Essay Corner; or, Bragging is Good

It's the only literary form I'm good at, so by God I'll brag about it! Enjoy.

Writer's Block - November 2006

Ah, frustration. An emotion I had not experienced to its full capacity until I started to write a submission for the "LitMag," as it is colloquially known. As I sat down at the keyboard, I experienced something akin to stage fright, except I wasn't standing in front of anyone and I might never have to – there is a great chance that my submission may not even be chosen for the literary magazine.

But I've realized that I have an incredible opportunity. I have often let loose the sound of machine-gun fire as my fingers hit the keyboard, pounding out my frustrations, longings and exultations. I have often wished that everyone could read my writing as I make what I, at least, think is an incredibly good point about the human condition. But if one doesn't want to seem as narcissistic as I do, one should not press one's writing upon the world, so it occurred to me that I now had an appropriate chance to let it read my writing. Being the self-assured little so-and-so that I am, I proceeded to imagine the congratulations I might receive when my submission was chosen for the magazine, completely forgetting in the process that your average high school student does not, alas, have much interest in literary magazines, and that my submission would not necessarily be selected.

So I began to scheme. I wanted to say something perfect, to express in my most eloquent words in my best rhetorical idiom a submission that would be so applicable to the readership of the magazine that it would have to be chosen and subsequently adored by all and sundry. I dreamed that everyone, friends and enemies, teachers and classmates, would acknowledge that I had really gone above and beyond the caliber of my usual writing. The problem was that now that I had a vision I needed to follow it through, which is infinitely easier said than done.

I wrote. A lot. But nothing I wrote was perfect. I was writing in clichés, ridiculous exaggerations of my moods: the girl who thought she was in love with a friend, the girl who felt emo and holed herself up in her room, the girl who was jealous of the perfection of her classmates who had safe schools far more prestigious than her dream college. I did not write poorly, but I did not write well either. I knew that the "perfect" concepts were in my head, but somehow I just couldn't find the words to get them down on paper. While on the one hand the notion that I might have a greater audience than ever before was freeing, it was just as constricting: I fought to find ideas that would not betray me for the prejudiced, fallible, imperfect human that I am. My well of creativity and excitement dried up as I began to imagine what my critics would say. They would laugh at my naiveté, immaturity and ignorance. They would mock me as the sort of girl who though she had found the man of her dreams when people are being date-raped or dumped or divorced every day, the sort of girl who had the gall to think herself depressed when there are people killing themselves every day, the sort of girl who would be so presumptuous as to complain about the college-obsessed high school culture when millions of people are not given that opportunity. The entire school, the entire city of San Diego, would mock me for recycling the same old, tired ideas that people have been using for years. I could see it even now: my English class tearing apart my writing as they do that of professional writers far more talented than me. And I became convinced that it was a very silly idea to submit anything to the LitMag.

But everyone deserves the chance to let their ideas escape them, no matter how often they may have been heard before. It just serves to demonstrate the unique connection all humans share. We have all felt depression, jealousy and maybe even something called "love," whatever that is. Among all those people feeling the same things, there have got to be at least a few who can somehow put their feelings into words. And who knows? Maybe there is a chance that I could be one of those few.

My Life as a Guy (full-length version) - November 2006

There was a boy who I used to hang around with who'd always say to me in an annoying tone of voice, "You're such a guy!" This was usually when I held open a door for him, when I discussed my dislike of makeup, and in other circumstances of that nature. It was seemingly his favourite joke, but it quickly grew quite annoying — I am sure the reader will agree that being patronized and pigeon-holed on the basis of one's appearance and personality is never pleasant.

I am not usually treated as such an obvious source of entertainment, but it's still a rare week that I'm not mistaken for a guy. My short hair, androgynous style of dress and the fact that I often hang around with guys lead people to lump me in with the real males at a quick glance. It's usually subtle — "All right, gentlemen, what are you doing?" "Do you guys want to go join the girls over there?" — though once a guy apologized to me for greeting me with "Hey, dude!" before realizing my female status.

I'm never trying to look like a guy — if I were, I'd be doing a much better job. I know well enough the stereotypes people are judging me by, and I know how I'd work them more effectively if I wanted to. And while there is little value in attempting to be something one is not, it would certainly be nice to be treated with equality: if I have to pretend to be someone else in order that guys might treat my opinion with the same value as they would one of their own, the prospect suddenly becomes much more tempting — and yet I am so rarely successful in insinuating myself among all-male groups. Despite certain confusion on the part of the less observant, the fact remains that I am still female, and I think it must be difficult for those who usually operate on the basis of stereotypes to know what box to place me in. Many guys refuse to talk to me about "guy stuff" — but many girls assume that I would not understand their romantic dilemmas or pop-culture interests, and choose not to confide in me either.

