Monthly Archives: May 2013

Commencement

commencement

 

 

This graduation season, you’ve almost certainly sat through one of the worst literary genres, the commencement speech.[i]  Yes, David Foster Wallace achieved greatness with his:

And there is always Kurt Vonnegut’s Wear Sunscreen speech.  But most speakers are shackled by the speech’s conventions.

They begin with a list of thank-you’s:

I want to thank all of the students, the parents, the professors, the college president, the board of trustees…

With a little self-deprecation…

…for letting me have this opportunity to speak with your class.  You’re a great audience, especially since you can’t go anywhere!

Followed by the story: narrating a personal obstacle that the speaker overcame…

…I may be the CEO of Ceo Industries now, but it wasn’t always that way…

…in order to laud the role of education in that success…

…In fact, when I first came to college, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.  I struggled with finding…

…while being optimistic, preferably with some Speech 101 rhetorical flourish:

…But I did know that I wanted to make a change. A change for the better. A change for the future. A change for myself.  A change for the world.[ii]

And, of course, a quotation from someone famous to wrap:

Because after all, as Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Except much longer. You’re welcome.

Once in a while, someone makes news by violating the tacit agreement that speeches need to stay positive, like last year’s “You are not special. You are not exceptional” speech by David McCullough.     But a commencement speech seems to me an inopportune time to lay too much on the caps of the newly minted graduates.

For me, the problem may be, as usual for Hourman, time.  We keep thinking of commencement as  “the ceremony of conferring degrees or granting diplomas at the end of the academic year.”  

But it’s easy to forget that commencement means beginning.  Not end.

Commencement has turned into a phantonym, one of those words like inflammable that means one thing but seems to mean its opposite. Of course, we want to mark the end of college, the completion of the degree, even though many students have expressed some ambivalence about the ceremony when they know that they’re set to start graduate school almost immediately after finishing college.[iii]

So for many students, it’s not an end at all.  But is it a beginning?  What is it the beginning of, exactly?   For cynics who think that school is not real life, ending the year means entering the real world. But that never seemed right to me, given how much real life so many students have already experienced.  It’s not entering adulthood, which in many ways has also already begun for them, even as many people don’t see college graduation as the mark of official adulthood anyway, preferring marriage, or children, or, in my case, the purchase of real estate, which seemed more difficult to get out of than either of the others.

So let’s have two cheers for commencement, even commencement speeches.  We need to impose all sorts of beginning and endings to portion our time: day and night, even though they start at different times for different people in different parts of the world and year; the year itself, although it too is an arbitrary marker; the seasons, although they are cyclical and, this year, totally inconsistent.  We want to imagine that time, like the seasons, is consistent and linear—time flies like an arrow[iv], straight and in a single direction, when the way time and life[v] feel is more amorphous, scarily circular, or even sometimes unchanging, so that once in a while I’m surprised to see my older-than-24-year-old face uncannily staring back at me in the mirror. 

Without the decorative sign posts and pit stops—our commencements to celebrate what we would love to think of as the beginning of post-collegiate life, or the end of pre-collegiate life; the candles taking up more room on the cake each year; a wedding and subsequent anniversaries—life becomes a series of one damned thing after another.  A grim death march.  No wonder we’re implored in commencement speeches to see life as about the journey and not the destination.  We don’t want to go there.

Because in the beginning, and in the end, there is only one real beginning, and one ending, and we can’t remember either one of them.  Let’s celebrate the rituals we have, not in spite of the clichés, but because of them.  The speeches are trite, but maybe they’re the right ones for the occasion. And maybe, ideally, they even contain some truths.  Unlike Kurt Vonnegut’s sunscreen speech, which he didn’t write and wasn’t ever a real speech.   Unlike Gandhi’s famous quotation, which he never said.

graduation-caps

 

Time: 65 minutes. Wasted too much looking for links.


[i] Being that I have attended thirteen graduation ceremonies that I can remember, I believe I’m in some position to evaluate them.

[ii] This one is anaphora, about the most basic.

[iii] I didn’t attend my MA ceremony for that reason. Then I didn’t attend my PhD ceremony for a different reason.

[iv] But fruit flies like a banana.

[v] Not the magazines.

