Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Marriage, Anniversaries, and the Striking Down of DOMA

Today is a very special day. Today I celebrate my third anniversary of marriage. Today is also the day that the Supreme Court ruled the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional. I feel very privileged to share my anniversary with a day that I hope signals massive change in how we view the construct of marriage.

In the distant past, a wedding was a luxury generally afforded to the wealthy. Common law marriages were established so that the poor could still be considered married, even if they could not afford to go through the ritual of marriage. Even in more recent centuries, when the United States was expanding Westward, many towns did not have a church, and so couples would move in together and start their families, and have the wedding when a circuit rider (a pastor, usually of a Protestant denomination, who rode around preaching to the settlements) came around and could perform the ceremony - sometimes months or years later.

Today, weddings are still an expensive undertaking, but there are many options for people. Small wedding chapels, justice of the peace ceremonies - hell, you can even have Elvis marry you in Vegas, something I half-jokingly referenced multiple times while my fiance and I complained about wedding planning and its costs. A wedding, and marriage, is no longer a luxury of the very wealthy.

Instead, it is the luxury of the straight. It has been used as a new form of division,  this time not between the wealthy and the poor, but between the heterosexual and the homosexual. Say what you will about the religious underpinnings of the concept of marriage - the way we think of marriage today is as a contract between two willing parties. Two people who wish to be bound together in some way, whether that be under God, under the State, or all of the above. Even among people who generally think of marriage in the same way (say, as a contract under God), the definition of marriage will still vary widely. I'm sure my idea of marriage differs very much from others who share my faith and religious practice. It's a very personal concept and decision.

So even in the face of all that variability - as well as all the variability in opinions on gender roles (don't even get me started on that one - this blog post would be way too long) - why do so many people still insist that marriage is only to occur between a man and a woman? And further, why is there this belief that allowing a man to marry another man, or a woman to marry another woman, will somehow change the definition and meaning of a given couple's marriage? Like I said, the definition and meaning is a very personal thing. And nothing anyone else does can alter it.

I'm happy that I was able to marry my husband. And I'm happy that others, who have been denied this privilege in the past, will hopefully soon be able to share this institution.

Thoughtfully yours,

Monday, June 3, 2013

Willpower, Self-Regulation, and One NYU Professor's War on "Fatties"

You've locked yourself in your apartment, finally beginning to tackle the thing grad students dread, the stuff of nightmares, the fodder for PhD comics, the event grad schools create support groups about: your dissertation. But, gosh, that leftover piece of chocolate cake looks so tasty. Well, it will only take a minute to eat. At least, that's how I eat chocolate cake.

Okay, now that that's gone, time to get back to this dissertation thingy. Oh, but I have chips. And cheese. Nachos? Brilliant.

What was I doing? Oh yeah, dissertation. Oh, but I'm still hungry. Better get some food. Can't work hungry. Before you know it, the dissertation is but a foggy memory in your food binge coma.

Sound ridiculous? Not to this NYU professor:

You know, this tweet seemed fishy, until he hash-tagged it truth. Now it's indisputable.
I know what you're thinking. "Really, this guy has a PhD in psychology?" Unfortunately, perhaps he slept through the lesson on self-regulation. Self-regulation, or what some people might refer to as "willpower", is a cognitively demanding task, involving multiple processes, including self-monitoring (what am I doing?), social comparisons (what would I like to be doing or what should I be doing), and thought suppression (am I thinking about the thing I shouldn't be thinking about?). These processes require a great deal of our working memory, basically short term memory, which years of psychological research shows is a limited resource. Ever hear the expression "5 plus or minus 2"? That is the number of digits you can keep in your working memory at a time. That comes from a psychologist also, unfortunately, named Miller (George A. Miller, in fact), who hopefully would have been a bit more thoughtful in what he tweeted.

