Thursday, August 28, 2014

Six oh six five two

Suddenly, it becomes abundantly clear why I never received a comic activity book.

Karaoke kindness

It's my turn to sing at karaoke, and given my affinity for breakup songs with no-no words, I'm going with Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know."

The song is directed towards a man, though, which is a problem, what with my heterosexuality and inability to change pronouns on the fly and whatnot.

So I preface my performance with this dedication:

I want to dedicate this song to my ex-girlfriend, who I just found out is dating my best friend. 
(crowd oohs à la Saved by the Bell
So, Amy, this is for you and Claire. 
(crowd cheers à la Saved by the Bell: The New Class)

And I butcher this song in a decidedly unkosher manner -- I'm wildly off-key, I'm smushing lyrics together, and midway through the song, I utter the phrase, "Oh, there's more? Sorry, I'm not sober." (Sadly, I was very sober.)

But afterwards? Applause, high-fives, and assurances that I'm "gonna be fine, buddy."1

It remains my firm belief that karaoke brings out the best in humanity: we all have each other's backs; our flaws are seen as lovely and charming; and complete strangers are willing to donate confidence in the form of semi-intoxicated, good-hearted cheering to anybody who needs it. What's not to love?

I say this in all seriousness, and please consider this a legitimate, legally-binding request2: I want karaoke at my funeral, please. You know as well as I do that that's going to be amazing.

1I did feel kind of bad about sponging off the encouragement of others under false pretenses, but here's my perhaps entirely unsatisfying rationalization: Without the backstory, I'm just another incompetent singer the crowd has to tolerate. With the backstory, my performance becomes a gripping, emotional journey; a musical Bildungsroman written aloud with the words of one of Canada's greatest heroes. When we do karaoke, we're already playing a character; there's no crime in taking it a small step further.

2This sounds like a joke, but I can't emphasize enough how serious I am. I mean, I'm assuming my funeral will be at least a little sad maybe, but how great would it be if somebody picked up the mic and started singing this.

The Jane Eyre Epiphany

"The Jane Eyre Epiphany":

Love is not a necessary component of respect, but respect is a necessary component of love.

Or, stated another way, you can respect someone without loving them, but you can't love someone without respecting them.

Many well-meaning people say things like, "You need a relationship based on love and respect." The sentiment is admirable, but it's not a good idea to separate out "respect" from "love." It implies that love can exist without respect, and it can't.

Love means different things to different people, and a universal definition is probably impossible to develop. But I hope we can at least agree that if you don't respect someone, you don't get to get to call what you direct towards them love. It may be fondness, or twitterpation, or horniness dressed up in flowery language, but it's not love.

If you don't trust them, it's not love.

If you control or manipulate them, it's not love.

If you dismiss their thoughts and opinions, it's not love.

If you don't care if they're happy, it's not love.

If you constantly belittle them, it's not love.

If you selfishly lie to them, it's not love.

If you knowingly waste their time, it's not love.

I agree that we should try to move beyond the idea of love as merely a fuzzy feeling, but we should be careful about uncoupling love and respect. It's not just a harmless pleonasm to say "love and respect"; it subtly changes the way we think about love.

Love should be observable and provable, and an "I love you" in its purest form shouldn't be some huge revelatory declaration, but rather a quiet affirmation of what your actions have already made clear.

Garden State at 10: Junioritis and home

On the first day of one of my sophomore year classes, our professor had us do a getting-to-know-each-other activity in which we all wrote down a dozen fun facts about ourselves on a piece of paper. Once we were all done, we'd introduce ourselves to each other, and, for every fact that somebody had written down that applied to you as well, you were supposed to put your initials next to the item.

I remember my fun fact that got the most initials: "I still love the movie Garden State," with the underline. More than half of the people with whom I spoke initialed it, and many of them actually repeated it back: "I still love it too," verbalizing the underline themselves. I'm not sure when the backlash against Garden State happened, but whenever it did, it happened hard enough that I felt compelled to couch my love for the movie with a defensive, self-aware still.

