Swarthmore's independent campus newspaper since 1881

Tag archive

life

Immature Speculations

in Columns/Musings of Mariani/Opinions by

This is a poorly researched, ill-structured, half-baked attempt to answer a question I do not know. It is uncertain this attempt should even have been undertaken, and it is unclear this description is accurate. In the face of such uncertainties, I can only ask you to read this article as a personal favor, inasmuch as the possibility that you will read it creates the possibility that at future points in time you will reflect positively upon your decision and act of reading it, creating the possibility that my creation’s existence could at least be partially justified through even a single contribution to another being’s existence and conceptions.

I think there are forces we can somehow conjure that are beyond any explicit or even theoretical framework of understanding that we could possibly devise with science, reason,philosophy, or even religion, if religion is only defined as the practice of a particular theology. Our inability to articulate these forces as thoroughly as compliance with our intellectual values requires, does not preclude us from talking about them, but it makes it difficult to determine what they really are. Yet we cannot hope for better ideas not yet conceived to spread like wildfires and solve our problems, because even when good ideas have been popular, they have never prevented us from making mistakes. The articulation of perfect principles is insufficient so long it is possible for us to defy even our most dearly and authentically principles. Saints and heroes make mistakes; in fact many of truly remarkable and courageous people of the past are motivated by a desire to correct mistakes they made which they know they cannot solve without total dedication, and perhaps not even then. We will not solve our problems by trying to find specific solutions to them, no matter how broadly we define the scope of problems. Something like faith or instinct or hope or humanity or culture or humility or confidence has been so thoroughly lost as to be beyond our contemplation or at least far outside of our interests. Whatever we have lost as a civilization or a species or whatever constitutes us is something I think Children have in abundant supply.

To expand on the previous point, that children tend to possess a component of the human being that currently has an inadequate and unbalanced role in how adults manifest themselves within existing societies, I want to describe what I think this component is or at least what its attributes are. I think it is possible for children to interact with the world and with themselves in a more integrated and better way than adults. Children are not just required to listen to their adults and teachers; they simultaneously have an easier time complying and defying both. We only authentically listen to those we are convinced are the most thoroughly able to conceive of problems and solutions. As we accept fewer solutions as the number of problems multiplies in a compounding fashion, a consequence which itself contributes to the existence of the widespread and complete uncertainties that produce this climate of intractable uncertainty. Simultaneously we can only manage to significantly resist the most outrageous and unjustifiable authority. Our mistrust extends even to our own ability to believe in ourselves as beings, even as we our intimidated and controlled by the petty and the superficial whose capacity of action is surely less than the capacity of action the good and the kind and the wise and the loyal and the
humorous and the creative.  

I think that we think our abilities are the products of faculties, like reason or our creativity or our humanity or our biology rather than these faculties themselves. The implication for this is we cannot create or destroy anything in existence but we can only be involved or affected with the birth and the death of things. The distinction between a process like creation and a process like birth is that a human creation come into existence through processes we can at least partially understand, whereas processes like birth, or capacities like reason, we intimately participate in, yet do not cause and do not understand. No separation exists between understanding and action or between reason instinct and feeling. When we utilize our core human faculties we can transcend the lack of understanding and the lack of courage which seem to alternatively dominate us, because the act of engaging with our core faculties requires partial courage necessary to act upon we understandings we understand to be limited. We do not have to know everything or even believe that it is possible for us to do so, but rather we must, I think, forever be disturbed by unanswered questions and the possibility not only of evil forces but also of our complicity with these forces.

Personally I find it possible to have faith in humanity and therefore also in the desirable reality produced when there is an egalitarian distribution of power that I and others pursue to make possible. We practice what we understand to be the specific actions this faith requires, and in the long and human activity I am joining when I attempt to do the right thing.

I think that I cannot identify my problems with an amount of certainty sufficient to overcome the socially reinforced cowardice and complacency which sabotage my ability to
do good, but then this conundrum itself might by the identity of the problem. Perhaps I must learn to be thoughtful in such a way that I do not make the mistake of letting my fear stop me from being courageous.

