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Taking Class Notes

For some unknown cosmic reason, the Class of '50 took a big hit this year. At least 14 of them--including war heroes, a state senator, and a bookkeeper for Eckerd--have gone to the big 50s tent in the sky. In happier news: John Webster '84 has given up a successful career in real estate to become a professional runner. Toni Ann Friess '91 married Christopher Bost Millner '93 on April 20--what the hell took them so long? Then there's Ronald Sally '83 and Yvette Sally '84, who--out of humor, either weak or sick--have given their fourth child and third son the middle name of Mustang.

I know this and much more about the last six months of our alumni's lives, maybe more than anyone else. This summer I interned for Duke Magazine, a bimonthly canvas on which the glories of Duke's alumni empire are painted. These glories include innovative scientists, visionary public servants, renowned theologians and an Army Chief of Staff. But the intern's lot is much less glamorous--I found myself compiling the Class Notes section. This is a monotone, sketched, dense listing of announcements sent in by the hordes of Duke alumni who are unworthy of a featured spotlight, regular people who happen to hold a Duke diploma and want to display their other landmark achievements. Mostly being: marriages, promotions, births, death. An unending cycle of Life After Duke, the whole lot hopelessly anonymous despite the names printed in bold.

Please understand my bitterness. Class Notes certainly provides utility value for a short-lived flame or long out-of-reach frat brother who might be moved to reconnect. But after cutting hundreds of blurb cookies out of the lives of attorneys, obscure Ph.D.s, men and women clutching to inscrutable-sounding positions at inscrutably named organizations, my soul was crushed under the sheer weight of the banality of existence. And all this by the end of the first day. I'm sorry for wanting to hold onto my glamorous illusions--tenuously, desperately held illusions--about the vague, glittering opportunities awaiting, beckoning, Out There. But there is only a year before I start receiving this magazine every two months. It can't be too long, I'm thinking, until I see my name listed and, along with it, my shriveled adult existence exposed like a shaved cat.

"Greg Bloom '03 is a mindless automaton at a sterile, insidious conglomerate. He will climb another rung in five years. He lives with his wife, and two kids, in a twice-mortgaged house where life's only joys are found in a bottle and old, tattered Chronicle clippings."

But cynicism and sanity don't get along well in a cubicle, and I had to smother my premature graduation panic quickly. To be honest, very few careers sound exciting in such few words. But I could find, in a couple of cold facts, vast suggestive power about entire lives. Maybe Webster had a near-death experience, gave up shilling houses and went jogging. Maybe Toni and Christopher had the only barest acquaintance in college and just a year ago happened to meet again at a dinner party; or maybe they were best friends who never admitted to anything more, until that one drunken night. Maybe Ronald and Yvette are good-natured eccentrics who will mercilessly inflict their children with a lifetime of neurosis.

There was fun to be had with life, but I dreaded the dark half of Class Notes. The magazine's filing system has a gruesome color coding: "live" notes come in pink folders, "dead" notes in purple. The long stack of purple that loomed on my shelf seemed to dwarf the pink. If the live Class Notes turn careers into triviality, the attempt to commemorate death into six lines inevitably reduces all life to absurdity. You served in the war, then there was that stint as Kiwanis chairman. You leave behind a grandkid or fifteen.

This listless mortal coil is what you get if you're lucky. The worst of the notes was the obit entry whose entire life couldn't be summed up in four lines, could barely fill out a sentence: "Thomas W. Barefield '62 of Tucson, Ariz., on Dec. 11, 2000." That's it, the final dedication to the institution where his adult life blossomed. The same fate, once removed, for some poor sod whose 1996 obit notice came, six years late, unsigned and devoid of any detail.

And worst of all is the rare death note of alumni who have not yet even had the chance to chalk up any assorted blurbable achievements--like Carrie Shoemaker B.S.E. '00, the victim of a hit-and-run. It doesn't take much to explode that final illusion that at least we'll have many decades before our faceless names start popping up in the purple.

This maddening and useless anxiety festered during my hours of Class Notes. But a single break in the clouds can brighten the world. Like the Bourlands. Mary Martin Bourland '51 and William L. Bourland '51, M.D. '55 fell in love at Duke. He would have his pledges serenade outside her East Campus dorm; she would sing back from the window. They married, moved to Florida and dutifully served their small community. When she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, their final note said, they were still in love and not yet ready to part. On Jan. 1, they took their lives together in their home.

The Bourlands' story doesn't belong in Class Notes; style protocol would demand that the cause of death be tactfully left out and that they be listed separately. But the crime against their memory would be too great. The couple's lives were clouded with all the humble anonymity that made Class Notes so unbearable. But in death, they've become so real that imagination isn't needed, and couldn't do them justice anyways. And so there it is in eight lines, the rare moment of truth among all those useless facts, where the very banality of life seems like poetry.

Greg Bloom is a Trinity senior. His column appears every third Tuesday.

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