(On top of the Loughrigg Fell in the Lake District of England. Sorry for the smudged scan.)
I was lucky enough to get into the Francis E. Kelley Oxford Programme with one of my junior year roommates and best friend. Junior year I lived in a garden apartment with five other guys.
We were ecstatic: six weeks in England studying British and American Media and Culture and taking classes on Shakespeare, Middle English and History, and traveling all over England and Europe. I’ve written about it before, because these six weeks were amazing for my growth as a person and a writer.
I had just read Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Word of Staggering Genius and I wanted to experience everything. Traveling is great for a writer—you’re always out of your personal context and forced to really pay attention to everything that is different or unfamiliar. It is ripe with stories. At the time I didn’t know how life-informing AHWOSG would be for me that summer, and why it’s still one of my favorite books.
I tasted real beer—not Labatts or Milwaukee’s Beast or Natty Sick—but Carlsberg, Strongbow Cider, Jupiler, and when I came home I could drink Lake Placid Brewery’s Ubu Ale like it was mother’s milk. Guinness was significantly different in England than the US. This was a badge of honor, a turning point in my life. Most of all I learned what it means to be the eldest child.
A classmate’s father was very sick. This classmate had to leave the program to say goodbye.
I’ll never forget the scene: it was raining and this classmate, head down, left the program director’s office and walked through the courtyard. No umbrella. I knew what was said to the Franciscan father who ran the program. I nearly wept in this classmate’s room. We’re still kids at this point, freshly 21, and the classmate asked me not to cry.
This is, eventually, the burden eldest children have to bear. A lesson Eggers illustrates in his first and best book. We replace the elder of the house. Most of us are out of the house by the time this comes. We’re well into our careers, our houses, our families. But this classmate had three younger siblings—the youngest starting high school that year. That’s an experience most of us don’t have to bear until much later. Fundamentally, I knew this is going to happen, but to watch it—the experience of it happen to someone else—is very different from intellectually understanding. To watch it unfold before my eyes, so young, my worst nightmare was an experience that July 2002 taught me about life and writing.