Virgin's Guide to Burning Man

A Virgin's Guide to Burning Man can be found here.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Tick Tock

My Cousin Vinny/My biological clock is ticking like this...

Walking down State Street today, I came across a woman with the small, but distinct bump of pregnancy and I felt a pang. Pow! Just like that, I wanted to be her. Just for a moment.

Lately, I have found myself occasionally imagining what it would be like to be pregnant. I rub my belly lovingly as if there were a tiny little burgeoning being in there. I see cute little toddlers waddling and can't wipe the silly grin off my face (and no, I'm not the type to think all kids are cute). I have a soft spot in my heart for tiny little baby booties, and I go nuts buying up all the adorable little clothes for my nieces and my friend's baby boy. And even more recently, I have started wanting that feeling of excitement at being preggers, feeling the flutter in my belly, watching the little lovely alien in the sonogram, and counting little fingers and toes too tiny to be real.

I don't actually want kids--not yet. The thought of dealing with a child screaming in the store, sticky fingers all over my things, changing diapers, and feeding someone who thinks food belongs anywhere but in their mouth makes me cringe. I have been married less than a year and I LOVE life with just the two of us. I love that we can travel without too much hassle. I love that we can go to the movies--or do anything we want--on the spur of the moment. I love that our home is peaceful and quiet. I love knowing there is a possibility we might just up and move to a foreign country--that we can take the opportunity of a lifetime at the drop of a hat and not have to worry about the needs of a child. And I'm not ready to give that up yet. Much to the relief of my husband.

But my biological clock is quietly ticking away, and the pang I felt today was like the first alarm going off in the morning before you groggily slap it off. I hope it'll be a few years yet before it becomes insistent, demanding and all pervasive, à la Marisa Tomei's in My Cousin Vinny. (God I love that scene.) In the meantime, I will willfully keep hitting the snooze button.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Book Review

by Russell Whitfield, 2008
"In the arenas of Ancient Rome, the ultimate female warrior is born"

I went to Borders bookstore in search of historical fiction to get a sense of what the market in that area looked like. I especially hoped to find novels focusing on Ancient Greece, but alas, to my dismay there were none. Almost all the historical fiction I saw dealt primarily with European history--and medieval European history at that. We seem obsessed, as a culture, with the stories of kings and queens, emperors and the upper crust. I saw little, if any, stories about regular people and every day lives, as if somehow human struggles and daily toils do not transcend time. And what I saw of ancient times dealt almost exclusively with Rome (with one or two exceptions focusing on the likes of Genghis Khan). It's as if the Romans stole everything from the Greeks and we all decided the thieves were more interesting than the creators. Perhaps because they were marginally bloodier with all the sex still intact. It seems only philosophers in the ivory tower of academia bother themselves with Socrates and Plato and their ilk.

But I digress.

I saw Gladiatrix and seized upon it, grateful to find a book that, if set in ancient Rome, at least had a protagonist from ancient Greece. Albeit Spartans were a special breed of Hellenic folk, but at least one could say Greek characters appeared in the book.

Overall, I found the book an entertaining read, full of lively characters, vivid battle scenes and a good plot of a woman's struggle for freedom. The heroine, Lysandra, is strong and noble, even if a bit arrogant. In real life, I find people with too much ego obnoxious, but in Lysandra I found it gave her character a bit of spice. Instead of being annoyed, I found myself smiling indulgently at her like a parent might smile at an overly precocious child's attempts at profundity and pat them on the head.

What I especially appreciated about the book was its attempt to break down borders of traditional fiction in a way that was entertaining and less overtly activist. It dealt with issues of ethnicity, gender, class, homosexuality and human nature but it didn't bludgeon the reader over the head with it. A lot of breakthrough fiction deals with these issues more overtly--and that is important and good to force readers to think about issues and perspectives they may not have thought of before or may not have wanted to think of. But it's also nice to have a book that weaves these themes in so unselfconsciously you almost don't even notice they're there. You identify with the protagonist's point of view before you even realize you might be uncomfortable with it. I think that might be a very powerful way to advance more activist causes and still entertain while you're doing it.

