Friday, September 27, 2013

The Interface

If my classes aren't giving me a lot of homework, then why do I still go to bed after midnight almost every night? Oh right - college apps...

I wrote last week about how college apps have been giving me existential crises. Feeling better this week, more like I know who I am, but new questions continue to arise. For example: I may know approximately who I am. But how can I convey that to other people?

Earlier today, for Lit I wrote an in-class essay on The Man in the High Castle and how one character in particular chooses to present himself as different from he is, and how the deception falls through. The entire book is basically about the subjectivity of the reality we perceive and the malleability of fact/reality. So my mental space is all about identity and deception today.

We tell stories about who we are through how we look/speak/behave/&c. Questions I'd like to address: how accurate/complete are those stories? How are they built up? How reducible?

I'll start with the second question, because Theodora Goss has already written about it. Style is, to summarize what I got out of her post - which may not be exactly what she intended, but that's another interface, isn't it? the one between writer and reader - the expression of your personality through external factors. You develop an individual style - of dressing, of writing, of living - through items or actions or habits or _____ that conflict the least with who you are/that are the most honest expression of your self.

So style is choice - but do you have to choose? Deborah Tannen says that "there is no unmarked woman", meaning that for women, no choices relating to appearance are default. Every choice you make on what to wear and how to wear it says something about you. I'm not sure if I agree that this applies only to women, or to every woman the same degree. There are conspicuous and inconspicuous choices.

For example: prior to my MIT alumni interview (which went reasonably well) I was looking up a lot of interview-related advice and etiquette on das Interwebz, and on one thread the OP asked something along the lines of "I have dyed pink hair, should I dye it a conventional color prior to my interview?"

Most of the responses approximated "it'll be fine, things will be better for you down the line if you're honest about who you are; if you are otherwise professional then you should be okay." One commenter said, and I paraphrase, "leave you hair as it is. It could be a good way to talk about what's important to you, because clearly if you dye your hair pink then you feel strongly about something."

That comment struck me, because the converse is not true: if you don't have pink hair, then you don't feel strongly about something returns False. So conspicuous choices in appearance tell people more about you right away, but lack of such distinguishing characteristics does not mean there is nothing to be said.

My college counselor has said that I am like a geode. I'm pretty quiet, I give off the impression of being another boring Asian nerd, but on the inside I am - well, you know me. I won't claim that I'm interesting, but I'm less boring than I look. So (we're moving to question 1 now) the story that I - and many others - convey to the world is accurate, as far as it goes, but not complete.

I doubt that anyone's story is ever complete. Even people who make a big deal about what they believe in, what they stand for, what matters to them - even people who advertise who they are in every detail of their appearance and behavior - even they must have parts of themselves hidden away. My best friend does not know everything about me; I am sure I do not know everything about her.

We can interface with other people, but we can't get at their source code.

How, then (returning to the college app question), can you show who you are on paper? The reducibility question - how do you distill your self into 500 words? Transcripts don't tell much of a story: oh, hey, another hard-working kid who stuck with one foreign language and one elective for years. Great! Now what else?

I don't know how reducible I am. I'm wrestling with that now, as I've said, through college essays. I know I can't get everything onto the paper. But what few things give the contour of my personality? What telling details illustrate my character?

Interviews are supposed to make up for the holes in the application - but I feel as though I come across better in writing than in person. So it's all down to the essays...

A few metaphors that are popping into my head:
-essay is a ship, and different facets of the self are people - who gets to come on board as an ambassador to another nation?
-essay is a traveling bag - what is essential?
-essay is a guided tour through the country of your mind - what sights/sites are essential?
-essay is a thing I must work on now. Thus, I bid thee fare well.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Birds of Prey

I have to leave for fencing approximately now, so short post.

kirsi pyrhonen by tim walker for vogue uk 12/11
(source)

"The Eagle"
by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Friday, September 20, 2013

For the Love of Humanities

Back in the day in AP Euro (was that really two years ago?) something that amused me was how the art styles and philosophies oscillated - how there really did seem to be a dialectic, with everyone being reactionary to something and incapable of not defining themselves by what they weren't. (Too many negatives in that sentence, I know.) I scoffed.

