If this is your first time hearing this you are about to experience something so cold.
—Kanye West, “We Don’t Care”
This is an essay several months in the making, the product of several inadvertent stints of “research” that include:
1. Finding a full, nearly brand-new Jansport backpack in the trash can and, of course, investigating its contents.
2. Checking out the edited version of Kanye West’s first album, The College Dropout, from the library and listening to it regularly and critically, though positively.
3. Going to my sweetheart’s graduation from UCLA and moving her out of the two-bedroom apartment in Westwood she shared with three other girls.
4. I became active in what has become to be known, to both insiders and outsiders to the community, as weird twitter, and, the day before said graduation, steve roggenbuck, who is not necessarily part of weird twitter but all the same has come to represent the hyper-positive anti-establishment internet-based vanguard of poetry/personal philosophy/spirituality/joking/etc., followed me.
Now, this perhaps may not resemble an obviously library-centric, traditionally scholarly attempt to understand the mystery [Dead Poets’ Society voice or favorite English teacher’s intended by italics] of whatever this essay was to be about, but it happened and I have some conclusions and further questions I wish to set out here about the fate of the mid-twenties American at the turn of the millennium.
COLLEGE AS THE MOST DISPOSABLE OF ALL LIFESTYLES
There is no right way to live, unless you are going to college, then it is the most cookie-cutter existence imaginable, especially if you have been indoctrinated by Target and buy the notion, and its compulsory products, that a dormitory may be filled with 100 dollars worth of disposable living supplies that will be dumpstered come May the way that you buy an elementary school student a new pack of pencils in September that will slowly and naturally whittle into useless though proud stubs by June. However, there is nothing proud nor celebratory about throwing away a perfectly good lamp upon moving out of your freshman dormitory. I’ve witnessed it and I’ve read White Noise by Don Delillo; I can recommend the latter experience.
I was lucky enough to study English in Portland, Oregon and thus forgo the corporate Barnes-and-Noble-owned “bookstore” that has more college-logo embossed mugs than it does works by Plato, and buy all of my books second-hand at Powell’s, gorgeous copies that I still own, spines that comfort me as I peruse them, gently, purposefully, happily. Also, hipsters would come to campus and intercept the Target lamps et al, and the cycle had a bit more to do with the reality not expressed in a Target commercial.
My sweetheart, however, was not moving from her freshman dormitory, she was graduating and, for a number of unfortunate factors, living in a neighborhood adjacent to the school, as close to some classroom buildings as the dormitories. The fact that she is a mindful “grown-up” liberated from the childhood-extension monoculture of American universities by the uniqueness of her path did not save her from having to share a space with girls who, for example, throw away entire backpacks into the kitchen trash can which is—to say the least—unsustainable, and, to anyone who has ever taken out the trash, completely ridiculous: it is already a container the size of the bag you are putting it in; the moment the backpack goes in the trash can is the moment the trash needs to go out; therefore, if you really wanted to throw away the backpack you could have take it ten feet out the door to the dumpster. As it is now 2 months later and I am still recognizably agitated by this signals that perhaps this is all inevitable and it was foretold I would learn a lesson about difference, tolerance, and ultimately the absolute acceptance of others. I did get a perfectly good backpack out of the deal, several notebooks with roughly 10 of 200 pages used, and my girlfriend got the hell out of Los Angeles.
THE COLLEGE DROPOUT
The week before I was to take a train to Los Angeles to visit my sweetheart I was at the library looking for new music and Kanye’s bear-enshrouded head jumped out from the CDs:
Kanye was the age that I am now when his debut album came out, and appropriately it deals with themes with which I am very familiar: determination in the face of creative disenfranchisement, needing a system but distrusting those that exist, being smarter and more original than those in charge, foreseeing the outcome of playing by the rules and opting out. The outcome, of course, as we all know now, is triumphant. Kanye wins by playing by his rules. This is, though, the only album I can fully appreciate of his, as it is the only that describes problems (his songs are generally about his problems) with which I can empathize. “Spaceship” is especially poignant, using the trope of working at the GAP (a la Janeane Garofalo [and almost Winona Ryder] in another of the great treatises on the paradoxes and frustrations of early adulthood, Reality Bites) to epitomize not working for yourself or your own aspirations, and sampling Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover” to create the feeling of celestial separation from the object of desire: success, with a heartbreaking chorus of
I’ve been working this graveshift / and I don’t make shit / I wish I could buy me a spaceship / and fly … past the sky
Today my sweetheart, frustrated by a lack of more tenable opportunities, applied to the GAP. Tropes are real.
MY GAP YEAR: THE YEAR THAT LASTED HALF A DECADE
This section’s title comes from a facebook response from the amiable co-editor of The Van Duzer Corridor after I shared with her a draft of the first part of this essay while she was at work, as we are both nearly five years out of school and, ostensibly, in the same place as my sweetheart. This notion is ridiculous. I just looked up “ostensibly.”
While we have not become doctors or PhDs or successfully done a tour in the Peace Corps (apparent, purported accomplishment), we are accomplished young adults who have devoted ourselves to life as opposed to offering ourselves up whole to a system that we believe will lead us to our happy, respective destinies. However, coming face to face with those on the straight-and-narrow, with the most intense and ceremonial examples of such system-sanctioned progress—a college graduation—makes me uncomfortable and points out my ostensible failure as an adult. I sat with my sweetheart’s family in the upper rows of Royce Hall and I rebelled as both an adolescent and a over-the-hill curmudgeon and composed anti-establishment tweets as the tedious progression commenced; students handed their names phonetically spelled to their respective deans, had their names announced, hand-shake/photo-op, exeunt stage right:
I felt alternately smug and terrible but could not stop myself:
The College Dropout is introduced as a request to Kanye that he “do lil something beautiful, something that the kids is gonna love when they hear it.” Although nobody’s actually asking me “Think you could sing something for the kids for graduation to sing?” I felt obliged to mirror Kanye’s iconoclastic submission, and I wasn’t about to make snide comments to my sweetheart’s aunt to my left nor her grandma to my right.
David Foster Wallace gave a commencement like it was. He didn’t vaguely and meaninglessly describe the most important day of everyone’s life, the one that starts today, or the future that starts today, etc. or wax lyrical about academia, the halls to which alumni will return years from now…. Now we are adults and it is going to suck, he said in other words. The charade, of which this very ceremony is the ultimate expression, is over. “If this is your first time hearing this you are about to experience something so cold,” was Kanye’s faux-commencement. At my high school graduation party I decorated my parents’ house as a kind of art installation. A massive cut-out portrait of Jean-Paul Sartre’s head had a quote from Les Mots on an adjacent speech bubble: “No matter: our life is only a succession of ceremonies and we spend our time showering each other with tribute.” It greeted guests as they came to the front door, none of whom mentioned it when they congratulated me and showered me with tribute. Nine years later I’m still waiting on my spaceship. Pow!
AN ESSAY ABOUT COLLEGE, KANYE WEST’S FIRST ALBUM, WEIRD TWITTER AND FINDING A PERFECTLY GOOD BACKPACK IN THE TRASH
I started this essay in June in the presence of my sweetheart in the apartment in which she was still living in the notebook I found in the backpack, but stopped at her request. She was aware of the mindlessness and the wastefulness of her roommates; she didn’t need me to write a treatise about it in front of her in her own damn house.
So I stopped.
We are in Portland, Oregon now. I don’t use twitter anymore. We compost and are in general in no rush. Not much goes in the trash which is only collected every other week. There is a mountain—more accurately a butte—visible from my window as I type this. It is covered in fir trees that extend upward into the sky.