A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 3, Part 1

Thursday, September 22, 2011

As the sun began to rise at about 6am, I decided to finally get out of bed after the worst night’s sleep ever, and take a shower and get dressed for the big day that awaited me.  After all this, I still had about half an hour before breakfast would be served at 7am, I decided to suck it up and practice reading my paper in front of the bathroom mirror.[1]  Despite my stumbling over the words here and there, my presentation came to almost exactly 25 minutes.  Perfect.  As so many people had advised me, the worst thing a presenter can do is go over his/her time.

A little after 7 o’clock, I went downstairs for the breakfast buffet.  This was not the continental breakfast I had seen at other hotels back home.  Yes, there was an assortment of baked goods and fresh coffee, but there was so much more.  A two-foot-long loaf of fresh-baked bread greeted me as I walked into the breakfast room.  I sawed off a nearly inch-thick slice and placed it on my plate, to which I added some scrambled eggs, bacon, and yogurt with granola.  When I sat down at a nearby table, I opened what I thought was butter for my bread, but much to my surprise I found it to be a little package of heaven.  Chocolate spread.[2]  I spread a thick layer of the creamy goodness onto my slice of bread.  I figured on my last morning I would have to sneak a few of these into my pocket to take home to my girls.

Back up in my room, I finished getting ready for Day 1 of the conference.  I read my speech a second time – a little slower this time, trying to add more inflection and cadence to my voice – and ended at just over 25 minutes once again.  So assuming my nerves didn’t get the best of me during the real presentation, I figured I should be just fine.  I packed up my things and, giving myself plenty of time for getting lost, I headed down the street in the direction of the University.[3]

Even with a few wrong turns, I still made it to the University by 9am, the start of check-in.  I know it sounds uber-cliché, but my breath was taken away as I stepped through the main entrance and into the University courtyard.  The centuries-old brick facades covered in ivy were like nothing I’d ever seen before.  And then the inner courtyard that I walked through next only rivaled the beauty of the first.  I eventually forced myself inside the building and found the right lecture hall and registration table.  Being one of the first to arrive, I took advantage of the extra time to go out and take some pictures of the spectacular courtyards just outside.

When I went back inside, I began to see faces familiar from the night before, as well as new faces as the other speakers and attendees arrived.  I finally met Adam Kelly, whom I had gotten to know over the last few months via email as he was a tremendous help in editing and revising my paper and getting it presentable.

At about 9:30 we filed into the lecture hall and found our seats.  Toon Staes, the host and organizer of the conference, made some opening remarks pointing out the fact that with the singular focus of the conference – no one seemed to be able to recall a conference devoted to a single novel – and with the newness of the book, that we would be laying the foundation for interpretive analysis of The Pale King.  A rather sobering – and for me humbling – thought to consider.  I, a blogger who was over 7000 miles from home, would have the privilege of sitting amongst the leading scholars in the field of Wallace studies and would be contributing to the formal, critical discussion of the unfinished novel.

Dr. Stephen Burns, the first keynote speaker, gave an excellent overview of the novel and the variety of critical approaches to understanding it.  But the one part of his presentation that caught my attention was the connections he made between Wallace and my other favorite writer, CS Lewis.  He referenced Wallace once saying that his favorite book of all time was Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters.  He also drew connections between The Pale King and one of Lewis’s works I have not yet read, Experiment on Criticism.  Dr. Burns emphasized the novel’s spiritual themes, particularly in the story of Lane Dean, Jr. in § 6.  I fixated on this Wallace-Lewis connection as this opening presentation planted a seed that would be watered over the next two days and one that I will have to continue to cultivate.  I want to see how much more there is to this Wallace-Lewis connection and further explore these spiritual themes in Wallace’s work.

The next speaker, Adam Kelly, traced Wallace’s development as an author and narrative voice through three dialogues from Broom of the System, Infinite Jest, and The Pale King.  Adam made an interesting point about how through this progression, the characters involved seem to recede into the background so that the ideas being discussed move to the forefront.  He focused on §19 – one that proved to be a favorite among presenters – and showed how we hardly even know who is involved in this elevator conversation about civic responsibility, much less who says what, proving his point that Wallace uses this dialogic model to focus on important ideas.  This narrative method allows Wallace’s moral didacticism to come through unhindered by characterization.

