Our Story

westworld“Have you ever questioned the nature of your reality?”

       This is the first line of West World, HBO’s  lavishly futuristic science fiction epic and my new favorite Sunday night treat (Sorry, Walking Dead fans). It features robots, cowboys, villains, heroes, and everyone in between. In this future, West World is an amusement park that allows visitors to role play in the Wild West. Hyper-realistic robots populate this world, mostly to satisfy the baser, and often bloody, instincts of the guests. Some robots are fated to die during the storylines, only to be revived for the next day. HBO has spent a fortune to bring Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s vision to the screen and it shows. Long tracking shots revel in the majestic Arizona landscape and the glass laboratories of the future. But at the heart of all the technical achievement is a deeper question: How do we interact with narratives? How do we construct them in our own lives?

There has always been a visceral thrill in immersing yourself in a someone else’s story. We like to pretend; whether its dressing up as your favorite character at Comic Con or daydreaming in math class. It allows us the freedom to be anyone, anywhere. There are no restraints, not even moral ones. In 2016, it is more popular than ever in every medium to be someone who you are not. Sometimes, the stories allow us to discover more about ourselves. By viewing the world through different perspectives, we gain empathy for others, an appreciation for situations we could never experience directly. Yet, even this can be taken too far. Assuming that a movie or a television show is a correct representation of real life is a mistake as well. I can’t possibly claim to be an expert in African American culture after watching Empire after all. Unfortunately, it seems to be one that we are making more than ever. Pretending can make us feel morally superior without doing anything. Sympathy for transgender rights after watching Transparent is great, but ultimately the show only raises awareness. It is up to us to carry out the real work needed to create change. It is not enough to pretend to be the hero, we must take that role for ourselves.

All the world’s a stage as Shakespeare famously wrote. I have always loved to create storylines. Sometimes, I was the charging hero. Other times, the rouge with the heart of gold. But always I was the main character, the one who mattered. Watching West World has made me realize that this is not only untrue, but also unintentionally harmful. The guests feel free to treat the robots with malicious abandon because they see them only as tools to advance the plot. If we only see others as disposable, supporting characters to our own, we lose any sense of perspective for their stories. It is too easy to look at other people and see them as side quests that we can explore at random or books that we can close when it gets too uncomfortable. It is too easy to treat real life from the perspective of a faraway bystander and retreat to our imaginary worlds. But this is the only true reality that we share together. I want to treasure it.

A Waking Dream

"Sleep" by Salvador Dali
“Sleep” by Salvador Dali

There is a surreal quality to waking up. The world transforms in an eyeblink from darkness to color. From vague, meandering dreams to vivid life all around. The mind doesn’t adjust quickly enough and it seems, for a moment, that this world, with all its confounding complexity and striking beauty, can’t possibly be real. Then, you remember: You’re in your bed, laying on your sofa, or dozing off in the math classroom (the worst of the three). Truly, sleep is an amazing thing. It is interdimensional travel, a trip to a different realm and restorative all at once. It can be disorienting to return to a world that seems infinitely more ordinary and logical than your dreams. Sometimes I prefer the infinite possibilities of sleep and other times the orderliness of consciousness is safer and preferable. However, during the last few days, the boundaries between imagined fantasies and reality seem to have blurred more than ever. If anything, this election cycle has proven to me that anything is possible even in the real world.

As I watched the final hours of the election tick by, I could not help but feel as if I was dreaming. Last Tuesday night passed in spurts, at first very quickly and then mind-numbingly slow. On CNN, the reporters seemed to be in a state of panic themselves, unbelieving. They cut frantically from the map to the individual states to the main panel sitting at their desk. Everywhere there was flashing updates, yet they, too, were helpless, waiting for the final polls to close. Some states would never be called. They did not want to fall silent lest they be forced to reflect on what was truly happening. It was a paradox that could have driven anyone insane. By the time Pennsylvania was declared for Trump, it was 2:00 am. I had neither the time nor the energy to contemplate the vast changes that had passed me by. Somehow, the world had changed entirely, but I could not yet see how. Only time would reveal the alterations to come.

Even throughout the next day, the sheer implication of the change was impossible to confront. The election made me realize that the world I thought that I knew so well was only an illusion, a fleeting dream. In fact, my world was in complete contradiction with what others wanted. My foundational values were not, in fact, universal laws. It was as if every physicist had suddenly told me that gravity no longer applied. I had been rudely awakened and could not seem to adjust. We always see the world in half-realized glimpses from severely limited perspectives, beautiful bubbles that need to be popped. Even when moments of clarity are gained, it is far too easy to lose them in the following hubbub.

