Yesterday very little happened (except for a show by a stand-up comedian who had obviously stolen his material from this site), so I will dedicate this post to a week’s reflection in response to comments. (I should note that I really appreciate the comments — keep sending me your thoughts. This applies to everything; I hereby solicit all unsolicited advice.)

By far the most common theme in writing my alleged unhappiness and detachment. It seems most commentors think I should lighten up and join the group, while slightly less offer comfort and suggest I will learn to cope, and the rest cheer me on as I am. So it may come as a surprise to most of you that I do not feel detached or unhappy.

True, my situation is objectively quite poor: I practically the entire day sweating, hungry, and running from place to place. I am cut off from most intelligent discussion and forced into inane exercises meant to build a spirit I abhor. I have lost most of my freedom, my comforts, my family, and my friends. I spend my days mostly doing the whims of others and trying to catch my breath instead of accomplishing things of substance. And yet, I can honestly tell you that I remain quite happy and cheerful, perhaps happier than I was at home on average.

I am not entirely sure what explains this. A large part of it is likely my writing in this space. I am frequently taking notes on my surroundings and thinking about how I will write about them. I suspect this gives me something of an ironic detachment that allows me to see the humor in my situation instead of feeling the pain. (For example, normally I’d feel anxious and glum about buying a file cabinet and leaving it outside because I’m too scared to ask for help. But now it’s simply a hilarious act in a drama! Whatever is going to happen to it?) It also gives otherwise meaningless events a purpose — I convince myself to talk to people and do things by saying that I will be able to write about them later.

Another part is likely the combination of California sun, endorphins and exercise, and eating more and better food. (However bad the food is here, my previous daily diet was usually four plain bagels and a bowl of plain pasta with water.) I suspect these simple things have given me physical enjoyment even when I lack comparable mental enjoyment.

In response to this, some will surely suggest that I am leaving out the good stuff that happens to me. (DanC already has: “Let’s hear more about the rest… the good stuff”.) I suppose I am leaving out some things. There is a sort of light but easy cameraderie that comes from being in similar circumstances with hallmates. And people here are usually pretty open and friendly. But it’s not like I’m leaving out incredibly amazing experiences. I mostly write things as I see them, throwing out the merely ordinary experiences. Anyway, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Joss Whedon, it’s that you should never give your audience the happiness they want, no matter how desperately they want it (and I know I did).

As for complaints about detachment, I am not actively trying to be detached. I want to meet people, but it is difficult. I try to make conversation, to get people to tell me about themselves, but I don’t really know what to ask. Most, I suspect, have had pretty normal lives — doing well in school, perhaps the usual outside interests. I cannot ask them about their hobbies or their jobs, because they do not have any. What, exactly, should I do?

People seem to assume that I am like the high school freaks who sit under the bleachers and laugh with each other about the inanity of the good students. But my criticism comes not from detachment but experience — I have not thrown myself into cheers or into fountains, but I have tried my best to follow the acts and suggestions of others to the extent I can without compromising my sense of self (or clothing). One controvertial point was my discussion of dancing:

Inside the party, the clear focus was on the dancing. Teenagers moving their bodies in bizarre and vaguely rhythmic positions in close proximity to one another. I’d seen the practice frequently enough on TV, so on one level I knew what to expect, but on another it was wholly bizarre. It was like watching brownian motion or a complex screensaver, it’s completely meaningless and random but it’s also complicated enough that you don’t look away.

I do not criticize the kids for dancing, act confused about their motives, or otherwise make judgements on them — I simply described what it looked like to me. Yet commenters have acted as if I’d done all these things. In fact, I believe dancing is enjoyable and courageous; talented dancers even provide enjoyment for others. I probably would have joined in if I’d had the courage or inclination.

If there has been a theme this week, it would be cooperation — its uses and abuses. It seems clear to me that despite society’s pressures to compete, cooperation is a deep and natural part of us. This is often a good thing — a group of kids cooperating to dance or go fountain-hopping can be beautiful to watch — but the same tendencies can be abused by those in positions of authority to suppress individuality. Nations can cooperate to go to war even most individuals, if given the authority and information, would likely decide no to.