However, what I did find less than fulfilling was the book's treatment of the sexual relationships between the gladiatrices. I think it's fantastic the author attempted to deal with it and treat it just like we would read heterosexual encounters in romance and literary fiction. But there is something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. It could be that because I knew the author was male, my perceptions were colored perhaps unfairly. But to me, it read a bit more like an adolescent male's wet dream of two women oiled up for battle rubbing each other in explicit and lascivious ways. The only thing I can imagine that he could have done to lend that part of the story a little more emotional credibility (maybe especially for his female audience) is to delve a bit more into the characters' relationship, especially between Lysandra and Eirianwen. Why did they love each other? What attracted them beyond the physical? There is clearly a strong and deep emotional attachment between the two, but why? Perhaps in delving more deeply into their love, the author can strengthen his treatment of their loving.

Overall, the book is entertaining and satisfying in the end and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good summer or lazy Sunday read.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

A Shift in Generations

What did you want to be when you grew up, before you grew up? I remember when I was a kid (ten to twenty years ago) it seemed that people used to dream big about professional careers. Everyone wanted to be doctors, lawyers, scientists or high-powered executives. After about the age of 5 or 6, nobody really dreamed of being bakers, poets, or carpenters.

Now it seems to be less true. We've all heard stories about highly-paid, highly professional bankers or marketing executives who, mid-career, get disillusioned by the whole deal and suddenly quit the rat race. They leave their jobs, uproot their lives and move to the south of Spain and start all over as a florist. Or they paint. Or they write. They do something they've always wanted to do and never did because they were so consumed before by the paycheck at the end of the day. But now, instead of individuals, it seems like an entire generation is becoming disillusioned and making that shift.

It seems now, that instead of dreaming big about making their mark as elite doctors, lawyers and executives, people are dreaming big about freelancing, opening their own B&Bs or restaurants, setting up their own studios and becoming yoga instructors. Instead of wanting to be politicians and veterinarians, people dream of being firemen and dancers. Instead of managing teams in established industries, people are dreaming of ways to make smaller, yet more unique, imprints on the world.

In a way, I wonder if it's a sign of the times, the reckless consumption and drive for money of the 80s and 90s being tempered by people of the new millenium questioning themselves about what they really want in life. Do they really want the bigger home or do they want to have more vacation time with their loved ones? What makes them really happy: the size of their 401(k)s or the chance to try something they've always wanted to do? People are taking stock, and maybe some are deciding that when push comes to shove quality of life is outweighing quantity in life.

In that sense, maybe some good can come out of this economic downturn. I hear that many people, now faced with unemployment, are taking the opportunity to pursue higher education and degrees they've always wanted to have but, for whatever reason, never had the chance to pursue before. People are branching out and trying new things in an effort to pay the rent and keep busy. But they would never have put themselves out there if they hadn't lost that crappy, but stable job with the decent pay. It's of course idealistic to think a surprise happy ending will come out of all, or even most, of the layoffs, but it would be nice to know if the innovative, entrepreneurial spirit is being revitalized. I wonder what it would mean for our economy (and perhaps general health) if people relied less on mega corporations and started afresh at the grassroots.

So of course my observation is in no way based on any empirical, scientific evidence, and perhaps is even wildly skewed given my present location. We all know the dangers of extrapolating from a non-random sample! But what if it were true? What if we saw significant shifts in how people thought about their careers and desires in life? What kind of changes would we see?

Monday, April 27, 2009

My Closest Friends Are All Far Away

There is something indescribably wonderful about having friends with whom, no matter how close or far away, no matter how much time has passed, you can always pick up the threads as if you were never apart.

This weekend I spent time with some of my closest friends. I haven't seen them in almost a year, yet when I am with them, it is almost like it was only yesterday we last saw each other. We can laugh and joke and fall into an easy rhythm. There are no awkward silences because you love each other so much, just being with each other is enough. You talk about the big things, you talk about the little, insignificant things and all of it is important and meaningful--something to remember.

And who knows where we all shall go? Some may fly off to foreign lands, some moving for career opportunities, and some finding their home in which to settle down. No matter where our paths will lead, there is never good-bye because we know we will always find ways to touch base, to reconnect and pick up as if we never left off.

There is something so indescribably comfortable and sweet in that.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Art of Flattery

Confessions of a Socially Awkward Grad Student

If there is anything I fail miserably at doing, it is receiving compliments gracefully. Compliments make me nervous. Effuse praise makes me positively wish to flee. I feel as if I am thrust up on stage and I don't know my lines. The audience is waiting and all I can do is draw a blank.

