I celebrated my birthday recently. Under normal circumstances, I would have thrown a rager. You only turn 22 once, after all. There would have been hundreds of dollars worth of cheap liquor, a playlist for the ages with all of my favorite songs. And there would have been people: lots and lots of people.
But of course, we’re not under normal circumstances. So for the first time in four years, I spent my birthday at home.
There was no liquor. There was no music. And there were no people, save for my parents, my sister and our two dogs. It was a good day, all things considered, filled with love, good food and a present. What’s a birthday without a present?
It came in yellow-white-and-grey chevron-patterned wrapping paper. I knew from holding it that it was a framed photo or poster or painting. But of what? With bated breath, I began to tear at the chevron.
“Slow down, you crazy child / You’re so ambitious for a juvenile / But then if you’re so smart, then tell me / Why are you still so afraid?”
I was transported back to my freshman year, walking through the JE courtyard and suddenly hearing piano playing coming through the open common room window. It was virtuosic, other-worldly, but nevertheless approachable. I dropped whatever I was doing and headed toward the common room.
“What’s the fire, what’s the hurry about? / You’d better cool it off before you burn it out / You’ve got so much to do / And only so many hours in the day.”
Inside the common room, I met Angel. We talked and I complimented his playing and he played some more while I sat in the warmth of an upholstered arm chair. Some of his friends came by, and soon, Angel was taking requests while three young women and I hummed and sang and whispered along.
“But you know that when the truth is told / That you can get what you want or you could just get old / You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through, ooh / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”
Then, one of the young women took over the piano after Angel said he didn’t know Billy Joel’s “Vienna.” I didn’t know it either.
I don’t remember what she said exactly, but it was something along the lines of “This is pretty much the anthem of every Yale student” or “Every Yale student should be forced to listen to this.” After hearing her play the song, singing along as she did so, I agreed.
“Slow down, you’re doing fine / You can’t be everything you want to be before your time / Although it’s so romantic on the borderline tonight / Tonight.”
I left the common room thinking about youth and ambition and the rest of my life, about the inevitable forward march of time and the evanescence of the world around us, about death. I left the common room and headed toward Old Campus. I got to my single in Farnam. I closed the door, locked it, laid myself on the bed and wept.
“Too bad but it’s the life you lead / You’re so ahead of yourself that you forgot what you need / Though you can see when you’re wrong / You know you can’t always see when you’re right / You’re right.”
Four years later, at the end of my bright college years, of my time as a News columnist and at the beginning of the rest of my life, I’m not quite sure exactly what the song is encouraging us to do. Or at least, I’m not sure how to respond to it.
“You’ve got your passion, you’ve got your pride / But don’t you know that only fools are satisfied? / Dream on, but don’t imagine that they’ll all come true, ooh / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”
I’m not going to offer a close reading of the song here. Nobody, least of all me, wants that. But I hope you’ll go and listen to the song for yourself.
“Slow down, you crazy child / And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while / It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two, ooh / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”
When I opened the birthday present and saw that it was the first two verses of “Vienna” typed out in Courier New, italicized against a semi-opaque photo of Harkness tower, my heart broke. I think my mom was under the impression that the song was a favorite of mine, that it brought me pleasure, that it helped me forget about the world, even for the merest of moments.
But that’s not what “Vienna” meant to me. It was a song that brought sadness, that brought pain. It was a song that brought the world into stark relief, that laid bare the fundamental fact of our lives: that they end. “Vienna” was my memento mori.
“And you know that when the truth is told / That you can get what you want or you could just get old / You’re gonna kick off before you even get halfway through, ooh / Why don’t you realize, Vienna waits for you? / When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”
The admonition “Remember, you will die,” however, rests on a fundamental premise. “Memento mori” means that you are alive.
You are alive.
You are alive.
You are alive.
Isn’t that a beautiful thing?
ADRIAN J. RIVERA is a senior in Jonathan Edwards college. This is his last staff column. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org