Saturday, October 11, 2014


I am amazed by our universe. I am amazed by our planet. And I am amazed by our species.

People often think I’m being silly when I express my wholehearted admiration of these things, and that always leaves me feeling rather disappointed. How can you sit passively by when your own mind is so unbelievably complex that it can’t even understand itself? When there are creatures living in the world that no human has ever seen? When we’re not even entirely sure what’s keeping us attached to the ground?

When I was studying abroad in London, I was overcome by the centuries of life and love and loss and all the little peculiarities of humanity, all piled on top of one another in this incredible jumble of streets and buildings and bridges and landmarks. Just think of it: London has existed for over a thousand years. One thousand years. The Tower of London has been a tourist attraction longer than the United States has been a country.

I attended a choral service at Westminster Abbey one afternoon, really just with the passing interest of a tourist looking for something novel to do, but afterward I was struck by the immensity of what I had done and where I had been. Every English monarch since William the Conqueror has been coronated in that very location. The current building is nearly 800 years old. Think of how many people have filtered in and out of that building, how many feet have walked on that floor, how many sacred sentiments have been expressed in that space. Whether you’re religious or not, when you’re in a place like that you can’t help but feel that the air is charged with centuries of the spiritual electricity of the faithful, of the power of the God in whom they believed—and still believe.

Not to mention, of course, the fact that wandering around the building brings you past the final resting places of Isaac Newton, William Blake, Geoffrey Chaucer, Charles Darwin, and Mary Shelley, to name a few. The history there is tangible, and I could feel it coursing through my body like a sip of alcohol: warm and rather comfortable, but with a fiery edge that demands attention.

On top of that is the magnificence of the building itself. I don’t know about anyone else, but I don’t frequently think of buildings as really having been built by anybody. They just are. But the grandeur of buildings like Westminster Abbey increases exponentially in light of the fact that they were built by ordinary people. People who didn’t understand that sickness was caused by germs, people who almost certainly couldn’t read, people who hadn’t even been exposed to the most basic principles of geometry—and yet those people were able to achieve this incredible, improbable, mastery of physics, this beautiful work of art.

Why could they do that? How is it possible for these people who understood next to nothing about their world to accomplish something so immense? It’s because they were human. And humans are nothing if not innovative, creative, constantly seeking out ways to make our mark on the world. The same thing that allows you or me to figure out how to use our new smart phones is what allowed these seemingly-ignorant 13th-century craftsmen to build gravity-defying cathedrals.

It’s easy, being from a relatively young country, to feel entirely separate from all that history. America tends to forget its past, because we are not surrounded by it. We don’t bear the weight of a thousand years of history. We are forward-thinking, all about the future. What happened before doesn’t matter to America. When buildings get old, we knock them down and build new ones. Yes, our dedication to the shiny and new is what makes America a cultural center of the world, but it seems to me that, in the process of constantly renewing ourselves, we forget about all of those people who lived and breathed and fell in love and ate breakfast and bought clothes in the decades, centuries, millennia before us.

Of course, it is also true that being so completely surrounded by history can make you jaded and forget the significance of that past. While in London, I spent time with both Americans and Brits, and I got to thinking about what makes us so different. I came to the conclusion that it really comes down not just to the specifics of our histories, but also to the sheer amount of it. It seems to me that America has a sense of optimism and a need to prove itself to the world that England has long since outgrown. Much of British culture is built on centuries of traditions, whereas much of American culture is built on change and new-ness.

Either way, it’s worth remembering that our cultures are built by people. It takes new locations and new experiences to remind me of that, but I am amazed each and every time I think about it. Imagine the number of people in a thousand years. The number of people who, when it really comes down to it, were essentially the same as we are now. And we are the ones paving the way for the people a thousand years from now. A thousand years from now, we will be the primitive builders of Westminster Abbeys, largely forgotten outside of history lessons, individuals lost to time, but still sharing the same link of humanity that we share with the people of our past.

I think people take their lives for granted. I don't mean that in the obnoxiously cliché "Live life to the fullest!" sense, but in the sense that we tend to forget how we got here. Everything we do stems from everyone who came before us. As an American, visiting England was like extending my US History classes even further back in time. Without England, there would be no United States, or at least not as we know it. Those people who built Westminster Abbey and who wrote the Magna Carta and who walked the streets of that amazing city called London—they are the roots of my cultural identity. And they were—are—people just like I am.

