Wednesday, December 31, 2014

As The Year Turns

As of right now it is 5:00 p.m. on December 31st, 2014. 2015 is almost upon us (well, me, anyway. You might live in Europe or Oceania or Asia or anywhere else on the globe where the year has become new.)

As the year comes to a close, we often find ourselves faced with the same difficult, important questions we do every year. Mine tend to be along the lines of: How will I change and develop (physically, mentally, &c.) over the year? What will be different?

I also look back on the year. This year was really rather light, as years go. I didn't do anything too big. I didn't explore new places, like when I visited Hawai'i and Mexico for the first time. I didn't experience new, different settings that changed my thinking (like when I entered high school). I learned a lot more about myself and the world I live in, to be sure. (Everyone learns something new-humankind cannot be inactive and dormant, no matter how hard we try.) We always learn something new, our brains bubble and attempt to discover. But overall, I don't feel I changed quite a lot from 12:01 a.m. on January 1st, 2014 to right now.

We've passed halfway through the decade. 2010-2014 have come and gone, and I know a lot has happened. I've passed through middle and most of high school, I've learned so much more and developed many more skills, I've travelled to places I have only dreamed of.

2015 is a median, right in the middle of the decade. It's a magical year - it will only happen once. But think of it as a median for your life. Have you changed considerably since 2010? Have you tried new things, had new experiences? If your life is rather routine, try to change it. Read new books - goodness knows, there's thousands out there. Travel, or if you can't, read extensively about things through the Internet.

A year from now, I'll likely be wondering about the special moments which made 2015 amazing or substandard. A good idea is to keep a journal. I have tried and variously succeeded this year, for the first time since elementary school. But it's become a chore. The trick is to make it different. Write from someone else's personality, for example. Or write a journal entry as a letter. A letter to your future self. Ask them about your goals and whether you've succeeded. If you do, and you read this letter, you will feel endless satisfaction. If not, then you'll be so haunted by the ghosts of your past that you'll try, full of regret. And you will likely succeed. That's how I view it.

Have an excellent 2015, from us here at Wandering in a Blur. To be sure, we'll have much more discussions and conversations to have with you. It will be an amazing year.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Knowing My Audience

Flickr Credit: Neal Fowler

My mom buys an off-brand of band-aids, which is in the bathroom, since that’s a great place to bleed. On it is a group of smiling children.

I don’t know if you have ever needed a band-aid, but I have had paper cuts and scrapes and bike accidents and tears and let me tell you this: when I need a band-aid I am usually not smiling.

I have concluded that perhaps this off-brand needs to reconsider its audience.

All right, I get it. We don’t like buying products that have crying people on them. Boo-hoo, blood and infections and crap. Just perks up your day, I’m sure.

But it’s funny, because I’ve never given a lot of thought to my audience before. It strikes me now that I’m in an actual editing phase of working with a novel; the first draft results in incredibly liberal writing, as perhaps you yourself know. When you write, you write for you and the story and the fifteen minutes you have before Dad insists it’s time to go to bed you have school in the morning.

It’s the later drafts when you realize, “Hey, somebody might read this.”

The band-aid box really isn’t looking for smiling people. The reason that company makes money is because people have accidents and pain in their life. If I’m completely honest, I don’t believe that a simple band-aid does much to create smiles either—what they do is fill a need.

If you have a band-aid, you’re protecting a wound from infection, you’re providing an environment for it to heal, and you’re potentially preventing the spread of disease as bacteria pass from your wound to the environment around you. Also, for some reason band-aids make me feel better. It’s a comfort item.

That is why people buy band-aids.

This begs the question: why would someone read my story?

There’s not as much a need for my story to be told. You will not get an infection if you do not read my book, nor is it likely that its pages will prevent the spread of S. aureus.

Why would someone read my story? And what do I want them to know coming away from it?

I’m not sure I have all the answers right now. I know that I do have a message I’ve been toying with—you can bargain with destiny. It’s not a popular message, either, and probably not a big motivator.

Why would someone read my story?

And if they would, who would that person be?

Band-aids look to the bleeding to make their money. I have to look to the reading to discover where I might make mine. There is sentiment, and storytelling, lessons learned and passions unexplored. There’s dreams. There’s pain.

But why would someone read my story?

And, if they would, will I ever find them?

Saturday, December 6, 2014

The Trope of the Geek and Nerd

What is a geek? What is a nerd?

A typical answer can be summed up thus: the lone, obsessive individual, with bad teeth, pale skin, glasses that look suspiciously hipster, who labors day after day, working on some great invention, often based off obscure principles like Feynmanian diagrams of space-time, or else some new way to rewire circuits to get free Wi-Fi. This individual (of course!) must be bullied relentlessly, or ignored, or shunned. His friends (should he be lucky to find any worthy of his interest and time) are the same as he: lone, obsessive individuals. Eventually, twenty years into the future, our hypothetical character creates an amazing invention or website that nets him millions of dollars and a mansion, the girl (there's always a girl somewhere in the story) and the football jock that bullied him and made his life miserable is stuck working for the nerd/geek, as Bill Gates said in his oft-copy and pasted quote:

Be nice to nerds. Chances are, you'll end up working for one.

