Not Much

The whole once-a-month entry thing was nice for a while, but I simply don’t have enough things to say (or time to say them) for it to result in quality writing.  So you may not hear from me quite as often (*sighs of relief from all parties*).  But once the semester is out next week, I’ll try to publish my reading list from the past few months–that’s been a fun tradition for me.

And, since exam week tends to make us feel particularly crotchety about school/majors/classes, I thought I’d share a song based on one of my favorite xckd comics.

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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things: College Edition

Perfect morning air.
Ripe mangoes and figs and peaches.
Long runs, solo.
Long runs, with a friend.
Quality basketball shorts.
Days with no homework.
An in-tune brass quartet.
Tuba solos.
0.3mm Alvin drafting pencils.
A book, a piece of toast, an apple, and good coffee.
The smell of clean sheets.
Hard workouts.
Long talks at night that make you too tired to get up to workout the next morning.
A full tank of gas.
Sunglasses.
The Fridays that payroll runs.
Green checkmarks on Webassign.
Green engineering paper.
A to-do list completely done.
Those random days when a math major feels slightly poetic.

“On Tents and Running and Other Stuff”

All freshmen at my university are required to take an intro composition class (the only exception being engineering students, who can attempt to test out).  Since it’s required for approximately 1500 students, the quality can vary greatly based on instructor, class dynamic, etc.  It has an annoying workload, but I happen to like my professor fairly well, even if his personality/sense of humor confuses me deeply at times.  I suppose the best way I can describe him is a cross between my high school world literature/AP language and composition and world history/AP European history/art history teachers, but more cynical, which I sense is more related to worldview than any inherent personality trait.  Regardless, he grades a lot like my world lit/APLC teacher did, so I feel like my writing capacity is at the very least being challenged, if not actively improving.

All to say, this is an essay I wrote for my composition class.  The curriculum is standardized to a degree across all the classes, so everyone writes a “personal essay” along with four other essay types plus a research paper.  Our assignment was to write a personal essay about a place we hadn’t been in a while.  Even though I knew it could go terribly wrong, somehow, I decided to write about running.  Thankfully, this one turned out alright (at least judging by my grade).  I actually ended up liking this essay fairly well, though–behind my athletics’ banquet speech, this is probably my favorite of my running-related composition.  So I thought I’d share it with you.

I know the ending is kind of tacky.  No, it’s really tacky.  (Especially the first sentence of the penultimate paragraph.  Oh horrors.)  I was clawing for depth/implicit meaning…and kind-of-sort-of failed.  That’s why writing about running is risky for me–I can’t always get beyond myself and find substantive meaning.

I did change a few things here from what I submitted, since some of the people involved could, hypothetically, stumble across this blog.  And not, the original title was not “On Tents and Running and Other Stuff”.  It was “Personal Essay”, which is redundant for a blog post.

After (what seemed like) a long walk from the school bus, I chose a suitable spot on the grass and told the boys to put the eighty pound frame down; I put the large, but significantly lighter, Rubbermaid box down nearby.  (Being female and older than all my peers had its advantages.  Namely, making other people carry heavy items I could just as easily carry myself).  I opened the white-topped box.  A slightly stale, musty odor filled my nostrils; old grass shavings filled the crevices and creases of the forest green tarps I began unfolding.  The boys tugged the cover off the frame and began expanding the metal structure, like a butterfly inching out of its cocoon.  Soon, a frame became a tent, tarps became sidewalls, and a grassy patch near the eleventh hole of a golf course became home for the next eight hours.  Cross country season had arrived.

In western Washington, every bona fide cross country team owns a tent.  Not to have a tent is folly: knowing it is going to rain in late October in Seattle is as close to knowing the future as any human will ever get.  Besides, on the occasion that it is sunny, shade is a pleasantry afforded by a tent’s canopy.  Regardless of the weather, it is critical to have a base camp: a place to hold team meetings, to use as a changing room, to sleep after races, for parents to convene, to store the mountainous assortment of spike bags, shoes, three-foot long foam rollers, backpacks, food, clothing, and whatever other personal belongs people managed to drag with them.

