Thursday, May 31, 2012

The terror and relief of admitting cluelessness

It’s terribly stressful to pretend you know what you’re doing all the time. Not only does it tax a person’s acting skills, which may not be all that great to begin with, but it leaves us without any opportunity to stop, look around, and take a few moments to try and understand the mess we’ve just gotten ourselves into. People who want to look like they know what they’re doing don’t dare slow down, because they’re already supposed to have figured it all out and should be charging ahead getting things done. So you barrel on, panicked because you can’t admit to anyone that you don’t have the slightest idea what’s happening.
It’s infinitely easier, I’ve found, to be able to admit to being completely clueless on occasion. Most people will respond at least reasonably well to comments like “I’m embarrassingly lost. Can you please tell me how to get to [insert name of wherever it is here]?” or “This exploded and I don’t know what happened. Please fix it.” I’ve never asked them, but I believe that most people are kind in these circumstances because they hope that someone else will be if they ever need to admit cluelessness.
Doing so can make you feel more than a little vulnerable – high school flashbacks, I think – and there are times it can be downright scary. But it can also be such a relief to stop, give someone else the steering wheel for just a few moments, and figure out how to get back to that patch of road you know so much better than you do this one.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

A gateway to anywhere

I truly love airports, despite the fact that admitting this generally makes people question my sanity. True, the security lines are clearly secret government experiments on how extreme stress affects the human mind, but there’s still nowhere better than an airport for that sheer, concentrated sense of potential.

If you’re the one getting on the plane, being in an airport usually means you’re traveling someplace far enough away from home that it automatically qualifies as an adventure. Vacations, naturally are the best – either to someplace new or a beloved spot you haven’t seen in too long – but even business trips can give you the taste of a new city. Afterward, being in an airport means you’re heading home again to a familiar bed and people who at least like you quite a bit.

If you’re not leaving or coming back, odds are you’re welcoming someone you love. Either it’s a family member coming home after experiencing their own adventure, or it’s distant loved ones who you don’t get to see often enough because there are so many miles between you.  No matter how annoying they can be, heading to an airport generally means that something significant is about to happen. It’s a controlled surprise.

In my own life, I’m generally the one leaving and coming back, since there’s too much I still want to see and none of my beloved beaches anywhere in my home state (the ocean is a terrible thing for a desert-dweller to love). In college I had one of my two best friends on each side of every plane ride, and now I have the whole wide world on one side and people I love on the other (and generally in the seat next to me). To keep that opportunity in my life, I’ll take disapproving TSA agents and terrifyingly small airplane bathrooms any day of the week.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Every little ending of the world

There’s something terribly wrenching about sudden endings, a small but permanent shift where you step out of one world and into another one. Even if the difference between the two is relatively small – a new apartment building instead of the old one, a breakup you hadn’t seen coming – there’s something disorienting about being cut off from the life you’ve been experiencing until just recently. Even though most of the important parts are still firmly in place, it can never quite be the same as it once was. Something that was enough of a part of it to be almost instinctive has ended, and as such is now forever out of your reach.
You wish you’d been warned somehow, because surely a chance to say goodbye would have made the loss easier. You could have made a plan for what you were going to do without whatever it is you lost, or simply taken some time to become accustomed to the thought of letting go. To try and figure out who you are now. But the truth is, there’s never really enough warning. That last step will always feel too final, and you will always wish you had just one more day in the life you’d gotten so used to. It’s in human nature to always want one more goodbye.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Boxes, borders and extra puzzle pieces

Society expects people to make sense. In fact, it generally tries to force the issue, squeezing us all into convenient little boxes it can use to label and categorize. The vagaries of the need for solitude are forcibly paired up with those unable to reach out and are called “loners,” while those who love to talk, those who love to have people to talk to, and those who are desperate to keep talking so no one sees inside their hearts are all called “social.” It looks better on a spreadsheet, true, but it crushes the wonder of human complexity into a series of bullet points.

When society can’t find the box to stuff you in, it doesn’t know how to handle you. Where do you put the extroverted introverts, who love talking but only to a very small and select group of people? Or the quiet rabble-rousers, who don’t shout or speechify but are secretly full of righteous fury and desperate to change the world from behind the scenes? Do they move between the boxes, or do they exist outside them somewhere?

If it’s the latter, what happens to those who don’t force the world to see them? Are they free, or do they disappear? Are the boxes cages, or are they tribes?

Sigh. If this is what it’s like for an English Lit major in a quiet moment, I can’t imagine what poor Philosophy majors have to go through when they start thinking too hard. For their sakes, I hope they have an off switch of some kind.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Geeks: speaking a different language

Geeks aren’t anti-social – we just love talking about stuff we know most people have absolutely no opinion about. While the majority of society seems constantly ready to launch into a Romney vs. Obama compare/contrast (or death match, depending on who’s talking), we want to discuss the finer points of the Mary Jane Watson vs. Gwen Stacy question renewed by the upcoming “Spider Man’ movie (but started long, long ago in the comic books). Not that geeks don’t have political opinions – we love a good argument, if nothing else – but the “Spider Man” question just seems so much more interesting. (Or the corollary – is Toby Maguire or Andrew Garfield the better Peter Parker? Movie geeks can get involved in this one.)

One of a geek’s greatest joys is acquiring a huge knowledge base about something that interests them (sort of like a serious football fan, but that’s a discussion for another day). Part of the fun of having such a deep knowledge base, however, is using it to analyze the show, movie or game you spend so much time thinking about with someone who knows it as well as you do. The blank looks most people give you just aren’t enough.

In fact, it could be argued that we seek out social companionship more than the non-geeks out there. For most people, a decent conversational partner can be found almost anywhere – if the person in the cubicle next to yours doesn’t want to talk about “American Idol,” the person sitting next to you in the carpool probably will. Someone who can intelligently discuss the possible implications of the Observers in “Fringe,” however, can probably only be hunted down on the Internet.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The pleasure and sorrow of tragic fiction

In some ways, sadness is terribly entertaining to read about. There’s something about picturing the glistening of a character’s eyes as they bravely hold back tears, or feeling the ache of a poetic, heartbreaking grief that you can set down just as you close the book behind you, that makes life feel wonderfully theatrical. Only dramatic people could be caught up in such great, sweeping dramatic emotions, and when we read about those people we can borrow some of that drama even if the most significant element in our day is where we go to eat on our lunch hour.

After too long, however, I feel guilty. When we read we bring the characters to life, if only for a little while, and when I read tragic books I’m dancing them through the worst days, weeks and even years of their lives purely for my own amusement. Angst can only be truly appreciated if it gets better, if you can dramatically suffer through those lows just long enough to come out on the other side with a sigh of relief and a safe place to lay your head. As the characters rest, so can we, and the world feels like a slightly better place all the way around.

Of course, I would never say any of this to an English Lit teacher. They might take away my union card.

What are your thoughts on happy or sad fiction?