Wednesday, June 22, 2011
Dear Graduating Class of 2011:
Welcome to the real world.
When you leave here today, you'll step out of the sheltered halls of academia into that mystical place you've heard about for so many years called "The Real World". Some of you may have already experienced it on one level or another, and others among you may think it's a TV show on MTV, and still others are wondering what the old codger up behind the lectern is rambling about when he uses phrases like "MTV" and "TV show". But that's not important right now.
The fact is, when you wake up tomorrow, you're going to find yourself in the position you've worked so hard for all these years: Hung over, unemployed, and in debt up to your mortarboard.
Welcome to the real world.
It's customary for graduation speakers to offer some brilliant bit of wisdom to help carry you out into this brave new place, but I'm afraid I don't have anything particularly insightful to offer. I can't even draw from my own graduation ceremonies, because I don't remember a thing they said, except for the speaker at my college commencement, who said, "Just as there was when I was graduating, there's a whole wide world waiting for you. Only it's waiting for you with a 2x4 to knock you upside the head."
That explains why I stayed in school for an extra two years for an advanced degree. The man scared the hell out of me.
And so here you are in the glorious year of 2011. Unemployment is at the highest it's been in your lifetime. The world is facing increasing pressures from natural disasters, global wars, technology run rampant, and environmental uncertainty.
Welcome to the real world.
Now don't get me wrong; I'm an eternal optimist. It takes a certain kind of crazy person to open a business in the middle of a recession providing a service that no one really needs in a town that seems to have as many vacant buildings as it does occupied ones. My business offers a premium service in a city where the per capita income is $14,495, and where the population has declined for the seventh year in a row. Where historic buildings were literally crumbling into the street. It's the kind of place that's a great place to be FROM, but people like you—newly-minted graduates—would barely consider a hotbed of opportunity.
But that's where you would be wrong. In the midst of what has been called "the worst economy since the great depression", I've found a small but thriving business community, fantastic people that are engaging, fun and polite, and a small-town atmosphere that I find refreshing, in an area surrounded by some of the most natural beauty I've ever seen. I've witnessed a small renaissance in the downtown business district, and I'm now hearing complaints that the biggest problem we have downtown is a lack of parking spaces. Go figure.
So that brings me to my point (which I think I had, but I almost forgot). The world is what you make of it. You can look at the ugliness around you and get discouraged and depressed, or you can face that approaching 2x4 as it heads for your head and DUCK. Then punch that sucker that's swinging it right in the face.
Some of you were just toddlers when a band called "Crowded House" performed a song called "Weather With You" in the 80's. The chorus includes the line, "Everywhere you go, you always take the weather with you". It's a simple but profound verse; a more sophisticated version of the one-liner, "No matter where you go, you'll always be there." In short, the world is what you make of it. If you walk around carrying a storm cloud above your head, all you'll see is rain. That doesn't mean that you put blinders on to the very real problems that surround you, but life is about making choices. You can choose sunshine or rain. It really is that simple.
One more thing for those of you who haven't fallen asleep or who aren't posting disparaging remarks about this speech on twitter before I'm even done:
I encourage you to be kind. We live in an age of increased polarization, rancor, anger and bitterness. We label each other: Conservative, Liberal, Radical, Warmonger, Racist...you name it, there's a label for it. Folks, labels are for jars, not people. The sooner we stop trying to fit each other into convenient little boxes where we can shove each other on a shelf and say, "There, that's a good little [insert label here]" the better off we'll all be. As we all enter the real world, we're going to need each other more than ever. Yes, we can disagree. Yes, we can have differences of opinion. But in the end, we all have to work together.
So as you head out into that mythical new frontier before you, and as you consider the advice I've so wisely dished out, please ponder the words of author P.J. O'Rourke who wrote: "Everybody knows how to raise children, except the people who have them." Then realize that I really don't know a damn thing, and I've made it all up. Congratulations on your graduation, and again...welcome to the real world.
Friday, June 17, 2011
Dear Mr. O'Mara:
If everything works out as expected, there will be a vote in the Senate any moment now that, if passed, will allow same-sex marriage to be legal in New York. You, of course, know this already. You have also indicated your intent to vote against this bill.
Despite my well-known political bent as a left-leaning moderate, I did vote for you, so I feel like I have a voice here...you are MY representative, even more so than if I had voted for your opponent. You have indicated that this issue deserves a debate, and that you're open to hearing opinions from both sides (despite your stated opposition to the proposed law), so I hope you'll read this and at least give it thoughtful consideration.
