Monday, January 31, 2005

Some Questions about Marriage

1. Why get married at all? I've struggled with this one (as you'll see in other questions below), because I don't think that marriage is something that should necessarily involve the state. (I have anarchist relatives who didn't marry for precisely that reason.) In my case, it's obviously not going to involve a religion, either. The difficulty is, if you don't involve the state, then it doesn't count for any of the practical issues--I couldn't be covered by his health insurance, for example (yes, I know some companies don't require marriage for that, but his isn't one of them). But, it turns out, my answer actually doesn't have much to do with those things. I came to realize, in more ways than I had originally thought, that we--we humans--are interdependent. It's true that marriage was, until relatively recently in human history, a property arrangement as much as anything, but it's also true that humans have come up with a remarkably large number of ceremonies to acknowledge, in communal ways, important events in the lives of the communities in which we live. Births and deaths are notable, and i came to realize that marriages, partnerships, are part of that, too. Making a party, having a ceremony, making a promise in front of and with the people one loves, is a way of acknowledging that something important has happened, and of asking for the community's support.

2. Who's going to officiate? Given that view of marriage, I've always liked the Quaker way of getting married--i.e., the whole meeting serves as "officiant" for the wedding. As they put it:
Marriage is a sacred commitment of two people to love one another in faithful partnership with the expectation that the relationship will mature and be mutually enriching. Friends know that marriage depends on the inner experiences of the couple who marry and not on any external service or words. Thus, the ceremony in which the couple enter into this commitment is performed by the couple alone, in the presence of God, the families, and the worshiping community. Both the solemnity and the joy of the occasion are enhanced by its simplicity.
Neither C nor I is a Quaker, and neither of us believes in deities. It is presumably possible that we could still find a Meeting that would welcome us, but I don't think it would be fair to try to rush their process, and I really don't know whether they'd be completely happy with the atheism thing. However, we can get married "in the manner of Friends," and that's what we're going to do. In our case, we're asking someone close to us (we're not sure who yet--a close friend or C's sister or my brother, perhaps) to serve as our officiant. I do believe that the marriage is between the two of us, even though it's the state that intervenes and sanctions it. In any case, I don't really feel comfortable asking the minister I know to officiate but leave deities out of it--that doesn't seem fair to him--and we don't know any JPs, and I don't particularly want a complete stranger officiating. That seems divorced from the very things I like about the Quakers.

3. Is anyone else going to talk? Umm, maybe? I want to give people the option, if the spirit moves anyone, but I don't have any particular desires in this regard. Maybe C does, though.

4. How about the vows? I figure we're probably going to write our own, but I can't think of much that will be unusual about them. I doubt that either obedience or faithfulness is likely to be part of the vows, and I suspect we'll both do as much as possible to avoid the spirit of Stuart Smalley entering into our vows, but otherwise I think they'll be pretty straightforward. The two things that I want are, first, everyone around us, in a circle, rather than us up in front of everyone, and, second, a marriage document, sort of like a ketubah or the document that would be produced at a Friends' ceremony, that everyone who's present signs. I consider everyone at the wedding to be a participant and officiant, and I want their presence to be part of the marriage. We've started considering texts for it; it shouldn't be difficult. We'll have to figure out who can create the actual document though; I'm suspecting that we'll have to find a calligrapher.

5. Where are we going to do it? A restaurant that we both like a lot has a lovely space. We can get the place for the whole day, we think (we'll find out next week when we meet with them), and that means a minimum of shlepping. We'll probably have to have an "after-party" location, a hotel suite or something, because a lot of people will be from out of town.

6. Any other tidbits? Hmmm; I'm going to ask the mother of a friend of mine to design a dress for me. It's probably going to be purple or blue--definitely not white, not least because I look terrible in white. And I'm not going to look like a fairy princess. We're going to see if we can get someone to design rings for us, too, but I don't know if we can afford that. We're going to have at least one babysitter, maybe more, because so many of our friends have kids under 12. (My brother suggested a "duct tape room" for kids who are getting out of hand, but I suspect that some of our friends would object to that.) I want the kids to be there, but I want the parents to be able to enjoy themselves, too.

7. Can you pull this off in less than five months? Well, we'll see.

8. Aren't you scared? Well, yes; terrified, as a matter of fact. I'm nearing 50, and, not only have I never been married, I hadn't been in this kind of relationship with anyone for 15 years when I met C, so the thought of attaching myself to someone else in this way is a little . . . strange. I'm used to working without a partner, and, even though we've forged a partnership in the past six years, the thought of taking that additional, legal step does give me pause. I think I'd feel that way about anyone, though; I don't think it's specific to C or to our relationship.

Hair Today

When I first got to college in early 1977, a lot of the women around me didn't shave their legs or underarms, and I read Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Greer argued (more or less--I haven't reread the book since then) that shaving made women look like children, not least because one of the biological signs of adulthood is body hair, especially pubic and underarm hair. Shaving off these markers was a bit like shaving off one's adulthood. When I first started shaving my legs, it was kind of a thrill--the way anything that smacks a little of adulthood and adult-like sexuality does when you're 13 or 14, especially if it's something that's safe. But by the time I got to college, I found it tedious--I cut myself often enough, and it was a pain and a chore. Reading Greer, and meeting all of these other women who didn't shave, made me ask why I was doing it, and I had no good answer for it. So I stopped.

The more I read and thought, the less inclined I became to resume the practice, even after I graduated from college and moved into the world outside of crunchy-granola land. One of the arguments that has resonated most with me is that, if "society" requires a woman to spend a tremendous amount of time on personal grooming, it reduces the amount of time that woman has available for things like, say, running a business or writing a book. It works best, obviously, if you can get women to enforce these rules themselves by internalizing them. Thus, when I've asked women why they shave, they say that it "just feels better," or "just looks better," or they're "used to it that way." (And I wasn't being confrontational--I was truly curious.)

Increasingly, though, women are having their pubic hair removed, too--which brings to mind Greer's original argument. And I so don't get this. Why on earth would you pay someone to rip your pubic hair out by the roots? What is so offensive about body hair that it must be removed? Can someone explain this to me?

(This was all brought to mind by a post from Mithras , who references a video that Amanda found.)

It turns out

that weddings don't just happen--someone has to plan the damned thing, apparently. So, finally, it seems that C and I are getting around to doing that. While we're not doing everything from the ground up, we do have to invent a few things along the way. We also had to disabuse C's son of the notion that, by virtue of us marrying, he'd get a brother or sister.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Torture and War

Hey, so sorry to be bumming y'all out with all this talk of torture and all, but it IS being done in our name and paid for with our tax dollars. There are so many ways to address this particular case--let me see if I can articulate some of them.

Torture is wrong. We might think we agree on this, but at least three exceptions have been posed to this general principle.

Some are willing to defend it in "ticking time bomb" cases--i.e., in situations where a person is known to have vital information and, if that information is obtained, many other lives can be saved. I'm not convinced that even that situation is adequate justification--here's where I'd want to consult with, say, Gandhi (yes, I know he's dead) and the Dalai Lama on the question. In any case, such cases are extremely rare, and, as such, it is worthwhile to eliminate those cases from consideration of the activities taking place in Guantanamo and Iraq.

