The Soundtrack of Our Lives (a Journal Entry)

19 Apr

Kids ask me for college advice all the time. Should I go? What is it like? Is it ok if I don’t give a shit about college? Is it true my life is doomed if I don’t go to a great college? Which college should I go to so I can become a….?

A little over 12 years ago, two weeks of my–as yet young–life were consumed by one of the greatest experiences and journeys I have ever known. One of the greatest journeys I suspect I ever will know. It’s hard to describe to some of my students who have never been, or may never go to a traditional four year college, what that experience is like for an 18 year-old who is made to believe that attending and finishing college is his one and only goal for the time being: that his life will be defined by those four years. I suspect for students who attend the particular school I did, during this day-in-age, that sentiment is only amplified. I suspect that the feeling I had setting out on the aforementioned journey–traveling across the vast landscape of our country to attend my first year of college 3,000 miles away–has only intensified for students now. Yet the more that college education is hyped-up, I feel it is at at the same time becoming economically devalued. But shh, let’s don’t tell them that.

It was a fifteen-passenger van we rented in Maine, in the last days of July. We emptied out the seats, except for one row for the non-driver/non-navigator to nap on as we drove. And then we piled in all the belongings we thought we needed (I was headed to Oregon along with one of my best friends who had found the same “ideal” college as I.) And we were to entrust our rite-of-passage to a man I will forever respect and love: my good buddy Dan’s father. I remember pulling out of that driveway in Maine: the excitement and anxiety, both for the drive and for the four-year adventure ahead of us, and life beyond. For the life I was told for many years before hand would begin in that moment. We had democratically chosen Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” as the appropriate song to play while we hit the highway. And I remember vividly pulling onto Rte 1 in Maine, the three of us hooting and hollering as Willie belted “My fine love is making music with my friends. Feels so good to be on that road again!” I also remember about 4 hours later, settling into the New Hampshire border with the excitement dying down. Probably all three of us were ruminating for a bit on just how much our lives were about to change: the two passengers headed towards that mythical four years of who-knows-what, the wizened driver about to ship his youngest son off as he would have look forward to an empty nest for the first time in his life.

We settled into that trip nicely, a repetition of those excited highs and nervous lows, and many other emotions over the two weeks. And as we did, I found myself, stretched out in the back seat–where I had plastered images of beautiful women from maxim magazine on the windows out of boredom–requesting the same song, time and again. It was the song that came on after Willie’s “On The Road Again,” which became our routine song every time we began the car for a drive. In New Hampshire: “Hey Dan, how about ‘Pancho and Lefty’.” In Moosejaw, Saskatechewan: “Hey Dan, let’s play ‘Pancho and Lefty’.” And damn near everywhere in between, the same thing: “Would you guys mind playing, ‘Pancho and Lefty’ one more time?!??”

I didn’t think much about it at the time. Throughout my life there have always been those songs or albums I couldn’t stop replaying for a spell (“Bat Outta Hell,” Nevermind, Workingman’s Dead, Ready to Die.) I didn’t think about it much, it’s just music I liked at that particular point in my life, sheesh! But on this trip I was constant with it. As we moved closer to my final destination of the elysian fields of “College,” I asked for it more and more. During a driving rain and lightning storm that woke us from our tented sleep in a meadow in Michigan, I woke in the back of the van as Dan and his father drank lead-colored coffee in a truck stop, middle of nowhere. As soon as they were back in the van: “Hey, fellas, how bout ‘Pancho and Lefty’? Same story as we drove through a hail-storm in North Dakota that put infant-fist size dents in the roof. All of us hooting and hollering again. Same story as we drove along the most beautiful and serene stretch of road abreast the Salmon River in Idaho. Or moments after Dan and I were photographed in a pose that will forever symbolize our friendship to me. Behind our backs Dan’s father had captured the two of us looking over beautiful lake Olympia in Banff National Park, Canada. We are both pointing forward into some unknown but beautiful abyss of a landscape, arms around each other. Moments later, back in the van, I begged for ‘Pancho and Lefty,’ yet again. Pulling into our first hotel of the trip–a four-star joint in Ottawa, where the valet attendant looked at our empty tuna cans and plastered Maxim ladies with something more than a “hairy eyeball” I am almost certain we were playing “P and L” yet again, at my request.

I could write a whole series of blogs on those two weeks, and I may well do so some day. But in my excited memory-state I’ve overwritten about it already for this post. What I wanted to get to was this: in the final stretches of that long journey, playing “P and L” for the last time, I recall Dan’s father, something of a madman, himself, demanding to know what the hell was my deal with that song. I said something along the lines of “I don’t know, I guess I just like it.” He wouldn’t take that for an answer. But I had nothing better. He kept insisting there must be something more, and as I unpacked the van, in the beautiful Oregon August I tried to analyze what it was. I recall it well, unpacking in a daze as I thought and thought about that. I have tried to analyze it so long since. I began my college career, and later moved on from that school and to another one where I found other friends with an equal fascination in the same song. We sang it in barrooms and basements at all hours of the night and morning, after any numbers of beers. We played it on the eve of our graduation, all of us weeping sentimentally. I walked away the next day with that much coveted college diploma, and not a single prospect of a job.

The soundtracks have progressed in the years since. And, of course, I have finally found a job, or two or three. I found a career I thought I always wanted, and found out I didn’t want it at all. I switched to a career I never thought I would have (teaching) and fell right into the footsteps of my family: making it more than just a career; making it my life. And through it all there have been songs and albums that seem to captivate me for weeks, months at a time.

