The last time I stood on this platform was a little more than 50 years ago. On that June morning – against all the odds of all the bookies in Las Vegas – I received my Millbrook diploma.
A half-century is a long time ago. Of course, this means that I am now at the end of my life. You, on the other hand, are at the beginning of yours. I’m not sure which one of us has the better deal. All my failures, disappointments, embarrassments, betrayals, anxieties are pretty much behind me whereas yours lie before you. But some good things are waiting out there too.
I’m sure Mr. Casertano would like me to talk this evening about diplomacy, foreign policy, national security and all that stuff. But I spent four years at Millbrook disappointing the headmaster and I see no reason why I should break that pattern now.
So what I intend to do in these next few minutes is to pass on some tips about life. By way of introduction, however, I should first say that I don’t think my children like me. They pretend to like me, but deep down they are at best ambivalent. My grandchildren aren’t old enough to dislike me, but I’m sure that will come with time.
And the reason for this is because of what are called “Raymond’s Rules”. I have rules for everything. There are, for example, “Raymond’s Rules of Laundry.” There are “Raymond’s Rules of Table Manners” and “Raymond’s Rules of Cookery”. The most significant and valuable list, however, is “Raymond’s Rules of Life”, and I’m going to impart some of these to you. You should be getting excited right now.
Here are some quick Raymond’s Rules:
No. 18: learn to type
No. 22: learn a musical instrument
No. 23: learn to waltz
No. 28: learn to play chess
No. 30: learn at least one foreign language
No. 19: learn the names of flowers and learn the names of trees.
I guarantee these relatively simple accomplishments will enrich your life immeasurably. In fact, you should have all of these things under your belt by the time you leave Millbrook, and if you’re a little behind, you should speak with your faculty advisor as soon as possible.
There are many Raymond’s Rules on the arts. Examples:
Here is a worthy one, No. 89: Consider people. Note that I am not saying, “Be considerate of people”, though that’s not a bad idea either. But I mean something different when I say, “Consider people”. If you meet someone new, if you are at a job interview or an admissions interview, or if you go to a banker or editor or manager of something, first consider the person you are meeting. Who, exactly, is your interlocutor? Who, really, is this person?
One of America’s most outstanding negotiators was Secretary of State George Shultz, and one of his secrets of preparation for a negotiation was to study the biography of whoever would be sitting on the other side of the table.
This applies to everything. For example, how well do you know your teachers? Where was your English teacher born and where was he or she brought up and educated? Does your chemistry teacher have any hobbies or other interests? Any scandals? Who exactly are these people standing in front of you in the classroom every day and how would the world look if you were in their shoes?
Here’s another one about people, No. 58: Do not call your parents hypocrites; you’ll be one soon enough.
As you see, most of my Rules are practical. For example, I understand you have formal dinner this evening. I’m not sure exactly what that means. No fingers? Anyway...
No: 62: When you have finished a meal, place your knife and fork on your plate at 5:00 o’clock, knife on the right, blade facing inwards. Any questions?
No: 131: A dinner roll is torn, not cut.
No. 47: At the end of a meal, never stack the dishes, even if you’re alone -- especially if you’re alone. (I think there is an exception for boarding schools).
Or these bits of practicality for the bathroom:
No: 74: Toilet paper should unfurl from the outside.
Or, No. 8: Whether male or female, always put down both the seat and the lid of the toilet. No one wants to look in a watery maw.
So what is the point of these petty rules? Well, there are obvious compelling attractions, which I am sure you will grasp immediately. But the real point is that every decision, even the smallest and least consequential, should have an aesthetic dimension to it, a sense of style, if you will, maybe elegance, a sense of personal standards. And this leads naturally to Rule No. 103: Do small things well.
As you can see, most of Raymond’s Rules are randomly arranged, but I have grouped several of them under general headings for your easier edification. One general heading might be called “Writing”. I’m worried about writing. I’m worried about the impact of electronics on good writing. I’m terrified of tweets. Hitchcock. So I implore you: learn to write. And here are some of Raymond’s Rules:
No 28: Avoid adverbs whenever possible. Look at good writers of fiction or non-fiction. You’ll barely find an adverb on a page. Adverbs are the pimples on the face of good writing. And do not use bad metaphors like the one I just used.
No. 29: Be equally wary of words such as ‘rather’ or ‘somewhat’ or ‘quite’. These are chicken words. They are rather weak, somewhat feeble and quite limp.
No. 64: Proof read everything you write. Everything.
No 19: When a phrase becomes a cliché, drop it. Cliches are a substitute for thinking. So be careful of clichés 24-7. Did I just say “24-7”?
No. 30: Keep a dictionary to hand. And use it.
And, finally, No 85: A clean desk indicates a clean mind, but try to do it anyway.
Debt is bad. You can be clever about taxes and clever about credit, but never forget that debt is bad.
No. 116: No matter what you earn, save something regularly; compound interest is slow in coming but cheerful on arrival.
No. 65: In only a few instances does the value of something exceed its price. Examples: ink, dental floss, waxed shoelaces, WD-40, white vinegar and the Sunday New York Times.
Once a decade read the United States Constitution. It is the most remarkable political document ever devised by man.
No. 54: Vote. If you don’t vote, you forfeit the right to complain about the government.
No. 32: History is about the future.
There are so many Raymond’s Rules concerning relationships with people that I hardly know where to begin. But here is a handful:
I’m a little surprised no one is taking notes. Maybe I should be more modern. I should, like, demonstrate that I’m, like, with it. So here are a couple up-to-date Rules:
No. 92: One of the great scams of the late twentieth century is the belief that a baseball cap worn backwards or sideways can look anything other than utterly goofy.
No. 24: One victim of modern American life is grace.
No. 108: An encouraging development of the modern age is that you can form a rock band nowadays without any member of it being able to sing or play a musical instrument. There’s hope for all of us.
Now, I’m not just a social critic. I do have my philosophical moments, but I try to get over them as quickly as possible. There are, however, some thoughts which deserve a little more reflection and which can probably help fortify you for the years which lie ahead:
No. 127: Instinct is more reliable than reason.
Hold on to romance with both hands; it can easily slip through your fingers.
You enter life alone; you exit life alone. These are immutable, implacable facts.
No. 12: The hardest self-discipline is telling the truth.
No. 24: Do not confuse technology with progress; and do not confuse progress with civilization.
There is no reason to believe in God; there is no reason not to believe in God.
No. 71: The hardest virtue is patience; the easiest vice is vanity.
No. 54: Nothing lasts; and nothing is as it appears.
Each one of those deserves an hour or so, but I’m feeling a little rushed. I’m going to close now. This is exhausting. But I’ll give you three more of Raymond’s Rules to get you through dinner.
No. 612: In eighty years of life you will have fewer than 1000 full moons; eliminate half of them because of infancy, meteorology or obstruction. Try hard to enjoy the remainder.
No. 892: Life is full of absurdities. You are best equipped with a ready sense of humor. And always remember that the funniest thing in life is yourself.
No. 1,784: The world is a rich and wondrous place. Go out and see it. There is no better way to understand your country and no better way to understand yourself.
So there you have it, a sampling of Raymond’s Rules. And now you can better appreciate why my children have problems. But let’s make this deal: why don’t we all come back here in fifty years and talk it over.