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Vicennial by Amber V. '24

wikipedia says this means 20th

If indeed I post this on time, as of February 9th, 2021, I’ll be twenty years old. Wow. So weathered, so wise. 

I’m heading back to Boston in a couple days, after this eight-week vacation. For now I’m wandering around the desert, drinking up the sight of saguaros,01 the tall cacti with arms, pronounced ‘sah-WAH-row.’ Thanks for coming to my desert ted talk. which dot the mountains here like trees. One year ago I was in Venice, fairly certain this virus everyone was talking about would pass (ha). I was eager for college and hungry for new experiences, which seemed to be cropping up everywhere on the road ahead. I’m still eager for college. I’m looking back on what I’d hoped for, what I did, and what I’m hoping to do.

picture of a field full of saguaro cacti

I mentioned being caught in this “not unpleasant in-between” in my last blog. No longer in high school, and definitely not in the workforce, but not quite a college kid, either. College is itself a sort of bridge, with trappings of adulthood — independence and accountability, internships and jobs — and also of childhood: dorms and dining halls, an institute that makes it easier to build friendships, and so many rules to break.

I’m packing up and flying to Boston soon, and I’ll follow the rules. There will be many. All the freshmen and I won’t experience exactly what we’ve been waiting for, but we’ll get the closest approximation that we can in these times. I’m so very excited.

In the meantime, I’m at home, where apart from the pandemic it seems like few things have changed. I hopped back home for winter break during my gap year, and this summer I left Europe for a very long quarantine here in Tucson, AZ. Time overlaps; I’ll pick up the feelings I thought I’d left behind, but really they were just waiting for me here, in the pages of a book I last picked up in middle school, on a certain stretch of road at dusk. 

I love being here but over time I feel trapped. Stuck in the confines of my house, the familiar tracks in my mind. I like the work I’m doing, and the media I’m consuming, but damn could I use a change of scenery. I’m sure all of us could. I play coffeeshop music in my room but I can’t re-create the inexplicable external pressure of being around other people and ignoring them. 

In high school we’d go to college admissions talks, and it seemed like every magazine and banner was trying to sell not just the college, but who you would be if you went to the college, how your quirky personality would become inextricably tied with College X. I scoffed at those; I may have sold my soul to the Collegeboard,02 the company that administers AP and SAT tests, heh but I never bought school spirit. Right now, though? I want to be an MIT student. During these long months of quarantine, I’ve dug deep into my psyche. My closets are clean, the messes tucked neatly into shoeboxes and stacked against the wall. My room is eight steps across, back and forth, back and forth. I feel like I’ve found myself, and I like myself, but I’ll have more room to grow within MIT than out of it.

When you leave a plant inside its pot for too long, with all the water that it needs, its roots will try to grow outward and deeper but come up against the plastic wall of the pot. They’ll curl at the bottom, layered, overlapping, and when you finally pull the plant out its roots hold the shape of the pot they’ve grown into. 

When that happens, you say the plant is rootbound. 

If you put it in a bigger pot, though, or plant it in the ground, the roots will stretch and grow just fine. It won’t be weak or stunted. We’re just waiting for the earth to surround us.

I went digging in my shelf of old notebooks and found my highly thought-out goals for the year, written January 1, 2020. To say my handwriting is chicken scratch would be insulting to chickens, so I have transcribed these goals below:

  1. Be less late
  2. Be more nice 
  3. Abs03 I read a book once where the main character goes to a nighttime party, and across the torchlit dancing pit she sees her lover-to-be. Specifically she sees his abs through his leather vest. I made fun of this line to my friend who’d read the book, but clearly I was just jealous.
  4. Write lots of stuff!
  5. Read more fantasy — percentage-wise especially

Since my birthday falls somewhat close to New Year’s, I usually either re-affirm New Year’s goals or drop them. I more or less carried these goals through 2020 and through being nineteen.

1. [be less late] I said I was re-affirming “be less late,” but I found a journal entry dated Feb 10th, 2020, one day later, in which I couldn’t manage to arrive at a museum in Venice until after closing time, sooooo.

