How to Graduate in Four Years

Everybody always talks about how great college is. They never say anything bad. But if you go in with the wrong attitude, or worse, go to the wrong university, life can be miserable. There are few shames greater than graduating late, but it’s a trap many people fall into. But there’s hope: Thanks to economic turmoil, drastic austerity measures and increased fees, fewer and fewer people are attending college. This means that a college degree is more valuable than it’s been in years; and if you have the means and will, getting through on time can be easy. All you have to do is follow these simple steps:

1. Push Yourself

Senior year of High School is often a mess. Your mind’s all over the place; there’s the secret fear of not getting into any universities, the equally common but less mundane fear of graduating a virgin. You have a job and your boss is creepy, and you expect to be fired any day. There’s the awkward position of feeling irrelevant in your own social circle, of being there but not really having anything to offer. This problem is only compounded if you’re the competitive type, and any move you make could hurt your academic position.

So you’ve made it to University orientation, and you’re picking classes. You choose a handful of core classes and maybe a major course on the fly. Take mine for example: Geology, Statistics, Critical Thinking, First Year English, and, hell, a Film Focus on Hitchcock. The attending administrator told you not to take more than twelve units this first semester, but Hitchcock’s just an extra two units and it’s on Saturday, so who cares?

The twist: You are right, and the administrator is wrong.

In the semester system, fifteen units– normally five classes– constitutes a full load for the semester. The administrator doesn’t want to start you off on more then twelve because she thinks it will be too much for you, and having been through so much shit this past year, you’re inclined to agree. After all, you’ll just make it up in the summer!

But you are a human being and don’t really work like that. If you start out taking fifteen units, it won’t seem any more difficult than twelve, but if you start with twelve and move up, it will be unbearable. Challenging yourself like that is necessary. You say you’ll make up the lost time in the summer, but what if you need that time to repeat a class you failed? And what if you can’t go in the summer? You can’t put these considerations off because you’ll fall further and further behind. I know it’s tough, but everybody else seems to be doing it and it’s not the high-jump. Consider the fact that some people are taking eighteen units a semester and acing every one.

2. Ask for Help

College classes can often be such a bore, you’re happy just to get out. I wasn’t doing great in Second Year English and my professor knew it. It was a morning class, so every time it was over, I got into that classic Mike Birbiglia situation:

“Maybe I should go ask him to clarify this stuff– or maybe I should get lunch.”

I’d regressed. Way back in freshman year of high school I learned that focusing on lunch= bad grades. We are human beings; our need for food always trumps our need to comprehend James Weldon Johnsons Diary of an Ex-Colored Man. So eat a good breakfast and ask for help.

3. Don’t Fool Yourself

At some point in High School, I convinced myself I could understand French. My Spanish at this point was competent, despite my performance in class, and because of the similarity I could easily read the online bulletins posted by Ramona girls online. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into real French at SF State– the professor was Parisian, and spoke far faster than I could comprehend. My final performance was dreadful; so a year later I took Spanish and did great.

Don’t get me wrong, expanding your mind is great, but when it’s a core class, and it’s worth five semester units, better play it safe.

4. Take Every Class Seriously

There was no reason for me to take Dean Suzuki’s Origins of Rock class except that I thought I’d enjoy it and there weren’t any core or major classes available to me. For a while, it was the perfect blowoff class. You could sit in a huge, empty wood-paneled auditorium, listen to old music, and the guy’s enthusiasm was terrific– clearly this was his dream class. And it was the perfect morning class: no pressure, but there’s a sense you’re getting things done.

Then came the final.

“Okay, Berry Gordy, Hitsville USA, Stax/Volt, what am I forgetting? Why did I take this class!?”

It was not a blowoff class.

5. Get Out of the Dorms

There are few places as depressing as college dorms. When you signed up for them, you were anticipating something along the lines of Lowell House, a leatherbound palace to sit around the fire and discuss Apartheid. Instead, it’s a cold, faceless building where every drug addict is having sex and yet you are sitting alone watching The Venture Bros. and eating pumpkin pie with your combative roommate. Which is okay on its own, but unacceptable under these circumstances.

Though it’s tempting to think of a dorm as a proto-home, it’s a mistake to consider it anything other than a place to sleep. In high school, one’s time alone was restricted to empty classrooms, libraries, and secret club hangouts cannibalized from a teacher’s office. If you must have some free time during the day, it is best spent out in the open. You’ll meet people and you might even get some work done.

6. Get Involved

Extracurricular activities can be intimidating for the typical student– especially state schools where each activity seems tinged with liberal agitation. That kind of thinking has a ripple effect. For example, once at SF State I was watching some hippies occupy a block of classrooms, on the eve of finals week no less! I wandered over, sensing that I could at least get some footage out of it, when I noticed a cute girl leading the counter-protest, the head of the SF State College Republicans. As she explained the rather nefarious goals of the leading occupiers (namely that they were masking their poor academic performance), I took an interest in joining her cause, but she refused to give me any information on the suspicion that I was a Democratic spy sent to “get her.”

