Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Academic incongruities

"And we kill just a little to save a lot more, the philosophy of loss."

To be honest, I wasn't the best student ever at Colgate University.

There are a million reasons and excuses, ranging from my immaturity, to lack of proper guidance and appropriate encouragement, to the very real possibility that Colgate wasn't the right school for me to begin with.

I desperately wanted to go to Cornell. I couldn't tell you why exactly. A lot of my high school classmates (at Hunter College High School) had their sights set on Ivy. Princeton. Yale. Harvard. Dartmouth. Brown. Columbia.

Cornell, in beautiful upstate New York, with its gorgeous gorges, captured my imagination. And I liked its Alma Mater anthem. I spent the summer there between my junior and senior high school years, taking two English courses and picking up six hours of college credit. It was a magical place for me. My first kiss, my first crush, my first best friend of the opposite sex (none of whom were the same person, by the way).

Although my heart was set on Cornell, I also applied to Princeton (a long shot), SUNY Albany, SUNY Binghamton, and Colgate, a small liberal arts University that I'd never heard of until my high school guidance counselor suggested it. Based on what, I have no clue, as he didn't know me well at all. Colgate had this much in common with Cornell. Both were in upstate New York and both had seven-letter names starting with the name consonant.

I should pause here to say, I was a middle-of-the-pack student in a high school composed of girls labeled "intellectually gifted." I always thought my getting in was a fluke. You had to quality to take the entrance exam by being at least in the 90th percentile on the Iowa tests, and then only 10 percent of those who tested were accepted.

From Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.

[Thomas Hunter Hall was originally built in 1912-14 as a high school connected to Normal College (later Hunter College High School), and was designed by C. B. J. Snyder.]

I remember being twelve years old, walking out after taking the entrance exam and thinking I hadn't done well at all. But I was admitted and so I attended, from seventh grade through twelfth. At Russell Sage Junior High and Forest Hills High School I might have stood out, shined, differentiated myself. At Hunter I was just a bright girl in a sea of brilliance.

It wasn't enough. Twenty girls of the one hundred sixty-some in my graduation class applied to Cornell. Four were accepted. I was not one of them.

When the letter came from Cornell in April and it was thin I knew it meant rejection. I cried myself sick for two days. As I mentioned, I was quite immature. Then I fell back on Colgate, my "safety" school. Colgate actually was another extremely selective university, but it seems that not many Hunter girls wanted to go there. One girl from the year before mine was a student, and one girl in the class after mine chose Colgate. After that, I stopped keeping track.

From Wikimedia Commons.

[Colgate University is a private liberal arts college in Hamilton, New York. Colgate ranked 13th on the Forbes' top liberal arts colleges list in 2013.]

And all of this begs the question, with my ardent interests in English and writing, why wasn't a school like Syracuse University on my list? How did I wind up at a school that didn't offer journalism, public relations, advertising or marketing programs among its Bachelor of Arts degrees?

I was young and stupid, and my parents were operating under the supposition that it didn't matter where I went to college, as long as I went somewhere. It didn't matter what my grades were either, as long as I was passing, because they never really expected me to have a career. And if I did have a career, it would only be until I married and had children, so I could do just about anything, such as become a secretary or a bookkeeper, like my mom had been.

It was their world, their way of life. They didn't know any other.

One of the things I didn't learn at Hunter was how to study. I was naturally good at Math but it didn't excite me. I managed Social Studies, Spanish and Science without exerting myself too much, and I excelled in English, Art and the Humanities. I loved ninth grade Biology and even considered a scientific path until tenth grade Chemistry did me in. As a result of the Chemistry disaster, I didn't go on to Physics in my junior year, and there went my future as a rocket scientist.

I wanted to take French, but my parents convinced me that Spanish would be more practical - and easier too. I wanted to take German later, but my mom said it was such an ugly, guttural tongue, so I took impractical Latin instead.

Colgate was a shock academically. My high school aptitude for getting by without working very hard did not serve me well. Nor did being away from home, at a coed school after six years of girls-only academe. I discovered that I liked beer and wine. I discovered that I did not like drugs, but I tried my best to learn. I discovered the Grateful Dead and all-nighters and hangovers, and I learned that Astronomy is not about gazing at stars.

