My First Big Race

Here is one of the productivity mind-games that I play with myself: I think of two tasks that must be completed that day and only do one of them.

Wait, you might be thinking. Doesn’t that mean you’re only half as productive as you need to be?

This is a strategy I learned by taking care of small children. Instead of asking them to come up with something to do on their own – which, if you’re familiar with the amazing and terrible natural creativity of children, could be conceivably anything – instead give them a choice between two plausible options, two things that you’re willing or able to accommodate. It’s a subtle tactic for letting them feel like they’ve made an authentic decision, one within realistic parameters of your choosing. Usually everyone ends up happy.

I guess I need to treat myself like a toddler.

Anyway, knocking out one to-do item every day is a good way to eventually and systematically accomplish all important chores. I find that it encourages me to triage tasks naturally; the things that I think need to be done immediately can actually be put off without consequence. This strategy has relieved a lot of self-imposed stress in my life.

But this post isn’t about time management. You can take that advice with you to the bank, free of charge, a gift from me to you.

For the past few weeks, when I come home from work, I’ve said to myself: okay, you’re either going to write about the big race or you’re going to go for an actual run.

Looking at the date of this post, you can figure out what I’ve been choosing: actually running, every single time. For someone who loves writing and hates running, this has been an inscrutable development. Do I like running more than I think I do? Do I have some sort of writer’s block about the subject of running itself?

I don’t know yet. But the result is that I’ve been running every day, so that’s all right. That’s what I like about this time management technique: even when I’m putting something off, I’m still getting something done.

Today I want to rest, so today I will write.


I trained for eighteen weeks using a program on the Nike running app. I was deployed for all but three of those weeks. I did very little strength training during this time, focusing instead on the four or five runs per week in the program. As time went on, so did the mileage. Towards the end of deployment, on my “long run” days, I was finding myself on the treadmill for two hours or more. My toenails turned black and fell off. I replaced my sneakers and wore down the cushioning almost immediately.

I started to realize that there was a lot more to a race than the big event itself. Preparation demands a huge time commitment.

I’ll come back to this idea later.

It was unbelievably humid on the day of the race, something I didn’t realize until about a mile or so in. I was already soaked through with sweat. The announcer at the starting line had pleaded with participants to stop at each aid station along the way to stay hydrated. I’m glad he did, otherwise my stubbornness and fear of stopping (what if I couldn’t start again?) might have led to very serious dehydration. I grabbed a cup of water or sports drinks from the outstretched arms of volunteers, slowing to a walk while I drank, then launching myself back into the fray before I could talk myself out of it.

I feared, more than anything, my own mental fragility. How easily could I talk myself into quitting?

As it turned out, it was the aid stations that kept me going – not just physically, but psychologically. As faster runners left me in the dust, as my legs and lungs began to hurt, I told myself: just make it to the next aid station. If you need to stop when you get there, you can, but for now, keep going.

Somehow, I did. I threw back the water and kept going.

I had expected the last few miles of the race to be the hardest due to elevation changes; it was a surprise when I struggled throughout the first half. I think I was pushing myself too hard to keep up with other runners. Over and over, I shrieked inside my own head: slow down! Save energy! So I pushed through the discomfort of the humidity, struggling to breathe, and puttered my way around downtown Honolulu. Slowly, willing myself to go even slower.

I started seeing runners coming from the other direction, runners in clusters of twos and threes, surrounded by motorcycles and vans. Cameras and shouts of encouragement from their teams. The real runners, those in the chase, those with something at stake in this race. It was incredibly humbling, and it put things into perspective. What did I have to be anxious about? I was competing with no one but myself. All I had to do was get through it.

By the time we had circled back around and approached the starting line in downtown Waikiki, around mile eight, I started to feel better. My pace felt comfortable and sustainable. At the same time, though, I dreaded what was ahead.

And here it comes, I thought, seeing Diamond Head looming in the distance. The first big hill began at the nine-mile mark, where an aid station offered nutritional gel packs. My sweaty hands struggled to tear it open. It made my mouth feel like glue, but it worked: the runners in front of me started to stop and walk up each of the hills around the crater. I kept going. My run had slowed down to a degree that was almost cartoonish, but I was still running. I didn’t stop. I was passing more and more people.

By the ten-mile mark, I realized there was only a 5k run left to go. “Only” a 5k! I felt a surge of adrenaline when I realized that I was going to finish. It helped that the worst was over; the elevation began leading downhill, and I was seized with giddiness. I road it out all the way to the finish line. But by the time I slowed to a stop, I didn’t feel much of anything at all. Just glad, I think. Glad that I did it, and glad that it was over.

37-2510222_full

My goal time was 2.5 hours, factoring in a very slow pace. I worried that if I got ambitious, I would burn myself out too fast and might not be able to finish at all. Given the weather conditions that day, I’m glad I allowed myself to freedom to be slow. Crossing the finish line, I saw a time below 2.5 hours. I didn’t care about anything more specific than that. When they put a medal around my neck, it said “Finisher,” not “Finished but did it real slow.” All that mattered was that I got there.

And I did it! I didn’t stop, I didn’t quit, and I maintained a consistent pace. I was proud. I am proud. I had never run at all before I went to boot camp. And now here I was! Your body can do a lot more than you think it can. It was a great experience – challenging, especially at the start, but worthwhile.


So now that I’ve run a half marathon, the next step is to go for a full marathon. Right?

At the start of this post, I mentioned how time consuming it is to train for a long race. I hadn’t realized it until I had gotten myself pretty deep into the program. The question, to me, isn’t whether or not I want to run a marathon. I do. I would like to, someday. It seems like a tremendous accomplishment. The real question is: am I ready to invest the time into preparing for it? And right now, the answer is no.

This happens a lot. I meet some goal, and although I feel happy and proud, I find that the journey to that point burned me out and makes me want to avoid that thing in which I’ve saturated my life. It happened with weight lifting, then swimming. Now running, too. I still run, but even on the best of runs, after 30 or 45 minutes, I think, all right, that’s enough. I want to do something else now.

The race itself – the experience, the medal, the photos – it is just the final, visible, demonstrable product of months of unseen effort. The resulting pride is rooted not just in that one run, but in all the runs that led to that finish line.

What makes distance running so special – something I knew factually but realized on an emotional level standing in the middle of a crowd of ten thousand runners, people of all ages and ability levels and backgrounds – is that any able-bodied person can do it. Any age, any income level, any range of athleticism. All one needs is a pair of sneakers and time and willpower. Running is an astounding equalizer. I felt swallowed up in that crowd, like I was being carried along on a flowing river. And it felt good.

As long as I have legs to carry me forward, running will always be there. Even if I put it aside for a while. I will get older and I will get slower. That’s okay. It doesn’t have to be about the time on the clock. It’s about how the journey to the finish line changes you, changes how you think about yourself. There will be a time in my future when I need that change. God willing, my body will let me run through it.

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I Didn’t Shave For Four Months. I Hoped It Would Free Me.

