Wednesday, July 23, 2014


I finally started watching the new season of Orange is the New Black this week. I'm about halfway through, and once again I'm blown away, by the all-in performances of the cast, by the intricate plotting, by the humane writing. Every morning I watch an episode or two, and it feeds my thoughts for the whole day.

It's been a while since I've gotten lost in someone else's story like this. I haven't been reading much lately, or watching tv or movies. I'd forgotten how therapeutic an experience it can be.

I have this tendency to get so wrapped up in myself, in my own thoughts, my own worries, that I become my own little world. My world shrinks down to just me, and then every problem that appears on my horizon looms like a thundercloud. And I'd forgotten that stories have the power to yank me out of that.

I wrote a long time ago about my philosophy professor, Gregor, and about the article he had us read about a reporter who sees a young child in a garbage dumpster and has an out-of-self experience. Se saca de si mismo - It takes you out of yourself. That's something I need, desperately, on a regular basis.

Stories aren't just an escape for me, from my own troubled mind, they're concientización. Concientizar is one of those non-English words that is so much more elegant than the clunky English equivalent: "to make [someone] aware of [something]; to raise awareness of." Stories make me aware of the world outside me, or more precisely the world inside other people. I need that, now more than ever.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Don't Be a Hero

When I lived in Japan, I did a weekend homestay once with a family whose mother had gone to college in Canada. We were talking about differences in U.S. and Japanese culture one evening when she pointed out something that I had never paid attention to before -- how obsessed U.S. culture is with the idea of heroes.

If you look at the stories we tell ourselves, you'll see over and over again the tale of the ordinary citizen who becomes a hero. He's just a regular guy until circumstance forces him to step up and shoulder a burden too great for him to bear. So romantic! Or, a more recent incarnation of this obsession, the morally questionable anti-hero who manages to win our affection with a single act of heroic self-sacrifice.

And I think that may be the thing that I find most troubling about this part of our culture -- how in love we are with this idea of redeeming our otherwise messy lives by doing great deeds, making great sacrifices, or accomplishing the impossible. We are all ordinary people waiting around for our chance to rise above, to become that special sort of other that is the Hero.

But isn't that conception of our lives ultimately dehumanizing?

One of the beautiful lessons John Green's novel The Fault in Our Stars hopes to teach its readers is that a life devoid of great deeds, devoid of distinguished achievements, devoid of fame or fortune, can still be a well-lived life. All those moments of our lives when we are not committing great acts of heroism are also meaningful. In fact, those moments make up the vast majority of the minutes, hours, days and weeks of human existence. Most of us will be remembered but briefly, if at all. And even those who achieve that exalted Heroic status, how long will their names be remembered? A hundred years? A thousand? How long before the grinding progress of human development effaces even those names from our records?

Today, June 6, you will see message after message calling you to remember the heroic sacrifices made by those who participated in the D-Day invasions. We will attempt to memorialize those people by placing them in the most glorious category we can conceive of: Hero. We separate them out from us, surround them with this glow of more-than-humanity. That sort of admiration has its place. It has its place.

What I would like to suggest is that today we also spare some time to remember all the moments of their lives and ours that were not spent in heroism. All the ordinary moments that are the real stuff of human existence. Those moments were significant to them and to their loved ones, likely far more significant than the few hours they spent fighting and dying on the beaches of Normandy.

In our own lives as well, those moments are unbelievably significant. The moments you spent typing a text message to a friend. The moments you spent staring off into space, daydreaming. The moments you spent humming that stupid song you can't get out of your head -- all the component parts of human consciousness -- those moments are your life too, and not a single one of them is wasted.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Problem & Its Solution


You know that moment when you see something on the internet -- it could be a facebook post, a tweet, a text from a friend, a blog post, whatever -- and it amuses you. Maybe you smile, or maybe a little breath of air leaves your nose, or maybe it's just sort of an inward glow of good humor. Whatever your reaction is, you were amused, but -- and this is key -- you didn't laugh.

Now comes the dilemma. "I found this amusing," you say to yourself, "and I'd like to reward this person for their mildly entertaining sense of humor." And, as we denizens of the internet know, one of the quickest and easiest ways of responding positively to something amusing is to type out the letters "LOL," or Laugh Out Loud. (Contrary to an urban legend that's been going around among people of my parents' generation, these letters do not stand for "Lots of Love." For example, do not message your child and say, "Your friend is in the hospital. LOL.")

But as an ethical internet user (as I hope my readers all strive to be), can you type "LOL" when you haven't actually LOL'ed? Is it right to give the impression that this person's attempt at humor has caused an actual physical act of laughter when it has, at best, caused a slight lift of one corner of your mouth? This dilemma has turned me off of using "LOL" in my internet conversations, and I have now resorted to the much less fraught "ha ha" or "heh."

