Basement Magic

I turned my basement into an apocalyptic talent show. The cause of the apocalypse was almost irrelevant — although I preferred natural disasters. The important part was that recovering from an apocalypse required putting on a mixed tape and dancing. Hence, I was very territorial of my reconfigured basement being that it was in the perfect atmospheric arrangement for end-of-the world dance-offs. The space was perfect, and I was definitely going to play this game all week, thank-you-very-much. All my favorite toys (from dinosaurs to Barbies, Disney dolls to action figures) got the invite to rebuild a (much more glamorous) society — with fun and dresses and music.

My grandma’s basement suffered a different fate — that of a roller rink in a magical fantasy world. There were werewolves prowling at the doors, but if you were in the bunker turned skating arena, you were safe. It was an extremely 90s pop influenced Fortress of Solitude. Once again, there was a pathological reliance on CDs, mixed tapes, and the radio (these are clearly what you need to survive in a harsh, barely settled fantasy land). The downside to this was there was always a tremendous number of spiders and silver fish in the basement, and these are way worse than dragons, orcs, or werewolves. Apparently those creepers still inhabit fantasy worlds.

In the real world, I’ve been in a tornado and don’t consider the damages of disasters to be funny in the slightest. But that’s what play-acting is — a cathartic way to deal with fear, shame, and guilt. In our age of Big Disasters, it’s not a huge shock that I play-acted those out. There’s something random and completely inevitable about natural disasters — there’s a lack of control. In fiction, you get that control back. It’s magic — it’s choose your own adventure. You get to pour whatever glitter-infused lotion you want onto the things that keep you up at night. Being separated from your family is no problem when you get adopted into a magic, fantasy bunker of disco-awesomeness. Your house is destroyed, but you can rebuild with Batman, Sailormoon, and their dinosaur friends.

But like all things, the literal days of Basement Magic came to an end. Basements are storage places, workshops, and game rooms now. But the macabre fantasies blended together with the touch of absurd (you really need mix tapes to survive) lives on. We all fear something (from silverfish and spiders to failure and death), and we crave community — a place to be safe from the wolves at the doors in our own heads. You always need someone there to help you pick up the pieces. And sometimes, that person is fictional — an idea instead of flesh and blood. And sometimes, that person is a phone call away, and when you don’t know the way back to the basement, they most certainly do.

I was a teenage weirdo

“Don’t be a weirdo.”

That sentence — in one of its many iterations — was everywhere growing up. It wasn’t ‘Don’t be weird.’ Weird was a way you acted, some one-off thing. Nope, weirdo was something you were. It went beyond actions into some shameful personal transgression. Being weird was a phase. Being a weirdo — a character flaw.

And I was a weirdo.

It’s like having a tumor. You can’t see it, but the x-ray is telling you it’s there, so it must be true. People are telling you you’re weird, so you must be. Sometimes, it was because I was too quiet. I would play alone in my bedroom or read. This, apparently, is anti-social, which is a highly suspicious behavior among normal little girls. Hence, I had to come out and play in front of everyone — something I was loathe to do. You can’t read in a living room full of people. Or you at least can’t read without everyone trying to turn it into a social endeavor. What are you reading? What’s it about? These question were, naturally, followed by judgement. Why do you want to read that? That’s such a boring topic! Here, why don’t you read this book about a nice little girl and puppies. And I didn’t want to play pretend in front of my family after I was considered too old for that. Besides, adults just messed up my over-wrought stories and (poorly) mapped-out imaginary worlds. I did not want to change the way these characters interacted, thank-you-very-much.

And then, there were times when I was conspicuous. These were less frequent — but that’s just how my personality shook out. There were times when I couldn’t stop laughing even though all the funny things were only in my head. That, apparently, was also a problem. Gallows humor in an eleven year-old girl is another thing that’s heavily frowned upon. Morbid stories — with too many deaths and epic battles — weren’t kosher for fifth grade creative writing. Nope and nope. Being shunted aside because your brain poured out of your mouth was just as bad as being dragged from the corner where you’re minding your own business.

This, I believe, is what’s called a ‘no-win’ scenario. A catch-22 for you more literary folk.

At least, when you make a mistake, it’s a temporary slip of mind. People can steer you on the right path, hook you up with your true passion. See, you don’t have to be weird! Here’s a way to be normal. Just do this, you’re good at it, and we accept that. But when everything about you do is off, there’s no way to land on your feet. Gee, you get good grades — but don’t really seem to be paying attention, so you can’t be working hard. Except wait — you’re too over-eager. I guess you should try … try something where you don’t have to work with people. Ever. Like, just work in a box. Yeah.

