by Russell Baker. Excerpts from a commencement address given in 1995
One: Bend down once in a while and smell a flower.
Two: Don't go around in clothes that talk. There is already too much talk in the world. We've got so many talking people there's hardly anybody left to listen. With radio and television and telephones we've got talking furniture. With bumper stickers we've got talking cars. Talking clothes just add to the uproar. If you simply cannot resist being an incompetent klutz, don't boast about it by wearing a tee shirt that says 'underachiever and proud of it.' Being dumb is not the worst thing in the world, but letting your clothes shout it out loud depresses the neighbors and embarrasses your parents.
Point three follows from point two, and it's this: Listen once in a while. It's amazing what you can hear. On a hot summer day in the country you can hear the corn growing, the crack of a tin roof buckling under the power of the sun. In a real old-fashioned parlor silence so deep you can hear the dust settling on the velveteen settee, you might hear the footsteps of something sinister gaining on you, or a heart-stoppingly beautiful phrase from Mozart you haven't heard since childhood, or the voice of somebody - now gone - whom you loved. Or sometime when you're talking up a storm so brilliant, so charming that you can hardly believe how wonderful you are, pause just a moment and listen to yourself. It's good for the soul to hear yourself as others hear you, and next time maybe, just maybe, you will not talk so much, so loudly, so brilliantly, so charmingly, so utterly shamefully foolishly.
Point four: Sleep in the nude. In an age when people don't even get dressed to go to the theater anymore, it's silly getting dressed up to go to bed. What's more, now that you can no longer smoke, drink gin or eat bacon and eggs without somebody trying to make you feel ashamed of yourself, sleeping in the nude is one deliciously sinful pleasure you can commit without being caught by the Puritan police squads that patrol the nation.
Point five: Turn off the TV once or twice a month and pick up a book. It will ease your blood pressure. It might even wake up your mind, but if it puts you to sleep you're still a winner. Better to sleep than have to watch that endless parade of body bags the local news channel marches through your parlor.
Six: don't take your gun to town. Don't even leave it home unless you lock all your bullets in a safe deposit box in a faraway bank. The surest way to get shot is not to drop by the nearest convenience store for a bottle of milk at midnight, but to keep a loaded pistol in you own house. What about your constitutional right to bear arms, you say. I would simply point out that you don't have to exercise a constitutional right just because you have it. You have the constitutional right to run for president of the United States, but most people have too much sense to insist on exercising it.
Seven: learn to fear the automobile. It is not the trillion-dollar deficit that will finally destroy America. It is the automobile. Congressional studies of future highway needs are terrifying. A typical projection shows that when your generation is middle-aged, Interstate 95 between Miami and Fort Lauderdale will have to be 22 lanes wide to avert total paralysis of south Florida. Imagine an entire country covered with asphalt. My grandfather's generation shot horses. Yours had better learn to shoot automobiles.
Eight: Have some children. Children add texture to your life. They will save you from turning into old fogies before you're middle-aged. They will teach you humility. When old age overtakes you, as it inevitably will I'm sorry to say, having a few children will provide you with people who will feel guilty when they're accused of being ungrateful for all you've done for them. It's almost impossible nowadays to find anybody who will feel guilty about anything, including mass murder. When you reach the golden years, your best bet is children, the ingrates.
Nine: Get married. I know you don't want to hear this, but getting married will give you a lot more satisfaction in the long run than your BMW. It provides a standard set of parent for your children and gives you that second income you will need when it's time to send those children to Connecticut College. What's more, without marriage you will have practically no material at all to work with when you decide to write a book or hire a psychiatrist.
When you get married, whatever you do, do not ask a lawyer to draw up a marriage contract spelling out how your lives will be divvied up when you get divorced. It's hard enough making a marriage work without having a blueprint for its destruction drawn up before you go to the altar. Speaking of lawyers brings me to point nine and a half, which is: Avoid lawyers unless you have nothing to do with the rest of your life but kill time.
And finally, point 10: smile. You're one of the luckiest people in the world. You're living in America. Enjoy it. I feel obliged to give you this banal advice because, although I've lived through the Great Depression, World War II, terrible wars in Korea and Vietnam, and half a century of cold war, I have never seen a time when there were so many Americans so angry or so mean-spirited or so sour about the country as there are today.
Anger has become the national habit. You see it on the sullen faces of fashion models scowling out of magazines. it pours out of the radio. Washington television hams snarl and shout at each other on television. Ordinary people abuse politicians and their wives with shockingly coarse insults. Rudeness has become an acceptable way of announcing you are sick and tired of it all and are not going to take it anymore. Vile speech is justified on the same ground and is inescapable.
America is angry at Washington, angry at the press, angry at immigrants, angry at television, angry at traffic, angry at people who are well off and angry at people who are poor, angry at blacks and angry at whites. The old are angry at the young, the young angry at the old. Suburbs are angry at the cities, cities are angry at the suburbs. Rustic America is angry at both whenever urban and suburban invaders threaten the rustic sense of having escaped from God's angry land. A complete catalog of the varieties of bile poisoning the American soul would fill a library. The question is: why? Why has anger become the common response to the inevitable ups and down of nation life? The question is baffling not just because the American habit even in the worst of times has traditionally been mindless optimism, but also because there is so little for Americans to be angry about nowadays. We are the planet's undisputed super power. For the first time in 60 years we enjoy something very much like real peace. We are by all odds the wealthiest nation on earth, though admittedly our vast treasure is not evenly shared.