Every June, as I am admiring the pithy speeches full of calculated wisdom delivered by people of accomplishment to various cap-and-gown clad audiences, I have the same reaction. First I breathe a sigh of relief because I didn't have to write one. Then I am pulled into a vortex of anxiety about what I would have said if I had been asked. What exactly did I get from having attended four years of college (besides how to quickly sign up for two more years when I couldn't get a job)?
Well, one thing I learned is to roll my eyes when I hear people tell brand new high school graduates that "college will be the best four years of your life." For some of us, those years were pretty rough.
Let's start with the physiological reasons. First of all, your brain isn't finished cooking. An idea as basic to clear thinking and smart decision making as "considering the consequences" doesn't become a permanent plug-in until your frontal lobe finishes hooking up in your late 20s. It's no accident that organizations like ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the NFL are made up entirely of people from this demographic.
Although I never saw myself as a big risk-taker, when I was a college freshman in the late 60s, I had no problem jumping into a car full of strangers who stopped me on the street and asked me if I wanted to attend a new kind of religious meeting. Absolutely! Make room for me! Fortunately, it turned out to be a harmless evening of chanting. But the fact that I didn't mind heading off to an undisclosed location without telling a soul is just the kind of hairpin I was back then. Below is film of me shot sometime around 1971, smoking and drinking by the extremely flammable acetylene tanks used for welding outside the UC Berkeley art building. The joke here was that there were signs everywhere saying this behavior was forbidden. Haha! Get it?
The author in art school, filming a parody of the macho male art department structure
The good news is that life actually gets easier after graduation. So in the interest of reassuring struggling students, I offer this partial catalog of some of the many bad ideas I accumulated during my college years.
Honesty Is Not the Best Policy
Maybe it's a post-teenage reaction to all those years of gaining leverage with your parents by pretending to be someone you are not, or the result of 12 years of taking tests that make you race a clock, but by the time you get to college, you are pretty certain that the best thing you can do is let your raw feelings be known the minute you feel them. That makes them real. It's important to be authentic, right?
Well, yes and no. As it turns out, one of the biggest lessons life has to teach you is that it's possible to say, "Let me think about that and get back to you."
In college, it's not uncommon for people to over-share their feelings. It's not necessary to apply the "total honesty" template to everything. It took me much longer than it should have to learn that the answer to "How are you?" does not have to be, "Well, I thought I was getting a headache but I took two Advil and a chewable zinc, so now I'm better. But I might be getting a cold."
No. The proper answer is "fine." Period.
Also—and this is big—you will discover that unless it connects to a life threatening situation, there's not very much your partner needs to know about your sexual history or past indiscretions. In most cases, the less said the better. Honesty be damned.
Much later in life, you will realize that there's a reason why your parents wound up so "compromised." It's because when they were your age, they did the same stupid shit you are planning to do and it didn't work. That's why they made up irritating cliches like "let sleeping dogs lie."
At some point in college, some budding visionary will say to you: "I don't get why we have to wear deodorant. What could be more natural than body odor? In fact, why do we have to wear clothes? We should be allowed to take off our clothes whenever and where ever we feel like it!"
To this, you should reply: "Interesting. Get back to me after your frontal lobe finishes hooking up, and we can discuss the idea of the consequences that will result from a life lived stinky. Or naked."
Baboon males murder their rivals. Sand tiger shark mothers eat their young. Matricide, infanticide, and homicide are commonly found in nature. That means they are natural, too.
Drinking Is a Sport
Why drink at all unless you're planning to drink unlimited quantities? Isn't the only goal of drinking to get really fucked up?
Not that long ago, I was talking to my college student nephew who was suffering from a bad hangover. I said, "How much did you drink last night?" He said, "Not that much."
When asked to be specific, he added: "Like, four vodka shots. And eight beers. And a bottle of wine." To which I replied, "Actually, that is not only 'that much,' it's the clinical definition of 'that much .'"
When you are in college, people see evenings full of blacking out as a "rite of passage." If you still drink like that in your 30s, people will start to leave pamphlets at your house and want to talk to you about "your problem."
I still shudder when I remember whatever was in those monstrous jugs of purple liquid we all passed around. Or that drive I made home from a party, so drunk that not until I stopped to pay a toll on the San Francisco Bay Bridge did I realize I had come all that way with the emergency break still on. Then there was the time I was sitting at the kitchen table of my first apartment, drinking and talking about whatever, while making little sculptures out of rubber cement and setting them on fire. Yes, I managed to damage the ceiling of the kitchen. And no, I can't explain my motives to you now except to say that it seemed like a good idea to me at the time. It's almost like it's important for people that age to invent a couple of brand new ways a month to get killed or injured.