Strip us of the trappings and idiosyncrasies of our generations and we are only human. And we are amazing for that.

*This was written for a travel writing contest through my school's study abroad department.*

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

"We Are Waiting for Our Call"

^Qohen Leth, The Zero Theorem

Prepare yourself for a stupid amount of parentheticals. I'm sorry.

If you've been around here a while, you may remember that I talked about a class I took called "The Films of Terry Gilliam." If you haven't been around here a while... I took a class called "The Films of Terry Gilliam." It was amazing. Click HERE to read about it.

Anyway, my professor had a mutual friend with Pat Rushin, the man who wrote Terry Gilliam's new movie The Zero Theorem, and at the end of the semester we were lucky enough to read the script for ourselves--a year before the movie was released anywhere. SO COOL (and, as far as I know, SO not approved by Terry Gilliam? Shhh.) So I've been waiting for ages to see this movie.

Friday it finally came out in theaters in the US. (There are lots of things I could say about how movies are released, but we'll just leave it at "I was really excited because it took a long time.") My friend and I wouldn't have missed it for the world, so we trekked up to NYC to catch not just the movie, but a Q&A with Terry Gilliam. I'm not kidding. Terry Gilliam was there. In person. Like, real life, in person.

(We wanted to stick around afterwards to see if we could meet him, but we had to catch a bus, so we power-walked 40 blocks instead. Not quite as awesome.)

The Zero Theorem is about a man named Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), who lives in a burnt-out chapel in the middle of a bright, loud, overwhelming, futuristic London. He crunches entities (they're more than numbers) for ManCom, some kind of enormous corporation run by a guy known only as Management (Matt Damon). Qohen spends his entire life awaiting a phone call that will tell him his purpose in life, and he fears leaving his house, lest he miss his life-affirming call. One day, Management recruits Qohen to take part in proving the Zero Theorem, in which 0% must equal 100%--mathematical proof that everything adds up to nothing. That the universe is nothing but a black hole, empty, devoid of meaning.

The film is filled with Gilliam's usual criticisms: corporations, advertising, government, technology, blind faith. All of them are important, of course. Every Gilliam film leaves me thinking about something. But the more I think about Qohen, the more I realize how much I identify with him. Qohen has been following me around, and I can't shake him.

There's a point in the movie where Qohen tells Bainsley (Melanie Thierry), his sort-of-virtual-girlfriend-type-lady-person, "We've always wanted to feel... different... unique... born to a higher calling." (It sure is convenient having the script at hand. Tee hee!) But when he became nothing but an ordinary, average human being, as most people are destined to do, he felt cosmically let down.

Qohen wants so badly to be special that he wastes his life away, isolated in this burnt-out remnant of a sacred space, a literal sanctuary. He waits for so long for this phone call, for someone to come out and explicitly tell him what his life is meant for, that his life means nothing. He is different. But it's because he is essentially an empty shell. His consciousness is the black hole that keeps appearing over and over again throughout the movie.

It's ironic, really. He misses so many opportunities to be important. Gilliam pointed out in his Q&A that the chapel is filled with white doves--visual representations of all of the things Qohen is missing out on. He hides himself in this place that is filled with so many chances to be significant, but he is so unwaveringly focused on this one thing--this thing that isn't even real--that he actually doesn't understand that there is anything else available to him.

I think it's significant that Qohen is so distressed by the truth about the Zero Theorem. Despite having withdrawn from anything meaningful, he still sees the potential that the universe has to offer. He knows that there is something out there for him, just not that he has to be the one to find it. He begins to doubt that this thing he's dedicated his life to is even real.

If Qohen proves the Zero Theorem, the phone call he's been waiting for (whether it's real or not) means nothing. He's wasted his life for nothing. But while Qohen knows that there's something bigger out there, he puts so much faith in it that he misses what's important; he misses life.

So here I am, waiting. Waiting for someone to talk to me. For someone to tell me I'm good at things. For someone to tell me what I can or should do with my life. Sometimes I am Qohen: hiding in my room, alone with my screens, just waiting for my life to take on one meaning or another. Afraid that if I leave my own metaphorical chapel and actually choose something, I'll miss the thing the universe meant for me. What if I pick something and the universe had something better to give me? If I choose a white dove and then the phone call finally comes--and I miss it?

