12 February, 2017

Of Laziness and Dentistry

I am 35 years old. This is very young, given how long I expect to live, but it is still a rather long time to go on this planet without seeing a dentist.

Now, I can't say for sure that I never saw a dentist before. My memories from seven years old and earlier are pretty hazy. But I certainly don't ever recall going to a dentist.

It's not like you wouldn't think to send someone like me to the dentist. One of my two front teeth is a snaggletooth: it juts out at a nontrivial angle that is quite noticeable. It's the kind of thing that really accentuates the fact that I never had my teeth looked at, even though it's never really bothered me beyond preventing me from whistling loudly.

(In fact, when I dream, my self-image has the same snaggletooth. I also wear glasses, though I'm beardless and am able to travel much, much faster than my real self can manage.)

In Alabama, this wasn't that big a deal. Going without dental care wasn't that uncommon where I grew up. But here in Maryland it's almost unheard of, so it stands out much more than it would if I lived elsewhere.

So I grew up not going to the dentist, and as an adult I just continued not going. I didn't really care about cosmetics, and my teeth never really bothered me, so I just continued not going. Over the years, people have said: you should go to the dentist! Who knows how bad your teeth are at this point! You must have so many cavities! I can't believe you haven't been to a dentist in 35 years! But I've been too lazy to really do anything about it. I guess I figured that at some point I'd buy insurance and then I'd eventually go to a dentist.

When the Affordable Care Act was passed, I bought health insurance for the first time. I didn't bother with dental insurance, though. It just seemed like an extra expense that wouldn't do anything, given that I never went to the dentist. Time passed. I didn't take any new steps.

And then Trump became president.

There are many things I could say about Trump, but the item that is most relevant to me is his insistence on dismantling the Affordable Care Act. All of a sudden I realized I had better take advantage of insurance now, just in case I don't have access to it later.

So last week I went to the dentist.

Note the sideways tooth in the lower left.
They were surprised to learn that I had no teeth pain. Apparently most people who go 35 years without seeing a dentist only come when a problem occurs that has them in intense pain. They took x-rays, examined my mouth, and basically just said how lucky I was to have such good teeth.

My non-wisdom teeth are all fine, with the exception of a small chip in one tooth, which they said they will leave alone and just keep watching as I come in every six months for checkups and cleaning. One of wisdom teeth never came in. Another came in sideways, but is apparently fine in every way and not causing any problems. Another came in normally, and the last is angled poorly. This last tooth is the only one with a cavity, but since it is a wisdom tooth, they said they might just extract it rather than do anything with the cavity.

So: 35 years without a dentist and the only tooth with a problem is a wisdom tooth. I guess that's pretty lucky. Now my only problem is that they made me promise to brush my teeth twice each day and floss daily. I guess this is what everyone does; it's just not something I'm used to yet. We'll see how it turns out when I next see the dentist in six months.

06 November, 2016

On Live Music

Photo from Krysti Marie, a fellow concert-goer.
Yesterday, I went to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, a touring concert that celebrates 30 years of music from the Legend of Zelda franchise.

As a longtime fan of the series, I've been excited about going for quite a while. I bought tickets for (literally) the best seats in the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. I replayed several games in the series over the course of the past year. I listened to my favorite Zelda songs during my commute to work. But it's not like I did these things just in preparation for the concert; I am a sincere fan of Zelda, having played every non-CD-i game in the series. I've watched every single substantive commentary on Breath of the Wild at least once, including the several hours of streaming done by the Nintendo Treehouse and the two hour analysis from GameXplain. So you might well expect that my experience of the concert would be extremely positive.

Unfortunately, I found the experience disappointing. This isn't because the concert wasn't good. Nearly everyone around me in the theater raved about it, not just by clapping enthusiastically and exclaiming loudly how happy they were when their favorite game of the series came up in the concert, but also by several people after the concert coming up to me organically, wanting to talk about the experience with a stranger they had experienced this event with.

No, my disappointment was not with the quality of the concert, but with the concept of listening to live music itself. This was my first time going to listen to a concert for the purpose of listening to the music. I think I may have sat in a park while music was playing or went to support a friend as they played a small venue, but I've never actually gone with the intention of actually listening to the music being played.

