This May Take a While

Do you miss your college years, just a little bit?

I don’t mean the sloppy mess you may have made of yourself at frat parties, or the ease with which you accepted, without question, that by merely doing the work and getting decent grades the world would welcome you as the divine gift you were destined to be, compensate your talent with wealth and so thoroughly love you that you’d never feel pain again.

What I’m talking about is showing up for a lecture even though you didn’t do the assigned reading, and, without expecting anything, you hear of an idea, a concept, a way of explaining or understanding the world that resonates deep inside. You feel things that you were disparate, disjointed, isolated and uninteresting suddenly line up, organize themselves around a defining principle and make sense! You relate other things to this idea–things that didn’t seem to fit before–and they make sense, too!

The light bulb goes off in your brain and you realize that an education isn’t a studied delusion that you’re better than everyone else, or a tool to take you to your dream job. You’ve had an epiphany, a revelation, a peak experience. You realize that education is a gift that has improved your life, and you haven’t even eaten lunch!

Such epiphanies were, for me, a feature of a college sojourn that helped me through the loneliness, social washouts, the rejections from my peers, my shoddy schoolwork, the professors who didn’t “get” me, and far too many situations in which, sober or not, I behaved like a total jerk. I lived for those moments when I was born to hear this idea, learn this truth, understand what artists went through so I could benefit from their work.

After four and a half years I graduated, went on an archaeological dig, became terribly ill, came back to the United States and discovered that no one cared about my revelations, or that I knew what had happened at the New York Armory Show in 1913 to bring the United States into the modern era. Few listened when I quoted Shakespeare, Sophocles, T.S. Eliot, A.E. Houseman, Samuel Beckett or Emily Dickenson (“I’m Nobody! Who are you?”).

I got a job making sandwiches at a supermarket deli counter in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. Around the block some guy named Larry McMurtry had a rare book store. He came in to the supermarket occasionally for take-out coffee. I found out he was a published writer. I visited his shop on my break and saw him pecking at his typewriter in the back. I asked him how you become a published writer.

He said he didn’t know. “You just keep writing.” He returned to his typewriter.

I went back to the deli counter. I was so tired from making sandwiches I could barely stand up. How was I ever going to write a word when so much of the “real” world outside of college was about pouring your soul into a job so you’d be paid and, when you got paid, you’d be lucky if you were too tired to spend your money.

Unlucky was trying to spend your money and being reminded, wherever you went, that you didn’t make enough,  no matter how many hours you worked making sandwiches.

But you could still dream. You could go home to a dump of an apartment and try to write, as I did. Or, like another guy who worked behind the counter, you could practice your guitar and try to put a band together that would play the music of your heroes.

A month later I asked the editor of a local newspaper if I could write for him. My work began to appear regularly there. I wrote a profile about one of the guys who worked at the deli counter. In the article I mentioned his guitar playing and listed a few of his heroes. He was embarrassed when the article appeared but, when people began to ask for sandwiches from him by name, and talk to him about music and musicians, he tasted the sweet spice of celebrity. His life didn’t change.

Mine did. The manager of a lamp store came in for coffee. He said he was hiring. He hired me and, instead of slicing and toasting and wrapping and unwrapping because I forgot to add the pickle, I moved among bright, sparkling, warm things. I wasn’t so tired when I came home. I wrote more.

Though I lived a few blocks from the Georgetown University campus, I did not attend classes there. I got no more epiphanies from professors.

I got them from people I met, like the guitarist who believed that practicing music made him a better sandwich maker. How could such different things be related, I had asked him. “They’re related because you’re the one doing them,” he replied.

Up to then, I had divided myself in half: at night, when I wrote, I was this person who was going to be a published writer one day. During the day, I was this other person doing stuff to pay for the roof over my head. What I did in the evening was a sacred task. Everything else was trivial.

What if that stuff you do while you’re not achieving your dream, is just as important?

I remembered what I learned about the Japanese tea ceremony in a religion class. In the ritual, every gesture, every movement can be infused with a profound spiritual meaning. Or the ceremony is about an activity as simple and mundane as making and drinking tea. When the right person is involved, it’s both, and that can be quite wonderful.

I never took a journalism course, and never wanted to be a journalist.  In college I learned that being curious is a very, very good thing, and that asking the right question can open you to a new world. When you write, you share that world with others. I had no idea then that I would eventually practice my curiosity, and my questioning, for the New York Times.

You get gifts in life that you don’t appreciate, or use, until later. You hear things, you absorb things, whether or not you did the assigned reading.

What does your computer tell you when it is installing an update?

This may take a while.




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