Saturday, May 9, 2009

La Commedia

It's harder to be funny than it is to be tragic. Wit requires intelligence, timing and a sense of the absurd which implies, I suppose, a sort of distance from the matter at hand. Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is a perfect comic opera. There is cross-dressing, mistaken identities, role reversals, servants smarter than their masters, and endless plots and tricks woven by almost all the characters for the purpose of, at the very end, illuminating the truth of things. As in King Lear, a fool or a clown can challenge even a King. And there's no fool like love's fool, yes?

And so, the primary agent of chaos in the opera is Cherubino, a young man, probably 13 or 14, who is in love with love. He is a “pants” role—a male role sung by a woman—and while he is not involved in either of the main plots, he is a catalyst. He is here, he is there, always disrupting things, concealed at first (underneath a cloak, behind a chair, in a closet), then revealed (or barely escaping being revealed). Events change course because of his presence. He is obviously Eros, the young, winged god of love, upsetting everyone’s settled expectations.

We first meet Cherubino after he has been discovered by his patron Count Almaviva, the philanderer, messing around with a gypsy girl, Barbarina. The Count is jealous of all the women under his eye, even though he is not faithful to his wife. He orders Cherubino to leave. Cherubino runs to the Countess Almaviva’s lady-in-waiting (and Figaro’s fiancée), Susannah, in the hopes of getting the Countess to intercede on his behalf. The Countess is his godmother and he has a mad crush on her. He sings his famous aria “Non so più” which begins:

I don’t know any more what I am,
what I’m doing.
Now I’m fire, now I’m ice…

He tells Susannah that all he can do is sing about love—to the air, to the trees—and if no one’s there he sings about love [dramatic pause in the music] to himself! The Count is heard approaching and Susannah hides Cherubino behind a chair. The Count wants Susannah. Susannah is faithful to Figaro and pointedly suggests the Count look elsewhere. While avoiding his roving hands, she is also keeping an eye on the concealed Cherubino, screeching or fainting away dramatically, when the boy attempts an unwise escape.

From that moment, Cherubino seems always to be around. Even the Count notices this and sings, “is that brat everywhere?” He is, of course, because he’s Love, although he himself does not know this. The god has taken him unawares. His second famous aria is “Voi che sapete,” in which he asks Susannah and the Countess if what he is feeling is love. He’s not sure. He sighs, he trembles, more fire, more ice and then the wonderful line, “But still I rather enjoy languishing this way.” He swears to the Countess that a piece of her ribbon that he stole from Susannah has the power to heal wounds. He throws himself at her feet. He sighs some more.

Because this is a comedy, gender bending is encouraged. Susannah and the Countess come up with a plot to catch the Count out in unfaithfulness which, because it is now exposed, will return him to her. They decide to dress Cherubino as Susannah and have him meet the Count as a woman. Both ladies sing about the whiteness of Cherubino’s skin, his smooth hands, his clear voice. Susannah even sings, “You snake! Stop being so beautiful.” That plot doesn’t come off for various reasons, but Cherubino later disguises himself as a woman to be with Barbarina. He is, of course, revealed and the Count chases him away.

The opera closes at night, in the Count’s garden, with a set of tricks and mistaken identities that follow one after the other in dizzying tempo. Cherubino is not involved, but he is around, flitting across the stage with Barbarina or alone, singing a few words to whomever is there and then running off again. The opera ends with everyone unmasked. Three pairs of lovers confront the Count and he sees the error of his ways. Earlier, the Count had sung about how this day—Figaro and Susannah’s wedding day—had been sent to him straight from Hell. The only remedy to the plots and tricks and hellish confusion is, of course, love.

The Marriage of Figaro is not an opera that can be modernized. The class relationships are meaningless now, but because Mozart and da Ponte were pretty much geniuses, it doesn’t matter. Everyone recognizes love and longing. Everyone laughs (and winces) at the confusion brought on by a young boy in the first flush of adolescent love, and an older man who has forgotten what love is. And, I think, everyone recognizes the insistent, androgynous voice of desire that refuses to stop singing, even when we would really rather it shut the hell up and leave us alone.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

St. Ruby Apolline

Six years ago, I read Carol Flinders’ Enduring Grace: Living Portraits of Seven Women Mystics, and decided to be a nun. I am not nor was I raised Catholic or Christian. I am, apparently, quite susceptible to the Christian ethos in its mystical form, particularly the deep longing for union with the body of the Christ.

The metaphysical significance of the Christ’s death is without parallel. In allowing himself to be murdered, this being—a man, a father-god and a son-god—commits suicide, parricide, infanticide and deicide in a single event. To my knowledge, there is no similar death in any of the world’s mythologies. Through this single act of complete annihilation, the Christ enables the world to begin again.

The women in Flinders’ book join with the Christ in ecstatic prayer and meditation. Their writings are frank and frankly fantastic, in the original sense. Although they experience actual pain when, for example, the Christ pierces them with a sword of light, it is with a mystical, rather than a physical, body. Because it is mystical, it can transform; it is a space of change. St. Catherine of Sienna, as I recall, wrote of a visions in which the Christ had female breasts that nursed her.

Well, I thought, that sounds good.

So I made up a story about how I would say good-bye to my family and enter my contemplative, ecstatic life.

I would see them for the last time in a small Gothic cathedral, with angels carved in the buttresses, and statues of my female saints half-shadowed. There would be a priest and a nun waiting behind a set of iron scrollwork doors. I would kiss my family good bye, turn and open the doors. I would hear them clang shut behind me, hear the nun or the priest turn a key in the lock.

Of course there would be music playing. I selected the alto/countertenor solo Cum dederit delectis suis somnum from Vivaldi’s setting of Psalm 127 (Nisi Dominus, “Unless the Lord”) and listened to it over and over, as the sound of metal against metal echoed in that cathedral. I cried. It would be so beautiful.

Except I don’t speak Latin:

When he has given sleep/to those he loves
Behold, children are an inheritance/of the Lord
A reward, the fruit of the womb.

Fructus ventris sounds gorgeous, and the solo is mournful, desperately so, which is why I love it. But even a heathen like me knows that nuns aren’t supposed to have children.

I encountered further difficulties during the chapter about St. Teresa of Ávila, who is the subject of Bernini’s famous sculpture “The Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” My problem was that her father was a converso—a Jew who had converted to Catholicism. Her grandfather was also a converso, eventually condemned by the Inquisition for returning to Judaism. Times being what they were, it is almost certain that her grandmother and mother were blood Jews. This means that under Jewish law, St. Teresa was Jewish. As am I.

I read this and my dramatic farewell scene fell to pieces. A Jew! One of two women Doctors of the Church! What the hell?

I’m still not sure why; I only know that when I looked up from the book, I was no longer in my pretty little cathedral turning away from this world to live in another. Thank whatever gods there may be that I waited until after reading this chapter to call my mom.

You never know how Jewish your not-really-Jewish-actually-more-of-an-atheist-than-you-are-mother is until you tell her you’ve been considering going over to the Dark Side. And not only the Dark Side, but the Big C Dark Side, the full-on-Jew-killing-too-bad-about-those-Nazis Dark Side. My mom has hung in with me through Tibetan Buddhism, Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Wicca, generic neo-paganism and tarot cards, but I should have remembered that the Big C was an absolute no-no.

I dated a Catholic when I was in high school. He gave me a pretty rosary, as a sort of love trinket, with a pamphlet explaining how to use it. I’m a sucker for this sort of thing; the “Hail Mary” is a beautiful prayer. I never prayed with it, but I hung the rosary on my wall. One day, my mother noticed.


