Friday, June 16, 2017

Spring 2017/Junior Year Recap

I have never been so happy to see a quarter end. On Monday, I turned in my capstone final report; on Tuesday, I packed my things and went home. It's Friday now, and I've spent much of the last few days sleeping, reading, doing as little as possible. This afternoon I did a slew of paperwork and registering for things and so on, and next Monday I start work.

This was the end of spring quarter and also junior year. I'll tackle them in that order, but obviously one is a subset of the other.

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Spring 2017

Classes I took: my design capstone, a class on renewable energy, a class on Roman engineering, second-year German, the RA class. A lighter load than in previous quarters. The capstone was the one through which I learned the most, because I had to do the most work and the most collaboratively. As it turns out, I do like structural engineering, and I could, I think, do well at it. If I choose to do that. I did really well in the RE class and had a good time with it, which is nice because I've been waiting to take this class since freshman year.

The Roman engineering class was fun and I kind of enjoyed looking through the literature for our final paper. Learning about the Horologium of Augustus was heart-warming. German was...well. I don't know how much I really learned, although it's not a fair comparison because the other German classes I've taken were either the first year sequence, where I could feel my improvement week by week, or the one I took while in Berlin, where I was surrounded by the language and made a lot of progress that way. I liked the class, though, and haven't ruled out getting a double major since I only need four more classes.

Preparing to be an RA has been a major part of this quarter. The class was fine, although the other participants were all sophomores and for some of them, it really, really showed. Getting to know my co-staff better has been rewarding; I've also become friends with a fair number of the frosh who will be sophomores in the dorm next year, and I look forward to getting to know them better. I'm really looking forward to being back in a dorm with real community.

Although classes have all gone well this quarter, it was still really rough. Although I tend to think of myself as fairly self-reliant, independent, etc., and am certainly an introvert who needs lots of alone time, this quarter it felt like most of my on-campus support network straight up disappeared. I took that a lot harder than I expected. It also didn't help that my competition team was done for the year: more sleep, but less built-in time around people I care about. I felt the same sort of empty loneliness that I danced with last summer, except I was on campus, not in the middle of a beautiful old city, and I was nominally surrounded by people. And of course one must always be considerate of others' schedules and remember that 1) we're full-time students, everyone is busy out of their minds 2) just because people don't reach out doesn't mean they don't care. I'm trying not to overstate the angst, but day after day of not being able to talk to someone who cares really, really took its toll.

Enough of that, though. I did sleep better. I didn't have an exercise routine this quarter but I was a lot better about using Duolingo--although I am dubious about its effectiveness as a language learning tool. I read a lot more--not only finishing the Temeraire series but also starting The Raven Cycle (Maggie Stiefvater), which about ten people recommended to me in high school and which is better than I thought it would be. My writing has stagnated, but there's no time like the present to pick things up again.

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Junior Year

Academically, this was hands-down the most challenging year I've had. Fall and Winter I had four legit engineering classes apiece, and this quarter I had two but one was my capstone. I've come out of it with my grades intact and, more importantly, with much, much more confidence in my abilities. Hell, I know things! My competition team did extremely well and we all grew as a team. I led a pre-professional society and more or less burned out on it because some people are real difficult to work with, but it did teach me a lot about working with people and organizing efforts.

One of the biggest academic curveballs has been the discovery that I like and am good at structural engineering, which isn't necessarily a problem but does mean that I'm not so sure I will apply to construction-focused grad programs. This summer I'm going to be taking the GRE and the FE Exam, for which I will begin reviewing shortly. By fall, after my internship, I should have a better idea of what I want to do.

Speaking of which, this is the first time I've gotten an internship all on my own, without relying on connections, and I am proud of myself for having done so, and having done so early. After two years of job anxiety, it feels good to have spared myself that stress.

I applied for and got my dream RA position, and am really, really looking forward to it. As I said before, I know a lot of the residents, and I'm looking forward to doing stuff with them--fun events, difficult conversations, und so weiter. Of course, I am also looking forward to getting to know the frosh next year, and helping them through what I know, from my experiences, was a very difficult and exciting time.

Personally, this year has been...well. Fall quarter was probably the same level of loneliness as spring but one of my friends who is the person on campus who understands me the best wasn't abroad yet. Winter was stressful and I fell asleep in a lot of classes but I think I spent a lot of time with people that matter so it didn't feel quite as bad. And I've already written about how spring went. There are friends that I've burned out on and whom I will thankfully see less of next year; there are friends that I've come to rely upon, maybe too much; there are the people who will be in the same dorm as me next year, whom I can feel approaching higher tiers of friendship. So it goes.

Writing has been a bit of a bust, although I am excited about the story I'm working on and will probably post some preliminary information about it soon. It's about the Eastern Bloc and fairy tales.

In the wider world: Trump was elected president in the fall and inaugurated in the winter, and the shock waves davon have been propagating this whole time. What a time to live in. But the conservative right suffered losses in the Netherlands, France, and the UK. I've been trying to broaden my awareness of the world but sometimes it's exhausting and I'm still struggling with it. Also, because of my sources, my view is very Eurocentric. As I said, still struggling.

I've had a lot fewer conversations this year about race and gender and other heavy aspects of identity than last year; instead, I think I've been consolidating. Becoming someone. I've slowly switched out most of my wardrobe to come from the men's section (although there is something to criticize about identity-through-consumption) and I speak in my lower register pretty much automatically. I am openly proud to be the child of immigrants and have delighted in telling a low-key racist white dude that I'm considering working in Texas after I finish my schooling because that's where my parents first lived in the US.

This year I've grown a lot and sometimes that hurts, but I am becoming myself and it's a good road to travel.

