[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column
Ever since I was a kid, people have been asking me: How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop? I wanted to be asked something easy, like what I wanted to be when I grew up.
Eventually they asked me that, too. And kept asking. Then I came to college, and the question shifted to what was I going to do with my degree? (And allow me to state for the record that there is more one can do with an English degree than just teach. There are plenty of openings in the food-service industry, for example.)
Like comedienne Paula Poundstone once joked, adults perpetually ask kids what they want to be when they grow up because they're looking for ideas themselves.
When I was a kid, I thought I knew. Well, at least I didn't have to worry if what I wanted to be would earn enough to live on, or whether I could actually make it in said field despite fierce competition. Theoretical life is so much simpler. That's why we live there as much as possible.
So-called two-dimensional thinking, where everything is black or white, prevails. We prefer things to be concrete, and understandable at a glance. The guy in the black hat is the bad guy. Or the white sheet. Categorization: that's just how our minds work. Or fail to work, as the case may be.
Me, I like the gray. Sure, I jump to conclusions just like everyone, but remind myself that nothing is so cut-and-dried that it can be summed up in a few words. Except maybe John Tesh.
So in this here Useless Column, I sometimes employ sarcasm. But some people don't get it. Or else, some people think I'm always being sarcastic. Still other people wonder what Tom Brokaw looks like naked. Now, I'm not complaining: I knew the ploy was dangerous (and open to alternate interpretations) when I used it. Still, can't I be sincere sometimes and sarcastic other times?
Yeah, sure. And as they say, monkeys might rapidly emerge from my posterior. I just hope I'm not wearing expensive pants at the time.
But back to The Question. As I stand on the precipice of graduation, the time left to come up with an answer quickly dwindles away.
What's the big deal? Well, the unfortunate truth is one's role in society is defined by one's occupation. I'm reminded of a line by another comedian, Rick Reynolds: "If I was killed tonight, the papers would read, 'Comedian dies in pool of blood.' That's how you're viewed in society, what your job is. You never see the headline, 'Snappy dresser dies in pool of blood.'"
Consider the introduction in Jeopardy: a contestant may be a "quantum physicist," "certified public accountant," or "trial attorney," but never "really fun at parties," which seems a much more apt descriptive of an individual's personality.
But do we really want to know an individual? Not somebody who's smart enough to be on Jeopardy, that's for damn sure.
If society is going to label and pigeonhole me, I'd at least like it to be for what I am, not merely what I do. The Question is what do want to be?
When I was a kid, all I wanted to be was taller. That I've accomplished. But what I am, after I'm found in a pool of blood, will never fit within that headline.
So while I figure out what I want to be, I'll do what everybody does: take what I can get.
And keep asking kids The Question until I get an answer I like. Or until I figure out how many licks it takes to get to the end of a Tootsie Pop.