Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nobel Prizes vs. Friends

“How can I be in the top 1%? I don't study that much. I mean, are the kids in Michigan schools that stupid?”
– Lindsay Weir, Freaks & Geeks episode 18, “Discos & Dragons”

“You're a good student, right? Do you ever think how powerful you could be if you never watched TV?”
– My friend Tyler

I always thought that one day someone would find me out. Surely my final high school exams would reveal the truth. University had to unmask me. At grad school they'd see right through me.

I'm starting to think they never will.

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me I'm brainy. I vividly recall the other kids in kindergarten saying I should skip first grade (as it turned out, I skipped what would have been second grade). I topped the class throughout school, and over the years I've amassed a not inconsiderable collection of scholarships and academic prizes.

And the whole time I've been waiting, just waiting, for someone to point out the emperor's nudity. For me to max out my academic prowess. For my grades to reflect the amount of work I put in, not the vast ability to intellectually BS I was apparently born with.

I'm starting to think it will never happen.

I haven't always carried the guilt of the lazy A-student. As a prepubescent, I actually did work jolly hard. I consider my 13+ Common Entrance exams (which I took at 12, yada yada) to be the pinnacle of my academic career, because I studied hard and reaped my just reward. Everything since has felt unearned.

And yet the A grades and the accolades have kept coming, even as I've coasted through on the minimum of effort. I've mastered the art of working just hard enough to make people think I am very smart, and no harder. It does make me wonder, as Tyler said, what I could have accomplished if I'd kept on working as hard as I did when I was a preteen.

But I didn't; and actually TV's not to blame (I didn't start watching it until a few years later). The correlation I can pinpoint – the major factor that changed in my life at the same time that I started to coast academically – is that I started having friends.

Contrary to my prep school math teacher's predictions, I am never going to win the Nobel Prize for mathematics. But I am going to spend my leisure time with other humans who enjoy my company. My younger self might have been disappointed with my current self for making that choice, but I'd say it's a pretty fair tradeoff.

Of course, seeking validation through academic achievement is such a deeply ingrained part of my personality that if the tradeoff were, say, having friends but getting Bs, I'd be significantly more hesitant. But as long as the choice is Nobel Prizes or friends, I absolutely and without regret choose friends.

* * *

Having said all of which, grad school has just opened up a serious can of whoop on my ass, so if things are a little slow here at GCG over the next couple weeks, please bear with me. I'll be back on top of stuff just as soon as I can.

Monday, November 21, 2011

27 Days Later

That's all I fucking need, I think furiously. I check my planner: 27 days. Lately the intervals have gotten a few days shorter, hovering around the textbook 28, but flow duration is still longer than average. I've had 17 days off.

Looking at my planner, I remember what I thought last month, and the month before, and the month before that: That's all I fucking need. I think back over the past decade. Ten years – that's approaching half my life – I've been putting up with this monthly exodus of dark matter, and not once have I been able to feel anything remotely positive about it.

Every month: That's all I fucking need.

Fifteen years old, in the bathroom, crying and cursing my body for its monthly betrayal, uncontrollable, infuriating, pointless. Twenty-one years old, in the bedroom, being upbraided by my girlfriend for my squeamishness about bodily fluids. All the years in between, growing into feminism, learning to deconstruct my internalized misogyny, reading Steinem, finding out that many women see this as something empowering, something beautiful, something to celebrate.

I don't find it empowering.

I don't find it beautiful.

I don't want to celebrate it.

I'm utterly sick of trying not to hate it. I'm sick of trying to locate some essential femininity in it. Sick of trying to see it as emblematic of the life-giving facility of the female body. Sick of trying to view that same facility as a source of power rather than a source of visceral horror, something I would gladly relinquish given half a chance.

I hate it, this thing my body does. I want to be rid of it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dear NBC: About Community

No rational human could deny that our world is a very sick and broken place. (Well, maybe some dead white guy could.) Wars rage; people are beaten and raped; children die of preventable diseases; vast social and economic injustices crush lives in every way, from the smallest microaggressions to the ongoing famine no one is talking about in the Horn of Africa.

