[I wrote this first part a few years ago]
“It is youth’s felicity as well as its insufficiency that it can never live in the present, but must always be measuring up the day against its own radiantly imagined future—flowers and gold, girls and stars, they are only prefigurations and prophecies of that incomparable, unattainable young dream.” – FSF
I think back to my views of school and college and life, and all that lay ahead, when I was a sixteen year old high school student, sending applications to a few universities with some sort of epic grandeur in mind. As a result of filling a check box on one of the many standardized tests that demarcated us into academic ranks, I enjoyed a constant flow of brightly colored solicitations in the mail from schools wanting my attendance, or my money, or, from a more egotistical standpoint, my mind. Princeton had an orange coat of arms on their informational packet, like a tiger; I liked that, but did not think I had the kind of academic and far-reaching background to be qualified for such a place. Financially—who could know? Middle Americans afforded tuition somehow. My parents reminded me, when choosing schools, that my father might be laid off soon; I ignored that, preferring debts and dreams to grounded realism. I was bound for a UC school, anyway. It was implicit because it was practical.
Stanford sent me a postcard. It had a picture of archways and flowers. That’s all I’d seen of the campus—some arches and some flowers. It inspired daydreams of a dimly lit scene of a stone balustrade over roses the color of dried blood, foliage deep green like moss on the shore of a freshwater lake. There was a soft mist, and a soft mold growing on the arched pillars. There is nowhere at Stanford quite like this, but the dream was appealing.
I applied without discussing my intentions with anyone. I don’t think my parents knew until I asked them for the $75 application fee. Ambition is embarrassing when failure is so readily expected. Months later, the mailman incorrectly delivered my admission packet to a neighbor with big hair. She brought it over and said congratulations.
That’s the short of it. I had no particular academic ambitions. I thought I’d study something with computers, something with animation and design, the neat things that fascinated me. I don’t know why those ideas did not pan out—the logic and math of programming ultimately had no appeal. A few years later I had a degree in English, focusing in creative writing. Why? It was simply the path of least resistance. I floated down that creek without any intention, and it was all pretty easy. I never understood why my friends would stay awake through the night as they labored over academic papers. I would just write the darn things in one go, proofread, and then sit at the outdoor café after printing it in the library. My brilliant friends did have better grades, but I had better sleep.
Near the end of high school, I wrote an essay on Pride and Prejudice and got full marks; I’d only read a third of the book. Later I wrote an essay on The Sound and the Fury; I’d only read a third of that book too and did wonderfully. Some managers say you should assign the most difficult tasks to lazy people, because lazy folks will find a way to achieve the most by intelligently doing the least. S&F is of course worth reading, but as Mark Twain said, “Every time I read ‘Pride and Prejudice‘ I want to dig [Jane Austen] up and beat her over the skull with her own shin-bone.”
My last class was not easy. Literary theory. It began as a joke of sesquipedalian pedantry and became an interesting challenge of parsing incredibly complicated language and philosophic thought. Handwriting the final essay in the café above the bookstore gave me a rush, truly, from the fire of clarity and understanding and confidence in the face of difficult work. Then it was done. That was that. I had a college degree, but no enlightenment. What might come next was the only thing that mattered.
There still exists a dream in the shadows of a low fog along the rose bushes and the balustrade where some fleeting alchemy sparks a realization. Something like a parting kiss between two lovers, off to war and death, an appreciation for what is and what has been, in knowing the present is a haze of soon gone cigarette smoke, up and out in bluish wisps, and knowing the future is only its imagined shadows. It’s some sort of epic grandeur that exists once you acknowledge your failings and reach for something just beyond reason. That’s the ticket: something just beyond reason.
Some years have passed since I first wrote this. I felt proud but empty at the time; proud to have graduated from a renowned university, but aware that I didn’t work very hard for the degree and it did not necessarily demonstrate practical capability in a professional context. Now I’ve worked a few decent jobs, and quit a few decent jobs. I am proud to have not failed in any specific regard, but embarrassed to have succeeded in none. Though I am proud of the hard work I did for my previous employer.
That part’s a little amusing; my supervisor, who I had worked fairly closely with for a few years, was required to do employee evaluations under the new CEO. We sat at the bar in the restaurant down the block and she told me I was doing well. I told her it was time for me to leave the company. She sighed, unsurprised. She knew that I was never living in the present and that my resignation was just an inevitability.
I’m working on some screenplays and it makes me quite happy to do so. Roll your eyes, appropriately. Of course it’s a shame that I need to find a way to pay the rent, and need to find a new job to quit (just kidding, potential employers; by the way, your hair looks nice to day). It’s been disparaging how little traction I’ve been able to find in the Los Angeles job market, but one way or another, I’ll land on my feet. I might end up living in my parents’ garage while I refill my empty coffers by grilling burgers, Stanford degree in tow, but I’ll land on my feet. Tomorrow holds too much possibility not to.