Plant Space

No one in this house is “productive.” 🌿

Inspired by my annual reading of Sarah Ahmed, I drew this as a reminder to myself that there’s room for stillness and silence in the ongoing resistance against systems that seek to exploit our energy and labor. It ended up becoming an unintentional self-portrait. I was thinking, “What sort of person would live in a house like this,” and then I realized, “Oh right, I do.”

A lot of my plants have been all across the United States as I moved from apartment to apartment while chasing jobs in a market that depends on people like me, by which I mean young(ish) people who are willing to cut their connections and uproot their entire lives in order to have a small chance at getting their foot in the door of an unnecessarily competitive industry. Academia especially is built on exploited and largely uncompensated labor, and there’s so much survivor bias that not even the people who have experienced and suffered from this precarity acknowledge how harmful it is to everyone involved.

It’s wild how the vast majority of critiques of capitalism are contained within the logic of capitalism. Capitalism is all about doing things and being productive; and, in exactly the same way, most critiques of capitalism are about doing things and being productive. To give a classic example, Marx says that workers need to utilize the “muscle power” and “vital force” that have been harnessed by capitalism and redirect their energy and labor to overthrow the system. I would argue that not doing things and not being productive is an equally valid means of resisting capitalism. Sarah Ahmed, who has just as fraught of a relationship with academia as I do, has argued the same thing: Don’t allow yourself to become a tool in the hands of people who are intent on breaking you.

After being destroyed by a “dream job” that I almost had to kill myself to stay on top of, I made a firm decision to take it easy and chill out for a bit. Part of this decision is deprogramming my instinct to be “productive,” but a lot of it is simply taking the time to be quiet and listen while creating the space to appreciate the sort of time-consuming writing, scholarship, and art that’s been marginalized and pushed aside by the constant demand for new content. Like my plants, I’m going to sit still and soak in the sun.

………also, I needed an “author photo” for my summer project, a zine about Gothic botanical horror. 💀🌱

(Haunted) House Hunting

I try not to write about my personal life on this blog, mainly because most things have been garbage most of the time. One day I will be able to look back and laugh, but right now I just want to draw plants and play video games.

Although maybe it’s worth mentioning that I started looking at houses. There’s no real reason, except that I’m getting tired of my landlord’s shenanigans and would like to have an outside garden maybe.

Anyway, I started looking at houses, and I have seen some shit. I thought apartment hunting in Philadelphia was bad, but I didn’t know what “bad” was. The current housing market is a nightmare. I can’t believe the condition of some of these houses, which should be condemned, or how much money people are asking for them.

So you know all those horror movies where a couple moves into what is obviously a haunted house? And then all sorts of creepy things start happening, but the family just sort of quietly deals with the situation without raising a fuss? And then maybe a kid or a pet dies but they still don’t leave?

I get it now. I totally get it. The person on Tumblr who made the post I screencapped gets it too. If you can find a decent house at a reasonable price, and if no one outbids you within hours of the property going on the market, I think you just sort of have to make your peace with the fact that it’s probably filled with murder ghosts.

Growing Up with The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda series has been criticized for its formulaic writing, but one of the strengths of its archetypal characters is that they allow room for multiple interpretations. I was born in the same year as the Zelda series, and my perspective on these characters and their stories has shifted as I’ve grown older.

When I was a kid, I loved Link. I had no innate skill as a gamer, but I enjoyed the thrill of running wild in Hyrule. I may not have fully understood the game mechanics, but this meant I was always discovering new things. Despite my many deaths, I reveled in the certainty that I was a force of good fighting for justice, and it was comforting to know that all I had to do in order to succeed was to follow the marks on my map.  

In my late teens, I began to identify more with Princess Zelda. As my view of the world became wider, I realized that it wasn’t always the best course of action to charge forward with an unsheathed sword. I also came to understand that it was impossible for me to be a lone hero. There were times when I would be at the mercy of forces beyond my control, and sometimes I would need to rely on the strength of other people to achieve my goals.  