Yea, this brief tragic life is a vale of tears.

And yet, in the midst of all this horror and suffering, there arise, like shimmering soap bubbles on the wind, tiny glimmers of hope and beauty. These small moments of grace must be cherished like the fragile butterflies of love and happiness they are – not trampled under the jackboots of dream-crushing.

Community is one of these delicate flowers of blessing putting forth tentative blossoms of joy on the dung-heap that is this world. Last year I proved, using the most stringent scientific method, that Community is the best sitcom on television, and everything I said then holds true with cherries on top.

NBC, I understand that you are a business. Profits are your priority, and in comparison to the other three big networks you are struggling. But please, spare a thought for the bigger picture. In these times of unprecedented corporate greed, when the spiritual and artistic aspect of human existence has been almost entirely subsumed by the money-grubbing of the wealthiest among us, it is absolutely vital that Art be fostered wherever it raises its precious head.

Will future generations judge us on the profits we posted for this quarter, or on the lasting legacy of sublime emotional truth we produced?

Community is a flickering candle-flame in the long dark night of the collective human soul. For all our sakes, don't snuff it out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So, You Have A Crush On Me.

You're my friend, or perhaps a casual acquaintance. Or maybe you've just seen me at a bar or something. Whichever, something's gone awry in your brain chemistry, and now your feelings toward me are a little more than friendly.


Do not ask me out. Do not offer me a drink. Do not tell me you have a “thing” for me, as though telling me will somehow absolve you of the guilt you feel over mentally straying from your SO. Just don't.

I will not acquiesce to your advances. I am, with all the best will in the world, not interested. I do not need this information.

Prior to your outright telling me, I was not aware of your feelings for me. I have not picked up on your social cues. I cannot read the signs (and if I could I wouldn't believe them).

Your telling me changes things. Whatever stage of friendship we were at, whatever good thing we had going on, you ruined it. I value our friendship/acquaintanceship/strangership and I don't want it ruined by an aberration in your brain chemistry.

Repress those feelings. Squash them down inside. Turn it off like a light-switch. Your culture may tell you that it's healthy to get these things out in the open, but I'm telling you: if you just suppress it hard enough, it will go away. Or, you know, it won't; but either way I won't have to deal with it, and that's what matters.

In all seriousness, I'm frustrated by the concept that a close friendship will or must evolve into a romantic relationship. I think it's because our culture confers ultimacy on romantic/sexual relationships, and this necessarily entails devaluing friendship: think how many movies and TV shows you've seen where the protagonist throws over career, friends, and everything else for the sake of a romantic partner.

I wear flannel and dungarees and am pretty openly gay; and yet, even in this queer progressive community, my very close relationship with a male friend is constantly read as romantic (it honestly couldn't be less so). Thanks, wider culture.

In high school, I categorized my strong feelings for a (male, gay) friend as romantic, even though I had zero physical designs on him, because I'd internalized the cultural messages that any strong feelings I had for a boy must be construed as romantic. I didn't yet have the deconstructive tools to maintain a very intimate but wholly platonic friendship.

Now I do; and now I know that, for me, friendship – not romance, not sex, but real true friendship – is the ultimate in human relationships. And that, in essence, is why I don't want people crushing on me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

BRB, Sobbing Forever

"'Community' Benched".


Excuse me. I... I need to be alone right now.

(And yes, I know it's not technically canceled yet, but springs to mind something about writing and walls.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Wings on a Pig": The Inevitable Rise Of The Christian Left

I know I link to him all the time (it's because he's awesome), but the very reverend Mr John Shore has a new book out. It's called Wings on a Pig: Why the “Christian” View of Gays Doesn't Work, and you all who are able should definitely buy it, because it is a most excellent collection of Shore's refreshingly direct essays on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity (ending with the clearest, most brilliant, most faithful and biblically-sound refutation of the clobber passages I've ever read), interspersed with letters of testimony from gay Christians, one of which may or may not be – well, they're anonymous...


