Tuesday, November 18, 2008

GREtest, and which group is the greatest?

I got some alleviation getting the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) out of the way last week. The test is basically a computerized version of the SAT with an analytic writing section tacked on. You have 45 minutes to take a side on a controversial issue and support it using the breadth of knowledge you've supposedly gained over the course of your undergraduate career. Then you have 30 minutes to rip apart a fallacious argument in a concise essay. The quantitative and verbal sections are virtually identical to the SAT, you know, with analogies, complete the sentence, antonyms, reading comprehension for verbal and choice A, B, they are equal, or it cannot be determined from the given information. The only catch is that the test is computer adaptive, which means if you're doing well answering questions correctly, then the questions will get progressively more difficult. If you are choking, botching, flailing, then the questions get easier. So the test can psych you out. Oh no, these questions seem easy, did I fuck up before?!

Fact is, the test is done now. I drove 90 minutes to get there, went in prepared, practiced, and confident, endured 3+ grueling hours in front of the computer screen, tolerated the greasy keyboard and fidgety mouse, and got it done. And thankfully, my scores are competitive enough so that I never have to take it again.

So onward with graduate application process!

I'm having trouble showing that I want to be admitted. My joy and drive comes from acceptance. Once I'm in, I am so your man. You can count on me. The fear of rejection dampens my desire to give it my all on these applications. Every day I ask "why does everything have to be so damn competitive?" If someone is smart and reliable, why can't they go to school any place they want? The accepted ones are the people who know exactly what the admission officers want to hear. Funny thing is, I know what they want to hear, and for that reason I don't really wanna give it to 'em.

I'm also having trouble finding a third recommender. That's what I get for not going in for extra help and not going out for a coffee or whatever with professors at Gettysburg. None of them knew me that well and for the most part, I liked it that way. Three hours a week (6 hrs if you count labs) was enough professor time for me.

It's troublesome narrowing my interests down to the scale of one professor's research. It's like I have to pretend I like something before I try it. How can I know if I haven't done it, dude?

I'm a big whiner about all this. And I'll just have to deal.

In the last week, I had the privilege of meeting a few new groups of a few new people. The first was a party up in North Jersey in a town called Clark (ironically a GRE testing site, but I chose Toms River in South Jersey instead). There was no booze at this party. The party host was a chemist who develops new mascaras for L'Oreal. And there were others at the party, too, but I never got to talking with them. They were just plain. Plain in personality, plain in looks. Maybe a notch below plain in looks. But these folks were the remarkable young survivors from a competitive, expensive, populous part of New Jersey. They all seemed intellectually sound, and if they weren't intellectually sound, then they made up for it in professional grit. Maybe they were just fried from the tough work week. Anyway, the plain people opened a game that was a hybrid of taboo and cranium, played it for a blink, then I was driving home down the Jersey Turnpike. That was the first group.

The second group was just two girls, really. Rob met them a month ago at Clyde's martini bar in New Brunswick and at the end of that night they plugged it into their phones to meet again in exactly one month. In true Rob fashion, Rob kept to his word, and by by golly them gals did, too. On Friday night when Rob got off work, we met up and found the girls taking drags outside Clyde's. I never caught their ages, but I suspect one was older than us and the other was younger. These girls had a head start on Rob and I boozewise and it showed. They yapped complete nonsense for about 15 minutes before the older one declared that I wasn't having a good time, so she ordered me a 9 dollar "cruzan for a bruisin". I told them politely that I couldn't participate in their talk because it was so jumpy and random and unfocused. The younger one insisted on speaking with an annoying artificial english accent all night and used her word of the week "incognito" about twenty times. The older one wore a shiny engagement ring and discussed a honeymoon plan to go on a cruise around Greece in about a year. This was right after she fanned out her winnings from a successful gambling trip to Connecticut. At some point in the evening, I learned that both girls had gone to Middlesex Community College and both held some kind of accounting job. This was the second group.

The third group was made up of many with an affection for nature. We gathered for a hike in Palisades park along the Hudson River. The group, in addition to two former fellow AmeriCorps members, had a three very normal guys and two interesting girls. I had a sweet day with them. The guys were gregarious and excited about professional sports. They talked up the New Jersey Devils hockey team. Maybe I'll go to a game with them someday soon. One of them was a lawyer who told me some interesting things, which I won't go into, about the US government that make me feel both very safe and very paranoid. The guys also talked enthusiastically about their environmental jobs while also showing curiosity about other people's jobs. They also admitted how great it was going on the hike and meeting new people like us. The lawyer even confessed at the end of the day that he would rather have us drink his beer than the mooches that do it now. As for the girls, one was the mosquito control superintendent for Essex County, NJ and the other had moved from California to do some environmental thing in the city. The mosquito woman was well-versed and a pleasure to walk with. The other was also a pleasure, except it saddened me when she said she hates where she lives in Brooklyn and hates her job. Bottom line here though is that this was the best group, by far. And to cap off the day we all gazed south, and we all reveled in the Manhattan skyline that was aesthetically silhouetted by the amazing glow of orange stratus clouds.

Now, I would like to judge the groups based solely on the quality of the people in them, but I cannot ignore some of the glaring external factors. The first group was the shortest meeting, at a house, boozefree, and at night. The second group was medium length, at a bar, boozy, and also at night. The third group was for a good several hours, outside, sober, and during the day. So I'm thinking that maybe I just prefer more time, the outdoors, the sobriety, and the daytime over the other settings. If the people from the third group were placed in the first two settings, I genuinely don't think I would've liked them quite as much.

