The College Commencement Speech
May is the merry month of the college commencement
speech. In essence, a “pep talk” designed to bolster
a batch of graduates, before they are exposed to the Alice-in-Wonderland
way in which the world seems to work.
One clear example of life in the rabbit hole
often being, the four years spent getting a degree for a job
that doesn’t exist:
“For the fifth year in a row now,
graduates will face a poor labor market with dim jobs prospects,
depressed wages and high unemployment, according to ‘The
Class of 2013,’ an April 10th report by the Economic
Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.”
Although in another part of the internet there
is this contrary, and thankfully optimistic news for a change:
“Employers Project 13 Percent Increase
in New College Grad Hiring”
—The National Association
of Colleges and Employers 2013
Job Outlook Survey
Either way, the core of Steve Jobs’
message to the Stanford class of 2005— considered by
many to be one of the best commencement speeches ever given—
would not have changed:
you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the
trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already
naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
The prospect of death is usually not something
many would broach before an audience of twenty-one year olds,
but that is what made Jobs, Jobs. And sadly, he made that
statement realizing that his own time remaining would likely
In the face of the daunting assignment as to “what to
tell the kids” at such a transitional moment in their
lives, and how to tell it in a way that is memorable, here’s
a sampling of some “A List” names who have been
summoned to give it a go at the lectern this month, at these
Dame Judith Evans
Gabrielle Giffords & Mark Kelly
Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Ohio State University
University of Colorado
University of Pennsylvania
Southern Virginia University
University of Virginia
University of North Carolina
University of Notre Dame
That Stephen Colbert is on the list reflects
a new genre of “commencement comedians” that
has sprung up as much for their cutting edge entertainment
value, as for their message. Others of this ilk who have
given highly touted performances include Will Ferrell,
John Stewart and Conan O’ Brien, who had this to
share with the Harvard Class of 2000:
“… fifteen years ago I sat
where you sit now and I thought exactly what you are now
thinking: What’s going to happen to me? Will I find
my place in the world? Am I really graduating a virgin?
I still have 24 hours and my roommate’s Mom is hot.
I swear she was checking me out.”
On the other end of the
spectrum and with decidedly less name recognition—
as we tend not to know the names of undead poets—
is former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove
(1993-95) who will deliver the keynote address at Emory
University’s 168th commencement.
In a way, it is unfortunate that we don’t hear more
from poets at such times, nor borrow from the wisdom that
some classic poetry can impart.
Is there any advice that could ever be given to a graduating
class, that could ring truer than that of Rudyard Kipling’s
Or Polonius’ advice to Laertes (Hamlet
Act I, Scene 3)? Which seems especially timely in today’s
prudent economic environment, to boot.
a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
“And don’t forget,” T.S. Eliot might
have chimed in…
There will be time, there will be time
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions
Which seems a more clamorous way to offer
an upbeat reminder to not be fearful of taking a chance.
Though you may not get it right the first time, you’ll
get to try again and again.
Of course we always encourage our young
to never give up nor lose their optimism. But do we ever
tell them that in quite this way:
is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And to think we thought only birds had
feathers. And in quoting Emily Dickinson, can Robert Frost
be far behind?
Is there a more appropriate closing message of life experience,
to deliver to those mortar-boarded heads— who can’t
see beyond next Tuesday let alone somewhere far down the
line into the future— than this final stanza of
The Road Not Taken?
shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
It is now ages and ages
hence since that day when I sat there listening…
to whom? I can’t recall. Nor a word of what he said.
But he wasn’t a poet, and it wasn’t poetry.
And there was a distraction at the time called the Viet
Nam War. And the draft board was poised to come calling.
the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred.
Vanessa Up Close
At this 176 seat theater and
on such a small stage— Cherry Lane in Greenwich Village—
and in a rather “small” play at that, you wouldn’t
expect to see an actor of the magnitude of a Vanessa Redgrave.
So when it was announced that she would be appearing in Jesse
Eisenberg’s play The Revisionist for a limited
six week run, it instantly became the hottest off-Broadway
ticket in town. The play was extended twice to accommodate
the demand. Now there is talk it will go to Broadway.
