Above water. (On writing.)

Let me confide in you what it is to be a writer of a novel. You’re at the end of your book and terrified of what you wrote: a 350-page shit-storm. You laugh at yourself as you find a selfie that came out expressionless, crop your image into a head-shot, harden it with the angstiest filter you can find – the one that turns the dark bits darker and deepens the shadows in the corners – because suddenly, you need digital armor. It won’t help. You think, I had a moral obligation to write this, and it’s been 30-odd years in the writing that began, in earnest, 18 months ago.

 

Life in two minutes.

 

The drama, the irony, the cliché! You can look at this image once and never see it again, or you can look at it once and see it every day. It’s worse than a mirror, so you share it with the world… especially easy to do when the world makes no sense.

We all have a dark side. Most of us keep it hidden, because it’s our business and no one else’s. Artists tend to display theirs through their work, whether others can see it there or not. Art unravels from buried places, taking form in every medium and genre from comedy to Shakespearean tragedy, capturing curiosity and beauty in music, writing, visual arts, poetry, photography, dance, dramatic arts, and so on, and so forth. Products of our creation spawn out of our darkest secrets, reflecting them in worlds we create… and we do create them, because we can. We can create art that belies the angst from which it springs, art that makes people laugh, even. “Tortured artists” have the means to express what others need to express. Then a step further: everything is okay. But the world, we know, doesn’t need our reassurance. We’re talking to ourselves, but it’s not about us.

So if just one person can find something of value in our work… something that helps… it’s worth it, we feel. One person includes everyone. We believe.

On remembrance: atomic bombings and 1,000 paper cranes. (+ Atomic Blonde.)

I know that this title seems all over the place. It’s just that today is August 8, 2017.

Two days ago, it was the 72nd anniversary of the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Tomorrow will be the 72nd anniversary of our atomic bombing of Nagasaki. These, as we know, were the first and last nuclear attacks in wartime history.

We’re familiar with the official justification for the attacks: Japan had to be stopped before more lives were lost, American, Japanese, and otherwise. The bombs were dropped, Japan surrendered, and WWII ended.

While debate continues as to the ethics of the atomic bombings, there’s another, less-familiar controversy regarding a possible “hidden agenda” behind the decision to launch the nuclear attacks on Japan. Some historians believe that the bombs were actually dropped in order to intimidate the Soviet Union (thus beginning the Cold War), and that Japan didn’t surrender because of the bombs, themselves; rather, they surrendered because of the post-August 6 Soviet invasion.

This theory has always fascinated me. (War fascinates me, in general, but that’s a topic for another day, perhaps.)

Reflecting on atomic bombs and the Soviets and the Cold War, then, I found it funny that the espionage action film Atomic Blonde, whose plot centers on Soviets and the Cold War (the film’s title quite possibly a nod to the atomic bomb “hidden agenda” theory), dropped in U.S. theaters the weekend before the atomic bomb anniversary weekend.

Even more interesting to me, personally, Atomic Blonde’s release date landed pretty much on the anniversary of the Atomic Bomb memorial service I’d attended at my hometown Buddhist temple 20 years ago. The film’s release date was July 28, 2017, and the memorial service date was July 27, 1997.

Yet another happenstance: I went to see Atomic Blonde the weekend following its release weekend. By sheer coincidence, I saw Atomic Blonde on Sunday, August 6… the 72nd anniversary of the first atomic bomb attack.

Then there’s the fact that nuclear weapons dominate our global concerns these days. We’re looking at atomic bomb anniversaries, atomic bombs in the news, and Atomic Blonde in the theaters.

All of this has had me thinking of Sadako Sasaki and her 1,000 paper cranes.

Sadako was two years old when the first atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, where she lived. 10 years later, she developed leukemia as a result of radiation from the bomb. She started folding paper cranes with an aim to create 1,000 of them, wishing for recovery and for peace in the world. In Japan, it’s said that folding 1,000 paper cranes can make your wish come true.

Sadako remained in the hospital for 14 months, then passed away at the age of 12. One account of her story says that she surpassed her goal of folding 1,000 paper cranes. Another account says that she did not, but her friends and family completed the project for her. Regardless, no superstition was going to undo the devastation of the atomic bomb. Since Sadako’s death, the paper crane has become a universal symbol of world peace as well as a symbol of good luck and longevity.

As explained on the origami resource center’s page,

Sadako’s friends and classmates raised money to build a memorial in honor of Sadako and other atomic bomb victims. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial was completed in 1958 and has a statue of Sadako holding a golden crane. At the base is a plaque that says:

          This is our cry.
         This is our prayer.
         Peace in the world.

 

****

About six months ago, I found my Atomic Bomb memorial service program as I went through some old papers. I’d forgotten that I kept it. I took this pic to share it with you (sizing it large enough to be readable when clicked):

 

Atomic bomb memorial service program, pic taken on Sunday, August 6, 2017 – the 72nd anniversary of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima, Japan

 

After I found the program, I put it in this old frame. It sits near my butsudan, where I can see it every day as a reminder and a visual point of meditation on peace in the world.

By the way – to end this on a lighter note – I really enjoyed Atomic Blonde.

Remembering the Four-Four-Deuce. (The U.S. Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team in WWII.)

My parents had wanted to see Hacksaw Ridge, but they weren’t able to catch it in the theater… so we all watched it together in our living room when they came to visit a couple of weeks ago. Callaghan and I were eager to see it again, and we liked it even more on second viewing. Mom and Dad also enjoyed the movie.

Hacksaw Ridge is a World War II film, and it’s an important one for an unusual reason: it tells the true story of a young American man who joins the army as a conscientious objector, refusing to touch a weapon, but determined to make it to the front line as a combat medic. He was eventually allowed to complete basic training without rifle qualification. After finishing skill training, he was sent to Japan with an infantry regiment. There, the regiment fought the Japanese in the Battle of Okinawa atop the treacherous Hacksaw Ridge.

Hacksaw Ridge tells the extraordinary story of an extraordinary man whose extraordinary valor saved many lives.

As I watched the scenes of Americans fighting the Japanese, it brought to my mind, as a Japanese-American, another WWII story: that of the United States Army’s 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion. This infantry regiment was also extraordinary, and also for an unusual reason: the unit was comprised mostly of Nisei, second-generation Japanese-Americans, mostly from Hawaii.

I say “as a Japanese-American” because I’m not sure how many Americans in the general population are aware that there was a United States Army infantry regiment of Japanese-Americans fighting during WWII. As a Japanese-American, I’m aware of it, as it’s a part of our history in this country.

And it’s an important part of our history… not just in Japanese-American history, but in United States history, and in Hawaii’s history: the WWII Japanese-American soldiers of the 442nd went on to become a key factor in Hawaii gaining statehood. As intoned by narrator Gerald McRaney in The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers, “On August 21, 1959, largely because of the Nisei soldiers, Hawaii became the 50th state.”

*****

American Desmond Doss (subject of Hacksaw Ridge) wanted to serve his country in wartime, but almost wasn’t permitted to do so because of his refusal to touch a firearm. Second-generation Japanese-American men also wanted to serve their country during the same wartime, but almost weren’t permitted to do so because of their Japanese ancestry.

It was a time when Japanese-Americans on the mainland were forced into incarceration… because of their ethnicity.

*****

The only ethnic Americans are Native Americans.

To say that we’re “American” is to describe our nationality – who we are as a nation. Americans are Irish-American, for instance… or African-American, or Japanese-American, or German- or Italian-American. Americans are Polish-American, Franco-American, Korean-American. Americans are Arab-American. And because of the ethnic diversity that characterizes our country, we’re a nation with a proud “mutt” population: many of us are of mixed ethnicity.

Our ancestry does not define who we are nationality-wise.

But during WWII, Japan was our enemy, and Japanese-Americans had the misfortune of looking like the enemy. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order that led to the incarceration of west coast Japanese-Americans, tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans removed from their homes and placed in the internment camps. Houses and businesses were confiscated. Families were broken apart. Living conditions in the camps were poor to horrendous; many internees were forced to live in horse stables, and all of them behind barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards.

Not a single Japanese-American was ever found to be guilty of espionage.

Now, today, there are some amongst us who would like to repeat this shameful part of American history. They would like to round up innocent Arab-Americans and imprison them, just as Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during WWII.

*****

My parents are from Japanese-American families in Hawaii, some of which moved to the mainland to settle in California. While parts of these earlier branches of my family in California were incarcerated in the internment camps, two* of my uncles from Hawaii volunteered to fight in the United States Army as members of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion.

When one of those uncles passed away in 2006, a retired veteran found his obituary, read that he was a WWII veteran of the 442nd, and contacted his son, my cousin. The gentleman told my cousin he would ensure that his Dad was recognized with the appropriate ceremony: a military funeral service. And so my Uncle’s casket was draped with the American flag and carried to his gravesite in the presence of an honor guard, and a bugle playing “Taps.”

*****

In 2011, Japanese-American WWII veterans – more than 19,000 of them – were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor in a mass ceremony.

In the article “Unlikely World War II Soldiers Awarded Nation’s Highest Honor,” Barbara Maranzani details the extent of the Nisei’s wartime achievements:

“The 442nd became the most decorated unit of its size in U.S. military history. In less than two years of combat, the unit earned more than 18,000 awards, including 9,486 Purple Hearts, 4,000 Bronze Stars and 21 Medals of Honor. Upon their return to the United States, they were praised by President Harry Truman for their brave stand both home and abroad, and were even the subject of a 1951 film, “Go for Broke”; the film’s title was derived from the unit’s official slogan. Many members of the 442nd went on to distinguished careers in science, academia and government, including nine-term U.S. Senator Daniel Inouye from Hawaii, who lost an arm due to World War II combat injuries and was among those attending Wednesday’s event.”

 

 

*****

Many Japanese-Americans were already serving in the armed forces when Pearl Harbor was attacked on December 7, 1941. When the attack occurred, Japanese-Americans were as horrified as any other American, and in Hawaii, especially, Japanese-American men wanted to join the armed forces to fight for their country.

To this day, Japanese-Americans serve in the United States Armed Forces. I’m proud to have been one of them.

My Dad directed me to the above-mentioned documentary from the History Channel. If you’re interested, watching it will be worth your while:

The History Channel presents Most Decorated: The Nisei Soldiers

 

 

Japanese-Americans’ wartime service didn’t begin and end with the 442nd: in addition to the 442nd, thousands of Japanese-Americans also had roles in the army’s Military Intelligence Service (MIS) during WWII. These Japanese-Americans “provided translation and interrogation assistance to the war effort. The MIS is perhaps best known for the crucial role it played in deciphering a captured set of Japanese military documents, known as the ‘Z Plan,’ which outlined plans for a final, large-scale counterattack on Allied forces in 1944. The discovery of the Z Plan has been hailed as one of the most important military intelligence successes of World War II.”

[source: http://www.history.com/news/unlikely-world-war-ii-soldiers-awarded-nations-highest-honor]

*****

Valor comes in unexpected forms. It comes in the form of a young man who wants to serve unarmed on the front line of a bloody battle. It comes in the form of men who want to serve despite looking like the enemy, thus feared, maligned, and betrayed by their own country as Japanese-Americans were incarcerated because of their ethnicity.

The 442nd Regimental Combat Team of the 100th Infantry Battalion in WWII was the face of Japanese-Americans’ loyalty to their country. It was a loyalty they proved in bloody campaign after bloody campaign, national pride a stronger force than the racism that tried to oppress them.

*[Editing to add: since posting this piece, my family has remembered at least two more uncles who joined the 442nd. Two of them were incarcerated in internment camps in California when they volunteered.]

“Self”-contemplation (or, selflessness in Buddhist thought.)

Lately, I’ve been increasingly wary of the words “self” and “myself.” I finally wondered, “how could I replace those words in my internal and external dialogue?”

I thought, well, it’s not possible to get away from first-person pronouns. “I” and “me” are unavoidable, so why not use those words instead of “self”?

Just as an experiment, I tried for a day to remove “self” in the first-person context. It’s surprisingly hard.

For instance, “I’m doing this for myself” vs. “I’m doing this for me.”

“I don’t know what to do with myself” vs. “I don’t know what to do” or “I don’t know what I’ll do to keep busy.”

Emphasis is placed on the self: “I, myself, have a habit of hitting the snooze button” vs. “I, too, have a habit of hitting the snooze button.”

“I’m getting myself a glass of water” vs. “I’m getting a glass of water.”

The word popped up when I thought of defining who I am: “I feel like myself again” vs. “I feel right again.”

Grammatically speaking, it’s difficult if not impossible to get away from “self.” We need the word in the first-person context in order to communicate. Psychologically speaking, it’s hard to think away from it. So much of our popular conversation revolves around the love, care, improvement, maintenance, scrutiny, reflection, actualization, esteem, and empowerment of the self that the idea of it has become ingrained in how we imagine we should perceive and move through the world. Pseudo-psychologists have been spawned, and they have written books (and made millions): “Self-help” has become a genre. We’re a culture obsessed with our selves. We are self-centered.

Self-importance and self-hood. Is it possible to be an individual without being selfish?

“Love yourself.” “Pamper yourself.” “Be kind to yourself.” “Value yourself.” “Do something nice for yourself.”

The problem is that such commands have the opposite effect of what they’re supposed to achieve. In being encouraged to wonder why we’re not doing these things, we’re being called upon to focus on ourselves relentlessly. Those self-help gurus have made fortunes off of the insecurities they’ve managed to establish in us (so that we’ll buy their books/tapes/retreat admission tickets/etc.).

“If you (insert action), you’ll improve your self-esteem.” Self-esteem! So much focus has been concentrated on self-esteem that we’ve almost stopped looking beyond that, as if self-esteem is the end-all, be-all of our collective existence. Would it be possible to navigate life detached from our esteem of our selves? It seems that the more esteem and concern for esteem we direct onto ourselves, the less we remember to place value elsewhere.

The exercise of replacing “self” in the first-person led me to realize the extent of the importance we’ve allocated to the self: we’re hyper-aware of ourselves, and I, for one, am keenly cognizant of this. I’m socially awkward, which I think is partially because I tend to be self-conscious. Self-consciousness is almost never used with a positive connotation; it almost always refers to an uncomfortable state of being.

Self-consciousness and self-confidence aren’t mutually exclusive, though, fortunately. Self-confidence is critical. We need it to live in society with assurance; we need it to be successful. We even need self-confidence to stay safe. Predators looking for victims watch for indications of an absence of self-confidence.

In art, the self-portrait has been a genre since antiquity, and an important genre, at that. The selfies we take today fall in a sub-category of the self-portrait. Vanity notwithstanding, many of us enjoy documenting and sharing photos we take of ourselves with those who find value in them.

I’ve been revisiting this train of thought not as an armchair psychologist, but as a life-long Buddhist, pondering the subject again following the recent death of my cat. The Buddhist service I did for her prompted me to think back on the Buddhist teachings I’ve learned from the time I started attending Dharma school at seven years old.

Because of the teachings of the Buddha, I grew up knowing that an ideal endeavor in life is to strive for selflessness, but I never made earnest attempts to live in accordance with the principle. Such an endeavor has never seemed more important than now, in this time wherein self-esteem and emphasis on the self has been given highest importance.

We are all out for ourselves. We feel that we have to be in order to survive.

The Buddhist principle of the Middle Path is that “both extremes, self-affirmation and self-denial, are simply forms of self-preoccupation and self-attachment.”

This is what I would like to try to avoid.

Coming back to my exercise: it’s good to be “self-reliant,” I thought, but being “independently capable” is the same thing. I started to see that making an effort to direct my thinking away from terms of self might allow me an unexpected measure of peace. It’s a starting point, at least.

 

 

 

Everyone Needs Water. (A tale.)

[Author’s Note: (Or should I call this “Author’s Fail”!) … Thank you to those who read this blog post earlier. If you thought that the event in this story actually happened to me, I sincerely apologize for the lack of clarity at the outset. The story is an analogy (‪#‎BlackLivesMatter‬ vs. All Lives Matter). I should have made this clear at the outset. Thank you again for reading.]

Remember how I mentioned in my last post that I like to give water to the homeless? We’ve always got a few of those small, store-brand bottles of cold water on hand when we leave the house, just in case we see someone in need.

We keep bottles of water for ourselves at home, too. We have several five-gallon bottles we refill weekly. It’s hot, and we drink a lot of water. Can’t imagine life without access to all the water we want. We’re so lucky that we don’t even have to try to imagine it.

 

16.9 fl oz of water in the small bottle. 5 gallons of water in the large bottle.

16.9 fl oz of water in the small bottle. 5 gallons of water in the large bottle.

 

[ETA: The following tale is analogous to the #BlackLivesMatter vs. #AllLivesMatter controversy]

I made a quick stop at a Circle K (convenience store) the other day when I was out running errands.

There was a homeless guy sitting on the curb outside the store. He wasn’t holding a water bottle or a drink cup, and there was nothing of the kind around him, so I took a bottle of cold water from my insulated grocery bag before I got out of the car. On my way into the store, I handed him the bottle of water.

At that moment, another guy exited the store and pressed a button on his key fob to unlock his vehicle. As his headlights flashed with the unlocking, he saw me giving the homeless guy the bottle of water. He stopped and said, “Hey. I need a bottle of water, too.”

This threw me off a bit.

The guy clearly wasn’t homeless. He was groomed and attired in clean clothing, and he was about to take off in the vehicle that got him there.

He was carrying a small plastic bag containing his purchases, indicating that he’d made a retail transaction.

What the heck? I wondered.

He answered as if he heard my question.

“I need a bottle of water, too,” he repeated. “He’s not the only one here who gets thirsty. I’m thirsty right now. If he gets a bottle of water, then so should I.”

I looked at him for a few seconds, because now I was even more confused.

“Can’t you go back into the store and buy water?” I finally thought to say.

“Yeah, but that’s not the point.”

“Then what’s the point?” I asked. I don’t like to challenge strangers on the street, but I had to know.

“The point is,” he said, obviously annoyed at having to explain it to me, “that to be fair, whatever he gets, I should get.”

He’s comparing himself to a homeless guy. Bizarre, I thought. But I said, “I gave him water because he didn’t have any, and he can’t go in to buy any because he doesn’t have the means.”

“Not having the means doesn’t justify him getting a special bottle of water just for him,” said the guy with the key fob that unlocked his car.

“You make it sound like I’m discriminating against you by giving him a bottle of water.”

“You ARE discriminating against me by not giving me a bottle of water!”

“I’m giving him something he needs that you already have.”

“I don’t have a bottle of water.”

“Something he needs to survive.”

The conversation was getting surreal.

“This is wrong,” he said. “We ALL need to survive.”

“But you’re not the one wondering where your next bottle of water is going to come from! You can get your own water here or at home or wherever.”

“You don’t get it,” he replied. “What’s so hard to understand about EVERYONE needing water, not just homeless people?”

I gathered myself.

“I’m not giving him water like it’s an all-expenses-paid cruise to the Bahamas,” I said. “I’m giving him water because it’s his basic human right to have water. He needs water in order to survive. He has a right to survival.” 

