Thursday, November 12, 2015

The First Time I Tried Heroin

Disclaimer: The following post is a creative writing project for my neuroscience class at Mac.
           
The first time I tried heroin was four years ago right around this time of year. It was autumn; the leaves crunched under your foot with every step, and the air was just beginning to bite. I was nineteen; just a month and a couple days from my twentieth birthday. Kenneth, my roommate from first-year year who lived across from me, knocked on my dorm-room door. I opened it and he rushed in red-faced, holding up a clear sandwich bag with a teaspoon of white powder hiding in a corner.
            “What’s that?” I must have asked. 
            “Heroin.”
            “Wait…what? How’d you get that?”
            “Michael gave it to me. Said it was free for being such a good costumer.” Michael was the kid we had bought marijuana from a couple of times. He always met us on University Ave, and at the time I was pretty sure he went to the University of Minnesota.
            “How the hell did he get his hands on real dope?”
            “I have no idea. Wanna try it?”
            “Sure, why not? This is college, right? Gotta try new things.” At that time, I had heard heroin was bad for you. I had heard it was super addictive and that it would suck all the money out of your wallet. I had also heard the same things about marijuana and cocaine; how they would ruin your life, steal everything you cared about, and then jump on it, apparently like some maniacal thief who wasn’t smart enough to run after stealing your wallet. I had tried cocaine though, and had practically lived off of marijuana during my senior year of high school.
            I have the bad habit of over-thinking…well, basically everything I care about in life. My senior year of high school was the worst. Between six AP classes, debating forensics (speech, not dead bodies), and sending out waves of application letters, I simply couldn’t relax without marijuana. When I was high on marijuana, I just felt so good. Homework didn’t matter anymore; my parent’s expectations didn’t matter; Grinnell College’s rejection didn’t matter. And, after the high wore off, I didn’t worry nearly as much. I could focus on one thing without worrying about the ten thousand other things I had to do.
            I knew my parents wouldn’t understand, so I hid it from them. I was smart about it; I never smoked at home or in my car (Actually, it was my dad’s car that we shared, but I still called it mine. Every kid does.) I only smoked at a friend’s house or at the Marina, a small harbor into the Mississippi near my home town. A couple times my parents scolded or grounded me for coming home late (I made a point never to come home high. If I was late, I could make up a story. If I was high, they would know right away.) But, for the large part, the left me alone. I got good grades (better than either of them ever had), I kept myself busy, and I had plenty of friends.  To them, there was nothing wrong with me. To me even, there was nothing wrong with me. Experimentation is a normal part of life.    
            So, when I got to college, it was only natural that I would keep smoking, especially when I first felt the stress of college homework; how no matter how much work you do, there’s always more waiting for you; no matter how well you do on one test, there’s always another one right around the corner. It would have eaten me alive without marijuana. But, with marijuana, I could cope; with marijuana, I could get A’s in four of my classes (even Organic Chemistry, which is easily the hardest A I’ve ever gotten), still compete in every Mock trial tournament, still manage to spend quality time with Laurel – whom I met while high at a party two weeks into my freshman year. –
            But, I suppose I’m getting a little off-track. This isn’t a story about marijuana or Laurel –although they play a big part in the beginning of it – this is a story about heroin.
I can still remember the small lines of ‘real dope,’ as I called it back then, laying on the stained brown coffee table we would use to play beer pong. They weren’t even lines, really, just two tiny piles that looked vaguely linear.
“Who’s gonna go first?” Ken asked.
“I will.” I bent on one knee, covered my left nostril, and snorted the pile.
“What’s it like?”
“It’s…It’s……Well, the snort at least is much gentler than coke. I can’t say about the effects yet.”
“Okay.” He kneels down and tries to snort his line.
“Here, breathe in harder. You have to mean it.” He tries again.
“Ah! It burns. It burns.”
I smile at him. “Yeah, snorting something will do that. You get used to it after a little while.”
“I though you said it was gentle.”
“It is gentle compared to coke.” He nods, and we stand there for a couple seconds, not knowing what else to do.
“How many times have you tried coke?”
I grin, “Only twice, actually. You remember Taylor, right?”
“Yeah, wasn’t she in our first-year Chem class?”
“Yep. She introduced me to it.” He nods again. “Wanna watch TV?” I ask when he doesn’t respond right away.
“Sure, may as well.”     
            We turned on Sports Center, and just sat there for a little while. After the first commercial break, a warmth started easing into me. The O Chem problem set that had been nagging me just kinda stopped nagging me. I still knew it was there, but it didn’t bother me anymore. I looked over at Ken and smiled.
            “This feels great.” I said.
            “Totally.”
            We sat like that for another half an hour, just feeling content with our lives; just enjoying the beauty of the world, and thinking about how Sports Center was the most perfect show ever. I don’t say that to mean that it was perfect because our minds were dulled in any way, like marijuana, it’s just that it just that it was, quite simply, perfect.  
            “This is it?” I asked Ken after a while. “This is heroin? It’s nothing.”
            “It feels pretty great, man.”
            “I know, but I’ve heard that heroin is supposed to be hell for you. This…This is beautiful.”
            “……”
            “I mean, it’s nothing like coke. It’s so much more mellow. Like, here’s me.” I hold up my right hand. “and here’s the world,” I wrap my left hand around my right one. “Everything’s cozy.” “But coke… here’s the world” I hold up my right hand again, “and here’s me.” I hit my right hand with my left.
            “Huh. That makes a lot of sense.”
            “You should try coke some time. I think you would like it.”
            “Ah…Maybe. We’ll see how it goes.”
            We sat like that for proabably another hour until the warmth went away and didn’t come back.
            “Ohhhh… I should probably work on my problem set.” I say as I shut off the tv, and stand up.
            “Yeah, I’ve got reading to do. Catch you on the flip.” He waves and walks out the door.
            The next morning, I felt fine. I’m sure all of you (or, at least, most of you) know what it’s like to be hung-over in the morning, and both times after I took cocaine, I felt really exhausted the next morning. But, mornings after heroin are what I call a “golden normal.” You feel normal: fairly alert, fairly awake, but you also feel at peace. You look around, and the world is perfect. You still see its flaws; you still know it can suck, but somehow it just doesn’t bother you. It’s a little like the morning after having sex, only it lasts longer in the day, and it’s just somehow better.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