My point is: maybe it's the setting of our hangouts that make for really good times. Perhaps the setting deserves just as much attention as the people when determining what sort of gatherings are best. Granted the first group was plain as hell and the second group was not very stimulating to me, but now I wanna go for an all-day hike in the Palisades with both of them and see if I still have the same opinions about them by sunset. But then there's the argument that certain types of people will only put themselves in certain situations and a Palisades hike might not be one of them. The plain folks and bar ladies might not do hikes. So maybe it's the person who chooses their preferred setting, making the qualities of the person the determining factor after all.

These anecdotes about hanging out with new groups of people are not things to be called fallacious arguments, but the analysis at the end sure feels similar to that GRE analytical writing section.



Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Dawn of Obama

President Barack Obama. Say it a few times. Lord, how did this happen? (I say this with a grin). I don't know the answer, but boy, is this moment beautiful.

Two score years ago, Martin Luther King Jr made his "I have a dream" speech, and on November 4th, 2008 the entire United States of America judged an African-American not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character. Last night I cried sweet tears of joy and the tingles on my skin were electric and nothing could stop the swelling of my heart. After such a long spell of dissatisfaction, it feels like America again.
At an AmeriCorps diversity training event in Paterson, NJ earlier this year, a video showing a psychology experiment featuring black children was shared with the group. Two dolls were placed in front of each kid. One black, one white. Then they were asked questions. "Which doll is prettiest?" The majority of the kids picked the white doll. "Which doll is the bad doll?" The majority picked the black doll. Finally the kids were asked "which doll do you look like?"
It warms the soul to theorize that by having Obama hold the most powerful office on the planet, the results of future replications of this experiment will change.

Election day was surreal. My mother and I drove over to the Princeton Junction Fire House to cast our ballots around 10:30am yesterday. On the drive to the polling station, I could feel the weight of the moment. Inside the fire house the old lady at the sign-in table said I looked a bit like a boy who'd been in just a bit earlier. When she flipped to Andrew White, I saw that my brother Dan, who had turned 18 in October,had escaped from the confines of his high school and already voted. My father Larry had voted before he sputtered off to work in his '95 Honda Civic. After I signed next to their names, the old lady gave me my ticket, then I gave it to the poll man, and went through the curtains. After I moved the X into the Obama Biden rectangle, I stared at it for a few seconds, smiled like mad, and punched the CAST VOTE button. And when the curtains opened I was still smiling. I smiled right on out the door and met with my mother soon after. In the evening, my sister called to say she had driven in rush hour, back to her old apartment, all the way back to Clinton, NJ where she was registered, just so she could vote. This is the first time everyone in my family was old enough to vote. And I got some real feelings of family pride on this Election Day.
A corollary to this notion of family pride includes my late grandfather, Grandpa White. He lived in Indiana, a steadfast Republican stronghold, all his life, but always always voted democrat. An image of my Grandpa White sitting on a lone blue throne in a vast red field is forever carved out in my mind. The image is even crisper considering he spent his last years sitting in a fluffy blue easy chair. Anyway, nobody could have ever expected such a conservative state to turn blue, especially not in this election--but it did. And today my Grandpa is proudly smiling down on us from heaven.

At 7pm, my mother burst out of her TV den to announce that the networks had already projected Vermont to go for Obama and Kentucky to go for McCain. From that point on, the excitement of the night never let up. I nuzzled with my mommy for about an hour as the results from a few more states filtered in. By 9pm, five friends had made it to my house to watch the election outcome on my father's prized HD tv. We joked, drank beer, and watched as 150,000 people began gathering in Chicago's Grant Park, the same site as the Lollapalooza music festival which I had attended in August exactly three months prior. When the networks called Pennsylvania for Obama, it was special. When the networks called Ohio for Obama, it was over. Well, essentially over. We had to wait one more hour for the polls to close in California before they could officially project Obama as President-Elect. I was foolishly fumbling around with Comedy Central's InDecision 2008 program when Rob's phone rang. He answered it, turned his head, grinned, and said, "He won." I quickly flipped to CNN, and behold, in bold, white, highly defined letters, it said BARACK OBAMA ELECTED PRESIDENT.

Obama addressed McCain's supporters:
"As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, "We are not enemies, but friends…though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection." And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn – I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."
Then he assured all that we had made the right choice:
"And to all those watching tonight from beyond our shores, from parliaments and palaces to those who are huddled around radios in the forgotten corners of our world – our stories are singular, but our destiny is shared, and a new dawn of American leadership is at hand. To those who would tear this world down – we will defeat you. To those who seek peace and security – we support you. And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still burns as bright – tonight we proved once more that the true strength of our nation comes not from our the might of our arms or the scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals: democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."
So there we were, six subtwenty-five-year-old people, sensing the historical greatness, soaking up the moment, and peering into the future, all at once. A fruit fly researcher slightly offended by GOP VP candidate Palin's belittling remarks about science. A scholar geared to be an English professor. An insightful sociological thinker aiming for a Master's. A middle music teacher aspiring to be a choral conductor. A decision science guru receiving a job offer with internet juggernaut, Facebook, a medium so instrumental in this campaign. And finally, myself, a future environmental scientist riding the wave of the green movement. Amidst all the swirling energy of the moment, we made a toast to change as I let the melodious song of hope wash me away.