Of what good use am I to anyone?
This is a question not so easily answered and not as often asked as it should be, I think. And it is a query more commonly put to themselves by the honest, the decent, the well-intentioned than by those who might most be improved by such an inquiry.
More often it's used rhetorically. I can't tell you how many poor souls, including some bold wits with whom I associated as a youth, that my own father volunteered were not then, nor would they ever be "worth the powder it would take to blow them to Hell." This is indeed a minuscule gage of human worth. It's the near antithesis to the cloying Unitarian insistence that every human being is blessed with "inherent worth and dignity." I think some of those boys turned out better than my dad predicted, and I hope that my life might be running in a more productive groove as I creep up to sixty than our postmaster, Mr. George Miller, volunteered when I was closing in on sixteen. "You're headed for Elmira for sure!' he said, referencing the state reformatory of that name.
But I didn't go behind bars, and I didn't join the postal service or any other employment with good pay or retirement benefits or a handsome uniform or a tag engraved with my name and grade, and now that I've stumbled this far forward, sometimes blindly, occasionally desperately, I feel it's increasingly important to regularly and sincerely put the questions to myself: Why? And What for?
I get into this mood this time of year sometimes if I read the newspapers or watch the evening news or eavesdrop on conversations in public places. June is the month of the overblown ceremony. High schools, having spent four years dampening the enthusiasm and crushing the spirits and regulating the behavior of our teenagers, at this moment dresses them in archaic garb, parades them across a lawn or through an auditorium and pronounces them fit to lead us into their and our bright, unlimited future. Ahead for some will lie simple wage slavery. Others will have signed up for even more intense regimentation, goofier clothing and perhaps violent death in service to "The Long War" (aka "The War Against Terror"). Those pronounced most successful and held in highest esteem by the statisticians in the superintendent's office will be the ones extending their tours for another two or four years in pursuit of what we call Higher Education.
There are speeches. Even President Bush, who can barely stammer out the lines he has practiced (written, of course, by someone else) as they scroll past on his teleprompter, is drafted to inspire some unfortunate class to do as he has done, although presumably without the help of such family connections and relaxed standards as he enjoyed. Dick Cheney, too, hisses his terrible tale, although his image will not appear in any of the photographs of the occasion, because pure evil will not register on a photographic plate.
Does anyone, anywhere, tell the story straight? Ahead for many will lie drudgery, disappointment, debt and obesity. It is indeed likely, as Bob Dylan told us in a furious rush of words so many years ago, that it's "twenty years of schoolin' and they put you on the day shift." Few will do great things; fewer still, noble things. College, which educators and politicians urge as the new necessity, will indeed train those who choose certain technical courses of study for particular occupations, some of which will reward them well financially. And those few who follow the liberal arts in pursuit of a more general understanding of themselves and their species and the histories of this world and its civilizations do stand some chance of finding their intellectual horizons opened up beyond the narrow vistas promulgated in our secondary institutions, our churches and our corporate news outlets.
I went to college. It didn't hurt me. In my day it wasn't expensive; today it is ridiculously so. The summer after my sophomore year I started roofing, then moved through most of the stations of the light construction trades during subsequent vacations, acquainting myself with concrete, stonework, framing, trim, flooring, paint, drywall, electrical and plumbing. And the boss sent me to soothe angry customers he was avoiding and collect from others glad to see him done. Now I drive nails (more often, screws, these days) by day and write at night, using skills I gained by design but mostly by default in school and on so many jobs.
I have never been well off financially; I have sometimes barely scraped by. If I have sometimes been reasonably comfortable it is more because of modest expectations than reasonable income. By American standards I live below the median. Compared to how most people have lived for most of history and against the lot of the average citizen of any but a few favored, greedy, rapacious Western countries, I wallow in plenty and splendor and ease.