Now Qohen represents to me what my life could turn into if I keep waiting. I think that's partly why I find him almost unbearably tragic. Because the thing he's waiting for is nonsense. How much of what I'm waiting for is nonsense?

Terry Gilliam is himself a lesson in taking what's yours and never looking back. If he waited for the world to hand him things, nothing he's ever done would have happened. Maybe it's not exactly what you thought you wanted, but you have to take something, or you'll end up with nothing.

Maybe the cosmos does have something in store for me. I believe that it does, anyway. But, no matter how long I wait, it's not going to give it to me. Maybe it'll drop some hints every now and again, but if, like Qohen, I really want to be different, unique, born for a higher purpose, I'm going to have to get there myself.

Maybe patience is a virtue, but the universe can wait a lot longer than you can.

Monday, April 14, 2014

On Being the Smart Kid: Or, What I Learned from Public School

The thing about being the smart kid is that you're not allowed to talk about being the smart kid, or else you seem arrogant.

The other thing about being the smart kid is that you're definitely not allowed to complain about being the smart kid, or else you seem ungrateful.

Well, here I am, talking about being the smart kid.

There are a couple of things I should clarify: 1) I am not a genius. Smarter than average, yes, but certainly not a genius. 2) I am extremely grateful for my above average intelligence. 3) I am not arrogant. I will rarely admit to you that I am the smart kid. I will rarely admit to you that I am good at anything. Because I rarely believe those things about myself. So consider this post a fluke, I guess. Blame it on the blood moon.

When I started kindergarten, I was the only kid in my class who already knew how to read.

And that sums up the entirety of my education.

The thing is, I learn things like some people tie their shoes or eat breakfast: quickly and without really thinking about it. Learning for me is like breathing. I can't help it.

I'm fully aware that most people don't learn like I do, and I'm fine with that. The way that doing anything athletic or understanding navigation is hard for me is the same way that learning is hard for a lot of people. But after 15 years of waiting for everyone else to catch up, it'd be a big fat lie if I said I wasn't exhausted. Through my crippling boredom, I've learned two things about surviving public education. Maybe they're not the kinds of things that my parents and teachers want to hear, but in the interest of honesty, here we go:

Public School Lesson #1: Figure out how little effort needs to go into getting an A
Most of the time, it's basically none. Do the homework while watching TV. Write the paper in a couple hours the day before it's due, read it over once, hate it, and get an A+. Doodle in the margins of your notebook. Never study, but still ace the test everyone else barely passed. This is how I've done school since about 9th grade.

Public School Lesson #2: You don't have to know anything to write an A+ paper
When I start writing a paper, I usually have no idea what I'm going to say in it. I don't write outlines. Ever. I just make stuff up as I go. And about 90% of the time my teachers adore it. The lowest grade I've ever gotten on a paper was a B+. There's a way to write BS and make it sound good, and I seem to have mastered the art.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that I learned astonishingly little in high school. I stuck to Lesson #1 like my life depended on it--I memorized answers and regurgitated them onto various standardized tests before immediately forgetting them. That's all the school system needed of me. As long as I passed the tests, who cares if I actually learned anything? I figured that out around 9th grade and realized that I could beat the system if I just stopped thinking deeply about anything and made it out without actually having fully learned anything. Well, take that, school system. I sure showed you.

Too bad my ploy to pull one over on No Child Left Behind made me miserable and angry.

I honestly believe my high school education did me a disservice (with a couple of notable exceptions, of course). The American public school system doesn't teach you how to learn. It teaches you how to memorize a bunch of crap so that the test scores look good. It doesn't teach you to be an informed citizen, it doesn't teach you to want to learn, it doesn't teach you to think deeply and critically. It teaches you to be lazy and mediocre. Harsh words, but true ones. My elementary school made wonderful effort to make sure that smart kids like me were always challenged and busy. My middle school had a pretty great but very limited gifted program, but by the time I got to high school they had completely stopped trying to keep the smart kids engaged. The one time we had anything close to a gifted program, it was cancelled after one year for being "elitist." There was no reason for me to put effort into my work, so I didn't, and I forgot how to learn. I forgot how to be interested. I forgot how to be smart.

