Gather Round, Collegians
GKNERALLY MY ADVICE to young people is, Don’t listen to advice. I say that not only because it is something young people will listen to. I say it also because questionable advice (“Hey, organic chemistry will take care of itself”) is always so much more appealing than sound advice (“Worry about everything”).
But this year I am a sophomore parent. That is, my daughter Ennis is a sophomore at Stanford. That is, I believe she is. Since Stanford’s policy is not to send grades, comportment ratings, or even bills, as such, to parents, her only connection with the university may be that she has a room, a mailing address, and a number of college-age - looking friends there. Of these things I have personal knowledge. (One of the friends, Chuck Gerardo, a gymnast, feels that he has invented a dance step called the Goober, which entails moving exactly counter to the beat. In point of fact I stumbled upon a subtler and rather more complex version of that step myself, quite a few years ago, and by now it has become more or less second nature—give or take a half-sh’boom—to me. You young people today aren’t necessarily the first people in history to be hup. Hep.) And every so often I receive word from Ennis that she has made five more A-pluses and needs another $47,000 for gasoline, incidentals, and felt-tip pens. (We didn’t have felt-tips in my day. We improvised: Q-tips and our own blood. We parents want to spare you all that—in fact, don’t bleed.)
So I know, as surely as I know most things, that I am a sophomore parent. And it may be that there is no one who knows more about anything, aside from a sophomore student about life outside college, than a sophomore parent about life inside college. It may also be that I am being incredibly unassuming and gracious, as parents are, as you will realize when you are parents.
So if you would just stop darting your eyes around for one moment, please.
• Eat pizza. (See, you thought I was going to come down hard. Not at all. Parents do not come down nearly as hard as they have every right to, because parents came up hard, and are tired.) Chuck Noll, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, once told me that pizza contains every element of the human body. For a while this put me off pizza. But the Steelers won the Super Bowl that year, so Noll must have been right: there is no more perfect food. Even gigotdefrançais. (leg of Frenchman), say, does not contain every element of the human body. I don’t think. You could check me on that, with your School of Medicine. Or Romance Languages. Oh, the banquet of knowledge that is spread out before you.
•Learn a trade. Even if it is something so highly technical that of course it makes us very proud of you, but perhaps is not the most considerate field you could have gone into, since how can we tell whether you are doing it right? Every moment that you aren’t learning a trade, worry about why you aren’t. This is known as pure thought. Or “unadulterated” thought, so called because adults cannot afford to indulge in it. By trade I mean something that will support aging parents, suitably, before you know it.
• Save mailing tubes. Those cardboard tubes. I tried to buy one recently, in which to mail someone something, and I looked all over everywhere. I could have bought an expensive fancy plastic art-supply deal with caps on the ends, suitable for shipping a Caravaggio to the Vatican, but I didn’t want that. I wanted just a regular cardboard tube, the kind you receive in the mail with something non-invaluable rolled up in it. I could not buy one for love or money. I had to learn this the hard way. You don’t.
•Finish up in four years. Maximum. Every extra day after four years means another three months off your parents’ lives. There has been a study on this. By a university. Whose bursar suppressed the findings.
•Don’t keep small, gnawing pets, such as hamsters, in your room. Hamsters get loose and eat money. This is why college costs so much. Why does college cost so much?Oh, you want to change the subject! You want to know how my generation has managed to run up a $2,000,000,000,000 debt. Well, how else can we send you through college in 100 percent natural-fiber clothes? The natural-fiber money ran out! I’ll tell you this: my college roommate insisted on keeping a hamster, and one night it got into my wallet and ate everything. It was a valuable lesson. There are some things we can’t control. But we can do without insidious little animals out there in the darkness, gnawing . . .
•Cling to eternal verities. This is all recent, you know, all these post-hyphenyou-name-it-isms. Post-modernism, post-vandalism, whatever. We didn’t have any of them in my day, and we didn’t exactly come to town on a load of rutabagas. Mark my words: these things will blow over.
•So will everything else. Except parents. Who will just get pitiful and die. But you let us worry about that. You just worry about how bad you are going to feel—too late.
•If some fad like riding five to a motorcycle backward or watching insectmonster movies for seventy-two hours straight while wearing nothing but feelers arises, hey, you’re only young once. But think what it will do to your parents. They are only going to be middle-aged once, which is all they have left, and perhaps not for long. Call your parents. Talk to them—about something else—until the urge passes.
•On the other hand, what makes you feel the need to take sixteen courses in accounting? We’re sending you to college so you can learn everything there is to know about the bottom line? You want to know about the bottom line? Call your parents.
•Drugs. Young people don’t need to get high. Young people are already, qua young people, higher than they will ever be again, even tomorrow. Wait until you are seventy. There is no one more tickled with himself or herself than a seventy-year-old college graduate who feels seventy but who has not developed a tolerance for killer Nepalese mushrooms.
• Polities. I fully realize that the point of collegiate political activity is to make all the blood drain out of your parents’ faces. Fine. Fairenough. But if anything involving heavy explosives ever comes back in style, remember that you will be alumni soon. For every $100,000 in damage done to campus property, you may count on receiving two dozen solicitations to contribute to the building fund. In demolitions, as in economics, there is no such thing as a free boom. On the other hand, before you plunge headlong into your Campus Young Arch-Reactionary Club, stop and think. Shouldn’t some gratifications be deferred until you can no longer enjoy anything else?
•Plagiarism. This above all, to thine own self be true.
•Extramarital relations. Never marry your relatives. See? Parents can laugh about these things. As long as we are sure your heads are on straight. Once we realize that they aren’t, we can never laugh again.
•Excuse me. Will you please stop doing that with your corneas when I am talking to you? Yes, your corneas. You know what I mean.
•Yes, you do.
• And don’t expect to remember any of this, unless you write it all down. Right now. The older you get, the less you remember, even tomorrow.
•Any of what?