Aside from the excitement of seeing words what I wrote in eInk, I think it is a super-important book. (Did I mention that I contributed to it?) On the ground, the issue of Teh Gays really is causing major upheaval in America's churches (and to a lesser extent, if only because of the vastly lesser role of religion in UK society, in Britain's).

This makes me think there's a very striking disconnect between the theologies of my queer progressive Bay Area seminary and the theologies of Middle America. Here, we don't talk about whether God has a problem with gays, because we're all gay or gay-adjacent. Here, admitting “actually I believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human and that he died for my sins” is tantamount to outing yourself as a paid-up member of the Religious Right. Here, being a far-leftist as well as a Christian does not make you a *~~*special snowflake*~~* (you should see the amount of activism and support on our campus toward the Occupy movement).

And yet, during my two years in a conservative Christian church, being a far-leftist gay Christian did make me a *~~*special snowflake*~~*; and, for tons of people all across this country, the same is true. The testimonies in John's book assure me of that.

Even so, I do have hope for the future of Christianity in this country. While I was living across the Pond, getting all my US news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Rachel Maddow Show, and AlterNet, I very much got the impression that the Religious Right was the primary – if not only – vocal Christian movement in the States. Progressivism, of course, went hand-in-hand with secularism – a universal extrapolation I, like many others (including prominent theorists who really should know better), made from the example of Western Europe.

But that's not how things are going in America. Religion is still a hugely powerful force in this country, uniquely so among industrial nations, and that's not changing anytime soon. (Did you know how much effort and money the '08 Obama campaign put into religious outreach? Because it was a lot.)

What could – and, I hope, will – change soon is the tide of religious feeling. Contrary to the messages of much of the media, the religious left is a dynamic force in the United States, and I believe it's on the rise. It may still be a smallish force, but it's gaining momentum among the young people and on the internet and in the queer-progressive-heretical seminaries and everywhere that people are having the courage to consider the issues for themselves, seek out resources like John's book, and defy the party line of Christian conservatism.

The religious left is here, it's queer(-friendly), and it's not going away.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Happily Ever After

My grandmother likes to say that, if she ruled the world, she would outlaw ending fairy tales with “...and they got married and lived happily ever after.” Instead, they would end: “... and they got married, and some days were better and some days were worse, but they both worked jolly hard at it and forged a loving mutual partnership, and I guess you could call that happiness.”

Of course, if I were writing fairy tales, they wouldn't involve marriage at all. The happily-ever-after would be something along the lines of “...and that lonely little girl grew up to have multiple kickass friends on several continents, and they were most excellent people.”

Then again, maybe calling that a happily-ever-after is a little premature. As Herodotus put it, “call no one happy until ey dies.” So, natch, I've been thinking: what is happy?

Since I started grad school, I'm happier than I've ever been. I love California, I love my studies, and I love my new friends (I TOTALLY HAVE FRIENDS HERE, YOU GUYS). Never before have I so quickly and easily found a place where I slotted in, made friends, felt at home: in both high school and undergrad, it wasn't until my second year that I really got comfortable, whereas here I felt totally settled by my second month.

That doesn't mean some days aren't difficult (though so far I've only had one really awful day, and most of that was fury at a profoundly horrible decision on the part of the UK government), and it certainly doesn't mean I'm in a perpetual state of bliss. I'm still human and this is still a human situation.

The thing about happiness – or this thing that I'm calling happiness while I'm still alive, at any rate – is that it necessarily carries with it an undercurrent of sadness. I've noted this at other times when I would characterize my general state as happy (final year of high school, spring through fall of my second and third years of undergrad, my summer 2010 travels around Europe with the then-girlfriend): true happiness is, for me, always accompanied by an awareness that this too shall pass.

Maybe it's different if you're a real, settled grown-up with, like, a career and stuff, but as long as you're planning your life in increments of two or three years, every period of joy you find also brings you the pain of knowing that it will be over soon. I'm in a two-year master's degree program; even next year won't be the same, as some of my friends will have graduated, and the year after that – who knows?

