Things I miss the most.

Unlike a lot of my peers, I’m attending a college on a quarter system, so I’m just leaving home today for my first year. Big changes like this don’t tend to register in my brain until I’m in the midst of them, so I’ve only just  begun to realize… this is really happening. In honor of this most momentous of occasions, I present a no-b.s. list of the things I think I’m really going to miss the most.

1. My lab. No joke, over the past 18 months, I’ve spent more time in the lab than at school. I wouldn’t call my co-workers and professor close friends or anything, but they really did inspire me with their genuine interest in their work, support, and good conversation. My experiences at work showed me a glimpse of how much I have yet to learn, and I’m seriously pretty hyped. I can’t imagine a better way to begin what may well become my future profession.

2. My bed. It’s soft. It’s expansive. It’s mine.

3. Knowing how to get places. Over the years, I, like most people, have amassed a fairly extensive knowledge of the road and bus systems in my hometown. Knowing where stuff is and the quickest way to get there brings me unparalleled satisfaction. Unfortunately, there’s no way I’m going to be able to get this familiar with LA.

4. My sister. Although she is, at times, the most annoying, incompetent little nitwit, there’s no one I feel more comfortable chilling with, ranting to, and being super weird around. No friend, no matter how close, can replace a sister.

5. Rain. Is SoCal weather everything it’s made out to be? We shall see.

6. Free time. I’m told that, where I’m going, I won’t have much of it.

7. Home-cooked meals. Once during a two-week long, stay away camp, I found myself growing sick of cafeteria food and craving a bowl of my dad’s tortilla soup, a dish I had actually disliked before I left. Distance makes the taste buds grow fonder.

8. My person. You know who you are. I miss you.

Privilege.

Last week, the delight of ice cream interrupted one of my generally busy workday afternoons.  My department hosted an ice cream social, and after a bit of convincing from a friendly grad student and the melodious call of Blue Bell, I found myself holding a dripping vanilla cone in the middle of a crowd of undergrads, grad students, and professors, few of whom I knew, even by name.  I was drawn toward my lab mates like a magnet to… a bigger magnet.  Being one of the younger people in my lab, I was exiled to the little kid circle with three undergrads who had just started work in June, essentially strangers to me.  Prompted by the name of the event, I took a stab at socializing with the guys, who had just returned from a short excursion around campus in the name of Pokémon Go.  I quietly enjoying their frenzied geekiness for a few minutes, when one of them suddenly paused and said to me apologetically, “we must be boring you out of your mind.”

Despite my insistence on the contrary, the conversation turned to my academic life: what was I doing in the lab, especially as a high schooler?  Did I take a course in this subject in school?  How was my high school?  I had grown used to answering these kinds of questions, replying that I felt fortunate to live in a city with such a prestigious research university and that the teachers, administration, and curriculum at my high school were all excellent, allowing and preparing me to take time off during the school day to enroll in classes at the university and to hold a position in one of its labs.  One of the guys, looked quite stunned after I had finished talking and said wistfully, “I would have done anything to go to a high school like that.”

Daniel told us that he had grown up in a small town at the southern-most border of Texas, a place so small that its name would certainly not ring a bell for any of us.  His school had offered only a few AP courses, and the school’s average scores on the tests were almost universally below passing.  As the valedictorian of his class, however, he had tried to make the best of what his surroundings had to offer, taking classes at a local community college and earning an associate’s degree along with his high school diploma.  Coming to a university like this one and working in a lab was pretty much a dream, for more reasons than just the high school he came from.  His father, apparently the sole bread-winner in his household, has a job as pipeline worker.  No one in the family has been to college.  He told us about the classes he is taking and how much more rigorous they are than the equivalents he had taken back home, reiterating how much he wishes he had grown up in this town, gone to my high school, and taken classes here as soon as he could.

I’m sure most of my peers are quite familiar with this kind of story, but actual hearing it told by someone who had lived it, is living it, meant so much more to me than any vague concept of some John Doe struggling to gain the opportunity that others so easily take for granted.  Hearing the conviction in his voice as he told us his story left no doubt in my mind that his determination will lead him to success.  As someone in a place of my privilege, academic and otherwise, I hope I will have the ambition to achieve something worthy of my upbringing.  Maybe hoping isn’t enough.

