Tuesday, March 31, 2009

One Can Get Used to Anything

In Zoology Lab today I gleefully assisted my partner in the brutal dissection of a live earthworm. First we pinned it to the dissecting tray (in its struggle to free itself it tore off its posterior segments) and then we opened a slit along its dorsal surface, running from the anterior ganglia down past the muscular band. The worm writhed while we separated the sides and pinned them down. We then explored the internal organs: seminal vesicles, nerve cords, pharynx, crop, and the like. We held the bloodied, miserable creature underneath a low-powered microscope to observe the beating of the five hearts. The worm still wasn’t quite dead yet when we discarded its butchered form in the trash.

A bit of a melodramatic description, perhaps, but was it I who was saying, just a few short weeks ago, that I couldn’t bear to decapitate a termite or pour some microscopic flagellates down the drain? Really? I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. “It is simple and brutal: A person can get used to anything, even killing.”

Yes, indeed. And I’m a bit ashamed of myself. But I can’t help reminding myself of the loftier goals and “purpose” behind all of this. Not to cut myself undeserved slack, but the intentions, as they say, are what matter, and they are noble.

For this same class, we were given the assignment over break to collect a “microcosm”—a sample of water from a creek, pond, or puddle to observe and test. I took my missing very seriously. On Sunday, despite the somewhat cold, windy weather, I tramped out through the pasture, glass jar in tow, and waded down to a place where rainwater runoff had cut a deep creak intertwined with sycamore roots. Dressed somewhat inappropriately in bulky Carhartt coveralls and cowboy boots with jingling spurs, I nevertheless waded deep into the flowing water, scraping substrate, collecting leaves, gathering algae and moss, and chasing after tiny shrimp-like amphipods with the grimness and persistence of a hunter. Once I had collected a satisfactory sample, I continued to amuse myself by grabbing at a crayfish (successful capture!) and leopard frog (not so much). Oh well. I’d forgotten how intoxicating splashing in a creek can be.

Today we looked at slides from our microcosms, and I was utterly delighted to observe the fantastic creatures that live quite literally in my own backyard. Paramecia, volvox algal colonies, diatoms, and, “walking” euplotes ciliates abounded. The professor was hugely impressed with the large amphipods nearly a centimeter long, the hundreds of copepods that swarmed the surface and were visible with the naked eye, and the numerous large planarian flatworms—the very same that we recently performed regenerative experiments on, but wild versions….how exciting to see a standard lab-raised specimen in its natural environment! The highlight of today’s viewing, however, was the single amoeba, which slowly crept along via cytoplasmic streaming and the extension of its lobopodia. The professor was in awe, too: “That’s the best amoeba I’ve ever seen,” she said, “even of the ones that I’ve ordered from the lab supply companies. Even the prepared specimens are extremely difficult to find.”

So, I’m glad to know that the wonder of life is still very much alive in me. I never cease to be amazed by how fascinating and remarkably complex the world is.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

US versus THEM

Once there lived in the ancient city of Afkar two learned men who hated and belittled each other’s learning. For one of them denied the existence of the gods and the other was a believer.

One day the two met in the marketplace, and amidst their followers they began to dispute and to argue about the existence or the non-existence of the gods. And after hours of contention they parted.

That evening the unbeliever went to the temple and prostrated himself before the altar and prayed the gods to forgive his wayward past.

And the same hour the other learned man, he who had upheld the gods, burned his sacred books. For he had become an unbeliever.

--Kahlil Gibran

All too often we have much more in common with each other than we realize. So why do we choose to squabble about our slight differences instead of banding together over our shared similarities? And why must we have to agree with another’s viewpoints in order to like or even respect the other person? So much war and pain and suffering is caused by the contention of points which can never even be proven definitively one way or the other. Look no further than the holy wars (both ancient and modern day) to see that battle played out on both sides. It’s a real shame.

Our beliefs are so deeply ingrained into us that we rarely question them, and we would rather die (or better yet, kill our opposition) than risk abandoning them or conceding defeat. Honestly, though, there’s nothing wrong with being, well, wrong. It takes a brave and wise person to admit a mistake, after all.

