Saturday, December 29, 2012

The best years of our lives

Are these really "the best years of my life"? It's one of those trite sayings, the kind you hear from older people all the time as they refer to their youth, wistfully reminiscent of the once fascinating life they led away from the troubles of career, family and old age. "Those were the days" is another one.

My room is cozy and I'm snuggled under a fleece blanket the way I do when I am at university during the winter. It's just a long enough blanket that it can cover my whole body if I sit "Indian style" (because that's slightly politically incorrect, I apologize in advance of your protests), leaving only my neck and head peeking out and my hands sneaking through to type.

For some reason, just the feeling of being warm under a blanket during a cold time of year makes the world feel idyllic. It's one of the experiences I will always associate with college, and one that stands as an example of the kind of pleasure I've seen since I arrived there in September 2010.

But despite the brief moments of sheer bliss, it's hard to look back on my experience and call it the best of my life. For that, I'd retreat further. To preschool or early elementary school, when there was no homework on the weekends and after school I'd watch back to back episodes of Boy Meets World. Now those were the days.

So when I was watching Liberal Arts just now with my dad - a movie that I chose to purchase on DVD due to my assuredness that I would in fact fall in love with it (and I was right) - I found it hard to grasp the concept of college being the best time of my life. At least upon immediate observation.

Then I thought about it a bit more...

After a quarter away studying at a university in London, I lost a bit of my enthusiasm for collegiate life. Something about having to walk through busy thoroughfares just to get to class in the mornings must have spoiled me on it. After all, there's nothing like rolling out of bed and walking on snowy tree-lined sidewalks to get to class.

There is, however, something really special about being in such a beautiful insular environment like the one I have back in Chicago - the one I'll be going back to in less than a week.

I remember reading a Facebook status once where one of my friends talked about realizing that people back in their hometown just weren't as smart as people at university. Occasionally, a similar conversation is sparked upon return from winter or spring break. We get so used to being among bookish intellectuals that we can hardly fathom going back into the real world, it seems.

The movie itself is about 35-year-old Jesse Fisher (played by Josh Radnor, who also directed and wrote the film), a man who works as an admissions officer in New York, but goes back to visit an old professor of his at his alma mater (modeled after Kenyon College, Radnor's actual alma mater) in Ohio. During his return trip to Ohio, Jesse meets an enchanting 19-year-old college student named Zibby with whom he spends an afternoon of coffee, long walks and intelligent conversation. They maintain a long-term friendship via hand-written letters and eventually plan to meet up again. Amidst their conversations is the ever-present question of what their age difference signifies. Is this Jesse being intellectually stunted or is Zibby advanced? Is it even morally right for someone like him to pursue a girl so young and impressionable? The stakes are high and the contentions numerous.

But it isn't the conflict that drives this story, it's the reliably fascinating content of the dialogue. Radnor's previous film HappyThankYouMorePlease stunned me in much the same way. With a typical collective cast of interlocking stories set in a recognizable location (in this case New York City), it managed to amaze with the plethora of psychological questions it raised. It was the reason that months ago when I was interning at CBS, I tried so desperately to visit the set of How I Met Your Mother. I wanted to meet Radnor (who plays Ted on the series), if only to tell him how much his ideas about life inspired me.

Alas, I never got the opportunity. But that didn't diminish my love for Radnor in any way. In fact, his distance perhaps made him more of an item of fascination for me.

Which is why I've waited so long and so anxiously to see Liberal Arts. It was released in London when I was studying there, but I had no one to go with to see it (or at least no one who was interested in seeing it to go with).

But now that I have, it raises a feeling within me with which I'm happy to return back to my home institution. College may seem like a grueling time for those of us who are still right in the thick of it. We have so many classes to keep up with, so many essays to write, so many tests to study for and so many extracurricular activities to be a part of. How are we expected to enjoy the experience if most of it is spent fulfilling responsibilities?

Well I think it's the type of responsibility that is thrust upon you that dictates what your experience is like. Some of us may end up finding happiness after college, in a career that is directly correlated to our area of study or in something else that equally stimulates our imaginations. Others of us might peak at this point. And would that really be the worst thing?

College really is a wonderful period for most people. Putting aside that whole argument about "freedom" (which I refuse to subscribe to; no obsession with "YOLO" for me), the things that a higher education offer us include a tight-knit environment with other smart people, an opportunity to discuss and debate intellectual ideas and a period in time when we can pursue absolutely anything without serious rejection or negative consequences.

We may never have these luxuries again.

For Jesse, part of the thrill of going back to Ohio was getting to interact with modern students at his alma mater. They were living the life that he missed so dearly, experiencing the things he did. He liked the idea of reliving those times because they were times of hope and constant intellectual stimulation, two things he thrived on before entering the working world and having all expectations for the future sucked out of him.

My greatest consolation in realizing what a valuable period in my life I am currently experiencing (and will soon be leaving behind) is that during my time at university (and even in high school), I've managed to cultivate friendships with individuals who will ensure for me that the collegiate will never die in its entirety.

Even if the dream of reading books all night and discussing them all day dies away as I walk to a stage in a cap and gown, what I will never lose are the relationships that are maintained along with collegiate intellectualism.

This movie could easily instill fear in me at leaving behind the supposed "best years of my life." But I won't let it. And really, I don't believe that was Josh Radnor's intention. He ends the film on a high note, with Jesse finding happiness among people his own age and discovering peace in the idea of growing older.

At this moment, the idea of moving on may still seem frightening. It needn't always feel that way, though. Once we let go of the past, the only way we move is further. Further on, further away and further up. That doesn't scare me, in fact it's pretty dang exciting.

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