Friday, June 21, 2013

Faking It

I have a problem. I keep pretending to fit in by trying to understand references that I don't fully know.

Here is an annotated list of things I've made jokes about that I haven't read, watched, played, or listened to:

- Kanye West
- Game of Thrones
- Mario Kart
- Bollywood films

Many of my friends are avid gamers, and yet I have never played video games. Many of my friends are addicted to shows such as Game of Thrones, Community, Doctor Who, House of Cards, Mad Men, and Downton Abbey. I have watched these shows only sparingly or not at all. I want to watch them, but I don't have the time.

I have this constantly nagging sensation that I don't belong. There's a pit in my stomach, as I agonize over my lack of cultural knowledge. Because I have a photographic memory and a ridiculously good sense for small details, I can read comments that people make about their favorite shows, books, and movies, and get a pretty good sense of what people like about their entertainment and what they find memorable - I don't typically know enough to have an in-depth conversation but I'll remember enough to laugh at inside jokes that only fans usually get and to deduce what happens next in shows without getting the spoilers first.

I am alternately dismayed and amused by my talents.

I've never been a primarily self-guided person - I've always been heavily influenced by other people, whether it's been my parents, my former church, my fellow Scouts, my school mates, my coworkers, or my college theater friends. When I was in school, I always found it annoying when teachers asked me to answer questions for them before being instructed in how to solve them.

While I now realize that these teachers were often teaching me how to think, I often felt at a disadvantage because these teachers were trying to get me to think in a way that is more difficult for me. My best thinking happens when I reconfigure things I hear and learn from other people and imaginatively rearrange them. Among the first CDs I ever got as gifts were Weird Al Yankovic's Running With Scissors and Allan Sherman's Greatest Hits. I respect the work of these parody artists, who substitute their own words in popular songs to produce jaw-droppingly awkward and subversively hilarious new interpretations.

I'd much rather learn what people believe is best and why they believe that, and then try to make the connections myself. Perhaps that is why I added a philosophy major when I was a college student. I've long been fascinated by how people construct their own realities. That leads me to ask whether my own efforts to construct reality are, in fact, a parody. That's a difficult question to tackle; let's agree to defer the follow-up question, asking if my parodies are genuine or ironic?

For me, claiming to be an individual has never been a natural or a self-evident act. I can see the fault lines where I added or subtracted various habits and fandoms to become who I am today, and I recognize the role of luck and contingency in my life so far. It just doesn't matter that much to me whether I'm riding the crest of a wave of popularity or favoring obscure pursuits that most people ignore or impugn.

Nevertheless, I'm eager to see how far I can push. How inventive can I be spurning the social boundaries of my generation, sparring with the popular imagination, and spurring strange new vistas of awareness? Or am I just rationalizing my own laziness to sound pretentious? The answer, of course, is in the act - in the knowledge of the act - and in the knowledge that, despite our best efforts, we are all actors in our own way.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Leap Into Song: "Rococo" by Arcade Fire

This is the third installment of my recurring "Leap Into Song" series, where I examine my thoughts about different songs and artists that have influenced me. Previously I have covered songs by Muse and Lady GaGa.

I've been getting more and more interested in Arcade Fire recently. I particularly enjoy their songs "Culture War", "Modern Man", and "Wake Up", but "Rococo" most of all strikes a chord with me.

As a philosophy and political science buff, I appreciate the implied digs at postmodernism and cynicism in the lyrics. The "modern kids" downtown are "using great big words they don't understand". Many times I have listened to this song and sympathetically exclaimed, "F*$% Derrida!". But that's just the first level of resonance I have with this song.

As a person with Asperger's Syndrome, I am often prone to fits of echolalia. To avoid being hypocritical by using a complex word without explaining myself, echolalia is "an automatic repetition of vocalizations" (according to Wikipedia). Further information about echolalia and other symptoms of autism can be found here and here. In my own life, I often repeat thoughts or sentences that I have just said - to myself or to people around me - or I'll keep returning to the same ideas over and over.

In "Rococo", Arcade Fire repeats variations of the word "rococo" over and over again, but they vary the notes, the length of the word, and the melodies behind the words. It's a very tasteful and affirmative similarity to echolalia. The way the saying of the word "rococo" becomes bolder and more confident throughout the song, the way that the music swells to a peak of's a wonderful synchronicity.

In a world where people are "moving towards you with their colors all the same", it's a positive thought to embrace many kinds of diversity, including neurodiversity. While I'm not at all sure that Arcade Fire is intentionally delivering this message, I have chosen to interpret "Rococo" in such a way that I find personally fulfilling and affirming.

I encourage all people to live their lives in a way that reflects strongly upon their own strengths, no matter what other obstacles they may face. I am thankful for the ability to imagine a positive vision of my life, including my unique features such as my occasional echolalia. These things that make me who I am are neither good nor bad, but they are something I want to celebrate, and I will continue to find ways to see the positive aspects of my personality. I am grateful, lastly, to Arcade Fire for making such great music which has helped me stay optimistic and feel more capable as a person.