Behold, the Trope!
Today, we essentially worship the idea of the geek. To many of the common public, he is a god, in a way - someone who is intelligent enough to solve the mysteries of the Universe. (Yet, somehow, he can't find a way to save his lunch money from getting stolen.) Silicon Valley (most notably, Google) works the public's fascination to their advantage! Google offers free lunch to all their employees, because, you know: with all those nerds and geeks walking around, the bullies are sure to steal their lunch money. Shows like The Big Bang Theory play this to their benefit. Many are in love with the idea of the unsung geek or nerd being isolated all his love and somehow creating a great website or something. (Hey, doesn't that sound familiar?) Even all the cool kids and cliques at school are in on the act: wearing suspenders, hipster glasses, and other adornments of the geek/nerd, to seem "smart".

Does this all sound familiar? Yes? Absolutely. I'd be surprised if you didn't. Silicon Valley, the Internet, and our technological revolution has brought the geek and the nerd to hero-status in society. Is there really a difference? Yes, technically, which I will enumerate thus:
A geek is someone who is obsessed with one thing and one thing only: it can be anything. A nerd is a more academic person, who is usually obsessed with science, Star Trek, Dungeons and Dragons, &c. 
(Compare this to TV Tropes' definition: The distinctions between "geek" and "nerd" are many and various - or maybe there aren't any distinctions at all. The meaning of both always depends on who is using the term.)

Is all of this starting to sound a bit cliche? You're right. Because, my dear friends: nerds and geeks are nothing more than tropes. The way we view them are cliched and tired. Are all nerds and geeks obsessed with mathematics and Star Wars and physics?

However, I am here to destroy this idea of the geek and nerd.  

Recently, I was told by someone that I was a geek because "I liked math and hard stuff." Bear in mind, and I mean this in the nicest, least derogatory way, that person was painfully wron. I had to explain to them that I was not a geek because I liked maths. In fact, I don't like maths. Yes, I'm taking calculus, but I don't find it engaging or absorbing. I'd MUCH rather read a sonnet by Shakespeare and analyse it than find the area under a curve. Many, many more people would, too. They are extremely intelligent people. Yet, for some reason, we cannot consider them nerds and geeks, because of peoples' misguided beliefs that math and science are the only things that make nerds and geeks, well, nerds and geeks. And that is the BIGGEST PROBLEM. This is a stereotype, my friends: and stereotypes are never write. Or right. :(

Does he look like a geek to you?
Proto-geek, perhaps.
Credit: Wikipedia
Our world flows in a mathematics-science kind of STEM pattern now. It didn't used to. In the past, as I have regrettably lamented, humanities were king -- indeed, as far back as the Middle Ages, the monks who lived, sheltered in cloisters for eternity, were the only ones who could read and write -- and so were considered educated and wise and all. They were the nerd/geeks of their day. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this remained true as well, as the most educated people - Miltons and Shelleys and Byrons and Murrays were usually literate and intelligent. There were some notable mathematicians, like Newton, Lagrange, and Fermat, but most of them were famous for work in another field. (For example, Fermat was a judge.)

However, as the liberal arts and social sciences continue to be overlooked in exchange for more modern, futuristic pursuits, this question is likely going to be asked more and more often. Yes, I think math and science are important, but that doesn't mean that I have to like them. (Except chemistry. Chemistry is awesome.)

I identify as both a nerd and geek. I have many academic pursuits. I am singlehandedly obsessed with many different authors (and can quote the entirety of Macbeth, for the most part. LAY ON, MACDUFF!) And I even have hipster trope glasses. (But they are prescribed.) I don't have much of a social life. But, at the same time, I don't know who Captain Kirk is, whose side Boba Fett is on, whether World of Warcraft is better than Dungeons and Dragons, or whatever. And I don't really like math and science. What does that mean, then? To most people, well...

I'd like to point out that I'm generalizing a bit, here. I know not everyone views geeks and nerds as science and math and obscure pop-culture fanatics. But our society and culture in general is perpetuating a trope that, in my eyes, is wrong and accurately misrepresents a portion of individuals who do self-identify as a geek or nerd, such as I. It should not be "wrong" to like literature or any other social science and yet be delegated to some other title, like "history buff", which, for the record, sounds like a shoe polish. The shoe polish that polished Washington or Wellington's floor... (Ha ha ha...That was a terrible joke.) And also, keep in mind that I am not bashing science and math fanatics in any way. They do make our world work, now. And I can respect that. Otherwise, without them, I would not be here, posting on a computer. I just have a different view of the world than them, and I feel that we should all respect these different views and tastes.

So there's my semi-monthly rant. Agree or disagree, I'd love to hear your opinions. Sound off below in the comments.


-R. R. (The nerd and geek!)

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

To His Coy Mistress: A Matter of Perspective

Europeana Credit: London Science Museum
This is going to be hard and fast: we just read this poem in English today, and there’s only twenty minutes left before I have to go to lunch.

 The poem’s called “To His Coy Mistress,” by Andrew Marvell, and you should go read it, because it’s funny. It’ll give you context as to what I’m going to talk about, but it’s not actually what I’m going to talk about.

 See, I wouldn’t have enjoyed this poem a few years ago. I remember in my Freshman English class, reading Romeo and Juliet and being—not offended, I think, but kind of peeved that there seemed to be so many references to sex and I didn’t think they were funny or clever or anything.

 It is likely that little Heather who kept the more recent update from expecting to enjoy Othello when she had to read that two months ago.

 But I realized something then, as Othello and Iago and company started dropping their little innuendos.

 It was FUNNY.

 “I’ve been told wrong,” I thought, horrified. “Shakespeare can’t be boring if he’s actually funny.”