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Music
  • Ease - Troye Sivan ft. Broods
  • I Want to Change the World - Jetta
  • Unsteady - X Ambassadors
  • Heart is Cement - Thomston
  • Rocketfuel - Thomston
  • Sunrise - Sno
  • How Far I'll Go - Auli'i Cravalho
  • Starlight - Starset
  • Never Look Away - Vienna Teng
  • Straight Into Your Arms - Vance Joy
  • Unbecoming - Starset
  • Self-Control - Frank Ocean
  • Everglow - Starset
  • Ricochet - Starset (can you tell I had a favorite album)
  • Üsküdar'a Gider İken - Zeki Müren
  • Alright - Kendrick Lamar
  • Dein Weg - Eisbrecher
  • i - Kendrick Lamar
  • 3005 - Childish Gambino
  • Tired - Alan Walker ft. Gavin James

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Are We Having Fun Yet?

The last few weeks have been rough. Not so much in terms of work, although I have been getting less sleep than I need and haven't been writing and, having finished the Temeraire series, also not reading. Mostly, I've been finding myself staying up late doing work alone and being correspondingly miserable. Around the middle of last week I realized that the lack of contact with people who give a damn about me when I'm not useful was driving me stir-crazy and I set up various social engagements for the weekend: Skyping with a friend who is abroad, making dinner with the people I was closest with in freshman year, lunch at home on Memorial Day.


3005 - Childish Gambino

The concept of delayed gratification has been hugely important in how I live my life. Although I've gradually become more relaxed about work, I still prefer to left-justify i.e. start things as soon as possible and give myself plenty of time to finish the work I need to do. Friday nights are not always the most productive, but I do try to get at least some low-level assignments done before the weekend properly starts.

Friday evening I ran into a friend with whom I haven't really talked in a while as we walking by the lake, coincidentally within earshot of the frat parties that were just getting started. Both of us could fairly be called workaholics, and we discussed our growing feelings of disillusionment, futility, etc. That is to say, we asked ourselves and one another: why are we working so hard? We're doing fine. If we put in less effort we'd still get decent grades, and employers don't actually care that much. We'd both like to go to grad school at some point, but still--we could be firing on fewer cylinders and still get where we want to go. Between us we'd been to maybe 10 parties in college, ever. Who has time for that?

This year, I took four engineering classes in both fall and winter. Next year, I need four classes total to finish my major. I had reasons for this and I'm glad I did it this way because now I have lots of time to put into staffing and extracurriculars, but even though I'm feeling content now, there have been many moments of misery, exhaustion, and emptiness of the soul in the past year. Nothing really bad has happened in my life: all my sadness has stemmed from working to exhaustion and working to the exclusion of doing things that make me happy. Also politics, but that's a different story.

Since the end of winter quarter I've been sorting through ideas of work-life balance and how to be happy while working hard. I call myself, and other people call me, a workaholic--and yes, that's somewhat self-congratulatory--but what happens is that during breaks, I crash, do nothing but sleep and eat and read, and frequently get up after noon. That's not sustainable.

On the other hand--I keep coming back to what I want to say to my residents. What is the takeaway? Because, after all the angst and Angst I had early in my undergrad career over whether or not I'd ever become the person I want to be, I am on my way there. I was terrified of turning out to be not as smart as people think I am, and while impostor syndrome is probably chronic, I am proud of my work and do know some things. Would I be as confident in my abilities if I had bsed my way through my undergrad classes?

I have a hard time being content with "good enough," although I'm working on my perfectionist tendencies. But something I do get is the idea of opportunity cost, and sometimes the extra hour spent working an assignment over one more time just isn't worth it.

Realistically, I am not going to chill. The past two quarters were the most academically challenging I've had and I got through them, so I don't see myself lowering my academic standards. On the other hand, I have a lot more flexibility next year so I may just take an easier course load. There's more to life than school, and a whole lot of life has passed me by while I've been inside hitting the books.

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.

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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.

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Coraline

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.

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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.

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Moana

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Phoenix

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.

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GBF

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!

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Song: "Liebe ist alles" - Adoro

Photo:

Dinggedict:

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

Thing-Poem:

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

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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.

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Song: "Dein Weg" - Eisbrecher

Photo:

Gedicht:

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.

Poem:

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Winter 2017 Recap: Academics

This quarter has been one of the most challenging I've ever had. I feel as though I've grown a lot, although I don't know if that's actually true. Can I point to any one thing that is different about how I move through the world now? I feel more solid as a person, more capable. My confidence in my leadership has increased a lot. Some of the old hunger, which didn't exactly leave, is back--the hunger to do all the Silicon Valley buzzwords--disrupt, innovate, etc. I still don't know what I want to do once I graduate but I am on a path to find out.

At the same time, I am incredibly fatigued. I'm writing this on Saturday after dead week, going into finals week, and let me tell you: I did nothing productive yesterday. Absolutely nothing. As a consequence I have a boatload of stuff to get done this week, especially today and tomorrow, but I just could not work yesterday. My way of life is unsustainable, and the only reason I've been able to get through this quarter is because I am young and in good health. This can't last. Thankfully, this is the only quarter in which I'll be taking five civil engineering classes.

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Ricochet - Starset

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Things I learned from my classes this quarter:

When you take five classes, you can't put enough effort into each one as they deserve. Still, I got quite a lot out of my classes this quarter. An increased urgency that things need to change and change fast: the environment is not going to heal under the BAU case, and the way we do things now is beyond screwed up. Energy efficiency is good, it makes economic sense, it improves quality of life--there's just so much low-hanging fruit here. The construction industry is ripe for change, both in the practices and processes of how things get done and in the mindset we bring to buildings. Rome fanatic that I am, I have been more and more trying to keep an eye on infinity. I want to build things to last, I want to build systems that are resilient, that can sustain themselves hundreds, thousands of years into the future. This is what I mean by the old hunger: I am asking myself, more and more lucidly, what do you have to do to die satisfied?

