Monday, February 22, 2016

I Watch Them Grow . . .

In my previous post, I observed how wonderful children are in their ability to learn new things; and, more importantly, their ability to divine from context the meaning of strange or new concepts to their young, agile minds. Children really do exemplify the hopes of our race.

I'm reminded of this each time I watch children at play. No matter how sad I'm feeling, or lonely, or just downright dejected at the events of my life, sitting off to the side in a large social gathering where children are present, observing them interact and play with one another, I find myself so happy and feeling alive in spite of things. It's truly remarkable!

Try it sometime.

Children are the most beautiful achievements we humans are capable of creating. Nothing else equals the seemingly simple act of procreation, the process by which we pass on our genes and ensure the future survival of our species. And although it now appears as if I will never get to experience the joy of having my own children--something that has recently provided me with a great source of unending agony and misery--I can't deny that I love children. I'm one of those people that find babies beautiful no matter their superficial features, and am always on the lookout for their well-being and happiness. I loathe anyone who can harm a child, or bring to them sadness.

I especially hate it when I see parents mistreating their kids in public. It gets me so angry! At those times I feel that these are people who do not deserve to have children. Cursing kids out and ridiculing them in public? What kind of man or woman are you that you would treat your own issue in such a way? Fucking despicable!

For me, it seems profoundly unfair that such people are allowed to have children, and yet someone like me cannot. At least, I don't think I will in this lifetime. Perhaps someday I might meet that special someone willing to go through this journey with me, and hopefully I am not too old for the process by that time. I'm turning 40 later this year, after all, so I still have around 10 - 20 more years for it to happen. Don't think I will want to by the time I'm 50, though---but who knows!

Still, in the meantime, I'll continue to be the doting "uncle" of several of my friends' own children. A position I cherish and honor, and love being in, but which gives me endless opportunities to regret the turns in my own life that have prevented me from experiencing parenthood the way they have.

As I watch children at play, I think of all their potential. I see in them all the ways they are living a better childhood than the one I had. All my friends are doing standout jobs of raising their children in the most loving and nurturing manner possible. This makes me so happy to see! And I vow to always protect these children in my own special way, too. I love them as if they are my own, and will never allow harm to come to them. And if my plight is to watch the children of my friends grow up to adulthood while never having any of my own ... it is my privilege nonetheless. They have taught me so many wonderful lessons about humanity, and continue to do so. In their eyes I see the endless possibilities of their futures unfold. I see that they will achieve far more than I ever could, and this I feel is as it should be.

You know, I'm reminded of that one song by the great Louis Armstrong. You know it, too. It's called "What a Wonderful World." Listen to it by clicking here, if you'd like.

Whenever I hear this song, one particular passage manages to elicit tears each and every time. I swear, it's like clockwork! I don't know why, but it always hits me right in the feels. This part right here:

"I hear babies crying,
I watch them grow.
They'll learn much more,
Than I'll never know . . ."

Oh my god -- waterworks!

Am I just a great, dumb fool for getting so emotional over this? I don't know. But although they're tears, they are happy ones. For me, nothing makes me happier than witnessing little ones gradually becoming not so tiny, smarty pants people! Watching children, you can sometimes--almost!--literally see their minds learning and becoming better. The rate at which they assimilate new concepts and observations about the world around them is astonishing. Truly a wonder to behold.

And this is why I say we ought to cherish our children. I know that's a corny line somewhere, but it happens to be no less true. They remind me of the greatness in us all. They make me want to believe in humanity and all that we have yet to achieve.

Children bring hope for the future.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Learning Mind Stays The Fittest!

Children are wonderful! Their minds are so flexible, effortlessly learning and expanding in order to make as much sense of the confusing world around them as possible. Of course, as a species our survival dictated that our young learn as much and as quickly as possible to adapt to a dangerous world and live to pass on such skill to their own offspring. But on a social level, it is no less miraculous how kids represent the best and purest expression of what makes us so uniquely human!

