The Places That Draw You

Image courtesy of www.libraries.uc.edu

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image courtesy of http://www.libraries.uc.edu

There are certain places that draw you. It could be the diner where you fell in love or the beach where you said good-bye; the house where you grew up or the park where you sat, journal in hand, sorting through yourself and your place in the world.

These places represent tiny shards of memory, or experience, that lodge themselves inside you. They get internalized, and through that process, become resonant, like tiny bells only you can hear. The associations with that place might be happy, sad or complicated, but they become a part of you, and they tend to draw you back.

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to New York. It’s a special city for me, one I lived in, briefly, as a much younger person, but it made an indelible mark. There are a lot of places that resonate with me in New York, like Washington Square Park. In my mind’s eye, it will always be black and white – wrought iron covered in pristine snow, lit by a gray, January dawn. There’s the coffee house on Avenue A where my friends and I trekked to get tea and chat when we should have been studying. There’s the blues bar on Second Ave., where I ordered my first gin and tonic, and the pizza place on Spring that still makes the best pizza I’ve ever had.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

The American Wing. My favorite place, in my favorite place.

There are a lot of little places like that for me in New York, but the biggest one, the one that is lodged most deeply inside me, is the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was eighteen the first time I walked up the wide front steps. Even then, I knew that the massive museum was going to be a special place. I’ve been back countless times since – most recently two days ago, when I wandered around with a good friend – and still, there was that same familiar feeling. It still felt like my place.

There was a period during my freshman year at NYU that I went to the Met once a week. I should have been studying or rehearsing, but I needed to think. I was foggy about everything, from what I wanted and needed to who the hell I was. The only place I could think was in the Met, with it’s hushed galleries and wooden floors that creak and stretch forever. Over fifteen years later, I’m still drawn it, even though I know exactly who I am now. Every trip to NY means a trip to the Met.

I’ve changed, but it hasn’t. And yet, there’s always room for me in it. It’s a comforting, comfortable place. Walking through the front doors feels like slipping my hand into a well-worn pocket. It’s just one of those places for me. It just keeps drawing me back.

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Defining Literature

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for ames Joyce: A Critical Guide, by Lee Spinks. Image courtesy  Columbia University Press blog.

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide, by Lee Spinks. Image courtesy of Bloomsbury and Columbia University Press blog.

Tuesday was April 1st, which means that no one on the internet could be trusted, including Sparky Sweets, PhD., one of the awesome minds behind Thug Notes, a weekly series on YouTube in which Dr. Sweets systematically breaks down the Western Canon, 4 minutes at a time, in a gangsta version of Cliff’s Notes.

At some point, I’m going to do a post on why I love Thug Notes, because the show is doing something incredibly important, but for today I’m going to focus on Tuesday’s installment – Summary and Analysis for Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight… APRIL FOOL’S! It was actually Huck Finn masquerading as Twilight. I laughed my ass off – they got me :)

Anyway, a friend posted the link to my Facebook wall and there followed a short thread in which people enjoyed the joke. One commenter also mentioned that it’s important to get kids to read “real literature”, (I’m paraphrasing). The thread ended when another commenter posted that she had greatly enjoyed the Twilight series, and felt that the definition of “literature” is “in the eye of the reader.” This, of course, got me to thinking..

This small disagreement points to a larger scale dispute in Western publishing, education and culture. Why do people read? Are certain books more valuable than others? How, in fact, should we define “literature”?

While I don’t think that the definition of literature is in the eye of the beholder, I do think that the value of a book is. The commenter who had enjoyed Twilight did something that is perfectly reasonable – she enjoyed Twilight. That series was not designed with any greater purpose than to be enjoyed. As a result, it’s value lies in how well the reader enjoys it. This reader enjoyed it a great deal, so Twilight is legitimately valuable to her – just as valuable as Anna Karenina or Huck Finn is to someone else.

The value placed on a book is personal, and it has to do with two things – the reader and the book’s intended purpose. The Firm, Cuckoo’s Calling and the entire Danielle Steel catalog were written to be enjoyed and consumed, and there is great value in that. Vehicles for escapism are, actually, valuable. It does not, however, make them literature, and here’s why:

Literature is a specific kind of fiction. Literature can, and often does, entertain, but it has a twin purpose –  to examine something in some way. This examination can be anything from the American dream (The Great Gatsby) to the nature of sexual submission, (The Story of O). Literature doesn’t want you to escape, it wants you to engage, and therein lies the difference.