Some people, including George W. Bush, have declared that people who are "unlawful combatants" rather than prisoners of war are not covered by the Geneva Convention. Specifically, individuals who are members of Al Qaeda, for example, are not covered, in part because they do not themselves adhere to the Geneva Convention. There are two worthwhile points here. One is that at least some important historical figures have enjoined us to turn the other cheek--to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. This alone would suggest that we should treat our enemies better than they treat us. It is difficult, surpassingly so, but that does not mean we can ignore the suggestion. Second, however, if you are going to create a category called "unlawful combatants," in order that you may explicitly ignore the "torture is wrong" rule, then you'd better have a damned good way of discerning who actually falls into that category. Mistakes, particularly reasonably forseeable mistakes, are a violation of human rights and simple decency.

The third exception is more of a weasel than an exception. That is, the first two exceptions make claims about people whose status, in terms of what they know or the activities in which they normally engage, is such that torture is permissable. The third exception says that certain actions, while extremely unpleasant or painful or even dangerous, aren't "really" torture and therefore are permissable. And, really, I have to call bullshit on that one. If you were subjected to those activities, would you regard them as torture, or merely a little unpleasant? Do you think being sodomized is torture, or merely inconvenient? Do you think being threatened with death--and subjected to activities that lead you to believe that you might, in fact die--is torture, or do you think that it's acceptable? If someone you love were subjected to those things, would you regard it as torture? Yes, I thought you might.

Thus, if you accept the premise that torture is wrong--and I surely hope that you do--then you have several grounds for complaint regarding Guantanamo and Iraq.

First, many, or even most, of the people who have been rounded up and imprisoned are innocent. They do not know about any ticking time bombs. They are not unlawful combatants. They are not even lawful combatants. They are your neighbors, your relatives, who happen to have been in the wrong place when a sweep was being conducted.

Second, the chain of command was apparently aware of these activities, and, in some cases at least, tried to make the case that these activities were acceptable. The nominee for Attorney General, for example, was part of the group that tried to define away torture, tried to say that particular activities didn't count as torture, and, plus, these people weren't covered by the Geneva Convention anyway.

We rounded up the wrong people, and then we tortured them, with the knowledge and approval of supervisors, and with the complicity of the people who tried to justify it on a legal basis. And, so far as I can tell, we're still doing at least some of it. We are certainly holding people against their will without any kind of due process whatsoever. Part of the justification for invading Iraq was to "liberate" it--to save the Iraqi people from the capricious behavior of Saddam Hussein and his minions. I'm trying to see how someone whose husband, brother, son, grandfather, mother, sister, whatever was imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib is going to see a difference between Hussein and the American military.

That's the torture part of our program; now on to the war.

Many people opposed the invasion of Iraq. My personal objections to the war were (1) the weapons inspectors had not found convincing evidence that WMDs existed in Iraq--and, you may remember, the threat of those weapons being used against the US was an explicit justification for the urgency of the invasion, even though the Bush administration was not giving the weapons inspectors time to complete their inspections, (2) the world community opposed the invasion, meaning whatever goodwill the US had earned was likely to be squandered, (3) invading Iraq would distract tremendous resources from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, who had already attacked us, repeatedly, and (4) the planning and execution of the war were likely to be completely incompetent.

Let's score this one, shall we?

There are no WMDs. All the crap we now hear about freedom and liberty? That's ass-covering. The explicit justification for the invasion was that WMDs were pointed at us and Saddam Hussein was likely to begin using them soon. (The fact that we supplied the weaponry to him, at a profit for selected US companies, does not appear to affect the stance of the war supporters.) That's the reason that Rice and Powell and Cheney and Bush and Rumsfeld all gave: there are weapons of mass destruction, and Saddam Hussein is going to use them on us any day now. They lied. It is possible that they were misinformed, or stupid--in which case heads should have rolled and massive apologies should have been delivered--but it certainly appears that they lied. It is also likely that we would have found out about the lack of WMDs if we had allowed inspectors to complete their job.

The world community regards us as a bunch of bozos--especially since a bare majority of people reelected the puppet heading this project. (I do believe that this whole adventure was cooked up by Cheney--so Halliburton could profit mightily--and the PNAC crowd, and that it was easy to manipulate Bush into supporting it. Plus, he gets to wear all kinds of cool uniforms and fly planes and stuff!)

The Taliban is flourishing in Afghanistan. And that bin Laden guy is still around. Oh, wait, according to Bush he's "on the run." Yeah. I feel safer now. And, really, this invasion wouldn't have helped Al Qaeda's recruitment efforts, would it?

Finally, this war has been prosecuted so incompetently it boggles the mind. And it's on this last point, the incompetence, that I want to dwell.

We have betrayed the men and women who joined the military and offered to serve this country. We have sent them off to death and maiming, not in the name of freedom or liberty, but because of a threat--WMDs--that did not exist and that could have been shown did not exist. We have not provided enough body armor. We have not provided sufficient armor for vehicles. We have fired people who could interpret the language because the interpreters might have loved someone of the same sex. We had no plan for protecting the resources of the country we were invading--except for the oil. We have taken no steps to reduce our dependence on oil. We have no plan for the occupation we now have on our hands, and our actions have allowed "insurgents" to gain a foothold that I doubt will be dislodged in the foreseeable future. (I put that in quotes, because i can imagine being extremely pissed off that people have invaded and occupied my country, and, while much of the violence seems pointless to us--why are they killing so many Iraqis? how is that supposed to help?--I suspect we are not getting all of the facts that would be useful.) If you want to go to war, you'd better have a damned good reason for doing it, and you'd better have a plan for carrying it out. This administration had neither of those things.

And this leads me to Andrew Sullivan's review of two books about Abu Ghraib. Sullivan makes two egregious points. The first is that "The scandal of Abu Ghraib is therefore a sign of both freedom's endurance in America [because the dirty laundry was aired as part of a free press] and also, in certain dark corners, its demise." Well, we might get away with the first claim if, and only if, we were actually doing something about these discoveries. Instead, what we have is a couple of books. Very good, very well-documented accounts, by the looks of it, but what, really, is being done? The administration continues to argue that it was only a couple of bad apples; the public, by and large, has moved on to other things, and is generally willing to accept that explanation; the participation of the Attorney General-elect in propogating the conditions that allowed these atrocities to occur is apparently no bar to his confirmation by the Senate; the media, particularly the visual media, have all but dropped it. How is this evidence of the endurance of freedom in America? Because I'm so not seeing the connection. We do not get to pat ourselves on the back just because two books have been published that detail the horrors that have been committed in our names.

Second, near the end, Sullivan criticizes Bush for the mess, even though Sullivan was an avid supporter of the war. Notes Sullivan (and I quote at length):
But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naive in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.

See, those of us who foresaw this, who said it was a bad idea, who didn't want to go to war and who now know that our objections were justified, well, because we were "polarizing," we contributed to the conditions that led to the torture. Uh, no. We did not and do not point out these abuses because they "promote our agenda." It's as though Sullivan is saying, well, since you just happened to be right, and we happened to be wrong, you don't get to say "I told you so." Because, you know, you could have been wrong, too! Well, yes, I supppose that's possible. But, for example, if we'd given the inspectors time to search for those WMDs, we might have had actual facts on which to base our decisions. Or, for another wild example, if we had any evidence that the war was both justified and well-planned, and we still opposed it, then the case might be different somehow. But predictions of incompetence were precisely one of the objections to the whole war. Sullivan goes on to blame John Kerry, too:
I'm not saying that those who unwittingly made this torture possible are as guilty as those who inflicted it. I am saying that when the results are this horrifying, it's worth a thorough reassessment of rhetoric and war methods. Perhaps the saddest evidence of our communal denial in this respect was the election campaign. The fact that American soldiers were guilty of torturing inmates to death barely came up. It went unmentioned in every one of the three presidential debates. John F. Kerry, the ''heroic'' protester of Vietnam, ducked the issue out of what? Fear? Ignorance? Or a belief that the American public ultimately did not care, that the consequences of seeming to criticize the conduct of troops would be more of an electoral liability than holding a president accountable for enabling the torture of innocents? I fear it was the last of these. Worse, I fear he may have been right.

