"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Body Issmues

Body image issues, that is. As I'm a student at an women's college, you'd expect this to be a topic I would hear a lot about. In reality, it doesn't get talked about that much, not in the public sphere and not in the private sphere, either (at least, not the sphere I run in). But on one of the YouTube channels I subscribe to, the sarcaschicks, the five girls who run the channel have been addressing the topic in their videos this week. So it got me thinking about the subject of body image, about its role at my college and its role in my life.

The sarcaschicks' videos have been quite gutsy as far as YouTube videos go. The topics they're discussing are important to bring into the public sphere, because young women in western society are not only encouraged to obsess about personal appearance, but also to obsess about it privately. It's all very well to spend hours in front of your full-length mirror in the privacy of your own room, but glancing in mirrors or other reflective surfaces as you go about your life outside just makes you look vain. Which is not to say that people don't do it - you wouldn't believe how many reflective shop windows I found on my commute to work this summer. Or maybe you would because you do the same thing. But we certainly shouldn't talk about it aloud.

On the flip side of this is the kind of treacly, self-pitying over-sharing that some girls practice but that does nothing to advance the discussion or change attitudes. This is when girls admit to feeling ugly and everyone assures them that they have nice hair. As Sonya says in Uncle Vanya, everyone compliments plain girls on their hair. These kinds of conversations don't make anyone feel better, and besides, they usually take place in dorm rooms late at night - so much for public discussion.

So far, the sarcaschicks' have narrowly avoided this kind of nonsense. Instead, they're being realistic about their feelings, recognizing that a lot of girls sometimes feel shitty about their bodies and that it shouldn't be so common, but that girls also shouldn't feel worse just because every so often they succumb to the enormous pressure that society puts on young women to be beautiful all the time. So, good going for getting it out in a public space like YouTube, and here's hoping this won't devolve into a girls' therapy session.

What I'd really like to see, of course, is some of YouTube's sizable male vlogger population getting in on the chat. So far, there've been some video responses from girls, and a nod to the issue by WOTO, but they never broke their persona of funny guys. I'm glad that the women of the vlogosphere are taking charge and attacking body image issues head-on without waiting for the go-ahead from their male counterparts, but I also wish there was more of a conversation so that we could get away once and for all from the cycle of women wiping the mascara off each other's cheeks and sending each other back out into the world with a painted smile on their faces.

So much for my critical analysis of gender dynamics on YouTube. In my own life, I've noticed the same problems. For example, the gym at my college is a so-called "Fat-Talk-Free Zone." What I guess this means is that no one is supposed to be complaining about how fat they feel or reveling in how thin they are or making any related commentary about each other. So, this is a laudable effort, but it also compounds the problem I mentioned earlier, which is of the world encouraging women to keep quiet about the way they feel about their bodies. Which could have the positive effect of making people think about other, more important stuff or could just make those feelings fester.

When I say 'more important stuff,' I'm fully cognizant of the fact that personal appearance is actually extremely important. It's important in our social interactions, it's important in our inner psychology, and it's important in our basic instincts. The point of life, after all, is to find a suitable mate and keep life going, and there are a few key ways of judging who's best: their skill in fighting, their resistance to disease, their parenting instincts, their loyalty, their longevity. Of course, we don't usually go up to someone in a bar and start asking them how their immune system's been doing lately. No, instead, we look them up and down and decide then and there whether they're worth a shot or not. Facial symmetry, body shape, height, the straightness of someone's teeth....I think people aren't even necessarily aware of their mental check-list, but it's certainly a factor in both sexual relationships and just plain old friendships. Because being attractive is an asset in social circles as well.

I happen to be very conscious of how I judge people's appearance. Partly because I love and adore looking at people's clothes and partly because I think people in general - their body language, facial tics, gait, etc. - are just fascinating. I sometimes have trouble in class or in a conversation keeping my mind focused on the topic at hand because all I really want to do is stare at the way that scarf sits on someone's shoulder or the way their shirt fits. It's not creepy, it just looks creepy when you're caught staring at a part of a person's body that's not their face.

