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

American Dream, New Jersey

True to my ambition to visit abandoned malls in New Jersey once I got vaccinated, I went to the American Dream mall in East Rutherford.

The mall is located across the river from Manhattan on a gargantuan plot of land that’s been in development since 2003, and you can get a good eyeful of the massive scale of complex while driving on I-95 towards the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. From what I understand, the state of New Jersey has been working with various developers to create an attraction that will draw consumer spending money from the city and convince out-of-town tourists to spend the night in a hotel in New Jersey instead of New York, and the amount of money invested is in the billions of dollars. Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey, allocated hundreds of millions of dollars of yearly subsidies into the seeing the development completed, which allowed it to project an opening in early 2020… and then the pandemic hit.

Parts of the mall are still under construction, and not all of its retail spaces are occupied, but it’s now open to the public. It is very new and very shiny. The pure white walls and floors gleam under soft white light, and there are fresh-cut flowers and public art everywhere. The empty storefronts and closed-off corridors are hidden by paneling covered in unique and gorgeous graphics, and there are all sorts of interesting pieces of modern furniture in the atrium areas. The soap in the literally sparkling-clean bathrooms is high-quality foam that smells like a garden in springtime.

The shopping seems to be relatively upscale, and the anchor stores are European chains like Primark and H&M. It’s not open yet, but there’s going to be an H-Mart in the basement, which I think is probably a nod to the East Asian retail strategy of having fancy grocery stores in shopping centers. It seems that the mall is also going to have a “luxury wing,” but it hasn’t yet been completed. They’re probably going to charge for parking in the future, but right now it’s free.

What makes this mall unique is that it also has a snowboarding hill, an ice skating rink, two mini golf courses, a Nickelodeon-branded theme park for little kids, and a huge and beautiful DreamWorks-branded water park in a huge and beautiful tropical biodome. There are a few other attractions that are still getting set up, like an aquarium that looks like it’s going to fit the aesthetic of being huge and beautiful and heavily themed in an offbeat artistic way that appeals to younger kids. If I understand the map correctly, the aquarium will have a giant ocean tunnel that will let you walk through a fantasy of a postapocalyptic underwater New York City, which is a bit morbid but still pretty cool.

And this entire place is completely empty. Just, completely empty. Except for a skeleton crew of retail employees at the stores and a few maintenance staff tending to the plants and flowers, there’s no one in the mall. American Dream looks like the international terminal of an airport if humans were to suddenly disappear from the face of the earth – very shiny and modern and clean, but deserted.

Anyway, now I’m wondering how you get the job of being a member of the gardening staff at a high-end abandoned mall that was a ruin before it even opened, because the people I saw tending to the plants and misting the flowers looked very peaceful and happy. It was some next-level Studio Ghibli magic, like Castle in the Sky except real.

If anyone asks, being a gardener in the ruins of capitalism is very much where I would like to see myself in five years.

This Vaccine Is Super Chill, Friends

I’ve been seeing here and there that the Covid-19 vaccine is a giant shot that really hurts and knocks you out afterwards, but none of that is true. It’s very chill and painless and stress-free.

I’m deathly afraid of needles, but this wasn’t a big deal, even for me. Just in case anyone has anxiety about this vaccine, I want to add my voice to the chorus of people saying that there’s nothing to worry about.

The needle isn’t big at all, and the shot takes literally a second. It’s not painful, just a tiny touch of ice on your shoulder. I experienced a slight fever and some wooziness during the afternoon and evening after the vaccine, but the symptoms were mild and had totally disappeared when I woke up the next morning. My arm was a bit sore the day after, but it wasn’t painful; it was just like the feeling you get after pushing your limits a little during a weightlifting session. There was no bruise at all.

