مرحبا عليكم!

I study languages.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dear Free Food Gods,

Thanks for showing me so much love lately, but can we cut back? I'm trying to be healthy.

I go to Jamba Juice and order the smallest smoothie on the menu. The girl comes out with a huge cup saying, "Sorry, I made too much! I put it in a larger cup for you." I go to the Cougareat for breakfast and order two eggs and one slice of toast. The girl comes back with my plate saying, "Sorry, I made your eggs over hard instead of over easy, so now you get both!" I look down and see that not only do I have four eggs, she's doubled my toast order. I get home from school and my live-in gourmet chef/roommate says, "Hey! I made this fantastic ice cream from scratch! I made it out of heavy cream, homemade ricotta cheese, and lots of eggs, but I ended up with way too much. The rest (a mostly-full mixing bowl) is all for you!" My mom calls and invites me to Macaroni Grill for dinner. I order an innocuous plate of mushroom ravioli, but the server keeps bringing out loaf after loaf of that fantastic bread with the olive oil and fresh ground pepper even after we tell him to stop. And you can't just let that stuff sit there.

Please, Free Food Gods. I'm so grateful for your patronage, but I can actually hear myself getting fatter. I am starting to look like this:
Can we take it down a notch?
(starting tomorrow, because tonight Coleman's making cheesecake)

Tuesday, March 29, 2011


In all my renewed enchantment with the humanities I've neglected to remember its flip side: subjectivity. I don't often encounter conflict with this principle, as I'm generally not intrusive (or memorable?) enough in class to actually get on anyone's bad side. But right now I feel unjustly victimized.

The professor is new--this is only his second semester, and I've heard other professors poke fun at him because he tries so hard to "prove himself." Ironically, he's the guy I pegged as a "pedantic jerk" on the first day of the semester. For a 200-level class, his syllabus is schizophrenic and unnecessarily complex: three 3500-word (11-page) essays, three 850-word interim response papers, three separate midterm exams, and a comprehensive final, as well as random reading quizzes. Quite honestly, I loathe the class. And you know me--I place a very high value on all knowledge and am more than willing to work hard in school. But this guy's lectures are useless. He has no mastery of language (yes, he's a native English speaker) and mixes metaphors, spits out fragments, employs incomplete analogies, and can't pick a method of presentation to save his life. It's history; present thematically or chronologically, but don't skip around throwing out random years, correcting yourself as you go, tripping over things you've said in the past and now have to own up to, pretending you're never wrong, and apologizing because this period's not your area of expertise (oh, we know).

To acknowledge my side in this dispute, my attitude is probably passive-aggressively obvious. But not everyone can like every class, and I've tried to be nice--really. I've gone to his office on two separate occasions to talk about essay grades, which seem to be arbitrarily assigned. You get no feedback or commentary on the strengths or failings of any of your writing--just a series of circled numbers. Of course, when you don't do as well as you had hoped and there is nothing to indicate what you did incorrectly, you go and talk to the professor to find out what went wrong so you don't make the same mistakes again. The first time he reacted civilly, but the second time (this morning) he was entirely rude. He wouldn't speak to me for more than five minutes, and before I could get a word in I felt like he had already created some negative image of me and my "motives" (whatever those may be) that nothing I could do or say could change. I have a sneaking suspicion he's holding my totally-subjective "class participation" points hostage in order to inflict maximum damage come grade assigning time. All I can do right now is be the best student I can be so he has no reason to hurt me, but I wouldn't put it past him. And I'm not looking forward to having two more writing assignments scored before the semester's end, as I think he's now biased against me and is going to be extra critical in an attempt to reflect his distaste in my grades (which will continue to be assigned with no justification, which will cause me to once again come into his office to see what I did wrong, which will cause me to feel misconstrued and victimized another time).

