Pseudonyms and Milk Carton Faces

In The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Janie recognizes her own baby photo on the back of a milk carton (the pre-internet version of an AMBER alert). The resulting drama stretches through a total of five books and was even adapted into a made-for-tv movie.

The part that stuck with me happens early in the story. Janie is in English class, finishing an essay. She writes her name at the top of the page but the way it looks on paper is sooo boring. She'd already tried sexing up her name last year from Jane Johnson to Jayne Johnstone.

Now she took the "h" out of Johnston and added a second "y" to Jayne.

Jayyne Jonstone. It looked like the name you would have if you designed sequined gowns for a living, or pointed to prizes on television quiz shows.

Later on, her English teacher hands back the corrected essay.

At the top of the page he had circled Jayyne Jonstone, adding, "Janie, you having an identity crisis?"

I burst out laughing at this point. Every single time. 

Like Janie, I hated my name. I thought it was sooo boring. It never felt right, like I was an amnesiac trying on a name.

In high school, Susan turned into Susyn then into Suzzyna. Teenage insecurity and awkwardness donned a figurative cloak made of y's and z's. I'd watched enough teen movies to believe in the magic of makeovers. Suzzyna could dazzle the world into submission. She was the superstar my parents pushed me to be — unafraid, confident, beautiful, successful.

I wore her cloak for a very long time. And when Suzzyna wasn't bright enough, I created other personas based off of people I admire. I eventually ended up with so many that I could even choose which one to put on, like costumes hanging on a rack.

Doors turned into stage curtains. Whenever I was about to walk into a room, it felt like I was waiting in the wings, counting down my entrance. One deep breath to suppress my fears then I'd step out into the spotlight.

Afterward, once the curtains lowered and I was safely back in the wings, I could never remember what happened on stage. All I had to go by was audience reaction. Applause told me I did something right; laughter meant it all went wrong.

Living this way was stressful but it didn't seem too bad. I graduated, got married, started a career, but after having worn so many masks this long, I couldn't remember what I looked like.

When I tried to be myself, anxiety cut through my skin, flaying away composure to expose raw panic. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I was trying to make sense of my naked body when I'd only ever seen the photoshopped version. I'd been taught to judge myself by how well I blended into the glossy pages of a superficial world.

It wasn't until recently that I learned those masks were a coping mechanism. What I'd thought was teenage insecurity and awkwardness turned out to be crippling social anxiety, complete with selective mutism and sensory processing issues. 

Whenever environments or situations became too much to handle, stepping into a different persona dialed down the panic. Adding y's and z's into my name helped me feel just safe enough so I wouldn't shut down. 

Looking back now, I see how this anxiety has affected my writing. I could only ever write under pseudonyms — each one tossed aside as soon as I felt unsure. I experimented with voices and styles, trying to mould myself into someone I thought I should be. And because I worried what others thought, I did what I'd always done — disappear into yet another persona. The unfortunate result? All the things I had to say vanished too.

Which brings me to the point of this entry.

I dug up some old blog posts that had been published under pseudonyms. They've been migrated to this site because I want to start writing under my own name. No more personas. No more masks. (A brand new site design marks this occasion.) I may be afraid of so many things, but I know now that I am also confident, beautiful, and successful. I've always been. All I needed was to recognize the face on the milk carton — the missing me that I've only just found.

Mike Myers on Creativity & Perseverance

At the 2014 Savannah Film Festival, Mike Myers sat down with SCAD's President, Paula Wallace, for a candid conversation. After watching a two-minute clip of the interview, I found myself transcribing some of the things Myers said, particularly the portions on creativity and perseverance.

On natural talent: "As I'm getting older, I don't quite know what natural talent means except a willingness to study and persevere in the face of rejection."

On rejection: "Don't give up. NASA has a fantastic expression which is: There's no failure, only early attempts at success. You know, there's a lot of rejection. The rejection should inform you and not define you. The reward of doing this work is the creativity itself. I make something every day. I don't show it to everybody but I make something."

On the joy of creativity: "If you focus on result, you'll always be heartbroken. If you focus on product, you'll sometimes be heartbroken. If you focus on process, you'll never be heartbroken because that's the joy."

Extremely timely advice.

To me, writing can be heartbreaking work, because it's near impossible to tell if I'm improving. There are no grades, no performance reviews. My brain is wired to measure my worth in work, finances, relationships, because I feel the need to justify my existence in this world. When I was younger, having a direction (or destination) was important, but writing reminds me there is value in not having a direction at all. It's scary and hard but IMHO, more fulfilling.

Here's the original clip:

To the Owner Who Lost Her Dog Today

I'm not a doctor, but I can tell. Sometimes, the animal is already dead. Sometimes, they're dying. I rush him to the back all the same, because I'm not a doctor. Maybe I'm wrong. I wait up front with you.

