"I once had a sparrow alight upon my shoulder for a moment... and I felt that I was more distinguished by that circumstance than I should have been by any epaulet I could have worn." -Thoreau

Friday, December 30, 2011

On Sunrises and New Years

The sun is quickly setting on the year.
Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that we are already enshrouded in darkness and the dawn will soon be before us with the birth of a new year- there needs to be a period of darkness between dusk and dawn, correct?

Perhaps you reject this metaphor altogether and confuse it for mistaken reasoning. The end of a year has naught to do with the completion of a rotation about the earth's axis- no, no, it is the completion of a revolution about the sun. To speak of dusk and dawn is foolishness.

But perhaps it is not so foolish when we pause to consider the flow of the seasons, not unlike the fluctuations of light and temperament which transpire in a day. Mild-climated Californians may often forget, but let us recall the rhythmic melding of cold, austere winter into the childlike wonder of bloom-laden spring, which then matures into bright, energized summer until slowly mellowing into twilight colors of reds and golds and preparing to sink into a wintry slumber.

No, perhaps the downscale imagery is not so misplaced.

I just envisioned a flash of the beautiful sinusoidal dance of Earth days revolving around the Sun. Smooth transitions of color on a rotating sphere which itself is carried through parallel shifts of hue on its path of revolution...
Is it a spacetime fractal with which we are dealing?

Strangely, I did not intend to dwell on images of a years' end- not literally- but how quickly one can be lost in contemplation of cosmic wonder!

I am afraid there are things that must be done in preparation for dawn.
To put it plainly, the drabness of housecleaning awaits me.
Perhaps I will transform it into a nymph-ish ritual of cleansing in anticipation of yearly rebirth... and sweeping and dusting will give way to contemplation of fractals and cosmic dances, and of years past and times to come.

Farewell... we should meet again at dusk, or dawn, or midnight to perform ritualistic dances and share the fruits of contemplation.

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Rape and the Temptation of Misguided Anger

*The idea of being raped and murdered- or just raped- terrifies me.

It’s terrible, terrible, terrible. It’s one of those things that makes me want to cry, “Why, God, why?” (But I don’t think there’s actually a god listening, unfortunately.) 
And it makes me hope that it never happens to me. (Or anyone I care about. Or anyone, ever.)

It’s difficult not to take issue with men. At least with the abstract concept of men. 
Throughout my life I've been informed of countless brutal rape-murders. 
All my life I’ve been warned not to listen to the emotional manipulations of men, because ‘he will say whatever needs to be said to get what he wants from you.’ I want to believe that it isn’t true, that I can trust people, that “men” could not be so cruel and that they must see me as more than… I’d rather not be crass. As more than a toy to be used. But it’s hard to hold on to that belief when your father and your uncles and most everyone you know tells you this. 
That’s the scary thing, really. I could shrug it off relatively easy coming from a hurt woman. Pain clouds personal judgment. Just because he did that to you doesn’t mean it happens all the time. 
But when it’s all of the men who are in a position to care about me that say it (with an unspoken, trust me, we do it all the time lurking in their eyes)… my faith in “man” falters despite my stubborn adherence to a belief in the goodness of people.

I have been instilled with a fear of walking alone. Anytime, anywhere. Especially at night (Of course. I mean it’s really out of the question).
Maybe I am too precautious, but given the stakes, I say better to be safe. 
But it does strike me as a bit unfair when I realize that my male friends have likely never hesitated at the thought of walking to the grocery store by themselves- for fear of the possibility of being kidnapped, raped, and discarded on the side of the road somewhere. And when I wonder whether I will be able to travel through Europe next fall, because I am not going with a group of people I know, and what if I don’t make friends with similar travel destinations while I am abroad? Is it safe to travel alone? I want to believe so… but…. I don’t know. Perhaps I’d better not. 
These are fears that ought not be necessary. But they’re there, and I can’t ignore them or shrug them off easily. Of course, travelling alone is also dangerous for a male, I suppose… but not nearly as dangerous as for a female. Men may have their wallet taken from them. Just about anyone who attacks me will make sure to seek other advantages. Even if they primarily just want the money, why not make the best of the situation and rape a lone female? And even if both scenarios (male victim and female victim) end in death, why must the murder of my counterpart almost always be preceded by rape? Perhaps it seems to make no difference, but it does to me. Why can’t we be spared that shred of dignity?

I know a large number of men-- in the same way that I know a large number of women-- whom I respect and who I firmly believe to be individuals if integrity. There are those whose esteem I prize, and a very few whom I would trust with my soul. It’s not a matter of male or female; it’s a matter of character. This I believe more deeply than any anti-male sentiment I may utter. I may be called a fool, and perhaps I am, but I refuse to let go of the belief in the goodness of individuals- not of men or women (or of Muslims or Christians or atheists or any ethnic group or just any group), but of individuals.   

So forgive me, fellow believers in justice, when I slip into anger toward the concept of “man” when I hear that “in a survey of college-aged men, 35% admitted that they would commit rape if they believed they could get away with it” (http://www.uic.edu/depts/owa/sa_rape_support.html). Or when I recall the confusion and sadness and incredulity that filled me when I expressed to a dear male friend- whose honor and decency I would pledge to in a heartbeat- that I could not understand how someone could rape someone, could take pleasure in the act despite the pain they were inflicting upon another, despite the screams and the struggles and the tears and all of that… and he shook his head and told me that no, he could see it… It makes sense… (And I wanted to scream that no! It can’t make sense! It doesn’t make sense! How could it ever make sense? I still want to deny that. There must have been some error, some misunderstanding, some discrepancy in terminology that prevented the clear communication of ideas.) Or when I think of women impregnated and abandoned to raise their child alone. (This seems unfair to the woman, but my real pain here is for the child, who deserves better.) I’ve never understood why responsibility for a child tends to be considered so disproportionately… but it’s another one of those warnings that haunted my girlhood. And then there’s that whole history of inequality between the sexes, which produces the occasional pang of disappointment.

I know this sounds ironic, but it actually isn’t. I mean it, and am only trying to provide you with my perspective, that you may understand the temptation. So please do forgive me when I slip into anger toward the concept of “man.” I ought not to name this character so. But I have yet to conjure a title for this beast. 
(A note: I should clarify. I do not put men who do not play in equal role in raising their children and that long line of men who played a role in the oppression of women “beasts.” They may be weak, but they are not beasts. The beast is the rapist, the murderer, the torturer.)

So reader... I trust that you are good. You may have your flaws and your weaknesses, but so do we all, and I believe that you will do the right thing when put in a sticky situation. You are strong.
I trust that you will keep an eye out for the weak and protect them if possible.
I know that you will support survivors. I know that you will remind the people around you that we are to treat people with dignity, and that you will teach by example.
I know that you do your best to live with integrity and honor- and for that, you have my utmost respect.
We are good, strong men and women… and we must do our utmost to keep the beast at bay.

*These thoughts, on this particular occasion, were provoked by the following sites:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Awkward Nerd Girl

Let us briefly consider a unique creature: the awkward nerd girl.

The awkward nerd girl subsists on a hearty diet of scientific articles, literary novels, and exercises in mathematical abstraction. This is often supplemented by strong doses of fine art and poetry, philosophical discussion, and close reading of historical texts.

The awkward nerd girl is not pretty. She is not gorgeous, she is not beautiful. She is definitely not "hot." 
At best, she is "kind-of-cute-in-an-awkward-way"-- but mostly she is overlooked. 
By and large, the awkward nerd girl rejects the 'shallow societal obsession with physical beauty' (the claim that something is fashionable is a strike against the item, more often than not)… but when the time for public procession actually comes around, she stands awkwardly in her less-than-fashionable selections, torn between loving and hating herself for the rebellion.
In her heart of hearts, the awkward nerd girl wishes she were beautiful.

The awkward nerd girl is appropriately situated in settings of a very particular nature: a library, a classroom, a coffee shop, and the confines of her own book-laden bedroom are prime examples. Other sites are nerd-girl-neutral: a grocery store, a public restroom, or a swing-set at the local park, perhaps. But certain sites are strictly forbidden: fashionable boutique stores, large parties, and, most certainly, steamy dance floors.
Let's face it: the image of the awkward nerd girl dancing (awkwardly) to music with a strong beat and highly questionable lyrics is offensive to the sensibilities of all parties.

