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Saturday, December 26, 2015

Commencement Speech Jefferson County Open School 2015

I was an honored to give a commencement speech when my son Charley Landes graduated from Jefferson County Open School in 2015.  The speech follows:


I came across this article and thought it interesting. 

March 6, 2002
The Headline-  Dog Chastised for acting Like a dog
SACRAMENTO, CA— Obeying the instincts bred into him by millions of years of evolution, Shiner, a 2-year-old golden retriever, incurred his owner's wrath Monday by acting like a dog.  Shiner’s owner Terri Solanis was heard shouting "Stop barking at that damn squirrel!” and  asking "Can't you sit still for five minutes?" Solanis has previously scolded Shiner for sniffing feces encountered on the sidewalk, licking his own groin, and wolfing down his food.
 Issue 38 of the onion

It’s my best guess that what it takes to be an adult is a selective amnesia where in we forget what it’s like to be a teenager, and act surprised when teenagers act age appropriate and very much the way we acted when we were teenagers.  

Since the time before indoor plumbing and paperclips teenagers have never been content to sit around the fire and listen to the oral history as conveyed by an elder villager drunk on fortified wine carrying on about the good old days and the dangers of the dark woods.  Teenagers rip around those dark woods, skinny dipping in the hidden pools, chasing down the silver stag, being kings of carrot flowers and goddesses of rainbow sugar.  Sometimes clumsily and sometimes with the remarkable grace of innocence, teenagers come through the years, and become adults.  And as I defined adults obtaining a selective amnesia to not only to forget the joy of the dark woods, but also to fear the dark woods. 

It is why I am so honored that you chose me to speak to you on this glorious day of your graduation from a forward thinking and enlighted high school.  It is an honor because the spirit you carry in your bodies is the most vital and potent spirit I know.  A spirit undiluted and pure.  A spirit most alive away from the campfire out under the pearlescent, swirling galaxies glittered with more stars than there are grains of sand on Earth.  A spirit that believes in loyalty and friendship.  A spirit of rowdiness, adventure, curiosity and play.  A spirit of empathy.  I am so humbled that I can be amongst you on your commencement day.  I am recharged and refreshed in your presence. 

I left the security of the hearth and jetted out into the dark woods the moment I could.  When I graduated from high school (barely) we all threw our caps into to the air and yelled “Hooray!”.  I was out the door before my cap hit the ground.  I hitched a ride to South Carolina and slept on a friend’s couch, earning money shoveling shit on a horse ranch, bar backing at a Marriott resort and selling safari clothes at a Banana Republic in the mall.   I would ride my bike 10 miles total from job to job across the isle of Hilton Head, a golf and tennis resort.  Nobody rode bikes on the island.  I was received much like an armadillocrossing a road in Iceland.  People didn’t know what to do with me, they  were clueless on how to “share the road”.  My presence just pissed them off. 

I started work at sunrise with the horses then ended work at the Marriott hotel bar at 1:00 am shooing drunken convention goers out of the bar so they could make horrible mistakes in the privacy of their own rooms.  The hours in between I would be at Banana Republic selling leather bomber jackets to doctors and lawyers while their trophy wives eyed trinkets and baubles. 

Did I tell you when I got to Hilton Head I was broke?  No joke broke.  No money for food broke.  In the kitchen where I was staying was a package of white rice, a half a block of swiss cheese and hotdogs.  If you cut up the hotdogs and sautee them, add the rice, then stir in shredded (not cubed) swiss cheese you can make a pretty delicious meal.  I ate that for almost two weeks as I saved money for my first months rent.  I was just 18 and had an 18 year olds appetite. Between the manual labor and the bike riding I was burning more calories than I was eating.   Wasting away I thought of food and nothing else.   Well,  err I was 18.  Let’s say I thought of food and little else. 

Despite working 18 hours a day the worst part of my day was the hour lunch break I had to take while working at Banana Republic.  It was hot as hell on that island so I stayed inside the air conditioned mall.  Killing time.  Walking past windows displaying things I didn’t need and couldn’t afford.  I spent a lot of time sitting at a table in the food court.  An overworked, famished, teen-ager sitting in the middle of a food court, surrounded by the succulent scents of mouth-watering pizza, chow mein noodles, fried egg rolls, chik’fil a sandwiches, gyros meat sizzingling on a spit, are you kidding me.  I do not make light of torture but damn… that was torture. 

Finally I earned enough money to pay my rent and pay back the IOU’s I had accrued during my time of pennilessness.  After all debts were paid I had a grand total of $15 to get me through the next two weeks until I got paid again.  I knew exactly what I was going to do with that $15 dollars.  GORGE MY FACE WITH MALL FOOD!

When my hour break came I strolled past the food court offerings and started creating a complex algorithm where in I tried to figure out just exactly how many calories I could ingest for $15 plus the 20% discount given to all mall employees.  The Stromboli from Sabbaros is more food for the buck than a slice of pizza, I definitely  need egg rolls and fried rice.  I shopped the food court carefully. 

Like a patient lover I wanted to extend out this great moment as long as I could, so before I made my purchases I decided to stroll the mall one time.  I went into the bookstore which I had been in many times before.  There was a new cat working behind the counter.  He was a few years older than me, had curly unkempt hair, wore Ira Glass Glasses, and had a small button of Karl Marx pinned to his lapel.  Yes.  In 1989 he was an OG hipster. 
“Can I help you find anything?” he asked.
“Nah,” I said.  Hunger seizes your tounge.
“You like black comedies?” he asked.
Black comedies?  I thought.  I know we are in South Carolina but damn have some tact.  He must of seen the consternation in my eyes because he quickly followed with.
“You know dark comedies?  A comic work utilizing farce and morbid humor to make light of a taboo subject.” 
“Morbid humor is my favorite”  I say. 
“You should read this then,”  he says reaching for a thick tomb, on the cover is a cartoon image of a man in a winter’s hat, scarf, thick coat and a big yellow bird pulling on his ear.
I read the cover “A confederacy of dunces by John Kennendy Toole” I read flipping it over to see the price, “$13.99”.
In that moment a new variable entered into my algorithm.  I can spend my $15 dollars and eat well today and then sit in the food court for the next two weeks with nothing to do but suffer or I can buy this book and be occupied during my hour break until I get paid again. 

I bought the book. 

That moment, being alone, hungry and broke in the dark woods I found my passions.  Food and Books.  Food and Books.  Food and Books.  These are the two things to which I have since dedicated my professional life.  And with restaurants and bars in two countries, my first novel on the shelf, another in the works and being the fiction editor of a quarterly literary magazine pursuing my passions has served me well.

I don’t know where you will find your passions.  Perhaps under the tutelage of a great professor, maybe on a long walk next to a river,  or on a visit to a foreign country, or while volunteering to help those in need.  I don’t you’ll find you passions, but I’m do know passion does not sit next to the campfire, passions play in the secret gardens of the dark woods.  Class of 2015 Do not be afraid Go out and find you passion. 


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