Jan Hammerquist, next to take the podium, touched on similar themes in his discussion of Wallace’s “zero-level writing.”  He highlighted how Wallace’s narrative voice has been described a “brain voice,” or in other words, the voice in the readers’ heads.  His voice sounds very familiar to our own thoughts in such a way that it feels much like we – the readers – are just “hanging out with Dave.”  Jan pointed out how this shows a great deal of respect on Wallace’s part for his readers and was his way of making sure he was understood by his readers.

After the Q & A with Adam and Jan, we broke for lunch, but that didn’t stop the conversations spurred on by the morning’s speakers.  The variety of sandwiches was delicious and the discussions, of both personal nature and focusing on Wallace, were wonderful.  My freshly enjoyed sandwiches were soon joined in my stomach by a few butterflies as the time for my own presentation grew near.  A couple of the attendees asked if  I was nervous; I’m not sure if they were asking to make conversation or whether I was showing visible signs of anxiety.  I answered frankly.  Yes, I was nervous.  I mean, who wouldn’t be after the morning’s three phenomenal papers?  I think it was maybe fifteen minutes into Stephen’s keynote presentation that I started asking myself, “What the hell am I doing here?”  I very much felt like the kid taking a seat at the adults’ table.[4]  I was by far the newest to the world of Wallace studies and had surely read less of his work than anyone else in the room.  But now was not the time for backing out or backing down.

Toon called us back into the lecture hall for the start of the next panel, of which I was a part.  Mark Peter West led off the panel with a study of the word “abide” as used in both Infinite Jest and The Pale King.  He juxtaposed the use of the word in relation to the Gately character in IJ with its use in relation to the work of the wigglers at the IRS processing center.  He also brought in the use of the word in the Gospel of John and in the old hymn, “Abide with Me,” which spurred more thoughts for me in this new direction of study into the spiritual dimensions of Wallace’s works.  But I must admit I found myself rather distracted during his presentation;[5] I was still fidgeting nervously in anticipation of my own presentation, and getting like five hours sleep in the past 36 hours was starting to catch up to me.[6]

Mark finished his presentation and took his seat to a hearty round of applause.  The panel chair introduced me and the title of my paper, “What the Hell Is Water?” as I got settled at the podium and poured myself a glass of water for my already parched mouth.  I began my presentation with a few words about how honored and humbled I felt to be invited to present at this conference and how I never would have imagined when I began my Letters to DFW blog two years ago that I would be here, over 7000 miles from home addressing a roomful of the top Wallace scholars in the world.

I began reading my paper, trying my best to add emotion and inflection to my Ben-Stein-esque monotone voice.  I made my case that Wallace’s Kenyon College address is, in many ways, the interpretive lens through which to read the bulk of his canon, and particularly The Pale King.  The internal struggle with the “default setting” and the boredom and tedium that it brings is central to much of Wallace’s writing, both his fiction and nonfiction.  I argued that this thematic conflict culminates in Wallace’s final, unfinished novel.  I stumbled and stammered here and there, but I got all the way through it.  A rousing applause came when I concluded my presentation, the volume of which was aided by the acoustics of the room.

Mark then joined me at the podium to field questions and comments from the audience.  Most of the questions were directed to Mark – which I was totally fine with – but I jumped in when I had something to add to the conversation.  After about fifteen minutes, the panel chair ended the discussion despite there being several hands still raised.  He suggested we all continue the conversation out in the lobby during the break.  More applause filled the room as I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I had done it.  I had survived.  I could now just relax and enjoy the rest of the conference.[7]

Several people congratulated me on a good presentation as I guzzled a few glasses of water.  As I stood by the drink table, Dr. Marshall Boswell – arguably the leading DFW scholar – walked over to me with a smile on his face and hand extended.  He shook my hand and told me I had done well.  It was probably the greatest compliment I could have received, and the moment proved to be one of the highlights of the trip.

