Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day! Enjoy the fireworks! …and the watermelon seeds, and the crowds, and the hamburgers, and the ketchup on your favorite shirt, and everything else that makes the holiday special.

Cheers!

The mystery of contra dancers

As I have for the last month and a half, I went contra dancing yesterday. I was faced with a question that has puzzled my mind since the first time I went, back in December:

Why are contra dancers so happy?

I sat out one dance, and the girl sitting beside me started talking. She had come with a summer school class and thought it was a great place to have fun and meet a lot of people.

I was in “hands four” with another new dancer when she remarked, “This is the most welcoming group of people I have ever met.” I had to agree.

Another man I danced with told me that his partner had recently dubbed him “the happiest person in the room,” but that he was passing the title on to me. For those of you who know me – somewhat a pessimist and not too quick to show emotion – his comment sounds a little bizarre.

I have been to quite a few different dance communities in the last four years. Some are reserved, some elegant, some enthusiastic, some relaxed. Although I have been welcomed at all, and have come to feel accepted, it took time. Not so here.

It could be true simply of my particular contra group. But I have been to another group once, and the same thing was true. All across the Internet are stories like mine. This blog post expresses the same.

But why? Does contra dancing attract cheerful people, or does it make them? I would say the latter. Here are a few thoughts on why:

1. You don’t need a partner. It is expected that you change partners every dance, so even if you sit out one dance, you are almost certain to dance the next.

2. You have to make eye contact in order to keep from getting dizzy. After staring at a perfect stranger halfway down the hall, it’s hard not to laugh at your own awkwardness.

3. Everyone is equal on the dance floor. Some people add more fancy spins or an extra strut, but you’re all following the same steps. There are no star performers.

4. Everyone makes mistakes. Even the caller sometimes skips a measure, and bumping into people or missing a turn on a “hey for four” is just an excuse for a good laugh.

5. You will sweat, and it’s okay; no one cares, because they’re sweating too.

6. Every generation is represented. Older folks show the younger ones, parents bring their little children, college and high school students come en masse.

7. Groups are dissolved. There is no room or time for cliques. Someone will bump into you during an enthusiastic swing, and the group will be no more – they’ll probably all be dancing in different parts of the room.

8. Goofiness is totally acceptable – the more the merrier. Showing off is not competition, it’s a chance to watch someone else collide with the caller and ruefully settle to a quieter pace.

9. The music is foot-tapping, swirl-your-skirts fun, and usually live.

10. And overall, there is a general lack of taking oneself seriously. See this introduction to contra dance for a good example of the tone.

Addicting? Smile-producing? Yes. Find your own. Or come to mine!

A different kind of resume

Try #2, after Blogger shut down without saving my draft.

What with all the decisions about jobs, internships, and reapplying to grad schools, I have found myself thinking a lot about resumes. What would a resume look like if it was comprised solely of skills that correspond to my interests? Here’s what I think it might look like:

Organizing things

Recently spent three hours alphabetizing list of books read in the last eight years. Maintains seasonal organization of clothing. Workstation is covered with post-it notes and to-do lists.

Writing random things

Has written and maintained five blogs. Specialized in mass emails telling quirky stories about college life and studying abroad.

Creating parodies of poems, quotations, and writing styles

Rewrote “The Night Before Christmas,” “I heard the bells,” selections from Shakespeare, and “The Tiger.” Drafted a letter to evict college housemates using legal jargon and style.

Helping confused people

Served as a parking attendent at local functions. Assisted students with sending their papers to the appropriate printer. Gave visiting parents directions to appropriate campus buildings. Handled customer service at home school bookfairs.

Editing for good writers

Regularly marks typographical or grammatical errors in personal copies of textbooks and mass market periodicals. Known as the “comma police” and resident expert in obscure questions about grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Formatting things

Recreated an electronic copy of an out-of-print mock trial guide. Standardized format for study and assignment guides written by five different authors. Known for spending excess amounts of time on the details of an assignment before beginning the actual work. Hates “widows” and “orphans” in documents. Will re-edit blog posts multiple times to avoid hanging lines.

