My God, he couldn't help thinking, how terrible it is to be that age, to have emotions so near the surface that the slightest turbulence causes them to boil over. That, very simply, was what adulthood must be all about -- acquiring the skill to bury things more deeply. Out of sight and, whenever possible, out of mind.
Were it not for Occam's Razor, which always demands simplicity, I'd be tempted to believe that human beings are more influenced by distant causes than immediate ones. This would especially be true of overeducated people, who are capable of thinking past the immediate, of becoming obsessed by the remote. It's the old stuff, the conflicts we've never come to terms with, that sneaks up on us, half forgotten, insisting upon action.
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As I drift back into sleep, I can't help thinking that it's a wonderful thing to be right about the world. To weigh the evidence, always incomplete, and correctly intuit the whole, to see the world in a grain of sand, to recognize its beauty, its simplicity, its truth. It's as close as we get to God in this life, and reside in the glow of such brief flashes of understanding, fully awake, sometimes for two or three seconds, at peace with our existence. And then back to sleep we go.
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In matters of affection, the rules of engagement at Empire High were detailed yet unambiguous, an extension of procedures established in junior high, a set of guidelines that couldn't have been clearer if they'd been posted on the schoolhouse door. If you were a girl and your heart inclined toward a particular boy, you had one of your girlfriends make inquiries from one of that boy's friends. Such contact represented the commencement of a series of complex negotiations, the opening rounds of which were handled by friends. Boy's friend A might report to Girl's friend B that the boy in question considered her a fox, or, if he felt particularly strongly, a major fox. Those experienced in these matters knew that it was wise to proceed cautiously, since too much ardor could delay things for weeks. The girl in question might be in negotiations with other parties, and no boy wanted to be on record as considering a girl a major fox only to discover that she considered him merely cool. Friends had to be instructed carefully about how much emotional currency they could spend, since rogue emotions led to inflation, lessening the value of everyone's feelings. Once a level of affection within the comfort zone of both parties was agreed upon, the principals could then meet for the exchange of mementos - rings, jackets, photos, key chains - to seal the deal, always assuming that seconds had properly represented the lovers to begin with.
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Since her retirement from teaching Miss Beryl's health had in many respects greatly improved, despite her advancing years. An eighth-grade classroom was an excellent place to snag whatever was in the air in the way of illness. Also depression, which, Miss Beryl believed, in conjunction with guilt, opened the door to illness. Miss Beryl didn't know any teachers who weren't habitually guilty and depressed-guilty they hadn't accomplished more with their students, depressed that very little more was possible.
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I don't tell you this story today in order to encourage all of you in the class of '04 to find careers in the music business, but rather to suggest what the next decade of your lives is likely to be about, and that is, trying to ensure that you don't wake up at 32 or 35 or 40 tenured to a life that happened to you when you weren't paying strict attention, either because the money was good, or it made your parents proud, or because you were unlucky enough to discover an aptitude for the very thing that bores you to tears, or for any of the other semi-valid reasons people marshal to justify allowing the true passion of their lives to leak away. If you're lucky, you may have more than one chance to get things right, but second and third chances, like second and third marriages, can be dicey propositions, and they don't come with guarantees... The question then is this: How does a person keep from living the wrong life?
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He'd discovered that his memories of that summer were like bad movie montages - young lovers tossing a Frisbee in the park, sharing a melting ice-cream cone, bicycling along the river, laughing, talking, kissing, a sappy score drowning out the dialogue because the screenwriter had no idea what these two people might say to each other.
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I told him the truth, that I loved him and didn't regret anything about our lives together. But do we ever 'tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me God' as my father used to say, to those we love? Or even to ourselves? Don't even the best and most fortunate of lives hint at other possibilities, at a different kind of sweetness and, yes, bitterness too? Isn't this why we can't help feeling cheated, even when we know we haven't been?
The line of gray along the horizon is brighter now, and with the coming light I feel a certainty: that there is, despite our wild imaginings, only one life. The ghostly others, no matter how real they seem, no matter how badly we need them, are phantoms. The one life we're left with is sufficient to fill and refill our imperfect hearts with joy, and then to shatter them. And it never, ever lets up.
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One of the nice things about our marriage, at least to my way of thinking, is that my wife and I no longer have to argue every thing through. We each know what the other will say, and so the saying becomes an unnecessary formality. No doubt some marriage counselor would explain to us that our problem is a failure to communicate, but to my way of thinking we've worked long and hard to achieve this silence, Lily's and mine, so fraught with mutual understanding.
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If you paid me for work," continued Max, whose rhetoric was more sophisticated than you might expect from a man with food in his beard, "I wouldn't have to feel worthless. There's not law says old people have to feel worthless all the while, you know. You paid me, I'd have some dignity." Now it was Mile's turn to nod and smile agreeably. "I think the dignity ship set sail a long time ago, Dad.
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