A Couple Really Good Cries

I love stories.

As an aspiring author, I’m certainly not alone. Many of us use stories to get away from things that are troubling us, whether it’s struggling to find a job, the death of a loved one, or, you know, a global pandemic. Stories lift us up, they make us feel hopeful, like there might be a better tomorrow. They help us escape into worlds where the impossible becomes possible.

This post is not about those stories.

This post is about stories that make us feel sad. Stories that deal with complex emotions. Because sometimes, that’s what we need to deal with the world around us, not fanciful escapism.

A Story for What Ails You

Actually, the two stories I’m going to talk about are, in fact, pretty fanciful. They’re both a strange mix of sci-fi and fantasy, and actually both stories directed at kids ages eight to twelve. But they both also helped me out during some tough times, if only by giving me great fuel for “a good cry” … or several.

Adventure Time: Varmints

Adventure Time is about a post-apocalyptic world named Ooo, the last surviving human, named Finn, and his talking dog, Jake. But this episode isn’t about them. They’re not even in it, actually.

“Varmints” is about the recently-deposed princess of the Candy Kingdom, Princess Bonnibel Bubblegum and her friend, Marceline, the Vampire Queen. Marceline goes to visit Bubblegum in her castle in the Candy Kingdom only to find the new ruler has been living there in Bubblegum’s stead… for the last two months.

Marceline seeks out P-Bubs in a humble cottage on the shores of Lake Butterscotch. There, the pink princess has taken to staying up all night keeping guard over her the pumpkins in her garden, what she calls her new, “100% loyal garden citizens.” She sits on her porch in leather boots and a trucker hat, holding a rifle to ward off the biggest threat to her new garden kingdom, varmints.

While Marceline visits, some of these “ding-dang varmints” attack, and Marcy and Bubblegum head off in full pursuit. They chase these little varmints, large pill-bug like monsters with mouths full of very human-looking teeth, down into the old Rock Candy mines, where they come face to face with the “freaking Mother Varmint.”

At one point down in the caves, Bubblegum loses her hat and begins to cry. When pressed, she confesses a feeling of utter loss and desperation. She tells Marcy, “I lost my hat. I lost my home. I lost my people…. I can’t even keep darn varmints out of my pumpkin patch.”

Image of author cosplaying as Princess Bubblegum from this episode of Adventure time. I'm holding a fake pumpkin and text on the image reads, "100% loyal garden citizen."
My “Varmints” Bubblegum cosplay for Pensacon 2017.

When this episode first aired, I was in year five of a five-year PhD program. I was knee-deep in both writing my dissertation and applying for jobs in what was (and still is) a pretty bleak academic job market. I had been battling insomnia and generalized anxiety to boot. Princess Bubblegum’s feelings of helplessness and loss of control just hit me right in the gut, and I had myself a big, loud, snot-filled sob-fest.

It was great.

Steven Universe: Mindful Education

Steven Universe is another kid’s fantasy series, though we could probably debate whether it’s technically fantasy or sci-fi. It’s about a race of space aliens whose humanoid bodies are made of light and whose consciousnesses are housed inside their gems. Thousands of years ago, these aliens attempted to colonize earth, destroying its natural resources. A small band of gems allied with the humans and fought off the colonizers, with a high cost. Only a small number of gems survived to live as the human race grew and expanded. Now, three Crystal Gems (as the rebels dubbed themselves) and a half-human, half-gem hybrid named Steven live in a sleepy beach town along the East Coast and fight off gem-based monsters that were created as a result of the Gem War.

So, it’s very sci-fi-y. But also, it’s about a boy (Steven) learning he has magical powers and trying to find his place in the world. It leans hard into several fantasy tropes from popular anime series, both in terms of Steven’s powers and in terms of aesthetics. Steven’s friend Connie learns to swordfight. So, you know, fantasy.

Anyway, I digress.

The episode in question features Steven, Connie, and Stevonnie. Stevonnie is a fusion. In the Steven Unvierse… universe… and in many anime series as well, fusion is the process of two separate beings fusing into a single being with a somewhat shared consciousness. In this show and others, it’s often used as a metaphor for relationships of many kinds.