During the break, several people asked me how I first came across Wallace’s writing, almost as if asking about a religious conversion experience.[8]  I recounted each time how my wife’s book club had decided to read Consider the Lobster and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”[9]  About halfway through ASFTINDA, she said it seemed like the type of writing I would enjoy, so she passed it over to me.  By the end of the first section of the cruise ship essay, I was hooked.[10],[11] I went on to read both of Wallace’s nonfiction collections over the next few months, then about six months later – as a New Year’s resolution – I decided to start my blog project, through which I found the Howling Fantods! site and the Wallace-l online community, through which I heard about the call for papers for this conference, and the rest – as they say – is history.

To be continued…


[1] Despite what some of my students may think, I really don’t like the sound of my own voice.  I tend to stutter and stammer quite a bit.  I am really not a very good orator and have always struggled with reading aloud.  I guess that’s why I have taken to writing as my preferred means of communication and expression.

[2] This little bit of deliciousness was creamy like butter or margarine, but made of rich chocolate.  I didn’t recognize the brand name and couldn’t read the label; all I knew was it was so good.

[3] I mapped out my route on Google Maps and asked the receptionist at the hotel for directions, but given my experiences the day before, I knew that getting lost was a real possibility.

[4] Or like the minor league ballplayer making his debut in the big leagues.  Choose whatever metaphor you like, but it wasn’t so much that I felt out of place as it was that I felt like I was making a huge leap in my writing and academic career.  Fortunately, the “big leaguers” were incredibly gracious and welcoming.

[5] For which I apologized to him afterward, and I said I would like to read his paper sometime in the near future as his ideas seemed a fitting part of the next paper I hope to write.

[6] With a nine-hour time difference, it was going on about 6am back home, so I had essentially stayed up the whole night and was now minutes away from perhaps the biggest moment of my writing career.

[7] Not to say that I hadn’t enjoyed it up to this point.  I had learned so much in the morning’s sessions and my head was still spinning with ideas for further reading and study.  But looming over that was the anxiety of my upcoming presentation.  Now I could just sit back and focus on what the following speakers had to say.

[8] This connotation seemed rather fitting, given the emphasis so many speakers had placed on the Chris Fogle story.

[9] Just the 100-page essay, not the entire collection of essays.

[10] This one seems to have sealed the deal for many a Wallace reader.

[11] Seeing how this selection for book club seemed to spur what some might call an obsession, the book club member who suggested it has been apologizing to my wife ever since for getting me started on Wallace.

A Really Fun Thing I’d Love to Do Again – Day 2

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Finally having the right currency, I boarded the shuttle bus to Antwerp.  The seats were very comfortable and the ride was very smooth and pleasant.  The view out the window was beautiful.[1]  Once we got outside of Brussels, there were lush, green fields and fields of corn stalks that looked nearly ready for harvest.

After about a forty-minute ride, the bus let us off in the middle of town.  It was as I grabbed my luggage from the storage area under the bus that the thought hit my sleep-deprived brain: I had no idea how to get to my hotel.  And I had no cell phone service, so I couldn’t call anyone; nor did I have wifi service for my iPod, so I couldn’t pull up directions on Google maps.  In a word, I was totally hosed.  There were tons of little restaurants and sidewalk cafes[2] within a stone’s throw of the bus stop, so I was hopeful that someone at one of these eateries would a) speak English, and b) know how to get to my hotel.

I showed him the address on my reservation confirmation printout, but the gentleman standing outside the first restaurant I approached spoke very little English and had no idea where the hotel was.  I walked across the narrow street to the next restaurant to find someone a bit more helpful.  He was rather fluent in English and, while he himself was unable to point me in the right direction, found someone inside who had a general idea of where I needed to go.  They sent me off with a few vague instructions and a couple of landmarks to keep an eye out for.

I walked a couple of blocks, crossed a few streets, and could not see a single landmark the kind gentleman from the restaurant had told me about.  I was lost.  Up ahead I saw a Dominos Pizza and figured if anyone could point me in the right direction, it would be an American pizza delivery service.  I asked the young man behind the counter if he knew where my hotel was; he said to keep walking up the street I was on until I reached the Porsche showroom, then to go another block and I’d be there.  So I continued to trudge up the street; hot and sweaty, tired and hungry.  After about an hour and what felt like several miles of walking, I came to the Porsche dealership but could not see my hotel anywhere in the vicinity.  I stopped one more time for directions, and this person was able to get me to the right place.[3]

