10 06 2010

I visited with one of my good friends the other day. She was my 8th grade English teacher, and I’ve kept in touch with her since, through the cancer that almost killed her and forced her to quit teaching and become a private tutor out of her home. Being ushered into the plant-filled dimness of the house in which she now spends her time was like visiting a high priestess. Jovial yet soft-spoken, and terribly wise, her bright blond hair has grown back as thick silver-gray curls after the chemo.

We got to talking, and the subject that dominated our conversation was time. After her chemo she spent the summer in the mountains, soaking in life, before going back to teach again. When she did reenter the world, her biggest trouble was getting reaccustomed to the way time runs in our society. She said that in chemo, the way the drugs and the disease work in your body make time run differently – sometimes faster, sometimes slower – and after all that it was just strange to have to deal with time again in the way we deal with it in American society.

Her theory, what she wants to write her doctoral thesis on, is that many psychological disorders can be defined as failures to synchronize with the way everyone else deals with time. They are created by our American society. Here in our society, time is everything: people get mad at you if you don’t go fast enough, and people also get mad at you if you go too fast. Everything has to happen on time, and everyone has to move with the flow.

As a (future) linguistics major, this whole thing interested me too. It’s a pretty well-known convention that in English, we talk about time as if it were money. We spend time and save time; we can buy time, and we can waste time. Doesn’t that say something about us? Furthermore, an already-standing psychological theory says that psychology is directly affected by the economy – and since in America we act as if there’s an economy of time, that seems to play right into my friend’s theory.

There’s a culture in Indonesia called the Moken, or sea gypsies, who live on boats and lead nomadic lifestyles floating between islands in the Andaman Sea. Their language has no word for “time”. In their language, there is no yesterday or tomorrow, sooner, later, hours, minutes or seconds. Their culture is so relaxed that they do not need any words to describe time.

I was reading an article the other day about two linguists named Evans and Levinson, who are challenging Noam Chomsky’s theory of “universal grammar”, that there are rules of language that are inherent in the human brain and thus can be found in every language spoken by man. Evans and Levinson think that languages are different, and the brain instead forms around the language a person hears as a baby. That means that the brains of people who speak different languages actually work differently. A Frenchman’s synapses will always tell him the noun before the adjective, even if he’s perfectly fluent in English and he can reverse them when he opens his mouth. If that’s true, than imagine how hard it would be for one of the Moken to move to a Westernized culture and join modern life. People who grow up with the sea gypsies, living their culture and speaking their language, have no concept of time. It’s not just a word: because they’re unable to think the word, they’re unable to think the thought. They don’t understand Time. It’s easy, then, to imagine that someone who spends time in such a culture would develop a psychological disorder if they tried to join the rat race of human society.

When I’m traveling this summer she told me to notice the way other cultures deal with time. In this globalized world it’s so easy to travel and not notice the differences where you are. Business travelers, for example, can live in a globalized bubble of meetings, first-class transportation and hotel room shampoo and never learn anything from their travels. I’ve always insisted that if I were able to travel for free like that, I would manage to enjoy it. But my friends whose parents travel say that it’s impossible. It’s all about time. On a business trip you’re trapped in the Western frame of mind even more so than normal: you’re busy; you have to get to your meetings and answer your emails on time. It’s a mindset that’s very American. It’s funny, then, because I suppose in a way Time is like a different version of place. You can take a vacation an hour away from your house and be in a different time frame. But when you travel for business, you can go halfway around the world and mentally never leave your own time zone.

Time is funny in other ways too. It always moves faster or slower than you want it to. I’m going to graduate from high school today. And I just don’t know how I’m supposed to feel. Where did the time go? I don’t feel sad, but I feel like I should be sad, because this only happens once. I don’t know. I just want to freeze time and go into seclusion and think about it a few days. I feel like it’s not a big deal right now; like I’m not as awestruck as I was when my friends graduated. And I almost want to pretend it’s not a big deal, because I don’t want it to be. I want it to happen, but I don’t want it to be a big deal. I don’t want it to be the end of one chapter of my life and start of another. But it is.

