For all the boys who called me “exotic”

I had heard it enough to know you meant:

That I was desirable so long as I was shrouded in that cloud of mystique
(which was mostly just the fog in your eyes
but I didn’t have the heart to point out the difference)

And your foggy eyes lit up when you saw in me
Some alien freak here to show you a whole new #$@%ing world
So I tried to say that I’m really from this planet
And you’re not really the center of it
And between the deadness of Venus and Mars
We’re all life on Earth just trying to make it

But as you looked down to Earth
All you could see
Was some exotic fruit here for your consumption
To suck on the flesh and throw out the core


Despite my best efforts, I seem to have become one of those people who writes emotional poetry on the internet. Oh well. 

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A Brief Demographics Survey

Select the option that best describes you. It’s for diversity or advertising or something.

 

Note: I think this is easier to answer than most demographics surveys. I mean, potato sack, duh.

 

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.”

Other People’s Words

Do you ever feel like real life gives sitcom writers some serious competition? Some things I’ve overheard in the past week:

In my dorm lobby:
Guy 1: Do you know when Halloween is this year?
Guy 2: Dude, it’s just the same day every year.
Guy 1: Naw, I would have noticed that by now.

The people eating next to me:
Guy: so I’ve seen you around a lot. Tell me a little about yourself.
Girl: let me recite a poem for you.
*Begins to whisper a sonnet*

Lobby:
Guy 1: So you’re like 75% straight?
Guy 2: Woah, too many significant figures.
Guy 1: 80?

Not that living people have a monopoly on “didn’t expect to hear that there” moments. From Saint Augustine’s City of God:

“Such people can do some things with their body which are for others utterly impossible and well-nigh incredible when they are reported. Some people can even move their ears, either one at a time or both together. Others without moving the head can bring the whole scalp – all the part covered with hair – down towards the forehead and bring it back again at will . . .  A number of people produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region” (14.24).

I guess this is what they meant by liberal arts education . . .

The Art of Over-Interpretation: Grease

Why do people go to fancy shmancy liberal arts schools? So they can read too much into things. Like this:

Yesterday (after we realized that there were no new/decent shows to watch on Hulu) my parents and I decided to watch Grease on Netflix. You know when you are really familiar with a classic movie because you’ve seen remakes and references everywhere, but you realize that you’ve never actually watched it? While I’ve seen this movie before, it was too long ago for me to have picked up on anything besides the songs (but I really know the songs) so this was, in a sense, my first real exposure.

My reaction:

Me: Well that made High School Musical seem low-key and subtle. But I didn’t remember it being so dark and satirical. I thought the social commentary was interesting. 

Mom: The what?

Me: It takes the typical, romanticized notion of the 50s as a “simpler, more innocent” time in our country’s history and turns it on it’s head, showing a darker, grittier, almost socially dystopian* world alongside the nostalgic imagery.

There’s sexuality which is not only overtly expressed and reckless beyond expectations of “innocence” or respectability, but also grossly violent on the male end. Double standards for male and female sexual expression (slut versus stud) are blown up and clearly juxtaposed. Relationships based on mutual disrespect and power struggles are seen as normal. The ridiculous amount of conformity seems to make everybody into a fairly awful person. And it says something the most seemingly healthy/cute/romantic relationship occurs in the first five minutes when the couple is removed from society–lets not forget that Sandy didn’t “have” to change to be with Danny until their social environment and expectations ruined everything. And those dance moves. They clearly can’t be serious about those dance moves.

(Now maybe audiences were supposed to see all of that stuff as normal/okay (gag), but it all just seemed so exaggerated and contrasting with typical idealized depictions that I was sure someone was trying to make a point.)

It’s saying that the past, despite the cutsy soda shops and sock hops, isn’t this perfect, sunshiny place that most retro films/shows liked to imagine it as, and aiming to return to the past isn’t really a way to fix contemporary problems.

On the other hand, they have school dances where people actually dance, which is pretty awesome.

Mom: No, I think it was just supposed to be fun.

Me: So they actually meant all of that earnestly?

Mom: Yeah.

Me: Oh. Well then it’s just pretty dumb.

What about the dance moves? Did people ever dance like that un-ironically?

Mom: Yeah.

Googling didn’t provide much in the way of support for my social commentary theories either**.

Come on people, is anyone with me? No? I’m just making stuff up again?

Yes, I know my contemporary perspective is different than that of the intended audience. But really, how can you listen to this and then this (Rizzo’s two main songs) and not think that someone was deliberately trying to make a really obvious display of the Virgin/Whore dichotomy for female sexuality, how it hurts women/girls on either side of the divide, and how the same women who help perpetuate these standards can also suffer from them.

No? We’re just supposed to overlook that?

Oh. Well at least the songs are catchy. 

*Slightly stronger word than I meant, but you get the point. Also, yes, I did just use the word “dystopian” to talk about Grease. You’re allowed to laugh.

**Another interesting fact I learned while Googling is that this movie was originally rated PG. Now, there was no PG13 rating at the time, so it was either that or R, but still, imagine these lyrics in a a PG movie today. It’s funny, people think of shows like Glee as being pretty racy, but when they do Grease covers, they have to tone down the explicit content a lot. What were we saying about a simpler past and recent moral decay?

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!