So I did.

Identity is a strange thing. Above all, I am an aesthete. I love and believe in things to the extent that they are beautiful. It’s the life of an outsider, though. I am always apart, watching. I love beauty and I’m afraid of it, because each time I find it, it annihilates me and I have to start all over again, remember some fragment of who I was, rebuild something like a Self until the next painting or play destroys me.

Gods. My poor mother!

Thursday, April 2, 2009

In Defense of the Trashy Novel

If a mind like G. K. Chesterton’s can produce an essay in defense of the detective story as a legitimate art form, then who am I to argue? Chesterton intrigues me; he is the definition of a polymath. Along with the seminal biography of Charles Dickens and several significant works of literary criticism, he wrote theology, detective stories featuring the wily priest Father Brown, a handful of standalone mysteries, biographies of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas that are still respected by scholars in the area, novels, a little poetry and a lot of drawing.

I grew up on genre fiction, but I only recently learned this phrase. My parents supplied me with lots of nonfiction (biographies, mostly, Queen Elizabeth, George Washington Carver, Maria Mitchell, Mozart) but my fiction tastes were decidedly low to middlebrow. I read Stephen King , Dean Koontz (uck), Clive Barker, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh and a little John le Carré. My mom is a Trekkie, so I read several of the novels inspired by the original TV series, some of which were very good.

Of course I read “literary” fiction in school and loved it (except for Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; I longed for the moment when Werther finally shot himself), but it didn’t occur to me to start reading it on my own until I met a few literary snobs in college and graduate school. I am late to the world’s great works of literature, and I have never lost the taste for my beloved horror, spy and mystery novels.

After being exposed to, say, Don Quixote or The Magic Mountain, it does get harder to find trashy novels that aren’t so poorly written I can’t stand them. Fortunately, a new sub-genre has arisen of late, which is referred to as the “Mediterranean cerebral detective/mystery novel” or “beach reading for smart people,” on the backs of a couple books. In other words, Umberto Eco, Arturo Perez-Reverte and a few others. I place Jean-Claude Izzo’s Marseilles trilogy in this class, although much more “noir” than Eco or Reverte. His novels are of literary caliber; I’m sure he is genre because there are some policemen, a little bit of organized crime, lots of boozing, and a few dead bodies.

Izzo’s trilogy reminds me of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea) in which a city is a central character. Durrell’s Quartet is phenomenal, and better than Izzo’s books, but it also has mystery, spies, mass alcohol consumption, dead people and a few hangdog policemen. Durrell also wrote a less vaunted but quite enjoyable spy thriller called White Eagles Over Serbia.

Georges Simenon is another crossover hit—his Inspector Maigret police procedurals are beautifully written—and he also undertook more “serious” existential novels (none of which I have read, too depressing). Some big names (T. S. Eliot comes to mind) consider him a better writer than Camus, but Simenon’s popularity and output denied him a place as a writer of literary fiction.

Aside from the Star Trek novels, I was never really into science fiction until my mom bought me Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land one year for Christmas. Excellent book, and I learned that even (or especially?) weird geeks can produce novels of ideas that are wicked fun to read. I moved on to Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy (less good) and through the Dune series (first three are great, the rest suck). Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon was a revelation, as were William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Pattern Recognition and Idoru. I would put Idoru and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and The Diamond Age up against any modern literary fiction on any axis of assessment. I am still digesting Bruce Sterling’s Holy Fire, after finishing it a few days ago, which means it’s got to be good.

It’s possible I am attempting to create an aesthetic or critical theory to justify my own tastes, but the categorization of fiction bothers me. Without even reaching the issue of sidelining brown writers into “African-American Fiction,” or “Native American Fiction,” or the nomination of “chick lit” as a new genre, I would like to add my voice to those who protest these divisions as based on a tired critical literary establishment that needs to justify its own existence.

But the “paranormal romance” sub-genre? That’s just weird.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Lessons Learned: Week of March 15

1. Lifting weights and rolling around on the floor with balls and whatnot at the gymnahsium has practical benefits beyond Vanity, namely, one can engage in two four hour sessions of brutal housecleaning in a single day without serious injury. Rearranging furniture, vacuuming everything, scrubbing floors on hands and knees—it can all be done with an ease heretofore unknown.

2. Genetics are a powerful force. My little sister, 14 years my junior, visited for a few days. We live in different cities and have done so since she was eight years old. I lived outside the house for the majority of her earlier years. We resemble each other a little around the eyes, we have the same small faces with little pointy chins and are built roughly the same. The strangest thing is how she has developed what I thought were Ruby® Mannerisms and what I now realize must be floating around the Apolline genome commons somewhere. She cocks her head at the same angle I do, makes my hand gestures and shrugs. She raises her eyebrow the same way I do and in response to similar comments; we both bite our fingernails; she is restless in the same way I am; pouts just like I do, etc. Bizarre.

My mother has identified one of our looks as coming directly from my father, namely, the Apolline Scowl. When my father, brother, sister and I are reading or observing something that is confusing, irritating or otherwise uncool, we scowl at it and crinkle our mouths. Bad thing! You should make more sense!

3. Thanks to Little Sister, my love of Italian women continues unabated. Sophia Loren, Monica Bellucci and now 1960’s Italian pop/café jazz singer Mina Brava. Try “Tintarella di Luna,” or “Brava.” On YouTube. Of course.

4. I like a Beyoncé song. There. I said it. Actually, it’s more the video, but I also like the song. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” You can find it on YouTube. One of the dancers is a man. Apparently, great dancing, a guy in drag and a fun pop beat are all it takes to overcome my post-modern radical feminist objections to media that strengthen capitalist cultural discourse about the ideal state of compulsory heterosexual monogamy leading to marriage via the barter of sex (woman) for ring (man).

5. On a related point, at first I thought it was odd to play music videos at the gym with the sound turned down so people could watch while harnessed to various torture devices. Then I saw Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” video. It’s quite awesome, although nothing I’ve seen can compare with The KLF’s “Justified and Ancient (Stand By the Jams) (featuring Tammy Wynette)” video. However, I have questions. Are the red-robed, single-horned guitar players ambassadors from MuMu Land or are they adventurers to MuMu Land? Do the Justified and Ancient live in MuMu Land or are they leaving our land to travel to MuMu Land? Anyway, they drive an ice cream van, so that’s nice.

6. Lady Gaga interests me. I watched another couple videos, including “LoveGame.” Both the latter and the “Poker Face” videos feature Lady Gaga in a series of metallic ensembles evoking a Playboy Bunny/Borg crossbreed, surrounded by a retinue of very attractive male dancers in various states of undress. As they say, what’s not to like?

In addition, Lady Gaga has invented the most creative term for “penis” I have encountered. It is in the chorus of “LoveGame:”

Let’s have some fun
This beat is sick
I wanna take a ride
on your disco stick.
(emphasis added)

7. A gentleman with whom I work has a granddaughter named Mignon. This is beyond annoying.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chanel Brand Jellies, Plastic Merfolk and Elephants

When I was a girl, we wore jellies in the summer. Back then, they were pastel plastic shoes that could be purchased at the drugstore for three dollars (or maybe seven, if you got glittery ones). They were uncomfortable—your little toe always popped through the sandal-like part on the side—in the heat, your feet sweat and they stuck to you—but they were cute, plastic, cheap and glittery and therefore all the rage.

Chanel now makes jellies, only they are $150 instead of three. Still plastic, but the glitter has been replaced with the Chanel intertwined C logos and the pastel colors with bright fuchsia, teal and purple. For the bargain shopper, a lesser-known fashion label makes similar jellies for around $95.