My own role, unsurprisingly, is that of the awkward nerd girl. When placed on a dance floor pulsing with the latest tunes in pop culture, a large red exclamation mark quickly appears over my head.
 Does not belong! Warning! Awkward nerd girl has entered the dance floor!
I rigorously avoid eye contact. I grimace in understanding of the pain others must experience at beholding the taboo sight. My mind and body quickly cave under the torrential pressure of public disapproval, and I steadily crumble into a small pile of awkward self-consciousness.
Awkward nerd girl does not belong.

In the way of dance, this awkward nerd girl has turned to a sneaky refuge.

Ballroom dancing is beautiful. It is graceful. It is classic.
But the key point for the awkward nerd girl is another. Ballroom dancing is structured-- and therefore, it is safe.

My family expressed all sorts of surprise at the idea of my doing any sort of dancing.
I am stiff, terribly self-conscious, less-than-coordinated, and… awkward.
I am pretty sure they still don't buy it.

But what they don't understand is that ballroom offers a layer of protection for the awkward nerd girl.
Consider the following:
Waltz demands you trace out boxes. Cha calls for tetras shapes. Squares, line segments, circles… 
Geometric precision.
All in all, it seems like a perfect task for the awkward nerd girl.

It is only later that the stiffness melts away. We lose the simple  rigidity of basic geometric shapes and introduce more complex curves, rotating waltz boxes in ballroom frames evocative of ln(x).
It is geometry and vector calculus.
It is precise and fluid.
We are anchored by structure... and so we feel safe to introduce "Latin hip motion" under discussion of proper mechanics. After a while it's not too hard to sneak in flirtatious winks and intense passion and butterfly fragility. It's not too difficult to slip into lovely gowns (though sexy Latin skirts still defy us-- they are not fooled) , and to dream of personal beauty whilst tracing out elegant patterns with mathematical precision. The awkward nerd girl knows that it is for those elegant structures which the audience claps, not for her… but still. At that moment she is free to dream of beauty and sophistication and black-lace evening-dresses.

Friday, December 9, 2011

On J.K. Rowling, Success, and What-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life?

Every now and then I am struck by a harrowing pang of bewilderment. 
(That is to say, I peek at the tangled mess which is the what-am-I-to-do-with-my-life question, and wonder how in the world I shall ever set about undoing the hideous knots and imposing an acceptable degree of order upon my "adult" life.)

Today I spent a good bit of time pursuing miscellaneous activities, and in the process I did manage to strike a bit of gold. Apparently J.K. Rowling gave Harvard's Commencement address two years ago.
I found her address delightful and inspiring and exceedingly relevant. I have always felt that Rowling must be a wonderful creature to be able to write the profound, life-shaping passages found in her books, and hearing her speak only reinforced this belief. I tend to credit Montgomery, Alcott, and Pierce for most of my childhood-shaping, but Rowling (and Hugo!) certainly deserve to be up there. The Harry Potter books brought me to tears of laughter and sorrow on many an occasion. (Yes, maybe Harry was a little dramatic in book five, but I'm certain I shed tears of rage and mourning right along with him, as he sent Dumbledore's possessions to a crashing end in a senseless effort to protest Sirius' death.) 

There are certain things that set my heart ablaze. 
One such thing is the pure friendship embodied in the Harry Potter books- having people of virtue and integrity willing to risk their lives for love of one another. There is something incredibly beautiful in the friendship between Harry, Ron, and Hermione- but not just them. The Weasleys, Lupin, Hagrid, Sirius (to Wormtail, "You should have died! Died rather than betray your friends, as we would have done for you!"),  Dumbledore... there's so much of loyalty and love that permeates their actions.

Another (related) is Harry's realization in Half-Blood Prince that he is in control of his fate, despite the prophecy.
[Oh dang. Things just got serious. I strode to my bookshelf, pulled out book six, and turned to chapter 23.]  There are a good four pages worth of quote-worthy material at the end of that chapter, possibly my favorite conversation of the series. Yep, it's quote-time. (But not four pages' worth.)

(Dumbledore is trying to persuade Harry that the prophecy is virtually irrelevant. Harry isn't getting it.)
“It is essential that you understand this!” said Dumbledore, standing up and striding about the room, his glittering robes swooshing in his wake…. “By attempting to kill you, Voldemort himself singled out the remarkable person who sits here in front of me, and gave him the tools for the job! …And yet, Harry, despite your privileged insight into Voldemort’s world…. You have never been seduced by the Dark Arts, never, even for a second, shown the slightest desire to become one of Voldemort’s followers!”
“Of course I haven’t!” said Harry indignantly. “He killed my mum and dad!”
“You are protected, in short, by your ability to love!” said Dumbledore loudly.
“But, sir… it all comes to the same thing doesn’t it? I’ve got to kill him, or- ”
“Got to?” said Dumbledore. “Of course you’ve got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you’ve tried! We both know it! Imagine, please, just for a moment, that you had never heard that prophecy. How would you feel about Voldemort now? Think!”
Harry watched Dumbledore striding up and down in front of him, and thought. He thought of his mother, his father, and Sirius. He thought of Cedric Diggory. He thought of all the terrible deeds he knew Lord Voldemort had done. A flame seemed to leap inside his chest, searing his throat.
“I’d want him finished,” said Harry quietly. “And I’d want to do it.”
“Of course you would!” cried Dumbledore. “You see, the prophecy does not mean you have to do anything! But the prophecy caused Lord Voldemort to mark you as his equal… In other words, you are free to choose your way, quite free to turn your back on the prophecy! But Voldemort continues to set store by the prophecy. He will continue to hunt you… which makes it certain, really, that-"
“That one of us is going to end up killing the other,” said Harry. “Yes.”
But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents- that there was all the difference in the world.
Let us pause for a moment and allow that to soak in.

So, my point. My point is, Harry Potter invigorated my stubborn resolution to prize love as the most beautiful and empowering and noble of human actions.
The love of Anne Shirley (Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables) is light-hearted and uplifting (I dream of being an Anne-ish friend, teacher, and mother), but, though I do not doubt its resilience, it is unmarked by the suffering which is the unique product of gross injustice. Harry Potter adds so much in the way of silent strength and poignancy. The love of that world is love in the face of murder and torture, fear and anguish. It is daring to hold on to beauty and hope in the face of those who would rip all goodness from the world. It is what we would die for- but, more importantly,  it is the love that we live for.
Oh, Harry Potter! J.K. Rowling is a kindred spirit. Definitely.

What I was going to say... before delving into the Harry Potter portion of my soul... was that Rowling seems to understand my feelings concerning life/success/failure perfectly.
Coming from parents with an "impoverished" background with serious concerns about the practicality of their dreamy daughter's desires for life... Hmmm... I think that sounds a bit too familiar. [I also definitely appreciated the part where she said her parents may not have found out she was studying Classics until the day of her graduation. I have certainly been tempted to do just that (only with philosophy, of course).]
I always enjoy the rants which follow any mention of my latest philosophy class, complete with heated claims that philosophy is for those not good enough to do science or mathematics, bleak predictions of future joblessness and subsequent starvation, sour threats to retract all forms of parental support in the case that I nevertheless insist on pursuing such a foolish life-path, and other forms of, generally speaking, overwhelming support for the notion of a philosopher daughter. It's encouraging, really.

But, like Rowling, I understand my parents' perspective. Okay, maybe I don't fully understand their viewpoint, but when I can step back from the stinging sensation in my chest, it's evident that what they want is for me to move forward in life. They want me to be able to provide for myself, and, moreover, to flourish.

Now perhaps this is simply my trying to be philosophical, but that last statement seems to introduce a desperate need for a definition. What in the world does it mean to "flourish"? What is my standard for success?

For my parents, wealth is an obvious component in this calculation. [Points against philosophy.]
For myself... Don't get me wrong, it's tempting to adopt that as a criteria, but I'm not sure that riches really get to the heart of my desires. I don't care about flashy cars or mansions or pointless displays of opulence.

Current requirements for my "house of dreams" are a lovely garden, enough space for a happy family, general freshness/quaintness/cuteness, and an awesome library.
(Admittedly, I would be willing to put a good deal of money into that last one.)
I want a career that is intellectually demanding, rewarding, and conducive to forming meaningful relationships or human connections.
I want to do work that has a positive impact in terms of improving the lives of others or contributing to justice.
I want to contribute to the beauty of the world.
I want to be a confidante and mentor.
I want to be a loving (and beloved) wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend.
I want to be a life-long lover of ideas.

