Service with a Smile

I’m convinced that the clock is out to get me.

Each second is excruciating, a test of sheer willpower. I swear I can hear the clock laughing at me. “Tick, tick, tick” it chuckles. I glower at it, unamused by what is surely a joke at my expense. The air feels thick with unused time, and the smell of industrial floor cleaner clings to each breath. I’ve taken to pinching the back of my hand so as not to drift off into the merciful arms of sleep. Streams of busy citizens flow past the window, each individual with more purpose on their face than I’ve been able to muster in some time. Their presence is disconcerting, but at the same time I’m reminded that there is a life outside these walls.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see through the window a familiar face round the corner into view—a friend! I beam and give an enthusiastic wave. The stranger returns a confused expression, offers a conciliatory nod and hurries on their way. The hallucinations are getting worse.

To pass the time, I invent new games. I play several riveting rounds of “Stare at the Wall.” I have yet to beat the wall. Its monochromatic vastness holds steady against my best efforts to topple it with my mind. Next, I play “Take a Drink of Water.” Admittedly, this game has become a guilty pleasure despite lacking any real substance. I play it often during my stay. Finally, I play “Counting.” My current record is nine hundred and thirty-seven, at which time I became distracted by a passing dog and lost my place. It was small, with long ears and a curled tail.

All at once, the monotonous whirr of the oversized printer’s oversized fan is split in half as if by a sudden bolt of lightning: the phone rings, its shrill tones echoing off the cement floors and whitewashed walls. I scramble—“Hello! Vassar College Service Desk. How may I…” Click. They’ve already hung up. I hang up too. “Tick, tick, tick.” I shoot another displeased look clock-ward. As I turn to continue my interrupted round of Stare at the Wall, the phone cries out again, its anguished wails a plea for sympathy. I answer.

“Hram- arm-ala helnnsa urrhumm,” says the person on the other end of the line.

“I’m sorry?” I reply. “You’re going to have to speak up. There’s something wrong with the connection.”

“Computer, my computer broken. Help? Computer dead. Need help to computer,” the caller clarifies.

“Right…” I say, hesitantly. “Can you be any more specific about the issue?”

“No,” they offer, bluntly, all hints of disconnection evaporated.

“I see,” I return. “Would you be able to bring the computer to the desk, so that we might better diagnose the prob-” Click. Another hang-up. I sigh and start a round of Take a Drink. “Tick, tick, tick.”

Just then, a customer sidles in. Never one to dismiss a distraction, I rush to greet them, my “How may I help you?” lanyard jangling loosely around my neck. She doesn’t look happy; they never look happy. “Good morning, ma’am! What can we do for you today?” I’m met with a stare sharper than the sound of breaking glass.

“It won’t turn on,” she hisses, and slaps down onto the table with too much force a computer no less than a decade old.

“Oh,” I reply weakly. “Well, you see, after a certain number of years, most computers…” This time her glare feels like getting cracked in the ribs with a cricket bat. The air leaves my lungs involuntarily.

“What? You can’t fix it? I thought you tech people fix things.” A bead of sweat trickles down the back of my neck, and I glance at my colleague, who is pointedly ignoring the situation.

I smile. It’s the kind of smile only berated people know how to smile. It’s a smile that says “it’s my job to help you,” a smile somewhere between obstinacy and resignation. It’s a service smile. She makes a noise somewhere between an indignant gurgle and a scathing guffaw, and, grabbing her relic of a machine, leaves without another word. Crisis averted.

My relentlessly ticking adversary reminds me of its presence. “Tick, tick, tick.” As I glance up to scowl, I notice the time: half past closing. The pit of my stomach bottoms out and I have to steady myself on a table so as not to fall over. I gather my meager belongings and am out the door in a minute flat. It’s been over seven hours since I’ve last tasted the sweet air of the outside. I will relish my freedom; tomorrow brings with it a similar sentence.

Gilmore Girls and Life

A largely anticipated event will be occurring later this year (in 77 days, 19 minutes and 20…19…18 seconds as I write this), something I’ve personally been waiting for since I finished the show. I’ve planned my Thanksgiving weekend around this occasion. I’m not going shopping on Black Friday this year (the first time I’ve skipped the holiday in years) because of this momentous occasion. Instead of bundling up and braving the crowds of New York City, I’ll be on my couch at 3:01 a.m. with coffee and pie (and maybe some takeout just because?), wrapped up in a blanket, bawling the second that my favorite credits of all time start rolling on my computer screen.

Do I even need to say it?

It’s like saying, “The Scottish Play” or “He Who Shall Not be Named.” Gilmore Girls has just become that sacred.

I and so many millennials have developed such a deep and personal connection with this show that we didn’t even get to watch on air. (I discovered Gilmore Girls in 7th grade and was on Season 3 when the series finale was announced. I immediately jumped ahead to Season 7 to watch the finale. That was the first time I ever sobbed—I’m not exaggerating here—sobbed over a series finale.)

I could talk about everything I’ve missed about Stars Hollow, and everything that I NEED to see resolved plot-wise, and how I feel about all these spoilers (Unnecessary—we’ve waited ten years; we can wait another few months, guys) forever.

But this revival is about more than everyone’s favorite TV show coming back.

