Commencement Address

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I am writing this missive for a very special reason.

So many years ago I have a vivid memory of sitting down to lunch with a good friend and my oldest son. We were eating ham sandwiches after spending an early spring morning working on a pair of strip built kayaks parked in the garage. Justin and my friend were talking and I was munching, just listening.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Jeremy asked my four year old.

Without skipping a beat Justin replied “I want to be a cowboy chef named ‘Eyeball.'”

His tone brooked no comment, yet Jeremy and I found ourselves laughing out loud, buckled over in hysterics much to Justin’s displeasure. He had clearly used his best logic to reach this conclusion and he really hadn’t anticipated our reaction.

Now my oldest son is graduating from High School. That very same question gets foisted at him I imagine daily. “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

As I sit here writing I am experiencing what most parents probably feel at about this time in our children’s lives. A compelling desire, a tug on the heart, to say something that will matter. How can I make this easier for you Justin? What can I do or say to ensure your lasting contentment?

The first thing I want to tell you is don’t be scared. I can still recall the overwhelming excitement I felt as I drove my Dad’s big blue Ford heading up to a summer job immediately after my commencement. Both windows were rolled down and dry air turned the raggedy old cabin into a hair blender.

I imagine that you’ll feel that freedom and excitement sometime real soon, but this too will pass. In it’s place you’ll find uncertainty. You’re suddenly a grown up, a man by all rights with all the privileges and responsibilities that come with that. Suddenly consequence is all on you.

So it’s little wonder that a little uncertainty might creep into the mix. What do I like? What can I do? What is that person thinking? Life is just full of these sorts of questions. You answer them when you can, you ignore them at your peril.

If you weren’t a little uncertain at this point I’d be genuinely fearful for you. The world is a scary place, full of dead ends, problems, and paradox. Only yesterday you were this little thing I could hold in my hands. This tiny little baby no one was certain might live until tomorrow. You were so fragile I was so uncertain.

Today you’re this grown person; barely filling out your body, only now starting to brush up against responsibility.

So when you encounter uncertainty I hope you do so like you did when you were four. I hope you look it square in the eye, without fear, and proclaim in a strong, clear voice “I want to be a cowboy chef named ‘Eyeball.'”

And there’s is something else I hope for you. I hope you love your work. If you love your work, if you find something you can love doing for a long time, you really can’t lose.

If your heart and soul is part of your vocation you are statistically unlikely to fail. You can’t lose because regardless of how much money you make you’ll be having a kick ass time. That’s better than gold my son. Better than fame. Better than glory. Pretty much better than anything. Figure out what makes you happy. Or better figure out what you love to do and you’ll have a happy life. None of the rest really matters.

If you find that you’re doing something that you don’t love, or worse, that you just hate, see my first piece of advice. Don’t be scared about leaving. Golden handcuffs are just that, and they’ll hold you back forever. That is unless you take them off.

Finally, I want to tell you to juice life. Put it in your blender and hit frappe. Let it spin for a good long while. Laugh while it’s going. Cackle. Guffaw when you hit the chunky parts.

My son, this is the only life you’ll ever get. You’ve got to suck every last drop of it and still you won’t, you shouldn’t, ever feel sated.

And should you feel that you don’t want more — when you reach these unavoidable milestones and hopelessness rears its ugly face in your life — the absolute best treatment is to laugh at it.

It’s been an exercise in patience getting this far into this letter so if you’re still reading you’ve got what it takes for the next bit. Add to this patience, practice; lots and lots of practice. We talked about this a little bit when you were working at the cycle kitchen. Practice isn’t just the simple repetition of a task in order to improve your ability. It isn’t a pursuit of perfection.

Practice is the task for the sake of the task. Wax on, wax off. Whether it’s playing your guitar or truing wheels or building relationships you’ve got to have the patience to see things through and the will to practice at all the fiddly bits over and over. To find the flow while you’re doing each little part.

Back when your Mom and I lived in Florida, more than anything, I wanted a Valley Nordkapp kayak. Back then this was the open water tripping boat used by arctic explorers. Fast and lithe in all conditions I was enthralled by pictures of dry suited dudes busting through frothy, collapsing waves somewhere far north of anywhere with trees. Back then that is what I dreamed I might someday do.

Now, twenty years and lots of change later, I own this boat. It’s tippy as hell. It’s heavy. My big old ass barely fits in the tiny cockpit. I am confronted by the fact that I’m sixty pounds heavier and twenty years older each time I wet this hull.

So, if I ever want to see myself paddling a red hull while wearing bright mango in steel gray water amongst white icebergs, I know I’ve got to be patient with myself. I’m going to need to spend a lot of time holding onto a dock, working on my braces and stabilizing strokes, and remembering how to roll before I’ll be able to paddle out into the open. Practice and patience.

Be patient with yourself in all things. Stop and think “can I break this down any more” before you take that next step. If you can figure this part out, you’ll almost always finish what you start. You’ll realize your visions.

I’ve tried to write this letter without telling you not to do things. I’m going to break this rule just a little bit more for my next admonition. It is a warning and it comes from my heart directed straight to your’s because this is something I got wrong when I was your age.

Show your affection. Hug people when you greet them. The European custom of cheek kissing needs to be revived. Fist bump, high five, hand-shake-to-hug, wrestle where appropriate. Spread this stuff all around. Don’t feel self conscious about your affection for others.

The science behind affection is incontrovertible. Hugs reduce anxiety, stimulate oxytocin and dopamine, and promote parasympathetic balance. This is true for you the hugger as much as the person you’re hugging. Good grief, can you imagine a world in which we eradicate the common cold because we’re all topped off with enough affection that our collective enhanced immune response gives the rhinovirus no quarter, no place to thrive?

This society, the one in which you’ve been raised, incorrectly pushes young men towards stoicism. In order to be a man you’re not supposed to make displays of emotion. You’re supposed to lock all those feelings away, you’re supposed to be insensitive and unempathetic.

This is the All American creed of the jerk. So while I’m going to tell you not to act like a jerk, thereby breaking my rule, I’m going to follow it up by suggesting that the best way to avoid being a jerk is to hug one.

You know this already, but it deserves repeating, I am proud of you. You’re a stand up guy and a righteous dude and now that you’ve matured I’m heartened to both call you my son and my friend.

Watching you get your diploma yesterday made me so happy. Made me acknowledge what a lucky person I am for knowing you and how much better off I’ve been these last eighteen years because you’ve been in my life.

I’m letting you go, one more time.

So long, fare well, be happy.

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