Congratulations, Graduates, and Back Up Your Hard Drive

When I graduated from high school my parents bought me a portable typewriter. It was a brand new Hermes 3000 manual with a gray-green plastic body. It was a beautiful machine, and I used it for everything I wrote for the next 20 years. In fact, even now, one or two or three times per year, when I want to write something I regard as really important—a letter to a lost and found friend, a letter to my daughter about something that really matters, a letter to the governor—I get out my Hermes 3000 and hack away at it. There is something joyful and sensual in lining up two fresh sheets of paper and advancing them carefully over the platen, seeing if the mechanical Tab button still works to indent the date, and then staring at that blank sheet of paper while thinking about how to start. No delete button, or cut and paste feature, on a typewriter.

It always makes me a little sad, afterwards, to slide the cover over the machine and place it back on its special shelf.

I got a portable typewriter for graduation; my classmate Curt Pavlicek got a Corvette. I say this without undue bitterness, though I have managed to find a way to say at several times per year for 42 years in a row. And nothing makes me grumpier than some well-meaning friend who says, "But think of how much more use you got out of your typewriter than he from a car."

Wrong. And beside the point.

This is the time of the year (or was) when gift and stationery stores ran out of dictionaries and Cross pens. Probably some older people still give them as gifts, but they have essentially gone the way of Brylcreem and Burma Shave signs. I gave my last Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary to a high school graduate about ten years ago. He looked at me like I had given him a copy of the 1852 World Almanac for Albania or a rebuilt butter churn. In the age of spellcheck, the freestanding dictionary is regarded as a gift of desperation purchased by a fuddy-duddy who should have just written a check.

We all know that a dictionary is much more than a spelling guide. Free online dictionaries are so rudimentary as to be almost worthless. In his fascinating book, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Simon Winchester offers the following wonderful sentence: "A dictionary is the history of a people from a certain point of view." Almost no day goes by when I do not consult the dictionary—Webster's Third New International whenever possible. After I have opened it to my word, I invariably smooth the sheets several times as if I were touching a fine piece of mahogany or ivory. At earlier points in my life, when I had more leisure, I made it a rule to check the three words before and the three words after the one I had just looked up.

Try defining the following words: truth, north, soul, beauty. She who can do this is a genius.

Over the course of time, I've been asked to deliver the graduation address at a dozen or so colleges and high schools. I always say yes if my schedule permits, because I love the excitement in the auditorium. The proud parents, the snippy and sarcastic siblings, the odd little family "demonstrations" and cheering sections for the kid they reckoned would never graduate from anything. The graduate—usually a boy—who performs some pre-rehearsed trick on the stage: a somersault, a pirouette, the thrusting open of the gown to reveal a Superman t-shirt, a flat-on-the-floor genuflection to the college president. You can usually discern the families of the ones who are the first in their line to graduate from college. I find that very moving. It is such an important moment in the history of that family. My father, a grateful veteran, said the GI Bill of Rights was one of the greatest pieces of social legislation in the history of the United States. He and my mother were both the first.

When I give the graduation address, I always start by saying, "I am well aware that the only thing that now stands between you and your college degree is the knucklehead at this podium, so I will try to be brief." And for once I usually am. And I always start with a comic line from Woody Allen's "My Speech to the Graduates": "More than at any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly." But in recent years people have not laughed at this so heartily as before, and I am thinking of retiring it until the next American Era of Good Feelings.

Graduation addresses are paradoxical things. First, nobody is really listening. You are just a kind of necessary "fill." I don't remember what anyone said at my graduations, or who they were, but I'm pretty sure they said, "today is the first day of the rest of your life," or "this is not an end, but a beginning." Second, the kind of people colleges get to deliver graduation addresses are usually successful workaholics who have devoted every waking minute to achievement, but who now say, "Make sure you take time for your heart. Relax more. Just laze about sometimes. Buy a skateboard. Don't just stop and smell the roses. Grow some roses." But wait, Mr. Jobs, if you had done that, would we have the iPhone?

Third, assuming the graduation speaker actually has any insight about life (doubtful), that wisdom came from a long and winding journey through the maze of life, with triumphs and failures and periods of doubt and self-destruction, from sudden visitations of unearned misfortune, but also from unearned victories. You can't have wisdom sprinkled on your soul by someone who flew in first class yesterday evening for the reception. You have to earn it through the adventure and pain of an authentic life. You can tell an 18-year-old 100 times, "cherish your parents, for you will be them in thirty years," but it doesn't mean much until you figure it out for yourself. You're probably better off giving more useful advice. "Always back up your hard drive." "Get out of your way." "The road to success is dotted with many tempting parking places."

Fourth, nobody's listening.

When I left the country to study abroad for a couple of years, I asked my father, a brainy and thoughtful man, for his advice. He paused. And then he said, "Never kill a cop." He went on to explain, "If you kill a cop, you will be known as a cop killer, and all the cops on the beat will be after you." Actually, that is really good advice, the only advice that I can honestly say I have hearkened to in life, and so far it has worked out pretty well.

When I graduated from college, my father sent me a fabulous gift that could be contained in a stamped envelope. I opened it on graduation day at the University of Minnesota. I quote it in its entirety. "Dear Son, Your college experience has now cost your mother and me $17,345.67. Congratulations. Best wishes to you in your future endeavors."

Your was underlined.

Photograph from the Library of Congress, 3 June 1914.