Class reunions in the Facebook era

It’s a sunny August morning. I’m sitting in front of my computer in a t-shirt, shorts and Converse sneakers, listening to Rush.

You could easily assume the year is 1992. I did spend a lot of the summer of 1992 that way. But of course, no… it’s 2012. The music and attire may be (almost) the same, but the computer is not a Tandy 1000 EX with 640 KB of RAM. It’s a MacBook Air connected to a 23-inch LCD flat panel, with 4 GB (4,194,304 KB) of RAM.

So, the more things change, the more they stay the same. (Or, as Rush and the French say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”) That saying will be put to the test tonight when I attend my 20-year high school class reunion.

The last time I will have seen many of these people is 10 years ago, at our last reunion. But a couple of significant things have happened in the past 10 years.

First, we are now 20 years out of high school. Which means that, for the first time, we are gathering having lived more of our lives after high school graduation than before it.

My biggest fear: I won’t recognize someone who recognizes me. There was a time in my life, even some years after graduation, when I could confidently name every single one of the 200-or-so people in my graduating class. But now I look at our class photo with only a vague recollection of a lot of now-nameless faces. Even among the people in the photo I do still remember and can name, will I recognize them with all of the changes 20 years have brought? Will I recognize them without teased perms and mullets?

Second, Facebook.

Like it or hate it (or both, as seems to be the case with most people), Facebook has had a profound impact on how we keep in touch with the people in our lives, especially those on the periphery of it. And few people occupy the periphery of our lives quite like those we spent 13 years with in public school and then haven’t seen since.

There are plenty of people with whom I was at best a passing acquaintance in high school, but who are now, by Facebook terms, my “friends.” Facebook keeps us in contact with a wide network of friends, family, coworkers and acquaintances past and present in ways that were never before imaginable. But for the most part these contacts are profoundly superficial. I might know that you went to the beach last weekend, or what you had for lunch, or that you have too much time on your hands to spend looking at cat photos, or that you and I have divergent political views. But when’s the last time we actually saw each other face to face? When did we go out for a beer or come over to each other’s houses for a barbecue or work together on an exciting new project? Facebook defines trivia, in the worst possible way.

Sadder though than the superficial connections Facebook creates with people I only ever had superficial connections with in the first place, are the superficial connections Facebook creates between me and the people with whom I was actually close friends in high school. Sure, many of them are now scattered across the country (or the world) and we couldn’t really hope for a more “real” connection than what Facebook offers. But a handful of my good friends from high school currently live in the same city as I do, and yet we only have those same trivial connections on Facebook. We could get together any time we want, not just when our entire class converges on our hometown to mark the frighteningly fast passage of time.

But we don’t.

Over the past few years I’ve been looking forward to this reunion with uncertainty. What kind of impact was Facebook going to have on it? Are reunions even necessary in the era of Facebook? Now that it’s (almost) here, I’m getting a better sense that, yes, reunions do still have an important place in our lives. Because while Facebook might keep us connected, it doesn’t really keep us in touch.

It does make planning the event a lot easier though.

My Simpsons family

A few weeks ago I wrote about the Burger King-sponsored “Simpsonize Me” site. Well, I never got that to work, but a colleague recently started using a Groening-style avatar of himself on AIM. (Interestingly enough, the avatar resembles the Simpsons character Dr. Nick Riviera, and this colleague is also named Nick. He does not claim Hollywood Upstairs Medical College as his alma mater however.)

I asked him about it and he mentioned the fact that the Simpsons Movie website has a build-an-avatar feature too, which is what he used to create his. It’s not automatic like the Burger King one is (or at least claims to be), but it works, in Mii Channel fashion.

And so, without further ado, and at risk of Fox siccing its lawyers on me (note I kept the illegible legalese at the bottom of the image below), here is my family, Simpsons style.

Simpsons family

Day Out with Thomas

We have a 3-year-old son, which means, inevitably, that our house is filled beyond capacity with Thomas the Tank Engine paraphernalia.

Over the year-plus of his ongoing obsession with the little blue “Really Useful Engineâ„¢,” we’ve learned that the owners of the Thomas trademark will spare every expense where quality is concerned. They know, 3-year-old boys don’t care about quality. They want it, even if it’s crap, and they’ll whine until their parents shell out $20 for 10 cents’ worth of Made-in-China plastic.

Then, of course, there’s the wondrous phenomenon that is “Day Out with Thomas.” This is basically a traveling Homer Simpson-quality carnival (minus the moldy mattresses, but including several barely-appealing attractions partitioned with soggy hay bales), topped off by a teenager in a Sir Topham Hatt costume and an overpriced ride on a train pulling a flimsy full-scale model of Thomas the Tank Engine, apparently constructed of plywood and fiberglass, with a dry ice machine inside the funnel.

Now, if I seem a bit cynical and negative when it comes to an event designed to appeal to people just discovering the fascination of smelling their own underpants (trust me, it’s true), it’s only because the coordinators of said event went beyond simply doing everything on the cheap; I am convinced they threw in added touches that didn’t cost — or save — them so much as a penny, but were sure to add to parents’ frustration and dismay with the overall experience.

We arrived in Stillwater, MN for our own Day Out with Thomas today around 1:30 PM, a full hour and a half before our scheduled train ride. By 2:45, our son’s excitement was at fever pitch, so we were relieved and genuinely enthused, if not excited ourselves, when we could begin boarding the train. My wife and I viewed it mainly as an opportunity to get a taste of riding the Minnesota Zephyr without shelling out $71 each for the full-blown experience that includes a gourmet 5-course dinner.

But… oh, man.

We knew going into it that our $17 (each, mind you, including our 3-year-old) was only buying us a 20-minute ride. But we knew nothing of the distance, or lack thereof, involved. The ride consisted of 10 minutes out, stop, reverse, and 10 minutes back. Fair enough. But the train never surpassed the pace of a brisk stroll. At one point the train was passed by a guy on a bike. Seriously. The outbound limit of the journey, on a track that runs parallel to highway 95 on one side and the St. Croix River on the other, was just slightly beyond, but still within sight of, the wayside rest we used as a turnaround while trying to locate a parking space.

But our son loved it, which made it all worthwhile.

Wait, how much did I spend on those tickets…?