When you’re a weirdo, you can’t ever really be good at anything. You’re a weirdo — it denies you personality. Words like nice and friendly, smart and creative don’t stick to you. You think you’re made of something different; not flesh, but maybe some type of rubber. But the genius of rubber is you can stretch it into anything, and it’ll always bounce back. This — this undefinable elastic quality — becomes your personality. Your weirdo code-of-arms is a bouncy ball or one of those metallic blobs you throw at the wall — where it slides down with the gait of an amoeba.

And really, is there anything more weird than feeling a personal kinship with an amoeba.

Amoebas will always be happy to see you. They're very friendly.

Amoebas will always be happy to see you. They’re very friendly.

A Place Worth Seeing

In the past month, I’ve taken two long trips; I was able to do this because I’m working part time as a waitress. I’m ridiculously broke now. A year ago, I made myself a set of promises, and some of things I’ve done were things I told myself I would do while I talked myself into a different career path. I learned a new language and wrote a book while taking time to explore my interests outside of school. I learned I quite like academia, but there are other things in the world I missed while being absorbed in school work. Some of things that happened were a surprise, things I didn’t think I wanted now or really ever. I imagined myself being this lone adventurer, quirky and single, but I came out of this with a serious partner; I explored and traveled with others, finding I’m better with people when I climb out from behind my defensive barriers that would make trench soldiers proud.

Adventuring or something like it.

I needed to talk myself out of my years long dream to be a doctor. I grieved for what felt like a failure on my part. I felt like I wasted money and time on a dream I should have realized wasn’t right for me. I knew I was starting over, and in that anger, I fell back on the things I pushed away while I told myself the only thing I wanted in my life was a career in medicine. And there’s the thing: in the end, I wanted other things in my life besides medicine, and I knew because I did my fucking homework, that to be a doctor, you have to want that; only that. It has to be a passion because it’s hard work, a long struggle. At the same time, I realized the things I liked about medicine — the aspects of pathology, research, and contributing to my community — I could do in another career. So I divorced medicine and set out to explore and built my skills in medical research, aiming to get my PhD in translational medicine.

And here is where it gets difficult; here is where I failed. I failed hard, quick and unexpected, except it wasn’t quite so sudden if I think about it. There’s the knowledge that this wasn’t a permanent failure. There are lessons there, things I’m trying to get a handle on now. I don’t want to doubt myself because confidence is a fickle thing. If it seems I’m a bit less excited about my career at the moment, that’s only because I had a set back and am not working towards it full time right now. It’s difficult for that enthusiasm to come through, so I fill conversations with the other things I have in my life. When I’m asked, “Well, why don’t you do this? You really want to be in this area of biology?” I get frustrated because yes, yes this is really where I want to be.

It takes lose, voluntary and otherwise, to expose things; you can’t see what something means to you until it’s gone. Maybe it’s the way the brain works; we feel like something will be with us forever. I can’t imagine a life where I’m not always curious, working to acquire new knowledge. I can’t imagine a life devoid of adventure, either. I have limits, but in the mathematical sense. There are certain numbers I can’t reach, my curve goes off into space before I can get there. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a set of values, things I can do, numbers that I happened to come across. I don’t know how all of these things makes sense, but when I worry about money and failure, I remember I love the journey, the need to adventure to some place worth seeing.

Day 3: The Breaking of the Juice

I wasn’t quite as perky this morning, but I still don’t remember a time I’ve been this energetic on this little caffeine. Anyway, I can tell I’ve dropped some water weight, but I’m not surprised by that either. However, after 3 days of fasting, I think I’m going to break it tonight. The thing is, I miss chewing things. My body is sending up little crazy signals telling me I should be chewing, and I’m totally okay with that.

As a note, before I launch into the list of things I learned from this little experiment, I’m glad I didn’t pay for this cleanse. I thought about it, laughed at the price, and then read the pages of health information. Let’s just say the health field is filled with people who have a loose grasp on anatomy. Your stomach is acidic, but your pancreas pumps out enzymes that lower the pH of your food when it enters your small intestines, and this part, where the digestion takes place, is at pH 8. And your liver, for the last time, does not need detoxifying. If your liver and your kidneys were not working, you would be dead. If you want to lose actual weight, a juice cleanse isn’t for you. I wouldn’t go on this cleanse for more than 3-4 days. These companies suggest you eat vegan before you go on your cleanse, so they’re effectively prepping you for a week long commitment. If you put your body into starvation mode, your standard of health will decrease. A few days at depressed calorie intake on a cleanse should be fine, but don’t go the master cleanse route and fast for two weeks. You will lose muscle weight, and you’ll be less fit and healthy. So let’s stop talking about ‘detoxing’ and try to figure out what this means in terms of improving health.

