RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen
In honor of the season of Pomp and Circumstance, Nate Gnasher of State U
e-mailed this multiple-guess question:
"Who said, 'Wear sunscreen'?
A. Kurt Vonnegut
B. Mary Schmirch
C. Baz Luhrmann
D. Thomas Jefferson."
The answer, as the silicon chip literati can tell you, is "B,"
although Nate says that under the rules of grade inflation any answer gets
The cyberspace-challenged might not resonate with "Wear sunscreen,"
a mantra that popped up time and again in our 1998 e-mail. It was first
attributed as a commencement speech given at MIT by Kurt Vonnegut. After
we had forwarded it to about a hundred of our friends, the correction came.
The piece was a June 1997 newspaper column by Mary Schmirch, writer for
a Chicago newspaper.
By the time the correction came, we had forgotten who we had sent it to,
and certainly didn't forward the correction to most folks who had gotten
our originals and therein lies a truth regarding the internet: There is
nobody checking up. This is bad.
It's also brilliant, the genius of the net, the best part. Information comes
from all over the world at incredible speed. Our e-mail folders are crammed
every day with everything from data about the dangers of irradiating food
to editorials about the contaminated water supply in Kosovo to haikus about
dogs and cats. There's a poem of the day, a prayer of the day, a joke of
the day, all to be clicked through and discarded, or to stick in our minds
And so, the sunscreen speech quickly became the new Desiderata for the Fin
de Siecle. "Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth ... You are
not as fat as you imagine ... Don't worry about the future ... The race
is long and, in the end, it's only with yourself ... " After cyber-circling
Earth three or four times, the piece caught the ear of Australia's CD producer
Baz Luhrmann who hired somebody to read it to music from whence it has become
an American audio best-seller.
Nate sent me his e-mail opinion: "The Sunscreen piece is stupid,"
he wrote, "Self-absorbed. It sounds like it came from Glamour
magazine. Is that the best we can offer our kids? How about 'Tell the President
that the U.S. should comply with the Kyoto Resolutions because the way we're
going sunscreen won't even begin to prevent the skin cancers of the future.'"
"Puh-leez," I reminded him, "It's supposed to send the graduates
happily into the world as productive citizens."
Nate answered: "We're graduating the most financially tapped-out young
scholars, into the most armed and polluted world civilization has every
seen, and with no hint that it's going to change. How about 'Drive less,
because cars are the number one cause of global warming,' or 'Find an issue
you care about and devote your life to it even if you think you're doomed
to fail,' or 'Don't work for a company that sells weapons to school kids.'?"
I reviewed all the graduation speeches I've heard. "You come of age
in a new era ... " the speaker intones. It's the Space Age, or The
Nuclear Age, or The Information Age. Then, since the new Age is Dawning,
we should read something every day, be nice, and to our own selves be true.
Thinking that we're always true to our own selves--that's why we wear sunscreen--we
Nate was having office hours, and nobody was coming in for advice. An hour
later, he e-mailed another message: "On June 16, 1999, the world will
celebrate Six Billion Day. That means there's a human population about twice
the size as 50 years ago. And speaking of size, we eat a lot more, wear
more clothes, shower more and take up a lot more space per person. We should
be teaching our kids to limit our appetites so everyone can live comfortably
without squeezing all the other critters from frogs to tigers to elephants
off the planet."
And, an hour later: "Our educational system doesn't promise to turn
out people who will be responsible. We promise to turn out people who will
take their places in society. We don't make graduates who ask questions,
or make peace. We just make graduates who want to get more than the generation
before them. In the case of State U, that means more people drinking more
Nate's fanatical about the Coke thing. State U signed an agreement with
the sody-meisters that they'd only serve Coke on campus, and sent a memo
to the profs to only serve Coke products at departmental parties. This put
Nate over the edge, beverage-wise, so that at his academic gatherings he
only offers local mint tea sweetened with local honey.
I tapped out a few words to bring him back to reality: "Education has
served individuals well, making doctors, lawyers, rocket scientists and
corporate C.E.O.s in the richest society the world has ever seen, and don't
remind me of the increasing gap between the American rich and poor. I'm
trying to make a point here."
His reply: "Whatever. With all those undergraduate synapses firing
off to think how to be more successful, we've forgotten things other folks
take for granted."
"Like what?" I asked.
"Like taking care of each other. Finding a quiet place and time to
think. Figuring out who 'thine own self' is, so you can be true. Learning
something that you can share with your community -- plant a garden, make
a chair, play the fiddle, bake bread. Something that pleases somebody besides
The great thing about e-mail is the way you can just whack out an opinion
and send it into the world. In another hour, Nate sent me a top ten list
of things you won't hear at commencement. "Use less stuff." "Don't
have kids unless you want to spend time with them." "Buy recycled
I'm not going to reveal all the advice, because Nate's hoping his list survives
the Y2K problem and get picked up by an Australian CD producer.
In the meantime, Graduates, Leaders of Tomorrow, we haven't prepared you
for anything better than Ms. Schmirch's "Remember the compliments you
receive. Forget the insults" or "Don't feel guilty if you don't
know what you want to do with your life."
So, wear sunscreen. Wear lots of sunscreen. And while you're at it, wear
bug repellent from chemical companies that dump into the Mississippi River,
and sun hats and sun glasses with frames made by children in Third World
Countries. And don't ask questions. As Ms. Schmirch says, "The long-term
benefits of sunscreen have been proven by scientists ... "
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton,
Mo. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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