Sunday, May 21, 2017

Film Reviews

This past week was probably the most exhausting one of the quarter so far. What am I thinking about? I hardly know. I don't want to be overdramatic because it's really not that bad, last quarter there were much worse weeks, but my energy levels are low and I can't wait for this year to end.

Alright - Kendrick Lamar

At the beginning of Winter Quarter I had intended to write a post about the films that I'd seen since Thanksgiving. Work on my current project is going slowly, and thinking in stories will help. So here are the much-belated film reviews, including for ones I've seen since then. There will be spoilers.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Characters: I liked the main characters. My favorites were Jacob and Tina, because of course my favorites would be the friendly comic relief guy and the awkward but competent career woman. I didn't connect much with the character of Queenie but I enjoyed her interactions with the other characters. Call me boring but I am a fan of kind, sweet character dynamics. Each character's character design seemed to fit their personality well, except Grindelwald. The treatment of black characters in the film was decidedly underwhelming. Having the president of MACUSA be a black woman but also giving her a very flat character and including pretty much no other minorities with speaking roles? It felt a lot like they were fishing for diversity points--"look, we have a black woman in a position of power! We're not racist!"--without actually giving a damn about representation.

Tone and Pacing: Mood whiplash everywhere. There was no sense of harmony between the light-hearted "Newt goes to America!" scenes and the very heavy, dark plot with Credence and his abuse and manipulation at the hands of various adults. The two started alternating early on, true, but without much of a sense of rhythm.

Plot: I did not like the way the Credence plot was resolved because to me, it wasn't actually resolved. The immediate threat was destroyed, yes, but that immediate threat was an abused kid who had been built up as redeemable. What was the point of building up Newt and his crew as good, nice, decent people if that goodness and decency wasn't going to brought in in the big, obvious, plot-relevant way? There was no emotional resolution.

Worldbuilding: the Harry Potter franchise has always been really good at convincing me of their plausibility. The atmosphere of the film was entirely believable. Although I'm no expert in 20th-century New York, it certainly felt like a real place. I appreciate that, in a film.

Takeaways: balance, harmonize. Let characters use their strengths (e.g. if your main character is a super nice, easy-going guy who earns the trust of all sorts of wild and aggressive animals, let him win when he tries to get through to a scared and angry kid). Characters don't have to be evil to be interesting, complex, and cool. Tokenism doesn't effectively meet the need for diverse representation.



One of my favorite books, although I think this is the first time I'd watched the film.

Comparisons to the book: one of the most noticeable changes was the inclusion of the character of Wybie. Not entirely sure why they did that, but at a guess, if it was just Coraline alone, with no one but the cat to help her out, the atmosphere may not have been able to be as fun as it was. And although it is a creepy and dark story, the film did also have a lot of humor. Adding in some friendly banter with the neighbor kid helped keep it from getting too dark. It's been a few months so I don't remember everything that Wybie did or said, but he could also be a source of information that would otherwise be awkward to convey.

The visual medium of film definitely worked well with this story. Distorted secondary characters, the use or absence of color, etc.

Suburban fantasy is one of my favorite genres, mostly because the underlying message is that you, as you are, can go on an adventure. The world may seem mundane but there's something else, something you're not seeing yet--but you could.

The Other Mother is one of the scariest villains I've encountered. The spiderlike design of her "final form" in the movie really drove home her status as an inhuman being that sits in wait and lures in her prey. In my stories I prefer not to have eldritch things that cannot be reasoned with, but it's good for a creeping sense of implacable horror.


Before the Flood

Leonardo di Caprio's latest environmentalist film. Fun fact: I am two degrees of separation away from him.

My favorite part of the movie was when he was interviewing a community leader in India, a woman who told him that Americans had to change, that it was hypocritical to assume that Americans couldn't change and that all the progress had to come from the developing world. American society is not static: car and home ownership rates are dropping among young people, probably because we have no money, but also, doesn't that make it a prime time to put in place new ways of living and moving?

