Tuesday, December 29, 2015


Forty-seven is not an especially notable number. It’s a prime number, but then a lot of numbers are—an infinite number of numbers, in fact. Pretty much the only fame associated with that number that comes to mind is the story of the 47 Ronin. No, not the movie starring Keanu Reeves which for no apparent reason takes a tale of samurai in feudal Japan and inserts into it … Keanu Reeves. I’m talking about the original 18th century story, in which 47 men go on a long-term quest for honorable vengeance, not one them ever bursting into an air guitar riff and saying “excellent!”

The ronin were masterless samurai, treated as outcasts. The 47 samurai at the heart of this story became ronin after their master was forced to kill himself due to the machinations of a petty but well-connected bureaucrat. The men plotted revenge against the bureaucrat, as they felt their code of honor demanded—even though revenge was forbidden by law. Importantly, their plan took time. They needed to convince the authorities that they in fact had no such desire for vengeance, that they had accepted their disgraced state for good. They got low-level jobs, dressed and spoke and acted like common laborers, appearing for all the world like they had abandoned their samurai ethic completely. When the day came that they realized the bureaucrat’s spies were no longer watching, they made their move. They assembled, fought their way into the bureaucrat’s home, and killed him. They were punished, of course, but out of respect they were granted an honorable death by suicide instead of execution.

The story of the 47 ronin is suspenseful and exciting, but in truth there’s not a whole lot of personal takeaway for me. I suppose if I were, say, Klingon, I’d really dig the idea of dying with honor in the interest of justice, though really just about every culture in every era has loved revenge stories. As long as we’ve been able to perceive that injustice is being done to us and that the powers that be are unable or unwilling to do anything about it, we’ve dreamed of being able to right the wrongs in our own way. It helps that revenge stories tend to be simple ones: someone innocent is treated unfairly by someone rotten; therefore, it is only right that the perpetrator be punished. Even when the story isn’t quite so simple—it doesn’t take a Shakespearian scholar to realize that vengeance-seeking Hamlet kills far more innocent people than his uncle ever did—we still choose to see it simplistically. In reality, life is seldom that straightforward, and so, though we crave revenge, we usually have little choice but to choke down our rage and move bitterly on.

That said, the fact that the ronin get revenge isn’t as notable as how they get revenge. They took their time, you see. In truth, all they had to do to uphold their code and die an honorable death was to try to avenge their master. But the 47 ronin didn’t just make an attempt; they made absolutely certain they would succeed, even if it meant being temporarily disgraced, even if it meant appearing for all the world as if they had abandoned the one thing they valued the most. That’s doing things the hard way, to say the least, requiring steadfast focus on an ultimate goal. So much could have gone wrong for the 47 during those long months they waited, it had to have been hard to keep believing all this would be worth it in the end. 

That’s maybe the one part of the story that speaks to me. How do you know a difficult endeavor is going to be worth it in the end? Or, put more broadly, how do you keep going? It is simply not true that good things come to those who wait; sometimes you get lucky, sometimes sooner and sometimes later, but sometimes not at all. Not everyone gets their goal; not everyone gets justice, or love, or happiness, just for being patient and keeping the faith, just because time passes and surely, surely it can’t be much longer, surely you’re due for a win. During those times when I felt like I had dug a deep hole in the middle of my life and fallen into it, it was no consolation to me to think that one day things would be better. They might be, sure, but how was I supposed to get there? How was that going to help me get out of the damn hole? I didn’t know, and I couldn’t just believe it would all work out somehow. I kept going only because I didn’t know what else to do. The ronin picked something to do and did it, kept doing it, and that got them through their lives. My life does not even remotely resemble that of an 18th century samurai, but right now, one day shy of 47 years old, I can at least say that all 48 of us, the ronin and I, somehow figured out how to keep going.

It would be tempting, feeling pleased with my life right now as I do, to say yes, it was worth it, all that crap I put myself through, totally worth it, all I had to do was get through and sure enough, good things came to me for waiting. That’s the payoff of the story of the 47 Ronin, after all, the fact that they went through so much to reach their goal and were rewarded with everlasting glory, as here we are, hundreds of years later, still admiring their valor. But we ourselves are not samurai, or Klingons, or Shakespearian heroes; we’re real and we’re alive right now, which means there’s still more we’ll have to get through. Will there be a payoff? Eh, who knows. The story isn’t over just yet.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The beautiful mystery

It would appear that Santa’s bag this year is going to include a whole lot of selfie-sticks. If my friends’ kids are any indication of the nationwide—perhaps even worldwide—trend, people are becoming whimsically narcissistic at ever earlier ages. Oh don’t frown; I have nothing against selfies (though my own phone does not take photos and the only use I’d have for a selfie-stick would be to reach things on tall shelves because I’m too lazy to get the steppy stool). It’s fun to record moments of your life that might otherwise be forgotten, and to share those moments with other people, and as for critics who claim this practice increases our already disturbingly aggrandized self-absorption, well, clearly that’s not just a factor of selfies alone. People have always cared about how they look; we just have far greater means to satisfy that need. And this brings me to the very atypical subject of my post: beauty. 

