Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Revenge of the GRE

I used to think I was a pretty smart guy. Then I took the GRE.

Ever since that heinous experience eight years ago, I've always gone out of my way to counsel any friend of mine who is getting ready to take the test:

"Keep in mind, it's a test to get you into grad school. It's not like the ACT or the SAT," I'd say.

"It's designed to take top-tier students and spread them out on a measurable spectrum," I'd say.

"Don't worry, it's supposed to be a ruthless, masochistic assault on your sense of self-worth as an intelligent human being that will kick you to the academic curb thinking your only sensible career option is to be first assistant to the guy scraping congealed grease off the floor at Denny's," I'd say.

I never got an exact count, but I felt like I got about 20% of the questions right on that stupid test. On the analogy questions I usually had never even heard of three of the four word options. In high school I passed the AP Calculus test with a 4, but I guess your brain defaults to 8th-grade algebra level if you don't keep using it, because the quantitative section was a joke. For some reason, the analytical section has been wiped clean from my mind. Yet after all that, somehow I emerged with a decent percentile score, at least one that was good enough to get me into Utah State. I guess that means most people do lousy on the thing. They always tell you that programs aren't as concerned with your GRE score as they are with the other elements of your application. Thank goodness that seemed to be true at USU.

Still, once I understood the design and purpose of the test, I was reassured that I might still be an intelligent person. Maybe not as infallible as I thought, but still respectable. One way or the other, I was just glad to have the stupid thing done.

Two weeks ago I took the GRE again.

See, there's one little hitch with the GRE test. The scores are only valid for five years. So no matter how good or bad you do the first time around, if you decide to go back to school more than five years later, you have to re-take the test. You know, just in case aliens stole your brain in the interim and left it floating in a jar somewhere near Saturn.

In light of our recent economic situation--er, MY recent economic situation--I've decided to look into the possibility of going back to school. And to do that, I have to get a new GRE score. That's why two weeks ago I rolled into the University of Utah testing center at 7:30am to take a customized $140 kick in the Jimmy. This time around I decided to study--never been a big fan of studying for standardized tests--because even if my brain wasn't stolen completely, I'm pretty sure that those aliens made off with the majority of my education from grades 9-12.

So now, after taking the GRE twice, I can say that the experience hasn't changed much, and sometimes it's hard to take your own advice. But it's easy to take someone else's advice, so here are a few veteran observations:

Practice your cursive

As brutal as the test, the hardest part of the experience comes before you even enter the testing center. That's when you have to stand outside with a clipboard and fill out the confidentiality statement. The confidentiality statement says that you won't tell anyone about the specific content of the test, but it's not enough to just have you sign and date the thing. That would be reasonable, and the GRE is about torture, not reason. You actually have to copy this big paragraph word-for-word that basically says "I won't tell anyone what's on the test" in about 300 words, THEN sign it.

But even that's not the bad part. The bad part is that you can't print the agreement. You have to write it in cursive. Now I don't know about you, but the last time I used cursive on a consistent basis was in the fourth grade, about a year after I first learned how to do it. Writing in cursive is not like riding a bike. It doesn't just come back, at least not for me. By the time I finished that paragraph--it seriously took me about five minutes--I was praying that the college admissions people didn't factor it into my application.

"Well, his academic record is impressive, aside from the GRE score. I like his portfolio, and his professors seem to think he's a funny guy. Still, if I try to put this school's good name behind a man who writes like a mentally-challenged fourth grader with the shakes, I'll never make Dean, and the boys at the sweat lodge will start hiding my undies again. Betty, better fire up the boilerplate rejection letter..."

The test is on a COM-PU-TER

Now, thanks to that little agreement, I can't say a whole lot about the test content. But I can say that after you sit down, you have to go through a little tutorial before you start. What kind of tutorial, you ask? Well, the first page of said editorial has a little drawing of a computer mouse on it, and above the drawing is the following statement:

"This is a mouse."

