Monday, June 8, 2009

A Graduation Hyku

More photos to come upon my next trip to Mansfield, and subsequent interrogation of my mother's hard drive..

Fifteen-minute speech.
Teachers, parents, friends, new grads,
Sweet Vindication.

Vindication of a kind: On the eve of my 40th birthday, I was asked to give the keynote address at my high-school's commencement ceremony. Now, the graduation address should never really be about the speaker--it should be about the message. As a career show-off, the first half of the above equation is unnatural to me--think of the fox, ignoring the unlocked henhouse or Brer Rabbit, of his own volition, circumnavigating the briar patch. I will be honest: I revelled in my one-day trip to VIP land like a hound dog might rapturously roll upon the carcass of an expired possum... but I tried not to let it show.

Friends, it's a neat trick to love the spotlight and yet be humble about it. This past weekend, in terms of humility, I think I made it about half-way.

I've loved speechifying over the years, and I've been fortunate in my opportunities: four or five wedding toasts, on-air radio hosting, pre-performance announcements from the backstage mic. Whenever I sit at a meal with more than four other diners, I have an urge to stand and speak.

But an honest-to-garsh address? Like the Gettysburg? Only two. The first was my ill-fated yet courageous bid for the Student Council presidency at Mansfield High School in 1986. I was serious. Deadly serious. After all, I had spent the last several years cultivating a reputation as a radical, talking back to Right-wing History teachers, looking down my nose at organized religion, pushing Darwinism at every opportunity. I tried to talk about student power. I sweated. My opponent, Mary Francis Murphy, an affable and pint-sized elfin kid with a megawatt smile, scored several laughs in her speech and beat me in a landslide. If memory serves, my ticket received 40-some votes, and I'd like to think I picked up a few with that speech, but Mary's base--unshakably built by years and years in the popular crowd, to say nothing of the powerful MHS Catholic voting bloc--was overwhelming, and my political career crashed and burned in its small-town infancy.

But already, this posting is becoming too much about me, moi, your author. So I'll try and shift gears and speak to the experience.

It was a scrumptious slice of American Pie, this Saturday. A feel-good extravaganza. Humbling, yes. Larger than oneself--definitely. Picture perfect, really. Weather from the gods. A classy venue in the auditorium at Straughn Hall, still crisp from renovations completed in 2002. A small yet emphatic band ensemble. Nearly 70 blue-and-gold clad seniors, their beaming families. A class president whose multi-song cycle included a damn fine Star-Spangled Banner, unison and a capella with three other young women. (Not an easy anthem. Just try it in front of a mirror, let alone in front of 700-800 neighbors.) Several of my dear friends, classmates all, from 22 years back. My mom and dad; my Aunt Beth. Two graduates who were children of my classmates Amy Bates Bolt and Julie Bradley. The principal, Denise Drabick, brought a brassy enthusiasm to the proceedings, and I saw the tears roll down her cheeks a number of times, as she sat beside me, onstage.

Amy Bolt--transportation professional extraordinaire and den mother to the entire borough-- and her family threw a lavish affair at the Mainsburg Smith Memorial Park, afterwards: Tasty eats, a disc jockey whose only fault was a lack of Stevie Wonder, lemonade, blond children everywhere, cake. Classmate Kim Bowen riding herd on the hotplates. A cameo appearance by Sandy Robson and adorable daughter. Rob and Lori Cooper's equally adorable and highly mobile children, romping with the neigborhood beagle.
Photo: Amy Bates Bolt and the stalwart Jason Bowen--since 7th grade these two were my personal alpha and omega--Amy nearly always sat directly in front of me, and Jason nearly always sat behind me.

Later, an evening of suds and laughter at Mansfield's newest pub, "Chango's." You know those groovy university-town bars with interesting lighting, exposed brick walls and thoughtful acoustic troubadours? Mansfield now sports its own textbook example. When you're in town and you're of the mind, you ought to go (or 10 West coffee house, for our tea-totaller brothers and sisters). As dusk turned to night, Adrienne Sanford, Lokeri Wood, Gigi Welch all brought the party to better, boisterous heights.

Back to Straughn, however. For those of you who read my great friend Jonathan Uffelman's write-up on Facebook --, I quite agree with him about the student speeches: they were terrific. In fact, I think pound for pound, salutatorian Tim Berguson's speech showed us all up, at least from where I sat. His was the most succinct; his words showed powerful insights. Plus, he's just a really charming, talented fellow--for the old-school Mansfieldians among us, think Tom Willner and Jeff Farrell wrapped up in big batch of Jerry McDonald. Look for young Mr. Berguson as a first-term Congressman in about ten years. Maybe sooner.

