Well, it’s alumni weekend here at Lake Wobegon, and the usual flocks of decaying engineers have swooped down on campus to peck at the bookstore’s display of shameless biographies and clean their feathers at the free-flowing bar.
I was sitting in the lounge this morning, finishing up some math, when a man in a “50th year reunion” ribbon came up to ask about a painting that, once upon a time, had hung in the dining hall. I told him it had vanished from collective memory, whereupon he went into story mode.
“The last time I was here, somebody had hung that painting upside-down. I took it upon myself to fix it. I bought a poster of that so I could have it hanging in my kitchen. We used to dress in coats and ties for dinner, you know, and play bridge afterwards. The idea was to show that you were smart enough to get good grades without studying, so no one studied until midnight, after bridge.”
“Gee, I’m glad we don’t maintain that pretense any more, I’d be toast.”
“Then I went to look at my old room and there was a girl living there. That took some getting used to.”
There are moments, talking to old alums, when you instinctively look to the wife for help. There’s always a wife, and she always listens to her husband’s stories with loving indulgence. When she sees that you’re starting to drift, she gently pulls him away for another trip to the salad bar or a closer look at the rose beds. None of this is to say that I don’t enjoy hearing stories from old alums, of course – it really was interesting to find out that a particular bench has survived in the lounge for 50 years – but it’s hard to maintain the interested nodding end of a conversation when you’re worried about a lost minus sign.