Oct 25, 2014
Lost in the Pages of the Institute
Posted in: Life & Culture
I’ve always wanted to learn to play the piano, “always” being a brief two-month period in fifth grade and the culmination of every wistful moment I’ve encountered someone in MIT play the piano with amazing dexterity. There’s a ton of people in MIT who play the piano (and everything else) amazingly well, which probably isn’t surprising. A sizable number of Alpha Delta Phi brothers will often slide behind the grand piano in the Library, and pelt out tunes that would make Beethoven roll in his grave (in sheer delight, not ghostly rage). There’s also a piano on the floor above mine, one often subjected to the graceful fingers of Random Hall residents. I did have a simple Yamaha piano growing up, but then again, I also had five siblings, each more destructive than the last. I think the Yamaha lasted all of three weeks before it collapsed under the weight of juvenile shenanigans, keys strewn all over the living room, half its buttons missing. But even though this happened years ago, I still remember that in the few moments of time I tried my hand at creating music, there was always a sort of merry, thoughtless deliberateness to my efforts. There were a thousand more things I could be doing—homework, playing video games (which I think at the time meant the 2-D Snake game on my cousin’s first-generation Nokia phone), “sunlight tales”, a cheesy set of goofy games my siblings and I had come up with, heck even napping. But the decision to spend twenty minutes clunking out
cringeworthy disjointed atrocities heavenly Mozart-like symphonies at the piano was always effortless, and I’m pretty sure, never subject to scrutiny of any sort until now. I mean, why would it need scrutiny, right?
But in a markedly different way with everything else, that seems to be the case lately. It’s almost the end of the week, and I can tell you everything I was up to these last few days. Spent Sunday and Monday working on my 6.042 p-set--which took forever as usual and was due on Thursday--and studying for the only 6.042 midterm of the semester, which took place on Tuesday. I managed to dedicate another three hours to writing a story—Dionysus, about a conflicted girl in a boarding Catholic high school—for my fiction humanities class. I went to bed around seven, slept for five hours, then headed to my writing class, which ended at 2:30PM. Immediately afterward was the 6.042 midterm which ended at four. I took a brief nap, then headed to my evening 6.01 Software Lab. After that was over, I started working on my 18.03 p-set which was due on Friday. I could go on, but you get the picture.
And the picture isn’t that I had a stressful week. The ability to constantly work at MIT—synthesizing tons of information, attacking one block of problems after another—is an amazingly adaptable process. Enough time passes, and you settle into the groove of things without feeling crushing weight all the time. The picture here is that nothing really happened this week. Classes happened. A midterm happened. And an admittedly awesome lab happened—I’ll probably blog about the 6.01 labs pretty soon. But outside of that? I don’t know. I worked on p-sets. I read stories for my writing class. I had meals. I studied for an upcoming Google interview.
I don’t think it’s immediately clear what’s happening, and I’m not sure I even have the words necessary to perfectly explain everything, but I’m going to try.
I love stories. I love writing them. I love reading them. This summer, I devoured over ten Stephen King novels. I read the Nigerian novel Americanah. I wrote several new short stories and a novella inspired by a Robert Weinberg lecture toward the end of freshman fall’s 7.012. I played video games and promoted my novel and made fun of my siblings on a constant basis. These things came in spurts of effortlessness. Oh look, there’s my sister and her silly hair. Gonna call her out on it. And hmm, I wonder what’s showing on Disney right now. Supposed kid-demographic be damned, I’m gonna watch a nice episode of Good Luck Charlie cuz it’s on now. The trashcan outside my room seems to be rattling, as if it's filled with rats. Maybe I’ll write a story about nibbling rats and their beady black eyes festering outside the room of a two-year-old and his toddler sister. There, done.
It was the same thing my freshman year at MIT. Everything was new and different and exciting—the people, the problems, the city of Boston. When I experienced my bout of endless cold-and-crappy-weather days, that was something. Joining the fraternity, going through Rush and Initiation. Duck tours. Official MIT tours. Sketchy MIT tours. New restaurants. New stories. Blogging. Learning Python. Winning two writing contests. Attempting to eat my first lobster. Not succeeding in eating my first lobster because it sprayed all over my face and shirt. Those are the memories that come to mind when I try to summarize the first year in my mind.
Sophomore year started out with the same sort of perhaps overwrought glory. It was a new year, and naïve freshmen were flooding into campus, wide-eyed and excited. The fraternity was getting new members. I had ideas for a second novel, Nkem, and more than just ideas—the bulk of its blueprint, the characters and events and intersecting backstories and changing motivations. I had plans to finish it before the end of sophomore year. I had signed up to take the beginner swimming P.E. class and even though I had only one prior swimming experience—namely, nearly drowning after being shoved into a pool in grade nine—I would go through this class and somehow become an awesome graceful swimmer. Or maybe drown. But it would be exciting! In fact, while I wasn’t concretely thinking of the exciting things the coming months had in store for me, I had a general sense, and I was…well, excited. This excitement carried me through the first few weeks of the semester. Then things changed.