Valedictorian and National Merit Scholar Dinesh Ramasamy was clearly the one who cornered the market on humility, however; he missed only four questions on the SAT and reputedly tested in the genius range as early as second grade, but he's a completely unassuming young man. Minutes before we processed down the aisle, I handed him my revised intro text (for he was charged with introducing the keynote speaker) and he calmly looked it over, double-checked the pronunciation of Verdi's Nabucco and carried on. I knew after speaking with him for 30 seconds that he was slam-dunk. He's Ivy League bound (U. of Penn), and plans on going into business. Look for him to unseat Steve Jobs, or fund a groundbreaking cancer research device.

And so these two gifted young men kept the bar quite high, and what a treat to join them on this ceremonial high-jump--to share a bit of what's become clear to me over the years. There was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to preach, but in the end, I didn't want to overtly politicize--hijack if you will--their graduation. i.e. I was wary of talking down to people, for I've surely been guilty of that in my lifetime! So I did my best to concentrate on just one or two key ideas. I tried to "show" and not "tell." I did my best to make them think.

The message (s) I settled on?: Laugh whenever possible (although I didn't specifically say that); Read as much of the good stuff as possible (although I didn't specifically tell them what to read); Be open to possibility. Shake what your mamma gave you. Reach for the heavens. Love where you came from.

Well, the speech should speak for itself. And so, by popular demand, a mostly accurate account of Saturday's keynote address.*

* Verbatim transcript unavaiable until release of official MHS DVD..

Good Morning. I'd like to start off today by acknowledging that today is the anniversary of D-Day. Sixty-five years ago this morning, they were storming the beaches at Normandy, and beginning the liberation of Europe. And I'm wondering if there are any veterans here today, and I think we ought to give them a round of applause...

Friends, Families, and MHS Class 2009

When I say Mansfield, you say Tigers, (yells) Mansfield!

ok -- Just had to get that out of the way. It's fun to be a cheerleader. I'd like to kick things off today by recognizing some of my former teachers, who are still fighting the good fight these 22 years, after I sat where you're sitting today. Please join me in saying hello to Mr. Detar, who taught PE and who, among others, taught me to drive; to John Horning, who taught English and who, among others, taught me how to tell a story; and Barry Lauver, who I understand just retired yesterday after 32 years, and who taught Earth and space Science, and who, among others, taught me I sometimes need to watch my mouth.. --- Seriously -- show of hands... who else got thrown out of class by Mr. Lauver? Anyone? (to a male graduate) You're in good company, Sir! (To Mr. Lauver) Trust me, I needed it at the time, and I still appreciate it now.

But seriously, folks...
I'm absolutely thrilled and honored to have the opportunity to speak here today. It appears that you all, all 69 of you, are ready to begin the rest of your lives, lives that have a new lustre, a renewed sense of earned legitimacy on this 6th day of the 6th month, here in Straughn Auditorium, Mansfield University, Tioga County, Pennsylvania, the United States of America, the Northern Hemisphere, Planet Earth, The Solar System, The Milky Way.

I'll stop there—with thanks due to one of our Great Americans, Thorton Wilder, who gave us such a return address in his classic American play, Our Town—because that's about as large as I think we need to get today, a day on which I believe it's appropriate to talk about hopes and dreams.

The farthest we humans have managed to physically fling our hopes and dreams is a little over 109 Astronomical Units from this podium, or 109 distances from Earth to the Sun, call it about 10.1 billion miles. They rest, our hopes and dreams, in an 1600-pound spacecraft called Voyager I, which is still out there right now, nearly 32 years after its launch, chugging along at about 10 ½ miles per second, outside the very edges of our Solar system. On it—and its sister craft Voyager II—there's a 12" gold-plated copper disc, a cartridge and a needle. Your parents may have some of this technology kicking around the house—I brought one today as a visual aid……(brandishes LP album) That's Bob Dylan, another troublemaker!

So on this Interstellar 12" single, we encoded images and sounds from life on planet Earth, music from around the globe, and spoken greetings in 55 languages, and the amazing thing is that they really threw this together in a few months, in the summer of 1977. I had just turned 8. My own son will be 9 in two days, and you are now graduating from high school.

The fellow NASA put in charge of compressing Earth culture into an LP, was another Great American, Dr. Carl Sagan, an astronomer, cosmologist and author, who hung out just up the road, in Ithaca, NY. He had this great idea that he would simply invade the United Nations recording studio for two days, and the UN delegates would cooperate and troop in every 15 minutes, and record a greeting in their home language, and go back to work. Well, it didn't quite work out that way. The American Delegation said, "Yeah.... we can't quite do that without approval, you're gonna have to go to the State Department"; and other delegations came up with pages and pages of text, when what Dr. Carl Sagan had room for was about 10 or 12 seconds per language, and not every language on Earth mind you, which number about 3000-5000 depending on who you ask, only 55, because that was the number they could fit, along with the pictures and music and sounds, on this soon-to-be far flung Galactic Grammy Award.