It is these latter uses that scare me. The mindless patriotism and slogan-shouting that can feel like a Hitler rally. The attempts to pit man against man, for no particular reason. The Orwellian insistence that slavery is freedom. The implication that disobeying orders is unpatriotic, not showing “Roble Love”. I know little about the rise of fascism, but I do know that these things scare me.

I do not begrudge kids their dancing or their fountain-hopping. I do not look down upon their attempts to eke out a living in this society and make friends. I do not try to mope or dwell on sadness. Nor do I stand apart from the others, for I am truly one of them. But I do remain concerned about the way that we are being used, and I will not stop being concerned even if some day it were to make me unhappy and detached. Some things can not be given up without giving up one’s self.

posted September 25, 2004 05:07 PM (Education) (18 comments) #


Stanford: Day 1
Stanford: Day 2
Stanford: Night 2
Stanford: Day 3
Stanford: Day 4
Stanford: Day 5
Stanford: Day 8
Stanford: Day 9
Stanford: Day 10
Stanford: Day 11


Is that file cabinet still there? I’ll help you carry it in if that’s the case and you haven’t found anyone else. I’m pretty busy moving stuff right now, but I’ll come over in half an hour.

posted by Can Sar at September 25, 2004 05:30 PM #

If the file cabinet is still there, you can kill two birds with one stone.

Go around the hall, ask people if someone would help you with the cabinet. Offer someone a candybar or something to help out as thanks. Nothing builds camaraderie like hard labor.

Also, regarding talking to people, young grasshopper, you must practice, practice, practice, practice! Then one day it will be second nature like the water flowing through the channel or something Zen-ish like that. :-)

My girlfriend and fellow spectator says that beware of asking the wrong person to help you with moving the furniture. If you pick the wrong type of person, she thinks it may lead to dorm-cest. Personally, I wouldn’t know if asking someone to help move furniture leads to them sleeping with you, but hey, you’re in college. Stranger things will happen.

Now, I’m going to ask my fellow spectator if she would kindly help me move my file cabinet.

posted by Chris at September 25, 2004 06:44 PM #

Gee, sounds like you were on a starvation diet at home…..NOT! Let’s not forget the yogurt, steaks, hamburgers, chicken, pizza and all the other food you could have eaten if you’d wanted to!

posted by Mom at September 25, 2004 07:01 PM #

hehe… Welcome to real life, kid! ;o)

I practically the entire day sweating, hungry, and running from place to place. I am cut off from most intelligent discussion and forced into inane exercises meant to build a spirit I abhor. I have lost most of my freedom, my comforts, my family, and my friends. I spend my days mostly doing the whims of others and trying to catch my breath instead of accomplishing things of substance.

posted by Steve at September 26, 2004 12:29 AM #

Stanford is known for student drug use. You should try “ecstasy,” and chill out with some hot girls or something. Loosen up a little, enjoy yourself, and by all means, dance!

posted by Steve at September 26, 2004 12:38 AM #

Nice to see you reflect on the comments, one of which I wrote on day three. First I have to say I’m pretty impressed by the balanced way in which you have responded, considering that the same message was being shouted at you from all sides. I certainly don’t think you need to join the masses, with their tribalistic chanting and drunken frolics. I never did at college, and I can tell you that I had a much richer and more enjoyable time than most other people, by their own admission. Many of them never felt like they discovered themselves, but rather played along with what was perceived as majority culture, and were left feeling empty when they finally moved on. But what I did do is find a bunch of people that I had a lot in common with, and spend hours talking to them about anything and everything under the sun. It’s true that you’re smarter than the vast majority of people at Stanford, but there are still more than enough people who know a lot more about many things than you, and who you could learn a lot from in conversation. I say this from personal experience too. Your deconstructive anthropological stance is mostly a fearful response to your encounter with the unknown, with the new world you have been thrust into. And that’s fine, and natural, and I can assure you that it will pass - because you’ll chill out a little, and because they’ll be less of the extreme behavior as everyone knuckles down under their coursework. It took me a year at college before I really felt like I’d found a group of friends I was really comfortable with, and I’ve no doubt the same will happen for you given a little patience and proactivity.

posted by at September 26, 2004 05:37 AM #

Anyway, if there’s anything I’ve learned from Joss Whedon, it’s that you should never give your audience the happiness they want, no matter how desperately they want it (and I know I did).

