I was 19 years old, and I was living in Florence, Italy.
I had enough of my parents’ money to live well, found my academic burden easily manageable, had what passed as pretty good looks, and was both insatiably curious and immensely ignorant. I had two best friends, Mark and John. My name is Matthew. We were desperately seeking a Luke.
On my twentieth birthday, Mark and John gave me a journal, a gorgeous leather-and-Florentine paper- bound blank book of possibilities. They inscribed it: “Buon Compleanno. You’ve got a year to fill this book with beautiful words and thoughts, inspired by a beautiful place. Best wishes, Signore Euro-Vogue. From the apostles, Mark e John.” The Euro-Vogue thing I vaguely recall was related to a flowery silk shirt I purchased at the San Lorenzo market and thought was highly stylish and ‘European’. It shrank to Elmo-sized the first time I laundered it.
Anyway, that was twenty years ago and I still haven’t filled that lovely little book. There are long gaps, to say the least. But at one point (actually on May 4, 1999, according to the heading) I wrote something that I entitled “Advice to my Son Going to College”. I was 28 at the time, seven years from the birth of my first son, and a quarter century from his imminent collegiate departure. I don’t know why I felt so sure I’d be having a boy, but I now have two and am feeling fairly prescient. Here is what I wrote at the time.
- Get plenty of sleep.
- There aren’t so much good and bad people as kind and unkind. Be as kind as you possibly can be to people. Remember their names if you’re able, and use them.
- Listen sincerely to what others say. You may not agree, but what they say always contains a shred of truth, even if it is only their own truth.
- Listen to what people don’t say. It’s often just as, if not more, important.
- Participate in class. Speak often when you have something to say – the professor will appreciate it and reflect his/her appreciation in your grade.
- Take the classes that interest you – you probably won’t do well in those that don’t.
- Figure out how much you can drink, then drink a lot more than that and don’t do it again.
- Wear a condom.
- Be aware of everything – much of what you learn won’t be in the classroom.
- Take a year abroad.
- Always, always, respect women. That girl is someone’s little girl, and needs to be treated with courtesy and dignity. (Also, it must be admitted, the better you treat girls, the more likely it is that you’re going to get laid.)
- Love, respect, admire, and observe the natural world.
- Don’t get a dog if you can’t take care of it. You’re a college student. You can’t take care of it.
- Fraternities I leave to your better judgment, but one more method of creating an isolated, insular world of testosterone and cheap beer on a college campus, which is already an isolated, insular world of privilege, testosterone, and cheap beer, may not be the best idea.
- If you get into trouble, call us. But if your bail exceeds $100,000, you’re on your own.
- Don’t drink and drive, and never ride with someone who’s been drinking. You can always pick up the car in the morning.
- Call your parents at least once a month.
- Take horseback riding lessons or something equally useless and cool.
- Find a park or natural space nearby and go there often (cemeteries are great in a pinch).
- Think. Read. Write.
- There are a lot of great books in the library that have nothing to do with the classes you are taking – check them out.
- Cheap beer makes you sick. Cheap wine makes you sicker. Avoid warm kegs whose contents contain the word ‘Meister’ anywhere in the name. And remember that ‘Boone’s Farm’ isn’t an actual farm – it’s an insane asylum of ethanolic suffering.
- Experiment with drugs if you must, but stay away from the ‘drug scene’ – those people are never happy in the long run. Or even the short run, really.
- Host a dinner party when you can, and make everyone dress up and bring some quality liquor.
- Take ideas and books seriously but not too seriously.
- Never take yourself too seriously.
- Human existence is funny, ridiculous even. Find the humor, but don’t get smug with it. Nobody likes smug.
- Don’t be a slob. Girls don’t respond favorably to slobs. And there are other reasons, I’m sure, not to be a slob, but the most important is that girls don’t dig it.
- Listen to classical music sometimes.
- You don’t have to have sex on the first night. But if you do, wear a condom.
- Don’t sweat it if someone is smarter of more informed than you. Just don’t let them remain so.
- Ignorance of something is nothing to be ashamed of – only the willingness to remain ignorant is.
- Be inquisitive. About everything.
- Don’t leave important essays and papers to the last minute. I can’t say much personally about not doing so, but I imagine it’s way less stressful.
- Take your vitamins.
- Eat well.
- Think before you act, and try to do what you think is right, not what is easy or popular or cool.
- Question authority if necessary, but don’t do it just to be a dick.
- Spring Break is a form of mass psychosis that takes place in a noxious stew of alcohol, date rape, venereal disease, and general stupidity. Go camping with a few friends instead.
- Don’t get caught.
- If you’re walking home after a party on a warm spring night and feel like taking your clothes off, go ahead, but refer to line above.
Needless to say, my father never offered me such a laundry list of do’s and don’t’s. If he had, my university life would have been – well, not much different, to be honest. Because let’s face it, no matter how much good advice you get – and the above may or may not be the best advice – you’re 19 years old, you’re beautiful, you’re confident bordering on cocky, and the world is spinning at your feet. Long may it be so.
I was 19 years old, and I was living in Florence, Italy. Enough said.