November 2011

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WAYRN: Breakage

Every once in a while, I re-read a classic and I just finished Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. What a great book. It’s short and has Hemingway’s sparse prose but it packs a powerful punch. Less is more, something contemporary writers don’t seem to ever embrace. Here is my favorite quote from the book. Speaking of his love for Catherine Barkley, the narrator says:

I have been lonely while I was with many girls and that is the way that you can be most lonely. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together. I know that the night is not the same as the day: that all things are different, that the things of the night cannot be explained in the day, because they do not then exist, and the night can be a dreadful time for lonely people once their loneliness has started. But with Catherine there was almost no difference in the night except that it was an even better time. If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.

Stanford Redux

I wrote the first draft of this a few weekends ago as I sat on the patio outside Tresidder Student Union, the Grand Central Station of Stanford’s campus. I had not been back to Stanford for 20 years. The campus has changed quite a bit but its most important aspects remain the same. It’s impossible to avoid reflection at one’s 20th college reunion. What leapt out immediately were the many physical changes to the campus. I think they’ve doubled the number of buildings since I graduated. Where there were once parking lots, there are new residence halls, including a complex of graduate student housing. (According to a grad student I talked to, they are luxurious.) And the number of science buildings seems to have tripled. One student I talked to told me, “It seems like a new building is opening every day.” There were new business school and econ buildings and a new performing arts center was under construction.

Reportedly, 1000 out of our 1500+ classmates showed up to our 20th. Many other classes were also celebrating their reunions. All Reunioners were issued name tags upon arrival. It was a big name tag with a thick red lanyard to hold it around our necks like we were kindergartners. I felt like an idiot with that thing on so at first I didn’t wear it everywhere. As I walked around campus without it, though, students looked at me like, “Who are you, Creepy Old Dude?” Or given our times, “I hope you’re not about to go on a shooting spree.” So I soon realized the name tag had a deeper purpose. It explained to the students who all these ancient wondering randoms were. So I started wearing it and the looks I got from students changed into something akin to pity. With the name tag around my neck, students looked at me like I was a relic or walking ghost. And I did feel like a ghost walking around campus. I thought, “This is not my campus anymore, it belongs to the living.” Which is to say, current students.

Stanford has an incredible campus. The buildings are beautiful. Even Wilbur and Stern Halls looked halfway decent! (I never thought I’d say that. More about them in a moment.) But what is most striking about the campus is the breathtaking potential energy of the place. They have been cranking out graduates for the past 20 years and every one was no doubt, like me at that time, brimming with confidence they would change the world, and some have. Stanford disgorges into the world an amazing mass of talent. Reunioners were ferried around on golf carts and the carts were driven by student volunteers. (For volunteering their time, some benefit accrued to the student club of their choice.) Talking to them, I could hear their potential energy, the majestic future that lay ahead of them — their personal plans that still operated in a frictionless void. Two were mechanical engineering students, one undergrad and one grad. The grad student talked about her work in biological engineering. (I asked her to work on growing lungs.) Another driver was a 1L at Stanford Law who had gone to Yale undergrad. He was about as humble as someone with those credentials can be. I know because I felt that confidence and potential energy myself once. Which just shows how powerful the Stanford vibe is, considering I had a fatal disease that barely made a dent in my vision of my future.

As great as the campus is, Stanford is at its core the sum of its people, and that sum is enormous. My Stanford friends — computer guys, doctors, lawyers, academics and so on — have had varying degrees of success and I am defining success as the heights reached in their chosen fields. Some have been phenomenally successful and others only slightly less so. Using my definition of success in one’s chosen field, I’m the least successful of the lot but I’m okay with that in the relative sense. I want my friends to succeed. It’s great to hear about their triumphs and adventures. What eats at me is that I want to succeed too, on a parallel track to theirs, as a writer. Bitterman, table for one? No, I’m not bitter. How could I be? Had I been born even five years earlier I would not have lived to see my 10th college reunion, let alone my 20th. For me, everything since 1998 has been “extra time” (to use a soccer term). Having said all this, I don’t think anyone gave a rat’s ass about other people’s success quotients at this reunion. People just wanted to see old friends and catch up. And it was great to see people, especially my old dormmates and frat brothers.

