Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The Lazy Runs Deep

A weird thing happened.  At the end of the semester, on the day grades were due, we finally got an email from the data structures professor letting us know that the grades for the final exam and project were online, and that we could now view our final grades.  This semester was really rough for me (see the previous post) but I’d really thought I could pull a B out of this class.  But when I checked it, I saw that the online gradebook had other ideas.

Now I know what I expected to happen.  I would usually handle a disappointment like the C staring back at me with a heavy sigh and a bitter remark and a dismissive wave of my hand.  Life isn’t fair.  I learned that a long time ago when my mother explained to me that I had to be the older and therefore the more mature one when my sister and I would get into skirmishes when we were little.  But that wasn’t what happened.  It wasn’t what happened at all.

I became possessed by some person I haven’t seen since the ninth grade.  I became angry.  I became motivated.  I ranted for a while, to anyone within reach—my classmates, my mother.  Then it hit me that I had less than 24 hours to dispute this grade and I absolutely nothing to lose by trying.  Maybe it was futile.  The grade was mostly my fault anyway—I didn’t study well enough for the final exam, and I studied the wrong things, and my grade reflected that.  But there were at least two grade points that I could attribute to the teaching assistants’ inconsistent and lazy grading.  Those were the points I needed to squeeze a B out of this course, and I was clinging to them like the handlebar on an old roller coaster. 

Amazingly, given the height of my emotional distress at this point (as well as a mild identity crisis I decided to put a pin in), I composed a 450-word email to the professor that opened:

I'm sure you're getting a lot of emails from students who are panicked about their grades here at the last minute.  This is one of those emails.
Then I made my case.  I wasn’t fighting for truth or justice, because I probably deserved the grade I’d been given.  I was a lawyer on my own case, and I was not about to take “C” for an answer (there’s a “sí” joke in there somewhere, but I won’t make it so as to preserve the seriousness of this story). 

This professor, in stark contrast to my other programming professor this semester, had always been great about responding to student needs, pushing back project deadlines when they lined up with projects and exams in other classes.  I appealed to this tendency now.  Much to my surprise, he gave me a shot.  He had the TA send me the file they’d used to test our programs, and allowed me to correct the issue that had cost me the points I needed.  In a kind of daze, unable to fully believe, first, that I had initiated this at all, and second, that it was actually happening, I dismissed myself and left work.  I raced home, dug out my old program, and started coding furiously.  In two and a half hours of harried coding and frantically reading posts, I had solved the problem.  It wasn’t easy.
"I can scare the stupid out of you,
but the lazy runs deep."

My fingers shook as I hit the button to send the program back to the teacher.  I don’t know why they were shaking now; maybe it had only just occurred to me to be freaked out about all of this.  Who was this person who cared deeply enough and contained enough fire to fight so hard for a couple of points? 

Oh, me.  Right.

The professor emailed me and told me he’d adjusted my grade.  When I looked at the gradebook again, I saw that he’d given me exactly the number of points I’d needed to reach a B.  My grade is now an 80.01.  I’d done it.  I hadn’t rolled over and taken a C.  I had drawn my sword and fought.  There is no reason I should have been allowed to actually make changes and resubmit a project from weeks earlier and receive additional credit.  But I’d channeled my inner Paris Geller (Gilmore Girls?  Anyone?), I’d taken a shot and I’d made it.

I’m a little scared of what this means going forward, but I’m more excited about the B.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

I'm a Mess

You would not believe the week month I’m having.

My first year of college was easy.  It’s easy to ignore homework.  It’s easy to avoid studying and pretend like you’ll do fine on the test anyway because you’re smart.  It’s easy to curl into a ball and/or crawl into a hole and hide from your problems when you realize that’s not actually how things work.  It’s easy to stare at your failing grades and pretend that as long as no one knows, they don’t exist.

It’s easy to say you’ll do better next time.

Then, sophomore year, I failed a class in my major because it was harder than I expected it to be.  It was as simple as that.  The second time around I passed it with an A because I knew what I was going into.  But I’m out of grade exclusions—I can’t fail any more classes because I disagree with the workload.

This semester, I’m trying.  I’m really trying.  I’ve spent hours upon hours at various libraries writing code in two different languages.  I met with my advisor and determined that I’m about a whole semester behind where I need to be, and I don’t know how it happened. 

I wrote a genre fiction story for a literary fiction class.  I learned the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction.  I have two projects due on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving break, and two presentations to give the next day.  I’m currently in Ohio, stealing away time from visiting my family to work on said projects (my cousins have faster internet then we do, so that’s a plus).

I had two tests last week that I did not study for (because I forgot, or didn't have time, or both) and probably did very poorly on, which is extra irritating because those classes are stupid easy and I should have A's in both of them.

