Wednesday, May 30, 2007

And now it's time for... the thoughts of an ENGLISH MAJOR

Ahh the public library - the chosen hang-out for the homeless and freelance writers. I took a nice chair in a well-lit corner, pulled up an ottoman (they have ottomans at the Boulder Public Library, I shit you not) and started to read a bunch of the wonderful magazines and newspapers I'd never gotten a real good chance to connect with, back when I had an actual productive source of employment and didn't just have a whole span of nothing to do in the middle of the day.

I flipped through today's New York Times. You know, there's no better thing than an actual real-life dead-tree newspaper. I love the sound the pages make when you turn them. The sort of gray curtain they lift up between you and the world. I can't really stand reading text on a computer screen for very long. (Then why am I writing a blog? I will not answer that question.) My eyes get tired and, inevitably, I get sucked into another rousing round of Desktop Defense when I really should be reading about the world's great tragedies. Maybe fifty years from now I'll be telling my grandkids about how newspapers used to be made out of paper.

And then I opened up the latest issue of the New Yorker. You know, after a lot of moving around, after a lot of uncertainty, after the stress of being unemployed - this was it. I was home. I know these writers, these topics - and more importantly, I knew the slightly snooty, supremely well crafted voice of the New Yorker. And what I like best, I reveled in the curiosity of it all. I mean, in the New Yorker you find some of the more interesting tidbits in the entire world.

So I read that magazine with a broad smile on my face. I couldn't wipe it off. For one, there was a wonderful short story by George Saunders, who, if you haven't read him, is in my top three living authors list (which, to give you all fair warning, is probably ten or fifteen names long). For two, there was my favorite New Yorker Cartoon EVER. And then there was a really cool article on Turkmenistan, which was ruled with an iron fist by an absolute psycho - I mean, this megalomaniacal psycho put all those other psychos to shame.

But there was something else. It wasn't that it was peaceful. It was that it was familiar. I was at home with these, these - magazines. More than I was at home anywhere else.

And I thought - do I belong, then, to an invisible nation who loves to read the Times and the Review and the New Yorker and anything else and everything else? Are we lurking out there, in tweed, sipping coffee, criticizing other people's grammar, just waiting to find one another?

Or are we, this invisible nation, people who just press our noses up to the glass of a fancy dinner party served in a fancy manor that is the New Yorker? We can all see the beautiful, urbane people telling their jokes and sipping their wine. And maybe, for a second, just for a second, we can fool ourselves into thinking that we actually belong inside, at the table, perhaps to Hertzberg's left. We think that, given the time and the openness, all those wonderful erudite people would realize that our witty quips were explosive, that our taste in books impressive, that our grammar is - profound. But maybe not. Probably not. Definitely not.

It's more complicated than that. How can I try to lay claim to a community of media, of things that are necessarily mediated and one-sided? To stacks of paper? To a group of people who just, by fancy or by pretense, like reading the same damned stacks of paper.

I thought about this in that thoughtful way that sometimes plagues me. It was very picturesque. Here's me standing on a bridge, looking soulfully down at the rushing river water. A good young American boy. Contemplating the world. Here's me walking with some friends - what's that? an invisible burden on this young man's shoulders? Oh no! Can anyone say bildungsroman? And here's me, in front of a computer, crafting a blog post.

And yet, more than anything in the world, I just want a nice chocolate chip muffin.

Ain't life sure funny sometimes?

Friday, May 25, 2007

You know what's weird?

Rocking out. I mean, rocks are probably the best thing in the whole universe at just sitting there, doing nothing. Which means that they're the thing least likely to rock out.

Maybe next time I'm bedridden with sickness or hangover or worry, I'll tell someone I'm rocking out. And they'll ask me what I mean. And I'll say I'm acting like a rock.

And that's why English majors don't have any friends.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Pomp and Perspiration

It wasn't real. We black-robed, silly-hatted seniors were lined up to wait for the offices of commencement to start - which meant we were graduating. And none of us could believe that we were actually graduating, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I thought it was more likely that the whole deal was a lame practical joke: our professors would wink at us when we got our diplomas and we'd open them up to see just a big GOTCHA where a real diploma should be . So we made small talk, joked, took photos, and began sweating through the graduation robes.

And then, as if guided by some force, we arranged ourselves into alphabetical order, and started to walk from the front of ARH to the lawns of central campus, where we were to sit in uncomfortable plastic chairs, lose about a gallon of sweat, and somehow complete four years of education.

