Later the night, while enjoying a well deserved post-graduation beverage, a colleague asked me how long I’d been working on the speech.
I told him I had been brainstorming for a few months.
But the next morning, over a cup of coffee, I realized that the seeds of the speech took root four years prior when members of the graduating class, who were merely freshman, witnessed one of the most difficult admissions of my life.
Here’s what happened.
It was early September. The classroom was warm and bright with afternoon sunshine.
I sat behind my desk. The players sat in the desks before me.
I was quiet. They were quiet. The room was quiet.
In fact, in my world, those days were filled with long quiet stretches, as if everything was waiting for something. As if life was pacing a hospital floor.
They were teenage boys who thought they were in trouble, so they carried themselves with all the intimacies of teenage boys in trouble. Bowed heads, bent eye brows, dropped shoulders.
The day before we lost 8-0. Which, in high school varsity soccer, is a blowout.
They were expecting me to yell. To call them an embarrassment. To challenge their character and commitment. To level an edict of longer, harder practices. There would be less smiling, less fun. More running. More yelling. Until they learned how to practice and play hard. Until they learned to dig deeper, to break through self-made thresholds and not quit on themselves, on their teammates, on the program they represented.
Initially, I pursued a teaching career because I wanted to coach.
In 2006, when I was hired to teach English at Robbinsville High School, I was appointed the first varsity head coach in program’s history.
In fact, this was a big moment in my history.
At 26 I was handed the responsibility of building a high school soccer program in central New Jersey, an area whose soil was rich in soccer tradition.
In those early years we didn’t win many games. But other coaches complimented me on the way we played. The local paper did a story on the program’s positive development. We were making progress.
I ran a fairly tight ship. My preseason workouts were physically and mentally demanding. I held my players accountable on and off the field.
I wanted the program to be a positive force in the players lives. A program that offered instruction both on and off the field. That taught players to replace entitlement with perseverance. Arrogance with integrity. A program that taught players how to embrace adversity.
A few days before I led my players into my classroom, my doctor told me that the next few months were going to be littered with tests. MRI’s. CAT Scans, blood work and a lot of waiting.
The doctor put his hand on my shoulder, instructed me to spend time with my family, prioritize, and remove as much unnecessary stress from my life.
The classroom was bright and warm.
I remember how quiet it was. How they were looking at me with lowered eyes. Afraid of the scolding that they seemed destined for.
I don’t know how I started but I’m sure it was not as graceful as I would have liked.
At some point I told my team I was resigning as their coach.
I admitted to them that I was sick and physically unable to be the coach they needed. And though I didn’t say it, they knew it– I was scared.
I addressed the freshmen specifically. I apologized for my brevity. I told them that I hope I would be around (meaning alive) in four years to see them graduate high school.
Things were quite for awhile.
Then, not knowing what else to do or say, I looked at the assistant coaches, at the team and said, “Alright boys, time to go to work.”
Under a high sun and a wide open blue sky, I stood on the same field I had coached for 9 years and told the graduating class of 2017 to trust their change.
Days when the sun is just right. When in one afternoon, summer folds into fall all at once.
I miss the intensity, the competitiveness.
I miss the halftime speeches.
The victories. The defeats.
But most of all, I miss the players.
The camaraderie. The bond that forms between player and coach.
The candid conversations about how sports and all its trials and tribulations teach us all we need to know about life.
I miss watching my players transform from boys into young men, a massive change that happens as fast and as subtle as a summer thunderstorm, a storm that dawns a perfect afternoon, with a sun that is strong and bright and a sky that is unclouded and forever.
On June 21, 2017 I was fortunate enough to deliver the commencement address at the Robbinsville High School graduation. Over 2,000 people were in attendance. Below is the audio and transcript of my speech.
(Note–Due to rain, the ceremony was delayed 30 minutes.)
Introduction (or my attempt to get the crowd to listen)
First and foremost, I’d like to thank the rain.
Because like study hall or lunch or AP Literature class I used the rain delay to write this speech.