I used to try the whole deflection routine. You know, the one where you tell the flatterer that they're totally wrong.
FRIEND: Your hair is lovely today!
ME: Ugh, no. I had to scream at it for hours this morning to make it stay.
FRIEND: looks very nice.
ME: No it doesn't. I hate my hair.
And therefore, Friend has poor taste. Way to reward a compliment with an insult.

So I discover that tactic is not modesty so much as rudeness. Advice columns suggest instead just saying “Thank you” warmly. I try that, but the “Thank you” inevitably precedes a big, empty space in the conversation. A pregnant pause where it feels like the other person is always waiting for something and I always struggle to close the gap.
FRIEND: You did an awesome job on that article!
ME: [smile warmly] Thank you!
ME: [grinning wider to stave off nerves] about this crazy weather we're having?
Ugh. Awkwardness galore. Plus I just feel immodest. I try to send a grateful smile, and feel I just come off looking smug.

Then I get to thinking: what if I follow up the compliment with another compliment?
FRIEND: Hey, cute dress!
ME: Aww, thank you! That's very kind of you to say (Bing! Compliment 1!). I really like your shoes (Bing! Compliment 2!)
FRIEND: Oh really? Thank you, I... (And SCORE! Attention effectively diverted and friend feels good.)
Fantastic plan, right? Except sometimes I am caught off guard and don't have a genuine compliment handy. Not because I don't like the person, but just because all I can think to offer as a compliment would be something stupid to say in that moment. Like when they've complimented your new coat and you look at them to compliment an article of their clothing and they're wearing the same outfit they've worn once a week for the past year. So what do you say? “I like your...eyes”? “Oh that sweater always looks good on you”? If you're lucky they take the compliment, but to my ears it sounds trite and disingenuous. Even if I genuinely mean it, it comes off sounding like I only said it because they complimented me.

Thus my only option left is to compliment first. So what is it now? A war of the compliments, where you hope to pre-emptively compliment and hope your companion doesn't have second-strike capabilities? First one to strike wins?

I have only met a couple of people in my life who roll off geniune compliments so easily, I feel completely comfortable in their presence. There is no pregnant pause, no awkward silences because they're not waiting for a response. They're not waiting to be complimented in return, or congratulated for their own kind words. And I find it so easy to compliment them because there are no expectations. They say thank you warmly and the conversation moves on effortlessly. And I can give a sigh of blessed relief. All relationships should be so easy.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Emotion in the Public Sphere

I just heard (yet another) fantastic discussion on NPR on the US's use of torture as an interrogation technique. The commentator, who argued that torture is not justified and punishment should lay on the heads of the top policymakers who sanctioned the abuses in the first place, (I'm sorry I missed his name, I only caught 10 minutes of the segment) was very erudite and polite in his arguments and gracious in receiving criticism. In the spirit of full disclosure, I agree whole-heartedly with his arguments. The commentary which follows addresses things his critics have called in to say and I wish to take issue with these comments, not because I disagree with their argument, but because I find fault with the presentation of their arguments—or the reasons they provided. If someone had called in using emotion in the same way to support the commentator's argument, I would find fault with that as well.

Argument #1: “I'm sick and tired of you Europeans coming here and criticizing America.”
So the commentator had a British accent, but as he so eloquently pointed out, he too has a stake in the issue. His family is fully American, he was there on 9-11, people he knew died in the 9-11 attacks, etc., etc. The point is: don't assume that because you know one bit about a person that you know what their entire life has been.
But more than that, 9-11, the War on Terror, wars abroad and American responses are global issues. We are not some backwater country living in isolation. Our actions (as a global leader, if you will) have global effects. We're not talking about some domestic issue like the death penalty or legalizing abortions. We're talking about issues that have repercussions and consequences worldwide. Other countries have a stake in these issues as well, and therefore have a right to participate in the discussion, even if we don't like what they have to say.

