Olivia and I are dear pals and the moment I’ve been waiting for is finally here, a guest post!
Olivia’s a sophomore at UC Berkeley, and last semester she wrote a series of super duper thought-provoking columns for Berkeley’s The Daily Californian Arts section. They were funny and heartfelt and filled with all of her favorite artists and movies and singers, new friends and old hurts. Olivia and I kind of had our artistic awakenings (I’m thinking of a non-pretentious way to describe the process of getting into pop culture and cult movies and tiny bands, but I can’t) at the same time, and we grew in the same general direction of learning about all the beautiful ways someone can get obsessed with a song or a TV show and escape into the dream worlds and dream universes other people have created (re: your favorite film scenes and lyrics and photographs that carry more meaning than you ever intended at first sight, the Duke or Dai playlist, maybe) . Olivia assured me I was not an unfeeling alien at one point last year when I was worried about something to do with emotions, and of all the aliens in the spaceship, Olivia is the most feeling of aliens. I have fallen in love with Olivia the column writer in all the ways I’ve loved Olivia the human being who eats In-n-Out with me in dark parking lots and lets me take pictures of her while she stares wistfully at my camera in neon lighting. In the process of leaving the nest and figuring life things out and discovering the music other people have given us, Olivia’s made her own beautiful word world, and here’s a little piece of it.
Hi there, my name is Olivia and I go to school 36 miles from the house I grew up in. That’s to say, if you were a crow, or any other bird for that matter (barring chickens because they can’t fly, which on a side note is a tragic loss for the species; can you imagine becoming a bird — you have weird wiry legs and the diameter of your brain is measured in millimeters and the only upshot is that you can fly, except wait no, you’re a chicken, sorry), you could fly there in 36 miles.
It’s 52.3 miles if you take I-280 North, and 56 miles if drive across the Dumbarton Bridge instead. I suppose if you exchange I-880 for I-238 after you cross the Dumbarton, and then cut over to I-580 near Castro Valley, which runs into CA-13 right around the exit to the Mills College Art Museum (which I have absolutely never been to), it will take you 58.2 miles to get there.
My point: the college I attend is painfully close to where I live. (You’ll find, if you ever get to know me, that I often take a very roundabout way to get to my points, so in fact, opening with a reference to “as the crow flies” is rather ironic).
Another thing you will learn if you ever get to know me is that I desperately wanted to go to university in New York City. By New York City I mean Columbia. Columbia University is approximately 2629.1 miles from home.
The first person I told when I decided to apply to Columbia Early Decision was my mom, the second was Carmen. We sat on the couch in my living room, my mom saying she wasn’t half-listening from the kitchen even though she always was, and I said, “I love Columbia; I love the city so much.” “I think my second choice is UC Berkeley,” I told Carmen. And she said that she was happy for me. “But I hope you don’t get in at Columbia,” she added. “I want to go to school with my best friend. And I’m going to go to Berkeley.”
I cried a little bit when I wasn’t admitted to Columbia. I moped about how I wasn’t even listed on a waitlist somewhere. A lot of financial considerations went into where I ended up applying for school on the East Coast, and Columbia registered as the best opportunity I had to fly the coop.
“It’s okay, New York is awfully far away from home,” my mom noted. “I would miss you.”
Carmen smiled behind the frown of her apology when I came to her with the news.
“I’m still going to apply to Barnard,” I said, to the room at large.
Fast forward. April-ish of my senior year: admissions results had come and gone, as they do, and with an absence of financial aid proffered by Barnard, I decided to attend either UC Berkeley or UCLA. UC Berkeley had the clout, the history of political activism, the grit of a city with its own underground public transportation. UCLA was warm and beach-y, strong in undergraduate research programs, further away from Los Altos.
I was hung up on the decision for months — if I couldn’t live on the East Coast, LA was at least more than a 45 minute car ride away.
Rewind. When I was a senior applying to university, a lot of people asked me what places I was interested in — did I want a big city? Did I like to hike? Would I prefer a small town with a concrete sense of community?