I struggled in English too, because my love of reading was not a substitute for disciplined study of the Canterbury Tales or Kafka. I am mortified to admit that I had to repeat my first freshman semester of English Lit in my senior year to improve my grade enough to graduate. (I am proud to say I got an A the second go-round.) About five semesters in, something clicked and I became a Dean's List student, but by then all my core courses were out of the way and I was taking primarily electives that interested me.

And all this lead-in was to say how incongruous it is that I'm now so utterly transfixed by this Colgate course I'm taking online, The Advent of the Atomic Bomb. I can't keep up with the textbook, but I've watched every video, studied all the supplemental material, done independent research and participated in every discussion. About 400 alumni signed up for the course but only half a dozen or so are weighing in. It's possible that more are lurking but that isn't the point. The point is to create a dialog among current students and alumni.

So I've been voicing my views whenever I have them. And I admit I'm curious whether Dr. Harpp, the professor, has seen my name in the discussions and wondered, who is this Elizabeth Bunn? If she goes back to my college records, she will see that I had an undistinguished Colgate career. If she cares to investigate, she will learn that I've never been to a class reunion. I've never been active in any alumni association. I haven't donated money in the annual fund drive for many years, and never more than $50. I haven't even been especially friendly on the phone when students have called asking for pledges during the fund drive, but I don't suppose anyone keeps a record of that.

In my post Colgate life, to the extent that I'm an open road on the information highway, Dr. Harpp would perhaps find out that I had a 30-year career with an energy company, but not that I spent most of those years as an assistant or a specialist or an analyst, and never rose high enough in the company echelons to get discretionary stock options. In the wider world, I've won honorable mention in a children's story contest and had two personal experience stories published in the city newspaper in the 1990s.

When I introduced myself in the course discussions, I called myself an artist, writer and cat whisperer. In other words, a most unlikely candidate to be taking the first ever edX course offered by Colgate. I have no credentials in science, history or politics, but there I am, taking a position on whether the attack on Pearl Harbor should have been foreseen, and pointing out parallel themes in Saving Private Ryan and Edward Lawrence's reaction to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Go me.

I just finished this week's movie, Letters from Iwo Jima and I'm pondering what I can add to this weeks discussion about the differences in the European and Pacific Theaters in WWII.

All I knew about the movie was that it was "a Clint Eastwood film," so I wasn't expecting the movie to be in Japanese. Nor did I know that it told the story of the Battle of Iwo Jima from the Japanese perspective, following the fortunes of a reluctant, conscripted soldier, Saigo, who deduces the hopelessness of the Japanese position and fathoms the inanity of war in general.

I was dripping tears for the last half hour as the Japanese forces are eviscerated, and especially when Saigo's friend Shimizu, after coming to the realization that Americans aren't savages as he had always been taught, is gratuitously shot by a U.S. Marine after surrendering, contrary to the "rules of warfare."

And in between all this, I'm doing the usual, making beads, walking on the treadmill, taking a brick and mortar digital photography class, operating my online bead and frit business, and cat whispering.

Remember the cat who bit me on Christmas Eve? Godzilla? He's been back in the cattery for about three weeks now. Today a shelter staffer, Shay, was cleaning cages and I was socializing each cat while its cage was being cleaned. I had no intention of interacting with Godzilla, and when his turn came, Shay put him up on the window shelf where he could look outside.

What did he do but jump down, come over to me and jump into my lap? What could I do but give him a good petting? He snuggled in and enjoyed the strokes, and I have to say I was surprised and a little moved. And glad he didn't take a bite out of my other hand. He stayed with me until Shay put him up in his clean cage.

I'm not afraid of him and I'll go as far as to say I've raised my estimate of his being adopted from slim-to-none to pretty good. There's someone out there who will want to give a forever home to a big sweet gray cat named Godzilla.

