Sunday, June 5, 2011

An Address to the Graduating Class

This week at work will be a hectic one for me (well, all of us) since it's finals week of Spring quarter at a major, metropolitan university.  I've been dealing, off and on, with students who are in the throes of graduating, moving on, starting careers -- their lives, if you will -- and now starts the season of The Commencement Speech: words of wisdom from academics, college presidents, eggheads, celebrities, politicians and assorted other blowhards. We'll start seeing them on the news, now, Congresspersons and movie stars decked out in cap and gown, standing before throngs of what I'm sure they believe are eager young faces, educated, wise and just busting to lap up the words of wisdom about to pour forth.

The sentiments will generally run along two fairly predictable lines:

A. "It's a much different world out there than when I was sitting where you are..." The theme here is that things are so much more complicated and dangerous and frightening these days-- yet so exciting-- that the graduates being addressed will be admonished to get out there and "change the world" somehow. Don't settle for the status quo, they will be told; make your mark, be who you are! Stand up! Speak up! Be an agent of change, you diverse yet predictably homogenous young men and women, with your iPads and your cell phones, spanning the globe with your Twitters and your Tweets...

B. "Follow your bliss." Or your dream. Or your heart. Or your heart's dream. Whatever. But follow it! Don't let the fuddy-duddy suits tell you what to be or how to be it. Screw your parents! Don't lust after the almighty dollar, be true to your self: pull the ripcord on your parachute, whatever its color, and float down onto the road less traveled which will, inevitably, lead to your heart's desire. Student loans? Pfaugh! Isn't there some sort of government, you know, agency that, you know, forgives all that...? Go! Live! Dream!

Whichever message they get, the students and assembled faculty and honored guests will applaud, mortar boards will be tossed into the air and the speaker's words will be forgotten as soon as the first drink is served at the celebretory luncheon.

Of course, if some school, any school, invited me to address the graduating class, I'd be more than happy to offer my wisdom and experience, thusly:

"President Hooha, Dean Martin, Dean... Acheson, Hollywood bigwig, minor luminaries, tenured faculty-- bitter, unpublished faculty-- cater waiters, students. It is indeed an honor to stand before you on this glorious day, in this swell robe -- come on, be honest, am I the only one who got into their robe today and started humming the "Harry Potter" theme? -- looking out over your bright, shining faces as you prepare to enter the world, armed with your diplomas and your dreams.

"I have no words of wisdom to offer, no cut-and-dried, one-size-fits-all philosophy of life. No, for you are all too diverse, too multifaceted and, I'll be honest, too well-educated to want to sit here listening to the philosophical ramblings of a man who once thought he could make a good living hand-painting silk table runners, or moving to London to appear in grainy, black-and-white British movies with Alec Guiness and Rita Tushingham.

"I'm sure you've heard a great deal from souls deeper and wiser than mine about following your dreams, your heart's desire, creating your own bliss. Do what you love, as the book title advises, and the money will follow. Well, for the better part of forty years, on and off, I did what I loved, and I can stand here and tell you in no uncertain terms that my money was clearly unaware that it was supposed to be following me. I don't know where the hell it went. Maybe it lost the Trip-Tick. There was no GPS in those days, so it's anybody's guess.

"Oh, I had wonderful times, don't get me wrong. Some things worked out, most didn't, at least not to my satisfaction. I've got some swell memories. But no matter what I did, things kept changing. (If you want to hear God laugh, make plans.) Some of you are planning on careers in law. Or education. Or government, God help us -- I mean, good for you! Whatever path you have in your sights, let me tell you this -- and you can take this to the bank, because it follows as the night does the day: it will all change. Plan away, map out your life, get ready to rid sub-Saharan Africa of all disease, or forge lasting peace in the Middle East. Plan on preventing the filming of "The Hangover III". No matter what you plan on or look forward to, it will in all likelihood be pulled out from under you like a four-by-six Karastan area rug from Sears.

"And, boy, are you going to be pissed. You'll wonder why that business you just knew would take off is now but a banker's box full of depressing tax returns. You'll wonder why that once-in-a-lifetime spouse who was so on board with all your dreams (not to mention that tickling fetish), has overnight become a sullen, crestfallen lump with a teeny drinking problem, who greets your latest Big Idea with a heavy sigh. You'll wonder if, at the age of forty- or fifty-something you should maybe start seeing a shrink to work out the anger and jealousy that keeps coming up around the success of total strangers who seem to have nothing more going for them than dumb luck, good bones and too many big, white teeth.

"I see you shaking your heads, smiling, scoffing. Never happen to me, man! I hear you cry. Good for you. I hope not. I wish you all the best. But I cannot, in good conscience, tell you that just because you dream it, it will come true.

"The best I can offer is to ask that you put one foot in front of the other, do the next right thing, take the next indicated step. And then wait. Enjoy the moment. Or hate the moment. Either way, it will pass. But believe me when I tell you that that moment is your life.

"Some years ago they had Sally Field on 'Inside the Actors Studio' and during the Q&A with the students, in response to one of their questions, Ms Field said "You have to let go of the life you've planned so you can have the life that's waiting for you." At which point Sally Field became my favorite philosopher.

"Years later I learned that in fact Sally had paraphrased E.M. Forster who said "We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us." Okay, so Norma Rae plagiarized a little. No matter. That philosophy has stuck with me, and by me, ever since. Words to live by, Graduating Seniors! It all changes. Every day.

"So be prepared. You can fight it, you can roll with it, you can laugh about it (the best thing to do in most cases). But it will all be different tomorrow. Hell, in five minutes it could be a whole new ball game.

"So, sally forth (I couldn't resist) and begin your new lives. Okay, take a well-deserved vacation, just don't drink too much and wind up on 'Cops'. Then begin your new lives. I wish you well. I honestly do. It's a hell of a ride. But thinking you have all the answers is like getting on the Wild Mouse without being buckled in: it'll be fun at first, but sooner or later you'll be thrown from the car, through the air over the boardwalk and into the wine-dark sea.

"And by the way, if you haven't packed your parachute correctly, it really doesn't matter what color it is: dead is dead.

"Thank you and good luck!"

No comments:

Post a Comment