I knew I wanted a big city — I was tired of living in a town where all the restaurants were closed by 6:30 PM on a Friday night and all the entrees on the menus of the restaurants that were closed by the time I was hungry for dinner were upwards of $20. Exaggerations aside, the worst thing I had ever heard of happening in Los Altos is a tie between the time I saw three missing cat posters stapled to one telephone pole and the time a senior citizen put his car in drive instead of reverse and drove through the front of the Bank of America on Main Street. I wanted to be surrounded by big glass-fronted art museums, the sound and color of taxis, maybe even a spot of crime.
And I knew I wanted to be far away — Los Altos was my parents’ town, parceled out into stores that were Maria’s and stores that were David’s, populated with neighborhoods and schoolmates for whom my parent’s tremendously messy divorce became my moniker. I had spent the four years of high school soaking in a fragmented home life and hometown gossip; college became, as it does for a lot of people, a chance to redefine myself somewhere else. I could tell my new friends the story of my parents’ divorce the way I wanted to, or I could not tell it at all.
In this sense, there is no substitute for physical distance. But I didn’t know that, so I chose Berkeley anyway — I worried that if I didn’t I’d always wonder what attending a highly-ranked public university would’ve been like.
When I finally chose to go to UC Berkeley, I chose on the condition that I would pretend like I was going to university more than 36 miles away. I told my mom that I would not come home on random weekends even though I could take the train for an hour and a half and be at the San Antonio Caltrain station, that I would call her sometimes and see her during breaks. I told Carmen that I was disappointed that 30 other people from my high school in addition to her had also decided to go to UC Berkeley, because however big that school is, I was bound to run into people from Los Altos with some frequency. So, I told her, let’s not apply to live in the dorms together; I need some time to meet new people.
But, my grand plans crumbled.
I understand; it is hard to build your hopes and dreams based on a situation I constructed with no physical realities to ground it. I may say I’m not coming home because I want to feel like I am going to school further from home than I actually am, but that does not disintegrate the expectation that I might someday suddenly decide to. Or worse yet, it does not dissolve the hope that I will change my mind, that I will actually want to be at home on the second weekend in October. And I may say that I only want to socialize with new people in college because I want to pretend that I am at a school where there are no old friends to socialize with, but that does not alleviate the expectation that because we are close friends we will hang out anyway. Or worse yet, it does not prevent the hurt that follows from me not wanting to hang out. Pretending like I couldn’t drive home to see my mom at any time or meet up to drink a coffee with Carmen whenever we felt like it only works if everyone is in on the illusion, and as it turned out, only I was.
As a consequence, I am no longer close to my mom; I am no longer friends with Carmen. These are big consequences. It is not lost on me that if I had gone to a school father away from my home these things would not have happened precisely the way they did.
But something else probably would have. It turns out that my mom and I disagree about a lot of important life things, and Carmen and I don’t have as much in common as we thought we did growing up. It also turns out that growing up for 18 years in Los Altos easily allows for the portrayal of New York as a glittery ideal when there is no telling how much I would have loved being that far away — perhaps a noisy city is just as stifling as the humdrum of a small community that is overwhelmingly white, rich and retired. Probably not, but perhaps.
I leave you with this: I love UC Berkeley, for everything it is and isn’t, for the city, for the campus, for the insane volume of young adults that crowd the campus, for the close friends I’ve made, for my girlfriend, for the ways I’ve changed since being in college, for the friends I’ve kept back at home. If I were a high school senior again, knowing what happens if I choose Berkeley over LA, I would make the same decision.
When I first drafted this column, I told myself I would choose to to go to UCLA if I had another shot at the decision. It’s even easy for me to construct a dream in which I’m at a school on the East Coast, happily becoming a grown-up the way I envisioned I would. But it’s idealistic to trade the happiness (and unhappiness) I have now for a set of ifs. Sure, it sounds more adventurous but it’s also a naive simplification. Life never works out exactly the way you think it will, and I imagine that would be the case even if a do-over button existed. I think becoming an adult is understanding this and being okay with it; I think it’s choosing to do the hard thing not only because the easy-breezy fantastical is impossible, but because it’s the thing worth doing.
So, here I am saying that even if time travel were possible, I would choose to go to Berkeley all over again. I’d brace myself for what happens next and choose my words carefully. If I chose anything else, I’ve realized how much I would miss what I have.