Now that I’m an adult, I can’t help but sympathize with Ganondorf. The world is infinitely complicated and filled with impossible decisions. Even though you may have the best of intentions, it’s inevitable that some people will see you as a villain when you challenge the status quo. If you want the power to change the world, you have to forge your own path, and no one will give you a map marked with signposted quests to complete. Still, as long as you’re making your own rules, you might as well be stylish and have gorgeous hair.

The Legend of Zelda series has become a type of modern mythology. The games continue to be relevant not just because of the strength of their gameplay, but also because of the resonance of their archetypes in the lives of the people who grow up with their stories. Instead of growing out of the Zelda series, I’ve found that I’ve grown to appreciate it more now that I can relate to the characters through multiple levels of lived experience.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This essay and its accompanying illustration were originally published in Coin-Operated Press’s Nerd! Zine anthology. You can check out the zine on the press’s website (here).

Today’s gender is…

…lizard! 🦎

I used to have a pet iguana, and I never learned whether it was a girl or a boy. It was fascinating to me that this beautiful and handsome creature could exist in the world without a gender and be perfectly fine, and I still think that’s neat. I was a weird kid, but I knew what I was about.

My Great Outdoors

When I moved to West Philadelphia at the beginning of the pandemic, the neighborhood was a mess. The city sanitation workers were on strike (good for them!!), and trash was everywhere. No one had trimmed the vegetation growing along the sidewalks, and there were all sorts of weeds and flowers pushing their way up from underneath the piles of loose rubbish. Most of the university students and faculty had evacuated the city, and no one was walking around outside to begin with, so the crows and opossums had gotten bold. It was quite nice, actually.

I don’t intend to suggest that there was anything “good” about the pandemic, which was and continues to be a nightmare, but I have to admit that it was still a welcome relief to be able to walk around outside while feeling like I was just another part of nature.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This is a comic I created for the third issue of Nature Held Me Close, a zine about “gender dysphoria and the great outdoors.” Free digital copies of all three issues of the zine are available on its website (here).

Felis Decapoda

I spent part of my childhood in rural Georgia in an old farmhouse that my mother went into bankruptcy to refurbish and remodel. Along with antique furniture, my mother collected stray cats, and at several points we had more than two dozen roaming around the house and yard.

I know that living in an historic farmhouse filled with expensive furniture and cats sounds like a dream come true for many people, and presumably this was the case for my mother. For me, however, it was extremely uncomfortable. I could never sleep properly, and I used to have nightmares about the cats eating each other and merging into giant mega-cats with far too many legs.

I don’t have anything against cats, and I’d like to adopt one of my own one day, but for the time being I’m happy being a dog person.

A Reverse Little Mermaid Story

Both of my parents look like characters who belong in a fairy tale from northern Europe. They look like they would be at home in the forest baking pies and chopping wood, like they could easily survive a harsh winter and stand their ground against a hungry wolf.

Growing up in the United States, however, I had no interest in dark forests and long winter nights. The fairy tale that spoke to me was “The Little Mermaid.” As someone who wasn’t a boy but definitely wasn’t a girl, I felt as though I belonged both on land and in water, and I was haunted by the feeling of not having a voice.

By the time I got to college, I understood what it meant to be nonbinary, and I thought I had a solution. Like a fish, I would be androgynous. As long as I maintained the shape of a child, I would be able to wear clothing associated with either gender, and perhaps pass as both. It quickly became clear that this sort of neoteny wasn’t a solution at all when I graduated and started working. Unless I devoted hours to training and disciplining my body every day, I would have to become an adult, and then I would look like my parents. In other words, I would carry my weight in a way that gendered me.

People my age might have been able to look past my body and accept my self-presentation while we were in the comfortable cocoon of a university campus, but the workplace was a different world. Being hit with gendered pronouns and expectations that didn’t fit me turned my job search into a painful gauntlet of body dysmorphia, and this continued into my early career. To add insult to injury, I was forced to go into debt in order to replace my professional wardrobe as my body underwent a transformation that I was powerless to fight. Between my economic precarity and the omnipresent sense that I didn’t belong in my own body, I felt like a monster.

