Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Letting It All Go.

It's 11:30 p.m. on a Monday in the Metro, and the digital screen that says when the next train is coming is frozen forever, and so I find myself thankful yet again for the smartphone. I still do not take for granted the countless waits that would have been so much more painful without the smartphone. You damned kids have no idea what waiting was like before smartphones.

As I'm looking at the various fun things on my phone, a person to my right comes up and stands not close, but just a little too close for such an uncrowded platform, invading my periphery. My eyeballs lock even more ferociously onto the iPhone. "Hi," this person says, but then he wanders away, and I am glad.

Not 30 minutes before, I'd been talking with my high school friends about getting older, your looks changing. "At what point do you just let it go?" my friend asks. I say, never. My mom has not let it go. She has not had plastic surgery, and she has not let it go. She is fit and does the same things that she has always done to put her public self on. She is nearly 67 and beautiful. But my friend is undeterred from the grim scenario she is posing. "What if you are losing your hair for genetic reasons?" she asks. Is that the point where you let it go? Just give up the caring?

"That's when you say, it's time to go wig shopping," I say. My friend is more in favor of going completely bald. Different strokes. I do not share that my interest in shoes lately skews toward the comfortable.

I said that while sometimes it feels, well, not great to get noticed by men less than I used to be, it is also kind of freeing. That doesn't mean I want to let myself go, but a) I am very happy with Sir UncMo and I do not want anyone but him checking me out and b) even without Sir UncMo, that's just not a kind of attention that I need or want to have any longer from strangers.

No sooner do I say this than I am at the Metro and the space-invading person, who I'm guessing is somewhere between 19 and 22 years of age, is back at my side. "Hi! Were you watching the USA game?" He is drunk and wearing some kind of USA paraphernalia pertaining to the World Cup game that took place earlier.

"No," I say. I was not watching the game. Nothing about me—not my firm dedication to my phone or my refusal to remotely turn in his direction—says hey, let's chat.

He says, "Where are you from?"

I give him a look that says, "Really? Are we going to do this right now? Are you so inebriated that you fail to discern the fact that I could be your mother?"

But USA Boy chooses not to understand my look. "What! I don't know where you're from," he says, defending  himself in the imaginary scenario where I actually care how much he knows about me. "Are you from Montgomery County?"

Yes I am from Montgomery County, but at this point I can't just dispense with this efficiently. I have to draw it out and make it awkward, because that's what I do, and that's why this blog exists.

"No," I say.  I'm not so much answering his question as speaking my truth. "Oh," he says. "Then where are you from?"

I shrug. "Around here."

"What high school did you go to?" Remember, friends, when this question had relevance?

I sigh. "Churchill." His eyes widen. "Oh! Churchill is in Montgomery County!"

"I know, but I don't feel like chatting right now, I'm sorry," I say. Part of me feels like I'm being this really bitchy person when in fact I am just standing my ground against a drunk fool.

USA Boy makes an "aw shucks" motion with his head, pauses a moment in case I want to change my mind, and then moves away. But he doesn't stray far. He manages to pass behind me at least twice and make a comment about how Churchill sucks. I guess he thought that would be the comment that really puts him over the edge, in my estimation. "Whoops USA Boy, I thought I didn't want to have anything to do with you until you started saying that my high school sucked. Now I'm realizing I want you right this very minute."

He gets on a most-welcome train in the opposite direction, muttering about my high school. I am texting my Churchill friend and telling her the irony of our conversation preceding this very rare yet unwanted bit of attention.

"I think I would prefer to go unnoticed," I texted her.

She replied, "Just let it all go downhill from here and it won't be a problem anymore."

Music: "Voices"

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Little Geniuses.

Once a year, a group of anointed explorers converges on my workplace for one week. They are paleontologists, nanoscientists, conservationists, photographers, and adventurers, and they talk to us about what they have been working on.