'Shrooms Man

         Drugs! Psychedelic drugs! Psychedelic drugs that might be able to help people? I’ll admit, when I first heard about the idea behind this article I was a little bit skeptical. When I was growing up, I was always taught by everyone who was supposed to know these things – my parents, my sixth grade teacher, my high school health teacher – that drugs, especially psychedelic drugs, were bad for you. When you took them, you became addicted, or your world got really screwed up, or left pinky finger fell off. “What about legal drugs?” I would ask. “Well,” they would say, “legal drugs are okay. As long as you take them with a prescription in moderation.” 
            The truth is, though, that the line between legal and illegal drugs is almost completely arbitrary. As I read in the article, “Healing trip: How Psychedelic Drugs Could Help Treat Depression,” some illegal drugs, psychedelic mushrooms in particular, can actually be extraordinarily beneficial. On the first page of the article, the author, David Derbyshire, talks about how a dozen people with depression will be given psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. According to initial studies, psilocybin can help “suppress the part of the brain often hyperactive in depression called the medial prefrontal cortex (2).”
            That’s not all the article talks about, however, the last half of the article reads almost like a pseudo apology for illegal drugs. Derbyshire starts by describing how some drugs, such as LSD, other hallucinogens, and cannabis, were labeled as so-called “schedule 1” drugs (schedule 1 means these substances are dangerous with no medicinal benefit – this means that it is much harder to research them because there is so much red tape –) while other, far more addictive drugs, such as heroin, were classified as “schedule 2” drugs (schedule 2 means that these substances are less dangerous and have some medicinal benefit – and are thus easier to research.) The problem is, though, that because schedule 1 drugs are so hard to research, it becomes exceedingly difficult to get them relabeled as a schedule 2 or 3 drug and their potential benefits go unnoticed.
            Derbyshire goes on to talk about four currently illegal drugs that could have some major medicinal benefits: LSD, cannabis, psychedelic mushrooms, and ecstasy (MDMA).
According to the article, when someone is on LSD, their brain rearranges itself. Different parts of the brain that don’t usually communicate connect with each other, which can help break cycles of addiction and depression.
There are two major chemicals in cannabis: tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) and cannabidiol (CBD) – the latter of which could offer treatment for some health problems without the psychoactivity involved in getting high. – Unfortunately, most cannabis that people encounter is marijuana off the street, which is quite high in THC (pun intended) but low in CBD.
The article’s section on psychedelic mushrooms contained surprisingly little hard facts. (Part of this could be due to the red tape surrounding it. Then again, the red tape might be there for a reason.) It has the potential to combat depression and addiction and could help cancer patients come to terms with their addiction.

