Monday, June 30, 2014

Sorry Steely Dan, I Went Back to My Old School. And It Was Great.

I have always been a relatively nostalgic person. I like looking at old pictures. I enjoy discussing old memories, random people from high school, and thinking about how things used to be and how I have changed. Hell, part of the reason I made this blog is I figured these posts would be interesting to look back on when I am older. If I am doing this frequently at age 27, god help anyone who knows me decades from now. I am totally going to be one of those "When I was your age..." elderly folks.

Two weekends ago, I had my first experience at the nostalgia fest known as a class reunion. I suppose I have reached an age where a reunion is not a totally ridiculous idea, though it still seems somewhat silly. When you are 27 years old nothing happened THAT long ago in the grand scheme of things, but nonetheless, having an excuse to reconnect with people I have not seen in awhile and revel in the nostalgia of a bygone era is not totally unappealing. The reunion in question was at my old college stomping grounds, Lawrence University. No, not Lawrence, Kansas (home of Kansas University), or Sarah Lawrence, or St. Lawrence University, or whatever other school people always seem to think I'm talking about which is literally every possible school besides the one I am actually referring to. The Lawrence I speak of is in the town of Appleton, Wisconsin: home of one of the largest per-capita bar ratios in the country, numerous paper mills (both in town and in the surrounding Fox Valley region), a sprawling mall which serves as a tourist destination for a large swath of Wisconsin, and hometown of such notable figures as Harry Houdini, Willem Dafoe (who got the fuck out of town as quickly as possible) and Joseph McCarthy (whose grave was once the site of an exorcism performed by Allen Ginsberg and other '60s-era eccentrics).

I look back on my time at Lawrence fondly now, but it was definitely a bit rough at first. I entered Lawrence in the fall of 2004 rather terrified to start college and feeling extremely anxious about my ability to meet people who I would connect with on the same level as my high school friends. Unlike a lot of people, I had a great time in high school and formed a tight-knit friend group that persists to this day. The thought of having to start all over was scary. And, just as I feared would happen, I never quite figured things out freshman year-- spending much of my time hanging out with my floor mates but feeling disconnected from the goings on (I spent most of that year watching people play video games like Final Fantasy VII or Grand Theft Auto San Andreas. Thrilling stuff right there). I almost transferred. But, for whatever reason, I stuck with Lawrence, which turned out to be the right decision. By the end of sophomore year, I started to feel as though I was making meaningful friendships, which continued into my junior and senior years-- each year more fun than the one preceding it. However, I never was someone with a large number of friends or acquaintances on campus. I had my relatively small group of friends, and that was basically it. So, when I first received a mail notice about the 2014 reunion (a "cluster" reunion for the classes of 2008-2010), I remember thinking "Nah, I'm not going to go to that. That'll be awkward. I barely knew anyone there." But, with the urging of some of my Chicago Lawrence friends, I decided to make my return to Appleton, Wisconsin.

After a detour in Ripon, Wisconsin to visit old college friends who would not be making the reunion, I found myself on a familiar stretch of Highway 41 heading for the College Avenue exit. At this point the waves of nostalgia swept over me (accentuated by the fact that I was listening to an old college favorite, Animal Collective's Feels). I later joked to friends at the reunion that it really hit home that I was back in Appleton when I saw the beautiful sign for Perkins Restaurant, where I guzzled many 3 AM burgers during my college career (that place was truly a sight to behold on a weekend night-- they needed security guards to control the rowdy crowd). As I rolled further into town and gazed upon the familiar downtown College Avenue establishments, it hit me that I really did miss this city. Chicago is a vibrant place, brimming with culture and delicious food, but it is also filled with people who like to break into my apartment and car (can people please stop doing that? Thx). Appleton, on the flip side, is an exceedingly pleasant place. The people are nice, there is essentially no crime, the drinks are cheap ($3 for a whiskey coke? Holy hell), and as the current top story on the Appleton Post-Crescent states, "Data Shows Two Thirds of Appleton's Roads in Good Condition." Way to take care of those roads, Appleton!

As I parked my car in a familiar campus lot, I felt genuinely excited to be back. Choosing to stay in a campus dorm with my roommate for much of college, John, to further heighten the nostalgia, I embarked upon what would be a rather glorious weekend. First, nearly everyone I wanted to see made the trip to Appleton. Additionally, I realized I knew way more people there than I initially gave myself credit for. Upon walking into Jekyll's, the first stop on a Friday night bar crawl, I was greeted by a large number of familiar faces. I usually hate small talk and "catch up" conversations, but these were people I actually wanted to talk to. In general, the prevailing theme for me during the weekend was feeling far more connected to the people, and my status as a Lawrentian, than I was anticipating. Anyone who asked me about my college experience during my six years post-graduation would have gotten a positive account, but I, uh, still ignored calls from the Lawrence Fund trying to get my money (sorry guys) and never really regarded the fact I went to school there as a prevailing aspect of my identity. After that weekend, I'm thinking perhaps it should be.

While walking around campus and conversing with people I hadn't seen in years, I began to reflect upon how differently I might have turned out had I gone to a Big Ten school like University of Illinois or University of Wisconsin-Madison (schools I was devastated to not be granted admittance) instead of Lawrence. Me being me, and this purportedly being a music blog (ohhh now he's getting to the point), the main thing I reflected on is whether I would be the music nut I am if not for Lawrence. I was already quite obsessed with music before I started at Lawrence, but the scope of my listening habits was rather limited. I listened to classic rock. That's it. Granted, I'd take the time to learn each band VERY thoroughly (guess who owns The Rolling Stones' 1989 album Steel Wheels??), but I still only knew like 12 bands (13 if you count Eric Clapton solo AND Derek and the Dominos). I recall giving my now close friend Bob a blank stare when he mentioned the Pixies to me at the start of freshman year. Obviously, there are indie music fans at any college, and perhaps I was bound to venture into that direction regardless. However, Lawrence certainly facilitated my musical renaissance rather naturally. Lawrence being primarily known for its music conservatory, I was constantly surrounded by outstanding music as well as the people who created it on campus. These people, it turns out, often had interesting taste. As I advanced each year, I became more and more interested in expanding my musical knowledge, and there were plenty of people around to guide me on this journey. Entering Lawrence without even being familiar with the goddamn Velvet Underground, I graduated in 2008 penning reviews for the college newspaper about semi-obscure indie releases by bands like Sunset Rubdown and Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks. For all I know the alternate universe University of Illinois version of myself still regards any music post-1985 to be crap (except for rare exceptions like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and Coldplay, of course). So, I'm especially grateful to Lawrence for exposing me to so much fantastic music (as well as setting me on the path to discovering more on my own) that has truly enriched my life.

Sitting in our dorm room in between reunion events, John and I decided it would be fun to make a "Lawrence-era" playlist of all the songs that defined college for us. We pulled together 20 songs that weekend, and in the ensuing few days we, with the help of our aforementioned friend Bob, added another 105 songs to make a definitive playlist capturing that era of our lives. This is some Time Life infomercial shit ("All your Lawrence University favorites on four compact discs!!"). Anyway, this post has gotten long enough so in my next entry, I will discuss year-by-year the songs that impacted my friends and I at Lawrence as well as share a Spotify playlist of these songs. Stay tuned, loyal blog readers (just kidding, I already wrote the next post-- you can read it RIGHT NOW).

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