Argument #2: “Where is your anger?”, implying that if you were truly angry you'd agree torture is necessary. But since you're a cold SOB, your point of view is invalid.
Commentator's response: He is deeply angry but also passionate about the values that America and democracies in general uphold. He argues we must stick to our values because it is our values that sets us apart from the terrorists. It's the fact that we have a judicial system instead of beheadings that makes America great and resorting to the other side's tactics reduces us.
Hear, hear I say! But I would like to add to that and question the caller. When has anger ever led to wise decisions? We do stupid things, things we regret, when we are angry. When have you ever heard of anger leading to wisdom? (Except by way of a mistake and lesson learned.)
[As a side note, it always amazes me that some of the very same people who will argue until they're blue in the face that America is great because of the liberties it provides are also the very people who are so quick to abandon those liberties whenever it suits them—in this case, presumably because they're angry. But maybe I am wrong? Maybe they believe in liberty but not equality? Or maybe they just think the principles sound good in the abstract, but don't believe in them in real life.]

Argument #3: “Even presented with evidence that torture doesn't work and has negative consequences, I still think we should engage in torture. Because I have family fighting over there and that's just how I feel.”
The commentator said he respected this woman's viewpoint and thanked her for airing her views. But I take umbrage at this kind of argument. I will say that there are valid reasons for her viewpoint even if she didn't express them and even if I may disagree with them at the end of the day. But I take issue with the notion that in discourse people can fall back on their emotions as a substitute for reasoned argumentation. Don't get me wrong. I believe emotions DO have a role in public discourse. They help mobilize and inspire people in ways that logic and reason perhaps cannot. They demonstrate intensity in ways that hard facts or numbers cannot. Very few people can argue completely without some emotion, and I don't think people or their viewpoints should be excluded because they are emotional. But I disagree entirely when people resort to their emotions because their arguments are flawed and they let emotions supercede reasoned debate.

I understand this woman's point of view and have had to think long and hard about the justifications for torture before finally coming to my decision on where I stand. But instead of arguing she supports the use of torture just because that's the way she feels, I think the more appropriate response would be for her to examine her feelings on the subject and figure out why, even presented with evidence that torture tactics are not only useless but harmful, she feels they are justified. Is she seeking revenge? Does she think that even if 99% of the time it doesn't work, innocent people are tortured, and it causes the growth of more terrorism, that the 1% of the time it might work is worth all the risk involved? If so, why? Is there something else going on? Is there a better way to address her core concerns? If that is really her root viewpoint, she should learn to express that. If not, maybe her reaction is just knee-jerk and should be re-examined.

So, issue of torture aside, what role should emotion play in public discourse? Can there be guidelines for its use? When is the use of emotion in an argument or discussion helpful, and when does it obfuscate the point? Are there points where emotion can actually hinder good policy making?

10 Habits of Highly Effective Fat People

And I say this as one who has looked in the mirror and saw someone roughly approaching the circumference of Chicago staring back at her.

1. Offer to split a meal with your friend—and sneakily take the bigger portion for yourself.
2. Schedule in exercise, buy cute exercise clothes and an expensive gym membership—and then don't go (see Tuesday's post).
3. Have a salad and water for dinner—and brownies and ice cream straight out of the container for dessert.
4. Buy loads of healthy veggies for yourself and Cheetos, frozen pizza, and hamburgers “for the husband and kids”--even though you're single and childless.
5. Diligently measure out the appropriate serving size of the dinner ingredients—then effectively double it when you discover you're still hungry afterwards.
6. Buy skinny jeans to motivate yourself—then throw them out 6 months later when you have to make room for your fat jeans.
7. Drink a margarita instead of dinner—and then during the 4th one down the line, tell yourself calories don't matter if you're drunk. Because by then, you're incapable of counting them even if you wanted to.
8. Send hate at all the skinny bitches you see—and then congratulate yourself for at least being thinner than that one woman over there.
9. Congratulate yourself when you still fit in your jeans—and cut the seams to make more room when you don't.
10. Only allow pictures of yourself from the neck up. This allows for easy photo manipulation to paste your head on supermodel's bodies and saves you the trouble of burning everything else.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Top 10 Reasons Not to Exercise

(Or excuses I give myself.)

1. Bad weather. In places like Minnesota, this probably involves snow. In California, this means rain. Or rain's younger sister, drizzle. It also includes: fog, hail, anything below 55ºF and winds above 15 mph.

2. Good weather. Because clearly the better reaction is to celebrate by trying that new ice cream parlour and plopping down on the beach with a smoothie and a good book.

