With a warm sense of nostalgia, I picked up Stover at Yale. It was the winter of my last semester before graduation, and I probably hoped to soak in as much history and tradition as I could before I left. Owen Johnson’s classic novel, described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as the “textbook of his generation,” felt strangely familiar. Though the Yale populated by prep-school alpha males climbing a rigid and combative social hierarchy felt bizarrely foreign and archaic, the setting and struggles of the book’s protagonist, Dink Stover, were eminently recognizable.
Reading through, one scene stood out to me in particular. Stover, who was reared at the Lawrenceville prep school, spoke for the first time with a classmate that didn’t share his privileged upbringing. He learned about his classmate’s journey starting as a twelve year old traveling alone and saving money as he could, to an eighteen year old businessman earning enough money while away to pay not only for his own schooling, but his girlfriend’s, as well. Stover, taken by the story shared by his classmate from society’s lower crust, realized that he had no story to share of his own.
As he walked to his off-campus apartment, Stover passed under the window of a friend, Bob Storey. Seeing his light on, Stover shouted up:
“Say, Bob, I just wanted you to know one thing.”
“I’m just a plain damn fool; do you get that?”
“What the deuce?”
“Just a plain damn fool — good-night!”
And he went to his room, locked the door to all visitors, pulled an arm-chair before the fire, and sat staring into it, as solemn as the wide-eyed owls on the casters.
I recognized that feeling, and it’s one I experienced often at Yale. It’s something bitter, but not without some hope — whether it’s a sudden moment of clarity or a gradual change, you realize not only what you’ve failed to see but the possibilities the new insight brings. I’ve had Plain Damn Fool moments about nearly everything, but particularly about philosophy, psychology, atheism, and my attitudes about music and popular culture. No one likes to realize they’ve been missing something, but I’ve learned to appreciate the realization over the alternative. I don’t think I’ll ever figure everything out, so it’s better to know I’m growing instead of stuck where my ego might sit safe and undisturbed.
So as I explore topics both light and complicated, fun and heavy, I hope to do so with at least a marginal sense of self-awareness.