I seriously feel like we’re all going home to Stars Hollow with the cast. I’ve missed Friday night dinner, I’ve missed walking by Ms. Patti’s dance studio, I’ve missed movie marathons and I can’t WAIT to see the Dragonfly again (How did they ever think they could do a revival without Sookie St. James?!).

But then I have to step back and remind myself that we’re not picking up where we left off in Luke’s at five-something-a.m. (I won’t spoil it for those of you who haven’t finished the series yet—but seriously, what are you waiting for?)

10 whole years have passed. Amy Sherman Palladino allowed time to pass. And I love that.

She really let reality seep in, so naturally a lot has changed for these characters and actors. Edward Herrmann’s death, the most tragic event that the show must confront in this revival, has turned into the jumping off point for the new episodes. Because the characters have to face it. The actors had to face it. We, as fans, faced it. Reality is unquestionably affecting this revival. It’s no easy task. And yet, almost the entire original cast of this beloved show is coming back to fill in the blanks, face reality and celebrate the world of Gilmore Girls.

I think it’s less about closure and more about continuing. There’s something so final and dreary about a series finale. That little fictional universe you’ve come to love is gone. You’re left with some cliffhangers and some neatly woven endings. Maybe you wonder what happens next, or maybe you just despair over the fact that these characters’ lives are over. (Or maybe no one is as emotional about TV as I am.)

You might be thinking, “The same thing will happen after the revival. We’ll be left with another finale of sorts. Then what?”

I don’t know.

Something.

But what, I don’t know.

The goodbye feels less permanent this time. We know it’s coming. We know we’re lucky to have this glimpse into our favorite mother-daughter duo’s lives again, and for that we’re grateful. It’s a slice of life.

In the end, isn’t that really all we can expect from anyone, from anything in our lives?

If we’re lucky, there will be a few people who we meet along the way that never ever leave our side. Everyone deserves that kind of unconditional, long lasting love and support, whether it be from a partner, parent or friend. But the rest of the people we meet will not and cannot stay forever. We move around the world, we get busy, we grow together and apart and back together again. It’s bittersweet, but it’s just the way the world flows. Just like the Gilmore Girls, our favorite people don’t just disappear when we’re not with them. They’re just on another road, living their lives, creating memories to tell us about when we find our way back to them. (Where we lead, they will follow, and vice versa.)

I have a feeling we wouldn’t be nearly as obsessed with the Gilmore Girls, and feel such nostalgia for them and their world, had they not gone away. The show would be in it’s 17th season. We wouldn’t be bored, but the excitement certainly would have faded.

We’re excited for this revival because we can’t wait to check in and see how the town has been. We’re excited because we’ve missed it so much. And that’s the thing—you have to go away and live your life fully to really miss something or someone. I think that’s a really important concept to keep in mind during this stage of my life: missing people, and why that can be a good thing.

I was away from Vassar my entire junior year, and I still miss my life in California, and my life in London, and my life at home in New York City all the time. But being back here, I’ve realized that I missed Vassar too, in ways that I didn’t even realize. Missing places can make us excited about them again. We get to fall for them again. Not everything will be where you left it, because time passes, and you change, and the people you haven’t seen in a while change; even the place itself might change. I won’t say “that’s okay,” because it’s a weird thing to deal with, and it isn’t always “okay.” I know that firsthand. Seasons will end. Your time in certain places will end. Friendships may end. But you’ll continue. And you’ll rediscover. And sometimes things you thought were gone will come back to you.

I’d like to think that there’s always a possibility for a revival, if we truly seek it.

The great things, that feel like home, that speak to our souls,
I believe those things will come back to us,
Like no time has passed at all,
(even though it has)
And then they’ll leave again,
And we’ll continue with the seasons,
Knowing that somewhere, in some way, they are too.

That’s what I’ll be grateful for a day after Thanksgiving this year. In a season where so much is changing, and there’s so much talk of finality, I’m going to sit on my couch with pie and coffee at 3:01 a.m., catch up with my favorite girls and think about the revivals I might produce someday.

If You’re a College Senior Freaking Out About Your Future, Watch This Movie

nobdy

From Mr. Nobody (2009)

There’s a science fiction movie called Mr. Nobody, and it’s one of my favorites. Essentially, it’s about the butterfly effect: the idea that every small decision that you make ultimately has the power to change the course of your remaining life. The movie is about a boy who is faced with an impossible choice—when his parents separate, will he stay with his mother or his father?—and the consequences of either decision. This influences where he lives, who he falls in love with, how happy he is, and ultimately, whether he lives or dies. It’s really a pretty fantastic movie, albeit confusing as hell. I highly recommend it—especially to anyone who wants to feel both scared and relieved about the future.

As a graduating senior, it often feels like every decision I make from here on out really does fundamentally shift the entirety of my future. Maybe it won’t be life or death, but still. Where to go to graduate school? Which loans to I take out to pay for it? Where should I live? Who should I live with? Who will my new friends be? How will I keep in contact with my current friends? Will I be happy? Stressed? Broke? Regretful? What the hell is happening and how did I become an adult so quickly? In case you haven’t noticed, I am a professional at overthinking things and it should really be the first thing on the top of my resume.

Having an endless amount of options and knowing that you could literally do anything can be exhilarating and exciting, but also terrifying. Technically my path is pretty straightforward because I will still be in school, but it’s a whole different kind of school than anything I have experienced before. These feelings are so much different than the ones that I had when graduating high school. Back then, even though I didn’t know what my major would be or what my roommate would be like, everything felt so much more structured and certain, almost like an extension of high school but in a brand new place with brand new people. Going to college was the expectation. Now it feels like a whole different ball game.

