“Deep caving has no end. Every depth record is provisional, every barrier a false conclusion. […] A mountain climber can at least pretend to some mastery over the planet. But cavers know better.”—Burkhard Bilger, “In Deep" from The New Yorker
(Really fascinating piece about cave explorers and the strange unknown under the surface.)
I found this video through a Gizmodo article. It’s about an artist who created a 10-foot tall origami elephant from a single piece of paper.
It’s an example of how so many of the most striking ideas in art come from playing with basic art theory concepts. In this case, it’s scale. Most origami creations can fit in the palm of your hand, so why not flip the expectation on its head and make the biggest folded paper sculpture you can? The reverse principle explains why the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago are so popular.
The project also reminded me of the “Lead Balloon” episode of Mythbusters, which played with the conceptual contrasts of lightness and heaviness. All of these ventures make me giddy. I love to see how meticulous the artists are in executing their seemingly simple ideas. It’s really inspiring.
I just watched one of my favorite episodes of The Simpsons with the commentary. It’s “Stark Raving Dad,” the one with Michael Jackson.
Listening to the team talking about the behind-the-scenes action of working with the superstar was fascinating. Jackson had reached out to them and asked to be involved, taking the entire team by surprise. He wrote the darling “Lisa, It’s Your Birthday” song in addition to handling one of the show’s heftiest guest spots. Apparently the whole studio was pretty starstruck by working with him, which is so sweet considering the levels of celebrity the team now has.
I’d never listened to the commentary on The Simpsons before, and I loved hearing about their process. They talked about working with animators, testing out different storylines, and, most interesting, about some of the choices they made for the final product. They looked back on their own work, oohing over some of the great visuals as the episode ran. It was such a natural response to frames that look just perfect. They noted the scene of Homer walking into the plant with his pink shirt and the slow downward shot of a sad Lisa at the kitchen table, reacting viscerally and joyfully to the imagery that they’d half-forgotten about. They’re scenes that are so good you don’t really notice they’re good. Julie Kavner also pointed out a moment where Bart plucks the cord of the phone while he’s talking to Homer. They debated who’d thought to add in the little action, something so simple that you wouldn’t feel it missing if it had been omitted, but it added volumes of interest and personality to the shot.
The devil really is in the details. Tiny moments, whether in the specific camera angles or the character actions, make a huge difference in the texture and tone of the show.
It’s also just delightful to hear the writers and producers laughing at the jokes, even after twenty years. Great humor really can be timeless.
I imagine the biggest challenge to the writers of a movie like “Gravity” is how to capture such pure, primal panic in a way that feels true. Audience members expect a certain level of profound wisdom from a movie like this, one that clearly has an artistic vision and statement. But part of the appeal here is how realistically the director wanted to portray this catastrophic event in space. It’s a conundrum, as certain-death situations are not the time when most of us humans are at our most eloquent. So when you’re trying to create a realistic response to terror at the same time that you’re telling a very particular story, how can you possibly get it right?
My gut reaction walking out of the theater was that the script was too heavy-handed, too forced. The more I thought about it, though, the more I wondered if that approach was actually the best for the situation. After all, if I were in space, barely trained, alone, and facing my imminent demise, I might be inclined to say some pretty strange and strained things to myself in an effort to find some solace in my fate. I don’t know. I’ll probably never know. I’m totally okay with that.
So the movie has flaws. It may have a less-than-perfect script and some questionable scientific accuracies. It’s also the most unique, beautiful and visually ambitious movie I’ve seen in quite some time. I’d call that a win.
“It’s important to be yourself because the MOF competition is a picture of you and your ability. If there are too many people who influence your work, it’s no longer you.”—
Philippe Urraca, President of the Meilleurs ouvriers de France Pâtissier, in “Kings of Pastry”
It’s hard to stick with your gut when you’re an artist, especially when being the best at your craft means getting judged — formally or informally — by others.
