S-Town Review: Indulging voyeurism or stoking empathy?

Note: BIG spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t listened to the podcast in its entirety and you intend to.

 

I recently finished listening to S-Town, a podcast by the creators of Serial and This American Life, and found myself with some very conflicting feelings about it. First and foremost, I think this podcast is rich, engaging, beautiful and heart-breaking. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t love it. I came into it expecting something similar to Serial, and though I loved Serial, I was happily surprised to find something totally different.

After the first two episodes, the podcast wildly veered off the Serial course, breaking the true-crime narrative and diving into something much more interesting. For anyone who was hoping for a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, “who done it” crime thriller, they were sorely disappointed. S-Town was at some points extremely slow, but I think for those willing to stick with it, it was worth it in the end. After the initial addicting marathon listening sessions ended though, I was left wondering why I was so intrigued by this podcast, and whether there was something sinister about my interest in it.

The podcast begins with the investigation of the cover-up of an alleged murder, led by a tipster named John B. McElmore. Soon after the story begins though, it becomes clear that the evidence of the crime is lacking and eventually we find out that the alleged murder never happened. John’s tirades about his home, “Shittown,” Alabama dominate most of the narrative. It slowly becomes clear that the crime is not the story at all. John is eccentric, brilliant, unstable, funny and depressed. His views of Shittown and the state of the world are dark and apocalyptic, but also surprisingly astute and especially relevant given the ever-widening expanse between rural and urban America. During the second episode, the host, Brian Reed, gets a call from someone in S-Town: John has committed suicide. As I listened to this episode, headphones in, at my desk at work, my breath caught in my chest. I blinked away tears, hoping no one was looking at me, and felt this incredible weight of something I couldn’t put my finger on.

In some way I felt complicit; I had sat at my desk in the comfort of my cushy upper-class suburban life, eagerly hoping to hear my worst suspicions and stereotypes about Southern, rural, backwards, Trump-loving America confirmed. I sat, listening to the mad rantings of a man who so casually talked of his own suicide, just hoping to feel engaged.  I literally thought to myself at one point “man, I hope something more interesting is going to happen.” And in the midst of my pastime, a man had killed himself. And the most disturbing part is that the narrative foray into the life and secrets of a dead-man were about to be even more captivating than I could have hoped for. Indeed the episodes that followed poked and prodded through the life of a man with many complexities. As the podcast went on, the more I learned about John B. Mclemore, his secrets, his hopes and his struggles, the more I wanted to know. My curiosity couldn’t be satiated, and no matter how many private details I learned of this man’s life, it was never enough.

When I finished the podcast and took a step back, I was all the sudden struck by how invasive it all was. This wasn’t a man who had given his consent to his private life being exposed. And it struck me that maybe that’s why I was so interested. Because it was a raw glimpse into a person that wasn’t filtered by the way the person wanted to be perceived. Certainly the tragedy and sorrow of his life had something to do with my interest in it as well.  It’s human nature to be attracted to tragedy, to stare catastrophe in the face even when the decent thing to do is to look away. There’s a reason sensationalism is sweeping through U.S. media, as I mentioned in a previous post: because that’s what we want. The more shocking, the more depraved, the better. Privacy ceases to matter, boundaries cease to exist; the only thing that matters is that we get more information. The same was true of the life of John B. McLemore. The obsession over who he was and uncovering the secrets of his life was nothing short of voyeurism. In this case I use the word voyeur to mean a “prying observer who is usually seeking the sordid or the scandalous.”

So in this scenario, was listening to and engaging in this podcast indulging one of our worst human instincts of voyeurism? I think that for most people it probably was. However, I think the motivation for starting it is transcended by the sentiment that lingers after it ends.  Undoubtedly, a large part of the audience for this podcast (and really any podcast) is the liberal upper-middle/upper class. It’s impossible to listen to this story and not notice how contrasting the world of the rural south is with your own. At various times in the podcast, listeners were confronted with characters who out of context, might be considered contemptible. Yet something about this narrative humanized them. So that by the end of the podcast, it was almost impossible to characterize any of the people in it as good or bad. They were just people: flawed, full of contradictions, and products of their environment. And out of this realization came a deep sense of empathy specifically for John, a man that you had never met, the likes of which you may never meet. There are many things to dislike about John. He is arguably racist, sexist, masochistic and bleak. Had you just encountered him or any the other people in this story in a passing way, you would probably have written them off. But when you hear their stories something changes. They morph from caricatures to real people and all the stereotypes and judgment fall away. What’s left is empathy and compassion.