3. No time. Between work, school, chores, eating, drinking, socializing, watching favorite shows on TV, reading books, scoping the net, sleeping, petting the kitty/puppy (and no that is no a euphemism--unless for you, it is), taking care of the kids, and um....washing one's hair--who has the time to exercise?

4. Too tired. After doing all of the above, who has the energy?

5. Sick or injured. Obviously you can't bring your germs into a gym, now can you? That would be rude, selfish and gross. And of course, how can I go for a walk when I've stubbed my toe?

6. I'll do it later. This is not so much an excuse as procrastination--until you've procrastinated so long it is now midnight and you can't do it until the next day. So you promise yourself you'll exercise tomorrow--and repeat.

7. I've already done it. I walked from my car to my office and back again. Surely that's enough for one day, right? In fact, I even took the stairs (because the elevator was broken) so that justifies having dessert!

8. I exercised yesterday so I can take today off. Wouldn't want to overdo it now. I might hurt something.

9. I forgot! Truly I meant to, but I got wrapped up and before I knew it my exercise hour was over.

10. I'm too lazy. I've run out of excuses but still can't get my ass off the couch.

Honorable Mentions:
I'm too fat and therefore must stuff my face in a vat of ice cream (for bad mirror days).

I'm thin enough and therefore don't really need to exercise (for good mirror days).

Monday, April 20, 2009

Don't Give Me No Stinkin' Cheese

Why is it that when you go to a restaurant, it is now nigh impossible to get an average, run-of-the-mill, plain old salad? It's like how a plain old cup o' joe has now become a mocha cappa-frappaccino latte, all soy, hold the whip. It used to be you could always count on there being the staple garden salad. But now it seems the best you can do is maybe a caesar salad, dressing on the side. Everything else is slathered with eggs, chicken, tofu, shrimp or fish, dried fruit, nuts and cheese. Nuts and cheese! On everything! With who-knows-what-kind-of-caloric-content dressing. Why do restaurants feel the need to truss up salads like Little Miss Sunshine contestants?

I mean seriously, who really voluntarily chooses to eat a salad as the main course when there are all manner of amiable delights elsewhere on the menu? Nobody. That's right. Nobody. We only eat salads as a vague attempt at healthy eating. Or to make it look to our dinner companions as though we are trim consumers, when really we go home and nosh ice cream straight from the carton. And wonder how the entire carton of Oreos or bag of Doritos disappeared in one sitting.

But the more restaurants insist upon adding feta, bacon bits and croutons to their salads, the less we can delude ourselves that we're making the smart eating choice. (Or worse, stinky cheese like bleu and gorgonzola. My apologies to the 'zola fans...but bleah. I'll take goat cheese any day of the week, but you won't catch me within a mile of moldy cheese.) Check out the menu at Quizno's and you'll quickly discover some of the salads are heavier in calories and fat than the sandwiches. If that's the case, give me the fucking sandwich.

It shouldn't be so hard to find the healthy choices on a menu. And I reserve my right to eat a salad without any stinky cheese.

Friday, April 17, 2009

This I Used to Believe

Once upon a time, I used to believe it was of utmost importance to command the respect of my significant other in my relationships. I choose those words precisely. I say "command the respect" because, in my little belief system of the time, it was more than just having his respect. The way I understood respect was something more along the lines of having him bow at my feet. Whatever I wished, he would make so. If there was anything I did not wish, he could not press me. I thought it was my duty as a woman of the modern age, my duty as a feminist, to have total, complete control in the relationship. Of course, that also meant respect was a one-way street. For how could I respect a man who did not stand up for himself, even if it was me he must stand up against?

My command of my boyfriends' respect sounds atrocious now put in such words, and in all honesty, I am exaggerating to some extent. I am not unkind and I do care for the people in my life. I do try to please and find ways to make my loved ones happy. But when push came to shove, there is more than a kernel of truth to my statement above. Part of it came from having a supremely strong mother, and part of it came just from what I understood it meant to be a strong woman. And I was happy because I pretty much got whatever I wanted. And the men I dated were happy to supply it. And when I was ready to move on, well...I'm sorry darlin', but it was good while it lasted, right?

