On feminism – an essay

I would like to open this blog post, stating my belief that many – if not most – feminists across the world are good, kind-hearted people.

And I am writing this post from my position as a non-feminist.

This topic has spawned numerous conversations and debates, and sometimes I’m really interested in some of such discourses. Many issues across the world, pretty much, have something to do with this concept. Issues as brutal as rape, female infanticide, female genital mutilation, or other kinds of sexual assault, or those as mundanely quotidian as gender wage gaps, working hours, female labor force participation rate, workplace discrimination, opportunity and access gaps, or maternal leave, are themes that I have frequently encountered through articles or videos in Facebook that were shared by some of my friends or news magazines. Occasionally, in order to partially kill the curiosity itself, I checked its related statistics, or facts and figures, in order to research further about such questions.

As frequently as many people have voiced their concerns and/or expressions about the need for gender equality, nonetheless, certain minorities within this movement have done so in ways that can be perceived as annoying, or even disconcerting. If we have to be honest, the words “feminism”, “social justice warrior”, as well as “political correctness” have been used interchangeably, particularly by Western-dominated mass media. Certain speakers have been banned from giving talks because of their legal views towards certain rape cases that they were immediately derided as “rape apologists”. Conservative speakers who wanted to talk about abortion were immediately banned from campuses due to the pressure from these groups. Universities have been forced, occasionally, to apologize simply for inviting those speakers. There have been criticisms that these groups of individuals seek to enforce a logic that only their own arguments matter, and anyone else disagreeing with theirs would be labelled in as many negative terms as possible. And then there are certain militant groups – like, Femen – where those female protesters would no doubt undress themselves in public, all the while demanding rights to be respected. And just to inform you, one documentary from Al Jazeera (that Qatar-based news channel that Saudi Arabia wants Qatar to dissolve) illustrated the nasty extent to which a ‘gender war’ can take place, pitting radicalized feminist activists vis-à-vis equally radicalized ‘men’s rights activists’, as is the case in South Korea.

My university friends once recounted to me their classroom experience of being taught by a professor who also happens to be a feminism activist, and probably a very outspoken one as well. In a very emotionally agitated language, one of them complained to me about the professor’s notions of a mandatory leave – or even salaries – for housewives. “What the hell is the idea of a mandatory leave or salaries for housewives?” he told me in a somewhat angry tone. “Are we losing the essence of what a ‘mother’ supposedly is?”

To be completely honest, sometimes I have been left more confused than inspired by the things that these certain individuals have done. Sometimes I also have debates with some friends of mine – some of whom are also themselves feminists – about the true essence of this concept, one that I still continue to explore and contemplate occasionally whenever I come across on any news articles. Disagreements aside, however, we never had – nor do we want – open confrontation or verbal clashes. Instead, I learn to understand their perspectives, and so do they. Some areas of contention are better left not debated, as I do not want these issues to wreak a significant havoc on our relationships.

And I am not myself a wise person per se. A sudden change of mindset and declaration of myself as a ‘feminist’ does not necessarily make myself suddenly wiser, nor does being none. My position on the concept of feminism, to be frank, remains undecided. I agree with many of the ideals being fought by this movement – equal wages, equal opportunity, equal access to education, healthcare, and other public services, as well as equal treatment – but I also have significant reservations about how certain people apply this concept – sexual liberation, abortion, and overly enforced political correctness in particular. These are the values that I personally oppose, but in the end, who am I to force the world to bend things according to my own conceptions?

This is why sometimes I am worried about social media nowadays. Algorithms are increasingly learning better about us, that they would simply present to us – either in our news feed in Facebook or better-optimized search results in Google – anything that would validate what we have read, or what we have searched. There come conservative bubbles, liberal bubbles, centrist bubbles, feminist bubbles, men’s right bubbles, sadomasochist bubbles, etc., and as though these bubbles are heading into a huge collusion. It becomes difficult to forge a dialogue, or a conversation, for people of contrasting viewpoints.

Still, as much reservation that I have, I pretty much agree with many of the values that are advocated by most feminist movements across the world. Issues already mentioned above, such as rape, gender wage gaps, glass ceilings, lack of equal access, or female genital mutilation, remain seriously concerning. This is where the movement is stepping in to continue their fight.

