Friday, November 28, 2014

Giving Thanks

Classic Thanksgiving post--for what are you grateful?

First, I am grateful for my family. I am very lucky that my parents value my education and future a lot and offer me their support in everything I do. I am also lucky that they put up with me, surly teenager that I am. And I am grateful for the unconditional adoration of my cat.

Second, I am grateful for my friends both old and new. Old: It is good to come home to people who knew you when and who have a history with you, who get who you are and have new stories to tell about their own lives. New: I've missed the late-night conversations in the hall, the camaraderie generated by collaboration on a time-sensitive project, the hour-long meals sipping tea at a table in the dining hall.

Third, I am grateful for the opportunities I have, garnered by both time and space.

Time: I am grateful that I live now and not in an era where my gender and race would be held against me de jure. Discrimination does exist and I'm sure I'll see it at some point, but society is becoming more liberal. Futhermore, these are exciting and important times and I am lucky to be part of a generation that still can, potentially, save the world.

Space: America has its flaws, and its governing systems definitely are not perfect--but I live in a prosperous part of the world, where I can get an education and form my own opinions without fearing that I will be murdered for doing so. Aiming a little higher and with more precision, I go to a university that takes care of its students, ensuring that freshmen get plenty of support and guidance in our first year, and where the classes are interesting and everywhere you turn people are embarking on extraordinary endeavors.

Fourth, I am grateful for the different forces that went into shaping my identity. In no perspective am I perfect, but I can work with what I have. I have control freak tendencies so I don't procrastinate a lot and I don't drink or do drugs; I find a lot of different things interesting so I'm motivated to learn; I don't make a habit of being satisfied with how I'm doing so I seek out ways to improve.

Fifth, I am grateful for the little things. Different kinds of tea; the warmth of my Stanford sweater; my bike light; my shark-shaped earphones; the way the sky looks in the evening; the fact that I can take a walk around Lagunita in 20 minutes; the way the trombone part goes in the LSJUMB arrangement of "Little Secrets"; the way my cat purrs when she sits in my lap.

Sixth, I am grateful for infrastructure. Without energy, water, and transportation systems, society cannot function on a very high level. As entities grow larger the need for lines of communication, vectors for resources, grows as well; and since I want to be a civil engineer it should be no surprise that I see this as a good thing.

Seventh, I am grateful for my health, mental/emotional/physical. Folded into this is my creative practice, although I have been neglecting it as of late, because it gives me an outlet for all sorts of mental energies. Being healthy is something people usually take for granted until it is gone, so I will say thank you for it now.

Eighth, I am grateful that I have this space on das Interwebz to call my own. Especially given the previous point about neglecting my writing--the obligation of posting twice here keeps me accountable for getting something down. It forces me to reflect on my experiences, and maybe on accident I'll hit upon something useful to someone else. I should probably start doing writing exercises and posting them here--that would be fun and a way to make sure that I'm producing. You know what the advice is--building and creating things is always productive.

And along with this space comes my readers, for whom I am grateful. Humans need to communicate, and I am glad that someone, out there, is listening.

Have a good weekend, and good night.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Ubermadchen Autumn 2014 Progress Report

Innsbruck, Austria
(source)



This progress report encompasses the writing I have done from the beginning of the school year to Monday night, and refers to the progress I've made in writing the first draft of my novel which bears the working title Ubermadchen. The summer progress report, found here, is a whole lot more impressive in terms of numbers.

I actually don't have hard numbers here, since a lot of my writing was done longhand, but here's what I do know: 4066 words added to the word document, + 28 handwritten pages, + a lot of planning writing.

Time elapsed, real: 10 weeks. Time elapsed, story: 18 days.

What I see, looking at these numbers, is that something about my current system isn't working anymore. This happened when I started high school, too: in the transition, I let my creative work fall by the wayside.

I'm not going to see the numbers I got during the summer, but there's a whole lot of room for realistic improvement. I need to remember to write a little, more often, in adherence to the 20-mile march principle.

I think, too, that I'd see my writing output go up if I read more fiction. This may seem paradoxical, since time spent reading is time not spent writing, but consuming stories helps put me in a mindset to produce them. Finishing a book by reading it inspires me to work toward my goal of finishing a book by writing it.

I don't prefer writing longhand. The writing I did longhand seems, to me, to drag on and on more than my typed writing. Also, there's something that's too personal about it, which makes me reluctant to write really daring stuff because what if someone read it? The impersonality of a screen and 12 pt Times New Roman font separates me just enough from the fantasy that I'm willing to go there. This is probably a character failing. Lately, I've been typing the "main storyline" (the one with Marilla in it) and writing out the secondary strand (to say more would be a spoiler. Also, why do I always end up with multiple POVs?).

I think I've lost some of the wonder that first pulled me toward this story--the elements of feminism, 18th century trappings, Enlightenment philosophy, and travel writing that make it really cool to work on this project. In a way the story is even informed by steampunk, just one century earlier. A specific period aesthetic + perturbations in the political and social forces at play. I need to bring back the fantasy, the wonder, the coolness factor, because a straight-up historical novel was never my goal and never has been my goal.