On the flip side, I didn’t do this cleanse to start eating pizza and nachos again. I’m going vegan for this week and eating the remainder of my veggies and fruits. I read articles about people whining about how hard juice cleanses are and how terrible juices taste and how they weren’t healthy and how only nutty people cleanse and they’re just going to eat a fat steak now. If you’re going to do this, work with an open mind, and for all that is amazing, don’t do the master cleanse. Use a nice grapefruit juice to replace the SPICY LEMONADE.

Here are some takeaways from my DIY juicing experiment.

* I don’t eat enough fruits and veggies on a regular basis. I live in a culture where it’s permissible not to, and it’s easier to get good tasting non-vegetable food.

* I have improved energy, but I didn’t notice anything major with my skin. Some people say their skin gets ‘glowy’, but I didn’t see that result. I did have some digestion issues early on, but those cleared up. I don’t own a scale, but I did drop some water weight. I was able to run errands, work out, and go to work for days 2-3 of the cleanse without problems.

* Green juice is the answer to my fruit juice woes. I went into Whole Foods, and the two green juices I found (one being Naked) listed 5 fruits as their top 5 ingredients. I think the mostly-veggie green juice is what makes all of these juice cleanses work. My green juice included 1 kiwi, 1 apple, and a few handfuls of spinach and kale. I would consider adding parsley or celery in the future, but this recipe is simple, and it’s as many veggies and fruits as I eat during a normal day. I have effectively doubled my veggie/fruit consumption per day with an extra 15 minutes of work.

* You can do juicing with only a blender. I was skeptical I would be able to make this work with a blender because every other person who wrote about their DIY juicing had a juicer or dropped several hundred dollars to buy one. I can confirm that with a blender, pasta strainer, a funnel, and a bottle of some sort to keep the juice in you can make decent juice. Just make sure to add water, a bit of lemon juice (if desired), or coconut water to the veggies in the blender.

* I like to eat some fruits and veggies whole. I’m not going to grind up my other pineapple. I love pineapples! I was so sad when I had to throw away the pulp from the pine apple/cucumber drink. I love eating those two things raw, and my strawberries have been patiently waiting for this fast to be over.

* That said, I can expand the amount of fruits and veggies I eat everyday by blending together fruits and veggies I don’t like to eat whole. The perfect example is grapefruit. I loved the grapefruit/apple drink. I drank it right now, and I want more grapefruit juice. The same goes for kiwis and carrots. I can get cheap veggies and fruits, mix them together, and increase the amount of veggies and fruit I’m eating.

* I’m still skeptical of store bought juices. There are some good brands out there; I’m obsessed with juice now, so I went out and looked last night. I would consider buying some of those brands, but the majority of easily available juices aren’t vegetable based, and even the natural ones are designed to be very sweet by adding concentrated fruit juice. The only juice I found that listed vegetables as the first plant ingredients were tomato/carrot juices. We’ve designed our juices to include no pulp, too. As a rule, when you drink a bottled juice, it shouldn’t be clear. Juice isn’t soda, and the fibrous parts are good.

* I want to try one of the green juices from the cleansing companies. I couldn’t find any, but maybe in the future I’ll be able to try one. I want to know what the physical difference is between the green juice I made and the ones those companies are selling. That said, I wouldn’t pay to do this cleanse. Not $60-$80 a day for a labeled bottled and juice I could make myself. I spend that much money on my entire grocery bill, and I still have food left over I’m not going to juice, and I could, if needed, do two to three more days of just juicing on what fruits and veggies I have. I also don’t feel comfortable supporting the companies selling these cleanses because the websites do promote a lot of pseudo-science and feel-good anecdotes as supported health claims.

* The DIY method is definitely cheaper, and I can fit parts of it into my budget. I can make the green juice for under $20 a week, and with $25, I can make an additional fruit juice. I liked the cashew milk, but I think I’ll just stick to my cartoon of almond milk because it’s less chunky and has less calories. That said, 1/4 cup soaked cashews, 1 banana, cinnamon, and nutmeg with a splash of almond milk would make a great alternative to sweet and salty desert cravings.

