Seasons of Change

Spring has long been my favorite season. I love to feel the aura of growth everywhere, of the world waking up. Even at night I can sense the change through the temperature and tone of the wind.

Now it’s late summer, and change is coming again. The sun’s light is clearer with lower humidity, so everything looks brighter. The slanting rays will get much lower before the leaves fall, but this year I can feel that the warm days are numbered, and it seems the plants and insects know as well. In spring the change is more sudden, but fall’s magic is just as strong.

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Morning glory, dill seeds, and cilantro blossoms in my garden.

These are the two turning points of the year. I think they’re the most spellbinding.

Oddly, when seasons change in my own life, they don’t get a warm welcome. After a few years of college and attempting to be a grown-up, I know that events I feel the most apprehension about are the ones that change me the most and result in the most learning. Driving a car. Figuring out how to manage a film shoot come rain or shine and only one chance. Attacking unexplored subject material. I fear the unknown, but after looking back on the new experiences I’ve survived, I see that excursions into uncharted territory yield the strongest memories—they make me feel more alive.

Seasons of change are beautiful. They come in bursts. And just like Autumn’s leaves of fire, they don’t last for long.

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Stereopair with sumacs!

Repeat After Me: A Science Education

I watch the clock while eating a banana in the Student Center. It’s my first semester in college, and 1pm is approaching way too fast. I swallow a last bite, pack my stuff, and join the mass migration of college students heading to afternoon classes. My stop is 2144. Biology lab.

Today we’re investigating the fat content of different foods. We have brown paper towels and selected bits of edibles—cauliflower, yogurt, cheese, banana. My stomach grumbles, having not finished lunch, but I don’t dare eat anything in the lab. We watch as the professor shows us how to smear food across the paper and look for the resulting translucency that signifies fat content. My team goes to work smearing food and recording our findings. Unfortunately, our records don’t match the “correct” results on the professor’s answer key. We lose points for reporting deviant observations. Hastily we scribble out our findings, and instead write down the textbook answers our instructor provides. Our grades restored, we hand in the report.

This is an extreme example of a pattern I’ve noticed in all my introductory natural science classes, which are structured in a way that encourages students to memorize facts and vocabulary but discourages actual exploration. In other words, students are taught what has been discovered through science rather than the process of science itself. In biology lab, my team was punished for our unexpected yet honest results, and then rewarded for our textbook answers. Contrary to the spirit of science, we were taught conformity rather than curiosity.

I understand that an education in established scientific knowledge is important. Without it, how would students know where to push the boundaries? But this sole focus on known facts can destroy the natural appeal of learning for me.

Students should be allowed to explore. Even when rediscovering the most basic of facts, at least students will gain a sense of accomplishment and experience to associate with the new knowledge. In non-science classes, I’ve had professors provide suggestions about the “right” way to do things (about the scope of a project, about tricky yet labor-saving software), but they allowed me to go about exploring on my own. Sooner or later, I came around to seeing things their way, but it happened in a natural process that made me feel as if I was discovering the knowledge on my own. I worked through the problems, devoted more brainpower to the task, and retain this hard-won knowledge better than I would a sterile, impersonal fact.

Science is about pushing the boundaries, questioning the status quo, and systematically exploring the unknown. Science classes—especially introductory ones—should reflect that.

Discovering Your Career

It can take years of adult life before an individual realizes what they’re really good at. Years! Since I’ll be applying to graduate programs in a number of months, I’m inclined to speed up that process.

I’ve found that passionate interest can be very hard to tell from practical talent, and when pursuing a career, talent (more than passion) is what counts. Passion is a prerequisite to talent, and acts as the necessary motivation to devote time and effort toward an activity. However, the presence of passion doesn’t necessarily indicate the presence of skill.

Take for instance my three years of competition in speech and debate. What got me started in the league was my passionate interest in oral interpretation, a form of storytelling and acting. I also experimented with debate out of curiousity. As the years went by, my interps never ranked very highly (though I loved performing them). Debating, however, was another story—I consistently ranked higher as my skill level rose. Despite my own bias towards interp, dispassionate panels of judges helped me realize where my strongest talent existed.