The last drug talked about in the article, ecstasy, could help patients with PTSD relieve their traumatic experiences easier, which could make therapy for these people much easier. Also, because ecstasy creates feelings of affection and goodwill, it could be used in couples therapy or to help combat end-of-life anxiety. 

Thursday, October 29, 2015

A Neurosciencey Look At Emotions

        Emotions are incredibly complex; there one of the fundamental parts of our humanity – everyone experiences them every day – yet scientists know surprisingly little about them. A big reason for this is that the brain is so incredibly complex. A hundred billion neurons firing every minute is quite a bit, and it’s difficult – to say the least – to measure all of that activity in real time. However, there are collections of neurons in the brain – nuclei – that both relate to different types of emotions and are large enough to be removed, either accidentally or through noninvasive magnetic impulses.

            One of these is the amygdala, the main control center for fear response. Fear is the oldest emotion; it’s helped keep our species alive for millennia by directing us away from harmful situations, and it makes sense that it would have its own dedicated area of the brain. When the amygdala is removed, animals, including humans, show a remarkable reduction in fear response. There’s one example I remember of a women who had her amygdala removed because of a tumor: she was walking home late at night when a man pulled a gun on her and asked for all her money. Because she didn’t have any fear response, she just walked right up to him and slapped him; he was so unnerved that he ran away. 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

What Is Free Will?

In an article, “Neuroscience vs Philosophy: Taking Aim At Free Will,” Kerri Smith focuses on the interplay between philosophy and neuroscience and how the two of them relate to, shape, and discuss the concept of free will. One of the main arguments of the piece revolved around the experiments done by John Dylan-Hynes, in which he hooked a number of people up to a fMRI machine and recorded their brain activity when they felt the urge to push a button while being shown a random sequence of letters; he found that there is activity in the brain up to seven seconds before there is a conscious decision being made to actually press the button.
            The article also mentioned an experiment done by Benjamin Libet who hooked a series of people up to an EEG, showed them a clock face, and asked them to record when they felt the urge to move their finger. Libet also recorded that there was activity in the brain before a conscious decision was recorded. Although, he only recorded brain action several hundred milliseconds before the conscious decision.
            Haynes used his experiment’s results to come to the conclusion that humans do not actually have free will, and that our conscious decisions are actually only an after-thought of cranial activity. In other words, our actions are predetermined by our brain’s impulses, some of which can be active up to seven seconds before a conscious decision is actually made. However, there are some problems with this theory as mentioned in the article. One is that the recorded brain activity could simply the brain gearing up to make the decision; gathering information, compiling data, and so forth. Other counter arguments pointed to possible distractions within the experiments themselves. For instance, “Critics said that the clock was distracting, and the report of the conscious decision was too subjective. (2).”         

