The Making of a Man

“But, you see, you need to know the whole song,” said Tiffany. “It is mostly only about what humans are made of. It isn’t about what humans are.”
–Terry Pratchett, Wintersmith

Why are folks in their late 20s and early 30s so obsessed with “adulting”? Is it cultural? Has the definition of adulthood changed that much? Are we not now, to steal a line from Tennyson, “that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven”? Has the world really changed all that much?

Is it economic—that we’ve been denied many of the traditional hallmarks of adulthood due to coming of age in a recession? Is it because of the student-loan debt and the high cost of rent and the un-/underemployment and the lack of career opportunities*?

Is it psychological—we were raised as “the 90s kids” and we can’t quite break free of that moniker, especially when so many of our parents and grandparents are telling us (due to the aforementioned economic factors) that we’re not doing it right?

I pay my bills. I keep a budget, albeit not perfectly. I can vote. I could join the armed services if I so chose (assuming they’d even take me). I pay taxes. I drive a car and have  an (admittedly unpaid and temporary) job that I love.

No, I’m not married. I’m not seeing anyone.  I don’t see myself getting married, let alone having kids, anytime soon. I can’t afford to buy a house, and I’ve never set down roots long enough anywhere to even have an idea where I’d want to. And yes, sometimes I watch cartoons and read young adult novels. Why should any of that invalidate my adulthood?

I think I felt most adult when I turned twenty-four—the day  no one outside my immediate family and my co-workers remembered my birthday. I had a job then, too, and I was underemployed. And had student loan debt. And had never been kissed nor had sex nor fallen in love (all those unrequited crushes never did count).

Life was hard. I accepted that. I kept going.

That, I think, is what being an adult means—knowing that life isn’t going the way you wanted it to, but deciding that it’s worth continuing anyway. Recognizing that you don’t have the answers, but you have a vague sense of where to look (if it’s something that does have an answer, like how to keep a budget) or at least whom you can turn to for support.

It’s being willing to offer that same support for others.

It’s being strong enough to admit that you’re vulnerable.

It’s having time enough to treasure the people you love.

It’s moving forward—not only in spite of life being hard but because life is hard.

It’s knowing that, even if life sucks right now, even if it doesn’t exactly “get better” (at least not in the way you wanted or expected it to), those golden glimpses of joy in between all the hardship—those shining moments of being—are so damn worth it that it’s worth moving forward.

I don’t have all the answers—I’m a writer: I write because I don’t know, not because I want to prove that I do. But I have a theory that works for me. And I’m still moving forward. Even when life gets hard.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have an episode of Sailor Moon queued up on my laptop and the very last Tiffany Aching book waiting for me on my shelf when I’m done.

~~

*You have no idea how much I’m resisting the urge to embed a link to a song by The Clash here.

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To everything there is a season

“Waiting is never a moment from nothing to something, but a moment from something to something.” –Henri Nouwen

For two weeks now, I’ve been struggling to write a reflection for Advent. First, I tried to write about Hope, but my thoughts were clouded by memories of disappointments, rejections, and dreams long deferred. Next, I tried to write about Peace, but my ideals seemed to fall apart in the wake of terrorism, hatred, and fear. “How can one sow seeds of peace against such disregard for human life?” I asked myself. “How can I keep holding onto hope when time and again hope has lead me to getting hurt?”

I don’t have answers yet. I’m still waiting.

Advent is a time of waiting. It’s like an antidote to secular Christmas: instead of a frantic month of holiday parties, crowded stores, and greed, Advent is a quiet season of reflection, relationships, and gratitude. It’s my favorite season of the church year, and yet that theme of waiting continues to challenge me year after year.

In the four years since I graduated from college, it seems like I have been waiting for my life to begin. Waiting for a job that can pay me a livable wage. For a career I feel passionate about. For the right guy. For a place to call Home. Four years, and I still feel like I’m waiting.

Not from nothing to something, but something to something.

And yet, amidst all the disappointment and pain and rejection of the past four years, I have memories that shine like the stars. Quiet moments with friends and family. My first paycheck as a freelance editor. A first kiss that was worth waiting twenty-seven years for. Sunsets on the Isle of Skye. These memories are not nothing, and I hold fast to them as I sail from moment to moment, like the ancient sailors who once held fast to the constellations amidst the darkness of the sea and the sky. Perhaps then, if the stars keep shining in the quiet moments and little triumphs, there is still room for Hope in my life after all.

A moment from something to something.

We often think of peace as the absence of war: a moment of tranquility after the battle, like the Christmas truce of 1914 or the days immediately following the breakup of the Soviet Union. But I think it’s more complicated than that. I don’t think peace is as simple as the absence of war.

In the 1998 Japanese animated film Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz, an insurrection threatens to destroy the fragile peace that humankind has settled into after a long and bloody war. In the climax of the film, Relena Darlian, a lifelong pacifist and former figurehead in the previous conflict, admits to herself that she has been running from the truth. She calls on the people of Earth to resist the insurrection and to defend the peace her companions fought so hard to win. “What’s needed now is not a principle or assertion,” she tells the leader of the insurrection, “but the hearts that hope for peace.” Relena realizes that soldiers may have won the war, but without a nation of people willing to lay down their lives to preserve the peace, all the sacrifices of the past will have been for nothing.