It was at this same store that I once saw the apotheosis of Shoe and was properly awed, frightened, delighted and bemused. Gucci this time, $800 for the pair. They looked like those extravagant bedroom slippers stars wore in the 1940’s and 50’s, except that the heel resembled (or actually was) a four or five-inch roofing nail made of some dull silvery metal. The foot bed was light tan leather covered in satin. The rest of the shoe was a piece of clear plastic that covered most of the toes, with a fuchsia poof of marabou feather s that covered most of the plastic. As shoe, pointless. As sculpture, priceless.


At my local shop-with-fancy-Italian-name, I often wander in to observe the hanging merfolk figurines. Six-inches high, made of some polymer, the shop owners have cleverly arranged them in a sort of tropical beach display, with martini shakers, glassware and related tchotchkes. The figurines are made to hang—each has a loop of gold thread—and someone at the shop has a good eye, because the display is almost something you’d see in a modern art installation, only you’d probably be expected to squirt blood on it. All have sparkly, scaly tails. The mermaids' tail colors extend, smooth and glittering, to cover most of their breasts—no stupid shells.

All have perfect physiques, and most are holding cocktails. They are oddly erotic, all together like that, a merfolk 70’s swinger party shifting in the breeze. What pleases me the most is the inclusiveness of the designer: there are blonds, brunettes and redheads; there is a full(er)-figured mermaid with the same sly smile as the rest, holding a martini. The other mermaids are C cups; she is at least a DD and heavier through the hips and fins. There was a gay leather merman, but he has been purchased. As I recall, he wore a black motorcycle cap, black choker and had a thin mustache. He was slimmer than the other mermen. The motorcycle mama, in black leather cap and jacket, with red tail, is still available. There is a handsome shirtless fire man, ditto police officer, as well as a much larger figurine (about 18 inches resting on his coiled red sparkly tail) designed to hold a platter of drinks. The owners have positioned him underneath the hanging merfolk. He is dressed as a Chippendale stripper, with a red bow-tie and groovy shades.

These merfolk please me. I would be more inclined to buy a few and arrange a little Silly Art Installation in my apartment than spend the same probably $150 or so on a pair of Chanel jellies. I’ve had my eye on a carousel horse at a local antique store for years; it’s around $700 and I would be more likely to buy that than the Dolce & Gabana “hobo” bag I saw at the fancy department store.

Elephant Polo:

I read somewhere that anyone with a heart must find the world a tragedy and anyone with a mind must find it the highest of comedy. The human condition is absurd; there’s no getting around it.

I’ll leave you with another of my favorite human absurdity stories. I feel very tenderly about it, so don’t be mean.

Once upon a time, an Englishman on his way back from Singapore got drunk on several large gins in an airport in Switzerland. He asked his companion if it would not be wonderful to play polo on elephants. 25 years on, elephant polo teams primarily from Scotland, England, Ireland, New Zealand, India, Singapore, the U.S. and Thailand compete each year in Nepal. There is even a World Elephant Polo Association (WEPA).

Speaking of Thailand, which has recently become a more significant player in the elephant polo world, imagine, if you will, brusque Scottish ex-military men, former New Zealand rugby players, and assorted American studs playing the same sport as a very special group from Thailand. From the controversial naughty-bits Patpong district of Bangkok, I give you the Screwless Tuskers, comprised entirely of Thai ladyboys and apparently quite popular.

Marvels, all.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Oh dear. Schoenberg.

A timely double-bill at my local opera house last week: Béla Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle) and Arnold Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation). Timely, as I am still picking my way through Alex Ross’s book about 20th century music. Both of these men were significant figures in the music of the last century, one Hungarian (Bartók, born while there was still an Austrian-Hungarian empire) and one straight up Viennese.

Schoenberg is the more influential of the two, for better or for worse. He is the end result of hundreds of years of Austrian and German composition, from Bach to Mozart to Wagner and R. Strauss. His music is a rejection of German Romanticism, particularly Wagner and his ego and excesses and he is classified as a member of the German expressionist school, which attempted to represent the workings of the mind through music. His is an almost purely intellectual art form. He is best known for his rejection of the bourgeois notion of melody, creating what he called “atonal” or “pantonal” music, not restrained by classical notions of key signatures, forms or motifs. Basically, it’s discordant, bizarre and impossible to hum. There is usually a lot of percussion, which is good for the timpani player, but not always so good for the audience.

Erwartung is 30 minutes of a crazy woman named Woman singing in brief, jarring snatches (two to three notes of quasi-melody and then unexpected jumps in strange intervals, with some whacking of triangles and weird string effects in the orchestra pit) about being lost in the woods and not being able to find her lover, called Lover. Within five minutes, you know she’s killed him and been institutionalized. Woman is the only singing role; Lover, Psychiatrist and Mistress hang out in various strange formations and occasionally poke their heads or arms through the only permanent set piece, a wall of grey stone. There is a denouement of sorts. Lover and Mistress are writhing around in a steel hospital bed underneath a sheet. Psychiatrist pokes his head through the wall, looks around, retracts his head turtle-like, sticks his hand out and removes the sheet. Voila! Woman kills Lover with a scythe or something at which point the audience realizes Lover is stark naked.

And dancing, poor man. He arches his back, extends his legs in crooked arabesques, rolls in slow motion off the bed and proceeds to roll down the slightly angled stage. All the way down. Very slowly. By this time, the Mistress has also rolled off the bed, rolled under the bed and then rolled offstage with the bed. Woman is singing her strange song, Lover is strategically placing an arm or a hand, Ruby is trying to get a good look at what Lover is trying to hide. Finally, Lover ends up face down in a body of standing water at the foot of the stage. An older woman sitting next to Ruby says, “Yep. There he goes.” Ruby experiences potential giggles at the opera for the first time. Lover sinks into the water. The piece ends as it began; Woman in a straitjacket, Psychiatrist silently taking notes from a chair positioned above her and behind her.

My working theory about the decline of Western civilization today is that around the turn of the century and certainly after World War I, artists began to take themselves way too seriously. Art—painting, music, poetry, prose, sculpture—has become a solipsistic exercise in which the artist is speaking only to herself about herself or, at best, her art. Artisans are lesser beings; we all want to be fine artists, not craftsmen. The excuse artists use for their idiocy is that the 20th century was unlike any other century in its wounds and terror; ergo, in order to be an honest artist, one must create ugly, fragmented art. With toilet paper and baling wire.

First, I am skeptical. If Ovid can write his Metamorphoses almost 2000 years ago, recounting Greek myths probably another one to two-hundred years older and still start it with an ode to a long gone Golden Age where everything was perfect, as opposed to the current time, where everything sucks, then I do not see how we can assert without blushing that the 20th century was, like, the totally worst century ever.

Yes, World War I was a shock and yes it eliminated entire generations of young men. Yes, the fall of the Austrian empire was a big deal. But if these events’ effect was to drive artists further into themselves, I wonder if said artists were not still suffering from a bit o’ the Romantic notion of the sensitive, tuberculotic, of-this-world-but-not-in-it, capital-A-Artist. How reactionary!

I much prefer the artistic behavior of Bartók, Debussy, Stravinsky and Albéniz around this time and later. These three men didn’t just throw up their hands and give in; they dug into their local folk cultures or, in Debussy’s case, the folk cultures of others. If the German school is played out, and I think it is, new music will come from the folk. Another Joplin would be nice. Chinese opera, kabuki, Islamic chants and tone structures, American Indian scales—these are the future of Western music, not the solitary genius enamored of his own pain.

