Being Badass

I wrote this months ago and never posted it, because I couldn’t tell if it was a joke or not. I still can’t tell – I’ll leave it up to you.

A while ago Midnight and I were joking around, and she asked me what my secret was – “How can you be so badass?” Needless to say, I cracked up immediately. But I did start thinking about it, and I realized that I actually do know the rules.

There are two Cardinal Laws of Badassery, and you only need to follow one. (If you are truly spectacular, you may even be able to pull off both.)
1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
2) Know how to laugh at yourself

Then there are two . . . sublaws, not quite as important but still useful:
3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent

So. Here we go:

1) Be so frickin scary no one messes with you
This is definitely the easiest way to go for fictional characters, but in real life (and frequently in fiction), it is nigh impossible to pull this off properly. You end up just being a jerk, and no one likes a jerk. Part of being badass is that you are cool. People Brutalmay hate you a little, or even a lot, but they admire and respect you as well. No one respects a playground bully. However, if you adhere to a strict code of honor and are rigorously fair and all that jazz, it will often work, and you can be Shogun. The main problem is that you can always be outclassed by someone badder than you. There is no exception.

2) Know how to laugh at yourself
This one is much harder, because laughing at yourself is a hard skill to acquire. (Note that I do not mean laughing at your own jokes.) Once you’ve got it, though, and if you can maintain it, you are bulletproof for all time. Your detractors can mock you as much as they want; if you mock right along with them, they look stupid and you look like the bigger man. Everyone in the room can be laughing at you, but if you laugh with them the joke is suddenly on the mockers. This will often gain you respect, as people realize you are stronger – and cooler – than they expected. Bonus points if the mockers get all flustered and start shouting, because then all you have to do is keep grinning. Even more bonus points if you’re polite and sympathetic (and maybe just the tiniest bit patronizing – don’t overdo it) as they turn apoplectic and incoherent. (Make sure you actually are in a public place with some sort of authority to stop things if it gets physical, or else make sure you know karate.)

In other words, the main point is to keep your cool. Cutting wit is a definite advantage, but should be used carefully as it can make you just as much of a bully. This Cardinal Law is much more practical in everyday life, as it’s more conducive to actually having friends and such and doesn’t require Mad Ninja Skills. It’s also much harder to be outclassed by someone who’s badder than you, because you’ll probably just end up grinning at each other and going out for ice cream – especially if you follow the rule of Do Not Do Unto Others Until They Have Done Unto You, also known as Don’t Be the One Who Started It.

3) No situation is awkward unless you say so
Basically, refuse to be fazed by anything that should be embarrassing. This is easier if you haven’t actually done anything to be embarrassed about – if it looks worse than it actually is – but all it really requires is the confidence that anything can be fixed by a dazzling smile and/or that anyone who insists on misunderstanding the situation, especially after you’ve explained, is not worth getting worked up over. If you have done something to be embarrassed over, then just shrug, accept the consequences and move on. It is rarely that big a deal. This law also applies to awkward silences, where the rule is that if you don’t want the silence to be awkward, it’s not. End of story. Just turn on your Inner Contentedness and watch the clouds go by or something.

4) Be yourself – or at least be consistent
We’ve all heard this one before: just be yourself, and the world will fall madly in love with you. Birds will sing when you pass. Anything you want will be half-price. Traffic jams will never happen when you’re in a hurry. Flowers will blossom in your footsteps, sometimes through solid asphalt. Basically, Be Yourself and your life is one long happy Disney movie.

Obviously, that’s not the way real life works. But it is true that if you refuse to bend to social pressure in regards to what is the ‘correct’ way of acting, speaking or thinking, people will be impressed. (It may take time. It may also never happen, particularly if you don’t draw much attention to begin with. People are not all that observant.) Thing is, this doesn’t just apply to Being Yourself. It also applies to projecting an Image and sticking to it. Whether the Image you project to the world is the ‘real you’ or not, you ought to be consistent in projecting it.

