Oberlin Blogs

Things that have blown my mind this fall

October 10, 2010

Tess Yanisch ’13

As most of us bloggers keep saying, Oberlin is a very busy place. There are always lots of things going on, ranging from high-profile, campus-wide events to private conversations or personal revelations, that can blow your mind on a variety of levels.

Here's some of what has happened to me.

1. Convocations. The word "convocation" originally had religious connections. Now, some colleges use it to refer to graduation ceremonies. However, Wikipedia defines the word more generally as "a group of people formally assembled for a special purpose." At Oberlin, convocations are events at which a speaker or performer gets introduced by Marvin Krislov (the college president) and then goes on to do their thing. It's like a very special lecture sponsored by the college as a whole rather than just a department. Usually they're held in Finney Chapel, the largest gathering place in the college, because convocations tend to appeal to many people--students, professors, and townies.

Last year, we had Shirin Ebadi (winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize), Greg Mankiw (author of my Economics 101 textbook), Ed Helms (comedian and alum), and Yoko Ono (famous artist/pop culture icon occasionally blamed for breaking up the Beatles), among others. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to attend all of these.

This year, I've attended two convocations.

a. Ishmael Beah and Dan Chaon. Ishmael Beah, class of '04, was a child soldier in Sierra Leone. While at Oberlin, he decided to write a book about his experiences and asked his creative writing professor, Dan Chaon, to guide him through the process. The result was eventually published as A Long Way Gone, which was required reading for my first-year seminar. To be honest, I read it as fast as I could--it was well-written but painful and emotionally draining, especially for someone with a ten-year-old brother.

Still, it's an important thing to know about, and I was interested in the process in which this had come about, so I was anxious to attend the convocation. I had also read Dan Chaon's book Await Your Reply last year for a different class, and met him briefly--when our professor couldn't make it to class one day, we got an open Q&A session with the author instead of a regular discussion--and I was curious to see the two of them interviewing each other.

I was impressed with how frank they were discussing the formation of the book. Professor Chaon described how he initially felt uncomfortable editing anything so personal and so far from his own experience--something he is in no way an authority on. I completely understand. I almost felt like I had no right to be reading it.

And we're not the only ones: Ishmael described meetings with his editor in which she would set out piles of food on the table for them to snack on while discussing the book. One day, he asked her, "Why do you always have so much food out?" and she replied, "I don't ever want you to be hungry again." It's interesting, and poignant, to look at the things people do to make themselves and each other feel better.

I was mainly struck with how happy and normal Ishmael seemed. He's obviously incredibly affected by what he's been through--he's working with UNICEF to stop armies from recruiting children and to rehabilitate those who have been child soldiers--but he's laid-back, modest, and funny. He mentioned how, when he was at Oberlin, the power went out once and everyone was acting like it was the end of the world, and he didn't really mind--well, yeah; he knows there are bigger problems in the world. But his reaction wasn't frustration with all these insulated kids, but rather amusement at people over-reacting.

He really is incredibly modest. He talked about how strange it felt to have people know him, to be a big deal. He said was on the subway in New York one day and saw people reading the New York Times Sunday Book Review--with his face on it: "I kind of looked down the whole way." Also, he's a big fan of Jon Stewart and got invited to be on The Daily Show when A Long Way Gone hit the New York Times bestseller list. At first, he thought he was being offered a chance to be in the studio audience, and he was thrilled enough with that. "And then someone explained, 'you're going to be on The Daily Show,' and I was just like, 'Ohhh.'" Or consider the anecdote about how he flew into Sierra Leone and the president of the country was there to meet him and talk to him live on TV, because he's not only drawn international attention to Sierra Leone but also become a face for all the former child soldiers trying to return to normal lives within the country. He was totally surprised by that too.

Last year's seminar revolved around the issue of resilience and how people recover from disaster, but you can analyze and analyze without ever truly realizing how amazing people are.

b) Josh Ritter. Josh Ritter is apparently one of the nation's foremost singer-songwriters. He's also an Oberlin alum, class of '99. I hadn't really heard of him before, but people were saying he was good, so Emma and I got tickets.

Yeah, he's good.

I like folk-ish music--I like it a lot--and that's what he did. He has a sense of humor--there was a mock-ballad about Sarah Palin and one about the Angel of the Holy Grail telling Sir Galahad that shenanigans at Camelot are way more fun than Heaven. His songs also have a good dose of the intellectual. One of his songs, which he didn't play here but which I found online later, seems to encapsulate the Oberlin ethos pretty well. It's called "The Temptation of Adam." This is a play on words (Adam/atom) set in a missile silo "at an undisclosed location three hundred feet below the ground." Oh, and it's a love song.

But getting back to the convocation, he and his band were amazing. At one point he asked for the lights to be turned off. Call me a hopeless romantic, but a lone guitar in a dark church-like building creates a wonderful atmosphere, sort of brooding and hopeful at the same time. Then the audience started to sing along with the chorus, and the lights gradually came back--"a slow sunrise," as he put it. It was awesome.

If anyone's interested, I'd suggest listening to Wolves, The Curse, Temptaion of Adam, and Change of Time (this is the one the lights went out for).

2. The Les Mis soundtrack. I lifeguard from six to eight in the morning on Tuesdays. One Monday night, I was about ready to go to bed nice and early. Then, for some reason, I happened to start listening to musicals on YouTube.


3. Overlapping coursework. Cultural Psychology and Linguistic Anthropology keep raising the same issues. This makes me unreasonably excited.

This is how people think! This is how they think differently! Why is that? What else may cause that? What other effects could that cause have? Are those beneficial in other cultural contexts as well? Do I do that? What else am I doing that's controlled by cultural variables so ingrained I'm unaware of them? What kind of experiment could I design that would let me find out? Is individualism invariably correlated with low power distance, or are there exceptions? How about traditionalism--can you be traditionalist and individualistic? Is there a collectivist culture with analytic thinking, instead of holistic? Why?

. . . My bio/chemistry/physics/biochem friends can talk about epigenetics and world domination all they want. Mad social science is clearly the way to go.

4. Homestuck. One of my friends has been mentioning this webcomic for a long time, aka, as long as I've known him. I tried starting it last year, but was underwhelmed; it's about some kid stuck at home on his 13th birthday, it's styled like a text-command game, and the kid doesn't have arms. What is going on here.

Then, about a week ago, I tried it again. Once you get past the beginning and start figuring out how the world works, it gets really, really funny--and incredibly interesting! There are convoluted plot developments, time travel, computer games that create universes, and hijinks galore. There's also good music on the big, dramatic flash-animation sequences. I can't really describe it properly . . .

No, wait, yes I can: It'll consume your life for a while, but it's worth it.

Now for an announcement! I have an announcement to make. Listen up (read carefully?)--it's very important.

My announcement is this: that, in a few weeks, I am going to make an Announcement. It'll be at least as mind-blowing as any of the stuff described above. You will find it thrilling, particularly if you're interested in news, comedy, or politics. It's going to be great. In a week or two, I'm going to announce it. So stay tuned!

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