Among the digital pile of half-assed papers I’ve written for my classes at Penn, I have one titled “Animal Liberation: Not Later, But Right Meow” from a philosophy class. I went to see the class TA during office hours after he graded it, since we all had to go through mandatory meetings to discuss our papers.
The Dude, my TA, was twenty-five, played soccer at Rice University during his undergraduate career, and resembled a younger version of a certain protagonist from The Big Lebowski in his appearance. He held his office hours inside a small, closet room on the fourth floor of Claudia Cohen Hall, so I could smell the musk radiating from his shirt. Even though we were inside, The Dude wore sunglasses.
“So, uh, you’re Haaaaaaans, right?” The Dude stared at his laptop in front of him, an old, white Mac – the kind where the edges were round and looked all cutesie – and he tapped the floor with his flip-flop. “You wrote… oh, riiiiight, this one, ‘Animal Liberation: Not Later, But Right… Meow.” He snorted and looked at me. I scratched my nose. “Riiiiiiight, so, uh, Haaaaaaans… Can I ask you a question? Or, actually, two questions?”
“Sure. Of course. Um, please.” I garbled.
“Uh, so, the first one is, ‘You’re a freshman, yeah?’” I told him I was.
“Okaaaaaay, well, the second one is, ‘Dude, what the… fuck are you doing?’” There was an awkward pause. I looked at him, and then over my shoulders, and finally back at him. He raised his shoulders and turned over his palms to say, “Well?” I didn’t have a response, except maybe some redness rushing to my face.
The meeting went downhill from there. According to The Dude, even Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder would have seen that this paper was half-assed within the first couple of paragraphs, from the lazy spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, logical fallacies, incoherent fragments, disjointed arguments, and block quotes after block quotes. The Dude, picking away at his goatee and running his hand through unkept locks, let out a sigh. I let out an exasperated gurgle.
“Haaaaans, look, let me give you a pro tip, dude: you’re in college now, and you gotta take a look at yourself and what you’re doing, like in this paper. It’s lazy. It’s half-assed. It’s got no direction, really. It reeks of someone who just is going through the motions, who doesn’t care what he’s doing in his class. Dude, you gotta seriously ask yourself, ‘What in the flying fuck of the purple spaghetti monster am I doing with my life?’ Because mommy ain’t here to hold your hand anymore, man.” Drenched in sweat unrelated to the mustiness of the room, I nodded.
He then leaned back in his chair, tilted his head sideways, and began giving me suggestions on how I could improve the paper. He emphasized conciseness, instructing I cut the fluff that clogged the sentences from flowing, and he pointed out ways in which I could fill the logical jumps in my argument. His tone didn’t waver throughout the entire time we sat in that closet room, and he concluded our meeting by saying that he looked forward to my next paper. I thanked him upon leaving and, standing on the crosswalk of 36th and Walnut on my way back to my dorm, asked myself silently what in the flying fuck of the purple spaghetti monster I was doing with my life. I walked onto the crosswalk without noticing that the light was still red, and a red SUV whizzed by in front of me.
“How about you get the fuck out of the fucking way!” the polite driver shouted, poking his head out of his window and looking back at me.
Fast-forward two years and some change, and The Dude’s question has only gotten more difficult and frequent, kind of like my experience with getting rejected by women. Most recently, a friend asked me last Thursday, “So, now that you’re graduating, what do you want to do with your life?”. As someone who has a hard time deciding whether he wants a green-tea mochi or blueberry-yogurt popsicle at the 44th Street Pop Shop, I found the question jaw-clenching and nervous-ums inducing.
I was able to stumble my way through an explanation of my plan of applying for the Peace Corps and going through the process of becoming a US diplomat to her. I even mentioned how I want to continue to write, eliciting the ho-hum of approval. Regardless, I felt unnerved enough to posit the question to my dad the next evening.
“Dad,” I asked, “What am I doing with my life? And what do I wanna do with my life?”
“Um. Good evening?”
“Oh. Right. How’re you doing, Dad?” He laughed, told me he could be doing better, could be doing worse, and went back to my question. I explained what had prompted my SOS call to him, which caused him to go silent for half a minute.
“Son,” he began, breaking the lull, “I don’t know. You’re at that age, where, you know (and it’s been like this for a while now, of course), I can’t really tell you what you’re doing with your life or what you want.” I agreed that that ship had sailed, found natives, wiped them off, and named sports teams after them. “But I can tell you something, and maybe you can work off of that.”
“What’s that, Dad?”
“I’m really looking forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks, and I’m excited to be at the graduation, and I’m gonna be happier than a pig in mud grabbing a beer with you afterwards. And beforehand. Hell, maybe during the damn thing, too.” I smiled.
“And when we’re sitting together enjoying each other’s company, somewhere in Philly, maybe around Penn, maybe downtown, with a glass in front of me and a glass in front of you – shoot, Son. It’ll be a good time. And, you know, when that time comes, I sure won’t be thinking about what I’m doing, or what I want to be doing.” He fell silent. We chatted for five more minutes before hanging up.
I mulled on what he said, and I came to the conclusion that, I wouldn’t be thinking about those questions in that situation, either.