Our group was composed of Boomers, and our topic of discussion had somehow became: If you were giving a graduation speech to a group of high school seniors and you wanted to impart one essential bit of advice, boiled down into just enough words to put on a desk plaque, what would that saying, slogan, moral of homily be?
There were the obvious hard-to-argue answers, such as “Do unto others” and “Be true to yourself.” Some were soullessly pragmatic -- ”Buy low, sell high” -- while others fairly pranced with impracticality -- ”Live for the moment.”
The conversation deteriorated into wiseass cynicism -- ”Don’t ask, don’t tell”...“Move to New Zealand”...“Duck!” -- and we proceeded to another subject.
But the question stuck in my mind, and it was only several days later, when I was going through some old keepsakes (or crap, as other members of the household might say), and found myself skimming through a cultural handbook of my childhood, that I happened upon the two words which, I’m surprised to say, I would choose as my nugget of wisdom.
I say “surprised” because I am, for better or worse, a cultural creation of the 1960s, with years spent earnestly alienated from and calculatedly contrary toward what has come to be popularly called “traditional values.” And yet, the advice that I stumbled upon and would give today is as much a part of those values as the Boy Scout motto.
In fact, it is the Boy Scout motto.
It’s a phrase that I associate with a bygone era, the mid-1930s to late 1950s, a sentiment straight out of “Grit” and the Eisenhower administration. But as I thought about it, I became increasingly convinced that it’s more valid and valuable now than ever.
Never in history has cultural and technological change been as rapid, continual and pervasive as it is today. Never has there been so much to try to anticipate and get a handle on. And so I would say, “Here it is in a nutshell, kid. Be prepared.” And if the person on the receiving end of this wisdom were to reply “What kind of crap are you talking now?” or otherwise press me to elaborate, I would gladly oblige.
For openers, I would say, be prepared in the literal Scouting sense. Have on hand those things that you tend to need and use. In this category are matches, sunscreen, bandages, bus fare, clean underwear, extra glasses, and the like, depending on individual proclivities. You know who you are.
Be prepared for emergencies. Not so much in terms of specific material readiness, such as having bottled water and highway flares and extra batteries and an escape route. Rather, prepare yourself for the very idea and inevitability of emergencies; not necessarily catastrophes, but sudden, unexpected, and pressing crises and problems that you have to cope with right now and with little or no planning or experience. Such emergencies, taken in sum, will consume more waking hours of your life than high school.
Be prepared -- indeed, more than at any time in history -- when it comes to sex, for reasons so obvious and numerous I won’t waste any more space on them.
Be prepared to be called upon to do some of the damnedest things, including things you presently assume that you definitely cannot do and never could or would do. Be prepared to learn that you can in fact do these things, and in some cases, embarrassingly well. (This is specifically applicable to infant hygiene and dining in foreign lands.)
Be prepared to alter or give up ingrained or established ways of thinking, behaving, and working. Three illustrative little words: Communism, computers, smoking. In 1975, each one meant unimaginably more, or less, or otherwise than it does today. And who could have guessed? The world is chock full of such words, and adds to their number every day, but they’re all basically just line-item synonyms for “change.” Just be prepared for change, period, and you’re halfway covered, kid.
Be prepared to have to choose between popularity and integrity, between pleasure and responsibility, between expediency and honesty, and however you choose, be prepared to have regrets later.
Be prepared to wind up making a living in way you never expected, possibly to the point of astonishment when you stop to think about it. Expect to stop to think about it frequently. The odds are about equal that you’ll find yourself doing either better or worse than you’d hoped by whatever yardstick you use to measure success, but either way, be prepared for that to not last.
Be prepared to be downsized, outsourced, displaced, disengaged, terminated, sacked, canned, punted, shelved, fired or otherwise removed from your job. Remember that you are not what you do for a living, and that any ideas to the contrary become painfully counterproductive when you’re out of work and already predisposed to feel like fresh shit.
Be prepared for criticism and denunciation, which are unpleasant but manageable, and for praise and acclaim, which are pleasant but tricky, seductive, and sometimes dangerously misleading.
Be prepared to wind up marrying someone other than Your Perfect Ideal Mate. In fact, be prepared to never actually meet, or even know the identity of, Your Perfect Ideal Mate, or any living person who comes seriously close. By the same token, be prepared to never quite locate that Perfect Ideal career, home, dog, climate, sound system, tennis racket, getaway, or lip gloss. Be prepared to decide that it’s probably just as well.
Be prepared to discover at some point down the line that you actually love, or hate, or espouse, or respect, or oppose, or fear, or enjoy, or believe in, or have renounced things, persons, ideas and lifestyles that you never envisioned you would. One of the defining conversational preambles of our time is, “If you’d told me 20 years ago that...” Be prepared to find yourself using it routinely.
Be prepared for your children’s inability or unwillingness to meet your expectations, since that is not, after all, their job. Be prepared to deal with not being their respected role model, and with the harsh reality that some half-inch-deep celebrity, musician, actor or athlete is.
Be prepared for them to pursue goals, engage in activities, cultivate tastes, indulge desires, embrace values, develop passions and make choices that are dismayingly unlike yours and that make no sense to you whatsoever. (This isn’t to say that they automatically will, but hey, look at how you turned out.) Be prepared for whatever eye-rolling fashion trend in body modification arises to eclipse piercing and tattooing.
Be prepared for terrific-looking clothing and furniture to not fit or not match, for delicious recipes to not work, your friends to not like each other, items to not function as well as they did in the store and inspired ideas to fail to pan out. Be prepared to be wrong, look foolish and get the blame, because these are recurring themes of the human condition, and if you take them personally, with shock and indignation, you’re just asking for frustration, anger and trouble.
Be prepared to lose big-time, to make big mistakes, to never learn the answers to the big questions and to go forth anyway.
And finally, be prepared for the inevitable: growing old. Ask people who have real experience in this regard, age 80 and above, and they’ll tell you: “You can’t believe how soon it arrives, you’re never ready.”
At least try to set aside as much of a nest egg as possible. You’ll almost certainly need it, and almost certainly earlier than you figure, and almost certainly without significant support from your government or employers. Whether you cherish or despise our economic system, the truth is that money can buy you time, and comfort, and security, and someday all those things will count a lot to you. So be...you know.
Of course, I would point out to any young recipient of this advice that each individual’s experience will be unique and may involve virtually all, or some, or almost none of the above particulars in varying combinations. Life is a journey for us all, but your own mileage may differ. Who knows what will happen?
I’m just saying: Be prepared.