Too good to be true. Ever.

Today, BuzzFeed published a letter from a rape victim to her aggressor1,2. A warning, it is quite disturbing to read. And disturbed is just how I felt after finishing it, not only because of its contents, but because it got me thinking about another phenomenon that I’ve experienced much closer to home.

There’s a certain adult in my life (who shall remain nameless) with whom I’ve occasionally tried to bring up issues of social justice such as the one underlying the case mentioned, and the interactions would generally go as follows: I would express my feelings of dissatisfaction with the way a certain area is being handled in our country be it rape and victim blaming, race relations, support and education for the poor and disadvantaged, bigotry toward the LGBTQ community, or some other topic to this person, and although they3 never made any statement of disagreement, within seconds they would quickly dismiss my “idealism” as naive, uninformed, and, most discouragingly of all, utterly impossible. I won’t deny that I haven’t seen much in my short lifetime, but it seems to me that the group of people who are dissatisfied with the mainstream mindset toward these issues and those who express hopes for changes in that mindset don’t overlap each other perfectly – far from it, actually. That is, the adult I’m talking about is definitely not alone in their belief that the “system” is unchangeable and that we should focus on protecting ourselves from symptoms rather than attacking causes.

To me, this outlook seems depressingly bleak. I’ve written previously about my general optimism about people’s abilities for critical introspection, but the fact that people feel the results of their deep thought are meaningless, that their ideas lack efficacy, doesn’t sit well with me. After all, societal norms and ideas are ultimately made up of individual actions and thoughts, so while one person’s beliefs don’t necessarily change anything, discussing and advocating for those beliefs definitely has the potential to do so.

I haven’t done a lot of thinking about this efficacy deficit beyond what I’ve expressed, but what do you guys think? Do you know anyone like this or do you feel like your well-considered opinions sometimes aren’t worth expressing? The discussion is, as it should be, open.


1 This is related to the Stanford case that’s making national headlines – a lot of them. I avoided getting into my thoughts about the case too much because that would require a whole separate, very opinionated post. I’ll just say this: I hope that, after being hit over the head with these kinds of stories enough, people won’t be forgetting this issue after a news cycle or two.

2 Props to BuzzFeed for its attempts to grow into a legitimate news source.

3 Also remaining genderless. No, I’m not that uneducated or careless.

My farewell.

Although I like to try to avoid getting super emotionally invested in anything that’s too popular, I have to admit that finishing high school is worth noting.  It’s kind of a big deal to leave the group of people, environment, and sense of security that’s been all of my conscious life in the making.  To me, the unknown ahead isn’t nearly as frightening1 as the thought of the past becoming unknown, that is, losing track of the things that matter to me in this moment.  So now, I’m going to take some preemptive action against forgetfulness.  Here’s a little list of things I want to remember.

1. The joy of giving something my all… and then moving on.  As an eighth grader, I remember hearing that members of the high school robotics team stayed at school every day until 6 pm working, and I was sure I would never join… until I did.  And then a particularly awesome person convinced me to spend at least a hundred hours of my life memorizing insect orders and families.  And then I randomly went to Louisville, Kentucky for a week to do a bit of math and stand in front of a booth.  Extracurriculars consumed my life until my senior year, when I was forced (for a variety of reasons) to give them all up.  Needless to say, I was extremely torn up about it, but I learned a pretty important lesson about priorities and will always be thankful for the experiences I had in those clubs and the amazing people in them.

2. The linalg struggle.  I’ve made some mistakes in my academic history, but none so grave as thinking I was prepared to take an honors math class at A&M (especially during the spring semester of senior year… seriously, what was I thinking?).  It’s not really the feeling of being murked by an exam that I hope will stick with me, but my subsequent commitment to actually doing my best and being okay with the result, whatever it may turn out to be.  (Also, I don’t think I’ll forget how to grind out eigenvalues for a 5×5 matrix even if I wanted to.)

