As we awaken this morning to the brightness of a new America, I find that the winds of change are blowing across our Midwestern landscape in more ways than one, bringing with them signs of the coming winter even as we celebrate in the sunshine the possibility of a greater political tomorrow. Today, in St. Louis, the mercury in our thermometers will reach skyward – lazily climbing as the sun arcs overhead, lingering for one last day on the doorstep of 80 degrees. Yet, by this weekend, the first winter storm of the season, which is hovering right now over the Rocky Mountains just a short thousand miles to the west, will sweep eastward across the country, and we will reach into our closet for the scarves and gloves of winter. In its wake, this front will rip from the trees many of the final vestiges of our summer past, and the leaves will climatically fall slowly to the earth. One short week from now, only the evergreen will stand tall, a symbol of perpetual endurance – until we shortly celebrate the change of seasons by placing one of these bastions of perpetuity in the center of our home. Such is the cycle of life, where, as Aristotle pointed over two thousand years ago, “change is the only universal constant,” and it is from this metaphor that I draw today’s lesson.
Nature not excepted, there is nothing quite so beautiful in life as falling in love for the first time. Though my own life has been filled with defining moments, there are few that I would choose to revisit right now even if I possibly could, with perhaps this one exception. In this first bloom of summer youth, when all trees are green, we attach ourselves for the first time to another human being – and we believe that things will ever stay the same. When graduation comes, and we choose to either chance the divides of geography until we meet again at Christmas, or forge forward together at the same university, we still believe our love will not end. And though we may make it through the first winter, or through several, inevitably, the leaves begin to change, and though we often grow for the better, we find that we have grown apart. In this process, which only the select few avoid, we learn a most bittersweet lesson: that our first love has been deciduous; that the first flame of passion can last but a short while, until the red and orange and yellow leaves separate themselves from their branches and make their way to the ground.
And then there is pain. And then there comes healing. And in time, we learn from our past the lessons that make us better equipped to love in the future – until we are ready to try again. And though we will never again be so naïve, and never again so wracked by the first throes of passion, and though we may attach ourselves season after season to another string of deciduous loves, we eventually find our evergreen. The love is solid. The love endures. And the love is made stronger as we discover the beauty in the steady presence of the needles – that may occasionally prick our fingers, but will never wither away.
And so, if you come to college in the fall having etched the initials of you and your sweetheart into some special tree back home, and you wait feverishly for the day when you will be reunited – cherish the moment. As I have said, it was one of the select few times from my past for which I would temporarily trade the experience that now guides me through life – first love is beautiful. But if, at some point in the future, you find that autumn has come, and that the Indian Summer has faded, know that this is normal. Someday, when you choose to try again, your commitment and your love will be the deeper and the realer and the more enduring for having the knowledge that heartbreak brings. There is a love out there for you that will last all seasons.
LESSON #16: CONSIDER PHLEBAS
One of the strange scientific truths of the American college experience is that each of you will be forced to read T. S. Eliot’s poem The Wasteland at least three times in your four years at the University of Southern California. Even if you are a Physics major, the poem will somehow work its way into your curriculum while you are fulfilling your Humanities requirements, and Lord, help you if you are an English major. Why must we all read this ridiculous poem? Actually, I have no idea – but I’ll throw my four best guesses out there.
#1) Reading The Wasteland is a rite of passage. In Japan, on the second Monday in January (National Coming of Age Day), all 20-year-old women wear a pair of zori slippers for the first time and go dancing as a part Seijin Shiki. In the United States, we make our undergraduates read a poem written in 7 different languages that includes a rape, a sex-changing fortune-teller, and a guy with a pocket full of currants.
#2) T. S. Eliot is the only person since the late Eighteenth century collapse of the Tory party to be somehow both British and American at the same time. The two branches of the English Department wrestle over the rights to his work like it’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and this crafty foresight on Eliot’s part doubles his opportunity to be listed on 21st-century syllabi.
#3) For some reason, scholars agree that this is the most important poem ever written, even though…
#4) No one has a clue what the fuck it is about. I’m serious. I was forced to read this poem at least a combined fifteen times as an undergraduate and graduate student, and (really more out of habit than anything – because it’s just what you are supposed to do), I have now taught the poem half a dozen times. Despite this advanced study, I’ll reiterate the point that I really don’t have a clue what the fuck it is about. I think we keep assigning it in hopes that someday one of our students will magically figure it out for us, and then we can stop assigning it. But it’s never going to happen.
Still, there is one part of The Wasteland that I like – the ten lines that make up Book IV – and these ten lines are going to form the basis of what may ultimately be the most sentimental piece of advice that Dr. Wizard will ever give you. Here they are:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep seas swell,
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the Whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
So, here we are at Lesson #16: you should Consider Phlebas. And what do I mean by that? Well, until geneticists figure out a way to stop our telomeres from deteriorating, each one of us, from the time we turn the corner into adulthood (which is what college is all about) until the time we find ourselves being spoon-fed applesauce in the retirement home, are on a fast track towards death. Our youth, and our strength, is fleeting. Six days ago, my plan for this upcoming weekend was to fly to Minneapolis to run the Twin Cities Marathon. Now, I’m waiting for the hole where my appendix used to be to heal so I can have the doctor’s clearance to spend five minutes on the elliptical machine. Six years ago, two of my good friends from college died in a car accident. While one of these surprises is relatively minor, and one was catastrophic, the point is that we have no idea how long we will enjoy the gifts of life that we have been given. Considering Phlebas means…
…being considerate to others (who were once handsome and tall as you). It means listening when your grandfather tells you the story about how he and Lurch McGee hitch-hiked to California the summer they turned 18 to work as orange-pickers (because someday you’ll want someone to listen to you). It means turning down your stereo when your neighbor asks you to do so because he has to work the next morning, even though the new Raconteurs album is fucking awesome, and sounds so much better cranked to eleven (because someday you’ll have to be at work at 6am). And Considering Phlebas means…
…capitalizing on the gifts of youth. It means going outside on the weekends instead of drawing the shades and playing Xbox 360 for 48 consecutive hours. It means asking that guy who’s in your Latin reading group out on a date (see Lesson #15). It means rolling your car windows down, taking a road trip, and cranking the new Raconteurs album to eleven on your car stereo (where there is no neighbor who has to be at work the next morning). CONSIDER PHLEBAS!!! WHO WAS ONCE HANDSOME AND TALL AS YOU!!!
And now that Phlebas has been considered, let’s close today’s dead-poet-inspired lesson by stealing a line from the great movie Dead Poets Society. When Robin Williams’ character brings his class to look at a picture of some of the school’s long forgotten alumni, he whispers:
“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you, their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because, you see gentlemen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? – – Carpe – – hear it? – – Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.” Make your lives extraordinary…
…or, at least, go buy the new Raconteurs album.