Threshold: thoughts on senior fall

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

This opinions piece doesn’t have much of a thesis. That is not to say that it doesn’t have a message. As I get older, I realize that life and its academic study cannot and should never be boiled down to neat argumentative statements. While I embody an array of identities, I nonetheless cannot live as simply an amalgamation of cultural notions, the likes of which can be studied through some sort of theoretical system or best understood through this or that school of thought. I suppose all of these thoughts are happening at the most opportune time. Going into this semester, I knew things were going to be challenging. I am a senior Honors major, applying to more than ten graduate programs, and studying for my Graduate Record Examination while also scrambling to find a way to pay for my graduate education. This summer, as I was mentally preparing myself for this adventure, I knew that it would all come together, and I am still confident that it will. Yet, I still find that I wake up certain mornings flustered and confused despite all of the work that there is to be done. I have so many obligations that I often don’t have time to just procrastinate or enjoy what few days of sunshine are left. As the winter approaches, I’ll lose much of my enthusiasm and drive. All of these thoughts crash about in my head as I walk to class with my headphones on, trying not to be there.

As I write this post, I glance down occasionally at the introduction to my Honors thesis. I keep telling people “it’s going to be over a hundred pages,” which is nearly 30 pages over the average maximum page count. I say this not because I am masochistic — although I am — but because I realize that my topic is perhaps too encompassing and my passion for it too engrossing to stop at the suggested 70-page limit. In my head, I want to do a good job, for my thesis has political and personal implications. I approach my work not simply as a student charged with an arbitrary task, but as someone legitimately invested in using the opportunity to write a paper on a topic as a way of “uncovering” the often understated or overlooked realities of the world. I know, it’s quite a grandiose and self-serving idea, to think that you are “discovering” something, but I cannot help it. I am quite zealous about writing, and in many ways it makes me deeply self-conscious. This is the third time I have printed this chapter of my thesis. With a red pen, I will meticulously go over my writing, pick and prod here and there until it makes sense, only to return with a black pen to question my first set of comments. I am wondering if this is actually productive or just another manifestation of this never-ending process of cutting myself down to size. Everyone has idiosyncrasies, but I find that mine reveal disturbing parts of my personality I am reticent or perhaps afraid to address.

I am already beginning to feel burnt out by senior year. At first, I went to parties and had fun, finding that time was moving too slowly for my tastes. The first few weeks of September moved at a slow crawl, but now time is beginning to accelerate at a pace with which I am not at all comfortable. I find that I am focusing on things that other seniors are not: grad school and fellowship applications, various jobs around campus, running student organizations and planning events. As I try to stay focused and induce tunnel vision, I find that I still glance around and feel quite lonely where I am. There aren’t many people I can talk to about this process without being lauded for “having my shit together,” although in my mind, I do not. I’ve found that I don’t have time to be anxious this semester, to take a day off from class to lie in my bed and watch TV as I would have when I was younger. I subconsciously avoid situations which would cause me distress, which is both lovely and bizarre at the same time. It is such a strange sentiment to think “Damn, I wish had less going on in my life,” but I find that that is what I think when I sit down every morning and write out my to-do list.

All the while, I feel less and less tolerant of Swarthmore every day. Although I didn’t necessarily want to go home during break—primarily because there’s just as little to do at home as there is to do here—I nonetheless found, after being back on campus for less than thirty seconds that I did not want to be here, either. My time here is quickly coming to an end, and while I am sad to leave my home of three years, I am more than ready to make that plunge into the mysteries and obscurities of “adult living.” My future remains completely undefined and ominous, but I still find that I am more accepting of whatever awaits me than the idea of staying here any longer.

This piece is just an assortment of thoughts which I have found the energy to boil down into words in the passing period between classes and meetings. It doesn’t have much of a purpose, but it does have a message. Despite the ways that we perceive the lives of others, using ourselves as the only decent metric by which we can arbitrarily determine the worth of others’ lives, we nonetheless live with the same degree of uncertainty and disquiet, which manifest in the actions we are conscripted to accomplish and the conditions which inhibit our ability to act. While I may promote the illusion of put-togetherness, I find myself, just like everyone else, wondering what’s the point of it all, flinging my eyes open to the sun every morning and wondering, “Why bother?” And although I wait momentarily for a response that will never come, I still get up and move about my day with the hope that one day it’ll be clear to me, even if my faith, with each passing day, starts to run dry.

