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Expecting, Commencement Speaker - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 31, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Expecting, Commencement Speaker

Some movies are so spectacularly bad that it's worth buying a ticket just so you can walk out.

What to Expect When You're Expecting isn't spectacular. It's just your ordinary sad little movie where deeply incompetent writing wasted the talents of a very talented cast. And wastes the time of anyone who bothers to go see it in hopes of an evening's entertainment.

I'm sure that somebody -- namely the Lionsgate executive who greenlit the movie -- thought that since a nonfiction advice book like He's Just Not That Into You turned out to be a terrific romantic comedy, the book What To Expect When You're Expecting only needed to follow the same formula.

Only it wasn't a formula. Yes, both movies took a case study approach. But where Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, the writers of He's Just Not That Into You, created compelling characters with fascinating stories, the writers of What to Expect (Shauna Cross and Heather Hach) apparently created a spreadsheet with all the stuff from the book divided out among the cells.

Then they assigned each idea to a "character" and wrote a bunch of lame bad-sitcom-level jokes and gags about those ideas.

The characters don't rise to the level of case studies. The plots never become stories.

In fact, as we are introduced to each couple, the writing is so perfunctory that every problem that is introduced is resolved before the end of the scene -- just so everybody can get pregnant (or commit to adopting) as quickly as possible.

Thus there is absolutely nothing at stake. Nobody has any dilemmas that we care about. There is no point of view.

What a waste of a cast. Jennifer Lopez, Cameron Diaz, Matthew Morrison, Anna Kendrick, Chris Rock, even the utter hearthrob Rodrigo Santoro (the shy man that Laura Linney falls in love with in Love, Actually) -- all are completely wasted.

Dennis Quaid has a right to sue, his part is so badly written.

All these actors gamely try to salvage something entertaining from the wretched script. But this movie exposes how empty their shtick really is. No matter how talented, skilled, clever, witty, charming, or good-looking an actor is, when they're saying empty lines and trying to bring off unfunny gags, they soon begin to seem more and more desperate.

That's when a compassionate audience member takes mercy on them and quietly gets up and leaves the theater, so that their humiliation is not so very public.

Of the two writers on this movie, the more experienced one is Shauna Cross. Her previous crimes consist of Whip It -- a roller derby movie based on her own novel -- and Taking 5, a geeky-teenage-girls-kidnap-a-boy-band-so-they'll-be-popular movie.

As for junior partner Heather Hach, her experience consisted of being the junior partner on the Lindsay Lohan/Jamie Lee Curtis remake of Freaky Friday back in 2003. Oh, and she wrote Legally Blonde: The Musical in 2007.

Since then, both writers have apparently been kept away from all human company, so that they had time to forget how real people talk to each other, and how people respond to genuine dilemmas, and what's funny. If they ever knew.

Somebody committed a budget to the making of this script.

A whole bunch of agents got some excellent actors to be in this movie, on the theory that if you have enough good actors in a bad movie, none of them will be individually blamed for the movie's failure, so they might as well cash the check and get it over with.

Here's the sad thing: Because of the casting, it's possible that enough people will be fooled into seeing the thing that it won't lose money. These writers will probably be hired again.

Isn't that sad? Meanwhile, there are good scripts by good writers that remain unmade.

If any nation were governed with the same decision-making process that Hollywood uses to decide which films to make, which scripts to use, which directors to hire, it would --

Oh, wait. In America, we choose our presidential candidates by almost exactly the same system Hollywood uses to greenlight films.

Never mind.

*

Map freaks: Go to liveleak.com and watch all of European history since 1000 a.d. unfold on the map.

Admittedly, many of the changes show military campaigns that were briefly successful but didn't last -- like Napoleon's and Hitler's nonce empires -- but when you think about it, both of those conquerors provoked a complete reordering of the world and the repercussions continued for many decades.