But even at that, we don’t have to give up on our faith. Just as there’s no need to convert everyone else to our way of thinking, there’s also no reason to drop our old beliefs and pick up something else on a whim. No, there’s a lovely concept known as an amiable “agreement to disagree” that seems to be a sure-fire end to conflict and dissent.

After all, “diversity” isn’t just a way to look progressive and get more funding…it’s what makes the world go ‘round.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Me, as Mentor

I’ve never really thought of myself as a role model. Once a girl a grade behind me declared me her “mentor,” but that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her fascination with joining an older students’ “in-group.” She apparently misjudged who I was completely. My friends were brutal to her, but I took it as my responsibility to be nice. Eventually, however, even my nerves were rubbed raw by her nonstop obnoxious bigotry, and I managed to offload her into a clique where she better fit in. Shame on me.

Most of the time, though, I prefer to stick to the role of quiet observer as opposed to being the flashy center of attention. I often go unnoticed, and I prefer it that way. Less trouble, less drama, and a lot more actually gets accomplished.

Recently, however, I’ve realized that I’ve become a hero of sorts to several younger girls, ranging in age from eight to 15. This is particularly true in the barrel racing arena, where I’m championed as the quiet, inconspicuous gal with the fast horses. I guess there is a pretty big discrepancy between the people who go in whipping and sawing and jerking and hollering, only to finish last, and me, the smooth, quiet rider who places, if not first, then near the top. I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, either—it’s just that I follow the age-old philosophy of true horsepeople, those who do what’s right for the animal and—surprise surprise—are rewarded for it because it works. Truth be told, though, I don’t think they even notice the animal ethics part of the equation. They just see that I win, and dammit, they wanna win too!

They watch me, they comment on how pretty my horses are, they wish me luck, they’re delighted when I notice them or pass out their prizes at the year-end awards ceremony. I feel a bit bad, too, because I tend to ignore them. It’s not that I’m snubbing my “inferiors”—like I said before, I’m just one to keep to myself. And there have been so many times when I’ve tried to offer advice for horse or rider’s benefit and been rewarded with a snotty comeback and a lifelong grudge that I’ve just stopped talking to people at jackpots, for the most part. I hang out with the aged 50+ been-there-done-that crowd—a group of nice “older” ladies who do right by their horses and serve as role models for me.

But, like it or not, want it or not, parents stop me to congratulate me and ask me questions. They turn to their children and extol my virtues—some of which, admittedly, I don’t possess. “She can do it all—horses and school and music and such! So can you, Junior!” Well, sort of. They don’t know how much I sacrifice, how I’m not quite as much of a praise-worthy Renaissance Woman as everyone seems to think. Oh well.

And as I find myself in this position, I realize that, even if I don’t want or think I deserve this responsibility, it’s mine nonetheless and I’ve got to take advantage of it. Inspire the “next generation,” y’know. Be a positive influence and all that.

So, I try to act like the role model they think I am. I try to clean up my sometimes-foul language and put a stop to the harsh criticism. I especially try to serve as a good example of how to be a good horseperson. Many competitors, after having a bad run, will make a big show out of punishing their horses (for a mistake they undoubtedly made), ripping on the face or spurring the flanks to show the audience just who exactly is boss. As for me, no matter what happens, I make sure to exit the arena on a loose rein, with a cooing “good boy” and a pat on the neck. And if my horses do need getting after, I do it as efficiently and humanely as possible, and try not to let anyone see—imitators abound, and I don’t want people getting the wrong impression.

This means, too, that I’ve got to have a friendly smile and a word of encouragement. All right, can do—let me inspire even though I’m not really worthy of being an inspiration. “With great power comes great responsibility,” or something like that.