Our tent had been to Portland, Oregon, for a major national meet, to obscure state parks in the very western-most part of Washington for tiny twenty-person races, to fancy golf courses near Microsoft’s headquarters, to dilapidated golf courses near neighborhoods I wouldn’t enter willfully unless I were accompanied by body guards, to rainy dual meets at our home course eight minutes from our school, to sunny eastern Washington four hours away for the state championships.  The settings changed, but the tent always stayed the same.

Well, almost always.  One season, we had not been anchoring the tent to the ground because the base stakes had vanished into the abyss, also known as the athletics department’s storage trailer.  All was well—until one day, a strong gust of wind caught the inside of the tent like a sail.  Except, with three sidewalls attached, the structure acted more like the drag chute of a fighter jet than the sail of a yacht.  We watched, eyes widening, as the sidewalls billowed and the entire tent began lifting upwards and tipping backwards towards the thistle bushes behind it.  As we let out a collective “Whooooaaa,” vocal inflection matching the rising of the tent, we rushed to grab the legs.  Too late, the tent came to rest on its top.  Fortunately, no harm was done to the tent—but the coach did purchase stakes that week.  At the next meet, we conscientiously hammered iron garden stakes into stone-infested ground.  The winds came, and like the Big Bad Wolf at the second little pig’s house, huffed and puffed until it finally blew our tent down.  But because the tent was anchored to the ground, rather than merely overturning the entire frame, the wind actually fractured two of the metal beams, causing structural failure.  Needless to say, we had no tent at the next meet.  Even after our coach replaced the beams, the frame never folded down quite as nicely as it had before it was visited by the Big Bad Wolf.  Some things did change.

Even at that one tent-less meet, the single tarp we laid on the ground symbolized home, rest, safety.  You could fall down from exhaustion, gasp in pain, embrace teammates in congratulation, cry from disappointment, or jump up and down from excitement (if you had enough energy left).  We could relax, eat, and do homework in relative calm after our races.  We could gossip about other teams—so long as their tents were set up on the other side of the field.  We could leave our belongings unattended, guarded only by the unspoken, sacrosanct eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not enter another team’s camp or touch its property without permission.  According to my own team, the slightly less-menacing corollary to the eleventh commandment should have read, “If you mess with Joy’s stuff, she’ll mess with you.”  Thus, everyone who had items they wanted kept safe put them in my bottomless black Under Armour bag.  As a result, I accrued a collection of homeless iPod earphones, spike keys, and not-so-lucky socks by the end of each season.

But as much as it was a place of refuge and safety, the tent was a place meant to be left.  One year, the third runner on the boys’ team panicked in the tent thirty minutes before the state championship race was to begin.  He had fought through a difficult season of physical injuries and mental frustrations; compounded by the fact that it was his senior season, he froze and refused to put on his racing spikes or leave for the starting line with the rest of the team.  Rather than face the challenges and risks inherent to the course and its competitors, he wanted to remain in the relative safety of the tent.  The coach was desperate: the alternate runner was slower than the top two runners on the girls’ team.  After much pleading, commanding, and reasoning, the third runner eventually put on his spikes and left the tent, but not before badly unsettling the confidence of the team.  Though there were many other influencing factors, the boys’ team finished eleventh that year—they had been seeded between third and fifth.  The tent was a safe place, but not a safety net: it could not protect from fear or the failure that followed.

Rather than a security blanket under which to hide, the tent was a place meant to be left behind.  The tent was where we would prepare us mentally, analyzing race strategy; where we would prepare physically, stretching our muscles; where we would prepare outwardly, donning our racing spikes.  But after preparation, embarkation.  In this respect, the tent served the same purpose as high school.  High school is a safe environment to learn information and practice skills and study how to perform tasks.  In high school, failure has few to no true long-term consequences: you might receive a poor grade or even have to retake a subject—but compared to failing board examinations as a medical student or making an error on a patient’s case as a doctor, failure in high school is nothing.  Yet despite this level of comfort, no one wants to stay in high school indefinitely.  By the time students are seniors, if not sooner, most are usually anxious to leave the safety of the classroom: like baby birds ready to alight from the nest, they want to be challenged, they want risk, they want to prove that they can use their accrued knowledge in the real world.  Likewise, the tent was a place to grow, to practice, and to train—but not to stay.