Then it occurred to me that he might be thinking it’s the guy’s own fault that he’s homeless, so I added: “And it doesn’t matter what he did in the past, whether he’s been in jail or has a drug or alcohol problem or anything like that. ALSO…. ” I was on a roll. “It doesn’t matter if he was trying to buy water and got belligerent with the store clerk for some reason. It doesn’t matter. Whatever he’s done in the past is irrelevant. He’s a human being, a person, like you. He needs water. To survive.” Now I was repeating myself.

“I need water in order to survive, too. I also have a right to survive.” And now he was repeating himself. The conversation had gone from bizarre to surreal to ridiculous.

“But you can get your own water!”

“Who died and made you the queen of who gets free water handed to them and who doesn’t?”

“The only one here who might die is this guy who doesn’t have water and can’t get any water himself! This is Arizona. We’re in the desert. We’re in a harsh environment. His life is at stake out here with no water.”

“My life is at stake too!”

I could see that this was going nowhere, so I left.

The End.

#BlackLivesMatter

P.S. Here’s a pic of me drinking water before class at the gym last night, just demonstrating how I’m drinking water without thinking about it:

 

The civilian water canteen comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. This one's my favorite... but the water inside is precious.

The civilian water canteen comes in many shapes, sizes, and colors. This one’s my favorite… but the water inside is precious.

 

(Now it’s really the end.)

“Do not go gentle into that good night” (Thoughts on trolls, suicide, Robin Williams)

In any given human interaction scenario, there’s that proverbial line. Once you cross the line, you’ve entered the land of excess. You’re beyond. I think that as humans, for the sake of decency, we make efforts to not go there. We don’t want to offend.

Conversely, there’s a sub-species of human who regularly and deliberately crosses the line, a sub-species that evolved out of the masses somewhere in the mid-90’s when the World Wide Web opened for business and ushered us into a new dimension of existence. Suddenly, we could hang out in the ether. No one could see us, but we were there. And we had keyboards. They had keyboards… they of the sub-species whose raison d’être is to go there, into the beyond. Those with a propensity to offend could now do it in the most cowardly fashion: Invisibly. At some point, someone started calling them “trolls.” The name stuck, and the verb form quickly followed. Trolling is now a behavior that’s as common-place online as annoying ad pop-ups you have to “click to close” before you can read what’s on the page.

Trolls are everywhere. It’s just a fact of the internet that nothing is sacred to them. I know this, but still, I was aghast at their comments on articles about Robin Williams’ death (if I may use that event as an example). As a reader, I saw that as crossing the line of all lines. When trolls unleash their misdirected anger in the comments section of an article about someone’s death, they’re so far beyond that I can’t begin to comprehend it.

Maybe it’s naïve of me to expect nothing less from trolls who spend their days seething under the bridges of the interwebs, but really? Robin Williams committed suicide in an apparent state of confusion and despair. He was a fellow human being, an artist who devoted his career to making us laugh and using his acting gifts to enrich our collective human experience with the depth of his dramatic performances.

We now know that Robin Williams suffered with Lewy Body Dementia and a couple of other, related neurological diseases. His depression was likely a by-product of LBD, but what if he didn’t have LBT? What if he was simply, clinically depressed, as everyone assumed at the time of his suicide?

Disdain for those who commit suicide* confounds me.

Within our legal system, we have a mechanism by which murderers are shuttled away from incarceration. We informally call it the “insanity plea,” and those who use it can take up residence in a medical facility instead of in prison… because to be determined to be too mentally unfit to stand trial is to be recognized as suffering with a medical condition.

Given this, I often wonder why the murderer of one’s self doesn’t deserve that same consideration. Why do we judge the deceased who took their own lives? Why does the church refuse to bless a soul that died deliberately? The act of suicide comes from a place of inner chaos, whether from clinical depression or from neurological disorders such as those that Williams experienced. Regardless, to be in this state of despair is to be mentally unfit. If a criminal can escape prison due to being mentally unfit, why can’t a person who committed suicide also be spared? Why can’t we acknowledge the fact of mental illness and let the dead rest in peace?

 

Works of two of my favorite poets (of the many who've committed suicide).

Works of two of my favorite poets (of the many who’ve committed suicide).

 

You can’t explain such concepts to trolls. They can’t be reasoned with, but you can reason with others. You can explain how it’s offensive to speak of the deceased as being selfish, pathetic, immature, “a loser,” etc. Many of us say such things. “Suicide is cowardly and selfish. It’s the easy way out that only hurts those left behind.” In my opinion, if we’re into Political Correctness, we should deem it un-P.C. to speak unkindly of those who commit suicide.

Suicide is only tragic. 22 veterans commit suicide every day, and do we speak of them with disdain? No. For the most part, we understand that P.T.S.D. (whether from military experience or from other traumatic events) and depression go together. We reserve our disdain for civilians… but suicide is suicide. No one who commits suicide is mentally fit at the time of the act.

Trolls who emerge to spew their vitriol in the comments section of article about people who committed suicide – such as Robin Williams – are the worst, as far as I’m concerned. They’re gleeful to have this excuse to rant about politics, religion, etc. They want their hatred to be heard, and they’ll use any occasion to achieve that.

The fact is that trolls are the cowardly ones… not the victims of suicide. (This is not at all to say that those who judge suicide victims are trolls.)

People who commit suicide can no longer avoid “going gently into that good night.” Let’s honor their bravery in fighting it, rather than looking down on them for dying.

 

*****

*Please note that I don’t include extremists in my definition of suicides.

Because “resolution” without the “re” is SOLUTION.

Like many people, when it comes to New Year’s resolutions, I’ve been an on-and-off cynic most of my adult life. My birthday falls five days before New Year’s Day, though, so at some point, I finally thought, Why not turn my personal one-year-older goals into resolutions? Because what are birthdays if not opportunities for introspection and decision-making to move forward with new or refreshed goals, right? Or something like that (says my inner self-help guru to myself).

“Resolution” minus the “re” is “solution,” after all… and that stands out to me. I’m a fan of solutions.

As it turns out, I do well participating in the ritual of making New Year’s resolutions. It’s glorified goal-setting that could be undertaken on any random day, sure, but January 1 is as good a day as any, fanfare or no. If we don’t have the motivation to commit to a goal on any other day of the year, at least there’s that day!

“Goals” is a popular word right now, but I want to talk plainly about how there’s a difference between wanting to achieve goals and needing to achieve them. Resolutions, in my opinion, are goals that we need to achieve; we make them in order to reignite the mechanisms we have for growth, self-improvement, joie de vivre… whatever it is that we’re lacking, in whatever way it needs to manifest. Ultimate goals are things like contentment and productivity. Contentment and productivity are good. People who are content and productive are good for society, good for us all.

You might receive advice that’s actually detracting, usually coming from the hearts of well-intentioned loved ones. There’s the old “…but you have to WANT to do it,” which I think is psychobabble for “You have to feel that doing xyz is going to result in personal gratification, or it’s not worth the effort.” I don’t believe this. Some of my greater achievements in life resulted from goals that I needed to pursue, but I absolutely didn’t want to pursue them.

Quitting smoking, for instance. I smoked between the ages of 15 and 23. I only smoked for eight years, but addiction is addiction no matter how long you’ve had it.

I absolutely did not WANT to quit smoking. I loved smoking. Whenever I’d think about quitting, all I WANTED my next cigarette. When I finally committed to breaking the habit, I still didn’t want to. I did it because I knew that I needed to.

Quitting was every bit as excruciating as I thought it would be.

I quit cold turkey, and I never smoked another cigarette. That was 24 years ago. (I think I was successful in part because I suffered through the process without the aid of chemical replacements. This was pre-nicotine patch. There was nicotine gum, but I wasn’t attracted to that strategy.) Suffering for that victory, that solution to the problem of my compromised health, made me value my success even more. If at any point in my smoking cessation journey someone uttered those condescending words in my general direction – “You just have to WANT to quit!” – I would have had to bite my tongue REALLY HARD. I know why I’m quitting. It’s a decision that I made. I don’t need you to tell me that if I just WANT to quit, I’ll effortlessly break my addiction overnight and ride off on a unicorn into a field of flowers and happy little bunnies.

Overcoming addiction of any kind is never easy, no matter if someone WANTS to do it or not.

But I digress. My point is, make a resolution, for the New Year or on any other day. Think of it as going after a solution. Focus on seizing something that will change your life for the better if you capture it. You’re not just making a change (passive connotation). You’re taking action (aggressive connotation). So be aggressive in tackling your resolution. Be a New Year’s resolution badass. Go for it.

Another thing people commonly say: “Do it for yourself. If you do it for someone else, you won’t succeed.” Again, I disagree. I mean, I don’t think this is always the case.

Last year, my main New Year’s resolution was to go cruelty-free… for Ronnie James, my feline fur-child. As Callaghan and I tried desperately to save his life, I told the Wrah-Wrah that I’d make every effort to avoid purchasing and using personal care products and cosmetics made by companies who engage in animal cruelty practices. (Granted, this wasn’t difficult, as I’d already been boycotting a couple of big-name brands for years to avoid contributing to their human rights violations. Boycotting companies that test on animals wasn’t a far stretch from that.)

I did it for Ronnie James. He died five months into the year, but I’m still doing it. For him. For all animals, but first and foremost for him. And doing it for him has kept me motivated to stick to my resolution more than I would were I just “doing it for myself.” In a strange sense I can’t really explain, the act of consciously and continuously striving to remove myself from the cycle of animal suffering at human hands keeps Ronnie James alive.

This strategy of goal-planning works for me, anyway. Everyone is different, but it might work for you, too. It would be worth trying! Dedicate your resolution to someone who deeply matters to you. Make them a promise you won’t want to break, and you might find that it’s easier to stick to your efforts.

This brings me to Resolutionary Road, 2016! I have more than one resolution. Here’s my list:

1). Get more sleep on a regular basis.

2). Improve my French (conversation).

3). Commit to strength-training.

Getting more sleep was my secondary resolution in 2015. Since I failed completely, it’s at the top of my 2016 list. I really, really need to get more sleep. Here, again, is the difference between wants and needs: I don’t WANT to get more sleep. I WANT the opposite… I want more hours in the day. I want to stay up until 3:00am, because for some reason, I’m often possessed by a rush of creative energy at around 11:00pm every night, and I’m afraid that if I don’t utilize it, I’ll squander it. But more sleep is an absolute necessity for my health, so this year, I’m going to try to shut everything down at 10:00pm so I can be in bed by 10:30pm. I get up at 5:30am on weekdays, so this would give me seven hours of sleep IF I fall asleep the second my head hits the pillow. (Which never happens. But nearly seven hours of sleep would be a great improvement over the four-five hours I typically get.)

I dedicate this resolution to Mom, who always worries that I don’t sleep enough. I don’t want her to worry about me for any reason, because worrying is detrimental to her health.

For my second resolution, improving my French conversation, I simply need to speak more French. I have a bad habit of answering Callaghan in English when he speaks to me in French. The divide between my comprehension level and speaking level is now so great that it’s ridiculous! I have no excuses. I just need to speak it more; that’s the only way I’m going to improve.

I dedicate this resolution to Callaghan, obviously!

As for strength-training, I need to make that a regular part of my workout routine. I’m not weak, but I would feel better in a stronger body. Doing pull-ups in my home office doorway every once in a while isn’t sufficient, and shadow-boxing with dumbbells isn’t cutting it, either. We have heavier dumbbells, so I need to start using them.

I dedicate this resolution to Ming, my best friend who died suddenly in 2003. Ming was one of my Tae Kwan Do instructors, and as friends, we developed a brother-sister bond that made him a member of my family. Ming was an extremely talented martial arts athlete, and his work ethic in the do-jang inspires me to this day. Improving my strength so I can be a better martial artist is my tribute to him.

 

Ming and me, 1996

Ming and me, 1996

 

Happy Resolutioning, if you do it!

Kick ass in the kindest way possible, and other life advice (an A-Z guide)

Lately, I’ve been hearing a lot about “life-coaching.” I’m not exactly sure what that is, I’m no coach of any kind, and I certainly can’t claim to be an expert on life, but I thought I’d venture into related territory (meaning distant-cousin related). I thought, if I was to give just simple, pithy life advice, what would that look like? It seemed like a fun and worthwhile challenge. I searched my experience and came up with something for every letter of the alphabet, because my brain likes lists. Some of the “advice” is literal, some figurative; some are quotes, and some are definitions. It’s all helpful to me. So, for what it’s worth –

Life advice A-Z!

Age: Depends on the individual

Balance: “Pick your battles”

Caution: Conceal your true weaknesses

Design: Create your reality

Equilibrium: Drink lots of water

Fitness: Master a physical activity

Guidance: Have a goal

Health: Take the stairs

Intention: Kick ass in the kindest way possible

Juggernaut: Willpower on crack

Key: Unlock with fit, rather than force

Livelihood: Connect to artworks

 

Detail from "Dreams for the Earth, #6" (Beth Ames Swartz, 1989)

Detail from “Dreams for the Earth, #6” (Beth Ames Swartz, 1989)

 

Mental Health: Exercise hard

Nourishment: Cultivate relationships

Organizing: Turn procrastination into productivity

Provocation: Control your reactions

Quote: “Keep your hands up and your chin down”

Resonate: Remember interconnectedness

Strategy: Adjust your lifestyle

Thorn: Strengthen your mind

Urgent: Practice selective response

Vigilance: “Stay alert to stay alive”

Wealth: Clean sheets

Xerox: Never run out of ink

Yin and Yang: “Only when it’s dark can you see the stars”

Zenith: Construct your own ladder

 

[Full annotation on the image:

Dreams for the Earth, #6

“So the darkness shall be the light/and the stillness the dancing”

Beth Ames Swartz, 1989

(Donated by Louise G. Fink to honor the contributions of the Center for the Study of Law, Science, and Technology)

Arizona State University]

Adding to the chatter about cat-calling (a personal take)

I’ve been walking to work lately. Three days a week, I walk home, too. It’s an enjoyable mile and a half each way, straight down the street. I could take the bus, but I prefer walking. I also routinely (at least once a day) walk through downtown to get to meetings and work sessions, since my department is headquartered on the university campus, but my office is in a building on Mill Avenue. One by-product of all this walking is that some people on the street – some “regulars,” likely homeless, and some random – pay a lot of attention to me.

For instance, the other day, a guy passing me coming from the opposite direction called out: “You’re as beautiful as ever!”

And I’ve been kind of perplexed ever since, because did I feel offended, demeaned, or dehumanized in any way as a result of this attention? No, I did not. I was not offended, and I was keenly aware of my indifference because according to the entire internet, I should have been offended. There’s a lot of discussion about cat-calling circulating around social media at the moment, and it all simmers down to: “Any type of attention a guy pays a woman in public is negative, even if it sounds like a sincere compliment, and everyone should be outraged by it.” So, perversely, the main thing I felt as a result of being cat-called that particular day was a tinge of weird guilt for not being offended, much less outraged.

Does that make any sense?

The truth is, sure, there are times when I actually am offended by guys on the street whistling and calling out to me… and there are other times, like the other day, that I’m not. It just depends.  It depends on what is said, and how it’s said, and it depends on my mood, and maybe even on what I had for lunch that day. I don’t know. It just depends. For me, there’s no hard-and-fast rule regarding taking offense at cat-calling. Not all cat-calling bothers me. It is what it is, and it’s odd to feel like I have to be apologetic about it.

Let me share an experience I had when I was a kid. This is an example of a case in which I did feel dehumanized by strangers, and it illustrates one of many variations on an incident I’ve experienced over and over throughout my life.

My family vacationed on the east coast the summer I was 14. When we were in Washington D.C., we visited the Smithsonian Institute. One day, toward the late afternoon, I decided to go outside to sit and wait while my parents and brother were still in the museum (I don’t remember which museum).

There was a reason for this, but I don’t remember what. My feet hurt? I had a headache? I needed some alone-time? Whatever the case, I was contentedly occupying a bench on the lovely, park-like grounds of the museum when a couple meandered over my way. They were obviously tourists, too, and older, maybe in their late 50’s or early 60’s.

First, they stopped in front of me from a short distance and looked at me quizzically with smiles on their bright faces as they murmured to each other. I glanced around. No one else was there. It looked like they were examining me and talking about me because… they were!

It was a surreal moment of feeling like I was still in the Smithsonian, but enclosed inside a glass case.

Then the pair came closer, and sure enough:

“Hello,” said the man.

“Hi,” I responded, guardedly.

Then the woman:

“What are you?”

Emphasis on the “are,” as if the “what” was no big deal. Smiling, eyes twinkling, the gentle tone and lilt at the end of the interrogative… there was genuine interest and wonderment in their voices. They were fascinated.

I didn’t say anything for a few seconds as my brain processed the question. “What are you” is a question I’d been asked before by random strangers, and it always made me feel scrutinized, alienated, and just plain uncomfortable.

I knew from past experience what they wanted to know. I mentally shrugged my shoulders in resignation and answered simply that I’m half-Japanese, half-English, and waited for the predictable follow-up, which the woman provided on cue: “OH… that’s such a beautiful combination! You’re so beautiful!” And the gushing began, the effusive admiration of my looks, along with the picking apart and analyzing of my features, which ones were Asian, which ones were not, etcetera, ad nauseam. Looking back on it, I still don’t understand the reason for their interest and excitement, exactly. I was just a tired kid sitting on a bench. I remember thinking that their accents sounded mid-western.

Now, here’s the thing… as a female of mixed color, incidents like this with (white) strangers are far more offensive to me than any guy on the street simply telling me that I’m beautiful and continuing on his way.

Both the guy on the street the other day and the pair of tourists on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institute over 30 years ago trespassed into my personal space to comment on my looks, but the guy told me that I was beautiful in passing. The couple at the Smithsonian, on the other hand, approached me while I was sitting on a bench (I felt pinned down), carefully examined me (I felt naked), talked about me (I felt like I wasn’t there), asked me what I was (I felt inhuman), and then told me that I was beautiful, after which they waxed euphoric on the aesthetic merits of being of mixed heritage (I felt objectified).

So, let me get this straight: It’s inherently dehumanizing to be asked what you are, but it happens all the time, anyway, to the concern of no one… and I’m supposed to be offended and feel dehumanized when a dude walking by tells me that I’m beautiful? Really?

To be clear, I’m not defending these guys. I’m not making light of street harassment. I’m not saying that it’s okay to cat-call or wolf-whistle at women on the street, I’m not denying that such behavior has potential to escalate into something more sinister, and I’m certainly not implying that women “overreact” to this kind of unwanted attention. I’m just saying that in the broader context of the dehumanizing things people can say to other people, and in my lifelong experience of being approached by strangers in public, I didn’t feel dehumanized in the case of the scrappy white kid in downtown Tempe, Arizona, whereas I did feel dehumanized by the nice, retired white couple in front of a museum at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.

As I’ve already stated, there are some instances of cat-calling that do annoy me, and I also admit that I now try to avoid walking by certain spots at certain times because I know that some of my “regular” street fans will be there, and I’m tired of them. But even then, those guys merely annoy me. They don’t give me the heebie-jeebies like the people who prefaced their “compliment” with What are you? (“I’m human” is always the first answer that comes to mind.)

