Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

One of the things that I remember best from my 15th college reunion was looking over at the 20th reunion people and noticing how impossibly old they looked. These were some paunchy, bald folks in dad jeans, with crevasses on their faces and the teenage kids responsible for said erosion. That would never happen to us whippersnappers of the Class of 1993.

Well, it did. And I’m glad it did, since the alternative (e.g. death) is neither novel nor exciting.

Like a wedding, a college reunion is an occasion of almost unalloyed joy. You get several days to catch up with long-lost friends on years of stories, all in the midst of an endless banquet. You meet the heretofore mythical spouses (“Oh! Someone actually agreed to commit her life to you — that’s great!”), you hug their impossibly cute kids, have great conversations, remember old times, and drink far too many Cape Cods strong enough to remove paint and half your liver.

Another similarity with weddings is that a reunion is a gathering of victors. If you’re broke, sick, alcoholic, getting a divorce, grossly out of shape, prematurely aged, going bankrupt, tangling with the law or otherwise on the receiving end of a bad fortune cookie, you’re probably not going to show up. At a place like Harvard, the impulse to avoid the scrutiny and comparison of peers is perhaps even stronger. What, you haven’t published your third bestselling novel yet? How many IPOs? Not the head of Neurosurgery? No tenure? Only spoken at TED Mainstage once? No Pulitzer, MacArthur or Nobel? Why are we friends again?

The Class Report

Exacerbating all of this is the Class Report, better known as the Red Book. Every five years, we are encouraged to send in a summary of our lives. The Harvard Alumni Office distributes the resulting brick of a compendium some weeks before Reunion (late May/early June). That way, you have time to read up on the exploits of your favorite classmates before you see them in person. Unless you can’t make Reunion festivities, in which case the Class Report is the closest you’ll get to being there.

The Class Report is a fascinating document, and at least one novel has been inspired by it. It’s an amalgam of many things: record of contact information, employment, education, marital status, and offspring; shameless brag sheet; indirect evidence of your life’s priorities; writing ability (and alacrity); the balance you strike between extroversion and privacy; and a brief biographical record.

Some people’s entries are short indeed. There are those who just write a cursory paragraph with their job description and the name of spouse and kids. Some people condense that further into just one line, the “I live in New York City with my wife and two kids and work as a Chief Widget Officer at Gizmophilia,” which dispatches the task of writing the report without actually sharing anything substantive.

But even these folks’ profiles are generous compared to those who just publish their bare biographic data or less. More than one person’s profile reads Address: Withheld by request. What kind of Scrooge McCheney would not want his or her college buddies to get in touch? Heaven forbid I should want to send you a box of Godiva for your birthday or, that most menacing of mail pieces, a Christmas card.

The shortest profiles, and the most ominous, belong to those whom even the fabled resources of the Harvard Alumni Association cannot track down – Address: Unknown. Heck, I even remember the story of one guy who faked his own death to avoid the remora grip of the HAA – and ultimately failed. How on earth did these wraiths pull off their disappearance? I knew one person who fell into that category – a taciturn Finn* — and I can see how he would want it that way. Just hope the rest of the Gone-Poof Squad are also hanging out with Santa Claus and Rudolph.

Like history itself, the Red Brick is also an account written by the victors. What do I write if my life is boring or frankly sucks? Our Class Secretary Tim McCarthy mentioned that some classmates had explicitly asked whether or not they should send in a Class Report if they had nothing interesting to report on. Of course you do! In the name of Grumpy Cat or whatever is holy to you, send something in. We just want to know how you’re doing. And potentially compare ourselves to you. Actually, that’s not really true. We’re definitely going to compare ourselves to you. No pressure.

*quite possibly redundant

How to Marshal your resources on Commencement

A few months before Reunion, a very polite invitation from the HAA asked me: Would I like to serve as a Commencement Marshal? I remember these guys from prior Commencements: grey tailcoat, pinstriped wool slacks, smart vest, and a silk top hat. The very picture of authority and old-school cool. If I accepted, I would have to show up at some ungodly hour of the morn – 6.45 or something – after having caroused the night before and being jet-lagged 3hrs from San Francisco, making it effectively a 3am wakeup. And I would have duties, being posted to some station somewhere and helping run the show. And the suit rental would cost me the equivalent of several cases of really good beer.