Some research does show that ability to self-regulate in childhood (usually measured by ability to forgo a small reward  - often sweets - for a larger reward later - often more sweets) has a significant correlation with ability to self-regulate later (frequently measured by achievements and completion of higher education, like a graduate degree). It's possible, then, that Miller did pay attention to this lesson, but got the wrong message. This research does not support (or even say) that children who like to eat a lot are unlikely to obtain higher degrees. The studies are simply operationalizing their concepts using things kids can understand; children, regardless of their weight status, in general like treats, and even the children who were able to forgo the treat now for a bigger treat later still ate the treat. And ate more as a result of their self-regulation. Kids who were able to "self-regulate" because they didn't actually like the treat offered were probably not included in the study results, because what they were doing was not truly self-regulation.

Additionally, the ability to self-regulate is a general trait. It's not situation-specific. So people who are shown to be good at self-regulation in one situation are likely good at self-regulating in another situation. BUT, not if those situations occur at the same time; because it's a general trait, and a limited resource, exercising strong self-regulation in one situation can actually lessen your ability to self-regulate in another. So people who practice what Miller refers to as "willpower" in completing their dissertation might actually find it difficult to self-regulate in another situation, such as healthy eating.

And grad students eating unhealthily? Yeah, that never happens. </sarcasm>

Further, grad students have another thing that could stand in the way of maintaining a healthy weight. Sleep deprivation has been shown to have a strong effect. I heard one doctor say, "Trying to diet while sleep deprived is like trying to ski uphill." Sleep deprivation has a lot of negative effects on your brain, including monitoring of hunger and satiation (feeling full). When you're sleep deprived, you feel hungry much more because your brain is telling you you're hungry, even if physiologically, you have ingested enough. So those good grad students who work long hours, late into the night, to finish their dissertation might find themselves reaching for the Cheetos a bit more often than those able to get a healthy amount of sleep. Of course, eventually, sleep deprivation does begin to attack your cognitive skills, but that's another post for another day.

So what am I trying to say? What many have said in the backlash against Miller's tweet: that weight status has no bearing on ability to complete a graduate degree. While also giving a healthy dose of psychological knowledge. Because regardless of what I may think when I look at my waistline, I have my brain and all the psychology info acquired through years of education.

Oh yeah, and my PhD. While eating all the carbs I want. Take that, Miller! Now where's that chocolate cake?

~Thoughtfully (and carb-iliciously) yours,

Sunday, June 2, 2013

My Best of Buffy List

As promised, here is the list of my top 10 episodes; and because I can't narrow down anything, 5 additional episodes to which I give "Honorable Mentions":

The Top 10

The Pack (Season 1, Episode 6) 

Rest in peace, Herbert
It's easy to cast-off season 1. The characters are being introduced, and with all that exposition, it's difficult to do more than monster-of-the-week without confusing viewers with far too many story lines. And much of the first season, while establishing the snarkiness I've come to know and love in Buffy, didn't really delve into the big issues of growing up in the same way later seasons did. The limited amount of time given - Buffy was a mid-season replacement and this season was only given 12 episodes - also made it difficult to do much. However, this episode remains one of my favorites, for it's examination of bullying and peer pressure. It shows how even one of the "good guys", Xander, can get caught up and become a monster. I suppose the message here is that any of us can be made into a monster in the right situation. The challenge, then, is to resist those urges, and make amends when they overtake us. This episode also sets up the presumed fate of Sunnydale High School principals alluded to again in Season 7 - that they are destined to be eaten by something horrible. The world can swallow you whole - or perhaps rip you to shreds. Just think of poor Herbert.