At the same time, I am more and more impressed by the value of and need for a deep and broad body of experience and empirical knowledge. My legal aspects of engineering class resonated the least with me, but still--the law has a long history, different contexts have different interpretations of the same words, and the answer is always "it depends." Our professor told us up front not to look for information on the internet because we didn't have the experience to parse out what is and is not relevant, what could and could not apply. I don't buy that 100% but I do think that the more I learn what I don't know, the more I see why it's dangerous not to know that.

On a more tangible level, in my concrete class, most of the equations we use are empirically derived. There's a lot of respect for empirical methods, for empirically derived results. We cast and tested concrete beams and cylinders, and despite all our imperfect workmanship, it all behaved beautifully. This was my favorite class, partly because it felt the most real, partly because the instructor is someone I've already worked with for various extracurrics, partly because the way the class was taught emphasized understanding principles and processes. And it was the class in which I felt I could ask good questions, which actually furthered my knowledge.

I took a CEE elective that I've been waiting to take for two years, and it was...not actually as awesome of an experience as I'd built it up to be. But the lab--the lab was great. The professor is something of a legend in the department, having taught the class for decades, and is always driving toward the most up-to-date information, towards innovation, towards "hacking"/reverse engineering standards, to taking things apart to figure out how they work. This class went a little farther along the spectrum between rigor and empiricism than concrete, past my optimal point--that is, sometimes it feels like I'm pushing equations around without understanding the physical significance of each term, which I categorically do not like.

Overall, although I've been put through the academic grinder this quarter (will my GPA survive? To be determined), I feel more and more certain that civil is the right track for me. The problems that civil engineering seeks to solve are the problems that I seek to solve. I've been hanging around architects more often this quarter and as a consequence have been thinking more about how people interact with the built environment, how huge of an impact it really does have on people's quality/way of life. I feel, more strongly than before, the power and potential we have.

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I'm going to lump my extracurrics in this post as well, because they're all civil anyways:

Grad students are hard to lead. We are really behind on organizing things for next quarter. Industry people don't seem to care much what you learn in school, yet they will present things that are very complicated and hard for a lay person to follow, which makes me think that their academic knowledge is just so ingrained that they don't realize anymore how specialized the knowledge is.

My competition team has been much more of a growth experience for me. We did very, very well at competition across the board, and some choices I made as captain certainly helped get us there. Of course I made mistakes too, but I'm happy with my overall strategy, i.e.: giving people responsibilities and encouraging debate and differing opinions. I can't think of everything and I don't know best. I'm less self-assured than the previous captain but I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing, because it makes me more cautious, it makes me double-check, and it means that other people on the team get more of a voice. There's also a difference between effective delegation and not doing work and I definitely put in my share of work. But giving people opportunities to succeed, giving them opportunities to earn praise and recognition, is good. I'm much more about positive reinforcement than negative reinforcement. Still not sure if thanking people for their work means that they'll be less inclined to do it (because it seems like "above and beyond" to do anything) or if they'll feel appreciated.

We had a grad student advisor who actually did stuff this year, and the expertise he brought was very, very valuable. We also got feedback from professors on our presentation, which strengthened it a lot. Rely on people who know more than you do. Even busy people often enjoy the chance to be a mentor, to provide guidance.

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With my deeper immersion in the major, the question of my future has come into sharper focus. Structural engineering or sustainable construction? I think that structural engineering would be more intellectually fulfilling to the part of me that remembers how good it feels to understand a math concept and feel it fit into a deeper framework of knowledge. It seems higher, more abstract, more rigorous. But at the same time, I want to work on real problems. The problems in the industry don't come from not having good enough math, they come from misaligned incentives and skewed priorities and bad processes.

I don't know what I'm going to do yet, but I will be working this summer for a construction company, as hands-on as it gets without actually being in the trades. I'm hoping to gain a lot of insight and clarity from that.

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Second post coming after finals about the non-academic stuff that's been going on this quarter.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Week 8 Update

The past few weeks have been busy through a mix of academics and extracurrics. I'm actually trying to get a draft of another assignment done tonight and have a lot to get done this weekend since I'm out next week Monday through Friday for a competition. At the moment I'm feeling okay since a big event went really well tonight, but I'm exhausted. Trying to stay positive because it's somewhat silly to take on a lot of commitments and then complain about them. Still. Exhausted. I've been a lot more assertive about my boundaries lately because certain people drain my energy real fast and I don't have a lot of energy to spare. Not a way of viewing people that I particularly enjoy but that's what I've been doing.

I have a few post topics that I've promised for a month or so, but here are some assorted thoughts.

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Leading people takes a lot of delegating and a lot of patience. Am I being fake or diplomatic? Am I being assertive or authoritarian? To overwork a reliable person or push responsibility onto a slacker who might flake? How many reminders do people need? I've become a lot more knowledgeable about what kind of a person I am, particularly under pressure. When faced with a negative surprise situation, I freeze initially. My first action after unfreezing is to seek more information, to try to determine what the threat is and how to contain it. I like having decisions made but I will agonize over them, get multiple second opinions, double check. The final stretch is always more protracted than I expect. I've gotten better at estimating how long things will take in the middle section though. If someone has done something praiseworthy, I won't shut up about it--I like to give credit where credit is due.

I am very different around different friends and the most important predictor is the rate at which the other person drains my energy. Like I said, I don't like thinking about people like this, I don't like that this is an important metric for me, but it is. I have low energy levels and being around some people for too long makes me wrung out and useless. I may ignore my body when it tells me to go the hell to sleep, but I don't ignore it when it tells me who to spend more or less time around.

A couple of weeks ago I had a health situation that ended up being just fine (I had a symptom of what could be something serious but it's benign) and it's made me more aware of my physical form. I don't like this. I suppress my dysphoria by not thinking about my physical form. To my friends in mech e and in AI, when the hell are we getting robot bodies? I've been thinking lately about being visibly LGBT* and how I don't want people who are potentially transphobic to know anything about me, but at the same time want to communicate to other people who are LGBT that I'm trans. This is somewhat self-serving because I know I feel safer around people if I'm more sure that they "get it." E.g. I saw that one of my TAs had a laptop sticker from the LGBT STEM group on campus and all of a sudden he's my favorite TA ever (also he's a good TA).

