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. Kurt Vonnegut, 6/97
But was it really written by Kurt Vonnegut?....read what the "Vegetable"
has to say about it...
"The Vonnegut speech was not Vonnegut. Not in the slightest. It was written by some newspaper columnist (for one of the Chicago papers I'm pretty sure) about a year and a half ago, and published thereabouts. A few months later, somebody (on the East Coast apparently) put it out in various spots around the Internet with KV's name on it. A total prank. But, many people picked it up and sent it all around the Net and it got a life of its own, and got bigger and bigger. And everybody who saw it believed it. Hear tell that ol' Kurt was the most surprised guy in town when he learned of it. Maybe you already knew the story. But in case you didn't. That's the way it happened, to the best of mine."
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...
ADVICE, LIKE YOUTH, PROBABLY JUST WASTED ON THE YOUNG
"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...."
i n t e r v i e w s
The Christian Century from 1976
Shortly after Slapstick was released in 1976, Vonnegut was an American delegate to the last International P.E.N. Congress when that association of writers met in Vienna, Austria. He addressed the meeting, as did Harry James Cargas, an author and member of the English Department at Webster College in St. Louis. At the close of the weeklong session, Dr. Cargas interviewed Vonnegut for The Christian Century.
Cargas: Let me begin by rather brazenly asking if, in your opinion, everything is a fit subject for humor.
Vonnegut: I try to be careful. When I'm being funny, I try not to offend. I don't think much of what I've done has been in really ghastly taste. The only shocks I use are occasional obscene word and I don't think I have embarrassed many people or distressed them by what I've said other than by the impact of certain obscene words that soldiers use.
What I mean, though, is do you think that there are some subjects per se that are not fit for humor?
Yes. I can't imagine a humorous book or skit or whatever about Auschwitz, for instance. Otherwise I can't think of any subject that I would steer away from, that I could do nothing with. Total catastrophes are terribly amusing, as Voltaire demonstrated. You know, the Lisbon earthquake is funny.
Well, is it funny one year after the Lisbon earthquake or do we have to wait 200 years? The slaughterings, of Genghis Khan, I imagine, could be made somewhat amusing because they don't affect anybody right now. Will Auschwitz, become a subject for humor 300 years for none?
Well, of course, humor is an almost physiological response, to fears, as I understand it. What Freud said about humor was that it is a response to frustration -- one of several. A dog, he said, when he can't get out a gate, will scratch and start digging and making meaningless gestures -- perhaps growling or whatever to deal with frustration or surprise or fear. I saw the destruction of Dresden. I mean I saw it before and then came out of an air-raid shelter and saw it afterwards, and certainly one response is laughter. God knows, that's the soul seeking some relief. So yes, I suppose any subject is subject to laughter and I suppose there was laughter of a very ghastly kind by victims in Auschwitz.
I've heard this laughter described as defiance to God, in the sense of Isaac's laughter. But then there would be a distinction between laughter and humor.
Yes. A great deal of laughter is induced by fear. We were working on a funny television series years ago we were trying to put one together and we had as a basic principle that death had to be mentioned in every show. And this ingredient would make any laughter deeper without the audience's realizing how we were inducing belly laughs -- we hoped. We intended to do it with the mention of death. There is a superficial sort of laughter. I don't consider Bob Hope a humorist, really. He's a comedian. It's very thin stuff; nothing troubling is mentioned. I used to laugh my head off at Laurel and Hardy and could still do it now. And there's terrible tragedy there somehow, as these people are too sweet to survive in this world and they are in terrible danger all the time. They could be so easily killed.
I've heard you speak about technology in contemporary fiction as a parallel to the situation of sex in Victorian fiction. Would you say a word about that?
It was what I came across when I became a so-called science fiction writer, or when someone decreed that I was a science fiction writer. I did not want to be classified as one, so I wondered in what way I'd offended that I would not get credit for being a serious writer. I decided that it was because I wrote about technology and most American fine writers know nothing about technology. I'm a contemporary of Truman Capote, for instance; he very quickly gained a reputation as a literary person, and I very quickly gained a reputation as a hack. I think one reason was that critics felt that a person could not be a serious artist and also have had a technical education -- which I had. I know that English departments in universities, customarily without knowing what they're doing, teach dread of the engineering department, the physics department and the chemistry department. And this fear, I think, is carried over into criticism. Most of our critics are products of English departments and are very suspicious of anyone who takes an interest in technology. I have an interest in technology because my father told me I could go to college only if I studied something serious.
You mean practical?
Yes, something practical. I am from a family of artists. Here I am making a living in the arts, and it has not been a rebellion. It's as though I had taken over the family Esso station. My ancestors were all in the arts, so I'm simply making my living in the customary family way. But my father, who was a painter and an architect, was so hurt by the Depression, unable to make a living as an artist, that he thought I should having nothing to do with the arts. He warned me away from the arts because he had found them so useless as a way of producing money.