It has not been proofread.
And most of this is written on napkins I found in the commons.
I’d also like to thank…
Dr. Foster, the Robbinsville High School Administration, the Robbinsville Board of Education, colleagues, family, friends, returning Ravens and of course the graduating class of 2017…Thank you.
I appreciate it. I really do.
But I have a ask to question…
What do you say to a stadium full of people who really don’t care what you have to say?
It’s the predicament I’m in right now.
Understand, I’m honored to be here.
But I know my role.
I am your impediment.
The longer I talk, the longer it will take for us to enjoy the sweet elixir of summer.
My job is to fill the Robbinsville sky with poignant wisdom and worldly perspective as a capacity crowd collectively thinks…
“I hope this guy doesn’t take too long.”
I know how unforgiving those bleaches are.
How the June sun is currently burning a hole through your retina.
How you have surveyed the parking lot and proclaimed, “we are never getting out of here.”
In fact, as irrational as it sounds, some of you are contemplating ditching grandma and her one good hip and walking home and not returning for your car until August.
So… the question remains…what do you say?
Maybe I’m being a little too critical, a bit hyperbolic. I know there are a few people in attendance who want to hear me.
My wife. Cindy and I are the American dream …we met in high school, married, bought a house in the suburbs, had 3 adorable children and bought a large SUV that looks like a minivan but it’s really an SUV… I’m sure Cindy would like to hear what I have to say.
My mom is here.
My brother Keith is here… Keith told me that he would only listen if I make frequent allusions to the Beatles and give him an air high 5 when I do.
And statistically, one of the 87 Twamley* boys would like to hear me.
(*the Twamleys are a set of triplet boys in the graduating class)
And that’s about it.
In the whole stadium.
My wife. My mom.
Keith as long as I allude to the Beatles and give him air high fives.
And one of the 87 Twamleys.
Let’s breakdown my situation even further…
What do I say to 221 soon to be high school graduates who know everything?
Seriously. You do.
If you didn’t, they wouldn’t let you graduate.
That’s a rule in New Jersey… along with other rules like no left turns and knowing all the words to Springsteen’s Thunder Road… the greatest song ever written.
So there’s you–the class of 2017, the smartest people in the world…
And then there’s everybody else.
To most people here I’m a stranger.
And what stranger wants to hear advice from another stranger especially if the advice-giving- stranger is punctuating their suit with a pair of sneakers.
So what do you say to make people listen when the promise of summer and freedom and adulthood are achingly close?
I’ve been turning over this question for weeks.
Turning over the thought that I will spend hours writing this speech, you will spend minutes sort-of-listening and in seconds everything I say will be forgotten.
Then I realized that this moment we are sharing, right here, right now is a microcosm for life.
Because once you graduate, the world is waiting for you and the world doesn’t really care what you have to say.
The class of 2017, for 12 years, you’ve been groomed in a school district that has put you first, has listened to your voice.
A district that has held your hand, entertained you, coddled you, pampered you, made you feel special.
And in a few minutes, once you graduate and if you ever escape the parking lot traffic… the cruel world will turn to you, laugh at your ideas and tell you to be quiet.
So if this is a microcosm for life, and I was graduating high school today what would I need to hear?
I decided the best way to deliver this speech is by telling two stories.
Two stories that have made me the person I am today.
One from high school, one from adulthood.
Two stories that.. ready for this Keith… “come together” (high five) to teach one lesson I wish I learned when I was 18.
Because at 18, I really could have used the…”Help” ( high five)
Do you realize what I just did there?
That’s two Beatles allusions in 2 sentences.
The First Story
The first story goes like this…
I’m 14 years old, sitting in freshman English class pretending not to care. Because that’s what the cool kids do– pretend not care.
My teacher,Ms. Baker is handing back our essays–an assignment that required us to write as a Puritan woman being falsely tried as a witch.
I don’t like high school much. The lesson are boring and the homework annoying. The only class I can tolerate is English class.
As I tell you this I can hear the clacks of Ms.Baker’s heels on the classroom tile floor.