I remember when I was revising The Utopia Project I had similar periods when I just couldn't remember why I wanted to write this story in particular. I need to remember. I need to remember, and keep remembering, why I am lucky enough to work on this story in this world with these characters.

-

Last year, I finished writing Orsolya over Thanksgiving break. I also wrote, somewhat hilariously, that I wanted a simpler project, a novella that would "clock in at 150 pages." (The Ubermadchen word doc is at just under 300 pages.)

This post is embarrassing for me. I finished a whole novel in 2013, and in 2014 here I am having written probably averaging less than 1000 words a week for the past ten weeks. I did expect that I'd have all my time taken up by college work, but I really haven't been trying as hard as I could to keep up with my writing.

I want to do better. So here are some things that I mandate:
  • Skip boring scenes
  • Remember what you learned during the summer and plan sequences out before jumping in
  • Use the odds and ends of time that you find throughout the day to write instead of checking your email for the 12837182th time. Five minutes == a solid paragraph
  • Bring back the logbook. I stopped using the log sheets that I started using in...sophomore year, I think? I think I should bring it back, because seeing the squares with Xs in them definitely helps in keeping me accountable

So there you have it. This season has not been a productive one for writing, but I promise that I will do better. The Ubermadchen and their story are worth my time and my creative energies, and I want to bring their journey to the page.

--

I've been listening to this song a lot, and I think it suits the girls well:

Kingdom - the Good Natured

Friday, November 21, 2014

Arrogance v. Confidence

Status update: Here we are, at the end of week nine of the quarter, with Big Game tomorrow and Thanksgiving break right after that.

I don't know what to write about because it has been a busy week--probably the busiest this quarter. Mostly a good week: some mistakes and embarrassments, but I got to talk to a really awesome CEE professor and attend my third talk about the high speed rail, and I'm feeling my way to a revised vision of what I want to do in my future. Still infrastructure, naturally, but I'm interested in all of the big three--energy, water, and transportation--rather than just water.

The review of my writing as of late is more disappointing. This time last year, I was finishing up Orsolya; my work on Ubermadchen hasn't stopped, but it is inching forward, with only a few paragraphs every week. I hope I can work on it a lot more during break, around my final projects.

I'm also moderately intrigued by a comment a lovely anon left on the last post, which suggested that my definition of arrogance could be more positively and accurately expressed by the term "confidence." I don't have anything else relevant to relate at the moment, so I'll take the opportunity to address that comment.

Short version: I think my definition of arrogance stands and that confidence is something else.

Long version:

Confidence, to me, is knowing you are capable of doing what you want and going for it. It is self-assurance + the chops to back it up. Think of stats--a confidence interval tells you how sure you are.

My definition of arrogance, on the other hand, is all that self-assurance and gumption and go-for-it-ness, but in absence of evidence. On my good days I fantasize about saving the world (through infrastructure, obviously). This is arrogant because I am an undergrad with no practical experience, whose application to Engineers for a Sustainable World got rejected, not even capable of making the time to work on a novel for which I feel strongly. I have never done anything remotely like my dreams in scale.

But I dream anyway, because I'm not sure I can do it but I think I can. "What do you have to back this up?" someone could ask of me, and I would not have an answer besides "Me."

For me, arrogance doesn't have the negative association that it has to more reasonable people. I go to a school that values arrogance, to some extent. I think one of its goals is to turn that arrogance into confidence by giving us chances to test ourselves and grow our skills in a safe environment.

Every year, during Big Game Week, the Ram's Head Theatrical Society puts on a show called Gaieties. This year, the performance posed some questions at different points of the show: What makes you special? What defines you? How are the two different?

I can't answer the first question yet, and the answer to the second one I share with a whole lot of other students: the fact that I am never satisfied with myself and yet believe that I am invincible and will be able to do whatever the hell I want. Arrogance, for me, is both gutsier and more brittle than confidence, and as I said on Tuesday, falls more in the Octavian stage.

Tonight I need to go to bed early (0445 call time for tomorrow, hurrah) so I'll leave you with this scene from Che Ne Sara' di Noi:



At 00:12, Paolo (the "nice guy" of the three male leads) wishes on a star--"Voglio commandare la mia vita. Voglio avere coraggio. Ecco e' il mio desiderio--il corragio. E vaffanculo." (Per gli italiani nell'audienza, per favore scusare la parolacchia). The last bit is the most important: he wishes for courage, and f you.

Which expresses my point quite nicely, because I think with arrogance, you take an adversarial stance to anything in your way. You are fighting. Congratulations; so am I.

Good luck.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Needing Power

I am not yet optimized. In fact, I don't know if I am doing any better than I was in high school. As the quarter draws closer to the end, the amount of work increases and I find myself stumbling, staying up late, getting tired and stressed and irresponsible.

If you've been around this blog for a while, you know that my freshman year of high school did not go well. I thought I was doing all right, since I had people to sit with at lunch and I got high grades, but really I was constantly unhappy and abandoned my writing and wanted to disappear into the walls half the time. I wanted people to give me a break, to excuse me for being a freshman whenever I made a mistake.

This is starting to sound uncomfortably familiar. Right now, in my freshman year of college, I have inexplicable bouts of timidity and passiveness, do not write much, and get defensive whenever I do something wrong. "I'm just a freshman" is an excuse that will often be accepted, because people expect freshmen to be confused and incompetent.