One of my friends from school just texted me: “The sensation of waking up knowing you are about to graduate, I imagine, is what a person feels waking up on his wedding day.” I don’t know. I woke up and felt nothing. But there’s this ridiculous, carnival atmosphere building. Teenagers sending weirdly philosophical texts whizzing through the air across Sunnyvale. Michael’s craft store sold out of blue and gold felt at 9 p.m. last night. Underclassmen sitting in their classes taking finals, but secretly making Graduation Bingo cards under their desks. An army of janitors festooning the field at De Anza College with green and white. All seemingly unrelated events that will be linked in just a few short hours. It’s sort of absurdist, like a novel written by Camus or something. I hate Camus, but I think now I see his point.

Anyway, I’ve written enough, and I need to go start getting ready for this weekend.

It’s time.


The latest senior year thoughts

3 03 2010

It’s said that your last few months of high school are the most emotional, and I suppose I haven’t felt anything that can disprove that. Every few weeks my thoughts evolve again, so I don’t feel bad blogging continual updates on the same subject. After all, the end of 18 years of invariably structured life and sheltered childhood is the kind of thing that tends to dominate your thoughts.

As of now, I haven’t quite reached the weepy, maudlin, please-God-I-don’t-want-to-leave stage that a lot of naysayers allegedly reach during the last few months. But I’m a lot less excited about leaving than I was at the beginning of the year. I suppose at the beginning of the year I was excited about getting the hell out of here, whereas now I’m excited to go to college but not necessarily excited to leave high school.

It’s such a trip to see everyone picking classes and thinking about next year, when I know that I’ll be gone from this place.  The world of Homestead High will go on turning without a hitch, and it’s bizarre to think that even though right now I’m a part of that perfect clockwork circle, a drop-off lies ahead, a sudden detachment where I’ll just break away and leave the whole thing ticking onward as if I had never left.

The main sort of regret I’m feeling is that I have so much left to do in the last few months. Everything for which I’ve ever told myself “I want to do that before high school ends” is on a ticking timeline. And even though I’m doing fairly well at getting my whims fulfilled, the list keeps growing, just because the more mature I get, the braver and more ambitious I get. Experiences that before would have been scary or flat-out unappealing to me suddenly seem like things I have to try, just because if I don’t do them in the next three months, when will I? One by one my whims are becoming goals as the window closes to turn them into memories.

When I look back, I don’t really know what to think. In a way I wish I’d done things differently. I don’t know what; I just feel like I could have lived more in my four years. Of course, I feel no envy or longing for the many experiences I did have, so that sense of regret is likely unfounded. But I sometimes wish I could go back and do it all over again as a brave person, as the person I am now. However, then I realize I’m looking at things all wrong. The way I spent the past four years made me into the person I am now. If I had done a single thing differently, I wouldn’t be me – so how can I regret a thing? After all, when I came to high school I was timid and shy, socially awkward, afraid to talk to strangers, neurotic, insecure, sexually repressed and perpetually intimidated by everyone and everything. If I hadn’t done all the things I did, maybe my maturation into the quirky but comfortable person I am today wouldn’t have happened the same way.

So there’s three months left. I’m not crying over spilled Homestead yet, but I certainly want to use those three months as well as I can. Tomorrow I’ll be 18, and it feels like my seventeenth birthday was only yesterday. Time really is picking up speed now. This is the beginning of the end.

To My Future Self

16 12 2009

Dear Ben circa mid-January,

You are probably wondering right now what the flying f@$% you were thinking. You are in the midst of rehearsal for two plays, which together take up every hour until 9 p.m. You are probably also swamped with work at the paper and may even be frantically trying to finish your apps that are due on the 15th. You may be exhibiting symptoms of stress such as banging your head against walls, punching any soft object and even rampaging across Facebook correcting people’s grammar. And all of this (well, most) could have been avoided if you hadn’t chosen to audition for “Great Expectations”.

