Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Plight of the Overeducated

Many people dream in clear, focused vision--they see a role they will fill, the specific ladder they will climb to a pre-identified destination, and the end at which they hope to arrive. I don't know if it is the eighteen years of top-notch schooling or the whirlwind of New York or just the way my brain works, but I am restless and lack a solidified dream-plan. Frequently a "plan" will appear to me, and I will convince myself that this might be my destiny, the path which I was meant to pursue and the area of life where I can make the most impact. Then uncertainty and other options push into this perfect portrait and I am reminded that, thus far, I have not settled for anything less than an ambiguous destiny, blurry as a coastline in the morning fog.

This is a common tale--I've heard it in the ramblings of classmates and seen it plaguing and confusing colleagues and friends. There are three features that form this situation that I find most troublesome: (1) the great American emphasis on "destiny" and having a particular path that you are meant to pursue, (2) the upper-middle-class perpetuation of the mythical beauty in believing that all doors are open to you, and (3) the liberal-idealist perception that "I" must stand out by making a profound impact on this world.

I've been thinking a lot about the "American dream" because of Amy Stuart Wells, my professor who has been assigning readings on the paradox of the whole thing. Even though I've known it all along (and we all have, by believing in it and pursuing it), I'm still shocked to realize that the dream consists of opportunity for the whole/collective success along with maximization of individual achievement. This is where that question looming in the minds of every Oberlin graduate appears: How can I make a positive change in the world/for humankind and be recognized as an individual for doing so?

As a result of asking this question, we rack our brains for the most innovative solution, and when that fails we rack our brains for the most achievable option. Our minds are racing towards a thousand destinations, and struggling to hold onto all of them we find ourselves advancing towards none of them--lost soldiers uncertain of neither our battle nor our weapons, we are defeated.

This is where I stand right now, particularly in the face of collapsing markets and mudslinging campaigns, overpriced airfares and the realization that yes, I do need to hold down a job now if I want to go anywhere (at all) from here. Will rationalizing the American dream and the plight of the overeducated to dream big without direction help me identify my own path to pursue?

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Verde Que Te Quiero Verde

As a student of psychology, I learned that the human brain needs categorization for comprehension. As an example, children formulate a definition of a "tree" based on the elm tree outside of their Massachusetts school or the palm trees lining the Los Angeles boulevard near home. Then, when an unfamiliar tree comes into the picture, it is at first foreign, undefinable, until that category of "tree" is expanded to include this new meaning and all the features that accompany it.

It turns out that we rely on this categorization mechanism to process nearly all the information that we encounter. Faces, places, names and objects all filter through a complex series of categorical worlds until suddenly (hopefully) a match can be made. Recognition follows shortly after.

Paradoxically, what enables us to pick up where we left off day after day also binds us to a strangely limiting need to process events and features based on what we have experienced and seen before. For relationships, this means an inevitable and awkward consideration of who we are currently dealing with in relation to those we have dealt with before, in other situations, in other moments, in seemingly disconnected scenarios. The result is a perpetual string of relational ties that enables us to make some sense of a situation that would otherwise be intangible, incomprehensible, and wonderfully, beautifully new. Why do we fight against this relational activity that our brains immediately plunge into? Why do we desire original experiences yet immediately rationalize them through comparison to anything that shares a feature or two with what we have, momentarily, found exhilaratingly fresh?

Monday, September 8, 2008

This Is Not About Me

Once, someone wrote about New York. This did not seem challenging because it was the second city of light, the sister city to the city of brotherly love, the city where push-comes-to-shove in nearly every encounter and the city where most people seemed to be to be someone.

New York had always been a paradox to this writer--it seemed to host an immense pride coupled with a disconcerting unfriendliness in nearly all interpersonal exchanges. She dreamed of a comraderie generating a calmer, happier atmosphere, and though she loved New York this vision always haunted her, like the unknown freckled past of a quiet lover.

Her favorite encounters with New York were aerial. She savored the moments before arrival when she returned from London or Chicago or Ohio, when the city glistened below her and she was able to see Manhattan in its entirety. Glowing with the glaze of red traffic lights and the yellowed lamps of a million homes, her Manhattan from this angle was simultaneously containable and limitless. Almost always in the seat beside her would be a visitor, some wide-eyed dweller of some other incomparable city, amazed at the strength of the glow in every direction. Manhattan, that tiny island in the midst of New York City, would to that visitor be the home of giants, and the boroughs and suburbs that surround it would be the fortress, an army of two-family homes and New Jersey-tagged Volkswagens owned and operated by masses of immigrants...

The Truth Is...

I'm not really a redhead. I spent the first 6 years of my life proclaiming to anyone who would listen that "I have auburn hair," and it's the truth. The tragedy of being auburn-headed is that one is neither a redhead nor a brunette. Culturally, those of us straddling the median must pick one side or the other: will we go through life claiming high levels of pheomelanin and all the expectations that accompany this, or will we join the boring brown sidelines where those with less exciting pigmentation must find other conversation topics? Obviously, I've opted for the former and spend my days impersonating some meant-to-be real redhead whose life I am most surely co-opting.