I’ve tried to laugh off these incidents, and this is a part of the bigger reason why I named this blog “That Asian-Looking Chick.” Sometimes, all you can do is laugh at stuff like that, especially since no one is addressing this shockingly common occurrence that people of mixed color have to deal with.

It’s hard being a mixed-color kid, in general. You don’t fit in anywhere. Growing up, I was too Asian to avoid racist teasing by white kids in California, and too haole (white) to avoid racist teasing by Asian kids during our summers in Hawaii (my family is from there). Then you go to Washington D.C., and a pair of white tourists studies you like you’re a curiosity on display and asks what you are.

It’s just confusing to feel like I’m obligated to take offense every time a random guy says anything in my direction… and if I don’t, then I’m somehow betraying my entire gender.

And in case anyone is wondering, this is how I dress these days as I’m doing all this walking around town:

 

I cover up to keep the sun off my skin while I'm walking. Add to this a baseball cap and mirrored shades, and there you have it.

I cover up to keep the sun off my skin while I’m walking. Add to this a baseball cap and mirrored shades, and there you have it.

 

If a stranger is going to tell me that I’m beautiful, I’d rather they cut to the chase and just say it. Asking me “What are you?” first is NOT cool.

[NOTE: If we know each other and you ask me what I am, I wouldn’t be offended. This rant only applies to complete strangers, since that’s what we’re talking about in this unwieldy conversation about cat-calling.]

The Darkest Hour, Part 2

I’ve been wanting to continue on the theme of my Darkest Hour post, and I have to confess that I didn’t give it as much thought as I would have liked – but even as I finish writing this, sitting here on my lunch hour at work, I realize that it’s useless to try to compact the mysteries of nebulous life problems away into neat little lines of text. So this is just me, not being a psychologist or a counselor of any kind – there’s my disclaimer! – rambling a little about life and crises and regret and goals and action.

Mainly what I want to say is, things aren’t always as bad as they seem.

You know how when you stare at something really hard, your vision blurs until the thing becomes obscured? Or how, after searching frantically for something, you give up, only to later realize that it was sitting out in plain sight all along… it was right there, but you couldn’t find it? The answers to the biggest questions in life are often like that, I think. They’re maddeningly invisible in their obviousness.

In fact, it seems that quite often, issues arise the more we try to see, look for, search for or find things. When using variations on the sense of vision doesn’t help us to figure things out, it might be time to change strategy.

Furthermore, when searching for “what I want,” that (whatever it is) often turns out to be a mythical beast, and why waste time and energy chasing something that may not even exist? Our hearts’ desires are often illusory in the sense that sometimes, we think we know what we want, but when we get it, we realize that we want something different!

For me, the more worthwhile challenge is to open my mind to knowing what I want – more in a process of discovery, rather than a searching for. If I (at least) believe that I know what I want, I can take steps toward getting it. I can set goals and strive to make things happen. Motivated by the ambition to reach my goals, I’m exempt from the struggle to find the answer to ultimately meaningless questions like “what do I want to be when I grow up?” and the tedious preoccupation with “finding myself” that I’ve seen bog people down until they’re lost in the confusion they’ve made of their existences. I try not to overthink my life and myself.

And as much as I like to joke about it, I don’t think I actually believe in the concepts of “mid-life crisis” or “identity crisis” or “existential crisis.” There’s just crisis, and the practice of labeling it and applying definitions to it only gives us more tools of procrastination we don’t need.

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-merriam-webster-crisis

 

A difficult or dangerous situation that needs serious attention.

Of course we all experience crisis, but everything can’t be a crisis. Just because we’re dissatisfied doesn’t mean that we’re “in a crisis.” There are degrees of difficulty and danger, for sure, and it’s always good to be aware (stay alert to stay alive!), but funneling our energies into taking the situation apart from the inside out usually doesn’t lead to anything but mental and emotional fatigue and frustration. We end up building apathy into the self-defeating cycle we’ve created, and that’s where we get stuck.

It’s blissfully liberating to realize that we can use that same energy to fuel our own productivity… and on our own terms.

It’s worth endeavoring to become a creator and collector of goals, both long-term and short-term. It’s worth trying to become a dedicated collector and keep those goals in sight, lined up all nice and neat.

Success, victory and triumph are personal, even intimate degrees of measure we construct for ourselves. It’s not just the day you win at a competitive event wherein everyone can witness your badassery. It’s more meaningful the day you can say, “Hey! I’ve finally stopped making that one mistake.” It doesn’t matter if you had to make that mistake five or ten or a hundred times before that. The growth still happened. You developed as a person. YOU did that for yourself, and in doing that, you gained freedom from old restraints.

Regardless of where I am at any given moment, as long as I can look back at my own life and note progress happening somewhere, in some realm of my being and existence, I feel successful.

And what of regret? I want to address this briefly, too, because it’s another thing that can drag us down.

Regret doesn’t have to be a spirit-crushing specter overshadowing our lives. Aside from the inevitable random moments of thoughtlessness in which we speak or behave carelessly (if we’re human, there’s no avoiding these moments – all we can do is learn how to handle our blunders with grace), there are difficult times during which we’re likely operating in “survival” mode, meaning that our thinking is foggy, or we aren’t thinking, at all. We’re distracted and worn-down by an onslaught of challenges that causes us to see everything as a threat. We’re propelled to action, and sometimes, in the urgency of the situation, we misdirect that action, making decisions we might later wish we hadn’t. We can make bad judgment calls regardless of the goodness of our intent. It just happens sometimes.

But it’s easy – too easy – to look back on these moments years later and feel regret, guilt or shame when we’re no longer under duress. Berating ourselves from that detached standpoint isn’t fair to our past or current selves. We can wallow in regret, or we can grow from our experiences by taking away lessons offered through them.

Regret is something we can manage by recognizing any mistakes that may have caused it and accepting that we made them, with gracious allowance for the external factors that comprise “circumstances.” Then we can gather our hard-won nuggets of wisdom and relish the satisfaction of a more mindful moving-forward. We can proceed with a purposeful energy infused with something akin to defiance and rebelliousness, that revitalizing energy that allows you to be the surfer standing on two feet at the crest of the wave not only with determination, but with joy, as well. We can commit acts of joyful courageousness on our quest to attain our goals. There’s a sense of liberation there, and the view is stunning. 

This brings me to the subject of balance, but I’ll save that for another day.

On the Craft of Translation (or, Fun with Subtitles)

Up until recently, Callaghan knew what he was getting himself into when we’d sit down to watch a French movie with English subtitles. He knew it would be a matter of moments before I’d hit “pause” and turn to him, exasperated.

“He said blah-blah-blah, but the subtitles said that he said blabbity blah-blah,” I’d complain. “Why?”

Callaghan saw what I meant, and he didn’t know why, either.

 

Me and my three-ton French-English dictionary.

Me and my three-ton French-English dictionary.

 

It used to irritate me a lot when subtitles didn’t reflect the spoken word. It didn’t matter that most of the time, I understood what was being voiced, because that wasn’t the point. The point was hearing and understanding the spoken French while reading the written English and THAT’S TOTALLY NOT AT ALL WHAT THEY SAID.

I mean, okay, there’s a wide range. There are literal, word-for-word subtitles. There are ballpark translation subtitles, where the meaning is basically the same, but the words are different. And then there are subtitles that have nothing to do with what was being said in French, and we’re both just, like, Huh? What were they smoking when they wrote these subtitles? We’re talking completely out of left field subtitles.

But my attitude toward the matter of subtitles changed the other day when an interesting task crossed my desk at work. I was asked to help our German artist/professor write the English subtitles for the short film he’d made.  Suddenly, I was on the other end of the issue. I had to write the subtitles.

Herr Z. and I went through the dialog line by line, starting and stopping so he could tell me what had been said in German. He’d paraphrase what the guy said, then he’d ask, “How would you get that across in English?” Or, “How would you express this in English?”

And there it was… my duh moment.

NEWSFLASH TO SELF: “How would you get that across in English?” and “How would you express this in English?” are NOT the same questions as, “What is the literal translation of this sentence in English?”

Turns out that throughout the German footage, I offered very few instances of literal translation. At almost every turn, I wrote the subtitles based on how American English speakers would most typically say it. I got the meaning across accurately, but often not literally. Distinguishing between “accurate” and “literal” was the key… that, and the realization that translating is as much a creative process as it is a linguistic one.

There are a dozen or so literary prizes out there for translations; it would go to follow that, as in anything, some translators who write subtitles are more talented and skilled in their craft than others. A good translator can deftly exercise creative muscle to capture the meaning of words using other words in order to give the other-language-speaking viewer the essence of what’s being said.

I knew this academically before I helped to write English subtitles for German film clips, but I didn’t connect personally with the craft of translation until that moment. Until that moment, I was too busy hitting “pause” after every line in my angst-filled bursts of self-righteous That’s not what he said! Why doesn’t the subtitle say what he actually said?

I was indignant because I was trying to learn, but in focusing so hard on trying to improve my French, I was allowing myself to get confused by any deviation from the literal. I was missing the forest for the trees, so to speak.

I was also overlooking the simple and obvious fact that translation is an art, and, like any other art form, it’s as much about expression as exactness, if not more so. There are a myriad of ways to say any given thing, so if the literal translation isn’t as impactful as the original… if the mood, tone, energy, or emphasis of the original version starts to fall away in the literal translation… artistic adjustments can be made without losing the essence or integrity of the expression.

Furthermore, when writers of subtitles make artistic decisions in their translations, they can do so because there’s more to communication than the actual word. You have the idea, itself, and then you have disposition, emotion, psychological state, body language, etc., altogether creating a rich, multi-dimensional expression, a nuanced expression. I imagine there’s more room for authenticity to slip in when a holistic approach is taken, anyway, especially when there’s depth and complexity in the original writing.

Another aspect to consider is the fact that sometimes, there is no equivalent for an expression in the other language, which creates a whole new challenge for the writer of subtitles. There are some idioms and ways of saying things that are simply unique to their original language, so the best you can do is approximate. Again, doing this well requires talent and skill.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could be that some people are just poor translators, or they really were smoking something when they were writing the subtitles. These are certainly possibilities, too!

(Callaghan just remarked that he’d like to see a film in Quebecois with French subtitles, which threatened to start a whole new conversation about how pure Quebecois is virtually incomprehensible to the French, though “people in Quebec know how to speak more French to the French so we can at least kind of understand them.”)

At any rate, thanks to Herr Z and his German footage, I was able to gain a new perspective on the craft of translation and the art of writing subtitles. I’m guessing that the next time we watch a French movie, the subtitles won’t irritate me nearly as much as they have in the past.

On that note, Happy Friday, All!

I saw American Sniper. Here are my thoughts.

Somewhere around October-November, we found out about the upcoming film American Sniper. It was set to open on Christmas day. We were looking forward to it, and I liked the idea that two years in a row, the newly released movie we’d see on my December 27 birthday would feature Bradley Cooper.

As it turned out, the movie’s release date got pushed into January, so we didn’t get to see American Sniper on my birthday. Interestingly, though, the holiday movie we did go to see on December 27, Big Eyes, also featured an actor from last year’s birthday movie: Amy Adams! We saw American Hustle (Amy Adams and Bradley Cooper) on my birthday in 2013, and Big Eyes (Amy Adams) on my birthday in 2014.

I like Bradley Cooper. It’s not a crush. I’m not obsessed with him, and I don’t race to the theatre just because he’s in a movie, but I am a fan. I’ve never seen him flounder in a role, and I’ve never seen a film of his I didn’t enjoy or appreciate in some way. Bradley Cooper in a movie usually means that I’m going to like the movie, and this is also true about Amy Adams and a few other actors (Jake Gyllanhaal comes immediately to mind); Callaghan and I are almost always on the same page, which is good. It’s more fun spending money on movie tickets if we strongly suspect that we’ll really like the movie.

So we saw Big Eyes on my birthday, and we enjoyed it, and we continued to anticipate the release of American Sniper. When the day arrived, we went to the theatre with our favorite action-flick movie-watching partner-in-crime, Jason, and I didn’t know what I was walking into. Somehow, I had the idea that the film was about a veteran who was using his lethal military skills for some grand operation in the civilian sector. I didn’t know that I was walking into a war movie. Neither did I know that the story was based on an autobiography/events that happened in the life of a real person.

And I’m glad. I’m glad that I didn’t know it was a war movie, because I generally avoid war movies. Had I known, I would have dropped American Sniper off my to-watch list, and I would have missed out on an incredible movie.

Yes, I know. I’m a Buddhist and a mostly-vegan vegetarian and I’m all about peace and compassion, but I highly appreciated American Sniper. This might seem incongruous, but it’s really not. For one thing, just on the artistic level, I thought it was a brilliant, finely-wrought film. I thought Bradley Cooper gave a tremendous, nuanced performance. I thought Clint Eastwood’s handling of the project was masterful.

Where can I even begin to try to explain my appreciation beyond that?

I guess I should start with the disclaimer that I’m not motivated by politics when it comes to art. I’m a registered Independent, anyway… my political views do tend to lean in a certain direction (if you know me well, you know what direction that is), but there’s a reason why I won’t join a particular party. Also, I generally stay away from the subject of politics on social media sites. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t intend to talk politics here today or any day. I get that it’s hard to avoid politics where this film is concerned, but I’m going to try to avoid the damn politics.

Then I should point out that I’m a combat veteran. I spent six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during Operations Desert Shield, Storm and Sabre, from the beginning of December 1990 to almost the end of May 1991. The ground war in January took all of two days, and the whole thing was rather anti-climactic after the airstrikes, but somehow I managed to get embroiled in the only real action American foot soldiers saw pushing through Iraq. I ran Commo (wire, radios) in a segment of a ground ambulance unit, and our convoy was comprised of mostly medics from my Garrison unit in Germany, along with some infantrymen, American National Guardsmen and women, and a few British soldiers. We were ambushed, and it was intense, and I brought that personal history with me going into the movie theatre to see American Sniper, not knowing, as I’d said, that it was going to be a war movie.

Now, about that Buddhist thing, since I know that it’s confusing to many people. I’ve been Buddhist all of my life, and I’ve been a martial/fighting artist for more than half of my life, and no, contrary to the popular opinion of our times, this does not create a contradiction. Buddhism and the fighting arts are not mutually exclusive. If you can understand this, then my admiration of American Sniper shouldn’t seem contradictory, either.

Rather than going into a tedious academic tangent on the principles of eastern philosophy, including the meaning of the yin-yang symbol, I’m asking that you hang with me for a minute here!

Buddhist monks in the Shaolin temple of ancient China were resourceful and inventive. They developed seitan, a popular protein-rich meat substitute made of wheat gluten, so they could avoid eating animals. They also developed Shaolin Kung Fu, a martial art that enabled them to kill with their bare hands and laid the groundwork for basically all eastern martial arts thereafter. What’s more, the full spectrum of the Shaolin martial arts system includes fighting with weapons. The “Buddhist warrior” is actually a thing, and it always has been. I’m not saying that ALL Buddhists are warriors. I’m just saying that warriors in the ranks of Buddhists have existed for ages, at least as long as there have been temples to protect. Long before Bruce Lee, there were the Shaolin Buddhist soldier monks.

Hard to believe that there’s a history of martial arts bad-assery in Buddhism, right?

Enough about me and my background. Returning to American Sniper, I want to talk about the “problem” of the veracity of (every detail of) Chris Kyle’s story. He apparently made some claims in his book that aren’t true. In my opinion, just from my perspective as a literature major, this is normal. Biography/autobiography/memoir/creative non-fiction and, loosely, historical fiction all rely on facts and factual events for the backbone of the stories within, but there’s usually good reason and/or artistic justification for alteration or invention in some places, and authors take this kind of creative liberty all the time.

Take, for example, a staple of children’s literature well-known and loved by most Americans. The Nellie Olson character in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series of books didn’t actually exist… she was an amalgamation of two real-life figures from her childhood. Because Laura Ingalls Wilder also altered the chronology of her family’s travels (reportedly for the sake of simplicity), she took two classmates from two of her schools in two different geographical locations and blended them together to create the one insufferable character we know as “Nellie Olson.” (The real Nellie Olson was one of the two classmates Laura Ingalls Wilder used to create the fictitious one.)

This is a well-documented fact, and yet I’ve never heard anyone say that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s stories are meaningless because she “made up” the character or “lied” about the trajectory of her family’s pioneering path, nor have I heard of anyone calling her out on any of the other half-truths, embellishments or omissions that resulted for artistic purposes. I never heard anyone say that because of all this, Laura Ingalls Wilder is not to be trusted or believed, and that the attention paid to her stories is undeserved. I never heard anyone say that the worth of other art based on the books she co-wrote about her life – namely, the world-famous Little House on the Prairie television series – was invalidated by her “lies.” I never heard anyone complain that the T.V. show was “mendacious” because Laura Ingalls Wilder changed some things, omitted things, and flat-out made other stuff up.

We know that she did these things, but we still accept her work as autobiographical. That which wasn’t real didn’t cancel out all that was real. Her story is still her story, and Chris Kyle’s story is still Chris Kyle’s story, and just because Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tone was demure and so many people dig stories about pioneer life more than they dig stories about soldiering life doesn’t mean that by majority opinion, we can have a double standard. If we’re going to call Chris Kyle a liar, then we’re going to have to call Laura Ingalls Wilder a liar for the exact same reasons, and we don’t want to do that, now, do we?

And while we’re on the subject, let’s think for a moment of how Laura Ingalls Wilder “glorified” and “romanticized” how her Pa decided to drag the family into Indian Territory and knowingly illegally squat on the Native Americans’ land, and how Laura Ingalls Wilder plainly recounted her parents’ racist attitudes and sentiments regarding the “savages” (sound familiar?) – have you ever heard anyone lambasting her for this dubious aspect of their “courageous” pioneer life? Neither have I. Needless to say, the storylines in the television series’ episodes conveniently omit any mention or reference to this part of the Ingalls’ “adventures.” Most everyone still loves the show.

But people are sure enjoying harping on Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper for “glorifying” and “romanticizing” the darker sides of Chris Kyle and his story.

Finally, I want to say that it’s interesting how the people shouting the loudest about how Chris Kyle was a lying psychopath (and no hero at all) are the ones who never spent a day in his or any other soldier’s boots. Now, I didn’t know Chris Kyle. I didn’t know him before, during or after his service, nor am I a psychiatrist. For all I know, he could have been a psychopath or a sociopath or whatever other -path you want to call him… but I don’t care. I don’t care if Chris Kyle was the kind of guy who’d help an old lady cross the street, or the kind of guy who’d push an old lady off a cliff. Because what I do know is that combat military training and circumstances change you in ways that civilians can’t even begin to fathom. What you were before is rendered nearly irrelevant. Even emerging from regular old Army basic training (Chris Kyle underwent Navy S.E.A.L. training, which is much more intense), you’re different than you were before you went in.