I went three days with crippling stomach pain which made it difficult to do much of anything let alone finish the programming project I was working on.  And because that's not something you talk about to the guy you just met who wants to get this thing done as badly as you do, my partner probably thinks my face just exists in that contortion of pain.  Then I did a bad thing and googled my symptoms.  WebMD told me I had gastrointestinal bleeding.

One night last week I left my phone on a university bus and spent an hour chasing it around.  I did manage to recover my phone.  I survive on coffee and Chipotle’s steak burritos and guacamole (it’s good guacamole).

Sometimes I even sleep.

But I’m not failing anything.  I’m working really hard to pull a C out of my C (the programming language) class, but I’m not going to fail it.  I had a conversation with my fiction writing teacher about my passion for writing and she mentioned that perhaps I was in the wrong major, and for the first time I didn’t feel the urge to question the course I’ve chosen. 

I like computer science.  Through the downpour of awful C projects and deadlines sneaking up on me, there are still bright moments of exuberance when an algorithm I’ve been working on for hours begins to work correctly.  But I’ve accepted that I don’t have to love it all the time for it to be the right major.  I know that even if I chose to major in creative writing, there would be times when it would become laborious and dull and I would long for the cool logic of computer science.

So it’s not easier now.  It’s much, much harder.  But it’s better, I guess.  I am physically exhausted, and so sleep-deprived that I actually stepped into the sunlight one chilly afternoon and became genuinely concerned that my shadow extended far enough into the street to be hit by a car.  My shadow, you guys. 

But I no longer carry the debilitating guilt of knowing that I’m failing classes.  I am not plagued by the helplessness that comes from feeling like you can’t ask for help, and the dread that settles it when you know it’s too late.

I’ve traded one form of exhaustion for another, but at least this way I’ll graduate.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Williamsburg and Watson

Since I started this blog I've been consistent about posting at least once a month.  October sort of snuck away from me, but it had an easy time of it because I was very distracted with two programming classes, a short story I'm working on for my Fiction Writing class, a fledging portrait photography business, and being a bridesmaid.  Most of which I love (lookin' at you, programming classes).

So I've started a post about creativity and originality, but in the interest of time, I'm going to cheat a little bit, and post a couple of photos I took when my family went to Williamsburg recently, and an excerpt from said short story, in an effort to prove that even though I've been neglecting to write bloggy things, I have been writing.

Ok here we go:
It's a little known fact that the early colonists were very into energy conservation
It's a cherry. On the ground.  Move along.
I chased this dude around for a while.
Parking spot

A fence and some stuff

Aaaand story:

The story is titled "It Doesn't Know How," which I decided on after no small about of deliberation.  It's about half-written, and I have the rest of the plot laid out in my head, but the rest needs to get written fast (by me) because I have to turn in a first draft on Wednesday. So, without further ado:

I pressed my shoulder against the heavy door and leaned into it.  It gave a bit too easily, like it hadn’t gone quite long enough without someone forcing it to turn on its rusty hinges.  Beside me, Watson bobbed up and down anxiously.  I looked at him.  Nervous, he said. 
“Worry-wart,” I teased.  But when I turned around I saw that Watson’s instincts were dead-on, as usual.  The room had been torn apart.  The computers were utterly destroyed.  Bits and pieces of memory and processors were strewn across the room.  One of the old towers had been gutted; red and blue wires stuck morbidly from its corpse.  The entrails of the largest monitor had been strung from the knobs of the kitchen cabinets like party decorations. 
The dirty refrigerator leaned to one side.  Its door hung open, which didn’t actually matter because its contents had been picked clean.  I sighed heavily and shrugged off my bag.  It hit the floor with a soft thud, sending up a cloud of dust that caught the light of the old florescent beam outside the door.  I closed the fridge.  I methodically removed the wires from the cabinets, discovering with a modicum of relief that they were mostly intact.  The Luddites were a destructive bunch, but you wouldn’t catch me complaining about their lack of technical know-how.  I’d reassembled the computers a dozen times, and I was prepared to do it a dozen more.  It was a labor of love. 
I was more upset about the food.  I couldn’t program another fresh ham into existence, and the next food shipment wouldn’t come through here for a week.Watson pipped three times, the tone he made when he was digesting new data.  He was probably trying to figure out why I wasn’t more bothered by the mess.  I patted him absentmindedly as I crossed the room and dropped the wires on the shell of the old computer, wincing as I saw the inside.  The memory chips were smashed.  I’d lost everything.   
I looked back at the hovering metal sphere with renewed fondness and amended my observation.  I’d lost everything except Watson.  

Monday, September 30, 2013

Raz vs. The Wedding Shower

My best friend is getting married and I’m thrilled to pieces for her.  I cried when she asked me to be a bridesmaid.  I cried when I saw her in her wedding dress, and I will probably be a blubbering mess at the wedding.  I’m prepared for that.

