As I noted before, this past weekend I headed to glorious Troy NY for the 150th anniversary of the founding my fraternity Theta Xi. One of my best college friends and one of the guys I brought into the house as a sophomore was instrumental at making this happen, and it was a weekend that I had committed to attending 5 years ago – which was the last time I made the trip.
The reality is that not only am I a very different person than I was 25 years ago, I am a different person than I was 5 years ago! So I took on this weekend in a different way than I ever have when visiting Troy … and learned a bunch of stuff along the way. Let’s dive right into it:
1. By the numbers:
As we went into the weekend we got some amazing feedback from RPI and the National Theta Xi fraternity organizations:
– Some history: Theta Xi was the only fraternity founded during the Civil War, AND was the only national fraternity founded at RPI.
– This was the largest non-class reunion event EVER at RPI.
– This was the largest chapter event EVER held by any Theta Xi chapter.
– We had more than 25% of all living alumni back for the weekend.
2. The ‘Flattening Effect’
What do I mean? There were 375 people there, ranging from 18 year old college freshmen to several guys in their 80s and even a 90+ year old who had fought in World War II! And yet suddenly we’re all 20 years old again, recounting small and large items of fun and mischief.
You can see it in people’s eyes as they are chatting with others that they went to school with – some have seen each others through the years, others haven’t been in touch in decades. And the stories … as the stories started flowing you could see the years and decades just peel away, and suddenly we’re hearing about people passed out all over the floor in the ’50s making a New York City newspaper, a car-to-car paintball battle that ended up catching a Dean in the sights, parties with lines out to the street, and on and on.
Falling in the middle between the undergrads and those from the 50s and 60s, this flattening struck several of my peers. And since my kids are within a couple of years of most of the active members, feeling like you are with a bunch of 20-year olds is even more unsettling.
3. My Weight Loss Remains a Defining Factor in my life
Here is the reality – when I joined my fraternity I weighed close to 300lbs, and had a pretty decent appetites for alcohol and food. Over the course of my time there, I gained nearly 100 lbs and was downing nearly a case of Beck’s Dark each week, would occasionally eat cookie dough from a cereal bowl, and so on.
Only my best friend JT and the guy who was the driving force behind the weekend have seen more more than a few times over the last 25 years, and NO ONE has seen me since I have gotten serious about running. So for most people, having ‘thin runner Mike’ show up … well, it was a ‘mind-f&%k’ as one guy told me.
For many people who were alumni I met when they returned, I had to point to my composite (which is the picture of everyone in the house as individual pictures) picture to remind them who I was. It was bizarre – I would introduce myself, the name triggered memories but not the appearance, I would show the composite, they would register recognition, look at me and say ‘whoa!’. This happened at least a half-dozen times to me with guys who graduated in the late 70s / early 80s.
Even one of the guys I brought in who was a year behind us didn’t recognize me (he’d seen me thin just once, in 1989), went to introduce himself and when I introduced myself his chin hit the ground and he said ‘no effing way’.
Basically, my weekend was dominated by the following things:
– My weight
– My running
– Normal catch-up stuff – talking about wife, kids, career, location.
– Fraternity history and my role in some key events.
4. You Can Go Back, but Can Never Go BACK!
You know what I mean? You can return to the place – but you are only making a physical trip to a physical place. Both you and the place have changed in some way with the passage time.
As I stood in the dining room chatting with a few guys, I was watching people attempt to over-stuff a trash bag in a can … stuff was starting to fall out. After a couple minutes I grabbed the bag, removed it and gathered up the trash. As I was doing it the chapter president came and grabbed it from me … which is something I would have done – and felt mortified about – if I saw an alumnus doing work when I was in school.
But over time how you view dirt, clutter and filth changes. Looking in the kitchen they had obviously been working, but it was also obviously the kitchen of 40+ college kids approaching finals. Same for the bathrooms.
As an adult with kids nearly that age, I constantly found myself pulled between looking at how young these guys (and girls) were, and also feeling the pull of the decades as I was asked to place myself back into the mid-80s and explain the situations. How rooms were built, wiring done, who lived where, and mostly as many details as possible about the restructuring and what led to that moment.
And it made me realize that while you can bring your brain to recall details of things, you constantly re-contextualize your feelings and understanding … so while I could remember sitting together with my pledge class during any number of moments – like when we won the pub crawl – it is hard to remember exactly what it was like to actually BE that kid.
