Inspiration strikes at inconvenient times. In the short term, it is profoundly useless.
Most recently, I was struck by it in the earthquake engineering center on Wednesday evening. We’d been informed the week before that this concrete design problem set was going to be the hardest of the quarter. This being one of the harder courses that I’ve taken here, I decided to start working the preceding Saturday.
I thought that I had a pretty good start. Yet there I was, the evening before my problem set was due, 1.5 problems and five hours away from finishing. And I still had a grant application to compose afterward.
Buzzing. That’s the best way to describe the Blume Center during office hours the night before a problem set is due. It is hectic and stressful. Students chatter nervously, figuring out how to prevent the imaginary structure on the page from falling down. We joke about our professors, how they’re probably soundly asleep already. Their smug smiles will mock us when we lumber in the next morning, bag-eyed and defeated, to turn in ten pages of calculations. A long-running joke is that we should make it a department requirement that professors stay up as late as we do.
Barring that, find their address and a bullhorn.
These are people that I have known for three or four years. We’ve spent nights at each other’s houses, eaten tacos together on the beach, struggled through sixteen-hour problem sets and laughed when we’ve finished. I’ve seen them in compromising situations of the frowned-upon Facebook photos sort, but the most compromising of all, I am sure, is this evening, when they’re in sweatpants (I don’t wear sweatpants), when we’re collapsing on the table, when the only thing that we want in the world is to sleep, but the prospect of a blemish on our transcripts lashes us like bridled stallions, gasping, through the night.
I get up. I can’t be here. I can’t focus.
“I like how even though Taylor has a pencil sharpener, he always polishes off the point with his knife. I like Taylor’s knives,” one classmate observes as I walk down the stairs. “And” – he’s taken aback – “his cigarettes, apparently.”
Near Blume Center, right behind Memorial Church, I settled at the fountain and sucked ash into my lungs. Showering into the pool behind, the water rang quite pleasantly. Then something cut through the babble of droplets: a low monotone buzz. I climbed the back wall of the fountain to investigate. I listened to the motor running the pump, drawing water through the drain, up the pipes and back into the pool whence it came. When I dropped down again from the wall erected specifically to block the sound of that motor, I could almost enjoy the fountain’s trickle melodic-like chimes. Almost.
But I could still hear the buzz. I thought about the gas that it was burning to run, the carbon and nitrogen oxides that it was choking into the air – just as harmful as anything I was inhaling from the cancer stick. My impression of that fountain was permanently drowned out by the ugly whirr of the motor that ran it. Of what made it useful. What was worse, somebody had specifically constructed that wall in order to block the sound. They measured the decibel level at three feet from the motor running in its steel box and selected blocks large enough to reflect or absorb almost all of those sound waves so that somebody on the other side wouldn’t give second thought to what it was, exactly, that made their nice music possible. They’d just listen to the concert.
The roar of familiar voices washed out the door as soon as I returned to the Blume Center. I enjoy listening to my friends, but all that I could hear that night was the buzz of stress, whirring behind their facades. Now that I’ve heard it, I can never forget.
I had to stop that night and write. For two hours, I feverishly scrawled across sheet after sheet of blank, white paper. Thoughts had struck me at that fountain with absolute clarity, and I had to organize them, parcel them into prayers to atone for the sin of living for anything besides what I love.
Those words are of no use, at least for now, to anybody but me. Nobody would give me a job for such activity, although they would for the knowledge in the problem set that I neglected to finish until three in the morning. Yet I became at peace with that fact when I recalled a line from Zhuangzi, a philosopher that I love: “The mountain tree plunders itself. The candle fat scorches itself. The cinnamon tree is edible, and thus it gets chopped down. The lacquer tree is useful, and thus it is cut down.”
I’d really prefer it if Stanford would turn off its fountains. They accelerate increases in entropy, they pollute the local atmosphere and they shatter drop by drop the mirrored pools in which we might reflect upon ourselves were they let alone.
Here’s my challenge for the week: do something useless. Whatever it is that inspires you, don’t lose its signal in the interfering static, in the waves of the fountain. Especially as we near exams, take time to write about your struggle in medias res, instead of staying preoccupied with transcripts and with conclusions.
“Everyone knows how useful usefulness is, but no one seems to know how useful uselessness is.”
It isn’t useless – email Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org.