Tag Archives: digression

A short poem, a long ramble

雲おりおり
人をやすめる
月見かな
“Occasional clouds
bring a person respite from
gazing at the moon.”
– Matsuo Bashō, 1644-1694 (my translation)

Poetry is a secret vice of mine, though one about which I’m involuntarily selective. Much as I’d like very much to expose myself to more poetry in the hope of discovering new and emotive mental fodder, my experience with doing so in the past has been that the moments of true enjoyment of poetry are few and very far between. When I read prose, very often I can find a wide range of material I like within a certain genre, or a specific author’s style and expression will enrapture my imagination. This latter is particularly true of some authors. When I first read Stephen King – my first exposure was The Shining, I think – his glorious, intrusive-thoughts writing style and my imaginative faculty slotted together like the two halves of a giant clam’s shell, summoning imagery in my mind’s eye that was rich, vivid, entirely memorable; he takes his craft extremely seriously and has produced fine, engaging prose as a result. Similarly, the power and fluidity of expression emanating from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novel series captured me more or less immediately as I began to read A Game of Thrones, such that after finishing it I immediately went out to purchase every subsequent available book in the series. (And this was no small feat, as I was struggling with a deep period of depression at that point and had read no new fiction in more than two years: virtually unthinkable, since as an undergrad there were long stretches – and I’m talking months and years on end – where I’d buy and read two or three novels a week, every week, almost without fail. The woman who ran the book stall at the flea market used to know me by name, and moreover, I knew hers too. Gwen. I probably bought upwards of four hundred books from her over the course of a few years.) Others whose books I’d read more or less on the strength of their author’s name are Robert Silverberg, Tim Willocks, and Isaac Asimov, all of whose writing styles and subject matters I find a pleasure to engage with.

But with poetry – and I’m mystified as to just why this is – it’s more that a specific poem has to speak to me somehow on more than one level at a time. It’s not enough to just be by a poet whose style I happen to like; I may love one of a poet’s works, and loathe the next even if it’s similar in subject matter, style, tone. A poem has to move past intellectually objective criteria to touch me emotionally through its form, through its topic, through its power to evoke imagery, through the context in which I first heard it. That doesn’t mean, of course, that only poems of one specific form and subject are eligible for this. I love complex full rhymes just as much as half-rhyme and blank verse, I’ve been touched by epic just as much as by haiku. Indeed, what I think is one of the finest pieces of English-language poetry of the last hundred years isn’t what many would think of as a “poem” at all: it’s Eminem’s Lose Yourself, which is not only a deeply emotional story delivered with richly evocative language, but is also a mindblowing tour de force of rhyme and vocalic assonance so complex that it defies straightforward analysis and makes Alexander Pope’s poetry look like it was written by a primary schooler. But I’m also enamoured of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (my love of the poem was what drove me to translate it into rhyming Klingon verse, my longest complete composition in the language), which has a much simpler rhyme scheme and a much more rigid metre, but expresses itself with such vibrant and almost psychedelic imagery that it conjures its supernatural and deathly visions effortlessly – due, no doubt, to Coleridge also being a well-known and incorrigible dope fiend. The fact that the Rime‘s so widely quoted and alluded to means it’s got some historical importance, as well: an albatross around one’s neck; water, water, everywhere; and so forth. There are several other poems I enjoy just as much – such as John Donne’s A Fever, William Blake’s The Tyger, A. B. Paterson’s Been There Before. And the haiku I quote above is one of these.