When we, the class of 2007, first came to Grinnell, we were probably too busy trying to impress our fellow college students with how college-studenty we were to think of ever leaving Grinnell. But we were there, older, more freaked out, and presumably wiser, to do that very thing. The ceremony was all incredibly uplifting and wise, I have to tell you. What I caught of it, anyway. But I found I couldn't think about duty, or education, or any of the things I was being encouraged to worry about in profound ways - I had more practical things to do. I sweat. Those black robes, in thestifling mid-day heat of an Iowa summer, without much of a breeze, make a person feel less like they were graduating from an elite liberal arts institution and more like he was stranded in theSahara , with the buzzards gathering. What most observers would take as a look of sublimity on our faces, or satisfaction, or relief was more likely the symptoms of heat-stroke. I even watched a ragged student take off his robes and wring the water out of them, before he swooned and fell down, his facesmooshed up against his mortar board. His parents probably thought he was doing something academic, and snapped a couple photos to show the folks back home.

When I wasn't sweating, I thought about how I needed to pee, and when I didn't think about that, I was just disappointed. After the high school band played every uplifting tune besides Pomp and Circumstance, after we filed into our seats, after the Chaplin prayed to an inoffensive, one-sized-fits-all higher power, after the speeches were all read, the honorary degrees awarded, the hands clapped, the class of '07 rose up, one by one, to shake President Osgood’s hand and grab a diploma. Then we sat back down, watched the rest of the parade, and tried to clap extra-loud when one of our friends mounted the stage. This was important, I guess. But shouldn't my brain grow a couple sizes larger now? Shouldn't I be able to wave my diploma in front of a prospective employer's face and get a job? Shouldn't something happen?

But then it was over. No lightning, no fire. We just all pulled off our robes and collapsed in heaps in the shade. Families found their children, and the children tried to lose their families, and off we all went to a picnic on South Camps so weGrinnellians could get one last chance at making awkward conversation. Mingling for Grinnellians is a bit of a difficult proposition normally. In Grinnell you might awkwardly wave at a person, say, you kissed one night. But at the picnic, you get introduced the the girl's parents, siblings, and aunts, and they want to know everything about you. Our oldest friends from college were introduced to our friends who knew us when we picked our noses and played with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; our teachers were introduced to our parents - one side of the equation having taught us how to think critically, write, and live – the other side having taught us, among other things, how not to shit our pants.

Once the picnic ended, we wandered away to family dinners and naps. We would never take another Grinnell class. We would never again walk through the loggias and see familiar faces, and try to avoid those familiar faces. We were leaving everything behind - besides our diplomas.

The few Grinnellians who stuck around Grinnell found the pub soon empty, the campus abandoned, our lives together stopped, almost mid-motion. It seemed cruel to leave Grinnell like that, the place that we had known for so long, to have say goodbye to everyone, to have to get a job, to take off that sweaty black robe and that silly square hat and actually have to miss what we were about to leave behind - the all-nighters, the bad parties, the awkward conversations. It wasn't uplifting, or exciting. It was sad. Not just because it was an end of something big, but because it felt like our shared lives didn't have to end, like we could live in college our whole lives and never have to leave anyone.

But we were finally Grinnellians. You become a Grinnellian, I think, only when you leave, only when the chemical reaction of classes and stress and dining hall food and everything have done their slow invisible work. Because being aGrinnellian isn't about being in Grinnell, or even talking with Grinnellians (or logging onto plans). It's about a certain way of looking at the world and caring about what we look at. And maybe that's why I was disappointed with the pomp - I was expecting it to be a celebration of us leavingGrinnell. It wasn't that at all. It was about how we had become Grinnellians. It was about how we were not done yet. We were only just beginning. But maybe that's just the heat-stroke talking.

Go West, Young Man!

It's the morning, the first morning of my post-graduation, Western life. I am sitting in a cafe, listening to people chattering, the rustle of newspapers and the chaos of cafe life. I am slightly east of the Continental Divide, looking, as we speak, at MOUNTAINS, beautiful, tree-covered, sunny MOUNTAINS which are in - literally - my back yard, feeling Western, with an Akubra hat perched rakishly (well, silly-ly) on my head.
I am unemployed. I have not yet moved in to my new room. I feel scared and ecstatic in about equal proportions.
Check back frequently - not for updates about BORING PERSONAL CRAP... but for writing, commentary, and that sort of thing. Hopefully once a day. But I can't promise anything.