Saturday, October 24, 2015

Mary's Special Fin -- Why Representation is Important

A friend of mine and I once ranked our favorite Pixar films. I put Finding Nemo in the top five. While I really love the dialogue and the characters and the overall story, the cherry on top of why I like this Pixar film lies in something kind of silly.

Nemo and I have something in common. We both have a special fin.


When I popped out of my momma, I was on the small side but I also had a left hand that hadn't developed all the way. It's been with me my entire life and is just part of who I am. I do some things differently because of it -- particularly typing, playing piano, and getting stuck with the trumpet. I also really suck at jungle gyms. One of my earliest memories was falling off one -- because my hand wouldn't go all the way around-- and getting the wind knocked out of me. Luckily, it is something small enough that it takes observant person to notice it without me pointing it out. Kids could be mean about it (although kids zeroed in on my weight more) and as an adult, I even had someone I served in the army with said sincerely that my hand "creeped him out". Gee thanks.


I would have to learn how to do some things differently. Like my brother taught me how to guitar but said I would just have to play it backwards like Hendrix. I play Guitar Hero backwards too.

And then there was swimming -- yeah, it is not just the special fin that makes me feel a kinship to a fictional clown fish. I always liked the water and since I grew up on the ocean, I can't remember when I learned how to swim. Of course, mostly in the beginning I was the champion dog-paddler. One summer, I went to a day camp and took swim lessons where I learned actual strokes. My hand caused me to be weaker on one side, so I kept on swimming the crawl in circles or some other form of not straight. The swim teacher told me I probably won't be able to swim properly because of it. My hand was like a broken rudder.

I told my dad about that and he said, in the most incredulous way possible, "Why don't you just push harder with the left hand?!" And I did. Fast forward a couple of years and I gained my lifeguard license. I never used it but I defied what that swim instructor had told me. Now, I freestyle on the level of Haruka Nanase.

Yep. I'm so good, I freestyle in the shower

When I watched Finding Nemo for the first time, I literally screamed. Special fin! Special hand! And Nemo wanted to prove all of them wrong. I mentioned how I got the wind knocked out of me from falling from the jungle gym. What I didn't mention was after, I tried again and cut open my lip when I fell again. That time I stopped. I would dangle and that would be it. But the swimming. Both Nemo and I kicked ass at that.

 The thing is, I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had Finding Nemo as a kid. I never was super ashamed of my hand. I used to brag that telling right from left was super easy for me. I tell Toph-style jokes making fun of it. And the only thing that bothers me is I can't make a heart with my hands.


But there would be days in which my classmates would do something like hand me four pinecones saying they "found my fingers" and other such things that would ruin my day. Or people who meant well but would ask when I showed up to Softball try-outs if I could even catch the ball. Trust me, if I didn't think I could do it or find a way to do it, I wouldn't have shown up.

I know my special hand is not a major set-back. Outside micro-aggressions and impatient teachers, I am not discriminated against. But it is still my special story. It was still a source of frustration to understand how I could never do complex chords for the piano or when I learned how to play the recorder or the Irish whistle, I would hurt my fingers to make sure they'd cover the holes. It was nice to see Nemo suffer from a similar aliment to me and see his all too familiar frustration that more people don't take him seriously, to not see him as weak, or how he could be independent. And most of all, to overcome the self-doubt. I can freestyle. I can serve in the Army. I can get a sharpshooter badge! I found different ways to do all these things. But I had to believe I could do them.

I know a lot of people argue about how this push for diversity is enforcing this "check-list" mentality. I can see where it is coming from. However, as children, one of the ways we learn how to empathize is through the media we consume. And a way we learn to discover/like ourselves is by relating to storylines in the media we consume. But here's the thing. Representation is not just for those who fit into those minorities. It is for the majority -- to be reminded that these people exist. And these people have stories.

Maybe, if Finding Nemo came out during my childhood, my classmates would have said what my roommate in Basic Training said, "Your hand is small! Like Nemo!"And maybe my classmates, just like my roommate, would become my friends. 

Or they could remain psychopaths. Seriously? Pine cones? Go to hell.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

When Antagonists Have a Point

"Examine what is said not he who says it" - Arab Proverb

I've recently got my friends into watching Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra and I've been enjoying listening to their point of view of two of my most favorite shows. One of my friends while talking about Legend of Korra said he didn't think Amon was necessarily a bad guy. Clearly Republic City had no problems discriminating against non-benders. They are underrepresented in the council and the police force. And he saw what Amon was doing wasn't necessarily bad. It wasn't like he was killing people. One of my other friends responded with while all that is true, taking away someone's bending is like someone taking away her artistic ability. 