It turns out that one needs at least a month to get even two delegations at the UN to agree on lunch. Meanwhile the clock was ticking on the launch pad at Cape Canaveral.

So what did Carl do? He said, "OK"—and let the UN guys (who happened to be in town that week) spout off as much as they felt they had to, cut the recordings down to a few lines each, and then came home to Ithaca and again said, "OK....We struck out on X, Y, and Z languages at the UN, so let's just pick up the phone and call some people."

And so they did. The upshot is, that if you spoke, say, Farsi, which is one of the major languages in Iran, and you lived in Ithaca, connected with Cornell, or Ithaca College, or maybe you're just Persian and you live in Ithaca, that happens too—your phone rang one Tuesday afternoon, one of Carl's grad assistant said, um Hi--we'd like you to drive over here, preferably today, and record a greeting to aliens, in Farsi, that we're going to shoot off into space in a few weeks. Are you available? And you would hopefully say, um, Sure—But I have to pick my kid up at preschool first, and they'd say no problem, and when you got there, you said, ok, what should I say to the aliens, and they said, um---Whatever you'd like, just keep it brief.....

And in some cases, that’s about how it went down-—that is how certain messages to the stars were selected. Here’s a small sampling of what was recorded, just up the road, in Ithaca, that summer, and is even as we speak, winging its way into deep space—and mind you, these are just folks, like you and I. Not government officials, not Rush, not Jon Stewart.

The person speaking Greek said "Greetings to you, whoever you are. We come in friendship to those who are friends."

The person speaking Mandarin said "Hope everyone's well. We are thinking about all of you. Please come here to visit us when you have time."

And my favorite, the Swedish speaker said "Greetings from a computer programmer in the little university town of Ithaca, on the planet Earth."

I suppose the point to remember here – is that things happen—things on a local, or national or global or galactic scale—Sometimes wonderful things happen in a beautifully chaotic and haphazard way. A butterfly flaps its wings in Switzerland, and you fall off your bike in Wellsboro... or The phone rings in Ithaca, and 22 years later, what sprang into your head in a recording studio is still cruising the heavens.

And that's why I believe it’s of vital importance, in this life, to say Yes -- say yes when opportunity knocks. Say yes when a friend needs you to help him move. Say yes when you ask for a hamburger and the server says, Well, all we have right now is bison... is that ok?

Here's what happens when you say yes: in 1982 or 3, I auditioned for the MHS musical They're Playing Our Song. My best friend, and MHS class of ’87 Salutatorian Jonathan Uffelman, who's here today, scored a role in the three-man chorus. Me? Not so much. I was very disappointed, but they needed someone to run lights. And so I said yes.

Later, in 1987 when I was cast in a musical, on this stage, and they said "Hey, you want to hang some lights?" and I said "Yes" --- Well, the guy who asked me that question just happened to be Sean Fox, and Sean Fox is now the head carpenter at Radio City Music Hall, in New York City, which means, that three or four times a year, the phone rings, and I get to work in one of the coolest venues in the country, all because I said yes to climbing a cherry picker and hanging that box boom position (gestures to House Right Box Boom) right over there.

Saying No is aother matter. Saying No is a one-way street. Nope. Not gonna do that. Not comfortable with that -- yeah, pretty much don't know about that.... hummmmmm Never saw that before....

But saying Yes --- opens you right up. Yes. Yes, I think I can do that. Yes, I'm willing to try, even though I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about. Yes ---I will help you. Yes, I will make this happen. When you get accustomed to saying Yes, your phone rings. (Andrew's cell phone rings, Principal Drabick intervenes and takes it away) I hear there's a lot of that going on these days... (this is an inside joke for the students, whose cellphone privileges were revoked at MHS for the second half of the year)

But I digresss ---- back to hopes and dreams, and Voyager I, for in that 5-minute tangent I just took, that intrepid hunk of SMART-car—sized space steel has just zipped an additional 3,150 miles into the Cosmos.

You can read the fascinating story of putting together the rest of that LP in the summer of 1977, in a book called Murmurs of Earth, which is out of print, but you can probably find on the Internet, (produces copy of book from podium, and brandishes to audience)or better yet, walk to an actual library, with actual books and actual human beings who can help you, like my Aunt Beth, who’s here today and who works up the hill at North Hall; or my mother, who’s here today and worked in the library at the University of Chicago, when she was a student there, or my grandmother, who's not here today, she's in Ft. Wayne, and she's 90, and who was a librarian, too; or Dave Greer, who was the librarian at MHS a long time ago in a galaxy just down the street.

Reading, incidentally, is also of vital importance in this life, no matter if you're off to college, or off to serve the country in the armed forces, or staying on the family farm, or not sure what direction to turn. It’s OK not to know. Put down the cell phones and open up a book. Let your hopes and dreams flourish there. And read the good stuff. Read the stuff that makes you think, because the other guys are just trying to sell you something, and it's usually not good.