Most folks “let themselves go” a little bit while deployed. Our socializing is restricted to those on our crew, so eventually we stop worrying so much about putting up appearances, for better or worse. (Like all good things, this can get taken too far: on the ship, some people get disciplined into performing basic hygiene, like showering.) It is a refreshing reminder, for example, to look in the mirror after months without makeup and realize you’re still cute!

I was going to a cold and dry environment. Most of the time, my legs would be covered. And there would be no liberty, no seeing new people or new things, so there wasn’t much of a point in shaving. It seemed like the perfect opportunity to not shave and see what happened. I was hoping the experience would liberate me, like cutting my hair short. I thought I would cross a new threshold and realize it was so much better on the other side.

The hair on my legs went from stubbly to bristly to long, shockingly long, long enough that I could feel the wind through the hair when I walked around outside. (This, I realized, was a sensation I had never felt before, not once in my life. I started shaving my legs when I was so young, still in middle school, before I even had the chance to actually grow adult body hair.) The hair was dark but not particularly thick; it looked like the hair most guys get when they first start trying to grow a mustache. Frankly, it looked like pubes. It was longest by my ankles, disappeared by the tops of my calves, and returned, thinner and lighter, on my thighs. It was not soft, but then again neither is the hair on top of my head. My family has thick, coarse hair. My legs, it turns out, are no exception.

I hated it. I hated it at first, I hated it throughout the duration – it looked wrong, it felt wrong – and I hate it now, even with weeks of retrospect. I hate myself for hating it. I read many, many articles by women who stopped shaving and loved themselves more for it. I am deeply envious of them – and ashamed of myself for not feeling the same way. Being ugly, after all, is one of the worst sins a woman can commit. Almost anything else is excusable: be crass, be cruel, be empty, but for God’s sake be easy on the eyes while doing it. What does it mean when I find myself ugly? How much of this feeling is reducible to my own personal preference, and how much of it is the product of social pressure, drilled into my head since I was a child? How do I even begin to separate the two?

It is one thing to buck social convention when you feel well-liked and comfortable. You can take solace in knowing that you have people who will love you and want to be around you no matter how hairy you are. During this experiment, though, I felt lonely – something I feel not when I’m actually alone, strangely, but when I’m deprived of solitude and forced to socialize – which added to a general malaise of low self-confidence. This demanded a whole separate exercise in bravery, one that I struggled with a lot.

(To be fair, throughout the deployment, no one said a negative thing about my body hair to my face. In fact, the few people I confided in about it were very supportive and kind and understanding. I’m grateful for that. But being in an environment of constant negativity gets under your skin after a while. It amplifies that personal negative voice droning on in the back of our minds, the one that tells us we are ugly and stupid and terrible. It makes it seem more real, more manifested.)

But it wasn’t all bad. I didn’t mind the underarm hair. It grew into a soft and reddish tuft, a surprise. If I wasn’t such a social coward, I wouldn’t mind keeping it grown out. Another discovery: there is a spot right below my left knee where only a patch of hair grows, alone in an otherwise hairless area. It looked like a little goatee. It was hilarious.

From this experience, I also got to reflect (more than I wanted to) on how much of my self-worth comes from the perception of how attractive I am to others and how much of my personality is rooted in a desire to be liked. Who am I when I’m not trying to be more socially palatable? To be sweet and funny and smart?

I’m still working on those answers. In the meantime, though, I started shaving again. There is some shame in letting social pressure win, but that defeat is quiet and personal and invisible. By contrast, body hair is a public, noticeable thing, an consistent opportunity to invite embarrassment. It was a serious emotional challenge to post these photos here, evidence of something now gone – never mind wearing it on my body every day.

A few years ago, I would have been mortified to see a photo of myself without makeup. That doesn’t bother me anymore. Maybe someday in the future, then, I’ll be brave enough to be hairy, live and in public. Not now, though. Not back here in sunny Hawaii, where everyone is always sun-kissed and in swimsuits and groomed. Not yet.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Anatomy of a Flight Suit

On the ship, we wore coveralls. They were designed to be easily donned in the event of battle stations or, more realistically, being late for watch. The newest variant is even fire retardant so they won’t melt to our skin in the event of a casualty. Fires happen onboard ships a lot more often than you might think, so thanks, Navy! They’re also a very dark blue – one might say Navy blue – for an important tactical purpose: if we were to fall overboard, we would be completely camouflaged with the ocean and thus impossible to visually locate, quickly freeing us from our miserable contracted servitude as we sink down to Davy Jones’ cold, dark locker and are united at last with our father King Neptune.

Too much? Sorry, a lot happened last year. No worries, though; I’m in aviation now. In this community, the most danger I’m regularly exposed to is Taco Tuesday and an unbelievable amount of whining.

Anyway, what makes a flight suit different is that it was designed to have pockets that can be comfortably and easily utilized while sitting, which makes sense, because flying is mostly just sitting still for many hours. Seated accessibility: isn’t that the sexiest idea you’ve ever heard? It didn’t get the screen time it deserved in Top Gun.

So what does one do when she has so much holding space on her person ready to be utilized at any time? Look no further: here is the stuff I keep in my pockets when I fly.