2. [be more nice] “Be more nice” was relevant at home, where I was embroiled in some conflicts with friends/family and was struggling to navigate it. By and large I’ve crossed that rocky sea now, the wounds more healed by time than anything I or the other people did.

  • In the wider world, I’m pushing myself more to not be nice, to not waste energy trying to be likeable.
  • I spent a lot of time pre-covid purposely trying to prioritize people, arriving places semi-on-time and not skipping hangouts in favor of doing work. All this alone time, though, is making me recall a forgotten phase in which I wanted to be that absent-professor stereotype, so absorbed in his04 for inevitably it is a he, a white dude with a scraggly beard and piercing eyes work he forgets to eat or sleep. His workshop is an intricate form of chaos only he can navigate. Precarious piles of books gather dust. So clever he needn’t worry about niceties or people skills. But I, alas, am not so clever, and I don’t think society still affords the recluse his mystique. Anyway I like having friends.

3. [abs] Not yet!

I did start lifting weights and doing more varied and intense ab workouts, though, so I’mma count that for something.

4. [writing] I did!! Okkkkk usually I do not post stats but! This year! I am very happy!

  • got stuff published in magazines run by people I do not know, which is extraordinary! Theakers Quarterly Fiction Vol 66, Drunk Monkeys Magazine, Silver Blade, Broken Pencil. I didn’t actually write those stories this year, but I did a lot of editing, and the process of shopping stories to magazines is intense. (Honestly one story took more hours to sell than to write).
  • wrote 4 new short stories (one was in January so I dunno if it counts for ‘while I’m 19’ goals, but shhh)
  • wrote a book :))))))))
  • edited said book :)))))))
  • did some other stuff and made a few attempts at starting stories/novels that were eventually shuffled back to the drawing board. One of them helped develop characters for new stuff.
  • plotted, but did not write, some more books :))))) (one of ‘em won’t be written for a heckuva long while, and one of ‘em may be written never, but I enjoyed and hopefully grew from the practice of structuring a novel)

This was the third manuscript I’ve finished but the first one I finished and edited in the length of one year. It’s shorter than anything else I’ve written, which is what I was going for — tying up plots in a finite wordcount is great. It was also just really fun. A year ago I was thrilled to practice romance arcs, multiple perspectives, and capturing modern vibes (more on that), and now that’s done, and it’s… I’m just really pleased with this.

I mostly read adult fantasy of the epic05 the genre, not the adjective, though sometimes the adjective also applies. and grimdark06 like <em>Lies of Locke Lamora</em>, <em>Game of Thrones</em>, violent gritty stuff variety, and for most of my writing life, I wrote adult fantasy, epic-ish with a dash of grimdark.

 This year, the book I wrote was speculative fiction — a toxicology major tries to cure her secret affliction: lycanthropy — which feels quite different from secondary-world fantasy, and internally I’m sort of like, wow, who am I? I think that my original work was more tightly coupled with my psyche than I realized, because moving away from it is hard, even though I know I will return some day.

I’m working on a new secondary-world fantasy now, with a very different vibe from anything I’ve written before. It’s fun. 

5. [read fantasy books] Oh man, yes I did! 12 graphic novels & 45 books. I already did a book blog post for the portion of ’em I read fall semester, so no fat lists here.07 hahahahaha I lied. (deep breath) my favorite ones were <em>Lud-in-the-Mist</em> by Hope Mirlees, <em>Who Fears Death</em> by Nnedi Okorafor, <em>Good Omens</em> by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, <em>The Wolf Road</em> by Beth Lewis,<em> Trail of Lightning</em> by Rebecca Roanhorse, <em>The Magicians</em> by Lev Grossman, <em>Steal the Sky</em> / Scorched Continent trilogy by Megan E. O’Keefe, <em>The Once and Future King</em> by T.H. White, <em>Sandman</em> by Neil Gaiman, <em>SAGA</em> by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan, <em>All Systems Red</em> by Martha Wells, <em>Station Eleven</em> by Emily St John Mandel, <em>The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue</em> by V. E. Schwab, and <em>A Deadly Education</em> by Naomi Novik. Basically, I got way better at following my gut and reading what I know I like to read, instead of trying to convince myself I actually like X type of book instead. I wound up with a pretty stable balance between fantasy, literary, and other genre fiction, like sci-fi. There was even a bit of nonfiction, which surprised me. It’s like when you finally get to eat whatever you want, vegetables aren’t as terrible as you remember.