Totally. I shan’t be surprised if the yet-unmoved cabinet starts haunting my dreams.

posted by Firas at September 26, 2004 05:55 AM #

Hahahaha. As a former RA (Can Sar’s RA, actually, and Ritu’s as well), I was extremely amused about your concerns that residences reek of fascism. I wrote my honors thesis on German resistance movements during WWII, and so the two years that I was on staff usually involved me carrying around a book like ‘Origins of Totalitarianism’ or ‘The Hitler Myth’ or some other rather scary bit of work. Yes, there are ample comparisons to be made between Stanford residence life and totalitarian regimes. However, unlike a totalitarian regime, you’re free to question it, judge it, and ultimately reject it if it’s not for you. Post-orientation, the cheers will die down and you won’t be herded around together like little sheep. Once people have classes, and something to talk about other than ‘two truths and a lie’ or other icebreakers, you may find the people around you to be a little more interesting.

Yes, some of the people around you are just awful, or boring, or unnecessary. However, because I was an RA, and had to be nice to everyone when it’s really in my nature to be cynical and exclusive, I had to build relationships with people I would have written off before. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I could have interesting, intriguing, stimulating conversations with the geeks, the drunks, the socially inept geniuses, and the ‘popular’ kids…when normally I would have written most of them off. Before this starts to sound like the moral of an 80’s teen movie, I’ll wrap this up. I’m sure you don’t need or care about my advice, and you’ll go to hell in your own way just like everyone else, but a bit of advice—don’t write off the people around you. Intelligence means absolutely nothing if you have no one to share with or learn more from.

posted by Sara at September 26, 2004 06:05 AM #

If you really want to understand the mob mentality, you have to join it. Watching mindless patriotism and slogan-shouting tells you nothing. Work yourself into a state of mind where you want to join the mob, and then do. Don’t analyze what you’re doing until afterwards.

posted by Jamie McCarthy at September 26, 2004 11:10 AM #

Has it occurred to you what remarks like “I spend my days mostly doing the whims of others and trying to catch my breath instead of accomplishing things of substance” and “I cannot ask them about their hobbies or their jobs, because they do not have any” indicate? Here’s some news: those other kids are no more lacking in hobbies or jobs than you are, and they also want to accomplish “things of substance” just like you do (although their definitions for that category might differ markedly from yours). While you claim not to be criticizing, you are clearly trying to set yourself apart - mostly above - your peers with remarks like that. You will continue to feel and be detached until you accept that you’re not in a play. Those are people you’re writing about, not actors. They have interests and aspirations beyond the superficial group activities that are (apparently) forced upon all of you. Some of them might actually have informed and interesting opinions regarding issues you’ve written about, or - even better - things that have never even occurred to you before, but none of that shows in what you’ve written. The “reporter from Mars” schtick exemplifies the worst of bloggish self-absorption, and it’s getting old already. Engage with your peers - yes, that’s what they are - and you’ll probably all be happier.

posted by Jeff Darcy at September 27, 2004 06:46 AM #

You defend your description of the dance by saying ‘well, gee, I was only describing it. How can you say it was judgmental or whatever?’

It’s in the way you wrote it. You dehumanised and devalued the experience by treating it like a goddamn ant farm. You place yourself above the others as though you’re so very much more special.

That turns what might have been a cutely cynical piece of writing into the tedious witterings of a kid who’s just too preoccupied with his own superiority. Whether you mean it or not, that’s how it comes off.

posted by Raena Armitage at September 27, 2004 09:42 AM #

Cheers aren’t meant to make you conform. They’re a cheap way of getting people excited. Think of the comedian who says, “How are you ?” People get excited for no good reason - and that’s all the reason that they need. Sometimes merely being involved in something is reason enough in itself.

The next time there’s dancing, get out on the dance floor. It won’t hurt, and even if you think it won’t be fun it probably will be. Life’s strange like that - you have to be in it to truely experience it.

posted by Lou at September 27, 2004 12:27 PM #

California sun? I have to laugh at that one. You’re not in LA, you know ;)

Also, Aaron, you keep referring to eveyone as “kids”. I think that says a lot about how you are seeing everyone. Is that really fair? It’s a little condescending.