 

All this seemed needlessly brutal and restrictive. But then a friend of mine said, “How often do you get to wear tails and a top hat?” My fate was sealed.

Last time you’re gonna see me wear a tie in a loooong time. Love you, O Nourishing Mother Harvard

As fate would have it, Commencement Day 2013 was unseasonably warm – 95°F, in fact (35°C, 308 K, hot dammit okay?). The humidity did not help; nor did biking from Lechmere station. But once I got over the whining, I had fun. Why? Let me tell you why:

1) Random people on the street will compliment you on your outfit, which is completely over-the-top for daylight hours. Or nighttime hours. Or even a wedding.

2) In the Marshal outfit, you can go anywhere in Harvard Yard and people will just assume you belong. I’m guessing the twisted logic goes something like, “Hey, if he’s crazy enough to wear a top hat in this weather, he must know what he’s doing.” I ended up welcoming the entire procession into the Yard and being hem-of-garment-touching distance from all the dignitaries, including Nobel Prize winners, heads of state, and Oprah. Ooooopraaaaah.

See that mortarboard with the brown hair and pink gown? I swear that’s the back of Oprah’s head.
Oprah from a more familiar angle

3) Ladies like the Marshal outfit.

4) You can use the pictures of you wearing the Marshal outfit for the rest of your life, since you will never look this good again.

The Great Homogenization

Life seems to be a spindle-shaped thing. We all start out as a single cell. Then we expand, growing into infants and children, developing more and more capabilities: walk, talk, write, play piano, hit a slap shot, say witticisms like “I’d look more like you if you were my real daddy.” As we enter college, we’re like pluripotent stem cells: we can become anybody and anything. But not everybody and everything (tried; not recommended). So differentiation happens, in the form of majors, grad school, jobs. By the time we’re 35, we’ve sub-specialized in left toenail fungus or Jamaican banana plantation labor law, and we’re probably going to occupy that ecological niche for the rest of our natural existence. We have become kind of boring.

Parenthood is the next great homogenizer, as everyone’s world starts to revolve around the kid’s feeding, care and sleep patterns, hockey, soccer and baseball games, piano, fencing and singing lessons, and the pesky birthdays of other kids. Pretty soon you have a third kid, which forces you to get a minivan. Now you’re cut from the same block of tofu as every other suburban family: the contraction is in full swing. Death’s visitation merely puts the period upon the contraction’s completion.

And so a lot of the profiles (of the victors, remember) read alike –“house job kids life is good we are blessed look us up when you swing through well not like we really have time for you but hey it’s a nice thing to say.” But I know these people, and I can tell you that these profiles do not do most of them justice. Not only do they possess an infinite supply of creativity, will and patience necessary to keep the house-job-kids afloat, but some pull off astonishing feats on top of all that, such as:

  • The Foreign Service Officer who got stationed in Washington, Paris, Tbilisi, Baghdad, Jerusalem and now Kigali, Rwanda. Helluva woman.
  • The law professor who also wrote 2 well-received novels in all the spare time he had.
  • The journalist who was stationed in Nairobi as the African bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor. Before that, she wrote speeches for the Israeli Ambassador to the UN and now writes feature articles for a major newspaper in Jerusalem.
  • The guy who’s now a major movie and TV celebrity in Japan. Funny guy. And exceptionally white, for the record.
  • The guy who won something like 10 Emmy awards for heading the writing team for The Daily Show, and also wrote a Broadway musical, two of those funny Jon Stewart books (America and Earth), as well as a parody of the Bible. Yeah, that Bible.
  • My man who built a meditation retreat/Olympic-level sports training facility in Thailand while doing triathlons and raising twins on the side.
  • The MD/PhD dude who’s likely to develop the first working vaccine for HIV.
  • The city girl who married a farmer, left for the country, and wrote a book about it that went straight through the stratosphere.
  • The doc married to another doc who saved actual lives with CDC public health assignments in Beijing, Thailand and New York City with their two kids in tow.

Still, the homogenization is real, if not necessarily tragic. One pleasant side-effect is that at a 20th Reunion, everyone’s friendly. The old dividers like majors, houses, cliques, clubs and sports teams have given way to universal experiences like raising children and the fluctuations of fortune, making everyone far more relatable.

Where did all the talent go?