            One of the main questions that I brought up while I was reading this article – and the snippet of our book reading that went along with it – was, ‘Does this even matter?’ Granted, I’m a monist. (for those who don’t know, a monist is someone who believes that the mind, brain, and body are all one and the same – there are no differences between them; no soul –) And, as a monist I believe that we are our brains – as much as it doesn’t feel like it. – All of our thoughts, all our actions, everything that makes us who we are, are actually complex interactions between the billions of neurons in our brain. (Fun fact: there are actually more neurons in our brain than stars in the sky.) This means that, for me, it doesn’t matter how much delay there is in the pre-supplementary motor system before an action is taken, it’s still our actions; our decisions.  

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Untied

            I stand on cliff’s edge, waves pounding against an obsidian rock a hundred meters below. The empty Atlantic Ocean splays out in front of me, touching the grey sky.
I shuffle my feet and look down. The tips of my red converse shoes hang out over open air. The right one is untied. The rock is small, jagged, only the size of my thumb. I bend down and tie white laces. Mist tickles my face.
I stand. Wind ripples my blue shirt, biting into my skin. Like the frozen water would have bit her. My eyes become acid. “Why?” I shout. God doesn’t answer. No one does. A seagull cries overhead.

I take a single step forward. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

How Sheep Lose Their Brain

          My moist black nose twitches. This space smells off. The air is fresh, but there’s no green in it; no life. Instead, it smells hard, like the rough prod of a silver stick. All the corners are hard too; surgically precise, as though everything is afraid of being soft. The human carrying me shifts his grip, trapping my face against his removable fur. All I can see is white, and all I feel is his fur.
            He carries me through a doorway, and the smell changes. There is iron in it now, the ruddy smell of Old Man Joe’s water. Water that made me throw up. I jerk my back leg. My hoof flies out of the man’s grip only to hit something painfully solid that rings with a dull thud.     
            “Fucking sheep; control yourself.”
            He grabs my leg in a vice grip and forces it back into my body. I try to resist, but my legs are not in a strong position.
            “Need help?”
            “Nah, I got him.”
            I cry out as loudly as I can, hoping his hands move to my mouth.
            “Shut up… Here, bring the sedative.” His grip remains strong. I relax for a beat, trying to lull him. Then, I kick out as hard as I can. Something in my back left leg twists the wrong way, and pain roils up my leg. I cry out again just as a sharp pin bites my neck.
            The man carrying me sets me down on something hard and cool. I brace my back legs to try to get up, but the left one twists again; my hind falls in a lump. I moan. The door is only a couple meters away, but there’s a softness coming up my body.
            “There there. It’ll be alright.” I feel a hand pet my head. I relax into it, letting the softness carry my mind away.  

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

A New World Of Sensation

Imagine: you wake up one morning and you can see everything. Different shades of color pop into existence. You suddenly see all the different reds in your favorite carpet. The green stalk of your lilies becomes sharply distinct from the green underbelly of its leaves. Your mocha-colored coffee table becomes…well, a more defined mocha color. Your sense of smell comes alive too. You can now tell everyone apart by the way their smell feels; your best friend’s delicate rogue rose perfume becomes her calling card, signaling her arrival and lingering long after she’s gone. You no longer even need a map to navigate. Since the bakery a mile away smells like it’s below your apartment, all you have to do is follow your nose.   

Now, imagine that one day your senses go back to normal. The world’s colors become a dry palate and its smells no more interesting than a day-old candy wrapper. Imagine the loss you would feel. The nostalgia. This is what sometimes happens to people with an overactive rhinencephalon (our ancient ‘small brain’ that controls emotional tone and sensations.) It becomes extraordinarily active for a day or week at a time, then, it goes back to normal. We're not quite sure what causes it or why this part of the brain isn't hyperactive all the time. (Wouldn't it be beneficial?) But, we do know this phenomena real to those who have experienced it.   