Equality for All!!
 By the end of the discussion, we could all agree that Republic City and in general the Avatar universe at large does have a non-bender bias. But this is why Korra enforced non-benders into the counsel after the events of the first season and why the police force became more mixed. In a sense, Korra realized that Amon did have a point. Not about taking away someone's bending but that non-benders aren't treated that well.

In my Dungeons and Dragons Episodes post, I talked about why I liked the ending of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons episode in Community. After Pierce spends he entire episode being a complete asshole because he wasn't invited to the game, Neil invites him to the next game. Pierce was mean and a lot of what he said is unforgivable but Neil acknowledges how Pierce was right to feel left out. His methods may have been horrible but it was unfair he was excluded. 

The first Percy Jackson series very much envelopes this idea. Spoilers for the first Percy Jackson series below. 

Ugh! I wanted the movies to be good. I wanted so bad!

Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson series is about the idea that the Greek Gods are still around but have disguised themselves with the times and hide behind other ideas. They, true to themselves, still make nookie with mortals and beget demi-god children who they continue to use as pawns in their various agendas. These demi-gods go to camp on Long Island where they stay in cabins with their brothers and sisters or in the case in which their godly parent doesn't claim them -- the Hermes Cabin. Then, they train so they can protect themselves from monsters because the world is dangerous for demi-gods. 

I mean, they got a really good Luke

The main plot of the series has many different layers. The first layer antagonist is a demi-god of Hermes named Luke Castellan. He has a huge chip on his shoulder that can be tied back to issues with both his parents but in general, he's very out-going and kind of a joker like most Hermes kids are. Percy even regards him as an older brother type in the first book. But Luke is tired of being a pawn of the gods and wants to overthrow them so humans aren't privy to their whims any longer.

Luke forms a coalition with children of minor gods who weren't awarded their own cabin at Camp Halfblood and weren't given any respect and also a large group of demi-gods whose godly parent never claimed them. Together, Luke's army do questionable things and hurt many people.

To be fair, why Luke thought it was a good idea to trust someone who ate his children as opposed to having a dad who is just Nathan Fillion, I'll never know

Ironically, it turns out Luke, who was tired of being the gods' pawn, becomes the literal puppet of a titan -- specifically Kronos. It's kind of heart-breaking when he realizes this and there is no going back. Luke is not a bad person, not really. Yeah, he does questionable things and his methods aren't all that thought out but as they say, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. Luke was the Cabin Leader of the Hermes Cabin and had to see all these demi-gods get shafted by their godly parents or the minor god demi-gods get shafted by demi-gods of "higher parentage". Then there is someone like Ethan Nakamura whose mother, Nemesis took his EYE to give him power. Luke, who is a big brother type, must have really wanted to help these people.

Seriously, Luke's dad is Nathan Fillion and he trusts a guy who ate his kids over Mal from Firefly

After Percy hears about Luke's incredibly sad backstory-- I legit cried during it -- and saw Luke's big brother act was sincere, after Luke's death Percy makes the gods swear on the River Styx to claim their spawn on their arrival to Camp Halfblood. Also, minor god children were given their own cabins and recognized as equals among the other children of the big 12. 

In the end, Percy and his friends not only defeat the villain but also recognize that one of the antagonists had a point. Maybe his methods through the first three books were definitely villainy but Luke's grievances were STILL valid. And that is one of the strengths of the Percy Jackson books. Percy didn't defeat the bad guy and move on. No, he saw that hey maybe the antagonists had a point. The gods are haughty and don't own up to the responsibility of being parents. Every child deserves to be loved. 

I think the lesson of season 1 of Korra, Percy Jackson, and that one episode of community is often one that is overlooked. People too often focus on methods of their enemy without considering what is motivating them. Sure, some villains and antagonists' motivations are purely selfish. They want more land or more gold or more power etc. However, it takes a different kind of hero to look at the antagonists who don't and address those grievances -- not without consequence to the antagonists' choices of course. 

This is a lesson that I feel needs to be employed more often, especially in today's world. When, for instance, we see so many teenagers decide they want to live under the harsh regime of ISIS-- maybe start looking at the grievances they have that caused them to make those choices. Many are probably Luke Castellans -- angry at society and manipulated by a force with different plans. 
Now, to go back to reading Magnus Chase. Holy crap, it's so good.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Mary is Like an Onion -- Why do I like the hot-tempered "angsty" type

Someone asks me, who's your favorite Avatar: The Last Airbender character? I will say Zuko. In fact, my cat's nickname is Zoozoo for that reason. Someone asks me who is my favorite character from the Percy Jackson books. I'll say unblinkingly, Nico di Angelo. Or hey, Mary I just saw on your Goodreads you caught-up with the Raven Cycle, who do you like the most there? Ronan Lynch. No, just kidding, it's Adam. Although, Ronan is just a close second. Just like Frank Zheng is a close second in Percy Jackson universe. And Iroh in Avatar (or Varrick if you include Legend of Korra).