With all the divisiveness in the world today, I think that creating this kind of empathy is an admirable pursuit. In this case, the ends justify the means. Though what first draws people to these kinds of stories is voyeurism, if the ever-elusive empathy is the result, maybe the motive for listening in the first place doesn’t matter.

-S

Vulnerability in Writing

I’m alive! The last month or so has been a little rough for me which is why I have been MIA from the blog. I’ve noticed that when I’m in one of my slumps I find it very hard, even impossible, to write. I have sat down to write this post so many times over the last few weeks, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. So I started thinking about what was stopping me. Initially I just knew that I didn’t want to talk about all the things that have been going on in my head, and because my writing is usually pretty autobiographical, I obviously couldn’t write. Then I thought, “OK, I’ll just write something very objective and completely unrelated to my personal life and personal thoughts. Then at least I will be writing.” I brainstormed different subjects, but every time I actually tried to write no words came to me. Then it dawned on me that all writing is personal regardless of whether or not you are explicitly talking about your personal life. And if you are trying to leave certain pieces of your life out of your writing it makes it difficult to really produce anything of quality.

This has been one of the biggest struggles that I have had with writing. I am naturally a pretty private person, particularly when it comes to my struggles. I’d just rather not have everyone know about my flaws and I don’t like people to see me on my bad days. I think part of the reason for this is that I don’t like to address problems that I don’t yet have solutions for. I like things being neatly tied up, well-thought out and reasoned through in my mind before I talk about them.

Unfortunately, a lot of the questions that we struggle with don’t have clear answers and it is these unanswerable questions are often the central themes of writing. They are questions like: Why are we here? How do we live lives full of meaning and purpose? How do we make sense of all the suffering and tragedy in the world? How do we make and sustain connections with other people? Though these questions seem deeper and more profound than the subject of most writing, they are usually lying beneath the surface, quietly asserting their presence and their relevance.

Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at the typewriter and bleed.” This kind of honesty however can be very difficult to muster. Not everyone is willing to bleed so openly and freely for all to see. To write is inevitably to be vulnerable, and for me, and I imagine for many others, that is the hardest part. Regardless of what you are writing about, you are always writing about yourself. Your writing always reveals more about who you are than it reveals about your subject. And when you have secrets or things you don’t want to share with the world, it becomes very difficult to write anything at all.

So my goal for my writing is to not shut down when I am not in the best place mentally. I want to try not to partition off my struggles, but instead to allow them to infect and simultaneously to nourish my writing. Objectivity is impossible in creative pursuits, as it should be. So I will try to embrace the messy, the unanswerable and the painful questions because not to do so would be dishonest.

So in the spirit of honesty, here it is: I’ve had a bad couple of weeks. I feel stuck and directionless and unfulfilled. I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Sometimes all I can do is get up and go through the motions. I’ve set goals that I don’t care about because it felt better to have a plan than to admit that I don’t know what I want. And I’ve watched some of those goals disintigrate before my eyes with surprising indifference, leading me to wonder if I don’t care about what I have pretended to, what do I care about? I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. I do know though, that writing has always felt like something I was meant to do. So for now I am going to write, release the need to have it all figured out, and hope for the best.

I realize now that my attempt to remove my personal struggles from my writing inevitably robs it of its substance. Without the gut-wrenching honesty of these struggles, my writing is stripped of its core, and what is left is a hollow shell of words clumsily strung together. If we wait for the answers to life’s nagging questions to come to us before we begin writing about them, the page will always remain blank, the blinking cursor mocking our ignorance.

-S

Rage: The New Political Currency

It’s been 3 weeks since Donald Trump took office, and I confess myself exhausted. It seems like every day on the news there is some new ridiculous and horrible thing he and his administration have done to be outraged about. I, like a lot of people right now, am torn between the urge to be informed and the urge to bury my head in the sand for the next four years. In a previous post I touched on the dangers of the 24-hour news cycle, and how addicting it can be. I think the last few weeks have underscored the argument that this addiction to news is not healthy. But more than that, what has been made abundantly clear is that anger is dominating the political scene, on both sides of the spectrum. It is almost impossible to be politically well-informed and not be angry. It seems we are in a time when one must take sides. There is no gray area in many of the political issues we have been debating, and most people feel passionately one way or the other.

There has been a lot of speculation about how a man like Donald Trump rose to power. Most people acknowledge that he tapped in to the rage of the overlooked white working class, and harnessed that rage and turned it into a movement. It didn’t matter that he said little about policy and had no experience in the political realm. He manipulated and played into the fears of the masses, and his strategy was successful. Now he is our president and he is still playing into the irrational fears of the masses in villainizing immigrants and Democrats and anyone who opposes him or threatens his family wealth.

