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So you put your life on hold for months in order to open scary doors and windows in your brain that are closed for a reason.  Your family hates you.  Your friends fear you.  People who have graduate degrees who never had to take the GRE laugh at you.  Your hair is just slightly green.

Now what?

Day of the test: disregard everything you read on the ETS website about what to bring to the GRE.  Depending on the testing center, you get zip.  Zilch.  And maybe a little humiliation.

I work nights, so my sleep schedule is a little different from everyone else’s anyway.  Despite the admonitions in the GRE study books stating not to do any studying the day before, I went over my copious notes.  Slope of a line, anyone?  Area of a triangle?  No, no, that’s the perimeter!  My notes were filled with cute little tips like: Don’t be stupid, you fool!  In fact, I had even illustrated them.  A little court jester told me the ten different things to keep in mind when comparing two quantities.  He was not a nice court jester at all.  He was hateful.

I also took another timed practice test in the book.  The bad thing about the online practice test is that, although it does help you get familiar with it, it Doesn’t Give You The Answers.  And if you don’t know what you got wrong, how are you ever going to learn?

I do wish I had had a little more time to study for the verbal section, considering that’s what I want to get a degree in, but sadly, the verbal studying had to suffer because there was no way I was flunking out on math.  (There must be something wrong with me.)  Over the few months of prep, I basically read the instructions, did a practice essay that can’t be graded, and read through the mini-dictionary.  Day before the test, all I studied was math, though.

Then I took a nap and stayed up all night re-watching the Harry Potter series so my brain could rest and I wouldn’t oversleep my test or be groggy.

As suggested on the ETS site, I ate a little for breakfast, but not too much that I’d get sick from nerves.  But.  Oh no!  I drank a cup of hot chocolate.  Then I packed myself a drink and a snack and an extra sweater and some pens and a watch without a calculator and a good luck charm (a sarcastic sheep).

Now, if you haven’t had to take a standardized test in forever and a half (can’t you just see how much studying I did for that math test???), you might be unpleasantly surprised when they hand you a contract and force you to write a full paragraph–in cursive.

Wait, what?  Cursive?  Like, what I haven’t used since third grade, that cursive?

And I panicked.  I couldn’t remember how to make a cursive I.  It was the first letter in the paragraph.  I had flunked the GRE because I couldn’t get through the door.

A minute later the little old lady came out to ask if I was done yet.  I was still struggling to make cursive r’s.  I gave her a harrumph.  She went away.  She came back.  I said, I have to pee.  She said, No.

My contract looked like a five-year-old had written it.  It’s tough to remember 3rd grade when a little old lady keeps interrupting and glaring at you!  She made me put all my belongings in a locker, including the snack and water the GRE website specifically told me to bring.  Oh, please, little old lady, I’ve gotta pee, but what if I get thirsty???

No water.  No peeing!

She took my photograph and my ID.  She made me sign something so she could check my signature.  My hand was shaking and cramped after the cursive exercise, and honestly, how was I going to get through a five hour test if she wouldn’t let me potty?

She finally let me go.  It was still twenty minutes until my test was supposed to start, so really, she shouldn’t have given me a hard time.  But she wanted me to start early.

But then we hit another snag.  If I wore a sweater, I was not allowed to remove it during the test, no matter how hot I got.  But they wouldn’t let me feel the closed room for the temperature.  Now, I get cold.  So I had brought one short-sleeved sweatshirt and a sweater.  She made me go back to my locker and leave one there, including my watch, my bracelets, and my own earplugs.  Then she stole my sweater and checked it on every side for crib sheets.  She checked the pockets.  She made me turn out my jeans pockets, including the coin one, lift my pant legs, stick my hands in my back pockets so she could Look Inside (what a creepy job you have, lady!), and then she WANDED me.  Yup.  This was more extensive than airport security.  The only thing she didn’t do was actually frisk me.

