Observer's Notes

The ideas of a thoughtful college student (Updated Whenever)

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    I'm Brian. This is my blog. I write about things that I think about, since verbalizing it helps me put things in more concrete terms. So here you'll find my occasional thoughts.
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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

This I Believe

Posted by Brian on October 11, 2008

This is an essay I wrote for my freshman inquiry class. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, so I thought I’d share it here. This isn’t due until Tuesday, so feel free to leave me constructive criticism.


“You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.” This is what Brian Johnson realizes in the movie The Breakfast Club after spending a Saturday in detention with four other students from different social groups. At first they fight and argue. But as they learn more about each other, they see that they really aren’t all that different. When I first saw The Breakfast Club, I was inspired. Not just because it was a good movie, but because it echoed one of my long-held beliefs. I believe that every person is unique, and beyond explanation by a simple stereotype.

Part of the reason this belief is so important to me is because it’s one I don’t often see practiced anymore. In The Breakfast Club, Brian Johnson is the “nerd” of the group. He feels pressure from his friends and family to be the perfect student. I identified with Brian Johnson. Not only were we similar in name, but Brian Johnson and I were similar in social group. In middle school, my English teacher passed back a grammar test and asked me to read my score aloud. Timidly I said, “100%.” Everyone else in the class had failed. As our teacher chewed out the rest of the class, I heard someone behind me whisper “nerd.” The kids around me chuckled, and I pretended not to hear.

That single word would come to be my label for several years. I was the “nerd,” and everyone knew it. In reality, I was an average student; English just happened to be my strong subject. But because of one test in middle school, everyone thought they knew who I was. Of course, I was more complex than being just a nerd. But many people didn’t see the point in looking beyond the label they had stuck on me, and as a result they assumed I was a person that I really wasn’t.

Society has made it too easy to summarize a person in one word: jock and nerd; Republican and Democrat; Christian and Muslim. We try to make the world black and white, because gray is hard to understand. It is in the nature of humanity to fear that which is different. So rather than try to understand people who are different from us, we instead mold them to a fit a definition we already know. But no matter how hard society tries, the world is not black and white. As Brian Johnson discovered, no one is as simple as a one-word label. No one is just a brain, or a jock, a basket case, a princess, or a criminal. We see others as we want to see them: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. Instead, we should try to see others as they truly are: unique.


Posted in College, Life, Society | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

My Cheat Sheet

Posted by Brian on June 10, 2008

I am officially done with high school. It’s been four years, and they’ve all been incredible. Obviously with the passing of such an important part of my life, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about my experiences. I had a lot of trouble deciding what to write for this blog, because I just couldn’t find a good way to summarize my high school experience. The person I am today is significantly different than the person I was four years ago. I don’t think you can explain something like that in one entry on a web site, no matter how good a writer you are.

But there is one very tangible thing I’ve taken away from Gresham High School: knowledge. I’m not talking about history or math or science. I firmly believe that the most lesson of high school is how to function in real life. There are so many things that I learned in high school that weren’t taught in a classroom. So I decided that the beset way to reflect on my high school experience would be to make a written record of those lessons. They’re the most important ones I’ll ever learn.

1. People are always more important
This is definitely the most important lesson I learned. I know that because it’s the one I mostly frequently violated, so I saw all the consequences. Honestly, I owe 100% of this lesson to IB. There were times I was so busy that I felt like I didn’t have time to maintain healthy friendships. Because like a lot of important things in life, personal relationships take a lot of work to maintain. And as I explained in previous entries, when I felt that stressed out I pushed away everyone around me.

But the core of what I learned is that life is almost impossible without at least a few close friends. Those same times when I felt so busy were also the times when I most desperately needed my friends. When you’re stressed out, irritable, worried and tired, a solid support network is the most helpful thing in the world. Life is just too hard to handle alone.

Because at the end of the day, having scads of money won’t make you happy. A fast sports car might be exciting for the couple months a year you can drive it, but it won’t lend any lasting meaning to your life. I know it sounds corny, but it’s true. Useful though it may be, my full IB diploma is not going to be the key to my future happiness. It’s going to be people. So to everyone who made me more important than studying or sports, thank you.

2. Never surrender
Again, IB taught me this one. You’d think with all these things, IB is a great program. But it really taught me a lot of things in a tough way; similar to how you learn not to walk under pianos when a piano falls on your head. IB was just so damn hard that it forces you to be better. When things get that hard, it’s very easy to throw in the towel and say, “It cannot be done.”

I was very tempted to do that, more than a few times. My CAS hours come to mind. When I hit March and realized that I had done 0 of the required 50 volunteer hours, I was tempted to call it impossible and just give up. Thankfully, a few key people discouraged me from taking that route. Part of what I learned throughout high school is that impossible situations are rarely impossible; they just require you to go above and beyond what you think you’re capable of. As it turns out, we almost always underestimate just how amazing we can be. George Eliot once wrote that “necessity does the work of courage.”

You never know what you’re capable of until you’re asked to give everything you’ve got. I could have given up on my IB diploma, but I didn’t, and I’m better off for it. It’s always easier to give up than to try harder. Giving up, you have a 0% chance of success. At least when you try, you have a shot. So to everyone who pushed me when I didn’t push myself, thank you.