However, the difference now is the Democrats are beginning to play on the rage that has surfaced in opposition to Donald Trump. It’s no longer accurate to say that anger only characterizes Republicans and Trump supporters. Anger now characterizes almost everyone, regardless of party. Some of this anger is justified and productive. For example, the outrage sparked by the Muslim ban arguably played a large role in the temporary dismantling of it. This rage was useful. We were angry; we were defending human rights; and there was an end goal to our outrage. There is however, outrage that is not useful. There is outrage that will consume your life if you let it and does not actually achieve anything productive. Liberals have made a big stink about how Donald Trump supporters have allowed themselves to be pawns in Trump’s political agenda, but perhaps we need to consider the ways in which we ourselves have become pawns. There are plenty of Democrats who have dramatized and stoked our anger, and for us to pretend that they do so only for the greater good of what we are accomplishing is naïve. There are future elections to think about, and arguably there are plenty of politicians attempting to become the angry voice of the progressive left in efforts to bolster their own political aims.

I’m not presuming to know anyone’s motives in stoking outrage, but I am suggesting we not allow ourselves to be manipulated. If you are going to take up arms over every single ridiculous tweet that Donald sends out, you are only going to affect your own quality of life. If you allow yourself to be baited by every politically incorrect thing he says, you’re in for a long four years. I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting we allow his outrageous actions to pass unnoticed or unopposed. I am just saying we should choose our battles. And we should keep in mind that this chaos and outrage is exactly what he wants. Yes, it is absolutely ridiculous and even unethical that the President of the United States is tweeting at Nordstrom, saying they are mean for no longer buying his daughter’s product. But is it really worth your outrage? At some point you have to decide that some of his actions are too stupid to even respond to. If we choose to respond to every provocation, it allows him to paint the progressive left as angry and irrational, the same way that the left has often painted the tea party and the far right. Fair or not, our anger can sometimes undermine us and strip us of credibility. We go from being well-informed rational people who can carefully and articulately defend our beliefs, to raging crazy people who are not to be taken seriously.  I think outrage can be useful when it has a clear end goal. We need to take a step back and realize that this outrage that follows the 24-hour news cycle is not accomplishing anything. If we allow ourselves to be consumed by anger, we not only will fail to achieve anything in the political sphere, but we most likely will make our own lives pretty miserable in the process. I physically can’t walk around being angry about Donald all the time. It’s not sustainable. So, I choose to save my anger and my strength for the outrages that really matter to me. You are no less informed or passionate about your causes because you chose not to think about them 24/7. It’s quality, not quantity, of your resistance that matters.

-S

Waiting for the Barbarians…or the Islamic Terrorists

The Muslim ban executive order signed into law by Donald Trump on Saturday has alarmed and enraged people all over the country over the past few days, myself included. Trump and his cronies of course have a problem with people calling this what it is and what it was intended to be: a Muslim ban. Of course we have plenty of reason to believe that a Muslim ban is exactly what this is, since a large part of Trump’s presidential platform was a ban on ALL Muslims entering the United States. And on Sunday he tweeted that we should be concerned about the Christians being killed in the Middle East, even though Muslims have been killed in far greater numbers. His order also gives preferential treatment to Christians attempting to enter the U.S. from these countries. There is also good reason to believe that the Muslim countries not included in the ban were excluded because of Trum’s business ties there. So let’s not beat around the bush: this is a Muslim ban.

Now that we have established that, the question is why is this happening? Why has Trump continually emphasized the danger that “radical Islamic terrorists” pose to this great free Christian nation? In thinking about this issue over the last year or so, I find myself drawing parallels to one of my favorite books, Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee. The book is about a great unnamed Empire threatened by an indigineous group of barbarians who are plotting to overthrow it. The barbarians are frequently painted as less than human, and though as a whole they demonstrate no ill-will towards the Empire, they are singled out as the enemy and the potential downfall of civilization. Of course, the Empire has actually invaded the natives’ land and attempted to force their culture and civilization on them. The Empire labels the natives as barbarians in order to justify their imperialism and to give its people a feeling of purpose and a common enemy.