Thing is, I don't just notice people's appearance, I also judge them on it. But I think, or I hope, that what I judge them on is not something that they were born with, like the structure of their face, but rather the things they purposefully designed about their appearance. And it's not that I divide the world into the people I like and the people I hate based on what they chose to wear or whether or not their hair is dyed. What I do enjoy guessing is what each person was thinking that morning when they decided what to wear. I'm aware of the signals I'm sending with the way I dress and the way I carry myself, and I assume other people are also trying to send signals. I like decoding them.

So. I don't have a conclusion to this outrageously long post. Except that it's dinner time. Thanks for listening.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A Proud Moment

As a general rule, I don't like nighttime. There's just something about the darkness that gives me a physical urge to go home, crawl into bed, and stay put until the sun comes up. Some things make it bearable, like watching movies or curling up with a fat novel or talking with friends late into the night, but as soon as you subtract any of those comforts and replace them with, say, homework, things get ugly (and sleepy) very fast.

When I started writing a paper late this afternoon, I was full of dread at a long evening of mangled sentences, redundant ideas, and marathon-staring-out-the-window sessions. Except that there wouldn't even be anything to stare at because it would be dark. Not only that, but I've just finished, or almost finished, over a month of writing and revising personal statements for grad school applications. I am not in the mood for sitting in front of a computer or writing or coming up with brilliant ideas. All my brilliant ideas have gone and left me.

As a side note, my reasons for being in such a predicament were pretty valid - I took a break mid-afternoon to go buy cheese - but that didn't make the task any less daunting or the approaching darkness any less ominous.

So I was more than a little surprised when I sat down to write and found it to be not that painful after all. Maybe it's the comparison with writing application essays. Trying to argue that Molière is a brilliant playwright is a hell of a lot easier than trying to argue that I'm a brilliant person. I guess from another perspective it's kind of the same thing - in one case, I'm trying to convince my professor to give me an A, in the other, I'm trying to convince a committee of strangers to give me thousands of dollars. Sort of the same thing. But personal statements make you literally state that you are awesome. Academic papers allow you to be more sneaky about proving your intelligence and worth.

Plus, I never really got into the habit of thinking in terms of a direct correlation between writing a paper and earning a grade, at least not enough to dislike writing papers. I quite like writing papers, as long as I'm interested in the subject, and this one happens to be about a subject I'm fascinated by at the moment - the meeting points of the comic and the serious. What I don't like is writing papers at night. But apparently, that's gotten a bit less dreadful now that I've whipped myself through three years of college paper-writing and a month of application essays. After a few hours, I'd written half a draft of the paper and was happy to put it aside until tomorrow.

I've learned to write papers at night! Happiness comes in the strangest of ways.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Adventures v. Habits

For someone who's always lived in one place, I seem to be moving around quite a lot recently. First there was starting college (which still feels recent...). In the years since, there's been moving to and from school twice a year. Then I moved to Paris for four or five months. Then I moved home. Then I moved to and from school again.

Every time I move, I go through this funny period of surreality. It feels like I'm not really where I am and not really where I was. I believe it's quite difficult, actually, for the human mind to understand that it's been transported 300 or 3,000 miles, especially if the mode of transport was an airplane, which just makes everything weird and futuristic - like apparating but with several hours of queasiness, cold, and forced seated position.

Thing is, it's during those days of wandering around, not really believing that I am where I am, that I probably am the most present, in the sense of noticing my surroundings. It's not very pleasant adjusting to a new place, but it makes me take notice of the temperature, the smells, the routes I take walking to class, the food I eat, the bed I sleep in. Once I've settled in, all that fades away. I stop having to think about all the little everyday decisions and experiences, and take a lot of things for granted.