My problem now is, sometimes someone manages to be so funny that I actually do LOL. I am sitting at home in front of my computer screen, and I see something that entertains me so much I cannot help but physically release a sharp burst of air through my vocal chords, causing sound waves to vibrate out through the air around me. In such instances, I wish to let this person know how deeply their wit has touched me, but the expression "LOL" has been so cheapened by overuse that I can no longer use it safe in the knowledge that my meaning has been conveyed. Whatever shall I type?


May I introduce you to a new acronym: LLOL. This stands for "Literally Laughed Out Loud." While it may appear to be a silly tumblr-style faux typo, it is in fact an innovative new mode of communicating your appreciation of others' wit and witticisms. So go ahead and use it, my friends! I have created it for us all to enjoy.

You're welcome.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Nostalgia is the Enemy

Tomorrow it will have been one year since I moved from Japan back to Texas. One whole year. I still can't quite grasp the truth of that. I've been living in DFW for twelve months now, but I just can't shake the feeling that Japan is my entire past.

What have I done with this year? I've got a job, a car, an apartment, a roommate. All the tangibles are more or less in place. But at any given moment, I'm not really here.

In fact, I often think that I'd much rather be anywhere but here. Back in Japan, of course, or off on a new adventure in another country. But even the idea of returning to Abilene or Victoria sounds somewhat appealing -- somewhere familiar where there are people I know and love.

That's the one thing I'm really missing here: a community. I remember when I first moved to Japan -- in fact, you can probably scroll down and read my post about it for yourself -- the immense sense of loss I felt at having left behind my college friends. Back in Abilene I was part of a tight-knit community that formed around a common interest in social justice and a common inability to quite fit into the mainstream of our college's culture.

That group of people was a huge part of making me the person I am. Leaving them behind was wrenching, and at the time I wondered if I had made a terrible decision, abandoning something that had felt so right and good. Reading back over my post from November of 2010, reading about how my new friendships simply weren't as satisfying as the old ones had been -- it's comforting to know that person's future already. She didn't know it at the time, but those fragile new relationships she was so tentatively cultivating would become the fabric of a new community -- a new community she would come to cherish as dearly as the one she had just left.

What I wouldn't give to go back to November 2010 and be that me again, surrounded by those people and with all those experiences still ahead of me. And herein lies the problem with my present -- Nostalgia is the enemy of moving the f*** on with your life. (Nostalgia is the mindkiller. Nostalgia is the little death that brings total obliteration.)

This is how I find myself where I am now, as a person who would rather sit at home alone on her computer talking to people on other continents about their lives, than go out and make a life of her own. Because, frankly, those other lives are more real to me than my present reality. And because what lies just behind me is so much happiness that I can't imagine what comes next ever measuring up.

How does one escape a happy past? How does one kill nostalgia?

I will face my nostalgia. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past--

                                                     This video is the enemy.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mulan and America's Love-Affair with Masculinity (Part One)

And can I just take a moment to gush about how much I love this movie's artwork?
Do you enjoy Disney movies? Are you a feminist? If the answer to both questions is yes, then this blog post is for you! My favorite Disney movie of all time is Mulan, and today I'm here to talk about why it's only almost-feminist and why this makes it very American (Part One).

Ready to follow my Grad-school brain down that particular rabbit hole? Let's go!

First off, you can't talk feminism without acknowledging the existence of the patriarchy, and the movie neatly does this by opening with two scenes featuring only male characters: Men invading, men defending, men planning, men ruling the country, and as the Emperor points out, "One man could mean the difference between victory and defeat." (Dramatic irony alert: It won't be a man.)

I'm so manly I'm on FIRE.

The patriarchal context is then further established by the first musical number, "Honor to Us All." We are introduced to the character of Mulan through a cheery explication of her society's expectations of her as a woman and an illustration of her complete inability to conform to these expectations. "A girl can bring her family great honor in one way -- by striking a good match, and this could be the day!" (Dramatic irony alert: There might be more than one way.)

Good with chopstick, not so good at girl

Having failed to meet her society's standards of femininity, Mulan returns home in disgrace and reflects on her Reflection. In case we hadn't gotten the message yet, Mulan is not traditionally feminine. "Somehow I cannot hide who I am, though I've tried. When will my reflection show who I am inside?" (Foreshadowing alert: Could it be that her reflection will show who she is inside when she stops trying to hide?)