In basic training, you’re broken down from the inside out, with the whole point being to re-build you into something you probably weren’t before you went in: a killing machine that can be set into action when the circumstances call for it. The mental and physical conditioning you undergo in order to serve in combat is complete. I’m talking about the average person here. Now imagine that instead of being an average person, you were already an expert shot accustomed to taking lives (as a hunter)… and imagine, too, that your military occupational specialty is killing.

Someone’s got to do it, guys. The military is an establishment in which there’s a need for many roles, just like in civilian society, and while all soldiers are required to be conditioned in the basics, everyone has to choose an occupational specialty. Some soldiers are cooks. Others are band musicians. Others work in supply. There are the tankers, the ammo soldiers, the administration office-working soldiers, the morgue soldiers and the medics and the mechanics and the military cops and the JAG (legal) corps and the signal corps, the soldiers responsible for ensuring communications in the field (what I did – my 31K occupational title was “Combat Signaler.”) And so on, and so forth… and then you have the soldiers whose specialty is killing. These are the infantry, the “grunts.”

Regardless of your occupational specialty, though, all soldiers function the same way in combat zones, and again, to reiterate, this is what basic training is for. When thrown into a combat situation, the conditioning deep inside you surfaces, enabling you to automatically act according to the situation, and I’m sorry, but combat situations don’t usually involve making butter, choosing fabric for dresses, or embroidering. Pa Ingalls is not going to bust out his fiddle at the end of the day and make everyone laugh merrily as they sing along to his folksy songs.

When I was 18, I went to basic training and came out different than I was before, because that is what basic training is designed to do. Not only are you different, but you’re also no longer your own person. You become government property, calibrated to respond and operate on a situational basis. The minute you raise your hand and take that oath, the Constitution you’re charged to protect no longer even applies to you. You opt out of those rights in order to protect them. It’s the Unified Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) for you!

A day or two before Christmas 1990, we were out there in the vast, cold and empty Saudi Arabian desert when we were told that Sadam Hussein had threatened an attack as a “Christmas present” for the Americans lying in wait, meaning, us. We went into high alert for an indefinite period of time. I remember my 22nd birthday very well. I spent the entire day in a foxhole in the biting cold, suited up in MOPP 4 (head to toe chemical protection gear) with a full bandolier of ammo strapped around my chest and my M-16 at the ready, and again, I came out different than I was before, because that’s what happens when you spend hours on end with every cell and nerve of your being waiting to either kill or get killed. Just being in that situation day after day changes you. Even if “nothing happens,” you can’t ever be the same again.

A few weeks later, the ground war started, and we switched gear from alert to action. We convoyed out of Saudi Arabia to follow the front line through Iraq, destination Kuwait. We were a ground ambulance convoy in our Cut-V’s and Hum-V’s, and we saw and dealt with everything you’d expect to encounter on a battlefield. Then we were ambushed. There were Iraqi snipers. There were detonating landmines. There were casualties. Afterward, there were smoke grenades and medevac helicopters. I’m not going to go into the details of what I did and saw, but you can bet that again, I was a different person by the end of it.

Now, take my modest little combat experience and quadruple it and give it another hefty boost for increased severity. Chris Kyle couldn’t possibly have ended up being the same person he’d been before any of his four tours of combat duty, whatever that may have been. He killed people, as we were all prepared to do, as Navy S.E.A.L.S. were expected to do, and I would venture to guess that he saved many more people than he killed. Whether I “agreed” with the Iraq War or not, I’m grateful to Chris Kyle for his service, and for the service of all men and women in uniform in all the branches of the Armed Forces, regardless of the conflict or the reason for it or behind it, or the duration or severity of it, or the number of times they deployed, or my opinion of it or your opinion of it or anyone’s opinion of it, or anything else.

I’d like to think that if I never lived the experience of being broken down and built back up to human war-machine specs, if I never set foot in a combat zone, if I never mentally prepared to suffer and die under chemical attack or by gunfire or other ordnance, if I never swallowed 12 mysterious pills a day “in case of chemical attack”… if I never lived a day of my life serving my country… I would recognize that I’m not in a position to judge Chris Kyle.

Like him or not, Chris Kyle was a hero. As far as I’m concerned, everyone who voluntarily raises their hand and swears away their own constitutional rights in order to protect yours is a hero, whatever else they may be, and whether they go to war or not. To try to posthumously shame Chris Kyle for being the lying asshole he maybe was is to miss the point of American Sniper. Deriding Eastwood and Cooper for taking part in “glorifying” anything is also an exercise in missing the point.

Aside from all of this, what’s really important here, of course, is that we found American Sniper to be a great piece of cinematic art in and of itself. Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper did a damn fine job, along with everyone else who put their energies into the making of the film. I’m saying this, and I don’t even like war movies!

So, American Sniper? We recommend it. It’s not easy to watch, and I wouldn’t necessarily call it “enjoyable,” but it’s an amazing film.

On that (hopefully cheerier) note, Happy Friday, All!

(Here are some photos I took in the war):

 

The first Hum-V ambulances....

The first Hum-V ambulances….

 

Random tank in Iraq

Random tank in Iraq

 

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

After the ambush, we continued on without stopping to sleep. This is what Kuwait looked like as we approached it.

 

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

As we moved through Kuwait, children came running out from nowhere to greet us, happy and excited

 

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

After the ground war in January 1991, this was mostly my view until we left in May.

 

Thanks for scanning them, Callaghan!

A Modest Proposal for Police Academy Overhaul for the Purpose of Applying Crucial Changes to Training Needed to Refleckt Upon the Current State of Affairs Lest the Police Force Suffer Even Greater Mortifickations.

Special announcement to those joining the police force!

TRADITIONAL POLICE ACADEMY TRAINING IS OBSOLETE.

Police academy programs designed to train recruits and test them at their outer physical and mental limits are outdated and must be re-designed to reflect today’s realities. Undergoing the challenges of military-style “boot camp” police academy for aspiring officers of the law is no longer necessary.

No longer are recruits required to demonstrate:

–athlete-level physical fitness, meeting minimum requirements for endurance and strength

–an ability to fight, showing that they’re capable of defending themselves and others in physical altercations

–good judgment

Today’s police recruits no longer need to go through all this hassle, because in any given situation, officers need only to whip out a weapon and pull the trigger. It’s an ingenious approach; one wonders why they didn’t move to this strategic model of law enforcement in the first place, and what a great way to trim the budget! It’s senseless to waste the resources and energy on an elaborate training program designed to achieve superior physical fitness with superior physical combat and self-defense skills when all that needs to be trained is the trigger finger. The quickness and agility of the trigger finger is the most important feature a successful rookie can possess.

Here is a recent, real-life quote that provides a succinct example:

Asked why he felt the need to pull his gun, (insert name) told grand jurors he was concerned another punch to his face could “knock me out or worse.”

He was afraid of getting knocked out. Honestly, if you were to read this sentence completely out of context, would you guess that the person in question was a police officer?

Neither would I.

I’m not questioning a cop’s right to defend him or herself. I’m just noting that clearly, our current police academy training programs are a collective embarrassing failure if cops from coast to coast are afraid of getting punched. I read somewhere that it’s human nature to take the easy way out in the face of adversary, and this makes total sense. Why unscrew the light bulb to temporarily disable it when you can simply yank it out of its socket and smash it to the ground, let’s say, six times, so there’s no chance it will ever shine its light anywhere again? Light bulbs are expendable, after all!

The percentage of police academy training time dedicated to shooting practice is, apparently, a smashing success.

This particular successful officer was afraid of getting punched again, so he pulled his gun (not his can of mace or pepper spray or whatever fumes they’re using these days). He did not disable… he killed. He didn’t just double-tap… he sextuple-tapped. That’s how terribly in danger he felt, even though he was out of arms’ reach of the unarmed individual when the fatal shots were fired (I’m actually not even sure what happened, to tell you the truth. I earnestly tried to follow what the cop said in his testimony, but I got all confused because he said he was sitting in his car when he fired the first shot through the door, but that shot wasn’t fatal, and then suddenly he was outside of the vehicle and the other guy was somehow down the street coming toward him, which in my mind looks like an amateurish jump-cut in a video that I can’t reconcile, and that’s why, according to him, the cop had to fire however many more times was necessary in order to kill. He had to make sure that the guy was completely dead so he wouldn’t be able to throw another punch. Anyway. Details.)

Man, do I feel safe knowing that cops such as this one are out there to protect me. I heard he’s looking for another job now, though. I would consider hiring him for a part-time shopping mall security guard position, but I suspect the 70-year-old candidate in my applicant pool would be more of a qualified badass.

But I digress.

As I was saying, updating the police academy curriculum to dedicate most of the training to the firing range would make sense, and it would help the police force with their myriad of public relations problems, too. If police recruits aren’t expected to enter active duty knowing how to engage in hand-to-hand combat, self-defense and ethical situation containment, then the entire force wouldn’t have to suffer such intense mortification when one of their own gets up in front of the public and says he felt the need to pull his gun because he was concerned another punch to his face could “knock me out or worse.”

I spent a few moments browsing a police academy website to get an idea of the physical demands of academy training. Here’s an excerpt:

The rigors of the job can be both physically and emotionally challenging so new recruits are carefully screened to determine if they can cope with the police academy training lifestyle. The expectations of a new recruit will be one (sic) of strict discipline and order, similar to that of a military boot camp, and he or she will be pushed to the limits of their capabilities of which they will be expected to give one hundred and ten percent effort.

Physical Demands Preparation:

Be in good health, while abstaining from any drug use, smoking, or drinking

Attain top physical condition and be able to perform their best in extreme circumstances (as it may be of paramount importance in the field)

Be conditioned and able to run two to three miles with an average of at least eight minutes per mile

Sprint at least a hundred yards multiple times with little to no rest

Be able to bench press your own weight or more

Be able to do at least twenty push-ups and thirty sit-ups in under a minute

AND

Mental Preparation Advice:

New recruits must be able to push themselves beyond exhaustion.

New recruits must be able to take orders and criticism from their commanding officers whose responsibilitie is is (sic) to prepare trainees for the harshest conditions

A policeman’s job is one of honor and integrity. Recruits must display these traits and enter the job with passion and fortitude. If they aim high to complete the police academy training & requirements they will excel in their profession.

Now, given the vast differential between these published standards and training goals and what’s actually happening out in the field today, I can only imagine that a task force has already been formed, and it’s hard at work re-vamping the police recruit requirements to match reality (or at least someone already picked up the cookies for their first meeting). There’s no need for physical strength or fighting skills or mental toughness or fortitude or honor or integrity anymore. Guy punches you and you get scared? Just pull out your weapon and shoot! And if the first shot doesn’t kill, then shoot again! And again! And again! And again! And again. Done. Easy.

It’s not just shooting with a firearm, either. I’m also talking about firing electrical weapons like tasers, as we know that cops can and do kill people by tasing them repeatedly, as in the case of this other guy – skinny, shirtless, unarmed and homeless – who was tased to death by five cops who apparently all felt that their lives were in danger, even though the guy – who hadn’t been aggressive, belligerent or disobedient at all – tapped out.

(Evidently the concept of tapping out only exists in the cage. There’s no surrendering or tapping out in the field. Many of today’s cops don’t seem to recognize these signals or understand the language. And when they can commit their random acts of brutality on camera and get away with it – as in the case of this recording of the unarmed homeless man getting tasered to death, which I had the misfortune to see – they have little incentive to stop, anyway. Even if all cops were mandated to wear surveillance cameras on their vests, one has to ponder the absurdity of getting Big Brother to monitor the activities and behaviors of these shoot-to-kill Robocops running amok with no human senses to guide them in their actions.)

Forget the whole “punishment fitting the crime” thing, too. This really is just a technology issue!

Not all cops struggle with these issues, of course. One of the nicest guys I ever knew was a cop, and he was a very good one. I knew him professionally, I witnessed him in action, and I was always impressed with his demeanor and skill with people. He’s retired now and I haven’t seen him in years, but I can only imagine what he must feel if he views any of the surfacing cell-phone camera clips of the brutality committed by his former fellow officers. We used to work out at the same gym. He was in outstanding physical condition and more than capable of taking down unarmed suspects without murdering them.

Once more thing: Since the art of self-defense is totally irrelevant in today’s trigger-happy police force, may I suggest that we convert the police academies into firing ranges… dedicated spaces for target practice.  Just target practice. That’s all. Obviously, they need it (incidentally, soldiers who waste six rounds of ammo trying to kill a single target would likely fail to qualify on the range… embarrassing), and surely it would cost less than the upkeep of running tracks, obstacle courses, weight rooms, other specified training spaces and classrooms and instructors for training modules for skills that won’t be utilized out in the field, etc., etc. If our officers’ field performance records don’t reflect the training they’ve had, then what the hell kind of police force do we have, anyway?

By these standards, those elderly mall cops are all we need… their trigger fingers work just fine, and they can probably use the jobs more than the younger people who are capable of doing other work that does require physical capabilities.

 

thatasianlookingchick.com-policeacademy

Thanksgiving.

T minus 24 hours to road trip to California!

I was thinking the other day that not having human kids means that I’ll never have to feel like the Grinch who stole Thanksgiving when my kid comes home from school brimming over with warm and fuzzy stories about the “history” of “the first Thanksgiving” and I find myself unable to keep from explaining the truth behind the myth. If schools could just limit Thanksgiving holiday festivities to cute finger turkey drawings, then fine, but somehow, I don’t see them omitting the fables of the “Pilgrims and the Indians” being BFFs on “the first Thanksgiving” anytime soon.

That bit of cynicism aside, one thing that’s remained true about Thanksgiving over time is its focus on expressing gratitude for a bountiful harvest, which has broadened to include giving thanks for everything that we have, including our good health and each other. This is the aspect of the holiday that appeals to me the most – its focus on family.

Thanksgiving is this week Thursday, and we’re going to be spending it with my family. When I lived in France, I missed the comfortable proximity to my family more on Thanksgiving than at any other time. You always hear people saying, we should give thanks and express gratitude for our families every day, not just on Thanksgiving, and I agree with this, but still… Thanksgiving.

And I’m feeling so grateful for my family… the family that chose me, the one that I’ve chosen and the one that I inherited just by being alive.

We all have family, even if we think we don’t. If your circumstances are such that your actual family members are absent in the world, if you feel isolated and friendless, as long as there are people in the world, you have family.

In Hawaii, you’ll find this concept expressed openly and naturally by the locals, as the family mentality is a part of the local culture. If you’re walking along the beach and a child is playing in your path, it’s likely that the adult sitting nearby will call to the child, with firm affection, “Come over here, Bobby… let Auntie pass.” And you’ll look over at the parent to find him smiling and nodding at you with respect. Auntie. Think of it! A total stranger will see you coming and say to his child, let Auntie pass. (Yes, this happened to me.)

You are family. We’re all family. Humankind is a human family, and I believe this to be true: When there’s injustice in the world, we have to remember that we’re all brothers and sisters, and we have to allow this to give us strength. Being united gives us strength. Our interconnectedness is an absolute, even in our moments of craving our solitude, even while counting our enemies. To me, Thanksgiving is a time to remember this and to feel our bond and connection with others. Being human also means that we can lose patience and hold grudges, but on Thanksgiving, I want to be mindful of our oneness and feel grateful for what that means. We walk the same earth and breathe the same air. We can help each other and commiserate and make each other laugh and offer comfort and support as easily as we can do harm.

 

Reflecting lights... candle flames on a dark morning.

Reflecting lights… candle flames on a dark morning.

 

Happy Thanksgiving week, All.

200th Post! Le Deux Centième!

Well. Today marks a milestone for this blog, because today, exactly one month short of two years since my first post, I’m writing here for the 200th time!

 

Capture200

 

*throws confetti*

Of course, I got to feeling reflective as this milestone approached.

This blog began, in part, because I missed LiveJournal, which I’d more or less abandoned several years earlier. Facebook eventually replaced the social aspect of it, in a sense, but I wanted to journal again. Moreover, I was living in France, in limbo, not working, and I could feel my brain cells disintegrating while my writing muscles atrophied. I did write some poems. I also intermittently worked on a big writing project, but fiction really isn’t my forte… I missed writing creative non-fiction. And when I tentatively returned to writing in LiveJournal, it just didn’t feel the same. For me, the old LJ magic had left the room (but that had happened before I’d quit, which was why I’d quit). Something had to be done!

I went to create a WordPress account, and I was promptly reminded that I already had one. I’d just never used it. How convenient! I named it “That Asian-Looking Chick,” bought the domain and jumped in with the goal of posting two or three times per week. It’s been hella fun, and rewarding, and instructive. I never missed a week, but it wasn’t until March of this year that I fell into a twice-weekly schedule that stuck. By April, it’d evolved into a Tuesday/Friday thing, and eight months later, I’m still comfortable with that.

Surprisingly, getting settled in a regular posting schedule coincided with going back to work. In the same month, Callaghan and I established a consistent routine at the gym. It was interesting how once I was anchored at a job, other things like blogging and working out sort of fell into place. It was like a “structure begets more structure” kind of thing.

I typically just glance at my blog stats and search engine terms, since the superficial layer is right there before my eyes, but in honor of my 200th post, I took a more in-depth look. Some fun facts include:

–Since Netflix released the second season of Orange is the New Black in June, hundreds of views have resulted from searches for the Asian girl who plays a character in those episodes, as I’ve already mentioned. Yes, the OITNB Asian girl madness continues to rage on today! It’s been five months now. (I still wonder whether Kimiko Glenn has any idea of the scope of her popularity.)

–WordPress stats include visitors’ countries. I did a country count and found that, as of yesterday, people have read this blog from exactly 100 different countries. I’m ashamed to admit that a couple of the places on the list are countries that I hadn’t even realized were actual countries. This blog has opened my eyes to the world, and that is fabulous. (Also, if I needed any proof that English is a language spoken, or at least read, world-wide? I’ve got it.)

–You’re mostly a silent crowd on my posts, except for when I wrote about the casting in the film Jack Reacher.

–A few of you have commented with helpful tips in response to my posts, and your sharing has been wonderfully beneficial. For instance, thanks to your awesomeness, we’re hooked on The Following (T.V. series), and I found my favorite Korean facial sheet masks – the Epielle ones I’ve raved about several times – at Big Lots! For an amazing price!

 

Epielle sheet masks at Big Lots!

Epielle sheet masks at Big Lots!

 

–Because of the search terms, I also know that I’m far from the only one looking for that old (1970’s) Charleston Chew candy commercial, the one featuring King Louis. I trust that if anyone finds it, they’ll come back here and share it.

So, as I reflect back to the beginning, I wanted to thank you for reading and hanging out here with me over the last 200 posts/23 months, or however long you’ve been here. I don’t know about you, but I have no idea where all that time went!

Those of you who’ve been here the longest remember when I was an American ex-pat in France who had no clue that she’d move back to the States. You were here when I was an Arizona girl in Texas who had no clue that she’d move back to Arizona. You spent two birthdays with me, you share my “Little Things” (monthly favorites) joy with me, and you’re privy to my enthusiasm for pop culture and martial/fighting arts. You tolerate my kitty blather and pics (mostly Ronnie James, aka the Wrah-Wrah) and “NOT UNLIKE” comparisons. You read about Callaghan’s shenanigans, and you read my embarrassing stories. You follow my occasional cultural comparison observations. You hear me out when I feel the need to rant. You’ve been there during more personal moments, too, such as when my Mom set off on her journey to fight cancer (she’s doing really well, by the way)! And you laugh with me, which I love.