The question is... how do I find the connection between my standard of success and selecting a clear career path? Would I do best in education or medicine? Should I teach, counsel, provide therapy, or practice general medicine? Is it justifiable to spend a life writing papers when I could help someone regain the ability to walk or speak, or help provide care to the millions dying of malaria, AIDS, or other diseases? But surely an educator plays a crucial role in the way of fortifying and enlightening minds!
What would I be best at? What would make me happiest? What would bring me the most success?

Nope, I still have no idea how to untangle the ugly mess. All of this...to no avail.
I find myself hoping that, slowly, things will be made clear and the knots will ease up a bit. Somewhat magically, relatively painlessly, and swiftly enough that I evade the failure I so greatly wish to avoid.

I'm reminded of when I complained to my friend that I had no idea what I was going to do with my life.
And she (Brynna) would have none of it. "You're going to be happy, that's what you're going to do."
But, but, but!- I wanted to protest.

...Somehow, I'm thinking she's right.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Why Kant Was Wrong About Beneficence: I don't need your help.

Lately, my mind has been reeling.

I seem to be suffering from a desire to do too many things at once. It is exhilarating- and a tad frustrating.
In the last two days I have gotten halfway through Ayn Rand's Philosophy: Who Needs It (in case you're wondering: you do). I have gotten through the first part of, Stumbling on Happiness, a book dealing with the psychology of that elusive state which we all pursue- thus far, it is delightfully written. I have worked on crafting poetry. I have watched a live debate on the subject of capitalism. I have been pondering the ethics of being a rational, omnivorous creature, and questioning what it means to live out my values. I have watched TED talks on architecture, gratitude, "anonymous extraordinaries," and a host of other interesting and inspirational subjects. I have loaded my bedside table with more philosophy books, Russell's Principles of Mathematics (a perhaps foolish ambition), an introduction to game theory, and I become increasingly persuaded that I need  to investigate economics. It seems like every half hour I decide that I really, really want to learn about or think about something new and exciting- or pursue an idea to greater depth.
...What will I do with five weeks at home? I don't have enough time to think about half the things I want to think about!

Unsurprisingly, I suspect I lose a great deal of time fretting over the dilemma, rather than simply sitting down and actually doing some good thinking and reading. This can be a problem, but there's hope.

Fortunately, in the last half hour or so I managed to capture the latest intellectual whim "on paper"(actually, in a word document, but same thing, right?).

See, I was slowly eating teaspoons of peanut butter out of the peanut butter jar (a delicious but overall unwise idea). I believe I had just been mentally protesting the impossibility of fitting ten different subject into my next two college terms when I got sucked into renewed contemplation of the Kant paper I wrote for my ethics class. Whilst savoring the sweet peanut buttery-ness I returned to one of problems that kept bugging me. Is it, or is it not, plausible to say that an agent will necessarily require the assistance of others to achieve his end? Kant presumably believed that this made sense, but I went on to question that assumption. I began to wonder... what exactly does it mean to absolutely require the help of others?

The best I could come up with is being bitten by a poisonous snake and requiring someone else to fetch the antidote to save you. In that case, I willingly concede that self-help is not exactly an option.

But excluding cases of physical (or mental- but that is a big problem indeed!) debilitation... how much sense does it make to posit that, on the basis of self-interest, a rational agent cannot will the universalization of the maxim to neither help nor hurt others, because there exists a case in which the agent will require the help of others to obtain (one of) his end(s)?

I should perhaps clarify. It's more or less obvious what it means to not hurt others. What it means to help others is perhaps not so clear. I'm talking about "selfless charity"- assistance disconnected from any notion of rational self interest.

Let us envision a world where you are forced to solve your own problems. As humans, we are extraordinarily talented, capable creatures; we use our intellect to find creative solutions. Given this capacity, and given a free society- that is, a society where people are politically free (free from compulsion, free from abuse, free from violence), a society where people neither hurt nor help you... Given these things, it seems reasonable that when you find yourself in a strait... you are free to find your own solution. And you do so- without need of the help of others.

Imagine you're in a world where no one will offer you charity… You find yourself under stress. You find yourself in need of a solution to a major problem. What do you do?
 Well, here's something you don't do. You don't sit on a street corner and pout. That will get you nowhere.

So what do you do? 
Well, what can you do? Call upon those prodigious powers of intellect! 
You start to think. Hard. You figure out what tools you possess to get around the problem. You find a solution, and you get around your problem. 

Do I expect someone to help me by giving me a job I don't deserve? No. If I'm in need of employment, I start trying to think what jobs I can perform- moreover, what jobs I can perform well. What do I have of value that I can offer to someone?
 Do I expect someone to hand me a check in the belief that I can offer them nothing in return? No! No one invests in something they believe to be worthless. That is irrational, and I don't expect others, or myself, to be irrational.

To return to the question then...What sort of help would I, or could I, expect from others?

Certainly, I would expect people to treat me with respect- but that's not a question of charity. That's a part of freedom- respecting the rights of individuals.
I would expect others to deal with me in a mutual exchange of value- I would expect people to behave rationally, in a manner conducive to their rational self-interest.
If someone hands me a check, I expect it is because they believe I can offer them something valuable in return. And I accept their check because I believe it is fair compensation for what I provide them. Value for value. When dealing with others, I don't expect them to waste time or money on something that they believe to be worthless. That, fundamentally, makes no sense! 
I don't expect senseless, selfless charity.

So, again, does it even make sense to conceive of a world where people neither help nor hurt one another, where people leave each other to act freely, where people respect the rights of others… does it make any sense to say that in such a world, when you find yourself having a problem, the only thing you can do is rely on others solve your problems for you?

I would argue that, no. It doesn't.

And in case you were wondering- yes, I'm a capitalist.

Feel free to take issue with me on this. If you don't wish to go through the hassle of putting yourself in a position where you can leave a comment, address questions or comments to martina@carleton.edu

And look forward to more thoughts on Objectivism, Kantianism, or whatever else strikes my intellectual fancy!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The End of the Beginning of the Second Year. Or, Why do we call them Reading Days?

Tenth week is upon us.
The week where everything comes to its whirlwind finish. The week where, to maintain the maelstrom analogy, the chaos builds to the breaking point, and the water finally closes in... and all is still.

We haven't quite gotten to the stillness part though. We're still in that mad frenzy that comes with the end of classes. But to think- in a matter of days it'll all be over and I shall be back home. Crazy.

At this moment-

Ah, beautiful! My roommate and I just had an awesome exchange.

*A is sitting at her desk, typing whilst contemplating the impending doom which comes with the end of a Carleton term. Suddenly-*
B: "Why does t go by so fast?"
A: "...What?" *Is perplexed. Mental images of spacetime diagrams flash to mind. Questions begin to surface- what does it mean for t to "go by so fast"? Does she mean she can't believe we're getting old and the term is coming to a crashing end and- ?*
B: "T. Why does it go by so fast?"
A: "Ugh... well..." *Whilst scrambling to concoct some eloquent, philosophical discourse on the passing of time and the nature of the universe, she turns to face B, who is working very hard at draining her cup of apparently delicious and swiftly-vanishing dining hall chai. Suddenly it all makes sense.*
*A has moment of epiphany and explains her moment of confusion to B before accusing B of foolishly throwing around terms that have very specific designated meanings.*
Joint Conclusion: Too much math/physics. Also, A needs to drink more tea.

But anyway. (And, no, you didn't need to appreciate that last tangent. It was much more amusing in person.)
I would like to take a brief moment to expound upon the senselessness of what are termed "Reading Days" here at Carleton.

Carleton runs on a very tight schedule. Three ten-week terms of intense study. We get one day off (midterm break), and believe in no such thing as holidays. With the winter come extreme snow conditions- and we venture forth through the blizzard in pursuit of the light (and warmth?) of knowledge. Classes end one day, and you are given two measly days to brace yourself before finals come crashing down in cacophonic splendor.
Now what I do not understand is the reasoning behind terming those two interim days "Reading days."

Reading days. Picture it...