Now I realize I'm just the same and that I'd better do some word-swallowing to stay honest.

Okay. In junior year I had wonderful, fascinating STEM classes: calculus and physics. Furthermore I didn't respect my English teacher, who believes in shapeshifting and whose response to my question of how conservation of mass applies said, "Oh, you'd just turn into a really big snake." Also, I spent that summer reading Feynman, who disses poets and views the pursuit of being "cultured" as self-serving and conceited.

No wonder junior year I looked down on the humanities. I said, blithely, that "I have a horrible attitude toward English," but I never thought that perhaps I might want to correct it. I want to be a civil engineer and build systems and infrastructure that will serve the world - and I used that goal as a reason to dismiss the work of people who spend their lives conducting research in the social sciences and literature.

I remember sitting at the information session for AP Lit wondering if on the index card I'd been given if I should write down the question "Do we have to care about symbolism?"

In short, I really did have a horrible attitude toward the humanities, and English/literature in particular. What subject could hold less importance to the advancement of standards of living?

Never mind that I have always read books for comfort and inspiration; never mind that I know the inscription over the library at Thebes: "Medicine for the soul." Never mind that I reread the Goss archives in which she was working on her dissertation - her doctorate in English - whenever I feel unsure about my direction in life. Never mind all that.

For a year I've been increasingly distancing myself from the part of me that, as late as third grade, wanted to major in English and become a professional writer and make my living from words. It was easy. I really do think I can make a bigger contribution to the world as an engineer; I get a sense of joy and pleasure from physics and math that only the rarest writing session can match; I was surrounded by friends who enabled me in my semi-self-deception.

Well. You know how springs work: F = -kx. Restoring force pointing in the opposite direction of your displacement.

This year, I have a fantastic English teacher, a teacher for whom I can tell this is his life's work, for whom teaching is the thing that motivates him - teaching and teaching better. My teacher this year has written books for other English teachers on how to teach AP Literature; he's got a book coming out soon that distills the state standards into a comprehensible form or something; he's corresponding with Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein on the high school edition of the book They Say I Say, which we use in class.

The thing about great teachers is that they make it downright impossible to hate on their subject. Maybe it's a weakness on my part, to conform to people with strong opinions - but I have sat through a Roman Catholic funeral and still not seen the point of faith*, so I don't think I'm just being influenced by the teacher's clear passion about English.

(*A note to the religious: I respect your right to believe what you believe in, but for myself I see religion as inherently irrational and I can't accept such a large margin of error into my thinking, which is already imprecise enough.)

Conclusion: maybe the study of literature really is valuable, somehow.

Our first essay of the year had the following prompt: "What is literature and what does it do for us? Why does it matter?" When I saw the prompt first, I was in full blown humanities-suck-and-are-pointless mode, and I snarked to a friend (whose relentless devil's-advocacy and intellectual elitism is rapidly driving a wedge between us - sorry, am I oversharing?) that maybe I should say the second half of the essay was impossible to write because literature isn't valuable.

When I showed that same friend my thesis and he said, "Spoken like a true humanities major" with the usual supercilious smirk, I immediately became defensive. "Protective coloration," I think I said.

But I cannot place too much blame on my friend. It was me, it was my prejudices and my insecurities that contributed most to my exaggerated views. I mean, I haven't aligned myself with STEM for very long; as late as freshman year I thought I'd be going into finance. And then in physics last year I felt (like always) that I had something to prove as one of only three juniors in the class...I really only rediscovered my undying love of math last year too, since precalc sophomore year was taught in the most useless modular way possible when math should be integrated, everything connects in such beautiful intricate ways...

I digress. My point is that to my surprise I found myself pouring hours of effort into my "What is Literature?" essay and that I felt as though I was getting legitimate epiphanies as I revised and restructured and rewrote. I discovered that I believed in what I was saying, whereas in AP Language last year I kept distant from the writing and argued things from arm's-length away.

