Tuesday, June 10, 2008

2008 Commencement Address | Oliver Mayer

Oliver Mayer
May 23, 2008
SDSU Arts and Letters

A transcript of USC Professor Oliver Mayer's Commencement address for BA, MA, and MFA recipients and their families and friends.

It's exciting, and a little bit awe-inspiring, to stand here addressing you all on this very memorable and important day in your lives. I remember walking down an aisle very similar to this 20-some years ago when I graduated, wondering - WHAT HAPPENS NEXT? And here I am again - except this time I'm wondering what to say to you to commemorate a great achievement, to prime you for the real work ahead, and not to scare you too much. Because this is a great day. AND there's real work ahead for you - me - us.

This speech of mine should take only ten or so minutes. Only ten minutes more till you get that degree in your hand and the party can begin. So I understand my role.

Former governor Mario Cuomo once likened the role of Commencement Speaker to that of the dead body at an Irish wake. "They need you to have the party, but nobody expects you to do very much."

Still, I believe in taking a moment to explore what it means to be truly alive, in the immediate present, in the NOW. Having ascended the pinnacle of graduation, you have earned the right to look around you at the vista of where you've come from, and what lies before you. Even more importantly, you have earned the right to look inside yourselves and find out how you really feel about what you've achieved. How might your life lessons learnt here on campus translate to the life experience of the "real world" - wherever that might be?

So I ask you. How does it feel? What's really going on inside? What's the big question in your head? Your heart?

These are the questions that I like to call The Unanswerables - partly because they are so big you can never get your brain or heart entirely around them, partly because they change with every day of your life, and are entirely dependent on how you feel and what's happening to you. These are the questions that will have so much to do with your future. Ask yourself the unanswerable questions in order to find out what's really going on beneath the pat answers, the rehearsed responses, and what the media tells you to think.
So ask yourself:
What do you want?
What do you fear?
And what is your secret?

What better way to find out your next step than by identifying the things you really desire, are really afraid of, and really need to hide?

Asking questions is all about being in the NOW - and actively processing the things you observe to help you make the next step. The education you've received here at SDSU will help you immensely with that ongoing process. But not even a stellar education guarantees success. In order to get where you want to go, you will need to combine your resources, knowledge, your network of friends, your money, your faith and your energy in a way that creates an identity that works for you, that suits your place in the world and where you want to go. You will need to invent the best way to get there, for yourself. But how? That's why I say:

Be a hybrid.
Be good for the environment.
Be good for the economy.

A hybrid is the combination of two or more different things, aimed at achieving a particular objective or goal. We hear the word in relation to hybrid vehicles, but get used to the idea in other of forms and contexts, from Biology to language and word origins to the ongoing blending of cultures across the globe.

I am a hybrid. Not simply because I am of mixed blood origin - Mexican mom, Gypsy dad somewhere between Scottish and Jewish - An American mutt, as I like to call myself. Not simply because my wife and I drove here in our new Prius (40+ miles to the gallon, but who's boasting?). Not simply because I was born and continue to live in mixed-up Southern California - El Lay to be exact, where the Prius is Toyota's bestseller, by the way. Not simply because I am in the dramatic arts, the most mixed up of writing careers - combining elements of poetry, song, movement, and exhibitionism onstage. And not simply because my most recent collection of plays - THE HURT BUSINESS - is also the most recent book by my editor, publisher, writer and friend - your own Professor William Anthony Nericcio - making the book a hybrid or combination of our best work together and apart.

I am a hybrid because it best suits my American landscape to be so. It suits the way I want to see myself in relation to this thing called America. In order to live best now in this growingly difficult economic and geopolitical environment, I believe we need to mix our fuels and resources in all manner of new ways, and I don't just mean combining gas engines with electric motors. I want to combine what I've learned in academia with what I know from the street. I want to create something new and better and more responsible than what I've seen from decision makers and culture brokers in the last 10 years. I want to represent what's best about us, and I want passionately to lessen the worst aspects of who we are. That includes my carbon footprint, my stance on the War and on war in general, my community involvement and activism, and the way I wish to express my artistic self.

But this isn't about me; this is about you now. So I ask you. How might you combine your education with your personal makeup and your family history to create a way of being, of seeing, of doing that helps yourself do better and doesn't hurt the world you live in? How might you become a hybrid?

We are already hybrids because the tradition of hybridization - of crossbreeding, of combining different varieties of human experience - has everything to do with our history. This is a happy day, so I won't go into the details of the American Conquest. But suffice it to say that we as Americans are hybrids by definition and force. From the moment Cortez kissed La Malinche, Europeans and Native Americans have been combining DNA. When you add the slave element from Africa into the proceedings, then you begin to see the wildly variegated cross-pollination that has been taking place from Plymouth Rock to La Havana to El Lay since 1520. Okay, college grads - how long has this been going on? 488 years? Looking beyond blood - if that's possible - think about the cultural crossbreeding that's occurred and still occurs - hopefully now less by force and more based on attraction and -- dare I say -- love. How our diet has changed and affected our cuisine - and our physique. How language has interwoven itself into the hybridization. How architecture has reflected the mixture of our peoples coming together here. How our faiths have grown and combined into new ways of understanding a Higher Power. How Science and Technology have taken hybridization to another level. This is our history.

Precisely by intermixing ourselves and everything we do, our forebears created something new and called it America. And yet recently, the design hit the skids somewhere. Didn't it? Life hasn't necessarily been getting better. Not recently, anyway. The Unanswerables got bigger and scarier and maybe some of our decision makers stopped asking the right questions. I wish I could tell you otherwise, but this is the American landscape you've inherited.

So now what? What happens next? What happens next is you become an active player from the local to the global.
Now - finally - we are in a position where our votes count, where one of our presidential candidates quite literally is a hybrid himself - of mixed parentage, education and culture. I'm not asking you to vote one way or the other, but I am asking you to vote. Combine your knowledge and your gut feelings, your dreams and your hard experience, and take the next step into the future. You can't do much worse than we've done recently; you can do a lot, lot, better. And I know you will. But you have to create something new, find the right mixture, the proper combination that is true not only to our history of who we are, but the dream of who we still can be.

My best buddy Keith, who is African American from Hollywood, just had a baby with his Bulgarian girlfriend Tatiana. Now I'm not calling my godson Alexander a hybrid per se, but I will tell you that he came from love, that he's going to be bilingual. And that he's going to be really good looking. He's a blend, and he'll be good for the world in many, many ways.

I'm not telling you to go out there and find yourself an African American or Bulgarian boy or girl friend and have a kid, but I am saying that you can if you want. You have the power, the right, the responsibility, and the chance to be true now about who you really are, how you really feel: to combine what you've learned with what you see before you and do something tangible - and beautiful - to make the world better.

But how? What happens next? Good question. When I ask myself, this is what I do. Create art whenever possible; you can do it. Save gas. Walk more. Eat fresh and in moderation. Vote wisely and often. Love strongly and without fear. Read a lot - one of the most important things you can derive from the university experience is the ability to read the fine print! Be curious. Open your mind and your heart. And use them actively. Invent. Create. Combine.

And yes, buy a hybrid vehicle. It's really good for the environment, and the bank account!
Be a hybrid in as many ways as you feel good doing so.
You'll be good for the world.
And the world will be good to you.

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