But I must admit that having a fan club does wonders for the ego. :)

Saturday, March 21, 2009

March Showers

After a week of absolutely gorgeous weather, Mother Nature decided to ring in the first few days of spring with a heavy cold rain. But what is it they say? “March showers bring more April showers?” The gray firmament is really spitting down right now, but I can’t really complain, since it was so perfectly lovely last week. On Wednesday I spent my 40-minute lunch break walking around campus snapping shots of the blossoming flora: cherries, Bradford Pears, forsythias, and magnolias galore. I had to consciously resist the urge to throw myself down in the cool grass and lie there in Zen-like peacefulness. Of course, it helped that we had just finished a unit on nematode parasites in my Zoology class. The thought of tiny hookworms boring through my skin and encysting in my intestine wasn’t a particularly pleasing one.

Anyway, I’ve always liked all of what spring symbolizes. Rebirth, renewal, change, hope. Watching the birds seek out mates (the other day I saw a turkey tom doing a full-blown dance surrounded by appreciative ladies) and the pollinators busy at work on the new blooms fills me once again with appreciation for beauty. And now I’m on spring break—time to catch up on the multitude of short papers I have to write, pull out a few arts-and-crafts, and maybe get a little sleep for a change!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Rather Appropriate Holiday

Yesterday, walking around campus, I noticed the first faint and then overwhelmingly permeating smell of fish. The word “wharf” appeared suddenly in my mind by some strange synergistic connection, as did “fish market,” “crashing foam,” “surf,” and “jetty”. I don’t even exactly know what wharf and jetty mean, but there you have it. Fish.

Of course, there is no nearby ocean, so the fishy odor was exactly that—perplexing. I spent the whole day suspiciously sniffing the air until, passing by a Bradford Pear in full bloom, I put two and two together and instantly felt a bit dumb. Slow on the uptake, I am. Of course, once I realized that the pretty white blossoms were the source of the stench, all images of waves and beaches disappeared at once. A bit of a shame, but the tree in front of me was beautiful enough to make it a worthwhile trade.

Today, St. Patrick’s Day, marks the one year anniversary of my moving to what I still call “the country.” A lot has happened in that year: I finished high school (funny that the last few months of that seven-year experience passed by in a blur which I can hardly recall…save for IB test stress), graduated (yippee!), spent a lazy summer doing approximately nothing, started college (while spending a few months blindly wallowing in self-pity for indeterminate reasons), snapped back into the swing of things, and, well, here I am. I can’t say the Luck O’ the Irish blessed me today (that is to say, no leprechauns jumped out from behind a rainbow to offer me a pot o’ gold or anything spectacular like that), but still, it was a fairly excellent day.

After a semi-brutal lab practical exam in my morning Zoology class, I was ready for a bit of a break before Chem lab, the bane of my existence. A friend and I decided to get carryout from Lucy’s and eat it outside because it was just so flippin’ nice. As we toted our fried rice to the Philosophers’ Table in preparation for a well-deserved feast, I snapped open my fortune cookie. “You like sunshine and fresh air,” said the slip of paper inside. Well, that’s not exactly a fortune, but indeed I do, sir. How appropriate for today. My friend and I sat and talked for a while in the beautiful weather and managed to fill our palms with splinters, but we didn’t even care.

Later, after lab (which was every bit as horrible as I had anticipated), I trotted off to Wind Symphony rehearsal. It was my first time inside the ever-gorgeous Stone Chapel, and I was in reverent awe of the colorful stained-glass work. Lovely.

I elected to take the longer, slower, but much more scenic route home today, and I hung my head out the window like a dog the whole way back. I flipped the radio to the Decades stations for some more mood-appropriate music. Madonna’s La Isla Bonita came on. That’ll do. I noticed, on the way, that the farther from the city I drove, the earlier the development stage of the plants I passed. The flowers in Springfield are all coming up and the trees are full of petals. At home, however, only the grass shows signs of life. My hypothesis (for which I have no evidence and no plans to test) is that this corresponds to a lower carbon dioxide concentration outside the city. Hmm.

