Daily Prompt: Literature And Caffeine

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about teachers. Specifically, the ones who have had a significant impact – good or bad – on your life. This one’s actually kind of tricky; I was on decent terms with all of my instructors, but few of them ever stood out. I’ve always been an overachiever in academic settings – yeah, I was that kid – so teachers focused more on helping the struggling students. I got the (quite wrongful!) impression early on that they didn’t really care about what they were teaching, and were only there for temp work or couldn’t find employment at better schools. Just show up for class, finish the assignment, get the A, and move on. Nothing personal or mind-blowing.

That all changed when I transferred to a university for my upper division coursework. In my first semester, I had a class on Renaissance Literature. I was expecting the instructor to be an bland, cranky, grandmotherly type just like nearly every English teacher I’d had before. This professor, however, was full of energy, enthusiasm, and cracked tons of jokes throughout the lecture. She was so intense and ridiculously over-the-top, it was infectious. I later found out that she had a venti triple-shot Starbucks concoction before showing up every morning. The caffeine made her the life of the party, and it gave a serious boost to her presentation. Some students don’t like that kind of loopy personality (I certainly would’ve tired of it under different circumstances), but no one could deny its effectiveness. The only time it backfired is when she misread the syllabus and assigned the entire Book of the Courtier to be finished in a single overnight reading. It was insane, but we got it done. As an apology, she dropped the final exam from the course. Coincidentally, that extensive reading helped inspire my current world view.

Woe to anyone who underestimated her, though. There was a good reason she was in charge of the department’s graduate program. As goofy as she was in lecturing, she was absolutely ruthless when it came to grading, structuring, and editing. Not doing an assignment in perfect MLA Format was an insta-fail. Don’t craft an argument well enough? Be ready to get called out on it. I pride myself on my writing, but I wouldn’t be nearly as good without her turning my work into a jumble of red marks and annotations. Some of my finest papers were written in her classes. She challenged me to improve, something no other teacher even tried. This is on top of her bringing in extra books, movies, plays, and artifacts she’d collected over the years. She cared enough about what she taught to make it interesting, and spent plenty of one-on-one time with each of her students. She wanted us to be at our best, and nothing less.

Needless to say, that Renaissance Literature class wasn’t the last I saw of her. I ended up taking her courses in Shakespeare, Milton, 19th Century British Literature, and Critical Writing On Drama. I improved with each passing course, eventually becoming one her top students. She gave me her personal copy of the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, as well as a film version of Hamlet. It eventually culminated on my graduation, as she was the one who shook my hand and nodded as I crossed the stage. That was such a long time ago, but I can remember it so clearly. I miss those strange but oh-so educational times. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to thank her for what she did…maybe with a Starbucks gift card.

Advertisements

Daily Prompt: The Not-So Good Old Days

Hey, folks. Tonight’s Daily Prompt is all about “salad days.” It’s a saying that refers to a great or memorable time in your life, usually seen through the lens of nostalgia. This one’s kind of tricky for me, because I’ve realized that some of my “good old days” weren’t so good in retrospect. My knee-jerk answer is to say my university years, specifically the time leading up to my graduation. Getting my bachelor’s degree was, from an achievement standpoint, the crowning moment of my life. I strode across that stage in a black cap and gown, practically drowning in the sweat of a 110-degree June morning. Reaching that moment wasn’t quite so easy; paying for my entire college education out of my own pocket taught me the value of discipline, patience, and motivation. I still cherish those long commutes on BART, dosing off involuntarily every morning, and desperately trying to do as much work as possible on the way back. Those insane 2 AM essay writing sessions, staying awake just long enough to perfect every last sentence. Working part time jobs, scraping by with every last penny, learning to appreciate the taste of canned peas…It was physically and mentally exhausting, but it was so satisfying. Doing something for myself – be it working towards a goal, building something with my hands, climbing a mountain, whatever – makes me feel more alive. Something was forged in that academic crucible, and I’m still trying to figure out what it is.

Looking back, however, I now realize it came with a cost. I was so focused on academics and not wasting time, I sacrificed everything else. Most folks associate college with partying, beer, romance, and the development of one’s identity. I had none of that; I never went out for the sake of going out, never developed any relationships, nothing. You ever try talking about astrophysics or Renaissance Literature in a social setting? Not fun. I often had the same classmates in different lectures, but I only regarded them as familiar faces, not actual individuals with lives of their own. That was a huge mistake on my part; I may have been at the top of my classes, but I was an absolute dunce as social and interpersonal relations. Reading and learning are much more fun when you can share the experience. I’m still really introverted and shy around people, but even I recognize the importance and necessity of interacting with others. It’s not about being the life of the party or center of attention; it’s about finding common ground and helping each other grow. There’s an old saying that “no man is an island.” I’m 30, and I’m just now starting to turn my proverbial island into a peninsula.

