The Grind

‘Keep it simple, stupid’

March 1, 2022, 4:52 p.m.

In the moment, the family-size bag of Doritos seems like a good idea. My plan is simple: scarf down the Doritos at the train station, then head home and study all night for my chemistry final tomorrow. No time to waste on dinner. According to my calculations, one family-sized bag of Doritos contains roughly the energy necessary to ensure maximum cram efficiency. Maximum efficiency means maximum grade. Maximum grade means maximum happiness. Follow the syllogism and reap the rewards. It’s the KISS principle. Keep it simple, stupid.

An exam is an assessment of two things — equipoise (don’t freak out) and know-how (get the right answers). Equipoise is complicated. You can’t develop it in one night. You need a cool head with all cylinders firing. You need to get and stay in “the zone.” You need to cultivate a meditative practice every day for years. It’s difficult, psychologically taxing stuff.

Know-how, on the other hand, is straightforward. Required skills: find limiting reactants, calculate pH, understand the principles of electrochemistry. Necessary inputs: time and energy — but mostly energy. You need material to power the brain. You need raw fuel to keep the neurons firing. In an approximate theoretical model, each Dorito chip corresponds to 10 minutes of concentration. Multiply that number by 60 and subtract a bit off the top to account for diminishing returns. The result? A remixed KISS principle — calories in, brainpower out.

Such goes my internal monologue. It’s 3 p.m. at Jefferson Station in Central Philadelphia. I’m sweating in a plaid kilt and gray stockings. I’ve just gotten off the train from school. The halcyon days of yore. We have to wear our uniforms even while taking exams. Excellence in testing. I pick dead skin off my cuticles and watch men in suits line up at Auntie Anne’s. They are arranged in order of increasing pants sag. My working thesis: Men’s Warehouse slacks are the unwitting converse of Lululemon yoga pants. A supporting ode — miles and miles of undulating dark fabric / boundless pinstripes and houndstooths on every side expanding / heaving waves of wool and polyester breathing convulsive breaths / and not an ass in sight.

The men order in rapid succession. Two cinnamon sugars and a dozen pretzel nuggets. One cheese pepperoni and one original. Two pretzel hot dogs and a large coke. His and Hers pretzel hot dogs, perhaps. A treat for the missus. Or a treat for the mistress.

Do all these men have mistresses? Impossible, sociologically speaking. Entire industries run on the frustration of sexually unfulfilled men. Many call themselves involuntarily celibate, or “incels.” Their collective demand for orgasms sustains strip clubs, adult video stores, online porn sites, professional wrestling and Hooters. I wonder what would happen if the incels disappeared. What would a world with Universal Basic Mistresses (UBM) look like? Pandemonium, probably. The stock market would collapse; the elites would revolt. I pull out my phone. Tweet draft: “We have nothing to fear from the incels — Big Sex is too powerful.”

This is pre-Trump. June 2015. Twitter is just a place where people post toilet thoughts and selfies. The train station is just a place where you get on and off trains. This is before they put automated turnstiles and plasma screens everywhere. Now they’ve got three televisions showing a rotating line-up of ads. The ads are synched up so that at any given time you might be surrounded by three all-caps announcements about half-off hoagies at Wawa. Workers in fluorescent vests ask to scan your ticket. No sitting in the seating area if you don’t have a ticket. No riding for free. They’ve replaced Hudson News with Sweetgreen, Dunkin Donuts with Jamba Juice. They’ve repainted the walls and taped off the rows of metal chairs. Miraculously, Auntie Anne’s has survived.

But back then, you could still buy a family-sized bag of Doritos and a large Dasani and sit on a metal chair writing tweets about Big Sex. Le bon vieux temps. You get used to the smell of urine after a few minutes. It’s funny — the whole place smells like urine but you never see anyone publicly urinating. “Science fair” question: how many people have to urinate in a 5,000-square-foot space in order to generate a scent-mix capable of penetrating concrete and resisting the passage of time? Ballpark guess — 600. Recommended method of testing — take urine samples from a broad swath of Philadelphia residents and calculate the square root of average masses of urine particles. Plug the numbers into Graham’s Law of Effusion. Simple and foolproof. KISS principle.

The Doritos go down smooth but sit like a rock. I rub my fingers on my kilt. Finishing school manners. What ever became of debutantes? You don’t hear much about them anymore. Once upon a time, a whole class of aristocratic women spent their formative years learning to differentiate between types of forks (oyster, salad, dinner, fish, dessert) and keep perfect posture at the dinner table. Their parents sent them to expensive boarding schools in the Swiss Alps where they were taught skills necessary for marriage. Dressmaking, party hosting, conversational French, husband acquisition. They probably didn’t study chemistry over there. No need to know Graham’s Law of Effusion to keep a husband happy. And too much studying could make a woman arrogant and matronly.

Yet here I am. Post-debutante woman. Learning chemistry in the name of “progress.” Feminism. Equality of access. STEM for all. Generations of my female forerunners never had the chance to learn about hydrogen bonding. I am one of the few women in history who has. Ergo, it is my duty to succeed. Anything less than excellence in testing won’t do. Anything less than resounding success will bring shame to the untold numbers of former debutantes who were stymied in their quest for scientific knowledge.

I glance at the clock. 3:10 p.m. My hands sweat. Thinking about debutantes leads nowhere except anxiety. No need to daydream. KISS principle. I have given myself until 3:20 p.m. to head home. The Doritos seemed like a good idea at the time, but they aren’t sitting well. Anxiety and gastrointestinal distress get along like debutantes and oyster forks. Morally, I am obligated to succeed. Biologically, I don’t stand a chance. Equipoise can’t stave off the flight or flight mechanism for long.

I concoct a plausible origin story. Thousands of years ago, some of our ancestors were getting chased by cheetahs in the savanna. Half got an adrenaline rush that cued them to stop and void their bowels before continuing. The other half didn’t get the signal. They kept running. The bowel-voiding-half, though initially slower, eventually overtook the non-bowel voiding half. They were faster and more agile. The cheetahs devoured the non-bowel-voiders and let the others go. The bowel voiding-half reproduced and passed on its bowel-voiding genes to future generations.

An aphorism — exams are like a cheetahs. Swift and unrelenting. It’s better to void your bowels before interacting with either. I fish around in the Doritos bag for crumbs. What’s the worst that could happen? I could oversleep and miss the exam. I could sit in front of the exam for two hours without the slightest idea of how to solve any of the problems. I could burst into tears in front of my peers. Remote risks, but not impossible.

Didn’t Audrey Hepburn once say that? Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, “I’m possible.” Actress-cum-linguist. Not just a pretty face. But the supporting evidence is weak. Consider the following refutations. A dead debutante decides, in her lifeless state, that she wants to study electrochemistry. A cheetah decides, ex post facto, that he wants to spare the lives of the non-bowel-voiders. Two obvious absurdities. I take a deep breath. Flight or fight remains dormant.

But the Doritos are not sitting well. I shift around in my metal chair. I feel slightly sick. What’s the worst that could happen? Better not to think about it. Anyway, life can go wrong in endless ways. Tomorrow is not promised. Carpe diem. Be yourself — everyone else is already taken. Wrong aphorism, that last one. But who’s keeping track?

Maybe an exam is like a cheetah. But humans can outsmart cheetahs. KISS principle. Void your bowels, and study hard. I stand up and brush the Dorito crumbs off my kilt. I haul my backpack onto my shoulder and head to the stairs. The fight or flight reaction is finicky. Better to get home before it overtakes me. 

Contact Sanjana at grind 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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