Friday, July 24, 2009

Separate Not Equal: Right to the Altar Needs Altering

Here is my first attempt at an Opinions Page-style editorial piece. Would love to know what you think! Thanks for reading.

In the controversy swirling around the moral and legal implications of same-sex marriage, activists and government officials across the political spectrum are raising their voices for and against a gay couple’s right to marry. The issue at hand that has both sides up in arms is the right to call the legal agreement into which two people enter when they decide to spend their lives together “marriage.” Those opposed to gay marriage are not opposed to the practical adoption, employment, or insurance benefits that are already afforded to gay couples through civil unions: it is the term “marriage,” not the institution, that those opposed are struggling to restrict.

Though he campaigned on a platform to support gay rights, even President Obama is falling victim to this increasingly heated argument. President Obama has said , “gays should not face discrimination but should not marry.” By this double standard, President Obama is letting himself become the classic hypocritical political puppet: denying gay and lesbian couples the right to marry is discrimination. Mr. President instead supports civil unions, which are separate from marriages but provide gay couples “equal legal rights and privileges as married couples.” This double standard calls to mind the incendiary buzz-phrase of past fights for civil rights: separate but equal. Which begs the question: if marriage and civil unions are truly equal, why must they be separate at all?

When the racist ruling of 1896’s Plessy v. Ferguson was overruled sixty years later with Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the Supreme Court ruled, “separate institutions are inherently unequal.” The privileges provided to black students under Plessy were always separate and never equal to the opportunities and facilities afforded to white students. The very same “separate but equal” paradigm between gay and straight couples will arise if marriage is to remain separate and therefore unequal.

One can also see a parallel between the civil rights battle of a scant fifty years ago for equal rights for Black Americans and this one for the equal rights of gay Americans in anti-miscegenation laws. In the 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, the court wrote in its decision, “Marriage is one of the "basic civil rights of man," fundamental to our very existence and survival […] To deny this fundamental freedom […] is surely to deprive all the State's citizens of liberty without due process of law.” While one can be grateful that the fundamental freedom for straight couples to marry whomever they like was finally upheld, one might wonder why some groups of society are still limited by the government in whether they will be honored at the altar. The ruling went on to say, “The freedom of choice to marry [may] not be restricted by invidious racial discrimination. Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual and cannot be infringed by the State.”

It is about time a member of the Supreme Court called the restriction of marriage from gay and lesbian couples an incendiary word even close to “invidious,” an adjective that can mean offensively or unfairly discriminating or injurious but also obsolete. There should never be a constitutional amendment to prevent a freedom to any group of people in this “land of the free;” discrimination of any kind is obviously unconstitutional. Until “homophobe” conjures up the same apologetic fervor as “racist,” logical and empathetic Americans must realize that separate can never be equal, and that the fight for civil rights for all Americans is never really over.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Logging On to the Future

I’m sure it will surprise you all to learn that I spend a lot of my time online. I like a good wi-fi connection the way some people like a pair of shoes – sturdy, dependable, and on all the time. I know it’s not exactly particularly cool, or intellectual, or stylish, but I have a hard time feeling bad about my technophilia. Not only are the Interwebs fun, informative, and nearly free, in all aspects of life: it’s the way of the future.

For example: email is free, whereas the quant-but-antiquated Postal Service is nearly fifty cents for a single page. That doesn’t even cover the monetary cost of all the man-hours involved, or the carbon cost of all the jet fuel, paper, and mail cars that get letters maybe across the world or maybe just down the block – in a matter of days, not seconds. I’m all for a little nostalgia, sending letters and such, but you can’t exactly rationalize riding a horse to work when the rest of the world has moved on past cars to light-rail. Nothing displays just how behind the times the US government is than the hard-copy tax booklets it mails out, or the paperwork it requires be mailed in if a taxpayer won’t pay to use a private company to submit tax information online. Michelle Obama’s White House website is pretty, glossy, and informative, but some of the money from that advertising-driven web design should have gone into updating the less glamorous facets of the government her husband was elected to run. Compare that spiffy layout to the dour, user-unfriendly set-up over at the IRS. Even though some forms are available online, you still have to print them out on paper, fill them out by hand, and snail-mail them for processing. Which is more important: Americans knowing what's growing in the White House veggie garden, or Americans knowing how to correctly navigate the labrynthine tax system? Email and online submissions isn’t disrespectful and informal; email is a greener, faster, cheaper, safer,easier, better way (for the sender, the recipient, and the planet) to communicate and get things done.

I do most of my socializing online. I am usually far away from the people I care about, and web-based services like Facebook and Skype help me keep in touch across the miles. Facebook is a free social-networking site that allows users to share info, pictures, leave messages for friends, and instant-message friends who are online. It eliminates the need for invitations to gatherings with its ‘events’ function, and it tells you when all of your friends’ birthdays are without you even having to enter the dates. Users often complain about the addictive qualities of the site, but there are worse addictions: time spent on Facebook is essentially time spent learning about your friends. It’s true that what you’re learning is what they want you to learn, but it’s better to site alone in your house connected to something and someone than connected to nothing but your own selfish thoughts. Skype is a free international online calling and video-calling service. Not only can you talk to anyone with an Internet connection anywhere around the world for free (usually), you can actually see his or her face. It’s free, it’s easy to use, you don’t have to search for bars around your house, and you can show your friend in Russia what your new cat looks like. These are just two services the Internet provides; others like YouTube, Twitter, Flickr, and Blogger offer many opportunities for learning and connection that no one had even dreamed of until less than my young lifetime ago. The importance of the 140-character updates on the Iran election that came to the attention of the world via Twitter display just how powerful these sites – often criticized as dumb fads as quick and trendy as The Backstreet Boys – have real power and world importance.

Dissenters often criticize that the Internet allows a person to change, hide, or alter who they “really are” in real life (called “IRL” by we techno-hermit types). I counter that no one know who anyone “really is” in face-to-face communication, either. The Internet affords you the opportunity to be your best self: you have time to think about your reaction before saying it, in email or even message conversations. There’s no blubbering, no stuttering, fewer awkward silences and social faux pas. I, for example, am infinitely more eloquent in a textual conversation than I could ever be in a verbal one. It is in a different format, these conversations, but it is still my words. The honest person is still honest in cyberspace. The people who want to hide or alter or change how they appear do so, IRL or otherwise. (Anyway, Photoshop for an online appearance is much better for self and society than actual plastic surgery.)

