Category Archives: Life

Awkwardness, Wavelengths, and Amplifiers

I’m an introvert, and although I can pass as an extrovert in certain situations (like being in front of a crowd, or when hanging out with people I know well), I still have a problem with small talk. I’ve run into this problem a couple of times over the last few days, where a conversation I’m having with someone suddenly dries up. I often make it worse by sighing or shifting my gaze downward. There’s just nothing to say for a moment and we (this happens in one-on-one and small groups, mostly) just sit for a while and steep in the silence.

Often we get the conversation going again (I usually try to ask about hobbies, goals, work, etc) but it’s a painful reminder that I’m not great at keeping a conversation going.

But there are some people who I seem to be able to talk for a long time with, at length about topics, and some external force has to intervene to end the conversation. I, of course, try to make friends with these people and hang out with them often, but occasionally it happens with a stranger. What mysterious force is it that suddenly makes me able to hold a deep and intelligent conversation with someone, without having to resort to “small talk”? I was thinking about this on the subway home after a party tonight and framed it in an interesting way, that I thought might make a good essay.

Note, I don’t want to claim I’ve “discovered” anything or that this is “the way”, I just want to explore this idea and would love feedback on it.

People have certain interests, and various intensities of these interests. I might call these “wavelengths” – a frequency (topic) and an amplitude (depth of knowledge / interest) that people carry a multitude of. I, for example, could talk to you at length about webcomic publishing, or perhaps the 1987 roguelike computer game Nethack, or how everything about the Scott Pilgrim movie was perfect except for Michael Cera. All of these things I have factoids, opinions, and perhaps most importantly and interest in discussing.

If you ask me to talk about gasoline cars, or maybe the Kardashians, or football, I have a thought or two but you’ll quickly discover that I’m not “on that wavelength.” The conversation can’t last long because I don’t have much to contribute. I’ll say, “hmm, interesting” and listen to you and be happy to learn some things, but I won’t have anything real to contribute. And so unless you’re very passionate about the topic, the conversation will soon end and I’ll make an excuse about having to refill my drink and wander off to find a new conversation. Which is fine, I bet you don’t want to be in this staring-at-the-floor-contest any longer either.

There are also some real dampeners, which one should seek to avoid. Some people don’t like to talk about some things for real reasons, and it’s not kind to force them onto those topics.

And so striking up a conversation is a frequency-searching exercise. What do we have in common enough to talk about. Work, sure. The weather, sure. Complaining about the MTA, sure. But those things aren’t (usually) the kind of things that get people really excited. And sometimes they’re dampeners, when someone is having a bad time at work and you ask them how work is going. But it’s difficult, since the things people really like to get into the weeds about are often obscure, and there’s a strange pressure against just opening conversations with, “hey are you into Nethack?” unless there’s some reason, like I saw you playing Nethack. I think it’s a failure thing; if I get all excited, “oh, are you a Nethack fan?” and the response I get is, “what’s that?” then I know I’m in for giving an explanation, which isn’t the same as a conversation.

Which of course is one of the reasons that the internet is so neat. I can just click some buttons on my $2000 facebook machine and get instantly connected to a large group of Nethack fans. Sometimes these online conversations spill over into real life. But often the Venn diagram of people I hang out with IRL and the people who are in these online groups is two circles. The fact that we can find these “lifestyle enclaves” (see Habits of the Heart by Bellah et al) of people on the same wavelength can also be dangerous echo chambers.

But the best, the best thing is when you run into someone who is an amplifier on your wavelength. My partner is like this for a lot of things, where we both get excited about something and end up being able to talk about it for a long time. And I have a friend who is like this for technical things – once we start coming up with tech and business ideas it’s very difficult to stop.

But to do this, your wavelengths have to be similar, and just like music there have to be other notes – other wavelengths that you can bounce off of to add interest to the conversation without it falling flat. And these amplifiers are rare. You know them when you find them and you hold on to them. They’re people who hear your ideas and “yes and” them, sending the wavelength back to you, but louder. You’re safe to explore here. You can even dig around for new wavelengths together, since you can always return to your common ground if nothing turns up.

There are some people who seem to be able to frequency-hop easily. It’s practice, I know, but I’m not that good at it. And as an awkward nerd-human I’m terrible about hiding when I’m uninterested in a wavelength, I quickly lose interest. My partner is great at this – she has the ability to work with people across a much wider variety of interests and be (or at least seem) interested in what they’re saying, and carry on a conversation. This is a skill I’m still working on, but it is a skill that can be practiced.

