Sunday, May 24, 2015

What Fresh Hell Is This?

Advice to My 22-Year-Old Self I Won’t Dare Post on LinkedIn


With everyone offering advice to their younger selves on LinkedIn this graduation season (#IfIWere22), I find myself -- in the middle of my years -- being tormented by Dante Alighieri.

With Dad at my college graduation
He has been following me these past few weeks, as if daring me to find some meaning to it all.

I’ll take that dare, Dante. You may have journeyed to Hell and back with Virgil, but I’ve recently journeyed to New York and Minnesota and Washington DC with my cell phone. While I haven’t pretended to find eternal truths, I’ve experienced some interesting moments.

By way of background: My 22-year-old self had already given up his boyhood dream of becoming an astronomer and moving to San Francisco. In fact, after all these years, I’ve never even visited San Francisco. But I have a wonderful family; my life has been filled with productive work; and, once, I wrote a book, riddled with so many Dante references that even its last word was “stars.”

So I offer here my own mini-trilogy of life lessons.


Lesson One: Magic Exists

Just last month, late on Holy Thursday evening, I took my 22-year-old daughter to a reading of excerpts from Dante’s “Inferno” at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. As one of the perhaps dozen actual readers of my book, my daughter had always promised that someday we would go to this annual reading together.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Maundy Thursday
I was excited. Days earlier, I brushed up by listening to an audio of John Cleese reading Robert Pinsky’s translation of excerpted cantos from the “Inferno.” None of it resonated with me, however, and at one point near the end Cleese broke into the voice of a Monty Python character. For a moment, from the depths of Hell, I thought I heard that there was a penguin on the telly.

Undaunted, I drove my daughter into the city and marveled at the grand, cavernous cathedral. We excitedly took seats on uncomfortable wooden folding chairs right in the front row, and we waited for award-winning modern-day poets to interpret one of our favorite works of literature.

More than three hours later, we were massively disappointed. There was a lot of earnestness in the readings, but no heart. Three readers recited cantos in the original Italian, but there was no rhythm or expressiveness in their language -- no discernible tercets, no rhymes. As soon as the last reader said the word “stelle,” my daughter and I were out the door and headed to a dive bar off West 110th Street.

I was by far the oldest person there, and one of the few without a tattoo. My daughter and I sat under a framed photo of a sheep, and I ordered a very cold beer from very Irish bartender.

“What the hell was that?” I said to my daughter. “I got nothing out of that, and ‘The Inferno’ used to be my favorite. Is it me? A mid-life crisis?”

“That’s OK, Dad,” she said. “My friends and I are all going through a quarter-life crisis, so I can relate. Things change.”

Then she patted my hand tenderly, and the previous three hours disappeared… like magic. It was midnight on Good Friday, and I was never happier to be anywhere else, with anyone else, in my life.


Lesson Two: All Children Are Above Average

Fast forward a few weeks:

I’m in a living room in Almost Heaven, Minnesota, visiting my college friend’s elderly parents. We’re sipping coffee while the father reminisces about his military experience during the last days of World War II. Over his shoulder, there’s a framed lithograph of Dante Alighieri in profile, watching me.

Minnesota: almost Heaven
“What’s with the Dante portrait?” I ask after we leave, expecting an involved and quirky story.

“Oh, nothing,” my friend replied. “Mom just likes the print.”

I thought: That’s my point of view, exactly. After all these years, I’ve come to realize that I really don’t enjoy reading the “Divine Comedy”; I just like the thought of being someone who enjoys reading the “Divine Comedy.” I like to pretend I’m special, but I’m really just like everyone else.

There’s a redeeming paradox to this, however, and it had hit me right between my eyes when my first child was born.

Because, and although I do appreciate Garrison Keillor’s wit, that’s precisely a moment in life when you realize that everyone is special.


Lesson Three: The Sidelines Are Not Where You Want to Live Your Life

Now fast forward to last week:

I’m in Washington DC, and walking toward the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. I have the morning to myself, and I want to rekindle my boyhood wonder about space and astronomy. However, I feel invisible -- an insubstantial shade, unconnected to the present-tense people ignoring me or walking right through me, heads bowed, watching their cell phones.