The citizens of Earth respond to Relena’s call and rise up in nonviolent protest against the insurrection. As the film ends, it is people—everyday citizens, not soldiers—who save the day. Peace, then, is an obligation for every person to uphold, not a prize to be won at the end of a war.

In Creating True Peace, Thich Nhat Hanh writes how peace between nations is impossible so long as individuals choose to nurture the seeds of hatred and fear in their heart. Hanh writes: “The only way out of violence and conflict is for us to embrace the practice of peace, to think and act with compassion, love, and understanding.” In other words, peace is a choice that one must make every day of one’s life. Only by acting with kindness, sympathy, appreciation, and love can hatred be quenched and fear conquered.

Peace, then, is a verb, not a noun—it’s something we do, not something we hope to obtain.

But how can this worldview of nonviolence and compassion hope to stand up against a group like ISIS, which does not in any way seem to value human life? How can one talk of love and understanding when politicians shout from their soapboxes about building walls and going to battle? What actions can be taken to sow seeds of peace when prayers alone are not enough?

I don’t have an answer. Not yet. I’m still waiting.

But in that waiting, there is something.

My ideals of peace seem insufficient, if not downright laughable in the face of our world’s current crises. Yet still, I cling to them. And I wait.

Peace I give to you. Not as the world gives, but my peace I give to you.

God’s peace is not our peace. It is neither the truce won by soldiers nor the peace done in our actions. And as Mary sang so long ago, “You have cast the mighty down from their thrones and uplifted the humble of heart.” God has done these things. O Wisdom, O Master, O Root of Jessie, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O Ruler of Nations, O God Who is with Us, I have faith that thou shalt do these things yet again.

In Peace, I shall wait. With Hope, I shall wait. And as we enter the Third Week of Advent, as we move into the season of Joy, I shall sail by the light in the darkness.

A light shines in the darkness. And the darkness cannot comprehend it.

~~
References:

Living in Hope: Advent Meditations from the writings of Henri Nouwen

Gundam Wing: Endless Waltz

Creating True Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh

“The Magnificat” from Holden Evening Prayer by Marty Haugen

John 14:27

Bizarre Love Triangles

Warning: here be spoilers.

Let’s just get this out of the way: I hate love triangles. Hate ’em. Ask me for a list of my Top Ten Least Favorite Literary Tropes, and love triangles would easily be in the top five. They are overdone, over dramatic, and rarely executed well.

So, after watching yet another otherwise lovely movie with an unnecessary love triangle, instead of getting frustrated, I am challenging myself to make a list of eight love triangles in fiction that actually work for me.

My rules were simple: entries can be from any medium, but they had to be from stories that I enjoyed overall. The love triangle may or may not be at the center of said story, but either way, it had to have involved characters that I could relate to.

For each entry, I had to explain 1) the characters involved in the love triangle, 2) how it resolves, and 3) why this particular love triangle doesn’t make me want to gnash my teeth. Believe me, it’s not as easy as it looks.

So without further ado…

#8: Rick Hunter/Lynn Minmay/Lisa Hayes (Robotech)

The Triangle Explained: Rick is a fighter pilot (IN SPACE!) who falls for a pop star named Minmay. BUT WAIT! As the series goes on, First Officer/Resident Badass Lisa Hayes meets and eventually starts to fall for Rick. Angst (and space battles) ensues.

How it resolves: After their Lost in Space Battleship finally ends up back on Earth (don’t ask) and the planet is virtually wiped out in an all-out war against giant aliens (again: don’t ask), Rick stops being an idiot and realizes that Lisa Hayes is a badass. Minmay takes his decision surprisingly well.

Why it works for me: Admittedly, it has been a long time since I watched this series. It might not hold up as well as I think it does. From what I remember, though, Rick’s relationships with both Minmay and Lisa are developed gradually—dare I say organically?—over the course of the series. I remember these seemed like actual relationships that people involved in an intergalactic war might have.

Rick and Minmay meet under stressful conditions, cling to each other for support for a while, realize that their relationships isn’t working, and eventually they move on. By the time Lisa enters the picture (a few episodes later, admittedly), it’s pretty clear that the Good Ship Rickmay (Minrick?) isn’t holding a lot of water.

But again, it’s been years since I watched Robotech. My memories of the Macross Saga are fuzzy at best, which is why it’s so low on this list. All I know is that when Rick and Lisa (finally!) end up together, it was very much a “well, obviously” moment.

#7: Cloud/Tifa/Aerith (Final Fantasy VII)

The Triangle Explained: Cloud and Tifa are childhood friends (maybe). When they were kids, she made him promise to always look out for her. Then they grew up, he became a soldier/mercenary, and she learned how look out for her own damn self. Enter Aerith, the Mysterious Flower Girl™.

