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!
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.
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.)
So despite the amount that I’ve travelled in the past year, I’ve failed to write a single proper blog post about it. I know: ridiculous, isn’t it? But I’ve been thinking about traveling a lot lately—so much that my friend and I have started a game I call “Where Are We Going?”, in which I ask her where we’re going, she tells me a city, and I type it into Kayak to see how expensive the flight would be. Pathetic, really, but it give us hope. Anyway, I decided to write up a little post reflecting on the travels of the past year.
Today is September 8. It marks the day that, one year ago, I arrived in St. Andrews, Scotland, for four fabulous months of study abroad. I played polo; I studied Chaucer and other English greats; I consumed copious amounts of scotch whisky; I saw snow for the first time. I’m not even going to try to sum up how I feel about Scotland; all I can say is that I miss it (and the people I met there) every day. The point, though, is that I’ve been thinking about travelling a lot. Almost constantly. Rather problematic, actually. So now I’m thinking about what travelling means to me, and I’ll share my (murky and wistful) conclusions with you.
I returned to Texas from travelling in Asia less than a month and a half ago. Funny how time passes—it seems like years since I touched down in Austin, but the two-and-a-half months spent in Asia are a blur. That absolutely has something to do with the lifestyle; in Shanghai, at least, where I lived and worked for six weeks, the city is nonstop. It’s chaotic, it’s hectic, it’s full of life and sounds and sights and people. To be honest, I didn’t like the person that Shanghai made me. I had to buy into the intensely materialistic, disconnected culture that permeates the Shanghai lifestyle; it made me reckless and perhaps a bit callous. Regardless, it’s an incredible city—it may be chaotic, but it’s an amazingly organized chaos. I mean, the metro might be brimming with endless people, but at least the trains run on time. Plus, I was able to take advantage of my weekends to travel into different parts of China, from an island beach to the Yellow Mountains. I may not love Shanghai, but I love what it gave me.
After Shanghai, I don’t even know where the time went. After a few beautiful days spent in richly historical Beijing, we changed gears a bit and took an eight-hour bullet train from Shanghai to Shenzhen and, subsequently, crossed the border to Hong Kong. There’s a story here; it involves running out of money buying food on the train, having no money to purchase metro tickets to reach the border checkpoint, experiencing a detainment at the crossing into Hong Kong, and some harrowing heckling on the street in front of our hostel’s high rise. You can imagine it. But Hong Kong was beautiful, a city of greenery and skyscrapers and ocean views and twisting streets. I fell in love. But it was short-lived—we were there for just three days, and then I was en route to Singapore.
I don’t really know what to say about Singapore. I was in the city for two and a half beautiful weeks that seemed in some ways far too short, and in others far too long. It’s incredibly clean and orderly—look no further than its metro stations for that—and the food is without a doubt some of the best cuisine in the world. Think of anything; Singapore will have it. I relished rambling those scorched streets on my own, wandering through Chinatown and Little India and Haji Lane in the Singapore heat (which, in all honesty, is nowhere near as bad as San Antonio heat). And, somewhat surprisingly, the city has some beautiful parks; the Botanic Gardens even contain a rainforest preserve. Somehow, though, the Lion City felt a bit artificial and soulless; perhaps it was the skyline comprised almost exclusively of the financial district, or the weirdly pristine view of Marina Bay Sands. I didn’t really connect with Singapore, not with the city itself—but I’ll always remember it with love.
Coming home is hard. It’s hard to come back and realize you can’t hop on the metro and be anywhere within fifteen minutes. It’s hard to come back and encounter only the familiar. It’s even hard to come back and hear English spoken everywhere–I keep almost responding with “xiexie” to thank people. I miss the thrill of finding new places; I feel a profound lack of excitement and energy in my life. I want to walk along city streets I don’t know, breathe unfamiliar (and sometimes startling) smells, see alien plants, hear the sounds of a different city. I thrive on encountering new things. Don’t get me wrong—I do love my home. But nothing compares to the thrilling sense of exploration I have when I travel. After spending half of the past year abroad, I feel like I can’t stop now. I want my world shaken. What’s next?
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!
A tale of a budding English major, a literary encounter, and the meaning of stasis
During my freshman year of college—a time of less cynicism and more youthful curiosity, if you will—I had the pleasure of reading The Sound and the Fury with a certain lovable and enthusiastic English professor. I say “pleasure” in hindsight; at the time, I found the novel both a torturous slog through the quagmire of Faulkner’s stream of consciousness and a revelation in language’s intricacies and symbolic capabilities. But something clearly went right, because I ended up adoring the book and majoring in English—an early sign of madness? Anyway, to the point.
