Why Crying Makes Me So Happy, or, Les Misérables

On the bus into New York City on Wednesday afternoon, I turned to my roommate and told her that I had a serious problem: I had forgotten my tissues!

Why was I so worried about tissues?

We were heading into the city to see Les Misérablesthe Boublil and Schönberg musical that just about everyone has heard of since it was turned into a movie with Hugh Jackman, Anne Hathaway, a lot of other really talented singers, and Russell Crowe. For those of you who are new to my blog, you’ll want to know that this is not the first time I’ve written about Les Miz. I saw it in London, at the Queen’s Theatre, in November, while I was on my study abroad. I’ve also seen it quite a few other times, with my mom in Chicago and with friends in Boston when it came around on tour. It was the first big theater show I ever saw. When I heard it was going to be opening on Broadway in March, I knew I had to try and see it (it was also my first time seeing a show on Broadway!). So we bought two tickets, way up in the balcony, and headed off to see the show!

First off, just to get this out of the way: the new production is PHENOMENAL. The cast, headed by the incredibly talented Ramin Karimloo as Valjean and Will Swenson as Javert, is stellar.  Caissie Levy as Fantine, Nikki M. James as Éponine and Keala Settle as Madame Thénardier are all excellent, and even though the show is still in previews, it was incredibly well done.

Les Miz is a powerful story in and of itself–a story of redemption and the conflict between right and wrong (if you haven’t read the book, I’d strongly recommend it. And if you don’t have time for 1000+ pages, go see the show! And if you don’t have time for that, find a very quick synopsis here). The production I saw on Wednesday night captured the power of the story, harnessed it and poured it out on the stage. This production was far more raw, emotionally and physically, than I remembered other productions being. Karimloo and Swenson brought depth to their characters, particularly Karimloo’s Valjean. In other productions, Valjean makes the transition from bad man 15 minutes into the show, and from then on, he is the good guy. The Valjean I saw on Wednesday night was, even into the second act, still wrestling with being good instead of being evil. He was always ready to defend himself, willing to use physical force to protect himself or others, and struggling visibly with the tension between goodness and hatred. It was not only a well-sung performance, but a wonderfully acted one.

I find that whenever I go to see Les Miz, I focus on one or another of the characters. Last time, it was the barricade boys, the student revolutionaries ready to die to change the world, who got me to weeping. This time, though, it was Valjean. His struggle to stay on the right track, to keep living a life of love, sacrifice, and self-restraint was incredibly resonant. I started crying at the barricade, and was sobbing uncontrollably for the last ten minutes of the show. But to be honest? I’m glad I cried. I cry at Les Miz because I find meaning in the show, and every time I see it, I cry for a different reason. Les Misérables is the proverbial gift that keeps on giving: each time, it’s reassuringly the same story, but the meaning I extract from it is different. I’m happy that I cried, and I hope I keep crying.

And no, I never did get any tissues!

Les Miserables Marquee

Les Misérables at the Imperial Theater on Broadway!

New York, New York

This past week was spring break (even though the weather was not at all spring-like). I spent with my roommate in New Jersey/New York. I’ve only ever been to New York City once, when a friend and I won tickets to go to a Q&A with Benedict Cumberbatch, as part of a PBS promotion for the second season of Sherlock (I never win anything, so this was a surprise!). We were in New York for a grand total of six hours, and saw the inside of the theater, Times Square at night, and Port Authority bus terminal. Not a particularly thorough introduction to the city, by any means.

Sarah and I had a long, long list of things we definitely wanted to see while we were in the city. To our credit, we made it into the city four days out of the week, and saw just about everything on our list (including two Broadway shows, Les Miserables  and Pippin, which were both so amazing that they deserve their own blog posts).

I’m a suburban Chicagoan, and spent three months living in central London. I’m no stranger to cities or to crowds. But New York? It’s HUGE. And a little bit freaky. Times Square, or “the great crush of humanity,” is like Leicester Square in London but oddly shaped, so the great crush of humanity doesn’t really have anywhere to go. I’d seen Times Square at night before, but walking into it for the first time on this trip I was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff going on. Lights flashing, people yelling, cars, cabs, and pedestrians fighting for space on the street, and tourists everywhere, taking pictures and gabbling at each other in a million different languages.