flight suit

  1. Can you imagine starting your workday with your supervisor checking your clothing to make sure your ID card is in your left breast pocket? We’ve got a regulation for everything. Welcome to the United States Navy, FORGED BY THE SEA! I don’t follow this rule in the other working uniform, but by some convenient accident, it happened naturally with this one. Also here: dogtags, earplugs, chapstick, one or two of the 300 Splenda packets I packed for deployment. Look, this is war. You have to be prepared.
  2. The right breast pocket is my dedicated utensil drawer. Someone once asked around the plane if anyone had an extra spoon, and I pulled them all out in a flourish and handed one over. “Do you mind a pocket spoon?” I asked. He didn’t. I guess this is who I am now: a plastic cutlery hoarder. Sometimes they stab me in the sides, or I break them in half if I move around too much. Worth it. You never know when you might need to snack, and snacking is 99% of my in-flight tasking.
  3. Under the flap, you’ll find slots for pens. I keep one (1) pen in there. I saw another flier stick a spare fork in the other slot. The flap won’t close over it, so he had a fork sticking out of his sleeve. This is a very distinguished look. One piece of plastic conveys an impressive message: anytime, anywhere.
  4. This is where I keep my bullet journal/external brain, which contains my planner and flight notes. No jokes on this one: bullet journaling is very good and useful. Okay, one joke: use of the word “bullet” makes using a day planner 100% more tactical. (“Tactical” word count so far: 2)
  5. There’s a long pocket along the left inseam, with the bit of white string hanging out. It’s supposed to be for a knife. Doesn’t that sound cool? On the ship, I kept a multitool on my belt that I bought at the Exchange for about $30. On the plane, I carry a knife that retails for $129.  This demonstrates that I am both bougie as hell and also ready to cut open a carton of soy milk at a moment’s notice. “That’s a nice knife,” I have actually been told, in real life. It was a gift from my dad, okay? You can be sentimental and tactical (3).
  6. I didn’t know what “FUD” stood for until I started flying. Play along with me: read on and see if you can figure it out from context clues. The plane has a bathroom but we’re not supposed to use it – sort of. Understandably, no one wants the terrible job of having to clean everyone else’s dookie, so the entire community came to an agreement that pooping on the plane was restricted to trash bags, to be tied up and hung belowdecks (or whatever the plane equivalent is, I don’t know) where they will be exposed to the external temperature and freeze. This means that everyone sees you coming out of the head carrying a bag and they know immediately about your bowel-related crimes. If you have gripes about pooping in public, this is the walk of shame of your nightmares. Naturally, my sweet mother thinks this is hysterical. She is right: it is. I haven’t pooped on the plane yet (fingers crossed), but I can’t go that long without peeing. Can anyone? Women lack the requisite bodily infrastructure to pee into the portable urinal, which is removed from the plane and dumped out after flights. In comes the FUD, out goes my pee, which is at least 75% coffee. I’m proud of how skilled I’ve become at peeing while standing up; it is probably the most useful thing I’ve learned in aviation thus far, and I went through some truly buckwild training last year, so that’s saying something. Also included in this pocket is a small package of wet wipes. I’m not an animal.
  7. If you put anything dense in these pockets, it will bang against your shinbones while walking. For something small and heavy like a knife (!), this will actually hurt quite a bit. I fold up my ball cap and flight gloves and tuck them in here. They are light enough that they move easily, at the same rate as the legs of the flightsuit itself. I often forget that they are there and then panic thinking I left my gloves behind. A time-honored military tradition is slapping various parts of your body until you find which pocket you put something in. I made that up just now – everyone does this, probably. Hopefully?
  8. Disregard first sentence regarding previous pocket. I keep a plastic water bottle in here and sometimes a small paperback for sneaky tactical (4) reading.

I bet you’re still reeling. Eight whole, functioning pockets – what an unimaginable luxury! All of this can be yours, too, if you make some small concessions, such as all personal autonomy and thousands of miles of physical and emotional distance between you and the people who care about you the most. Did I mention there was a pocket for a knife, though?

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

2017

2017 is over. We did it, everyone! Good job!

2017

EVENTS
In January, I did a practice parachute jump in air crew school that didn’t go so well. Something felt wrong, but I wasn’t in pain, so I pressed on until the adrenaline wore off. I was shocked when the x-rays showed two fractures because, though my foot was swollen as hell and I couldn’t put any pressure down, it didn’t hurt at all. This is a sharp contrast to when, at a different school in May, I felt back pain so severe that I thought my kidneys were failing. Despite the pain, the ER said there was nothing wrong: a pinched nerve, maybe? They gave me a shot and I slept it off. It spooked me pretty bad that I could experience sudden, intense pain for no reason.

I bought my first car. It is a 2013 Hyundai Accent and it spirited me across the country from Florida to Washington, seeing some amazing stuff along the way. Maybe I should have been nervous, driving so far all on my own, but I wasn’t, even when situations might have called for trepidation. I’m glad I did it; this solo road trip was the highlight of my year. It showed me that there is so much of America that I haven’t seen yet.

The Patriots won Super Bowl SBLI in one of the most exciting games of all time. I will never shut up about it and I’m not sorry.

I completed some of the most challenging training of my life, forcing me to face a lot of fears. Someone once told me that you either have a good time or a good story. Some of it was good times. Almost all of it makes good stories.

I moved to Hawaii. Thanks, Navy, for letting me spend a few years in paradise. I’m going to make the most of it.

I went on my first aircrew deployment. They call them “dets” but I have a compulsive need to be contrary in the most pointless and petty ways imaginable. Anyway, I’m still out here, and it has confirmed two suspicions: that the aircrew life is offensively easy, and that I still want to get out of the Navy. I was afraid that I was going to fall in love with this stuff and struggle with the temptation to reenlist.

RESOLUTIONS
To write a blog post every month. I did it! I’m going to continue this goal. It has demonstrated to me the value in simply putting something out there, especially if it’s not perfectly polished. Usually, my attitude when submitting a new blog post is: here’s a new piece of trash for the garbage heap! But once in a while, I’ll scroll back through what I’ve written and it’s not nearly as bad as I thought it was at the time. Some of it is even okay!

To get back to (arbitrary weight). I made this goal before I broke my foot literally in the first week of the year. Then I moved from Florida to Washington to Hawaii. I am, of course, making excuses, but this was not the year for stability. The hardest part about staying committed to any body-related goal is that I’m more or less fine with how I look. My body is okay. It always has been okay. It is really hard to maintain a weight-loss goal when it’s not motivated, to some extent, by self-hatred. Is this what getting older is like? Just accepting your fleshy meat prison the way it is? That said, I haven’t given up completely. I still have to fit in to uniforms for another 34 months and I will not buy more!

Read as many books as last year. 32 last year, 48 this year. My TBR list grows faster than I can chip away at it. I’d like to be better and braver about quitting books that don’t grab my attention, but I have a hard time leaving them unfinished. This is ironic for someone who, at the moment, has 15 unfinished blog posts in the queue. (Soon, 14.)

I wanted to stop swearing. What was once edgy and is now so commonplace that it defeats the point. Cursing has evolved into verbal laziness; sailors substitute swears in place of any word at all, making the things they say ironically, unintentionally bland. Conversely, the recent rise of ironic wholesomeness and the use of creative non-swears packs a much more interesting punch. I like saying things in funny and, hopefully, memorable ways. So if I’m going to swear, it had better be a necessary component of the idea. Otherwise, I’m going to try to find a more accurate word.

I haven’t thought of any new resolutions for 2018. These are all okay, besides the weight loss one, so I guess I’ll just keep on with this sort of thing.

FAVORITES
MUSIC: I WAS BORN by Hanson
I finished a write up about another artist a few weeks ago. I let it simmer. When I came back to this post, though, I realized what I really wanted to talk about was Hanson. Yes, MMMBop Hanson, from our childhoods. Remember them?

I don’t know anyone who would call themselves a Hanson fan specifically, but I am almost certain that you have heard a Hanson song, enjoyed it, and had no idea who you were listening to. They are like that: every few years, Hanson steps back into our cultural consciousness, releases a top 40 banger, and humbly fades away.

Hanson released a two-disk, 26-track greatest hits album a few months ago: “Middle of Everywhere,” which I bought immediately after watching them perform on an NPR Tiny Desk Concert (it’s worth a watch). What amazed me the most was not how much they had grown or changed across more than two decades of making music together, but how much they had stayed the same. Not only do the older songs hold up over time – MMMBop was 20 years old in 2017, and it still has its youthful sing-a-long charm and positive, hopeful message – but Hanson has maintained their essence over their entire lives. How many of us figure out our artist niche as children? These guys did. In the NPR concert, when they play “This Time Around,” I found myself remembering the all the words, despite not having heard it in two decades. Hanson is like that: subtle, memorable, enduring.

