Monthly Archives: February 2015

You Can’t Will Yourself a Better Life

Years ago, I read this mediocre tween novel about a group of people who enslaved another group of people on a frost planet or something. The privileged group lived in luxury while the oppressed group slaved away in ice mines.

I’m not sure why they were mining ice, but the result was this group of people was always cold. Not just chilly, but perpetually on the verge of freezing to death.

This made them easy to oppress. Not only did the ruling group have the power to quash any rebellion, but the enslaved group was so physically devastated as to be hardly able to rouse a resistance in the first place.

In the end – spoiler alert, but don’t read this book anyway – the oppressed group rallied the power do fight for and achieve equality. The catalyst which allowed them to achieve this momentous feat was when our hero discovered the power was in her all the time.

She and her people could be warm, she discovered. All they had to do was think warm thoughts.

No, seriously. The solution to these people being enslaved for generations was for them to visualize images of fire. Problem solved.

Even knowing this was a fantasy novel, that was always a little much suspension of disbelief for me.

You can’t will yourself to be warm.

In fact, feeling warm in a cold environment is one of the warning signs for frostbite, but I suppose it could also mean your ready to throw off the shackles of oppression.

It’s a nice story. It’s a nice idea that all you need to do is find your inner power and believe in yourself. I believe there’s a story like that about a girl with “magic” ballet shoes. It turns out she could dance beautifully the whole time – the “magic” shoes just helped her believe.

It’s a nice story. But it IS a story. And it is, in fact, a dangerous story.

In the short story American Hijiki, Akiyuki Nosaka recounts his moments from his childhood in post-war Japan. The work gets its name from his experience of an American airdrop of what his family took to be Hijiki – a type of seaweed. They were confused when they tried to eat it, though – as it turns out, it was tea.

But there’s another parable in there which seems relevant. After the war ended, Americans generously air-dropped aid packages Japanese families, who were starving since all their fields had been destroyed. They had been defeated, they had been humiliated, and they had no food to survive. But Americans dropped aid packages.

For weeks at a time they dropped nothing but bubble gum.

They dropped bubble gum to feed these starving souls.

And that, Nosaka says, is when he learned: you can’t get full from bubble gum.

And don’t think he didn’t try. Nosaka details different ways they tried to prepare the gum. Ways they tried to squeeze out the flavor or use the sticks to quell their empty stomachs. But nothing they did helped.

Because you can’t get full from bubble gum.

Just like you can’t warm yourself by thinking about it and you can’t will yourself a better life if you try.

Yes, individuals have agency. They have the capacity to make good choices and bad, and a lot can be changed by a person’s will and resolve. But at the end of the day, context is everything.

No matter how hard you try, you can’t get full on bubble gum.


Writing Processes

I’m always curious what people’s writing processes are like.

Personally, I tend to write in my head. When I was in school, this was my primary approach to writing papers. I wasn’t procrastinating, per se, but rather than writing in the traditional sense, I’d spend spare minutes here and there mulling over the topic, outlining ideas, and mentally writing whole sections.

Then, eventually, I would just sit down and write it.

Not that I would get it right on the first take – my editing process has always been a bit messier. I use the page as a canvass. I have to be careful to clean up the bits of text I’ve left drifting at the end of a document like flotsam. Spare words, phrases, perhaps even whole paragraphs of text that I discarded as I went.

Those are the processes that have generally worked for me, but I’ve also gotten the sense that’s not how other people write.

It’s not something people talk about a lot, though, so I really have no idea.

For me, writing just always felt like the most natural way to express myself. Talking is too fast, too impulsive. It doesn’t allow for time to really think and organize one’s thought. It just kind of comes out all at once, and typically comes out messy.

So I’m slow to speak up, but I can write a storm.

I imagine that for people who favor the spoken word writing is more difficult, but I have no idea. I don’t know what other approaches there are or what other approaches work for people.

I only know that the process of writing makes me thinks of the words Stephen Sondheim used to describe the process of Georges Seurat:

White. A blank page, or canvas. The challenge: bring order to the whole. Through design. Composition. Balance. Light. And harmony…

White. A blank page, or canvas. His favorite.
So many possibilities.


Gender and Grammar

I generally feel rather strongly about using correct grammar. I suppose I ought to as a communications professional. But there are a few rules which I continue to break no many how many times I’ve been corrected.

I almost wish I’d kept a running tally, for example, of the number of times I’ve been marked down for noun/pronoun disagreement. That is, for writing sentences such as:

Did your child get their vaccine?

That’s incorrect, you see, because the child is singular while “their” is plural. You could ask about children getting their vaccine, but if your talking to a person with one child, that is not an optimal solution.

Traditionally, the proper approach was to always use “he” when a singular gender was unknown.

But, as others have noted this approach is generally considered “outdated and sexist.” An unknown person isn’t always male, after all.

So then came the so-called gender-neutral solutions:

Did your child get his or her vaccine?

Or, if you’d like to be a little more edgy, you can replace the default “he” to a default “she”:

From each, according to her abilities.

Those were the grammatical suggestions I received growing up, but neither ever seemed quite satisfactory.

“He or she” is just clunky. If you don’t know the gender of the person you are talking about, nobody cares enough for you to spend that much time on it.

Using a default “she” is delightfully subversive, but I personally find it rather stale. It seems to typically be used by men who are trying too hard to prove they’re feminists. That use may have its place, but is generally unhelpful to me.

And, of course, there’s a bigger problem to these solutions: both reinforce a gender binary. Are “his” and “hers” the only gender options?

English doesn’t offer much in the way of genderless nouns, as you might guess from the fact that they would more properly be called “neuter” nouns.

Did your child get its vaccine?

Well, okay, I might say that, but only because I am cold-hearted and childless.

From each, according to its abilities.

Better get ready for the Marxist robot take over.

Some have advocated for the use of newer pronouns, such as ze and xe. Call me old fashion, but I just prefer the simple they.

And better yet, there’s a now a term for this. I haven’t been suffering from noun/pronoun disagreement after all – I’ve just been using the singular they.

This may seem all neither here nor there, but words matter. Words are important.

So I was delighted to see the New York Times recently profile students at the University of Vermont – where the university allows students “to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.”

Of course, this doesn’t stop the times from trotting out tired tropes of gender norms – saying one student “was born female, has a gentle disposition, and certainly appears feminine.”

But, I suppose, change happens bit by bit. It changes through big movements and upheaval, but it also changes through words and grammar. And so I stand by my grammatical standard:

Regardless of a person’s gender, they can go by any pronoun they want.


Langston Hughes

This past weekend was Langston Hughes’ 113th Birthday, a fact which was commemorated in a Google doodle.

A prolific and powerful writer, Hughes wrote in many forms – poetry, plays, fiction and non-fiction.

All his work is remarkable, but I’ve always been particularly taken with his short poems – his ability to express so much with so little. Take, for example, Winter Moon:

How thin and sharp is the moon tonight!
How thin and sharp and ghostly white
Is the slim curved crook of the moon tonight!

But, of course, the real heart of his work was around social and racial justice. Hughes has plenty of works which tackle these issues outright – the 1947 ballad Freedom Train, for example.

And yet, there are few works I found as powerful, as poignant, as Lanston Hughes’ simple note, For Selma:

In places like
Selma, Alabama,
Kids say,
    In places like
    Chicago and New York…
In places like
Chicago and New York
Kids say,
    In places like
    London and Paris…
In places like
London and Paris
Kids say,
    In places like
    Chicago and New York…