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Whole; Yet Not

Humans are more than just the sum of our parts. If you opened us up and peered inside, you would see millions of neurons firing, thousands of muscle cells flexing in tandem, and tireless legions of white blood cells battling pathogens. But, if you just look at us; if you stop and study the faces of your parents, your friends, your lover…we become so much more.  
            Sometimes, though, we can become much less. When you take away or mutate small parts of the brain, the results can be devastating. A good example of this is Rebecca, a shy girl with a partial cleft palate, thick glasses, and stubby dwarf-like fingers. Because of her mental condition, she does poorly on standardized tests, and her body is extremely uncoordinated…except when she dances. When she dances, her jerky movements vanish; her body flows with rhythm, and you would have no way of knowing there was anything wrong with her. The same is true when she’s listening to a story, contemplating nature, or acting on-stage. Her mind connects when she’s doing these things. Connects in a way we can’t measure on any test.
After living in my mind for almost twenty years – and from paying attention in my Neuroscience class – I’ve come to see the human mind – our mind – as split up into two basic ways of thinking. I call them Deep Thinker and Socialite; my book calls them Paradigmatic and Narrative.
Deep Thinker is what most of us would consider our analytical mind. It’s the mind that’s analyzing these words right now, and trying to make cents of them. (Hopefully, it’s the type of mind that’s awake enough to recognize what I did in the last sentence.) This is the mind we can test. It’s the mind we at Macalester have been strengthening for almost fifteen years, and it has become quite developed.
The other mind is much more subtle. For me, it’s not even a mind I’m consciously aware of. (Ninety-five percent of everything I do in a social setting feels almost instinctual for me. Very rarely do I ever consciously ‘think’ about what I’m going to say. –Haha, I know. –) This is the creative mind. The mind that becomes enthralled by stories or poems. The mind that can sit motionless for an hour listening to an orchestra preform Beethoven or spend the entire day talking with one of your best friends. It’s a dynamic mind; an emotional one; the one that bonds with people. It’s the mind I’m using to write these words right now.
This is Rebecca’s intact mind. Her cleft palate makes it difficult for her to articulate, but her body language and actions make it clear that she has a profound sense of her own story. Of her own place in the world.
Can any of us say the same?

Monday, August 24, 2015

How To Survive College (And Life)

#1 Don’t Do Stupid Things: It sounds simple. Trust me, it’s not. Don’t stay up until five in the morning when you have to wake up for a 9:40 class. Don’t try to write a twenty page paper in an hour and a half. (Extensions are the Gods’ gift to us; use them.) Don’t yell at your professor for being racist in front of the entire class. (Instead, do it during office hours where professors are usually much nicer.) Don’t stay out drinking the night before a test. Don’t get drunk and decide you’ve always wanted to climb Olin-Rice barefoot. (In fact, it would be much better for your grades, brain cells, sleep cycle, and foot integrity if you didn’t drink at all. I realize this may not be possible, but please don’t drink until you pass out. You’ll get to ride in an ambulance – which is fun – but, trust me, it’s really not worth it.)

#2 Sleep Is Underrated: Whatever amount of sleep you’re getting, it’s not enough. The average college student needs about nine and a half hours of sleep. NINE AND A HALF. Personally, I get about eight and a half. Most of my friends average between seven and six and a half. If you don’t take my word for it, there are any number of studies that show sleep makes you feel and perform better, work harder, and live longer. (http://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/healing-power-sleep, http://seuss.wikia.com/wiki/Dr._Seuss's_Sleep_Book

#3 Don’t Cram The Night Before A Test: Cramming is the secret to failing tests. Study as much as possible before the night of the test. Or, at the very least, make sure you’re never reading anything for the first time the night of a test. If you end up pushed for time, make sure to prioritize sleep. Once you hit one in the morning, an hour sleeping is more useful than an hour studying. (If you don’t get enough sleep, no amount of studying can help you. Your brain needs time to consolidate and reinforce memories. Time it only gets during sleep.) If you’re awake, you can usually whittle down most multiple choice questions to two or three answers, and you can always speed write essay questions. But, if you’re drowsy, every multiple-choice question will seem impossible, and your essay won’t make sense.  