Bull. I don't know what happened to me but it has to stop. The overweening arrogance I had at the beginning of quarter is better than this. Yes, I am a freshman, but have I not asserted, over and over, that I am an adult now, that I had better well learn to be my own advocate and do things on my own? "I'm just a freshman" is an excuse and I know I'm better than that.

The problem is one of learned helplessness. Right now, I live at school and at school I am a freshman, a new kid, not yet integrated into the system. Stanford provides a lot of support to freshmen and that's great but I also worry that I'm internalizing the message that I need help and guidance and coddling, and that is a message I do not want to internalize.

Structurally, I am in a role of less power, and the only way to fix that is to let time happen. But I am impatient and I do not want to go through Freshman Year pt. 2. Yes, I am a first-year undergrad, but I don't have to be a "freshman." There's a reason I'm at this school and it is not to sit dumb, feel like an idiotic freak, not ask questions, and feel sorry for myself. I'm better than this.

I wonder if anger is a necessary ingredient in anything I do. The years when I've had something to prove have been my best years. Sophomore year, digging myself out of the pit of incompetence in band; junior year proving that I could succeed in AP Physics without having taken the prerequisite. Eighth grade, proving that I don't need to define myself in terms of my sister (if she's reading this: it's not your fault for being you, I just had a bad case of Ron Weasley syndrome).

But maybe it's not the anger--maybe it's the goal, the pursuit of something. For a long time college has been a destination, and now that I'm here I've diverted a lot of my energy into exploring my options. There's a lot to explore, and people have said, "Stay open to new experiences." Yet I know myself and I know that too much chaos only breeds ennui, and it's time to refocus, to take a deep breath and set out some goals.

What do I want?

Power. That's the post title, after all. But what do I mean by it? I mean I want to be able to leverage the resources I have--knowledge, contacts, influence, etc--to improve my life and the lives of others. I want to have the ability to improve the world, whether my own or the one at large. I miss being a respected senior.

What do I want? Auctoritas. Augustus got the lost standards back from Parthia mostly through force of his authority. He could speak and have his will be done.

The more I research Augustus, the more I am in awe at how one person could leave such a deep impact on the world. I strongly identify with him, and consider myself in the Octavian phase--the ambitious youth with plenty of opportunity and a whole lot to live up to. I need to remember that.

What is power anyway? What is authority? It is more than just getting what you want. It is being able to make things happen through your own will; it is controlling the means by which your will is satisfied; it is speaking and being heard and noted. It is being respected and valued and having your word count for something.

If you want something, you can make it happen. "Make it happen." That was the refrain of robotics build season last year. When the code was breaking and the error messages bewildered us and nothing seemed to work--"make it happen." At a meeting for an organization this weekend, the club president kept on saying, "We're not quite sure how this is going to go, but we're smart, we can figure it out." Same kind of thing. "Make it happen."

Arrogance is useful. The conviction that you are capable and competent and resourceful and important--that's useful. I am often paranoid and check and double check and overprepare, and that paranoia and thoroughness is also useful.

(If I sound like the Tiger Mom Amy Chua, I offer my apologies.)

I suppose the synthesis of the two is: I can do whatever I want if I go after it in the right way. And I am capable of finding and going through with that way.

So what do I want more tangibly?

I want to become an informed, functional citizen. I want to develop the habit of acquiring and thinking about and grokking knowledge in a wide array of fields--current events, as I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, but especially various kinds of science (environmental, biological, health-related) (these are also incidentally the kinds of science I don't want to study for my career)--so that I can tell when I'm being lied to and not be taken in by specious claims.

I want to become deeply knowledgeable in the fields that most interest me: infrastructure, international development, and energy. To that end, I need to pick classes that will feed into these interests. CEE covers some but I can see myself taking a lot of urban studies and electrical engineering classes in order to build the knowledge base I want. This also means that I should seriously start looking into internships and research opportunities for the summer.

I want to remember, always, who I am and what I am capable of doing. This is less tangible than the above points, and I think I have identified my values and am upholding them. (Except for the one I've been discussing in this post, which is: thou shalt always use thy power to best effect.)

I want to get and give a lot from/to my coursework. This is what that tuition is paying for, after all--my education. I want to gain the tools and skills that will aid me in my rise to power, and I want to expand my mind and think about the world in new and interesting ways. I want to look at the world from a stance of greater power, greater knowledge, greater subtlety. I want to see patterns that previously I could not.

I want to approach the people and situations around me differently from how I have been approaching them. As I mentioned, I've been on the defensive and that doesn't make sense. I have been told to "loosen up a little, it's college" and there might be something to that advice. Yes, I'm naturally reserved, but no one is out to get me and it can't hurt to start a conversation with someone I don't know. Crippling social anxiety gets old fast.

I want to be useful. The thing about being a freshman is that no one really needs you--they were doing fine before you came along, after all--but it's getting toward the end of the quarter and I should be more reliable and dependable by now. There are some people to whom you can give a job and feel assured that they'll do it well. I was one of those people in the context of high school, and I want to keep on being that person. I want to be the person who does the job right, who doesn't need any micromanaging or coddling or excuses. I want to be the person who earns and maintains and skillfully deploys power.