I'm not even sure how to respond to that. Surely you all remember how Kerry was excoriated by the Swift Boat Liars, who were, in turn, funded and supported by people with ties to the Bush campaign? Surely you remember that the Liars hate Kerry precisely because he came to oppose the war in Viet Nam? Surely you remember that Bush's own desertion has been glossed over in two consecutive elections?

Ah, I can't even go on with this any longer. It's not clear to me that the war supporters and warbloggers (what tbogg calls the 101st Fighting Keyboarders) are even willing to listen to reason.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Three Related Things

On Sunday, there were two articles in the NY Times Arts & Leisure section, plus Johnny Carson's death was announced. Why are these things related?

One article, by Manohla Dargis, discusses the deeper meaning of the proliferation of cosmetic surgery. Dargis notes, "What is undeniable and increasingly unavoidable is that plastic surgery is altering one of the greatest landscapes in cinema: the human face." Plastic surgery erases the signs of a lived life--it cleans the slate, not just of the messy chalk dust, but of the jokes you laughed at, and the tears you shed. I have a wedding photo of my parents--they're leaving my grandparents' house, just after the wedding, I think, and they look so happy. I have another photo, from a few years ago--i.e., taken about 45 years after the first photo--and they have almost exactly the same looks on their faces, but their faces show the lives they've lived. I love those two photos, and I love them side by side. And the thing that matters most is the looks on their faces, the life they've shared. How can plastic surgery improve on that? How can it do anything except erase the evidence?

A second article, by Frank Rich, details how the pictures of the torture that Americans have conducted (and likely are conducting) isn't on the television. As Rich notes, "Since the early bombshells from Abu Ghraib last year, the torture story has all but vanished from television, even as there have been continued revelations in the major newspapers and magazines like The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and Vanity Fair. If a story isn't on TV in America, it doesn't exist in our culture." And he's right--we get our news from the radio, from television, from the ether; many people don't have time, or don't want to make the time, to read something Serious, and the media are, at the very least, complicit in this. Torture is icky; much more fun to show someone getting worms dumped on his head--or show a Regular Girl getting the makeover, including plastic surgery, that will make her the beauty she always knew she was Inside.

And Johnny? Well, after the first football game was over and C left to take O back to Mommy's house, I channel surfed for a few minutes (until I found a Law & Order rerun, if you want to know the truth), and happened across six or so channels in a row that were yammering on about Johnny Carson and his death and What He Meant, and so on. Good lord, people, is that all you can find to discuss on a Sunday? don't get me wrong, I liked him; I thought he was an interesting man, and he did a good job on The Tonight Show, and he definitely gave a lot of young comedians their breaks. But all that? Come on!

And that's when I saw how these three things fit together, though I'm doing a piss-poor job of articulating it here. The media lurches from one story to the next, encouraging viewers to have the attention span of a spaniel--and the depth of analysis, too, while you're at it. The mighty right-wing Wurlitzer complains incessently about how the Media Are So Liberal. What they really mean is that facts, like torture, might make average citizens rise up in outrage at their government's policies and actions; better to distract us with a star's death, or "reality" shows (in what sense is that "reality"?), or some middle-class white murderer with a telegenic girlfriend. Better to smooth away the unpleasant signs of aging, surgically remove the evidence, and pretend we're all young and innocent once again.

Blegh--I'm not satisfied with this, but I hope you got at least a little of what I'm yammering on about.

Friday, January 21, 2005

A Post About the Weather

Yeah, really, I mean it. Because we've been hearing for nearly 24 hours that we're getting 47 FEET OF SNOW BY SATURDAY!! Well, okay, no, we got a little dusting last night, and we might get 7-11 inches (of snow) tonight, and another few inches tomorrow as well. But this weather system has taken its own sweet time getting to town, such that the sky was clear blue there for awhile and it's still pretty sunny. I checked the weather maps, and I think we will, in fact, get a bunch of snow, but the cognitive dissonance is entertaining. Also remember, this is the city that once voted a mayor out of office because he didn't get the streets cleared after a massive (truly quite massive) snowfall quickly enough to suit the residents. As a result, all subsequent mayors make sure that every inch of (prospective or actual) snow falls on at least two inches of salt.

Oh--and people don't actually shovel their sidewalks, under the mistaken impression that, if they shovel them and someone falls, the sidewalk owner could get sued, but if they DON'T shovel the sidewalks and someone falls, hey, tough luck. Really; I'm not making this up. They do shovel out their parking places, however, and then place lawn furniture in the street to make sure no one else takes that space. There are times I'm glad I don't have a car, and this is one of them.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

"Why does everything have to be so hard?"

First off, that's my 7-year-old stepson O talking, not me--I don't think words to that effect have ever crossed my lips. Second, my SO, C, informs me that those words actually come straight from the lips of his ex (hey, kids learn stuff from somewhere). Third, though, the first time O said that, I started laughing, which, really, didn't help matters much. Another of his favorites is "My life is so horrible!" Once again, I laughed, and, once again, that was not the response he wanted. C and I were talking about it this past weekend, after O had a Big Fat Meltdown Saturday night--likely a combination of being really tired, losing at Operation (he's a really terrible loser, but he's also hard on himself, with things like "I'm a failure" coming out of his mouth), and being really tired. Yes, I know that got two mentions, but that's the single biggest factor in predicting the likelihood of a meltdown.

Parenting someone else's kid is an interesting exercise. One of the freeing parts is that he's not my kid. I don't bear the weight of being Mommy or Daddy--I can occupy a different, less well-defined and less emotionally fraught role. Which is not to say that I'm not a disciplinarian--I regularly describe myself as the biggest pain in that child's ass, and, in many ways, I am. I have no patience with the self-pitying crap exemplified above, or with the lack of responsibility for his own actions that everyone else in his life seems willing to accommodate to a greater or lesser extent. And that leads to the occasional downside: he displays behaviors learned someplace else, and not just any old someplace else, but his mother's and grandparents' houses, and those behaviors drive me nuts.

Let me throw in that I give his mother a great deal of credit--she is more generous toward me than I suspect many people in similar situations are, and she accepts and even appreciates my role in her son's life. The . . . other stuff I see only indirectly, through the behaviors that O is learning, and through stories that C tells, and I won't deny having some frustration about that, but I also appreciate the difficult position she's in. She doesn't have a lot of emotional skills, I think, based on what C has said, and taking responsibility isn't one of her strong suits, either--if everything is "so hard," then, of course, it isn't your fault when it goes badly. I think she learned--probably from her parents--that it was a bad thing to admit a mistake; better to find something worse that your accuser has done, use that as ammunition. And I see O learning a version of that, though it doesn't fly very well at our house. It's frustrating--the only way to break him of that behavior is to set out clear consequences for displaying it and then administering them consistently, and I cannot do that unilaterally. So that's the downside.

But another upside is subversion. I always manage to find some small chore for him, or, better, get him involved in whatever I'm doing. His dad and I both encourage him to try new foods, and he shows increasing willingness to do that. I've been teaching him about various other ways that people think about deities (as an antidote to the Catholic school he attends)--he's got a deck of Tibetan Buddhas, and I've been "summoning" Hindu gods when we make up our own Yu-Gi-Oh! cards, and we had a pagan prayer to go with the Catholic prayer at Thanksgiving (he knows that I don't believe in a god, but he also knows that different people believe different things; we did the grace at Thanksgiving partly for him and partly for his paternal grandmother). We've had serious conversations about September 11, about cancer, about deities. He knows that I won't lie to him, and that I will always do my best to answer his questions.

