Ron Barrett
... and it feels so awkward
Ron Barrett

Adam Ruben ’01 is a molecular biologist. He also teaches stand-up comedy at Johns Hopkins University, appears in Food Detectives on the Food Network, and is working on his first book, The Third Degree: Surviving Your Stupid, Stupid Decision to Go to Grad School, due out in April 2010.

I’m married. I have no kids. I live in an apartment near the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and work at a biotech company in Rockville, Md. And later this month, for some reason, I will find it very important to share this information with people I have not seen since last May.

Reunions are a time to have meaningful conversations with old friends — and awkward ones with old acquaintances. As the weekend that defies reason, propriety, and open-container laws draws near, I find myself dreading the information exchange I know I’ll have to repeat over and over again:

Married. No kids. Apartment. National Zoo. Biotech company. Rockville. You?

Oh sure. I’ll dress it up a bit with the more frivolous immediacies of conversation. “When did you get here? Where are you staying? How was the flight? Took me about three hours to drive. Yeah, I hope the weather holds out. It does seem like it rains every year! Oh, not sure yet — probably a half pizza cheesesteak.”

Sometimes there’s even the Reunions Meta-Conversation, in which one person says, “I feel like I’ve been answering the same few questions all day!” and the other replies, “I should just wear a T-shirt that says, ‘Software engineer. North Jersey. Two kids.’” Then we both smile and feel we’re somehow better than the masses having that conversation — before we shake hands, depart, and go have the conversation 20 more times.

And what if the acquaintance turns out to be someone who lives or works nearby? Then it’s time to exchange   e-mail addresses (which we could have looked up on Tiger-Net) and make an earnest resolution to “do something sometime,” a pledge just vague enough to guarantee it never   happens.  

No matter what the context, the simple repetition of my biographical highlights will make each exchange feel more inane. Did I need to come all this way just to broadcast the annual update to people who quickly will forget it — and with whom I’ll forget I shared it? I could have accomplished the same by changing my Facebook status.

Maybe I should only share unimportant tidbits: I bought black walnuts online last month. I think my dentist works too quickly, but don’t know how to switch without offending him. And my car is making a funny noise, like a guuung guuung guuung sound. You?  

Or, instead, maybe I’ll play with the phrasing. First I’ll mention the job, then the location. No. First the marriage, then the job — but does the marriage count? It’s been more than a year now, and I announced it last Reunions. Maybe it’s news that I’ve remained married? So, the location, then the job, and maybe the marriage. If I had a dog, it would come next. My in-laws just got a kitten. That qualifies if I happen to have photos on my camera’s memory card; otherwise, no. And how exactly do I work “no kids” into an update? Point at my wife’s abdomen and shrug?

I know I’ll screw it up, too, and automatically answer   the wrong question. When someone asks what I do for a   living, I’ll tell them, “No kids.” This may not decrease the awkwardness.

Does it matter? Think of everyone you talked to at your last reunion. Can you still name everyone’s job? Or do you have vast swaths of acquaintances you only suspect “do something in finance or consulting”?

At least we each have devised a way to end the conversation: “So how long you sticking around? Sunday morning? Great, I’m sure I’ll run into you again.” And though this probably is false, we can part ways without the equally awkward goodbye.

I hate to say it, but Princeton — a place where I spent every moment of four formative years — is now being supplanted in my memory by Princeton Reunions. Did I study here? When did that happen? What did I do on, say, a Tuesday morning? Did we have fireworks every Saturday night? Were there always soda machines in the courtyards? Is it bad that I can’t picture the campus without wooden fences?

I never was so cynical about Reunions until I brought my wife last year, and through her eyes, everything seemed more grandiose than grand. It took a long time to explain why everyone did what she calls “the Nazi thing” at the end of the Triangle show. She called the P-rade insular and indulgent, and I objected — “you’re just jealous because you went to Johns Hopkins” — before realizing she kind of had a point. It’s Princeton cheering for Princeton at Princeton while Princeton marches by.

This year, I get to choose whether to spend my 30th birthday at the first night of Reunions. In the past, it would have been a no-brainer: What better way to celebrate than with the limitless parties of Princeton’s annual booze-drenched bacchanalia? But now I have visions of turning 30 while exchanging unwanted contact information with some guy who used to be in my Orgo class, telling him, “Yeah, it’s kind of near the National Zoo. Like, I could visit the otters on my way to work if I wanted to, but I haven’t done it yet.”

But in all seriousness, though I facetiously complain about the insignificant conversations, I should be grateful they’re so insignificant. After all, I’m young, I’m healthy, and I don’t anticipate anyone’s news to contain tragedy. My meetings with acquaintances may be awkward, but there are worse fates than reveling with a group just starting out in the world and taking the first exciting steps toward building careers and families — not to mention the opportunity to spend time with a few genuine friends. In the grand scheme of yearly checkups that constitute Reunions, when will careers and apartments become unimportant — and the real news be continuing good health?

So, this Reunions, may those of us   who are lucky enough to attend and   share our minutiae raise a tiger-printed plastic cup (that the dishwasher will demolish in a month) to all the superficial interactions we’ll have. Though they may be awkward, may they at least contain good news.