Many people in their twenties struggle to find their place in the world, no matter their shape or gender, but this process can be especially difficult for people whose bodies don’t conform to the dictates of neoliberal capitalism, which holds that each individual is entirely responsible for their own success. Even liberal-leaning workplaces can be filled with constant reminders of an ideology that holds that “fit” and “attractive” people are more self-disciplined and thus more worthy of respect and professional success. This is a toxic cultural soup to have to swim through, and it affected my self-perception in strange ways that I didn’t fully understand when I was younger.

I began to see my body as something that needed to be hidden away, preferably sealed within a cave or locked inside a basement. Comics and movies with strong elements of body horror resonated with me, the gorier and more offensive the better. Body positivity was nothing more than a set of empty platitudes in the face of the unpleasantness of my lived experience, and pulp horror was the only way I could process what I was going through. When I played video games, I would see myself in the monsters that attacked my avatar. It felt good to hunt and kill these monsters, and to hate the fantastic evil they represented instead of the mundane evil of my colleagues, who made tasteless jokes about diets and using the “wrong” bathroom.  

I rediscovered H.P. Lovecraft late one night after a particularly grueling day at work. I had never been impressed by Lovecraft’s stories of purloined indigenous relics cursing the gentry of rural New England, but I was in the mood for mindless escapism, so I started reading The Shadow over Innsmouth. Although Lovecraft would disavow his racism toward the end of his short life, his xenophobia is on full display in this novella, whose protagonist discovers the “horror” of his mixed-species ancestry while on an architectural tour of New England. At the end of the story, when he is no longer able to conceal his piscine heritage, he decides to embrace his heritage and join the others of his kind under the sea.

For many of Lovecraft’s readers, the narrator’s decision to forsake the last remnants of his humanity inspires a sense of dread, but it filled me with awe and wonder. Lovecraft’s narrator had always felt strange and different, and he had initially been struck with intense anxiety and fear when he realized his genetic destiny. The ending of the story didn’t seem tragic to me, however. After escaping from the confines of human society, the scholarly young man was finally able to see the antiquities that fascinated him with his own exophthalmic eyes. How cool was that?

And was I any different, really? Would I be able to come to terms with my difference and enter a magical city under the waves, like the Little Mermaid in reverse?

It took a few years, but I eventually made peace with my body – the way it’s shaped, the way it moves, and the power it gives me to survive in a world filled with wolves and winters. Still, I had to fight for my pride and self-confidence, and these battles weren’t always pleasant or empowering. It’s impossible to describe the liminal state of transformation when I was neither a person nor a fish, trapped somewhere between human and monster, but perhaps a modern fairy tale can attempt to do it justice. After all, there’s a certain charm to Lovecraft’s young scholar who discovers a world he never imaged, just as there’s an immense appeal in the ancient sea witch who teaches the teenage mermaid just how highly her voice is valued.

As a nonbinary person navigating a world that insists on categorizing everything according to normative standards of gender-appropriate “attractiveness,” I never stopped feeling like a monster, but I’ve learned to embrace my monstrosity. I may not be a prince or a princess, or even an androgynous little mermaid, but that’s for the best. All things considered, I rather enjoy being a sharp-toothed sea creature with many voices and a capacity for dramatic metamorphosis.

Falling Out of Love with Teaching

Dear Professor,

I’ve enjoyed your class this semester, but I need to prioritize other demands on my time during the exam period. Could you tally my grade and let me know if I can pass this class without submitting the final paper?

Please reply at your earliest convenience.

Best regards,

[Name Redacted]

I fell out of love with teaching during the exact moment I opened this email from an undergraduate student. My disillusionment with academia has always been present in varying degrees since the beginning of my career, but the shift in my belief in the value of my work was sudden and complete, like flicking off a light switch before going outside.

Professors famously enjoy complaining that their students are lazy, and I couldn’t agree less. Having taught at various colleges and universities in the United States, it’s been my experience that the kids are all right, actually. There are always going to be a few students in every class who don’t make any secret of the fact that they’d rather not be there. Still, most undergrads are hardworking and earnest young adults who have grand dreams but are painfully aware of their low likelihood of achieving success. They’re intelligent, they’re socially conscious, and they’re almost frighteningly talented. Unfortunately, for most of them, their prospects aren’t great.