The problem comes when people assign judgements to these two different purposes by devaluing a fun read, like Twilight, while falsely elevating “literature”, like Ulysses. In fact, what I like about Thug Notes is that it topples the ivory tower that literature is placed on so often – literature can, and should, be enjoyed. It just also asks you to think, or analyze, or ponder, or consider.

If you’d prefer to get lost in a story and escape, read an awesome book – that’s great. If you prefer cultural commentary with your enjoyment, read literature. Better yet, read both. Enjoy both. And find the value in both. Really, when it comes down to it, just read. That’s the most important thing.

 

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Knee-Jerks, or Elle and the Belle Knox Interview

I was going to post something on gotcha questions and how they are both overrated, (as rhetorical tools), and valuable, (as nudgers of social change). However, I’m putting that aside for a second because I got a distracted by my own annoyance.

Why am I annoyed? Because of an interview. Or, rather,  by certain public responses to an interview.

Yesterday, Elle.com published a bit of very timely journalism. Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor and journalist with a well-established track record in the area of sex and culture, did an interesting, insightful interview with Belle Knox, “the Duke porn star” who was outed by a fellow student awhile back.

The interview reveals Ms. Knox to be a thoughtful, self-possessed young woman who sees herself neither as a victim of her choices, nor of circumstance. Her grounded lack of entitlement was unexpected in the face of Ms. Bussel’s questions, which were insightful and wide-ranging. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this piece and what emerged was the portrait of a real young woman, with a brain in her head. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a porn star. Apparently, this devalues EVERYTHING she might have to say.

Elle.com is in the process of receiving a bit of flak for running an interview with, in the words of one concerned reader, “an over-educated whore.”

So, why am I annoyed? Because of the name-calling? I don’t like it, but no. Because of the stigma placed on a young woman’s sexuality? I really don’t like that, but no there, as well.

The source of my annoyance is the blatant lack of thought displayed by many of the people who have posted negative comments in relation to the article. To put it bluntly, it’s fairly clear that many of them didn’t bother to even read the interview before opining. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and ran with it. Much quicker and easier to skip all that reading and head to the comfort zone of righteousness and outrage.

Righteousness and outrage are emotional drugs. They feel good, especially when we get together with a mob of like-minded people carrying torches and sticks. The quality of the journalism doesn’t matter. What many of the commenters did was see is “Belle Knox”, link it to “whore” and then judge Elle for having the temerity to run a piece of journalism that offends or threatens a particular set of sensibilities.

But here’s the thing. In this case, it seems that it isn’t the interview that offends so much as the fact that it was published at all. When it comes right down to it, this post, (okay, rant), isn’t about Elle, or Belle Knox, or porn. It’s about thinking, and how so many people in our culture just don’t.

So, here’s what I propose. If you don’t want to read something, don’t read it. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider reading, (or listening, or watching), to be your ticket to voicing your opinion. If you don’t like the coverage, or the interview, or the film, or the book, or the show, that’s perfectly fine. But know what you’re disagreeing with before you open your mouth. Let it be your disagreement – considered and full of your thoughts – rather than the unthinking disapproval of your demographic, whatever that happens to be. Let your brain off the leash and take it for a nice, long walk. It might feel really good.

Posted in Culture, Ideology, Manifesto, Pop Culture, Sex | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Grit

gritA few days ago, I was driving along and I heard an NPR article on the radio. It was about a quality called “grit” and how important it is to cultivate this quality in children.

The notion of grit, which was originally coined for the John Wayne movie, True Grit, been defined by researchers as a character trait involving resilience and determination against all odds. It’s a quality that has been slowly bred out of recent generations, in favor of a cultural emphasis on nurturing a sense of specialness (for lack of a better word) in children.

The formalization of research into “grit” is a clear backlash against the increasingly obvious inadequacies of helicopter parenting. The generation currently entering the work force is entirely unprepared for the realities of the adult world, i.e.: things are not always easy; you are *not* entitled to special treatment; indeed, you are *not* special, (at least, you are no more special than the next person). In short, this generation lacks grit – that special something that causes a person to dig in their heels, take responsibility and overcome obstacles. It’s a stereotypically American trait, and the reality is that many younger Americans have never had the chance to develop it.

