Colby Colby Commencement 2002
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Commencement 2002

Commencement address by Arthur Kopit, playwright

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Ana Castillo
Scott Cowan
Elizabeth Farnsworth
Robert Gelbard '64
Arthur Kopit

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Ana Castillo
Elizabeth Farnsworth
Robert Gelbard '64
Arthur Kopit


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Arthur Kopit, playwright
Colby Commencement Address
Sunday, May 26, 2002
Download print version (.doc)

President Adams, loyal trustees, generous, or at least I hope generous alumni, inspired faculty, overworked staff, distinguished guests, loving and ever supportive parents, relieved parents (financially as well as emotionally)--they made it!

Now what?

This is what I would like to speak about this afternoon. I know. I know it's scary. They can handle it.

Colby graduates. Hasn't quite sunk in yet has it? It will. Colby graduates, I've been brought here to tell you that you may think you know what this day means. I mean the big picture. You don't.

Colby graduates it is my great honor to announce today that after lengthy consultation your parents, President Adams, President Bush, and John Ashcroft have decided that the future of this country is in your hands. Why not? You've had a good education; you're fresh, strong, reasonably alert. We're tired of all this pressure, confusion at every turn. Someone always griping and those foreigners half of them don't even speak English. I mean it. You try it for a while. You think it's easy?

So much for the opening remarks.

No; the second page is too brutal.

The job market. There is no job market. It's an illusion.

Oh yes, this will help. This will be helpful in case you don't believe me about the job market. "Giraffe keeper at the Colchester Zoo in Essex, England." There's an opening. I'm not making these up. I found this online, all of these at cooljobs.com. You may want to check it out. "Security officer for the royal guard of Amen Ra. An international multi-level protection company founded by the actor, Wesley Snipes." I'm not kidding! Here's a good one: "Mystery shopper. There are currently over 300 market research companies that will pay mystery shoppers, sometimes known as secret shoppers, up to $24 per hour to perform a variety of services," which for some reason they do not define. Mystery shopper, think about it. Okay, here's one I bet your career counselors never mentioned. "Oscar Mayer talent search coordinator for the wiener jingle." How many know the wiener jingle? They'll teach it to you. This is why they need help; no one knows the jingle. As of yesterday, the Oscar Myer wiener company was looking for someone to coordinate a national-wide contest for kids age 3 to 10 who can sing the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle on pitch, or the baloney song. Those of you who are interested can find out more at www.kraftfoods.com. Just a few more to give you an idea what's out there. There's a La-Z-Boy furniture tester for which no particular skills are needed. This one is a possibility. Lost luggage locator for just about any airline company you can think of. And this one really intrigued me. "Group Therapy doorperson." It turns out that group therapy doorperson has nothing to do with group therapy. It has to do with a disco in North Carolina called Group Therapy, and you're at the door.

Anyway now it's time to get serious. Playwrighting as a profession. I don't advise it. Screenwriting as a profession. I don't advise it. Acting as a profession. I don't advise it.

So what else is there? Besides coordinator for the Oscar Mayer wiener jingle contest? Life is not easy. Someday you are going to be called upon to make a decision or two--maybe even three or four. I mean major decisions. How long can you hold off on doing this? Well, if you go to graduate school, quite a while. And if you don't go to graduate school, but drink a lot, also quite a while.

Surely there must be other options, and there are. I just don't know what they are. Okay, enough of that. What next, besides lunch?

What next? Nobody knows. Well who's in charge? Nobody knows. Maybe someone in the government. I'm joking.

Okay, let's look on the bright side: the Boston Red Sox. Lesson one: never give up hope. And lesson two: if you're lucky enough to have him, never trade Babe Ruth.

What next? I'm afraid to say, this is the truth, as I was writing this, the end of this this morning, I know I should have written it earlier, but I thought "maybe I'll find the answer to 'what next?' during the night." So as I was writing this this morning, I ran out of paper. So we're going to have to make the best of it.

In my hotel--the notes are on the back of what you find in a hotel room. Since this is ultimately the question, "what next" deals with the great theme of uncertainty. It seemed to me that having a commencement speaker, who is somewhat uncertain of where he's going next in his talk is very much to the point. We hope it doesn't get too much to the point.