I am by no means suggesting the Internet replace real-life encounters. It will be a while before a computer can measure up to a warm hug from a real-live, present friend. But I’m getting increasingly more surprised and incredulous at the too-lazy-to-be-Luddites who don’t like computers, don’t support Internet communication, who think the Internet is for bespectacled nerds with no friends. The people who think it’s perfectly acceptable to not check email, which is instantaneous, for weeks, yet still walk down the block to check their mailbox for landfill-mucking pamphlets that take an eternity to arrive, and can’t just be deleted but have to be shredded, recycled, or disposed of elsewhere to take up time, space, and money are living far, far in a past that shouldn’t be revived. In a world where even still color photographs, house-bound cordless telephones, and desktop computers seem increasingly obsolete, the future – of entertainment, of advertising, of socialization, of education – lies on the tangled, turgid, ever-changing Web of, yes, some lies, but also of information and friendship and many, many things that are nothing other than good and true and real.

This blog was written at the request of the digitally-inclined Cameron. Thanks for the suggestion, and thanks to all for reading.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Happiness Smells Like Coffee and Paper

I think nirvana must look like an Internet café. Mine does, anyway. It doesn’t look like the earth rising up toward me as I fall from an airplane. It does not look like a field of knee-high golden sunflowers to skip through while holding hands with my One True Love. It does not look like the ticker-tape parade someone would certainly throw for me when my as-yet-unwritten Great American, nay, Great Universe Novel sets records even the lovechild of Harry Potter and The Da Vinci Code couldn’t break, even with Oprah’s help. Instead of those big dramatic things, my happy place has Morning Glory chai, dark chocolate-hazelnut cookies, local art on the walls, and free Internet. Friends are always telling me to live life more dramatically – “put yourself out there,” they say. “Get your nose out of that book.” “How are you ever going to be truly happy if you spend all your time on that stupid computer?” “You need to go skydiving, or something. Do something every day that scares you! You have to do something BIG if you want to be happy in a big way! Hits on your blog can’t make you Truly Happy!”

It’s a valid point, friends. I do have strong hermetic tendencies. I can see why a person would want to live life in a dramatic way. I like the fantasy of big things that make you happy as much as the next idealistic young college student. But what would a big thing be? You can’t go skydiving every day of your life. You can’t be perfectly, incandescently happy every single day of your life. Even if you did have a very dramatic life in which you woke up, flew to Ibiza, met your one true love, stumbled into a million dollars, and won an Oscar, all before falling asleep on the billion-count sheets in your free penthouse at the Four Seasons, that would be ONE DAY in your whole entire long life. It’s foolish to even want that kind of life: it’s either impossible to ever have, or at the very least, impossible to maintain. I get the feeling that everyone over the age of about 23 already knows this, and knows enough about life to not even really be sad about it. As my mother used to say when I would tell her she is silly to get so thrilled over something such as a comic strip or a cute little gecko on the garden wall, “It’s the little things, Anna.” I scoffed at this, naturally. The only people who need little things to be happy, thought I, in my preteen arrogance, are people who don’t have big things to make them happy. I was going to meet my One True Love and have my Dreams Come True and be Truly Happy and live Happily Ever After. I thought being easily amused was for those of weak constitution, though I now see that quite the opposite is true. I thought then that the people who wanted dramatically were the ones who loved, and lived, and felt dramatically, and that such big and exciting sweeping desires were the only way one ought to live. (Here is where I take a moment to reflect upon my own stupidity, perhaps the only truly dramatic thing about this story.)

When I was maybe eight or nine I had a bit of a breakdown about this while setting the table. I remember my dad asking me what was wrong, and I said, “Are you happy, Daddy?” I remember thinking that my parents lives must be so boring, they must feel so stifled, they must be so disappointed in how their lives have turned out. He looked at me quizzically and said, “Yeah, I’m happy enough.” That response left me blubbering tearfully into the silverware drawer. Happy enough? I remember thinking, that’s so awful! It took me this long to realize the wisdom of his response. (Congrats, Dad, you’ve learned a lot in ten years.)

There is no such thing as being Perfectly Happy. You would have to be blind, dumb, selfish, and calamitously arrogant to ever think it is a remote possibility, or even a possibility you would want. There are still things in life that are sad, or a day won’t go your way, and you can still be happy – happy enough. As far as I can tell, in my recently recalibrated view of the situation, my parents did marry each other’s One True Love (or as close to as possible), and most all of their lasting Dreams did come true. Yes, they have bad days, they have disappointments, and they have frustrations. But they still act happy. They are still absolutely tickled by small, silly things like a good meal, or a good joke, or something funny the dogs did. They genuinely (as far as I can tell) enjoy each others’ company. As boring and dismal as their life seemed to my eight-year-old self, they are happy. Happy enough to not be a burden but a delight to the people around them. Happy enough to still acknowledge that sometimes life is unjust, unfair, and irrational, for other people as well as oneself. * My mother has been telling me this for, gee, let’s see, my entire life, and it took me all eighteen years and seven months to start to understand what she means: attitude is everything. If you act happy, if you let little things like a card from a friend or a phone call from your misguided daughter make you happy, you are for more likely to be happy.

Happiness isn’t a destination, or a location, or a promotion, or a goal. Happiness is a decision. Happiness is a state of mind. So while I have not done anything classically “adventurous” in the last three days, I have been to five coffee shops (gluttony, I know). That’s as dramatic as I need. Now that I understand this about happiness, I am the happiest – in any kind of stable, lasting, or maintainable way – that I can ever remember being. I’m not wanting too hard for anything, but that’s good. Now that I stop to think on it, I am almost afraid of the kind of Klimtian happiness I once vowed to pursue; it can only be achieved through heavy drug use or heavy delusion. Earl Grey and a book from the library make me happy, not almost dying because it will make a good story. Happiness doesn’t shoot through your veins. Happiness grows from a fertile, ready home.

There’s this Buddhist principle that says that all the suffering in the world is created by desire and that nothing you desire will make you as happy as you think it will. Not until you learn to let go of all this desire, some say, will you ever be able to reach nirvana, the purest happiness. The way I understand it, you ought to just not want too hard for anything, and just enjoy things – “the little things” – as they come. By this standard, all the dramatic wanting and the broad sweeping acts and the desire to be literally or metaphorically skydiving will not only not make you happy, but it actually prevents you from being happy. My parents would never say they are Buddhist, and I doubt they even know this wise Eastern mantra exists. And, yet, they have been living this example for my entire life (and much, much longer, I am sure). So thanks, Mom and Dad, for always telling me I could achieve everything I ever wanted. Thank you even more waiting around for me to realize that I all I ever want is to be happy – that is, to be happy enough.

If you read this parental apologia/metaphysical funhouse in the first several hours after I posted it, the prose contained several mis-typings and other mis-takes. For this travesty of my own doing, I apologize to the fullest extent that I am grammatically capable. As we see, that is not a very great extent. Cheers and thank you for reading.