It’s a classical Japanese haiku, and such is how I’ve rendered it in the translation above as well – a rigid sequence of three lines in five, seven, and five morae (though the original has six in the first line). The clean minimalism of the haiku format has always appealed to me, though as I don’t read Japanese except with the aid of a dictionary and kana charts, it’s an arduous task for me to access most classics of the genre. And I know virtually nothing of Bashō beyond the fact that he’s widely acknowledged as one of the greatest poets of premodern Japan, and even less about his poetry specifically. This haiku holds meaning to me for other reasons. To begin with, it’s a philosophically interesting idea to hold onto: the idea that not all of life is brightness and beauty and illumination, and that the coming of occasional periods of darkness is natural, to be expected, and perhaps can help one to better appreciate those times when the beauty and brightness shine forth most radiantly, filling one’s life with light. In Japanese culture the moon is also a symbol of autumn (for some reason best known to someone else), and in this poem I think the moon’s own inherent quality of flux in its constant waxing and waning, combined with its cultural embodiment of the season of turning leaves, probably reflect the Zen Buddhist concept of anityatā “impermanence”. This is the idea that nothing stays the same forever, and here Bashō seems to imply that anityatā isn’t to be avoided, but to be embraced – that even the clouds cloaking the moon’s luminescence aren’t inherently bad and may themselves be fruitfully considered from a positive perspective instead (if you’ll permit me a moment of mixed metaphysics):

五色令人目盲。
五音令人耳聾。
五味令人口爽。
“Too much color dazzles the eye.
Too much noise deafens the ear.
Too much flavor deadens the taste.”
– Agnieszka Solska (transl.), Daodejing 12.1-3

But the reason I know of this haiku isn’t because of its usefulness as an illustration of how one might see the silver lining in the clouds (…as it were). Rather, it had been printed on the program of the memorial service for an old friend and mentor, Tom Loy, back in 2005. Tom was a renowned lecturer in archæology at my alma mater (the only scientist mentioned by name in both the book and the film of Jurassic Park, no less); a great polymath, but more importantly a man I was proud to call friend, his theoretical perspectives on the discipline and friendly openness to fellow seekers of knowledge – whether full professors or lowly undergrads – have basically informed the entire direction of my professional development. I was enormously honoured to have been asked to deliver a eulogy at his memorial service, since no other archæologist has influenced me more radically. More importantly, Tom was also a Buddhist, and even in his archæological lectures he taught the utility of anityatā (though never referring to it as such in his lectures) for conceptualising cultural change, emphasising that even in periods of what may appear in the archæological record to be cultural stasis, people constantly die and are replaced, tools constantly broken and are repaired, buildings constantly decay and are rebuilt; what appears to be stasis is only what the Yijing categorises as a distinct type of change, the 不易 bùyì ‘non-change’ that comprises the continuous activities necessary to maintain a diachronically ‘steady state’ or ‘permanence’.

But I digress. (My apologies. Tom never published these perspectives before his unexpected death, so I rarely get the opportunity to discuss them or how they’ve impacted upon my own conceptualisation of how to do archæology.) In any case, Tom’s memorial service was a Buddhist one, and the program bore another translation of this haiku on the back, just above the standard funerary verse from the Mahā-Sudassana Sutra; it’s only just recently that I came across my copy of the program again, unearthing it from a drawer while searching for something else entirely. The first time I saw this haiku back in 2005, it was singularly appropriate to Tom’s death already as a reminder of the evanescence of things, but having seen it anew it’s stirred up a diachronic maelstrom of emotions. I relate to it in an entirely new way now, after my struggles with anxiety and depression ramped up in earnest, but at the same time the poem still serves as a conceptual memento of my friendship with Tom and of the emotions surrounding his death. And the novel set of feelings that’s been awakened clicks snugly, almost seamlessly, into the older emotions; just as it did back then, the poem still reminds me that the idea of the impermanence of experiences and of things isn’t only to be looked at through pessimistic eyes. It’s for just that reason that I was moved to compose a new translation of the original Japanese haiku – the English translation that’s at the beginning of this post – to share with a dear friend earlier in the week, a friend who’s also suffering through some psychologically rough times. For us sufferers of anxiety and depression, much of the time it’s hard to maintain optimism and hold onto the idea that though it might seem like good times and pleasant feelings are gone for good, bad times and unpleasant feelings are just as impermanent, are just as much anityā. So I wanted to share this haiku with her, and now with anyone else who might read it here on my blog; not just because it’s one of my favourite pieces of poetry, appealing to me in its form, its subject matter, and in the hidden depth of its meaning, but because it’s been helpful to me as a mental tool. I’ll be well pleased if it can serve as such for anyone else.