But then I fell in love. And I don't just mean the love you feel for really special people in your life. I mean real, head over heels, no one but him kind of love--where rationality has no place because logic--or even Haagen Daas ice cream--can't fill the hole in your soul in which only he belongs. Where you can't even put up any defenses, because somehow he got past them when you were looking the other way. And then I discovered there is no such thing as feminism in love. There's no such thing as 'commanding' respect. Because when you love, when you really love with your whole being, there is no room for pride. There is no ego; there is only the two of you.

And then respect becomes, unerringly, a two-way street. Because respect is intrinsic to true love; without it, love wouldn't exist. Love wobbles without trust, but it perishes without respect. You don't have to fight for your rights as a woman, you don't have to prove your equality. You just are and he just is, and everything clinks into place. Gender roles don't matter. You just do your thing and he does his...and on everything else you meet in the middle. Because really, who the fuck cares who does the dishes and who smashes the big, scary bugs? At the end of the day, all that matters is you take care of each other. Not saying it is easy, not by a long shot. Just saying, in true love, there's no such thing as keeping score.

I heard a segment on NPR today discussing "This I Used to Believe". It's not about what you believe now, but what convictions you once held. It's less about who you are now, and more about how you've changed and what brought about that change. So I invite you to comment: What did you use to believe?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Never Go Back

You've seen it before. Chances are, you've even done it. And despite all good intentions, all self-admonishments, all promises to the contrary, it will happen again. Why do we always have so much trouble saying goodbye to our exes? And I don't mean the slam-the-door-in-your-face kind of goodbye. I mean the really-I-have-moved-on-and-truly-wish-you-happiness goodbye.

The pattern is so well-established it could be cookie cutter. You break up, you weep backslash get bitter backslash party like you're 19 again, you may or may not find someone else for a time, but then like the inevitable repeal of the boomerang you discover you miss your ex and have to see them just one more time. Just talk to them that once. Or if the ex caved first, you get that call and decide it's a good idea. No. Not. Stop. Before one or both of you gets hurt, yet again.

So you put your frock on, do up your hair, and put on that scent you know will ram nostalgia like a wrecking ball in your ex's gut. You look fresh, new, vibrant...yet still seductively comfortable familiar.

Let me skip ahead. It ends badly. One of you might actually have moved on, and begging to change their mind will only cause you both grief. But even worse, if one or the other of you hasn't had the good sense to say no, you will have gotten back together for the simple, inane reason that you miss each other and still love each other. It is inane because it is a lie you tell yourself in your weakened emotional state, when caring is too easily mistaken for loving, and loneliness is too often more powerful than self-preservation.

Missing each other and thinking you still love each other is NEVER enough to save a failed relationship. It might be the first of a mountain full of steps, but it is never enough. In time, the giddiness at your reunion will wear off and the stupid fights, the outrageous arguments, and the infuriating habits will resurface and drive you just as insane as they did the first time. Remember? There was a reason you broke up in the first place.

The only thing, I repeat, the only thing that can save a failed relationship is some seriously deep soul searching and a commitment to both partners changing. No matter the circumstances, both of you did at least something to contribute to the relationship's demise. I'm not trying to place blame or say it's your fault your ex was a lying, cheating slut/bastard (so wait...why are you going back?). I'm merely saying that from every experience there is an opportunity to learn how to be a better person and a stronger couple. It is only until the two of you sit down and really evaluate what fears, insecurities, poor habits, and line of thinking led to the break up that you can figure out what you need to know and do to prevent it from happening again. And that is just the beginning. It's not enough to say you will change. You actually have to do it, and have the courage to help each other do it.

So the next time you consider going back, I challenge you to ask yourself two questions. One, are you strong enough to do what it takes to make it work? And two, is your ex really worth it?

If you can honestly answer yes to both questions, then good luck and best wishes to you. I say you can get past old hurts, you can learn to trust again after infidelity, and you can make something strong, beautiful and wonderful out of something that was once failure. But you must first change the ways and thinking which brought you there in the first place.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Thoughts of Shantaram

"We know who we are and we define what we are by references to the people we love and our reasons for loving them....I'd lost my closest freiends and with them I'd lost the mark on the psychic map that says You Are Here". --Gregory David Roberts, Shantaram

Why is identity so amorphous? Why is it that the things that are so intrinsic to our sense of selves, our worldviews, our entire understandings are precisely the things we can never truly understand? In my research I do a lot of work with things like identity, conflict, power...acceptance and understanding. These words...we use them so effortlessly. And when we use them, we most certainly mean something by them. We have an idea in our heads of what power is, what identity is. And yet these concepts remain elusive, intangible and unquantifiable. In my own life, how I see myself today--what defines me--is most likely something very different from what I'll see tomorrow. I haven't changed per se, but what becomes salient has.