I liked this documentary about the pastry chefs competing for the MOF title. It’s all about perfection and passion in your craft, and the sometimes strange traditions we use to recognize them. Also, if you aren’t heartbroken when the sugar sculpture breaks (because a sugar piece always breaks in these events), then something’s very wrong with you.
Lately I’ve been disheartened about working as a professional writer. Especially in the everything-is-free, anything-goes, soapboxes-for-all world of the Internet, this job feels like a constant battle to find work. This wonderful New York Times op-ed by Tim Kreider sums up the financial angle of the uphill struggle of creative life, and how dogged we have to be in convincing others that we are valuable.
I would love to see a world where good writing and art were properly compensated. Part of the issue really seems to be a lack of understanding about what it means to work online.
Browsing the web starts a butterfly effect. Our clicks are essentially endorsements for a type of story, or a publication, or a philosophy about material online. Reading poorly-written trash and then sharing it with your friends on Facebook isn’t just a chance for you to spark debate or share lols. You’re also telling that website, and others like it, to keep generating trash, because you shared it and you made money for that company by sharing it.
Online activity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Hitting the “share” button means more than the average reader seems to realize.
There’s an old-school mindset that every person should work at least one job in service and in retail in order to be a better future employee, as well as a smarter and more empathetic human being. I think it’s time that holding a job in the Internet economy also be added to that list. For an industry that has become so integral to how the modern world works, there is a frighteningly widespread ignorance of what makes the Internet tick. The importance of critical thinking and critical reading shouldn’t fly out the window just because we’re living in browsers instead of books.
I’ve been living in New York for nearly a month, and I’ve been putting off writing my Chicago farewell.
The first few weeks here seemed like an otherworldly vacation. Time was transient, I slept too much, and the apartment never felt like home. Part of me expected to pack up at any moment and go back to reality, to familiarity. I was decidedly unhappy.
I’m slowly getting used to the new setting. I think I’ll grow to like it quite a lot. In fact, I’m sure I will. On paper, New York is all the things I want in my city. But I don’t think I’ll ever fall in love.
I’ve never been able to articulate my loves well, even when they are wholly genuine. Anything I say carries shades of other people’s love. I can never come up with anything that sounds like a true reason why I — just me, and nobody else — would feel the way I do.
Maybe that’s the beauty of being in love. It’s complicated. It’s individual. Nobody else necessarily needs to understand all its nuances, and it’s possible that nobody ever could. We have to talk about it in whatever shared terms and experiences we have. So let’s talk about home.
When you love your home, it isn’t just for logical reasons. Home is a mixed love, an in-spite-of-it love. You know your home inside and out, and despite its all-too-apparent flaws, it’s kin. You love it for your shared history, for being able to reflect with a grin and say, “Remember that time when…” Your city doesn’t say anything back, but it does remember.
Home is the inside jokes, secrets, camaraderie, familiarity, loyalty. It’s your dysfunctional family, all three-point-something million of them.
My answer now when asked what I love most about Chicago is “spunkiness.” It’s a beautiful attitude where Chicago knows it isn’t as widely idolized as its counterparts, but doesn’t give a damn. Chicago does its thing, and is cool with it. Chicago has its own brand of moxie that I’ve never found elsewhere. For me, being in Chicago feels right. It feels like “yes.” If you’ve fallen in love with a place, if you’ve had that solid, tangible knowledge of home every time you see the dear buildings and walk the pavement, then I think you probably know what I mean.
So here’s to you, Chicago. I can’t wait to come back for a visit and renew our love affair. I’ve always been terrible at saying good-bye. It’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older, and apparently more sentimental. For now, let’s not call it ‘adieu,’ but rather ‘au revoir.’
New York…that whole ‘greatest city in the world’ reputation better have some meat to it. You have big shoes and big shoulders to replace.
“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”—
Yes. I did it. I finally read “The Great Gatsby.” What a beautifully crafted story. Some lines took my breath away. No lie. I read them and gaped at their aching loveliness, at how true and terrible they were. That’s the type of book I most admire, a real writer’s book.