While working with Tifa to blow up a mako reactor (FFVII’s answer to an oil refinery), Cloud meets Aerith after the mission goes south. Aerith is sweet, compassionate, and she has some Mysterious Yet Important Connection to the Planet™. She flirts with Cloud, but it’s clear that his affections are not the most important thing on her mind.

Once Cloud and Aerith meet up with Tifa again, the plot commences, and the love triangle bit is pretty much shoved to the sidelines for a while. Aerith likes Cloud because he reminds her of her first boyfriend, Tifa likes Cloud because he’s an old childhood friend, and Cloud is obsessed with his old army buddy turned psychopath doesn’t seem all that interested in either party.

How it resolves: Aerith dies. It is sad.

Why it works for me: I’ll be honest, this one is borderline for me. The only reason it works is because 1) it’s not really about the relationships, and 2) irrespective of their feelings for Cloud, Aerith and Tifa are friends.

Over the course of the game, it becomes clear that whatever else the two women may feel for Cloud, they’re more concerned with him as a person. Cloud is a very broken individual. Though it’s not immediately obvious, he is suffering from serious psychological duress. He’s got issues. More than anything else, I would argue that Aerith’s flirting and Tifa’s reminiscing are their respective attempts to draw Cloud out of his shell—to get him to open up about his past and, for lack of a better description, to seek professional help.

In other words, these two women exist to further the development of the male hero. Which is a bit problematic. (Though at least Aerith and her Mysterious Connection to the Planet™ have significance to the overall plot.)

As I said, this triangle barely made the list. The real reason why it worked for me is that Tifa and Aerith don’t see each other as rivals. As soon as they meet, they immediately become friends. (They bond over their reaction to seeing Cloud in a dress. It is wonderful.) At no point does either of them pressure Cloud to make a choice. Playing through Final Fantasy VII, I got the feeling that if Aerith had lived, she and Tifa would have remained friends whether Cloud was in their lives or not.

In other words, female friendship saved Final Fantasy VII for me—at least as far as this list is concerned.

#6: A Midsummer Night’s Dream [pick three]

The Love Dodecahedron explained: Lysander loves Hermia, who is in love with Lysander yet betrothed to Demetrius, who used to date Helena, who is Hermia’s best friend and who is still in love with Demetrius, but then the fair folk get involved and it all goes to pot. Shenanigans ensue.

How it resolves: A triple wedding: Lysander & Hermia, Demetrius & Helena, and the Duke & the Queen. And there was much rejoicing.

Why it works for me: fair folk shenanigans and the bard’s pointed wit.

#5: Rick/Ilsa/Lazlo (Casablanca)

The Love Triangle explained: “Of all the gin joints in all the towns, in all the world, she had to walk into mine.”

How it resolves: “We’ll always have Paris.”

Why it works for me: Look, if you have to ask that, you’ve obviously never seen Casablanca.

I will say, though, that the behind-the-scenes story of filming Casablanca is part of the reason why this love triangle works as well as it does. Can’t figure out which guy Ilsa will end up with until the end of the movie? That’s because the studio didn’t know which guy Ilsa would end up with until shortly before filming the end of the movie. Way to build suspense there, Classic Hollywood Studio System.

#4: Hikaru/Lantis/Eagle (Magic Knight Rayearth 2)

The Triangle Explained: Hikaru likes Lantis. Hikaru also likes Eagle. Lantis and Eagle both like Hikaru and each other are CLAMP friends have a History.

How it resolves: Implied polyandry.

Why it works for me: Because if any fictional romantic trio could make a ménage à trois work, it’s this one.

No, Hikaru, you’re in Cephiro, where belief in the heart becomes basis upon which to defy societal expectations! Also, in the panel immediately prior, Lantis straight up says that Cephiro doesn’t have marriage laws (Image © CLAMP/Dark Horse; Translation © Anita Sengupta)

Speaking of CLAMP friends…

#3: Watanuki/Himawari/Domeki (xxxHOLiC)

The Love Triangle Explained: In a rare subversion of the trope, Watanuki likes Himawari and assumes that Domeki likes her as well. He does not. Domeki likes Watanuki. Like, a lot. Like, an awful lot. For her part, Himawari doesn’t seem to see either guy as anything more than a close friend.

How it resolves: Watanuki inherits his boss’s wish-granting shop after vowing to remain there until the end of time she returns, Himawari moves away, and Domeki marries another character who also has a crush on Watanuki. No one is satisfied.

Why it works for me: The greatest thing about this love triangle is that it only exists in Watanuki’s head. He thinks of Domeki as his rival in love. Meanwhile, literally every single other character in the series is pushing Watanuki to spend time with Domeki (*wink wink nudge nudge*).

xxxholic-1
Reason #452 why Yûko is my favorite CLAMP character of all time (Image © CLAMP/Del Rey/Kodansha. Translation by William Flanagan) [Note for readers unfamiliar with manga: read panels from left to right]
As I’ve mentioned before, CLAMP is fond of the “true love knows no gender” trope. They’re also not above shameless fanservice for shonen-ai fans. For Watanuki and Domeki, though, the dynamic works. Watanuki’s primary character trait is that he doesn’t realize how much other people care about him. Domeki’s unrequited love is one part of that.

