Friday, May 18, 2007

Thoughts on the (third) commencement.


So I finally decided to not attend the final commencement ceremony at the New School tonight.

It's a complicated story, not very interesting in the details, but maybe I can sum it up in a reflective sort of way, and maybe even make a useful point at the end.

I'd originally planned on attending. When I petitioned to graduate, they asked me if I wanted to pay the forty dolalr fee for a cap and gown and I agreed on the spot. In the past few weeks, however, I started having second thoughts. Not dread: the whole situation was really too incidental for such a strong emotion. I found out that few of my friends were planning on attending. My dad offered to make a trip to New York, and we agreed that the thesis readings would have been more interesting and personal (which, I think, was correct). Jessica would have had to take time off work, and offered to, but her job is important, and I didn't think an afternoon in the concrete anonymity of Madison Square Garden was worth it. Moreover, in the last two weeks, I'd attended the thesis readings themselves, which program director Robert Polito once described as the "holiest" of writing program events, and yesterday, a ceremony and reception for the New School Graduate programs. How many times do they need to graduate us? Isn't there some better use I could have put my forty dollars toward? And we don't get our diplomas for another three months regardless. And New School is so disorganized that they haven't even taken care to advertise for their Commencement speaker. Last year's speaker was Senator McCain, which set off a firestorm of protest and coverage, since the New School is one of the more liberal schools in the country. There was little or no description of what the Commencement would involve, but I have every indication that it would be a less organized mirror my graduation at the U of C. Madison Square Garden is not Rockefeller Chapel, and a mass of New School affiliated people are not my family. All I'm saying is that my incentives to not attend were growing this whole time.

Cut to last Wednesday when I arrived at the Fifth Avenue building to pick up my gown. They asked for forty dollars cash. I had assumed that my account had been billed. I could always stop off at an ATM... but did this mean that I wasn't to be charged if I didn't pick up the gown? Actually, if I didn't pay for the gown, I didn't have to pay.

There was still one more day at that point for me to pick up the gown, so I went home to think it over. I decided not to go. Then I changed my mind, when I found out that a few more of my friends were attending. Then I changed my mind again when I found out that the deadline for picking up gowns had passed. I almost changed my mind again when I read in one announcement (of rumor and questionable authorship, out of perhaps five) that there wold be a limited number of gowns available at the ceremony itself. This seemed like a long shot, and so I held my hand.

It is a challenge, when one is equivocal and uncertain, to not let chane make up your mind for you. Sometimes (say, perhaps, on a summer evening, when deciding whether to eat Mexican food or Italian, and you happen to pass a taqueria on the street) this doesn't matter much. Sometimes, however, it is important to sort out your equivocal feelings and make a decisive choice, and stand by it, however tempting it may be to let the winds buffet you about. This, then, is how I made up my mind:

I have found a community at New School. It is not the community of the institution, however. The institution is, at best, a cypher or a machine needed to guide the creature through difficult social motions. This is different, I think, than the University of Chicago, or even Flushing High School. There, the administration, the students, the teachers, the physical buildings themselves, were so bound up in the experience of the community that separating them, drawing distinctions between them, was not possible. I cannot help but feel that my experience of New School is in my meetings with Jeff Allen (which often took place at coffee shops and restaurants), my summer emails with Shelley and David Gates, my conversations with my peer group and friends... even things that didn't strictly have anything to do with the program itself. Summer afternoons at Coney Island seem inextricably linked to the New School. The buildings and campus and free events, however, do not. An afternoon at Madison Square Garden does not. This makes attendance, at best, a matter of indifference.

To extend my point further, however, my experience of New School has also been constantly informed by my wish to get as much bang for my buck as possible. Unlike college, I didn't have large grants and outside financial support to basically cover the bill for me. This is appropritate, because at my age (I was twenty-seven when I started the program) I needed to be both financially independent, and just as important, capable of making major life decisions mindful of their long-term commitments and consequences. At New School, this meant learning, engaging, conversing, acting, moving about as much as I could. And I was delighted and challenged to discover, beneath the important and unending contemplation of the written language, of its activity in an artistic work, of the bond between a reader and a writer, between a writer and an audience, another task. That is that even the most experimental writers are, socially and economically, artisans. In terms of the paces gone through in the acquisition of skills, the specialized vocabulary, and most significantly, the need of any writer to make oneself relevant, we have much in common with, both in the process of craft and in its social integration, specialized artisans. More, in fact, than we have in common with administrators, the service industry, or even scholars. There is, after all, specialized skills and a limited market for stained-glass window manufacturing, antique automobile restoration, naked funiture, high-precision scientific equipment, and novelists. This is a huge lesson, because it makes whole and organic for me the whole issue of what a writer's artist's place in society is, and what obligation a writer has to support him or herself.

To modernist thought this is perhaps a regressive posture. To postmodern thought it is maybe too obvious to mention. I think there is even a chance that skilled traditional artisans would consider this an unfair and unfavorable comparison. Ultimately, however, it clarifies and liberates. It liberates in the sense of critical discourse because the writer-as-artisan is still permitted to examine and explore the creative use of language even while realizing that one applies his or her understanding to a calculated effect (assuming, in the case of experimental literature, a sufficiently broad definition of the word "calculated"). More the point of my commencement dilemma, however, artisanship takes writers out of the social twilight of creative ephemera. This boils down to a very simple point: I must live within my means, and if I consider inspiration (say, for example, a James Brown compilation) to be a legitimate work-related expense, I must see that I live within my means and that my expenditures are consistent with their probable fruit.

This is more than saying that I don't want to spend my forty dollars on a commencement that may or may not be worthwhile.

This means that even if I had unlimited funds, if Bill Gates wrote me a personal check, I still wouldn't go.

I have already celebrated my graduation from the New School program in the most meaningful way. I am not interested in revisiting a past moment or diluting it through repetition. I am not interested in attending yet another ceremony in recognition of my accomplishments. My accomplishment is, as much as learning how to write, acquiring the discipline and focus to commit to the work at hand. It is time to commit to the work at hand.

I should finally say that I'm not explaining all of this out of some self-doubt that compels me to over-rationalize. As I get older I find that most peoples' greatest strengths share in their greatest flaws. I am a completist. I value thoroughness for its own sake. This can be an asset: I revised a three-hundred page novel three times and read a couple thousand relevant pages of noir and gothic fiction and lumbering history in the last five months. But completism is also a liability... huge amounts of time and energy and money are spent on things that may or may not be useful, in hopes of a holism that may or may not be organic. It is my responsibility to play up the good in my personality, and to try to recognize, and mitigate, the bad.

And I think that all of this effort leads me to a point at which I can be comfortable and happy, both now and in the future.

I am going to take this contested forty dollars and put it toward groceries. I am going to take these contested four hours and put them toward writing and reflection. This is, ultimately, the most meaningful use of my afternoon, and will make the most lasting and powerful memory.

Thanks for letting me rap at you.



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