IMG_2095

Times Square at night

The first day in, we went downtown, to Central Park, then walked back to Times Square via 5th Avenue, also known as the Avenue of Stores I Can’t Afford. We poked in and out of stores, and I couldn’t help but compare 5th Avenue to Regent Street in London, another street full of Stores I Can’t Afford. 5th Avenue felt far less exclusive than Regent Street–there were plenty of regular people on the street, almost like a cross between Regent Street and Oxford Street.  The best part of 5th Avenue was FAO Schwartz, the giant toy store with a Big Piano–you play it by walking on it! And yes, of course we took our shoes off and played on the the Big Piano–who wouldn’t?

IMG_2074

Of course we played on the Big Piano!

We traipsed through the touristy bits of Midtown, and began plotting what to do next on the bus ride home. The consensus was that the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) were two things that could not be missed. So, we made sure to make it to both.

The Met is MASSIVE. We spent three solid hours of wandering around the museum and still didn’t see the massive painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware river (which I didn’t even realize was in the Met until Sarah’s mom asked us if we had seen it…). We did see a bunch of cool ancient Egyptian stuff, lots of Renaissance art, and the fanciest whiskey decanter I’ve ever seen. My favorite part of the Met, though, were the period rooms. They’re exactly what they sound like–rooms from old houses, set up with all the right furniture in what the curators think are the right places. There were a lot of them, but they all had these nifty touchscreen monitors, that gave you as much or as little information as you wanted about the room, the house it came from, the people who lived in that house, and the furniture in that room. In effect, the monitors gave the visitor the chance to become the curator, to decide what they thought was important to know about the room they were looking at.

IMG_2109

Fanciest whiskey decanter I’ve ever seen.

I knew I was going to enjoy the Met; I tend to like art from the Renaissance, from epic painters like Jacques-Louis David, and from the Impressionists. I was a little more skeptical about MoMA, because modern art tends to leave me bored and baffled. MoMA, however, was anything but boring. Between Monet’s Water Lilies, Van Gogh’s Starry Night,  Andy Warhol’s 32 Campbell Soup Cans, and Sarah’s enthusiasm for the museum, I was not only engaged, but enthralled. The Tate Modern in London was a massive collection of modern art that, at least in my experience, wasn’t explained or arranged in any sort of sensical manner. MoMA made more sense and was smaller, so it felt much less overwhelming. It was also a lot more interesting than the Tate, because there were exhibitions of things that made sense. Much of the emphasis at MoMA was on art in everyday life. There was an exhibition of video games as art (we tried and failed rather epically at Pong), of a mine detector that looked like a wheel of plungers, and of women’s contributions to art and design from 1890 to the present, including kitchen and interior design. I thought it was really, really interesting.

I’ve been reading Museums Matter, by James Cuno, who is currently the President and CEO of the Getty Trust. The book is a praise song for encyclopedic museums like the Met and the Art Institute of Chicago, but it also raised a point which I found to be very true at both the Met and MoMA.  He talks about the importance of the agency of the visitor to museums in choosing what to see and how to see it. Both MoMA and the Met are so big that it’s practically impossible to see the entire museum in one visit, even for the most hardy of museum-goers. Instead, visitors make choices about what to look at and when to see it, in the same way that curators and exhibition designers choose what they are going to display and how they are going to display it. In both MoMA and the Met, I was aware of the decisions I was making about what to look at and when I saw it, even if it seemed like we were just hopelessly wandering around. It’d be interesting, I think, to survey people coming out of a museum, just to see what they thought of their experience in the museum and why they made the choices they did while going through the museum. If anybody knows if there’s been a study like this, please let me know!

Overall verdict on New York? An awesome city, but Chicago has better pizza!

IMG_2149

New York, New York! 

How Hard is a Half-Marathon, Anyway?

This is a spectacularly belated blog post BUT that doesn’t matter. Why? Because I DID IT!!! On February 23, I finished my first half marathon!!!

2 hours, 16 minutes, and 44 seconds. Pretty darn good, if I do say so myself–my goal was to finish under 2:30 and I smashed that!

It was an absolutely amazing experience, and (hard as this may be to believe), I can’t wait to do another one! My dad and my brother came out, and my roommate and my grandparents were there too, cheering me on at mile 2, mile 4, and at the finish line. Having people there to support me was inspiring. They believed in me, and believed that I could do it, and so when I was flagging, when my legs felt like they were going to fall off, I took strength from their support and was able to keep going, knowing that I’d see them at the finish line. Before the race, I found my friend Dan, who is running six marathons in six months to help fund a project to help people with mobility disabilities in Ghana (if you want to know more about his project, the Tro Tro Project, click the link!). I spent most of the first half of the race running and chatting with an older guy and his daughter, who were running at about the same pace I wanted to keep. I lost them after I stopped for water around mile 7 and they just kept going. That was fine–trying to catch them was a good motivator for the next 4 miles or so, and after that I just wanted to finish so badly that it didn’t matter that they were long gone.