I think Jeff Darcy and some others nailed it. I know you are in a tough period of transition, but we’ve all been there. Just try to open your mind to new experiences and people and enjoy yourself. And get out of PA and spend some time in SF.

Regarding the food, make sure you get to Schaub’s market in the Stanford Shopping Center (yes, I said go to a mall) and try a sandwich with Fred’s steak. And JC’s BBQ in San Jose. And Roxies market in SF… Yum.

posted by Brian at September 27, 2004 12:45 PM #

Following on from the above: the Milk Pail greengrocer on San Antonio has a great selection for cheaper than the Whole Foods on Emerson, although Whole Foods is probably closer to you. The CoHo serves a drink called the Frosty Mint that I really like, and the Treehouse has relatively cheap burritos and tasty nachos. (I was at Stanford on the 21st, helping a friend move in; too bad I missed you.)

As to the larger issues of adjusting to college, I hope to see you at Seth’s dinner tonight so I can hold forth with great wisdom on the subject. For now I’ll just say a couple things: 1. Join clubs. It’s a great way to meet like-minded people. Maybe there’s a group for homeschooled kids, who would understand the unique challenge of going from a “sheltered” education to being a first-year at a large university. 2. [SHAMELESS PLUG] Check out Stanford’s student-run radio station, KZSU (90.1 FM). Good music, good people. [END SHAMELESS PLUG] 3. I’m a short drive down El Camino from the university if you ever want to escape.

posted by Riana at September 27, 2004 01:57 PM #

it’s okay aaron. ignore all the rest of the criticism for your thoughts. Stanfurd really is a bizarre place. The sanity has to be questioned of anyone willing to pay $150,000 for an education that doesn’t measure up to it’s public school neighbor. (especially in engineering)

posted by njg at September 27, 2004 09:01 PM #

You need to grow up, Kid. You may think you’re smart, but you have much to learn about people. By openly criticizing your peers on your web site, you are not only drawing a lot of alienating attention to yourself, you are destroying any credibility you may have had. You obviously think you’re superior — maybe you learned that from your over-protective mommy. Save face before it’s too late — it doesn’t get any better…

Spoken from experience.

posted by asdf at September 28, 2004 07:01 PM #

ok, i just found this site through little yellow different & these are the only comments i’ve read. but i have to jump in & say that it’s easy for someone to say “make friends,” “don’t be judgmental,” etc., when they don’t understand what it’s like to actually be different from everyone else and have a gut reaction against the bogus cheers and groupthink and typical social-type crap. personally, i’ve tried to like it - tried through high school and undergrad and most of my adult like - but it’s just not who i am, so i totally see where you’re coming from and can say that detached isn’t all bad. it’s okay to be who you are and not “fit in” or whatever. it’s okay to be cynical even. if you are really smart and pay attention to what’s going on around you (which apparently you are and you do), it’s hard not to be cynical. and it also doesn’t mean that you’re unhappy or won’t form close friendships with others. so, my unsolicited advice is to ignore all the rest of this advice. be who you are and forget what everyone else thinks!

posted by h at September 29, 2004 07:56 PM #

This is such a fun weblog Aaron - well done. While I can sympathize with many of the comments above, I do think that some are being a tad harsh: a small measure of retreat, detachment etc., while not pleasant for many readers, is a part of the writer’s habitus. I would allege it is natural, and in a young writer not necessarily unhealthy.

I will concede this: from my own experiences at college/uni, I found that one of the most difficult things for many, myself and MOST of my peers, was suddenly adjusting to an environment where there are many smart, young people. I should say Aaron, that if you treat others with the same respect and consideration you expect, everything will be fine. Make it clear in your weblog however, that you can be very discrete; I imagine Stanf. is a very web savvy place and you should make the rules of your writing game clear from the outset - for the benefit of everyone.


posted by AGON at November 2, 2004 04:04 PM #

Subscribe to comments on this post.

Add Your Comment

If you don't want to post a comment, you can always send me your thoughts by email.

(used only to send you my reply, never published or spammed)

Remember personal info?

Note: I may edit or delete your comment. (More...)

Aaron Swartz (