I checked in at the front desk of my hotel and rode the elevator to the fourth floor to my room.  I dumped my stuff onto every available flat surface, and then found myself engulfed in a raging internal battle between hunger and exhaustion.  I had had nothing to eat or drink since the muffin on the plane some six hours ago, and I had only gotten maybe two hours of sleep since leaving Los Angeles.  Eating would mean taking a shower and changing my clothes, having to go back out into the city, exchanging the rest of my American dollars into Euros, and actually finding somewhere to eat.  Sleeping would mean taking off my shoes, lying down on the bed and closing my eyes.  As hungry as I was, the desire for sleep won out.  I removed my shoes, flopped onto the bed, and was in a deep sleep in a matter of minutes.

I woke up some two hours later – about 3:30pm local time – and showered and finally changed out of the clothes I had been wearing for the last 24 hours, and then headed downstairs to ask the receptionist for help in getting my bearings on this new city.  She showed me on the map where to find a Western Union to exchange my money, as well as how to get to the café I would be going to later that evening.

I ventured out to exchange my currency and find food (it had now been about ten hours since eating that blueberry muffin on the plane).  It felt very surreal to be walking the streets of Antwerp; everything looked and felt so different from home.  I did the best I could in my hungered, sleep-deprived, disoriented state to soak in the moment.  After finally locating the Western Union and watching my dollars vanish as they changed into Euros, I wandered around looking for somewhere to eat.  Most of the cafes didn’t start serving dinner until 6:00, and that was too long to wait, so I settled for a little Persian place a few blocks from my hotel.  The only item I could recognize on the menu was a hamburger, so I ordered a burger, fries, and a couple bottles of water.[4]  It wasn’t bad but wasn’t great, but by this point I was too tired and hungry to care.

A few hours later, I went out again for the pre-conference get-together at Café De Muze.  The café was maybe a mile and a half from my hotel, but it was located in the heart of the old town area which consisted of numerous unmarked streets and alleys, which made it very easy to get lost.  I ended up circling several blocks very near the café before asking two young ladies for directions.[5]

I was one of the first to make it to the café, and when Toon – the conference host – arrived, we found a table and ordered the first round of drinks.  Over the next hour or so, most of the other speakers and attendees arrived, and we had to move from our large circular table to a much larger booth in the corner.  Since many of those in the group already knew of each other through Wallace-l, there really wasn’t much of that awkward I’m-not-really-sure-what-to-say-because-we-just-met conversation.  It felt much like meeting up with old friends, and the conversation was simply delightful.  We shared stories of our misadventures in traveling to Antwerp and many told their “how-I-stumbled-upon-the-writings-of-David-Foster-Wallace” stories.  We talked of college courses we had taken, classes we had taught, and somehow the conversation never wandered far from the works of Wallace.  The hours and the drinks went rather quickly, and the fact that I had maybe four hours of sleep under my belt was finally catching up to me.  Plus I didn’t much like the idea of walking back to my hotel that late at night (it was approaching 10pm).  The surrounding area appeared safe enough and most of my walking route was made up of major streets, but I didn’t want to take any chances in a foreign city 7000 miles from home with no cell phone reception.

I said my good-byes as I was the first to leave, even though I had not yet finished my beer.[6]  As I made my way back through the narrow streets toward my hotel, I found the nightlife of old town Antwerp quite charming, full of sidewalk cafes brimming with life and frivolity – and clouded with cigarette smoke.[7]  It just seemed like a cool place to hang out with friends.

Back at the hotel, I sent home an email – it was early afternoon back in SoCal – posted an update of the night’s activities on Twitter, and got ready for bed.  I fell asleep rather quickly at about 11pm, but was wide awake about two hours later.  After lying there for a good fifteen or twenty minutes, I tried all the usual tricks – using the restroom, getting a sip of water – but nothing.  I sent and received several emails to and from Tanya, complaining about my inability to sleep and hearing about her day with the kids.  Being the middle of the day back home, it was nice to have someone to talk to in the middle of the lonely night, even if it was only via email.  I did manage to get a few more hours of sleep before waking up for good at about 3:30am.  I admitted defeat and turned on the lights and television, and prepared myself mentally and emotionally for what was sure to be a very long day.  Hopefully a really great day since the conference started in about five hours, but a long day nonetheless.