A year ago last spring, I was teaching a playwriting course at Princeton and most of the students there were not intending to be playwrights. But they were in, and they weren't even in the arts, and they were very bright and graduation was coming, and I asked them one day how many knew what they were going to do the next year.

A few did. Very few maybe out of twelve. I became interested and I asked them about their fellow classmates and very few knew what they going to do. And they didn't seem upset or nervous.

When I had gone to college, that also seemed to me to be true, at least among my friends. We thought "we're young, we'll see what's out there." Unless you knew immediately you were going to law school or medical school or you wanted to be a research scientist. But, for the majority, they were unclear of what they were going to do and I asked a little bit about that.

We spent half of a class just talking about what the world was like to them and they came up with a phrase, or they told me a phrase that I had not been familiar with, which was the phrase "skill set." They talk about their skill set and they felt they had a pretty good skill set to deal with the world. Which was to say, it wasn't just what they learned in class. They realized that their skills involve love, if you will, they could get on. They knew how to run a group weekend. They had graduated. They had done their course work--that was a skill. They knew, and I knew very well--I have an older son who graduated from Dartmouth about eight years ago--that the concept of job security did not exist. If the concept of job security no longer exists, there is no such thing then as career track.

Career course is a phrase that should be banished. If you're looking towards a career believing that that career will bring you your safety net, it won't. There is no such thing. How can you be safe in your job if there is no safety net? And they weren't worried and I understood because they felt that they could handle what came, reasonably well. The dot.com boom that so many, including Enron and other corporations--AOL and Time Warner, felt they were going to last for a very long time. The dotcom boom that brought millions to my Dartmouth-graduate son's classmates, to his chagrin, disappeared very quickly. That was not going to be the way. Probably nothing that was suddenly going to appear and seem as if "this will answer all" was going to be the way.

And I asked them what they thought they would end up doing and most of them agreed that they could not predict what they would end up doing--that most likely they would end up doing something that they hadn't even thought about or heard of. And that somewhere, someday, maybe on a plane going someplace or a train, or at a dinner, they would meet somebody who would strike up a conversation saying, "Oh, I run a company that does this and this and would you like to work for us?" They would move around and they'd be prepared for the rain or (it's going to stop, this is only an illusion, there is no rain today) and so I began to think about the need to be flexible, to embrace uncertainty. To recognize that if you are sure of anything, you should be sure that what comes next is unpredictable.

I remembered an incident that happened to me a year after I was in college and I was on a travelling fellowship. I was in Europe and I'd never been to Europe before and I had a little car. It was pretty easy to travel in those days. Ten dollars a day in Europe. It was alright. A travelling fellowship meant that I was just supposed to travel and send back notes on where I'd been, and it was quite wonderful.

I'd been in Paris and I had friends (I started my journey in Scandinavia and I was now in Paris) who were in London, from college, and they were friends who had Fulbrights and friends who had just gone to Europe and I'd not been to England. So I got up one morning and I said to some friends of mine at this hotel in Paris. "I'm going to go to England today." They said "great" and we said goodbye and I drove to try to catch the Calais ferry to get across to England. I got there. Nobody in England knew I was coming. I was just going to arrive. I knew the addresses of various friends and I got to the ferry just as the ferry was pulling out. I was very upset. I asked when the next ferry was. There was not another ferry till the next day, but there was another ferry in a different location up the coast of France about an hour and if I drove very fast. Maybe I could make that. I drove very really fast, and I saw the ferry pulling out. I was very upset the ferry was pulling out and I was going to have to wait until the next day.

Then this epiphany occurred to me. There was no reason for me to be in England. I didn't have to be in England right away. Why was I hurrying? Why was I trying to catch the ferry? It just had come to me that if I was going somewhere, I had to go there. And I had to be there by a certain time. And I didn't. I also realized, and maybe some of you because young people do travel more than we used to, but it never occurred to me that this was the first time in my life that nobody that I knew knew where I was. Friends in Paris, the few friends there, knew that I'd just taken off. Parents didn't. Nobody did. Nobody knew where I was. Nobody had an idea where I was. It was a very liberating concept. It was a scary concept.

