BW English Award Ceremony Speech (04.23.19)

This is the speech I gave for the Baldwin-Wallace (yes, I am still going to hyphenate the name, it was hyphenated when I was there!) English award ceremony speech, April 23, 2019.

Before I begin, I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to my good friend Dr. Mike Dolzani for inviting me to speak here to you today, as well as to his assistant Lee Ann for her hard work in putting this afternoon together. Events like this don’t just happen. A lot of time and effort goes into planning something like this, and I hope you’ll take a minute to thank them for putting together this special event honoring you on this, appropriately enough, Shakespeare’s 455th birthday. Since I am a BW graduate returning to campus after many years, I thought quoting a line from “King Lear” seemed appropriate: “The wheel is come full circle: I am here.”

Why I am here is Mike asked me to talk to you this afternoon a little bit about how the humanities led me to where I am today. I thought I’d lead off by talking a little bit about what I’ve done since graduating BW and then shift focus a bit and talk about a theme from my novel and how it relates to the importance of choosing to study in the humanities. That theme is something I hope you’ll keep in mind as you advance into the future.

So a little about me. First off, I am a Cleveland native. I grew up just on the other side of the Rocky River Reservation, in Fairview Park. As Mike mentioned, I was a history and philosophy major here at BW, with minors in English and political science. And I worked in the art history department as my work-study job, so I spent a ton of time here in Marting Hall. I graduated in 2002—the attacks on 9/11 occurred during the fall of my senior year so I know a little bit about what it is to enter a world marked by uncertainty and unrest, confusion and strife.

From BW, I took a path I imagine a few here might be taking or may contemplate taking in the future—I went to law school. I knew I wanted to stay in the Cleveland area, so I decided to attend law school downtown at Cleveland-Marshall, what we alumni refer to only slightly tongue in cheek as “The Harvard of the Midwest.” I was a managing editor for the Cleveland State Law Review and graduated in 2005.

From there, my life took a detour, as life sometimes does when we least expect it. While I was studying for the bar exam in the summer and fall of 2005, I went from being a very high-energy person to feeling utterly exhausted. I went from where my easy pace while running was 8-minutes a mile to struggling to maintain a 12-minute per mile pace. I saw the doctor, of course, and left each time with a variety of diagnoses—everything from chronic bronchitis to allergies to acid reflux. After almost two years, I returned to the doctor and this time he sent me for a CT scan which discovered I had a mass the size of a grapefruit on my left side invading my spleen and liver, and an even larger mass in my chest that was crushing the blood vessels and nerves in my right arm; to this day, I regularly lose feeling in my right hand.

Intellectually, we all know our time on this earth is finite. We all shrug our shoulders and acknowledge, “I could be hit by a bus tomorrow.” None of us really believe that will happen, however. In the week between the biopsy and finding out that I had cancer, I went through every emotion imaginable—anger, frustration, despair. But mostly I kept asking, “Why me?”

That’s a question to which I still don’t have an answer and don’t think I’ll ever answer because I don’t believe in karma or bad things happen for a reason—I believe in a random universe of random happenings.

It turned out I had Hodgkin’s Disease, which is a blood cancer, and just about the only type of cancer where you could have that much disease in your body and still have a reasonable chance to survive, although reasonable still means your life is pretty much a coin flip. I underwent eight months of every other week chemotherapy and managed to emerge on the other side free of cancer.

I’m not one of those happy people who gushes about how cancer was a gift. If you’ve read John Green’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” I’m much more like Hazel in how I look at cancer than say someone like Lance Armstrong. But cancer did change some of the ways I think. Some of those changes were admittedly not positive. I’m not the most optimistic person you’ll meet, and even today, I struggle with long-term planning and making commitments. In theory, living everyday like it’s your last sounds wonderful, but in reality, none of us can really live that way, not long-term. On the positive side, though, cancer did give me time to think about my life and reflect on what I wanted to do with it. One of those things happened to be writing a novel.