No common grief in “Levels of Life”

in Campus Journal/Columns/The Scrivener by

In 2011, Julian Barnes won the Man Booker Prize for “The Sense of an Ending.”  It was the first novel he had published since his wife’s death. Only 150 pages long, it is an exercise in brevity and restraint. In part one, the narrator, Tony, retired and unmarried, recounts a singular event in his past: the suicide of his estranged friend Adrian. Together with two other boys, they had made up a group of precocious primary-school youths. Of the four, Adrian was marked by his intellectualism, and when they graduated, Tony went to Bristol, Adrian to Cambridge. They exchanged correspondence and met intermittently, until Tony lost a girlfriend, Veronica, to Adrian in his final year of university. Several months later, he was notified of Adrian’s suicide. In the novel’s second half, set in the present-day, Tony receives a letter informing him that Veronica’s mother has bequeathed to him a sum of money and several letters, leading him to contact Veronica and reflect on his memory of the events. The book is beautifully constructed, but cold. What humor there is is coolly calculated, and the ending is enigmatic, fatalistic in the way frame narratives so often are. Even at its lightest moments the novel hums with a kind of futility.

Barnes’s latest book, “Levels of Life,” something of a meditation on grief in three parts, perhaps accounts for his last novel’s fatalism. A reflection on the loss, or rather, death, of Barnes’ spouse, the book is a sobering read, one leavened slightly by the first two buoyant segments; Barnes himself does not appear until part three. Part one, “The Sins of Height,” is a panoramic look at the 19th century fascination with ballooning and a whirlwind sampling of the dilettantes the pursuit attracted. Of particular interest here is Felix Tournachon, rechristened Tournadar, and then simply Nadar, the founder of aerial photography and a neglected pioneer whose innovations would ultimate over a century later in the astronaut William Anders’s photographic capture of the “Earthrise.” Part two, “On the Level,” imagines a courtship between two characters who appear in section one, Sarah Bernhardt, French actress, and Fred Burnaby, English sergeant, then colonel, finally a major who takes a Madhi’s spear to the neck. The sergeant considers himself a tether-less bohemian, but falls for Sarah; it is Sarah who proves the real bohemian and Fred must admit that, “in life, you might be a bohemian and an adventurer, but you also sought a pattern, an arrangement to help you through, even if — even as — you kicked against it.” He marries an English girl and is killed in the service of his Queen. Finally, in part three, “The Loss of Depth,” we move, or perhaps descend, from the saccharine past to the sobering present; Barnes appears and speaks candidly of his grief.

With large margins and a generous number of paragraph breaks, the book proceeds at a brisk clip. The first two narratives are separated into crisp paragraphs that, under no obligation to plumb the depths of their subjects, pop with the poetic license afforded by summary and breadth. While poignant, they amount to literary-historical bon mots, mood pieces that resonate metaphorically throughout the text. They are a joy to read, but we do so with trepidation: their summary tone makes clear that this is not a book about ballooning or the courtship of a French actress, and in section three, these featherweight poetics give way to paragraphs like this:

“For many years I would occasionally think of an account I read by a woman novelist about the death of her older husband. Amid her grief she admitted there was a small inner voice of truth murmuring to her, “I’m free.” I remembered this when my own time came…but no such voice was heard, no such words. One grief throws no light on another.”