Name Change

When Greta and I got married, we joked that we were going to merge our last names (Dohl and Seidel, respectively) into a portmanteau, “Seidohl”. With our wedding date approaching and no better ideas, we happily went forward with that idea and made it our legal last name. This isn’t a guide (there’s a good one here) but really just a story.

For posterity, and also to hopefully instruct anyone interested in doing the same, I’ve decided to write down the processes we’ve gone through. Please let me know in the comments if you’ve had similar or different experiences!

Family

To begin: my parents, The Seidels, took my mom’s maiden name when they were married. As far as I can gather, they did it mainly because of my dad’s strained relationship with my Grandfather. (Only one child – an adopted second cousin – still bears the Pizarro name that was handed down by my Grandfather). Still, they apparently faced some hardship in changing my dad’s name officially, so I was expecting a tough time of making up an entirely new name.

Telling my family was not hard. Most of them agreed that it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do and actively encouraged us. My maternal grandfather (rest in peace) seemed surprised, although he was in good humor about receiving the news that I would be likely the last Seidel on his side of the family. He mentioned one great aunt who would be “spinning in her grave” about the news. (Connect her to a turbine?). I never met her and, to date, have not been visited by her angry ghost. So I think I’m good there.

YMMV, of course, with your own family.

Marriage License

In the county where we were married, we could only change our names to a) one of our existing last names or b) hyphenate our last names. (I can no longer find a reference to this, but Michigan’s marriage laws being as backwards as they are I wouldn’t be surprised). So for our actual marriage, we just c) kept our own last names.

New York

We moved to NYC right after getting married, and changed our names through the NY state court system. This was relatively straightforward. We filled out some notarized paperwork and got a court date. Note that finding a Notary Public can be difficult, even in Manhattan! We needed our original Birth Certificates as well.

We dressed up nice and appeared in front of a judge. The main questions we were asked related to figuring out if we were doing this to get out of a debt, crime, or other obligation. I remember that the guy in front of us was changing his name for religious reasons and the judge approved that as well.

The details of this next part are a bit fuzzy, since this was so long ago. The judge approved our name change and sent us to get certified copies. There was a (IIRC) $65 charge to change the names, and then each notarized copy cost about $10. We ended up needing five (?) certified copies, one for our records, one for a couple of services like the Social Security office, debts (student loans companies), and more to publish in the newspaper. You must publish your name change in a public newspaper.

You can publish in the New York Times, if you want to shell out a boatload of money. I published in, I think, the Irish Echo, which cost about $35. You don’t need to be Irish to publish there! It’s one of the cheapest papers to publish in so I expect they do a brisk business on this.

Finally, we got certified copies of our completed name change documents for our records (another $6 per copy, I think?). We used that to do things like refresh our passports.

Problems

The only institution that really gave me any grief was my bank. They seemed perfectly happy to accept that my wife’s last name had changed through marriage without any documentation (this seems like a major security flaw???), but as soon as I told them that we’d changed it in front of a judge, suddenly they needed me to send documents for both of us. I did, and they changed the names promptly.

Trying to change my frequent filer miles name on Southwest also caused problems. Their online name change form simply didn’t work, and none of the phone support people could do anything but tell me to go fill out the form. I think I eventually got around it but it required some developer console hacking??

Changing emails, usernames and websites was also tricky. I still have my old last name in some usernames. I was very fortunate that I’d chosen ertysdl as my email username, since sdl stands for both Seidel and Seidohl! I promise I didn’t plan that. Some sites seem to use your username as a unique identifier, and why would that ever change?

Conclusion

Changing my last name wasn’t a difficult task, although it was made harder by state law in Michigan which didn’t allow us to change our name at the time of our wedding, which would have saved us a lot of time and expense. Only a few entities gave me trouble about updating my name, but otherwise it seems like a pretty common thing to do and most of the clerks didn’t blink an eye – in fact, it seems like several people change their name every day in NYC, so the process is pretty streamlined.

