Inside every adult lurks a graduation speaker dying to get out, some world-weary pundit eager to pontificate on life to young people who'd rather be Rollerblading. Most of us, alas, will never be invited to sow our words of wisdom among an audience of caps and gowns, but there's no reason we can't entertain ourselves by composing a Guide to Life for Graduates. I encourage anyone over 26 to try this and thank you for indulging my attempt.
Ladies and gentlemen of the class of '97:
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 lookback 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.
Don't be reckless with other people's hearts. Don't put up with people who are reckless with yours.
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.
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.
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.
Once in a great while I spam my mailing list with something which I think is Really Neat. Like the "Kurt Vonnegut MIT Commencement Address". I was suckered. And to complicate matters, in trying to keep some useable room on my hard drive, I trash most outgoing mail as soon as it's sent (I usually have some idea of what I said, after all), so I have to reconstruct the list of addressees, which can't be done perfectly. *sigh*
So here's what I was told:
Dave Locke <email@example.com> wrote:
A fast note to let you know the Vonnegut commencement address is a phony. A good phony, but a phony. And it's getting sprayed all across the net. Yes, I'm positive. Bob Weide, Vonnegut's friend and the author & co-producer of the movie rendition of "Mother Night", wrote:
Yesterday I confirmed for the Vonnegut Newsgroup that the MIT address ttributed to Kurt, and spread all over the Web, was a hoax. It was not written nor delivered by Kurt at MIT or anywhere. Copies of this thing were E-mailed to me from all corners -- even received one from Scotland.
Well, it seems as though my response spread through the Internet almost as thoroughly as the speech itself. Today (8/1), my E-mailbox was full of letters from strangers, responding to my post. In any event, I can now clear up part of this mystery:
There is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune named Mary Schmich. The words were hers, in her column from the June 1 issue of the Trib. She never passed it off as Vonnegut s, nor was his name ever evoked in the column. In fact, her column contained a prologue, missing on the Internet version, which I will reprint here...
The missing piece of this puzzle is: Who is Culprit Zero? That is, who originally placed it on the Internet, crediting it to Kurt? Mary Schmich, whom I spoke with today (a very nice woman, by the way), was horrified at the idea that anyone would think the deed was hers, or that she was trying to rip Kurt off. She told me she had read Cat s Cradle back in college, but that was about it. She s never heard him speak and couldn t consciously duplicate his style if she wanted to. She even tracked Kurt down on the phone today to explain what had happened and confirm her lack of culpability. Kurt was, of course, good natured about it. (Frankly, my fear is that this will be the new Venus on the Halfshell and that Kurt will be hounded over the next few years by people asking him about his MIT address.)
One last point: Mary said that when her article originally appeared in the Tribune, she certainly received a favorable reaction and some nice phone calls, but that was all. Suddenly, the same words are credited to a well-known author, and it s being quoted and E-mailed all over the world within hours. Talk about the power of name recognition. Also, another lesson in individual responsibility, or lack thereof, in the computer age. I beleive Mary is now working on a column about all this for the weekend Tribune.
John Gilmore sent me the same thing . . .
Spider Robinson wrote:
Weirdly, this address, which I've been forwarded by 3 different people, has been positively confirmed to be a forgery. By whom, and for what conceivable purpose, I don't know...but Vonnegut stoutly maintains it's totally bogus...though he admits to liking several of the lines.
Who in his right mind would want to be mistaken for a WRITER? Even a comparatively successful one? It's like that old joke about the starlet who was so stupid she banged the writer...
I suspect it's more "the folk process" . . .
There is a commencement address that Vonnegut allegedly delivered to MIT this June, which has been spreading all over the Web like wildfire. (It even got posted to this Vonnegut Newsgroup.)
I was suspicious from the begining. Kurt usually tells me when he's going to speak somewhere, and he never mentioned an MIT address. I also knew he was in Europe for the latter part of June.
More suspiciously, the voice wasn't quite his. It was CLOSE, like a real good painted forgery of a master, but it was slightly off -- a little too jokey, a little too cute... a little too "Seinfeld." Several things seemed based on ideas of his, or variations on things he's said in past speeches, but the further I read, the more I thought it was a fake.
So I called him today (7/31) and asked if he spoke at MIT this year. "No," he said. "You're asking about the 'sunscreen' thing?" He had already known about it, as his lawyer had called him earlier in the day. He had no idea where it came from. I asked him if he wanted me to fax him a copy. He declined. He wasn't interested.
So there it is, straight from the horse's mouth (brought to you by the other end). If you doubt what I've said here, call MIT's Speaker's Bureau, and ask if KV spoke there this year.
Web-posted: Saturday, August 2, 1997
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 Angles 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 K-Mart jeans.
Two: Cyberspace, in Mr. Vonnegut's word, is "spooky."
E-mail Mary Schmich at firstname.lastname@example.org
© 1997 Chicago Tribune
(reprinted without permission)