ROMANCE by Waller

A speech delivered at the Summer Commencement ceremonies of the University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls, Iowa. July 29, 1983


It seems more than just a bit strange to be standing here today. It was in this very building, this room, that I received my B.A. degree in 1962. Prior to that event, however, I had spent an ungodly number of hours here in my wildly misspent youth. You see, I played basketball for what was then Iowa State Teachers College. For three years I ran all over this room in short pants, dribbling and shooting.

I can still hear the voice of my father as he sat along the sidelines over there and shouted words of encouragement as we battled the University of North Dakota or South Dakota State. He used to drive down from Rockford, Iowa on cold winter nights and add his voice to the 4000 students who invariably packed this place as we ran and jumped our way through season after season. My father always thought books could make you happier than basketballs. He was right. But that's another story for another time.

The point is, this place is filled with memories, and memories play an important part in what I want to talk about today. Since I am Dean of the School of Business, I am absolutely sure a number of you turned out today expecting to get some hot tips on microcomputer stocks or the latest news on money supply fluctuations. Sorry. Nor am I going to lecture you on 1) how well educated you are, 2) what wonderful opportunities you have before you, or 3) the importance of making great and lasting changes out there.

What I want to talk about is something a little different, something that makes all the living and doing you are so anxious to get on with worthwhile. More than that, it makes the living and doing better---better in terms of quality and quantity. I am going to talk about romance.

I looked up the definition of romance in several dictionaries. As I guessed, reading definitions of romance is about the most unromantic thing you can do. So I will not define romance, at least not directly. Rather, you will pick up a sense of what romance is by what I am going to say about it.

I am a musician, and a writer of songs. One of my songs, which I call "High Plains Afternoon," starts like this:

I see you now, as you were then, on a high plains afternoon. (Don't you remember the flowers, don't you remember the wind?) As naked you danced through the late autumn dust, while a threat of hard winter rode the cobalt horizon. (Don't you remember those who were free? We drove them out of our lives.)

As I sing the song, it carries a sense that I am singing about a woman. Ostensibly I am. But it is also a song about the idea of romance, as she (pardon the gender) dances before us and then out of our lives, if we do not treat her right. Romance, you see, is something you have to take care of---romance needs food and water and care, of a kind all her own. You can destroy romance, or at least drive her away, almost without knowing that you are doing it. Let me give you an example.

A while back, a professor on this campus was finishing her doctorate. As part of her dissertaion, she was conducting interviews with married folks about the subject of, well, marriage. When she asked Georgia Ann and me to participate, we thought it over. Then we politely said, "No." Now, we have been married for almost twenty-two years, and a high level of zest remains in our relationship, so probably we have some useful things to say about marriage. Why did we decide not to? Because we have agreed that too much analysis of certain things removes the romance from them. Our relationship is one of those things.

Romance dances just beyond the firelight, in the corner of your eye. She does not like you to look at her directly; she flees from the cold light of logic and data collection when it is turned toward her. If you persist in trying to study her, however, she first disintegrates, then dissolves into nothing at all.

E.B. White once said a similar thing about humor, which "can be dissected, as a frog, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind." You can't get at romance, then, by good old Western reductionism.

Understand, I am not just talking about romance in the sense of love between two people. You really can't have a romance with someone else unless you are, first of all, a romantic yourself. Most people I know are not very romantic. They were once, or had a chance to be, but romance got lost along the way, drowned in the roar of our times, beat out by overly analytic teachers, drummed out by those who scoff at romantics as foolish and weak. In those people, romance looked around and said, "I'm not living here; it's too cold."

What do romantics look like? You can't really generalize. Besides, to make a list of characteristics would be to commit the sin of breaking romance down into small pieces, which I cautioned about before. The best way to tell a romantic is to just be around one. You'll know. There is a sense of passion about them, a sense of living just a bit too far out at the edge emotionally, sometimes, a caring for what seem to be dumb things--an old chair you sat in during your graduate student days and in the early times of your career, a knife that lies on the desk year after year, a simple wooden box. You can tell a romantic by the voice---it dances because the mind is dancing.

And I can tell you this for sure: All romantics like dogs and cats, and maybe some other creatures, preferably animals that come in off the road for a little sustenance and decide to stay around and participate in the craziness they sense in this place of food and laughter. Animals like romantics, for they know they will never be let down by them.

