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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The effect of bean sprouts on bread mold

Every autumn in junior high, I received a letter from my school informing my parents that the annual science fair was upcoming, and that, however else they might think fit to treat me during the rest of the year, they should immediately convert themselves to proper parenting mode and become nurturing, encouraging, and open-handed about their precious offspring's youthful intellectual curiosity. Junior high being a tyranny of child psychology as interpreted and enacted by despotic assistant principals who wear holiday-themed sweatshirts with matching socks, much emphasis was placed on parental involvement in things like science fairs. It was understood that all parents should be no less than completely dedicated to mistaking their children's every passing whim for a sign of profound genius and then expending vast sums of money to develop it. When it subsequently became clear that the child lacked even the most basic capacity to succeed, it was given a lollipop to keep it busy while mommy and daddy designed the poster for the project on electric current.

My parents were not child psychology adherents. As a result, I got more than just science fair notification letters sent home with me by the very concerned duo of my vice principal and gifted teacher, who feared that, lacking a subscription to Parents' Magazine, my barbarian parents slit the throats of kittens in our backyard according to the tribal customs of our foreign land. But, as is common with child psychology, they failed to correctly diagnose the problem. It was not so much that my parents did not want to be nurturing and encouraging as that they had no inclination to fork over the money that the school felt was required for the basic maintenance of spoiled "emotionally healthy" children. My mother, after all, refused even to send in the annual $5 PTA "donation" until she finally got worn down every November by the constant cheerful calls to our house reminding her of all the enriching things the PTA did every year—run the "holiday boutique" (a gift sale during which the PTA moms were invited to ruthlessly scam us out of our allowance money by selling us their cheap homemade crafts), make sure their own children never got punished for anything, and check our hair for lice.

Wary as my parents were of being forced to spend money on the science fair, I was at least equally unexcited about actually participating in it. Nominally voluntary, a science fair project was actually required for the gifted program, and since most of my junior high existence consisted of threats of being kicked out of the gifted program, I was being especially closely monitored in the fulfillment of its basic requirements. At every trespass, I was reminded that "truly gifted children would not behave this way," and "truly gifted children," it seemed, would be excited about about spending three months measuring bean sprout growth. Unfortunately, while I didn't mind learning science, my inclination to do it was pretty much nonexistent. Why would I want to measure bean sprouts at all if they were inevitably going to die before I could eat them, no matter what kind of fertilizer I was testing? My lack of true giftedness combined with my parents' lack of financial indulgence did not bode well for the expected earth-shattering scientific breakthrough due in January.

In seventh grade, the project was bread mold and preservatives. Actually, it was bagel mold. My parents refused to purchase seven loaves of white bread--none of which we would ever eat--so that I could test seven different brands. They weren't thrilled about purchasing seven bags of bagels either, but at least bagels were occasionally consumed in my family and the uneaten remainder could be preserved infinitely, much like the cans of creamed corn they'd purchased on our arrival to this country nearly 20 years ago and which are still residing comfortably unopened in our basement under the strict family edict "Thou shalt never throw away anything even remotely edible lest thou be caught in the midst of the Revolution without any creamed corn to sustain thyself." So bagels it was. This whole rationale was more difficult to explain to my gifted teacher, who wondered whether my use of bagels would fundamentally throw off the bread mold paradigm.

The research paper aspect went swimmingly, but it was the execution and presentation of the experiment that tripped me up. First, some of the bagels failed to mold. (Take note, preservatives really do work.) Others were contaminated by mold from their neighbors. What is a scientist to do when the experiment fails? One of my friends re-did her (very complex) experiment on suspension bridges four times and recalculated the numbers until she got it right. She went on to state competition and is now a math major. That was certainly one route. But Rita the scientist preferred a more creative route--namely, making up results.

Then there was the problem of not knowing enough science. In order to explain how preservatives work, it turned out that I needed to know some kind of actual chemistry. Now, my suspension bridge friend ran into a similar dilemma with her project, and she responded by learning physics. I, on the other hand, responded by ignoring the problem entirely.

And finally, there was the problem of presentation. At least half the work in the science fair consist of putting together the posterboard with pretty graphs, cut-out letters, and other costly paraphanelia. Parents up on their child psychology understand the necessity of both purchasing the required accoutrements and then making the poster for their incompetent children. My parents were not so cooperative.

"Can't you just cut out some cardboard from a box and fold it into thirds?" they asked when I said I would be needing a foldable board that cost (and I recall this precisely) seven dollars.

"Can't you just write the letters with markers?" they asked when I said I would be needing stencil letters.

"Can't you just draw the graphs by hand and color a background behind them?" they asked when I said I would need to print color graphs with construction paper backings.