When she asked me to take their engagement pictures, I couldn’t have been more flattered.  I bought a new lens.  I did all kinds of research on posing couples.  I bought a little ampersand prop and an old barnwood frame from A.C. Moore, and I grabbed chalk so we could write their wedding date on the fence just like I saw on Pinterest.  I was prepared for that.

At the wedding shower, most of the tables had little dessert offerings on them.  They were all color-coordinated and interspersed tastefully with decorations.  On one table, however, there was a little rectangle of delicate wire mesh attached to a frame.  Beside it was a basket of muslin strips for people to write nuggets of wisdom and advice for married life, then weave them or tie them onto the wire.  I was not prepared for that.

For most of the shindig I just avoided it.  But I’m a bridesmaid.  I have responsibilities.  So eventually I made my way over to the cursed thing.  By this point in the evening, several people had come and gone, leaving their handwritten tips in the mesh.  Some were woven meticulously, others looked like they crash-landed.  Still others were knotted securely to one section of wire or another, as if secured for stormy weather.

I stared at it for a long time, thinking that perhaps if I read every single piece of fabric, something in my head would ignite and I would write something clever but thoughtful, something distinctly “me” but also a little surprising, then pass on without a second thought as so many others had.  But as the staredown dragged on, I found myself wishing instead for laser vision so I could blow the thing to bits.

In lieu of producing useful advice, my head supplied snarky responses to nearly all of the strips up there.  For example, one read:  “There is no ‘I’ in team,” which is true enough, but there is an “I” in “marriage” so…

Others made me cringe for different a different reason.  “She is always right!” claimed one.  Another advised, “Compromise… Her way is best.”  Both paint the wife as an emotionally unstable basket case that the husband must constantly tiptoe around if he hopes to maintain his sanity.  That’s a little unfair.  And while the intended light-heartedness was not lost on me, the nonchalance with which we throw sayings like this around makes it worse, in a way.  A girlfriend sidled up next to me, baffled that I was having so much trouble with something so simple.  “This one’s mine,” she said, and pointed to a neatly written strip near the top:  “A happy wife is a happy life.”

I didn’t say anything.

Who was I to offer marriage advice?  I’m not married.  I don’t want to be married.  I’ve never even had a real relationship.  I retreated to the comfort zone of attacking the whole construct of the “advice board,” mentally enumerating its weaknesses and fallacies, because it meant I didn’t have to accept that I was the only thing preventing me from succeeding at this.

I walked away.  Not for good, but for a moment, just to collect myself.  Or, perhaps more accurately, to get over myself.  This wasn’t about me.  I wasn’t the one getting married; I had no right to this breakdown.  When I returned to that table, it was only for long enough to write my piece and tie it down.  I tied it tight, as if securing it for stormy weather.

“You’ll do great.”

Because they will.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Why I Said Ke$ha Was My Favorite Artist

If you ever run out of glitter, you know where to find me.
In the kitchen at work there’s a television monitor that scrolls through the names, faces, and team breakdown of all the employees in the company.  It went several months without being updated, and at the rate we’re growing, that was a big deal.  So recently a grand effort was made to take new pictures of everyone and just make general improvements to the virtual Rolodex.  Someone had the idea to include along with our names and photos a fun piece of trivia.  How about…Favorite Band?

Now, pretty much anywhere else, this question would fall in the “Mostly Harmless” category.  It’s easy to have a casual conversation about music you’re currently into or to “Quick! Name three bands you’re digging hard right now.”  There will always be people that judge you for the music you admit to listening to, but the commitment implied by naming a “Favorite Band” is another beast entirely.  And surrounded by people whose career is based around the indie music scene, the pressure only increases.

The Black Keys are usually a easy go-to if you want to convince someone you know good music, but here, even that wasn’t a safe answer, because they’ve become so mainstream.  At the other end of the spectrum, if you name someone no one’s ever heard of, you risk looking presumptuous or altogether weird.  A similar problem arises if you go classic with something like Led Zeppelin or Van Halen, because it implies that you feel music has yet to be as good as it was in the [insert decade here].  If you venture farther and say someone like Miles Davis or Duke Ellington, you could come across as a genuine fan of the genre, or you could wind up looking like you’re snubbing your nose at everyone else.  If you name someone that hasn’t been around long enough, you risk looking capricious or irresolute.

At about this point in my mental breakdown I realized something about myself:  I care what people think of me way more than I thought I did.  When did being effortless start requiring so much effort?

All at once an idea occurred to me.  I would write down Ke$ha.  Complete with currency notation.  Part of it was to protest the question altogether.  No one should ever be forced to come up with a “Favorite Band.”  If you’ve got one, more power to you, I suppose, although I’d posit the idea that maybe you should listen to more music.  It was sort of a way to say, “Alright, I’ll give you a Favorite Band, but you’re not going to like it.”

But it goes deeper than that. 

