Honors Convocation Keynote Address: “The Residue of Design”

Monday, April 21, 2014

Professor Brian Reed

By Brian A. Reed, M.F.A., Professor of Theater and Communication Arts

It is a great privilege for me to speak to you tonight, and I congratulate all of you who are being recognized for your academic achievements. I want to mention, first of all, Harry Nerhood. Professor Nerhood retired from Whittier in 1975, well before my arrival on campus in the fall of 1988. I did meet him briefly on a couple of occasions. My most vivid memory of Harry Nerhood was when he made what must have been his last appearance at a Whittier College faculty meeting. By this time, Professor Nerhood was well along in years, and he was not in the best of health. I recall that he stood before the faculty, supporting himself on his unsteady legs and a pair of spindly metal crutches, teetering a bit as he looked us over. He must have seen the looks of concern on our faces, because he responded with a small but knowing grin while telling us: “I am your future.”  We all chuckled a bit, but I think our laughter was a bit uneasy, both for him and for us, his junior colleagues. I inferred from his remark an admonition to think about where each of us was headed in life. Professor Nerhood left this world not long after that, fourteen years ago this month at the age of 87.

With that story in mind, I feel compelled to tell you students here tonight that I and my faculty colleagues and your parents represent, in one sense or another, your future. I stand here before you, myopic, hard-of-hearing, follicle-ly challenged, and with a far-from-optimal number on the body-mass index. In the words of the just departed Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “A man knows when he is growing old when he begins to look like his father.” But don’t fear, students, not all is necessarily lost. On this night of celebrating your accomplishments, I am not asking you to contemplate your demise, but rather all that you hope will come before it.

Since I am a scenic designer for theatre productions, let me now set a scene for you to consider. It is from a film version of a novel by W. Somerset Maugham called The Razor’s Edge. The title comes from these words from the Upanishads: "The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus, the wise say, the path to Salvation is hard." The location of the scene is the shoreline of a river in India in the 1920’s. A young American man is standing on a boat where he has just awakened from a night’s sleep, following an exhausting trip from Europe.  He is talking to an Indian man, the owner of the boat, who is washing dishes with water from the river.  During their conversation, the American explains to the Indian that he had worked in a coal mine to make enough money to come to India.  The Indian asks: “A coal mine?  What was your intention?” The American replies: “I told you.  So I could make money to come here.” The Indian says, “That was the reason, but what was your intention?”   The American, who has been trying to overcome the effects of his traumatic experiences as an ambulance driver in World War I, is perplexed at first by the other man’s question, “What was your intention?”  It sets him to thinking much more deeply about his life and the lives of those who are important to him, with the intention of achieving a greater sense of inner peace and understanding.  Ultimately, he concludes that leading a good life is its own reward. As he later puts it, “There is no pay-off.”

So now let me ask you students to think about the man’s question in the context of your coming to Whittier College. In other words, how clear in your mind is the distinction between the reasons behind your coming to Whittier and your intentions in being a student at Whittier?

When I began my college career, I assure you that I had no intention, no plan, no design for becoming a stage designer and a professor. I received my first degree in political science, admittedly with uncertain intentions for my future. Fortunately, I discovered the art and work of the theatre, and that discovery was followed in short order by my degrees in theatrical design. I was spurred by a set of reasons and intentions that have brought me to this moment—one that I could never have anticipated when I was twenty-one years old. 

The very notion of designing for the theatre may seem insular or even frivolous to you, but it can provide opportunities that are widely varied, unexpected and very satisfying if one approaches such experiences with an open heart and mind. Designing for the theatre can be much like designing anything else.  It can be a great source of fulfillment, but it can lead to disappointments and frustrations, too. In light of my experiences as a designer and visual artist, I ask you again to consider this: What is the extent to which you are leading your life at Whittier and your life in general not only for some set of reasons, but with an overriding set of intentions? For me, clarifying an intention in life is like refining a design. Whether one designs a stage set or an airplane, a scientific experiment or a musical composition, a marketing campaign or a poem or a life plan, there may be many reasons to do so. But beyond those reasons, the best designs develop from clear intentions. 

Even though your parents, my faculty colleagues and I are, in some ways, indicative of your future, we need not be indicative of your fate. If you haven’t done so already, I recommend you develop a better sense of design about your life. What are the lines, the shapes, the colors, the textures, the shadows and highlights?  What are the harmonies, the variations, the repetitions, the contrasts within your life? At the same time, understand that initial design ideas often need to be revised, based on new information, new perceptions, and perhaps newly revised intentions.  Recognize that sometimes the best of intentions cannot guarantee a wholly satisfactory result and that a certain amount of improvisation and experimentation in the early going can result in a better design.

This brings me to the title of my address, “The Residue of Design.”  That phrase comes from the following comments made in 1946 by a man named Branch Rickey:

Things worthwhile generally don’t just happen. Luck is a fact, but should not be a factor. Good luck is what is left over after intelligence and effort have combined at their best. Negligence or indifference is usually reviewed from an unlucky seat . . . Luck is the residue of design.

This past Tuesday, Major League Baseball marked an important anniversary. Sixty-seven years ago, Jackie Robinson, a World War II veteran, a student athlete from U.C.L.A., became the first African-American to play in the major leagues.  The man who signed Robinson to his major league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers was the very same Branch Rickey. To reiterate his words, “intelligence and effort combined at their best.”  I imagine that Mr. Rickey not only recognized a good reason to sign Mr. Robinson (because he was a fine baseball player who would improve his team). He also was motivated, we should hope, by a more significant and long-lasting intention.  With a few strokes of a pen, he designed, if you will, a change in professional baseball for the sake of a better team and a better sport, but perhaps he hoped that the residue of his design would eventually be a better nation. Good luck, it seems, resulted from good intentions.

On the other hand, if you are ever tempted to think your life’s designs are too impractical to ever be realized, that’s not necessarily a sufficient reason to avoid pursuing them. When I was in college in the 1970’s, a favorite songwriter was Jesse Winchester, a somewhat obscure but controversial recording artist who resisted the draft and moved to Canada to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War. He then continued his musical career as best he could under those difficult circumstances. In a song called “Do It,” he wrote the following:

If the wheel is fixed, I will still take a chance.

If we’re treading on thin ice, then we might as well dance.

Yes, we are fragile creatures who are often at the mercy of outside forces.  Yes, at times our underpinnings may seem to be of suspect design. But if, indeed, we are treading on thin ice, then we might as well dance. Jesse Winchester returned to the U.S. following the pardon for draft resisters that was granted by President Jimmy Carter on his first day in office, January 21, 1977. Mr. Winchester died a week ago today at the end of a losing battle with cancer.  Appropriately, his website is www.therhumbaman.com, named after one of his songs. Tonight I want to imagine that, in his final days, Jesse Winchester kept dancing—figuratively, if not literally—as long as he could, doing the rhumba.

It is with Mr. Winchester, Mr. Rickey, and Professor Nerhood in mind that I encourage you to keep dancing. I encourage you to bring a sense of design and intention to your life. I encourage you, as Harry Nerhood would, to be mindful of your future, and I wish you good luck.