I’m not quite sure when or why.
I think maybe an all-nighter one night was an all-nighter too much. Or maybe it was the 6.01 midterm, which I didn’t do so well on, after which I convinced myself to work harder than ever. But I suddenly became hyperaware of how often I was working on p-sets and studying for classes. There was always work to be done, and somehow, I was always doing it.
Often times, the stress hit hard and I passed out on my bed exhausted, or took off-days spent hanging out at the fraternity or listening to Taylor Swift songs in my room or curled up in the Destiny Floor Lounge of Random Hall, watching Netflix—I have a deep and newfound love for Parks and Recreation.
But most times, more often than not, there was no stress about the work. It was simply what needed to be done. It was expectedly a large volume of work but because there were enough hours in a week, I did everything without feeling like my brain was being bench-pressed between 18.03’s Exponential Response Formula and 6.042’s Minimum Spanning Tree. But despite the lack of stress, I was aware of how much I was doing—most of this on my own—and in whatever time was left, it seemed easier to just sleep or hang out in the dorm lounges or at the fraternity. Nothing wrong with that, right? Except, let’s look at what was missing.
First of all, the excitement. I wasn’t jaded with schoolwork. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t bored. In fact, I had a constant stream of oh-wow moments in a lot of my classes—in the 6.01 labs more than anywhere else I think—but any sense of spark, of not simply needing but also deeply wanting to engage with class material was gone. Again, big deal. Who gets excited about psets anyway? Hasn’t the role of psets in the lives of MIT students always been to facilitate learning and the most unvarying strings of complaints about evil professors and being hosed and “I-can’t-even” workloads? Maybe. Which is why I’m sort of struggling to explain the concise but subtle shift in my sentiments toward them—and toward every class this semester in general.
Doing them because they should be done. With effort, but without nail-bending, conscious, debilitating stress. Doing them because the deadline was in three days, and the last three pages looked sort of dreadful. Doing them in the absence of that I-can-I-will-this-is-what-I-came-here-for spirit that overtook me at the start of the semester.
For me, this isn’t a mindset about psets and classes, wherein I have in a way become somewhat jaded with them, but can still do them without feeling like they are an unnecessary pain. It’s become a general mindset, where I’m so aware of the time burnt in these things, and so aware of what’s always coming—the next deadline, the next exam, the next all-nighter—that they take the shape of something repetitive and claustrophobic to my mind. And what’s left is a mind that just feels generally jaded. Generally lost.
I’m not “getting by” on classes, at least not in the traditional sense. I’m doing decently well on most of them, got a near-perfect score on my 6.042 midterm for instance. But I’m getting lost in them. Not like confused lost, more like buried lost, entrenched lost. They’re a current and I’m swishing through, neither happy nor sad, just there.
And because I’ve somehow become not-quite-but-analogous-tojaded, every impulse to do the unnecessary has faded. The only stories I’ve written in the past few weeks are stories for my writing class—which is ridiculous, because even last semester, when the hell weeks weren’t as far apart as I’d have liked, there was always a story churning in the background, and a few days later, churning on my laptop. Life right now is a constant cycle between my classes and dorm and fraternity. It’s a cycle between studying and Netflix and programming and Taylor Swift. It’s not necessarily a bad problem to have—things could be far, far worse—but this lethargy has never felt as crippling as it did today, when I went through my old stories, and realized they were exactly that—old stories. No new adventures. No new stories. Just routine stuff. Functioning routine stuff that was actually quite above the minimal requirements to be a student here, to “get by”, but far below what it felt like to be swimming in new currents at every waking moment, which dominated my existence for my first year in the US, and probably all my life until now.
I can actually pinpoint the highlights of the last few weeks. It’s a small list. There’s been obsessing with Lydia over Taylor Swift’s new songs and upcoming album, 1989, which I pre-ordered two months ago, and which I’m supremely excited about. There’s the Thursday 6.01 Design Lab 8 where hours of work culminated in our robots tracking light around the room like well-trained pets. There’s been getting to know the new friends in my life, both at the dorm and at the frat. There’s been the prospect of my first technical job interview, which looms bigger and bigger with every passing day. But these are few and far between, separated by large chunks of mild, crippling lethargy, a feeling that with everything happening in the Institute, everything I have to catch up with, there’s really nothing else to be excited about, just a whole lot of doing and a whole lot of existing—actual moments of laughter and pain and stress and everything else, but for the most part, nothing. It has kept me more out of touch with the world outside my bubble and the people outside my social circle than has ever been the case. It’s really something I somehow let happen, and something I intend to take control of.
So my plan is this. That for some upcoming week—ideally next week—I concentrate all the work I have to do for that week into the first two or three days. Then I’ll spend the next several days just doing stuff. Writing new stories. Exploring the city. Breaking out of my usual, comfortable social circle, out of the small rut I’ve been mindlessly circling.
Here’s to hopefully crazier weeks ahead.