The Inevitable Consequence Of Everything You’ve Ever Done

Seeing as this blog literally has “zen” in the URL, I should probably write about Zen in a non-flippant way at least once.

So, Zen. All is one. No past, no future, no present, only the beauty and perfection of what is. As is generally the case with eastern religions, a lot of western folks have an odd, idealized conception of what it means to be a Buddhist, so let’s get a few things straight right off the bat:

  • I have never shaved all of my hair off.
  • The only robe I wear is my bathrobe.
  • It is possible for me to experience anger, in addition to various other strong emotions, both constructive and otherwise.
  • I do not believe that the soul of my great grandfather currently inhabits my cat.

Are we clear on that? Good.

My fascination with Zen began when I was browsing an alternative bookstore in my hometown. The guy who owned this store (he might still own it, I’m not sure), who is also the proprietor of a local hemporium, is an interesting sort of fellow; allegedly, he’s as nutty as a fruitcake. An avid conspiracy theorist, believer of Scientology-like religions and cults centered around alien intervention with life on Earth, all kinds of nonsense. As is generally the case with such individuals, more than a few rumors and urban legends have circulated about the man and the way he operates his businesses. The legend behind this bookstore, as people tell it, is that he buys all the books at retail, reads them cover to cover, then resells them at the price he believes to be their “actual” worth. Sometimes this is higher than the cover price, sometimes this is lower, depending on some unknown criteria of which only he is truly aware. Doesn’t strike me as a particularly viable business model, but that’s how the stories go. Regardless, the store has a charming atmosphere about it, and it’s a great place to find books that are a little ways off the beaten path. It was here that I found the book Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, & the Truth about Reality by Brad Warner. The book is an autobiographical recount of a bassist’s progression from having beer bottles thrown at his punk rock band in country bars to receiving his rites as a Buddhist Priest in Japan.

Hardcore Zen is a refreshingly candid take on what he feels is the true nature of Zen. Far from the flowery, pretentious depiction of Buddhism that a lot of other books offer, Warner speaks openly about how frustrating it is to study Zen, how self-contradictory so much of the doctrine is, and how crushing his experience with his teachers was. Like a lot of people, I don’t enjoy feeling as if I’m being pandered to, so his brand of brutal honesty was especially appealing to me, in spite of (and, indeed, because of) his unpalatable-at-times presentation. After reading this book, I became a Buddhist.

The mythic origins of Zen are about as bizarre as what you might expect from any mythic origin stories. Long after the virgin birth of Siddhartha Gautama in 563 BCE, a Buddhist teacher named Bodhidharma was visiting a powerful king, who was showing off his newly constructed, lavish and elaborate Buddhist temples. Bodhidharma, upon seeing this, is all like “yo, WTF is this shit??” and the king is all like “yo, I thought you’d be psyched, what’s your damage?” and Bodhidharma’s all “…shit, man, I don’t know,” at which point he crawls into a cave at the base of a mountain and meditates until his legs atrophy and fall off.

At this point I would like to point out that Chan Buddhism, the Chinese tradition upon which the Japanese Zen is based, is also known as “Crazy Buddhism”.

One of the central elements of Zen is the beauty and perfection of the world as it is, and that separation between people, objects, and the world are merely illusory. Consider: the act of preparing a cup of tea is a fairly mundane thing that millions of people do hundreds of times a day. When you prepare that tea, however, you are using dishes crafted by another, based on designs inherited from others, using a mixture of herbs and ingredients based on traditional recipes reaching back thousands of years, with other tools and implements constructed by others based on inventions and traditions stretching into eternity. All of those objects, all of those people, all of those lives, all of that existence came together to bring you that cup of tea, and now all of that is an irrevocable part of who you are and your life’s story. This simple act of boiling some water and steeping tea connects you with so much of the universe in ways you can not even begin to fathom, and your actions today shape the universe in ways you can not even begin to conceive. According to Zen, the way to understanding is through recognizing these supposed “mundane” things as intricate, beautiful, and perfect.

Of course, there’s a hell of a lot more to it than that. And my understanding is still quite limited. Next time I post about Zen, I’ll talk about why, specifically, it appeals to me.

~Joselyn

Dumb and Stupid Things

The original idea for this post was to review the last movie that I’ve seen, but when I sat down to write it, it occurred to me that the movie I’d seen most recently was the English dub of Professor Layton and the Eternal Diva. It’s not really a movie that lends itself to being reviewed, at least, not in a traditional sense. It’s a video game movie, and like all video game movies, it doesn’t really stand on its own too well, and the majority of its charm comes from its integration of the games’ set pieces into a film narrative structure. But to do that requires a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience that will be a taxing demand for non-fans. Is it a good film? No. Will you like it if you’ve never played the games? Hell no. Do I like it anyway? You’re god damned right I do.

