My name is Arianna Stern. This is a page with some of my freelance work. You can email me at arianna[dot]s at gmail[dot]com.
Like most people who will read this, I think, I first heard of Aaron Swartz following his suicide. A few photos of him popped up on my Tumblr dashboard, and a post showed that he was going to be buried in Highland Park, the Chicago suburb where I spent most of my childhood.
Highland Park is not a small town in that it’s not provincial, cozy, or physically disconnected from other suburbs. But when someone from my hometown makes the news, I take notice. It’s not rare for Highland Parkers to pursue high-status careers—the city is an incubator for white-collar professionals and local politicians—but Aaron Swartz was obviously exceptional.
Highland Park is a very Jewish community that’s obsessively serious about college education, and I’m both grateful for and resentful of the unfair advantages it gave me and others. In a lengthy article about Aaron Swartz, Wesley Yang wrote,
"Swartz had described Highland Park, not uncharitably, as one of the places where the parents were educated and well-meaning, and had looked upon the struggles for justice of the sixties with sympathy, though they did not themselves participate."
I had barely learned who Swartz was when I learned that we had (at least) one mutual friend, and it dawned on me that he might have gone to my high school. Maybe we had even met, I thought; a name like Aaron Swartz hardly sticks out in Highland Park.
I learned later, from a friend, that he had gone to a private high school, and I learned from Yang’s article that he didn’t stay in high school for long. This is how I’m becoming acquainted with him—both through official news sources and other Highland Parkers, a mix of organic and official sources. Each time I hear about Aaron Swartz, I experience a sort of rotten-fruit intimacy. It’s a reversal of the natural order. This is a person I could have known during his life—whom I could plausibly have met—whom I’m only now getting to know, better and better, after his death. I’m not trying to claim someone else’s grieving as my own, only trying to define this sad, untidy semi-distance.
I started swimming again
In Buenos Aires, I joined a health club where the pool was full of hot water and at least one clump of unidentifiable mossy growth. There was no limit on how many people could swim in a lane. It was wack; I didn’t stick it out.
For a short time during my childhood, I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. At the age of 8 or so, I could swim something like 40 laps (!). True to the cliche about brainy kids, I was athletically untalented, as slow on the court as I was quick in the classroom. Swimming was my one exception. But between those two periods—childhood and last year—I never swam at all.
I didn’t join the swim team during high school, since I was recovering from having my tonsils removed during training season. After that first year, I lost my sense of perspective and threw myself overzealously into my schoolwork. I was still a bloodthirsty competitor, but my personal happiness and growth did not factor into my decisions. I spent about three years feeling like an anxious racehorse. When I crossed the finish line, there was only more school.
Being back in the water is both a challenge and a comfort. I’m not the first to point this out—Murakami probably isn’t, either—but there are parallels between the creative process and endurance sports. Both involve slowly building something, improving technique, and (possibly) sustaining pain. If you’re creative and a swimmer, both processes involve holding your breath.
Another thing I loved when I was very young was writing fiction. I let that go to fallow, too, turning my focus instead to essays, comedy, and magazine journalism. I’ve tried to pick up the pace with my fiction writing, but I get so angry with myself when I create something lackluster, which is always, maybe because I’m young. Sometimes I’m so disappointed in myself that I don’t even get started. It’s entirely possible that I’m too fragile for the life I’ve chosen for myself. But you know, you get stronger.
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