Playlist: Wade Bowen

This post should really date back to early January, which is when I fell in love with Wade Bowen, a Texas country artist with some damn impressive music. I had the pleasure of seeing him live sometime just after Christmas, but I hadn’t really listened to much of his music at that point. Well, he’s fantastic live, which is pretty indicative of lots of talent. Since then, he’s become one of my favorite country artists; his eponymous 2014 album contains some pretty amazing songs. I’ll be writing a complete post on his music at some point, so stay tuned.

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Playlist: Arctic Monkeys, AM

I’ve recently fallen back in love with Arctic Monkeys, and I’m glad I did. Their most recent record, AM, is absolutely delicious. It wins for the first “Playlist” post because it carried me through 36 hours of frantically writing to meet deadlines (even when I was running on two hours of sleep and had two hours to write a 7-pager). Those funky rhythms, the husky, dark sexiness of Alex Turner’s crooning voice, those perfectly constructed lyrics. The album pretty much revolves around romance, which initially seemed a bit boring–but don’t expect any standard love ballads or breakup rants. It’s honest, it’s gritty, it’s dark–and that’s honestly all I can ask for. Oh, and those crunchy guitar riffs that feel like they’re tugging your heart out. And the incredibly clever lyrics. I’ll ask for those, too–and receive them. If you haven’t heard it, you should. Highlights: “Do I Wanna Know?“, “Snap Out of It,” “One for the Road,” “Why’d You Only Call Me When You’re High?

Introducing…

Hello, lovely readers! Greetings from the chaos that is finals time. I’ve been trying to decide how to make sure I write at least once a week (which I’ve clearly failed to do in the history of this blog), so I’ve settled on adding a new feature to my blog that I like to call the Playlist. I like to write about music, but I don’t always have time to write a proper post. So the Playlist posts will just involve some quick commentary on whatever music strikes me at the time–song, artist, album, whatever–and they’ll all be archived on the new “Playlist” page up there on the menu. I might even draw from the Playlist for extended posts in the future. First post incoming!

Dropping the F-Bomb: Reflections on Feminism

A reflection on my own experience with feminism, with a healthy dose of sci-fi

As I write this, I’ve just returned from a screening of the acclaimed documentary Miss Representation. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it (actually, I think everyone in the country should watch it); it made me laugh, it made me cry, but most of all, it made me question how I conduct my life. It’s the kind of film that takes such a clear-eyed perspective on the world that you can’t help but come to all sorts of revelations.

For many years, I’ve identified as a feminist. Do I think women and men are equal? Yes. Therefore, I am a feminist. Yes, it’s really that simple. I’ll be completely honest, though: sometimes, being a feminist is exhausting. It’s hard to stand against the societal structures that systematically oppress women, mainly because those structures are incredibly insidious. They’re so engrained in the fabric of our culture that sometimes, you don’t even see them. Not even a 22-year-old well-educated self-proclaimed feminist does.

As the aforementioned documentary discusses in 90 brilliantly crafted minutes, you need look no further than the media to catch a glimpse—a skin-exposed, perfectly airbrushed glimpse—of how American society tacitly accepts female inferiority. God, just look at advertising. Alcohol ads, perfume ads, jewelry ads, even cleaning ads (for fuck’s sake, the 50s were SIXTY YEARS AGO, we do not have to look sexy when or if we clean): everywhere we look, sex sells. But beyond that, it’s what we don’t see that hurts us the most. We don’t see women in strong film roles. We don’t see intelligent, ambitious women receiving praise for their accomplishments. We don’t see some of the strongest real women in America gain recognition for their strength. One of the strongest quotes in the film: “You can’t be what you can’t see.” Think about it.

Until tonight, I thought myself pretty well aware of the media’s reduction of women to ultra-sexualized man-craving lustful creatures. I considered myself a critical consumer of media; hell, I can barely even stand to watch television, it’s so infuriating. I’m a reader of Virginia Woolf; I’m one of relatively few women Economics majors at my university; I love Hillary and Wendy and smashing the patriarchy. But tonight, I realized that—in spite of all that—I’ve fallen into the same trap as so many other women. I see myself as inferior.