Day 2: the Juicening

I had a variety of expectations going into this “drink your veggies” experiment. On waking up after day 1 (really, day .5 because I started this at around 2 pm Saturday), I’m surprised because I slept the same amount/sleep schedule as normal, and I am wide awake. Not ‘toothpicks propping open my eyelids’ or ‘wired on a large coffee’ awake, but ‘I actually got up when my alarm went off instead of sleeping through it for half an hour’ awake. I’m limiting myself to 1 cup of coffee (I measured it!) a day to keep any caffeine withdraw headaches away, but I think I could have done without the coffee this morning. I can’t remember a time in the last several years I could have said that. I thought I would wake up and say, “Screw this. I need to be awake to go to work.” But here I am, and I was in lab at 8 am.

With that said, the one down side I’m having also surprised me. I thought without eating fat or dairy last night, I would feel less bloated, but this isn’t the case. My stomach felt a bit tender this morning, but it’s not abnormal for me to feel nauseous in the morning. I thought I wouldn’t be bloated, but I didn’t find that to be the case, at least when I woke up. With that said, maybe allowing more pulp in the juice is causing the bloating. I plan to remedy this by making a citrus based juice later. I think the high alkali content of the green juice might be bothering my stomach.

Breakfast. Mmmmm.

Anyway, I drank my green juice for breakfast this morning. I wasn’t clear on what I was drinking, so I’m going to break down a little what I’ve done so far. From what I can tell, these juice fasts are built around the green juice. I’m starting to understand why: you’re drinking liquid spinach and kale. I drank 2 very pulpy green juices and 1 coffee mug of cashew/banana juice last night. I blended all my ingredients, so they’re probably WAY more chunky/pulpy than their counterparts you would get from juicing programs. I made 3 bottles of green juice and used 2 recipes of cashew juice to make 3 servings. I left the cashew mix less strained, but I did a fair job straining the green pulp. I put it into a pasta strainer and pressed it down. Then, I added more water to the pulp and let it sit over night, which is how I got 1 grande iced coffee serving for breakfast. (See: the handy plastic cup I didn’t throw away.)

Green juice:
- 1 large handful of kale
- 1 large handful of spinach
- 1 average sized kiwi, peeled
- 1-2 Granny Smith apples, whole
*The recipe I took this from says to add 1 banana. I didn’t do that on the first day, but maybe I’ll try the green juice with a banana.

Banana-Cashew Milk
For 1 bottle:
- 1 cup of raw cashews, soaked in water for 2 hours
- 1 banana
- 1 cup of water
- a pinch each of cinnamon, cardamom, and nutmeg
(I used WAY more water to dilute 2 recipes of this to 3 servings. I drank one serving last night, but I’m going to try and make the remaining two servings last as lunches today and tomorrow. We’ll see.)

Pineapple-Cucumber Juice:
-1 Pineapple
-1 seedless cucumber
*You could add apples and cut back on the pine apple. This one was hard to strain, and I made only 1.5 bottles from this ‘double’ recipe.

Grapefruit-apple-coconut Mint Juice:
-1 grapefruit
-1 red apple
-1/2 container coconut water (natural, unsweetened)
-Sprigs of mint
(I peeled the grapefruit and chopped up the apple, and blended it all together. This juice was to replace the lemonade, and it strained really well. The mint might make your stomach feel better. I a full bottle plus a bit more out of this recipe.)

Here are pictures of ingredients and how I strained them and filtered them. That said, I would embrace the pulpiness of these drinks. I went to Whole Foods, trying to find a packet of the cleanse drinks sold nationally, but they didn’t have the bottled drink versions. I really want to find a comparison ‘green juice’ to see how my blended version stacks up. From what I can tell, the green juice is what is making the difference for me.

Recipe for the pineapple-cucumber drink. I didn’t end up using the apples.

Cucumber and pineapple straining. It’s actually a very delicious juice, but it was the hardest to strain.

1 plastic cup of cucumber/pineapple for dinner and a bottle for work tomorrow!

The apples and grapefruit in the blender beside the coconut juice.

My final product of grapefruit/apple/mint/coconut juice. It’s very good, and the citrus balances out the more bitter juices.