Moreover, as far from the envisioned ideals the current condition is, now is massively much better than in the past, and undeniably, much of the societal progress we are seeing taking place would not have been made possible without the presence of thought-provoking feminist thinkers. A woman who happened to live in both 1010 and 1050 may never expect the society to shift their attitudes about women; nor would most women living in both 1910 and 1950 have the same expectation, except for those living in more developed parts of the globe. However, those living in 2010 – and potentially up to 2050 – will see massive changes in our human society, almost universally spread across the planet. Technological advances are growing at an exponential rate, so fast that gender differences no longer matter. Women can learn to code, create their Arduino-based devices, do 3D-printing, or even build robots, as much as their male counterparts do, and with more open-access technologies available, everyone will soon be able to learn on their own. The chief scientist for United Arab Emirates’ official mission to explore Mars is a woman. Many of the engineers responsible for creating India’s low-cost rocket program to Mars are also women.

Sarah Amiri, chief scientist of Mars mission program for Government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Do not judge a book by its cover: never mind the sari clothes, but these are Indian women engineers that have designed the low-cost satellites for exploration to Mars. Indeed, one can observe how even more colorful the celebration has been!

Also, much of the “political correctness” discourse – from my own opinion – has been disseminated largely by the Western media, and, ironically, most of the world happens to read Western-based media on a daily basis (myself included). My epistemological understanding is that if we look at different media sources, their perception, opinions, and attitudes about feminism would also largely differ. At least one illustration here would be Wangari Maathai: a 2004 Nobel Peace Prize awardee (quite honestly I always have skepticism about Nobel Peace Prize winners), she has helped to empower Kenyan women while simultaneously worked to preserve the country’s natural habitats. Indeed, I would highly recommend you to read Half The Sky, a very good book authored by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof and his wife – and also a fellow journalist, Sheryl WuDunn. This book offers a very broad perspective about efforts of female empowerment across various developing countries, ranging from microfinance to female education to efforts to eradicate female genital mutilation.

For me, the face of ‘feminism’ is not only about Emma Watson promoting #HeforShe, or female rights protest movements worldwide one day after the inauguration of Donald Trump (proof that I’m still reliant on Western-based media). It may feel so negligible, but do not forget that there are also millions of migrant workers – both male and female – who have left behind their families in Indonesia, the Philippines, and other developing countries in order to toil really hard in places like Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and elsewhere. They sacrifice the time they could have spent with their parents, husbands, or their own children – oftentimes lasting for years – in order to earn enough incomes to fund their families, children’s education, or at least for their next offspring to afford a better future than they themselves could. Isn’t that feminism? What about hundreds of millions of migrant workers within China, who have left behind their hometowns, in order to work in factories, predominantly, to earn enough money for their families? And you assume that their parents are doing this willingly at the expense of the children’s mental well-being? Most people – except for an ‘exceptional few’ – would never do that. And can we expect ‘feminism’ itself to end such injustices? I am afraid not. The least we can do is to honor the sacrifices they have made for their next generations.

Beyond the feminism phenomenon, relatedly, another ‘shock’ the society is dealing and adjusting with is the fact that even the concept of ‘gender’ is becoming increasingly fluid. Our mental construction, our conscious understanding on the concept of ‘gender’ is increasingly freed of its binary nature, straight male or straight female. National Geographic, in one of its special editions titled ‘Gender Revolution’, identified no less than 21 different terms to describe gender. In particular, the “LGBT” phenomenon (lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender) is increasingly tolerated by many communities in different parts of the world. The half-empty picture is that over 172 countries have yet to legalize same-sex marriage; indeed, in many parts of this planet, that is punishable by death, imprisonment for life, or torture. The half-full picture, however, is that over 23 countries, since 2000, have given same-sex marriage a full legal blessing, mostly in North America and Western Europe. Taiwan became the first country in Asia to legalize same-sex marriage based on its Constitutional Court ruling in May 2017. Can a gay or a lesbian, if he or she happened to live in 1000 and 1017, ever imagine such a ‘rapid’ development?

 

The progress, if we look at it from a broader space-time continuum (say the last 10,000 years of human civilization), is hugely exponential, but the fact that it is so rapid that as though it leaves almost no time for societies to adjust makes me concerned about the increasing ‘clash of values’ between people who are effervescently on-the-march progressive, those who are in the center, and those who want to retain the status quo, or maintain the current values. Again, as I have emphasized before, we have the problem of ‘bubbles’ due to how social media algorithms have reconfigured our thought patterns. And for me personally, as a person in the center, I am partly open to such possibilities, but I am also simultaneously worried about whether even I myself can fully cope with those massive, unexpected, fast-forwarding cultural and social shocks.

