Sunday, May 14, 2006

Oh, the places you probably won't go

Good afternoon, graduates, near-graduates, parents, step-parents, faculty – tenured and adjunct – caterers, groundskeepers, valet parkers and friends.

I am so honored to speak to the graduating class of aught-six. You came to this university four to eight years ago terrified, pimply, shy, slightly overdressed high school graduates. We have watched you mature into the young adults you have become. Underneath those robes you now sport tramp-stamp tattoos, breast implants, multiple piercings, waxed whatsits and Mystic Tans. You make us so proud.

It would be foolish for me to repeat all those usual commencement speech clichés. You know, all that rosy hooha about the next decade being the best years of your life, about how you should be persistent, about how you should hold onto your dreams and how even a C student can become president of these United States. Except for that last one, it's all bullshit.

The best years of your life are behind you. You will never again have such thin thighs, tight abs, abundant hair, bouncy boobs and unpuffy ankles. That goes for you ladies, too.

Your teeth and eyesight will never be as good. Or your hearing. Listen to your moms. Turn down those iPODs and cellphones or pretty soon you'll be watching "Elimidate" with subtitles.

Never again will your memory – your simple sense of recall – be as sharp as it is right this minute. In 10 years you won’t remember a single day of high school. In 20 college will be one or two random flashes when you get a whiff of pot smoke or hear the dulcet harmonies of “Funky Cold Medina.”

In 30 years you’ll have to think a minute to bring forth the names of your college roommates. In 40 you won’t remember what you majored in. In 50 your memory will be so bad you’ll have to pause to recall your own phone number. If they still have phones in 2056. Shoot, you might have to ask “What was a phone number?”

Yes, the easy years are over. Remember the sick panic you had right before that final paper was due? The galloping anxiety attack when you realized you studied the wrong chapters for the big exam? And remember how you thought that if you could ever, ever get through that one day, the rest of your life would be smooth sailing? Well, one day you’ll look back at how easy those little tasks were.

When you’re facing an IRS audit, bankruptcy, review by a co-op board, review by a new boss… when you’re trying to think just how to tell the person you’ve been living with for five years that you’ve met someone else who doesn’t fart in front of company and doesn’t criticize the way you load the dishwasher … when you’re waiting for the results of a test you took because that little pain in your gut turned out NOT to be an ulcer… when it's 4 a.m. and your 14-year-old kid hasn't come home and the phone rings... you’ll remember your worst moments in college and think, “I’d trade this for those in a New York minute.”

And not to sound too cynical, but that hold onto your dreams thing? The best advice I ever got in college came from an old character actor named Marvin Kaplan. I was a theater major, dreaming of a career on the New York stage, and Mr. Kaplan visited my acting class senior year. As budding thespians, we asked for his advice and here’s what he said:

“Give it up! Quit right now. You’ll never make it. It’s a horrible business. It will kill you. Think of something else to do and go do it tomorrow. I’m sorry I ever got into it. It’s been a miserable, shitty life.”

After he left, the other students dismissed him as a bitter old fool. But I took him seriously. He’d been on Broadway. He’d done movies with big stars. And he’d spoken the truth. And that was the day I gave up my dreams of stardom and decided to become a journalist. That I could do. You didn’t have to sing, dance or memorize Shakespeare to be a reporter. Nobody could turn you down for a newspaper job because you “didn’t look right for the part” or because you weren’t pretty. There are very few pretty print reporters. The pretty ones become TV anchors or go into public relations.

I jettisoned my dream and I’ve never looked back. Twenty-five years of fairly steady paychecks later, I have seen my actor classmates who foolishly held onto their dreams lead lives of noisy desperation. I ran into one of the star actors from my college class the other day. We all thought he’d become the next Kevin Kline. He’s a clerk at Barnes & Noble. He’s divorced – twice-- and lives in a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He rides the bus to work.

Some dreams are stupid. Think of a new dream. One that won’t guarantee years of heartache, poverty and humiliation. A person can only take so much discouragement. Figure out what comes easily to you and that you can stand doing day after day – for me it was writing – and how you can make a decent living doing it. If you make a lot of money, save it. But not all of it. Give some away to people who need it. Take some trips. Buy some stuff. But don't think there will always be more money to be made.

Companies fold. Lay-offs happen. If you get a good new job, do this: Make friends with the one person in the office everyone hates, the one with the worst nickname behind his or her back, the one about whom everyone says, "When he/she leaves, this whole place will improve." Make that person your best friend because in less than a year, he or she will be your boss. (I learned this one the hard way.)

Life is long but careers aren’t anymore. In many professions, sad to say, you’re a has-been at 40. If you haven’t found something you’re good at by the time you hit 30 or 35, you either have to marry money, pull an insurance scam or go into public relations.

Anybody can do public relations.

If you’re headed to graduate school, I say good for you. Do grad school, medical school and law school when you’re young. I waited until my 40s to get a master’s and it was hell. It was more expensive. The professors were burned out and the classes were filled with empty-nesters whose favorite authors are Martha Stewart and Danielle Steel. Finish your education while you have the patience, the time and the support of your parents.

Marry young, too. If you meet someone you can halfway stand and whose breath doesn’t smell like an abattoir, marry him or her. I made the mistake of always thinking someone better would come along. They didn’t. Several men I loved when I was young and had good thighs made the mistake of thinking somebody better than ME would come along. They didn’t.