Then I went to the pasture to photograph the horses and saw the green, green clover appearing all over the place. Well, not quite the same thing as shamrocks, but it put me in the mood, anyway.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Half-Assing It

I went to the local equine fair and trade show today to browse the tack vendors. It was considerably smaller this year than it has been the past few times I’ve come; I imagine the sorry state of the economy played a big role in the drop in attendance and sellers’ booths alike. After being disappointed that I couldn’t find anything worth wasting money on, I headed out to the barns to see the horseflesh. And was extremely disheartened.

It seems that several local breeders thought that this would be a golden opportunity to unload the previous year’s youngstock. Rather than presenting their colts properly, they pulled their poor, nasty, skinny, wormy babies straight out of the pasture and stuck them in tiny exhibitors’ stalls with a $500 price tag. Quite frankly, most of the ones I saw weren’t even worth that. Nearly all of the animals were poor specimens of their breed in the conformation and pedigree departments, and that’s already a big strike against them. I’m a huge proponent of responsible breeding: a quality animal is much more likely to fetch a high price, be talented at a job, get a good home, and avoid a double-decker trailer with a one-way ticket to a Mexican slaughterhouse. Presentation is all-important, too. These colts were almost unfailingly skinny, with ribs and hipbones hiding underneath their remarkably rough, puffy, shaggy coats which hadn’t seen a curry in months, if ever. Their feet were long, cracked, and jagged. Their eyes were white and spooked. They had little or no bedding in their stalls—just chipped asphalt soiled with their own shit…their owners must really care about their comfort. Not to mention that this set-up certainly wasn’t one that would make me want to buy a horse.

See, the school I come from says that if you’re going to do something, do it right or don’t do it at all. If you’re not passionate about it, it’s just going to bring you heartache. Better to quit than to half-ass it and do a shoddy job. If these people are truly in the horse business because they love it, why wouldn’t they put forth the requisite effort into their stock? Better yet, if they’re in the business to make money (and aren't most people?), then why aren’t they doing everything in their power to ensure a high price for their product? The logic escapes me.

Beyond that, it’s about responsibility, too. When you take a life into your hands (by choosing to have a child or purchase an animal), you become the sole provider for that being. It depends on you for its very life. How can anyone find it acceptable to abuse or neglect a living creature, man or beast? If you can’t—or won’t—care for it, pass it on to someone who will…please.

In addition, I’ve found that if you really invest yourself into a project, you’ll often receive a ripe reward. Let’s go back to the horse example: some of the fillies there were fairly close relatives of my mare, Bones (their sire shares her daddy). One of them was a three-year-old, greenbroke to ride and kinda cute in an ugly-headed sort of way. She was decked out in old, cheap, poorly-fitted tack, however, which wasn’t very becoming. Her coat was as long and thick as a sheepdog’s, and she was thin and unshod besides. In short, even I wasn’t tempted to buy her, despite her relationship to my excellent mare. I was reminded, however, of the circumstances under which I acquired Bones. She, too, was skinny, ugly, and untrained. She was probably a few owners away from the killer, herself. I overpaid for what she was, but even at that she was quite cheap. Some feed and training completely turned her around, however, and I could probably increase my money tenfold if I so chose…but I’d rather keep her, ride her, win on her, and appreciate her. She’s one talented mare—and because I put forth the necessary care and effort, she is being allowed to exhibit her full potential.

But Bones isn’t an anomaly. There are countless others out there—horses and humans alike—who fall through the cracks daily. If only someone would put forth the effort to help them shine. “Good enough,” after all, usually isn’t.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Blast from the Past

If you had a heart
That went down to the soul
Up to the heart
To the brain
All the way to heaven
Where the angels sing to you and me
If your face looked just like mine
Though it doesn’t matter
We are in harmony
We are in destiny
A world without you’d be
A living misery
Don’t you see?

--Yours Truly, age 6

Oh yes, wasn’t I a clever little child? Particularly the lovely part when I thought that one could be “in destiny,” as though that were a state or a location. Pity that I wouldn’t listen when my mother tried to gently correct me. I know best, after all. Always have.