Life experiments: Juice cleanses

I’m taking an exciting vacation in ten days. I’ve been saving money and doing work, putting the trip as far back in my mind as possible so I don’t get distracted. I’m not the type of person to check out until I’m out the door and hoping a plane. This is why, when I went shopping yesterday, I had one of those moments where, I realized for me, I had let myself go.

It started with my hair. I looked in the mirror and realized my hair was two colors. Two freaking colors. I had the tacky bottle dye job (saving money) and the root re growth to show how little I’ve cared for…oh, the last six months. To top it off, I was bloated and decided to wear skinny jeans out. And I didn’t wear make up because I care a lot less about putting make up on when I spend my entire day alone and working with rodents. This is just how it works, people.

“Letting myself go” is a relative term, and a phrase I kind of hate, even as I realize what it means. Basically, to cut down stress, I take an approach to let the little things (laundry, cleaning, putting on make up) slide unless the occasion is important. Think ‘job interview’ or ‘giving a presentation.’ There should be room in life to not care about trivial things. We should give ourselves the freedom to go after goals without the nagging voice of “Do the laundry! Have the perfect house! Paint your nails!” ringing in our heads. I have things I want to do that are more important than devoting a chunk of time and money to chasing this high-maintenance version of femininity. For example, read 18 things to consider before moving in with your boyfriend, and please, for the love of all the things, let me know if you’ve known ANYONE who hangs up their flip flops. In addition, if you have ever made a cut bow in your toilet paper or decorated your freaking trash can with bows, let me know so I can say there are people in the world who’ve actually done those things. I do not believe these type of people exist, and if they do, I’m certainly not friends with any of them. I hate wasting time, but that said, I have a baseline of femininity, and I express it in some culturally typical ways.

That said, I had the ‘crap, I fell below my own personal level of femininity’ moment standing in a Macy’s dressing room. I called the hair salon on the bus ride home and made an appointment. My hair is a single color. Sometimes, life is that easy. I lucked out and got a woman who had a lisp, so she didn’t try to make idle chatter with me. I went to a very good stylist, but she talked way too much. Idle chatter bores me, and why are you asking me about super personal things? Just because you’re touching my hair doesn’t mean you’ve become my magical confidant.

I come home from the salon, and the second issue smacks me in the face: I’m bloated and feel terrible. This is different from the hair and femininity issue, but they’re all tied up in that knot of self-image problems. I looked up this article about DIY juice cleanses, which I read and made fun of a few months ago. I know what it means to cut water weight. I know how much water weight I can cut in a two day period if I absolutely need to hit a number on a scale. That said, ‘quick’ weight loss is just that: water weight and maybe a pound of real weight. The safest amount of REAL weight you can lose in a week is around 2 pounds while being completely functional. Even then, your body wants to sit at a specific weight, and it’s best not to fight nature. Eat veggies, get protein, drink water, and you land where you land weight wise. That said, when your diet (my diet…) goes to shit, you feel it. And man, I am feeling it. For me, it’s that I’ve started bad snacking habits. They crept in at work, and eating more sugar just causes me to crave more sugar. Couple this with a general increase in my cravings for dairy, and it’s the perfect storm of bad eating.

And this is how I read an article about juicing five times in a row before deciding that I was going to try it. Granted, I’m going to try the juice part for about 2-3 days. I’m going to try a slew of different recipes, but that’s the goal: lots of raw veggies and a bunch of water to reset my palate. Because when I’m too lazy to cook chard, something is wrong. When I let other foods squeeze out veggies in my food budget, I need to reset the baseline because it’s skewed.

The rough idea is to take the do-it-myself approach. (Money. Saving money is awesome.) I spent my week grocery budget on raw product and a box of unsalted cashews. No cheeses, no pasta, nothing else. Just fruit and veggies. I made the ‘green juice’, which seems to be the foundation of every juice cleanse that exists. And…well, kale has a really powerful after taste, even when it’s mixed with kiwis and granny smith apples. I also made the banana-cashew-lots of water-cinnamon drink to take to work for lunch because I’m going to need some substance at work. I played “will it blend?” with a variety of veggies, and I’m going to tackle more recipes tomorrow.

I have vowed to not eat anything more solid than the juice pulp for two days. The only exception is coffee, and even then, I need to drink only a cup to prevent headaches. Also, I will not do the master cleanse. If I want lemon juice, I’m gong to squeeze a lemon, add agave nectar, and dilute it with water. Why, why or freaking why, you would think ‘hey, I know what this lemonade needs! Cayenne pepper!’ I know what the intended affect is, but your liver and kidneys are pros at filtering toxins from your body. Cleansing, in the most literal sense, isn’t eliminating any magical toxins your liver and kidneys didn’t get to first.

