A Cup of Tea

tea


The tea blooms before me. Tendrils of color deepen the previously clear water until it reaches a comforting mahogany. Everything about a cup of tea seems to have a softening effect on my being. Even sensation fades as if the steam from the cup has enveloped everything. My eyes, which had been stinging with tiredness from a late night study session, felt rejuvenated for a few moments. All before I took a single sip. In a day with a thousand and one tasks, it was a fleeting event, but somehow, the most memorable. Most of my days flash by minute after minute. I wake up to the jarring screech of my alarm clock and the overcast light creeping its way through the window. I fall asleep when it gets dark. Class, homework, class, sleep. Sometimes to break up the monotony, I sleep during class. I do so much, but seem to get nothing done. So as I stare down at the simple cup of tea, I feel a strange sort of peace that only comes with reflection and a little bit of silence.

Screens

The world has become very noisy. There are a thousand things calling for our attention. Even now, while I’m writing this very blog post, I have four other screens open, not including the Spotify player pumping music through my earbuds. The three other people in the room are plugged into their computers as much as the computers are plugged into their electrical outlet. Even when I walk down the street, I do so in a bubble of artificial sound. I get to hear people from across the country talk about pop culture, politics, and my personal favorite, sports. The effect is distancing. I walk past people without seeing them, I eat food without tasting it, and it is never silent. There is no awkward chit chat or even an acknowledging nod. The earbuds are a signal as glaring as a flashing red light. Don’t approach.

Ironically, filling our worlds with endless noise has become a type of sedative. The constant blare is a distraction from deeper reflection. Doing twenty things at once becomes a parody of usefulness, a way to feel fulfilled but to fulfill nothing. Often, I find myself sitting in a chair for hours on end, clicking, stopping for a moment, clicking again. When I do look away, I am surprised at what I find. It usually includes an endless number of people, with faces I can barely recognize, clicking away. It is usually lonely. But I think it would be the same even without the screens. When all is silent, all you have left is yourself. And all that is left of yourself is a scheduled routine, a set number of tasks to do in a row.

The best type of silence, then, is the one in the morning. It is when the day is still full of endless potential. I still think about all the tasks I need to complete though, all the places I must go at a certain time. But perhaps while I’m walking to those places, I may see something new. Maybe before I finish those tasks, I will stop for a cup of tea.

The Movies of 2016

There has been a strange trend recently at the cinema. The growing struggle between escapist, populist, entertainment, and grim, but practical realism is apparent especially as awards season culminates with the Oscars show later next month. The two frontrunners, “Moonlight” and “La La Land”, are fundamentally different movies in their depictions of the world. “Moonlight” revolves around the struggles of Chiron, a young African American, as he comes to terms with his own sexuality and identity in a society that openly despises him. Brilliantly shot, vibrantly lit, it never shies away from the reality of Chiron’s situation. His father is never seen and his absence is never explained. It is simply how things are. The movie revolves around Chiron as he accepts himself as he is. Thousands of miles from the humid neighborhoods of Florida where Chiron resides, two dreamers in Los Angeles refuse to accept anything as it is. In a city filled with fallen hopes, Mia and Sebastian are rejected at every turn. The movie La La Land, matches their stubborn, romantic idealism with its own whimsy. One spectacular sequence even sees the two lovers fly into the sky and dance among the stars. Every moment is filled with a sense of hope, of a brilliant future awaiting If they could only stretch a little further. “La La Land” is loud and sun drenched. Its heart is singing. “Moonlight” lives on the quiet beaches empty of the usual tourists, filled with only the sound of the waves. They are as different as night and day. Yet, in the end, both movies confront the necessity of sacrifice in realistic terms. The level of realism is expected. Both are films with smaller budgets that do not need to pander to audiences to make money. They have the freedom to tackle difficult issues faced by everyday people. The truly interesting phenomenon has been as blockbusters have followed suit.

