I wake up to the fifth alarm of 12. It’s more out of irritation — to stop the droning, electronic waterfalls — than it is to open the door and let any ray of sun into my windowless room. I slowly put my head back down when the sixth alarm starts. I groan, mildly irritated, and turn off the remaining six. I repeat this, with a devilish satisfaction that the others won’t ring this time. But now I can’t fall asleep because the guilt has started its morning rounds. I can’t go back to bed, because the only thing I can do is wake up. I tell myself I’ve worked too hard to slack. But it’s too late for that.
This is the best time of my life, everyone says — college. That’s not to say I dislike the way things are. I pick two majors I like, dance and neuroscience. I like to study. I look forward to buying an overpriced latte on the weekend to study at a favorite library and doodle on the corners of my notebook. I live in a high-rise with four of my friends. This is a luxury. I can’t hear the sorority chants or the beer cans getting smashed on the pavement at the crack of dawn.
I figure out what I want early on. Besides the Bachelor of Fine Arts and Bachelor of Science, I decide to pursue a career in medicine. To say the medical school application process is grueling is an understatement. There is a list of things they expect you to enjoy — research, volunteering, maintaining a high grade point average, random acts of kindness, a breadth of life experience that gives depth to your otherwise two-dimensional college character — maturity that exceeds your age and an impressive MCAT score.
I do all of the things the ultimate pre-med guide tells me to do: I volunteer at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and joined a medical fraternity. I shadow surgeons and go to guest speaker seminars, and I work in a neurology laboratory for Parkinson’s disease. I go to yoga and weekend boxing classes with my current boss — she is the kind of mentor I always wanted. I have my own research project, my own rats, my own drugs and protocols. Every morning at seven, I take the elevator four levels underground and poke around rat brains for my thesis. I still don’t know what a “dissertation” really means.
But doing this isn’t enough. There’s the unspoken “purple squirrel” or “it” factor — as it’s called in show business — you need in order to stand out in a crowd of overqualified people applying to medical school. Originally, the “purple squirrel” was used in human resource recruitment to describe “the one” true person for the job. Now, there’s a general understanding that double-edged sword because the purple squirrel is simply unobtainable, and waiting for Prince Charming is a wasted expenditure.
I overload my classes. There’s not much overlap in class content for neuroscience and dance, so I take the things I need to graduate. I get permission to enroll past the 18-credit maximum — 18, 24, 21, 24, 21, 23. My days are never shorter than nine hours. Eleven-hour average. I burn more calories running from place to place than I do in my dance classes.
Three semesters ago, I took a nonfiction writing class, and 75 percent of the students were writers for The Michigan Daily. One semester in, they asked if I wanted to be an editor — yes, of course I’ll take it.
I sleep little. I work a lot. I rely on my phone too much. I’m not sure how I’d do without it or my computer — it’s bad. I want to reread “The Shallows” and do a no-electronics cleanse, but I know I’d crack instantly like the hard-boiled eggs I throw in the pot too strongly in the morning. I don’t have time to stress, or if I do, it’s so constant I’m immune to it. Except when I perform. Even after 18 years, I nearly throw up every time. Sometimes, I wonder if I have abnormally high cortisol levels. It makes me want to do a finger prick and test my blood content. I have a phlebotomy license. So pricking people is no problem, but I can’t stand it on myself. I hate needles. I’m one that person that cleans blood off other people’s wounds, but can’t stand the thought of a paper cut on my own finger.
I overload, I overbook, I overdo, I overextend, I overindulge, I overwhelm and occasionally, I overcome. I don’t know how not to. There’s no question of whether to do or not to do, only how. Everyone says these are supposed to be the best four years of my life. That this, right now, is what freedom feels like. I think it’s stupid not to make maximum use of the resources I have.
But recently, I question what it means to be the purple squirrel. Like the squirrels on campus that scurry around my feet and occasionally get caught in the front wheel of my bicycle, going in circles until my brakes finally kick in and they run off in a daze.
I can’t tell if I do the things I do because I truly enjoy them, or if it’s to fulfill the unrealistic goal of becoming the perfect candidate. To say that I don’t enjoy the things I do would be a complete lie, because I do. I wouldn’t cut sleep if I didn’t. But every now and then, when I stop in my tracks and attempt to process what I’m doing — the moment after the squirrel hops off my bicycle tire and scurries away like he didn’t almost die — I have no direct answer.