As I sat in what very well may have been the best seat in the theatre, I found myself realizing that the songs I was hearing were songs that I already listen to. Those songs I played during my commute to work were nearly identical to the ones being played at the concert. It's then that I realize that I've already been listening to these songs this entire time, and if I closed my eyes to hear the music, all I could think was "this feels just like I'm on my way to work".

I'm not sure what I was expecting. Lots of people have favorite artists, and they often love to go to live concerts where the artist plays a song that they already have a better quality version of on their phone. What are they getting out of such events? I honestly am not too sure. It can't be the music, as the music is better in recorded form. Is it the company?

To be fair, it was fun to see people cosplaying as various Zelda characters. But even though I do love Zelda, I don't really identify with this crowd at all. For me, playing Zelda is primarily an experience in isolation. Even when it comes to multiplayer Zelda games, I've strongly preferred playing with close friends over the trolls that join public online games of Tri-Force Heroes. I don't see myself acting as a fan in the same sense as the way others were acting at that concert. Perhaps it is because I'm more comfortable being more reserved. Maybe I'm just not as into fan culture. But if being in a group with other fans is what people get out of live music events, then it just isn't for me.

Yet when I mentioned these thoughts aloud, I got back the objection: "That's not what live music is about. Live music is better than recorded music." And here is where I am most confused. The symphonic performers at the concert I went to were quite good. They were so good, in fact, that it reminded me exactly of the recorded versions I'd heard dozens of times before. Their sameness in sound is part of what made the experience dull for me.

Would I have preferred if I could have heard more errors in their performance? Or maybe what I would want is some kind of improvisation?

When I look to something like Michelangelo's David, I'm impressed. But when I look at recently made statues of similar realism, I am unimpressed. I think this is mostly because the skill needed to create such a statue in the past is nothing like the skill needed to do so in the present. Yes, there is still skill in the posing. But the David required working around the good parts of the material, understanding how to scale up the dimensions realistically, understanding the center of gravity, understanding the proper width of needed hidden trusses. Meanwhile a modern statue can be made by scanning a model, scaling it up, and having a laser cut each part perfectly from a piece of marble that is predetermined to perfectly work with those cuts. It still takes skill, but of a different sort. And if you try to do it the old way, it just seems silly to me. Why not take advantage of modern methods to make the finished product better?

So it seems to me with live music. Being able to record multiple performances and edit them into a final product just seems better to me. Sure, mp3s are lossy, but if you use a lossless format and high quality headphones, then I suspect you get the best experience. Far better than live music, which requires you to have to go somewhere in public (ugh, the traffic) and doesn't have the amenities that you may have at home (when I asked for a cola, they said they were out and offered diet cola instead).

With all this said, I do want to say that most everyone else enjoyed the concert. And the venue was pretty good. Having in-seat service is a big plus, even if it was fairly expensive. So if you're considering going to Zelda: Symphony of the Goddesses, then you shouldn't use my experience as a strong reason not to go.

But the Warner Theatre did run out of dessert before the concert even began, and there was the lack of non-diet cola in the VIP room. All in all, I think I can confidently say that I never intend to go to a live music event again, and if I do, I probably won't do it at the Warner. It just isn't for me.

I think I'll stick to plays instead. I'm looking forward to when Hamilton comes to the Kennedy center.

23 October, 2016

An Unusual Place

At Animal Charity Evaluators, we have a monthly "water cooler" meeting. We all get together on Skype and talk for an hour about non-work topics. It's a team-building exercise that supposedly helps teams that only work together remotely.

This month, the topic was "a favorite place", and each team member talked about some wonderful place that they had been to. Some spoke of gorgeous landscapes, others of meeting wild animals up close, and still others of self-built structures in the middle of nowhere.

When it was my turn, I decided to speak about a half remembered memory from when I was young. I had only just started to drive on my own, and, being the adventurous sort, I tended to go wherever fancy took me. Often I would go down a dirt road just to see what was at the end, or take a few wrong turns on purpose to see if I could get myself lost.

On this particular occasion, I was driving along a state highway in Alabama, just north of Saraland, where I grew up. The highway had double lanes going in each direction and the sides were covered with dense forests. Traffic along the road was continuously 55mph or higher.