Not even kidding. I'd like to think it's just there to serve as a confidence-booster, but something tells me it isn't.

Studying is good

Turns out I'm very glad I decided to study this time. Going in prepared is always a good idea. Before I went to see "Return of the Jedi" the first time, I borrowed my mom's paperback novelization of the movie and learned that the good guys were going to win and that Princess Leia was going to be spending time in an iron bikini, and both points helped enrich the theatrical experience immensely. Studying for the GRE had the same effect. For one thing, I found out that a lot of the questions aren't even really concerned about the specific answer as much as whether you can compare that answer to another answer and ascertain their relationship. After studying this, I still had no capacity to get the questions right, but at least I wasn't surprised on test day when I bombed them.

There is a writing section

Another thing I knew going in was that they had changed the format of the test, and they'd done so to my benefit. Instead of three sections of multiple choice questions--quantitative, verbal, and analytical--sometime after I took my first test they switched the format to two multiple choice sections--quantitative and verbal--and one written section. Not only that, but the written tasks (writing and debunking argumentative statements) are basically identical to what I did as an English composition teacher for over five years.

Advantage: Josh

Again, I can't go into detail on the specific topics I wrote on--even though the complete pool is posted on the GRE site itself--but I can say that I felt pretty good about my performance. I just hope the paper graders feel the same way.

If they can torture you for three sections, why not go for four?

Unfortunately they're still throwing in that Bonus Round where you have to take an extra section of either the quantitative or the verbal questions. Plus you don't know which ones count, so there's no way to just zip through it by picking letter answer combinations that spell dirty words. They claim it's all part of the process of evaluating your score properly and developing the test to better serve both student and school, but I just think they're doing it to piss you off. At least this time I knew it was coming.

Know your school codes

I also knew that at the end of the test I was going to have to tell them where to send my scores. You can pick four schools to get your scores for free, but after that you have to pay to transmit your humiliation. I didn't have four schools to send my humiliation, and that's why the Moody Bible Institute is going to get the results of my test.

What happens in the testing center can stay in the testing center, but there is no refund.

Of course, if you think you did really, really bad, you can chuck the whole thing and not tell anybody. The computer gives you the option of canceling your score at the end of the test, though the fact that you canceled it still goes on your permanent record. They do it so you don't have to be penalized by extenuating circumstances, like heavy traffic, illness, or spontaneous human combustion. Even if I'd done poorly, I don't think I would have canceled it. For one thing, I needed a result to justify my pain. For another, I needed a result to justify my $140. Besides, I'm pretty sure I did good on the written bit, so I'm not going to worry about it.

As for the rest of the test, I still feel like I got about 20% of the questions right, but according to my results, I probably came out OK. Ironically, I scored higher on the quantitative section than the verbal, but I don't think I'm going to take it as a prophetic sign from above that I'm supposed to veer off into engineering or something. Between the engineering people and the humanities people, I'm guessing the latter will be much more impressed by my Ricardo Montalban essay.

Now as long as they don't look at that confidentiality agreement...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A Recommended Book List that Does Not Suck

Everytime I log onto Facebook these days, I see that someone else has filled out this survey to see how many great works of literature you've read off a sample list. I think the list blows, mostly because out of 100 books, it doesn't have a single title from Kurt Vonnegut or Ray Bradbury. Therefore I made my own list. It is awesome.

1. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
2. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Kurt Vonnegut
3. The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
4. Jailbird, Kurt Vonnegut
5. The Martian Chronicles, Ray Bradbury
6. Dandelion Wine, Ray Bradbury
7. The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury
8. Side Effects, Woody Allen
9. The Complete Far Side, Gary Larson
10. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
11. 1984, George Orwell
12. The Great Apostasy, James Talmage
13. On Writing, Stephen King
14. Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman
15. The Lazlo Letters, Don Novello
16. Naked, David Sedaris
17. Can I Keep My Jersey, Paul Shirley
18. The Mason Williams Reading Matter, Mason Williams
19. Born Standing Up, Steve Martin
20. Animal Farm, George Orwell
21. The Alchemist, Paulo Choelo
22. The Screwtape Letters, CS Lewis
23. All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum
24. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
25. Don Quixote, Cervantes
26. Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, Dave Barry
27. How to Be an Italian, Lou D’Angelo
28. 101 Things NOT to Do Before You Die, Robert W. Harris
29. The Two Kings, AJ Jacobs
30. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
31. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Philip K. Dick
32. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (Actually just go watch “Apocalypse Now” instead)
33. The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, Vol. 1, Neil Simon
34. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
35. The Outsiders, SE Hinton
36. Of Mice and Men, John Steinbeck
37. In His Own Write, John Lennon
38. The Fellowship of the Ring, JRR Tolkein
39. Working, Studs Terkel
40. The Halloween Tree, Ray Bradbury
41. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
42. All Quiet on the Western Front, Erich Remarque
43. Lake Wobegon Days, Garrison Keillor
44. Patriot Games, Tom Clancy
45. Winesburg, Ohio, Sherwood Anderson
46. Pure Drivel, Steve Martin
47. I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
48. Dune, Frank Herbert
49. Oscar-Winning Screenwriters on Screenwriting, Joel Engel
50. The Complete Works of Edgar Allen Poe, Edgar Allen Poe
51. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
52. Burton on Burton, Mark Salisbury
53. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling
54. You Gotta Love It, Baby, “Hot” Rod Hundley
55. Total Impact, Ronnie Lott
56. Hey, I Wrote a Book, John Madden
57. La Barba Magico (aka “The Magic Beard”), Me
58. Your Movie Sucks, Roger Ebert
59. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkein
60. Field Guide to the Sasquatch, David George Gordon
61. 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, Bernard Goldberg
62. The Great Divorce, CS Lewis
63. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig (First couple of chapters…the rest got boring and I never finished it)
64. Hop on Pop, Dr. Seuss
65. The Great Brain, John D. Fitzgerald
66. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roland Dahl
67. The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words, Vol. 1
68. Jesus the Christ, James Talmage
69. Pretty much any column collection by Andy Rooney
70. Hate Mail from Cheerleaders, Rick Reilly
71. Without Feathers, Woody Allen
72. Getting Even, Woody Allen
73. Uh-Oh, Robert Fulghum
74. Leaves of Grass, Walt Whitman (Specifically the poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”…I haven’t actually read any of the other poems)
75. Prophecy: Key to the Future, Duane S. Crowther
76. About the Three Nephites, Douglas and Jewel Beardall
77. With His Pistol in His Hand: A Border Ballad and It's Hero, Americo Paredes
78. Shot in America: Television, the State, and the Rise of Chicano Cinema, Chon A. Noriega
79. The Spoon River Anthology, Edgar Lee Masters
80. The Two Towers, JRR Tolkein
81. The Return of the King, JRR Tolkein
82. Wired, Bob Woodward
83. Bradbury Speaks: Too Soon from the Cave, Too Far from the Stars, Ray Bradbury
84. Chuck Klosterman IV: A Decade of Curious People and Dangerous Ideas, Chuck Klosterman
85. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
86. Me Talk Pretty One Day, David Sedaris
87. Nine Tomorrows, Isaac Asimov
88. How to Eat Fried Worms, Thomas Rockwell
89. The Life of Reilly: The Best of Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, Rick Reilly
90. Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury
91. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain
92. Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
93. The Time Machine, HG Wells
94. And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
95. The War of the Worlds, HG Wells
96. Personal Journal: July 1991—October 1995, also Me
97. About a Boy, Nick Hornby
98. The Book of Mormon, God
99. Citizen Lazlo, Don Novello
100. The Hardy Boys, #4: The Missing Chums, Franklin W. Dixon

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Two Poems

Here are a pair of "poems" I wrote at Utah State to include as part of my graduate thesis project.

