OLD VISA PHOTOS WILL AWAKEN THE TRAVELER IN YOU

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Rummaging through my passport pouch to double-check its expiration date, I came back up with a set of old unused visa photos. It may be self indulgent but I like to look at these photos once in a while. Since these pictures are usually taken when I’m already on the road somewhere, the face that looks back at me from them is the face of a person who is doing A-Okay.

It is important to reconnect with this version of myself on occasion – this person at the height of self-esteem and mental and physical fitness. This is my most uninhibited and confident “me”. It does not have to mean the wildest / craziest “me” but it is me when I feel the freest.

These snapshots are the faces of a person in perpetual motion. Those super faded Brazilian pictures, they are useless as visa photos but they summon forth the “me” from that day in time. Frozen in a photo, right there, I will always be that traveler with a mondo migraine who was sent on a wild goose chase around Curitiba to hunt down a gazillion different stamps for a Paraguayan visa that is rivaled only by Russian visa in cost, bureaucracy, labor-intensiveness and dark magic involved in its conjuring.

The fact that I remember having a really bad headache is, actually, a very positive indicator of how great my life was at the moment. Living in the American Northeast, my migraines are so regular that they all blur together into one long hellish game of “chicken” between me and pain. If I remember that Brazilian migraine, it means it was a blessedly isolated incident at that time.

The four undamaged copies are of the picture taken in Thailand for a Lao visa. The old-fashioned photographer fetched me a man’s shirt to cover up my tank-topped shoulders for the shot. At that moment, bitterness and disappointment were weighing heavily on my heart and I was going through a “withdrawal” after some major emotional poison. And weed. I had also not smoked weed in a while and, as usual, it was making my dreams a little too intense and exhausting.

Withdrawal is the initiation of recovery and spending an emotionally difficult time on the road can really serve as salve for the hurting soul. On this trip, largely staying away from substances and parties, I got the exact communion with nature and with culture I knew I needed and had set out to find. I returned to the States excited about getting back to work – if that is not the mark of a miraculously transformative vacation, I don’t know what is. And so, I dig looking at stills of myself in that moment – it gives me a positive charge of spirit, transmitted through the memory, transformed into a renewed intention to be like that again.

Looking at these pictures, I am also reminded that youthfulness and beauty are still within reach. After a couple of weeks of being on the road, I usually get a whole second wind of energy. My senses become uncorked from heavy mental grime, my skin tightens, my facial features relax, my back un-pretzels, my neck de-petrifies itself, etc., etc., etc. It’s nice to see a tan, strong, healthy version of myself in those photos – it gives me hope.

By the way, if you can carve out a few months on the road, you can work up to some serious traveler zen bliss. It will give you enough time and distance to look back at what you’ve left behind – as well as think forward to what is waiting for you – and re-evaluate those things in light of being more relaxed and in touch with yourself. Seriously, if you haven’t taken a prolonged solo trip yet, I cannot recommend it enough. Do it as soon as you can, really. It is good for anyone. And it is a vital necessity for some of us 🙂 Take yourself on a “walkabout” and, in weeks / months, you will re-emerge as a more confident, calm, wise, fit and all-around badass version of yourself.

And then, at times when your life has become a little too settled and static and you feel the ole Wanderlust tugging and scratching at your feet, you can dig up those visa pictures and start planning the next adventure.

TV VIOLENCE MAKES ME WANT TO DO VIOLENCE TO MY TV

I have just about lost interest in both TV shows, Game of Thrones and Gotham, as it gets harder to tolerate the gratuitous violence – especially against women – and all the torture porn that is so en vogue right now. I am beginning to feel my quality of life suffer from prolonged exposure to the ceaseless assault on the senses pumped out by what passes for popular entertainment on TV. Lately, I am particularly triggered by sounds of brutality. My husband plays a lot of MMORPG games and watches a lot of HBO dramas and, as I walk back and fourth through the living room, hearing the sounds of gunfire or sword stabbings or women screaming out in pain or ecstasy (sounds exactly the same), I actually feel my blood pressure shoot up.

Anyone who knows me at all will confirm that I am not a person who fears violence. Throughout my life, I have dealt with serious conflicts, threats and quite a few actual assaults. Violence was frequently the language spoken around me and it is a language I understand well.

So it is not that I am too delicate of a flower to handle TV violence.

It is just that most of current TV violence is too shallow, senseless and excessive to be entertaining. It has become anxiety- and rage-inducing instead.

