You ask me to bring my whole self into the room

You ask me to bring my whole self into the room,
and I wonder if you know what you’re asking for. 

See, some parts of myself haven’t spoken to each other in years.
Some parts have yet to meet, and fear the day they will.

You hardly seem prepared for that kind of reunion.

Some parts only emerge from their shells to the call of their kind.
(They’re adapted to survive that way.)

To pry them open for your viewing would be death.

Some parts of me aren’t made for rooms like this.
They’d scratch up the floor with their jittering claws,
Dent the ceiling as they leap too high,
Fill the space with unruly screeches,
Until you’re sorry you invited them in.

And maybe my self isn’t a whole,
but merely a part–
a part of many
that is fully alive only when rooted into those circles and lineages

that have shaped and are shaped by it–
So no:
It can’t really live as an uprooted centerpiece at your table. 

You tell me to bring my whole self into the room,
and I wonder:

What do you think you’ve done for me
that I owe you such an impossible feat?

Philosophy Majors Run Tech Support (Part 1)

Customer: My computer has started running way too slow and I don’t know why.

Tech Support: How does one know what is “too slow?”

C: Well, when I tried to open my email client the other day, it stalled for–

TS: How can you be sure that it is the computer? Perhaps it is your expectations that are running too fast. Or your subjective perception of time that is running too slow.

And, of course, what defines the limits of appropriate speed? Perhaps this circumstance is an exercise in patience. Because what is true patience but the willingness to accept any arrangement of events in time as it appears, without pre-attachment to one possible arrangement over another?


C: I think I’ve been hacked, and I’m concerned about having my identity stolen. The other day when I was checking my bank–

TS: Identity theft? Do you see where you’ve been mistaken?

C: Um, well sometimes I use non-secure wi-fi, and–

TS: You believed that your identity was yours to take. That it was something fixed and distinct that you could outline and contain, never infliltrated by the other voices that cross it, never molding to its present surroundings, always distinguishable from the environment in which it grew.

Some say that property is theft. By that standard, the very act of claiming your identity as your property can only described as identity theft, stealing that persona away from the surrounding world which continuously recreates and reabsorbs it in the everyday microdynamics of social exchange.


C: I’ve heard this isn’t regular tech support, so I thought I’d ask: What’s the meaning of life?

TS: Um . . . *Checks manual* Have you tried turning it off and then on aga–wait, wrong page.

 

Bad Language: French Edition

I’ve talked a bit a before about being  bad at Arabic. Well I’m even worse at French:

Growing up, French was what my parents used to speak to each other when they didn’t want me and my sister to understand.

My parents may be your usual semi-French-educated Lebanese trilingual bosses (being good at lots of languages is kind of like the consolation prize for colonialism), but I’ve never delved into French myself much beyond the likes of pliépirouette, and croissant. 

Sure, multilingual childrearing might trendy now (well, especially if you’re white and American and not scrutinized for your English abilities), but I guess it was considered less impressive back then when your kid goes to preschool and starts asking for “ماء.” My parents decided that two languages would be a reasonable compromise, and I picked up about 1.4 of them.

So the majority of my French experience was listening in for the words “les enfants,” so that I could scream “Hey, stop talking about me!”

You might expect that this would have motivated me to actually learn some French. Then again, you might also expect that planning for a month-long program in Paris this year would have motivated me to learn French. Unfortunately, my motivation has failed to live up to the expectations of the hypothetical second person in both cases.

Over winter break, I decided I was going to learn French online and downloaded Duolingo. After I learned how to greet people and ask for various food items, it told me that I was “3% fluent,” which made me feel so good about myself that I decided to take a little break–which grew up into a full-grown break. To rub it in, they still send me emails about how I haven’t done my 15 minute daily practice.

Now, in some respects, I guess I wasn’t as unprepared as I thought. As worried as I was about taking dance classes in French, ballet vocabulary has equipped me with a large supply of action verbs (albeit mis-conjugated and squeezed through the filter of every American dialect you can think of), and the tendency for dance instructors to be physical in their corrections and repeat things a lot comes in handy. As a result, I’ve developed a pretty detailed vocabulary of French anatomical terms and breath-related words in the past few weeks.

But speaking is another story–ask me to say these things out loud and I might end up choking on a guttural “R” until some gracious soul saves me with “Anglais?”

Of course, I never had that much cause for concern, knowing that tons of people speak English here. But what could be more obnoxiously stereotypical than an American tourist going around automatically expecting everyone to speak English to them? I promised myself that I would at least use enough of my memorized phrases to look like I was making some kind of effort.

That plan kind of went out the window as soon as I stepped off the plane. After 12 hour flight and a 2-hour delay that had me missing the group shuttle and trying to figure out how to get to my dorm, my ineffective je voudrais‘s dissolved pretty quickly into “Where can I get a Taxi?!” At least it worked.

“Only English?” the cab driver asked me.

I nodded, aware of how painfully stereotypical I must seem.

His English was pretty minimal, but better than my French, and enough pull our conversation through “Where are you going?” (15th arrondissement) and “Where are you from?” (California?)

He looked at me “But you’re not really, completely American, no? Where you from?”