I’m actually going to digress with one example of how clearly I’ve begun to understand my application of feminism to daily life, using one of my favorite shows. It’s going to hurt, because I love this show and it has so much to offer. But if I’m being honest, the last season of Doctor Who has left me uneasy—which is unsettling, because it’s an incredible show with so many other fabulously progressive aspects (hello, River Song). Anyway, the most disturbing thing about the most recent season is the way in which Clara, the Doctor’s companion, is defined against the men in her life. She is no longer quite the same motivated, driven, slightly rebellious, incredibly empowered woman that she had been with Matt Smith. But with the introduction of Peter Capaldi as a new Doctor and the appearance of a romantic interest, Clara became all about the men; look no further than the finale for that. And that change had some really powerful messages about love and so on, but it got a bit…tired, after awhile. And a bit too familiar. Because Clara began to focus her life on a man instead of on herself—something with which, I think, many women struggle. I know I do.

One of the beauties about storytelling is that you can put yourself in another’s life for a short time. Tonight’s biggest revelation about this show: I cannot see myself as the Doctor. I can only see myself as Clara, or Rose, or Donna, or Martha. I can only see myself as the perennial helper, always trying to save the world but unable to do so without the help of someone more “powerful.” Problematically, this is painfully accurate in how I live my life. I like to do leader-ish things, but I’m always desperate for approval, for guidance, for acknowledgement that yes, I’m doing the right thing, keep up the good work. I think I’m uncomfortable leading because I have subconsciously internalized the message that women can’t lead. Men are powerful. Women take supporting roles. Men get the credit.

How is this acceptable? When I realized that even I buy into it, I was kind of shocked at myself. I’m an intelligent woman who can certainly surpass many of her male peers in matters of intellect; why do I lower my eyes and defer to them when we’re at odds? I’m ambitious, talented, and sensible, so why do I apologize in almost every single one of my interactions with men, as if I’ve overstepped my bounds by coming toe-to-toe with them? The women of America have been burdened with an inferiority complex that the media has perpetuated for decades. It’s high time that ended. Change will be slow, but as we use our voices—as voters and as consumers—we will assert that it is unacceptable to hold women back. It’s unacceptable for women to hold themselves back. We should be able to hop into the TARDIS and wheel through time and space to save the universe, just like the Doctor. Fight the good fight, ladies—and gents—and stand against the discourse that perpetuates gender inequality. It will improve lives all around. We should all be feminists. Feminists, like bow-ties, are cool.

Miss Representation is on Netflix. You should watch it. Also, look up The Representation Project, the group behind the documentary, because gender equality isn’t just about women. It’s an issue for all of us at any locus on the gender spectrum.

On Pride and Weariness

In which I connect a former poet laureate to a low-budget 90’s comedy.

While sitting at work last week, gazing blankly at one of my many market briefs, some random lines of poetry floated across the forefront of my brain. That tends to happen, actually—I’ll find myself internally quoting Shakespeare or Auden or Eliot at random times. It’s weird. English major problems. But the other day, it was Robert Frost. “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” I’m actually not a huge Frost fan (I know, so un-American, but what else is new?), but this poem has always resonated with me. It’s simple on its surface, which is perhaps common to most Frost poems (no, I’m  not calling Frost simple—I just believe his poems can be read simply, and some people like him for that reason), but it’s considerably deeper than one initially expects, ending on a profound note of longing and resignation:

“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.”

Miles to go, indeed. I’ve unexpectedly reached my breaking point in these last weeks; between keeping up with three jobs, taking 18 hours, and running two student organizations—oh, and making time for riding, which I will never sacrifice—I’ve  gotten a bit run down. (And yes, that’s why I haven’t written much recently. At some point, I had to make time for rest, too.) It caught me by surprise, but I’m clearly overcommitted. And now I’m wondering why I allow this to happen—why I continue to keep these promises when it would be so easy to just…stop. Seriously, existential crisis happening over here. Does anything that I do matter? It’s no wonder that final line has been popping into my head so much lately; it appropriately sums up that bone-deep weariness that pervades both body and brain. And I’m not the only one, because I know far too many of my friends share this tendency. It’s a little self-destructive, though, so why do we do it?