You don’t get to wake up many times in this world, not nearly as many as you think. More and more, people talk only to those who share the same opinions, only click on the articles from certain publications. There is always an “us” and a nefarious “them”. Democracy represents a choice and the people’s voice, whether we like to hear it or not. This election was not only a mere wake-up call, it was a blaring fire alarm. There are serious problems in the real world and there is no point in seeing it as only a bad dream. No more hiding. It can’t be worse than realizing that your entire math class has been staring at you while you’ve been asleep.

 

Sitting in a Library

It’s quiet in the Hatcher Library Reference Rooms today. But it’s never silent. Not even the strictest rules could prevent the variety of sounds that echo throughout the library. The door clicks as a new acolyte enters the sacred temple of books and laptops. Of all the students sitting in neat rows down the length of room, few even look up. The soaring white ceiling and murals are sadly ignored, as much as the shelves of books that line the walls. The amazed stares and slight gasps have been abandoned long ago in favor of resigned yawns. Most have their headphones plugged in. We may be sitting together but we are all in our own separate worlds, lost in swirls of half understood equations and tedious texts. Today, mine revolves around writing this blog post and the math homework I’m postponing. I’m sitting next to a girl with a knitted grey sweater and blonde hair braided neatly. Her feet move relentlessly under the table. I wonder if she has somewhere else to be.

There’s always somewhere else to be at the University of Michigan. Besides the uncompromising schedule of class after class, students often have many other obligations. Responsibilities to clubs, a can’t miss fraternity party, sports practices. That is why there is always a sense of urgency sitting here in the library. Homework must get done, so that we may all rush off to our next responsibility. The Hatcher Library even removes any social distractions. No need to spare any time on a few wasteful words. Concentration is forced upon us, silence envelopes us. The library allows me an opportunity to gain a singleness of mind that is rarely achievable in any other environment. Even walking outside, my mind rushes faster than my steps. What do I have to do next? Am I forgetting something? Of course, I’m forgetting something. But here in the library, I can savor the feeling of usefulness. The feeling that I am being productive, I have achieved something here today.

I wish sometimes that I did not need the library to force me to work. I wish that I could create quiet spaces anywhere just for me, myself, and I. I wish I could stand still in this moment. But my mind can’t and won’t. Often, it feels like being a helpless passenger on a runaway train or constantly dodging never ending obstacles in some sadistic video game. You are never in control. Most of the time, I ignore this reality. It is simply too emotionally exhausting to consider every singular stress in my life. So usually I put on my headphones and my favorite Spotify playlist. Yet, the library offers me a place of quieter reflection, a place beyond the everyday problems to look at the big picture. It seems to me, that as students, we spend too much time worrying about the homework, the classes, and the parties without considering exactly why we do things. Life is greater than a couple of assignments. That is why as I sink into the only open armchair and close my eyes, I can relax if only for a few fleeting moments.

When I open my eyes again, the world hasn’t changed. It is still only a room. I’m still only a student. But the library is a special place for me, always has been. When I was a kid, it was my wonderland. When I was a high schooler, it was a refuge from the drama within and without. Now, in college, it has become a study hall. But always, it is where I go to be alone but not lonely.

How We Value Art

I think my parents would disown me if I decided to pursue a major in art. Now, this is partially because I possess no artistic talent whatsoever. My drawings mainly consist of stick figures gamboling on some wiggly lines that were supposed to represent hills. I like to imagine myself as undiscovered talent, producing abstract art too intricate to be understood by mere mortals. But the truth is that, even if I was accomplished and brilliant, I would not be encouraged to go into a career in art. It would simply not be economically viable. This is because artistic talent is notoriously fickle and hard to evaluate. It cannot be calculated. Not that people haven’t tried. In 2010, Picasso’s Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, was sold for a record $106.5 million in an auction that lasted a little over 8 minutes. Now, that is conviction! To give a sense of perspective, it took me over 8 minutes to decide that I wanted to purchase some green tea gelato for $4.75. (Author’s note: I would highly recommend to all my readers-now that’s a good joke-to go to Iorio’s Gelatoria on East William)