“The Loss of Depth” comprises a number of observations of this sort: on death’s euphemisms (‘“I’m sorry to hear your wife has passed’ (as in ‘passed water’?‘passed blood’?)”), the fallacy that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the nature of grief now that we’ve killed God, and with him, the afterlife. For the most part, these tight paragraphs float free of any petty ballast, buoyed by concision and a certain poetic “rightness.” Some, though, are heavier-than-air vessels, kept aloft only by the weight of Barnes’s project, as when his atheism surfaces, and the tone shifts from melancholic to nihilistically cantankerous, even petulant. Still, in a sense, even the book’s failings are in keeping with his project. If no grief sheds light on another, this holds true for “Levels of Life.” Barnes can tell us of his sudden new-found love for the Opera, his realization that all the shouting is supremely natural, an excision of life’s petty formalities, and we can empathize with this escape from pain into the unreal, but we can’t really know it. No matter how articulate he is, and Barnes is nothing if not articulate, as readers, we always feel one step removed. Not because we haven’t suffered ourselves; I imagine many readers have weathered similar, perhaps the very same, life-inverting tragedies. What Barnes demonstrates is the impossibility of being united by a common grief; the very idea that grief could be “common!” At its best and worst, “Levels of Life,” like all our expressions of grief, is no more than a collection of words. It is a truly sad book for just this reason, because Barnes so nearly communicates the incommunicable grief of tragedy, a grief that neither kills you, nor makes you stronger, a grief that simply leaves you less then you were. It must be said though, that he does communicate the possibility of something after. Like Adrian, Barnes entertained the one truly serious philosophical problem. Thankfully, unlike Adrian, Barnes has chosen life, and, I hope, to continue to write for some time to come.

Quaker Matchbox Kids

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by

-2Perhaps one of the more frightening aspects of the infamous Swat marriage is its potential to move off-campus.

A rumored one in six graduates wind up tying the knot with other alumni from the college. While students invariably nurture their own opinions as to the wisdom of uniting two Swatties in holy matrimony, the subject of Quaker Matchbox Kids (QMK) seems to be a special source of fascination.

What happens to the children of a Swarthmore couple? Some of them, inevitably, return to Swarthmore.

Paul Green
Dad: William Green, chemistry major, professor of engineering at MIT
Mom: Amanda Green, biology major, Massachusetts education department

The Story: William and Amanda’s first impressions of one another occurred without the tint of campus swoggles. They attended the same Pennsylvanian high school; however, with his short stature (at 5’4”, a “pipsqueak,” according to Paul) and insatiable intellect (he graduated two years early), William escaped Amanda’s notice – that is, until she arrived at Swarthmore during his junior year.

“My family joked he was keeping tabs on her until she graduated,” Paul said.

When Amanda arrived on campus in the fall of 1981, a note on the whiteboard outside her door – signed by William – welcomed her to the college. They soon started dating, and were married after William finished graduate school.

The Upbringing: Attending Swarthmore has given Paul the language and experience needed to better understand family dynamics. With an assortment of aunts and uncles who also graduated from Swarthmore, he now classifies his mom’s side of the family as “the ML side” and his dad’s as “the Danawell/Mertz side.”

Swat Stories: After Paul received his acceptance letter, his uncle — also a Swat alum — insisted on treating him to dinner and sharing advice from his own years at the college. While Paul remembers his pointers as being fairly typical — get enough sleep, exercise and eat well — an anecdote on an unfortunate housing assignment carried the potential to instill concern over first-year dorms.

While attending the College, Paul’s uncle inhabited one of the basement rooms in ML. Deemed uninhabitable now, the room then played host to a tenacious mold culture — some of which ended up growing on his roommate’s cheek as he slept. Revolted, the two roommates loaded their furniture into a car and drove it to Parrish Circle, depositing it in the Dean of Housing’s office.

“They told her, ‘until you find us a new room, we’re living here,’” Paul recounted with a smile. “And she said okay.”

Parental Places: While Paul’s parents seemed to keep relatively quiet about their time at the college, mentions of walking through the rose garden together repeatedly cropped up. According to Paul, it’s the one place on campus that leaves him feeling vicariously nostalgic.

Love Life: Paul sometimes feels that his parents’ early relationship is used as a lens to interpret his own love life.

“It’s scary as hell. You notice that when you meet someone freshmen year and you’re with them, there’s kind of like a family expectation that, oh, this might be the person you might get married to,” Paul said. “It’s a little intimidating.”

Kiera James
Dad: Frank James ’89, psychology major, stock market entrepreneur
Mom: Lena James ’89, English literature major, lawyer

The Story: A testament to the eternally bemoaned small size of campus, Frank and Lena met through a CD exchange between two shared friends. When a neighbor on her hall left to return the product in question, Lena tagged along, only to be introduced to Frank. They began dating shortly after, and married after Lena graduated from the college.