One of them is a 17-year-old named Jack Andraka who has come up with a paper sensor designed to detect pancreatic and other cancers. The talk he gave this week was not unlike his TED talk: He describes his wild teenage optimism in seeking a new method of detection for this very deadly cancer that had taken away a family friend who had been like an uncle to him; his rejection by 199 of the 200 academics he emailed about his idea; and his eventual success, at age 15, in creating a prototype thanks to the one scientist who agreed to help him.

Andraka’s story, and the way he tells it, is designed to inspire: If an outsider, a kid who “didn’t even know what a pancreas was,” can come up with a potentially groundbreaking, life-saving innovation, why can’t you? Why can’t we open up the scientific journals that are so expensive to access, and make all of this knowledge available so that others can have the same chance at contributing?

The talk did inspire me. But it also pulled at me so hard that I had to hold back tears, and it wasn’t because of the death, the deaths, that enabled him to go on this great, seemingly impossible quest. It was because of the loneliness. His talk in the auditorium this week was a little more raw than the TED one. He talked about how he spent an entire summer holed up alone in his room, causing his mother to worry that he was isolating himself too much, researching proteins that might be early detection markers for pancreatic cancer. He talked about how his biology teacher didn’t like him because he tried to bring scientific papers and stuff that was outside the curriculum into her class. On the stage, he no longer had the nice shiny TED look; his hair was untrimmed, his face less roundly youthful. He is deeply, deeply nerdy—I mean, the kid was sneaking nanotubes into biology class—and also openly gay.

Now, I do not know this person at all. Maybe he had a great social experience in high school. But my sense, watching him talk, was that it had to be pretty devastatingly lonely to be that brilliant, that sweetly different, that full of grief, and that willing to abandon yourself and most of your free time to something so esoteric. When a teenager (or anyone, for that matter) is touched by a tragedy or some other highly unpleasant state of being human, turns inward, and becomes obsessive, why does it seem like that combination of states must turn into something destructive? That’s what we tend hear about, anyway. I loved that he turned it into something beautiful. I wished I’d had the imagination and the fortitude to do the same at so many points in my life. That’s what made the tears come.

It also reminded me of an episode that happened in my junior year of high school in Western Civilization class. This class was supposed to be an “honors” class, but it slowly became apparent that we were learning nothing at all outside of the reading and research we were required to do on our own. The classes were taken up mostly by two things, in my memory: watching videos about cathedrals, and listening to our teacher talk unrestrained about stuff that had nothing to do with history. Mr. C was a relatively tall, big man with a belly, a mustache somewhere between horseshoe and walrus, and a very sharp, incisive way of speaking. His way of holding forth made you feel—in the beginning—that it might be important to listen, because something was going to be revealed. He would punctuate his lectures, which often had nothing at all to do with history, with questions to the group. “Who here has ever had a dream?” he would ask, and we raised our hands, and then waited for the point.

Later, we learned not to bother raising our hands or waiting for the point.

I do not remember much of anything that Mr. C said in class except for this: “How old are all of you? 15, 16? Right now, you are at your peak. It will never be better than this.” I remember thinking, “Well that is extremely disappointing news. Also, what does this have to do with western civ?”

Toward the end of the semester, a kid named Jordan had taken to sitting in the back of the class on the floor, backpack in front of him, and sleeping either slumped over or with his head lolled back against the wall. This was typical teen behavior made slightly untypical by the fact that Jordan was an academic prodigy. He was the kid who got a perfect score on his SATs before we were even supposed to take the SATs. He was brilliant in English, he was brilliant in math. He was brilliant in everything. No matter how smart you were, and I was “honors” smart too, tracked into the same classes, Jordan was a type of smart that 99 percent of other 16-year-olds would never achieve, much less understand, and I think most of us knew that even then.