I like Ke$ha.  I honestly, unabashedly enjoy her music.  I like her be-yourself battle call and her unapologetic straightforwardness.  I also think she’s a talented lyricist, although her chart-topping pop anthems aren’t the best examples.  On top of it all, she doesn’t take herself too seriously, especially compared to some of her contemporaries (cough cough, Lady Gaga).  Most of my workmates do not share my opinions, but I thought I would take a cue from Ke$ha and be who I R (u kno?).  Because I wasn’t just being ironic about the Favorite Band question, hoping that others interpreted it as a joke.  By actually meaning the name I wrote down, I was being ironic about being ironic, in an attempt to create an explosion of irony powerful enough to teach Alanis Morissette the meaning of the word.

Somebody else said The Black Keys.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Nine True Facts About Venice

Yesterday my family and I arrived home from an eighteen-day trip in Europe.  We spent four of those eighteen days in Venice, and I thought I'd share some of the things I learned about the unique city.
Where's Waldo?
  1. It’s sinking.  Go figure.
  2. Occasionally the scent of fresh pizza wafts through the street, but be careful about inhaling too deeply because you could just as easily get a noseful of low tide.
  3. After hours of wandering around you may be inclined to think that you are holding a particularly poorly designed map.  While this may be the case, Venice is also a particularly poorly designed city.  All roads do not lead to Rome.  In Venice, all roads lead to other roads.  None of them lead to your hotel.
  4. Although most people associate the phrase “leaning tower” with the one in Pisa, every tower in Venice is leaning one direction or another.  Art is clearly the forte of the Italians.  Civil engineering, not so much.
  5. Gondola, while romantic, is not an efficient way to travel around the city.  Because it’s such an iconic thing to do, the gondoliers can basically charge you whatever they want.  Ride one anyway.
  6. You can describe any location in the city with the directions “That way, over a bridge, in the square.”  There are some 200 bridges in the city.  After a day or two they all start to look the same, as do the squares.
  7. Only the elite can afford to really live there anymore, which means that just because someone has an Italian accent doesn’t mean they can give you reliable directions.  A lot of the Italians in the city are tourists as well.
  8. You will walk past at least six gelaterias (ice cream shops) before you decide which one had the prettiest display and lowest price, then you will never be able to find it again.
  9. Finding a place that takes a credit card is a rarity, but it’s even harder to find an ATM.  Especially since asking for directions to one is usually answered with “That way, over a bridge, in the square.”

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Man of Steel: Movie of... Something Less Substantial

image from IMDb
Yeah, that's about how I felt too, Clark.
I love midnight movies.  I don’t know whether it’s the idea of seeing a movie the minute it comes out, or the adrenaline that comes from knowing how late I’m going to be out and that most sane people have been asleep for at least an hour.  Maybe it’s having to get there an hour early to get seats and watching the theater slowly fill up around me that makes me feel like it’s a big deal.

Man of Steel was supposed to be a big deal.  I get excited for the majority of movie trailers I see, but I was extra excited for this one.  On the scale of movie-trailer-excitement, this one was probably slightly above Lone Ranger and below Thor 2 (I could do an entire post on how excited I am for Thor 2, but I’ll spare you).

I had meant to be finished with Smallville by the time Man of Steel hit theaters, so that I would be totally caught up on the Superman mythos.  Smallville, for all its imperfections and downright grievous errors, provides a mostly-faithful account of Clark Kent’s journey, and for better or worse, it’s my only exposure to Superman, since I haven’t seen the Christopher Reeve movies or read any of the comics.  But I persevered through eight seasons of Smallville before I couldn’t take it anymore, and I couldn’t help comparing Man of Steel back to it.

It shouldn’t have been a tough battle.

The movie opened strongly, with the war ripping through Krypton and Lara and Jor-El fighting to save the life of their son.  Zod was well-cast and chillingly evil, even if his goons were lackluster.  Kal-El gets Fed-Exed to Earth in a pod that looks like it belonged in Avatar, Zod and his goons are locked away “forever,” and Krypton explodes.  This is the last good part of the movie.

We are first introduced to Clark Kent as an adult, blazing in both senses, shirtlessly saving sailors from a burning rig.  We see his childhood in a series of awkwardly placed flashbacks, rather than in chronological order.  This is a bad way to get someone to invest emotionally in a character, because the importance of each scene is explained as it happens, rather than building a solid character from the bottom up.  Man of Steel’s Superman is a leaning Jenga tower of character development.

The death of Jonathan Kent was supposed to be a hugely distressing event in Clark Kent’s life, and it was completely passed over in this movie, with only a brooding Superman looking at a gravestone to tell us that Pa Kent had died.  This would be more upsetting if not for the fact that Jonathan is devoid of any personality the few times we see him.  Maybe I’m unfairly comparing him to the Jonathan Kent in Smallville, who was a strong and upstanding father to Clark, and whose death haunted Clark for a long time afterward.