*While I had hopes to also address this epic dilemma in this post, with the word count nearing a thousand, I had more of an epic-length saga on my hands. So I shelved it, to spare you, dearest readers. So: next time. Or the time after that.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Three Cups of Coffee: Causes, Calcutta, and The World's Best Cappuccino

On my Thursday afternoon jaunt into downtown Seattle, I continued my lifelong mission of finding the best mocha latte in the world with a trip to Fran’s Chocolates. It was a truly indulgent experience, from the choice of the percentage of dark chocolates I wanted in my espresso to the salted golden caramel that arrived with my steaming cup. As I settled in to sip my frothy perfection in this confections shop in the lobby of the Four Seasons Resort, I spent a moment appreciating how incalculably lucky I am before pulling about a book to enjoy with my classed-up cup-o-joe.

As I sat paging and sipping in the sanctuary of sugar and privilege, I began to taste the bitter more than the sweet of the beverage for which I have been scouring the world. As my cup emptied and the page numbers climbed higher, the air-conditioned cool turned to a chill. The paperback book accompanying my cocoa cappuccino? Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson. The irony did not escape me. It hardly ever does.

Three Cups of Tea is the story of Mortenson’s mission to found and maintain schools for children in the impoverished communities of northern Pakistan and Afganistan. After a harrowing failed climb of K2 in 1993, Mortenson lost his way and wandered into the village of Korphe, tired and emaciated. He was so moved by the hospitality of the people and the sight of Korphe’s children studying alone with no walls, he promised to come back and build them a school. Since then, the schools Mortenson founded with his Central Asia Institute have educated over 28,000 who would otherwise have no education or opportunities at all. Mortenson himself lived on very little while founding the organization, instead saving the money for the people of a country with which the US is at war. As quoted in the New York Times Bestseller, Mortenson says, “If we try to resolve terrorism with military might and nothing else, then we will be no safer than we were before 9/11. If we truly want a legacy of peace for our children, we need to understand that this is a war that will ultimately be won with books, not with bombs." When I closed the back cover of the book (which I highly recommend), I was very nearly crying into the remains of my mocha (and my dignity). What a message. What a mission. What a life.

What was I doing? I asked myself, there with my shiny empty mug and my chocolate and my soft, worn paperback? I had to go there! I had to stop this mocha nonsense, and get on a plane to Pakistan! Now! I had to ride my sugar rush out into the world and do something big! Those children needed me! But then I remembered something I’d read Mother Therese had said, that Saint of the Gutters who also makes an appearance in the tome: find your own Calcutta. When volunteers streamed into her Calcutta shelters to offer help to the people no one would touch before she made them famous, the woman turned them away. She spoke often of the fact that there are many people in the world who need help, not just the ones her work had brought into the spotlight. Was the Central Asia Institute really my Calcutta? Mortenson had stumbled into this town, and it became his life. What stumbling had I done? I should not act on the basis of a story I like to direct my life – especially as I was obviously not the only person touched by the #1 Bestseller. This was Mortenson’s Calcutta, not mine. I needed to take a breath. I needed to take the last sip of my mocha. I need to find the cause of my heart, not someone else’s.

I would have loved to leave that chocolate shop and stumble into a homeless shelter, or something. I would have loved to find my Calcutta in a truly novel-worthy metaphor scenario. But all that happened, as I walked out of the air-conditioned hush into the abnormally bright, obligatorily crowded downtown, was that a kid working for the ACLU asked me for money. In between mumbling, shifting his weight, and shaking my hand like his training had taught him, he told me that for the price of a cup of coffee a day, I could make sure that, “the rights of society's most vulnerable members are not denied.” I was tempted; what is the universe trying to tell me? I thought. But I kept walking: I don’t even agree with much of the ACLU. If I know one thing about stumbling into one’s Calcutta, it is that one will not do so in the passive voice.

In the Pakistan Mortenson so loves, they have a proverb that says, “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” I have one, too: “Enjoy your mocha, but stumble onward.” There is no way to rationalize away the gross discrepancy of luck and of wealth between me, a female university student in the US, and the girls in rural Asia that no one would help until Mortenson wandered in. I must see the queasy juxtaposition of my drink of choice and my book of choice. As much as I would like to, I can’t prematurely become a barnacle on someone else’s cause. I must live in the active voice, not the passive; I must be the cause, not the barnacle. Not everyone feels compelled to devote their lives to such a cause, but Greg Mortenson’s was a lucky wrong turn, for both him and for the world. If I never fulfill my lifelong mission to find the world’s best creamy-earthy-frothy magic liquid that fills my heart to brim, I hope that I can at least find a cause that fills my heart like Mortenson’s and Mother Therese’s did theirs.

Someday, maybe, I won’t even need the mocha.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Flight Attendance: Leaving, Living, and a Little Girl

Hello, readers! Apologies for the extended delay, I hope to be posting at least once a week for the summer months. I thank you, as always, for reading, and I ask for your feedback: Are the posts too long? Too short? Too personal? Too general? Too serious? Too conversational? Do you prefer the social commentary, or the introspection? Do you enjoy reading, or do it only because I so forcefully suggest you do so? (I love you guys!) Anything you have to say, I would be thrilled to listen. Please comment! I promise to incorporate and improve by your suggestions. -- Anna

Whenever I see an airplane interlacing its contrails high across the “wild blue yonder,” as my mom calls it, I feel a little tingle of excitement and jealousy. “Wow!” I always think. “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” When I was a little girl I spent hours trying to figure out some way I could know where the tiny white jets were heading, why the people on the plane were going there, whether they were going away or going home. Part of my mind was always on that plane, like it was trying to hitch a ride to whatever exciting destination to which they were flying. I also spent hours trying to figure out a method by which to measure the height of the towering white clouds I almost never saw in Arizona, and I had no progress on that topic, either, except that now I spend hours figuring out what the psychological meaning or impact was of my young self so frequently craning my neck to ponder the cerulean-and-cirrus cosmos.

My recent flight from Arizona to western Washington State, where I am spending the summer, really excited that little girl I guess I still am. In the airport I studied to arrivals and departures boards, thinking, “Wow! There are people going to all those cities!” and, “There are people out there existing, right now, in all those places! Just like I am existing here! Awesome!” I almost missed my boarding group because I was so enthralled by all the exotic possibilities. Even when I was waiting on the tarmac to deplane in Seattle, I watched a plane take off and thought reflexively, “Those people are so lucky! Those people are going somewhere!” It took me a second to realize that I was already on a plane, I was one of those lucky people. Even when I am in my desired destination, my subconscious is jealous of people jetting off elsewhere.

