Wednesday, June 9, 2010

I want to say just one word to you ... Plastics

Film aficionados know that quote well. It's one of the more bizarre lines from The Graduate -- a very bizarre movie about a disaffected college grad who returns home to discover that he's completely adrift in the world he'd left behind.

The movie made Dustin Hoffman a star, and it also delved into the whole notion of a young man's ultimate fantasy ... being taken to school, as it were, by the older and wiser woman. It also -- in the interest of honesty -- explores how complicated and unsatisfying these "school sessions," as it were, can be.

More than any of that, however, The Graduate portrays very well the disconnect kids often feel between the structured intensity of what they've just endured and the uncertainty of what lies ahead. The perhaps feel that more making the transition from college to the "real world," but I'm sure there's just as much of it among high school graduates too.

I know I felt it, even though high school was a laborious, extremely stressful four years for me (for some reason, I got through college with far less stress), I knew the minute I left the campus for the last time that my life would change ... and change profoundly.

I remember seeing J. Shannon Broderick as I was walking to my car ... a guy I'd seen every day while school was in session for four years. He wasn't remarkable by any stretch ... just a good, friendly kid who -- at the time -- lived out of state (St. John's Prep was both a day school and boarding school in those days).

We shook hands, and I knew -- the minute we did that -- that I'd probably never see him again. It was an unsettling thought. Not so much because it was him, but because there were a ton of classmates that I knew I'd never see again. In some cases, that really didn't bother me. But in others, it did.

We were 17 and 18, and we were all guys. And one thing I can tell you: Guys that age don't go around autographing each other's yearbooks and collecting phone numbers. At least this guy didn't. I couldn't have cared less.

Yet when I said my goodbyes to Shannon Broderick, I almost wish I'd taken the time.

Anyway, as it turns out, I saw Shannon twice since. The first time was on the subway in Boston. It was late at night, I was returning home from some assignment, and saw this rumpled figure curled up in a ball, catching a nap. I looked again, and it was Shannon. He was always a bit of a night owl! Turns out Shannon was living in Boston.

The only other time I saw him was in 2006 -- at my 35th high school reunion.

I can't say I felt like Benjamin Braddock of The Graduate after high school, though I felt a little like him after college, when I had no idea what I was going to do about a job ... and no clue as to where I'd wind up living. It all worked out, of course, but that brief period of uncertainty was mighty stressful. I did the job interview circuit (I got up for the first one, had a nice breakfast ... and promptly threw it all up. That's how nervous I was), but ended up being offered a job with United Press International, in Boston, where I'd interned. To say I was grateful is an enormous understatement.

At least nobody told me that my future should be in plastics. Thank God.

I write this today, though, not to bore you about my own graduating experiences, because I have nothing, really, to tell. I was/am pretty ordinary. My experiences aren't that much different than anyone else's are.

I would, however, like to offer the following (unsolicted) advice to any graduates who may be looking for some ...

Your education has not ended. It has begun. School teaches you that intellectual curiosity is a lifelong process, and if you haven't learned this, then either you, or your teachers, have done a very poor job.

Stay current ... not just about your chosen field of endeavor (for college graduates) but about life itself. Embrace newness. Or, at least, try to experience it.

Stay on top of trends, whether they're technological or cultural. That doesn't mean you have to embrace every one of them with unbridled enthusiasm, but be familiar with what they are. Nothing annoys me more than people who haven't felt it necessary to do this. They don't know how to use a computer, eschew cell phones, and they're proud of it.

It's nothing to be proud of. Every technological advance has been met with tongue-clucking dismay from people who would rather plant their feet where they're most comfortable. But comfortable equals complacency, and complacency equals frustration.

Not only that, but technology generally wins this battle. Wait. Never mind the "generally." It always wins this battle. Newton Minnow (great name) called TV a vast wasteland. The internet (and Facebook) was a sure vehicle to break up marriages and waste time (loved Betty White's take on that last month on Saturday Night Live). Yet who, today, doesn't watch at least something on TV? And who, today, exists without the internet? For most people (and I daresay all connected people) the internet is an integral part of our days ... both professional and personal.

Here's some more advice. Resist the urge to give people the impression you're ignorant. For reasons I've never been able to fully comprehend, this seems to be a badge of honor among kids. As Henry Higgins said in "My Fair Lady," "use proper English, you're regarded as a freak."

God, how I hate reading newspaper blogs, with God-awful usage, bad grammar, atrocious spelling, and disjointed, and disconnected sentence structure. I don't mean to be a snob about this (well, OK, I do mean to be a snob about it) but I do not take people seriously if they can't do better than that. And I'm sure I'm not alone.

It may have been cool in high school to act like a dolt, but it's not cool when you're an adult and you're still playing "connect the dots" when you write a sentence.

If you've escaped high school without the slightest knowledge of how to construct a sentence, or compose a simple thought, shame on you, and shame on your school. Nobody's asking you to be Shakespeare. But, good God, you need to have the ability to write a simple declarative sentence. And it's amazing to me how many people just cannot do that.

Nothing will leave you standing alone and adrift in life more than ignorance. Avoid it at all costs.

Here's some more. Stay young. Now obviously we all age physically and chronologically. But that doesn't mean we have to age mentally and emotionally. Stay young. One very good way to do that, as I've already mentioned, is to stay current.

It also means keep an open mind. Cultural trends come and go in this world, and not all of them can stand the test of time, or the scrutiny of a critical society. But when you get to be about 50, let's say, your should not be shutting your mind off, totally, from the new. You'll think, and feel, much younger if you at least learn about these trends. Then, you can make your choices based on knowledge instead of merely because "it wasn't like that when I was young." Of course it wasn't. The only certainty in life, beyond death, is that nothing stays the same. We are constantly evolving.