And that’s what I find curious. The article outlined various school programs designed to “teach” grit. I’m not actually certain it’s something that can be taught. I am, however, fairly certain that it’s something that can be cultivated.  The notion of grit comes down to determination in the face of challenge. The development of this quality hinges on the habituation of an impulse – the impulse to overcome. As such, allowing children to struggle a bit, to be challenged, to figure things out for themselves, teaches two things:

1. The first is that a person’s worth is not in how much they win, but rather in how hard and how well they fight. How much do you want that passing grade? That place on the team? That skill in dance, or music or art? How hard are you willing to work? If you work the like devil, and don’t get what you want, do you want it badly enough to get back up and go for it again?

2. The second is that the world needs to be actively engaged. One of the side-effects of helicopter parenting is that the child never learns to engage the world for themselves. They learn to sit passively by while their parents engage for them, i.e.: their parents talk to their teachers; their parents do their projects; their parents talk them on to the team. No where in there does a child learn to advocate for themselves.

The cultivation of determination and resilience, (i.e.: grit), empowers young people. It teaches them not only that they have a voice, but that they can use it. This isn’t to say that they will always win, but they will have engaged.

The bottom line, to my way of thinking, is that grit is a fundamentally important quality. It feeds ambition, and determination, and by extension, success. Beyond any external measure, it also informs how you engage the world, and how you conduct your life. As such, I’m pleased to see an emphasis being placed, once more, on it’s cultivation. I’m just sad that it’s fallen so far by the wayside that special programs need to be instated to ensure that grit sneaks back into our culture.

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Jean the Ambiguous

I love androgyny. I always have – from Marlene Dietrich in a tux to David Bowie in anything – androgyny is beautiful to me. It’s been a while since I posted a bit of fiction, so I dug into the archives, (i.e.: the ancient, dusty files on my hard drive), and unearthed this character study. After a bit of dusting off, I remembered by I’d written it – I rather love Jean. In fact, Jean will very likely end up in a story of Jean’s own. In the meantime, however, here’s a sketch of the fabulous Jean, who defies the constraint of labels and gender. 

Jean the Ambiguous

androgenous jeanOne can only begin to description of Jean by saying that Jean is French. Though Jean’s nationality has little practical bearing on Jean’s personal behavior (aside from a certain pronounced flair), the fact the Jean is French factors into a separate, pivotal, matter—the interpretation of Jean’s name. Or, to put it more succinctly, the choice of pronoun one uses reference to Jean.

You see, the French spelling of “Jean” is not “gender specific,” and neither, really, is Jean. If Jean were only English, (or American in a pinch), the ease of gendered spelling would see one through—“Jean” or “Gene”, “he” or “she.” The question of pronoun would cease to exist.

Ironically, the ambiguity of Jean’s name is a perfect reflection of Jean, which, though prickly to admit, is the root of the difficulty. One must also admit that a contributing factor is Jean’s stubborn (though admittedly suave) insistence on not offering any definitive evidence as to gender in either dress or manner. Allow me to clarify.

Jean is tall and slender – tall for a woman (though not unthinkably so) and quite average for a man. Jean’s hands are fine-boned, with long, rather sensitive looking fingers – Jean has the hands of a fine woman or an accomplished musician. Unfortunately, Jean’s income and fame are entirely due to the virtuosity with which Jean plays the violin, so there is little help there.

That’s all fine and good, you must be thinking, but one can surely tell a person’s gender from his or her manner of dress! In answer to this, I’ll admit that it’s true in most cases. But Jean’s manner of dress is unconventional for either sex—tailored suit with a flared coat; French cuffs and lovely jeweled links; a snowy white shirt with a ruffled front; dramatically high collar; crisply knotted tie. The lacquered longish hair adds to the confusion. Is Jean a woman with short hair, or a man with long? It’s impossible to tell.  The only thing one can say for sure is that Jean’s cologne, (or perfume), smells quite good.

So clothing is no help, and neither is bearing. There is always seduction in the large, smudged eyes; a feline smile on the pale, oval face. One moment, one is sure one has solved the riddle of Jean, only to see the picture change….

And so what is one to do? Ask leading questions? Jean smiles mysteriously, (or negligently or indulgently or flirtatiously), and one is dazzled but no closer to knowing which pronoun to use. And so the mystery continues, adding flame to the fire, and fueling the allure of the obsession that is Jean.