3. The knowledge that I have people to fall back on.  Especially a few adults.  They know stuff about life. That’s pretty cool.  My friends are also pretty cool.  I’m bad at being publicly sentimental, sorry guys.

4. Same.  Basically same.

5. Kites, praise-worthy trees, mitosis, and small metal objects.  As cheesy as it always sounds, ponytail Derek was right when he said that high school really makes you find yourself.  I’ve experienced a lot of amazing little things throughout high school with people I’ve really grown to care about.  These memories of little adventures can be captured in photos, mementos, and even journal entries, but in the end, I’m sure most of them will still fade away.  My hope is that the feelings they inspired in me will become ingrained in my person without need of special recognition, and that a small part of me will always choose to call this place and these people home.


1 My parents have told me that every summer when we went to visit the daycare or elementary school I’d be attending in the coming school year, I’d throw a fit when told that I wouldn’t actually be going to class there for a few weeks, and act in a similar vein when picked up after the first day of school.  The point is, I don’t think I’m going to be too homesick.

Farewell to Starman.

confusingbowie
So which of you is the real David Bowie?… oh…

 

A google image search for “David Bowie” returns a host of dissimilar faces, some only identifiable as pictures of Bowie by his left eye. Just as his personal styles has changed over his decades-long career, Bowie’s musical style was also in constant development. While there is no song or album that is quintessentially David Bowie (he dipped a toe in almost everything), I’ll be looking at one of his most well-known songs and one of my personal favorites, Space Oddity (1969), in memory of that eclectic but nonetheless exceptional artist.

 

Space Oddity – David Bowie

Ground Control to Major Tom
Ground Control to Major Tom
Take your protein pills and put your helmet on

Ground Control to Major Tom (Ten, Nine, Eight, Seven, Six)
Commencing countdown, engines on (Five, Four, Three)
Check ignition and may God’s love be with you (Two, One, Liftoff)

This is Ground Control to Major Tom
You’ve really made the grade
And the papers want to know whose shirts you wear
Now it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare

This is Major Tom to Ground Control
I’m stepping through the door
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way
And the stars look very different today

For here am I sitting in a tin can
Far above the world
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do

Though I’m past one hundred thousand miles
I’m feeling very still
And I think my spaceship knows which way to go
Tell my wife I love her very much
She knows

Ground Control to Major Tom
Your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you hear me, Major Tom?
Can you…

Here am I floating ’round my tin can
Far above the Moon
Planet Earth is blue
And there’s nothing I can do.

While this song outwardly appears to be about an astronaut who finds himself feeling weirdly at home in space, the lyrics are widely accepted to describe Bowie himself (or any rising star, for that matter) who is just beginning to experience the world of stardom. Major Tom’s physical height above the rest of the world is heavily suggestive of Bowie’s growing fame, and questions about “whose shirts1 you wear” further suggest the public’s interest in his personal life. However, Tom’s remark that “the stars” (as in celebrities) “look very different” suggests that fame is not what it seems to outsiders: in fact, it is alienating as indicated by Major Tom’s loss of contact with Ground Control, drifting off into space, and his helplessness (“and there’s nothing I can do”) to stop himself from floating away. This view frames Spaces Oddity as a sort of soft and still somewhat unaware prequel to Fame (1975), a cry out against the manipulative and heartless treatment of great artists by their managers and labels.

 

 


1 “Shirts” is probably a reference to sports teams, but asking about his actual shirts would also qualify as invasive, actually, even more so

Cleisthenes of Athens.

While the original website assigned for this post seems to think that users of the Internet1 are dull witted enough to think that Thomas Jefferson was the founder of democracy, I would like to assume that most students are taught that democratic ideas—rule of law, natural rights, and the like—were adopted most directly from writers and philosophers of  the Enlightenment like John Locke. However, what is generally not covered in US history classes are the first occurrences of what could today be considered democracy in Ancient Greece.

