Graduation day

I received an invitation – Karen says it’s more properly called an “announcement” – to my grand-niece’s high school graduation in the mail the other day.

It looks a lot like the notices my friends and I sent out upon our graduations: an understated declaration on heavy paper, folded and embossed with the name of her high school and “The Graduates of 2022” in silver type.

Inside, along with an engraving depicting her school’s rather anonymous-looking administration building, was a calling card with my niece’s name and a wallet-sized photo of her, demure in her cheerleader uniform.

(I never told her that I was skeptical of “cheer” as an extracurricular endeavor; traveling to cheer competitions all over the country seemed both unduly hazardous and a dubious investment. But she won a substantial college scholarship and signed a letter of intent. Shows what I know.)

I remember sitting down and addressing envelopes for my high school graduation better than I remember the event itself. I remember buying a large roll of stamps from the post office and greedily calculating my return on the investment. I might have sent out 100 or so; they yielded lots of $ 5 and $ 10 checks. (Karen says she never sent out any announcements because she didn’t want to ask anyone for money. She’s not cowed by convention.)

I guess my diploma is somewhere in my mother’s house; it’s been decades since I’ve seen it.

I wasn’t an idiot when I got out of high school, but innocent of the way the world worked. My grades and test scores were good. I played sports, acted and sang in plays, and signed up to do good works because we were expected to.

I had held jobs since I was 15, earning a bit of seniority in the sporting goods store that employed me, and I’d bought cars and clothes. I freelanced album reviews, being paid mostly in product.

But the adult world was alien when I was 17. I got along with adults mainly because I deferred to them, because I’d been brought up to say “sir” and “ma’am” and to not over-share. I was intimidated by that world, that place of mortgages and 1040 forms. My heart broke at the foreclosing of dreams when I realized I was probably not destined for Cooperstown after all.

I was expected to go to college but did not perceive that there were any differences between colleges; I thought one was as good as another, so you might as well decide on the basis of proximity to your parents (whether you wanted to stay close or get far away) or the prospects of the football team. Coming out of high school, I had no clear idea about what I wanted to study or become, and I worry that a clueless kid like me might have no chance at all these days.

. . .

I will scratch out a check (or obtain an Amazon gift card) for my niece and mail it back with our congratulations. I think our graduate will do well in school and beyond, but am superstitious enough not to predict anything.

Bad things happen to the best prepared, and the universe is indifferent to our intentions. Pray or hope all you want, there are things beyond our control and nothing fair about the world. You can give 30 years of your life to service, to doing what you can to help others live better, only to be rendered redundant by a bean counter with a business plan.

At any point some unbalanced stranger or airborne virus can leak into your life. Nothing is promised, not tomorrow, not the next breath. Any one of us is subject to being disrupted or canceled at any time; the world belongs to the ruthless and amoral, but even they are subject to the strictures of natural law.

The world is no rougher now than it has ever been. We delude ourselves it was once simple enough to make sense.

There has always been desperation and delusion and people willing to leverage the credulity of others. There has always been a class that sees other people as prey. You might know them by their bright smiles and piety, by their insistence on telling you how good and wise and taken advantage of you are. You might know them by the promises they make, by the blame they assign.

I do not feel much different than I did when I graduated. This adult world still feels alien, even as I negotiate with bankers and make appeals to the IRS. I look forward more than I do back.

I also realize my luck to have been raised by the people who raised me, to have been given some opportunities that these days would never have been given to someone with my limited credentials and experience. I’ve had my chances. And the next generation will have their chances too; they’ll just have to be better prepared and quicker on their feet than we were.

And, I hope, they can remain open to the good that remains more or less constant in the world, that they can appreciate the very miracle of their existence, and understand that a lot of what is false and shabby in the world is the product of somebody’s inner misery.

Show business’ lesser offshoot, politics, has always been a seedier sort of show biz, largely populated by people over-compensating for whatever it is they are missing. Scratch a demagogue, uncover a wounded child.

So maybe you can find empathy even for the most cynical and dangerous characters. For, as Neil Young observed, even Richard Nixon had soul.

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