The Chair’s Commencement Address

As I looked into the mostly terrified eyes of my college seniors in our last Zoom chats this week, the following occurred to me.  I’d like to share it with them, and you, in hopes that, well….

Okay, I’d just like to share it.

Dear Class 0f 2020:

It’s easy and even natural for graduating college students to be upset and scared at the state of the world.   There are very, very real things going on.  Too real, if I’m being honest.

On the other hand each American decade, no matter how bright and shiny it might now appear to be in comparison to the present one, had its severe problems.  At least the ones I’ve lived through.  These near insurmountable challenges also came at heavy costs that, at the time, seemed every bit as cataclysmic as the world seems now.

No, no, stay with me here! I promise!

Imagine:

The threat of a nuclear war, the bloody telegenic images of the Vietnam War and the terror of the draft that helped fuel a wild in the streets cultural revolution of the sixties and early seventies.

Pres. Kennedy was shot live on TV, college students were shot by police live at Kent State University in Ohio and the shot up bodies of soldiers on both sides of that pesky conflict in Southeast Asia were displayed everywhere you turned, for all the world to see.  And in those days you got to watch it live on network television with your parents, arguing around the dinner table as you were choking on a meal you barely liked anyway.

This was considered “food”

AIDS ravaged the eighties and a good part of the nineties.  For the longest time, no one was 100% sure of how many different ways you could get it, who had it and whether there would ever be such a thing as sex that couldn’t potentially kill you (Note: And not in a metaphorical way) in anyone’s lifetime.

As if it that wasn’t bad enough, this was set against a backdrop of a new American mantra – greed is good – and a mostly callous disregard on the part of a very vocal majority towards anyone less fortunate than themselves, be it the homeless or the dying.

All that hopeful stuff you now read now about Ronald Reagan’s Morning in America – um, not so much.  Think of that as the MAGA bromide of the era, sans any kind of irony.  At all.  And without the clownish red hat.

The hope of a new century was, well, very hopeful for a minute or two, what with the new digital age and all of its possibilities in the pre Facebook/Cambridge Analytica era.  But then just like that the very early 2000 aughts became a post-911 world and every American walked around shell-shocked and terrified that the party was over.  Certainly the world as we knew or thought we knew it, had ended.

You’re not wrong Anne

When would the next bomb hit, how long would it be before WWIII would start and would WE start it, and wait, on top of all of this the ECONOMY IS CRASHING, too?  We’re DOOMED.

Until we weren’t.

But then here we are in the 2000 teens, awash in Trumpism and COVID- 19.   Up to our eyes and ears with their infections, clinging to the hope that a durable enough mask of any sort will keep them away or, at the very least, neuter their effects on our persons.

Even though masks, be they literal, psychological or symbolic, have historically only gone so far in keeping any type of bad ju-ju at bay.  Like each decade that came before, it takes a lot of diligence, determination and ingenuity from a vocal enough part of the American plurality (that’s you), and then majority (that’s also you), to right our ship from the metaphorical iceberg (Note: Since the real ones barely exist anymore) and ensure our mutual survival.

Your generation would have saved Jack

I’m unclear how this will happen at this particular moment in time, just as I have been in the past. (Note: Remember the CD hadn’t even been close to invented yet when I graduated college).

But if our history is any indication I have great belief that we will manage to do this and somehow once again squeak by with the unlikeliest of American victories, albeit at a far greater cost than was necessary had we acted earlier.

This does seem to be our pattern.  It’s long been credited to Winston Churchill, then discredited he ever uttered the words, but as the famous saying goes:

YOU CAN ALWAYS COUNT ON AMERICANS TO DO THE RIGHT THING – AFTER THEY’VE EXHAUSTED ALL OTHER POSSIBILITIES.

That about sums it up!

As we endure a global pandemic and recognize that it and it alone has become the most formidable weapon we’ve had to vanquish Trumpism in the last three years, it’s difficult to celebrate.  Talk about picking your poisons.

And yet, I recall it’s sort of like how I felt about AIDS all during the fight for gay marriage.  I’d throw both my gay marriage license and the historic Supreme Court ruling itself into a raging furnace in a nanosecond if it could undo that plague and bring back all the people – gay, straight and everyone in between – that we lost.

But I can’t pretend that if it weren’t for the horror and the spotlight it put on the gay community that we would have gotten the right to marry so quickly after.  In showing the world just how human and like them we were than they thought, and by forcing the world to SEE our brothers and sisters dying right in front of them, those of us who survived saw the times once again rise from the ashes of despair and morph into something slightly better. Not on all the issues and not entirely, but evolve they did.  Until the next calamity came along.  As it is wont to do.

Art can also be a powerful force for change… especially very popular art.

That’s the universal truth of both history and evolution when you play the long game.  It always comes at a cost.

For People Of Color that’s fighting American racism daily, worrying that any moment you could be shot in cold blood while jogging through a white neighborhood despite the abolition of slavery, the rise of the civil rights movement and the presidency of Barack Obama.

For women it’s the daily fight of sexism and the fact that no female has ever served as an American president or vice-president despite outnumbering men population-wise for centuries, suffrage, Roe Vs. Wade, and….well, the list is endless and yet, um…paltry.

2024 is waiting…

Still, if the truth is a bitter pill to swallow it sure beats sleep walking in a mirage you bought into as truth that was always going to disappear or stab you in the back.

Better to be awake and aware.  You at least have the chance to use your rage, fear, smarts and creativity to fight the bad ju-ju.  And much more so than the rest of us, YOU now have time AND American history on YOUR side.

If the past is prologue, you won’t come out fully unscathed but you will be more than okay.  Plus, you won’t have to live through disco or the eighties.

We will get through this!