I realize that, through college--and this is what you have all dealt with and why I think if anyone can take a year off after school, it is wonderful. Through college your life has been divided into semesters, summer vacations, tests, and you think naturally in these parameters. You organize your life. Over a three-month period, what have you learned? Have you passed a course? So time is partitioned in a very particular way and suddenly I realized that that particular way the time had been partitioned for me and I now thought within those parameters that that was just an accident of my life up to that point.

Time was very different and there was no need to think in that way and you were responsible for yourself in a very different way. You had to organize time differently and that was almost the first time that I began to think about, seriously, the concept of narratives of our own lives. Of how we tell ourselves stories about ourselves.

We make up stories not consciously necessarily, sometimes we do, but instinctively and automatically we fill in the dots of our life so that the life seems to make some kind of sense. Graduation is part of that narrative for you, and traditionally part of that narrative is that you graduate and now the rest of your life begins and you do something and you have to do it in this way. But many of you sense that isn't really true, it's part of an on-going journey and you don't have to know what you're about to do. You don't have to know where you're going to be in five years or eight years or ten years. At some point you will want to.

I have here a note that says "Sartre quote." I can't imagine what that--"Simone you forgot the wine." I don't know about the Sartre quote. I'll think of it.

When the terrible events of September 11th occurred, I think all of us were confronted with what happens when your narrative provides no answer. When your own personal narrative is inadequate. When your narrative, your personal narrative, your national narrative has collided with another kind of narrative that you hadn't thought about and whose goals, whose entire root, is in opposition to yours.

I was downtown that day. I was supposed to be serving on a jury and it was called off because of the two planes hitting, so I walked over to a street in Tribeca, a little less than a mile from the World Trade Center, and it was a very, very, eerily beautiful day. I looked down with about a hundred people--there wasn't much noise except there was some very quiet sobbing, it turned out from some persons about four women and one man who worked at the WTC and they had been late that day. They had been very upset early in the morning to be getting there late, and because they got there late they were not in building when the planes hit, and they would have been on those very floors. So they were both relieved to have been saved and mourning the deaths of their co-workers.

It was an astonishing thing to watch. We couldn't make sense of it--we knew that terrorists of some sort had struck the building. Then suddenly this black cloud burst from the top of one of the Trade Centers and we hadn't heard a sound yet, but we knew something was about to happen. Then the cloud disappeared and the top of the building wasn't there and you suddenly realized that the building was falling. That was inconceivable. And then it started to fall very slowly and I thought--like most persons I'd seen video demonstrations, videos of buildings being brought down--and I always thought they fell in slow motion or rather it was put into slow motion, but that was the rate in which a building falls. It doesn't poomph, just drop, if it's a big building, it carefully just goes down. And this building very carefully, it seemed, began to telescope like, like a trick. It was just moving straight down and there were sparkling pieces of the building, I suppose, that sparkled falling off the side.

It was awesome and beautiful and terrifying. It just went down and down and down and then it was gone and there was this cloud. There was no gasp, nobody made a sound. You were just stunned by seeing this thing that was inconceivable. And then because the wind was blowing quite strong and blowing southwest or southeast, the smoke vanished for a moment and there, where the building had been, there was nothing but blue sky. There was nothing behind it but this iridescent blue sky, and it was if a giant tooth had been extracted. It was gone and there was now no smoke for a moment.

It wasn't there and part of the horror of it, the startling effect of this moment was, for me and then others I checked with later who lived down there, other writers I know who lived in that area who'd seen it, it was an almost physical feeling of my brain saying, "Help me, where do I put this information?" It seemed it was similar to what happens if you're moving where you have an office and you're going from one office to another and you have all the stuff and you don't know where to put it--there's no room, there's no cabinet. But this was much worse and there was a physical sensation of my brain saying "I don't know where to put this information." What do we do with it?" I thought, actually hold this in a second or two. I thought if a tiger or an elephant ran down the street, I could handle that because I would think, "Oh, it's escaped from a zoo. That's what it's doing there."

It was incomprehensible. I thought since about that day. Everyone has. One of the distinguished honorees this afternoon was there closer than any of us would want to be, brave beyond measure. The extraordinary thing that happened that day. The implications of it, I think are going to be with us.