Hey, it’s basic biology. Every once in a while, you need to breed out the bloodline or risk everyone walking around with receding chins and hemophilia.

Monday, March 9, 2009

True Confessions of a First-Time Gym Member Who Used to Make Fun of People Who Joined Gyms

...and Held Forth at Great Length About the Irony of Wealthy Human Beings Paying Money to Harness Themselves to Machines Previously Used for Punishment or Operated By Slaves and Despite Cultural Movement Away From Tedious, Difficult and Repetitive Muscular Motion

How the mighty have fallen. But, as Stephen King once wrote in The Tommyknockers, even the intelligent are not immune to propaganda. Vanity. All is vanity.

If modern gyms were like old-school gymnasia and I were a lithe, handsome young man or a lusty older man who was also a brilliant philosopher, poet, dramatist or sculptor, I might feel differently. Today, eroticism at the gym is creepy and considered behavior to be corrected. As a brand new and somewhat clumsy gym participant, I can’t say I regret this. But it’s weird to be sweaty and breathing heavy and rolling around on the floor (and very nosy), while having to remember that you must not look at the person rolling around on the floor or on a bouncy ball six feet away and if your glance happens to fall on him, you must look away. Preferably at yourself in one of the ten thousand mirrors that blanket the walls.

At first I was paranoid that everyone would stare at me and laugh. Then I realized the only way you can tell if someone is staring at you is if you are staring at her. And if you are staring at her in an I-hate-you-blond-skinny-pretty-girl-with-long-thighs-and-if-I-could-reach-I-would-smack-your-face-with-my-short-round-forearms kind of way, she’ll stare back with a why-the-fuck-is-this-girl-staring-at-me-is-my-nose-really-that-big kind of way, and no one wants that.

Fortunately, I have a friend who is also a jock (boxer) and she is assisting me with the Gym Situation. She knows I am neurotic about certain things and so generally avoids the machinery for the more entertaining bouncy balls, half-bouncy-balls, jump ropes and free weights. Some machinery is inevitable, including the thing with the bar that you pull down to your chest that I, of course, have to stand on my tippy-toes to put back in its neutral position to avoid clanging the weights. She is making me lean backwards on this thing, which is entertaining. I almost fell off the bench this morning, as I was not entirely awake.

Which reminds me. My current boss has run two marathons and one half-marathon. He has, I think, the natural body of a runner—high surface area to weight ratio (tall and lanky)—and apparently goes to the gym to practice his running on that most hilarious of apparatuses, the treadmill. I know this because last week, he was limping and I asked him why and his secretary piped up and informed me he’d fallen off the treadmill that morning at the gym.

From my observations, confirmed by my Friendtrainer, you have to be moving quickly to lose your balance on the treadmill. I guess it happens sometimes that a person puts one foot on the part that does not move and the other foot on the part that does move. It’s less falling off the treadmill than flying backwards off the treadmill and crashing into whatever is behind you. “I lost a lot of skin,” he told me. I can picture it and, being a veteran tripper and faller myself, the shameful dragging of oneself into a corner, waving away offers of assistance and hoping everyone will instantly forget that you wiped out in such a dramatic fashion right in front of them. As a result of my new commitment to the Gym, I and my sturdy Thomas Hardy milkmaid body are now prepared to buffer the backwards flight of any handsome treadmillers, should the need arise.

(The treadmill is hilarious because I read somewhere that it used to be for prisoners sentenced to “hard labor” back in the day. There are the galley-slave rowing machines, but for some reason it’s the treadmill that symbolizes all that is bizarre about the modern gym).

Despite everything, I like going to the gym. It is pleasurable to move my body and feel how lifting things up and down gets easier every time I do it. I’ve found that those childhood and adolescent years of jumping rope and learning dance routines for plays have given me good balance, flexibility and coordination. I get the giggles every time I go, from almost smacking my face into the floor trying to balance myself with my arms on the half-bouncy ball and my feet on the floor, or getting arrogant about how fast I can jump rope and then tripping forward or getting tangled in the laminated stretching instructions on the wall behind me. Today it was the last sit-up and choking back the “motherf@**%#r” that wanted to emerge from my throat, so as not to shock the 75 year-old gentleman near me, who was bending himself into a pretzel.

It’s not nude wrestling covered in oil, and there are no vibrant discussions of art and philosophy, but I’ll give it some time and keep smiling and saying hello to people, even though that’s the one thing absolutely guaranteed to make them stare. That and my psychedelic Hello Kitty canvas bag and bright orange coat, I think.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lessons Learned: Dietary Improvement

I do not have a car, so I walk to and fro the grocery store. You might notice a slight preoccupation with the weight of foods.

1. Fuji apples are the best apples ever in the entire universe. Unfortunately, they are often placed next to Pink Lady apples, which they resemble on the outside. It is disappointing to bite into an apple expecting that Fresh Fuji Taste and getting an overly sweet kind of mushy Pink Lady. Don’t forget to squeeze the apples!

2. Fuji apples are very, very heavy. Much heavier than Chex Mix® or bon-bons, for example.

3. Mangoes are gross. I do not understand why people eat them.

4. Spaghetti squash is fun food. It looks just like spaghetti! In addition, you must work very, very hard to cut (hack) the squash in half to roast it, which provides additional satisfaction upon eating. A sharp carving knife is useful; a machete might be better.

5. Spaghetti squash just out of the oven is very, very hot. Forks are made of metal. Metal is a good conductor of heat.

6. It is a life-changing experience for a post-modern intellectual child of the Late Technocracy to purchase a root vegetable with mud on it. Mud! Beets really do come out of the ground!

7. Greek yogurt is like non-Greek yogurt, only thicker and tastier. A person cannot have too much pomegranate Greek yogurt. Straining non-Greek yogurt through cheesecloth to make Greek yogurt is a difficult and messy task; however, the yogurt has a pleasing, squishy texture, like fragrant Play-Doh®.

8. Beets are heavy. Bananas are heavy. Milk is heavy. Frozen anything is heavy, but particularly bison burgers.

9. Tofu and tofu-based products are ridiculously expensive. It’s just soybeans!

10. Fennel, which I have had around occasionally as a good-luck household herb, comes in a giant bulb that looks like garlic but with little green stalks growing out of the top. Who knew?

11. Selecting foodstuffs based on one’s reading habits can lead down dangerous paths. Chemoya (tropical fruit) is weird and difficult to maneuver, plantains taste funny and I have no idea how to select a good crop of broad (fava) beans. Madeleines are delicious, though.

12. Carrying food on one’s back in one’s backpack, plus two to three bags in one’s hands, encourages self-sufficiency. Sauerkraut usually comes in big glass jars. Extremely heavy. It’s just pickled, shredded cabbage? How hard can that be to make?

13. Directions on packages and in recipe books are not purely decorative. “Gently slide the scallops into the pan,” means that when the seasoned-with-salt scallops hit hot oil, a considerable excitement of molecules occurs.

14. People are impressed when you say, “I had pan-seared scallops last night, and a winter squash mousse garnished with cinnamon and I made it all!” Translation: tossed some scallops into a little oil in a pan, roasted a winter squash, burned fingers getting the meat out to put it in the blender, shook a little cinnamon on the top and had that for dinner.