Why superheroes anyway?

So this afternoon my dear friend and I were jawing at length about a wide range of topics, as we’re both wont to do – I have a dreadful habit of digressing from an original subject onto a sequence of tangential topics, each one related to the last but altogether forming a flimsy daisy-chain that can take a conversation parsecs away from the original subject. And she has a habit of letting me do so. (One of the many things I’m grateful for in my very best friends is this tolerance of my ridiculous digressions.) I’m not entirely sure how it is our conversation came to alight on the topic of superhero movies in particular, but such was the subject we found ourselves nattering about. Part of the conversation came from my personal state of had-it-up-to-here-ness with the fulminant rash of superhero movies that have erupted all over the Western cinema over the last ten years. If it’s not a Batman film, it’s a Captain America film, and if it’s not Captain America it’s Spiderman, and if not Spiderman it’s Thor, or the Hulk, or Wonder Woman, or Superman, or the Green Lantern, or Deadpool, or Aquaman, or Iron Man, or some ensemble cast outing in the form of the Avengers, or the X-Men, or the Justice League, or the Suicide Squad, or the Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not against any individual one of these superheroes as a storytelling vehicle – indeed, I’m quite the fan of the X-Men film franchise in particular – but I suppose I’m feeling rather inundated by the mêlée being waged between Marvel and DC in the last few years, a clash of titans in a duel with the chosen weapons of superhero films at ten paces. Recent cinematic releases that have piqued my interest or caught my fascination have been relatively few; the last few films I saw at the cinema were Star Trek: Beyond, The Hateful Eight, and (though not by specifically my selection) Kung Fu Panda 3. Trailers for the upcoming science-fiction offering Arrival (such as this one) are also spectacular and particularly tantalising – admittedly, I do love me a good alien invasion film, and the promise of a linguist as main character, combined with an examination of the challenges of establishing meaningful contact with an alien species and a hefty dose of Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, seems a wonderful opportunity to mix good sci-fi with good hard science and philosophy in a way that one doesn’t see very often in cinema these days.

But I digress again. You’ve really got to get better at stopping me from this. Where was I? Superhero films. Yes. Well, my friend and I were discussing this societal outbreak of superheroism in the cinema, and considering what the appeal of this broad genre is to the masses, if it’s not simply about cashing in quickly and effectively on firmly-established franchises – with the release of Doctor Strange later this year, even Marvel alone will have been behind no less than 21 films in the last five years – or about allowing filmmakers to engage in scenery porn on the grand scale, à la Michael Bay, while not concerning themselves too deeply with the telling of a complicated or rich story, also à la Michael Bay. (And to be honest, I do suspect both of these factors are in play nevertheless. The irrepressible grinding of Fróði’s mill, churning out gold aplenty for its owner.) At first, I joked with my friend that people watch superhero movies to get a kick out of watching awesome people be awesome in someone else’s face, or watching the overcompensation of broken people (as most superheroes are in some way or another – Deadpool’s scarring, Batman’s daddy-and-mummy issues, Superman’s isolation as a Kryptonian among humans, the Green Lantern trying to recover from a disappointingly shithouse first movie). But then the thought hit us that perhaps the brokenness is a truly important aspect of what many people relate to in the superhero genre, broadly construed. Maybe there are some people who go to watch purely for the wacky shenanigans or for particular characterisations; for Bruce Wayne and Alfred’s repartee in various Batman incarnations, for Sir Patrick Stewart’s honey-gold baritone or Hugh Jackman’s irreverence in X-Men, to fawn over Bandicoot Crumplysnitch Benedict Cumberbatch in Doctor Strange.