I remember with rather impressive clarity—impressive because of the soporific state that plagued my brain in the post-lunch hour—a single focal point during our discussion of The Sound and the Fury. We had reached the novel’s poignant, wrenchingly beautiful second section: the Quentin section. I’ll be honest; I had no idea what was happening. Well, I caught the plot, but I had to read the entire section twice to get any deeper (I was a freshman; what can I say?). I entered the lecture with an open and slightly confused mind, professor presiding imperiously over us at his ever-present podium, microphone at the ready, watching his students entering the hall with that unique expression of wisdom, mischief, and superiority I’ve come to know well (and, let’s be honest, I admire that blend a lot—it appeals to my inner narcissist). The hall filled; the class waited.
“STASIS!” thundered that paragon of fierce literary opinions. We jumped. Honestly, it was shocking. That man has impressive lungs, and the aforementioned microphone was not unused. So we sat, rather dazed, waiting for an explanation of that introduction, which was unusual even by the standards of that class.
What came next remains one of the most moving lectures of my college career. First, a quick definition: stasis indicates a state lacking change or progress. Now, Quentin Compson’s state of stasis, marked by his profound inability to grapple with the conflicts that plague his psyche and drive him to suicide (spoilers, sorry), enthralled me, opening my thoughts to the psychological elements of literary analysis that would become my favored method of exploration. Of equal importance, though, is the effect that discussion of stasis has had on my own psyche. This is not a literary analysis. This is a reflection.
I found Quentin’s plight deeply disturbing, if fascinating. That sense remained with me for a long time, and I don’t think I quite understood why—I mean, it’s obvious why, considering that he has some serious repressive issues, a tendency to fixate, and a life ending at the bottom of the Charles River; but it was deeper than that (now that’s a bad pun)—until perhaps a year later. I had entered my own period of stasis: something that had been lurking at the gate to adulthood, held at bay by ambition and optimism for only a short time until it burst—not with a bang, but a whimper—into my life. For a long year, depression immobilized me, and I felt the meaning of stasis. There was no “change or progress” in my mental state; depression is less a state of misery than a state of nothing. But I’ve talked about that before, and it’s boring; I’ll keep moving. Point: my mind was basically in stasis.
Depressing as The Sound and the Fury is, it left me with a preoccupation with Quentin Compson that had the opposite effect. Reading Quentin’s section fills me with pain for his pain—Faulkner writes pain incredibly well, you should check it out sometime—and it scares the shit out of me to realize that his struggle really isn’t that uncommon. Fear can be a good thing; fear is not the nothingness of depression, and fear forces the mind to adjust instinctively. I was afraid to descend into a similar struggle (not that I’m anywhere near on par with Quentin), so that fear pushed my mind into action. I kept dwelling on stasis. That’s my problem, I realized. So logical. Find the source of the problem; fight it there.
And so I fought stasis. Honestly, I continue to do so; sometimes my brain feels stuffed with honey or sludge or some equally sticky immobilizing substance for weeks on end (let’s go with honey, shall we?). Most of the time I can’t even write. But that fear of stasis—that glimpse of what stasis did to Quentin Compson—always pushes me to counter it. I won’t discuss how; for one thing, that’s a constant work in progress but it’s also not the point of this reflection. The point is to acknowledge a static state, because awareness is the first and most important step to a solution. I feel it especially clearly at this moment, in between internships before the beginning of my senior year. The words “worthless layabout” describe me effectively at the moment. But I know that—and I know I need to fix it.
It’s a pretty odd anecdote. Studying a powerfully depressing novel that helped convince me to choose what might be the most depressing possible major ultimately gave me a handy little tool for pushing back against depression. Weird, isn’t it?
But now, when I feel it creeping up—when I feel that horrible sense of immobility paralyzing my mind—I catch myself. I bellow “STASIS!” at my mind. And I jump.
Here’s to keeping your mind jumping.
So, as usual, it’s been awhile since I put anything up. In other times, I’ve given you excuses; I’ve begged off because of midterms, because of traveling, because of work. But it’s time to be honest, even if it’s pathetic (although, I’ll be honest, I find it difficult to write while traveling—which is how I spent half of last year). For the past year, I’ve had a pretty solid writer’s block.
I know what you might be thinking. It’s the overused excuse of procrastinating college students, of lazy writers who don’t have the work ethic to get down to business and just write. But seriously, writer’s block is a real struggle.
But that’s about to change—and this time, I think I might actually pull it off! Cheers, and stay tuned for my first ventures back into blogging.