Some things I want to do here in the future? Well, I’d love to get more active as a blogger, reading more of other people’s blogs. I’d also like to mix it up more, spend more time writing about topics that matter to me profoundly. While my routine is fixed, time is actually a constraint (as it is, I’m usually up at around 5:00am to write here). I’d still like to find time to carve out for non-blog writing projects, as well – I currently have a prose piece in the works, and I’d love to pick up on the poeting – so we shall see what transpires over the next two years!

 

Monday lunch hour selfie (October 27, 2014)

Monday lunch hour selfie (October 27, 2014)

 

And who knows… I may yet divulge the story of My Most Embarrassing Moment.

Addicted to Fear? (PTSD post.)

Q: What happens when you watch the American Horror Story: Freak Show premiere and the first two episodes of Stalker all on the same night?

A: The next time you’re alone in the house, ALL THE LITTLE NOISES will cause you to jump and imagine that the most terrifying clown you’ve ever seen is creeping around your windows.

And, if you’re kind of warped, like me, you’ll love it.

Twisty the Clown

Twisty the Clown

Fear is a mysterious emotion. It can be taught, or it can be intuitive. It can be provoked by things we perceive with our own senses, or by others’ senses. Fear as a response to external stimuli real or imagined can also be unpredictable.

Twisty the MURDER Clown, that is.

Twisty the MURDER Clown, that is.

I have phobias, meaning that I experience irrational fear in response to specific things. I also have PTSD, meaning that I have a few known “triggers” floating around in a deep lake of more inexplicable, unknown causes of panic. The resulting inner havoc is predictable even if its cause is not… it’s the familiar old Armageddon of panic and stress boiling in my core, rippling outward through my body like a fire spreading through a house. It feels like I’m being consumed. Sometimes, it even feels like I’m going to die, or like I have to die. I actually take medication for this. Throw in the by-product of clinical depression just to balance it out, and there you have the main reason I live for my body combat classes at the gym three days a week. I enjoy them because they’re amazing, yes, but I also need them for medical reasons. Intense physical training on a regular basis helps my brain chemistry better than anything.

So it’s a mystery to me why, when a former boyfriend introduced me to the creepy PlayStation game Silent Hill (the only video game I’d played since the ‘80’s), I quickly became addicted and couldn’t wait for darkness to fall every night so I could huddle in the shadowy corner of the bed with all the lights out, trembling and listening to the discreet yet horrifying sound of snow crunching beneath my feet (leave it to developers of Japanese horror to make the sound of snow horrifying) as I walked through the abandoned town in search of my daughter. You would think the eerie sense of being watched and the unpredictable sightings and attacks would have sent me into PTSD Armageddon, but instead, I found myself craving more.

It’s odd, this thing about the horror genre in pop culture. If scary movies, television shows, books or games manage to provoke fear or stir up the creep factor even a little bit, which very few of them can do, by the way – my favorites are the ones that can – I just twitch a little and then run back for more. Yet, the sight of a sewer roach encases me in fear and leaves me traumatized for days. Why is that?

I would venture to guess that the PTSD lurks behind this incongruity. Fear strikes, and in that moment of skyrocketing adrenaline, I’m instantaneously alert and on edge. Maybe, in some perverse way, I love it because it makes me feel alive… alert, alive and ready to act, and when this response comes in the wake of stimuli that I know is fictional, I can just enjoy the rush. There’s no real-world threat in fiction. (A roach is not a formidable threat, but it is real.) Maybe I’ve become a “fight or flight” response junkie, though I don’t think I’d go so far as to say I’m addicted to adrenaline, a phenomenon that some people apparently experience. For me, in the case of creepy movies and T.V. shows and books, maybe I’m more just hyper-intrigued by the fear of the unknown, and of the (horrifying) possibilities. Neither am I sure that there’s much of a difference between this kind of fear addiction and the kind of garden-variety thrill-seeking that leads people to go bungee-jumping (I am not a thrill-seeker of the bungee-jumping variety). Whatever the case, I find the psychology of fear to be fascinating. Fear is terror-provoking, thrilling, necessary and fun. What emotion other than love covers all of that?

My affection for the horror genre pre-dates my PTSD, so perhaps that’s significant, as well.

I also think that it’s my PTSD that drives me through whatever martial/fighting arts training I’m doing, especially when my energy stores are low, though I’d loved combat sports long before the PTSD, too. In high school, I was the girl who demanded that the P.E. faculty allow girls to take wrestling, because that was what I wanted to do, and I was outraged that only boys could take it. (In the end, they acquiesced, but only because I got other girls to sign my petition, indicating that they would take it with me. We were only allowed to wrestle under the stipulation that we’d wrestle each other, rather than the boys. Haha!) (I don’t think that anyone was surprised when I joined the Army after that.)

On the tail of that tangent, let’s all take a moment to acknowledge that Halloween is just two weeks away. I’m beside myself with glee. We’re in a house now, which means that we get to give candy out to trick-or-treaters. I wonder how many American Horror Story Twisty the Clowns we’ll find on our doorstep Halloween night? I can’t wait to find out!

Happy Friday, All!

Musings in a Laundromat

It’s Thursday, 7:45pm, and I’m in the Laundromat, waiting. I just put two loads into two washers. Each will take 30 minutes. One is an industrial-size machine for heavy things like the large quilt I’d brought, and the other is the next largest size. I didn’t take the time to separate anything by color today… it’s all washing in cold water, anyway.

I don’t think this will be the last time I’m here. We’re getting a washer and dryer for the house, but I’ll likely continue to use public machines for things like the big, heavy quilt.

 

Our neighborhood Laundromat.

Our neighborhood Laundromat.

 

We’ve been doing our laundry in this public Laundromat for the last few months, since our apartment complex tore down their large one in order to re-build. It’s a spacious, staffed Laundromat, and it hasn’t been unpleasant. Laundry isn’t a chore that I dislike in the first place, but also, it turns out that the business of doing laundry in a Laundromat appeals to me on several levels.

I find the layers of white noise in the Laundromat to be soothing. There’s the murmur of the T.V. in the corner, swishing water and turning dryers, clothes spinning and tumbling, the faint clanging of metal on metal and the opening and closing of machine doors. There’s the casino-like sound of change machines and vending machines, video games, traffic on the street outside, the air conditioner and ceiling fans. There’s the sound of random human interaction like people talking to each other and on the phone, phones ringing, children playing and babies making their baby sounds. There are people singing and laughing. Altogether, the sounds in the Laundromat create a unique and comforting acoustic mosaic.

At this very moment, a Mom and her young daughter – the daughter looks to be 10-11 years old – are folding clothes together and singing “These Boots are Made for Walking,” and I can’t stop smiling. They’ve created a bubble around themselves with music, bonding happily and lovingly over a common chore. They’re enjoying themselves, and that joy is infectious.

In the company of strangers doing their laundry, I’m filled with a sense of connectedness. We’re people brought under this roof by the basic need to clean our clothing, bedding, towels, etc. This is a place of purpose: we’re here to ensure our personal comfort and health, and I know that every person in the room is going to leave this place feeling a sense of accomplishment. There’s something fantastically special about knowing this.

The Laundromat draws in all walks of life, yet the space emphasizes our sameness, and I love that. There’s no rich or poor here. The need to do laundry is a great common denominator, and there’s an unexpected intimacy in doing laundry with strangers. When we come to the Laundromat on a Saturday or Sunday, especially, I often see many people wearing clothing that has obviously been designated for Laundry Day. It’s like we’re all in a big house, padding around in our jammies. It makes for a pleasant non-interactive interaction with folks. Somehow, I feel a profound sense of kinship with humanity in the public Laundromat, and that, in a world that can be so venomous, is a blessing.

I’ll close on that note, because my time is up.

Postscript: Happy Friday!

Here’s Ten Dollars; Keep the Karma.

Sometime in the nineties, I started noticing tip jars (often just plastic cups) sitting near the cash registers at certain casual restaurants… specifically, tip jars bearing cute little signs to the effect of, “Tip! It’s good for your karma.” I still see them around, and I always think to myself that if someone is going to use a religious concept as a charming way to get people to leave optional tips, why stop at eastern religions? One could just as easily frame it in western religious terms: “Tip! All your sins will be forgiven,” or “Tip! You’ll go to heaven.”

But I know the answer to that. Western religions aren’t hip and trendy in the western world the way eastern religions are, so the lure of “good karma,” it is. Moral causality. Throw money into the jar, and the act will work in your favor.

It’s a much more serious matter to talk about sin and heaven. Whether or not we Americans believe in karma, seeing the word “karma” on a tip jar isn’t going to pack the same psychological punch as the words “sin” and “heaven.” We’re largely a nation of people hard-wired to react strongly to those words in one way or another. The notion of karma just isn’t culturally ingrained in us in the same ways.

Where “karma” on a tip jar is cute, clever and cool, the words “sin” and “heaven” on the same jar would come across as preachy, flippant or even sacrilegious, and the effect would be adverse because of it. No matter how many ribbons and rainbows and flowers and smiley faces you put on it, a jar labeled with holier-than-thou signage isn’t going to work.

So, fine… it’s cool, cute, hip and trendy to decorate your tip jar with the word “karma.” Here are some examples I found online:

 

Karma: the new currency!

Karma: the new currency!

 

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

Instant karma. Just add hot water and stir.

 

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

Remember this guy? I couldn’t resist putting him here, since he was all over the internet at about the same time the “karma jars” were also popping up everywhere.

 

It’s light and fun and people dig it. I get that. I myself use the word “karma” lightly, every time I park somewhere and think, good parking karma! because I scored a prime parking spot. Here’s the thing, though. Here’s why “karma” on a tip jar bugs me. It’s one thing to remark and laugh about “parking karma,” but another thing entirely to use the word in an attempt to influence peoples’ actions.

Moreover, there’s this: I usually see the “karma jars” in trendy eateries where you order and pay for your food at the counter. Tips at these kinds of establishments are optional and gratuitous, since you’re not receiving table service. Tipping gratuitously at a counter in this case is simply giving.

Giving, in eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism – to simplify, let’s just default to Buddhism, since that’s the trendiest of the eastern religions, and that’s the one I know the best – is dana, which is a Pali word that indicates “selfless” giving. I shall be helpful to others. To give selflessly means that you don’t want or expect anything in return. You give without thinking of what you might get back.

I grew up spending Sunday mornings sitting in a Jodo Shinshu church (Jodo Shinshu is a type of Japanese Pureland Buddhism on the Mahayana side) listening to dharma talks (sermons) and going to dharma class (Sunday school), and I’ve heard countless lectures on what it means to be selfless. From what I understand, putting a sign on a tip jar that says, “Tip! It’s good for your karma” is actually anti-Buddhist in nature. Dropping money into a jar thinking of what you’re going to get out of it later isn’t Buddhist. It’s the opposite of Buddhist. It’s selfish, not selfless, because you’re putting money into the jar thinking of yourself.

I just can’t see it as cute or cool or hip or whatever. All I can do when I see these “karma” tip jars is try to be a good Buddhist and have compassion, but it’s hard when I’m inwardly rolling my eyes and biting my tongue. I am not a good Buddhist.  I’m always trying, but I see where I need to tweak my meditation practice in an attempt to improve.

The proliferation of tip jars asking for money with the promise of something good in it for me has always irked me, as the general cultural appropriation of eastern religions by westerners has irked me (please note that I’m differentiating between earnest students and converts to eastern religions and those who just dig certain aspects of the religions to the point of, say, slapping a “karma” sign on a tip jar while not actually knowing what that means, much less studying and practicing said religion). Buddhism seen as a hip and trendy cultural thing just confounds me. I don’t know what to make of it, really.

I’m confounded by those tip jars.

I’m confounded when people think that being Buddhist means that you have to be a vegetarian. (Unless you’re a monk in certain temples, you can eat whatever you want.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks authoritatively of having a soul. (Buddhists don’t believe in the existence of souls.)

I’m confounded when someone claims to be Buddhist, yet speaks of sin. (Buddhists don’t believe in the concept of sin.)

Buddhist philosophy is difficult and complex, and I’m certainly no one to judge when Buddhist-curious people or admirers of Buddhism or actual converts display ignorance. I’ve been working toward the realization of a higher prajna (wisdom) my whole life, and I can tell you, it’s not easy. I have a stack of books, some of which I’ve had as long as I can remember, as they were passed down to me by my Grandmother, filled with my questions scribbled in the margins, post-its with more questions marking pages, hundreds of my questions that haven’t yet been answered. Karma is just one of many challenging concepts in eastern religions, so the sight of those tip jars with their blithe karma signs written by people who (probably) aren’t Buddhist acting like they care about the welfare of my karma so they can get money just annoys me if I see them when my patience levels are low. What do you know about karma? I want to ask on the days I’m cranky when I see the karma tip jars. Please enlighten me, because I was raised Buddhist, I am still Buddhist, I’ve been studying Buddhism/Buddhist philosophy/eastern religious philosophy all of my life, and I still don’t fully grasp the doctrine of karma.

 

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

My Butsudan (altar/shrine) with my 20+ books and pamphlets (some not shown) on the subject of Buddhism, ranging from ancient spiritual texts to college-level textbooks.

 

The truth is, I probably have a decent grasp on eastern religious philosophy, but its complexity is such that some aspects of it seem to elude my understanding the more I study it, and at this point in my life, I just want to enjoy the feeling of serenity and peace I experience when I release my mind during my practice. So I don’t study it as much anymore. I just do my practice and try to live by Buddhist principles as best as I can. I try to “practice intention with detachment from outcome.” I try to practice mindfulness and gratitude, saying “thank you” freely and often, and really feeling it. And I try to be patient, but as you can see from this post, I still need a lot of work in that area. A part of this is that I tend to be impatient by nature (in some contexts).

This tip jar at one of my favorite local restaurants is a welcome breath of fresh air every time I see it:

 

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

Tips! Why? Because WE LIKE THEM. Thanks for keeping it real, Chop Shop Tempe!

 

I’m going to happily continue partaking of their somewhat luxurious fare every once in a while, because the Chop Shop Tempe guys are honest, and honest is what’s cute, cool and clever… plus, their raw vegetable salad with grilled tofu (which I order without cheese) is delicious and vegan and therefore good for my karma! (If you know me well, you know that I’m giggling as I write this.

Carry on.

JUSTICE IS COMING: An Overdue Anti-Rant about My FAVORITE Film!

As of today, I’ve been actively blogging for sixteen months and 4 days. That’s not a long time (not even a year and a half), but I’ve spent a fair amount of it blathering about movies and television series. Because of this, and because I injected into this blog – from the deepest regions of my heart – my profound disbelief over the deplorable miscasting of the titular character in Jack Reacher, I feel I would be remiss to let another week go by without taking the time to exalt my favorite movie.

I’m talking about my favorite movie of ALL TIME.

Most movie buffs have one – a film we’ve seen so many times, we don’t even know anymore how many times we’ve seen it. Today, I’m going to rhapsodize about mine. Keep in mind that I’m not here to write a film review; I am not a film critic. I’m here to make a (fruitless) attempt to convey how much I love this movie. I mean, I’m passionate about a lot of movies, so when I say that one is my ALL-TIME FAVORITE, that’s saying a lot.

It’s the only movie I can see again and again with perpetual excitement, my ardor sustained at the same stratospheric level over the last 21 years. It’s also the only movie that compels my inner film-geek to come out and actually recite the characters’ lines out loud, right along with them, which Callaghan had the misfortune of discovering when we watched it together a couple of weeks ago.

[Aside: the first time I saw it with Callaghan, we were still new together, and I was too shy to recite all the lines. I bit my tongue the whole time. Now that we’re married and he’s stuck with me, I let it all hang out. Typical! I did warn him in advance, though.]

So what movie am I talking about? It’s not The Big Lebowski, as some of you are probably thinking, though that’s up there in my Top Three.

I’m talking about Tombstone.

 

From left: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp and Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993)

From left: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday, Sam Elliott as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp and Kurt Russell as Wyatt Earp in Tombstone (1993)

 

Historical fiction set where the main events took place here in Arizona, Tombstone is a western. This film is perfection. I’m not even going to bother adding “in my opinion,” because I truly believe that Tombstone is objectively perfect.

When Tombstone was released in 1993, I went to see it with John, my boyfriend, in central Phoenix. I remember that he lost his wallet there, and we spent about half an hour searching for it. I don’t remember whether he found it, but I do remember leaving the theatre feeling like a ten-year-old at Disneyland jumping breathlessly off the Star Tours ride, eager to run back to the line to wait for another go. Let’s do it again!

We returned to the theatre a few days later… John wanted to see Tombstone again, too. Not long after that, we went back for a third viewing. The fourth time I saw it, I went with some friends. I’m pretty sure I went a fifth time, but I don’t remember with whom. I want to say I went to see Tombstone five times… that seems about right. I remember feeling sad when it left the theatres.

But then Tombstone came out on video (VHS)! I bought it and watched it repeatedly over the years, and when the tape wore out, I picked up another one. Obsession alert: the years were rolling by, and my Tombstone-watching zeal was not dissipating! When DVDs came into existence at the end of the ‘90’s, Tombstone was the first DVD I bought. Shocking! Since then, I’ve seen it maybe, I don’t know, several hundred times more. Well, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

 

JUSTICE IS COMING!

JUSTICE IS COMING!

 

I figure between all the theatre tickets, video and DVD purchases, I’ve never paid a cast of actors so well as I’ve paid the Tombstone cast. Kurt Russell; Val Kilmer; Sam Elliot; Michael Biehn; Powers Booth; Bill Paxton; Dana Delaney, et al AND the entire film crew and production team behind them deserve every cent.

Also, may I just say that the music… that score! Just… never mind. Here, listen:

 

 

Many a film score stirs me, but Tombstone’s score fills me with happiness and revs me up like no other film score ever has… and it sure sounds a lot like mid-19th century Old West justice to me. It captures the essence of:

You tell ‘em I’M coming … and hell’s coming with me, you hear? HELL’S COMING WITH ME!

Ah, Wyatt.

I’m just fascinated with this segment of Arizona’s history – the historic gunfight at the O.K. Corral and the ensuing vendetta ride of Wyatt Earp’s posse – and this movie puts me there.

As I’d suspected, I’m finding it difficult to articulate why this movie impacts me to such an extent; the most flawless films in existence won’t make my “favorites” list if they don’t resonate with me somehow. Tombstone resonates with the core of my being. Critics may find flaws with Tombstone, but it’s a masterpiece as far as I’m concerned. My affection for Tombstone borders on adulation.

And yes, I admit it… the greatness that is Val Kilmer’s channeling of Doc Holliday kills me to this day, blah, blah, blah. I’m not going to bore you with that. I will say, though, that I haven’t seen cinematic charisma that potent before or since Tombstone. Val Kilmer’s performance is superb. If there’s ever been a more magnetic portrayal of Doc Holliday than Kilmer’s, I want to know about it, because I would have to see it to believe it. Kilmer manages to ooze Southern gentleman sex appeal and charm brilliantly from every tubercular pore in Holliday’s wasted, alcohol-saturated body in every one of his scenes. It’s not as unsavory as it sounds, believe me. He pulled it off.

