Saturday, April 27, 2013

Prom Issue

I realized a second after I hit "publish" yesterday that I hadn't written about what I was really thinking about yesterday. What has been bothering me was the prom issue of the school magazine, which was distributed yesterday and which rather displeased me.

Disclosure: I am not a card-carrying feminist. I believe in equal pay for equal work, that women are underrepresented in various fields and that that is a problem that should be fixed organically (meaning: not affirmative action), and that girls face social pressures that most boys do not. However, political correctness bothers me inherently and I did not expect myself to be so offended by some of the [censored] things said in yesterday's issue.

Clarification: I am not against prom. I think it sounds like a lot of fun and the only reason I didn't go this year was because the tickets were $10 more expensive than my cutoff. What offends me are the attitudes toward/around prom that were put forth in the school newspaper.

Warning: this is going to be shaped distinctly like a rant. I mention fairy tales later.


"How to behave like a gentleman and lady": "Your goal is to look as elegant as possible."

I have nothing against elegance; in fact, I like it and I see nothing intrinsically wrong with having it as a goal, as long as you keep in mind that trying to be effortless is an oxymoron of great magnitude. Further, there is indeed a correlation between how you're dressed and how you carry yourself.

However: telling girls that they should focus on how they look instead of how they feel cuts against my notion of progress. What is the purpose of a school dance? To have fun with your friends. I haven't been to a prom (and I'm not going until next year) but extrapolating from my experience at formal, self-consciousness about your appearance is a good way not to have fun.

"When you're talking to your date, don't control the conversation. Allow the other person to do at least half of the talking."

In other words, each of you should talk half the time. Fair enough. But "don't control the conversation" needs to be explained. Don't bring up interesting topics? Why didn't they just write "let the conversation go naturally"? These lines do not so much offend me as bemuse me.

"Hold the door open, stand up when she approaches the table and pull out her chair...Ladies, let the boy do these things for you. It's much more elegant to show you appreciate the effort that to tell him he doesn't need to be courteous."

People should hold doors open for one another in general. As for the rest of it - chivalry is a weird concept. It blends treating people nicely (a good thing) with the assumption that they can't handle it otherwise (a bad thing). Being treated like a glass figurine may well be fun for some girls; however, many of the girls I'm friends with would not, in fact, "appreciate the effort." Does that make us unclassy? So be it.

It seems bizarre, in 2013, that it should be necessary for boys to do everything and for girls to be told not to tell the truth.


"Who's got it worse for prom?"

I hope I will not be taken as prejudiced against my own gender when I say that I agreed much more with the argument that boys have it harder, on average. Also, the article arguing that girls have it harder was full of...whining.

"Imagine the feeling a girl gets while waiting around for a prom date, especially if all of her other friends have already been asked. Also, remember that girls cannot make any other plans because they have no idea if anyone is going to ask them or not, and they don't want to seem clingy or aggressive by asking the boy themselves."

Fairy tale thinking is often useful. For example, the next three weeks I will be in the Testing Mountains where I must slay nine giants before descending into the valley where I may frolic among cypresses and libraries and movie nights with friends. (Incidentally, that is why the next three weeks I will not have live posts.)

However, choosing to see yourself as the princess in the tower who needs a knight to come and save her? Not useful. Why on earth should a girl not make plans even before knowing if she's going to have a date? And why shouldn't the girl ask if she likes someone who is available?

That paragraph irked me so much that I am seriously contemplating asking someone to prom next year. No, not a specific someone, but I came up with a Very Cool proposal that involves integrating 1 with respect to y. *

"Girls are attracted to confident boys, so if you act reassured there will be a greater chance of her saying yes. In reality, no girl is mean enough to say no unless she has a boyfriend of a boy she has already made plans with."

Way to generalize. I would be put off by a guy who assumed that I would say yes if we hadn't already discussed plans. Leaving room open for rejection shows greater trust ("I trust you will not laugh at me even if you say no") and respect ("I cannot take you for granted").