*I go back and forth about the use of the word "queer" because most people in the community at my school are totally okay with it, but it's got a history of being used as a slur so I want to learn more before using terms whose weight I don't understand.

At the same time, I'm aware that just being in the same minority group as someone else doesn't mean that we're automatically friends. I shared some fairly personal stuff with someone I talked to twice in freshman year because they started blogging about their gender experience and their transition, but I'm not going to pretend that I know all about their life or that we're entitled to one another's full set of experiences. Mostly, I'm afraid that if I come out to someone, that I'll then have to disclose other personal details that I'm not ready to share. And of course no one can extract that information from me but if I say "I'm nonbinary" then...I don't know. I'm still mostly closeted so I may be magnifying my fears.

To be honest, the clothing post was mostly written to remind myself that I do have control over some aspects of how I'm perceived. I may not be able to remove organs on my own but I can buy sweaters and jeans from the men's section. I can keep my hair short and try to speak in a lower register and avoid thinking about my physical form.

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It's been at least a few years since I read anything by Malcolm Gladwell, but I'm remembering a phrase that I'm pretty sure comes from one of his books--the power of the weak tie. As a junior who has been involved in a decent number of things, I find that I am acquainted and on friendly terms with a surprisingly large number of people. Been thinking about this lately because at some point in the past month I emailed someone who interviewed me two years ago on behalf of a sophomore I know from a club I no longer am in, to their mutual benefit. I value depth in my friendships, so the power of weak ties surprised me a lot. It also felt more transactional than what I prefer for interactions--which appears to be a theme here. I hope that becoming an adult isn't all like this.

This summer I'm going to be working for a construction company and construction is all about relational bonds, from what I hear. In an industry presentation I went to today the presenters all but said that you have to capitalize upon your personality.

Small wonder that sometimes I get home after a day spent around people and instead of wanting to be alone, want to be around my people. Reminding myself that there's more to relationships than the transaction.

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Apparently, this is the kind of post I write at 02.00 at the end of a very long week. Wish me luck on my four assignments.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Updated Thoughts on Style

Last week I promised two posts would be upcoming: one about Islamophobia and one about my current story WIP. Those are in the works, but here's a brief detour about style. Because.

I think the last time I wrote on this topic was in fall quarter freshman year, when I said something along the lines of "my refusal to be stylish is an expression of self-centeredness and defiance of femininity" (Unstyled Arrogance, October 2014). Since then I've 1) realized I'm trans and 2) started working on my misogyny*.

*Since I'm not a woman I don't get to call it "internalized misogyny."

A large component of my angst around appearance was my hatred for feminine gender roles and expectations. Everything was lumped into the one bucket of style=fashion=feminine=frivolous=decorative. It wasn't until I started thinking about gender more that I had a change in mindset with respect to the clothes I put on myself. Namely: style and appearance communicate something about you to other people. But "don't dress for other people" doesn't mean "pursue a bland aesthetic to show that you're better than the other girls." Instead, it means go for functionality and comfort.

This change is driven more by getting older than anything else, i.e. chilling out. The clothes people wear can be a platform for communicating their values and personalities and so on and so forth, but one can also stick the middle finger up to the fashion industry and its way of preying on people's (primarily women's) insecurities and aspirations by just...going for functionality. I don't know. It isn't that deep. But I think that in high school and the first part of college I was too preoccupied by how my clothes communicated to other people when really what matters to me about clothing is what it does for me.

(I blame, in part, the lack of weather in California, for my prior mindset. Because I don't really have to dress for weather here, the functionality of clothes has always been somewhat abstract. The decorative aspect is much more prominent.)

What decisions have I made, in this evolved mindset? For one, 100% of the pants I wear on a regular basis are sourced from the Old Navy men's section. The numbers on the pants make sense, there are pockets large enough that you can put a pen in one and forget that it's there, they're more comfortable (particularly if you're moving around a lot), and the material is sturdier. I don't expect to have to buy more pants in college. Luckily I have no curves, so I've noticed no issues with fit; it feels like there's plenty of room so if your waist and hip measurements are significantly different, splitting the difference is probably a good place to start.

Last year, only a few months after I'd (finally) figured out that I'm trans, I remember feeling dysphoric over shirts buttoning the wrong way. Not to diminish the way I felt then, but really, that's not a big deal. Which way a shirt buttons does not affect its functionality as a shirt. (Although as with pants, men's shirts seem sturdier.) As I try to become more of a professional, I'll probably need to head back to the women's section for shirts that fit, but the elusive men's S and XS shirts are excellent. Also, for some reason, easier to find in Germany than in the US (?). Rolling up your sleeves and tucking your shirt into your pants can help make shirts that are too big wearable but they still won't really look sharp. Shirts that have a chest pocket are prime since you can put pens and other stuff there.

In going after functionality, I have acquired three sweaters in the past year--one directly prior to leaving for Germany, one in Berlin, one in Hamburg. They are all of slightly different weights, for versatility in colors that go with anything.

Socks: I like black socks because you can't tell if they're dirty and there's just something sharper about them. But having warm socks is also important (to my sister--thanks for the Christmas gifts).

I have thought some about aesthetics, because I need to admit that I do care what I look like and that I want to look put together. Most of my "style experimentation" in the past year has been layering different articles of clothing and thinking about which colors go well together.

My "uniform" is a button down and a sweater, i.e. dressing like a retired German history professor (i.e. my host dad). Advantages: you look academic and like you care at least a little. Disadvantages: if the sweater is on you can't use the chest pocket, and if you roll up the sleeves of the sweater then the sleeves of the shirt get in the way, and if you pre-roll the shirt's sleeves then there's an awkward bump right above your elbow.