You aced the SAT and 10 AP exams and got straight As. You were on your school newspaper’s staff, the swim team and the math team and volunteered as a peer tutor after school. You could become pretty much anything you wanted.

So. What did you become?

Doctors, lawyers, bankers, consultants and academics, that’s what. That short list comprises 90% of our class. A Harvard class may start out as infinitely diverse with full intention to change the world. But it doesn’t always end up that way.

Some folks are doing genuinely interesting stuff, pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge and adding tremendous value to the world. I will doff my hats to you folks, risking serious sunburn to my shiny pate. The scientists, the teachers, the artists, the doctors (most of them of at least) – keep up the good work.

Talent is a form of power. If the world gave you a disproportionate amount of it, then you have an obligation to put it to good use. And by good use, I mean you have a decent answer to this question: “How am I serving the world?”

For many of my classmates, the answer is a simple, “I don’t.” If these classmates were to be really honest about what they do, this is what some of them would say:

Investment banker: “I work at a casino subsidized by the Federal Government. I make bets against my own clients to whom I have sworn fiduciary duty, and make risky investments that endanger the economy. The upside, I keep; the downside is covered by the American taxpayer. I make crazy amounts of cash without producing anything of value for society.”

Hedge fund guy: “I use my applied math PhD to create high-frequency trading algorithms that increase the volatility of markets without adding any value to anything anywhere. If there’s another market collapse, I’m partially responsible.”

Lawyer: “I create friction in transactions without actually producing much of lasting value.”

Venture Capitalist: “Most of the day, I crush the dreams of entrepreneurs by saying ‘no’ to them. The tiny percentage of those companies I fund usually come to rue the day I say ‘yes’, since I try to extract as much value from them as possible with tricky contracts and onerous clauses. Even if none of my portfolio companies has a successful exit, I get paid big. I’m basically a gambler subsidized by the limited partners who invest in my fund.”

Investment analyst/advisor: “I do equity research on companies in a particular industry and, after some artful hand-waving, come up with what its stock price should be and whether you should buy, sell, or hold it. Dozens of experts, including Economics Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, have shown mathematically that a 5-year old with a dartboard would do as well or better than me in making investment recommendations. I’m basically a racetrack handicapper with a consistently terrible record. For this I get paid handsomely.”

Plastic surgeon: “I inject hyaluronic acid (i.e. Restylane) and deadly paralyzing toxin derived from Clostridium botulinus (i.e. botox) into the faces of vain matronly ladies who can afford it. I can also resize your boobs or butt upwards or downwards.”

This is what all these jobs have in common: no kid ever said, “This is what I dream of doing when I grow up.” To be fair, some lawyers do great pro bono work, are in-house counsel for a world-changing startup, or help navigate needlessly labyrinthine immigration law for honest folks. Some plastic surgeons do life-saving reconstructive work. Some VCs bring Google to the world.

But it seems that a lot of these hugely talented 18yr olds turned into a bunch of well-paid technicians and paper-pushers. The world has real problems and needs smart people to solve those real problems: global warming, energy, environment, education, global health, food, water, security, poverty, inequality. So there is an opportunity cost to having a nonproducing job.

Writing software for really fast trading of pork-belly futures, making people click on more online ads for crap they don’t need, or finding technicalities in billboard laws so you can collect a fee for taking them down – these are not the same as designing flying cars or inventing a vaccine for cancer. So if you’re in college, you still have time to turn down that soul-sucking Wall Street job and go do something useful and honorable with your life.

The HR93x Talks

Our class informally selected 8 people to give TEDx-style talks of 10 minutes length on their work. I was excited to be one of the speakers since I had written my Tao of Dating books specifically for my college classmates. You can click to listen to a scratchy MP3 recording of my talk, entitled Love, Dating and Harvard.