#2: Juri/Shiori/Ruka (Revolutionary Girl Utena)

Now we’re getting somewhere! (Image ©Be-Papas)

The Love Triangle Explained: Juri has a crippling, unhealthy crush on Shiori (note: it’s unhealthy because Juri is ashamed of her feelings, and also because Shiori is kind of a terrible person). After realizing this, Shiori enters into a relationship with Ruka (it’s implied that she does this at least in part to taunt Juri, whom Shiori despises [or possibly also has a secret crush on; this series is kind of vague on that point. On a lot of points, actually. It’s vague on most points.]). Ruka, meanwhile, is in love with Juri, whom he later assaults (it’s just a kiss, but still. Not cool, bro).

How it resolves: As with all things in Shoujo Kakumei Utena, it involves a symbolic duel atop a gravity-defying arena in the middle of a forbidden forest. Roses, cars, innuendos, and stock footage are involved. Oh, also Ruka dies off-screen and is never mentioned again.

Why it works for me: Like most of the relationships in Utena, this love triangle is fucked up. I mean that in a good way. Viewers aren’t supposed to feel good about this love triangle. They’re not supposed to think that ANY of these people should end up together. Juri’s obsession with Shiori is crippling her, Shiori’s vindictive relationship with Ruka ends up biting her, and Ruka becomes flat-out deplorable in his attempts to show Juri how much he cares about her.

And you know what? It works. The Juri/Shiori/Ruka Love Triangle is one piece of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat of adolescence, genre deconstruction, and dubious sexual relationships that is Revolutionary Girl Utena.

At its core, Utena is a show about subverting audience expectations. The fairy tale ending you dreamed of turns out to be based on a lie. The person you placed on a pedestal only wants to use you for their own satisfaction. The patriarchy will always ruin everything. Yet despite all of that, if you never lose your nobility and you learn to fight for the right reasons, maybe, just maybe, you will claim the power to revolutionize the world.

Someday, I’ll have to write a full post/essay about how I love this series so goddamn much. In the meantime, here are some spoileriffic links to others who have beaten me to the punch.

Now that that’s out of the way…

#1: Korra/Mako/Asami (The Legend of Korra)

The Love Triangle explained: Korra likes Mako. Mako likes Asami. Mako dates Asami, but then Korra kisses him. Mako breaks up with Asami, starts dating Korra, and—aaahh!

How it resolves: Korrasami is canon.

Why it works for me: This love triangle went from being one of my least favorite things about the series (I stopped watching after Season 1 in no small part because of The Love Triangle episode) to one of my favorite things. Neither girl ends up with the boy in the middle of the triangle—they end up together.

Whooo!!!

I’ve made no secret of my desire to have more well-rounded queer role models in popular media. Last December, Legend of Korra gave me the best Christmas present I could have asked for. Korra is the series’s protagonist. She is a person of color, she’s physically strong, and she’s a superhero. We’ve seen her struggles, her flaws, her fears, her achievements. We’ve seen her grow and change over time. Her friendship (and eventual romance) with Asami was a huge step forward for her character and for the show itself.

I could easily write a post about Korra’s transformation from rash, selfish teenager to wizened, empathetic adult. I could write about how Seasons 2–4 seemed to pointedly and satisfactorily address every single issue I had with the show’s first season. I could write about how even though the show wasn’t quite as strong as its successor in terms of overall narrative, it managed to surpass The Last Airbender as one of the most important animated serials on Western television.

For now, though, let’s just take a moment to revel in the fact that the two girls realized that after all that time they’d spent fighting over a man, what they really wanted was each other.

Now if only Betty and Veronica would get a clue (Image © Nickelodeon)

Honorable Mention: Arthur/Guenevere/Lancelot (Camelot)

Because if you’re going to have a love triangle, it may as well involve Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet.

Still Searching

Steinbeck is never quite able to bring himself to say that he was often disgusted by what he saw on his journey, but the reader is left with that impression. Indeed, one puts down this book aware only of how prophetic it really was, and how America continues to wrestle with the problems raised in its pages. –Jay Parini

My summer book this year was John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charlie In Search of America. I meandered through the memoir over several months, savoring a chapter or two before bed in between my own travels and tribulations.

Travels With Charlie is one of Steinbeck’s most popular books, so I’ll refrain from writing a detailed overview of his journey. Instead, I’ll say that on the whole, I thought it was a delightfully charming story of a writer and his dog on an Epic Road Trip across these United States at the turn of the 1960s.

Two things stuck with me about Steinbeck’s memoir: 1) Steinbeck seemed very much ill at ease with the growing conformity of American culture in the ’50s and ’60s; 2) that man sure did love his poodle.

John Steinbeck and his french poodle, Charlie
That man and his poodle (©Bettmann/CORBIS)

Towards the end of their journey, Steinbeck and Charlie arrive in the South. Steinbeck admits that he has not been looking forward to this leg of the trip: “I am not drawn to pain and violence,” he writes, acknowledging the bitter fight over desegregation, yet Steinbeck knows that he must see this pain and violence first hand if he is to find an answer to his guiding question of “what are Americans like” in the year 1960. Steinbeck continues: “And the South being a limb of the nation, its pain spreads out to all America.”