3. Forgive
Everybody likes to quote the phrase “To err is human.” It seems like not a lot of people remember that there’s actually a second part to that particularly axiom: “to err is human, but to forgive is divine.” That’s one of my favorite expressions. I can’t say I learned this particular lesson first-hand. Rather, it was more like second-hand. I learned just how amazing a gift forgiveness can be when it was given to me, especially when I thought I didn’t deserve it.

If you’re ever looking for a way to kill a friendship, holding a grudge would definitely be a good option. There are always two choices: forgive a person, or stay angry. Staying angry doesn’t accomplish anything, and only serves to make everyone feel worse. You only get angrier and angrier the more you think about it, and the person you’re mad at just feels worse and worse the angrier you get; forgiveness, on the other hand, brings positive feelings. I’m not saying you should act as if they did nothing wrong. But I am saying that mistakes serious to warrant completely alienating a person are once in a lifetime (if even that much).

I definitely wouldn’t be close to any of the people I’m close to today if they hadn’t forgiven me something during our relationship. For that, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. So to everyone who forgave me when it would have been easier to stay angry, thank you.

4. Don’t be someone else
This is a very close second for the “most important” award. I’m quite fond of how Dr. Seuss phrased it: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” Dr. Seuss is honestly one of the most intelligent people ever. He hit the nail on the head with this bit of wisdom: there’s no sense in not being yourself.

The way I see it, being yourself weeds out the people in life that you don’t really want around you. The people who love you for who you are also happen to be the people who will stand by you when things take a turn for the worst. They’re the ones who will forgive you when you make a mistake. They’re the ones who will put you first. In my experience, the ones who don’t appreciate you for who you really are end up being the ones who head for the hills at the first sign of trouble. Then you end up alone, right when you most need the support of others. Also, when you try to be someone that you’re not, it’s very easy to become someone you don’t want to be. There were a few times over the last 4 years when I’ve tried to impress a particular person or group by acting differently than I would have had I just been myself. 100% of the time when that happened, I ended up doing something I later regretted.

There have been so many people throughout the years who have genuinely liked me for me. It’s reassuring. Words cannot describe the effect that’s had on me and my self-confidence. So to everyone who saw through the cynicism and sarcasm, and appreciated me for who I really am, I cannot thank you enough.


And of course, there are so many more I could write about. Now I know what you’re thinking: “Brian, did you actually accomplish anything by writing this? I already knew all this stuff.” Well, so did I. But knowing that these things should be true doesn’t mean that these things will be true. Just as I sometimes forget what year Hitler seized power in Germany, I will almost definitely forget these lessons sometime in the near future. It’s human nature that the moments when these lessons are most relevant are also the moments when they will be the last things on our minds.

It’s easy to sit and write about these ideals in front of a computer, with nothing happening to make me apply these principles. No, the exam for these lessons will be much more unexpected, and much more difficult. I know I haven’t imparted any unique wisdom (everyone learns these things), nor have I created a particularly stunning piece of writing. But what I hope I have created is a gentle reminder. A “cheat sheet,” something I can look back on somewhere down the line and remember that this is how I want to live my life. I know I will screw up. We all will. I just want this to help me screw up a little bit less.

Posted in Education, Friends, Life, Time | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Of Kids and Tigers

Posted by Brian on April 6, 2008

(Update: Improved image resolution. And for anyone who’s curious, I have a fair use rationale to justify using copyrighted materials.)

Somehow over the course of this weekend, I’ve found myself reading Calvin & Hobbes comics online. There are really some very good ones. I remember now why I like this comic so much. So I figured for this week’s blog (which will put me back on schedule, by the way!) I’d reflect on some of the wisdom imparted by the two titular characters. These are five of my favorite Calvin & Hobbes strips, and my thoughts on them.


Calvin and Hobbes - Dreams

This one actually took me a long time to find. I started looking for it after Mooku set an away message with one of the lines from this strip. This one strikes me as noteworthy simply because it’s so honest. It exemplifies the relationship between Calvin and Hobbes, which is (if you ask me) the archetype of a close friendship. Even though the two of them sometimes grate on each others’ nerves, they really couldn’t bear to be separated. The genius in Bill Watterson’s writing is that it accomplishes two dichotomous goals at once: it captures deep and mature ideas in a childish and innocent way. In my opinion, that’s what makes Calvin & Hobbes a great comic.

Big Sunny Field

Calvin and Hobbes - Happy

This one is pretty cool. Watterson pretty routinely took shots at society in general through his comic, though he rarely targeted specific events or people. Rather, he stuck to general societal commentary. This particular strip is one such comment. It’s long been my belief that the simplest of things in the world can generate the greatest happiness. I don’t know how many of you have ever actually taken the time to sleep in a big sunny field, but it’s pretty damn awesome. Getting a new car or having lots of money just doesn’t provide the same kind of enjoyment. It feels good for a little while, but eventually you realize that no matter how fast the car goes from 0 to 60, it’s not going to make your life better. Why? Because there’s more to life than material things. No matter what you buy, you’ll eventually want something better. You get a PDA, you want an iPhone. You get an iPhone, you want unlimited texting. You get unlimited texting, you realize you have no friends to text because you spent all your time working to get enough money for the damn iPhone! I’ll admit, I’m guilty of this quite frequently. And there’s nothing wrong with enjoying material things; but making it the driving focus of your life is a bad idea.