Goal for next year: make a greater portion of my blogs be things other than me slobbering over books I like. Anyway.

potted mini agaves on a windowsill

Finally, inspired by the new year, and Nisha’s and Cami’s goals, here are some things I hope to accomplish the first year of this new decade of my life:

  • read all the Neil Gaiman books! This decade: all of Schwab and all of Sanderson, both of which are hard, because they write fast. 
  • read more books by BIPOC authors. Also more with queer romantic subplots.
  • abs. How much spinach must I consume? I think a lot.
  • run harder. Running is like meditation for me, an extended period of shower thoughts. I typically push myself to run farther, not faster. But I’ve hit this upper limit where I don’t have time to add more miles, so I’ve gotta make the switch to make shorter distances count.
  • run a marathon. I think my legs will cry. UPDATE: I DID THIS ON FEB 7TH, 2 DAYS BEFORE TURNING 20, AND MY LEGS DID CRY. SO MUCH. BUT SOME OF THOSE TEARS WERE TEARS OF JOY.
    • New goal: run a marathon with other people on a cordoned-off route. Hopefully this can happen some day.

 

  • Publishing. I would love to sign with a literary agent, but I know the publishing industry is not under my control, so instead I’ll set a goal of putting my best effort into doing all the steps I can to get my new manuscript signed. 
  • Writers of the Future (a short story competition). Several authors I admire won this in their youth. My goal is to submit to it every quarter (you are allowed, an encouraged, to do this), which means I’ll write four short stories by the end of the year. In 2020 I wrote exactly four, for the same reason. Short stories are a challenge for me, but they’re a great opportunity to explore new styles and genres.
    • Bonus: invent a concrete magic system with Sanderson-esque rules for one of the stories.
  • Writing. Finish the as-yet-untitled thing I’m working on!
    • this decade: I’m intrigued by time-dependent narrative structures, where the story is told partly in the present and partly in flashbacks, as in V. E. Schwab’s Vicious. I’d love to write something with that type of structure.

 

  • grow out of the foolish freshman phase, and/or get comfortable in professional settings.

“Are there any expectations you have of me?” asked my UROP supervisor, a chemical oceanography grad student, during a Zoom onboarding meeting.

“Um, yeah,” I said, “if I’m doing something dumb, but I don’t realize it, then, uh… tell me.” 

“Okay,” she said, and wrote constructive feedback. I stared at that line, thinking to myself, ‘gawd, kiddo, why didn’t you use a professional phrase like that? You do know those words.’

A few minutes later, I signed off from the Zoom meeting, sighed deeply, and said aloud to my room, “It’s okay. She knows you’re a freshman.” I do this after many meetings, smiling sheepishly at my mirror, telling myself, you’re a kid to all of them, they know you’re a clever idiot. They are expecting someone who doesn’t catch all the etiquette. 

I feel like I can pick up professional diction, but I hate talking myself up. It’s not impostor syndrome: I’m pretty confident about having potential, I’m just keenly self-aware about the fact that I am a freshman with no work experience in the industries I’m applying to. So I tend to act casual, and be open and up-front about my lack of experience, a lot, way more than anyone asked.

I’m also just naturally somewhat talentless in this area. I don’t mind, because I don’t particularly enjoy being slick and professional, so I’d rather any talent be distributed elsewhere. Still, I’ve gotta put forth bucketloads of effort to improve. I am trying.

I’m glad I have the safety net of being a frosh, that I can feel comfortable knowing I’m inexperienced. Soon enough I won’t be a frosh, and I’ll have been going to career fair type events for a while. I’m aiming to be less awkward by then, more confident stepping into this role.