At the break time, you have to repeat this process just to get out.  To which I reply: Wait, how could I have swapped bodies with someone inside a locked test room???  This included a signature check.  And then you were allowed your break–except half your break was already used just to get out of the room!

Super-sonic pee break.

Then back to the wanding, pocket-searching, signature checking little old lady.  I suppose that I could have been up to no good in the bathroom.  Most little girls are.  You go in, you play in the sink, you splash water, you body swap with your Mensa-smart twin sister, and then you go home while she finishes your test for you.

After all of this, it didn’t matter what was on the test at all!

Halfway through the third section I started to pray that it was experimental and would not be graded.  That meant that the final math section should appear easier.  But it wasn’t.  The third and fifth sections of the test made no sense.  Now, there’s two options for this: either I did so well on the first math section that they amped up the second.  Or: I soooo failed the first section that they put baby arithmetic on the next section.  Baby arithmetic is my Kryptonite.  I honestly have no idea if it was easy or hard math, and that just went to show me: it didn’t matter how much I studied.  The final eight problems out of twenty were all exponents.  So it wasn’t even very well-rounded.  Say, if a student doesn’t understand exponents in trigonometry, the next question should be something like: Let’s count paper coins!  But alas, it was like my random question generator got stuck.

But: I passed.  Verbally, I did great.  Mathematically, I don’t have to kill myself, and I also never ever ever need to learn math again unless I decide I hate myself and want to give myself a reason to die.  And that’s all that really matters, right?  Separating the people who commit suicide from the ones who are just plain masochistic.

night,

dawn

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There is a grand and mythic test.  It decides your fate, your future, and whether or not you’re worth the air you breathe.  It’s called (dun dun dun!) the GRE.

So what’s it really like to study for the GRE?  It’s like having your brain stuck in a blender and transported through a wormhole back twenty years.  Honestly, I started having flashbacks of the first time I learned all this.  Suddenly I was sitting in Mr. Bragg’s 9th grade Geometry class next to the window, while our teacher played with a basketball, and I met my future locker partner for the first time.  Suddenly I was standing in my grandparents’ blue/green carpeted kitchen in the 80s, just barely taller than the counter, learning to make Tang for the first time.

I had to turn off the creative side of my brain entirely.  It kept calling to me: Come out and play!  And I had to be a ninety-year-old grumpy woman and tell it to get off my porch.

Now, you can study for these tests, sure, but for a non-traditional student, you’ve got to be prepared for the hellish wasteland that is your memory.  The last time I took any math class was 16 years ago.  I took geometry 20 years ago.  Algebra (the only math I actually kind of like) is barely on the test at all.

The creators of the test claim that you’ll be using only elementary and middle school math.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha snort (oh no, she just died! medic!).

I work at a library and thankfully had access to several different review books by different publishers.  My favorite book to talk about liked to set out what appeared to be straight-forward questions, and then in the answers, the editors would laugh and make fun of you.  “Ha ha, I bet you chose answer D, but in reality, that’s WRONG! Ha ha ha, tricked you!”  I was also lucky enough, at that point, using that book, to have a math genius who was willing to help me out, and who finally took that book, flung it across the room, and explained that I didn’t need to be treated like a fool to re-learn a few math concepts.

Actually, re-learning some of the concepts was fascinating.  (I’m not being sarcastic or anything here!)  If I had been taught this way in the first place, a lot of the math would have not only made more sense, but it would have been more fun and more logical in how to use it in real life.  Unfortunately, my public school teachers were not taught to teach us the logic behind the math.  All I knew was how to show my work, every single step.  And on a timed test that only cares if you can guess what the correct answer is, this is Not Helpful.  Besides, it had been 16 years since my last math class, and I Had Not Used Math Since.  AND, even worse, if I could pass the GRE and if I could get into a university graduate program in language arts or writing, I would Never Have To Take Another Math Class As Long As I Live.  So where’s the incentive?  I could easily go back and re-learn the fascinating parts of the math and spend five or six years doing it.  But there are really no math games out there, and until someone invents The Most Fun Atari Math Game Ever, or a way to publish Fun Math Problems for Grown-Ups next to the crossword puzzle and word search in the daily paper, the only people who are going to benefit from the GRE test are the people who put together said test.  It’s a test designed to Simultaneously prove that you can CONFORM and get the right answers while Thinking Outside the Box.  This is a paradox.