Ali Binazir speaking at Harvard Alumni Association

The other speakers I will mention by name since they are all public figures doing cool stuff. All of them had to hustle to get where they were, since there is no set path to being, say, the White House CNN correspondent. I commend them for this and much more:

  • Sujatha Baliga: a pioneer of restorative justice, which emphasizes restitution to the victim instead of punishing the transgressor. Seems like the sensible way to heal society when stuff goes wrong.
  • Marie Louise Kelley: National Public Radio correspondent on the Defense Department beat. One day, she got a call that her son was deathly ill while she was at work — in a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq, 2 weeks away. She drew upon her experiences to write her thriller Anonymous Sources, which just came out.
  • Natosha Reid Rice: church pastor, Associate Lead Counsel at Habitat for Humanity and mother of 3 really cool kids.
  • Jessica Yellin: CNN correspondent for the White House treated us to her story of the circuitous path of landing a low-probability, high-visibility job.
  • David Aronberg: District Attorney for Palm Beach County, Florida. Great story about how losing the race for Attorney General of Florida ended up being a blessing in disguise, as it allowed him to be appointed to a position giving him even greater latitude in prosecuting prescription drug trafficking. I had no idea how huge a problem this was in Florida. Percocet everywhere!
  • Kate Tulenko: Public health god and MD/MPH, formerly the coordinator of the World Bank’s Africa Health Workforce Program, who wrote Insourced: How Importing Jobs Impacts the Health Crisis Here and Abroad
  • Harry Wilson: multitalented fellow who recounted the travails of running for public office (State Comptroller of New York) and losing by a narrow margin. He then got himself on the Presidential task force to restructure General Motors. Pretty epic.
  • Anne Clark: co-founder and headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, the only Boston high school for the visual and performing arts. 94% of their graduates have gone on to college. Anne shared some of what goes into getting those results.

The 99% and thrilled

I’m not talking about the 99% of Occupy Wall Street infamy, my friends. Many of my classmates started Harvard firmly entrenched as the 1%, and many more have joined them since or gone on to the 0.1% and the 0.01%. No, I’m talking about the fact that 16 out of 1600 of our classmates – or 1% — are already dead. Cancer, cardiac arrest, car accident – these are tragic fates for someone 40 or under. Even more tragic: the most common cause of death was suicide. So much talent, so much refinement and education all gathered in one body, now forever lost to the world.

We had a brief, poignant memorial service. My classmates called upon me to do the Muslim recitation. Muslims don’t come much more lapsed than this here one, but I was happy to oblige and read the traditional inna lillah wa inna ‘ilayhe raji’oon—verily we come from god, and to him we return. Heck, if I had just translated allah as the void, the whole thing would have been palatable even to me.

I knew some of these folks, and it makes me sad to imagine their bright flames extinguished too soon. At the same time, it’s a reminder that no one is promised tomorrow. Live now, love abundantly, celebrate each other and don’t hold back. Wayward bus, nasty bug, rampaging hippo or zombie apocalypse all could be right around the corner.

The Missing information

One of the central concepts of Eastern philosophy is that of negative space. Do you only see the object in front of you, or are you also paying attention to what’s not there? Are you noticing the background, or does the foreground have you transfixed?

Similarly, there was a lot of information that was missing from the profiles that you could only get through a deep, one-on-one conversation with a friend who already trusts you. What’s the real story, brother? What’s gnawing at you, sister?

  • “I am an alcoholic.” Statistically, 10-20% of our classmates abuse alcohol or another substance. This percentage is higher amongst doctors. Nobody brought this up in his or her profile. According to George Vaillant’s magisterial Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, alcoholism is the leading cause of divorce.
  • “One of my kids is an absolute pest and I don’t really like him that much. I worry that this makes me a bad parent.” What, all kids are angels? Actually, they’re closer to being demented micro-overlords until their frontal lobes mature at age 25. Then they just turn into regular assholes like ourselves.
  • “I am no longer interested in having sex with my spouse.” After the fourth year of marriage, sexual interest in a spouse wanes significantly, especially for women. If a couple is together for more than 15 years, chances are they’re either celibate or straying. Humans are so not designed for long-term monogamy.
  • “Machinery’s not working like it used to.”
  • “Parenting has stifled my freedom, personality, and élan, and I’m not sure if the kids make up for that.”
  • “I have a special needs child, and it’s just so hard.”
  • “My parents are getting old, and I’m too busy to take care of them.”
  • “I need a divorce.”
  • “I married the guy/girl I met when I was nineteen, and I’m wondering if I’ve missed out.”
  • “I get paid well at my job, but I feel like I’m wasting my life.”
  • “I am pretty miserable, possibly depressed, and may even be contemplating suicide.” I would be thrilled to find out that this was not true of any of our classmates, but sadly it is. I wish them the courage to reach out to those of us who may be in a position to lend a hand.