The economics of renewable energy always get me hyped because solar and wind are cheap, they are crazy cheap now. Natural gas is killing coal. Am I a coastal elite who isn't thinking hard enough about what impoverished coal miners will do now? Quite possibly. But renewables can go anywhere, are less dangerous, and had better win if we want to survive.

It's been a while so I don't remember exactly the way the film was structured, but I do remember thinking that the huge majestic aerial shots of various landscapes may not have been the best rhetorical move. The big picture is important. The big picture is crucial. But I don't believe that greater environmental consciousness will take root unless it is made relevant to people's everyday lives. And I don't remember the film doing much with that.

Including the part with the Pope was good, and framing everything with the Garden of Earthly Delights was also good. I was going to compare this to An Inconvenient Truth but now I forget what the main points of difference were.

What happens now that Trump is in office? I'm scared for the EPA, and I'm scared for all of us. The problem is so large that it requires international cooperation, and many levers of power are in the hands of people who do not have the long-term habitability of the planet at heart.



I really, really liked this one.

Music: Amazing. Auli'i Cravalho has an incredible voice (also, she's sixteen! That's super impressive). The music was really good at evoking emotion, and the threads of continuity among various songs and reprises was well done.

Characters: Moana is one of my favorite main characters ever. Her character arc was believable and had a solid emotional resonance. Moana's sense of responsibility towards and love for her people sat at the core of her character, so that she was another one of those characters whose moral standing is simply good and whose overall personality and character is still complex. The storyline of "girls in leadership positions going off and doing their own thing" made me want to compare her to Elsa, the big difference being, of course, that Elsa went off on her own to avoid her responsibilities while Moana went to fulfill her heritage. No shade at Elsa, that was a different story.

Non-Moana Characters: Te Ka was a great character and the twist at the end was perfect. I suspected it would happen, given my knowledge of geology, but it was done beautifully. The grandmother was also great and her death scene, with the glowing manta ray, was one of the most visually stunning moments in a film that was overall visually very stunning. I cried.

Themes: I liked the tension between change and tradition, the dissonance and resolution of "who you are" as an individual and "who you are" in relation to your people. Not a narrative that I have worked out for myself, but it was satisfying to watch Moana go through it.


Rome: Engineering an Empire

A history channel documentary that was less about engineering than about various iconic structures throughout Roman history. It was fun and I liked the part about the Pantheon, but they did not mention Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa even once and gave very lurid accounts of emperors such as Nero.


Jungle Book (live-action)

Definitely took a darker tone than the animated version. Mowgli was a likable main character, and it was fun to see his various inventions. The panther was my favorite because benevolent cats. Shere Khan was also a favorite because cats. The snake and the orangutan (in this version, a Gigantolopithecus) were both very scary, and their scenes were visually well-composed.

I watched this one more recently than the films listed above, but honestly I don't remember a whole lot about it.


The Nice Guys and Face Off

Two dumb action movies with lots of shooting and car chases. Watched as part of movie night with my competition team.

I have issues with the way black characters were portrayed in The Nice Guys: namely, as only villainous, and of course they made a comment about the black woman villain's hair.



Ein deutscher Film. Watched for my German class and wow. Wow.

Characters: the main character, Nelly, was hard to get a grasp on. Her desperation to get her old life back was entirely understandable given what had happened to her, but I also kept cringing at the power imbalance in her interactions with her husband. He was clearly using her, the whole time, and she deserved better.

The friend, Lene, was my favorite character, and I am disgruntled at the writing choices made in relation to her. Supposedly, she commits suicide, but there is no build-up to that previously. It was out-of-character and also lazy writing. They needed to get her out of the picture, but there were so many other and better ways to do it. The Chekhov's gun of her having planned a trip to Poland would have worked perfectly; hell, even have her move to Palestine earlier. I don't mean to imply that people can't commit suicide without showing conspicuous prior signs of it, but her death was unnecessary and also not given enough narrative weight. There was no grieving over her; she just disappeared from the plot. Part of my anger is also because I thought (and apparently the others in my German class also thought) that she was coded as being in love with Nelly, and killing off a queer*-coded character is highly suspect.