5. What I did at 19 Remains Incredibly Powerful Today
The fraternity I joined was obviously divided – there was a strong set of seniors when I was a freshman, as well as some great sophomores and other freshmen – but the juniors were largely absent and irresponsible, as were half the sophomores.
What I really didn’t anticipate was the extent to which the seniors held the whole thing together. It took a bit at the beginning of my sophomore year for things to fall apart, but fall apart they did. So late in the fall myself and two other sophomores, all new brothers, started our chapter down the path of reorganization. The way we saw things – RPI wanted us gone, we were an embarassment to the National fraternity who wanted to pull our charter … so it was a choice between taking action or letting things die.
Bottom line: without myself and two others initiating things, many of the people I spent the weekend with would never have had the opportunity to join the fraternity, and everything would be different.
This weekend put both the power and the amazing courage of those actions into perspective. I mean, I was all of 19, just a kid – and we knew what we were getting into to a greater extent than I would credit kids of that age now.
During the weekend I had a number of people who knew me by name because I was ‘one of the 8’, who thanked me for what I did … but what really stumped me was asking what it felt like. Again, I can remember many events, but it is hard to contextualize feelings from nearly 30 years ago.
6. Running is a THE BEST Way to Learn a New Place
One of the first things I did when I got to Troy was to put on my shorts and t-shirt and head out for a run! I had mapped a couple of routes that allowed me to see lots of the city and end up at the fraternity house – which is only 0.75mi from the hotel!
I lived in Troy for 4 years, spent time at every fraternity, all of the buildings associated with campus, spent loads of time in downtown Troy at Russell Sage College, as well as bars, pubs, restaurants and so on. And yet while running on Friday I saw more than I ever had before.
It is really just amazing to me, but it puts things into perspective. When I head anywhere new I run around the area and gain a great feeling of what the place is all about. But this was the first time I’d ever run in Troy, and so I gained a new perspective on a familiar place.
Have you even done a first run in a place you already knew? Was it as strange as it was for me?
7. Age Hits Everyone … But Differently
I think most of us have met people and learned their age and thought “I assumed they were younger” or “I assumed they were older”. Putting them together with a group of people the same age shows just how differently everyone ages.
There was a huge contingent of people from the late 70s, and looking across a group of people who were within two years of each other, I saw people who looked just a bit older than me and others who looked closer to my parent’s age.
I saw the same thing to a lesser extend with my contemporaries, with one guy who had really aged, most had aged what I considered in line with reality, and one who looked pretty good. I was remarking to an old friend about this when he interrupted me, saying:
No, Mike, you don’t get it – you are the only one here who looks MUCH better than when in college. Sure you look older, but you still absolutely look better in every way. It is effing nuts how good you look. At best the rest of us are ‘aging gracefully’, but you look better than a lot of the guys who are 10 years younger than us!
It was a singular moment that really made me stop and think … and realize I have no idea WHAT to think.
8. No Two People Live Life the Same Way
Lisa and I have a fairly ‘vanilla’ life – happy marriage, two smart, healthy, wonderful kids (who ARE still teens, no rainbows & unicorns here!), nice house, comfortable income, and so on. I am working in a field related to what I went to school for … and in general things have been pretty solid.
So the weekend was interesting in how it presented an amazing variety of ways people have lived through the years: one friend who was a senior when I was a freshman was similar to me – same job for 29 years, married ~25, two teenagers, etc. Then there is another guy from my class year who was married a few years ago has a baby who just turned two months old! Yes, that means he will be 66 when she graduates high school!
Some people never married, some have married more than a couple of times; some have kids, others do not, and still others have kids spread across multiple marriages – making life a challenge for all involved.
Some are in the same field they got their degree, others couldn’t be further away; some have gone through a ‘normal’ (whatever that is) career progression, others have switched careers multiple times; some are still immersed in technical roles, others are managers, still others now run their own businesses (and look like they wear every stressful moment), and so on.
Some people are very happy, some are clearly unhappy or at least not satisfied with their lives, and others appear to mostly just going day to day. Even without collecting data, I couldn’t begin to establish a correlation between what people were doing and whether or not they were happy.