So yeah, it's worth seeing it all. The only drawback is that while you watch the video of the changing map, you can't pause it and find the date that is being shown. In fact, no dates are shown at all. So the more you already know about European history, the more you'll understand what you're seeing.

But even if you don't know anything, it's way cool.

I once created something similar, only with U.S. presidential elections, showing how the states voted in each election year. Since it started with the original thirteen colonies, the program also charted the growth of the United States, as each new state was admitted and took part in the next election.

And mine showed all the dates.

But mine was also programmed for the PC jr. You know, IBM's crippled microcomputer from 1983, which was designed to prove that IBM knew absolutely nothing about the consumer marketplace?

So you can't see my cool historical-map program, but you can see this one, and it's fun.

*

People are busy graduating and this means that people are being invited to give commencement speeches.

If the college invited a comedian or a politician with good speechwriters, then there's a chance that the graduation will have a few moments of entertainment.

But it's a small chance.

So here's the antidote. Buy the book 10 Things No Commencement Speaker Has Ever Said, by Charles Wheelan, smuggle it into the commencement exercises, and read the book instead.

It's short. You can do it.

And while Wheelan's book isn't perfect -- for instance, the " thing" from the title is just a failed attempt at wit -- it actually contains some really interesting advice.

For instance, Wheelan cites a Harvard Study that began in 1937, following then-sophomores at Harvard throughout their lives, to see how things turned out for them.

Says Wheelan, "When the director of the study was asked what he had learned from decades of data on Harvard students, he replied, 'That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people'" (p. 21).

A different study that Wheelan cites on the same page had this result: "Joining a group that meets just once a month has the same effect on your sense of well-being as doubling your income."

Personally, I think most of us would find it hard to pay the rent using our stored-up happiness from belonging to a monthly book club. But the point is still a valid one -- maintaining positive connections with other people is at least as important to your future happiness as making money.

We all know the kind of people who do anything to get ahead -- including virtually abandoning their spouse and children, or clawing their way past other people in the workplace, claiming credit for things they didn't do, whatever the think it takes.

Or maybe you're lucky enough not to know anybody like that. But I'm not that lucky -- I know too many of them. They seem to think that if they get to the top of their profession, everything will be great and they'll be happy. They'll be "winners."

Ha ha. Well, it's not funny, really, so that was a gloating laugh, which, decoded, means, "You may have stabbed me in the back, wrecked everything I tried to accomplish, cost me a lot of money, and or betrayed me at every turn, but I'm happier than you are, you lonely sad powerful rich person, you."

Except that most of them aren't powerful or rich -- no matter how many competitive backstabbing clawers-toward-the-top there, are, it's a zero-sum game and only a handful of them "win." The rest get neither the victory nor the friendships and family.

Of course, the surest way to having a healthy, happy old age is to not abuse alcohol or drugs, since that's the primary means for otherwise privileged people to crash their lives.

And the other most-important factors toward happiness were -- no surprises here -- education, a stable marriage (i.e., don't play around like Bill Clinton), "not smoking, getting some exercise, maintaining a healthy weight, and" adapting constructively to the bad stuff that comes into everybody's life.

This all seems obvious to a sixty-year-old coot like me, but the group least likely to know this is The Young, and they tend to be the people sitting there in those graduation robes not listening to what the speaker is saying.

Other points Wheelan makes include: "Some of your worst days lie ahead." This is very useful information, to wit: Some really bad stuff that looks like tragedy or failure is going to come down the pike; suck it up, make the best of it, and go on, because happiness is still possible farther along.

Other great advice: "Marry someone who's smarter than you are." I did that. It worked great. My wife didn't do it, and look how badly that turned out for her.

"Take time off." Wheelan isn't talking about an afternoon now and then -- though that's a good idea, too. He tells about his own decision to make a trip around the world after graduation.

Not a guided tour, an actual adventure, using very little money and taking a lot of things as they came. It took him about a year, but what he learned during that year was way more important than the trivial "advantage" of starting immediately at the company where you expect to work the rest of your life.

