Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lessons in Independence

Being independent seems to be a really important thing for a lot of people. Independence is a hallmark of your success and a measure of your worth. It marks your metamorphosis from a helpless child into a capable adult.

I’ve always considered myself a pretty pathetically dependent person. I can’t drive. I’ve never had a job. I can’t cook much besides scrambled eggs, toast, and things with directions on the package. My street smarts are abysmal. I don’t know how to cash a check, I suck at talking on the phone, and every time I’m in a situation where I have to tip someone I panic and ask my friends to double check my reasoning ‘cause I always forget the proper percentage. Pretty much the only things I can do all by myself are wash laundry and get straight As.

That I basically need someone to hold my hand in order to function like a capable adult used to be a major source of shame for me. Then at some point in my life I accepted it. Now, I usually just hope that if smile apologetically and ask my stupid questions politely enough, the world will forgive my uselessness.

That’s not to say that I haven’t been trying to take every opportunity to learn how to be more independent. Which brings me to these past three days.

I spend a good chunk of my life here at college with my roommates. We get along really well, and so in addition to living with them, I usually also eat, do schoolwork, and hang out with them. But these past few days, all three of them have been busy, out with other people and doing other things.

Now, that in itself isn’t a problem. It’s not like I begrudge people the time that they don’t spend with me. And normally, I could find other people to hang out with. But right now I have a BIG HUGE CULMINATION OF ENTIRE YEAR OH MY GOD DUE SOON paper that I’ve needed to spend every spare moment working on, and inviting people over to say “hey, nice to see you, so I’m basically going to drown you out with music and work on my paper now” seemed a little silly. And so I’ve spent more time than usual alone, doing my own thing.

Okay, I thought, when it became evident that this was how things were gonna be for a little while. I can handle doing my own thing. All I’m doing is my work anyway. It’s not like I’m singlehandedly holding down a fort.

And things did largely have gone fine. Aside from random spells of talking to myself, being alone doesn’t bother me much. The only problem arose at dinnertimes. Usually, I go to dinner when my roommates do, and we go to whatever dining hall the general consensus agrees upon. Without their guidance, I was a bit unsure of what to do with myself. Not because I don’t know how to get food on my own. I can do that. It was just that without a group of people with whom to coordinate a time and a place, there were suddenly too many times and places to choose from. I could go eat anywhere, at any time I wanted? Well goodness! I would kind of put off the decision until I just ended up having cereal or grabbing something to eat in the room.

I started this morning with a mission. Today—no matter what—I was going to get my hair cut. My hair had not been cut since the beginning of January, and for the past three weeks, its propensity to get everywhere had become almost unbearably annoying. I had been putting off going to the Hair Cuttery in the mall out of some vague hope that someone would want to come get their hair cut with me. But no more of that—I was going to be an independent woman and go by myself!

I had never actually walked to the mall next to college by myself before. I can’t think of a less dangerous trip—once you get off campus, you pass an old folks’ home and cut through a Sheraton, and then you’re there. But I generally use the buddy system whenever possible. You never know when you might randomly trip and break your leg and need a buddy.

Turns out, I didn’t have to walk by myself anyways. One of my roommates was also headed to the mall to meet some friends. We went out together and wandered in some shops for a bit, until eventually she went to go find her friends and I went to go finally free myself from that scraggly oppression.

I went into the Hair Cuttery. It was busy and crowded, and I could barely hear the woman at the register when she asked if I had a client card. Nonetheless, I managed to convey my wishes.

A woman cut my hair. She was nice. She made some small talk. I made a bit of small talk back, but small talk with strangers is not my strength. She seemed to understand that and eventually said nothing, except the occasional “look down more.”

It was a beautiful thing when I raised my head to the mirror and saw myself looking the way I like to look. And when she lifted my bangs away from my forehead, snipped them, and let them fall back—and they didn’t poke my eyeballs—that was a glorious moment, my friends, a glorious moment.

I paid for my haircut—even tipped appropriately with minimal panic—and off I went. Mission accomplished.

I walked away from the Hair Cuttery on a cloud of relieved euphoria. My excess hair was gone and it felt awesome. I had been looking forward to this moment for ages. How wonderful it was, to have just gone and done this because it was what I needed to do!

As I was about to leave the mall, I considered stopping at Coldstone. I had been planning to grab some ice cream after my haircut. But I checked the time. It was already past four thirty. If I had ice cream now, it would ruin dinner.

No matter. I’d just come back over for ice cream some other day. Whenever I felt like it. On a whim. I could do those sorts of things, being an independent woman fully capable of walking a mile and a half.