To a certain extent, this seems true of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, given how Selma and Montgomery lead to demonstrations across the country and eventually to the iconic March on Washington. Conventional wisdom holds that the South was the heart of racism in this country, and that ending segregation there would eventually lead to a land of equal opportunity.

Trouble is, racism was never just a Southern problem.

Given the headlines, it’s safe to say that race, racial prejudice, and racism remain hot-button topics in America in 2015. In the past year, Americans have felt the pain of the Heartland, of the North, of the South, of the Border States, of the Lone-Star State, and even the pain of the renowned progressive Pacific Northwest.

All of these headlines share the common threads pain, grief, and above all frustration. If you’ll forgive a generalization here, people of color are tired of living under institutional racism. They are tired of black men being six times more likely to be arrested than white non-Hispanic males. They are tired of 10% more black households than white households living below the poverty line. They are tired of living in the aftermath of nearly two centuries of laws and ordinances that unarguably discriminated against people of color.

Note that two of those hyperlink citations in that last paragraph were from official US federal statistics, namely the Bureau of Justice and the 2010 Census.

Now, this is a complicated sociological issue—one that I am hardly qualified to explain. I’ve tried to keep my personal biases out of this post as much as possible, sticking only to personal observation (“they are tired”) and hard statistics (anything with a number). We can debate the causes and solutions for these numbers until we’re blue in the face, but the fact remains that they’re there.

Fifty years past the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement, and we still do not live in a country where blacks and whites are treated as equal. If we did, those numbers would be roughly the same.

At this point, an unapologetic racist might bring up these numbers as evidence that black folks are inherently inferior to white folks. I don’t buy that for a second.

Neither did Steinbeck.

In Travels with Charlie, Steinbeck tells the story of the Coopers, a “Negro family” (remember, this was the 1960s—that word was acceptable then) that lived in his hometown of Salinas, California. Mr. Cooper ran a successful trucking business, and Mrs. Cooper was a mother hen of sorts for the neighborhood kids: “good for a piece of gingerbread anytime we wanted to put the hustle to her.” Their three kids were the pride of the town: the eldest son was a star athlete, the middle son was the smartest kid in his grade, and the youngest “was all smiles.”

“Beyond this giftedness,” Steinbeck writes, “the Cooper boys were my friends.”

Steinbeck goes on to say that if anyone had spoken to him with horror at the thought of a black man marrying a white woman, he, Steinbeck, would have laughed, because it seemed obvious to him that the Cooper boys were too close to his family to want to marry his sisters.

During his visit to the South, Steinbeck thinks back to the Coopers and his own experiences with race. He writes:

I realize now that there was something else about the Coopers that set them apart from other Negroes I have seen and met since. Because they were not hurt or insulted, they were not defensive or combative. Because their dignity was intact, they had no need to be overbearing, and because the Cooper boys had never heard that they were inferior, their minds could grow to their true limits.

That, I think, more than anything else, is critical. If you tell a child that s/he is “less than”—if you tell a girl that she’s “not smart enough” to become an engineer or a gay kid that he is
an abomination” or a non-gender-conforming child that zie is “a freak” or a young black man that he’s “a thug who will never succeed in life”—it is going to mess that kid up.

As reluctant as I am to buy into the whole “you can be anything you want to be when you grow up” mantra,* I think it’s something that kids need to hear.

We don’t need to tell kids that they’re “special.” We need to tell them that they’re normal.

We need to tell them that no matter what life throws at them, no matter how hard it gets or how much it sucks, they are strong enough to succeed.

Steinbeck’s story of the Coopers struck home for me, because it is very much a reflection of my own formative experiences with race.

As I’ve written before, I did not grow up in a part of the country that you might call “ethnically diverse.” When I was in junior high, there was exactly one black student in the entire school district,* and her name was Chelsea Watts.

Chelsea Watts was a badass. She was lightning smart, she was an all-state choir singer, she was a member of the National Honors Society, and she earned the title of Montana Junior Miss in 2003. She also starred in several high school theater productions, which I suppose isn’t that much of a compliment, but when I was twelve, the high school theater program seemed like Broadway.

She was pretty much my hero.

In my eyes, Chelsea Watts was normal. She was part of the same group of overachieving high school seniors that I one day hoped to join.

Of course, my family moved before that could happen, and then I became a teenage slacker, but that’s a story for another day.

Point is, in my mind, black folks were just as capable of excelling as white folks. It wasn’t until college that I started to recognize how that wasn’t always the case. Under all the statistics, woven into the fabric of all of the stories of hardship in America, I realized that society itself tells a story: white folks in general, white men in particular, are likely to succeed. They were born ready to win the American Dream. If they don’t, they are failures.

As for everyone else? Meh. They’ll accept what they can get. As for the few who manage to “break out” of the box society builds for them, well, we’ll treat them as exceptions–or better yet: as proof that the American Dream is available for everyone.

