The One in Which Sophia Whines (Briefly)

The first day of Fall quarter has arrived!

I’ve always been a silly kid who got really excited about class the night before and would pick out nice colored notebooks that matched the mood of the course (this year it’s lime-green for philosophy :D). I’d walk merrily to class, at least ten minutes early to stake out the prized middle seat of the fourth row, and afterwards go home to cheerfully fill up my shiny new planner with paper deadlines and final exam dates. It rarely occurs to me that I’m going to be stressed out most of the quarter until somewhere around the fifth week when I realise my sleep schedule’s all messed up, I haven’t had breakfast for two weeks, and I’ve already gone through a brand-new ballpoint pen from taking so many notes.

Yes, Sophia is an optimist. And she doesn’t get any wiser each time around.

But this time around, I think I already know what horrors await me. Everyone complains about the amount of homework they receive, but I always feel like English majors aren’t allowed to whine about how much reading they have each quarter. “Uhh.. well, this is your major,” people say, like they’ve never lamented about doing math problems or writing lab reports. To a certain extent, I agree; this is how college is so don’t whine, groan, or cry about it. Yet at the same time, sometimes the workload just seems so daunting.

I will try to make this the first and last time I lament about English homework on this blog, but this just seems so crazy that I thought I’d share. Here’s my Fall 2008 reading list for my two English classes (English Literature: 1832 to Present & English Renaissance Drama: 1567 to 1642):

  • Elizabeth Gaskell, Cranford
  • Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam
  • Anthony Trollope, Dr. Wortle’s School
  • George Bernard Shaw, Plays
  • The Penguin Book of first World War Poetry
  • Jean Rhys, Good Morning, Midnight
  • Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners
  • Joe Orton, The Complete Plays
  • Caryl Churchill, Plays: 2
  • Carol Ann Duffy, Rapture
  • Thomas Kyd, The Spanish Tragedy
  • Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine the Great, Part I
  • Christopher Marlowe, Doctor Faustus
  • George Chapman, Bussy D’Ambois
  • Thomas Dekker, The Shoemakers’ Holiday
  • Ben Jonson, Bartholomew Fair
  • Thomas Middleton, The Revenger’s Tragedy
  • Thomas Middleton, A Chaste Maid in Cheapside
  • Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, The Changeling
  • John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi
  • John Ford, Tis Pity She’s a Whore

Sigh. There goes my social life. Well, it’s off to reading, reading, reading! Wish me luck!

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Don’t Cut the Small Talk

A bright orange tab flashes at the bottom of my screen: Instant Message from So-and-so. Hey what’s up? Typically, I’ll type back a nonchalant nothing really or the ever short nm for “nothing much”; when I’m feeling particularly gregarious, the occasional description of what I’m actually doing at the moment will appear – eating, reading, studying, playing Spin Blox. However, as fascinating as these things may seem to the person who just IMed me (not really), all of this pretty much amounts to idle small talk.

So why do we waste so much time on AIM, engaging in unnecessary chit-chat? Why do we insist on perpetuating pointless social rituals like shaking hands or asking about the weather? At its best, small talk is silly and harmless, at its worst, glaringly fake.

Yet, there appears to be a method to the madness.

In Laurence Wylie’s Foreword to the textbook French in Action, he illuminates the purpose of “What’s up?”:

In this ordered universe, no human being can live in isolation. We must be bound together in order to participate in an organized effort to accomplish the necessary activities of existence. This relationship is so vital to us that we must constantly be reassured of it. We test this connection each time we have contact with each other.

However, to carry out this kind of test literally each time we see each other would be too tedious. Each culture has developed the custom of greeting, which requires that we pause at least briefly with each other. All cultures I know require that a verbal exchange take place in which we talk about health  or the state of the weather or our destination. This exchange takes only a few seconds and the words have no significance in themselves; nonetheless, it is long enough for our amazingly rapid and complex nervous systems to record and process thousands, perhaps millions, of messages about each other that permit us to draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship.

From an anthropological standpoint, small talk gives us a minute opportunity to reassess where we stand within the social hierarchy. We check in with each other to reassure ourselves about our friendships and other social connections. Despite this take on the issue, however, I can’t help but think: where does the Internet and instant messaging fit into all of this?

If all the words within this ordinary exchange “have no significance in themselves” and yet, text on a screen is all you get to see from the other person, how are we really supposed to “draw conclusions about one another and about our relationship”? And what kind of meaning can we really gather from the friendly messages we are sent online? Even with thirty different smiley faces to choose from and a superfluous usage of onomatopoeias, can we really tell how someone is actually doing if all they have to do is type a simple pretty good to appease our curiosity?

Maybe we shouldn’t cut the small talk, but let’s make the effort to get off the computer and actually do it in person.

Flight of the Bumblebee

Modern psychology champions the idea that a person’s childhood is the single most important contributing factor to who they will be as an adult. I like to disagree simply because I hate the idea of condemning fatherless daughters to bad relationships with men or abused sons to violence and alcoholism. But I do see some truth to the idea. Children are impressionable, malleable even, and the memories and experiences they acquire stick with them as they grow older. The dreams you had and the loves you developed as a child serve as a reminder of the person you once were before you gave up that “wide-eyed wonder” to become a grown-up.

One of my secret childhood dreams was to become a photographer for National Geographic. My parents got me my first subscription to National Geographic when I was in the 3rd grade and I immediately fell in love. The glossy pages. The gorgeous scenery. The monthly magazine served as a magic carpet that threw me into the mosques of Ankara, swept me through the Himalayas, and landed me in the stars of some faraway galaxy. My enthusiasm for history, travel, nature, and wildlife was greatly spawned from these early encounters.

Over the years, this early love gave way to other interests and endeavors; instead of finding peace in the vast landscapes of the world, I became introspective and increasingly focused on the details of humanity itself.  Last year, however, I was given my first camera as a going-to-college present, and suddenly my old ambitions reawakened in me. Who needs National Geographic anyways? I’ll just take lots of pretty pictures and post them on Facebook (like every other narcissistic teenager).

Unfortunately, photography appears to be harder than I thought. (Silly Sophia, naivete is for kids.)

Witness Attempt #1 to photograph a bumblebee:

Attempt #2:

Attempt #3:

Oh, the blur! Perhaps I shall do a series of photos called The World in the Eyes of the Far-Sighted. Or simply learn to use my macro function better.

Ah, there you are, mon petit bumblebee! Too bad he has his back towards the camera. Grr.. I must take a perfect picture of a bumblebee! I suppose I shall have to stalk more bees at UCLA and report back. Wish me luck! 🙂