Why is it that I am so drawn to leaving? (Or is it going, or coming, or something else?) I have been talking to my friend Danny about this compulsion to “escape”: when you are going somewhere, you should be sure that you are going for the action of going to your destination and not going for the action of leaving the place which you were previously. You should beware of what it reveals about the place you are most of the time (the place you probably call your home), Danny and I have determined, if you are more eager to leave that place than you are to arrive another place. In this psychology of geography, you’re pretty much okay if you at least want go “home” after a little while of being away. But for me, at least, I always seem to caught up in the act of going, of wishing I was in a plane zipping across the globe. In an old episode of Bones I was watching last night, Agent Booth was talking to Brennan about his upcoming trip to Jamaica, and he summarized the leaving/going paradigm like this: “I always think about not coming back.” I think a lot of people do this, but I am more filled with the wing-footed restlessness of always wanting to be a departure, never a return.

I know all this can be explained by my age, my circumstances, and my head-(literally)-in-the-clouds inclinations. It could be both dangerous and foolish of me to live a life according to these airy desires, and though I don’t think I could quite do life as a homeless vagabond, the idea can be sort of seductive. Like the first three-quarters of Into the Wild, I love idea of leaving the lifeless life that I fear will await me in middle-aged wasteland for an alternate path of taking chances, casting off the constraints of society, and leaving it all behind. This, of course, would be going to leave. While McCandless did some amazing things – kayaking down the Colorado all the way to the Gulf of California, for example – I think he was mostly leaving to leave, not leaving to go. If I can learn something from the story of this man who died too young because of his desire to be gone, it is that the ties that bind, the ones that seem to constrain us, are the ones that tie us down, from floating off into the vast lonely blue unknown.

In my deeply youthful and selfish desire to live a life that is adventurous and exciting, I always wish I were going somewhere new. The sound, like one escaped from the inside of a seashell, of a jet across the sky makes me become that girl with her eyes on her only limit. But as much as my subconscious is excited about my life and my body always being up in the air, I am trying always to learn and enjoy the good in arrival, in coming home, in existing fully where I already am.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A Venezia, Con Amore

Just to satisfy my guilt for such a delay and what I know is your clamoring for a new posting, dear readers, here's a piece a wrote a while ago about travel and disillusionment. It's a little different from my usual stuff but it was great fun to write, so I hope you enjoy it. Buon appetito!

Stepping off the water taxi into Piazza San Marco was like stepping into a daydream. I’d seen a thousand pictures of couples kissing in the murky sunset off the lagoon. I’d read a hundred books set in the romantic decay of the timeless floating city. I’d imagined a million times of the lavish jewel on the lip on the Adriatic and the exotic edge of the world to my suburban mind.

Sitting on the gray industrial carpet of the public library in my suburban home, Venice was better than fairy tales. A city with a proud and a sad history, where beauty and heritage were a way of life and not something one had to use the library catalogue to find. I was enchanted by exotic words like major domo and campo and gelato. I couldn’t imagine a better place than a sinking miracle where Shakespeare set his tragedies, Casanova roved the canals, and American expatriate modernists wrote their best work. I had always loved books, and Venice was like the best hardbound gilt-covered monstrosity to me, smelling of salt and fine perfume. Anywhere where elaborate masks were a fashion statement, where the whole city participated in a month-long masquerade, and where a narrow black boat was the transportation of choice was better than the best book, because I could actually visit.

The siren call of the lagoon seemed to answer something inside me. In a new American city, beauty and art seemed like an inconvenience, not a goal. I drowned myself in the stories of long lineages of Doges, that exotic governmental beast so much more refined than a mere king. I read of the fine families, with their own majestic palaces on the Grand Canal, filled with old art and good breeding. I immersed myself in the architecture, longing for the thousand types of exotic marble conquered and pillaged from far off lands to adorn the façade of Basilica San Marco. I grew up with drop ceilings and asphalt, but the Venetians of my imagination would scoff at such ugly practicality. They were a people who lived on thousand-year-old wood pylons, who created the world’s most beautiful glass out of a fiery pit, who built the world’s most famous and elegant bridge for their prisoners. Venetians were a people with the Renaissance in their blood, to whom recent history had not been kind. All I had in my blood was annoying WASPishness. Where I grew up, the only gold decoration is in dashes down the middle of the street. Waters have been lapping at the palaces in my beloved city for a thousand years, before people even inhabited the area where I was born.

Venice seemed to whisper my every answer in a majestic and elegiac language I longed to understand. I imagined the tiny fresh squid and squash blossoms in the open-air markets, or the swish of a long black cape around the corner, or the fierce gaze of a Venetian woman out of a purple velvet mask. I scoffed at the Las Vegas version, with their chlorinated canals and slot machines, of all obscenities. In the real city they gambled with their medieval conquests, their Papal power struggles, their eastern influences, with the foundations of their houses, but never something so unrefined as actual money. I was drunk on the exotic spice of a real city that I had invented.

Finally visiting the corroded emerald on the Adriatic was going to be like going home. I wanted it to be the answer to every question in my heart, a contrast to every annoying and abrasive and juvenile thing about the United States. I wanted thousand-year-old mosaics and my own personal library just about the piano nobile floor in my own majestic palace, named after my well-respected family, which had included maybe two doges and even a pope in the tenth century. I wanted to put on a Carnival mask and lose my boring, unrefined self in the rise and fall of the tides.

Stepping into the Piazza San Marco was not the emotional catharsis I wanted (and half-expected) it to be. In my desire to create a place I wanted, I couldn’t image Venice as a real city in the present day. The romantic place of my creation was a dark cloudy mystery, but it never actually rained there. Even the ride across the lagoon soaked me to my skin. I invented a place where people actually lived in the Doge’s Palace, actually went to church in Basilica San Marco, really lived like the Renaissance conquerors I’d read so much about. I didn’t imagine them as places to wait in line to see, places to tour in ten minutes following a tour guide with a German accent. I imagined finding myself while getting lost in the winding streets of ancient homes where Ezra Pound and Robert Browning had written their love poetry, finding love in the streets that wound in on themselves until opening into the campo of my imagination. I did get lost – but whether it was the negotiable validity of trying to get lost or the map of Venice that existed only in my head or maybe in the early Renaissance, I didn’t find what I thought I was looking for. I didn’t find myself, dancing by the light of tapered candles in a room full of masks and fine tapestries. I didn’t find love, not even the love of the crumbling city of so many stories. I did find Venetians, in their leather and glass shops. But they didn’t whisper me the answers in what I felt to be my native tongue, even if I couldn’t speak more than a few words. They asked, in English, “Can I help you?” All I could say was “No, grazi,” before turning on my sneakered heel back out into the rain. The rain was not more beautiful and exotic there, or perfumed with the smells and wisdom of the ancient merchant city. It was exactly what I’d never been able to imagine it to be – wet. Cold. Real.