In “Mindful Education,” Steven and Connie are learning to swordfight together as the fusion Stevonnie. In the beginning, Stevonnie does quite well, learning about new powers they have in this form and adapting to them with ease. But in the middle of training, Stevonnie experiences a strange, sudden flashback, they fall, and Steven and Connie unfuse. Connie runs away, clearly upset, and Steven follows, trying to find out what happened.

Steven learns that Connie accidentally hurt someone at school, and is trying to push away the confused and difficult feelings she’s having about the incident. Together, they learn that not facing difficult emotions can cause problems when fusing. Another fusion, Garnet, who is also one of the kids’ mentors, teaches Stevonnie a technique for managing those difficult emotions.

And then the episode breaks into song. Steven Universe (like Adventure Time) is well-known for its extremely good music, but this song is one of my all-time favorites. The song essentially describes basic principles of mindfulness and what happens when we aren’t mindful. I can’t really do it justice by just describing it. You’ve got to watch it for yourself.

One remarkable thing about this song is its chorus. The chorus consists of several repeated lines whose melodies use repeated, descending notes. The effect this creates is kind of like an exhale. Long exhales and other breathing exercises are frequently used in mindfulness training to decrease panic and increase calm. They are one of the things I’ve learned in therapy to help me get through panic attacks.

When I first watched this episode, I was in my first semester living over two thousand miles from the person who would become my spouse. I was in a new town with a new job, both of which were great, but I was missing the friends I’d made in my PhD program and I hadn’t quite yet made strong new friendships. I was feeling lonely. Moreover, I was living in a beach town—and high bridges over water and roads near the bluffs consistently triggered my panic attacks. I was, shall we say, struggling.

To say that this episode’s song touched me deeply is a bit of an understatement. I bawled like a newborn baby. And it was barely halfway through the episode.

After Stevonnie learns some mindfulness, Connie applies the lessons of the song to her situation and is able to resolve her difficult feelings about what happened at school. Steven, on the other hand, who has recently been through a series of semi-traumatic events, is not. The next time they fuse, Stevonnie has flashbacks of Steven’s recent encounters with gems seeking to hurt him, and his questions about who his (long-dead) mom was and whether or not she was a good person literally loom large over Stevonnie.

It’s a completely heartbreaking moment.

And in that moment in my life, it was exactly what I needed. I needed to have that ugly cry that began, like, three minutes into the episode and came back with a vengeance by minute eight. It was great, it was terrible, it was cathartic. It was wonderful.

Stories to Come Back to Over and Over

Since these two episodes aired, they have become a regular part of my rotation of “comfort TV.” Episodes I watch when I feel so bad that all I want to do is cry. Overall, these episodes make me happy. Incredibly happy, as a matter of fact. I love that kids’ shows are dealing with complicated emotions like anger, loss, and guilt. But in the moments of watching them, I’m often feeling bad.

And, as these shows teach, that’s okay.

What about you?

What stories do you turn to when you’re feeling low? Let me know in the comments!

Pianos, Shoes, and Rhetoric, Oh, My!

Diverse people, with faces covered with emoticons

This post is part of a series on rhetoric. Check out the first, second, and third posts too, if you’re interested!

Did you know I am a classically trained pianist? Or, at least, I used to be. I don’t know how much I’m entitled to that… title, I guess… now, but I took twelve years of lessons and minored in piano performance in college.

Anyway. In high school, I began learning the first movement to Sonata “Pathetique” by Beethoven. I was really excited to learn it because the major theme was used in a Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego theme I used to play on the computer back in the dark ages when computer games required Compact Discs. But I digress.

When I first began to learn the piece, my piano teacher taught me that the name “Pathetique” is what’s called a false cognate in language learning. To native English speakers, pathetique sounds a lot like the English word pathetic. But a more accurate translation would be “emotional.”

And so it is in rhetoric, too.