The lesson you might get from this is not to go to SF State, and that would be correct, but one also shouldn’t get into these kinds of political fights. A simple club organized around your major and a nice quiet religious organization should be acceptable. You should also join any honors society willing to have you. Personally, I had a great time taking part in comedy and storytelling on campus, so being in a club isn’t the only way to get involved.

I was also disappointed to discover that Cal State LA does not have a Hillel. Get on it, guys.

7. Prepare for the Education You Have, Not the One You Want

Everybody wants to go to Harvard when they’re ten, but that isn’t the reality. There are some places you simply shouldn’t go to, but wherever  you end up, you have to adapt, and if you aren’t happy with the way things are, you can try to change things from the inside. But you have to start with yourself. If all you do is focus on everything around you, it will only end up hurting you and your grades.

That is all.


Being Colonial: Geography

A few months ago, I was at Gatwick flying back to the states when I struck up a conversation with two women who were shocked to discover how much I knew about British history. Of course a lot of that is just me, but where I’m from a cursory knowledge of the mother country is expected; America simply doesn’t have that much history to know.

In turn, I was shocked to discover how little American history they knew: They didn’t know that the U.S. was formed from British colonies, and in my explaining so assumed that it broke away sometime in the early twentieth century like the others. I’ve read online that typical American history courses in Europe skip the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Civil Rights movement– an oversight so ridiculous it’s no wonder anti-American sentiment is so prevalent!

So in the spirit of international understanding I’ve decided to start a series explaining my home country to outsiders, which is difficult, because it’s so huge and most of what I say will seem completely alien. To wit: Israelis, no slouches in the cultural cringe, admired America for it’s amazing public transport system, which was rather jarring to hear until I realized that in Israel, America is New York City. The British are slightly better: to them, America consists of New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, California, possibly Illinois, and Washington DC, though nobody’s quite sure where that last one is.

It is said that in England, a hundred miles is a long way, but in America a hundred years is a long time. This is correct. A journey from my hometown to the largest city, New York, takes six hours by air and several days by land. But New York is less than four hundred years old, and Pasadena a paltry 138. Pasadena is considered an “old” city not because it is actually old, but because it became big earlier than most other places in the west.

Most British I met didn’t believe that America has cold winters. After all, it’s at a lower latitude, nobody goes there in the winter, and it’s not like they’ve seen our Christmas specials. Most people in America live in a humid continental climate, with extreme winters and summers. It’s completely miserable, by the way, don’t ever go to New York in July. You will beg for an icy death and if you wait six months, you’ll get it.

The rest of the country is either subtropical, tropical, semiarid, desert, oceanic, subpolar, or in my case Mediterranean. But these are mostly peripheral areas. California is a colony of a colony; we grew up learning east coast weather, east coast plants, east coast traditions and so forth. California history is relegated to two semesters of your pre-teens, and most of what you learn comes from your friends and parents. As it happens, there started to be a renewed interest in Pasadenan history and identity in my teens, and now the situation seems to be slightly better, though teachers are still wary about telling little kids the good parts (for which read: the violent parts).

Foo Fighters – “Stranger Things Have Happened”

When: Pre-dawn 17 December 2007
Where: North Lake Avenue
Who: Nobody
Weather: Freezing

It had all been very depressing, and now I was to begin my finals. That morning was colder than it had been since I’d been going out so early. With all the death around me, I went into a small-c christian mood (even though I was Jewish, the terminology is irrelevant) and decided to make up for my more insensitive past. I went to go see Annie.

Next: The Sorrow and the Glory: 2008.

Peter Bjorn and John – “Young Folks”

When: Pre-dawn, December 2007
Where: North Lake Avenue
Who: Nobody
Weather: Icy wind

A month earlier, I’d had some alarming news: Apparently, I was going on strike.

I’d kept up on entertainment business news for a while, but the decision only reached me by way of The Daily Show, which my friend Wyatt and I made a habit of watching on my iPod every morning on the bus to school. At least we did before I started going early. And when Jon Stewart casually announced “Hey, we won’t be here next week!” it was alarming.

Between this and Ira Glass’ declaration that this moment was the golden age of television, my loyalties firmly shifted to the small screen. And I joined in the WGA strike. And that’s when Monty Park started really taking off.

Everybody called me Monty Park. Catholic schoolgirls driving past me in their cars would scream for me. Girls I never met. Monty Park was my ultimate weapon in the war called High School. But I wasn’t the only one. Chester Tam of The Lonely Island wowed a lot of people with How To Become an Internet Celebrity, which got me to download this song, which I’d heard around. Peter Bjorn and John were the kind of band that blended in perfectly with their surroundings, as this and future albums would later reveal.