Star Wars Opening Weekend in 1977

In 1977, “Star Wars” was released. To say that it was well-received would be an extreme understatement. It was the first true blockbuster and it revolutionized the cinematic experience. Suddenly, every studio wanted to follow suit. At its core, Star Wars was always an idealistic fantasy with a handsome rogue, a daring princess, and an evil empire to be defeated by the heroes. It was the perfect, escapist package. Yet, this year, a new film in the Star Wars universe was released and radically diverged from the squeaky-clean path established by the previous films. The result was not entirely satisfying. Conceptually, it was an interesting idea. I’m sure that the everyone in the corporate boardroom nodded enthusiastically. “Let’s make Star Wars, but dark.” This new Star Wars movie tackles the desperate hope of a rebellion. Instead of focusing on a maniacal emperor, it focuses on the ordinary people opposing him. In this ground-level approach, “Rogue One” becomes far more like “Moonlight” and “La La Land” than any of its predecessors. This chameleon-like effect has largely occurred because one studio characteristic: They love proven brand names. Rather than risk investing in a new project, they’d rather paint on a coat of fresh paint. This has happened repeatedly. It worked in 2014, when Marvel changed “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” into a political thriller of the 70s and again in 2015, when the ridiculous sounding “Ant-Man” became a surprisingly fun heist film. Previously these types of plots would have been reserved for middle to low budget movies. Now, they are slipped like medicine with our spoonful of escapist sugar.

Ashton Sanders as teenaged Chiron and Jharrel Jerome as Kevin in “Moonlight”

These two types of movies, the prestige flick and the blockbuster, define the current cinematic landscape. There is little to no middle ground. Most are simply priced out of the market. Their profits are simply too small to justify their larger budgets. Now their plots are given to the superheroes and jedis. It has been especially interesting as franchise films aim to be more than merely popcorn entertainment. Either way, I’ll be eagerly buying my ticket.

Dear Carrie Fisher,

It feels strange to write to you like this. After all, I did not really know you by your true name. No, I, like millions of others knew you from the silver screen first. I didn’t watch the original Star Wars Trilogy until I was in high school. Like all teenagers, I was convinced that it would be too child-like, too unsophisticated. Somehow, you could take this fantastical premise and fill it with wonderment and imagination. You were our Princess, unlike any we had seen before. Leia may have been royalty, but she was also a rebel. When Han and Luke burst into her cell, she shows that she is more than able to hold her own in a fight, entirely usurping both Luke’s and the audience’s preconceptions. In the second and best movie of the trilogy, it is always the relationship between Leia and Han that captures my attention. It was a romance that didn’t apologize for its nostalgic charm, because your caustic vulnerability made it surprisingly refreshing. In the middle of an enormous galaxy, Leia was a beacon of defiance against both the Galactic Empire and stale Hollywood stereotypes.

I also remember where I was when I learned that you had passed. I had just woken up, but as I scanned my phone, I swore it was like I was still trapped in a nightmare. Some might say that it is silly to react this way to someone you only ever saw in the movie theater or on daytime talk shows. Frankly, I don’t care. I am not sure you would either. After all, you had an acute sense of the power of celebrity. You never sought the spotlight, instead it effortlessly chased you. That is what made it especially special when you did choose to embrace the bright lights. You brought awareness to social issues by willingly exposing your personal struggles with drugs and mental illness. There are so many celebrities that seem to chase fame crassly. You managed to achieve a universal presence in our lives, just by being yourself. Your honesty was always impossible to ignore.

It was a very solemn breakfast that day. My sister and I had first watched Star Wars together. We even started a new tradition two years ago, of going to the theater to watch every new release together. We didn’t eat much that day preferring to talk. There was a surreal quality to that conversation, to that entire morning. After all, memorializing the dead is always a difficult task. Everything fades too quickly, flickering like a mirage in front of our eyes. Everything feels transitory, as if I could blink this reality away and exchange it for another. I guess that is why I’m writing to you still. I hope that you knew how much you meant to all of us. I hope that it wasn’t painful. I know you are in a better place now. Hopefully, we will meet again, in a galaxy far, far away.

