At Large: An invitation to the dance

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Photo courtesy of Doug Cabral

On graduation weekend in the City by the Bay, the big draw was the Bay to Breakers 12K. It’s a combination spring fling and road race, from the bay on the east side of the peninsula to Ocean Beach on the west side where the Pacific crashes on the California shore.

About 40,000 participated, and I’m guessing that maybe a thousand of them were competing runners. The other 39,000, many progressively intoxicated and some of them seriously naked, were a mix of sporty, costumed college students, not graduating this weekend; families competing to escape the undraped merrymakers; and older San Franciscans and their older pets, mildly bewildered by it all and some of them more ghastly in their nakedness than the young folks frolicking beside them. It was a splendid, brilliant, hilarious day, and a good time was had by all, even the most sodden, who are unlikely to recall what a swell thing it was.

(By the way, Bay to Breakers is apparently pronounced “beta breakers,” which sounds an awful lot like “beta blockers” to some of us, and that similarity may account for the large number of elderly participants.)

Oh, and there were throngs of television reporters whose camera crews were working like beavers to dodge the unclad, heavily fueled racers attracted to the cameras and determined to get on live TV.

My son, who had taken his bachelor’s degree two days before, chugged along speechifying, dressed as a suspiciously joyful advocate of prohibition and a supporter of the Volstead Act. His sister, a graduate one year ago, joined 30 of her college classmates appearing as a collection of dominoes. She said their performance was the best of the parade, by all accounts, especially the killer climax when they tumbled one into the other and all fell down.

Unsurprisingly, the words spoken earlier by the commencement speaker and the valedictorian had not had an immediate effect. The speaker was the current mayor of San Francisco. His message to the graduates was that they should begin immediately to shape their lives and deploy their many gifts to enhance the city, which the banner advertisement on the city’s buses already declared the best city on earth.

The valedictorian, who did not waggle his finger at us although at times I thought he was doing so, told his classmates that he would not tell them to shape their lives to save the planet — they’d heard that too often before, he said — but if they would only take on some small, generous tasks, they might end up saving it anyway. These messages seemed to me to be tiresome, silly, and common.

For his part, the university president, a Jesuit, did better. He urged integrity, intelligence, industry, and compassion, but he didn’t specify the tasks that each of the graduates must accomplish to demonstrate these four virtues. His prescription had more to do with saving the person than the planet, I suppose. Consequently it seemed more within reach.

Above all, I think the message ought to be but never is, Join the fray, and find the thrill in every particle of every day. It’s a Thoreauvian message. E.B. White explains it very well. In an essay entitled “A Slight Sound at Evening,” written in his house at Allen Cove, in Maine, in the summer of 1954, White gently objected to most of the learned understandings of what Henry Thoreau was up to in his widely admired but seldom read Walden. White objected to what he called the “indistinct notion that its author was a sort of Nature Boy.” Rather, White thought, Thoreau was just a young man like many others, enthusiastic and deeply feeling. And, White wrote, young men and women of the age of Friday’s graduates could put themselves in Thoreau’s place, if they gave it a try. And, doing so, much of the tremulousness of this watershed moment might dissipate. Would that he had been the graduation speaker.

“I think it is of some advantage,” White wrote, “to encounter [Walden] at a period in one’s life when the normal anxieties and enthusiasms and rebellions of youth closely resemble those of Thoreau in that spring of 1845, when he borrowed an ax, went out to the woods, and began to whack down some trees for timber. Received at such a juncture, the book is like an invitation to life’s dance, assuring the troubled recipient that no matter what befalls him in the way of success or failure he will always be welcome at the party — that the music is played for him, too, if he will listen and move his feet.”

Anyhow, that was the message the graduates did not get. If they were watching carefully, if they are as perceptive as their four years of study ought to have made them, they might have seen that they had received an invitation to a happy dance from a city whose population was, that day and that weekend, delighted from sea to shining sea.

I’ll give you an example of the invitation, subtle but unmistakeable, that has been extended to these new bachelors of arts and sciences.

Elsewhere in San Francisco on graduation weekend, in a hotel elevator, an attractive and conscientious older woman in yoga clothes, with a rolled up mat slung from her shoulder, asked each of the passengers to tell her what floor he wanted, then punched the button. Each time she spun around to question another passenger, her yoga mat clobbered the man just behind her. Swept away in the current of endorphins she’d taken with her from yoga, she didn’t notice. Ultimately, he learned to duck. She spun, he ducked. She had had her exercise at yoga, he got his on the elevator. The passengers who escaped a thrashing smiled. It was spectacular day, and everyone was dancing.