Becoming, Part 2 (Season 2, Episode 22)

There are so many great scenes and episodes in Season 2, that it was tough for me to narrow it down
Buffy, never one to be knocked down
without a witty comeback
beyond the whole season. For example, "Innocence", which explores changes in relationships, plus Buffy uses a rocket launcher, then fights Angelus (kicking him where it really hurts). There's "Passion", partially narrated by Angelus, in which we first learn about the spell to de-invite vampires from your home ("Sorry Angel, changed the locks," has to be one of my favorite lines ever). But all that is building toward the "Becoming" two-parter. The many things set in motion throughout this season, come to fruition here in Part 2 and carry over into future seasons: Buffy learning about sacrifice for the greater good; Willow performing a spell as part of the fight; Spike's alliance with Buffy; even the notion of prophecies and Powers-That-Be that play a major role in the spin-off series, Angel. My favorite line from this episode really sums up Buffy as a character. She is down, seemingly defeated. Angelus says, "Now that's everything, huh? No weapons... No friends...No hope. Take all that away... and what's left?" Buffy simply replies, "Me."

The Zeppo (Season 3, Episode 13)

Buffy constantly defied categorization, and no episode shows this better than the Zeppo, where drama and the tragic love story are seamlessly blended with slapstick comedy. My favorite scene is one in which Buffy and Angel are having a heartfelt, dramatic conversation about fighting, love, protecting each other, and death, only to be interrupted by Xander - it's a little like what might happen when a comedian walks onto the set of a soap opera. Not only does this episode follow Xander, perhaps my favorite character on the show, the pending apocalypse, which takes center stage in other episodes, is the side story. In terms of arc, this episode shows us - and more importantly, Xander himself - that Xander is not just the plucky comic relief; he is a valuable member of the team who will continue to grow and strengthen into the man that Buffy calls in Season 5, Episode 12, "Part of the unit."

Earshot (Season 3, Episode 18)

In my previous blog post, I discussed what I love about this episode, so I won't repeat it here. Much like a Shakespearean play (such as Othello, discussed in this episode during Buffy's English class), this episode has just enough comedy mixed in, not to make light of the events, but to help deal with the heaviness of the issues tackled: for example, when Buffy learns a little more about the night with the "Band Candy".

Fear Itself (Season 4, Episode 4)

"Bunnies frighten me."
This was the first episode of Buffy I ever saw. I think it was Anya in the bunny suit that really drew me in (Anya might just be the most interesting character ever created), but once I went back to the beginning of the series and finally saw this episode in context, I really began to appreciate it's role in character development and the arc of the series. The big bad in this episode is neither big, nor very bad. The worst he does is to manifest the characters' fears, but even then, the power of these manifestations comes not from the demon, but from the characters themselves. Sure, there were spiders and creepy crawlers, but that isn't what truly scares us; as we grow and age, our fears become much more abstract than that: the fear of being left behind, the fear of growing up and changing into something one's friends can't understand, the fear of being a monster, the fear of being alone and unloved. This episode embodies the statement that "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Fear can paralyze us, keep us from doing what has to be done. The challenge of growing up is learning to face our fears and grow stronger in the process. Though the characters make it through the episode unscathed, these inner fears have now been brought to the surface and begin to have an effect on the connections among the Scoobies. This seed is what grows throughout the season, allowing Spike to pull the group apart in "The Yoko Factor". Additionally, the ideas explored in this episode (sometimes, the biggest enemy is ourselves and our own fear) get a much larger treatment in season 6.

Hush (Season 4, Episode 10)

Pretty much any "Best of Buffy" list will include this episode, the only episode to win an Emmy for writing, which is why I thought about not including it here (gotta be original, right?), but this episode is just too good to overlook. The episode explores the issue of communication, and that sometimes words get in the way. "The Gentlemen" come to Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices. Without the ability to speak, the characters must communicate with each other on a deeper level. Plus, hilarious charades. This is also the episode where Riley, Buffy's boyfriend, discovers her identity as the Slayer (and Buffy, in turn, discovers Riley's involvement with the military group she'd witnessed on other occasions). By the end of the episode, when Riley comes to Buffy to talk about their revelations, they struggle for the words, and though their voices have been returned, the episode ends in silence.