Everyone in the impromptu clinic was very friendly and kept thanking me for showing up and being there. They took social distancing seriously without being weird about it or performing hygiene theater, which I appreciated. All of the doctors and nurses were bizarrely healthy-looking and attractive in the way that healthcare professionals often are when they’re not at the end of some horrible hellshift. I got a big glossy sticker and a little vaccine passport card at the end of the fifteen-minute observation period, and they are both very handsome.

As a nonbinary person, I’ve had a lot of trouble with the medical system in the past, but none of that nonsense applies to this situation. No one is going to force you to check a binary gender box or ask for your deadname or try to shame you about your identity or appearance or “gender-appropriate” weight; they just want to help you get vaccinated. Even if you have trauma associated with doctors and needles, you’ll be okay.

Overall, getting vaccinated was a pleasant experience. If nothing else, you can use it as an excuse to order a pizza and spend the rest of the day in bed playing video games, which is totally what I did.

The clinic I visited at UPenn was on the second-floor basketball court of the university gym, but I’ve been hearing about vaccine clinics that have been set up in mostly abandoned malls in New Jersey and elsewhere around the United States, and damn that sounds cool. I’ve added “visiting mostly abandoned malls in New Jersey” to the list of things I want to try once I’m fully vaccinated, and I’m looking forward to it. There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to doing, actually, and I’m relieved and happy to have taken this step forward to being able to enjoy them while living my best and most interesting post-pandemic life.

So no worries, friends. Even if your anxiety is as awful as mine, you’ll be fine.

You got this.

We Should Improve Society Somewhat

This is my take on the viral Matt Bors comic. Someone actually said this to me about two years ago, and since then their comment has been living in my head rent-free. With this comic I hereby evict that unpleasantness and release it back into the wild.

I started drawing this comic earlier this year and finished it just to get it out of my drafts folder. In the time since I completed the line art, I made a firm decision to limit the negativity I post on social media. To be honest, most of the experiences that have had a major impact on my life during the past several years have been negative, but I’m not sure there’s any real use or meaning in representing them directly through autobiographical essays and comics. Instead, I’ve found much more satisfaction and catharsis in constructing analogies through the medium of fiction.

Also, I think there are a not insignificant number of people in the world (including the “yet you have a job” person) who tend to latch onto negativity to make bad-faith arguments about topics that could benefit from more nuance. Now that I’m at a stage of my life where I’m considering working on more collaborative projects, I’d prefer to keep that sort of interpersonal drama to a minimum. Thankfully, I’m in a better place now than I was when I started drawing this comic, and I hope the person who wrote this in response to one of my essays is in a better place too.

Still – fuck capitalism.

Wizard Pants

Today is Monday, March 8. It’s supposed to get warm tomorrow, but it’s not there yet. It’s probably starting to be gorgeous in DC – this is the time of year when the plum trees bloom, and the cherries and dogwoods are right around the corner – but I am past the point in my life when I think it’s reasonable to pay $3k a month for a rent-controlled one-bedroom apartment. So now I live in West Philadelphia, which is beautiful in its own way, but it’s far enough north that there are still nasty piles of snow in the CVS parking lot.

This weekend my husband was a human slug that lumped around on the couch and rewatched old seasons of The Wire, and he was starting to get depressed from lack of sunlight. I wanted to take him on a field trip, but it’s Philadelphia. Where is there to go?

And then it hit me – Four Seasons Total Landscaping.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is in northeast Philadelphia, a little up I-95 as it follows the Delaware River headed toward Trenton. Because it’s right on the river and right off the interstate, this used to be a manufacturing district, but now all the factories are closed and boarded shut. There’s no traffic, and everything is just sort of quietly rusting away. The roads are wide and obviously meant to accommodate tractor-trailer trucks, but they’re completely empty. Local rail lines cross above the roads on bridges, but they’re also rusting and falling down in places. It’s a little creepy and probably super dangerous.