Why would I decide to have a busy second-semester schedule rather than melting in lazy second-semester bliss? Am I on some kind of dangerous illegal drug or do I just have a death wish? Well, here I am to explain to you why I (you?) did it.

The funny part, of course, is that not a week ago I wrote a blog entry about how life is so much more juicy and rich when you’re stressed, even though you hate it at the time, and so on and so forth. Now I’m faced with the devil’s bargain of actually committing myself to something incredibly stressful and incredibly rewarding. It all sounded so much nicer in the hypothetical. Thanks for the bitchslap of irony, God.

Anyway, I at first had absolutely no intention of doing “Great Expectations”, but then I thought about it and realized that it really would go against my innermost values (or at least, those I’m trying to cultivate) to let this opportunity pass me by. Think, future self, of all the times you’ve driven by the Bus Barn Theater wondering what life would have been like if that had been you acting in there. A whole different set of friends, a whole different experience. Well, I don’t want to graduate high school wondering “what if.” I want to do it all, and this is my chance to do… well, something.

I think free time is better as an idea than as a real entity. You think, oh man, when I’m done with X and Y I’ll have so much time to work on my screenplay and practice guitar and write songs and have a regimented workout program and watch every National Geographic documentary ever made, etc., etc. But you won’t really do any of it, at least not the way you hope. Besides, there’ll always be time later to practice guitar or get a little exercise or whatever. You may not feel like it, but there will always be time – even if it’s just ten minutes between classes in college. But there won’t be time to redo a one-of-a-kind experience like being in a play.

So now, self, you understand my position. I hope everything is going well in the future, and we’ll talk soon. Except not. Maybe we can Oovoo. Across the time-space continuum. So, I’m pretty much done. This is awkward.



P.S. Please don’t do the Facebook grammar thing again, it was really kind of a dick move…

Nostalgia Strikes Again

10 12 2009

I was going to title this post “Stress”, so let’s take a foray into why by looking at this week: Three Gov tests, covering about 100 pages of reading and 40 Supreme Court decisions. French in-class essay on Sartre’s Les jeux sont faits. Newspaper uploaded on Wednesday, which meant 9 straight hours in the Journalism room panicking. Spanish final at De Anza.

This morning, while biking to school, I was thinking about it all. Mostly that was because I was biking as fast as possible, since I had wasted the morning getting my court case cards in order and had left for school late. I started thinking about time: if only there was more time! The stress to spend every second wisely, lest my life be flushed down the crapper, was fantastic.

And yet, thinking about it, I realized: there really is plenty of time in the world. We’re just not used to using all of it. Our lives are overflowing with time, and we never appreciate it because we’re on Facebook or we’re hanging out or talking about inconsequential things.

I don’t think it’s bad that we do any of the above, and I am in no way sorry for the time I spend lurking Facebook or (speak of the devil) writing this blog. Those little details are the bread and butter of life. But it occurred to me then that maybe it’s a healthy thing to feel, once in a while, what it’s like to use every second of your time. Being miserly with time and scheduling every minute is no way to live. But if you spend just one week where every minute is scheduled, you’re reminded just how useful and precious every minute is.

And this led me to another, deeply satisfying thought. Although they may not seem fun at the time, busy times are the ones that I’ll miss the most. I’d rather be overscheduled, overinvested and freaking the hell out than sit back and let high school pass me by. I’m riding the roller coaster of life, and even though my stomach boils when the car plummets over that first drop, the adrenaline rush two minutes later will remind me that I did it all for a reason.

High school may not be two minutes, but it’s damn well short enough for people to forget why they ever got on this wild ride. I don’t want to forget, and I’m glad that every once in a while I’m reminded. In just six months I’m going to roll up panting and satisfied at the station, but I want to enjoy the roller coaster while I’m on it, and for one brilliant flash this morning that’s exactly what I did.