Potential is a Magical Prism
Everyone in college gets free points in "potential" just for attending. For these four special years, a brooding student who sleeps through classes and never turns in assignments can still seem like a genius or a prodigy—an embryonic Charles Bukowski or Sylvia Plath. Why? Because anyone can be anything! Who knows what will happen!
Sadly, after you graduate, the magic starts rapidly leaking out of that winsome notion. Now you only get points for what you actually do. As this begins to occur to you, the anxiety can be overwhelming.
To put it more harshly, a moody 45-year-old with a beautiful soul who is still "wasting her God-given talent" because she's too busy working at an automotive supply store is, in fact, a depressed person who works at an automotive supply store. Period. There are always exceptions, but as a general rule, if you meet someone who is full of excuses about why they have never accomplished anything they set out to do, you're probably looking at a personality disorder.
College sex is where your poorly developed ideas about spontaneity, substance abuse, and passion for its own sake unite with your sense of yourself as a sophisticate to create a perfect storm. And this was happening long before "campus rape culture" was a phrase you heard or read every day.
You may never again give a more poorly-chosen group of people a roll in the hay than you do in college. Some of them will literally turn out to be people you would avoid sitting next to on public transportation. Others you will pretend not to recognize when you run into them years later.
Sexually speaking, there's a lot of faking going on in college. The truth is that young guys barely know where anything is on a woman (which is not to imply that they necessarily know that much more after they graduate). To those neophytes, may I offer a valuable word of advice: If you suspect you don't know what you are doing, you are probably fooling no one. In that case, for God's sake, don't do it harder.
Finding the Meaning of Existence
You will never in any other period of your life have so many convoluted conversations about the meaning of existence with people who have given it so little thought or have so little experience to back up their theories.
The good news is that unless you become a " philosopher" or someone who likes to sign up for New Age retreats, you will quickly stop thinking this is a problem you need to solve after graduation.
College loans are mandatory for many. There is no question that they leave a big scar. But in some ways, it gets better because at least in your adult life, you probably will not incur that much debt that quickly without having something fancy to show your friends.
Frighteningly Random Living Situations
Living in a dorm is like agreeing to cohabit with everyone who shares your lane on the freeway. The good news is that unless you wind up in prison or sign up for a Carnival Cruise, you may never have to live with as random a group of wasters again.
The Tedium of Writing Coherently
Your college papers may be the last coherent writing you ever have to do where you will be judged and carefully critiqued on your ability to "substantiate an argument" or assimilate a piece of material. Blogging, song lyrics, poetry, political speeches, legal briefs, government policy, and literary masterpieces are just a few of the areas of post-graduate writing that will not require you to make any sense.
More good news: As far as I know, there is still no law that says you have to become a writer.
The Treachery of Being Cool
During your college years, a frightening premium is placed on having a lot of insider knowledge about transitory things. You must keep your head down and master the art of the wry but all-knowing facial expression as you commit to memory the details of the seemingly limitless list of bands, sports stars, cutting edge improv groups, comedians and cast members of SNL, comic book artists, poets, and philosophers your generation thinks are the real "game changers." You will also need to attend a lot of events in support of these things, while wearing the right kind of clothes and consuming the right kind of substances.
On the bright side, it turns out that because this is so much work, the list has no expiration date. Unwilling to waste that much time on pop culture ever again, many adults hold onto the list they learned in college for the rest of their lives.
You will never again study as hard for something you don't specifically need to know. In your real life, studying will be related to things like the DMV.
Do not make the mistake of believing that the only point of being in college is to get good grades. In fact, you will find that many of the important people you meet later—including future employers—will never ask to see your college transcripts. They will, however, expect you to actually know stuff.
This is why the biggest waste of your time is finding ways to cheat. Use your time to develop an affinity for learning.
College is a fantastic place to develop secondary and tertiary passions. Look for things that interest you outside your "requirements" because they will come in very handy later in life to help heal the wounds that come from being kicked hard in the primary passion center. That will definitely happen, no matter what you pursue. You will get knocked down in your area of expertise and have to pick yourself up again.
Secondary passions help you keep going. By caring about botany or literature or abnormal psychology, you will be better able to maintain your sense of purpose as a member of humanity.
So on balance, while your college years may not be the best four years of your life, you can definitely make them profitable if you make a point of training yourself to be excited by the learning. It's not only the greatest gift, but it's also a path to joy as you enter the more sedentary but generally happier years of greater maturity, where you can look forward to less vomiting and fewer crab-infested sex partners.
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