Playing Tourist at Home and Abroad

Growing up, I always wanted to be one of those free spirits, traveling the world and finding fulfillment in the incomparable experience of contact with new people and cultures. Travel is a wonderful thing – it opens your mind, it forces you out of your comfort zone, and it enables you to learn and grow in the most enjoyable way.

I have been doing quite a bit of traveling recently. I’ve gone far out of my comfort zone, learning new customs and languages and seeing sites I couldn’t even dream of before seeing more of the world. The United States can claim some of the most beautiful nature and interesting culture, and I am proud to be an American. But even so, I had never seen anything that compares to the Sierra Nevadas of Andalusia. I have seen some lovely churches in the states, some quaint and some spectacular, and yet I must say that nearly every city and town in France boasts a cathedral more spectacular than any you can find in the much-younger Americas.

Not to mention these incredible castles – it’s no wonder that Disney based some of their castles on these French sites – like the island-surrounded-by-quicksand Mont Saint-Michel:

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It is humbling to realize how little of the world I had seen before, and how little I have seen even yet. It has reinvigorated my desire to travel, to experience, to learn and grow.

But travel can also be scary.

You can find plenty of people that speak english in most countries nowadays, but the language barrier can be daunting nonetheless. You feel stupid. You often get odd looks from people, and if you’re a bit anxious like me, that can convince you that everyone knows that you have no idea what you’re doing. It can feel like you don’t belong, and for most of us, belonging is one of the most important feelings.

Besides language, even the most similar cultures have drastic differences in lifestyle and attitude. You’re never going to visit a new country, or even a new part of a country, without having to adapt to a new schedule, a new palette, a new everything. And when you inevitably demonstrate your unfamiliarity, you will often out of place again. That said, these looks you get, these anxieties you have, are rarely if ever as bad as you think: people might notice that you’re not from there, but rarely will they genuinely be judging you so harshly – even if you are a loud, uncultured American like myself.

So it has always been hard for me to accept being a tourist. Like all of us, I want to belong – I want to be a part of the place I’m in, regardless of where I’m from. Foreign visitors are usually noticeable – you see them in your hometown (if you live somewhere touristy, as I did for a number of years) with their fanny-packs and their cameras, walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk and giggling…a part of you knows that they’re having so much fun, that this memorable experience will stay with them, but at least for me, I have to squash down a feeling of superiority. This is my place – look at you, so excited about the path I walk to class every day. Look at you, not belonging. It’s a terrible way to think of people, but I think we all do it at times.

Nevertheless, I have to accept being the tourist. Even playing tourist in my own town – how many years did I live in Washington, DC, and yet only ever visited the Smithsonian a handful of times? There’s so much to see. When you live in a place that people travel great distances to visit, you have an obligation to take advantage of those things. Your hometown can easily become absorbed by your day-to-day: this is where I work, this is where I go to school, where I eat lunch and brush my teeth. This isn’t where I go out and learn and enjoy.

But shouldn’t you be learning and enjoying the most in the place where you’re most comfortable, in the place where you spend the most time? I guarantee you, however long you’ve lived in your current city or your hometown, you do not know everything there is to know. You have not visited every interesting site, restaurant, or brewery.

It’s important to travel. New places will force you to have new experiences, and those experiences will often be much more different from any you could have at home. But it’s equally important to truly understand and experience your own culture – because it is so comfortable and familiar, you probably take it for granted. There may be aspects of it that you’ve never experienced or considered, and even those aspects you are most familiar with, you may never have truly contemplated the nature of it, the way in which it shapes you and those around you.

So I encourage you to travel. I encourage you to experience. And above all, I encourage you to approach every place and culture with that discerning eye, to look for and consider what makes this place unique, what makes it the way it is.

Sunday Sads: The Anesthetic Effect of Netflix or, How Shitty Internet Changed My Life

Netflix (and its ilk) can have serious detrimental effects to your mental health, especially for those who have pre-existing mental health problems.

I should start by saying I love and use Netflix all the time. And Amazon Prime. And Hulu. And the vast collection of thousands of movies and tv shows that my dad has copied from VHS to DVD over the years (don’t tell the FBI).