Perhaps most subversively, I've been dragging him into the kitchen with me for two or three years now, and he sees Daddy cooking, too. And he really likes it. It also broadens his palate a bit, a tiny little bit at a time. Early this past weekend, he was complaining about the bread he had for his sandwiches--he was unconvinced when Daddy said that Mommy and Daddy use exactly the same bread (Wonder--blegh!). On Saturday, I took him off to handball with me and made a sandwich for him from the bread that he and I made before Christmas. (He was stunned to learn about yeast farts, and how that's what makes bread rise.) On Sunday, when we were at the store, I asked him what kind of bread he wanted, what he liked. "I like the bread we made," he announces, so I said, okay, we'll make some more this afternoon, which we did. (The recipe makes four loaves, so I could send a loaf and a half home with him and put two more loaves in the freezer at our place.)

Just before Christmas, when he and I were embarking on some kind of baking (or maybe he was just keeping me company in the kitchen), he asked me why I make things--he meant "from scratch," though he didn't have or use that phrase. And I told him--I think a lot of it is healthier, it doesn't have as many chemicals in it, plus I like making things, especially if it's things that I know people will like. He pondered that and moved on, but what I hope he's also getting--subversively--is that a lot of hard things are worth the effort. Yes, it's a lot easier to buy your bread from the shelf, but making your own--harder though it may be--makes for a much tastier loaf.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Let's Be Pathological

I decided to go to a yoga class last night instead of playing handball. Originally, I'd thought to go to a 6:00 class at a different studio, with a teacher I've wanted to experience, but that studio is a pain transportation-wise, and I didn't feel like getting home at 8:30, because I wanted to make my mango peach chutney last night. So I went to a 4:00 class with a teacher about whom I knew nothing, at my usual studio. It was horrible. She talked way too much, without giving enough actual direction--chattering, it mostly was. We did very few asanas--I got more out of my walk over there than I did from a two-hour class. The directions she did give were sufficiently unclear such that I had to keep looking at her to figure out what the hell she meant (and we weren't doing any advanced poses--she wasn't doing anything unfamiliar, she was just explaining it badly). And, finally, she's apparently a student of a famous teacher who thinks that words like "the" and "your" distract from the teaching, so, instead of saying "Lift your left leg," she'll instruct "Lift leg" or "Lift left leg." Two hours of "tuck chin" and "raise arm" drives me batshit.

I've heard many good things about the famous teacher--Ana Forrest--from people other than her students and devotees, and the photos I've seen of her are quite beautiful. But second-generation teaching, well, it doesn't ring true to me. The two teachers with whom I take the most classes, plus a third from whom I used to take many classes, all have a personal style. They're very different, in many ways, but what they share is: (1) the ability to give clear directions about which asana is next and to sequence asanas in ways that help open the body; (2) the ability to give verbal instructions "within" an asana, that is, to provide deeper instruction about alignment and positioning for a particular asana; (3) a sense of humor; and (4) a sense of self. And that last one, well, that's the kicker, I think; that's the core from which many of the other things spring.

The first time I took a class with a Forrest student, I almost strangled him. He kept talking about finding your "area"--i.e., the place in your body where you've supposedly carried all the spiritual/psychological damage. He kept telling us to focus on our "areas," to release all of the toxins, blah, blah, blah. Jesus Christ in a birchbark canoe, I was ready to leap across the room and throttle him--which, I'm pretty sure, isn't what you're supposed to be doing in a yoga class. As a result, I avoid Forrest teachers like the plague, though I'll probably take a class with her sometime when she comes to town. So yesterday, when the teacher started leaving out words, I knew I was in trouble.

I think that what happens in yoga, and perhaps in any healing-related discipline, is that some of the people who come to it are not whole in some way, or they're looking for some kind of meaning, or they're looking to heal some emotional or psychological or spiritual hurt. (There are people looking to heal a physical hurt, too, but that's a different injury in some, but not all, ways.) The difficulties arise when someone makes the leap to assuming that everyone has such an injury, that everyone is damaged on some fundamental level. I remember going to a meeting when I worked for a substance abuse treatment agency and encountering someone from another agency who declared that "everyone has an addiction." I let it be, because I didn't feel like sidetracking the meeting, but, really, no, dude, you're wrong. Do bad things happen to all of us? Yes. Do we all make mistakes? Yes. Do we all have a little baggage? Yes, though I prefer that you stay under the two-carry-on limit. Are some people dealing with really weighty shit, like neglect or abuse? Yup--and I cannot in any way speak for that experience or know how one builds a sense of self that doesn't revolve around that horror. But, at least for some (many? I have no idea) of us, we do not have to be defined by the hurts we've experienced, and we do not have to spend our lives centered around those hurts. We may choose to do that, or we may get in the habit of doing that, or we may not have the resources necessary to make changes, or the damage may be so deep and lasting and the capacity to change may be so limited that it would be extremely difficult to do otherwise, but for most of us, we don't have to do that.

The way it's worked out for me, in yoga, is that I came to the practice as an adult--over 40, no less--with a pretty inflexible (if reasonably fit) body and, most people who know me would agree, a pretty strong self. I wasn't looking for Meaning, or Healing. I'm completely intrigued by the discipline, and the practice--I really enjoy learning how to do new things, and to be able to do something that can so immediately affect how I feel right this second. I like learning the philosophy, even if I don't believe (in) it. The bodily paradigm is interesting, in the same way that the TCM version of the body is interesting. And it's been interesting to me how much of the spiritual discipline, if you will, I already practiced in some way. That is, many people come to yoga searching for a means to still the lake of the mind, to focus, to relax, whatever--with "mind" intentions, if you will, and they have some belief that this physical, bodily practice will help them realize those mental intentions, heal the ethereal hurts. (And, in fact, yoga claims to do just that--use the body as a vehicle for enlightenment.) It's also possible to come at it with "body" intentions, more the way I did. Given the mind/body interconnection, however, it's bound to become a feedback loop. but I don't think these knowledges--of the mind, the body, the connection--are the be-all and end-all of it--I think they're a tool that one can use.

As one of my teachers says, the trick is to find one's own tadasana (Mountain Pose) wherever one is--and that act of (re)alignment helps one focus. You can't think of the realignment as being only in the body, or only in the mind--but once you've found center, you can move forward with a lot more balance and openness, and a lot less fear. Of course, that assumes that you can find center, that you can be balanced--not that you're inherently unbalanced. Basically, in the end, there's a subtle but important difference between (a) doing a lot of things because you're searching all over the place for Healing or Meaning, and (b) doing a lot of different things in your life and using your experiences, and a discipline of some kind, to deepen your knowledge and understanding.

Best Review of the Condi Hearings

It's from tbogg. Best description of Rice? the "Pia Zadora of the State Department."