Mugs of delicious hot chocolate; a comfy, plush couch covered in fluffy pillows and cozy blankets; the gentle swoop of falling snowflakes (or the melodic pattering of raindrops, if you prefer); old, well-worn, beloved books welcoming you home in the familiar manner of those friends who are family without need of kinship.
Reader preference may dictate the addition of such elements as a well-loved cat or dog curled up lovingly at your feet, or a crackling fireplace providing a warm, homey glow. I rather like the idea, and am myself partial to the notion of a Beloved Other pouring over his own studies nearby, in a separate world, but near enough for the exchange of smiling glances in those pauses where we each return to our own real world for a moment.

How delicious! How delightful! It seems to me an image of perfect, quiet happiness- cozy and warm and happy.

Now contrast this with the two-day period before finals, which is sadly lacking in the elements of coziness and warmth. Sure, you get to sleep in a bit, which is nice, but upon waking up you become painfully aware of the millions of pressing items on your to-do list. In fact, when you write up your to-do list for the pre-finals period and jot down an estimate-for-the-amount-of-time-required-to-complete-this-task, even very crude arithmetic makes it overwhelmingly evident that the sum of the required times amounts to more than 48 hours. This is a problem.
Cue stress and anxiety. Cue questions as to how to prioritize activities that seem equally important in determining your fate. Cue concerns as to how to fit in such mundane and irritatingly necessary things as eating, taking bathroom breaks, drinking water, and maybe having a conversation with another human at some point. And can't I have a bit of fun and go to that movie night tonight?
Inevitably, unaffordable study breaks are taken and creative forms of procrastination creep into what was supposed to be an fruitful, pre-apocalyptic preparatory schedule- all in an effort to preserve a measure of sanity and health. Yes, this is good, but it hardly helps when one realizes the discrepancies between "What-I-planned-to-have-done" and "What-I-in-fact-have-done," "What-I-need-to-do" and "What-I-have-time-to-do," and "What-I-should-do," and "What-I-want-to-do" (namely- have a real Reading Day).

In short, terming those two pre-finals days "Reading Days" is not only deceptive and disillusive, it is senseless and borders upon some form of sacrilege. It would be best to be blunt and name it like it is (To quote Oscar Wilde's Cecily- 'When I see a spade, I call it a spade!').
"Work Days." "Chaos Days." "Days of Frenzy." These are all acceptable, straight-forward names. We could even go some sort of neutral path- "Preparation Days," perhaps.
But why must we taint the image of happy, cozy bliss with the brusque ugliness of work and stress and anti-coziness?

I don't understand. But I shall hold tight to my dream of having actual, happy reading days. Though when that will happen while I still stand on Carletonian land seems woefully unclear. It seems I will have to designate my own happy reading day and push aside all pragmatic concerns for that one, blissful microcosm of perfection.
I can't wait.

But, for now, I must turn away from this unaffordable study break and immerse myself once more in the worlds of substitution reactions and eigen values.

Au revoir, dear Reader!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Life at Carleton: The Maelstrom

When I told you I would write again soon... I lied.*
Granted, it wasn't a case of intentional deceit. It wasn't so much a hollow promise as it was a beautiful, ungraspable dream. Nevertheless, it was a false statement.

Why did I lie? That is, how did it come to be that life wrested control from my hands, such that I failed in this commitment?
I deluded myself into believing that a break meant time to engage in leisurely activities. Foolish.

See, life at Carleton is akin to getting sucked into some sort of whirlpool.
You begin the term with this visualization of a wonderful voyage through the profound waters of intellectualism and idealism. You imagine warm sunlight, the smell of the ocean spray, the rush of cold air filling your lungs to their very depth, the graceful arc of birds in flight, the lush greenery of uncharted lands... everything is vivid, robust... you feel alive and ready for adventure.
Classes? Challenging and exciting!
Volunteer work? Yes! Time to save the world!
Clubs? Join them all!
Friends? Party all day, everyday- or at least when not too busy saving the world.
I will go on strolls through the arb, I will read books in my spare time, I will write thoughtful life-reflections, I will meet new people and develop wonderful new relationships, I will exercise and stay in shape... I can and will do anything and everything! Just try and stop me, life!
This is the state of being one is in when stepping back onto Carletonian grounds- gazing at Willis Hall and the chapel with a smile of appreciation, confidently trekking the road back to "home," which, ironically, will serve as a barge carrying one into new and exciting lands.

Then you set sail.

It begins beautifully. There is the swell of pride and excitement as you embark, filled with hopes and dreams of all the wonderful things to be accomplished, all the adventures to be had, all of the new things to be seen and done. Perhaps there are a few rough patches in the initial sailing adventure- some rough waves that throw you off-balance, but you quickly catch yourself, reassure yourself, and sail on.

Before long though, something strange begins to happen... some force begins to divert the course of your ship... not much... but enough that it strikes you as strange.... Is something awry? But you do your best to suppress the concerns slowly rising to the surface of your mind.

But already, it is too late.
Your ship has chosen dangerous waters for its voyage... Forces far more powerful than you are in control. You find yourself at the edges of a whirlpool; a full-blown, mythical maelstrom.

It begins slowly at first. You stand at the rudder, concentrated on escaping the force drawing your vessel into its orbit.You try to save yourself. You think of the magical lands you were to explore, the exotic creatures you were to encounter, the many dreams which propelled your ship away from land. You try to wrest yourself away from this current, to escape, to sail off and find new lands, but your small ship is too weak, and it falls prey to the force of the vortex.
So there you are, swirling in circles ever-smaller, ever-faster, unyielding, and unstoppable, spinning away into the very heart of an ocean all too eager to claim you as its own...

As the end of term approaches, I find myself getting sucked deeper and deeper into that terrifying vortex. Midterm break was the hope of an escape, a hope that a relent in the current would allow me to escape, or to  at least swing into a wider orbit and gain a bit more of time and life. But I was grossly mistaken.

At present, my vessel is whirling away at impossible speeds. It will not be long before the ocean claims me as its own.

That's another way of saying I should really be studying for my linear algebra midterm, or working on my organic chemistry quiz,  or working on my ethics paper on the compatibility between utilitarianism and justice, or preparing for my orgo midterm, or working on my linear algebra or organic chemistry problem sets, or figuring out my classes for the next two terms...
Seventh and eighth week are truly akin to finding oneself in the midst of a maelstrom.

And now I must return to my sinking ship.

*Surely it is a worthy philosophical tidbit to ponder: Did I lie? Does lying require the intention of deceit? (I think that seems right.) But what if I was uncertain as to the veracity of the statement, decided to pass it off as a truth claim, and it proved false? Then should it be considered a lie?

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How Reflection Is Like (Organic) Chemistry

This here, my writing, right now- it can only be considered miraculous.
It is 8pm, 5th week, on a Thursday night, and all of the necessary schoolwork is complete. I repeat, miraculous.

But let us turn aside from this strange, beautiful occurrence and do a bit of reflecting and whatnot.

Lately I have been contemplating all sorts of interesting questions. Unfortunately, schoolwork and contemplative behavior seem to go less well together than I would like. Perhaps we could make the comparison to trying to dissolve an alcohol in water... The OH group's polarity could represent my drive to dive into the waters of reflection while the mounting pile of schoolwork is analogous to extending the size of the hydrocarbon chain, thereby pulling me out of the refreshing waters I so long for.... But this week I seem to have thrown in some alkane branching and decreased the hydrophobic character of my life. It has been quite splendid.

Today I finished writing a paper for my ethics class on the subject of whether morality and self-interest are reconcilable. For reasons I cannot entirely fathom, I seem to have dropped out of the wrong century, because I align myself pretty nicely with those good old Ancient Greeks in characteristic Annette-idealism. I highly encourage you to read a bit about virtue ethics and the concept of eudaimonia. While I delight in the contemplation of this subject- and would gladly enter into conversation with you, dear reader, on the topic if you so desire, I would rather not dwell into specifics at this point in time. (I am being totally serious. Leave a comment, or email me (martina@carleton.edu), and you can even request to read my paper! Ohh the fun we may have engaged in philosophical discussion! ....Anddd *quenches nerd-outpour*)
 Instead, I will leave you with a few quotes that relate to my ideas rather nicely, and which I quite delight in. (Let's play a game! The guess-who-is-going-to-be-quoted game!)

