I remember the first time I went to a market in my hometown.
It was on one of those rare cold days, with icy sheets of rain washing the narrow, crowded, intertwining market streets. As I raced after my mom, who navigated the labyrinthine marketplace with the ease familiarity bestows on the well-practiced, the shouts of people reached my ears. “Come and see this; it’s good!” “We have what you want, sir, trust us!”
I turned to look at one of them—
I have no idea what happened next. The world beneath me dropped. My feet plummeted, crushed against underground stone, which had formerly been hidden by the gutter I had just fallen into. I burst into tears at once, frightened, certain of impending death, screaming for my mom. Muddy water pounced on my legs with icy strength. A few minutes later, I was shivering beside my mom underneath one of the marketplace shelters, my tears replaced by the merry expectation of some consolation gift she had promised me.
You probably think falling into a gutter undoubtedly filled with subterranean aliens would be enough to enforce calculating wariness on me, but I faithfully subscribe to my involuntary requirement of one superbly clumsy act every month, ranging from tumbling down two flights of stairs (grade five) to trying to sit back on a chair while holding a bottle of water and having it spill all over me (last afternoon). These moments were impressionable enough to add “klutz-king” to the several phrases I identify with, but thankfully, at MIT, the bulk of impressionable moments come from other sources, and I want to share a few of several with you.
1) THE MIT EXPERIENCE ITSELF:
“MIT is amazing” has probably been said enough times to force this trite, self-conscious statement into hiding, but it constantly rings as true, and my experiences everyday intertwine with the awe MIT creates. My classes really make me work harder than I’ve ever had to, an effect self-evident in me staying up late on several nights to finish aggravating p-sets, and in me having to think more extensively than high school ever needed me to. I think, without meaning to, I might have underestimated the extent to which I would be challenged by my classes. “MIT is hard” had been said enough times to steel my mind towards this expectation but there’s a distinct line between expectation and experience, one I’m more clearly aware of, one that encourages me to be focused and persistent without being overly work-consumed and alienating. I have superbly interesting classes taught by well-accomplished professors, and the amount of information they transmit each week is enormous. As time builds up and moves along, you race alongside it, barely mindful of how much you’re learning until you sit back and think of how much you know this week that you didn’t know two weeks ago. And even when you’re not mindful of the exponential rise MIT gives your scholastic awareness, it doesn’t stop you from feeling overwhelmed and just a bit proud in one of several moments you grind to a halt and realize what it truly means to be here.
And if you’re lucky, while heading to a dining hall for lunch one normal day after class, you might grind to a halt for a different reason altogether. Because something rather interesting just caught your eye.
That’s the MIT Alchemist Statue, toting a dark hat and shades in respect to Breaking Bad, a phenomenal TV show that recently came to an end. One more thing about the alchemist…it’s the solution to the puzzle I talked about last month. How exactly? Well, that’s up to you to figure out.
2) A P-SET MIRACLE:
What are p-sets? You know those things MIT students are constantly whining about? Those things that eagerly burst out of their lips right next to words like “hosed” and “overworked” and “all-nighter” in response to “How are you doing?” Yeah, p-sets are ferocious creatures.
Nick Garcia is someone I’ve gotten unbelievably close to, and we were working on an 18.01 p-set in his room about two weeks ago. A nasty-looking problem involving logarithmic inequalities stared us in the face, and we battled it separately. I kept coming up with several ways to start attacking the problem but after chasing these inspirations for a few minutes, I always met a dead end. As time shot forward, I felt my spring of ideas run thin. Nick was also stuck.
“I just keep trying these methods,” I told him in despair, “but nothing works. I don’t even know how to start.”
“I’m stuck too,” he replied wearily, telling me about a method he had started out with, which he had bounced around his head for some time without results. I was rigid at once, my mind spinning.
Hang on. Hang on just one second…
“Oh my God!” I nearly yelled. “Yes, Nick, that’s brilliant! Your idea! It works!”
“What?” Nick replied. “How?” So I showed him how it did, and the problem was solved. This isn’t my typical p-set experience, or my typical experience with problems in general. The trick to a difficult p-set always lies in some central idea. While collaborating, you always either figure out that central idea by yourself and prod others onto that path with several hints and suggestions, or have someone who has figured it out lead you onto that path. What happened with Nick and me was different: he figured out the first half of the idea, which had evaded revealing itself in all the methods I had started out trying. I couldn’t figure out the first half of the idea, but he could. And he couldn’t figure out the second half of the idea, but from what he had figured out, I could see the second half. We solved the problem together. It wasn’t a case of “I-figured-it-out-and-now-I’ll-drop-hints-so-you-can-figure-it-out”. It was collaboration at its best and truest sense. Each of us held a distinct hemisphere of the solution, and somehow, we were able to unite them.
Silly as it may sound, it felt truly magical.
