In my first column for the Maroon, a little over two years ago, I wrote about exercising in Ratner. In this, my last column for the Maroon, I thought I’d return to that subject. This has been a matter of some difficulty because I haven’t actually gone inside Ratner for a matter of weeks, instead preferring to get most of my exercise by foraging for food, forgetting my laptop charger at my apartment and having to go back, and otherwise walking around aimlessly.
The basic argument behind my first Ratner article was that the experience of going to the gym was a grand analogy for going to the U of C. The U of C can be as intimidating to a first-year who perceives herself as mentally unprepared as going to the gym can be to someone who perceives herself to be out of shape. The fact that I explored this comparison doesn’t say much for my self-esteem as an 18-year-old.
And really, this school kicks your ass—not unlike the step aerobics class I took first year. My first quarter, I was rejected from the staff of a literary magazine and from both campus improv groups. (To the judges of the Occam’s Razor audition, who I’m sure have forgotten by now: I don’t know what I was thinking with that unnaturally shrill U of C–as-Hogwarts-let’s-say-crucio-all-over-the-place joke. I apologize.) Plus, I got my first B in eight years. (I know, I’m a nerd. I bet you are too.)
Back then, those failures were devastating. But looking back with a few years of wisdom, they don’t even register as small disappointments. I found extracurricular activities that I loved, in which I didn’t have to see the facial expressions of an audience when my attempts to induce laughter failed. And, honestly, I’m lucky I got a B in that one class, because I didn’t understand how “syllabuses” on “Chalk” worked and didn’t do any of the readings for the first six weeks. We might joke that the U of C is all pain (Crucio! Crucio! Crucio! OK, still not funny), but it’s actually pretty cushy. Similarly, step aerobics might have made me break a sweat, but really I was just walking up and down one step for half an hour, listening to old-school Rihanna, and then kind of sort of trying to do squats.
This isn’t to say that the U of C is easy. As nerds, we go hard. We might spend six hours a day on Stumbleupon, but that’s followed by ten hours spent reading, hammering out problem sets, “engaging in discourse,” “unpacking arguments,” building things up, tearing them down, and logging on and off Facebook. Of course, this is followed by eight hours of sleep (lol, jk). Just like going to the gym, you have to put effort into your University of Chicago education to get something out of it.
That being said, food and sleep have become my new exercise routine: the unattainable thing that’s supposed to make your life better. I could go run on a treadmill for 45 minutes and watch Made on MTV—the ultimate arena of self-deprecation and improvement—or I could go get a sandwich at Z&H with Anna, the now former-roommate mentioned in my old Ratner article, who is similarly cynical, graduating early, and hungry “all the time, seriously, where is all the food ever?”
Clearly, I’m speaking both flippantly and from a place of privilege. A liberal arts education, upon closer examination, is both incalculably valuable and despairingly meaningless. “First-world problems” is a meme that has salient resonance in our own lives, lives in which the phrase “a meme that has salient resonance” actually means something, or at least means enough to get published in the student newspaper. There are real problems out there, ranging from the classic and tragic example of those who ask themselves, “Where is any of the food ever?” to those paying off student loans, finding a job to help them do so, and actually dealing with the real physical harm they do to themselves by sitting all day and not getting enough sleep. Once we leave the U of C, we’ll finally be able to appreciate both the luxury of going here and the way that it’s been more of a mental exercise than practical training. Because the fact is, no university can actually prepare you for real life. It can only give you the critical skills to look at your life and ask, “What is wrong with how things are, what do I need to fix, and what can I fix?”
So as I near graduation and that final sweep of exams and papers, I probably won’t make it to Ratner at all. All the optimism I expressed two years ago about getting “buff and toned” (seriously, what was I thinking?) has given way to amusement. You might put into exercise and into work at the U of C what you want to get out of them, but sometimes, when the end is near, you just want to get out. You want to see what’s in this great, new, real world, and to let it kick your ass too.
So now right before graduation, while I can’t boast about my fitness as a gym-goer or as an undergraduate, I don’t beat myself up over it either. I’m not running any marathons, but I can walk up to the fourth floor of Cobb well enough, and for now, that’s all I need.
Alison Howard is a graduating third-year in the College majoring in English.