I hated the undergrad admissions essay for Penn. It was of an ilk
whose sole purpose and intent seems to be simply to bedevil seniors
into spiraling fits of self-doubt: Choose one person from all the persons
in the world past and present to spend an evening with and explain why.
I knew it was the kind of essay to which
there were no right answers, but there were
definitely very wrong answers, which meant
that in the end there did in fact have to be right answers.
Maybe I just wasn’t very curious at the time,
but there really weren’t any acceptable people I desperately
wanted to spend an evening with just talking, as opposed to someone
like Miss December – and we wouldn’t have been talking -
and that would have definitely been a wrong answer. Jesus?
Ghandi? Martin Luther King? Mother Teresa? Yeah. I guess
I could lie and write something reasonably cogent, but I have this
fatal character flaw where I refuse to lie out in the real world.
I had two people that would have been more honest. One was Hitler.
”I would like to spend an evening with Adolph Hitler
and do what von Stauffenberg and all the other plotters
before and after him had failed to accomplish.”
But Hitler always seems like a wrong answer. In part because,
well, it’s Hitler. But in another sense, offing him,
while it would have alleviated so much senseless misery and loss and heartache
and the type of pure evil the world hopefully never sees again
in a way would have alleviated me, since without WWII, my father
wouldn’t have joined the Marines three days after graduation
from high school and set into motion the series of events that
placed him at the fateful wedding of a friend and by chance
had him somehow sit in a piece of cake that stuck to the seat
of his pants that was spied by a young librarian who looked as
beautiful as any 1940′s Hollywood starlet, who stopped him
and dabbed a napkin into water and removed the icing
and with that little act of caring started a love between two people that lasts
until this day 60 years later, with me having shown up somewhere
along the way. What Ivy league aspirant can’t see that killing Hitler would be
an act of self-negation because even if my father still managed
to be at my mother’s cousin’s wedding, my clipping of that mad dictator’s wings
might have moved the cake three inches to the left or right, and he would
have never sat in it. Surely the Admissions committee would see this and say that
my essay showed me to be just your run-of-the-mill romantic, incapable of
thinking things through to their logical conclusion. So I never wrote the Hitler essay.
If I had to be totally, totally honest, there was one person I would
have liked to spend an evening with back then. But he was so obscure
and self-indulgent that I knew he was another wrong answer.
The gist of that essay would have been, “I’d like to spend an evening
with Bob Mould, frontman for the Minneapolis-based punk trio
Husker Du because the first time I heard his guitar work on ‘Real World’
something snapped in me, and I knew that I needed to give up keyboards
and play guitar. Only I never could figure out the exact way he played that
particular riff and for some reason I can’t really explain, being able to play
that riff is very important to me, and I’d like to have him show me his secrets, as frankly,
I’m considering not being a lawyer and would rather just play in a band.”
That would have sunk me. In the end I never applied to Penn – or Swarthmore -
because the essays were frankly far too much bullshit to be bothered with.
I later applied to a certain grad school over at Penn where the essays were a lot easier,
but now I have this fancy Ivy league degree that only confuses me even more.
And it’s sad now that all of those gut-wrenching nights with me thinking in circles
about the one person I’d like to spend an evening with are long passed,
I finally have one person in mind who I’d give the world to spend
an evening with. And what makes it even sadder is that fact
that I don’t have to give the world. I could spend an evening with him any time I
want to. It’s just a short drive to Jersey. Is that so hard? I can do it
every single night, but I don’t. Because the drive isn’t hard. It’s the person there,
who’s there, but not there, but still the same person, but not at all.
Maybe it’s because I’m as weak as my mother is strong.
And it’s sad the way some things in life circle back on themselves.
My mother meets the man she spends the next 60 years of her life with
through this little act of caring that opens the world wide open and
now alone in one-story rancher performs the acts of caring that are
leading inevitably to a close. And there’s nothing anyone can do.
I have that essay now that it no longer matters, and I have my wish now that
it’s far too late, now that the once possible is now so far past possible.
“I’d like to spend an evening with my father, back when he was himself
and bring a recorder and a big stack of cassettes and ask him to tell me
everything he ever told me and ask him everything I still don’t know. And if it
would it be OK, I’d really like it if our evening could go on into the next day.”