I had hoped and willed my imaginings to be real in Venice, the most fantastical place I could have found to incubate my dreamings. It was both beautiful and sad, but it was also crowded and smelling and in precipitous decay. I had foolishly imagined that history would be real there, and it wasn’t until I was already side-stepping the pigeons outside the façade of Basilica San Marco did I realize my fault. Many things are indeed a mystery in Venice, but time is not one of them. And as I let my dreams of a gilded identity I’d imagined for myself dissolve into the murky teal waters of the ancient lagoon, I did find something: perspective. The winged lions welcoming visitors and guarding from foes at the grand entrance to the once-grand city were still beautiful, but I could finally for what they were: corroded, collapsing, and most importantly, a make-believe creation. Those lions could no more fly than I could, but as I stood in the rain in the most famous plaza in the world, I learned that is was probably better that we both stay on the ground.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Lopsided Bubbles, Convoluted Metaphors

My more disgruntled high school friends and I would often talk about what we thought was the pitiful shortsightedness and intellectual isolation of our hometown. To our young minds, our mostly white, mostly rich, mostly conservative community was the pinnacle of a suburbubble: a boring, plebian, un-enlightened, narrow-minded outpost of a non-city that was much too small and much too unsophisticated for we aspiring young urbanites. (It is only a testament to our own shortsightedness that this hometown was a part of a metro area of nearly 2 million people.) So imagine my surprise when I get a bit of experience with places that by this maxim should be much more wise, enlightened, ethnic, and evolved, and find out these places area just as ordinary and disappointingly real as the suburbubble I hoped to escape from. My experience with these urbubbles (urban places that were still boring and narrow-minded, though in different ways) made me question my assumption that any kind of mindedness is dictated by place and collective characteristics. I wasn’t living in a limited sphere of experience and scope because of where I lived, or where I went to school, at least not entirely. It was a light bulb moment for me: I wasn’t living in a suburbubble, I was living in an ego-bubble. My bubble was shaped by my own limitations, opinions, personality traits, and perspective in life much more than it was shaped by any physical address I could ever have. (Okay, maybe it wasn’t quite a light bulb moment. Maybe a lucky striking of the flint, so obvious and caveman-like does this epiphany seem now.)

In another concept that escaped my youthful understanding, real bubbles are always exact spheres because the air inside them exerts force equally in all directions. My personal bubble, however, is not nearly so perfect. I generally only exert force in the directions that I care about. I spend much more time trying to understand and change, for example, my relationship situation than I do trying to understand and change, for example, the situation in Darfur. This lopsided nature of my sphere of care is not at all a good thing: I should try constantly to exert force equally in all directions, to change to size and scope of my bubble, to overcome my baser compulsions. In my pursuit to be a well-rounded person, I must learn that people I don’t physically know can be really real, that sorrow I don’t personally feel can be really sad, and that I can never blame the convoluted shape of my own tiny soap-sphere on any limitations but my own.

It is not in our daily conscience that what matters to us could so easily be so very different. While it is true that intimacy leads to empathy, it is also true that where our intimacy leads our empathy could be a very misguided place. With the advent of the common complaint “FML,” we have only reinforced such unworthy empathy. As much as I hated to hear my mother tell me to get some when I was young and disproportionately tortured, perspective is important. Just because someone close to me dies does not make that death sadder than the death of someone I didn’t even know existed. A tragedy is not made more or less by how it affects me an individual. For example, I recently spilled on my computer and had to buy a new one. Five million people were recently (in the last ten years) killed in the Congo. There is no question as to which event is more objectively sad. There is also no question, awful as this fact may be, which event affected me more personally. We shouldn’t feel every tragedy so deeply that it cripples us, but we should feel them. I must try, as an evolved, intelligent, and empathic human being, to exert more force in the direction of events that are objectively and not just personally sad.

In relation to all the objectively sad things in the world, nothing in my exceptionally blessed life would be worthy of sympathy (and really? It’s not). I have absolutely no reason to say FML, even though sometimes I may feel like I do. And in terms of feeling, in regards to anything as uncontrollable and irrational as human emotion, whatever one feels has value. If a tragedy is more relative to you, of course you will feel more sad about it than you would about one that is not. But rationally, thoughtfully, one must strive to consider events without the limitations of one’s bubble, physical or otherwise. Though our feeling may not be, our action, our force, and our decision (who to support, who to help, who to attack) must be dictated by objective consideration more than personal intimacy and feeling. I don’t need to pop my bubble, but I do need to try to push its rainbow-changing surface into a more spherical shape and its position into a place of greater perspective.

Friday, April 10, 2009

It's Really Something, To Know Nothing About Everything

When I was very young, people told me that when I was eighteen I would think I knew everything about everything, but I would really not know anything about anything. As a young child in league with adults against those crazy teenagers, I always thought, “I’m not like other people. I won’t be like that.” I think this experience is pretty universal. Now that I am that hallowed or horrible age, people still tell me suspiciously frequently that I don’t know anything about anything.

Of course I sound very young in saying this, but: I know I don’t know anything about anything. I know I am young and stupid and foolish and ignorant and arrogant and every other awful-yet-true adjective that can be used to describe young people. I feel that, every day. Why else would I make such poor decisions, do such silly things, and care so much about things that even I can see do not really matter? I use my youth as a crutch; what else can I lean on to prove that my dramatic nature, my critical tendencies, or my difficulty with authority are not deep character flaws but things I will grow out of, like baby teeth or loving Seventeen? If my parents, my relatives, and my teachers had not indoctrinated me with the notion, I would still be aware of just how little I really understand. I don’t claim to know or understand everything, or even much about anything. The only thing I ever claim to come close to understanding is the depth of my own ignorance: I understand that it is infinite, and then some.

I don’t know the capital-T truth about everything, and I may not know it about anything. No one knows everything about everything, the be-all-end-all Truth that quiets all dissenters and squashes all inquisitive young people. Each of us is limited by who we are, as people, as individuals, as Americans, as teenagers, as adults. Our influences, our society, and, yes, our youth all separate us from the capital-T Truth about life and love and existence, and, really, anything. I agree that a truth about any subject as I understand it may be less well-informed, less experienced, or less sophisticated than an older person’s take on the same subject. Mine may be farther from the Truth as it is without human limitations. But as no one can ever consider Truth completely without being held back by his or her own humanness, my truth is still a truth, valid and worthy of consideration like any other. Not the Truth, yes, but a truth nonetheless.

It is my default setting as a person, especially as a young person, to consider the world as it relates to me. I am very tempted to make witty-yet-shallow, true-yet-hurtful comments about anything and everything. As John Green said of a poor review a teen gave of his new book after reading ten pages, “When you are young, you want to make critical judgments on things, and you want to do it quickly.” I do this often, of course. I am very tempted to group things – books, people, concepts, age groups – into Good and Bad, or Smart and Stupid, or True and Not. But, as John Green went on to say, “Reading is not about deciding what is good and what is bad. That’s not even the job of the reader.” I, in my infinite youth, understand this, and I try very hard not to comment until I have thought about a subject at length, devoted much time to it, or read the whole book. Even then, I must remind myself that I can never claim to know what is True or Not. That is not my job as a person. My job as a person is to extend and adjust my view of the world so that it is close to the capital-T Truth as possible, to shake off the limitations of my youth and my humanness, to not need any crutch to lean on. I also need to know that I can never fully accomplish this, and know that others’ truths are just as deep and important and legitimate, if not more so, than my own.