Note 3/16/14: Just this morning, I received the lovely news that this post was given the Gender-Bender Award by the lovely mind behind Tiffany’s Non-Blog. Needless to say, I’m quite honored that a character I’m so fond of turned someone’s head in such a wonderful way. Thank you so much!

gender-bender-award1

Posted in Fictions & Absurdities, Humor, Portraits | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Border Patrol

Image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

Image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org

This began as a post about Russia and what’s happening in Crimea, but I’m a little embarrassed to admit that it rapidly became a bit of a self-centered musing about myself. What’s happening in the Crimean Peninsula right now is legitimately interesting, as is the West’s response, (or lack thereof). Apparently, however, it’s not as interesting to me as myself. For this, I apologize. And yet, I forge on….

Recently, I’ve been thinking about boundaries, specifically my own, and how they are both uncompromising and quite flexible – though not universally so.

I’ve always been aware that I have some pretty serious boundaries, which I tend to defend with equal seriousness . In fact, someone very close to me refers to this tendency as my “border patrol”, calling to mind barbed wire fences and armed guards patrolling with guns and large dogs. And as much as I’d like for this to not be the case, it really is true. I have a border patrol and they are always on guard. The black and white bottom line is that some people naturally skirt the barbed wire fence and find themselves inside, while others don’t and are relegated to some portion of the perimeter… some quite close, other’s very far away.

The mechanism by which a person gets past my border patrol used to be a bit of a mystery to me. Most of the time, it happens quite quickly, though not very often – which is why I have a lovely handful of extremely close friends, (most of whom slipped through immediately), and a nice, healthy number of good, friendly acquaintances with whom I enjoy varying degrees of emotional intimacy.

So, there are the people who slip right through the perimeter, and the people with access cards who come and go fairly freely. Call is chemistry or affinity or sympathy or connection, but something between that person and I subconsciously sorts out where they end up in relation to my boundaries. The only thing I know for certain is that the people who sense my perimeters and respect them, are the people who tend to slip through.

Now, the people who really fascinate me are the ones who occupy a strange middle ground. While they don’t kick me into full alert, they inspire a serious, immovable guardedness in me – a sort of instinctive distrust that often translates to dislike.

When full alert happens, I don’t tend to care why. I generally run on the instinct that the person is a psychopath or some sort of son-of-a-bitch and keep them at arms length. Sure, it’s reactionary, but better safe than sorry. The grey area people are different though. It’s not psychopathy or son-of-a-bitchness that I’m cuing to with them. It’s an inherent lack of respect – for my boundaries, in general, and, therefore, for me.

Awhile back, I wrote a post on dominance, or rather, on women and submission. I think that, buried beneath my rabid hierarchical awareness, is the issue of boundaries and respect. I respect other people’s boundaries, and I have an absolute antipathy for people who try to test mine.

This very well may mean that I can’t take a joke, or that I take myself too seriously, but it’s always been the case. At this point in my life, it’s a fundamental part of my personality. So, I suppose that my border patrol is, more than anything, a response – one that can be supple and flexible or cold and hard – and that response, while being an accurate reflection of me, is also a reflection of how I perceive others. While it’s not a perfect lens, it’s the only one I’ve got. The least I can do is understand how it works. I want to be sure that I’m the one paying the guards.

Posted in Personal, Power, Relationships | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Fail of the Week: The Writing Process Blog Tour

Stress I Punch You

Image courtesy of http://www.quickmeme.com

It’s been an insane couple of weeks here on the work front. Think multiple (and by multiple I mean freaking multiple) pieces due by March 1st, which is why things have been so quiet here for the past little bit.

At the beginning of the month I agreed to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour that is currently rippling through the blogosphere, but thanks for those March 1st deadlines, I haven’t been able to get the post together. BUT. That doesn’t mean that the lovely author to whom I’m meant to pass the baton shouldn’t get a bit of a drumroll. And so, may I present, Colleen Houser over at The Forgotten Wordsmith.

Collen Houser is the author of the fantasy series, Winged, which is excellent and available here. And now, without further ado, it’s my pleasure to present the Forgotten Wordsmith‘s stop on the Writing Process Blog Tour.