Ms.Baker arrives, hands me my essay, smiles and tells me I have talent, that I should keep writing.
She spins and clacks away and before I can smile the kid sitting behind me, the middle linebacker on the freshman football team, whispers “loser” in my ear.
Right then in freshman English class I submitted.
Right then I began to distrust myself.
If my high school offered a class on intuition… I’d failed.
For a long time, almost 20 years, I silenced my voice, my desire write and connect to others because I was afraid of what other people might say.
I listened too closely to opinions.
I bought the fabrications the world was selling.
Don’t buy them.
The Second Story
The second story is one that most of the graduating class is familiar with.
On the first day of the school year I decide that instead of handing out a syllabus, or introducing classroom procedures I would simply to tell a story.
A story that I hoped had enough drama to hold the attention of a room full of angsty 12th graders.
This year I introduced my students to the writing strategy known as full circle.
Full circle is also a band from Central New Jersey currently on hiatus. They have lovely album called “This Long Used Trail” available on Spotify and Soundcloud.
In fact….As you wait in post graduation traffic in your SUV that looks like a minivan but is not a minivan, you just need extra cargo space to fit your kid’s beach toys… you should check them out.
To model the full circle strategy it’s only fitting on the last day of school I tell the same story I told on the first day of school which only seemed like… “Yesterday “ ( high 5)
Class of 2017… this might blow your mind…on the first day of class, while you were admiring each other’s tan……I was writing the end to our story.
All at once I was saying, “Hello, goodbye” (high five).
No, Joe Natalie*…
(a student who, after a rousing lecture on Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road… asked if I was God.)
I am not God…
I am the Walrus (Keith … high five)
The second story goes like this…
It’s March 2010.
I’m in my car driving south on 95, into the heart of Philadelphia.
After muscling through evening traffic I find myself on North 20th Street, a block away from the Philadelphia Public Library.
I get of my car, shut the door, turn up my coat collar to the whipping wind and walk south along North 20 Street.
At the corner of Vine Street I hook a left, climb a flight of stairs and find myself in the quiet warmth of the Public Library.
I cross a marble floor, move down a staircase, into an auditorium to see and listen to my literary hero- whose words strengthened my beliefs on writing, storytelling and love and beauty and the purpose of life.
For 90 minutes author Tim O’Brien, writer of The Things They Carried, read from his novel and talked about it. He fielded questions and gave writing advice to novice writers like myself.
Then it was over.
I exit the library, hook a right onto North 20th and march into the howling wind.
I progress up North 20 with the library is on my immediate right.
When I look over to my right… I see Tim O’Brien, alone, leaning against the library, under the throes of a lamp light, smoking a cigarette.
I turn toward him.
I must be 30 feet from Tim O’Brien, my literary hero.
I step forward.
Like some anxious fanboy I turn over all the things I’m about to say to him.
I reach into my bag and pull out my copy of The Thing They Carried. One of the most important books of the 20th century.
It’s at 27 feet where I got nervous. Where I began to distrust myself.
I take a step back.
What would I say to a stranger that is compelling and interesting? What do I say that would inspired him to listen?
The march wind whips my back. Why would a ground breaking author waste his time with me? What if he told me to shut up and go home?
I slip my copy of The Things They Carried into my bag and turn and head north, and open my car door and drive home and pull into my driveway and crawl into my bed and realize in a way I’m still 14, still sitting in freshman English class, still distrusting myself.
Class of 2017, there will be many fine chapters in your book. Stories of victory, love and pride.
Scoring your dream job.
Feeling the love while slow dancing to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love” at your dream wedding.
And the swell of pride felt when you buy an SUV that looks like a minivan but is an SUV so your family can enjoy the extra leg room.
But those chapters are often short.
The chapters where sadness, regret, shame are the subjects are the longest, hardest to finish yet they are the stories that make life interesting.
They’re interesting because they test your intrinsic commitment.
My two stories are about regret and judgment and distrusting myself.