Just like anything with growing up, it is a process, a long and hard journey that never really ends. A journey that includes at least one self-serving rant, at least one snarky/annoying anonymous comment, at least a million Good and Bad good and bad judgments. As much as I would love to be the strong, sure woman people seem to think I am in informing me I know nothing about anything, the closest Truth I have is that I am absolutely, infinitely, still a little girl.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Blood, Guts, and Self-Interest

There’s this famous quote about writing that says, “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down and open a vein.” Whether that refers to an outpouring of emotion that accompanies the craft or the idea that writing is painful, the idea is clear: to open a vein is a big deal. Bleeding is a scary thing, an idea we humans are naturally not okay with. This has never been clearer to me than when I recently opened a literal vein to donate blood for the American Red Cross.

Because I experience no pain or discomfort from donating blood, I am a little biased. I too have heard the horror stories and urban legends surrounding bleeding on purpose and letting my blood be injected into other people’s veins. Evolutionarily, I do understand why we are afraid of bleeding. But rationally, as a more sophisticated being who can think and understand that there is a .0001 chance that anything will go wrong, I find the general reluctance to donate blood something no red-blooded person should be proud of.

I was raised, and I think most people are raised, to put others before myself. I am by no means able to lay down my life for another person, but donating blood seems like a very easy way to at least try to follow this pillar of wisdom. Giving blood isn’t even really putting others interests before mine, as no harm comes to me as a result and I sometimes even get a free sticker for my troubles. There is a need for blood in the world, and I have more blood than I need. I am thankful that I am healthy and robust, and I feel sorrow that not everyone is so fortunate. An hour of my time and a pint of my blood is a tiny, tiny way for me to do something about this. Other people need blood. I have blood. Why would I not give?

I’ve heard the reasons – it makes you sick, you don’t have time, you’re scared of needles, you have an irrational fear that your transfused blood will end up in a murder investigation. Those are all fair reasons, though they do nothing about the sick people who need blood to stay alive. I am scared by how often I see this one-for-one instead of all-for-one self-interest that people do not apologize for. We somewhat have political writer Ayn Rand to thank for this, who says, “Man must exist for his own sake, neither sacrificing himself to others nor sacrificing others to himself. The pursuit of his own rational self-interest and of his own happiness is the highest moral purpose of his life.” With all due respect to Ms. Rand and my friend Cameron, that is a terrible way to live.

The highest moral purpose in life should not be oneself. It should be other people. A little bruise on the inside of my arm is a tiny way to create some good karma, pay it forward, do unto others as I would have done unto me. I’m not being paid by United Blood Services, nor are platelet transfusions my personal crusade. The point is not to get people to donate blood. The point is to get people thinking about how their sacrifice is important, that is a good and right thing to give an hour and a pint to people who need it. It is a deep, difficult, and worthwhile thing to place someone else’s interest, a stranger’s interest, higher than one’s own. As deep and difficult as opening a vein.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Whatever, Forever After: An Early Review of Megan McCafferty's "Perfect Fifths"

We interrupt our "regularly" scheduled blogging to post a review of Megan McCafferty's new book "Perfect Fifths", in bookstores everywhere April 14.

The central relationship in Megan McCafferty’s New York Times-bestselling Jess Darling series has always been a bit like a crash. The forces that draw our snarky heroine Jess Darling and her former “poet-addict-manwhore” turned quasi-Buddhist turned Ivy leaguer love Marcus Flutie are strong at worst and jet-propelled at best. In the tantalizing final volume of the smart and savvy series that boast wide age appeal, the two literally crash into each other in the middle of an airport three years after Jess has turned down Marcus’ proposal of marriage.

If readers are wondering whether it’s over for Jessica and Marcus, here is a little of what Marcus has to say about their love in Perfect Fifths: “It is an alchemical attraction that transcends all reason, rationality, and – in three years since she spurned him – reality.”

Finally hearing from the inimitable Marcus Flutie is just one of the new tricks McCafferty has pulled out for readers, though it may be the most important. Reading from his perspective, all the questions I had about the pair from reading the diary-style entries written almost exclusively by Jess in the previous novels are answered. Is Marcus really as deep and important as Jess thinks he is? Does he love her as much as she loves him? Marcus finally gets more than a letter and some poetry to give us a feel for who he is without Jess as an incurably rose-colored lens.

The most delightful parts of the new book are the various “shticks” McCafferty employs to make this one different. It’s told in third person this time, and though I had feared it would dilute Jessica’s delightful wit and observation, the new point of view actually makes me more forgiving of Jess and keeps her from being too whiny, as her diaries seemed at times. The two much-discussed sections of the book that are very different from any books are the 80-plus pages of pure dialogue and the chapter of conversation written in haiku. When Ms. McCafferty was talking about the dialogue portion at the Tucson Festival of Books, my creative writing professor was in the audience, slowly shaking her head. She didn’t need to worry: this section is a pithy delight, giving the often tongue-tied Marcus and the sometimes babbling Jessica a balance we haven’t seen in the other books. The awkwardness of the conversation feels so authentic, I felt myself cringing even as I was smiling at the chemistry the two characters have even on the page. As McCafferty said in her talk at the Festival of Books, it is the things that are not said between the two, the things they almost say, that is most tantalizing and most telling.

Long-time readers will already know the importance of haiku in the series, and its importance in the final serial of this love is sweet and fitting. It’s often hard to write authentic flirting, and here the author does it within syllabic confines. The section has received much attention and anticipation, and rightly so: it is fun and funny, whip-smart and Smarties-sweet, a lovely device in a story and a love propelled in the most uncommon ways. Some of the other fun new introductions are Jess’ protégé Sunny Dae, her “Korean reincarnation and alter-ego”; an older version of the always charming Marin (Jessica’s niece); and an effective and not all overbearing summary of what everyone’s been up to since we last saw them. A “Hey There Delilah”-like hit song written about Marcus and Jessica by high-school friend, Cornell grad, and now emo-rocker Len Levy is a another treat for readers, as is the Internet backlash about the song lead by frenemy Manda Powers, whose hilarious and apropos screen name is “couchsurfeminist.” Perfect Fifths is filled with delightful morsels of foreshadowed future for readers of McCafferty’s previous novels, but even the Notso Darling Newbie can find much to enjoy.