You ask me: Will he be okay?

And I lie.

It feels like a lie.

I tell you I don't know. I can't tell. The doctor is working on him right now. I emphasize that last one because if the doctor is working on him, then maybe he really will be okay.

My job is to keep you calm until you fill out the required forms. My job is to listen so you can tell me all the things you think the doctor needs to know.

I help you clean the blood from your hands. Get you a cup of water.

Then the doctor buzzes up front, and you look at me when I call your name. It's too soon. You know what the doctor's going to say, but you ask me: Is he okay?

I put you in an exam room.

Then I wait.

Wait.

For the sound of your heart breaking. Sometimes, it's a barely audible gasp. Sometimes, it's a wail loud enough to shake my heart.

Because I know what it feels like to be the one to ask: Will he be okay?

When I already know.

No.

He's not okay.

Bieber in Space

The alien terrain was rocky. The air so silent that Kaidan Alenko could hear the brittle rocks beneath his feet crumble as he made his way through the unfamiliar landscape. Keeping close to the shadows, Kaidan maintained a slow but steady pace. It had been hours since he had left the safety of his own ship. He was navigating blind, the electric magnetic emissions from about half a klick ahead of him effectively nullifying any tech he could’ve brought with him.

“Damn it, Shepard,” Kaidan muttered under his breath. What was she up to now? He had received a short burst transmission from her ship days ago. Something about how Shepard was in danger. Something about how his ship was the closest one to her location. There was so much static it had been hard to understand but whatever he did manage to decrypt scared the shit out of him.

Tracing the signal back to its origin brought him more questions than answers, and now he was on a solo mission trying to save Shepard’s ass before the Reapers could retaliate.

Kaidan could feel his biotic energy humming just under his skin at the thought of her. They had a good run together. Sweaty nights on board the Normandy. Stolen kisses on every elevator of the Citadel. It may seem like light years ago, but no matter what he did, he couldn’t drive away the memories of the woman she had been before she betrayed everything they believed in. Before she had died.

He shook his head and forced himself to concentrate. Some Spectre he was turning out to be, mooning over a woman when he was on a mission to save the whole god-forsaken universe.

Going by memory, he compared the landscape around him to the terrain map in his mind’s eye. He was close. Hunkering down behind a large rock, Kaidan flexed his hands and flicked a mass effect field into existence. Glowing blue light flared outward and dimmed as the field settled tightly around his body. Textbook-perfect barrier but with one difference: The shifting mass-effect field rendered him invisible to the naked eye.

The thirty feet perimeter around the compound was brightly lit by the three moons high above the sky. There were no shadows and nowhere to hide. Despite the invisibility field, Kaidan moved in fast and low.

Reaching out with one hand, he palmed the control next to the nearest door, letting a short burst of biotic energy surge into the system. Sparks flew out of the panel, and the door hissed opened. Kaidan held his breath. When no one came rushing out, he clutched his assault rifle close to him before peering around the door frame. A hallway stretched out in front of him. Long. Empty. Grey.

The first phase of his plan was complete. Now to find Shepard and drag her sorry ass back to civilization.

He took a step into the compound. Then another. Then another. But something felt wrong. The building was much too quiet, too empty.

Then he heard something. The sound was soft. Like the way her breath had felt against his skin that morning before Ilos. It annoyed him. Grated his nerves. As he walked farther into the compound, the sound grew louder, and he realized he had been listening to an old folk song from Earth. Piped through an old internal speaker system, the melody was disjointed. The sound hollow. It crackled, then stopped, then started again.

A figure stood in front of him.

The hair on the back of his neck stood on end when he realized the figure was staring straight at him. It was a young boy with fair skin and wide eyes. Soft layers of brown hair framed his face. Tears ran down his cherubic cheeks. The boy’s mouth opened and closed as he whispered a continuous stream of nonsensical words.

…Never say never. Baby, baby, baby…

The boy pointed one finger at him. The whispering stopped as rage began to contort his beautiful face into something grotesque.

Then the boy turned around and ran.

Kaidan cursed and pursued the boy down the hall. If the Reapers hadn’t known he was coming, they did now. He shook off his invisibility field and diverted the energy to both his palms. Whatever was waiting for him at the center of the compound would get a full biotic kick to the teeth, and whatever his biotics couldn’t kill, his assault rifle would finish the job.

He burst through one final set of doors and found himself in the middle of a wide open clearing. His jaw dropped. Stunned, he could only watch as the most horrific scene played out in front of him.

Hundreds of bodies contorted simultaneously as if performing an ancient ritual. Krogan, Volus, Salarian, Turian. No one seemed immune to the power of the eerie folk song. A brown bowl-shaped fungus sat on top of every head, its soft hair-like strands waving in time to the rhythm of the music. Kaidan covered his ears with his hands as the wailing of hundreds of voices singing at the top of their lungs deafened him.