(To disappear onto another tangent for a moment, what is it about Bumblewump Cambrian that people are so desperately enamoured with? He’s certainly a good actor, it’s true; his portrayal of Alan Turing in The Imitation Game was wonderful, I thought, and while his Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy was a little too campy to hold a candle to the Sméagol of Andy Serkis – whose failure to garner even one Oscar nomination for the role is, I believe, the greatest shame in the history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – Busticle Candygram’s dragon was nevertheless well portrayed. But still, I’ve seen roles in which his acting left me cold, such as his Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness – or should I say, Star Trek II 2: Electric Boogaloo. In fairness, although I was grateful as always to see more tlhIngan Hol depicted on screen, fuckin’ J. J. Abrams and his fuckin’ lens flare are partly to blame for that for doing a blatant Wrath of Khan retread that neither needed to be nor should have been done, and even with great direction, Ricardo Montalbán is a hard Khan to follow. But the Khan of Into Darkness was a cold, implausible, cardboard cutout of a villain. Ultimately, I just don’t see the extraordinary actor in Bulbasaur Charizard that puts him so far above the rest. I’m sorry to all his fans for that. Anyway.)

But instead, what we came up with was a more serious idea: perhaps there are many people that go to superhero movies not to be entertained by watching awesome superheroes do awesome-superhero shit, but to watch broken people rise above their brokenness and use those very qualities that set them apart from society to do what they can towards making life better for the very society that they are separated from. This is one of the reasons I love the X-Men franchise so much: it’s focused very firmly on serving as allegory for people who are different, people who are ostracised for being strange and bizarre and threatening and dangerous, but who still work hard at using their peculiar set of talents to make the world a better place not only for those like them, but for all people. Do some people go to superhero movies for precisely this reason? To take their brokenness and their damage into the theatre and use them, subconsciously or no, to relate to the hero? To help them relate to the possibility that their own brokenness and their own damage may become a source of their own strength as well, if they can learn how to harness it? I can’t say that I know the answer to this question, but it strikes me as a thoroughly intriguing possibility, and gives a new perspective – that I hadn’t previously given thought to – on the value of the superhero movie as entertainment.

22 Days of Musing: 10

10. The Big Bad Tale.

Two days ago I noted that often, those who need help most desperately are those least able to see any way out of their own private hell. Sometimes, though, the crash to the bottom of the pit can be so rapid, so deep and severe, that it becomes easier to see the necessity for assistance. So following on from yesterday’s scene-setting, tonight I’d like to – well, not like to, but I will – reflect upon the darkest single time in my entire life: the time when I first realised that I needed psychological help. (I speak this way only in the interest of candour; I apologise in advance for parts of this that will no doubt come across as melodramatic.) Yesterday I talked about first recognising depression in myself in 2008, and that many (though by no means all) of my subsequent experiences with depression would, like this first one, have at least something to do with the emotions surrounding romantic attraction. Let me explain: when I fall for someone romantically, I have a habit of letting those feelings grow more deeply than I should, meaning that when those feelings are removed they don’t slide out neatly like a cork from a bottle; it’s rather more like the uprooting of a tree, tearing away not only the feelings’ roots, but also taking little pieces of my heart with them and leaving raw and gaping wounds behind. It’s happened more times than I care to count, and isn’t helped by the fact that I find it difficult to perceive the subtle cues that most people use to signal romantic interest, so often I think someone might be interested romantically when they’re in fact just very friendly, or have particularly extroverted personalities, or whatever else. Because my dysfunctional romantic sense has sought out those connections and been disappointed so many times, I suppose it’s logical that eventually my subconscious would come to use depression as a means to seal off those psychic wounds: perhaps helping to prevent me from feeling the pain associated with sorrow, loss, grief, rejection.