--


Remember the Name - Fort Minor

Because there's not enough self-absorption and arrogance in this post yet. Also I like this song.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Machinal Play

We are at week eight of the quarter. It has been an unusually exhausting week, and with football tomorrow and Big Game week after that I do not foresee much rest until Thanksgiving break starts.

But I did get to take a break yesterday and watch a play called Machinal. I'd like to explore some of the thoughts I had around it.

-

Machinal is about a young ingenue who murders her husband out of a sense of feeling trapped and controlled by society's and other people's expectations for her. The poster is very cool looking:

I have to admit that I started crying at two points in the play (to say more would be a spoiler), and that the tears weren't motivated by a sense of sadness so much as a sense of empathy for the emotional turmoil displayed on stage. Generally when I'm watching a play, my mind is too busy assessing the story and figuring out what elements of it I want to try in my own work for emotions to arise; the tears are a response to emotion, not from emotion.

What, then, were the story-based thoughts that came up? First, some thematic considerations: the theme of powerlessness and lack of control over one's own life choices is highly empathizeable. Even though I didn't identify with the main character's situation, I thought I could understand why one would prefer murder to a life of submission. "I had to get free, didn't I?"

When I was younger, I really wanted to be wealthy. My mental picture of a successful me in the future was a me with billions or even trillions of dollars stashed away. I think what motivated that wasn't so much the desire to have money but the desire to have security and power and choice. I would not marry for money, the way the main character did, because I am luckier than her and I live in a society where as a woman I will be able to find work that pays well enough to support me. I won't have to make the choice that she did. But like her I see liberty through financial security.

Enough on theme: what draws me to stories are the characters, and I want to take a look at some of the people in the story.

The main character represented a type that doesn't resonate with me: the manic pixie dream girl ingenue who just wants to find true love. It's easy to find sympathy for her, and as I mentioned it is easy to empathize with her struggle, but she is so far from me that I can't see through her eyes.

Why marry someone you cannot abide, when the option remains to find other work? Why kill rather than divorce him? The response she gave in the play was "I couldn't hurt him like that!" Poignant, yes, and deeply revealing of the character's psychology (i.e. feelings are paramount), but a character built on that premise is just not enough like me for me to care about her. Someone kinder might find more empathy for her.

What about the other characters, who were all oblivious to her plight? Who hated or resented or romanticized her idealism? Guiltily enough, I realized that I saw where they were coming from with their attitude of "just get over it. Stop complaining. Why can't you handle it?" But that's the exact wrong thing to say to someone who is suffering, isn't it?

-

We often resent people, even people we love, when they aren't everything that we want them to be for us. When they don't provide enough attention, or emotional support, or something along those lines. I know I've had moments when I wanted to make someone acknowledge me. But I'm sure, too, that there have been times when a friend needed me to sit down and listen and understand them, and I didn't deliver.

Watching the play Machinal made me grateful for a lot of things: that I live in the 21st century, that I naturally incline toward a major that will let me get a job with which I can support myself, that I have good friends, and that I have opportunities to make my own choices freely and whole-heartedly.

It also made me grateful, in a twisted sort of way, for my own insensitivity. Sometimes I do feel as though I feel strongly, but I can generally suppress outward shows of emotion, which probably means that the feelings aren't actually intense. People tend to see me as calm, and laugh with a slight hint of "wait, are you being serious" when I tell the joke "I had a feeling once; it died of loneliness."

But not everyone has the emotional range of a teaspoon (to paraphrase Hermione Granger), and even I need to manage my emotions (see Tuesday's post). What struck me as the most tragic part of Machinal was the fact that no one ever really asked the main character what she wanted, or if they did, they did not respect her choice. In such a situation, would the actions I explored on Tuesday have helped? If the main character had had a creative outlet or someone to talk to, would she have made it? The latter, I think, would have had more effect than the former. But in a situation fundamentally damaging--total submission to someone she found repulsive--would anything have helped but to change the situation?

Probably not. At least, I think not, because sometimes you can deal, and sometimes, having to deal is just a cruel reminder of your own lack of power. If the machine is killing you slowly, why not strike back?

--

Music for today:

I am not a Robot - Marina and the Diamonds

--

Disclaimer: I like machines and someday, I believe robots will have the full capacities of a human--including emotions.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Emotional Management

A couple of weeks ago, one of my favorite people ever, the Teal Knight, asked me to write her a letter of advice (it's called a "Polonius letter" since they're reading Hamlet). One thing that I wrote, which surprised me until I thought about it, was a very long paragraph on the need to manage your emotional well-being and mental state.

Whenever people ask me how I'm doing or how I'm liking college, I always say the good things: I'm busy with interesting activities, my hallmates get along splendidly, the classes are a lot more fun than high school, the dining hall food is reasonably good. Why shouldn't I? All these things are true and I am lucky and grateful to be here.

But it is also true that, just as the high points seem magnified, so do the low. I frequently find myself biking around or doing homework and feeling...not depressed. Depression is a chronic illness and what I feel does not merit the term. But something like that, at low concentration. More empty and lonely than sad. Bleak, perhaps.