“We cannot go back. That’s why it’s hard to choose. You have to make the right choice. As long as you don’t choose, everything remains possible.” Mr. Nobody is about how choices, both big and small ones, and whether or not we end up choosing the life that is right for us. We can imagine and plan for our lives all we want, but the fact of the matter is that things almost never work out exactly the way that we hoped, or the way that we thought that they were supposed to, but that doesn’t mean that it is wrong. “Each of these lives is the right one. Every path is the right path. Everything could have been anything else and it would have just as much meaning.” (Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself).

The Basics of “Cruelty-Free”

I like to put my money where my mouth is—and by that I mean, after being a vegetarian for 10 years I’ve recently also transitioned into no longer purchasing cosmetic products from companies that test on animals. While I know it’s not possible to be a totally ethical consumer, I feel better about doing something than I do about doing nothing, and this choice was the next natural step to my dietary lifestyle. No one can argue that animal testing isn’t harmful to its subjects, and if that’s something you care about, I’m here to tell you that it’s easier than you might think to fight it. (Or even if you have no intention of going down this route, you can at least stick around to get the basics.) For the sake of sticking to the popular terminology, I will be using the term “cruelty-free” to refer to companies whose products are not tested on animals and to the choice to not buy from those companies. However, I personally hate this term because it sounds a bit self-righteous and ignores other ways in which the process of producing these products could be cruel.

Going cruelty-free isn’t of comparable difficulty to going vegetarian: there are many, many companies across all price ranges whose products are not tested on animals. I would estimate that about half of the most popular makeup companies are considered cruelty-free. This meant that the process of becoming cruelty-free was pretty undramatic for me, as it required me only to shift to buying more from some companies that I already liked and to shy away from a few others. Animal testing is not legally required because it is in no way necessary for safety anymore, which is why so many brands are free of animal testing. According to the Humane Society, there are thousands of ingredients available for use in cosmetics that have been long established as safe and therefore do not have to be tested, and there are a plethora of methods to test new ingredients that don’t involve animals. At this point, still testing on animals in the U.S. only puts companies behind their competitors as this “cruelty-free” movement gains mainstream traction.

It gets somewhat complicated from here, though. Many companies do not test on animals themselves, but do not earn cruelty-free status because they sell their products in China, a country that legally requires animal testing and performs tests on U.S. products before they can be sold there. This is true of MAC, who was originally a proudly cruelty-free company. Big brands tend to value their international business over the morals of animal testing, and this is the problem more often than an unwillingness to change practices within the United States. Another complication is that some brands that do not test on animals are owned by larger makeup companies that are not cruelty-free. For example, L’Oreal owns NYX and Urban Decay, which is troubling because NYX in particular prides itself on being cruelty-free. This becomes a matter of personal judgment. I choose to buy from these companies because I’m still supporting brands that are cruelty-free themselves. Putting money towards them also shows those larger companies that the cruelty-free brands they own are successful.

Finding out which brands to avoid is not at all difficult: a simple Google search will tell you whether and to what capacity any specific company tests on animals. As terrible as PETA can be, they do have a detailed database of information about cruelty-free cosmetics that they update frequently. PETA-approved brands will actually often have the cruelty-free bunny logo on their product packaging. Another equally good website is Cruelty Free Kitty. I find myself on this website a lot to check whether or not a brand I don’t buy from frequently is cruelty-free because it is easy to navigate.

With so many high-quality companies that do not test on animals to choose from, going cruelty-free seemed like a no-brainer to me. I’ve found my favorite makeup brands whose products are not animal tested that I’ve stuck with (Too Faced, Tarte, NYX, Colourpop, Urban Decay, Milani, IT Cosmetics) with really no inconvenience. If you’re into animal rights or have been curious about doing this at all, I highly recommend trying to give your money more often to companies that don’t test or even commenting to a company that you don’t support them testing. It’s not a life-altering change like going vegetarian or vegan, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t buy a lot of makeup.

Despite this, it’s something that can make a big difference even with small effort. The tide is turning towards the elimination of animal testing, and companies are listening as the protest becomes louder. Animal testing within the European Union has been banned since 2013. A few weeks ago, a video from MAC came up on my Facebook news feed advertising Halsey’s new lipstick shade. One of the most popular reactions to the video was the angry face, and almost all of the comments were protesting MAC’s animal testing policy. And I keep seeing these types of comments everywhere. Social media pressure has prompted L’Oreal to update their website to say that the company “no longer tests on animals any of its products or any of its ingredients, anywhere in the world“—a completely misleading statement that is later contradicted by “an exception could only be made if regulatory authorities demanded it for safety or regulatory purposes,” meaning that they still sell in China. For companies like MAC and L’Oreal who want to sell their products in places like China where they have to allow the government to perform animal tests on their products, there isn’t an easy solution. However, whether it’s the international policies or the company values that change, I have hope that the pressure will continue to build and soon force real change instead of empty words.

Not The Fastest Man Alive—But Close Enough

“The Flash” is an awesome TV show.

Veeeery minor spoilers follow, but nothing significant.

It’s not without its flaws, which we will get to in depth, but it’s an incredibly fun and enjoyable program that anyone with even the most vague interest in the superhero genre should check out.