I got to college and, not really having many friends or anything much to do, found myself missing something. It took me a while, but I came to the understanding that what was missing was my intelligence. Not the kind that aces tests or writes A+ papers without caring, but the kind that makes me think and wonder and reach out for knowledge. I came to the understanding that I need to learn things. I need to be intellectually challenged. Even if I'm not trying to learn in my classes (because, let's face it, I'm still sticking to Lesson #1), I need to constantly seek out new information to keep my hungry brain working and happy. Honestly, it's hard sometimes. There's no break. But it's necessary if I want to stay engaged and not depressed.

Being the smart kid isn't just being good at everything. It's hiding your perfect test grade from your neighbor who failed. It's not fishing for compliments, it's genuinely thinking all of your work is crap. It's beating yourself up for not being good at one thing, because you're good at everything else and you're not used to things being hard. It's ignoring all of the A's and hating yourself for getting a B+. A's don't mean anything. You expect A's from yourself.

I don't want to be told how smart I am or how amazing my grades and accomplishments are, because it just makes me feel worse about not living up to my own expectations of what it means to be smart. Everyone's expectations of themselves are virtually unreachable, but it's different when you've spent your whole life being impressive.

Being the smart kid usually means hating everything you ever do. It means consistently feeling inadequate because you're painfully aware of everything you don't know, despite everything you do know. It means never living up to your own expectations, despite always exceeding everyone else's expectations by a mile. It means being disillusioned with the world because you understand it.

But then, being the smart kid means being able to think deeply. It means accepting that you can't ever know everything but still trying anyway. It means being endlessly curious. It means having a wide range of skills and talents and knowledge, even if you don't believe you do.

Bottom line: It may seem like being the smart kid is the ideal situation--being good at everything must be perfect, right? And it is pretty wonderful. But don't assume that being smart doesn't have its difficulties. Because it does. Don't be annoyed that I deny my intelligence or downplay my accomplishments. It's not that I don't appreciate your support, but understand that most of the time I honestly don't believe you.

And now I will return to my normal state of pretending not to be the smart kid.

~Snooty Crumb

P.S. This is the coolest thing I've learned in a long time: If we were to remove all of the space between the atoms and molecules in the Empire State Building, it would be reduced to the size of a grain of rice. Bam. The universe is ceaselessly amazing.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

"Old men must die; or the world would grow moldy, would only breed the past again."

^Alfred Lord Tennyson
Because I need to add more pictures to my blogs. And because this post could use a little lightness. And because this picture is amazing. My family is awesome. I can't wait to meet the little girl in my sister's belly!
Photo by James Martin

I hate the word "Nowadays."

As in, "Nowadays, kids don't know how to treat people with respect."

"Nowadays, nobody knows how to write proper English."

"Nowadays, movies just aren't as good as they used to be."

"Nowadays." It's always used with the most negative connotation, always to talk about what's wrong with today's society.

What frustrates me about this is that nobody seems to think that there's anything good about the world we live in now. It's always, "My world was so much better."

Well, you know what? Too bad. The world isn't the same as it used to be. Was your world really that much better, or do you just think it was because it was yours?

People have had the same complaints about the state of the world since... well, since there were young people to complain about. Every new development, going back as far as people, sparks the exact same complaints: no one knows how to communicate with each other anymore; we're forgetting the old ways of doing things; this technology will make children stupid; etc., etc., etc. We've seen it all before. Just read some old reviews of the Internet, the television, the radio, the telephone, the telegraph, the printing press. They'll all look familiar to you.

What people seem to forget is that the world that they grew up in was different from the world their parents grew up in, and their parents, and their parents. And their parents complained about the same things then. Society gets used to things when they've been around for a while, so what was once revolutionary and controversial becomes everyday, in as little as a generation.

In effect, if you resist these kinds of changes for long enough, you end up looking like an idiot. You can't be a true purist, because if you were you'd be living in a cave speaking a language nobody understands. The world you think was so perfect was someone else's "nowadays."

A lot of people complain about the way that technology, especially mobile technology, makes us incapable of having real conversations with people. Nobody smiles at other people on the street. Strangers don't strike up conversation. The thing is, though, it's not the technology.