This isn’t going to be a lecture about ‘getting outside and living your life’, ‘kids these days are always plugged in’, ‘you need to be falling out of a tree at least once a week’, or whatever else people are saying about young people nowadays. But it is important to be aware of the causes and effects of what I’ll call ‘chronic Netflix binging’. For simplicity’s sake I will generally use ‘Netflix’ to refer to any method of binging content, (yeah, Youtube and Vine (RIP) count too).

Netlix isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s a wonderful thing: it facilitates social interactions (and no, I’m not just talking about Netflix and chill), helps you unwind after a long day, and provides easy access to the pop culture that a large portion of our daily discussions and references consist in.

But it’s also an anesthetic.

Many of you probably already know what I’m talking about. When I’m down in the dumps, there are tons of things that could make me feel better, both during and after: reading, writing, crafts, (sometimes) socializing, actually doing the work that’s causing me anxiety…but those things are difficult. Watching a 22-episode season in one sitting might sound difficult, but it’s mindless. It lets you shut off, and when your mind is anxious or upset, that’s exactly what you want. It’s the path of least resistance.

I sometimes sit down with the intention of opening up a book to relax – because reading is relaxing, and healing, and pretty much any positive adjective I could think of – but find myself opening up my computer instead. Now, sometimes shutting off really is what you need – after a long day of classes or work, when your mind is tired, a few episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is just the thing. But when you open up Netflix to escape your negative thoughts, your fears and anxieties and deadlines, you are only hurting yourself.

You are hurting yourself because it works. It numbs you. It makes it all go away – while you’re watching. But when you’re done, or even in the 15-second countdown between episodes, it comes back. And it comes back worse. Your brain says “what are you doing? I’m telling you something is wrong. I’m telling you you need to fix me. Why aren’t you listening?”

Sometimes that voice in my head just perpetuates the cycle. Rather than dealing with my anxieties, whether by taking care of the cause or doing something that genuinely relaxes me, I say “no, brain. Quiet now. I’m pretending you don’t exist.” And I watch another episode to avoid the guilt. And then I feel worse, so I watch another episode to avoid dealing with that.

It got so bad for me a few years back that there were periods during which I slept only every third night or so. Not because I was out all night, not because I was going wild or having a psychotic episode, but because I could only let myself put away the numbing agents when I was sure that I would fall asleep immediately. I was stuck in this vicious, life-ruining cycle of needing to turn myself off.

It’s a strange sort of cognitive dissonance, knowing full well that reading even a light, fun fantasy novel would relax me and make me feel better, and still choosing the option that would leave me tired but wired, and even more anxious than before. It was the path – or rather, the cycle – of least resistance, and it took an incredible amount of self-control to form the habits to break it. To turn my computer off an hour before bed. To log out of Netflix until the paper was done. To take my journal outside where there’s no wifi, or to a different room with no computer.

But with some work, and admittedly the help of internet so shitty it was impossible to watch anything at home, I’ve found ways to genuinely help myself feel better. Not just to turn off the bad feelings for 42 minutes.

Now maybe you’re reading this and thinking “Jesus, do people really have that unhealthy a relationship with Netflix?” Maybe you’ve only ever used Netflix to take a quick break, to unwind a little, to hang out with friends or lovers. If so, good on you. But I encourage you to think about – maybe even make a list of – the things that leave you feeling relaxed and rejuvenated, that help you meet your goals and boost your motivation, that make you feel good about yourself. Then make a list of the things that drain your energy, that leave you with regret, that waste your time. Where does Netflix really fall for you?

I’m not saying delete your account. I’m not even saying don’t watch Netflix every day. I’m just saying that there are good reasons and bad reasons for watching Netflix, good times and bad times to do it. If you’re aware of those, if you can structure your life so that Netflix is just an aid in your enjoyment rather than a crutch to stop yourself from needing to think or feel, then carry on. If not, if you’re like me, I encourage you to make a few changes.

Don’t stop watching. Just think before you watch.

 

 

The Appeal and Importance of Science Fiction

Science fiction has always played a crucial – and often overlooked – role in our society. Flying cars, aliens, space travel and new technology… it’s appealing. It’s fun. But it’s also important.