Zuko, Nico, and Adam have a lot in common as characters. People would be quick to label them angsty teenagers and dismiss them unfairly as simply that. Sure, angst is a popular thing to write in books aimed at young adults and often it can be written badly. I find with Zuko, Nico, and Adam, though, that is well-written, thoughtful, and relateable which is why I latch onto them so much. And I want to hug them even when they're being jerks.

There is just something that pulls me in about their stories. All three have complicated histories with their families. Zuko's father is an imperialistic Fire Lord Ozai who scarred and banished him and he has a sociopathic sister, Azula. Adam's father is manipulative and physically abusive. Nico's father is Hades and while he can summon famous ghosts at a whim, he cannot see the ghosts of two people he wants to see the most -- his mother and sister.

But another aspect is all three of them feel like "others". Zuko is a traitor and has to work hard to get the Gaang to trust him. Nico is a demigod of death and the other demigods sense that off him and distance themselves from him. Adam is often pointed out as seeming otherworldly since the events in Book 2 and he is also the poor scholarship kid at a prestigious school where children of senators go. True, all teenagers feel like outsiders so it is usually good to have one character who fits into that.

I think the reason why I like them the most is because of their journey. All three undertake a journey on a path filled with brambles and raised roots. They have to crawl out of ditches, take a tumble down steep hillsides, get scratched by branches. And mostly, they have to do it alone as they learn the lessons they are to learn.

Simba had to go through a literal bramble bush

Zuko is literally scarred by his dad and sent on a quest that Ozai probably said in jest just to get his loser son out of his sight. He has Iroh with him for part of it, but Zuko takes his kind uncle's presence for granted. He is humbled and becomes a better person for it.

After Percy accidentally is responsible for Nico's sister's death, Nico goes on a journey we never see into the underworld. When he comes back, he's a different person. Before, he was an eager, hyper little geek. Now, he's the Ghost King -- kind of dark, a little hot-tempered, awkward, and a little harsh. He feels like an outsider and understands all too well people don't want to be surrounded by a reminder of death that he is. Additionally, as he told Percy in the books, he went through the underworld all by himself with help from no one. But when it comes down to it, once Nico puts his grudges aside, he is a very useful ally and there is part of him that is still gentle and sweet like he was when are first introduced to him.

Lastly, we have Adam Parrish who has an epic argument with Gansey, the King of our Team about privilege. Gansey is the son of a senator while Adam grew up poor and worked his ass off to get out of his home situation, get and keep a scholarship to a prestigious academy, and to support himself. Adam is proud. He doesn't want Gansey's charity (Adam only accepted a gift of a new tie from Gansey because Adam already had a tie so it wasn't charity). Adam feels alone and feels different but he is learning that he's not either of those things.

I think why their journeys speak so much to me is because growing up, I always felt I did things on my own. I always felt like I was alone and never got any help along the way. Some people in my life have observed that I'm successful, which I am modest about. I don't feel successful. Maybe it is because, like Zuko, I am always rushing and think I haven't reached that notch in my own personal timetable (then get frustrated and everything blows up in my face) and I'm behind.

But okay, maybe I have accomplished a lot as I look back on my 33 years of existence but it wasn't easy. It involved a lot of low crawling (sometimes literally!) in the mud, lots of falling down and getting back up, and yes, I did most of it on my own.

As you wish, life, as you wish

 I wanted help sometimes, but I also didn't want to burden my loved ones too. And also, like Adam, sometimes, I just was too proud. And like Zuko, I know had a couple Uncle Irohs floating around as teachers and family members that I didn't come to appreciate until later.

A friend of mine said recently that I was always a person who just made it work. Sure, on the outside, I'm a funny joker type. But on the inside, there are parts of me who is Zuko yelling how everything blows up in my face. There is part of me that is Nico sitting in the crow's nest of the Argo to not bother everyone else with my ewie gooey death aura. And there is part of me like Adam that is just too proud to ask for help. However, like them, I make it work. I find a way to keep myself afloat because I have to.

Thanks, life.

I think that is why I think it is unfair to write off these characters as just Angsty teenagers and also why I like them so much. They are manifestations of ourselves at our worst. And when they emerge from the storm different and better people, it is victory for our own inner selves as we too try to navigate the tricky parts of life.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Mary Gets Political -- Geeky Style


I'm fatigued. I saw there was yet another school shooting in the country I call my home. I try to keep up with the going ons in the world and I care deeply when I see people being exploited or hurt or killed. But when I heard the news of what happened in Oregon yesterday, I just felt tired. And that alarmed me. I mean, I've been unemployed for the last month and a half. I have no reason to be tired. But I just wanted to see it stop happening. And to my surprise, President Obama got on the TV and voiced the fatigue I felt. It is routine. Why has this become routine?