Time for a random tangent. Recently, someone persuaded me to watch Office Space at last—you know, that movie from the 90’s with the employee who stops giving a fuck and rebels against the corporation and ends up trying to launder money and then the office burns down. Okay, this is going somewhere, I promise.  Anyway, I was weirdly reminded of myself while watching this guy try to figure his life out—minus the money laundering and building burning. His struggles just felt so familiar. Sometimes, it really does feel like each day is worse than the last. And sometimes, I would like nothing better than to ignore all of the people who want things from me—assignments, editing, research, my presence, conversation, the list goes on—and just…do my own thing. And you know, sometimes I’d even like to take the office printer and bash it with a baseball bat. I’m sure plenty of you can sympathize with all of these.

But there’s clearly something keeping me from doing these things, because I’m still leading an excessively busy (read: moderately insane) lifestyle. And now I’ll get back to Frost, since I think he’s put things together pretty well. Because I do have promises to keep, and I’m not the kind of person to disappear into the woods. I might resent the situation, but at the same time, I know I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t like half-assing things. I pride myself on my ability to get shit done—even when that makes me want to collapse into a little puddle of exhaustion at the end of the day. And that is why I will never succumb to Frost’s metaphorical woods (which might be a metaphor for death in the poem, but that’s not what I’m getting at—point of clarification). I will always push myself—even to my breaking point—because it’s incredibly satisfying to look at what I’ve done and claim ownership. I’m too proud to give in.

Friends often tell me that it’s time to give something up, that I need to drop a commitment and make time for things like sleep. But there are miles to go until I can do so; I’ve got too much to accomplish, so I smile and nod and make noncommittal replies. Because I refuse to let myself disappear into the woods. I hope I can encourage others to resist as well. As long as you perceive some long-run benefit, fight the pull of the woods.

But I might go after the printer. Those things drive me crazy.

 

(n.b. for any future employers who stumble upon this blog: completely joking about the printer.)

“It’s Not Enough Just to Stand and Stare”: A Reflection on the Hong Kong Protests

As I write this, I should be finishing my Fulbright application. It’s due in 48 hours, I think. Probably less. But sometimes—and I hope you know this feeling—sometimes I feel so compelled to write about something that I have to write immediately. The words just come pouring out.

While browsing the Internets (as I am wont to do), I encountered plenty of coverage on the Hong Kong protests. I’d been staying casually updated, but I haven’t had the time to browse photos and articles properly (see first sentence; also, midterms). For once, I paused for a moment to investigate something unrelated to coursework.

And God, it was heartbreaking. Hong Kong was my favorite stop on my Asian travels last summer; it’s a stunningly bright city with green parks and pristine beaches and glistening skyscrapers and a top-notch metro system. It retains a sort of vitality I found relatively absent in Beijing or Shanghai; these people are proud of their city. As I meandered through photos of the recent protests, I was shocked—okay, I teared up a bit—to realise that I knew precisely where some images were taken. I had walked along that very street in the Central district trying to reach the bus station; it had been packed to the brim with people. The scene has changed since July. It’s still packed to the brim, but this time with protesters and riot police; a haze of tear gas smudges the air.

Protests are nothing new in Hong Kong. The violence, however, is abnormal. People in Hong Kong usually enjoy the freedom to protest peacefully, one of the proud capacities of a democracy standing against the Communism of mainland China. Now, though, they’re protesting passionately against the potential restriction of those democratic rights; the Chinese government has issued a plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections, and it involves running only Beijing-approved candidates. Doesn’t sound very democratic, eh? It’s not. And the people know that. And those protesting want no part of it.

During my time in China, I had never felt so very American. That wasn’t merely due to my inability to speak Mandarin or to constant requests for my photograph. Rather, nothing made me appreciate my home like being so far away from it; indeed, I even discovered a bit of a patriotic streak. It was the little things. Things like going on road trips and seeing only one company’s petrol stations—Sinopec—along the highway, because it’s a state-owned enterprise. Things like coughing nonstop in Beijing because the air scraped through my throat with its 150+ Air Quality Index rating (100 is considered unhealthy). Things like crossing the border into Hong Kong on Independence Day and almost crying when I realized that I was, in fact, freer than I had been on the other side. Things like the recent arrest of an Uighur advocate for human rights for his discourse on the issue of Xinjiang province. Things that make me realize that, while the American government does a lot of things wrong, it has a pretty great foundation.