Athens was a cultural center of that thriving civilization, and living in it during the 6th century BCE was the statesman Cleisthenes, who served as a high magistrate of the city. Preceding Cleithenes’s leadership, a clan of tyrannous leaders had just been forced out of the city by Spartan military forces, and while Cleisthenes failed to secure the power that the previous ruling group had held, he instead attempted not to rule over people, but to coerce them to join him by promising that their voices would be heard in the selection of leadership in the city. His greatest innovation in politically thinking was suggesting that political responsibility and privilege should be based on “citizenship of a place rather than on membership in a clan” (Britannica).

None of this can be confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt2, but it is surely a momentous change in history, the first known attempt for a powerful group to decide to voluntarily give power to citizens. While the system of government Cleisthenes created is of course not true democracy, just as the first government of the United States was not truly equally representative of all citizens, it seems odd that relatively few people know his name.

So let us be educated.

cleisthenes1


Source for much of this information:
Encylopædia Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/biography/Cleisthenes-of-Athens

1 well, the user-ship of ListVerse, at least
2 the Greeks were very proficient at embellishing a lot of their traditions

One memory.

I’ve had a lot of friends tell me that Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is one of the most personally meaningful and beautifully written books they have read inside or out of English class. Compare this reaction to the general consensus about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, namely that it was the dullest book ever, and a truth about the relationship between readers and writing emerges. Assuming that this opinion of The Scarlet Letter has remained largely unchanged, I think it is safe to say that the vast disparity in responses to the two texts has a lot to do with their different styles and narrative approaches. While we, as students of literature, understand that both books have meanings outside the context of Puritan society or the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried is likely more well-received by high schoolers because it is written in an unembellished yet alluring way, as a collection of stories told by an Everyman about a bunch of Everymen forced into a highly unfamiliar situation, allowing readers to gain some amount of pure and true insight into what it is like to be a soldier, not only during a conflict, but for a lifetime.

In an interview with the PBS NewsHour, O’Brien reveals that his intention in writing The Things They Carried was just that. His style of writing is difficult to categorize; it is not an autobiography, as O’Brien specifically says that the book’s events were mostly fabricated, but calling it a piece of inspired but invented fiction undoes O’Brien’s purposeful work in making the stories seem real and thereby relatable. I have finally come to the conclusion that The Things They Carried is best categorized as a ‘collective memoir’. Although the events experienced by the narrator may not have all happened to one man alone, the book discusses the memories that belong to Vietnam veterans as a larger group, and the stories in the book are meant to represent the summed experiences of all the men who lived through and later had to come to terms with their involvement in the war.

This genre seems to work for a lot of people, including young people (in this case meaning high school and college-aged people), and this seemed to come as a surprise to O’Brien, who envisioned his book reaching a more mature audience of people in their late 20s and older. As reflected in the interview, however, O’Brien’s surprise seems secondary to his feeling of satisfaction at being able to reach and share his conclusions with such a wide audience. As someone who read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn at age 10, I would say that, despite our current ability to grasp and interpret The Things They Carried, the book is definitely worth re-reading later in life to see how our new opinions and experiences will inform an evolved understanding of O’Brien’s work.

Spill over from the Vietnam War.

To be completely honest, I don’t enjoy reading or writing about the Vietnam War. Most of what I hear are either horror stories about bloody combat and filthy marches through months of monsoon rain or, even more discomforting to me, attempts of veterans to highlight the joyful moments over the tragic, the heroic over the demeaning, the glorious over the tragic. It seems only natural that participants in the fighting would wish to avoid facing and talking about the harsher realities of war, so I’ve decided to write about an entirely different aspect of the conflict not through the eyes of a fighter, but of a reporter.

In an interview with Sydney Schanberg, who was a reporter for Time Magazine and the author of a book that inspired the movie The Killing Fields (it’s a great movie), Schanberg talks about the controversy surrounding his actions in Cambodia as the Vietnam War was winding down and a what he and many others believe to be a coverup of POWs in Laos by the Nixon administration who were left behind due to the US government’s fear that the administration would receive bad publicity for being militarily involved in areas outside of Vietnam’s borders.

