Thursday, April 12, 2007

R.I.P. Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut 1922 - 2007

One of my favourite authors has passed away, at the age of 84. The life and death of Kurt Vonnegut will be told on many newspapers and blogs, so I will only give you the link to his official web site:

What I wanted to talk about is the famous hoax bearing his name: his so-called Commencement Speech at MIT. You know, the one about sunscreen.

"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.


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."

Andrea Wesselenyi explains the hoax on his website:

Let me tell you the story in short. An American journalist named Mary Schmich wrote a clever and funny article, in which she fantasized about giving a commencement address to graduating students. The article originally appeared in her regular column in the Chicago Tribune. Mary received favorable reaction, including congratulations from friends and some nice phone calls, but that was all. The story would have ended here if someone had not invented the hoax of the year.

What the unknown prankster did was he took Mary’s column a month after it was published in the Chicago Tribune and forwarded it on the net under the label "Kurt Vonnegut’s Commencement Address at MIT".

This email message began to make rounds all over the net and arrived in millions of mailboxes within a few hours. The message was forwarded from friends to friends, stamped with such comments as "worth a read," and "check this out - it’s great".

The message was even submitted to several newsgroups and mail forums, giving the "speech" enormous notoriety. The article quickly came to be reviewed by literary critics, archived by collectors and praised by Vonnegut fans who were enthusiastic to read the recent immortal words of their favourite writer. Recipients of the message thought they’d recognized Vonnegut’s unique wit, the kind of cynical humor for which he is famous. Even Vonnegut’s wife fell victim to the hoax and forwarded the message to family and friends.

There was only one skeptic, a leading Vonnegut cyber-fanatic, who got suspicious and posted a reply to the alt.books.kurt-vonnegut newsgroup saying: "This voice is not quite his." The majority of people, however, did not have any doubt whether the message was true - they believed it without question.

It wasn’t long before both the real and the alleged writer learned what was going on in cyberspace. Mary was desperately trying to get in touch with Vonnegut until finally, she managed to track him down by phone. By then, Vonnegut had heard of the incident from friends, his lawyer, even from a women’s magazine that wanted to reprint the speech, until he denied he was the author.

"It was quite witty, but not my wittiness," he generously said to Mary.

As the incident became widely known Mary received more and more angry emails from people who accused her of plagiarism. And, so, pen in hand, she wrote the true story of the commencement speech.

In this thoughtful article she clears herself and analyzes the deeper content of the events in an interesting way. Her response was published in her column and was put on several web pages on the Internet . The illuminating article begins with the following words:

"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 wamp of cyberspace, Mr. Kurt 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".

My advice? Before you spam your friends with petitions for Muslim women's right to drive in Saudi Arabia or for cancerous but spunky kids who want to receive a postcard from all over the world, please check with the various sites that are specialized in debunking the bullshit and the hoaxes, such as . And next time I'll tell you about the email with the Dalai Lama's Instructions for life.

But do wear sunscreen.

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