For a long time, I looked the other way when it came to the gun debate or at least just have an internal one of my own. I saw it as a mental health issue (and yeah it is one prong of it). I guess I wasn't being honest with myself in many ways. It is also a cultural issue. And the more I think about it, the more ridiculous the "we need MORE guns" argument sounds. Let me explain in only a way a geek can.

True to my geeky self, whenever there is a mass shooting, I look back to the wisdom of Rurouni Kenshin. Shut up. I think the reason why is Kenshin is in many ways that metaphorical Good Guy With a Gun (tm!). He picks up his sword to protect the weak. That is his thing. However, he uses a reverse-blade sword to do non-lethal damage to his foes. Often, he'll break their fingers in such a way they won't be able to hold a sword properly again and if not, he'll just knock them out so the fuzz can drag them to prison.

But there's the thing about Kenshin: even he can fall victim to the sword's power. Kenshin has two personalities; kooky, spacy Wanderer Kenshin and cold assassin Battousai Kenshin.

Wanderer Kenshin

Battousai Kenshin

 Wanderer Kenshin will knock you out but Battousai Kenshin will slaughter you and think nothing of it. Battousai Kenshin comes out usually when Kenshin faces his past or when the bad guy pushes a button or two (like threatening to kill someone weak). It is an inner battle he must face.

I know Kenshin is fictional, but I feel his story best describes my feelings about the gun debate. There is one powerful quote that is in the picture of the start of the page that best describes how I feel. I kind of look at myself as a pessimist who wants to be an optimist. I want to believe that there are good guys who can neutralize the bad ones but the truth is uglier. Guns are weapons. Guns are tools to use to kill. That is their fundamental purpose. However, I want to believe that good people are out there that can and will stop when another victimizes. But such an occurrence is rare and it is not because more people don't carry. People don't understand the weight of it.

I guess what glares at me the most about the US gun debate is it lacks responsibility. Too few people who own guns seem to really understand that guns are tools designed to kill people. Yes, you can use them to protect people. But we have a gun culture that glorifies them without stopping to fully understand them.  And the sad part is people who claim to understand them are usually the ones that misuse them.

I'm not calling for a full on ban against guns because some people live in areas where it is their livelihood (I'm talking in rural areas) and things like that. But there does need to be some common sense when it comes to regulations. Do you really need more than one? Do you really need a military style weapon when you're not in the military? Things like that. I just feel we need to better educate people about guns and stop glorifying them and if you must have them go through extensive training and background checks. It shouldn't be easy. It SHOULD be a burden.

Are you prepared to potentially take a life accidental or otherwise? What if your gun falls into the wrong hands?

I have a personal relevant story to share. I served in the US Army for four years. When I was in Basic Training, on rifle qualification day I had a misfire. As I was switching out my magazine to go to the next shooting position, I didn't put on the safety and didn't clear the chamber. My finger graced the trigger and a bullet went downrange. The Drill Sergeant picked me up by the straps of my kevlar and threw me in the dirt and screamed at me. I also got smoked for about 30 minutes.

Then, I got an Article-15. I lost a month's pay and lost my rank for a negligent misfire on the range. I expected to get screamed at by the company commander like he reamed into a kid who got slapped with an Article-15 before me. But no. I sat down and he had a talk with me. He told me he had a soldier downrange who accidentally shot a fellow soldier. He couldn't live with himself for what he did and ended up getting discharged for mental health issues. The commander then said that he did not want for me to get into bad habits and find myself in a similar situation. He wanted me to remember what went wrong and to never repeat it because an accident caused by a gun or in this case a rifle is not a reverseable one. It will follow you your entire life.

He was right. Before that, I got comfortable with my M16. Maybe too comfortable. However, our chat forever instilled in me a respect and a sense of caution for the weapon I qualified on. After my hearing, I would never hold a M16 the same way again. Yes, it will protect you in dangerous situations. But you must never, ever forget what its purpose is and when you pull the trigger, you got to be prepared to face the consequences of what happens when that bullet hits the target -- whether it is the point for qualification or ending a life.

That is why the idea that "more guns on the streets will somehow make us safer" is irresponsible. Not everyone is capable of the responsibility needed to carry. And it is not just possessing the skills but the personality and the intent too. 


That is what I mean by responsibility and common sense.  And that is what Kenshin means too. He may admire Kaoru's optimism, but she uses a bamboo sword which is not lethal. He has many times throughout the series chastised those who misuse their power and their swords. People who use the argument that guns protect do not understand its fundamental purpose and probably have never shot a person. And yeah, you can become skilled in the weapon and put it to good use to protect those who cannot or will not carry. That is what military and police forces are supposed to be for.  But just like Battousai Kenshin and problems we have in both the military and police forces, you never know if you are just one quick sudden misunderstanding away of misusing it. And people need to understand that and be weary of it.