15. Cilantro, one of the gods’ greatest inventions, comes in bunches of a size suitable for said gods. Or lumberjacks, if they were into it. Not so good for the rest of us.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Poem I Can't Write

There is a poem I’d like to write. I’ve worked on it for over a year, an eternity for the lazy writer I am. What happened feels like a poem—eternal, lyric, pointed—but it never comes out right. Too sentimental, then too distant, too “poetical,” not poetic enough. Maybe it’s destined for prose; beyond my capabilities as a poet to render. So here it is:

Once upon a time, I went to my little sister’s voice lesson. She is a soprano and had been studying for over a year with her new teacher, a handsome Costa Rican tenor called Luis. I had not heard her sing during the same year. My mother told me that I would not recognize her voice, that it had matured significantly from 14 to 15. I went, of course. When I was younger and it was just my brother and me, my parents insisted that we attend each other’s activities. I spent a lot of time at Denny Storm’s Memorial Baseball Park during sweltering summers, and shagging balls in the high August grass, from which I emerged, covered in welts from chiggers and mosquitoes. My brother spent more time than he would have liked at my high school theater and wherever my piano recitals happened. He wiggled, but he went.

My sister sang “The Vilja Song” from Franz Lehár’s operetta The Merry Widow. It is sung by the female lead and tells the story of a hunter who falls in love with a vilja (veel-ya), an Hungarian wood nymph or witch.

[Here’s a clip of Mrs. Zeani, the teacher of my sister’s current teacher, singing it. Start around 3:20’. Her version is a little slower than usual.]

Just in case you didn’t listen: the first line of the song climbs up pleasant intervals, reaching its highest point on the “wal” (“vahl”) syllable of “Vilja, o Vilja, Du Waldmägdelein,” after which it descends in the same pleasant intervals. It’s not a particularly high note for an operatic soprano (not a “money note,” as Luis called them) but it soars after the closed sound of “du.”

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch in Luis’s living room. My mom is sitting in Luis’s comfortable chair. Luis is at the grand piano and my sister is standing to the side, in front of a music stand holding her music. As soon as she begins, I see what my mom meant. Her voice is older, bigger, rounder, cleaner, focused. She hits the center of each note with deadly accuracy. Her breath is controlled; she sings softly at first and then opens into that peak syllable mezzo-forte (medium loud). I think I see the glass figurine of a shepherdess on Luis’s knickknack shelf tremble.

So I am sitting on a comfortable couch and my sister has a new voice. So I laugh. I mean I throw back my head and laugh, loud and long. Luis stops playing the piano; my mother smiles at me.

It’s important to find the right words for things. I’ve noticed that people—writers in particular—love to complain about language and its inadequacies. They assert that the world would be a better place if we could communicate without it, or go back to an Edenic past where it was not necessary. I cannot understand the impulse to annihilate something as magnificent and generative as language because one lacks skill in using it.

Delight, pride, awe, surprise, love, a great opening of the chest—yes, and not just for my sister, but for everything in that room and in the world at that exact moment. The power of music, the mystery of “pleasant” intervals, the fraction of a thing we call time in which existence is shifted. And my little sister who was at once as familiar as my own face and a complete, beautiful stranger. Like the vilja and the hunter, she enchanted me with her song.

Also pain and grief. I looked at her and she looked far away, across some chasm. I’ve known her since she was born and since I was 14 years old. Now she’s 15, possessed of a huge voice that transforms her once-familiar small body into something I can’t know.

And after a beat, she smiled back at me and the chasm snapped shut. We were remade. Her smile was complicated. She wondered if I were laughing at her because she was so bad. She was embarrassed that I interrupted her lesson. She understood why I was laughing. I looked at her hands, which are small. They were still small, although she was changed. I recognized her again; I had no idea who she was; I wanted to know this new/not-new person.

Later, we played the piano and sang at home. We got the giggles when I asked if she would please sing from the next room so as not to deafen me. The giggles are good. They bind, but loosely.

So, if anyone could put this into a poem, I’d appreciate it.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Reading Some Books, Thinking Some Things

I’ve ended up reading three non-fiction books at the same time: An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Created Hollywood (Neil Gabler, film critic), The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (Alex Ross, The New Yorker music critic) and Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity (Luc Brisson, French researcher, transl. Janet Loyd).

I’m convinced, like the most superstitious or religious person, that my reading habits reflect some secret order, either of the universe or myself. I just need to figure out what it is. I’ve owned the music book since Christmas (a gift), my interest in matters Graeco-Roman extends to my childhood, and I’m a blood Jew. So, why these books now and why all together?

I think the answer resides with the novel I picked up after Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex (which was excellent and naturally led to the hermaphrodite book), titled Hallucinating Foucault (Patricia Duncker). It is a book about everything that breaks my heart: the power of text, the erotic love between a reader and a writer, the longing and yearning for perfect understanding of and by another human being, the nature of madness and sanity, an ardent, beautiful young man, and some hot gay sex. In the French countryside.

The book is crafted almost on a level with The Great Gatsby—spare and clean and all the more powerful for lacking any schmaltz. Every phrase is a knife. As night follows day, I was in a state of melancholy for several days after finishing it. I was besotted: jealous, aroused, tender, a touch weepy…all things that I really don’t need right now.

Nonfiction is, I think, safer. The emotion I associated with satisfied curiosity or learning something new is profound pleasure. In short, even though fact books may recount horrible facts, my primary reaction is fascination and, occasionally, awe. Human beings. They’re so disgusting and so wonderful! All at the same time!

Not so with certain stories. A few years ago, I watched the movie Billy Elliot. Another type of story that tears me apart: the need of the artist to create at all costs (see also My Name is Asher Lev (Chaim Potok)). The movie is set against the background of the 1984 UK miner’s strike. The title character is a boy whose father and brother work the mines. The boy discovers he loves ballet and wants to dance. He must dance. I watched this movie every day for a week and ultimately sat outside with my friends at work crying because…? I wasn’t sure.

In response, a dear friend of mine gave me the idea of The Shelf. Certain things go on this very high shelf; Billy Elliot has been on it since that time and may never come off. Tequila is on the shelf, as is a beautiful crack addict I fell for a couple years ago. Another novel, As Meat Loves Salt (Maria McCann), might have its own Shelf, even higher up. Every time I approach a book like Hallucinating Foucault, I have to circle it for a while, as if it were my enemy, before deciding to engage with it. I have to set aside some time not just to read, but to recover. I know what sorts of things go on The Shelf.

When asked on a site I used to write for to describe the death that had affected me the most, I wrote about a death that occurred in a book I read as a child (David and the Phoenix (Edward Ormondroyd)). Maybe I’m crazy, maybe lucky, definitely childish. I have a good memory, which doesn’t help. I remember things—feelings, dreams, desires—that happened a long time ago and they are as fresh as my memories of yesterday. I remember sitting in my babysitter’s red pickup truck listening to the song “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and sobbing because Jackie Paper was so mean to forget Puff when he grew up (and no, the song is not about marijuana). I remember thinking that if growing up meant being a traitor and forgetting your friends then I would never do it.

And, 25+ years hence, I still despise, with unmatched bitterness, that disloyal son of a bitch.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

More Science Stuff: God the Gap-Filler

I don’t understand how people can look at chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans and not see the effects of evolution. I look at these apes and I see my own face. And yet…

Orangutans affect me the most. They are smarter than chimpanzees. They learn and adapt more quickly, they make extensive use of tools. Their faces are so intelligent. Once, at a zoo, I spent several minutes staring in what I hoped was a non-threatening way at a large male having a rest against the cool Plexiglas window on the second level of the orangutan area. He had a burlap sack over his head to shade himself. In the jungle, orangutans use banana leaves; here, the zoo provided sacks, which were in demand on this hot day. He and I watched each other for a while. He raised his eyebrows when I moved closer. I raised mine back. He scratched his armpit, mine started to itch. He yawned, I yawned. I tried not to anthropomorphize (it’s difficult with animals that look so human) but he seemed curious, then bored, and then he went to sleep.