Embrace my Manliness
Meditations on the Historical and Cultural Impact of a 300-lb. Lawyer Impersonating Elvis in a Centerville, Utah, Grocery Store Parking Lot (at night).

As Randall shakes his can to Presley's beat,
The local passing patrons pause and stare,
"That hunk 'o burnin' love has happy feet!"

He felt the evening dull and incomplete,
Too tepid, boring and in need of flare,
So Randall shook his bum to Presley's beat.

The public opportunity so sweet,
He parked his van, stepped out, and with great care
His hunk 'o burnin' love found happy feet.

How grand a sight to residents so beaten,
By life's routine conformity--then, there!
Some fat man shakes his can to Presley's beat!

What luck that on the radio that evening,
King Elvis prophesied through summer air,
His song of burnin' love for happy feet

A Knight that night, Sir Randall saved us sheep
And though he's in the desert somewhere,
Still Randall shakes his can to Presley's beat,
a hunk 'o burnin' love with healing feet.


79th Street Reflection

Pedaling along 79th street at hyper speed
Evening hangs a heavy drape
On another day of preaching.

We ride for the local outpost
A two-flat
Stinking of Rottweiler
And old wood

Below me-
chrome-alloy steel
Mummy-wrapped in black slashed rubber tubing
And electrical tape
A mechanical marvel of gears and spokes and fiber cords
Affectionately dubbed Thunderlips
Renders the road a swift-speckled streak.

Tenement complexes stare from their broken window eyes
As I ride past
the red brick monuments of Chicago's south side
The dull throb of the streetlight looms quietly
Above the road's
elaborate web of black tarred Band-Aids

Behind me
The illustrious Elder Clark
On a rag-tag mess of a bicycle
Hybridized from two bikes
A Desoto
And a roll of duct tape

Poor cat, he'll be
hit by three cars in three months

We duck debris of the disenfranchised
passing unharmed through their gauntlet of
And fists,

Not to mention our share of "kill whitey!" threats.
"Let's get them Honkeys on they bikes!"
Public Access Radio
As we make for the shelter
Of 60th and Talman.

Yet I smile as we cross Halsted
And Farrakhan's headquarters sitting there
Cool and quiet in the summer night
A million-man march
And a million recorded speeches
Yours for only $9.95 apiece

It's a long way back to Bountiful
But it may as well be on the moon
Suburbia is a distant dream
Populated with the pens that write me letters
That tell me of happenings at home

Yet as I fly along that south Chicago street
I am haunted by familiarity
I am institutionalized
I am home

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Virgin of the Slopes

You don't have to look far these days to see that the times they are a-changin'. After all, the Red Sox have won the Series twice, and the Cardinals just made the Super Bowl. My buddy Brandon got engaged at the tender age of 37, and we all know what Obama just did. I've been feeling a little left out of the fun, so last weekend, after three decades of procrastination, I finally decided to go skiing for the first time.

When you put something off for several years, actually doing it becomes a much bigger deal than it should be. For example, I had never been to a funeral until I attended my paternal grandmother's early last year. I'd had other opportunities, but the longer I avoided them the harder it became to motivate myself to go. Skiing was the same way. Many of my friends have been avid skiers their entire lives, but the longer I put it off, the bigger an event it became, and the less inclined I was to go unless the circumstances matched the magnitude of the occasion.

I had a variety of excuses:

Money: Skiing is not cheap. When you factor equipment and travel costs in with the price of a typical lift ticket (even night skiing is thirty bucks), you've made a modest investment. That investment becomes harder to make when you consider...

Lack of Skill: ...that you'll be spending most of your day on your behind in pain, or staggering around the mountain looking like an idiot. Which can be a serious blow to anyone who...

Overinflated Ego: ...doesn't like doing things he's not good at, or can't at least perform competently after a minimum of practice.