 

Sincerely,

Corrina Lee

University Horror Story

Panic.

Exams are coming.

However far you run or blissfully ignore them, there is no way to escape their presence. You can see them in the steady stream of students swallowed by the library doors. You can see them in the coffees, the Red Bulls, the drawn tiredness of students who studied too long into the night. I can feel them now, as I hurriedly type. Should I be studying? Probably. Even a temporary respite feels like a betrayal. I won’t fail, can’t fail now, there is too much on the line. It is the culmination of weeks of studying, papers, endless reading assignments. So, I keep my eyes open, even when they yearn to slide shut. It may be 2:00 in the morning, but I don’t care. There is a strange adrenaline running through my veins. The type that only comes from absolute dread as I sense the monster approaching ever closer. I should have known when I first discovered the operating hours at the UGLi. I should have known when there were two therapy dog sessions within one week. I should have known after midterms. But the characters in a horror story always run into the abandoned asylum despite every glaring warning sign.

So, run.

But you can’t escape.

I hope that this gets easier because the tests certainly never stop. I thought the spelling tests in third grade were the biggest challenges, until I confronted the SAT. After approximately seven SAT study guides, there was AP testing and endless college applications. Tests are the perfect representative of a society that has grown more scientific, calculated, and objective. They are impartial, uncompromising, which is why we put so much faith in them. They give us clear black and white answers instead of relying on undependable humans to judge intangible qualities. They play on our need for approval. They are proof that we are talented, worthy, valuable. Unfortunately, they are also temporary bandages, a solution in disguise, because there is always another one. Although, tests may try to rank our best qualities, but I don’t think they bring out the best in us. I look around and hope that no one is judging me when I turn my back. I measure my conversations carefully in case that it is more than a conversation. It is a subtle paranoia that scares me as much as any haunted house.

It can’t be stopped.

I still wish I had a chainsaw.

So why do I keep trying to live up to these arbitrary standards? Like a trained seal, I keep jumping through the hoops for the treat that never seems to come. I know the answer that I’m supposed to give, the one that has been ingrained in me. It’s for the knowledge, the joy of learning. But ever-growing pit in the bottom of my stomach seems to disprove that theory entirely. I am perversely glad for the lack of clarity though, only to prove that life is not a test with clear rights and wrongs. I know I should be studying right now (Or at least sleeping….it is 3 am in the morning after all). My brain is gasping as I race to the finish line. This tortuous cycle is almost over. I’m glad we’re here together.

I collapse into sleep.

Peace.

The utterly useless, perpetually frustrating experience of being a sports fan

I don’t remember the first moment I fell in love with sports. I certainly didn’t know what I was getting into. Being a sports fan is stressful, humiliating, and humbling. Sometimes, you think you can see pinpricks of hope in the distance, but it is all a mirage. If you’re lucky, your team will win, and you’ll get to bask in the glow of victory for a few months, before the next season begins, and the cycle of hope and despair begins all over again. It is an endless rollercoaster, where every high only promises a more terrifying descent. Some fans suffer for decades without the relief of a championship (Looking at you, Cubs fans). Some fans have had their hearts ripped out, one play away from euphoria. We are foolish a lot. Our obsession is almost always unrequited as we watch and suffer from afar. It is a strange abusive sort of love.

I am certainly not the first one to question our peculiar obsession. The goal of most sports is simple. Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Shoot the ball into the hoop. Actions so simple a child could understand them. This simplicity is often used as an excuse to deride fans. Why dedicate so much brainpower and time to athletics when the world is falling apart around you? But hasn’t it always been that way? There are surely great and terrible things that we could be doing with all that attention dedicated to maintaining a fantasy team, scanning daily headlines, or re-watching your favorite dunk of last night. But when I watch sports, I don’t need to question these things. Instead, I admire the grace and beauty that courses through every swing, every fluttering lob through the air. I admire the dedication that goes into every single movement, the hours of practices to execute one simple motion perfectly. I admire the extraordinary mixture of anger and euphoria on the athlete’s face.  When I watch as the ball go into the hoop, the simple action makes my heart pound. I cheer.