First up, Thoreau. Oh, Thoreau! Aurora!
"It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour."
Next, dear old Anne (credit to L.M. Montgomery), on being a teacher:
"Perhaps she had not succeeded in 'inspiring' any wonderful ambitions in her pupils, but she had taught them, more by her own sweet personality than by all her careful precepts, that it was good and necessary in the years that were before them to live their lives finely and graciously, holding fast to truth and courtesy and kindness, keeping aloof from all that savoured of falsehood and meanness and vulgarity. They were, perhaps, all unconscious of having learned such lessons; but they would remember and practice them long after they had forgotten the capital of Afghanistan and the dates of the Wars of the Roses." 
 (Yet another reason why I wish to be Anne-like. Who wouldn't want to inspire young souls by virtue of being happy and awesome?)

And, finally, Ayn Rand:
“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live.”

“Why do they always teach us that it's easy and evil to do what we want and that we need discipline to restrain ourselves? It's the hardest thing in the world--to do what we want. I mean, what we really want. And it takes the greatest kind of courage."
Ahh, I do love thought-provoking, insightful quotes!

And I am afraid that this is where I will leave you all for now. Hopefully the next time I write (which should be soon) I will tackle some of those to-ponder questions, such as, where would Annette like to study abroad? Or does Annette want to go to medical school, or does she want a life of relative simplicity as a philosopher-teacher?  Or, wait, does she want to become some sort of counselor or therapist... or a biochemical engineer... or what about some sort of poet/writer? (Okay, abandoning third-person now...)
What skills do I have? What do I enjoy? What do I find fulfilling? How can I live in consistency with my ideals?

That actually reminds me of the other night... I had just started thinking about my philosophy paper and thinking about what it means to be moral, virtuous, and live a fulfilling life. As seems to be the trend, this contemplative behavior occurred fairly late at night, and eventually I decided it was more than time for me to go to sleep. As I crawled (or climbed, rather- my bed is lofted ridiculously high for a not-ridiculously-tall person) into bed my mind threw a startling question at me- Do you, Annette, contribute to the goodness of the world?
I was taken aback. Pesky, pesky brain! There I was, in bed, thinking over the last hour or so's worth of idealistic ethical outpouring, and I suddenly questioned whether I lived in such a manner as to increase the happiness of the world... and I didn't know what to say to myself.
So it's been tacked onto that to-ponder list.

And now I shall go do some glorious ballroom dancing.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ugh... why should I be moral?

Why bother with morality?
It's much easier to not care about whether it is right or wrong to do something, isn't it? So why care?

I have just finished reading two selections on this subject for my ethics class.
The first, a portion of Plato's Republic, "The Immoralist's Challenge." The second, Philippa Foot's "Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives."
They raise some interesting questions.

In "The Immoralist's Challenge," Socrates is challenged to explain why justice is good in itself. Justice, in this dialogue, is portrayed as a painful duty performed for the sake of the social rewards correlated with acting "justly." The problem is, if justice is good because of the reputation and power with which the just are rewarded, then this creates a movement to present a facade of justice. You can have your cake and eat it, too- that is to say, you may relish the joys of performing injustice upon others AND present yourself as a paragon of goodness to be rewarded with praise and social status. Forget behaving justly- no one likes that anyway. You only pretend to be a good person so that others treat you well.
Mind you, Glaucon (the challenger who presents this model of justice) does not actually buy that this is the extent of justice. Rather, he entreats Socrates to persuade him that this sad, corrupted notion of justice is not the true nature of justice. Glaucon wishes to rank justice as one of those goods which is desired not simply for the benefits associated with it, but also- essentially- for its own sake, but he needs reason to do so.

To my great discomfort, the selection ended abruptly. Glaucon entreats Socrates to correct him, to restore his faith in justice- and end.

No answers? No restoration of faith?
Are notions of justice really naught but convenient illusions used to hold together precarious social bonds?
Plato, Socrates, help!

It was a bit disconcerting, really.
But it presents an excellent question. Why care about justice? Why is justice good for one?
Why aim to be just?
The point of the dialogue is, it has to be about justice itself. It has to be something about participating in justice that makes justice desirable. But what is it?

With these questions spinning around my head, I turned to the Philippa Foot reading (which in itself is a discussion of Kant's moral framework).
So... Kant. According to him, we have hypothetical imperatives and categorical imperatives (...what? I know. Bear with me.) Hypothetical imperatives are actions that must be done in order to achieve some end.
You want an "A" on that test? Then you should study. You want to get somewhere at 10:00? Then you should leave at 9:30.
In order to achieve your goal or fulfill your desire, you should perform an action or set of actions. Those are your hypothetical imperatives.

Then you have your categorical imperatives. These take "should" or "ought" to the next level, if you will. Categorical imperatives are actions that are "objectively necessary." They are ends in themselves.

Traditionally, moral judgments are classified under the categorical imperative category.
"You ought not kill."
BAM! That's it. Morally binding, unconditionally necessary.

But Foot wants to argue that there's something strange about relying on the magical power of "ought." What supports this reasoning? Essentially, categorical imperatives have a fundamentally duty-driven force behind them. They seem to say, this is your duty. Don't fight or argue, just do it. You have to.

To underline the problem, she points to etiquette. Even if someone doesn't care about etiquette, the rules still technically apply. If you're at some dinner party and flout all the rules, people will still say you should do otherwise, regardless of whether you actually care about it or not. That is to say, etiquette behaves like a categorical imperative, in the sense that it's not about "I want to accomplish this, so I should do this." Etiquette applies regardless of your desires. But... what if you just don't care?
This seems to put categorical imperatives under suspicion as magical forces of obligation. It's not enough to say someone ought to do something. The force of that statement is in their believing this to be true. If they don't care, then you have a problem.

So Foot suggests making the scary transition from classifying moral judgments as magical categorical imperatives, and instead thinking about them hypothetically.
Why perform acts of charity? Because I can empathize with those individuals and have an interest in seeing them happy.
That is to say, let go of the illusion that saying someone "ought to" do something holds genuine power. It is frightening to admit it, but that's not true. We must chose to care about morality. We give morality its power.

Foot's idea, on one hand, is frightening. But it is also wonderfully idealistic in its realism.

Essentially, Foot's ideas lend themselves to the following depiction. (Admittedly, it may be my relentless idealism seeping in. But I will maintain that it fits into her view.)

Morality is about a system of values. Morality relies upon a certain vision of hope... a yearning for truth, love, liberty, and justice. Moral individuals are those capable of envisioning the beauty of bringing those values to life, and of working to bring that beauty into realization.

Glaucon asks why bother with justice.
Bother with justice because it allows your life to cohere and deepen.
It allows you to create meaning. It allows you to look upon yourself with respect, to give and to receive love, to become a part of something genuine and beautiful.

So, that's why.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A Return to Chaos?

I find it amusing that my last post began by deploring my state of laziness. Boy, have things changed!

Since last I wrote, a number of remarkable things have occurred. I have lived through three incredibly distinct weeks. My last week home for the summer, with all sorts of last-minute activities, tasty food, and farewells... a trip to gorgeously mountain-y North Carolina... and a return to that other home of mine in happy, quaint little Northfield.

Perhaps words such as quaint and happy denote images of a sleepy, rural town.
Be not fooled! At least if you're thinking of sleepy in the sense of languid, rush-free living. (It would be more accurate to think of sleepy in the sense of so-busy-you-yearn-for-sleep.)
So, I've been incredibly busy since I stepped back onto my dear college campus. Unpacking, turning my dorm room into a comfy home, reconnecting with friends... starting classes... realizing how much work I have!

It poses interesting questions as to how I want to live my life. Deplorable laziness? Nay. Breathless whirlwind of activity? Also nay. How to achieve that tricky balance?

Perhaps my enjoyment of life has much to do with perspective.
I have spent a great portion of my oh-so-extensive life accusing myself of not doing enough with my time. I have always felt like I should be doing more, better. The problem comes when I try to imagine what "more" and "better" would look like. How can I fill my day such that when I go to bed at night I feel that it was a day well-lived? How can I use my time so that in a year I will look upon my life with satisfaction?