Superman enters a ship in a shirt and pants and meets biological father’s a hologram.  Jor-El explains to his son where he came from and why he’s special.  Then Superman walks out of the ship/cave in a spandex suit and cape without any explanation whatsoever as to where those wardrobe items came from.  Maybe the writers couldn’t think of a way to have him see the suit for the first time and keep a straight face so they skipped over its introduction altogether.  The flight scene that follows is almost as awkward as the suit transition.  Did he not know he could fly?  How did he discover any of his other powers?

I was excited by the prospect of Amy Adams playing Lois Lane, because I get hives whenever Erica Durance appears onscreen in Smallville, and I thought Adams’ portrayal would be far more tolerable.  While not as grating as Durance, Adams’ performance slides all the way to the other extreme, and we get another bran muffin of a character in Lane.  At least she matches the rest of the cast.  The kiss scene at the end of the big fight was so forced it was comical.  Everything we see of Superman up to that point tells us he’s an emotionally distant loner, and certainly not the type of person to take a minute after a huge battle to smooch a damsel he just met.

The poor character development is illustrated nicely by the scene where a woman whom we’ve seen perhaps twice before is trapped beneath rubble and about to die, and two male peripheral characters are trying desperately to free her, and it’s supposed to be gut-wrenching because she’s terrified and pretty and crying and the music gets minor and dissonant, except that I don’t even know her name or if she’s romantically or otherwise connected to either of the men trying to get her out.

There were parts of this movie that were cool.  For all the screen time that should probably have been used developing characters, there are lots of explosions and fight scenes.  The gravity weapon that Zod was using to terra-form Earth for the Kryptonians (wouldn’t that be “krypto-forming”?) was a neat idea. Henry Cavill is one attractive human being, and spends copious amounts of screen time reminding us of that.  And I guess lens flares are the latest filmmaking fad, because at one point there were so many on the screen that I was honestly surprised JJ Abrams wasn’t the director (wasn’t Michael Bay, either).

I walked into the theater totally prepared for Man of Steel to prove me wrong about DC’s movies, but the truth is it couldn’t even outshine Smallville, and didn’t hold a candle to Avengers or Iron Man 3.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Paint a Bridge and Get Over It

My sister graduates in a few days, and we're having a party because surviving high school is a really big deal.  I'm painting these king-sized sheet backdrops to go along with the Japanese-garden-generally-Asian-probably-not-politically-correct-but-whatever theme of this shindig.  Two of them are fairly simple.  One is a silhouetted pagoda against a pink and orange sky, another is a tree and a sunset.  The third, however, wound up being far more detailed than the other two.  This is what it looks like:

I can't in good faith say that I'm not extremely proud of the way it turned out.  It took a ton of work, I think it looks great and I'm downright impressed with myself.  However, I can in good faith say that it has a ton of problems.  And those problems bother me every time I look at it.  So I'm going to share them with you guys, here, because I think it's good to be critical of yourself, and also because nobody else wants to hear it.

The problems I have with it are mostly perspective issues to do with the bridge.  This comes from the fact that I basically freehanded the bridge rather than basing it off of a specific photograph.  I looked at lots of photos to figure out roughly how a japanese bridge should look, but I never pulled out my ruler or anything like that to make sure it was geometrically logical.  And if anyone asks (no one will ask), I'm citing MC Escher as my inspiration.  The truth is the bridge is a mess.  Here's everything that's wrong with it:

Perspective is based on where the viewer is standing.  I'm not exactly sure where I put the viewer of my bridge, but I know that you could be, visually, in any of four places based on where the bridge seems to shift. 

  1. Where the top rails appear to cross.
  2. Where the far post is hidden completely by the near post.
  3. Where the bottom rails appear to cross.
  4. Where the underside of the bridge becomes visible.
In real life, all those things should happen along the same vertical line.  In Raz's Magical Paint Land, the rules of geometry are more like guidelines.  This brings me nicely to my next point:  If all of the far posts are to the left of their respective near posts, there should never be a point where the far post is hidden completely by the near one.  That just means my bridge is missing a far post:

See?  Right in the middle.
Also, if the far posts are to the left of the near posts, it means that the left edge of the posts should be visible (and therefore shaded), not the right edge, which I have shaded dark.  If you could see them, though, they would be dark, based on where I sort of arbitrarily decided my light source was.  So I got that right.  Yay.

Now, let's look at the slats that run horizontally along the bottom of the bridge:

The posts are supposedly right across from each other, this means they should line up with the same horizontal slat, like they do at (1) in the above image.  But by (2) the posts are quite obviously misaligned, and it gets worse as you proceed along the bridge.  This is because I drew the posts where I thought they sort of looked about right, then added the slats so that they, too looked about right, and noticed later that they did not look about right together.