These are the days I’ll miss the most – the days when I always had something to do, somewhere to be, someone to talk to and something to stress about. This is the richest part of life. This is high school. That just seems to say everything I could possibly want to say. This is it! It’s mind-boggling to get even one glance at how important and fleeting the last days of senior year are.

This is my life, and it’s ending once minute at a time (thank you “Fight Club”). But when I step back and take a look, I’m happy to know that it’s not being wasted.

It’s finally happened.

28 10 2009

The one thing I’ve been waiting for. The moment that makes my life complete. The crowning achievement of my absurd adolescence.

A college has sent me 3-D sunglasses.

That’s right. They also (rather thoughtfully) sent me a brochure with some 3-D pictures, to put the sunglasses to use. So suck it, Brown and NYU. I’m taking my snazzy red-and-blue cardboard shades and applying straight to Hobart & William Smith.

Homecoming Recap

17 10 2009

This the part where I admit I was wrong.

I was wrong to not go to Homecoming for three years. I was wrong to avoid straying within a hundred yards (ha, ha) of anything football-related. I was wrong to think that school spirit was for cool people and “insiders”, and I was wrong to think that I wouldn’t be welcome in the mainstream of high school culture. I was wrong.

Now that I’ve gotten that off my chest I need to amend it a little. In my defense, I haven’t been a total ogre when it comes to naysaying Homecoming. Maybe, when my memory of freshman P.E. was a little more vivid, I had a right to opt out of the football games. I always did dress up for the spirit days, which is more than some people can say. I never actively disliked Homecoming. But I won’t deny that a little bit of righteous nonconformity and on-the-outside-looking-in resentment drove my refusal to participate.

Being on Homecoming Court was an amazing experience, but the true highlight wasn’t the attention or the snazzy outfits, it was Homecoming itself. The feeling of school spirit, of togetherness, was electric. It didn’t matter that I’m on less-than-fantastic terms with most of the guys on the football team. Because it wasn’t about the football. It was about the football and about the marching band, the colorguard, the Equestriettes, the teachers, the Leadership kids who had built the floats, the students chanting in the parade. It was about everyone.

Although I only knew two of the people on Homecoming Court before yesterday, by the end of the day I had made friends (to some degree) with all of them. Driving back from lunch with the other four guys, windows open, music blasting, I felt a moment of pure teenage coolness and independence. The camaraderie between the “chosen” was fun. But what really made the day amazing was the camaraderie between my normal group of friends. While we were hanging out waiting for the parade to start, the friends of everyone on Court seemed to meld together, then meld together again with the rest of the seniors. I have never felt less divided from my peers. Everyone was together, everyone was wearing the same ridiculous green and white clothing, and everyone was stoked to be part of the class of ’10 and to get out of high school in seven short months.

The parade was the most novel experience of the day for me, since I’d never actually gone to it before. I got to ride in a white 1955 Thunderbird convertible with my partner, waving at the crowd as we passed by. Our school doesn’t have a proper field, so for our Homecoming parade we all march over to a neighboring high school and have our Homecoming game there. All the streets leading through the neighborhoods from the campus to our destination were closed off and taken over by the parade. It was bustling and loud and festive, and I loved it. The marching band led the parade with jaunty music, followed by the colorguard tossing flags, then the class floats, then the cars containing the court. For the first time I saw how much of a community activity Homecoming was. People lined the sidewalk or stood outside their houses and waved as we passed by. At an elementary school, little kids held posters and cheered for us, ogling right up against a chain-link fence. It floored me how people of all ages were excited for this simple high school tradition.

When we finally got to our destination, we rode the cars once around the track. At the far side I could look back and see the bleachers and the field from some distance, and it struck me all at once what a beautiful sight it was. The happy, excited crowd filling the stands; the football team warming up on the field; the marching band playing a jaunty fight song; the Equestriettes waving pom-poms and prancing to and fro in a swirl of perfectly-choreographed legs; even the old muscle cars: painted in the golden late-afternoon light, it was an idyllic picture of Americana. It could have been any high school in any American town. It was something timeless that I was truly, truly a part of. This was high school in a nutshell; this was something I would remember forever.

