He went on to say that Franklin Goldberg, my old pal from third grade but about whom I knew nothing these past 40 years, would be e-mailing me with particulars about a "reunion" of very old boys and girls. An hour later, Frank wrote an exceedingly nice note, gave me the details, and asked whether I would be coming to the haunted dinner; as inducement he mentioned that the girl I used to know as Nancy Iger was hopeful that I would attend. I wrote back:
"Thanks for your very nice words as well as the info about the reunion. Mike's call this morning took me aback with its mention of the Class of '58. Jeez, am I really that old? And have all these classmates stayed in touch, however sporadically, all these years?
"The idea of seeing you and Nancy - my heart leapt at the mention of her name - and so many others whom I may recall only dimly is enticing but terrifying. I have never attended a high-school reunion, and went to a college reunion ten years ago only because they insisted on giving me an award. So please let me chew on my decision a while.
"Kierkegaard wrote that life may only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards, and we appear to be reversing that dictum. On the other hand, it is a decidedly good thing to march into one's dotage with a sense that all of one's life is connected."
I was greasing the runway for my exit from a prospect that had truly unsettled me. Fancy talk got me out of plenty of tight scrapes before. But now I was brought up short - confused, conflicted, agitated - by this sudden invitation to commune with people whom I could barely remember, even with the aid of an eerily sweet class photo on the web. These stranded passengers from a voyage long ago somehow thought they knew me, would relate to me as if no time had passed, as if nothing had changed.
Yeah ... but so what? How did that explain the fear wafting from me, dense and recognizable? As a historian I was at ease with the past, even my own, and as a rule I was drawn to it. What I feared from these intimate strangers, it dawned on me, was not that they did not know me, but that they did - that they knew me deeply and clearly. What they did not know was my painstakingly constructed walls of defense and mirrors of artifice.
It is a public speaker's trick, in order to quell his nerves, to imagine that his audience is naked; if I were to attend the reunion, it was this dictum that would be reversed, not Kierkegaard's. Stripped bare, I would be reuniting with myself as much as with my classmates, and that idea was truly laden with terror.
Thinking about the passage of time and the pleasures and perils of history set me to thinking about play - which is, as always around here, the thing. In America's mobile society of the past 50 years, we have grown increasingly disconnected from our ancestry, our living family, our land. Pursuing employment or climatic relief, we live in voluntary exile from our extended families and our longer past, but in an involuntary exile from ourselves and our own past.
Yet now as it ever was, what gives comfort when troubles descend upon one's life is a sense of possible return and assured embrace. Where can we turn today for that sort of comfort? A blue-plate special at the diner, complete with mashed potatoes and gravy? A rerun of Happy Days on cable? We commoditize everything in America, from triumph to tragedy, and nostalgia is our culture's unique way of making history not only relevant and unthreatening but useful. In America, for something to be useful it must be consumed.
However, like the snake swallowing its tail we have advanced upon our present relentlessly. In the 1960s there was an Art Deco boom, vamping the '20s and '30s. The '50s were hot in the 1970s. The '40s and the War experience were off limits until Spielberg and Hanks leapt in the pool of blood in the 1990s, reseeding the territory for the schmaltz of the Greatest Generation. Should we be surprised that not even five years into the aughts, VH-1 promotes nostalgia for music of the '90s?
Distant replay morphs into instant replay, and future replay cannot be far off. We are left with nothing to embrace but the new or the nostalgic...and ourselves, our own glorious or benighted childhoods, and as if we were orphans, to the new families that 21st-century circumstance successively creates for us.
For many of us, sport has provided the continuity in our lives, the alternative family to the one we left behind. It gives us something to talk about, to preen about, to care about. Better than anything else in our culture, it enables fathers and sons to speak on a level playing field while building up from within a personal history of shared experience - a group history - that may be tapped into at will in years to come. There's comfort in that, even when the only one available to give you a hug is you.
For 200 years in America, adults have done their best to make play seem worthwhile by making it resemble work, transforming children into miniature adults. Give the kids uniforms to wear, making their play regimented and paramilitary. Keep score, which is what the Talmud recognizes as a distinction between work and play that renders a game unfit for the Sabbath. Award trophies, as opposed to letting the players define and claim their own. Ultimately, pay them to play so that their activity not only resembles work, but is work. If this is how children's play enters the adult world, is it any wonder that adults long to retire so that they can at last get their childhood right?
Planning to play: that's what saving for retirement is today - and it is antithetical to the nature of play, fully within the definition of work, and blissfully ignorant of the reality of death. Most working men and women of my age have approached their lives with a sense of work (i.e., sacrifice of real selves) in order to enjoy an old age of deferred - and this time leisurely - play. An old age of sitting around the hearth, warmed by the presence of one's children, no, that eons-old sort of retirement is no longer suitable. Instead we save for a condo on the golf course or along the beach, where we can truly enjoy our selves in isolation from all that formerly mattered, as if one's past could be shed like a job. We wish not for life to go forward to its predictable end, reseeding the soil with our tangible and intangible remains, but rather to circle back to its beginning, like the aforementioned snake. It would be sad if were not comic, for after all, Man proposes, but God disposes.
Like baseball statisticians who ignore the elephant in the room - fate - while maniacally measuring the measurable, men treat their retirement years as if they were merely a single winter, against one that may store provisions. But you can't save up against death.
Why we play as children is not because it is our work or because it is how we learn, though both statements are true. We play because we are wired for joy; it is imperative as human beings. Why we play in old age is so as not to die, like the girl who's gotta dance to keep from cryin'. By not embracing the certainty of death, we evade our selves, impoverish our lives and fail to play our roles in the great saga of the seasons.
I think that much of this was running in background as I contemplated whether or not to attend the PS 99 reunion, although I certainly anticipated that I would not; it smelled like death, not youth. This was nostalgia in the literal Greek sense: the pain of not being able to return to one's home and family.
My egotistical concern was less that I would fail to relate to my classmates than that they would know nothing of my uniquely tortured life's course and, thus, me. Frank pricked my self-inflated balloon in his return e-mail, pointing out that, "Kierkegaard did not grow up in Kew Gardens. He did not attend PS 99." I laughed out loud and wrote out a check for the reunion dinner.++
John Thorn is the editor of Total Baseball and Total Football, and the author of many other sports titles. He lives in Kingston.