Saturday, April 30, 2016

Letter to a 10-year-old girl

Dear You,

Hi, sweetheart. Let's talk about your life for a minute.

You're in fifth grade now, which is a hard time to be alive if you're small and smart and a gentle-hearted dreamer. Everything is changing, both around you and inside you. You're expected to put away your daydreams and start acting more mature, but you're not ready yet. You don't have control over a lot of things going on in your life, and daydreams are still your safe place. You often don't know what's going on, or who to trust. It's a lot for someone your age to bear.

This is also the time where kids start being actively cruel to each other, and they make it a point to pick on people just like you. They don't do this because there is something wrong with you; they just do it because they can. And believe it or not, the people who are most miserable at home are often the ones who pick on others the most at school.

I know how often you want to hide -- from bullies at school, from the mean things kids say about your writing and drawings, from the family member who should be protecting you and is hurting you instead. I know how often you've wished you could run away and live in the wild, or shrink to the size of a mouse and hide under the floorboards so that no one could hurt you any more. But those kinds of dreams, while they help in the short run, are not going to make things better at home or at school. Instead, I'd like to offer you some practical advice.

Your parents may have told you to ignore the bullies. I'm sorry to have to speak against your parents, but this doesn't work. Bullies notice it when you ignore them, and they just get even meaner. The best way to handle bullies is to beat them. Yes, I mean literally beat them up. Bullies are usually cowards at heart, and they'll be afraid to pick on you once they know you can and will fight back. Don't just try to fight them unprepared, though. You'll need someone who can teach you how to fight properly. Ask your parents if you can take a class after school (tell them it will be good exercise), and take the time to learn what to do. Fighting a bully may get you sent to the principal's office, but it will be worth it if it means you don't have to get picked on ever again.

Every time they have those assemblies in school where they talk about what to do if you're suffering from abuse -- and there are many kinds of abuse, including the kind where the person who's hurting you makes you believe that what's happening to you is your fault -- you think they're talking to other kids, not to you. You think your circumstances are different. You think that if you ever told someone what was happening to you, they wouldn't believe you -- or worse, they would and you'd get in terrible trouble. Look: you are not to blame for what is happening to you. You are not a bad kid, and you are not "asking for it," and you can't fix this all by yourself. Don't tell a friend your own age; he or she can't help you. Don't tell a family member; since the person who's hurting you is a member of your extended family, this won't help. Tell a teacher, or a counselor, or a religious leader, or a police officer. And if the first person you tell won't do anything about it, keep on telling until someone helps you.

The person who's hurting you probably says things like: "If anyone finds out it will be in all the newspapers, and then everyone will know what you've done." He is lying. He tells you that to keep you quiet, because he's scared of getting caught. He knows that he, not you, will be in trouble if you ever tell anyone what he's done. So don't believe that lie. Don't keep secrets for him. And if you don't have the strength to speak up for yourself, do it for someone else -- because if you don't do something to stop him, he will probably go on to hurt more people.

Life is hard now, and it will be hard in the next 10 years, but I promise you that things will get better. As you grow, you'll get greater control over your life. Your intelligence and personality will fit much more comfortably into your adult self. You'll learn as much as you can from every source you can find. You'll find friends who are similarly curious about the world, who love to share ideas, who are drawn to a creative life. You'll get to visit marvelous places and see things you've only dreamed about. You'll feel safe and protected. You'll have love. And though life will never be completely perfect, the nightmares you live with now will go away.

Whenever you're afraid, when you feel alone, I want you to imagine me standing and walking beside you with a hand on your shoulder, keeping an eye on you, sheltering you, giving you courage. I can't actually be there now -- we're separated by more than physical distance -- but I'm closer than you think, just a little bit further ahead, waiting for you to get here.

You can make it.

Much love,

-- Sooz

Monday, April 18, 2016

Every day is Judgment Day

Well it's all right, even if they say you're wrong
Well it's all right, sometimes you've gotta be strong
Well it's all right, as long as you've got somewhere to lay
Well it's all right, every day is Judgment Day
--The Traveling Wilburys, "End of the Line"
Last week there were various oddments of thought floating around my head, including the following:
  • As you can probably tell, a lyrical snippet from the above-referenced song kept popping up.
  • Over the weekend, The Guardian published an extraordinarily perceptive interview of a person whose name you'll probably recognize, who has matured into an intelligent and thoughtful woman with a strong sense of purpose, but who has not been allowed to put her notorious past behind her. Even now, people hear her name and immediately, almost instinctively, judge her based on events that occurred two decades ago.
  • Some celebrities work to develop reputations for being friendly and approachable or, conversely, for being icy and aloof. Sometimes, however, their reputations are based on a fan's single encounter with his or her hero; if a fan happens to meet up with a celebrity on a really bad day, he's going to tell all his friends that Famous So-and-so is an abrasive jerk -- even if it isn't true 98% of the time -- and that snap judgment will do tremendous damage.
Eventually these bits and pieces coalesced into a single intriguing question:
If you had reason to believe you would be eternally judged based on your words, thoughts and actions today, would it change your behavior -- and if so, how?
Although I do couch this question in religious terms, "eternally judged" doesn't have to be parsed solely in a religious context. Let's say, for instance, that Earth is becoming uninhabitable, you're being considered for a coveted spot on an FTL ship prepping for a one-way journey to colonize a beautiful new world, you desperately want to go, and someone's slipped you a note saying you will be secretly monitored for your social fitness one day this week. How do you suppose that's going to change your behavior?

