Rennovating the Self

“All things just keep getting better”. This is the optimistic proclamation of the show, Queer Eye, whose third season was recently released on Netflix. It is an optimism that, at first, is a little hard to swallow. In each episode, the Fabulous Five, five uniquely talented gay men, endeavor to change someone’s life. In this way, each episode is a little bit different, but also comfortingly similar. The Fab Five blitz into a messy house, into a messy existence and find solutions within their disciplines. Jonathon cuts away at hair to reveal the inner beauty within. Tan emphasizes the need for one’s style to match one’s personality instead of the current trends. Each repainted cabinet, each tailored suit, each seemingly minute change reveals a life that could be perfect if only we willed it to be. It really is that easy.

Self-care is the oft-proffered advice and the show’s thematic core. Each transformation is drawn from the inside first and foremost. Certainly, the Five’s methods may seem a little intrusive at the beginning, but they do so with care for the subject. The person at the center is exposed, made vulnerable so that they can grow in more than a superficial way. And it is refreshing to ask why a young man may have left his closet overflow instead of rushing to judge him for the mess. Perhaps the best quality about the Fabulous Five is their adaptable curiosity. Like any human beings, they rush to judgement and speak in generalities. But they are also willing to listen and participate in a conversation of differing perspectives, educating themselves and others simultaneously.

But even as I have re-watched episodes, eagerly sought out the countless charismatic interviews with the Fabulous Five, I have had my nagging doubts. Maybe it’s the show’s obsession with intimacy clashes with the performative nature of television. I cannot help but feel the cameras, subtly offscreen, urging certain storylines forward. For example, visual transformations are always pronounced, with sweeping room changes and dramatic hair reveals. Change happens fast, too. With only one hour allotted per episode and one week of filming allotted per subject, there is no time for a slow gestation. Everyone is encouraged to change as fast as possible, as dramatically as possible. But real life doesn’t move at a quick pace. The stagnation of each day, one after another, is a looming threat behind every episode’s happy ending. It seems too easy to revert to old habits once the cameras are gone. The show’s belief in change is its constant, but you must believe it too.

Lazy Winter Days

Lazy winter days are blank and soft and grey. When spring comes along with its blossoming energy, these days are easy to dismiss and even easier to miss. For, lazy winter days are a comfort that we take advantage of, yet never appreciate fully. On these days, there are always reasons for doing less. It is always just cold enough for us to invent endless excuses to stay inside. It is always just gloomy enough to muddle our brains with imaginations of the summer to come. I can never focus on a lazy winter day. There is nothing to focus on. The hours pass by, unnoticed, each grey cloud replaced by an endless, identical sibling. Daylight grows and fades, a degree at a time, until it the day has become night again. I follow suit, barely shifting a few inches from the seat that has grown accustomed to me too. On these days, I have seemingly endless patience because I barely appreciate the movement of time. When we do work on lazy winter days, they encourage us to work on the things that don’t need doing. There are certainly far more important tasks to be completed, but instead, I find miniscule things to do. Maybe I finally get annoyed by the pile of unfolded laundry laying at the foot of my bed. Maybe I find a new way to rearrange my pencil pouch before it is almost instantly disrupted. But homework, real work, is reserved for another, more energetic time. Instead, I move imperceptibly like a glacier, gradually carving its path into the land.

It seems especially important to reflect on these days as we are about to reach the end of another unhurried February. Everyone will always complain about the bitter winds, the slippery pavements, the pile ever-growing melting slush. But it is also exactly those things that make us slow down. The world moves at a slower rhythm in the winter. Your heart doesn’t need to race the burning heat. Your brain feels content to move at a syrupy pace, at last released from the frenetic pace demanded by the animation of other seasons. Spring is all impulsive growth. Summer a never-ending sunshine-soaked revel. And autumn is transformative, from green to reds and oranges and yellows. But winter, has always been still. We are frozen in ice, awaiting the coming thaw when we must move again. Nothing grows in the winter. We just wait. And in the process of waiting, something is gained. For there is no loss in moving a little bit slower. No sacrifice in catching your breath. We are constant beings, always the same with slight shifts. We don’t believe it though. We try to defy it. Instant transformation is an impossibility that tortures us. It is a hope that is implicit in every New Year’s Resolution, in every career plan stretching for the next five years. And when there is the least bit of stagnation, the sting is sharper than a pounding needle. Winter demands a periodic stagnation. A time to recollect all the broken pieces of our change over the year. And maybe consider the cracked portrait of the past before inevitably moving on.

