April 17, 2013

KOH: Lights That Never Go Out

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I know I’m having a bad day when I reject every song that comes on my iPod, and reach out for an old masterpiece by The Smiths. “There is a Light That Never Goes Out,” off the British band’s 1986 album The Queen is Dead, was the darkly comic soundtrack of my freshman year. I’ve wrestled with many problems sets to Johnny Marr’s brisk guitar and soaring flute melody, paired with Morrissey’s exquisite words. My favorite line: “And in the darkened underpass / I thought Oh God, my chance has come at last / but then a strange fear gripped me / and I just couldn’t ask.” This week I’ve been replaying Youtube videos of Marr playing that immortal melody at Coachella. It makes me smile to hear Marr’s surly preface to the song directed to an eager crowd, “You’re like a friendly bunch, so let’s do something friendly.”

I haven’t stopped writing in five days — five really eventful days, actually. At this point, I’ve lost much of my discernment concerning tenses and grammar. I seem to need the thesaurus every other sentence. On Saturday, I even had to leave Bob Dylan’s concert early to resume writing, and I still have more papers to write.

On my way to Starbucks to buy yet another large coffee frappuccino yesterday (“you’re faking a smile with the coffee to go,” as Daniel Powter dismally sings on “Bad Day”), I thought about how trying to graduate has been much harder than I thought it would be. It’s made me think a lot harder about, well, everything. I will miss many things about Cornell, but certainly not the relentless pursuit of a decent GPA, which I’ve found to be less about hard work than fortuitous strategizing. I’m not good at games, and I will always be grateful to have survived. I also thought about bad days, and how people deal with them, and what that says about them.

Sad songs can only do so much, so I often deal with bad days by trying to put things into perspective. I read the news. Empowered by the Internet, I wander off hoping to find things that make sense to me — happy relationships between things I care about. A recent instance: Karl Lagerfeld, as an emissary of the Italian fashion house Fendi, is spearheading the $2.9 billion effort to rescue Rome’s embattled Trevi fountain. The fountain, a legendary tourist attraction, has had star turns in Roman Holiday and La Dolce Vita. And Fendi isn’t alone. Tods, the luxury shoemaker, is funding the hefty restoration of Rome’s Coliseum.

But on Monday evening, the elusive boundary between fiction and nonfiction was again blurred. Every news outlet was overrun with condemnations of the Boston Marathon attacks, op-eds declaring that the terrorists would never win and heart wrenching tributes to people who lost their lives or limbs on what was supposed to be a brilliant, inspiring day. At the time the explosions happened, I’d been too busy dealing with my own bad day.

The Boston tragedy was far from the only debilitating blast, or act of violence this week — this is, unfortunately, not as clear as it should be due to the weight of media coverage given to the Boston. As I write this, 16 people have reportedly been killed in a terror attack in Bangalore, according to the BBC. I have nothing to add to the wealth of reflection and feeling in the aftermath of the unsayable. I can only say and think the obvious. The great contemporary art critic Gordon Burn spoke to The Guardian in 2009 about the three years he spent investigating the Yorkshire serial killers Fred and Rosemary West. Despite going through the suspects’ belongings, police interviews and “everything, basically, that you could possibly wish to get,” but Burns still didn’t know what motivated “two people do the kind of things that they did.”

So, I try. I try to acknowledge, remember, think and not complain; I do everything that is insufficient, and yet necessary. At an Urban Outfitters sale some months ago, I unearthed, in a pile of winter wear and wallets, $4.99 copies of Stephen Chbosky’s cult classic The Perks of Being a Wallflower. At the time, I was still recovering from the film adaptation, which I’d watched on the plane on the way back to Ithaca after winter break. Perks is a devastating and exhilarating collection of letters written by Charlie, a freshman chronicling his high school experiences. This coming of age tale, fuelled by experiments with sex, drugs and good literature, culminates in an iconic scene — Charlie and his friends Patrick and Sam “feel infinite” as they drive through a windswept tunnel with David Bowie’s “Heroes” turned up on the radio. While I love that scene, it isn’t the one that I frequently revisit. What intrigues me is a passage that appears on the page before that one.

After spending the summer in the hospital recovering from a breakdown, Charlie reflects on what it is like to deal with bad things. He talks about his sister coming to visit and how she admitted feeling “really dumb” sharing her fears about going to college after he’d endured so much. Charlie is confounded by her sentiments, though he acknowledges that it’s good to put things into perspective. He writes, wide-eyed yet wise: “I think that if I ever have kids, and they are upset, I won’t tell them that people are starving in China or anything like that because  it … doesn’t really change the fact that you have what you have. Good and bad … Because it’s okay to feel things. And be who you are about them.”

Original Author: Daveen Koh