Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Trouble with Commencement Speeches

Well, to put it succinctly: they are boring and cliched, by definition.

I myself learned this firsthand when asked to deliver the graduation speech at my former elementary school when my younger brother was "graduating" from 6th grade. (Side note: I really think graduation ceremonies should be saved for high school and college. I am attending another brother's graduation from middle school next week and while I'm thrilled to be able to visit him and happy that he passed 8th grade and can start high school next year, I don't know, it just seems like a gimmick to get the parents all mushy and proud so they'll give more money.)

At any rate, in 1999 I was a high school senior. As I was not valedictorian of my class (far from it), I was not the speaker at my graduation. But as a "distinguished" alum from the elementary school where my brother Richard was graduating, I was invited to speak at his ceremony. Thus I was faced with writing a speech to inspire 6th graders and their parents. My first issue was that it felt disingenuous to tell them about what they had to look forward to, namely middle school. Which almost all survivors agree constitute a dark time of early adolescence. Bye bye, recess; hello, 4 hours of Spanish homework. Also hello body odor, pubic hair, awkward growth spurts, and pimples. We can't all look like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, folks.

But of course I couldn't talk about any of that in my speech. I had to be positive, congratulatory, and assure these young adults that the years ahead of them would be exciting and wonderful. I think "challenging" was about the only adjective I used to hint at the vortex of unpleasantness they were about to be unknowingly sucked into. So I felt like a charlatan. I quoted someone predictable, told them they were ready to reach for the stars or some shit and the parents ate it up. They even reprinted my speech in the next school newsletter.

This past Monday, I graduated from Emerson College's Creative Writing Master's program. Some of my peers chose not to participate in commencement, but hell, I spent the dough and felt like I deserved some fucking fanfare. Mainly, I wanted to see if anyone speaking could convince that my $60,000 was well-spent. Let's just say I was a tough crowd.

The main speaker was some Communication Ethics guy who was being awarded an honorary degree. And boy, did his speech suck. It had nothing to do with anything remotely related to Emerson or graduation or life. I think I might actually have preferred a conventional address. But what are the conventions of a commencement speech? Allow me to provide some handy guidelines:

-- a quote from Mark Twain and/or Gandhi

-- an inside joke about the institution so not inside that even the parents will chuckle/"get it", i.e. reference to terrible dining hall food

-- A Lincoln anecdote

-- sobering mention of recent tragic event/disaster (tsunami, tornado, ABC's Private Practice renewed for another season)

-- vague references to the future, leadership, dreams, tomorrow, change, endings, beginnings

and voila! Commencement speech. Next time I attend a graduation, I think I'll make up a bingo card with all of the above on it. I bet I get bingo several times over.

Man, I am getting grouchy and cynical in my old age.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

So You Think You Don't Like Poetry

A good friend of mine (and fellow Emerson poet) recently launched an online poetry journal: Interrupture. The first issue went live in February and contains some excellent poems. This one is by another Emerson graduate, the delightful Mary Kovaleski Brynes. She's been published in a number of places and is currently living in Spain. Anyway, I love how feverish this poem is -- I think the repetitions are well done and well placed, and the piece has a sensual rhythm, not to mention amazing images. Me likey (and hope you do, too).

Maybe This Happens to Everyone

When I woke, Paris was in flames.

I spent the day in bed while a man I loved

kissed my ankles, the white arches

of my feet, asked what made them,

and I told him it was the Sacre Cœur--

when a city is burning like that there’s no time

for lies. At night the flames were in my hair,

the flames were in his mouth and each street

unrolled like a long tongue that gave

us what we couldn’t understand,

only if we’d dance on the cobbles

they’d light up like the disco floors

of les Grands Boulevards, like the smooth-trodden

gravestones of popes inside the cathedral,

the martyrs emblazoned on the Bastille.

I don’t remember the Bastille.

It is impossible to remember the Bastille

when his hand is up my dress on the metro

and Paris is in flames. The trains

brought us in through a tunnel underwater:

the Chunnel was made of glass,

the train like a chain of dolphins linked end to end,

arching silver with the currents,

and we saw Humpbacks, eyes big as our train car,

slow and bovine—it took minutes to pass them.

Their whale eyes were looking at us—

everyone in Paris was looking at us.

We weren’t looking at anyone, and when we did

their faces were like mirrors and I loved

his strange watery reflection but kissed only him.

The trains came. The trains moved out

of the blue-glass station while we ate crepes Nutella

and called them crapes because we were Americans.

The trains came. The trains moved out.

Our train moved out.

We stayed. Paris lit and smoldered.

Maybe this was the beginning of the world again, maybe

it was the end—maybe this happens to everyone

in every city, even in small towns, where corn fields

catch fire at the end of summer

and teenagers tear off their clothes

and run naked through them, tempting

the flames with their flawless skin,

but it won’t brand them, won’t even singe,

no matter how hard they run.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Corporations on my shit list

Lately, The Man has really been getting me down, or at least The Man as represented by large national companies. I love to support local businesses, but let's be real, the fries at McDonald's are pretty bomb and sometimes, there's just no substituting them when you're starved at 1 a.m. and nothing else is open.

