A Few Stories from Freshman Year

It is Friday morning as I’m writing this, the day after moving back home from my first year of college. I spent a long time yesterday evening unpacking boxes, putting clothes back in drawers, and reintegrating myself into the same room I’ve lived in for almost 20 years now.

I’ve only just now started this blog post because I debated what I wanted to do. I almost went ahead and did something normal and media-related, but it felt wrong not to commemorate the occasion. Especially after doing my Day One post, I felt like it wouldn’t make sense if I didn’t make a last day post. But then, my last day of college wasn’t very exciting. It was weird and sad and honestly, my Day One post was already a little bit weird and sad. That doesn’t define my freshman year of college at all… well, at least not totally.

So I thought instead I’d share a couple of stories from Freshman year. I hope you’ll enjoy this little trip through the year with me.

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Nathan Chen: Gifted and Pressured

My current obsession is Olympic ice skating. It’s a floor event. People gather in the lounge every evening and work on homework or socialize as the various events play out on NBC. Sometimes we get really into them, especially when the Americans are doing well (which is not particularly often, but still). But whenever ice skating is on, everyone is glued to the screen.

For good reason too. Ice skating is probably one of the most overly-hyped events. It’s practically a symbol of the entire games – the image of beautifully bedazzled people twirling and leaping across the ice. Plus, it lends itself well to big personalities. Adam Rippon’s reception thus far has been a great example of that.

So it makes sense that when promoting the Olympics, networks turn to notable ice skaters. Nathan Chen was one of those ice skaters.

Touted as Team USA’s best chance for a gold medal in figure skating, NBC announcers dubbed him the “Quad King” thanks to his seemingly inhuman ability to pull off quads, or jumps with 4 spins in the air. It’s currently the highest-scored jump in ice skating, and thanks to that the ice skating world is in a period of transition where all the most successful male skaters are more or less required to have one in their programs if they want to be competitive.

Nathan was also the winner of the 2017 Rostelecom Cup, beating out previous World and Olympic champion and expected winner Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan, to the surprise of pretty much everyone.

All that being said, Nathan was hyped BIG TIME. And the fact that he’s only 18 years old and this is his first Olympics only added to his mystique.

So NBC announcers were shocked and appalled when Nathan didn’t live up to their sky-high expectations. He stumbled through his short program in the Team skate, falling on jumps he had repeatedly shown to be able to pull off flawlessly in previous competitions and practices. Then, in his big chance to redeem himself in the Individual Short Program skate, he stumbled once more, landing in 17th place.

Suddenly, the boy for whom Olympic gold was “his to lose” had lost. I watched his falls over and over again as the NBC commentators deeply analyzed what had gone wrong. But to me, it was exceedingly obvious what had happened to Nathan.

See, we as a culture love winners. I don’t think that’s a crazy statement to make, I mean, it’s the reason the Olympics even exists. Winners of all types – athletic, historic, and intellectual. But there’s something we love even more than a winner – a prodigy.

It combines so many of the things we celebrate in our society. Youth, achievement, success… if a young person is unusually good at their chosen craft, there’s a good chance you’ll hear about it on the news or on the Olympics. That’s basically the whole draw of the Olympics too – young, extremely talented athletes. Prodigies.

And Nathan Chen is the epitome of that prodigy. Barely an adult and already shaking up the skating world. 18 years old and USA’s biggest chance for gold in ice skating.

But as celebrated as it is, it’s not always easy to be young and talented. I can’t say I’ve ever been an Olympic athlete, but watching Nathan Chen stumble under the collective eye of his entire country, I related. I’m sure many people with a similar educational experience to me can attest – being a “gifted” kid is a strange and ultimately overwhelmingly negative experience.

Ignore the fact all of us gifted kids never got to develop our social skills along with our peers since we were all so driven to improve our mental skills, although that’s a topic for another post, and look instead to the expectations.

When you’re young and gifted, success is expected. It’s not earned. You’re good at things naturally, and you don’t need to work nearly as hard as your peers. I coasted through elementary and middle school barely studying. I did my homework, sure, but beyond that I relied on my natural talents for school. I expected that that would be enough, and those around me expected me to continue to succeed all throughout school.

It seems like a natural system, right up until you’re in high school and you realize that everyone else around you is just as smart as you are, and not only that, they’re talented in sports or social skills or leadership. Suddenly your excellent test-taking skills don’t matter as much in the mad rush into college, and then in college you’re no more special than anyone else. You start back at ground zero, and you don’t have the skills to claw your way back to the top because you’ve never had to do that.

And you still have those expectations. They don’t go away. You still expect to not only succeed but excel at everything you do, and though they don’t say so, so does everyone around you. Or even if they don’t, you feel like they do. And that natural school talent you had as a kid doesn’t save you from the weight of those expectations once you realize that you’re pretty average, and you’ve never learned how to fail.

