Discover more from Evening Post and Mail
On the Chicago Tribune column you've probably heard, where to live when you're young, and the problem of performative aesthetics in America
In 1997, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich composed a column under the title "Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young". It was her take on a commencement address -- the one she would have given that year, had she been invited. And a brilliant column it was.
■ Most people probably haven't read the column, but millions have heard it: It became Baz Luhrmann's "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)". One bootlegged copy of the music video has 20.7 million views on YouTube, and the song peaked at #10 on the Billboard charts in 1999. The newspaper-column-to-music-video pipeline is the stuff of legend: In fact, it's one of the first truly "viral" pieces of content to have blown up on the Internet.
■ The most memorable advice from the column is, of course, to wear sunscreen. But Schmich included a line that goes under-appreciated: "Live in New York City once, but leave before it makes you hard. Live in Northern California once, but leave before it makes you soft."
■ Setting aside the logistical difficulties of giving every young adult a passing residency in each of those places, the metaphorical point is as valid as ever. The tone of contemporary America is too often set by those who adopt the "hard" aesthetic and by those who adopt the "soft". In the same country, some are selling coffee by infusing it with gun worship, while others are removing the name of Abraham Lincoln from school buildings (before reversing course over fears of litigation).
■ The philosopher Maimonides advised, "What is the remedy for those whose souls are sick? Let them go to the wise men -- who are physicians of the soul -- and they will cure their disease by means of the character traits that they shall teach them, until they make them return to the middle way."
■ A well-rounded life probably should include aspects of both "hardness" and "softness" (with or without the recommended detours to New York and Northern California). But a life lived only in the performative extremes of one or the other is likely not only to be incomplete to the person living it, but also to become a nuisance to the society surrounding it. Hyper-sensitive sanctimony and unhinged shouting, as different as they may seem, are problems of a common feather.
■ Balance itself is a virtue. If we don't reward it and expect it from those around us, we shouldn't be surprised if basic mutual understanding teeters much too close to the brink of a cliff. No amount of sunscreen can protect us from that.