At work on Thursday, my boss, who is a kind 40-something woman named Melisa, asked me if it had “set in” that I was leaving the University of Michigan.
No, I answered, it really hasn’t.
Which is true; it really hasn’t. Not wanting to jinx my temporary lack of existential dread about leaving college, I changed the subject, or thought I did, to the topic of YoutubeCommencementSpeechSchlisselGate.
I told her we weren’t having a commencement speaker and that I was upset about it. Which is also true; I was, and am, upset.
This whole speech situation really did bum me out. It bummed me out more than I wanted it to bum me out and, frankly, more than it is appropriate. There are objectively much worse things in the world, and in Michigan, and in Ann Arbor, and in decisions that the University of Michigan makes or doesn’t make that should bum me out exponentially more. In fact, I think most people who are bummed out about the lack of a graduation speaker would also throw in the caveat that it’s not that bad, it’s just …
To me, it kinda feels like one of those things that we’re gonna look back on and think, “They did what?” Like when OKC traded Harden, or when Damian Marley and Nas did an album together, or “Limitless” the TV show sans Bradley Cooper, etc. It all sort of made sense at the time, but everyone had a feeling it wasn’t going to work out.
Of course the University isn’t trying to sabotage our graduation. Marky Mark Schlissel doesn’t have some vendetta against us. It was a decision as much as hiring Brady Hoke, raising the price of student tickets or closing the Taco Bell in the Michigan League.
I did not say all of this to Melisa. We got to talking about her week and then came one of my favorite parts of my Thursday. The part where I get to knowingly nod in agreement when she says things like, “Man, it’s been a long week” or “Friday can’t come sooner.” I like this part of my week so much because, for that moment, we could both take solace in the fact that the real world sucks and I can quell a nagging belief that I have never dealt with an iota of real adversity or true monotony in my life.
I think of David Foster Wallace’s claim that soon-to-be college graduates do not understand what the phrase “day in, day out” really means. I certainly do not.
I think it would be fair for someone reading this to scratch their head at my thought process. They might think, and be correct in thinking, that I am effectively just visiting real life’s monotony eight hours a week, and thus, it isn’t really monotony at all. The short and long of their critique might be, “You don’t know shit about real life because you work part time at a sorority, stop pretending like you do.”
Those critics, strangely of which I am one, are right, and that’s part of the reason I’m so bummed about having a video replace a human for my graduation.
I’ve spent college searching for some morsel of truth that will let me cut through the monotony of what I perceive real life to be. One way or another, I think my peers do the same. We imagine a moment where it all makes sense, where we are ready. But the other section of our brain quickly reminds us that there is no such morsel to find and we block it out, like I do every Thursday when Melisa and I complain about our tough weeks.
And that is exactly the problem. The graduation speech is our last hope. When I close my eyes and imagine myself on the 20-yard line of the Big House listening to Hillary Clinton — or John Stewart or Barack Obama or whomever — I’m imagining the speech already in memory form, as if it already happened, and already imparted some wisdom. I imagine remembering the moment where I look at my peers at this great University, the Leaders and the Best, the champions of the West, and I make eye contact with one of my roommates and give him a knowing nod: We got this.
Part of me knows this wouldn’t have happened even if they brought Bo Schembechler back from the grave, but when I saw that our speaker was a video, my fantasy was destroyed.
There is literally nothing profound about a video, and it’s mainly a numbers game. Eight minutes on Instagram, and I can watch 150 different videos. My fantasy graduation inspiration is a singular moment. After Obama says, “Thank you,” and I say, “We got this,” I’ll get a little sad, knowing how fleeting the moment is. Once this video is made available on YouTube, I’ll honestly get a better look at it when I’m craning my neck up at the big screen. It might even be better the second time. Cold No Thai is better the second time. Graduations shouldn’t be.
Still, the problem is not with Mark, or with the video, or with the lack of a keynote, the problem is with ourselves. The reason, maybe, this speech is causing more outrage than things we all agree are more pressing is because it taps into a special kind of existential dread. A fear that life is a set of small compromises you have to make with your own understanding of what a happy life looks like, one which is getting sent off by a YouTube video.