Advice for a porcupine

Off the Beat

It’s summer 2010, and I am a total preteen jerk. My mother and I spend the morning of my last day of the sixth grade arguing in the car, parked along the side of some pristinely beautiful Los Altos street. Spring has sprung and the sun is shining, and I am whining my head off — I’m what my mom likes to call “prickly.”

I complain and grumble — no, I don’t want her to come to the uniform swap, and no, I don’t want to stay at home after school, and no, she doesn’t understand that I’m a whole 12 years old and that I’m always right and that she is majorly inconveniencing me. My whole life is a crisis, and my mom just doesn’t get it.

My mom looks at me, obviously annoyed, and says, “Just be nice.”

There was probably more to the conversation, but that’s the part that sticks out; it’s cropped up over and over. That afternoon, upon picking me up from school, she scrawls on the back collar of my T-shirt amid end-of-the-year notes from my friends — ”Be nice.” A couple years later, for my birthday, I receive a tropical metal sign that promptly goes up on my bedroom door — ”Be nice or leave.” Even now, it still comes back up in birthday cards and on postcards — ”Love you, and be nice.”

And yet, I wouldn’t say that I’m nice. I’m too quick to crack a joke, I speak before I think, and I have a habit of bopping people on the head with whatever happens to be in my hands. I tried as best as I could, but I never quite reached “nice” — so maybe all that I really got from these words being hammered into my head throughout my formative years was that every now and then, my mom gives pretty good advice.

And that’s why the last time my life felt like it was truly and completely falling apart, the series of steps was logical: I lay down on my bed, I cried, and I called my mom.

I don’t think I want to be a doctor anymore, I tell her, and I don’t know what to do. I loved my history class, and I hate organic chemistry, and the thing I look forward to most is spending 10 hours a day in the newspaper office, not scoping out research opportunities. No matter what I say when I introduce myself to people, I’m probably not pre-med anymore. I had the perfect life planned out for myself — visible in my color-coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet entitled “Life Plan” — and it was all coming apart at the seams.

My mom pauses on the other end of the line, obviously baffled as to where all of this is coming from. She asks me if I can’t just try doing both, and she reminds me that I have time to decide. And none of it makes me feel any better.

My whole life is a crisis, and my mom just doesn’t get it.

So I continue to wallow there in my existential dread, and as per usual, I get a little prickly. But I go a different route than my 12-year-old self; I shut down and get wrapped up in my head, offering little more than monosyllabic replies.

And my mom sighs and says, “Just be nice.”

Then, she goes on to essentially paraphrase what Ms. Frizzle from “The Magic School Bus” — another science-loving lady with crazy hair, just like her — always said: “Take chances, make mistakes, get messy.” It’ll work out in the end.

And that’s when it hits me — to my mom, it was never about me being a doctor or a straight-A student or the overachiever that I’d ended up becoming. She’d been saying it for eight years: What she wanted was for me to be a good person.

So once again, I try to take her advice, and maybe this time I do it a little better.

I branch out in The Daily Californian, and I join a campus lab, even though I only last for four weeks before quitting. I plan my schedule around a history minor, but I keep biochemistry there too, just in case. I go back to that “Life Plan” spreadsheet and update it with all of my biology classes and local research opportunities, but I bookmark journalism internships when I see them. I have no idea what I’m going to do, but I’m rolling with it.

Going back to my mom’s first piece of advice, I try to be good, not great. I hold my tongue, and I’m slower to judge, and as far as being prickly goes, I’m becoming less of a porcupine.

And every now and then, when I have time, I give my mom a call — yes, classes are fine, and yes, work is fun, and yes, I’m being nice.

My mom is not a perfect person, and neither am I — not by a long shot — and sometimes neither of us knows what to do. But in the end, it might not be about being perfect, just as long as you’re nice.


“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.