IMG_2052

Almost done!! 

The Stages of Running a Half Marathon, in my experience:

Start: Oh, I’m so excited! I have so much energy! Look at all these people! And I’ve found new friends to talk to while we run, I’m sure I can keep up with them!

Mile 2: Going good! Hey look, my family! Hi guys! I feel awesome! Although I had to ditch my sweatshirt already, it’s pretty warm out (it was a balmy 47 degrees and sunny the day I ran, which made my zip up jacket superfluous).

Mile 4: We’re running through Hyannis and we still haven’t seen the beach. Where’s the water? Eh, I don’t need to stop for a drink now.. Oh look, it’s my cheering squad again! They even have signs!

Mile 6: Okay, so it’s been an hour of running. I could use a drink of water right about now…. What do you mean, there isn’t any until mile 8? My legs are starting to hurt… And here’s the beach! Hurray!

Mile 8: WATER!!!!!! Oh, okay, friends, you don’t want to wait for me to get some water? Okay. I’ll try and catch up with you?

Mile 9: Oh dear. My legs hurt. I need more water. Why am I doing this? Where is my family? I could really use a cheering section right about now! Where’s the water??

Mile 10: 10 miles! Only… three…to…go. WHERE IS THE WATER??

Mile 11: WATER!!!!!! Only two miles to go! Getting a second wind–my legs hurt a lot less!

Mile 12: Hurray, more water! Only a mile to go! I can hear the finish line!

Mile 13: ALMOST THERE!!! I can’t believe I did this!

13.1: Sheer relief.

To be completely honest, the mile between the 12 marker and the 13 marker was the absolute hardest. 12 miles had been my longest training run, and everyone I had talked to said that if you could do 12, you could do 13.1. Physically, yes. Mentally? That was the longest mile of the entire race. It seemed like it was never going to end. I was talking to myself the entire way, visualizing my people at the finish line, cheering, trying to anticipate what it would feel like to finally cross the finish line and be able to say that I did it. And that mile did end, eventually. The last tenth of a mile, I felt like I was running on air.

Triumphant is a good word. It’s a powerful word, and I don’t use it all that often. But crossing that finish line, I was triumphant. I’ve been working towards this goal for six months. It’s powerful, knowing that all the time and the work paid off, and paid off spectacularly. Running is an individual sport, but I found out that having the support of my family and my friends made training for the race so much easier! So thank you to everyone who ever nodded and smiled when I said “I’m going running, I’ll be back!” :) I couldn’t have done it without you!

Image

The Final Countdown

Less than a week to my first half marathon!!!

I’m just a tiny bit excited, you may have noticed. And you should play this video as you read the post, just for atmosphere.

Like a lot of other people, I’ve been paying pretty close attention to the Olympics since they started last weekend. The Opening Ceremonies struck me as a weird combination of “It’s A Small World” and Russian nationalist fervor. It seemed like an attempt to sanitize Russian history and glorify the Russian state (there were no gulags or starving Ukrainians…). I will admit, though, that the ceremony as a performance was incredible (minus the whole “one ring didn’t open” thing). The 3-d projections on the floor that made Peter the Great look like he was on a moving ship and the soldiers look like they were on the Marauder’s Map were spectacular, as was the massive ballet sequence. Kudos to the dancers who looked like jellyfish, I can’t imagine how obnoxious it must have been to have to dance with light strips attached to a hula hoop around your head.

images-1images

It’s a small world… full of dancing light-up jellyfish? 

Beyond the Opening Ceremonies, these Olympics have made me think quite a bit about what’s coming up this weekend–my first half marathon! Now, I’m no Olympic runner–and I never will be, unless writing papers suddenly becomes an Olympic sport. But watching Steve Holcomb, Meryl Davis and Charlie White, Bode Miller, and the Belorussian Darya Domracheva, who won the women’s 15 k biathlon mass start event while I was on the treadmill at the gym yesterday, got me thinking about motivation. Bode Miller, after winning a bronze medal in the men’s super G, was interviewed rather aggressively by a reporter from NBC Sports Network. She was trying to extract from him whether or not the tragic death of his younger brother a few months ago had been a motivating factor in his Olympic journey. Watching her push Bode Miller to tearson national television made me cringe, but the question was a valid one: what motivates someone to be an Olympic athlete, to be the best of the best in their event? Or, going even more broadly, what motivates someone to get off the couch and start running or swimming or moving?