Four Seasons Total Landscaping is on one of these big roads. As reported, it is indeed across the street from a crematorium and next door to an adult video store. The crematorium is surprisingly tasteful, and the adult video store was surprisingly busy on a Sunday afternoon. There was nothing much to see at Four Seasons Total Landscaping itself, save for an excessive amount of barbed wire on the chain-link fence in front of their parking lot and a sign out front that says they’re hiring.

The way I understand it, the Trump campaign choosing Four Seasons Total Landscaping as a venue was a characteristically stupid mistake, but this area of Philadelphia is also the only part of the city that consistently votes Republican. It’s about 85% “white,” but the majority of these people are either immigrants or the children of immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe, and the former Soviet countries in Central Asia.

So, sitting in our car on the street outside Four Seasons Total Landscaping, we googled “Russian grocery store.” We struck gold with a place called NetCost Market, which is apparently the Eastern European equivalent of H-Mart (by which I mean large and a bit upscale but with mostly foreign brand-name products). They had a Halal butcher and a bunch of kosher food, and I have never seen such a prodigious gathering of meat and cheese and pickled fish in my entire life. They also had enormous displays of German chocolate and Northern European (mainly Russian) herbal tea, and it was all ridiculously inexpensive. We filled a shopping basket and walked out of the store having paid less than $40.

That’s not the story, though. The story is that there was a Dollar General in the same shopping center. I don’t know what Dollar General stores are like in the rest of the country, but in Philadelphia they’re all over the place and where you go to get paper goods (like toilet paper) when the neighborhood CVS or Rite Aid invariably doesn’t have any in stock. They’re super sad and depressing but also super cheap, and they’re like the Wild West in that you never know what fell off the back of a truck somewhere and is currently on sale.

Since the Dollar General was right there, and since we already had the car, I was like, “Listen, I know this is supposed to be a fun day out, but we’re almost out of paper towels.” So we went into the Dollar General, and…

They had wizard pants.

I don’t know how else to describe them – dark blue and black pants covered with various patterns depicting stars, planets, and constellations. Some were high fantasy European, and some were more geometric West African, but they were all fabulous. It might be a stretch to call these pants “tasteful,” but the prints were beautiful. The fabric wasn’t the sort of rough flannel normally used for pajama pants, but a light synthetic cotton like yoga pants, except it was loose and flowing instead of tight and “shaping.” Each pair was $8 even.

My first thought was “holy shit,” which was quickly followed by the realization that I could probably buy these in bulk and resell them on Etsy for an enormous markup. (Which I would never do because that’s too much trouble and lol what, am I going to use myself as a model.) And then I thought, But why is American athletic clothing and longuewear always so gray and boring? Why doesn’t everyone own at least one pair of wizard pants?

So I’m just standing there, right in the middle of the store, staring at these pants and having galaxy brain thoughts, and my husband comes up with the paper towels and is like, “Please hurry up and pick one so we can leave.”

And that’s how I got myself a snazzy pair of wizard pants. They are magical and I love them very much.

I have never seen wizard pants at any other Dollar General location, but I promise this is a real place. It’s the store in the shopping center with the NetCost Market at 2417 Welsh Road.

By the way, when I say that Dollar General is super depressing, what I mean is that it has a bare-bones interior with ghastly fluorescent lighting. The stores are always comically understaffed, so the shelves are in total disarray while there’s just one lonely person at the check-out counter. I used to work at Walmart, and to me Dollar General looks like it’s just a stockroom with no sales floor, by which I mean there’s no attempt to make the space pleasant and inviting. They also sell highly processed American junk food in bulk, which is depressing in a way that runs much deeper than the immediate shopping experience.

I suspect that some people will read what I wrote about Dollar General and jump to the conclusion that I think working-class people are depressing. I actually don’t have much money myself, and the point of my story is that traversing an urban landscape becomes much more interesting when you put stereotypes and generalizations aside in favor of thinking about the histories of specific communities and the daily experiences of the people who live there. I am not slumming it, or whatever, by going to the grocery store in a different neighborhood as a fun day out.

That being said.