The Body (Season 5, Episode 16)

Much like "Hush", you pretty much couldn't have a "Best of Buffy" list without including this episode. From Buffy's flashing to memories and fantasies when she first finds her mother dead, to Anya's childlike (but completely relatable) reaction, to the negative space drawings in the art room, this episode captures the feeling that the world turns upside down when a loved one dies without resorting to cliches or pensive montages set to bad music. In fact, the entire episode has no soundtrack, as though the music of life has died as well. There's pretty much no way I can watch this episode without turning into a blubbering mess as soon as Buffy tries to shake her mom awake. No matter how many times I see it, it never gets any easier to make it through, much like Buffy, who, despite dealing with death, pain, and apocalypse on a regular basis, still reacts as any of us would.

The Gift (Season 5, Episode 22)

"The Gift" might be the best season finale of all of Buffy, and I'm sure most fans would agree. While in some sense a series finale (Buffy was originally on the WB, but was canceled after the fifth season), Buffy lived on for two more seasons and on a new network, UPN, and this episode, while seemingly final, was just another event in Buffy's journey. However, this season (as well as season 7, the true final season) showed the most brilliant way to end a coming-of-age story like Buffy - go back to the beginning; give us a brief glimpse of where this all started, which makes the end that much more meaningful. The first scene of this episode says it all: Buffy, an alley, a single vampire, and a would-be victim. After Buffy has defeated the vampire, the would-be victim says, "But you're just a girl." And Buffy replies, "That's what I keep saying." This power, while not something Buffy ever asked for, is something that she accepted and used to stop the end of the world several times. But that responsibility may be too much for one person. The ambivalence Buffy has felt about her power since the beginning comes flooding to the surface, and through that, Buffy finally realizes what love truly is - love is sacrifice. And that is the gift.

Once More, With Feeling (Season 6, Episode 7)

The most depressing ensemble bow
in the history of musical theatre
What do you do when you have finally achieved something wonderful, something you've been working for your entire life? Or even simply working toward for a very long time? You wake up the next morning, and have to go on about your day as you would any other time. It almost feels like a let-down, anti-climactic. Because of this, some emotion theorists have speculated that a dip in emotion is perfectly natural after such an achievement or occasion. But still, you feel ungrateful for feeling down, and naturally, try to hide it, leading to an appearance of being numb or indifferent. Eventually something has to happen - you either get over the numbness or you admit your feelings. Once again, Buffy captures this everyday occurrence perfectly, and analyzes it through the lens of the supernatural. Similarly to "Hush", this episode explores our failure to communicate. The curse of the singing demon is almost like an intervention for Buffy and her friends, forcing them all to admit their fears and feelings. However, this forced intervention does not solve these issues, and only makes them worse. It all leads up to the season finale where, as I alluded to above, the Scoobies discover "the enemy is ourselves," but this episode is the turning point that pulls everything onto the path to lead to that conclusion. Not only is this episode pivotal, it is beautifully done, and completely organic - the musical episode has been attempted in other series before and especially after this one, but never at this level.

Selfless (Season 7, Episode 5)

Bunnies, bunnies, it must be bunnies!
As I said above in "Fear Itself", Anya might be the most interesting character ever created, and, though we've learned bits and pieces about her throughout the series, this episode is what brings it all together. We really begin to understand her, to sympathize with where she's been, and where she has ended up in the present. Though it seems easy for Buffy to cast Anya as a bad guy ("She chose to be a demon - twice."), this episode shows - as Joss is so fond of showing - that good and evil is not nearly so black-and-white (outside of the Buffyverse, see Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). Perhaps the most surprising scene in the episode is the flashback to "Once More, With Feeling", where we hear Anya sing about her excitement at getting married to Xander, and the clarity of character and path she felt during that time. It makes what happened in the rest of Season 6 that much more heart-breaking.