This past July was the ten-year anniversary of the movie (and this past week was the ten-year anniversary of me watching it), and many folks on the Internet have taken the opportunity to write thinkpieces on the movie -- either to smack it around further, or to offer some defense of it with an implied "It's not as bad as you remember!"

I don't have any unique, gamechanging defense of Garden State; rather, I'll just say that the hate for the movie is kind of absurd. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination ("New Slang" did not change my or anyone else's life1, for instance), but there just isn't anything in the movie that should inspire anything worse than mild to moderate annoyance if it isn't your thing, let alone the accusations of cinematic malpractice frequently leveled at it.

Garden State, it's worth pointing out, got a very strong 86 percent at Rotten Tomatoes and a decent 67 points at Metacritic. Critics can be wrong, of course, but those numbers do suggest that the hostility towards Garden State isn't because it was a Terrible Movie That Everybody Agrees Was Terrible2.

In any case, the movie still means a lot to me, and I consider it among my favorite movies of all time. My DVD of the movie -- given to me, incidentally, by my AP comparative government teacher who bought it on my enthusiastic recommendation and subsequently hated it4 -- has been played more often than any other DVD I own, in part because Garden State has been one of my go-to AV comfort foods for a decade now. Here's why I think that is.


I saw Garden State at the start of my junior year of high school5, which is pretty much the best time for this sort of movie to have maximum impact. Consider this: Junior year is the oldest you'll be at high school without feeling like you're too old for high school.

In senior year, of course, high school feels irrelevant. You usually have the lightest course load -- a few AP classes here and there, or maybe a PE requirement you've been putting off, or study halls that transofrm into impromptu trips to the beach and/or Chili's. Or you've dual-enrolled at a local college and the physical high school itself is irrelevant. By October, you've probably applied to most of your favored colleges, and by January, most everybody knows where they're going after high school. It becomes very clear that your academic career will not end if you half-ass a SparkNotes-inspired Jane Eyre essay.

More importantly, the non-academic parts of your high school life start to feel irrelevant, too. Things that once seemed so important -- your friends' weekly movie night, emotional fallout from a failed relationship, trying to ask out someone you've been crushing on for months -- suddenly feel meaningless. As friends announce their plans to move to different cities, a sense of "We're probably never going to see each other again" hangs in the air; "We'll keep in touch on MySpace6" seems less an empty but well-intentioned promise and more an affirmation of just how far apart you guys will be.

Junior year is the opposite situation. College is still far enough away that high school still feels very real, but not so far away that you don't feel pangs of urgency -- oh shit, high school is halfway over! This is my last chance to leave this place with a bunch of amazing friendships, cool stories, and memories that'll last forever! It's this urgency that makes junior year so potentially transformational. It's the only year where high school feels both urgent and important because there's just enough time left that accomplishing goals seems both feasible and worthwhile but not enough time that you can afford to put it off.

And junior year is hopeful. There's hope that you really will be best friends forever with someone, instead of grimly thinking that all your high school friends are doomed to become "acquaintances with whom you occasionally get coffee and perfunctorily rehash old stories." There's hope that the parties or beach days or late-night coffee chats or road trips will still seem cool and significant and "what life is all about" two or three years from now. There's hope that a crush can be the one you love forever -- and not just your final pre-collegiate sex buddy a week before you each move into your dorms.

So if senioritis, broadly defined, is the apathy induced by the feeling that a particular stage of life (like high school) is no longer relevant because it will soon be over and nothing meaningful or important can be done in the time left, I think junioritis is the spurt of urgent activity caused by a realization that a particular stage of life is almost over coupled with the hope that there is still enough time left to do something meaningful and important.

Which brings me back to Garden State. The movie's main argument -- that allowing yourself to feel and experience life even if it hurts is better than numbing yourself to everything -- isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff, but for a junior who was very aware that high school was halfway over, it was a call to action: to build and deepen friendships and relationships, to trust my friends and share parts of my soul I had previously kept to myself, and to try to have completely original moments in human history.

In other words, typical high school angsty stuff. But I don't mean to sound dismissive; I'm grateful that Garden State was there to kick my ass into taking more emotional risks, and to assure me that whenever those risks resulted in some heartache, what I felt was better than not feeling anything at all.

