Between the Lines: Dubious advice to new college grads

Because so many people have asked me for a copy of the remarks I made at Sunday’s Middlebury College commencement, I’ve decided to reprint them here.

In case you hadn’t seen the news reports, I was asked to step in at the last minute for Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn, the scheduled commencement speakers who were last-minute no-shows. Apparently they had a Third World country to save that day and decided, for some inexplicable reason, that this was more important than giving a commencement speech.

Little did I know, when I stepped to the stage last Sunday and cast my eyes upon the bewildered multitude, that my remarks would cause so much indigestion.

All I can say is that I would strongly encourage any other last-minute commencement stand-ins to sober up before they take the podium. I only wish I had followed my own advice.

Here’s what I said:

My Fellow Alumni — and you are in fact alumni, so please be sure to leave your forwarding address with the college fund-raisers as you depart this event because they will hunt you down and find you anyway — I come before you today extremely hungover.

Because I’ve had very little time to prepare today, I will keep it brief. More importantly, I will steal liberally from the remarks of others.

They probably stole everything in their speeches from those who came before them, anyway. Which essentially means that every graduation speech you’ll ever hear is just another riff on the centuries-old mumblings of some cave-bound Neanderthal.

It’s a helluva messy world you grads will inherit.

But it is also a world filled with mystery. As Mark Twain said, “Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on — or by imbeciles who really mean it.”

As I contemplate the sorry state of the planet that you will be handed whether you want it or not, I’m put in mind of a conversation that once occurred between Prime Minister John Major of Britain and President Boris Yeltsin of Russia. The two world leaders were in the green room, preparing to walk on stage for a joint press conference.

“Boris,” said Prime Minister Major, “if you had to describe the state of Russia in one word, what would you say?”

Yeltsin gave it a moment’s thought and said, “Good.”

And, Major inquired, “What if you had two words to describe it?”

Said Yeltsin, “Not good.”

The state of the world — and here I must concur what that famous old sot Yeltsin — is good, and not good.

In the face of that — as I learned to say over there in the Warner Hemicycle during poli sci with Murray P. Dry — “What is to be done?”

To what noble cause should you dedicate your one precious, ever-shortening, probably meaningless but hopefully entertaining life?

Should you launch yourself upon a career on Wall Street?

Fuggedaboutit! Even as we gather here today and they prepare to tear apart Voter Hall behind me to squeeze more students through this august diploma mill, Wall Street is about to go under the jackhammer. Sure, you can make millions with other people’s money. But don’t waste your time living in New York. You can do it much more comfortably from the couch of your California beachside condo.

Perhaps you should consider a career in the law? But I gotta tell you, I’ve known a lotta lawyers in my time — and they are one unhappy bunch of overworked, stressed-out, glassy-eyed, self-loathing zombies.

So perhaps you should consider a career in medicine? Think again, my friends. For I have also known a good many MD’s in my life. And they too are one unhappy bunch of overworked, stressed-out, glassy-eyed zombies. At least they have managed, for the most part, to skip the self-loathing.

What else? Well, there aren’t any jobs left in teaching or nursing. Baby Boomer nurses and teachers will occupy those posts until they die several decades from now. Demonstrating once again that my fellow Boomers and I are indeed the center of the universe and have hogged pretty much all the good stuff for ourselves.

Sorry about that. We didn’t mean to be quite so selfish. But we had to do something to make a living and pay off the credit cards and home equity loans we used to accumulate all the crap that we’re now keeping in our self-storage units.

And while I’m on the subject of hogging the good stuff, let me say that I don’t care how much fun you had at Two Brothers during your college career. When I was your age we had a ton more fun at The Alibi. Plus with the drinking age at 18, we didn’t have to wait until our senior year to get legally plastered and walk back up the hill through three feet of snow. We could do it as freshmen.

You might perhaps counter that in your four years, you have had more, shall we say, interesting encounters in the romance department. And you may have a point. When I was a student here, if you had a sudden need for contraception on a Saturday night, you were pretty much out of luck until Monday morning because Park Drug closed at 5 p.m. on Saturday and there wasn’t another pharmacy department this side of Burlington.

To which I would say: Score one for your generation. But at least if we proved unlucky in love, we could go back to The Alibi and drown our sorrows.

To be honest, I have no idea what you should do for a living or how you should conduct yourselves as you are unleashed upon an unsuspecting world.

But I’m happy to provide some free advice anyway. As Twain said: “To be good is noble, but to show others how to be good is nobler, and no trouble.”

So I leave you today with this guidance:

Wash your hands.

Get a good night’s sleep.

Eat your vegetables.

Don’t drive. Walk.

Print out and keep all those mushy emails your lover sends you.

And most of all, have fun.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived at http:// E-mail him at

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