Pomp and Circumstance
This column was published May 27, 2023 in the Manhattan Mercury.
It’s graduation season and thoughts turn naturally to transitions.
Forty-eight years ago, I earned a high school diploma. What I remember most about that day was the sheer panic, when the system gave me five minutes to find a classmate of the opposite sex, to pomp and circumstance our way in boy-girl couples fashion, into a new universe of societal expectations. Go to college. Get a job. Get married. Have kids. Preferably, in that order, they said.
The very next day, I loaded up the 1970 Ford Falcon, tricked out with blue and white shag carpeting, left home and cannonballed into the high life.
My challenge, they said, was to determine how to utilize this unique and invaluable gift of a bright future. Would I squander it by relentlessly pursuing superficial appearances, striving to project a false sense of authority over others and my environment? Or would I savor every moment, relishing in the experience and unraveling the genuine essence of me?
Back then, I was attracted to new and shiny, and society assured me new and shiny would bring fulfillment and contentment—those very things ingrained in our culture since early childhood, meant to pacify the incessant internal anxiety. Social standing, the admiration of peers, and maybe even a modest form of recognition. Check those boxes, the culture stubbornly insists, and you will have made it. The culture is wrong.
I had a leg up on my fellows in divining that insight, since I managed to succeed professionally, completely unencumbered by a college degree. I am a proud graduate of a technical school (broadcasting), which allowed me to get my foot in the door of one industry, climb the ladder, and parlay that into success in others.
Lunch with a friend this week whose father suffers from dementia. My friend is still learning lessons from the old man. His father’s life has been reduced to a timeframe of right now to 20 seconds from right now. The lesson? Live in the right now.
His father is a farmer who spent his career doing what Kansas farmers do; saving, scrimping, carefully planning to buy that next piece of ground. A life spent doing what the middle of the country culture expected of him. He still owns the ground today, but the drive, the spirit, the emotion that motivated it – gone. The man has no memory of accomplishing that goal. The lesson? Material things don’t matter.
Recently I fulfilled a lifelong aspiration to write a book. This summer, I intend to write a screenplay, adapted from said book. Friends say it’s tailor made for episodic prestige TV. That, combined with the Hollywood writers’ strike, they say, will eventually leave producers desperate for content. A couple more valuable lessons. It’s never that simple, and “they” very often don’t have the first clue.
Life is lived in the transition between macro and micro, and only with the benefit of hindsight does one even begin to put it all together. The panic that seized me 48 years ago, I would later learn, was only one of a host of damning behavioral traits that were part and parcel of an addiction that was to bring me to my knees. The recovery therefrom has helped open my eyes to these insights.
My young adult delusions of grandeur have been tempered by pain and loss, tested and honed through experience. It came down to a choice between embracing authenticity, self-discovery, and genuine enjoyment, or succumbing to the allure of illusionary facades.
My bottom line (literally, in this case) for the class of ’23 is this: Pay attention. Get out of yourself. Play to your strengths, and question everything.