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.

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.

Summertime, Coming Soon

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about summer. As in, what you’re looking forward to about the upcoming summer months. I’m more of an autumn type, but I won’t pass up the chance to enjoy the heat. Especially this year; for the first time in my adult life, I might still be unemployed this summer. I’m not hoping I’ll end up like that, of course. I recently applied for a community manager position at a major website. There’s a good chance I’ll be hired. If that happens, then I’ll be carrying around my laptop a lot in the foreseeable future. If I don’t, then I’ll enter UC Berkeley’s open-enrollment technical writing program and further develop a practical skill set. I could get the pursuit of my M.A. going, but that’s a whole other mountain of problems. I’ll also be delving deeper into the No Excuse List and doing independent studies while looking for another position.

…Doesn’t sound very fun, huh?

I’ve also been invited on a trip to Rome tentatively scheduled sometime in May. The itinerary is still up in the air – it might even be postponed until October – but I’ll take full advantage of the rail system to see more of Europe. The last time I was in that part of the world, I managed to visit Spain, Morocco, and Gibraltar in a single week. Let’s see if I can do better this time around! I’ll also be equipped with a better camera; before, my old camera malfunctioned on the first day, and I had to resort to my iPod. I’ll be sure to take tons of awesome photos for you guys!

That’s a best-case scenario, of course. If I’m stuck here in the Bay Area, I’m going to make the most of it. I spent a considerable amount of 2013 exploring San Francisco on foot, and I’d love to do it a second time. Those long, sunny afternoons wandering off of Market Street, climbing Lombard Street, and walking through Chinatown all the way Fisherman’s Wharf were some of my most cherished moments. I only stopped exploring the city because of winter’s onset; now that the days are getting longer again, I have more hours of sunlight to use. I live in a bad neighborhood of a terrible city, so traveling to San Francisco is like a brief, but lovely escape. I can’t wait to do it again.

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.

Daily Prompt: Sink or Swim, Or: Canned Peas – College Education The Old-Fashioned Way

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about perseverance. As in, dealing with a seemingly overwhelming situation on your own. This one hits really close to home, because it’s been such a huge factor in my life. I’ve got several stories to use – that’s the disguised blessing of being a loner and growing up in a broken home as a latchkey kid – and one is even ongoing as I type this. Hint: it’s not fun being unemployed. I’ll get into that story later. But this time, I’ll focus on something a little bit older:

College.

Aside from all the academic aspects, your college years are normally associated with things like partying, socialization, and developing as a person. You’re backed up by your parents, you meet people, and you just might learn a life lesson or two along the way. For most people, this process of changing from a young adult to being ready for the “real world” is typically a slow but steady process.

For me, it was a headlong plunge.

I’ve always been a great student. With my grades, I could’ve gone straight into places like Berkeley or Stanford. But I didn’t have the money for it; I didn’t have a college fund growing up. When I applied for financial aid, I was turned down because my parents’ salaries at the time exceeded the application’s quota; there was the underlying assumption that they would help me. But they didn’t; since I already had saved up money from working part-time as a high schooler, I was expected to foot the bill myself. My mother even lost her job shortly after the application filing period ended. I could’ve applied for student loans, but even back then I was savvy enough to know that would come back to haunt me. Same with credit cards. Considering the current debt and student loan financial crises, I’m glad to know I made the right decision. Thus I did things the old-fashioned way: I just took on part-time jobs, saved up, and focused on my schooling. Let me repeat that more simply: I paid for my college tuition myself. Let that sink in for a minute.

For those of you that have parents that pay for your education, thank them. Profusely.

Do you have any inkling of how hard it holding down a full course-load and working enough part-time jobs to make ends meet? It’s excruciating. But it is doable. I discarded my goal of going straight to a university and took all my lower division coursework at a community college. It wasn’t prestigious, but it saved me thousands. I couldn’t afford a car, so I simply walked and took public transit. I had to throw myself into my studies and make it count, because I literally couldn’t afford to fail. I didn’t sleep much during those years; I’d stay up late putting finishing touches on papers, only to wake up four hours later to get ready for my morning commute. I learned how to study and work in trains and buses instead of libraries. You’d be surprised how comfortable a pillow a hard plastic seat can be. It didn’t matter. All I cared about was the next assignment, the next class, the next objective. The requirements for a university transfer were spelled out in plain black and white; all I had to do was finish everything.

It took me a bit longer than most kids, but I got it done. My transfer was finished, and I was finally off to the university to tackle my upper division coursework. My first few weeks on the new campus, I felt like some of kind of impersonator. I was surrounded by people with backgrounds far better off than mine. A good portion of them (and instructors, for that matter) already knew each other from previous classes. I had to dig in and get adjust to the new setting. Some of those early lectures – particularly Renaissance Lit and Shakespeare – were the most technically demanding courses I ever took. They were the most rewarding, too; I was always a huge bookworm, but my literary and philosophical repertoire skyrocketed. I devoured information as if I were starving. My writings and eagerness to learn made me become the professors’ favorite within weeks. It’s not because I curried favor, but because I tackled the work with a no-nonsense but laid-back attitude. I did extremely well in this environment, and it seemed that finally, finally I would be able to make it through okay.

But I wasn’t. Not yet.

After some time, I had a consultation with one of my professors. She was actually spearheading most of her department’s graduate program, and offered advice to anyone who asked. She took one glance at my transcript and said, very plainly, that I might not graduate on time. Not because of the grades – I was acing every class – but because I didn’t have nearly enough coursework done. The revelation was utterly gut-wrenching. Due to the way the university’s scheduling worked, I might’ve missed out on vital courses and had to wait a whole year to take them. She explained that I could still pull it off, but I’d have to really step up my game.