A slightly more casual version is a t-shirt and a sweater. Advantages: the sleeve issue has been resolved, if your pajama t-shirt is a color that goes well with your sweater then you can be ready for the day in record time. Disadvantages: if you take the sweater off it may be too casual, if you don't think about what shirt it is and take the sweater off you may embarrass yourself (see: me realizing with horror that I'd worn my university department t-shirt off campus to a doctor's appointment).

Colors: black and dark green are prime stuff, both individually and together. These colors work particularly well with my coloration (black hair/brown eyes/warm-ish skin tone). Red and gray/black gives off a somewhat aggressive, boyish feeling, and therefore is my go-to when gender has me feeling angry.

I used to have a lot of navy blue in my wardrobe. Not sure what happened there but maybe I've been avoiding it because since coming to college I've become a lot more proud of being a California public school kid, which makes me scorn the East Coast nautical prep style. It's probably not that deep.

I have two scarves, one dark red wool and one tan-colored. In keeping with the "functionality" clause I will usually pick the one that's more appropriate for the weather but sometimes I will decide which one to wear based on the other colors I'm wearing.

In the future, I'll need to buy work boots for sure. I'm a big fan of long-sleeved black clothes but would I actually get use out of a black button-down? Unclear. It might be too formal for everyday wear. Maybe if it was dark green/dark blue? The nicest coat I own is one my sister bought when she was in early high school and one of the sleeve buttons fell off so it's being held in place by a safety pin. May need to replace that at some point. A pair of sweats with pockets would be comfortable but I've been doing fine without.

Whenever I write about clothing I always feel a little silly, because the realizations I've come to--prioritize functionality and give at least a little thought to what impression you give--are fairly basic. Clothing doesn't have to be deep, just don't look down on people who do consciously use it as a way of expressing themselves. Adornment isn't for everyone but it's also not for no one. Still, if femininity isn't working for you at any level, just abandon it. If you're trans, shopping in the section that isn't for your assigned gender can feel affirming, but it is possible that in a year it won't matter as much to you which side your shirt buttons are. Colors are fun and if everything you own is in the same palette (except red shirts because school colors) then you can't screw up that badly. And how badly, really, can you screw up in the context of clothes?

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Sonnets for Augustus

Earlier this week I was struck by inspiration and wrote two sonnets about Augustus Caesar. Or rather, the first one is about Augustus and the second is about Octavian. Here they are:

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Ara Pacis Augustae - Roma, Italia

Now come, let us stop telling tragedies
I do not want to hear about defeat
About the burning Trojan towers; please
Sing to me of Alexandrian heat
No Odyssey, no rage of Poseidon
But Agrippa, glory at Actium
The Pantheon under new construction
Just rule, a census, houses that are plumbed
A new Apollo, but unlike a god
Not gifted by martial skill from above
Whose mark on the earth was a mortal plod
Sickly and small but still happy in love
A new man whose roots draw from country loam—
Augustus, he who in marble built Rome.

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Statue of Livia Drusilla - Louvre, Paris, France

With whom else would I want to spend my life?
Stay by my side; no one gets me like you
This is eternal—please, you know it's true
We came of age in time of civil strife
My father—well, great-uncle—died by knife
But his way is not the one I'll pursue
I'll be careful, bring peace. You want it too
Oh, Livia—will you please be my wife?

        Gaius Caesar—why, you're still just a boy
        But I can tell that you will move the earth
        In your story I will gladly take part
        I know you'd rather create than destroy
        Brick to marble, we will build things of worth
        Take my hand. You already have my heart.


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I intended to write a post last Friday about Islamophobia and the travel ban, but I didn't make the time. Thankfully, the travel ban has been shot down by the courts, but Islamophobia is still alive and well in the United States and I'd like to keep working on that post, gathering resources, reflecting, etc.

I also think that this blog has wandered quite far from its initial purpose, i.e. as a place to document my writing progress. As I try to work writing back into my schedule, I'll use this space more for that purpose again. So, for personal accountability, look out for a post about my current project sometime soon-ish.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Week One of the Regime



It Has Begun - Starset

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Trump became POTUS last Friday. For that and other reasons I was in a pretty awful state of mind Friday and the beginning of Saturday. Then I went with some friends to the San Jose Women's March.

I've never been to a protest before, nor any kind of march. The energy I felt there was very positive, and I felt a lot better about existing, being surrounded by people who cared enough to show up. Although this was a Women's March and deliberately not billed as a protest, obviously it took an anti-Trump flavor.

Chants I heard: "Yes we can"/"Si se puede"; "2-4-6-8 It's okay to immigrate"; "This is what democracy looks like"; &c.

Signs I saw: "Women's rights are human rights"; "Bernie 2020"; "I'm with her" (and arrows pointing off the sign into the crowd, or Lady Liberty); Rosie the Riveter either in the original or with Michelle Obama photoshopped in; "A Woman's Place is in the Resistance" with a graphic of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia; "Not My President"; "If you build a wall I will raise my children to tear it down"; "By the way, Climate Change is Real"; "I burned it once I'll burn it again" with the charred remains of a bra taped to the sign; Martin Luther King, Jr. shushing Trump; "End White Feminism"; "I am alive because of Obamacare"; "Humanity First America Second"; &c.

Lots of people were wearing those pink knit hats that are supposed to look like cat ears.

We didn't bring any signs. I'm not sure what I would have written. Not sure if it is my place to carry such a sign, but I would have liked to see a sign saying "Trans Women's Rights = Women's Rights = Human Rights" because, although I had an overall positive experience, being trans in that crowd felt pretty uncomfortable. More signs focused on the struggles of women of color would also have been good, although since I'm not actually a woman but am relatively privileged (the "model minority" concept is bull but I do have to own up to how that stereotype changes how people perceive me in a way that, net, makes my daily existence safer than it is for someone who is read with different stereotypes), I'd again have to think about what I would be justified in saying.

