I’ll begin with a story.
One of my former university professors came to see me years ago for advice about starting a garden in his back yard. As we talked, I realized that he had no interest in gardening: he only wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. So I said to him, “Find a really good produce market and buy giant broccoli, and buy giant strawberries. Then go home and do something you enjoy.”
I’ll let you think about that for a while, and then I’ll tell you what it taught me.
Commencement speakers are expected to give advice: the elders, scarred by their experiences but wiser, attempt to save the young from making the same mistakes they made—or pass on some ideas that have worked. It’s not a bad tradition, so I’ll stick with it.
First, take care of your body. Here’s the problem: by the time this seems really important it’s too late—you’re overweight and out of shape, with teeth that look like Swiss cheese and half a lifetime of bad habits to keep you that way.
You know you should floss your teeth and stay out of the sun, so do it! (Try a water flosser—better than normal floss, and more fun.) And stop eating garbage! Why do we believe that profits for food processing corporations mean good nutrition for us? Eat real food: vegetables, grains, meat and fish, fresh fruit for something sweet. Drink water. Don’t believe the milk lobby: go very light, if at all, on the dairy products. Above all, avoid sugar, a slow poison that is highly addictive and causes a host of diseases.
Exercising won’t keep you slim—you have to end your sugar addiction to do that—but you do need exercise to stay fit. You don’t have to buy a membership in a gym or run triathlons, however—working out a bit at home, every day, will do the trick. Find a form of exercise you really enjoy, and exercise regularly. You only get one body in this life, so treat it well.
Second, plan for retirement. As some of you may know, I’m a big fan of cultivating good habits: they make life so much easier and more pleasant. But I won’t advise you to plan your life. Leave some room for chance, for surprises, for unplanned adventures. I do advise you, however, to plan your retirement.
When I was your age, men typically retired at 65, puttered about for a couple of years, had a heart attack, and died. For such a man, living two years without a salary was not a big problem. (His wife, if she was lucky, lived out her days on her husband’s comfortable pension and a life insurance annuity.) Today, people who retire at 65 are likely to live another twenty or thirty years. By the time you are my age, it may be as much as forty or fifty years.
Even twenty years is a long, long time to live without a salary. So however you live your life, plan for your retirement. Buy property, and hold on to it. Put money aside from every paycheck, no matter how small it is or how many bills you have to pay. Every paycheck. Seriously.
Third, don’t vote for leaders who want to start wars, who try to divide people by making them afraid of each other, who want to keep the poor in their place and keep all the power for the rich and the corporations. We’ve had enough of all that, don’t you think?
Fourth, try to find something or someone to live for, besides yourself. Those of you who have had a positive community service experience will understand that the person who gives, gets a lot more than the person who receives. By doing something to help others, something to make the world even a little bit better than it was, you will give your life a richness and significance that no selfish endeavor ever will. The most important way to make the world a better place, of course, is simply to be the best person you can be.
If you’re not asleep yet, you may still remember my former professor who wanted giant broccoli and giant strawberries. The story became for me a fable about choosing a career. Gardeners love every part of gardening: planning the garden, laying out the paths, digging the beds, preparing compost, sowing seeds, transplanting, cultivating, watering, and harvesting. If they eat giant broccoli at the end, that’s nice; if not, they’ve still had all the other pleasures of gardening. If you work only for the giant broccoli, and you hate all the days leading up to that moment, you will be miserable. Instead, find something you enjoy doing every day—something you would do without being paid, if you could afford it. Then you will be happy in your work.
Sigmund Freud, asked for the keys to happiness, famously replied, “Love and work.” I’ve given you the best advice I have about work; for love, you’re on your own.
Thank you, congratulations, and good luck.
Another nice little essay by Paul Graham. As always, he is interested in what typically goes unnoticed. This one may help you—if you are young enough—think about what sort of career would suit you.
For years teachers have been told, with great assurance, about “learning styles”. Daniel Willingham provides a welcome splash of cold water on these ideas. Have a look at his “Learning Styles FAQ”.