 It was a startling realization. But even more startling, as I read this poem and another, comparing their lusty advances on virgins, insisting that, hey, we don’t have all the time in the world so let’s jump to the part about sex—I realized that younger Heather wouldn’t have even given this stuff a chance.

 I don’t think it came from the way I was raised (other realizations about things have come even within my own house) or my lack of a sense of humor: I’m pretty sure it was there. I blame middle school. Sex was something that you whispered about and giggled and lolololol SEX.

 And I’m not saying that we don’t still say those things in English class nowadays, a handful of years later. The difference is: we say it out loud. These two guys, brilliant each in their own right, had very loud interpretations of the coy mistress’s lover, and they were funny.

 The social norm has changed. It’s not bad—literature is pretty much affairs and murder and saying something about the human condition, so we have to be able to talk about it. But it is different.

 While I’m glad I retained some innocence as a Freshman, I also wonder what she would have thought as I hastily scribbled the last part of the assignment on the back of my worksheet: explain what your favorite poem was and why.

 I liked “To His Coy Mistress,” because even though the speaker is a condescending bastard, it’s clever. And I liked the Biblical allusion to describe time.

 I guess, you could say, it’s a matter of perspective.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Taking Offense

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Flickr Credit: Celestine Chua
There are a few best things that have ever happened to me, but one I will never forget happened last year in my English class. We were reading part of Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion.

And I’ll be honest—it was great writing, but I didn’t like some of the ideas. Like, they made me uncomfortable. No one else seemed to mind, and it wasn’t a raw-shocking-graphic-bundle-of-horribleness-meant-to-scar-me-for-life. I read it.

But it bothered me. That’s when my English teacher gave me the most important lesson he taught that year.

“It’s okay to be offended.”


What a concept.

And I pondered it. Like—it’s okay to be offended! It was liberating.

The paradigm shift exploded in my brain. And I thought about it. To some degree in the society I know and don’t always love, there’s this expectation that you will not get offended. In fact, it’s almost offensive to be offended.

Someone says I’m stupid—“Oh, don’t get upset. They’re just having a bad day.”

Someone commits a crime—“It’s really none of your business.”

Someone jabs at my religion—“Everyone can believe what they want; don’t hate on other people’s beliefs!”

It’s not that they don’t always have a point. Maybe that person is having a bad day, and I need to be extra forgiving towards them. It’s possible that the kid who committed a crime is having family issues, and it’s not my job to speculate. And my own response to the religion quip might have been made emotionally, rather than with kindness or reason.

But my problem is this: by making that excuse, that person is saying that it is wrong to have an emotional response to what I have just experienced.

How I present that emotional response is another matter entirely—I know.

Nonetheless, I think sometimes we forget that it’s okay to take offense. Attending a public high school, I’m familiar with many four-letter words, and it’s easy to become desensitized to their meaning. But maybe we shouldn’t. One of my favorite episodes from the TV show Arthur is called “The Bleep,” where D.W. learns a curse word. At first it’s a funny thing she’s learned and she shares it with her friends, but later, when she’s distracted and angry, she yells it at her mother—you can imagine she’s in trouble.

And I always liked the way Mrs. Read explained it to D.W. later. “It’s like saying ‘I want to hurt your feelings.’

There are a lot of things out there that are controversial, and sometimes people take offense at things that should be no matter at all, and sometimes people ignore things that, logically, should really hurt them.

As readers, we run into things that may offend us sometimes. More than once books have been banned because someone has been offended, perhaps over a small thing. People will defame an author for a discrepancy and shame readers for enjoying what they’ve read. It’s not cool.

But I also understand.

There should be a middle ground, in my opinion. Some things happen in books that we should not promote in real life, and there are books that are appropriate for some ages and not for others. Death is much more permissible in fiction. You’ll notice that 50 Shades of Gray doesn’t show up in many elementary school libraries. There’s a separation.

Therefore, I think we should learn to take offense gracefully.

I googled “How to be Offended” and aside from the first hit, everything else advises you how NOT to be offended.

This is the one link, and I think it’s worth the read, but I think I’ll add my own procedure for learning to be offended, especially because it is so easy to run into reading material that may bother us.

Now, there’s always the option of just closing the book or the window and saying, “I don’t want to read that,” which is fine. There are things not worth your time or your energies. But sometimes there is material we’re stuck with, in which case I find it better to use this method:

  1. read it twice—rereading something familiarizes you with the text, which is going to be important for the next steps
  2. pinpoint the offensive parts—in most circumstances, you can describe why something in particular is offensive
  3. reread the offensive parts specifically—there’s almost always a reason someone writes something; the unfortunate truth may be that it is intended to hurt your feelings, but it’s also possible that this person merely wants to be informative or is trying to make a point
  4. understand—figure out the exact meaning of what this person means, be sure to take into account irony or any other factors
  5. make a decision—did this change your mind? Maybe it did and maybe it didn’t, but I’ve always found it affirming to state my conclusion.
    1. “Even though I’ve read something that bothers me, it turns out that I still have the same opinion I did before.”
    2. “Wow, this really changed my mind about that issue.”
  6. reconcile—do you need to take action? (NOT: do you need to ban this book?) Do you need to discuss your value system with someone? Do you need to find a website or a person so you can ask more questions? Or is this a case where you should close the covers and say, “I’m glad I learned something about another perspective—but I think I’m done for now.”?

The exact timeline of this process can vary. It took me the duration of the assignment to figure out how to deal with being offended at Joan Didion’s piece. But I’m glad I read it, and that I did it, because I have a better way to handle emotional blows now.