The purple squirrel feels more and more like an oxymoron. “Be unique,” said the Teacher, the Adviser, the Admissions Office, the Counselor, the Friend, the Boyfriend, the Parent. I do as I’m told. We all do as we’re told because we desperately want it. And yet, all too often, I find myself questioning the status quo. How different can we be if our goal is to be the same thing — to be different?
There has to be a point when the stories start sounding the same, they bleed together, and these “differences” fall into similar patterns of forced connections and reflections. The stories are continuously reinforced by friends and family who already have the M.D. email signature, the golden Ph.D. nameplate on the front of their desk, the diploma hung next to photos of their two kids and the golden Labradoodle, the path they etched out of their prided “uniqueness” and brilliance.
But as philosophical or not as it sounds, I’ve come to the realization that every version of an aspiring doctor has to have already happened. And with that, I accept that another dancer-writer-physician already exists. So the question becomes more about why I still continue this grueling narrative when I’d merely be a replica of another purple squirrel.
I’ve had a number of epiphanies recently. They come when I least expect it — at the cash register, when I’m brushing my teeth, strolling through the hardware store, waiting for hard-boiled eggs to cook. I usually ignore these thoughts because any “thinking” outside of classes and homework takes up time, and that time will cut into my sleep schedule. But something has been urging me to listen more closely to these cosmic insights. Maybe that’s why the bags under my eyes won’t go away.
I was biking somewhere — I can’t remember where — when I decide to finally listen to one of these epiphanies. I steer my bike clear of pedestrians in the Diag and find a spot by the Randall Laboratory. The concrete is cool from the rain. I worry the rough surface will make pills on my leggings. The breeze is cool against my ears.
In the light, I notice rust on the edges of my kickstand. I just got my bike for my birthday last summer. I thought this sort of chemical reaction took much longer — it was a silver, too reflective and almost embarrassingly new just yesterday.
The same summer I got my bike, the Randall Lab was under construction. A huge fence surrounded the entrance of the Diag. Three consecutive 90-degree turns made riding my new bike treacherous — I hit four people. I feel like the fence was there just yesterday — I just can’t remember when they took it down. It was in front of the Engineering Arch. The one with the myth: If you kiss someone under the arch before your 21st birthday, you will marry them. After a late night in the library, my friend and I were walking through when he asked if I wanted a kiss. I said yes, and he gave me a piece of chocolate. It’s like it happened yesterday, but we haven’t spoken in two years.
I slide sideways to get a peek at the arch. The backs of my thighs catch the rough cement surface, and I know I’ve wrecked my leggings. I didn’t even plan on wearing them. I went to bed thinking today was a denim day. It didn’t even cross my mind to open the denim drawer this morning.
When I sit still like this, I finally feel. Like I’ve been holding my breath this entire time, suffocating. I deflate my chest in a sigh. I just got a haircut, but it’s back to mid-rib length again. I make a note in my phone to contact the salon. The checklist is extensive, accumulating red squares that indicate they’re late. A pixelated pile of promises. That’s what it feels like sometimes — a never-ending list. Like a mythical pond that self-augments, my list is bottomless. Not mimosas.
When I sit still like this, I notice that I’ve forgotten everyday occurrences. Details slip away, and I don’t like that I need digital confirmation to fully remember what I saw or heard. It should be in my head, not on a phone or a memory card that could be destroyed by a cup of coffee. Swiped in seconds.
When I sit still, I remember that I’m in college and this is the most fun I’ll ever have, according to popular belief. That this is the last test run, the last dress rehearsal for the “real world.” This is all I get. And all at once, the pang of guilt is back. Even though I’ve checked off all of the things on my list for yesterday and today before going to bed, I don’t remember why or how. I don’t have short-term memory loss, as far as I know, but it’s not like I have time to see a doctor. I trudge through my day like it’s nothing more than a task — friends, homework, my job alike. If I mindlessly pursue these tasks, then what differentiates them from the chores I do at home? Isn’t the point of college — the most exciting four years of life — to build an infrastructure of places and people to fill with memories to re-experience later on? So that I’ll have something to hold on to when I am too old to walk these places myself? The architectural structure is there, but what if I have nothing to fill it with? No coffee table, no couches, no refrigerator, no mirrors, no windows. It’s a model house nobody wants to buy.