“The Flash”’s biggest advantage is that it truly understands the balance between the funny and the serious and knows how to work that divide.

As my friend says, this a show where, in at least half of the episodes, solving the problem boils down to the following exchange:

Dr. Wells: Barry, you have to run this fast.
Caitlin: Barry, I don’t think you CAN run that fast!
Barry: I’ve gotta run that fast!
*He runs that fast*
Cisco: Wow, I can’t believe you ran that fast!

And it’s amazing.

So a show like that obviously has to embrace the ridiculousness. Most of the best superhero movies (“The Dark Knight” excepted, of course) embrace that to one degree or another. These stories don’t function without humor and self-awareness. If you have doubts about that, go watch “Man of Steel.”

But “The Flash” also makes sure to not limit its dramatic options. It can get serious, painful, and even scary.

A lot of the credit for that goes to Tom Cavanagh, who plays the glorious Harrison Wells, one of my favorite television characters of all time. You can feel the show shift every time he speaks. Most of the other characters speak in that cheesy, comic book, half serious kind of way. It’s all surface level, all simple, all fun.

When Cavanagh speaks, the subtext just appears. There are deep, complex layers to almost every line he delivers. It’s absurd how much power he can put into his speech.

He brings a gravitas to his every scene that no other actor in the show possesses, a gravitas that can elevate a speech about something called “the speed force” from a comic book platitude to a powerful, intense moment of development for multiple characters.

(Also, special shout-out to Wentworth Miller, who plays Captain Cold. I honestly can’t even describe that performance–you just have to watch it.)

Credit also goes to the effects team, which is shockingly good for a show on The CW. I am honestly amazed at how good the show looks and sounds at every level.

Obviously, speed-related effects have to be the chief concern of this particular show, and this show has them nailed. When the main character, Barry Allen, moves, he moves. He is a flash of yellow lightning. And the team knows just the right moments to flip into slow motion, showing us Barry’s movements in excruciating detail. It has just the right aura of the supernatural without crossing the line into complete absurdity.

The effects team particularly shines when it comes to the villains. One of the big villains is Reverse Flash–a name that sounds a little silly, especially when paired with his bright yellow suit. But by having him use his speed to vibrate super fast, his voice goes deeper and his image blurs, making him inhuman and granting him a frightening presence.

Another major villain, Zoom, eschews the vibrating image in favor of a much scarier costume. But he also deepens his voice to sound almost monstrous, and is constantly surrounded by crackling blue lightning, the combined effect of which makes him look positively deadly.

But the best villain effects achievement goes to Gorilla Grodd, who is just straight up terrifying. He has been used sparingly thus far, but the scenes in which he is involved are some of the most intense on the show. By hiding him in shadows, the show demonstrates his sheer size without putting him at risk of looking ridiculous by virtue of the fact that he is, you know…a giant gorilla. His voice is especially menacing, a quality that is enhanced by the reactions of Jesse L. Martin, a badass detective who goes to complete pieces around Grodd.

So that’s a bunch of the positives. When it comes to having fun, crafting interesting characters, and showing off comic book effects, this show excels.

It’s got some issues when it comes to depicting women.

There appears to be a minimum two-men-to-one-woman ratio operating at all times in the show. Those women that are shown have some difficulties.

Caitlin Snow is largely defined by her relationships with male romantic partners and by her scientific career. She can often seem like a flat character outside of these relationships, spouting the necessary science and not doing much else. When she does get a moment of autonomy, she can be quite interesting: the episode where she and Barry go drinking is a great example.

Unfortunately, her problems are compounded in the second season, with one particular scene making my suitemate and I scream in rage when we saw it.

The other main woman character, Iris West, is just a straight-up problem throughout the first season. She is awfully written. The creative team needs to have her in the show given her central role in the comics, but they clearly have no idea what to do with her. Nearly every bit of dialogue she has is terrible, and most of her plots are paper-thin comic clichés that are just annoying.

She improves in the second season, but even then, she doesn’t have a clear role. The writers have figured out how to not have her detract from the show, but not how to have her add to it. Given the high quality of almost every male character on the show, this is rather disgraceful. Much like Caitlin, she is largely defined by her relationships with men and struggles greatly to break free of this.

Generally, this is a more subtle, background sexism than an in-your-face style sexism, but it’s still a genuine problem and source of frustration. Given the creative team’s obvious skill, I have high hopes that they’ll move to more seriously address it going forward, particularly as the show becomes even more popular and backlash starts to intensify.

Broadly speaking, the show is excellent. It has its flaws, flaws that may understandably make the show unappealing to some. But what it does right, it does really right.

One final complaint: Every episode begins with an opening narration in which Barry calls himself “The Fastest Man Alive.” But the season-long arcs have both been about speedsters who were faster than Barry. He has never been the fastest man alive. Ever. Not once. No.

It just bothers me.