Monday, March 28, 2011


"Tralfamadorians don't see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes--'with babies' legs at one end and old people's legs at the other,' says Billy Pilgrim."
~ Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

The Middle East has been on fire since January, and in Arabic and English I follow as much of the news as I can. This minute-by-minute historical vigilance has catalyzed a personal obsession over my place in history. Is history mine? And if so, how much can I claim?

I was born in August of 1990--five days after Iraq invaded Kuwait to begin the First Gulf War, weeks before East and West Germany announced plans to reunite, and about a month before the collapse of the Soviet Union. This history, then, is my history; it forms the background of my life whether I notice it or not. But what I believe to be my history runs deeper than that; as a blonde, blue-eyed, American, Caucasian female I note iterations of myself not only in the early days of my country but further back, in early Britain, Germany, and Scotland. With no definite basis for connection I buy into the western European literary, historical, scientific, and political experience, inexplicably seeing my reflection in the ancient participants' faces.

This bothers me because there should be no difference between whether something happened 150 years or one hour before my birth. All that went before should be lumped into that which, for me, was not. When I am born I am without history, tabula rasa; there is just me and my timeline, which begins when my mind starts writing it down. This is what I'd like to believe. But disavowing any connection to a larger (hi)story is disproved by the cross-cultural and age-irrelevant existence of so much angsty literature about roots. For some reason it truly-madly-deeply matters where one comes from, from which combination of personal/domestic/foreign events one was produced. And in this respect I'm beginning to give Jung's collective unconscious more credence. Maybe people need a concrete connection to something totally outside themselves, but which resembles them--something grander and more perfect, but not perfect in the flawless sense, perfect in the verb tense sense, in that it has already happened. Paradoxically, this collective framework is essential to individuation. So I will learn and build and die in Vonnegut's infinite stream of millipede legs.

Further Reading: A Man Without a Country, Kurt Vonnegut
"Practically nobody on Earth is an American."

Friday, March 25, 2011


Actually, I'm lying. I do have questions. I have so many questions I don't even know where to begin. And if I'm being honest with myself, in some crazy iteration of this situation it's all I can do not to blurt out, "What are you doing this weekend?" But no--I think I'll leave that one to you. From our past meetings you know I'm not the type to ask.

حبا و كرامة،

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


I dressed like an adult this morning--hair in a bun, classy earrings, Anthropologie suit jacket, long black pants, kitten heels--and put on an official badge and ribbon to judge the elementary school chemistry division of the Central Utah Science and Engineering Technology Fair. The projects were adorable, especially when the posters were written by the kids themselves (and not by overbearing parents). I mean, the "Further Experiments" section of the "CSI Chromatography" project I favored to win [side note: when would a crime scene investigation ever require chromatography?] read, "Next we want to do this [chromatography, mind you] to DNA OR BLOOD."

The most interesting part of the day was interviewing the students. I was responsible for sixteen individual interviews over the course of two hours and couldn't help but smile through every one. Some kids were painfully shy, some rigidly overprepared, and others totally off the wall. My favorite personality of the day belonged to a small boy whose project completely didn't work out. The fact that he had no results to show me didn't make him self-conscious at all, and in an open and conversational tone he explained all the mistakes he'd made, how he'd documented them in quaky pencil handwriting on one (stained) sheet of notebook paper, and how he finally had to stop experimenting because his mom said it was getting too dangerous. I walked away envious of his natural friendliness and total lack of guile.

Another girl was incredibly tense and had every one of her speaking pieces rigidly memorized. All I wanted to do was put my hands on her shoulders and tell her it was okay, that I was nice, to just calm down, that it was just a science fair and this was just an interview and this was just third grade. I wanted to tell her to value herself and her project enough to come off with confidence--to be if not overtly friendly at least sincere--and then I realized I was talking to myself.