This is a huge departure for my writing, and not just because I mostly focus on running, reading, ‘riting, and, er, recipe-ing. Back when I taught freshman composition, I would cringe as soon as I read the opening paragraph of an essay criticizing the way “society” establishes “standards of beauty” that are harmful and wrong. As soon as I see that, I know exactly how the essay is going to go, I know the essay is going to make a lot of good points, and I know it’s going to conclude in a way that will make me sigh and wish I’d become a math teacher. One great thing about math, it’s beautiful without making anyone feel like they need to emulate that beauty. Not so human beauty, and therein lies what I see as the true problem with this ever-popular topic.

We learn from a very early age the power of beauty. The cutest babies get the most attention, after all, and attention is what it’s all about when you’re almost entirely reliant on other people to survive. Imprinted on our brains forever after is the idea that beauty means survival—and, eventually, power. The attractive kids in school are more popular, both with their peers and with adults. People listen to them, want to be friends with them, are far more willing to see them in a positive light, to give them the benefit of the doubt. And of course when puberty hits, well, beautiful is more important than everything else put together. Let’s not kid ourselves: Beautiful people are loved.

Of course this isn’t fair, but it is true for pretty much everyone who relies on visual information. And it is far more significant for girls and women than for boys and men. Obviously physically attractive men have a huge advantage over those who aren’t considered so, but “beautiful” is not a word commonly applied to or associated with maleness. For a woman, though—well, I’ll say from personal experience that it is hard to go a single day without seeing some kind of message or image relating to female beauty.

The fact that beauty is associated with femaleness far more than maleness is one key reason why I believe that any kind of spin you put on the concept of beauty is still going to end up doing more harm than good. No matter how much you want to argue that a person can be “beautiful” in ways that don’t just have to do with physical appearance, I still say that’s crap. People like to say that “inner beauty” is far more important than external attractiveness, but that’s pretty much meaningless. Why call it “inner beauty” when there are far more precise terms for it—kindness, caring, generosity, positivity? Even worse in my view is the recent push for women to “feel beautiful”—not to try to appear attractive to others but to feel beautiful in your own view. This is supposed to be empowering because it shows that your own view of yourself is the most important one there is. OK, but again, why “beautiful”? Why does it matter at all whether I feel like a physically attractive person? Why isn’t it more important to feel satisfied with my life, or excited about the possibilities for the future, or curious about our world? You can argue that if a woman feels beautiful, she will feel confident and empowered—but then why not skip over beautiful and move straight to confident and empowered?

No matter how you spin it, beauty is still going to be about the way you are perceived by others. And in my view, true empowerment comes when you stop worrying about how the world sees you—or even about how you see yourself—and start focusing on the way you see, interpret, deal with, and take action in the world. As weird as it sounds, I dream of the day I can go anywhere in the world without worrying about being stared at, for whatever reason, or ignored, unless that’s what I want. In other words, I want to not have to worry whether I’m beautiful or not because I know it isn’t really all that important.

Does this mean I go everywhere in rumpled clothes and no make-up and hair like a bird’s nest? Of course not. Like anyone else, I want to be taken seriously and granted the respect due to a human being, and that does entail paying attention to physical appearance. Does this mean I look presentable and polished but sexless? Oh hell no. I like to look attractive. I like making my boyfriend’s eyes light up when he sees me in something other than grungy workout clothes or prim-and-proper office attire. Let’s put it this way, despite the fact that you may spend hours creating an enticing profile on Match or some other online dating site, everyone knows full well that the teeny-tiny photo is what’s going to determine whether that profile gets read or not. It’s precisely because of this fact that I am so skeptical of any movement to expand the definition of beautiful.

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are some very good reasons why this definition has needed to be expanded. There was a time not too long ago when you’d be hard pressed to find any image of beauty that wasn’t fair-skinned. It is real progress that this is no longer true (even if more progress needs to be achieved). It is very wrong that a child with dark skin should be led to believe they will never be considered beautiful. It is also progress that we are finally starting to see a stronger push against thinness being the standard of beauty. The problem, however, as I see it is that making a standard of beauty more inclusive is not addressing the central issue. It may even make things worse in some ways because it continues to reinforce the idea that beauty is something everyone should value as important. Correction: beauty is something everyone should value as being important in women. Do men go around asking each other what makes them feel beautiful? I doubt it. Should they? I don’t see what they gain by doing so. Should women? Well, given my answers to the previous questions, no.