Home and the "Garden State moment"

The other big takeaway from Garden State was one that only clicked once I came back home from college during my freshman year Thanksgiving break. In the movie, Zach Braff talks about "home":

You know that point in your life when you realize the house you grew up in isn't really your home anymore? All of a sudden, even though you have some place where you put your shit, that idea of home is gone. ... You'll see one day when you move out. It just sort of happens one day, and it's gone. You feel like you can never get it back. It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist.

I wrote about this in my college newspaper as a part of a series of columns offering advice to freshmen. In the column, I defined the "Garden State moment" as "the moment where you feel that something with which you grew up that seemed so significant, comforting or protective just isn't all that relevant to your current life anymore," and offered as an example the moment when you come back home from college, visit an old friend, and discover that one or both of you have moved on.

What I didn't realize is that your twenties are a minefield of Garden State moments. Your twenties, after all, are these years that are filled with transition: new jobs, new cities, new people, new priorities. Your twenties are tough on every kind of relationship -- it's hard enough when you're making a conscious, concerted effort to maintain friendships; it's damn near impossible to rely solely on increasingly faded shared memories to keep them alive.

For all of Garden State's flaws, it does a remarkable job of capturing the feeling of lacking grounding and emotional homelessness. To be sure, there are more serious problems (e.g., actual homelessness), but for those wandering through their twenties, it can be soothing to the soul. I like this line from the now-defunct Premiere magazine's review: "Not since The Graduate has a movie nailed the beautiful terror of standing on the brink of adulthood with such satisfying precision."

I think Garden State is, in essence, a movie about not having your shit together, and the dislike -- if not necessarily the revulsion -- directed towards the movie is understandable if you have little patience for that. It's a movie that's awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest, which can be tedious, but as far as losing your sense of home and finding a new one goes, "awkward and heartfelt and messy and earnest" is some kind of perfect.

1Except James Mercer's, I guess.

2Personally, I think it's some combination of: (1) how cool it is to hate Zach Braff now; (2) the navel-gazing films of often-poor quality that Garden State influenced; (3) a desire to put distance between one and a younger, presumably more embarrassing version of oneself that happened to like Garden State to prove unconsciously that one has matured; and (4) the desire for pop-culturally aware folks to show that they dislike the right things by being particularly vociferous about things that they normally wouldn't feel that strongly about, the way that people pretend to get all flustered and angry about Comic Sans3 even though nobody can articulate a real reason why they're that bothered by it. That, or they just really didn't like the movie. Whatevs, that's cool, too.

3Truthfully, I don't even like Comic Sans, but there's a smugness that permeates the Comic Sans hate, and smugness predicated on groupthink is kind of obnoxious. And the oft-stated reason for hating the font -- it's used in inappropriate settings -- doesn't really seem to justify the outsized scorn for it. WARNING: QUARANTINE ZONE - DEADLY AIRBORNE DISEASE! It looks weird, true, but do you really care? In conclusion, that's why all my emails and faxes at my previous job were in Comic Sans, and that's possibly why it is now my "previous" job.

4Well before the backlash, to his credit.

5I saw Garden State with who was, in theory, one of my close friends in high school. In practice, our friendship was kind of a disaster -- filled with angst and hurt feelings and so many awkward lunches in which none of our mutual friends were aware of how much we sometimes hated each other. But! She did become my go-to person with whom I could see off-the-beaten-path movies, a job that few of my other friends wanted, so I'm thankful for that. I remember taking her to see Brokeback Mountain, telling her it was a cowboy movie but omitting the fact that it was a movie about gay cowboys, and it was a moment of unbridled joy watching her shock at the first sex scene. I also took her to see Serenity; we went to a Sunday mid-afternoon show because I figured it'd be less crowded, but no -- we open the theater door, and we're immediately greeted with a packed theater and the scent of nachos and intense body odor. Yelling "For fuck's sake, Browncoats, I'm with a girl here!" was running through my mind. (She, like my AP government teacher, didn't really like Garden State, either.) 

6Yes, MySpace. This is a thing several people actually wrote in my yearbook. I'm old.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Olmec? More like Oldmec, am I right?