Most of these thoughts ran incoherently through my head after the result of the Ohio State-Michigan game. As I watched a red tide of fans swamp the field at the end of the game, I didn’t know what to think. All I felt was a pounding, sullen resentment towards all the fans draped in red. That happiness…it should have been mine, it should have been ours. It was certainly not the result I had imagined before kickoff or even the one that I had imagined two quarters ago. I was left sitting in the aftermath, quietly on the couch. My throat was sore from yelling. Before me sat an empty bowl. I had eaten half a bag of family size Lays. I only remember nervously grabbing, chewing, swallowing through every errant throw, every violent collision. It had been the fastest three hours of my life. By the end, I don’t remember feeling anything at all. Every effort, every scream of passion felt like it had been utterly useless. Every action had been as empty as my chip bowl. Instead, the entire game boiled down to a singular run and an unclear referee decision. I wasn’t very hungry that night.

So yes, sports are pointless endeavors that will inevitably lead to disappointment, failure, and the over-eating of chips. They are also endlessly enjoyable and relentlessly addictive. I’m not sure that sports are a necessity. What I do know is history. For nearly as long as the existence of humanity, there has been games and competition. They act as instinctive expressions of our need to compete and test our skills. They act as conduits of real passion and fervor. And on special nights, such as the cool November evening when the Chicago Cubs broke a 107 year championship drought, they can make grown men cry.  Sports may be just the smallest piece of a much larger picture. But the image would not feel complete without it.

Going Home

College is a world unto itself. It has unique rituals, food, and even clothing. We revel in our culture, coming together every Saturday in a ceremonial march to the Big House, our common temple, and raise our fists into the air in unison. “HAIL!”, shout a hundred thousand voices. “HAIL TO THE VICTORS!”. Young or old, we are together. And when, not if, we win, we celebrate in thousand little nooks and crannies in Ann Arbor. On Saturday evening, no matter how cold, you will find a welcoming party awaiting. Even outside of those special days in the autumn months, there is a sense of unity among the student body and all the staff on campus. When you don’t know what to say, you ask about school. When an awkward silence strikes, you complain about class or the dining hall food or the lingering hangover from the raging fraternity party last night. There are endless branching references, but all come back to the University, to the thing that connects a million strangers from all over the world to this one special place. When you are on campus, it seems like the outside world ceases to exist and that this little bubble is everything.

Stepping out of that bubble during Thanksgiving break was a shock. It was a shock not only borne of the lack of overtly friendly squirrels (although that was certainly one factor), but also of the sudden lack of structure. Abruptly I was cut off from all the little things that had come to dominate my schedule. Math homework was safely tucked away. Backpack was left sadly abandoned beside the bed. I didn’t even need to hurry to the dining hall at certain times or make sure to attend a club meeting. And I realized, as I did during every break from school, that I had nothing to do with the free time that I had been so eagerly anticipating. School has been a part of my life for more than 12 years now. I may have graduated from one grade to another, but I have never outgrown the mindset. Always, it’s the next short term goal, the next assignment. I think Thanksgiving is most important because it reminds me more than ever that as overwhelming as school seems at times, there are truly more important things than homework (No, it is not binge watching the latest TV show).

So as I sat watching TV, surrounded by friends and family, I still could not help but think about homework. I don’t think I will ever shake that off (I’m a perfectionist by nature). But if I have learned anything over the course of school it hasn’t just been calculus. No, it’s been the friends and community I’ve gained along the way that has made school important to me. It’s coming to the classroom and smiling at the teacher beaming back. That is what I’m going to miss most.