Both Sides of the Fence

A Tosa resident since 1991, Christine walks the dog, cooks but avoids housework, writes and reads, and enjoys the company of friends and strangers. Her job takes her around the state, learning about people's health. A Quaker (no, they don't wear blue hats or sell oatmeal or motor oil), she has been known to stand on both sides of the political and philosophic fence at the same time, which is very uncomfortable when you think about it. She writes about pretty much whatever stops in to visit her busy mind at the moment. One reader described her as "incredibly opinionated but not judgmental." That sounds like a good thing to strive for!

The class reunion

high school reunion, Nicolet, Walking the dog

If you're a Wauwatosa high school grad about my age, chances are you'd have felt right at home at my Nicolet class reunion Saturday night.

Or uncomfortably not at home; that seems to be the way these things hit people. Being reunited for an evening with the people who gave you your first kiss, deep friendships and deep enmities, a massive case of insecurity, the joys and perils of youth spent ill or well, is a wonderful lark or a brief descent into hell. Maybe a little of both.

Nicolet has always been a breeding ground for over-achievers, so it helps to have a strong sense of self at these events. When you have ex-classmates who perform in operas with their entire families for recreation, it's a little daunting to admit your hobby is walking the dog and yelling at the kids to do the laundry.

I've attended parts of all of my reunions. The first was from curiosity. The second, revenge. Since then, it's always been about gratitude for spending time in shared history and fellowship. It's wonderful to see Tommy, who made butter and applesauce with me in four-year-old kindergarten (yes, we had those way back when). And as long as Wendy and Warren, high school sweethearts who married after college, are still together, there's hope for living happily ever after. Every old acquaintance renewed is a pleasure, every new connection a gift.

This decade I went with my dear old friend Vicki, whose husband received special dispensation to stay home in Tennessee. Her big brother Jack flew in from New Jersey to be the escort du jour. He can still pick us up and swing us around the dance floor. We'd met and gone to the pre-event event, the Friday night bar scene. So far, so good. The next night would be at Tripoli Country Club.

But I'd forgotten my teensy tiny country club handicap: I suck at small talk. And there is something about the whole country club atmosphere that chokes any other kind of conversation.

If you haven't been to one of these things, here's the formula. Thirty three percent of conversation is devoted to how great the women look--and they do look fabulous--and trying to figure out who the men are. Another 33% is jobs-kids-accomplishments-grandkids and other predictable life circumstances. That leaves the final brutal third to talk about whatever it is people talk about that requires paying no attention and giving no offense.

I was doing fine until I wandered over to an old boyfriend. A madly successful Chicago ad guy, he was deep in conversation with another classmate, this one a madly successful gastroenterology guy. They were probably having a soulful and charming conversation before I showed up. But the interruption shifted them into set-speech mode. Gastroguy begins reciting the physician litany: medicine's no fun anymore. Too much paperwork. The insurance companies. Medicare. Yaddayadda.

The conversation shifted again, this time to catered medical care. This newer arrangement assures the already well-served faster access to their doctors. Like medieval patrons, they present the doctor with a stiff yearly fee on top of insurance payments and out of pocket expenses. In return, the physician takes fewer patients and makes office calls--at your office, not theirs.

"Um, isn't that sort of. . . REPUGNANT?!" I suggested, perhaps a little short on tact.

"What do you mean? Oh. The poor," says Gastroguy.

"Yeah. The poor. And the ordinary. You know: like. . . sick people."

"Well, they come to my emergency room," Gastroguy says, "and I treat them for free. The hospital gets paid, but I don't. . ."

"The poor, they get screwed," says Adguy. "They always get screwed."

I am wearing the look people would have given Marie Antoinette had she ever actually said "Let them eat cake," which she didn't. Adguy takes a little pity on me. "Maybe someday we'll have national health insurance, and then they won't be screwed so much," he said.

I smile and flee, or as close to fleeing as I can, limping along in heels as I am. It's time to go home, put on my Wellingtons, and walk the dog under the heavy half moon. The air is crisp and cool, and it's easier to think kindly on my old friends at a little distance. The problem, I see, is not in them but in me. I'll have to get a small talk intervention before trying this again.

Next time, though, I might try to infiltrate the reunion planning committee. Anyone else think it might be more fun to pile into canoes and do a river clean up project, barbecue, and drink around a campfire?

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