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No more metronome

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MAY 13, 2021

I loved watching “Tom and Jerry” as a kid. Glued to the screen, I enjoyed the pranks, the absence of adults and the cartoon violence that filled every episode. Through the constant use of symbols and images, the show elevated the duo’s antics from mere events into rituals. The appearance of a rake immediately evokes an image of Tom smacking himself in the head as he sprints after Jerry.

The elevation of everyday objects and occurrences into symbols extends beyond cartoons. Some objects, as widely recognized symbols, evoke implications beyond their bare form. When I look at my graduation stole, the strip of glossy blue is a placeholder for all the hopes and fears I have about leaving college. Roland Barthes attempted to define the modern myth as a system of communication. He writes, “The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.” The graduation ceremony is all form, yet full of meaning. The odd square hat is a vessel for more than my bedhead.

In 2020, the pandemic erased many of the markings of time that I used to signify motion in my life. For as long as I can remember, there are milestones to hit, major events that marked stages in my life. Most of these were set by other people. Moving to Los Angeles, music recitals, bar mitzvahs, holidays, soccer games, a new pet rabbit, debate tournaments, water polo games, high school graduation, moving into college.

These rituals were important to me and still are. As long as I avoid the temptation to view each milestone as a badge to collect, they have great meaning. Certainly, day-to-day life is beautiful, but sometimes ceremony helps to bring those details into focus. Milestones often coincide with growth to the next stage of life. And even when they don’t coincide, a major event may hasten personal growth later on. I wasn’t ready to rent my first apartment. A month later, out of necessity, I had learned to vet subletters and sign contracts at the hoary age of 19.

For me, COVID-19 exposed, fully and abruptly, the frivolity of ritual. No first day of classes meant that I did not have a formal signal that I was moving into my senior year (a symbol for maturity). Zoom could not replace the feeling of walking home from a final, knowing it’s almost over. The official metronome had gone silent.

Through quarantine, as many of the days blurred together, I talked to a couple of friends who graduated last year. They understood my disappointment and revealed a secret of grown-ups: There is no ceremony in adult life. Or, at least, most major events are no longer decided by other people.

This made sense to me, at least superficially. Growing up for me has been about a loss of structure over time. After college, GPA and club membership will matter little. Rewards and punishments that were compelling to me years ago now seem silly. So why cling to ceremony?

I realized that rituals, in the long run, are self-made. I still believe in the power of gestures to keep time in our lives. Yet I’ve learned over the past year that the mature thing is to make a fuss over nothing. Instead of relying on others to decide milestones, we can devise them. 

In college, my friends and I had come up with some shared rituals. Some UC Berkeley students might appreciate the sanctity of Halal Guys on a Friday night, like my sophomore housemates and I did every week. Few would know the importance of the one wrinkled vaporwave poster I still have from my freshman dorm.

On the threshold of my graduation, I think a lot about the significance of commencement. UC Berkeley’s ceremony this year is stripped to its bare bones. A small gathering, no throngs of friends and family, hats and gowns optional. Yet, just like 150 classes of students before us, we stand, teetering on the ledge between college and adulthood. The act of showcasing our academic achievement before an audience of peers, rather than mostly strangers, changes graduation from an act of admiration to camaraderie. The giving of the diploma is important — in one instant, the past and future are obliterated and only the satisfaction of the present matters.

We constantly face the battle to write narratives about our lives (mythologize, maybe) and trace constellations from seemingly random events. Barthes points out the totalizing power of myth. By elevating a symbol from its historical context into something sacred, we distort the original reality that enabled the myth. Hence, there is a danger in imbuing our lives with narrative. Not all mishaps are a way to test your mettle; not every trouble is penance for something else. Unlike “Tom and Jerry,” no cheeky mouse will bite your tail if you misstep.

Alex Zhao was the spring 2021 projects editor. He joined The Daily Californian in spring 2020 as a projects developer and was a deputy projects editor in fall 2020. He is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in business administration and electrical engineering and computer sciences.

MAY 13, 2021