Get Off Your Phone!

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It’s a common sight at events, concerts, or attractions to see someone (or many someones) with their camera or phone firmly planted in front of their face, recording or snapping pictures for the entire experience. It is also a common sight to find blog posts, rants, and other forms of judgment telling everyone that this is the wrong way to enjoy your life. “Get off your phone! No one wants to see those pictures! You’re not experiencing the event, you’re just taking pictures!” There is a common sentiment that an unmediated version of reality is the best version of reality, and that if you’re taking pictures or video your mind is on how to capture the experience rather than on the experience itself. If you’re not 100% mentally and emotionally present, then you’re ruining your own experience!

The odd thing about this is that more often than not, those taking these pictures aren’t distracting anyone else. Their behavior is entirely irrelevant to the people who are upset with it. It simply has to do with how that individual is experiencing someone, a personal choice that is entirely their own. This need to police other people’s happiness is an impulse which is both incredibly self centered (other people need to do things the same way I do or they won’t be happy) and incredibly unhelpful.

Here’s the thing: everyone has different ways of experiencing the world, and everyone appreciates different things. We get happy in different ways. We engage with things in different ways. We are present in different ways. These individualities are why not all of us like to go to bars and not all of us like to play Dungeons and Dragons, but for some reason when technology is involved it’s no longer ok to have preferences but instead there must be a Right and a Wrong way to exist because otherwise technology will infiltrate our lives and destroy our human connections (or something).

For some people, taking pictures allows them to experience things in a more active way. They prefer not to simply be passive recipients of their experience, but want to think about how best to capture it, about the angles of light and the image of what’s going on. For some people, thinking about how they will capture the experience makes them think about what they want to remember in the future, and helps them focus on the things they like most about their experience. Some people just like taking pictures or videos and that is an additional enjoyable experience beyond whatever primary experience they may be happening.

And guess what? Even if you personally don’t want technology to be a part of your day to day experience because you find it makes you less present, that doesn’t mean that technology inherently pulls people out of their lives and pushes them into the “unreality” of the internet. Some people find that having their phone on and around is a distraction from the people they want to be with, where others (especially the introverted and socially anxious among us) find it a useful way to take a quick break from socializing when they need a mini recharge. The point is that people experience technology (as well as social situations) differently. In the past, if someone had a hard time being fully present in a situation with lots of people for a long time, all they could do was leave or just try to stick it out or maybe dissociate. Now there are more strategies they can employ through technology. They may be more visible, since someone taking out their phone is more obvious than someone simply zoning out and ignoring what’s happening around them, but people have always had ways to take a break from a current experience. All of us do it, and that is 100% ok. We don’t owe any place or person or experience all of ourself for the entire time we are there.

So please friends, take out your phones if you want, take those pictures, hide behind your camera or take that video because you want to watch it tomorrow. Let yourself disappear for a bit into technology or find new ways to love the concert you’re at by finding the perfect image to capture it. I want you to know what makes you smile, and that’s no one’s business but your own.

 

The Sexualization of YA Fiction

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Most people think of teenhood as a time of raging hormones and awakening sexuality. “Experimentation”, “hormonal” and “out of control” are things we tend to associate with young adults and sexuality. Young adult fiction seems to have picked up on these associations and has one-upped its adult counterpart in terms of obsessing over sex and sexuality. I have read a lot of young adult fiction. I prefer it to adult fiction in many ways, and when I was in high school I was a voracious reader, often going through 5 to 10 books a week. Throughout all of these books I can think of perhaps two that did not involve a sexual relationship, and I would approximate that 50% or more circulated around sex and sexuality. Even those that only peripherally involved a relationships often culminated in sex. If you limit yourself to young adult fiction aimed at women, sexuality suddenly takes completely control of nearly every book.

I certainly think that discussing sex in books about and aimed at teenagers is appropriate. For many teens, sex is a part of life. There’s certainly nothing wrong with sex, nor do I think we should keep teens in the dark about how sex works or the potential pitfalls of sexual relationships. What does seem inappropriate is to center sexuality at the heart of every story about being a teen. Certainly many teens spend a lot of time thinking about sex and exploring their sexuality, but not every human being feels the need to become sexual at that age or at all.

I’m going to use my current read as an example. I’m in the middle of the Divergent series by Veronica Roth. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of it, particularly the explorations of bioethics, dystopian futures, and different conceptions of virtue. But for some reason in the midst of a book that is about self-exploration, family, human nature, and good and evil, the main character finds herself with a sexy times boyfriend. Personally I feel this adds nothing to the plot and feels out of place in the middle of the very serious relationships she has with others. But because the main character is a young adult, she has to have a sexy sexy boyfriend and passionate descriptions of hot making out and his pecs.