Now, I’ll admit, that’s a little bit of a cynical view of it all. It ignores the fact that, at least in my experience, you get to continue to excel in the things you love doing the most. And it ignores the fact that at the very least you’re not alone (my entire Hutton Honors College floor probably has a similar experience). And I don’t want to imply that Nathan Chen didn’t put any work into his ice skating because he’s a prodigy or a natural. But, you can’t deny that the expectations placed on him were way too optimistic, and that nobody ever expected him to fail.

Because in reality, Nathan Chen wasn’t really a gold medal favorite. He could have won gold, but that would have relied on a lot of other skaters not doing as well as they usually do, including the very skater he beat in the Rostelecom Cup, Yuzuru Hanyu. That’s probably what happened in the Rostelecom Cup itself. As great as Nathan Chen is, and he is great, the gold was not “his to lose.” It was his to set himself up for well, but a lot more went into who would win gold that evening.

And I can’t help but feel that it was those very expectations that led to his surprising failures in the Team Skate and Individual Short Program. Just like a former gifted kid struggling to realize they’re average adults since everyone else around them is usually just as talented as they are in other ways, Nathan was among other fantastic skaters who also had great chances to win gold. The only difference was the expectations placed on his head were the most inflated, especially considering he was new to the scene and very young.

But that was not the end of Nathan Chen’s Olympic story. In 17th place, Nathan Chen entered the Men’s Free Skate as far from a gold medal contender as he could be. And without the pressure that had weighed on him before, Nathan put down a record-breaking skate. He became the first Olympic skater to attempt and land six quads, and the first to land five clean quads. He rocketed from 17th to 5th, and for a moment placed himself back in medalling range.

And as he exited the ice from that incredible skate, he said, “I just wanted to be able to leave here satisfied with what I’ve done.”

Picture me and the rest of the Olympics fans in the lounge at that moment screaming and crying at Nathan Chen’s triumph over adversity, not only because he’s an American athlete and a hardworking person who deserved it, but also because I think we all understood him. As I mentioned, everyone on my floor probably went through a similar experience of shouldering the heavy weight of expectation of others.

And everyone knew, or hoped we would someday know, the satisfaction of being able to succeed not by the terms of others’, but by our own terms.

Reckless Optimism and Walk the Moon

Sometimes you have bad days. Sometimes you have stressful assignments, or unexpectedly bad grades, or technology that won’t work with you, or interactions with humans that makes you feel like a joke. And sometimes all of those things happen in a couple of days. And suddenly you’ve got a bad week on your hands.

When that sort of thing happens, the best treatment in the world is a Walk the Moon concert. I speak from experience here.

As most followers of this blog could probably tell, I’m a huge fan of Walk the Moon, and I have been for some years now. They’re my favorite band, and I have a hard time believing they’re going to budge from that spot for a while. But I’m not sure I was ever able to place exactly why I’ve loved them so much until I attended their Indianapolis show on their Press Restart Tour last Saturday.

It came at maybe the most perfect time. I was tired and stressed and done with school and with my responsibilities and with life. I was also, simultaneously, ashamed at myself for being so fed up with all of these things, since I felt like I was failing in all of these categories. I’m not so great at failure.

And then I got to go home and pet my dog. I got to go out to my favorite restaurant with my best friend. I got to get pedicures with my mom. I got to be with my mom while she saw my favorite band in the world live for the first time.

But maybe the most therapeutic part of the weekend was the concert itself. It was in the Egyptian Room at the Old National Centre. To those who haven’t seen a concert there, it’s a pretty intimate affair. It’s nothing but the stage and a large standing-room only area for the audience (as well as VIP wings with tables and chairs to the sides, but I can’t imagine trading the amazing view for a chair). The stage itself isn’t really that big either, just enough room for the band members to stand and face the audience, and maybe walk back and forth a little. It was stiflingly hot in that room, packed in with the audience as I was, and I stood the entire time.

It was my third time seeing the band live, but it was the closest I had ever been to them. I could see all of their faces clearly. Once the concert got started, I danced and screamed and sang as loud as I could. I threw my arms up in the air when the moment felt right, and so did the entire rest of the audience. At one point during one of their more romantic songs, the crowd near us parted to give room for a man kneeling down to propose to his girlfriend. (The band members, watching this happen, demanded to know the couple’s names so that they could congratulate them.) The mood was happy, energetic, hopeful.

And standing among the hundreds of fellow Walk the Moon fans, screaming every lyric I knew (99.9 percent of them), dancing and jumping and throwing my arms in the air, I realized what it was that made me love this band so much.

