Thursday, May 20, 2010

Dads and Grads

It's been a couple of weeks now since I went to New England to attend EFU's commencement from a small liberal arts college in Vermont. How small is it? Well, during the two days I was there, I probably heard fifty times that EFU's graduating class of 85 was the biggest graduating class ever. This proud announcement was almost always coupled with a warning: the graduation ceremony would be commensurately long. Long graduation ceremonies, it appears, are taxing on the students, faculty, and staff; on proud parents, not so much.

The paradox of time dictates that it must be true (and so it is) that my own college graduation happened a lifetime ago but that the intervening years have passed in the blink of an eye, and it was not so hard to remember my own commencement, which I would gladly have slept through, but which I attended to please my own proud parents. (EFU, similarly, would just as soon have spent the morning sleeping, but the similarities end there: I took a leave of absence during college and so took six years to finish up, and I only managed a respectable GPA -- we had a different term for it, as we did for everything -- by pulling straight As on every course in the two semesters following my return; EFU graduated in three years, and with honors. My parents' pride was based largely in cluelessness.) As you might expect, all that nostalgia combined with all that pride made for something of an emotional weekend, and, indeed, even now I can write about it only with some difficulty.

YFU -- who preferred to wield her iPod in my car rather than face the uncertain musical choices of her mother and stepfather -- rode with me to and from Vermont. I had taken Friday off and had meant to pick her up right after school and head north, but I had slept late, possibly due to having stayed up later than absolutely necessary the night before, and then had woken to the realization that my lawn was not likely to cut itself, so I had gone to the Home Depot and purchased a lawn mower. I brought it home, assembled it, and proceeded to nearly destroy it before sorting things out, but then the afternoon was nearly gone, and I had still to pack, and, well, it is too late to make a long story short, but we left the house a little before 7, stopping at an entirely nondescript motel in an entirely nondescript town in Connecticut (which some people have uncharitably described as a nondescript state, but I reckon that any state that has ever been represented by Joe Lieberman has already suffered enough), sometime around 3 the next morning.

After breakfast, we continued northward, and shortly after noon, we met up with EFU, and, lo, there was much rejoicing. Well, I rejoiced: EFU, having worked like a fiend to finish her thesis before the submission deadline, was enjoying some well-deserved sluggishness. (Almost literally: I was tempted to poor salt on her.) She roused herself at the mention of lunch, however, so we ate at a local diner and then headed into Brattleboro.

Brattleboro is an exceptionally charming small town, especially the southern part, which houses several used book stores and a great number of small gift shops with prices that seem unburdened by such trifling considerations as supply and demand. It is really just the sort of place where one would expect New England liberal arts-type liberals to congregate. I wondered momentarily why it is that I don't spend more time in such places, but I decided not to think about it, as there were other things to do. I thought instead that the town's policy to put its parking citations in pink envelopes was charming but perhaps incongruous.

We walked around town for a while, and I allowed both YFU and EFU to make small purchases at one of the less overpriced gift shops before we went to one of the used book stores. I recalled briefly just how many hours I used to spend in used book stores when I lived in the Boston area, and when (of course) I was much younger, but that sort of reflection rarely leads to anything good, and there were, after all, other things to be done, so I allowed myself only fifteen minutes and one purchase.

We had still not checked into our accommodations for the weekend. I was not planning to spend any significant amount of time in my room, which, as it turned out, I would be sharing with YFU, so I had gone to one of the nearly innumerable Internet travel sites and found what seemed like a very good rate on a room at a chain motel. The travel site likely didn't know that the Ramada was also hosting the Vermont gun show this weekend. The situation gave me a bit of pause, especially since the gun showroom was located immediately adjacent to the bar, but I had already and non-refundably paid for the room and, again, was not expecting to spend much time there, so we checked into the room, which was clean and otherwise unremarkable. As we were walking down the hallway, past the gun show, EFU noted, "Northern Brattleboro is very different from Southern Brattleboro." Indeed.

We had to be at the college around 4 for a trustees' reception for graduating seniors and their families, so we set off in the car. The college itself is located in a neighboring town that is so small as to seem to not quite exist, the town hall and some signage notwithstanding. The drive there is very pretty, especially in mid-May, when there are lilacs everywhere. And the college itself is very pretty, though at the same time it bears rather a strong resemblance to a summer camp.