Monday, January 17, 2005

Those People

A post by kStyle and another, plus comments, by someone called Jane Galt (which I assume is related to John Galt of Atlas Shrugged/Ayn Rand/Objectivist fame), plus an article in the January 2 NYTimes magazine about childhood obesity ("Heavy Questions," by Elizabeth Weil), made me think, in different ways, about people and environments. To recap briefly:

The NYT article (which I won't link, because you'd have to pay, but you can find it if you want it) discusses a county in Texas, on the border between Texas and Mexico, where there's an epidemic of childhood obesity. There's also tremendous poverty, in the very same families. There are some researchers there, attempting to study the situation and find a way to intervene--helping families and kids make healthier food choices, and helping kids get exercise, for example--but there's also a discussion of the environment in which these kids and families are trying to cope. Parents and grandparents want to indulge their kids, and the cheapest way to do it is with junk food. It's hot down there, so exercise outside is difficult, and the environment isn't always safe for kids, either. And, of course, not all parents are as disciplined and disciplining as perhaps would be useful for the kids. One intervention that helped was getting the school dietitian to make healthier meals--no more cookies AND sugar cereals for breakfast--but a few parents sidestepped this by filling their kids' bags with chips and cookies to replace the ones the school no longer provided. Other parents are doing a little better, though.

The Jane Galt commenters are pretty much disdainful of the notion of people being both "food-insecure" and obese, or poor and obese--many of the comments take the form of "If only These People would do as I've done, they could eat well AND thriftily AND healthily. Because they refuse to do so, they deserve what they get and we should disdain them and their claims of poverty and/or ignorance." I have to say that it was extremely difficult for me to read the comments--many commenters were self-satisfied, in the way that Objectivists often are. They were confident that they could dismiss Those People, and similarly confident that their own experiences with "poverty"--generally while a student or as a kid--and their ability to rise out of it was sufficient proof that Those People deserved what they got.

It brought to mind another article I read, a few months ago, again in the NYT magazine (I'll find the citation, if anyone wants/needs it). The author was providing a first-person account. She had spent significant time with a poor woman, and when she went to the grocery store, she was appalled that the woman didn't try to scrimp and save, the way the author's family had done. The poor woman bought what she felt like buying, even if a cheaper or more cost-effective alternative were available (e.g., a carton of juice that was cheaper than individual servings, or generic rather than name brands). The author finally realized that, for someone who doesn't see a way out of his or her current conditions--who doesn't see how saving 30 cents here and $1.75 there is going to make any material contribution to her ability to get out of poverty--there is no point to being thrifty. Indeed, it's a waste of her time and energy, if her calculations about the likelihood of getting out of poverty are accurate, and, especially in this economy, and especially with the public schools being abandoned at an even faster rate, she's probably right.

My mother scrimped quite a bit when we were kids. We were never poor, in part because of her ability to stretch a dollar, in part because she was and is a good cook and could make the best of whatever was available, in part because she made some of our clothes and was an inveterate bargain-hunter, in part because my father made a reasonable and reliable income, in part because she saved every cent she could, in part because they were able, through such savings, to buy a house and thereby build real equity, and in part because her parents would have been able to help in a real emergency. (That never happened, so far as I know, but I'm guessing that knowing there's someone who can help in an emergency makes a huge difference.) I remember a conversation with one of my brother's friends--he was talking about how his girlfriend had sucked it up and gone back to live with her mom at one point, when the marriage fell apart and the kids had to be fed. M was pointing out the sacrifices involved, etc., and wondering why Those People didn't do that, too--and I said, suppose your girlfriend didn't have anyone she could move in with? He had the honesty to say, "Then she's fucked."

The most important thing, though, about my parents' attitudes, was that they taught us, and we believed, that we could, in fact, Succeed. The definition of success was (and in some ways is) a little hazy, but, at minimum, it means being able to afford housing, food, clothing, and transportation, as well as some entertainment; no or little debt; a house, if possible; and being able to save money--in short, all those things that were in short supply during the Depression, and that have been in short supply for all but the richest people for most of world history. What seems to be unclear to the Jane-Galt-commenters of the world, however, is that getting even that little amount of success is no easy task. Hard work does make success more likely, but it's no guarantee. As kStyle reminds us, the environment in which one lives isn't just the weather or the house or the school or the parents or the neighbors or the other relatives or the economy or one's own abilities--it's all of those things, and probably a few others I've forgotten.

I'm not really willing to throw up my hands and write off Those People, or to claim that one simple solution would solve all the problems--and, in truth, even a multi-pronged, well-thought-out approach would still not save everyone. Everyone doesn't need the same intervention, and, frankly, everyone has his or her own idea of salvation. But I sure wish we could do something other than point fingers and blame Those People for the situations in which they find themselves or helped put themselves.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Jumping Off the Bridge

Today I received an email--one of those "pass it along" types--that suggested, at great and passionate length, that "we" protest Bush by not spending one damn dime on inauguration day. Out of curiousity, I Googled it. Snopes (frequently reliable, especially when it comes to BE VERY AFRAID OF THIS!!!!! emails) says, eh, don't bother, it's not very effective. The guy in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal says, eh, don't bother, it's pretty weak and lame, and no one's really going to do it anyway. Someone else says that the media are more interested, apparently, than the general public.

Oddly enough, though, all of those articles saying that it won't amount to anything and it's pointless are bringing attention to it that it might not otherwise receive . . . thereby informing more people who might actually participate. And, really, my parents were right about this one.

That is, we learned early on not to try to convince our parents to let us do something by saying, "But EVERYONE's doing this!" or "But Soandso are going! And Thusandsuch, too!" Their response, of course, was, "If they jumped off a bridge, would you jump, too?" We dropped that line of reasoning pretty quickly.

it turns out the reverse is true, though, too: just because no one else is doing it doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. I don't care if it's only me, or only me and ten people I know. We can't all go to Washington, and we all voted, and at least some of us (not me, but some of us) work in local politics or activism of one kind or another--but we still don't feel particularly represented. So, really, I don't care. I'm not spending one damn dime on Coronation Day.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Love Thy Neighbor

The full instruction, of course, is "love thy neighbor as thy self." It's another variant on the golden rule, which I have long regarded as a great foundation for an ethical system. "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you" requires that you consider the impact of your actions on those around you; you could even extend its reach to the environment.

What the "love they neighbor" variant enables us to see, however, is that perhaps the problem is that many people do not, in fact, love themselves very much. I don't want to get all New Agey-Stuart Smalley on everyone, but it's easy to see how a belief system that teaches you that it is your nature to be sinful and bad would have the effect of making loving oneself, or anyone else, difficult. You are bad, the message goes, and you can't help but be bad--it is the nature of humans. And how do we deal with badness? We punish it. I don't see much neighbor-loving or self-loving in there, just a lot of retribution.

It's true that we fuck up--all the time. We say things we would not want someone to say to us. We aren't as kind as we'd like someone to be to us. We want people to love us in spite of our flaws, but we're not always so good at that ourselves. But bad or evil? Well, no, I don't really think we are. But many belief systems seem to start with just that premise. That whole Mel Gibson Jesus Chainsaw Massacre movie, for example, is supposed to make you feel guilty and ashamed and bad, I think, and to remind you that Jesus not only died for your sins, but you killed him. (I always liked Patti Smith's song, "Jesus Died for Somebody's Sins but Not Mine." Yes, I know I'd be going to hell if there were such a place--I've confirmed my reservation there many times over, if you listen to the Falwells of the world.) How, exactly, does any of that teach us about how we should treat each other?

Update to give credit to tBogg for Jesus Chainsaw Massacre. I can't find that post, but here's another one, where he refers to it as The Passion: Smack My Savior Up.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Obedience

In the early 1960s, Stanley Milgram performed a series of experiments with normal, everyday people. These people showed themselves to be willing to (apparently) give strong electric shocks, up to 450 volts, to subjects who were apparently suffering as a result of the shocks. The people administering the shocks were told that they were "teachers" and that the shock recipients were "learners," and that the whole setup was an experiment to determine the effects of negative reinforcement (Milgram didn't call it that) on learning. The real purpose of the experiment was to see whether people would administer these shocks. No one actually received any shocks--the "learners" were played by actors, but they did act as though they were in pain, etc.--but, much to Milgram's surprise, most people were willing to administer shocks. Milgram also did the original six-degrees-of-separation experiment, which is interesting in its own right. (Google Milgram and rummage around in the various sites, if you're interested.)

