Lessons From Spike Jonze

Cooper Copeland is a student at the University of Southern California and an official API Student Blogger. Cooper is studying abroad with API this summer in Florence, Italy.

Well, I guess this is my last blog. Woo, intimidating. What in the blazes do I talk about? How do I appropriately sum up these past two months of scusa-ing, grazie-ing, and ummmwhat-ing; of pretending to understand what the sommeliers mean when they say a wine is flabby; of walking down streets that you expect to go straight when in reality they all curve in unnatural directions; of trying with every fiber of your being not to fall asleep on trains for fear of missing your stop; or perhaps I could describe just how blissful it is to go for a morning read in the rose garden beneath Piazzale Michelangelo. All of these experiences have yielded some kind of impression on me, but I find all of them a bit lacking in capturing just how much of a nutjob Europe is, and I mean that as the greatest of compliments. There is still so much that I haven’t seen, or smelled, or eaten, or fiddled with that an ever-so-slight feeling of anxiety seems to be creepin’ up on me as the next week and a half winds down. Sounds like it’s time to put things into fourth gear.

I chose the above picture of the iconic Duomo for a specific reason. As the most recognizable, and holy wow, the busiest monument in Florence, I blush thinking about how, after two months of passing it on the way to class and mildly taking pride in the fact that I’m no longer in the “oh ma gawd, I need to take a pic of the Doma” phase of tourism, I still have yet to climb the dang thing, making me far worse than the above specimens. I’ve used two excuses to keep me from crossing the colossal thing off my bucket list thus far: 1) Hey, I have two months. I can travel to Switzerland, Greece and Ireland, and the Duomo will always be there when I get back, so might as well wait for a rainy day (that’s an inside joke to all you Florentines). 2) I am a claustrophobic fool. Let’s be honest, it’s the second point that has made me the most timid about walking the long, dark, narrow hall up to the top of the dome.

I suppose I’m slightly ashamed of letting a childish fear make me hesitate, even in the slightest, to experience something truly remarkable. I don’t know why, but this fear makes me think of the ever-brilliant Spike Jonze. For those of you non-film dweebs out there, he brought us flicks like Being John Malkovich (1999), Adaptation (2002), and Where the Wild Things Are (2009), all wondrous goodies that everyone should check out. I admire the man in so many ways its annoying, but something that really drove home his genius is the way he went about making the latter film’s soundtrack. Okay, this may seem like a random tangent, but I swear I’ll tie it back to my embarrassing phobia. Because the famous Maurice Sendak story is based around a child’s psyche, Jonze wanted the music to reflect just that, so he employed normal, run-of-the-mill children to make up the chorus supporting Karen O’s lyrics. He was dismayed to find, however, that these kids were being instructed by someone to sing a certain way; to fix their voices in order to sound more perfect than they were; to sound less like children and more like something constructed for them. This infuriated Jonze, because what he wanted was for the children to be raw, face the scary unknown, and discover their own voices, while never forgetting who they truly are: kids.

I hope this reference doesn’t seem out of left field, because I believe that my buddy Spike really knows what he’s talking about, and that it REALLY applies to things greater than kids singing a song, and even more than me facing my fear and getting to the top of the Duomo. Going abroad is more than the wine tastings, the souvenirs, the breathtaking views, and the beautiful people. While all those, especially the latter, make it quite the pleasant experience, I think if that’s all you come away with, than something went awry in your time over yonder wherever. I’m not saying that I’m a 100% new Cooper with spaghetti spouting out of my ears, but placing yourself in an environment that contrasts dramatically to the one you’re used to, it’s almost impossible not to see yourself morph into a new way of thinking and being. But if you forget who you used to be, your new environment won’t learn from you in return, and I think that’s the basic idea that Jonze was trying to get across. He wanted the kids to affect the music as much as it affected them. In college, I think we often get caught up in what others want from us, by way of schedules, pressure from parents, and stress of finding a real job, and thus we forget to pursue what’s truly important to us. That’s why being abroad, creating your own experiences, not having someone draw them up for you, and truly losing yourself in said experiences, is essential to reaping the greatest rewards. I really hope I don’t sound like some extremely poor echo of Eat, Pray, Love (please no), but when facing unfamiliar terrain, whether it’s in the shape of a dome or something of a broader sense, I see the Cooper I know shifting, adapting, and ultimately growing into an evolved me. I guess you could say I’m a Pokemon now. Here I am in Florence on the brink of arrivederci-ing, and I’m excited to bring back some fresh new me to Los Angeles. But if for some reason you don’t see me there, it’s probably because I’m stuck in the Duomo. Look for the Bat-signal.

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