Junk TV

For me, falling out of love was a slow, tumultuous descent. It was plummeting, crashing down an increasingly rocky slope, looking for anything to grab onto to slow myself down. When I did get some respite, it was always slight and temporary. And then, when you finally stop falling, you look up at the sky and wonder how you can ascend to such heights again. I am talking, of course, of my once love, Riverdale.

Recently, I re-watched the pilot episode with a group of friends in hopes of rekindling the flames that had burned so brightly before. And perhaps, it was little bit too much pressure, for the episode seemed drab, underlit, and frankly, uninspiring. In each frame, I kept searching for that spark of passion that had kept me coming back week after week since freshman year. There had been something there, hadn’t there? Yet, with each passing overwrought scene, there was nothing to be found. Worse, I could remember the moments that had been seemingly transcendent on the first watch. Riverdale, after all, is a show made up of moments splashing in the shallow end of the pool. It was a show made for social media OMGs and trending hashtag shipping. It was a show that felt like a rapidly rising tide, going up and up and up. It was everything until it became nothing.

Once, I thought I found my soulmate in this wayward show. I thought I could spend the rest of my life with it, or at least the next five seasons. Or maybe it was simply the right show at the right time. Not a deep-rooted affection, but one of those passions precisely because they are fleeting. For Riverdale was the perfect show for my freshman year. After a day of sixteen credits and more club commitments than I could handle, I would return to my dorm room. And instead of facing my ever-growing pile of homework, on Wednesdays, I would turn to the CW. Sure, Betty, Jughead, Veronica, and Archie had to deal with small town gossip and a murder, but at least they didn’t have to handle the stress or loneliness of studying at 2:30 in the morning. Their stresses were so dramatic, so exaggerated that I could sit back and enjoy their reactions to the latest arrest/football game/love triangle. At the very height of my love, I watched episodes, again and again. I lurked in the comment sections of recaps. I listened to hours of podcasts devoted to the show. I devoted so much time to this show and now, I don’t know when to break off the relationship.

If the first season was an explosion, the second was an implosion. Critics and my friends agreed, the show overall was worse. But still, I wanted to hold on. I wanted to hold on, not because it was a huge part of my life or even all that important. It was, after all, just Riverdale, a ridiculous, barely-meaningful show that happened to come on every Wednesday. One of dozens, really. I hold on because it is harder to let go. Harder to find another ridiculous, barely-meaningful relationship. I hold on because I have convinced myself that I’m still in love. Or at least, I wish I was.

Riverdale airs at 8 pm on Wednesday on the CW.

To Read

Oh, if only I could read a person as easily as a book. If only their personalities were as solid as black typed letters and their intentions as clear as a blank white sheet. If only they didn’t shift so, back and forth, until you wonder if you are the one whipping back and forth. If only you could re-read a situation until you found its secret meanings, instead of having to endure endless fleeting conversations that never quite satisfy. Interactions with people, real people, always feel as if they are moving a few seconds too fast. It is a lot to process sometimes, when a friend is chattering away. What is she saying with that tone? Why did she use this word instead of that? Can I ask for a few moments of silence while I am analyzing, endlessly analyzing? The difference between a person and a book is that a book will always give you time. It will move at your pace, straight forward always. A book only has one ending in mind, while a person is an endlessly splitting path. All I am asking for is some consistency. All I am asking for is some patience. Just give me some time. Enough to figure out what you mean, enough to let me gather my sprawling thoughts into a sentence, so we can talk like human beings.

 It is not as if I wouldn’t be fair. I would let people read me too. I would allow them to peruse freely through my past, flipping through the chapters of youth and adolescence and adulthood. If I could, I would spill myself like a glass of milk so I could avoid the awkwardness of trying to explain myself one awkward word at a time. There would be no need to explain the insecurities that come out as barbed sarcasm, no need to apologize for the absent-minded gap in the conversation when I got distracted by another passing thought. But there is always something that stops me too. I hesitate because I, too, cannot express who I am. So, I understand. I understand that there will never be a way to guide someone else into the maze of my own head. I sit in the classroom every day, next to so many minds, twisting and winding like so many strings. And all I can see, all I can read is the barest exterior. An intense stare here, a nodding head there. Oh, if only, like a book, we could understand and be understood.