And right in the middle of it all was Shepard.

Her lifeless eyes told him everything he needed to know. She danced like all the other marionettes on the stage. Humanity’s greatest hope turned into a puppet. The fiery woman he had loved, still loved, reduced to a crude representation of her once vibrant self.

Something in him snapped. Biotic fire surge to life.

Kaidan staggered forward, making his way to Shepard. He threw both arms around her, holding her safe against his body as he allowed himself to surrender to the violence within. Dark energy rippled outward. Powered by rage, fueled by passion, his biotic fire burned everything it touched. The bodies that danced around them crumbled to the ground.

“Alenko?”

The sound of her voice broke through his seething rage. It had been too long since the last time he had heard her voice. It brought back a rush of memories. The way she had barked her commands at him, the way she had defied the Council, the way she conquered the galaxy and fought back the darkness through sheer force of her will.

His rage died, and in its place was warmth and life and laughter.

Kaidan opened his mouth, wanting to ask for her forgiveness, to beg for a second chance, when the ground began to rumble. The quaking earth heaved and shook beneath their feet. Kaidan fell. He covered Shepard with his own body as the building around them began to crumble. Large chunks of metal and stone crashed down.

And then there was silence.

Kaidan raised his head to look around. The compound was destroyed, and standing in front of them was the same boy he had seen in the hallway. The boy pointed one finger at him, and hundreds of voices surged into Kaidan’s mind, some whispering, some shouting, all saying the same thing:

…In the year 2012, we were kidnapped and cryogenically frozen by the Reapers. We were held in stasis for thousands of years while the Reapers worked hard to augment our boyish charms and angelic voices with their technology. When triggered, the sound of our voices would spread across the galaxy like cosmic radiation ultimately Bieberizing all intelligent races and making resistance futile…

The voices died once the message was given. The boy nodded at him as if in thanks. He raised his angelic eyes and the most beautiful smile Kaidan had ever seen spread across his face. The edges of his body began to blur, and with tears running down his cheeks, the boy disappeared into thin air, leaving behind the haunting refrain of his song.

...Never say never…

Cateriam: A Cat Cafe in Tokyo

Shimokitazawa is popular for its independent music scene and trendy boutiques. Delicious restaurants line the streets serving almost anything you want from actual poutine and handmade udon noodles to spaghetti and okara donuts. Most importantly, Shimokita is where you'll find Cateriam—an adorable cafe where you can sip green tea lattes like a queen while letting your freaky cat lady flag fly. About a block or two from the train station, there's a doorway with a Cateriam sign right next to a 7-Eleven. You climb up a flight of stairs and enter through another set of doors. A friendly proprietor will use an English menu to explain the rules. You basically prepay for the amount of time you plan on staying, and if you'd like, you have the option to add on food or drinks. You'll take off your shoes then place your things in a cubby hole. Once you wash your hands, you're free to commence with the all-you-can-snuggle fest.

I will admit that my animal rescue side was a little anxious before I arrived—I've heard one too many bad stories in my lifetime—but all the cats seemed happy and healthy. I surreptitiously checked the paws of a cat lounging on my lap, and he hadn't been declawed. The state of the scratching posts in the room told me the same. During meal times, the oldest cat was fed in a separate area which is what I have to do for my own animals at home too.

As for litter boxes, there was a room behind glass walls with what appeared to be its own ventilation system. Each time a cat did his business, the proprietor scooped it out right away. More than once, I got the impression that us humans were there to entertain the cats instead of the other way around.

IMHO, this is the best (and only) way to live.

LONG LIVE OUR KITTY OVERLORDS.

There's nothing quite like starting off a hectic day with thirty minutes of awwwwfully adorable cats, and Cateriam's ambiance was as peaceful as a spa. When things got a little too mellow, the proprietor would bust out cardboard boxes, crinkly toys, and strawberry hats! You don't know happiness until you've been in a room with ten cats—some dressed as strawberries—zooming, swatting, and pouncing.

Most of the chairs were too small for this American-sized ass, but the seating seemed better suited for cats than humans anyway. Cateriam was popular with both tourists and locals alike, and most people opted to sit on a pillow or the floor while flipping through pet-related manga and books. While there, I tried the hot chocolate, green tea latte, and black sesame drink. Everything was delicious. They even decorated the drinks with cocoa powdered paw prints!

Each time I went—AND YES I WENT BACK MORE THAN ONCE HOW COULD I NOT—I took plenty of pictures. Thanks to a handy dandy pocket wifi, I texted photos to our petsitter back home so I could show my cats how much fun they were missing out on. She texted back to tell me they didn't seem impressed :( which kinda goes to show you that no matter where you are in the world, cats will always be cats.

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi

Image by Susan Pi