The Age of the Nerd

I was the most uncool kid in my school growing up. Don’t even get me started. It even took me a while to find a niche at Wellesley College, which is a haven for self-proclaimed nerds and geeks alike. My then boyfriend, (now husband) Andrew, and I once exited the student lounge at MIT where we overheard a conversation about Kirk and Picard. Andrew commented on how nerdy the conversation was, and I, too embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of these mathematicians, declined to comment. That’s right. I was so uncool I didn’t even watch much TV or know basic Star Trek characters. It wasn’t until grad school at UCLA that I started to break out of the imprisoned person I was and start freely becoming the person I am today. This is due to some really good friends I made there (friends so dear they met me for coffee and dinner in the one location on the only day I was available two years ago) and probably due to some acting exploration I did. California will do that to you. Once on a drive around Pasadena, Andrew and I witnessed two Klingons sauntering around. It wasn’t Halloween. It was just normal.  Like the sun in California. Whoever you are, it’s normal in LA. You can be yourself there. Crazy or sane, whatever label you want, you can be that person.

And be cool.

Or maybe, as someone once told me, there are those who are too awesome to be cool. I don’t know what this means. But I take it that perhaps authenticity is a currency more valuable than being cool.

I am finding a little bit of that freedom in Winnipeg as well without feeling a compulsion to conform to a mold. I don’t have to shape myself into an expected conventional norm of physicist, writer, musician, or actress. I can be myself. Whoever that is.

I was an extra in Boston Public in LA. It was just for one day, but what a memorable day. I obtained the high school experience that I was deprived years earlier. Actually, acting school and assistant stage managing at The Actors Studio was like that. Boston Public, in particular, was all these twenty somethings on a set with lockers and hallways, and we were jovial and connected with a sense of camaraderie. Acting is in some ways like transference therapy. You can create improved conditions in which to heal from ancient wounds.

I think the last time I dressed up for Halloween except briefly at home was at age 13, but today, many years later, I unabashedly wore an elf costume to Comic Con in Winnipeg. And a young woman, who seemed quite shy, asked to take my picture and told me how beautiful my costume was. Yes, someone asked me for my picture at Comic Con! Usually I hate being photographed, but was so flattered and so eager to please, the experience was painless. Yesterday when I wore my normal clothes (black jeans, bomber jacket, and tall brown boots) with a bird and arrow necklace, I was complimented on my outfit as well. Me. The girl whose skirt got lifted in junior high. The girl who wore ties to school because in her imagination she attended a private school as opposed to a public one. The girl who no one would talk to, like ever, in high school with the exception of perhaps one mathlete friend and another friend who used to hide with me in the library during lunch.

I believe we might be living in a new age. An age where the hit TV show of the day is about characters with advanced degrees in physics, microbiology, engineering, and neuroscience. A day when cartoon and stuffed kitties wear glasses. A day where those of us who never fit in can find a place, not to hide in a corner of the library, but in public. We do live in an age of celebrities and reality TV, but we also live in an age where actresses like Gates McFadden are raising money for collaborative theatre projects. Not to gain more celebrity. Not to increase wealth. Not to be a popular kid. But to create art, to advance the creative frontiers of humanity.

I mentioned an acting teacher I had had in LA to Gates McFadden, of whom she had heard, and she asked me if I am an actor. I said I am a physicist. Funny, I suppose I am. I just completed the n-th draft of my novel (still one final draft to go) and am an editor for Wellesley Underground. I haven’t published a physics paper in about a year.  I am working toward music exams. I always wonder about my evolving identity, but at its core I am a physicist. I realized this yesterday. No matter what other adventures on which I embark, no matter all the other roles I inhabit, I will always be a physicist first, which had been my lifelong dream. I will always call McGill, where I completed my doctoral work, home. It’s a peculiar feeling when we finally unveil who we really are to ourselves, even if it might be obvious to those around us. And we realize it is who we always wanted to be. I said I found acting to be fascinating and to balance out physics, a means to explore human motivation and psychology (though I was ever so slightly more incoherent). Gates then discussed her theatre projects which seem profoundly important along the same lines as the significance of understanding the cosmological constant, the effect responsible for our universe’s accelerated expansion. In her theatre projects, I have the impression she explores important aspects of the human and social condition. In some ways, theatre and physics are not so dissimilar. We progress toward the boundaries, we are creative in our process, we play, and we aim to make and communicate our discoveries, about the universe and about humanity. We passionately create. We stimulate curiosity and questions. And on a good day, both the arts and science inspire.