The point is that RPI is what I would call a ‘narrowband’ school – mostly what people went there for was engineering or computer science, with some pure science mixed in. So the people who went there were naturally less diverse intellectually – very smart, math & science centric, and so on. So to have such an incredible diversity of the paths people have take was amazing to see.
9. Sometimes it is Like The Conversation Never Ended
One of the people there was JT, one of my best friends and someone I have known since … well, so long that it isn’t clear exactly when. Let’s just say we weren’t speaking in sentences yet, so perhaps 2 or 3 years old. Then there were a few other guys from my time, two who were part of the same freshman class. A couple of my best friends were unable to make it, but having some good old friends was great.
The funny thing is – even though I hadn’t seen JT since before we left Massachusetts (2008), and even though our email exchanges are infrequent … we said hi, gave a hug (sorry, I left the distant handshake thing behind long ago – so if I ever meet any of my blog friends in person, be forewarned – you’re getting a hug 🙂 ) and just started chatting. The conversation veered all over the place, people came and went … and in many ways it could have been 1AM back in 1987 in his room with a nice bottle of Cabernet and some Stilton cheese we had bought on a trip to Wolf Rd in Albany earlier in the day.
And for a few friends that was SO true – back then we were talking about parties and classes and people who didn’t think washing the OUTSIDE of pans was important … now we’re talking about wives and kids and jobs and laughing about all of the old stuff. But it is the same conversation, y’know what I mean?
10. Those Kids … Could Be My Kids!
Due to the amount of people at the banquet, we were separated with the Actives (and dates) in one area and Alumni in another. At first I thought that was odd, but knew that because there were so many we needed to use both rooms. Then all of the active fraternity brothers arrived in the buses that brought them from the house – and I showed a picture of my son and his girlfriend from earlier that day in their senior prom pictures with a bunch of their friends … and my friends (all with much younger kids) remarked ‘wow … they look pretty much the same’.
And it was very true – I was chatting with a new brother who was a freshman and was still 18 – and Danny will be 18 in October, so while he is 2 grades behind, he is just a year younger. It is that mindset that really had me off-kilter, because I am looking at my kids and thinking in the context of high school … and then suddenly I have that context flipped into my college years!
Even in our room there were many kids who had graduated recently and were ~25 or so, with girlfriends/fiancés/wives who were wearing cocktail/prom style dresses and who all looked SO YOUNG!
11. 375 Pounds … That’s Pretty F-ing Heavy
One of my best old friends was always quite blunt in his assessments, and as we were walking to the bookstore we had the one guy a year younger than me who didn’t recognize me at all. So the topic of my weight loss hung heavy, and when my post college weight came up, he said ‘375, that’s a lot … that’s pretty freaking heavy’. And it was said in the same matter-of-fact way that he always said things, and the group of us couldn’t help but laugh – and I think the laughing helped dispel some of the tension.
Because exactly HOW do you deal with someone who was once really obese, and who in your memory will ALWAYS be huge … even is now they are one of the thinnest guys around?
Apparently if the guys himself is OK with all aspects, that relieves a lot of tension. Interestingly, very little discussion came up about me when I WAS really fat, just about life since then and since I lost weight and my running and all of that.
My point – inside every fat person, thin person, tall person, short person … is a person. And after the tension was dispelled, that was all that was left and it freed every topic for discussion. And suddenly my obesity – which was a defining thing in college – was no longer that interesting.
12. Some people are consumed by regrets
Lisa and I were just talking about this, but I think we all know people from our college years who had all-consuming romantic relationships that dominated everything; we also knew people who were constantly heading home or to another town to visit their significant other every weekend. Most of the time, these relationships are a very distant memory by the time you’re 25 years out of school …and in their place is a sea of regret.
The same can be said about study habits – people who did nothing but study often regret what they missed out on socially or with clubs; people who didn’t spend enough time studying might wish they had done more – or maybe even switched majors.
Over the weekend I talked with a number of people with a variety of regrets – and one person who said that it was actually hard for him because as he looked around he was just filled with regret … it took a little while of talking to get past all of that and back to remembering all of the positive stuff that went on.
A bunch of us also talked about people who had no interest in returning to either the school or the fraternity, some who were very conflicted, and some of us had people we could email back and forth with, but who wouldn’t talk about the fraternity or the weekend.