One of the three rhetorical appeals discussed by Aristotle and frequently taught today in writing classrooms is the appeal to pathos, or the appeal to emotion.

The Case Against Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Appeals to emotion in persuasive communication often get a bad rap. Cries of “you’re not being rational” or “stop being so emotional” are often used to shut down or dismiss people on social media. There’s this idea that’s really prevalent in many online (and offline, tbh) spaces that if everyone can just “calm down” and “have a rational debate” about difficult topics, then we could come to some kind of agreement or compromise, even about controversial subjects.

On its face, this may seem like a nice thought: if we can just all speak rationally, then we can come to the best conclusions for everyone involved. Underneath that idea, though, are several underlying assumptions:

  1. “Rationality” has more value than emotion.
  2. People’s systems of reasoning are more or less the same.
  3. People generally have the same values.

Here’s the thing: these assumptions are not necessarily true. In fact, I’d argue that they’re all false.

I probably don’t have to convince you that the last one is false, but the first and second statements, maybe I do. Let’s start with number two, because I have more to say about number one.

For those of you who don’t know, I was born and raised in America, but I currently live in Luxembourg, a small European country nestled comfortable between France, Germany, and Belgium. Something I have struggled with here is going to sit-down restaurants. In the States, if you’re not in a fast food or fast casual restaurant, you’re going to step inside the restaurant and wait by the host stand to be seated. A host will come and take you to a table, possibly after asking after your preferences. Here in Luxembourg and the other places we’ve visited so far, that’s not the case. There are no host stands, and so what sometimes happens is this: I walk into a restaurant, panic about whether I’m supposed to wait to be seated, and then a server will indicate that I can basically sit anywhere I want to.

Why do I get nervous about these encounters? Because this is an (admittedly slight) cultural difference between the US and Europe. The cultural assumptions about behaviors in restaurants vary just enough to make me uncertain how to behave.

This idea, that assumptions about beliefs and behaviors differ, and that those assumptions lead to cultural differences in how people interpret each other’s behavior, is called cultural logic.

People in different cultures operate under different cultural logics, and that affects how they communicate. I don’t just mean national cultures, either. Cultures within the States have different cultural logics, too.

Take, for example, the recent rise in support for defunding and/or abolishing police. One way to consider the disagreements about this topic is to think through two very different assumptions about policing held by different groups in the United States.

Some groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net good and overall produces a safer society than a society without policing.

Other groups assume that police, and the institution of policing in general, is a net negative and overall produces a less safe society than a society without policing, usually for particular minority groups (Black and Indigenous people of color, LGBTQIA+ people, homeless people, etc.).

These different groups are operating off of not just different but opposite cultural logics, and unless those logics can be broken down and examined, one group is not going to make any persuasive headway with the other group.

The Case For Emotion in Persuasive Communication

Now, about that first assumption above: “rationality” has more value than emotion.

I’m not about to say that emotions are more valuable than rationality. But I will say they are at least as important as logic because they let us know what our values are.

Remember that example of an appeal to pathos I wrote about in my first post in this series? The Sarah MacLaughlin ad for the ASPCA? I always use this as an example because it’s such an obvious appeal to emotion. People watch it and get sad about puppies and kitties and then go give money to the ASPCA. But why does it make people sad?

I’ll tell you why it makes me sad. Because I care about the well being of puppies and kitties! It’s important to me that those little babbies get well-taken care of and are not abused! My emotional response to the commercial shows me (and others) what I care about.

Emotion can also be a powerful motivator to action, sometimes more so than logic or credibility. If something makes you very emotional, be it angry or sad or joyful, you might be more inclined to act on those feelings than if you just encounter appeals to logic or credibility.

The Corporate Case for Pathos

Take for example a few major commercial campaigns from recent films. In 2018, Nike released an ad featuring Colin Kaepernick, a (former?) football player and activist who had been protesting police brutality against people of color by kneeling during the national anthem.

People who had been critical of Kaepernick for these protests were spurred to action by these protests. They tossed out or burned their Nike shoes in protest of Nike’s support of Kaepernick.