“Daria: So it turns out that my life up til now has been a sham. I can’t write. I can’t produce a simple story.
Jane: Wow, Daria. I never figured you for a lack of imagination.
Daria: I have imagination. I can come up with all sorts of ideas, but none of them feels true.
Jane: Well, what’s your definition of “true”?
Daria: Something that says something.
Jane: What? Anything?
Daria: No, something. About something.
Jane: Let me get this straight: you’re telling me you want to write something, not just anything, that says something about something.
Jane: Gee. Who’d ever believe you’re having trouble communicating?”—
Daria, “Write Where It Hurts”
Yes, I’m watching through Daria again. It’s still wonderful.
“Zen is less the study of doctrine than a set of tools for discovering what can be known when the world is looked at with open eyes. Poetry can be thought of in much the same way…”—Jane Hirshfield, “The Heart of Haiku”
A trio of students from the Miami Ad School—Max Pilwat, Keri Tan and Ferdi Rodriguez—have came up with an innovative concept that allows people to read the first ten pages of popular books while riding the subway.
Using near field communications (NFC) technology, commuters select the desired book from a list of popular titles and read its first ten pages—upon finishing, the reader will be informed of the closest library location from which they can pick up and read the rest of the book.
This is a simple but ingenious idea that can be adopted and adapted to encourage reading in the 21st century, when new technology is changing the way we consume books.
Occasional eavesdropping is the best part of working at a coffee joint. Right now, there’s a woman relating a peculiarly sad family history behind me. She’s told her companion about how her father dropped dead and her mother got cancer. It’s also a story about religion, about Judaism. Being Jewish has been a key thread through her life. It helped form her identity as a young woman when hers was the only Jewish family in her suburban town. And now she works for an organization related to Jewish culture.
I love how willing most people are to tell everything about themselves. I have no idea how close a friend her companion is; I’d guess not very since she doesn’t know the family history. Maybe it’s a work friend, maybe an old schoolmate, maybe a lady from the same synagogue. But whatever the relationship is, this woman is totally at ease sharing her life story, her personal ties, her tragedies, her successes. I can’t see her and I don’t know her name, but I’m fascinated by what she’s saying. Clearly her companion is too, she keeps asking the pertinent questions to keep her talking.
There are stories everywhere. You can learn about spiritual identity and god in the cafe around the corner if you’re there at the right time and place. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to my work and my theology lesson.
Why 'Mass Effect' is my favorite video game I've never played
Okay, that’s a slight overstatement. “Mass Effect 2” was one of the first games I played, but I didn’t get more than 20 minutes into it. Taken completely out of context, the talk about biotics and The Illusive Man made no sense to me and I couldn’t get into the story.
Then, just last year, my boyfriend decided that he wanted to replay the first two games before tackling the final installment of the trilogy. I happened to wander into the living room while he was investigating the reappearance of the rachni. I plopped down on the couch and watched. Over the next few nights, I observed Shepard’s race to stop Saren from destroying the Citadel. By the time BF moved on to the second installment, I was asking him to wait to play until I’d be home.
I was totally invested in the story and the game. I got into debates about the characters and game structure with other friends who were replaying the series. I teared up when a certain scientist Salarian met his end. I squealed with glee almost every time Garrus opened his mouth. I thought the original ending of “Mass Effect 3” wasn’t nearly as horrendous as the fan backlash made it out, although the revision was a definite improvement.
My experience of watching “Mass Effect” was all the proof I needed in the argument about whether video games are art. They certainly can be. The trilogy certainly offered all the technical hallmarks of an artistic achievement, such as compelling dialogue, striking visuals, and ethical dilemmas. But the coolest thing about watching the game was how involved I got without being an artist in any way. I didn’t create the game and I’ve barely played it. Yet I was still able and excited to be a part of the experience of “Mass Effect.” I was the audience for a performance of the games and it triggered a strong emotional response in me that I wanted to share. It felt no different from being in the audience of a movie or a concert.