*I used this word because I don't know of a more concise way to put it while not losing accuracy. I'm still ambivalent about its use.

The husband, Johnny, was the actual worst--as a personality, that is. As a character? I don't know. We didn't really see enough into his head for me to see him as anything but a villain. I wanted something, Spüren, of his guilt, of any complex feelings he may have had towards his wife and the woman he thought was impersonating her. He was perceptive enough to know how people would react, how they wouldn't want to know about the camps, and that may have shown some hidden depths of mind, although not of conscience. I don't know. I tend to place too much stock into how much I like characters, but the whole time I was thinking that he wasn't worth it.

Music: the last scene of the film involves the song "Speak Low" and left me with chills. Don't watch it if you want to spoil the ending but ach, mein Herz.

Vergangenheitsbewältigung: German movie set right after WWII with a main character who is a survivor of the camps. Okay. I thought it interesting, and respectful, that they didn't show anything from the camps, but rather how Nazism broke and shattered the country and the people. The rubble of the buildings, the busy streets. Even when I was in Berlin, in 2016, you could tell it was a city with scars. That sense of desperation and brokenness was everywhere in the movie.

Something that's sticking in my head is Nelly asking Johnny--"and will people believe it? No one comes out of the camps looking like that--with a red dress, and make-up done, and Parisiener Schuhe." And his response, that people wanted a fantasy that she would be back just like before. Ignoring trauma as a way of trying to move forward, shoving it under the rug if it does not directly pertain to you. I remember my host dad telling me, "Every family suffered under National Socialism."

If there's one film in this whole list that I would want more people to watch, it's this one.



Now for something lighter.

It's been ages since I watched a high school movie or even thought about high school, so it was a little strange to be dropped into a cinematographic world where prom is the most important thing ever. But once I got with the program, it was fun. The straight people in the movie are much creepier and fetishizing than the straight friends I have, but it was uncomfortably easy to imagine people like that.

Characters: Tanner, the main character, was likable in a decent Everyman kind of way. Sophie, the goth journalist friend, was the only one who didn't get annoying at some point. There were a couple of nods to diversity but it was predictable that the clique leader who was white and blonde would end up getting the most character development--although I still wasn't entirely convinced by her, or really any of the clique leader characters. They felt like stereotype + twist rather than complex characters. But it was also a high school movie, so what do you expect.

In terms of representation, I'm not gay but my gay friend who showed me the movie commented that he appreciated that the gay guys in the movie were not all "stereotypically" gay, because he finds that stereotype frustrating to have projected onto him. There was a lot of realistic, believable jackassery from the other characters. As a complaint, possibly misplaced: I know the movie is GBF and not LBF or BBF or TBF. But there were throwaway lines about lesbians, the possibility of the main character being bi was played for laughs, and transness wasn't mentioned (aside from another throwaway line about drag queens, which is I suppose a trans-adjacent topic). I don't know. I wondered if the film was building up to either Sophie or Fawcett (the blonde clique leader) being lesbian or bi, but nope. Well. It may be a single-issue movie but it did cover a lot of ground in that single issue.

I liked the dose of realism with the high school shutting down hate speech rather than playing it off for laughs. The parents being accepting was nice, and the violent homophobia was shut down before anything serious happened. I don't know how realistic this is, given what I've heard from some people who are more out than me, but for a teen movie, muting the "standard" expressions of homophobia to focus on the hypocrisy and objectification that can come from people who are "allies" was a choice I can get behind. They were trying to tell that story, not another one.

Pacing: there were a lot of moving parts, and everything fell into place well. Minor characters got continuous arcs that resolved at the end, which is impressive given how big the cast was.

Filmography: I'm not a film person. My preferred storytelling format is words. I didn't take notes on camera angles or anything. But why did they use extreme close-ups in dramatic lighting only at the very end? It stuck out and in a "that's weird" way rather than a "something dramatic is happening" way. The takeaway here is, I suppose, that deviations from a previously established stylistic vocabulary should be used with caution. Everything else had a well-balanced setup and payoff, echoes &c, so introducing something entirely new in the climax didn't make sense to me.


