I just got back from a mini-high school reunion in Highland Park, Illinois. It’s been 45 years since I left that cushy suburban enclave to seek fame and fortune elsewhere. I returned at age 62 (soon to be 63) not as the prodigal son, but as a wiser and more arthritic version of my former self. My long hair is long gone. The hippie-esque bell bottom jeans and puka shell necklace have been replaced by clothing meant to produce a “slimming” effect” rather than make a political statement of any kind. My wise-ass self-centered attitude and condescending voice tone have given way to a sincere interest in listening to my contemporaries and learning about their varied lives. It seems we’ve all been on some epic journey and like brave Odysseus have returned to our childhood home somewhat bruised, battle weary but with quite a Homeric tale to tell. The fearlessness and YOLO (You Only Live Once) type thinking endemic to youth is tempered now by a host of nagging health concerns common to aging Baby Boomers, neurotic anxiety, i.e.,”Gee, I wonder if somebody remembered to feed the dogs?”, and worse, by the unmistakeable realization that some of our classmates have passed away or are suffering from serious illnesses which they may or may not recover from.
How can this be? I thought we were immortal. I thought life was going to be a relatively predictable process, a linear trajectory like climbing a ladder or taking a long hike on a well designated trail in one of the many lush forest preserves in or near Highland Park. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy but I figured I was prepared for it not just by my excellent education at Highland Park High School (including drivers ed) but also by my self-professed mastery of “life-like” board games like Risk, Monopoly, and Life. How much tougher could negotiating ones way in the adult world be then all the road hazards, obstacles, and simulator tests we’d already faced in Coach Wisniewski’s Drivers Ed class? Maybe I should have noticed or remembered subtle signs like how in the colorful board game “Life” with it’s many twists and turns and little plastic cars full of acquired family members how certain “peg people” would refuse to stay in their assigned seat and repeatedly fell out onto the increasingly cluttered game board. Were those Parker Brother premonitions of a future divorce or of having to send a kid to residential care or rehab someday?
Regardless of the game, at age 18 I still thought it (life) was going to be a semi-predictable algorithm: Deal the cards, buy up lots and lots of “stuff “(or assemble an army) and well, proceed to “take over the world”. Now that I say that aloud I think that certain individuals like Donald Trump are still stuck in their teenaged head eating Twinkies and playing a megalomaniac board game in some buddy’s wood paneled basement. Unfortunately, at age 62 (two days from becoming 63), I’ve learned it’s not that easy in the real world and some of us don’t have the time, the energy, the bank account or the reservoir of narcissistic supply left to lose a billion dollars in one year…or even eighteen. To consider that in retrospect as somehow “brilliant” is one delusional bipolar bridge too far for most of us. The ups and downs of a meaningful life still early in the fourth and final quarter of the “game” is acceptable to me. Frankly, at this point I’d rather hang out with my high school friends eating good deli food, drinking root beer and swapping stories than be President of this United States. That said, maybe I did learn a few good tricks playing Risk at Billy Terman’s house with Mark Scher, Joel Pathman,Todd Logan, Mike Lembeck, Harlan Bass and a few other HPHS game playing gunslingers…..but that’s a whole ‘nother story.