Monday, December 09, 1996

AUC: Zen of the last cookie

[Originally published in the Long Beach Union (student paper at Long Beach State), in my bi-weekly column called...]
Another Useless Column

The killer awoke before dawn. He put his boots on, and he walked on down the hall. And he came to Long Beach State.

After 19 generally inglorious semesters at this institution, the warden is about to open the gate. I've apparently been rehabilitated. I am ready to be re-assimilated into society.

To adapt an old Robin Williams line: "Graduation. What a concept."

I've seen a great many things over the past decade. I remember when there was a big vacant lot where The Pyramid now stands. I remember when there was 49er football (much as we all try to forget). I remember when the Red Hot Chili Peppers played the Student Union. Believe it or not, I remember when you could get Coke and Pepsi on campus. Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again. Those were the days.

Over the years, I've often longed to get away from taking exams and writing papers and pretending I understand deconstructionism. Many times I nearly dropped out, but something kept me coming to class. Perhaps fear of someday hearing the phrase, "We'd like to give you the promotion, Doug, but…." Perhaps because Calvin Klein never asked me to model for him in my underwear.

Now, as it all draws to a close, I feel like I've just learned that I ate some poisonous blowfish while Bart and Lisa sing karaoke versions of the theme from Shaft, and I have only 24 hours to live. Actually, only 22, after Dr. Hibbert kept me waiting. Now I have less than a day, metaphorically speaking, to summon a last hurrah to culminate the academic period of my life, to experience those things only afforded me in college life, those things I should have done long ago. Whatever those things are.

Working nearly full time for much of my university years, I didn't attend college as much drop by occasionally. I scheduled classes to best facilitate jobs, only being on campus long enough to walk to class, sit through class, and walk back to my car. During these last few semesters, however, when I have actually hung out on campus, met a lot more people, and written for this rag, I've realized there's more in life than work and school, work and school. There's beer!

College is something of a metaphor for life. You can go through the motions, or you can try to make something of it. You can experience it, or you can observe it. You can dream the impossible dream, or you can pick the lint out of your navel. Or dream of picking the lint out of your navel.

Comedian Rick Reynolds spoke of what he calls "the Zen of the last cookie." Whenever he eats cookies, he particularly savors the last one, really appreciating it. But once, he reached for the last cookie and it was gone, denying him that "last cookie enjoyment." Thus he came to the conclusion that he should eat every cookie as though it were the last cookie. Not a new concept, of course, but nonetheless a good philosophy.

Like Ferris Bueller said, "Life goes pretty fast; if you don't stop and look around every once in a while, you just might miss it."

I went through the motions too long; I thoughtlessly ate my cookies, and now regard the last one. At least I'm relishing the metaphoric 10 minutes of sleep after hitting the snooze button, even if I ignored the previous eight hours. (I'll be joining Analogies Anonymous after graduation.)

I agree with Jim Morrison: this is the strangest life I've ever known. That's what I like about it.

Sure, I'll fritter away plenty of time in years to come. But hopefully I'll be able to suck some of the marrow out of life. Trite but true: Life is the moments, life is the journey. So as life lies sprawled before me, I think of the last words of a couple of my heroes, Calvin and Hobbes: "Let's go exploring." Yes.

Doug would like to thank everybody who ever read the Useless Column. If he made just one person laugh, or think, or at least forget about his/her problems for a moment, well, then he wishes he'd made a lot more people laugh or think or forget their wretched lives, so maybe he could one day get paid to write like this.

Monday, December 02, 1996

AUC: Feeding the pigeonhole

[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.