Allow me a passive-aggressive rant. 
I like almost all of my classmates, but to the few that really get on my nerves, this is what I want to say and don't.
The Cruncher
Well, at least you never fail to surprise me. Trying to guess what crunchy semi-food item you're going to pull out of that reusable Ziploc bag every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning to complement your thermos of Crystal Light adds an element of sickening uncertainty to my otherwise you-less day. Lately, you seem to prefer Kashi bars, but I'll never forget the time you munched through a Tupperware container of uncooked popcorn kernels. The dried edamame debacle was similarly memorable, but only because you kept choking on it while trying to make in-class comments. Let me be the first of many who would like to inform you that our class is not your personal snack hour. If you're hypoglycemic, show us a doctor's note and I'm sure we'll all chip in to buy you a lifetime supply of quiet food items that won't make us cringe every time you snap your horsey teeth.

The Loud and Vacuous
Despite vain attempts to act like you know everything, you're always totally wrong. It's laughable; you try so hard to be first to answer every question loudly (and incorrectly) and then, when corrected, invariably come back with some form of, "Ohhh--yeah, oh, yeah, I knew that" when you very obviously did not (and in all likelihood still do not). Your mediocrity is no secret (measured objectively in terms of grades and subjectively in terms of verbal acuity), but that isn't what makes you one of my pet peeves. It's your pathetic and yet continually self-vaunting attitude that sets me (and everyone else) on edge. You so desperately want to be taken as a rock star, but you're blind to the fact that without putting in the effort required for real success you'll never make it out of your basement. Tell me, do you get some kind of thrill out of being constantly, vocally wrong, or does your abandoned ditch of a mental wasteland run so deep that you seriously can't comprehend the level of your own obnoxiousness?

The Fawner
Your eyes light up when I walk in, and mine roll back in my head. Great; you've saved me a seat again in my favorite place where I can read without paying attention (as you know the class we share is my least favorite). You're textbook, kid, and you know the drill: you eagerly ask for my opinion about some topic you've obviously just researched (despite my perpetual reticence, you've memorized my political interests); I dismantle your facade with a tight-lipped smile and a few pointed questions I know you can't answer; you give me some self-effacing compliment to which I barely respond. This routine never seems to discourage you, so it's time for you to face facts: Read my vibes. I'm not going to like you. Stop trying. A tip? If you really want my respect, stop complimenting me. It only makes you sound weak in comparison.

Saturday, March 19, 2011


Devoting the past three years of my life to the pre-med mentality has left me with a crippling complex. Because medical school requires six (very personal) recommendation letters from science professors, pre-meds spend a lot of time and energy competing for professor favor. Pre-med classes are huge, so your competition isn't forty classmates, it's four hundred. And you'd better bring your A-game, because scoring a life-sucking research position (unpaid) might mean that after two years of PCR you get to move up and take on a real research project, which you might get to present at a conference, which you might get to talk about in an interview, which might result in admission to medical school and a chance at a decent life.

Believe me, beating out guys who are stressed to the breaking point and sincerely just want to become doctors so they can provide good lives for their new families is no picnic. Hell hath no desperate, pitiful fury like a pre-med/new father scorned, so navigating this minefield requires spinning spiderwebs of calculated nuance. Professors are inundated with and totally jaded by the constant stream of pre-meds who appear in their offices to build "personal relationships." It's pathetic and depressing, really--the constant, desperate trying of the students and the supercilious condescension of the professors. Office hours are packed; wait in a long line of others for your turn, and if the hour doesn't run out (at which point all who remain are dismissed) you can get your chance at winning him over. The process takes a lot out of you, and it really destroys your faith in professors and in yourself. Everything you say must be perfect. I once suffered an uncharacteristic mental breakdown--full-on, body-racking sobs--in the office of a philosophy professor (my only non-pre-med professor at the time) because I could barely handle the fact that he was treating me like a person. I was so taken aback that I didn't know what to do.