It's easy to feel isolated for long stretches during the day, and certain issues have a way of lingering on the mind for hours on end. I'm not sure if there's a way to get around acute cases of bleakness, because sometimes it just hits--but maybe there are ways to divert it, so that it doesn't have a chance to wear too deep into you.

A few years ago I read Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet and I recall that he romanticized sadness and solitude a lot, and that as an introvert much of what he said resonated with me. Also, when you feel empty, there is no energy left to try to "cheer yourself up," at least not in any way that isn't brittle and artificial.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this. I started writing the post on Sunday because I went to an art activity in my dorm for half an hour and drew a loop system based on the methods Vi Hart explains in this video:

--and realized that the simple determinism of the system, the single-minded focus of it, made me not just calm but also content. I haven't really created art in a while--my writing output is down and the doodles I do in the margins during lectures can't take my focus because, well, I'm in class--and I'd forgotten how enjoyable it is to lose track of time doing something in which the process holds more utility than the product. For a goals-oriented, to-do-list-dependent, productivity-seeking (notice the word "product" in there) person like me, that was difficult to admit.

I suppose the question I'm trying to address is this: what can you do to manage your emotional states? Rilke would say, take the emotions as they come and just let them be:

"Ask yourself whether these large sadnesses haven’t rather gone right through you. Perhaps many things inside you have been transformed; perhaps somewhere, someplace deep inside your being, you have undergone important changes while you were sad…If only it were possible for us to see farther than our knowledge reaches, and even a little beyond the outworks of our presentiments, perhaps we would bear our sadnesses with greater trust than we have in our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy embarrassment, everything in us withdraws, a silence arises, and the new experience, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it all and says nothing." (LtaYP 81-83)

When I posted these Rilke quotes last summer, I commented:

"Surely the only way to move on from unfavorable events is to incorporate them into your being; surely, if nothing else, suffering is a way of becoming stronger. Or maybe suffering is just a way of learning more about yourself, how you respond to bad things. Though self-knowledge, I’d argue, is just another kind of strength."

I still think that applies: "Think not 'this is ill fortune,' but rather, 'to bear this worthily is good fortune'," said Aurelius. I was being melodramatic, of course, as I tend to, but it does seem that the most productive thing to do with displeasing events is to use them to your own advantage somehow.

The idea of art therapy seems more diversionary: focus on something else, let your mind take a break from the things it usually worries about and loosen up. It ties back to that immortal Ray Bradbury quote: "You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you." Only I'm not sure I agree with that as much as I do with the Rilke-Aurelius-Nietzsche "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" mindset. It's that obsession with productivity again.

But you can't do that all the time, I don't think. Sometimes you just really, really need to take a break, and creating art is a good way to give you something to focus on. It seems fundamental: feel empty? Create, and then there will be something rather than nothing. Maybe it should be an early response, to get up the will to do something about the problems causing the sadness?

I still do not know what I'm getting at. I want to think of strategies I can use to deal when I feel miserable. Accepting the bleak feeling and letting it be; then what? Creating art is good, but sometimes you really can't "just make time" for it, or the stress of taking time out to do something "unproductive" would eliminate any serenity you'd get from the process.

What can make you feel better when you can't directly tackle the bleakness? Over the weekend when I felt sad, I found myself listening to a playlist of songs that I've identified as reminding me of myself--or rather, when I listen to them I feel more like me. I recommend coming up with a list for yourself, since I've found it enormously useful.

For reference, the list includes:
  • By Myself - Linkin Park (original or Reanimation version)
  • Ora - Jovanotti
  • Kryptonite - Three Doors Down
  • Alone Not Lonely - Evans Blue

...I'm noticing a theme. My point is that you don't have to listen to happy music to feel better; musical taste is highly individual anyway and musical taste directed toward a specific mood is likely to be even more specialized.

On a less self-centered note: Talking to my hallmates is a really good way of improving my mood, because, in case I haven't mentioned it yet, they are awesome. Talking to my closest friends would be the best, of course, and it's helped keep me sane to maintain open lines of communication so that I don't get isolated from the people who know me best. But I'm getting there with my hallmates, and I've already stopped using the "nice voice" that I usually use on strangers and people I don't know well, which is about half an octave higher than my "me voice."

Unfortunately, sitting out in the hall talking to people doesn't lead to any increases in productivity, so this isn't a strategy that meshes well with a big workload. It is a good way to unwind at the end of the day, though--just hang out in the hall talking.

That is something else that surprised me as I was writing the Polonius letter: I need socialization. I need to be around people, to talk to people, to see how people are doing. Happiness and solitude are, for an introvert, generally correlated. And putting me in a crowd full of people I don't know is a good way to induce the lonely and bleak feeling. But with the right people, connection and communication can be enormously beneficial and mood-improving. These "right people" are known as "friends."

Drinking good tea is another simple method of increasing happiness. I've decided that my favorite kind of tea is jasmine green tea, and the dining hall version is not half bad. "I might forever feel alienated in this group that I thought would be a community for me, but at least I can drink jasmine tea."

So these are the ways I've come up with for mitigating the bleak feeling: accepting it, connecting with people who actually mean something to you, engaging the senses in ways that are personally satisfying (listening to music that reminds you of yourself, consuming foods and beverages that you like*, even the tactile/visual experience of creating art).

