Rarely do temperatures dive into the 30s on the morning of Commencement in mid May at Warren Wilson College. Even rarer is a commencement address by Peter Sagal, host of NPR’s “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!”
But both came together nicely at Warren Wilson’s 2014 Commencement May 17 on Sunderland Lawn. After a chilly, foggy start to the day, a warm sun broke through for the College’s 46th Commencement as a four-year institution. And Sagal’s first college commencement speech shone just as brightly at the ceremony where 172 Warren Wilson graduates received their bachelor’s degrees.
From processional to recessional, the 2014 Commencement was a celebration of the achievements of an accomplished group of graduates. This year’s top senior honors went to Nora White, Pfaff Cup winner, and Hannah Monroe, Sullivan Award recipient. Maggie Mae Farthing was chosen by her classmates to be Senior Class Speaker; she also received the inaugural Student Life Senior Award. Top teaching awards went to Mark Brenner (faculty), professor of environmental studies and biology, and Chase Hubbard (staff), manager of the Warren Wilson College Farm.
Sagal came to Asheville on the heels of the Washington, D.C., taping of the final “Wait Wait” with retiring scorekeeper Carl Kasell. Despite a typically whirlwind week, Sagal was every bit as engaging and witty as he is on his weekly show.
Following is the text of his address to the Class of 2014:
Good morning graduates, faculty, parents of graduates – you must be proud – and parents of faculty, although seriously, folk, it might be time to let it go. Good morning as well to President Solnick, which is hard for me to say without laughing because I’ve known him for a long, long time. “President Solnick.” Right. Nice to meet you, I’m Empress Sagal.
I have the difficult task of imparting some advice to you, at this moment that you enter the Real World. That is, other than: Don’t.
Of course, as graduates of Warren Wilson College, you are the least in need of such advice. You actually had to work. This is the only institution young people attend with a work requirement. Well, the only one they attend voluntarily. It’s like a minimum security prison your parents pay for.
You grew your own food, you maintained your own buildings, provided your own services… you are uniquely positioned to thrive well beyond any other college graduates of today, as long as the future you now walk into involves a Zombie Apocalypse. Because when it does come, you guys will be growing food and forging weapons and maintaining a robust IT network powered by captive zombies shambling on treadmills. You guys are trained survivors. You know what you call a Harvard grad, like me, in a zombie apocalypse? An entrée.
However, in the unlikely event that the zombie apocalypse DOESN’T come, and you need to come up with some kind of Plan B, I thought I would try to give some pointers.
This is hard to do, because I come before you today as a complete failure. But maybe you might find the nature of my failure useful, as a counter example.
When I graduated from college, I dreamed, more than anything, of dazzling the world with my important work. I was inspired, as I’m sure many of you are, by a famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” You probably know it.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
I thought that would be great, to be one of those mad ones, mad to talk and desirous of everything at the same time. It never occurred to me until much later to think about what happens to those people Kerouac is talking about. They explode. With all due apologies to your generation’s Jack Kerouac, Ms. Katie Perry, you really don’t want to be a firework. They’re pretty to look at, but they don’t last long, and while they’re burning, most other people tend to keep their distance. Seriously, have you seen Katie Perry’s video? She’s got sparks shooting out of her breasts! And people are like, well, that’s cool! Nobody runs away, screaming, Oh my god, she’s shooting sparks from her breasts! Nobody tries to put her out! Instead, they just are like, whoa, cool, let’s follow her around. Nonsense. Those who burn really, really brightly end up as piles of ash. For example, Neal Cassady, the man who Kerouac loved most and who appears in On the Road as the character Dean Moriarty, ended up dying, most likely, of a drug overdose at the age of 41. Kerouac himself drank himself to death at the age of 47.
So after college, I went out to LA to be a Big Screenwriter and make Important Movies, or at least profitable ones, so I could at least be famous, and that didn’t work out and instead I spent a lot of time at a theater, a theater that did new plays and most of them were terrible, and some of them were brilliant, by writers like Tony Kushner and Paula Vogel and Donald Marguilies, so I decided, naturally, first, that I would be a playwright, and second that I would be one of the brilliant ones. I would write amazingly smart and difficult plays, and these plays would instruct and edify the theater going public, and when my plays were performed before an audience, that audience would either apologize to me or form a mob to hang me, and either outcome would be fine.
What I wanted to be, what I felt I had to be, on the day when I sat where you are now, was Great. Why did I want to be great? I wanted to be great because that’s what I was always told I should want.
You are deluged with the same slogans day after day, year after year.
Make no small plans.
Be the change you want to be in the world.
Imagine the person you want to be, and overcome every obstacle so you may become that person.
So that was my goal. I was going to be Great. I was going to be a household name. I was going to be devoted to my art, a slave to my muse, and if that meant that I would have to treat some people badly along the way – well, I’m sure they would understand, when I explained it wasn’t my fault, it was my muse’s. I wasn’t here to comfort people. I wasn’t here to leave large tips. I couldn’t pause while writing the great American play in order to write Thank You Notes.
You may have noticed that I am not, in the fact, The Great American Playwright. I am not even ‘A’ Great American Playwright. I am a man who makes fart jokes on the radio.
And now I have made one in a college commencement speech.
And that is my failure.