Nobody has the exact same definition of art. I don’t think it really matters how you want to define it. What’s important in the debates about video games is that enough people believe in the creative power of the medium to start making more complex, more exciting, and more beautiful titles. However they get classified, video games will start to make bigger, bolder statements and that is what matters.
I’m pleased to say that I do now have the first two “Mass Effect” games loaded on my computer. I can’t wait to take my turn as the artist.
This is my new favorite word. I started reading “The Shallows,” which is highly interesting, and the first few chapters are a crash course in neurology. Neuroplasticity means the malleability of the brain, the ability for our neurons to form new connections.
It’s a pleasing way to think of our brains, flexible and active, always changing. Much nicer than the concept of a mere computer clicking away in our skulls, which was the old paradigm. But even ‘neuroplasticity’ feels like an oxymoron to me. How could something as organic and dynamic as our brains be compared to the processed variations of plastic?
Despite the current understanding that our brains change, people seem to be locked into thinking of their minds as tools. Even the book refers to the brain’s response to changes in structure as “reprogramming.” And in casual conversations, I’ve heard the phrase “I just don’t have the bandwidth for it” used to explain feeling overwhelmed. Deep down, for all the wonders of how people think and feel, all the breakthroughs in understanding neurology, I think most of us secretly want to be cyborgs.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.”—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Crack-Up (via austinkleon)
This morning during breakfast, I learned that a young woman in the dance scene was killed in a drunk driving accident. I had never met her, didn’t even recognize her name, but as I saw the scattered “rest in peace” posts across social networks, I started crying into my oatmeal.
It doesn’t take any great stretch of empathy to imagine your closest loved ones being the names memorialized in shock and sadness. This young woman was that friend, that sibling, that daughter, that niece to a whole big web of people. So while those poor people are forced to adjust to a huge loss in their worlds, I am going to be angry on their behalf.
Never, ever, drink and drive. There is no excuse for that lack of personal responsibility. All it takes is a split-second to become a tragedy that you cannot undo but will wish with all your heart that you could.
A friend who knew the young woman was angry: “I hope this decision haunts you for the rest of your life.” Those exact words came out of my mouth just a week ago, when I saw an intoxicated young man grab onto the license plate of a car that had been honking at some pedestrians, then watched in horror as the car accelerated right over and through him and sped off. My boyfriend and I waited for the ambulance, then walked home clutching each other, unsure whether the young man would survive.
"That could be a human life on that driver’s conscience. And they just didn’t stop. How could you not stop? I hope that haunts them for the rest of their life."
Without telling each other, both my boyfriend and I scanned the police blotter headlines for the next few days. There was no mention of the hit and run. I hope that means he lived.
Even if you haven’t had a drop to drink, your car isn’t just a prized possession or a mode of transport. It’s a weapon. It may sound paranoid, but I try to remind myself of that every time I buckle into the driver’s seat. And when you are with car owners who have been drinking, be the one who does the right thing, even if they aren’t. Then be sure to tell them in the morning, when they’re good and lucid, just how foolish and dangerous they nearly were.
Take your friend’s keys. They’ll fight you on it, they’ll tell you that it’s okay (trust me, I’ve done this before). When you know you’ll be drinking, arrange for a sober friend to take the wheel on the way home (I’ve done this before too). Take the bus or shell out for a cab. Sleep over on a friend’s couch. You have so many choices, and if you can’t make a safe one yourself, get somebody to do it for you.
Just don’t drink and drive. Human life is worth more than that.
I’ve decided that this will be the year I return to my fiction roots. That means NaNoWriMo.
Even though I love the idea of NaNo, I’ve only participated once before. In 2007, I churned out a horrifically bad historical romance. It was incredibly fun. But I haven’t spent much, if any, time since then working on fiction because by November of the next year I was writing as a full-time job.