Postscript: Thinking thoughts

I didn’t grow up with any strong connection to the Seidel name. It’s generally a German surname, and I’ve always wondered if the anti-German sentiment of the 1940s led to my earlier family suppressing that aspect of my heritage. I have a much closer affinity for Sweden, since I was partially raised by my dad’s mom who was born to Swedish immigrants. That said, I don’t really consider myself Swedish or have any connection to the country and its people other than that.

There aren’t many other Ertys in the world! I used to come up on the first page of google results with just my first name, but that seems to not be the case any more. Unfortunately, unique names come with downsides as well. There’s some weird art out there with my name attached to it (I didn’t make it!). However, with a unique first and last name, I end up being very Googlable. That’s something I decided was good?

To me, changing my name like this is an expression of the individualism and emptiness of the modern “white american” culture. I don’t have a connection to any large family or lineage through my names. I’ve changed both my first name (from Erik to Erty) and my last name (from Seidel to Seidohl), and I rarely use my middle name (and have considered changing it at times as well). A name is an outward expression of self. It’s like a tattoo. I don’t not like my original names, I’ve just found new ways of expressing myself. I think this is a form of rebellion against previous generations that put so much caché into names – let’s discard that and refer to ourselves how we want, not just on the internet. I’ve been lucky to not have familial pressure back on these decisions, so they’ve been almost no work at all.

Soylent Soylent Soylent Eggs

I’m trying Soylent as an experiment. This is my 7th day eating it. Here’s my blog post for the past 6 days of Soylent if you’re interested.

Woke up today tired, but enjoyed myself a glass of Soylent in the morning, made with some vanilla (for flavor) and salt (for not keeling over). Definitely bodily tired – a kind of dull aching tired that wasn’t exhaustion or sleepiness. It went away after I was up and about though.

Work went slowly today. I worked from home, and I’m either just checked out already for my upcoming wedding (I leave for Michigan next Tuesday and end a year of long-distance relationship for good!) or the Soylent is slowing me down. I’m actually going to say it’s the wedding. Body-wise I felt pretty great today.

Soylent for lunch, dinner. I had two cups of green tea with lunch which was enough caffeine to propel me until the end of the workday. Again, not tired today. I usually get exhausted at 8pm since that’s right after I eat a heavy dinner, but on Soylent I just kind of coast across these previously rugged ups-and-downs. This is pretty similar to what some other people have reported.

Way less gas today either. I didn’t eat as much Soylent as I did yesterday. The Chinese food is out of my system as well, I think. Plus I’m just finally getting used to the fiber and high Glycemic Index.

I was really craving some salt-and-pepper scrambled eggs around 1 a.m., though, so I just made those and ate them. I’m actually writing this blog post with my laptop perched on the stove. They were fluffy and delicious.

I think that means I’m still not getting enough salt, because salt tastes really good to me right now. Soylent only contains 45% of the RDA of salt, so that’s not a surprise. How does one go about monitoring their … blood-salt percentage? Should I keep track of my blood pressure?

I made it two full days on Soylent before eating something else. But midnight super-salty eggs are delicious and I’m glad I made them. I’m thinking that after I get back from my wedding (where I won’t be able to eat Soylent since I won’t have it with me) I might switch to just having Soylent for Breakfast and/or lunch. We’ll see.

From Brooklyn,

–Erty

Six Days of Soylent So Far

I promised Pedro that I would start blogging when I started on my Soylent diet, so here goes. I’m a bit late, considering that I actually started in on Soylent a few days ago, but preparations for my wedding have kept me away from the blagosphere.

I’ll assume the reader is familiar with the purpose and origin of Soylent. Otherwise, I recommend this well-written article on the matter.

I ordered Soylent ten months ago, and it is finally here! The wait is over, and I get to embark on this crazy experiment in food hacking.

Day 0: Paraphernalia

My Soylent Starter Kit arrived today. I’m excited.

Everything I Need To Make Soylent, Apparently

Everything I Need To Make Soylent, Apparently

That’s a 2L BPA-free container with a great twist-off top, a scoop, and some instructions. The actual soylent arrived the next day.

Day 1: Soylent Begins

A rather large, white box arrived at work. It contained four smaller boxes, each a week’s worth of powder, supplemented with seven tiny bottles of oil.

2014-08-01 19.47.16

The Soylent Arrives

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The large box contained four of these, each a week’s worth of powder and oil. Instructions were laid on top.

