If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times…
Patton Oswalt is my hero.
Comedian, writer, nerd, genius…they’re all words I’d use to describe him. Inspirational? Not until now.
See, Mr. Oswalt was chosen to give the commencement speech at his former highschool for the graduating class of ’08 (man, I feel old), and while it’s intended audience is teenagers on their way to adulthood, I think we all can grab something from it. So while it’s currently available on his website, I’d like to present it in full following the cut below.
Read and learn, kids.
First off, I want to thank the teachers and faculty of Broad Run High School for first considering and then inviting me to speak here. It was flattering, I am touched and humbled, and you have made a grave mistake.
I’m being paid for this, right? Oh, wait, there’s some advice, right off the bat – always get paid. If you make enough money in this world you can smoke pot all day and have people killed.
I’m sorry, that was irresponsible.
You shouldn’t have people killed.
Boom! Marijuana endorsement eleven seconds into my speech! Too late to cancel me now!
It’s dumb-ass remarks like that which kept me out of the National Honor Society and also made me insanely wealthy. If I move to Brazil.
I graduated from Broad Run High School 21 years ago. That means, theoretically, I could be – each and every one of you – your father. And I’m speaking especially to the black and Asian students.
So now I’m going to try to give all of you some advice as if I contained fatherly wisdom, which I do not. I contain mostly caffeine, Cheet-o dust, fear and scotch.
I know most of you worked very hard to get here today but guess what? The Universe sent you a pasty goblin to welcome you into the world. Were The Greaseman and Arch Campbell not available?
So, 1987. That’s when I got my diploma. But I want to tell you something that happened the week before I graduated. It was life-changing, it was profound, and it was deeper than I realized at the time.
The week before graduation I strangled a hobo. Oh wait, that’s a different story. That was college. I’m speaking at my college later this month. I’ve got both speeches here. Let me sum up the college speech – always have a gallon of bleach in your trunk.
High school. A week before I graduated high school I had dinner, in Leesburg, with a local banker who was giving me a partial scholarship. I still don’t understand why. Maybe he had me confused with another student, someone who hadn’t written his AP English paper on comparisons between Jay Gatsby and Spider-Man. But, I was getting away with it, and I love money and food, so double win.
And I remember, I’m sitting at this dinner, with a bunch of other kids from the other local high schools. And I’m trying my pathetic best to look cool and mysterious, because I was 17 and so into the myth of myself. Remember, this dinner and this scholarship was happening to me.
And I figured this banker guy was a nice guy but hey, I’m the special one at the table. I had a view of the world, where I was eternally Bill Murray in Stripes. I’d be the one with the quips and insights at this dinner. This old man in a suit doesn’t have anything to teach me beyond signing that check. I’ve got a cool mullet and a skinny leather tie from Chess King. And check out my crazy suspenders with the piano keys on them. Have you ever seen Blackadder? ‘Cuz I’ll recite it.
And then this banker – clean-shaven, grey suit and vest – you’d never look twice at him on the street – he told me about The Five Environments.
He leans forward, near the end of the dinner, and he says to me, “There are Five Environments you can live in on this planet. There’s The City. The Desert. The Mountains. The Plains. And The Beach.
You can live in combinations of them. Maybe a city in the desert, or in the mountains by the ocean. Or you could choose just one. Out in the plains somewhere, perhaps.
“But you need to get out there and travel, and figure out where you thrive.
“Some places you’ll go to and you’ll feel yourself wither. Your brain will fog up, your body won’t respond to your thoughts and desires, and you’ll feel sad and angry.
“You need to find out which of the Five Environments are yours. If you belong by the ocean, then the mountains will ruin you. If you’re suited for the blue solitude of the plains, then the city will be a tight, roaring prison cell that’ll eat you alive.
He was right. I’ve traveled and tested his theory and he was absolutely right. There are Five Environments. If you find the right combination, or the perfect singularity, your life will click…into…place. You will click into place.
And I remember, so clearly, driving home from that dinner, how lucky I felt to have met someone who affirmed what I was already planning to do after high school. I was going to roam and blitz and blaze my way all over the planet.
Anywhere but here. Anywhere but Northern Virginia. NoVa. You know what a “nova” is? It’s when a white dwarf star gobbles up so much hydrogen from a neighboring star it causes a cataclysmic nuclear explosion. A cosmic event.
Well, I was a white dwarf and I was definitely doing my share of gobbling up material. But I didn’t feel like any events in my life were cosmic. The “nova” I lived in was a rural coma sprinkled with chunks of strip mall numbness. I had two stable, loving parents, a sane and wise little brother and I was living in Sugarland Run, whose motto is, “Ooooh! A bee! Shut the door!”
I wanted to explode. I devoured books and movies and music and anything that would kick open windows to other worlds real or imagined. Sugarland Run, and Sterling and Ashburn and Northern Virginia were, for me, a sprawling batter’s box before real experience began.
And I followed that banker’s advice. I had to get college out of the way but once I got my paper I lit out hard.
Oh this world. Ladies and gentlemen, this world rocks and it never lets up.
I’ve seen endless daylight and darkness in Alaska. I’ve swum in volcanic craters in Hawaii and saw the mystical green flash when the sun sinks behind the Pacific. I got ripped on absinthe in Prague and watched the sun rise over the synagogue where the Golem is supposedly locked in the attic. I stood under the creepy shadow of Christchurch Spitafields, in London’s East End, and sank a pint next door at The Ten Bells, where two of Jack the Ripper’s victims were last seen drinking. I’ve fed gulls at the harbor in Galway, Ireland. I’ve done impromptu Bloomsday tours of Dublin.
I cried my eyes out on the third floor of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, all those paintings that Vincent and his circle have to each other as gifts because they were all broke some cold Christmas long ago. I’ve eaten crocodile in the Laneways of Melbourne Australia and ortolans on the Left Bank of Paris, France.
