01 March 2008

The Essay Reader

In light of the aforementioned skin condition, I wasn't too keen on honoring my commitment to read scholarship applications for the UC Berkeley Alumni Association, but I did it anyway. It was actually a rather pleasant way to spend a windy, chilly Saturday, ensconced in an easy chair overlooking Washington Square Park, and with free sandwiches and bagels thrown in as well.

I didn't even catch my fellow alumni staring at my face blotch, but there was a painful moment of another sort: at the beginning we were each asked to identify ourselves, giving the year we graduated, our major, and what we were doing now. Being a bunch of Berkeley overachievers, people gave the kind of answers you'd expect: special assistant to the mayor, own my own Fortune 500 company, international lawyer, Columbia professor, retired astronaut, that sort of thing. All except me. As my turn approached, I wondered if I should identify myself as a retired punk rock record executive, just plain retired, or possibly something a bit more interesting-sounding. I ended up just saying that I was a writer, praying all the while that nobody would ask me what I'd published lately, especially after the guy a few seats over announced he was a writer, too, but making it clear that there were actual books and movies involved, as opposed to blogs and fanzines.

It was really a lot like being back in high school, another period of my life in which I felt like (probably because I was) a massive underachiever. It's no use, either, reminding myself - as people often do - that having been successful enough in business to retire only five years after graduating from college (bear in mind that I left it rather late in life to graduate from college) was an accomplishment other people might envy me for. At one time, I myself would have been impressed with this, but I've long since ceased to be.

Frankly, retiring when I did just because I could afford to seems in retrospect one of the dumber if not dumbest things I've done. Granted, it was the logical outcome of a life in which I expended far more energy trying to avoid work than I did in actually working, and it did seem like a good idea at the time. But as my thinking and values have evolved over the past few years, I no longer see work as something to be done only when all other alternatives are exhausted, but rather as something that's a fundamental component of a life well lived.

I don't mean any old work necessarily; I have no desire, for example, to go back to the assembly line or the steel mill or slopping out toilets. And it doesn't even have to be paid work if a guy already has sufficient resources to live on. But the idea of doing nothing at all, or at least nothing at all apart from seeking out fun and entertainment, strikes me as both fanciful and stupid, and I say that as someone who's tried his best to do just that.

Of course it's worth considering that at least part of my self-consciousness about not being in regular employment might be purely the product of an ego trip: like many people, I want to be able to identify myself as "being" something, preferably something that can be encapsulated in a word or two that will immediately cause most other people to be impressed.

Obviously that's not the best motivation for seeking out a career, paid or otherwise, but then what Dr. Frank calls "The miracle of shame" is what keeps many if most of us on the straight and narrow at times when almost nothing else will. A far better motivator might be the desire to be of service to our fellow man (and/or woman), but that can always stray into dodgy territory as well, what with people having such conflicting ideas over what constitutes genuine service as opposed to just plain being a pain in the ass.

But in the absence of certitude as to what I should be doing with my life, I've been picking up some volunteer work here and there, and today's application/essay reading stint was part of that general trend. I was a bit wary going into it, fearful that reading long lists of accomplishments from a bunch of precocious 17 and 18 year-old Leaders of Tomorrow might stir up some resentments on my part, but any such trepidations turned out to be ill-founded. Most of the kids, despite striving to put the best possible face on their high school careers, still came off as kids in search of meaning and identity in their lives, and as for the relative handful who had already racked up genuinely astounding curricula vitae, well, they'd obviously put in the time and done the work, and how can you resent someone for that? People sometimes ask me if it bothers me that my old bandmate from the Lookouts went on to be a multimillionaire rock star while I went on to be, well, not one, but I can quite honestly say no, not at all. The guy was fortunate enough to be born with a God-given talent that gave him the opportunity to become one of the best drummers in the world. And he took that talent, worked long and hard with it it, and became just that. What's to resent?

In grading the applications I also had to guard against other prejudices, some dating back to my own high school days. For instance, it was almost a given that teenagers like me (indolent, insolent, and antisocial) hated "jocks" (the feeling was generally mutual), and though I long ago got over my antipathy toward sports and became a genuine fan of several, I still get a negative gut reaction when I see that a kid has listed his main extracurricular activities as "football, basketball, track, lacrosse and water polo." I also had to compensate for what some people call my grammar nazi tendencies: my first instinct would be to disqualify, not just from scholarship consideration, but from Berkeley altogether, anyone who makes a single spelling or grammatical error on his or her application.

And I think I did reasonably well in both regards, giving high marks to several athletes, and magnanimously overlooking less than immaculate prose as long as the meaning and substance was clear. In all I read about 120 applications, and in case any applicants happen to stumble across this blog and are fretting about their fates being in the hands of one such as I, rest assured that each application was read by three different individuals and the scores averaged.

I was pleasantly surprised to find fewer grammatical errors than I had anticipated. There were still more than would have been tolerated at my Catholic high school, but I'll spare you the O tempora! O mores! sermonizing and restrict myself to commenting that in my humble opinion, Berkeley students should be able to distinguish quite readily between "principal" and "principle" and yet in a number of case are not.

I was also surprised at how many Boy Scouts (Eagle Scouts, nearly all of them, needless to say) were among the applicants. I really had no idea that the Boy Scouts were still that active, or that 17-year-olds in today's world would freely admit to being one. I was a Scout myself, of course, as were the majority of boys in my day, but never an especially good one. My father and baby brother were both Eagles; there was never any question of my coming close to that exalted achievement, as after a certain point the only appeal Scouting held for me was drunken binges masquerading as campouts. Poor example as I was, however, I've always had a soft spot in my heart for Scouting - not a popular position in many of the circles I've inhabited.

Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed my one-day re-entry into academia, and was almost sorry to see it end. I imagine the novelty must wear off rather quickly for instructors who have to grade papers on a regular basis, but I found it rather stimulating, especially in the way it forced me to question and re-question my own assumptions. After I was done, I had a spare couple hours and meandered uptown, intending to either buy a book or go to a movie. I ended up realizing that it was silly buying books when the New York Public Library had a few hundred thousand that I hadn't read yet, so I checked out two Willa Cather novels and then walked over to Times Square to see - wait for it - Rambo. Lots of great explosions, a suitable amount of cod-philosophizing ("God didn't save your life, we did"), and Rambo looking moody and timeless as he reflects on once more saving the day and not getting the girl. Daniel Day-Lewis could learn a thing or two from Sly Stallone when it comes to emoting while leaving the scenery and fellow actors ungnawed-upon.


Psmith said...

After saying anyone who makes a single spelling or grammar error should be expelled from Berkeley, you wrote "needles to say" in your Boy Scout paragraph.

Larry Livermore said...

Wasn't it pretty much a foregone conclusion that something like that would happen?

Jon Robinson said...

It's nice to know that the people who read these essays seem to actually care, seeing as I've written so many of these essays Larry. Usually I assume that they don't even look at anything I send them, since the college admissions process is very secretive and not open at all to the applicant except for various mailers advertising housing oppurtunities. I get worried sometimes that I wouldn't get the light of day from people who read the essays I have written, but this at least raised my hopes a bit.

- Jon Robinson

Brooklyn Love said...

I guess I was 'lucky' to come to understand at a relatively early age that work is an inescapable part of a 'happy' life; a part of the whole yin-yang, pleasure-pain balance that seems to be a part of all human feelings/experiences.

Before that though, I most definitely spent the majority of my time and effort trying to avoid work. Nowadays, I try to divide my time avoiding and delving in accordingly.