The Creepy Facts of Life

 Sorry, all, for the website glitch!  If you sent emails over the past two days, they may have bounced back to you during the period when my site was down.  So if you were expecting a reply and didn’t get one, send me the email again!

On Saturday, I delivered the commencement address for the University of Maine graduation.  I’m happy to say, I got’em to laugh –  no small feat when your audience is antsy 22 year olds who know that beer kegs are waiting for them.  There were maybe 6,000 people listening to me — the biggest audience I’ve ever had to face.  Since then, several people have asked me to post my speech, and here it is. 

I’ll blog again when I can come up for air while furiously trying to finish THE BONE GARDEN!

Commencement Address, May 12, 2007:

THE CREEPY FACTS OF LIFE

I grew up in a world of ghosts.  My mother is an immigrant from China, and she believed in a supernatural world of spirits and demons, a world where magical things could happen.  She also had a great love of horror films, and she would bring my brother and me to every scary movie that came to our local theater.  I spent much of my childhood screaming at the movies.  Horror movies taught me that when you turn over a rock, something terrifying would probably crawl out.  If you unlocked a forbidden door, you’d almost certainly find a monster on the other side.  Eventually, though, I became a skeptic of all things supernatural. I studied science and became a physician.  But I have never lost my appreciation for the bizarre and the creepy  – in particular, the creepy aspects of science.  Over the years, I’ve collected a file of weird scientific facts, facts that remind us that Mother Nature is one very scary lady.  In the natural world of thrills and chills, you will find most of the lessons you’ll ever need to navigate through life.  I now present you with some items from my file of creepy facts, and I hope you’ll find them relevant to your own lives.

 Creepy fact number one: In the Amazon, there is a species of tiny catfish known as the Candiru. It’s an inch long, translucent and needle thin, so it’s almost invisible to the human eye.  Like other catfish, it has razor-sharp dorsal spines, which it can extend or fold back at will.  It lives a parasitic existence burrowed in the gills of other fish, and it finds its way to its host by following the scent of urea.  Now let’s say you are a man who decides to take a swim in the Amazon River.  And while you’re swimming, you feel the inconvenient need to empty your bladder.  You’re underwater anyway, so you pee.  The little candiru fish smells the urea in your urine and follows it back toward its source.  Once it finds itself in a nice, warm, cozy little passage, it extends its spines and lodges there, most obstinately, causing its human host to react with blood-curdling screams of a most unmanly nature.  A case of urethral Candiru is one of the rare conditions in which the patient may beg for a penile amputation.

  Now, what’s the lesson this little catfish can teach us about life?  First, be careful where you swim.  If you swim with sharks or piranhas, you know what might happen.  You know you can’t trust them.  Likewise, don’t swim with sneaky little fish that may stab you with their razor-sharp spines when you’re not looking.  Don’t hang out with these creatures at all, no matter how alluring or seductive they may seem.  Certainly don’t marry them.  You’re old enough to know which sort of people I’m talking about.  Choose good friends who will last, friends you can trust.  And likewise, be a true friend to them.

 The second lesson the Candiru fish can teach us is this: Be careful where you take a piss.  Don’t foul the water where you live. Don’t poison your workplace with gossip.  I work in the publishing industry, and if I were to say nasty things about an editor or agent or another writer behind her back, you can pretty much bet she will eventually hear it.  It’s the same for any other business out there.  The people you piss on today will never forget it.  And the chances are, you will meet them again.

  Creepy Fact number two: Decades ago, an epidemic of a bizarre disease called kuru broke out in a tribe in New Guinea.  Victims began to laugh weirdly, and then hallucinate.  Soon their muscles were jerking, they had seizures, and invariably, they died.  What puzzled doctors was the fact that the victims were almost entirely women or children – men were not affected.  So many women were dying of it that there were twice as many men alive as women in this tribe.  No one could explain why.  The doctors worked with the blood tests and the brain biopsies and they had a thorough knowledge of medicine.  But they didn’t know enough beyond their immediate sphere of expertise.  What was killing the women of this tribe?  Only when the anthropologists arrived and began asking the right questions, the cultural questions, was the mystery solved.  What the anthropologists discovered was that the women were doing a very secret thing that the men were not.  The women were eating their dead relatives.  When a loved one died, the women performed a grief ritual that involved taking the corpse into the potato fields and cooking the body.  Then the women would consume the brains.  As a result, they caught the disease kuru.  They would die, and be eaten, and more women would catch it. 

