Saturday, October 31, 2009

On Giving up the Dream

I wrote this about four years ago, when I was a senior in college. I found it today when I was looking through my old documents for papers to give my professor who's writing my recommendation to law school. I don't know how I feel about law school. I'm just trying to find a paying career, my niche, something that I'd be good at and would satisfy me. It often comes back to writing, which goes back to my lack of discipline, lack of talent, lack of propulsion. Then it cycles through again--teacher, lawyer, writer. Anyway, when I wrote this I had recently been destroyed by writer's workshops. Funny, because it still rings true today.

My father creates beautiful works of art. He’s done this since he was a small child. His mother, his classmates, teachers, everyone was enamored with his skill. They were in awe of the maturity of his eye, his attention to detail and precision in every deliberate stroke of the pencil or brush. He was a wonderful artist, and his own worst critic. This wasn’t difficult, considering he only received glowing praise from others. I sometimes wonder what his self-criticism sounded like. I now have little sympathy for exceedingly talented people who are harder on themselves than anyone else. Deep down they know they’re incredibly talented. They know they’re better than everyone around them, but are they better than everyone in the world? In history? Such thoughts are the source of torment for them. I used to be one of these people. Now I don’t have the liberty. Thinking back on the intense self-scrutiny I underwent, it all seems weak. It’s better to be the tormented genius than the hack who knows she’s got nothing to offer. My fragile ego relied on the fact that no one ever criticized my writing. When they started doing just this, I was crushed. I realized that my work is no more special than anyone else’s, that I would not have to worry about my legacy in history when I was inferior to half of my writing class.

My father never had anyone tell him that he was a bad artist. I asked him, and he said that people were always quite impressed with him, though he wished they would be more helpful. This infuriated me. It’s not fair that one can be in any sort of subjective, creative field and avoid the scathing, heart-wrenching criticism from peers and professors. I’ve had my share plus some. I’ve had others tear my writing apart just for fun. Perhaps if my father had remained in this subjective, creative field, he would have got his. But he didn’t. Vietnam came rolling by along with his lottery number, announcing his fate: if he chose to go to art school, he would go to war. Thus, he changed his path to medical school. He didn’t like the direction the art world was going, anyway.

My father creates beautiful incisions in people’s flesh. He sends balloons slithering gracefully through their arteries, pushing away blood clots that would cause ugly bouts of gangrene. My father is an amazing doctor. Everyone says so. But will the legacy of his art outlive him? No. He no longer produces art. Once, when I was in high school, I came home to my father and his friend standing in the kitchen, and a large sheet of paper that seemed to have been torn from some larger roll was taped to the microwave. It had a drawing on it, and my dad’s friend, Dennis, asked me what I thought of it. I shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not very good.”

Dennis asked me to explain myself. It seemed a little haphazard and messy. It was a picture of the voluptuous body of a woman lying in a bed of plants, with a large sunflower sprouting from her neck in the place of a head. There was a sinister looking giant insect looking at it hungrily, attempting to drink the nectar from this flower. I explained that it was ripping off the style of Robert Crumb, what with replacing women’s heads with other objects, and that the artist obviously had issues with women. I saw my dad flinch at this, and I noticed his signature in lower right corner of the piece. I immediately felt embarrassed. I tried to explain that I thought this was a genuine piece of art that Dennis had purchased from an accredited artist, and it lacked professionalism, but I kept digging myself deeper into a hole. I didn’t know at the time that this was something he had drawn in five minutes with a set of crayons. I still become flushed with regret when I think about this incident, though logically I try to convince myself that I was in the right. I had given him the first criticism he had ever received, and he had it coming.

Not long ago my father entered a contest in which one painted anything they wanted on a two by two board. He hadn’t painted in thirty years, but he completed his work and brought it to the dining room to show me while I was visiting home. It depicted an Aztec warrior entangled in combat with a velociraptor. My throat tightened as I studied it. It was perfect. The colors, the shadow, the capturing of action. He hadn’t touched a paintbrush in three decades, and was still capable of creating something so flawless. I wanted to sob for two souls lost—his, such a great, inexhaustible talent that no one will ever know, and mine. My art was clouded with insecurity, rusty from lack of use, stunted in growth. I was a dodo compared to my father’s soaring eagle, but neither of us would live the dreams we had once been so sure would be our destiny.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Who needs balanced journalism? EVERYONE.

This clip is the latest thing that’s tapped into the same rage I’ve been feeling ever since Fox started advertising its own tea-bagging protests.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Queer and Loathing in D.C.
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorRon Paul Interview

I know it's supposed to be funny, but it left me feeling infuriated. I have this crazy idea that news networks should report on news, not create it. It bothers me enough how much power mainstream media has to frame and oversimplify issues, but using a 24 hour “news” network as a platform to promote anti-government protests, or really protests of any kind, is reprehensible. Fox, please take “news” out of your title if you would rather be a 24 hour ideological network. Free speech allows you to have a network to promote your ideology, but masquerading under the guise of “fair and balanced” news is just downright deceptive.

