About ten years ago I was teaching at a large Midwestern university while I waited for the opportunity to teach at a small, eastern liberal arts college, which came in due course. One Friday night my wife and I went to a party given by one of my graduate students in a house that, if it had been a car, would have been a Studebaker up on blocks. The keg had run dry half an hour earlier, a collection had been taken up to buy another, and it had only just dawned on the people at the party that nobody knew the guy who’d volunteered to go get it. In the living room the rickety furniture had been moved out onto the porch to create a dance floor, and Grace Slick was singing “Somebody to Love,” a song I’ve never been able to resist, especially when the volume on the stereo is set on stun, as it happened just then to be. “When the truth is found to be lies,” Grace wanted us to understand, “you know the joy within you dies.”
Across the room, dancing with a kind of free-spirited abandon that I happened just then to admire, was a good-looking young professor of religious studies with whom I’d had a couple of run-ins and never particularly cared for, though she was far too attractive to dislike entirely. She approached life, it seemed to me, with the kind of bitter cynicism that I associate with academics who have come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they will not be granted tenure. Is it even necessary to add that she lacked a sense of humor? Anyway, at the moment, the young religious studies professor’s face was lit up from the inside with something I’d never witnessed before—joy, unless I was mistaken—which made me wonder if I’d misjudged her. I hope this might be true. Did I say she was attractive?
It was maybe an hour later when we professors, perspiring and red-faced from our exertions, and unused to being up after ten o’clock, began to take our leave, so that our grad students could begin the real party. My wife and I left through the kitchen so we could thank our hostess, and there we encountered an intimate and utterly unexpected scene. The professor of religious studies was sitting at the kitchen table, her head in her hands, sobbing pitifully, over and over again, “All I ever wanted was to sing a little rock and roll.” Staring at the chipped, beer-soaked Formica tabletop, she’d had a revelation, you could tell. Thanks to Grace Slick she was beginning to see her life in a whole new way. To this point she’d imagined that her problem was that she wasn’t going to get tenure, whereas she now saw, to her complete horror, that of course she would. Whatever had lit her face on the dance floor had been extinguished, and it was hard to imagine it would be rekindled any time soon. In this, her moment of terrible truth, I found myself liking her better than I ever had before, though, with her defenses down, she wasn’t nearly so good-looking. Seeing her sitting there, so despondent, you could imagine the effort it took to present herself to the world each morning.
I don’t tell you this story today in order to encourage all of you… 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. This much seems undeniable. When the truth is found to be lies, you’re still screwed, even if you’re tenured in religious studies.