And since it isn't every day that one gets to address a fine crop of MHS graduates, I would be remiss if I didn’t pass this along, too: Wear your seatbelts. Know who's driving and what condition they're in, and for God’s sake, don’t let them text! Wear your helmets. Life is short. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but, tragically, several of my classmates have already died young, to sickness and accident.

But today is not a day to dwell on tragedy. You know what? It gives me great pleasure to tell you this, too: I love Mansfield, Pennsylvania. Yes? You too? (enthusiasm from senior class) Another little university town. Good -- now leave! Go and travel!!! Do it now! This is the time to go and see the world, and be proud of where you came from. I haven't lived in Mansfield in 22 years, but I love coming back, and I'm proud to say that there are no fewer than six of my classmates who turned up today to see you guys graduate. There's something very special about traveling from kindergarten to 12th grade with the same people, and city folk? City folk do not understand that in the way that you do, so you're one up on them already. Get out now, while you can, and show the world how cool it is to have the first day of deer season off from school! Show the world what it means to come from a American town with one stop light. Read your grouse hunting magazines on the New York Subway –- you will stand out, and that will make you outstanding! Then come back -- you'll have an even greater appreciation for the Endless Mountains, for homegrown vegetables, for your families, for Mansfield Jr.-Sr. High School.

I have three brief readings I’d like to close with today:

The first is a quote from Samuel Clemens, another Great American, who hung out just up the road in Elmira, NY. You may also know him as Mark Twain, the creator of Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and countless others. Twain said:

Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.

The Second reading is a poem, actually. I would advise you, after you’ve buckled your seat belt, to pay close attention to the poets of the world. They usually misbehave in interesting ways, and say the things that need to be said.

Here’s a snippet from Baudelaire, a 19th-Century French poet whose most provocative work was banned in his own country until the late 1940s. We are not reading those poems today; that, you can do on your own time. Rather, here are two stanzas of a poem entitled “Elevation” that someone at the UN, in 1977, chose for immortality aboard Voyager I:

Above the lakes, above the vales,
The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas,
Beyond the sun, beyond the ether,
Beyond the confines of the starry spheres,

My soul, you move with ease,
And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave
You wing your way blithely through boundless space
With virile joy unspeakable.

I saved the best for last. Did anyone wonder what the English greeting is on Voyager I? It was spoken by Carl Sagan’s six-year-old son Nick, who simply said “Hello from the children of the planet Earth.” Nick Sagan is now a screenwriter and a science-fiction novelist, and I sent an e-mail to his Web site early Friday morning, telling him about my ideas for this speech and asking if he had any message he’d like you all to hear. I wrote him as a practitioner of zany optimistism. I wrote him, because I thought he’d say “Yes!”

And here’s what he wrote, just for you, today:

Maybe someday Voyager will be discovered by an extraterrestrial civilization. I hope that it is. But even if it isn’t, what an amazing accomplishment the Golden Record is. Here in upstate New York, the Voyager team was able to articulate an inspiring vision of who we are and what life is like on planet Earth and send it out to the stars. Right now, it’s the farthest human-made object in the cosmos. To me it signifies that we can work together and go to real places normally left for dreams. May you have the courage and the passion to pursue your dreams and arrive proudly wherever you want to go.

MHS class of 2009, you embody the hopes and dreams of everyone here—you are all our Voyagers. Your families are proud of you, your teachers are proud of you. I am honored to say to you on this day, Congratulations, Good Luck and god bless!!!! Thank you.


  1. Bravo. Even better than the speech itself (which, as I've written was damn fine to begin with).

  2. Surprised to see/hear myself mentioned in your commencement speech. It has been relayed to me from several directions. It was appropriate to describe that "library experience" as being from another galaxy but indeed it was a long long time ago, but only yesterday

    Dave Greer

  3. Mr. Greer! Hey great to hear from you. Yes -- it was only yesterday, wasn't it?

    The whole library thread... I think I have come to appreciate them more and more, with each "improvement" that Microsoft and Apple roll out. With all the people nattering away on their phones--commuter trains, restaurants, movie theatres, their cars... libraries have emerged as one of the few oases where silence is still a treasured thing.

  4. You should not be so surprised to hear yourself referenced, Mr. Greer. Your off-beat sense of humor was a highlight of our MHS experience.

  5. About you:

    Andrew, actually, you are a writer who stagehands. Thanks for reminding me to say yes!

  6. The question has been running through my mind the last few days, however: what, exactly, was vindicated? Surely no one ever said to you "Ah, ya worthless bum, YOU'LL never give the keynote address at MHS!!"

    Or did they...

  7. Well, I think that's topic that deserves more space than we have here, but suffice to say that any return to one's high school as the featured speaker is a vindication on some level!