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My Cornell Reunion: Parting the Big Red Seas of Time

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Timing is everything. So the fact that I was a graduate of the Cornell Notable Class of '74 is a complete stroke of fate. After all, 1974 was the year of Jim Croce's Billboard hit Time in a Bottle.

OK, I admit it. I'm a sap for nostalgia. So when my 40th college reunion reminder popped up in the email, I bolted into reverse. Who wouldn't want to "Reflect, Rekindle, Reconnect" -- words the Notable Class Reunion Chairs cooed in their beckoning letters to the alums.

Yup. Transported 40 years back to my beloved Cornell campus, remembering things past, beaucoup and beyond Proust's madeleine. Crosby Stills, Carole King and the Carpenters wafted through my brain. One bite of a Louie's Lunch truck meatball sub and I was back in my tiny freshman dorm, re-setting the needle on my Kenwood turntable over and over, replaying Tapestry until IT really WAS TOO LATE; listening to Joni Mitchell until Clouds' illusions blurred the lines of Ithaca and Chelsea Mornings. Hey, If Monsieur Marcel could take a promenade down memory lane, why not moi? I figured if he was in search of lost time and cake crumbs, I could spend a lost weekend savoring scoops of Kahlua Fudge and Reunion Revel ice cream at the Dairy Bar.

1974. A year of harmony and dissonance, counterpoint and coincidence; the year Duke Ellington died and Jimmy Fallon was born. The year Nixon stepped down and NASA's Arecibo message was sent up into space; the year of the puzzling Rubik's cube and the efficient UPS bar code; the year Al (Michael Corleone) Pacino taught us to "Keep your friends close and your enemies closer."

What was getting closer was Reunion Weekend. Mind you, the invitations were pouring in; competition was fierce. After all, it was the 40th anniversary of Hello Kitty; the Heimlich maneuver; Blondie & Le Sportsac. But nothing could compete with the call of Cayuga's waters, Cayuga's Waiters, or the clock tower chimes. Nothing could stop me now, including the threat of an old traditional meteorological forecast: Ithacating. Nope. Not even the overlapping weekend events of Belmont and the possibility of a triple crown winner would prevent me from boarding Greyhound for the 40th time to trek the 250 miles back to my alma mater.

And, speaking of journeys, I couldn't help but wonder about the trek we'd all taken these past 40 years. Did we follow the straight and narrow road, or did we veer off the beaten path?

Imagine - 40: the same number of years Moses wandered the desert after parting the Red Seas as our Class had spent roaming through life since de-parting Big Red.

Okay, so what exactly did we learn since graduation? Were we bound by the rigid tempo of life or did we bebop and improvise? My personal philosophy? Keep it loose. Why get stuck in strict meter -- better to simply glide along. Halfway through my semester of French Symbolist Poetry, I signed up for Ice Skating. The Class of '74 followed suit. We actually have a Vice President of Fun. Seriously.

Turns out the same timeless life principles applied then and now, both on and off campus, from idyllic Ithaca to metropolitan concrete. Reunions reinforce that.

Formless follows Function
As a departure from my over-scheduled daily life, I decided to take a cue from Seinfeld and plan NOTHING. Lying in my 10' x 10' dorm room on West Campus, I left everything up to the gods of destiny. No lectures, seminars, or advance registration. No itinerary. Who said Structure Rules? I mean I'd become a College Scholar to avoid all freshman requirements. And that form-less-ness turned out mighty functional. My independent "Media Modes" major merged the scientific and the humanistic, the right angles of business with the curves of the arts.

Cornelliana Manna - from A cappella to Zinck's
Nothing compares to the stunning, unaccompanied a cappella voices of those crooning Hangovers and Cayuga's Waiters. Listening to the Glee Club alums filling Bailey Hall and hearing the roar of Give My Regards to Davy--a fight song invoking the legend of Zinck's saloon--is pure Cornelliana Manna from heaven.

M.A.S.H. - Management by Accompaniment , Syncopation and Harmonization
Cornell 's 12th President, jazz saxophonist David Skorton, spoke at our class breakfast. During the Q & A, I asked whether his management style was more "improvisational or planned?" After a short pause, the Prez mused about feeling the campus pulse, and improvising against harmonic progressions, avoiding dissonance at all cost. Riff and reminisce!

Red, White & Belmont - Sipping a martini in the Statler Hotel's Regent Lounge, re-uniting with a crowd of horse racing enthusiast alums glued to the Belmont Stakes, I realized the chromatic synchronicity of the Red and White, from campus streamers to horse blankets. Moments after California Chrome was trounced, I wondered why we hadn't immediately bet on Tonalist: had no one noticed that winner horse #11 's saddle blanket bore our Cornell colors, red and white?