As of 2021, the average annual cost of a four-year college in the United States is $35,770, and the vast majority of college students owe at least $30,000 in student debt when they graduate. The employment opportunities for recent graduates aren’t great, regardless of whether they major in the Humanities or a STEM field. Ambitious students aiming for salaried positions are often forced to enroll in a graduate degree program. Others continue to accept unpaid or underpaid internships after graduation as they chase the chance of a stable job that offers a livable wage. During their hunt for a decent job, many recent graduates feel compelled to move far away from their family and friends, breaking both their intimate social ties and the networks of connections that college life is supposed to facilitate. Any way you look at it, it’s a bleak picture.  

I teach classes about contemporary media cultures in East Asia. The discipline tends to attract Business students and STEM majors who’d like to minor in the Humanities for personal reasons but feel as though they need to justify their choice on a resume. Most of my students aren’t white, and many of them have explained that they’re interested in histories and cultures that aren’t Anglo-European. Some of them have admitted to wanting to learn about the country their family immigrated from in a space that’s mostly separate from the complications of the relationships they have with their parents and grandparents. It can be tricky to occupy to the position of teaching someone about their own culture, but it’s been a pleasure and an honor to stand behind my students during their journeys.  

What I feel that I owe to these young people, the gifted and the mediocre students alike, is to help them make their way in the world. A professor publishes research and teaches classes, but it’s also our job to create connections for our students. We write letters, we make phone calls, we introduce our students to the right people, we send them applications to programs that align with their goals and interests, and we help them win grants and scholarships and paid internships. When necessary, we do battle against the bureaucracy of the university administration on their behalf.

What students get out of our classes isn’t necessarily the acquisition of concrete knowledge, but rather a framework for dealing with the world on both an intellectual and a practical level. In the end, even if our students don’t become specialists in our fields, they will hopefully have a pleasant experience learning about how beautiful and complicated and interesting the world can be.

That’s what I thought, at least, right up until the point I lost my job at a public university during the pandemic. After I was notified that my contract wouldn’t be renewed, I was able to find a part-time job at the sort of well-funded private university that can afford to hire temp workers during a pandemic. Although I’d gotten my degrees at places like this, actually teaching there was an altogether different experience. Many of my students, at twenty years old, have a higher net worth than I will ever have at any point in my life. They know it, and they made sure that I know it as well.

For all the magic of teaching and learning, higher education in the United States is a tool of social and economic privilege. The rich use it to maintain their wealth, while it causes the lower and middle classes to become poorer. The undergraduate students who go to colleges that aren’t “top twenty schools” work hard and take on massive amounts of debt in order to have access to something that students born into wealth feel entitled to. No matter what my intentions may have been when I entered academia, no “decolonizing the classroom” initiatives, job placements, or glowing recommendation letters can account for that fact that I function as a cog in an engine of inequality. To add insult to injury, my salary isn’t even that high. American universities espouse a neoliberal ideology of “personal commitment to teaching and service,” which functions as a means of justifying their exploitation of the precarious labor of instructors.

In other words, my career in academia was like an abusive relationship. I kept telling myself that it would get better, but this was little more than a fantasy that supported my idealistic but naïve view of higher education in the United States. Nothing made this clearer to me than reading my first “please reply at your earliest convenience” email from a student who saw our power dynamic for what it was and had no qualms about using the privilege of his position to negotiate a grade.

You may be wondering how I responded. I allowed the student to pass the class without completing the work, of course. The way I see it, you either do things for love or money, and I’m not being paid enough to care.

Invitation of Bread

I moved to Philadelphia during the pandemic. My building had recently been renovated, and my husband and I were the first people to occupy our apartment. Unfortunately, an internet cable hadn’t been installed before we moved in. Since we’re on the top floor, the Comcast technicians would have had to go through everyone’s apartment under ours to run the line, which wasn’t going to happen during the lockdown.

Now that Philadelphia has gotten people vaccinated and lifted its pandemic restrictions, we were able to get Comcast to run a cable up to our apartment, and we finally have internet. Hooray!