It is just that I do not at all enjoy the feeling of disgusted despisement I get at the sight of humans senselessly pounding each other into meatloaf over ego or breaking each other’s knees and teeth over money. Observing testosterone-blinded males bludgeon other testosterone-blinded males over some imagined testosterone-fueled “beef” is not a spectacle that brightens my day or lifts my spirit.

It is just that I do not enjoy feeling murderous rage at the sight of a yet another stereotypically powerful, clever male victimizing a yet another stereotypically pathetic, easily terrorizable female. And murderous rage is the only way to describe the reaction these viewing experiences summon in me. I want to grab a gun, a machete, a tazer – anything destructive – and go find myself a sexual predator to shoot, slash and electrocute. Are those the feelings of a happy, relaxed person? Do I really need to cultivate thoughts and emotions of sadistic hatefulness in myself? Do you?

I don’t know about you, but there are enough real stressors in my life to make me go out of my way to avoid artificial ones, especially when they pose as “entertainment” and take up my valuable downtime. I feel angry and helpless enough in the face of real, everyday cruelty and humanitarian disasters around the world. Why are we, as a society, so greedy for graphic displays of physical, psychological and sexual abuse – to the point that we are willing to spend our hard-earned money and precious leisure time watching realistic enactments of torture and degradation?

To be clear, I am criticizing gratuitous violence – not the violence necessary to show in order to tell the story – but the dragged out, over-the-top torture scenes, the gore for the sake of gore, the endlessly blurred boundaries between sex and violence — the dumb junk that dominates our entertainment media. There is nothing original about these trite misogynistic tropes and nothing exciting or engaging about the formulaic, one-dimensional, barely-there narratives, with just enough “story” to justify all the “action”. The glorification of slaughter, torture and sexual assault (on women in particular) keeps forcefully broadcasting the cultural message that constantly watching human beings get brutalized – complete with a dramatic  soundtrack of screaming in pain, sobbing in fear, pleading for life, etc. – is a perfectly normal, healthy and enjoyable pastime.

———- JESUS’ REVENGE ———-

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Judas: Well, we’re here.

Peter: Yes, just as you asked. What’s up?

Jesus: Heeey, guys!! Long time – no see, eh? Come, sit. Sit! Let’s get some… Waiter! Three beers please! How’ve you guys been, what’s new?

Peter: Uh, good, I guess. Same old, you know. I mean, you know how we are, man.

Judas: Yeah, I’m a little surprised you wanted to hang out, after, you know, everything.

Peter: I mean, I denied you, he betrayed you, you know? Plus – the last time we saw you, you swore you’d get us back for this.

Jesus: What? Noooo!! Guuuuys!!! It’s all water under the bridge now! Don’t you think it’s time we got over it and moved on? I know I have.

Judas: Weeeell, it’s a bit hard to move on when you are engulfed in eternal hellfire. Old Pete here can’t be having much success with getting over it either – your Dad sorta made it a point that he never lives the whole incident down by emblazoning a giant “JESUS DENIER” sign on his face.

Peter: [bashfully fingers the never-healing scabs on his forehead] I deserved it, I know. But afterlife hasn’t been the same, you can imagine. It just makes people uncomfortable. Hard to make new friends and stuff.

Judas: But we’re glad you’re putting the past behind you, J. Good for you!

Jesus: [sheepishly] Yesss. Good for me indeed. [rubs hands together] Say… fellas? I’m gonna run to the little boys’ room for a minute. You just take a load off and enjoy your beers, ok? [leaves the booth]

Judas: [exchanges puzzled looks with Peter] What do you make of this, Pete? Is he really trying to patch things up with us?

Peter: Nah, man, come on, you know him better than that. He’s been holding a grudge for millennia. This is probably his attempt to teach us a lesson and lord his moral superiority. He’s been gunning for it for a while now.

Judas: [sighs] You’d think that being Jesus Christ would be enough to feel good about oneself, right?  But his self-esteem’s been shit since that incident with Madge.

Peter: You mean when he couldn’t get it up that one time and she laughed at him? Yeah, I remember that! Messed ‘em up for life, that’s for sure.

Judas: I bet he’s still plotting payback on her too. What do you think he’s gonna try to do to us?

Peter: You know how he is, man. Petty, no imagination, eye-for-an-eye type of thing.