So, go be offended, I guess. Enjoy it. And, when you’re ready, decide what you’re gonna do about it.

How do you handle a situation when something offends you?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Louis Pasteur

Photo Credit: Britannica
Diseases are great. Diseases are fun! That is, unless you catch them, in which case they are significantly less great and even less fun.

Louis Pasteur is great, and Louis Pasteur is fun—and that’s a definite statement. Known as the god/father of microbiology, Louis Pasteur is probably one of the coolest scientists of the nineteenth century. And, if you’ve ever had a glass of milk, then you have something to thank him for.

In reality, you don’t even have to drink the milk to see it on the carton: down near the bottom there’s a little schpiel that will say “PASTEURIZED MILK” and maybe the grade and some other great facts to help you bond with your milk.

And you’re like, “Great. Leave me alone; I want to blow bubbles in my milk before Dad gets home.”

But hear me out.

If you don’t know anything about pasteurization, let me sum it up for you in simple terms (and we’ll talk about milk, because I know about milk):

  • milk has bacteria in it, really gross pathogenic bacteria that makes you sick if you ingest it
  • milk men and women take the pathogenic milk and put it in a heater
  • we heat up the milk to 154.4 degrees Fahrenheit for thirty minutes
  • the heat affects the bacteria that’s present in the milk; the enzymes in the milk are denatured 
    • proteins that keep the bacteria functioning are heated into a different shape so they can no longer do their jobs—this is also the reason that you could die from a fever
  • the denatured bacteria dies—but some bacteria remains unaffected by the heat
  • the pasteurized milk is shipped out, and we keep our milk in the fridge to prevent the unaffected bacteria from spoiling our milk too fast

(Of course, people still drink fresh milk sometimes. They probably don’t die. But, in today’s society where we don’t all own cows and we don’t want to go to the store every day, it works out to take out the bacteria to make it last longer.)

But wait, there’s more.

The thing is, this guy who actually started developing the pasteurization process, Louis Pasteur, was actually a pretty awesome guy—practically a scientific superhero. Check it out.

Louis Pasteur was a chemist, first and foremost, and principal among his interests was germ theory. Back in the day, a popular theory ran around of spontaneous generation: that is, stuff came out of nowhere because God said, “Let there be maggots.” And thus maggots were.

So maggots randomly appeared on meat, food went bad for no reason, and mice came out of dirty underwear (no, I’m serious, we watched this video in Bio Monday morning. It’s worth your two minutes).

Louis Pasteur was like, “Don’t be ridiculous,” and experimented with beef broth to show that there was something in the air that we couldn’t see that made food go bad. He proved it, too: his broth left out to the open air would spoil and turn nasty (I’m sure you’ve left something out too long, too) while the broths that were sealed or swan-necked (twisted over) didn’t spoil nearly as fast.

However, he had more on his plate than mere beef broth. No, Louis Pasteur studied fermentation as well!

I just studied a whole unit on cellular respiration, so I’m not going to give you that speech, but I will say this: if you’ve heard about fermentation, then it’s probably been in relation to one of two things: your sore muscles after you’ve exercised, or beer.

Plot twist, Louis Pasteur actually came up with initial pasteurization processes for wine and beer, not for milk! While studying different organisms that multiply with oxygen (aerobically) or without (anaerobically) in his fermentation studies, Pasteur used his methods to make his alcohol safer to drink.

But that’s not all.

Monsieur Pasteur’s studies in microbiology saved the silkworm industry in France—knowing nothing of silk worms himself, Pasteur spent five years studying silk worms, breeding them, and then coming up with methods to prevent their contamination with harmful microorganisms so that France, not to mention every other country with silk worms, could keep making silk.

And, on top of that, he came up with vaccinations for Anthrax (independently of Koch, by the way), chicken cholera, and rabies.

Yes, rabies. He dried out a bunch of rabid rabbit skulls in his yard and then stuck pieces of their brains in a nine-year-old kid’s stomach. (And that’s still pretty much what they do to you if you get rabies today.)

But, truly, if he were around today, I would give this guy an air five, because apparently he didn’t like to shake hands.

So, what did you learn today?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Surprize & Discovery in 1807 England

Today's topic was inspired by two truly marvelous stories: Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrelland the 2003 movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the WorldBoth are set in roughly the same era: the latter in 1805 and the former begins in 1807. All three deal with England during the Napoleonic Wars (hence the title).

England during this time was in the middle of a very feisty and contentious war with France. It was also an exciting time in History: there was America's Ograbme, impressments, Ali Pasha taking over Egypt, the international slave trade ending...It was definitely a time of great change, excitement, surprize (I use the archaic spelling) and, of course, most importantly - discovery.

Russell Crowe as Captain "Lucky" Jack Aubrey.
Photo Credit:
For the unaware, Master and Commander is, put quite simply, the story of a British ship, the Surprize, trying to destroy its French enemy, the Acheron. But it is so much more than that! It is a wonderful movie, especially if you appreciate the time period and context in which it takes place. There is no Jane Austen and her Mr. Darcy here - rather, a rough, but playful, exciting, but sobering account of war and discovery on the high seas.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, on the other hand, is slightly different. By slightly, I mean alternate-history slightly. In an alternate England, magic was alive and well until the 1600s - when the Raven King and the Aureate magicians disappeared. Everyone knew the history of magic - but none knew how to conjure it - until Mr Norrell, and later, his wayward disciple, Jonathan Strange come along during the Napoleonic Wars, and bring magic back to Britain.