That story is old. It is tired. It no longer holds up under scrutiny.

It’s time for a new story.

We need institutions that defend the rights of every individual, regardless of the color of their skin. We need institutions that encourage every child to follow their passions, regardless hard it may be for them to get there.

We need more stories like Tiffany Aching, the young girl who decided to be a witch even though she was born to raise sheep and make cheese.*

But most of all, we need to keep searching. Every one of us needs to find our own answer to the question of “what Americans are like.” We need to change not only our institutions, but our actions, our biases, and above all else, our hearts.

And until then, until we can learn to extend compassion to every one of our neighbors, our search for “what Americans are like” will continue.

The other day, I saw a link to Mr. Roger’s final speech on my Twitter feed. Fred Rogers defined compassion for generations of American children, including me. In his show, he taught children not to be afraid of people who are different, and he encouraged children to believe in their dreams.

The world needs more people like Fred Rogers.

In a country so often divided by prejudice and pessimism, he gave all children a radical, counter-cultural message:

I like you just the way you are.

 

Postscript: In researching this essay, I learned that Chelsea Watts is now an actress living in New York. She even has her own website and IMDB page!

http://www.chelsea-watts.com/

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm4299825/

Way to go, Chelsea! I, for one, am looking forward to your next role.

~~~
*In a nutshell: my basic problem with this mantra on its own is that it ignores aptitude, access, socioeconomic status, and skill—all of which can, I think, be compensated for to some degree, but it takes a lot of hard work, determination, assistance, and luck.

Hence the concept of “privilege”—or, to put it in nerd-friendly language, some players get to start life on Easy Mode by default and their choices affect future difficulty levels. Others don’t have that option: they have to start life on Overkill Mode.
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* That I knew of. There may have been others, but I don’t remember.
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* Did you seriously expect me to miss an opportunity to give a shout-out to my favorite Discworld character on the day her final book was released in the United States?
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Dream Casting The New Mutants Movie

Caution: This post contains tongue-in-cheek media criticism, casual activism, extreme nerdiness, obscure comic book characters, and an excessive use of adjectives.

So lately, I’ve been reading Marvel’s The New Mutants. They’re an X-Men spinoff, only instead of fighting super villains like Magneto and bigotry, they have slumber parties, inter-dimensional hijinks, and teenage feels.

Also sometimes they fight demon bears. (© Marvel)

Now, just as I was starting to get serious about tracking down back issues, 21st Century Fox announced that they would be making an X-Men spinoff movie starring The New Mutants and directed by Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars).

Oh hell yes.

Now, while I’m not familiar with Boone’s work as a director, I am familiar with a different aspect of film making: whitewashing.

For the uninitiated, “whitewashing” refers to Hollywood’s long, disturbing trend of casting white actors to play non-white characters. This long, disturbing trend is as old as cinema itself—think Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer and Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’sbut it’s never exactly gone away.

I’m worried about this, because New Mutants is one of Marvel’s more ethnically diverse books, and there is a frustrating lack of diversity when it comes to superheroes onscreen.

The New Mutants
Pictured: one Native American Valkyrie, one Vietnamese lesbian, one Scottish werewolf, one Afro-Brazilian heartthrob, and one grinning Technarch. Also pictured: four blonde Europeans. (© Marvel)

So in the hope of heading off yet another instance of questionable Hollywood casting decisions à la Aloha, I offer my dream cast for the New Mutants movie:

Devery Jacobs as Danielle Moonstar (a.k.a. “Mirage”)

DaniMirage

This one was tricky. Danielle Moonstar is the tactical leader of the New Mutants. She is fiercely independent, righteously angry, and immensely proud of her cultural heritage. Danielle is Cheyenne, one of the Plains Indian tribes, so the ideal choice for this role would be a Cheyenne/Plains Indian actress.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find any. (Smarter than Google? Leave suggestions in the comments.)

I was, however, able to find this:

1:45: “You two have got to be the dumbest Indians since Bugs Bunny put on a headdress.”

If that’s not a Danielle Moonstar line, I don’t know what is.

Olivia Tennet as Rahne Sinclair (a.k.a. “Wolfsbane”)

Wolfsbane

I’m cheating a bit here, because the only redheaded Scottish actress I’m familiar with is Karen Gillan, and she’s already been cast in a Marvel-related property. Also—I’m sorry, fellow diversity advocates—I can’t really buy Gillan playing a young teenager at this point in her career.

I cast Olivia Tennet for three reasons: 1) she’s a terrific actress, 2) she’s capable of portraying teenaged characters with awkward social skills and interior conflict, and 3) she’s pretty much the only reason I watched Power Rangers: RPM.