That little ditty (which I was extremely proud of and sang at every opportunity for a good year after I composed it) was originally titled “The Hamster and the Gerbil.” Yep, that’s supposed to be one rodent serenading another, speaking of their lasting friendship despite their many differences. It was inspired by my kindergarten class’s pet gerbil, Tommy (named, oddly enough, after the parish priest Father Tom), whom I got to take home and care for over summer vacation. I already had a pet hamster, Kookaburra (named because I liked kookaburras at the time, and kookaburras eat mice, and hamsters are kind of like mice—perfectly logical, no?), and with my overactive childish imagination I anthropomorphized the pair into best buddies.

I think it’s interesting that I mapped out the soul’s residence to be the center of the body, somewhere below the heart, smack dab in the middle of the chest. Perhaps I was expounding on the nature of the core of spirituality, existence, and individuality. Our identity is central to us, ingrained deeply into our center, virtually indistinguishable from our physical form. Or perhaps I was just plain dumb. Then, too, is the symbolism: animals as metaphors for humanity, illustrating my desire to connect with and bridge the gap between disparate, warring factions, urging us all to look past our differences to discover our hidden, integral similarities. Ha. The funniest part of all, however, may be that I still have the song and the circumstances surrounding it memorized, and it popped into my head today for no apparent reason…

The little birds, they creep and shudder
Beautiful butterflies dance and flutter
Following the eagle’s word

The clouds go rolling by and by
Covering up a clear blue sky
Following the eagle’s word

The deer, they jump in rhyming ways
Bounding, bounding through the days
Following the eagle’s word

And the eagle? He perches in a tree
Frowning down, but still with glee
Watching animals, and sometimes me,
Follow the eagle’s word

--Me, age 8 (or 9?)

Well, at least I gained a little more talent between kindergarten and third grade. I wrote this schweet work of art during a particularly boring class period, because times tables frustrated the hell out of me and I always was one to multitask. I showed it to the teacher (because I was also always one to show off, until I realized years later that a) bragging isn’t cool and b) half the time I didn’t have anything worth bragging about and so was just making a fool out of myself) and she was suitably impressed. She entered it into the district language arts fair, and I won a special prize, plus the honor of having “The Eagle’s Word” performed by Dance-A-Poem. Yep, dance students from a local college acted out their interpretation while a theatre arts major read the piece out loud. I felt special.

Let’s overanalyze again, shall we? The eagle is a wise, benevolent, but stern leader. Perhaps he’s a god-figure, in which case he must be overlooking his creation. His subjects, then, must follow his commandments. There are beautiful, innocent, pure things in the eagle’s world—such as butterflies and deer—but darker images exist, as well—storm clouds and the inspiration of fear in the little birds, for example. Still, we need both the aspects for a complete world. Yin and yang, black and white, good and evil, together.

Unfortunately, as pathetic as the above specimen may be, that’s about when my poetry-writing skills peaked. That’s a bit of a shame, because I wish I had the talent to express myself in verse, but eh, oh well. I’ll settle for the occasional blog post and call it good enough.

I’m burning all over, burning inside
I want to get out, but I’ve just gotta hide
There’s a flame in my heart, and a flame in my eye
I don’t want to live, but I don’t want to die

Waiting for someone to rescue me
Help me, I’m burning, and I wanna be free
Where is the light I’ve been waiting for?
Where is my second chance, where is my open door?

My mind is on fire
But my body stands still
I’ve become a monster
Against my will

Who am I…?
I don’t want to know
Where am I…?
Someplace light never goes
Let me out!
I can feel myself burning
Set me free!
Before I stop yearning
To find the real me

--Me again, unfortunately, age 12

There’s more to that one, but I can bear to post the rest of the pre-teen angst. Wow. That’s mighty embarrassing. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves, who can we laugh at? In my defense, at least, that’s not a self-portrait. It was written from the perspective of a rather creepy and also extremely depressed fellow in my class. Poor guy was pretty messed up, and when he announced one day that he was “burning all over,” my friend exclaimed, “Hey! That sounds like a song!”