Instructions for Soylent

Instructions for Soylent. The full (amended) instructions are available at instructions.soylent.me

I’ve been anticipating this for a while – I was in the first batch of backers when the kickstarter-esque purchasing opened. I can’t eat gluten, dairy, or chocolate. So, while Soylent is *barely* not gluten free, it’s at least better than trying to figure out what will and won’t make me feel awful on a daily basis, and sometimes guessing painfully wrong.

Who knew couscous was pretty much entirely wheat?

Let’s make some Soylent!

Just add water

Just add water

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I added water

I describe the taste as “purposefully nondescript”. As Rob says on his blog:

I assumed I would quickly get tired of the taste but this does not happen. I accidentally stumbled on what the soft drink industry uses to make sure people never get tired of Coca-Cola, “sensory-specific satiety”. If a taste is pleasant, but not very specific, the brain does not tire of it.

I think of it as chalky pancake batter, but a bit thinner. It’s not bad. It’s not particularly delicious either, but I can see myself not getting tired of it.

Day 2: Soylent For Breakfast

With family in town, I didn’t have a chance to go full-on Soylent. I had Soylent for breakfast this morning, but nothing more.

No changes in appetite or anything else so far – it’s as though I ate a full breakfast. No gas, normal mental state.

Day 3: Soylent for Breakfast and Late Night Meal

Again, a light Soylent diet. Don’t worry – things are about to get interesting.

Day 4: Dizziness

This was the first Soylent workday! I poured myself a glass of the stuff, another liter into a Nalgene for later, and hopped on the subway.

At work I could already tell that my brain was off – I was feeling somewhat light-headed and definitely wasn’t all there. I would forget small things and push really strange errors in my code that I definitely would have caught if I had been running at full power.

Around 11 a.m. I was definitely light-headed and nauseous. I excused myself and sat in the bathroom for a while. Was it time to call off the experiment, so soon? Did I just need to push through this – navigate the Columbia River on my way to the Willamette Valley?

I posted on reddit. Responses indicated that I was either low on blood sugar, or there wasn’t enough salt in my Soylent. Not having a quick way to measure my glucose levels, I went with the latter and put some salt in a cup of Soylent and drank it, washing it down with about a liter and a half of water.

By 1 p.m. I had pretty much returned to normal.

Even today (day 6) I am still somewhat “distant” – as though my brain were operating on some sort of low-power mode. My memory is shoddy and I can’t do the kind of high-level abstract reasoning that is required for programming. I’ve heard from some other “Soylent Pioneers” that this goes away after a few days and the brain starts to run at 150%. We’ll see.

One of my friends had a birthday party that night so I decided to get some real food in me. For lunch I had a burger (no bun) and fries. I attended an excellent Hacker School talk by Daniel Espeset that night, and ate the delicious (Indian?) food provided.

I drank just under one “drink” of alcohol at the party, since I wasn’t sure what Soylent would do to my tolerance. Some reports say that it lowers your tolerance quite a bit, and for myself at 130lbs, I’m already unable to deal with much.

That one “drink” got me comfortably warm but not buzzed. So, yes, I think it does lower my tolerance even further, which I didn’t think was possible. Further testing is needed.

Day 5: Sleep In

With the full understanding that actions – not intent – is what matters, I’m pretty proud of myself for this being the first time I’d overslept since starting my new job. I have a pretty solid excuse as well – I woke up, hit the “one hour less” instead of the “one hour more” button on my alarm clock, and dozed peacefully until noon.

But, maybe this was the Soylent’s fault as well? I just (day 6) tried to turn on the lights in the room I’m in and spent a good five seconds swiping at the wrong wall, wondering where the switch was.

Either the Soylent isn’t powering my brain properly or I’m already becoming an old man. Hopefully the former.

Upon arrival at work, however, I was feeling better about the whole thing, and had a pretty productive day.

Chinese food for dinner – still not ready to commit 100% to Soylent.

Day 6: The Gas

A lot of people have reported having pretty bad gas on Soylent. There are some hilarious posts about this. From the second:

It was bad. These weren’t mere ha-ha toot kinds of emissions; this was hair-raising. It was room-clearing, horse-killing, World War I mustard gas-type gas. I migrated from room to room in the house like I was giving up territory to the Kaiser, my face fixed in an expression of horror as green hell-fumes trailed behind me, peeling paint and wilting plants.

