Valedictory Address for Amherst College Class of 1966 45th Reunion
Bear with me. I’m going to tell a few campfire tales, and I don’t want to rush through them.
In my correspondence with Jon Huberth and Dave Browder, the entertainment group for this establishment, I called my offering a valedictory address, tongue I hope in cheek. When Jon wrote back, “Hey who went and made you valedictorian?” I replied, “By the 45th you can appoint yourself valedictorian, and we can have as many as volunteer.”
I do want to do it. I want a challenge to speak from the heart.
When Elliott Isenberg and I were discussing our upcoming 45th reunion, he said, with a trace of macabre glee, that attrition was setting upon us. Over the next ten years we will approach the mean life span for American males of our time, and we will be talking more and more about who’s no longer here. We are squarely in the yoga of mortality
That’s quite different from watching the march of the classes ahead of us. It’s the difference between hearing Jeffrey Hoffman talk about his stints in space, and being shot into Earth orbit yourself.
Elliott’s subtext was that people are going to change in light of core vulnerability and mortality, so it is worth going to reunions to witness and support those changes in each other, to be part of a class body, to see in others what we can’t completely recognize or permit in ourselves, and that the situation, the asana is inescapable; to share its wonder, its terrible joy, the joy of company, in completing whatever this is, together; in giving up our ancient rivalry as men, to become, gradually at last, the same thing.
Reunions are also going to be about the dead as much as the living. As we are a class of both the living and the dead, we start to become a sangha in a much more serious way.
But it was always serious; it was serious when we showed up in September of ’62. We just didn’t know it yet.
The universe hasn’t changed in its view of us or its plans for us, and the universe is a serious mutha. We are now shifting into a deeper awareness, individual and collective, of the real ceremony, the actual reunion cycle.
Dusty Dowes called our attention to this matter, perhaps first among us, in 1991 with shocking abruptness and awesome throwaway clarity. He got it. As hilarious as he was sobering. I will give my version. Toward the end of the banquet in Valentine, a mike was left open for toasts from the floor. After more than an hour of miscellaneous pronouncements, and two minutes during which everyone assumed the speeches were over, a large, bearded leprechaun strode to the podium and broke the silence: “I was on the campus the other day and I saw this guy at his 70th reunion. Last living member of his class.” He paused. “I wondered, was he afraid?” He paused again, for what seemed an eternity; then he thrust his glass upward: “I propose a toast to the last living member of our class. Don’t be scared buddy; we’re all with you.”
I can’t improve on that. That was our real valedictory address. I think it’s worth letting it sink in anew: from Dusty to all of us—from each of us to every other one: “Don’t be scared, buddy! We’re all with you.”
This is where it begins to get serious, but this is where it begins to get real.
My high-school alma mater opened with, “We were strangers met in friendship,/now we’re kin to one and all.” The Whiffenpoof song replaces its blithe geniality with a darker backwash of college days: “Gentleman songsters off on a spree,/doomed from here to eternity/Lord have mercy on such as we.” In the “parting glass,” the Amherst reunion-goer pleads that as long as he has one more cup to share with his classmates, as long as he can sing the verse of camaraderie one more time tonight, time itself will halt. Then the truth finally sinks in: “We are poor little lambs who have lost their way./Baaa, baaa, baaa!”
Our class exists as a ceremonial body because there is no alternative to it or replacement for it. For most of us here, there is no equivalent, more sacred clan or peer group of initiates into adult life.
We are not as tight as a Hopi corn-mother fraternity initiated in a kiva, nor did we go through a ritual of transformation like a Zulu warrior guild, Australian Emu clan, or Tibetan monastic order. We shared no overnight vision quests in caves or among wild animals; we didn’t touch a weasel or bear with our index fingers; we did no group meditations on emptiness and the Great Void; we ingested no sacred poisons. Amherst College Class of ’66 was what we had, so it served for each of us as our priesthood, our baptism into manhood, our ingestion of the serum of mortality. We learned that we couldn’t order life to come to us or just go charging after it, though we may have thought we were doing precisely that. Instead, we got behind the eyes of a creature we wanted to call to us; we became the objects of its desires. We became not who we wanted to be but who we had to be. We arrived as children, novices, wise guys, assholes; we left as pretty much the same, a bit chastened and cooked, redirected from our innocence onto the path from which there is no return.