Commencement speakers talk of success. Variously they mean by this generally money or prestige. Seldom do we invite our young persons to plan lives of modest consumption, offer them a vision where the physical, intellectual, spiritual and emotional parameters of life are met with every day in one's job. Some few of each class, every generation, do discover these truths on their own. A per centage of our graduates and our dropouts as well find a community where they are comfortable, an occupation where they can make enough to meet their needs and where they can see something for their labor beyond a disposable product or an unnecessary service. It is not easy to do this. There is not a formula for finding oneself. We should tell our young people that.
Bob Dylan also gave us a marvelous vignette of the horrors of a commencement ceremony, in "Day Of The Locusts" from his album New Morning. Picking up an honorary degree on a miserably hot day in Princeton, he was ready to leave after he "glanced into the room where the judges were talking" and found that "it smelled like a tomb." Before the ordeal was over a man's head exploded next to him and Bob was "prayin' the pieces wouldn't fall on me." Grabbing his diploma and his woman he bailed directly for the Black Hills of Dakota, telling us he "sure was glad to get out of there alive." The ceremony was a terror; the song is a delight. Sweetly, beautifully, lovingly, sung, the heat, the cranial eruption, the oppression and gloom is redeemed, minimized, as throughout "the locusts sang off in the distance." They sang "with their high whining trill", so different from the somnolent ceremonial mumbling. It is a song of escape, a near-death experience in its way, a caution and a worthy piece of advice: get out now kids, if you still can.
And Bob may have done more for me, in his surly, distant, difficult way, for the price of a few dozen record albums, than any of the lectures I attended or books I read in high school or college.
I'd play that song for the kids if I was a graduation speaker. And I'd give them Tom Lehrer's hilarious "Bright College Days" too. With its tales of "beer and Benzedrine", sleeping through lectures and cheating on exams, President Bush himself would find its picture familiar to as much of his own college career as his fried brain can remember. And, in its penultimate verse, Tom reminds the boys and girls that they will soon find themselves "amid the cold world's strife", and soon they'll "be sliding down the razor blade of life." Finally, they can expect to be "forgotten with the rest." So much for the "You can do anything you want; your futures are limitless" message more commonly delivered.
But I would give my audience hope, too. I'd play them all of Bruce Springsteen's "Growin' Up" from his astonishing first album Greetings From Asbury Park. "I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched," he sang when he and I were but twenty-three. What a precise and redemptive description of our high school years. "The flag of piracy flew from my mast," as postmaster Miller noted. Many a misfit kid finds he must "hid[e] in the clouded wrath of the crowd." But, no retreat and no surrender, "When they said 'sit down' I stood up!"
Bruce tells us he "lost everything I ever loved or feared," and thirty four years on I can't think of a better description of what life does to you, of what it takes and what it gives. And "my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars." That, my friends, is success.
And I'd play that song twice. First, the wild original, still fresh and exciting. Then I'd bomb them indeed with the version on the just-released "Live In Dublin" disc of Bruce and the Seeger Sessions Band, with more musicians and instruments and delirious voices than you'd think might fit upon a stage: horns and fiddles and banjos and the history of American popular music in one massive, loud, crisp and clear wall of sound, and Bruce singing with an abandon that belies his fifty-seven years, still growin' up, still trying to get it right.
And Bob is still out on the road, still singing the old songs as well as the delightful and timeless gems from his recent Modern Times. Still working. I'd tell any graduates who wanted not to waste their summer "praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets" to get a job, learn to do something useful in this last summer before life and life only takes over, and to spend their evenings with Bob and Bruce. "Turn it up," Van Morrison told us. "Turn it up, turn it up, little bit higher, so you know."
And what of my question? What worth my work? Maybe not much. Certainly more than some. I make the effort; I ask at least the question. I'd tell the graduates that, too. Questions beget more questions than they lead to answers. Just remember to keep your "gear set stubborn on standing."
Anyone wishing to tell Mr. Cooper just what they might think of his worth to the world may send their sad thoughts and bitter accusations to him at firstname.lastname@example.org, understanding as they do that he will find himself able or willing to answer only a few.
© 2007 The Wiscasset Newspaper