Ending as Beginning | Opinion | Salt Lake City Weekly

Ending as Beginning 

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"There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, 'Morning, boys, how's the water?' And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, 'What the hell is water?'"

Of all the fish stories I have heard, I like this one most of all. It comes from the late writer David Foster Wallace's famous graduation speech to the Kenyon College class of 2005.

Of all the spider stories I have heard, the best comes from author and minister Robert Fulghum's graduation speech at Syracuse University in 1998. In it, he sang "Itsy Bitsy Spider," the children's song about a small, but determined, spider flushed from a downspout by rainfall only to return when the storm passed.

I always think of these two stories when yellow forsythia blossoms herald another graduation season. This week, at the University of Utah and Utah State, students will listen expectantly as the likes of Wallace and Fulgham explain how an ending can also be a beginning. Hence, the performative ritual of "commencement"—the doorway to the next phase of life.

Utes will hear a commencement address from Ben Nemtin; Thierry Fischer will speak to the Aggies in Logan. Westminster College graduates will listen to Christine M. Durham next week, and Malcolm Mitchell is the commencement speaker at the Salt Lake Community College. A best-selling author, a symphony conductor, a prominent jurist, and a professional football player—each will offer wisdom to a receptive audience. Perhaps their words will be as memorable as those of Wallace and Fulghum.

I have never been a commencement speaker, but I imagine it is hard to preside over a rite of passage in which the participants wear medieval robes. Nevertheless, I think I could write a passable speech because like a three-chord pop song, the commencement genre tends to be a set piece. It begins with an anecdote—a "didactic little parable-ish story," Wallace called it—and mine would be humorous to set the tone. (Tone is an important consideration at this bittersweet moment in young adults' lives.) The speech would be high-minded but light-handed. It would be just self-referential enough to elicit nodding recognition in the audience that the ground being plowed has been plowed before. My speech would be short, free of academic jargon, and conclude with the obligatory call to action, such as: Lead authentic lives. Read newspapers and magazines. Combat complacency. Or (credit the late academic Joseph Campbell) follow your bliss.

To persevere in the face of setback is Fulghum's call to action. Keep climbing back up the downspout, ideally a little wiser, after each flood, he said. "Check the clouds or look for better ways to hang on the drainpipe. We might even have a Plan B just in case we get knocked down yet another time. But we all do it again. We climb back up the drain pipes of life over and over again."

Wallace worried that the young fish weren't attuned to what was going on around them. The late novelist urged "attention, awareness and discipline, and effort and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways." He concluded that "the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves: This is water."

In my imaginary speech, I would urge the audience to swim free of the online whirlpool, but my introductory story would recall food guru Michael Pollan's 2008 visit to the Land of Fry Sauce and Funeral Potatoes. More than 2,000 people packed Abravanel Hall to hear him disparage "edible food-like substances" and "anything your great grandmother wouldn't recognize as food." It was my introduction to Pollan's now-famous axiom, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants."

Segue to journalists Jeff Stibel and Farhad Manjoo, neither of whom is a foodie. They write about digital technology for USA Today and The New York Times, respectively. Both have recently quit social media and overcome an "addiction to news" cold turkey, turning to newspapers and magazines instead. "It has been life changing," wrote Manjoo. "Turning off the buzzing, breaking-news machine I carry in my pocket was like unshackling myself from a monster who had me on speed dial."

His experience is instructive for those who have come of age shackled to a smartphone, a seductive machine that streams kaleidoscopic information with fire-hose intensity 24 hours a day. Like Wallace's myopic fish, the phone-addicted lack awareness. They don't notice that prolonged screen time contributes to loss of empathy, erosion of conversation skills—even depression. That they are targeted with specious news is a separate issue but more worrisome.

"Smartphones and social networks are giving us facts about the news much faster than we can make sense of them, letting speculation and misinformation fill the gap," wrote Manjoo. Stibel agreed: "By the end of a news cycle, you can't help but feel overwhelmed by meaningless dribble."

Think of Stibel and Manjoo as older, water-wise fish. Follow their good example. Take your foot off the accelerator. Test the water. Read newspapers and magazines. Manjoo puts it succinctly, "the way Michael Pollan boiled down nutrition advice: Get news, not too quickly, avoid social."

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