Senior year of college and a few years after I couldn’t stop listening to Bob Seger and the goddamn Silver Bullet Band. Along with lyrics from ‘Pancho and Lefty’ I would text lyrics from Seger’s Greatest Hits to my buddies at 2 am on a Thursday night. For a while it was Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlamegne,” or all of CSNY’s Deja Vù. A while back it was Angel from Montgomery” (the John Prine version, of course.) There was the Marvin Gaye Here, My Dear phase about a year and a half ago. A good few years back it was “The Weight” by the band. That was during an impossibly “happy time,” when an unbelievably upbeat and yet hard-to-understand song seemed just right. It was in those post-collegiate years of bliss when life seems right and you think you know who you are and what you want, and all your friends are close enough to see regularly. And we would play it often, and loud. I was reminded of this earlier in the week when I read that Levon Helm is, sadly, in the last stage of terminal throat cancer. I played the songs again, and I remembered.

At the same time, I cannot currently stop listening to Paul Simon’s epic album, Graceland. It’s gotten me back to thinking about that question Dan’s father asked me about so many years ago. That question to which my answer was simply unsatisfactory. There HAS to be more to it: what is it about that song? Or that album? Why do I get so hung up on a “soundtrack”?

I think sometimes when we look for an answer we look for something difficult. I see this in my students. I felt it, and have known it in myself ever since–well–since college, I suppose. It just doesn’t feel right, for those of us who embrace challenges and expect complexity in life, that some answers are simple. One of the students I love working with most, is constantly hung-up on tasks that I expect others to be hung-up on, but I am perplexed when he is. This is a kid who reads James Gee and Plato for fucking fun! And he will get hung up on a question I pose about something which should have a million simple answers. He will kill himself trying to find the one “impossible” answer rather than providing one of the many possible “simple” ones right before him. This is what we do to ourselves. We want the answers to be complex, because we want to have earned it.

I don’t mean for this to be anti-climactic, but if you know the lyrics of “Pancho and Lefty” (or listened to them on the link above) then it may be quite clear to you exactly why that song would have meant so much to me during a two week road trip, as me and my good friend made our way out into that promised-land/bogeyland that was college. It is a song about two underdog friends against the world, about keeping one’s promise to keep his arms around his homeboy and point forward into that unknown landscape. If you know the other songs and albums I mentioned and know what my life has been like over the years since college (that life that I was promised would be perfect as long as I had a diploma, or two, or three) then you probably understood what I could not, for all my insistence on finding the hard answer. In each moment, as I look back, I can see what it is about each song, each album, that captivates me. They were addictive and important simply because they spoke to me at that moment. And while, sure, I may come back to them again and again throughout my life, “Juicy” will never mean to me what it did when I was an angry 14 year old skater-kid. And even when I do return to it on a jukebox or come across it on the radio, its meaning for me will be what it was more-or-less exactly when I was that 14 year old skater-kid.

The college dream is something I wouldn’t want to devalue. I would never tell my kids “you don’t need college,” although for some of them I don’t believe they necessarily do. But I would also never lie to them: my greatest memories of college are not related to writing my senior thesis paper, or cramming for an exam.; they are memories of late-nights with good friends, set to very particular soundtracks. And the dreamlife I was promised a college-degree would bring? Well the dreamiest parts of it (so far) are also memories that were not earned by having attended a great college. They are memories of growing up and changing, and they are almost always set to a song or album I remember distinctly. And for the worst parts, I can say the same. We keep saying, as educators, “we need to teach our kids to be ‘college-ready.'” And I do more-or-less believe that. I want every single student I know to be prepared for college if he want that, and a life beyond high school, regardless. But maybe we should stop doing it by making the poor bastards rewrite an essay they hated writing in the first place about a book they barely read. Maybe we should give them headphones instead.

Somewhere in the second track (and title song) of Paul Simon’s Graceland, the keen listener will come across the moment that I am certain typifies exactly what it is about this album that has me so enamored right now. Just a few moments after singing possibly the most desperate/heartbreaking lines of the album (“She comes back to tell me she is gone. As if I didn’t know that, as if I didn’t know my own bed. As if I never noticed the way she brushed her hair from her forehead”) Paul Simon gives us this great offering:

There is a girl in New York City, calls herself the human trampoline. Sometimes when I am falling, flying, or tumbling and trembling I say, “Oh, so this is what she means!” She means we are bouncing into Graceland.

The album is filled with these moments, where on top of confusion, or despair, or struggle, there is a huge and sudden blast of hope, even if it is three damn words, like “Bouncing into Graceland.” I know and I get what college means for a kid where I grew up. I know damn well what more it means to my own students, now. But I also know at 17 or 18 you have so many years of falling, flying, tumbling, and trembling before you bounce into Graceland. I am on 12 years and counting, my own damn self. For once in my life I am looking an album in the eye as I listen to it on repeat over …and… over. And I can confidently answer that question my friend’s father asked 12 years ago. I know exactly what it is about these songs that has me captivated. It is the promise and hopefulness sandwiched around dubiousness and insecurity and uncertainty about life. It’s where my life has been since I closed the backdoors of that 15 passenger van so many years ago, and shit, well before that. The next time a student asks me for advice about college I am going to shrug. I still don’t know. I will hand him a copy of Graceland. Let him figure it out himself. With a good enough soundtrack, I suppose this is what we do.

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