In Which a Neuro Major Dispels Some Stereotypes About Anorexia

(Trigger warning for eating disorders)

When the topic of eating disorders inevitably comes up in a psychology class, it usually tends to be just a few pages in a textbook or a few slides in a PowerPoint, usually about how anorexia is a disorder in which the individual has an obsessive desire to lose weight by refusing to eat. These descriptions are almost always framed in a way that makes it seem as though “Losing Weight” and “Being Skinny” have suddenly become the end goals for the individual, and sometimes it is even implied to be due to some sort of inflated sense of vanity. Sometimes the presentation will throw in a few thoughts about genetic predisposition toward susceptibility to the thin ideal that is constantly portrayed by the media and the fashion industry as the ultimate goal for success and beauty. While this is a valid point and I don’t want to discount the pressure and toxic impact that the perpetuation of these unrealistic beauty standards have, I definitely don’t think that it’s telling the whole story.

Of course, I do not want to speak for anyone else’s experiences. All I can talk about is my own experience. And for me, it was never about the wanting to look like a model. For me it was about control. As a freshman in high school, I didn’t have a lot of that. I wasn’t really happy with the people I was friends with, and I wasn’t really happy with who I was. Changing my entire personality was not something that I could easily control, but food was. It was something to direct my focus and attention toward, rather than thinking about why I was unhappy. I starting counting the few hundred calories of ‘safe foods’ I ate each day, and then went to cross-country practice where I ran anywhere from three to ten miles. I remember one day at the end of practice someone brought chocolate chip cookies. Somehow everyone started pressuring me to eat one, since I was the only one that hadn’t, and I did so just to make them stop questioning me. I felt so upset afterward that I ran the five miles back to my house instead of my mother picking me up from school, even though I had already done a two-hour track workout. Eventually the school nurse sent a letter home when my BMI came out dangerously low, my pediatrician expressed concern about my lack of period, and both of them told me that I needed to gain weight. But since I was on cross-country, it was not quite as concerning as it would have been otherwise. Never once did either of them take the time to sit down with me to try to understand what I was going through or even discuss the possibility that I had an eating disorder.

It’s nearly eight years later, and I am glad to say that I am so much healthier and so much happier. It was not easy, it certainly did not happen overnight, and, at least to me, recovery is kind of an ongoing process, but I learned how to eat and run in a way that makes me feel good and that benefits my body. It’s funny because sometimes vegetarians or vegans with a past of disordered eating will get criticism for still following rules and restricting themselves to a “diet” of specific foods, but 1) that’s not the sole reason that I don’t eat animals products anymore, and 2) if someone saw the difference between what I ate then and what I eat now, I have no idea how they could still give that critique. I’m obviously not a doctor (yet), but regardless of what others might think is the only right way to “do” recovery, I think that it’s incredibly important to do what you know works best for you.

So anyway, back to never learning any of this in any class ever (I’m a Neuroscience & Behavior major, by the way). When I came across this study in an article for The Atlantic just a few weeks ago, I was kind of overwhelmed.

“[Psychiatrist Walter] Kaye’s work with women who have recovered from anorexia nervosa found unusually high levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin in the cerebrospinal fluid that bathes the brain, and he believes these levels were likely also present before the onset of anorexia. Although low serotonin levels are linked to depression, high serotonin levels aren’t good either, as they create a state of chronic anxiety and irritability. As many as three-quarters of those with anorexia had suffered from an anxiety disorder before their eating disorder began, most commonly social anxiety and OCD. It is this anxiety that Kaye believes makes some people much more vulnerable to anorexia.

The body synthesizes serotonin from the amino acid tryptophan, which we get from our diet. Eat less food and you get less tryptophan and hence less serotonin. For people predisposed to anorexia, therefore, starvation reduces the anxiety and irritability associated with their high serotonin levels. Mission accomplished, or so it seems. The problem is that the brain fights back, increasing the number of receptors for serotonin to wring every last drop out of the neurotransmitter that is there. This increased sensitivity means that the old negative feelings return, which drives the person to cut back even more on what they’re eating. Any attempts to return to normal eating patterns wind up flooding the hypersensitive brain with a surge of serotonin, creating panic, rage and emotional instability. Anorexia has, in effect, locked itself into place.”  (The Atlantic, “The Challenge of Treating Anorexia in Adults”, 3.30.16)

I don’t know if you, person reading this, know anything about neurotransmitters or the brain, but I feel like this explains it super well, and to me this was just such a relief and such an affirmation. Even though I objectively and rationally have always known that an eating disorder is a mental illness, knowing the exact mechanisms behind it really hit home for me in a way that nothing else ever has. Seriously, I was never taught this. Maybe I should have sifted through the peer-reviewed literature myself to try to find some answers. Actually, I’m not sure why I never did. What the heck, past self? But regardless, knowing that I haven’t just been making all of this up for years, and that it wasn’t just a subliminal result of me watching America’s Next Top Model when I was twelve years old, and that there is an actual neurobiological reason for me to be feeling the way that I have felt and sometimes feel now? That validation means so much to me.

Requiem for a D20

I have died 14 times.

I have killed my best friends.

I have fallen in love.

Usually when someone starts a story with this clichéd (but oh so fun) device, they’re about to pivot into a pitch for why books are great.

I’m going to make a much nerdier pivot into a pitch for why tabletop RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons) are great.

RPGs offer nearly limitless customization and improvisation. You can do nearly anything you want. Each item on that three-part list is a thing I have done in an RPG, and I think that they’ll show you what I mean.

 

1) 14 Deaths. 

This happened in a campaign I’m currently playing: Wizard Cops. In Wizard Cops, I play Amy Brooks, a Gulf War veteran (it’s 1992) who is a highly conservative closeted lesbian with a dead father and a neglectful mother.

