Archive for category Rants

Women, weight and race

Lately I’m beginning to feel like writing and sharing things outside of the Japan blog. (My big ongoing project is an analysis of the film Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix! Stay tuned!)

This post caught my attention today. I really like most of what Ms. Lamb has to say, especially her rejection of the “Barbie makes girls hate their bodies” thesis (although I think the issue is too complex to categorically dismiss dolls as an influence on girls’ self-image). Her focus on the culpability of the fashion industry is spot-on.

However, towards the end of the post, I think she handles race pretty clumsily. She writes,

“We live in a world of magazines that hail how beautiful and curvy Beyonce and Mariah Carey are at a size 12-14, but then the same magazines call Jessica Simpson a cow for being the same size 12-14. Women of color can have curves, but us white gals need to look more like Posh Spice.”

This fails to address the body issues facing not only African-American women, but women of every ethnicity and background. To imply that the weight and body image craze targets white women and spares minority women is ignorant, disrespectful, and only weakens us in calling out and fighting this issue. Here’s a good place to start for other perspectives on the shaming of women over weight or health.


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Finding the good in suffering

I think it’s safe to say that the aspect of religion that bothers people the most is not the questionable truth of holy texts or the rituals performed in religious communities: it’s theodicy, or the problem of evil. How is it, we ask, that a God can exist and allow innocent people to experience suffering?

I’ve been reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, and I’d like to share some of the possible answers I’ve found there. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French geologist, Jesuit priest and theologian in the mid-20th century. His work The Divine Milieu deals with many of the problems of Christianity, like balancing work in the world with spiritual devotion. Another balance that he seeks to reach is between our activities — productive work in the world that creates or uplifts — and what he calls our diminishments, like doubt, illness, accidents, and finally death.

God, Teilhard writes, “cannot ordain that the elements of a world in the course of growth… should avoid shocks and diminishments. But God will make it good… by making evil itself serve a higher good of his faithful, the very evil which the present state of creation does not allow him to suppress immediately. Like an artist who is able to make use of a fault or an impurity in the stone he is sculpting or the bronze he is casting so as to produce more exquisite lines or a more beautiful tone, God… transfigures [diminishments] by integrating them into a better plan.” (1)

So evil is like a grain of sand that can be turned into a pearl. It’s like a threat to survival presented to human ancestors in the course of our evolution which compelled us to adapt in new and miraculous ways. Yes, this is not very satisfying or convincing if you’re already certain that no god exists. But for me, as a Christian, it’s a source of hope and courage.

In the same passage, Teilhard discusses more concrete examples of the transfiguration of suffering into something that works toward the eventual perfection of the universe. “[T]he lives of all those who have been outstanding for intelligence or goodness, are full of these instances in which one can see the man emerging ennobled, tempered and renewed from some ordeal, or even some downfall, which seemed bound to diminish or lay him low for ever. Failure in that case” acts on us like pruning shears on plants, making us “shoot up higher and straighter.” (1)

Because I’m a music nerd, this passage immediately reminded me of the lives of so many great composers who’ve died young, fallen in love with unattainable women, contracted terrible illnesses or lived in poverty. I’m thinking specifically of Beethoven (my Beethoven geekery is severe. I wrote a paper on him a few years ago and have been enamored ever since). He began to notice his hearing loss around 1799, when he was only 29 years old, and finally in 1802 he couldn’t bear to keep it a secret any longer. He took some R&R in the small town of Heiligenstadt and wrote the famous Heiligenstadt Testament.

For me, the Heiligenstadt Testament is incredibly poignant and inspiring. Beethoven writes of the incredible suffering he had been experiencing, not directly because of his deafness, but because it erected a wall between him and the rest of the world. “[F]orgive me when you see me draw back when I would gladly mingle with you, my misfortune is doubly painful because it must lead to my being misunderstood.”

The next year, he began work on the Eroica (“Heroic”) Symphony, a seminal piece of music in his career and in the history of classical music.

Beethoven channeled and transformed his suffering by expressing himself through his music, and he truly became one of Teilhard’s great men. This is not to say that suffering is a prerequisite to greatness, and in most cases the potential goodness in suffering is much more difficult to discern. But I think Teilhard’s thesis is fertile ground for pondering how we deal with the evil in our lives, and what part such evil may play in the greater trajectory of the universe.