Yet I’m so grateful for them, for what they taught me–how you must endure difficulties to find out who you are and what you stand for.
For the last four years you’ve been a cliché.
A brain. An athlete. A basket case. A princess. A criminal.
You’ve played a stock character in a stage production.
But what will you do now?
Those cliches are cute in high school and movies about high school but in the reality of adulthood cliches are boring and uninspiring.
Intuition does not get easier with age.
Self-reliance comes with a real cost.
And a fear of judgement lingers long after high school.
I can only hope that you find the courage to trust yourself, to take the risk to be heard.
You’re impressionable–miles away from figuring out who you are and yet you’re about to change in immense and unknown ways.
Change for yourself and what you believe is right for you.
Trust your change.
Like this speech, high school will end. Your graduation gown will lie in rags at your feet. And adulthood will begin.
But your identity, your voice, your story is just taking shape and important questions await…
What will be the subject of your next chapter?
Will you be a minor character in your own life?
Will your story be the thing that connects you to others?
It’s so easy to plagiarize your life.
Don’t do it.
It’s so easy to believe your own fiction.
Don’t believe it.
Before I go…
I challenge you…
And toil until you to find the courage to tell your story with absolute allegiance to your truth.
Finally, I have a last request…
To quote the ancient Detroit philosopher Eminem…
“If you had one shot, one opportunity to
seize a picture with the class of 2017
would you capture it or just let it slip?”
Class of 2017 and everyone in attendance…
It’s been an honor and privilege…
Good luck with the traffic, thank you and be well.
Jon Westenberg is a marketing executive, creative director, entrepreneur and writer from Sydney, Australia . Jon has over 100k readers on medium.com and has been featured in Time, The San Francisco Chronicle, Entrepreneur and over 40 other publications.
He is passionate about marketing, technology, creativity, helping people and occasionally geeks out over a good cup of coffee.
I highly recommend reading anything Jon writes. He is poignant, honest and is surgical with the obscenities.
What I like most about Jon is that he simply wants to help people. He wants to help creatives, writers and entrepreneurs recognize the creative power and magic that lies in them.
Who is Jon Westenberg?
I’m a writer, an entrepreneur and a guy who has a lot of big dreams about helping people. When I’m asked what I do for a living, I tend to answer with – whatever I’m passionate about at any given moment!
Your mother was a high school teacher. What was the most important lesson you learned from her?
My Mum was a high school teacher, but she was also my teacher, because she home-schooled myself and each of my 6 brothers! The most important lesson I learned from her wasn’t academic however…it was a life lesson. She taught me that starting your own business and living life on your own times is a great thing to do.
Describe your high school self in one word? Why?
Creative. Because that’s what I spent all of my time in high school doing – just creating whatever I could get my hands on!
Along with being an entrepreneur, you’re also a writer. Have you always been a writer? When did writing become so important to you? What writing advice do you think novice writers should hear?
I have always been a writer. When I was a kid, I had a pretty bad speech issue that meant most folks couldn’t understand me. It was very distressing for me, and I used to write all the time as my only real outlet and my only way of feeling like I could communicate. My advice to young writers is this…don’t be scared to publish work that isn’t the greatest piece of writing in the history of humankind. Just get your work out there. It’s truly the only way to improve.
Do you have a book in your library that you wish you had written?
I honestly don’t. Because if there’s a book I have enjoyed, I’d rather somebody else have written it so that I can selfishly enjoy it without the stress of writing it…
I often tell my students that at the core of every work of literature is an argument, and the work is the writer’s attempt to prove their argument. And it’s this argument that makes the work interesting. I think that concept also applies to people as well. So Mr. Westenberg, what’s your argument?
My argument is that just because one way of living is widely accepted as being “Right” does not make it so for everyone.
I want to thank Jon for his time and insight. I follow him on medium.com and at creatomic.org and recommend you do the same.
Using Snapchat isn’t easy, but it’s rewarding. There’s a lot of fun stuff that can be done right now, if you put your audience first, you’re prepared to talk and you don’t mind getting yourself out there.