It is that crucible we return every five years to mark. It doesn’t matter if our individual passages crossed each other’s or if we even knew each other here back then. We were the band of recruits. There is no other brotherhood, no competing code, no substitute inner journey across America of our time.
The various rituals, gauntlets, and transmissions of ancestral knowledge that we underwent, we experienced together with a tacit recognition that we were an affiliation, and would remain so for the duration: “Now we’re bound by ties that cannot sever/all our whole lives through.” When we return to Amherst each five-year orbit, we come to honor the spirit of our initiation, the negligence and grunge of our undergraduate training relative to a real sacred clan or warrior guild. We come to honor, acknowledge, and witness the holes as well as the truths and profit in our training and life practices. We went through the Cuban Missile Crisis together, which contained its own meditation on the Great Void and annihilation. We went through the Kennedy assassination, an esoteric watershed on the trans-American cruise. We experienced the prodrome of the Civil Rights movement, the birth of the counterculture and Aquarian watershed, the founding of the Liberation News Service by Marshall Bloom, his Total Loss Farm just down the road.
Even if one were only peripherally involved in these events, we all passed through their vibrational field, their bow waves and quincunxes together. We shared the transformational trigger and transmission of the Vietnam War, with its radicalizing aftershocks, reverberating even now. We experienced the hints of a breeze in a way that would become completely obscure to those who followed us, because all of the above arose out of the rich, mysterious, romantic, guileless density of the fifties, and then explicated and resolved it into something else.
Only those who were there understand the chilling innuendos of Senator Paul Douglas’ graduation speech when he told us that our next mission was to defeat the Communists in Asia the way his generation had fought the Nazis, consigning us to the wrong war, to his own past, while an oracular future was exploding just in front of us, a future that is still cresting, as Marshall and Elliott led a white-armband protest and then a walkout during the awarding of an honorary degree to Robert McNamara.
Who could have foreseen McNamara’s later abrogation and atonement? Who could have foreseen the multiple waves of cultural transformation, changing everything: love, work, gender, hope, reality; mission itself? Who could have foreseen the visitations of the shadow, from Charles Manson to Jim Jones, from Waco to Oklahoma City to 9/11? Who could have even foreseen Marshall’s suicide a few years later at Total Loss Farm? As different as these events and their scopes were, they were all contained in chrysalis at our graduation; we felt their tremors then. We were thinking, almost certainly, that we were feeling something else, and we were, too. Each of us had our own apprehensions and dreams for life, our own nostalgia for what was lost and left behind, always. That was just as true when cars pulled into the timeless time of the Quad, fall of ’62.
We are bathed now in nostalgia, perhaps even regret, but it is not because things were so good or promising then—we were nostalgic then too for something else. Nostalgia always reveals hidden forces present at any time, abeyances and possibilities that we can’t perceive at our phase of awareness and can neither excavate nor staunch. Those hidden forces are still at work, and some deeper, inscrutable part of us and the world continues to tinge everything with a mythological and enchanted glow. That is the awareness and realization potential still in us, and it is big, as big as the universe itself. I will get back to that.
I will say now, there can be no regrets. We were whole and complete in ’62 and in ‘66. We are whole and complete now in 2011, a little more cooked, a little more cured, a little more sober, a little more street-smart. Each state of existence celebrates its own special, inviolable integrity—gaps, miscues, and all.
No regrets. We did what we could. Everything is still possible. Don’t be scared, buddy.
‘You can’t take it with you’ means consciousness and its goods, all this shiny and lit stuff, meaning anywhere, across these tundras and plateaus as well as the barrier where ye shall pass and walk that lonesome valley, ya gotta walk it by yourself. Not as a penalty or a debt that you owe the universe for having lived but because you are unique, and it is out of your uniqueness that you develop anything like the capacity for meaning or a Soul.
There is no other option. If you could, would you stay here forever? Would you be an immortal on Earth? That would be its own purgatory, or hell.
If we didn’t die, we wouldn’t find out who we are. We die to liberate the part of us that is real.
And don’t think for a moment that it isn’t terrifying, hideous, outrageous, unbearable, the universal draft without mercy or deferment. We are meant to be terrified. We are meant to undergo an incredible transformation. You know that. I know it. I think about it all the time. No way out. There never was. We have to change. We had to change as callow freshmen. But thank goodness the Cuban Crisis passed over and left us a little more time to cook. Here we all are.