When I got to the part about why literature matters, I realized I did have something to say. Here it is: as Kafka said, "a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside of us." Literature is a tool to excavate your identity. Literature can exhume parts of yourself you didn't know existed, or that might exist and lay fluttering their damp wings in the dark loam of your soul...I don't know where that image came from but I am going to leave it in because why not. Why the hell not?

I am a poet, all right? I write to get my feelings out. Our next paper, which I just finished the n-1 draft of half an hour ago, is analyzing two Shakespeare sonnets. What value lies in scrutinizing twenty-eight lines of archaic verse? I'll tell you that on Wednesday, I spent only forty-five minutes working on the two poems but I generated about 250 words of text and I again felt that sense of epiphany, of discovery, as I found out new parallels and connections and cool things that made me realize - okay, this is why people go on and on about Shakespeare.

There's just so much contained in each sonnet. Meaning comes exploding out like a chain reaction in a fission bomb. My college counselor talks about how she thinks I can write "rich" essays and I think rich like a cake that is not homogenous, like something substantial and nourishing because there is a lot of different stuff in there - Shakespeare sonnets are like that, dense pastries that seem one thing on the outside but have surprises within, and when I read one as closely as I did those two that I'm writing about I feel as though I am, truly, devouring it, and as though it will feed me.

(Another quote I used in my literature essay, by Sir Francis Bacon: "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.")

Layers upon layers. This is the complexity, the value of literature - as my Lit teacher says, the "high thread count". You dig into something that seems small, and then you get all sorts of wonderful discoveries in return. I felt so inspired that Wednesday night, I wrote a sonnet of my own - Petrarchan and somewhat facile - and felt for myself the way a rigid form can inspire greater substance than the free-flowing verse that I favored when I was younger. Structure. Everything is structure.

I am still applying to colleges under civil engineering. I am still shunning liberal arts schools. I am still deeply in love with the beauty of the universe as expressed through elegant equations and models. But I love the humanities too (the release as I typed that - like sneezing). I love literature, I find inspiration in poetry, and I am sorry for having forsaken such a large part of myself for so long through my pride and prejudice. Which, by the way, I am long overdue to reread.

-


Irish Tune from County Derry - Percy Aldridge Grainger

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

College App Existential Crises

Status report:

Something happened in September. I was going along blithely in August on the same wave as during the summer, and then suddenly stress imploded and my life became college apps and fighting fleas (oh, cats...). My writing output has dropped significantly in both quantity and quality, and the number of pages I read in a week has shriveled.

Seeking to avoid a repeat of freshman year, I had a strategy summit with myself over the weekend (and yes, I am really that sententious) to figure out how I can get all my necessary college/school stuff done while not letting my personal writing fall by the wayside. I outlined the rest of the semester in a spread in my go-to spiral bound notebook, with major events and deadlines and everything penned in.

October, especially, is going to be stressful. But I think I can manage to get the important things done.

-

My problem now is that I haven't had a lot of time and mental space to sit down and think of something to talk about here. Tuesday posts are going to be like this, I'm afraid - more spontaneous, less well-defined.

What do I want to say?

I've been working this week with my college counselor, and to my surprise I really enjoy it. I know other people have had bad experiences with counselors who encourage disingenuousness, but my person is, I feel, interested in representing me as who I am genuinely. We had a two-hour Skype session yesterday discussing material I had written in response to a series of fascinating open-ended questions she'd given me, pulling together various pieces of my experience to craft a (hopefully) compelling Common App essay.

Why did I end the session feeling so hopeful and even happy? Part of it may be that she paid me some nice compliments about my writing. Another big part of it is, I think, the fact that I am extraordinarily self-centered and I'd just spent two hours talking about myself. I'd put basically my life story since freshman year onto paper (or rather, onto Google Doc), and it was an interesting process seeing that story reinterpreted through someone else's eyes.

I have, I realize, an extremely fixed and rigid self-image. Numerous times through the prompts I'd described myself as heavily introverted, usually with the implication that that means I don't want to be around people. And then I went on to wax eloquent about how much I adore the lower brass and math club - and apparently I've never seen the contradiction.