As I drove along at the pace of traffic, I noticed a small clearing on the side of the road. It was almost invisible, and was gone in a moment, so I nearly missed seeing it. I certainly missed any opportunity of stopping at it; there's no way you could know it was there unless you knew in advance where you were going. So I turned around at the next exit, retraced my route and slowed, pulling over at the clearing.

The clearing was literally just big enough for my car to park. Any less of a clearing would mean I'd need to park on the shoulder of the road. The forest surrounded this area just like it did any other, but there was a trace of a path leading away from the road here, into the woods. It was unmistakenly a path, even though it was overgrown with young trees, vines, and brush of all sorts. The woods on either side looked untouched for decades, but the path before me appeared like it had once been cut down completely, and had only overgrown since then.

I went back to my car to gather my walking stick, which I kept with me just for adventurous situations such as this. I used it as a blunt machete, hacking my way through the brush, following the trail as best I could.

Eventually, I reached a clearing. The ground was set in concrete, so no brush could overgrow the area. A pedastal, also of concrete, stood in the center, and atop it lied a statue. It was about the size of my torso, and it depicted a naive american in a sad repose. I can't recall what the statue was made of, but it was clearly quite worn.

The pedastal that held it had a plaque with a date of 1950 or so. It said that the statue above it was placed on this spot a hundred years earlier, in 1850, to commemorate the a tribe that had been forced from this place during the trail of tears. To the side was a picnic table, also made of concrete. None of this looked as though anyone had seen it in decades. There were no other visible paths leading away from the clearing.

This memory is from nearly twenty years ago. At the time, I had no camera. No mobile phone. No GPS. I wonder if the local government is still aware of it. Clearly, they made an effort to create a clearing for it in the 1950s, presumably around the same time that this state highway was constructed. But it looked almost as though since then it had been left untouched.

The next time I return to Alabama, I would like to revisit this statue, mostly because I tried to find a photo to accompany this blog post and was unable to find a reference to this monument on the internet. Perhaps when I do, I can upload a photo to the wikipedia page of whatever tribe it commemorated.

31 March, 2016

My Great Aunt Margaret

Yesterday, I learned that my great aunt Margaret died.

According to my sister, who has taken care of her recently, Margaret had not been doing well. She was disoriented often, and angry most of the time she spent with my sister. But this is not how I remember my great aunt Margaret, because the last time I saw her was 2007 (or maybe 2006), nearly a decade ago.

At the time, she was kind and nice. We had a cordial relationship. When I saw her, I'd give her a hug and say hello; she'd return the greeting, and then I'd go sit elsewhere in the house. It was a neutral relationship.

It wasn't always like that. I have fond memories of being close to my great aunt Margaret. I remember being so excited to go to her house in Pensacola, Florida, and listen to the waves on the beach. I remember sleeping upstairs in the guest bedroom and reading The Lord of The Rings for very first time. I remember how she'd buy her meats and cheeses sliced much more thinly than any other person I know, and how I adored the sandwiches she'd make for lunch. I remember the strange-looking ashtrays she had in her house, and the air purifier that ran constantly. I remember the organ I used to play on, and the deck from which my uncle Michael threw me into the Gulf against my screaming protestations, all while he claimed that this was the best way for me to learn how to swim. I even remember watching my sister crawl for the first time while my great aunt Margaret sat looking on in her rocking chair with a smile on her face.

I have all these great memories. But at the same time, I can't be sure that any of them are really true.

They certainly feel true. They feel as real to me as when I ate at a restaurant yesterday, or as the time that I first went to The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas.

But I have good reason to doubt my older memories. I have a clear vision in my head of a wishing tree in my backyard as a child, through which I threw coins and made wishes that inevitably came true. I only ever wished for small things, like getting to go out to eat that evening, or getting some small toy that I wanted (I was a kid, after all), but I have a very clear memory that after dozens upon dozens of secret wishes I made at that tree, every single one came true. This seems unreasonably accurate, so my current guess is that I'm misremembering the times when my wishes did not come true.

When it comes to my great aunt Margaret, I have even stronger evidence that my memories are faulty. Every memory I have as a kid involving her is exceedingly positive. I recall going to her house and having fun every time. I remember it clearly as something that happened repeatedly and always positively.

So, in my teenage years, when I began to have very strong negative feelings about life and did not know where to turn, I found myself retreating to the family member for whom I had the most positive associations: my great aunt Margaret.