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Reflections on Glass

I did this

I did this

I smashed my glass back door last week, a casualty of a drive-by pebble kicked up while weed whacking.  It wasn’t a dramatic shattering, Batman careening through a skylight—just a tap, a ping, and then the fracture spread.  I couldn’t see the ripples, but every time I looked it was wider and wider and more diffused, and I could hear it, tic-tic-tic-tic-tic, like the ominous soundtrack of children standing on thin ice.  It took at least twenty-four hours for the tempered glass to completely web over. 

I called the glass company with the best slogan: We Fix Your Panes.  Yes.  That is what I want. And I couldn’t help but think of all of the glass and mirror metaphors we live by, because we literally and figuratively see ourselves in our glass. (And our glasses, but that’s for another post.)  People who live in glass houses should not throw stones, or maybe we just need to be more careful about rocks lying near lawn tools and windows.  

Yet the resulting door looked, to me, deliberate, and beautiful.  We take transparency for granted, imagining that glass lets our sight out and light in without calling any attention to itself, an invisible shield against the outside.  We can be indoors but not see the door itself; instead, we think we see the world as it is.  The cracks made me see the window rather than through it, bringing the difference between insides and outsides into sharp relief. Not just through the looking glass, but at looking the glass. 

It has been over a week now and I’m still waiting for the replacement window to arrive, but I’m in no rush anyway. I find myself looking at and out the broken glass more than any of the others in the house.  I’m glad that I can’t see right through it, and that, unlike the other three adjacent glass doors, it does not reflect back on me in the same way anymore.  I prefer for mirrors to be mirrors and glass to be glass. And as any car’s side mirror will tell you, Objects in Mirror are Closer Than They Appear.  It’s less a warning to drivers than a snippet of found poetry, an accidental koan.  We rely on reflections to represent reality, when in reality they are only reflections.  

objects in mirror

I just finished creating and teaching a new class, a first-year general education Western Civilization class on the topic of Hell in literature.  And images of, and in, mirrors were a recurring theme, including Sartre’s No Exit, where hell is not just, famously, “other people,” but also a gaudy hotel room strangely devoid of mirrors.  The three trapped characters can see only each other, never themselves.  As they did not reflect on their actions in life, so they are denied the same in death. They can only see one another and are controlled by each other’s powerful gazes. 

Less famously but more elaborately, Gloria Naylor (who also wrote Women of Brewster Place) has a novel called Linden Hills, modeled on Dante’s Inferno (which we also read). Again, mirrors seem to follow characters everywhere, here as a way to force these still-living people (Linden Hills is a more of a hell-on-Earth allegory than a straightforward vision of punishment in the afterlife) to ponder what part of themselves—referred to as the mirror in their soul—they are willing to barter in exchange for greater material success. 

The book holds on to the possibility that  reflections can be truthful—“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” etc.  But I don’t believe they ever can be.  Teachers use the word “reflection” to describe a particular kind of writing assignment, one that asks for thought, retrospection, and maybe a little personal soul searching.  Dracula does not appear in a mirror, presumably because he has no soul, but also because he is not capable of this kind of human reflection: rumination, remorse, regret for his centuries of crimes. He cannot do anything differently.

But we need to be mindful of the problems of reflection as well: they can be fragmented, like my door; unflattering, like in a bathroom, or too kind, like in a department store; like the car’s mirror, dangerously close, or not close enough.  And even the best reflections are really reversals: not the way things are, but their opposite. 

Narcissus was never in love with himself; he was in love with his reflection.  In the end, the only person in the world that you can never see is yourself. 

And now, I need to call the glass company again. It has been longer than 4-6 days, and I my panes are still not fixed.

Jurassic Park mirror

Time: a ten minute rough draft yesterday and forty six minutes just now.

Hourman note: Thanks to the WordPress world and all my new Followers.  I hope you like what you’re reading. It’s because of you that I’m feeling motivated to get back to writing the blog on a regular basis.