But after the ad and the associated social media storm? Nike stocks went up.

While one group saw the ads and protested Nike in a storm of emotion, others were spurred to support Nike through feelings of pride, righteousness, and hope.

Another Case Against Pathos

Here’s another thing about appeals to pathos, though. They can cue us in to our emotions, which is great, but just like any rhetorical appeal or device, appeals to pathos can be deployed for both good and ill. And, of course, a bit of both.

Take the Nike ads, for example. While supporters of Kaepernick and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement more generally may laud Nike for this ad, they may be frustrated to find that Nike has long been and continues to be scrutinized for their treatment of their workers. Specifically, Nike has historically used sweatshop labor in their factories, something they claimed to have addressed in the early 2000s. However, more recent investigations seem to indicate they may have returned to this practice. Some BLM supporters did know of these allegations, and called on Nike to end these harmful practices. Whether or not Nike listened to these critiques amide the social media storm that arose from these ads, however, remains to be seen.

The long and the short of it is best summarized by Youtuber Hbomberguy in his video on Woke Brands. In it, he reminds us that “brands aren’t [our] friends.” Brands want one thing: your money. And support. Okay, maybe two things. But really, that second thing is actually about that first thing. So yeah. They want your money.

TL;DR: Emotions are Great. Pathos just is.

So what’s the big takeaway here? Basically, I’m trying to persuade you that the use of pathos isn’t inherently good or bad. Appeals to pathos are just something that exist in the world, and, like all rhetorical tools, can be used in service of many kinds of causes. They’re not more or less important than appeals to logos or ethos, but they can give us a different kind of information–information about ourselves.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this post, help a blogger out and share it on your social platforms, please and thank you. And then go check out the other posts in this series:

A Coping Mechanism

I have a problem.

I’m not good at confrontation. Actually, I’m terrible at it, but that’s a subject for another post.

I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s that point in the academic job market season where my colleagues keep asking me to update them on my search, perfectly well-meaning people who want nothing but the best for me and my career, and the angriest part of me wants to look them straight in the eyes and tell them I have no offers and no more prospects for an offer this year. With no smile. Part of me wants to watch them squirm. To watch them try to come up with some words of comfort. To watch them try decide if they’re going to ask me if I know what I’ll be doing next year or if that’s too delicate a question to ask. To watch them tell me to try again next year.

But as I said, I’m not good at confrontation, and it’s not their fault the market is crap, and I don’t really want to have this interaction with people, mostly. So far, I’ve used two strategies. With colleagues I don’t know as well, I’ve avoided the issue by telling people I’m still waiting to hear from some schools; with mentors and friends, I’ve told them what my plans are for next year (and there are plans), with assurances that I’m actually pretty excited about the unexpected turn things are taking. And I really am. These plans aren’t yet available for public broadcasting, so I’m not including them here. Don’t worry; I’ll be plenty insufferable about them later.

I think one of the cruelest parts of the job market is the emotional labor involved in telling other people I have no offers. As a friend (also on the market this year, also with no offers) said today, “Who haven’t I told yet that I’m a failure?”

I don’t blame people for asking. Hell, I want to know how everyone else is doing, too. And I sincerely hope they’re doing better than me. It’s just so exhausting to put a smile on your face and make reassurances to other people when you just want to scream just a tiny little bit.

Like I said, I actually am really excited about what’s in store for next year, but I’m also mad. I’m mad that academia over-relies on contingent labor; I’m mad that graduate programs both continue to pay their graduates a pittance and continue to accept and graduate students at the same rates despite an already-crap market getting even crappier. I’m mad that tenure-track faculty are being asked to do more and more labor with fewer and fewer resources and stagnating pay. I’m mad at the ways in which academia continues to reproduce whiteness while paying lip service towards diversity and the ways in which it continues to ask more of femme academics while also devaluing labor it considers feminine.

So yeah, I’m mad. And a tiny part of me wants to act on that anger by watching people squirm. But I won’t. I’m just going to blog about it. That’s what writing is for, right?