Humans cling to what they know.  We know best what we cling to most.  In general, we act in a manner that minimizes vulnerability and risk and maximizes personal security and comfort.  It is this self-reinforcing cycle that can yield situations like that faced by our boys’ team: situations in which something, once considered safe, becomes dangerous.  The third runner was seeking what he thought was refuge by remaining in the tent—a constant, known entity in a setting of turmoil, energy, and risk.  But in reality, staying in the tent posed the greater risk: his actions endangered the success of the entire team, of all the effort committed to the season by six other athletes.  The tent changed suddenly from a safe haven to a death trap, like a seatbelt in a car underwater.  Yet, it is important to remember that the probability of drowning because you drove into a body of water and could not detach your seatbelt is much lower than the chance of dying because you crashed on dry land not wearing a seatbelt and were ejected through the windshield.  Thus, the proper response is not to avoid wearing a seatbelt because the car might crash into a lake, but to be aware of the potential, albeit unlikely, dangers associated with this safety device—and continue using it as it is intended.  In the same way, though our greatest securities can become our greatest menaces, we shouldn’t fear them simply because they exist.  Rather, we should use them—and respect them.

Two years after that calamitous state championship, I returned to the same golf course for my final high school race—for what I knew could be my final cross country race, ever.  After a long day of races, it was time to tear down camp.  First, the sidewall tarps peeled off to be folded (by the girls’ team—the tarps always seemed to fit back into the Rubbermaid box more nicely that way), then the frame collapsed, then the canvas cover coaxed back over the top.  Finally, we began what seemed to be an even longer walk back to the bus, the boys hauling the tent, me carrying the tarp box. What I knew and loved was over, the future, uncertain.  But I had no option to remain in the tent.  It was folded, covered, and soon to be locked in the storage unit.  My only choice was to begin, to go forth, to compete.  And thus, as cross country finished, something new began.

tentIn case you were wondering: yes, the backs of those shirts say “FTW”.  It was supposed to stand for “for the win”.  Our attitude towards the shirts/slogan was FTW–in the other sense of the term.  Not one of our coach’s…brightest…moments.

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Epiphanies

Well, this week I wrote the most incoherent essay of my life.  Granted, it’s for a class for which I don’t usually bother to perfect my writing, but this one was bad.  I had one of my friends edit it, and she was horrified.  I probably scarred her for life.  Apologies.

But yeah, it’s been kind of crazy lately.  And that’s okay.  Sorry, though, if my posts lately have been all over the place.  Consider yourself lucky that you didn’t have to read that essay.

I wanted to share a couple of brief, somewhat personal, thoughts, though.

First, two Sundays ago, I took communion for the first time since around New Year’s.  Four months is a long time for someone who is pretty traditional in respect to the sacraments.  Okay, that’s not totally true–I took communion on Good Friday, but under compulsion, so I don’t think it counts.  It started last fall, as I grew increasingly uncomfortable with “my” church and with Christianity as a whole.  I guess I was still had some sort of Christian grounding, because it simply didn’t feel right to be taking communion when I had beef with the very community–and even more, with God–with whom I was supposed to be communing.  It might have been something like where Jesus talks about not making a sacrifice if you have an unresolved issue or grudge with someone, but rather, leaving the sacrifice at the altar, reconciling with the person, and then coming back and finishing the sacrifice.  It might also have just been the rebellious part of me trying to stick it to the church.  In reality, it was probably a bit of both.  But anyhow, I’ve been going to another church with increasing frequency over the past couple of months, and I finally decided to take communion there.  One of the things I like about passing the plate rather than walking to the front of the sanctuary (not logistically feasible at this church) is that it makes communion more private, so you don’t feel like people are judging you if you do/don’t take communion and you can avoid the sometimes awkward interaction with the pastor/elder/deacon who is serving.  (Obviously, the downside is that you don’t have the symbolic serving of the bread and wine/juice, which is important in its own way.)  The few people who did know that I was avoiding communion, thankfully, did not pressure me or question me or tell me “I’ll be praying for you” in a condescending tone of voice, and I appreciate that more than they know.  (I only found out today–because I said something–that one of them, who happens to go to this church, had noticed my habit of skipping and that I took communion for the first time two weeks ago.)  The point?  Thank you to this church for preaching and living the simple Gospel and for not casting judgement about the place of my life/mind/heart.  Thank you to the people who have been incredibly patient with me and prayed for me in a non-condescending way and cared about me even when I’m an annoying, angsty mess.  Thank you to God for not being angry at me even though I’m dumb and ask too many questions and get angry at You.