This is where my own personal values come into conflict with my Laws of Badassery: I believe that you should do your best to Be the Person You Want To Be (by which I mean you should take care to acquire virtues and strengths that you consider important, such as patience or empathy, and make them part of yourself and not just a mask you wear). Being Badass, Badasshowever, is frequently subject to popular opinion of you, so you may wish to watch out with this one. It may be more useful to project an Image that fits you well enough that upholding it won’t be a trial. This can lead to its own problems, especially if you’re still in the process of growing as a person (teenagers, beware), but it’s a safer way to public acceptance, particularly because you can tailor your Image to suit the society you’re living in.

There are other rules, but they’re all circumstantial, depending on who you are and whom you’re trying to impress. For some people it’s things like appearance, wealth, lots of friends/followers and so on; for others it’s having a particular talent or skill at which they excel, often sports but really just anything; for others it’s standing up to authority, being a rebel, being outside of what’s mainstream. That can be important – how important depends on the society you’re in – but what really matters is how you deal with friends and acquaintances, face down challenges, and handle the world you live in.

Belief

The Second World War was pretty hard on the British people. Alone on their islands, they suffered through rations and bombings. Their men were sent to war and their children to the countryside. NeverThere were no street lights at night – their cars barely had headlights. They had to make do with far less than they were used to eating, wearing, living with. Every day they lost more. Every day could be their last.

I’ve never heard of a riot in that time. I’ve never heard of public protests against the war. I’ve certainly never heard of people fleeing the country. I suppose this is due in part, perhaps in large part, to selective teaching. Yet it is impressive, isn’t it? A whole nation bearing such hardships for a cause they believed in.

I don’t know if it would have worked so well today. People don’t believe in things today, not like they used to. Not like that. I think that when the time comes to break under pressure or adapt and survive, most people surprise themselves. But still I wonder – if this happened today, if we had to fight Nazis today – if we had to open the newspaper every day dreading the names we would find there – how would we take it?

Sound SystemsIs that what’s happening with the war in Afghanistan? I know there are families out there that live in dread of a letter on their doorstep, or whatever it is the Army uses to deliver such news in these modern times. But we’re not living it as a nation. We don’t have to worry about blackout curtains and rationed meals. We don’t live in fear, every day, of hearing the awful sirens that mean we must abandon everything – and everyone – and run for shelter.

People used to believe in things. In the government, in justice. We used to believe that there was Good and there was Bad, and all you Rock Climbinghad to do was stay on the right side. They used to believe that the Nazis ate babies, too. When everything is black and white, propaganda can be as liberal as it likes with the truth.

I was listening to a song once – “Shades of Gray” by the Monkees – and my mom said she had always thought that song was about the Vietnam War. She said that that was when America lost that view of things, that perception of Good and Evil as easily defined things. That innocence.

Do Not QuestionNow we are jaded and cynical. Propaganda doesn’t fool us! We don’t fall for those old tricks. We don’t believe in the government. We don’t believe in authority. We don’t believe in justice, in honor. We don’t believe in kindness. We don’t believe in Good. We don’t believe in anything. We don’t believe in belief.

We don’t believe in ourselves. In humanity. In people. In strangers we see on the street. In children we screen for guns. In little old ladies who want to cross our borders. In charities who knock on our door, asking for our money.

How are we supposed to believe when the children carry guns, little old ladies carry drugs, and the people at our door want to take our life savings? What is there to believe in?

We have to believe in something. We’re human. Living without belief just doesn’t work. So what do we turn to? Anonymous hackers who claim to fight for freedom? A government that was made to stand for freedom? Organisations that promise to protect our freedom?

What is freedom, anyway?

Do any of us know? Do you?

If you know, do you have it? Are you fighting for it? Freedom is a privilege, you know. Anyone with power can take it away from you. Can you take it back? Can you do it and not lose yourself in the process?Stand Up

Can we – jaded, cynical, cautious and defensive – can we choose to believe in people? Can we decide that what we’ve been calling common sense is just paranoia and really believe in other people? In strangers we see on the street, in children we screen for guns, in little old ladies and people at our door? Do we want to? Can we afford to? Can we afford not to?

What do you believe?

The Myriad Wonders of Danish Education

Last year, 357 Danish graduates took the EU civil service exam. All 357 of them failed. This* article in the Copenhagen Post comments on the situation, and on why it might have come to pass. Apparently the Danish education system is not teaching people properly.

