The Only Guarantees are Complications

I sat on stage during my high school graduation with the other smart kids. I was ranked 4th in my class. I walked off stage after collecting my diploma, and could practically taste my future successes. I got a full scholarship for my undergraduate program, and spent five years alternating between studying chemical engineering, and working a total of five internships. In practice, I disliked chemical engineering. I couldn’t imagine working as an engineer. I minored in math and business to appear more well-rounded when applying for post-graduation jobs unrelated to engineering, and got straight As in both. I networked, although I didn’t see the importance. I was self-assured. I graduated magna cum laude.

My disinterest in engineering as a career was a huge source of anxiety for me. It caused me more stress than getting good grades ever had. I reconsidered my future. I tried to reconcile what I had already accomplished with what I could do next. I thought about what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I thought about the relationship between success and happiness, and wondered if I had to sacrifice one for the other. I spent the next year studying analytics, in hopes of pivoting into a career in data science before one in engineering began. I completed another internship. I networked without knowing who I wanted to stand by or become. I was certain this time. I graduated with high honors.

These are not my qualifications. These are not reasons why I deserve a job or success or happiness. These are the facts of how I spent the first half of my twenties. I am not a success based on my accomplishments as they are written. I am still writing.

I was the first person in my family to graduate from college. By ‘family,’ I mean more than my parents and their parents before them. I mean my extended family: my aunts and uncles and older cousins. I mean all of those who came before me, raised me, and helped me define my point of view. I grew up fairly poor (although I won’t claim it was tragically so) as an only child in a blue-collar household. My mother was a stay-at-home, and habitual pot smoker. My father was a blue-collar worker, alcoholic, and heroin addict (sometimes recovering, and sometimes not). Through them I learned the importance of budgeting and hard work, and decided I wanted to live a life where I would not have to budget down to every last dollar. Through them I learned to be content with a little, and a fear of settling for not enough. 

This is not a sob story. This is not why I deserve sympathy. These are the facts from my childhood that defined what came afterwards. I am not someone who overcame odds, regardless of numbers or statistics. 

My mother didn’t expect me to go to college. This is not because she didn’t think I could, but because she didn’t consider it a necessity in order to live a good life. My mother would love me regardless of who I was, and when she tells me she is proud of me, I believe her. This doesn’t mean she set a low bar.

My mother sat with me to do my homework every night until I was in 4th or 5th grade, and she quizzed me with flashcards before every test until some years after that. She had me rewrite assignments if they were sloppy, and reviewed mistakes I made until I knew better than to make them again. She would tell me, when I came home crying because kids did or said something mean, that it is lonely at the top. In these ways my mother defined my early image of success, even if she would be proud of me regardless of my achievements.

My naive definition of success was a base of academic achievement followed by the climbing of a corporate ladder. It didn’t matter how I grew up, or what those before me did: I always knew I would go to college. However, I struggled with things external to the classes I was taking. I struggled with identity and figuring out what I enjoyed and who I wanted to be. I struggled with potentially making the wrong choices, and dealing with setbacks. I thought I needed early-on certainty to find success, but didn’t know how to craft a project as long-term as life with the idea I held of what it meant to be successful.  

The only time I remember struggling in school (prior to grad school) was when there was an assignment based on creativity. I loved reading, writing, and art, but those subjects took the back-burner to math and science since they did not lend themselves as readily to the view of success I had formed in my head. Moreover, creativity is subjective, and I was scared to create anything that highlighted my choices as individual. I was terrified I would get made fun of when there was not an objectively correct answer. Because of this, I (literally and metaphorically) colored inside the lines. The idea of taking a creative risk gave me anxiety, so I chose inaction over possible failure. Instead, I rested on my position as a smart kid who could get good grades. I rested on objectivity.

I have often felt plagued by having too many interests, and not enough time to entertain them as fully as they individually deserve. I have always felt that my creative and logical sides are at war. I may have created this war internally, but others have supported it. Creativity and intelligence are often viewed as separate, but I do not understand why, regardless of how Capital They claim the brain is partitioned. I imagine it would be fulfilling to be in a position that required active use of both sides, but I digress.