Milgram and others with/for whom he worked (e.g., Asch, I think) also studied the effects of groups on behavior. I remember another experiment, though I don't remember whether Milgram or anyone associated with him conducted it, had a subject in a group. The rest of the group was in on the experiment, but the subject didn't know that, and the people supposedly didn't know each other. There was some kind of question--which of these two lines is longer, something like that--and the people planted in the group gave wrong answers intentionally. Many subjects began to change their answers, even when the group's answers were clearly wrong.

Thus, the people testifying against Granger, and the people who reported his behavior, are interesting in their own right. Some people in the former group participated in some of the activities, though the ones quoted in today's paper say that they didn't feel right about what was going on, even when they were being reassured that it was fine, it was okay with higher-ups, etc. It apparently didn't stop them completely, but they did appear to have some qualms about what was going on and they seem willing to come forward and talk about it now, in whatever deals they made for their testimony.

And these guys make me think of Milgram's ordinary New Haven citizens. We obey authority. We comply. Yes, some of us disobey, some of the time; some of us even blow whistles, at great personal risk to ourselves, our livelihoods, and our families. And, really, I suppose we'd all like to think we'd have the courage to do that, that we would recognize that we feel that something's not quite right precisely because it's wrong. (But in the military? How the hell do you object in those circumstances?)

For better or, more probably, for worse, Stanley Milgram teaches us not to get our hopes up that we'd actually have that courage.

And that's why I don't know what to say to the guys testifying against Granger. I certainly want to deplore their behavior, and I think it deserves more than a finger-wagging and a slap on the wrist. It may even be the case that Granger is some kind of psychopath. But can you seriously maintain that these activities went on for months and months, in Iraq and likely Gitmo as well, and no one higher in authority had any inkling? Or do you want to claim that the people higher in authority didn't see anything wrong with these activities? Not informed about what was happening under their command, or condoning torture? Which is it? Because those are the two choices.

Cheerleaders Do It

That, roughly, is the defense being offered on behalf of Specialist Charles A. Graner: because cheerleaders all over America form pyramids at football games, it's perfectly fine for Specialist Graner to have forced naked and hooded Iraqi prisoners to do the same. It's also fine for him to have put naked prisoners on leashes, because that's what parents do with toddlers in airports. And that other stuff? The part where he took photos of people he was forcing to masturbate, or the photos of men with women's underwear on their heads, or the photos of semi-naked women? Those weren't abuse, either. That was all related to either controlling these prisoners or trying to get information out of them, you know, for the war on terra?, because they were all clearly guilty, guilty, bad, people.

Oh, wait. No they weren't.

And even if they were--none of this is okay. None of it.

Remember the stories that people like John McCain told about their treatment at the Hanoi Hilton? Those are the kinds of stories these Iraqi men and women can tell. McCain was, to his torturers, an enemy combatant--which in no way justifies the treatment he received. He was captured in their country, while he was in the process of trying to kill them. And the treatment he received is still not okay. (And, really, I have to apologize for the absolute inadequacy of that. "Not okay" doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.)

Just to make things even better, though, apparently this administration is considering bringing back the El Salvadoran Death Squad method for use in Iraq. I can't even comprehend all of this--Fred gives it a shot, too, but, really, words are inadequate.

Bodies in motion

tend to stay in motion--that's part of inertia, too; it's only friction that slows them down.

I was thinking about this last night in my yoga class (yes, I know, I'm supposed to be stilling the lake of the mind, not thinking about anything). For a long time, I thought of myself as unathletic--or, at least, not terribly kinesthetically talented. Certainly, I thought, I'm not flexible; my sister was a gymnast, and one of the things that entertained her the most was watching me try to bend this way or that--and this was when we were in our early adolescence, so, really, if anything it's proof that my joints are, in fact, not very bendy. Even though I played sports, I didn't play them very well, compared to the other girls around me. I see now that, in that pre-Title IX era, only the most athletically talented girls and young women, the ones who were really driven, played sports, and, despite the revisions I've made to my evaluation of my abilities, I am not, in fact, particularly talented. That is, even if more opportunities had existed, and even if I'd started playing sports earlier, and even if I'd played more of them, and even if my high school coach wasn't an asshole, I would not have been a star. I probably would have been better, but I would not have been a star. But, it turns out, I have more ability than I once thought, and I have staying power, and both of those will get you pretty far.

I had to revise my notion of my own abilities about ten or twelve years ago. I started learning how to play a new sport--handball--about 15 years ago, when I was over 30. I thought that learning a new sport would make a useful complement to writing a dissertation, and I liked the fact that handball is bilateral in a way that most sports simply are not. (That is, one must be able to hit the ball with either hand, and hitting the ball with your off or weaker hand is not the same at all as a backhand in a racquet sport.) So I set about doing that, and made slow but steady progress. After I'd been playing for about four or five years, I guess, a few of us were walking home, and one of the other players--someone who had won championships in racquetball and handball, and who had played semi-pro football--asked me whether I'd always been "so athletic." This took me by surprise--I'd never thought of myself as athletic at all, and, in fact, had thought just the opposite. But his comment made me realize that, even though I'd never excelled, particularly, and even though there really weren't that many sports opportunities for girls and women as I was growing up, I had, in fact, played a lot of sports over the years--basketball, field hockey, racquetball, squash, a little bit of lacrosse (only about 3-4 months), and, now, handball. (I also smoked a lot of cigarettes in there, before I quit 16 years ago, but I'm not sure that that counts as an athletic endeavor.)

And, really, I get cranky if I don't get some exercise. I walk a lot--I've never owned a car--and I'll go to the gym just to get on a machine, if I have to, but, really, I'd rather run around a court and hit a ball. Whenever I'm on a machine, I think of the Talking Heads' song "Road to Nowhere," but it's still better than sitting on my ass.

About five years ago I decided to check out yoga. There were classes at the health club to which I belonged, and, even though I now generally disdain health-club yoga (listen up, people, a weekend workshop does NOT make you a yoga teacher, okay? it's not like learning a new aerobics routine), I was lucky in that my first two teachers there were excellent yoga teachers, the second one in particular. But, lordy, when I started? I was unbelievably stiff--hell, I still am, compared to the bendy gumby 27-year-olds and the people who've been practicing for 20 years. In addition, a lot of the more fine-grained instructions--internally rotate this, press down with that, tuck the tailbone--were kind of beyond my ability to comprehend. More and more, though, I'm coming to understand those instructions and understand, on a bodily level, how they work. It's fascinating, really.

What's also interesting is how yoga and handball differ. They're both bodily activities, of course--see the title of the post--and, therefore, contribute in their own ways to health and well-being. But with handball, or any other sport like it, you really don't have time to make tiny adjustments. I'm sure the very best players can do that, but I am never going to play at that level, okay? You can position yourself properly--and the better I get at that, the better I play in general--which affects how well you can play the ball, what you can do with it, etc., and you can try to think ahead, though trying to think in words isn't helpful (which is worthy of a discussion all its own), but you're moving, and so is the object you're trying to hit. It's also worth pointing out that handball, like walking or running, tends to tighten the hamstrings, which isn't all that helpful for one's yoga practice, if you want to know.

