So I went canoeing over fall break – it's been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. And I had an amazing experience – it was 5 days/4 nights, and we canoed over 30 miles, portaged (where you carry the canoes on foot) for 2 km, and did a 5 km hike up and down a mountain. I’ve been hiking before, and my experience has been mainly masochistic – carrying a 20 kg pack on your back for 15 km in a day is not “fun” in any other sense of the word, and neither is eating 2 min noodles and cans of tuna because you don’t want to carry around your deluxe bean, salsa and burrito kit. But when you’re in a canoe you can take as much stuff as you want – and we took the bean, salsa and burrito kit .
And an Oreo cheesecake kit, macaroni and cheese, tortilla wraps, bagels and cream, pancake mix, cereal and milk, hot cocoa – this food might seem normal to you, but to be eating hot pancakes with syrup in the middle of nowhere is something else.
I had many highlights during the trip, but my favourite experience was making and eating s’mores. I was assured that this was a distinctly American experience so I was feeling quite pleased with myself for that (I’ve been struggling to find distinctly American experiences – America is very similar to Australia). The basic idea is to find a stick, sharpen it, put a marshmallow on the end of it, roast it in the camp fire until its golden brown, get a biscuit with a block of chocolate on top of it, and put the marshmallow on top of it, and another Graham cracker and put it on top of it and then squish down and then put the whole thing in your mouth – and then just bask in pleasure as the sugar/fat mix rolls around in your mouth. I found this picture on a website (which incidentally describes the ingredients for s’mores as the Holy Trinity – Graham crackers, marshmallows, and so-bad-it’s-good American chocolate):
So I had five of these things – didn’t feel too good the next morning but what do you do.
One of the reasons I like hiking is because nature can be nice to look at – and this trip was no different. This first photo is from the campsite on the third night:
And this second photo was on the way home on the last day:
I haven’t been doing much else except working – anyone coming to Cornell should know there’s a lot of work here. I had this rough expectation that Australia was tougher than America, but it's not – maybe at other universities, but definitely not Cornell. They have this continuous assessment idea (unlike Sydney where you usually have one big exam at the end) – and to be entirely honest it's actually quite frustrating being in a constant state of medium stress (as opposed to being relaxed for the entire semester and completely stressed at the end).
Anyway, I was able to go to two other interesting talks.
Yesterday I went to a talk by Ross Szabo – you can google him to find out more about him, but he’s a speaker promoting mental health awareness at colleges and universities across America. In high school, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.
He had many messages – I’ll just mention one idea that I thought was particularly interesting.
Most people attach mental illness to images of patients in strait jackets, psychotic murderers or other extreme images – the truth is that mental health is a concept that each of us confronts (or not) in one way or another. Having spoken to over half a million students across American colleges, Szabo believes the major problem facing American students is the concept of simply going through the motions, and doing things because they have to and not because they want to. (eg. My life consists of going to university, talking to the same people everyday, going to lectures, studying and then going home and getting on facebook and MSN, and then I go to sleep and start again the next day). This cycle, or anything similar to it, can’t be good for mental health. There are some choices we can make in our life that will obviously make a difference to our mental health – if our life is filled only with things we feel we have to do then we’ll soon start to test our mental health reserves. The endpoint of this line of thinking is that you’ll start doing things that no one else does (or not doing things that everyone does), start sticking out a bit and start meeting people you’ve never met. Szabo’s recommendation was that if it's within the law, and doesn’t involve hurting yourself or other people, then you should be free to express the freak within you.
And today I saw Salman Rushdie speak – and it was one of those moments that made me realize why I had come on exchange. It was a question and answer session, and people asked really interesting questions – one person asked him what he thought the “use” of literature was. And to it, he responded “What’s the use of Alice in Wonderland? You can’t clean the car with it, and you can’t “do” anything with it can you?”. But of course we know what the use of Alice in Wonderland is – anyone reading it would have been affected in some way – and Rushdie’s idea was that when writing a book an author has a particular vision, and in reading a book the reader shares in that particular vision and if the mix is right, the author’s vision will change how they attempt to lead their lives. He’s a controversial figure, and I don’t know much about his life, but he didn’t hold back his opinions during his talk - “Nowadays good authors can only write under 200 pages, and any longer they won’t get published. But crappy authors can write 900 page books that go on to become bestsellers *cough* Dan Brown”.