 The obvious lesson to be learned from this creepy fact is that you shouldn’t eat your dead relatives.  But there’s also another lesson, and it’s this: When you’re trying to solve a problem, it’s important to ask the right question.  But it takes a certain amount of basic knowledge to know what that right question might be.  Those doctors knew all about medicine, but they didn’t know enough about anthropology.  They couldn’t come up with the right questions.  In your own lives, you are going to face dilemmas, in the workplace or in the voting booth.  You will have to make some educated decisions.  How will you know what questions to ask? You can start now, by becoming an information pack rat.  A collector of knowledge.  You never know when some obscure fact you learn today will be vital to you ten years from now.  If you want to collect facts, you have to be exposed to them, and you won’t get them from watching American Idol. From this day forward, every single day of your life, you must read a newspaper.  It can be any newspaper, as long as it covers both national and international news.  Maybe you think a subscription is too expensive at this stage in your lives.  Your parents can give you one more graduation gift: a subscription to the Bangor Daily News or the Boston Globe or the New York Times.  Don’t just read the sports page and throw out the rest.  No, you should read, from front to back, at least the A section of the newspaper. Force yourself. For the first few weeks, it might feel like a slog.  Does anyone really care about Ahmadinejad or Sarkozy or Vladimir Putin?  But over time, as you read, you’ll become familiar with all these names.  You’ll begin to realize that what happens in Cairo or Beijing could very well affect you.  You’ll see that the world is far more complicated than you imagined and that actions can have unintended consequences. Before you send troops into harm’s way, at least you’ll be educated enough to ask the question: what’s the difference between a Shiite and a Sunni, and does it matter?

 Creepy Fact #3: In a certain valley in Kentucky, people were coming down with a strange disease.  It was affecting both young and old alike, and it appeared that they were all suffering from a form of mad cow disease.  Except it wasn’t from cows – it was from squirrels.  These people were dying from mad squirrel disease.  In that region of Kentucky, it seems that a favorite snack among the locals is squirrel brains. When you’d visit a friend up the valley, to be neighborly, you’d bring along a sack of squirrel heads.  Your hostess would fry those heads up in a cast iron skillet, and then you’d sit around the table cracking the skulls and sucking out the tender little brains.  Yum.  But as we just learned from the epidemic of Kuru in New Guinea, eating brains is not a very wise thing to do. 

The first lesson to be learned here is culinary: be selective what you put in your mouths.  I’m the daughter of a restaurant chef, and one thing my dad taught me was this: you can enjoy only so many meals in a lifetime.  Try to make each one worthwhile.  Forget margarine and just go for butter.  Eat less, but let each bite be exquisite.  Avoid squirrel brains.

There’s a corollary lesson as well, and it’s not about food.  Be critical about what you consume from the media. Because what you put into your brain is as important as what you put into your mouths.  Whether food or information, insist on the truth.  Don’t swallow propaganda, even though it’s quick and easy to digest, the equivalent of those fast-food outlets we see on the highways.  The truth is often a lot more complicated, but like real food, worthwhile food, in the end, it’s a lot more satisfying. 

Creepy fact #4: Things that look dead really can come back to life.  This is from a news article I read a few years ago in the Boston Globe.  The story is this: in a suburb outside Boston, a young woman was discovered dead in her bathtub.  The state police were called and they found empty pill bottles beside her.  They assumed that her death was due to an accidental overdose, so they zipped her into a body bag and sent her to the morgue.  Where, a few hours later, she woke up.  As it turns out, being mistaken for dead is not all that rare a phenomenon.  I did a news search on Lexis-nexis and discovered case after case of it.  In Colorado, a child’s death certificate had just been signed when someone noticed he was breathing.  In Georgia, a young man who’d been hit by a car spent a whole night in the morgue refrigerator before someone heard him moving.  In New York City, a man was lying on the autopsy table and the pathologist was about to make the first cut when the corpse woke up and grabbed the doctor.  It was the doctor who keeled over dead, of a heart attack.