My second thought also relates to the church thing.  The first time I visited this church (well, not the first time ever, but the first time in a while), it was in the middle of a schism of sorts.  It was difficult for the church, for sure, but the leadership and the congregation handled the issues with extreme grace and professionalism, and I believe the church has become stronger for it.  I realized that it was because of the grace and professionalism that I saw demonstrated that I was convinced that this church was and is a good place to be.

My third and final thought is also an epiphany of sorts.  I’ve shared the details of this with one person, and plan to share with only one more, but it was so…cool (it seems sacrilegious to describe God as “cool”)…that I want share briefly with whoever is reading.  I was injured at the beginning of my final season of cross country.  Injured and angry.  I wanted to know why.  I sort of assumed the answer was “because you’ve made cross country your god/idol and God should be god, so He’s taking it away from you”–implicitly, “He’s reminding/punishing you”.  I was okay with that, sort of, in the way that you have to be okay with what God does because He’s God, and, well, a lot bigger than you.  Besides that, it’s still probably true to an extent, and at that time, I wasn’t even sure who/what God was.  Sometime last week, though, I was driving to school towards the rising sun with the windows down and the radio up, and the answer smacked me in the face.  (The closest thing to which I can compare the feeling is the lightbulb moment when you finally solve a math problem you’ve spent thirty minutes on or when the chemistry teacher explains a topic that never made sense so that it finally does.)  I got injured and ran relatively poorly because that way, I didn’t have to deal with the pressure of deciding if/where to run in college.  Had I run a 20:00 or even a 20:30, it’s more likely that the cross country factor would have played into the college selection process, which was already far too complicated.  Being stuck in the 21s removed one more variable.  God wasn’t just punishing me, He was protecting me, and now He is talking to me.  Honestly, I don’t think I’ve heard His voice that clearly in years: it was an encouragement, in terms of my confidence that I made the right college choice, and in terms of my trust in God’s existence and Providence.

But now, I need to get back to fixing that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad essay…

Athletics Reflection

I was asked to speak at my school’s end-of-the-year athletics’ banquet for student-athletes and their families.  I had about a week’s notice to write this, but honestly, I think I put more of myself into it than I did for all my college essays combined–probably because I knew that my audience included people I actually know, interact with, and/or care about. 

To give credit where credit is due, thanks to Katie for editing this for me.  It would have been a jumbled, disjointed, and probably (okay…definitely) rather weird speech without her awesome red pen-slasher skills.  Additionally, thanks to the athletics booster organization for allowing me the opportunity to speak.  I truly enjoyed the process of reflecting on the past four years, as well as the process of writing itself.  I never considered myself and English person, but for the past year or so, I’ve started to love writing more and more.  I believe that the Language and Composition I took last year–and especially our teacher, Mr. N.–is responsible for showing me the power and value of this realm and giving me the skills to utilize it.  So, thank you for sharing this gift with me.

And, as one more tangent, I’d also like to add that I got freakishly nervous right before I was called up to speak (at a very visceral level, I thought I might throw up–and I rarely feel that way, even before big races): this experience definitely gave me a massive amount of appreciation for what pastors do every single week.  They also have the additional burden of communicating what is literally the most subject matter in the world, not something so trivial as high school sports.  So, Mr. R. and Steve and Pastor Matt and Bishop Jakes and all the other pastors in the world: thank you for being brave enough to do what you do.

But now, the speech:

As some of you know, I run cross country and track.  I probably spend way too much of my life running in circles, literally.  I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit it, but for me, cross country began as a purely utilitarian undertaking: I needed P.E. credits, but I was afraid of soccer balls hurtling towards my head and I thought I was too short for basketball.

