25 May A WORD TO THE GRADUATES
On June 18th I’m giving the commencement address at my old high school. They’re located twenty minutes outside of Washington, D.C. They’ve got access to museum docents, Senators, Congressmen, political reporters and The Greaseman. But despite this deep pool of wisdom to draw from, they thought, “Let’s get that fat dude who tells dick jokes to drunks.”
I am truly flattered.
I’ve been knocking around what I’m going to say. I mean, I’m 39 years old. I’m lucky enough to count people like Michael Penn, Harlan Ellison and Carl Gottlieb as friends. These are people with true, hard-won wisdom slung from their gun belts. I’m armed with the equivalent of a cheap, Turkish Taser.
My wife, who’s a year younger and eons smarter than me, found a transcription of David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, which he made on May 21st, 2005 at Kenyon College.
I’m not going to reproduce it here; you can easily find it online. I’ve printed up a copy, and I carry it with me.
I’m suspicious of the phrase “life changing”. I think people are a little too loose with that term. People like me. I used to be so aggressive about epiphanies, that I’d chase down the false, glittery ones and strangle ’em, while the true, shabbily-dressed spiritual kicks-in-the-head crept away in the background.
I did manage to trip over and fall into a few true ones, and I keep them close. Ross McElwee’s film Sherman’s March, as well as Hirokazu Koreeda’s Afterlife. Stories like Harlan Ellison’s “The Deathbird”, John Collier’s “The Chaser” and Wilbur Daniel Steele’s “How Beautiful With Shoes”. That week in the summer of 1991 when I first opened for Bill Hicks at Charlie Goodnight’s. My first, disastrous set at the Holy City Zoo in the summer of 1992. Van Gogh’s The Night Cafe. The Wire. Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model. Erik Satie’s Gymnopedes. My first meal at Aquavit in New York. Galway Harbour.
But David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech has truly changed me. I think about it every day. Like Bernstein thinking of the girl on the ferry in Citizen Kane. It’s changed me for the better.
I don’t want to get too rapturous, since it’s also caused a heap of panic and worry in me. Couldn’t my wife have found the goddamn thing AFTER the speech I have to give?
“You have a guitar recital next week? Good for you! Hey, have you ever heard anything by Jimi Hendrix?”
Here’s my rough draft, so far:
“Students and faculty of Broad Run High School, I greet you. I have been on television and in movies and been driven around in a limo and I have ‘Weird’ Al Yankovic on speed dial, so what I say is smart and helpful. You will listen now.
When you go out into the world as an adult, the first thing you must do is find the biggest, meanest adult and either punch him unconscious or stab him. In front of everyone. This will establish dominance and prevent you from being ‘punked out’, which you should have learned about in either calculus or AP English.
Having done this, you will be free to carve out your own destiny, a violent new map whose borders will be your blood and whose continents will be the ivory dust of your foes’ powdered skulls. You might think you’re working quietly at some cubicle in a Fairfax office park but I assure you, that cubicle is a raging necropolis where bony phantom hands reach through the tear-soaked carpeting to peel your soul into ribbons. Fashion a spiked club from a broom handle and a golf cleat and wade into the tomb-legions like a rebuking finger of righteousness.
You must also take a mate. Men, find a woman who is broad of hip, thick of calf and who possesses unctuous, swaying paps with which to feed your warrior-spawn, to strengthen them for the coming bone-storm. Women, should your man be of spavined chest and womanly fetlock, smother him on his fainting-couch, and use his rib cage to build a lantern, his fat as candle tallow, and his ligaments as a wick. Leave that lantern burning outside your door, to attract a lone wanderer, whose murder-mask and pelvic-cracking back muscles will assure you a brood of myrmidons.
Parents and faculty! Prostrate yourselves under the war-wheel that is this new generation, and let what few drops of life are left in your wasted, fly-blown hopes and dreams grease the engines of the future!
Seven faces in the jungle! The statue that walks! Who peers from out the shunned house?! An archway of bone! The skin on the old man’s kettle drum has a face! The sleeper awakes! Amok! Amok!
(Patton tears off his robe, revealing himself to be naked, and wearing only a waist-belt studded with inward-facing nails. He tries to flee from the stage but a wound-like rift shudders open in the air beside him, and a monstrous, child-hand with eyes for fingernails reaches out and pulls him into the howling portal. Atonal piping music can be heard, then an ancient laugh, and the portal is gone.
The graduates throw their mortarboards into the air)