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E38. The Commencement Address of Lou Reed's Nephew
"Life is infuriating, the way it wrests appropriateness from us when inappropriateness is called for."
“I’m giving the commencement address at my high school,” Lou Reed’s Nephew announced the next day.
“I thought you weren’t going to go back there, out of respect.”
“They sweetened the pot.”
“They found your weakness.”
“Yes. An opportunity to speak without interruption. I was defenseless.”
“What are you going to … say?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. I’ve dreamt my whole life of delivering a commencement address. It’s one of those moments, like appearing on a late-night talk show or writing a memoir, that you fantasize about because you believe, were the moment to come, you would finally be able to tell the whole truth. That you would, at last, be completely free.”
“That sounds suspiciously like revenge.”
“Call it what you want. Revenge. Keeping it real. I have felt like a sleeper agent my entire life—haven’t you?—waiting for the perfect moment to unleash my truth on the world.”
“You seem to do a pretty good job.” I said, thinking of his unsparing explication of my venture’s new turn. “Delivering the unvarnished truth.”
“You have no idea,” he said. “My anger is as bottomless as anyone’s. We are all maimed when we are fitted into this world, cut or stretched to fit, leaving a hollow cave inside of each of us. We are all like puff pastries filled with screams.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Life is a Procrustean bed.”
“I don’t know what this has to do with mail-order mattresses,” he said.
“Never mind,” I said.
“Fortunately for most people, they never get to go on a talk show and are never invited to write their memoirs. They are never even asked to give a commencement address, and now I wish I hadn’t been.”
“Because I’ve found out that I’m a terrible sleeper agent. I’ve completely lost sight of the mission.”
“Being true to yourself. If—unlike Todd Blin—you make decisions in life that demand compromise, you do it by deferring this moment of truth. I will do this now and bite my tongue—you tell yourself—but only so I can build a larger stage from which to air my truth. And this goes on, this illusion of authenticity postponed until, at last …”
“You are invited to give a commencement address at your high school, and you realize you can’t do it. You forgot what you wanted to say or lost the will to say it. You’ve gotten so good at not saying it that it’s easier to tell yourself, ‘The time is not right. Hold out for the talk show or the memoir.’ Then I imagine even those aren’t enough. The truth is repeatedly deferred. Life is infuriating, the way it wrests appropriateness from us when inappropriateness is called for.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Do? I’m going to compromise. I’m glad Todd Blin is hold up in the Ecuadorian embassy in Tashkent. This would kill him. That reminds me, I’ve been meaning to introduce him to Ulugbek.”
Lou Reed’s Nephew made a note on his laptop.
“You still admire him?”
“Ulugbek? Of course.”
“Todd Blin.” It still stung me how familiar he and Ulugbek had become. I couldn’t even contemplate his relationship with Margaux. I suddenly felt ancient.
“So few humans have overcome their incentives we know most of them by name. Jesus, Buddha, Todd Blin.”
“Todd Blin overcame his incentives?”
“Absolutely. I have never met anyone so resistant to self-preservation.”
“Isn’t that just stupidity?”
“Yes, but it’s also freedom, and—for a select few—glory. None of us will be around to see how it turns out for Todd.”
“Have you prepared your speech?”
“It’s a work in progress. Would you like to hear it?”
Lou Reed’s Nephew cleared his throat and read from his screen.
I’m supposed to come here today and tell you that you—each of you—can accomplish whatever you set your mind to. That if you dream it, you can be it. That reality presents no obstacle to the realization of your dreams. Unfortunately, this isn’t true. You cannot accomplish anything you set your mind to, and reality is quite an obstacle to the realization of your dreams. It is in fact the primary obstacle. Nevertheless, I am authorized to reveal to you today, by the conventions of commencement address epiphination, that some of you will achieve your dreams and some of you will not. Some of you will achieve even more than your dreams, which will further deprive your classmates of their dream-accomplishment potential. Look around. You are competing for your dreams with each other and with those not present—those not present getting the worst of it, of course—amid a limited amount of reality with which to build those dreams. If you totaled up all the dreams in the world, they would fill the universe, which is infinite, an infinite number of times. That’s the thing about dreams. They have no limits and are always expanding.
This ability, the ability to dream things that do not exist, is our greatest ability—as human beings—but also the most painful. It is the source of all our joy and all our unhappiness. Unhappiness occurs when our dreams exceed our reach, which is always and everywhere because we are finite beings with infinite desires.
And yet I will do as expected, to the best of my ability, and tell you that you can achieve your dreams, that if you can dream it you can be it—even though this is false, as I’ve said—because, sadly, it is the best possible attitude to take in this life, even if it is a recipe for despair for most of you. I will not send you out into the world unarmed, however. You may not get what you want, but I promise you this much: “Everything will work out in the end.”
And if anyone asks how you’re doing, look them in the eye and tell them, plainly, “Living the dream. I’m just living the dream.”