Forgive me if I’m not surprised. I’ve been complaining about this for ages now. I don’t usually complain in public, because my parents taught me that guests should be polite to their hosts, and we are guests here in Denmark. Instead I keep my trap shut and politely put up with all the self-satisfied commentary on the fallacies of standardized testing and how America’s educational system relies far too heavily on such faulty methods. I even politely agree with them a little, because they do have a point.

I politely refrain from mentioning the fact that Danish schools spend nine solid years preparing students for one final exam which doesn’t even count for a thing, with nothing that even resembles qualifying exams at the end of each year. After this they have three years of gymnasium with exams at the end of each year. Their GPA at the end of these three years decides their entire future.

In other words, after nine years of no real consequences for academic laziness, they are suddenly expected to be responsible, disciplined students. This when they’re teenagers finally being hit by the realization that they don’t have a clue what they want from their lives, and by the panic that comes of seeing that there isn’t much time left to choose.

Furthermore, the last few of those nine years are treated as enormously important despite the fact that they’re really not. Students are expected to care about their studies for no real reason, and because this is the way it’s always been, they do. They stress out completely, especially being unused to discipline, and especially because this happens just as they’re turning thirteen or fourteen, which the whole world knows is not a very disciplined age. By the time they turn sixteen or seventeen and go to gymnasium, they’re exhausted from the unaccustomed stress and ready for a break.

And now, after they’re already tired and (in some cases) disillusioned, their grades are exponentially more important.

As for the evils of standardized testing, at least it is standardized. Danish grades depend entirely on the teacher: I have several friends who have been given terrible grades by the French Teacher from the Black Lagoon. (She’s known school-wide as the worst thing that could happen to you within those walls. Students who have had her, upon hearing you share the same fate, shake their heads in pity and earnestly wish you luck, because luck is just about the only thing that can save you.) There is pretty much nothing they can do about this. It will affect their GPA forever more, which may considerably affect their future. Even with the more human teachers, sometimes a student is simply neglected or overlooked, through no fault of their own and no fault of the teachers but being a bit too distracted to notice everyone. Tests, which Danish teachers rarely use, could at least give such students a chance to shine.

Exams at the end of the year are for only some subjects. If you have an exam in a subject, the grade you get from it will replace whatever grade you might have gotten from the teacher. This is great if you are good at exams; not so much otherwise. I don’t know how the American system works in this regard so I can’t compare, but I’m not sure I like this method so much.

Then there is the question of special attention for those who need it. Danish schools are finally starting to provide special education for those who fall below the average, which is a grand thing. I’ve heard it’s not nearly good enough, but at least it’s progress. There is hope for the future.

However, those who fall below the grade are not the only ones who need help. Some children are quicker to grasp things than their peers, and they sit there in class bored out of their clever little minds as the teacher repeats something for the eighth time. Denmark doesn’t even recognize this as a problem, let alone do anything about it. So you end up with people like Indigo, who is absolutely brilliant but has trouble believing it, or people like Crash, who knows he can get top grades if he tries but is too lazy to do so, because he’s never had to try before.

I’m not saying this doesn’t happen in America; I’m sure it happens all the time. But when I was in second grade, I took the standardized tests at the end of the year and they showed that I was far, far above average. So I was offered a place in a special program which endeavored to collect as many such kids as possible in one class and keep them together for two years. Fourth and fifth grade were awesome for me, because I actually learned things at a decent pace and was surrounded by interesting people. In middle school they place you in math classes according to your level of proficiency, not your age; in high school you can take AP courses and so on for most classes. Most of my teachers made an effort to provide a challenge for those students who were up to it. They didn’t all succeed, but at least they tried.

Perhaps this is just the story of one lucky kid who lived in a privileged area. But we’re in the capital of Denmark, for pete’s sakes! Not even – we’re in the particularly prosperous city ensconced within the capital of Denmark. They should be able to deal with the possibility of particularly clever students, and the fact that such people are rarely good at motivating themselves, usually because they’ve never really had to before. There are a few teachers who try to cater to the needs of every student in the class, but they are few, and it is not easy for them. Most teachers just try to get everyone through the assigned syllabus. This means they take care with those who might fall behind, but not so much with those who are already miles ahead and waiting impatiently for everyone else to catch up.