I’ve been to Canada.
I’ve been to every state in this country. I’ve been to hidden, subterranean restaurants in New York with the guys from Anthrax and eaten at L.A. taquieras with “Weird” Al Yankovic. I held the guitar that Hendrix torched at Monterey Pop and watched Woodstock ’99 burn to the ground. I’ve lingered at the corner of Bush and Stockton in San Francisco where Miles Archer took a bullet in The Maltese Falcon, and brooded over the grave of H.P. Lovecraft in Providence, R.I. I’ve hung out with Donny Osmond and Jim Goad, Suge Knight and Aimee Mann, Bill Hicks and Don Rickles.
I’ve done stand-up comedy in laundromats, soup kitchens and frat houses, and onstage at Lollapalooza and Coachella. I’ve toured with bands, been to the Oscars and the Superbowl, and been killed in movies by vampires, forest fires and air-to-air missiles.
And I missed the banker’s lesson. 100%, I completely missed it.
In my defense, he didn’t even know he was teaching it.
Telling me about the 5 Environments and urging me to travel? That was advice. It wasn’t a lesson. Advice is everywhere in this world. Your friends, family, teachers and strangers are all happy to give it.
A lesson is yours and yours alone. Some of them take years to recognize and utilize.
My lesson was this – experience, and reward and glory are meaningless unless you’re open and present with the people you share them with in the moment.
Let me go back to that dinner, 21 years ago. There I was, shut off from this wise, amazing old man. Then he zaps me with one of the top 5 pieces of information I’ve ever received in this life, and all I was thankful for was how it benefited me.
I completely ignored the deeper lesson which is do not judge, and get outside yourself, and realize that everyone and everything has its own story, and something to teach you, and that they’re also trying – consciously or unconsciously – to learn and grow from you and everything else around them. And they’re trying with the same passion and hunger and confusion that I was feeling – no matter where they were in their lives, no matter how old or how young.
I’m not saying that you guys shouldn’t go out there and see and do everything there is to see and do. Go. As fast as you can. I don’t know how much longer this world has got, to be honest.
All of you have been given a harsh gift. It’s the same gift the graduating class of 1917, and 1938, and 1968 and now you guys got – the chance to enter adulthood when the world teeters on the rim of the sphincter of oblivion. You’re jumping into the deep end. You have no choice but to be exceptional.
But please don’t mistake miles traveled, and money earned, and fame accumulated for who you are.
Because now I understand how the miraculous, horrifying and memorable lurk everywhere. But they’re hidden to the kind of person I was when I graduated high school. And now – and it’s because of my traveling and living and some pretty profound mistakes along the way – they’re all laid open to me. They’re mine for the feasting. In the Sistine Chapel and in a Taco Bell. In Bach’s Goldberg Variations and in the half-heard brain dead chatter of a woman on her cell phone behind me on an airplane. In Baghdad, Berlin and Sterling, Virginia.
I think now about the amazing thunderstorms in the summer evenings. And how – late at night, during a blizzard, you can stand outside and hear the collective, thumping murmur of a million snowflakes hitting the earth, like you’re inside a sleeping god’s thoughts.
I think of the zombie movies I shot back in the gnarled, grey woods and the sad, suburban punks I waited on at Waxie Maxie’s. I think of the disastrous redneck weddings I deejay’d for when I was working for Sounds Unlimited and the Lego spaceships my friends and I would build after seeing Star Wars.
I think about my dad, and how he consoled me when I’d first moved to L.A. and called him, saying I was going into therapy for depression, and how ashamed I was. And he laughed and said, “What the hell’s to be ashamed of?” And I said, “Man, you got your leg machine-gunned in Vietnam. You never went to therapy. Humphrey Bogart never went to therapy.” And my dad said, “Yeah, but Bogie smoked three cartons of cigarettes a day.” And how my mom came down to the kitchen when I was studying for my trig final, at 2 o’clock in the morning, and said, “Haven’t you already been accepted to college?” And I said, “Yeah, but this test is really going to be hard.” And she asked, “What’s the test for again?” And I said, “Calculus” and she closed my notebook and said, “You’ll never use this. Ever. Go to bed or watch a movie.” And how when I got my first ever acting gig, on Seinfeld, my brother sent me a postcard of Minnie Pearl, and he wrote on it, “Never forget, you and her are in the same profession.”
I didn’t realize how all of these places and people and events were just as crucial in shaping me as anything I roamed to the corners of the Earth to see. And they’ve shaped you, and will shape you, whether you realize it now or later. All of you are richer and wiser than you know.
So I will leave you with some final advice. You’ll decide later if this was a lesson. And if you realize there was no lesson in any of this, then that was a lesson.
But I’d like all of you to enter this world, and your exploration of the Five Environments, better armed then I was. And without a mullet. Which I see you’re all way ahead of me on.
First off: Reputation, Posterity and Cool are traps. They’ll drain the life from your life. Reputation, Posterity and Cool = Fear.
Let me put that another way. Bob Hope once said, “When I was twenty, I worried what everything thought of me. When I turned forty, I didn’t care what anyone thought of me. And then I made it to sixty, and I realized no one was ever thinking of me.” And then he pooed his pants, but that didn’t make what he said any less profound.
Secondly: The path is made by walking. And when you’re walking that path, you choose how things affect you. You always have that freedom, no matter how much your liberty it curtailed. You…get to choose…how things affect you.
And lastly, and I guarantee this. It’s the one thing I know ‘cause I’ve experienced it:
There Is No Them.
I’m going to get out of your way now. Get out there. Let’s see which one of you is up here in twenty years. If you’re lacking confidence, remember – I wouldn’t have picked me.