I’m not the first person to observe that writing is exhausting business. For three years, I spent the wee early hours writing health care news. It wasn’t the sort of work that left me desperate to get back on the computer and typing. I was more desperate for naps and coffee.
But the longer I’ve gone without the time to devote to telling stories, or even to reading them, the more I’ve missed doing so. Many artistic people chafe against deadlines, but I’ve often found that they push creativity in new directions, stretching and building ideas like muscles. I have definitely let some of my creative powers atrophy in the past years, or simply channeled what I had into dancing. NaNo will be the best kind of exercise.
The strangest thing about freelancing so far is how meaningless time is. Not in an existential, empty way, though. It’s just so much more fluid than when I worked a standard job. I’ve let myself drift in and out of very peculiar patterns: turning in at 4 AM and sleeping til noon; working after midnight; spending time reading, cooking, or dancing whenever the spirit moves me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a “normal” time to do any of those activities. I don’t have to think about “normal.”
It’s disconcerting, and it has taken me some time to come to terms with the level of randomness and spontaneity in my days. Deep down, I’m a creature of habit. But as I’ve gotten used to the new lifestyle, I’ve found I have time for my hobbies again. I’ve found time to play the flute after years of ignoring it. I’ve started gaming in earnest. I’m reading more than ever. And I still spend a good amount of time working and pitching stories. I think this is a sign of job satisfaction.
Last Wednesday afternoon, I learned that Tecca.com was shutting down. I wrote for them for only five months, my second gig after going freelance. The sudden closure of the site meant that a great resource and about half my regular income was disappearing. It was an unwelcome shock.
What a funny coincidence then that earlier that day, I’d been browsing the archives of zenhabits.com and came across this recent post: http://zenhabits.net/uncertainty/
When something new happens, when you don’t know — we often see this as bad. But can we re-frame it so that it’s something joyful? Not knowing means we are free — the possibilities are limitless.
I certainly can’t put a positive spin on the dissolution of the Tecca team. Seeing so many great and talented folks, many with families, suddenly without jobs is no joke. But I can see the excitement of what it means for me. I decided to take the freelance path because I wanted those limitless possibilities. I craved a chance to prove myself, my words, and my ideas. As someone drawn to but fearful of routine, this was a reminder of the need to keep pushing. To keep working and to keep writing.
Writing about social media marketing frequently ends up being a discussion of how to engage your lowest common denominator, since most people on the Internet are wildly, painfully dumb. It makes me so unexpectedly happy when I find a campaign that’s not just taking the easy route, but is actually trying to engage people in a quirky and delightful way. I just wish they weren’t so few and far between.
I grew up in a house where watching television was a pretty rare occurrence. Almost everything I watched was courtesy of PBS, from Sesame Street to Reading Rainbow to the News Hour (good old Jim Lehrer!). In fact, I never watched TV just for fun until college.
For the most part, that never bothered me. Sure, I missed out on a few entertainment touchstones, but that didn’t seem to stop me from becoming a culturally savvy person. And then, about a year ago, I was enjoying a mellow Saturday on the couch and poking around on Hulu for something new to watch.
"Oh," I thought to myself, "I’ve heard good things about that show Daria.”
The good things could not have been more right. Sure, I hugely appreciate and adore the show now as an adult, but I wish that little teenaged me could have watched it first. Teenaged me wasn’t nearly as curmudgeonly or cynical as the show’s heroine, but boy, could I have used a modern role model like her.
I would never suggest that reading wasn’t worthwhile for me. Not only did it did give me all those heroines to look up to, but it made me into a wildly imaginative kid. It made me want to be a writer when I grew up.
But I would suggest that for all my parents’ worries about me rotting my brain, Daria would have been a great friend to have too. I was slow to be critical of authority, which really should be a phase for every teenager. I spent too much time working for grades just to get the letter, because that’s what smart girls do. I could have used more of Jane’s artistic temperament and Trent’s lackadaisical attitude toward the small stuff. And I even could have used a teensy bit of Quinn’s interest in fashion, beauty, and dating (man, was I late to the party on those).