But, as much as I have a certain degree of reservation on feminism, I personally think that feminism itself can help dealing with the shock generated by gender fluidity that is gradually taking place in our society. Can we stop gender fluidity in the first place? I doubt it. Certain governments may impose authoritarian policies and enforce very tough measures, but I think this will only, in the long run, embolden – rather than permanently suppress – the sentiment that the authorities seek to remove. The question is whether we, in general, are ready for acceptance, no matter how painful it may be for our long-held traditional values, the values we have been inculcated in for most of our lifetime.

Even our concept of a ‘romantic relationship’ may – like it or not, sooner or later, depending on where you live – undergo a complete overhaul. The conventional ‘big picture’ is that a relationship has always been cast in this way: the male is normally portrayed as physically stronger than a woman, emotionally stoic, and has a tremendous responsibility to protect not only the female, but also a household in general. A male counterpart must be a breadwinner, while the female stays at home, nurturing children and doing household chores. Or, in a slightly revised ideal construction, women will do part-time jobs, all the while prioritizing the nurturing of the children, and completing household-related tasks, with men taking up full-time employment. Even if the big picture is increasingly rendered obsolescent in more and more parts of the world, it has not completely disappeared.

The complete overhaul could be that rather than the male being the sole ‘protector’, the approach may transition into one that has both the male and the female committed in protecting the relationship. Rather than the male always being expected to remain emotionally stiff, the counterparts may have to start being emotionally honest with each other. Rather than relying on the male alone to provide the income for a household, or a family, both the male and the female begin to financially support each other. Or that there may be no such obligatory need for a couple to get married to solidify their relationship. Most of these descriptions are becoming an increasingly common reality, but is our ideal construction of a romantic relationship evolving as well?

Or perhaps we can simplify, in the first place, what feminism actually is. I recounted a conversation I had with another friend of mine when we were going out for a dinner. She was asking me – in response to chat discussions we once exchanged in our Whatsapp group – about my stance, and I explained mine to her. And there she responded, “Well, for me, feminism doesn’t have to be very complicating: I would simply define it as the freedom for a woman to make her own choices.” I still remembered her line very vividly: it doesn’t have to be very intricately defined or preconceived. I personally would have a better consensus with her in defining this concept. When it comes to ‘making her own choices’, it can be limitless possibilities. A woman is free to pursue her education as high as she aspires to be; a woman can pursue a corporate career trajectory, hopefully to shatter the existing glass ceilings. A woman aspires to build robots. A woman who has no fear wearing bikinis in the public, but also has no fear of wearing religious attires (say, a Muslim veil). For a constantly changing world – and one that is changing at an accelerating pace, this will inevitably reshape the society of the future that we will be building and living in. Once again, however, the question remaining unanswered is how far the current society – a complicating mix of people who have lived for most of the 20th century, and those who are recently born, say, from 1980s to the beginning of 2010s – is prepared to withstand waves and waves of cultural shock. Can different generations in the current societal structure reconcile their views? Is the older generation willing to accept that certain changes are inevitable? And is the current generation also willing, to a limited extent, to at least understand the viewpoints of their elders?

Nearing the conclusion of this post, let me highlight this: changes are constant – as well as inevitable – within the human society. Many ideals remain yet to be accomplished, but the society itself remains a constant work in progress. Many of the values in the past generation were no longer existent in the current, and many of the current values will also be non-existent for the next generations. Probably the next generations, either in a not too far or distant future, will no longer categorize themselves based on ethnicity, race, gender, religion, nationalities, or other defining social and physical attributes. The thing is, nobody can ever know what the future will look like. On the question about feminism, although I would consider myself to be on the same boat for some issues (namely equal opportunity, equal pay, or equal access to public services), there are certain values that I am not ready – nor am I willing – to embrace for now. I still oppose the concept of sexual liberation. I also disagree with the notion of abortion, unless the mother-to-be is in a very severe and threatening health condition that abortion becomes a Hobson’s choice. To a certain extent, I am still not willing to support overly celebratory events on themes like lesbian or gay pride events. But, in the end, who am I to ban these things? As much as I disagree with and oppose those conceptions, who am I to regulate other people’s bodies, or how they use their bodies to express themselves, or to tell them what are the ‘right methods’ or ‘proper interaction’? My disagreements simply stem from my partial unwillingness to fully embrace these values. You can even have your own choice to completely disregard my opinions.