I'm not sure how to answer those questions. But I do know that, in the quest for answers, the next ten weeks shall be chaotic. In contrast to the usual holes in my schedule, my days are pretty tightly blocked off between classes, studying, working, and dancing. (And volunteering. I want to fit that in, too, somehow.)
But alas! Already in the past week I found myself falling into the treacherous trap of viewing my schedule... as a constraint, rather than a means of achieving satisfaction. Rush, rush, rush, rush.
Is rush, rush, rush really "more" and "better"?

It seems fairly obvious that the answer is no.
However, I think it's important to step back and remember why I chose to do these things.
Most notable, my classes. Demanding. I have a lot of work before me. But I'm excited about the subjects I'm studying! My studies are not merely a chore, they are an opportunity to entertain interesting ideas, to gather new perspectives, to explore interesting questions... to do all sorts of delightful things! Rather than fall into the danger of viewing my life as a checklist of burdensome chores which I need to complete, I need to savor the moment. I think I need to worry less about the fact that I need to be somewhere in half an hour, and focus more on enjoying how I have chosen to fill my time. Ah, perspective, perspective.

So have I succeeded in devising a plan for doing more and better? I'm not sure. I'm still not certain what those look like. I do know that rushing through my busy life is not going to make me happier. But I also know that I am extremely excited for everything I have before me.
Now I just need to savor it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Renewing Aurora-worship

Lately I have felt extravagantly, guiltily lazy. This morning I arose from my bed at 11:15. I wasted time on the internet. I did listen to a fairly interesting philosophical podcast, but I also idled away with alarmingly mindless facebook-ing.

I often find it difficult to become energized over the summer for what appear to be essentially existential problems.
I could go and read a book. I could stare at the wall for hours. I could go for a run. I could stare emptily at a screen.
Who cares? (No one.) What difference does it make? (None at all.)

This bothers me.

I hate mindlessness, idleness, purposelessness.
It’s the accusation I can never rid myself of. I don’t know how to pinpoint flaws; there’s nothing wrong… but nothing that’s quite right, either. There’s not much of anything, really.

I want very badly to do something. I crave purpose and passion. I have a passion for passion, but lack the substance at which to direct this energy. I am sorely in need of a mission.

It can be difficult for me to make the connection between my day’s decision (Do I read? Do I sketch? Do I… do nothing?) and the advancement of some worthy cause. It seems clear that it is preferable to embark on some task of self-improvement than to engage in obviously useless activities…
But why is this preferable? What assumptions are at hand? My behavior seems to suggest that my body contests assumptions which my mind is eager to promote.

It bothers me to feel overtaken by lethargy when I know that the pursuit of ideas is noble and exciting. Reading a book is a wonderful thing! Okay, maybe the production of this sketch is not particularly important, but cultivating a skill is a wonderful thing, and this is a step in that process. My life feels narrow and inconsequential, and yet I persist in believing that the individual is important!

How do I reconcile this? How do I “feel” better, when I “know” better? How do I convince myself that my decisions are consequential, when, at the moment, they seem so unbearably trivial?

I think this is part of the reason I am so enthralled by Walden. “Economy” and “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” are spectacular. Particularly the sections on Aurora*. Thoreau’s writing teems with infectious vigor, and I can always count on certain passages of Walden to inspire me to look beyond the seeming smallness of my life and to strive to take charge of my existence.

Yes, I am incredibly small. But I am neither wholly powerless nor meaningless.

Perhaps it’s not immediately apparent that my decisions carry weight. But choosing to create meaning in my life is remarkably powerful. Even if it’s just reading a book rather than thoughtlessly scrolling down a page- I will respect myself more for that decision, and if I respect myself I may trust myself to do important work for others. I may come across powerful ideas. I may gain valuable knowledge about myself and others. I may set myself on a path filled with strange wonders.
And that can, indeed, make all the difference.
*What follows is almost certainly the most inspiration-dense text I have ever come across, straight from “Where I lived and what I lived for,” Walden, by Henry David Thoreau. For me, reading this is to fall in love anew:

I have been as sincere a worshipper of Aurora as the Greeks. I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did. They say that characters were engraven on the bathing tub of King Tching-thang to this effect: "Renew thyself completely each day; do it again, and again, and forever again." I can understand that. Morning brings back the heroic ages. I was as much affected by the faint burn of a mosquito making its invisible and unimaginable tour through my apartment at earliest dawn, when I was sailing with door and windows open, as I could be by any trumpet that ever sang of fame. It was Homer's requiem; itself an Iliad and Odyssey in the air, singing its own wrath and wanderings. There was something cosmical about it; a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night. Little is to be expected of that day, if it can be called a day, to which we are not awakened by our Genius, but by the mechanical nudgings of some servitor, are not awakened by our own newly acquired force and aspirations from within, accompanied by the undulations of celestial music, instead of factory bells, and a fragrance filling the air- to a higher life than we fell asleep from; and thus the darkness bear its fruit, and prove itself to be good, no less than the light. That man who does not believe that each day contains an earlier, more sacred, and auroral hour than he has yet profaned, has despaired of life, and is pursuing a descending and darkening way. After a partial cessation of his sensuous life, the soul of man, or its organs rather, are reinvigorated each day, and his Genius tries again what noble life it can make. All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, "All intelligences awake with the morning." Poetry and art, and the faire stand most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me. Moral reform is the effort to throw off sleep. Why is it that men give so poor an account of their day if they have not been slumbering? They are not such poor calculators. If they had not been overcome with drowsiness, they would have performed something. The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. If we refused, or rather used up, such paltry information as we get, the oracles would distinctly inform us how this might be done.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan- like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to "glorify God and enjoy him forever."

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Portraiture

If I could draw to satisfaction, I would draw portraits.

I think it would be a wonderful challenge to try to capture someone’s essence on canvas. So many fascinating questions present themselves! If I were to go about drawing (enter name here), how would I do it? Where would I place them? What colors would dominate the interpretation? What would the lighting be like? What of their posture? How would I dress them? Would they be looking out, staring off, or intently studying something? 

Lately I have been pondering portraiture of a different sort. I have been contemplating a self-portrait. My medium is perhaps slightly unconventional, however.
I have attempted to draw myself using the colors of literary heroines.

The project is a very confusing one. Of the many characters I am drawn toward, how many do I sympathize with because we share similar characteristics? And which do I admire because I earnestly wish I were more like them? Tricky, tricky.

I have two “hues” (maintaining this artistic metaphor may prove tricky…) which I deem fairly reliable for the project. They are strikingly different. One would probably be something of a forest green; the other… perhaps a soft lilac. But as I stand poised before the canvas, all sorts of unforeseen complications arise, and I can’t seem to figure out where to put the strokes.

At first, I believe the matter is a fairly simple one. I feel like I have a Kel-ish exterior (allusion to Tamora Pierce’s ridiculously amazing Protector of the Small series. Go read her books!) and an Anne-ish interior (Anne of Green Gables. Do it!).

Kel is my exterior. My reserve. We present ourselves to strangers in the same way- with blank faces. I recall my many moments of fear and awkwardness, of feeling out of place or unwanted or like I simply don’t quite belong. I remember trying to find strength in Kel’s manner: the blankness of an unrippled lake or a flat stone. Remain neutral. Do not betray yourself. Do not overreact.
I slip out of rooms to shed tears. I reserve turmoil for the private lines of handwritten pages.

Sometimes I find it a bit…amusing when I realize that I have been standing in line somewhere for a large period of time, appearing very neutral, when inside my mind have been raging all sorts of passionate arguments, comical debates, or wild daydreams.
Sometimes it surprises me when my closest friends remark they have no idea what’s going through my head. I have to remind myself that however noisy the internal dialogue may be, there is silence on the outside.

So perhaps I have some of Kel’s reserve… but what else do I have of her? The question seemed simple enough when first picking out my tools, but suddenly it seems nearly impossible. Kel is a doer. She has a strong sense of justice, and she acts upon it with resolution. She doesn’t overthink things.
I don’t think I can say the same for myself. I love ideas. I like working with abstract things. I often find myself wishing I did more.

And how exactly does Anne-ishness comes in?
Hmm. Well. Anne is associated with lovely flowers and daydreams… wonderful, light things. Anne is poetry and dandelion-wishes. So… perhaps I am Anne-like when… When I am perfectly at ease? When I am alone? When I am with my dearest friends? When I dream? When I gaze upon pretty things or bask in golden happiness?