Also: girls who reject prom proposals are not "mean". They are being honest with themselves and with the asking boy, which is far more honorable than leading someone on or accepting out of pity. A friend of mine turned down a boy for formal (which I know isn't prom) because she knew he would take it the wrong way if she said yes (i.e. he'd assume that she was open to a relationship with him).

"So get off your lazy bums and ask a beautiful girl to prom."

Let us examine the arguments the writer has made thus far:

0) All girls dream of going to prom.
1) A girl can't go to prom unless she is asked.
2) If she is asked, she must say yes to the first boy who does so.
3) Only beautiful girls are worthy of being asked.

Therefore: only beautiful girls can go to prom, and they will go with the first boy that asks them, potentially leading to a disappointing evening all around.

Fairy tales again: a thief sneaks into a garden in which the statues are women who have been turned to stone. He steals the prettiest one and reanimates her. This ends well for no one.

-the statues left behind are still stone (because of course you can't have fun if you don't go to prom)
-the pretty statue is stuck with a thief (she obviously needed him to reanimate her and she can't help that he was the first one to arrive)
-the thief has to go through all the trouble of reanimation, and he can't be sure that the girl actually wants to be with him because she has to go with the first one to rescue her (since they couldn't discuss anything beforehand)


Those two articles were the most cringeworthy in the issue (aside from a bitter anti-prom rant that was simply uncomfortable to read). However, there were other things that bothered me:

1) It's okay not to go to prom because tons of celebrities didn't go to their proms!
2) The perfect girl is demure, blushes at the drop of a hat, likes soppy romantic movies, and does whatever you want.

In other news, the last good humanities teacher I've ever had used to be an amateur calf wrangler.


* Explanation:
∫dy = y + c
In other words: yes + si'

Friday, April 26, 2013

Stereotypes, the Choosing and Feeding Of

Third week in a row posting something relating to identity. Is my teenage insecurity showing?

In other news (same news, really), English class was actually thought- (and ire-) provoking this week. For a unit on pop culture we watched the movie The Breakfast Club, the premise of which is high school stereotypes. In the post-film discussion, someone brought up the question of why characters dress as they do.

As usual, that reminded me of a Goss post: Death on the Nile. Goss discusses how characters in Agatha Christie's stories are often stereotypes (I can't vouch for that myself, since I've not yet had the chance to read the Miss Marple short story collection I got last week) and, more centrally, how
 ...appearance is a series of codes. We know the codes (although different people might know different codes), and we use them to create our public selves.


At my school, many girls wear yoga pants and North Face jackets and earrings and makeup. The code here usually indicates: rich, white, potentially spoiled, probably in AP humanities classes, sports involvement possible, Valley Girl inflections, flirtatious, outgoing. Also, probably not very smart.

However, I should not be so superior. The yoga pants girls are declaring their allegiance to a group and a value system different from mine, but that does not mean I am any more of an individual than they are.

Last year I overheard a girl explaining to her friend why she was trying out for swim despite the tough practice schedule: "What I really want is a duffel bag and a sweater with my name on it." In other words, to belong to a group. I don't do school sports, but I suspect that part of the reason I wear my band jacket so often (despite it being obnoxiously red) is because it is, indeed, a sweater with my name on it. (My euph is the "duffel bag", though the dimensions, I would argue, are more inconvenient.)

My appearance, then, stereotypes me as a band geek (the jacket) + Asian math/science nerd (glasses + messy haircut).

So far so standard. But I noticed, looking at this blog, though I do have content related to those aspects of my personality, it's subsumed by the angry music and links to writing articles and fumbling attempts at developing a personal philosophy.

The stereotypes we commonly associate with ourselves are approximations, and there's a whole lot of rounding error.

Next question: what makes someone choose one set of stereotypes over another? Most of those decisions are probably default. You make a small decision and then momentum does the rest.

If I had (the horror!) chosen choir over band in sixth grade, I certainly would not be the same person. Though I do respect a lot of the advanced choir girls for their musicianship, I maintain that there's a certain level of mastery that people who play instruments access that is inaccessible to people who are simply vocalists. Then there's the discipline of marching. And again, the individual cultures of the two groups: we have band staff, they have choir council.

