20 May 2007

Asked & Answered

Commencement Edition

Today, with commencement on the mind of anyone tied to the academic calendar and the onset of spring - look below for two iterations of that death/rebirth jazz to see how omnipresent it is here - I'm addressing questions posed by John B. over at Blog Meridian. His questions to others displayed his characteristic thoughtfulness and attention; a flurry of volunteers made it something of a repeat feature, and though late to the party I couldn't help but bite. (The conditions stipulate I pass it on, but I know the size of my readership).

Here, below the fold, are five questions, taken, one concludes, from the very ceremony John has just attended:

1. Do you like the phrase 'appertaining thereto'? Would you consider registering a complaint if the dean or the president didn't use it in the course of certifying the graduates?

Phrase strikes me as a bit dry and lifeless; it certainly lacks the beauty of that old chestnut cellar door, and even its utility is dubious, the syllables ungainly and inefficient, better in the original Latin. Registering a complaint is the sort of legalist solution favored by those who covet words like appertaining thereto, which have the power to reduce the world around us to something that smells faintly of stone dust and dry water. (Register a complaint? No: direct action, lunch with the dean, well-placed bribes, a handshake. These things change worlds.)

David Simon, creator of HBO's incomparable The Wire, now remarks as a matter of course that it shows how institutions make human beings worth less every day. Surely, to conceive of the world as a place that appertains, (and thence to where, exactly?) is to begin building a clausal edifice that renders any one of us childlike and bankrupt beneath it. Appertaining thereto is cousin to boilerplate and euphemism (ex. 'pacification'; it's what we trot out to paper over horror, discount human life, make difficult little particulars into empty banalities.

I might instead certify graduates by apologizing for eating the plums in the icebox.

2. Which seems more like something you would do while attending commencement:
a) Bringing a copy of Ferlinghetti's
A Coney Island of the Mind;
b) Actually approve the daring of your colleage's attempt to rap for part of the commencement address, even if less than successful;
c) Make origami swans out of your program.

C, realistically. I am always at a loss for what to do with my hands. I prefer something to occupy them: a gin & tonic, a piano, a silver dollar. I do not yet know how to make a reliable origami swan; programs that fall into my hands are twisted into wreckage, ugly paper ducklings. Somebody, I will learn, and my fidgeted programs will grow up beautiful.

B brings up nothing but bad memories of Karl Rove at this year's White House Press Correspondent's dinner.

A, I harbor affection for; A Coney Island of the Mind is on my window sill at this very moment, wedged to the left of a collected Borges, Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus & Harmony, a King James Bible, a bottle of wine, a broken tea glass, and a dead basil plant. Anybody attending commencement with paperback Ferlinghetti tucked into their back pocket I suspect of waiting for a rebirth of wonder / and I am waiting for someone / to really discover America / and wail - all that Turner new symbolic western frontier jazz and who knows how much of it is tongue in cheek? - because with the Beats, you could never tell, but at least either way they weren't apathetic and that's more than you can say these days (even discounting the kids these days!). Beautiful dream or not, I'm not there with poetry - it's impractical - but my heart goes out a little bit to somebody who is, who's bothered to clutch at Ferlinghetti and a rebirth of wonder and go with their hands full to an event where a handshake is all that's required and jazz is being bulldozed by appertaining thereto.

3. As a faculty member, how would you determine which students, apart from those you know well (sotto voce: and think deserve to graduate), you will applaud for?

I'm faced with several options: I can be selective, and glower stone-faced at the mass of students not fortunate enough to have basked in the light of my favor; democratic and exhausted, giving uncritical and unstinting applause to everyone; superficial along several different axis - applaud only the pretty ones, or only the good walkers, or only those with interesting first/last names; mathematical, applauding every fourth student, or using an algorithm I derive, brilliantly, from the letters of their name; supportive - of that young graduate, Ferlinghetti improbably clutched to chest, say; or the inevitable streaker; or the one who trips, or whose name is mispronounced, or who fumbles the diploma hand-off.

I'm most likely to try all of these things - indecision being one of my flaws - before giving up on each in turn for stoicism, which is only fatigue by any other name.

4. Out on the lawn after the second ceremony, you see that Kevin Durant is here (his brother graduated from the college) and hear that he has signed some autographs. Do you:
a) Go up to him and ask for one as well;
b) Watch from a distance and even wish people would leave him alone;
c) Ask, 'Kevin

C, I don't know who Kevin Durant is.

B, If I did, I still find college basketball more interesting on a tactical level than the NBA, because they're operating on a plane I can actually comprehend, technically.

I also feel reticent when it comes to any kind of fame; I don't like to feel as though I'm forcing attention on them, even though most of the people I admire creatively are only celebrities if the word is stretched thin. It really has nothing to do with celebrity at all; I do the same thing with professors I like after class, when they're being mobbed by students (the most persistant of whom also seem to be the most obnoxious and least discerning; why lump myself in with them?)

This is rather self-centered of me.

5. You've been asked to deliver a commencement address. What is one thing you know you would want to say to the graduates?

Besides appertaining thereto and apologizing for the plums I ate in the icebox? The words don't matter, of course; commencement is ritual, the speech some Latin mumbled over the blessing: Endings are a new beginning. Your generation faces a unique challenge. One in which all of you will play your part, as future leaders of this country. Do not forget the things you've learned here, that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Your apathy, apertaining thereto political hegemony, is pacification collateral damage less than four not to exceed more than five, hope, future, Our Nation's Children, Enjoy Coca-Cola.

One thing I might say? Wake up.

1 comment:

Gawain said...

pleased to be a worthy. thanks for the plug! and -- nice to meet you, too!