"Welcome to why the church has died
In the heart of the exiled, in the kingdom of hate
Who owns the land and keeps the commands
And marries itself to the state

Modern scribes write in Jesus Christ
Everyone is free
And the doors open wide to all straight men and women
But they are not open to me

And who is teaching kids to be soldiers
To be marked by a plain white cross
And we kill just a little to save a lot more
The philosophy of loss

There are a few who would be true
Out of love, and love is hard
And don't think that our hands haven't shoveled the dirt
Over their central American graveyards

Doctors and witch hunters stripped you bare
They left you nothing for your earthly sins
Yeah, but who made this noise, just a bunch of boys
And the one with the most toys wins

Who is teaching kids to be gamblers
So life is a coin toss
And of course what you give up is what you gain
The philosophy of loss

Whatever has happened to anyone else
Could happen to you and to me
And the end of my youth was the possible truth
That it all happens randomly

Who is teaching kids to be leaders
And the way that it is meant to be
The philosophy of loss."

(Emily Saliers)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Waging war with myself

"Still you held your arms open for the prodigal daughter. I see my eyes in your eyes through my eyes. Still water."

I'm feeling pretty sick right now. I had plans to meet two friends for dinner and I just forgot.

They called me from the restaurant when I was 30 minutes late.

I could make excuses - exhausting weekend, driving 300 miles home late at night, yada yada - but the fact is, I was sitting at home in my jammies, when I was supposed to be there and could have been there if I'd remembered.

The restaurant is at least a 30-minute drive away and it was raining and cold. I wanted to get dressed and go meet them for dessert (I had already eaten dinner) but my friend told me it was raining really hard downtown and to stay home.

The very worst part is, this happened to me once before with the same two friends. I love these women, they are two of my oldest friends.

What the fuck is wrong with me?

I'm so angry at myself.

I need to figure out how to have my iPhone send me reminders. And get in the habit of setting it up to do that. I've never been good about using planners, but it's time to start.

My friend actually sent a reminder over the weekend when I was away. It immediately got buried in my inbox. She said she wondered why I didn't confirm. But it wasn't her responsibility to call me.

I know in a day or two it won't seem so terrible. I know my friends will forgive me (I hope).

I'm over-scheduled and I have some heavy things weighing on me right now. I realized on the drive home from Keller that I am dealing with depression about my daughter's situation. She's handling it, I'm hurting for her.

We did have a nice weekend, Chelsea came up from Austin, and for once everyone got along and there wasn't tension over something or other. But my heart hurts for Kandace. She loved Jason, she didn't deserve to have her dream crushed. She has so much responsibility, between the baby, the house, the dogs, her job.

I worry. I worry about her diet. I worry about what she is feeding the baby. Too much sugar, not enough protein or calcium or vegetables or fruits. I worry about her being alone and the message she has been getting from men that the baby is a deal-breaker.

I worry that I'm worrying too much, since it doesn't accomplish anything anyway.

All this had been floating around in my mind all day. I really self-sabotaged by forgetting the thing that would have helped me most, being with friends who care, taking my mind off myself and my worries.

At the moment, I almost wished I drank because I'd have poured myself something stiff. But I doubt there's even any cooking sherry in the house.

It doesn't help my mood that the weather continues to be cold and gray and damp. Tomorrow I must work on the team beads. I have photo homework for my photography class Thursday and there just isn't that much to shoot indoors.

I'm still immersed in my study of The Advent of the Atom Bomb. This week's "atomic" film is called The 6th Marine Division on Okinawa. It's a 1945 Kodachrome color documentary film about the Battle of Okinawa. The battle raged from April 1 through the middle of June, 1945. The film quality is aged, grainy and almost colorless.

I watched the film walking on the treadmill. It's another illustration of the barbarity of line combat and the enormous numbers of deaths and injuries for both teams. According to Wikipedia, he battle resulted in the highest number of casualties in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Mainland Japan lost 77,166 soldiers. The Allies suffered 14,009 deaths and an estimated total of more than 65,000 casualties of all kinds. Additionally, almost 150,000 civilians died.

A monument in Okinawa bears more than 240,00 names - Okinawan civilians, Imperial Japanese soldiers, troops from the U.S., South Korea, the UK, North Korea, and Taiwan - who died at Okinawa in World War II.

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused Japan to surrender less than two months after the end of the Battle at Okinawa.