I came to her doorstep in tears, hoping for affection, love, and understanding. I don't know exactly what I needed back then, nor even what I wanted, but I did know that whatever it was, I needed it badly. My life felt like it was tumbling down around me at the time, and I was starting what would turn out to be a lengthy (but temporary) bout of depression.

I knocked on her door. She greeted me. I think she was uncomfortable with my tears. I just asked for a hug.

After a short while, she asked: "Why have you come to me?" She was wondering, I think, why I would choose her company over others. So I explained how I had so very many memories of being around her. Of coming to her house and enjoying her company. Of the board games we would play on her glass table, and of all the times that family would come and visit all at once, for some holiday or another.

She looked at me strangely as I said these things. By the time I stopped talking, she looked like she was scared for me -- or maybe scared of me. She told me that we had only met two or three times, because she lived in Florida, and I had lived in Alabama. She told me that my memories were wrong, and that I was expanding a few short visits into the mistaken idea that I had come to see her often as I grew up.

Today, when I relate this story to others, they ask: "Did she have dementia?" or "Maybe she just wanted to be mean." But no, she was not like this. She had a sound mind at the time. She was a nice person. It was my memories that were at fault here, not her.

So I don't even know what to say about my relationship with my great aunt Margaret. On the one hand, I have such strong memories of so many happy times with her. But when I think of them, an image of her from my teenage years beckons, telling me that I am wrong, that we are not close, that it is weird for me to come to her crying in such a state as I was in.

I am sad to know that she has died. I feel like I loved her as a close family member. But maybe it was all in my head. I don't know how to tell the difference. Either way, I mourn her passing.

27 March, 2016

Gender Identity & Cis by Default

I mean the other kind of cis/trans distinction.
I've been having a lot of thoughts about feminism lately, but hadn't written anything on my public blog because a friend asked me to refrain. Later, when I felt it was appropriate to post thoughts, I ended up writing a number of drafts that I just can't justify posting. I keep cringing at whatever I write, even ten minutes after writing it. This is probably indicative of my needing to think even more deeply about these issues.

But there's at least one issue for which I feel certain enough to be able to post my thoughts: my personal gender identity.

I don't have a strong sense of my own gender in terms of internal mapping. But I do have a moderately strong sense of my male gender as a social construct that I've latched onto.

If I awoke tomorrow, finding that I was female, and everyone just already thought of me as female, so that there were no issues with respect to the change itself, then I don't think I'd particularly mind. I don't have any internal drive that tells me that I should be a man, but I also don't have any kind of feeling that I should be a woman. Neither do I have any stake in the concept of being agender. When it comes to gender, I just don't really care one way or the other.

So I'm cis by default. I was born male, so I "identify" as male, but I have no strong internal mapping saying "I am male".

Yet: at this point, I have lived so long as a male that I identify strongly with my maleness in regard to social situations. I feel about my maleness the way I do about my skills with percussion: If I were reborn as a horn player, I wouldn't think to myself that really, I'm a percussionist at heart, but I'd still lament the fact that all that time was wasted perfecting percussion when now I'd have to don a trumpet.

It's not just that I'm familiar with my own male identity, but that I have invested in my male identity such that it feels like home to me. When I dream, my dream identity is male. (And wears glasses.) But I don't feel strongly that it is important to be male. (Or have glasses.) When I play rpgs, I choose a female avatar as often as a male one.

But maybe all of the above theorizing is mistaken, and the reason I don't feel a strong sensation one way or the other about gender is because I am cis. As in, maybe the whole reason that my gender preference doesn't occur to me is the same reason a fish might be less aware of water. But I don't think this is the case. I think that at heart, I don't really care about what gender I happen to be, and am cis not because I feel like my gender is correct, but because cis is just the default thing to be in our culture.

Meanwhile, I am fascinated that there is an internal experience of gender that lots of other people are having that I just don't seem to have at all. I feel sort of similar to how I feel about tetrachromats; I'm apparently missing out on an internal experience that others have. But unlike tetrachromats, the number of people with an internal gender identity seems fairly high. I don't know of any research that verifies this, but anecdotally, internal gender identity is much more common than I'd previously suspected.

All of this is to say that finally I have a post I can write about a feminism-adjacent topic that I don't feel hopelessly stupid for writing some ten minutes after composing the initial draft.