 #4 Make Friends In Your Size: Clothes are important. They keep your modesty protected; they keep you warm during Minnesota’s sub-zero winters; they can even be used as an improvised basketball in a pinch. Unfortunately, however, there will be at least one article of clothing that you forgot, or you never thought you needed, or you swore you had, but you can’t find when you need it. This is where your friends come in! If you have a friend in your size, you can just hop on over to their room and ask to borrow something. Odds are, they’ll have it, and you can walk away happy. (So, First-years, if you see someone in your size, don’t hesitate. That piece of clothing you don’t know you’ve forgotten is too important. Walk up and introduce yourself. Try to make a joke. Hopefully, they’ll laugh. If they don’t, forge on anyway. You can do it; I have faith in you.)  

#5 Meet With A Professor At Least Once When You Don’t Have To: As it turns out, most professors are usually bored out of their minds during office hours. (Probably not, actually. They always seem to be doing something important on their computers. Probably minesweeper.) Regardless, they love it when kids come in outside of scheduled meeting times. They’re always happy to talk about anything, and almost all of them genuinely care about you and your happiness. I’ve also found that most of them are actually really interesting people too. (Not at all like high school teachers who lived at school and slept under their desks.)

#6 Don’t Be Afraid To Disagree. Honestly, I Mean It: Professors (and adults in general) always seem to tell you to Challenge Ideas! and Follow Your Gut! and Defend Your Ideas! They’ll keep telling you that right up until you disagree with them. Then, they don’t appreciate it. The thing is, though, that offering your opinions and challenging established wisdom is one of the best ways to learn. I say this because 1) You’re likely to be wrong much more often than you’re right. Established wisdom is there for a reason. Then, you’ll be embarrassed for about thirty seconds; then, everyone will forget it, and you will have learned something. Or 2) You’ll actually be right (or at least think you are). That’s when the real fun starts. You’ll start doing all sorts of research to prove The Powers That Be wrong, and learn all sorts of new things in the process. And, at the end of the day, you’ll probably write a decent paper on it. (Note: Do this carefully. Never actually tell a professor “You’re wrong.” They don’t like that. Instead, use the phrase, “It’s possible that…” or “Maybe…” or “I don’t know, but…” A lot of kids do it – not necessarily because they disagree – but because it’s good classroom etiquette. No one wants to be seen as the classroom know-it-all.)   

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A farewell

In meta-news, those of you who follow this blog during the summer (anyone?) will have noticed a new post from Nathan Vinehout Kane on the front page, and also will have noticed that I haven't posted in a while.

Nathan was my preceptee this last year, and agreed to take over this blog upon my graduation. An energetic and bright rising Sophomore with a passion for political science, I know he will be able to keep the Sagebrush Scot project going strong and probably even make it stronger.

I've deeply enjoying writing this blog over the last two years, and a significant chunk of my life at Mac is chronicled here - from my frustrations to my learning experiences to my study abroad adventure. And then there was that time I totally called the outcome of the MCSG elections (not to toot my own horn at all).

If there are others who have an interest in contributing here as well, I'd encourage them to contact Nathan. Mac can always use more venues and more voices discussing campus, college, and political science issues. There's no need to let the Mac Weekly's opinion pages and Brian Rosenberg's Huffington Post page dominate the conversation.

And like the Terminator... there's always a chance that I'll be back.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Do Macalester College graduates know how to dig a hole?