My message to anyone dealing with regrets or conflicted feelings about an event like this? There WILL be a flood of feelings both positive and negative when you go to a reunion, but the important thing to remember is that if you have friends there with you THEY will have similar feelings and you can all experience them together and end up having a great time together.
13. You Know Everyone Older, and No One Younger
I remember after the re-org that we were fortunate to have a number of alumni from the late 70s and early 80s come by to help us out, along with a few guys from the mid-60s who became very active with fundraising. Sadly the three main guys from the 60s are all passed away, and one of the 70s guys has advanced ALS and cannot even speak anymore. But a few others were there for the weekend, and I made a point of introducing myself. After pointing out ‘fat Mike’ on the composite they did remember me, and we all chatted during the weekend.
In a similar way I saw guys who were in school in the 90s who I met before on earlier visits who knew me … who I recognized but couldn’t place. One of the best things this weekend was the amount of time I spent talking to a bunch of people interested in my running and eating and weight loss and lack of injuries (tell someone you’ve run >6000 miles since April 2012 without an injury and you’ll have their attention, trust me!) – and also talking about the situation in the house around the time of the re-org. As people in their 30s and early 40s they have a new appreciation for these situations, and because the age gap becomes meaningless at this point, it was just a blast talking to them.
One difference was that the group from the late 70s had managed to assemble pretty much everyone who could travel to NY, and so they were a fairly self-contained group. The same was true for some of the 50s and 60s classes (though there were fewer surviving members). Whereas the attendance from our era was rather spotty, unfortunately, leading us to talk to loads of different people – which ended up as a rather mixed thing.
One thing I have enjoyed already? Making new Facebook friends – and with one guy I got to chat with (but unfortunately not run with) who lives in London, and coincidentally on the same day we ran nearly the same (15.5mi) distance! Funny stuff and great to share!
14. I Love My Wine … But Have No Interest in Getting Drunk, or Even Buzzed
On Friday we had a small dinner at the hotel bar then moved to a private area for a hang-out. By the time we had moved, there were a couple of people who were barely comprehensible … and who were 40-ish years old. As we talked to one, a classmate of mine and I had just gotten a nice big glass of water between drinks to stay hydrated. Yeah, party animals! 🙂
That first night I had two drinks across about 5 hours … and the second night I had three drinks across 7 hours. Which was fine with me: I enjoyed my glasses of wine – and a Sam Adams draft – but really didn’t want any more.
This might seem like an ‘um, yeah, so?!?’ thing – but when I lived in the house we had a ‘sign-out beer fridge’ on the 3rd floor landing, which is pretty much something you could never do now (or for like the last 20+ years). And for the most part across my three years in the house, there was a single name and single beer that ‘led the count’ – me, and Beck’s Dark. It got to the point I would just have a case in my room every week (sorry Mom!) … and a new one for the following week. So me and drinking a decent amount? It was kinda ‘a thing’.
And a few guys remarked on it – more that it was amazing how much I could drink and be functional, and that weighing so much less now I would probably die drinking as much as I did some weekends. Yeah, probably.
15. The Bonds of Friendship Are Amazing
Aside from hanging out with friends new and old, I spent a fair amount of time just watching this weekend. Seeing the active members interact you could see that there were cliques and factions, but also that when push came to shove they were all united in love and service of the house and the fraternity. It was a moving scene … actually there were more than a few moving moments.
The same is true amongst the older guys, including myself – the depth of friendships formed with these guys transcends the decades. Like I said before, it was like the conversation picked up where it left off, but there was a deep sense of caring, of sharing that mattered. This wasn’t just ‘hey, how you doin’ – how’s the wife, how’s the job, how’s the family?’ sort of thing, but rather a deeper look at where things have gone. Sure there were the normal BS moments where people want to look happier or more successful than they are … but those faded away before the end of Friday for the most part.
I think all of us hope that these people we think will be our friends for the rest of our lives actually WILL be our friends forever. And guess what? It really can happen!
Bonus – Prom Time!
OK – while I was away the family had a busy weekend. The boys both had NYSSMA performances on Friday, which are judged behind closed doors, so no pictures. But on Saturday Danny went to his girlfriend’s senior prom, and Lisa and Chris went out for dinner at a local restaurant where her coworker’s husband is chef. So here are a couple of great pictures from that!
If you’ve made it here … congratulations! You deserve some type of award!
Hope you have a great week!