Jesse Eisenberg is mostly known for his breakout
role in the film Social Network playing Mark Zuckerberg
the founder of Facebook, for which he received a
Best Actor Oscar nomination. And now in this, only the second
play he’s written and had produced, and at all of twenty-nine
years old, he was able to get a legend— who Tennessee
Williams once called “the greatest actress of our time”—
to star in it.
Vanessa Redgrave herself was just at that
age when she burst on the scene in 1966. She received an Oscar
nomination for her role in Morgan! and in that same
year, she would make a stunning appearance in Michelangelo
Antonio’s film Blow Up, which has long since
become a cult classic.
It was the first time I had ever seen her,
and in that context, it makes her performance in The Revisionist
particularly “evolutionary” and poignant.
From the distance of youth to the close-up
of age (she’s 76, and at 5’ 11” she literally
towered over us sitting just two rows away)… from the
cool medium of the large silver screen to the hot medium of
the small stage… from the role of an anonymous sexy
woman in swinging London, to that of Maria, a plain, widowed,
holocaust survivor living in a modest neighborhood in Poland…she
has continued to be a commanding presence.
The storyline of this poignant— though
flawed— play, concerns that of a young man David (Eisenberg)
going to visit his 75 year old second cousin Maria (Redgrave).
He is the first American family member to ever make such a
visit. But whereas she welcomes him with a passionate need
to connect to bloodline, he is disrespectful and flat out
dismissive of any such need or sentiment. He is using the
visit as an escape mechanism in the hope that it will help
break the writer’s block he has been experiencing, as
he tries to complete his science fiction novel.
A shaky symbiosis does develop between them,
that ultimately reveals some surprising and complicated circumstances
regarding her past as it relates to the family. And therein
lies the theme of the play: family and the role it plays in
giving our lives purpose and meaning; the need for “home.”
Home here is Maria’s tiny cluttered
apartment (an excellent execution in set design). We get to
watch her moving about with an almost muscle memory sense
of the space, conveying with even her smallest gestures, a
sequestered life that has required much effort to get through.
Her only connection to the world seems to come by way of CNN
on her chunky outmoded TV.
The Polish accent which Redgrave employs —
delivering many lines in the actual language itself—
is done in a way that doesn’t draw the sort of attention
to itself that I often feel Meryl Streep’s dialectical
gymnastics do. And when silent, Redgrave can switch emotional
gears with an upward turn of the head.
Vanessa as Vanessa is a rather colorful story
in its own right. What with her familial Redgrave theatrical
roots, her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Julia
and controversial acceptance speech following, her political
activism including her support for the PLO, her UNICEF Goodwill
Ambassadorship, her declining to be made Dame by Tony Blair’s
New Labour Government, and the untimely, and the freakish
death of her daughter, actress Natasha Richardson— hers
might be described as a real life… which seems as if
something of the stage.
Vanessa as Maria, is a stage life… which
seems as if something real. I had the sense that if I dropped
by at any hour of the day, any day of the week, she would
be here in this “apartment.” No audience. No Jesse
Eisenberg. No lines. No play. Just a woman trying to exist
and deal with a tortured past, while living out her remaining
time until a curtain was finally drawn.
Vanessa up close is that good.
Quote of the Month
Hey, Hey, Ricky Jay
Who is Ricky Jay? He is not
easy to describe nor wrestle to the ground. It took 15,000
words in a 1993 New Yorker piece, to try to profile
this incredible magician, who is indeed that, and so much
Yet any reference to the word “magic,”
can conjure up negative associations of pompous men making
us look foolish. Do not many of us hold the sleight-of-hand
artist in the same clichéd contempt we reserve for
Who cannot be taken by a man who, by virtue
of creating a piece of magic so stunning in a one-on-one situation,
where no magic was anticipated or called for, brought a woman
to tears of astonishment and gratitude?
While he is a master in the art of illusion,
implicit in the film as well, is the sense that obsession
is a form of art too. And who is not at least an amateur in
some form of obsession?
Running at the Film Forum in The Village as
of this writing, it is slated for wider distribution this
month, including on the 17th in Los Angeles, home of the Magic
Castle of which Jay is an esteemed member and has performed
there innumerable times. And if it makes any of us feel better,
Ricky Jay is not well versed in the use of a cell phone.