Category Archives: Nonfiction

27 Hours in LA

[cross-blogged on Kethadros with photos!]

2/13/12 2:30pm
Scanning people at SJC. Sweaty faces. Hurried footsteps. The man ahead of me in the security line is frantically taking off his belt. There is no security line–and that’s messing us up. No time to extract the one quart ziplocks of three ounce liquids from the rest of the luggage. No time to down that last gulp of water in the bottle. I’m stumbling over my shoes with one hand still trying to shove my ID back into my wallet–thankful, really, that belt-man is holding up the line.

I don’t scan for AEDs at SJC anymore. I already know where they are–a kind of learned instinct, I suppose. Instead I scan faces, make judgements. I’ll bet your cholesterol is high, man in the business suit whose tie is feeling a little too snug. You’re looking a little red in the face and I’m sure you’re a very important international businessman running late for your international business meeting, but don’t you worry, sir, I’m an EMT and I’ll be there in a flash if you start feeling weak and clutch at your chest and just so you know there’s an AED not 200 feet behind me and another coming up ahead. Don’t you worry, sir.

5:40pm
Rattling down highway 405 in a Flyaway shuttle. The scenery bounces past for this mile or so stretch without traffic. I can barely focus my eyes on my iPhone screen, much less hit the right keys as I text my parents that I’ve arrived. Thank God for autocorrect. The shuttle rattles so much that the emergency exit window beside me is almost falling off, a thin sliver of cement highway pulsating between the black rubber linings with each bump in the road.

The hapless driver charges forth, spearing the tank of airport shuttle through openings in traffic. I would trust his experience except he already left the shuttle doors open while trundling around the terminals, oblivious until another Flyaway driver yelled, “DOOR!” as we drove past. He’s listening to something unintelligible on the radio, quietly buzzing beside him as we rattle on down the highway. The rattling sporadically connects the audio to the rest of the shuttle and blasts R&B in neurotic spurts, long enough for me to feel the soul of the singer pouring out but too short to even make out the words.

11:05pm
Lying on my friend’s futon in the dark. The interview’s still nine hours away and I can’t think about anything else, much less sleep. I tell myself to breathe, slow it down, feel the calm creep into my bones. But it’s too early, too early for sleep to set in, even if I do need to be up at seven. I lie there and listen to the sounds of others moving around. Showering. Brushing teeth. Switching off lights. Rolling over in bed. To them it’s another night at home, another night before work or class, another night to fall asleep in.

There’s a strangeness in sleeping in someone else’s home, no matter how wonderfully gracious the host. It’s their home, not yours. I stare at the lighted porch outside, trying to summon parallels to make this place feel familiar. That light is the glow of the street lamp outside my senior year dorm room, I tell myself. It’s that soft glow on the ceiling.

When that doesn’t work, I lie there with my eyes closed, imagining best friends and calming presences in the rooms next door. What makes places feel like home? You carry the voices of the people you trust inside yourself. Let them permeate this unfamiliar space until the strangeness is gone.

2/14/12 7:40am
Making snap judgements of fellow candidates in the admissions office. Not so much judging as seeking guidance and comfort from our similarities. Girls with purses. I need a purse like that. Leather-bound portfolios. Just like mine. Mismatched pinstripe blazer and plain black slacks. I guess you pulled that off. Minimal makeup. Good, I didn’t under do it.

Chit chat fills our time as we wait for the bus to take us elsewhere. I’m not the quietest one like I would have been a few years ago. But I’m not the loudest one either, crowding the conversation with my voice out of nerves or affable personality. I’m calm. I leave the free coffee untouched.

12:15pm
Touring the campus behind three first year students. One guide in skinny jeans and sweatshirt branded with school pride. One guide in scrubs. One guide in his white coat and slacks, Skullcandy backpack, a pink collared shirt, and sunglasses settled jauntily on the top of his head. It’s this last one that amuses me–he wasn’t assigned to lead the tour, just hopped on like he owned the thing. He smacks on his gum while dispensing advice in his SoCal rhythm–so extroverted, so confident, so likable. One of the others reveals he was an English major who wrote for MTV before matriculating. And glancing at him again, this makes perfect sense.