Reading history reminds us how briefly we appear on the stage of life. The king of a great nation who reigns for thirty years and lives more than twice that long seems a minuscule blip in the stream of time. How much less are we, leading our quiet lives in peaceful obscurity.
I am delighted to announce that beginning in the fall of 2015 I will be teaching in the new high school program of Abiqua Academy in Salem, Oregon.
I began my teaching career in 1980 at South Salem High School, but the opportunity to return to Salem 35 years later has come as a complete […]
Students doing research for an Extended Essay, or in preparation for an IB English Interactive Oral, or for any other research project, need to use credible sources.
But what exactly is a credible source?
Basically you are looking for information written by someone who has some special training or expertise in the subject you are […]
UPDATE, October 30th: great news! Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I will be leaving China this coming summer and moving on to a new job beginning in August 2015. Under Chinese law, I cannot be issued a work visa if I would turn 65 during the upcoming year. Since I will celebrate my […]
In the summer of 2011 came an email message from one of the first students I taught, way back in 1983 in a suburban public high school. Kathy had found me through a classmate’s Facebook page, and wanted to let me know what she had been doing for the past quarter-century.
Honestly, I remembered very […]
From the National Council of Teachers of English, November 2004.
Everyone has the capacity to write, writing can be taught, and teachers can help students become better writers. People learn to write by writing. Writing is a process. Writing is a tool for thinking. Writing grows out of many different purposes Conventions of finished and […]
Evidence is mounting that sitting for long stretches of time — in a car, at a desk, or on the couch — is bad for our health. A sedentary way of life and spending hours sitting down seems to increase the risk of death from cardiovascular disease and cancer. . . . Research by Dr. […]
I have a little project for you—a chance to do some real good in the world.
I teach high-school English. I know that my students need to read as much as possible, but I also know that reading alone will not give them the high-end vocabulary they will need for maximum success in school—for that, […]
1. Kurt Vonnegut’s Advice to Writers
2. George Orwell’s Five Rules for Effective Writing
3. William Strunk’s Elements of Style (Chapter III is the most important)
That’s a good start.
Composing and editing are two distinct processes. Students staring at blank screens or blank sheets of paper are usually trying to compose and edit at the same time. It doesn’t work.
Composing is the messy, chaotic process of figuring out what you want to say. It’s like being sent to the attic to find something. […]
Originally published in International Schools magazine and aimed at teachers considering a move to China.
The classical gardens, first. Master of the Nets is my favourite: small, but it has all the elements. Not gardens in the Western sense, but homes for the well-to-do, built around a central pond. In a classical garden, art […]
Ten years ago I heard of the passing of Anne Osman, my friend and colleague from Casablanca American School, where I worked from 1986-89. Today I came across this piece that I wrote about Anne. It was published on an earlier version of this web site but was somehow lost in the move. This seems […]
A letter to Maury Wills. For those who don’t know, Maury Wills played shortstop on the great Dodgers baseball teams that featured Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale in the 1960s. In 1962 Wills stole 104 bases, breaking Ty Cobb’s 1915 record for steals in a single season.
I was following reports about […]
First: we can never know what the author intended. Even if we ask the author in person, we cannot know whether the answer we hear is sincere, or truthful. It gets worse: the author himself cannot know with certainty what impelled him to write this or that. Why did I eat oatmeal for breakfast? […]
I’ve always thought the public schools needed to study the best literature. I always taught Oedipus Rex to all kinds of what they used to call remedial or development classes. The reason those kids are in those classes is that they’re bored to death; so you can’t give them boring things. You have to give […]
Q: What portion of the human body consists of human cells? A: About the amount from the knee of one leg down to the foot. The rest is bacteria.
This reminds me of commercial television. We commonly regard TV as a medium of art and communication financed by advertising. Actually, however, it is an advertising […]
Some of my students were devastated to discover that Hamlet dies at the end of the play, so I have obliged their tender sensibilities with this additional scene. —etm
Scene: Wittenberg. A room in an inn.
HORATIO But how is this possible?!
HAMLET ‘Season your admiration’, good friend. In short, by a hair’s breadth […]
What’s the difference between social and societal? Not much, but enough that you may become the victim of social stigma if you ignore subtle societal signals.