And so I went out of the mall, across the skywalk, through the Sheraton, past the old folks’ home, across campus, and into the dorms. I unlocked my door, went inside—and was greeted by empty silence.

And then it struck me. One of my roommates was organizing some German beer night. Another was out in Baltimore with her friend from home. The other was back at the mall. There was nobody here to have dinner with. I could text around to other friends see if anyone wanted to eat, but that was always kind of stressful. I could just show up at the dining hall and hope to see someone to sit with there, but then there was the possibility of eating alone in a corner.

The long and short of it was… I should have gotten that ice cream.

For about half an hour, I worked on my paper and wallowed in my loss.

And then I realized something. Who was stopping me from going back to the mall right then and getting Coldstone? Absolutely nobody. That’s who.

And so I made up my mind. I was going to have ice cream for dinner. Because why the hell not? Was it a silly idea to walk all the way back to the mall for just for ice cream? Maybe according to other standards—but if I thought it was an excellent idea (and I did), why should I not do it? I had no one to answer to but myself. I was free. I was doing my own thing. I was… independent.

I went right back out the door, across the campus, past the old folks’ home, through the Sheraton, across the skywalk, and into the mall.

The line for Coldstone went out the door. That was a little dismaying.

It would be silly to wait in such a long line just for ice cream, said the part of that was still judging things by everyone else’s standards. You should just go get food somewhere else.

No way! countered the part of me that had realized that nobody’s standards but my own mattered for the moment. You want ice cream. Go get ice cream. You made a special trip for it, didn’t you?

So I got in the line. And when I got to the front, the part of me that was doing whatever the hell it wanted was so pleased with itself that I decided to order the medium-sized cup of ice cream, instead of the small one I’d usually get. It was going to be my dinner, after all.

Well, if you’ve ever been to Coldstone, you know that even smallest cup contains an absurd amount of ice cream. I walked out of that shop (and out of the mall, across the skywalk, through the Sheraton, past the old folks’ home, and across campus) with a scoop of ice cream about the size of both of my fists (so, according to popular belief, twice the size of my heart.)

Now, if I were a character in a wacky sitcom, I would get my karmic retribution for such a stupid decision by feeling like crap from eating so much ice cream. Then I would learn some silly lesson about how being independent is great, but you have to not be an idiot and enjoy your independence by calling up some friends to enjoy a nutritious meal at the dining hall.

If you thought that that was how this story was going to end, you have not experienced my relationship with ice cream. No, I have no regrets. I happily ate that entire scoop, even if took me so long to do it that the last fourth turned to liquid.

For those of you disappointed with the lack of karmic retribution and schadenfreude, I did have painfully cold fingers after carrying the ice cream back to campus in 50 degree weather. And while I was walking, I had time to think about what it meant to have gone out and done this alone. This is what I realized:

Complete freedom to do whatever I want is boring. It’s so… easy. It’s so predictable. I wanted ice cream. So I got it. Cool. So what?

When your plans depend on other people, things aren’t so simple. You have to scheme and compromise, consider and choose. Maybe you don’t get exactly what you want, but you always get something, and you never know exactly what the something will be. That’s exciting.

I think that’s why I tend to agree to try just about any activity—so long as it’s not, you know, illegal or anything—even if I don’t particularly want to. Because I want to do things that I don’t really want to do, you know? You try new things that way. Sometimes you don’t end up liking hem. But sometimes you really do. And it gives more variety to your life than if you’re just constantly only doing things you personally chose to do.

I realized—I want to learn to drive not because I want to be able to take myself wherever I want, but so I can road trip with my friends and take my siblings out on adventures. I want to learn how to cook not so I can eat whatever I want all the time, but so I can make new foods and innovate with our hilariously limited ingredient supply. I want to learn how to function in society not so I can go off by myself all the time, but so my friends and I can pool our skills and together take on the world.

Basically, I want the trademarks of independence so I can contribute—so I can co-depend, so that I can depend on people but people can depend on me in return. I don’t like going off and doing my own thing. I like doing other people’s thing and then doing my thing with them.

And now I know that when left to my own devices, I come up with such great plans as “special ice cream trip!” Maybe it’s a good thing I never had a job or a car. There’s a Dairy Queen between my old high school and my house.

Here’s to being an independent woman.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Our Education Is Like Photorespiration

The only reason I didn't die of boredom in fifth period today is because as I was plotting 124 tiny dots on graph paper and drawing lines between them (with a ruler, of course) I was mentally reforming the American education system.

