The Freedom to be Ordinary

My little sister has graduated from Scripps college. Congratulations little sis!

In true Goer family fashion, we showed up at the time when the ony seats available were the ones way in the back, the five percent or so that were in the sun the entire time. So we sat and broiled. Meanwhile, waaay up in the front, poor Mom was completely stymied in her efforts to take a good picture of Sarah receiving her diploma. See, the college’s plan was that there would be a line for parents to take pictures near the podium, and you would go line up when your daughter was about five names away from being called. But apparently this was the first year they’d tried this, and so the result was a seething mass of fat middle-aged Titans of Southern Californian Industry, bristling with Nikons. And at the edge there was Mom, all 5’3″ of her. Don’t get me wrong, Mom is pretty tough and all, but the laws of physics were just not working in her favor. Next time we attend a Scripps graduation, we’ll know better.

Still, the speeches were above-average quality as these things go. And when things got a little slow, or if you were trying to take your mind off of the ultraviolet light scorching your skin, you could open the program and try to hum the Scripps Alma Mater to yourself, a particular if you don’t know the tune. Or you could flip through all the senior thesis titles, many of which were of an amusingly musty mid-1990s vintage (ex: Towards an Indigenous Return: Values of Improvisation as Resistance to Capitalist Hegemony). I suppose the one observation I had about the speeches is that they focused so heavily on the theme of doing something extraordinary with your elite education. Not that you shouldn’t run out and change the world, but wouldn’t it nice if speakers would also give a nod to simply absorbing and applying one’s elite education to one’s ordinary life? Because that’s what most people end up doing, if they remember their education at all. To be fair, anyone who gives a commencement speech is going to find it hard to view the college experience through that prism. And I suppose that celebrating the mundane is not what commencement speeches are for.

Heading home from the airport, I caught about two minutes of Tech Nation, which is probably my least favorite NPR show this side of Pacific Time or A Prairie Home Companion. The interviewee was giving a lengthy discourse in business-speak that boiled down to, when you have a group of numbers, a few really large numbers can really bring up the average. He then used this to transition to the tech and biotech industries. Apparently you have to run hundreds of experiments just to get one blockbuster new drug! “This means that really have to rethink how we think about failure,” he said.

That’s when I switched the radio off. And as I drove in the dark, I wondered why someone gets airtime for echoing the fifty-year-old folk wisdom of the Silicon Valley back to us. Clearly this fellow on the radio is serving a vital function in the tech industry ecosystem, but what is it? Is it that we need to be immersed in a soothing reinforcing buzz of innovation, innovation, we are all individuals? Is it something else? I am puzzled.