So my suggestion to any parents or parents-to-be, is to remember that a little television and a little rebellion are not necessarily bad things for a teenager. It’s hard to live in this world without at least a little bit of both, so you might as well let your kids learn about them early on.
Through a quirk of OS updating, I wound up with two copies of my entire iTunes library, but only one set actually plays. Which means I’ve been spending a little time every day for the past few weeks chipping away at deleting the useless duplicates.
The good thing about being a DJ is that you acquire a huge collection that’s somehow never big enough. The bad thing about being a DJ is that you acquire a huge collection that’s unmanageable. Another bad thing more specific to me, is that I’d forgotten whole genres by focusing on blues and jazz. So being forced to look at each and every track in my collection has been a wild trip into nostalgia.
I still have tracks by The Moody Blues, which was the first band I ever saw live. My family listened to them on cassette tapes in the car. I have the movie and stage cast recordings of My Fair Lady, another cassette joy that is permanently tattooed onto my brain. I’ll be able to sing “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” in a fake Cockney accent on my dying day. I have possibly every album by Yes, because my dad thought I should have them. I have Herb Alpert and Clifford Brown because my brother plays the trumpet. I have Puccini and Lyle Lovett, courtesy of my mother. I have Guster and Ben Folds, which I came to late at, of all places, a classical music camp. I have Hoobastank and The Hippos, because they were my best friend’s favorites in high school.
I have music from every single guy I’ve dated (Go Home Productions, Gorillaz). I have songs I got because I thought they were cool but never got into (Wilco, Sigur Ros). I have music I’m slightly embarrassed about, but only slightly (sugary 60s and 90s pop). I have lots and lots and lots of music I love.
Of course, this isn’t a phenomenon unique to me. Anyone who’s ever had a favorite band can trace their life history in the same way. That universality is pretty neat.
As a kid, I once told a teacher, “I’m not a math and science person.” Throughout the rest of my young adult life, my mom would occasionally give me grief about that statement. Why would I want to limit myself in my own mind? Even if I didn’t enjoy those classes so much, that didn’t mean I should only let arts and literature make up my interests. I’d roll my eyes after she said those things. I just wanted to read and write stories, and you don’t need chemistry or biology to do that.
And I was right about that. You don’t need to understand science to be a writer. But what I’ve learned over the last few years is that science is damn cool. The adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” is so apropos here. Today, I’d rather read science than science fiction. And I’d rather write it, too. It reminds me how amazing our world is, how much we have to learn, how we can still discover that we were wrong. And it means the fiction can create about our world gets stranger, weirder, and more magical. It’s an exciting and broad field, and I consider myself lucky that I get a chance to write about it almost every day.
So yes, mom, you were right. I don’t want to limit myself. I want to write the Great American Novel and also write about science in all its astonishing, error-laden, confusing, and surprising glory.
Jeffrey Kuhn of the University of Hawaii at Pukalani and colleagues discovered that the sun is not the shape scientists thought it was. Common knowledge within the space research community said that the day star was flexible in shape, flexing and changing in response to its own intense magnetic forces. But the team in Hawaii said that in fact, the sun’s shape never changes. Read more at http://www.tecca.com/news/2012/08/17/sun-shape-scientists/#8i8PlFB4GSEW4sV8.99
I first heard about them in college (of course). A friend of mine had suggested that I read the excellent webcomic Questionable Content, where the hipster protagonist and his friends frequently shoot the shit about music. The author also gives music recommendations, and in those early days, the list of suggested listening included “Funeral.” I hated it on first listen. Too weird, too busy, too different from the familiar. Except for this song. It was my indie music gateway track. Still love it.
It’s been a long time since I thought about the storms of my college days. We waited for them, the sudden pounding downpours that would evaporate to nothing within sixty seconds. I’d sit at my desk, one eye on the window and one ear alert to the first patter of raindrops. I’d tell myself I was working still, but I had no concentration on schoolwork.