Ah, I sighed, sounds just like home. 

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Dancing with Nietzsche: “The Deed is Everything”

“There is no ‘being’ behind the doing, effecting, becoming.’The doer’ is merely a fiction added to the deed – the deed is everything.”

–Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morals*

You know that feeling when you read something that resonates through you with this funny sense of being both mind-blowing and intuitively real–like it hit something you didn’t quite know you already knew? This line did that for me the first time I read it, though it took a while for me to put a finger on why. It’s an idea that has a lot of implications in relation to modern philosophy and identity politics, but I think it especially clicked for me because of my experience as a dancer.

To most people, a world of all verbs and no nouns might seem like an interesting mind trip, but but too abstract to matter to practical reality. For dancers, it can describe the economics of our profession.

For the most part, all that we create, all that we sell, all that we build our lives around is doing. A dance piece or performance can be referred to as a “product,” but only metaphorically: ultimately, it only exist as long as there are living people doing actions in the moment.

The identity is just as alive and fleeting as the creation. You say “I am a dancer” not because you have achieved a status, reached a certain level, earned a degree, or signed a contract, but because you are dancing today, tomorrow, and into the foreseeable future. And increasingly, being a “professional dancer” is meaning less and less of having a stable, static company position and title, and more of going out there day after day to find a new job to take, a new dance to do so that you can keep on being.

And it’s not just a theory. The statement comes with a driving imperative: Don’t stop moving. Don’t stop doing. Because if I stopped doing, what would I be?

If I’m not dancing, could I still be a dancer? Could I still be me?

(These questions hit particularly hard when I’m on a forced break from dance–and I’m sure they hit harder for dancers approaching a career transition.)

The nice answer is yes, that my experiences have shaped me and inform any future path, and that once a dancer is always a dancer, and that who I am as a person is not defined by any pursuit or activity.

I try to believe that–and I do, sometimes, somewhat. But if I’m being completely honest, part of me is not so sure. Because so much of what it means to be me, to really live as myself, has been experienced in the action–in the daily rituals, the gestures, the sense of exertion and the electrifying sensation of being alive that comes with it. And if that stopped . . . well, I don’t think I would be nothing, but I wonder if I might unavoidably be less in some way.

And I really don’t know what the answer to that is. So I just keep on doing. 

*Note: Like a lot of Nietzsche, I like this quote way better out of the context, which is pro-oppression and bleh.

(Nietzsche was really into dance though.)

Identity, Labels, and the Rectangular Approximation Method (What?)

Major dorkitude alert: may bring back unpleasant memories of high school calculus.

In the category of conversations I manage to have:

(Referring to an increasing number of words used to talk about gender, sexuality, and such). “Why do people need all these labels? Why can’t we all just be people? I thought the point was to not put people into boxes.”

Me: “But in a way, having a ton of labels is kind of like having no labels.”

“How?”

Me: “It’s . . . it’s like the rectangular approximation method.”

“What?”

Me: “You know, from calc, where you use rectangles to approximate an integral. You want to use boxes to represent this weirdly shaped area, and it’s never going to be quite right, but the more boxes you use, the closer it gets to the real thing.”

Okay, let me try to explain what I was getting at.

So lets say this area under the curve represents the actual spectrum of people’s experiences. It’s complicated and funky-shaped (and really it should probably have at least 6 dimensions, but I can’t draw that). If we had an equation that represented the true shape of the graph we could do an integral to find the area, but we don’t, so we can’t.

Untitled drawing (1)

Instead, we have to do the next best thing we can and approximate by using boxy rectangles, which are a pretty good parallel for language. These boxes can never fully and accurately encompass what they are trying to describe. Some stuff parts get exaggerated, some stuff just gets left out entirely, and the complexity of the shape gets lost. But we try.

Untitled drawing (3)

Now we can also change the number of boxes. Having just a couple is a pretty grossly inaccurate representation of the shape and a lot gets excluded.

Untitled drawing (2)

But adding more boxes, which are more specific and varied, makes it more inclusive and closer to reality.

Untitled drawing (4)

Of course it will never be a perfect representation of the real thing unless you have infinite boxes. I think language always fails to fully capture reality–but each expansion of language gives us the option of failing a little closer to the target.

Like this


Side note: do all the people who say “who needs labels anyway” in response to other people’s identities actually think that everyone should stop using words to describe experiences? Because I would actually be totally down with a system in which everyone has to describe themselves through interpretive dance.

Side note 2: I think the new answer to “when are we going to use math anyway?” should be “to come up with strange and dorky metaphors for identity and language.”

It’s Not You, It’s Society: “It’s Just a Phase”

“It’s not you, it’s society” is a series of rants about socially acceptable and polite comments that bother me. Read more here.

“It’s just a phase.”

I’m sure you’ve heard it before. It’s a common way to dismiss some aspect of a person’s identity or life that you don’t want to acknowledge, while claiming to know that person better than they know themself. It can refer to sexuality, gender identity, interests, career aspirations, political/religious beliefs, and basically anything else. Younger people tend get it a lot.