If I have any legitimate “good old days,” they were probably in the summer of 2013. For the first time in my life, I had free time to indulge in more things I truly enjoy: traveling and exploration. I usually travel abroad once or twice a year (including a certain last-minute winter surprise that’ll be revealed soon!), but circumstances put me in downtown San Francisco twice a week. I had hours to fill in a city that I’d never really seen before. So, I walked. And walked. And walked. I’d intentionally get myself lost by taking random turns, navigating by my sense of direction and knowledge of certain landmark locations. I’ve mapped out about a third of the city on foot, wandering through neighborhoods, exploring foreign markets, climbing all the hills I could find…Those adventures made me realize how much I enjoy photography; before that, I was firmly entrenched in the written medium. Judging by the photo gallery here, my adventures paid off in spades. Most folks in the city are so focused on their phones, they don’t notice the marvels around them…The happiest moment of that summer was looking down at the curved city landscape from the top of Lombard Street, with the sun shining on my back, and a steady breeze blowing through my hair.

I hope the coming days will be even better.

Mathematical Awkwardness

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about confusion. Specifically, confusion involving school subjects. This one’s kind of a tricky, because I was the kind of student that always got straight A’s. It didn’t matter what the material was; English, Chemistry, History, Economics, Art…if it was something I could read, I could pick it up pretty quickly. If I couldn’t, I’d just study harder. Physical education, however, was like a daily ritual of awkwardness and humiliation. It wasn’t that I was out of shape – I walked four miles a day to get to school and back, and hiked regularly on weekends – but I was just really uncoordinated. I could run a 7-minute mile and do a hundred sit-ups, but I couldn’t throw a basketball in a hoop to save my life. Nor could I catch a baseball, return a volleyball over the net, etc. I was the quiet little geek with the big glasses that always got picked last for teams. You know how there’s always the one kid in the class that would always get hit in the face with a frisbee or something? Yeah, that was me. I was a little better when it came to sports that involved handheld equipment; I could play tennis or badminton for hours. I just never found the groove/mindset/whatever that was necessary to do well in sports. Even in my Freshman year in college, I remember taking jiu-jitsu (I needed it for General Ed) and apologizing profusely for screwing up the techniques we were learning that day.

But those failures pale in comparison to my most hated subject: Math.

It’s kind of ironic, coming from someone that likes learning about science and whatnot. I’ve gotten much better at it in my adult years. The banking industry has that effect on people. But way back in high school, it was a foe unlike any I’d ever encountered. I had no trouble with algebra and geometry; I even helped my mother relearn it when she was finishing her degree. But something was lost in the transition from algebra to precalculus. The equations seemed much harder to memorize; so many more symbols, so many more rules…it all kind of bled to together in a massive jumble of lines and numbers. How could anyone keep track of all of that?! I could understand how things worked by just looking at them, so why do I suddenly have to prove it? But I couldn’t be deterred. Like any good overachiever, I stayed after school every day and attended the math lab, because I knew I needed the extra help. For the most part, it succeeded. I managed to keep my perfect GPA, and did well on the college entrance exams. I did so well, I was immediately bumped up to calculus as a Freshman.

…Without ever taking trigonometry.

No, seriously. I tested well enough into a college course without learning a huge chunk of the necessary coursework. You want a humbling experience? Try surviving a calculus class for two weeks without knowing most of the subject material. It was as bad as it sounds. For the first time, I was faced with a subject that I wasn’t properly prepared for. And man, did it show; I’d never gotten a C grade, let alone flunk anything. After a couple of disastrous tests, the instructor took me aside. After hearing the problem, he told me in no uncertain terms that I should withdraw from the class before it could hit my record, study on my own time, and retake it the next semester. I tearfully gathered up my things – including the $300 calculus book – and did as he advised. I fared much better the second time (a B was plenty fine), but I never wanted to take such a class again. My degree didn’t require it, so math and I parted on bitter terms.

In retrospect, I should’ve stuck to it. English will always be my favorite subject, but math is far more awesome then most people realize. It’s just that the advanced stuff is really hard, and I don’t understand why. Now that there are programs like the Khan Academy, I’ve been thinking about going back and relearning everything with a clean slate. I think I’ll do better this time.