I’m incredibly fortunate to live in a democracy. I thrive on voicing my own strong opinions. I, however, can do so with ballot or speech, unlike those elsewhere who must take to the streets to fight for the same right. And I absolutely take that right for granted—just see how moved I was by those small standouts in China—but I also exercise it whenever possible. I have to admit, though, that it makes me sick to realise that while people across the world fight for the powerful right to democracy, many of my fellow Americans dismiss their own right to the very same.

This bit is going to seem tangential, but bear with me. For the past week or so, I’ve been helping out with a campaign to register voters on my university’s campus. Surprisingly, people can be pretty reluctant. “My vote won’t matter,” they say. “I don’t have time,” they say. You don’t have time for democracy? Do you realize how valuable that is? Talk about misplaced valuation. You don’t have time to sign a few pieces of paper, drive down to the polling station in a month, and cast your vote? Hell, you can even vote early by mail now. And while countless organizations try to make voting easier for you, the general American public, people in Hong Kong are fighting for the same right by defying riot police who carry tear gas and rubber bullets. They’re fighting to remain distinct from the same China that brought out my inner patriot. Similar and worse things have happened elsewhere; Hong Kong is now, but let us not forget Tahrir Square or even the Prague Spring of the sixties. People have been fighting for democracy for a long time. We might have declared our rights in 1776, but that doesn’t mean we can allow ourselves to become complacent in our perceived security. Complacency is a precarious point; let us not tip over the edge. Some might argue that we already have. We must realize the value of the democratic principles we claim to hold in such high regard; we must live up to the dream of democracy, for it can be demolished so easily.

I am filled with nothing but admiration for the brave Hong Kong protesters who demand their rights in the face of adversity. Stand strong!

*If you want to catch up on the goings-on in Hong Kong, the BBC provides a nice little summary.

**This post’s title came from Pink Floyd’s fabulous “On the Turning Away.” Highly recommended.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

Here, have a picture of Hong Kong sans protests.

For the Love of Literature: A Top 10 List

Recently, a couple of my lovely fellow English majors challenged me to post a list of the top ten books that have influenced me. They’re calling it the Book Challenge or something on Facebook. Well, I compiled the list, and I posted it, and as I wrote each title into that little status bar, I realized this list was incomplete without exploration and discussion. What good is sharing the title of a book if I don’t describe why it made the list? Plus, ten is clearly an inadequate number. I’ll add a few in an “Honorable Mention” section, just for the books that didn’t immediately come to mind. Here we go!

Salman Rushdie, Shalimar the Clown

My first excursion into Rushdie did not, as one might expect, include Midnight’s Children or his Satanic Verses. Instead, on the suggestion of a friend, I delved into this fascinating novel that leaps from contemporary California to Kashmir in the 1960s to World War II and back again. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so incredibly shattered by an author’s ability to portray loss, heartbreak, violence, and the many other themes that contribute to the agonizing tale of Shalimar. Rushdie’s sheer delight in language shines in this richly textured novel; on more than one occasion, I wanted nothing more than to tear my eyes away from the pages so I could escape the suffering within them, but Rushdie’s language captivates. It’s luxurious. And so Shalimar the Clown made me fall in love with language all over again.

William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury

My first attempt to read this Faulkner great (or at least the Benji section; I didn’t even reach the Quentin section before starting over) was miserable and painful. My second attempt ended in awe and admiration. See the previous post for the most profound reasons for this book’s impact on me; but beyond that, Faulkner’s stream of consciousness delighted me with its simple brilliance. I will always love Virginia Woolf above others, but Faulkner’s style is equally—and, in some ways, more so—impressive, especially in his ability to convey the impressionistic mind of developmentally-delayed Benji. Faulkner showed me that language can do far, far more than simply tell; it can show.

Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

I don’t even know where to begin with this one; it remains one of my absolute favorites after several years. Egan is a beautiful writer with an impressionistic, transcendental style, in that she lifts you out of her story’s disjointed timeline only to drop you back into a new place, time, and life. Plus, I’ve never seen anyone write music as well as Egan—and by that, I mean she writes about its relationship to life and soul with startling dexterity. When I had the pleasure of studying Goon Squad in a class last semester, I came to the rather pompous conclusion that music is “the great unifier of humanity.” By this, I meant that music—as Egan tells it, at least—provides a common theme to life and its meaning: constant change. Goon Squad made me realize that we aren’t supposed to pinpoint the essence of life, as it were. We’re simply supposed to accept constant change and live. Hell of a message, isn’t it?

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Mrs. Dalloway was one of the first literary works I tackled on my own. In retrospect, that was a poor choice, but it has given me the added benefit of discovering new heights of meaning every time I read it—if only because I read it so poorly the first time. Woolf introduced me to stream of consciousness, and it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Encountering that mode of writing has made me more aware of my own processes of consciousness. Beyond that, though, Mrs. Dalloway is just a beautiful book. Woolf’s delight in language is even more powerful than Rushdie’s, considering the quotidian nature of her subjects; her ability to reveal so much significance in the everyday is powerful and inspiring.

Margaret Atwood, the Maddadam Trilogy

Atwood’s trilogy combines hilarity, pain, destruction, loss, and survival into one wild, shockingly realistic dystopian tale. I won’t go into specifics here. I can say, though, that this trilogy left me with the most profound feeling of despair for the future of the human race. If that isn’t impact, I don’t know what is.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

This book has the longest-lasting impact of any on this list: it inspired a six year old to tackle a proper book on her own for the first time, triggering a lifetime of literary passion. I never tire of returning to this book; it’s like an old friend, and I know I’ll continue to adore it for years to come. I will shamelessly maintain that I probably received much of my moral education from Harry Potter, and it started here.

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Thanks to Rushdie and Roy, I gained a powerful introduction to South Asian literature, which has become a major area of fascination in my studies and personal reading. Roy has an incredible ability to write from children’s perspectives, and the gravity of the story she tells is only heightened by her young characters’ perspectives. With all the confusion and suffering in this small, beautiful, painful novel, Roy still managed to leave me feeling optimistic with the promise of “tomorrow.”                       

Pablo Neruda, Collected Poems

Neruda’s one of the sexiest poets around. Also: odes to random things like artichokes. He’s brilliant and quirky and passionate, and he showed me that poetry defies restrictions. His poem “Horses” remains one of my favorites.

T.S. Eliot, “Rhapsody on a Windy Night”

The beginning of my masochistic descent into Modernism. It takes an excruciating amount of effort for me to analyze Eliot (this one’s more straightforward, actually), but it’s so satisfying and thrilling to do so. Such brilliant language—I mean, I consider this brief moment one of the most powerfully affecting lines I’ve ever read: “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium.” Fantastic. “Rhapsody” began my love affair with Modernist literature.

James Joyce, Ulysses

Oh, Ulysses. I’ve never viewed a book with the same mixture of adoration, fear, and loathing; but I can’t deny that I overwhelmingly feel a great deal of affection for Joyce’s masterpiece. Of all the books I’ve studied during my undergraduate career, this novel has demanded the most intellectual effort. After Ulysses, I think—dare I say it?—that I have learned to read intelligently and discerningly. Also, I can’t deny that I absolutely revel in the madness of “Circe.” Oh, Leopold Bloom. Yes I said yes I will yes.

There are many more works that have left me with profound impact: Love in the Time of Cholera, 1984, any number of Emerson essays, the Communist Manifesto (only joking, honest), A Farewell to Arms (possibly the only book I’ve ever flung across the room while sobbing my heart out at 4 a.m.). To detail each one would take more time than I have, considering I’m preparing to publish this at 2 a.m.; perhaps another descriptive list waits in the future. For now, though, I’ve given you the first ten that came to mind in the moment. Cheers!