And it was fun to meet a few new people I didn’t know while in school. Back in 1987 during freshman orientation, the most memorable event for me was a dinner in the Quad, the academic heart of Stanford’s campus. It’s hard to compete with an evening in the Quad, surrounded by great architecture and the lit up mural on Memorial Church. So I felt compelled to sign up for the Quad dinner which kicked off the reunion. I wanted to relive that freshman orientation feeling. I had a few friends from sophomore year at my table but they were on the far side so I got to know a couple classmates I didn’t know when I sat down. (Which made it a lot like freshman orientation.) And as I spoke with my new friends at the Quad dinner, we realized that none of us knew all our classmates. So, new people to meet at 30th, 40th and 50th.

I like to ask myself two questions:

1. If I could go back to freshman year of college knowing everything I know now, what would I do?
and
2. What advice would I give today’s Stanford freshman?

I hope to answer these questions in a future essay. They’re fun questions to think about and being around campus helped me refine my responses.

Here are some other campus changes that jumped out at me while I was there (and may only be of interest to Stanford grads):

1. There is now a cafe between Meyer and Green libraries, a European-style cafe with a patio. There are many more cafes in buildings all over campus. Are today’s students eating more than we did? Or do they have more money to buy food? And Meyer’s exterior looks like it may have gotten a facelift.

2. I spent freshman and sophomore years in two crapholes known as Wilbur and Stern Halls. (Great people, crappy dorms.) They’ve had a makeover much like Meyer Library’s. Just a paint job and other cosmetic changes, I think, but they look nice. Did they fix up the interior too?

3. White Plaza is a big open space between Tresidder and the post office. They have added some trees and long & low stone barriers, perhaps to help guide traffic. It does not feel as open as I remember. (I have lousy memory so it’s entirely possible some of these things that struck me as new are not new at all. I’m sure in those cases someone will correct me.)

4. Was there a full-service post office in the post office? My bad memory is sending me mixed signals on this. There is a full-service US Post Office there now, and the post office boxes that surround the building are now enclosed. In my day, we just biked up to them, opened our boxes while sitting on our bike seats, and biked away. But I did notice my old mail box number is in roughly the same spot even though the old boxes have been replaced.

5. All the residences have higher security than we had. We could just walk in anywhere. Now all require a pass card (from what I could tell). This scuttled my plan to go back and check out my old dorm rooms, which was something I thought I wanted to do. I suppose I could have knocked on doors but I ended up realizing I didn’t want to see my old dorm rooms that badly.

6. I lived in Potter senior year. Peering in the front door, I was disturbed to find the interior styling reminded me of the new University of Colorado Hospital inpatient wards.

7. I did a lot of walking and driving around campus. One thing I noticed is all the totem poles and sculptures in random groves around campus, with a particularly big sculpture garden by Roble. Those weren’t there before, were they? They reminded me of Alaska. Very cool.

8. The biggest changes were to Tresidder. In my day, Tresidder had a convenience store, frozen yogurt shop, coffee house and a crappy cafe that seemed worse than dorm food. The convenience store, the FroYo, and the CoHo are still there and in the same spots. The CoHo — did we call it the CoHo? I don’t remember that abbreviation though such abbreviations were common — has a much better menu than before and is more cafe than coffee house. And now, in addition to the aforementioned, Tresidder has a Jamba Juice, Subway, Panda Express, AT&T store, fitness center, bike shop and “ye olde college drinking hole” sports cafe. The latter has a huge menu selection from chicken rice bowls to pizza and has wooden booths that remind me of standard college town dives that date from the 40s. This one does not date from the 40s however. It makes me wonder what all this space was used for in the old Tresidder.

During college, I spent many hours at Tresidder — studying, people-watching and eating crap from the convenience store. Over reunion weekend, I spent many hours there again — people-watching, eating better food and soaking in the potential energy.