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Wear sunscreen (not) Kurt Vonnegut’s

I often refer to this so thought it best to post on my Live Spaces Life is a Journey Blog – Enjoy, scotte cohen 

WEAR SUNSCREEN – (NOT) A COMMENCEMENT SPEECH, (NOT) BY KURT VONNEGUTIf 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.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.

* * * * * The original column by Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribune. June 1, 1997. Click here to read Mary Schmich’s version of how her article was miscredited to Kurt Vonnegut via e-mail and became hugely popular. The song, on the CD Something for Everybody by Baz Luhrmann, is properly credited to Schmich.

The lyrics to Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen, by Mary Schmich:

* * * * *

Dateline: 08/10/97

Don’t bother trying to look up Kurt Vonnegut’s email address on the Internet. He doesn’t have one. The reason is the 74-year-old author’s longstanding aversion to all things “cyber” – an aversion doubtless exacerbated by the events of last week.

In case you’ve been living in a bomb shelter, here’s what happened: on or about Thursday, July 31, 1997, an email message began making the rounds featuring the text of a “commencement speech” purportedly given by Vonnegut at MIT. It was clever, poignant, full of the kind of arch-cynical humor Vonnegut is famous for. Unfortunately, Vonnegut never gave any such address. Nor did he write the words attributed to him. The actual address heard by MIT graduates this year – in which Vonnegut had no part whatsoever – was delivered by U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan on June 5. According to an MIT spokesman, Annan’s speech was “a lot longer and maybe not as clever” as the text falsely attributed to Vonnegut. Annan’s words of wisdom have been publicly available on the Internet since the date of the commencement.

But the phony Vonnegut speech had already funneled through thousands of modems before the hoax was discovered and the true source of the text identified – a newspaper column by Mary Schmich of the Chicago Tribune. In that column, published June 1, Schmich fantasized about giving a commencement address. “Ladies and gentlemen of the class of ’97,” the imaginary speech began. “Wear sunscreen.”

It was funny and it was well-written. But it wasn’t Vonnegut. “I thought about it and said I didn’t think I gave any talk like that, but I wished I had.”

The incident took everyone concerned by surprise. Recipients of the message who thought they’d recognized Vonnegut’s unique wit were embarrassed to find out they’d been duped. Supposedly even Vonnegut’s wife, Jill Krementz, fell victim to the hoax, gleefully forwarding the message to family and friends.

In the aftermath of the hoax, Mary Schmich, who has taken to calling the Internet a “lawless swamp,” received hundreds of phone calls and email messages, some of them accusing her of plagiarism. She subsequently tried to track down the originator of the hoax, but could not.

Vonnegut himself, bemused by the incident, says that cyberspace is “spooky,” populated by people who’ll believe anything they’re told.

But there are deeper phenomena underlying what happened here than the lawlessness and gullibility of Internet users. What Marshall McLuhan said of television is no less true of the Internet: “the medium is the message.” New technologies are not simply changing the way information is transmitted; they are changing our perception of reality. Or befuddling it

* * * * *

Claim: In 1997, Kurt Vonnegut gave an unusual commencement address at MIT.

Status: False.

Legend: According to a text circulating all over the Internet, Kurt Vonnegut was the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. His speech supposedly began as follows:

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.

Origins: Kurt Vonnegut was not the 1997 commencement speaker at MIT. That honor went to Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations. The speech attributed to Vonnegut was actually a 1 June 1997 column by Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich. As with many other good bits of writing and speech, the attachment of a famous name to the works brings them to the public’s attention in a way they could otherwise not have achieved.

(Echoes within echoes: Georgia State University graduates may remember Ted Turner’s speech at their graduation in 1994. Turner, facing a skin cancer operation, told them: “The one piece of advice I can give you is put on sunscreen and wear a hat.”)

In 1998, the text of the Mary Schmich piece was turned into a “spoken voice” recording featuring the voice of Australian actor Lee Perry. Titled “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” the piece immediately became a cult hit in Australia, and by early 1999 the “song” was taking America by storm.

2002 saw the “Vonnegut/MIT commencement speech” tale circulated anew, that time identified as the speech given to the graduating class of 2002.

Last updated: 23 July 2002

* * * * *

Vonnegut? Schmich? Who can tell in cyberspace? by Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune I am Kurt Vonnegut.

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 swamp of cyberspace, Mr. 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.”

I was alerted to my bond with Mr. Vonnegut Friday morning by several callers and e-mail correspondents who reported that the sunscreen speech was rocketing through the cyberswamp, from L.A. to New York to Scotland, in a vast e-mail chain letter.

Friends had e-mailed it to friends, who e-mailed it to more friends, all of whom were told it was the commencement address given to the graduating class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The speaker was allegedly Kurt Vonnegut.

Imagine Mr. Vonnegut’s surprise. He was not, and never has been, MIT’s commencement speaker. Imagine my surprise. I recall composing that little speech one Friday afternoon while high on coffee and M&M’s. It appeared in this space on June 1. It included such deep thoughts as “Sing,” “Floss,” and “Don’t mess too much with your hair.” It was not art.

But out in the cyberswamp, truth is whatever you say it is, and my simple thoughts on floss and sunscreen were being passed around as Kurt Vonnegut’s eternal wisdom.

Poor man. He didn’t deserve to have his reputation sullied in this way.

So I called a Los Angles book reviewer, with whom I’d never spoken, hoping he could help me find Mr. Vonnegut.

“You mean that thing about sunscreen?” he said when I explained the situation. “I got that. It was brilliant. He didn’t write that?”

He didn’t know how to find Mr. Vonnegut. I tried MIT.

“You wrote that?” said Lisa Damtoft in the news office. She said MIT had received many calls and e-mails on this year’s “sunscreen” commencement speech. But not everyone was sure: Who had been the speaker?

The speaker on June 6 was Kofi Annan, secretary general of the United Nations, who did not, as Mr. Vonnegut and I did in our speech, urge his graduates to “dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.” He didn’t mention sunscreen.

As I continued my quest for Mr. Vonnegut — his publisher had taken the afternoon off, his agent didn’t answer — reports of his “sunscreen” speech kept pouring in.

A friend called from Michigan. He’d read my column several weeks ago. Friday morning he received it again — in an e-mail from his boss. This time it was not an ordinary column by an ordinary columnist. Now it was literature by Kurt Vonnegut.

Fortunately, not everyone who read the speech believed it was Mr. Vonnegut’s.

“The voice wasn’t quite his,” sniffed one doubting contributor to a Vonnegut chat group on the Internet. “It was slightly off — a little too jokey, a little too cute . . . a little too `Seinfeld.’ ”

Hoping to find the source of this prank, I traced one e-mail backward from its last recipient, Hank De Zutter, a professor at Malcolm X College in Chicago. He received it from a relative in New York, who received it from a film producer in New York, who received it from a TV producer in Denver, who received it from his sister, who received it. . . .

I realized the pursuit of culprit zero would be endless. I gave up.

I did, however, finally track down Mr. Vonnegut. He picked up his own phone. He’d heard about the sunscreen speech from his lawyer, from friends, from a women’s magazine that wanted to reprint it until he denied he wrote it.

“It was very witty, but it wasn’t my wittiness,” he generously said.

Reams could be written on the lessons in this episode. Space confines me to two.

One: I should put Kurt Vonnegut’s name on my column. It would be like sticking a Calvin Klein label on a pair of K-Mart jeans.

Two: Cyberspace, in Mr. Vonnegut’s word, is “spooky.”

by Mary Schmich, Chicago Tribune

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