Implementing, or at least coming up with strategies for implementing, educational reform has become something of a dream goal for me. I want to do it the same way some people want to be professional baseball players. The U.S. has been slipping slowly down the list of countries with the best education systems. That is not a list we want to be slipping down. In my opinion, the biggest problem is apathy -- a simple problem with a very elusive solution. But there're smaller problems, scores of them. And as I sit there in public school myself, I can see them. Things we could probably fix and change.

For example, today in fifth period, we made graphs. We mapped the tide at some random location in New York for 31 days, with 4 points for each day. And we were required to do it by hand. According to the teacher, it was just to see if we could do it. Apparently, scientists used to do this all the time back before there were computers.

That, in my opinion, is the worst justification ever. If any scientist did all his graphs by hand in the present day, he'd be fired for being so horribly inefficient. What's the point of practicing something that scientists used to do in years gone by rather than what they do now? I don't think any of us are planning to be scientists in the 1940s. The 2020s, maybe, and by that time the job will even more certainly entail creating computer-generated graphs.

Granted, being able to make a graph by hand is still probably a useful skill in some situations. That's why we learn how to do it in 6th grade.

In short, the graph was the busywork. We practiced an outdated skill, useless (or at least much less useful than other skills we could be practicing) in the modern world. And it was incredibly tedious, which is even worse. If you're going to make students bore themselves to tears, there had better be a good reason. Tedium for tedium's sake breeds apathy -- which, from what I've observed so far, is learning's enemy #1.

From all this, let's create a rule. (Note that this rule is flexible. Even if I solidified it as part of a "theory," it would somewhat fluid, amorphous if you will, because that's how I roll.) Something like this:

"Classwork (especially tedious classwork) needs to have a purpose relevant to both the aims of the class and the modern world for which school is supposed to prepare students."

Work for work's sake is as inefficient as photorespiration. We put in the effort (ATP) and time (NADPH) that we could've used for more effective schoolwork (the Calvin Cycle) and get nothing out of it. And in fact, we eliminate the things we do want (student interest, i.e. carbon dioxide) and produce crap we don't (resentment and boredom, i.e. oxygen.)

Please don't take this as an attack. I'm not trying to complain, especially since I could've switched out of the class in question at the semester. I'm just trying to think of new ways to do things, and trying to identify the problems with the old ways. If anybody reading this has opinions of their own, by all means please share them. If I'm ever going to reform anything, I need to figure out what works, and I'm one person with one subjective opinion that can easily overlook things. In fact, someday I'd need to talk to people about this, hundreds of people, and do research on schools all over the country and probably worldwide. Now wouldn't that be an awesome project?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Pen Is Mightier Than the Melancholy... Totally....

I'm not sure what you were hoping for when you clicked the link that brought you here. Perhaps you had nothing better to do. Perhaps you've never read my blog before and are just wondering what I have to say. Perhaps you're a kind soul trying to humor me, and for that, I thank you. Like most people, I do enjoy being humored.

On the off chance that you were actually expecting some sort of deep insightful commentary on life and the nature of humanity -- sorry, I've got none of that at the moment. What I do have tonight is a sort of melancholy discontent. There's no good reason for it; it's just there. And so I'm attempting to flush it out by writing. No grand thoughts tonight. Just an overactive superego and a keyboard.

Which is all a very roundabout way of saying: hey, I'm gonna write about myself. Today, this is a vanity blog. I'm sorry -- you can leave now if you like.

Now that that's out of the way, I'm going to write about misconceptions. Namely, three misconceptions that I think quite a few people must have about me, as they're misconceptions I've had about myself.

Misconception 1: I'm not content with where I am (geographically, I mean.)

I probably talk a lot about how much I want to travel. It's true that I do have a powerful sense of wanderlust, and that my greatest dream is to go abroad and live in other places and cultures. But that doesn't mean that I don't like it here. Sometimes I think people get the impression that I feel like my country isn't good enough, or something, or that I think other places must be better. That's not true at all. I'm not looking for anything "better." I don't believe in better, really. I just believe in "different."

This place is where I come from. It's ingrained within me, and I'm glad for that. In fact, if it wasn't, my wanderlust would not be so strong. My Americanness is my frame of reference -- without it, I could not see the rest of the world and think "Hey, that's different from what I know! Awesome!"

And it's not the necessarily places that I'm so eager to see. Places are awesome, but sightseeing isn't what I'm so passionate about. It's people and everything they do. Culture. Potential friends. There's a whole world of it, and that's what I love. I don't think that there's something "better" out there that I'm missing. I just know that there are things that are different out there. That's what I'm looking for.

I was going to go on, but I don't think I will. I'm really trying not to use this blog to rant on about personal things that nobody cares about anyways. I'll leave you with two parting thoughts.

