College Is Not Paradise

“I have to go to school today.”

I caught myself saying this out loud this morning as I left the house, not because I’m actually back in classes, but because I have to go up to campus on my way home this afternoon to run an errand.  Even though I graduated from Georgetown University years ago, I still refer to it as “school”, even in casual conversation with friends and acquaintances who weren’t classmates of mine on the Hilltop.  As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that as much as I enjoyed my time there, it was not an earthly paradise.

The fact that years later, I ended up living a few blocks away from the university I attended was not something I could have predicted, when I walked out of those front gates for what I thought would be the last time after graduation.  Like anyone else, I left with my head full of contradictory plans, some of which came to pass, and some of which did not.  Yet on the whole, I’m better for having left behind the fallacy of believing that my best years were my college years – a malady which, surprisingly, seems to affect a number of people I know.

I’ve been thinking about this albatross-like perception of one’s alma mater recently, in the context of a conversation I had with a friend about the work of F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Best known for his novel “The Great Gatsby”, Fitzgerald did not have a huge literary output, for among other reasons having died too young, and never quite getting a handle on his alcohol addiction.  While there are many great things about “Gatsby”, it’s definitely not my favorite work of his. A contender for that title is his first published novel, “This Side of Paradise”, which is loosely based on some of Fitzgerald’s experiences as an undergraduate at Princeton.

In some ways “Paradise” can be viewed as the American version of Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, albeit written a quarter of a century earlier. As in “Brideshead” there is the same sense of wasted, fast living by well-dressed young people at a prestigious university, the flickering presence of Catholic faith, and the desire to pursue and win a girl above the station of the narrator.  There is also in both works a similar glow about the towers of the collegiate buildings, seen through rose-colored lenses, which alumni of any old, beautiful school can relate to.

Those who find themselves, as I do, within a stroll of the campus where they spent the first, formative part of their adulthood, usually end up seeing things differently.  Dear alma mater, which was home for four years, now becomes just another venue for attending events, conducting business, or the like. Alumni who have moved on with their lives, even as they have moved away, can have the same perception.  To quote Addison DeWitt in “All About Eve” (as I often do), “I have not come to New Haven to see the play, discuss your dreams, or pull the ivy from the walls of Yale.”

Throughout “Paradise” Fitzgerald himself, although still a young man when he wrote the book, recognizes that his time at college was not something to cling to as the high point of his life, preventing him from doing anything else worthwhile again.  “Youth is like having a big plate of candy,” he writes. “Sentimentalists think they want to be in the pure, simple state they were in before they ate the candy. They don’t. They just want the fun of eating it all over again.”

At the conclusion of “Paradise”, the main character finds himself out in the world, unsure of exactly where he is to go or what he really believes in, despite all of the golden-rayed images of his time at college.  He returns to Princeton for a visit late at night, and reflects on the fact that now, other young people are living in those hallowed halls, learning about the same things he did, having their own experiences of socializing and becoming adults.  In doing so, he finds that he does not envy them; rather, he pities them, because he realizes that he is an adult, with adult things to do.

To me, that’s the real lesson of both “Paradise” and “Brideshead”, as well as my periodic visits to my own college campus.  One should never completely discard the good things of youth, such as curiosity, wonder, passion, occasional silliness, or a sense of adventure.  Yet the focus as we grow older needs to become more about what is to be done in the here and now, particularly in service to others, rather than being caught up in the past, ruminating on the dreams of yesterday and what might have been.

For Paradise, in the end, is not supposed to be a few years on college campus: it’s what our lives right now are supposed to be leading us to.

Healy Hall, Georgetown University (Photo by the Author)

Healy Hall, Georgetown University
(Photo by the Author)


Digging Deep into the Peanut Butter

Last night I was going to eat peanut butter out of the jar – what? I’m a guy – and found myself rifling through the cutlery drawer in search of a particular spoon that I wanted.  The jumble of mismatched silverware at the Fortress of Solitude reflects the fact that I don’t entertain much, and when I do, it’s usually with finger foods and an emphasis on drinks.  So the spoon I was looking for, and eventually found, was one that I’ve used many times in the past for this purpose, and have become accustomed to.

Aside from my (questionable) bachelor eating habits however, the search for the spoon at the end of my day was strangely mirrored by a search I had gone through that very morning, through the silk and wool jungle undergrowth I call a tie rack.  I was looking for a tie in a particular shade of blue, to contrast with the gingham shirt I intended to wear to the office, and ended up having to take every tie off the rack until I found it.  Yet there was never any question, to my mind, that the tie in question was the one I had to wear that particular day, any more than my protein overload later that night was going to take place using one particular spoon, or not at all.

Why do we give inanimate objects this kind of power over us? Would the peanut butter have tasted any different had it been eaten with another spoon? Or would my shirt have been spoiled by wearing a different, but perfectly acceptable tie from the one I had intended?

Psychologists tell us that children with Asperger’s Syndrome can develop rigid fixations on particular objects, which help them to find a sense of order in the universe.  When the object which they feel is critical to the completion of some task or activity is unavailable, they may become inconsolable or withdrawn.  This is behavior which can be observed even among children who do not suffer from Asperger’s: one thinks of the character Linus from the “Peanuts” comics, for example, and his security blanket.

As adults, despite all of our supposed sophistication and wisdom gained from leaving childhood behind, we can all point to certain objects we possess which we associate with a feeling of continuity in our lives.  It may be a shirt we consider “lucky”, because we wore it on the day we met that certain someone for the first time.  Or it might be a certain box, where we keep ephemera like concert tickets or birthday cards.

However the real power of these otherwise ordinary objects is not intrinsic to the objects themselves.  Destroy them, and you do not destroy the self, any more than you destroy what such objects represent, unperceived though that meaning may be to the untrained eye.  Rather, their power lies in their ability to transform us, something which, maybe without even realizing it, we are the ones granting them the ability to do.  You won’t love your grandmother the less if you accidentally smash the dish she left you in her will, or ruin your marriage when you burn a hole in that favorite chair you bought on your honeymoon – although there may be other consequences, in that instance.

What matters in such cases is the good that these objects lead us to do, whether it is enjoying a simple pleasure, recalling someone dear to us, or serving as a reminder of what matters in our lives, and the goals we are striving toward.  So yes, the peanut butter would taste just as good with a different spoon, and the shirt would have looked just as well with a different tie.  As long as I recognize the fact that I’m the one who gives them their significance, then I will be sure to keep things in perspective.

Now where are my Superman socks…

Clearly this kid didn't need a spoon...

Clearly this kid didn’t need a spoon…