So when a kid like Jordan sat at the back of class sleeping, it was amusingly refreshing, because kids like us who got placed in those classes tended not to be the ones sleeping at the back of class. But it was also a little unnerving, because he was signaling a truth that was sort of scandalous for this particular track at this particular school at this particular time: this class and this teacher were an absolute fucking joke.

Mr. C tolerated this open act of defiance from Jordan for I don’t know how long before he finally got sick of it. One day, he began yelling. Jordan ignored it at first, but then he was roused to perform a sleepy, casual and yet brutal takedown of Mr. C as a teacher. It was something along the lines of I don’t need to take this class, you have nothing to teach me, I am learning nothing here that I can’t learn from a book. Et cetera. Mr. C lost it. I think spittle formed as he ordered Jordan out of the classroom. The kid picked up his backpack and walked out. I had never seen Jordan act remotely disrespectful, and had never seen a teacher so boldly—no, deservedly—challenged, and it was kind of thrilling but also a little sad. All of us, including Mr. C, were wasting our time in that room, and there was really nothing to be done about it.*

Predictably, Jordan went on to Harvard and then became both a math professor and fiction author. It just so happens that I had this high school memory as he is promoting his new bestselling book. He has come to the same conclusion, apparently, that Jack Andraka already has about genius: It may be that only a handful of people will ever reach the upper echelons of science or math or any other given pursuit, but that doesn’t mean that we should close off encouragement or information sources to people just because they don’t have the same amount of specialness early on.

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he said, “[T]he older I get, the more I see how many brilliant people in the world weren't Doogie Howser-like prodigies; didn't shine in Math Olympiad; didn't go to the inner circle of elite colleges. I'm embarrassed that I didn't understand at 13 that it would be this way. But when they keep telling you you're the best, you start to believe you're the best. One of the most painful aspects of teaching mathematics is seeing my students damaged by the cult of the genius.”

We need these messages, especially in this country, given our slipping rank in science and math. But when you no longer possess even the specialness conferred by pure youth, and you are still (still!) trying to live up to your potential, whatever that may be, listening to someone like Jack Andraka can feel a little more bittersweet than inspiring. The rest of us, the little geniuses, blessed with brains and maybe education if we're lucky, have so little time, and maybe less clarity, in figuring out what to Do. Our contributions might not make an impact on the level of a life-saving innovation, but it's still up to us to take them seriously, and when it comes to the smart whippersnapper coming up behind you, to get the hell out of the way.

*Okay so now there is a discussion on Facebook among people who had this teacher and it's possible I'm being a bit harsh on Mr. C. Not everyone felt that his class was a "waste of time," I can only speak for myself. And even then, it's not like I was just burning with frustration at not learning enough about western civ. Anyway, the point of recalling the incident in his class, which I sort of fail to make clear in this post, was that it came to mind as I was thinking, what is it like when you're so young and yet on a different level than most everybody else, and when even your teacher just doesn't get you?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Nihongo 102.

Once a week, I leave my office building near Dupont Circle and walk about 10 minutes to another office building and descend to the basement level, entering a small classroom with my books in tow and my pride swallowed.

Konbanwa....good evening.

Walking into Japanese 102 last month, I was feeling good. Sure, my newly acquired hiragana and katakana mastery had been fading a little, and I had probably forgotten a few vocab words over the month-long break, but I had a solid foundation and was ready to learn more.

In 101, I was one of the more together students, if I don't say so myself. Always had my homework done, usually knew the answer when called on. Like in high school.

The teacher had been new, a little hesitant, and the class was quiet and awkward, but overall the first 10-week session went well. Along with the basic writing system, I learned how to say numbers, tell the time, ask how much something cost, and ask where something was. I still could barely say anything that was not a phrase listed in the first few lessons of my textbook Genki (that means healthy, energetic), but it was progress.

Part of me felt I was not quite congratulated enough by the teacher for being such a good student. I mean, I was just about the only one who showed up on time, every time, homework in tow, and generally could answer her questions correctly. Yet week to week, sensei barely seemed to remember who I was, and she never bothered to grade the worksheets that I proudly turned in.