Societal is the pedantic alternative to social. . . .
I couldn’t agree more, having read hundreds of teeth-grating essays filled with “societal” this and “societal” […]
In 1968 millions of people were outraged when anti-war activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya announced that a dog would be burned alive on the UC Berkeley campus to protest the use of napalm (jellied gasoline, for you youngsters out there) in Vietnam. No dog was harmed: Kuromiya’s point was that Americans were less concerned about the Vietnamese […]
“How Shakespeare Changes Us”, at lit-hum.org. The first comment is worth a look, too.
“Good Advice About Bad Writing”, from DailyWritingTips.com.
Brief, clear, and to the point.
From The Atlantic, a piece worth reading by Maura Kelly. Here’s a taste:
Why the emphasis on literature? By playing with language, plot structure, and images, it challenges us cognitively even as it entertains. It invites us to see the world in a different way, demands that we interpret unusual descriptions, and pushes our memories […]
Anyone interested in writing, anyone interested in science fiction, anyone interested in Ray Bradbury who just died at the age of 91, anyone interested in much of anything will find lots to think about in this wonderful interview with Bradbury from the late 1970s, rediscovered and printed in the Paris Review in 2010. Among other […]
Everything is—not perfect, but cosy When suddenly there’s a big lurch That you can’t explain Or control.
At first you think, no worries, We’ll be back on course in a moment. But we aren’t.
Then more lurches, some big Some small And long stretches in between.
Thinking, can’t we just go back To where […]
A very useful article on the Mac Observer points aspiring writers to an iTunes U lecture series, a podcast, and an app.
UPDATE, September 2014
Some e-books do now show page numbers, and when you copy a quotation from iBooks a limited bibliographical citation is included automatically. Tim Parks, writing in the New York Review of Books, adds usefully to the conversation.
How to take notes—that’s the problem.
With a Kindle book, forget it. The best […]
All serious art is being destroyed by commerce. Most people don’t want art to be disturbing. They want it to be escapist. I don’t think art should be escapist. That’s a waste of time.
—Edward Albee, American playwright http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Albee#section_4
This thought-provoking piece by the eclectic Robert X. Cringely caught my eye today. Here, Cringely quotes a friend who was an engineer but changed careers and became a high school math teacher:
“The problem is that I’ve found that all these things that are purported to improve student learning ignore the number one factor in […]
Years ago I began sending out poems at Christmas time, in lieu of cards. Here’s one of the first I sent.
The View from an Attic Window
BY HOWARD NEMEROV from New Poems (1960) for Francis and Barbara
1 Among the high-branching, leafless boughs Above the roof-peaks of the town, Snowflakes unnumberably come down.
The great literary critic George Steiner writes, somewhere, that just walking through the streets of Paris during his childhood was an education and an inspiration. Nearly every street and square in the city is named after someone who made a difference: scientists, poets, politicians, generals, intellectuals, labour leaders, architects, and on and on. Every intersection […]
A great piece that ought to be printed out and put on the wall next to every writer’s desk. That includes you, students.
On Sunday I went to meet Lu Ping, a wonderful Suzhou artist who works in Beijing but who has just built a country vacation home for himself and his wife in the nearby ‘water town’ of Luzhizhen.
You can see some of his work from the 1990s here:
I bought several of his woodcut […]
The news about entire retail shops being copied by clever Chinese entrepreneurs leads to the obvious question: where do we go from here? Clearly, fake stores are an intermediary step in the development toward a much more ambitious project: fake countries.
Think about it: millions of Chinese people would love to visit France, for example, […]
The death of singer Amy Winehouse at the age of 27 connects, I think, with the terrible events in Norway. Both stories concern mental illness of a certain sort, and in both cases the social and cultural context plays a role.
For Amy Winehouse: She was clearly ill, and yet in our culture she could […]
Congratulations to Steve Thorsett, Willamette University’s newly-appointed President, who was a student in my ‘World Literature & Philosophy’ class at South Salem High School in 1982-83. Steve has had an impressive academic career already, including a stint teaching physics and astronomy at UC Santa Cruz, where I studied as an undergraduate.
Administration of anything—much less […]