There is something about Hanson that is quintessential to American pop, a slice of our music culture at its best: pure, upbeat, hand-clapping tunes with joyful harmonies that only siblings could pull off. Hanson makes good music, then and now. They deserve a lot more attention than they get.

I want to see the sights unseen
I want the extraordinary
Everybody’s waking to the same clock
I could never be another chip off the block

Runners-ups:
“GONE” by ionnalee
“Echo in the Hills” by Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt (2014, but listened to it a lot this year)
“New Rules” by Dua Lipa

MOVIES/TV: TERRACE HOUSE: ALOHA STATE
Terrace House is seriously underappreciated.

915beefe9e67a78d84d50d7a01be4f8ad1e83b0d

It is a reality TV show in which six young people – three guys, three girls – live together in a house, and everything they do is filmed. Think MTV’s Real World, but not quite so 90s and much more Japanese. The biggest difference is the tremendous, echoing absence of the kind of drama we have come to associate with American reality TV. Much of Terrace House is, as a friend put it, “delightfully mundane.” We watch them go to work and school. We watch them cook and clean together. We get to see their outings to beautiful places. Sometimes they fall in love. The best part about the show, though, is the extremely Japanese tradition of having a crew of commentators routinely interrupt the program to discuss what had happened and what they expect will happen next. They are hilarious; I can’t believe the US hasn’t adopted this practice yet.

When drama does happen –  well, first of all, it is incredibly low-key, since the Japanese are traditionally not super confrontational. But the tensions and arguments that do arise are emotional rollercoasters because they are entirely organic and authentic, not contrived by producers behind the scenes. When things get tough, you realize that these are real people with real lives and real feelings. You become invested in them and their happiness. You share in those quiet frustrations and awkward conversations because they are so deeply relatable. Terrace House captures the entirety of real lives: the good, the bad, and the ugly. What makes it so great, though, is how it shows that life is mostly good.

Aloha State – the first iteration of Terrace House to be filmed outside of Japan – was released on Netflix (worldwide) in late January, when my foot was broken and my own fate regarding living in Hawaii was up in the air. The second part was released shortly before I high-tailed it out of Pensacola, fully healed and confident that I was inching my way closer to the Aloha State. The third part came out when I was in Washington, only one school away from completing that wretched pipeline. Finally, the last part came out when I had arrived in Hawaii; I finished the last episode on the day I signed the lease to my apartment. I made it. So, yeah, this pick is a little sentimental, but it’s a good show and it gave me hope that I would make it to Hawaii someday.

Runners-up:
Get Out
The Last Jedi
My Brother, My Brother and Me
The Great British Bake-Off
Brooklyn Nine-Nine

BOOK: PRIESTDADDY by Patricia Lockwood
Boy, is it hard to pick just one, but it seems right to pick something that was published in 2017.

sex-talk-with-a-priest-in-training-1481212613

Priestdaddy is a memoir about the author moving back in with her parents after her husband’s health troubles render them financially unstable. Her dad, somehow a Catholic priest, is a caricature of a man, especially a conservative man. Lockwood describes her childhood and adult interactions with her family in the most delightful, tender, earnest ways possible, but also with an edge of smarmy, self-aware standoffishness that I imagine must come naturally when writing about one’s family as though they were specimens under a microscope.

Seriously, though, Lockwood writes like a dream. She makes me want to write a book just like this one. It is the only book I read this year that made me laugh out loud like a maniac – multiple times. It is so, so funny – a perfect memoir.

Another reason why I chose Priestdaddy as my book of the year – and, argh, looking at the runners-up below, it was a tough choice – is that I could give this book to almost anyone and I know they will enjoy it. Lockwood’s family, despite being somewhat unusual, is described with such a familiarity that I think anyone can see their families in hers. It shows that you can be different from the people you love, and who love you, and still be important to one another.

If you read only one book this year, it should be this one.

Runners-up:
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2006)

GAME: LEGEND OF ZELDA: BREATH OF THE WILD
zelda

I’ll be honest: I struggle to maintain interest in video games lately. I’ll play for an hour, tops, then be ready to do something else. This is a huge departure from years ago, when I would block off entire segments of my day to play MMORPGs and online FPSs. My entire college experience consisted of having nervous breakdowns over my courseload and evading depression in the forgiving arms of World of Warcraft. Probably less destructive than alcoholism, but definitely more embarrassing. Anyway, all of this to say that it was a surprise to find myself sinking many, many hours into a game again.

I have some discussion of the plot here, but I don’t think anything constitutes a spoiler. If you haven’t finished the game yet and don’t want any preconceptions, skip it. Otherwise, you’re probably in the clear.

A criticism that I often hear about BOTW is the lack of story. We have come to expect video games to be so cutscene-heavy that they are primarily movies and secondarily interactive. In BOTW, there is as much plot as one is willing to find. The “lack of story” criticism misses the point: Link wakes up completely devoid of memory. The story is revealed mostly through found objects, locations, and conversations – things that jog Link’s memory. The entire plot of the game is figuring out what went wrong a century ago so he and Zelda can make it right.

(And this game’s version of Zelda is so human, so unforgettable – a young princess with a destiny so important that she’s deeply insecure about her ability to fulfill it. Early memories show her as abrasive and arrogant, distrustful of Link and resentful of his presence, lashing out because she’s so afraid that she’s not good enough. I’ll admit that I got a little emotional watching Zelda’s anguish over her failure to accomplish what had been set out for her, especially as the fate of Hyrule rested on her shoulders.)

Here are some more accurate criticisms of BOTW: controlling the camera is extremely annoying, especially in battle; the world is so vast and full of things to discover that it is basically impossible to fully complete (at the time of this writing, I’ve finished the main story and am working on the DLCs, and I’m barely 25% of the way done!); the Blood Moon cutscenes are frustrating and intrusive and sometimes unskippable; the final boss fight was easy and a little underwhelming (though I didn’t play it on Master Mode).

And here are some more good things about BOTW: the secondary characters, especially the Champions and their descendants, are wonderful; the game is fun to play even if you’re just exploring the open world, and it feels like there is always something to find or do; the game design and music are so, so beautiful; Link’s ability to climb on and over anything (an unbelievably important but underappreciated development for this franchise) makes the world feel completely open to the player; the impermanence of weapons feels authentic and realistic; the physics of the game are extremely good and allow the players to find creative and unusual solutions to puzzles.

BOTW is the best game I’ve played in a long time. It has completely revived the somewhat stale, predictable “The Legend of Zelda” games in a really exciting way. I’ve put more than 100 hours into it, and I still have a long way to go. I’m okay with that.

tldr: Link is my son and I love him very much.

Runners-up:
PUBG
Bury me, my Love
Super Mario Odyssey

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

“Is it better than Episode VII?” my brother asked via text, more or less immediately after I walked out of the theater. I was still digesting what I had seen.