My only criticism is that there’s not much new going on here – all of the pivotal, important moments rely heavily on what has happened in previous books. For example: if you knew Jess when she was in high school, you know why it’s so important that it’s not just karaoke but Barryoke (Barry Manilow karaoke) featured in the climactic scene. As a devotee, I loved how well everything fit together, but these books have been so unfailingly realistic, it’s a bit odd to ask readers to rely on so many coincidences now. Readers have also criticized Jess for turning into a brat in her old age, but it’s hardly a fair criticism to fault someone for getting older. I believe and like Jess as she is here at 26, and what is new about the book more than makes up for how little there is of it.

A friend told me she threw Fourth Comings across the room when she finished it, but I don’t think that will be her reaction this time: McCafferty has crafted a kinetic, frenetic, and heartfeltly hopeful ending for the series so many have loved. Jessica Darling has grown up and changed, just like a real person, and like a real friend, I’ll miss her. This is a satisfying and fitting final chapter in Jessica’s youth, a classically witty and refreshingly honest portrayal of youth and life that is both savvy and sappy in the best possible ways. It’s a high Five for McCafferty: this ending is pitch-perfect for Jessica and Marcus, even when it’s slightly off key.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Days in the Life

Like every young person who trying to become less of a projection of my own shortsightedness in all the most misguided ways, I watch the news. Or rather, I try to, but usually I am distracted by either the incomplete and gimmicky reporting of the corporate media conglomerates, their dismally poor grammar, or the home design marathon two channels over. But even after I am again blissfully lost in paint hues and my own bubble of existence, I always think about the people that have to make those big decisions. I don’t have (get?) to make decisions that affect even ten people, let alone millions of soldiers, or Iraqi civilians, or every single American, or the entire world. I’m not in a position to effect much change in an obvious or very pragmatic way. I just always think about how after these people whom we have placed all our hopes and trust in make all these very serious decisions that will affect every person alive, they’re going to go, like, eat a sandwich. The people that send us to war, bring us back, cut our taxes, raise them again, and decide if we’re all going to have classes to take or pensions to retire with are (to again quote my brilliant mother) just people. They make all these wild and vast-reaching changes, and then they go to Starbucks and decide if they want a hazelnut or a vanilla latte today. In my life, that is the biggest I’ll make in a day. I want to deeply affect people and live an important and far reaching life, but I’m still working on the balance between living each small day and having it add up to be a big life.

Before I decided to get over myself and think about real life (that is, listen to my parents) I kind of thought that once I got out of high school, life would only be the big things. I thought life would explode into a fanfare of only being deep and important, and I would somehow get to opt of the niggling little small-life things. This was not a well-founded theory, as remain unsure of exactly what big life that was (or might be in the future). Yet I am still boggled by the circus act it must be to have one’s whole life in order, and I am impressed by the whole adult world that finds it easy enough that they didn’t even need to warn me about it. How does anyone find enough space in the day for both little and big decisions, for both the news and HGTV, for both world-altering legislation and a skinny vanilla latte? I never appreciated what a delicate art it is to be able to enjoy the little things, the small stepping-stone days, the tiny joys where nothing explodes anywhere. I am still working on the contrast between living a whole big life and living each day. The important people in the world that affect even the teensiest life still get up every morning and go to bed every night. They still struggle with the treadmill and deal with their kids’ anger issues and enjoy a nice sunny day. They can’t all have personal assistants, and even that wouldn’t help them organize their minds. It’s hard for me to see that they know something I don’t, those ‘old’ people, and dropping it all is the only way I’m going to be able to learn to juggle it right.

I see people who only live for each day, not in a RENT type of way, but in a modest keep-my-high-school-job-forever way. Maybe some people never swim across that huge deep gap between living a good day and living a good life. I see people who don’t seem to notice it, who are just so well-adjusted that the small things are all they need (or maybe someone warned them, lucky sods). But I’m not either of those. I want to be able to love every day, to live it deliberately, but also to love all the days together. I want to love every chapter and love the whole book. I want to be able to write a chapter and still end up with a whole book. Where do the adults find the cohesion? It is an adjustment of this training-wheels adult stage that I never expected: how to balance the big and the small, to ford the vast space between who I am every individual day and who I hope to be, someday.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

John Green is Not a Paper Man

My favorite author John Green is awesome. He has written three wonderful and enlightening books, he speaks out for the intelligence of teenagers, he makes delightful and hilarious YouTube videos with his brother Hank, and he is extremely generous to his fans. He holds weekly live online shows in which he chats with readers, answers our questions, and reads poetry for literally hours at a time. When asked why he is so eager to connect with his supporters, he says, “It is all a part of having a seat at the table in people’s lives.” I love that. I love that he will talk to his readers, take us seriously, and let us be involved in his life. He is so awesome that I just wish he could have a literal seat at the actual table in my dining room every night. I don’t just want to give him a chair. I want to give him a throne.

This is where it becomes a bit of a problem. Mr. Green is gracious and kind to his readers, but he can only do so much. He can only answer so many questions, or watch so many response videos, or visit so many cities. He can’t literally sit at a table in all of our lives. The social network he and Hank created has over 18,000 members. At one point he exceeded the possible number of friends allowed on Facebook. These numbers used to make me sad. He feels so accessible and is such a great guy that I find myself wanting him to know me. But as much as he may want to, he can’t. His words and ideas have touched me in a real and deep way, so I want to thank him, learn from him, and be a part of his life.

My life is different because of John Green, his books, and his message. He created a community of smart, passionate, mostly young people who can read critically, think deeply, and speak with proper grammar. His recent book Paper Towns is about trying to imagine other people correctly, an idea that is very close to my own m!sundaztood teenage heart. He is a symbol of everything I want to be: both popularly and critically acclaimed, both smart and funny, both mature and young, both humble and sure of himself. I needed to see that growing up does not mean selling one’s soul and that sometimes smart people who work hard are successful. He is, in short, everything I want to be. When I was recently watching a video a fan had made for Mr. Green’s birthday, she thanked him for being her mentor. And I was so jealous! I wanted that! I wanted him to be my mentor, my big brother, my English teacher, and my best friend. But for me to indulge myself with the urge to be close to him, I am imagining him incorrectly. He is not a symbol of something I want. He doesn’t need a throne. He is not a miracle. He is not a fine and precious thing. He is a man.

I needed something from John Green, but he does not need anything from me. The numbers shouldn’t daunt me, I should be ecstatic about them. When I had the chance to ask Mr. Green a question at his event in Phoenix in October, I asked, aren’t you incurably two-dimensional to your fans? Isn’t your fame a betrayal of your pursuit to have everyone try to imagine each other correctly? He said, to paraphrase: “Yes. But I ask my fans, like anyone else, to imagine me as a real guy.” He enjoys and delights in our gifts and videos, but I need to imagine him completely enough to know that he can’t watch them all, and be okay with that. I need to imagine him well enough to be able to share him. I don’t need to be sad that John doesn’t know me personally. I shouldn’t be jealous of a fellow fan because she is closer to him than I am, I should be happy for her and thankful that Mr. Green can be a mentor to someone, no matter if that person is me. I can believe in his movement and be a part of it without him actually sitting at my dining room table. He doesn’t ask for a throne, and he merely suggests that we watch his videos and read his books, even if we get it from the library. I shouldn’t want to give him a throne. I need to try to imagine him in terms of who he is, not in terms of who I am. I need to understand him as a regular man, a well-liked and likable man, who is grateful to have even a folding chair and a can of diet Squirt at the table in my life, even if he – regrettably! – can’t actually sit there very often.

