The Words of Mary Schmich

Originaly published November 5, 2007

In a previous entry I made reference to a song by an artist named Baz Luhrmann called Sunscreen. This particular piece of music is a spoken word affair with synthesized backing which came out in 1999; it was in fact a #1 single in the UK. The lyrics have been long attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, said to be part of a commencement speech he once gave to the graduating class of MIT that year. I learned this to be so once upon a time and accepted it as fact. In this piece the author delivers pearls of wisdom meant to guide the young minds into the promised land of adulthood. The speech is thick with valuable concepts such as:

“Don’t be reckless with other peoples hearts, don’t put up with people who are reckless with yours”

“Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth, never mind, you will not appreciate the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded”

“Don’t worry about the future, or worry, but realize that worrying is about as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubble gum”

I enjoyed the piece when I first heard it, and still do. Hokey? yes. Corny? yes. Delightful? yes.

My MP3 player spit out this particular track tonight while driving home. It had been just long enough since I last heard it that it held a newness I appreciated. I listened. I pondered how these tid-bits have played out in my life. I contemplated the vast array of advice I have been given over the years by many people in many circumstances. Then I posed the question to myself….If I were invited to give the commencement address to graduates of a respected university, what would I say? What nuggets of lifeology can I dispense to a group of 22 year old scholars about to be let loose on the world around me?

These questions begat other questions, and others, and others. Am I qualified for such a task? probably not in the traditional sense. Would I expel knowledge that I firmly believe to be of value or would I simply regurgitate the watered-down, garden variety crap that I feel the audience may listen to, may hold onto? You see there is advice I give myself, and advice I give others – often the two are one, sometimes however the two are two.

Upon arriving home I ventured into the backyard to repair the firepit, a task I’ve had on my list of things to do for some time now. Then I built a fire. Then I stared at it. This lasted for nearly an hour. This process has yielded the following advice, for the gradutaing classes, the dropouts, those in the audience of the former and those in tow with the latter, and everyone in between. My fee for such a speaking engagement can be discussed later, for now I shall dispense this advice in this forum, for the 8 or so of you that might actually read this. You get it for free, whether you want it or not.

It comes in no particular order. There is no grand hidden message….

Your degree and your resume will get you job interviews, your ability to connect with people will get you jobs.

Learn to love and respect fire. It is a powerful and beautiful beast.

Clean up after yourself. The world is dirty enough.

Get a tattoo. Hell, get a hundred, but make sure you choose something you can stand to look at for the rest of your life. Make sure you choose something you will love to look at for the rest of your life.

Accept that there is a time for judgment and a time for understanding. Knowing the difference is not always possible, but the simple act of reminding yourself of this before opening your mouth can alleviate many potentially awkward moments.

Never ruin an apology with an excuse.

Read. As much as you can.

Recognize you are part of a larger machine.

Don’t take yourself too seriously, it will give you an ulcer and make you seem like an asshole.

Always tip street musicians. Even if they are terrible. It’s good karma.

Learn the difference between being frugal and being cheap. One will enable you to enjoy more of what you love, the other will destroy your love for things.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Remember that you exist because somewhere in your bloodline are ancestors that survived when many others did not. Do them justice, even if you don’t know who they are.

Respect nature, even the ugly parts, especially the ugly parts – they pose the biggest threat.

Leftovers go bad and begin to smell. Throw them out before this happens.

In the grand scheme of things no one gives a shit what kind of car you drive. It is a disposable item.

Don’t be afraid to make a mistake, don’t be afraid of the ones you’ve already made – mistakes hold more wisdom than any textbook.

Don’t put out on the first date, it makes you seem slutty and no one will respect you, even if they tell you they will.

Find God, even if it is to tell him you think he is full of shit.

Don’t buy a dog the same color and size as a pair of shoes you own. You will inevitably, through accident or alcohol, try to put your foot in it, and that’s no good for you or the dog.

When travelling on an airplane take a moment before takeoff to reflect, it’s easier to do at this point than when plummeting 30,000 feet to your death.

Observe every chance you get.

Always dress for the theatre and church. It’s a simple sign of respect.

Realize that your first apartment is likely to be about as fancy as your first car. Get what you can afford.

Take pictures.

Don’t get leather seats. When it’s summer time and you wear shorts you will regret it.

Study yourself every day.

Aim to be more than you expect yourself to be.

Don’t shit where you eat – the workplace can be hazardous enough without the sexual drama.

Go to the zoo.

Take one day to live as if you were blind.

Take one day to live as if you were deaf.

Do not do these things on the same day.

Eat well, your tastebuds fade over time.

Be careful with credit cards, student loans, mortgages and any other situation where you take money from someone who makes a living by giving it to you – they are out to shove it up your ass no matter how much they smile.

Take vitamins.

Put some plants in your house, it’s good on many levels.

Vote. Political apathy is pathetic.

Sleep when you’re tired, not when the clock says you should.

Get arrested. Nothing that will ruin your life, but get arrested, it’s good for the soul.

Always root for the underdog.

Explore your neighborhood, there’s more to it than you think.

Be careful of how much sugar and high fructose corn syrup you allow in your diet, that shit will kill you.

Use caution with addictive substances, no matter how much fun they are.

Grow up without growing old, but always stay a Toys-R-Us kid.

Your mom was right, don’t run with scissors.

Build your career around your life, not the other way around.

And finally…..check your facts.

That last point sticks with me tonight. I typed Baz Luhrmann into google to ensure I was spelling his name correctly, which led me to an article, then to another, and another which referenced the lineage of the words in the song. As I mentioned above these words have been attributed to Kurt Vonnegut. This was what I knew, or at least I thought I knew.

As it turns out, Kurt Vonnegut did not write those words. He did not deliver the commencement address at MIT in 1999. The words actually come from an article written by Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune in 1997. In the intro to her column she called the words “a commencement address, were I ever asked to give one”. Somehow the words became attached to Vonnegut and the urban legend was born.

I owe Mary Schmich an apology, I’ve been giving someone else credit for her work for years.

You can learn more about her and the song at:

Until then remember – don’t take any wooden nickels, go with God and may the forces of darkness become confused on the way to your house.


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