My goal is to reset my palate quickly. I don’t own a scale. I don’t care how much weight I gain or lose. I just need to feel better, and a fair amount of that comes from a slippery-slope cravings slide. Once again, cravings are a personal thing. What I consider ‘normal cravings’ isn’t universal, but you can reset your cravings. The sugar in the fruit part of the drinks should work well enough to put a cap on the sugar cravings. After I finish the initial pulp n’ water days, I want to make a real focus on eating raw food. This isn’t because I believe cooking magically makes food unhealthy; it doesn’t, and in many instances, cooking allows you to absorb more nutrients from veggies. Basically, I want to stop being lazy with how I’ve been eating. There’s no magical bullet, I’m well aware, but the goal of feeling ‘less crappy’ is one I’m going to prioritize this week.

Living while introverted

I am an introvert. Surprise, I know, being part of that half of the population. It’s like being a woman. Flip a coin, and you could probably guess my gender and particular social inclination. The most common reactions to being an introvert are “You’re not shy!” or “But you go out a lot!” Well, yes, but here’s the thing: I require ridiculous amounts of me time. I need large chunks of space and time to myself to be creative and to just think. I’m not a ‘group work’ person. It’s not because I don’t like other people, but it’s usually because, if I work in a group or with a group, I still need swaths of time to go off and work on my own. Introversion has little to do with being shy and all to do with enjoying silence and a sense of open space in the world.

And this is why I hate “how to fix your life, you shy introvert!” type help articles. I read them because I’m a masochist. This is the latest piece I came across. The article should have been about ways to make sure you get out of your house more because it’s about how to get out of your house in the age of extreme creature comforts. It’s more about being lazy than about being introverted.

I hear you! I’m a total introvert and the creature comforts of home are usually a lot more enticing than a social outing. The amount of awesome that you can stuff into a small house makes it incredibly hard to get out and leave. The fact most people have a big flat screen TV, can stream just about any movie or TV show on demand, and can automate the delivery of pretty much everything makes it easier than ever to stay cooped up inside. Still, social interaction is good for you, so let’s take a look at some ways you can motivate yourself to get out of the house every now and again.

There’s the assumption introversion never means leaving your house. Wrong and wrong. I go outside a lot, work a job, go for walks, travel, and all kinds of other things, but I’m still an introvert. I can do a lot of these things without interacting closely with other people. I guess the reason I like my little apartment is because I crave my own space. Even when growing up, I craved my own spaces, little places where I could go, think as long as I needed, and feel completely comfortable. It’s about me time, not about vegging in front of the couch. There are out door places, places away from my apartment, that qualify as ‘me’ spaces. I had this seat in the library I always tried to sit in because I loved its location. I felt completely comfortable in that corner, tucked away from loud groups of people, and I did a lot of solid work there. At home, I loved my swing set. I had my swing, which was different from my sister’s swing, and I would go out there and swing for hours. Seriously, I was obsessed with swing sets. If my sister came out, we would play, but I liked to get out there alone and just swing.

This is introversion. This is not being shy but an in your bones need for solitude.

That being said, being an introvert doesn’t make you better. It really doesn’t. Being a women doesn’t give me magical estrogen powers. It’s a 50:50 population split. Flip a coin, it’s just like that. As a society, we put a lot of value on extroversion because it’s essential for community building. In case you were wondering, as social animals, humans are all about community building, so this is why we do prize extroverts, but once again, flip the coin. You’re not better, just different.

That being said, what if you’re an introvert who wants to interact better with people? What if you want to learn how to socialize in a way that makes sense for you? “Must I fake it?” on the ‘Since You Asked’ blog by Cary Tennis is the best advice I’ve ever read about how to be an introvert in a world that values extroversion. Here is the question and the best part of the answer, but read the entire thing.

Question :

I was wondering if you could give me some meta-advice. See, I’m quite shy and introverted socially, so I have difficulty in making friends or moving beyond a superficial level of acquaintance. I read self-help books and the like — I’ve even had a little counseling — for advice in how to amend this, but I’m seeing this apparent dichotomy in such advice that I don’t know how to resolve. On the one hand, they say that to make connections with people you should turn your attention to the other person, ask them questions about themselves and their lives, and so on. On the other hand, they say you should always try to “be yourself,” don’t try too hard, act as comes naturally to you. But with my personality, I have to “try hard” to generate conversation, to think of questions to ask people, and to not revert to going on about my own inane opinions if nothing immediately springs to mind (to say nothing of ignoring the feeling of artificiality produced by this strategy). If I acted as came naturally to me I would not be talking much (except to people I already know).