He went out and purposely bought that pink shirt this morning, he tells us. Just for Valentine’s Day.

3:55pm
Sitting in a French bakery-café, watching all the dutiful boys go by with bouquets from the flower shop next door. They’re sweet arrangements, pink and white and red. Roses interspersed with baby’s breath, all wrapped up in tissue and cellophane.

You can tell which ones are headed for the flower shop by their walk. Head down, purposeful. Checking the street signs to make sure they’re going the right way. Even from across the street, watching them waiting at the crosswalk, I can spot these dutiful boyfriends and husbands fidgeting. Some worried–they forgot to order ahead. They remembered everything else–dry-cleaned the suit, made dinner reservations, bought her the perfect necklace. But some, they forgot it was Valentine’s Day until they got to work and every woman in the office was cooing over bouquets or chocolates or balloons or neon pink pieces of construction paper cut into hearts. These guys would never admit their fault–what man would? Besides, it’s the thought that counts and less is more and all those other clichées that are overused but so, so true.

I watch them parade past, calmed by the bouquet in hand, and for the first time in a while, I don’t loathe Valentine’s Day. It’s adorable, watching them file past this café window. Call it over-marketed, call it a corporate construct, call it a day to make us single people feel inadequate. But damn it’s cute to see so many romantic gestures synchronized to the same sunny afternoon in Westwood.

5:25pm
One last photo of a muggy LA sunset snapped through the window of the Flyaway heading back to LAX. Goodbye LA. Perhaps I’ll see you again soon.

Dragons

Tonight, before I go to sleep, I will be thinking of dragons. I am twenty-two years old, graduated with a bachelor’s degree (with honors) from an excellent university this past June, spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor, and for the last week I’ve been going to bed with visions of dragons.

There’s nothing strictly wrong with this. I’m entitled to draconine thoughts — although admittedly it’s more than thoughts, it’s something more closely resembling “worldweaving,” if you will. Dragons, dragon riders, dragon wars, dragon training, dragon etiquette, dragon politics… I’ve made up a lot of words along the way, too. This is what I used to do all the time — this is what got me into writing. I build worlds out of nothing. I make things up, borrowing shamelessly from the world I know. I turn experiences into story lines; I turn wishful thinking into alternate reality. I stretch my imagination, and sometimes people read what I’ve come up with and say hey, I really like that.

So what is it about growing up that makes me feel like this dragon-filled creation of mine doesn’t belong in my world? Because it’s high fantasy*. It’s something no one ever tells us we’re supposed to have outgrown, but one day I woke up and realized I couldn’t take myself seriously when writing a fantasy (or even science fiction) story. As Seth said the other day when we were discussing this, “I don’t get how Tolkein explained his books before everyone had read them. ‘Okay, so there’s this thing called Sauron, and he hates everything. And makes little mud elves to fight humans. All the humans don’t trust each other. So it’s up to these fat midgets to destroy evil.'” Whose first instinct is to take that seriously?

I’ve learned a lot over the years from fantasy and science fiction. I probably wouldn’t have kept reading after my plateau in reading level around 6th grade if it hadn’t been for A Wrinkle in Time and The Golden Compass. There’s a basic allure to fantasy and scifi, that escape from the world we’re stuck in, which readers like my adolescent self gravitate to. Maybe it stems from a lack of maturity, an inability to see the thrills and struggles of normal life and fiction compared to the epic conflicts that arise in fantasy. And those epic conflicts can (and do) tie themselves into the real world.  I’m not entirely sure which came first, but the life history of Bean in Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Shadow played some part in stoking my love of genetics. Philip Pullman explored some really interesting tensions and fallacies in religious text through His Dark Materials, Roger Zelazny dances around concepts of metaphysics (and relates technology and computer hacking to magic) in The Chronicles of Amber, and Orson Scott Card eloquently lays out some key bioethical issues in Speaker for the Dead and the Bean quartet (just to name some of the many topics these authors prodded with their writing). But who’s going to take you seriously if you write a dissertation on any of these themes?

