Sunday, May 1, 2011

commence

it’s a farce, the great actors, the great poets…

The first thing I learned in school was how to pass someone in the hall. We received explicit instructions from our kindergarten teacher.


Do not say hi. Do not hug, high five, or ask where they’re going. “Just smile and wave.”

I understood the discipline part of it, but why smile? We weren’t happy. We were in school, being shepherded from recess to class. There was nothing to smile about.


the great statesmen, the great painters, the great composers,


It’s freshman year and I keep having this nightmare where I’m trapped in a lab experiment. 
After a million tests, they blindfold me and lead me to the exit. If I pass this one, I’m free to go. I can feel the sunlight on my skin.
There is one simple question.
What would you rather be doing?
I fumble. Sleeping? Partying?
What makes you happy?
I don’t know, I say.

the great loves,
it’s a farce, a farce, a farce,


Rural Minnesota was supposed to be a place I laughed at while watching Fargo the night before I left for college. It was fiction. Nowhere was really that desolate, and no people were really that bland. Anyway, it didn’t matter. I was headed for a little oasis called Northfield, where fresh coastal blood would cut through the vast white nothing.


Two years pass. I meet someone new. He grew up here, on a Minnesota farm, on one of those dots you pity from airplanes. I find out these dot-people are not helpless. They think originally, love deeply. They choose to smile because that’s what you do when it’s negative ten degrees outside and you see another living thing. Whenever I see an open sky, or a field stretching forever, I remember the calm in his eyes.


history and the recording of it,
forget it, forget it.


My new friend makes me feel like Forrest Gump. He’s on our national championship Quiz Bowl team and a delightful conversationalist, always a step ahead but trying to take you there. He claims to be socially inept. I know it’s true because he was the first person at Carleton to tell me what I needed to hear.


“You’re a good writer. You know that, right?”


Today he’s spent five hours in the library, working on his History thesis. Out of nowhere, a backpack slams down on my lunch table.


“Hannah, academics are a lie!”

you must begin all over again.

I show up to Postmodern American Fiction ten minutes early. I’m supposed to be an English major and this is my first chance to prove it. Within thirty minutes, I’m completely lost. A sleepy-haired kid in the corner sticks up his hand.

“I don’t mean to derail our discussion, but…Hemingway was a great writer, but he shot himself in the head. Why should we listen to him about anything?”

throw all that out.
all of them out

A Declaration of Major Form has been sitting on my desk for the past three months. I spilled beer on it at some point, but I’m too proud to get a new one. One night, I come home from a party, and tape it to the wall. A new game is born. Pin-the-tail-on-the-future! I don’t need a blindfold or a friend. The room is already spinning.

you are alone with now.

I like Biology. I get to do things with my hands. It’s concrete, it’s fair, and it will never make me insane. Yesterday, we learned about expressed genetic traits. Every dominant allele was written across my body, as if in plain black font: “I…am…normal.” I feel triumphant.

look at your fingernails.
touch your nose.

I keep forgetting to wear long sleeves to Art History. The mythology gives me goose bumps, and it’s not like anyone has noticed, but it’s still embarrassing. They’d think I was…what? A hopeless romantic? A coward?

begin.

I’m a film major. I am trying to traffic in goose bumps. I am trying to smile at strangers. I’m five years old. I’m about to graduate. I have so much to learn.

the day flings itself upon
you.

poem by Charles Bukowski

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Academia and morality

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do, and I understand.”
-Confucius
Over the past year, I’ve spent several hours a week writing editorials about the moral complexities of my college experience. I've only begun to understand it.

Whenever we talk about the value of higher education, we reach an impasse at what academia is designed to do. Academia should let us 1) describe texts, and 2) evaluate them. The third step – figuring out what they mean for us – is hard to accomplish in the classroom.

This sentiment comes from professors who have far more knowledge than us, but also more experience working with it. Even if I disagree, it makes sense that I should learn the way they learned. Right?

When I think of the alienation at Carleton, I think we need to take a step back. Why are we here in the first place, spending $53,000 a year?