So, on the day of the science fair, I arrived hauling my triple-folded cardboard box with handwritten lettering that got gradually smaller as I ran out of space and then appeared to fall off an imaginary cliff as it reached the edge of the board. Several smudges crookedly attached with the glue oozing out underneath represented my results graphically. Despite the rather unrefined appearance of my board, the presentation to the judge went well enough until he asked why one preservative worked better than the others. This is where the actual science knowledge would have been useful. Instead, I responded that the mold was most scared of that one and ran away from it fastest.

Needless to say, I did not advance to even district-level competition. This was duly noted by the vice principal and the gifted teacher.

The following year, I managed to pull myself together somewhat enough to recognize that the real future of the science fair lay in psychology projects, which merely required one to pass out surveys. Surveys, unlike bagels, were really, really cheap. So I did a project on the effect of age on dream content. I passed out surveys to my classmates, my teachers, and an exceedingly uncooperative class of snot-nosed third-graders who did not seem to fully grasp the concept of circling "all that apply." It was actually somewhat interesting however, and the research paper was again quite comprehensive. The display board posed a problem once more, but my parents finally relented on the construction paper question, and my smudges were marked off by distinguished color borders this time. All went well with the presentation, and I was even given a chance to advance to the district competition, though with one stipulation.

"I like your experimental groups, but I think you need to also include a group of elderly people to get a full age range," the judge said.

"But I don't know any old people," I responded.

"Well, it shouldn't be a problem to go to a nursing home and distribute the surveys," he responded.

"Go to a nursing home? Full of old people?"

"Yes."

"Um, I don't think I want to go to district."

And thus I was forced to retire from an otherwise promising career in science. However, my friend Cathy, whose project tested different fertilizers on the growth of bean sprouts, went on to state that year and won a first place prize.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Navel gazing

Today, I saw a girl who didn't have a belly-button. I think maybe that is a sign of the apocalypse. And now, for this week's stellar Greek translation:

"But one would be in doubt something what when and they want to say each-itself."
--Nicomachean Ethics, line 1096a34-35

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

"I'ma jump you"

I had a habit before college of getting myself involved in the stupidest shit. I can't say the habit entirely subsided in college, but the time and energy for it has certainly decreased. Plus, in college, people are differently retarded, which requires new and complex means of getting involved in stupid shit, and I guess I just don't have as much of a penchant for those means as I did for the previous ones.

In order to get involved in stupid shit in high school, you typically had to find a way to humiliate a classmate. This would serve the purpose of stirring up complicated social rivalries and fragmented alliances. If this classmate was your social equal, this would precipitate something like a civil war--long, treacherous, and ultimately unpleasant even for committedly neutral bystanders who were just there to convey backstabbing gossip and feel important. It would divide the combined forces of that entire social stratum and set them against each other along a path of mutually assured destruction. The only people laughing would be those at the bottom of the pecking order, but they would be too distracted by the upcoming math team competition to really savor the glory of the conflict. However, if the classmate was a social superior, you would become a concentrated object of hatred against which the whole otherwise internally splintered clique could rally, and before you knew it, you'd have the entire army of her friends and momentarily pacified enemies threatening your life.

I tended to get involved in the latter kind of thing.

Primarily, I had a big mouth. So when it was insinuated to me that Joanna had slept with three guys at one party or some such momentarily scandalous thing, I happened to mention this to a few acquaintances. Joanna was in my honors English class sophomore year in an almost noble but ultimately failed attempt to be both academically and sexually successful at the same time. However, it was clear from the beginning that these were mutually exclusive ends. The rest of us, for example, seemed to have no problem keeping our boobs inside our shirts, whereas she had perpetual difficulties with this and was repeatedly sent to the dean's office to have something more appropriate forced on her.

Whether because of her many late-night social commitments, or because of a natural deficit of talent, Joanna also sucked at English, and resented that all the ugly girls who could barely dress themselves and came to school reeking of curry did better than her. She sat in the back of the class and surveyed us with a holier-and-definitely-more-experienced-than-thou scorn. And behind our glasses and baggy sweatshirts and ill-fitting jeans, we scorned her right back because it was obvious that we were going to get into college and all she was going to get was gonorrhea.

A few days after I had received and dutifully conveyed the information regarding Joanna's sexual exploits, I passed Joanna in the hall, ignoring her as usual. I regretted my nonchalance a few moments later, when I found myself pinned to the wall by her.

"Why are you talking about me, you little bitch?"

"I'm not talking about you."

"I know you're talking about me. Lace said she heard you in the locker room." Lace also lives in a trailer park and wears shorts from which the lower half of her ass hangs out, I thought, but held back this salient point.

"Do you wanna confront me?" she asked. There were many things I wanted to do, but I was fairly sure that "confronting" Joanna was not high on the list.