And so it goes, and so it went also in late 2010, at a conference where I met a fellow archaeologist (I swore an oath to commit her name to damnatio memoriae both for my mental health and for her privacy, an oath I’ve broken only on specific request from previous partners), just finishing her honours. We’d spent the last night of the conference lying on the grass under the stars, talking and holding hands. When we had to leave the next morning, we exchanged contact details, and within a week she was already talking about flying to Brisbane to see me. Over the course of six weeks leading into early January, we exchanged hundreds of messages, chatted or spoke on the phone every single day, and she spoke of her intentions and hopes for us in a manner loud and clear that even my incompetent romantic antennae received. But the day she arrived here, she and I and some mutual friends had a barbeque and an overnight stay at a friend’s place, and after I left the following morning, it was as though extraterrestrials had abducted her, leaving behind a doppelgänger. She stopped responding to messages, she claimed she was feeling ill, she put off us spending one-on-one time, she reneged on coming to stay at my house, she wouldn’t engage with me while we were on a group trip to Dreamworld with our friends, and within a week she finally sent a message with the tired, sickening old saws that turn up on Internet listicles of breakup clichés (and all at once, into the bargain): saying how much I reminded her of her brother (excuse number 3 – bing!), that it was her and not me (excuse number 2 – bing!), that we both needed to focus on uni (excuse number 1 – bing!), and she just wasn’t ready for a relationship at all at that point (excuse number 9 – bing!); she also assured me she’d answer any questions I had about the breakup. Because she subsequently didn’t respond to any of my questions, though, I soon sought advice from a mutual friend to determine whether I’d done something wrong. And suddenly, I did get a response: a page of enraged text lashing out at me about how I’d betrayed her trust and how I’d mistreated her by going behind her back. It was through this period of about a week that I fell headlong into a pit the likes of which I’d never experienced. Cast downwards at first by her sudden cooling towards me and the anxiety, confusion, sadness and disappointment they caused – just before she arrived I had decided to summon the strength to tell her about my feelings of gender variance (at least such as I understood them at the time), something that at that point I had shared with no-one – her angry message ignited a rocket rushing me swiftly down through a blackness into which light shone not at all, the very pit of Apollyon. I had just enough emotional strength left to send a single email to her to respond to her anger, speak in my own defence, and tell her I thought it would be best if we didn’t speak for a while. And for two weeks I lay on a futon, picking myself up only to use the toilet; while awake I stared at the television, not really watching it at all, as all 256 episodes of M*A*S*H (120-odd hours of television) played back-to-back from my hard drive. The only emotion that touched me was utter despair. Except when a family dinner had been prepared, I drank only water and ate nothing. I lost five kilos over those two weeks and by the end of the second week I could clearly see – intellectually, at least – that this was in practice coming close to a depressive catatonia and that I wouldn’t be able to climb out of this pit on my own. That was when I realised I needed help, and I’ll tell you more tomorrow about how I began to act in seeking it.

“Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, ‘Where have I gone wrong?’ Then a voice says to me, ‘This is going to take more than one night.'”
– Charles M. Schulz

To Pride and back

Aaaaaand this blog post is going to be written slowly indeed: partly from my desk, and partly from a prone position on the polished hardwood floor that I’ve spent much of the last few days on, a position that I’m altogether too familiar with over the course of many years and that I’m utterly sick and fucking tired of. Anyone who’s known me for even a relatively short period of time knows about the intermittent but persistent issues I’ve had with back pain over the course of the last nine years, and every once in a while this unwelcome visitor pokes its head in the door again, and screams out “YOUR PAIN IS BACK! YOUR BACK IS PAIN!” like a bad punster at a shitty open mic night. For those that don’t know the backstory, these are all indirect consequences of having ruptured two spinal discs back in 2007, an injury for which I eventually underwent surgery (I still have the fragment of disc – my father set it in a little resin cabochon while I was still convalescing, and I keep it now in a small mosaic box I bought in Damascus some years ago, a vessel that’s perfectly fitting in both senses of that word). I’ll show you the MRI pictures one of these days; they’re fairly spectacular examples of disc injury. Although I’ve had several relapses in the intervening time – some requiring several sessions of physiotherapy, and one requiring an intraspinal cortisone injection – it’s never again been so severe as it was that first time around. It often takes me by surprise yet again that it happened so very long ago. Nine years. It seems almost an eternity: so much has taken place, has changed, has become different in the last nine years. But I digress. (I feel it’s important to warn you, if you haven’t already noticed, that I’m very good at going off onto long and sometimes superficially bizarre tangents, and you shall have to get yourself used to that, one way or another.)