Usually, people defend themselves by trying to prove that the aforementioned quality is not a temporary phase and is instead a permanent part of who they are. This is completely valid and I have done it in more than one context, BUT I also believe that no one should ever even have to make that argument because the entire idea behind “it’s just a phase” is really an awful and illogical reason to trivialize someone’s identity, experiences, or desires.

Like this guy.

The assumption is that whatever someone is right now is more of an transient experience on the way to becoming the fully-fledged, real, predestined, unchanging “true” self. They’re more of a pre-person than an actual current human being.

But when exactly do people turn into their “real” self instead of some less-real self-in-transition. When they’re 30? 40? When they completely stop changing? For how long? 5 years? 20 years? Forever?

If we’re going to take those standards to their logical extension, pretty much nothing is real. Imagine these conversations:

  • Yeah, he retired from his hospital job. He always told me he was a doctor, but I guess he was just going through a 40-year “practicing medicine” phase.
  • At 90, he doesn’t seem to be into women in the same way he used to be. I guess he was just going through a 80-year heterosexual phase.
It's okay, we all go through hetero phases.

It’s okay, we all go through hetero phases.

  • Turns out she’s dead now. I knew she was just going through a little “alive” phase.
This guy knows.

This guy knows it.

Sorry, was that last one too morbid? But lets be real, the only permanent state in human existence is death (maybe–even that one is arguable). If we’re going to use permanence as the golden standard of legitimacy and “realness,” we’re left with a very narrow and pretty depressing view of reality.

Of course, no one claiming “it’s just a phase” actually comes to this conclusion because they don’t actually apply that permanence standard universally. It’s not exactly a coincidence that people only declare qualities that they dislike or don’t understand to be “phases” while automatically assuming qualities they like or identify with to be legitimate. Since we’ve established that permanence isn’t an actual thing, can we agree that “it’s a phase” is just a method of dismissing a present reality that you don’t like/understand by assigning more legitimacy to an imagined future which you like better?

So, yes it may be very likely that “it” (what ever it may be) is actually not a phase (relative to a person’s life span, anyway). But so what if it was? Even then, it still wouldn’t be “just” a phase. People have every right to go through phases, because humans are living, breathing, dynamic beings who are don’t have to be the same people today as we will be tomorrow to prove that we exist.

If phases aren’t real and important . . . what is?

So go along with your little “living” phase and make it as real and fabulous as you want to, without challenging the existence of anyone else’s. Have fun!

Empty Rooms

So I just tied up the ends of my first year of college. I’ll be posting some updates about how my last week went, along with some end-of-year reflection stuff, but today I just want to talk about empty rooms.

I finally cleaned out all of my stuff from my dorm room and it looked like this: Image

It was creepy. Dead. Like I never lived there. Like maybe every experience and lesson I discovered this year was erasable: not part of some building process toward the greater adult me that I like to think it is, but just another point in a sequence of transient moments.

People usually create a visible mark of their persona on the space they inhabit. For a lot of my friends, this mark was deliberately crafted. Their walls were plastered with collages of posters, maps, and photos they brought from home, along with beautiful arrangements of signs and programs from every campus event they have attended. From the day they moved in, turning their walIs into agentive artistic expressions of their interests and experiences was the way they made their dorm rooms feel like home.

I admired this approach, but it wasn’t me. For an artsy person, I’m quite a functionalist (or just lazy?) when it comes to living spaces. I made myself feel at home in my space not by decorating it, but by simply living in it. I never put up any posters or photos and I barely bought any additional room supplies. I just got enough containers to store my clothes and textbooks and started going.

So my personal mark on the space still happened, but it was in a less intentional, organized, and pretty way. It happened in the form of ever-accumulating stacks of printed readings and graded papers on my desk, which I told myself I would get rid of after that stream of late-night papers ended (never). It happened in the form of the pile of dead pointe shoes collected under my bed, which I couldn’t bring myself to throw away, rationalizing that maybe they weren’t really totally dead (though I no longer wanted to wear them in class) or that maybe someone would want pointe shoes for a recycled art project (hey, it has happened before). It happened in the form of some stray gum wrappers sprinkled around my shelves from when the rate of my stress-chewing was faster than my ability to reach the trash can. It happened in the form of the cards, d(r)yng flowers, and decorated post-it notes from my friends which I stacked on my windowsill, gestures that I treasured, though didn’t reciprocate quite as often as I should have. It happened in the form of a little stray glitter from one of those cards, dispersed across my desk and floor, which I didn’t pick up both because that would require effort and because I found it sort of magical.

My visible identity in the room, the imprint of me, then, wasn’t something I carefully constructed, but instead the semi-neglected extras of my life, the things that happened to me while I was too busy doing more “important” things to clean them up. And for me, that was sort of perfect.

Isn’t real life what happens in those messy, forgotten, in-between spaces? 

But then I killed this spatial self in a few hours as I packed my things away. Since my school papers had not yet had time to collect sentimental valus, I was able to toss them without much extra thought. I stripped the shoes of their ribbons and threw them away. I saved the notes and cards in a folder. I swept up any stray trash, packed up my clothes and textbooks, and left.

And now it’s just a generic empty room, like I never happened. A blank room waiting for someone to happen to it, waiting to turn into someone.