They are optimistic. Recklessly so. You can probably gain that from their recorded music only, but it becomes absolutely obvious when you see them perform. Walk the Moon mostly performs optimistic songs and even when their songs are sadder, they’re always with a note of looking ahead to better days. I can think of only one of their songs that is truly sad, and that one doesn’t usually get played at their concerts. (Though it is excellent).

But it’s not only in the content of their music, it’s in how they perform it. They’re energetic, they engage with the audience, they run back and forth across the stage. Kevin Ray, their bassist, always turns around and shakes his butt to the beat of “Shiver Shiver”, a classic fan-favorite that’s heavy on the bass. Eli Maiman, their guitarist, likes to shred his most complicated parts while striking rock-star poses. And Nick Petricca, the band leader, vocalist, and keyboard player, always encourages the audience to let loose and sing and dance along.

At no point do they bring down the mood. It seems they have no other mode except high speed, full energy, all optimism. They’re flashy, they’re colorful.

They’re unashamed of their positivity. Recklessly optimistic. And that is what I admire most about them.

I could talk for days about how much talent they all have, how fun their 80s-inspired sound is, how I love their often goofy lyrics, but it all comes down to that optimism. It’s the reason I keep coming back to them again and again.

It’s the reason that particular concert was such a cleansing moment for me, because it had felt that entire week like I could never possibly be optimistic again. What was the point, when it felt like I was failing in everything? What did I have to look forward to except more failure and more feeling awful?

But that performance showed me I was wrong. As far as I know, we hadn’t left the world, hadn’t traveled to some place where things were suddenly alright that night in the Egyptian Room. Yet, in that moment, I could still be optimistic.

Don’t get me wrong, when I came back to IU the next day, the same stressors and failures were there waiting for me. In fact, they were there with a vengeance that sent me back into a similar funk to the one I had been in before. And then, on the way back from class one day, I started listening to their new song “All I Want”. And I was surprised when a few of the lines hit me particularly hard.

“I am my own sanctuary,
I am my own hero,
I am my own teacher,
I am my own best friend,
I am my own Friday night,
I am my own love of my life,
I am my own way out.”

I won’t lie and say that all of a sudden I’m a master of fighting my anxiety demons and winning. I won’t lie and say that I never give in to defeatist attitudes anymore. But remembering what it is that I admire so much about my favorite band is an excellent reminder that that reckless positivity comes from within.

That was the energy I was feeling that night. As much as it was influenced by the crowd around me and the band on stage, it was my decision to laugh and scream and sing along. And it’s my decision to be happy, even when it’s hard.

I’m glad this wonderful band reminded me of that

A Sparkling Personality Type

I’d like to think of myself as a purely scientific person all the time. I wish I could say I always listen to facts and only facts… but listen, I love personality tests.

And I know there’s a lot to be said about the legitimacy of a test that claims to understand your entire life and personality through only a few questions. I know personality quizzes tend to pull off their eerie accuracy through making sweeping, vague statements that almost anyone can relate to. That’s how completely unscientific classifications like horoscopes work, but it’s more or less how more specific personality tests operate as well.

Still… I can’t help but love them.

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The Death of a Pony

Recently, I’ve found myself doing what I thought I’d never do again – playing a browser-based pet game.

That’s right, gape in shock and awe at all the time I’ve spent recently on Lioden and Tattered Weave, two games featuring cute, multicolored animals to raise and train.

These sort of games are definitely, definitely not new for me. My parents and old friends can attest to how much time I used to spend on games like Neopets, Webkinz, Howrse, and the topic of this post: Ponystars.

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“Are you excited?”

I’m pretty sure there was no way I could have made this week’s post without any mention of my finally moving into my dorm in Bloomington on Tuesday. I think it’s because so many adults view college as one of the best parts of their lives that so many also constantly want to know how excited I am for it…

And, I am excited, I think. I think. But beyond that excitement, and that also deep, gnawing fear, I haven’t really been totally sure of what to think about it all.

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How Men Teach Women to Hate Men

A few years ago, my mother sat on my bed and told me that I shouldn’t hate men.

“Some men are bad, honey,” she said, “But there are also great men out there. You shouldn’t hate them all.”

At the time, I was frustrated. I had just got done telling her about Anita Sarkeesian’s “Women in Gaming” series, which I had binged that day, and it had awoken my mind to a big, giant, societal problem that I had never been able to bring into context the way she could. Suddenly, for the first time, someone else understood what it was like to be a girl wanting to see herself reflected in the culture she consumed. A girl who wasn’t a damsel, or a hardened (but still sexy) badass, or a flimsy love interest. Just. A hero. A main character. With agency and flaws and a story everyone could relate to.

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