First, a question: is it better to be insecure or overconfident? Obviously both are follies and have their issues. On a spectrum, I fall decidedly on the "insecure" side. In fact, my insecurity (along with my emotional immaturity, inability to make eye contact with people, and practical uselessness) is one of my biggest faults, I believe. I wonder what it would be like to have extra confidence. Would it cause more problems than it solves? Or would my life not necessarily be better or worse, but just different? What other aspects of my character would it alter?

Second, a thought: I think that most people end up hating other people due to misconceptions, misunderstandings, and the simple fact that we are all locked behind different sets of eyes. People interpret the world differently by the virtue of being different people. I think sometimes we all assume too quickly that everybody else thinks exactly the way we do, and that the reasons behind another person's actions would naturally be the same as our own.

Alright, I'm tired now and the melancholy would probably be better served by sleep. Goodnight... and till next time, when I hope I'll actually have something other than my silly old self to write about.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I Am A Raincoat

Before I get started here: you've probably noticed that you are now staring at snow and not book pages. I think I might change the blog's background monthly -- keeps things fresh, and all.

Anyways! I think it's high time for another language-related spiel, don't you? (By the way, the word 'spiel' comes from German, which is why we pronounce it with a 'sh' sound despite the lack of an h.)

I noticed that I have a habit of muttering phrases in languages that I'm 'investigating' (aka learning at the speed of a lethargic sea cucumber) to myself for no good reason whatsoever. They are rarely things one would consider useful -- very few of them would help me as a tourist, and there are several I doubt I'll ever use exactly as they are.

I only noticed this habit lately, but now that I think about it, it's not a new thing. I can remember repeating 'Je suis un imperméable' to myself back when I was a lower level Frenchling. Incidentally, that phrase means 'I am a raincoat.' Not particularly useful when sightseeing in Paris.

My initial reaction when I noticed that I do this was "Ah man, I'd better stop. People are going to think I'm crazy... er." But after a bit of thought, I realized that phrase parroting is actually probably a brilliant language learning strategy. Why? Because it's just what babies do when they learn their natural language. They don't try to learn the most useful things or the words they're going to need most. They just pick a word that they like and repeat it, whether it be 'mama' or 'shut up!'

Of course, I'm no longer a baby. I already have one language in my head and I'm not going to learn another by phrase parroting. But I think that repeating random words is still a really great idea, if only because it has the same function as a baby's babbling and cooing does -- it teaches you the sounds of the language without yet having to worry much about meaning.

So, if you're learning a language, I recommend hitting up YouTube for songs, shows, movies, what have you in that language. If you find yourself liking some phrases, embrace them! Remember and repeat them. And then let me know how it goes, because I'm curious to know if it is a valid strategy or if I'm just a freak.

Tomorrow (or some other day in the near future) I shall make a list of my favorite phrases to repeat. Because most of them make just as much sense as 'je suis un imperméable,' you see.

Till then.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Like Nicotine Patches. Except for Meat.

Honestly, I'm all for becoming a vegetarian.

Not because I'm opposed to killing for food, mind you. I acknowledge that humans are naturally omnivorous, and agree that killing and eating other animals isn't an evil of modern society any more than reproducing is. It's not the idea that doesn't rest well with me -- it's the way we carry that idea out.

For example:
  • Mass meat production is environmentally unsustainable. Animal wastes from factory farms cause huge amounts of pollution, and the meat industry is actually the number one producer of greenhouse gases.
  • Eating meat is less efficient than eating plant-derived food. Biology tells us that energy transfers from one trophic level to the next is far from 100% efficient -- which basically means that if you take a field and plant it with grain for bread, you can feed many more people than you can if you take a field, plant it with grain, feed that grain to cows, and then kill and eat the cows.
  • Have you ever seen a picture or video of a factory farm? 'Nuff said.
Yeah, so, becoming vegetarian? Sounds like a good deal to me.

But there's one problem: I don't think I could give up meat.

I like meat. Though I don't eat much of it, but I would definitely miss it if I gave it up. Chicken and turkey I could probably do away with. Ham and pork might be hard, but I'd get over it. But hamburgers? How could I give up ground beef? And fish? Forget it! Never going to happen.

I'm pretty sure I'm not alone here. I'm sure that there've got to be more people -- quite a good number of people, I'd suspect -- who have all these reasons to become vegetarian and that one big but standing in their way.

So! I've come up with a simple and brilliant solution that will probably be ridiculed from here to somewhere very far away: demi-vegetarianism.