Wow, that's a lot of movies. Lots of fodder.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Game: Deutsche Gedichte

The quarter is half over already. I'm less stressed than last quarter, but last quarter set my stress standards pretty high. My sister once wisely told me that at some point in college you stop bragging about how little sleep you get, and instead start bragging about how much. I think I'm reaching that point.

A lot of my time is spent thinking about the future, at various removes--tomorrow, next week, next month, the summer, next year, the rest of my life. But lately I've been feeling nostalgic for last year, when I was in Europe. Whenever I see photos or depictions of the places that I was--looking up a Hamburg StadtRad station for my presentation on sustainability in Germany, photos of the Colosseum, a friend who's in Berlin now posting a selfie in front of Brandenburger Tor--my heart hurts.

Since I haven't been writing much outside of school things lately, here's a game. It's the same format as all the other games I suggest here, namely:

1) pick a song
2) pick one other source of inspiration (in this case, a photo of someplace you have been)
3) write a poem

The format (found after a couple minutes poking around Google) is the Dinggedicht, or object poem, because that seems fun. To quote the linked page:

"The Dinggedicht or Object Poem is a things poem. This is a genre of poetry in which communication of mood or thought is made through acute observation of things and symbolic concentration. It was introduced in the early 1900s by Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke while studying impressionist paintings. It is closely connected to the imagist movement of the same time. It appears the difference may be in the subject of the observation. The dinggedicht appears to be more likely to observe man-made articles while the imagist tends to observe more natural surroundings."

For a little more structure, try the Bar Form, which is:
  • "stanzaic, any number of octaves made up of 2 couplets followed by a quatrain. The 2 halves of the octave are known as Aufgesang and the Abgesang “after song”. (the Abgesang can use portions of an Aufgesang phrase.)
  • metered, at the discretion of the poet as long as the rhythm of the lines of the first couplet is repeated by the 2nd couplet, the following quatrain has a different rhythm in each line which is not repeated within the octave. It might be clearer described in music the first 2 couplets repeat a melody, the quatrain carries a different melody.
  • rhymed, ababccdd"

Los geht's!


Song: "Liebe ist alles" - Adoro



Jetzt wachsen die Lindenblättern
Die kleinen Blumen mählen
Grün soll die Stadt aussehen
Grün soll die riechen

Neue Füße auf alten Straßen
Die Kinder schreien, die Denkmäler schweigen
Hör zu, hör zu--
Kannst du die Lindenbäumen hören?

Wilkommen, Frühling, wilkommen, Flüchtling
Egal wer du bist
Under den Berlinerlinden
Ruh dich aus


Now the linden leaves grow
The small flowers paint
The city should look green
The city should smell green

New feet on old streets
The children scream, the memorials are silent
Listen, listen
Do you hear the linden trees?

Welcome, spring, welcome, refugee
Whoever you are
Under the lindens of Berlin
Come rest


That ended up much less impressionistic and much more political than I intended, probably because I'm relieved that Le Pen was so soundly defeated in the French elections today. Now to try the Bar Form.


Song: "Dein Weg" - Eisbrecher



Wenn du jetzt gehst, ach du darauf
Dass du mitnimmst, alles das du brauchst
Erst fang an, bete, und lauf
Willst du noch, dass du tieftauchst?
Keine Zeit hast du, alles weg
Kommst du jetzt an: hier, den Steg
Bleibt nur die Ebbe und die Flut
Und frohes Singen in deinem Blut.


When you go now, watch out
To take with you all you need
First start, pray, and run
Do you still want to dive deep?
You have no time, it's all gone
You arrive here at the bridge
There remains only the ebb and the flow
And the joyful singing in your blood


I don't think I can make it rhyme in English without contorting things terribly, apologies that the translated version has no flow. This isn't about jumping off a bridge with harmful intent; the song made me think about selkies/other mythological creatures who stay only a little while in the human world before they want to go home to their own element.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Spring Quarter Starting

It's the end of week three, Spring Quarter. I think I said that this quarter would be easier than the previous two, which is true, but the past two quarters also wrecked my standards of what a reasonable amount of work is.