But before I jump over to that, let me get the rest of the biographical information out of the way. I joined the law firm of Kahn & Associates in Independence after I recovered from cancer and practice in the area of consumer law. That’s exactly what it sounds like—we advocate and help ordinary people. Our special focus is bringing cases under the Lemon Law. The Lemon Law is a law designed to help people who buy defective new motor vehicles. It’s an interesting area because I’ve worked on everything from bargain-basement economy cars all the way up to Maseratis. Because we sometimes take other kinds of consumer products, I’ve also worked on a combine case, a cement mixer, and an 85-foot yacht. And, as you might imagine, I’ve represented everyone from single mothers struggling to get by to an incredibly wealthy plastic surgeon who appeared on MTV’s documentary, “True Life.” For most of our clients, we are their first real experience with the legal system—I would say ninety percent of the people we represent have never filed a lawsuit before. One thing I really enjoy about my job is I thus get to educate people on the legal system—what a deposition is, what discovery is, what different types of motions are.

I’ll admit the other thing I really enjoy about my job is, it is, as far as lawyer jobs go, pretty humane. By that I mean, I am not expected to work ninety hours a week, and I have time for hobbies. I’m a semi-professional photographer who specializes in photographing nature and birds, and I published my first novel, “Five Fathoms Beneath,” last fall.

Authors absolutely love to talk about their books. Even if they don’t, their publishers make them talk about their books because in this era of publishing company mergers, even the Big Five expect authors to take on a big role in promoting and marketing their work. But rather than speak about my book directly, I’d rather conclude my talk with you today by imparting one of its messages—a message which I think directly ties into the importance of the choice of pursuing a degree in the humanities: that is a degree in one of academic disciplines which study human society and culture—English, history, law, philosophy, religion, music, theater. The study, in other words, of what it means to be human, be it a study undertaken through analyzing written works, musical composition, the historical record, secular or religious laws.

That message is, I think, best illustrated through a beloved inspirational story I borrowed and adapted for my novel, one which has been told and retold many times. To set the stage, the narrator in my book is at the time an eight-year-old boy. He has been following his dad, a famous heart surgeon, around downtown, doing errands on an ordinary Saturday morning, when they stop at the hospital. Dad is called away for an emergency, and the son, curious as little boys often are, follows. The son witnesses his father save a life literally using his bare hands. The son is in awe. Like many boys, he admires superheroes and now he sees his father as a superhero. “Dad,” he says, breathless. “I want to be a surgeon, too.” The father, equal parts flattered and dismayed, tries to warn his son he is getting the wrong idea of what being a doctor is all about. “A doctor can’t save everyone,” the father says. The father then imparts his own philosophy on being a good person by telling his son a story, one that the dad freely admits to deriving from scientist-philosopher Loren Eiseley.

A man is walking on a beach when he comes across thousands of starfish stranded by the outgoing tide. The man begins picking up the starfish and tossing them into the ocean so they will not dry out and die. Another man happens upon the man throwing back the starfish and shakes his head. The second man says, “What you’re doing doesn’t matter. Thousands of starfish and miles of beach exist. No one could ever throw them all back.” The first man picks up a starfish and ponders the second man’s words. He then tosses the starfish into the ocean and says, “It mattered to that one.”

The father turns to his son and says, “We all have a choice. We choose to toss starfish, or we choose to turn away because we consider the world’s problems too great or we don’t want to dirty our hands. As a surgeon, I choose to toss starfish. I hope you’ll choose to toss starfish, too, but it doesn’t have to be as a surgeon. Many ways exist for a man to become a tosser of starfish. What to remember is this line from the Good Book: ‘Let us never weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’”

When we look at the world’s problems, they do look insurmountable, don’t they? Later on, the father acknowledges this saying, “We wade into the chaos and don’t know where to begin to fix the world’s problems, or we lack the tools to help, or we find roadblocks strewn across our path. We become callous to unchangeable realities, to the fact we’ll never change, let alone save, the world.”

