The Golden Hour: A personal essay to say goodbye

Winky Wong/File

UC Berkeley is really a campus in and of its own time. Who doesn’t remember being a freshman stunned by their professors’ supposed 10-minute tardiness during the first week of classes? The Wall Street Journal blamed Berkeley time for students’ inability to be punctual in a piece of content clickbait. The campus’s iconic imagery is even a clock tower. So naturally, my reflection on my four years enrolled at UC Berkeley really narrowed down to how I spent my time here.

The fixation on hours and minutes is quite appropriate considering the circumstances. At UC Berkeley, or really any college system contingent on acquiring enough units to graduate, time is a commodity. While this assertion may seem half-baked, perhaps coming from a friend who waxes poetic about tiny homes and often throws Foucault around in party conversations, it rings as true as the Campanile for any degree-seeker. An academic unit is a measurement of time — a four-unit class is a measure of a weekly twelve-hour workload. UC Berkeley awards degrees to students who have maintained a 2.0 and completed a minimum of 120 units.

The Academic Senate’s Regulation 760 defines a unit’s value in comically self-serious language: “The value of a course in units shall be reckoned at the rate of one unit for three hours’ work per week per term on the part of a student, or the equivalent.” The ridiculous presence of words like “shall” outside of the Gettysburg Address aside, the school’s definition confirms the commodification of campus time. The unit count is even monetized, as dropping below the number of units necessary to be a “full-time student” can impact a student’s eligibility for financial aid.

At UC Berkeley … time is a commodity.

Beyond the university’s unit policy, campus culture has been characterized as one obsessed with finishing fast and finding success. Students, especially transfers, are highly encouraged to graduate within the expected two — or four — years. Students who wish to stay longer may even have to appeal for extra time and the dubious privilege of paying more tuition. The demand for more classroom space and enough resources to go around puts students on the clock. When time’s up, it’s time to go.

And as I’m sure any graduating senior will tell you, reflection of time spent at UC Berkeley has been a constant in their last few weeks of school. So how have I spent my time? Generally speaking, I’ve spent it writing. UC Berkeley’s College of Letters and Science provided me the opportunity to try on all sorts of humanities-related hats. I gave history, classics, economics, political economy and political science majors a shot before I finally landed on English.

But as circuitous as my journey was, student life is defined not only by the classroom but also by housing situations, weekly social rituals, love of world-shattering entertainment franchises, streets we traverse and general anxiousness over academic performance (to name a few). For me, however, I measure the time I spent as a student best by conversations.

I got the chance to speak with wonderful people. People with different motivations, studies and senses of humor. The different facets of conversation —who was involved, where they took place, what they were about — create microcosms of the college experience.

I remember listening to my friend explain his newfound passion for laser radar systems, or LADAR, in Triple Rock Brewery on a Thursday. We had both had a couple of beers by then, and while I can’t say I can explain how the technology works, I’ll never forget the feeling of holding barside conversations on incredibly nerdy subjects. When else, other than during the college years, are beer and academic discussion indulged in so feverishly?

I remember the smell that accompanied discussing my friend’s decision to transfer to the University of Chicago our freshman year. The smell stands out because I was sleeping over in his dorm, on a blow-up mattress that his roommates had somehow gotten wet and allowed to mold. He, like so many of us in freshman year, felt adrift and lost in a new school that was much too big. I remember being wildly bummed over his decision to leave. If he left, who’d put out moldy mattresses for friends in need? Who’d help me feel anchored? As it turned out, he’s graduating with a UC Berkeley degree next week.

For me, however, I measure the time I spent as a student best by conversations.

One philosophical conversation during junior year, lengthy and held on a couch that was so stained it became endearing, dovetailed from the criminal underappreciation of the band Talking Heads to an in-depth consideration of just how long a franchise sports fan should “trust the process.” My roommate, a Padres-loving San Diegoan at the time, decided you wait until the process pays off. Wait until years of mediocre seasons foster the talent necessary to take a championship. To this day, I remain unconvinced.

Another discussion began with jokes about my uncultured palate and my introduction to Persian cuisine over kebabs from Berkeley’s own Middle East Market. Eventually, the meal transitioned into two of my closest friends giving accounts of their time as second-generation Americans from Iran. By the time the meal was over, I’d learned more about my friends in an afternoon than I had in semesters of knowing them.

The hardest I’ve ever laughed was while watching and discussing National Geographic’s “Doomsday Preppers.” It is an absurd show on which folks, convinced R.E.M.’s hit track forecasting the apocalypse is true and that Nostradamus was right, build their lives around preparation for the end of days. The world may be ending on screen, but when watching the show in a living room full of buddies, the comedy is endless.

Sometimes the conversations run longer than just a moment and span the length of a couple of months, a year, or more. One that has been running since March involves the evolving perspectives my friends and I have on our inevitable graduation from college. It has moved from living rooms to patios to RV interiors. It started on the grounds of anxious excitement and has turned into dissociative acceptance. We can see the finish line, but we recognize we won’t appreciate we’ve crossed it until long after the race.

Another has been running for well over a year. It’s a spirited debate over the values of disciplines focused on the qualifiable (the humanities) and the quantifiable (STEM). Our sides never change, but the unending argument is always punctuated with the pops of beer tops leaving their bottles.

One conversation that stands out in my mind happened late this past August. I had just returned from volunteering for a week as a camp counselor. On our way to a mandatory post-camp debrief, my roommate (and co-counselor) looked out from the base of the Campanile toward the sun, dropping behind the Golden Gate Bridge. He explained that a professor once alleged that “golden hour,” a term from photography defined as the time just after sunrise and just before sunset when light is warm and most desirable for photos, lasts longer in UC Berkeley. His professor had said light bounced off of Berkeley’s hills and buildings and greenery in a way that prolongs the glow of the setting sun.

We can see the finish line, but we recognize we won’t appreciate we’ve crossed it until long after the race.

I don’t know if this is true. To be honest, I don’t much care. What stayed with me was the idea that Berkeley is a place where sunsets last a little longer. A place where college, the closing moments of adolescence for so many students, becomes prolonged and amplified to its most gorgeous states. Time works differently at Berkeley, which is good because units aren’t cheap and people need 10 minutes to get across campus. And who doesn’t love it when good conversations keep going and the best sunsets last a little longer?

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Contact AJ Newcomb at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @ajnewcombDC.