Thursday, May 15, 2008

Some Age-Old Advice...

As this time of year comes around, you start thinking about commencement addresses, from High School and College. Some are full of sound advice, others will allow you to catch some shut-eye before the party begins.

This article has been attributed to Kurt Vonnegut by various people, but as you can see it was actually penned by Mary Schmich from the Chicago Tribune.

Below is the text of the "speech," which was composed by Ms. Schmich on a "Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M's." Following the "speech" is Ms. Schmich's story. I like reading her articles on occasion, and this one is definitely memorable. Unfortunately it's memorable for the wrong reason, because it was attributed to Kurt Vonnegut it probably became more popular than if it was originally attributed to Mary Schmich. At least she ended up getting some royalties out of it, when a song was made using the text. Not to mention a book.

Anyway, enjoy the speech and remember that when you get the email stating it's from Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speech at MIT, it's not. In fact, the commencement speaker at MIT that year was Kofi Annan. I think if I were from that graduating class, I would rather have Ms. Schmich's.

Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:

Wear sunscreen.

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be it. The long-term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists, whereas the rest of my advice has no basis more reliable than my own meandering experience. I will dispense this advice now.

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth. Oh, never mind. You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they've faded. But trust me, in 20 years, you'll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can't grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked.

You are not as fat as you imagine.

Don't worry about the future. Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum. The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind, the kind that blindside you at 4 pm on some idle Tuesday.
Do one thing every day that scares you.


Sing.

Don't be reckless with other people's hearts.

Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.

Floss.

Don't waste your time on jealousy. Sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind. The race is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself.

Remember compliments you receive. Forget the insults. If you succeed in doing this, tell me how.
Keep your old love letters. Throw away your old bank statements.


Stretch.

Don't feel guilty if you don't know what you want to do with your life. The most interesting people I know didn't know at 22 what they wanted to do with their lives. Some of the most interesting 40-year-olds I know still don't.

Get plenty of calcium. Be kind to your knees. You'll miss them when they're gone.

Maybe you'll marry, maybe you won't.

Maybe you'll have children, maybe you won't.

Maybe you'll divorce at 40, maybe you'll dance the funky chicken on your 75th wedding anniversary.

Whatever you do, don't congratulate yourself too much, or berate yourself either. Your choices are half chance. So are everybody else's.

Enjoy your body.

Use it every way you can. Don't be afraid of it or of what other people think of it. It's the greatest instrument you'll ever own.

Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.

Read the directions, even if you don't follow them.

Do not read beauty magazines. They will only make you feel ugly.

Get to know your parents. You never know when they'll be gone for good.

Be nice to your siblings. They're your best link to your past and the people most likely to stick with you in the future.

Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on.

Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.

Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard.

Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft.

Travel.

Accept certain inalienable truths: Prices will rise. Politicians will philander.

You, too, will get old.

And when you do, you'll fantasize that when you were young, prices were reasonable, politicians were noble, and children respected their elders.

Respect your elders.

Don't expect anyone else to support you.

Maybe you have a trust fund. Maybe you'll have a wealthy spouse. But you never know when either one might run out.

Don't mess too much with your hair or by the time you're 40 it will look 85.

Be careful whose advice you buy, but be patient with those who supply it.

Advice is a form of nostalgia.

Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth.

But trust me on the sunscreen.

Subject: WEAR SUNSCREEN: Burning Saga Continues
------------------------------------------------------------ Following is the Sunday Chicago Tribune column, dated August 3, 1997, by Mary Schmich the woman whose "Sunscreen" speech was mistakenly identified on the Web as a Kurt Vonnegut commencement address to MIT: ------------------------------------------------------------
Date: Sunday, August 3, 1997 Source: Mary Schmich. Section: METRO CHICAGO Parts: 1 Copyright Chicago Tribune


VONNEGUT? SCHMICH? WHO CAN TELL IN CYBERSPACE?

I am Kurt Vonnegut.

Oh, Kurt Vonnegut may appear to be a brilliant, revered male novelist. I may appear to be a mediocre and virtually unknown female newspaper columnist. We may appear to have nothing in common but unruly hair.

But out in the lawless swamp of cyberspace, Mr. Vonnegut and I are one. Out there, where any snake can masquerade as king, both of us are the author of a graduation speech that began with the immortal words, "Wear sunscreen."

I was alerted to my bond with Mr. Vonnegut Friday morning by several callers and e-mail correspondents who reported that the sunscreen speech was rocketing through the cyberswamp, from L.A. to New York to Scotland, in a vast e-mail chain letter.

Friends had e-mailed it to friends, who e-mailed it to more friends, all of whom were told it was the commencement address given to the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The speaker was allegedly Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine Mr. Vonnegut's surprise. He was not, and never has been, MIT's commencement speaker.

Imagine my surprise. I recall composing that little speech one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M's. It appeared in this space on June 1. It included such deep thoughts as "Sing," "Floss," and "Don't mess too much with your hair." It was not art.

But out in the cyberswamp, truth is whatever you say it is, and my simple thoughts on floss and sunscreen were being passed around as Kurt Vonnegut's eternal wisdom.

Poor man. He didn't deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way.

So I called a Los Angeles book reviewer, with whom I'd never spoken, hoping he could help me find Mr. Vonnegut.

"You mean that thing about sunscreen?" he said when I explained the situation. "I got that. It was brilliant. He didn't write that?"

He didn't know how to find Mr. Vonnegut. I tried MIT.

"You wrote that?" said Lisa Damtoft in the news office. She said MIT had received many calls and e-mails on this year's "sunscreen" commencement speech. But not everyone was sure: Who had been the speaker?

The speaker on June 6 was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, who did not, as Mr. Vonnegut and I did in our speech, urge his graduates to "dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room." He didn't mention sunscreen.

As I continued my quest for Mr. Vonnegut - his publisher had taken the afternoon off, his agent didn't answer - reports of his "sunscreen" speech kept pouring in.

A friend called from Michigan. He'd read my column several weeks ago. Friday morning he received it again - in an e-mail from his boss. This time it was not an ordinary column by an ordinary columnist. Now it was literature by Kurt Vonnegut.

Fortunately, not everyone who read the speech believed it was Mr. Vonnegut's.

"The voice wasn't quite his," sniffed one doubting contributor to a Vonnegut chat group on the Internet. "It was slightly off - a little too jokey, a little too cute . . . a little too `Seinfeld.' "

Hoping to find the source of this prank, I traced one e-mail backward from its last recipient, Hank De Zutter, a professor at Malcolm X College in Chicago. He received it from a relative in New York, who received it from a film producer in New York, who received it from a TV producer in Denver, who received it from his sister, who received it. . . .

I realized the pursuit of culprit zero would be endless. I gave up.

I did, however, finally track down Mr. Vonnegut. He picked up his own phone. He'd heard about the sunscreen speech from his lawyer, from friends, from a women's magazine that wanted to reprint it until he denied he wrote it.

"It was very witty, but it wasn't my wittiness," he generously said.

Reams could be written on the lessons in this episode. Space confines me to two.

One: I should put Kurt Vonnegut's name on my column. It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of Kmart jeans.

Two: Cyberspace, in Mr. Vonnegut's word, is "spooky."