Two Term Papers And A Wedding

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about pressure. Specifically, how well you perform under it. Despite my preferences for planning and making sure stuff gets done, my best work comes when I’m faced with impending deadlines, crazy odds, and possible death. I’ve fought a neighborhood fire and paid for college out of my own pocket, so I know I’ve got a focused, determined streak a mile wide. I’m like that with most projects; once I start writing an article, reading a book, or solving a puzzle, I sometimes won’t stop until it’s finished. But if I know there’s a time limit, I’ll buckle down and bust out something completely on the fly. The results are usually better than my better-paced work; some of my finest reviews were written in a single perfect draft somewhere between 1 and 3 AM. On my second run through NaNoWriMo, I burned through 20,000 words in a single sitting, mainly because I was running out of time. When I worked in banking, my end of day closing and auditing procedures were legendary for their speed and accuracy. All because I wanted to catch my train home, and any mistakes would’ve cost me extra time.

The stakes have been raised to ridiculous heights a few times, though. In my senior year at university, my schedule included a combination of of Pre-1800 Literature and Shakespeare courses. They were back-to-back every other weekday, and taught by the same professor in the same lecture room. It was an academic marathon that spanned several hours, but it was very much worth it. Towards the end of the term, we were given instructions on the papers we’d need to write. One covering the Greek tragedies, and the other an in-depth compare/contrast amongst three Shakespearean works. They were pretty long, but nothing mind-blowing. I figured I could do both and have time left to spare…

Then I looked at the due date. Friday.

Oh, no. No. NO. They were both due on the upcoming Friday. The very same Friday in which my cousin was getting married, and that I was supposed to attend. The one where I’d have to stay in a hotel on Thursday overnight? How was I going to get these two term papers written, printed, and handed to the professor in person when I was scheduled to be at a wedding ceremony several cities away?! The professor wouldn’t take emails, and I didn’t want to be penalized for turning stuff in late. When I got back home, I started typing up a storm. There wasn’t time to panic. I managed to get both papers done by late Wednesday night, but it still left me with the problem of printing and turning it in. How could I get this done and make it to the campus in time?

I had a crazy idea.

Before leaving town on Thursday morning, I emailed all the documents to myself. I traveled to the hotel and helped get things set up. I didn’t go out partying with the other guys or anything like that; I needed to be awake and alert in the morning for this to work. Before dawn on Friday, I showered, dressed, and left the hotel. Luckily, I wasn’t that far away from the local BART train station. The ride to the university would take nearly two hours, though. I needed to get there early enough to catch the shuttle to the campus, which is about as serious business as it gets. I barely managed to make it on time, but I knew I had to make this quick. I leaped up the campus stairs, dashed into the library, printed out my documents, and sprinted to the lecture room. I wearily set both term papers down in front of the professor – she gave me an impressed nod – and left the classroom. I raced back down to the shuttle terminal and got aboard just as it was starting its final run back to the train station. I didn’t relax until I was safely riding back to the hotel. I returned to my room, scrubbed up, and got my suit on with just enough minutes to reach the wedding on time.

When I got there, I was faced with another task. One of the people scheduled to be in the procession was MIA, and the ceremony was supposed to start in less a minute. So I – the stressed-out traveling student that had been up since before dawn – was promptly made the replacement. Before I got a chance to protest, the music started. I awkwardly shuffled forward, trying to keep a calm look upon my face. I don’t think my heart stopped pounding in my ears until the reception. By that point, I just wanted to go home. But at least I managed to get everything done. I’d done such a good job as an impromptu processioner, I was volunteered at the last moment a second time at another cousin’s wedding a few years later.

Oh, and the term papers? Perfect scores. I thrive under pressure.

Somewhere Between X and Y

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about generations. Specifically, what you don’t understand or possibly learn from the generations that come before or after you. I have the unfortunate privilege of falling into the oft-maligned Millennial generation, and thus get to deal with all the little assumptions that come with it. I loathe being scrutinized and stereotyped based upon my age; you’re defined by your actions and experiences, not just decade in which you were born. No one ever gave me a trophy just for showing up. No one cared when I was being bullied. My parents were divorced and rarely around, so all those other happy, supportive families seemed unreal. You want to really teach a kid responsibility? Make them earn it. I paid for my college education the old-fashioned way: getting jobs and saving every last penny, barely scraping by until I earned my B.A. No parents or student loans to back me up, either. Yeah, it was miserable and rife with anxiety, but I got it done. I held a job for over a decade, and rarely bought anything extravagant. At 29, I’m still saving up for my eventual M.A. People think I’m insane for not owning a smart phone, tablet, e-reader, or any of that stuff. I get the most out of what little I have, and I’m not fueled by desire to constantly spend.

