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'Vonnegut Speech' Author Encourages MIT Students


T. Luke Young -- The Tech
Mary T. Schmich speaks last Wednesday in Walker Memorial. The Class of 2001 sponsored the lecture in an attempt to raise student morale.

By Zareena Hussain
Associate news Editor

Mary T. Schmich, the Chicago Tribune columnist whose June 1 column gained Internet fame as Kurt Vonnegut's commencement speech, came to campus to share her experiences and inspirations with the MIT community.

Last Wednesday's event, sponsored by the Class of 2001, was intended to cheer up students in the light of the difficulties the community has faced this semester, before the onset of final papers, projects, and exams.

With a drawl that gave away her southern origins, Schmich said "I write for a livin'; I don't talk for a livin'," humbly forewarning students about the length of her speech compared to the now idolized, and short, column.

Refrigerators, not heroes inspire

Schmich spoke to the audience about her own sources of inspiration. "I don't believe in heroes - heroes disappoint you," Schmich said. "Inspiration is what we're really looking for when we're looking for heroes."

While looking for inspiration, "I realized everything I needed to know was posted on my refrigerator," Schmich said.

Schmich shared with the audience the quotes and the pictures posted on her refrigerator door that served as her sources of inspiration.

The first quote she mentioned reminded students of the benefits of a good night's rest. "The secret to success is not staying up all night, but being awake in the daytime."

The second quote, by author Mary Gainseville, spoke to the pursuit of perpetual happiness. "People put such a premium on being happy, and while I have nothing against being happy, I think deeper life experience isn't necessarily being more happy."

The third was a quote from an article in The New York Times about presidential aide Vince Foster explaining his state of mind before his suicide during Clinton's first term in office. "A loss of security," "a painful scanning of his environment," "a rigid perfectionism and self demand," and "a breakdown of his usual abilities" led to his demise.

"I keep that one to remind me of the hazards of perfectionism," Schmich said, "and to remind us of the importance of seeking help when we need it."

The next quote was from the poet and doctor William Carlos Williams. "It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserable everyday from the lack of what is found in there."

"I keep that one because I'm in the news business," Schmich said. "I also know that the news, the noise of the news drowns out what is really important to us."

"A good poem gives us the words to help you formulate your life," she said.

MIT students carry responsibility

Schmich also reminded students of the responsibilities associated with going to such a prestigious school, relating it to how Williams, also a doctor who helped the poor, understood his social responsibility.

"You're at MIT, one of the great schools of the world," Schmich said. She also told students "to understand with a sense of obligation, not with arrogance, but with obligation, the power you have."

Schmich also mentioned the inspiration she drew from her parents. "The very fact that he [my father] was a common man - that's where the inspiration in my life comes for me."

And her mother?

"Because she put up with my father," and because she taught Schmich, "you can never blame anyone else for your life."

Schmich ended her speech with a reminder to remain inquisitive. "How should we live,' someone asked me in a letter. The most pressing questions are the naive ones."

Answering that question, she read from a column she wrote about a student from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who died in Pamplona, Spain at age of 22 at the Running of the Bulls.

She read, "The people that loved him may wish he never went, but they can still admire the breadth of spirit that took him there." Breadth of spirit, Schmich said, is "what allows you to let inspiration sink in."

Students question columnist

After her speech, Schmich fielded questions from the audience.

One student asked how she felt about having her column pass through the Internet as the MITcommencement speech given by Kurt Vonnegut.

Schmich described her shock, surprise, and bewilderment at the whole situation. "What if I had been channeling Kurt Vonnegut that day?"

She finally resolved her questions by contacting Kurt Vonnegut.

"Glamour magazine called me and wanted to reprint it, [and] wouldn't believe me when I said I didn't write it," Vonnegut told Schmich in a phone conversation.

She also spoke of finally understanding what it meant to be in the center of the media circus. "For the first time in my life I became the object of what it is that I do," Schmich said. "I came to know what it is like to be the raw meat in the feeding frenzy."

Another student asked Schmich what the hardest part of being a journalist was.

The columnist almost immediately answered, "The fact that people dislike journalists, for one thing."

"There is a superficiality to it that I don't like - in what I do, in what I read," she said.

Another student asked her to conjecture on why the case of mistaken authorship gained such great media attention.

"I think it became a big story for a weird convergence of reasons." Schmich said.

These included the facts that August was a slow news month, Vonnegut was a popular writer, journalists like writing about other journalists, and people have an "uneasiness and fascination with the Internet."

Another student asked her to discuss why she placed emphasis on the here and now in the speech she had given.

"You really become aware of how much of your life is committed to a moment in the future," Schmich said. "You realize that didn't get you all the places you wanted to be."

Schmich was also asked what she would add to the commencement address.

Initially she said nothing. "I think the reason it works is because it's really short"

But she later admitted that there was one caveat she would add: "Just do your work; just do your ordinary work; and you never know what kind of wonderful weird things will happen to you."