Monday, August 23, 2010

53 Things to Know, Do or Not Do at a Small Liberal Arts College,
Part I

About a billion years ago, when I was just a week away from moving to college, I received a thick manila envelope in the mail. Inside it, I found a sheaf of xeroxed papers that had been put through a two-hole punch and bound with yarn. Its cover had flowery lettering on it, like it had been drawn by a girl who had a ballpoint pen and a tendency to dot her I's with little leaves. It had a completely sincere name that, despite the airy and feminine script, seemed daunting and terribly important: "The Secrets of the Universe."

The school — New College of Florida — was a culturally unique one, and its very active student body had decided to share an unofficial guide with incoming students, as a kind of complement to the official literature we all received. At the time it was heartening to get, if a bit overwhelming. Here was the skinny on everything the adults wouldn't tell us; these were the things we'd need to know on Day One to get the most out of our expensive educations.

Just weeks into the semester, though, it already seemed goofy and misguided, the classic Bad Idea project that happens when too many hippies form their own committee. Some of the information was obviously years out of date. Despite a table of contents and ostensibly some form of organization, different entries, written by several people, repeated themselves, contradicted each other and namedropped people and things with enough vagueness that the reader would have to experience the things they were being warned about to be able to even understand what the warnings meant.

A few years less than a billion years ago, as I was on my way out of the school, an enterprising person I know named Michael Shannon decided that it was time to scrap "Secrets of the Universe" and begin again. For starters, he had the very wise idea to put himself in charge, commission different pieces from different writers and organize the entire thing with the accountability and centrality of a dictator's perspective. Somehow I got drafted into writing a comprehensive advice column for the piece. I believe there was some flattery involved, but Michael had also noted that my old writing partner and I had, in the past, periodically included these impromptu advice columns, like, "25 Things Your RA's Aren't Telling You," in our terrible 'zines.

I forgot about it after a few months, but I was delighted years later to find out that people were still using it. I think parts of it wound up lacquered onto the wall of a public bathroom on campus — although that might have been something else I wrote. Then I forgot about it again until I found myself playing host to two 18-year-old cousins who stopped by my house on their way to their first year of college in a state they'd never been to before. As I drove them around town and visited their campus, I realized that some of the idle bits of advice I was passing on were almost direct quotes from this thing I'd written while drinking a 12-pack of beer so long ago that they've redesigned the cans three times since then. If anything, this suggested a kind of staying power.

I noodled around my hard drive until I found the piece and was surprised by how well it held up. Some of the references were hopelessly dated and needed tweaking. Other things were conspicuous for their absence: there was no such thing as a "social networking" website when it was written. But on the whole, it still seemed to work. Just to be sure, I sent a copy on to a few people. I felt relieved when they liked most of it, and it seemed like a good idea to update it for a new group of students. A lot of readers of this website are high school or college kids, and it's currently back-to-school season, so it seems like a timely thing to trot out again.

I apologize to those attending most massive institutions. I don't know why people do this, and much of what I tell you may not apply. I visited friends who went to schools with tens of thousands of people, and every one of them seemed miserable until they got old enough to buy beer, whiling away 18-21 with a bong and reruns of comedy shows, existences circumscribed by classes and apartment complexes with nothing in between, trapped in a series of horrible relationships because the girl was there, and at least loathing each other was something to do. My only advice is to transfer or to be such a good student that after graduation you can afford to live in a really cool part of Boston or Brooklyn and finally have something like the social life you've been denied. That said, there are exceptions to every rule. UC Berkeley felt like a west coast satellite campus of my school, and walking down the street there in summer, alumni would see me on the street, shout out my name and run over to me. Most states probably have an exceptional large school like this — UT Austin, UW Madison, etc. — so with luck this list will help you too.