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Vital Parts

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

We just finished watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones last week-end – because we don’t have HBO, we always end up binge-watching it on disk when it’s finally released. I have to be honest though. Binge-watching wasn’t the easiest way to experience this time around. The show keeps upping the ante (which is great), and so this season was fairly relentless as far as bad things happening to EVERYONE goes. Just to give you some perspective, this is coming from the woman whose brain went, “aw, bummer”, and kept eating popcorn when Ned Stark lost his head.

So, for those who have yet to see Season 3:  This post is spoiler-dependant, so if you don’t know what happens, and don’t want to know what happens, (all five of you), be warned. And for those of you who haven’t been sucked into the cultural phenomena that is GoT (possibly a saner life choice), I’m going to give a quick run down of the two plot points I’m going to talk about. They are:

1: Jaimie Lannister’s Be-Handing

2: Theon Greyjoy’s castration and torture

jaime-lannister

Jamie the Kingslayer

Fun times, right? Ok. So for those who don’t know this already, Jaimie Lannister is widely considered to be the deadliest man in the Seven Kingdoms with a sword. He’s a preternaturally good fighter, so much so, that that is, up to this point, who he is – the Kingslayer.  There’s a lot one can say about him, but for the purposes of this post, that’s enough.

Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, is the weak, insecure, son of

FYI: That's Theon's sister

FYI: That’s Theon’s sister

the Lord of the Iron Islands, a hard-assed enclave of seafaring bad-asses. He clings to this identity because he is hostaged out to a rival family as a boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has identity issues, an over-inflated sense of his nobility, and an over-fondness for prostitutes (and pretty much any other woman willing to let him at her).

Now, going back to bad things happening, (because bad things happen to everyone on this show. It’s endemic). So far, since the show began, the apparent protagonist has been imprisoned and be-headed, (Ned Stark, Season 1); an exiled princess has been sold into marriage to a barbarian by her insane, creepy brother; the King of Westeros has been murdered by his wife so that he won’t find out that his children were actually fathered by her twin brother, (love those Lannisters); various women are raped, almost raped, and often killed; babies and children are murdered; and, of course, there’s the Red Wedding, wherein a good chunk of the protagonists are slaughtered at a feast. I could go on.  So what makes what happens to Jaimie and Theon different?

In most of the cases I listed above, the characters are either killed outright, or left intact enough to move on from whatever violin befell them. This is not the case with Jaimie and Theon, because Jaimie and Theon are stripped of their vital parts.

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

When Jaimie’s sword hand is cut off, he loses not only the hand, but his ability to be the man he had been. In short, he loses his identity. Suddenly, the deadliest man in seven kingdom cannot defend himself against a rag-tag group of course soldiers. He is vulnerable in a way that is unnatural to him, which makes his attempts to fight left-handed so difficult to watch. It’s not the hand that disturbs so much as the dismantling of his identity. Luckily, for Jaimie, this dismantling leads to an interesting evolution as a character and he becomes, arguably, a more complex and nuanced man as a result.

Theon Greyjoy is not so lucky. Through a series of Terrible Decisions ™, Theon finds himself in the custody of a sadist, being punished for betraying the man he swore loyalty to as king. Over the course of days, Theon endures psychological and physical torture that softens his already fairly weak mind, until the day comes when he is fully castrated, and his severed parts are sent to his father in a box. Shortly thereafter, he accepts a new name from his captor. He ceases to be Lord Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and becomes Reek, a “pile of meat”.

The significance of Theon’s castration has been well-covered. This piece in the LA Review of Books is especially interesting, so I won’t stray too  far down that road. That said, there is a point I want to make.

Theon_SexWhile Jaimie’s identity is challenged, it remains, fundamentally, in tact. He is still Jaimie Lannister and his reputation, pre-maiming, is strong enough that it helps see him through afterwards. Theon, however, does not and cannot recover from the loss of his sex organs for two reasons. The first is fairly general. When he is castrated, Theon loses the thing that identifies him as a man – a great loss to any male, but one especially difficult for Theon, who relies on sex to assert his wobbly sense of power and prowess. The second is that, when he  loses his reproductive organs, he ceases to be his father’s true heir, because he can no longer sire children. In fact, his father abjures him on those grounds after receiving the box that contains those organs. So, the loss of a penis is, for Theon, not just the loss of important bit of anatomy, it’s literally the loss of his manhood, of his personal identity, and of his legacy and identity as a Greyjoy, as his father’s son.