Eat, Pray Improvise - from Ad-lib to Zigzag

During reunion week-end, I zigzagged around campus just as I did 40 years ago, roaming, reflecting and remembering in no particular order. My College Scholar Advisor, a Renaissance man, encouraged me to bend the rigid borders of the quadrangles surrounding the Colleges of Agriculture, Engineering, Arts & Sciences, Human Ecology. So I did, stopping to smell the flowers in the lush Minn's gardens of Plant Sciences; rising with the early birdwatchers to walk in Sapsucker Woods; wandering in the Plantations; playing trio sonatas at the homes of professors MH Abrams and Jerrald Meinwald -- scholars who became human because we broke bread (and coffee cake) together.

2014-06-23-PhotoCornellReunionADWHite5.jpg Photo by Sergei Dyda (Cornell PhD candidate in Physics)

Ezra & Esther (Williams)
Perseverance is all. Statues are meant to be untouched, so I followed the rules for four decades. My craving unsatisfied, I finally willed myself (with a boost from a willing Astronomy grad student) to climb up the six 1/2 feet just to sit in Andrew Dickson White's bronze lap. Eureka. Then, informed that no one was allowed into the (empty) swimming pool, "fully booked" by reunion kids, I gently persisted. Could I please just swim one lap for mankind? The lovely lifeguard caved, and we swam in harmonized synchronicity, soothed by the sounds of silence.

Dante & Svante
Reunions can be Infernos of jealousy or Paradises of camaraderie. For me it was definitely the latter. Fast forward to meeting the youngest mayor of Ithaca, 27-year old Svante Myrick. The articulate, humorous Svante replaced an intricate 10-year plan with intuition. Upon a friend's sudden death at age 20, he made a profound choice: to pursue a life lived fearlessly. His mission? NOT to listen to negative voices saying NOT to run. Call it Svante's Divine Comedy.

Re-invent with in-TENT

Cornell Reunion tent parties are legendary. Swinging to the Stan Colella big band or rocking to Pink Floyd, we re-invented our wallflower selves into extroverts auditioning for Dancing with the Stars. A newer Sir Gallahad and an older, charming Class of '59 alum swooped me around the dance floor to the rich sounds of Ellington and Gershwin. Fly Me to the Moon for eternity.

The Way We Weren't - In 1974, we were lots of things: hippies, activists, macrobiotic; focused, anti-war, and nerdy. What we weren't? Plugged in. Tuned out. Wired up. We asked WHY? not WI FI? We were addicted to textbooks, not texting. From "misty watercolor memories ..in the corners of my mind," we took notes on yellow pads, not i-pads; and sat face to face with fellow java-philes in the Temple of Zeus coffeehouse. We met with advisors who were always on-call and on-campus, never off-site at some conference in Barcelona.

Far Above & Beyond
Riffing and reveling, we reconnected the infinite dots of our lives in spontaneous sharing of life's stellar and melancholy moments: heartfelt conversations at Class Headquarters till 4:30am; chats with reunion "clerks" -- undergraduate track team mates as mature as my own classmates: one, soon off to the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, who assembled an ingenious makeshift migraine ice pack; one who cheerfully guided me on a desperate mission to find the last flash drive in Collegetown; and one who swiftly downloaded 1,000 photos to unclog my i-phone while sharing goals of community agriculture and radio work back home in Colombia.

Croce's time was indeed bottled as I trekked around campus, traipsing up the endless steps of Schoelkopff football field; staring down over East Hill; recalling the virginity myth of AD White and Ezra Cornell's midnight cross-quad stroll; re-tracing my ice skating glides in Lynah Rink as Stanley Cup finals approached; and re-living flirtations with football star Ed Marinaro at the Statler cafeteria as he carved roast beef for the co-eds. Four decades had collapsed into four seconds.

After 40 years, I continue to compose my own melody within the harmonies of society, reaching for Carl Sagan's constellations, yet standing on Pearl Buck's good solid earth -- reminiscing yet moving forward.

Transported far above and beyond Cayuga's waters, I am still improvising my life, rekindling dreams in the soaring spirit of Ezra, Andrew, Morton (Bishop) and Glenn (Altschuler); the ideas of Abrams (Mike) and Isaac (Kramnick); pondering the femme legacies of Coulter, Bader Ginsburg and Toni Morrison; synthesizing the hopes of Nabokov, Vonnegut, & Moog.