There are moments in life when a shape of its stunning, unwelcome oracle is imposed on us. About fifteen years ago my wife Lindy and I were advised by our lawyer to write a will because otherwise, he said, the State would make our decisions for us.
Lindy and I threw in together late sophomore year. After her graduation from Smith we drove out of Northampton. Our class’s 45th reunion is our own 45th anniversary, shy a month. When we made an appointment with an estate lawyer, we assumed that we were making out our will. We had shared a household, raised kids who are now approaching middle age themselves, built a business together, and been through huge joint revelations and upheavals, losses and recoveries of our bond, discoveries of what it really was that brought and held us together, despite everything. The estate lawyer couldn’t have put it more bluntly; we were making out individual wills, including disposals of our bodies, because, she said, “It’s never happened yet in my practice that both members of a couple die at the same time. One dies first.”
The notion was disturbing and unthinkable, so I pushed it away, but I have been meditating on it the last fifteen years. No different from October 1962, just more awake, more intense. That’s why I am here. Our group solidarity, our shared fates, our empathy and compassion for each other. The “don’t be scared, buddy” mantra.
I can’t speak long enough now to encapsulate all of this, and I am already imposing on my allotment. But I do have some things I want to get said, not because I want to say them but because I want to put their resonance into our group context, class of ’66, living and dead.
When I use a word like “initiation,” I mean it in the most profound and specific sense. We were the unwashed youth of an elite America dispatched into the fire of our times, our own subincision rite and ritual blinding. It was an initiation because Amherst and our classmates were all we had with whom to get down-and-dirty and do the stuff that was necessary then. And it got done; a lot came out in the wash by graduation.
Some of you know the overly-iconicized story of how I was locked in my room fall of freshman year, 407 James, the door knob rigged by James Higbie to come off in my hand; then lighter fluid was poured under the door and people lit matches and sent flames across the floor. Nothing really caught, but there was smoke and some dorm-mates stuck their heads out of windows and yelled for me to jump. Enraged, I took my hockey stick and swung at them, smashing a few windows. Then Sid Schwab and Al Powers broke it up and rescued me.
I have many interpretations of this event, none of them bad or maudlin, none of them making me personally innocent and martyred. It was a ceremony. We each did what we had to. Yeah, they were, even by their own admissions, being douchebags. But I was a total jerk too, a latent provocateur goading them with my ingenuous false piety and subversive righteousness. I got a lesson, a gift, in that I got awakened from a long daydream and whacked toward my identity. Something happened for each of them too. But this was my passage, my surprise party. The ceremony was conducted for my benefit, even in rage against me, which is finally the purest form of selfless teaching. Thanks, guys.
It is interesting how that event has played out at reunions since I started coming back at the 25th. Several participants have apologized. Higbie came to the 30th and turned out to be a surprisingly cool dude; that is, given the Unabomber/Goth personality he cultivated in James Hall. I wouldn’t have recognized him with his beard. He walked right up, shaking his head, identified his ass, and said, “Sorry for that incident freshman year.” He went on to claim that it wasn’t his idea (or the idea of any of the people who apologized); it was in Higbie’s words, “a blond Aryan Nazi on the floor”—a guy I haven’t seen at any reunion, so I don’t know, but it could go either way. There was a boy in my grade school who had a torture kit of pins and tweezers; well, he ended up a big-deal interrogator in the Navy, which I know only because decades later Sam Bartos became the piano teacher of his sister.
There is always an esoteric undercurrent, an archetype from which the opposite of an explicit event emanates. There is a way in which most of the important, the real stuff, that any of us does is unconscious. We are on missions of great importance to the gods, and the only thing that stands in our way, really, is the most powerful, devious, and indomitable of our enemies: the self-saboteur.
Believe what you want—innumerable psychics report ghost carolers in post-9/11 New York. They see the spirits of the slain chanting dirges alongside their slayers on the now-sacred burial ground of the World Trade Center: suicide bombers and stock brokers and airline passengers, sharing ballads in a dialect beyond all languages, a karmic state that precedes bodies and ideologies, because they have no other choice and nothing else to do—not now, not any longer; not even then. It is why 9/11 was a birth rite as well as an act of infamy and dance of terror, an awakening as well as an apocalypse, a rough-hewn muezzin as well as a writ of war.