In any case, while I’ve been feeling this phase of back pain slowly creeping up on me over the last couple of weeks, I did aggravate it further by going out to my city’s Pride parade this last Saturday, but had I known I was going to further intensify my back pain by doing so, it would have made not the slightest lick of difference to whether I went or not. Although I’ve never before attended a Pride parade (having been more or less firmly in the closet in previous years, of course), not only did I feel the need to attend to show my support – particularly given the fact that issues of equal rights for the QUILTBAG community are in the forefront of Australian sociopolitical discourse right now – but I felt a driving wish, an active desire, to go: to throw my weight behind the entire Brisbane queer community, to assist in showing the entire city that we exist, that we are here and we are angry and we are hurt and we are pushing with all of our might to move towards equal treatment and equal rights both within the law and within broader society. And the turnout to the Pride parade here showed that, I think. I was deeply anxious about going at all, and this anxiety I managed to conquer only with the assistance of a good friend who also pushed with great strength through her own anxiety to join me, but both of us were in agreement afterwards that the event was well worth the angst we had to work our way through. We didn’t march in the parade, preferring only to attend the rally and then go for lunch at a gyōza place I like thereafter, but the rally itself was brilliant. People were out in force, thousands of queer people crowding the streets in casual wear and suits and shirtless, ace and gay and lesbian and trans and bi folk wearing feathered wings and rainbow suspenders and garish makeup (though I’ve never been one for costuming, I couldn’t stop myself doing my own nails in rainbow tones as an explicit show of my own support). In my own life I’ve known so very few out queer folk: nobody in my own family, even my extended family (and on both sides,  no less), has ever so much as come out as bisexual, let alone transgender, and this lack of queer role models in my life has been a major reason why it took me so long to come to terms with my own issues of identity. And so it was richly heartening, I confess, to see so many queer people concentrated in one place, all of us there to celebrate our identities, to proclaim our legitimacy. Several queer activists as well as elected officials, including our acting Premier, spoke passionately and forcefully in favour of continuing to work towards queer rights. And considering the fact that our state’s Government have introduced legislation for State-based civil unions, and recently managed to have the age of consent for vaginal and anal sex equalised, I’m cautiously optimistic that they, at least, are actively interested in fighting for our community. For us. For me. Certainly, the federal Government seem utterly uninterested in doing so – and in many instances seem more intent on actively fighting against us.

When I was first questioning my gender identity I had a lot of things zipping through my mind, but as I’ve said to some of my friends, I never pictured myself at the sharp edge of a civil rights movement. But without wanting to sound too arrogant – I don’t wish to compare myself to Eddie Mabo or Edith Cowan or Rosa Parks or Nelson Mandela, or other, more visible champions of more devastating civil rights battles – that’s where I am, and I suppose I’m coming now to realise that coming out as transgender means that I have not only a responsibility, but also a right, to stand up and fight for my own rights when those in power will maintain their willingness to deny them. On one level, I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in that apart from those shitheads on the train that one time, I’ve never experienced a great amount of active anti-transgender or queerphobic sentiment myself. People have been, by and large, both respectful and lovely. Still, both passive and institutional queerphobia are pervasive, not least of which are those bigoted provisions lurking in dark backwaters of law (and I do mean backwaters); while not always actively oppressing the queer community, such pitfalls do still passively lie in front of the queer person who seeks to avail themselves of the law’s protections, and we have a very, very long way to go in the quest for equality with many, many of those pitfalls on the road in between where we are now and the ideal of equality. I’m realising that I’m in a unique position to make my voice heard and join in the battle of the community to which I’ve only recently realised I belong. While the fight for gay rights dates back many decades, it seems to me (even if it be little more than my falling for the recency illusion) that the groundswell of support for the queer community more generally has been rapidly growing, both in volume and in population, in the past five years or so. My perception’s been that voices are becoming louder, angrier, more insistent. And I can’t help feeling not just that I should, but that I want to, join them in getting loud and angry and insistent.