My best guess as to why this stigma exists is this: in fantasy fiction, there is a fundamental disconnect with reality. That’s practically the definition. And yes, there are plenty of cases of people losing touch with what’s real and taking things too far. (I risk offending some people right now, but hear me out, I have redemption for you.) Cosplayers, fanfiction writers, Harry Potter unofficial online trading card game players, the people who contribute to and update the extremely detailed entries on Wookieepedia — I could go on. However, there’s a difference between productive hobby and unhealthy obsession. Some of the cosplay costumes I’ve seen are really impressive costume-making that perfectly normal people made in their spare time, and plenty of fanfiction writers have spun incredibly inventive, moving stories based on characters that someone else started. The difference is knowing your limits — knowing that okay, there’s a world separate from this fantasy. This goes for anything, really — plenty of us are wrapped up in completely fictional story lines (I’m looking at you, Grey’s Anatomy fans who had serious meltdowns after whatever season finale it was) or waste our time on the strangest things (watching endless animated gifs of cats?). The point is there are plenty of things we do to entertain ourselves that no one else — or at least, a select few — quite understands. But it doesn’t hurt anyone, so why the hell not?

In light of this, I have decided to take this tack: I spent the bulk of my day working on structural biology research on the protein dynamics of the beta1-adrenergic receptor. I’m a high functioning and contributing member of society. So you know what? It’s okay that right now I’m obsessed with dragons.


* It says something about me that I know the distinction between “high” and “low” fantasy. For those who don’t, think of fantasy as a spectrum from our world to a completely made up world:

**LotR is weird because Tolkien has stated that Middle Earth existed sometime in our past, so it falls a little closer to the middle than other high fantasy

**LotR is weird because Tolkien has stated that Middle Earth existed sometime in our past, so it falls a little closer to the middle than other high fantasy

Yes, I made you an explanatory diagram. There are nerdier things I could have done.

A bird necklace

(A/N: transcribed from a freewrite in my notebook based on Joan Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook”)

The bird necklace doesn’t really mean anything. I like to think I wear it day after day because it means something, but the truth is, it doesn’t. I got it on a trip to Hawaii with my dance friends, but that’s not what I think of when I look at it or wear it. I spent a long time in the open air market stalls searching for “a bird necklace,” but that in itself was an arbitrary choice. It’s a swallow — not particularly flamboyant or special, and definitely not particularly “Hawaii” either. But I like it. And I wear it, almost every day, even if it used to stab me in the neck sometimes, and even if it occasionally gets caught on scarves and things. I guess somewhere deep down, I wish I could say someone special gave it to me, when the truth is I just bought it for myself, like a woman buying herself flowers on Valentine’s Day. I guess sometimes I look at it and laugh, thinking of the time I exploded the chain by short circuiting the night light plug in my bathroom at home. But that’s more about the chain than the bird. It’s just a necklace, and I can’t tell you why I like it.

Character sketch: Mel

A/N: Rewrite of a freewrite character sketch we did in English191T (though it’s still incomplete) — Mel, if you read this, I meant no untruths or defamation of character.

Melquiades Olivares III is trying to land something on the moon. I say “something” because I don’t know how else to describe the spidery contraption. I say “trying” because I’m not exactly sure how he’s going to get that thing to the moon. But if anyone can find a way to land something on the moon, it’s Mel.

Mel was, if I remember correctly, a Mechanical Engineering and Product Design double major at Stanford, which is impressive in its own right if you don’t take into account the whole moon thing. The last time I talked to Mel, I’d just run into him in the parking lot at Tresidder Memorial Union — not exactly where you expect to find a friend on a hot summer day when he was supposed to have graduated two years prior. He shuffled over in mock abashment before completely burying me in a sweaty bear hug.

Mel is, in a word, gregarious. He fills a room with his presence. Freshman year, we could always tell when Mel was visiting — his voice carries from room to room — and occasionally he would feel compelled to scar us for life by taking most of his clothes off to run around our dorm (note: not HIS dorm) in his boxers and socks. He also woke us up on Valentine’s Day morning with the rest of Mariachi Cardenal, singing in his rich tenor voice with a guitarrón slung in front of him.

On an average day, Mel wears jeans, a tshirt, rosy cheeks, and a wide grin — all smothered in machine shop grease. He seems as much at home in this uniform as he does in his Mariachi suit… and his birthday suit, for that matter. But all that really matters about Mel is his love of pure, unadulterated fun.