I have noticed, over the years, that my tastes in movies are extremely hard to define. I love movies that everyone else hates, and hate movies everyone else loves. But it’s not really a case of being deliberately contrarian or counter-culture, because all the favourites I can name are extremely popular and extremely well-liked (The Truman Show, The Shawshank Redemption, Wall-E). It’s also not really a case of the current trend of “ironically” enjoying bad things, though I’m certainly no stranger to that concept either (Shadow Warriors: Assault on Death Mountain remains one of the most satisfying moviegoing experiences of my life). There’s just something about dumb, stupid, honest things that really speaks to me, on a very strange level.

What do I mean by ‘honest’? I think the best illustration I can come up with comes from an episode of King of the Hill, in which Bobby starts a sketch comedy troupe whose material is based solely on jokes about propane and propane accessories. They find a receptive audience among propane retailers, but when they take the act on the road and perform in a shopping mall, they bomb horribly. Turns out, people who don’t sell propane for a living don’t see much humor in a Gas Cop arresting a homeowner for heating his house with butane. Hank, however, is just eating it up, and Bobby can hear his laughter from the back of the largely uninterested audience, so he keeps going. He knows he’s lost the audience, he knows the material’s no good, but his dad likes it, so by god he gives it his all anyway.

I’m not going to claim that this preference is exclusive to me, and me alone. On the contrary, I suspect that this type of honesty is recognized and appreciated by a lot of people. It’s the reason why Napoleon Dynamite was such a hit, whereas the director’s followup, Nacho Libre, was a flop. It’s the reason why Nicholas Cage has such a huge following in spite of almost all of his movies in the last decade being godawful. It’s why, among Arrested Development fans, everyone hates the episode S.O.B.’s, which was essentially a half-hour long fourth-wall gag about the show’s pending cancellation. People should hate these things, but they don’t, because of some intangible appeal that is intrinsically detectable.

I just wonder if, sometimes, I take it too far.

Here’s an example of a movie I like that everyone hates: Fantastic Four. The 2005 one with Jessica Alba. Now I’m not going to sit here straight-faced and tell you that it was a good movie. It’s not. Are you kidding me? It was terrible. The script was revolting, in service to a ridiculously contrived plot, and above all, it’s just not really good. But when I think about that movie, what I recall most of all is Michael Chiklis’ performance as The Thing. Chiklis read a lot of comics as a kid, and was a really big fan of the Fantastic Four in particular. As such, getting to play the Thing was a childhood dream come true, and you can tell from every aspect of his performance that he was having the time of his life in that role. This, from Michael Chiklis, an actor so intense and so intimidating that he managed to shake up a guy who once claimed (in jest, I know) to be the antichrist. Part of me likes to imagine that halfway through production, Fantastic Four’s producers knew they were sitting on a bomb and were ready to halt production, but not one of them had the heart to look Chiklis in the eye and tell him this movie was a stinker. Add to that the fact that Ioan Gruffudd was working his Welsh arse off to turn his accent American to play Mr. Fantastic, and you can tell that there was some genuine thought and talent put into the performances of a soundly poor film. And because of that, I really, really like this dumb, stupid movie.

Compare that with Juno, an Academy Award-winning film that I just thought was fake as hell. Presented as an indie flick, it stars such nobodies as Ellen Page, Michael Cera, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, and JK Simmons, all of whom had established careers in Hollywood prior to Juno. You know, a bunch of real unknowns, perfect for an independent film. Ellen Page plays Juno, who is crass and quirky and different from everybody, but is also just like a real teenage girl (the stated intention of the writer) who does things like set up an entire living room suite in her friend’s front yard to tell him she’s pregnant with his child. You know, like all teenage girls do. All those other jokers play Boring People whose essential purpose in the film is to juxtapose just how crass and quirky and different Juno is from all of them. In the end (again, like all indie flicks), everyone gets exactly what they want to the surprise of no one. Wheee. Everything about this movie, from the stilted dialogue, to the intentionally muted performances from actors desperate to underplay Page, to the dreary soundtrack, to the indie presentation, is just. so. fake. At the end of the day, however, the biggest problem with this film is that all the non-Juno characters didn’t wear monocles so they could pop every time Juno did something crass and quirky and different, to the exclamation “My word!” in a posh accent.

The rules by which I love Fantastic Four and hate Juno are not universally applicable to my choices of entertainment. Spielberg’s War of the Worlds was chock-full of earnest performances from talented actors and haunting special effects, but the script was so sloppy that it took me right out of it. Most critics and fans agree that the Matrix sequels were unnecessary cash-ins on the Matrix brand that ultimately cheapened the original movie, but my appreciation for Reloaded and especially Revolutions has only increased over time, and it was pretty high to begin with.