Both of these have a main element of discovery among them - but also showcase its effects quite well: the benefits, the joy, and the dangers resulting from curiosity.

*      *       *
Discovery, of any kind, is always exciting and slightly shocking, by definition. To look upon or learn something that was never seen or known before is humbling, and yet there is a certain thrill about it. From discovering a new element, to naming a new species, to reading a previously unknown letter by someone famous, to unearthing a new artefact, to proving a new theorem - all provide a great sense of either hope or terror. Because, for every cure for polio or smallpox, there was also the discovery of Ebola and how to create an atomic bomb. For every discovery of America, there was also a great genocide and mass murder of countless innocent people. For as humans, we have been entrusted with the greatest gift of all: curiosity. But as humans, we also have a sadly notorious proclivity for using that curiosity for horrifying things. Keep this in mind.

*      *      *
Mr. Norrell, the
greatest magician of the Age.
Photo Credit:
In Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the peaceful naivete of Mr Norrell and Jonathan Strange, bravely trying to use Magic for good, is upturned when Strange is interested in the darker, more dangerous arts, and tries to use magic for these. For me, this is like to nuclear power. The possibilities of nuclear power, when first discovered, are endless, and amazing - virtually limitless power from a few radioactive metals and fission! But then came the atomic bomb. Chernobyl. Three Mile Island. Today, we live in a nuclear age. The days when schoolchildren were taught how to hide from an A-bomb are thankfully gone, but the spectre of attack still lies heavy over our heads. Such is human nature. But don't think I'm entirely cynical...

*      *      *
One of the most telling scenes in Master and Commander takes place when the Surprise first arrives at the Galapagos Islands, between young Lord Blakeney and Dr. Maturin:

Maturin: Here's an insect that's taken on the shape of a thorn to save itself from the birds.
Blakeney: Did God make them change?   
Maturin: Does God make them change? Yes, certainly. But do they also change themselves?  Now that is a question, isn't it?

There is a perfect reconciliation of science and faith here. Often these two are at bitter odds - which is correct? Which explains Life, the Universe, and Everything? As for me, I maintain that they are two different ways to explain the same thing - for me, God is equivalent to the Universe, Creation is the Big Bang, science is equal to faith, and a rosary is equivalent to a microscope. They are all one and the same.

*      *      *
Mr Norrell is a most secretive person. He is narcissistic, in a way - he wants to be known as the only magician in England, and while he and Jonathan Strange become good friends, they eventually become opposing magicians. This is partly due to Mr Norrell himself - the old "hero creates his enemy" prophecy-trope.
You see, Mr Norrell owns every single book of magic in England. When magic was unknown he was able to purchase every one rather quietly and on the down-low, but when magic became respectable and fashionable, everyone was on the lookout. However, Mr Norrell was able to get to every single one - spending up to 2100 guineas on one rare book. He did this to hide information - in short, to ensure he was in control of knowledge. (Shades of 1984 here...) This is partly why Jonathan Strange went his own way, away from Mr Norrell - unable to read the great books of magic which Norrell hid, he felt there was more to knowledge and set out to discover more. Strange is in the right here, partly. To me, Norrell represents the old, traditional order - trying to keep stability and a semblance of right and wrong which has stayed in place for centuries. But Strange is the young discoverer - the pioneer, as it were. He represents discovery, science, and progress. He is to bring the world forward in terms of Magic - but, of course, there are many dangers in wait for him. (Does he succeed?'ll have to read the novel to find out.)

*      *      *
Part of the main plot of Master and Commander is the promise Captain Aubrey makes to Dr. Maturin - to spend time to explore the Galapagos Islands and make naturalistic discoveries, particularly that of a flightless cormorant. However, Maturin's hopes are dashed three times - all due to the Acheron being nearby. At one point, Aubrey is all set to sail away and capture the Acheron, but Maturin wants to stay behind, studying all the new animals.
To discover new species! It must be so exciting and tremendous, the act of being the first human to look upon a certain animal, or at least to name it and study its evolutionary traits. Maturin surely felt this way, and I'm sure the other great naturalists - Darwin on the Beagle, Linnaeus and his taxonomic organization - felt this way. However, again - progress and stability clash again when Maturin petitions Aubrey to stay behind.
Dr. Maturin: Jack, have you forgotten your promise?
Capt. Aubrey: Subject to the requirements of the service. I cannot delay for the sake of an iguana or a giant peccary. Fascinating, no doubt, but of no immediate application.
Dr. Maturin: There is, I think, an opportunity here to serve both our purposes...I could make discoveries that could advance our knowledge of natural history.
Capt. Aubrey: If wind and tide had been against us, I should have said yes. They're not. I'm obliged to say no.
Dr. Maturin: Oh, I see. So after all this time in your service, I must simply content myself to...hurry past wonders, bent on destruction. I say nothing of the corruption of power...
Paul Bettany and Russell Crowe as
Dr. Stephen Maturin and Captain Aubrey.
Photo Credit:
Capt. Aubrey: You forget yourself, Doctor.
Dr. Maturin: No, Jack, no. You've forgotten yourself. For my part, I look upon a promise as binding. The promise was conditional.
Capt. Aubrey: We do not have time for your damned hobbies, sir!
Bear in mind, Aubrey and Maturin are friends. However, sadly, this is what happens when progress and stability - the stability of the Empire - takes place. I might be reading too much into this, but in a way it's the same argument betwixt Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell.

