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Archive for April, 2012

Can You Hear Me Now?
Delivered at the 2400th annual commencement at the School of Hard Knocks at the University of Emerald City.
(The 2010 Commencement address was delivered by the Scarecrow. The 2011 was delivered by the Tin Man.)

It took more than an act of courage to get me up here to address you, the 2012 graduates of the College of Hard Knocks. It took conviction. The conviction that what I have to say today might mean something to one of you sitting out there waiting to he handed your diploma.

Courage without conviction is like a plate of Oreos without a glass of iced-cold milk. You can have one without the other, but the combination of the two not only makes all the difference in the world, it will make all the difference in your life. And if we’re to be terribly honest, when it comes down to it, it’s your life that matters, despite the fact that your generation has been raised to believe that it’s far better to live someone else’s life.

You might well be thinking what do courage and conviction have to do with me, here and now…and in the future. You might even turn to the person sitting next to you and say, “I am not a super hero. I don’t really need courage. What I need is a job.”

And you have a point there. Right now getting a job is the most important thing on your to-do-list. And once you get a job, keeping it will be the next thing on your list.

So, what do courage and conviction have to do with you? Everything, because today courage is in short supply and conviction is now in its death throes. If you want to live a full life. If you want to make even the slightest difference in the world. Well, there’s really no “if” about it. Courage is in our DNA and conviction is in the air we breathe.

Courage should have been second nature to me. I was born with courage. It coursed through my veins. But I was a coward. And that’s because I didn’t have any convictions. I floated through the forest roaring and growling so people would believe I actually did have courage.

Well, you know the story. A slight slap on my nose by an innocent young girl knocked some sense into me. For the first time in my life I had to admit I was a coward, something I don’t believe a single one of you out there would be willing to admit. So let me say it for you. You are a coward. But the nice thing about cowardice is that while it is life-threatening it is not necessarily a terminal condition.

Today cowardice is more often than not exhibited by silence. Whenever you witness an act that is wrong and say nothing, you are being a coward. Whenever you stand by and let something happen that shouldn’t happen, you are being a coward. Whenever you allow someone to behave in a way that is demeaning to you or someone else and you say nothing, you are being a coward.

I know what you’re thinking. Let someone else say something. That never works. The Holocaust might have never happened if people had not remained silent. Speaking up and acting out is when conviction combines with courage.

I urge you not to remain silent. I encourage you to be the courageous person you were born to be. I beg you to have the courage of your convictions.

Do not leave here and become a sheep even though your diploma is known as a sheepskin. Leave the hallowed halls of this institution of higher learning a lion, and let the world hear your roar. And if at first they can’t hear you, speak up and ask, “Can you hear me now?”

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I think memories are not just stored in our heads and hearts, but that they continue to live on in the world, and it only takes a whiff of a beautiful day to have certain memories flood every part of us. And the best memories to come back to us are those of times and days that defined us.

Prior to 1968 I had a few defining moments, but the first moment to define who I was to become took place in Oxford (1968-1969). I lived on Holywell Street (pictured above) and for close to a year I lived for the first time in my life. Everyday was a gift, and I opened each gift with the wide-eyed wonder of a young child.

I think life is all the more beautiful when we open ourselves up to moments that define us, moments when we cast aside all those other definitions that have been forced upon us.

To me Oxford will always be more than a place in time. It will forever be a place in my memory. And today I could smell the memory.

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Our Titanic Memory

A century ago an event of titanic proportions happened in the middle of the mighty Atlantic Ocean. The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, sent shock waves around the world. And while the historic event was given broad coverage in the press, the truth of the Titanic faded and what took its place was a collective memory. The sinking of the Titanic has been the subject of novels, non-fiction books, big screen movies and made-for-television movies and even a Broadway musical.

There was a stark reality to the sinking of the Titanic. Over 1500 “real men, women and children” died that night 100 years ago. Among the real people who died was the richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor IV. He bid his young, pregnant wife good-bye, never to see her again or to ever hold his son. The same fate befell the wealthy Lucian P. Smith, whose pregnant wife boarded a life boat without her husband. (Lucian’s son, Lucian, Jr. was saved in 1966 when the cruise ship he was on caught fire.) The rich were well remembered.

But what about the hundreds of Titanic passengers who traveled in third class? More than 80% of these poor souls died and their life stories died with them. Very few people know that Frederick and Augusta Goodwin and their six children boarded the Titanic believing that there was a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (Frederick’s brother had a job for him waiting in Niagara Falls.)

All eight Goodwins perished. 19-month  old Sidney became a footnote in Titanic history when his small body was listed as the fourth body to be discovered floating in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic on April 17 . He went unidentified until 2007. None of his other family members’ bodies were recovered. The men who found baby Goodwin took up a collection to erect a monument to him in the Halifax Cemetery where he was laid to rest.

Even though the sinking of the Titanic has, a 100 years later, become a “great story,” we should never forget that it was real…and tragic. The least we can do is take a moment to remember the 1517 innocent lives lost on a ship billed as unsinkable.

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What with Easter and Passover coinciding this past weekend it should not have come as a surprise that “religion” was the topic of discussion in the media.  On Groundhog Day the media is all over Puxatony Phil and his shadow declaring that there will be six more weeks of winter. During the “holy days” just gone by, the media features the faithful at a Seder table and at Good Friday Services. And while the reporters don’t say it, I can hear it in my mind. “We’ll have six more weeks of Judaism!” “We’ll have six more weeks of Christianity!”

But I digress. What struck me most while I was watching news programs on Easter and Passover, there was one word that I couldn’t get out of my head. And the word was “denomination.”  Even as a child I thought that was a strange word to use to describe a religion, particularly because I also remember learning that word…denomination…in terms of money.

In the arena of religions there are many different denominations. The same holds true when you talk about US currency. There are also a number of different denominations. In religion you have Christians Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. In currency you have one dollar bills, five dollar bills, ten dollar bills, etc.

Obviously when it comes to currency we know that a twenty dollar bill is worth much more than a dollar bill. And we’re fine with that. But when it comes to religions, we don’t “value” them. Or do we?

Priests, rabbis, ministers and imams might not come out and say that all religions are the same, but publicly they do proclaim that all religions have something in common. Privately, I don’t think they share the same mindset. One religion believes it is a hundred dollar bill and other religions are of a lesser denomination. One religion believes it is the right and true religion while other religions come up a little short.

Religious denominations are not alike despite the fact that religious leaders would like us to believe that we are all God’s children, who we are, but some of us, according to a particular denomination’s rule book, have been saved and others of us have not.

There’s no room for equivocation when it comes to currency denominations.  They are what they are.

I don’t believe there were denominations of any kind in Oz. No religions. No currency. That doesn’t mean things were better in Oz, but at least in Oz there were no religious debates.

I am less inclined to subscribe to a particular denomination’s rules and regulations, but more inclined to fill my spirit with different denominations.  It puts a different spin on the question a popular financial institution asks:  “what’s in your spiritual wallet?”

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