So what’s the point I’m driving at with all of this? Is it the startling, groundbreaking revelation that “opinions are subjective”? Or is it an incredibly roundabout way of saying “I like the Professor Layton games and also the movie”? Is it setting the tone for future movie reviews (and I intend to write movie reviews in the future), a warning that I might give a glowing review to a turd, and a scathing review to a masterpiece? Or is it just me talking about weird things I like and don’t like?

It is all of those things. And it is none of them.

You just got Zen’d, mothafuckas.

~Joselyn

I am not an anti-feminist.

Continuing in my series of super-creative titles for blog posts…

I predicted that my last post would stir the pot somewhat,  or at least that it would if I had a significant readership. I knew, as I wrote it, that the claims I was making within could be easily misinterpreted, from both sides of the camp I was speaking to. It was, at its heart, a critique of second-wave vs. third-wave thinking regarding women and choice, and how fiction writers (among many others) will always be caught in that crossfire. However, it seems it drew the attention of at least one individual who seems to believe that it was a critique of feminism as a whole, and that my expression of frustration as a writer was, in fact, a rejection of feminism entirely.

This fellow has his own blog, where he makes claims like “the wage gap [between men and women] doesn’t exist” (to this end, he cites various statistics that unanimously indicate that there IS a wage gap, just that it’s smaller than it used to be, because as we all know, when things stop being as bad as they used to be, they stop being bad altogether), “sometimes women really are asking to be raped” (in which he pulls out that old chestnut of evolutionary psychology that claims that some men can be triggered into a proto-sapien state by the visual ‘symbol’ of a short skirt and low top), and “prison rape jokes will never not be funny” (prison rape is actually an extremely serious issue that gets swept under the rug in the name of the Just World fallacy, and continued levity on the subject merely prolongs the time before people start acting on it in a constructive way). The more I read, the more I’m thinking “yikes, I can’t have a guy like this thinking I’m on his side”. So here’s yet another stream-of-consciousness post made in the middle of the night, to make one thing very very clear.

I am not an anti-feminist.

Quite the opposite, in fact. I consider myself to be a rather ardent feminist. I am minoring in Women and Gender studies. I volunteer for the Campus Women’s Centre at my university, which entails my involvement in feminist activism within the community. I am also president of the university’s LGBTQ club, which is officially a pro-feminist organization, and is also involved in much more activism, both queer-positive and feminist in nature. My long term goals are to become a clinical psychologist with a strong emphasis in queer and feminist issues facing youth, young adults, and adults. I know what the word ‘kyriarchy’ means. This may sound a bit like I’m just rattling off my feminist credentials, and perhaps that’s exactly what it is, but I feel the need to emphasize the point that I am a feminist, through and through. Furthermore, I believe that to NOT be a feminist (if not in name, then at least to not recognize and oppose the systematic inequality between the genders) ought to be socially unacceptable in the 21st century. 

But just because I call myself a feminist, doesn’t mean that I never recognize some of the problems that arise within the movement. It was in this spirit that my earlier post was written, and that other posts in the future will also be written.

That’s all I have to say about that, for now. I promise my next post will be more light-hearted.

~Joselyn

No one will ever get a female protagonist right.

On this day, I am glad I have a small readership, because today’s post is not going to make me any friends. But there’s something that I need to get off my chest.

No writer in the world will ever get a female protagonist right.

No one. Not one person ever. No, not even THAT writer that you’re thinking of. I’ll go so far as to say ESPECIALLY not that writer.

Here’s why:

  • If your female protagonist behaves in a culturally recognizable “feminine” manner, she will be criticized for reinforcing traditional gender roles and perpetuating female stereotypes.
  • If your female protagonist behaves in a culturally recognizable “masculine” manner, she will be criticized for having to essentially “become” a man in order to be strong, inviting the implication that there can be no inherent strength in femininity. This will also be the case if your female protagonist behaves in a manner that is not culturally recognizable as either feminine or masculine, with the added bonus that she will also be criticized for promoting gender erasure and assimilation.

So what do you do? To be honest, there’s nothing you can do. If you write something with a female hero, you’re going to provoke one of these reactions. Maybe even both! So my advice is to write your characters – ALL of your characters – as actual, living, breathing human beings. Do not write characters to serve merely as props for your other characters, nor as props the story. Make them real, make them complex. No one in the real world fits completely perfectly into a stereotype, and people who don’t exhibit at least one stereotypical trait of their group are extremely rare. So write your characters accordingly, and embrace them for who they are, warts and all. That’s really the best you can do.

If I were in a better mood, I’d expound on this idea more. I’d provide examples of characters that receive each kind of criticism, and quote the critics who espouse these ideals. But I am tired, I am cranky, and I don’t feel like writing more than 350 words.

‘night.

~Joselyn