*      *      *
I hope you'll apologize for the strange way this blogpost was written - a series of vignettes, all slightly disconnected, is hardly the best way to go about writing. It's a bad habit I have gotten in. But I hope this was helpful. If anything, it's a polemic on human nature & discovery - and the outcomes they create when combined. Dwell on that, won't you?


Tuesday, November 4, 2014


Flickr Credit: Jared Polin
I wasn’t sure how he was going to respond. He was my AP Euro teacher, and he was awesome, but the nature of my query could be taken in different ways. But I needed it.

Every semester we were to write reports on historical or historical fiction media. Books, movies. Something that took at least two hours to read.

“I was wondering if you knew any short books I could read for my book report.”

He walks over to his bookcase like it’s nothing and hands me a book. Less than half a centimeter in length. Gray. Yellowed pages. Red Words.


He signed it out for me, and I thanked him. I didn’t know what I was getting into. I read it. You should. I’m not even going to spend a lot of time telling you why, just this: it really happened. We should know about it.

I read it. I moped. I walked around the house, feeling different, feeling pain. Why didn’t the people around me feel this kind of shock? Why didn’t they care? There was death, there was pain, there was destruction.

And somehow, I think, I was caught up in a sense of mourning for every single person mentioned in that book. That they had suffered, and that they had done so until their dying breaths. I had to write a report about it… And I stumbled through it.

But it felt wrong, because it was about something so wrong. But I expressed myself. I assume my teacher read it, and didn’t think I was totally weird.

I passed the class.

Upon reading an essay R.R. sent to me over the weekend, I suddenly thought of my report. Huh. And I reread it. Not terrible.

With your permission, I thought I’d share a little of it from the end. Yes, Heather is a little bit crazy, but even now I still mean every word.

~ ~ ~

Regardless, many of the events Nyiszli recorded really stuck out—his descriptions offered a transparent image of Auschwitz in all its desolation. It’s funny, though, because even though he makes it exceptionally simple to imagine ash boiling up in the air, or bodies laying lifeless on the floor, there’s still a long jump to really understanding the circumstances. A few men came to Nyiszli with a friend who had attempted to commit suicide, begging him to put the man out of his misery. I like my friends alive, as a rule, and to be reduced to a state where I would rather see them die than wake up again is beyond my comprehension.

It would be easy to dismiss Auschwitz as a depressing book, filled with the crimes of the past and horror stories we should never wish to repeat. And yet, to deny the fact that, in its own way, Auschwitz is as much an inspiration as a memorial would be a terrible crime in itself. Throughout the book, thousands of people die, bodies are prepared so that one day small children can go to museums and look at the “extinct animals,” and the price of life is reduced until it is next to worthless. Through all that, there are times when the sun shines through the clouds—what I came to think of as “moments of mercy.” I think my favorite part of the book was the day when the young girl was found alive after the gassing, and she was immediately taken under the wing of the doctors like a daughter. She was killed a few hours later, but the kindness she was shown still told me one thing: those in the Sonderkommando had not yet been broken. Despite every injustice still being done within the gates of Auschwitz, there were still people who would do what they could with what they had for someone else.

Prior to reading Auschwitz, I read a pair of books on the World Wars by Terry Deary. I have utmost respect for Deary as an author, because he conveys the monstrosities of war in such a way that children can understand it and even respect it, and yet make it humorous at the same time—even though the World Wars were decidedly not funny. On the penultimate page of Woeful Second World War, Deary related the story of the “gentle German”:

“A Jewish mother faced a Lithuanian soldier, working for the Nazis. The Lithuanian raised his gun and pointed it at her head. His finger tightened on the trigger. He was about to kill her for the ‘crime’ of being Jewish.

“Suddenly a German Army officer stepped forward and rescued her. He turned to the soldier and explained: ‘One day history will judge us.’” (Deary 254)

That woman ended up surviving the war with her three children.

In a weird way, World War II acted like the serum which gave Captain America his powers. As Dr. Erskine said, “[It] amplifies everything that is inside, so good becomes great; bad becomes worse” (Captain). The corruption which infected so many people during the war only made those who could resist it shine a little brighter. It doesn’t justify anything that happened, or even necessarily make it better. But that there is evidence showing, against all odds, there was still basic human kindness and mercy in those bleak days gives me confidence that it will still be there through future trials. If it isn’t, I’m pretty sure the world is screwed.

The Sonderkommando, Nyiszli said, kept going for one reason: to make sure their story was heard, and never forgotten. Nyiszli took those words to heart, as he documented all he had seen within the death camp and made sure that others could read it. As a reader, Nyiszli’s purpose would be lost on me if I simply stopped reading at his book. Books fade fast from the memory, and their essence is only really captured when the act of reading is ongoing. I’m definitely going to read more about the time period, if not because WWII should never be forgotten, then because I still have a lot to learn about the world and the things which have been left behind for my sake.

And if my Junior year has taught me anything, it’s that I still have a lot to learn.

Flickr Credit: MrJamesAckerley

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Cloud Cover

The moon was gone. That was the first sign. Light always travels faster than sound, it is said. Last night, this axiomatic truth was tweaked, slightly. The absence of light travelled faster than sound, and I noticed.

It was 2:00 a.m. I had retired to sleep early, around 9, the previous evening. Trick-or-treating, while fun and exciting (when else does one get to don a masquerade outfit and rob strangers of sucrose-laden treats?) had exhausted me. Otherwise, I should have stayed up until midnight, watching gruesome horror movies or reading Lovecraft or Poe.