This quarter I'm taking the capstone civil engineering design class, a class on renewable energy, and three whole non-technical classes. One is looking at engineering in the Roman Empire; another is German; the third is the RA class, since I'll be staffing in my favorite dorm next year. My competition team is done for the year, which gives me back about eight hours a week.

I'm already fairly fatigued, but I haven't fallen asleep in class yet, so I'm already doing better than autumn and winter. I've found enough time to read another two books in the Temeraire series, Tongues of Serpents and Crucible of Gold, although I haven't gotten a proportionate amount of writing done.

Things are going well. I feel strangely isolated, like I haven't been interacting with people on a deep level. This despite the RA class being, so far, mostly us talking about ourselves and communicating our stories to other people in the class. When was the last time I answered the question "how are you?" with neither "good" nor "tired," which, while both true, are evasions?

I started declaring a minor in German on Monday. The department head taught a seminar I took freshman year, and it made me somewhat nostalgic. This time last year I was in Berlin (although this weekend last year I was actually in Sweden visiting Lieutenant Sarcasm); this time two years ago I had just declared my major; this time three years ago I was deciding what college to go to; this time four years ago I was furiously studying for the AP Calc BC exam; this time five years ago...

I'm twenty years old. It's very silly for me to say anything along the lines of "I'm old." But I'm a junior in college, I've done most of my major, I'm going in for a legit internship in the field I'll probably enter this summer, I know a lot more about myself than I used to, I have led teams, I'm going to be an RA next year, I don't have to think consciously to speak in my lower register. Earlier this week I got nervous while presenting some designs and lost my track and stuttered and that felt out of character.

Many people have much more self-confidence than I do, but I've found lately that, along with the impostor syndrome, I get flashes of gross ambition and vainglory. Does that count for something? I'm building a self. I am not yet the me that I want to be but I can feel, distinctly, that in the past year I have taken steps closer to my goal.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Readable Stories

I spent a lot of time during break sleeping and reading. By coincidence, historical fantasy about being airborne in the British military: Leviathan, eponymous first book of a trilogy by Scott Westerfeld (a reread); and the first five books of the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik (His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, and Victory of Eagles).

For all six of these books, fewer than 24 hours passed between when I started and finished reading. Of course, during break I have time to read--but the stories are also compelling, and since work on my story is starting to roll again, I want to think more about what makes a story readable. About what keeps the pages turning.

Some spoilers ahead.

Premise/Genre. Leviathan series--steampunk WWI. Temeraire series--Napoleonic Wars but with dragons. I am a sucker for historical fantasy. Although I haven't made a particular study of any time period, setting a story any time but now introduces a layer of escapism that is often/occasionally desirable. The appearance of historical figures and events, and the way that history is distorted through the introduction of fantastic elements (e.g. dragons), is particularly interesting to me since I like looking at examples of where it is done well and poorly.

As it happens, I am not a sucker for war stories, and ones that are crammed with jargon just lose me. But I do like action/adventure, and books with soldier characters do tend to deliver on that front.

Viewpoint Character. Everything that I write is character-driven and I prefer the novels that I read also to be so. (Short stories get a pass--there's not as much time to get invested in a character so often the concept carries it more.)

For the Leviathan series, Deryn Sharp sounds like a stereotypical "dresses like a boy to become a soldier" kind of protagonist, but what I like about her that makes her more than an archetype for me is her clear devotion to being an airman. She has goals; she has motivation. I remember not really liking Prince Alek until later in the series, because he's a bit of a brat in the first book. Count Volger is loyal but Machiavellian and exactly the kind of character that high school me wanted to be.

For the Temeraire series, the eponymous dragon is my favorite. Honestly he's a bit overpowered relative to the other dragons, especially in book one, but I adore the fool. Very smart and powerful and independent dragon who dotes on his captain and is good friends with the other dragons in the formation. Captain Laurence originally seemed to me to be too much the Everyman stiff-collared British gentleman, but he's grown on me.

