Monday, October 06, 2008

Mental Gobstoppers

When I saw the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka, I was taken with the idea of everlasting gobstoppers. They were hard candies that never melted or lost their flavor; they'd last as long as you could. Something about it intrigued me, even beyond the obvious 'never running out of candy' usefulness.

I'm beginning to think that there's a cognitive equivalent of everlasting gobstoppers. They're the comments that you hear once in a while that suggest a much greater depth than you can process at the moment. You can't quite decode them, but you can't forget them, either. Years later, you see or hear something else and think “ooooohhhhh, that's what that was about.”

Some people toss off gobstoppers like, well, candy. They just throw these little sourballs of wisdom out into the ether, and you catch what you can and hold onto it for as long as it takes. When I find people like that – they're rare, but they're out there – I shut the hell up and try to catch as much as I can. Once in a while, many years later, I'll get that satisfying mental click when the line finally makes sense.

My dissertation advisor was one of those people. He died several years ago, and we had lost touch several years before that. He and I had a difficult relationship, partly due to fundamentally different ways of seeing the world and partly due to my own constitutional inability to be anybody's follower. In plenty of basic ways, each of us considered the other mystifying, and we seemed able to offend each other without even trying. And yet, when he got going on his favorite subjects, he had a way of hurling gobstoppers. Even at my most contrarian, and when I had no flippin' idea what he was talking about, some of his lines had the unmistakable air of the gobstopper about them. I didn't know what he was getting at, but I knew it was something good. Some of those stuck with me.

This weekend, I had the eerie moment of registering exactly what one of those lines meant. I first heard it probably fifteen years ago, and I remember being both slightly offended and slightly humbled.
I can remember the room in which I heard it, the occasion, and the slightly electric silence of the group when he said it. I remember the distinct impression that this seemingly-inexplicable statement portended something wise and true, and being frustrated that I couldn't suss it out.

(I won't share the statement here, since it's entirely too revealing, and if you didn't have my distinct frame of reference, you'd probably be underwhelmed. It works in a particular context. Feel free to substitute your own.)

Folks who knew me in grad school can attest that I was sort of chronically unsatisfied with pretty much everything, including myself. Even at the time, I had a sense that some of that had to do with not having had enough life behind me to really appreciate some of what I was dealing with, and therefore being trapped at predictable, asinine, first-level responses. I knew I was callow, but that's not exactly the kind of thing you can fix through determination. Knowing it didn't help, and in a sense actually contributed to the frustration, since I couldn't just blame my dissatisfaction on other people. (Of course, there was also the ridiculous poverty, which certainly didn't help.)

The occasional gobstopper – call it a wisdom mcnugget, if you want – stopped me in my tracks, since it so clearly showed me that I was falling short of who I wanted to be. I could hear just enough echo of wisdom to know that I was missing something, but not nearly enough to know exactly what. Once in a while I'd boil over and actually let fly with some knee-jerk sign of frustration, which didn't help, either.

This weekend I finally 'got' what he was trying to say, right before the electric silence. (Annoyingly, after getting it, I know that it should have been obvious.) Even better, I got why I couldn't quite decode it at the time. And I can finally forgive myself.

It's okay to be callow. That passes. And it's okay to be frustrated – frustration can motivate progress.

And sometimes it's okay to be a jumpy twentysomething. The world has survived those before, and will again. Some ideas just take a little more seasoning to appreciate.

He's gone now, so I can't thank him directly. Instead, I'll just send this post out into the ether, hoping that somehow it makes some minor payment on a life debt.

Thanks, big guy. I get it now.