I am not very offended by such confusion, because in a way I am rather proud of my ability to evade traditional expectations and make people think about how outward appearance informs the way we treat each other. But sometimes my own decisions are called into question, and I find that far more upsetting. I see myself as the epitome of what the modern woman can be: I feel sufficiently empowered to make my own choices about my clothing, my cultural tastes, my hobbies and my friends. And if some of these happen to coincide with those that a typical male would choose, so be it. One of the most positive things about the 21st century is that it is more possible than ever before to transcend stereotypes. Yet not everyone would agree with my analysis. One woman with whom I have frequently discussed the subject believes me to have "deep-seated gender identity issues." A girl once told me that my "rejection of my feminine side" seemed like sexism and made it seem as if I hate myself — not to mention that this perceived sexism hurt her feelings. When I added a couple feminist quotes to my AIM profile, a boy told me he was shocked: "I do not believe that you are a feminist." I'm inclined to let people reserve their own opinions of me, and the last thing I want to do is hurt anyone's feelings, but I still feel like the people I talk to are, for whatever reason, missing the point.

All of these concerns aside, I am usually comfortable with who I am. I have made friends who are both male and female, and while I tend to feel less awkward in a group of guys, that hardly means that there aren't amazingly nice girls out there. I have no need to be sexist towards anyone and I'm also very glad that I don't feel the need to rely on traditional feminine sex appeal to attract attention.

However, because I was once much more outwardly feminine and have become more androgynous over the years, I am sometimes concerned that my personality is being corrupted by a need to belong somewhere. Yes, I am less depressed and more self-assured now that I have found my niche — but I often wonder: do I enjoy watching (and playing, in my own inept way) soccer because many guys do, or because I do? Did I take up the guitar because I enjoy playing the instrument, or because it is a favourite pastime of a few good male friends? Have I gained the usual juvenile entertainment from dirty jokes only because I got used to laughing when everyone else was?

I have occasionally been actually asked point-blank whether I'm male or female, and when I say "female" people believe me. But I fear a day when I won't be believed, because then I really would have lost my androgynous, line-straddling identity to a society of binary gender roles. People ask me sometimes if I wished I were a guy. Though I've occasionally thought about what that would be like, I always say I'm perfectly happy as a girl. In the core of my mind I know that I am female, just as surely as I know that I feel comfortable in my lifestyle choices. I know that "my life as a guy" is nothing but a construct, and I know it was only a bout of cynicism that made me think I should have been a girl for Halloween.

On Being a Nerd - Ebel September 2006

Whether by my own choice or by the choice of others, I suppose I've always been a nerd. If I wasn't wilfully isolating myself from other children through my clothing and my manner of sucking up to the teacher, I was told "you can’t sit here" or "you're just too smart." Long before I was in Seminar, I walked in circles around the playground without speaking to other children; I invented a religion based on a series of children’s fantasy books; I spent lunchtime and after school in teachers' classrooms because they would talk to me about books and history when kids my age wouldn't. Yes, I was a weird child.

In elementary and particularly in middle school, my nerdiness was a source of pity and derision. It took me some time, but by about seventh grade I found other kids who, to a certain degree, were like me. We were the Retter kids — students and honorary students of the teacher at Marshall most revered by us and most vilified by everyone else. We talked about her and her assignments at lunch, we went to her science-fiction club after school, we banded together against the non-nerdy world. I, of course, went a bit farther: I dressed like Mrs. Retter, I read the books she gave me, I parroted her turns of phrase and I worshipped the ground she walked on.

Before long, the kids I ate lunch with grew out of the phase. They were no longer interested in arcane science fiction. I didn't, though. I had always been a nerd; I would always be a nerd. I was a sophomore before I stopped attending meetings of Mrs. Retter's club. I was a curiosity, a tourist attraction, "the smart girl who wears those weird clothes." I revelled in it. As far as I was concerned, in seventh grade, in eighth grade, in ninth, the ultimate nerdiness was being completely unlike everyone else, even if it meant being completely alone.

I am no longer the teacher's pet, antisocial weirdo that I was (though once a Retter kid, always a Retter kid). Yes, I'm in Seminar, I play Academic League, I edit a magazine, and some of my best friends are still adults. But now I dress less like a wannabe member of the Society for Creative Anachronism and more like a pretty average California kid. I listen to rock music and and try to play it; I spend the weekends watching movies with my friends — things that would not have seemed possible when you looked at me four years ago.

But I am still a nerd. That part of me resonates more strongly in my being than any other. In a few changes of style and habit you cannot alter who you have been for sixteen years and seven months. I have taken a word that once did make me cry and have turned it into a symbol of the self that I am now happy with. There is nothing shameful in knowledge or intellectualism and it does not preclude socializing and having a personality. It is a symbol of uniqueness, and therefore something to be proud of. It shows that one has not fallen foul to the vagaries of mainstream popular culture.