Character Interactions. The ones I enjoy reading tend to be healthy, supportive ones. Leviathan: Prince Alek and the master mechanic, Herr Klopp; Deryn and Alek, eventually. Temeraire: all of the captain-dragon teams, except Rankin because he's the worst; Temeraire and his friends; Laurence and Riley, Laurence and Granby, Laurence and Admiral Roland; Laurence and his mom, Temeraire and Laurence's mom (they don't interact a lot but they are very nice to one another). Und so weiter.

Romantic relationships are only pleasant to read if they fulfill the above point. When the first hint of Deryn having feelings for Alek showed up in book one I groaned since at that point I liked Deryn as a character much more, but by the time they actually got together later in the trilogy I was on board with it.

Pacing. The books all take place in wartime but the actual fighting doesn't get a commanding portion of pagetime. Still, the books never feel as though they lack for action. The characters are always going someplace, doing something. All the books I write have journeys somewhere, and the books I read are also very mobile.

But the grueling journeys are interspersed with rest stops, where the characters can refuel and continue on. Good pacing doesn't mean a string of high-adrenaline scenes one after another; without some sort of cadence, even action gets boring. I included this consciously in Ubermadchen: the second half of it is essentially a tour of the premier cities of Austria, with more or less stressful journeys between them.

Theme. I'm out of practice with identifying themes in literature, but stories and the way they are told hint at the values the author seeks to uphold. Who are we meant to sympathize with, who are we meant to find reprehensible, whose stories are told?

The viewpoint characters in the books I read are idealists, principled and often naive, honorable, decent people. We are meant to like these people; even if more practical people (e.g. Count Volger) who are set up as foils are also meant to be sympathetic, their stories are not central.

Furthermore, the characters' idealism is not set up only to be trampled down. They may go through plenty of hell (e.g. Laurence) but they get out again. They survive with their integrity intact. As an idealist myself, I like this message.

Both series I read from are, as I said, set in the British military. I am hardly an Anglophile; the British Empire has lots of blood on its hands. Temeraire addresses questions of colonialism and the slave trade in what I found was a period-appropriate but also appropriately-condemnatory way. I don't think it Leviathan addressed any such issues in the first book, but in the second book I do distinctly remember Deryn commenting that it was obnoxious of European nations to keep calling Istanbul "Constantinople."

Writing Style/Voice. The rest of this list is subjective, but this is perhaps the most subjective item. I really liked the voice in the books I read. There were a couple of passages in the first Temeraire book where Laurence bordered on being insufferably stiff-upper-lip-British, but overall I never found myself distracted by the language. The language is not particularly beautiful, but I don't like decoration, I don't like fluff in my writing.

I do enjoy certain writers with whom the language and its complexity is itself a treasure, but these tend to be writers of primarily short works. Jorge Luis Borges is one of my favorite writers, but Borges is not meant to be read with the pages flying.

In a novel, the language isn't the point, and if it isn't the point, it had better not get in the way.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Winter 2017 Recap: Everything Else

Spring break has finally arrived. As I alluded to in the previous post, Winter 2017 was a rough quarter, and I'm enjoying the chance to have some time off. Some time to think about all the things that I didn't make time to think about during the quarter.


This quarter, Trump became president. Dumpster fire is an appropriate description. I still haven't gotten around to writing that post about Islamophobia and what to do to combat it, but the topic has definitely been on my mind. The courts have in general stood against Trump's travel bans, but on Friday Virginia judge Anthony Trenga ruled in favor of the new executive order.

I hope that it gets definitively taken down by the Supreme Court. But even if it does, the effect these travel bans have had on people who come from the countries on the list is already immense. There are a lot of Iranian students in my department and I talked to a couple of them right after the first executive order was issued, and the level of fear and uncertainty is something I, an American citizen, can't imagine.