The only English-language channel I could find was the British feed of CNN, which brought a harsh dose of reality as I watched coverage of the impending Troy Davis execution in Georgia.  The Supreme Court had denied his appeal, and the state of Georgia was proceeding with the capital punishment.  I knew there was a lot controversy surrounding the case, and I didn’t know many of the details, but it makes me grieve to see a man – whether guilty or innocent – die at the hands of the state.

I spent the next several hours flipping through mostly Dutch- and French-speaking channels, waiting for the clock to reach a reasonable hour to actually begin my day.

 


[1] Aside from the graffiti on nearly every overpass and signpost in the city.  It seemed to me rather odd to see all this Belgian graffiti, of which there was even more when I got into Antwerp.  But it didn’t seem to carry the same sort of gang / territorial connotations that it does here in the US.  It was just sort of there.

[2] When I saw these restaurants’ names and menus posted outside of them, I was surprised at how multicultural the local cuisine was.  Sure, one would expect an Italian restaurant or French restaurant in the heart of Western Europe, but Indian food, Mexican food, and an Afghanistan steakhouse?

[3] This whole time I was thinking, I am never going to audition for The Amazing Race.  I don’t care about the million dollars; I now realized that it would be far more agony and frustration than it’s worth.  It sounds exciting to travel the world and looks fun on TV, but I now have complete empathy for those exasperated looks on the contestants’ faces as they try to navigate through foreign cities.

[4] While the name is the same as its American counterpart, there were some distinct differences between the two.  First, the cook behind the counter dropped the patty into the deep fryer to cook the meat instead of slapping it onto the grill.  It didn’t taste particularly greasy when I ate it, but I could certainly feel the deep-fried-ness a few hours later.  Second, there was an entire side salad atop the burger patty.  The cook didn’t stop with the lettuce, tomato, and onion.  There was also red and green cabbage, shredded carrots, and cucumbers.  Normally I like my burgers very plain, but all this extra stuff was actually quite tasty.  Or again, I was too hungry to care.

[5] On my way to the café I passed by two different tattoo parlors, which I took as a sign that my wanting to get a tattoo during my trip was indeed the right choice.  See, I had wanted to get a tattoo for awhile, but never had the guts to do it.  So as I was preparing for my trip, I thought that it might be fun to commemorate my first literary conference with a literary tattoo (“This is Water” tattooed on my wrist).  I mentioned this to my wife on the eve of my trip, and she sort of blew it off as a bunch of hot air (I often come up with these crazy ideas, but then chicken out and don’t follow through).  In one of her emails earlier in the day, she said she had told our heavily tattooed friend about my aspirations, and her (i.e. our tatted friend) response was that I’d better not chicken out, almost the equivalent of a “double-dog-dare.”  So I had a couple of days to psyche myself up for this, as I would wait until one of my sightseeing days to actually get inked up.

[6] I was reluctant to order it in the first place and drank it very slowly since I had had very little sleep or food in the previous 24 hours.  I’m not a very big drinker anyway, and my migraine medication tends to react in funny ways to things like alcohol.  And I didn’t want to complicate matters with my lack of sleep and empty stomach.  I wanted to avoid the two extremes of bringing on a full-blown migraine and finding myself passed out in the street from drinking too much.

[7] This was probably one of the hardest things to get used to in Antwerp.  Everyone smokes over there.  I spent five days stepping on discarded cigarette butts and breathing in second-hand smoke.

Letter 2: What is My “This Is Water”?

Dear Mr. Wallace,

What is my This is Water?

In the days that have passed since I read This is Water, I’ve been thinking about what I might say if given the opportunity to address a class of graduates.  If I were given fifteen minutes in the spotlight on what is, at least for those about to turn their tassels, one of the most important days in a person’s life, what pearls of wisdom would I impart?  Or more importantly, what would I tell as my opening joke?

Being a lifelong student and a professional educator for nearly ten years, I’ve sat through a number of graduations and heard more than my share of commencement speeches.  There were my own high school and college graduations.[1]  There was my wife’s college graduation (we were engaged at the time).  Then the seven or eight I’ve been to as a teacher.