I thought about it. I talked about the movie with other people. I read about it. It’s only been about 48 hours, but I think I have answer: yes, The Last Jedi is better than The Force Awakens – not just on its own merits, but also what it establishes for the Star Wars universe as a whole.

Spoilers below. These are scattered thoughts without much explanation or summary, so it might not make sense without seeing the movie.

Negative stuff first, because it’ll be quick: it could have been 30 minutes shorter. The Last Jedi is 2.5 hours, and it absolutely feels that way. The sidequest on Canto Bight had an important message and great character development, for sure, but it felt like a strange detour from the overarching story and probably could have been omitted. Sometimes the pacing of the story felt off, and some situations felt like pure fan-service (not necessarily a criticism, just an observation). There are also a few jokey moments that might not hold up on a second viewing, especially with the porgs as (admittedly very cute) comic relief. Some folks complained that this is the “Disney-fication” of the series, but the original trilogy had its share of these moments, too. It would be a bummer to endure 2.5 hours of war and dying religions and family melodrama. Besides, it just feels good to laugh in a theater where everyone else is also laughing, even if the jokes are a little silly.

Now that that’s out of the way, the remainder of this post is dedicated to what I really liked about The Last Jedi, and in particular what stood out to me after one viewing. I will rewatch this movie before Episode IX’s release in 2019, and I’m curious to see how these first impressions hold up over time.

First things first: I was dying to know who Rey’s parents were. It felt like the entire theater was at the edge of its seat as Kylo Ren tormented Rey with this information. The reveal was not what I was expecting at all. It was perfect. I think the Star Wars franchise needed this to sustain itself. If we trust what Kylo Ren had to say – and I think we should, at least for now – Rey’s parents are nobodies, not any part of these enduring Star Wars lineages. Instead, Rey’s rise from obscurity is a powerful and completely necessary development, reminding us that a new hero can come from anywhere, even a backwater like Jakku. This point is driven home by the final scene of the movie, in which a child on Canto Bight grabs a broom using the Force (now affectionately dubbed Broom Boy by the internet) and gazes up at the stars while the camera focuses on the Resistance signet given to him by Rose.

One of my biggest ongoing issues with the Star Wars universe is that the Sith are not credible or relatable villains. Rarely do they demonstrate motivations that outsiders can relate to. “Kill them all” is one-dimensional and meaningless without emotional context, and no previous Star Wars films did this convincingly – yes, even Episode VII. In fact, I think part of the reason that Episodes I-III failed so spectacularly was not only because of Jar Jar and bad acting – they failed in forcing the audience to truly empathize with Anakin. We need to see not only how he came to choose the dark side, but to be able to put ourselves in his shoes and think, yeah, if that had been me, I might have done the same thing.

Here, in The Last Jedi, we see how perception matters more than objective reality: Kylo Ren glimpsed his master’s dark machinations, spooking him enough to reject everything that Luke stands for. Can’t we all relate to betrayal by someone we trust, someone we thought had all the answers? Kylo Ren’s dilemma is one of the most significant takeaways from this movie. It’s something we can forgive him for, which puts us precisely in the same position as Rey. It makes him a great antagonist and a great character. I never thought I’d say that after seeing Episode VII.

In a similar vein, I thought that Rey and Kylo Ren’s psychic connection across space and time was hugely beneficial for both of their characters, and it left me desperately eager to find out who was going to be the dominant influence. But while it was a great device for character development, I wasn’t convinced by Snoke’s motives in linking the two. How could he have not seen how conflicted Kylo was and how easily an outside influence, especially one sympathetic to Luke, could have further exasperated his turmoil? I’m also not yet onboard with the romantic angle that other fans seem to have seen. The two have great chemistry, made abundantly clear during their joint fight scene against Snoke (more on this later), but the power play between the two – their separate and shared suffering, their allegiances to opposite but somehow, sometimes overlapping ideals, their competing destinies – strikes me as much more compelling. Rey and Kylo seem to be two halves of one whole, but to what degree, I’m not yet sure.

There are two scenes that deal with the past that I’d like to talk about, because I think they mirror each other in some ways.

The first is Luke’s attempt to burn down the tree which housed Jedi religious texts, which he had carefully preserved despite his voluntary rupture with the Force. He hesitates, torch in hand. An apparition of Yoda intervenes – not to stop Luke, but to finish what he started, summoning a bolt of lightning to set the tree aflame. Luke tries to run inside to salvage the texts but is forced back by the blaze. Luke grieves over the loss of ancient Jedi wisdom, but Yoda sets the record straight, reminding Luke of a sentiment he himself had just recently expressed to Rey: the dangerous deification of the past. This was some striking symbolism – literally setting fire to the holiest of holies – and at first it seemed like a hilarious middle-finger to purist fanboys. All that you hold sacred is gone, gone, gone, destroyed by the very arbiter of those truths! But there was more at play here, I think. It established a theme that would arise between Rey and Kylo Ren later: mistakes aren’t cause for complete erasure, to start over and pretend like the past never happened. “Failure is the greatest teacher,” Yoda says. Go ahead and hold something dear, but see it for what it is: imperfect, mired in mixed motivations, but worthy of improving upon going forward – a direct reflection of the Star Wars franchise’s recent rebirth. Learn from the past. Do better in the future.

The second scene comes after Kylo Ren betrays Snoke and, together with Rey, issues a spectacular beat-down to his security team. Rey assumes Kylo Ren is repentant and ready to turn a new leaf, but he has other plans: to join with Rey, light and dark together, and start a new order, a similar agenda to his grandfather before him. Rey begs him to save the Resistance, the remains of whom were being bombed out of the sky as they retreated from their final spent cruiser, but Kylo Ren is firm. Let them all burn, he says, the First Order, the Resistance, the Jedis, the Sith, their families, the past. It is time for the new generation to take their place. Rey, of course, rebukes him, pleading with him to join her and the Resistance instead. They enter a stalemate portrayed visually by a force-battle for Luke’s lightsaber which neither of them win – another piece of powerful symbolism. Rey, too, has a painful history of betrayal and abandonment, yet she is the only one with a plan for the future that doesn’t demand destruction of the past. She wants to carry the good forward and leave the bad behind, in its proper place, while both Kylo and Luke can’t foresee the next step without a clean slate, perhaps a symptom of their lingering regrets. Even as Leia gives up on her son, Rey continues to embody reconciliation with the past and forgiveness of mistakes. She is the spark of hope.

This next part is going to generate some wailing and gnashing of teeth, but don’t @ me. Look, representation matters. It really does. And if you disagree, consider the possibility that you’ve always been represented. The way you feel when you see an abundance of characters who don’t look like you – well, that’s everyone else’s experience, all the time. You’ve probably never felt the surge of joy in seeing someone who looks like you, for once, portrayed heroically on the big screen. (Rose’s sister’s valiant death, and later Rose’s intervention on Finn’s suicidal plan, struck a particularly emotional chord with me.) As a white woman, this is something I can relate to only in a small way. I always had Leia, for example, revered princess and general, to look up to, though back in the original trilogy, she was a lonely island in a sea of white, male faces. Now, seeing lady fighter pilots and admirals and even First Order soldiers gave me a rush of exhilaration. Can you imagine how people of color, especially children experiencing Star Wars for the first time, must feel? It is direct, visual evidence that this movie, this world, this struggle: you’re part of it, too. The Last Jedi is more representative than ever, and despite what cranky pissbaby fans might say, this makes the Star Wars series much more realistic and convincing. It is a big, wide universe out there. It can represent all of us. It should.