But then the father says to his son—remember the starfish. Small, seemingly insignificant acts can have a big impact.

The father has hidden all his life that he has bipolar disorder because he fears he’ll lose his job as a doctor. Eventually, when the father falls into a dark despair, it’s the bad memories of how he was treated as a young man which lead him to take his own life. His son, now an adult in his last year of medical school, is left feeling angry, betrayed, and abandoned, and he loses his way, so much so, it takes the son twelve years to begin the journey which lead him to his sea change. But in the end, the son takes the terrible and senseless thing which has happened to him and his family and finds a way to turn it into a positive and a way of helping others. He founds a committee to help other doctors with mental health issues, something he freely acknowledges is difficult and fraught with roadblocks, but if he can help even just one person, then it is worth it.

This, then, is the way the son becomes a tosser of starfish.

And in that way, then, my novel was a starfish, too, in that I hope it makes people think about mental illness—how it is often invisible and how words and the way we treat these illnesses can do lasting and irreparable harm and hurt.

Which brings me to the final thought I’d like to share with you. If you are worried about how your degree will translate into “the real world,” don’t be. There’s a very old episode of the Simpsons where the news reporter, Kent Brockman, is at the unemployment office and quips, “It’s not just philosophy majors down here at the unemployment office. Even useful people are feeling the pinch.” You might have heard something similar, but truthfully, I could talk to you for another fifteen minutes about the many ways you can translate your humanities degree to the “real” world. Humanities majors excel at writing, critical thinking, and distilling and communicating ideas—all skills that any employer in any field covets. You might need to work a little harder to sell yourself than someone with a business or accounting degree, but believe me, you’ll leave BW with the skills needed to succeed practically.

But what this world and every profession desperately needs, and what a humanity major uniquely equips you with is something less tangible. And that less tangible quality is contained in the very word humanities—the study of the human condition, and the empathy which comes with that study and knowledge. In a random and unfeeling universe, one marked too often by misery, isolation, and death, it’s the humanities that let us find and create some sort of sense in the senseless. It is what lets someone like Ambrose, the narrator of my novel, move on and do something positive with his father’s death. It’s in the humanities that most often we find the solutions to the deepest problems—and where we often find the triumph of the human spirit.

Not all of us can be like Alec, the surgeon in my novel, who fixes children’s heart defects. Not all of us can be like Atticus Finch, the tireless advocate, who stands up to prejudice and defends an innocent man. Not all of us can be teachers or educators. But I really believe all of us can find something we can do—be it through our work, or raising our children to be good citizens, or performing pro bono work—to make this world a better place. Time is finite and our names, and dare I say even our world, have been written in water. We are all transient beings but meaning and beauty aren’t found in permanence. Many of the most beautiful things in our world—snowflakes, sandcastles, flowers, and yes, even our own lives and the very earth itself, are not permanent things. Even the things we think might be everlasting, or close to it, as we witnessed last week with the partial destruction of a beautiful cathedral and national symbol, are not really eternal. But it is the knowing that comes with the awareness nothing lasts forever, and that time is finite, which makes how we spend our time so valuable and that gives our world and our lives it’s beauty and meaning.

The world desperately needs people willing to wade into the chaos, to get their hands dirty, to be willing to do what they can to make this a better place. What you do for yourself will die with you. What you do for others, though, that’s what lasts and what will live on long after you are gone. BW students are a cut above the average to begin with, and I have the distinct honor of standing in front of an award-winning group of BW students—the type of talented, gifted, and empathetic people this world needs. More than anything else, studying the humanities has equipped you to go forth and be a tosser of starfish, and I hope that you, some of this world’s best and brightest sparks, will always try to look for ways to toss starfish as you move on to the next chapter of your lives.

 Thank you for your attention this afternoon, and I wish you all the best and continued success in everything you do.