After all, that company will probably not get a government bailout when senior management drives it into the ground, which they usually do, and even if there is a bailout, you'll probably be one of the ones who gets laid off while the CEO gets a golden parachute or a huge bonus for restoring profitability by eliminating your job.

In other words, why do you think that's it's so all-fired important to get started immediately at some corporate job?

Oh, yeah. Student loans.

That's why my advice -- which nobody asked for and nobody takes -- is that students should take that year of adventure before they start college.

We Mormons do it routinely. Because we send most of our young men out as unpaid missionaries from the ages of 19 to 21, college gets postponed.

The result is that when we do go to college, we've had some experience in the real world. We've seen real people face real problems. We understand something about the connection between work and results.

In other words, we've already learned most of the things that college doesn't teach you anyway, and which will make it possible to learn much more of what college does teach you because we're taking it way more seriously than people who went straight on from high school.

I mean, if you send your kid to college when he's still so immature that he thinks that "will that be on the test?" is the only question worth asking in class, you're wasting your money (or he's wasting his student loan money) anyway.

Wheelan is right when he says that life isn't a race. There's no hurry, and if you take a year doing something that will actually give you memories worth having -- or teach you to be resourceful and adaptable -- you'll be way ahead of the people who go straight from high school to college and straight from college to grad school or professional school or a job.

Personally, I believe that the word "career" has no meaning at all in advance. That is, when you're sitting there at graduation -- from high school or college -- any "career plans" you have are just fiction, and they're pretty laughable.

Very few people I know are actually doing the thing they trained for -- and those are not the happiest people, either.

I know some very happy lawyers -- who aren't practicing law. And some who are. Some happy people who majored in pre-med -- and then never got a medical degree.

I was a theatre major. That prepared me for a beloved hobby, but my actual "career" stems from all that reading I did on my own -- and from my training as a proofreader while my mom typed dissertations to earn extra money while I was growing up.

In other words, you have no idea, regardless of all your careful planning, what path your life will take.

Remember that "career" is also the word used to describe the action of a car piloted by a drunk, as it swerves erratically down the road. When you're my age, you can look back on your life and meaningfully talk about your career -- looking at how things turned out, how all the swerves still led somewhere.

But to plan a career is just a waste of time. If you treat (or treated) college as job-training, you missed the point. A real college education should prepare you to be adaptable, to be able to cope with surprises and shocks and disappointments, to have the personal resources to recognize opportunities and seize them -- even if, especially if, they mean jettisoning all your plans and going with a much better idea when it comes along.

If that's the education you got, or plan to get, great. But if you think that by choosing the right major subject in college you'll be "set for life," the odds aren't good.

Is Wheelan's book perfect? No. For instance, he got sucked into the whole global-warming hoax and so his chapter on "don't make the world worse" is kind of a waste of time, because he believed all the lies told by true-believer environmentalists who seized on the global warming scam and ... made the world worse.

But this doesn't make Wheelan an idiot; in fact, it proves his point, just in a kind of backward way. People who fake evidence, who lie about things that matter, make things worse for everybody. So don't do it. That's his point, and I agree with it.

He asks us to examine all our decisions by this standard: "Would I regret doing this, spending my life this way, if I were to get hit by a bus next week, or next year?" (p. 106).

I once wrote a long poem that hinged around a similar question: "Is this what I want to be doing the last week of my life?"

That's not a moot question. A friend of mine, who was only two days older than me, recently passed away from a cancer that did not respond to treatment.

He was a good man who could have answered that question, "Yes sir," any week of his life. It's true that the cancer cheated him out of many years of playing with his grandchildren -- there are things that he won't get, because he died at age sixty.

But here's the point: The cancer did not cheat him out of all six of the decades he lived before he "got hit by a bus."

He lived his entire life being kind to other people, caring about his family first, and then his friends. Everyone who knew him was better for it. His competitors had a high opinion of him; the parents of the children that he taught or coached saw how his love and care for their kids made them better and happier people.