That makes me sad. More waste of lives.

And it's rather astonishing to me that U.S. Marine combat photographers were out there, recording the military action right as it was happening.

In our course, we are simultaneously studying the history and politics of WWII, and the scientific theories and experiments that led to nuclear fission. At this point they are strangely disconnected for me. This week's discussion is about whether or not the war in the Pacific Theater "as we know it" could have been prevented?

For once, I don't have a ready answer.

I'm still feeling shitty about forgetting dinner with my friends, but what's done is done. Both of them have reassured me that I haven't wrecked our friendship. I've not quite forgiven myself yet, but I also know I need to stop flagellating myself. It serves no purpose. I'm human. I will do better. I will screw up again. With someone, sometime, But come high water or hell, I won't let these friends down again.

And despite my worries about my daughter and grandson, we really did have a nice weekend. Facebook knows.

I don't feel a day older.

The cake was really good though.

What was in that cake???

Photo-bombing a selfie times two.

And unlikely as it seems, we wound up the day's fun with dinner at a trendy upscale restaurant in an operating Conoco-branded station called Chef Point Cafe.

Yeah, I'm still trying to figure that one out.

"You and me of the 10,000 wars
Dividing life into factions of pleasure and chores
A bed to be made and a bed to lie in
A hand in the darker side and our sights set on Zion

The heart of a skeptic and the mind of a child
Put my life in a box and let my imagination run wild
Pour the cement for my feet
The heart and the mind on a parallel course
Never the two shall meet

And oh, the dissatisfied with the satisfied
Everybody loves a melodrama
And the scandal of a lie

Still you held your arms open for the prodigal daughter
I see my eyes in your eyes through my eyes
Still water

Try making one and one make one
Twist the shapes until everything comes undone
Watch the wizard behind the curtain
The larger than life and the power of seeming certain

The evil ego and the vice of pride
Is there ever anything else that makes us take our different sides
I wanted everything to feed me
About as full as I got was of myself
In the upper echelons of mediocrity

After the battles and we're still around
Everything once up in the air has settled down
Sweep the ashes, let the silence find us
A moment of peace is worth every war behind us

You and me of the 10,000 wars."

(Amy Ray, Emily Saliers)

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

War on the big screen

"And the young people ask, what are they marching for? And I ask myself the same question."

My cup runneth over.

No, forget the cup. I'm drinking straight from the fire hose.

And I love it. Mostly.

On Monday I watched Saving Private Ryan. All 169 minutes of it, the first hour on the treadmill, and that hour went by fast. It was gripping. It was a movie I had avoided, for the very reason I avoid most movies. Violence. I can take sex and curses. You can keep violence.

But this was homework. It was the assigned movie for week three of the Colgate University class I am taking online, The Advent of the Atomic Bomb. It was interesting to watch Saving Private Ryan in the context of Gallipoli, which was last week's movie assignment.

I might even say, Saving Private Ryan picked up where Gallipoli ended. OK, it was a different beach, 29 years later. But it was a continued assault by allied forces against a coastline defense, our troops storming an embankment under heavy fire and suffering massive savage injuries and casualties.

According to Wikipedia, the 27-minute long opening sequence depicting the Omaha Beach landings was named the "best battle scene of all time" by Empire magazine and was ranked number one on TV Guide's list of the "50 Greatest Movie Moments".

I just kept reminding myself that the carnage I was watching involved a lot of make-up and fake blood. But the movie, like Gallipoli, is a fictionalized dramatization of real-life events. Again according to Wiki, WWII veterans have called the film a very realistic depiction of combat.

The movies are just one element of the online course. I'm keeping up more or less with most of the online content, but I'm already 4 chapters behind in the textbook and I'll have to read 7 chapters by the end of this week to be caught up.

At least I'm not a real-life Colgate student. This class would be a 40-hour a week undertaking for me. Among other things - mandatory postings on the discussion boards, a timeline project, a twitter project, weekly supplemental materials - this month the students have to write a paper, produce a Powerpoint presentation, review and critique all of the other group presentations (a total of seven). The instructions for the assignment are 10 pages long.