Sorry, this is petty. But it does illustrate: how much of my ire is my opinion, and how much is because band kids are supposed to laugh at choir kids? (We actually get along fine, honest, in the upper strata. I will not speak for the freshmen.)

Next question: how can I judge people based on appearance when I know that my school persona leaves many of my interests (mythology, ancient history, Stoicism, fantasy and magic systems, etc.) covered? After all, I don't live in a murder mystery (so I hope). People do unexpected things. Maybe that girl with the dark roots and the lululemon athletica lunch bag actually knows everything about Aztec theology. I can't say for certain that she doesn't. Perhaps she has good reasons to pretend, to hide.

If people don't know who you really are, how can they possibly harm you? Stereotypes are hungry things. They will swallow all the cast stones.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Voice Under Construction

Most writing advice runs something like this:

1. Read a lot.
2. Write a lot.
3. Iterate.

Somewhere in that process, you build a voice. So they say.


1. Read a lot.

I've been on a book-acquiring streak the past two days:

Free books from my school library:
  • Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)
  • The Prince (Niccolo' Machiavelli)
  • Flatland (Edwin A. Abbott)

Cheap books from my public library ($3.50 for the lot):
  • Essays in Science (Albert Einstein)
  • The Joy of Mathematics (Theoni Pappas)
  • Miss Marple Short Stories (Agatha Christie)
  • Palladio (Desmond Guinness and Julius Trousdale Sadler, Jr.)
Yes, I do have too much stuff. But books are easily curated and in every choice of which book to keep on your shelves or banish to the negative space in your room, you make a decision of what kind of person you are, even if in a minor way.

So I'm going to read these books and in the reading will adopt or discard the aspects that do/not resonate with me. Here's a justification for reading lots of books v. only Literature: increasing the amount of material you have to work with increases your exposure to things in books (I'm deliberately using a vague term because those "things" might be character types, plot structures, a phrase, a setting) that you might want to use in your own writing.


2. Write a lot.

"I have not so much thought my way through life as done things and found what it was and who I was after the doing. Each tale was a way of finding selves. Each self found each day slightly different from the one found twenty-four hours earlier."
-Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

Surprise yourself when you write. A lot of writers love to hate outlines, and while I (architect sympathizer that I am) appreciate a story with good bones, I do agree that constraining your writing too much will harm it. Not so much because writing done to outline is subpar, but because if you prune tangents mercilessly you miss out on the best plot turns and subconscious insights.

Writing a story is a little like sight-reading. You look over your sheet music (your outline), you maybe read about the history and style of the piece (your research), but you don't know what's going to happen until the instrument is on your face and the conductor gives the downbeat (you write).

Microexamples because you know how I love my ill-fitting metaphors: you see a sixteenth note run and you think "eh, that looks chromatic, I can handle it" and then when you get to it the accidentals are all wrong and you start freaking out just a tad (you figure "they'll travel through the desert for two months, standard fare, right?" and then you realize that they'll run out of money by the third day out). You miss seeing a key change (you send your characters off hunting giants and realize a little too late that you have no idea how that kind of thing works).

--> To return to the argument. Writing a lot is also a way of discovering your voice as a writer/your identity as a human being because people are all multi-faceted and no one story can encompass everything. That was probably the main reason I wrote several short pieces after finishing revisions on The Utopia Project - because (I'm about to sound arrogant and self-absorbed, get ready) I felt immense regions of my mind laying unmapped and I wanted to explore.

In short: writing a lot and freely helps you explore the potentials both of your WIP and of your mind.


3. Iterate

Redundant, as the first two instructions do have "a lot" in them. Though perhaps not so redundant: read a lot, write a lot (and what you write will probably be influenced by what you read). Follow different paths, which you may not have considered before. Read based on what things call to you the most. Write more (incorporating the new influences).

Calibrate. I feel as though I'm encouraging limitation, but really, what I'm advocating is forming a coherent body of work that will always contain room to change. (I approached this in (C)o(r)pus, from August of last year.)