Ironically, there's no space here
At the entrance to the museum, a guard directs me through one door, but once inside another man angrily says that this is not an entrance. We all must pass through metal detectors, and the government security agents slow their disinterested movements as the lines increase in length behind me. The man who yelled at me is now trying to bring a knife into the museum in a plastic shopping bag, and as the agents rustle him aside I slip past unnoticed.

It’s crowded inside. There’s no open space in the Space Museum. Unsupervised children run all around. Everywhere I walk I am seemingly in the line of sight of someone taking a photo. It’s loud, and people crowd three-deep around the exhibits. Nothing about this place seems remotely enchanting. So I leave, disappointed, and rest on a park bench a half block away.

“Hey, get off my bed!” comes an angry shout in my direction.

An imposing, disheveled man is waving his finger at me.

“You’re sitting on my bed! I’m warning you: Get off!”

I do as he says. But before I turn to leave, I make eye contact with the homeless man, and we acknowledge each other’s existence. This surprises him. “I just needed to rest,” I say, “I meant no disrespect.”

This unsettles him. He looks at me cautiously and says, “I meant no disrespect either. I just get mad sometimes.” Then he offers me his hand and says, “I’m sorry.”

I shake it and say, “Good luck,” causing his eyes to turn vacant.

“I don’t believe in luck,” he spits in reply.


So I turn back toward the Mall -- currently under renovation, resembling a pit -- and walk headlong into the nearest museum. It happens to be the National Museum of African Art, and the featured exhibit is “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists.”

My diamante
I laugh when I see the inscription above the entrance, and channel Sheldon Cooper channeling Dorothy Parker. “What fresh Hell is this?” I ask no one, because there’s not another soul in sight.

It’s a wonderful exhibit, dramatically staged on three levels, with 40 works from some of the best known and emerging artists from Africa… all addressing the themes of Dante’s epic poem.

I wish I could show it to you here, but as soon as I raise my cell phone, a security guard runs up to me saying, “No photos! No photos!” I wonder why. With no one else around, the three security guards -- Dante’s minions -- keep following me as I wander through the gallery.

So I look but don’t touch. I don’t take photos. I don’t complain. The art itself is spell-binding.

As I leave I spot a table littered with diamond-shaped cards, inviting guests to compose a “diamante” -- an unrhymed, seven-line poem -- about the exhibit. It’s a contest for visiting school children, but I fill one out myself, using words such as “stalking,” “threatening” and “paranoia,” and comparing the circling guards to dogs.

Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll win the contest.


I’m pretty sure, though, that my diamante put a stake through Dante’s fat heart and drove him from my own bed, because I woke the next morning with everything back in focus. That’s right, Durante, I’m no longer scared of you.

Tim Cook takes an iPhone photo at the 2015 GWU commencement
It was my daughter’s graduation day, in another grand setting: a wide and gentle bluff beneath the Washington Monument, where George Washington University had set up a temporary stage, carnival tents and thousands of folding chairs (#GWCommencement).

I had wanted to leave extra early, to make sure we had seats, but there was a group of us and I didn’t insist -- so we wound up standing in a gentle rain throughout the ceremony.

The commencement speaker, Apple CEO Tim Cook, looked down at me from a large-screen video monitor, as if in parody of Apple’s famous 1984 Super Bowl television commercial, and said: “The sidelines are not where you want to live your life.”

And yet there I was, literally standing on the sidelines at my daughter’s graduation.

Right then and there, I typed a to-do item into my phone. The due-date is a few years away, addressed to my future 62-year-old self.

It reads simply, “Plan trip to San Francisco.”


And the Point of All This Is...

The point, 22-year-old Bob, is that I can’t give you answers when all the questions keep changing. Even Dante didn’t know what he didn’t know. So show a little faith and, as Mr. Cleese and his colleagues often reminded us, always look on the bright side of life.

Life is messy. It’s forever unfinished, often complicated and sometimes extraordinary, and it renews itself with or without you. Everything matters, because every moment is unique.

Nothing is immutable; not even the stars.

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