Answer:

The uneasiness of the introvert in a social situation has to do with the signals you are getting from the rest of the people that you do not exist. So assert your existence. You needn’t do this in any obvious way. Just feel your toes. Feel your hips. As you stand in a circle of people, feel your breath. Look at the other people. Allow yourself to look at them and think about them. Notice how their mouths move, how their eyes change, what kind of hair they have, what their skin is like, what they are wearing and where it came from. Regard them. Hold your space. Do not worry that you will be called upon, or that you must be ready with shallow patter. Just calm down and observe. Be a million miles away.

This holding of your own space is a form of quiet aggression that can redress the imbalance between the extroverts and the introverts. Yes, the extroverts command airspace. They say phrases. Their faces move. But you have the right to your own thoughts. If what they are saying is ludicrous, you do not have to laugh and pretend. If you make them uncomfortable, they will find some other guacamole.

Evolution is culture

Evolutionary strategies are fighting battles in our culture right now. That is how evolution has transitioned to functioning in our big-brained animal world. We’re social animals, and our culture is an outstretched, warped version of biology. I’ve been struggling with how to digest a variety of news that has hit me over the break. I keep coming back to biology, evolution, and ultimately how survival of the fittest is going on in our culture. Humans have designed our culture, but at the same time, we’re still mammals. Our brains give us the ability to imagine scenarios, extending reality into this meta-simulation in our heads. We can take the basic struggles of biology and change them, theorize about them, and then create new ways in which to fight them out. We take the basic struggles of the African savanna and imagine new ways to fight these battles.

P.Z. Meyers wrote a piece about why women menstruate. It’s a question that you don’t think about all the time. I know how the biology of menstruation works. During the second half of the menstrual cycle, in the Luteal phase, the uterine wall thickens to get ready for a fertilized egg to implant. Menstruation happens when, at the end of the Luteal cycle (about 14 days), no egg implants, and the wall is shed in preparation for next months. The biology of how menstruation happens, however, is different from why it happens. It’s a wasteful process and not all mammals menstruate. When you think of the why in terms of evolutionary strategy, here is the anthropomorphized reasoning of why menstruation might occur.

So the question is, why do humans have spontaneous decidualization?

The answer that Emera suggests is entirely evolutionary, and involves maternal-fetal conflict. The mother and fetus have an adversarial relationship: mom’s best interest is to survive pregnancy to bear children again, and so her body tries to conserve resources for the long haul. The fetus, on the other hand, benefits from wresting as much from mom as it can, sometimes to the mother’s detriment. The fetus, for instance, manipulates the mother’s hormones to weaken the insulin response, so less sugar is taken up by mom’s cells, making more available for the fetus.

The larger aspect of this struggle is the male-female strategies of reproduction. Males want to spread their seed and come away with a pregnancy from every sexual encounter. Females want to get pregnant when they’re the healthiest, can carry the fetus to term, and then can live to reproduce again. These strategies are in competition, and I don’t think there is a winner. These strategies exist to propel human evolution forward, and they’ve created the species we have now. This female-fetal struggle is only one example of a evolutionary struggle in culture.

I don’t think it ends here. We’ve used technology to extend our animal abilities to extremes. We can now kill millions of people that we don’t like, for arbitrary reasons like skin color and ethnicity. There is nothing stopping rapid attacks against people considered to be outside of our group. It’s a psychology principle called in group bias, and it’s well documented. Most of the time, this bias is created by arbitrary standards, but it’s based in biology. We are conditioned not to trust people on the outside of our social groups. It’s a primal instinct, and with our frontal cortex, we’ve out-sized this in-group bias into every area of our culture. Politics is fueled by in-group, out-group bias. We’re conditioned to attack those who don’t think like we think, who don’t fall in line with our ideals.

This is why, when people ask, ‘why isn’t there more diversity in our group?’ I have to look at how they define themselves. Who is your in group? You have one, I promise you that it exists. Every movement, every culture has an in group. This brings me to the flood of news pieces I’ve read this week. There’s the rabid Ron Paul followers, the on-going atheist misogyny, the constant culture wars, and the countless spats that occur in the celebrity tabloids. What do these things have in common? We’re trying to fight what we consider the out group. No one is immune to it. In group bias is the antithesis of diversity. It’s us shutting ourselves down to others, creating barriers, and imposing a dominant culture on others. When you wonder where the diversity it, look at the in group. Understand what they’re doing, and understand evolution is driving us onward.