The question becomes, for students hoping to get into an arts program, When do you stop?  How much is enough?  You can keep studying until you get a perfect score (at which time they’ll change the format of the test), or you can decide what’s Good Enough.  The biggest problem was that, once I got to the end of the math review book, I found out that I had re-entered all that information into my brain, but that those TYPES of questions (straightforward concepts) are not on the test at all.  They aren’t testing if you can use the math; they are testing if you understand WHY the math exists in the first place.

Also, as a non-traditional student hoping to get into an arts program, I’m currently working full-time, doing a little elder care on the side, writing and publishing short stories, submitting queries for novels… and what I found when I had to lock my creative side in a Jack-in-the-Box and be all dull and studious was that I hated who I was.  I became dull and drab and watched more television because I didn’t have the energy to be creative after studying for about five hours a night.  I didn’t have time to make Christmas pressies for my sister’s children.  My responses to stupid questions were less malleable and probably less kind.  And all because I was using a side of the brain that I (through genetics) am not supposed to be relying on for anything except to keep me from death.

Coming up in Part 2: I took the test, I passed the test, it nearly killed me.

night,

dawn

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I get asked this a lot: “Why should I read?”  Or even “Why should I read THAT?”

These are legit questions in our technocratic society.  If we want people to focus on science and factual information, the easiest way to make those fields come out on top is to devalue literature, particularly fiction.

Working at a major university library in the past, I was shocked near the end of the school year when students would come up to me to get signed off for graduating, and they would boast: “I never used the library and I’m graduating.”  I even had a few tell me, “Guess what?  I’m graduating and I never read a full book the whole time I was here.”  The new thing, in this area of the country, is to get to graduation without learning anything.  Escape unscathed!  You’re da man if you can graduate and stick it to us by becoming functionally illiterate.

Is this a game of the uneducable, or is there something parents and teachers can do to remove the stigma associated with reading?

I know all about the stigma.  From childhood, every time I opened a book, my mother would ask me, objectionably, accusingly, “What are you doing?  Why are you doing that?  Is that a BAD book?”  When you’re seven, what does that even mean?  Is that a bad book?  Bye-bye Harriet the Spy and the non-fiction book on codes.  Bye-bye ghost story books.  About the only books that were okay to read were The Baby-Sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High.  I even tried to create safe nooks and crannies and tents.  When we had to move my dresser to paint the wall, I built myself a fort where I thought I would be safe.  I was informed I needed to return my Morse Code book to the library.  I would try to read in bed with a flashlight and the covers over my head.  Books were persona non grata in our house.  My mother had a few boxes of old romance novels that she no longer read, and sometime after we moved, she just threw them away without donating them, because books of any kind had no value.

Looking back, it seems odd to encourage a ten-year-old to read Sweet Valley High.  The social situations verged on soap opera.  The emotions were heightened and everything was always the end of the world.  There was back-stabbing and every other book, half the kids weren’t speaking to the others.

Now that I’ve read a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Why Fiction Does It Better” by Lisa Zunshine (fab name, btw, Lisa), I can now look back at my reading foray and realize that it was probably my bizarre socialization through soap opera kid-fic that makes me today a person that everyone comes to for advice when they have problems.  “Why Fiction Does It Better” focuses on how the sociocognitive learning within fictional texts can make students better, but instead, let’s look at how fiction can make a person better.  Zunshine describes the ability of fiction to teach readers cognitive “nesting”.  Primarily “third-level nesting” and higher.  In the article, her example is: “I didn’t want (first mental state) him to know (second mental state) that I didn’t like (third mental state) his gift.”  Babies fall into the selfish category of simple want.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else wants.  Let’s say, both babies and psychopaths, just for fun.  Although psychopaths have the ability to see that what they want might hurt someone else, they dismiss the effect on the other person as negligible.  And babies simply do not care.