It’s not hard to see the parallels here to the United State’s relationship to the Middle East. For decades we have invaded its lands, stripped these countries of their natural resources, overthrown their governments from the inside out, and attempted to force Western democracy on them. In doing so we have created terrorist organizations within the region whose main purpose is rebelling against Western influence and seizing power in instable countries that are vulnerable. Their aims have little to do with Islam, and much to do with the human instinct to seek and retain power. Make an entire region feel powerless and ruled by an alien external force for years and you are bound to create people whose sole aim is to take that power back and wield it with cruel intentions. Of course, I am oversimplifying the problems that have created so much instability within the Middle East. I couldn’t possibly write a post long enough to detail all the factors that have contributed to the instability in the region, and I don’t claim to be knowledgeable enough to do so. But, my point is that the U.S. has played a decisive hand in this instability and bears the responsibility for much of the chaos that is driving people to seek refugee status in more stable Western countries. Coincidentally the other day Trump said we should have kept the oil from Iraq after we withdrew our troops, because the oil was the only reason ISIS was able to financially support itself. He also suggested that the next time we invade a sovereign country, we will be sure to take all their resources so there is no wealth left to prop up any kind of a successful government or terrorist organization.

Now we have people fleeing from the terrorists that we created (and in some cases armed), and we will deny them access to our great free country because they pose a threat to it. And to top it off, rather than acknowledging the nuances of terrorism and its relationship to Islam, we now have a president and a large group of Americans who claim that the problem is Islam, not the terrorists who have corrupted it and twisted it to justify their actions. Muslims are being painted with a broad brush, as an enemy of Christian America, as people who seek to do us great harm. It seems to me to be no coincidence that after a particularly disastrous first week in the presidency, Trump attempted to draw our attention back to our common enemy: Muslims. In claiming that Muslims from this region pose a great threat to the safety of our country, Trump creates an atmosphere of fear, chaos and mistrust, primed for the consolidation of power and wide-spread approval of his actions that seek to “protect” America.

As in Waiting for the Barbarians, America is awaiting the barbarians that we believe to be Muslims to strike, only to find out that the barbarians are here, within our midst, masquerading as saviors. Make no mistake: turning our back on refugees fleeing the terrorism and instability that we helped to create, is barbaric. What we should have learned from ISIS and from the recent executive orders and from the entire history of war and persecution, is that cruelty and the seeking of power has nothing to do with religion. The dark side of human nature can flourish wherever there is suffering and chaos. Attrocities and injustice can be commited falsely under any God’s name, in the haze of fear and instability. Many attrocities have also been commited in the name of Christianity. The actions of few do not justify the condemnation and persecution of an entire group of people. Just as I hope that the rest of the world does not condemn all Americans for the actions of the ignorant, hateful demogauge that is currently running our country, I refuse to condemn all Muslims for the actions of a few. The act of pitting Americans against Muslims is nothing more than the desperate attempt to unite a fractured country and distract us from the real problems that we face such as poverty, climate change, gender inequality, racial ineqaulity, and the high cost and low coverage of our health care system. These are problems which this administration is unlikely to find solutions to, or to even address in any meaningful way, and they know this. So their solution is to distract us with fear and mistrust of foreigners and the rest of the world. It is important to note, that this tactic is not only manifested in this administration’s policies towards Muslims from the Middle East, but also in their policies towards Mexican immigrants. While we are waiting for the barbarians, our country is crumbling. How long will it take this country to realize that our threats come from the inside, not the outside?

-S

Framing Your Way to Happiness

I listened to a great podcast the other day on TED Radio Hour called “Simply Happy” which got me thinking about the nature of happiness. The premise of the combined TED Talks was that happiness is actually not as complicated as we make it out to be and that the human brain is actually wired to be happy. Happiness in the human brain is kind of a homeostatic state; regardless of our varying moods, our minds eventually settle into happiness, or at least into contentment. The podcast referenced a study which showed that even people who suffered very traumatic experiences returned to their previous baseline state of happiness within 2-3 months. They started diving into why this is the case, and it all boils down to our brain’s ability to frame things in different lights. So when we experience negative things, our brains attempt to frame them in positive lights, or at least to not dwell on them. This is more a survival instinct than anything; our brain wants us to be happy and so it allows us to frame things in a perspective that allows us to be happy. So in part, your brain does the work for you in creating and returning to happiness. But we also are responsible for this process, and this is the part that really got me thinking about what we can do to affect our own happiness. Though I used to groan at the cliche of “you create your own happiness” as I get older I find myself buying into this theory more and more.