So I did.

I walked out of that office with the determination that I would graduate on time. Looking back, it was probably one of the defining moments of my adult life. I realized that I had let myself become complacent after I had transferred; I had gotten too comfortable in my element, and it was catching up with me. I cast away all distractions. What little time I spent with my hobbies was used to study. There were no relationships, no parties, nothing else. When it came time for the quarterly registration, I doubled my course-load without a second thought. As a result, I had to reduce my working time to only a single day a week. Can you imagine doing that? Just scraping by with tiny paycheck every too weeks? Carefully budgeting out every last cent? Eating out of cans for months because you can’t afford anything else? Paying tuition was like cutting off a limb. I watched my savings crumble like an old wall with each passing quarter. But I knew that I couldn’t give up. I had come too far. I needed to finish.

And I did.

Obtaining that degree was one of the most exhausting and fulfilling challenges in my entire life. Not from an academic standpoint, but from a logistical one. When I triumphantly walked across that stage in my cap and gown, my account was nearly empty. I had almost nothing left. But I didn’t have a single cent of debt to my name. I may have been broke, but I now know that I’m in a better financial situation than the millions of others mired in loans. It taught me the value of focusing on the important things, responsibility, and the understanding that your essential, practical needs will always trump desire. You’d be surprised how much you can learn to love canned peas and bread when it’s the only thing affordable. I’ve also come to realize that it broke me emotionally; I didn’t have a single relationship – romantic or otherwise – in those years. Compared to most people my age, I’m terribly maladjusted. I still feel ashamed and guilty whenever I want to buy something for myself. And that sense of responsibility can be crushing. I need to work on those.

But whenever I feel weak, I look back and realize how determined and capable I can be.

Daily Prompt: Close Call, Or: The Sleepy Commute

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about close calls. Seeing as I already mentioned a near-fatal one not too long ago, it’s probably best if I go with something a bit lighter. When I transferred to the university for my junior/senior college years, I had to deal with the longest daily commute I’d ever experienced. Imagine this: You leave the house sometime around sunrise, if not earlier. You walk nearly three miles to the BART train station, and wait for a train that runs to San Francisco. But you don’t go to the city; halfway down the line, you have to get off and wait for a Fremont train to roll in, which then takes you down to the furthest southern reaches of the system. After many stops and delays, you stumble onto the platform, go down the stairs, and wait for the university shuttle to show up, which will whisk you away to the campus nearly 20 more minutes away. Then you will climb at least a couple of hills’ worth of staircases, open a door, and somehow find a seat before the lecture begins.

For two years, that’s how my morning commutes worked. In theory.

The problem was with the university shuttle. The last one left at 9:00 AM sharp, so there was a lot of competition to get a seat on it. The stampedes down those train platform steps were epic, glorious races; half a step, a hesitation, anything could cost you everything. Okay, not everything. But you had to wait for the city bus, shell out additional fare (a bane for any student), and endure a trip that was ten minutes longer. When you’re trying to get to your morning classes – especially when you’re coming from several cities away – every millisecond counts. So all of us fought in these unspoken wars every morning, all for the sake of scheduling. I’ve always been pretty quick on my feet and have a good sense of balance, so practically sprinting down those stairs was rarely an issue for me.

Falling asleep on the train, on the other hand…

So this one time the train rolled into my stop. But I was asleep; heated train car + early winter morning + general lack of rest = one slouching, potentially drooling student. I didn’t feel the train stop, nor did I hear the doors open. But by some instinct, I snapped awake just as the doors were starting to close. Luckily, my backpack didn’t get stuck. I groggily dragged myself over to the stairs and went down. I thought other students would be on my heels and rushing me to get down, but there were none. My heart sank when I made it down to the bus stop. Three dozen or more people in front of me. Even if the shuttle driver would let me stand, there still wouldn’t be enough room. I stood there, silently hoping that I was wrong…but I wasn’t. The last shuttle left with a small group of us standing there. I wearily sat down at the city bus stop and waited. I was going to be late. There was no avoiding it. I begrudgingly paid my extra fare – thankfully I planned for just such emergencies – found the nearest chair, and sulked.

I didn’t sleep on the bus ride up to the campus. I was too wired, too angry at myself for failing. I knew I’d have to sprint up the hills to get to class on time. Maybe the professor wouldn’t notice me. Yeah, sure. He wouldn’t notice a dude with long hair, a trench coat, and a scarf sneak into the room. Ugh, so embarrassing! I practically leaped off the bus when we finally got to campus. Up the first flight of stairs, weaving through the groups of others going to class-

“Hey!”

Someone called out. I didn’t think it was to me; no one ever talked to me. I kept going. One more flight, making a left, going up the wooded path, there’s the door to science building-

“Hey, wait up!”

It was the same voice as before. I opened the door and dared a glance back. A middle aged man in a jacket and scarf came huffing and puffing towards me, and I could see his breath in the cold morning air.

“Hey, you’re one of the students in my 9:30 lecture, aren’t you? I was on the same bus you were, but I don’t think you noticed!”

Whoops.

“…Uh, heh. No, professor.”

“Thought so. Well, don’t bother rushing. I’m pretty sure class can’t start without me.”

“Right.”

We leisurely made our way up to the lecture hall, and I tried to hide my blushing face under my scarf. I’ve had way more serious close calls than this, but I’ve never forgotten that tedious yet funny commute.