Long Story Short: Is it possible to control the dots?
A virtual commencement address
To the class of 2020: On Saturday, May 17, President Obama delivered a national commencement speech, largely aimed at high school students. It was inspiring, but we thought you might appreciate the added thoughts of a member of the Western New York community. This is someone who graduated back when college was way cheaper, Al Gore had not yet invented the internet, and written assignments were actually written. That someone is me, Bruce Adams. I imagine you are wondering what a Boomer could possibly say to you. That’s not important. What is important is that you don’t have to sit in a hot auditorium for hours listening to speeches, and then watch an agonizingly slow progression of people walking across a stage with stupid messages taped to their caps.
Hello graduates. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to you directly today, because, first, we are living through an unprecedented pandemic that prevents us from gathering as a college community, and, second, I wasn’t invited. But I want to offer my thoughts as someone who’s clocked more than a few hours on life’s chronometer. As you set out on the journey ahead, expect the road to be much like the streets of Buffalo, full of potholes and construction detours, beginning with the semester-long education bypass you just finished navigating.
There are a couple bits of advice every commencement speaker gives, the most frequent one being to follow your dreams. Well, I just had a dream where I conned my way into a huge luncheon buffet with no pants on, and Johnny Depp was there, but he lived with his family in the basement. I’m not sure how I should follow that. But it doesn’t matter; I graduated long ago.
The truth is, when famous people say they followed their dreams to success despite many obstacles, it’s because someone asked them about their lives. Who asks the hundreds of thousands of people who followed their dreams of fame and fortune, but ended up as cable technicians, toll booth operators, and cashiers at Target? You don’t become successful simply by following dreams. Without exception, successful people got where they are by working their asses off, and most have opportunities you don’t.
Take Steven Spielberg, for instance. He struggled to graduate from high school, but he had a dream to be a filmmaker. Stories like this usually end with the closing of a Blockbuster Video. But Spielberg knew someone with enough influence to get him into the Universal Studios editorial department one afternoon, and the following day he showed up dressed in a suit and tie, carrying his father’s briefcase, and waving to the guard at the gate, who let him in. Without security clearance, he posed as an employee for an entire summer, squatting in a vacant office and adding his name to the building directory. He had no job and earned no money. Ten years later, he made Jaws.
The point here is, you’re not Steven Spielberg. Most of us don’t have his determination, perseverance, or connections. And that’s okay. People like Spielberg need insurance agents, loan officers, and plumbers, all of whom make a good living. Most of you will eventually fall into a job you can’t even imagine now and grind away for the next fifty years or so. Remember, as you exit the hallowed halls of higher education and head into the world, you carry through life something very tangible from your college experience—student debt. You start your career with a near-sisyphean economic burden, and then you have to buy health insurance. While we’re talking about the world you’re heading into, thanks to past generations, it’s considerably warmer now. You’re welcome.
Under the Boomers’ watch, we largely eliminated the middle class, making it much easier to separate the haves from the have-nots, and, just so you know, most of you are have-nots. But don’t let that discourage you. Since I was born, society has gone from three free TV channels on a twelve-inch screen to 411 commercial television networks, 52 educational television networks, 7 regional television networks, and 183 state-level television networks, viewed on either a six-inch or eighty-five-inch screen—all for a monthly fee. You may never own a house and will likely have to work until age seventy-five, but you do have entertainment options.
In case you find yourself feeling somewhat discontented with the state of things as they are, you might consider voting. Not just for president—although that’s certainly a good idea—but in every election down to school board. Scientific polls say that white college graduates are more likely to hold liberal views and vote Democratic than non-college-educated white voters. They call it the diploma divide, and you skew to the left of that gulf. And, of course, people of color usually vote Democrat, and they travel father and wait in longer lines to do it. Collectively, you are the citizens most likely to propel society forward.
No question, your future will be rife with challenges, but it’s also full of promise, even for toll booth operators. (Wait, scratch that last part; they’re removing toll booths.) Anyway, you get the idea. The important thing is, you need to be engaged in the world, whatever you do. It won’t be easy, but honestly, I envy you. For one thing, you should live to see the thirtieth James Bond movie, while I’ll be lucky to get to number twenty-eight.
Despite all the doom and gloom on social media, things are actually getting better. I don’t expect you to believe that now. I certainly didn’t at your age: “Eve of destruction,” “It’s the end of the world as we know it,” “Four dead in Ohio,” and all that. Yet here I am, typing on a device right out of the cheesy sci fi movies I grooved on in college. I have a smartphone in my pocket that’s 32,600 times faster than Apollo-era computers that cost $3.5 million and were the size of Chevy Impalas. Today, you can write a letter, send it, and get a response, in the time it took me to address an envelope and drop it in the mailbox. And you can do this from bed.
Contrary to what the President says, crime has steadily declined for the past quarter century. Your generation will never get measles, mumps, chickenpox, smallpox, or polio, unless your parents are anti-vaxers, in which case I hope you took a science class while you were in college. And, someday, COVID-19 will also be eliminated or contained. Gene therapy is on the horizon, which will extend and improve the quality of life. In the 1967 movie The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock receives a single word of advice, “plastics.” Today, the best advice is two words, “Reduce plastics.” Progress. You already have the capacity to make vegan shoes from parasitic fungi. Eventually, you’ll be able to grow loafers in your garden. Impossible? That’s what we thought about meat made from vegetables. They even named that “Impossible,” yet it’s here.