Rahne is the youngest member of the New Mutants. Her power is that she can turn into a werewolf, and her secondary mutation is deep-seated psychological trauma. Rahne was raised to believe that she was a demon, which led to her isolation and stunted emotional development. Even after joining the New Mutants, she doesn’t quite know how to relate to other characters.

In short, she’s Dr. K with mutant lycanthropy.

Tristan Wilds as Roberto de Costa (a.k.a. “Sunspot”)

Roberto

I’m putting my foot down on this one: Roberto de Costa is a) black and b) Latin American. He should be played by an actor who is a) black and b) Latin American.

Tristan Wilds:

“I get offered a lot of black roles, because apparently I don’t look Latino enough.” (New York Daily News circa 2003)

‘Nuff said.

For those of you who need more convincing, Bobby de Costa is also devilishly charming. Here is an interview with Tristan Wilds in which he is devilishly charming:

‘Nuff said.

Constance Wu as Xi’an Coy Mahn (a.k.a. “Karma”)

Xian

Xi’an is a difficult character for a number of reasons. She’s been inconsistently written, her name is unpronounceable in Vietnamese (disclaimer: I’ve forgotten my source for this one—feel free to “well, actually” this in the comments), and her backstory has more than a few unfortunate implications.

So I say this movie is the perfect time to reinvent her. She could be the New Mutant’s sardonic mentor: a mutant who is very much like the rest of the team, only couple years older, wiser, and with a wit so dry that her one-liners have been known to cause droughts.

What better way to reinvent a historically problematic character than by casting one of the most visible Asian-American actresses in American media?

Justin Deely as Samuel Guthrie (a.k.a. “Cannonball”)

Cannonball

Good lookin’, all-American boy from Kentucky. Nigh invulnerable while blastin’.

Josh Hutcherson as Doug Ramsey (a.k.a. “Cypher”)

Cypher

I almost cast J-Hutch as Cannonball, but then I remembered how Peeta’s feelings of inadequacy in The Hunger Games line up perfectly with Doug’s feelings of inadequacy in The New Mutants. Few actors can pull off the self-deprecating shy kid act as well as Josh Hutcherson.

Cypher is a great character. He has one of the most useful superpowers (he can hear/read any language and understand it almost instantly), he’s a programming wiz kid, he’s self-sacrificing, and best of all, he’s best friends with my favorite New Mutant…

Danny Pudi as Warlock
Warlock
Abed-Warlock. Your argument is invalid.

Oh, yeah! Now that’s what I’m talking about.

Warlock is the best Marvel Character of all time period. He’s an alien computer organism who has difficulty with pronouns and tries to make friends with an airplane. Everything he says in endearingly awkward.

I’m guessing that Warlock will be entirely CGI, and I can’t think of a better person to base his looks off than Danny Pudi. Pudi’s already proven that he can do endearingly awkward, so all we need now is a vocal synthesizer, a few million dollars worth of visual effects, and we’re golden.

Last but not least, we have…

Dakota Fanning as Illyana Rasputin (a.k.a. “Magik”)

Magik

A sweet, innocent child corrupted by a hell dimension into a sarcastic, semi-demonic young adult who is constantly struggling to overcome her dark past. If you don’t see the resemblance, I’m not sure I can help you.

 

So there you have it: my dream cast for The New Mutants movie. I don’t expect 21st Century Fox to follow all (or any) of my suggestions—eight main characters is a lot, even for a superhero movie.

If nothing else, I hope that Boone and company stay true to the spirit of the New Mutants: these are characters whose ethnicity informs their character but, when they’re well-written, it does not define them.

The New Mutants are native, Asian, mixed race, European, alien, female, male, gay, straight, and everything in between. And as many (many, many) critics and social commentators have said countless times before, so is the movie-going public.

It’s about time we had a superhero team that looks like the rest of us.

Bonus casting not pictured: Hayden Panettiere as Amara Juliana Olivians Aquilla (a.k.a. “Magma”). They can save her for the sequel.

Murder in the City

When I was in college, I walked alone.

Okay, not really, but I did go for a walk just about every night. On my own. In the dark.

This wasn’t a big deal to me. The streets were well lit, for the most part, and it seemed safer walking at night in the suburbs than in the woods near my parents’ house. For one thing, I was far less likely to run into a mountain lion.

Others saw things differently.

One of my friends insisted that I send her a text after every time I visited her after dark, so that she’d know I walked back across campus alright. Every now and then, the adviser to our school’s LGBT group would encourage us to practice the buddy system. Once, a member of our group admitted that he didn’t feel safe walking around the city on his own.

I’ve written about queer issues before, which is weird, because I honestly don’t spend a lot of time thinking about my life through that lens. But every now and then, I’ll see something—or I’ll hear something—and it’ll resonate.

I’ll hear it, and I stop for a moment. I ponder.

And then I write.

 

Last month, Brandi Carlile released her fifth studio album, The Firewatcher’s Daughter. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, the best flarking album I’ve heard since 2012. There is not a single song on this album that I don’t like—and that’s sayin’ something.

Admittedly, I’m biased: Carlile’s style fits perfectly in the middle of the Venn diagram of my musical interests. It’s a little bit country,* a little bit rock ‘n’ roll, with soaring vocals, booming instruments, and lyrics you can sink your teeth in.

It’s pretty great.