Jesse Kavadlo

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Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Nightlight

Warning: may not be safe for children's emotional health

Warning: may not be safe for children’s emotional health

My son Dorian’s nightlight broke.  It was, I eulogized to him, truly an exceptional nightlight: its bulb was surrounded by blue glitter suspended in liquid-filled glass, its warmth combining the cool of a snow globe and the heat of a lava lamp.  It had comforted him against the darkness for several months, a talisman against invisible monsters.  But then I noticed that it was dripping—dripping directly into its electrical outlet, reminding me once again how companies routinely market the most gorgeous garbage imaginable.  To Dorian, freshly five years old, the nightlight was a sacrosanct promise of protection and a new day.  To me, it was an invitingly colored leaky cauldron of antifreeze plugged into a live socket next to my child’s bed, presenting any number of fatal opportunities.  It, obviously, had to go.  But Dorian’s tears flowed more freely than even his sodden nightlight’s, and no hugs, no kisses, and no declarations of replacement could console him.  The immediate substitute was a poor understudy.  Its ordinary plastic, inattentively embellished with the obligatory stars and crescents, only underscored the original’s brilliance.  Dorian lobbed thick sobs into his pillow and the night, the din punctuated only by the pregnant silences of lungs reloading.

Finally, my wife, Aura, managed to comfort Dorian by telling him a story: the tale of his older brother Jonah’s lost balloon.  Again, it was not just any balloon: it was a silver helium balloon in the shape of a diving dolphin.  We bought it at a parade when he was two, and he was so happy with it that he wanted desperately to hold the string himself rather than tie it to his wrist.  The ending was inevitable: he accidentally let go.  I ran after it, crossing the parade to chase it, and when it eluded me by mere inches, I heard the crowd gasp.  I didn’t mean to upstage the festivities, but it was clear that the brief saga of a father’s failed rescue of his son’s balloon captured the tragic mythos of parenting better than the semi-cacophony of a high school marching band.  We helplessly watched it float away, growing smaller and smaller.  Jonah cried for days.

But Dorian stopped crying.  And then he asked for more sad stories.  And so they came: about Aura’s butterfly ring, her only special possession in a Bronx working-class rental unit childhood devoid of house and car, to say nothing of fairy princess tea parties.  The ring was lost for days, despite frantic search and rescue efforts, until she accidentally found it, broken underfoot, while her friend Lauren was over.  Aura cried so much that Lauren, nonplussed, had to be sent home. 

And then more: about the time I threatened to pop my younger brother’s balloon and he, my brother, popped it himself to prevent me from popping it, and how I, not he, mourned.  About how the very same thing happened again, this time over a record we were arguing over that he then broke to prevent me from having.  About the tragic sunglasses trilogy: the ones I dropped while riding my bike, and how a car ran them over, and my futile effort to retrieve the shattered pieces and flattened frame.  About another pair lost on a water flume ride at Six Flags.  And another forgotten in a restaurant and how I stubbornly didn’t go back for them.  (I have only recently permited myself sunglasses again.)  One hour and a dozen dead treasures later, Dorian was asleep.  The next night, he was fine. 

Even at five, Dorian saw the horror in his loss.  More than a beacon, certainly more than a way to avoid tripping on the way to the bathroom, a nightlight is a surrogate parent: even after Mommy and Daddy tuck the boys in and go downstairs to do nighttime grown up things (read: eat ice cream), the nightlight, ever vigilant, ever loyal, remains on guard.  How could something so precious bleed?  How could it die?  Yet it could happen even to a nightlight, a sign of childhood but a symbol of life.  It could happen to a balloon, so much like a living thing, yet its membranes are even more fragile, its lifespan even shorter, yet its nature even more recklessly fugitive.  It could even happen to a butterfly ring, emblem of metamorphosis, of the wishful childhood change from ugly and earthbound to beautiful and free, to fly away, not rashly like a balloon, but with color and panache, transformed and brilliant.  If a nightlight can go out, if a suicidal balloon can abandon its young caretaker, if a ring can be broken, if sunglasses can repeatedly fall by the wayside, where does that leave us, aside from lying alone in the dark, balloonlessly, with no sunglasses?  If a nightlight can go out, then anything can.  Dorian may not have had the words for it, but he experienced his first intimations of mortality.  Everyone’s nightlight goes out.  It is, in the end, the very dread that leads many an adult to lie in bed awake well into the night, or to keep a small light on, just in case.  Parents included.          

FIN

FIN

 Time: another explanation. I wrote this a few years ago before I started blogging and timing myself, but with the attention WordPress gave me by Freshly Pressing Transference, my last entry, I wanted to follow up quickly with something in the same vein that I’ve never posted. Thanks to the WordPress editors and all of the new readers who found me.  So maybe now is not the time to continue my 2013 hiatus.

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