But settling in opens up space for other ways of being present. Being present in my mind without constantly assessing where I am and where I'm going next. Noticing something new about a place I've been a million times before. Watching something evolve over time, like a garden or a bird's nest.

It might be different for other people - I'm sure there are some who love that weird space you're in when you've just gotten off the airplane. I, however, am a creature of habit. I love my habits, I love regularity and comfort and not having to improvise my days as I go. I also love traveling and changing things up, but then I want to settle down and let my mind do the wandering.

I've been considering this while picking grad schools to apply to for my master's degree. On the one hand, there are some cities I'd really like to experience in more depth. On the other hand, nothing sounds better than a quiet hamlet where I can spend hours reading and writing, where I can walk everywhere, where I don't have to choose among 50 cafés when I want a cup of tea. Cities are best for people who enjoy novelty, risk-taking, and exploration. Small towns are good for people who want coziness, easy access to nature, and familiarity. At least that's how it seems to me now. And for now I think I'm the latter kind of person. I hope I get in to grad school, so that I can find out if I'm right.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pining for the Good Old Days

I've been sitting and writing essays all day, listening to a bit of music, doing my laundry. But just now I've been distracted by my neighbors.

At first I just heard a voice drifting out their open window and in through mine. I thought they might be watching TV, until I noticed the speaker was a British guy. How nice, I thought - someone else likes British things as much as I do, and given how long this guy is holding forth without interruption, maybe it's a radio show. I've mentioned my fondness for BBC radio on this blog before, so you can imagine I was quite tickled by the idea that they might be fellow radio aficionados.

But after another minute of listening, the guy said the word "literally" a few times, groaned in frustration, and mentioned a stupid way of pointing out that it's snowing - so it turns that they're watching Alex Day reading Twilight on YouTube.

I'm slightly pleased with this result of my eavesdropping, because it's nice to have a familiar voice wafting around the courtyard while I edit my essay. On the other hand, I'm a little disappointed that the voices I recognize come from YouTube videos and not from the radio, which is the sacred home of recognizable voices. I think a great speaking voice is a wonderful and attractive feature in a person, but often it gets overwhelmed by physical appearance, since that's the primary thing we pay attention to and remember about a person. I like radio shows and books on tape because you can take a great voice and let your imagination run with it, creating the ideal person to match it.

Incidentally, I think it's a bit the same with reading - you can conjure up whatever author's persona you like to enhance the reading experience. The most common thing I tend to do when I'm reading is imagine the author as a shadow twin of the narrator. It gives the whole thing a very immediate and personal flavor and holds out the tantalizing possibility of getting more of the story from the author's biography. I've learned from writing workshop classes that this is usually an entirely false impression, but it's so strong that I've heard a student in a workshop critique call the protagonist of another student's story by the student author's name instead of the protagonist's.

I wonder, though, if this was an issue before modernism and stream-of-consciousness and semi-autobiographical first novels hit the scene. And I wonder if it will continue to even be possible to imagine someone differently from how they are, now that everything is televised and audio-visualized and authors rarely live in quiet obscurity and young people don't listen to the radio.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Back to school

In the time since I last posted (eons), I've finished both my summer internships, moved back to school, and begun seriously devoting myself to grad school applications. This involves various things - hours spent reading course descriptions at University X, watching videos about student life at University Y, and searching the web for the most accurate weather statistics for the region around University Z, among other things. Most importantly, most excitingly, and most terrifyingly, it involves squishing your life history, your dreams, and your very soul into 500 to 1,000 words.

As daunting as it sounds, I've had some good times with this. It's exciting to think that people will be seriously trying to extract my personal essence just from reading my words. On the other hand, there are moments when I feel like putting one typing one more word will make me vomit all over my keyboard and give up writing forever.

So the question is, If you can hate something so much, does that mean that you actually love it?

Meanwhile, there is homework to be done and the weather is disgustingly hot. Welcome back.