No one can exactly pinpoint what the point of literature is, but most people would agree that part of it is to capture the human experience. There are so many experiences that surround being a teen, growing up, learning to be an adult, finding independence, determining one’s values. While there are some classic young adult novels that circulate around these themes (Hatchet, Call of the Wild, Huck Finn), many new YA novels seem to forget that it is possible to write a rich and full experience of being young without including sex, and that many young people are looking for themselves in nonsexual characters.

Authors have made an effort to include gay characters, but it would be wonderful if there could be a single asexual character in young adult fiction. If that’s asking too much, perhaps even a character who simply isn’t interested in sexuality. That may seem like a foreign concept to some people who are convinced that teenhood is a time when everyone is controlled by raging hormones that lead them to make out with anything that moves, but I actually knew a few people when I was in high school who just never expressed an interest in dating or sexuality. It wasn’t a problem and we all simply accepted it. Perhaps if we didn’t continue to disseminate the idea that all young people want sex all the time, more people would be content to focus on other aspects of their personality.

Generally, YA fiction tends to portray sexuality as a choice between morality and impulses, or just as a natural and fun part of life. If YA characters choose to abstain from sex, it’s often because they are religious.  In real life, there are lots of reasons not to have sex as a young person. You may not be interested, you may not have a partner, you may be uncomfortable with your body, you may not feel confident enough, you may not feel mature enough or emotionally ready, you may not feel that your partner respects you enough…the choice to engage in sexuality is complex, but for some reason the options in YA fiction seem to be “TOGETHER AND SEXY” or “single and depressed/repressed/religious”. Oddly enough YA fiction generally seems to overlook someone making out with their partner and then deciding they’re not comfortable with that, or someone setting boundaries with a partner simply because it’s their body and they get to decide what to do with it.

Many, many YA novels culminate with a kiss or with sex. It’s the peak of a relationship or the plot. Two friends become closer and closer until BAM their feelings come unleashed and they make out furiously. The end. Unfortunately that’s not really what relationships are actually like. The beginning is not the peak (and if it is then it’s likely to be a sad and unpleasant relationship). Even in romantic relationships, there is so much more than the kissing or the passion or the fire. There’s the really shitty bits where you try to navigate what it means to not be able to make someone happy, or how to balance your interests with theirs, or what happens when they’re depressed or have hard things in their life. All of those nonsexual parts are just as important. Some of the most beautiful parts are also nonsexual. The strong focus on kissing! and boys! and sex! really undermines how awesome some of the other parts of learning about relationships can be.

There also seems to be a dearth of literature that explores friendships as important relationships. Sure, there’s a lot of literature that’s aimed at teenage girls that involves lots of gossiping and rivalry between girls, but it’s nearly all circulating around a boy rather than things like shared interest, or mutual care. By centering romantic relationships at the heart of every story we tell our young adults, we’re really robbing them of models for other important relationships.

For those reading YA literature, know that there is more out there for you, there are more possibilities than a monogamous, sexual life. You are not defined by a desire for sex or physicality. There are more stories to tell.

 

On Feeling Past My Prime

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This morning I was reading an article about how age affects women more harshly than it affects men because of societal expectations of a woman’s “prime”. It’s interesting, because I never think about my age in terms of when I’ll be past my prime, or when I’ll stop being able to have babies, or when I’ll not be able to get a man anymore. Those things are not in the least bit important to me. The concept that at some point I will stop being relevant or sexy or loved or wanted because I’m old seems like the stupidest thing ever and I just don’t think about it.

 

But still, as a 22 year old, I often feel past my prime. I feel like I have lost the opportunities that I had and squandered what potential people told me was there. I’m certain I’m not the only one who feels like this, because I’ve been told by others that they feel like they’re behind or they’ve missed out or they haven’t done enough and they’ll never be perfect enough to achieve their dreams.

 

This cuts across genders, although I’ve personally seen it more in females. What has this generation been told that they somehow feel if they haven’t won a Nobel Prize by the time they get out of college then they’re useless? Because that’s the overwhelming sense I get from my friends and peers: no matter what I accomplish it will never be enough and I should have done it sooner anyway because I was supposed to be a prodigy.

 

Let’s try to put this into perspective through a few choice anecdotes. I have a friend who’s brilliant. She retains facts like nobody’s business and will excitedly tell you EVERYTHING about her subject of choice. She knows what she likes and is passionate about it. She’s on her way to getting a degree in that subject, and ready for grad schools following. And yet. And yet. She hasn’t gotten straight As. She’s in a difficult program and sometimes she struggles. She has a hard time balancing school and friends and family and mental health. Just like any other normal human being on this planet, she isn’t perfect. And whenever these things face her, I can see her melt. It’s the saddest thing in the world. I can see the voices talking to her and telling her that despite her plans and her dreams, and the fact that she is ON TRACK to live out those dreams, she’s useless and she hasn’t accomplished anything.