Although this list has 53 items, it could just as easily have been less. Some things could have been folded in together, and some are obviously more comical than serious. Moreover, it's not intended to be comprehensive. I'm sure readers will think of dozens more bits of advice, and they're welcome to share them in the comments section. Many of the things to "know, do or not do" are negative or written from a negative perspective, which isn't reflective of my attitude about college. The fact is that everyone else, from school administration to parents, is busy telling new students about the thrills of learning, the glories of diversity, the wondrous experiment that is self-discovery. That narrative already gets pushed forcefully and from many precincts, so the necessity of my doing so here is nil. College was great; trust that my not affirming that here owes everything to how strongly that opinion can be found almost everywhere else.

However, even the best colleges present students with stupid hassles, and even the smartest kids could be happier or have a nicer time if they were given a heads up about some of them. Just as importantly, even the sharpest and most mature guy coming out of high school is still saddled with blindness afforded by both narcissism and inexperience. The nicest guy you know probably was sort of an accidental dick in his first semester. These things just happen.

Lastly, at the risk of offending the delicate sensibilities of the many readers who are even now outraged by the flagrant sincerity and earnestness of this article, I have two more pieces of advice that are not contained in the list below. One, your substance abuse will never be as romantic or beautiful as it is in your own mind. Two, with the exception of a few robotic people, almost everybody — doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, successes of all stripes — looks back on college and says the same thing: "I wish I'd gotten more out of it." Put down the bottle or the bong more often, and take an extra class. It might ruin your early mornings or spoil a few hazy Sunday afternoons, but you'll probably feel better about it for the rest of your life.

Things to Know, Do or Not Do at a Small Liberal Arts College, #1-10
1. Subscribe to a newspaper. For one thing, it's the Fourth Estate. It provides a public service, and it needs help right now. For another, if you're in a large city you might be able to hoof it every day for a free daily tabloid handed out by the local paper to tap the youth market. Failing that, a Sunday-only or a Thursday-Sunday subscription is not very expensive. You should do this, because the fact is that you're going to disappear into The Bubble. You think you won't, but unless you're the sort of person who goofs off from schoolwork by reading a bunch of news RSS feeds, your perception of the universe is going to contract from (probably) a default boorish nationalism, shrink within state borders and then finally come to rest at the width of whatever cosmic pinprick can encapsulate a dorm, dining hall, five classrooms and someone else's nude body. No matter your noble protestations about expanding your consciousness to appreciate the world around you, the world will shrink to the tiny orbits of your own immediate concerns without an effort to stop it. (Really. I know people who were living in Tallahassee in 2000 and somehow did not realize that there were massive public demonstrations about the Bush/Gore recount. This was only the most important event in American electoral politics in at least 30 years, but, you know, they were busy having fights with their stupid boyfriends, or they'd found a connection with this primo weed. Whatever.) RSS feeds and the internet probably won't cut it. They're ethereal, so there's no reproach there. A stack of newsprint you've ignored makes you feel like a jerk. Also, people like newspapers. Friends will sit down and read them when they drop by. You can do crosswords together. Also, I've got three words for you: cheap wrapping paper.

2. Don't get into a relationship for a few weeks. You are going to meet many more people than you expect; you'll be making new friends in the last two weeks of the year. Don't hop into something too soon, because the fact is that you just don't know what's out there. Besides, it won't do much for your reputation to break someone's heart in the second week, only to be seen the next day with someone new.
2.a. Corollary: Once in that relationship, do not invite your significant other home for fall break. It's too soon. Plus, you'll have a lot more questions to answer when you show up for spring break with someone else entirely — who, depending on your college experience, may be a different gender entirely.
3. Make good friends and then try to stay away from them. Nothing is more common than seeing first-years travelling in packs to ward off feeling awkward and overwhelmed. This inculcates in the minds of others two things:
a. I can't approach that person because they are surrounded by others.
b. I don't want to approach that person because of the others by whom they are surrounded.
Look at it this way, if they are good friends, they will be interested in meeting the new people you have discovered. Exclusivity and cliquishness don't make them better friends; they just make your attention to them less divided.

4. The majority of your second year and part of your third year will be spent watching yourself irretrievably drifting away from (or consciously avoiding) many of the friends you made your first year. There are some exceptions, but remember: you are going to be a very different person in October of this year. God knows what hideous mess you will be next October.