I’m single at 52, which means I’ve been dating for 36 years. My pool of possible mates now has shrunk to widowers, divorced granddads and … OK, that’s it. Just widowers and divorced granddads. These are men who’ve just discovered a certain little blue pill and think having a four-hour hard-on makes them less paunchy and bald. In Dallas – a city of several million residents – there are seven men in the dating pool for my demographic. And I dated six of them back in the '80s. One of them was married at the time.

As I like to say, “I’ve had a husband… he just wasn’t mine.”

Take it from me, the best years of your life end today. The rest is a big climb up Everest without benefit of sherpas. If you make it to the top, you’ll love the view. And if you don’t, well, to paraphrase Butch Cassidy, the fall will probably kill you, so you won’t know the difference.

Secret of life? Woody Allen said it best: “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”

Congratulations for showing up for college. And for being here today. Best of luck to you all!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, this was a depressing thing to read on a Sunday afternoon.

I took the advice you're spouting about 15-20 years ago and gave up the dream. Worst darn thing I ever did. Thank god, I decided to go after it again. And actually, I think it was far more rewarding to pursue my graduate degree as a non-traditional student; I knew what I wanted by then.

If you're saying be realistic, right. I'm with you. But you seem to be telling all students to give up now. I've got friends who sound a lot like the Barnes & Noble man. They make no money, but they're happy because they love to act. It's not all about money. Of all people, I would have thought you would be behind that.

I realize your experiences have shaped your worldview, but not all colleges are alike and neither are all students. Maybe I'm missing some deeper message in your post, but right now you just sound bitter.

3:30 PM  
Blogger theprofessor said...

It's satire. Don't take it so seriously!

5:27 PM  
Blogger graycie said...

Your "audience" won't get a word of this, but me -- I'm an old lady rolling on the floor laughing. In a couple of minutes I'll wipe the tears from my eyes and pour a glass of wine to toast you and your advice.

Keep it comin'.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Average Jane said...

This was simply brilliant. Thank you.

6:52 PM  
Blogger SuperHolmie said...

Thank you for an insightful post. If only I could tell my freshmen that no, they will not grow up to be wide receivers or rappers. Sigh.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Ansley Oliver said...


Near the time you were sitting in a classroom with Marvin Kaplan, I was playing opposite him in regional theatre. Well, okay, it was dinner theatre; I'm a glass-is-half-full kind of gal and a paying gig was a blessing.

Marvin was tremendously insecure about his career. He was over 50 years old, on a second or third wife and had a small child barely old enough for grammar school. Marvin wasn't a star, so every role was an important job. He was a character actor whose voice sold drugstore perfume and who embodied, in a string of dreadful light comedies, the nebbish Everyman. Audiences adored his hangdog underdog. He had to work hard, because he wasn't a star with a huge life's savings and a hefty stock portfolio. He was a working actor, and he didn't live in a garage apartment.

Shortly after our tour ended, he landed a small recurring role on a 70s television show that ran for several years, and that role made it possible for him to stay home in Southern California with his family.

Marvin was not happy every day of his life. He was insecure about younger actors who got laughs. He didn't like touring. He had to watch every penny. He probably would have enjoyed, just once, playing a sexy role in a blockbuster project. That wasn't in the cards. But, Marvin Kaplan did not have a bad life or an unfulfilling career.

Acting, like so many other careers, is an uphil road, and the only reason to do it is if you are unable to imagine doing anything else. In his visit to your Trinity acting class, I suspect Marvin tried to blast the fence-sitters over the edge with his advice. And today, you do it too. Brava!

11:01 PM  
Anonymous Hillary said...

This is a brilliant piece of satire though it was hard to read indeed. I just 'gave up plans to give up my dream' for the first time in years. I always wanted to be an artist / musician and here I am at Cox Business school majoring in Marketing?
Oh, the romantics and their 'failures'. Failing is so subjective.

8:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If that is how you look at life who would want to be around you? Life and success are all about attitude.

I see no mention of the church or a spiritual message either... probably the most important part of our time here on this planet.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous sarah m said...

Heh, pretty harsh for those of us who have degrees in PR.

2:45 PM  
Blogger BlondebutBright said...

Brilliant as always. Now I'd like to see you actually deliver that somewhere - without getting hauled off the stage.

9:21 AM  
Blogger Gaines said...

So much more fun than that whole "wear sunscreen" bit. Love it.

11:36 AM  
Blogger J said...

Wait, so what you're telling me is that Dr. Phil lied to me!?!?!


Trust me, I play a KILLER version of Hot Cross Buns on my guitar...and lemme tell ya...I am goin' places.

If these are the best years of my life, fuck. I'll take some saggy boobs and failed romance over the suffocating stench of all this frikin' potential. The fear that any day now it may reveal itself to just be a drunken invalid with a big ass is enough to suck the joy right out of these supposed golden years.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous highschoolkid07 said...

Uhm, that was slightly depressing. I don't know how to take it.

But I also suck at english and interpretting any sort of work. Everyone else who commented seemed to like it.
~ highschoolkid07

10:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good stuff prof. Nice antidote to the
optimistic(or rather delusional) fundamentalist crowd living near the U.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"He’s divorced – twice-- and lives in a garage apartment behind his parents’ house. He rides the bus to work."

Those two divorces, and not his career choices, are probably the reason why he lives in a garage and gets to ride the bus.

5:53 PM  
Blogger Cold Potato said...

This reminds me of the speech in City Slickers.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Aeron said...


8:21 AM  
Anonymous B said...

As much as I don't agree with some (ok...many) of the prof's opinions here, captivating writing such as this keeps bringing me back again and again.

2:19 AM  
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