That's what can happen to someone honors-tracked and overindulged as an American public high school student in life: Your sense of achievement quickly becomes inflated.

Now I was a sophomore in my faux-school, and it was time to meet a new teacher and class.

As I said, I was feeling good. Immediately it was clear that this sensei was more experienced than my previous teacher, and there were only two other people in the room, both younger women, alert and there on time. Wow great!

My last class had been a ragtag bunch of between five and seven people, with only three or four of us seeming to be awake and engaged at any given time. "This class starts at 5:20, no?" the teacher had said many times, as we waited for others who would show up late or not at all.

When I arrived for 102, the teacher was already talking to a grad-student-looking girl at the front about which was harder to learn, Korean or Japanese?

"Definitely Korean," said the woman I have come to call Smarty Pants.

"Really!" said the Japanese teacher, fascinated. Smarty Pants nodded and went on about how complicated Korean is compared to Japanese.

Was I in the right class?

The other woman who came in looked to be a professional in her 30s, very pleasant and a bit tentative, like me. The teacher asked us to introduce ourselves.

Smarty Pants began in facile Japanese. Hajimemashite. Watashi no namae wa A. desu."  She talked about how she likes learning languages and is also studying Korean. A pro.

The other one says she has studied Chinese, so she knows some kanji (the word-pictures also used in Japanese), hopes to travel to Japan one day and is just there because she's interested to learn.

I basically say the same thing: want to visit Japan someday, interested to learn, want to challenge myself. "What other languages have you studied?" the teacher asks me. "I studied Spanish in high school through college," I said. "From that I have also been able to pick up a little French."

Smarty Pants is nodding like this is all so pedestrian. The teacher says to me, "I always felt that I should learn Spanish, it's like a second language in the U.S."

Before I can respond, Smarty Pants says, "Spanish is very similar to English. That's why it's so easy to learn."

"Ooohhh," the teacher says, in a tone of, hm, I'm not so sure. I smile tightly. Yes, I spent high school and college on a language that is just like English and easy to learn.

If I had been quicker, I would have said, "That's funny, because chingate and fuck you sound like totally different languages to me!

The class gets started and I immediately feel behind. This teacher is talking much faster, and because there are only three of us, I have less time to process what's happening as she calls on us successively to answer questions in the textbook.

We are learning the ga arimasu sentence structure. You can use it to say something "is there" in a place, or you can use it to say you have something. "Kuruma ga arimasu" could mean, depending on the context, either "I have a car" or "There is a car." If it's a living thing, you say imasu instead.

We were looking at a picture in our textbook, picking out nouns. Nekko. Cat.

Some deep part of my brain, the part that sat frustrated and scared in Algebra and Calculus and Chemistry and Oceanography (yes, mofos, oceanography. have you seen that charting??), registered the same panic that I had felt whenever out of my depth in high school.

Gee, in retrospect, I guess I wasn't the uniformly stellar student that I remembered myself to be, because this tongue-tied status felt all too familiar. (I will just say that it is continually astounding and humbling to work for a science-focused organization. Despite my teenage hatred of science, I'm reminded every day that it's a science nerd's world, and we just live in it.)

Nekko ga imasu ka?

I realize the teacher is looking at me. What she said is a blur. I'm still trying to catch up from the exchange that just took place between her and Smarty Pants, who is not flustered once by anything.


I look down at my textbook. There is a cat on the page. "Hai. Nekko ga imasu."

Now the teacher is saying something even more complicated to me, and she has an amused look on her face. "Nekko something namae something something." All I heard was "name" and "cat" and it felt like everyone was silently laughing at me. For all I knew, I'd said I was a cat and she was asking me for my cat-name.

When I first saw all the red circles on my homework I asked about the errors I'd made and the teacher explained that a red circle is the Japanese way of saying you got it right. Subsequent homework has not been so full of red circles.