School allowed me to dream of a better future for myself. School rewarded my thirst for well-rounded knowledge. When I graduated from my analytics program, I thought I figured out how my interests and abilities could be reconciled with success and happiness in one cohesive future. I saw a long and fulfilling career ahead me. I thought I was ready for it. I thought I had sought-after skills. I found myself viewed by employers as a blank slate with two pretty degrees hanging on my wall in abject symbolism, rather than an asset with a variety of interests.

I had no concept of the length of time a career spans until I entered mine. I work for a startup and analyze healthcare data. I enjoy looking at information. I enjoy analysis and interpretation. I enjoy information communication and visualization. I cannot imagine sustaining the office lifestyle for this long a period of time.  I am at the very beginning, and already I do not have the stamina. From what I have seen, office culture crushes creativity, and the only sure route to success, as defined by the majority, is to become more and more cog-shaped and capable of performing just one task.

I do not want to perform just one task. I thought I could make the world a better place by learning how to play by the rules, but now, sometimes, I think I’d rather watch it burn because of those very rules.

I spent six years in higher education, and regret none of them. If I could, I would make a career out of higher education, however, it could only ever be a prohibitively expensive hobby. Not to mention, more education does not necessarily equal higher employability. School is a stepping stone. School teaches information, not skills. School is a prerequisite for learning how to do a job, not preparation to do a job.

So I am working on a new definition of success: one that is based on living a life that is representative of my values, and has an intrinsic link to happiness. I am twenty-five, I have two degrees hanging on my wall, and neither will define my success in the long run: it is going to take more than that. I have a job that is alright for now, and I am trying to figure out what will be more than alright. I have a few ideas: I will let them consume me. I have come a long way: I am becoming the person I want to be. The road has not been straight, and I have went through revisions, but I have not made mistakes. 

I imagine my view of success will continue to change over time, and I hope the view, as defined by the majority, adjusts as well. I hope for a future where we are taught to ask ourselves individually: what does success mean to me? 

Explain Me a Story – A Review of Kafka by the Shore 

This is the last of Murakami’s work I will read; I do not know if it is partially an issue of translation and cultural differences, but I do not like his writing style. I have heard (although I have not looked into this) that Murakami started writing later in life, almost on a whim.  I have not looked into this, because it seems evident through reading his work. The writing seems like it comes from someone who enjoys literature – specifically the symbolism and metaphor found in well-renown literature – but thinks about writing as storytelling, rather than as a hard-earned craft.  There were some good ideas in Kafka, but the writing did not do them justice, and it was difficult to enjoy the forest for the trees.  I would have liked the story better if it was told more as a parable than as a modern novel, to allow the writing to focus on the major themes (the ever-evolving view of self, the transformative nature of time, the importance of memory), which are overworked in Kafka as it exists. 

My biggest struggle while reading Kafka was that dialogue was too blunt and informative.  When I say this, I mean that Murakami has his characters talk to each other as a way of explaining to the reader what he wants them to know, rather than the characters having a conversation. Murakami has Kafka – the main character in Kafka – walk you through the kill father/marry mother prophecy he received as a child multiple times, always reminding the readers that this was the same prophecy given to Oedipus in Oedipus Rex. This is the major plot point in the book: Kafka running away from a prophecy, all too aware it is from one of the most well-known Greek tragedies.  

The over-explicit dialogue is also shown in the many references to the name Kafka, and the explanation of Chekov’s gun (which was also done in 1Q84, and quite possibly the rest of Murakami’s novels). None of this is handled subtlety. None of this feels like you are coming to a realization as you read. It feels force-fed. Murakami’s characters are all too aware that literature exists and contains symbolism and plot devices, and they have no trouble referencing that awareness in their dialogue, or looking for (and believing in) that same symbolism in their ‘real’ lives. It is almost as if the characters know they are in a novel. It feels like slopping writing and a lack of trust that readers will (a) know what Kafka is alluding to, or (b) look into references they were unaware of. 