Part of the reason I am more convinced by the day that we can control and create our own happiness is because I have seen the ways that it has worked in my own life. After I graduated college I had, as most people do, a very rude awakening. I had to get a job and support myself. I had to enter the “real” world which seemed like an onslaught of responsibility, chores, and just generally things I didn’t want to do or deal with. And for a while there I was really in a slump. I felt drained by the responsibilities of adulthood and I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be happy while having to pay a utility bill. (I fully recognize now the extent of my privilege that this felt so inconceivable to me). I dragged myself to work and then home and then to work again. I dragged myself to the gym, and to clean the house and to go out and do fun things. I had this mentality of “everything is hard.” And then it became too much effort to keep up this charade of misery. I realized that I was the reason that I was unhappy, and that it had nothing to do with my environment or with external circumstances. It all came down to the way I was thinking about and framing my life. And it was actually really hard work to constantly think about things in such a negative light. Since that difficult year after college I have made a point to be very careful about how I think about things. If I find myself wandering through the darker corners of my mind, I pull myself back out. I don’t sit around thinking about mistakes I made in the past, and I don’t dwell on negative things that I can’t control. I’m not trying to make this sound easy, or like I have all the answers, because it’s not and I don’t. But I do think that learning to train your mind to think in certain ways can make a world of difference in your outlook on life and your day-to-day happiness. And I think that when you start learning to control your mind, you realize it’s not really an uphill battle. Your mind doesn’t actually want to think about your ex-boyfriend, or that time the other day when a stranger waved to someone behind you and you thought they were waving to you, so you waved, and then realized their wave wasn’t meant for you and you wanted to die a little. Our minds really don’t want to dwell on the negative things in our lives, we just force them to.

So though it makes me sound like a crazy hippie yogi, I’m going to say it: When you control your thoughts, you control your life.

 

-S

 

Disclaimer: When I talk about happiness and our control over it, I recognize that for some people with clinical depression or other mental health issues, this is not the case. My theories on happiness only relate to people under relatively normal circumstances, without any kind of mental health issue.

Project 333: Minimalist Fashion

One of my new year’s resolutions (cliche I know) is to downsize my closet. I feel like I have a ton of clothes, most of which I never wear that are just taking up space in my closet. I also have been feeling lately like I want to detach myself a bit from the culture of consumerism. I watched a documentary on Netflix called “Minimalism: a documentary about the important things” and it really made me think about how much I am consuming on a daily basis. In America, the overwhelming sentiment is that in order to be more we must have more. We slave away at jobs we hate just to be able to afford things we don’t need, or really want. I am definitely guilty of over-consumption (of food mostly, but that’s not what I’m referring to here) and it’s something I want to work on. I think that there are a lot of reasons that people over-consume. For me, when it comes to clothes it is just because I really like clothes. I feel good when I look good. But I also feel an overwhelming need to collect clothes and when I go to throw them away find myself saying “But what if in some very bizarre scenario I want to wear a shirt that has shrunk to be two sizes too small??? What if the new fashion is shrunken crop tops??” I have also been feeling lately like this overwhelming need to buy things really has nothing to do with the things that I am buying. And so it is my resolution to be more conscious about my consumption and to get rid of things that I don’t really like. I have already created a nice big pile for Goodwill and I can’t wait to get rid of it.

So in working towards this goal I decided to participate in Project 333. The concept is pretty simple: you chose 33 items from your closet and for 3 months you can only wear those 33 items. This includes shoes, jewelry and accessories. It does not include workout clothes or wear around the house clothes. When I tell most people I am doing this they are like “Oh, 33 items?? That doesn’t sound hard at all!” Well when you have over 200 items in your closet (I counted), narrowing it down to just 33 items to wear in 3 months is actually pretty tough. I made some pretty tough choices (Do I want this red plaid shirt or should I pick the green plaid one!?!? The agony!). Below is a picture of the items that I chose:

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I mostly chose a lot of tops because I like to have variety there. I was able to narrow it down to 4 pairs of pants and 4 shoes (not a big shoe person, plus it’s winter so not a ton of options), and two necklaces. I don’t wear a ton of accessories so cutting those out wasn’t hard, because it also doesn’t include wedding rings or jewelry of sentimental value. One thing I want to add to the challenge once I do this for a few weeks is to only choose 10 or so items of workout clothes to wear, because workout stuff makes up a huge portion of my closet.

I’m about a week into this challenge and so far it is going really well! I put these items at the front of my closet and then shoved everything else together in the back. It is really refreshing when I am getting ready in the morning to not have as many options. And since I chose all my favorite things, I don’t really feel like I am missing much. It has made me realize how much crap I have that I really don’t care about. My last day of the challenge will be April 1st. Let’s hope we don’t have a crazy heat wave before then.