Right now I'm having trouble connecting this week's move to this weeks discussion direction, to focus on the scientific interests of the early to mid-1930s, and especially on the emigration of Eastern European scientists from their homelands in response to the growing threat of Hitler's regime. We are to "explore this unique intersection of science and politics and its importance in the development of nuclear weapons."

I'm eager to talk about the movie, but it seems to be ahead of the topic at hand. The message board has been very quiet so far, just one post along the lines of "most of the physicists and chemists really just wanted to practice science," so perhaps the students also are wrestling with the dichotomy.

In other entertainment news, I'm sad that Season 3 of Sherlock Holmes is over after just two weeks (3 Sundays). After waiting a year to see how Sherlock was going to be resurrected, we have to wait another year to see how Moriarty is going to be resurrected. Frankly, I for one did not miss him.

I did especially love the scene in Downton Abbey this week where Mary and Branson are in the nursery before dinner and Isobel pops in. She tells Mary she wants her to be happy. Mary responds that she isn't ready to be happy. Isobel reminisces about how very much she loved and was in love with the long dearly departed Dr. Crawley. Her musings stir a consanguine chord in both Branson and Mary, who confess how greatly they loved Sybil and Matthew. Isobel sums it up, "aren't we the lucky ones." as Mary and Branson nod agreement.

And if you're not a Downton devotee, and don't know the back story, well, I can't help you much there.

My new camera arrived. It's red. Very red. The battery is charging. I have homework for my digital photography class too. Forty images shot in RAW format in manual mode, illustrating one of the elements of design - lines, texture, perspective, contrast, etc. I also got a retractable USB drive for my class. It's red too.

Honestly, the USB drive is not bigger than the camera. I tried re-sizing the pictures 6 ways from Tuesday. No dice.

Now I just hope I can figure out how the light meter on the camera works.

I'm about 65 bead pairs into the 100 pairs of Team Beads I'm making for Beads of Courage. I need at least one really good torch session, but realistically I know I'm not going to get in 35 more pairs this week without making myself crazed. I can mail them in two shipments and that's probably what I'll do.

I'd rather have sent them all this week, but that fire hose isn't showing any signs of drying out.

When I was a young man I carried my pack
And I lived the free life of a rover
From the Murray's green basin to the dusty outback
Well, I waltzed my Matilda all over

Then in 1915 my country said son
It's time you stopped rambling, there's work to be done
So they gave me a tin hat, and they gave me a gun
And they marched me away to the war

And the band played Waltzing Matilda
As the ship pulled away from the quay
And amidst all the cheers, the flag-waving and tears
We sailed off for Gallipoli

And how well I remember that terrible day
How our blood stained the sand and the water
And of how in that hell that they called Suvla Bay
We were butchered like lambs at the slaughter

Then a big Turkish shell knocked me arse over head
And when I woke up in my hospital bed
And saw what it had done, I wished I was dead
Never knew there were worse things than dying

For I'll go no more waltzing Matilda
All around the green bush far and free
To hump tent and pegs, a man needs both legs
No more waltzing Matilda for me

So they gathered the crippled, the wounded, the maimed
And they shipped us back home to Australia
The legless, the armless, the blind, the insane
Those proud wounded heroes of Suvla

And as our ship pulled into Circular Quay
I looked at the place where my legs used to be
And thanked Christ there was nobody waiting for me
To grieve, to mourn and to pity

But the band played Waltzing Matilda
As they carried us down the gangway
But nobody cheered, they just stood and stared
Then they turned all their faces away

And now every April I sit on me porch
And I watch the parade pass before me
And I see my old comrades, how proudly they march
Reviving old dreams of past glories

And the old men march slowly, old bones stiff and sore
They're tired old heroes from a forgotten war
And the young people ask, what are they marching for?
And I ask myself the same question

But the band plays Waltzing Matilda
And the old men answer to the call
But as year follows year more old men disappear
Someday no one will march there at all

Waltzing Matilda, Waltzing Matilda
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?
And their ghosts may be heard as they march by that Billabong
Who'll come a-waltzing Matilda with me?

(Eric Bogle, Scottish-born Australian singer-songwriter, 1971.)