"I'm sorry, I don't understand," I admitted. This was pretty brutal. I didn't expect to be on the spot like this on day 1 of Japanese 102.

"Your cat's name," the teacher said.

I suddenly processed what she was saying. Smarty Pants was looking at me with a dour expression. I paused. Should I just paper this over and lie? I used to live with a cat. His name was Dusty. Should I use him now? Telling the lie in Japanese seemed even more daunting than telling the truth. "Nekko ga imasen," I said. "I don't have a cat."

It went on like this for much of the class: try to keep up, fail, and repeat. The part that sticks in my mind is the part where we were asked what is in our house. Literally: What is in your house? The teacher turned to me.

"Nani ga arimasu ka?" Let me think on that for a minute.

The silence in the room was deafening. Anything in your house. Anything at all. Just one thing in your house. Can you think of things in your house? Anything? WHY COULD I NOT THINK OF ONE ITEM at home that I could say in Japanese? I felt suspended in time.

Smarty Pants grew weary. "I assume you have a bed," she said, chin tucked down and eyes full of judgment.

"Yes I do, and if I knew how to say it, I would," I said.

"Bay-do," she deadpanned, except she was actually serious. The teacher nodded and I laughed. How simple.

"Beddo ga arimasu," I said.

I felt an overwhelming urge to retire to my beddo.

In the next class, I learned that Smarty Pants had actually majored in Japanese and was taking this class for review. Every time she makes a mistake in class, she laughs and says, "I keep thinking of the Korean!" When I can't keep up, it's tempting to say, "Whoops, I keep thinking of stabbing Smarty Pants in her superior round eyes!" but that would not be productive. So I continue to struggle.

There was a brief respite where one of the students from my 101 class showed up in the second session. A very sweet 17-year-old kid who was inspired to learn Japanese because he loves anime, he was perpetually behind and had failed to learn hiragana, so he temporarily took on the role of suckiest person in class. Much as I sympathized, even I was not sorry to see him go after the teacher basically kicked him out of the section in front of everyone.

"You are very smart, but you have a problem. You do not know hiragana," the teacher said to him kindly but firmly while the other three of us looked down uncomfortably at our desks. "So I am giving you a choice. You learn all of the hiragana by next class, or you move to 101."  She was still talking at him when I left class that day.

Anime boy did not return.

At first I was relieved: It's so nice not to have to listen to someone struggle through the material, is it not, Smarty Pants? Now it's me and Professional Peer and you. She and I will muddle through together, and you will have to be patient. I sure wouldn't want to be you.

But it soon becomes apparent that when it comes to repeating back dialogue, I fall far behind. "Leepeat after me," the teacher says.* She reads a longish sentence from the textbook. Three voices chime in for the first few words. Then it's down to two.

"Let's try it again," the teacher says. Again, the other two manage to repeat back what she is saying, and I have given up. I see the words on the page, and I hear what she is saying, but it is going to take me about three times as long to eke out the seemingly neverending string. My lips are pressed together in a nonsmile that says, "This is not happening." The teacher laughs a little bit and talks about how she wants us to learn to speak. I can no longer blame Smarty Pants for sandbagging.

It is clear now who has fallen behind. It is clear who has work to do. Ganbatte. And, mierda.

Music: "Ryokudou"**

* This is just how it is. Neither of my teachers is very strong at pronouncing an 'r' or an 'l,' and the first one joked about it. And the beauty is, few students can properly pronounce the Japanese 'r,' which is a combination of 'l' and 'd' uttered with the tongue pressed back against the roof of the mouth. It was comedy gold to me to see a room full of English speakers trying, and failing, to repeat the Japanese syllable  ろ ("ro"). "Ldo." "Ro." "Okay, try again: Ldo." "Ro."

** I don't understand jack squat of barely any of this song. I just happened to love Ikuko Harada way before I ever aspired to learn Japanese.