  • vegetarianism? I’ve lasted five months with two cheat meals, which is wayyyyyy longer than I expected. I even signed up for vegetarian meals on campus! I’m not gonna beat myself up when I eventually break and turn back to omnivorism, but I am kinda intrigued to see how much farther this will go.
  • figure out a major. Course 5?08 chemistry 10?09 chemical engineering   8?10 physics 21-S?11 any humanities + any science, which for me would probably be history + chem / physics

The nifty thing about this one is that I’ll accomplish it at some point, inevitably, ’cause we’ve got to declare. I’m hoping that the classes I take this spring will point me toward which discipline I like best.

  • acquire the vaguest of career plans. I think I would like to touch trees and save the planet(tm), but apparently one must specialize within that field.
  • curate my vibe. My sister did a photoshoot with me as the model. “Less smolder,” she’d say. “Sneer. Be Snape.” 

I do not usually sneer, and did not realize I managed it then; but she caught this marvelous expression. Seeing so many photos of myself scowling accentuated some thoughts I’ve had  about tapping into darker/harder sides of myself.

I don’t lack confidence but I act like I’ve got to step lightly, lest I offend someone. Like the absent professor, I assume I’m missing a big chunk of social cues. I compensate by being nice. And I like being nice, I like being high-energy, I don’t want to stop that and start being rude. I just want to be… powerful, I guess. Discerning. Something like that, I can’t think of the word.

Anyway, this nebulous new goal needs some concrete aspects, and I’m thinking one of those will be to figure out makeup. I’m also trying a picture-every-day thing, the idea being that I’ll get bored of making the same expressions/poses and experiment with new ones. Or maybe when I get bored I’ll just give it up, who knows.

 

The blogs are such a good thing to come into my life. I didn’t write “become a blogger” on my goals, because I knew it wasn’t up to me; it would depend on how competitive the application was or how many spots were open. But I’ve wanted to do this for years. I remember going on runs in high school and thinking about what I would blog. I don’t remember what those hypothetical blogs would cover —  application advice?12 did I *actually* think myself qualified to give application advice? Ha haaaaaa — but I get this sense of deja vu every time I plan my blogs while running now. It feels surreal that I get to do this. More surreal, I think, than going to MIT. To everyone who reads these, thank you so much. I appreciate you giving me this slice of your day.

potted agave cactus

The coming year is gonna be fantastic. MIT has been on the horizon for who can say how long, moving away the closer you get to it. In the desert, mirages paint the roads all summer. You’ll be walking by the roadside, and up ahead there’s something shimmering, like a flood. You move closer, only to realize it was just the heat, warping the light above the asphalt so that it reflected to your eyes like water. Except there’s another flood, a few hundred yards down…

In just a couple days, I’ll finally be on campus, together with roughly ¾ of the student body. We’ll be masked and distanced, and classes with on-campus elements will be few and far between. But we can meet each other in the snow outside, or in the lounges of our dorm halls, our eyes crinkling when we smile. The real thing will be that much closer. I can’t wait to drink it up.

  1. the tall cacti with arms, pronounced ‘sah-WAH-row.’ Thanks for coming to my desert ted talk. back to text
  2. the company that administers AP and SAT tests, heh back to text
  3. I read a book once where the main character goes to a nighttime party, and across the torchlit dancing pit she sees her lover-to-be. Specifically she sees his abs through his leather vest. I made fun of this line to my friend who’d read the book, but clearly I was just jealous. back to text
  4. for inevitably it is a he, a white dude with a scraggly beard and piercing eyes back to text
  5. the genre, not the adjective, though sometimes the adjective also applies. back to text
  6. like Lies of Locke Lamora, Game of Thrones, violent gritty stuff back to text
  7. hahahahaha I lied. (deep breath) my favorite ones were Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirlees, Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor, Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman, The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis, Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, Steal the Sky / Scorched Continent trilogy by Megan E. O’Keefe, The Once and Future King by T.H. White, Sandman by Neil Gaiman, SAGA by Fiona Staples & Brian K. Vaughan, All Systems Red by Martha Wells, Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, and A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. back to text
  8. chemistry back to text
  9. chemical engineering back to text
  10. physics back to text
  11. any humanities + any science, which for me would probably be history + chem / physics back to text
  12. did I *actually* think myself qualified to give application advice? Ha haaaaaa back to text