I do not look like a supermodel. Not even close. What’s more, no amount of money I pump into products and procedures will make me look like one (which is good, actually, given that I have no money for such pumping). And you know something—I’m really OK with that. There are women, lots of ‘em, who will always be considered more beautiful than I am. Hooray for them! I’m still OK with that. There are some places on this planet where I would be considered downright ugly. While I’m not happy with this fact, I’m also not expending a whole lot of energy worrying about it. The way the world reacts to my physical presence cannot be ignored, but should not be prioritized. I’m going to try to look my best because as I said at the start of this essay, we learn from an early age that beauty is power, yet I’m also going to focus considerably more of my attention on other things. Every window can show you a different view; the mirror always shows you the same damn thing.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Have a [emotional adjective] [name of celebratory day]

My sister sent me a holiday gift box the other day, consisting of foil-wrapped chocolate coins, a chocolate dreidel, a real dreidel, and ceramic candy dish in the shape of a dreidel. “SHALOM!” the coins proclaimed. No, I’m not Jewish, and neither is she, but the gift delighted me, as she’d figured it would, proving once more that no matter how different you are from your sibling, there’s still something you’ll share that nobody else in the world will get. 

When we were kids, our family pretty much phoned in the year-end holidays. Oh, we got a tree and some gifts and ate some sort of vaguely festive meal on December 25 and again a week later, but there wasn’t any more to it than that. Despite our parents’ both growing up in devoutly Christian families, my sister and I grew up godless heathens, so the religious aspects of the season went unobserved. What’s more, when you live in Hawaii, “winter solstice” is almost meaningless—you’re probably still going to the beach that day—and you figure out pretty quickly that a fat guy who brings presents by sliding down something called a “chimney” (which no one around you has) and gets to these “chimneys” in something known as a “sleigh” (which seems to be used to get around in the snow, which you’ve never seen) driven by “reindeer” (which live in snowy areas, which yeah you get the idea) is a lot of nonsense at which you smile and nod politely because adults seem to expect it. In other words, December does not really hold any personal significance for me other than being the month of my birth, and even that has tended to be an occasion for glumness rather than joy.

All that said, despite my cynicism, my utter disdain for all things sentimental, and my general dark-heartedness, I kind of like this time of year. It isn’t because of what the holidays mean, it’s simply because there are holidays at all. Things are different this time of year. Work slows down. There are more days off, more excuses to slack off and party on. The weather is changing, too, and while that isn’t always a welcome thing, nothing transforms a landscape like snow. And of course there’s food. Along with the chocolate dreidel, we are anticipating a large box of petit fours from a long-time client of the BF. The petit fours say “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year,” and I like to rearrange the letters in creative, slightly obscene ways.

At the same time, there are a lot of holiday “traditions” I just won’t do. I actually shop less around Christmas time than I do any other time of the year, which is to say not at all. I have nightmares about being stuck in the mall with crushing crowds and endless carols (why? why do they do it? why does every pop singer think they can do something different with the same awful songs? oh right, the money), but I figure there are plenty enough other people around to buoy the economy with their conspicuous consumption. It’s a coin toss as to whether the BF and I will actually stay up until midnight to ring in the new year; sometimes we’re up for it, but other times the old lady needs her sleep, dammit, so pipe down and pop that champagne cork elsewhere. And as for the old lady celebrating being a year older, well, usually the most celebratory thing I do on the second-to-last day of the year is go for a run in the woods to try to make whatever yearly mileage goal I’d set this time last year. Sometimes I make my goal. Sometimes the weather is so lousy I just say fuck this shit and go home. It’s my birthday and I’ll cuss if I want to.

For someone who has been relatively rootless all her life, the holidays pretty much mean whatever I decide to make them mean. With that in mind, why shouldn’t I celebrate Hanukkah? Or Mardi Gras, though I’m not Catholic, or Bastille Day, though I’m not French, or Groundhog Day, though I’m not a woodchuck nor do I hibernate, as enticing as that concept may be. To me, holidays aren’t about tradition but about change. A holiday is the chance to shake things up a bit, dress differently, eat different foods, see the familiar transformed into something more colorful, more whimsical and fun. I am well aware that some holidays are meant to be serious and solemn, that some have important historical significance to certain groups, that my appropriating them for my own sense of whimsy could be considered deeply insulting. I’m also well aware that many holidays are already completely misguided, based on partial information, the celebratory day chosen not because of historical accuracy but because people in power found it more convenient or strategically useful to hold them at that particular point in the year. Put all this together and the way I see it, the randomness is part of the reason we celebrate. We need a reason to stop and see things in a different way, and any reason will do, even a foolish or false one. As long as we can recognize the absurdity and the artifice, we can still enjoy the way holidays show us the possibility of transformation. So much of what happens in life is beyond our control, it’s nice that at least for a little while, we can change things, or hold on to them, or both, as necessary.