*I just realized that that sounds really bad, because it sounds as though I'm advocating drinking your problems away/drowning your sorrows, which I am not. This is a positive, not a normative, list.

None of this actually solves problems, except that connecting with friends does help solve the problem of feeling isolated. But these are still valuable strategies, I'll argue, because doing nice things for yourself, even small ones, can put you in a mindset where you're more optimistic about your ability to do something about your problems.

I will also forever advocate the strategy of writing it all out--get paper, or an empty document, and just write about your problem and all the things that are upsetting to you about it and any thought that comes to mind. I did that earlier today about a problem that came up last night and bothered me so much that a twenty-minute walk around Lagunita did not calm me down--and the writing helped, not only in mitigating the unpleasant emotions, but also in giving me a way to move forward.

That's the question that's always on my mind: "What should I be doing? What should I be doing that I'm not already doing?" I'm inclined to put action at a premium over feelings--but managing your feelings can help immensely in getting your head to a place where you can get your options out and make a reasoned-out decision on what to do.

-

Bonus:

If money doesn't make you happy, then you probably aren't spending it right, a paper from the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The abstract is below:
The relationship between money and happiness is surprisingly weak, which may stem in part from the way people spend it. Drawing on empirical research, we propose eight principles designed to help consumers get more happiness for their money. Specifically, we suggest that consumers should (1) buy more experiences and fewer material goods; (2) use their money to benefit others rather than themselves; (3) buy many small pleasures rather than fewer large ones; (4) eschew extended warranties and other forms of overpriced insurance; (5) delay consumption; (6) consider how peripheral features of their purchases may affect their day-to-day lives; (7) beware of comparison shopping; and (8) pay close attention to the happiness of others.

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Completely Normal Week

Is it really the end of week seven of the quarter? Yes, it is. I am astounded: that time has passed so quickly, and that I haven't always lived here. My routine has become familiar, comfortable even, despite the fact that no two weeks are exactly the same. I'm actually well caught up on my work, and I know that I'll have plenty of time over the weekend to square away the rest.

This was a completely normal week. I know, I just said that there are no normal weeks, but this was one of the calmest and least eventful weeks I have ever had. I've also been unusually exhausted all the time, and I don't know what's up with that.

Since this week there aren't any big events to report on, I might as well take the opportunity to model self-reflection (and -absorption) as I ruminate upon what I have learned about the world and myself this week.

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I am fascinated by the built environment, energy/water/transportation systems, and, er, management. I've been going to the Construction Seminar for the past few weeks and I am always utterly attentive to the speakers and their experiences. Could this be what I want to do? Manage projects, oversee people, integrate diverse specialists in order to bring a project to life?

What do I want? I want to be a brilliant, ambitious, empathetic professional who leverages her own and others' talents in service of real needs in the world. A few weeks ago I was talking about how much I want to be a young professional living in a city, but I'm also looking forward to being in the prime of my career and mentoring younger employees and having a voice in the industry and sharing best practices with other firms and...

Civil engineering makes me happy. I still haven't taken any classes in my major (hurrah for a university that will make you well-rounded whether you want to or not) and I am not going to deny that I may reevaluate my path later, but what else gets me this happy?

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Number of female, Asian, STEM friends I have here: zero.

This is weird. This is unsettling. In high school most of my closest friends were Asian girls interested in STEM (if I may say so, we formed the cultural core of our robotics team). And, come on--this is Stanford. We are in Palo Alto. Where are the other people like me?

The fact that I have no female Asian STEM friends in college may be more of a statement about me than about the university/field/departments. I have not participated in any Asian community events, and when ranking dorms I think I put Okada dead last. Why do I consistently distance myself from my race?

It might be for the same reason that I distance myself from my gender: it's not a big part of my identity. Asian, female--that's "what" I am, not "who" I am. At least, that's what I've always told myself, but I remember that when I first realized my dearth of friends like me I wandered about in a daze for a few hours, and it's still bothering me now.

My realization came after reading The Other Side of Diversity, an article by Erica Joy on her experiences as a black woman in tech. Somewhere in the article she writes, or I read, something about not realizing how much tension you're holding as a result of being a minority until you are no longer the minority--i.e. you find yourself in a community of people like you.

I had a realization like this over the summer in China, but I didn't realize until this week that it actually might be affecting me to be the only Asian STEM girl in a room. I'm not sure how, exactly, but I'm going to start paying more attention to it from now on.

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I don't know how to take praise. Specifically, it weirds me out that even now there are still people who tell me "you're so smart!" and brush off my whining about how my course load next quarter will be more difficult than for this quarter, saying, "of course you'll be fine!" I'm not complaining about the fact that I'm getting compliments, but there's always a part of me that thinks, do I deserve this?

Going into college I expected to experience cognitive dissonance and to be taken down a peg. And I definitely cannot afford the casual sense of superiority I had in high school that I'm sure was obnoxious to anyone who had to interact with me. And, of course, this is fall quarter freshman year and I'm not taking hard classes.

But I'm doing fine so far. The social worries of the first few weeks have mostly dissipated (though there will always be moments where I'll say something and then immediately think, oh my goodness I'm a freak) and there isn't so much to do that I can't compensate for the difficulty by working harder.