In general, I would have no interest in attending a trustees' reception, and certainly neither EFU nor YFU would want to do so when they could be sleeping or reading (respectively), but in this particular case one of (and the youngest, apparently by a significant margin) the college's trustees turned out to be an online acquaintance whom I have known without ever having met for nearly ten years, off and on, so I had someone to talk to. I was loath to monopolize his time, but he apparently felt under no obligation to mingle, and I had no interest in making small talk with people who were virtual as well as actual strangers, so I spent a very pleasant hour chatting with him. Not surprisingly, he has a great deal of affection for the college, though he thought that it could use some cosmetic work. I told him that I found it entirely charming, though large parts of it could certainly pass for the sort of place where J.D. Salinger might hide from society. He told me that it doubles as a music camp during the summer.

EFU did not want to attend the community dinner that followed the reception (Because she's graduating in three years, most of her friends are juniors, and she doesn't feel that much of a kinship with her classmates. She told me that, not having wanted to make small talk, she arrived late to the senior dinner and had had to take the only seat remaining, next to the president of the college.), and my trustee friend told me that we would not be missing anything by skipping it. My ex-wife and her husband arrived right at the end of the reception and wanted to take EFU to meet her advisor. EFU didn't think her advisor would be in his office and wanted to go back to her cabin and then to dinner, so I said that I would meet her at the car in fifteen minutes. I took the opportunity to spend some time with the lilacs, of which I am inordinately fond, though much more so when they are on the tree than in any other context.

Fifteen minutes stretched to an hour, and I struggled a bit to maintain good humor, as I suspected that the delay was largely due to something my ex-wife wanted to do. It later turned out that the group had made its way to the library where my ex-wife had taken the opportunity to use the college's computers to spend nearly an hour reading her sister's website. This struck me as unnecessary. Fortunately, I still had the lilacs to look at. I also spent a significant amount of time listening to and watching some very colorful birds who refused to be photographed.

When the girls finally showed up, with apologies, we all returned to EFU's cabin. It was something of a mess, even though EFU had already spent a considerable amount of time packing. It seemed that the other four or five residents had not been similarly industrious. We headed back towards Brattleboro, to a restaurant of EFU's choosing. It was a sort of pan-Asian establishment that served a large number of highly sweetened and dangerously alcoholic beverages in pleasantly kitschy ceramic vessels. The food was very good, though. The decor relied heavily on pandas, provoking a discussion as to whether the panda is, indeed, a bear. My ex-wife was sure that it wasn't, but I was able to pull out my iPhone and consult the Internet, which had the twin benefits of making YFU complain about my iPhone boasting and proving my ex-wife incorrect on a matter of zoology.

I very much wanted to avoid being late to the ceremony the next day, as we had been warned that seating would be available on a first-come-first-served basis, so YFU and I turned in early. We got up on time the next morning and had a large and pleasant breakfast at another diner-type establishment near the motel, and then we set off for the college. I may have overestimated the amount of time we would need to get dressed and eat.

Fortunately, YFU had brought a GameBoy, and I had had the foresight, at breakfast, to download a game to my iPhone, cell phone service being spotty at best out in the wilds (EFU had spent much of the past several weeks having her sleep interrupted by a black bear who was showing an unhealthy level of interest in her cabin's trash) of Vermont. I spent the next forty-five minutes launching Angry Birds as the hall filled up.

Once the ceremony started, of course, I couldn't play any more games, so I had a lot of time to think. This was not so much true in the beginning, when there were a number of very good speeches, but the reason I had been repeatedly warned about the length of the ceremony is that when each student receives his or her neatly printed and enfoldered explanation as to why the diplomas are not yet ready, the president or the dean reads not only his or her name, but also a considerable amount of additional information about his or her field of study and thesis/project. It takes about thirty to forty-five seconds per graduate. The ways in which EFU and I are alike begin with our last names; unsurprisingly, the class was graduated alphabetically, which meant that EFU was the penultimate recipient of a bachelor's degree.

