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Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Akata Warrior and a Very Important Instruction at the End

Overconsumption is a universal human trait,” Orlu pointed out. “And so is ignorance. - Nnedi Okorafor, Akata Warrior
I'm told that beards are going out of style, which I guess is a shame because the brief period in which they were was the only time I can think of when I was in style. It's also a shame if I decide that being in style is something I'd like to continue pursuing now that I've tasted the delicious savor of looking like the guys in men's magazines, if only between the bottom of my nose and the top of my Adam's apple. Because folks, I hate shaving.

I do shave, though, and daily. I was in a creative writing class once and there was a guy in our class who only wrote fiction in the Star Wars universe. Not only that, but the entirety of his fiction was based on his campaign in a dungeons and dragons-style pen and paper role-playing game. That's all fine, by the way, if you're someone who likes to write but hates even the prospect of being able to collect money for said writing. But he was also kind of mean. He would just tear apart everyone else's writing while refusing to accept any critique of his because nobody else understood what he was doing.

It should probably go without saying at this point that this man had a neck beard. Years later, when I first heard "neckbeard" as short-hand for the kind of guy who sits in his basement and writes multiple-page-long screeds about women not liking nice guys, I lost my mind with laughter. His single status is not a result of, as many of us would have guessed, his never leaving the basement; instead it's because women only like men who are awful and he refuses to let himself sink to that level. He is noble, this man, and his only requirement is for a woman to like Star Wars, but understand that she could never like Star Wars like he does (also she must be fit, beautiful, low-maintenance, never wear makeup, cook well, and understand her role in the relationship, which is to say she will give everything and will never receive anything of meaning in return).

Is shaming men with hair on their necks OK? No. Is it OK if he is also the kind of man who also spends hours online telling women that they should shave their legs daily? I submit to you that it is not only OK, but in fact the only way through this dark period in each of our lives that starts about halfway through kindergarten and ends at death. When I'm not sure where your nose hair ends, your mustache begins, or am sickly fascinated by the fact that there seems to be no delineation between beard hair and chest hair I think your opinion is less valuable.

There are times in my life where the only way to break myself of a bad habit is to see how I look from the outside when I meet or talk to someone with the same or similar habit. I felt like pretty hot stuff writing a novel during national novel writing month until I went to an event at the local library and saw another dozen people doing the same thing. Where I was thinking of myself in a tweed jacket and a pipe banging out a masterpiece, seeing the sweaty, desperate people just like me writing out pages and pages of words only a mother could pretend to enjoy deflated me a bit.

My creative writing friend from college with his gross black hair trailing down his neck like an advancing army of Sith warriors from the Old Republic made me touch a hand to my own nerf-herder scruff and reevaluate my life. Since then I have at least been able to keep it clean neck-wise, but I've sure hated it. I cut myself all of the time, which reminds me of a time when I went on a date as a teen. Like most of my social outings, it consisted of a free movie at the theater where I worked. We walked in, I said hi to people I worked with, and at some point in the movie I scratched my neck and found a wad of toilet paper I'd used to stop the bleeding of a now-routine shaving nick. I asked my date, annoyed, why she hadn't pointed it out, and she said it was to see how I reacted when I found out. She wanted to see if I had a sense of humor about embarrassment. It was a test I failed.

All of this dovetails into a goal I've had for the last six months or so that I'm trying to double down on as we enter the arbitrary frontier known as a "new year." That goal is to be an adult about stuff. Like all good goals it has very few measurable qualities and at no point will I know that I've accomplished anything, but the general gist of it is asking myself if the thing that I am doing or I am about to do is something an adult would do. It sounds awful, but it really isn't. It doesn't mean don't be silly, or go down waterslides, or laugh when a baby is clearly pooping in his diaper but is trying to be chill about it. It means taking stock of my day-to-day decisions and deciding if they are going to leave me in a better or worse place afterward.

I'm not sure if it's a generational thing or it's just more obvious to me because I'm living through it, but I feel like men my age figured out who they were at 16 or so and have just stayed there. Their hobbies and sensibilities and maturity level don't seem to have increased much since then. I'm including myself in that camp. When I was 16 the main thing people knew about me was that I like Mountain Dew. That was a stupid way to define myself then, and it's even more obnoxious now. It reminds me of an old co-worker who, at 50, still quotes Fight Club like the satirized viewpoint of its main characters' toxic masculinity is a relevant and even remotely valid point of view.

Here are some upshots of these decisions: I've stopped collecting old video games and have slowly replaced much of my video game time with reading good, solid, weighty books. I pay closer attention to how I dress given the circumstances I'm dressing for. I noticed how little soda the people I tend to look up to consume and am trying (this one is the hardest one, you guys) to cut down. I'm learning how to improve my cooking. What I've found over and over is that with a little extra effort and some learning curve, there are better and more satisfying ways to do everything. The newest addition is this: I'm trying to shave like a man.