 

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday

 

You know what’s kind of unbelievable? I’ve spent 21 years of my life here in Arizona, and I still haven’t visited the town of Tombstone! Kind of like how I’ve been to Paris five times and never visited Jim Morrison’s grave. Unlike that, however, my failure to visit Tombstone isn’t an extreme first-world problem, because I can easily jump in the truck and drive myself to Tombstone any time I want. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

Interestingly, Val Kilmer also played Jim Morrison in The Doors, and that’s my second-favorite role of his.

At any rate, if you haven’t already, do yourself a favor and watch Tombstone. I highly, highly recommend this film. Just trust me on this. It doesn’t matter if you’re not into westerns. It doesn’t matter if you don’t like action movies. (I know people who don’t care for either genre, but they love Tombstone.) I would be so bold as to predict that you’ll love this movie, or at least enjoy it. It draws you in, and what’s not to love about a sweeping tale involving family bonds and loyalty, lawmen and outlaws, revenge, romance and the sexiest Latin-quoting, quick-drawing, card-playing badass Southern gentleman you’ll ever see?

Oh, Johnny… I forgot you were there. You may go now.

The Darkest Hour

Right now, as I witness a number of my friends working through some pretty daunting life challenges with strength and courage, I’m inspired to muse on my default coping strategy. I prefer the word “strategy” to “mechanism” because it’s action-oriented, but the one I have in mind is actually more of a simple trick.

The idea is to navigate hardships with the cautious confidence of a surfer standing, feet planted on her surfboard, on the crest of the wave rather than flailing every which way in a murky turmoil, struggling in the lung-burning angst of one who gets pulled underwater and tossed around… right? Like everyone, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the bewildering throes of the latter. I thought I’d relay the trick that pulls me up and out, since I’ve been thinking about it.

That is, I think about words and language a lot.

I’m talking about popular axioms in the forms of adages and idioms, proverbs and platitudes. Many of these are interchangeable, these banal sayings and feel-good, preachy expressions, and they’re clichés. They’re filler material in our lexicon, the expressions that writers are advised to avoid. If we want to write in those terms, we’re told, we can apply for jobs writing for greeting card companies or cranking out fortune cookie fortunes. We’ve developed such a knee-jerk reaction against these age-old “words of wisdom” that our eyes start to roll before we even finish hearing them, and we tend to feel insulted when someone throws one at us in the depths of our struggles. A saccharine platitude weighed down with didacticism all dressed up in a cheery tone of voice makes for a hell of a life raft, even if the people offering it have their hearts in the right place.

 

Definition: Adage (Merriam-Webster)

 

But I’m thinking maybe it’s different when you repeat those tired, trite expressions to yourself, because they have a way of getting me through when I’m the one using them to coach myself along. In keeping with the definition of “filler material,” the words are always right there, spilling out over the edges. The trick is to start paying attention to them, at which point you can turn them over in your head, repeatedly, performing a sort of mental twiddling of the thumbs. Then the expression takes on the function of background music, and somewhere in the repetitive space of this thinking about it without thinking about it, a sedative effect comes over you, numbing you so you can forge ahead. Dull pain is still pain, but it’s manageable, and you can work through it.

Maybe I’ve just described the power of a mantra, which would suggest that you don’t have to read tomes on Eastern philosophy, convert to Eastern religion or become a yogi to experience this effect. Ordinary Western sayings can work as mantras, too.

A perfect cactus bloom from my house in a past life.

A perfect cactus bloom from my house in a past life.

 

It began in elementary school when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Banks of Plum Creek and came across the adage “the darkest hour is just before dawn” for the first time. Aside from finding this to be a metaphorically beautiful expression, it just resonates in a way that other, similar sayings don’t.

Now, when the cyclical rhythm of life gears down to “Low” and I find myself spiraling off into what I call The Great Abyss of WTF for a stay of indefinite duration, that old adage comes clanging back at me like a rabid cow with tricked-out bells… yet somehow, the accompanying sound is sonorous rather than cacophonous.

“The darkest hour is just before dawn.”

Many of these expressions of age-old wisdom often ring true. It’s maddening, but expressions get overused for a reason. “Things will get better.” Circumstances in life usually do get better, but not, for some reason, before they get worse. In fact, things often have a way of getting exponentially worse just when you’re thinking that they couldn’t possibly. Right after that, though, something happens… you reach a breaking point, and then you get a consolation prize! That’s the magic. The breaking point is where the magic happens. The breaking point creates a wellspring of potential. Disaster prompts action, action leads to change, and change leads to improvement. Or, change leads to sub-sets of challenges – small steps, baby steps – that will inevitably lead to better times. “The darkest hour is just before dawn” is a potent reminder. In retrospect, I can spot the breaking points in my life and see clearly that they were just turn-around points, flashing with the lessons I needed to learn.

“Hope for the best, but expect the worst” is also helpful. For me, this proverb provides encouragement to proceed with cautious optimism and requires just a bit of old-fashioned samurai stoicism.

“This, too, shall pass” comes to mind, but this expression is more of a reassurance than a warrior cry for perseverance. It’s useful when you want to will yourself through some sort of unpleasantness. It’s what you think when you’re sitting in the dental hygienist’s chair and she’s earnestly working away with that sinister, metal tartar-scraping hook thing pierced halfway into your gum-line and she hits a nerve – zing! – every other second, and you find yourself holding your breath while your fingers curl into fists until your nails dig into your palms and sweat pops out of the pores all over your body. Breathe. This, too, shall pass. (And then it does, and then you’re fine, until the next cleaning appointment rolls around six months later.)

It’s when situations in life get tough that I brace myself for the darkening and I actually hear those words in my head, repeatedly, mantra-like: “The darkest hour is just before dawn.”

It’s true that “things could always be worse,” but this adage doesn’t inspire or motivate me in any way. It’s merely an observation, and an annoying one, at that. “Things could always be worse” is the “You don’t have the right to feel that way because that’s a FIRST WORLD PROBLEM” adage.

Yet, perspective is a profound thing, and perspective is the take-away from “things could always be worse.”

For instance, when I came back from six months in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Kuwait during the Gulf War, I didn’t have a bad hair day for literally years, because the concept of a bad hair day is inconceivable once you’ve lived in the desert with no semblance of civilization for six months and your main concern each day is whether you’re going to live to see the next. Good/bad hair doesn’t factor into survival mode. I was able to wash my hair every once in a while out there, but it was a tedious and dicey affair (you’re vulnerable when you wash your hair!) that required using rationed water. We had small bottles of Pert (Shampoo and Conditioner in One!) that were either issued or donated… I don’t remember which, but I remember that its fresh, green scent in my hair was an unspeakable luxury once the hair-washing production was over. (I haven’t used Pert since, but I would probably recognize its scent instantly.) That’s what clean hair amounted to: an intermittent, tense luxury. 23 years later, I now certainly do have bad hair days, but I haven’t forgotten. It’s the little things, and I don’t take them for granted.

“The darkest hour is just before dawn” is my favorite adage because it does inspire and motivate me. It turns out that a lot can be done in the dark. You can do some of your best creative thinking in the dark; sight deprivation amps up your remaining senses, and with that bolstering comes an almost supernatural ability to strategize your way out of your predicament. Perhaps this is partially why some of the most compelling poets and writers in history wrote from dark places, oftentimes chronically. It’s like The Great Abyss of WTF was a grungy old motel they checked into one night and never left. (Sadly, many brilliant poets and writers died in that darkness, dissolving into addiction or turning to suicide… but they left us with a body of written work that will inspire and captivate people until the end of time.)

Another thing I do when facing extreme difficulty is I veer in the opposite direction and convince myself that the worst-case scenario will happen, and I focus on that. I plan for it. This may sound counter-intuitive, and it goes against all the variations on the “Envision your perfect situation and it will happen!” theme popularized by the self-help genre of the last 20 years. (The Secret, anyone?) But somehow, focusing on the worst rather than on the best has been a tactic that’s been of enormous benefit to me. (Here, I’m tempted to segue into the topic of Buddhism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

To focus on the worst is to put yourself in survival mode, and there, you begin to craft an action plan, since there’s nothing else to do. Once you’re in survival mode, you’re forced to take steps, many of them drastic. The alternative is to perish. That phrasing might sound dramatic, but that’s how it feels… and besides, presenting yourself with a life or death proposition works. As you funnel your energy toward that darkest imaginable place in your future, you suddenly find a). solutions to problems in unexpected places, and/or b). that while you were busy preparing for the worst, things were actually getting better… and the amelioration of your circumstances came about while you weren’t looking directly at them.

This is not as passive an approach as it sounds. The human mind naturally searches for solutions in everything, I think, even if we’re not aware of it. We take pleasure in solving mysteries and riddles and identifying patterns and finding answers. With our vision muddled, we discover other ways to make sense of things. Such as it is that things evolve… and that evolution happens in the dark.

The darkest hour is just before dawn.

 

Spring in the desert is always the dawn!

Spring in the desert is always the dawn!

 

What I’ve come to realize is that the darkest hours are important. The darkest hours are hard, but they’re also the pivotal, life-altering and transformative times that are essential for growth and the wisdom we need to prepare ourselves for future hardships, because there will always be future hardships. No one is exempt from the vagaries of life.

A penultimate favorite quote: “In the end, everything will be okay. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.”

Now those are fighting words! If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.

And finally, you know what they say: “When nothing goes right, go left.”

Which is about change. It’s all about change, and progress through change. It’s revitalizing. It allows me to be the surfer standing on two feet on the crest of the wave not only with determination, but with joy, as well. There’s a sense of liberation there, and the view is stunning.

The Plot Thickens.

Last spring, I wrote about how the City of Nice chose a Frenchman’s drawing featuring a practically naked, obese woman to represent the United States in a parade float for their annual world-famous Carnaval celebration. The drawing was, shall we say, handily fleshed out with stereotypes of cavalier gluttony and general tackiness in a rather simple and tasteless mockery. This is an image that matches a popular French conception of Americans. Just to make sure there was no mistaking the float’s nationality, the artist put a Statue of Liberty crown on the woman’s head, a bottle of Coke in the hand of her upraised torch-bearing arm, and stood her atop a gigantic cheeseburger.

Here’s the winning illustration:

 

The fat woman on a cheeseburger pedestal towers over the first astronaut to land on the moon.

The fat woman on a cheeseburger pedestal towers over the first astronaut to land on the moon.

 

Here’s the whole drawing:

 

"C'est L'Amerique!" - all kinds of America.

“C’est L’Amerique!” – all kinds of America.

 

Callaghan, who was raised in Nice and carries dual (French-American) citizenship, was also taken aback by the selection of that drawing.

Now, a year later, the City of Nice seems to be having some sort of identity crisis, the main symptom being its 2014 “Greetings to Nice” poster campaign featuring a variety of images of its inhabitants… a self-promotional campaign that blew up in the faces of its creators when an article came out busting them for using… wait for it… photos of Americans.

So much for municipal pride.

What makes this especially ridiculous is that the City of Nice made sure to announce that the folks in the images were “All Nice!” because last year it generated controversy when it used “different” (i.e. non-French) faces to represent itself in a similar campaign.

Feel free to check out the article here. (You can probably gather the general gist of it even if you can’t read French.)

Understandably, the phony campaign has outraged many people of Nice. When the ad copy claims that the creators specifically and exclusively “sought out people of Nice” for their poster images, it must be disheartening to realize that the images were actually harvested from the French version (copied and pasted from the original with a French search engine) of an American photo image bank (Thinkstock), and that none of the models used are even French, much less inhabitants of Nice.

We can’t decide if the people of Nice are more upset by the fact that they’ve been lied to, or by the fact that they’ve been represented by (gasp!) Americans.

On my part, the deception is disturbing not as a misled person of Nice, but as an American who witnessed the City of Nice’ selection of that questionable drawing for last year’s parade. My French isn’t perfect, but hypocrisy does not easily get lost in translation. In this case, it’s coming through loud and clear.

It was an irate Callaghan who brought the article to my attention.

“The City of Nice,” he grumbled as he hung up the phone with one of his friends on the French Rivera, “created a ‘Happy New Year’ greeting card for Nice using images of people from Nice, except they’re not, because the pictures were taken off an American photo bank website! It’s bullshit.”

Callaghan has often said to me that the French regard Americans with disdain and mock them because they secretly want to be them. I never knew what to think of that theory, but now the actions of the City of Nice are giving credence to it.

Americans. Make fun of them in public. Pretend to be them in private.

I’ll tell you what… if I was working on a promotional campaign for the City of Nice, I’d cover the posters with photos of pan bagnat (the traditional Niçoise tuna sandwich) and call it a day. It’s the best tuna sandwich in the world. That’s something to be proud of.

 

Happy New Year from the City of Nice!

Happy New Year from the City of Nice!

 

(The City of Nice Wishes You a Happy New Year 2014 original drawing by Callaghan. Text taken from the article.)

Objets d’Art and the Value of Memories

Prior to Friday night, I’d considered myself to be an art afficionado in a broad sense of the term. I’ve always loved art museums and galleries, and I go through periods of making visual art of various sorts. At one time, interior design school attracted me. At another point, I thought about art school for painting. I decided on a BA in English and ultimately earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing, focus on poetry, but I enjoyed art history as elective study. I deeply admire artists of various genres – visual artists of all persuasions, dancers, musicians, actors, film-makers, poets and writers. Over the years, I’ve supported my talented artist friends by purchasing their work, attending their events and making personal donations from time to time. And, of course, I happen to be married to a professional visual artist.

So it was an odd sensation when, at a gallery opening on Friday night, I found myself questioning my perception of myself as a “true” art lover. It happened when my eyes fell upon a porcelain dinner plate. It was white or cream-colored with a pale bluish-green design around the border, if I’m remembering correctly. It was cracked, and the artist had affixed to it a few strands of human hair. It wasn’t the piece itself that really caught my eye, though. It was the price sticker next to it, which read $4,000.00. I looked twice to verify the number of zeros.

Obviously, I’m missing something here, I thought to myself in disbelief. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered a piece of art that whizzed so high over my head that I could barely recognize it. I know… art is subjective. I know. But I was mystified by the idea that there were people who could make sense of the $4,000.00 price tag. What are they seeing that I’m not? It was a peculiar take on the feeling of being left out of a joke. I was more perplexed than anything. Do you have to be a special kind of visionary or hold a certain minimum IQ to recognize an aesthetic appeal worth $4,000.00 in such an object?

Believe me, I tried. I closed my eyes and tried to envision where in my house I would want to put a cracked plate with a few strands of hair on it.  I couldn’t.

Probably the person who buys the plate will set it inside a cabinet with glass doors, where it will sit under display lighting in the company of other unusual objets d’art. It’s a “conversation piece,” they’ll say. Okay… I get that. I get the coolness factor of having a conversation piece. But who has $4,000.00 lying around to spend for the purpose of starting conversations? The hipsters who comprised 90% of the opening’s attendance? (Well, maybe the answer is in the question.)

Callaghan, my professional visual artist husband, wasn’t grasping it, either. Neither was the friend who accompanied us, himself an art-loving designer. And we weren’t the only ones… we overheard others musing about the prices out loud to each other. One thing is for sure – the plate does function well as a conversation piece! It provoked discussion as the three of us tried to fathom how the artist could justify charging $4,000.00 for it, as it provoked this post that I’m writing.

That I wasn’t alone in my confusion reassured me, but I still felt somewhat dismayed when we left the gallery. Art that makes me feel like an idiot! That must mean it’s really good art, and I’m not cool enough, worldly enough, educated enough or perceptive enough to “get” it.

The next day, I went online to investigate. According to the gallery’s website, the current exhibit showcases “complex sculptural work that uses hair and hair products as their medium” by three artists. I went on to read the artists’ statements about their exhibit pieces. While this helped me to understand and appreciate the intent of the plate artist (who is neither local nor an established artist), I still couldn’t reconcile the piece with the monetary value attached to it. The plate piece is described by the gallery as a “memory assemblage,” meaning, it’s exactly what it appears to be: strands of hair affixed to a broken plate (not sculpted by the artist) to create the “complex sculptural work.”

Apparently, what we’re talking about here is putting a price on memories. The work is deeply personal to the artist – the plate is a “family heirloom,” and the hairs on it are from her own head – so understandably, the artist sees beauty in it. But how can she expect strangers to connect to those personal memories of hers to the tune of $4,000.00? If the justification is that the dinner plate is a family heirloom, what does that mean… that the name of the family in question is “Kennedy” and the artist procured it from the White House?  Or that the porcelain plate is an ancient Chinese hand-painted piece from the Ming Dynasty? Is the plate gilt in 14K gold, or otherwise valuable in some material way?

Along with the price, its designation as a “complex sculptural work” confounds me.

I can think of another example of real hair being used in art: horsehair pottery. Native American artists overlay pieces such as vases with horse hair during the firing process. The works are often then hand-etched and decorated with materials such as turquoise nuggets, leather and feathers to exquisite effect. The making of these pieces involves extensive talent, skill, intuitive craftsmanship, precise training, precious materials and hours of work. Since they are handmade every step of the way, the pieces are unique – no two are alike. I bought one for Callaghan when we were dating. Lovely and vibrant with the tradition of its cultural heritage, the item cost less than $50.00. Granted, I found it at an outdoor arts fair when I lived in Arizona; shopping in my own backyard maybe made it easier to get it for a good price, but you can go online and find similar pieces for comparable prices.

 

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

Handmade horsehair pot by Navajo artist Geraldine Vail, available for purchase for $69.00 on aztradingpost.com

 

I’m cognizant of the distinction between art created for the masses as a trade versus art made for a gallery exhibit with a specific intellectual psychological/philosophical theme as its impetus. My point is that creating a piece such as the horsehair vase involves much more of a “complex” creative process than sticking some hair to a pre-existing plate.

Let’s be clear: I am not questioning whether the plate we saw in this gallery qualifies as art. That old debate is not what this is about. Glue your own hair to Grandma’s plate and call it art all day long (but please don’t go so far as to call the “memory assemblage” a “complex sculptural work,” because it is not. As Callaghan pointed out, to call it that is an insult to artists who actually do create complex sculptural works. I personally can’t imagine gluing my hair to a plate and telling a Navajo artist that it’s a “complex sculptural work” worth thousands of dollars). I’m not going to argue the matter, regardless of my opinion.

What I can’t comprehend is the price. I understand that the piece carries great sentimental value for the artist, but why would anyone want to pay $4,000.00 for someone else’s memories?

My Experience with Juicing, or, What the Sea Witch Gave the Little Mermaid to Drink in Order to Grow Legs

Recently, we decided that it would be reasonable to invest in a juicer, so we conducted the obligatory consumer research and ordered one from Sears. Free shipping!

 

A good juicer, and we got it from Sears for a decent price.

A good juicer, and we got it from Sears for a decent price.

