May 2013


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.”

        —The New Crossroads

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:

"Remembering that 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 be short.

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 various schools:


Arianna Huffington
Barack Obama
Bill Clinton
Bill Cosby
Brian Williams
Dalai Lama
Dame Judith Evans
Gabrielle Giffords & Mark Kelly
Joe Biden
Martin Sheen
Melinda Gates
Michael Bloomberg
Mikhail Baryshnikov
Mitt Romney
Oprah Winfrey
Robert Redford
Stephen Colbert
Steve Case
Timothy Cardinal Dolan
Tom Brokaw
Toni Morrison

Smith College
Ohio State University
Howard University
Marquette University
Elon University
University of Colorado
Bard College
University of Pennsylvania
LaRoche College
Duke University
Stanford University
Northwestern University
Southern Virginia University
Harvard University
Westminster College
University of Virginia
University of North Carolina
University of Notre Dame
Loyola University
Vanderbilt University

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 If ?

Or Polonius’ advice to Laertes (Hamlet Act I, Scene 3)? Which seems especially timely in today’s prudent economic environment, to boot.

Neither 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:

Hope 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?

I 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.

Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.

Tennyson anyone?





Plotting Soil







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









The Fledgling








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 more.


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 mimes?



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.









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