Honorable Mentions: 

Helpless (Season 3, Episode 12) 

Over the years, we had watched Giles and Buffy's relationship morph from Watcher-Slayer into a Father-Daughter dynamic. One of the most moving scenes in the season 2 episode, "Passion," is when Buffy punches Giles for going after Angelus himself and they cry together as she says, "I can't lose you." In "Helpless," Buffy has reached the age of 18, at which point, the Watchers' Council introduces a test on the now-adult Slayer - a drug is administered to take away her power (temporarily) and she is forced to fight a vampire with the strength of a regular human. This test, which Giles refers to as barbaric, is really just the test of adulthood, of sending individuals, who were the day before still considered children, out into the world to sink or swim. As much as Giles disapproves of this test, he perhaps sees it as a way to see if his training has given her the skills she needs to survive, no matter how overpowered she may be. Giles, like many parents, does not want to see Buffy fail and, when the test goes horribly wrong, steps in to help. This conflict of when to help and when to expect independence and adult decision-making continues between Buffy and Giles throughout the series. But the most revealing thing about this episode is how upset Buffy is when she thinks she is no longer the Slayer.

Who Are You (Season 4, Episode 16) 

Though we can imagine it, we never know what other people see when they look at us. This episode examines that difficulty in seeing ourselves as others see us, through body-swap magic. Faith awakens from her coma (after having been put there by Buffy at the end of season 3), and uses a device left for her by the Mayor (the big bad of season 3), to switch places with Buffy. In the confusion, Faith (now in Buffy's body) is able to knock Buffy out and watch her be dragged away by the police. As Buffy tries to free herself and convince others that she is not who she appears to be, she begins to understand what it must be like to be Faith. On the other hand, Faith, appearing as Buffy to the outside world and most importantly Buffy's friends, begins to feel what it is like to be good, depended upon, trusted. This begins her path to redemption.

Restless (Season 4, Episode 22) 

I already had two season finales on the list above, and wasn't sure about including one more. But "Restless" deserves some consideration. Unlike the other seasons, in which the finale is the final battle between the season's big bad, this finale takes place after Adam was defeated (in the penultimate episode of the season). Once again, the notion of fear plays a big part, and overtakes the Scoobies in the form of the First Slayer, who will play a key role in the rest of the series; the only one not to be defeated by her in the dream is Buffy, who understands her but chooses not to be like her. The First Slayer is the voice telling you not to try something new, not to do something differently than others before you; Buffy shows the strength to tell this voice no, that she is not afraid doing things differently will result in failure. This episode also foreshadows events for the next season (and perhaps even farther in the future than that), and it only makes sense that the First Slayer comes back in dreams and visions later on to tell Buffy whether she is on the right path.

Him (Season 7, Episode 6) 

I'll be honest; this episode mainly just cracks me up. My favorite scene is when Buffy decides to follow through on her love-spell-fueled plan to kill the principal. The decision to put the insanity in the background and the mundane in the foreground just makes it that much funnier. Also, if I'm not mistaken, that's another rocket launcher. Seriously, where does she get those wonderful toys?

Storyteller (Season 7, Episode 16)

One thing we've learned in Buffy and the spin-off Angel is that even the worst villain can find redemption if he or she truly desires it. This episode is the first stage in Andrew's search for redemption, when he has to take a long, honest look at what he has done. He learns, as others before him have learned (Angel, Spike, even Willow), that not everyone will accept it, not everyone will trust it, but that doesn't mean one shouldn't try. This episode also deals with our natural tendency to tell stories and to see our lives as a story. Through the development of our personal narrative, we are able to clearly understand who we are and how we relate to the world. However, Andrew uses his storytelling to hide from the truth, and see himself and his actions in a detached way. Buffy, whose story we have followed for seven seasons now, has to set him straight. In following with the "back to the beginning" theme pervasive in season 7, this episode flashes back to many things that have happened on the Hellmouth (e.g., shy girls turning invisible), and shows the power the Hellmouth has - not just as a gateway to somewhere bad, but in and of itself.