Back to school no more
At the end of the 1987 film Back to the Beach, Annette Funicello asks her husband (played by Frankie Avalon), “Who ever said you can’t go home again?” It’s a variation of an oft-used reference to Thomas Wolfe’s 1940 novel that has its budding-author protagonist besieged by death threats from readers apoplectic over the way he portrayed his and their hometown — good enough reason to stay the hell away, in my book — but Wolfe really meant don’t you dare risk returning “back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame,” as it says in You Can’t Go Home Again, and so forth. My nutshell take on the whole deal is what Heraclitus once wrote: “It is impossible to step into the same river twice.”
I’m belaboring this because I’ve reached a critical juncture in my life, which has me wishing Annette Funicello were right (in a sense more profound than the characters in the movie moving to LA from Ohio) that Frankie Avalon couldn’t agree more; and that, hey, dipping in your toe, at least, won’t hurt a bit.
“I’m not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia,” quipped Yogi Berra. “Let them walk to school like I did.” Funny stuff. School. Back to school. “Some students drink at the fountain of knowledge. Others just gargle.” — E.C. McKenzie. You gotta laugh.
But suddenly, after 20 years of school (counting a fifth year in college), there is no back to school. My son is done. It’s hard to laugh. Even as empty nesters, my wife and I had school as a backup: baring vacations back home, there were rent checks due, extracurricular-activities tête-à-têtes, academic course deliberations — all requiring regular communication via e-mail, text messages, cell phone chats (Cool, you’re on a chairlift at Copper Mountain and I can hear you just fine! You want me to sign what?). Woody Allen: “I took a test in Existentialism. I left all the answers blank and got 100.” You gotta love it. Sort of.
Everyone asks recent college grads, “So, what are you up to this summer?” They really mean the rest of their lives. Advice is dispensed like popcorn. The kids grin and nod and bob. But no one asks the parents of “the departed” what they’ll be up to. Who cares, right? “I think everyone should go to college and get a degree and then spend six months as a bartender and six months as a cabdriver. Then they would really be educated.” — Al McGuire. Now we’re talking. Ply these trades back home around the old neighborhood. That would be nice, you think, but you can almost hear Thomas Wolfe say: Watch it, mister, these aren’t your “dreams of glory and fame” you’re trifling with. You shuffle back to your spot between a rock and a hard place, and hunker down with the knowledge that, according to the experts, very few decisions recent college grads make will be permanent — so take that, Vernal, Utah, where my son is working this very moment, Vernal being some 2,000 miles away.
Twitter to self: Chin up. There still are e-mails (with photos!), cell phone chats, things to sign. “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life,” said Apple’s Steve Jobs, a college dropout, at a college commencement address in 2005. Was he talking about me? “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice,” he cautioned. “And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”
I liked Job’s advice so much I e-mailed it to my son not long ago. Don’t you be worrying about your old ma and pa, pining away back here in New Jersey; we’re alive and well despite the leak under the dormer in your bedroom where all your stuff lies just as you left it, as though fallen from the ceiling was the un-typed subtext.
Job also noted in his commencement address, a photo of “an early morning country road” on the back of the final issue of The Whole Earth Catalog in the mid-1970s (when he and I and his audience were all about the same age my son is now). Beneath the photo, as a sort of sign off, were the words, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” Job told the students that he always wished that for himself and now wished the same for them.
“Stay hungry, stay foolish,” I counseled my son.
In response to this and my other pearls of insight, amounting to many belabored sentences that included references to Thomas Wolfe, whom he had never read, the current unemployment rate and latest surf report from Sandy Hook, I received the following text message: “No worries. See you over Christmas.” NJC
Cort Smith is a freelance writer and former newspaper and magazine editor. He lives in Holmdel.