I think we need to spend more time — and more resources — on learning and telling better stories. In our personal lives, careers, businesses and social circles. Storytelling is a skill that many people don’t have anymore, but it’s all because we don’t study and teach and learn it.
Right now, I want to say thank you to the libraries and the librarians who have played a massive part in the lives of millions, and who we forget more and more as we spend our time online, rather than offline.
I constantly struggle against the urge to fuck up. I constantly struggle against the worst version of myself, knowing that no matter how hard I try to do anything, there’s always a part of me rooting for failure.
Time to hike up your socks, fire up the grill, lean back in your favorite chair and say things like …”Hold your horses!” and “”My house, my rules!” shortly followed by “I don’t know… go ask your mother.”
With the popularity of Justin Halpern’s hilarious Shit My Dad Says to the emergence of the soft and lovable physique known as the “dad bod” and cringe worthy “dad jokes”, pop culture has declared being a dad cool and hip.
And on this rare occasion, I agree with pop culture. Being a dad is cool.
We carry pocket knives.
We clog then unclog toilets.
We treat wounds with dirt and spit.
We pride ourselves on knowing where things are located in Home Depot.
We play golf.
We build fires.
We embarrass our children.
We consider it a declaration of war when we spot a field mouse scurrying across the kitchen floor.
We have a spatula with our name engraved on the handle.
But of course with this “coolness” comes great responsibility.
It has occurred to me that my children are seeing me through the same lens in which I saw my dad when I was their age.
In their young eyes I’m all powerful, all knowing. My actions, my “dadvice” are seared into their little brains and one day (God forbid) may serve as good blog fodder about fathers.
To highlight the power and coolness of being a dad here are 5 pieces of dadvice my dad offered me many years ago…
1.On eating a big breakfast every morning
My father has always championed the need for a hearty breakfast. Dad scoffed when those FDA “nitwits” claimed that eating highly processed foods–loaded with sodium and saturated fat could be deadly.
My dad (like a lot of dads) has a signature dish. A culinary cuisine that he describes in with great pride to the other dads at the CYO meetings. My dad’s Spam and Egg sandwich is one of the reasons I had friends as a kid. His signature sandwich is a 900 calorie heart-stopper made with only the finest pasteurized cheeses and slaughterhouse scraps.
I remember once asking him why he needed to eat such a big breakfast every morning. He looked down at me with serious eyes and said “Who knows if or when I’ll have the opportunity to eat again today.” Which seemed a bit dramatic –like something Lewis said to Clark on the first morning of their Continental Divide expedition. But it was also funny too– because as he said this dad was packing his work lunch box/cooler with a week’s worth of food.
*I should also mention that at this time dad spent most of his working life and passed a Burger King every 8oo feet.
2.On boosting confidence
In grade school, for some school project , I was forced to work with the smartest kid in the class who openly teased me– claiming that he was smarter than me. Upon hearing my complaint, dad looked at me, smiled and said, “But can this Einstein hit a curve ball?”
3.On medical care
Once when mom wasn’t home, I threw my younger brother Kyle into a wall joint leaving him with a gash in his head and blood streaming down his face. Dad, who was outwardly annoyed that Kyle’s melon had dented the drywall, carried Kyle into the bathroom, dropped him in the tub, offered him a roll of paper towels and said, “Wait here until mom gets home.”
4.On eating expired food
“Do you think George Washington had expiration dates on his ground beef?”
When I was in my early 20’s I begin thinking about proposing to Cindy. But naturally I was hesitant. I wanted to know how to know someone was “the one”. Dad met mom when he was 17 and seemed to have the whole love-thing mastered. So I sought council in dad. I was certain that he had some sage advice to offer on the matter of love.
So one day I ask him how did he know mom was the one. And after a long, thoughtful pause dad looked at me and said “I just knew.” End of conversation.
6.On the most important thing to do in life
Next week, I will be delivering the commencement address at Robbinsville High School.