Do you want to feel old? Just think -- those $50 savings bonds from Ring Pop that the Silver Snakes and Blue Barracudas got when they couldn't get past the Steps of Knowledge probably reached maturity a long time ago.

Do you want to feel even older? There are people who can legally drink who will never have any idea what I'm talking about.

Nearly lucid dreaming

The other night, I had a dream in which I nearly realized I was dreaming.

I say "nearly," because as my dream self was telling another character in my dream that I suspected that I was asleep, he tried to prove that this couldn't possibly be a dream by:
  • Reciting several scientific facts and pointing out that I wasn't knowledgeable about science at all; and
  • Telling me a hilarious joke and saying that I wasn't funny enough to come up with that on my own
In other words, my subconscious lied to me, and then said that I'm dumb and unfunny to try to get me to believe the lie. And it worked.

My subconscious is a dick.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

"Girls" versus "women"

The argument, made by many people, for why you should call an adult female person a "woman" instead of a "girl" is self-evident and compelling: The word "girl," like "boy," refers to a child, and an adult woman is not a child, and women have historically faced (and currently still face) discrimination from those who treat them as less than intelligent, autonomous, fully-grown human beings.

So why do so many people—myself included, admittedly—continue to call adult female people "girls"?

Setting aside the people who are indeed actively trying to undermine women by infantilizing them, the most likely explanation is just a failure of language. There's no agreed-upon female counterpart to the word "guy," and in the absence of a casual way to refer to a female person, "girl" has, for better or worse, wound up being the most natural-sounding alternative1.

For those who have issues with facing the realization that they are knee-deep into adulthood and getting older, referring to women who are their age as "girls," even if they're adults, may offer some reassurance that they're not old yet. (And I'm not sure why I used the third person here, because that's pretty much me. Maybe girls still refer to me as a boy! But I'm guessing many just refer to me as old.)

But I want to float another possibility: the idea of thoughtful people interpreting the word "girl" as a demeaning slur kind of sucks if you are, in fact, a girl.

I'm not suggesting that girls aren't able to hear "there's nothing wrong with being a girl, but women deserve to be called a word that accurately reflects their age" and understand it, of course. But our culture hammers home the idea that being a girl is bad, frequently and assiduously2: Bad at sports? You throw like a girl. Cowardly? You're being girly. Immature and petty? You're acting like a teenage girl. It's some pernicious stuff, and all sorts of people—from a tough-guy governor to a dweebish game show contestant—toss it around without a second thought.

It's not a coincidence that if you want to insult a boy, words like "bitch" or "pussy" are thrown around. Or, as Jessica Valenti wrote:

Royally fucked up indeed.

I don't pretend to know the answers here. Obviously, adults in a professional setting should be referred to using accurate terminology, which means using "women" to describe adult female people. And in general, I think we should call people what they want to be called, and if a woman wants to be called a woman instead of a girl, it's basic human decency to respect that.

But at the same time, as sound and logical as the reasoning may be, there's something optically awkward about saying that "Girls are amazing!" while saying that you really, really don't want to be called a girl.

The reality is that girls get so much shit just for being girls. Ours is a culture that does not foster respect for women, yes, but it seems to reserve a special contempt for girls in particular—the music they listen to, the books they read, even the way they talk. They're used as an antonym for brave or level-headed or strong or rational3.

And while they're probably used to hearing "girl" being hurled as a pejorative from the jerks in their lives, it's got to be a bummer to hear smart, confident women—the kind of women they might want to grow up to be like—seemingly considering it a pejorative, too.

1Even this flowchart created by Shawna Hein which suggests "lady-dudes" as an alternative doesn't really solve the problem. Even though she's joking, "lady-dudes" is arguably worse than "girls"—by appending "lady" to "dude," it's defining women in terms of men by suggesting that "dude" is the default setting and "lady" is an ancillary variation. I'll put away my women's studies-and-linguistics double-major now. (No, not really.)

2I remember a time when the kids in my neighborhood were playing in the streets, and one of the boys tried to insult a girl by saying, "Ugh, you're such a girl." That would have been disheartening enough, but then the girl replied, with great indignation, "Don't call me that!" This stuff's internalized pretty early, huh?