3) A KING DOWN THE STREET:
One of the unspoken MIT graduation requirements involves giving the list of “101 Things to Do Before You Graduate” a serious attempt. In honor of one of the list requirements which demanded that students sample the fine burgers and frappes at a nearby restaurant called Bartley’s, my roommate and I headed there last week. From the pictures, you can tell we’re on the right track to graduation.
It turns out Bartley’s is right next to the Harvard Book Store, so after stuffing ourselves on the enormous deliciousness the restaurant offers, we headed to the bookstore. There, I came across two Stephen King books I had been trying to get for a while, and was instantly excited. Ever since I read Cell by Stephen King a few years ago, he’s been my absolute favorite author, and I’ve read fourteen other books by him since then. I kept babbling to my roommate James on how amazing Stephen King was, and only paused when I had to pay for the books. The cashier looked at them with some fascination, and said something that absolutely blew my mind.
“Stephen King? Hmm, he’s going to read from his new book at Harvard University tonight.”
My brain took this bit of news in, digested it very carefully, agreed that I wasn’t hallucinating and sent out the message that I could begin freaking out. I exploded at once, unable to help myself, letting out a stream of excited, barely intelligible words. “Oh my God…you can’t…you CAN’T…be serious!”
My excitement was short-lived though. It turned out the event wasn’t open to the public anymore. Tickets to see Stephen King had sold out two months ago, twenty-five minutes after ticket sales had opened.
Undeterred, I headed to Harvard, my awesome roommate beside me. We saw the Harvard Memorial Church, from which a heartbreakingly long line emerged.
After a while, I accepted the tragic realization that I wouldn’t see Stephen King. Not yet. And that was fine for now. For now, I still had his books and could still imagine his voice, rife with descriptive ingenuity, filling my head with a wonderful world in which not-so-wonderful things happened.
4) COOL PURPLE ALIENS:
What weird alien creature is that?
It seems to be some kind of mysterious fairy-queen, with special powers and the…no, no, nope. It’s a shopping cart.
The official name is actually The Hanicorn.
One of my friends Hannah joined a sorority a few weeks ago, and by a nice process of mutual selection, got assigned to a “Big Sister”, who, to show her appreciation for Hannah’s awesomeness, baked a cake that filled the entire base of a shopping cart. Hannah trundled the beautifully decorated cart around campus to every single one of her classes, letting friends dig in and grab as many chunks of cake as they could. By 5pm, we had our last class (Ancient Greek Philosophy) and the cake had still not been fully demolished.
It’s definitely not every day you get to see people reach into the bowel of a pretty purple unicorn and come out holding a fat chunk of cake.
5) SEPTEMBER 12:
On September 12, 2013, something infinitely awesome happened to me.
6) COLD FRIDAY NIGHTS:
The first friend I made at MIT, Isaac Cabrera, called me last weekend, asking if I wanted to hang out. Fifteen minutes later, we met beside the Alchemist and had a short conversation. We were both hungry, and Isaac suggested an Indian restaurant, which was apparently right next to my dorm. My stomach agreed pleasantly with his words of wisdom, leading to an awesome dinner of several multi-syllable meals I had never had before. After dinner, we headed out. It was one of those brutally cold Friday nights, and my T-shirt wasn’t doing very well in keeping me warm so Isaac and I headed to his dorm where he gave me one of his leather jackets. As soon as I put them on, I felt simultaneously warm and hardcore. There’s something about leather jackets that give you the sense you can ride a motorcycle upside down. Wait, don’t try this. I’m serious. Don’t.
Appeased stomachs, check.
Grand Theft Auto-style jackets, check.
We headed out across the Harvard Bridge and into the heart of Boston. Turns out there is a world outside of MIT, one I probably need to frequent more often. We ended up walking about four miles, during which time Isaac and I spoke about classes, about Taylor Swift (yay!), about his home in California, about the awful, unpredictable pleasantly flexible Boston weather, about music. We walked past looming skyscrapers, through roads crawling with happy weekend-loving pedestrians, and ended up at the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Isaac loves operas and orchestras, and we tried to get into one of the shows, but the final show was already more than halfway done, so we decided to try again some other time. We headed back to his dorm at MIT and spent an outrageous amount of time laughing over several episodes of South Park and Family Guy. We watched it on his desktop, which was powered by a blue-glowing, unique-looking CPU he had constructed by himself from basic parts.
You don’t really need much to have an amazing weekend…just a person, someone you can freely embarrass yourself around. Sure, there’s always work looming around the corner (it’s no secret that a new p-set pops up right after you submit a current one), but here’s the shocker: sometimes, work can wait.
It can. And when you realize this, you can create awesome experiences with the people you care about. Plus or minus a few snapshots of the beautiful city of Boston swathed in mist.
On a cold Friday night.