An opportunity granted after I was named the Robbinsville Public School District Teacher of the Year.
I’m flattered and humbled to have this opportunity to speak at high school’s penultimate event. I’m not threatened by speaking in front of 2,000 people however, for the past few days I was growing concerned about finding the right subject to talk about.
Really, what do I say to a stadium full of people, sitting under the June sun on metal bleachers, who can’t wait until I’m finished talking?
For the last few days I’ve been engaged in some heated brainstorming sessions, considering what the 18-year-old version of me want to hear? Need to hear?
Now there were a ton of things I needed to hear…
You’re not as cool as you think you are.
Talk less, listen more.
Make time your friend, not your enemy.
Opinions don’t matter.
Take care of your knees.
But after all the brainstorming I settled on a simple truism to guide my writing, “be honest, tell the truth.”
My dad is and always has been a mild man.
But nothing poked his ire more then catching me in a lie. I remember, on many occasions, his blue eyes drilling holes through mine as he pressed me, interrogated me on the inconsistencies of my stories.
And now, when I’m questioning my own children on their stories, I can feel my dad’s eyes, I can hear his voice, “Be honest, tell the truth.”
The more complicated life gets, the more evasive truth becomes.
We dangerously mark truths with a capital “T” only to endure bouts of moral terror and heartbreak and doubt and question if capital “T” truth ever existed.
We get mixed up. We lose our authenticity and integrity.
We replace our own truth with the opinions and perspectives of others, distancing ourselves from the person we want to become.
I want to thank my dad for instilling the importance of truth and honesty in me. How honesty is the foundation of every relationship you will build in your life.
Like everyone, writers are wrestlers, constantly trying to pin down the squirming truth.
I realize now (as I write this sentence) that this blog, my writing and the life I’m striving for pays homage to my father’s stare, to his endless work of trying to get me to be honest and tell the truth.
Mary grew up in the town of Robbinsville, New Jersey. Her cousins have always had a huge impact on her life and helped her greatly in her college decisions. In the fall of 2017, Mary will be attending the University of Delaware where she will major in Biochemistry. In the future she has hopes of becoming an Ophthalmologist in a warm, southern state.
A pigtailed six-year-old girl sits in her cousin’s bedroom watching his pet snake devour a mouse.
She knows not to tap on the glass as she stares intently at the oscillating muscles slowly pulling the mouse farther, deeper into the snake.
Most people don’t like snakes. They don’t like what the blackness of their lidless eyes reflects to them.
The girl wishes she could have arrived in time to observe the snake kill the mouse. How poetic it would have been. She’s a Red-Tailed Boa Constrictor with beautiful sandy coloring and splotches of burnt red diamonds outlined in black down her back and sides.
The young girl’s cousin explains how the snake’s vibrant tail attracts prey. Imagining the serpent basking in the sun of a vast desert, the girl feels sorry for the boa in the tank where she can’t stretch to her full length. It’s in this moment, when the little girl begins to understand why the snake tried to escape the tank so many times.
On previous visits when the snake wasn’t eating, the girl’s cousin would let her hold the heavy rope of an animal under close supervision. Her intense fascination with the creature perplexed him. This fanged-hunter might be domesticated, but the idea that his pigtailed six-year-old cousin wanted to be so close to an animal that constricts its prey until death made her seem strangely mature for her age.
She found beauty in the eloquent contorting of the snake’s movements. The twisted clump from the tank had distinct muscle definition running her length and could easily destroy the little girl if she wanted, however an uncommon trust was developing between the black eyes of the ruthless killer and the soft blue eyes of the girl.
Precise contractions continue to pull the mouse and the snake’s neck expands as her food fills her entirely and the tiny girl twirls her pigtails, watching.
None of the girl’s other family members ever show interest in the snake. They must not like the mystery that swirls in the snake’s deep, black eyes. They must see how much the snake costs and think her a waste.
They do not see the snake’s skin as delicate artwork–proving God exists.
The mouse is gone.
