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SEPTEMBER 01, 2015

When I look through a pair of chestnut rimmed spectacles, I can see. I can see the fine details of life. The wood of my desk, at a glance through my tortoise-shell lenses, reveals its indentations, shades of variation, rippled lines and dark splotches. I am reminded of the simple act of seeing every day when I wake up in the morning and my lazy hand gropes for the familiar grooves of plastic and glass by my bedside. Vladimir Nabokov once referred to sight as the “prince of all our senses,” and I unconsciously affirm this statement every morning as I reach for my glasses.

Over the past few days, I’ve taken time to sit at Caffe Strada, sans any medium through which I look at the world, except, of course, my eyewear. I watched the afternoon light splinter through glowing leaves, I watched a couple in sunglasses speak French, and I watched the cars roll to a stop and start. I watched, I judged, I labeled, and I filed away each of these sights in my mind. Just as I gazed at them, they, perhaps in turn, gazed at me, repeating the process and filing away my image into a cabinet within their brain very likely different from the one into which I filed them. I am often anxious as to where I might be placed in their mental catalog. One can only imagine how often this process occurs in a day.

Returning to the chronology of my day, just after the placement of my glasses on my brow, I immediately think of how I look. “Can I just roll out of bed like a stopped car, or do I need to shower and put some proper clothes on? After the shower, do I need to comb my hair? Oh, right, my hair is too short for that — well, it was good thinking, anyhow.” You can imagine the rest of my thought process, but in each quiet act of the morning procession, I think about seeing and how I will be seen.

I read “Pale Fire” this past summer — another novel (to readers of it, forgive this plain description) by Nabokov. The opening lines of the poem contained within the text ring out, “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure in the windowpane.” The poet is claiming to be “the shadow” that resulted from a slain bird mistaking a windowpane for the sky. I am not introducing this to say all that we see is false, or even deadly, for that matter. I am saying that I live under “the shadow” of what I see and what others see in me. Every morning, I live under such a shadow, and even when the sun goes down, it remains with me.

I’ve never looked at myself in the mirror and thought I couldn’t recognize myself, but if I could see myself in the mirror five years ago, I would need to look with intent to see the resemblance — the disheveled hair and baggy jeans of someone uncomfortable with themselves and even more uncomfortable trying to change. Five years from now, I might look back on today and see a person equally uncomfortable with themselves, except more eager to change and really going for the “lead in a Woody Allen film” look.

Sometimes when I look at myself, I wonder whether I look the way I look because it is true self-expression or because I want to look that way. I’m not sure there is a difference. I am in Berkeley, I am free, I am liberated. But if I really look deeper, I find a slew of contradictions. Perhaps it is a blessing that our own self-sight blurs as we look deeper within ourselves.

Lately, I’ve tried to learn to appreciate myself, to appreciate the way I look, to appreciate how I see. Sometimes it is difficult to convince myself that what I see ought to be interpreted differently; there exists an emotional inertia that is difficult to disrupt. But even just the willingness to change offers me some relief. I am learning to look differently and, hopefully, better.

It recently came to my attention, sitting in the lecture hall for one of my courses, that science suggests that the human mind cannot fully understand itself and all of its complexities. Thus, our antiquarian lecturer concluded in a raspy tone, “Self-investigation is ultimately futile.” Trying to find a meaningful resolution to the question of looking, to being looked at, to what it means when we look at ourselves is, perhaps, ultimately futile. Every look, glance and wandering of the eye invites an attempt to order and file the world in front of us. To order without care. Sight is powerful — it lingers through our day, it casts a shadow.

This is perhaps all I have managed to say in this column. If you are in to resolutions, however, if you wish me to wrap this piece up in a neat little box with a glossy bow, then I’ll say this: Keep looking.

“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the Opinion Desk at [[email protected]] and follow us on Twitter at @dailycalopinion.

AUGUST 31, 2015