Since changing my major, I really want to build sincere professor-student relationships, but whenever I walk into an office I get so consumed with like me-like-me-oh-gosh-please-like-me-I-promise-I-can-be-a-worthwhile-person-just-give-me-a-chance-oh-please-just-smile-just-like-me that I can barely function, let alone act like a friendly, normal girl. It's gotten so bad that I'm literally scared to talk to them. I need nothing more than a mentor--a professor who would talk to me and help me with things--but I'm far too screwed up in this regard to find one.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Having a bad day?

Not anymore. Wednesdays are my longest days (class from 8 AM to 7 PM with two kinds of work and two appointments in between), but in some mad way they're also my favorite. I usually try and pick out my outfit on Tuesday nights and leave myself extra time to do my hair Wednesday mornings because feeling pretty really helps me get through all the things I need to do. Today, though, was a sweatshirt-and-ponytail day, because on top of everything else I had a history exam to take (for which I had to skip Tibetan class, unfortunately. I hope I didn't miss any more yak stories.).

I feel starry-eyed and surprised about how effectively I managed my time this week: in four days I wrote an eleven-page paper on political unity and disunity in the Levant under Rome, sent it to the TA days in advance to guarantee a good grade, and studied intensely for two separate history exams, both jam-packed with new material. The first one was multiple choice and I received a perfect score; the second one was entirely written and I felt all of my answers were complete and thorough. And at the behest of multiple encouraging friends who regularly express the flattering belief that I am the supreme high mistress of all things knowledge (ha!), I took the College Jeopardy qualifying exam. But if I'm contacted for an interview I'll have to decline, as I'll be on my mission during the contest this November.

Tomorrow is a day to breathe; I'll work on new Arabic vocabulary for my quiz and transcribe some Cairo interviews so I can have something to show at my research meeting. I'll talk to some professors about getting me more study abroad data. I'll bug my students about submitting their term papers just the way I want them. I'll put together my lecture (I teach apicomplexans on Friday) and set up my lab. I'll watch the BYU game and update my bracket. And I've also been selected for the starring female role (Esther) in tomorrow's Biblical Hebrew reenactment of the Purim tale in honor of the holiday.

What can I say? What can't I say?
La vita è buona.
La vida es buena.
الحياة جيدة.
החיים טובים.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I CAN AFFORD A YAK and delivery is available.
Phil and a baby yak. 
Highlights from the website:
"If you like animals, you'll love yaks."
"They are especially playful and are enjoyable to watch. Their Old World look adds a mystical element to traditional ranching."
And from a linked article, "Ride 'em, Yakboy," featuring Phil:
"It's just another morning at the Wykle ranch. Just another yak drive."
"He has spent hours among his herd, listening to their low grunts, chuckling at their antics. He's even tolerated teasing about having 'gone to the yaks.'"

Any more midterm cramming and I think I too might go to the yaks. If I don't show up tomorrow, assume I've taken off to Idaho to see if Phil needs a yak raising intern.

Saturday, March 12, 2011


If I had a list of the things I liked most in life, meatballs would be way up on that list--below Arabic and Creative Writing, of course, but above such things as Being the Correct Temperature and possibly even Ancient Egypt.
There's almost nothing better than a good ball of meat.
 this is how spaghetti needs to be all the time.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tales from Tibet.

This is a yak. Really, though, it's a གཡག, which is my very favorite word in Tibetan. I get to use it all the time because my native Tibetan professor, T.J.-la, knows a lot about yaks. My favorite thing to do in his class is to listen to various strains of what he emphatically calls "the story of YAK," which is long and full of surprises. As a teenager T.J.-la entered a Buddhist monastery to become a monk, but ended his training to cross the Himalayas on a yak to escape Chinese military forces in 1959. With "a few luckies" he made it out after a month of travel, during which villagers begged the transient group to stay in their houses, as it is culturally unacceptable to rob people hosting guests. Once out of Tibet, he spent time in a financially desolate refugee camp in India before emigrating to the United States.