Early on, the United State’s involvement in Vietnam was kept secret from American citizens, and I honestly would not be surprised if the rumors are true given the other, more infamous scandal that Nixon was involved in at the time. Angered by what he sees as great dishonesty by the government, Schanberg continues to advocate for a confession by the government through his writing and investigation. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely to me that any official information about stranded POWs will be released any time soon (at least by the government) due to the public’s and the world’s tendency to focus on outrage against the government and forget that the administration would be trying to do some good to correct it’s past errors. As Schanberg puts it:

“It’s like, in life, if you tell a whopper of a lie, as each day passes, it becomes harder to confess.”

Your love notes are infantile.

In the present day, when we remember Thomas Jefferson—our nation’s third president, the author of the Declaration of Independence, one of those white-wigged men—his image is commonly shrouded with near-godliness and placed in a gilded frame of perfection, as is the case for most all of our founding fathers. This sort of stoic vibe makes it difficult and likely very awkward to envision him as a pining lover. Jefferson’s humanness of this sort is proven by a letter he wrote on October 12th, 1786 to a woman named Maria Cosway. Apparently, this young lady must have been quite a catch; Jefferson wrote her a whopping 4635 words in a letter that became known as The Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart. The two met in Paris when Jefferson was 43 and Cosway 27, and Jefferson, whose wife had since passed away, became enamored with Cosway. The affair that preceded the letter’s authoring was, for Jefferson, probably quite enjoyable; for the rest of us, the subject of much speculation. Anyhow, their relations were doomed to fail from the start, as Cosway was already married, and after a time, Jefferson’s feelings for her appeared to dissolve into a lasting friendship that remained strong until late in Jefferson’s life.

As I started to read the letter, I was impressed by Jefferson’s characteristic prose, the strange, methodical nature of his inner turmoil, and the sense that I should most definitely not be reading this letter. Historical figures are celebrities of sorts, and we know what to do with celebrities – probe,publicize, and dramatize their private lives in any way possible. Which many public figures are in the spotlight of their own accord, I suspect that Jefferson did not intend for anyone but his lovely Maria to read his words. At the same time, it’s understandable that we are fascinated with he love lives of celebrities, including the Founding Fathers, because glimpses of their ordinary lives make them more relatable, allowing us to see a different, less shiny version of those who generally appear unreachable atop a mountain of fame.

If you are so inclined, you can read the whole letter here and more of the juicy details here.

Don’t forget the other guys.

Web comics are cool. Such is the case with the site Zen Pencils, on which the artist, known affectionately as Gav, publishes comic strips accompanied by well-known quotations and poems. Here’s a link to the complete comic I chose to write about and the poem it includes:

“No Man is an Island” — John Donne

No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as any manner of they friends or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.

This piece was part of a meditation of the English cleric John Donne. May I point out that the theme expressed herein should seem vaguely familiar.1 The ideas of feeling for the struggles of others and interconnectedness have been recurring subjects in my thoughts for about a week since a rather serious discussion of the Syrian refugee crisis in my government class, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, while death is saddening, it is also necessary and can effect2 changes on many scales. I wish I had some very satisfactory, logical explanation as to why I believe that we have a duty to everyone else in the world, but for now, I’ll just say that the person who experiences hardship, deals with death, or is dying, could be any one of us, and our understanding may well be helpful to the unfortunate.

The art in the comic itself tells a substory of this big idea, one of a man who has received news of the death of one of the (literal) rockstars of his youth and how the event inspires him to revisit his past. The little details of the comic are delightful in their significance, notably the reemergence of the man’s tattoos from under his shirtsleeves in the last frame. This smaller story reached me on a personal level; moments after I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s death, I underwent a similar moment of shock. Learning of the passing of the man who portrayed Mr. Spock3, one of the most distinct voices of my childhood, triggered the physical dropping of my lower jaw and a quiet, thoughtful rest of the day. The day wasn’t a complete loss, however, as both the protagonist of the comic and I discovered that any person will continue to live so long as they have some effect on those who are still living. That being said, I most certainly intend to force-feed my children Star Trek.


1 Jim Casy!
2 Look! It’s effect the verb!
3 I promise I’m not trying to fit Star Trek into every post.