RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Wear Sunscreen?

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 part credit.

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 like burrs.

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 doze off.

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 Coca Cola."

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 yourself."

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 products."

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:

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