Don't get me wrong, I am still definitely an introvert. But putting my own well-being first does not mean that I don't also value others.

->Returning from the tangent. I felt, working with my college counselor, that I was discovering new things about myself, which is an appropriate strategy because through the essays, of course, other people will be discovering me for the first time.

So I feel that the experience of having a college counselor is useful and rewarding (increasing self-knowledge is almost always a worthy goal). But I am conflicted, still, because this is not a resource to which everyone has access. College counselors are expensive. I don't blame them for that, necessarily, because they're running businesses and responding to supply and demand - but I don't feel completely good about paying good money for someone to help me present myself to universities when other people, just as or more deserving, don't have that option.

After all, it's my parents' money that's getting this counsel. And unlike legal counsel (we're watching Gideon's Trumpet in gov, that's why I make the analogy), college counsel of this caliber is not guaranteed. I admire the applicants who are going solo in this process, and I am both relieved and guilty not to count myself among their number.

Thus I am faced with existential crises:
1) Who am I?
2) Do I deserve this?

I have no answers.

-

Leaving you tonight with a song I've had on repeat lately:

"Unwell" - Matchbox 20

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Wisdom Teeth

Apologies for not posting yesterday. Was too busy feeling miserable.

Starting to feel like a human being again, but still in recovery. I'll be back next week with actual content.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

To the Trombonist

It is my hero's birthday today. If you've been reading this blog for a while, or if you know me IRL, you will know who I mean - the Trombonist.

Last year, when it had finally sank in for us in the lower brass that he was really leaving us (for college across the Pond), we planned all sorts of things in his honor. We were going to roll out a red carpet for him when he came to visit during band camp; we were going to bake a cake for this day, his birthday. Yet we did/have done none of this.

Why? He is still the Best Person Ever. We still all want to be him. But I find, to my surprise and to my shame, that day to day, I don't miss him terribly. The trombone section still sounds beautiful, though I would love to hear him play again. The underclassmen on band staff are swell enough that I don't think much about those evaporated off the top.

What happened? My loyalty - is it really so frail? After all my hero did for me, those two years I was in his section, have I really forgotten him?

No, I haven't. I realize, writing this, that I do miss him. But it is a small, manageable emotion, not threatening to affect in any way my normal functioning in the world.

Am I right to feel guilty over that? It probably doesn't matter, to him. Perhaps he just wanted to get out of our small town. Perhaps he no longer thinks of the legacy he has left. Perhaps he is having far too much fun in Scotland to worry about the section he has left behind in his glorious wake. I hope the latter, at least, is true: that wherever he is my hero is happy, being his affable honorable wonderful self. I hope also that he spares us a thought once in a while, we who owe him immeasurably for his example and kindness.

The lower brass is my section now, and I strive to be sixty percent of what he was - a stretch, since I am not half the hero that my hero is. We all want - but more specifically, I want - to make him proud.

Normally, I'd put my "general application" paragraph here. But this time I do not know how one would generalize from my experience. Let me try nevertheless: while they're with you, honor your heroes. When they leave, honor them still, not by living in the past but by paying forward all they ever did for you.

I have much to pay.

So this is an ode, a tribute, to someone who probably never will read it. Well and good. Perhaps my token of devotion would embarrass him, to receive it. But here are some final words, for one whose worth cannot be captured in mere words:

Thank you for everything. I miss you. Be well.

Sincerely,

Your Left-Hand Man

-


"Cake Walk" from Suite of Old American Dances - Robert Russell Bennett

Friday, September 6, 2013

Stressed Senior Speaking

I'm starting to get the feeling that I'm not going to be allowed to have fun until all my college apps are in. Which will not be until December, so...hurrah. Well.

I realize I haven't really been doing well on my resolutions, even though I only set them a couple of weeks ago. Things I need to do more: tutor people in math, mentor band underclassmen, feed my brain.

Thing is, I have a lot of stuff to do, but I don't. Let me explain - I have a lot of things that I need to get done each day, so I find I never have time to relax afterward, but relative to people who are actually in college or working I have an easy life. Therefore I need to take this, my last year with a huge safety net, in order to put into place the systems that will keep me from burning out later on when things get harder. In other words, a system that scales.