…Unless I’m in a bookstore. You know how that goes.

And for a long while, that was good enough. But now that I’m unemployed for literally the first time in my adult life, I’ve realized that everything has changed. I’m in this weird social limbo where my values, efforts, and independence have lost meaning. There’s an overbearing sense of shame and guilt in not going to work every day, simply because I know I can do so much more. I’m nowhere near starving, but I can’t idle around and eat into my savings. I’m not content with just sitting here reading; it’s very comfortable, but devoid of any real effort or personal development. And worst part? A lot of people out there think it’s normal. But I don’t. I’ve learned and experienced too much from the previous generation to just forget about things like being a breadwinner or the importance of interpersonal, non-computerized communication.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn new things.

While no Skype screen will ever trump a one-on-one conversation, the Internet and and its fast-paced technologies are undeniably helpful. I remember studying in a physical library, and (if I was lucky) with Encarta 95 at home. Encarta 95! Grade-schoolers like me would’ve killed for something like Wikipedia, JSTOR, or iTunes. There’s so much more stuff to learn, and it’s only within the last couple of years that education has caught up with the medium. We’ve got dedicated YouTube channels for all educational matters; the best I ever got as a kid was the Discovery Channel, National Geographic magazines, and Bill Nye.

However, not everything you learn comes from an educational program. Social media, for better and worse, has allowed people to become closer. Not necessarily in an emotional context, but through the communication of ideas. A lot of what we see in mainstream popularity is mindless drivel, but occasionally something clever or interesting shines through. Stuff like Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Stanley Parable would’ve been impossible 30 years ago. Not just due to the development of technology, but because now it’s much easier to blend concepts, influence each other, and question expectations.The younger generations have it far easier in terms of collaborating and quickly sharing opinions, but seem to be losing out when it comes to real world experience. These days, there’s this huge emphasis on safe and utterly, ridiculously politically correct topics. You know, how we as a culture supposedly abhor sex and violence yet revel in their fictional portrayals? Yeah, that’s not hypocritical at all. Despite all our new communication tools, conversations about some issues – particularly sexuality, gender roles, and mental health – are swept aside. Because not talking about problems makes them go away.

Wouldn’t want to offend anyone, right?

Ugh, this generational thing is complicated. What’s a guy stuck between two extremes supposed to do?

Happiness Comes In Small Doses

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about happiness. This one’s kind of tricky, because…well, happiness isn’t something that happens too often to me. The things that people typically associate with it – other people, families, a home, etc. – have always been some of my most galling issues. Paying for and graduating from college on my own was arguably my biggest and most satisfying achievement, but it was triumph ridden with stress and a sense of emptiness and finality. Even my previous career in banking, from which I learned several skills, was an ultimately hollow and unrewarding experience. I wish I could’ve just played it safe and had that stable, 9-5 office career. I really do. It would’ve been so much easier. But it drove me nuts. For a dozen years, I went in every morning with my instincts screaming and begging me to turn and run.

Eventually, the decision was made for me.

So, what does happiness mean for me? This is going to sound really cheesy, but it’s the little stuff. Meeting someone whose kindness subverts my dreading expectations. Accomplishing and creating something. Exploring new places, climbing hills and mountains just to see the view. Being able to watch sunsets. Those quiet moments when I’m wandering far all alone, the wind in my hair and the sun on my back. Staying up late writing. Letting the thoughts flow out of me like a river of words, then crafting a narrative out of it. Seeing games, literature, and movies with an analytical eye, and enjoying them even more for it. Unlike some people who just brag about their book collections, I actually read mine. Finishing a book feels so good. So does completing a jigsaw puzzle. And mastering another language. And learning to draw with a tablet. And kicking ass in Jeopardy.

…And maybe a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That sounds good right now.