Just to get back to that original question for a moment: You were saying that technology is absent from our novels in the same way that sex was absent from the Victorian novel.
Well, I said that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.
Previously you referred to the distinction that somebody else is obviously making between science fiction and serious literature. Do you make that distinction?
There was a time when I would, and I can understand why people would make that distinction. Science fiction was very badly paid -- there were many outlets for it. But it was customary to pay a penny a word, half a cent a word, and so science fiction -writers, in order to make a living, had to go extremely fast. Therefore almost all science fiction stories were, and continue to be, first drafts simply because of the amount of money involved. They are not done well, usually. I would say that one science fiction story in 200 is a really good story. That one story is usually extraordinarily good -- it's as fine as anything that's being written in the United States.
That percentage may even apply to non-science fiction, mightn't it?
No. I think the so-called mainstream writers tend to work harder on their stories. A science fiction writer is not careful with language, usually uses quite simple language. And science fiction stories are not subtle. A mainstream writer, chances are, is more of a writer, is more obsessed with the language and will work over his material more.
How do you classify yourself?
I consider myself a mainstream writer, and I think I always was. I got classified as a science fiction writer simply because I wrote about Schenectady, New York. My first book, Player Piano, was about Schenectady. There are huge factories in Schenectady and nothing else. I and my associates were engineers and physicists and chemists and mathematicians. And when I wrote about the General Electric Company and Schenectady, it seemed a fantasy of the future to critics who had never seen the place.
A commentary on the critics?
c o m m e n t a r y
Title: Vonnegut and Clancy on Technology Author: Freedman, D. & Schafer S. Issue: Inc. Technology, No. 4 for 1995 Page: 63 Ref. No.: 18950631 Summary: Two of America's best-known authors express their different opinions on the role technology plays in our society.Kurt Vonnegut On employment: I believe half of the duty of every inventor is to make a product that is better and cheaper, and the other half is to create a job that is more satisfying. We do only half of it. People are never mentioned, as though they don't figure in the equation at all. Technocrats don't give a damn about anything but the machines. They're rational enough to know that there is no afterlife, and so they settle for the benefits they can get now, and they don't care what happens to the world afterwards. We're always trying to replace jobs. Keeping lists, taking inventory, those are all things to do with life. And then somebody comes along and says, "Hey, you don't need to do that anymore." Well, thanks, but how the hell am I supposed to support my family? You, you silly fool, you've still got a job, sure. There's this great word that the British use all the time: redundant. Workers are declared redundant. How'd you like to come into this world and be told you're redundant? Built into human beings is a need, which nobody bothers to even acknowledge, to do something useful. But instead of worrying about what human beings need, we worry about what machines need. There's no talk at all about what human beings are deprived of; all the talk is about what industries are being deprived of.
Kurt Vonnegut On the Internet: There's all this talk about building the information superhighway and new networks. But there's never talk about what's happening to this network [taps the side of his head], which is already in place. There's utter indifference to it. Christ, I can remember when TV was going to teach my children Korean and trigonometry. Rural areas wouldn't even have to have very well educated teachers; all they'd have to do is turn on the box. Well, we can see what TV really did. Look at what the O. J. Simpson trial has done to everyone. So much for all those Tom Swifts talking about the enormous benefit of what they were doing. The information superhighway will be two lanes loaded with tollgates, and it's going to tell you what to look for. People will just watch the show. We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. There was a time when imagination was very important because it was the major source of entertainment. In 1892 if you were a seven-year-old, you'd read a story -- just a very simple one -- about a girl whose dog had died. Doesn't that make you want to cry? Don't you know how that little girl feels? And you'd read another story about a rich man slipping on a banana peel. Doesn't that make you want to laugh? And this imagination circuit is being built in your head. If you go to an art gallery, here's just a square with daubs of paint on it that haven't moved in hundreds of years. No sound comes out of it. The imagination circuit is taught to respond to the most minimal of cues. A book is an arrangement of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers, and about 8 punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it's no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. And now there's the information highway. We don't need the circuits any more than we need to know how to ride horses. Those of us who had imagination circuits built can look in someone's face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.
Kurt Vonnegut On replacing human contact with electronic contact: I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I'd never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, "Are you still doing typing?" Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, "OK, I'll send you the pages." Then I'm going down the steps, and my wife calls up, "Where are you going?" I say, "Well, I'm going to go buy an envelope." And she says, "You're not a poor man. Why don't you buy a thousand envelopes? They'll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet." And I say, "Hush." So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it's my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I'm secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I've had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you any different. Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We're dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]
Kurt Vonnegut On being called a Luddite: Oh, I welcome it.