Pre-1959, T.J.-la describes his childhood as "really fun." Education, with an emphasis on writing and spelling in the extremely complicated Tibetan script (more complicated than Arabic!), was paramount in his community, and children would commute long distances to attend school, which lasted the entire day and into the evening. After exams, all the children in the class were made to line up according to their scores. The kid who performed best on the exam would get to go down the line and smack all the lower-scoring children (girls on the hand, boys on the cheek). The child with the next-highest score, who had just been hit by his highest-scoring friend, would go down the line next, hitting all those with lower scores. This process would continue until it was the turn of the lowest-scoring child, who had been slapped by every member of the class. He was made to smack an empty can, and all the other children would laugh.

Buying a horse in those days was a big investment--almost like buying a car. To purchase such a valuable animal, one had to see a horse trader. Horse traders could be identified by the special robes they wore, with extra-long and extra-wide sleeves. Business with horse traders was done entirely under the table--or rather, under the sleeve. You'd slip your hand under a horse trader's sleeve and bargain for a reasonable offer through a series of hand gestures that represented the price you were willing to pay. You paid in secret, so no horse buyer knew the deal his colleagues ended up with, keeping the market ripe for savvy buyers and shrewd sellers.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


I often find it ironic that I'm a language student, given how shockingly little I speak.

How many words do normal people say? How many interactions, how many conversations, how many exchanges of pleasantries constitute normal socialization? One of the threads that resonates most with me as I sift through students' daily speaking journals from Cairo is how hard it is not to be able to drop off the grid when things become too much, how when two hours of conversation is required every day it's impossible to give yourself time without words. Two hours of conversation, every single day--I'm sure I don't come close to that in English. So how can a person who says as little as I do learn to speak another language? And how deluded would that person have to be to abandon a guaranteed medical career to decide language is the path for her?

Table 1, Science 6 July 2007: vol. 317 (5384)

Monday, March 7, 2011


"Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centredness because it's so socially repulsive. But it's pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people's thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real...

Probably the most dangerous thing about an academic education--least in my own case--is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualise stuff, to get lost in abstract argument inside my head; instead of simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of me, paying attention to what is going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive, instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head...

Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience...

And I submit that this is what the real, no bullshit value of your liberal arts education is supposed to be about: how to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out...

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding what to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing...

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

This is water.

This is water.

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliche turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

I wish you way more than luck."

David Foster Wallace's "This is Water."


Every day I wake up, shower, do my hair and makeup, get dressed, sigh at my face in the mirror, and drag my feet to my car. I drive to school, park near the RB, pick up all my things--bulging backpack, purse, coat, study materials--and climb five flights of stairs to my 8 AM class, Biblical Hebrew. From there I march in sequence to Ancient Near Eastern History, which is characterized by such scattered, imprecise, and incoherent lectures that the only reason I show up is to take the occasional reading quiz. The professor always goes over time, which stresses me out as I rush to Middle Eastern History, which I genuinely enjoy because it's with my favorite professor and he always has interesting things to say. I then trek off to work--through the intersection with the very short Walk light and up the stairs and past the Marriott Center and the outlet creamery and into the Morris Center, where I clock in and spend the next three or four hours staring at Adobe Dreamweaver before gathering everything up again and making the same trip back for Arabic class, which I attend in two sections, the first in which I feel entirely unwelcome and guilty for taking up space, as it's not really my class, and the second in which I'm simply never called on. Arabic ends at 5 PM and then I usually have some kind of meeting or research obligation and then I grab something for dinner on campus. 

