Sophie, You’re Beautiful!

mattdefaultMatthew Henry Smith ’16

I was home for dinner on Sunday night. My Dad had his jazz music going in the kitchen where he was baking breaded fish and potatoes. My Mom was sitting with me in the living room asking about school and boys and activities (she’s not like a regular mom; she’s a cool mom). She asked if there were clubs at PC that I would consider joining if I had a little more time.

“Have you ever thought about trying out for Friars Club?”

“I mean, sure. They’re great people who do great things. But there is one club that’s first on my list if I ever get the time to join.”

“Which one, Matt?”

“The Anime Club!”

Well, there it is. Everything is out in the open now. My dirty little secret, the thing that I’ve been keeping locked up inside is that I’m all about anime.

The thing about animes is that, aside from being visually stunning, they incorporate valuable themes and lessons. These themes are conveyed through thematic, particularly difficult life situations often experienced by characters who are children. I grew up watching these children and marveling at their bravery, integrity, maturity and other-centeredness. Certainly Hercules, Aladdin, and Mulan were cool. But as role models they were relatively one dimensional and the lessons in their stories were predictable.

But animes… they’ve got far more going on. To give some examples, Akira contrasts the concepts of Power and God. Spirited Away is all about Friendship, Family and Courage. Princess Mononoke addresses the struggle between the immediate well being of people and the long-term goals of environmentalism (it’s also an eco-feminism piece). Neon Genesis Evangelion takes the viewer on an adventurous survey through the reality of competing wills and motivations, and critiques the purpose of community service.

Sometimes, unlike Disney[1] but a lot like life, an anime doesn’t wrap up neatly and pleasantly. Being in college has had me referencing these themes and lessons I observed in my youth as they now become applicable to my life and relationships.

Howl’s Moving Castle is a story that has recently been on my mind. Based very loosely on a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, this Anime is the story of a modest, demure girl named Sophie who works in a hat shop. A witch comes in at closing one evening and curses Sophie to appear as an old woman. Engulfed misery about her condition, Sophie goes to work as a cleaning lady for a disreputable young wizard named Howl who suffers a curse of his own; he has sold his soul to a shooting star in exchange for the power to stop a war. Quite a pair they make, Sophie bemoaning her unconventional looks and Howl crying dramatically when he accidently dyes his hair the wrong color.

The thing is that Sophie and Howl fall in love with each other.

Now, everyone has insecurities. I don’t consider myself uniquely insecure. All the same, I think that the question Sophie and Howl pose is fairly universal: how do you love someone, encourage them to be confident, tell them they are beautiful when you don’t believe it about yourself.

Well, this anime offers answers that question. Unlike an unfortunately idyllic  “Made in the USA” romance that would have Ariel voicelessly being saved by a man she hardly knows, Howl and Sophie do something quite different. They save each other.

This begins with a somewhat whimsical “odd-couple” dynamic as they wreak harmless havoc in each other’s lives. But when they start fall in love, it happens that each is abundantly aware of the other’s inadequacies. Their love is a balance struck between supportive understanding and constructive challenges. It isn’t hyper-romantic. It’s real love.

Disney did us all a disservice. Even if you’re from the most privileged background, you’re not going to get the fairy-tale ending they set us up for. They gave us gender roles set us straight on the course for a marriage based on the quivering foundation of cinema magic.

But animes set you on a course for whatever might happen: death, love, mental illness, sexuality, unconventional family structures, old friends, faithlessness, Christ, etc. They gave me some tools that Disney chose not to. They’ve come in handy time and time again, and I’m pretty grateful.

I encourage you to try animes, or to dust off the ones you perhaps denied ever watching. After all, you never know when you’ll find a witch in your own hat shop.

[1] Disney International actually distributed Howl’s Moving Castle in the United States, but they did not have a hand in its conception.


Check In On Each Other

AbbyDefaultAbby Hevert ’15

And so I turn on the TV and flip to CNN to see what is happening in the world. I do this regularly and often see similar headlines about the same things. Economic crises, problems in the Middle East, and reelections are common threads of knowledge interwoven on the screen. However, disturbingly enough, a new headline is regularly emerging. “20 Children Killed in Newtown,” “TSA Agent Shot,” “Massachusetts School Teacher Murdered by Student.” So, sadly, a new headline becomes commonplace: death at the hands of a gunperson.

So are we more violent than we have been in the past? My best guess: probably not. Throughout the history of the world people have consciously decided to kill others. This is nothing new. Evil has always existed in this world and we would be hard-pressed to eradicate it. However, I have recently noticed the apparent randomness that shooters exhibit. Why kill twenty little children? Why settle your scores with the government by killing a TSA agent? Why is it that people make the most dramatic of statements by taking the lives of other breathing individuals? What is the motive? More importantly, what is the message? This may sound strange, but perhaps the most important message is:

Pay attention to me. For the love of God, pay attention to me. 

So they eventually get our attention. Most of the time it’s too late because they decide to take their own lives as well. But think about it: a dramatic shooting in a public place is not the same thing as a covert murder by the means of poison or some other discrete substance. A public shooting is a statement. It is a cry for attention. This may be a stretch and I know that some will disagree, but I believe that it is a cry for help.