Our teachers seem to harbor a solipsistic optimism that when handed a text, any 18-22 year old will have grandiose moments of intellectual or spiritual (ah, same thing, right?) epiphany as often as they did. It’s something to strive for.

But with most students' busy schedules, that “outside the classroom” time for discussing the meaning of life – it doesn't exist.

So we drift from activity to activity, searching for fulfillment that never comes. We fall into a cycle of “work hard, play hard,” complaining about our workloads and perpetuating a massively destructive drinking culture, simply because work and play are the only guarantees.

We have been asked to wait. It will all be worth it at graduation. Like magic, we will have become better people.

When does this happen? After a year? A term? A class?

Most freshman have never worried about the purpose of education. We like learning, we probably enjoyed books as children, we’re generically ambitious. But we’re here because it’s the next step. College is what successful people do after high school.

So this assumption that all learning is unmitigated social good – it's lazy, and risky.

Let’s accept the notion that there is no such thing as an evil idea, only evil ways to use it. For example: Hitler used Darwinism to justify genocide.

Imagine if the first time Hitler encountered Darwinism, it was in a classroom where he was encouraged to think about his own life – his experience getting rejected from art school, his poverty, his family’s misfortunes. In this context, it may not have been such an attractive concept. What if that classroom included Jews who were also sharing personal insights?

Once you take an idea away from the humans it claims to understand, it becomes much easier to use against them.

I’m not proposing that we turn every class into a group psychoanalysis session. But I think the level of abstraction we've reached in humanities classes is counterproductive. When you’re afraid to bring up concrete examples of ideas, you can't make vivid connections to your previous experiences. And neurobiology suggests that’s actually how learning takes place.

The fatigue of analyzing texts with total detachment can lead to two unhealthy outcomes. One, we stop believing that what we do in class has any bearing on our lives. In the extrinsic-motivation-based system of grades and diplomas, we stop caring about our moral compass because it comes second to success. Two, we latch onto whatever idea grabs us first. Hitler did that; so did Sarah Kofman, a French philosopher who killed herself on Nietzsche’s birthday.

College shouldn't be a cerebral dream from which we wake up lost and cynical. If we don’t start connecting the theory of life to the practice now, when will we start? When there are no grades at stake? When it’s our employees, our students, our children?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Crew

“IN TWO, POWER TEN!”

I can’t do this. No one can possibly do this holy god it hurts please make it stop hurting-

I’m at the freshman activities fair, lingering near the crew table. My brain is being annoying.

Why are we doing this? It conflicts with cross country.
That’s the whole point of college, trying new things.
What if I turn into a man?


“You’re the perfect build for crew. Are you interested?” The coach is smiling at me, somewhat creepily. She hands me a flier.

Two hours later, I’m wandering into the basement of the rec center with thirty other girls. I am judging them, and it’s fun, but the voice again.

Practices are at 5 a.m.
At a beautiful reservoir.
You’re supposed to be focusing on school.


“In fact, the rowing team has the highest average GPA of any team at Mills.” The assistant coach resembles Cameron Diaz, looks decidedly like a woman.

There’s no chance to shine, though.
Wouldn’t that just be the worst thing, Narcissus?
Shut up. Look at these girls
. One is asking, "Do we have to run a lot?"

“No. When the weather is bad, we use the machines.”

The girl nods and, glancing around, gives a relieved, portly chuckle. “Because I’m not into running.”

“That’s fine. But you have to understand, rowing is probably the hardest physical thing you will ever do.”

The head coach looks at me again, but I find myself returning the creepy smile.

The rower builds up a fearsome level of lactic acid, as much as 50% higher than any other athlete.

I don’t sleep anymore. Six days a week, I blink at 10 pm and wake to the screech of my alarm clock, flashing 4:30.

I’m quitting today. Right after practice.

When we arrive at the reservoir, the landscape can only be seen through the sky: The stars silhouetting the hills, the moon on the water. We row through the darkness, watching an orange streak on the horizon spread itself higher and higher until suddenly, the sun breaks over the hills, and in every direction is rolling green. Next to us, a flock of geese skids onto the water, trying to seize the gold playing on its surface but only scattering, making more of it.