I’m glad we got a final meeting between Luke and Leia. It was all the more tragic remembering Carrie Fisher’s recent passing, which leads me to this: we know that Leia, too, has to die. This is what I expected when she was sucked into space from the Resistance cruiser, that she dies alongside her admirals and generals. It would have added to the gravity of the situation and really driven home the point that the Resistance could have been crushed right there, right then. But she didn’t die. Leia’s use of the Force to propel herself to safety was… well, I’m not sure. Not believable? We’ve seen crazier stuff happen as a result of this mysterious space-magic. Not necessary? Then we never would have gotten the aforementioned reunion of Luke and Leia. Leia’s presence was also important for resolving the power-struggle between Poe and Holdo, particularly for the latter’s redemption. I guess the glorious space-death would have been a convenient time to say goodbye to Leia, but the Star Wars franchise thrives on keeping things complicated. I’m curious to see how Leia meets her end in Episode IX.

It hurt my heart to see Carrie Fisher on the big screen, remembering that she has passed away. She was a treasure not just for the series, but for the world.

On a similar note, here is one last theme that I noticed a few times throughout: women intervening on men’s well-intentioned but foolhardy plans. Rey and Kylo. Rose and Finn. Holdo (and Leia) and Poe. Each time, they seem to say: it doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t have to sacrifice yourself or put others at risk. There has to be another way. They represented the voice of moderation in a situations seemed to demand extreme solutions. It’s a different kind of bravery, one that I wish we saw more of.

All in all, The Last Jedi is a fun movie and a great addition to the Star Wars canon. It bridges the gaps between generations (and canonical inconsistencies) in a meaningful way. This is an exciting time to be a fan, even a casual one like me.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

ABANDONED BOOKS, 2017

For someone who starts and abandons projects all the time, I have a very hard time quitting a book once I’ve started, even if I don’t like it. Especially if I don’t like it. Part of me feels like I can’t criticize a thing that I’ve given up on. Part of me is afraid of missing out on something beloved by others. And, of course, part of me is a sucker for a challenge.

It only ends up hurting me, though. It puts a huge roadblock on all of my productivity. I feel like I can’t do other leisurely activities until I’ve first dedicated time to this task. But reading shouldn’t feel like a job at all – it should make me happy. I’m trying to get better at putting books aside that I’m not enthusiastic about. Here are the books that didn’t maintain my interest this year.

 

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
austen

I want to be the sort of person who reads and enjoys Jane Austen. I’m not. This book bored me to tears. Sorry! I’ll try again in another few years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Eye of the World, Robert Jordan
jordanFantasy nerds rave about this book! There was an entire episode of Judge John Hodgman dedicated to it. So when I saw it in a bookstore in Whidbey Island, I thought it was a great opportunity to see what all the hype was about.

I really wanted to become immersed in an expansive fantasy series again, and the Wheel of Time series is certainly qualifies as huge: 14+ books with an average page count surpassing 800. But I only managed about 150 pages in the first book before I had to put it aside. The writing was too stiff, the characters too one-dimensional, the portrayal of women too… well, let’s say the Male Gaze is strong with this one. I’ve heard that the story and the system of magic in particular makes this series worthwhile, though, so someday I’d like to pick it up again.

 

 

Believe Me, Eddie Izzard
izzardEddie Izzard is one of my favorite comedians. Every time I mention him, I end up falling down a YouTube rabbit hole, watching video after video of his stand-up comedy. I didn’t get a chance to see his documentary, so when I saw his autobiography at the library, I grabbed it immediately.

I have the same complaint for this book that I had with the collection of stories published by The Moth this year (All These Wonders): sometimes stories spoken aloud don’t translate well to the page. Believe Me is written just as Izzard speaks. To do it justice, I think this story deserves to be heard in his own voice, with his characteristic tone and cadence. I will listen to this book on audio instead.

 

 

 

The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead
whiteheadI put it off and put it off until suddenly it was due back to the library. I returned it. There is a good chance I will give this book another go in the future, but this year was not the right time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Attack on Titan (series)
attackI consider this abandoned because I lost interest after reading three of the ten manga available at the library. It was very exciting at first and a lot scarier than I was expecting. But the plot became very transparent by the second manga, and I felt like it was positively dragging along by the third. Those two – the obvious and the slow – really diminished the horror aspect of the story. I will probably pass on the anime, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some books I completed which I should have abandoned:
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., Neal Stephenson
I love Neal Stephenson, but at 750 pages, that is many hours of my life I will never get back, and this story was not engrossing or memorable.

Georgia, Dawn Tripp
A romance novel thinly veiled as historical fiction. No shade on romance as a genre, I was just expecting to learn more about Georgia O’Keeffe as an artist and a person, and I didn’t.

Finally, some books that I almost abandoned and was glad I didn’t:
A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles
What started off as slow and meandering quickly became incredibly charming, especially the voice of the narrator. This story about the rapidly changing Russian social and political structures across one aristocrat’s life was filled with some of the best characters I’ve read in a while.

The Stars Are Legion, Kameron Hurley
This story is one of a kind: an all-woman space opera. It was a little hard to follow at the start, and it deals with some very gorey and gritty subject matter, but was an incredibly fun ride and rewarding in the end.

 

You can follow all of my reading on my Goodreads page here!

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

I RUN WITH NIKE AND YOU SHOULD TOO

The Nike running app – now called Nike+ Run Club – has gone through several transformations since I started using it, but its core remains more or less the same: it uses GPS to track your run, keep pace, and provide statistics. Achievements came and went and came back again. Social networking features were added. But NRC’s best feature – why I stay committed to this one app – is its coaching programs.

My running ability comes in ebbs and flows. For example, after finishing a particularly grueling training last month, I arrived in Hawaii physically depleted and unadjusted to the climate. I come back to NRC’s running programs time and time again because I know it will get me back to where I want to be with running. This time, specifically, I made a six-week program with the intention of preparing for the PRT. (Spoiler: I got a 12:30 – not my best time, but one that I am deeply proud of, given the circumstances.)

There’s nothing special about me. NRC spits out a program and I do it to the best of my ability. It always, always pays off.

Here is how to make a running program on NRC, and what you might expect from it.

Continue reading

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,

Hawaii, First Impressions

Those of you who have been on the island for a while might find this funny. Maybe I will look back on this in three years and laugh, too. But here it is anyway: my first impressions of Oahu, having been here for almost three weeks.

rainbow

The beaches here are lovely, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the beauty of the terrain itself: the mountains which encircle Kaneohe Bay rake the clouds like teeth and are lush with vegetation and have some of the most intense drop-offs I’ve ever seen. I can’t wait to start hiking all over.