I was thinking this today because I recall a specific trend in my writing workshops of a long time ago. See, I have this tendency when I write to not force feed the reader too much information. Perhaps I rely on this trick too much, but I've always found it more interesting to have my readers derive meaning from the context of a situation rather than to have to spell everything out. But this tendency has gotten me in trouble more often than not. Whether due to laziness or to this persistent need among workshoppers to find something--anything!--wrong with a particular story, I find that a lot of people like to be *told* rather than to *infer* the meaning a particular scene, passage, or even word.

Case in point: I wrote this story once that used quite a few Chinese phrases in it. I speak Chinese, and my fellow students in my workshop knew that I spoke Chinese. And in one particular scene in this fictional short piece I wrote in college, my Chinese character used the term "yang guizi" while berating a bunch of white guys bullying her. Wouldn't you know it, quite a few people in my class had an issue with my use of the term.

Now, for those who don't know what the term means, I'll spell it out right here unlike in that story. Yang guizi is a strongly derogatory term used by Mandarin speakers to insult or express displeasure at foreigners, and predominantly "white" foreigners at that. The term means "foreign devil." It really translates to "foreign ghost" -- but in Chinese culture, ghosts are far less passive and more insidious (i.e., demonic) than Western ghosts. Then of course there is the case of equating the white skin of Caucasians to that of ghosts as well, and the phrase becomes even more apt. So if you are reading this and you are what most of the world considers "white," ... now you know what it means if you ever hear this phrase while in a setting with lots of Chinese people. I jest, of course. It's considered quite rude, and most Chinese people would not care to use it lest they portray themselves as uncouth. But among less scrupulous individuals . . . . ?

Anyway, in this story my Chinese protagonist uses the term in a completely unconscious act of reflex against her attackers. And, no, I didn't have my narrative voice break through in that moment to explain for non-Chinese readers what it meant. I figured my character's anger, the exclamation mark at the end, and the ensuing circumstances of her current predicament in being bullied for being Chinese, would provide the adequate context needed to understand the spirit of her epithet if not the literal translation.

But what so many at my workshop said to me in their admonishment was: Hey, nimrod, why don't you explain what this girl is saying so that the rest of us can understand?! I'm paraphrasing, of course, but I think you get the gist. And to which I replied, more or less:

Oh really? You mean to tell me you couldn't figure it out for yourselves? Or are you just using purposeful ignorance in the place of true criticism? Because I really couldn't tell.

See no . . . monkey???

But this brings me back to my opening remarks. It has me pondering this recent realization: That somewhere during the transition from childhood to adult, some of us lose this ability to simply accept one's ignorance on certain matters, and therefore forget to exercise the ability to infer meaning from the context surrounding a confusing or inexplicable occurrence.

In other words: kids know they don't know everything, and so they actively seek enlightenment in other ways. Mostly by asking a billion questions a day, sure. But at least they demonstrate a questing, ever-learning mind. Adults, on the other hand, seem to operate on the assumption that they should know EVERYTHING by now ... and therefore do not have the patience to seek out for themselves the meaning of something new or foreign to their sphere of specialty knowledge.

I recently read a bedtime story to some cute and precocious grade schoolers I know. And although the book had some words or phrases that may have been a little too complex for their age range, they didn't interrupt me every few seconds wanting specifically to know the meaning of these things. I could see that they had accepted what they didn't know, and used the context of how the confusing words were being used with which to inform themselves instead. Nifty trick, hey!

More of us adults need to keep our minds learning like kids do so effortlessly. When you do, you accept that not everything is going to make sense. You accept that sometimes you may have to do a little more work in order to understand an experience outside of your comfort zone. Or, if dealing with a culture foreign to your own, to not flash your privilege and assume it is the *other's* responsibility to educate you.

So, the lesson here is: keep learning, kiddos! (A phrase my Mandarin professor used to say to us all the time in class. No, seriously.)