 

Once, in my thirties, I did the Master Cleanse for ten days, and I had no problem with it. Based on that experience, I figure I can easily do a fresh veggie juice fast four times a month; it’s a practice I wish to cultivate for detoxifying purposes (not for weight-loss). I invited Callaghan to do it with me, and he said yes, count him in! Okay, then… LET’S DO THIS.

The first time we used the juicer – last week – we double-checked to ensure that all the right parts of the machine were locked down into the right places. Despite our diligence, we somehow forgot to place a receptacle beneath the juice spout. Details! In a matter of seconds, we found ourselves in the middle of what looked like a violent crime scene, because the first thing we fed into the juicer was, of course, fresh BEETS. Also, the machine was facing backwards (which was why we forgot to check the spout), so we didn’t notice the error until the beet juice hemorrhage was well out of control.

We had to act fast. Our kitchen was the site of an unholy beet massacre; it looked like someone’s throat had been slit in the grand finale of a knife-wielding lunatic’s homicidal rampage. The beet juice spread quickly, pooling under and around things on the white kitchen counter. It splattered on the wall. It dribbled onto the floor. It went everywhere.

In a panic, we grabbed whatever we saw lying around to mop up the mess. The beet juice transferred from one thing to another, and all over us. Yikes! I thought. What if the cops happened to knock on the door at that very second for some random reason? We would have been caught literally red-handed, standing in our slasher flick movie set of a kitchen with gobs of bloody… er, beety… paper towels, a stained sponge and a smeared counter. It looked very bad. Also, somehow, there was a dirty coffee mug half-way filled with the stuff, adding to the macabre effect. I was wearing my skull t-shirt, too. We should have taken a picture.

Callaghan held up the remaining chunks of beets, and I said, “At least we have some left!”

That was Juicing, Part 1.

Juicing, Part 2 was about juicing the rest of the veggies once we worked the kinks out of our methodology.

Juicing, Part 3 was about drinking the juice.

The horror of Part 3 surpassed the horror of Part 1. The juice tasted like it came from a stagnant bog from the Pleistocene epoch, with an aftertaste of sweaty feet.

Coincidentally, my friend Beau wrote on his Facebook that day:

I juiced almost 2 pounds of kale and got a whopping 8 ounces of liquid. Due to its enticing, beautiful green color, I tried it out before mixing with my other fruits and veggies.

It tasted like a mouthful of the Gulf of Mexico……and not in a good way.

Wow, I thought as I commiserated with him in a comment on his post. What a coincidence! We’re both juicing kale today and concluding that it tastes like ass.

Later, Beau wrote:

Juice update: Mixed this…liquid…with the rest of the stuff the girl set aside for juicing. By adding several bell peppers, oranges, grapes, cucumber, lemons and a metric shitload of celery, I managed to get the taste boosted to “peppery sewage.” …….I will be revamping the recipe.

Yeah, I think the celery was one thing that killed it for me. That, and the garlic. And the cucumbers. Instead of melding into a harmonious brew, each of these flavors defiantly held their own shape and competed with each other with obnoxious force, bulldozing my tongue until it became a whimpering, limp rag in my mouth. Traumatized into oblivion, my poor taste buds spent the rest of the day engaged in a feeble battle to develop amnesia.

The juice is vile. As Beau put it, it tastes like how an exorcism feels.

But I choked down another glass for lunch.

In the middle of the afternoon, Callaghan and I stuffed organic apples into the juicer and gulped the juice like it was the elixir of the Gods. Ah! Fruit. Simple, sweet fruit.

Then I brushed my teeth and felt a little bit better, even though I still had an apocalyptic caffeine-withdrawal headache and my whole body felt hijacked from the inside out. It was like my blood had suddenly become claustrophobic and gathered itself into a frenzy to exit my pores in the most dramatic way possible, clashing against the insides of my veins like waves pounding the rocks on a stormy beach. Agitated toxins all riled up, I thought. I wasn’t hungry at all, but I felt sick. Also, I felt oddly cold and just very out-of-sorts in a particularly disconcerting way. I did not like being in my body. I fantasized about unzipping my skin and stepping out of it, leaving my miserable, toxin-riddled flesh suit in a heap on the floor.

I couldn’t understand it… since returning to the States, I’ve eaten pretty “clean” (which, for me, personally, means vegan and sans simple sugars/refined carbs, as well as nothing fried) 98% of the time, and the last time I consumed an alcoholic beverage was sometime in June, so it’s not like my body’s composed of junk and had a tidal wave of HEALTHY to reckon with upon introduction of the veggie juice. My habits are already very healthy. How could the juice be that great of a shock to my system? Nor did I remember feeling this way when I did the Master Cleanse, not even after ten days. My body doesn’t even react like this if I don’t consume anything at all for a day, for whatever reason. Also, I’d juice-fasted once or twice while we were in France, for several days at a time, and I’d felt just fine. The problem is THIS juice.

That evening, I still wasn’t hungry, but I opened the refrigerator and eyed the juice remaining in the glass pitcher. The day is almost over, I thought. I can do this. I love vegetables! How can drinking them be so different than eating them? I poured out a glass for each of us, but when I lifted mine to my mouth, my nose reacted first. The hairs in my nostrils withered, as though singed by an invisible flame. My throat tightened, and my gag reflex convulsed. My stomach curled into a ball and tried to hide. My mouth watered the way it does right before you vomit. I set the glass down.

“I can’t do this anymore. I’m done,” I said to Callaghan, who was happily drinking his second glass of juice in one sitting. (What the hell? How can he…?)

“I’m French,” he informed me, reading my mind. “So I can eat the most terrible-tasting stuff.”

I drank some water, brushed my teeth again and went to bed.

The next day, my body looked like a million bucks.

Free Wheelin,’ or Wheel-Free

We’ve been in Austin for a month now, and we’re finding it to be a pretty kick-ass place. We’re enjoying the process of discovering our new city, and we’re transitioning well, overall.

One thing we’ve done is we’ve freed ourselves from the hassles of ownership as much as possible. We don’t own cell phones, property or vehicles. For phones, we use Magic Jacks (we each have our own). We rent an apartment, and we walk and take the bus to get around. Thus, there are no phone bills, mortgage payments or auto-related expenses in our monthly budget. Not having a car is also economically beneficial in that it eliminates the ability to give in to instant gratification impulses… there’s no jumping into a car on a whim to go do stuff or buy stuff we maybe can’t afford. We have to mindfully plan our excursions and make decisions about what’s a). necessary, and/or b). worth our time and money, and what’s not.

At first, the idea of going wheel-free unnerved me somewhat, just a little bit, as I’d been as accustomed as anyone to the independence of mobility inherent in having a vehicle. My last vehicle – in Arizona – was a little red Chevy truck I’d named “McKenna.” I loved her and considered her to be a member of my family (I can be obsessive like that. And, okay, I’ll admit that I have a thing for Chevy trucks). (No, I did not have a decal of Calvin pissing on the Ford logo.)

In reality, it turns out that being wheel-free is anything but a hardship. It’s actually incredibly liberating, and it makes so much sense for us, it’s almost ridiculous. Our new lifestyle is quickly becoming second nature. We love not having to deal with parking and getting gas. Also, not having a car keeps us active… we walk an average of 10 miles per week, just going around doing our errands.

Our biggest surprise source of glee has been the bus. The bus-line we use the most is the 1M, and it’s fantastic. The 1M picks us up right in front of our apartment, and it cuts south through the Austin metro area, taking us almost everywhere we want to go, from N. Lamar to Guadalupe to Congress and beyond. Mainly, we go downtown. The 1M takes us there directly… no transfers!

The advantages of riding the bus are numerous. For one thing, it means that someone else is driving, so we’re free to stare out the window and make nifty discoveries. (For instance, thanks to the 1M, we discovered the Hyde Park neighborhood, which we love.) We don’t have to pay attention to the road. We can talk, daydream and even take a short power nap. All we have to do is be aware of when to pull the stop bell.

We’ve yet to have a bad bus experience (though I’m sure we will at some point… those are the odds). So far, the bus has always been either on time or early. It’s beautifully air-conditioned, meaning that we get to travel in a comfortably chilled environment, rather than in a hot car with cold air blasting onto our faces. We enjoy the diversity on the bus, all the proverbial walks of life we encounter. The mix of people includes students, yuppies, hipsters, housewives and gangsters; both white and blue-collar employees heading to work, everyone from engineers to artists to construction workers to librarians; homeless, disabled – sometimes with helping dogs – parents and teenagers. There are children and elderly. There are loners and lovers. There are groups of friends. Shades of skin represent the full spectrum of the human rainbow, and it’s beautiful. There are hundreds of stories on a bus at any given time, and with my penchant for people-watching, I love to image what some of those stories might be. A bus ticket scores you free entertainment, too, because human beings can be pretty funny creatures.

The first time we rode the bus, we were sitting there talking when an old guy got on, loudly singing a Mac Davis song:

“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble/When you’re perfect in every way…”

He walked down the aisle past us, continuing to sing.

“I can’t wait to look in the mirror…”

Then he doubled back and stuck his face in front of Callaghan’s to sing him the final line:

“Cause I get better lookin’ each day!”

Which caused us all to crack up. See? How often do you get to burst out in spontaneous laughter while driving? Instead of cursing out traffic conditions and other peoples’ stupid driving behaviors, we’re being comically serenaded by a happy crazy person. Awesome!

Here, check out the view from our favorite bus:

 

Heading downtown on the 1M, our go-to bus-line. We jump on the 1M several times a week, at least.

Heading downtown on the 1M, our go-to bus-line. We jump on the 1M several times a week, at least.

 

Crossing the Congress Ave bridge

Crossing the Congress Ave bridge

 

It seems there are as many different architectural styles in Austin as there are types of people. I love them all.

It seems there are as many different architectural styles in Austin as there are types of people. I love them all.

 

Have I mentioned that Austin's a pretty friendly place?

Have I mentioned that Austin’s a pretty friendly place?

 

Coffee on every corner! Seems that way, anyway.

Coffee on every corner! Seems that way, anyway.

 

I posted this on Facebook yesterday: Tuesday afternoon, we were on the bus going downtown and I took this pic of the Texas state capitol not knowing that a badass Texas state senator called Wendy Davis was inside at that very moment, doing badass things. (Like her or not, she is a badass.) This is what history in the making looks like from the outside.

I posted this on Facebook yesterday: Tuesday afternoon, we were on the bus going downtown and I took this pic of the Texas state capitol not knowing that a badass Texas state senator called Wendy Davis was inside at that very moment, doing badass things. (Like her or not, she is a badass.) This is what history in the making looks like from the outside.

 

"Stay alert to stay alive" - there's a reason why the military teaches you to live by these words. You want to be aware when a demon dumpster tries to sneak up behind you and your friends.

“Stay alert to stay alive” – there’s a reason why the military teaches you to live by these words. You want to be aware when a demon dumpster tries to sneak up behind you and your friends.

 

Here's a little tribute to one of my favorite actors. Every time we pass this, I think of Christopher Walken, so finally, I took a picture of it.

Here’s a little tribute to one of my favorite actors. Every time we pass this, I think of Christopher Walken, so finally, I took a picture of it.

 

say "fromagggge!" or "camembert!!!"

say “fromagggge!” or “camembert!!!”

 

Making a conscious decision to not own a car is the best thing we’ve done, and we’re lucky that we have this option – I know that not everyone does. We, too, might need to get a car one day, for whatever reason, though we sincerely hope that doesn’t happen. So we’re going to enjoy this freedom for as long as we can. It’s just a pleasure to get around without speeding mindlessly through our day. We can see what’s around us when we walk and ride the bus. Plus, we’re no longer contributing to the pollution problem by adding an engine of our own to the mix. If we ever do want or need a car for a few hours, we can rent one, or use Zip Car or Car 2 Go (we see Car 2 Go Smart cars all over Austin). Win!

Body Image and the Great Strip-Down

When I sat down to write about body image, I found myself mired in writer’s block before my fingers even touched the keyboard. Where could I begin to talk about this issue? It’s intimidating in its vastness, and thousands of articles on the subject have already been written. So many of us struggle with our self-worth where our bodies are concerned.

What came to mind first was the following incident:

When I was in Arizona, I had a boyfriend whose family lived in a large house in a semi-rural suburb. The lot on which it sat had a modest expanse of lawn and a scattering of shrubbery fringing the perimeter around the front yard. Though it could have used some work, the yard was by no means ill-maintained; still, the neighbors took it upon themselves to show up one day with hedge-trimmers, weed-whackers, gardening shears and the like. They stood on the front porch (I was there to witness it), ready to work. They exuded good intentions with the sort of self-satisfaction that goes with donating precious resources to a charity case.

You see, that yard just had to be brought up to “standards,” and if the occupants of the house weren’t going to do it, then by god, someone else had to. The yard was an eyesore, they figured. It was bringing down the neighborhood. Maybe the appearance of the yard would even decrease the value of their homes. This is all speculation; I don’t know what they were thinking, exactly. People can be persnickety.

My boyfriend’s parents were mortified. They stood on their side of the security screen door at a loss for words. “Thank you,” they murmured… because what else could they think to say at that moment? What do you do with unsolicited volunteerism to correct something of yours that you never knew was wrong?

Good intentions aside, the neighbors came across as critical, maybe even judgmental, and their collective action seemed more insulting and intrusive than akin to a random act of kindness. They actually took time out of their weekends to impose their aesthetics on someone else’s house. “We thought we’d get together and work on your yard,” their spokesperson announced in so many words, full of vim and vigor. I couldn’t believe the nerve. Plus, the yard really wasn’t that bad. In fact, I’d thought I’d seen the same or worse here and there throughout the neighborhood. It wasn’t like this was a shabby yard surrounded by “perfect” ones.

So what about this memory brings to mind the issue of body image? The concept of aesthetic “standards.” Other people’s standards, and the pressure placed on us to meet them.

In this era of obsession with physical perfection, very few of us feel that we look “good enough” to count as worthy. So how to overcome the persistent messages that being attractive (according to other peoples’ definitions) should be a paramount goal in life? How to become impervious to the messages of society-mandated physical perfection plastered all over the media? How to not care?

I thought about it. For me, I found that the answer lies somewhere in this truth: My body is my house, and it’s prime real-estate… because it’s mine to do with as I please. It’s the only thing I truly own, me, by myself. I live here, I want to shout to the tentacles of the media. Get off my lawn!!

The space I inhabit within my body is the same as the space I inhabit within my home, and it’s no one’s business what I do with those spaces. Those spaces are sacred to me. I’m not okay with “good neighbors” on my doorstep telling me what’s wrong on the outside, and I’m absolutely against the idea of intruders coming in to dictate what will happen on the inside.

It seems that we’re fixated on altering our bodies for the gratification of others and to match the innumerable images of what “desirable” looks like. Though men aren’t entirely exempt from the bombardment of these subtle and not-so-subtle directives, women remain the central targets. Focus on women’s bodies far exceeds the focus on men’s bodies. Feelings of physical inadequacy aren’t quite the equal opportunity demons they should be.

My thoughts keep returning to that house and its yard. How the neighbors came with their gardening tools to trim, shape and prune the vegetation until its contours resembled their own ideals of not only acceptability, but desirability. When did it become permissible to judge the exteriors of our homes to the point where others will come to impose their ideals on us? The problem is that when any space we inhabit is regarded with a critical eye, it’s difficult to avoid self-consciousness… and self-consciousness brings us down. It can lead to irrational thinking about how we can “fix” ourselves. It can lead to self-starvation and self-mutilation in our quest to comply with the beauty ideals of our time.

It’s like comparing our living spaces to those of others. We find ourselves examining the walls that surround us, becoming as critical of them as our critics… maybe even more so, since it’s true that we’re often our own worst critics. Suddenly, what we have isn’t good enough. Where we are isn’t good enough.

Then we think about it. We take stock of what we need, compare it to what we have, and then realize how lucky we are. We have a functional structure in which to live.

We have somewhere to lay our heads when we’re tired. Somewhere to bathe our bodies. Somewhere to sit and think and be alone. Somewhere to spend intimate time with others when we don’t want to interact in public. Somewhere to store, keep, admire, use and enjoy the things we have.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could feel this appreciative and secure within the homes that are our bodies?

Now that current economic realities have somewhat stifled the “keep up with the Joneses” mindset that influenced our sense of self-worth in the extravagant ’80’s, why can’t we nudge ourselves out of that same mentality where our bodies are concerned? Why continue trying to “keep up with” anybody in terms of how we look?

There’s just no point in comparing ourselves to others.

So I ask myself this question: If make a list of things I need in order to feel good about myself, what would it look like?

I came up with this: Lasting harmony, growth and passion with my life partner. Mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health. Contentment and joy. Accomplishment and satisfaction. Triumph and progress. Acceptance and dignity.

The list isn’t without its “oh my god impossible” factor, but it’s invigorating nonetheless. I feel motivated for the right reasons. It’s time to separate my body from my self-worth, and I can start by trying to shrug off the bullshit messages of our body-centric society. In doing so, I’m freeing myself to nurture and enrich other areas of my being and my life. I’m happy with my aspirations to focus on interiors, rather than exteriors.

For one thing, I know that when I look in the mirror, there are more terrible things I could see than my physical “imperfections.”

I wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and see money I don’t have, and feel poor. I wouldn’t want to see what’s gone from my life, and feel a desperate vacancy. I wouldn’t want to see what’s been taken away, and find ghosts where my reflection should be. I wouldn’t want to see the pride I can’t swallow or the temper I can’t control. I certainly wouldn’t want to look in the mirror and find a guilty conscience in the aversion of my gaze, because above all, I have to be able to look into my own eyes. That is where I should see beauty. And that’s where others should see it, too.

What feels healthy and good on the inside diminishes the importance of what people see on the outside, and that renders them impotent. My self-worth becomes immutable.

So this is the strip-down, the way I see it. I’ll make a point of baring myself to the elements every once in a while, just as a reminder of the value of what’s really there. I could stand in my entryway completely naked while I’m at it. Come and tell me what needs to be fixed. I might hold a mirror up to your face before I quietly close the door.

You’re American. You Must Be Obese.

We got back from our latest trip to Nice last night. While we were there, we took the time to visit the maison de carnaval (“house of carnival”), the place where the majestic floats for Nice’s annual February carnival are made. We wanted to get a sneak peek at the construction progress because, like last year, several of Callaghan’s drawings were selected to appear as floats.

I have something to get off my chest, so I’m going to go ahead and dump it here.

(By the way: This is not about Callaghan!)

Let’s say you’re an artist. You decide to participate in a contest to come up with a series of original drawings on the theme of “The Five Continents,” depicting your visual interpretation of the corners of the world. (This refers to the non-American version of the world’s continents, hence five rather than seven.)

The competition is intimidating. You know that your drawings have to be absolutely inventive in order for the committee to select one or more of them; a prestigious carnival’s enormous, sophisticated floats will be based on the winning drawings.

So here you are, ready to go! The continent of North America lies before you, challenging you. There are many options, many things about this continent you can take and develop into creative ideas. You sit and think and soon find yourself rolling along an exhilarating wave of inspiration, creative idea after creative idea blooming up from the depths of your imagination. Your mind hums with anticipation; you can already feel the satisfaction of releasing the creative mojo from your brain, taking the images from your mind’s eye and transferring them to paper.