Unlike another character, Varys, who becomes a powerful spymaster as a result of castration as a boy, Theon’s identity was established enough at the moment of the loss, that the severing unravels him. He really does cease to be Theon Greyjoy in that moment, and becomes something entirely else. Something far less.

In the end, for both Jaimie and Theon, it’s the loss of these vital parts that disturbs. Beheadings and slaughters, no matter how violent, end in death. There’s a finality there. It’s not personal. There is no specifically ironic justice to be endured. For Theon and Jaimie, their losses are intensely personal to the point of irony, (in a truly Dante’s Inferno sort of way), and they are made to live on after.

It’s interesting, and heart-breaking, and it makes me think about what are, for me, my own vital parts, and what I would do if they were suddenly and violently taken away. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. And I’m grateful to live in a world where it is very like that I won’t have to find out.. that said. if anything is to be gotten from GoT, it’s that no one is really quite safe. Bad things can happen to anyone.

Posted in Culture, Pop Culture | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Blind Spots

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Last week-end I had lunch with a friend and, as always, the conversation was great, ranging over everything from books and education to politics and religion. It was a fabulous time, full of recreational thinking and awesome insights, including one that I hadn’t known to expect: My blind spots are back.

I’ve got cultural blind spots so big that I often get lost in them  before I even know I’m off the map.

This isn’t a new realization. I get it every so often, usually when I stop thinking on autopilot and encounter something contextually unexpected. In this case, it was a Coke ad, or rather, the response to a Coke ad.

During the Superbowl, Coca-Cola ran an ad featuring Americans from different cultural backgrounds doing normal people things, like dancing and swimming and laughing, while the song, “America the Beautiful” played in the background. It was nicely done and inclusive. Honestly, I barely thought about it. But a lot of people did and here’s why:

“America the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages. Apparently, this wasn’t ok, because the response on Twitter was, shall we say, vitriolic. You can see both the ad and a selection of vitriolic tweets over at Public Shaming, (a site that does, I must admit, have a left-leaning slant).

So, all of this goes down and I’m mostly unaware. I’d seen the ad but, like I said, I didn’t really think about it, mostly because I don’t drink soda. So when my friend referenced the openly racist nature of the Twitter response, it took me a second to process it, because it honestly didn’t make sense. I mean, what kind of problem could people have? Right? It’s Coke. Whatever.

See? Blind Spot.

Here’s the thing. I live in California. I grew up in San Francisco  and, for the most part, the only other places I’ve lived were New York City and West Hollywood. In short, I have always occupied a socially liberal bubble. (There was a brief, nine month stint outside of Dallas but, in that time, the bubble ceased to exist, which was interesting. It re-inflated after I moved back to California).

Without imposing a value-judgement one way or the other, let’s just say that I’m not often forced to process differing cultural views. Sure, I went to Catholic high school, but it was in 1990′s San Francisco, so all five teen pregnancies were accommodated without judgement or fuss (right down to special desks) and not one, but two gay male couples went to prom (without getting killed with sticks) in the four years that I was there. Homosexuality, multiculturalism and sex where just part of my landscape and, to a great degree, they remain so.

Which is why when I encounter a response like the one on Twitter, I get thrown off. Because, due to social self-selection (i.e.: having friends with similar cultural beliefs) and geographic location, I’m essentially insulated from opposing beliefs, which is why the media – both social and otherwise – is so valuable.

The Internet is essentially my safety net. Through regular news scrapes and general browsing, it ensures that I’m exposed to the world beyond my ideological nose. I just can’t get lazy – it doesn’t work if I only read my favorites (sorry Slate, Salon and Nerve). My surprise during lunch with my friend was a wake-up call, one that I periodically need, because, for all my talk about discourse, I’ve been getting mentally lazy and complacent. Apparently, to paraphrase Doc Holliday, my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

So, more than anything, this post is a reminder for me to get off my mental ass and see what’s going on beyond my comfort zone. Because blind spots are scary. They’re a weakness. Blind spots are where things hide. As someone who hates surprises, I need to reclaim a bit of that territory before something unexpected bites me on the ass. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’d prefer to be the mountain lion, and not the deer.

Posted in Culture, Ideology, Manifesto, Ongoing, Personal | Tagged , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Moderation and the Art of Earthly Pleasure

Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.

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