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ROBIN ABCARIAN

Hey Grads! Life as a Working Stiff Begins

June 21, 1995|ROBIN ABCARIAN

Ah June. Month of sweet white corn on the cob, misty mornings at the beach, and the strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" wafting over the latest crop of college graduates as they edge that much closer to the grinding schedule of the workaday world, the end of the three-month summer vacation and a decade or more of student loan repayments.

But now is not the time for details.

Now is the time for vague exhortations and uplifting platitudes, the time for leaders to gaze upon seas of young people in goofy hats and remind the graduates that the future stretches before them like an unfurling spool of golden ribbon. Or maybe--if the speaker is given to topicality--like a curving strand of DNA.

Later, after the parties and the hangovers, life's possibilities will come more clearly into focus for the new graduate: two weeks of vacation after the first grueling year of full-time work; the opportunity to make partner by, oh, your 40th birthday if you're lucky; marriage, children and years of struggle over which spouse is more tired than the other.

Grads? Does it get more exciting than that?

*

This year, to my disappointment, not a single institution of higher (or even lower) learning invited me to address its graduates.

I don't know why not. My topic ("How to Work Full Time and Still Watch the Simpson Trial") seemed like a sure bet. Timely. Upbeat. Crammed with practical information gleaned during months of research, such as how to meet deadlines during commercial breaks.

Luckily, I did not miss the graduation experience altogether, as my older sister took possession of the sheepskin during National University's commencement exercises at the quietly intimate San Diego Convention Center, which seats thousands.

National's commencement speaker was financial columnist Jane Bryant Quinn. I feel certain Quinn had something interesting and positive to say, but we had trouble following her speech because--as is our family custom--we were late and had to sit so far away from the podium that the speakers looked no bigger than wedding cake ornaments in mortarboards.

As a result, we watched the proceedings on giant TV screens mounted above our heads. This proved disconcerting because Quinn's lip movements, as projected, had little relationship to her words. It was like watching a foreign speaker dubbed in English.

I attribute this oddity to one of two possibilities. Either we were getting an object lesson in the different speeds of light and sound, or Quinn was throwing her voice for no apparent reason.

We were equally distracted by my daughter, who decided mid-ceremony to give all the other bored children the international toddler salute and raised her party dress high above her head before shrieking and running in circles.

I feel certain that Jane Bryant Quinn disclosed the secret of early financial independence, but as I was forced to sit on my child to make her stop laughing, I missed the critical information and shall be a working stiff forever.

As, in all probability, will you, recent grads.

*

The secrets of the universe, financial or otherwise, were not disclosed at my own college graduation.

Obviously.

As our future stretched before us like an unfurling spool of I-forget-what--probably hemp, since this was Berkeley in the late '70s--we were subjected to the usual unmemorable-but-compulsory platitudes.

In the only striking remarks, by an arts and letters dean, we were given amusing and practical advice on how to handle ourselves at the kind of cocktail parties to which we, as English majors, could expect to be invited one day.

He advised us that in the real world, not having read a book was no barrier to expressing an opinion on it. In the real world, all you have to do is read the reviews.

You scoff.

But he was right.

I can't tell you how many dinner parties I have attended where entire cultural wars were waged over books no one had read, nor intended to read. (Breathes there a soul who has actually read "The Bell Curve"? Or one who does not have an opinion about it?)

In closing, graduates, as you file from the well-pruned groves of academe into the dense and confusing jungle of life, accept this advice from one who knows:

If you stay healthy and save up your sick time, you can probably stretch that two-week vacation into three.

* Robin Abcarian's column is published Wednesdays and Sundays.

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