You unsheathe your drawing pencils. You’re inspired. You’re proud of yourself. For North America, you’ve decided, you’re going to focus on the United States. You’ll incorporate various elements into your drawing – elements that will represent America. One of these will be an American woman: She’ll be obese. She’ll be blond. She’ll be naked except for blue star pasties on her nipples and a tiny red and white striped bikini bottom. She’ll wear a gold crown. You’ll put her up on the back of a pink Cadillac. In her upraised hand, you’ll draw in a diet soda. She is a parody of the Statue of Liberty.

At the carnival’s home offices, the selection committee reviews the hundreds of entries submitted by talented artists. Next thing you know, you receive a letter of congratulations. Your drawing was selected! Your idea was so original, it beat out all the others. At the end of February, a pink Cadillac float representing America, complete with the ridiculous half-naked obese woman brandishing her diet soda, will drift along in the parade for all to admire. You’ll receive an award for your clever design at the end of the carnival’s run. Congratulations.

Here are the rhetorical questions this scenario begs in my mind: Is the world really so conditioned to viewing America this way that it can’t see the juvenile cruelty of ridiculing obese Americans? Can there be an acknowledgement of the difference between a successful satire and outright hostile social criticism hiding behind the guise of satire?

Dear Selection Committee: I don’t get it. I don’t get why you would taint the illustrious tradition of your annual carnival by selecting a drawing such as this. Shouldn’t you be setting high standards for carnival parades, rather than lowering them by perpetuating mean stereotypes through the pedantic representation of them in your floats?

Why reduce a country’s identity to a stereotype, anyway? America. Geographical wonders such as redwood forests, the Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore, the Great Lakes and Niagara falls. Specific, world-wide-recognized characters such as Elvis, Mickey Mouse, the Statue of Liberty and Uncle Sam. Places such as Hollywood and New York City. All of these emblems could be used as the basis of satire. Also worth considering is the tremendous cultural diversity among the American population.

America is nothing if not multi-cultural. The country grew up as a coming-together of people from all over the world, and those people brought their traditions that have both held pure and mixed together with others. It can be said that to be American is to be of mixed ethnicity; most Americans are “mutts.” I’ve known very few Americans who are 100% anything. It’s not like Europe, where it’s more predictable that people in Germany are of German ethnicity, people in France are of French ethnicity, people in Italy are of Italian ethnicity, etc. There is no such thing as an “American” ethnicity. America is unique in that it’s a country in which almost all of its citizens (the exception being Native Americans) can trace their ethnic roots back to their places of origin. “American” is a nationality, not an ethnicity. America is a collection of the world’s people.

How can anyone miss the greatness of this? When you really think about it, isn’t it a stunning concept? Isn’t it great, I mean truly great that a country such as America even exists?

What I’m trying to point out is that it’s kind of gratuitous to draw an obese white person and stick it on a float called “America” to represent its people. Clearly, the intent here is not to satirize. The intent is only to turn the subject into a laughing-stock for the amusement of the parade audience, most of which is not American.

Stereotypes can be negative or positive. Obesity is a negative American stereotype that suggests disapproval of not just a body condition, but a psychological one as well. Often, obesity is perceived as an attitude-oriented issue – one that can easily be changed if the person “really wants to.” It’s a complex stereotype, and it’s hostile: the obese are viewed negatively on different levels. This is why I’m feeling this drawing stretch beyond satire, and I have to wonder what the artist was thinking. Did he choose to portray obesity because it would be the easiest of the negative American stereotypes to draw? Or because it’s perceived to be the funniest? Or because it was just the first thing that occurred to him when he thought about America, so he went with it without bothering to search his mind for alternatives?

I saw this drawing, obviously. In my opinion, it’s not even that good. (I think I’m at least slightly qualified to make this judgment, since I live with Callaghan and I see the results of his considerable talent every day.) Regardless, if the decision to draw an obese person was made in bad taste, the decision to select the drawing out of hundreds was even worse.

I believe it would be possible to come up with ways to visually satirize America with the finesse required to also celebrate it – not just mock it. Intelligent, creative satire. I’m all for it.

We’re aware that obesity is an accelerating medical problem in America. But who is anyone to indict us, as a nation, for being “greedy” or “lazy” or “self-indulgent” (or whatever the perception may be) because of it?

Who is uglier – the obese American, or the person ridiculing him or her?

A Fan’s Perspective: Will the Real Jack Reacher Please Stand Up?

Bad Guy: *touches his gun*

Reacher: Hang on a second while I get a chair so that I may stand up on it and head-butt you.

If this scene exists in any of Lee Child’s 17 Jack Reacher novels, then congratulations, Jack Reacher film team… you’ve done well to cast Tom Cruise as Reacher.

The movie Jack Reacher opens today. I’m in France, where it won’t open for another week or so, but that’s irrelevant because I’m not going to go see it.

Before you dismiss me as a whiner harping on the height issue, let me just say that I know it’s hard for you movie-goers uninitiated to the Jack Reacher novels to comprehend the far-ranging negative reaction to this casting. I mean, with all of this brou-ha-ha over the casting, there must be something more to it, wouldn’t you think? So, I’m going to ask you this question to make it easier to understand (or at least to appreciate) the disbelief:

If you were looking forward to the making of a movie about the Vikings, the legendary drifting explorers and warriors of the north seas, would you want to see Tom Cruise cast in the lead Viking role?

Think about it. I mean, try to envision it. If you don’t know enough about the Vikings to form a mental image of Cruise as a Viking, then do some reading. Familiarize yourself. Get to know the subject matter. Get to know the Vikings.

Now tell me what you think.

Is Tom Cruise Viking material?

No? Okay, what if he was 6’ 5” tall and weighed 250 lbs – would he be Viking material then?

Still no? Why not? I thought the concern was his size, since that’s the obvious issue, but okay, let’s go further and imagine growing out and bleaching Tom Cruise’s perfectly styled, clean-cut, dark brown hair into a haphazard, dirty-blond un-style. Also, we’ll fit him with colored contacts to give him the icy blue eyes of the typical Viking.

Does that do it? Alright, then how about this: We’ll drag Tom Cruise face-down on a gravel path so his skin roughens up appropriately (I know what you were thinking… he’s “too pretty” to be convincing as a weather-worn, battle-scarred Viking who was never good-looking to begin with), and we’ll also give him a voice box transplant to replace his higher-pitched, bookish and slightly nasally voice with the deeper, quiet menace of the Viking’s voice – or at least what you’d imagine a Viking’s voice would sound like. Potentially thunderous, when needed, but not often needed. No need to talk much when you walk into a room and people instantly react to you because you’re, well, a Viking.

There!

What? After all that modification, you’re still saying “Tom Cruise is not a Viking?” That makes no sense at all, people. This is TOM CRUISE. He’s a great actor with years of experience making mega-millions at the box-office, guaranteed to deliver a cinematic hit! Oh, ye of no faith. Tom Cruise may be small, but he has massive star power. He may not be Mr. Universe, but he can carry this movie and the whole franchise, to boot. Give Cruise and the movie a chance. You might be surprised. Do I need to remind you that he’s not just any movie star, but an action movie star? TOM CRUISE IS A VIKING.

Right?

Now, replace “Viking” with “Reacher” in all of the above, and this is exactly where you arrive. At best, you’re still going to be scratching your head, thinking about it. No amount of “Give him a chance… size isn’t everything” is going to change the fact that Tom Cruise is not Jack Reacher, because even if we do forget about his size, there’s still a lot wrong with Cruise in this role.

Here’s an example of a well-known Reacherism: Mobility. Reacher walks a lot. Walking is his favorite mode of transportation. He walks almost as much as he drinks coffee, and that’s a lot. Second on his list, he takes the bus. Third, he hitch-hikes. And fourth, he takes the train.

Although Reacher can and does appropriate and drive whatever vehicle suits his needs at any given moment, it’s been firmly established that Reacher is not a driver. He dislikes driving, and he’s never had a civilian driver’s license. This is why Reacher fans know immediately that something is off when the first sound in the movie trailer is the gunning of a V-8 engine with the supposition that Reacher is behind the wheel. From that second on, the Reacher fan is thinking, “Wait! I thought this was a movie about Jack Reacher….?” Jack Reacher is not a driver.

So why do we have a movie called “Jack Reacher” with Tom Cruise agilely maneuvering a sports car around using every flashy show-off trick in his action-flick auto repertoire? Looks like Tom Cruise being Tom Cruise the Action Hero under the name of Jack Reacher. OH SHIT – Jack Reacher has been hijacked!!

That was the first part of my multi-tiered reaction to the movie trailer.

I found the trailer by accident. It was a thrilling little moment of discovery: YES! There’s a Jack Reacher movie!! I eagerly clicked to open the trailer, and I was instantly confused. I couldn’t find Reacher. All I saw was Tom Cruise. Once I understood that Cruise was supposed to be Reacher, I couldn’t believe it and kept looking around for the real Jack Reacher. (“Will the real Jack Reacher please stand up?” HA.) I remember thinking, “Okay, uhh… I see Tom Cruise acting tough and trying to sound threatening with his little round voice and looking sharp with his perfect hair and preppy outfit, but where is Reacher? OH… SHIT TOM CRUISE IS SUPPOSED TO BE JACK REACHER??” The trailer wound down to an end, and the final assault materialized before my eyes: the movie title “JACK REACHER” glowing in blue letters on the screen. Not only does Tom Cruise play Jack Reacher, but the film itself is called Jack Reacher. I went on Facebook and dashed out something that ended with *headdesk.* It felt like my fingers were throwing up.

Jack Reacher has a certain combat style, the central criteria being a massive physical form. In his case, size is not mere window-dressing, decorative and changeable according to whim. If it was, then sure, festoon Tom Cruise with a bunch of ribbons and bows and call it a day. In book after book, Jack Reacher the Pain Inflictor (if I may call him that – I like the way it rhymes, it’s corny and it sums him up) incapacitates and destroys his opponents using moves that would be physically impossible for a shorter-than-average man to perform.

In the first Jack Reacher book I ever read, Reacher “snaps forward from the waist” and head-butts two guys, one after the other, laying them out flat. The guys are described as “each about six-two and around two hundred or two hundred and ten pounds. They had long knotted arms and big hands. Work boots on their feet.” (The Affair) Hours later, after they regained consciousness, “Both of them had noses like spoiled eggplants. Both of them had two black eyes. Both of them had crusted blood on their lips.”

Sorry, Tom Cruise. You are not going to convince anyone that you can damage two big goons in this manner. Even with elevator risers in your shoes, you are not going to stand there and head-butt two guys who are 7-8 inches taller than you. That arrogant smirk on your face isn’t going to add to your credibility, either. The Tom Cruise smirk doesn’t call to mind the expression of quizzical bemusement that’s another Reacherism. It’s not ominous. There’s no gravity behind it. It’s just… the Tom Cruise smirk.

In the end, this casting is simply unfair. It’s asking too much of a Reacher fan to try to reconcile the profile of Jack Reacher with Tom Cruise. We’re not a tough crowd to please. We’re not looking for the “perfect” Jack Reacher actor, because we know that there’s no such thing. It’s just that as loyal fans, we would feel respected if an honest attempt had been made to cast an actor who could be more believable as Reacher, an actor who could better embody the essence of and maybe even slightly resemble the Reacher that has been constructed for us on the written page. I think there’s something to be said for a good effort to preserve the integrity of an artistic creation.

Unfortunately, no honest attempt at an appropriate casting took place here. After years of expressed interest in Jack Reacher, Tom Cruise bought the rights to the book (One Shot) and went ahead and produced it and starred in it. Author Lee Child, who at one point said that Tom Cruise was “way too short to play Reacher,” has since tap-danced all over the table justifying (yes, he does have to justify it – he owes it to his baffled million+ fan base, without whom he would have nothing) his approval with flimsy assertions like “No one else could do it” (really?) and “Reacher is a metaphor” (simultaneously evading the issue and elevating his work to a higher level of prose than the pulp fiction that it actually is, excellent though it may be).

Of course we Reacher fans are feeling ripped off getting Tom Cruise as Jack Reacher. (Or, shall I say, Tom Cruise instead of Jack Reacher.) How great would it have been to be able to anticipate this film, as so many fiction fans do when their favorite books are being adapted to film? Harry Potter fans got an amazing cast for their literary obsession. Hunger Games fans’ heroine Katniss was done justice by the brilliant Jennifer Lawrence. Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean works, I think; in his elaborate stage make-up, he is Jack Sparrow when you look at him, not Johnny Depp. But Jack Reacher? All anyone will see when they look there is Tom Cruise. No attempt was made to adapt his appearance to fit that of Reacher. It’s Mr. Clean-Cut Risky Business-As-Usual Cruise showing up to play the part of a hulking, Viking-like character. It’s a colossal disappointment for Reacher fans. An actor who would actually make sense in the role could’ve taken it and run with it all the way through the franchise. Jack Reacher would have his own face – not Tom Cruise’s.

So that’s why I’m not going to buy a ticket when Jack Reacher gets to France. I have no desire to watch Tom Cruise play himself in another Tom Cruise action movie, when what I want is to watch an actor playing Reacher in a Jack Reacher movie.

If I want to see Tom Cruise, I’ll rent Tropic Thunder again, or Jerry Maguire. See? I’m not a Tom Cruise hater. I’m just a person who loves Jack Reacher.

Make-Up? Big Ugly Deal!

For some reason, make-up bashing seems to be coming into vogue. Generally, I’m hearing things like “make-up is nonsense,” and its users are “superficial” or “high-maintenance.” We are reassured that we don’t need to wear make-up, so we shouldn’t worry about it. Of course, in our beauty-obsessed culture, it’s flattering to hear that we can bypass cosmetics because we look great the way we are. These are nice words to hear. But it’s also kind of a dubious compliment, when you think about it. It’s like, thank you for your approval of our un-made-up faces, because otherwise we’d think that we would, indeed, need to wear make-up. We would feel “naked” without it. And that’s terrible, right? It’s sad.

I love make-up. A lot of women do. We enjoy it. For many of us, wearing it isn’t a burden or an obligation to the beauty police of the world… putting it on is simply a part of our grooming and getting-ready-to-leave-the-house routines. In that sense, yes, we might feel naked without it, just as we’d feel naked without clothing. But what’s so sad about this? What’s the big deal about wearing make-up? What am I missing here?

True, it’s unfortunate that society often pressures women into believing that they need make-up in order to be pretty. I get that. No argument there. But can it be said that all women who wear make-up do so as a result of societal pressure? No. People have probably worn it long before Cleopatra came along with her dramatic, heavy eye make-up. And I’m pretty sure that Cleopatra didn’t wear make-up because she felt pressured by society.

This idea applies to other forms of body art. Think about tattoos! Tattoos have overcome years of negative association; they’re finally merging into a fashion realm approaching the mainstream to the point where tattoo intolerance is recognized as antiquated. Now why would anyone bother to understand the concept of creative self-expression behind tattooing, but profess to not understand the same of wearing make-up? They both qualify as body art. The only difference is that one is permanent, and the other isn’t.

Sure, we can look around and spot make-up that doesn’t appeal to us. No doubt there’s poorly applied make-up out there, too. We’ve all seen it. Likewise, we’ve seen tattoos that we wouldn’t choose for ourselves, or ones that are badly done. There are whole websites devoted to bad tattoos. Thing is, if you make a mistake with make-up, you can fix it. If you make a mistake with a tattoo, you’re stuck with it… unless you decide to have it removed, which is an excruciatingly painful experience, from what I understand. Make-up removal can be annoying, but the removal of a tattoo? Torturous. Time-consuming. Expensive. And it still looks like crap in the end. Maybe even worse, with the scar tissue that results.

The bottom line here, though, is that it’s our decision what make-up we wear and how we wear it, just as the tattoos we get is our choice (at the mercy of the tattooist doing the work). It’s not for us to criticize others for their personal aesthetic choices.

You know what’s sad to me? That those who decorate themselves with tattoos are still pressured – yes, by society – to cover up and hide their body art from certain people, in certain situations. Going on job interviews. Presenting yourself in other areas of the professional sphere. (We as a society still, for the most part, lag in the area of tattoo acceptance in the workplace. See the Facebook page of the same title.) Visiting with family members, potential future in-laws, your kid’s teachers, or the parents of your kid’s friends. And so on. How is this less “sad” than women feeling naked without make-up? It’s the same concept, but in reverse. Not all women feel like they “need” to wear make-up, but most people with tattoos feel that they ought to conceal them at times. We know that society can pressure us into not getting tattoos, but if we want them, we’re going to get them anyhow… because we like them. Because they make us feel good. Because they’re meaningful to us in some way. Because they’re art. Make-up, too, is an art. It’s is an art like any other art; it’s privy to subjectivity and open to personal interpretation and intention. People who apply it on others are called “make-up artists” for a reason.

Besides, make-up can be fun. Reaching beyond simple grooming and vanity, make-up is fantasy. In one way or another, everyone likes to play make-believe every once in a while. It’s a step above a daydream to feel like you’re transforming yourself, not because you don’t like who you are, but because doing so momentarily releases you from the worries that contribute to the shape of you. This is what many people find so compelling about reading novels… losing yourself in a story is a harmless form of escapism. Make-up can also make us feel liberated. It’s hard to feel imprisoned when slipping deliciously into a persona of our own creation. It’s hard to feel imposed upon when we use make-up to achieve the look we want, whether that happens to be in an enhancement capacity, or a theatrical one, or anything else.

Make-up can also serve as a powerful tool in our overall well-being. This is a documented fact: if we see the dark circles and bags under our eyes, we can end up feeling more tired than we actually are. Make-up can give us a mental and psychological boost, which can make us feel more physically vibrant. There’s something to be said for the adage “The mind is more powerful than the body.” When we look less tired, we feel less tired. When we feel less tired, we feel less old. Feeling less old means feeling more energetic. I fully believe that the younger we look, the younger we feel.

This reminds me of Coco Chanel, who said, “When you give women back their mystery, you give them back their youth.”

Mystery! The inexplicable, incomprehensible sparking of excitement and wonder and curiosity, the stirring by surprise… make-up can create a mysterious vibe if we want it to. Awesome, right? Make-up can be magical. Probably no one knew this better than Cleopatra herself.

Anyway, I’m not sure how make-up got its bad rap of being pointless, silly, frivolous, or extraneous. It doesn’t make sense to me.

When I put on make-up, I come out looking the way I want to look, not how others want me to look. I don’t need anyone’s implicit permission to go without it. I appreciate the compliments on my natural beauty, but I don’t need or want to be saved from spending time, effort and money on make-up.

I have to wonder whether Mark Antony ever told Cleopatra that he preferred her without make-up.

You know what I think we should do with cosmetics? Whatever we want. If you want to wear make-up, then wear it. If you don’t want to, then don’t. It doesn’t matter either way, because beauty isn’t about what’s on your face, and neither is your self-worth. We shouldn’t feel apologetic for wearing make-up or not wearing it. What we do with our faces is no one’s concern but our own.