The grassroots resistance has been astonishing and heartening. I can't say that I've participated at a high enough level. "Call your senators," everyone says. Okay, but Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein are already voting the way I would hope for them to vote. The few donations I've made, to all the usual suspects (Planned Parenthood, the ACLU) are one-off things because I'm a stingy student. I went to one march. A lot of people on my Facebook feed post articles and share stories and so on, but I don't have the energy to get into fights with people on the internet.

I should budget in time, budget in money, for these things, these actions that constitute a resistance, because it's naive to think that I'll just do the right thing when I haven't built a habit of doing it and haven't carved out the space. This past quarter I felt pretty much at capacity with just academics and other activities. Sure I had time when I wasn't working, but I didn't have the mental energy to do anything useful. Budgets set priorities.

The way I live when I'm at school, as I said in the last post, is unsustainable. In the future I will not be able to go to bed at 04.00, I will not be able to get away with taking naps during the day. College is a four-year sprint, sure, but I want to build habits that will remain useful into the rest of my life.

The story I'm working on, which is set in East Berlin, has been stalled since winter break, partially because of the whole lack of time and energy, and partially because a large part of the story is the main characters becoming involved with underground resistance networks and I 1) haven't done enough research to know what that looks like in the 60s/70s and 2) don't have an adequately good idea of what resistance means today, now, in America. Ubermadchen resonated with what was going on in my life and this new story does too, but I need to think more about how to get myself to where the story goes. And to do that I need to figure out where I'm going.

Some big-picture decisions that I'll need to make in the next few years are where to live and what to do for a living. I've been thinking about moving to a red state, preferably in the West, with blue cities. Arizona and Texas are looking pretty good, especially because the arguments for renewable energy are compelling there.

I've decided that I won't work for any company that has submitted a bid for the border wall. This isn't actually a big sacrifice since Bechtel and AECOM are sitting out, but it makes me feel better to draw that line. And I'm thinking more and more about how everything is political, including engineering, mostly because the ASCE has been trying to stay politically neutral with the result that, despite Trump going after the EPA, they are publicly uncritical of the administration. This is of course not true neutrality.

Next year I will be an RA in the dorm where I lived sophomore year. I've been thinking a lot about the best and most responsible way to inhabit that role. Frosh come in with all sort of backgrounds and life experiences, and, without getting into too much of the discourse around the terms, kids need a safe space to examine their ideas and how they might or might not be consistent with their morals and with reality. By safe space I don't mean a place where people will be "coddled"--I mean an environment in which it's okay to make mistakes and everyone assumes good intent but you're still responsible for the impact your words have on others and listening goes both ways.

My dorm tends to have a high proportion of contrarians, libertarians, people whose worldviews are strongly shaped by the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche and Richard Dawkins. And since campus is on the whole very very liberal, I can see how people would bunker down. I don't want to brainwash all my residents into being leftists, but I do think that people who--as I did when I first got to college--consider themselves "socially liberal and fiscally conservative" haven't thought enough about what the second part means in practice and what fiscal conservatism does to already-marginalized communities.

The main advantage of residential education is talking to people, whether that means talking to people who share you experiences or those who very much don't. Sometimes you find you need to shut up and listen; sometimes you find you can and should speak up. And it's okay to say things however you want to say them, but it's also important to be able to practice ways to say what you mean in a way that other people will be more inclined to listen, in a setting where modulating your tone != being silenced or being forced to hide your intent. And listening is more than just not speaking.

Something I really want to be able to help my residents understand is something that was huge for me to learn when I was a freshman: the importance of emotions. In discussions, usually you have more to learn from someone else's anger than your own calm. In general, people don't give their emotions enough credit, or even enough space to develop. But letting yourself experience joy/happiness/delight points you to what you want/what sustains you; letting yourself experience sadness/loneliness points you to what may be lacking; letting yourself experience anger points you to what is important to you. Not all emotions are "good," per se, and I would argue that you should always be aware of how extreme emotions may affect your actions, and make sure you aren't getting carried away or having an effect on others that may be damaging. But ignoring them isn't a sustainable long-term strategy.


Some extra-academic thoughts. Will try to write more structured things while I have time over break to set my thoughts out in an orderly way.