Now that we've established our patriarchal context, Mulan is faced with her first crisis, one that hinges on these strict definitions of gender roles. Her father, as the only man in the Fa family, is expected to fight for his country despite being old and infirm. A young neighbor of the Fa family acts as a foil for Mulan by volunteering to take his father's place. This option is denied to the female Mulan, whose willingness to speak up and defend her father only shames him. The movie takes a moment here to demonstrate that patriarchy can be dehumanizing. Mulan's father, who up to this point has been the only one cutting her any slack, suddenly turns on her with the harsh, "I know my place. It is time you learned yours."

Now Mulan is faced with a choice: Uphold society's definitions of masculine and feminine roles at the expense of her father's life or reject those definitions at the expense of her family's honor and possibly her own life. We are not surprised when she chooses the latter, considering how ill-suited she is to those definitions in the first place. However, the movie wants us to understand that this is not an easy choice. After all, it involves great personal risk. "She could be killed," her mother says. Her father replies, "If I reveal her, she will be." This is a rigid society, one that enforces its norms with the death penalty. After all, social deviancy is a slippery slope! As one of Mulan's ancestors says, "Traditional values will go down!" (Feminism alert: Maybe that's not such a bad thing...)

Still working on this "man" thing...

So Mulan takes on a masculine identity, cutting her hair and putting on man-clothes, but as soon as she arrives in the war camp, it becomes apparent that this change is merely superficial. Confronted with the alienness of the new role she is trying to fill, Mulan reverts to a more traditionally feminine self that finds the men around her "disgusting."

"I'm such a fail. Q_Q"
During this segment, the "naturalness" of the gender roles is initially reinforced by Mulan's inability to fulfill the requirements of the masculine role. This reinforcement is false, though, and serves merely to highlight the drama when Mulan finally shatters the divide between gender roles. Not only is she ultimately able to fulfill the requirements of the masculine role, but she even surpasses the men in her abilities. "Did they send me daughters when I asked for sons?" Yes, Li Shang, they did, and a good thing too. (Dramatic irony alert: He won't make a man out of her.)

At this point, the narrative's feminist message is on solid enough ground that it can withstand some playful exploration of the identity shifts Mulan is undergoing. Mulan slips off for a "girly" bath but is almost discovered when some of her comrades decide to join in. This scene cuts straight to the heart of the matter by revealing Mulan's discomfort with the physical differences between her female body and the male bodies of her companions. While her (culturally determined) gender may be fluid and alterable, her physical body is not. She may be masculine, but she can't be male.

"I don't really wanna take him anywhere."

But this is where things start to get problematic. Up until now, the character of Qi Fu, the Emperor's Consul, has served as a sort of minor villain, constantly threatening to send bad reports about Li Shang to the Emperor. The bathing scene is the first of many where Qi Fu's non-traditional masculinity becomes the butt of a joke. He attempts to join the men in their bath, but wearing a dainty towel, shower cap and slippers. We see the aftermath of this as he huffs off, repeating some of the insults the men have thrown at him. However, instead of inviting our sympathy for a character being bullied for non-conformity to gender roles, the movie wants us to laugh at him.

Qi Fu, I found your bathing ensemble stunning!

The movie, while championing a "masculine" female, still feels it acceptable to shame and ridicule a "feminine" male. In the world of Mulan, male characters are allowed to possess the full scope of the "masculine" personality (governed by their stomachs and sexual drives, slovenly, aggressive, etc...) but they are not allowed to infringe upon the "feminine" (concerned with clothing and personal appearance, picky about personal hygiene, feminine forms of speech, dislike of physical labor, etc...).

This tendency of the film is jarringly anti-feminist. After all, feminism aims to oppose patriarchy in all its guises, and it is patriarchy which has dictated these strict gender roles for both males and females. The movie's treatment of Qi Fu reveals its troubled relationship with the feminist principles it set out to champion. In the final analysis, we can't forget that Mulan is an American movie, created by Americans for an American audience, and its inability to fully embrace feminism is a symptom of this. The movie struggles with the parts of feminism that U.S. culture struggles with -- We are so in love with masculinity that we think EVERYONE should be masculine, men and women alike. When women aren't masculine (assertive, outgoing, independent, outspoken), we can accept it, even approve of it, but when a man dares not to be masculine we feel the need to shame him back into his proper role.

Spoiler alert: Qi Fu does scream [in the manner traditionally associated with a female].

But enough about our cultural failings. We have a movie to analyze here! Part 2 coming soon, wherein I discuss the benefits of non-surgical gender reassignment...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

We Are the Universe's Fingertips

The great secret at the heart of existence is a gaping abyss of unmeaning.

