The other day I was reading a book on the grass in front of town hall in Wellfleet, MA. I was waiting for my shift at the Marketplace across the street. It’s a small town, it’s main street being comprised of about 12 odd businesses. Most only open in the summer.
A tourist approached me. He had been sitting on a bench across the street with his dog. His floppy sun hat and loose button down waving in the breeze of the humid spring day. “Now, why would I be coming over here…” he started. I was laying on the grass propped against a short wooden wall so my face was at perfect eye level with his golden retriever as it came bounding toward me. Between gasps of slobbering I heard sentence fragments from the owner. “I’m going to tell you the secret of enlightenment.” As the dog blubbered all over my face, my book landed pages first on the dewy grass. “What came first, the chicken or the egg? I’ve been pondering this question for the last 30-40 years…both.” Noticing that his dog had found a new receptacle for saliva “Oh, do you like dogs?”
Finally his dog calmed down and we were able to have a regular conversation. “There is only now,” he said. The implication being that yesterday and tomorrow don’t exist. Now does. Logically, I’m forced to agree. He went on to ask me about “Infinity” and, rather like elementary school children we debated what might be bigger than infinity. Before we came to a conclusion his wife, I easily pegged her, came walking out of the market. She was grumbling about not being able to buy alcohol before noon in the State of Massachusetts and what social/religious implications that had. “Guess we’re all supposed to be in church or something,” she said acidly, choking on the word “church.”
She wanted to go. “I’m explaining something-”
“He’ll get it. C’mon, let’s go.”
Apparently she was not unfamiliar with this routine and could spot it on sight. How many other young bearded book-reading whoevers had he approached in their vacationing? What is it that makes adults approach young adults and try to impart wisdom? On the Cape it must have something to do with the salt air infecting vacationers with introspective thought they don’t have in their regular lives. “If only I had known when I was 22…” I can see them thinking.
Like Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate I find myself being sucked into conversations with adults all the time that go something like “You should be taking it easy” “enjoy life, sow some wild oats.” I realize that cliches are a convenient shortcut for coming up with your own metaphors but this one has a particularly nasty visual when you actually think about it. It’s always nostalgic mid-50 somethings who are telling me to spread the seeds for my oat farm. Tell them you had intercourse with someone you don’t know and there’s a slap on the back. Tell them you want to circle the globe in a turn-of-the-century dirigible and suddenly the oats are too wild.
As a 20-something it’s real easy to tell who’s happy with their life and who’s not. It’s all about their reaction to what you say about your aspirations. It’s the moment when you say what is it you want that their eyes either light up and reply “Good for you, how are you going to make it happen?” Or the look of the person who resigned their ambitions to a job long ago. “Fat chance,” they may say. “Then life happens,” I’ve been told time and again. Surely it must be true but I can’t imagine any successful person starting the day with the attitude that they would rather just watch TV or play it safe. It’s blatantly self-fulfilling to expect failure and receive it.
Everyone wants to tell you how it is. I guess everyone has some idea of what they think their life will be. As far as expectations go I think they’re like assumptions. Just don’t make them.
I remember one day in my travel writing class someone had written an essay on their road trip to a series of musical festivals. Despite the naked facts a young woman said “I don’t want to read something like that because I just don’t think that it’s realistic. People don’t actually go on road trips and have adventures. ” Looks like she won’t be picking up a copy of Vagabonding any time soon.
There is only now, the man said. I would suggest from that ambiguous sampling of philosophy that it’s better to enjoy being the pharaoh while you’re alive than to spend 80 years building your tomb. An attitude which I see in practice all the time.
The problem with advice is that without the experience behind it it’s a solution without a problem. Wisdom is easily watered down, like a greeting card phrase or a book of modern proverbs sold in silky purple wrapping at a gift shop for rich women to proudly display in mint condition on an antique book shelf to say “I am philosophical.”
The tourist and his wife scraped their dogs face off of mine with the aid of an industrial lubricant and headed to their car. The old Saab convertible rumbled into ignition and took off. Life belongs to the risk takers and those too proud to subscribe to someone else’s philosophy. Those people build the world.