(1) Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Divine Milieu. New York: Harper & Rowe, 1960. pp. 86-87.

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College is a wonderland of openmindedness and the conscientious exchange of knowledge!

Just kidding!

I had the weirdest experience in class today. The lecturer had split us into groups and assigned each group to define a term in preparation for the final. Easy enough. My group’s word was linguistic insecurity. This is an idea put forth by William Labov in the 1960s; basically it means the awareness that the way you speak is not the “right” way. In this country, it would apply to anyone who speaks any dialect other than Standard American English.

Anyway, the girl next to me already had her 25 pages of typed notes in front of her; she flipped to the relevant page and began rattling off definitions of linguistic insecurity and the accompanying concepts of hypercorrection, misrecognition, and Standard Language Ideology (the state-propagated belief that linguistic homogeneity is beneficial to society).

The other two women we were working with nodded dumbly at the stream of jargon we’d just been subjected to. Yeah, that’s the definition all right.

I said, timidly, “You guys don’t want to translate this into layman’s terms? For the benefit of the class?”

“Actually, this definition is exactly what SHE said,” said the 25-pages girl, pointing with an odd mixture of reverence and accusation at the lecturer sitting 5 feet away.

As we moved on to the next part of the question, I saw my chance to inject understandable language into the conversation. Why is linguistic insecurity important? I offered a very straightforward sentence about how the concept perpetuates stratification by subordinating anyone who doesn’t speak Standard American English.

“That’s beautiful,” said the girl. The other two nodded dumbly, again. The first girl took down my humble sentence word-for-word. And added it to her canned definitions, for a result that was about a paragraph long. When she proudly recited said paragraph to the class, the lecturer laughed in nervous, half-hearted approval.

It was so depressing and frustrating to work with this girl who couldn’t seem to function outside the world of buzzwords. College should be about understanding, not regurgitation. But we’re so apathetic that we faithfully take down every word on the PowerPoint without allowing it to reach our brains. In the Information Age, God forbid we should actually process information; just accumulating it is apparently sufficient.

Gotta love that this took place in a linguistic anthropology class, though.

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The case for tried-and-true

A few months ago I went to a dance at my university and experienced, for the first (and last) time in a while, the way our generation dances — that is, grinding. The experience has haunted me enough to inspire this post.

I couldn’t look at any couple without being strongly reminded of the way a dog or an insect would mount another. In any other setting, most guys wouldn’t be caught dead swinging their hips the way they do on the dance floor, in order to accommodate the girls situated neatly on their crotches (sorry, I’m trying to avoid as many gory details as possible). Faces are slack, expressionless, concentrated on matching the rhythm of the partner’s hips. It’s instinctual, repetitive, easy — and it feels damn good.

But I think we can agree that this kind of dancing is also intrinsically artless. There’s nothing to memorize, no sequence of movements to practice at home or learn under someone’s instruction. While the dancing of 50 or 100 years ago had elements of performance and procedure in it, grinding exists only in the moment and there are no rules.

Ritual is defined by Merriam-Webster as “an act or series of acts regularly repeated in a set precise manner.” (Side note: Instinct had directed me to, but my higher brain function, which has been co-opted by my unpaid editor jobs, took over.) I actually like the definition better because it includes the words “pattern of behavior” rather than just “series of acts.”

Compared to the past, I think that our behavior (as a culture, as individuals) is perhaps losing some of its association with patterns. The silliest evidence is the evolution of “random” into a catchall reaction or descriptor (“That’s so random!”). But more generally, our daily choices and actions are influenced by technology that offers us unlimited choices. Commercials for smartphones flash city streets, lavish living rooms, the interior of a bar or just eye candy of the device itself, in just a few frames each. Why spend time and effort doing something you’ve done before, when your “intelligent, maybe even genius” device (Verizon’s words, not mine) can always lead you to a new experience?

Personally, I see a connection between our growing impatience with routine and the increasing secularism of the first world (and of American society in particular). While there are many more factors to this than the abandonment of ritual, as a Christian I know that a major turnoff to religion for many of my friends and peers is its reliance on repeated rites, singing or speaking in unison. Even within the religious population, many communities of worshippers are employing a more “contemporary” approach that eschews the centuries-old hymns and books in favor of guitars and PowerPoint sermons.