5. Try to befriend older students. Their barbituate- or Thunderbird-inspired ravings may save your ass a lot of embarassment or time. Learning from your own mistakes is crucial, but learning from others is a lot easier and usually involves degrading anecdotes.

6. Chat with the campus police; remember their names. Campus cops are often retired real police, and they probably have a more profound understanding of the ugly parts of the human animal than you do, no matter what depths your art collective might be plumbing this week. Many of them may be friends with older students who've been chatting with them a while, and they can also be your friends, too, if you don't act like a yuppie fuck or a dipshit hobbyist revolutionary. It may seem like a needless social obligation, but the moment you've screwed up, you're going to feel like an asshole when you don't know the name of one of 20 people who can make your problem disappear (and who probably already knows your name and what you do for fun).
6.a. Corollary: No officials care what kind of drugs you do. They do care how you do them. Don't lose your mind on any drug and go outside, as you might end up sent temporarily to a mental institution or prosecuted.
6.b. Clarification: If no official sees it, it doesn't exist. Close your damn door and keep the bong out of sight. If you’re underage, don't press your luck. You're probably exempt from all kinds of possession and open-container enforcement, and you save everyone a lot of headaches if you just pour your goddamned beer into a mug and put the mug down when the cops come a-patrollin'.
7. There are always two or three little Napoleons on the campus police force who are career security and have no perspective on the "dangers" of their jobs or the insignificance of most campus crimes. Do not piss these people off; they don't have enough to do that they can't afford to give you lots of extra attention. More importantly, don't get them fired, because they can always be replaced with two more just like them.

8. Do drugs wisely and give it some time. You have a full four years to go through a Fat Elvis/Bukowski period. Drunk as fuck in a strange place is not a good time to try new drugs. Go into it with a clear head and someone who's done it before and won't let you end up wandering the campus singing the Saved By the Bell theme with your pants on your head like a turban. You can do that next year. Right now you don't want to end up making bigger mistakes that are harder to live down or live with. Doing your first gravity bong hit while already drunk and having never had more than half a joint of stems and seeds is dumb as hell and may not be safe for a variety of reasons. A friend of mine who was in college when Baked Lay's potato chips came out once had this conversation with a girl he knew:
GIRL: What are you eating?
FRIEND: Baked Lay's.
GIRL: Oh, I didn't know you could get first-years in bags now.
These were both nice people. But if you don't think that they went window-shopping during orientation week looking for pretty things liable to make bad decisions with their tight bodies, you're kidding yourself. Every older student not in a relationship, with another person or Jesus Christ, does this.

9. If you don't lose track of 75% of the people you know from high school, you are doing something wrong. If you have time to text, email, Facebook and call people from high school on a daily basis, you are doing something wrong. There's a reason why we lose track of people in life, and that's because we replace them with better/smarter/prettier people or just those with whom we have more relevant relationships. If you're hundreds or thousands of miles away and either you or a high school buddy have time to keep up with each other in exquisite detail, there's a small chance you're going to be friends forever and an even bigger chance that one of you doesn't have a fully functional social life wherever you are. If you're really best buddies forever, you're still going to be so after not chatting for two weeks. People who really care about you care about seeing you expand your horizons anyway.

10. Almost nobody wants to hear mainstream country music. Well, the people really committed to buying into all media aspects of pot culture will dig on some Willy Nelson. And the hip kids will talk your ear off about Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline — "The Country Musicians Jaded Aesthetes Can All Agree On!™" But most people will never want to hear it when you do. Much like watching Ilsa the She-Wolf of the S.S., there is a time and a place for everything, and usually that place is well-insulated and private. If you're the sort of person committed to getting 'faced and listening to "She Thinks My Tractor's Sexy" and sharing that with other people, you might as well just own the gimmick and buy some boots and a big fuckheaded hat and just dare anybody to step up to your worldview.

Continued in Part II.