I am so surprised by the even tone I’ve been able to adopt so far, because this is one of those issues that automatically makes my heart pound, my cheeks become hot, and I unleash the foulest combination of swears I can think of. Seventy-five thousand people showed up to the teabagger protests in DC on 9/12. I suppose that’s a lot, but I’m not terribly impressed. You see, on January 18, 2003, I went to an anti-war protest in DC which hardly anyone heard about, and we had 200,000 people. The same day, San Francisco had 150,000 people. Cities across the country participated with their own events, and I can’t find much information on it. This is just from my memory, but I believe the protest in Minneapolis had 50,000 people, and that’s in January when it is really fucking cold. That weekend there were coordinated protests in 25 countries across the world. And you know how all these people got together? E-mail campaigns and word of mouth. We didn’t have the country’s most-viewed 24 hour news network repeatedly telling us about these protests, hosting gatherings in cities across the country, singing the praises of being a good, patriotic American and protesting our administration. We just had e-mail, and in regards to turnout, we were a hell of a lot more successful. Not only that, but the crowd truly was a diverse representation of Americans of all ages, races, and backgrounds, from priests to anarchists, all marching together to oppose a pre-emptive strike against Iraq. Afterwards, I was eager to read all the coverage of the protests, but I was disappointed. The DC local news covered it the most, and after that I didn’t see a single mainstream network mention it. They must have at least a bit, but I never caught it, even though I was looking. There were a few blurbs online. If I had access to LexisNexis, I’m sure I could find more, but this is the most comprehensive article I could find. When I told people about what I’d been doing that weekend, aside from the people who were on the same mailing lists as me, nobody was even aware of the protests going on, not even the ones in their own cities. Not only that, but we failed. Despite the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Americans showing their opposition, the administration told us to fuck off and started the war in about three months.

I remember when I began my anti-war activity as a freshman in college, I was all fired up with civic dissidence. I eventually became jaded. I remember talking to my mom, who had gone to anti-war protests in the sixties. “They figured out how to handle us,” I said, “They just don’t report on us.” The time leading up to the Iraq war was a horrible period in journalism. The mainstream media constructed a false consensus, was too spineless to ask the tough questions, and we went to war. In a few years, things got a little better. I lived in Japan for the end of the Bush administration, and missed a lot of the changing political climate. When I see archival footage of O’Reilly calling anti-war protestors “loons” mashed up with him talking about how awesome and patriotic the teabaggers are, my first reaction isn’t so much “What hypocrisy!” as “They started covering the anti-war protests?” But Fox News providing extensive coverage to the measly protests that it organizes itself is one thing that really makes the bile rise in my throat. Perhaps because it reminds me of how dependent civic movements are on the media, and how the media can be really fucking dishonest about it.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

I'm disturbed.

After following one of those search engine rabbit tunnels, I ended up inadvertently discovering Japanese Gravure idols (グラビアアイドル). The term "Gravure Idol" refers to young female models from particular talent agencies who generally appear in men's magazines and "Idol" DVDs that feature them being pretty and sexy in various situations and outfits. The term "gravure" comes from "rotogravure", the printing press used to develop glossy magazines. While the work may be risque or suggestive, (common costumes are swimwear, lingerie, and school uniforms) there is no nudity involved for a gravure idol, though this type of modeling is often viewed as a stepping stone. It could potentially lead to mainstream work as a TV presenter, singer, or actress, or it could lead to work as a nude model or porn actress. There's a pretty high turnover rate, though, with many models lasting less than a year when their demand wanes. While the function of a regular model is to anonymously sell a product, the image of a gravure idol is connected to her identity--her name, her age, and often her hobbies and skills. Basically, she is the product, tied up in a marketable, sexy package. I think it's comparable to swimsuit or lingerie models of the nineties, whose posters were commonplace in frat-house bathrooms in the US.

The idea of a Gravure Idol is nothing too special--just young women capitalizing on their sexuality as a means to success. Lots of singers and actresses start out as models. It wasn't until I found out the age range of these models, whose main purpose is to market themselves in men's magazines, that I worked up my ire. The youngest working Gravure Idol was nine years old in 2006. NINE. From what I'd seen of the work of other Gravure Idols, this didn't even seem imaginable. Gravure Idols clutch their naked breasts in bubble baths, or stroke themselves in non-nude erotica videos. Even though a strong facet of mainstream sexuality in Japan is that of the infantilized female, surely there would be public outcry if a nine-year-old was doing this. So I looked her up.

I was a little nervous about what I might find through my internet search, and if it would draw the FBI to my computer. Interestingly, before I found little Mizuki, I found another pre-teen idol, eleven-year-old Saaya. The images of Saaya I saw were gratuitous. She had the fresh young face of a pre-teen and huge breasts. She was in a bikini, often leaning over. The source websites made mention of how the pictures, taken in 2005, were of an eleven-year-old, but that didn't stop the user comments of "OMG she is SO HAWT i would totes do her". She was a pretty child in possession of an early (and in Japan, somewhat rare) endowment, and so her parents chose to capitalize on her in this way. That is fucked up. If you're interested, here's an article about how we can all find common ground in agreeing about the hotness of a busty eleven-year-old.