 

I have another friend who graduated from a small liberal arts college with good grades, played in the orchestra, held a job the whole time, is fit and talented and intelligent, got a well-paying job out of college, and now feels that his life is going nowhere. He didn’t get an engineering job straight out of school and isn’t sure what he wants to do in grad school. And so his degree suddenly becomes useless, his grades suddenly aren’t good enough, and nothing he does is worth anything. Even though he spends his time doing things like building cars and making a bike for his girlfriend, and doing things that he clearly loves, he feels his life is not good enough and HE is not good enough because there is some unspoken expectation of greatness for him.

 

And finally (not to brag, but to illustrate that I know what I’m talking about): I graduated in 3 years from a small liberal arts school after being admitted to every school I applied to. I graduated magna cum laude with honors in both of my departments (I was a double major). I held multiple jobs all three years and participated in a wide variety of extracurriculars. I now have a job, and I’m biding my time trying to decide what to do next. But when I think about where I am in life, I feel as though I have already wasted the best years of my life. In high school, I was told so often that I was smart, that I would do great things, that I would accomplish. I didn’t do that in college. I didn’t get published in major journals, I was never recognized for any sort of brilliance. I didn’t come to any great discoveries. I was just a regular student who got through. I’m not working at an amazing job, thinking Big Thoughts or moving towards a Bright Future. I don’t know what I want to do in grad school, and when I think about it I’m fairly certain that when I go, I won’t be held up as the best of the best. I’ll probably do well, but I won’t be richly rewarded. I’m trying to do what I love through writing and editing, but a piece of me still holds on to the dream that someday a publisher will stumble upon my writing and hand me a contract and I’ll suddenly be the next J.K. Rowling.

 

Now I know that in each of these examples, none of us are brilliant shining stars. None of us are about to cure cancer or write the next great American novel. But each of us are doing pretty well for ourselves. We’re smart, we’re relatively accomplished, we haven’t screwed up majorly in any way, and we’re all kind of following the appropriate path for our age group: going to college and then kind of trying to figure things out for a while. For those of us who are out of college, we’ve got steady jobs that allow us the freedom to figure out what we want to do in the future.

 

So why is it that we’re all convinced we’ve failed? Why is it that we feel we have not lived up to expectations, or that we could have been so much more? Why is it that in my mind when people told me “you have a lot of potential” I heard “if you don’t achieve fame and success by the end of college you suck”? Why is it that for all of my generation I get the feeling that we expected ourselves to be child prodigies who would excel at something from the time of birth and blow past every other person in that field by the time we were 18?

 

I can’t answer these questions entirely on my own. I don’t have sociological research to back any of this up, but I do have suggestions and possibilities. When I was young, I was told over and over of my own potential. I grew up in an era when telling a kid they could do anything was the norm. Dreaming big was expected and encouraged. I was told that if I work hard, I can accomplish whatever I set my mind to. Now I have no problem with parents encouraging their kids to dream, but telling me over and over that I can accomplish anything is simply a lie. Things are out of our hands sometimes, and wishing and trying and working doesn’t change that. I was propped up all my life: told by teachers that I was so smart, told by parents that I was special and amazing. I don’t regret for a second the support that I had from these people, but I wish that I had a piece of reality thrown in there: that as talented as I am, as smart as I am, as loved and supported as I am, things will still not always go my way.

 

I think of Dr Seuss’ book The Places You’ll Go. For a kids’ book this fucker is remarkably insightful. Because despite being full of support and love and excitement, it acknowledges that even someone as brainsy and footsy as you can get in trouble sometimes. I don’t feel like I had that. Somewhere along the way, my generation go the message that we could control our futures if we just worked hard enough and did things right enough. Which means that if things didn’t go our way, we must have done something wrong. We must have failed.

 

I see this in the way that we talk about college (always about getting into a top school, not getting into a school you like), the way we talk about jobs (how much are you making out of college), the way we talk about degrees (how many things did you major in? what’s your GPA? How many jobs did you have?), the way we talk about grad school (can you get funding for it? How much more will it make you?)…we don’t ask people questions like “are you enjoying yourself? Do you have good friends? Are you doing something you love?” So despite the fact that I spent 3 years studying something that I find absolutely fascinating, I’m a failure because I have not gone on to start a Ph.D at Berkeley, or because I have not published, or because I have not…xyz.

 

I wish we could stop feeling like we’ve failed. I wish we could change the dialogue from “what are you accomplishing” to “what are you enjoying”. I wish we could stop feeling we need to be the best. If I have any hope for the next generation, it’s that they’re empowered to know they have opportunities and abilities unlike anyone else in the world, but that they also learn to accept. Change always comes first from acceptance.