These wizard pants transcend social and economic class. They also transcend time and space. They are fantastic and amazing. I don’t know where they came from or where they’re going, but it is a privilege and an honor to accompany them on their journey.

Anyway. I lived in Philadelphia on and off for seven or eight years before moving to DC, but I’m just now realizing that I don’t know the city very well. It will be nice to get out more once the weather gets warmer and we all get properly vaccinated.

Whisper of the Heart


My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.

A Christmas Story

My husband is a fan of British football, and his hobby is to scroll through Twitter on his phone while he watches pirate livestreams of matches on his laptop. If I happen to be in the room at the same time, he’ll sometimes read me news headlines from Twitter.

This past Friday morning, he informed me that Visa and Mastercard are no longer accepting charges from Pornhub. “But isn’t Pornhub free?” I asked him. “Maybe they have premium content,” he said. I wanted to ask who pays for “premium content” on Pornhub, but my tea was done brewing and I had emails to write.

Along with British football, my husband is a fan of Germany. I’m not sure how this happened, but I think I can guess.

One summer my husband was scheduled to give a paper at an academic conference in Europe, and we flew through Amsterdam because flights were cheap. My husband wanted to stay in the city for a few days until he got over the jetlag, so he rented an Airbnb in a student apartment at the top of a townhouse. It was high summer, and the apartment didn’t have air conditioning, and I was tired, so I complained. “This is how people do things in Europe,” he said, and I said, “Amsterdam is budget Europe.”

For the record, I don’t actually think Amsterdam is “budget Europe.” I like Amsterdam a lot, and I love the Netherlands in general. To geek out a little, I’m interested in how “science” developed in the Edo period, especially through what people at the time called “Dutch learning.” While the Japanese were studying Dutch medicine and culture, the Dutch were also studying Japanese medicine and culture, and it’s so cool to see the legacy of that exchange in Holland, especially in its botanical gardens. The comics subculture in the Netherlands is also really interesting, and I’ve had nothing but fantastic experiences talking with the artists and writers I’ve met there.

So Amsterdam is not “budget Europe,” obviously. I was just being a brat.

My husband’s pride was offended, however, so before we flew back to the United States he decided to rent a car and go to “not budget Europe,” which he had apparently designated as Germany. Specifically, he wanted to go to the kebab shop that the former Arsenal star player Lukas Podolski opened in the city of Cologne. So we went, and Cologne was beautiful, and the kebabs were delicious, and we got fresh bread at a nearby bakery that ended up being some of the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. It was a fun drive, and we had a good time, and now my husband is in love with Germany.

After watching his football match, my husband informed me that he wanted to get German food for lunch at the “Christmas village” that the city of Philadelphia has set up in front of the City Hall building. Despite the city of Philadelphia being what it is – saying “budget New York” might sound mean, but I’m proud to live here and say it with affection – the German-themed carnival set up around City Hall is quite nice.

I staked out a table and remained there to hold down the fort while my husband stood in line to get beer and borscht and wienerschnitzel. It didn’t take long for me to realize that no one else was eating lunch at the German fair in the freezing cold at eleven on a Friday morning, so I had a good ten minutes to sit alone and listen to the pre-recorded Christmas music coming from the cheap speakers set up around the edges of the tables. It was awful. I’m not a fan of Christmas music to begin with, but this was something special. I think there’s brand-name Christmas music that gets played on broadcast radio, and then there’s Christmas music that’s cheaper to license. Budget Christmas music?

I was especially disturbed by a rendition of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that sounded as though it were being sung by a man who had a gun pointed at the back of his head. I’m not sure how to describe it, but you could tell from the tone of his voice that his smile wasn’t reaching his eyes.

The feeling this performance inspired in me was, “Is this person okay?”