So…man. Not sure why I felt compelled to share my more humiliating moments with the Internet at large, except to say: What we feel is really awesome at one point in our lives will probably look really stupid a year or two down the road. We’re constantly growing, changing, and maturing (hopefully, anyway). The moral, I guess, is don’t take yourself too seriously…and don’t forget to have a little fun every so often!

Monday, March 9, 2009


Of the spring variety, that is. Everyone and everything is feeling the change in weather and season: grass is greening, the trees are budding, the bluebirds and robins have returned, and the horses are going mad with ecstasy out in the pasture ("It's windy! It's rainy! It's warm! Runawayrunawayrunaway!"). It's hard to watch them without having your spirits lifted and feeling the urge to take off after them. Until the mud bogs you down and splatters everywhere, that is.

Brandy was particularly exuberant, as you can see. Crazy girl spent the morning staring at the Invisible Demons that only she can see, then running and bucking trying to antagonize the whole herd. A healthy horse in motion is really something to behold, though. Perfection in physics, chemistry, and biology, then the divine spark of creation, the spirit of life, the pride of ownership and the art of shaping it into what it is. Truly inspiring.

A couple of southbound geese flew overhead as I was riding this evening. I heard their honking in the distance (Why do they squawk constantly? What purpose does it serve?) long before I saw them. I reined in my horse and craned my neck around as they passed by, close enough for me to hear the beating of their wings and note the notched feathers of the leader.
The vet came out this to discuss Rebel’s navicular X-rays and Shorty’s cancer’s progression. I’m grateful that she’s our neighbor and that she treats us so well. She’s willing to come out on a moment’s notice, and quite frankly I think she undercharges for her service. I’m going to have to make her a headstall as a token of thanks.

All things considered, I think those horses have it figured out. Participate and enjoy life as fully as you can. Live in the moment—no regrets. And if the weather’s nice, then by all means kick up your heels!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

We all shine on...

I was having a discussion on an online message board once, perhaps a year or two ago. I don’t recall much of the conversation—it quickly seemed to deteriorate, as so many things do, into a fairly ridiculous squabble of he-said-she-said, flaming, inaccurate accusations, stupidity, and general closed-mindedness. In other words, your average friendly “debate.” I believe the topic was a political one, and I think the central hero/villain was Barack Obama. All of that is quite irrelevant, though. What I want to comment on is a point that was made regarding the religious beliefs of elected officials. I paraphrase:

It doesn’t matter to me if a leader is Christian or Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or whatever. Any religion is fine; I’m not prejudiced. But I couldn’t trust an atheist president. No, you need someone with accountability—someone who is worried about the consequences of his actions, someone who is afraid of eternity, someone who believes in the reward of good and punishment of evil.

Wow. Really? Reading that post got my hackles up in an instant. There are quite a few things wrong with it, of course, not the least of which is that a bigoted statement is disguised with the handy “I’m not biased, but…” card. The part that I find most offensive, though, is that it insinuates good deeds are selfish and that we only do good for our own benefit—so we can get to Heaven, namely, or receive some other worthy prize.

I’m not buying it.

Karma, of course, is a lovely concept. It’s beautiful to think about, really. Be a good person, and you achieve “positive” points on your record; be evil, and you’re in the red. Then cash in and receive the appropriate compensation. Justice at last!

If that’s the case, then, we’re always working with ulterior motives. There is no such thing as good for goodness’ sake—just actions with good results and the added stipulation of self-benefit. Why, it’s selfish after all.

So, what I wanted to say to the anonymous forum poster: Why do you need your leader to be so self-interested? Why must he worry about himself first, and others second? Why can’t he act simply for the benefit of the world, his nation, and its citizens without fearing personal repercussions of injustice? Isn’t the benefit of mankind and the earth a nobler cause than self-advancement and personal salvation?

From my own standpoint, I don’t believe in heaven or hell. I find the concepts vaguely ludicrous, honestly—especially the pop culture conceptualizations of clouds, halos, and lyres versus flames, horns, and tridents. Motivation for me to do good is twofold. Yes, there is a selfish part hidden beneath: I want to be the best person I can; I want to strive for moral excellence; I want to be a positive example role model for my own self-worth, self esteem, and maybe, admittedly, just a touch for recognition. But even more than that is my desire to make a positive impact on the world—not for credit or fame or karma points—but for purely external benefit. I know I’m far from alone in this. I imagine that every truly moral person believes in these tenets.