But I digress. I could not sleep now, at this late hour. What could I do? Read? Listen to music? But then, as if in answer to my unspoken question -- the rain began to fall. First in small, light patters - then in large, grandiose torrents. I smiled. And so I lay there, just listening, just taking it in, just being happy.

*            *            *

I live in Southern California. Southern California is unlike any other place you might imagine, partly due to the weather. (Yes, there's Hollywood, and excessive traffic, but today is on the weather.)

SoCal is the kind of place where 60 degrees (Fahrenheit, of course) is considered freezing. That is the norm. People don scarves and heavy coats for anything in the 50s, and woe betide the Angeleno caught in 40 degree weather! He'd probably go missing that night, found frozen to death in an ice block two miles away.

I say this partly in jest, but it's true: we are used to our hot weather. It's November now, and last week we had temperatures between 92 and 96 degrees, towards the end of October. Even in December, while the rest of the country (except Hawaii and the Southwest) is freezing in snowy, wintry weather, we go to the beach. We hold barbeques. Clearly we're dealing with completely radical weather.

My personal favorite type of weather is rainy, gloomy weather. Think Washington state, Oregon, that sort of thing. I really do love that weather. Last year, I went up to Monterey and the Bay Area (see my former blog for details), and I LOVED IT. I felt right at home, in 65 degree fog and drizzle. I love the rain. There is something poetic about it. I work best under rain. The rain stimulates me, somehow. Do you know how some people need white noise, or music, or some other auditory stimulus to sleep or to work or whatever? For me, rain is that key. I have written some of my best works under rain.

This probably says more about me and my personality than anything (oh! curse you, Freud!) but there is this inexplicable finesse and intricacy about it. It carries the idea that there is more to it than it appears. This doesn't make much sense right now, but let me elucidate.

*            *            *

Room X-8 is a bungalow, just like the other 10 that comprise the X-buildings at my high school. Inside, rows of desks are lined up, orderly. Motivational posters and mathematical formulas, and a portrait of Isaac Newton cover the walls. Two desks suffice to serve the teacher - one, in the corner with a computer and printer, for his grades, and the other, in the front of the room, with document camera and a legal pad and pen. This is where the mathematical master shows his craft to the young acolytes, eager (mostly) to learn. I had once numbered among them, but time and failure had worn down my mathematical curiosity to barely more than apathy. This was not the Master's fault. Rather, it was mine - things that others grasped easily, I struggled. Was it not true? Many late nights had I spent, working to memorize formulas and apply them - and yet, abject and utter failure.

It was December. Like always, it had been a rather hot, sunny season - but this day was different. The sky was dark and cloudy. As I trumped into X-8, it began - a light droplet to the forehead. I looked up, and saw clouds from afar coming to encompass the school. Others were now looking up, quizzically. Did you feel that? Look at the sky. Oh no, it's going to rain. Damn, I don't have a ride home...These betrayed my classmates' feelings towards the rain, and it showed their personality toward this most basic of natural processes. Trivial human worries, feelings, and qualms surrounded me as I walked into the room. Everyone was mostly disappointed.

I sat down at my seat, next to the window. My math teacher began the lesson, teaching about trigonometric formulas, its relation to calculus - which we would be learning in a few short months, and how important it was and how we needed to commit these to memory. I sighed. Math had - and still isn't - my strong suit. Particularly this section - half angle formulas and the like. I really had not understood this chapter, and I'd asked for help, looked up videos and practice problems, but nothing would stick. I tried listening to the lecture, but nothing stuck. There would be a test next week. I had failed the previous one, miserably. Would I fail this one, too?

The lesson finished. Twenty minutes left in class. As I began to work (and inevitably struggle) on my homework, it came down hard. Large, thick droplets fell from the heavens. I had been told as a small, five-year-old child by my grandmother that rain meant God was sad, and crying. I wondered vaguely at this. If so, He isn't the only one who's crying, I figured, looking at my homework. Why, oh why, couldn't I get it?

Suddenly, it all began to make sense. The formula just requires some tweaking, in this case! You don't need to add take the cosine of pi over 8...The rain was my conductor, I the simple instrument through which the sweet music of mathematical success came through. I don't know how I did it. Either way, I was floored. I looked out at the rain. Its subtle rhythms seemed to contain a hidden secret. This filled me with so much hope and promise for the future, that I could do anything and discover everything. And it does make sense. We are all raindrops, in a way, falling from the cloud of childhood through the atmosphere of Life.

The rain continued late, late into the evening that day. I do believe it was one of my most productive days. 

I passed the test with flying colours the following week, by the way. 

*            *            *

Many do not like the rain. Many despise it, groan about how the 405 or the 60 will be so heavy with traffic, and how outdoor dinner plans will be cancelled, and how inclement weather schedules are going to take place in school, and how miserable it all is, and how all you can do is stay inside.

I laugh at these comments. Because, really, the rain is probably the greatest of all weathers. It brings success, and joy, to me at least. It is true, what they say, about how one man's loss is another's gain. All it requires is a little rain. :)

J'aime la pluie, c'est ma vie et mon âme.

-R. R.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

In Defense of Writing Delays

Flickr Credit: mpclemens
If you haven’t heard of NaNoWriMo, I assume that you are one of two groups: a) not a writer, or b) a new writer who hasn’t been around long. Both of those are fine: the existence of National Novel Writing Month never once mentioned itself to me until I was in eighth grade.