First, some background: I grew up in a very small Midwestern town, the son of very conservative parents in a rural area where the only buildings were a barbershop, a general store, a gas station, a post office, and a church. My family attended a conservative Lutheran church where I was baptized and confirmed, and I grew up with—you guessed it—very conservative values, which I still hold close to this day. When I was growing up, I didn't know anyone who was gay (although we had some suspicions about the school librarian), and the concept of "gay rights" was not only foreign to me, but to be honest, somewhat repugnant. I'm not particularly proud of that attitude looking back, but that was the world I was raised in.
In fact, that world was a cruel and harsh one. In my time, the worst insult you could hurl at another guy was to call him "gay". As a shy, reserved, artistic young man, you can imagine that this invective was directed my way more than once. In fact, I was once nearly run down on a back country road by a car full of my classmates who shouted "Queer LaVere" as they drove their speeding car about a foot from me. I grew to resent not only the implication, but the larger gay community for even existing.
Two things changed this for me. One was the horrific case of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was tortured and murdered in 1998 simply because of his sexual orientation. This disturbing incident made me face my own bigotry, and I realized that this was the ultimate end result of the hatred that I was harboring. My attitude turned around almost overnight. I started seeing homosexuality in a whole new light. Clearly, this was a population that was mistreated for no other reason than pure bigotry and hatred.
The second thing that changed was my interaction with gay people. That might sound odd, but remember my background—I didn't know anyone who was gay, so my entire view of the gay community was based on a caricature. I found that the gay people I knew were really no different from anyone else, good or bad. Despite all the chatter about the "gay lifestyle", I found their morality, behavior, and decency to be no more egregious or better than my other contemporaries.
In short, my experiences overcame my biases.
Flash forward to today, and the "gay marriage" issue is on the front burner. I'll admit that my religious convictions and my personal experiences have often clashed. But a wise preacher once told me, "Religion is about rules. God is about love." God doesn't hate his creation. I've watched good friends reject their church, religion, and God in general because they hear messages of hate coming from pulpits across the world, and think (incorrectly, I believe) that they are not welcome in the fellowship of faith. It disturbs me to see this happening, and I don't find any justification for cherry-picking scripture to target a specific group of people simply because their private behaviour is foreign to some.
Likewise, I firmly believe the time has come for government to get out of the way and allow gay people to marry whomever they choose. In the eyes of the state, marriage is a legal contract. In the eyes of the state, it has nothing to do with morality, nothing to do with "God's holy word" and absolutely nothing to do with social engineering. I'm baffled at the reluctance of "small government" conservatives to understand this and allow this bill to pass.
As for its effect on churches, I would point out that my brother is a minister in a very conservative denomination. He is not allowed by his denomination to preside at a marriage where one of the two is divorced. The state has yet to come in and force him to do so. A state-sanctioned marriage has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with a church-sanctioned marriage. The argument that one affects the other is specious.
My gay friends want the title of "marriage" not only for legal reasons (to protect property rights, inheritances, hospital visitations, power of attorney, protecting end-of-life decisions, etc.), but because in their eyes, their lifetime commitment to another person is an important one, and the ritual and rite (not "right") of marriage MEANS something to them. These are good people. They are not the enemy. They do not want to destroy society. They basically want what the larger straight community wants, and entering into a long-term committed marriage is something they should not be denied. Several states already recognize this, and the last time I checked, the Republic was still standing, there wasn't anarchy in the streets, and life just goes on.
If you're still reading this far, I would ask you to seriously consider just one more thing. New York State is losing population. People are fleeing this state in record numbers due in part to high taxes, an oppressive government that sticks its nose in private concerns more every single day, and often refuses to tackle the big issues in favor of minor ones. Do we really want to push away a young, vibrant population that can make great contributions to the future of this state simply because of whom they choose to love? Seriously?
I doubt my words will change your mind. I fully expect you to vote your conscience, and while I respect that on one level, I'm disheartened by it on another. I would only ask that you give serious consideration to these words and the words of those who speak much more eloquently than I ever could on this subject. If and when the vote comes up, I hope you'll do the right thing and allow my friends the same privilege I've enjoyed for the past two decades.
Thank you for your consideration.