I can’t speak for any Olympic athletes, but I can speak for myself. In July, when I decided I was going to run this race, it was a daunting prospect. Running a mile was enough to leave me gasping, and the concept of running five miles, let alone 13.1, was terrifying. It took me a month to get up to running four miles, five weeks to make it to five. Finishing five miles was so satisfying, so gratifying,  it justified the sweat and the aching ankles (at least until I realized I was serious about running and invested in a good pair of running shoes). But gratification after the fact is no good motivator to begin. So why did I start?

I was running away from my worst nightmare: being left in the dust by the people I love. In July, my family went to Colorado, to hang out with my cousins and climb some mountains. Quandary Peak, 14,265 feet at the summit, was our challenge of choice, and my cousins and my brothers bounded up that mountain like goats. I huffed and puffed and wheezed and made it up, nearly half an hour after they had. I never, ever want to feel that frustrated again. So, I started running. It’s become a catharsis, anaddiction, and I have gotten further and further away from the feeling that “I can’t” towards the knowledge that “I can.”

Quandary arrow

Quandary Peak

And so, this week is the final countdown. I can’t wait to cross the finish line on Sunday, to be able to say that I have completed a half marathon, and to set my sights on another one, or maybe even a full marathon. Who knows where I’ll go from there? I won’t be running at anOlympic pace, that’s for sure, but I will have finished.

And that’s the Olympic dream, isn’t it? To say I was there, I did that, I can do it, and then to go out and do it. We are all Olympic athletes the minute we decide we can do it.

images-2

A Human Defense of the Humanities

I know I’m a little behind on the times, and the State of the Union was only a week ago, but I’m a busy college kid. Forgive me.

In today’s world, technology, science, engineering, and mathematics (the so-called “STEM” disciplines) are being touted as the most important components of a modern education. Humanities majors, like me, are feeling a little left out, and in the world of education blogs and humanities professors, there have been many eloquent defenses of why we shouldn’t eliminate the humanities completely from our education systems. I was content to let the more experienced people do the talking until last week, when President Obama gave the State of the Union Address.

I was half-listening to the speech, multi-tasking until I heard him start to talk about education. The President covered responses to climate change and immigration reform, arguing that they’d be props for economic growth. He talked about the importance of job-training programs for adults. And then he said this:

“Of course, it’s not enough to train today’s workforce. We also have to prepare tomorrow’s workforce, by guaranteeing every child access to a world-class education….

Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy–problem solving, critical thinking, science, technology, engineering, and math.”  (from the Washington Post’s transcript of the speech)

Science, technology, engineering, and math. The big four–the disciplines that are going to save the world. Except they’re not.

They’re helpful, to be sure, but an education that only consists of STEM is one that neglects the very ideas that have shaped western civilization. And as much as we’d like to think that engineering is going to save the world, what’s the point in saving the world if we don’t know why we’re alive?

I was at a dinner recently, at which a BC alum, Pat Grady, who graduated from the Carroll School of Management and now works for Sequoia Capital, a venture capitalist firm that funds tech start-ups, gave a talk. Pat was asked, “Outside of your classes in the school of management, what would you say your most valuable class was at BC?”

After thinking for a moment, Pat answered, “Western Cultural Traditions.” That class, also known as the Arts and Sciences Honors Program, is a three-year course that walks students through the canon works of Western literature, philosophy, and theology, from the ancient Greeks all the way to contemporary authors. Pat explained that the course allowed him to think in a way he wasn’t used to thinking, and that it was in that class that he truly learned how to write. Writing well, he said, is one of the most important skills for anyone entering the job market, whether they’re in business, technology or any other field. Coming from a venture capitalist who works with the technology start-ups that are changing today’s world, it’s a fairly strong argument for the value of the humanities.

But the humanities are worth more than just teaching good writing skills. The Great Works that so many of us learned to dread in high school English classes are the basis for a cultural conversation, a background in the human condition that seems to get overlooked in discussions about what is important in an education. They give us a common background for our intellectual discourse and our daily conversations, in public and in private.