There just remains a slender tail that dangles from the serpent’s mouth and the waving muscles continue their steady motion tugging at her dinner. The small girl with pigtails and blue eyes still watches as her cousin leaves. Her family talks, eats, and deals cards in the other room while music plays and the TV cheers with another goal. The snake is ignorant of human life.
She only knows how to seduce prey, strangle existence.
As the snake closes her mouth around the last inch of her meal, Mary catches a glimpse of her faded reflection in the glass tank. Her eyes appear darker and the pigtail she was twisting has loosened slightly. She doesn’t understand the magnitude of her attraction. The power, the beauty, the life, the violence, the finality, the death–she wants it all.
In the living room, the family sits together, but alone digesting dinner, turning over thoughts of life and death, lacking the courage to say or do anything.
Mary shuts the bedroom door. Turns, and is pulled by the complexities and contradictions that swell beneath the heat lamp above the tank.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that my body is not built for Friday nights anymore.
After a week of typical adult life the last thing I want to do is take my creaky knees and venture out. And I mean out, out. Like the type of going out that requires you to slip on a pair of nice shoes and hustle along city sidewalks and shoulder your way through noisy crowds.
But like every wash-up Friday night hero, I figure I still have a few good nights left in me.
So last Friday night–I went out.
My younger brother Keith and I grabbed some dinner at a hipster craft beer bar in a hipster part of Philadelphia before heading to the Mann Music Center with thousands of other hipsters to see Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds play an acoustic set.
After a grinding drive through city traffic and traversing across Fairmount Park, Keith and I stood in a long line at the concert gates, followed by another long line for $9 beers while listening to a middle-aged, sandal-wearing crowd complain about city traffic, the swelling crowd itself and $9 beers.
For those of us who were in high school in late nineties the music of The Dave Matthews Band soundtracked our coming-of-age.
The first concert I went to without adult supervision was the Dave Matthews Band at Veterans Stadium in the spring of 1999.
One of Dave’s biggest hits during that time (and still one of his most recognizable song) is the rousing, drum-thumping, sing along Ants Marching.
I remember being 19 and dancing carelessly in concrete aisles of Veterans Stadium to Ants completely oblivious to the warning Dave Matthews was bestowing upon us all.
“He wakes up in the morning
Does his teeth, bite to eat and he’s rolling
Never changes a thing
The week ends, the week begins.
She thinks, we look at each other
Wondering what the other is thinking
But we never say a thing
And these crimes between us grow deeper.
Take these chances
Place them in a box until a quieter time
Lights down, you up and die.”
That’s some bleak stuff– the boredom and banality of the rat race, our fear and inability to communication with honest and purpose punctuated by regret only to be overshadowed by our inevitable death– sung by a bunch of drunk and happy teenagers.
The Seduction of Ignorance
The drums, the saxophone, the violin– the musicality of Ants is auditory seduction. But strip the music away and Ants resembles a stern warning, a cautionary tale that so many of us failed to embrace when we were younger.
Underneath its sing-song veneer lurks the painful and scary and soul- sucking realities of adulthood.
Ants explores the tragic nature of growing up, “Goes to visit his mommy” and how we all yearn for simpler times as we “remember being small/ under the table and dreaming” and how complacency seduces us in to playing a high-stakes version of follow the leader, “We all do it the same way.”
Yet, what is interesting about AntsMarching is that the song makes you feel good.
Like life, we crave togetherness. We want to be swept in the undertow of a community doing the same thing, singing the same song. Yet by doing what everyone else is, we remain ignorant to the consequence of such conformity.
But at 19 I didn’t know this. I guess, few of us do.
We didn’t know that one day the lyrics will outweigh the beat. That the lyrics will become real pills we swallow each day.
Lights down, you up and die.
Anyway. Sure it’s fatalistic, but the heartbeat sound of Ants reminds us that despite our inevitable death we must not forget to celebrate life.
It’s a song I will continue to dance and sing to. Maybe not with the same foolish exuberance since it’s a Friday night and I have bad knees and now fully understand the painful cost of growing up.