Friday, June 17, 2011

My Graduation Speech to America’s Youth

(Setting: A podium at a decently respectable school, though its reputation is perhaps not what it once was. Your humble author, me, stands at the lectern, staring out at a sea of shiny, fresh-scrubbed faces. They asked for my worldly wisdom on this, their graduation day. They got it. I clear my throat and commence the commencement.)

Don’t wear sunscreen. Or at least take it easy until the EPA sorts out which ones give you cancer.

As you graduates finish school and head toward whatever is next, it seems to raise the inevitable temptation from your elders to pass along their questionable wisdom. Like me. Right now.

I don’t have much wisdom to share, my career path is more crooked than a gerrymandered Congressional district.

But I do feel that the recent controversy over sunscreen provides some food for thought.

It seems like every few years much of our received wisdom is proven useless, obsolete or ridiculous. I talk about sunscreen because about 15 years ago it was alleged Kurt Vonnegut (he was a great writer, if you haven’t read him yet, please do so) wrote a commemoration speech where his first instruction, famously, was “wear sunscreen.” He then spun other words of wisdom to his young listeners, though he would periodically tell them, again, to wear sunscreen.

Well, the entire thing was a hoax. Vonnegut never wrote those words. And now it turns out the central refrain of the entire thing is also phony.

What are some other pieces of hand-me-down wisdom we’ve seen brutally dispelled in the past decade? I can list a few.

1. God ain’t making any more land: Used as an inducement to buy into the real estate bubble, this may actually, literally be true. But even if god ain’t making more land he sure seems to have a near endless appetite for McMansions that nobody needs or wants. The lesson here? Don’t buy something because somebody else told you something about god, I guess.

2. People will pay for quality content online: Due to the rise of the Internet the value of the written word, and writers, has been slashed more than Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween 1, 2 and that new one that just came out a few years ago. This tells me that while we have a market of ideas it is a market. And markets behave in ways that are hard to predict long term. The other lesson, I guess, is that, by and large, being a writer actually kind of sucks a little.

3. The Internet is unbelievably cool; ergo tech stocks are always cool too: Tell that to anyone who bought shares in,, or any of the million other now-forgotten tech stocks that went blammo. The lesson? By the time we learn about something cool it's almost certainly not really cool anymore.

4. We would never enter a war based entirely on lies: It’s long been whispered FDR knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and let it happen to draw us into war. If this is true, and I doubt it is, it still pales in comparison to the Iraq War, which was marketed, and sold completely on unreliable and un-provable assertions, aka lies, about the imminent danger of weapons of mass destruction. Then the lies were sold to us on TV by the highest members of The Bush Administration. The lesson? We are easily led, and make terrible decisions, when we are afraid. Like then voting Bush in a second time.

I could go on, and, believe me, I do. Ask my wife.

(Pause for polite, if predictable, laughs)

But that’s not the point of this speech. What I am trying to get at is the idea that the future, despite all received and conventional wisdom, remains stubbornly unknowable. Today’s truisms can become falsehoods before I’m even done with this sentence. And probably just did.

Knowing this you no longer have any good, logical reason to play it so safe, to do what is expected rather than what you want without even testing your wings on the unknown. Because in 10 years what is as yet unknown could be so commonplace as to become unremarkable, and what is known, and understood to be safe, could become completely discredited. Like banking! Seriously, remember when bankers were merely boring? And then they destroyed our economy. God, how I long for boring!

So take a risk on the unknown, which is really a risk on you. You don’t have to know how the story ends before you start writing the book. Which is something made out of paper that people read before Kindle.

So, thank you for allowing me to speak before you, but I’ve got to go. My broker is calling my iDroid, something about shares on the cheap. He says it’s a bottom.

Oh, and, despite what I said before, yes, wear sunscreen. Just do your own research first instead of trusting me, Kurt Vonnegut, or someone imitating Kurt Vonnegut. I think the EPA’s website is a good place to start. Thank you, I hope you enjoy middle school and let's party!"

(Cheers, mortar boards thrown into the air, somewhere a baby cries from the heat.)

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Everyday I Climb The Hill

The headline of this post is the chorus of a song I wrote called "Everyday."

I wrote the music about a year, or so, ago, when we were in Cape May, NJ. It was a bouncy upbeat sort of thing, acoustic-based, fun. Stella liked it, and usually that means it's pretty good! I remember her dancing around on the porch of our rented beach house. It's a fond memory.