We might be inspired by a brilliant doctor on Star Trek, but I find the artist behind the doctor to be more of an inspiration. And at the end of the day, imagine the worlds you can explore under the influence of inspiration. It is more powerful than any medication the doctor might prescribe.

What inspires you? Who will you be inspired to grow into? And more importantly, how will you inspire others today?

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Not Fine

My essay was originally posted at Wellesley Underground here.

How many times a day do you have encounters with the question, “How are you?”? I believe that our culture is somewhat responsible for the onset of this greeting in stores and cafés. My family’s German exchange students from years ago found the daily postulation by strangers perplexing. I remember dissecting the question with a former teacher in high school, probing its deeper meaning. “How are you” resonates peculiarly with how do you exist or how did you come into being. He then re-framed the query by asking me what state I was in (though this is also odd) as well as quite probably questioning my sanity, no doubt (well, I know he did think me weird, which is quite true).

The question: How are you? It’s a loaded one with the only socially acceptable response as a variant of “fine” or “good.” (Though of course, good indicates morality, rather than mood, but this is still a correct answer to the posed question.)

Sometimes we are not fine. Sometimes our outward appearance, or affect, betrays our hurting innards. Sometimes we might show up to social events or work telling everyone we are fine, though our inner world is a collapsing black hole. I don’t know about you, but I have a misapprehension that transient states, be they fine or not fine in experience, will perpetuate. If I feel sad, anxious, or down, that transient state possesses a permanent quality in my mind. I feel I’ll always exist feeling that way and that I always have. If I feel a sense of peace, that state, too, takes up residence in my mind as being lasting, leading to a seismic shock when it ends.

The truth is that every experience and everything else in the universe is impermanent, including life itself. Nothing persists indefinitely. Not stars. Not the state of the universe. Even space-time changes. Nothing is permanent. We can obtain peace and comfort that even suffering is ephemeral. We all dwell in a state and cosmos of flux. So if you’re not fine today, remember that this, too, will likely change. Everything and everyone evolves, and you just have to keep going because tomorrow your mood might improve. Seize those giddy moments when they befall, even if they are fleeting, because life is worthwhile even for just these brief periods of lightness.

If you are feeling not fine, I dare you to confide in someone and be vulnerable yet open to comfort and care. Someone once told me that the remedy for low moods is activity, physical activity, and social connectedness. The silver lining to suffering is the discovery of the love that is proffered if you strive to connect with others. Other positive side effects of pain include growth and self discovery. Edvard Munch and Sylvia Plath are just two examples of artists who leveraged their mental illness into creative works. I know, it’s poor consolation when you feel detached from the mood you believe you can aspire to experience or what you feel like you should or could achieve. Or when life feels unbearable, like gravity is tearing you apart by tidal forces or a dark well is slowly dragging you into its depths. But if you connect to a friend, therapist, or family member, you might develop a close relationship and find beauty that otherwise wouldn’t have been accessible. It’s the side trips in life, the ones off the main route, that often offer us the most poetic scenery. Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill broaches the subject of what you miss in life when you are well. If your well-being is cracked, it might open you to slowing down your life, to time dilating, and to deliberating in the moments that don’t feel like good fortune but possess qualities you might otherwise have passed by without observing.

Your journey is yours alone, unique and special. There is nothing to do but to accept your journey and also remember that you have some degree of power over it, power to change the status quo or to improve the quality of your experience. If you’re not fine, fight your best fight to transform those parts of your experience over which you have the capacity to modify and let it lead you to who you are destined to be. Even if it’s not how you thought you would look like before. We imagine who we will be as children, how our lives will appear as adults. These dreams never factor in illness, tragedy, and other inevitable life events. So we have to adapt to mold ourselves to unforeseen circumstances and emotional states. And along this journey we might find some strength, comfort from others, and some beauty to which we might otherwise have been blind.

How are you? If your answer is “not fine,” I dare you to extend your heart to seek comfort in another’s compassion and to remember that nothing, even feeling badly, prevails forever. Life is all too flickering anyway, a brief candle as Shakespeare alluded, so you might as well embrace it for what it is in all its colorful nuances and emotional landscapes.

RWB Giselle: Love, Betrayal, Forgiveness

Saturday night ushered in another magical night at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. I’ve seen a number of memorable ballet productions in my life. The American Ballet Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet riveted me, and the same company’s Giselle was the first time tears invaded my eyes during a performance (except in my acting class at Sal Romeo’s studio in LA when a student performed a monologue from Don Nigro’s Seascape with Sharks and Dancer, but I’m not sure that counts as a performance). The RWB performance last season of Swan Lake was a pivotal ballet-going experience, climbing the ladder in my precious mental souvenirs of my life. Giselle was, in a word, exceptional.