Problems I notice with my own workflow: essays. Essays take a helluva long time to write, way more than I ever expect or budget in. Essay time eats other time, and because I take pride in my writing I let it.

College stuff is another huge time suck, and I never know if I'm spending too much time on something or if I'm spending just the right amount of time. My parents are making me get a college counselor, about which I am intensely ambivalent, and she's giving me a lot of writing to do also...

The problem with me is that - okay, one of the problems with me is that when I see a big project or any sort of undertaking I can't see the components super well, so I feel as though I'm going to get crushed under a mountain of Stuff To Do. Which is why I need to organize myself constantly, make lists, make schedules (and stick to them!), get as much done as I can at school or in the odd hours tucked away here and there throughout the day.

All the stuff I have going on is adversely affecting my creative writing. There's not enough room in my head, or my head is not good enough at switching from one mode to another, that I can work on college apps and college essays and forms and log in and out of the Common App five times a day and still write good words in my personal projects at the end of the day.

On Tuesday I said that writing college essays wasn't really hard, but after my first consultation with my college counselor ("my". Gods, oh gods the guilt) I'm retracting that statement. I thought my essay was clear about exactly how losing band camp affected me but apparently none of it got through. "I don't see in the essay how it changed you as a person, how it brought you to another level of insight." That was what the entire essay was supposed to be about. Why am I such a hack.

What I need is time and space and peace of mind. I still haven't found the optimum work setup, particularly for essay-writing, and I really should. You'd think I'd have figured something out...okay, I'm rambling. My eyes are getting bleary.

What on earth did I want to write about today?

If I didn't have college apps to contend with, this would be an easy semester. Wait. Yes, I think this was what I was going to write about.

My default state is going to be tired and frustrated and stressed for the rest of the semester, probably. Maybe I'm being pessimistic, and maybe I'm being accurate. I've got to operate under the assumption that things aren't going to get much better this semester, that I'm going to have a thousand things to do each week and a confused sense of how to allocate those things day by day, and so I'm always going to feel behind.

It's been over two weeks since I went on a really long walk and I think that's part of the reason I'm feeling so heartsick.

So how do I take care of myself while also getting everything done?

I don't have an answer, but I'll be working on one. To start, I'm going to publish this post even though it's all rough edges, and I am going to do some light coding to relax myself, and then I'm going to go to bed. I have a busy weekend coming up, and I need to be productive, and to do that I need to have energy. Thus.

Good night.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Species of Writing

I wrote a lot of essays over the long weekend. College essays. School essays. Essays upon essays. I don't think I've done so much non-personally-motivated writing in ages. So I began to think about the differences between various types of writing.

To be more precise: I'm doing my thinking now, as I type, because isn't that what an essay is for? Thinking something through?

Here I go.

-

The kind of writing with which I am most familiar, having done hundreds of thousands of words of it over the years, is prose fiction written for one's own enjoyment. Storytelling. Plot, characters, dialogue, you control what happens in a world you've created. This kind of writing has a big spectrum. Some stories I absolutely could not write if I did not know that no one would see it. On the other hand, I've had some fruitful collaborations in which another person and I crafted a story together - not quite line by line, but scene by scene, at the least.

A related beast is poetry writing. Goss said somewhere that her ability to write poetry is a personal barometer, which I took to mean that you need a certain level of personal equilibrium to write a poem. Equilibrium is the wrong word. But I was thinking, this week, about how some people are the opposite of poetry: how some people, it would be impossible to write a poem while in the same room as them.

Over the weekend I made a note to myself:
If you are going to write a poem, the first thing to do is to lock the door.

The second thing is to shut off any way anyone can contact you. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

You have to go away. You have to retreat into a place where no one can follow you, where no one can see you. Where you can wander in your own mind, where you can pull up tiles and floorboards and break things and maybe even break down.

You need to build a safe place.

