Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Ted Kennedy, Fountain Avenue, red plastic beer cups, and the ten percenters

The world today feels nothing but sorrow today for the Kennedy clan, and for Ted Kennedy in particular, as his diagnosis of brain cancer was released to the public yesterday.

For Wesleyan University, there is a practical concern mingled with the condolences. Ted Kennedy was scheduled to speak at graduation. He may not, but it will be an amazing speech if he does.

And if he can't, I will. And if called upon, here's what I'll say:

Graduates, you don't know me, but you may have passed me on the street. I'm a neighbor. I've not met presidents or kings (though I shook Jimmy Carter's hand before he was elected), but likely neither will you. So here's my advice for success in a life where only a few of you will achieve enough power to sneer at mine.

I invite you to join the the 10% club. It's a club an old friend, Mike Kradas, dreamed up. He theorized that we are all assholes, that is, likely to stumble on the undone shoelaces of our human foibles, but only 10% of us realize, and admit it. Few of us will acknowledge that at one point or another someone will call us an asshole and be absolutely right.

The 10% of you who realize that already, please raise your hands. (Wow, very good, I would guess that's 7% right there).

It's easy to do. I'm an asshole. No, really I am. Really. Oh, I see. You don't need to be convinced.

Well, we all make mistakes. We all come up with lame excuses. Some of us know how lame those excuses are as we're making them. Some of us realize it years later, to our shame. How many of you came up with at least one lame excuse for some paper, or project, or thesis you were working on this semester? Fess up. Okay, that's up to 12%.

If the self-knowledge that you are exceedingly fallible were the only thing you learned in college, you could graduate and with every other fact, technique and theory you've acquired here, you could navigate any future path flawlessly.

So, if after this speech a few of you want to join the ten percenters among us, there are a few other qualities which will make you someone who is a pleasure to work with, a good friend, a loved family member, an admired leader or performer, and a real human, human being.

None of this is going to be about pursuing your own happiness, your bliss, following a different path, or being persistent to a fault in order to succeed. That's a graduation speech which will be given again and again this season, and likely your mom has told you all these things already. I agree with your mom. You are special, and you're going to be great, if you try.

But this speech is about living in the world with others.

So after you've considered your place in the fallible human race. After you've looked in the mirror and admitted, "I AM an asshole!" Here are a few other qualities to work on.


The world is a big place, but not that big. Chances are you won't ever really be living "on your own." You'll be living with someone, or next to someone, or down the road from someone, which means that you'll be part of the social contract. If this were written down, there'd be a footnote here for Jean Jacques Rousseau, but right about now you're likely sick and tired of footnotes.

So what's the social contract mean in practical circumstances? It means that when you're driving, you'll stop at the Stop sign because sooner or later you'll be the person coming from the other direction, and you want to be able to count on the social contract we have between us that says we ought to stop at Stop signs.

You might think you've learned some lessons in consideration living in dorms, or in a Wes housing, but ask your roommate, or your housemate for an honest assessment. Right? Not so considerate after all, are we?

If I may use cite a tender example. Fountain Avenue. I understand you had a little gathering there the other night that got a touch out-of-hand. I understand the exuberance. Believe me, I do. End of semester. Saying goodbye to books and friends. A little to much Stoli. Anything can happen.

Let's forget, for a moment, what actually did happen last Friday night.

Fast forward to yesterday. I walked down Fountain Avenue in the afternoon, and I was surprised to see that the street and yards were strewn with red and blue beer cups, empty liquor bottles, beer cans and cardboard beer cases. Granted, there were several houses where the mess was gathered and stacked in recycling bins. But the messy yards were pretty messy.

Now, let me get this straight. You are the same students who stood in front of the police department at some very early hours in the morning to make complaints about civility and brutality, and you can't even pick up your own fucking garbage?

Oh sorry, I didn't know I shouldn't use "fuck" at graduation, after all, you've spent the last week and a half fucking, being fucked, getting fucked-up and fucking-around.

Nevertheless, this is exactly what I'm trying to say about consideration and the social contract. Someone's got to pick up that garbage, and if it's not you, and it's not your Mom, then it's someone who you don't know, and obviously don't care about. And by the way, your neighbors have to look at your garbage too.

Get it?

Hand-in-hand with consideration comes responsibility. As in, take responsibility for your actions.

Maybe someone's already raised his hand and said this about Fountain Avenue. Still, I haven't heard a single Wesleyan student stand up and say, "Uh, we were a bit stupid. Yes, some of us were taunting the police. Yes, we know we live on a public street and maybe we should have quieted down. And maybe because I decided to hurl a beer can, one of my classmates got hurt. It's partly my responsibility. Okay it's my responsibility."

Almost as hard as calling yourself an asshole, isn't it?

I've heard a lot of excuses about that fateful evening (The cops were brutal. Security called in MPD too soon. We weren't hurting anyone. I never heard the warnings. It's a Wesleyan Street.) But I've heard very few students own up to their own drunken loutishness. (Though I do appreciate the spirited debate among students at Wesleying - see the comments section.)

Of course, responsibility applies to the police force too. Just because you own a Tazer doesn't mean you have to use it. Just because you wear a uniform doesn't mean you have carte blanche to knock heads.

Now let's talk about kindness.

Kindness means you mustn't hide behind the mask of anonymity if you are going to sling nasty insults at someone you don't like. It seems to be a new kind of tradition among the young that you can say anything you want, about anyone, because you don't have to admit who you are.

Let's leave anonymity to medieval poets, and serious whistleblowers. Call me Pollyanna, but if you can't say something nice, maybe you should walk away from the keyboard. But if you feel the need to be critical, have the courage to own up to your own miserable identity. It gives credibility to what is otherwise a dumb bomb hurled by a smart person. When you write that shitty remark, and you're about to hit "send," consider whether you would send it if your name was attached.

Do you think anonymous, who wrote: "Obviously all the people who support the MPD on this (i.e. ignorant, bitter locals) are going to claim that both sides were at fault, but anyone with a brain can see that the MPD are considerably more to blame," would make the same claim with his/her name attached? Doubtful.

Of course, kindness entails the willingness to understand that other people are as unique as you think you are.

That person behind the counter at Rite Aid. Unique. That Wes Public Safety officer working third shift to pay his rent. Unique. That young man with the hoodie walking down High Street to his shitty apartment. Unique.

Every cop is not a monster. Every black kid on the corner is not a drug dealer. Every Middletown resident is not an imbecile, though some of us are. Every non-student is not uneducated.

One other quality that will make you beloved to all is the ability to realize when you are about to bore someone to tears. So I will not spend any additional time talking about humility, tolerance, generosity, communication, forgiveness. Besides, someone will accuse me of ripping off that guy in the New Testament.

And I know what you're thinking. Who is this smug, self-righteous, holier-than-thou, know-it-all, preaching to us about our alleged shortcomings? Good question. I'm 55. I live across the street from Wesleyan. I really like most of the students I've met. But, I'm an old, cranky idealist. I've had too much to drink on more than one occasion. I've made lots of mistakes, and some really big ones. I'll make plenty more, no doubt. I've hurt people that I love, and I've hurt people I hardly know, and I've been hurt back. I've made excuses for acts that are inexcusable. I've lived a bit of life - more than some of you, less than others. I feel a bit like Polonius, but I've got to remember that Polonius got stabbed behind the curtain.

Those are my credentials, plain and simple.

Oh. And I'm an asshole.

There, I beat you to it.

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