Saturday, September 20, 2014

Report on Trip to Annapolis Last Weekend

I'm sure you're all dying to read this.

This was another reunion, twenty years out of college. For historical comparison, here is my write-up on the last one, five years ago. I am always happy to be there, though as always the place is too easy on me. The harshest thing anyone said the whole time was that smoking a cigar gave me an appearance of gravitas that I otherwise lacked. No one said out loud what I am always looking for them to say, which are things like, "Why are you here? Why were you ever allowed into this school in the first place? Have you no shame? Have we no shame that we continue to tolerate you in our presence? etc, etc", though surely someone in the administration of the college at least must think this when they see me or any other comparatively sorry graduate, of which our school appears to have at least its fair share. But I really was glad to be back in that environment, with its relaxing of the most humorless and unforgiving standards which govern most of polite society, even though it was only for a couple of short days. I was also happy to see more or less all of my old schoolmates, as was everyone else, though of course by our last couple of years there everyone was either tired of each other or, if not, had long given up hope of getting to better know the people they were not tired of and still had some interest in getting to know. But enough of the introduction. Here is the raw experience:

The Journey Down (And Back)

This used to be as big a highlight as actually getting there, but this is the first time I can recall going on a long trip where I could feel the ravages of age really affecting me. My usual plan is that I leave on Thursday after school and drive to Philadelphia, where my mother lives, inevitably getting there about 2 a.m., then I leave there around noon on Friday, usually rolling into Annapolis shortly before four, though on paper the drive should only take about two and a half hours. Then I stay over Friday and Saturday nights and, after the farewell brunch on Sunday, go the whole long way home. This time this regimen really wore me out, and even though it is now the following Thursday, I have still not caught up on my sleep, my laundry, the dishes, the lawn, and so on. I also developed some kind of infection or something the day I left which still hasn't gone away. I have had it before--it seems to have at this point an 8-10 month recurrence, during which it lasts for two or three weeks and then goes away again--but I don't like it. It made driving very unpleasant. I did not think I was particularly anxious leading into the trip--this condition always seems to rear its head at times when I am experiencing anxiety, though at that point the condition causes more anxiety than whatever it was that may have been bothering me before. I also did not have much of an appetite over the whole course of the trip. Usually a big part of the fun for me is stopping in at restaurants and so on along the way, but I was not up for any of that this time. My mother made me sandwiches when I was at her house (I also stopped in on the way back to pick up a few articles of furniture, that have also not been properly dealt with yet back at home), and I just nibbled on those when I got hungry. I did not actually buy any food in the entire four days (though I had paid for the Saturday dinner at school ahead of time). I had breakfast at my hotel and otherwise just sampled whatever snacks or hors d'oeuvres happened to be put out at the various functions I attended. My appetite has picked up a little since I got back home, though it is still not what it usually is.

Book Stores. I went into a couple of bookstores on Saturday, one a used shop in the village near the campus, and the other the college bookshop itself. In both instances I felt oddly overwhelmed by the actual books and quickly abandoned looking into any of them, though I did hang around the school shop for a little while fingering t-shirts and mugs and doing some surreptitious people-watching. I think it must have been the general social agitation that the weekend induced, because this does not usually happen to me on the rare occasions when I go to such places in New England. Of course in New England these kinds of stores tend to be in old barns or large Victorian houses and tend both to be more spacious and have numerous rooms or divisions of shelves laid out in labyrinth-like designs. Being a somewhat large person, still more tall than fat, I think, but carrying more than 200 pounds, I have always needed a good deal of room and privacy in order to read or even flip through books comfortably, neither of which the Annapolis stores provided. The used store actually looked pretty good, and they had quite a few of the books on one of my older reading lists that have fallen out of regular print, though I didn't get any of them.

Other People's Anxiety. I was surprised by the number of people at the reunion who (undramatically) admitted to being anxious beforehand, especially as these confessors included several people whom I anticipated as being more likely to be the cause of anxiety for others than to be afflicted by it themselves.I did not hear anyone elaborating in great detail about the particulars of their anxiety, but I found it interesting, and kind of comforting, that they found themselves able to say it in the natural flow of conversation and sense that the people they were talking to would know what they were talking about. This seems like a simple thing, but it bespeaks a level of unconscious intimacy that is hard to replicate with people one meets after age 25 or so.

House Tour. I went to visit the Hammond-Harwood house, which some people consider to be the purest expression of classical Georgian architecture in the entire United States, on Saturday afternoon. As I have begun reading more about old houses and the colonial era and those sorts of studies, Annapolis, which among other things has more preserved 18th century houses than any city in the country, keeps turning up, and I have had to admit a keen embarrassment at not having paid attention to this all during the nearly six years that I lived there. The Hammond-Harwood house especially, which is on Maryland Avenue and across the street from the Chase-Lloyd House, another massive colonial era pile occupying the better part of a city block, I must have walked past at least a hundred times, or fifty times anyway without stopping to take a look at it, or even noticing it. I know my thought deigned very little in those years to wander anywhere too far from the inside of my own head, sparsely furnished though that space was, but this defies belief. The docent properly chastised me the way I wish the St John's people would when I told him I had gone there but had never been over to see the house. The tour was very thorough and informative and had much of interest to look at. Near the end I could feel my agitation rearing its head though I cannot imagine for what cause. There was plenty of time left in the day. Under normal circumstances, where, however, I had nothing else to look forward to other than perhaps dinner, I would have felt the tour to be excellent, and the high point of the day.

There were several St John's connections with this famous house. The college actually bought the house at auction in 1924 when the last of the spinster descendants of the Harwood family passed on without any heirs. There was some daring involved, as a rumor had started that Henry Ford was interested in buying the house, taking it down, and re-assembling it at his Greenfield Village museum in Michigan, and the town fathers of Annapolis, not wanting this to happen, supposedly gave Henry the wrong time for the auction so that he missed it. Given that he was one of the most powerful people in the country at the time, it seems like if he had been really angry, that could have been the end for little old St John's. The college ran the house as a museum until 1932, when the Depression forced them to close it. In 1940, by which time the Great Books braintrust was running the school, and evidently seeing no use for maintaining a closed up Georgian mansion (though it would certainly seem to have potential for parties and other great social events) they sold it to the commission that still owns it today. The house also had on display several music and architecture books that had been lent or given to it from the college's collection.

Assessment of My Own Weekend. It was pretty good. I talked a little, with a greater variety of people than I usually do. I would still have liked to have talked more. I did wander off a few times for long periods and skip certain events because I am conscious of being a large presence that is often something of a void, and I wanted to give people a break from this, forgetting that the duration of the entire event is about 42 hours and then they don't have to see me again for 5 years. Even the most social people scarcely get to talk to everyone. I felt less of a barrier between myself and many people than I have felt in the past, which is good, but of course there is still, compared to others, more of this than I would prefer in a ideal world.

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