I watched him over a small distance, maybe two to three feet, a distance that seemed as small as the physiological distance between the two of us. Just a pinch of DNA here and there, maybe a couple rearrangements of sequences, and I am a human and he is an orangutan. But the truer measure of distance yields a vast gap. It’s that thing that no one understands well but we call “consciousness.” Philosophers, biologists, physicists, and computer scientists have all tried to define it; all the definitions differ. But nearly all of the thinkers I’ve read on this topic agree that humans have it and other animals do not.

A chimpanzee can recognize itself in a mirror; so can orangutans and, I believe, gorillas. This is a species of consciousness. Dogs, cats and birds, for example, react to their reflections as if seeing second animal. Most animals can learn, be conditioned with food rewards or punishments. Chimpanzees have rudimentary reasoning and planning skills. Many animals have emotions (although they do not, to our knowledge, understand them as such), many animals have complex social structures. Chimpanzees in particular have fascinating interlocking social hierarchies, and behaviors that look a lot like politics (right down to the baby-kissing, on occasion). Nearly all of what is present in humans is also present in our closest relatives.

Descartes believed it was language that set human beings apart from other animals, which I would call the ability to represent the world in symbols and manipulate it accordingly. I tend to agree. While all animal species communicate, none seem to be able to master to any significant degree, the ability to understand the relationship between a set of symbols and the world. As a result, none but humans can use those symbols to create things that did not exist but are brought into existence as a result of this symbolic understanding. Or, the idea to build a wheel likely preceded the wheel.

Then again, the human brain is itself a mystery. I read a book by a cognitive psychologist called Julian Jaynes, with the irresistible title The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes’ theory is roughly that consciousness evolved in human beings many thousands of years after the species evolved. Up until about 3000 years ago, we just heard voices and did as we were told, because the two hemispheres of our brains were not yet fully connected.

It’s not that far-fetched. Ancestor worship is probably the earliest form of religion in human beings. What better way to understand death than to attribute the voice in one’s head to the recently deceased relative or leader? Dead mothers and fathers eventually became gods and goddesses, ordering us to act in certain ways from the left hemisphere (language, ordering of stimuli and planning) and understood and obeyed as a familiar voice in the right brain (intuition, emotion, creativity). Also, if we believe, per Papa Darwin, nature does not make leaps, it makes more intuitive sense that consciousness evolved separately in humans after the speciation event, rather than bam! Humans! Consciousness!

Jaynes was never taken very seriously by his colleagues. This inclines me to him. Also, he describes several split-brain studies and studies done with people who suffered various types of brain damage that suggest there is something to his theory. As a last resort for severe epileptics, a neurosurgeon may sever the corpus callosum (the neuronal tissue that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to prevent the electrical storm from spreading. These patients can generally communicate and act normally, but when certain perceptual and cognitive functioning is tested, the results are seriously bizarre. When asked to both identify and point to a picture of an apple, a patient told the experimenter she could not see an apple, even as her left hand was reaching towards the picture.

Other studies Jaynes cites involve brain damaged patients hearing voices, having visual hallucinations (very, very rare without the aid of psychotropic drugs) and various and sundry other—forgive me—wicked cool results, suggesting that indeed there are two brains inside our heads and it is the connection of these two brains that somehow creates something called “consciousness.”

We’ll probably never know. And I suppose this is my urge to fill the gap. I want to know. I want to know what orangutans are thinking. I want to know what a chimpanzee thinks when she sees me looking at her. I want to know what something that isn’t human makes of humanity.

For now, I’ll accept the fantasy and science fiction that at least provides insight into what human beings think that non-human beings think of human beings. It’s why I love Tolkien’s Ents. Forget orangutans. What would an ancient tree-herder make of all this?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In Which I Despair: Happy 200th Birthday, Charlie.

Politics—that is the actions, processes, events, occurrences, etc. done by or to or as a result of the body politic (i.e. the world, or in this case America)—rarely drive me to despair. I have practiced disengagement of the emotions from massive matters over which I have little or no influence. Indeed, it is my preference to treat such matters as coolly and rationally as possible, understanding that reasonable minds may differ and that there are many viable solutions to the problems facing 300+million people.

Nonetheless, I am still not able to overcome the sickness in the throat, chest and belly I experience when I read of certain compatriots’ continued resistance to evolutionary theory and the teaching thereof to young people. It is symbolic, I suppose, of a much deeper ideological evil that I sense from time to time in America, all the more disheartening because it comes from the middle class, as a rule, and not the wealthy and powerful, whom I have never trusted an inch. If people can’t accept the mountains of evidence that support Mr. Darwin’s theory of descent with modification from a common ancestor through the mechanism of natural selection, I despair that they will ever be able to think through larger issues—nonscientific ones—that trigger even stronger emotional responses. We Are Doomed.

The “scientific” arguments of creationists (in which group I include the re-branded Intelligent Design™ people) are without merit. From “it’s just a theory” to “microevolution is OK but not macroevolution [speciation],” these people require a level of proof and clarity unknown to any other field of scientific endeavor. No, the speciation event has not knowingly been observed in the field or in a lab. Nor has gravity, but creationists to not seem to take issue with the latter body of knowledge and processes generally accepted as true until disproven (i.e. theory). We see the effects of gravity; we see the effects of evolution. There is, frankly, more evidence to support Darwin than there is to support the existence of a magical, invisible force that keeps us from flying off the planet. Where, I wonder, are the creationists who argue the reason we stay on the ground is because choirs of angels are pushing on our heads?

In fact, gravity is a serious problem for physicists. Stand up. Lift your arm. You’ve just overcome the gravitational force on your body. If the remaining three forces identified by physicists were anywhere near as puny—the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetic force—everything would periodically fly to bits and then (hopefully) snap back together. The energy required to split an atom (i.e. overcome both the strong and weak nuclear forces) is phenomenal, as is the energy generated by doing so. That is how nuclear power works.

Physicists build enormous cyclotrons, miles long, to accelerate particles at ridiculous speeds and bang them into one another or run them through teeny filters and separate them. To date, no particles, waves, or other thingummies have been observed, such that physicists can point to them and say, “gravity.”

Contrasted with the amount of evidence that exists to support evolutionary theory, gravitational theory seems like a dream. And yet, there is no hue and cry from creationists about teaching magic to kids in schools. Newton was wrong (about gravity; calculus still seems to be going strong). He is still taught in physics classes everywhere. Gravity. That’s the real scientific conspiracy.

Fossils are where they are supposed to be. No fossils are where they are not supposed to be (i.e. no trilobite fossils found in the same strata as, say, Archaeopteryx fossils). The same set of virtually identical genes control development in organisms as diverse as the fruit fly and the human. They result in the fly’s segmented body and humans’ spine, ribs, arms and legs (segments). Widespread misuse of antibiotics has resulted in the selection of a population of antibiotic resistant tuberculosis and streptococcus bacteria (might these be new species? Perhaps). Carrying the recessive gene for sickle-cell anemia provides a selective benefit to people living in malarial Africa, as the malaria parasite preferentially feeds on sickle-shaped red blood cells. Therefore, this gene persists at relatively high levels in that population, despite the sickness it causes before the carrier reaches reproductive maturity. See? Darwin’s theory tells scientists where to look and when they look, they find what his theory would predict. To date, evolutionary theory is batting a thousand.

