* Editor’s note: Marion is on vacation. This column has been slightly edited since it first ran in June 2002.
In the late 1990s, a graduation speech falsely attributed to Kurt Vonnegut buzzed around the Internet and later became the basis for a popular song by Baz Luhrmann called “Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen)”.
The speech was notable for its down home advice mixed with middle-aged nostalgia. It included such thoughts as, “Do one thing every day that scares you,” “Sing,” “Floss,” and “Dance, even if you have nowhere to do it but your living room.”
I glanced through the speech when it showed up in my email, but I sat up and took notice when it turned out that the author was not Kurt Vonnegut but someone like me, a middle-aged female columnist named Mary Schmich who writes for the Chicago Tribune. She never delivered the speech anywhere.
The part that really caught my attention was the “voice” she used. I employ a number of voices myself: my writer’s voice (emotional, but cautious), my speaking voice (a little restrained) and my river voice (a kayaker’s wild whoop), but the voice she used in her column was one I staunchly avoid.
The advice-giving voice.
Why do I staunchly avoid it?
Maybe this story can explain.
Last week, I returned to kayak school at Otter Bar Lodge in the Klamath National Forest. As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, this means I spend a week in remote but luxurious quarters with a dozen students and four teachers.
Last Thursday morning, after breakfast, I walked into the living room of the lodge.
Several kayakers were standing around or sitting in chairs when I stopped dead and stared at my fanny pack, which at that moment contained only my calling card. Noticing my concentrated gaze at an insignificant item, Peter, one of the kayak instructors, turned to me.
“What are you thinking about, Marion?” he asked, expecting a remark about kayak gear or river plans.
Instead, my mouth opened and the truth popped out like a cork.
“I’m trying to decide whether to call our vet about the dying hamster.”
Several kayakers exploded in sound, as if the wind had been knocked out of them. “Whew! That wasn’t what I was expecting,” said one. “I thought you’d say you wanted another cup of coffee.”
“Or forgot your sunscreen,” said someone else.
Instead, I was working out the right thing to do in a situation that was very important to me. Unfortunately, the hamster had become ill while my husband and I were out of town. I was trying to figure out how to be supportive to my adolescent children, who were bringing him to the vet that afternoon. I knew Hamelot might be nearing the end of his lifespan, and I wanted the vet to know that my children understood that, too.
This was mighty far from what kayakers usually discuss in the morning, like river conditions or whether their paddling clothes stink too much. They returned to “normal” topics.
I let the moment pass.
Fifteen minutes later I tiptoed over to the phone and made the call. I spent three more days with the kayakers, but no one ever asked after the hamster. Maybe they would have remembered if the animal had been a cat or a dog.
Meanwhile, I was dying to use my advice-giving voice on them. I wanted to shout from a treetop, actually, because so many people get this wrong. They don’t understand that a little animal can be just as important as a large animal, especially to children, who identify with things that are small.
But what was I going to do, pull the parents in the group aside and tell them that hamsters are important? That I would have appreciated a little comforting myself? And, more important, that they need to be very tender when something like this happens to their children, even when they’re teens?
They would have felt scolded. Angry. Somebody might have tipped my boat.
Perhaps that’s why we have graduation speeches. Advice needs to come before people set out into the world, because advice given after the fact sounds likes a scold.
Adults prefer to receive advice alone, like smoking in a closet. That’s why the column attributed to Vonnegut circulated so widely, from friend to friend, on home computers.
But adults need to speak up once in a while, and maybe next year I’ll feel brave enough to pen my own graduation speech, as Mary Schmich recommended in her famous column.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep it simple. Be kind to fish, mice, and hamsters — and to their owners.
I leave that up to you.
— Marion Franck lives in Davis with her family. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column is published Sundays.