Intellectual discourse is not limited to the university seminar room; any conversation involving more than one viewpoint on a topic  qualifies as discourse and conversation. These conversations are, as Michel de Montaigne, a 16th century French philosopher, put it, “the most fruitful and natural exercise of the mind.” (You can find his essay “On the Art of Conferring” here).

What’s so important about the conversation? Without a conversation about who we are, we lose sight of it. In talking about how to live, we form our own opinions on the way our lives should go. It’s critical thinking at its most important; in saving ourselves we save the world.

We have to know why we work to study history, political science, English, science, technology, engineering, or math. How do we live? How do we make meaning of our lives? The answers aren’t necessarily in the humanities, but the humanities make the conversations that help us answer those questions possible.

So when we talk about what we need to have in education, let’s remember that education isn’t just to create economically productive drones. In order to have citizens who can converse with each other about what really matters, we have to make sure that there’s a common background for that conversation. Shakespeare, Montaigne, Dostoyevsky, Freud–they provide the base for that conversation. Without them, we’d have a much harder time knowing what it is to be human. And if engineering is going to save the world, we’d better know what it is we’re trying to save.

Back in Gear

Just because my study abroad is over doesn’t mean I’m done blogging! Au contraire, my friends, I still have a half-marathon to run, and I’ll blog until then at the very least!

I had a wonderful Christmas with my family, followed by the best ski vacation I’ve ever been on, even though we did have our flight home canceled twice (thanks, Polar Vortex. Appreciate it). We ended up renting a car and driving home, which wasn’t bad at all–we’ve done the drive before, and it meant I had even more of an excuse to sit around and read! I borrowed my brother’s copy of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I’d read at some point in high school but was looking for an excuse to re-read. I had forgotten how powerful it was; I cried at the end, which has only every happened with one other book (Les Miserables, if anyone’s curious). Definitely worth a read, if anyone’s looking for a good book.

After a frenzied storm of packing, I made it back to Boston and moved in last weekend! Being back at BC is sort of like someone plunged me into a (familiar) cold pool and said swim: I know what I’m supposed to do, I’m just working on getting over the initial shock. They warned us about reverse culture shock, which I sort of dismissed as baloney at the time. Nope. It’s definitely a thing. And it didn’t happen until I got back to BC. I didn’t have to re-learn how to drive or anything that drastic, but this week I’ve had to remember the rhythms of BC. In London I had class three days out of the week and could do whatever I wanted on the other four, and never had more than one class in a day. So going to two or three classes a day, Monday through Friday, means I had to re-tune myself. It’s like jumping into a cold pool–once you get accustomed to the water, everything’s great.

The best part of being back is definitely the people: I missed my friends and my groups on campus, and getting back to them has been amazing. It’s an interesting thing, being gone for a semester. You miss three month’s worth of events, talk, parties, papers, classes–and then all of a sudden, you’re back and it’s like you never left.

The half marathon is only five weeks away! A slightly terrifying idea, but it’s gonna happen! I haven’t really been a runner at BC, so I’m learning the running routes. Today, I discovered why they call the part of the Boston Marathon on Commonwealth Avenue “Heartbreak Hill.” It’s looooong and rather painful, especially at the end of a long run in the rain and snow.

It’s lovely to be back, and I’ll keep blogging as I keep thinking of things to say!

Ten Things I Learned From Study Abroad

I’ve been home for over a week now, and had some time to think about my semester and what I’ve taken away from it. So, in no particular order, here are the ten biggest lessons I learned from my semester abroad!

1. Make a list of what you want to do, things to see, places to go, and do it, even if you go alone. Some adventures are better by yourself.

2. It is possible to get all the work done and have an amazing time.

3. Just because something is different from what you’re used to doesn’t mean that it’s inherently better or worse.

4. Building up expectations of people, places, or things makes it all the more difficult to deal with changes.

5. Flexibility and a willingness to cooperate are essential.

6. A smile and some polite words can never do you wrong.

7. Planning things in advance is helpful; planning too far in advance can be limiting.

8. Make an effort to get to know new people; it’s a chance to expand your horizons and to make some amazing friends.

9. There’s much to be said for keeping in contact with home.

10. Think about your day; make a point of remembering what happens, good or bad and write it down!

Bonus. Chances are, you’re stronger than you think you are.

Bonus #2. Enjoy it!! It is a once in a lifetime opportunity.