Finally, I have issues with the horizon.  Because if there was any geometric planning I did it was to make sure my lines receded toward the horizon.  But when I did that, the horizon was about where the bushes meet the water (yellow line).

But making the water go all the way to the horizon made it look like the little stream opened up into some ocean (probably the Pacific, if we're in Japan), not a cute, intimate little pond in a garden.  So I put bushes there, instead.  Now, it looks like a pond.  When I did that, however, I inadvertently moved the horizon up quite a bit, so that now it's more where the white line is.  So it no longer makes sense for the far post to appear shorter than the near post, because it should appear closer to the horizon.  Now, my bridge is just crooked.

I like the moss on the water.  I like the reflection of the rocks.  I like the way the leaves in the background look where the light comes through from behind.  I even like the bushes, despite the fact that they ruined my horizon.  But the bridge and I are still not on speaking terms.  But hashing all of this out felt really good.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Figuring Feminism

I'm continually surprised how many people shy away from the term "feminist."  Many men think that you have to be a woman to be a feminist.  And an alarming number of women are hung up on the bewildering notion that femininity precludes feminism.  Others believe that to be a feminist you must hate men, or at least believe that they are inferior to women.  Still others find the term to be archaic, and that now that women have the right to vote and to file for divorce, that the word has no practical application anymore.

image from
Alice Paul:  Feminist
After one American History course, I decided I was a feminist.  I’d read the stories of women at the turn of the century fighting for equal rights and was inspired by them.  I’d immersed myself in the debate between tradition and equality and which was “better” for women as a population.  I couldn’t have fathomed how far from complete my knowledge of modern feminism was, but I had been undeniably inspired by these feminist historical figures, so surely I was a feminist as well?

When it came time to choose my classes this semester, I wanted to make sure I had enough hours that I could drop any course if things started to go downhill.  I needed three more hours.  I needed a humanities course.  Enter Intro to Women’s and Gender Studies, stage left.

As long as I’m holding the honesty stick, I never considered Women’s Studies a “real” major.  I’m a computer science student (as most of you know), following, despite my valiant efforts, in my mother’s footsteps.  And when family and friends would ask me what classes I was taking, Gender Studies was always accompanied by the rider, “I know, but I needed an elective.”

It wasn’t that I didn’t expect to enjoy the course.  If that had been the case, I would have picked something different.  I thought I would just quietly show up every week, enjoy, learn, get a good grade, and get on with college.  But I soon realized that there was no way to leave the class in the classroom return to the (metaphorically) quiet existence I’d been leading.  This information was not only important but also urgent.  I could no longer sit idly by while someone said “man up” to someone else, or while the word “girly” got tossed around like an insult.  These people needed to have their eyes opened!  They needed to be made to realize the implications of the things they were saying! 

Basically, I’d been bit.

image from Wikipedia
I spend about as much time cavorting with fictional characters as I do with real people, so the context in which most of this information really hit home for me was media representations of gender.  For example, Katniss Everdeen (from the Hunger Games) is cited again and again as a strong female protagonist and role model for young women (especially when contrasted with Twilight’s Bella Swan, but if any undead horse has been beaten enough, it’s that one).  But I was (like others) frustrated by the presence of a love triangle in the story.  I thought, Couldn’t we have just one story where the heroine stands on her own without being dragged down by romantic tension?  Don’t we see all sorts of stories where the male hero saves the day without love getting in the way?

Then I realized that “save the world, get the girl” was easily just as common a trope for male protagonists.  So the question I’d been missing was:  Why does a romantic subplot weaken a female protagonist, while it doesn’t have the same effect on a male hero?  If the men and women in fiction were truly equal, there wouldn’t be a difference, but we as a culture are still having trouble separating women from the dependent or inferior role in a relationship.  So when we see a strong woman with a strong man, we groan and roll our eyes and say “not again.”

If we change gears dramatically and look at the show America’s Next Top Model (yes, okay?  I watch it sometimes.  Usually the photo shoots and runway shows outweigh Tyra’s vacuous monologues), we find a gold mine of media messages relating to body image.  And while the show makes an effort to include women of various races and body types, it takes the liberty of labeling “plus size” models as “real women” (or “fiercely real” as I recall the exact phrasing in one season).  

Unfortunately, this trend is not limited to inane avenues as Top Model.  “Large” or “curvy” women being are repeatedly labeled as “real” in an effort to combat the fad of girls starving themselves in pursuit of beauty.  This is taking one step forward and two steps back.  The day we realize that beauty is subjective and that no body type is more “real” than any other will be a beautiful day indeed.