Trees are always growing, yes? Further, trees are varied, and they are beautiful. Make like a tree, and photosynthesize. And no, I did not quite break the title's metaphor: trees like bricks are matter, and so does what you say.


Music for this week:

Alone Not Lonely - Evans Blue

Friday, April 12, 2013

Show Thyself

We do not really know each other, do we?

Many factors, converging to one thought: masks.


Various people have said that the self is too immutable and mysterious a thing to discover and that self-knowledge can only be achieved through oblique methods: doing stuff and learning about yourself from how you acted. I am not disagreeing at all. I am merely focusing on the second part of the process: reflection.

Various people have said that when you define yourself by what you're not, you give up your control over your identity. I am disagreeing with that: cutting away the aspects of yourself that are not actually you helps. Start removing masks. You may never reach your real face but there will be less weighing you down.


I've been planning a post about how clothing choices reflect self for a while, but I don't think it's worth it waiting to put those observations into their own post. Thus: the way one dresses conveys a message of the self to the world. Physical presentation is a shorthand for telling others what you're like.

Since it's spring I've been going through the normal routine of digging out my warm-weather clothes and consigning my sweaters to the back of my closet. As I do so, I come across clothes that I used to wear a lot but that now do not seem accurately to reflect who I am and what I want to be perceived as. Because I am a teenage girl living in a white-bread suburb, I have too many clothes already: by subtraction I achieve a set of garments that I can don without second-guessing myself.

Relevant quote:

When a girl feels that she's perfectly groomed and dressed she can forget that part of her. That's charm.
-F. Scott Fitzgerald

To reinterpret: wear clothes that do not get in the way of who you are.

Yet more relevant quote:

An authentic life is when your inner life finds full, compelling expression in your outer life.
-Justine Musk

So I swear I'm not just a shallow kid (I am a shallow kid, but not just that): this talk of clothes is really only a facet of how people either mask or show who they are.


But clothing choices are conscious. When a girl (or a boy, but I'm a girl so I'll use an example about which I know something) chooses to wear x in set {yoga pants, jeans, dress, shorts, sweats}, she is aware of the implications of her choice. She knows, even if she doesn't articulate it to herself, what people will conclude about her based on what she's wearing.

In the morning when you choose your clothing you also choose from the masks lined up on the dresser. But there are other masks that are fused to the face, that sink in while you are asleep, and those are just as interesting as the ones protecting us from the world.


While I disagree with Marx on almost everything, I do believe he was onto something by emphasizing the dialectic process. Everyone is a reactionary to something. I do love physics, but the reason I don't shut up about it is probably because of the way a lot of people involved in the arts seem to put down science and technology. Last month a friend, of sorts (meaning we've known each other since elementary school but have never been close) called me out on affecting to be less feminine than I really am, because of the social stigma equating two X chromosomes with weakness.

Notice the direction of both these masks. More STEM, more masculine: more powerful, in short.

Now I'm about to quote something with which I initially took umbrage, but which surprised me with working. I ask you: suspend disbelief. We are both probably stubborn people (most people think of themselves as determined), but please, reserve judgment until you have tried it.

I quote extensively from Justine Musk: how to unlock personal truth through intuitive writing.
Take a piece of paper and pen...Write down the question

If I were an animal, what animal would I be?

Clear your mind.

Write down your answer.

Now...switch your pen to your other hand, your nondominant writing hand, and keep it there.

Look over the question.

Take a deep, calming breath and settle into your mind again.

Put pen to paper. Don’t worry about the fact that your handwriting is about to resemble the scrawls of a psychotic first grader. Open yourself to the exercise. Suspend criticism. Just let yourself answer the question however you will; let the thoughts flow.
Do it. Seriously. Go.
Chances are you wrote down two different answers.
I did.
When answering with their dominant hand, most people write down horse, dog, cat or bird.