So we went, and came back. I spent a while lying on my floor scrolling Facebook and seeing everyone I know posting photos from the marches they went to. I didn't take any photos because I want to make sure that when I do the right thing, that I'm not doing it for social validation from my wider network. Not to say anything against people who do post things--communicating your solidarity, making your stance clear, is valuable too. But going to one march without a sign and listening to one speech at the rally afterward does not make me an activist. I am a beginner.

I also saw a lot of quotes/links/photos posted that took a more nuanced view of the Women's Marches. Many LGBT friends took issue with the trans-exclusionary rhetoric of signs equating reproductive organs with gender. Many other friends pointed out the double standard between the media coverage of these marches and of the Black Lives Matter marches.

This picture made a particularly big impression on me (shoutout to GG for sharing it). I am not a white woman, but fall into the same position of benefiting from social movements but not being in a whole lot of danger from police etc. I have never gone to a Black Lives Matter rally or march. Why? Now that I've gone to the Women's March, what is my excuse if I skip out the next BLM event?

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I wrote the first part of this post on Sunday, when I was still in...not a good mood, but a positive, optimistic mindset. Then this past week happened. The news is filled with the terrible actions the administration is taking, from the global gag rule on abortion to censoring national parks and environmental agencies to banning Muslim immigrants to approving both the Dakota Access Pipeline and Keystone XL to...

Saturday's energy was mostly positive. The numbers of people protesting made headlines, made history. And yet--despite all of that, these orders are making their way through the system.

Festina lente, said Augustus. The way to change is not just in momentous occasions, not just in big stands, not in single actions. It takes concentrated everyday effort over a long period of time to get anything done--so what do I do, when the goal is broad and the timeline is long?

There are small things I've done in the past week. Walked by a pro-life group demonstrating on campus to donate to the people collecting money for Planned Parenthood right next to them. Emailing the guy I know at the EPA. Small, small things. I feel silly even writing about them, especially given what I said above about not being performative about my actions. But as I said--I'm a beginner. I'm starting small, but I'm starting...

...and that's another thing about which I'm ambivalent. The fact that it took as abominable a person as Trump taking power to get me to do something. Obama and the Democrats were not perfect by any means, and if Clinton had won I am sure she'd have signed into law things that I would disapprove of. If I'd been paying more attention over the past eight years, I probably would have a much less positive impression of Obama than I do. But now, those kinds of conversations seem less urgent because the basic things that we could count on the Democrats to defend are being uprooted. Science, access to family planning methods, and the like.

I haven't personally spoken to anyone who said that Trump and Clinton would be the same but I wonder if they still think that way. Sure, Clinton would have been the status quo, but this is actively going backwards on all sort of measures. These questions--is climate change real, is it monumentally stupid to try to build a wall along the border with Mexico when real and worthwhile infrastructure projects languish--should be settled. We should be ready to move past them.

I've heard a lot of people say "it's going to be a long four years" and I have thought it, too, but there are several things wrong with that. First--some people aren't going to make it. If the Republicans succeed in getting rid of ACA and don't replace it in a timely way, how many people are going to die? I thought Obama wasn't accepting enough refugees--but now even fewer are going to be able to resettle here, and how many of them are going to die? Hate crimes are rising--how many people are going to die?

Second, it's not just four years. I haven't let myself consider a Trump reelection, which may be naive, but depending on how things go I could see a Pence or Ryan presidency following Trump, which would be awful. (DNC, please for the sake of all of us get it together.) And even if a Democrat is elected--I believe many things would improve but would we be back to Obama levels? And in many ways Obama levels aren't good enough either.

Trump did not start the global rise of white nationalism and extremism and he's not going to be the end of it either. This past week has been particularly bad for the country and the world, and this is just the beginning.

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After that dreary post, please enjoy this video. It (as well as various other remixes of the moment it depicts) has been one of the few things this week that made me smile.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Grand Tour Reflections

The Grand Tour refers, traditionally, to a trip around Europe that wealthy young aristocrats would make as part of their education in the 17th-early 19th century. Since I spent one-third of my first two years of college outside of the US, I've been thinking about how my travel has affected my development as a human being.

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Caveat: the idea of the Grand Tour is rooted in classism. Travel takes time and money. Study abroad, which I did, almost always means taking a lighter academic quarter, which means that people with unit-heavy majors need to be strategic about when they study abroad, if at all. Among the people I met during my quarter abroad, a much higher proportion of people were taking extra time, taking gap years, etc. as compared to the people I know in general.

I think that travel confers unique experiences and consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel as much as I have, particularly while still young and particularly for long durations. But that isn't intended to say anything against people who don't travel, for whatever reason.

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Summary of time spent out of my region in the last two years: 2 months in Indonesia (July-August 2015), 6 months in Germany (April-September 2016, roughly half in Berlin and half in Hamburg) with brief trips to many other places in Europe (of particular importance to my self-progress: Budapest, Hungary and Rome, Italy).

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Insights listed in no particular order:

Early on in my time in Indonesia, I read an article, which I can't find anymore although I think it was from the Jakarta Post, about high- and low-context cultures. Specifically, it was talking about how business between Indonesians and Australians can get complicated and be fraught with misunderstanding because in high-context cultures you are supposed to be able to pick up on a lot more nuances without being told about them explicitly, while in low-context cultures everything is supposed to be laid out clearly. I am from a low-context, very casual culture (California Bay Area) and tend towards obliviousness. Throughout my summer I got better at picking up on social cues, thinking about the proper time and place to talk to people about certain topics. I'm still not great at it, but I do pay more attention to what's going on between the lines than I used to.

I've written before about the way my time in Indonesia with the NGO I worked for turned my views on tech+tradition and rural development on their heads. But those insights are still ones that I feel strongly about, even more so now that I'm back in the Silicon Valley bubble, especially with the voting patterns in the election. Technology can be integrated into people's values. It is worthwhile to bring resources and jobs to rural places. Obviously the trends of urbanization and globalization are powerful, and obviously some "traditional values" are awful. But people want a say in progress.