Amy has been killed 14 times, mostly by the evil entity known as Mr. Scratch. See, Amy has two problems; she is impulsive and she has one HELL of a martyrdom complex. So when she encountered this arrogant avatar of evil, Amy challenged him to a duel.

Scratch cut her in half.

Then sewed her back up. Then tore her apart. Rinse and repeat. It was brutal.

But the effect on the players was the astonishing part. Several cried. Part of that was shock (player characters don’t often die) and part was humor (apparently?) but a large part was genuine affection. They cared about Amy. It hurt to watch that.

In that sense, RPGs can be very real. For me, Amy did not come out of nowhere. Her character was generated out of my struggles, challenges, and moral dilemmas.

In my mind, Amy’s defining moment came midway through last semester. A cloud of darkness had consumed Boston, and everyone else wanted to focus on the cause and abandon the citizenry. Amy couldn’t stand for that. She demanded to go in and rescue everyone she could.

This led to a bitter argument between her and her employer over whether it was better to try and save these people or focus on stopping the root problem.

Saving civilians may not have been as efficient, but to Amy, it was the clear choice. She nearly died trying to fulfill that ideal, an ideal that arose out of my own idealism and regard for individual life.

Amy is her own person, but she is also a reflection of me. Her world has fractured in concert with my own. She gives me an outlet to deal with my challenges. Her struggles are hers, but through them, I can get a grip on mine.

 

2) I have killed my best friends.

This one comes from a game that I DM. For those who don’t know, the DM is the person who creates the world, runs the background characters, makes the story, etc.

In that capacity, I often have to try to kill, or at least severely maim, my players. At this point, only one of my players has not been killed (I’m coming for you and your damned lupus).

Player deaths can produce a variety of reactions. The first death in this campaign came when a player tried to contest the big bad’s deputy for an artifact. The player was frozen to death and lost the artifact.

A more recent death featured the players seemingly killing an ancient sorcerer and then attempting to loot his body, not realizing that he had some deadly contingency spells in place. An explosion went off, hurling the party’s most powerful player into a wall, where the revived villain pinned him down and slaughtered him.

Player death is a bit of a trick. In both of those cases, the affected players protested (half-heartedly I think, probably because they realized that the deaths were reasonable). It can be a test of patience and friendship to have to deal with that sort of thing as DM, given you’re being personally called out.

But it’s worth it. Good players and friends, like those two, will realize that this happens. Good DMs will recognize that the threat of death needs to be present to give the game stakes, and will also realize that both expected unexpected deaths serve their own purposes.

On the other hand, there are also players who just shrug whenever they die and players who keep a second character sheet handy because they die so often and don’t like changing stats.

You get all kinds.

 

3) I have fallen in love.

This, of course, is the item on that list that many people will experience in real life. Appropriately, this happened both in game and in real life.

Throughout 2014, I played in a Call of Cthulhu RPG that was more farcical than horrifying (go figure). In that campaign, which took place in Canada in 1852, I played the incomparable Robin Scherbatsky (named for my grief over the How I Met Your Mother finale), a woman professor with an early, aggressive feminism. That feminism and its manifestations (many crotch shots for misogynist men) became one of Robin’s defining traits.

Robin’s other defining trait didn’t emerge until the second session, when a new player with an attractive character stepped onto the scene. Being who she was, Robin casually asked out this new character. Their bizarre relationship spanned the rest of the campaign.

Six months later, I began a yearlong relationship with that character’s player.

Therein lies the real power of D&D. This is not a game created by anonymous programmers and writers. You and your friends create it. You pour yourselves into it, whether you mean to or not. You all bond right away–the game doesn’t move if you don’t.

I have made almost all of my most important relationships at Vassar through RPGs. My future housemates and several best friends are fellow players from my oldest game. Some of my more recently acquired but no less treasured friends come from more recent games. Other good friends are mutual friends of these players.

And of course, like I said, my longest running romantic relationship emerged from a friendship that began in an RPG. I did not meet that girl through the RPG, but it’s how we came to know each other. It’s how we developed mutual friends and started hanging out outside of the RPG. How we began to text and Skype.

I can confidently say that that relationship would not have happened without that Cthulhu campaign.

RPGs force creativity and spontaneity on the participants. Groups are too small for anyone to hide. You’re a part of the world and you will reveal parts of yourself. You will contribute. You will reveal things about yourself on impulse that you never intended to. You will bond. You will love it.

Obviously, there are a lot of group activities that can bring people together. But few force that kind of intense engagement. And if you’re a nerd like me, many of those other activities may feel closed off to you. This offers social opportunities to people who might otherwise prefer to avoid socializing.

So here’s to RPGs! My life wouldn’t be the same without them.

What’s That Smell?

Have you ever wondered what it means when you see the word “fragrance” as an ingredient in a product like shampoo, body wash, or deodorant? When the term “fragrance” (also listed as “parfum”) is applied to a product, what it means is a mix of ingredients that can include any of over 5,000 different chemicals, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Obviously, fragrance is added to products to make them smell better or to cover up anything that might smell funky. You don’t get a luxurious aroma of citrus blossom or sparkling mountain stream without adding a little something extra. So that’s nice, now you can be tempted to eat your soap every time you wash your hands. What’s wrong with that?