But even individuals are not permanently dogmatic about their own thoughts. Societal attitudes shifted as waves of generations inherit this planet. What were once intolerable are now cause celebre; despite my concern about bubbles, as already mentioned in the first few paragraphs, I still believe that most people, having been exposed to something brand-new that is beyond their conventional understanding of social values and norms, will gradually learn about them, and probably will try to make some adjustments. Here, I emphasize that constant dialogue is needed to bridge the understanding gap. It is never easy to change people’s mindsets; that, oftentimes, can take generations. That’s the half-empty perspective. Yet, from the other half-full perspective, societal progress continues to take place. It’s just that the pace of change can be unpredictable, wildly varying within timelines, and within different communities across this planet.

Even I myself can hardly guarantee whether the same mindset I have right now will stick to me permanently. If I am, say the least, in a relationship with someone, my mindset may likely change. If I get married and/or have children – sons or daughters, my perspectives will undergo through some adjustments, too. Future events, depending on the extent of their personal impacts, may also shift my attitude from what I currently perceive at things. My point is, I simply keep myself open to possibilities. As constantly opposed as I am on certain values that I find disagreeable, my mindset may or may not change in the future. I would, in most circumstances, stick myself to the center. At the very least, I am open to constructive dialogue with people of various and opposing viewpoints, because everyone’s arguments – myself included – have their own pros and cons. At least with regard to definition, I would stick with my friend’s ‘freedom-to-have-a-choice’ alternate.

In the end, changes never come without friction. As waves of values diminish in one generation, they will be – gradually or rapidly – replaced with sets of new values by the next.

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Much ado about love

being single

 

It’s the first time in this blog I want to discuss about romantic relationships. A temporary break from serious discussions firsthand.

Awkward posting? Potentially yes. I’ve never truly fallen in love with someone else.

Wait, what? Fallen in love? Love at the first sight? Is that even a correct definition?

Truth be told, back as a child, I used to believe – thanks to all these lovey-dovey dramas – that there was always this possibility of ‘love at first sight’. An attractive, shy-pretense (or just snobbishly cool) guy got into some minor war of mouth with a fair-skinned, big-eyed, and long-haired girl (okay, this makes me somewhat like Nabokov), before in what we can call as economists’ ‘theory of luck’, unexpectedly meet in an unexpected event at an unexpected place, and the first signs of affection became slowly inevitable among the two, and they fall in love ever since. Ceteris paribus.

Probably the boy (or the girl) has to move somewhere else to work, or to pursue further studies. Or that something’s wrong with economic conditions that the boy can hardly get the girl to go for a date. Or that the girl or the boy can barely stand up with the other’s family members due to conflicting life principles, habits, and social values. Or even something catastrophic happens, say, in many dramas, either one of them contacts a deadly disease, a war happens, or simply, a sudden, unexplained, Murakami-esque breakup. Well, too many maybes.

After all, love, just like acing As in exams, is itself a hard work and an uneasy commitment. In my point of view, if you love someone, that means you really do love that person. A person is completely different from an item; an item can depreciate in terms of values, but not with the loving partner! It takes commitment, perseverance, faith, and sometimes, sighing all the while, some conflicts. As human beings, we all are entitled to different values and ideas, and stemming from these differences, oftentimes we can barely avoid conflicts. Nonetheless, for all the unpopularity, it is from those conflicts that we can obtain better understanding of each other, and we have to admit that no couples are perfect.

Too often we are drawn into Facebook posts, or Instagram pictures, of lovely couples posing with numerous cute-looking postures, or sometimes with these quotes, say: “My baby is so handsome, don’t you see? (wink-wink)”, or “You are always in my heart forever ❤ <3”, or just anything in the social media that you can figure out. From the perspective of a single person like me, yes, to be honest, that makes some of us jealous, or even envious of how they can have such ‘loving’ relationships.

In such a world of randomness, some of these people indeed have enduring relationships. Others, not so much, or they simply call it quits at some time. Believe me, we have seen so many of such pictures and make-believe love statements of one and the other, and almost similarly many do we ever hear stories of their breakups, their private fights, or that either one of them cheats the other. A-ha! Lesson learned: a relationship belongs to only two persons, not to 500 Instagram followers or 1,000 Facebook friends. But, again, even switching our relationship mode to private doesn’t guarantee a relationship will last longer: we do still hear stories of how people simply end their relationships.