I’m sure the evils of standardized testing are manifold. But, ironically, the society that employs it makes at least some attempt to educate those whose needs are not quite average; the Danish society, which scoffs at it so self-righteously, fails to see that not everyone fits the standard.


*The third paragraph in the English version of this article contains a small mistake: ‘unacceptable’ instead of ‘acceptable’.

Three Sheets to the Wind*

Getting plastered is an intrinsic part of the Danish culture. The legal drinking age is 16; people learn to handle their alcohol, or at least to recognize when they’re drunk, long before they’re given anything dangerous like a car. They serve alcohol at school parties. Some parents, when their kids turn sixteen, take them out to get drunkNot out drinking: out getting drunk.

You can choose to be shocked and disgusted, or you can shrug and accept it. I still find it repugnant when people look so . . . so pasty and awful, as if their faces were made of wax and it was melting a bit. There’s this boy in my class who’s kind of cute – I wasn’t interested in anyone, but I thought if I did get interested, it might well have been in him. Then I saw him like that at a party. It was so nasty. Completely put me off him.

Sometimes people throw up – sometimes just right there on the ground. Sometimes they have a sudden nervous breakdown, dissolve into tears and shriek whenever anyone gets close. More often, though, they just go way too wild and do stuff they normally wouldn’t. Sometimes they start making out with someone they just met. Sometimes it goes further than that. Sometimes they just lie down in a corner and sleep for an hour.

However, exactly because it’s a part of the culture, most people can hold their liquor pretty well. Even when they’re going totally crazy, many of them know full well just how drunk they are. They still have limits and standards and all that jazz; their standards are just different. They have ‘alcohol standards’.

Danes drink to get drunk so they’ll have an excuse. So they can say, “I’d never do that, I only did it because I was wasted.” That’s the sad part of this whole business, really. They need an excuse to act crazy. They can’t just go wild at parties and admit that that’s part of who they are, too. Plenty of Danes will placidly agree that this is a problem; they just don’t seem inclined to do anything about it. Then, of course, there are those who will tell you that no, they don’t drink because they have to but because they want to, and they’re perfectly capable of going nuts without alcohol, thank you very much.

This is more true of some than of others. It would be silly to say it wasn’t true at all, though, because – as far as I can tell – inebriation doesn’t usually make people act unlike themselves. They do things that their shyness or common sense would normally advise against, but they don’t act against their natures. So all it takes is not letting your shyness get the better of you in day-to-day situations. Furthermore, because Danes learn to drink heavily from an early age, they (usually) learn to maintain a certain amount of control even while under the influence of alcohol. A violent person learns to curb their anger, for example, and a clumsy person learns to get help when walking down stairs (or just walking). People learn to recognize how drunk they are, and to know whether they need help getting home. For once, peer pressure comes in handy: it’s understood that throwing up and such is a difficult-to-avoid side effect of alcohol, but it’s not cool. Falling down stairs and otherwise injuring yourself (and especially others) is even less so. Getting into fights is unacceptable. Your friends will still stand by you, of course, but they’ll be spitting mad at you for being so stupid.

“Peer pressure?” I hear you cry. “But isn’t there a terrible pressure to get totally sloshed?”

Not quite. While it’s expected that you will drink, and it’s almost equally expected that you’ll get drunk, no one insists on it. Because it’s an accepted part of the general culture and not something do to be ‘in’, you don’t have to drink to be part of the group. I mean, you have to put up with all the staggering people and the repetitive comments, and you have to be able to laugh and dance with them and generally act like you’re having fun. But the alcohol is not mandatory.

They tend to think that if you’re not loaded, you’re missing out. So they will try to coax you into drinking, but it’s out of a genuine desire to see you enjoying yourself. They don’t want to annoy or insult you; if you’re firm about saying no, they’ll back off immediately.** A few weeks ago I was sitting with some of my classmates at a friend’s birthday party and someone asked why I wasn’t drinking. “I don’t drink,” I answered with a shrug. “Not for any moral or religious reason or anything. I just don’t want to.”

“Don’t you think you should try it?” one of the boys asked with a grin. “Just once. Come on, we’d watch out for you.” I just smiled back and told him that no, I’d rather not, and of course it’s not because I don’t trust you guys, I just don’t want to drink.