My job is probably easier than that of most freshman because I don't party or drink or anything. That's not to say I am a shut-in; I definitely need socialization. But my preferred kind of socialization is hanging out in the hall or lingering an hour over meals, just talking to friends.

Talking, I've realized, is my preferred mode of socialization, over "doing things." Which is weird because if you asked me I'd probably say that I don't like to talk. But I'm interested in minds and I like sharing ideas and thoughts with interesting people--and I am fortunate that I live among many of those.

I didn't realize my own need for socialization in high school. I think that was because it was built in--I saw my friends in class, ate lunch with them, did robotics and band and other activities with them. But with how many did I really talk? Four friends come immediately to mind--and lo and behold, those are the only ones with whom still I communicate regularly.

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College admissions material, especially those shiny pamphlets that flood juniors' and seniors' mailboxes, talk a lot about "fit." Which makes me a little uncomfortable because I am about to say this--that Stanford is a stupendously good fit for me.

I'm not sure if this was always that way or if I am remaking myself in the image of my school. I've talked in previous posts about the Silicon Valley ambition and arrogance and idealism. I think I was always these things, but they just feel more prominent now because they are echoed everywhere around me.

(I wonder, also: are there aspects of me that are being pushed underground because they realize they're not valued here?)

If I had to name the "buzz" on campus, I'd call it: "We're gonna make the world better." Yes, "gonna," because lack of formality seems to be a value here.

I'm not sure if I can point to any specific examples of this casualness: I've grown up in the Bay Area and have stopped noticing most of its eccentricities (though out of state friends, more perceptive, have brought regional quirks of language to my attention). I think being in-state has also helped me in my transition to college, because adjusting my mentality requires fewer steps.

Thinking about college admissions seems strange to me because I know that only a year ago, they were all that I thought about. But the whole process becomes irrelevant the instant you commit to one school. I thought I'd regret giving up Caltech but I just don't have the space in my mind to regret opportunities given up when there are so many opportunities right in front of me.

A cultural note: most of my East Coast friends applied to multiple Ivies, and that was apparently the norm. Of course geography plays a huge role, but I never felt the same expectation of "thou shalt apply to Ivy League schools" and in fact did not apply to any. In California, if someone asks you "are you applying to Harvard?" it is perfectly acceptable to laugh at them. "Harvard? No way--I'm going to be an engineer!"

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Which reminds me of an incident from Monday. We'd toured the Cantor Art Center's exhibit titled Sympathy for the Devil (okay, so I guess it wasn't a completely normal week) and I was sitting outside doing homework when a group of Chinese people in business attire arrived at the front of the museum. Two gentlemen sat on the other end of my bench and we began conversing in Mandarin.

"Are you a student?"

"Yes, a first year."

"What are you studying?"

"Civil engineering."

"Are you from China?"

"No, I'm an American."

"Your accent is very good." //this was a blatant lie but as it was told out of politeness I let it slide

"Thank you."

"So, you are going to Stanford...did you apply to Harvard?"

Okay, maybe it is not appropriate in every situation to laugh at the person asking you that question. "...no."

This is not considered rude in China, but this kind of attitude is very, very typical of Chinese parent-aged individuals and I find it tolerable at best. My parents' circle of friends is full of Chinese ex-pats who are the more sophisticated type of tiger parent (i.e. they instill values of education and learning and discipline into their kids when they're young so that we offspring become self-regulating as young adults) and college admissions has been at the forefront of their conversations the past few years as the cohort begins to go to university.

What kills me is how much pressure the parents put on their kids to get into a good school--as if that's their reason for existing. My parents are less tiger than most, and even they wanted me to apply to two extra schools last December after I found out I'd gotten deferred by Caltech and MIT (with the implication that they had expected me to get into one of those schools early). And don't get me wrong, I love my parents and I owe any success I have to their efforts, but I know that my sister's and my academic successes are not only a personal point of pride for them but also a status symbol in their circle of peers.

I am less charitable to tiger parents who did not raise me, and I have to say that all the parents who suddenly acted as if I was a real person after they found out I got into good schools did not impress me. I'm quiet and I don't have any particularly amusing anecdotes attached to me, and so they had to wait to form an opinion about me after I had been externally validated by a university's admissions office.

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College admissions results are not an indicator of your worth as a person. I have brilliant friends going to community college and I have met people here about whom I have thought, Come on, Stanford, you rejected [insert names of friends who didn't get accepted here] for THIS person?

Mostly, and this will sound awful, the people about whom I have thought this are football players. Before anyone gets mad: yes, I know there are smart athletes who would have gotten in even if they hadn't been recruited for sports. One of my neighbors is one. But Stanford does admit on athletics and on legacy, and that's a value judgment the university makes that I do not happen to share.

The other person from my school who is going here has legacy, and I think he deserves to be here. But I remember in April once people started comparing notes on who had gotten in where, there were some people who were dissatisfied about the fact that he'd gotten in. "It's because he's legacy," was the unspoken accusation. Well, I employed the services of a college counselor--does that invalidate my right to be here? Honestly, I don't know if I'd have gotten in without that help, but now that I'm here I know this school is where I belong.

