Monday, May 25, 2009
If I Gave My Niece's Graduation Speech
My niece Jenna graduated from Framingham State last weekend (God, does that make me feel old), and as usual with me these days, I got inspired by somebody else's screw-up. A totally minor screw-up, actually--the commencement speaker, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, delivered an A-to-Z speech of things the graduates should keep in mind as they went out into The Real World; except that she forgot the letter Y. ("Forget Why"--there's a great motto for graduates, huh?) So I started making notes about what I would have Y stand for, which made me start making notes about what the other letters stood for, which made me write my own commencement speech based on my own experiences, in the same A-to-Z format.
So Jenna? Picture me at a podium, with my hair actually combed. Got it? Good. Here we go:
A is for Answers. There are three kinds of answers in life: the ones you’re told, the ones you need to find out for yourself, and the ones you’ll never know. Believe the ones you’re told only so much--you are being told them for a reason. Trust the ones you find out for yourself most of all--like religious revelations, they will mean nothing to anyone else, and can only be experienced, not explained. And in your search for those answers you will never know, do not despair because there is no destination, but always keep faith with the journey.
B is for Baby. Never have one to save a marriage, cement a relationship, make yourself feel worthwhile, or stop your mother from nagging you about it. If you are going to bring a new life into this world, do it like God in Genesis, and create an Eden in which it can grow. The walls of that garden will crumble soon enough; until they do, keep them strong and tall. And whether you do or do not have a baby, always look at the world like one, and you will never fail to catch a glimpse of Paradise in this our mundane vale of tears.
C is for Courage. Like Stolichnaya, courage comes in many flavors, and mixes so well with everything that it can become practically invisible. It pushes you to do everything from risking your life to taking a small step in a new direction. It gives you the strength to face despair and failure. It makes the muskrat guard its musk. And like all muscles, it only gets stronger the more you use it. Exercise it daily, and in no time at all, you will have the courageous equivalent of a six-pack of abs.
D is for Depression. In economic terms, when the monetary shit hits the marked-down fan. In personal terms, when a negative outcome bankrupts your emotional income. The economic version is all about money, which makes it worthless except as a chance to exercise some courage (see above). The personal version is all about you, which makes it priceless. Why priceless? Because there are two kinds of personal depression--the kind that magnifies your faults, and the kind that undermines your virtues–-which means that, once you get past all that “I am totally worthless” crap, a bout of depression is the best source of self-knowledge you will ever have. Make it your goal to come out of every depression with either a fault to work on, or a virtue to trust. Both are worth their weight in gold.
E is for Everyday and Extraordinary, the twin sisters of reality. One is common; one is unique. One is boring; one is exciting. One holds you back; one drives you on. One is the norm; one’s the exception. And when you look at the two of them side by side, you can’t tell which is which.
F is for Friends. Surround yourself with them. They are your non-blood family. Learn to recognize them by how they act when you do something really stupid. And you will. For instance: there will come a time in your life when you will start going out with a loser. This person will not be a loser to you, because you will be blinded with love. Your friends, however, will see this person clearly. Some will say nothing, either because they’re afraid of losing you as a friend if they speak up, or because they want to support you even when you screw up. But some will be totally honest with you and tell you exactly what they think. They will always be there for you, and they will expect the same kind of honesty from you. These are the best friends of all--the ones who call you on your bullshit. Treasure them, and never let them down.
G is for Grown-Up. You will be treated like one as of today, whether you are or not. Which means you are now old enough to be let in on the dirty little secret of adulthood: we are all faking it. Every single one of us. Parents? Faking it. Teachers? Faking it. Politicians? Totally faking it. Every single one of us gets the panic sweats when we hear a knock at the door because we’re afraid the Imposter Police are coming to arrest us for impersonating an adult. Welcome to our nightmare, honey.
H is for Honesty. You just spent the last four years being rewarded for correct answers. Good luck finding a place out in the real world that does the same thing. Whether you know it or not, college is the last place where total honesty is not only accepted, it’s required. Every company you work for will have its own rules about what the truth is, how much of it you can and cannot say, and how and when to say it; every social situation will have its own set of rules too. Sorry you never got taught that, but then we never taught you how to balance a check book, either. This is the other dirty little secret of adulthood: you will have to learn to be a little dishonest just to get by. Two things: never lie to yourself, and the only way you can survive in a world that sometimes values silence over honesty, is with a nine-letter word that begins with I.
I is for Integrity. John Wayne said it best in The Shootist: "I won't be wronged, I won't be insulted, and I won't be laid a hand on. I don't do these things to other people and I expect the same from them." That was his line in the sand. It is your task to draw a line of your own in this life. The thing is, when you draw a line in the sand? The World takes notice, and either asks you to step over that line, or starts crossing it on its own just to see what you’ll do. So what are you going to do, Jenna?
J is for Jenna. Who is Jenna? You tell me. Better yet: tell yourself. And be her.
K is for King Kong. Everything you need to know about life can be found in the original 1933 version of King Kong. The higher you climb, the farther you fall. Love means nothing if it’s not two-way. Danger breeds passion. Kings in one world are sideshow exhibits in another. Every guy on earth is a sucker for a blonde in trouble. There’s nothing in life that can’t be stopped dead in its tracks by a couple of well-thrown gas grenades. And the most important lesson of all: a giant ape on the Empire State Building with a girl in its hand is just your average day in New York.
L is for Love. You will find it; you will lose it; you will be hurt; you will get over it. Rinse and repeat. Remember that having is not as sweet as wanting, that NWA’s (Neurotic Work Attachments) are to love as counterfeit bills are to real money, and that there is no happy ending in romantic love, only “Now what?” The best example of this in fact or fiction is the end of The Graduate, when Benjamin and Elaine are sitting in the back of the bus. The best book about love is A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes. The best movies about love? For reality: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. For dating, Annie Hall. For marriage, Two For The Road. ["What kind of people can eat an entire meal together and not talk?" "Married people."] And for pure pleasure? Amelie.
M is for Money. A guy I once thought I knew defined life as a choice between The Thing and The Stuff. There’s The Thing, which is important, precious and unique; and then there’s The Stuff around it, which is disposable, cheap and mass-produced. Money is really good at buying you The Stuff, and The World is really good at telling you that Stuff is important, which is why you need money. But a diet of just Stuff is like a diet of just candy--you need something more nutritious or you’ll die of starvation. You need The Thing, and money should always be used to get you closer to finding it, achieving it, or sharing it.
N is for Nice. An over-used word and an under-used concept. When we are nice to each other, we are exhibiting the best that civilization, good manners, and humanity has to offer. If you want a role model for Nice, look no further than Jimmy Stewart in Harvey: “Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ -- she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant.” Just remember: the nicer and more pleasant you are? The more everybody will think you’re a little crazy. And what does that say about the World, huh?
O is for Options. The one thing you always have, and always forget you have. Those four walls around you? Every single one of them is a door. None of them will lead to a room that’s furnished like the one you’re trapped in now, but who knows, maybe one of them will have a window, or bigger closets, or Mr. Right living next door. Or another door. There is always another door. There is always a way out, even it’s the way through. There is always something you can do. There is always an option. The only crime is in not taking it.
P is for Passion. Passion will charge you up like a battery, burn you up like a fire, and drive you forward like a motorcycle. You will feel it for the oddest things, and the strangest people, and it will do its best to consume you, like you are just another log in its fireplace. Because of it, you will believe so strongly in something that there will be no middle ground, and you will get so angry about what you believe that you won’t be able to do anything but scream. Focus. Use that energy. Find the words. If you can always summon the passion to pound the table and cry, “Yes! Yes!” about something, then you will never grow old.
Q is for Questions. Always ask them, if not out loud, then to yourself. They are not a sign of stupidity. They are the sailor’s observation that the boat is sinking, the pilot’s observation that the plane is crashing, the listener’s observation that the speaker is not communicating, and the citizen’s observation that the leader is not leading. Question authority. Question complacency. Question all 26 of these pieces of advice I’m giving you. Question everything but the cops when they pull you over for speeding. And then question the answers.
R is for Right. Right is the one thing we all know we are, and one of several things which, in this country, we are told we are born possessing. Speech is a right; choice is a right; you have the right to an attorney; you have the right to remain silent. You even have the right to do absolutely nothing if you want to. Make sure to use the rights you have, and protect the ones that could be taken away; and when it comes to feeling right or righteous about the way you think and act, that’s probably a good point to start asking some hard questions of yourself. But I could be wrong.
S is for Success. There is only one real definition of success: fall down six times, get up seven. All the other definitions are fake–-especially The World’s definition, which equates success with fame. This is like equating food with drugs, or love with sex. Do not (repeat: not) let The World define success for you. Define it for yourself. The world’s definition is like a great pair of heels that’s one size too small–-you’ll squeeze your feet into them and smile because you want to look good, but walk in them long enough and you’ll be crippled for life. Your definition of success should always be like a great pair of comfortable shoes, the kind that help you climb mountains.
T is for Tomorrow. The myth is that tomorrow will either be better than today or no different than today. The first is the most vocal part of our national character; the second is the unspoken premise that keeps people in the same job for twenty years. One is a challenge; one is a comfort. Both do not require you to do anything except stand there and receive either a bigger piece of the pie or the same piece as always. Yeah, well, reality check time. Welcome to the fact that there is no always, okay? There is just “Now what?” A question that can either be answered today, or tomorrow. If your definition of tomorrow is turning around and saying “What did I do yesterday, anyway?” then you are living in the past. Only when your definition of tomorrow is asking yourself “Now what?” will you be living for the future.
U is for Uncles. Uncles are smarter than fathers, more understanding than mothers, richer than brothers, more fun than your crazy cousins, and the only members of your family who will always have a couch for you to crash on when you want to come down to New York for the weekend. If you have only one uncle in your life, then you will always have at least one best friend in your family. Because all Uncles have the same motto:
V is for Victory. Winning is yet another “Now what?” Like Love, it is not an end in itself, but a question that demands an acceptable answer. Two questions, actually. (1) If you don’t win, how do you deal with it? Keep trying? Cry “Sour grapes” and walk away? Pat yourself on the back for competing? Quit forever? And (2) If you do win, what do you do now? Flaunt your medal? Try to repeat it? Pick another challenge? Or use your victory to win something a lot bigger than a battle, a competition, or a point? When Caesar won, he forgave his enemies. When Alexander won, he made his enemies citizens of Greece. When Napoleon won, he made his enemies speak French and drive on the right. Just remember that being a winner is not the same thing as being respected and admired. Sometimes it means the opposite. Look at the New York Yankees.
W is for Wealth. Another word which you will have to define for yourself. (Sorry there are so many of these, but sometimes being an adult is like being an actor: once you hit the stage, you have to forget everything you were told by the director and make it live for you.) So make the word wealth live for you. If you define it in monetary terms, you will become like Scrooge before the ghosts got to him. If you define it in simpler terms, in terms of The Thing and not The Stuff, well, you may always have to worry about making ends meet, but you’ll never have to worry about laughing, or making other people laugh, or having a good time. All these things, and things like them, and these things alone, are priceless.
X is for X-Men. Every human being on earth shares the same super power: we can all see into the past with 20-20 hindsight. But inside each one of us is another power, and while it’s probably not the ability to shoot energy rays out of your eyeballs, create fire or ice, call down thunder and lightning, or open a can of Bud with your adamantium claws, it is something no one else has, and something no one else can do as well as you. Find out what that power is and use it.
Y is for Yes. The one word you should never stop saying. The difference between “Yes” and “No” is like the difference between smiling and frowning. Frowning feels more natural, yet it uses more muscles than smiling. The same goes for “No” versus “Yes,” which is why, as you grow older, you will find yourself saying “No” all the time. You’ll say it because it’s easier, because it means you don’t have to do anything, because you’re scared, and because you don’t want to be bothered. Well it’s not easier, you need to do new things to stay young, the point about being scared is to stare your fear in the face, and when the hell did you become your parents anyway? Not saying “Yes” means you might as well tattoo FML on your forehead. And yeah, Yes is harder to live up to than No, but if you don’t say "Yes" to Love, or Passion, or Tomorrow, or Friends, or yourself, then you’re not saying yes to life.
Z is for Zero. Zero is where you always start. Zero is what you have to lose by trying. Zero is what you get when you do nothing. Zero is what you have when you lose everything. Zero is what you’re guaranteed at the end of the day. Zero is nothing. Zero is always where you start. So start . . . . . . . . now.
Your uncle Matthew