I succeeded that year, tried the next year, got bored, and haven’t done it since.

I will not be writing a novel next month. I’m writing one in December. It’s a superhero story, family based, about divided loyalties and duty and a bunch of great stuff I haven’t really hammered out yet. I’m planning, and I’m working on getting into the genre.

I am totally cool with this.

There are a lot of lists out there telling you to give in, do NaNoWriMo, and with reckless abandon just let your novel fly onto the page—I’ll give you an argument for the opposite.

In Defense of Writing Delays (Or, 5 Reasons Why You Don’t Have to do NaNoWriMo)

1. Community is Distracting—well, that’s not something you hear every day. Yes, writing groups and circles can be super exciting and encouraging, but they’re also another reason to be on the Nano website (not to mention Facebook, and Pinterest, and our email, and why don’t we go on Youtube while we’re at it?). Some people need community, but not everyone can handle the self-control community requires.

2. Timing Complications—now, you are always going to hear that every day is busy—write anyway! This is true, but at least in my annual schedule, November possibly the worst month I could choose to write a novel. April is another one. I’m not going to deal with a crackdown month in school and a novel at the same time; my energies are better focused on small projects. ALSO, Nano almost makes it sound like you can’t write a novel any other month. Guess what? You can. I’m writing my novel in December, because there is less stress and more time available to me—I’m sure I’m not the only one.

3. Pressure and Competition—this isn’t two teams pitted against each other at the Superbowl, waiting for devastating loss and heartbreak when your team loses to Victoria’s, goshdangit—it’s a friendly activity among compatriots. Nonetheless, some people don’t want to deal with that kind of pressure, myself included. If something happens, fine, I still haven’t lost anything, and I can work just as hard without repercussions.

(As you may have noticed, I am rather lax when it comes to my writing habits, which is perhaps why I am not the best writer in the world.)

4. Readiness Factors—I’m not ready to write my novel. You may not be ready, either. Despite October being “National Novel Planning Month” I am not the kind of person who can fit her ideas into a month of thinking. I’ll write when I’m ready. On the flip side, you may be ready to go this instant—why wait? Like Nike might suggest, it’s totally okay to “just do it.”

5. You’re Still a Writer Anyway—interestingly enough, a writer writes. They don’t have to blog, share their writing, do NaNoWriMo, or anything else, so long as they write. I don’t think Nano is much fun. If you don’t, don’t plague yourself: you can still be a writer anyway.

So there you have it. Blogging. NaNo. Nope.

What do you think? Are you going to do NaNoWriMo, or are you skipping this year? Why?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Turns of Phrase

If you've been following this blog already for a short while, you can't have failed to notice my regular sign-off:


Khodafez is a very interesting word, with a very interesting etymology and definition, that I try to use it when possible.

Khodafez is essentially a parting-term in Farsi, very common in Iran. A "good-bye", or "farewell", or "fare thee well", if you will.

The official phrase is khoda hafiz, which means literally "May God be your guardian". Most Persians just shorten this to khodafez, which I personally prefer. That is the history of this strange term.

I am a language nerd. I look up etymologies of words in other languages and study their etymologies and original meanings and spellings. I compare words in different languages: for example, the Spanish rojo, the French rouge, the Italian rosso, and the delightfully unrelated Portuguese vermelho. English itself is a language hog. It has selfishly taken and borrowed words from other languages and adapted them to its needs. The result? We speak French peppered with some Spanish, Italian and other languages, and speak it with a German accent.

Part of the allure of languages are the different phrases used. Below are some of the phrases that different languages have. Can you guess what they mean?

entre nous
segun San Lucas
mahalo nui loa
ab aeterno
folie a deux
joie de vivre
cri de coeur

This is a weird topic, I know. But it's still interesting to learn languages, or at least parts of them. For in learning languages, you gain insight in their culture and history, too. That's why etymologies are so fascinating.

In addition, some of the lesser-known languages here in the West have a certain allure that the European ones can't equate. Everyone can guess what "adieu" means, but how many people, how many of you, readers, before reading this post, knew what "khodafez" meant? Exactly. My personal motto in life is "style over substance". In this case, it works perfectly. The allure, the intrigue, over a mysterious language such as Farsi is much more fulfilling than French. This is not to say I hate French or am denigrating it - quite the opposite. I love French. Je suis un etudiant de la langue. But it is worth discovering other languages, not just the common ones that everyone and their mother knows or is learning.

There are an estimated 6800 languages in the world today. Try and discover a new one today. For the esoterically inclined, there's Aymara and Oubykh. For those who want something that's rather well-known but want an exotic flair, there's Hawaiian, or Korean, or Danish. Discover something.

Now, I bid you, dear Reader, adieu, or as you might expect:


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Henry V

I want you to understand that I have had a very busy weekend.

I spent Saturday getting through quite a bit of homework, not to mention other writerly duties and editing my application for the biggest scholarship in Colorado. I drank tea Saturday night and ate chocolate chips whilst I developed a new system of classifying villains I simply cannot wait to unveil in a few weeks.

Sunday was spent at church, and other than homework, editing two novels, planning another one, and writing other blog posts, I spent an hour and a half (or 30 Christmas songs, if you prefer), developing a Hogwarts castle and promptly filling it with dinosaurs.

Clearly, I am a busy girl.

For that, I have decided to humbly present a stimulating video produced by my favorite comedy show, so that you might learn a little bit about Henry V.

I expect your full forgiveness. Expect a better post next week!