Thursday, June 01, 2006

Graduation Speechless

Thus far in life, I'm lucky enough to have only sat through graduation speeches for my own classes ('82 and '86, respectively). In '82, that must have been Eugene Monahan, our high-school class president, spouting the usual malarkey about the future and our brave roles in it. I still feel bad about Eugene -- a good (and very smart) guy. Think he's a lawyer now in the Harrisburg area. I feel bad because when he was running for class president at our Penn State branch campus, I told him I was going to vote for him the day of the election, and didn't vote. He lost by one vote. I think he knew, but was cool about it. I would have kicked my own ass.

In '86 at Penn State, forget it. I was lucky to be standing upright. My friends and I -- Justin, Colin, that whole gang who hung out at Headquarters, their motley apartment conveniently located downtown -- basically spent the week after finals and before graduation burning down the house. The few times in my life that I've been high, most of them were that week. We were all stoned, drunk and partying for about five days straight. I would wake up late morning, immediately go for a five-mile run to clean out my system, have some lunch, take a nap, then meet up with the guys for a drinking/drugging session that lasted from about four in the afternoon until two in the morning. Same thing all week. It was more like some extended tribal ceremony, the drug/alcohol equivalent of hanging from pegs poked through the skin of our chests.

I puked every night. One night, I recall Colin carrying me like a sack over his shoulder because I couldn't function. Guys who passed out got peanut butter packed into their underwear, so when they woke up, they'd think they had shit their pants in their stupor. Adding to their confusion, some guys actually would shit their pants and have both feces and peanut butter in their underwear. I recall one guy blurting out, "Who put chocolate in my peanut butter?"

Strangers had sex in sinks and bath tubs. We started a bonfire in some guy's backyard, and even though he didn't know us, he was cool with it and pondered the flames along with us. Amidst this utter chaos, Colin's strict religious family showed up, horrified, as did his then-fiance's father, Vinny, who was totally nuts and threatened to beat up all of us just for shit and giggles. I remember Regis, Colin and I taking turns at the toilet bowl, each nudging the other's head out of the way so he could puke into it, just like those kittens in that long-lost cat-food commercial.

It was a wild week, capped off by a last supper, where we ate hoagies and watched Siskel & Ebert, no one wanting to admit this was the end. I recall saying goodbye to Colin, unexpectedly choking up, and realizing we were going to go on being friends in some form the rest of our days, which surely wasn't the case for a lot of us.

In other words, President Reagan could have been reading Naked Lunch through a vocoder at my graduation ceremony, and I wouldn't have noticed. Everyone I knew was still wasted or coming down hard from a vicious week-long bender. My brother J and neighbor Bubba came up to State College the night before, couldn't find me, and got drunk, feeding beers to a stray dog on some frat's lawn before passing out there. Angry couples fucked for the last time, friendships were shattered and reborn in the course of hours, many sweeping St. Elmo's Fire-style moments transpired, promises were broken, true and false farewells bade, we all got our diplomas and got the fuck out of there. Well, most of us did -- I spent that whole summer working part-time in the German Department, lazing in the sun and loafing before clearing out.

I've often wondered how I'd fare with a real graduation speech. The gall of this is that many celebrities chosen for these speeches, simply-stated, stepped in dogshit in terms of getting where they are. Sure, they've worked hard, but most of us never see purposely hidden things like nepotism, lucky breaks, Ivy League connections, behind-the-scenes manipulation, those little X factors that I've seen make all the difference between struggling and making it. But talent wise, it's a very thin line between some guy working a day-job and doing auditions when he can, and, say, Colin Farrell. Not to take anything away from these folks -- once they get where they're going, they most likely work their asses off to stay there.

But I'm thinking what sort of hard-won wisdom I'd impart to a bunch of shitheads in caps and gowns. And, let's face it, college kids are shitheads, as are their high-school counterparts. I was a shithead, too. I knew very little about life at the time, and that the really valuable lessons could only be learned through experience. And kids simply don't have that much experience -- it comes with passing time. Some kids are wise beyond their years, and I respect that, but nothing teaches you like getting your ass kicked through life.

I wouldn't encourage kids to be adventurous, unless they had the money to do so. "Adventurous" in my mind is synonymous with "fuck-up." Besides, anything that doesn't require sitting in a classroom is adventurous to a college kid at that point. If you need encouragement to be adventurous, then you are not adventurous. And that's fine. I've come to recognize most of us are meant to be responsible, stand-up individuals who get shit done -- simply the quiet nature of the world. Thinking about following that girlfriend you've been tempestuously fighting with for the past two years to Amarillo? Let the bitch go. Find someone new to fight with. Only reason you should go to Amarillo is to try to eat a 72 oz. steak in under an hour at The Big Texan steakhouse. Otherwise, let the bitch go, dude.

Ditto, taking risks. Take risks only when you can afford the repercussions of failing. Plenty of successful business people preach the gospel of taking risks, not fully understanding they've risked very little, compared to people who never had any financial hope in life. It wouldn't occur to me to risk anything financially when all I've seen is people in debt up to their necks, or struggling to get by and, if they're smart, saving as much money as possible. Most "mavericks" you meet in the business world are either maniacal or come from a background that financially allows them to fail and still hold on to a cushy way of life. You find someone who came out of nowhere to achieve massive success, if that guy's smart, he's salting away as much money as he can.

I've never met a Gatsby-esque character like this in nearly 20 years of NYC office life, despite the predictably self-aggrandizing bullshit rich men believe about themselves. I've met plenty of people who are having a hell of time just getting by, on every level of society. All that grandiose shit we piled on at the end of college? It hasn't mean a thing to me since then. I'm not going to stand in judgment of some guy pumping gas or taking my change for a newspaper every morning. Fuck it -- if he can make that work for him and still smile at me, I'm going to respect that as much or more than someone trying to get over on me with their exalted position in life.

Be less open-minded, less trusting of people, because they may fuck you up in the end. Then again, it makes sense to trust a few numb-nuts who end up raking you over the coals, simply to give you valuable negative experience in life. These sort of things happen periodically throughout all our lives, and aggravated assault charges being what they are, it's best to learn and move on. Paul McCartney sang, "When you were young, and your heart was an open book," but even he came to the conclusion that it made more sense to live and let die. This coming from a guy who wanted to hold your hand 10 years earlier. Now he's 64 and getting raked over the coals financially by a one-legged, soon-to-be ex-wife he purposely didn't have sign a pre-nup. Life gets funny like that.

The best advice, figuratively speaking, comes from the character of Lawrence, the mulleted construction worker in the movie Office Space, who advises Peter, whom he thinks is on his way to "federal/pound me in the ass" prison for his penny-shaving scheme: "Protect your cornhole, buddy."

The best advice, literally, is to never take anyone's advice. The best song of the 90s, Baz Luhrmann's mix of "Everbody's Free (to Wear Sunscreen)" , is chock-full of hard-won wisdom, funny as hell and makes more sense than any graduation speech you'll ever hear. Because you know what? None of us know what the fuck we're doing. The ones who think they do? They're attaching false values and a misleading, bloated sense of importance to relatively meaningless things in their lives. No one else cares, believe me, but these are things we tell ourselves to stave away the darkness that will one day fall over every one of us. Between quaint things like college graduations and our last days on earth, life will kick the shit out of all of us. Sometimes things will go our way; sometimes they won't. All you need to do is whatever it takes to stay sane and healthy. Reproduce if it helps, and treat your children like gold. Treat everyone with respect and lose those who don't return it. The rest is bullshit.

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