Michael's Essay: Graduation Season


June is a change month.

Gardens burst open. We switch wardrobes. Sometimes, we smile on the street. We ease up a bit at our jobs. We become summer people once again.

For the graduates of our colleges and universities, June is a month of dramatic change.

Across the country this month, they march (cheered by proud parents and grandparents) into halls and auditoria and huge canvas tents to receive the degrees for which they have worked so hard.

They gather together in solemn assembly, a convocation.

Earlier this week, York University in Toronto, academic home to more than 52,000 students, held its convocations.

As part of one of the ceremonies, I was presented with an honorary degree. By the day of it, I had overcome my initial surprise and bewilderment at the offering. I dressed up in a purple and red robe. And I wore a funny hat. I was delighted to attend, perhaps representing high school dropouts everywhere. It was a treasurable moment.

I wanted to speak directly to the young people, to tell them that - in June and at all times - change is something to be cherished and that their hard work is to be celebrated.

This morning, instead of my usual essay, some thoughts for the graduates of 2012, wherever they may be.

It is certainly a great but somewhat daunting honour to be with you this morning. An honour because it never would have occurred to me that I would at some point be standing here in these funny clothes like someone from the cast of Goodbye Mr. Chips, accepting an honorary degree from York. And daunting because professors and other titans of the academy make me nervous, in the manner of head waiters, border guards and  emissaries from Revenue Canada.

But standing here in this wonderful place stirs up a host of golden memories.

Those hours spent arguing about Spinoza and Wittgenstein and the Maple Leafs in Founders' Pub. Waiting for the York bus in the middle of February. Occasional  nights of mild debauchery by Stong Pond. And of course the eternal promise hovering in the cold air that the subway was just a few years away.

But hold on. Wait a minute, wait a minute! These can't be my golden memories I've stirred up: I never attended York. In fact I never attended any university.These must be your golden memories I've stirred up.

I do have one tenuous connection with this noble institution. In the early Seventies I was a feature writer for The Toronto Star. My assignment one morning was to go to a hotel in Yorkville and meet the famous Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who wrote Babi Yar. I was to spend the day with him showing him the sights and then get him to York for a reading that night.

He, however, was more interested in shopping for an expensive watch and taking in as much vodka as the afternoon would permit. By the time I and the Mad Russian arrived at the campus  I could hardly read my notes.

But never mind about Russian poets, this day, this moment, is about you and what you have done in this place. Think about what you've accomplished, what you've achieved here. It has taken you three or four years of toil and no doubt some tears to earn your degree, that important document of affirmation. 

I got mine in half an hour without doing anything to earn it. If I stick around till four o'clock, I'll leave with a PhD.

Somebody has said that a commencement speech is like a message in a bottle thrown onto the waves. There is the vagrant hope that someone, somewhere, someday will smash open the bottle, read the note and be transformed. The note in the bottle is supposed to provide encouragement, advice and a healthy sense of possibility. But the lurking danger of rhetorical excess and thickets filled with clichés and platitudes is very real.

I'll try to be careful to avoid them.

I should present some kind of resume which makes me worthy to be here this morning, but the only credential I've ever had is a press pass. And it has been great to have it as a pass and a passport to events and experiences that have formed me and the way I think. I work for a non-profit NGO called the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. And despite what governments of every political stripe think, the most important cultural institution in the country.

It has been an education, but much different in kind than yours. Mine is an education of experience laced with, I hope, some study. Yours is an education of study to be followed by an education of experience. Having worked in journalism all my life, I really should know a little something about communications.    But the world of media and communications that I come from, is in the throes of disappearing, if it hasn't already died.

You live in a world in which you will be bombarded by, and saturated in, information and images. What we call news and the coverage of news is much different now than when I began as a reporter. Description of events which used to take hours, even days, to reach vast publics across the world are now transmitted in seconds. Ancient images of foreign correspondents in trench coats have been replaced by thousands of ordinary people with cell phone cameras in crowded revolutionary squares.

Reporting and commentary, historically done by people we called journalists, have been superseded to some extent by people and places we call blogs and bloggers. The traditional form of news transmission, the daily morning or evening newspaper, is on life support. While the decline of print journalism seems to carry on apace, the electronic explosions of information proliferate. This has led to a number of serious consequences for journalism, not all of them good.

It has made more transparent the inner workings of journalism. It has made reporters, I think, more accountable for what they do.

On the other hand, much of what passes for journalism, it seems to me, is tabloid reporting of inauthentic people doing inauthentic things. The roaring cataracts of information we are constantly pouring out of our media --- 24/7 all news formats --- are to my mind making people crazy. We crave information and facts in the hope that they will lead to understanding, insight perhaps even wisdom.  There is a paradox at work here.

We are so attached to the world of instantaneous  communication,  that we sometimes feel disconnected from everything else; from the world, even.We spend hours staring at screens, surfing, searching, soaking up  images. We say it's our work and we have to do it or it's our hobby and we want to do it.

But I wonder what the impact is on our ability to understand things. In this new world of communication I have had to learn a lot of things that you already know. And you will have to learn and re-learn skills over and over again in your careers.

I may have more information jammed into my brain pan than I did at age twenty, and  I may be a bit better at retrieval. But I'm not sure I am any wiser. One of my heroes, J.M. Barrie, the writer who gave us Peter Pan once said: "I'm not young enough to know everything."

Wisdom doesn't come automatically with age which is why it would be the height of presumption for me to try to tell you what life is all about.

And besides, I haven't the slightest idea.

Frank Zappa said life is like high school with money, which is not a bad working definition. On the other hand, the great Manhattan philosopher Woody Allen said that ninety per cent  of life is just showing up. But it seems to me that showing up is not enough. It's the remaining ten per cent that gives power and worth to the showing up part. It's the ten per cent where you make a difference in someone's life. Or it's when you embrace a cause, engage a passion or strive to make changes in your life and your world.

I realize I'm treading very close to cliché territory here and testing your tolerance levels. But perhaps if I share with you a couple of things I've learned along the way it might be of some small use.

My friend June Callwood taught me years ago that there are no innocent bystanders, that if you come across pain in any form and do nothing to help, you're responsible.

It was from her and people like her that I learned the small things are what give life its meaning.

I've learned that laughter is prayer, work is therapy and music and poetry are gifts from heaven.

I have learned that you should not do too much planning; always leave room for chance.

Try  re-reading a book you loved as a child.

When  grownups start telling you to be realistic, or talk about the real world, you should smile pleasantly and politely leave the room.

Learn how to fix something. Or make something using your hands. The next time you give a loony to a homeless man, talk to him for five minutes - get his story.

Remember when you argue with your children, what a horse's ass you were at that age.

And remember please that women hold up half the sky, that misogyny and the murderous oppression of women anywhere is literally a crime against humanity.

And never think you are too old to walk a forest path in bare feet or have a lengthy conversation with a very young child.

In the years to come, you may have two or three different careers. You will succeed at many things and fail at some. And you'll probably learn more from your failures than your successes.

The American novelist James Baldwin wrote this: "Trust life and it will teach you  in joy and sorrow, all you need to know."

I can't add to that except to say that it is a privilege  to meet you this morning, that I applaud what you've done, envy what you will do and wish you all the very best.

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