Let's use me as an example. I'm a very introverted and awkward person, so the chances of me starting a conversation with you are basically nil, unless I know you, and even then it's not guaranteed. It's not the technology that's making me incapable of talking to people, it's the fact that I'm just generally incapable of talking to people. Not everyone likes chit chat. The technology has nothing to do with it.

From another angle, there's this weird thing that floats around the Internet a lot: "You're not a real '90s kid!" "This is for real '90s kids only!" "Only real '90s kids will understand!" Well, if you are a real '90s kid, do you really remember the '90s? I was born in 1993, which by Internet standards makes me a "real" '90s kid. I barely remember the '90s. You don't own the '90s because you happened to be born during that decade. Our parents and our older siblings "own" the '90s more than we do.

Just because you miss something about the way your world used to be doesn't mean that the new way of doing things is worse. Yes, I think the shows I used to watch when I was little were amazing, way better than the shows kids are watching now. But they probably weren't actually better. I just think they were better because I watched them. I think they were better because I'm nostalgic. When kids now are my age, they'll have the same complaints about the shows that "kids nowadays are watching." The only reason you feel this way is because you're nostalgic and think that anything that wasn't a part of your childhood is crap.

Which is crap.

I think we have this ridiculous tendency to romanticize the past way beyond what it's worth. We have this idea that, somehow, everything was better way back when: that everyone knew how to write "proper" English, that the world was safer, that movies were better, that the world wasn't so obsessed with sex. All of these things are flat-out false. Literacy rates are higher now than they ever have been. Today's English isn't bad English, it's different English. Crime rates are the lowest they ever have been. Ever. It's true that there were a ton of really great movies decades ago, but there were also an equal number of dreadful ones, and saying that only old movies are good is completely undermining the fantastic work that so many current filmmakers are doing. And sex has always been everywhere. Just check out this Ancient Greek graffiti.

Bottom line is, the world has to change. To think it doesn't is, quite frankly, stupid, and I'll go so far as to say that it's harmful. If an animal doesn't adapt, it dies. If a language doesn't adapt, it dies. If a society doesn't adapt, it dies. Innovation is what makes humans special. To feel that you need to deprive humans of that very thing that makes us a special, successful species just because you don't like it is extremely counter-intuitive and selfish. Maybe you don't like it, but just let the world move on. It's not your world to hold onto.

Appreciate the present and anticipate the future!
~Snooty Crumb

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

“All animals except man know that the ultimate of life is to enjoy it.”

^Samuel Butler
This is the obligatory New Year post.

Let me start the post with a disclaimer that I am very sleep deprived at this particular moment because I was up until 4:30 this morning having a learly-norning (late-night/early-morning) deep conversation with a friend--as one does at the New Year, obviously. So I apologize in advance for anything weird. Like Learly-Norning.

I don't know, I kind of like that one.

Anyway, the obligatory New Year post must contain the obligatory look back on the past year. Still being a student, time for me is segmented into semesters. I have a really hard time imagining a year as an uninterrupted series of 12 months, so thinking back on 2013 requires a bit of a stretch on the mind. When I think first of 2013, I think, "Wow, this year couldn't have ended fast enough." This most recent semester was extremely difficult, both personally and academically.

But then I remember that the Fall semester wasn't the whole year (boy, did it feel like it), and I remember that it wasn't even close to being all bad.

I lived in London for a month and a half, for one thing. I took a few really cool classes. I made a documentary. I wrote a screenplay. I won free movie tickets. I found out that I can graduate a semester early.

I learned a lot about a lot of things: about science and language and history and television, but also about myself and about other people. 2013 was a year of self-assessment.

That said, I still can't say I'm too sorry to see 2013 go. Exciting things are coming in 2014, some that I'm expecting, and hopefully some that I'm not. And there are some things I discovered during my 2013 self-assessment that now I can take the next year (and beyond) to work on.

This time next year, I'll be done with school. I'll be an aunt. Maybe if I'm lucky I'll have a job in my sights. Everything will be different, which is both hugely exciting and unbelievably terrifying. So I guess for me, 2014 is kind of the last year of my life as I know it. How strange.

Thanks for a good year, world. Here's to the next one.

Happy New Year,
~ Snooty Crumb