Now! The chinese food I ate last night *probably* contained gluten, so it’s entirely possible that my sudden onset of why-don’t-you-work-from-home-tomorrow flatulence is from that. More testing is needed on this as well. This testing won’t be nearly as fun as the former.

I am working from home tomorrow, just in case.

I also tried drinking some caffeine today. Here’s one great thing about Soylent: I haven’t felt like I needed a cup of tea or can of soda since I started. I’m always comfortably awake, which also makes it a lot easier to fall asleep naturally. I have some problems with caffeine, namely that I’m very sensitive to it and drinking a coca-cola after about 3 p.m. makes me wide-eyed until 5 a.m.

I had one can of coca-cola today and It’s provided me with the power to write this post. Hopefully I can get to bed at a reasonable hour.

For the third time, further testing is needed. It would be neat to be able to run my brain at full tilt for an entire day on a cup of green tea.

I’m going to have Soylent for dinner, which will make this my first 100% Soylent day.

From Brooklyn,

–Erty

Perfect Craft, Imperfect Art

I was talking with my good friend Evan, discussing our philosophies of making things. Evan, a classically trained pianist, recalled an aphorism of one of his mentors:

Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.

This makes sense in some fields. In playing a piano, if one practices sloppily, one will perform sloppily – incorrect finger positions practiced over and over again will be nearly impossible to correct. I worry about this when I play StarCraft 2: Without guidance from a professional, are the keystrokes I make a thousand times going to be so ingrained that I won’t be able to adjust myself to the practices that will take my skill to the next level?

Attempting to apply this method to creative works fails miserably! A writer cannot write perfectly every time, nor a painter control to the molecule what their paint will do. Designers cannot always know what the user is going to want.

A programmer attempting to make a thousand perfect programs will leave themselves mired in a death by a thousand cuts – they will have no code reach and no output. Which is why I strongly argued that Facebook’s old motto was better for any artist:

Move fast and break things.

What better way to learn the intricacies of impossibly large and complex systems? Even experienced programmers write bugs all the time, and better to do so at some speed which allows progress to be made.

What I was missing during this conversation with Evan was a distinction between Art and Craft. Art being the ability to create works (move fast and break things) and craft the skill that it takes to create art (practice perfectly).

A writer who does not take the time to practice sentence structure and when to break it will find themselves unable to write coherently. A painter who does not attempt to make each brush stroke perfectly will be left frustrated when their paint seems to disobey their hand. A designer who does not use their knowledge of color and proportion will be unable to guide users effectively. A programmer who does not use the right data structures and algorithms will find their code slow and unusable. All of these are separate from the actual “pieces” that each creates.

I think then my goal is to create lots of imperfect art, but practice my craft with skill each time so that I can avoid ingraining bad habits. Perfectionism in craft is important; perfectionism in art leads to procrastination.

Edit: Hacker School facilitator Allison Kaptur points out an excellent article that puts this very clearly (pun intended) at http://jamesclear.com/repetitions

“Words cannot even describe the multitude of design flaws in your body, and yet it is still the vessel of your mind; it is still your connection to this world. Production code is broken, but so is nature.” —@jordanorelli

The Artist and the Scientist

I posit that there are two distinct ways in which people become fascinated by programming.

One way is via high-level languages, web development tools, and visual languages. This “way” in is for people who are more interested in the act of creating with code than coding itself. I call these people the “artist-programmers”: people who don’t care about pointers and arrays, and would much rather fiddle with knobs and buttons than bits and bytes to create something cool. Artist-programmers can trust what is under the hood, and use this metaphorical car to go very far.

On the other hand, some people start programming with coding as the goal. These people learn about the array and are FASCINATED. These people can spend an afternoon messing with pointer indirection and not call it wasted time. These “scientist-programmers” believe that typing, references, and pointers are important to understand – their metaphorical car sits in the garage, taken apart into its components, and yet they are more fulfilled than if they were out driving it without any idea how it works. These programmers usually arrive via C, Assembly, or even hardware.

I think both ways to learn programming are correct, and appeal to different people. One of the reasons I enjoy python as a first language is that it is broad enough to appeal to both types as people. Lisp is great for this as well. Teaching an artist-programmer C++ is going to be a painful process for everyone involved. And teaching a scientist-programmer Mathematica will leave them wanting to know what’s going on inside.