Sometimes native islanders treat servicemembers badly.

The people I work with now are very different than the people I used to work with. Not a criticism, just an observation. They seem like a family.

The food is very, very good. I had a poke bowl for the first time today. If it was up to me, I would eat it every day.

I knew that leis looked pretty, but I had no idea how good they smelled too. I thought the air would smell better, though, like it did in Coronado. (California is fine, I guess.)

There is more of a Japanese influence here than I had anticipated, and I had anticipated a lot.

There is so much to do, all the time! I’m really excited about how many social events seem to be going on all over the island. I’m looking forward to meeting a lot of new people.

The climate is a tough adjustment, which was a surprise. The wind and heat are taking their toll on my run times. I’m doing my best to be patient with myself. It’s good enough to get through the upcoming PRT.

Air conditioning is a luxury here, despite it being 85 degrees every day. Electricity – well, everything – is very, very expensive.

I picked an apartment that is a mile walk to the beach and to one of the most beautiful and welcoming churches I’ve ever attended. My apartment is two bedrooms, which is one more than I need, but I want my friends and family to be able to stay with me and save money if they visit. One of my greatest disappointments from three years in Japan – and I still have feelings of resentment about this – is that no one did.

The library on base is very good and very underutilized.

Trying to register my car and get BAH here are two of the most administratively asinine and frustrating experiences I’ve ever had.

I’m on the “good” side of the island, according to friends closer to Pearl Harbor.

I’m still highly suspicious of how I managed to get such good orders. I’m going to do my best to make the most of these three years.

Tagged , , , , , , , ,

TRANSCRIPT: Notes on an Imagined Plaque… (The Memory Palace, Episode 73)

[Listen to the original episode here.]

This is “The Memory Palace.” I’m Nate DiMeo.

Notes on an imagined plaque to be added to the statue of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, upon hearing the Memphis City Council has voted to move it and the exhumed remains of General Forrest and his wife, Mary Ann Montgomery Forrest, from their current location in a park downtown, to the nearby Elmwood Cemetery.

First, it should be big, the plaque, not necessarily because there’s so much to say, though there is so much to say, but big enough to be noticed on the side of this rather grand monument, after they move it and the bodies beneath it across town to the cemetery. And not just big for the sake of bigness; it needs to stick out as something off, something that disrupts the admirable balance of the statue, currently so tasteful, regal even. This bronze man on this bronze horse. Goatee. Square jaw. You get it. You’ve seen it before, even if you haven’t seen it before.

The statue faces north. The sculptor wanted Forrest to face south, to better catch the light, but people complained, said it would imply that the General was retreating, and he wasn’t a man who retreated. He surrendered once, but if the sculpture faced north, maybe people would forget that part, I guess.

So, anyway, the plaque has to be big enough to catch your eye when you’re checking your cell phone or walking your dog or eating a chicken Caesar salad from a plastic box on a bench, whatever people are doing there in the cemetery, and whatever they might do there in the future. Because that’s why we make these things, right? Plaques, bronze men on bronze horses: we want people in the future to remember, but first we want them to notice.

So let’s think about material for this imagined plaque. Maybe the plaque should be garish. Not intentionally ugly, but necessarily, but like titanium, maybe. A patch of frank, eerie futurism on this stayed, stately old thing. It would catch the light. It would catch the eye. In contrast to the northward-facing brown-green man on his brown-green horse. Or a grey pigeon, alit on his brown-green epaulet.

And I like that the eerie of it all, the futurism, is not at all futuristic. It’s millennial. A decade from now, it’ll be dated, literally dated. Bilbao or Disney Hall or whenever will seem so late-90s, so 2000s. And you’ll scoff. And I want that. I want this plaque to be fixed in time, to let people know when it went up, let people know what was up at the time, because that is the point here. The point of this plaque is to make sure that these future people realize that this lovely old statue wasn’t always old and wasn’t always here in this cemetery.

And, moreover, I want the reader, standing there in the shadow cast by the late, somehow still lamented, Nathan Bedford Forrest, on some future summer Sunday, to know why it wound up in a park on the other side of town in the first place. Because memorials aren’t memories. They don’t just appear upon death. A letter of surrender, signed in some farmhouse at the edge of some battlefield, doesn’t come complete with a historic marker affixed to the door.

The monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest was put in that park downtown for a reason at a specific moment in time. And, at that time, General Forrest and Mrs. Forrest were already buried in Elmwood Cemetery, the same place the city council recently voted to put them. His body and her body were originally dug up from the ground because a group of prominent Memphians thought they were better off somewhere else. That was 1905, 40 years after the war, 30 years after Forrest’s death.

They felt the city needed Nathan Bedford Forrest right then because they had seen that city fall from great heights. Memphis had been left relatively unscathed by the war but not by its outcome, not by the end of the slave trade, that had been one of the economic and cultural pillars of the city. Without the slave market selling men and women and children, without the river boats and crews and suppliers and dock workers sending them up and down the river, Memphis was hardly Memphis anymore. And then there was the Yellow Fever that had swept through the city some years before and killed so many and drove many more away, people who never returned after a mandatory evacuation.

And now it was the turn of the next century and the city was increasingly – let’s just say it, let’s just stop not saying things – increasingly black, and increasingly tense. White businesses did not like competing with black businesses, black people did not like being lynched. This move to move Forrest started not long after Ida B. Wells, a Memphian too, had started writing, rabble-rousing – boldly, bravely – against lynching, after her friend Thomas Moss was improperly imprisoned; after a fight between children over a game of marbles escalated until adults were threatening to burn down a store; and after Moss wound up being pulled from that prison and strung from a tree. And Wells was threatened so much, so often, that she moved away and the paper she had written for burned to the ground.

So wealthy, white Memphis, at the beginning of the 1900s, found all of this unpleasant. So they raised money – $33,000 – not to rebuild that newspaper office, or build a police force that would properly protect all of its citizens, but to make a monument to a man who they thought best represented the Memphis they had lost. A man who had risen from nothing, a blacksmith’s boy, who became a millionaire, and then believed so strongly in the Confederate cause that he enlisted as a private, and went on to prove himself perhaps the most brilliant military man born on American soil, even if he didn’t fight for America. Those are facts. That’s a true story. And they like what this story said about the American dream, even if it wasn’t technically American, even if Forrest’s million was made by buying and selling human beings, and selling cotton raised and picked and cleaned and packed by enslaved human beings, even if the cause for which he employed that military genius was to ensure that men like him could rise up from nothing and make a million dollars buying and selling human beings and stealing their lives and their labor.

