Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Are We Defined by our Desires?

I have wanted to go nightclubbing since I was about 16. When I turned 18, most of my friends still weren't old enough to go. In college, partying was synonymous with drinking, and living in a community of students who didn't drink, I didn't meet anyone who wanted to accompany me, let alone approve of my desire to go clubbing in the first place. Back home, my friends were going out on the town without me.  As my goal felt out of reach, my desire grew stronger.

When I finally went clubbing for the first time the summer after I turned 21, I was really disappointed.  Part of it just wasn't what I expected, but I really felt empty inside. Nightclubbing was one of the final things on my list of goals. Having it as a goal had been such a big part of who I was in college, and now I wasn't even sure I liked it. But then I said to myself, Look, you're 21 and you're writing your first novel. Doesn't that count for anything?  Logically, I knew that writing a book should be much more defining than a desire to go nightclubbing, if for no other reason than that I was actually doing it, not just wanting.  Then it hit me - I had built nightclubbing up so much because I couldn't do it.  I didn't have anyone to go with, I wasn't comfortable going by myself, and it just wasn't a goal that most people approved of. It made me feel rebellious.

The moment I decided to write a novel, I started working on it.  There was nothing preventing me and no disapproval, but most importantly, my novel didn't spend much time being a "desire" before it was what I was really doing.  But, like the nightclubbing, my novel became more self-defining, more something I wanted to tell everyone about, when September came and schoolwork began to interfere with my writing - when my goal of finishing my novel became harder to reach.

When I think about the things that have mattered the most to me, only a handful are things that I fantasized about for a long time before I got to do them.  I would think that actually doing something should be more important than wanting to do it, but sometimes it feels like just the opposite.  Maybe desire really is what matters most.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Not Everyone Wants Kids

When someone reacts to an instance of bad parenting by saying that people like that shouldn't have kids, I laugh hysterically to myself. Why?  Because if those parents had chosen not to have children, the same people who are criticizing their behavior would probably be giving them just as much grief about why they don't have kids.  As a girl who has never wanted children, I can count on one hand the people who support my decision.  And by support, I mean not initially reacting like I just told them I killed someone, and accepting that I am sure of this and not telling me that I'm too young to know. Whenever someone talks about their future assuming that they will have children, everyone accepts it. No one says they're too young to know. But if you don't want children, it's always, "Well, you may change your mind."

So when you see bad parenting and think to yourself that some people shouldn't have children, ask yourself how supportive you are of people who actually don't have kids because they don't want them.  I often wonder if we would have so many abusive and neglectful parents if it were completely socially acceptable not to have children - if having children was a decision that everyone thought about very carefully, rather than assuming it's what you're going to do when you grow up.

Monday, February 7, 2011

What We Don't Know We're Revealing

Most writers are familiar with the advice, "show, don't tell." When we learned how to develop characters in fiction writing class, our professor talked about details that reveal things about a person, such as what kind of sandwiches they like. I've learned not to take lightly what my characters hang on their walls or what radio station they play in the car.  The "show, don't tell" rule always felt nonjudgmental.  There is no absolute standard that says it's better to spend your time reading Shakespeare than watching Spongebob - all that matters is what fits the character.

But character development from a psychological perspective has always felt judgmental. The traits that we use in psychology have clear positive and negative connotations.  Whenever you read about associations between interests, behaviors, and character traits, there is often a clear sense of what a person is "supposed" to be. While I am fascinated by what we can learn about a person based on their music preferences or how they enter a room, reading about it usually makes me feel uncomfortable.  Because articles that discuss first impressions and picking up on details often assume that we, the readers, are perfect.  It's assumed that we'll use the knowledge to decide who we want to hire or date or be friends with.  No one brings up the possibility that perhaps WE are the ones who will have to worry what other people can figure out about us.

What bothers me is the invasiveness - if you tell something, you have complete control of what you're revealing, but if you show something, you might not realize what other people are learning about you.  I have no problem saying that I'm not what someone thinks I should be, but only if I can say it directly.  I have shared a lot of very personal things directly and publicly, but what would feel more revealing would be to list my favorite books, movies, and TV shows on a profile. To let someone see my room or my music or my internet search history. When you say something that is clearly not socially acceptable, you can use a defensive tone, indicating that other people can take a hike if they don't like it.  But when you share something seemingly innocent such as your interests, you put yourself in a vulnerable position.  Telling is one thing, but showing - letting someone else actually see things for themself - can be really scary.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

How to Answer a Question 101

Some of the most highly respected people in this world are the fictional characters in word problems – those people who need to double recipes, buy enough fencing for their yards, or sell enough tickets to generate a certain profit, and ask for our help because they haven't learned the math themselves. And by "respected" I don't mean "admired."  I mean a more basic kind of respect, like respecting other people's decisions.  Most of us have probably shown more respect to these people than we would to anyone who asked the same questions in real life. 

In an algebraic equation, you have variables that you need to solve for, but the rest of the numbers are fixed factors.  In word problems, we treat each piece of information the same way.  If Mark wants to bake enough double-layer cakes to serve 100 people and one double-layer cake serves 10 people, we would say that Mark needs to bake 10 cakes to serve everyone.  We don't suggest that he make a sheet cake or cupcakes instead of a double-layer cake, or that he ditch the cake idea altogether and bake cookies instead.  We accept Mark's choice as a fixed factor. 

But things don't work that way in real life.  Just to ask a question, just to bring up a problem, you have to be prepared to defend your position - to explain why you want to fence in your entire yard, or repaint every room in your house, or bake and frost 10 double-layer cakes to feed 100 people.  Sometimes it seems like the only place where we accept each other's decisions, where we don't act as if other people owe us an explanation for their actions just because they're not doing what we would have done, is in the fictional world of a word problem.  I hope that one day we can show each other the same respect that we once showed to the people in our homework assignments.