What I had seen of Saaya made me more nervous of what I might see of nine-year-old Mizuki. But when I did find her, she was the opposite of what Saaya had led me to expect. She looked like a completely normal third-grader, with a striking resemblance to one of the third graders I used to teach. In most of her pictures she looked like a regular kid having fun, and in general, a lot of the photos didn't look too different from what you see of child models anywhere. At first I was relieved, then I descended into a sort of contemplative melancholy. The difference between Mizuki and other child models is that Mizuki's photos are intended to sell herself, and in a medium that has been previously devoted to wank-material, no less. Her photo books were selling well (in 2006, the time of all the MIzuki press) and the description on the website talks about her sweet look and tells a story about her auditioning for the school swim team, as it shows a picture of her in her school swimming suit. It tells about the other outfits she appears in: her school uniform, her gym clothes, her street clothes, a bikini, a maid uniform, a nurse uniform. I didn't see any of the maid or nurse pictures, but the ones I see tend to be the epitome of a regular little girl doing regular little girl things, which pretty much translates to pedophile fodder. The few instances where her poses appear suggestive, it's clearly unintentional on her part, as if the photographer caught her at an off-moment and used it. I don't know if this makes it better or worse than Saaya.

I think of Chinatsu, an eleven-year-old girl who I taught for just a few months. When she first joined my class, Sayaka basically threw her in against her will. She was new to our cram school, and Sayaka warned me about her. She is very, very low-level, she is shy, she has a bad attitude, and so on. When I met her, she was wearing fashionable street clothes while all the other kids were still in their uniforms, and she had a hardened, fuck-off look on her face. When Sayaka informed her she would be joining the English class, her hard expression gave way to a look of momentary panic as she tried to refuse, but Sayaka just led her to my table where she folded her arms and sat in silence. As per the warnings, I was gentle with her and heaped plenty of praise on her efforts in order to build her confidence. When I complimented her, told her she did a good job, that she was catching up quickly (which she was), she smiled and seemed genuinely delighted that she was doing well. Though she was reserved, I saw little of the girl Sayaka had warned me about, and one day I asked her about it. Sayaka told me that Chinatsu struggled in school, and compared her to two other students of her age, who always seemed to me to be not-terribly bright. "School is difficult, but they are good girls," she said. "Chinatsu is... sometimes she is late to class, she is rude to teacher."

Chinatsu seemed fairly bright to me, but she was "not a good girl". Here's the thing. She was very tall for her age, and in possession of a woman's body. At eleven years old, Colin saw her in her street clothes and asked me if she was a high school student. She was already troubled, and I worried about what might happen to her, what might have already happened. Just because she looked grown-up didn't mean she was prepared for everything that went along with it. I remember instances of her child-like delight--on Halloween, when we were trick-or-treating and she didn't have a costume so I gave her my extra cat-ears, and when I gave her my contact information my last day at the school and she gleefully added another entry into her cellphone. I heard from her once since coming back, a mass text from her cell-phone mail about a change of address, with lots of stars and emoticons.

I worried similarly about a ten-year-old girl I worked with this summer, in Minneapolis. She too was very tall for her age, pretty, and looked much older than a kid who had just finished the fourth grade. She was also troubled, and I was very acquainted with her stank attitude, which earned her the nickname "Miss Stankypants". She was already wrapped up in fashion and pop-culture, and swiped her mother's platforms to practice her strut. She play-acted the sex-kitten mannerisms she saw on TV, which isn't uncommon for girls that age, but she was still a kid. I don't think there's anything wrong with girls trying to figure out their sexuality or how they project it, because that's something we all do on the path to womanhood. It's the predators who need to change. Traditionally, the burden has fallen on women to take all the responsibility to prevent their victimization--watch the signals you're sending, watch your drink, stay with your girlfriends, and by all means do not be a slut. All the while, boys will be boys. Men need to be educated alongside women about combating this "boys will be boys" culture. One step might be to stop publicly sexualizing teens and pre-teens just because they look older than they are, because having boobs does not constitute an invitation. Miss Stankypants got far less stank by the end of the summer, and at times was a really sweet kid. I still worry about her, because so few of us make it to womanhood unscathed, especially those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.

As for our pre-teen idols, Saaya is fifteen now and continues to dabble in music and voiceover work, and I haven't found any new information about Mizuki. I would hope that would mean she was out of the business, but if her parents were willing to offer her up to a medium notorious for producing stroke material, I suspect it's not for lack of trying. Mizuki and Saaya represent two ends of the spectrum in terms of representing pre-teens, but it's adults who have perverted their images. When I was about four and my sisters were six, one of our favorite videotapes was Madonna's live concert in Tokyo. We watched it over and over again, and whenever "Material Girl" started playing, we put on our Easter dresses (because they looked the most like Madonna's poofy, lacy costume) and stood on stools dancing. My parents didn't stop us from singing along to the risque lyrics we didn't understand, didn't tell us to get off those stools and quit aping Madonna's sexy dance moves, didn't scold us for being dirty and wrong for enjoying the then-controversial singer. For that, I'm grateful. They also didn't videotape us on those stools and try to sell it. For that, I'm very grateful.