John Green’s life is not drastically different because of me personally. But that’s okay! That’s good! Because my life is different, better, and more completely imagined because of him.

Visit John Green's website at

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Blabbermouth's Defense

I like to talk. About everything. About current events, past events, books, movies, anything. But I especially like to talk about people. I like to talk to people about themselves, about me, and even about other people. Though I would hardly say that I spread destructive slander (or in this case libel), I like to gossip. And I’m not going to apologize for it. In fact, I have a well-rounded case for talking about people who aren’t in the conversation in which I will prove that talking about people who are not present is not victimization, but an act of mercy.

Firstly, it is a foolish man who thinks it is possible that no one will talk about him ‘behind his back’, and an even more foolish man to want that. I love finding out that people have talked about me when I’m not around, because it means I exist to people other than myself, that I have made an influence on those around me, and that they remembered something I said or did well enough to talk about it later. I used to love finding out that the teachers in the English department had talked about an essay I’d written; I was flattered and delighted that I had made enough of an impression that they would discuss me among colleagues (this happened like, uh, twice). If I am lucky enough to hear what people say about me when I’m not around, I get a rare glance at how people view me. Sure, I know how I want to project myself, but I hardly ever get the chance to see if the signals I send out (so to speak) are the same signals that people pick up. Even if they say less than flattering things about me, if someone is brave enough to tell me about it, I can alter how I act or treat other people so that the next time people talk about me when I’m not around, it will be something I would be glad to hear.

When I talk about someone who is not in the immediate vicinity, I am consciously and absolutely paying him or her a compliment: something you did or said made me think enough to bring it up in conversation. It is much better that people talk about you than NOT talk about you, because that means you’re not making anyone think or laugh or remember. No mature person could possibly think they exist for others only when in direct encounters, or even think to hope for that kind of existence. We are always in existence for everyone we meet, whether close or far away, for each of us has our own unique imagining of every person we meet. If my imagining of a person is vivid enough that it demands attention even when the real person is gone, it is credit to the real person. All I ever hope to gain in talking to others about my imagining of someone is that I will be able to understand them better, to get the image I receive become that much closer to what they as a person really are, or at least what they project to the world.
If someone tries to hide the truth or keep a secret, it says she is conceited and pretentious. It is an act of subtle arrogance to think that you know what is best for a person, to think that you know that it will be better that they not see the truth of whatever silly secret you’re trying to hide. In other words, who are you to decide who hears the truth and who doesn’t? Who are you to decide what is best for others? If you do something you’re ashamed for other people to know, you probably shouldn’t have done it. If you are in some relationship that you don’t want other people to know about, you might need to evaluate just how good that relationship is. Secrets are exercises in absurdity and futility because they are always a pathetic means of drawing attention to an event or situation that deserves no notice, and would have gotten none if it has not been made into an all-important ‘secret’.

Secrets and gossip are ways that people try to elevate themselves over the people around them, and such lofty ambitions should be deflated accordingly. If I talk about something enough, it ceases to be so interesting. If I freely acknowledge and discuss a truth, rather than keeping it a secret, it does not hold such false importance. To hide or obscure the truth is worse than a lie, because it serves only to make the secret-keeper feel more important and garner ill-deserved attention. So when I talk about you when you’re not around, it’s a gift. When I tell others about something you did, it’s a favor. And when I invite you to do the same for me, it’s a challenge.

As always, readers, I invite your feedback and I would love to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One Man's Dungeon is Another Man's Dragon

Apologies for the extended hiatus. I flatter myself to think you missed reading my musings, lovely readers, and that you will start reading again.

At a common area here on campus there is a group that meets every day, and they are there for several hours at a time. They seem to have a strong sense of friendship and community, they welcome new members into their group, they eat together, they study together. From what I’ve gleaned while observing them as a sociological phenomenon, they look like a group of guys and girls that anyone would like to be a part of. That is, of course, excepting what it is that they do for those several hours: this subject field group in my study of people-who-don’t-know-I’m-watching-them is none other than the Fantasy Card-Game and Role-Play Club.
I’m sure that’s not their official name, and I’m sure that they all stopped caring if I watched them around the seventh grade. But as another part of my human behavioral study, I have also watched people watch this group, and I am fascinated by their reactions. Most people just smile and chuckle when they realize that there is indeed still a market for Pokémon card binders, or remark without viciousness, “I remember when those were, like, the coolest thing.” This is a perfectly natural and unjudgemental reaction; it’s about what I did the first time I noticed that the Dungeon and Dragons faction of society had relocated their fanastical battles from someone’s basement to the actual real world.
Then there is another group entirely – the group that would never deign to play an imaginative card game, or dress up as a wizard even once, or indulge the fantasy of a world where magic exists. When these people see the tables of knights battling orcs or supernatural beasts with special powers simulated on two-by-three cardboard, it’s not a smile and a chuckle that come to their faces. It’s a condemning snicker, a scoff, an “Omigawd, what a bunch of freaks” that leaves their lips. These reactions are thankfully infrequent, and while I realize I am overly harsh in my condemnation of these magicless nay-sayers, I also get overly upset with anyone who condemns a passion on a glance. Maybe these haters’ lives are so magical that they don’t understand the need for alternate realities. But I doubt it.
My real objection to those who laugh at a group of obviously intelligent people who display a sense of community and care is this: Why is uncool to have passions? Sure, I’m not so skilled at Dungeons and Dragons, and I wasn’t even cool enough for Pokemon when they were the coolest thing. But I appreciate anyone who is interested in anything. The time and effort it must take to learn all those rules, all those details of the elaborate other-worlds inhabited in those games, the community that is created when the players come together to ‘battle’, and even the open display of such a fringe passion, is commendable. We all have our own alternative realities, and it seems to me that the one of wizards and dragons that the card-players seem to favor is much better than the altered reality the rest of campus seems to like to escape to (that is to say, the State of Intoxication).
I have probably grossly misreferenced the games these people love so much, and I have probably misjudged both this group and those who condemn them. But from where I sit, watching them without having them watch me, to care deeply is to take a risk. To display one’s passions is to risk being watched, being lauded, or being condemned. And these are risks we should all be willing to take to make a few friends, have a little fun, or make a tiny piece of our fantasy worlds become real.