You need a place where you can retreat, a place where no one else can go, a place where anyone else who stepped foot across the threshold would instantly die. You need solitude. You need a good view of the sky, and you need a hot drink and lots of paper and any sort of writing utensil at all, and you need to breathe.

I'm starting to understand what Rilke said, why he put such a huge emphasis on solitude in the production of a poem. How else can they happen? Poems are like electrons. If you look at them they start doing different things than if you didn't.

-

A different animal altogether is academic essay writing. I have experience with this species as well, having gone through twelve joyous (ha) years of the school system. I've been to one extreme: the regimentation and mind-numbingness of the Jane Schaffer paragraph. As I move to higher level English classes, the chains start to come off.

Surprisingly, I find that the list of essay-writing pointers I came up with in freshman year is still applicable. I would like to expand on the first point, though: "Don't be afraid to transplant sentences." More like don't be afraid to gut your essay completely and shift things around at every level, moving entire groups of paragraphs up or down according to the most logical flow of ideas.

Unfortunately, something else that hasn't changed since freshman year is that I have to spend massive amounts of time with an essay, working with it, getting to know its components, before I can smash into shape something coherent. Some people can come up with brilliance at midnight the night before a paper is due - I can't. I do fine in in-class timed essays, even on the AP test last year (3 essays in 2 hours), but that's within a limited frame. I can either sprint without preparation or climb a mountain.

Question I used as a scalpel this round of essays: "What are you really trying to say?"

-

A fourth species: the college essay. The personal essay that is supposed to persuade someone that you'll be a good fit at their school.

My parents have been trying to pressure me into getting a college counselor to work with me on my essays. I really don't want one. It feels cheap, somehow, to spend money helping someone...brand me. I could rationalize it: they're not doing sleazy advertising tricks, they're just helping you present your best face to universities. But my gut doesn't like it.

Actually writing the essays isn't the "hard" part, per se. My school counselor said it would be weird since most kids aren't used to writing with themselves as the subject, but I introspect constantly (self-absorbed, remember?), I write about myself on here and in journals and in rants that never, ever will see the light of day. So I know about myself pretty well, though I am sure I am overlooking some weaknesses and strengths.

The hard part about college essays is that the part of me that goes "but is this what they want to see?" will not shut up. I mean, all colleges say they want well-rounded human beings, and the idealistic part of me says that they really do want to see what each person comes up with, how each person individually interprets the prompt. But that one mercenary part that agrees with my parents...it is loathsome.

Then I wonder if I'm shooting myself in the foot with my obstinate independent streak. My independent state of mind (I'm not actually independent, I'm a bratty teenager living at home who has never held a real job) has made me a worse person than I could be otherwise, at times: I don't ask for help unless I know the person I'm asking won't laugh at me, I don't ask questions in class, I get irrationally enraged when people disobey me, I start out school years with the attitude that the teacher has to prove him/herself worthy of my respect. (See what I mean about my self-absorption, that I know all this about myself?) What if this refusal to get professional assistance is another case of such?

This species causes almost as many "oh my goodness I'm a worthless hack" moments as poetry does.

-

So I did something subconsciously. I structured this post as a five-paragraph essay. I wonder why? There's something comforting about such a modular approach - something easy, like list posts. But easy can quickly turn into facile.

Why not pull out another stock structure, then? Compare/contrast. Poetry is like prose fiction except at a shorter wavelength; academic writing is the least personal of the four; college essays are the one in which the writer is most obviously present, though someone could very well argue that, say, a poem reveals the "inner core" of the writer better than anything.

I would be unforgivably trite were I to end with a deep quote. So I'm going to end with music instead:

English Folk Song Suite - Ralph Vaughan Williams


I. March - "Seventeen Come Sunday" - 0:00
II. Intermezzo - "My Bonny Boy" - 3:21
III. March - "Folk Songs from Somerset" - 6:40

A lot of English marches/suites for military band (brass + woodwinds) have the same format, with a brisk first movement, a slow intermezzo in compound time, and a fast ending song. I will discuss standard forms in marches in a post on their own, because there's a lot of technical terminology - dogfight, trio, etc. Consider this a preview. And enjoy the music.

Good night, friend.