And isn’t that the way it should be?

(Pictured, if you’re curious, is a pasture during one of the nastier ice storms last year. Those ripples aren’t waves in the ocean—they’re ice formations from wind. The ice was smooth as glass and several inches thing. I took me a good half an hour to walk less than half a mile, as the footing was so dangerous, even on level ground. The horses were literally sliding down the hills and even into the ponds. It’s a wonder that none of them were seriously injured. I’ve got a video here—watch the mare on the right, and ignore my heavy breathing and foul language. Strange how something so beautiful can simultaneously be so frightening.)

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Society and Sexual Identity

When I was a young child growing up, I wanted to be a cowboy. Not a cowgirl, mind you, but a lasso-swinging, gun-toting, bronco-busting keeper of the law. I’d seen images of the cowgirls of the era, and quite frankly I was unimpressed. No, no short skirts or high-pitched yodel for me—I wanted to be the real deal! Yee-haw!

I had a small collection of pitiful country-western ballads on cassette tapes that I listened to religiously. I rented some of the library’s old John Wayne movies—remember the Alamo, ya’ll! I doodled scenes of shootouts and stagecoach chases on stacks of cheap colored printer paper. Yes, every child has an obsession, and this was one of mine. What can I say? I was—and in many ways still am—a total nerd.

I have great parents, and even then they encouraged and fostered my slightly atypical interests. They never forced me to act “girly,” play with dolls, or wear pink clothing. As an only child, from an early age I had little exposure to culturally typical feminine norms. The concept of “gender roles” was entirely alien to me. I specifically remember praying to God (!) to let my hair continue to grow long: I thought that the difference between men and women lay solely in the length of the hair. At the same time, I had a inquiring disposition, and was suitably presented with enlightening books about Where Babies Come From, so my education was far from lacking.

[Embarrassing childhood story: One time when I was four years old, my mother caught me kissing the television. The object of my affection? The eldest girl on the “Barney the Dinosaur” show. I thought she was pretty. My mother thought I was a lesbian. OK, mom, just because I thought the gal was attractive enough to warrant a peck on the cheek—or screen, as the case may be—does not mean I’m gay, all right? Sheesh. Although I just looked her up (no, I didn't remember her name; it took me a very long Google search), and damn…she appears to have gotten married. At least now I have closure and can move on!]

I grew older, of course, as we all do, and slowly the realization dawned on me that I was far from your average teenage girl. I’d always been a bit of a tomboy or a loner, preferring the company of animals or adults to the petty social circles of children. Add to that my disinterest in fashion, socializing for socializing’s sake, and pop culture (save for the analysis of interesting cultural trends), and you have a very unfeminine female…at least as far as society at large would dictate.

But I would disagree. “Femininity” and “masculinity,” after all, are completely arbitrary, subjective terms. You can’t possibly pin them down with concrete definitions—the very idea is absurd. Pink versus blue? Weak versus strong? Emotional versus rational? Please.

Getting my feet wet in a Women and Gender Studies class has allowed me to formulate ideas that were already lurking unheeded in the back of my mind. What I’m saying is this: our cultural concepts of normative gender roles are constructed in such a way as to be quite damaging for men and women alike. If a woman isn’t petite, sweet, and beautiful, what good is she? And who has use for a man if he’s not assertive, aggressive, tough, and strong? In short, if someone fails to conform to the stereotypes of his or her sex, they (we really need more gender-neutral nouns in the English language so that we can be concise without being grammatically incorrect) end up looking like less of a human being. Then you end up with such evils as homophobia, anti-feminism, and various other discriminations based on appearance or behavior. We live in a culture founded on hierarchies: male over female, white over black, rich over poor. But as so many great thinkers and doers have said, it’s high time to work to change all that.