If I neglect to be in the “now,” then all of this is for naught. That if I am not present, then this entire game is a loss. I want to type it up — “be present and remember.” I take out my phone to add it to the checklist — remember what? If it’s just another thing on a list and it’s something that could merely be checked off in the middle of the night, while I wait for the laundry machine to buzz, when lecture gets out 20 minutes early, then what’s the point? How do you add, “Be alive” to an agenda?
Classes get out and the Diag starts to fill with people. A swarm of bodies weaving together like the back of intricate embroidery. Everyone moving from point A to point B, half of them looking at their phones, the first official days of spring. I want to scream, to cause some sort of magnetic field that’ll create a momentary power outage in mobile devices, just enough so they would look up. So I would look up.
That night, I notice blood in my stool. It doesn’t hit me until my hand is hovering on the flush lever and something stops me. It’s simultaneously disgusting, confusing and just weird. I hover over the toilet bowl, not knowing what to do but to rely on Google. It tells me all sorts of things from eating too many beets to late-stage intestinal cancer.
I panic, because it’s noticeably red and there’s a history of cancer in my family. I see my grandpa’s sunken cheeks, the transparent skin clinging to his jaundiced eye sockets. I panic and don’t know how to stop. The skin around my neck is too tight and I feel like I’m suffocating. Because my life might be ending. The entire doctor’s visit is painted in my head — the X-ray, the MRI, the blood tests over and over. I know I won’t look good with no hair. There’s a bump on the back of my skull that I feel every time I put my hair into a ponytail. It sticks out like a cone. My head will look lumpy when I’m bald, and my face will be expressionless without my eyebrows that imagine would fall out from chemo. I’m too pale to be paler, but I imagine my skin turning bluer. There will be a scar down my stomach and the countless ab workouts will be fruitless because the doctor won’t be able to remove the tumor. They’ll call my time of death and tell their daughters to cherish their every day.
What will they say about me when I die? That I did so many things? Or that I didn’t go to the bar that one night, or go skinny dipping in the lake? That I did so much but it was worthless because I died and that was it? There was nothing to remember me with but the extensive checklist, a graveyard of gray Xs and empty red boxes. There would be so many still unchecked and someone would say how unfortunate it was that they were never completed. If I died today, I wouldn’t be remembered. If I died today, I wouldn’t be happy.
I flush the toilet and watch the red spiral in the water, winding further and further down like gymnastics ribbons.
In my Monday night class on performing arts management, we talk about marketing ourselves as artists. Jonathan, our professor and former musician, explains tricks of winning over an interview. He hands out a pro-con worksheet for us to list our strengths and weaknesses.
I write, like I always do, my weakness: I spread myself thin — I overload, I overbook, I overdo, I overextend. I don’t sleep enough. We hand in our forms.
“You’d be surprised to know that 95 percent of students say ‘doing too many things’ and ‘committing to too much’ is their weakness,” Jonathan says. And that once everyone has that same weakness, you’re no longer the purple squirrel with a somewhat inspiring commitment problem, but you just become one of the many.
But what if it’s true? What if I work too many jobs, hold too many positions, say ‘yes’ to every performance, every independent project? That in reality, I can’t let go of my schedule because it is a part of my identity and justifies my failures — at least I tried. At least I took advantage of what I could and didn’t waste what was there. That this same trait is my weakness because it detracts from the way I live, the way I neglect to be in the “now.” How I am nearly done with the best part of my life and have failed at being present. It is a flaw in the overall equation of this quality of life that I will regret tomorrow and everyday after I leave this sanctuary. He hands back our worksheets.
“Be the purple squirrel, show me why your weakness is different,” Jonathan’s voice hovers over the sound of scratching pens and paper. “I want to hire you to be the next superstars of the world.”
I erase my answer and scribble: Bad at telling jokes, too serious most of the time.
After class, I bike home on a route I don’t usually take. I go by the hospital and loop around the downtown area where the trees are illuminated. I take out my phone from my pocket and scroll through my list while steering with the other hand. I check off two things and put my phone away. I think I enjoy biking because it forces me to breathe.
The night is brisk enough for a heavy coat. I regret the thin cardigan that’s long enough to get caught in the tires. Imagine the headline on the morning news: “Girl dies from wardrobe accident on bike.” I still can’t let go of the handles with both hands like my brother used to do. I try every now and then, but I need at least one to stay balanced.
I keep pedaling, one foot, then the other, until I get to the library next to the arch by the old construction site. I can see the silhouette of the tower on top of the building, the bell swaying inside it. I wonder if I’ve ever heard it ring.