Yoga, on the other hand, has a lot of moving into stillness, to quote Eric Schiffman (and probably the yoga sutras, for that matter). You can, and should, spend a lot of time and attention on the alignment (Iyengar-trained teachers are extremely useful for this), even if you don't believe, quite, that it's clearing energy channels or whatever. And, as I've continued to practice, I keep discovering new things in even the most basic of the asanas (poses). Pressing down here, and rotating there, really does enable one to align this or strengthen that. It's true that I'm still stiff, relatively speaking--my joints are naturally pretty tight, and I spent a lot of years doing things that tightened them further--but, in some ways, that's a benefit in yoga. It's harder to get into the bendy asanas, especially the ones that including wrapping limbs around you in odd ways, but one of my teachers has pointed out that this is safer--I won't be flinging myself into contortions because I simply cannot. I have to take it slowly, which enables me to spend more time on the alignment, for example, and to work my way into the asana, which gives me a (potentially) deeper understanding of its subtleties. Another thing that's a trip, for me, is inversions. I didn't do them when I was a kid, so learning how to do handstands (still working on that one) and headstands and arm balances and so on involves all kinds of other challenges--I've never balanced upside down, so I have to learn it for the first time, much as I had to learn how to hit a handball with my left hand.

Overall, though, I still think the most important thing is staying in motion, in doing something, in learning a new language for my body. None of which i would have guessed 30-some years ago.

Friday, January 07, 2005

The Eye of the Beholder

Convention(ality) is there, too, not just beauty.

All of us adhere to conventions of one sort or another, and probably of several sorts. I remember a philosophy teacher speculating that one of the quintessentially human characteristics was pattern-matching behavior (and adhering to convention is that, among other things), and it has stuck with me for a long time, in part because I think he was on to something. Pattern-matching should be understood broadly: trying to find the right words to talk about an experience or a feeling, for example, is an exercise in pattern-matching, as is any social interaction. From what I can tell (from reading, rather than any personal experience whatsoever), part of what makes the autism-spectrum disorders so distressing is that people who have them don't recognize conventional social cues, which makes it damned hard to respond to such cues. Wittgenstein's discussions of the intertwined nature of language and practice are illuminated by a notion of pattern-matching, as well.

Conventional behavior, then, is, in part, discerning (and probably internalizing) what is acceptable according to one's peers, whomever they happen to be, and then shaping one's own behavior to agree, or, at least, to not disagree openly. Our notions of politeness rely on this, for example, as do our notions of cool or moral or geek or sexy or Our Kind. It is possible to disagree quite consciously with particular conventions--not shaving any of my body hair, for example, is a conscious choice rather than just a case of not getting around to it (it'd be hard to maintain that particular argument for 25+ years). We can make reasoned arguments on behalf of particular conventions, arguments that introduce notions of fairness, justice, morality, etc., and don't rely merely on efficacy. (That is, we can argue that torture, and torture-like behavior, is wrong. It may also be inefficient or ineffective, but that is not necessary for it to be wrong.)

What I haven't told you yet is what this has to do with my becoming a pastry chef, which is where it all started in my head. (Sorry if I caused whiplash there; see how circuitous my routes are when I'm not limited to a comments field?)

I finally told my mother about my plans regarding pastry-chefdom this weekend, a step I'd put off because I'd predicted--pretty accurately, it turns out--what her reaction would be. Let's just say that Benjamin Braddock's father's reaction (see the completely baked reference, below) was mild in comparison to my mom's. Let me also point out that not a single other person to whom I've mentioned these plans has raised an eyebrow or tried to talk me out of it. Yes, of course, my friends want to make sure I'm not doing anything rash, but, really, rash isn't my style--people realize that I'm going to work out the options, ask the hard questions, blah, blah, blah (and, in fact, I've been doing that). That is, those of you in Blogistan who don't know me well or personally needn't fear that I'm just running off half-cocked with another crazy scheme. Why, then, is mom so opposed to this? Especially since she doesn't even want to know the details?

Deep down, my mother, bless her heart, is extremely conventional in an assortment of ways. Yes, it's true that she had an ethnic name in the 1940s, when that wasn't the least bit fashionable, especially in a small, working-class town, and it's true that her father was an atheist and an anarchist (which was damned unusual in said town), and it's true that, although she likes things to be Just So, and she likes nice things, she's actually not terribly materialistic--she'd rather save her money (unless she can get a bargain) than spend it, any day, and she doesn't like having stuff for the sake of having it. Her politics have always been on the left (with that father, not a surprise). Compared to many of her peers, then and now, that and some other things all made her appear unconventional, and, really, to be fair, in many ways she is different.

My father is almost the inverse of her (they've been happily married for 48 years, so they're doing something right). His upbringing was completely conventional--his father was a deacon in the Presbyterian church; my dad started working when he was maybe 12, because the family was hard-hit by the Depression; he finished high school then went into the Army for two years. He came back, learned a trade, got a job, married my mom. Sounds completely Normal, right? Except Dad married into a family that was Italian (one of his sisters had been prevented from doing so), and atheist, and leftist, and so on. While in the Army, he served in Europe--Germany, mostly--rather than Korea, so he got to see a little bit of the world. When he got back from the Army, he'd drive to NYC on weekends (about two hours away) to hook up with two of his Army buddies and go listen to jazz in clubs. He reads voraciously, and is one of the most impressive autodidacts I've ever met. He came to his atheism on his own.

It's probably also worth pointing out that my parents both have a strong sense of right and wrong, which they managed to pass along to their children, and they raised us to be model citizens--or, at least, taught us that that was what we were supposed to be doing and here's how one did that. All that permissive child-rearing that was supposedly going on in the 60s? Not in our house, let me tell you. (Which is why I always get my knickers in a twist when people say or imply that one can only learn to be moral or a good citizen if a deity is involved in the teachings.)

So, really, for my mom, this whole notion of chucking it all and becoming a pastry chef is deeply unsettling. What about my doctorate (despite the fact that it's never been good for a damned thing)? What about being a Professional? What about making big wads of money and having a position she can brag to her friends about? Huh? What about those things? And what about the uncertainty involved in becoming something completely different at My Age? And that part about how I hate my job? "Ridiculous" was her response. I've been making my mother crazy for a long damned time--not necessarily on purpose, I should add--primarily by rejecting many conventions that she holds dear, and it seems that I'm continuing this tradition.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Today's excuse

for being a slug.

Having already gotten dressed and come in to "work" this morning (so far it's just me, one coworker, and nearly two pounds of chocolate, sent by one of my suppliers), and having not much (read: nothing) to do here at "work," I thought about going to a yoga class. But I just couldn't. The thought of putting on the coat and scarf and gloves, and then shlepping on foot the mile to the studio through the snow and slush, taking off the coat/scarf/gloves, taking off the LL Bean duck boots and two pair of socks, putting on yoga-appropriate clothing, practicing for almost two hours, then taking off the yoga-appropriate clothing, putting all the other clothing and boots back on, shlepping a mile back to "work," sitting around here for awhile, then heading out to the gym (which will require a 50-minute shlep on public transportation) where I will remove clothing, put clothing on, run around for a couple of hours, then reverse the clothing thing again, shlep home on public transportation (another 45-50 minutes), and take the clothes off AGAIN . . . well, I just could not bring myself to add a whole other round of clothing exchange on a day when I'm wearing extra bits of it to stay warm and dry. It's true that I'd do it all for a massage, say, or some great sex, and I know the class would be good, but . . . I just can't. So sue me.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

That sin's not very original . . .