See, for Christmas I got a starter set for a safety razor style shaver instead of the eight-blade disposable jobbies all over the place. Honestly up until now I thought the only use for razor blades anymore were to hide them in your mouth so that you can cut yourself out of a jam when you get captured. Instead of using the gel and quickly shaving in the shower and then dealing with bumps and ingrown hairs that make it a misery, I'm now whipping up shaving cream with a brush like Mad Men Man got for father's day that one time. I'm using aftershave, which up until now I assumed only existed so that novelists could lazily evoke memories of their fathers.

Not a sponsored post. Yet. Call me, you guys.

Like so many things I learned to do poorly as a teen (sleeping, eating, talking to human beings) and have spent decades attempting to do the right way, shaving this way is harder but better. For example, my whole life I've been taught to shave against the grain because that's how you get a closer shave. That's wrong! When you do that you shave under your hairs and that creates those ingrown hairs that suck so bad. Also, when you start paying attention to how the hair on your face and neck grows, you realize that it's going in all kinds of directions. You guys I haven't even started shaving my face yet and already just on my neck I'm dealing with four different directions. For someone who approaches every 4-way stop with the trepidation that should be reserved for only the biggest of decisions, it is a daunting undertaking.

Another benefit is instead of furtively cleaning up that nasty neckbeard in the shower, I'm doing this whole routine in front of a mirror which forces me to consider my current level of fitness in a way that is profoundly disappointing. I'm all for body positivity, my dudes, but that's for other people. Your boy has decided that if he's going to be shaving in front of a mirror for this long, luxurious regimen, he's gotta get cut so it's not so grody up in there.

I'm still getting the hang of it, but that's the whole point I'm trying to make. I think that so many of the things that make modern life modern give us 70% of the quality in exchange for removing the learning curve. The best example of this is cooking. Since being diagnosed with kidney disease I've learned how to make my own sauces, stocks, and soup bases. I've grown more of my own food every year since my first garden. Once you put in some initial work, though, the effort is about the same as the crappy alternative and the outcome is significantly better. Like, how can someone call no-bake cheesecake the same thing as the baked kind? There should be a law against that. It's obscene.

I learned how to braise, you guys
I get so mad about that cheesecake thing.

Anyway, the value of obtaining of knowledge is one of  the things that stuck with me about Akata Warrior. It's in Akata Witch, too, but I didn't think about it as much. If you remember from my last review and also from the book which you inevitably read because I said it was good, you'll recall that people who can use juju are called Leopards, and those who can't are called Lambs. In the Leopard world the only form of currency comes from obtaining knowledge. It's called chittim and it falls at your feet whenever you do learn something new. This could be from reading or someone explaining something to you, but is most often earned by doing something you didn't know you could do.

I was super fascinated with this idea as I powered through this wonderful, wonderful book and loved the idea that there was an immediate tangible reward for knowledge gained. In real life there is, too, it's just not as quick. Further complicating matters, there are a million different ways now to circumvent the gaining of knowledge for something that's almost as good and just happens to make someone else rich. From bread makers to frozen dinners to bagged salad, someone is happy to charge you extra to ensure that you don't learn the skills that they've convinced you that you don't need to have but were at one point considered vital.

I said that Akata Witch was a lot like Harry Potter. That wasn't a bad thing, but it's also impossible to ignore. Akata Warrior is its own book in every way. Once the initial world-building is in place, it gives Okorafor the chance to really explore in a way that is, to me, profoundly deeper than the Potter universe ever does. It's clear that with this book we're only getting the briefest glimpse of what the world she's created is and does, and unlike a lot of books and movies that dig deeper into unique fantasy worlds, it doesn't fall apart with further exploration.
"Leopard People read books by everybody and everything. We look outside and inside. But you have to be secure with yourself to do either..."
Sunny, after defeating a serial killer attempting to bring Ekwensu, one of the biggest and worst masquerades into the world, is starting to see visions of a city in ruins. She assumes it's the end of the world that the return of Ekwensu will bring about, starting with oil spills in the Niger delta and followed by mass fires. While that threat looms, she's also dealing with a brother who has gotten involved with a nasty gang, a freaky djinn, and some friction between her fellow warriors. It's all way fun and imaginative and was a great post-holiday read.

Anyway, that's my thing this week. Learn something new that improves your life in a way you can physically touch. Replace the quick way with the right way. Google how to bake banana bread, or better yet, use my favorite recipe. Make this roast chicken. It's one million times better than the rotisserie chicken at Costco and the stock it makes will improve everything you cook with it. Learn to knit. Take up carpentry. Bake me a cheesecake. The options are endless as long as you definitely do that last one.