My friends, in addition to various people that I have met online, dislike the term "nerd." They prefer to be called "geeks" or sometimes just "smart people." But I prefer a straightforward term that tells the world who I am. I am a nerd; I love intellectual pursuits for their own sake and not because of the grade or because it will help me get into college. Other minority groups have reclaimed "nigger" and "queer" and even "cripple." Why shouldn't we snatch back "nerd" from the hands and minds of those who called us names, who wouldn't choose us for teams in PE, who saved seats at lunch tables for their imaginary friends so that we couldn’t sit there? Are we embarrassed — afraid, even — to stand up and declare our allegiances? Or, worse yet, is it that when those middle schoolers became high schoolers, when they stopped coming to science-fiction club meetings and only entered essay contests if it would help them get into college, they lost that part of their being which I treasure so desperately? Do I represent the dwindling population of an endangered species, slowly being killed off by MTV and McDonalds and 30-second sound bites?

Perhaps we are a dying breed. But then it is no less important — in fact, it becomes vitally so — that we enter our science fairs and essay contests; that we eat our packed lunches in an enclave in the corner of the quad; that we sit in the dark, alone in the glow of our computer screens, because no one will ask us to homecoming. But not only that: we should play for our teams and talk back to our teachers and laugh and sing and dance just like every high schooler who has come before us and every high schooler who will come after us. To be a nerd, above all, is to be a person.

Classical Survivalism - The Prize-winning Library Essay

I've read a lot of books. While this may seem like bragging, it serves merely to illustrate the vast array I'd have to choose from if I were to pick only one book to take with me when stranded on a desert island. We are of course making one rather large assumption here — this being that, at the time that I was stranded, I would have one particular book to hand. The chances are that it would have gone down with the boat, plane, hot-air balloon, spaceship or whatever mode of transportation I was using. However, in the unlikely event that both I and the book had survived, here's to hoping that the book is the Complete Works of Shakespeare. I happen to have on my shelf the Spring Books edition, in which the print is incredibly small, so I'd much prefer an edition with readable type. But rest assured that, whatever the font size, William Shakespeare in all his glory would be a most enjoyable companion.

I know, I know, it's dull and cliched. It seems that everyone picks the classics, and of those who do I'm sure a good portion even choose Shakespeare. If you say the word "Shakespeare," people start yawning, rolling their eyes, and thinking about what they're going to have for dinner. But what other author is better suited to spending long, boring periods of time with? At least with Shakespeare it's a well-established tradition.

Shakespeare is popular. Although a large proportion of my peers cry "boredom!" whenever the topic of the Bard is raised, everybody loves Shakespeare. Speaking practically, the likelihood of my coming upon a volume of the Complete Works as the boat, plane, hot-air balloon or spaceship was sinking into the ocean is much more likely than discovering, say, Leibniz's Theodicy, an in-depth analysis of the English Civil War, or William Shatner's collected memoirs. Shakespeare is standard reading material that no boat, plane, hot-air balloon or spaceship should be without.

Shakespeare is extensive. Judging by the table of contents of the Spring Books Collected Works, he wrote 37 plays, four long poems, 154 sonnets, and sundry songs. I would argue that the 1081 pages of this edition (in minuscule type, if I may remind the reader) are enough to occupy even the most voracious reader for some considerable time. If one is stranded on a desert island, one has no idea how long it will be before another boat, plane, hot-air balloon or spaceship comes along and rescues one. It's necessary to keep occupied somehow, as all the adventure stories tell us, in order to avoid going slowly, yet steadily, insane. After all, Shakespeare (being a dramatist) has written works that are eminently suited to being read aloud. To pass the time, I could take all the parts in Henry IV, Part II and read each one in a different silly voice, or romantically recite each and every sonnet to a rather attractive palm tree. The possibilities are endless. Furthermore, the traditional opportunity for memorization should occupy me for many a dreary hour. Why stop at the "To be or not to be" soliloquy? Memorize all of Hamlet! I'll vow to avenge my death, spurn my love, go mad and finally stab myself, myself, and myself with my poisoned foil (substitute a coconut as necessary). Of course, if I did that, I might not survive to be rescued by the boat, plane, hot-air balloon or spaceship, so maybe it's not the most advisable course of action.

In any case, Shakespeare is also useful. Why should I bother with a survival guide when all I need to know about being shipwrecked on an island is in The Tempest? Cannibalism, should I become desperate enough to try it (and should any fellow members of my species have survived the wreck), is explained in Titus Andronicus, and when I become tired of public life and wish to retire (should my rescue transport have not arrived by that time), everything I'll ever need to know about dividing my island can be found in King Lear. Provided this survival technique is successful (as I have no doubt it will be) I will be able to, once I am rescued, return home and declare the miraculous powers of Shakespeare's Collected Works (Spring Books edition) which saved me from certain death and disaster.

Yes, I'm aware Shakespeare is just so sixteenth-century. Perhaps, in the interests of hitting it off with the palm trees, it would be wiser to choose The Da Vinci Code or Harry Potter (any of the six volumes). But there are reasons that the classics have earned that title. Shakespeare's works are popular, extensive and useful. But they are also wonderful pieces of literature that have all the comedy, tragedy, and dirty jokes that one comes to expect from an amazing story. The Comedy of Errors, A Winter's Tale, and Macbeth (to name but a few) will cause me to laugh and cry and hold my breath in sheer amazement on a desert island, or wherever else life takes me.