Part of the reason I wanted to do this is because I wanted to do something concrete to work towards my resolutions. I feel like a lot of people just say “Oh I want to be better about this…” but then they don’t put a plan in place to do that. I think rather than making a bunch of idealistic goals that don’t fit into your life very well, you have to start small. For example, I wasn’t going to all the sudden say “I’M NOT BUYING ANY CLOTHES IN 2017!” Instead I chose something a little more manageable that I know I can actually accomplish, and I put a plan in place to do so. Baby steps, people. You’re not going to change your whole life over night, but you can make small concrete changes that push you towards where you want to be.

-S

Why I Got a Dog

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This weekend Umur and I welcomed a new rescue pup to our family. We named her Luna, Luna Lovegood to be exact. She’s had a rough start to life after someone dumped her in a lake as a puppy hoping she would drown. She has spent the last 6 months or so in various shelters and foster care systems. It’s unimaginable to me how people can be so cruel and heartless, especially to animals that are incapable of such cruelty. I have always been a huge animal lover, so the obvious reason why we got Luna is because of this life-long obsession. When I was a kid all I wanted to be was a vet, until I found out you had to be good at science to be a vet, and then I quickly disposed of that dream. Another big reason I wanted to get a dog was because I wanted to rescue a dog. Not buy one at a pet store or from a breeder, but really rescue a dog that would have had an unfortunate life otherwise. We have created a terrible situation for dogs through excessive breeding which has landed millions of dogs in shelters all across the country, and I think we bear the responsibility for taking care of these animals. The easiest reason to explain for why I wanted a dog was because I have the ability to take care of her and I knew that I could make her life better. There is a sense of purpose that comes from that knowledge (and also a sense of overwhelming responsibility).

Aside from these clear and easy to understand reasons for why I wanted a dog, there was also another reason. This is the one that would most likely get me funny looks, so I usually go with the easier to explain reasons when asked. But really, I wanted a dog because I wanted to go on walks and be outside more. I know that sounds like a really silly reason to get a dog, but in the past few years of working I have felt more and more like my world exists inside several screens, rather than in the actual physical world. If I had to guess, I would say on an average day I spend about 10 minutes outside. I get in my car in my garage, drive to work where I sit inside all day without moving, then drive home, then drive to the gym and walk to the door which is about 20 steps from my car and that’s it. So maybe not even 10 minutes. The rest of the time I spend in front of my computer at work, and then in front of my tv and phone at home. And spending all this time in front of screens is enough to make a person feel very detached, easily distracted, impatient and even incapable of enjoying simple pleasures like taking a walk. I got a dog because I wanted to remember what it felt like to go on a walk outside and just take my time, without rushing to the next thing I have to do, or compulsively checking my phone every few seconds. Even in this act of walking her though, I can feel my impatience dulling the pleasure I take from it. I have even found myself telling her to hurry up when she is zig-zagging in front of me smelling every bit of grass in our neighborhood. This impatience I think will be hard to break, but I’m working on it.

The other day Umur and I went on a walk with Luna, and it was the first time in a long time I can remember us going on a walk together, with our phones away, just walking and talking and watching our crazy dog. I felt an immense sense of peace and authenticity in that moment. I felt connected to the world and to the living things around me and I felt present. I think she will bring me a lot of these moments throughout our lives together. We like to think that we are training our dogs to be better, but I think she is training me to be better as well. She is teaching me to be more present, more patient and more grateful for life’s simple pleasures. And that’s why I really got a dog.

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-S

Our Obsession with Progress

I almost quoted Dolores Umbridge for the title to this blog, but I just couldn’t do it. I’ve been thinking lately about our society’s obsession with the future and with continual improvement. Kate’s last post got me thinking about the nature of happiness and then I was reading Outline by Rachel Cusk and was struck by this passage:

“In his marriage, he now realized, the principle of progress was always at work, in the acquiring of houses, possessions, cars, the drive towards higher social status, more travel, a wider circle of friends, even the production of children felt like an obligatory calling-point on the mad journey; and it was inevitable, he now saw, that once there were no more things to add or improve on, no more goals to achieve or stages to pass through, the journey would seem to have run its course, and he and his wife would be beset by a great sense of futility and by the feeling of some malady, which was really only the feeling of stillness after a life of too much motion, such as sailors experience when they walk on dry land after too long at sea, but which to both of them signified that they were no longer in love. If only we had had the sense, he said, to make our peace with one another then, to start from the honest proposition that we were two people not in love who nonetheless meant one another no harm; well, he said, his eyes brimming again, if that had been the case I believe we might have learned truly to love one another and to love ourselves. But instead we saw it as another opportunity for progress, saw the journey unfolding once more, only this time it was a journey through destruction and war, for which both of us demonstrated just as much energy and aptitude as always.”