I want to be tired, but I don’t have a choice. I’m jarred awake by beauty. It’s happened so many times now I’ve almost learned to stop fighting it.

“…and bury your blades.”

I settle into my seat and look up at our coxswain. The gesture is more intimate than a kiss. From a foot away from my face, she’s about to watch me suffer.
Rowers have some of the highest power outputs of athletes in any sport.
SHUNK!

Coach says it’s her favorite sound in the whole world. It’s the sound of eight oar blades feathering in sync. Sometimes we hear it across the water, a flawless echo from a UC Berkeley crew, but for us, it’s usually SHUNK-clatter-clatter-clatter, which is the sound of my patience running out.

Good rhythm comes painfully slow to novice rowers. In "stroke seat," I'm the leader; I’m supposed to set the pace for everyone else.

The slowest part of a rowing stroke should be the "recovery." When you reach forward to put your oar back in the water, the boat loses momentum, since you’re facing backwards in it. “Rushing up to the catch” is one of our biggest problems. If I do my job correctly, I often fight the movement of seven other bodies. I often get slammed around like a sock puppet. Today, coach doesn’t seem to notice.

“Three, more lay back! Six, hands high!”

TELL THEM THEY’RE IDIOTS

“EIGHT! Head up! Stay focused!”

I’m just a number again. It’s a godsend.

“That’s it. Seven, watch her shoulder…”

When our SHUNK happens, I don’t hear it. I feel it. It’s raw human power multiplied by eight and concentrated into one fluid motion. It’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
So, why do kids cry when they’re born? Well, it is said, Satan stabs a child at birth, as an introduction to pain. You know…welcome to the world, right?
-K’naan
“500 TO GO!”

I want to scream in pain, but we’re not allowed. It’s a waste of energy.

“ALRIGHT, A POWER TEN FOR YOUR STROKE! SHE’S BEEN WORKING HARD UP HERE-”

The boat surges forward.

It’s pure human heart multiplied by seven and concentrated into one fluid motion. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world. I want to cry, but we’re not allowed. It’s a waste of energy.

Five years later, I still have rowing dreams. I think very few sports understand honor and sacrifice as well as crew.

Our coach had a degree in sports psychology. After a particularly brutal erg workout, she pointed out that some of us were subconsciously shaking our heads. It’s the body saying, “No” to the pain. By then, something had changed. I was nodding.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Academic Dishonesty

On Sunday, it was doom-gray outside by 3pm. There was snow, and then hail, and finally thunder. “Thundersnow!” Everyone in the library rushed to the window. I made a joke about the apocalypse, no one laughed, and I was too excited to care.

A long time ago, I seriously considered having someone write a paper for me.

It seems absurd now, as my godlike writing talents have won me literally several emails, but at the time, I doubted I could impress anyone with words.

I've never been the best student. Even at the top of my class, homework gave me hell; I’d sit at the dining room table for hours on end, just spacing out until the guilt resurfaced.

In high school, my GPA plummeted. The material got harder, and I used the same strategy as always: Skin of your teeth. Do well on tests. It wasn’t enough.

And yet I eventually conned my way into Carleton, a place where Type-A personalities came to make love on piles of books. I had to change. I had to learn good study habits and rhetoric, a language I’d heard in bits and pieces from my parents but had never been forced to speak.

But for the first time, I was surrounded by people who seemed smarter than me. The day before deadline, I only saw one solution. Find someone who knew what they were doing. Ask them to help me out, just this once. I couldn’t afford to screw up my second college career.

Never mind that I could write. I’d been writing creatively since I was fifteen. There was an untraversable rift between that and this damn Linguistics paper.

Why does this happen to so many of us? Why do papers destroy us? Why have there been seventy cases of academic dishonesty in the past three years?

Let’s go back to the 18th century. Before Internet passwords, reading was considered the most private activity you could do. Conversely, writing was the most spiritually demanding. You were inviting someone to watch you think.

But this hasn’t changed. In an essay, you take things you’ve read and pit them against each other, and yourself. For the first part, it’s easy to cite dead men the way Chicago wants you to. But inside, where you’re watching yourself think, you should be citing everything you’ve ever experienced.