It is always a dangerous situation when I have a lot of time to think, and the danger is particularly compounded when so much nostalgia is wafting about. And things were only made worse by the excellent speeches. I could not help remembering my own graduation, or at least bits of it. From the whole day, I remember three bits distinctly: during the procession, my much-loved boss was standing next to the sidewalk watching us go by and gave me a flower; our graduation speaker was Lee Iacocca, whose commencement address was a sort of paean to protectionism; and when it was my turn to get my diploma (which, let's give MIT efficiency some credit, was my actual diploma), President Paul Gray had trouble picking mine out of the pile, and when I pointed to my name and said, "That's me," he had some trouble grasping the concept, and I very nearly had to fight for it before he realized it was indeed mine. That was the only conversation I ever had with him, by the way.

That is really not a lot to remember from a day that's meant to be momentous, and as I was sitting in the audience at EFU's graduation, listening to the senior class speaker, I couldn't help thinking that none of his classmates would forget who had spoken or what (generally) he had said. It was a very thoughtful speech with one paragraph that went just far enough astray to give my daughter and her friends something to joke about and remember, probably at least until their fiftieth reunion.

I experienced something very like longing during the main commencement address. The speaker was a local poet. She is, apparently, quite successful as a poet, though neither I nor my trustee friend had ever heard of her (but then, I could probably not name a single living poet: oh, the shame), and she spoke with great intensity and speed. Her speech included an exegesis of a well-known Frost poem ("After Apple Picking") and ended with a new, as yet unpublished, poem of her own, and it was so good and so moving that when it -- and her speech -- was over, I stood to applaud. (Days later, when I was home, I downloaded the recording of the ceremony and played the reading of that poem over and over so that I could transcribe it and have it, though I should certainly buy the book when it comes out.)

During the nearly endless reading of names and information that followed, I thought about the notion of private failure, which is a notion that I likely cadged from a years-ago short story in the New Yorker. It's the idea that successful, or even relatively successful, people reserve a measure of regret for the less remunerative road not taken1. It was hard not to compare the profundity and presence of this poet, whose name I do not recall, with the inanity of Mr. Iacocca. Lee Iacocca was, when I graduated, a big deal, and I'm sure that most of the graduating class, and nearly all of their parents, were impressed to have him as a commencement speaker. But he had surely given the same address, with minor modifications, numerous other times, and he just as surely had not written it himself.

I couldn't help wondering, briefly, what would have happened if I had known about and considered a liberal arts education when I was in high school. I lived in a mostly upper middle class neighborhood, but my own family was solidly blue collar, and I had no guidance about applying to college. I ended up at MIT through a series of accidents, followed by a hard sell from the admissions office, and I certainly don't regret having gone there, but I couldn't help wondering whether, if I'd spent four years in the woods reading poetry, I mightn't have been among the bored faculty, wearing a set of robes instead of a jacket.

The question, of course, is always: at what cost? It's intellectually dishonest to pick and choose aspects of your life and think how they might be different if you'd done something differently twenty-five years ago. I can't posit the existence of a more engaging career without recognizing that the increased self-awareness that would have come with that option would likely have precluded having a family. Isn't there a line from Sundays in the Park with George about how the only things that have lasting value are children and art? I'm no artist.

It is possible to consider having made different choices and still having had a family, but every child is unique, and a product of a unique combination of sperm, egg, time, place, and history, and it is really no less unthinkable to me to consider having different children than it is to consider having none at all.

But all of that is the intellectual response to the intellectual longing for a life I never knew and would not choose in place of the one I have. There was no emotional longing for anything other than what is already mine, and the primary emotions of the day were joy, and pride. At least for me: I think EFU was mostly just feeling relief. I beamed as she nearly ran across the stage, as if she wanted to be sure that she got her tassel shifted before someone changed his or her mind.

EFU is always impatient to be moving on, so after we made a brief appearance at the reception, where her thesis advisor and one of her other examiners told me that EFU had truly earned her honors, we went back to her cabin and filled up my car, which EFU had instructed me to have as empty as possible. I had complied with her wishes, as I do whenever and insofar as possible, and soon the car was loaded down, leaving only room for YFU and I in the front seat. We left the college early in the afternoon and were safely restored to home and our quotidian existences before bedtime.

1I have little patience for people who take Mr. Frost's poem in vain, and the next time anyone is tempted to set himself up as some sort of paragon of nonconformity by saying that he took the less traveled path, I hope that he will go and actually read the text of the poem. All it is really saying is that choosing between two nearly identical options will have profound and unforeseeable consequences. It's basically a poetic realization of chaos theory and the scientific notion of sensitivity to initial conditions.

1 comment:

  1. Were your parents then proud of your daughter?