Essay

Ode to the Omnibus

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I find buses to be extremely romantic. Some of my most formative experiences have taken place on buses. The first time a boy asked me out. The first time someone punched me in the face. The first time I got undressed in view of other people. The first time I watched/heard a woman pee into a bottle. (The last three instances all took place on marching band trips; we were not a timid bunch. More on this later.)

In fact, I am writing these very words from a bus. I am traveling from New York to Washington D.C. on a bus with leather seats. At $19 a ticket, it’s the most comfortable and affordable way to travel. (I promise this blog is not sponsored by BoltBus.) I have been looking forward to this trip for days—this trip meaning not only my sister’s wedding, but also the four-hour bus ride leading up to it.

Throughout my youth, buses were the sacred sites in which I developed my inner self. On buses I have contemplated the universe (how does the moon seem to move at our same pace?); absentmindedly drawn smiley faces and song lyrics on foggy windows; whispered intensely to my best friend on late rides home from marching band competitions; listened to CDs all the way through and back again, to learn every note by heart; anxiously anticipated visits to my long-distance boyfriend.

On a bus, all you have to do is nothing. Airplanes, on the other hand, are complicated and unsettling, and the expensive fare forces you to take advantage of every minute of on-board entertainment available. You lose track of time, forced to arrive hours early, only to wait at the security checkpoint, wait at the boarding gate, wait on the plane in the taxi queue. You arrive at your destination exhausted and disoriented. Trains are more down-to-earth, but are still given to pretense, what with their reliable wi-fi, their dining cars, their suit-and-tie passengers.

By contrast, the bus is a mobile zone of zero fucks. By all means, take off your shoes. Feel free to occupy the seat next to you with your duffel bag and your Trader Joe’s groceries, stocked with smelly and messy food items. No one’s judging because everyone paid the same rock-bottom fare, and what’s more American then letting your fellow bus passenger tear into their lamb kebab?

Your mind, instead of bogged down by a steady stream of discomfort (the altitude! the dry air! the infernal drone!), is free. Instead of an endless sea of clouds, the scene outside your window is still full of life. Who needs to pick up a book when there are other drivers in passing cars whose arrival points and destinations can be wondered about? Or houses and lawns and storefronts to observe? Since you’re not behind the wheel, there’s no need to remain alert, or even awake. Your eyes can flit lazily from one earthly treasure to the next. Or, as I’m about to do, they can gently close and rest.  

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Essay

Admission

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For the past week I have been taking practice exams for the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test. Each year, thousands of eighth- and ninth-graders study for this test in hopes of gaining entry into New York City’s nine prestigious specialized high schools.

Based on the short paragraph above, which of the following best describes this author?

A. She is an ambitious eighth- or ninth-grade student.
B. She is attending public school in New York City.
C. She is a twenty-something college graduate eager to relive her former years of academic glory.

Like the correct answer, my average on these practice tests hovers around a C, which means I have earned my rightful place in public high school.

You see, my boyfriend is tutoring students in the SHSAT, and every night he brings home a copy of the practice sections he assigned for homework that day. I have been eagerly taking them for the same reason that I love crossword puzzles and trivia night. And besides, there’s a tiny, geeky thrill in discovering that I still know (for the most part) how to identify a thesis statement or solve for x.

In my day-to-day, there’s little opportunity for instant gratification like this. Sure, there are sometimes problems that need solving, but then it’s usually Google that deserves the credit. Plus, I have unrestricted access to a calculator. No, this kind of specialized, standardized pleasure belongs entirely to the young, whose knowledge of mushroom harvesting or Cajun ancestry is limited to the foregoing passage and untainted by life experience. (I have never known mushroom gathering to be “lucrative”, as suggested by the unlikely yet supposedly correct answer to question 31.)

So I wonder how my fourteen-year-old self would have fared on this test. Would she have been able to quickly recall the formula for a circle’s circumference? Or been more patient and less critical of the silly reading comprehension passages? Probably. But even if she would have bombed the test, I would smile at her warmly, pat her back and remind her: There’s always a career in mushroom gathering.

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Essay

Natural History

I recently visited the American Museum of Natural History, on the first weekend of spring, when children easily outnumbered adults, three-to-one. Kids love animals, but if I were one, I’d have been disappointed at the realization that a museum is not a zoo. All artifacts there, even the fuzziest ones, are either dead or nonliving, and many species on display are endangered. I suppose it’s worth celebrating that someone had the foresight decades ago to capture and kill these animals while they still roamed free, drag them from their natural habitats, stuff them stiff, and ship them to Manhattan where they will exist in perpetuity, paralyzed. The museum is a pickle jar—it does not conserve nature, but rather preserves it.

I realized that day that museums also have moral agendas. Concerning the animals and meteorites, the emphasis is on preservation and education: Learn how these creatures once looked and lived! See for yourself a sample of what exists in the universe! But in the gems and geology wing, I puzzled over the ethics. Am I supposed to marvel at the bounty of the earth, and simultaneously disregard the bloody and racist path required to possess these precious things? Should I be excited at the prospect of untold treasures hidden far below our feet? I know I’m connected to all living things, but what is my relationship to these rocks and stones?

As usual, I was attracted to a dark corner of the room, a display case whose light bulb had apparently burned out. Encased within were rows of jade sculptures and idols and pendants, mostly pale green but some were lavender, and others the color of warm molasses. On the wall was a lengthy quote attributed to Confucius about how the qualities unique to jade mirror the greatest virtues of humanity: kindness, intelligence, justice, humility, music, truthfulness. The comparison is abstract yet logical: “Its brightness is like Heaven, while its firm substance, born of the mountains and waters, is like the Earth.”

I recalled the jade bracelets I so coveted as a child; the ones that hung so delicately on the wrists of my aunts and sisters. This bracelet, nearly ubiquitous in Vietnam, is just a simple, perfect circle of cut and polished stone. Smooth, cold, hard to the touch. Most are a milky green, pale and bright, or deep and rich. Some even have grey and heather hues.

I think I was thirteen years old when I first wore one. Because it has no clasp nor closure—it really is just a solid circle of stone—the only way to get it on is to squeeze your fingers together, and push and pull your knuckles and the flesh of your palm through. It is a two-person job, and you should have lotion, soap, oil—most likely all three—on hand, literally. The pain is real, but it is short-lived. Once it slips on, it’s a glorious relief.

And then it doesn’t come off. To wear a jade bracelet is to wear commitment. The only way to remove the bracelet is to destroy it. You lay your forearm on the table, palm up, wedge a piece of cloth between your wrist and the stone, and then hammer the jade until it cracks and falls apart, the circle broken. It is not merely an ornament, like other jewelry, prone to the whims of trends coming and going. It demands work and peripheral attention from its wearer, lest it be haphazardly broken. It is difficult in that way, hard. Not exactly suitable for children, which is why I was so excited to finally receive one on my thirteenth birthday. Which may also be why it was relegated to a dark corner in a near empty room of an otherwise packed museum. It absorbs light without reflecting it.

The placard at the jade display explained how the marbled swirls of white and grey, which make each slab unique, were created. “Although the pattern looks fluid, it formed as solid rock kept breaking and rehealing innumerable times.” The differently colored bands are born from earthquakes deep below the surface. Its beauty is forged through violence and conflict. Jade is a mineral that preserves itself. When it breaks, it knows to heal.

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