The heavy-handed description carries into the plot details and character development as well. Day-to-day tasks were over-described, and irrelevant background stories were given to characters; neither served the tone of the story, character development, or plot, and came off as filler more than anything else. This is not to say that I think every word in a story has to be calculated to move an element forward in some way, but it would be nice if some of them did. It seemed like the characters were a bit too aware of which part they were supposed to play, rather than the characters lending themselves to the full development of the story’s ideas; in that way, the characters never became more than characters or plot devices. It seemed like the novel wanted to reach for the highly metaphorical, but that Murakami didn’t trust his readers to be grasp the metaphor if it wasn’t handed directly to them (or he failed at weaving his themes into the story in a way that was subtle).

Take Murakami’s decision to have a major character come out as transgender after being confronted by two feminists about the (clearly unfounded since the male character we were introduced to was actually a female transitioning to a male all along) sexist practices at that character’s place of work.  This plot point could have played into the idea of time being transformative for individuals, but the way it was worked into the plot was heavy-handed, and felt out of place in the context of the larger story.  We know almost nothing about that character other than their transition, and it was announced in a way that made it seem inconsequential to the story’s themes. Moreover, that same character had no idea why Kafka would not be comfortable with his own body, since he was an attractive boy (I would think someone who transitioned would be more understanding toward someone who is uncomfortable in their body). 

Overall, I can see why people would enjoy this book, but I do not think it is a great work of literature.  To someone who reads more casually, there are a lot of fantastical elements that probably make for an interesting novel (a man who can talk to cats, a portal to the afterlife, incest), but these elements were scattered within a sloppily-written work. I think that either Murakami’s writing is not strong enough to hold up the weight of his ideas, or he is trying to appeal to as large an audience as possible (I tend toward the former, since the latter could have been achieved more skillfully). Again, this may be due to some of the subtlety of his language being lost in the English translation, or my lack of knowledge of Japanese culture, but I think the larger points of my criticism would still stand if I were able to read the original Japanese.

As a side note, I would like to see how rating distribution differs between the original work and its English translations, but that’s a task for a different day. 

why i write

It started as a frustrated attempt at temperance. For almost my entire life, everyone I have known has been, in theory, constantly available. I’ve sent texts, typed emails, pinged instant messages, made phone calls, and I’ve cried, told stories, complained, joked, lied, reminisced, and felt outwardly annoying to those who had to listen due to the modern-era ease of constant communication. Communication no longer requires the recipient to be within earshot, nor does it require their desire to know what the sender wants to say before knowing what the sender wants to say. I consider this to be an unfortunate lack of choice.

I started writing notes to no one as a way to prevent talking at people who did not actively choose to talk with me. I started writing notes to no one when there was no one around (physically, theoretically, spiritually) to talk to. I started writing notes to no one to figure out how I felt about Things, and to describe what was too intimately felt to discuss. I started to like writing notes to no one and it shifted from a way to quell the social anxiety of the antisocial behaviors of textual communication to sort of a hobby to very much an interest in language, style, lyricism, con- and denotation, communication, and where they all collide within written word.

I write down phrases that I think sound nice and ideas I have, read, or hear. I think about the dimensions of description, enjoy wordplay, listen to the lyrics of songs as language almost more than as music, and list things in ways that are slightly off. I enjoy awkward, playful, and grammatically-almost-correct sentences. I exercise my right to invent new words with prefixes, suffixes, and portmanteauization and within reason (I think).  I appreciate tautologies and direct opposites and prefer piles of adjectives to single adverbs.  If I could, I would merge poetry, essay, fiction, nonfiction, and memoir into one genre.  I enjoy what I write down; you could choose to.

criticizing the handmaid’s tale at the midway point

I am reading The Handmaid’s Tale and I am growing bored and angry teeny bit by teeny bit not because of feminist agendas but because I feel I am being force-fed ideas and metaphors and I find it impossible to forget that I am reading a fictional story that was written by a person who did not live through these events.

Night falls. Or has fallen. Why is it that night falls, instead of rising, like the dawn? Yet if you look east, at sunset, you can see night rising, not falling; darkness lifting into the sky, up from the horizon, like a black sun behind cloud cover… Maybe night falls because it’s heavy, a thick curtain pulled up over the eyes. Wool blanket. I wish I could see in the dark, better than I do.