"Umm, no." This was followed by several attempted insinuations about my own sexual indiscretions--apparently the sole defensive tactic of which Joanna was capable. If she was doomed have her STDs publicized, at least she could implicate you in the transmittal of them. This quickly fizzled out though as she realized that she was not equipped to deal with girls about whom false rumors of pregnancy and abortion would not exactly be potent weapons. So she tried another line of argument.

"You know what?"

"What?"

"I'ma jump you."

While being pinned to the wall by a 90-lb. Korean girl was in no way amusing at the moment, the prospect of being "jumped" by Joanna actually kind of was. While it was not perhaps wise to convey this, I couldn't help giggling.

"What? You don't believe me that I'ma jump you?! Well, my friends'll jump you! And they'll fuck you up!" It was unclear whether she meant by this the cheerleading team or the football team, both of which, in times of perceived social threat, might be considered her friends. I was considerably more concerned by the former possibility, assuming that hulking boys wouldn't seriously consider beating up some dorky sophomore girl they'd never even seen before at the request of Joanna, no matter how many, ahem, favors she did for them. But the cheerleaders. They didn't work on a favor system. They worked on an exponential vengeance system according to which anyone who messed with you or your best friend of the moment got her eyes clawed out. And moreover, they, unlike me, did not bite their nails; they chemically strengthened them.

Fortunately for me, they also seemed to have difficulty following through on multi-step plans, or they deemed the whole undertaking as lacking in scandal value, because my eyes remained in their sockets. I got a few emailed death threats, which I have unfortunately failed to preserve for my lifelong amusement. But then the whole thing died. That's the only benefit to getting involved in stupid shit with people cooler than you. They deal primarily in stupid shit, and your shit isn't going to hold their attention any longer than the time it takes for Joanna to cheat on her boyfriend again or for Nikki Cox to have another baby.

And I did learn a very important lesson. Rumors are bad. So don't tell anyone I told you any of this, ok?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Saturday flying

I bet my Saturday was more exciting than yours. I went flying in a Cessna over Chicago and the north suburbs. What did you do?

I knew it; I win.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Rita renders Greek, installment #2

"So also towards life the inquiry itself has great influence, and just as archers having a mark better would happen upon the fitting?"
--line 1094a22 of the Nicomachean Ethics

This will be a long night.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

The real world, a place I don't want to go yet

Being the good student I am--torn between ambition, duty, and total and utter cynicism--I went to my school's fancy mid-college pep talk schmoozing opportunity thingy downtown this afternoon. I'm not entirely sure how to describe this event or its purpose, but you sign up for two panels and a lunch in different "career areas" and you listen to alumni currently employed therein congratulate themselves on their accomplishments, and hear the same canned advice repeated a hundred times. Did you know that it's probably a good idea to want to do what you do? Ok then.

In the morning, I heard an incredibly unremarkable panel on media, in which I was informed that if I want to be a reporter, I need clips. That is fine, but I do not want to be a reporter. And I watched in shock as people drooled over the apparently glamorous world of academic publishing. No one has told them yet about the embittered ABD sinkhole aspect of it. I still heart my job, but I don't think I'd be as hearty after dropping out of grad school.

In the afternoon, there was a somewhat better panel on education in which a Teach For America guy nearly broke down explaining how terrible his first year teaching was. And then four other people blathered about social justice and underserved communities and their personal hatred of charter schools, and a whole bunch of crap that I would apparently be required to believe in if I were to pursue education. However, I'm not doing that either. Ah, the joys of HAVING ABSOLUTELY NO FOCUS IN LIFE. I did ask about Teach for America's rural school program afterwards, and was told by aforementioned nervous breakdown guy that it is very isolating and TERRIBLE.

And then I had lunch with our Dean of Admissions, who, while genial, managed to link every topic to his prospective student recruiting efforts. Oh, you're from Philadelphia? I have such a hard time recruiting there! You're going abroad to Athens? I go to Istanbul a lot to recruit! Despite its being a grad school in the humanities themed table, I never did get to ask whether going to grad school for my personal edification was an advisable option. I sense that it isn't.

I keep getting all these emails from the career placement people about all this shit I'm supposed to be doing to prepare for my fabulous future life after college, which each one reminds me, is just around the corner. Come to this meeting to learn about Fulbright scholarships! Come to this meeting to learn about on-campus interviews with recruiters! Metcalfs! Non-profits! I-banking! Government! Grad school! My school has it all covered; I'm surprised there isn't an information session to guide aspiring unemployed alcoholics through the alcoholic unemployment process.

Conveniently, I have no fabulous future life planned out, though I do enjoy writing fake narratives of my future life on application essays that ask where I'll be in 10 years. I write a different story each time in the hope that one might actually sound tempting when I read it back to myself. I suppose it's a better way to test-drive life than the Sims, which was my previous vehicle for future-testing. (Actually, it was more like a vehicle for relationship testing, but that was a SAD SAD TIME in my life which I have COMPLETELY DISAVOWED.)