First of all, science fiction is about new ideas. It’s about hope and belief in the future. In 1889, Jules Vern wrote a story entitled “In the Year 2889”, which describes an incredible futuristic technology: the phonotelephote. What the phonotelephote does is quite simple: it’s a telephone, with an additional ability that allows you to actually see the other person, no matter how far away. Jules Vern believed we were almost a thousand years away from realizing that kind of technology. And now, more than eight centuries earlier than Jules Vern predicted, Facetime and Skype are not only a reality, but rapidly taking the place of standard old phone calls.

The point is, science fiction asks us an important question: What If? What if we could talk face-to-face from thousands of miles away? What if we could explore planets in other galaxies? What if we could re-purpose carbon monoxide and other pollutants into a safe energy source? Science fiction can direct our attention to the possibilities of the future that we ought to look into. It can predict what is possible, long before our science non-fiction arrives there on its own. And it can give us the hope to pursue those things, or the fear to need to.

But science fiction has an even more important social role. It’s a medium through which we can send powerful, even blatant messages without bringing the hammer down on ourselves. In the ’60s, race relations were tense, and a show outright condemning the racist attitudes of so many at that time would never have gotten airtime. So what did Star Trek do? Oh so many things.

First, it featured a diverse crew in its advanced society – a black woman and an asian man played two of the most prominent leadership roles aboard the ship. Nichelle Nichols herself has recounted her memory of when Martin Luther King Jr. himself told her how important her role was. She was not just a tiny step fueled by the civil rights movement – she represented the civil rights movement, and gave so many African-Americans hope for their futures. Nichols also participated in the very first interracial kiss ever aired on television in the United States – with, of course, William Shatner. The episode was nearly banned and rewritten with a hug, but in the end they succeeded.

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Beyond the subversive casting, Star Trek also wrote a number of episodes and story lines that dealt directly with racism, without bringing down the wrath of the networks and the people (especially the south at this time). Spock’s half-human, half-Vulcan status provided an easy medium for social commentary. Spock was often treated or viewed as a heartless monster by humans, and as a weak, over-emotional head-case by Vulcans. In one episode, he was accused of being a devil (because of his pointy ears) and an “inferior being” (because of his large forehead), harkening to the pseudo-scientific studies of the skulls of various races, which were often used to claim that the white race was intellectually and morally superior. But of course, the viewers know for certain that Spock is infinitely more intelligent than the blundering man claiming his inferiority. They also know that Spock is an alien – this is just science fiction.

So Star Trek delivered the message to those who maintained their belief that they were superior on the basis of race: you’re an idiot. Look how dumb you look. Look how wrong you are. And yet, no one was offended – what would have been banned before even reaching the filming stage should they have used a black man in the US instead of an alien to send the same message, was aired and celebrated. It can make its statement and its change, and no one is going to stop it. It’s just science fiction.

Of course, Star Trek could also beat you over the head with their anti-racism message. The episode “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” was a ham-fisted exercise in racism. Its message screams “racism bad! racism stupid!” But again, they don’t talk about black people and white people and asian people – it’s science fiction. They have much larger tools in their toolbox. So they simplify it: one people have black on the right side of their face and white on the left, the other people have black on the left of their face and white on the right. The right-black race ruled over the left-black race, believing themselves superior, until the left-black race rose up against them.

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Now they are at war, destroying themselves over which side of their face is darker. Now the conflict looks even more ridiculous than our own ridiculous skin-color-based racism – these people look exactly the same. The difference is obscure and irrelevant – we know that, the crew knows that, everyone knows that except the people fighting. It’s a metaphor, of course, but it’s also a satire. It’s not just “racism bad”. It’s “racism absurd“. It’s “look at yourselves – look how insane you are”. You could never have said that on mainstream television to the entire United States in the 1960s, but Star Trek did – because they were just aliens. It’s just science fiction.

Now, Star Trek is just an easy example. But all science fiction has the same power – you can create whatever you want. Aliens can look and talk and act however you want, to send whatever message you want. Technology can be as advanced as you want. Science fiction is a realm in which ideas have power, immense power: only with science fiction can you channel all of your hope and frustration and anger and excitement and fear and everything you’ve ever felt and above all, still entertain. It’s “just science fiction”. The message has power, but it’s neat. It’s new. It’s something else.

I think above all, that’s why science fiction appeals to so many of us. It’s not just geek-culture and every kid’s desire to visit space. It’s about the things that matter most to us, that we could drive ourselves crazy thinking about day in and day out, but with an added dash of hope. And usually, an added dash of fun as well.