Book Paralysis

Once, I was the kid with the book. In high school, everyone needs a label whether it be preppy cheerleader, overly-enthusiastic MUN club member, or seasonal athlete. Unable yet to define our true selves, we embraced stand-in, simplified personalities. And with these personalities came easy communities, defined along cafeteria-table lines. I always sat with my friend, Periodic Table kid, and her friends, the Anime fanatics. Sometimes before lunch, I would set my book down, carefully avoiding any apple sauce stains, and work my way towards the serving station. Mostly though, the book would follow me and sustain me as I waited in line. Staring down, barely paying attention to the shuffling feet, my only contribution to the chatter was a few rustling pages. But no, this is not the triumphant story of how a shy, woebegone nerd became the cool, charming center-of-attention. In fact, I was pretty proud of being the nerd. And I am pretty ashamed that I have abandoned that persona, ever since high school.

The problem seemed to be that in college, everyone wanted to do anything, but read. People spent so much time in their various lecture halls scribbling, that they had to conserve any remaining energy for a desperate attempt to translate that scribbling into homework. And no matter how much I ached to pick up a book again, I was just like everyone else. Well, most everyone else. There are still those that add a little extra weight to their backpacks, those that stick a novel between the laptop and all those notebooks. They finish pages during passing periods and chapters before bed. I just go to sleep.

I have often reflected on why I stopped reading. Why does it feel like such an overwhelming burden to start a book when it takes an equal amount of time to watch an episode of television? Even during winter break, I was much more inclined to start an entirely new show than to pick up one of the multitude of books that lay around the house. Perhaps keeping up with reading is simply a more difficult task than other forms of media. For often, when I come back to a book after even a week, I have forgotten the tone, the scattered symbolisms, the motifs. Books, after all, do not come with easy recaps at the beginning of every episode. A book is an old format and thus, does not submit easily to the frenetic pace of modern life. Reading is a consistent exercise and must be sustained, like any good exercise, over some period before it once again becomes an easy habit again.
Right now, a library book languishes on the highest shelf of my room, far harder to access to than my cellphone with all its easy distractions. Still, I sense its pull, its call to adventure.

Reading is an intimate experience at its heart. Phrases that speak only to you, pages that envelope you from the rest of the world. Like any relationship, its hard to commit at first. But slowly, surely, you’re in love.

Strong and Sweet

It was a day. It was one of those days that make you want to curl up on the sidewalk, even when you only a few steps from your home. One of those days where the sky feels intentionally cloudy and time moves especially slow. On one of those days when the whole universe is giving you the middle finger, there is only one remedy that I would suggest: Ariana Grande’s Sweetener.

Like its title, the album instantly serves to make any situation a little more palatable. Each song dissolves softly, flowing so easily into each other, flowing so easily into your heart. Each song swirls around you in a glorious cloud of harmonious beats. It is so easy to become absorbed in the album. It is as if Ariana has condensed a little bit of her own happiness into every note. Yet, instead of feeling envious, you welcome the joyous wonder in her voice. After a year of overwhelming cynicism, it is refreshing to have a piece of art that is so distinct from the rest of the climate. The album is hopeful, reveling in the present and anticipatory of a better future.

Even a song that lingers on a failed relationship like better off, acknowledges the mistake as necessity instead of a regret. “I’m better off without him. I’m better off being a wild one”, she sings softly as if to herself. She isn’t accusatory or harsh like many other contemporary break-up songs. No, this is a woman who has come out of a relationship having learned something. There is no anger and the song is more powerful for it. When I listen to the album, I am impressed by the maturity that suffuses it. Yet, unlike her previous album, Dangerous Woman, she doesn’t have to resort to leather or sexual innuendos to express this newfound womanhood. Becoming an adult is not just sex, it is the comfort with oneself, comfort with who they’ve become. While her last attempt had a touch of desperation, this time no one doubts her seriousness. Somehow, Ariana has achieved the ultimate contradiction. She has spun happiness into power, she has transformed sugar into medicine for the soul.

The ultimate testament to Ariana’s new-found tenacity is in her last song, get well soon. It concerns the anxiety and depersonalization she felt after the terrorist attack following her 2017 concert in Manchester. Over and over, she pleads with herself, “Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down”. Over and over, it breaks my heart, even as I am drawn to the song again and again. But Ariana is not alone, and she reassures that we aren’t either. She draws her strength from her community, never letting tragedy destroy who she is.

So, even though it has been four months since its official release, even though she has already released another smash hit (which she predicted!), listen to Sweetener. Listen to Ariana, as she stretches for a higher note than you thought was possible. Listen to Ariana and be inspired to do the impossible.