Do you even read something and for a second just feel completely seen and understood? That’s how I felt when I read this passage and it’s a little bit unnerving. My life has been a series of goals with the finish line of one race turning in to the starting line of another. I feel lost without goals and without the next tangible thing that I am working towards. Anytime I am confronted with a moment of stillness, I automatically find a new goal or a new thing to do to fill my time. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Though this kind of work ethic is a good thing, I wonder whether it is an attempt to distract ourselves. We are so uncomfortable with this feeling of stillness that the moment we stop moving we assume we’re doing something horribly wrong. It’s such a deep culturally rooted feeling that it’s even evident in the way we talk about our lives. We talk about being in ruts, about being stagnant and complacent and about settling. These are all the things we don’t want and we are so scared of doing. So instead we always frame our lives, relationships and careers in terms of what we want to do next. We bombard each other and ourselves with questions about the future as though the present without an imagined future is worthless. When you were younger the questions were about where you wanted to go to college; when you were in college the questions were about what you were going to do when you graduated; when you graduated and got a job the questions were about what you were going to do next; when you are in a relationship the questions are about when you will get married; when you are married the questions are about when you will buy a house and when you will have kids. We are all so concerned about our next steps and about everyone else’s next steps. I wonder what will happen in life or in love when there is no obvious next step. Once you have finally acquired everything you think you should have and have checked off all the life accomplishments you think you should check off, then what?

I think part of the reason we glorify this continual improvement model of life is that happiness is most easily felt when it is juxtaposed with struggle and unhappiness. We struggle towards our goals and once we achieve them, for a brief moment, it feels like perfect incandescent euphoria. The kind of happiness felt in stable, long-term contentment is very subtle and not easy to appreciate. It’s like when you have a cold, and you swear on everything that is holy that you will be so grateful when you are healthy again. You will breath in and out of both nostrils and seize the day! And then you get healthy again and you forget again how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils. Because you can’t know how good it feels to breathe in and out of both nostrils unless you remember vividly and painfully how bad it feels to not be able to breathe in and out of both nostrils. And our capacity to remember feeling is actually pretty limited. We can remember events, but to fully conjure how they made us feel is almost impossible. So we have to move away from this kind of happiness that is only found in juxtaposition to struggle. The real accomplishment in life is being able to stomach stillness and to find that eternal source of happiness within yourself.

I think finding that subtle happiness is powerfully linked to gratitude. Not gratitude for material things or big accomplishments, but gratitude for small moments of contentment, the ones that you barely notice when you are so busy moving from thing to thing. Like Kate’s peppermint scented, candle-lit bath she talked about in her previous post. These small moments can be very powerful when we fully immerse ourselves in them. We are scared of stillness because it is harder to recognize and fully feel those subtle moments of happiness. In contrast, the euphoria that comes with drastic swings between struggle and achievement is glaring and palpable. We embrace struggle when it is for the sake of progress, but when it comes to happiness we try to take the easy way out. But once you have tuned in to gratitude and small moments of happiness, you can allow yourself to be filled up by them. Gratitude is a habit and it can be formed as easily as it can be broken. So my challenge to myself and to anyone reading this is: don’t get so caught up in the quest for your next achievement and forget that happiness too is a struggle and must be worked for. Because one day you’ll achieve all those things that you were supposed to achieve and everything will be still and calm at last, which is what you always said you wanted, and you won’t know how to feel content and at peace.

-S

My Thoughts on the Gilmore Girls Revival

Major Gilmore Girls spoilers ahead. Stop reading if you haven’t finished the revival. But the spoiler is going to be right below this line so you are probably already screwed.

 

RORY IS PREGNANT! And my immediate reaction was “Is this a joke?” Then I saw the credits running. Nope, not a joke. I know everyone took this ending in their own way, but for me it was bitterly disappointing. Here are a couple of my main issues with this ending:

  1. The circle of life is bullshit. This isn’t the Lion King. We don’t need a Disney-type neatly wrapped up plot where the end meets the beginning. First, I think this is very over-simplistic and lacks imagination. And second, I think it is depressingly fatalistic. Rory is bound to turn into her mother who is bound to turn into her mother. But why? Rory is in many ways the exact opposite of her mother and it seems to discount the nuances of her character. Don’t get me wrong, I love Lorelai and it’s not always a bad thing to turn into your mother (I should be so lucky), but this storyline diminishes the power of choice. Not to mention the fact that it’s not just Rory turning into her mother by getting pregnant, but now we are supposed to view Logan as Christopher and Jess as Luke. All of the characters start to mesh into each other, leaving little room for individuality. In the end, they’ve all just become depressing clichés. Seven seasons worth of character development and distinction down the drain.
  2. Rory’s entire life is defined by men. Yeah, I’m putting my feminist boots on (I know that’s not a thing, but I just made it a thing). Now, I know that part of the ending suggests that her life is not determined by men because there is the implication that she will raise her child on her own just as her mother did. Fine, woohoo independence. But every life choice she makes up until this point is either instigated by or inspired by the men in her life. Even her greatest accomplishment, writing her book, was suggested by Jess. Before the revival came out, Alexis Bledel basically said “Hey everyone stop trying to guess who Rory will end up with. She has more important things going on. Like a career and a life.” Obviously I’m paraphrasing here, but it was suggested that it is frivolous to talk about Rory in terms of “Team Dean,” “Team Jess,” and “Team Logan.” And yet, that’s almost all the revival was about. Sure, we saw some career struggle, but for the most part we didn’t hear about her career over the 10 years in between the last episode and the revival. We didn’t really see her succeeding in writing or in a stable job. All we saw was her floundering and barely keeping her head above water while obsessing over Logan. Maybe that was the point because it was setting up the end where she gets her book together and is going to raise this kid on her own, but I think it doesn’t do much for female empowerment.
  3. The characters really haven’t gone anywhere. For the most part, it seems like no time at all has passed since the last episode of the official series. There has been speculation that this is because Sherman-Palladino didn’t write the 7th season and so wanted this to be her final say of how it should end. But the impression it gives off is that all the characters are pretty stagnant. Lorelai to some degree realizes this with her Wild-inspired hiking trip. But that trip ends with her not even hiking, staring at a hill and then deciding to marry Luke. And we all knew she should marry Luke 10 years ago. Maybe we were supposed to feel like this was a giant step for her, but it really didn’t feel very climactic. I appreciate that in real life change is often subtle. Big steps are often made out of a lot of small steps, but I can’t even see where the small steps are going for the Gilmore Girls. Again maybe that is the point. But I’m not satisfied.

End rant. I know I am taking this way too seriously considering it is just a tv show, but some shows kind of become intertwined with your life. Especially for shows like Gilmore Girls, Friends, Sex and the City and other long-life series, you kind of grow up with them and the trajectory of the characters can sometimes mirror the trajectory of your own life. You relate to them and take some comfort in the story, seeing yourself reflected in many of the characters and your life reflected in many of the events. The biggest source of the disappointment for me I think in Gilmore Girls is that now the ultimate lesson of the show is life comes full circle. Whereas before, for me at least, the main lessons of the show were the strength of the bond between mother and daughter and the power that women have to take control of their lives. And now we are left with this ending that basically suggests we are powerless in the face of destiny and incapable of forging our own paths.

-S

“13th”

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As promised, some of this blog will contain light-hearted Netflix recommendations to break up the seriousness, except this one is not so light-hearted. A couple weeks ago I watched the Netflix documentary “13th” and was deeply moved by it. The documentary centers around the 13th amendment: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” The director, Ava DuVernay, focuses on the clause “except as punishment for a crime” in examining the ways that modern mass incarceration has been a continuation of slavery and free labor and has crippled the black community.

The documentary traces the history of black oppression post-slavery, from lynchings to the Jim Crow laws, to the war on drugs, to the documented police shootings of unarmed black men. Part of her argument surrounds the depiction of black people in post-slavery America as criminal and a threat to the safety of society. She examines the way that this implicit (or at times explicit) bias has played a part in political policy, laws and the enforcing of those laws.

I won’t outline point by point the brilliance of this documentary in this post. All I will say is, if you have ever doubted even for a second that racial oppression has been systematically and intentionally carried out in the last century in America, please watch this film. If you have ever believed that our justice system is colorblind and free of bias, please watch this film.

As a white person, racial inequality can be very difficult to talk about. I was hesitant to even write this post because I was worried I wouldn’t be able to strike the right tone. But this documentary shook me to my very core. And I think if we want to be people who fight for justice and equality, we have to allow ourselves to be so affected by things. And then we have to be brave enough to talk about them. In the film, they discuss effectiveness of videos of police shootings in bringing to light this oppression. This documentary serves the same purpose. It forces us to see injustice and challenges us not to look away. We can’t fight it if we refuse to see it. In summary, watch “13th” and other documentaries like it. Read articles that challenge your beliefs. Engage in dialogues that promote understanding and educate yourself every chance you get.

-S