Friday, December 20, 2013

This is about Astral Weeks; this is not about Astral Weeks

In what is possibly the most edifying commencement speech of our time, David Foster Wallace sketched out a rough outline of adulthood for Kenyon College's Class of 2005. Middle age's defining battle will not take place in the home, the workplace, or a fast-food drive-thru line. No, according to Wallace, this battle will take place inside us, for surviving those middle years is predicated upon whether or not we can muster the strength to "stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out" and endure the "large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches ... boredom, routine, and petty frustration." Wallace, I should mention at this point, hung himself when he was 46.

When I was the same age as the graduates Wallace enlightened, I freelanced for a variety of local weeklies. On deadline nights, I hung around the office of my old college newspaper, chatting with friends who had yet to graduate, extolling them on the merits of a career in the newspaper industry (this was 1996—things were grand). I drank cans of cheap domestic beer, hammered out countless inches of freelance copy, and dispatched stories to my editors via the newspaper's fax machine. I wrote drunk, but only because the banality of high school sportswriting demanded I do so.

One night, I drove a friend from the office to his apartment in Brighton. If Hollywood has taught us anything, it's that terribly profound heart-to-hearts generally take place in automobiles, so as we rode through Boston—orange streetlights dancing across the windshield, our faces masks of shadowy tension, the song on the radio echoing our conversation—we chatted about post-college life and the transition into adulthood. The phrase "Please kill me if I am still hanging at the college newspaper in 10 years" was heard more than once; we lamented our lack of decent job prospects. This is what we primarily discussed: failure—how it would take shape, when it would confront us, what it would feel like to be utterly squashed by it. Because when you're awarded that freshly embossed diploma and endlessly alerted to the certain triumphs and trophies that await you, it's inevitable that you start dwelling on what goes unspoken, what is entirely disregarded, what lurks in the darkness ready to pounce: All that you dream of one day accomplishing may remain just a dream.

Last week, as I sat in my car in our office parking lot, an adjacent truck slowly inched backwards and for an instant, there was the illusion that I was moving forward even though I was stationery—a metaphor not lost on me. James Salter, who penned one of my favorite books that I read this year, wrote the following sentence in his latest work, All That Is: "There comes a time when you realize that everything is a dream, and only those things preserved in writing have any possibility of being real." This is Salter grimly recognizing that life is alarmingly fleeting and a recurring setting for the unimaginable—that failure to leave our own unique mark on the world is the most terrifying failure of all, one you never considered when engaging in late-night heart-to-hearts in automobiles in your twenties.

So I heed the words of individuals like Wallace, who point the way out of this middle-age tangle—one where I am moving forward without moving at all. Be free, Wallace advises, be conscious. The world is in front of you and behind you and all around you—seize it, scrutinize it, savor it. Pursue the kind of freedom that's centered on knowledge and passion. And get cracking on that legacy: a piece of art, a piece of writing, a piece of music, anything that incorporates a piece of yourself.

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