You'd think the sure knowledge that we were being invisibly judged as fit for a big opportunity would encourage us to keep our noses clean. And yet, every day, we are silently judged in small ways by others with whom we come in contact. A healthy mind doesn't give this overmuch thought (that way lies extreme anxiety), but maybe it's also healthy to ask ourselves frankly: "How would I behave toward others today if I knew all my actions were being observed and judged?"

Even in the social media age where, theoretically, any one of our rants and raves could go viral, most of us (myself included) behave as though nobody were paying any attention. This goes a way toward explaining the actions of people who have been publicly shamed for their misbehavior -- most of them probably assumed that no one but their circle of friends would notice or care what they were doing. But we no longer live in a world where that is a safe assumption to make, if indeed we ever did.

Contrary to the stock blatherings of politicians, most people don't do things for evil reasons. Sometimes, as above, they act thoughtlessly and assume no one is paying attention. Sometimes they really believe their actions will change the world for good. Sometimes they just have problems with impulse control, or they want something so badly that it affects their common sense. You don't need to attribute to evil what can successfully be chalked up to garden-variety DUH.

Is it unfair to be eternally judged based on your worst actions? YES. Absolutely. You wouldn't want to go through that yourself, nor would you want those you love to have to endure such shame. So, to extend the original question, what about the people who are being publicly shamed because they acted on their worst impulses, and those actions were subsequently brought to light? Do you really want to judge them once for all as the worst versions of themselves? Or are you willing to make every day Judgment Day, to revise your earlier snap judgment of a person when new evidence comes in? Better yet, are you willing to withhold full judgment of a person's character for a while?

Admittedly, I'm not good at this. I have a bad habit of taking umbrage and then not giving it back. But there are so many ways I've screwed up or failed or just been embarrassingly awkward with other people, and so many times I've wished I could erase the Slate of Past Stupidities and start again, that it would be unthinkable for me not to extend that courtesy to others. I think this was what Jesus was getting at when he said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." This concept is the preface to the Golden Rule: to treat others the way you would want to be treated. As with so many of Jesus' teachings, it is simple, but not easy.

Still working on it, so please be patient. I expect to be working on it for the next 30 years or so, actually, so you might want to withhold judgment until then.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Home is where the art is

You may ask:

"So, Sooz, I understand you recently went to see a collage in a juried art show...

...and now that same collage is hanging on your dining room wall. How does that make you feel?"

I'll tell you. LIKE A SUAVE INTERNATIONAL ART THIEF, that's how.

Monday, April 04, 2016

In which Soozcat visits Chihuly Garden & Glass

For reasons we needn't get into here, I became excessively discouraged over the weekend. I felt utterly convinced that I was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time, that I had a job to do but no authority to get it done, that no one was paying attention or gave a flying crap, etc., etc. Further, there wasn't much I could do about any of it.

I have learned, however, that one of the best ways to get out of a blue funk is to shake up your routine a bit. What I needed was to get out of the house and do something I'd never done before.

That something turned out to be Chihuly Garden & Glass at Seattle Center. I know, it's been open for a while now, but I'd never gotten around to visiting. So I got into the Little Silver Hyundai and boogied on over there.

Here's what I found.

Friday, March 25, 2016

10 Cloverfield Lane discussion (SPOILER WARNING)

Captain Midnight and I went to see 10 Cloverfield Lane recently.

The AMC IMAX posters for the film manage to out-Saul-Bass Saul Bass himself.
I've wanted to discuss it ever since, but I also don't want to spoil the film for anyone who hasn't seen it. (Really, it's one of those movies where the less you know about it going in, the better off you'll be.) So if you've seen it and you're interested in such discussion, proceed below. Otherwise, do not read this. Seriously. BEWARE ME HEARTIES, THAR BE SPOILERS AHEAD!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

My ainsel

I don't photograph well.
Blurry selfie, 2010.
Wait, don't run off! This is not going to be a discussion about physical attractiveness. By saying that I don't photograph well, I'm merely stating my opinion that still photographs don't do a particularly good job of capturing my personality -- mostly because I am uncomfortable in front of cameras, and it shows. That deer-in-the-headlights stare in the image above is my default response to any lens pointed in my direction (even, apparently, when I'm the one doing the pointing).

