Saturday, May 8, 2010

To the Class of 2010: Eat Popovers & Wear Sunscreen

Seventeen years ago today, I graduated from Lake Forest College. Honestly, I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember that my whole room was packed, except for just the clothes I needed that day. I'd sold my loft a few days earlier and had been sleeping on the floor. I was out too late the night before and had failed to iron my gown, which meant I was running around like a chicken with my head cut off looking for my iron. It was a beautiful sunny day in the Enchanted Forest and my entire family came for it. Mom, Dad, Dave, Nana, Uncle Jeff and my cousin Alan. Of course, Alan had to be there. It was his fault He's the reason I went to Lake Forest, after all. Back then, Commencement was held on the lawn between North Hall Hotchkiss Hall, Johnson Science Center, and Young Hall and we all lined up between Harlan and Blackstone, which meant a short commute from my my room in Blackstone. Someone had the bright idea to bring a bottle of wine (maybe champagne?) that got passed up and down the line until the bottle was empty.

Finally, the moment came and we made our way through the gauntlet of professors. I think that's when it really hit me that I was done with college and the summer ahead of me wouldn't end with my friends and I all reuniting on campus. I was truly about to venture out on my own as I was moving to Washington DC just a couple of weeks later. I hadn't lived anywhere but the Chicago Area since I was four and had only been to DC twice - a short trip with my eighth grade class and a week over Spring Break during my senior year of college - but DC was my dream.

After Commencement, I simply wanted to hightail it off campus. I couldn't wait to be out of there. My friends Emily, Heather and their families were coming to my house for a small gathering. It seemed appropriate since Heather had spent the last four Easters with me. As much as I was going to miss my friends, I didn't want to face it and got out as quickly as possible.

Commencement is a time for reflection, but it's also a time to share advice for how to survive in the real world. Some Commencement speakers are memorable; others not. Our Commencement speaker was Bill Kurtis, who used to anchor the news on the Chicago CBS affiliate, WBBM and later CBS News anchor. Now you know him for his documentaries on A&E and the AT&T commercials. I'll be honest, I have no idea what he spoke about, although I'm certain he was great

In honor of today's Commencement at Lake Forest (which is now held at Ravinia and has wonderful speakers), I share with you two of the best graduation speeches I've ever heard. Tune in next month for the best graduation speaker I've ever heard.

In 1977, Theodor Geisel (aka Dr Seuss) gave what I believe to be one of the shortest Commencement speeches in history at Lake Forest College. Read the entertaining story of how it came to be here. Below is the original poem he wrote just for the occasion. It's still priceless advice 33 years later.

My Uncle Terwilliger on
the Art of Eating Popovers

My uncle ordered popovers
from the restaurant’s bill of fare.
And, when they were served,
he regarded them
with a penetrating stare…
Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,”
said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid…
you must spit out the air!”

as you partake of the world’s bill of fare,
that’s darned good advice to follow.
Do a lot of spitting out the hot air.
And be careful what you swallow.
—Dr. Seuss

In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist, Mary Schmich wrote a column titled "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young," about what she'd say if she were giving a Commencement speech. That column quickly went viral and urban legend even said Kurt Vonnegut gave the "speech" at MIT in 1999. Shortly after that, Baz Luhrmann produced it as a hit single you probably know as "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)." Just like Dr. Seuss, Mary Schmich gives timeless advice.

Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young
Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune
June 1, 1997

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:

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 p.m. 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. 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.

To the Lake Forest College Class of 2010, welcome to the Forester Alumni Family and the Real World. It's really a pretty cool place to be. I promise. My only real advice to you is to remember your roots and those who went before you and made your experiences at LFC possible. It's your job to do the same for future generations of Foresters. And write letters. Facebook, emails, text messages, smoke signals, and whatever other 21st century ways you communicate are awesome. I use them too, but they are fleeting while a letter is forever. I still have the most special letters I have received throughout the years and keep them in a folder I call "Love Letters." They aren't all love letters in the sense that they are romantic declarations of undying love for me (some are), but they are love letters in the sense that they lift me up and I turn to them frequently for inspiration. Finally, hold your Forester friends close. Seventeen years later, all the people in my inner circle are Foresters. I wouldn't have it any other way. Foresters are Forever Friends.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the memories of that great day 17 years ago. It was a beautiful day in Lake Forest; we couldn't have asked for better weather, a better setting.

    By the way, I don't remember what Bill Kurtis spoke about, either, but I do remember being impressed and telling myself not to forget his message.

    You've posted some great advice for the class of 2010. It's stuff we alums should try to remember, even those of us who graduated 17 years ago. ;)


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