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As I entered the dimly lit banquet room to celebrate my 50th high school reunion, it felt like I was starting an exercise in distortions, like peering through a quartz block or catching every third word of a muffled conversation.

Attendees at reunions are clearly survivors. In a twist of phrase, only the good die old, and only the successful celebrate their lives publicly. This creates the misconception that our whole class was especially favored with talent, vitality and longevity, overlooking the many who avoid reunions because of psychic depression, disabling illness, death, and just plain lack of interest.

Time distortions are particularly apparent. I readily became disoriented conversing intently about past events, slipping into a ghostly 17-year-old body hidden deep inside my arthritic bones. The classmates I met, initially unfamiliar, responded with a familiar voice behind a familiar smile, transporting me back to the 1960s with memories as intense as yesterday.

We flit lightly over decades of adventures, predicaments and sorrows, delivering short phrases with a wave of the hand. One classmate summarized a harrowing medical crisis with a shallow laugh: “And, of course, I didn’t die!”

Distortions of appearance are no less striking. Softened, wrinkled and graying, we form a broad bell curve of varying physical deteriorations. The bulk of us are in the middle and mostly just bulkier. Those at one extreme thwart aging as if by magic (often with surgical help), while those at the other extreme are unrecognizable, looking more like imposters or uninvited party crashers.

Even our thinking is distorted. Comparing mental pictures from the past, we recount details varying from photographic to non-existent. Frank talk, so easy during a protected hiatus from unforgiving reality, opens new perspectives on past fears and stereotypes, suggesting they may have been exaggerated or even imaginary. Each classmate served as an ideal for some others of us. In my case, I imagined a generic “good person” or “good citizen” possessing the best traits of the many I admired.

Ambition is a glaring distortion, difficult to hide, then and now. After 50 years, we recognize the intensity of our ambition and that it persists into the present. Alternately, I met some classmates who made dramatic, even courageous shifts from mundane objectives like wealth and power, to more personal and passionate targets like art, music or philanthropy.

Many of us have turned our focus to newly hatched grandchildren, hoping we can help them understand the complex world we know only too well. The Zeitgeist or “spirit of the times” of the early 1960s caused cultural distortions that echo to this day. Back then we rode the crest of our parents’ American Dream of children destined to excel, easily out-performing prior generations. Today we wonder if we were just delusional then, or perhaps in some grand educational pilot study yet to be replicated.

The flame of adolescent ambition burns on, especially when channeled thoughtfully to meet today’s challenges. Precious ideals from that optimistic era have a place in this dispirited world desperately seeking answers.