The first drops of those storms almost always fall with a breeze. They’re indistinguishable at first from the sound of rustling leaves. But I know. I really do feel it in my bones.
As soon as the rain began, I’d tear out of my room, down the hall, yelling out “Rain dance!” at the top of my lungs. Down the stairs and into the downpour. A few friends would follow the call. And we’d frolic; there’s no better word to describe the careless joy of that dancing. The graceful lines of past ballet training meeting the glee of emptying a puddle in a single bound. Running around the quad, skipping and spinning, because why on earth wouldn’t we?
And after a minute, gone. We’d giggle and shiver and go back up to our rooms.
Deep down, I have a wide competitive streak. It’s something I’ve tapped into only recently, since the first time I didn’t make the finals in a dance competition and suddenly realized that I really, really wanted to. It’s new enough that I’m still figuring out how to deal with the preparation, the pressure, and the performance.
Tomorrow I will load two playlists onto my ipod before flying to Atlanta. One is titled “Choreo.” The other is titled “Swagger.” We’ll see what happens.
I’m a gal who does make New Year’s Resolutions. Even though my ability to keep them is pretty lackluster, I do like having a time and a reason to assess my situation and think about how to make it as great as possible. My 2012 list covers minor and major items, from hosting more dinners to finding a new job. But I think the most important resolutions I’ve made are about overall changes to living.
The first: stop comparing myself to others. This will be incredibly challenging for me, but it’s a damaging habit. It’s got to end. Belief in my own skills and talents should be more than enough.
Second resolution: have more faith in myself. So cliche, but so important.
I went out for drinks tonight with my coworkers, but the best conversation I had was with an easy-going stranger who was hitting on me. The screenwriter/anthropologist told me that after badly breaking his leg at age 25, he spent a year as an invalid and realized the importance of pursuing your creative outlets. “Nobody’s going to make them happen for you.” Nothing he said was especially new or insightful. But it was reassuring to hear from such an unexpected source that you might as well stop freaking out about the scary stuff and just do the damn thing you want already.
If it wasn’t a Sign, at least it was a comforting solidarity.
I biked for three miles and some change this evening. It’s a crisp, clear fall night. Dark. Brilliant. I ducked down secluded one-way streets, weaving over the pavement. A whiff of smoke caught my attention; family and friends were having a bonfire in their backyard. It was a good ride.
Today was the most frustrating I’ve had in many months. It featured many sobering reminders about human nature and human interaction.
Things started off with watching an episode of The Daily Show with the boyfriend, sparking one of our rare discussions about politics. I tend to avoid the topic for my own sanity; I don’t need the blood pressure spike or the helpless anger. At any rate, he places the blame for our current political circus on the media: media has to make money -> media runs sensationalist stories -> politicians act sensational. To me, though, that isn’t getting to the root of the problem. The media highlights sensationalism because that is what people want; it’s the fault of the news consumers. When the general populace is satisfied with a headline rather than an investigation, a soundbite rather than a fact, then media and politicians will fill that demand. It’s irrational. It’s dumb. And I can think of no good way to convince dumb, irrational people just how dangerous their thinking is. The ongoing realization of just how many dumb, irrational people are out there in the world has been eroding my optimistic viewpoint. I can’t believe it’s come to this, but the truth is…I’m becoming a pessimist. I’m more and more certain that things will get much worse before they can get better.
Next came a more local and personal example of human nature at its worst. This afternoon, my social group exploded in a fierce online discussion. People defended their actions, attacked the choices of others. Egos clashed. Side arguments branched off from the main trunk. It was, an will continue to be, a debate worthy of the 24-hour news channels. The actual argument is moot; the point is that any social group, no matter how exemplary its individual members, will fragment. Leaders will emerge, factions will form. Politics are not confined to government.
Today reminded me that everyone has an agenda. Maybe we’ll find solutions to our problems, big and small, but in the end someone’s agenda will win and someone’s will lose. And nobody in politics wants to lose.