What are the secrets to everlasting love, then? As someone who has yet to have a relationship partner, I don’t have much to offer. But I can learn some things from my parents: they dated for 7 years, only once, and got married afterwards. What do I learn from their relationship? Well, honestly speaking, way a lot. Patience, compromise (even though it’s uneasy), agree-to-disagree motion, understanding of each other, open acceptance, long-term outlook on anything, and most difficult one, willingness to sacrifice. That’s what my parents (and myself) have always advised me. If you indeed love someone, it is, indeed, inevitable that some sacrifices have to be made, say, investing extra time for your partner, or some portions of your money to ensure that both of you remain happy.

And, again and again, I’m sort of unready to implement my own advice pieces. Indeed, it will take me quite some time to learn loving someone as time goes by.

This is my ’embarrassing’ confession: I told my parents that I already fell in love with someone, and I did that repeatedly. As kids mostly had no ideas about ‘serious love’, I simply called ‘being attracted to someone’ as ‘being in love at first sight’. I couldn’t remember how many girls I had “fallen in love” with, but probably the figure was 3, 4, or, well, just forget about it.

I had my first crush, nonetheless, in my high school. Indeed, it happened two times. Each of them lasted not beyond one semester, as, you know, the lesson that ‘I have yet to learn so much from it’. I tried to declare my love on one of them, and I was rejected.

In university life, things were completely different. As we are no longer pure teenagers (heading towards adulthood, yes), definitions about love – and romance – also need to change, subsequently. Not outdone with my prior failures, I again tried my luck (well, that’s ironic) on three other friends of mine, but again, each of these efforts lasted not more than one semester. One of these efforts even almost jeopardized our friendship.

I learned my lessons in the long run: I hardly matured up myself while attracted to someone, and I spied on them. It took some time off to reflect on my mistakes, and, well, these were my hard-earned lessons in at least trying to show that if I like someone, I also have to respect her. Now that I have my sixth crush, which to be honestly speaking has lasted over a year, I am still learning from past mistakes (I won’t describe in details about the sixth person I have been pursuing in the last year). I am still hardly ready to be engaged in a relationship, because I know one main requirement I want to emphasize on myself: once you love someone, you should really show that you love her, no matter what. For me, this will really take some more time.

Well, much ado about love.

The two faces of Singapore

singapore rich

 

 

The existence of this tiny, little, 5.5-million-people-strong nation is primarily due to the inflow of two main things this country critically needs: capital inflow and foreign talents.

Speaking of capital influx, it takes this city-state no more than five decades of absolute one-party control to restore law and order, from a previously poverty-laden, conflict-plagued shantytown into one of the world’s richest metropolises equivalent to its doppelgangers, either Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tokyo, New York City, or London. With social stability perfectly well-maintained, the flow of capital is well sustained. It is now one of the planet’s most promising banking hubs, and also tax havens, tantamount to that of Switzerland or Cayman Islands.

Simultaneously, as Singaporean population’s fertility rate is critically below its replacement rate (1.2 instead of 2.0), the government also finds itself increasingly necessary to attract foreigners to come, work, and also live in this tiny country whose GDP size is equivalent to that of its counterpart, Malaysia. Approximately 1 million foreign workers make up one-third of Singapore’s workforce currently, and overall, nearly 2.5 million people living in Singapore are not born in this island. The government has even announced plans to import ‘another’ 1.5 million migrants until 2030 to stabilize the population structure, which is expected, altogether with the number of migrants, to reach 7 million by that year.

Nevertheless, there are unexpected costs with such phenomena.

With global nouveau riches, and also an influx of foreign workers from Third World countries, flocking in to Singapore, problems arise. Relationship between them and the locals becomes intense, social gap widens, and most commonly, political repression prevails. Many, among the latter, who do menial jobs, complain of low pay and unequal treatment, but opinions are frequently suppressed in the highly strict government.

And with the Little India riots recently taking place two days prior (and conducted, ironically, by foreign migrant workers), this is becoming an increasingly alarming concern among all the populace in the country.

Two articles below highlight the two faces of Singapore: one dominated by the globe’s millionaires, and the other by commoners struggling for a better life in a brand-new megalopolis.

 

This is the article, about the former, from Wall Street Journal. Here is the excerpt:

 

Welcome to the world’s newest Monaco, a haven for the ultra-rich in what until recently was mocked as one of the most straight-laced, boring cities in the world. When most people think of Singapore, if they do at all, they think of an order-obsessed Asian version of Wall Street or London’s Canary Wharf, only with implausibly clean, sterile streets and no crime. The southeast Asian city-state of five million people is perhaps best known for banning the sale of chewing gum or caning vandals, including American Michael Fay in 1994 for spray-painting cars. Drug traffickers face the death penalty, and even Ault complains the authorities won’t let him import his prized gun collection, which now sits in his other homes in Palm Beach and Manhattan.

