Opinion » Bill Cope

Carpe Yesterdiem

Memory: too important to forget


This is the second year in a row I have composed a commencement address, just in case I am called in at the last minute as a substitute commencement speaker. Hey, it could happen.

But it's more apt to happen if someone knows I have a commencement address all warmed up and ready to go, right? So to get it shopped around, see, I'm running it as today's column. Then I'll send copies out to all the prestigious universities, and when one of those ivory towers somewhere has a last-minute cancellation, my foot is already in the door. It's not like everyone has one of these things hanging from a refrigerator magnet.

Now, if this all seems creepy and mercenary to my regular readers, I apologize. But you have to understand ... I'm just one, measly honorary doctorate away from having an honorary doctorate.

Greetings and congrats to the graduating class of (insert name of prestigious university). GO (insert name of school mascot)!

I want to thank you all for asking me here today. I was sorry to hear the previously scheduled speaker, (insert name of previously scheduled speaker), had to cancel on short notice, but I shall strive to fill (insert either "his" or "her") shoes with the dignity befitting such an auspicious occasion.

Well then, graduates, I want to start by telling you a tale of humpback whales. Yes, humpback whales.­ I doubt if many of you have ever given much thought to the humpback whale, particularly during your matriculation here at ­­­­­­­­­­­(insert name of where I am). You've been focused on your classes and your careers, I am sure. And who has time for whale tales when there are principles to grasp, techniques to perfect, vocabularies to internalize, finals to pass? Who has time for humpback whales when there is a future to be planned and a life to be prepared? And how might a humpback possibly help when there are resumes to complete and career interviews to attend?

Still, there is something humpback whales can do that I doubt more than a handful of you could, even with all your education and your soon-to-be-bequeathed sheepskins and your commendable GPAs and your shining futures. Humpback whales sing. Maybe you know that. Their songs are a series of whistles and moans, squeaks and clicks, spanning several octaves. It's not at all what we think of as a song--not unless you're Yoko Ono--but nevertheless, the whales can repeat it. Over and over. Exactly the same way, every time. And they have been known to repeat it non-stop for 22 hours.

In any given season, each regional population of humpbacks sings the same song with few, if any, variations. The song might last up to a half-hour, yet a whale can reproduce it faithfully. Again and again. The same complex pattern of vocalizations. From season to season, the song changes in small increments, but all the whales in that given area perform the same changes. "Amazing" is an insufficient word for such a thing.

We don't know why the whales do it. There are theories about mating rituals and such, but we don't know. We aren't even sure exactly how they manage to make all the sounds, having no vocal chords, and we surely can't know if the whales consider it singing. Could it be a poem in whale talk? A speech, maybe? Maybe even an advertisement. Do they do it out of necessity or pleasure? We just don't know.

But one thing is certain. Humpback whales have a memory. They could not possibly do this thing without it. And for those of you who ever had to recite the Gettysburg Address or learn Romeo's lines for the school play, you would have to agree they have a pretty good memory. Think about it ... a 30-minute recital, note for note, from memory.

I tell you this story out of my conviction that memory is possibly the most exquisite benefit of having an advanced intellect. In fact, I'm relatively sure that without the capacity for an advanced and accurate memory, there can be no advanced intellect.

Yet memory is something we Americans seem to have less and less interest in or time for. We are besieged by so many forces with a stake in having us forget what we once knew. Political forces, religious forces, manufacturers of bright and shiny objects we are encouraged to carry home even if we already have one just like it, developers who can't sell us their latest line of contrived contentment unless we forget that we were already content, film producers who repeat the same tired stories in hopes we won't remember we've seen it all before, musicians who recreate the same tired music in hopes we won't remember we've heard it all before, hawkers of moral authority who pray we won't remember we were moral long before they came along, inciters of war who try to shame us into forgetting how useless and horrid and stupid war is ... this is the liars' den you have studied so hard to be thrown into, young graduates. America--maybe even history, itself--has become like Wikipedia, where anyone and everyone can log in and edit the collective memory to promote their particular vested interest.

But never forget, there will always be a part of the collective memory that is yours and yours alone. Keep it pure. Let no one else in. Allow no one to edit it more to their liking. It is the most precious thing you will ever own and it's the nearest thing to truth you may ever experience. It is that thing which allows you to know, from moment to moment, you are alive.

We'll never know for certain, but I suspect this is why the humpback whales do their songs. It's "Cogito, ergo sum" all over again. And again and again. Only, in a Yoko Ono sort of way.

Thank you, Class of (insert year)! And keep in your hearts that immortal gift of Grizabella the Glamour Cat: "I remember the time I knew what happiness was."

Sooooo, how's that work for ya'? I can make it longer ... I can make it shorter. Hey, I'm not married to this thing. You tell me what you need and I'll make it fit. After all, it's your money.

Not that I'd expect to be paid for delivering a commencement address. I'd settle for the honorary doctorate, as long as I don't have to spring for rental on the robe and mortar board. In fact, I'd probably settle for an honorary masters if you'll foot my expenses for graduation weekend. Maybe even an honorary bachelors, if you throw in an open bar.