A problem a lot of people have with feminism is that it flies in the face of chivalry.  I would argue that it is, in fact, chivalry that flies in the face of feminism.  And many who feel that chivalry is simply courtesy are misrepresenting the two as synonyms.  They are not.  The World English Dictionary defines “chivalry” in this way: 

  1. the combination of qualities expected of an ideal knight, esp courage, honour, justice, and a readiness to help the weak 
  2. courteous behaviour, esp towards women
This draws a troubling parallel between women and weakness.  Why can’t we hold the door open for our fellow human beings?  Why does it have to be a gendered act at all?

I saw this picture a while ago on Facebook:   

Again with the "real"!

The response looked something like this:
I stole the sandwich picture off the Internet.  Sorry if it's yours.  Looks tasty.

At first I was outraged.  It took a long time, but I eventually realized that this rebuttal is entirely fair.  If women are going to hold men to an archaic standard, then those men have the right to remind those women what the equivalent standard is.  The bottom line is that we should hold car doors for people and we should make sandwiches for people, but not because we're expected to because of our gender.  Just because it's a nice thing to do.

I've learned that trying to define feminism is like trying to solve a problem like Maria.  You kind of just have to stand back and let it do its thing.  Because beyond "gender equality," the goals of feminism are fractured and inconsistent.  Because feminism isn't a wave; it's a whirlpool.

Recently, I was again asked about my courses this semester.  Here it was—the chance to redeem myself.  I listed my classes, finished with Gender Studies, and I left off the disclaimer.  But my inquisitor scoffed.  "Let me help you," he said with an dramatic roll of his eyes.  "'Men are bad.'  There.   Done."  The rest of the dinner table looked at him fearfully, knowing that he did not realize what he'd stepped in.  I smiled.  I smiled because I knew that for a long time there would be people like him that were confused.  I smiled and I explained to him how he was mistaken.  

The sigh of relief from everyone else at the table was audible.  It was about that time that a third person jumped into the conversation with a wildly sexist accusation and things descended into chaos and anarchy.  What can I say?  I get worked up.  But the bottom line is this:  if you believe that women are not inferior to men, you are a feminist by definition.  Whether or not you decide to take up the banner and solve the rest of the world's ignorance is up to you.  But it's one of those things that's difficult to un-know.  As corny as it sounds to say that my eyes were opened by my Gender Studies class, there's truth to it.  And even as my understanding of feminism continues to grow, perhaps the greatest understanding is that I can never know all of it.  It's moving too fast.  Growing too quickly.  And it's too late to stop it now.  It's a like a horrific genetic experiment that's escaped the lab and is mowing down every sexist moron in its wake.  But... you know... a good horrific genetic experiment... You get the idea.

"Feminism" continues to be an inflammatory, divisive, controversial word.  Curiously, "equality" doesn't have nearly the capacity for starting arguments that "feminism" does.  This proves that the issue is largely one of vocabulary, not bigotry.  This is our first hurdle as a society.  We need not simply to leap over it as individuals, but pick it up and remove it from the track so that no one trips over it behind us.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Telephone Phobia

That’s the fear of talking on the telephone.  I Googled it just now, and was deeply disappointed that it does not have a cooler name. has it indexed as “telephonophobia,” but that’s not much better and sounds made-up to boot. “Albuminurophobia,” for example, is the fear of kidney disease.  That one sounds cool, but is anyone not afraid of kidney disease?  I feel like that’s a really reasonable thing to be afraid of.  But I digress, as I often do.

I looked up “fear of talking on the phone,” because I’m pretty sure I have it.  Among what are probably a couple other flavors of social anxiety, making phone calls causes me an inordinate amount of distress.  Not when it’s my friends or my family (okay, sometimes when it’s my mom, but that’s different (just kidding Mom I love you (sorry for all the parentheses (I’m a computer science major)))), but when a situation requires me to pick up the phone and make contact with someone I don’t know, an icy dread runs down my spine and my fingers will literally shake as I’m dialing.

My anxiety was brought into sharp focus today at work.  One of the things we do for musicians is help them put out a mobile app through Apple, but something went wrong and we got locked out of one of our iTunes accounts.  This is when a normal person picks up the phone and calls Apple and asks the nice people on the other end of the line to please unlock our account. 

I started frantically searching the Internets for some way—any way—to solve the problem without calling Apple support.  It turns out that it’s a fairly common problem and lots of people were talking about it on various forums.  But all the conversations marked with a friendly green check mark (for “problem solved” in case my blog is all you’ve seen of the web) invariably ended with that fateful sentence (not the grammatical kind, the doom kind): 

“Called Apple support.  They fixed the problem before I was off the phone.  Now there’s a beautiful rainbow spilling through my window on dewdrops of happiness.”

I may have paraphrased a little.  My workmate found me in my cube.  He was impressed with my efforts to solve the problem, as he had not thought to Google the issue, but ultimately it didn't matter.  “We’ve had this problem before and all we’ve had to do is call up Apple and ask them to fix it," he said.

I presented my disappointing search results.  Suddenly he seemed to notice how wide my eyes were.