Tweaking pictures

Used basic photo software to add color to black-and-white images, edit, crop, and add elements to scenic photographs. Particularly specialized in adding people and switching elements in the picture to create an abstract effect.

Reading books

Completed a 40-60 book reading list every summer since 2004. Received a B.A. in English. Had memberships at and regularly frequented four-six different libraries since 1994.

Reading out loud

Recites memorized passages from Shakespeare while exercising. Aspires to work in Reader’s Theater at some point. Enjoys reading Shakespeare and Paradise Lost out loud when no one is home.

Learning…especially bizarre things

Learned elvish and translated several poems from Lord of the Rings. Took macroeconomics for fun. Enjoyed general education classes. Checks out non-fiction books from the library during the summer. Knows how to change a water filter. Wants to learn about car engines. Enjoys following skilled people around. Concurrently considered five different college majors.

…And I could probably come up with more. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of entry level jobs that match that set of skills/interests.

I guess there’s always “Clean Sweep” or “Beauty and the Geek,” right?

In the middle of a lot of superglue

Did you ever have a doll or action figure that came with a hat or helmet? I’m not sure if it is a child’s propensity for destruction or the sense of mystery that pervades anything hidden. I do know that as a child, I was bound to remove all accessories from my toys.

Unfortunately, when a riding helmet is superglued onto a doll’s head, removing it has the same essential effect as scalping. Not a pretty sight, and colored pencil can only do so much to repair the damage.

I promise, there is a reason for this story.

I went to a swing dance on Saturday night. I knew a few people, from my contra dance group, but not many. The group was almost completely bisected into newbies and experts. Unfortunately, I didn’t fit into either group. As one of my dance partners candidly told me, “You’re not the best dancer here, but you’re pretty good.” The whole experience made me miss my college dance club even more.

I often find myself in this troublesome middle ground. More motivated than some, but not quite enough to seek the greatest challenges and thrills. Not satisfied with the how-would-you-like-your-burger? job, but not a candidate for president either. I’m the one who recites Shakespeare while walking, but not the one who stars on Broadway. Not an optimist by a long shot, but deep down, not truly a pessimist either.

In literary studies, we talk about the concept of “liminality.” Essentially, liminal space refers to the borders. Not one thing, but not the other. It is being in the middle, the undefinable space. C.S. Lewis might call these, “the Shadowlands”–impermanent and subject to displacement and dissolution.

People respond to uncertainty and liminality in different ways. Some of these “defense mechanisms” are barely recognizable as such.

Flippancy is one. If you convince yourself that nothing really matters, maybe the failure won’t seem like a big deal. If you limit your conversation to the weather, you can pretend that everything is fine.

Cynicism is another. If you convince yourself not to care, maybe the failure won’t hurt so badly. If you tell yourself to expect nothing better, you can pretend you aren’t disappointed. Not allowing yourself to depend on other people keeps you safe when they let you down.

On the surface, either technique is successful. But what is frightening is the way that outlook becomes reality. Sweet, romantic movies strike a chord in me that I would prefer left unstruck. If I scoff at the “cheesy” parts often enough, I lose my ability to appreciate them. All of a sudden, you realize that the helmet you set on your head is stuck. Spend enough time convincing yourself of something, and it can come true.

Somehow, you have to find a balance between reality and the superglued helmets that scar what they are meant to protect. Enough dreams to stay hopeful; enough pragmatism to stay real.

So where do you go from the middle, from that liminal space, from the defenses? For me, it’s ultimately about looking up instead of down, outside the shadows, where “…In your light we see light…” (Psalm 36:5-9).

Good gap, bad gap

It’s amazing how many different people want to ring in on the question of taking/not taking a gap year between undergraduate and graduate work. The range of advice I have heard is extensive.

Sitting out a year is good

  • It makes you appreciate school
  • It gives your brain a rest
  • It helps you sort out what to do next
  • It allows you to make money
  • It looks good on your resume

Sitting out a year is bad

  • It gets you accustomed to a paycheck
  • It lets your brain go soft
  • It makes you lose focus
  • It looks bad on your resume

The most amusing are the reactions from people who give their advice before they realize that I am, in fact, taking a gap year. Some have emphatically told me, “Taking a break is the worst thing to do for your career and your education. It’s almost impossible to go back.”