Ah, I hear scoffs already. Bona fide vegetarians are always looked at with this sort of... I dunno, contempt. What, you're too good for meat or something? Why're you trying to fight how humans naturally are? You're just looking for attention, aren't you? I can't imagine the kind of harsh judgement a demi-vegetarian would be subjected to.

But hear me out here. If you can't bear to give up meat entirely, why can't you just cut back? Maybe have weeks during which you do eat meat, and weeks during which you don't. Or stop eating the kinds of meat you can live without. Or even just make an active effort to choose alternative foods.

But wouldn't this be horribly hypocritical? Sure, if your sole reason for being vegetarians was a moral thing. If you say "It's wrong to eat animals!" and then go around eating animals, you're not going to garner yourself any sympathy. But what if you object to the meat industry? Or you'd like to be vegetarian for health reasons? If you can't give up meat entirely, wouldn't it be better to just cut back?

And who knows? Maybe you'll find that you don't miss meat as much as you thought, and decide to go all out. Demi-vegetarianism could either be a lifestyle choice on its own, or like training wheels for the real thing.

Basically, what I'm trying to say is this: do you have to never use an electrical appliance again in order to conserve energy? No! Do you have to refuse sweets forever in order to eat healthily? No! In my opinion, the only reason why vegetarianism is "all or nothing" is because vegetarians are stereotyped as either fanatical or only doing it for the attention -- therefore, any deviation from leafy green orthodoxy is mocked.

I think, after Thanksgiving, I might try being a demi-vegetarian for awhile and see how it works out.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Because Buckets are Classy

I shall now bestow upon my blog a post regarding one of my very favorite subjects, which incredibly has somehow not yet shown up. This subject is, of course, language.


So, a couple weeks ago I found myself at the public library, and I decided it'd be a fun idea to raid the shelf of language learning books. Recently, I've been going on a bit of a Germanic languages trip, so I left with one book on German, one on Norwegian, one on Danish, and one on good ol' English grammar.

Turns out the German book, though useful, is really a grammar guide aimed at people who already have a base in the language. And so, though German is very high on my "Languages To Learn" list, for now it'll have to wait.

The Danish and Norwegian books have been much, much better. I've learned much of the basics of both languages -- though I fear at some point I'll have to choose one or the other, because they're so similar that I'm bound to get confused. Until then, though... jeg laerer norsk og dansk!

Anyways, this particular anecdote is about Danish. I was reading one of the dialogue transcriptions in the book, despite the fact that I was at school and so couldn't exactly follow along with the CD. The dialogue in question involved shopping at the florist's.

The Danish word for 'bouquet' is 'buket.' As I read the dialogue, I could not stop mentally interpreting the word 'buket' as 'bucket.' Which would make the dialogue go something like this:

"I would like a bucket of flowers, please. How much does the bucket of roses cost?"
"The big bucket with 10 roses is 60 kr."
"That's a bit expensive. How much does the small bucket cost?"
"The small bucket of tulips and daffodils costs 15 kr."
"That's cheap. I would like that bucket, please."

I began to laugh at the mental image of a guy bringing his date a bucket of flowers. Because nothing's classier than a bucket, right?

"Here you go, darling! A bucket of flowers just for you!"
"Oh George, how lovely! And when they wilt, I can use the bucket to store the toilet plunger!"

I dunno. Maybe that was funnier in my head, but you have to admit that buckets are the least romantic container out there.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Magical Metamorphosis of Opinions

Whether or not you agree with their opinions, you gotta feel bad for politicians from time to time. The media constantly digs up dirt from their past lives and throws in their faces, as though what they did when they were sixteen should affect whether or not people vote for them.

Is it fair to expect politicians to have led perfect, exemplary lives? Is it fair to expect that they knew their platform and have had their current values since they were children? I don't think so. Opinions change all the time - especially as teenagers, we explore different points of view. I, at least, would rather have someone in office who considered issues from different perspectives and then decided which one was best than someone who has been set in their ways all their life. How do they know that their opinions are best, if they've never tried anything else?

Since posting what I did last night, I've been thinking about the ramifications of saying controversial things in public places. In twenty years, I might be a writer, and make a living by asking difficult questions. Or in twenty years, I might have job at the UN, or as a diplomat.

I hope someday I can do both. But are they mutually exclusive? Do I have to give up my right to ask controversial questions in order to be liked and successful?

Everything I say, by the way, is a question. However I word things, I do not mean them to be statements of absolute truth. I'm sharing my current opinion with you, and inviting you to challenge me. There are very, very few things that I have concrete beliefs about, and I'm always open to new ideas.

If you don't like what I say, don't hate me for it. Stand up and change my mind. It's open.