Night falls. Lights dim: a decrease (a fall) in apparent luminosity is more often than not matched by a lowering (a decrease; a fall) in temperature due to sun rays striking the surface of this almost-sphere we inhabit more and more indirectly as we rotate (quite quickly, but seemingly not so) into darkness.  The sun is stationary, but we monitor its motion: its rise and its set: dawn in and dusk out.  The moon is second fiddle to the warmth light gravitational pull of the sun.  The moon is basically of negligible importance when referencing the time of day, because of the much higher significance of the sun for determining daily patterns and sleep cycles.  The sun is life-giving: the solar to our solar system: our reference point: our zero tare: the baseline by which we measure time in relation to.  A moonrise is eclipsed by a sunset.  Darkness doesn’t rise: light is snubbed out.  Night does fall because it is heavy and oh let’s play with light’s other opposite.  A thick curtain over eyes (pulling curtains over eyes? they are the window’s the the sol – pun pun, nudge nudge): but of course, it’s made of wool. Sheep little sheep herded by tiny shepherds, unable but yearning to see flee be free leaving undercover (sight-seeing, but unseen) in the cover of the night.

I’ll stop. It’s a great story. I am just over the heavy-handed metaphor and discussion of language mixed with first-person narration, although I am obviously a huge fan of metaphor, language and general wordplay. This is all quite troubling. I am very torn. I think I would be a bigger fan of Atwood if she wrote essays. 

I also think the title should be A Handmaid’s Tale, signifying that there are many other individuals with parallel stories, but that is just me being overly picky.

emily dickinson

I have only memorized one poem in my life, and it is I’m Nobody! Who Are You? something or other, by Emily Dickinson. I had to look up the official title and I am a bit embarrassed by the outdated choice of punctuation, but I will let that go, for now, although the entire reason I felt inclined to write “something or other” after the name of the title, was you wouldn’t think I supported those clearly bothersome punctuation choices.  Anyway, I remember specifically trying to memorize this poem from my twenty-pound reading anthology as I sat in class in maybe 5th grade (but just as probably before or after), and it has been in my memory ever since, even as the prayers I was forced to memorize have faded away. I don’t think I particularly liked the poem  – that wasn’t my reason for the rote memorization – I more felt that it would be important to have at least one poem internalized. I wanted to be able to recall the words that someone else wrote, and this poem, that I was already reading for class, was short enough to accomplish that without all that much effort.

I think I was always drawn to poetry, but a lot of what I was exposed to early on was flowery-fake language of forced-scheme rhymes that I couldn’t and didn’t want to relate to or understand. But I am nobody, and who are you? Are you nobody too? Then there’s a pair of us, don’t tell, they’d banish us, you know. That I could relate to. That was speaking to me. Directly.  I felt like a girl my own age was letting me in on a secret of hers, and no, I wouldn’t tell, because I understood.  Maybe I am nobody too – it’s quite possible – and it is dreary to be somebody, I think, although I don’t know how it is public like a frog. But I suppose that is fair enough since I do like the idea of telling your name (the livelong June) to an admiring bog, and frog rhymes with bog, so that must be correct. I wouldn’t mind going unknown either, Emily, but I have to say, I am still misunderstanding that bit about the publicity of frogs.

paterson

Last night a boy I don’t know took me to see a movie I hadn’t heard of, and when we left I told him it gave me something to not think about, although I knew I’d think about it more when I had some time alone. The movie was Paterson, and this is not a review.

Paterson is a movie about a man who shares a name with his city, and so he simultaneously blends in and stands out, and there’s some symbolism in that, I am sure. Paterson is a poet who drives a city bus because sometimes poets need day jobs in the meantime/for a lifetime. To a poet, there is poetry in the mundane, and overheard conversations are contextless bursts of well-written dialogue. Paterson is a city that few significant people hail from, but the takeaway, I think, is that there could always be one more, and that maybe significance – and its opposite – are subjective.