I could easily do a track-by-track review of The Firewatcher’s Daughter, listing every single reason why you should be listening to this album. But I’m not gonna do that. For one thing, I don’t have the time.

But I do want to talk about one song.

At the very end of the album, after all the ups and downs, the head-boppin’ rockabilly sing-along tracks and the quieter, more introspective love songs, Carlile closes with a cover of the Avett Brothers’ “Murder in the City.”

This song hits me hard every time.

I can’t speak for other queer folk—as usual, I can only speak for myself—but man, oh, man, does this resonate.

I started this post with an anecdote about how I used to walk alone at night. I still do, sometimes, but not often. See, I’ve moved a few times since then. I don’t know my new neighborhood all that well.

When I walked alone at night in college, I’d be lying if I said I was afraid. Likewise, if I’m walking alone in the city, I may stop for a second to pull the rainbow bracelet off my wrist, but it’s not because of fear—not exactly.

See, there’s this little voice in the back of my mind, and every now and then, that little voice calls out, “Hey! Unknown territory. Better be careful.”

‘Cause something could happen.

I’m sure some of you have already figured out where this is going. If not, look down about a paragraph. You probably won’t be surprised.

In 1998, Matthew Shepard was murdered. He was found tied to a fence post, pistol-whipped, his brain stem crushed, his shoes missing. He died a few hours later.

Now, much has been written about Matthew Shepard. Time passes. Passion fades. Memories blur. Recent articles have questioned whether Matthew’s killers were truly motivated by hate, or whether they acted out of some other motive.

In a way, it doesn’t matter.

Regardless of why it happened, Matthew Shepard’s murder caused a wave of outrage, calls for tolerance, and debate about the safety of queer folk in America. Even ten years later, as I was slowly starting to peek out of the closet, the LGBT community continued to talk about Matthew Shepard.

“That could’ve been me,” I thought. That could still be me.

Now, settle down, kids, I’m gonna put on my lit major hat for a moment and pull out another familiar LGBT-themed story. Again, you probably know where this is going.

Told you. (Image © Focus Features, 2005)

The tragedy of Brokeback Mountain isn’t that Jack Twist dies. It’s not a Romeo & Juliet story—well, it is, actually, but not in the way that most people think. See, Romeo and Juliet didn’t die of the inexorable forces of society. They didn’t die because of fate. They died because of their choices.

Brokeback Mountain is a tragedy because its characters chose to end it that way.

Throughout the short story, Jack asks Ennis to start a new life with him. The two of them And every time, Ennis says no. When Ennis was young, he was told that if two men were to ever shack up together, they’d be beaten to death by a tire iron. For Ennis, being “a queer” can only end in death.

After years of unsatisfactory rendezvous and a falling out that both men knew was coming, Ennis gets the news that Jack Twist is dead. And the tragedy is, because he never took Jack up on that offer, because he let the two of them drift apart, Ennis will never know the truth of what happened to Jack.**

In Ennis’s mind, it was the tire iron.

 

I read Brokeback Mountain for the first time back in 2009, shortly before I came out. I knew I was gay, though I didn’t want to admit it, and this story helped me figure out why.

I was scared.

I got over it. Eventually. Most of the time.

I walk the city streets more or less without fear, but every now and then, that little voice in the back of my mind reminds me to be cautious. Because if it happened to Matthew Shepard and Jack Twist, if it’s happened to other queer and trans* folk in my area, there’s a tiny chance it could happen to me.

It’s an anxiety that I don’t think is shared by most straight, white, cisgendered folk—not straight white men, anyway, I’m guessing.

“If I get murdered in the city,” sings Carlile, and it’s an anxiety that feels real, even if it’s remote. It’s something we have to think about. We can’t control that little voice in the back of our minds.

For the most part, Carlile sings the song exactly as it was written.*** Except for one line:

Make sure my wife knows that I loved her
Make sure my daughter knows the same
And always remember there’s nothing worth sharing
Like the love that lets us share our name

Brandi Carlile is married. She has a wife. And they have a daughter. More than anything else, that’s the line that gets me. That’s the line that resonates.

Every time.

~~~
“Murder in the City” © The Avett Brothers, 2008. Ramseur Records. Video © Brandi Carlile, Oct. 8, 2014.

The Firewatcher’s Daughter © Brandi Carlile Band, 2015. ATO Records.

“Brokeback Mountain” in Close Range: Wyoming Stories © Annie Proulx, 1999. Scribner. Originally published in The New Yorker: Oct. 13, 1997.

NOTES:

*By “country,” I mean the ol’-timey Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Loretta Lynn brand of country, not that bro-country stuff comin’ out of Nashville these days.
**Proulx’s text, and to an extent Ang Lee’s movie as well, is purposefully ambiguous on this point. We, the readers, never know which version of Jack’s death is true.
***By a straight, white, cisgendered man, oddly enough.‡
‡As far as I know.

Quick Update

Eventually, I’m going to give this site a facelift. For now, I’ll just go with what I’ve got.

Posts here will continue to be sporadic. I’m in the middle of a quarter-life career change (again), which is my main focus right now. I’m also looking to start publishing my work elsewhere, so this site will be on the back burner for a while.

That said, if I have something to say here, I’m gonna say it.

–R