People who spend twenty or thirty years trying to get ready for happiness miss the point -- happiness is what happens along the way.

If you lived those "career years" as a jerk who damaged everybody, then the bus will come as a blessed relief to everyone else!

Wheelan once wrote a freelance story about Paul Tsongas, who ran for president in 1992. "I was traveling with Tsongas for the story," says Wheelan, "and at once point I asked, 'Do you really think you can win?'

"'I don't have to,'" Tsongas replied. "'I just have to run a race that my grandchildren will be proud of.' He did."

You can't just sit around and play with the kids or grandkids -- somebody has to do the laundry; somebody has to pay the rent. So yeah, you have to have a job, and it's good if it's a job that can support your family comfortably.

Wheelan's point is that if you know what "enough" means, then you can get a good enough job with a good enough salary and spend the rest of your time having an actual life.

The kind of life that, if you get incurable cancer at sixty, you won't be filled with bitter regret. Yes, you'll miss out on the future, but you didn't miss out on the past.

Is it any good trying to tell this stuff to high school or college graduates?

Yes, it is. This book is worth reading at age eighteen or twenty-two.

But it's also worth reading at any point along the way -- including age sixty -- because it's always good to evaluate what you're doing in light of what you want to achieve.

Here's my two cents' worth to add to what Wheelan says:

By the age of thirty-five, I had already achieved pretty much everything my "career" had to offer. I had won the top honors in my field. I had published the book that has essentially paid the bills ever since then. I was done.

And here's what I learned: The honors were thrilling for about a minute and a half. Even as I got them, competitive, resentful people were working hard to make sure I got no joy from them -- that's just how the world works.

But awards don't bring happiness, and money doesn't bring happiness -- though enough money is important, and enough recognition from your peers is important.

What brings real joy is the connection with other people. Children that you love who are leading respectable lives. Friends who value you and seek out your company. A partner in life who shares your values and has your back.

And the knowledge that, whatever your moral standards are, you have lived up to them -- you have kept your word, paid your debts, and made your community a better place, whether anyone else noticed or not.

Wheelan not only has his hit-by-a-bus question, he adds to it another: "What if I don't get hit by a bus? Does this path lead to a life that I will be pleased with and proud of in ten or twenty years?" (p. 106).

I think Wheelan's book is worth buying and reading. But even if you don't do that, you've read this review of it, and maybe something I said will be enough to trigger some serious thought about what you want your life to be -- and what it has already been.

Our youngest is graduating from high school this year. Maybe she'll be valedictorian; maybe she won't. There are four students so close they can't call it yet.

What I'm proud of is that she doesn't actually care. Oh, of course it would be nice to have that honor -- but she respects the other students, and she values her experiences at Weaver, and whether she wins that particular honor won't have the slightest effect on the value of the four years she invested in hard work, friendship, creativity, and learning.

I look at her and think: Was I that mature, that ready for life, when I was her age?

Probably not. But raising children who are better than ourselves is what parenting is all about, isn't it?

I look at my kids and I'm not worried. Yes, I know hard things will happen to them. Hard things have happened to me and my wife, so we know it's not only possible but likely!

The reason I don't worry about my kids is that they have actually had, and are having, exactly the right kind of education: self-education. They've learned whatever they needed to learn. The two who are married have chosen their partner brilliantly and they are making strong bonds both within and outside their families.

And because I can see my children living that way, I feel like my wife and I have done well. No, I'm not ready to die -- I have lots of stuff yet to do. I've also made a lot of mistakes -- but I learned from them, and tried to make things right.

So if that second stroke came tomorrow, or if I got hit by a bus, I wouldn't have even a moment's regret about the life I've lived and learned from up to now.

And if you read Wheelan's book and realize that you have not lived the life you wanted to live -- then today is graduation day. Put that past life behind you, and start living the life you want to have lived when it comes time for it to end.

As long as the final exam isn't over, you still have time for a little cramming!

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