When I was young, I never thought I’d live to see a black president or a viable female presidential candidate. When I entered college, there were few non-white movie stars, no openly queer ones, and women were exclusively relegated to costar status. You rarely heard of black Senators, female CEOs, or gay football players. Today, women, people of color, and LGBTQ people have far greater agency than those of my generation to shape their experiences and life trajectories. There’s more work to be done, but it’s possible that Gen Z-ers will usher in full equality, along with a better name for the next generation now that we’ve reached the end of the alphabet.
I’m sorry for all the problems my generation has burdened you with, but I trust you’ll build on our accomplishments and overcome the trend toward mocktails. My generation put a man on the moon and gave you Gore-Tex fabric. Yours can now contribute to the development of self-driving cars, artificial intelligence, and Amazon drone delivery.
Also, Space Force.
Please know that you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to contribute meaningfully to society. It was a working-class African American activist from the Bronx, after all, who started the Me-Too movement. You have a voice if you choose to use it. Stay informed, vote, volunteer. And stop vaping. It’s stupid.
In closing, I want to commend you for three and a half years of hard work, and one semester where your professors cut the course requirements because they couldn’t figure out how to do it all online.
You’re getting a diploma anyway. Now go out and make a difference.
Moving to Buffalo during a pandemic
Jillian Penkin and her partner Joel Hornbeck may be Buffalo’s newest residents, having settled here just over two weeks ago. Before moving to the Richmond/Ferry neighborhood, Penkin lived in Rochester, where she was born and raised as part of what she describes as a “hard-working close-knit family.” Penkin was a volunteer docent at the Susan B Anthony House & Museum. “It’s my home away from home,” she says, “my center for peace and my personal happy place.” Anyone who hasn’t visited should take a tour, she says, adding, “I promise you will not be disappointed.”
Though Hornbeck attended the University at Buffalo, neither he nor Penkin knew much about the city. Occasional Bills games was the extent of their experience. Last year, however, he took a job with a Buffalo power company, and once they were sure it was going to work out, the couple started looking for a house here. Fortunately, they found a realtor who understood what they were looking for. That was February.
They found the perfect place just as the COVID-19 lockdown took hold. “It was strange to say the least,” Penkin says. The usual facetime with home inspectors and lawyers was out. Their realtor couldn’t even join them for the final walkthrough because of the company’s social distancing policy. “The lawyer’s office was super strange in that everyone was sitting far apart at the table,” recalls Penkin. “There was no shaking hands and we had to throw the pens away after using them for just a few signatures!” Some of the glamor of house-buying was lost under the weight of the restrictions. “Everything felt very mechanical and impersonal,” she says. On the plus side, packing and unpacking under lockdown is easier. “Hard to procrastinate,” she says, “when you’ve got nowhere to go.”
“The biggest downfall to moving during a shutdown,” Penkin adds, “is not being able to get out and meet all my neighbors and check out the local bars and restaurants.” She likes encountering new people, and she isn’t used to life behind surgical masks; “I look forward to the day when we can smile at strangers passing by and not have to say a muffled hello.”
Penkin works for RD Weis, a commercial flooring contractor in Rochester. She loves the job and didn’t want to leave her customers behind when she moved to Buffalo. Fortunately, she’s able to work from her new home. On the Facebook group West Side Alive, she recently announced plans to throw a block party when it’s safe: “to meet our neighbors and clink glasses with new friends! Everyone welcome.” That could be quite a gathering, given the size of the group and Buffalo’s appetite for partying.
Hornbeck, who moved here ahead of Penkin, joined the Buffalo Rugby Club early on, having played for twelve years with the Rochester Aardvark Club. “They were our first Buffalo friends,” says Penkin, “and if you know anything about the rugby community, you are in it for life!”
After posting an introduction on Facebook, Penkin was inundated with welcome messages, and her inbox became filled with people wanting to know why she came to Buffalo. There were also recommendations for West Side takeout. “Almost every day a new neighbor purposely pauses at our porch just to say hello and share their hopes of one day getting to see us out and about,” she says. “Week two of living full time in Buffalo is coming to a close, and I couldn’t be happier to be in such a friendly city with such unlimited potential!”
Buffalo during the Pause
What was it like arriving in town while the city is closed? What’s a newcomer’s first impression of Buffalo under lockdown? “Part of what I’m learning that makes Buffalo so special,” says Penkin, “are the trendy local owned businesses and how the neighborhoods band together to keep them growing.” Impressive, for someone who, so far, has only made quick trips to Dibbles Hardware and gotten take-out from neighborhood restaurants.
“Everyone we’ve spoken to assured us that not only are we in the best city in New York,” says Penkin, “but we’ve picked the best neighborhood to settle down and get ready to start our family.” She is impressed that, with all the social and political unrest we face daily, “so many have taken the time to stop, smile from a distance, and quietly reassure us, without even knowing it, that we have arrived at the right time and in the right place.”
“Philly may boast ‘the city of brotherly love,” she says, “but in Buffalo, it’s a family affair.”
Long Story Short is an opinion column by artist and educator Bruce Adams, a longtime contributor to Buffalo Spree.
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