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Duly Noted
Tied up in knots over Alumni Notes. By Stephanie Williams

I am an ambitious, competitive, jealous person, which must be why I am obsessed with the Alumni Notes that appear in the back of the Gazette. Every month, I quickly and surreptitiously flip to the section, as if I were about to peek at porn instead of a list of alumni activities. The comparison is apt, because they get me hot under the collar and very bothered.
Illustration by Don Carney   
But let me explain. I use the Notes as a status report telling me what I need to accomplish if I want to keep up with the Joneses. The fact that I don’t know most of the people who submit these Notes doesn’t make a whit of difference. It’s a cross-section of people I can compare myself to; we’re bound together in a tenuous but very real way by our Ivy League education. I try to get the most accurate comparison possible by focusing almost exclusively on Notes from fellow 1992 grads.
   
Reading the Notes used to be a casual pastime, but now that my classmates and I are at the age that we’re actually accomplishing things, it’s become an intense one, with complex motives and parameters. I completely ignore the vast bulk of the Notes, the ones that feature indistinguishable reports about so-and-so’s latest promotion at blah-de-blah law firm/investment bank/consulting company. I got over my Wharton envy long ago. Besides, these are achievements you’d expect from a Penn grad–akin to Scottie Pippin doing a lay-up. They’re uninspiring. Unworthy of envy.
   
Outrageously successful classmates don’t get to me either. Actually, these are people who don’t usually even appear in the Notes because they don’t need to; the word is already out on what they’re doing. I have a built-in rationalization whenever I see Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer C’92 in Vogue, or Melissa Rivers C’92 on E!, or Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. C’92 in The New York Times Magazine. As offspring of well-known people, they had a head start.
   
Then I come to the 5 percent or so of Notes that describe lives that I’d like to be leading. Like a certain guy I made a drunken pass at freshman year in the Quad. I got indigestion when I read that he’d just published a novel. It reminded me what a fool I made of myself way back when. It made me wonder why I hadn’t spent my college years in sober reflection, questing for knowledge as he’d obviously done–rather than hoisting cans of Meister Brau. Most of all, it made me feel as if he’d "stolen" my note. Writing books is what I’m supposed to be doing. (Actually, reading about any alum who’s published a book hurts me–unless they graduated before, say, 1990–in which case, I find them inspiring.)
   
I also have mini-identity crises when I read Notes about people who’ve chosen the road not taken–who’ve packed up and moved to Australia or become something quirky, like an inventor. Probably by nature, these Notes are few and far between: People who go their own way aren’t concerned about what people think, so why would they care to write in? (I can’t imagine my friend Sonia Stoszek C’92 taking time out from doing her epidemiological study in Cairo to write to the Gazette.) As my pal Marilyn Spiegel C’92 puts it, "I’d just love to see someone write in and say, ‘Screw corporate culture, I’m a carpenter in Vermont.’ But I can’t see it happening." Me neither.
   
I’m ashamed to say that occasionally, even sappy Notes about domestic bliss can get me all tied up in knots, especially if they feature an old crush or mention of a wedding ceremony bulging with Penn people. The latter make me feel sad about how few classmates I keep in touch with, until I come to my senses and realize that I have no desire to hear "The Red and the Blue" heartily sung at my wedding (like one over-enthusiastic Note-writer). It’s horrible, but marriage announcements also make me feel unworthy. "Just living together" is perfectly satisfactory to me, but it isn’t quite up to snuff, Note-wise. What would I write? "Stephanie Williams C’92 lives with her boyfriend, FSU grad Laurin Smith (a computer consultant), in Brooklyn"? Boring. "They watch the Seminoles on their 61-inch TV"? Repulsive.
   
Some people do write Notes that are this self-indulgent–and inspire the scorn of Note-readers everywhere. My friend Andy Burrows C’92 (who, incidentally, says he’d like to see the Notes turned into a personals column) says he’s disgusted by a certain girl from his freshman dorm. "She had an annoying personality to begin with, and now she’s always popping up with a description of how happy she is: the latest age of her baby, the degrees of her husband," he says. "Ugh!"
   
Which brings up the dark side of my Notes obsession. Balancing out my fierce envy is an equally robust sense of superiority I feel while getting my bimonthly fix. It made my week to read that a certain goody-two-shoes, who raised her hand far too often in English Lit classes, is now writing for a sleazy men’s magazine. I also feel glee when I read about strangers who are gloating over menial-sounding jobs, especially when they discuss themselves in awestruck tones. It gives me a boost to know I’m way cooler than they are.
   
As some would argue in reference to porn, there is a socially redeeming side to my twisted, masochistic, sadistic, rude obsession. Checking out these brief resumes of Penn overachievers makes me reevaluate what I’m doing, how I’m doing at it, and why. My friend Adam Fawer W’92 says he checks the Notes to see what random things he could have accomplished by now–become a doctor, started some company, had three kids–if he hadn’t chosen to go to Stanford Business School instead. (He calls it "exploring parallel-universe doppelgangers." Whatever.)
   
But I do the same thing. Sometimes, I realize how happy I am to be what I am. Sometimes, I have a fit of jealousy that reminds me to challenge myself to do something Note-worthy. If and when the day comes when I attain that goal and write that blasted book, you may well hear about it–whether you want to or not.


Stephanie Williams C’92, a Brooklyn-based freelance writer, admits that she wrote this article merely to let everyone know that she writes for New York magazine and has contributed to more than a dozen other publications, including SmartMoney and Men’s Health.

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