The “programmer-in-fullness”, however, is both an artist-programmer and a scientist-programmer. These programmers are driving the metaphorical car AND have a full understanding of what’s going on inside the hood. They can speed along in a high-level language, but know what is happening on the inside enough to optimize as they write, fix things when they break, and use the right data structures and algorithms without sacrificing time worrying about the details.

Edit: My friend and fellow Hacker School alumnus @jordanorelli provides a great distillation of this idea: “I think the distinction is that I’m driven to learn things because they allow me to create things, whereas many others are driven to create things because in doing so, they learn things. Do you learn to create, or do you create to learn?”

Some thoughts on the types:

Artist-Programmers:

  • Teaching Them:
    • Focus on high level languages and visual languages
    • Focus on process and outcome, not design or implementation
    • Focus on immediate feedback and not worrying about speed
  • As one:
    • Don’t feel bad about using tools and helpers (e.g. Dreamweaver)
    • Aim for large projects that you can use these big tools to complete
  • To become a programmer-in-fullness:
    • Take a course like NAND-to-Tetris, which will allow you to see how the parts all fit together in a project
    • Take an interest in optimization, as far as you’ll still be able to finish your projects
    • Take apart your favorite tool and see how it works

Scientist-Programmers:

  • Teaching Them:
    • Focus on the little things. Pointers. Arrays. Bytecode.
    • Give them an extremely restricted toolset and a slow processor.
    • Start them in on data structures and algorithms fast – they’ll eat it up.
  • As one:
    • Buy books on programming. Implement their examples. Explore hardware organization.
    • Don’t be frustrated by projects that you can’t finish, as long as you learned something in the process.
    • Contribute to larger artist-programmer projects which can use your optimization skills.
    • Don’t mock artist-programmers for using tools. They don’t mock you for not using tools!
  • To become a programmer-in-fullness:
    • Start to use libraries and packages which will allow you to complete projects faster, even if you don’t know what they do at the low level.
    • Focus on optimization less, as long as you still understand what’s going on inside.
    • Work hard to finish projects, as painful as the final sprint is.

And above all, understand that people might come to programming from a different perspective than you. The scale is most likely not binary, either – think of it as a float instead of a bool. And be able to use this knowledge to give people projects that they’ll be interested in and will do well with.

From Manhattan,

–Erty

Happy Birthday, Greta Dohl

For those of you who are offended by sappy love things on the internet, I’m not sorry, because it’s totally up to you to keep reading this.

Greta,

I’ve known you since we were two new faces on a path in the woods, you: fourteen, northwoods, energetic. Me: sixteen, wandering, timid. I was fascinated by your charm, charmed by your energy, and energized by your presence. Before I joined the theater program at Conserve to be with you, I remember sitting outside the auditorium being bored out of my mind but hoping so much that you would walk by outside and I could say hello to you.

You couldn’t go to dances and I was terrified of your parents. I would sit in the gathering space and sneak glances at you from across the couches where we – the couch monkeys – gathered. You preemptively turned me down before I asked you to the Haloween dance. I remember being upset, but at the same time happy, because you had acknowledged that I existed. It sounds kinda creepy now but when you’re in high school that’s the kind of thing that happens. I asked you out three more times, according to legend. I remember only two of them but I’m sure we’ll be telling people it was seven times eventually for the sake of a story.

You held my hand in the woods. I nearly died. Iana made fun of you for confusing me.

One of the happiest days of my life is the first day we kissed. I remember it like a movie in my head. You were sitting on the couch watching Mulan with Mara and Ben and maybe some other people. I was in some odd position that put my head on your soulder. Our cheeks touched accidentially and then not accidentially and then we kissed and I still remember exactly how it felt and how the light looked through the glass and the texture of your shirt and the feeling in my stomach and the feeling of the couch cutting into me but I didn’t care.

We broke up for the summer but spent so much time talking on the phone that it wasn’t really like we were apart.

We fell in love walking through the woods 6 years ago.

Greta, you inspire me and give me purpose – thank you for allowing me to be a part of the latest third of your life. Happy 21st birthday!

From Brooklyn,

–Erty

Reflecting on my English Major

I wrote this paper as part of my English Capstone Experience, which I enjoyed immensely.

If you’re attending Lawrence and thinking about an English Major, you might find it interesting. I’m proud of the voice and style.

It’s also something I want to reference in my next post, so I figured I’d put it online first so I can link to it.