Aging

Wrinkles. Lines. Spots. Sag and floppiness. Grey hair, white hair, rogue hair, no hair. Jowls. Flab. Paunches. Reduced muscle mass and strength. Impaired recall. Larger noses and ears. Slower learning ability. Decreased libido. Infertility. Menopause. Vaginal dryness. Decreased frequency and vigor of erections. Bunions. Clearly none of this stuff could ever happen to us, but I’ve heard that aging tends to bear some of these gifts with it.

What surprises me is that even though my classmates have obviously aged, I wasn’t very good at noticing it in them. Some had kept better than others; on the other hand, many looked clearly middle-aged (particularly the ones I didn’t know in college – more on this). But still, mostly I saw the 18-year old kid face.

What I think happens is that when you first meet someone, a few neurons assign themselves to recognizing that particular face. Thus, how that person looked upon first encounter becomes the template from which all future recognition derives. (To get a little more technical: certain invariant facial features trigger that neuron cluster to fire and make the positive identification; the brain filters out the modifications as noise.)

It’s been a few years since we first met? No problem – I’ll just add a little width, subtract a little hair, and presto – it’s still you, my old buddy. Neuroscience has yet to prove this is how it works, but I’ll call it the template hypothesis of facial recognition to establish precedence just in case it does.

What does it all mean?

A few years ago, classmate Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote this great article for The Atlantic. Entitled What Makes Us Happy?, it got deep into the Harvard Grant Study and the question: What makes a good life?

The study started in 1937 and has been tracking 268 high-achieving members of the Harvard Class of 1939-1941 since then. That would be 76 years; now in 2013, the surviving members of the cohort are around 94. It’s the longest-running longitudinal study of human well-being. And if you plan on living for another 40 years or so, it has some salient advice for how to live well, Harvard person or not. (Side note: the study is confidential; however, we know that John F. Kennedy, Ben Bradlee and probably John Updike were in the group.)

Dr George Vaillant, the current director of the study and himself twice a Harvard person (A.B. ’56, M.D. ’60), recently wrote Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study, summarizing the study’s findings.  I’ve read it twice so far, and this is what Vaillant found:

1) You can grow. Personality is not a fixed thing. Who you were at 18, or 30 or even 40, does not determine the course of the rest of your life.

2) What went right in your childhood matters much more than what went wrong.

3) Alcoholism (and addiction in general) is the most destructive force you can have in your life. It’s the #1 cause of divorce, premature morbidity and mortality, and just plain not reaching your potential.

4) We have involuntary defense mechanisms for dealing with the world. The more we use the mature defenses (such as altruism, anticipation, humor, sublimation and suppression), the better we live.

5) The strength of your intimate relationships is the prime determinant of your long-term health and happiness. As Vaillant put it, “Happiness is love, full stop.”

You would do well to get yourself a copy of Vaillant’s book. And read it, too.

The Good Old Days

Yep, those days of college were the Good Old Days. Total intellectual freedom. No bills, job, boss, spouse, kids, election or limited partners to worry about. Body and mind at the height of their powers. Unlimited access to some of the most brilliant minds in the world. Potential for novel romantic intrigue. Summers off. You only wish you knew how awesome your life was so you could appreciate it more.

The good news about the Good Old Days: it’s not too late. Because these are the Good Old Days. You are that sepia-toned picture of your dad when he was impossibly young and handsome, holding aloft the 3-year old you. You are the unshaven rogue standing atop Mt Washington, Kilimanjaro or Wynn Las Vegas. You are the svelte, slinky mama with the great hair and supernova smile, holding forth on TV with impossible eloquence on your new company, your book, with your kids at home pointing excitedly at the screen, “That’s my mommy!” Bottom line: you’re the youngest you’ll ever be. So go ahead and imagine yourself five decades from now at the Shady Acres House of Nostalgia, Bad Knees and Shuffleboard somewhere in Florida, looking back on today and saying, “My god – what I would give to have the mind and body I had in 2013.” Well, you don’t have to give anything right now except gratitude. It’s a miracle that we’re here, and I’m thrilled for every moment of it.

The Good Ol’ Days: The Kong at 1.45am, distorting our worldview

1 thought on “Life, Death, Youth, the Red Book, Oprah and Truth: Harvard Commencement and Reunion 2013

  1. Adam Taxin

    Fun read, thanks!

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