Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Personal History of Epic Failings and One Success

“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. I enjoyed the constant flow of brightly colored solicitations in my parent’s mailbox 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-skin shield; 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. But I was bound for a UC school, anyway. It was somehow implicit.

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. I remember a sort of dimly lit scene that I now think might have been imagined—a 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; it was sort of Celtic. It must have been imagined because all photos of Stanford are full of sun and sandstone, and, not particularly Celtic. I didn’t really perceive the strange old mission/art nouveau style of architecture that covers the campus until I visited in the spring of ‘03.

I replied to the postcard, and got an application. It had only recently learned that Stanford was in California—in the MTV film ‘Orange County’, Jack Black drives from southern California to the Stanford campus in a matter of hours, and burns down the admission office. I forget why; Tom Hanks’ son is trying to get admitted, and trying to become a writer. And so I learned that Stanford was only a few hours up the Pacific coast. It was only somewhat misleading.

I applied, nearly furtively. I don’t think my parents knew until I asked them for the $75 application fee. There is something embarrassing about ambition when failure is so readily expected.

The mailman incorrectly delivered my admission packet, giving it to a neighbor with big hair. She brought it over and said congratulations. I wonder if the mailman did that intentionally, based on a nearly forgotten but deep-set resentment from thirty years passed.

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—computers become a pain when you get into real work. But then, most work is a pain. A few years later I had a degree in English. With a creative writing focus! I did that, truthfully, because it was the easiest thing to do. When something is easy, you probably have some talent in the area. Unfortunately I had never written a story, and wrote some pathetic stuff to get decent grades; you really only have to show up to a creative writing class to get a B. Academic papers were the same.

At the end of high school, on the AP English test, I wrote an essay on Pride and Prejudice and got full marks; I’d only read a third of the book. A couple years ago I wrote an essay on The Sound and the Fury, the Benji part, and did well; I’d only read a third of that book. I found, later, that the remaining two thirds were really good; I never finished P&P. These are two victorious moments in my history of minimal effort. (Rather, my effort is put into unquantifiable things that satisfy and interest me, like this writing). More recently I wrote a paper on Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and received the only A+ I would ever get in college. I have no idea what that book is about; something with fireworks and India. When no one understands a particular subject, anyone with confidence can be an authority.

That is my one success—I have a degree in English. As far as the epic failings, well, I have a degree in English, but that is all. What else would there be? Some kind of enlightenment? I really don’t know.

There still exists a scene, on a campus that doesn’t exist, in the shadows of a low fog along the rose bushes and the balustrade, where something cinematic happens. Something like a parting kiss between two lovers in the forties, off to war and death within months. It’s a sort of appreciation for what is and what has been, in knowing the present is as solid as a haze of soon gone cigarette smoke, up and out in bluish wisps, and in 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.

The wind-sounds and the coffee make me sentimental, you see.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sometimes the easiest path can be the most difficult. Look forward and not back. you'll see the end of the beginning.


the end of something.