Stories from my past, along with whatever random musings I feel compelled to write. Updates Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Packing Up

I wrote this a few years ago, at the end of my freshman year. Reflecting on it now, I don't like how preachy it gets in several places; that's a quality I think I'm glad is less prominent in later things I write. I also think I'm getting a little less pretentious in my word choices, but I can't be as confident on that point. Furthermore, parts of this kind of make me seem like I'm a crazy person. This is true, but I like to think my crazy has changed form with time. Anyway, here you go:

In all of my life's experience (which, I admit, is rather limited), I have only rarely felt as melancholy and nostalgic as I do now that I'm packing up and preparing to leave my freshman dorm room. Even as I decide what to store, what to throw into the almost inevitably overstuffed suitcases I'm bringing home for the summer, and what to dispose of, it seems that almost everything I've kept over this year reminds me of something significant to me, good or bad.

To start, the textbooks (mostly being sold or donated). Some, like the hulking behemoths of biology and calculus textbooks, remind me of a first academic semester that drove me almost to my breaking point. I spent God only knows how many hours poring over those books in an attempt to gain understanding, and it did me no good. I made it out of that term by the skin of my teeth.

Yet, even as I think back to the repeated disappointments that were my midterm grades, I am also reminded of the positive aspects of that harrowing time. Had I not realized just how ill-suited I was to the requisite courses expected of anyone majoring in Bio, I would never have broken from my pattern of unflinchingly sticking to my own plans, even as they became more and more obviously ill-suited to the situation as it was evolving. I don't have to declare a major until the end of the next academic year, and I doubt I'll be fully set on one even then.

I doubt I'll find it very difficult to get rid of those books; they were of immeasurable value to me as the catalysts responsible for starting my transition into being a more flexible person, but they've served their purpose with regards to me. Hopefully, they'll help some other freshman either reaffirm their confidence or shake their faith enough to inspire a needed self-examination.

I next turned my attention to my small set of "first-aid" supplies: A box of band-aids (one of which was used over the course of the entire year), a bottle of nasal decongestant (never used), and two small bottles of ibuprofen for headaches (each of which has been emptied and refilled several times). This again hearkens back to the way I was before this year: I tried to plan out every possible contingency and work out how to get the result I thought I wanted in spite of them. I'm still like this to some extent; Every decision I make, and most of what I say, is carefully thought out and designed to get me what I want with the minimal amount of negative fallout. But in the past, these plans all fit into one overreaching strategy: I was going to end up working at a zoo, living in a nice apartment, and in a committed, long-term relationship, all on my own terms.

Now, realizing how little of my future I can control in the present, I try to take things on a more case by case basis. I still put way too much thought behind most of my life, but I'm just trying to make the next few minutes, hours, or days better, instead of trying to make my entire life fit into a very demanding frame. Sure, I'm likely to add to my first-aid collection when I come back (some basic cold and flu meds are certainly called for), but it's not because I'm afraid of being thrown off-course by injury or illness; I acknowledge that these problems are inevitable, but I also realize that, whatever shape my life is in when I get sick or hurt, it'll definitely help for me to be able to minimize the degree to which such conditions hamper me.

Having condemned my medicines to their cardboard prison, my gaze falls upon my modest collection of DVDs and computer games. Again, these are symptomatic of my condition as it has evolved; almost all of them were purchased in my first semester, when I had no better way to spend my lesiure time. It was hard adjusting to being one of only a handful of people I'd ever met before here, especially because I wasn't particularly close with any of the people I knew here.

While I do forget it occasionally, I generally try to be aware of how difficult to deal with I am. It can't really be helped; it's in my nature to be a sarcastic, unbearable jerk. When I first got here, though, that was only part of the problem. I have a relatively small comfort zone when it comes to picking friends. Generally speaking, I am most comfortable around people who are somewhat similar to me: intelligent, more likely to know some obscure sci-fi or fantasy reference than who's playing in the Super Bowl this year, and uncomfortable around strangers.

This made adjusting to a large collegiate student body incredibly difficult. My high school graduating class was less than 500 students, and the entire student population was under 2,000. Even there, having gone to the same middle school as many of my peers, I had never spoken more than a few words in passing to around half of the people I now consider to be my best friends until we were stuck in the same classes senior year. Suddenly, I was just one face in a sea of over 13,000 undergraduate students at Cornell, most of whom were (understandably) not of the sort I'm comfortable around.

Even when I met someone who potentially shared some of my interests, I had problems. For example, the boy in the room one door down and across the hall (I think his name was Caleb) just packed up the last of his things and checked out. He was one of a few people on my hall I really think I could have been friends with. Unfortunately for me, I overcompensated for my caustic personality, never pursuing friendships with my neighbors(one of whom was friends with my one of my best friends' roommate at another school), or most of the dozens of people I saw in passing and thought I could possibly be friends with. Whatever part of my mind was in charge of those decisions evidently decided it was better to remain distant instead of risking frightening them off for good. We could have been good friends, but now I'll never know because I was afraid.

Looking at my bed as I prepare to strip the bedding, I am reminded of the number of vulnerable moments I found myself in over the course of the year. From my near-breakdown first semester over academic pressure and having an impossible time making friends to hours of staring at the blank white ceiling and trying to figure out how I could alter my grand plan to still attain the same results, I usually found myself worrying up until the moment I lapsed into sleep.

There were periods in this year, even once I'd started getting things moving in a positive direction, where I couldn't talk to anyone from home without a tremor in my voice. I'm a bit of a hypochondriac, and an AP Psychology course I took last year taught me that all manner of fun mental disorders first manifested at around age 18. Every time I started to feel overwhelmed, I worried that it would be the start of a complete warping and stunting of my mental faculties, be it through an anxiety attack or schizophrenia. As far as I know, it hasn't happened yet, but it's something that's still present in the back of my mind.

Not everything brings back a negative memory, though; as I try to figure out how I'm going to fit my myriad hats into suitcases destined to be filled to the brim, I remember working on what turned out to be a nonsensical, confusing skit for Japanese class. The audience might not have understood what went one, but it didn't matter, because in the process of writing and memorizing that ludicrous script, I laughed more than I had for weeks beforehand. The overarching memories of this year may be of anxiety, confusion, and sorrow, but they are constantly interrupted by moments of joy and contentment.

There are certainly many things about this year that I'll treasure for a long time: absurd arguments about Jesus' viability as a presidential candidate, my first games of telephone pictionary and mafia (incidentally, both took place on the same day), studying for japanese tests, playing (and sucking) at DDR, running into a friend I hadn't seen in months at what passes for a mall in Ithaca, and countless other things.

A lot of these memories don't have material foci in my room, which I think illustrates the most important advice one can give a prospective college freshman: GET OUT OF YOUR DORM ROOM AND DO THINGS. It's advice I received before coming here, but I cast it aside and assumed that the fun times would come knocking on my door. Unfortunately, the fun times don't knock, because they're busy being fun for the people who aren't huddled over their computers in their rooms. You have to go to them, and while it may seem daunting, words can't even begin to express how worth it it is, even if you get shot down a couple of times.

All I ever got out of staying in my room was loneliness and the occasional bout of self-loathing. Sure, maybe you're self-sufficient enough to manage on your own, but that's what I thought, and nothing could have been further from the truth. You've got nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by branching out.

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