Despite the overwhelming urge, I haven’t edited this since it’s original inception on the date stated.

Erty Seidel
2012-11-15
IHRTLUHC

English Capstone Experience

Three years ago, I wandered on to Lawrence campus as a lonely, confused freshman who had decided to study English and Computer Science. I had enjoyed writing in high school, achieving various accolades, and so I thought that it might be a good, creative, worldly major to offset the hard quantitative world of computers. In fact, I had already completed a 50,000 word “novel” during National Novel Writing Month, so I thought I was pretty cool.

Well, I am soon leaving the Lawrence campus as a not-quite-so lonely, not-quite-so confused senior. I have somehow made it through ten terms of English and Computer Science, and stand now on the precipice of graduation, with a solid foundation in the two subjects, and a foreboding sense about exactly how much I don’t know about them.

Which is a lot, but that’s okay.

Earlier this year I was pleasantly surprised – no, shocked! – to learn that Advanced Creative Writing can be taken as a capstone course. I was resigned to taking another course about analysis of texts, which I have never been keen for, yet have found myself quite practiced at. My goal as a freshman in the Lawrence English department was to take Creative Writing: Fiction, and then Adv. Creative Writing: Fiction, and do only as much mucking about with Shakespeare and Milton and Dickens as was required of me. My schedule had so far blasted my dreams of taking the lesser class, so learning that I could switch into the Adv. version was as though the god of Lawrence had descended, kissed me on the cheek, and said, “you know what, you’re alright.”

I digress. What I mean to say is that the Adv. Creative Writing course is the capstone of my English and Computer Science experience at Lawrence, mainly because it was the one goddamn course I’ve wanted to take in the department. I didn’t dislike my other courses, and some of them (Modern Drama, for example, which I’m sure I’ll extoll the virtues of in a page or so) were downright mind-expanding. But it was really the creative outlet that writing allows that I’ve been seeking.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The first English class I took here was Literary Analysis. If I recall correctly, we spent a lot of our time studying Virginia Woolf, whom I had already studied for some time – my best paper from high school was a treatise on Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway written in the style of Woolf. Yet it was nonetheless a fun course. Bowles taught it, so we had a distinctly feminist slant (again, which I was used to from high school), and I enjoyed the reading. My favorite reading from that course, actually, was a play called “The Pillowman”. I turned in a paper on the play, done in the style of the author, which I am particularly proud of. I liked it because it was contemporary, it was dark and new and deep.

I should mention that writing papers in imitation of an author’s style is, I think, one of my strengths. For this paper, I have chosen to write in my own voice.

Forward! To a Survey of Postcolonial Literature, with Professor Kohr. A fine class, although particularly difficult. Heart of Darkness was exciting at times, and dull at others, and I pulled from it a sense of narrators – the story is told by the author about a man telling a story to his shipmates who may or may not be asleep – which resonated with me for the first time. That was important for my writing, since it’s essential for any author to understand unreliability in storytellers.

Major British Writers, with Bowles again – more Woolf. Major American Writers with Barrett; Transcendentalism et al. How I got through high school without having read Thoreau and Dickinson is a mystery to me, but I didn’t find them particularly interesting. I think if I had taken Modern Drama first thing freshman year, this all would have made a lot more sense. Alas.

The English Novel was my next stop. My most vivid memory from that class is mixing up “Pamela Andrews” – the protagonist of the novel, with “Pamela Anderson” – who is decidedly NOT Pamela Andrews. The shame still haunts me to this day. Someday I will work that into a story and it will be hilarious.

I also learned in that class about character development versus plot development. I saw how the novel was a big step toward contemporary writing, where the psychology of the characters becomes the focus – change in a person over time – and development of plot beyond just conflict between protagonist and antagonist. I had seen these novelistic traits before, but this was the first class that had ever really caused them to resonate with me.

Renaissance Drama was, with no offense to Bond, probably the most boring class I took here. Honestly – he did his best and always brought energy to class, but I had no desire to learn the material. My girlfriend of six years had just moved to California (she’s back now!) so my morale was a bit low at the time.

Spring term of sophomore year I took 18th century literature with Barnes, which was probably the most sex-laden class I have ever attended. We read 18th century pornographic novels as the repertoire, and it was… exciting? I certainly gained knowledge of how to write a sex scene, if that ever comes up in my writing career.

Mm, yes.