That’s more than I can say for the rest of us who helped create this mess for you.

Queen – “The Show Must Go On”

Overthinking

“How come the stuff I spend two years working on doesn’t go anywhere and something I spend, like, 10 minutes on, people go crazy over?”  I read that Facebook post over the weekend from one of my former students (I can’t remember who wrote it – but alas – that is the Facebook way, isn’t it?) and smiled in a bit of recognition.  I’ve felt that way over the years but it’s certainly not something I want to confirm publicly to young creative people.  I want them to try hard and do their best.  Sometimes it takes two years to do something really well.  In this age of fast returns, you really DO need to train yourself to put the time in.

And then this weekend happened.

Without going into too much detail (because my therapy appointments are between TWO people, not the five or so that read this blog), I wrote something in that period that I spent – well, a weekend on.  It was hard work.  I didn’t just toss it off like I   sometimes  NEVER do here.  But, I mean, it was only a weekend.  Yet something clicked.  In a very good way.  If I knew what it was I’d do it again.  And maybe I will.   Or not.  But the point is – people love this thing I created and it is now “making the rounds.”  While another script I spent two years on (okay, off and on) is languishing.

Talk about prescient.  Who IS that student and my apologies for not mentioning you by name.  And for not giving you your own blog or at least providing everyone I know with a link to your existing one.  Or at least referring my 392 virtual friends to YOUR Facebook page (“He’s only got 392 friends?  Wow, I thought he was more popular than that…”) so they can closely peruse your likes and dislikes and can become as smart as you so obviously are.

I preach passion and hard work to myself and to my students.  But – what does working hard and bringing your passion mean  exactly?  Do you measure it in hours, weeks or years put in?  Does the amount of time you spend slaving and sweating diligently directly correspond to your level or potential level of success?  How do you measure the (work) years in your life?

(Note: I actually still love the score of “Rent” despite the fact that we’ve all probably heard this song 525,600 times.)

While intense repetition and study certainly cannot hurt in improving your abilities at anything, particularly over a long period of time, does it guarantee success?  Certainly not.  And – can it actually, well, have the inverse effect – that is to say actually hurt what you’re doing?  I hesitate to say this, but sometimes – YES.

My small triumph this weekend (and it’s a treatment, not a feature script, no one tosses those off in a weekend, despite what they tell you) might have taken a shorter amount of time than many of the projects I’ve written, but it is also attributable to all the years of experience, hard work and time I’ve put in on EVERY project, good or bad.  Taking two weeks or two months or two years instead of two days probably will not make it any better and, in fact, might have made it appreciably worse.

On the same token, I can’t help but wondering – was the two years I took on the project that’s languishing too long?  Did I shoot myself in the foot (although there were times I would have liked to have shot myself in the head) by painstakingly reworking so many drafts, rewriting and restructuring and rethinking over so long of a period of time?  Only time and I can be the best judge of that but, in retrospect, I suspect – Yes. (Or Maybe.  Or really – I just don’t know.  But possibly).

Now before you all jump up and down with permission to cut corners and limit your work time, let me be clear – this is NOT what I’m saying!

Hell to the...

What I am noting is that the intensity of how you work (and take it from someone who is VERY intense that way – if you don’t believe me, I’ll give you my shrink’s number) can cut both ways – it can draw on passion that fuels great drive and a wonderment of creative energy.  Or – it can drill you right into the ground with self-hatred – flagellating yourself for not ever being able to get your art right; convincing yourself you have no creative talent; or overchecking your ideas with anyone on the street (sometimes literally) who will listen and with your inner self. You end up wondering aloud or silently if what you’ve created in your little lair is any good at all, or will ever be good at all on this or any future project you’ll ever do.

(As if you really don’t know.  I mean, really – everything you do for the rest of your life will be bad?  Really?  Come on)

Bottom line:  If you’re so worried about the judgments people will make on your work that it’s always (or mostly) in the back of your mind while you’re doing it you’re guilty of the great sin of – OVERTHINKING.   And you’re not working at your craft at all.  Because what you’re really trying to work at is pleasing other people, or presumed people, or your idea of what people want – which has nothing at all to do with creation and only to do with getting praise, pleasing your mother, or father or some other “parent.”  Or perhaps proving to yourself that you actually, truly and really do have the right to be doing what you’re doing and might, just might, have some small, tiny, invisible unseeable and yet just not noticed, modicum of talent.

That’s self-flagellation.  And about as far from creativity as I can imagine.  And if you’re also doing your work over and over and over, reinventing it in endless and various ways just to achieve that end because deep down you doubt that your work can ever be right, especially when at least one of two other people disagree – that’s OVERTHINKING AND self-flagellation.  And it’s time to stop it.  Now.

The very nature of facing a blank canvas of anything takes a great deal of faith and a lot of courage.  It’s wonderful and fun, and tricky and rewarding.  If it wasn’t all of those things, everyone would be doing it and, believe me, they’re not.  What they’re also not doing is ALWAYS judging you.  That’s all in your mind.   Oh – of course they’re JUDGING (you and your work).  Every one does everyday.   But not constantly.  Chances are they’re only judging themselves constantly (unless they’ve read this blog, have been in therapy or are somehow one of the 32 people in this world who’ve had a healthy upbringing).  And as for your work (and you) it’s judged barely, and often by people who are unqualified.  You know the old Hollywood expression – “Opinions are like a—holes.  Everyone has one.”

But who cares what they say anyway.  You’ve got, like, 6.94 billion other people in the world and they might feel exactly the opposite way.  And because you’re not omniscient, you’ll never know all of their opinions.  So why pick and choose the negative one that any one of them might think?  Or why be that voice yourself?  Think about it.

But don’t overthink it.