Such is the proposition of existentialism. And on a night like tonight I can feel a truth in it. The entire trajectory of my life to now has been a headlong, wide-eyed stumble toward anyone or anything which I could fling between myself and that abyss. Anything that means I do not have to stand at its edge alone and feel its icy breath on my own skin.

But as soon as I take that step to the edge of the abyss and gaze into its nothingness, I do not find myself overcome with despair but rather with...inspiration. And with indignation!

My mind blossoms with thoughts. I cannot but question the abyss and demand it justify itself -- You there, if you are the end of everything, the singular truth of the universe, then tell me this about it: Why are we?

We, humans, thinking animals who step up to an abyss and try to understand it.

We are terrified of it; we tremble at its impersonal vastness, its finality, the death smell of it. But we refuse to stop at that. We step up to the abyss and we fling our self-ness at it: our questions, our fears, our poetry, our songs, our bodies, our loves, our passions. We would fill its emptiness with our own fullness.

Why is such a thing as us?

Standing here before the nothing, I cannot reject the us. I cannot accept that a universe, vast and empty as it is, governed by impersonal laws would, at some far-flung extremity of itself, vomit up the one thing incapable of accepting its impersonality: persons. I cannot accept that the engendering of the personal from the impersonal is a random accident.

A god? Perhaps not? But an order to the vastness, yes. A universe that wants to know itself, that strives to grasp its own existence and the unknowable laws which govern it -- the final order of the chaos is the mind. Our questions are the universe's ultimate aim, or its path toward that aim.

For are we not also the universe? If the universe were a body, we would be its senses, touching, hearing, seeing, tasting, smelling the entirety of our universal body. We are the universe's fingertips, groping a way through the dark, tearing back the skin of the future and revealing what lies beneath.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

I Only Sail on Fictional Ships

Perhaps you are aware of shipping. (If you are not, you may enlighten yourself here). I personally became aware of shipping sometime c. 2009 when I started getting into The Big Bang Theory and accidentally stumbled across the hordes of rabid Shenny (Sheldon+Penny) shippers.

I was further enlightened when I made my maiden voyage on the Vampire Diaries Delena (Damon+Elena) ship. One google search for "I+ship+Damon+and+Elena" later, and I had been initiated into the tidal wave of feels that is the #Delena tumblr tag (SO MANY SEXY GIFS). (Perhaps this would be a good moment to pause and say that, "Yes, I understand that admitting my membership in this fandom will open me up to ridicule," and "No, I don't care... But I'm certainly not going to spill ALL of my fandoms...").

But as I went further down the rabbit hole, I began to notice a disturbing trend within shipper culture. Perhaps I first became aware of it because as I swam gleefully through the ocean of Damon and Elena love I saw almost as many references to Ian+Nina, the names of the two actors who played these characters in the CW television show. I found this odd. After all, the books and TV show made it clear that there was some sort of attraction between the two characters and gave us tantalizing glimpses into the development of their romance. The two actors, on the other hand, were two people who had been hired to pretend to be these characters for a few hours every week and then presumably went back to living their regular lives. And never the twain shall meet...

Or so I thought, until I discovered that Ian Somerhalder and Nina Dobrev actually were dating IRL. That made me feel minimally more comfortable with the existence of Nian ship, but only minimally. This was because I knew from my overconsumption of pop culture news that actors who worked together often ended up dating...and just as often broke up.

The entertainment media make this out to be some sort of great tragedy of the fast-paced and glamorous Hollywood lifestyle -- relationships simply can't hold up under the scrutiny of all those cameras. Yet if we step back and examine the situation a little more realistically, it is obvious that this is an exaggeration.

Follow: If you consider the romantic life of an average person in the U.S., the majority of romantic relationships that they have will end. After all, untimely death and polyamory aside, you will probably only end up making a lifelong commitment to ONE person in your entire life. On the other hand, you will probably have relationships of varying seriousness with more than one person. Do you see the issue here? Most of us experience more break-ups than we will lifelong loves. This holds true for the famous people as well.

And this is why I only sail on fictional ships. Fictional relationships are created within the fantasy realm of idealized romantic love. In that realm, people meet and go through drama and come out the other side with forever love. Then the story ends, and we get to imagine our OTP together for eternity, or at least as much of eternity as we are capable of conceiving of. Real people, on the other hand, don't have happily ever afters. They have lives that go on and on until they die. They have reality, and in reality most romantic relationships end. Just like Ian and Nina's did.

Knowing this, when I see two public figures I admire dating one another, I wish them well, but I don't expect them to be together forever. The ship is probably going to sink, or at least glide uneventfully back to harbor to let us all down at the dock before it's put into dry dock and decommissioned. For me, at least, that's not the kind of cruise I fantasize about. I prefer to sail off into the sunset on my fictional ships.