If you want a person to think socially, they need to not only see how they fit into their own roles in society, but how they relate to others, how others relate back, how their relationships affect each other, how people can use each other to get what they want, how they can form alliances, etcetera etcetera.

Fiction has often gotten a bad name when it comes to looking at the forced socialization implied.  Sure, some people might write fiction as propoganda.  “I want people to act like this, so the characters will do so.”  The fact is, most prescriptive fictions don’t get large readerships.  There are some things that become ingrained in society to the point that the mass market fiction we read will reinforce the values chosen by society to be important.  In the 80s, that value was “getting ahead”, in the 70s it was “equality for women” and “free love”.

There have been studies to prove that one reason people read mass market fiction, and quite often in a very specific genre (for example, sub-genres of romance for widows or single mothers, or mystery sub-genres that focus on nosy neighbors) is because, although the story appears to follow the same path and end the same(ish), that we occasionally read for the comfort of stroking that same neural pathway.  People like that the same thing(ish) happens, although it may deviate slightly and the interactions between characters will be different, but that in the end, it follows the same path.  It’s a comfort.  In Sweet Valley High the pattern was normally that someone got mad at someone else, there was a misunderstanding or someone appeared to act selfishly, one of the Unicorns tried to get ahead of the group, and after the fight, relationships were mended.  It is somewhat prescripted.  If in this situation, then we can act this way, and perhaps this might be the outcome.

In literary fiction, the nesting complexity of the situation usually involves the reader.  Instead of leading the reader by the hand and stating If this, then that, instead the writer may create a situation in which the reader needs to decide for themselves that Although this misunderstanding… or maybe If only the characters had reacted as such… The problem solving in literary fiction does not always lead to an easy conclusion, which can leave a reader looking for a simple answer disillusioned.  Where’s the happy ending?  If the solution of the characters didn’t work out, how can I use this as an example of how I can act when I come upon a similar problem in my own life?

Readers who did not start reading young often can’t transition to the higher sociocognitive levels of complexity because they cannot apply a similar-but-different situation to a problem.  Reading non-fiction does not normally (except with the occasional memoir) include any of the complexity involved in social relationships.  A generation of socially inept people lack any common sense with dealing with each other, because they have not been encouraged to see examples of social interaction, both the ones that ended well and the ones that did not.

So why should we read fiction?  Zunshine concludes that reading more fiction will increase a student’s ability to perform well in college and to comprehend difficult texts.  Mumsy-Dearest reads fiction for the social interactions to get to the end of the story and escape for a while.  I read primarily for the joy of the wordplay skimming across the page, but I do enjoy the occasional mass-market work where you can escape into a world you’ve seen before and a situation well-known, with slightly different humans enacting this play.  There are many different reasons to read.  To increase our attention spans, to learn something new, to be tranported to a foreign land or a different time.  All I ask is that everyone find their own sub-genre, be it Star Wars tie-in novels, fantastic elvish devility, experimental horseplay, farce, whatever, and support the authors writing what you like to read.  You may be supporting them, but at the same time, you’re exercising your social sleuthing, your brain, your attention span, and staving off adult illiteracy.

night,

dawn

Zunshine, Lisa. “Why Fiction Does it Better.”  The Chronicle of Higher Education 60:15 pt. B (2013): B4-B5.

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“Picasso at the Lapin Agile” – Steve Martin

Take Picasso, Einstein, and Elvis, and roll them up in a bar… then write a play.  I think I liked Martin’s female characters better than his use of historical figures.  No precedence for them, but they had more life on the page.

Currently reading Louis de Bernieres.  Lovely.  Slightly off-kilter.  Wonderful use of multiple characters.  “The War in Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts”, considering the setting in a civil war type situation with people trying to wipe out the native population, this could easily slip into a dark realm, perhaps get out a soap box, but de Bernieres so far has managed to skirt around the political by letting the political self-destruct on its own. 