It's important to note here that you do not have to be a poet or a painter or a musician to be a romantic. In fact, I know quite a few folks in these areas of endeavor who are downright unromantic. On the other hand, Andrew Carnegie was a romantic. So was Joseph Smith when he led the Mormons westward. And I have seen more than one insurance salesman, in the bars where I have played, grin outwardly and inwardly when I launched into a song about the wind and flowers and the highways that run forever.

Robert Pirsig puts it well, in his book, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," when he says, "The Buddha...resides quite as comfortably in the circuits of a digital computer or the gears of a cycle transmission as he does at the top of a mountain or in the petals of a flower. To think otherwise is to demean the Buddha---which is to demean oneself."

In a sense, romance is practical. It fuels your life and propels your work with a sense of vision, hope, and caring. Because you are working for others, not just for yourself, your work takes on a certain quality that it will not otherwise have. I suppose you can say romance puts meat on the table, though, as I say that, I feel more than just a slight drain on my system, as romance prepares to leave.

Let me turn now to the matter of getting and keeping romance. Romance is hard to get, hard to keep, and fairly easy to drive away. If you are really intent on getting rid of romance, though, here are a few brief suggestions:

Become obsessive about neatness, particularly in the way your desk looks.

Install expensive shag carpet in your house, so that when the dog throws up or one of your friends spills beer, all hell breaks loose.

Don't listen to any good music. Ignore Bach, Mozart, Pete Seeger, and the Paul Winter consort. Instead, listen only to top-40 radio. This is a first-rate approach to giving romance a shove out of your life, for she likes subtlety and low decibel counts.

Excessive focus on detail and procedure at the expense of vision, of dreams, of reflection, is another good way to get rid of romance. We in the academic world have mastered this approach.

Buy birthday cards, anniversary cards, and the like instead of making up your own. All of us are poets; some have just lost their voices for a while. As Ray Bradbury once said, about people in general, "And they were all, when their souls grew warm, poets."

Finally, the surest way to lose romance forever is to do things just for money, even though your cells tell you this is not what you should be doing.

Now, in no particular order, here are some suggestions for keeping romance around you (or getting her back if she has flown):

Read some poetry every day. For starters, try a little Yeats, then some Kipling (along with some of his stories). I know Kipling must be terribly out of fashion nowadays, but romantics never concern themselves with fashion anyhow.

Set a new schedule for yourself and do your reading then. Try this: Instead of flopping around in bed, get up early---maybe 4 a.m.---on a Sunday, in the winter, when a classic Iowa howler is blowing in from the Dakotas. This works pretty well. Besides you have the secret pleasure of being reasonably sure you are the only one in the Western Hemisphere reading Kipling at that very moment.

Here's another idea. Sometime in your life, build your own house or at least the most intimate parts of it. Design it, too, with lots of thought. You will get endless pleasure and romance from walking through doorways and knowing you put the door there with your mind and your hands.

Collect little things, like the old knife on your desk or the small box you had for keepsakes when you were a child. At a time in my life when I was just overcome with administrative burdens, and my face showed it, one of my faculty gave me a small wooden flute along with a note that said, "Don't let your muse slip away." I keep the flute where I can see it.

Play a musical instrument. Something you can get out on those early mornings when reading is not the thing. Don't tell me you are not musical and, for heaven's sake, don't tell me you are tone deaf. I simply, if you'll pardon the expression, won't hear of it. If all else fails, or even if it doesn't, buy an Appalachian dulcimer. You can get warm, exotic sounds out of it right away without knowing anything formal about music at all. Try reading some ancient Chinese poetry while you strum the dulcimer. It works wonders.

Travel is good for romance. But don't just travel; TRAVEL. Here's what you need: notebooks, a small compass, a pocket atlas of the world, and a spyglass for looking out of airplane windows or across the rooftops of Paris or far down the country lanes in England. A word of warning is needed here: If you are traveling with your boss and he or she is not romantic, be careful. You may not want to be seen with your compass and spyglass on an airplane. If you are a true romantic, however, it won't matter much, because you will be good at what you do and your boss will shake his or her head and mutter about what one has to put up with to get quality work these days.