Monday, February 1, 2016

Impostor Syndrome

Over on his blog, Whatever, popular SF author John Scalzi talks about a phenomenon he's been experiencing a lot lately among fellow writers while attending conventions and other social-professional gatherings: Impostor Syndrome. In his own words, here's how he describes the term:

"Impostor Syndrome, briefly put, is the feeling that one’s achievements and status are a fluke, and that sooner or later one will be revealed as a fraud. Anecdotally speaking, it seems, Imposter Syndrome affects a lot of writers, editors and other folks in the publishing life. I think this is in part because the writing life is a precarious one, financially and otherwise, and also in part because people in publishing seem to be a generally neurotic lot anyway. Imposter Syndrome is just another log on that particular fire."

As a struggling writer myself (struggling in that I'm constantly trying to improve my craft and "get better"), I'm certainly no stranger to crippling self-doubt. But I'm not sure I would classify myself under suffering from this particular syndrome. Then again, I have not yet reached the level of professional accomplishment within the field of SF publishing as the folk Scalzi is referring to in his piece. Yet I get the feeling that even when I do reach such a level, I probably will feel as if I worked my ass off to get there, and probably won't have much time to wonder if perhaps I am an impostor.

I mean, like I said before, I have my own level of self critique/doubt that is always in the back of my mind as I write. But I have a peculiar realization when it comes to that nagging voice telling me that I will never amount to anything, ever.

It's there, truthfully, only because I'm strong enough to have that voice there.

In other words, that self doubt does not trouble me. It is not my disability, because I cannot be harmed or hampered in such manner. That voice is more like that of an aggressive high school coach, or perhaps boot camp drill sergeant is more accurate. It berates me, it yells at me, it tells me that I'm no fucking good and that no one will ever love me, maggot! But it does so because deep down that voice just wants me to succeed. See? It wants me to develop a thick skin and to shrug off such negativity and continue pushing myself forward. To be the best me I can be because that's all I can be!

And because I'm actually very well grounded and come from an upbringing of constant positive reinforcement -- from, first, my mother; and then later, my grandmother and aunt -- that the opposite of such positivity really has very little effect on my ego. I hear the voice loud and clear, yes; but I never allow it to truly reach me.

I do, however, know a few people who are the opposite of myself. Who try their best to convince everyone else that they suffer no such voices in their heads. That they've always known they were meant for great things, and that it never once even crossed their minds to ever doubt themselves.

And, great. That's awesome! More power to you, sister. But, honestly? I suspect that most of them are quite delusional. At least one guy I know personally is most definitely full of his own shit. He likes to talk a big game about how good he is at his craft, but yet never really puts in the real work it takes to actually be good at it. How can that be?

Well, as they say: the BS is strong in this one!

This person never likes to hear me talk down about my own work. He gives me a look as if I'm committing artistic suicide. He claims that he never doubts himself. But, really? Never? How is that even possible? For me, self doubt is how an artist perfects himself. Or, at least, motivates himself to keep going and improve. A person who does not possess even a modicum of this self-critique . . . well, how can he ever get better at his craft?

No, what I suspect is that such a person is in fact quite insecure in their abilities. Ironically, he lives in constant, neurotic fear of failure. Moreover, he may even suffer from great personal depression. The type of person who truly *needs* to believe that he is the best thing that has ever happened to his field of practice, or else he has no reason for being. In his mind, that voice is quite crippling indeed! And so, to hide this perceived weakness, he protects himself behind aggrandized claims to greatness and braggadocio. By promoting a persona that is above such things as doubt and uncertainty.

And that to me, my friends, is the true Impostor Syndrome. It is not when one questions one's right to be in a position to receive recognition and accolades for one's artistic achievements. Perhaps, instead, the real impostor is the artist who feels he should be handed such platitudes based simply on the God-given genius he was born with, and to which he never really needed to work at.

Such people are the true enigmas; the doppelgängers, if you will, of artistic merit.

Panama Trip - Day 1: Here There Be Balboas!

In late May, 2017 I embarked on a trip of a lifetime. A trip to Panama's steamy tropical province, Bocas del Toro. Now, before 2017 ...