Though I claim no biblical authority whatsoever, my understanding of original sin, and of that whole Garden of Eden episode, is that life is one big struggle to get back to the state in which humanity lived in Eden. In this state, humans lived in perfect harmony with their deity, they didn't reproduce, they didn't have to labor to eat, and they would have had eternal life (obviating the need for reproduction, I guess). Plus, they were naked, which leads me to believe they weren't living in Chicago. Disobeying the deity meant they had to give all that up. Religions vary on the meaning of this story (there's a surprise), but at the core is the notion that humans are inherently sinful. They were once perfect--living in perfect harmony with a deity and all that--but their disobedience and its consequences are a result of their inherently imperfect natures. Thus, the closer one can live in harmony with one's deity, the closer one comes to returning to that Edenic state.

One of the nice things about growing up in an atheist household is that one doesn't learn about things like original sin as part of one's moral education. The whole notion of perfectability--or of the inevitable human departure from that state--really didn't enter into the equation. It sheds a whole different perspective on things like human nature and mistakes and the inevitability thereof, and it gives a different weight to political and social and economic arrangements. That is, the latter aren't punishment for the fall from grace; nor are they an attempt to return to a state of perfect harmony with a deity--they are human arrangements, and it's up to humans to figure out, for example, what a just allocation of resources means in practice as well as in theory. No deity is going to come down and reshuffle things for us, or reward us in an afterlife if we do it properly here--it's up to us to work it out. The very best "what if?" stories ask what happens if we work it out in a particular way.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

"If only" versus "What if?"

Or, anyway, that was my first thought in response to Ann's comment below. I, too, find dis/utopian fiction fascinating, and that probably explains my enthusiasm for a lot of science fiction/fantasy, at least the branch that asks the "what if?" question. I don't know if I'll stick with that initial response, but let's work our way through it and see what we get.

"If only" seems to me to be the foundation of the Edenic fantasies--"if only humans weren't flawed," is usually part of the heart of it, as is "if only everyone thought the way I do." The utopian fiction (I'm lumping the distopian fiction in there, too, for the sake of brevity) asks "what if?" The Dispossessed, for example, asks, "What if there were no private property? What if the dream of some of the anarchists and anarcho-syndicalists came true? What would the society look like?" And, because LeGuin is very smart, "What problems are likely to arise, given what we know about the ways human act?" And then she tries to tease out the differences between the problems that arise as a result of whatever "natural" acquisitiveness and greed humans may possess and the problems that arise as a result of a system that allocates goods and ideas through a property system. What happens when you coalesce power with property? Well, we see that all around us. What kinds of power will make themselves felt even when there isn't property to which one can adhere it? What systems will people put in place, despite their best intentions, that allow power to accrete in systems, in behaviors, in thoughts and deeds?

The most interesting versions of this fiction do not tell us that everything would be fine if only, and, in fact, try to show us some of the problems that are likely to arise even if the flaws in the system are eliminated. Maybe that's it? Edenic versions locate problems in human sinfulness, a sinfulness that can only be redeemed through deities, or other intercessory beings or activities. Utopian versions locate problems in the systems that humans have put in place; even if systems exploit or accentuate a particular character flaw, the flaw is in the systems, not in human sinfulness per se.

The most challenging of these fictions is Brave New World, as Ann mentions. Why? Because the vast majority of the people in the world that Huxley what-ifs into being are happy. They have productive work, but not too much of it, and they are assigned to work that is perfectly suited to their abilities. No one is hungry. No one is exploited in our usual sense of the word. There aren't vast differences in material resources. It sounds a lot like the Shire. What's wrong with it? The fact that it's engineered? Aren't all societies, to some extent? The least challenging of these fictions is Atlas Shrugged, which is really an Edenic fantasy in the sense that Rand surmises that all problems would go away if the system that humans engineered followed here plan. (People who want to follow that plan often are tiresome beyond belief.)

Anyway, it's late and I'm tired, so y'all are going to have to mull this one over some more, as must I.

The Land of Neverwas

The Shire is envisioned (in words by Tolkien and in pictures by Peter Jackson) as an idyllic place, where noone really goes hungry, where everyone works, more or less, but not too hard, and where even the bad folk like the Sandymans (Sandymen?) or the greedy folk like the Sackville-Baggins branch of the family aren't beyond redemption of some kind. And there are other versions of Eden out there, in Tolkien (e.g., in the appendices to LOTR and the Silmarillion) and in many other places. What the Edens share is (1) small communities, where many interactions are face-to-face and between people who know not only each other but each other's families and extended families, (2) local production and distribution, (3) the capability of meeting everyone's needs with available resources, (4) no grinding poverty, though some may be more or less well-off, (5) little crime, and certainly little or no violent crime, and (6) limited artistic activity, though there may be some "rustic" songs and dances, some local historians, probably good cooks and ale-makers and needleworkers; perhaps in part because such drama doesn't occur in these small venues, there is little of operatic sweep, whether in novelistic, musical, or dramatic form. The events of the Big People reach the Shire in some ways, but the true deeds of Frodo, and their import, remain opaque to his neighbors, even though the whole trilogy is about those deeds and surrounding events. In other words, the simplicity is, in some ways, a naive simplicity.

I'd argue that Jane Austen's and Anthony Trollope's worlds fall into this category, too, for example--though some in the worlds they describe grapple with poverty or the prospect of it, especially the women, the ills that befall people are typically of their own making and are typically resolved by the end of the book. In fact, now that I think about it, a friend was writing his dissertation on Trollope, years ago (he never finished). His thesis was that Trollope's works were about breaks in and the restoration of a community, and, having read nearly all of Trollope at this point, I think my friend was right.

Yearning for this type of Eden is understandable--many of its features are desireable. The difficulties arise, however, when we believe that this Eden once existed, that it's only our own evil (or, rather, our knowledge of good and evil) that has ruined it all, and that following this or that prescription will return us to this pristine state or absolve us of the sins we committed. We've never had an Eden. (Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed is interesting precisely because it both creates a paradise and outlines some of the troubles that are likely to arise.) There may well have been communities of people who lived in harmony with their neighbors and their environment, who rarely faced severe deprivation, etc., but that has not been the common experience of humans, even if it is our fantasy. While I'm not a complete Hobbesian--i.e., I don't reach the same conclusions, or have all of the same assumptions as Hobbes did about human nature--for most people, over most of human history, life has, indeed, been nasty, poor, brutish, and short.

Because the Edenic times never really existed, because no human society is or has been or is likely to be supercalifragilisticexpealidocious (i.e., practically perfect in every way), the accounts of the perfect society, of the events that caused its downfall or disintegration, and of the things that must happen to reconstitute that society are going to vary wildly. Was it the lack of grinding poverty that made the society work? Was it the work-but-not-too-hard approach? Did everyone believe in the same deities? Was it the abundance of face-to-face communication? Was it the local production and distribution networks? Was it the abundance of natural resources? Was it the lack of temptation? (Remember that the Ring found Smeagol as much as he "found" it.) Was it some other non-obvious factor?

But the Edens provide a nice, simple story, and I suspect that's why they're so tempting. The "if-onlies" become manageable and seem to be within the range of accomplishment, especially if one is surrounded by others who believe similarly, in the communities that implicitly or explicitly believe in a specific paradise to come and a specific route to get there. But the reality, I suspect, is much harder to manage, and much messier--and the Edenic views, the Lands of Neverwas thereby do us all a disservice by implying (or stating outright) that these few simple steps are all that are needed to (re)create paradise. It's going to be harder work than that, people.