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Tales of brave Ulysses

one time you were a glowing young ruffian
oh my god it was a million years ago

— (From “Racing Like a Pro,” by The National)

It started last semester. A student and I were talking, and he used a word I knew, but not in a context known to me. I asked him to explain it.

It happened two or three more times before the semester ended. Different students, different words/contexts, same need for an explanation.

It happened another way last night. A student asked if I’d heard the news. “Heath Ledger died,” he said in response to my quizzical look. The look remained. I had no idea who Heath Ledger was.

It all calls to mind four lines from an obscure song by a long-obscure band:

And you’re out in the cold
And you know that you’ve been rolled
And the cops don’t even stop
And you feel old.


That’s an inevitable feeling, I guess, when you work with college students. They’re always somewhere between 18 and 22. I get older. They don’t.

Most of the time I’m OK with that. Much better than OK, really. Working with people that age is invigorating. Their energy is refreshing, and there’s no feeling like seeing the lights go on in their eyes during a learning moment. And they laugh occasionally at my jokes. The classroom is a great place to earn a living.

Still, the generation gap grows. Every now and then it takes a little more volume to speak across it. Every once in a while it’s tough to see clearly to the other side. No doubt it was ever thus.

Back on Jan. 11, my LJ friend Jim Booth (sirpaulsbuddy) wrote about how he and some friends were still making music, even though a musician friend of theirs had died. Jim is a smart writer in every sense and has one of those writer’s voices I wish I’d grown up to have, and in expressing how he and his friends felt, he wrote:

Still, as Tennyson reminds us, what we are, we are:

Tho' much is taken, much abides; and though
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Jim and I have a different opinion, I think, on those last lines from “Ulysses.” Most readers see those lines as the hero’s unfliching desire – perhaps lust – to persist in the face of all adversity, to conquer age and waning strength through the force of dreams and ambition, to rage against the dying of the light. My reading, less conventional, is that Ulysses is overcome by weariness and by the toll glory has exacted of him, and his words are an effort to convince himself to sail once more in search of one more battle to win, one more world to conquer.

I don’t think he really believes himself. Perhaps I interpret the poem that way because I am increasingly reminded that I have been “weakened by time and fate.” Take, for example, a question a young woman asked after yoga class tonight. She works in management at jewelry store where I buy presents for my wife. She is lithe, elegantly pretty and not even half my age.

“Are you enjoying this, Mr. Vecchio?” she asked.

Of course, the “Mr.” is perfectly polite, respectful — and since we don’t know each other in any context but commerce, it is perfectly appropriate too. But for some reason, her use of the word didn’t make me think of how “much abides.” Rather, it reminded me of how much has been taken.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 24th, 2008 05:50 am (UTC)
And based on your title, I was hoping for a little Cream....
Jan. 24th, 2008 05:06 pm (UTC)
Yeah, that ending is quite the Rorschach inkblot I think.

I was expecting something about Cream too, and I'm far too young to say that. ;)
Jan. 24th, 2008 11:50 pm (UTC)
What a great way to sum up the ending to that poem.

The nod to Cream was just a cheap way to trick people into reading further.
Jan. 24th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)
Good to know that all my brainsweat over the spelling of Rorschach (I know all the letters I need, but always seem to put them in random order... yet more reason I need to read Watchmen again too!) did not go to waste. :)
Jan. 24th, 2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Wonderful. I would commiserate with you, but age has stolen my elegance. Thanks for the good read, PJV.
Jan. 24th, 2008 11:51 pm (UTC)
You're welcome, Denny. Don't kid yourself: You write elegantly. Your posts and mine, though, are completely different species. You're writing news, I'm writing columns.
Jan. 25th, 2008 01:29 am (UTC)
Both generations have much to learn from one another. I firmly believe that, no matter how old your body is, you're only truly "old" if you refuse to continue to grow and learn. If you're open to new ideas, ways of thinking, cultural shifts, etc, you're never too old to belong to youth.
Jan. 25th, 2008 01:38 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading and commenting, Lizz. I'm working hard to avoid becoming an irrelevant old fart, but once in a while, I am momentarily stunned by the collision between how old I am (almost 54) and how old I feel (number unknown, but considerably less than 54).

Jan. 25th, 2008 06:37 pm (UTC)
That’s an inevitable feeling, I guess, when you work with college students. They’re always somewhere between 18 and 22. I get older. They don’t.

I can't stop thinking "Huh" about this statement. As parents, our children age as we do, although not nearly as fast it seems. But yeah, as a teacher, the age gap widens with each passing year. Huh.

I remember pondering that Tennyson passage back when you two wrote of it and thinking that to me, it sounds more like acceptance, something you get with the wisdom of age. The line that spoke strongest to me was, "that which we are, we are;"

And hubby had the same reaction to the Heath Ledger news. Huh? While I was at least familiar with some of his movies, I winced at the label of "Acting Legend" they put before his name. Do you get to be called an acting legend when you die at age 28?
Jan. 27th, 2008 03:19 pm (UTC)
Legend. Had he been a "legend," I think I would have heard of him.

That's just another example of how our society has degraded superlatives. Everything is "great," "fantastic," "excellent," "legendary," "unsurpassed," etc. The words have lost their meaning.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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