A Hairy Idea

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about ideas. Specifically, the best idea you’ve ever had. This one’s kind of tricky, because it’s not always clear whether the choices you’ve made are good or not. The old saying that “hindsight is 20/20” is totally right. You just don’t know. What seems like a good idea at one point could backfire spectacularly down the line, and some of the worst moments you’ll ever face may have some unexpectedly good results years later. Paying for college by myself felt like chopping off a limb with a butter knife, but it forced me to develop the discipline and focus that I needed. And though I’m currently unemployed, all the savings and lack of loans means I’m doing much better than countless others my age. Since I’ve already talked about it for another prompt, I’d rather talk about a less obvious great idea:

Growing out my hair.

No, seriously. I grew up in a devoutly religious and conservative household. Very traditional…except for being raised by a single mother who was always working. You might know how that goes. I was required to run the household and adhere to the rules and high expectations thrust upon me. And I totally bought into it. I was the golden boy; I always turned in perfect grades, maintained a part time job, and could have the house spotless and dinner cooking on time. I was praised for being so on top of everything. But questioning anything was…well, out of the question. Oh, I asked questions. I’m curious and tenacious by nature. But I paid for it dearly. You obey the rules, all is good. You fail to meet expectations, and you get tons of screechy criticism and passive-aggressive shaming.

It didn’t help that I was shy. I consider myself really introverted now, but I used to be a full-blown shrinking violet. Yeah, it’s not so cute when you’re one doing the shrinking. I was so drawn into myself and afraid of people that I had no social life whatsoever. I was the quiet, smart kid who aced his classes, went home, read books for hours, and did it all again the next day. I was awkward, wore glasses, and skipped a grade. And when you’re a boy growing up like that, it makes you a prime bullying target. You know how a lot of media focuses on the bullying epidemic and how terrible it is? Yeah, no one cared about that 20 years ago; not a single adult helped me. My feminine appearance made it even worse. I was (and still am) frequently mistaken for being female. Physically, I was a late bloomer; kind of short, a soft voice, and a head of thick curly hair. I still hesitate to wear shorts because the other kids used to accuse me of shaving my legs. There were people who’d shout slurs and throw things as they drove past while I walked to school.

My entire childhood and adolescence was like this.

Eventually, I started standing up for myself. Since trying to be nice and praying to God for a good day weren’t working, I began fighting back. And I was vicious. I was suspended exactly once, and it took at least three teachers to physically drag me to the office. Even now, years later, I’m still trying to get my anger under control. Work in progress, believe me. But lashing out didn’t solve the bigger problem: the repression of my personality. I lived to please and meet expectations, but I ignored my individuality and wants. I didn’t ask for much; I was never the kind of kid that demanded everything under the sun. And I was too busy schooling and working as it was. But I had to change something…I had seen some anime where the male characters could pass as women. Since everyone kept mistaking in a similar way, maybe I could do something about it…

Like my hair!

Yeah, I got the idea from watching anime. Feel free to laugh. But it was obviously more than that. So, I decided to refuse getting a haircut. Since my mother was the one that typically did it, she was shocked and possibly disgusted. I had to physically stop her from raising the scissors to my head. I went through years of her berating me for it. She screamed and moaned about how disobedient I was, and why I couldn’t be a better child, why couldn’t I just be normal, and that I’d never make it in the professional world. When I went to church with my hair tied back, I was openly mocked and came close to being thrown out. Rather than supporting me, my mother simply shook her head and said how sinful I’d become. My extended family were no better; I was – and still am – the subject of many jokes and incredulous stares. Some of my relatives occasionally threaten to cut my hair while I sleep. My coworkers just chalked it up to me being eccentric, but I had too many years of seniority for anyone to make a fuss. So I just kept letting it grow.

Skip forward to the present, I’ve got two feet of thick and wavy curly hair. I think it looks awesome, and lots of women – and men – certainly agree. I get questions about it at least a few times a month. Ever have someone ask if they can touch your hair? It’s kind of funny. I’ve got this weird Captain Hook/Kirk Hammett/young Robert Plant look going for me. People ask if I moonlight in a rock band. I’ve never even touched a guitar. And while I’m not exactly tiny, I still get mistaken for a woman constantly. Unlike before, however, I take it in stride. My decision to grow my hair was one of the few decisions I’ve made for my sake. It helped make me a much more confident, assertive person; I’ve been told that I come off as regal and intimidating. That’s a far cry from the mousy bully magnet I used to be. People see my style as a mark of individuality and act accordingly. I’m not afraid anymore; I carry myself with the understanding that this is part of who I am, and not some expectation imposed upon someone else. I may have never been the most masculine guy ever, but that’s okay. If I can’t be handsome, then I can certainly be beautiful.