I’ve also read several really good commencement speeches, yours included.  A couple of my favorites (aside from yours, of course) are Mark Twain’s “Advice to Youth” and Baz Lurhman’s “Wear Sunscreen,” which was very popular about ten years ago.  I had my AP students read them both one day last year.  The students got a kick out of them, and it made a really good lesson to give while my principal was observing me teach.

As I’ve spent the last week thinking about the speech I might deliver[2], I’ve found there to be various types or categories of graduation speeches.  There are the inspiration speeches, ones that rely heavily on pathos to stir up the graduates and give them the sense that the world is theirs for the taking.  But in reality, these are typically filled with lots of banal platitudes; all colorful rhetoric with very little substance.  Cotton candy speeches, if you will.

Then there are the “shock and awe” speeches designed to scare the bejesus out of the commencers.  The speaker throws a stiff dose of reality into the laps of his/her listeners, telling them of all the dangers and hardships they ought to expect in their near futures.  Life is not going to be a bed of roses in which their every desire is handed to them on a silver platter… so man up.

There are the “good night and good luck” speeches, a reflection on the experiences of the graduates’ education.  These are an opportunity for the speaker to get his/her final words in before the graduates head out into the next phase of life.  Sometimes these speeches venture into the philosophical realm, much as yours does, to find real meaning in the years spent at the educational institution.

Lastly (or at least the last category I could think of), is the practical advice speech.  These are meant to give some last minute words of wisdom that weren’t covered in the academic curriculum, much like a father might do before his son walks down the aisle.[3]  It might be advice about finances or relationships, but always in the category of the “you didn’t learn this in class, but you really ought to know it.”

Coming up with these subcategories of the genre only complicated matters for me.  If I were given – hypothetically – only fifteen minutes or so to impart all the worldly wisdom I’ve accumulated in my thirty-three years of life, I wouldn’t even know where to begin.  There is so much to consider, both content and form.  And not to mention the opening joke; if that’s no good, you’ve lost your audience from the word go.

But as I continued to ponder this, a rather depressing thought came bubbling to the surface:  Nobody is going to remember a single word I say.  Like I said, I’ve been to between fifteen and twenty graduation ceremonies and I don’t remember a single word that any of the keynote speakers said, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this.  I’m not even sure who spoke at either of my high school or college graduations.  The one speaker-related thing I do remember from my college graduation was that one of my classmates delivered a short speech as the “outstanding student representative” from the English department.  I recall two things about his speech: he made some uber-cheesy reference to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the students around me (most of whom were his friends rather than mine) were planning on jumping up at the end of his speech and yelling, “Bullsh**!” as he left the podium.  I am very glad they decided against it at the last minute; my parents were in the audience.

Other than this almost profanity-laden moment, I can’t recall a single word of a single speech from a single graduation I have attended.  Shoot, I can’t even remember the topics of any of them.  So if I were given the opportunity to speak, and if I were to spend the hours preparing the speech, and then if I were to deliver it to the assembled graduates and the select family members and friends lucky enough to make the cut and get tickets, it would all be for naught.  I’d imagine very few of my listeners would even be paying attention.  The commencers would all be reflecting back on their fond memories of school or thinking ahead to the graduation parties that await them.  And the friends and family members would be jockeying for position to get the best camera angle for a picture of the diploma handoff, or worrying about whether the camcorder battery has enough juice to make it through the ceremony.

So this job of commencement speaker is really not all it’s cracked up to be.  All the hard work and pressure, only to be forgotten ten minutes later.  In your words, I’d be “hosed.”

But since I’ve already invested several days in this little fantasy and 800+ words in this letter, I might as well see it through.  And rather than just accept defeat, I can take it as a challenge to break through the apparent obstacles and come up with something actually memorable.

As I began to undertake this imaginary challenge, I sought the wisdom and advice of the great sages throughout history for guidance in this daunting task.  I Googled the words of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, Kant, and so on.  But no help was to be found there.  Then I remembered the words of Dwight K. Schrute, who so eloquently said, “Keep it simple, stupid.”[4]  Come up with something short and sweet and easy to remember, and maybe just maybe, someone will remember it.[5]

So the key is simplicity.  Find some simple, basic truth.  Nothing cliché, but it needs an element of cleverness to it.  Sprinkle in a few anecdotes: some that produce a tear, some a chuckle.  Open with a killer joke.  And you might just have a chance of someone remembering what you say after the hour-long list of names is read.