“You don’t want to do this,” he deduced.

“I get nervous calling the Nissan dealership to schedule a service appointment,” I admitted.  It’s the truth.

He chuckled. 

I wish there was a more dramatic end to this story.  I wish I could tell you I overcame my fear or grew as a person in some way.  I could make something up, but the truth of the matter is simply that my workmate made the call.  Maybe the lesson is that human culture isn’t survival of the fittest after all.  Sometimes the broken people make it.

I don’t mean to belittle the afflictions of people with serious mental disorders and social anxieties that make it difficult for them to manage their lives from day to day.  I can only tell my own stories, and assure you guys that if you’re broken in little ways, you’re not alone.

Well that was a terrible ending. Um…How about:  Everyone’s crazy and it’s okay!  That’s good.  We should make… what day is today?  March 28th.  We should make March 28th Everyone’s Crazy and It’s Okay Day.  It will catch on.  I can feel it.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

A List of Things I Used to Not Like But Now I Think are Okay

If the title of this post doesn’t make sense to you, go listen to this song, then come back.  I won’t go anywhere.

So if you’ve been following this blog since its inception (in the actual dictionary-definition sense of the word, rather than the something-inside-something-else or blanket-term-for-anything-really-confusing sense that the Internet has slapped onto it since the movie), you may have noticed that a lot of the cynicism has kind of died away.

What can I say?  I was an angry teenager.

I don’t mean to invalidate any of the opinions or views that I expressed in some of my earlier posts.  I’m also not saying I’ve changed my mind about all of those things.  I still think a lot of people are morons, but since I don’t work directly with the public anymore, I don’t have to deal with them.  Actually, that last bit might explain a lot about why I’ve mellowed out.

I also started college, which has humbled me a few notches.  I haven’t undergone this grand reevaluation of life, the universe, and everything that a lot of adolescents seem to when they sort of set out on their own.  (I haven’t set out on my own yet, but that’s beside the point.)  But I got a little forced perspective.  My university’s student body is ten times the population of the town where I went to high school.

Big fish, small pond.  You get the idea.

But I didn’t ask you here today to tell you about my growing experience as a person.  In fact, I didn’t ask you here at all, and yet here you are.  I appreciate that.  I really do.

The problem I now face is this:  I have a lot less to write about.  It’s tough to sit down and enumerate all the ways in which life has been fair to me lately.  And it’s boring to read.  But I’m betting I’m not the only one who’s dealt with a little fresh perspective, and so what I am going to do is enumerate some of the things that used to annoy me that don’t anymore.

  1. Pop music - In high school, I was a band geek, and hung out with the band geeks.  Most of us moonlighted as music connoisseurs, or thought we did.  (I just spelled the word "connoisseur" right on the first try, and would like you all to know that, because I couldn't believe it.)  We scoffed at people who listened to Katy Perry and Lady Gaga.  If the only White Stripes song you knew was "Seven Nation Army" that didn't count as "liking the White Stripes."  I've since come to appreciate that sometimes the goal of music is not to be intellectually stimulating or to provide social commentary.  Sometimes the only claim a tune makes is to be fun to listen to, and that's okay.  And it's okay if you listen to it over and over and over.
  2. Action movies - Explosions are cool.  Big explosions are very cool.  Explosions don't win Oscars, but if you only go watch movies that are going to make you cry, you're going to have a sad life.
  3. Dogs - This explanation is not as deep.  I have long considered myself a cat person.  I love my cat.  But I no longer think you have to choose a side.  I think it's okay to like cats and dogs.
  4. Justin Bieber - I know, I said pop music already.  But this is more along the lines of the Bieb being a cultural icon.  His music is not art.  Maybe he doesn't "deserve" to be famous, but he's a talented kid who got a lucky break and I think we should be happy for him, instead of casting him into the same pop-cultural blunder category as, say, the Twilight franchise, which is genuinely horrible.
  5. Onions - Maybe it's an acquired taste.  I used to hate onions.  I don't anymore.  You won't catch me eating them raw, but throw a few on my smoked salmon bagel and we're good.
  6. High school - Whoever said "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" was wise indeed (that was Shakira, right?*).  I couldn't wait to get out of that place the entire time I was there.  I felt trapped.  When I graduated, the feeling of freedom lasted until I started college, where it quickly morphed into abandonment and then apathy.  I had almost enough rope to hang myself.  Had enough to fail a couple classes, anyway.
  7. Twitter - When I first started hearing about Twitter, I never understood why people would use it, or why anyone would ever follow anyone else.  Like, who cares?  Now I don't know what I would do without Tom Hiddleston's daily nuggets of insight.
  8. Tom Hiddleston - No, who am I kidding?  I had a crush on Loki the minute he appeared in Thor.
*I'm joking!! Also, I really like footnotes.