The day did not bode well for me. I was suffering from laryngitis, and my ability to speak had fled me completely. I resorted to writing copiously on pads of paper. My face was twitching involuntarily, and again, the effort to muster the energy to change into theater clothes felt insurmountable. Andrew informed me that the RWB web page advertised a contest for women wearing white dresses to Giselle, which is a custom of Paris.

I have worn a white dress three times in my life out of tradition. None of these times was at my wedding, ironically, since I didn’t have a white dress in my possession at that time of my life. Once was at my Wellesley graduation; Wellesley is a college rife with beautiful traditions, one of which is to don white for graduation. The second time I wore white was for my McGill graduation out of respect for the Wellesley tradition. I wore a short white lacy, tiered dress, a dress bought in Montreal that I robed again for Giselle. Though this time instead of pairing it with my glittery butterfly heels, I wore knee-high brown boots and black bomber jacket to accompany the delicate white dress.

The evening started with a chat including the highly esteemed Evelyn Hart, a former principal ballerina with the RWB. She stated during the chat that Giselle is a ballet about love and forgiveness, such beautiful, stirring, and puissant ideals. Evelyn Hart expressed how the work and effort necessitated to become a classical ballet dancer is becoming lost, and that dancing a role in a ballet is to live the role. It is about becoming Giselle. I was touched by her sprightly energy, her articulateness about acting and true artistry, and her sense of humor. She discussed her evolution into a mentor, which is equivalent to assuming a motherly role. Although she was slight in frame and stature, Evelyn Hart struck me by her confident strength, and I’ve since ordered her biography, so I can learn more about this inspiring and extraordinary woman.

The music, provided by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, began, soon followed by the dancing. It occurred to me that ballet conveys stories through movement, expression, and mime, much as I have been doing the last few days without use of my voice. Although it is accompanied by music, in some ways it parallels an animated tableau; the dancers express themselves quietly, via their bodies and faces, as a silent movie.

Giselle is a ballet about despair, betrayal, madness, and heartbreak. Playful, innocent courtship dominates the early scenes. There exists a clear dichotomy between the early scene where Giselle plucks petals from a flower, “he loves me, he love me not,” with the mad scene when she repeats the action again but in deadly hysterics, clearly demonstrating her transformation from a playful maiden in love to a betrayed madwoman. Yayoi Ban, the soloist who performed in the production I saw, conveyed her unbearable agony with just her face; in moments it looked strained and aged from heartbreak.

The ballet technique in the performance was incomparable. The extended hops en pointe seemed to last an eternity. The gliding bourrées in the second act, especially by the queen of the wilis, danced by Sarah Davey, captured the very essence of gossamer vapor. The second act, the dance of the vampire-like wilis, expressed the cold, ethereal, hardness of women directed almost as puppets, contrasting the gracefulness of the first act. Giselle and her prince Albrecht, performed by Dmitri Dovgoselets, danced together, yet at first they seemed disconnected by the void of death that separated them. Finally later in the pas de deux, their souls converged, they were indeed together, and Giselle saves his life.

Ballet, the symphony, operas, plays: their intent is not just to entertain but to provoke us to consider the themes presented in the performances in life. The ballet ended with a crystalline souvenir of hope. In the ballet, Giselle and Albrecht save each other, though of course in death and not life. However, it leaves the audience with the precious jewel of hope, a quality I’ve struggled with, as it is in opposition to Buddhist philosophies in which I find great instructive value. However, at the end of the day, I think hope is invaluable. Giselle’s life did not go as planned and ended tragically soon, yet forgiveness flowered for Albrecht after her death. In the end there was a grain of hope for inner peace to reign.

The playfulness which prevailed in Giselle’s and Albrecht’s lives in the first act also merits thought. How often are you playful? How often do you get wrapped up in the daily ordeals that govern modern life and forget to play? It makes me think about the relationship between work and play. As children we might be inculcated to find work about which we are passionate. Yet somehow on the treadmill to success some of this playfulness peels off, leaving us with a core determined to win that award or finish that degree or complete that task. How often are you driven by prestige or success rather than playfulness? Somewhere in the grind we forget our true passions and what truly brings meaning to our lives. We get lost.

At the RWB performance of Giselle, I found a little of the playfulness and beauty of life that I had lost.