Every June, sometime after the school buses lined up permanently at the transportation depot, began the monotony of swimming lessons. 8AM, and we would line up at our local pool’s edge. All of the frail kids shivering at the thought of jumping into a 68°F. Of course, there’s also that added subtle awkwardness of knowing your head is about to be dunked under the water with strangers. The instructor was a stern, but pragmatic woman whose buoyancy could probably float her across the Atlantic Ocean (unlike my sub 50lb stick-like self). The parents all assumed their spectator positions envisioning their child as the next olympian diver despite the fact probably half of us could barely tread water across the horizontal perimeter of the pool.
After a few years of these kind of mornings, any hopes of me ever being a local townie swim team star quickly curtailed.
Fast forward a few years, and I found myself back at the local pool, but this time at Cornell University. One of our graduation requirements was the much contested swim test. The premise is simple. Swim one full up and down lap of the pool (mind you, even a half attempt at treading water would land you a success). But for many this was their first time in the pool. In any case, these wonderful swim tests begin on your first day of move-in freshman year… Ah yes. The thought of interrupting one’s first day of college to be thrown into a pool with randos is everyone’s idea of a perfect day. So yes, in the middle of trying to figure out how to park our car among the caravan of teary eyed parents and whiney millennials, I had to revisit the memories of elementary school swimming lessons.
Fast forward again, and here I am revisiting the water, but of a different kind.
Greetings [“parents”?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005.
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet
an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says
“Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a
bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes
“What the hell is water?”
This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the
deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story [“thing”] turns
out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if
you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish
explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the
wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious,
important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk
about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal
platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence,
banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to
suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning
David Foster Wallace’s (2005) Kenyon commencement address captures the quintessential post-college, quarter life freak-out. I guess, on one hand, you could say I avoided this. Hello five more years of school. I am not faced with that water at the moment. Only the Pacific Ocean. Orientation begins next Monday, but classes do not start until the 24th so I have been taking advantage of my extra time to relax and explore the area beaches. For the time being, it is all a bit weird. A bit weird to see all of your other friends getting adult jobs while you are trying to find the cheapest textbooks on Amazon. And so for now, I am also left asking, “What the hell is water?“