There is a lesson to be learned in these premature declarations of death.  And the lesson is: yes, sometimes, you do get a second chance at life.  Sometimes you really can live twice.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and I was a college student in California, I shared a house off-campus with four other students in the town of Palo Alto.  A student named Sally used to stop by pretty regularly, because she played tennis with one of my housemates.  Sally was a great tennis player.  All through her childhood, her dream was to play professional tennis.  She won scholarships and regional championships.  She was so good at tennis that she dropped out of college and turned pro.  But after three months on the professional tennis circuit, she came to a sad realization: She would never be good enough to reach the top.

For nearly ten years, Sally had pursued a dream, only to discover that her dream was unattainable.  She felt devastated.  Her future as a star was over.

 But this is not a story about failure.  Let’s find out what happened next to Sally.

 Realizing that she had to make a course correction in her life, she went back to college, enrolling at Stanford University, and chose to study physics.  That’s how I knew her – as “Sally in the physics program.”  At 27, while she was a PhD candidate, looking for a job in astrophysics, she read that NASA was looking for astronauts.  She applied, and out of 8,000 applicants, thirty five were accepted.  Sally was one of them.

In 1983, Dr. Sally Ride became the first American woman to be launched into outer space.  She flew on two shuttle missions, and in 1986 was preparing for her third when the shuttle Challenger exploded.  In the terrible aftermath of that tragedy, she was appointed to the commission charged with investigating the accident.  Disillusioned by what she learned, she left NASA.

You may think that this is the end of the story.  That Sally had her moment of glory and faded off into the sunset, a has-been.

In 1989, Sally went on to become Professor of Physics at the University of California.  She became president of Space.com, a space industry website.  She’s written five books and founded the company Sally Ride Science, which designs science education programs.  At the age of 56, she’s been a tennis player, an astronaut, a University professor, an author, and a business CEO.  Not to mention an American hero.

She’s the perfect example of someone who, at different stages in her life, failed, and thought her career was finished.  Then she picked herself up, and moved on to bigger and better things.  She saw the need for change and made the change – in her case, several times over.

 Maybe you’re thinking: This story is totally irrelevant to my life.  I can’t worry about how I’m going to feel when I’m thirty five.  At this moment, with your newly minted diplomas, some of you already know exactly what you want to do with your lives.  You’ve hit on the perfect career, you’ll stick with it, and it will give you a lifetime of satisfaction.  To those lucky people, I say, good for you. May reality match your dreams. 
     

But life can change, in ways you can’t predict.  What you thought was a dream job turns out to be a daily ordeal.  Or you get fired.  Or your business collapses. You’ll wake up at age 30 or 40 or 50 (some of you parents may be going through this right now) and suddenly realize that you hate your job, and you desperately want to do something different.  You want another chance.  You want another life.  I’m here to tell you that it’s not impossible.
         

The chance to have a second career is a relatively new thing in human history.  Back in the days of the Roman Empire, the human lifespan was 22 years.  If you were living back then, most of you wouldn’t be graduating today.  You’d be dead.  With a lifespan of only 22, you’d be lucky just to reproduce.  You wouldn’t live long enough to have a second career.  You’d work hard and you’d die young.
             

But today, an American newborn can expect to live to the age of 76.  That’s three times longer than people lived in ancient Rome.  The odds are, you have at least 50 years ahead of you.  You have a chance for not just one life, but two or three. 
           

Finally, I leave you to ponder Creepy Fact #5: the animal with the shortest lifespan is the aquatic gastrotrich.  It lives only three days.  Only three days to accomplish everything it needs to do in a lifetime. 
           

You, on the other hand, have fifty years ahead of you.  That may seem like a long time right now, but it isn’t.  I’m a gardener, and we gardeners know that we’re allotted only a limited number of spring plantings in our lives, only a certain number of seasons to try out new plants.  So here’s the final lesson from my creepy facts file, a lesson brought to you courtesy of the pitifully short-lived gastrotrich: Don’t waste a single planting season.  Plant the seeds of your future now by nurturing every interest, every hobby.  And always have something new growing, something you’ve never tried to grow before.  Because you never know.  It could end up being the most beautiful plant in your garden.
           

Congratulations, graduates.  Now go out and start planting.
 
 

21 replies
  1. joe bernstein
    joe bernstein says:

    gee-i wish you’d spoken at my daughter’s commencement-we got stuck with a windy little politician

  2. Larry Willis
    Larry Willis says:

    Tess,

    Excellent view on life with some great laughs to boot. I am never, ever swimming in the Amazon. 🙂 I cut and pasted your adreess and sent it to my daughters.