I was never really wild about the movie "The Big Chill," but I always appreciated that Lawrence Kasdan and Barbara Benedek (the writers) explored the tug-of-war among the baby boom generation between living totally in the past and embracing the present. It manifested itself in two memorable scenes.

The first came when Michael (Jeff Goldblum) gently reminded Harold (Kevin Kline) that music existed beyond 1969 (this, after Harold told everybody that only music from the golden boomer era ever saw the light of day in his house).

The second occurred when Nick (William Hurt) got angry and told the group of friends gathered to mourn Alex's suicide that they needed to stop living in the past. He told them it was easy to understand how their friendship flourished during their cushy, insulated college years, but that now, 20 or so years removed, that friendship would not survive if none of them could break 100 percent free from the past. Well he said it in different words, but that's what he meant.

Being young also means to stay in shape! And if you're not in shape, then what's wrong with you? You don't have to be in shape for a marathon. But pay attention to your body.

Old bodies mean old minds. If your body is too sedentary, then your mind will be too. I don't have an explanation for this ... it just is. You don't have to go the gym every day and pump iron like Ahh-nuld. But set aside some time -- even if you have to get up early to do it -- to take a walk every day.

Pay attention to what you eat, too. As our bodies and our metabolisms change, so should our dietary habits. As someone who is just, now, experiencing the joys of healthy eating and living (even if I had to have surgery to do it!) I can say, with 100 percent certainty, that any sacrifices you have to make with regards to health, exercise and nutrition are worth it. The rewards are fantastic, and it's certainly better than sitting around all day because your body hurts too much to be active.

Do not let the great subway train of life leave you on the platform. There may be another one right behind, but it might not be your train. In other words, Carpe Diem. Seize the day. Identify your goals and, dammit all, go after them. There is no time like the present. If you keep putting off that master's degree for another day, there will be another one after that ... and another one ... and another one still. Next thing you know, you're 40, married, with children, and you won't have the time, or the money, to pursue that degree. You've run out of "another days."

If it's something you want to do, do it now. Get it done. Make the sacrifices, even if it means living with mom and dad for two more years. Some professions require advanced degrees, but even with the ones that do not, there's no such thing as too much education.

I know, because I was one of the ones who "put it off for a few years." Now, I'm 57 and never got to it.

Do not let yourself drift. Do not settle for less ... at least in the long run. Fight the attitude that the devil you know is better than the one you don't, especially if that devil is a job that frustrates you and keeps you up at night. I'd rather take my chances with the unknown than put up with that the rest of my life.

Yet at the same time, keep yourself moving forward. If you find yourself working in a situation that you don't like, try to learn from it anyway. Lots of times, especially in large corporations, you're put in unattractive positions so that the management can see how you react to them. Learn how to count to ten. Learn how to navigate the minefield of officious mid-level managers who are on the make, and who will throw you under the bus in a second if it pushes them forward.

Learn from them. But don't be like them. They're miserable people, and they end up lonely and bitter because they have all this power and nobody wants anything to do with them.

Learn from the experience, though. And don't throw it all away because you've encountered a boss who doesn't love everything you do. Lots of times, sadly, those are the bosses you end up remembering the most, because they've pushed you to be better. Be honest. Do you remember the teachers in school who allowed you to coast? Or do you remember the ones who actually gave a damn and demanded that you do better?

(This, by the way, is why I'm such a strong advocate of playing sports in high school. Most coaches, if they're any good at all, demand way more out of us than we think we're capable of giving.)

Finally, this (to bring this to full circle): Don't stop learning. Read. Listen. Keep yourself informed on current events, and don't rely solely on the source that suits your particular political slant either.

If you get your daily dose of Rush Limbaugh to tell you how to think, plow into the treacherous waters of Rachel Maddow once in a while ... just to round out your perspective.

If your idea of keeping current is to read the editorial pages of the Boston Globe, or New York Times, you're only halfway there. You might need to check out George F. Will once in a while, or even Bill O'Reilly or Sean Hannity. You don't have to like them. But a balanced perspective will at least serve to either validate your views or, perish the thought, make you rethink them. Either way, it's all good.

Just avoid Glenn Beck at all costs. He's a sock puppet and he's a blithering idiot (if Blogspot has emoticons, I don't know where they are; there should be a winky-face next to this!).

I don't pretend to be an expert on these matters. But I've had the experience of falling into some of the traps I've described here ... and also had the experience of escaping some of them too.

There's no worse a feeling in life than being trapped, whether it's in ignorance, a bad marriage, a bad job, a bad relationship, an eternal emotional time warp that begins and ends when you were "young," or a body that has stopped working for you.

And there's no greater feeling of freedom and exhilaration than to escape those traps, even if getting out involves discomfort in the short term.

It is my hope that today's graduates avoid the pitfalls altogether. That way, you won't have to expend all your energy escaping them.

Congratulations to all this year's graduates.


Laura said...

"If it's something you want to do, do it now. Get it done. Make the sacrifices, even if it means living with mom and dad for two more years. Some professions require advanced degrees, but even with the ones that do not, there's no such thing as too much education."

It is like you know all about my true inner at home makes me want to cry on a regular basis but is so necessary so I can continue working diligently in the print field.

I really loved this. There was a lot of really good advice and even more great points.

Thank you :)

Steve K said...

Thanks, Laura. Lots of people are stilling living at home. It's not ideal, but -- as you've noted -- it's an avenue sometimes to being able to afford the preparations you have to take to achieve your goals. I think my son (who is about to move out) has it right. Live here ... but as long as you have a happy, healthy life going for you it really doesn't matter where you put your head at night.