But McDonald's isn't really pissing me off actively right now. I actually find the discontinuation of the dollar menu between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m. at my local McD's more amusing than irritating -- if you ever need a good laugh, I highly recommend watching drunk people try to order dollar fries and shakes and be told over and over again that they have to buy an entire extra value meal. This goes on every night at the McD's at the corner of Commonwealth and Harvard Avenue in Allston, MA. Comedy gold.

No, today my ire is aimed at Dunkin' Donuts, Panera, and Best Buy. Let's start with the most minor offender: Dunkin's. Recently, they stopped offering an egg white option for their breakfast sandwiches. I guess high cholesterol and obesity are back in vogue. There is still the egg white flatbread, but it's disgusting -- dry, with alleged turkey sausage and flecks of green and red that I suppose are meant to resemble peppers. Not that the regular breakfast sandwiches were any culinary masterpiece, but at least you could get them on an English muffin, which is approximately 1,000 times tastier than the mealy flatbread monstrosity.

There was also some deception that transpired at the Boylston/Tremont location -- I came in one day and was told they were "out" of the egg whites that I had gotten in the habit of ordering on an English muffin with cheese. I was informed that they just ran out but would have them again soon.
LIES. Two days later, the same thing happened, but I was again reassured that it was a temporary outage, no cause for alarm. About a week after that, they finally dropped the ruse and broke the news to me that egg whites were a thing of the past.

Dunkin' Donuts, you are dead to me.

Next offender: Panera. I'm actually writing this from a Panera right now, fueled by their subpar coffee and injustice. Let me say that it pains me to muckrake a corporation that began as a local chain in my hometown of St. Louis. Once upon a time, Panera was St. Louis Bread Company, a great little cafe with delicious pastries. From the ages of 8-18, I ate countless tuna-salad-on- honey-wheat sandwiches. As Panera, the food is still pretty solid. I particularly enjoy the Fuji apple chicken salad, despite the fact that the dressing is the exact color and consistency of semen.

The location in Brookline advertises free wifi, so today I came for lunch and brought my laptop. When I logged on to the network at 12:45, I saw a disclaimer that between the peak hours of 11:30-1:30, I could only be online for 30 minutes. I was slightly annoyed that this policy was not made clear on the numerous "free high speed wireless internet!" signs, but whatever, I thought, I'll have to be disconnected for like 15 minutes, from 1:15-1:30 and then I can get back on.

As expected, I got bumped off at 1:15. I waited till 1:30....couldn't get back on. 1:40....still nothing. I asked an employee (Charissa) and she told me the peak hours are actually from 11-2. I told her this is not what it says on the "log in" home page. She also said that sometimes it's limited to 30 minutes even not during peak hours because they have a problem with students camping out for hours and occupying tables. By the way she snarkily informed me of this, I could tell she thought I fell into this category. I told her I have been here less than an hour, bought and ate lunch here and was in the middle of writing an important e-mail when I was kicked off (this was true). She offered me a complimentary cookie. I told Charissa to go fuck herself and get a real name.

Ok, the last part isn't true. But I did turn down the cookie. I have some principles. The good news is that the town of Brookline has a cheap wifi service you can sign up for, so I am now taking up a large booth to blog about this. Suck it, Panera.

Finally, the corporation most deserving of my hatred -- Best Buy. Last year, my dad bought me an Insignia flatscreen HD TV with a built-in DVD player. In March, a little over a year after acquiring this TV, the DVD player stopped working. I took it in to Best Buy since it was still under warranty. It took them 2 weeks, but they repaired the DVD player. I brought the TV home and about a week later, the DVD player stopped working AGAIN. I called Best Buy and asked if I could get a new TV since this one was obviously a piece of garbage. They told me that per my warranty, they won't replace the TV until it's been sent out for service FOUR TIMES. It has to break FOUR TIMES before they replace it, and remember, each time it goes out for service, it takes 2 weeks to fix. Unacceptable.

My dad, who loves lost causes and in his semi-retirement writes a lot of angry letters, was pretty pissed that this policy was buried in the fine print of the extended warranty agreement he signed. He chewed out a Best Buy supervisor named Troy, based in Colorado. I guess it brings me a little pleasure to think about Troy (employee ID #153162) in Colorado getting yelled at by a 65-year-old man in St. Louis who's furious that his daughter's DVD player in Boston is broken. My dad threatened Troy that he would "post a blog on the internet" (I didn't have the heart to tell him that statement's redundant) and bring Best Buy to its knees, defaming Troy and all the Troys in the Best Buy corporate machine who rip off the little people.

Et tu, Troy?

Then Dad ordered me an external DVD player. From Walmart.
We'll see how this plays out.