Somewhere in the ever expanding 24/7, selfie festooned, public sphere, the art of declamation has receded. And so it seems the only dependable source of memorable oratory is the annual college commencement ceremony festival .The adulation greeting the the First Lady following her oration at the the Democratic Party’s party apparently sparked a latent and normally unrequited need for intelligent and well spoken public speeches. So rarely are we treated to such a thing that her excitable auditors were called for her beatification. I stand behind no one in my respect and appreciation for the formidable Michelle Obama and the first time I heard her say (2016 CCNY commencement) ,
.I wake up every morning in a house that slaves built
I was stunned.
Speaking of the paucity of memorable oratory David Foster Wallace’s (Infinite Jest) 2004 Kenyon College valedictory set a high bench mark for a sincere smart resonant original
…By way of example, let’s say it’s an average day, and you get up in the morning, go to your challenging job, and you work hard for nine or ten hours, and at the end of the day you’re tired, and you’re stressed out, and all you want is to go home and have a good supper and maybe unwind for a couple of hours and then hit the rack early because you have to get up the next day and do it all again. But then you remember there’s no food at home-you haven’t had time to shop this week, because of your challenging job-and so now after work you have to get in your car and drive to the supermarket. It’s the end of the workday, and the traffic’s very bad, so getting to the store takes way longer than it should, and when you finally get there the supermarket is very crowded, because of course it’s the time of day when all the other people with jobs also try to squeeze in some grocery shopping, and the store’s hideously, fluorescently lit, and infused with soul-killing Muzak or corporate pop, and it’s pretty much the last place you want to be, but you can’t just get in and quickly out. You have to wander all over the huge, overlit store’s crowded aisles to find the stuff you want, and you have to maneuver your junky cart through all these other tired, hurried people with carts, and of course there are also the glacially slow old people and the spacey people and the ADHD kids who all block the aisle and you have to grit your teeth and try to be polite as you ask them to let you by, and eventually, finally, you get all your supper supplies, except now it turns out there aren’t enough checkout lanes open even though it’s the end-of-the-day rush, so the checkout line is incredibly long, which is stupid and infuriating, but you can’t take your fury out on the frantic lady working the register
…I know that this stuff probably doesn’t sound fun and breezy or grandly inspirational. What it is, so far as I can see, is the truth with a whole lot of rhetorical bullshit pared away. Obviously, you can think of it whatever you wish. But please don’t dismiss it as some finger-wagging Dr. Laura sermon. None of this is about morality, or religion, or dogma, or big fancy questions of life after death. The capital-T Truth is about life before death. It is about making it to thirty, or maybe fifty, without wanting to shoot yourself in the head. It is about simple awareness-awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, that we have to keep reminding ourselves, over and over: “This is water, this is water.”
Novelist and MacArthur fellow George Saunders* made his own standout contribution to this growing literary genre at Syracuse in 2013:
Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is: Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).
And I intend to respect that tradition.
Now, one useful thing you can do with an old person, in addition to borrowing money from them, or asking them to do one of their old-time “dances,” so you can watch, while laughing, is ask: “Looking back, what do you regret?” And they’ll tell you. Sometimes, as you know, they’ll tell you even if you haven’t asked. Sometimes, even when you’ve specifically requested they not tell you, they’ll tell you….
Poet /memoirist Mary Karr** begins her 2016 Syracuse declamation:
My goal in high school was to stay out of the penitentiary, so if I can go from there to here, you guys can all be gainfully employed. Yeah, your parents are clapping.
Heartfelt thanks to Chancellor Syverud and the whole Syracuse community, especially our students and their families. You’re all 18 minutes away from my shutting up.
When I told my pal I was getting an honorary doctorate he quipped, ‘Being a doctor who can’t write prescriptions is like being a general in the Salvation Army.’ This made me a few notches less terrified about today.
You start in a scared place and get zip lined somewhere truer.
And some twenty minutes later concludes
…Also, Walt took me to lunch all the time, which then seemed like an incredible luxury to be able to eat in a restaurant. And before I left Minnesota I said to him, how will I ever pay you back for all this?
And he looked surprised. He said, it’s not that linear. You’re not going to pay me back, you’re going to go out there and take somebody else to lunch.
Now, the idea that Walt thought, looking at me at 19 years old, that I would ever make enough money to buy somebody else lunch astonished me.
It is truly the greatest vote of confidence I’d ever received. Walt showed me that a talent for fear could also mask a talent for empathy. For caring about what other people thought.
I hope you remember what Walt says when the world scares you with its barks and bites. May you leave us more curious and more open hearted about your fellow citizens than when you showed up.
Being smart and rich are lucky. But being curious and compassionate will save your ass.
Being curious and compassionate will take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder, a word I inadvertently stole from Chancellor Syverud today.
Now you go out there and buy somebody broker than you lunch.
And not least, is Richard Russo ***(Nobody’s Fool, Empire Falls) whose 2004 address at Colby College included the joyful wisdom that propel his novels
…The question then is this: How does a person keep from living the wrong life? Well, here are Russo’s Rules For A Good Life. Notice that I don’t say “for a happy life.” One of the reasons the novelist Graham Greene despised Americans was that phrase “the pursuit of happiness,” which we hold so dear and which ensured, to his way of thinking, we’d always be an infantile nation. Better to live a good life, he believed, than a happy one. Happily, the two may not always be mutually exclusive. Keep in mind that Russo’s Rules for a Good Life are specifically designed to be jettisoned without regret when they don’t work. They’ve worked for me. Your mileage may vary.
Rule # 1: Search out the kind of work that you would gladly do for free and then get somebody to pay you for it…
Rule # 2: Find a loving mate to share what life has in store, because the world can be a lonely place, and people who aren’t lonely don’t want to hear about it if you are….
Rule # 3: have children… Don’t worry that you can’t afford them, though it’s true, you can’t…
Rule # 4. If you have one, nurture your sense of humor. You’re going to need it, because, as Bob Dylan has observed, “people are crazy, the times are strange.” …
Okay, that’s pretty much it. It’s all I know, and then some. Four simple, deeply flawed rules to live by. Go to it. Be bold. Be true. Be kind. Rotate your tires. Don’t drink so much. There aren’t going to be enough liver transplants to go around.
* My last conversation with George Saunders
** Me and Mary Karr chew the fat
*** One of 5 or 6 conversations I have had with Rick Russo