Judas: Sounds about right. You know, it always cracks me up how he’s known for selflessly “turning the other cheek” to aggressors. If they only found out the real story behind that saying… [both laugh and raise their beers. Jesus returns to the booth]

Jesus: How are we doing over here? Having fun?

Peter: Yeah, man, it’s good to see you. So, what’s happening with you?

Jesus: Oh, who cares about little old me, I’m just happy to see my old pals. Oh, excuse me – Waiter, check please! Anyway, Judas old pal, I’ve been meaning to tell you. I kinda took your name and all contact and personal information and sold it to third party advertisers. [looks intently at Judas to see his reaction]

Judas: Oookaaay…

Jesus: BAM!!! How do you feel about that?

Judas: Uh, I…

Jesus: And do you wanna know how much I got paid for it? [jumps up from his seat, bobbing up and down excitedly with his finger in Judas’ face] Thirty bucks, motherfucker, thirty bucks!!! How does it feel now, huh?? Burns, doesn’t it?

Judas: [exchanges a weary eyeroll with Peter] Not as much as the colossal bonfire to which your Dad sentenced me to burn for all eternity… Man, I told you a million times, I’m really sorry about all that.

Jesus: [growing more agitated] Not sorry enough, asshole, not sorry enough! The shock I received…

Judas: What shock??? You KNEW I was going to betray you, you KNEW Pete was gonna deny knowing you, you KNEW you were going to die a horrible death as a purely symbolic gesture!!! You knew it because your abusive father masterminded the whole thing and somehow got you to go along with it!

Jesus: [frenzied, spittle flying everywhere] DON’T TALK ABOUT MY DAD LIKE THAT!!! My Dad loves me very, very much! He had to hurt me to make sure I stay a good boy. And it worked, it worked, I AM a good boy!!! Oh, good, the check is here. I got this, I got this, you guys. Let’s see, three beers… Hmmm, strange. There are three beers here. I know I drank one, I know Judas drank one but who drank the third beer??

Peter: You know I did, man.

Jesus: You? And who are you, pray tell? Huh?? Who are you?

Peter: It was me – Pete. I know what you’re trying to do, J, and it’s not…

Jesus: Pete?? Who is Pete?? Who THE FUCK is this Pete??? I don’t know no stinking Pete!!! [screams out into the bar] DOES ANYONE HERE KNOW A PETE, ‘CAUSE I SURE AS HELL DON’T KNOW NO FUCKING PETE!!!!!!!!

Peter: Ok, man, you’ve made your point…

Jesus: I sure did, you don’t even know how much!!! What, are you sad now? Are the little betrayer and denier gonna cry now? Awww!! That’s right, bitches, now y’all know how I felt!!! Stings, doesn’t it? Boo-ya!! That’s the sweet taste of justice!

Judas: [stands up from the booth] Wow, dude, okay, you really showed us the error of our ways! ‘Cause life of guilt, followed by suicide, followed by afterlife of inextinguishable pain isn’t punishment enough, right? ‘Cause I wasn’t – just like you – an instrument in the hands of that narcissistic psychopath deity you call Father. You know He used all of us, right? And for what – to make “statements” that made no friggin’ sense to anyone but His own deranged ego? He predestined both, myself and Pete here, to assist Him in getting you murdered and now, we are paying for it as if it had been our idea and choice all along. Forget you! You’re just as self-absorbed and deluded as your Old Man.

Jesus: Awwww! Booooo-fuckin-hooooo! Whatever, bro! Have a nice afterlife. NOT!! [Jesus’ cell phone rings] Oh! Gotta fly, suckers. Got a hot date with Madge – remember her? We’re going out and then I’m gonna take her home and fuck her brains out and stop and leave juuuuust before she gets off! That’ll show her! How do you like them blueballs, bitch!

Judas: OK, I’m outta here. Eternal hellfire’s got nothing on this torture. See you later, Pete. And Jesus – grow up. [walks out of the bar]

Jesus: [yells after him] ME grow up??? No, YOU grow up maaaan, YOU FUCKING GROW UP!!! [turns to Peter who is still sitting in the booth] What are you gawking at, jerkface?

Peter: Nothing, man, nothing. Just recalling the old days, that’s all.

Jesus: Well, fucking stop it! If it weren’t for me, there’d be no old days, got it? [takes a swig from the beer bottle, then shatters it against the floor] Imma go take a dump and then get me some tail. Smell you later, loser. Hope you learned your lesson. [crumples up and tosses the unpaid bill in Peter’s face, walks out of the bar]

Peter: [takes a long, savoring sip of his beer, grinning nostalgically] Classic Jesus.