“Aw, come on,” he persisted, but immediately people started jumping down his throat for pressuring me. He immediately went on the defensive – “No, no, I wasn’t pressuring her! I was just suggesting it!” I laughed and tried to say that I understood and it was really okay. I don’t need help defending my choices, but I was rather touched by how firmly they all defended my right to decide for myself.

What with all the American movies and TV shows and such going around the world, Danish teenagers are just as aware of the Evils of Peer Pressure and Exclusion as any American kid. And unlike so many American teens, they actually take the message to heart. If you show willing to be part of the group, people will make room for you. If you’re different, people will make a conscious effort to show you that that’s alright. People tend to be friends with those they resemble; but that doesn’t mean you have to put down those you don’t resemble. People here – the people I know, anyway – they understand this.

Anyway, in conclusion: Denmark may have a serious national drinking problem, but it has various positive side effects, and at least there isn’t widespread paranoia about it like in the US. There is a general societal pressure to get tipsy at parties, but no one will shun you if you refuse, particularly if you can go totally wild without a sip. Peer pressure is less of a problem when people are careful about applying it. Sometimes it even helps: it’s just as well that Danes learn to cope with alcohol while they’re still teens and thus particularly susceptible to popular opinion of themselves, as that way they learn to follow proper norms of behavior. Alcoholism is, of course, a serious problem, but drinking doesn’t always lead to it.

 

All that being said, a few weeks ago thousands of Danish high school kids went to Prague on vacation, and awful things happened. The kids were there pretty much exclusively to get drunk, and they succeeded. There were trashed hotel rooms, vandalism, and even knifings. Yes, actual knifings. I don’t remember if any of these knifings resulted in death, but they were pretty serious. This was not representative of the entire Danish teenage population, but it is still a problem that really ought to be adressed.

If only we had a clue how.

 

*Does anyone know what this really means? I found dozens of synonyms for ‘drunk’ when I wrote this (as I’m sure you can see), but this was – in my opinion – the strangest.

**Please note that all of this is based on my personal experience. I’ve been living here for about four years and have only gone to two schools (basically middle school and high school) in the same part of town. I have no way of knowing how general my experience is except what other people tell me; beyond that I have to go by reasoning and intuition, so I don’t guarantee anything.

Stronger Than Fiction

According to my mom, I was a bit slow to start reading. My sister started when she was four, but I only learned after I’d left kindergarten. I caught on pretty fast, though – I started reading Harry Potter when I was six. Barely a year later, I read 172 pages in a single weekend. (I was very proud.) I devoured books like chocolate. I went on hundreds of quests with hundreds of adventurers. I learned important lessons about family, trust, loss, friendship, sorrow, love, betrayal, duty, and the importance of being true to yourself. I learned the value of magic and the strength of honor.

I learned to see the patterns. I saw the shape of magic and of stories, and the intricate workings of the fantasy worlds I traveled. I learned to understand the way enchantments were woven and curses were cast. I learned to recognize from a look when two characters would fall in love, and to grasp from one spell the rules of an entire system of magic.

In other words, I understood the world of fiction. I understood it as I had never understood my own world, because in fiction the author will explain things for you and the characters will follow the rules. And finally, after many, many years, I learned to understand the world I’m in. I saw the patterns in fiction, and once I knew them well enough I could see their reflections all around me.

Authors try to make their characters realistic; if they fail, the stories are no fun. So even though the people I read about were battling dragons and dealing with fairies, they were people. They reacted to the hardships and the joys they faced as real people would. I understood fictional people as well as I understood anything; and fictional people are modeled on real ones. It took a while, but I finally saw the shimmering patterns I knew so well echoed faintly in the people around me. Because I understand characters in books, I actually have a shot at understanding people in real life.

I know that authors exaggerate, and I know that going to school every day is not as conducive to dramatic emotions as discovering your sister killed your brother to get the throne. All things are relative, though. Friendship and love aren’t as dramatic as in the stories, but they’re not as clear-cut, either. Things are messy and confusing. Time passes in days, not in chapters. People don’t follow the rules.

So the echoes are faint. I can just barely detect the pattern. So what? The fact that I can see it at all – the fact that I actually understand people, even if just a bit – is more than enough for me. The fact that I am (very) slowly but surely getting better at this is just awesome.