That summer I found two role models. One was my boss, a brilliant woman who has a lot of social and political influence (as in, because of her I am two degrees of separation from the Indonesian Minister of Energy) who once negotiated a ransom for her husband from kidnappers who threatened to murder him, and who also sat me down on my first afternoon in Indonesia and said "welcome home! I will be your mom for the next two months." Over a year removed, of course some things become distorted through memory--but I remember her kindness as a force just as powerful as her entrepreneurial brilliance. I want to be like her.

The other role model is the king I met in the mountains. Someone with quiet, understated authority, someone who cares about the well-being of their people, who honors their history while looking forward to the future and embracing technology and progress. Indelible images: the traditional bamboo palace and the electronics workshop right outside of the throne room. Standing behind a row of men wearing the traditional black-and-ochre headwraps for the Independence Day celebrations as a drone flew overhead recording the event for broadcast to the local TV station. Is it arrogant to say that I want to develop a kingly presence? Well, I suppose my constant role model is imperial.

On a more heartbreaking note: as we drove down from the mountains back to Jakarta, the NGO employee who accompanied us and had taken care of us throughout the summer told me that one advantage of taking on international interns was so that we could see that, and I quote, "Muslims are not terrorists, are not extremists." In a world that is still Islamophobic and anti-Semitic, and perhaps increasingly so, statements that I made offhandedly in high school about how bad religion is can be intended neutrally but will not be received neutrally at all. I'm still an atheist but living in a predominantly Muslim country and talking to people who openly practice their religion and see it as very important for themselves has directly led me to be more careful in conversations about religion.

Unfortunately, my time in Germany only confirmed my knowledge of and deepened my horror toward global Islamophobia. Pro- and anti-refugee signs were rarely seen intact. We met a government employee in Budapest who said, and I am paraphrasing pretty closely, "Germany should take more migrants because they are more used to mixing with Muslims and Asians than we are."

The play FEAR, which I watched in my second or third week in Germany, was probably one of the most important two-hour spans in my entire six months. A concentrated look at the neo-Nazis and the people who are neo-Nazis in all but name, at the liberals who don't do anything (and feeling a strong sense of discomfort about being one of them), und so weiter.

Still: Hamburg was covered in pro-refugee, pro-LGBT stickers. The local antifa had a booth at the neighborhood block party. On the first of May, many held marches in solidarity with refugees.

The traditional Grand Tour is supposed to be about becoming cultured. Well, I went to Paris and Rome. I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity but honestly? Paris did not make such a big impression on me. The Louvre was a beautiful temple to European art. I ate a crepe along the Champs-Elysee.

Rome, though--Rome was another story. I still catch myself daydreaming about clambering about on the Palatine, drinking citrus soda from Coop and breathing in the air that smelled more like home than anything I'd smelled in the previous four months, deliriously happy. I've written about Rome already. But being there, as someone with whom the historical figure of Octavian Caesar resonates greatly, twenty years old and full of dreams--Rome is the eternal city and there I felt the most as if I was playing out the role of the Grand Tour traveler, or better yet the pilgrim, coming face to face with something that tells me that whatever I may think my place is, I can transcend it, just like Octavian did. (But with less murder.)

While in Germany, especially during the summer, I was much more independent than I was in Indonesia, or even at home. I loved it. Language barrier? More like a door. I enjoyed daily transactions because I enjoyed feeling good at German, enjoyed meeting people where they were and not being the obnoxious American tourist who counts on people to speak English. My lifestyle was pretty simple, sometimes boring, and I regret not getting out more and making more friends, but it was still a comfortable lifestyle, one I could budget myself (although, on the theme of economic privilege, I knew that I would come out above at the end of each month and that certainty was what made it fun to budget rather than terrible).

I've written about my experiences of race in Indonesia and in Germany. When in Indonesia I played up the fact that I'm Hui* on my mom's side, because it was something that gave me a connection to Indonesian culture. When in Germany, I felt way more minority than ever.

*a Muslim Chinese ethnic minority group

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(On a more personal note: my employer and her husband with whom I stayed in Indonesia, as well as my host parents in Germany, were both couples that have been married for decades, have raised children who have gone off on their own paths in the world, and still hold one another in the highest regard and with the deepest respect and affection. I don't even want to consider dating for another few years at minimum, but living with these two couples in successive years...it's not like I didn't believe in love before. But seeing them, I believe in love.)

(There is one person in the universe who is allowed to talk to me about the content of the previous paragraph and if you have any doubts, it's not you.)

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The quarter before I went to Indonesia, I took a preparatory class through the public service center wherein we discussed a lot about the ethics of service, particularly service abroad. There was no real conclusion. We read To Hell with Good Intentions, whose express purpose is to discourage people from volunteering abroad, and yet we all still went.

This quote resonates particularly:

If you have any sense of responsibility at all, stay with your riots here at home. Work for the coming elections: You will know what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how to communicate with those to whom you speak. And you will know when you fail. If you insist on working with the poor, if this is your vocation, then at least work among the poor who can tell you to go to hell.

This is approximately where I am mentally, now. So: technology and tradition, progress and rural areas, are not diametrically opposed. So: I want to be a king, I want to build a business, I want to build a new order, I want to build. So: Islamophobia and anti-Semitism and fascism are on the rise. So: race is complicated. So: context is important. So? What now? The tour was grand but home is where the work starts.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Travel Lessons

When I think nostalgically about my six months in Europe, the biggest thing I miss is the feeling of being mobile, of having the time and money to go places. To see things. Continuing the theme of posts I should have written months and months ago, today I'm going to talk (in no particular order) about things I learned from traveling this past spring and summer.