The takeaway, I think, is that I too am important in my insignificance, and that maybe one day (regardless) I will produce something significant, to someone/to anyone/to myself, at least.  I too enjoy writing words on blank pages, and I too want to create something that will make my city/myself proud. The takeaway, I think, is to start, and continue, and to never give up, even if you’re standing stuck with uncertainty and a dog eats your words.

a relief washes over me

Tell me that you know it’s over as I sit here listening to an Intro you have told me to listen to because a friend told you it was the best album ever and maybe it is, since I want to respect his opinion, since you respect his opinion, and I am not the most musically inclined, perhaps. I respect your opinion and expect that you only trust in the opinions of those whose opinions deserve to be trusted in, and maybe that shows my trust in you, but maybe it does not at all. I have a pain-filled fascination with what you are doing right now, and I am glad I don’t know although it hurts me not to. I more feel that I should not know and you should be in on a secret of your own choosing and so should I. Because you deserve that and so do I and we deserve each other and I am waiting here because I know that is true. And I am listening to an album you told me to listen to because you enjoy it and a friend told you it is the best album ever recorded. Interlude 1 faded in from Intro and I am not sure if I actually like this although I have listened to it before and I think I enjoy it. I am not sure how strange the things I enjoy are anymore. I think I am getting stranger and I think that is me giving into my twenties.

I think the pairing of Tessellate and Breezeblocks is brilliant, honestly. It is like a classic, kind of gritty, crime-fighting duo. But enough about me. Triangles are also my favorite shape, although it is not because of the three discrete pairs of intersecting lines, it is because it is the only complete shape formed by so few intersecting lines. A circle is a shape made of infinite edges. A triangle is a shape made by as few edges as possible. Triangles are whole in their abstraction. Toe to toe back to back endpoint to endpoint where lines grow long enough to hold meaning and are not blurring into one another in the infinite shrinkage of curvature.

I want to hold you and have you hold me and to not have to talk because we don’t have to talk if we know what we want to say and why can’t we both assume we know what the other would say if the other knew what we were thinking? Why isn’t it enough to assume, why do we have to know? I know you and that is enough and you know me and you know I am here, so why force words into a place where words are not needed? I suppose I needed to come up with more of the right kind of words for you although I swear I tried my best and maybe if you had seen my best in the way I meant it then my best would have been enough, but as it stands my best wasn’t enough and that is just that although I meant for my best to be what you needed and I couldn’t have done more so could you just take my intentions as my actions, please? Please don’t go, please don’t go, I love you so, I love you so.

The song starts like a lullaby and I wish I was back to playing with your hair while you laid on my lap on the couch in the house on McMillan Street. You’ll be back there in a few days, and I won’t be with you, and this makes sense since I wasn’t there with you for most of the time you spent there. So I hope you see what it is you need to see, and I hope you remember the times I remember there, as well as the times I don’t. I know that house is much more to you than it could ever be to me, and even so it meant a lot to me.

I don’t want to forget about you although I think I should pause in my thought for a bit. I think space will be good, but I hope it will not be too good. We were something good. We were more than good and I want to knock on your door right now and I know you will answer and I know we will have a good time because we always have a good time together when we’re not talking about if we are together. And we don’t have to talk about if we are together because right now it would be enough to physically be together, and I know that much is true. But to go to you right now would be to break the unspoken promise that I made to myself and it would break the verbal promise I feel I made to you when I last saw you and before I saw you again. I want to give you a chance to miss me and I hope by giving you that chance you aren’t learning that life is better without me. I know life isn’t better without you although I know life is also good without you. But you are you and you are important to me and I will not forget about you for now.

It is just passed five o’clock and I want to go back to the summer when we sat on the porch under a blanket, both otherwise naked. I want to go back to the fear and the unknowing and I want to see the words we said to each other, more than I want to hear the words you said in response to my words. I want to be on that porch with you and I want to feel like the world is ours although so many people we know are surrounding us from inside their houses. I want to be alone with you and out in the world and not have to say anything because there is nothing much to have to say. I want to start with our blank slate because our blank slate was a perfect starting point. It was a fresh cover of snow on a warm spring day in Georgia, and we sat in the bright light of the moon with no one else present. You will always be my home.

This is for you, this all is for you. This is me trying to move on although I am doing little more than standing still. There are the stories I can write while I wait, and I hope they stray further from you in the future while I wait for you. This is for you, all of these unwise words as I question every non-step I take. This is all for you this is all for you this is selfish and I will make you feel guilty if I show this for you since this is all for you but you are unsure of what you have to offer me since you are not sure if you want to offer me anything since what have I really offered you?