Later, at the football game, I climbed up through the stands and sat with my friends apart from the rest of the Court. We exchanged jokes, played Trivial Pursuit on someone’s iPhone, and ate  food from the concessions stand. My friend Kevin explained the football plays to me. We made fun of my friend Federico for being a horny Italian while he ogled the Equestriettes. I even cheered when something really obvious happened in the game, like a dramatic field goal or touchdown. And I realized something. I didn’t need to break into any forbidding alien world of football-watchers and cool, popular kids. I already belonged here. The football game, the parade, the whole day was already part of my world. I had just never really shone a light on it.

So, although I’ve tried not to be insufferable, although I’ve tried not to fall into the trap of nonconformity for nonconformity’s sake, I still would like to apologize. To everyone – to the band, to the Equestriettes, to the Leadership people who work so hard every year, to the Courts of years past whom I didn’t care to honor, even to the football team towards which I’ve always been bitter and jealous when there was nothing to be bitter about. I’ve been converted: I love Homecoming. And I don’t want people to think that I only loved the system once I was one of the privileged few on top of it. Although I needed a dramatic gesture of acceptance like being on Court to make me see the light, that’s my own stupid fault. I’ve realized that although high school is no picnic, it’s no lion’s den either. Anyone can be welcome at our school. I am welcome at my school. In my senior year, at Homecoming 2009, I’ve finally come home.

The friendship lottery

5 10 2009

When I was in the lower grades of high school it drove me crazy that I had to take a whole slew of standardized, impersonal core classes that nobody really cared about. I couldn’t wait to be an upperclassmen and take engaging AP classes. I certainly don’t miss the pre-AP days, but recently I realized something I missed about them. I was talking to my friend Chrissy, who, to a much greater extent than me, is a heinous overachiever. We were talking about her classes, and she said, “I hate having all APs. It’s just the same people over and over in all my classes.”

That really awakened me to something I’ll miss about the lower grades of high school: you’re forced to interact with all kinds of people. It’s striking, when you think about it, how much elective classes dictate social groups. My closest friends this year are mostly on the same college-bound track as I am. Other subgroups of kids – those who take a more moderate class load and focus on a sport; those who aren’t looking to go to a selective college – are also vaguely defined by their academic tendencies. But in freshmen and sophomore year, we all had classes together.

With the end drawing near, I’ve started to single out random people and wonder about them. I think, “Such-and-such seems like a cool guy. I’d like to get to know him.” But I know I won’t. And it makes me melancholy, in a way. I almost wish that I was still being shaken around with the whole school population, so that I would have classes with a more diverse group of kids and make friends outside of the same batch who takes every AP class.

And then there’s the other part, where I realize that I had a two-year window to make friends with people from all social groups before the egotistical exclusiveness of upperclassmanship set in. The people I met during those years affected my high school experience hugely, all because of total, random chance. There are probably plenty of cool people who would have become my friends if, and only if, I was put in a room with them every day for a year. Who knows who those people are? I’ll never find out now whether or not I would have been friends with such-and-such or so-and-so. It’s a fascinating and mind-boggling thought. Like people are predispositioned to like or dislike each other, but they don’t find out that the pieces fit until they’re shaken around and they bump into place. Who knows how many students at Homestead are a perfect fit to be my friend, but just never ended up bumping into me?

It’s crazy to think about destiny in such a way. Ultimately, I can’t wait for college to give me a fresh start on making all types of friends. I’m a lot more open and extroverted than I was in freshman year, and in college I plan to join clubs, try sports and take electives that will allow me to meet all kinds of people. Because let’s face it – only being friends with like-minded people is boring. The ones that lead you to try new things and stretch your definition of who you are are the ones who are different from you, but who you still somehow get along with. The fact that I’ve probably passed all my chances to make identity-stretching friendships in high school both saddens me and makes me antsy to move on to greener pastures.