Not so much gravity. Einstein’s gravitational theories break down at the atomic and subatomic level. Quantum theory fails to explain the actions of large bodies, like planets. Theoretical physicists have come up with string theory to unify the two. No strings have ever been observed; it’s all math and philosophy. Physics is in serious trouble. More cyclotrons are required. Silence from the creationists.

I don’t know if a god or gods exist. Darwin didn’t know. It’s not something that can be known, in the way science knows things. Just as I do not look to evolutionary theory to tell me whether it is morally OK to cheat on my imaginary boyfriends, I do not look to faith-based methods of knowing to tell me how the physical world operates, has operated and will operate. Each arguably has a place, along with other ways of knowing. But people need to think about which to use when and whether to combine them, if ever. And that, I suppose, is why I despair of ever laying this ridiculous “controversy” to rest.

It’s funny; of the Darwins, Charles’s grandfather Erasmus was the true radical. He was more a philosopher, really, than a scientist (although he was an enthusiastic one). He rejected the established Church, charged religious belief with all or much that was wrong in his world, believed that reason, science and education would liberate humanity from its wars and hatreds, and that all would proceed merrily down the path of thoughtful discovery. Why wouldn’t humans want to be free?

I wonder what he would make of all this.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Tangible Feminists

We're not succubi, dream-spawn,
we don't sit on men's chests, suffocate,
draw out semen by wicked means.
Not bain sidhes who howl and keen;
we don't appear to announce
your death. You won't see us
washing bloody clothes in a river.

We can be touched, stroked, fondled,
kissed, licked and bitten. All flesh, yes,
no demon parts, no harbingers of evil.
Unless you'd rather force or ignore,
dismiss with a pat on the head.
Then we might become devilish
(Lucifer never did as he was told).
Then we might become the Fates,
decide if your time has come.

No frigid deserts inside us.
If our bodies don't rise to your touch,
if we don't pant and mew at each word,
it's because you're stupid, or you're not
doing it right. Yes, it's you who are ghostly,
untouchable, unknowable. You can't feel
the weight, the swell, the quickened beat
of hot, embodied justice.


Inspired by SMG via a random title generator for which I cannot locate the link at this time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Tuesday Frivolity: At the Movies

There are things that should be known, like history and literature and Einstein’s formula for the relationship between energy and mass. I have learned a thing that should be known so I am putting it here, in hopes that all of the Intrawebz will read and see.

Best Scene in a Movie Ever

I don’t say this lightly. The movie is called Immortal.


New York 2095; a good old sci-fi dystopic, with grunge and grey everywhere. Strange blimps float in the air advertising an organ sales company, where poor people can go to sell their livers, arms, teeth, ears (or other bits) for quick cash. And not only people. Aliens have arrived of all sorts from all over and the Big Company (a very nasty pharmaceutical-like entity doing secret research in collusion with the government) will harvest their parts too.

There is a resistance to this dehumanization of humans (interestingly, relying on notions of species-purity, which seems rather outdated) but they are small and threatened, as all good resistances should be.

Suddenly, a giant pyramid appears in the sky. People knock on the door or try to enter it and are zapped. Inside the pyramid are the slumbering ancient gods of Egypt, with their two god guardians, Bast and Annubis. Bast is a cat-headed goddess, a sort of wild mother protectress figure, who is also in some myths responsible for overseeing the immortality of the other gods. Apparently, their immortality is in question; hers is not. Annubis is the jackal-headed god of the dead. He guides spirits to the afterlife.

The pyramid is visiting New York because Horus, the hawk-headed god associated with the sun who created human beings, has been very naughty and is to have his immortality taken away. He has five days to find a human body to inhabit so he can find a special sort of woman to impregnate with his god-seed. He departs the pyramid.

Many things happen. One scene that I thought was the best scene until I saw the best scene shows Horus laying next to the man he has possessed (a member of the resistance, of course, without any icky alien parts) on a hotel bed, the two of them smoking cigarettes after having sex with the special woman who will eventually have a little hawk god baby. The man is arguing with Horus because he has taken advantage of the woman. Horus is not moved. He is a god, after all.

(Horus and the man appear separately when they need to talk or argue, which is frequently. Horus is a little surprised that no one really cares about gods any more.)

Meanwhile, back at the pyramid…

Bast and Annubis wait. They wait and wait and wait. What do two such powerful gods do when they are bored? In this Best Scene Ever, they play Monopoly.

Imagine it! Bast and Annubis sit cross-legged in the air, with the Monopoly board, money and cards floating in front of them. The shot begins over Annubis’ left shoulder. We see Bast looking annoyed. The camera swings around so both the gods’ faces are visible. Bast and Annubis look up from the board at each other. The actors (and, later, CGI folks) make slight but perfect movements—a raised eyebrow, the angle of a head—so that in about five seconds, we see these two gods thinking, “WTF? Stupid game. Humans suck. I hate New York.”

Just awesome. I love movies and have watched many scenes. I have laughed, cried, thrown things, reveled in beautiful palettes, odd angles and jump cuts. Nothing beats two Egyptian gods trying to play Monopoly in a giant floating pyramid over the New York of the future. Nothing.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Does anyone know what women want? Women are Tramps...Part 2

When some people eat asparagus, their pee smells funny afterwards. When other people eat asparagus, their pee does not smell funny afterwards. There are two main hypotheses for this fascinating fact of human existence:

1. Some people have an enzyme in their bodies that breaks down molecules in the asparagus that makes their pee smell funny and other people do not; or

2. All people have the enzyme that makes their pee smell funny but only a certain percentage of people are able to perceive it.

(Grants for basic research of this type being severely limited, humanity may never know the answer.).

Now, my budding sexologists, we can develop homologous hypotheses for Chivers’ experimental results concerning the inaccuracy of her female subjects’ reporting of their level of arousal as compared to what the plesythmograph said:

1. Women are not aware of what their genitals are doing; or

2. Women are aware of what their genitals are doing, but they experience desire as a phenomenon distinct from (if related to) increased genital blood flow and swelling.

Given the complications of cultural myths about what is appropriate for women to want, the majority of women’s negative or fearful beliefs about their bodies in general and their hoo-hoo’s in particular, and a discourse of sexuality that centers around heterosexual complementarity and the penis, we’ll not likely figure anything dramatic out on this front either.

Chivers’ gives it a try. She cites a study that suggests men are more aware of physiological changes associated with emotion (e.g. increased heart rate) than are women and that men use those cues to assess and label their emotional states. The same study suggests that women are more likely to use situational cues to determine emotional response instead of being guided by interior phenomena. In the vernacular, women don’t know what they want until someone tells them or until they have time to sort out exterior stimuli and respond appropriately. Perhaps this is the origin of women’s polymorphous perversities—a general and flexible state of arousal which narrows to specific responses based on additional external cues.

This dovetails with yet another study I read but have forgotten where or by whom to the effect that little girls are more aware of subtle changes in the tone or the body language of their teachers than are little boys, creating a positive feedback loop with said teacher, which was suggested as yet another reason little girls consistently outperform little boys in school (even though little boys get called on more in class).

It makes sense to Chivers that there would be a “go-getter” sex and a “wait and see and figure stuff out” sex. If everyone were go-getting all the time, no one would be gotten and no genes get passed along, etc. Not surprisingly, her interpretation of this data recapitulates the nearly universal cultural myth of women as passive, intuitive, and receptive and men as aggressive, logical and grabby.

