Wednesday, August 26, 2020

My Commencement Address Advice

I happened to be in Lisbon 25 years ago when my friend Claus, a talented trombonist and arranger, was giving a debut performance of his big band, which had just launched a weekly residency in the city's top jazz club.

The playing was good, his arrangements were ingenious, and the packed-tight audience was raptly enthusiastic. Claus is not normally flamboyant, but, poised in front of the band, the placid Dane was actually bopping. Every few tunes, he'd grab his trombone off its stand, shut his eyes into a grimace, and solo to the rafters. He played not his horn, but the room itself. The crowd roared.

Portugal at the time was no hotbed of swinging jazz, but, on this night, escape velocity had been reached, and there was a crackling sense of something really happening. It was electric.

At intermission, Claus strolled over to say hi, playing the blithely weary musican. He was in "gig mode", not wanting to showboat. And, per gig mode norms, he began to complain about the money, and about the logistical headache of gathering all these players at the same time. Too much hassle. He planned to cancel at the end of the month and return to his lucrative (though comparatively vapid) TV and studio work.

I gaped at him with wild eyes, exhorting him, in a tone that surely struck him as way over the top, to recognize that he was peaking. This, right now - RIGHT NOW!!! - was the greatest moment of his life. When he's old and bed-ridden, this is what he'll recall.

It wasn't some new perma-state of eternal hipness and vibrancy. It was not something he could reassemble later on a whim. This was a precious confluence of luck and circumstance. I begged him to re-frame; to recognize what was happening, and not to squander the opportunity. But Claus only gaped at me in baffled confusion. He naturally understood the factors that had brought him to this point, but he was there. This was who he is now, his new normal. He could re-summon this moment with a finger snap.

I soon grew busy with Chowhound and we fell out of touch. But, to this day, I occasionally scan online listings for music in Lisbon, never spotting a reappearance of ClausBand. Claus is likely grey like me, and I'll bet he's wistful. At a certain point, these memories start to cut. I tried to warn him.

Class of 2041, I congratulate you!

I'd like to draw your attention to something magnificent that will happen to you. I want you to frame it correctly when it does.

At some point you will have an experience of storm clouds parting and beams of sunlight illuminating and warming you. You're finally getting your due. Hindrances and frustrations drop away, and things, at last, go as you'd always hoped they would. For once, reality matches expectation.

Let's briefly discuss those hindrances and frustrations. We all feel them, but we imagine the persecution to be uniquely directed at us. This oddly malevolent headwind is what makes paranoids paranoid. It spurs us to obsess over some attribute (gender, ethnicity, body type, attractiveness, financial position, etc.) explaining the chronic obstruction.

I once wrote that:
If you've got a zit on the tip of your nose, all injustice appears to stem from that. The world is "off", and it has nothing to do with you. Yet, whoever you are, including billionaires and movie stars, things seem stacked against you...and it feels personal. So we (mostly unconsciously) attribute the brunt of it to whichever personal characteristic we happen to focus on.
But, then, for a sweet moment, it abates. You've finally been embraced. And, alas, you will miscalculate, assuming that fate has turned, and that it will be smooth sailing from here.

No. That's not how it works. What you are experiencing is a peak moment. Peak moments always feel like "new normals", and that is always a tragic miscalculation, because peak moments must be relished, not merely digested. Like found money, they are to be spent extravagantly, not just thrown atop one's 401K.

This is not the world finally yielding up your just desserts. It's the very opposite of that. It's undeserved special treatment, like a birthday party. You don't earn that cake, or that song! It's a fluke; a lucky roll of the dice. Enjoy...but, for god's sake, don't recalibrate yourself. You will not be the birthday girl tomorrow!

Just don't imagine it’s your new normal. If you do, you'll fail to properly appreciate the moment, and to profit from the opportunity (i.e. strike while the iron is hot). You must work at it, full-tilt, because such moments are fleeting, and the world soon returns to status quo. Your ducks will scatter out of their row, and the whack-a-moles will start poking up their mischievous little heads, daring you to whack away.

So don't smugly parse peak moments as arrival points. The world does not do "Arrivals". You're not starring in a film. Per this posting:
We don't live in cartoonish big-picture images, we live in trivial moments. This is not a movie. We're raindrops slowly working down windows, not heroic protagonists.
There are no arrivals, there are no happy-ever-after endings, and momentum's a myth. Which is not to say it's all a dismal grind. Quite the contrary, the random, unearned, lucky-roll peak moments are the sugar and spice of it all. It's only when we try to string things into some grand narrative that the inherent infrequency of peak moments casts them as wistful hindsight fuel rather than fleeting delight and opportunity.

When bad stuff happens, it's not the end of life-as-we-know-it, and when good stuff happens, it's not Arrival. Enjoy the ride - every moment of it, if you possibly can (you're here for all the experiences), but, at very least, soak in the peak moments, and put in the work to try to extend them. Don't just smugly toss them atop your mound of treasure. Don't normalize.

Scoop up the piƱata prizes off the floor with the joyful exuberance of a chubby kid. That's the only way to play it.

If you imagine this was prompted by wistfulness for the public/media attention I had during the Chowhound debacle, you need to go back to the beginning of the Slog and read it all over again. I hated that part.

And I'm not wistful for anything. I'm an ant and an earthworm and a reed. I decline to fixate on what’s missing. I take it as it comes, go with the flow, and play the hand I'm dealt (while doing what I can to be of service). But, wistful or not, did I fuck up very often by assuming that certain fleeting faculties and opportunities would perennially remain at my fingertips? Oh, yeah, I sure did.

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