What of idealism? Am I idealistic in a Kel-like or an Anne-like way?
I share Anne’s desire for loveliness, but I want Kel’s sturdiness. Sometimes I am as sentimental as ever the kindred-spirit-seeking redhead can be, and at others I am sensible in the way that only Kel can be. Wait. Sensible? Hmm. Am I sure it’s Kel I want, or would I do better with Austen’s Elinor? Now that I think of it, am I not perhaps more of a Jane Eyre? Plain and reserved, but nonetheless filled with a passion that is not immediately apparent...

The more I ponder the issue, the more all sorts of pesky questions and suspicions begin to crop up, and, soon enough, I find myself sitting before a blank canvas with a very bemused expression on my face. The problem seemed clear-cut to begin with, but at every step I find myself wandering uncertainly or running into dead-ends.

Perhaps instead of drawing a single portrait to capture someone’s essence, I would like to draw various snapshots.
Perhaps I would draw them amongst a group of strangers. Sitting in a classroom. Engaging in their favorite pastime. Puzzling over a problem.
Perhaps I would capture their expression when they feel alone.  When speaking about their innermost dreams. When looking at someone they love.

Would I ever produce a single image to encapsulate the spirit of the whole? Or would it be best to stroll through an endless gallery of snapshot paintings?

I think I would enjoy the stroll.   

Friday, August 12, 2011

It's a matter of ____.

Well, I have just returned from a four-day cruise, a novel experience for mia famiglia. The most notable feature of this cruise was probably the amount of reading that went on. This is not unusual for my father or myself (actually, it's pretty typical), and my sister also enjoys a good book (plus, summer reading makes demands upon her!)... but my mother? My mom does NOT read books. Ever. At one point my dad remarked that this was the first time he'd ever seen her reading a book in all the time they've been together. This is a big deal. Years ago, when I first read The Five People You Meet in Heaven, I insisted that my sister read it... and we decided to purchase a Spanish translation for my mom. Well, after much taunting and questioning and pleading, my mom announced she would be taking it with her, seeing as the rest of us were all loaded with plenty of pages of fine reading material. I will admit, I was incredibly skeptical, and showed as much. But... she finally read it. And she enjoyed it!
Could this be the start of something new? I'm not sure, but I feel pretty pleased with myself.

For myself, I was indulging in a bit of Margaret Atwood's writing: Alias Grace. Thus far, every encounter with Atwood's writing has been fantastic. The Handmaid's Tale was very good, and I remember coming across "Bread" in a literature book, and being quite struck by it. As soon as I read the first paragraph of Alias Grace, I knew I was going to be enchanted by it. I was.
The novel is based upon the story of Grace Marks, a nineteenth century Canadian maid accused of murdering   her employer and his housekeeper-mistress, whose conviction was highly controversial.
A young doctor, interested in the possibility of opening his own insane asylum, becomes interested in Grace's case, and begins visiting her in hopes of determining whether Grace has really suffered from insanity- she claims to have gaps in her memory, and cannot recollect taking part in the murder.
So Grace begins telling her story, from the day of her birth into poverty in Ireland, her emigration to Canada, the loss of her mother on the ship, her father's drunkenness and general uselessness, her efforts to look after her numerous siblings, until she is almost thirteen and finally gains employment as a maid in a local household, after which she looses her ties to her family.
Grace's life is marked by poverty and hard-work, and her few moments of happiness end in sorrow with the tragic loss of her only friend. Cue more hard-work, unsupplemented by appreciation, or any monetary or social gain. Then throw in advances from unwanted men who believe themselves free to take advantage of worthless serving girls. It's a cheery life, that's for certain, but Grace manages to retain a sense of dignity throughout her account, which all the while leads to the question-mark of a bloody murder scene.
Grace- heartless murderess? Victim of circumstance? She couldn't have done it... could she? Is she feigning? Who is she?
You should really read the book if you get the chance.

While walking around the cruise ship, it is hard to miss the numerous people hard at work: waiters taking care of plates and bringing people food... women (and men) paid to clean bathrooms and change sheets. This reminded me of my many stays in lovely Mexican hotels with my family, surrounded by such individuals paid (a pittance) to basically wait on you hand and foot. I remember walking out of my room and delivering meek good mornings and hello's to young women laden with sheets and cleaning materials, waiting for my family to declare we were no longer sleeping in so that they could return our room to a state of cleanliness.
I have never been quite sure how to back my hello's and smiles.
I feel guilty. Excuse me while I gently traipse out of my room, and could you please make sure to put enough towels in the bathroom? There are four of us, you know. I want to be grateful for their hard work. I am tempted to pity- Wait, wait pity?
Pity strikes me as unfair. Pity suggests there is something indecent about their work. Pity emanates shame.
No, I do not think there is reason for shame. There is considerable room for pride.
My mother has spent nights sweeping floors, my father has seen suns rise while delivering papers up and down in a beat-up car.
There is no shame in making an honest living. There is dignity in working for the improvement of one's circumstances.

Now my thoughts flash back to Grace Marks, to suspicions of how much those hardworking, humble, helpful Mexican workers are paid- or not paid, to questions of justice and dignity and mobility.
I don't feel guilty because I see those men and women before me. I feel guilty because I fear I will see those same faces two, five, ten years from now, and I wonder why that would be so.

In the last four days I accumulated a good bit of email. Nothing terribly exciting. But then I came across one alerting me about "Target's rape factory". Young women working in factories, trying to make a living for themselves, trying to feed their families... Raped. Abused. Worthless serving girls.

My heart is heavy. Sad. It wants to be angry, but more than that, it wants to tend to bruises, to soothe haunted eyes, to hold hands.

This is a matter of... Of what? Just wages, equal opportunity, human dignity, basic decency, economic mobility, safe working places, education? Yes. Yes, it is all that.
It is a matter of chapped hands, tired backs, swollen feet, stiff necks, cracked nails. It is a matter of bright eyes, warm smiles, soft baby's feet, silky hair. It is a matter of stories, of jokes, of confidences; of hopes, fears, and dreams; of getting lost in someone's eyes, of watching untroubled sleep, of looking after a sickbed, of endless hugs of greeting; of trembling first steps, first kisses and final farewells.
It is a matter of looking at someone, and seeing them.  

Sunday, August 7, 2011

People-watching: awesome. People: cool. Annette? Strange.

There’s something intriguing about coming across another person’s writing.
When a friend lends me a book to read, I secretly hope that there will be a few markings in the pages- be they underlined words or exclamation marks in the margins or reactions penciled in alongside provocative paragraphs- or a small scrap of paper, once tucked in between pages and then forgotten, containing some enigmatic set of words… a shopping list? The records of a vaguely remembered dream? The corner of an old homework assignment?  (Once I did come across the remnants of an almost-forgotten dream, and it brought me no end of delight to puzzle over the bizarre fragments!)
Those few words, those markings, offer me a strange insight into the mind of the writer. Perhaps I do not receive enough information to understand the thoughts of that far-off moment, but the glimpse is fascinating.

A short way down my block there is an abandoned house, and every time I pass by it I recall my girlish fantasy. I imagine myself peering in through the partially-curtained window of the front door, hesitating for a moment, and then trying the door. The door would open quietly, and I would slip into the old house just as noiselessly. I would find myself inside a homey kitchen, faded but still charming, still filled with the spirit of meals prepared and shared lovingly. Then I would come to a table-- a relatively small, circular, iron-wrought table--  and there! There I would find a priceless, romantic treasure: a collection of journals penned by a lovely maiden.
After this point the dream isn’t very firmly set. Certainly, I read the journals and became very attached to the authoress. But I wasn’t sure whether I ever pursued this maiden, and if so whether we became dear friends. Or perhaps she had long since grown old (perhaps even died). Or perhaps she was nameless and never to be found.
Perhaps I was a strange child… (Er, am a strange child?)

Generally speaking, I love listening to people… perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I love catching soul-glimpses.
 I enjoy overhearing tidbits of the conversations of people in line at the grocery store. When sipping coffee thoughtfully at a coffeehouse, I love observing my fellow coffee-consumers and wondering what thoughts are going through their heads, why they brought themselves to drink coffee at that particular hour of that particular day… in that particular place. I love listening to people talk about what really matters to them; I may not be very good at “small talk” (I suspect I am too awkward), but I will listen to someone express their honest thoughts with the most sincere interest.

