In recent weeks, a passage from Don DeLillo's End Zone has been rattling around in my head, but only in that amorphous, faint way that a novel you taught a decade ago (and haven't read since) can rattle. Those of you who know it know that the novel features an angst-ridden football player who bounces from school to school before settling into the one where the plot develops. He makes a stop at Penn State. The central image of this delightful passage is a plane flying "over the practice field every afternoon at the same time."
And then this morning I noticed a headline at the local paper's website--"Plane returns to circle campus"--and realized it was time to re-read the damn passage, so I ventured downstairs to our "stacks" and dug up my heavily marked copy. The passage, classic DeLillo, is downright breathtaking. I offer it here as something of a parable:
At Penn State, the next stop, I studied hard and played well. But each day that autumn was exactly like the day before and the one to follow. I had not yet learned to appreciate the slowly gliding drift of identical things; chunks of time spun past me like meteorites in a universe predicated on repetition. For weeks the cool clear weather was unvarying; the girls wore white knee-high stockings; a small red plane passed over the practice field every afternoon at the same time. There was something hugely Asian about those days in Pennsylvania. I tripped on the same step on the same staircase on three successive days. After this I stopped going to practice. The freshman coach wanted to know what was up. I told him I knew all the plays; there was no reason to practice them over and over; the endless repetition might be spiritually disastrous; we were becoming a nation devoted to human xerography. He and I had a long earnest discussion. Much was made of my talent and my potential value to the varsity squad. Oneness was stressed--the oneness necessary for a winning team. It was a good concept, oneness, but I suggested that, to me at least, it could not be truly attractive unless it meant oneness with God or the universe or some equally redoubtable super-phenomenon. What he meant by oneness was in fact elevennes or twenty-twoness. He told me that my attitude was all wrong. People don't go to football games to see pass patterns run by theologians. He told me, in effect, that I would have to suck in my gut and go harder. (1) A team sport. (2) The need to sacrifice. (3) Preparation for the future. (4) Microcosm of life.
"You're saying that what I will learn on the gridiron about sacrifice and oneness will be of inestimable value later on in life. In other words if I give up now I'll almost surely give up in the more important contests of the future."
"That's it, exactly, Gary." "I'm giving up," I said.