*curtain*

IN THE SEARCH FOR THE RIGHT GENDER-NEUTRAL PRONOUN, THE TERM “THEY” WILL DO FOR NOW

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As a sociologist, linguist and writer, I have searched high and low for a gender-neutral pronoun to replace the sexist convention of using “he” to mean “one person”. In the recent decades, “he or she” has gained momentum as the more inclusive substitute, but, as any writer will tell you, it is awkward and cumbersome to maneuver so many words around. We need a single-word solution. And so, having agonized over this dilemma for too long, I, hereby, throw in the towel and contest that it is time to stop holding out for the ideal candidate and accept “they” as a formal gender-neutral pronoun, grammarians be damned.

I have arrived at this conclusion because:

  • After years of trying, we are yet to come up with a new gender-neutral term that is embraced by the public and incorporated into its active vocabulary.
  • Try as we might, there is no magic recipe to make the old gendered pronouns work without bias.
  • Many, if not most, of us are already informally using “they” in speech, when we mean “he or she”.

Frustrated by the lack of a designated un-gendered pronoun, many academics, journalists and public figures started the practice of alternating “she” and “he” throughout a speech or an article – for the sake of fairness. Others dropped “he” entirely and use only “she” – as if to compensate for all the centuries of exclusive use of “he”.

These are all steps in the right direction – but more so symbolically and politically than pragmatically. Alternating “he” and “she” forces you to keep a count of how many of each you use – and you still don’t escape from having to prioritize one gender over another (will the first mention be “he” or “she”?). Our gender-neutral pronouns should not require having to “keep score”: it is too labor-intensive for the brain and, I’ll bet, provokes unconscious anxiety. Likewise, letting go of the masculine pronoun altogether and only using “she” may feel like justified revenge but is, ultimately, a counter-productive measure that succeeds only in flipping the power imbalance, as opposed to doing away with it. It reinforces the old framework of dominance and visibility of one gender over another – a trend we are trying to fix, not perpetuate.

This is why the term “they” is so useful: it made its way into our speech as a substitute for “he or she” completely organically! In colloquial conversation and on the internet, “they” has been long appropriated by people as the go-to gender-neutral term and even the ever-vigilant “grammar police” on message boards does not usually attack it – probably because they recognize the precious utility of this word in this context.

The word “they”, however, is yet to be accepted as a “standard” in formal / journalistic / academic writing as many scholars take offense to such flippant misuse of language. When I used “they” in my grad school writings, I was given a stern talking to by my academic advisor who found it highly objectionable. He and I have, since, gone back and forth on this issue and, the last time we spoke about it, he said something along the lines of: “I know young people use it and I know that it’s becoming dominant and it will eventually take over completely but, by then, I will mercifully be in my grave.” Hearing him say that made me sad because I wished him a long and happy life but really did not want to wait so long for freedom and equality in linguistic expression.

Being a semantic nit-picker myself, I would not have gone with “they” either, had there been any reasonable selection to choose from – but, for lack of better ideas, it is all we have. I hope my former advisor comes to understand that this is not an instance when half-literate knuckleheads want to butcher the English language with lazy word misappropriation. It is just that a time has come for a gender-neutral pronoun to take over the dated gendered word and all of us brilliant scholar / artist / teacher minds still have not been able to invent one that would be naturally assimilated into speech by the average person.

Maybe we will, in time, engineer the perfect gender-neutral pronoun – but let’s not wait until then to leave the gendered ones behind. It is not easy to fabricate a new cultural trend and cause a mental shift in a huge number of people. — well, without applying draconian dictatorial measures, that is. Social philosophers, scientists and policy makers around the world are laboring to develop new inter-gender terms, rooted in real linguistic systems, designed to be short and made up of familiar sounds. But the real challenge is to get people to consistently use them: to, first, agree that this new word is worth the pain of switching to it and, then, to actually start using it all the time. File it under “good luck with that.” I really do wish us all luck in figuring out the new, better gender-neutral pronoun but, in the meanwhile, let’s give “they” the green light.

In conclusion, the fact that the word “they” somehow became the de facto gender-neutral term with the general population is a gift to us from our evolving language that must be celebrated and gratefully taken advantage of. A problem that has been extremely difficult to correct by artificial involvement solved itself all on its own!! Don’t fight it – run with it.