Thursday, June 21, 2012

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Try, Try Again

The last month has been an exciting one for me writing-wise. I got to marshal many long-simmering thoughts about Jonathan Franzen while reviewing his new essay collection for the wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books (one person after my heart on Twitter said my piece "goes well with coffee and a muffin"), and I had a small review published in The Believer. Given that my first pieces there were those lists they use to round out page space, I consider it a big step to move on to complete sentence and paragraphs. Hopefully, the vector continues in its upward direction. You can find the first few paragraphs here, though you'll have to go out and find a copy to see the rest.

As always, thank you for reading.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

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Si Vales Valeo



"So help me God it gets more and more preposterous, it corresponds less and less to what I remember and what I expect as if the force of life were centrifugal and threw one further and further away from one's purest memories and ambitions..."
-John Cheever, "The Death of Justinia"

In Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, the male characters—who otherwise valorize a code of stoicism that borders on the inhuman—have no qualm telling each other when they're feeling "low." Coming to the work almost ninety years after its publication, the contemporary reader may find the characters' preferred remedy for these low states (alcohol, what else?) to border on self-parody. Yet I found myself touched by the matter-of-factness with which Jake or Bill Gorton acknowledge that they're feeling low.

I'm here to tell you that I was feeling low yesterday. It was the day of the University of Chicago's graduation, and feelings about leaving there that had long been dormant and quarantined began to tickle me a bit, leaving me restless and quiet. I thought about the day I'd moved in there four years earlier, a day that found me feeling apprehensive and vaguely unmoored, but without any inkling that I would leave for Philadelphia halfway through, diminishing by one that number of chairs that would sit on the quadrangle on graduation day.

Earlier in the week, my old friend and teacher Steve had asked me if transferring had been the right decision, and I responded, as I'd been able to do with increasing truthfulness as my two years at Penn wore on, with an emphatic yes. The group of friends I found there; the mental forbearance I cultivated there, learning to tame the amplitudes of my responses to triumph and failure so that they hewed more closely to the x-axis of my emotions; even learning to have a bit of fun—these alone reassured me that starting college over had been the right thing to do, a fact I knew for certain last August when my old friend Matt picked me up at the airport in Philadelphia, and we drove off happily to begin senior year.

But all along, there's been a cavity in the midst of my assurance, and it was this little pocket of doubt that made itself felt yesterday. Though I often found myself missing Chicago's lovely campus, its superior libraries, its superabundance of coffee shops, these were not the things of which my doubts consisted. Rather, these centered squarely on the people I'd left behind. I've never been able to shake the upsetting memory of of telling my friends there one by one that I'd be leaving, particularly—perversely, it now strikes me—at the end of what was my best year of college. After a rough freshman year, things had gone great the second time around, and now I was leaving.

The things that I felt I was throwing away now have something of a dreamlike quality around them. Playing intramural water polo with Stephen and Lucas (whose own decision to transfer spurred my own), driving up to Evanston with Jason and Nausicaa the day after my grandmother died (a day that still sits in my mind as one of the greatest kindnesses I've received), sitting over coffee with Mae, trading witticisms with Victor, exploring odd corners of buildings with Ricky...and doing just about anything with Clare, who was a fond St. Louis acquaintance from high school when we arrived at Chicago but who'd become the closest friend I'd ever had by the time I left Chicago for Philadelphia—I felt that by telling each of these people that I was leaving, I was somehow repudiating the experiences we've shared.

This, of course, is a ridiculously selfish view to be had. For one thing, it casts me as the central character in all my friends' lives, and though all were sad to see me go, none saw it as the earth-halting moment I feared they would. My struggles had of course been no secret to my friends, and I heard nothing but understanding words as I left. Meeting many of them again later, they would remark that I seemed changed, happier, a bit more in possession of myself. This was gratifying to hear, but it didn't prevent me—particularly around Clare and Stephen, who I've seen the most of since my departure—from trying when we met to bring the conversation around to the cavity, to talk about my decision as if it were the only thing that mattered in our friendships. But my friends made it clear: it was the least important thing in our friendships; they were happy for me. What they were trying to tell me was that it was all right; I'd made the decision that had been best for me, and it was time to let it rest.

I'd been able to do that until yesterday, when I was so unsettled by my sense of an alternate world, in which I sat in maroon robes on the South Side of Chicago instead of in the back of my church in St. Louis; in which I processed up to receive my diploma instead of walking to the back of church after Mass to confront the priest about what I thought were some irresponsible and fear-mongering comments in his sermon; celebrated with my family and friends instead of engaging in a civil but fruitless conversation that probably left both my priest and me confirmed in our worst fears about those with whom we disagree; bid fond farewells to the people I'd spent the last four years with instead of kicking around my overheated house after dinner, shrugging off my parents' repeated statements of how proud they were of me for speaking my mind and thinking that perhaps the only victories, even in matters where we feel impelled by conscience, are decidedly mixed.

I suppose I've known this for a while; it's one of the reasons I like serious fiction, for its depiction of a muddled world corresponds pretty accurately to the one I inhabit. But the futility and absurdity of my encounter with the priest, coupled with the knowledge that in Chicago, a commencement I'd chosen two years ago not to join was drawing to a close, was jackhammering this notion into me with almost unbearable constancy. I felt a bit of despair: if even a principled action, executed civilly, left me feeling so impotent, then what's the point of struggle? If even the right decision, made two years prior, often left me feeling so low, then where could contentment possibly reside? This only lasted for a moment, because the sideways answer to these questions is that you keep trying, keep working at what you know best. Of course you do. It's not a heroic realization, but a human one. It's what so many have worked out before me, and a blessing given to many is still a blessing, and joyfully to be welcomed.

In a recent essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books that I wouldn't have been able to write if I hadn't transferred, I wrote, "What [Jonathan] Franzen knows (yet often writes around) is what anyone who's tried to fill a blank page with a true distillation of all of their hopes and fears and longings also knows: that the written word is a powerful but flawed way to love."

But it's also often the best way I know how to love, which is the main reason that I always return to the blank page, the reason that I sit here now, hoping this post finds its way to Clare and Stephen and Eddie and Tiffany and Ricky and Jason and Nausicaa and Mae and Victor and all of my other friends at Chicago, to whom I want to express—not out of a childish need for assurance or a craven need for attention, but an abundance of feeling on the occasion of your graduation—just how much gratitude and love I have for you all. Congratulations.