During the lockdown, my husband and I watched a lot of old DVDs, and all of the DVDs I own are anime. I have a list of horror movies that I want to check out, but the habit of watching anime has become so ingrained that I turned on my newly online PS4 and went straight to Crunchyroll. Most of what’s currently streaming is the usual shōnen and isekai nonsense, but there’s also a cute slice-of-life series with 15-minute episodes called Let’s Make a Mug Too about an all-female high school pottery club. This anime features the antics of cute girls doing cute things in between sessions of talking about their feelings, and it was clearly financed by the regional tourism promotion board of the city of Tajimi in Gifu prefecture. My husband, who is the director of an internationally prestigious graduate program, unironically loves every character in this show and watches an episode every evening.

In fact, he loves it so much that he’s started writing (in his head) his own anime. It’s called “Invitation of Bread,” and it’s about three thirty-something women who open a bakery in west Tokyo. Given that my husband never watched anime before we moved to Philadelphia last June, the premise is surprisingly solid, and I’d like to share it.

. . . . . . . . . .

Yumi is a 35-year-old housewife who decides to open a small bakery in Jiyugaoka, an upscale neighborhood to the west of Tokyo. Her architect husband leaves his firm and starts working from home so that he can help take care of their ten-year-old son, Haruki.

Yumi’s cheerful and energetic best friend from high school, Chie, is an accounts manager for a restaurant supply company, where she is constantly harassed by gross older men. When Yumi goes to Chie to inquire about outfitting the bakery, she listens to Chie’s tales of woe and invites her to become her partner in the business.

Chie happily accepts the invitation, and she and Yumi open a bakery together. They decide to call their new business Pan no Kangei, which means something like “the warm sense of welcome you feel when a restaurant offers you freshly baked bread” but is officially translated as “Invitation of Bread.”

An upperclassman whom Yumi and Chie admired in high school, Sakamoto-san, works in the editorial department of a lifestyle magazine, and she visits the bakery to write an article. Sakamoto-san is beautiful and intelligent, but she is unhappy at her job because she feels as though the long hours she puts into writing for the magazine don’t leave her time for the creative work she always dreamed of doing. Yumi and Chie invite her to be the third partner in the business, so she leaves her corporate job and takes on the task of managing the bakery’s branding and social media accounts while working out her surprisingly violent frustrations on the bread dough every morning.

In every episode, Yumi and her friends try their hand at creating a new menu item, but they sometimes have trouble getting it right. They’re aided by a German sports reporter named Lars who lives in the neighborhood. While taking his Golden Retriever Lola out on walks, Lars visits the bakery and encourages the three women by telling them stories about the origins of various European pastries.

In the second half of the season, the bakery takes on a high school student named Momoka as a part-time worker. Momoka is the older sister of one of Hakuri’s friends, and she’s a video game otaku who has trouble talking with people. Yumi was also shy as a teenager, so she sympathizes. She invites Momoka to spend a few afternoons helping out at the bakery after school, and Momoka’s fantasies of heroes and monsters serve as the inspirations for several new confections.

Although the Pan no Kangei bakery gets off to a somewhat rocky start, by the end of the season it has become a neighborhood favorite, as well as a space for Yumi, Chie, and Sakamoto-san to reignite their high school friendship and rediscover the joy of the dreams they had when they were younger.

. . . . . . . . . .

You know, it’s funny. I remember when I first learned that the target audience of anime about cute girls doing cute things is white-collar professional men in their thirties and forties. I didn’t believe it then, but I totally get it now. Many people (including myself) watch violent sci-fi anime as a form of escapism, but there’s also a definite appeal in a more low-key and relaxing fantasy of good-natured young women who don’t have anything to worry about save for what sort of delicious snack they’re going to eat while enjoying each other’s company. If nothing else, this sort of thing kept me sane during the pandemic, so I’m disinclined to judge its inanity too harshly.

By the way, if you’re interested, these are my husband’s top five favorite anime:

1. Weathering With You
2. Whisper of the Heart
3. From Up on Poppy Hill
4. Penguin Highway
5. Azumanga Daioh