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Berlin Hauptbahnhof

Transportation to/from the location. Compare bus, train, plane. If you're in Germany, consider a BahnCard (but it automatically renews every year, so make sure to send a cancellation email at least 6 weeks before the expiration date) if you're going to be making a lot of train trips. Transportation was usually the biggest single expense for me. Overnight trains are often reasonably cheap, and if you bring a warm sweater and a jacket you can sleep on them. Then you arrive in your destination early in the morning and the world feels very shiny and new and ready for exploring.

Housing. Hostelworld, other hostel websites, AirBnB, whichever. When looking at hostels, consider proximity to the things you want to see and to transportation (e.g. in Salzburg I roomed at a hostel that was only two blocks from Hauptbahnhof because I had a 0600 bus).

Food. Bring your own food with you if you have a long trip or are just stingy (me). I got a box of granola bars the day before any trip and used those as breakfast and snacks. I think for my Rome trip I got two boxes. Go to grocery stores for food--it also will make you feel less like an obnoxious tourist. I felt particularly smug about getting most of my food from the Coop supermarket chain in Rome because I remembered the name from middle school Italian class. A big bag of crackers is easy to cart around without worrying about it melting or something. Bakeries are also good places to get cheap food. Get something to drink that refreshes you; my go-to was anything carbonated and citrus-flavored. Treat yourself to gelato if it's summer. Do try regional foods, if they fall within your dietary restrictions (e.g. I ate no wurst but I did eat a lot of potatoes).

If you're going to a city, any city, check if they have a tourism card/pass deal. These typically cover public transportation and some attractions/get you discounts on attractions. The Salzburg Card was the best deal I encountered (everything was free except a couple of special exhibits) while the Berlin Welcome Card deliberately leaves out Museum Island so just getting day passes for transportation made more sense. If you buy it from a person (e.g. at an airport or central station kiosk) they might give you a map also.

But if you can't count on that, download or print out a map so you know where you're going. I like being able to look at everything I want to do all at once and plan an efficient route (which may get thrown out midway through but hey, it happens). Before going, spend some time on Google Maps inputting places you want to go and how long it will take to get where. Of particular importance, plan out how you're going to get to your transportation back.

What to do? If you know someone who lives in or has been to the place you're visiting, ask them for advice. Look at the map and the city's tourism sites for inspiration. Go with what you like more than with what you're "supposed" to do. Are you going on vacation for yourself or for an audience? Examples: in Salzburg I visited the fortress twice, because I had written about it for Ubermadchen and it meant something to me. I skipped most of the Mozart- and Sound of Music-related stuff because I didn't have that connection. In Rome, I spent a whole lot of time in the Forum and Palatine area, even paying to get in a second time because I was not going to leave Rome without visiting the houses of Augustus and Livia. I didn't even try to go to the Vatican.

But if you're going someplace that doesn't have any particular personal meaning to you, that's fine too and you'll probably have a good time following travel guides. Still, if you have the choice, go someplace that means something to you.

Check the weather but no matter what bring a raincoat or umbrella. Go for maximum pockets but also be aware that pickpockets exist, so go for protectable pockets too. Because Germans tend to have very high standards of modesty, I ended up wearing long pants everywhere, even Rome, but this probably isn't necessary. Comfortable shoes. Hats are good--go for warmth if you're going someplace cold, go for sun protection if you're going someplace warm. Layers are good, especially if you're planning to be out doing things throughout the day. There are legit travel bloggers who can give pointers on the ideal wardrobe to bring to optimize simultaneously for a light pack and comfort.

Toiletries. I forgot to bring my toothbrush on multiple occasions. Bring a small towel, always (see: Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy). My hair is very low-maintenance so for weekend trips I could get away with not bringing shampoo but you do you. If you get periods, bring the necessary materials even if you don't think it's likely that you'll need them. Highly recommend having a small bag that holds all of this stuff, so you can bring it all in one go to a hostel bathroom and not worry about leaving something behind.

Money. In some places, cash is strongly preferred to card (Germany). Other places card is okay. Different cards may have varying charges associated with international purchases so check that so you don't spend money unnecessarily. Make sure you know your PINs (seems obvious and yet there I was, staring dumbfounded at the ticket machine in Copenhagen central station at 8 in the morning). Bring only slightly more cash than you plan to spend in your wallet, in case you do get pickpocketed, and hide extra money in your phone case or anywhere else that seems safe.

Charge your phone, charge your camera if you have one. Bring along a portable charger if you'll be out for a long time/if your phone drains battery quickly, and charge that fully too. A bag for your chargers/cables is a good thing. Make sure you have lots of empty space for pictures. This was more of a concern for me than for most people since my old phone had very little storage on it. I was constantly deleting apps to make space for more photos and then redownloading them once I'd had a chance to move my photos to my computer.

Souvenirs. I like postcards. Postcards are small, light, cheap, easy to personalize. I wish I had picked up a few more generic postcards from various places so I'd have something to give to people who I realized after the fact might appreciate something of the kind. For people I didn't forget, it was usually pretty easy to look through an assortment of postcards and pick something they would like. Art museums generally have quality selections; tourist-geared vendors often have deals if you get multiple. I didn't get a lot of physical souvenirs, because suitcase space, but I tried to go for things that were small in size but personalized.

Re photos: there's a lot to be said about experiencing things in the moment and not necessarily documenting them. I took pretty much no photos of places such as the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, or the concentration camps of Hamburg, for the same reason I don't talk to people when visiting such places--anything that could lead to greater performativity inhibits the sort of genuine response that I think these places require.

On the other hand, if you're visiting someplace to have fun, take photos all you want. Or if you see something interesting and want to document it. The act of composing a photo can also make you be more aware of what you're looking at, which is valuable. And even though I think you should let your wishes drive rather than the thought of what it looks like to others, there's nothing wrong with sharing photos of stuff you see. The biggest benefit, though, in my self-centered eyes at least, is being able to look through an archive of meaningful and happy memories.

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Upcoming: a more philosophical post on the Grand Tour and the idea of travel being a necessary component of education.