But over the past decade, Singapore has undergone a dramatic makeover, as the rich and famous from Asia and beyond debark on its shores in search of a glamorous new home—and one of the safest places to park their wealth. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin gave up his American citizenship in favor of permanent residence there, choosing to live on and invest from the island while squiring around town in a Bentley. Australian mining tycoon Nathan Tinkler, that country’s second wealthiest man under 40, whose fortune is pegged at $825 million by Forbes, also chose to move to Singapore last year. They join Bhupendra Kumar Modi, one of India’s biggest telecom tycoons who gained Singapore citizenship in 2011, as well as New Zealand billionaire Richard Chandler, who relocated in 2008, and famed U.S. investor Jim Rogers, who set up shop there in 2007. Gina Rinehart, one of the world’s richest women, slapped down $46.3 million for a pair of Singapore condominium units last year.

 

And this is the latter, from The Daily Beast, primarily concerned about foreign-hired construction workers. Here is the excerpt:

 

Construction workers don’t get issued regular work visas; they are considered “transient workers,” welcome in Singapore only for the labor they are doing. The rules stipulated in their work permits bar them from marrying Singaporean citizens (unless approved by the government) and from changing jobs. With permission to be in Singapore conditional upon their employer, workers are discouraged from rocking the boat. Complain too much and you could find your work permit cancelled and your right to remain in Singapore withdrawn. An unlucky worker might even find himself forcibly repatriated.

This gives employers an enormous amount of power over their migrant workers. Activists say they’ve come across contracts with all sorts of unreasonable and downright illegal clauses. A 2008 contract from a subcontractor stipulated that workers would not be entitled to payment for overtime or work done on public holidays. Workers who complained to any government ministry could also be made to pay between $80—$240, which could account for about three to ten days’ worth of wages, for the employers’ trouble in addressing these complaints. And these are for the ‘lucky’ ones, who actually have contracts.

 

‘Were it not for Hannah Montana…’

billy-ray_300x430

 

 

He’s a man of ‘if-it-were-nots’. A man of uneasy, turbulent, messy, and at times, crappy, past. A man whose melodramatic relationship with her superstar, too-confident-to-be-narcissistic, and sassy daughter becomes more or less, or more, perhaps, complicated than a reality TV show. Or that his life has been destined to be that confounding. I have no idea for that.

To get yourself more puzzled, read the full article in GQ (it’s outdated, but that may still be a reference to explain the latest series of misconducts Miley has made, including that ‘We Can’t Stop’ performance on this year’s VMA. You really can’t stop, huh?)

 

Excerpt:

 

Cyrus can be confounding. He is covered in tattoos but now wishes he had none of them. One moment he’ll mutter some playful comment about one of his entourage having a “smoky wokey.” (I don’t know why I find this quite so funny. I guess it’s the echo of “achy breaky”; for a moment I imagine there really might be an alternative reality in which Billy Ray Cyrus is cursed to communicate every thought, however deep or shallow, in pairs of rhyming adjectives.) The next he’ll try to interest me in a charity for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, but in a way that seems curiously guileless (he tells me he’d never heard of the disease until recently), and then the press releases I’m later sent mention that Cyrus is “being reimbursed” for his “time and expenses” by Boehringer Ingelheim Pharmaceuticals. Likewise, there’s an awful childhood tale he shares about waiting outside church with his mother to see whether his father would appear with another woman: “And he did. And it got ugly right there in the church parking lot. My mom jumped on, fought some woman, beat her. I seen it. I seen that happen more than once. I seen my mom pull one woman out of my dad’s convertible by the hair of the head and stomp her ass in the ditch. I seen that.” But I’m not sure whether he’s trying to show me a snapshot of a mother wronged, of a father besieged, or of a boy already accosted by dramas he can’t control. And how to weigh that against the declaration Cyrus repeats to me several times about his current life changes: “It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever stood up for myself. I’ve always let people just run over me. The least likely thing anyone in my family thought I would ever do is stand up for myself.” Or to measure it with the moment—remembering the time the 6-year-old Miley helped a blind friend hear God in the sound of the wind through the grass—that Billy Ray stops talking altogether, and when I look over I see that his eyes are full of tears.

“Makes me so sad,” he says, “just to think about it.”