I’ve been on a hip-hop kick of late, and it’s been doing good things for both my mood and my dancing. The best discovery is an album by Atmosphere called “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold.” Best title ever. It’s become my new mantra.
The album’s been in my library for years, but this past week was the first time I’d listened to it in full. Occasionally tracks would pop up when I was listening on random and I’d be intrigued by the sharp, honest storytelling and melodic back beats. But I never settled down to give it a fair listen. I stand by my belief that sometimes you aren’t quite ready to experience a work of art, and it bides its time, waiting for your right moment. For me and this album, that time built up over the past few weeks of feeling down, frustrated, tired. I needed to hear songs about hurt and sadness, songs about struggle and getting by.
This retro, funky groove is one of my favorite tracks. For starters, horns on the chorus will always give me shivers. But it’s the simple sincerity of that chorus that slays me.
Everything is all I have to give you But I’m afraid it ain’t enough You’re not so young that you believe me Just because I say it’s love
Even if they come to steal you tomorrow I’ll know my smile was yours Go ahead and chase your dreams and your freedom Run run wild wild horses You can’t tame these horses
Getting catcalls on the street doesn’t usually bother me. The world could use more compliments, after all. On a day when I’m in a good mood and have pulled together an outfit I’m proud oh, it’s a nice validation when a stranger says I look beautiful. “Why yes,” I think to myself, “I do.” Even some of the more explicit comments don’t phase me, like the time an older man walked up behind me and said “Baby got back.” Yes, it’s a ballsy and kind of rude thing to say to a stranger. And I understand the anger many women have toward catcalls, charging that they objectify and sexualize women.
But at the same time, a stranger’s only impression of a gal walking down the street is physical. We don’t spend time striking up actual conversations with unknown people while going about our days. The catcallers I’ve observed are not looking for a meaningful human connection. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They’re either giving a genuine compliment or being crass because they can get away with it. They don’t care about my college education or volunteer work or Spanish fluency. And I don’t care about their lives either. So I have no qualms feeling good about receiving kind statements and laughing at the sexual ones.
There is one exception.
Don’t tell me to smile for you.
I think telling me to smile is a more objectifying situation than one that’s blatantly sexual. A woman doesn’t lose her agency as a person by being sexy or sexual. That is part of her identity, a trait like any other than she can flaunt or hide, give or withhold as she pleases. So a man who says, “Nice ass” is essentially giving a compliment. The statement is about me. I’m attractive and he appreciates that.
But when a strange man tells me to smile? Now it’s about him. Now it’s a power play. Now I either smile because I was told to or I ignore him and am a bitch (oh the horror). Now I’m an object. By telling me to smile, he is trying to wedge himself into my feelings, a place where a stranger has no right to be. I probably have reasons for not smiling and no random person on the street needs to know them.
Like many of the worst and most entrenched cases of oppression, this is a very subtle distinction. Perhaps its one that only exists in my brain. I’m also pretty sure that in at least some of the times that has happened, the statement wasn’t meant in meanness. But the men who ask me to smile do want and expect a response. Whereas when a guy says “Mmm, I’d like to take that home!” to a girl on the street, I doubt he expects her to turn around and say “Sure.” In the latter situation, I might give the guy a grin of thanks, roll my eyes or just brush past. But whatever I do, the choice of action is mine. That’s the important part.
So what’s the solution? Those who consider catcalls a derogatory insult say that women can’t turn the tables because men would love it if women randomly complimented them on the street. It would seem, then, that women should adopt that hypothetical attitude of men being catcalled. Why shouldn’t we enjoy being good-looking people? I would love to see a society where catcalling had a positive connotation. I’ve gotten compliments from strangers of all genders, ages and races about my hairstyle and I can’t get enough of them. How great would it be if women and men could feel attractive in public spaces? If great eyes, shoulders and asses were appreciated on everyone?
As far as the smile mandate, I don’t really have an answer. Thoughts?