The Upbringing: There was never any doubt in Kiera’s mind that her socially awkward parents stood separate from her friends.’ Aside from her mother’s choice in bedtime stories (according to Kiera, Shakespeare became a staple by the age of six), an emphasis on education distinguished the James family from others she knew.

Lena and Frank decided to homeschool Kiera and her sister after being disappointed in the public education available in their hometown.When Kiera began studying Latin and Greek in sixth grade, Lena decorated the kitchen with roots and verbs, and surprised her daughter at breakfast with grammar quizzes.

For her 11th birthday, her sister requested a dictionary.

Swat Swag: Child-sized Swat sweatshirts featuring Parrish Hall offered Kiera a window into her father’s college experience from an early age.

Frank, who lived in a front-facing room in Parrish located somewhere near Kiera’s armpit, often used the location of his old abode as a tickling point on his daughter.

Love Life: “My mom sometimes jokes that she has to meet every single guy I’ve met at Swarthmore, because you never know,” Kiera laughed.

Growing up, Kiera admits that he perception of the Quaker Matchbox may have been skewed. Her parents stay in touch with three other Swarthmore couples they attended school with. In addition to her nuclear family, her grandparents are a Quaker matchbox couple; assorted aunts, uncles and cousins also attended the college. Some succeeded in finding love; others did not.

Being at the school has led to the realization that while the Quaker Matchbox works for some, it’s not as prevalent a phenomenon as Kiera may have initially believed. “I’m not sure it really happens here any more than anywhere else,” she shared.

Maria Elena:
Dad: Diego Covarrubias ‘89, math major, neuroradiologist

Mom: Jennifer Rawcliffe ’89, Spanish major,

Three Strikes, Not Out (The Meeting): Marriage might redeem Jennifer and Diego from the transgressions made in their initial courtship. Jennifer, the RA on Diego’s hall, previously dated his roommate – a triple wammy in terms of dating no-nos.

First Date: After attending a movie, Diego employed Jennifer in a sleeping bag search to furnish a bedroom he planned to use during the coming summer months.

“My mom thinks it’s hilarious, that on their first date she helped him find a sleeping bag,” Maria Elena said.

The Upbringing:
“One of major lessons I remember [from growing up] is always approach people in their own language,” Maria Elena shared. “[I think it] applies to more than words, vocabulary, or spoken language. [It’s more about] meeting people where they come from”

Although Maria Elena expressed uncertainty as to whether this feature stemmed from the Quaker Matchbox itself or Diego’s international status (he came to Swarthmore from Chile), the lesson percolated in the family’s many trips abroad. Maria Elena recalled a particular trip to Italy during which, upon realizing they were being treated like “dumb tourists,” the family began conversing in Spanish to defer the negative attention.

“My parents are the type to start talking to a waiter at a Mexican restaurant in Spanish,” Maria Elena said. “There’s always certain amount of biculturalism.”

The Choice: Swarthmore was not Maria Elena’s first choice — or first school. A transfer student from Oberlin, Maria Elena originally shied away from looking at Swarthmore out of a commitment to pursuing a career in professional music. After a change in heart, Swarthmore once more became an option; now, the inclusive social environment and stereotypical Swattie conversations make Maria Elena feel at home on campus.

“Being a transfer student, kids will say, ‘oh, Screw… wait, you don’t know what that is,’” Maria Elena said with a smile. “And I’ll be like, ‘yes I do!’ because I’ve been hearing about it my whole life.”

Although Diego and Lena did not overtly push a Swarthmore education at home, Maria Elena feels that the values shared by the couple may have played a role in the draw of the college.

“Something drew me here – at least nominally, Swarthmore has a heavy regard for dialogue, respecting others, thinking about other people,” Maria Elena reasoned. “Does [my attraction to] that come from being raised by two Swatties? Probably.”

Love Life: Maria Elena attributes Quaker Matchbox anxiety not to the school itself, but to the fact that Lena and Diego met during their undergraduate years.

“It’s more just knowing that my parents met in college and feeling pressure, that that could be happening now,” Maria Elena said. “It affects my expectations of where I should be.”

Go to Top