                 Destruction of Home Tree from the movie, Avatar

Some people have decided that art can only be valuable if it has a definite message. Most, however end up as subtle as a sledgehammer in a china store. Fortunately for the internet, this new goal-oriented art has led to many unintentionally hilarious Oscar speeches over the years. Teary eyed actors and directors declaring to the world that their movie has a higher purpose than even mere art. Now, every movie must have a cause. James Cameron’s Avatar was about saving the environment, all while reveling in slow motion shots of falling trees and tears, and becoming the highest grossing movies of all time. Yum. I love the smell of hypocrisy in the morning. Movies such as this miss the point entirely. It seems that art can only be art when it arouses some unknowable feeling, some unconscious awakening. Something that is much more understated. Picasso, described it as “a lie that makes us realize truth.” The obvious thing to do, then, is to judge it dispassionately, quantify its emotional value with various calculations, and put it up for sale.

The vagueness surrounding how art should be valued is even more complicated by the cultural associations with being an artist. To be an artist, you can never admit that you do anything for money. The idea of art has become so synonymous with deprivation that any sense of practicality is shunned. Art should be done for its own sake. The prophecy is self-fulfilling. Everyone is told that an artist will never make any money. Those who choose to become artists are told that they can only create art if they don’t do it for the money. To be an artist means that not only must you produce something that pleases everyone, it must also sell for millions, while never admitting that you wanted the fame or the money. The muddled definition of how art should be created, prevents it from being created. The barrier is so high that it is expected that those young dreamers who courageously bet on their talent will not succeed, and instead retreat to safer disciplines. Then, perhaps years later, they will spare a glance for that forgotten novel or the unfinished masterpiece, and shake their heads, older and wiser.

No wonder art is so daunting. It must be created in a certain way with the right intentions. It must be about certain subjects. It must surpass a certain profit margin. Yet, these guidelines are directly opposed to the fundamental core of art. The most infuriating and beautiful thing about art is how utterly subjective it is. It will never submit to the rules that we build around it. So, I think I’ll have to be getting back to those stick figures. Who knows? It could be worth millions.

Fresh(man) off the Boat

Image Courtesy of the Office of New Student Programs

I arrived in Michigan excited, curious, and half-asleep. I was an explorer in a strange, foreign land, which the natives called Detroit Metropolitan Airport. I knew where I was headed, I had committed to the University of Michigan for months, yet, this was my first time in the state. It created a peculiar state of unknowing that I had never felt before. It was a feeling that I did not take much time to reflect on. I was too busy corralling two wayward suitcases. And so the grandest adventure of my life thus far began, not with a bang, but with a half-stifled yawn as I walked past a closed McDonald’s.

Over the next few weeks, I began to learn more about my new home. One of the most quintessential experiences of the out-of-state student, is the “weather talk”. I had never experienced more than two feet of snow, much less a true blizzard. Every time, I asked, I saw the same reaction. A slight widening of the eyes, a hesitation that was just a little bit too long, and finally, a nervous, forced giggle. “Of course, you’ll be fine”, reassuringly said, but not with any hint of true belief. I supposed that it was only the natural course of events, the circle of life. I would freeze in the winter storm and be reborn in the fickle sunshine of the spring. I swore to myself that I would become a true Michigander (Michiganian? Michiganite?). Soon, I, too, would be able to nod my head cynically and wisely assure a wide-eyed, unworldly freshman, that they were going to survive with most of their fingers and toes intact. I was ready to be the student on the cover of every college brochure; strolling down the sidewalk, smiling, confident in their destination.

Unfortunately, life is constantly taking turns, not unlike a squirrel distracted by a nut. I woke up one day and it was midterms already. Fall was in full blossom. Colors had crept up the leaves like a slow disease. It was all a bad dream, moving in quick flashes. One moment, I was studying at midnight. The next, I was staring down at the test writing down my U-M ID number. I didn’t even know when I had memorized it. And then, it was over and graded and done, and I was left wondering if I had experienced college at all. If college was supposed to be place of monumental change, then it must have passed me by.

Yet, as I walked back to my room, I realized I had. I experienced the freedom of waking up without parents. I got the opportunity to study where I wanted, when I wanted. I ate more chocolate chip cookies than I can count, jaywalked, and fed a squirrel. As a freshman, I wanted dramatic change. I wanted to be the winter storm, blasting through the door, entirely new. I got the small stuff instead, as imperceptible as the reddening of the autumn leaves, until it is all around you, swirling in the wind.

autumn-colors
At the Matthaei Botanical Gardens