The ingredients of speedy self-discovery seem to be experience, second opinions, and (to a lesser degree) contemplation. When all these components come together, it’s hard to ignore the boundaries separating talent from pure passion.

Problems with Pruning

The morning glories were strangling my tomatoes again. I didn’t mean to plant them so close together—in fact, the morning glories sprouted on their own from last year. As it happens, if I dare plant morning glories purposefully, the rabbit will come by and eat them. Feral morning glories are the only ones I’ve got.

Eventually I toughened up and pruned back the morning glories. Pruning is something I almost never do—I’d rather have an overgrown garden, a wilderness of variety without space to breathe, than pull up beautiful plants. No wonder my gardens can be unproductive.

Pruning and weeding is something done by all good gardeners, and all good writers, and all busy people. Often, good things have to be sacrificed in the name of better things. Morning glories for tomatoes, and paragraphs for books. The problem with pruning is that it’s hard to know what’s worth the loss.

Do I really need a monstrous tangle of morning glories, or just a few? Since last week when I pruned them, the vines have started strangling the tomatoes again. They’re not going down without a fight.

These tomatoes are some of the sweetest heirlooms in the world. They’re worth it.

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An Education to Remember

I’ve taken twenty college courses in the past three years. Like most college students, I’ve forgotten the majority of the material I “learned” during these courses . . . and what good is a forgotten education?

Google’s first definition of education is “the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.” Ouch—that sounds like something I’d want to forget. Google’s second definition is “an enlightening experience.”

Enlightening experiences are memorable. Sometimes they occur in a college classroom, but rarely when the student feels as if he or she is being force-fed information that is key to passing a test and nothing more.

The few classes I’ve had that were truly and consistently memorable had enlightening experiences at every turn. They made me feel as if I was discovering the material on my own. These classes involved higher concentrations of self-directed learning, in the form of original research or individual exploration.

Though I forget facts and dates and names, I remember the thrill of discovery. Very few classes have influenced my behavior after the final grade is in; those few made me care about the subject more than the grade. Those few successfully transmitted enthusiasm from teacher to student, and fostered a personal interest that will live beyond the classroom.

Have I truly forgotten my education? I prefer to think that I only retain the good stuff.

By Starlight

The first thing you notice is the emptiness. Notice the sound, the feel, even the taste of open air. You’re exposed, and you know it. Alert and listening, you look around at the rustling leaves and wait for your eyes to adjust. You look up and see stars, and start walking.

A crystal roof of pinpoints, featureless if you don’t see the patterns. Living alongside the fireflies.

It’s empty out there, full of possibilities. The stars are closer than the rustling leaves, closer than the blinking lights on a distant hill.

They can’t be that close. Not really . . . but they are. Lightyears apart, all you really know is that that the reaching fingers of dead space haven’t caught you yet. You’re under a blanket of warmth, the summer air a thin veil between solid earth and empty sky.

The stars are yours. Made for you.

This is the only time that ever was or will be.

3 Reasons You Should Write Short Stories Before Tackling the Novel

1 – It’s Easier

A short story can be written in anywhere from 15 minutes to 15 hours, where a novel might take hundreds of hours in planning, writing and editing. Starting small is a great way to build your confidence by setting reachable goals. You’ll have all the fun of building characters and telling a story, but also have the great satisfaction of seeing a finished product emerge in a reasonable timeframe.

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2 – It’s Educational

Writing short and fast means you have more flexibility to experiment with your genre. If one story doesn’t turn out, oh well—it was a one-week experiment. Next week will be different.

You also experience all aspects of storytelling in a reduced timeframe: planning, writing, editing, and marketing. When writing a novel, each of these stages can take months, and there’s much more at stake (your time, at least). Short stories and novels teach similar skills, but you’ll learn more through short stories due to the great variety of material you’ll encounter.

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3 – It’s Marketable

Short stories can be published in literary journals and put on your resume! Submitting your pieces this way is much less of a hassle than marketing your new blockbuster novel.rect2985