And that's the looming shadow of mortality. Any day, any minute, I or one (or all; oh hai, San Andreas fault) of my friends could snuff it, and it'd be sayonara to this precarious happiness. Any account of the good life has to encompass the tragic transience of human existence; and that knowledge, I think, is what transforms mere surface happiness into the deep, sorrow-tinged contentment that is joy.

This too shall pass: it's a source of sadness, and it's a clarion call to carpe diem, to make the most of this fleeting delight for as long as you're graced with its presence.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Quiet Days

Almost every other day, somebody says to me, “Are you okay? You're very quiet today.”

Recently, after a pleasant dinner with the gang, one friend (who prides herself on her emotional astuteness) texted me: “I can't help but notice that you didn't look okay earlier.” My repeated assurances that nothing was wrong seem to have convinced her only that I am unwilling to share with her my deep emotional pain and trauma.

So I asked another, less emotionally-charged friend if I had looked somehow not okay at dinner. He said to me, “Sometimes you're very talkative, and other times you're very quiet.”

Well, duh. Why does this confuse people?

When we were teenagers, my very best friend, who I have known my entire life, used to say pretty often, “You're very quiet today.” I wondered how many quiet days I would have to have before she cottoned on, but I attributed her repeated confusion to her extroversion (in contrast to my textbook introversion).

Some days, I have a lot to say. Other days, I do not. What is odd about this? What is unusual about this? Do most people have things to say every day, or do they just force themselves to keep talking even on days when they have nothing to say?

I like good conversation, but I am not afraid of silence. I talk when I want to, and when I don't want to talk I don't. In this way I can (mostly) avoid those instances of mindless babbling where I listen to myself talking and think, “My God, would you shut up?”

Some days, I am talkative. Other days, I am quiet. This is entirely logical. Why do people find it so baffling?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Short Records I Love Extremely Much

I often hear that the millennial generation doesn't listen to whole albums. Apparently the advent of iPods and lolcats has shortened our attention spans and – look, a plushie Cthulhu!!

Or maybe it's because records these days are just too long, ever since CDs expanded the possible length of an album well beyond the 45 minutes afforded by vinyl. Like, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a great, great record, but it's 68 and a half minutes long! Who has that kind of time?

Luckily, there are some very excellent records out there seemingly designed specifically for the ears of the easily-bored millennial. None of the following albums last as much as 40 minutes, start to finish, but they are all super great and brilliant.

Felt – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1986) [32 minutes]
Okay, obviously this record was not designed specifically for millennial ears, because it is all old and stuff, but it is so FRICKIN' AMAZING that I couldn't leave it off the list. Just – I don't care if you never do anything else I tell you; go listen to this record. If you're not in love within the first 30 seconds of “Rain of Crystal Spires”, you're beyond all help.

Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (2007) [26 minutes]
You know those times when you sort of imprint on a record, and you get a little obsessed and you just want to inhale every moment of it? It happened to me when I was sixteen with Orange Juice's You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (44 minutes with bonus tracks, so it doesn't make this list, but you should definitely listen to it); and it happened when I was twenty with Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. Bonus hipster points for being a self-titled second album.
Stand-out tracks: Everything You Paid For”, “Aspidistra

Soda Fountain Rag – It's Rag Time! (2008) [30 minutes]
Fair warning: this record is super-twee. The label's called yesboyicecream, for God's sake. But if twee's your thing (and, let's face it, looking at the list so far it's very obviously mine), I defy you to listen to Soda Fountain Rag without a huge goofy grin all over your face. The songs are catchy, very adorable, and – especially “Army of Silent Kids”, “Escalator”, and “Oh Brother!” – apparently about my life.
Stand-out tracks: Don't Kill The Clowns” (live – not great sound quality, but you can still tell how terrific the song is), “Go!

Tim Kasher - “The Game of Monogamy” (2010) [39 minutes]
On paper, this is everything I would hate: straight white dude makes an entire album of navel-gazing about his divorce, like he's the first person ever to go through that. But this self-confessedly solipsistic little offering is, well, really really good. (See? Proof that I don't hate straight white dudes. Just boring straight white dudes.)
Stand-out tracks: No Fireworks”, “Cold Love