I imagine that the singer probably wasn’t okay. What if he had gone to Julliard, thinking that he wanted to work with a professional choir one day? He might have even specialized in medieval Christian religious music. But there’s probably not a lot of demand for that sort of thing, especially not during a pandemic. So he calls in a favor and gets hired to record “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” for Xfinity Radio or whatever, and he hates every second of it. He made his life choices when he was still young and idealistic, and now his student loans have trapped him in an industry he despises more with each passing day.

He gets back to his apartment after the recording session and eats cheap take-out food that already got cold while he climbed the stairs to his walk-up, and he thinks about all the sacrifices he’s made to become a professional singer. All of his classmates used to go out drinking after performances, but he never did, not wanting to risk damage to his voice by yelling to be heard in a noisy bar. Most of his friends from high school who followed more practical paths into adulthood are already married, and some of them even have houses. He’s lonely, not to mention broke, and none of the thousands of hours he’s put into perfecting his craft have gotten him anywhere in life. He gives up on dinner and turns on his computer before deciding that it’s probably best not to check social media, not tonight. While he’s got his computer open, he might as well go to Pornhub. Try as he might, though, he just can’t seem to finish, and he thinks that he would do anything to be able to forget the decisions he made when he was younger and believed the world was a better place than it turned out to be.

And so, I thought as I sat by myself at a socially distanced table and listened to sad Christmas music echo across an empty parking lot in Philadelphia, that’s who pays for premium content on Pornhub. Except not anymore, apparently, because Visa and Mastercard have cut off all payments to the site.

Happy holidays!

Warding Off the Creepy

On November 3 of this year, I was refreshing feeds and doomscrolling, as one does while waiting for votes in swing states to be counted, when I got a rejection email from a progressive American sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Rejection emails are par for the course when it comes to submitting fiction to magazines, of course, but the timing could not have been worse. The wording of the email was also quite strong. I have a folder in Gmail that I’m slowly filling with rejections, but this particular email hurt more than it should have.

Still, I understand why rejection emails have to be written like this. There are just so many creepy people out there that you have to make your boundaries absolutely clear.

Case in point:

I’ve been receiving creepy “newsletters” from a random man since the beginning of the year. These letters come once a month through the mail, and the handwriting on the envelopes is just as creepy as the personal nature of the letters. I thought I would be free of these letters when I moved to Philadelphia and changed addresses, but the post office has been forwarding them to me instead of returning them to the sender.

There’s a fading culture of zine mailing lists that I think this person is trying to keep alive, but I don’t know him at all, and I don’t know how he got my mailing address, and getting these creepy letters with creepy handwriting is… Well, it’s creepy.

On getting another creepy letter in the mail the other day, I finally snapped and wrote this man a three-line email. I said that I know he means no harm, but to please stop sending me letters because this is creepy, and PLEASE DO NOT RESPOND TO THIS EMAIL. So of course he responds, immediately, saying that he did not mean to be creepy, etc etc etc etc etc, and it was… Yeah, it was super creepy.

Can you even imagine being the editor of a fiction magazine and having to deal with people like this? Of course rejection letters have to be strong.

(Still, couldn’t that magazine have waited a day or two after the election? Honestly.)

I recently read that, according to several university studies, men report that they’re more afraid of being called “creepy” than they are of being called just about anything else, including “stupid,” “ugly,” or “weak.” If I had to guess, I’d say that the anxiety surrounding creepiness has a lot to do with the perception that it’s hard to pin down what “being creepy” actually entails. I don’t think it’s that complicated, though. What “creepy” is all about, at least in this context, is uninvited and unwanted intimate personal contact that is repeated after not being reciprocated. Of course women and nonbinary people can be creepy too, but I suspect that the sense of entitlement many men seem to feel regarding their right to receive attention tends to exacerbate their creepy behavior.

Anyway, I’ve been disheartened by the unequivocally negative tone of some of the rejection emails I’ve received from fiction magazines, but I’m trying not to take it personally. After all, this isn’t about me and the quality of my work, but rather a preemptive attempt on the part of the editors to ward off the creepy.