It didn’t work. It didn’t pan out. The plays I wrote were good but not good enough, or maybe they were good enough but they didn’t meet the tenor of the times. They got produced but not reviewed, or not reviewed well enough, and there was this one actress who ruined things, and this one director who didn’t know what he was doing, and one producer who didn’t come through and the next thing I knew I was scrambling to make a living and I wrote “Dirty Dancing 2” without meaning to, which pretty much was the extent of my screenwriting career, and one day I got a job offer to be on this new pretty lame show on NPR, and I took it because I needed the medical insurance and it seemed fun, and 16 years went by and now I’m here, speaking to you.
Failure has a way of teaching you things. For one thing, it teaches you that your ideas of what failure is might need some adjustment.
To wit: my goal in life was to make people uncomfortable. Instead I ended up amusing them. Helping them while a way an hour, that might otherwise be tedious or dull. People come up to me and tell me that they listen to their show while driving their kids to soccer, or while doing the dishes, or the laundry, or stripping their boat. Once, a young woman with an inordinate amount of tattoos and piercings, told me that she listened to the show at her job, embalming bodies. At least, I hope it was her job.
For a long time, this seemed either inadequate to my supposed talents, and far, far from the kind of mark I had wanted to leave on the world. And I struggled with this for a long time. And gradually I came to understand something. It came from thinking less about what I wanted to do to other people, and more about what it was I wanted people to do for me.
I had wanted, as an artist, to annoy people, to make them uncomfortable, to question and to shock them and to smash them out of their complacent little lives. And yet, in my own complacent little life, I didn’t want to be shocked or smashed out of my complacency. I liked my complacency. It was hard won. Complacent, after all is what unhappy people call happy people.
What I genuinely liked was to laugh. What I liked was to feel welcome. What I liked was to be comforted, in some way, that everything was all right, that I wasn’t entirely alone out here. Even if it wasn’t true. Especially if it wasn’t true.
Another thing that began to change for me was not just the experiences I chose but the people I chose. One of the great privileges of being an artist, I had always thought, was to hang out with Artists. Who would want to hang out with me, while at the same time scorning the rest of the population. Because if they weren’t jerks to everyone else, what would be the value of their affection to me? To paraphrase a great American film, “The Incredibles,” if you treat everyone like they’re special, then no one is.
But I got older, which is something I did end up having a talent for. And I discovered something surprising, is that whether somebody had created something Amazing or Great or Immortal really had little to do with how much I wanted to hang out with them. There are people who think their artistic or financial success qualifies them to be jerks. Their patron saint is the composer Rickard Wagner, who wrote brilliant Operas, while at the same time lying, cheating, betraying or simply abusing every person who made the mistake of helping him. I thought about the great problem of separating the artist’s work from the artist, and I decided I would continue to go see Wagner’s operas, but not if I had to sit next to Rickard Wagner.
No: instead, the people who I sought out were different than the kind of tormented geniuses I had thought I wanted to be. I wasn’t like Kerouac: I didn’t want to hang out with the ones who were mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, or generally mad to do anything at all. I wanted to be, as dull as it sounds, to hang with the nice ones. But mostly, with those who were light.
And by that, I mean, those who didn’t feel or carry the burdens of this life, either to suffer them or to express them. I didn’t want to experience the agony or the ecstasy. I wanted to experience the comforts of friendship and laughter. Not gravitas but goofiness.
And meanwhile, contrary to my intentions the last time I wore a robe like this, I myself had become someone who offered those moments to a mass audience. In addition to the people who told me they helped me get them through their chores, there were people who told me that my show helped them get through a divorce, or the death of a loved one, or chemotherapy. There were people who told me that listening to my show make fun of the news was the only thing that made the news bearable.
There was one woman who was struck by a sudden illness and fell into a coma, hovering on the balance point between life and death. Doctors told this woman’s family that it was really up to the woman whether to live or die, and if they wanted to help her make a decision to live, they should try to remind her, of something she might like to live for. So they played her episodes of “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” and she came out of the coma. We got this woman and her wife free tickets to see our show when we came to their town, and when I met her I experienced either the most satisfying reward any person could ever hope for – I helped a human being come back to life! – or the most elaborate and impressive scheme to get free tickets to a radio show ever conceived. Either way, I was impressed.
So what I have come to accept is that instead of being the burr in the shoe of America, it was my role to be your soothing voice. Your down pillow. Your comfort. Your friend. Your plush toy.
And I realized, at last, that this was of being greater service to the world, to my fellow men and women, than telling them that everything was screwed. That my failure to be a firecracker had led me instead to be a candle. We burn slower. But we have a warmer light. And we make you want to get closer.
So my advice to you, graduates – you knew I’d get here eventually – is that you forget about working on being the person you want to be. Your own ambitions sometimes can’t be trusted. Chances are you’ve borrowed them from somebody else anyway.
But you know what you like. You know who you like. So instead of spending all that effort to be the person you want to be, work and strive to be the person you want to be with.
The people you want to be with – most likely – don’t take themselves, or you, too seriously. They’re kind and generous and never make you subject to their needs. They treat you like a valued friend, like a benefit to their life, rather than raw material. They make themselves of use. They make great things that they like to share with you, be it paintings or cookies or jokes. Sometimes, they made tedious tasks bearable.
Strive to be that person. Because life is short, even now, when it seems to stretch before you. And I think that contrary to the ancient wisdom, it is not better to burn out than fade away. That is a false choice. We will all burn out, and then we will all fade away. The best choice is to give some warmth while you do it.
If you can’t manage that, I suggest fart jokes. It’s worked for me.
Congratulations to you all!
Rashad Ali receives his degree from President Steve Solnick
The Class of 2014 included 172 bachelor’s degree recipients