I love that fantasy has taught me to understand reality. I love that flying to new worlds has taught me about the one I’m in. I love that I can still see the magic in the life I live and in the people I know well.

Hey Stoopid

I can’t believe how mature, intelligent, compassionate and sensible these lyrics are. This is Alice Cooper, for pity’s sakes! This is the guy who sings about stealing cars and S&M and cannibalistic clowns! He’s supposed to be tough and insane and one of those totally bad rockers who are way too cool for – well, for anything, really. But here he is advocating good sense and strength and going on with your life. I’m impressed.

It’s even a good song.

Update–

It was one in the morning when I wrote this. I get more enthusiastic about things like this at one in the morning. This song is not all that awesome. Still, I don’t think I was wrong to be pleased and even impressed that someone like Alice Cooper sang it. My mom, when she saw this, didn’t get my surprise, and maybe I’m really only surprised because I grew up in an age where the toughest ‘musicians’ around are angry rappers, who – stereotypically, at least, and I don’t like rap so stereotypes are just about all I know – would never have such lyrics in their songs.

Saving the World

You can’t live in this world without hardening your heart. There is suffering everywhere, everywhere, and in this age of globalization, you don’t even have to look for it. It’s there every day, on the news, on Facebook, in the conversations of friends and random strangers on the bus. It’s in the movies we watch and the books we read. It’s everywhere.

You learn not to cry about it. Crying won’t change anything, right? Crying won’t do any good. We learn – well, I’m not sure what you do when you hear about hundreds dying in a fire, or children being shot in a school, or the aftermath of an earthquake, but I don’t let myself sorrow for long. I give myself a moment to mourn, and then I push it to the back of my mind. The words become no more than facts; the lives become no more than numbers. I clean my thoughts of any emotion beyond a small and appropriate sadness.

If I don’t, I get overwhelmed. I can’t afford to dwell on it, because I value my own health and happiness and would not lose them over something that was and is so totally out of my control. It saddens me that I have to push it aside, but I get a lot sadder when I don’t. I get so sad my own life seems puny and pointless in comparison, and that’s not right. My life is all I’ve got, and it is mine to take care of. I can’t neglect it because of a tragedy that I could not avert and cannot now affect.

I’m still young, and at just the right age for idealism; my heart isn’t even all that hard yet. If it were, I wouldn’t have to turn my mind away from thoughts of whatever tragedy I hear about on the news. Thing is, I don’t want my heart to harden. I want to be able to feel compassion for people I’ve never met. I want to be able to do that for the rest of my life.

So what do I do to keep my heart from turning to stone? I could choose a cause to champion, I suppose. I know that works for many people. Trouble is, what cause is worthy? If I choose one cause, I don’t think I’ll have much passion left over for any others. Maybe one or two, but – the world is full of suffering. There are too many causes, and I don’t think I could stand up and say that my poor unfortunates are more important than your poor unfortunates, and mine should get money and food and shelter and water and schooling and love and families and support and yours should get nothing, because we can’t afford to help both and mine are more deserving.

I couldn’t do that. So what do I do? Turn away permanently?

I plan to get rich when I grow up, and I’ve promised myself that a large part of my riches will go to charity. Good charities, well-known ones that are known to be honest and already rich enough to make a difference, and I’ll give them enough of a contribution that they’ll make an even greater difference. But how long should I wait? How long until I’m rich? I mean, currently I have no job, and the only money I get is my monthly allowance. In other words I’m the one living on charity, and the moment I get any job at all I’ll be richer than I am now. Will I be rich enough then? Will that raise in income from zilch to whatever paltry amount I receive be enough, and will I then have an obligation to donate a part of that, however small, to one charitable organization or another?

And if the answer is no, I should save it for college, then when does the answer become yes? And is it enough to donate a percentage of my means to charity, or is something else required from me? I don’t mean required by society or custom, but by my own moral standards. That’s what makes this whole question so hard: I refuse to accept any standards but my own, but I don’t know what they are.

I’m not refusing to accept other arguments – I’d consider them carefully, and if they were logical, sensible and convincing, I’d change my stance accordingly. I would, really I would, but I don’t have a stance, and no arguments have been presented to me. So basically, I have no idea what to do, and I can only hope I don’t take too long figuring it out.