Well, there is no way to know what the exact chemicals are that make up these fragrances, and what potential they might have for serious health effects. Under the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) requires cosmetics to have an “ingredient declaration” that lists all of the product’s ingredients. This law is intended to make sure that consumers have information they need to compare products and make informed choices. However, regulations for this list of ingredients cannot be used to force a company to disclose “trade secrets” (FPLA, section 1454(c)(3)). By this law, fragrance ingredients do not need to be listed individually on cosmetic labels because they are the ingredients most likely to be “trade secrets”, and instead may simply be listed as “fragrance.” This is pretty scary because, according to the International Fragrance Association’s master list, fragrances can include chemicals that are known carcinogens, irritants, allergens, and potential endocrine disruptors, and a study by the American Academy of Dermatology found that fragrance is also the number one cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis.

However, there is limited research on the synergistic and synchronistic long-term effects that chronic exposure to fragrance may have on the body. If you want to start avoiding it altogether, then be sure to read the ingredient labels on products, looking for “fragrance” or “parfum”. An important thing to be aware of is that “unscented” and “fragrance-free” mean different things. Fragrance-free means that there is nothing added to the product, whereas unscented means that an additive was used to mask any other chemical smells. Why do they have to be so tricky? Is it really so much to ask to NOT make everything smell like a Bath & Body Works store? Apparently. The other day I was looking for a soap that was both anti-bacterial and fragrance-free. Seems like it wouldn’t be that difficult to find, but I hit up five different pharmacies and convenience stores and found none. What gives? Why is fragrance taking over the world and trying to kill us all slowly by making us inhale rosewater honeysuckle baby’s breath waterfall scented shampoo? I’m starting to think that I should just use my years of chemistry knowledge and start manufacturing my own soap instead.

A Layman’s Explanation of Kingdom Hearts

Have you ever wanted to see Donald Duck/Octopus hybrid monstrosity? I really didn’t. And yet I have.

Oh, don’t worry–it gets weirder.

Not only did I have to witness this horrific perversion, but I also had to watch it–and turtle Goofy–dance underwater to a song that included the lyric “finny fun.”

Apparently this is Kingdom Hearts.

My friend, Leah, has been playing through the entire franchise since finals week last semester (she’s really responsible). This has served as my first exposure to the franchise.

Prior to this, I had always looked at Kingdom Hearts as something of a curiosity–a neat concept that seemed a little damaged by the presence of Donald Duck as your sidekick.

My opinion hasn’t changed much, but I’m a lot more confused now.

Anyone who would be invested enough to care about spoilers would probably know them all already by now, but just in case: spoilers abound for the entire franchise.

“God dammit, Donald!” Leah seethes, furiously mashing her controller in an effort to not get killed by a giant, invisible lizard (we’re jumping around time a little bit, bear with me here).

These words have been Leah’s most common refrain throughout, because Donald Duck is, apparently, the worst.

Correction: Chip and Dale are the worst. Donald is just terrible. Could I tell you why? Nope. But Leah says these things with such venom that you just kind of learn to accept it.

Leah has tried to explain the plot of this series to me a solid dozen times now, and I think I’m actually starting to get it. Here’s my understanding so far:

 

  • Sora, Riku, and Kairi are an OT3 that is constantly separated by plot.
  • Sora goes on a quest to find Riku and Kairi after they disappear.
  • Leah’s explanation of the start of KH1: “Sora’s walking along, going ‘Do-do-do-do, do-do-do-do-do. Oh no! Then everything goes to hell and Riku and Kairi disappear.”
  • Part of this quest involves fighting a guy named Ansem, who is a really evil king.
  • Except Ansem is not actually Ansem, and there’s actually a second Ansem? Yeah, I don’t get this part, but it’s a thing apparently.
  • At any rate.
  • The main enemy is a group called the Organization, which is composed of what are called Nobodies.
  • Nobodies are a variant of Heartless, and are produced when someone stabs themself, but they have such a strong heart that it creates a sort of incomplete shadow copy.
  • The Nobodies of the Organization seek out the Kingdom Hearts, which they can use to make themselves whole.
  • This would be bad…?
  • Sora has two Heartless (kinda)–Roxas and Namine, the latter of whom is actually a combined Heartless of Sora and Kairi.
  • No, I don’t know what that means.
  • Also, Sora has some guy from the past named Ventas locked in his heart, which is why Roxas looks like Ventas, and they both look a bit like Vanitas (who is Ventas’s Nobody?) who looks like Sora.
  • There’s a guy named Xehanort who is pulling the strings in the background.
  • The universe is a Disney/Final Fantasy mashup.
  • Mickey is a badass (a point upon which Leah is VERY insistent).
  • Final “key” point: Some Nobody named Axl has a weird obsession with Roxas. Go figure as to why.

 

With this in mind, I have tried valiantly to follow along with the story whenever I catch Leah playing.

It actually goes worse than the above, if you can believe it. That mangled summary is the accumulation of several conversations that end with Leah struggling to explain that yes, the plot really does make sense–somehow.

The thing that perhaps annoys Leah the most is my attempts at shipping Sora and Kairi (I’m hoping some readers just went nuclear at reading that sentence).

To me, it seems perfectly obvious that Kairi is Sora’s love interest. He seems to constantly be searching for her (throughout the entirety of the first game, for example), and the opening of Kingdom Hearts II shows Sora repeatedly running at Kairi, holding her gently, and touching her hand. Heck, her Wiki page even explicitly lists Sora as her love interest.