Keep good journals of your life and travels. This is vitally important. I delight in reading and re-reading my adventures in the old markets of Saudia Arabia, where I bargained for gold and silver to bring home, and my wild ride through the streets of Riyadh late at nightwith a Bedouin cab driver who played Arabic music on a tape deck and tried to give me a short course in his language, while the best I could do was teach him to say, "Kleenex" by pointing to a box of it on his dashboard.

I like knowing that I was in Richmond, Virginia, at 7:55 a.m. on June 7, 1981, or that I was in Paris in the snow in January 1982, or that I was once in Montego Bay, Jamaica, in the spring.

One of the most haunting entries in my journals reads, "12:25 p.m. Back in Iowa, Georgia and Rachael are sleeping (3:24 a.m.) and I'm over Egypt." When I wrote that, I remember feeling very far away, in more ways than just miles, somehow.

My secretary leaves me alone when I fall behind in an especially unappealing piece of work, and a cold gray, November rain is splattering against the third-floor windows of Seerley Hall. She knows I'm traveling. I stand, put my hands in my pockets, stare out those windows, and I'm comforted by the knowledge that somewhere the big planes are turning for Bombay or Bangkok, for Brisbane or Barcelona, and romance is skipping along their wings.

But romance is not just outward bound. She also rides your shoulder when you turn for home, with your notebooks full, your suitcase packed with dirty clothes, when it's only a few days before Christmas and London's Heathrow Airport is pandemonium, with all flights overbooked. But then you're on, in your seat, London falls behind, Ireland is below; you get out the notebook again, and you write, "God, all I want now is to see Georgia, Rachael, the pups, Roadcat, and eat a giant plate of Georgia's world-famous spaghetti."

Finally, you've got to work at remembering that romance is all around you. It's not somewhere else. Here are two examples.

I had to go to the Hawaiian island of Oahu a while back. Everyone told me, before I went, how crass and junky Oahu and particularly, Honolulu have become. It certainly looks that way, at first glance. "But," I said to myself, "romance must still be here somewhere." At first I couldn't see her. My vision was blocked by Don Ho standing around drinking a Pina Colada. But something caught my eye---and there was romance, right behind him, jumping up and down and waving to me.

So, I got up before dawn, went down to the beach, rolled up my jeans, waded in, and stood there in the pre-dawn grayness, playing my flute with the water washing around me and thinking about what this must have looked like when Captain Cook first came around Diamond Head, his sails flapping in the trade winds. There were a few other people on the beach, but they paid me no mind; they were there for the same reasons. When I finished, I heard the sound of applause from a long way off. I turned; it was romance. I caught a glimpse of her, just as the first ray of morning sunlight struck the barrier reef while she danced along it. And my notebook says, "Soft winds blow easy, here in the night time, as Oahu lies bathing in the sweet scent of orchids. This skyplane will ride the west wind to morning and land in L.A. just after dawn."

The second example has to do with Iowa. Iowa is a vary romantic, mystical place. I can't explain it, but it's here. Anybody can see the Rocky Mountains---they're obvious. It takes a little more perspective to see the beauty of Iowa or the romance in the long sweep of North Dakota prairie west of Larimore. Once when I was working in the woods south of Dadena, in northwest Iowa, it started to snow late in the day. I worked on. As I did, I began to feel a presence. What was it? The woods were filling up with snow. What was there? It took me a moment, but then I knew: It was Iowa. Iowa, like romance, doesn't come up and pirouette before you, saying, "Hey, look, I'm beautiful." She just lies there, on hot June days, like a woman in the sun, while romance splashes around where the Winnebago runs to kiss the Shell Rock, just two miles below the place of my growing.

Well, that's enough. You get the idea. All I have left for you is a test of sorts (you knew there would be a test, didn't you?). How are you going to know if you have lived the romantic life? Here's how. On your dying bed, after all the living and doing, you must run this poem by turn-of-the-century poet R. M. Rilke through your mind:

I live my life in growing orbits,
which move out over the things of this world.
Perhaps I never can achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God,
around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years.
And I still do not know,
if I am a Falcon,
or a storm,
or a great song.

When you have done that, on your dying bed, if you can smile and nod quietly to yourself, you will have succeeded, and romance will ride your shoulder as you turn for home.

Go well. Remember the flowers. Remember the wind. Thank you.