Next: A Death in the Brotherhood

The Strokes – “Someday”

When: 16 December 2007
Where: My dad’s car
Who: My dad
Weather: Cold, intermittently cloudy

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.” I’d heard the song countless times for years, but it never struck me the way it did that icy December. It was the sound of things getting worse. It was the sound of the horrible feeling in your stomach when you feel as if the walls are closing in. And, considering the timeframe, it was just about perfect.

Older people had always complained that Bosco lacked unity, that we as a school disparate and apathetic, but while the school’s rapidlt declining state left something to be desired, as students we had never felt closer. To the outside world that was all that mattered; so long as we wore our ties and said intellient things, people thought highly of us.

We were like-minded, mostly in good standing, and no girls to fight over. It came as a shock to the state government how open we were to gays; California public schools at the time might as well have been Saudi Arabia. We made money off each other, we gambled, we got along. And it was at this most crucial moment that everyone started dropping dead.

First it was Victoria in the front office, cancer. And then Brother Gene, cancer again. Coach Yurak was old, to me was just an irritable eccentric, a real Ron Swanson type, but he turned out to be much more, and when he died there was a big outpouring but it wasn’t completely unexpected. Two weeks later, my design teacher of four years died. Alex Chavez was 32, with more friends than you could count, a young son, and an undiagnosed heart defect. For him, we broke out the green ribbons. We didn’t sell them, we just gave them out. It started to feel as if anyone could go, and he wasn’t the last.

People showed up to his funeral from the old days, film club, old teachers, even Mrs. Plummer, who was supposed to be my english teacher back in freshman year but left. I couldn’t make it to the burial. Tomorrow was the beginning of finals. As my Dad picked me up, it played on the radio. A song of desperation hidden behind careful hooks and Motown-style production.

“And now my fears, they come to me in threes.”

Kanye West – “Stronger”

When: 22 October 2007
Where: San Gabriel Boulevard
Who: The Cross Country Team
Weather: Foggy
Book: Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson

In the end, my high school years were dominated by one thing: Girls on Buses. This is the story of the last, definitive girl on the bus.

Shelley was a year below me, a volleyball player at Gabrielino, but she had stopped taking the bus of late. I couldn’t get her out of my head, because I couldn’t stand her. She was a legend at Bosco, everybody knew who she was, despite how few of us had seen her. Towards the end, even those who had started to wonder if I’d imagined her all along. I was having one such argument later on the bus, when I pointed her out and said, “She’s right there, you bastards!”

Beautiful? Yes, even more so among people who take buses in the first place. Tasteful? Surprisingly so. But not intelligent or charismatic enough for me to get past those her failings. She always had a boyfriend, she was twee, manic, and after two years I needed to rid myself of this feeling.

I wrote her a love letter, which I’d planned to deliver the previous February but didn’t get around to. the previous summer I’d thought she’d shown an interest in me, but it was only a douchebag freshman posing as her online, which brought me to where I was at that moment. That Monday, there was no school, but I didn’t tell my mom that so she would drop me off at the bus stop. She wasn’t on the bus, so I gave it to someone who knew her. That night, she emailed me with a resounding “fuck you.”

But there I was, off the bus in San Gabriel. A great weight was lifted off my shoulders, and I was overcome with joy. I listened to this song as my own school’s cross-country team rounded the street corner miles from school. They were training, and they didn’t know what I was doing there; to them I was the hero of another story.

So why was she the definitive girl on the bus? Because of this:

It is worth noting that two weeks ago she and I ran into each other and are now on quite good terms.

Next: The changing face of cold

The Vines – “Rainfall”

When: October 2007
Where: CAD Lab, DBTI
Who: Chavez and my classmate
Weather: Raining
Book: I Am America (and So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert

It was the first rain of the season and fall had officially arrived. I was in the CAD lab working on drafts with Mr. Chavez, but I usually finished my drafts early and just drew cross-sections of the Death Star while listening to some podcast, or in this case music.

The Strokes – Under Control

When: Late at night, October 2007
Where: My mother’s car
Who: My mom
Weather: Warm, dry

Me: “Hey, Tom, I gotta tell you something.”

Tom: “Go right ahead.”

Me: “I’m really sorry about homecoming. I voted for Karen. But I think something good came out of it.”

Tom: “What do you mean?”

Me: “Well, I’ve been writing this…screenplay.”

Tom: “Yeah?”

Mee: “Basically it’s everything that just happened, except that I stole your girlfriend.”

(long pause)
Tom: “What the fuck, dude?”

I love the motown quality of this song as well.

Next: Kanye touches down.

Modest Mouse – “Dashboard”

When: August 2007
Where: My mom’s car
Who: My mom
Weather: Hot

The pedigree was undeniable, the beat inescapable. Johnny Marr’s guitar shone with distinction. I realized what I was hearing right away. In future period pieces, it was inevitable, I imagined, that this would be the song that says to the world, “Hey, it’s 2007!” Just listening to it made me feel effortlessly cool. School was coming, senior year, and I was certain to have the adventure I was dreaming of. Or maybe I was just thinking too hard.

Next: Returning to the Strokes.