Of course, I don’t actually believe this for a minute, but Leah’s utter fury at the suggestion is far too amusing to ignore.

Yes, I swear we’re friends.

Don’t worry; she treats me the same way.

We jump to another scene–Sora soloing a guy with lightsabers for hands. Amazingly, the fight doesn’t end there. The battlefield expands, and soon–huzzah!–Riku jumps into the fray, battling alongside his friend, Sora.

In response, the enemy turns into a massive spaceship.

I stare at the screen in perfect, stunned silence. Cause, really, how else am I going to respond to something like that?

I turn to Leah and wordlessly gesture at the gigantic ship that her foe has suddenly become.

She glances at me as best she can. She is fighting a massive spaceship, after all, so she can’t really focus on me. “What?” she asks defensively.

“What is happening?” I ask, pouring every ounce of confusion I can muster into those five syllables.

“Don’t worry; this happens every time!”

Kingdom Hearts, everybody.

On Thinking Critically About Things We Agree With

Last week, I attended the debate between the Vassar Conservative Libertarian Union (VCLU) and the Vassar Democrats about the issues of gun control, energy policy and immigration. Like the majority of people at Vassar, I consider myself quite liberal, and because of that (and my own personal very negative experience with certain members of the organization) I went into it with a bit of a preconceived bias against the VCLU. At the same time, I recognized that the knowledge that I possessed about all perspectives and details of these particular issues was not all-encompassing, so I was intrigued to hear the arguments from both groups.

The first thing that I came to realize at this event was that an alarming number of people appear to eagerly accept whatever they hear without any sort of critical thinking if it happens to confirm what they already believe, think and value. This really shouldn’t have been news to me after having taken numerous psychology classes discussing terms like “confirmation bias” and “in-group, out-group bias,” but actually seeing it action was weird. It is easy to imagine that only specific groups of extremely narrow-minded and uninformed people are susceptible to this way of thinking. I hate to break it to you, but us “highly educated” liberal arts college students are far from immune.

I say this because—not to sound harsh, because if I had to stand in front of a giant crowd of people and debate complicated and controversial issues I would probably melt into a puddle of my own sweat before I got a word out—the Vassar Democrats were not very good at debating. If you are reading this and you were one of the debaters, I am really sorry, but it’s true. Some folks certainly performed better than others, but overall it seemed as though they had not done the same depth and breadth of research as their opponents. It felt as though they expected the VCLU to present the sort of inflammatory statements and blatantly false information that many Republican presidential candidates have done, making the Dems’ job as easy as saying things that actually make some semblance of logical sense. Especially given the fact that the majority of the audience would be liberal and therefore agree with them, I would not be at all surprised to know that many of the Dems had felt confident (dare I say cocky?) enough to go into the debate much less prepared than they should have been. Evidence of this played out in the gun control and immigration rounds of the debate, but I think what best illustrates my point was the energy policy round. The Dems focused on the immediate need to combat the effects of global climate change because CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND WILL KILL US ALL, while the VCLU remained skeptical about the science behind the scope of humanity’s role in climate change. However, both sides seemed to agree about the importance of investing in sustainable and renewable energy and technology. Great! Well, until the VCLU questioned the proposed carbon tax and stricter emissions regulations for industries and the ensuing costs that would be passed onto consumers, and asked how the Dems would offset increased costs of electricity for low-income families. I thought it was reasonable and important question, but instead of answering it, the Dems reiterated that CLIMATE CHANGE IS REAL AND WILL KILL US ALL. This happened multiple times.

And yet…the crowd applauded.

Meanwhile, I was confused. I am someone who 100% believes in climate change, what humans have done to contribute to it, and that immediate action must be taken. I too am exasperated when people don’t believe that climate change is real and will kill us all. I completely disagreed with a lot of VCLU’s positions throughout the debate and thought that some of what they said was pretty problematic. It’s not like I am suddenly ready to join their club. However, I did agree with many of their critiques. In this instance, the Dems avoided an important question that they should have had an answer to, and were not even putting together a strong argument about climate change in the meantime, but the majority of the audience enthusiastically cheered and celebrated their responses regardless. That was extremely confusing to me. It was like a football game where people devotedly support their team regardless of how terribly they might be playing. The Dems were not saying much aside from repeating a few “liberal” buzzwords every other sentence, but from the audience’s reaction it was as though they had just scored a touchdown.

This all being said, it is important to acknowledge the challenges of not instantly accepting the opinions of others and actually evaluating what is being said. I certainly struggle with it, and I think that Internet liberalism in particular tends to fall into this trap really easily. Wading though all of the new information, opinions, arguments, and beliefs constantly being presented through the media and online can be confusing and time-consuming. Sometimes it becomes difficult to decipher if you are actually thinking individually and originally, or simply regurgitating the points that others have made before you, and that’s kind of scary. I challenge us to use those critical thinking skills that I know we have as students and apply them to everything, even the words of those that you (think you) agree with. Don’t thoughtlessly accept something that you saw on the Internet as fact, do your own research, consider alternative perspectives, and form your own opinions. And don’t cheer for people who are actually doing a lousy job at debating simply because they share the same political affiliation as you.

Now enjoy this video of Donald Trump, something that we can ALL agree as being objectively ridiculous: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDrfE9I8_hs