Our second hypothesis is then buttressed by our first, rather than being challenged by it. Women habitually formulate, cognitively, a thing called “desire” or “want,” that exists apart from, if related to, the swelling of their Gateways to Paradise. Chivers’ cites reports from rape victims who experienced genital arousal or in some cases orgasm during rapes. I think we can dismiss the possibility that women want to be raped, if only because rape is, by definition, unwanted. Add to that the trauma experienced by most rape victims well after the event and we can assume that, at least in this instance, genital arousal and the subjective experience of desire or want are two separate things. The body is smart; a woman whose genitals swell and dampen even under attack will likely suffer less physical injury than a woman whose genitals do not. Maybe that’s the reason for it.

Anyway, it’s time for a bit of Dr. Freud. According to Freudian theories, women are incapable of formulating desire because they lack phalluses (both the physical structure and the symbolic meaning attached to it). Women can “only” desire to be desired. Somehow desiring to be desired is less, uh, desirable than desiring a warm, wet place in which to place one’s phallus.

I prefer the Ruby Reformulation which is: because of their superior awareness of external stimuli and subtle gradations thereof, women are more capable than men of experiencing sexual desire (and even pleasure) associated with a dizzying array of activities, none of which require penetration, a penis or even genital stimulation. One of these is the pleasurable experience of being desired. Sometimes being watched is creepy (on a dark street); sometimes it is hot (across a crowded bar). In other words, maybe women don’t go and get because they’ve already gotten and their getting is different than men’s getting. Or they have gotten enough from that particular situation and easily move on to the next.

It is likely all animal societies, including human societies, have their bases in biological processes. However, the corollary to REPPFMIGFG is that human beings have been remarkably uncreative in organizing said societies and accompanying moralities. People don’t think or imagine enough; they let their bodies do the thinking for them. Massive doses of culture likely derived from biological propensities have hardened the dumb functions of the body into an organized, well-oiled social machine that everyone mistakes for truth.

In other words, please don’t mistake my fascination with science as biological determinism. Nothing could be further from the truth. To paraphrase Camille Paglia, whose thinking is hit or miss, but who can sure as hell turn a phrase, to be truly human, we must always fight against the fascism of Nature. Onward!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Women are tramps, but they won't admit it: Part 1

From Canada, of all places, comes the research of Meredith Chivers, a psychology professor at Queens University in Ontario. As reported in Daniel Bergner’s article in the New York Times, Chivers’ research suggests that women are aroused by more and different visual stimuli than are men. But when asked to self-report their level of arousal, the women in her experiments consistently get it wrong. Their heads and their vaginas don’t agree. The men, both gay and straight, seem much more aware of what their penises are telling them (or are less embarrassed about what’s being said).

Chivers hooked up a bunch of straight men, gay men, lesbian women and straight women to plethysmographs, devices that measure genital swelling and blood flow and which, under other circumstances, might make amusing sex toys. She showed her subjects film clips of same-sex couples having sex, opposite-sex couples having sex, a naked woman exercising vigorously and a flaccid, yet buff, guy walking down the beach. For reasons known only to her, she also showed each group a film of a male and a female bonobo chimpanzee having sex, with screeching and hooting dubbed in from the other chimp species. Apparently, the bonobos are quiet lovers.

Each set of men responded “categorically,” as Chivers calls it. Straight men were turned on any time they saw a woman. Gay men were turned on any time they saw a man. Neither group was turned on by the chimps. And, as stated, the men’s reports of their various levels of arousal matched, for experimental purposes, the data compiled by the plethysmograph.

The women, those tramps, got turned on by everything. Bergers reports Chivers’ report of “strong and swift” genital arousal at every pairing of humans and, to a lesser degree but still noticeable, to the chimp pornography. The women did not care for the naked buff guy, whose member flapped gently in the breeze as he strolled down the beach.

The most fascinating part: on the whole, the straight women’s reports of their levels of desire were completely wrong, as compared to the plethysmograph measurements. They reported “much more” arousal than their vaginas did while watching the opposite-sex couple do it and “much less” while watching two men do it. And, natch, while watching two chimps do it. Lesbians were better in tune with their hoo-hoo’s (or more honest); however, they too underreported arousal with respect to the chimps, as well as the two men and the heterosexual human coupling.

The rest of the Chivers section of Bergers’ article describes her blue-skying theories as to why these data might be true. She’s an intelligent woman and knows that at her experimental subjects’ ages (I assume they’re all at least 18 years old), the influences of genetics and culture are impossible to separate (if, indeed, they ever are). Working with what she has, though, she cites a study by a colleague at UC Davis finding that men with “higher sex drives” (it is not clear how or if this is measured or whether it is self-reporting) have more strongly polarized desire (i.e. men or women only) than other men, whereas women with strong libidos report less polarization than other women (i.e. men, women, chimpanzees, shoes(?)).

Chivers’ data support the cultural discourse of the fluid and still-mysterious female sexual desire, as well as ancient myths about goddesses devouring everything with their vaginas. Yummy! By extreme extrapolation, Chivers’ data can also lend some credence to the common evolutionary psychological assertion that men are “hunters”—their brains adapted to scan the visual field, pinpoint a precise stimulus and kill it or screw it—and that women are “gatherers”—brains adapted to scan the visual field with “softer” eyes and observe and respond to a wide range of subtler stimuli (e.g. this green plant is OK but this green plant, which looks a lot like the other one but it slightly different, will kill you).

If we posit the existence of Ruby’s Evolutionary Psych Pleasure Feedback Mechanism (Is Good, Feels Good) (REPPFMIGFG) in some form, we might safely assume that the wise human organism experiences pleasure in connection with those behaviors that are evolutionarily beneficial. I have read only one study (inevitably, I have forgotten where or when) that addressed the possibility of this pleasure mechanism. The researcher in question noted that, for example, not only are women more capable than men of distinguishing among 20 different shades of white, but that they enjoy sitting around with paint chips and discussing with their friends whether Winter White, Ecru, Antique Ivory, Modern Ivory, Butter Cream or Polar White would look best in the living room.

Anecdotal data from my life suggests that men do not derive any pleasure from this sort of activity. “They’re all white,” a male person was heard to say impatiently in my presence, “what’s the fuss?”

On the other side, the Great Lost Demographic for gaming is the demographic that buys the most other stuff: women from 18-45 or so. Game publishers and retailers dream of making video games women will buy in the quantities they buy everything else. I suspect this project is doomed through the operation of REPPFMIGFG. Males, as “hunters,” enjoy perceiving, focusing on and killing or otherwise interacting quickly with objects flying across the visual field. They will always be the most likely to buy games that mimic this behavior. Of interest here: women play massively-multiplayer-online-role-playing-games (MMORPGs) at about the same rate as men do; such games do involve shooting and killing and acting quickly in three-dimensional space, but they also require the establishment of relationships and, of greater interest to this subject—buying, selling and haggling.

Of course, it is difficult to know with any certainty what is actually happening when women get turned on by men, women and chimpanzees and impossible to answer “why.” Perhaps the REPPFMIGFG is operating underneath the surface, rewarding women for being able to respond and take pleasure from so responding to a wide range of stimuli, perhaps women are just big ole’ tramps.

Next up: Why They Won’t Admit It

Bonus Ruby Blue-Sky Hypothesis About Why Women Dig Musicians: It is possible that men who are musicians, poets, painters, possibly architects and other artsy types have more feminine brains. That is, these men presumably enjoy the relative valuation of and the practice of distinguishing among subtle differences among thousands of stimuli: the right word, the right shade of red, the right instrumentation, the right rhythm. These girlie men attend to the minutest pieces of information to achieve their masterpieces and, given that none of these are particularly certain or financially rewarding careers, we must assume they dig doing it. A woman’s mind in a man’s body. Perfect.