For these reasons, I always figured the only way I'd ever wind up on the slopes is if a girl was involved. After all, when the rubber hits the road, there is nothing better to fire up the single man's engine than to put a cute girl in front of his face. This is the only explanation for why I've ever let anyone talk me into country dancing.

But when I finally decided to go hit the slopes last weekend, there weren't really any girls involved. It was just a spur-of-the-moment thing. Brighton had a two-for-one deal on night skiing, and the second counselor in my old bishopric got us all free rentals, so I figured I could afford to blow $16 on a crash course at the Brighton Ski School of Hard Knocks.

That's how I wound up sitting next to my friends Tyler and Spencer on a Brighton ski lift Friday night, coasting silently up the mountainside and wondering if I would ever make it down alive as I gazed down at the parade of snowboarders and experienced skiers below me. The rides up the lift were actually one of my favorite parts of the whole experience; it wasn't a super cold night, so floating up through the trees in the darkness actually had a kind of meditative ponderous quality that would have been almost existential if not for the heavy boots that kept threatening to pull me off the lift and down to certain death.

Actually skiing was a very different matter, though the threat of death was also a major factor. By the end of my first run I realized that my skills as a skier are almost identical to my skills as an ice skater: I have no problem staying up, making turns, and going really fast, but I have no ability to stop. On an ice rink, this is no problem; I just go around in circles and weave through people until I get tired and coast into a wall. But on a ski run, thanks to gravity, I just go faster and faster until I lose control and plow headfirst into a tree, a snowbank, or some unfortunate sap who has decided to park his butt in the middle of the run, completely unaware that a 180-pound torpedo is bearing down on him at somewhere just under the speed of light.

One of the first things Tyler and Spencer taught me was how to snow plow; namely, to cross your skis in front of you and push outward to slow yourself down. (Note: by "crossing your skis" I mean to point the tips towards each other; actually crossing your skis leads to a headfirst crash that runs the risk of concussion, broken bones, and a major rip in the space-time continuum). Snowplowing works fine when you're gradually making your way down a gentle bank, but it doesn't help you at 70mph. So whenever possible, I would try to swing back up the run in a wide arc and let the same gravity that worked against me work for me, but when you're stuck on a narrow run--say, at the top of Brighton's highest lift where I had absolutely no business skiing on my first night out--you don't have that much room to maneuver. That's why ten feet from hitting a snowboarder who was taking a cat nap in my path, I suddenly turned and did a head-over-heels back flip into a six foot wall of powder.

Not to say that the evening was completely miserable; far from it. Whenever I did let myself pick up a little speed, I would always enter a brief exhilarating window where I would be cruising down the run at high speed, deftly shifting back and forth as I wove down the mountainside and the trees whipped by me in a blur. It kind of reminded me of mountain biking on a gradual downhill trail, when the forces of nature take over and you feel like your bike has its own engine, sailing you along on a high-speed groove through the canyon. It's like dropping a gear in an early 90's Mazda RX-7 and feeling the engine burst to life as you fly past everyone else on the freeway. It's like zipping along on my old Trek 820 across 79th Street in Chicago after a long day of proselytizing, and the humidity finally doesn't feel so bad as you whip through the Midwestern wind. It's just that on the slopes, that brief exhilarating window always gets slammed shut as I over-correct and pitch forward, slamming the Darth Vader goggles my buddy Chidsey loaned me on the ice while my skis detach and skid across the run towards some five-year-old doing back flips on his snowboard in the half pipe down the way.

So one solution might be to find a resort that has constructed a super-wide, curvy run that has a massive protective net at the bottom to provide safe and sanitary completion for skiers who lack proper stopping capacity. Another might be to use my inevitable fame and fortune to construct one of my own. I could also take the philosophical route and connect my experience to a deeper parallel metaphor whereby humanity as a whole is speeding down the steep runs of mortality, and if we neglect to make the necessary course corrections and employ proper safety techniques, we will fall victim to the systemic socio-cultural subversion of traditional Judeo-Christian ethics by the permissive forces of evil.

Or I could just learn how to stop.