Selfies are everywhere now, of course, especially across social media, and when they first exploded as a phenomenon I was very tempted to state, in full-on Old Fart Mode*, that selfies were another sign of the shallow self-obsession of modern youth (you kids today! myeh! back in my day we had to use Polaroids and we liked it that way, we liked it FINE!). Fortunately I managed to hold my tongue for once, and spent a little more time looking at selfies online and what people were actually doing with them before making a snap judgement. And while some images really do project little more than vanity and shallowness -- sorry, but I calls 'em like I sees 'em -- others, MANY others, reflect an interesting visual aesthetic and a way of sharing how a particular individual experiences the world. Selfies can be as unique as their subjects -- funny, curious, mysterious, tragic, bold, goofy, astonishing -- it largely depends on how any particular individual chooses to wield a camera. And while I do think it's important to live in the moment rather than obsessively documenting it, selfies can also be a powerful tool for creative visual thinkers to create a narrative or a conversation about their lives.

I also realized somewhere along the line that I shouldn't complain too obstreperously about selfies, because I'm taking one right now. This blog is, in many ways, my selfie -- it reflects my ainsel (an old folk term meaning "my own self"), not necessarily the way I look on the outside, but what's knocking around in the back of my noggin. I may not ever get comfortable with cameras, but words? Especially written words? They're my element, and I'm as free using a pen or a keyboard as others are with a smartphone and a selfie stick. And if I expect other people to be OK with my particular choice of medium, I need to be willing to return the favor. In the end, the medium isn't nearly as important as the message.

*46 is well into Old Fart territory, ne?

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Making America good again

I don't talk much about politics on this blog. For one thing, it would be boring; I doubt in-depth discussion of my own political preferences (for the record, conservative-leaning libertarian) would interest anyone but me. For another, political discussions are usually divisive, and the last thing a writer wants to do is push her readers away for no good reason.

But I believe there's a very good reason to delve into things political right now.

For the last nine months, I've watched -- first with amusement, then growing consternation, then outright dismay -- as large swaths of American voters have given their nod to a sexist, racist, antisemitic, abusive, bullying, lying, crass, vain, populist blowhole as the man they most want to represent them as a country, primarily because they seem to believe he will uphold the words of his slogan and "make America great again."

Let's set aside all the comparisons to infamous tyrants and dictators of the past, as tempting as it is to go there, and focus instead on the most important word of that slogan: "great." What does it mean?

Well, as it turns out, "great" is a loaded word with multiple meanings. It can have positive connotations, such as gigantic, distinguished, admirable, correct, abundant, important, famous, and honorable. It can also have negative connotations, such as terrible, grievous, awful, superior, no-holds-barred, extreme, desperate, and dismaying. And after seeing Mr. Populist Blowhole do his thing in televised debates and political rallies, I'm not at all certain his supporters know what working definition of "great" he is using.

Or, in the famed words of Inigo Montoya, "Stop saying that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

So if I could make one suggestion to American voters, it would be this. Let's set aside the idea of making America great again, and instead focus on making America good again.


Let's stop putting up walls to keep people out, and instead make America a place so free and inviting that people want to create their lives here. Let's stop strewing bureaucratic caltrops in the way of human ingenuity, and instead make America a place where people are free to create new inventions that make life easier and better for others (and yes, profit from those inventions). Let's stop giving quality education only to those who can afford it, and instead make America a place where both rich and poor are given the tools they need to forge better lives. Let's stop screaming at each other about differing beliefs, and instead make America a place where people remember how to listen to each other, and to disagree without being disagreeable. Let's stop creating nihilistic vileness masquerading as art, and instead make America a place where the positive and the uplifting are championed. Let's stop fiercely cocooning and waiting for "the government" or "someone else" to take care of people struggling with homelessness, addiction and depression, and instead make America a place where people know their neighbors and reach out to them in times of need. Let's stop spewing appalling filth at each other under the rubric of "telling it like it is," and instead make America a place where people use their freedom of speech to spread words of kindness, gentleness, honesty and loving concern for their fellow man. And let's stop pretending there's nothing we can do about the creeping rise of tyranny, and instead make America a place of such moral strength that anyone spewing this kind of patent nonsense cannot even find a toehold.

Although Alexis de Tocqueville never actually said it (really, look it up!), I believe in the basic truth of the observation often attributed to him: that America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great. If there are those who now believe America needs to be made "great again," then America must first make an effort to be good again. And that isn't a feat that can be accomplished by electing a single strongman or -woman to the highest office in the land. It begins with public virtue -- the individual choice to support one's society through acts of kindness and selflessness -- and builds from there. You don't have to wait for the elections; you don't have to wait at all. Just pick something positive to do, and start now.