The only institutional response from Amherst to my hazing was a bill for the broken windows, a reprimand in Dean Esty’s office, and a phone call from Dean Wilson to my high school, castigating them for not warning Amherst about me.
Andy Pinkowitz got kicked out of Amherst senior year for not completing his PE requirement, but that was only the cover story, it was really for marijuana, because the administration had no idea what was coming down the pike and they thought that they could nip it in the bud. Pretty funny in retrospect.
Elliott found and contacted Andy recently, and he tried to secure an admission and apology from Amherst, writing President Marx and copying Andy, who was immediately furious with him for acting without his permission. He had long ago made his peace with the event, had gotten his degree from Columbia and, in addition, his daughter had babysat for Marx’s kids when both were at Columbia. Andy felt that Elliott had no right to speak in his name or disturb ghosts. Fair enough, but because of Elliott, Andy got a written apology.
During this shared email flurry, Andy wrote that he is now a rabid squash player, two or three times a week at the West Side Y; it is the single-most passion of his life, a few decades too late (he reckons) for his gym requirement. (Another sidelight, my personal vignette of Andy under the “lost friends” category on my website gave as the unspoken reason for his dismissal, LSD, which I mistyped. After I got back in touch with him through Elliott, he informed me of a double correction necessary: “It was ‘pot’ not LSD (and certainly not “LDS” [sic]) that was the culprit in my expulsion for non-compliance with the physical education requirement.”)
In my writing about our Amherst years I recall many poignancies, sorrows, and epiphanies. Everything was so intense and cogent then: the calls of the birds, the fall leaves covering the Quad, mixers at Smith and Holyoke, the smell of mown fields, pumpkin stands, hot showers, the land of snow, each snowball, flower petals and seeds in the air, malted frappes. One reverie from the time serves for me because it holds an epitome. It was on a day sophomore year that two upperclassmen, Jim Koscis and Larry Lundwall, drove me and Schuyler Pardee, who was my best friend then, and our dates to a pond north of here, and we all went swimming. Soon after, I wrote: “I felt an ancient wistfulness, as Lindy and I lay on our backs in the grass…clouds blown apart in the jetstream. I was chasing the bare eclipse of a form, itself a shadow. Beyond the hill, the land dipped precipitously into the unknown, an obliquity that masked a dream. Something indelible was lost; something equally remote still beckoned.” That remains true, though something has been realized and revealed by our lived lives.
Two years later Schuyler was completing his BA, residing in Belchertown, married to a different Smith student, an alumna. He was a wonderful guy: sassy, brilliant, funny, with a great wife. Lindy and I had broken up temporarily at that time, so I envied him everything he was and had and had been able to pull off. He was my hero. When I visited the couple in their cottage by the lake, the song of everything and nothing resonated then: “Try to remember the kind of September….” Yes, “when grass was green and grain was mellow.” Talk about a heart-rending profundity whose source is everywhere and nowhere. “…when you were a tender and callow fellow.”
Give me a moment, and we can all go there.
Fast forward two more years. Lindy and I were living in Ann Arbor, newly married, when we found out that Schuy, having split up with his wife before graduation, rode his motorcycle off a road in southern Illinois with his then-girlfriend, probably a suicide. She survived, to bear his last testimony.
Soon after our 25th reunion I was east, taking our daughter to look at colleges and I followed a tip that Schuy’s ex-wife had subsequently married Professor Townsend in the English department and then gotten divorced from him and was living in the area. I looked her up, and we had dinner. She told me an amazing story. Twenty-three years after my friend’s death and twenty-five years after their divorce, someone gave her a gift certificate to a psychic for her birthday.
“I don’t believe in that sort of stuff,” she said, “but I didn’t want to insult her, so I went. The moment I sat down, the lady told me, ‘I have a message for you from your husband.’ I assumed she meant Kim, but she said, ‘No, your other husband, the one who rode the motorcycle. He wants you to know: he’s happier without a body.”
I have studied the occult my whole life, as a writer, an anthropologist, a spiritual seeker. I have met many mediums, remote viewers, and astral travelers. I am not bowled over by this sort of stuff and have a normal degree of skepticism. Yet this message from alias Schuy meant something important I couldn’t quite grasp. Through the rest of the ‘90s, across Y2K, I kept returning to it my mind.