In 1905, they held a parade at the unveiling of the new statue and made speeches to honor the northward-facing General. They said nothing of slavery. They said much about heritage and honor and chivalry. They said nothing of how Nathan Bedford Forrest had been the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, nothing of the terror it had wrought. Nothing of the assassinations or the lynchings. Nothing how it sought to undermine and overthrow the nation’s political order, the nation that they celebrated there in Memphis in 1905, when they played the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” right alongside Dixie. They might not have mentioned any of it but they knew it, knew about Forrest and the Klan. They certainly had read “The Klansman” – it was flying off the shelves that year – a novel about heroic men hidden beneath bedsheets out to save white virtue from black barbarians. It was a historical romance – that’s how it billed itself – that looked back longingly to a time not long before when people were still chivalrous, who would stand up against barbarism and miscegenation and instability, and stand up for order, private property.

Who better to represent what they had lost than Nathan Bedford Forrest? They talked about his heroism in battle, though they didn’t talk about the Battle of Fort Pillow, where Forrest ordered the massacre of hundreds of American troops attempting to surrender, most of them former slaves. They talked about his faith instead, his strapping build, and about their own hopes, that future Memphians would gaze upon Nathan Bedford Forrest and be inspired. They even raised some extra cash for a skating rink so that the white children of Memphis could play nearby, in the shadow of this great man, and learn from his shining example, though the bronze wouldn’t shine for long, would brown and green as the symbol of all that was good was exposed to the light of the sun and washed by the rain.

There is debate – there is always debate – about what the Klan meant when Forrest was its Wizard, about his intentions at Fort Pillow. They say Forrest repented his sins and his crimes in his deathbed. Should that be on the plaque? Should it note his regret? I say no. May it have ruined him. May it have corroded him, like rain on bronze. May it have choked him like smoke from the crosses in homes and churches, burned by men who revered him decades and decades later. Revered him, at least in part, because some influential Memphians decided they needed to revere him in this way, in that park, in 1905.

So the plaque should be big, but it can’t be big enough to say all that. Maybe it should just say – maybe they should all say, the many, many thousands of Confederate memorials and monuments and markers, that the men who fought and died for the CSA, whatever their personal reasons, whatever was in their hearts, did so on behalf of a government formed for the express purpose of ensuring that men and women and children could be bought and sold and destroyed at will. Maybe that should be enough.

But I want people to know about those Memphians in 1905 who wanted people to remember Forrest and why, who wanted a symbol to hold up and revere, to stand for what they valued most. I want people to know that that statue stood in downtown Memphis for 110 years, and to remember that memorials aren’t memories. They have motives. They are historical; they are not history itself. I want them to know why it was moved, that in 2015, after Clementa Pinckney, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, and Ethel Lance, and Susie Jackson, and Cynthia Hurd, and Myra Thompson, and Daniel Simmons Sr., and a Depayne Middleton-Doctor, were murdered in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. There were people in Memphis who were done with symbols and ready to bury Nathan Bedford Forrest for good.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Memory Palace

I’ve often wondered if my poor memory is just a narrative I’ve told myself about something I’ve never committed much effort to improving. For the past eight weeks, I’ve been in a class that is notorious for its demand on exhaustive memorization, and it presented me with a opportunity: why not try something different than the standard flash cards and repetition?

I think I first heard about memory palaces in BBC’s Sherlock. The name makes it sound silly and, at the time, I didn’t take it very seriously, chalking it up to a quirk of the fictional character. But the idea returned to me while preparing for this class, and after watching a few instructional youtube videos, I decided to give it a try. Would using a memory palace be easier and more successful than simple rote memorization at retaining random sets of information?

The class was divided into four units. We were tested daily on all of the numbers we had received so far, culminating in the overall unit test. When we started a new unit, some previous numbers carried over, but some did not. New sets were added as well.

I “set” each unit in a place I was very familiar with. Each group of numbers represented something I was “looking” at, in my mind’s eye, in that space. Recalling the numbers meant moving through the space in my imagination and systematically focusing on each object which represented a set of numbers. Here is an example:

Three hawks circle overhead. The oldest one is the bully hawk. He comes to steal food from the critters on the deck during certain hours of the afternoon. His brothers have to scout the place out in the morning before animal control tries to capture them all.

Weird, right? But it stuck out in my memory. Even when I couldn’t remember the particular numbers attached to these ideas, I always remembered the images themselves: hawks, bully, critters, deck, animal control. The rest was just details.

This method did demand effort. Thinking up with ways to apply numbers to an imaginary physical object took a surprising amount of creativity. In fact, after we got each new set of numbers, my classmates would usually go to lunch while I stayed behind for a while. I needed quiet to concentrate, scribbling down a nonsense story to tie the numbers together. This was probably the hardest part of the whole process, but it paid off: once I had some context in my head which united seemingly random data, it stuck. After returning from lunch, I found that I remembered a lot of it even without a committed effort to studying. I filled in the blanks for a few hours and left each day with a clear picture in my head.

For the first two weeks, that was all well and good. One unit, one location. When we started the second unit, though, I had a decision to make: do I put everything all in the same place, or do I separate each unit by location? Each choice, I think, had its own benefits and limitations. I ended up going with the latter and put the new unit in a new place.

I think the memory palace method would be extremely useful for someone who is trying to memorize something that will always be in the same order: the digits in pi or a chapter of a book, like in the video above. The route through the memory location will always be the same. When I was able to systematically move through the space I had imagined, my recall was very good. It became much more challenging when I had to jump from object to object out of order as we dropped and gained numbers for each new unit. This would be like asking someone for the eighteenth digit of pi, or the fourth word in the ninth sentence of a particular chapter of a book. It’s in their brain somewhere, but it might take them a minute to maneuver around mentally to where they can retrieve that information.

Ultimately, with this method, I wanted to know three things:

  1. Would it result in a good grade?
  2. Would it require less effort to memorize and recall than rote memorization?
  3. How much of the information would I retain after two months?

On the first point, I never scored below a 98% on any test, and almost all of those errors were the result of my complacency! I was getting so confident that I was making stupid mistakes!

Second, it took some effort in creating the context, but once I had it, I had it. The hardest part was reorganizing everything in my head for each new unit, as only some known numbers were carried over to the next. More importantly, though everyone performed very well on all of the tests, I experienced substantially less stress than my classmates. As much as I would like to chalk that up to my personality, that would be really, really dishonest; everything stresses me out. I went to optional night study only once, and all it did was remind me that I did, in fact, remember everything.

Third, I can easily recite the stories for each set of numbers, even from the very beginning. I can describe each object in each location without much effort. The images really stand out. Retaining all of the details, though, requires some regular refreshing. Many of the particulars fade with time. If I had reviewed everything everyday, even for a few minutes, I think I could remember an enormous amount of information indefinitely. I feel confident about that. (The same could probably be said for other memorization techniques, though.)

In fact, this whole experiment made me feel much more positively about my memory as a whole. I could have struggled with this class but I didn’t. Finding a better method made a huge difference.

(An unexpected, possibly coincidental, side effect of cramming so much into my memory at once – or maybe because of inventing so much imagery – for the first few weeks, I had nightmares almost every night. It made me feel more curiosity than fear, but it was definitely strange.)

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , ,