My commencement speech
From Rodney Dangerfield to Winona Ryder, American cinema loves a good commencement speech. And, seemingly inevitably, movie matriculation scenes are one part joyous and two parts melancholy and their message is this: The best times of your life are behind you. No longer, with diploma in hand, can one indulge oneself in the excesses of youth. Responsibility is the watchword and it's time to pay the piper. Yes, fellow graduates the buck does stop somewhere and it stops with us.
I have friend, now a year out of college and working for a production company in Hollywood who is obsessed with the Langston Hughes poem "Dream Deferred." His running commentary on life is filled with references to dreams deferred and the festering decay and raisin-in-the-sun rot that comes with adulthood. Indeed, now is the time for you and I to act, to defer no longer, to make our mark on society.
Making our mark. It seems this is the obsession of all American young adults. It's the idea that drives Peace Corps applicants and would-be movie stars. In a more and more temporal society we seek permanence. We seek to have our names emblazoned on commemorative plaques. But, moreover, we seek stability, we seek an ideal antithetical to life.
Just this morning as I turned onto Ninth Street, leaving my apartment for one of the last times, the world kept turning. Bricklayers were busy putting up a building on a formerly empty corner and it occurred to me that there is no significance in my, or our, commencement. The world has commenced, has already commenced and we have been waiting. From similar realizations stems the angst of Hughes, of Eliot, of Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas, of Marvin Gaye, of Neil Young. "The world is turning, I hope it don't turn away."
The closure we seek is the stuff of myth and is in itself mythic - unreal and unachievable.
As I address this class of 1999, I am reminded of my high school Latin. Stories begin "in media res." And "sic transit gloria mundi" and "stercus accidit." The best times of your life are behind you. Stability is an anathema to life. Papa was a rolling stone, wherever he laid his hat was his home and when he died, all he left us was alone. The stuff of myth and Motown and movies.
Another friend of mine, who also graduated last year, and I have a theory related to movies, stumbled upon one inebriated night. And conceived as it was, under the influence, it is theory both elegant and stupid. Essentially it is this: "Stay in your movie." Our feeling at the time, and perhaps today, was that when you stop being the star of your show, when you stop creating the plot and predicaments of your character, you will find yourself lost and relegated to extra status.
But all this is not to be discouraging. After all, so goes the glory of the world. My advice to you, men and women matriculating here today is this: Find your wave and ride it. Then get back in the ocean, swim out and find another wave and ride that one as well. Ride 'em cowboy. If the bull throws you, get back in the saddle. If life give you lemons, make fruit smoothies. If life, like NATO, bombs your home, make commemorative ornaments of the shrapnel. What I'm saying is a truism: Life, while not predictable, is what you make of it. And so make it grand and make it work and solve the problem. And one of you, would one of you cure cancer and another, AIDS? And would one of you solve the planet's food supply problems and another find a way to provide decent child care for every kid? And another teach and another write. Another paint and another preach. Another explain the longevity of Tom Jones' career and another Tom Arnold's. Let us learn and learn and look back and never say the best times of our lives are behind us.
Now, let's get drunk.