Every person exists in context. Except for sociopaths and psychopaths, all people can do things and feel some sort of reaction after. Every action that we take is never in isolation. It is always a result of something else. If we are tired, we sleep. If we are sad, we cry. If we are feeling isolated, we shrink away even more. If we are feeling abandoned, we try to get noticed. Because human beings are wired for connection, it makes sense that people will try to get attention from other people. It also makes sense that we cry out for help. This is when I start to wonder: What would have happened to all of these victims if someone had taken the time to ask the shooter: “are you okay? What is really going on here? You seem upset. Let’s talk.”

And no, I am not sympathizing with evildoers. In a way, I am trying to seek the answers that so many victims never get the chance to learn. People need other people to check in on them. Concern, even in its slightest form, can sustain people. It can let people know that they are valuable. It gives people a form of expression that allows for unhappiness to be conveyed and concerns expressed. It can prevent evil. It does not always, but it is my firm belief that love and concern can deter horror. Now, people will always do what they want to do. Some people will continue to kill other people, despite the best efforts of family and friends. But why not err on the side of caution? Check in on each other.

If you see someone upset, ask why. When you hear your friend crying don’t shy away from her, run toward her. Extend hugs, give smiles, open doors. Check in on each other. Love. Listen. Share tears and memories. Check in on each other. Ask about families. Remember the important dates of death and birth. Check in on each other. Give attention. Ask about the ex-girlfriend. Check in on each other.

This is not to say that all people who are sad, stressed, or anxious will kill other people. It is only a small minority who will be tragically moved to do so. But just as we are living in a society that spawns random acts of violence, I also believe that we are living in a society of emotional scarcity. We rarely decide to ask the tough questions and endure the tough answers. This is unfortunate as connection is how we truly live. Connection is how we discover the capacities of others and ourselves. So check in on each other.

You are too important. Your friend is too valuable. The world needs each and every one of us far too much to risk losing any of us to the hands of another person.

So please, for the love of God, check in on each other. 

I See You, Tiger

mattdefaultMatthew Henry Smith ’16

Over the weekend I enjoyed the great pleasure of attending the Student Diversity Summit at Bentley University. The event was directed by Dr. Maura Cullen, author of 35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say.

Up until the Summit, I’d been having a rough go of it. People had been scrutinizing the methods my compatriots and I were using to bring about change on campus. I had been harassed. Students who had joined together in vocal solidarity had become largely unwilling to make more difficult commitments to the ideals they had declared their espousal of. A member of the administration, erroneously assuming that I speak for all LGBTQQIAA people on campus, sent me an email asking to sit down and discuss my opinion of things going on at PC these days regarding that community (and then proceeded weeks later to direct me to his receptionist in order to make an appointment). I’d heard people here discussing “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” as if it’s some progressive ideology, (when essentially all it does is get you fixating on and assuming things about your peer’s sexual activity). I was bitter that it was falling upon the shoulders of the queer kids in the room to ask all of the hardest-hitting questions.

But beyond this I had a gut feeling that people were looking at me as if my sexual orientation was a civic gimmick. Worse than being tokenized as the gay best friend, I was being tokenized as some sort of overzealous and eccentric political entity. It was alienating, and I was wondering where those who had proudly participated in Fighting for Academic Freedom had evaporated to, choosing now to refrain from entering the fray of righteous controversy.

So, harboring a toxic dose of isolating despair, I took my seat at the Summit on Friday. There were cheers and whoops and hollers about diversity and how our differences make us wonderful and beautiful and all of the stuff that by now I was too aloof in my misery to care about.

But then Dr. Cullen took the stage. With patient grace, kindness and modesty, she quickly went to work debunking my exasperation. Throughout the day she taught us all that our passion about this was part of a canon of advocacy that preceded us, that our allied status was not some special or exclusive social rank but something to be shared. She urged us to see the good intentions in others and to see them as potential allies even when their mode of participation may seem lacking. This was a tune I had not yet heard, and I began to think.

I began thinking about floor meeting my sophomore year opened with. The residence had to draft a community agreement. No one said anything about homophobic hate speech or slurs. I had been the target of hate speech before, and while I knew kids there knew I was gay and that most of them probably did not care, I still wanted something said. But I felt uncomfortable, like saying something would make me that awkward politically correct guy on the floor. So I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to be a buzz kill. Remembering my passive discomfort, I began to empathize a little bit with apathy.

I decided to write about this because I wanted to share the experience I had at the conference with all of you. Sometimes we need an epiphany to get ourselves back to work, so do with this what you will:

Folks, for people like me this isn’t a hobby. This isn’t a lifestyle: it’s a life. You aren’t a feminist, a queer liberationist, an environmentalist, or any of the dreaded “ists” if you are so merely by an internalized understanding of yourself. Advocacy is not state of mind: it is the spectrum of action that spans from speaking up at a floor meeting to prison and death. Sometimes we slip up in spite of our best intentions but we need to remember that we depend on one another; not so much to be saved but to be supported. So while it is my duty to look for an Ally in everyone, it is yours to see one in yourself. You have to earn your stripes, but I truly and honestly believe in you to do so. There’s still Tiger for justice in all of you. I see you, Tiger.