Perched on the slopes of Rutherford Hill, the Auberge du Soleil resort is surrounded by an olive grove and boasts panoramic views of the Napa Valley and a Michelin-starred restaurant. It was the perfect place to play hooky on the final day of school. My friend Bea and her mother invited me to lunch there, just the three of us. Though it coincided with the date of my college graduation, I skipped the formal school ceremony and never told them. At the time, it made perfect sense, since the repast I was treated to, including wine, tax, and tip, cost nearly as much as college tuition and promised to be a lot more fun than parading around in a cap and gown with people I barely knew.
I never attended my high school ceremony either, so I suppose skipping Graduation Day was getting to be sort of a habit with me. I enjoyed receiving the official diploma by mail, but thanks to early admission, I was already a college freshman by the time the big day arrived. Hitchhiking home for a day to rejoin my former classmates just seemed awkward and anticlimatic.
But I’ve always wondered what I missed. Living near Berkeley, I’m depressed on those days in May when the streets above the UC campus are choked with long lines of about-to-be-grads or just-grads. The stores do a brisk business in tasseled cards, diploma frames, and personalized keepsakes. I never got any of this loot, just a massive student loan bill which took years to pay off.
Mainly I regret not having heard an inspiring commencement speaker, a famous or radiant thinker who might have prepared me for real life with astute advice. Winston Churchill, speaking at Harrow School, implored grads, “Never give in.” Steve Jobs urged Stanford students to follow their hearts and intuition. Author J.K. Rowling instructed the Harvard class to value the gift of adversity, and musician Neil Diamond sang “Louie Louie” to the grads at NYU, which made everyone cheer and dance. I wish I’d been been there, too. Craigslist founder Craig Newmark told students, “Enjoy your life.” If I’d only heard that on Graduation Day, my entire life might have been different. Alas, I was eating lunch in the wine country without benefit of sound counsel.
Some of those completing their education this year may be forced, for the best of reasons, to skip their own graduation ceremony, just as I did. Perhaps they, too, long for a last infusion of wisdom, or even just an assortment of practical tips from an expert, lest they venture into the world unprepared. If asked, I would only offer a morsel or two of advice, things I wish I had known when I started my post-grad life.
Beware of Mapquest. Especially on frontage roads or when traveling to a hotel, Mapquest will invariably call a driveway by a street name and have you back on the freeway when you meant to turn into a parking lot. Do not save packets of soy sauce, mustard, hot sauce, or mayonnaise from restaurants. They will accumulate in your kitchen drawers and cabinets, where they will harden or burst open and create a sticky mess. Buy your own condiments.If your life turns out to be even a moderate success, you won’t have the luxury of ironing more than once in awhile; therefore, do not buy linen clothing or anything with pleats. No matter how short on time, do not under any circumstances shave only one leg, intending to finish the other tomorrow.
If a friend sits you down and says, “May I be perfectly honest?” run for your life. Do not remove dirty sheets from your bed when exhausted. You won’t have the energy to find clean sheets and remake the bed and will end up sleeping on the mattress pad with an itchy blanket over you or else putting the dirty bottom sheet back on the bed. Do not pass a police car in traffic.
Never describe a habit as “my one indulgence.” Nature doesn’t like this statement, and you will automatically turn out to be a liar. Do not spend more on your hair stylist than on your therapist. If you find a therapist who also does hair, count your blessings. Never anger your stylist while she is cutting or coloring your hair. Refuse to live your life by committee.
Sleep is more important than almost anything else except having fun. Dancing is more important than eating or working. Never ask anyone if you look fat, especially if the other person looks fat. Read poetry instead of murder mysteries before bed. Don’t drive drunk, text drunk, accept marriage proposals drunk, or write in your journal drunk. Record your dreams. Keep confidences. Don’t feed the narcissists.
Most importantly, dear graduate of any age, believe in your own eccentric genius. Play hooky from the nonsense the rest of the world so desperately wishes to enroll you in and find your own nonsense, which will always be twice as rewarding. Give yourself an A-plus when you deserve one. Have a great time or a bad time, but don’t fake it. Take naps. Floss. Brood, then eat something wonderful. Practice saying no to what doesn’t fit in your life. It’s like weeding through a closet of clothes you’ve outgrown—in the very back, just behind the itchy old letterman’s sweater or the faded prom dress, is a resounding “Yes!” you didn’t even know was there.
Stacy Appel is an award-winning writer in Lafayette, whose work has been featured in the Chicago Tribune and other publications. She is a contributor to the book You Know You’re a Writer When… by Adair Lara. Comments, good advice, or commencement-speaker queries may be sent to Appel at WordWork101@aol.com.
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