Tuesday, February 23, 2010

The Dorks

The dorks hang out in a small dining room off the the side of the Las Pecinas cafeteria. At any hour of the day you’ll find them there, filling up the little square tables across from the vending machines—dorks of all shapes and colors and ages and sizes.

It seems as though every table has at least one laptop; more often, there are several competing laptops, their owners conversing over the tops of their unfolded screens. But upon closer inspection one table does not bear a computer. The occupants of this table are spreading a colorful pack of ornate playing cards across its surface like a tarot reading.

They are debating loudly whenever I go in there. Their tone is urgent and impassioned, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. It’s heavy with dork jargon, like, “The way Voltaic Key works with the Phyrexian Colossus is classic,” or “For a good Tank who is watching the mana level of the Healer, it can be even MORE annoying because the DPS getting the group into combat again just further slows down the Healer from regaining mana and allowing the group to move forward with speed.” I sometimes try to memorize snippets of their conversations so I can investigate what it is that they are arguing about, but it’s like trying to recite a sentence in a language you’ve never heard before. By the time I get back to my office, the syllables in my head are all garbled and the words are out of order.

I love the dorks, and these showy debates are one of the main reasons. Las Pecinas is a college, yet the side room is one of the only places where I hear the sounds I associate with college, students obsessed with some intellectual principle, defending it with all the unwarranted zealotry of the newly converted.

I seldom hear this sort of fervor from the student body at large. As I traverse the campus, I pass homogeneous groups of students: three tall boys in basketball jerseys, two white girls in tight leggings and sheepskin boots, four Afghani women in headscarves. What I overhear of their conversations is seldom academic in nature, and never sounds like a debate. They are often talking about their plans for the weekend, whether they will go to the club. Or they are discussing one of their friends: I totally can’t stand her boyfriend! Often what I hear is offensive: What a retard! Dude, that’s so gay. I was like, if you’re not gonna learn English you should just go back to Mexico.

The most academic-sounding discussions I hear are when they assess their classes or teachers: That test was hella hard, or Yeah, my econ teacher’s okay but she’s kind of scattered. The most serious students seem to be accounting their progress through their course requirements: I have two more bio classes to go, and then I can transfer.

The odd times that I pass a student saying something like, I don’t know if I can support socialism, or But are people always entitled to freedom of speech, I want to hug the speaker, even if I disagree entirely with his or her views. You have an opinion, I want to congratulate them! Welcome to college!

It seems that many of the students at my school have some of that high-schoolish distance from what they are learning that is the hallmark of compulsory education. It is no wonder that students sometimes call Las Pecinas thirteenth grade. The students are sweet and earnest and hard-working, but they often seem to regard their courses as a series of hurdles rather than a body of information.

The subjects that the dorks are debating are not usually academic either, other than the occasional snippet of what sounds like computer science. But they are the closest thing that I regularly hear to that impassioned intensity of thought that to me means college.

The very fact that there are dorks, that this social category exists, that they can be located to one corner of the cafeteria, speaks to the high-schoolishness of my college. I always thought one of the best innovations of the transition into college is that the cliquey social distinctions of high school ease up. At a place where everyone is there to learn, ostracizing some people because they are too passionate about knowledge—because they discuss it too loudly, because the knowledge they enjoy is too esoteric—seems declassee.

In fact, it seems that being a dork is the very reason somebody should come to college. Isn’t college a place where people are supposed to care too much—about medieval history, the phonetic system of native African languages, distant corners of the galaxy, particles too small to be seen in a regular microscope? About transcendentalism, existentialism, Sufism, phenomenology? Shouldn’t all of the students be shouting loudly about something no one else understands, making fools of themselves? Shouldn’t the vending machine room extend beyond the walls of the cafeteria, through the library and the classrooms and the quads and the parking lots, to every place where there are college students?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Tea and Coffee

Today on the radio I heard a song about the decadent pick-up scene on tour after a rock concert. It includes these lyrics:

I’m just sipping on chamomile,
Watching boys and girls and the sex appeal.

I will be uncool enough to admit that I really like this line; I have several times listened to the entirety of the rather silly song just to hear it repeated in the chorus. It paints an image that is very familiar and very appealing to me: surrounded by lasciviousness, the singer is removed, her beverage a dowdy contrast to the flirtatious behavior around her.

This image makes me think about how I feel when I drink tea, which is something I do a lot—in fact, something I am doing right this very moment, and most of the moments I write this blog, which I usually do at a tea shop. It is fitting to drink tea while writing essays. Tea is about laying low, distance, contemplation. It is not aggressive; it is subtle and civilized. It is the drink of countries with kings and queens, or emperors, a drink that calls for a Zen garden to be designed around it, for a polite mid-afternoon snack to bear its name. It is the drink of calm tradition, of order and reason.

In the song, the singer is drinking herbal tea, which is not even really tea—this is the ultimate in contemplative detachment, not even an actual drug, just herbs steeped in water.

I drink tea every day, many times a day: strong black tea in the morning, astringent herbal teas throughout the day, grassy green tea at night when I need to keep working. Almost all of it is thin and light, neutral hot water stained so slightly with a tinge of vegetation.

The coffee I used to drink each morning was completely different. I would slap myself awake with its bitterness, like a scalding hot shower, the only thing sharp enough to cut through the haze of sleep. If you are addicted to coffee, it tastes like something you need. It has the richness of a blood tonic, thick and dark like beet juice, like a hot cup of bitter, slightly poisonous blood.

Tea is quiet about everything, including its cultural significance; it is easy to forget that it exists. Coffee, on the other hand, screams its significance with a voice as shrill as its harsh, bitter flavor. It is an icon, as overloaded with cultural meaning as chocolate and whiskey and wine. It represents the mind’s power to manipulate the body, to defy the body’s needs to for sleep and calmness and rest. It magnifies stress instead of relieving it. The fact that it is bad for us gives it a sense of nonconformity—and yet it is the sanctioned fuel that powers our culture of overwork, the one drug our employers will give us for free.

I stopped drinking coffee almost three years ago. My office-mate at work coincidentally stopped around the same time. But before that, she used to set her coffee maker to have a pot brewing as we walked in the door in the morning. I remember how the smell would hit us as we walked into the little office, how we would grab our cups and sink into our chairs and stare at our computers and groan, “Mmm, coffee.”

Now when I walk into the office, it smells like the little pots of tea she brews on the small industrial desk we use as a beverage cart. Often the office is steamy with lavender from her Earl Grey. I drink strong English Breakfast from tea bags. Everything is calm and manageable. We still need to drug ourselves into wakefulness and workfulness, but now we do so in a way that, we reason, is healthy, full of antioxidants, possibly prolonging our lives and keeping us from getting colds and infections—possibly. We are civilized, and we have grown up.