The after effects, the reality of what it suggests, are going to be with all of you. You're in a world in which many people do not like you. Do not like us. Do not like what we stand for. The very concepts that we have held to be universal truths (whether we carry them out successfully in this country is another matter) but we do believe in them: equal rights for men and women, equal vote, rights of education. There are many people who find those concepts abhorrent and they will fight to the death for those concepts. I feel that's it's important that as you go forward, as we all go forward, that we recognize that what we take as a universal truth is not a universal truth and our way of life is the right way for everyone. It may not be. It's the right way for us and we're going to have to defend it and fight for it, but you can't prove through words to anybody that it's better. We feel it's better, others do not.

If you look upon those people who flew those planes into those buildings on that day as the face of evil, or evil incarnate, we will not do ourselves any service. It is possible for monstrous things to happen, evil things to happen, but if you think of those who wish to bring us down as the axis of evil or as evil, then you are saying in effect that they are random--that they scream from some primordial ooze that has no reason. They become faceless. Try to understand, the conditions that produce these terrible attackers in no way undermines our belief in the country or means to excuse what they did. It means it came from somewhere.

Nobody attacks someone else in the name of injustice. The people who attacked us that day are human just like us. And they believed that they were creating, they were helping, to foster justice. And that's what's terrifying.

And there is terrible uncertainty. There is no way to know where or when this kind of random destructive violence will hit again. And you deal with this not by running in fear or in terror, but by embracing it and saying "this is what you do. This is what you handle. This is what's like."

The paradigm has changed. The narrative that we have all been living through has changed. The rate of change has changed. Change is happening more quickly than it's ever happened. You have to give up the idea, sooner or later, that my generation, my parent's generation, lived with, which was there were career choices that you could make which could keep you safe and happy and enable you to raise your wonderful family, which is wonderful to do safely and securely. It ain't going to happen any more. It will be lucky if it is but maybe not. Maybe this is how the next chapter of this immense narrative simply will play out. And the more that I suggest that you, through your experience at Colby, in knowing people, try to understand others--the other that all peoples have traditionally thought of. Those who are not part of our group are the other and there is instinctive need or tendency to see them as less worthy or less than human. And they have become empowered, and it will get us nowhere if we continue to think in a certain linear cause-and-effect sort of way.

I'm sure there are people who absolutely believe in the missile defense system and can argue for it. I haven't met them. Yes it could probably do some good I suppose. It seems preposterous. The danger is much more sinister, much more subtle. Yes, somebody could send a missile towards us and we have the defense right now, which is to retaliate and wipe him or her out. Thinking has got to change. Einstein once said that, with his discovery of energy and the equilevance to mass, everything had changed but the way of our thinking. Thinking will have to change, and if you have learned anything at Colby, and I know you have, you've learned how to think. You've learned how to study. You've learned how to learn. That process goes on and on.

The Sartre quote. "Simone, you forgot the wine." No, the Sartre quote actually is, it seems odd for Sartre but it is, "Happiness does not come from doing what you want, but wanting what you do."

I think that the students at Princeton, and I like to think all of you, if you give up the notion that you could have security, you don't give up the notion of doing something that matters or something that you love and that is a kind of security. That means that you haven't wasted your life hoping to stay out of controversy, away from harm's way. Harm's way will come our way. It has come our way, but we can deal with it by understanding what is trivial, and 9/11 helped us all to understand that. Light entertainment is wonderful but we're not in light entertainment. And you will go out and enjoy yourselves and live fully, but, I think, with a recognition that you are entering a very different world. No one knows what is going to happen. It will be vastly different in twenty years. You can't live in fear of it. What you can do is set an example and to care about what you are doing and if it matters to you, it will matter to someone else.

Well now you understand it all. I congratulate you all. Be wary of anyone who thinks they know the answer. You probably learned that by now. Be wary of yourself, if you think you know the answer. If you follow your passion and you work very hard at what you do, and you believe and take with you the great values that you've obviously gained here and were so eloquently stated in the beautiful opening speech, you will have enormous security. You'll remember that the rest of life is not very much different, it's just on another scale. So the great adventure continues and God speed!



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