Saturday, October 29, 2016

The Happiest Place on Earth

I must say that the timing of my 35th year college reunion was impeccable.  Any excuse to escape Washington DC weeks before this particular election is a good thing.  It’s seems like every week there’s been a new political bombshell – and none of them speak well for our nation’s leaders.   At this point, it would appear that the election won’t be a climax, but merely a prologue, and the story itself will be four (or eight?) years of partisan bickering, relentless investigations, potential impeachments, and total government gridlock.   Yes, it was great to fly 2500 miles away from this city.   The only problem is that my college reunions occur even less often than Presidential elections.   So in 2020, when we’ll probably be watching hidden videos of the candidates in their bathrooms, I’ll be forced to stay in Washington.   

Our Cali vacation began with a day in San Francisco.   My wife and I headed up to the Legion of Honor Museum near the northwest corner of the city, where we saw, among other things, the only Rembrandt painting in Northern California.   Then we headed up to Pacific Heights just to ogle at the homes.   Well, OK, I can’t really say I get “turned on” by residential architecture, but those are seriously the most gorgeous urban residences in this country, and you practically have to drive up and down a roller coaster in order to see them.   While I’ve never had a passion to become as wealthy as a Trump or a Clinton, I have to admit that if ever I were to start building luxury hotels or to charge $500,000 for my speeches, I’d want to spend some of my disposable income on a house in Pacific Heights.  Who needs museums when you can just walk down the street and marvel at the buildings?

After a night of drinking and baseball watching (with depressed Dodger fans), we headed down Route 280 towards Silicon Valley.  We made one stop at our friends’ house in San Carlos, which looks straight onto foothills that always remind me of Tuscany.  From there, our next destination was also our last one for the weekend: Stanford University.   Now I know that Stanford has a certain reputation today as the so-called “Western Ivy.”  I know that a bazillion 10 year old rat racers all over the country are being groomed every year to start building their vocabularies and their math skills just so that one day, they can matriculate at a school like Stanford.   But believe me, when I went there, it was a little different.  For one thing, my classmates hadn’t taken SAT Prep classes.  For another, we hadn’t cured a form of cancer or saved a village in Africa.  We were just regular kids who were more academically inclined than most of our high school classmates.

When I was a high school senior, Yale’s Insider’s Guide to Colleges had the following to say about Stanford:  “With a different student body, Stanford might be truly great.  If there were more students really interested in learning from the fine professors (and equally important, if there were more students from outside the state), Stanford might be on a level with the very best of the Ivies.  Under the circumstances, however, we think you would do well to follow the practice of a number of California families we know: If you want the best obtainable education in California, look at the University of California in Berkeley.  If you want the best education (and the most heterogeneous student body) available anywhere in the country, look to the Ivies.”

That delightful bit of Ivy League snobbery reminds me of the joke about the Stanford and Berkeley students who encountered each other in a bathroom.   The Stanford student sees the Berkeley guy pee at the urinal and not wash his hands.  “At Stanford,” the former says, “we’re taught to wash our hands after we pee.”   “At Berkeley,” the other guy responded, “we’re taught not to pee on our hands.”   I heard that joke from a Berkeley alum.  Honestly, I think they are more obsessed with Stanford than we are with Berkeley.  I had come to think of Berkeley mostly as the place where Stanford students go to purchase bongs.   And besides, who would want to go to a college that consistently has such a lousy football team?  If we wanted to go to one of those depressing schools, why not go to the Ivy League?   

Maybe the Yalies are right that Stanford back in the ‘70s was just a provincial California college, but I tell you what – I sure do like that province!   For one thing, Californians love to laugh.   And whenever I get back to my campus with my old friends, laughter is pretty much all we put on the menu.  I clearly recall that as an undergraduate, whining was not something you could get away with very often.  We were there to have fun and to take advantage of what those great professors had to say about history, philosophy, computers, and all the other stuff that the Yalies didn’t think we cared about.

In actuality, Stanford is a wonderful place to develop intellectuality because we read the best books ever written, hear about these books from some of the nation’s greatest scholars, and think about these books while walking around an incredibly scenic environment in 70 degree weather.  In other words, we come to love learning for its own sake.   Stated differently, when I was at Stanford, I “learned,” whereas when I was at Harvard Law School, I “studied.”  It’s no wonder that today, when it comes time to read for pleasure, I read the kind of books that I fell in love with in college.  

Truth be told, though, my reunions are not typically occasions for deep thinking.  They are times to reminisce, laugh, and avoid taking life (or oneself) too seriously.  That’s why it felt so odd to walk into our Class Panel and listen to a program that brought together speakers from my class who had encountered terrible tragedies in their lives.   The speakers were all excellent.  They shared deeply poignant stories about deaths in the family or crippling illnesses that they’ve encountered, and they told their stories warmly and without even a hint of insecurity.   

And yet, as glad as I am to have attended that Class Panel, I found myself wondering what I was doing there.  After all, those stories weren’t joy inducing.  And let’s be honest, I come to those reunions in order to have fun with my friends, not to reflect on the meaning of tragic experiences. 

At one point during the Q&A, one of the panelists was asked an excellent question.  I would paraphrase it as follows:  “I’ve heard it said that Stanford is the happiest place on earth.  But you all have been talking about some very tragic things that have happened to you.  How did attending this school when we were here – a place where being happy is kind of a religious imperative – how did that prepare you for dealing with these awful tragedies that you’ve had to encounter?”   I was expecting someone to say something like “Actually, it didn’t.   And I kind of wish Stanford hadn’t been so Stepford-like so that I would have been better prepared for the real world.”   Nobody said that, though.  Instead, they were completely affirming about our college experience.  They suggested, in essence, that it is actually a great thing for a late-adolescent to experience joy on a regular basis.  It makes you secure, strong, and ready to tackle what life has to throw at you.  

I agree with that message.  There are plenty of opportunities in life to get depressed.  What I cherish most are those opportunities to have lots of fun.  And when you regularly can have fun in an environment that deeply honors learning ... wow!  You can have that experience at Stanford, Berkeley, Yale, or for that matter, just about any college.  That’s why they tend to be the happiest places on earth.   I sure love visiting mine. 

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