When my feet finally make it back to my apartment, it's night. All I want to do is go to bed, but I have to start what I know will be at least four hours of homework/grading/research, and then I think to myself how very much it would mean to have someone say,

I notice you.
I see how hard you're working,
and you're doing really well, so
keep it up. 
You have a future--
in this, 
at this,

Thursday, March 3, 2011


"About myopia – if you have it, be happy. Numerous scientific studies have shown that near-sighted men and women boast a higher average intelligence than their non-myopic cohorts. The precise mechanism of this association remains unknown, but there are two popular theories: nature and nurture. Those who support nature argue that during embryologic development, the eyes develop from the same neural tube as the brain itself. Since large eyes tend to be myopic, big eyes and big brains might go together in much the same fashion as long arms and long legs.

Those who favor nurture insist that myopia leads to high intelligence because of its effect on childhood development. Most near-sighted kids wander around undiagnosed for years, and during this formative period – unable to see the baseballs, Frisbees, and rocks thrown at them by their playmates – they spend a lot of time indoors. The non-athletic myopes who take up reading get high scores on their SATs, while those who take up eating give us claustrophobia by overflowing the seat next to us on airplanes. Myopia also exerts a powerful influence on career choice: eighty-five percent of my fellow ophthalmologists are myopic, an incidence far greater than that of the normal population. Pathology breeds preoccupation." 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


This choral arrangement haunts me. It captivated me for the first time at a BYU Women's Chorus concert, and then I happened to catch the last strains of that same concert on local radio a few weeks ago. I've been searching for the piece ever since, and this is the only trace of it I can find on the Internet. It's about a mother mourning her dead baby girl, and it's simply unforgettable.

To listen, take this link and scroll down to the very bottom of the page. Play the song called "Under the Willow She's Sleeping." You won't regret it.

Under the Willow She's Sleeping
Stephen Foster ("father of American music," check him out)

Under the willow she's laid with care
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Under the willow, with golden hair,
My little one's quietly sleeping.

Fair, fair, and golden hair
(Sang a lone mother while weeping,)
Fair, fair, and golden hair
Under the willow she's sleeping.

Under the willow no songs are heard
Near where my daughter lies dreaming;
Naught but the voice of some far off bird
Where life and its pleasures are beaming.

Under the willow by night and day
Sorrowing ever I ponder;
Free from its shadowy, gloomy ray
Ah! never again can she wander.

Under the willow I breathe a prayer
Longing to linger forever
Near to my angel with golden hair
In lands where there's sorrowing never.

High rolling.

 I'm two for two on setting high scores on this semester's midterms, missing perfection by only two points in Biblical Hebrew (average: minus 25-30) and by just six percent in Middle Eastern History Since 1800 (average: minus thirtysomething percent). That Middle Eastern History class might just be my second favorite right now (after Arabic, طبعا), because the professor speaks exactly the same way I think--a singular phenomenon, to say the least, and part of the reason I took his class (I don't need it for my major). It's inexorably fascinating to hear someone else's spoken words mirror so perfectly the cadence of the voice inside my head, so I can't help but spend my time in class glued to every word. Does that make sense? Think of the tone, timbre, and substance of the voice you hear inside yourself; identify the manner in which you articulate internal thought, and then imagine the deep structure--not the content, but the framework; the cadence, not the melody--of your own voice coming back at you from someone else. You'd be so surprised that you'd take his class, too, even if you didn't need it for your major.

Also, one of my favorite times on campus is beginning to roll around: BYUSA election week! It's so hilarious to watch the desperate resume-stackers pretend to be your friend so you'll post their tacky advertisement as your profile picture (and to watch the usually indifferent campus hordes actively changing their walking routes so as not to be intercepted by perky, flyer-tossing disciples). But you know what this carefully controlled system needs? A crazy third party candidate. I have half a mind to put up posters advocating some lunatic cause just as useless as the ones on their platforms--or some worthwhile one, like budget transparency (BYUSA's notoriously extravagant expenditures are closely guarded).

Testimonial from the BYUSA website: "[BYUSA] hosts events, reminds me of my commitment to life, and helps me want to be a better person."
OMG! I just remembered my commitment to life! Thanks, BYUSA! Why don't you congratulate yourselves by holding another catered cabin retreat?