These things are not merely abstractions either. Wars have been fought, people killed, damaged and forgotten over competing claims to identity, righteousness, home and family roots. Does "home" come from ties to land or other physical, material things, or does it come from the people who become our references? Does the physical world define us, or is it the people who make us feel comfortable in our own skin?

I struggle with these questions in my research because scholars need to define their concepts to ensure they're using them properly, and not just abusing them with loose rhetoric to suit the argument. But countless of other scholars have struggled with the same thing. It is a jihad, and equally as fruitless and insurmountable a task. The more we try to pin these words down, tie them to physical observable objects, and put them in a neat tidy box, the more I feel affronted. I feel we are robbing these words of their power, of their own identity, making a stick figure out of a fully dimensional being with a life of it's own. Language is too flat to capture the essence.

I struggle with this is my own life because I feel I haven't quite caught hold of the essence of myself either. When I was about 6 or so, I remember standing in the shower and staring at the drain beneath my feet. The water dripping in the drain looked so strange from above. Have you ever seen the top of a drop of water? It looks like a little shiny ring, there for just a second and then it disappears. But right after that, another would appear. I used to spend ages in the shower staring at these drops trying to figure out what they were, and trying to stick my little fingers in the drain to catch them, only to come out of it frustrated and with pruny fingers. Somehow I feel like that again now, standing naked in the shower, trying desperately to capture the shiny little ring.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Prologue to "Fatima in Corinth"

I have finished my new manuscript! Well, the draft is written anyhow, but now the revisions must start. But in the meantime, I thought I would give my readers a little teaser. Here is the prologue for your reading enjoyment.


The sun glittered over the ripples in the water, like a million stars in a turquoise sky. Fatima breathed in the rich, salty air and spread her arms open wide.
She relished this first trip over the Aegean, as different as it was from the camel caravans on which she and her father customarily traveled. What wonders would Corinth have in store for her? She let her imagination run wild as the sparkling, gleaming, white city gradually came into view. Excitement for the newest adventure bubbled up inside her. She could barely sit still, waiting impatiently for the long, wooden ship to dock. She glanced quickly at her father in anticipation, and he gave her the tiniest of winks and a smile. It would be one of the last of his smiles she would ever see.
A sudden shiver raced up her spine, surprising her momentarily, as she turned to greet the new city.

Sending love from Santa Barbara, CA to Weston, FL

One of my bestest friends in the world, my matron of honor, my confidante lives all the way across the continent. I think the only reason it really works is because we're each other's best friend. We can't seem to make a decision--at least not any of the important ones--without running it by each other first. We talk at least once a week, even if we don't have time, and even if our husbands complain about us racking up the cell phone minutes. There are priorities in life, right?

Thank God it's not a romantic relationship! I did the long distance thing in college, for WAY too long. Why is it girls have trouble giving up their high school sweethearts when they move to college? It never works out. Let it go. You grow up, you change, meet new people, discover yourself, and grow apart. And the boy who is still at home waiting for you stays the same. And somehow it becomes all too difficult to telling when loving someone slips into caring for someone. And it all ends in pain two years after it should have.

Being Happy Trumps Being Right

In family dynamics, one of the saddest things I see is the destructive nature of trying to prove that you are right. This "I told you so" attitude can rear its ugly head in nearly any situation where two people disagree. It comes in basic arguments about nothing of import. It shows up in stupid arguments about who forgot to do what on the honey-do list. And worst of all, it displays itself proudly in serious arguments, where the very foundations of trust and respect in a relationship are at stake.

Let me give you an example: Johan and Marie.
Johan and Marie have been married for several years, and though it has been rocky from time to time, they still love each other and have made it work. But Johan feels a bit unfulfilled in his career and wants to try something new. He used to play bass guitar in high school and college. He had even been part of a band. Now he is wondering if maybe he can make something of it. He picks up the guitar again and starts writing songs.