Female friends: the untapped resource for fixing ‘Mary Sues’ in fiction

I just read this piece on why Comic Book Girl considers Mary Sue sexist. Here, a Mary Sue is defined, explained, and the controversy is outlined:

Wish fulfillment characters have been around since the beginning of time. The good guys tend to win, get the girl and have everything fall into place for them. It’s only when women started doing it that it became a problem.

TV Tropes on the origin of Mary Sue:

The prototypical Mary Sue is an original female character in a fanfic who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment.

Notice the strange emphasis on female here. TV Tropes goes on to say that is took a long time for the male counterpart “Marty Stu” to be used. “Most fanfic writers are girls” is given as the reason. So when women dominate a genre, that means people are on close watch, ready to scorn any wish fulfillment they may engage in. This term could only originate if the default was female.

In fact, one of the CONTROVERSIES listed on the TV Tropes page is if a male sue is even possible. That’s right, it’s impossible to have an idealizied male character. Men are already the ideal.

As woman who writes fiction, I’ve come across this term. The Mary Sue term is why I refer to Stephanie Meyer as ‘the richest fanfic author in the world.’ Her character, Bella, is Meyer’s wish fulfillment writ-large. I think, though, female wish fulfillment is worth talking about in fantasy and sci-fi. What do women really want? Even in good fantasy, women’s wants are often seen through a male lens.

Usually, women are described as wanting love or wanting to settle down. There is nothing at all wrong with a women being in a relationship or being a love interest, but the problem is women are usually reduced to this single trait. It’s over looked that male characters also want a lover, but they’re allowed to pursue other interests and be more than the Love Interest. Women, however, usually have to take the one dimensional role. The problem is, women are also humans who have multiple identities as they go through life. Women can’t relate to just being one thing. Yes, women want love, but so do men because they just keep getting in relationships with women! Women who want love also want other things, and to keep them as Love Interests just makes for a boring story.

In the interest to move away from women only being portrayed as a love interest, authors tend to make her a ‘modern woman’ who is independent and wants a career over anything else. The 180 swing away from the love interest is also problematic for a whole host of reasons. Usually, the woman wants lots of unattached sex instead of a relationship. She embodies a lot of masculine traits, and she often has no female friends because she’s described as being ‘better’ than other women. Do you see the problem yet? This version of a woman character is still a male wish fulfillment, but just a different type. Men want ‘exceptional’ women, so she can’t just be any woman. While this version of a character is typically cooler than a woman who is strictly a love interest, she’s off putting to women readers because women cannot relate to her.

What would ultimate female wish fulfillment look like? I would say it looks nothing like the hyper-modern woman or the love interest. These are just examples of male wish fulfillment for what they want women to be like. I would say that female wish fulfillment is embracing some level of femininity. I don’t mean you should have your action hero sitting around and applying nail polish before a battle, but I do think she should have female friends. Women liking women is one of the under rated ways women characters become real and fully realized in fiction. One of the greatest ways to strengthen female characters and your credibility with writing for women is to have your female characters be genuine friends with other women. Don’t have them competing all the time with other women and don’t have them focus on men all the time. Women who like women may be the greatest way to break down the Mary Sue stereotype. No one is too perfect or too flawed to have friends. Hell, even Avatar’s crazy princess Azula had two female friends, and part of the reason she went crazy was because she lost her friends. One of the reasons I adored Azula’s character is that it shouldn’t have worked. The pretty, super villain princess has been done so many times. It’s the worst form of the hyper-modern women, but give her some female companions, and she doesn’t seem like such an exception, even if Azula is still the most powerful of her companions.

Is Mary Sue a sexist concept? Is there a heroine version of Azula that exists? I think the idea of Mary Sue isn’t going away, but we should take it out of the wish fulfillment realm and have it mean “an idealized version of the author or an unrealistic character.” I think men can be Mary Sues, but we accept that version of male characters in our culture. (Should we? That’s another post all together.) I think there are many super heroines who already exist that could be even more epic if they had friends. Wonder Woman can still be the most powerful woman around, make love to super sexy heroes, and defeat the bad guys. But she’d be a better character if she worked with some other women to get the job done.