I was telling the story to a hiking buddy in 2004 when chills went down my spine because I knew I finally had it, the missing piece.
I had always figured I would die young or, if not, that everyone I loved would be taken away, making life intolerable—but, no, neither had happened; I had stayed and aged.
Schuy once had youth and spirit and limitlessness, but he elected to wager these on a throw of the dice against death, refusing to postpone the existential encounter, a heedless gamble that something unendurable in him must have required. Did his false valor come from cosmic grief or an even more profound ennui? How did desire, artless adolescent desire, lead him to the executioner?
“Goddamnit,” I found myself shouting, “he had such a beautiful body. He had style. He was charismatic, a great athlete, bright, irresistible. But he didn’t want it. He didn’t want his body. But I must have wanted mine. Because here it is, thirty-five years later, and I still have it.” Lindy and I were almost sixty; our children had become adults. It was Schuyler who remained fixed and invincible at twenty-three, having left his wife behind in a cabin in Belchertown.
We all obviously wanted these bodies, desperately in fact. So I’d like to propose a collective exercise, a journey. Of course it’s optional. Feel free to join or drop out at your discretion.
Let’s be here together in a silence, a profound and holy silence that is louder than any sound or thought, beyond the low grinding sound of the human mind that scares most spirits away. Reflect on that for a moment without any of the usual trappings or belief categories. I don’t mean the sort of Zen exercise where you free your mind of the past and all worries, distractions, desires. Hold onto any or all of those, including impatience with my talk and the wish to get onto the next thing. Take a chance. Deepen with everything here. With everyone. Everyone. Those who have passed as well.
I think of existence as having the steady-state buzz of metabolism, mixed with wandering attachments of consciousness, background claims of the body, things we chronically want, our urgencies, and also, at the edges, a lingering terror because our existential situation is impossible—and euphoria because likewise our situation is impossible.
It is terrifying because the universe is so vast, our place threatened, our time in this state so succinct. But it is our party and epiphany too because nothing really had to happen at all, ever, and certainly not us.
What I am asking is that you explore the terror and astonishment, to whatever degree you feel it, but at the same time, explore the sheer joy and beauty, the wonder of this, in each other’s immaculate presences. Allow this amazing situation to sink in. We will die, but we are alive at this moment. We are individual, unique, aware, on a planet, in a circumstance we didn’t create, at least not consciously, that has no context to explain it, or us. I am not asking you for anything more than to feel it as exquisitely and dangerously as you can, and I am emphasizing not the fear but the exhilaration. To loosely quote an old guy making a backseat Taxicab Confession on the HBO show of that name: “We are in existence. Which is a fucking big deal. We made it. We got in.”
I am suggesting that we share a moment of wonder and gratefulness and awe and recall that we are strangers met in a ceremony that transcends us, that we are bound by ties that cannot sever; that we made it, that we got in, and we’re still here.
Then I am asking you to consciously invite and include those classmembers who have passed, from the beginning of our band, the early sixties, and allow them to be here too. Don’t sabotage it. Don’t sabotage yourself. It is not impossible. It is our choice and their choice too. Because if existence is possible, a class of the living and the dead is also possible. Have this crazy belief in us. Believe it not with your mind but with your heart, your whole being. That is where it happens, whether you understand it or not. That is where sabotage occurs too, always.
At reunion, by definition we are one.
Go to the magnificence of your own being, into that deep place where no contrivance can help you, where a novice gets bitten or killed, or comes away with the whisker of a jaguar and the jaguar’s loyalty and keeping forever. In this life and after this life. Only it is not a jaguar. We all know this, at our core, beyond what we tell ourselves we believe or don’t believe.
Then one last piece to this exercise. I want to ask you to drop any objection, just for a moment. Humor me. Forget who I am. Forget who you are. Do this: find the larger unacknowledged space around you, around us, the part of the universe that is untenanted, undesignated, but that holds your future, your real limitless future, holds eternity in it. Allow our collective presence to open that space and bring you into it, as though you are bumping this whole thing, this manifestation, this emanation, this goofy, somber state of being, up a few frequencies. Change your own vibration, and then join us in changing the collective vibration. Here we are,
Class of ’66, at the Jeff.