Marie sees this and she is worried. She knows how competitive the music industry is and how difficult it would be for a 40-something to break into the industry and make anything of himself. The last thing she wants to see is Johan pour his heart into song-making only to fail and have his heart broken. She knows he would be devastated and insecure. But how can she say that to him? Obviously she can't tell him he might fail so it's better not to try. So what does she do? She passively-aggressively undermines his attempts, making it difficult for him to have the time to practice or to work (more on passive aggressive manipulation in a later post).

And it works. He never writes anything completely, and eventually his dream falls by the wayside. He still dreams of it, wishing it could have been, but ultimately he has given up. Marie is sorry he is sad, but she figures he will get over it in time, and in any case, being sad is better than being heartbroken. But the trouble is, in the end, Johan is heartbroken--just in a different way.

Her passive-aggressiveness has not gone unnoticed. Johan thinks back and remembers why he never had time to practice music or write, and he ends up resenting Marie because somehow, however vaguely, he senses she has not supported him in his dream. Now he feels he would never know how he might have fared because she didn't give him the opportunity to try. Resentment, anger, sadness, distrust and betrayal build up slowly over time, undermining their marriage. He retaliates in other ways, perhaps by engaging in power plays with her, trying to reassert his power over her. Of course, by doing so, they can never actually talk about the real problem, because they are too busy dealing with superficial things covering up the true pain they should be addressing.

Marie was so sure she was right, she was willing to sacrifice Johan's dreams. And very probably, she was right. But did that spare anything? No, it didn't. It only caused bitterness and distrust in their marriage, and Johan was still heartbroken for not having achieved his dream. If she had only supported him, regardless of the outcome, then it is possible the two of them could have found happiness. Even if the worst had happened and Johan failed, then she could have been the bedrock of support to comfort him and help him stand up again. In his mind, the blame for his failure would have lain with the industry or himself, not with her.

This is just one example, and the need to prove ourselves right comes in a myriad of guises. But underneath it all, when we find ourselves in a conflict, we can always ask ourselves what is at root. Are we really hurt and angry, or are we just trying to prove our idea is right and the other is wrong? Are we really so insecure that we need validation, that we need to prove someone else wrong? Sometimes, it is enough just to know that we are right. Sometimes it is more important to soothe a loved one's feelings than it is to prove to them why they shouldn't feel that way. Sometimes it is better to resolve the conflict than to win the conflict--because when the conflict is resolved, everyone wins. Think of it this way: if you "win" the conflict, that means your loved one loses. And in what world is it a good thing if someone you love loses?

A Letter to my Loved Ones

I am returning to my blog in an attempt to turn blogging into a daily (or at least 5-day-a-week) habit. The hope is develop a readership who will then be interested in picking up my novel(s) if I should ever be so lucky as to get published.
The trouble is, blogging 5 times a week is a lot of work--and words! And what could I possibly have to say that's of any interest, that I could discuss that much? There's only one thing: love. Family, love, relationships. That's what I do best. That's what makes me get up in the mornings. That's what I think about the most. And that is what I feel most qualified to talk about. And while my novels will primarily focus on issues of identity, themes of family, love and relationships will all be prominent as well. So if people enjoy my observations here, they'll have a good sense of what they're going to find in my novels as well.
However, I also realize that all my observations and ruminations written here are going to be based on my own personal experiences and my family and friends may not totally appreciate having their own stories pasted on the world wide web for all to see. The only thing I can say in my defense is I will never use names and will endeavor to keep things theoretical to avoid pointing fingers. Hopefully no one will be too bothered by this, and please know it was always well-intentioned. The things I say here, the things I think is because I love you all.
A note on the title: This blog was formally titled "The Chinaman Is Not the Issue". It was a reference to The Big Lebowski, and it served my purposes as being both humorous (to me) and (in my mind) an oblique reference to my biracial identity. But it does not seem to fit a blog on family, love and relationships, so I've decided to change it. My working title now is "Tasting Grace". It has a dual meaning. One, I love and adore food, especially really divine food and so when I have a really superb bite of chocolate or sip of cappuccino in my mouth, I believe it is like tasting grace. Two, I am moved by and inspired by transendance, and the strength to move beyond pain to grace. The efforts we make as human beings to be more--our epiphanies, our triumphs--that, to me, is tasting grace. So we'll see how well that goes.