I’ve always been a student first, anything and everything else second.  After all, I have attended [school name] since kindergarten.  And, for the most part, my study-first philosophy has served me well: I have decent grades, I’m going to college next year, and I’m coming to a point where I can enjoy learning for learning’s sake.  These things notwithstanding, life as a student can be at times overwhelming, an experience to which I’m sure many of you can relate.

It’s true, exercise relieves stress.  Being in athletics also promotes better time management, since the less time you have, the less time you waste.  Yet, athletics have a still greater role in the life of a student.  When I entered the upper school athletics program four years ago, I was a student.  Since then, I haven’t become any less of a student, but I like to believe that I have grown and am growing to be more than just a student.  Running has taught me about leadership, about humility, about discipline, about friendship, about patience, about having fun: it’s taught me about me.

And so, over the past four years, I’ve come to appreciate running for more than just the sake of running (or my P.E. credits).  Athletics is about more than just awards or times or places or scores.  It’s also more than just perseverance and motivation and hard work.  Athletics is about people.  It’s the teammates who encourage you, frustrate you, work with you, and compete with you; it’s the opponents who force you to do better; it’s the coaches who help you to be better.  Athletics is not just the goals you score on the field or the state tournaments for which you qualify or the personal records you achieve: athletics is also the moments, both mundane and extraordinary, that you spend with your teammates and coaches—practicing endless drills on the court or getting ready for games in the locker room or rambling about life on long car rides to meets.  Running has changed me, but so have the people with whom I run—perhaps to an even greater degree than running itself.  It is not the running, but the people with whom I run who remind me, in both word and action, to remove my blinders and see that there is more to life than just academics or just athletics.

On your sweater vests, some of you students may still have the original [school name] crest.  Here, adjacent to the symbols for arts and humanities, honor and character, and sciences and mathematics, is a winged foot, the symbol for athletics.  The four symbols are neither ranked nor segregated.  Rather, they are united around the Cross.  Regardless of whether or not you identify yourself as a Christian, you are still more than a student, more than a musician, more than an athlete: you are a whole person.  Participating in athletics is a way to bring balance to the elements of the crest—it certainly did in my life—but more important, the experiences you have through athletics will help you, even force you, to transform a fractured, disjointed set of roles into a stronger, cohesive identity.

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Fried Twinkies and Ice Cream

Another college application essay.

I walked up the dusty dirt road towards the approaching vans, feeling the heat of the ground penetrate through my rubber-soled sandals.  The vehicles halted, doors slid open, and teenage girls poured out.  I helped grab one girl’s baggage, walked towards the cabins, and introduced myself: “Hi, I’m Joy!  What’s your name?”  But while my voice was cheerful, my thoughts were uneasy.

Here I was—barely fifteen—working with my church at a summer camp in rural Mississippi.  The girls we were serving, some of whom were older than me, were from Jackson’s inner-city.  Besides the age differential, the girls could be challenging in other ways: they had a reputation for back-talking, disregarding instructions, stealing, and fighting.  They lived in the “projects”, came from broken homes, watched relatives drink to unconsciousness, shared the streets with gangs, saw friends incarcerated, were witness and victim to violence and crime.  These facts gave us pause.  And besides the “big” issues, I had my own (admittedly petty) concerns:  What if they stole our supplies?  What if they didn’t pay attention to our lessons?  How would I remember all their names?  (This turned out to be at least partly legitimate: they had names like JoQuita, Shemp, and LaTamarah—unusual to a Seattle-ite who has friends with names like Joanna, Sally, and Liz.)

The week passed.  Our fears, thankfully, were unwarranted: the girls cooperated, participated, and were generally nice to each other (and us).  We shared time fishing, cooking meals, swimming, riding horses, and making crafts.  My most treasured memories are of the evening discussion times we shared in the dormitories.  Here, we provided a framework of questions for the girls to answer, ranging from the trivial (What’s your favorite food?) to the serious (What are you afraid of?).  Their responses were revealing.  Favorite foods included stereotypically southern fare (sweet tea, pulled pork, anything deep-fried), in contrast to our clearly northern palates (steak, crab, salads)—though everyone agreed that ice cream was a favorite.  The girls willingly shared their fears with us.  There seemed to be a universal fright of darkness.  One girl said she was afraid of knives, because she saw her cousin being stabbed.  The girl whose bags I had helped carry on the first day—Ebony—mentioned that she feared men “because they are stronger than girls and can hurt us”; a number of the others agreed.  Her statement struck me.  These girls spent their lives in fear of tragedy, violence, drugs, while I lived in cozy, naïve oblivion (where the greatest danger was slipping in the shower).  I could carry their luggage, but I could not even imagine what sort of emotional baggage they were carrying, much less bear their burden.