And then I casually mention, “That’s a shame. I’m actually sitting out for a year before I head on to grad school.”

The look of consternation on their faces is almost, ALMOST worth the clenched feeling in the pit of my stomach.

In all honesty, I’m not sure if a gap year will be good for me or not. I might be more concerned if it had been a choice. Since it wasn’t, I have to make the best of it, for better or for worse (all the weddings must be going to my head).

Ultimately, what I do with this year is what matters.

Perhaps the comments, while taking the scab off a fairly recent wound, drive me to keep my focus and reaffirm my commitment to starting grad school in 2009. Or maybe they just inspire me to check out beginning Italian and Edgar Allen Poe in French from the library.

That 20-page prologue in French should keep me busy for a while. Aimes-tu les dialogues philosophiques qui ont pour thème la vie après la mort?

Little life lessons

Life is full of little lessons.

I was driving down the interstate to a meeting with my boss earlier this week. An unlucky, large dragonfly chose that opportunity to fly toward me, and he ended up wedged in my windshield wiper. For the next 30 minutes, I was privileged to watch his slow and torturous death.

This was not one of life’s little lessons, unless it was to keep your windshield wipers going constantly because the squeaking of wipers on dry glass is better than the sounds of dying bugs. Really, it was just an interesting tidbit.

Sometimes, however, like the bug, ideas come out of nowhere and stick to your brain, capturing your attention and making you think.

I have been volunteering at a community theater in my area. Before the show, I helped with the final stages of building and installing the set. During the show, I am working as a “dresser,” someone who helps the actors accomplish quick costume changes.

The actors are busy people, and in the eyes of the audience, they are the important part of the show. They aren’t required to show appreciation to the backstage workers, but the ones who do stand out from the ones who don’t like a clean glass in the middle of a pile of dirty dishes.

Actors often want to help as much as possible with the costume change. What they don’t realize is that it is easier for the dressers if they just stand still.

I started thinking about how often I try to “help” God do His job. I want to judge on His behalf; I want to sit around wiping dust off my neighbors’ windshields while I ignore the giant bug on my own. What if, instead of helping, all I am doing is getting in the way?

It’s amazing the ideas that cross your mind when you are driving down the interstate or helping someone put on an apron.

Welcome to NAA

Hello, and welcome to the first online NAA meeting – Nostalgia Addicts Anonymous.

I, like many other college graduates, am experiencing the first pangs of that deadly disease, nostalgia, which transforms memories of moderate enjoyment into paeans of pure joy.

Nostalgia is a little bit like quicksand – it sucks you in almost before you realize you are sinking.

It’s a dangerous disease. I find myself spending increasing amounts of time on Facebook, gazing at pictures of friends, trips, and campus life. I am snared by the recollection of deep conversations at 3 a.m. that left me groggy and unfocused the next day. I am transfixed by thoughts of class discussions for classes I whined daily about having to attend. It’s a dangerous and deadly disease.

Thank goodness for my memories of the campus dining experience: “keepin’ it real; keepin’ it regular.”

I’m starting to settle into the routine of my summer job: 8 hours a day sitting in front of a computer or a book. Until I get a better schedule of regular exercise, my sleeping habits currently consist of going to bed about midnight and eventually falling asleep around 5 a.m. Not the best scenario.

My dreams too are full of memories. I wonder if my inability to sleep is partially due to the sense that I am missing out on something that I cannot find – the friends, the constant activity and energy I have left behind.

So I am taking a deliberate if reluctant stand along with other graduates against nostalgia.

As my sister told me recently, being a graduate is a little bit like being a freshman again. Getting involved is inevitably awkward. Trying to define yourself is next to impossible. But it is not neverending. The line between is blurred, but one day you wake up and realize you have a new niche: somewhere you belong, somewhere that is home.

In the meantime, the summer is hurrying by as slowly as it can. Fall means graduate school applications and visits, as well as (more) standardized test taking. It also means time to find a new occupation for the year. Right now, the need for income, insurance, and independence is leading me to enter the job market.

Onward and upward. The best cure for nostalgia is opening the doors to increased opportunity for rejection, right?

Right. Surely it can only get better from here.