(I was no different. When I did this exercise, my dominant-hand answer was tiger.)
 I - er - wrote down dragon.
This tends to be an aspirational answer. In other words, this is how you would like to see yourself. This is the self-image to which you aspire.
Dragon is indeed aspirational: big, deadly, too powerful to ignore, with opportunity for magnanimity. In books, the dragon is usually wise or snarky, and can definitely take care of itself.
When we switch over to the nondominant hand, the answers get a lot more interesting.
Indeed. I wrote down - to my immense surprise - siphonophore:

The subconscious is constantly absorbing and processing information, sending up hunches, flashes of insight, gut feelings. By switching the pen to your nondominant hand, it’s like you find a way to surface this hidden stream of nonverbal intelligence and translate it to words on the page.

The answer you wrote down with your nondominant hand is how you actually see yourself.
Not sure how I feel about being a creature that dissolves into gelatin when you take it out of water. What if school is my "water" and I'm unable to function in the real world?
We want to think of ourselves as powerful – but is being the biggest, strongest, most “dangerous”, the only way to be powerful?

After a little bit of research:
Most siphonophores are sit and wait predators- after an active bout of swimming they cast a wide net of tentacles and wait for fish and crustaceans to swim into them. Most of the nematocysts of siphonophores are tightly packed into the side branches of the tentacles, called tentilla. It has previously been hypothesized that the tentilla of some shallow-dwelling species look like small crustaceans when illuminated by the sun, and that they act as lures that attract fish to their nematocysts (Purcell, 1980).

This cuts against what I usually think of myself. In fencing I always attack first; in roshambo, I always throw rock. But I do like the thought of being the kind of person who can set and spring a trap, that conquers through stillness. A big, mysterious, unnerving, serene creature. A beautiful monster.

I could live with that.


Music for this week:

Welcome to the Masquerade - Thousand Foot Krutch

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Long Arm of Gravity

Spring Break. A whole nine days without school. Hurrah.

And yet: external forces keep breaking in.


Notes on what helps me, personally, get stuff done on break:
  • Get up before 1000
  • Do things that could (but won't) drag on indefinitely in the morning (i.e. researching colleges)
  • Do something rigorous before eating lunch (i.e. practicing an instrument)
  • Do something different in the afternoon than what you did in the morning
  • Go on long walks in mid-afternoon (1500-1700)
  • Read after coming back
  • Underestimate what you can get done after dinner
  • Get off the computer before 2300

Your mileage may vary.


Do I sound self-satisfied? I'm not, really. It is Friday and I look at the writing I've done and...there's not much of it.

The future is springing up on me: AP testing, finals, the grim specter of college applications. This week, I must confess, was spent mostly catering to these kinds of things. Though I shouldn't use the word "cater": the studying and research I did this week are important, and I feel more prepared for taking on the next month and a half after having done them. But I am really a selfish person and I regret that I couldn't do more for myself this week.

Visualize, if you will, a potential energy well: a deformation in space-time. Here, I'll help.


The planet in the center is the future of my education and I am obliged to bow to its influence. Obligations are the property most apparent, the most visible evidence of how things are linked. I knew I was made of matter long before I knew I had atomic nuclei.

The strong force holds protons together. Its power, as you might guess from the name, is immense. And yet it has little T-Rex arms, and operates only on short distance. You can't see it in action directly the way you can see that an apple will fall if you let it go.

Everything I do for myself - writing, creating, learning stuff outside of school is somewhat analogous to the strong force. Well, it's a little more apparent than that - let's call it electromagnetism. It generates counter-intuitive effects (electrons fall up; short poems may cause more headaches than long stories), it's immensely powerful (art is the opposite of violence, yes?), and if it didn't operate, we creators, we Reapers and Rejoicers, would fall apart.

But it can be difficult to justify, even to yourself, the merits of working on the story instead of the school project, making character designs instead of study guides. Even if you're falling to sleep over your notes and quizzes, even if you know you'd work late into the night reworking that plot twist - there is guilt. Your story takes a hard right and you don't know if it's because it'll make the story more interesting or if you're just plain out of ideas. Instead of figuring that out, why don't you go analyze someone else's rhetoric?

I'm sorry to sound bitter. I did enjoy reviewing Maclaurin series, and I do love me some improper integrals. But sometimes, I wish I could seize the long arm of gravity, and break it.