Externally, we seemed so different.  They were African-American; I was Asian-American.  They lived in the “ghettos” and the “projects”; I lived in a middle-class suburban neighborhood.  They faced the stresses of gangs, violence, and drugs; my biggest stressor was tomorrow’s math test.  But in so many ways, we were similar.  We were all teenage girls; we all had hopes, fears, and dreams; we all came to camp with prejudices and preconceived ideas about each other—and in some way, overcame them through friendship.  And even if I don’t like fried Twinkies, we all still like ice cream on a blazing summer day.

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The Cliff

Well, that’s that.  College acceptances (and rejections) are DONE.  Everything has arrived; I know where I can and can’t go to school next year.  Deciding is entirely another matter.  The whole process has been rather surreal.  Over the past year or so, intensity increased incrementally, faster and faster, moving upwards as applications came due, dying down during the waiting period, forming miniature peaks as a few early acceptances arrived, then drastically shooting up over the past couple weeks as the majority of the decision letters arrived–and then nosediving off a cliff today, as my last notification arrived.  I suppose, like Sisyphus, I’ll be marching up and crashing down the cliff again as I work on MY end of the decision process.  Only, I only have to climb up once more (until grad school, at least).

Moving on, though: now, I can start sharing some of my application essays with you (whoever you are).  I’ll start with the one I used on the CommonApp (one application that can be sent to many institutions–one of the best innovations of the college application process).

The lights dimmed.  I felt the apprehension in the air as the drummer raised his sticks.  I stood in the back of the sanctuary, sweating hands on the master volume control. 1-2-and-1-2-3-4.  ON.

What was I doing back here?  What if I did something wrong?  What would people think of me?

After weeks of practice, my church’s youth group was ready to lead the musical portion of the regular church service.  My role had been varied based on availability: backup pianist, emcee, second percussionist, stage assistant.  Honestly, though, when I was discharged from my musical duties, I was relieved—performing in front of a large group isn’t my favorite activity.  Instead, since I had previous sound technician experience, I was recruited to assist the regular sound system manager.  Easy, right?  Just listen to the sound, then twist some knobs, flip some switches, or push some sliders up and down.  A perfect fit for me—musical, but not performance-oriented; mechanical, but not overly technical.  But my reprieve was short-lived.  I discovered, only a few days before the service, that the lead sound tech could not attend.  I would be flying solo.

I can’t do this.  I’ve never done it by myself before.  What if I actually break something?

I couldn’t quit, but I couldn’t do it alone.  But I didn’t have an option: I would have to, whether I thought I could or not—the clock was racing onwards.  The service started and pulled me along with it.

Mic one up.  Piano down.  Bass guitar up.  Signal  percussionist to play softer.  Mic three down.  Rhythm guitar up.  Bass guitar up again.  1-2-3-4.  Fade out.  Vocals OFF.  Master volume OFF.  One song down, only a few more to go.

And like that, the service raced by.  A couple more songs, then a sermon, next a prayer, then one final song, and it was finished.  And it wasn’t so bad, after all.  I did not die of fright; the music team did not suffer a train wreck; the sound system did not explode; the congregation did not start hurling rotten tomatoes.  It wasn’t so hard, was it?

In reality, though, I was never alone.  The music team on the stage was with me, although separated by rows of chairs.  They were supporting me, and not just because I controlled whether or not the congregation could hear them.  Even if I had made a mistake (envision that awful screech that sometimes emanates from speakers), they would have forgiven me.  And that’s all the support I needed.  They supported me because they trusted me to do what was right.  They trusted me as their sound tech, and as their friend.

People trust me.  I trust myself.  I will succeed.

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