Yesterday I went back to Bullock’s Barbecue on the 21st anniversary of my graduation from Duke. Today, I went to . . . . graduation at Duke. And ate a sandwich. Both acts offer strange and possibly unrelated commentaries on my past. You be the judge.
I went to Duke’s graduation primarily because Barbara Kingsolver was delivering the address. But given that this entire year has dragged me unexpectedly through the zigzagging corridors of youthful emotion that were my college days, it also seemed fitting to revisit the last scene.
This is how I came to be standing in the basement of the football team headquarters at 9:15 with Stanley Hauerwas, the only other Divinity School representative in sight, talking about his son’s impending graduation from business school. Eventually we were joined by three others. I’m wearing my academic robes, standing around with a bunch of old people in those funny velvet berets. What the hell has happened to me? We stream out of the tunnel normally reserved for football players, a team of academic athletes, running onto the field for the last game of the season.
My graduation on May 10, 1987 was a sunny day full of promise. I had hidden a bottle of champagne in my dress, which my friends and I shared. Though the champagne was split 7 ways, the warm sun, the lack of food, and the bubbles all combined to make me ever so slightly tipsy–a necessity when you are dealing with nine family members, including three and a half parents. (My dad’s girlfriend never quite made it to parental status.)
There was no danger of a warm, tipsy morning today. It would be hard to conjure up more miserable weather–mid-fifties and raining, steadily enough to require an umbrella and make everything soggy, but not so much that the exercises could be legitimately canceled. (With no viable indoor venue, Duke always holds its graduation outside).
I sat sandwiched between Stanley and my boss Wes, one chair between us to give room for our umbrellas. I had decided not to wear socks because they didn’t go with my shoes, a decision I was to regret deeply as the morning dragged on.
My only view was of water dripping on to the robe of the professor in front of me. The ceremony was interminable. They conferred about a zillion honorary degrees. The student speakers spoke. They spoke well, but I was reminded, once again, that you’re never as clever as you think you are when you’re 21. (Or maybe at 42, for that matter.)
As my feet turned into frozen lumps encased in their shoes too stylish for socks, I kept thinking, “At least I’ll get to hear Barbara Kingsolver.”
If I’d read the speech, I would have loved it. She started off funny and warm and lighthearted, full of hope just like the graduates. But then middle age hit. The speech turned into a litany on the dangers of global warming, the energy shortage, and the general destruction of the planet that would ensue in about 10 years if the Class of 2008 didn’t forgo nice houses and cars and do something–because her generation had not. “Sorry, kids, we screwed up your planet. You’ll have to fix it now. No big house for you. Have a nice life.” To make matters worse, she had fallen in love with too much of the writing, to the point that she failed to realize that her listeners were sitting in a miserable downpour, with her words the sole barrier between them, their diplomas, and a hot cup of tea on the couch.
Walking out, I overheard the following conversation between an undergraduate and her parents:
Student (now alum): “The speech–that was the worst.”
Mom: “That’s what I heard.”
Student/Alum: “She used a metaphor in every sentence!”
“Maybe because she’s a writer?” I thought. The young woman sounded like the prince in the film Amadeus, who said of Mozart’s music, “Too many notes!” But then again, 21 years ago, that would have been me.
II. The Sandwich
After this, I trudged back home to comfort myself in the only way I knew how: a hot bath and a sandwich.
You have to understand that when I was a child I was initially deprived of sandwiches–at least the kind I wanted. My mother insisted on giving us wholesome, whole grain bread–it was around the same time as her wheat germ phase. And so I longed for the white bread, sometimes sans crust, that other kids got. And so my ideal sandwich is this: bread, mayonnaise, yellow mustard, and bologna. No vegetables. No fancy mustard. No asiago or sun-dried tomato or onion in the bread. Just the soft, tender bread, the salty meat, and wonderfully vinegary mustard, and creamy mayonnaise–enough that occasionally a small blob will fall onto your plate.
And so, warm and satisfied from my bath, I ate and pondered the lesson my meal could offer to Barbara Kingsolver: Remember the joys of being young, and for the love of God, don’t pile too much crap on your sandwich.