The lyrics came about six months ago when I was, there's no other way to say this, locked into a deep, deep depression. They are as uplifting as I could make them at the time, which was not very. (And some were cribbed from Dylan Thomas: Hey, steal from the best!) Here they are:

Taking the blue pill everyday
Thank god for pharmacology
Keeps the noon-day demons at bay
I didn't use to feel this way

Well I won't go gentle into that good night
I will rage against the dying of the light

Verse 2:
Up the hill the stone I push
Feel a lot like Sisyphus
Falls to the bottom whenever I reach the top
Keep on pushing I can't let myself stop

Well I won't go gentle into that good night
I will rage against the dying of the light (sing 2X)

Everyday I climb the hill
Don't know if I'll get there I don't think I ever will
Didn't use to feel this way
But I'm gonna keep on pushing, keep on climbing everyday

Verse 3:
Brought a child into this world
The bluest eyes you'll ever see
She's my darling sweet little girl
It's no longer just about me

Chorus and out

So that's the song, kind of an upbeat downer when you hear it. When I have a decent recording of it, I'll post it. I like it, although I don't feel like we, the band, Bottle Cap Manifesto, have it 100% down yet. (It's the bridge that's kind of hanging us up.) When we play it live, which we've done a few times now, it doesn't feel as confessional as it reads on the page, but I guess that's the beauty of music, the blues even. Sharing the dark stuff can become positive, or more positive, when its in communion with others, the band, the audience, the universe, the Hindu floaty thing. (The last reference is an inside joke to Randi, and comes from the truly, truly strange documentary "Grizzly Man." If you haven't seen it yet, get it right now. It cannot be described adequately, in its full awesomeness, by me tonight.)

And the sheer repetitive fact of practice makes me less self conscious about the song too. By the 50th time we've played it in practice it no longer feels like reading a diary entry and more like constructing and deconstructing a mechanical object, cutting it down, refining, memorizing the words so I no longer think about them.

But ... the part about Stella gets me every time I sing it. As it should.

And I don't take a blue pill everyday, just so you know. That's what they call poetic license. It's white. :-)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Father's Day Ruminations

Coming on the third Father's Day, which is very cool. I don't have any real plans firmed up yet. We've considered visiting the Muhammad Ali center. And for whatever I have for dinner's main course, I am having a dozen oysters on the half-shell in advance. That's about it for my big plans. I'd like to think it's because I'm low maintenance, and not because I'm lazy.

But I've been thinking about parenting, and being a dad, as I am wont to do, you know.

It's a weird thing. In recent years I've really become judgmental about people, not generally, but in very specific ways. You can be a prick, a blowhard, a jerk, a phony. Generally speaking, unless it impacts me quite directly I don't care. I don't have to have you in my life, or have an opinion on you. In fact, the less I think about you the better off we both are.

But there is one area where I've become kind of a stickler. You can be the world's biggest a-hole to me, but if you have a great relationship with, and are good to, your kids, and they love and admire you I will basically think you're not all bad. In fact, maybe you're okay, just not to me.

Conversely, you can be nice, nice, nice but if your kids think your a shit, I, deep down, don't care for you.

Or maybe you've been a shit to your kids, but they still love you and try with you. That's okay, they can still care for you, but I won't like you.

You almost certainly will never know this. I won't tell you, because it's really not my business, but this is pretty much how I judge people these days.

You can fail in a lot of ways, but if you are good to your kids and love them and they love you back, and mean it, I will say you're a good man.

Conversely, you can be a great success in this world, but if I see you being a bastard to your kids and family I will never trust a word you tell me, no matter how nice you are to me.

I had a boss in Boulder who was a bastard. There's no other word for it. He treated his staff like crap, threatened, harassed and tried to intimidate people. He was belligerent, and a blowhard, and sometimes not all that smart. He told me my predecessor was fired for not doing what he said, on my first day on the job.

Nice guy, right?

But his daughter would walk in, and she loved her daddy. You could tell. And it probably wasn't always easy on them, because this was a broken home.

Okay, to me he was still a bastard, and at times I could have easily imagined strangling him. But then I would think of him, and his daughter and think, well, you know, he sucks but at least he's not all bad. Maybe 95%, but not all.

Conversely there is a guy who is buddy-buddy with my own dad, and he is always friendly, garrulous even.

Then one day, about 16 years ago he was over at our house, selling my parents a car. It was in great condition, and he kept it up well, the motor sparkled. Meticulous.

But, and I don't know what caused it, his wife said something, and I saw him snap. I don't remember what he said/shouted, but his nice-nice face darkened real fast, he lit into her, and I could tell he only wore the mask of a friendly man. No, he was not friendly.

This is how I think of him today, and I've seen him many times since.

The problem is, you don't get to say whether you are a good parent, or a good father. That's not your call in the end. No, only your children can determine that. And it takes a long time to see if what you claimed was your "best" really was.

I hope my best is really my best.

And yes, sometimes kids hate their parents, even though the parent does everything right. And sometimes kids from great, loving homes end up ruins, addicts and disasters.

But mostly it's not that way. Mostly people who travel those dark roads go there because there is an emptiness inside that should have been filled very young by a parent's love. They are looking for something that can't be so easily found in drugs, or food, or booze, or self-hate, but that doesn't mean they're not going to try it anyway. Mostly if kids turn out to be problematic adults you can safely lay the blame at the feet of the child's parent in some way.

So those are my thoughts on Father's Day!

That and I hope I get a tie.