-at-large of Details magazine and the author of X Saves the World.
I have a book out this spring, and I want to thank the Class of 1988 for helping me write it. Of course, most of my classmates had no idea I was writing it. I imagine they’ve been pretty busy with their families and 401(k)s. Still, my fellow travelers from the Benetton decade did goad me into cranking out the manuscript, even if they’re not aware of it. In fact, I’d say they put some serious pressure on me, especially during those long, strange months when I was trapped up in my office typing away, staring out the window, and cursing the day I ever decided to sign up for a creative-writing workshop. That’s because I knew I had a 20th reunion coming up, and there was no way I was going to show up at that reunion without having finished the book.
Not long ago I came across the following statement on the Annual Giving Web site: “As a member of the Princeton family, you have the opportunity to help current students share in the Princeton experience.” That’s pretty innocuous, right?
But think about the phrase — Princeton family — a little, and you’ll realize that it expresses something essential about the complicated role that our alma mater plays in our lives. Families give us love and food, and if we’re really lucky, they pay our full tuition so that we can go to Europe and party in skanky youth hostels after graduation without worrying about student loans. But as Eugene O’Neill 1910 could have told you somewhere between getting kicked out of Princeton and writing Long Day’s Journey Into Night, your loved ones specialize in other stuff, too — like hiding the remote, nagging you about taking the Volvo in for a tuneup, dropping hints that you don’t need that second helping of mashed potatoes, throwing your favorite T-shirt in the trash without telling you, and showing everyone that old picture of you with rainbow suspenders and a mullet. Families are really good at pushing your buttons, and the Princeton family is no exception.
Most of the time nobody is tacky enough to say this out loud, so let’s go ahead and do it: Regardless of what field you’re in, the Princeton clan wants you to be a big success, and if you’re not meeting expectations, well, the brood has gentle ways of letting you know. Upon acceptance to Princeton you’re introduced to a family where the siblings constantly are comparing themselves to each other, and Mom and Pop Nassau are in no rush to stop it.
This, of course, is where Reunions comes in. Reunions ostensibly is about forgetting the names of your old friends, drinking Genesee Cream Ale from plastic cups, and wearing costumes that make even the skinny people look fat, but let’s not kid ourselves — there’s no way to slip on that beer jacket for your 20th reunion without evaluating whether or not you’ve maximized or squandered a couple of decades. The 20th is a do-or-die reunion: You’re past 40 now, and you’re not supposed to be messing around. For a while after you’ve graduated, experimenting with an “unusual” career path can make you look kind of cool. You can, at least hypothetically, come back for your fifth reunion and tell everyone that you’ve been building a space shuttle in your backyard, or tending sheep in the Scottish Highlands, or inscribing the poems of Rabindranath Tagore into the sand dunes of Cape May, and you won’t get too many funny looks. Try it at your 20th, and people will steer their kids away from you.
When my wife and I made the trek to Princeton for my 15th reunion, we had a great time. I genuinely enjoyed seeing my classmates. I got the sense that nearly all of us from the Class of ’88 had, by that point, passed through inevitable phases of triumph and disappointment, and we’d come out on the other side of that with a degree of muted, grown-up equanimity. On the other hand, I got the sinking sensation that it was time for me to step things up. When they looked into my eyes, my loving, grinning, back-patting Nassau siblings seemed just the tiniest bit ... concerned. That weekend I had a series of conversations that went roughly like this:
“So, Jeff, I understand that you’re still writing ... ”
“Yes! Actually, I am.”
“Wow, that’s great to hear. I must have a few of your books in my Amazon.com shopping cart. I hear they’re terrific.”
‘“Er, um, well, I, uh — I haven’t written a book yet.”
“No? Oh, I see. Well, I understand. I’m sort of a late bloomer myself.”
Even though I’d managed to carve out a gratifying career writing feature stories for magazines like Esquire and Details and Entertainment Weekly, I hadn’t yet delivered my hardcover debut, and from the Princetonian perspective, a writer without a book is like a venture capitalist without a private jet.
So, realizing this, I did something that would make those Annual Giving people proud: I set a goal. I told myself that I absolutely would not return to my 20th reunion without having done my part to fatten the shelves at Barnes & Noble. It looks as though I’ve achieved that goal (by the skin of my teeth, true, since Viking published the fruits of my anxiety in March), and I’m not kidding when I say that my inadvertently supportive classmates deserve credit for getting me there. (By the way, this does not mean that I plan to give them part of the royalties. Just so we’re clear on that.) Over the past year, in fact, I’ve started to wonder whether Reunions is a brilliant psychological scheme cooked up by the Board of Trustees to make sure that Old Nassau doesn’t wind up churning out generations of slackers. If so, I am fine with that. All that pent-up Ivy League pressure used to annoy me when I was younger, but not anymore. I need all the goading I can get.