In reflecting back on my nearly thirty-four years of life, I came up with two bits of advice that I have received that would be worth passing along to a group of graduates.  And they are at nearly polar opposite ends of the advice spectrum (is there such a thing?).  They are so different, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t want to include them in the same speech.  If no one is going to remember the one thing I try to tell them, why would I want to push it with two?  So, I guess this little fantasy mental exercise of mine has now grown into two speeches.

The first bit of advice I would make the focal point of a commencement speech falls into the “practical advice” sub-genre.  I remember one of my colleagues during my first teaching job said that there are two lies that we as teachers, parents, etc. tell young people that can have a damaging effect on the future.  The first is that appearances don’t matter, and the second is that you can be whatever you want to be if you just work hard enough.  Young people are told that their appearances don’t matter; it’s what’s inside that matters.  While I agree that the true measure of a person is their character, appearances do matter.  Now I’m not talking about the obvious things of skin color or disability.  I believe we have made legitimate progress in Dr. King’s dream of a world in which our young people are judged by the quality of their character instead of the color of their skin.  But I think our appearance, especially that which we can control, is important.  How we dress, how we carry ourselves, how we decorate our bodies are all a reflection of that inner character.  The importance of first impressions, especially with future employers or clients or even dates, cannot be overstated.  We may never get the opportunity to show others are true inner character if they are turned off by the outer shell.

The second lie is that you can’t be whatever you want to be, no matter how are you try.  I think the “train wreck” episodes at the start of each season of American Idol is evidence enough of that, but I’ll provide a personal anecdote as well.  In junior high, I wanted nothing more than to play Major League baseball.[6]  It wasn’t for lack of effort that my baseball career never got out of the eighth grade.  I spent hours practicing with my school’s team everyday after school, and sometimes would stay late and work individually with the coach.  It didn’t do a lick of good.  I just don’t have the natural talent or athleticism.

Now that doesn’t mean that happiness and fulfillment in one’s career or vocation is unattainable.  It just means that not everyone is cut out to be the next American Idol winner or next number one MLB draft pick.  Rather than wasting our time and efforts on endeavors that will never work out, we ought to invest that time and energy in things we are actually good at and can make a good living doing.

That’s one speech idea down,[7] one to go.  The second idea that came to mind as I indulged this little fantasy was the best advice ever given to me.  The circumstances of my receiving this advice were a bit unique, to say the least.  These words came from a homeless man I met while in college.  While on an outing to hand out blankets and sack lunches to some of the indigent population in Riverside, California, I met a tall, gray-haired man who singled me out from the group to tell me “Keep following Jesus.  His ways, not yours.”  Although those words didn’t relate to anything specific at the time, they have served as a good reminder as I have tried to navigate life’s highways and surface streets.

And that would be my This Is Water.


[1] I didn’t go to the graduation ceremony when I earned my masters.  It was an online program, so I had very little emotional attachment to the school or my classmates.  I just waited for the diploma to arrive in the mail after my thesis was approved, and had a party with family and friends.  I got an iPod.

[2] The forty-minute drive to and from work gets a bit dull at times.  What better opportunity to indulge in a little ego-centrism, imagining myself in the spotlight as I give an official send-off to a bunch of naïve graduates in front of hundreds of spectators?

[3] Everyone knows, and I think you point out in your speech, that there is very often little practical application to a formal education.  Most often the diploma – the piece of paper – itself is the true goal of education.  That is usually all that matters in the real world.

[4] I know that he (or the writer of that episode’s script) is not the one who coined the phrase, but he is the last noteworthy person I remember hearing say it… at least I think I remember him saying it.  I’ll have to look that up later.

[5] Plus, I hear that using hand-motions helps make synaptic connections.  It’s a proven pedagogical technique.  One so effective that it doesn’t matter how much a bridesmaid has had to drink, she’s going to know every word of “YMCA” and stagger out on the dance floor to make an absolute fool of herself.  Those Village People knew what’s up.

[6] You can see how well that worked out for me.

[7] Just insert a great opening joke – probably involving leaders of various religious groups entering an establishment that serves intoxicating beverages – some witty anecdotes, and maybe even hand-motions.