Junior year, that is to say, last year, I took only one English course. Modern Drama, with Prof. Dintenfass.

Dintenfass is old, wise, crotchety, and was probably crafted out of Zeus’ left over lightning. On the very first day, he asked us where the word “Drama” comes from. Woosh! Off we were on a magical journey through the ancient Greek theater. Swoop! We were given – for the first time in my career here – a solid overview and timeline that encompassed the authors that we were going to learn about in class.

Dintenfass was the kind of guy who was not afraid to lecture on English material. One of the main points of modernism is that there are infinite ways to interpret something, so he would give us some of the more accepted ideas, while allowing us to figure out others on our own. He would tell us what people thought about things – especially what he thought about things – but acknowledged that sometimes we would be more right than the Ph.Ds. That class, for the first time in my career here, felt not like a book club, but like a good old-fashioned class that taught me not only what the canon was of the time, but also what people thought about it.

And in my spare time, I looked up Dintenfass on the internet. “Writers Write,” had been his motto when he had been teaching Creative Writing here at Lawrence. (This was, as well, a time when he was allowed to chain-smoke through each lecture.) Everyone says that the trick to writing is writing, but I realized then that the trick to any craft is to practice it. Not just, “Practice makes perfect,” but really a sense of understanding that the only way to get good at something is to work at it, which is something that Creative Writing requires. There is no secret formula except hard work and dedication to the craft. This expands even into my studies of Computer Science – the only way I am going to succeed in that field is to practice computer science.

Dintenfass’ class was the first one where we took Modernism, killed it, and pinned it into a cardboard box with its wings displayed so that we could try to figure out what it is. We dissected what it meant as a movement and as a genre, using the plays of the era as the magnifying lens through which to do so. Almost every class session changed my mind on some subject, and expanded my view of the world. It goes without saying that I wrote him a glowing end-of-term review.

Finally I arrived, quivering with excitement, on the doorstop of Adv. Creative Writing. A class that pulls from all prior experience, English, Computer Science. Life. My writing is informed by my attention to the world and nothing else. I have begun to attend to my voice – the one that high school teachers tell you that you haven’t found yet – and make it my own. The class was incredibly useful in showing me what worked and what didn’t. What flowed and what crashed.

I have yet to take Shakespeare with Bond in the Spring, so my English career here is not at The End, but it is nearing The End, which is in itself something quite literary and profound. For me, Adv. Creative Writing is that End, since it represents my goal – to take a course in Creative Writing at Lawrence and gain instruction of how to do that elusive thing that all writers do, which is to write, and write a lot, and someday hope to begin writing well. Reading helps, too. I cannot discount the books that – at the time – I had to trudge through to achieve a grade. Without them – even Eliot’s Middlemarch – I would not have the solid foundation of language, vocabulary, structure, and ideas from which to construct my own prose.

–Erty Seidel

(From the 2170 to Boston)

Brooklyn Hipster

This is a pretty self-centered post, so if you’re not interested in my life stories, you might want to check out my more technical posts.

Trying to sleep more this morning was like trying to blow air into an overinflated balloon. I’d really messed up my sleep schedule over the last week – On Monday I took .5mg of melatonin in an attempt to re-regulate my sleep schedule, which ended up being too much for my tiny frame. I slept for 12 hours straight, and woke up halfway a few times, without enough energy to lift myself out of bed.

So, there I was, lying on a couch in Brooklyn at 6 in the morning with nothing better to do than get out of bed, walk to a coffee shop, and write a blog post. Because why not?

It turns out there aren’t many coffee shops on 5th avenue in Brooklyn that are open that early. I’m sitting now at the Starbucks at Flatbush and 7th. I tried, tried so hard to go to a local coffee shop, but none of them were open, or they only served coffee. As a chai drinker, those places aren’t particularly useful to me. It’s kind of like Apple, though – I really dislike how much I like it. Apple products and starbucks coffee are well-designed and delicious, respectively, but I’d rather drink locally owned coffee and use linux. Why? I blame my hipsterness.

Speaking of being a hipster, I’m already wearing an outdated cap and collared shirt, and writing my blog in a starbucks in a trendy area of brooklyn while I apartment hunt for my job at Etsy, which if that’s not hipster I don’t know what is.

This chai is good and I get a new Macbook pro in two weeks. I feel so dirty.

From Brooklyn,

Erty