Also currently reading “Giles Goat-Boy” by John Barth.  Tremendous.  The story of Jesus retold on a college campus in the 60s, with a goat and a super-computer.

Simultaneously reading “Skinny Legs and All” by Tom Robbins.  I like Robbins, I really do.  I don’t even need to know what the book is about, just let the words slip by like Jell-O.

 

Books I’ve read that I plan to categorize:

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins

Still Life with Woodpecker by Tom Robbins

Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan

Been Down so Long it Looks Like Up to Me by Richard Farina

PG Wodehouse

Monty Python scripts

Cold Comfort Farm by Stell Gibbons

Snow White by Donald Barthelme

Roald Dahl

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

The Woman Who Walked into Doors by Roddy Doyle

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

The Man Who Was Thursday

Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh

Zebra Derby by Max Shulman

Breakfast at Tiffany’s by Truman Capote

Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

 

Reading list:

Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek

Tristram Shandy

Ella Minnow Pea

The Master and Margarita by  Mikhail Bulgakov

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When near success, join a conga line.  The more sinister you look, the more incongruous your celebration, the better.  Enjoy yourself. 

Flower monsters are a must. Who would suspect their begonia of being anything but tame?  Perhaps people who live in the rain forest will be more wary of eight foot tall plants walking nonchalantly down Main Street with their hands in their pockets, because people who live in the rain forest know all about venus fly traps, etc, whereas people walking down Main Street keep their eyes averted from their fellow passers-by, expecting guns, not roses. 

Yeah, I’m still watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.  Onto Season Three!  Really and truly I should be getting some work done, but I shall count this as “research”. 

Last night while perusing The Japanese Mirror, a book on pop culture in Japan, written by Ian Buruma, I came across a passage about the true nature of television.  It exists, in its utmost popularity, to uphold the status quo.  Not to rock the boat.  Not to change the world.  Not to have a true message.  Its existence proves that there is a majority rule, and that the majority is fairly conservative and unwavering.  We accept certain things on television, and we expect it to contain morality consistent with the majority of our culture.  If it were to rock the boat and make us uncomfortable, we would not hold as much stock by it, nor would we watch it every single night.  Every night.  Night after night. 

From this I must learn something about the nature of pop culture.  In my BFA we were taught to respect our art, to learn and study it and to uphold it to high standards, to accept nothing less.  In my MA, I’m learning the opposite.  It’s about marketability.  It’s about… television?  How can a novel be television?  No, no, but a novel can be written in an accessible format so that more people will be willing to return–night after night.

Where does art meet pop culture?  Can there be a message, while still being entertaining and addictive?  How?  The Campbell’s soup cans have already been painted, so what is left to the rest of us, the Gen X’ers who look out at this world and see that it’s all been done before.  What was popular twenty years ago, because it’s about to be popular again.  We’re just outgrowing the bell bottoms, please, Lord, don’t allow disco to return…

Is it villainous to sell?  Moliere says, “Writing is like prostition.  First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money.”  I would adore it if I could have a patron of the arts who would sustain me like Michaelangelo while I create, create, create.  Mwuhahaha!  (How’s that villainous?  Because anyone falling into obsession ceases to be quite human.)  But that’s not going to happen.  This isn’t the world to promote art.  But this is the world that consumes.

night after night

dawn after dawn

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One Gnarley Harp

Ha ha!  Ah ha!  I get it, I get it.  So I’m slow.  Not having seen the weaponry in action, every time the black ranger would call out for his “power axe”, I immediately thought of an electric guitar.  It just seemed so out of place.  A guitar, a bow (and arrow, not a ribbon, thank you very much Ink, being able to see it helped avoid confusion), and then a bunch of totally random weapons I can’t remember.  But just to clear up confusion, it now does appear (even though it looks quite a bit like an electric guitar, well, a weird child’s plastic toy figure of one) to be a chop-chop cut-tree type of ax.  Me see. 

