Monday, May 7, 2018

'Don't give advice' and other useless, unheeded commencement suggestions

     Welcome friends, family members, residents of Chicago and environs.
     This is the commencement season.
     They have already begun, these solemn ceremonies, grand processions and groaning brass overtures, at institutions great and small, and will continue for a month and a half, from Loyola University Chicago, all this week, until ... Northwestern University, bringing up the rear, Friday, June 22.
     I'll be at NU, seeing the younger boy off into the world. But first, I'll be at Pomona College in California. Two boys, two commencements, boom-boom, one after another. Because the younger lad flashed through college in three years, itself a lesson on the value of paternal advice, since, when he raised the idea, I urged him to linger and enjoy college. You'll have a lifetime to work.
     He shrugged and did what he wanted. That's what kids do.
     Leading to my first piece of advice for commencement goers: don't give advice. Really, don't. The grads don't want to hear it, probably won't hear it, and you're giving it anyway, not based on their lives, but yours. We pretend we're trying to spare them our mistakes, but what we're really doing is trying to pick the music for a party we're not invited to.
     No matter. Advice will be given. Speakers famous and obscure will don black robes and puffy velvet hats, and share wisdom. Dream dreams. Live life.
     But what about the audience? Who speaks of our hopes?

     Nobody. Maybe we don't need it; our hopes are right in front of us, a snaking line of black-robed almost-graduates, taking selfies.
     To be honest, the person needing advice is me: fashion advice, first. Pack a sport coat? I consulted the video of the 2017 Pomona commencement to assess what the audience was wearing. A few old coots in jackets, but mostly men in their shirtsleeves.
     "Wear what you're comfortable in," my wife suggested. "It's California."
     Everywhere is California now. So my next bit of advice is: wear clothing. For an audience member to even ponder fashion inflates yourself to a significance you don't enjoy. You're a speck of color in the crowd.
     Bring mints. They help the time go by.
     Try not to cheer your graduate. Because every single graduate has family, and a brief delay after each makes the ceremony even longer than it already is. However, for some families, this graduation represents not the latest step on a perpetual victory lap but a revolution, a stirring breakthrough. They have to cheer, to scream out the names of their babies.
     I always thought the stern warnings against cheering reflect white privilege. What do they expect? Everyone in the audience to pat fingertips against palms and whisper, "Oh look, Muffy, junior is reaching another summit ..." So don't cheer unless you have to. If you do, go crazy. You earned it. Well, technically, your kid earned it, but that kid would have been selling drugs on a street corner if you didn't ride herd over him 24/7, and you know it and I know it even if the kid doesn't know it. So you earned it, too.
     I already know what I'm going to do, and I didn't realize this until I started to watch the Pomona video. I'm going to cry, and I'm not even sure why.
     Relief? No. If I could close my eyes, call out "One more time!" and open them to find myself standing at Evanston Hospital, awkwardly clutching a red-faced bundle wrapped in a soft blankie, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Even if it meant once more having to squeegee up all that vomit in the white-tiled restroom at Zephyr ice cream parlor. It was on the ceiling.
     Pride? Maybe that. The boys turned out far better than I ever imagined, so far ahead of what I was at their age I can't even take credit. I was present, said stuff that nobody listened to, paid for things, but in the end, I feel like a rooster crowing at the sunrise, marking an occasion that I did not actually bring about.
     Maybe confused amazement. That sounds right. Really, it's as baffling as if I stepped out of pre-school orientation and returned to find my sons magically grown, grinning adults in neat beards, patting me once on the shoulder as they hurry off. Huh? What? How did that happen?


  1. I also have two sons and I cried at the two commencements. On entering college I gave them the advice to beware of people who show absolute confidence. You and everyone else will be attracted to them. They are dangerous fools. Time has shown I got that one right.

    But a word of caution. I was always told how difficult raising small children is. My experience was that it was perpetually joyful and fun. The teenage years had some bumps, when I briefly became the most exasperating person in the world - it quickly passed.

    The biggest challenge so far has been the years immediately after college during the transition from kid in school to the working world. The uncertainty of that period is tough, especially given how the employment market has transformed into a universe of haves and have nots. Something tells me your kids will handle it better than most.


  2. Sweet stuff, Neil, and congrats. Preen just a little. You've earned it.

  3. You're gonna be a mess at the weddings, buddy! But you're entitled!

  4. Like the article when Ross was born (clipped and in a memory book) this hits it exactly right. Tears all around. Already warned my HS grad - I may cry at graduation, I will absolutely cry when we drop him at school.


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