That’s where ideas come from. They come from 7th grade AIM conversations, from the buttery French horn in an old sci-fi film, from your dog's pointless dewclaws, from that invincible feeling you get when the sun passes behind a thin layer of clouds and you can look straight at it. Academic writing is unsettling because you use your soul, but you're not allowed to use the word "I."

This might seem like a minor concern. If you play sports or music, you're already resilient. You get to say, “I” every time you sing. But chances are you still put off a few papers that should, in a perfect world, be fun to write.

For a year, I boycotted writing. It seemed like a waste of time not to read instead. But the more I read, the more I realized that good creative writing and good academic writing had something in common. From the love-struck Austen, to the outraged Orwell, to the reluctant Darwin, the basic belief that we deserved their insights made precise language the only option. They were all brilliant, but more importantly, they were sincere.

In an Aesthetics course last winter, we were struggling through a dense reading by a contemporary art scholar when a frustrated senior (it's always a senior) picked up his book and held it in the air like a stale sandwich.

"This was the most offensively meaningless article I’ve ever read. Every sentence made me so angry that I had to stop several times because I was getting physically ill.”

This delighted me, of course. But I think it will help us to forgive The Man. This term I'm in Visual Studies, a course not so different from Aesthetics. Our professor reminded us that while some of the readings are intense, that’s kind of the point. “When the rubber band of your mind snaps back, you’re able to see things you couldn't before."

Academia is loving you the only way it knows how. You can forgive bombastic writing the same way you’d forgive a smirk on a stranger. Maybe that’s the best smile they can give you today, and maybe they’ve read so many research papers they can’t help sounding a little silly. It isn’t a reason to copy them. Read between the lines. Listen for thundersnow.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

hobbes

Thursday, February 3, 2011

let's go out!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

yellow fever

When people ask me about being half-Asian, two things happen. First, I think of elementary school. Then I give the short answer: “It’s the best of both worlds. Most of the privilege, none of the guilt.”

Clever, right? I like that it steers away from melodrama, because I’ve played that game enough. Let’s stand around and admire our pain and forget about Darfur.

But it’s also a defense mechanism, because deep down, the pain is there. The question almost always comes from a white person, and some part of me is remembering elementary school, when some kid would ask me if I was Chinese, I’d say no, I’m Japanese, and discover the whole thing was a setup for a really bad joke.

“Chinese, Japanese, American knees!"

In case you’ve never seen it performed: You pull the corners of your eyes up, and then down, and then you touch your knees. You laugh, and the kids around you laugh, and a little piece of Hannah’s soul slips out of place.

I grew up in an inner-ring Cleveland suburb called Lakewood. It’s remarkable for its socioeconomic diversity, but it is 93% white. In advanced and AP classes, I was almost always The Minority.

I got used to this, and over time, the questions people asked me got less and less offensive. “Do you speak Japanese?” became “Do your parents speak Japanese?”, and so on.

It would be nice to believe that all Carleton students know better. Once, someone asked my race before asking my name. But for the most part, people behave themselves. I really want to trust them. I don't want to have a violent visceral reaction to anime kids. I want to hear guys wax poetic about the beautiful women they met on study abroad trips and feel special and desirable instead of nauseated.

In the past, internalized racism was a simple problem with a simple solution. Detroit Red became Malcolm X and never looked back. But what do you do when your culture is exactly what The White Man wants? What do you do when your hard-fought identity is charming, adorable, and still not quite human?

Most people don’t seem to think about this. Some Asian girls have no problem dating guys who are “into Asian girls.” We can write lengthy papers on Orientalism and then go out and buy Japanese furniture for what it represents - something that is not familiar, not mainstream, not your parents, not your trashy cousins, and definitely not your third grade shame, whatever that is.

When people ask me what it’s like to be half-Asian, I get the same feeling I got two years ago, when we moved out of Lakewood to a much rougher neighborhood in West Cleveland. Every time I walked the dog, I faced a string of cat calls. It made me angry for a while, but one day, I realized something much worse had happened. I’d stopped smiling. The more I smiled, the more attention I got. Exoticism does the same thing: It takes something positive and turns it into a source of fear.