Once in a while a friend of mine will grant me a rather interesting opportunity to catch a glimpse of their soul: they will recommend (or gift) me a favorite book (or some other “favorite” which contains captured ideas), expressing their closeness to a particular character, or mentioning that the ideas presented within the book impacted them tremendously.   
Suddenly this book acquires double significance- not only do I get to explore the thoughts of its characters (wonderful in itself), but I am able to explore my friend’s perspective. I will find myself smiling because I am reminded of my friend when that particular character says or does something, or I will find myself slowly reading interesting passages and wondering what my friend thought as he or she read them…what did they think of this? How did this change them? And sometimes past conversations will become much clearer- things previously only partially understood, or even misunderstood, will suddenly fall into place.

Sometimes I will discover fascinating things about people I hardly know. Sometimes I will discover fascinating things about people I know very well. Sometimes I am brave enough to tell these people- you are interesting, and surprising, and I appreciate you. But often I am not, and I am thinking that should change. I can think of a great number of people whom I admire and respect and would love to learn more about, yet who have no idea that this is the case because I fear they might find it strange that I bother to remember the little interesting things I discover about them.

So, a challenge: write someone a note expressing your appreciation.
No, really. Pause for a moment. Think of at least one cool person whom you know. Now think for a moment. Why are they cool?

Now go tell ‘em.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Literary Splendor: A Brief Glimpse

Let's talk about books.

In the last few days I have managed to finish two novels, and it struck me that I have yet to profess my love for reading. This must change.

I love reading.

[I will leave it at that for now, for I'm sure this theme will be a recurrent one. But that really needed to be said. Now a bit about those books I read...]

The first book I finished this week was Nabokov's Lolita. For quite a while the intention to read Lolita had lingered in my mind, and I finally resolved to do it.
I'm not sure what exactly I expected when I started the novel. I think I expected something... something very cold and modern, explicit and dark and twisted... fascinating in a terrible sort of way. But the expected feel was detached... cold is really the best term I can use to describe what I anticipated.
But Lolita was quite different. Far from being cold, the book is tender and warm. Tender and warm to the point that you aren't quite certain what the impact upon Lolita is... Humbert adores her... and you are almost willing to grant the possibility that Humbert's little nymphet delights to be in his loving arms. And then you hear her sobs in the night, every night... and you wonder what has been done to the beloved Lolita.
If you haven't read the book, I would recommend it. Lolita is spectacularly, impressively well-written... I still cannot believe that Nabokov's native tongue was Russian- the book feels so very English. At least, I was impressed. It is a very interesting read. If you have read it- thoughts?

The second novel I finished was Anne of Windy Poplars. This summer I have set about re-reading the Anne of Green Gables series, and it has been nothing short of delightful. To quote Mrs. Montgomery herself:
"An old book has something for me which no new book can ever have -- for at every reading the memories and atmosphere of other readings come back and I am reading old years as well as an old book."
Reading about Anne is like revisiting my childhood... No, it's more than that. It is revisiting old, beloved friends in old, beloved homes. Anne holds a very special place in my heart and has become a part of my soul. She has an incredible ability to recognize beauty, and has inspired me to do my best to be a small source of happiness in the world.

I could talk about how awesome Anne Shirley is for hours. From her beginning as a ridiculously talkative, imaginative, dramatic, red-headed orphan continuously getting herself into very amusing scrapes, Anne develops into a kind, graceful, warm woman with a great deal of insight and a healthy sense of humor, all the while retaining a delightful Anne-ness about her... Her love of trees and flowers and brooks... her kindred-spiritedness...
Anne is amazing.
If you haven't already, you should meet her. I think you'd like her.
And if you have, you should consider going for a visit.

Or, perhaps, you would prefer to acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with other interesting characters. This is acceptable (though I still recommend adding Lolita and Anne to your list!). I simply encourage you to retreat from earthly chaos in the golden splendor of literary lands, explore strange new worlds, celebrate joys and triumphs or weep over sorrows and injustices.

Immerse yourself in a good book. You won't regret it.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Tacos and Kings

There's something delightful about summer.

I love long, warm evenings of golden light and contentment... I love frolicking without thought of jackets or sweaters... I love the feel of floating through perfect warmth.

I think home and summer have become mentally intertwined since venturing off to a land of seasons and cornfields. Christmas felt strangely (wrongly) summer-esque after leaving a home of snowy whiteness in favor of a home of mild-climated "pompous palm trees" (as Brynna terms them).
But summer fits home (real home) perfectly.
Driving down PCH with gorgeous, dramatic, coastline views can only make my lips smile proudly and my heart delight in the beauty of home; catching a glimpse of blue, shimmering, watery vastness never fails to make me happy. Home may not be perfect, but it's home... and it's beautiful.

The last few days have been wonderfully summeresque.
Sunday evening there was a very happy bonfire, complete with storytelling, discussion of life-plans, a brief bit of sand-waltzing (note: sand is a terrible surface for waltzing), nonsense songs, and delicious s'mores. T'was merry and warm and delightful!
After the bonfire a group of us decided to travel to a popular taco truck (yes, that's right) and gorge ourselves on very, very tasty carne asada tacos. The few outdoor tables and chairs that were available were, of course, taken. So we opted to stand and eat off the trunk of my car instead. As I watched my recently-washed-and-therefore-unusually-clean car become littered with pieces of onion and tomato, I could only laugh at the odd picture our feasting forms must have made to a casual observer.
The tacos were delicious and the rendezvous delightful. Ahh, summer! Ahh, home!

Yesterday afternoon was also fun and summery. I met up with el señor Lubbers at the Coffee Cartel- a cozy, beachy-chill (dare I say hipster-y?) café bedecked with unique art pieces, obscure books, a suit of armor (why?), and comfy-shabby couches perfect for lounging and enjoying the company of friends…whilst sipping coffee, I suppose. Actually, the barista who was working there when we got there was extremely amusing, if not altogether present. I quite appreciated his appreciation of the word melatonin (“Say it. ‘Melatonin.’ Isn’t that such a cool word?”), his inability to remember whether both or neither of us wanted whipped cream (“I knew it was both yes or both no. They’re such similar words. They both have three letters. Don’t start with the same letter. Have no letters in common. Makes it so hard to tell them apart. Umm, two, three- it’s the same thing. Less than four letters. ‘Yes.’ ‘No.’ It just makes it so difficult to distinguish between them.”), and his assertion that the day's special contained unicorn blood and was nothing short of magical- yeah, he was a fun guy.

But the activity that took over the Coffee Cartel reunion was not coffee centered.
No, a different activity consumed us.
 Much to my consternation, Lubbers forced me to play chess. I begged, I pleaded- to no avail. Against my protestations, the chess board was promptly brought out, set up... and before I knew it I was engaged in battle.
Now allow me to provide some background.
For reasons I can't quite fathom, I had never actually played chess before. I had distantly watched others play... I had a basic understanding of the pieces... But throw myself into battle? Nay, not I! 
This almost makes no sense. Chess seems a pretty... thoughtful, intense game- just the sort of game I would enjoy. And as I found myself trying to decide on moves and thinking through how to save myself from death, I did indeed find myself enjoying the game immensely. It was just the sort of focused thinking I tend to relish. But then I recall my state at the beginning of the game: I had no idea what I was doing, I felt stupid, I desperately wanted to evade a situation which could only result in embarrassing, bloody massacre... in short, I was terribly, cripplingly afraid of the sense of shame and failure that one risks when trying something new. Afraid to the point that I would plead for a different activity. And then it makes sense.
Okay, so I lost. But it was not a bloody massacre (er, right Lubbers?). I made a few short-sighted errors, but it was okay. It forced me to focus and think and do my best, and I loved it.

Something causes me to suspect there may be a lesson in here somewhere... It will probably take a few more (many more?) classes for it to stick, but at least it's a small step in the right direction. Hopefully I have a few more friends willing to ignore my initial protestations and to be supportive when it counts.

Oh and a note on drawing- I'm pretty sure I achieved the zenith of my artistic career yesterday. I pretty successfully managed to capture the slender, flowing, glorious beauty of a nymph statuette which I have admired since girlhood. Annette is very pleased.

Oh, summer! Warm, carefree summer!