Anywho, in the last couple of days, I have followed the Rangers, rolling myself laughing the entire way.  What a grand find!  I have now found that apparently they still make this, only now they use real special effects and it’s all spiffy looking now, comparatively, whereas before, it was total old school.  It was shoe string budget, taken to the limit, with neon paint.  Must I watch fifteen years worth of Power Rangers???  I probably won’t make it that far.  I’m still curious about the evolution of the Man-Who-Will-Become-Vash, so we’ll see how much further I get than the next four years.  If my patience lasts that long.  I find that intertwining martial arts fighting (ooh) with Transformers to be unfair.  One or the other, guys, come on.  I liked Transformers when I was a kid, but to do both?  It’s cheesy, and you can’t devote enough time to either one.  The second they go into mechadroid territory, or whatever it’s called, the fight’s over in a one-two punch.  So before that, you have to endure nearly a minute of (the same?) footage of them calling to their dual-personality beasties.  Now, if you take a unicorn and a triceratops and meld them together, you get four horns, right?  So how on earth can it be either a unicorn or a triceratops any longer?  It’s mathematically impossible.  Not to mention, technically, writers, a mastadon is not a dinosaur.  It’s a mammal, not a thunder lizard.  So no, I don’t like the beasties so much.  Simplicity counts, right?  Yuppers.

Now, quibbles aside, they say that children laugh what, forty-four times a day?  And adults twice?  I’ve gotten my yearly quotient of laughter, then.  I don’t remember the actual numbers, that’s why I’m not a math major.  (Yippee for going back to school, though.  The Power Rangers would be proud of me, because they keep saying that education is going to save the world.)  So this syndicate is obviously doing something right, because I’ve watched maybe twenty episodes in the last two days.  I should (totally!) be working on “zee novel” aka that perilous pen pricking poodle of primary proverbs, and yet, here I am, already planning things to fix up an older novel I was working on right before uni started up in September.  I keep going, Ooh, I misunderstood that; I can so use it!  Lemme borrow a little of this, and a dash of that, and heap on a whole bunch of crazy minsunderstandings, et voila!  Shish boom bah.  Got me a happy little dose of insanity for my own super hero.  But first, sadly, I need to get my elderly woman out of the circus and back home (must she go back home? she never liked it there; it would be mean to take her back home).  I need to TheEnd it, then I can go work on all sorts of other projects.  Am I acquiring Adult Attention Deficit?  Doubtful, considering how much MMPR I’ve watched the last two days.  At least we know I can still sit still.

Tra la la!  But spring fever hit big time.  Curled my hair so it would bounce, wore a dress, went to our how to read stuff in public lesson with our performance poet/love story lady, and I must say, that woman makes uncomfortable eye contact.  Every time our eyes met, I felt she was trying to stare me down.  She was probing my mind.  She can’t have my novel ideas!  No ma’am!  She’s got weird ideas about this whole public speaking thing.  And I do think the five second silence is going to kill me.  Rise gracefully from your seat, walk with dignity to the podium (do not wear a t-shirt with pink little kittens if you’re reading a serious piece on suicide), and then stand there staring down your audience for five seconds.  One.  Two.  Three. Four. Five.  Then introduce yourself calmly.  By that point in time, I’ll have forgotten my name.

night,

dawn

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You say something logically enough, I will disregard my opinion and my feelings… which wane with age. 

Until next time. 

We’ll see.  Remember Princess Jasmine pretending to be a foolish imbecile and talking to camels?  Remember the Alamo! 

I went into this as General Custer… and I think I lost, just the same.  We’ll see how bad the slaughter is, maybe by morning.  The sun comes up, the fog lifts, and there’s my frozen cold body, with nothing left of me.  It rises, it shines, and I sit there yelling, Hey, come back, you fool!  And it goes on without me, sweet, no petulence, the perfect citizen.  No brain, no life, no purpose.

night,

dawn

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