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It's been a completely normal week. It is also a week that I would have dreamed about in seventh grade: me, at Stanford, having interesting conversations with interesting friends, going to art museums as a part of my class, researching fascinating topics, listening to speakers who are not inspirational speakers but inspire me with visions of my future career, questioning my path here and my upbringing and my racial identity all the rest. It is week seven of the quarter, and I am still afloat, and now I should really go to bed.

Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

To Lessen Ignorance

Today is election day, and I missed the deadline for absentee mail-in voting and couldn't get to a voting station in my county. Which is stupid and unworthy of me, and whenever I do something stupid and unworthy it is my responsibility to figure out how it doesn't happen again.

The fundamental problem here is that I know nothing about politics--nothing about the candidates, nothing about the key issues (well, almost nothing). Most of politics that I've seen is fairly frustrating, and I may even have said the words "I don't pay attention to politics" with a note of pride. Which explains why the election was not on my radar.

But I live in a republic, and I am a citizen with a vote, and it is my civic responsibility to lessen my ignorance as much as possible. This is on top of my general responsibility as a human being to try, as much as I am able, to be aware of important issues in the world so that I don't do stupid things. Like not vote in the first election for which I am eligible.

*kicks self* Should have read this California voter guide.

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General Informedness

Why should I want to be more informed in general? It sounds silly put that way--what, you want to be ignorant?--but I haven't done anything to become more informed in previous years so it must be a question for which my default answer is not sufficient.

One good reason mentioned above: I'm a citizen with a vote. My opinions can now have an impact on the course of the country--even if that impact is negligible--and with power (however small) comes responsibility. This should be a sufficient reason, shouldn't it? "You have power so you have to learn to use it well."

Some more reasons: there's the selfish reason that I don't want to feel stupid all the time. Sometimes I wonder if everyone else got a handbook on "things you should know because you live in a society" and I didn't, and then I realize it's my fault for being entirely too wrapped up in my own world. About what am I knowledgeable? The life of Augustus Caesar; how to slog through writing fantasy books; how to survive high school; my own psychology. Not a knowledge base that will get me through life.

In the past I may have avoided the news, especially political news, because it didn't fit in with my sense of identity. That piece of cognitive dissonance is now irrelevant, because getting informed about current events seems a natural extension of my program in becoming a real person.

Having covered the "why," the next logical step is "how?" I present to you Alina Utrata's guide to how to read the news. She offers a lot of links and advice, and you will see her influence on the list of sources I have compiled below:

Sources of news:

As she puts it, "Beginning to read the news is like starting a novel from the middle. Most articles talk about issues that have been going on for quite some time, so sometimes it’s a little hard to catch up or find articles." Thus, as I get better at keeping up with the news regularly, I'll probably have more to add here.

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Reading on specific issues

So much for general informedness; what about gaining a deeper knowledge of specific topics or issues? The impetus for this section comes from my IntroSem, because during discussions of policy for different energy sources I always realize that I don't have any hard numbers from which to construct my arguments. Given the importance of quantitative data in deciding what kinds of energy to promote, what to tax or subsidize, etc., being without numbers is unsettling and feels kind of like trying to play along to a song when you have no sheet music: "oh my goodness, I'm a fraud, I don't know anything, what is going on."

Then, too, it's hard to find new angles from which to consider ideas when all you have is a two-dimensional sketch of a topic. I haven't done a lot of in-depth research on a topic outside of class, but I'm really getting into my research on the grid and I hope to export the process to other topics. Some links below; by no means comprehensive.

Sources of information

Also, a note from my professor: "There's all sorts of manufactured misinformation out there. Go directly to the scientific reports and the raw data if you want to get the real picture."

Sometimes we get far too meta in that class, which can lead to an epistemological crisis: how do you know what is true? If knowledge isn't a popularity contest, how can you tell who the best practitioners or the most credible experts are? This is another contributing factor to my traditional apathy toward becoming more informed: when is not having an opinion better than having a wrong opinion?

But that's not a productive mindset, so I'm going to go ahead and read.

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Ideas

Then there's another type of "informedness" at which I am somewhat less awful, which is being informed in the sense of being exposed to interesting ideas. These kinds of idea-based articles are easier, for me, to consume than news articles, because these are mostly self-contained and require less critical thinking.

For example, if someone writes an article about their experiences while traveling in  Yemen, then I can read it and enjoy an insightful narrative instead of asking "is the information in this news article accurate? What aspects of the issue am I missing?" It might be good to ask these questions of the former article, but it is less necessary to put it into a broader context and timeline.

These articles tend to be more abstract, less involved in the particulars of which group is opposing which in which government. I'm generally more interested in the big picture than in the details, so that explains why I gravitate toward these. I'm not planning to decrease my reading of these; but I do think it will help me be more functional if I increase the proportion of the more event- or topic-specific reading that I do.

Sources of ideas to consider

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One cannot transform from an utter ignoramus to a learned, aware participant in the world overnight. I'm approaching this in a scattershot way, as you can see, with a smattering of sites that I haven't fully explored. But at least I'm starting, right? I'll try to refine my process through using it.

And next time, I will make sure I vote.

//Also I should probably make a tag for posts like this and for my musings on gender/race that are relevant to existing in the world outside of my brain.