A Best Friend

Calvin and Hobbes - Best Friend

This is definitely one of my favorites, if only because this is one of the comics where I can really identify with Calvin. Some of you who’ve known me for a while know that I sometimes experience insomnia. Not just that I stay up late, but that I try to go to bed and end up lying in bed for hours and hours before I can finally fall asleep. Usually that will last from a few weeks to a few months. Oftentimes during that time I’m lying awake, I think about the same thing Calvin is in this strip: all my fears and concerns. And, again like Calvin, the darkness and solitude provides very little distraction from those thoughts. I remember one time I couldn’t sleep, and apparently Justin couldn’t either, because he called me at like one or two in the morning. I can’t remember why, or if there even was a specific reason. But either way, talking to him helped. I don’t think we talked about anything deep or anything that had to do with my not sleeping. But as soon as I hung up with him, I fell right asleep. Having a best friend by your side does make things a little less scary. Also, there have been quite a few social situations where I have been more comfortable because Justin was there with me. Even when I’m not with a close friend, just knowing that there are people out there who care for me is a huge confidence-booster. So, yes. Things are never quite as scary when you’ve got a best friend.

Merry Christmas

Calvin and Hobbes - Christmas

This one is another favorite, for obvious reasons. It’s between this strip and the next one for my favorite Calvin & Hobbes of all time. The expression of friendship between Calvin and Hobbes in this one is pretty touching, which is unique for a comic strip. Most comics aren’t this good at invoking emotional responses. But the other cool thing about it is that Christmas isn’t just about gifts for Calvin and Hobbes, nor should it be between any two good friends. For me, Christmas is a time when I can express how much I care about all the people around me, not just a day to dazzle people with how much money you can spend on gifts. It’s a day of love, just like in this strip.

I’m going to introduce this next strip before you actually see it, since anything I could say afterwards would simply diminish its brilliance. It’s actually 9 sequential strips forming one storyline; it’s long, but the ending is worth it. I’ll warn you, it’s very bittersweet (heavy on the bitter). To quote the website where I got this, “What makes [Calvin & Hobbes] one of the great treasures of our culture is its ability to invoke emotions that you never thought you’d spend on a comic strip. This one’s positively touching.” I think everyone can identify with this comic. So here you all go. My favorite Calvin & Hobbes comic:

“…But Don’t YOU Go Anywhere”

Raccoon complete

Posted in Friends, Life, Literature, Relationships, Time | Tagged: , , , , | 2 Comments »


Posted by Brian on February 22, 2008

So here’s the first of my promised Friday updates. I’m going to put on my anthropologist hat for this one, and make the claim that IB is not designed to educate students and grant them a more worldly perspective, as the whole program claims. Rather, I’ve come to the conclusion that the International Baccalaureate program’s objective is to make students callous and bitter, to help them survive in the real world.

Just think about the subject matter that’s covered in IB at Gresham High School. Starting with Biology, where part of every unit is a lecture on disorders, also known as an hour and a half every month learning about all the things that could go wrong in your body. Move on to history, where one subject is “causes, practices & effects of war,” where you spend your time talking about the deaths of millions of people as though it’s just another quiz question; that is, right after you finish discussing the histories and methods of the most brutal dictators in the history of the world. After that there is IB English class, where most of the novels you read deal with existentialism: a philosophy which is based around the idea that nothing in the universe really matters. Finally, Theory of Knowledge, where you review existentialism AGAIN and are also forced to accept that the entire human experience is ultimately subjective and unreliable.

Then there are all the extra requirements for the IB program. The Extended Essay and CAS for example. Now it might seem at first that CAS (which includes 50 hours of volunteering) is an honest attempt by IBO to do some good in the world. But there are a few problems with this. First of all, the entire point of volunteering is to do something good in the world, for no other reason than because it’s good. What happens in IB isn’t volunteering: it’s IB students being voluntold to do good things. There’s also the Extended Essay, which is just 4,000 more words for a student to schedule into their time.

“But wait, Brian!” you’re all saying, “Are the IBO coordinators really sitting around thinking of ways to disillusion us?” Well, of course not. But one of the most interesting things about culture is that it evolves on its own. If it finds that its young are unable to survive in the real world, it finds a way to adapt. The members of culture aren’t necessarily always aware of this; for example, many anthropologists argue that the Hindu people don’t worship cows because they’re actually holy, but because eating cows would ruin the entire economic structure of India. I’ve come to believe that idealists really don’t do as well in the “real” world as people who are disillusioned to a certain degree. If school is supposed to be the place where students are prepped to deal with the real world, then wouldn’t it follow that school has to disillusion us somewhat? IB seems fairly adept at doing that.

(My heart’s not really in this one tonight, guys. Sorry.)

Posted in Education, IB, Life, Literature | Leave a Comment »