    Thanks!

  3. Craig
    Craig says:

    My wife and I both had windy creatures at our graduations but my wife got an added attraction at hers–a streaker. Not totally nude, mind you–he wore a football helmet and track shoes. Made the rest of it almost tolerable.

  4. John
    John says:

    What is it about this windy politician? – he attended my Graduation too.(assuming of course there’s not more than 1 of him)
    Tess, a really thoughtful, witty AND inspiring speech. Well done

  5. Jude Hardin
    Jude Hardin says:

    Excellent speech, Tess. Those grads were lucky to have you there. Your presence and wisdom will be something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

  6. cmw
    cmw says:

    Saturday, I watched my daughter graduate with a degree in Anthropology. The grad speaker there was gung-ho businessman whose point was — use your God-given skills to make a lot of mone, but don’t forget the little people you meet on the way.

    At least his speech was short.

    I emailed her yours.

  7. Rose-Marie
    Rose-Marie says:

    Out of my three degrees I’ve been to just one of my own graduation ceremonies. I don’t remember who spoke or what he (I think it was a he) said. Your speech I would remember. Good job.

  8. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    Hey Tess!

    Excellent speech! What are you doing next year at the beginning of May?! I’m sure everyone at Northeastern (including me!) would love to have you!! 🙂

    Did you enjoy watching all of the men in the audience squirm?

  9. Ali M
    Ali M says:

    Wow, how inspiring! I’m graduating university this summer and this post couldn’t come at a better time for me (I’m in the middle of my final exams)! The actual speaker will have a lot to live up to!

  10. struggler
    struggler says:

    Fantastic speech Tess, and yes I must confess to being one of those people who woke up at age 30 or 40 or 50 (I’m a quinquagenarian, for the record) and suddenly realized that I hated my job, and I desperately wanted to do something different. I want another chance, another life. ‘Listening’ to your speech is a timely kick up the butt that tells me that only I can make it happen and if I believe in myself with the passion that successful people like Sally has, then I’ve got a half-decent chance.

    That was a great speech, wish I’d been there to hear it.

  11. JanetK
    JanetK says:

    “The people you piss on today will never forget it. And the chances are, you will meet them again.”

    I think every graduation speaker at every graduation in the country should be required to repeat this! If any of those kids take your words to heart, they got their money’s worth out of their college education.

  12. Kyle K.
    Kyle K. says:

    I just saw “The Bone Garden” on the Random House website and was confused… Until I realized that it was a preorder for September… Oops!

  13. WJS
    WJS says:

    Extremely well pointed-out speech. I truly enjoy it! I would be extremely honored for you to come to do a speech in 2009 at University of North Florida, where I go. 😀 -Josh S.

  14. amandalouise
    amandalouise says:

    Thank you so much for speaking at our graduation. I was among the graduates in the morning session at the University of Maine, but I stayed for the second ceremony for a friend who graduated. I was amazed by your speech and wished you could’ve spoken to us in the morning as well! I will certainly remember these words and take them with me in life. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us! And I hadn’t read your books until after the speech, and if I had before I certainly would’ve tried to meet with you! You are a fantastic writer and I’m going through your books so fast I’m sure I’ll be done them all before your new one in September! Thanks again, and keep writing!

  15. BA
    BA says:

    Your best writing ever – and I am your biggest fan! Wait – need more tissues – gotta go.

  16. Annmarie
    Annmarie says:

    I have to say that i really love your Commencement speech! I am a sophomore in high school and last year i joined the Speech Club which has different types of categories to join in. I am in the category Declamation which is choosing and memorizing a speech that must be at least 10 minutes long. I searched through my coach’s pile of speeches and i chose yours! I absolutely love this speech! i couldn’t wait to start. i admire everything you said to those graudates and i am so grateful to present this speech! It was so hard because this speech was 22 minutes long and i didnt want to cut your great words but we made it possible because i really wanted to use this speech for this season’s competition! I wanted to Thank You and say that this speech was one of a kind and a “never forget this” type of speech! You spoke perfectly and i can imagine how you persuaded the audience-i hope i am as good as you!
    Sincerely
    Annmarie

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