As for me, I love the simple hymns and the prayers we say week after week. I eat that stuff up. I find that having something stay constant in my life makes it easier to examine what’s different today, this week, this year. I have studied karate and yoga, and the challenge of learning to do something in a set way, and to replicate it, is a valuable experience.

So I think ritual and routine are underrated. You can take this with a grain of salt because I happen to be a very plan- and routine-oriented person; I love waking up at the same time every day and fixing my Cream of Wheat and cup of tea the way I did the day before, and the day before that. But the point is, I think ballroom dancing, yoga, karate and religious rites exist because people are programmed to imitate, learn and reproduce (sequences of actions as well as DNA) — and in a culture that prizes originality and individuality, we’ve lost sight of that.

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An anecdote: dating

This post aligns with my original intent for the theme of this blog: complaining!

I went on a first date a few weeks ago. Every aspect of my communication with this guy was ridiculous.

I met him online, which means that the first communication was a message on this site. We proceeded to exchange maybe 8 or 10 innocuous messages. Fine. Let’s move on, shall we? I was the one who suggested in a very straightforward manner that we get coffee. (i.e. “Maybe we should get coffee or something.”) Instead of nailing down a date or time, he asked for my phone number. Hope blossomed within me as I thought that he’d be upgrading from an Internet message to a PHONE CALL to figure things out!

But no. Over the next day and a half I was bombarded with texts.

“Where did u go to school?”

“Oh u play guitar? sweeeet”

“yeah fo sho I dunno what my plans are for this weekend tho”

(I don’t actually have anything against texting language or abbreviations, but coming from someone I didn’t even know in the first place, somehow it was infuriating. We haven’t even met in person, and you’re not providing me with any proof that you know how to use the English language.)

As a good guy friend put it, this guy’s blitzkrieg of brief, meaningless messages betrayed a “fanatical desperation.” I love meeting new people, but I like MEETING them — I can’t find out anything about who you are in 140 silent, typefaced characters!

So I was full of apprehension days before we even went out. But I subdued it with rationalizations concerning the incredible ubiquity of texting in “our generation” or something.

Every aspect of the planning and execution of said date was left entirely in my hands. Our exchange (STILL VIA TEXT MESSAGE) went something like this:

Me: What would you like to do?

Guy: Oh it’s up to you

Me: Okay, how about we do A or B?

Guy: Both sound fine lol

Me: [swallowing aggravation] Okay, we’ll do A. Should we get dinner beforehand?

Guy: Sure if you want

Me: Okay, which restaurant would you like to go to? Pick somewhere. [NOTICE THIS LAST SENTENCE]

Guy: Anywhere is fine with me, you pick

Do guys think it’s nice and considerate to force the woman to decide on every detail of a date? Because sometimes, news flash, we actually mean what we say. When I ask you to pick a restaurant, it means I want you to pick a restaurant.

The actual date was not great but not terrible — probably because it was such a relief to have a civilized conversation in person. He went to the bathroom right before the check came, which was great — I had the waiter split it and both bills were on the table by the time my date returned. (I believe strongly that a girl should pay for herself on the first date. Otherwise, there’s a contract set up between you; you feel indebted to the guy already.)

He said with disappointment, “Oh, I wanted to get that.” If you wanted to pay, maybe you should have arranged to be present when the check came.

He texted me literally 2 minutes after we (finally) said goodbye, about “how great it was to meet u.” I’m terribly old-fashioned, but haven’t you heard of the 48-hour rule? Even 8 hours would do. It was like he had this chronic fear that I’d forget about his existence if he didn’t bombard me with text messages at least once an hour.

The next afternoon when he texted me “how’s ur day going? :)” I decided I’d had enough. I called him and made a lame excuse about how texting was annoying for me because I have an old-school, number phone (which is true, incidentally). I could hear the disappointment and dread as his voice rose half an octave and he laughed nervously, “Oh sure! I totally understand!”

This was a little cruel on my part, perhaps. But when I’ve just met someone, I think I’m entitled to a little time and space apart from them.

I also realized that afternoon that we had switched debit cards.

An awkward on-campus rendezvous ensued.

