Thursday, May 7, 2009

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. ADFVICE TO 2009 GRADUATES FROM TIMOTHY EGAN IN SEATTLE

Dear Graduate

by Timothy Egan in Seattle, via the NEW YORK TIMES outposts column:

Wear sunscreen. Stretch. Do one thing every day that scares you.

That was Mary Schmich’s famous fantasy commencement advice, falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut in a talk he never gave.

A columnist for the Chicago Tribune, Schmich wrote the piece in an afternoon while high on coffee and M&Ms. My kind of muse. Unfortunately, her words were sucked into the “unruly swamp of cyberspace,” as she called it, and she never got enough credit for pure distilled genius. Take a bow, Mary. Every spring, your immortality is renewed.

I’ll try again: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Yes, I know that’s the “Eater’s Manifesto” of Michael Pollan, but it cries out for an addendum. Which is: Eat a hot dog. With lots of mustard. The kind you can get for two dollars from street vendors just outside the ballpark, a trick I picked up from Ash Green, gentleman editor at Alfred A. Knopf. He passed this wisdom on before the recession.

While we’re on the subject: Learn to cook, something they don’t teach at fancy-pants colleges. Millions for quantum physics and deconstructing Dostoevsky, nothing on how to make enchiladas for 20 people.

At times, your life will have moments, days, even weeks of despair. Trust me: there is no bout of blues that a rich Bolognese sauce, filling every cubic inch of kitchen air, cannot cure.

And that brings me to: Take risks. I don’t mean ski the double diamond runs, ask for a card in blackjack with 15 showing and the dealer holding a king, or hit a high note in a karaoke bar, while sober. That goes without saying.

Fear of failure can be a motivator or an inhibitor. The latter is crippling, and ultimately leads to a life of missed opportunities. That’s why Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous dictum, sadly wasted on the French during a speech at the Sorbonne, was praise for the person “who comes up short again and again,” praise for the man “who fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Avoid phony controversies. Especially ones over religion. Just now, there’s a perfect example of this in the kerfuffle of President Obama’s upcoming graduation speech at Notre Dame.

It is said that a handful of devout Catholics cannot bear to let the president of the republic speak at one of America’s great universities because Obama is pro-choice on abortion. What would Jesus do? Take a seat on the lawn and hear the man out.

One word: plastics. That was the advice given Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” circa 1967. Ha-ha.

One word, 42 years later: volunteer. Easy for me to say, I know. It’s not news to the class of 2009 that you’re facing the worst employment prospects in 50 years or so. Who wouldn’t take a job in plastics? Your friends who graduated with honors last year are now competing to be waitresses and nannies. If they’re lucky.

There is another way. As you prepare to shed your flops, as you wade through a sea of rejections, consider the call to service. Even at low to no pay — which won’t do much for those college loans — the dividends later in life are richer than any paper portfolio.

Almost 20 years ago another college senior had an idea, spun out of a last-minute thesis, to get fellow graduates to give up two years of their lives teaching in failing urban and rural schools. Since then, about 20,000 young people have worked with 3 million students as part of Teach for America, founded by Wendy Kopp.

Of course, it’s now almost as hard to get into Teach for America as it is make it to Harvard or Stanford. More than 35,000 people applied for just 4,000 slots in the most recent round, a 42 percent spike.

But other doors have just opened. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which dramatically increases the size of programs like AmeriCorps. It was signed into law by that onetime community organizer who left college with a load of debt.

Nourish your friendships, which requires work and imagination. When the late Meg Greenfield retired as editorial page editor of the Washington Post, she returned to her home town of Seattle and promptly held a party for every friend she could find from her first grade class. First grade!

I doubt if anything said to Meg by some of the most powerful people on the planet in that other Washington gave her the joy she got from sharing a memory with a former seatmate of the crayon set.

Finally: congratulations! It took me seven years to get out of college, just like John Belushi in “Animal House,” and he went on to become Senator Blutarsky, don’t forget. (“Might as well join the Peace Corps,” he said, with an unprintable modifier).

You’re finishing in four, on time. Always with the common sense, my daughter the graduate.

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