3I cringe whenever I hear people—particularly women—use the phrase "man up." I guess it's at least plausible that they mean to contrast "man" with "boy," but let's be real: the opposite reciprocal of "man" is "girl," and given how oh-no-terrible it is for a man to be a bitch or a pussy or otherwise girly, it's pretty clear what the subtext is.

Friday, August 15, 2014

“The crowd will love you for being brave”

Some lyrics from Her Space Holiday's song "The Day In Review":

If life is one big symphony,
Don't play your part too cautiously
Let your fingers make mistakes
The crowd will love you for being brave

I like these lyrics because they're a call to be bold and take chances and make a mess occasionally.

However, I love these lyrics because they're also a call to all of us to recognize when others are being bold and taking chances and to support them even if they make a mess occasionally.

Don't get me wrong: Mistakes that are the product of thoughtlessness or selfishness or dickishness are obviously bullshit. But mistakes that are made while trying to do something creative or interesting, while trying to find meaning and purpose, while trying to make someone feel loved—those are good and honorable and necessary.

If we want a world that's more vibrant, more thoughtful, and more honest, that means making an effort to distinguish honorable mistakes from bullshit ones. And it means making people feel comfortable—or at least, unpunished—for taking meaningful creative, emotional, or professional risks, even if especially if they don't work out.

And if I want the crowd to love me for being brave, I have to remember that I'm a part of the crowd for everybody else, and that their minor acts of bravery deserve just as much encouragement as my own.

Two short Scrabble stories

The 2014 National Scrabble Championship just concluded, so here are a couple of Scrabble stories.

My proudest Scrabble moment:

I'm terrible at Scrabble, but I love the psychological meta-game of playing fake words and trying to get away with it1. It's a tricky little ballet—you've got to convey surprise and mild contempt that your opponent is even considering challenging your word (to sow doubt in your opponent's mind) while simultaneously making it seem like you want your opponent to challenge your word (since an unsuccessful challenge results in your opponent losing their turn, and you want to make your opponent think their challenge won't succeed).

So, I'm playing with some friends, and I play the nonexistent word "sunline," which immediately raises the suspicions of one of my friends. He says he doesn't think it's a word; I disdainfully ask if he's really never heard of a "ray of sunlight" while reaching for the dictionary; another player helpfully (and evilly) offers a sample sentence of "A sunline passed through the window"; and as I start flipping through the pages, he says he's not challenging it.

It's his turn now, and he has a pretty impressive play that, unfortunately, involved him adding an "S" at the end of sunline. I immediately challenged it, saying that neither "sunline" nor the plural "sunlines" are words. Dude was pissed.

My most humbling Scrabble moment:

I was playing Scrabble with my grandpa, and I place the word "fax" on the board.

"I don't think that's in the dictionary," my grandpa says.

"No, it is," I say. "You know, like a fax machine?"

But my grandpa is insistent and decides to challenge the word. I give a very skeptical if-you-say-so shrug and start flipping through the dictionary, all the while completely saddened that I was about to have an "Oh, grandpa!" moment. I know my grandpa was an older guy, I think, but there's no way he doesn't know about fax machines.

I continue to search the dictionary, but I can't find the word. After a few moments of this, my grandpa looks at me wryly and suggests that I check the dictionary's copyright date. I do, and it turns out that this dictionary was published in the early 1940s, before the word "fax" was even coined. And since that woefully outdated dictionary was indeed the one we had agreed upon, per the rules of Scrabble,

the challenge succeeds and I lose my turn. 

"Facsimile is in that dictionary, though," my grandpa helpfully points out, as it dawns on me that I just got completely and utterly snookered. As you might expect, that game ended with my ass getting thoroughly kicked.

1This, incidentally, is why I could never play in Scrabble tournaments (besides my general lexicological suckitude). Tournament players just memorize Scrabble dictionaries, rendering the psychological aspect of the game completely useless. I think it's kind of like when someone is going on a first date, so they creep their date's Facebook page so they can just happen to bring up how much they like a band or a TV show or a book their date is really into—I guess it's not really wrong per se, but it's weird and it feels like rules are being broken, no?