Guy [with puppy-like anticipation]: So what are your plans for the rest of the night? [this was at 4:30pm]

Me: I’m really tired….

Guy: [dying a little inside]: Oh yeah, sure, sure.

Again, maybe a little cruel of me (although I was actually pretty tired). I couldn’t find it in me to break this puppy’s heart by delivering the brutal truth.

I’m not trying to say that I’m the most desirable, dateable person in the world — in fact, that’s part of why his desperation was so off-putting. I want to date someone whose entire existence doesn’t hang on the prospect of seeing me again as soon as possible. Is that weird?

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Drugs and spirituality

A few weeks ago, I finally watched Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — one of those modern classics that I somehow had not seen up until now. I thought it was great, but there was a definite tinge of unpleasantness that came from the film’s “honest look” at the use of psychoactive drugs. The viewer is subjected to the characters’ riotous highs but also to their terrifying lows. I had to wonder if the ecstasy and understanding achieved could be worth the havoc wrought on Raoul’s and Dr. Gonzo’s lives.

Around the same time, I encountered this article by Sam Harris, discussing the possible virtues of using drugs to alter consciousness. Drug use is a personal choice, and I don’t condemn it; however, I feel a need to raise some objections to Harris’ argument.

Harris compares psychedelic drugs to other consciousness-altering activities in terms of their potency: “If a person learns to meditate, pray, chant, do yoga, etc., there is no guarantee that anything will happen. Depending on his aptitude, interest, etc., boredom could be the only reward for his efforts.” This comparison to more natural (less chemical) means of altering consciousness led me to a certain self-righteousness on behalf of those spiritual activities: if these are available to us, why use drugs — which, despite their expedited effects, carry risks of physical and psychological harm? I felt the vague conviction that yoga and prayer are more valuable, less self-absorbed activities than drugs. However, these are often practiced in solitude. I guess I would say that these activities are more social because they are engaging with something larger than oneself. But Harris would probably say the same thing about drugs! Are we both right? I’m at an impasse on this one. To try to “prove” my spiritual convictions in logical terms would be a futile exercise.

But I think the point at which my spiritual beliefs really come into play is when Harris writes about the mental potential that we can “unlock” with drugs. He writes: “The power of psychedelics… is that they often reveal, in the span of a few hours, depths of awe and understanding that can otherwise elude us for a lifetime.” It’s true that part of the joy of being human is to explore our minds and strive to reach new levels of understanding. But when we employ our advanced knowledge about the way our bodies work in the construction of an express track to transcendence, I think we may have gone too far. At some point, I wonder: who are we to reap the full benefits of the incredible and mysterious minds that we’ve been endowed with?

Harris makes the valid point that ethical transcendence is the relinquishing of egoity — letting go of “our thoughts, moods, desires, etc.” In this act, he writes, “we make progress.” The latent kernel of Puritanism within me would argue that this is true — but that it’s a reason to avoid drugs. Maybe we’re meant to be shackled by our individual conscious selves, overwhelmed with the weight of ego. And yes, life should be about struggling to let go of that weight, to make progress toward a selfless existence. But to use substances to achieve such a state effortlessly is itself an egotistical choice and thoroughly contradicts the ethical argument Harris puts forward.

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Full-time work for no pay? Sign me up!

I’m going into my last year of college, and if you believe the rhetoric my peers and I hear from the career center and from a lot of potential employers, my options look pretty bleak…

1) Grad school (because 16 years of being a student just isn’t enough for me! Please, put me in more debt!)

2) McDonald’s, data entry, etc.

3) An unpaid internship

I first started hearing about unpaid internships at the end of high school, and I never really liked the idea. You say I’ll gain “experience” and “connections” from performing menial labor and/or research for a little-known company, full time, for free? Something doesn’t sound right.

I don’t have to pontificate any more on this, because other bloggers have already done it better. I’m just glad people are beginning to question this suddenly familiar institution in intelligent ways. Tim Barker’s Privilege and Exploitation in the Intern Nation is a great exploration of the circumstances that created the sudden ubiquity of internships. (Thanks to Taylor over at Prospect Blog for this one.) And, if you prefer slightly more blunt language, check out Calling Bullshit on Unpaid Internships by Stu Curry — completely on target about the various reasons internships don’t actually benefit graduates, you know, at all.

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