The first ever post on this blog, which I published about two years ago, dealt with how I sometimes felt like a bit of a space alien at Macalester College, since I was a rural student among overwhelmingly urban/suburban classmates.

Well, now I graduate on Saturday, a member of the Class of 2015. And I would be a liar if I said that alien feeling had ever really gone away. That aside, the education I have received here has been top notch. I've loved every experience I've had with our mock trial team and our political science department. I've found a small but livable niche for my hobbies and interests. But as I think about graduating, my mind keeps going back to one particular experience from right when I arrived on campus.

A mediocre middle school English teacher I had once jokingly told our 8th grade class that "PhD" stood for "post hole digger". She recounted how she had told this to a professor, who was predictably offended. I'm not getting a PhD of course; I'm getting a BA. But I have come to suspect that quite contrary to what my old teacher once said, getting a higher education does not (cannot? will not?) teach you how to dig holes.

When I was brand new to Mac, Freshman orientation involved a mandatory day of service. Our orientation "clans" (each a group of about 30 new students) were each tasked with some kind of service project for about four hours before the official start of the semester. My clan's project was over in Frogtown. We were sent to break ground on a new community garden there.

The project was about as simple as they get. We were met by an an energetic young organizer who was clearly enthusiastic about urban agriculture. She had lots of shovels and an empty lot and some mulch.

Now, I am by no means a "tough" or "physical" guy in my own estimation. But at the time, in September of 2011, I was fresh off the metaphorical boat from Eastern Oregon. Two weeks before arriving at Mac I had been digging a fire line with a Forest Service hand crew near Hell's Canyon. So to me, digging up dirt seemed like a nice reprieve - in some ways I was more comfortable with the idea of digging up this plot of dirt than many of the other goings-on at orientation, simply because it was familiar. This was something I knew how to do.

To my surprise, it seemed I was mostly alone on that front. Most of my fellow Mac students in my clan seemed like they did not know how to use the shovel, or maybe just didn't want to. The topsoil in the lot was tough clay, and most students working in our group could not break more than half an inch of dirt off the top and then seemed stuck. They ether didn't have the strength, or didn't really know how to use their weight to break up the earth with the shovel blade. Over three or four hours, dozens of incoming Mac students failed to complete the ground-breaking of this community garden. I don't know if the project was ever finished.

Several of my friends sent with another clan to perform a similar project (brush clearing) later reported to me a similar lack of progress. As near as I can tell, this mandatory service project was removed from Macalester's Freshman orientation program after my sophomore year. I have sometimes shared my community garden story with friends, and joked that Macalester students don't know how to dig a hole. That is of course a generalization, but in my admittedly anecdotal experience it is one that has some truth to it.

A reasonable response might be: so what? Who cares if college graduates don't know how to dig a hole?

I don't have a satisfying answer. What I can say is that I connect hole-digging with a set of other "practical" skills, which my parents might call "life skills", or which a city dweller might call "street smarts" (I use quotes because none of these terms really seem right to me). Over the course of my life, I've learned how to fix a can-return machine, how to operate a Stihl chainsaw, how to dig a hole, how to identify head trauma, how to read whitewater, how to use a topographical map, and how to clean and shoot a variety of firearms.

I cannot explain why those skills should be inherently valuable to a person with a liberal-arts education. I do know that I have come to deeply value having those skills and the experiences that taught them to me. It's gotten to the point that I am actively seeking them out in my job hunt, shunning further academic work for the time being, and encouraging anyone who will listen to do the same.

I think maybe the best I can do is to say that these are skills that come from a broad range of lived experience, and it is the added range of lived experience, rather than the skills themselves, which is of the most value in my view. This is not to say that my range of lived experience is necessarily broader than that of my urban/suburban classmates, just that the experiences we've had are radically different. I also think that in many ways, Macalester has immersed me in or inspired me to learn about their experiences, but the reverse has rarely been true.

With all of that typed out, I have a graduation rehearsal to go to.