Thursday, January 14, 2016

To state the obvious ...

UPDATE: November 17, 2016. Someone has posted a whole bunch of ads for porn in the comments. As a consequence, I have turned comment moderation on. I don't join in the blanket condemnation of porn that many other Catholics do but I must say that it is a sign of something that so many people in that industry are vile creeps.

... I've been posting here less and less.

This blog helped me achieve exactly what I hoped it would achieve. It gave me a place where I could work out some thoughts in public. A place where I could just go ahead and say things I believed—even if it turned out that I later decided I didn't believe them anymore. Having served that purpose, I find I have less and less need for it.

I'm not going to close it down. I may still find things I want to post and I will do my best to respond to comments and criticisms. I am grateful to the many people who have come here and read my posts and especially to those who have commented and held me accountable by challenging me.

Thank you all and I hope and pray that 2016 is a better year for the world than 2015 was.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Dead Bowie

A Google search for "Bowie" and "reinvented" gets approximately 101,000 hits. I'm surprised it didn't get many more. It's the one thing everyone says about Bowie. So it must be true?

I was a huge fan of David Bowie in my teenage years and bought every one of his 1970s records. Actually, the first two that I was aware of—Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust—came out when I was 12- and 13-years old respectively and I had no money to buy them. I remember that he became a star and the record stores put all his records on racks at the store entrance. In those days I didn't have enough money to actually buy records so I used to go listen to them at the Ottawa Public Library. They had a music-listening section where you could request a record and they'd give you headphones and you'd sit at a table that had five jacks. The librarian would write what was playing on each of the five channels on a little blackboard and you'd plug into the appropriate jack to hear your selection.

And so I spent a good portion of the confusing years of adolescence listening to David Bowie records while doing my homework at the library. Bowie wasn't my absolute favourite. I much preferred the Doors and the Rolling Stones but Morrison was dead and Keith may as well have been by 1972. Bowie was still making records and I went to the store and bought them as soon as they came out, without even waiting to hear them. And I'd get them home and be disappointed. But I took that as a sign of their genius. Operating on the medicine theory of culture in those days—it has to taste bad to actually be good for you—I worked and worked to enjoy them. And I always managed to right up until 1980, by which time I was in university, when I brought Scary Monsters and Super Creeps home and tried very hard to like it but found it empty and shallow and no amount of trying could change that.

Bowie was a charlatan. That's not an original observation. A Google search for "Bowie" and "charlatan" gets only a slightly smaller number of hits than "Bowie" and "reinvented". He never actually reinvented himself, he just repackaged the same folk-rock music in increasingly exotic trappings all his life. To the very limited extent that he managed to produce blue-eyed soul, electronic and ambient music, he did so by bringing in high-priced help to make the sound credible.

When you enter "Bowie" in the search line at You Tube right now, the top option autofill gives you is Kooks. He wrote the song shortly after his first child was born. He was, he later told an interviewer, sitting at home listening to Neil Young. It's a cute song very much in a Neil Young style. It's not worth listening to but here are some of the lyrics to give you a notion of the kind of thoughts he had when his son was born.
We bought a lot of things
to keep you warm and dry
And a funny old crib on which the paint won't dry
I bought you a pair of shoes
A trumpet you can blow
And a book of rules
On what to say to people
when they pick on you
'Cause if you stay with us you're gonna be pretty Kookie too
Well, another reason they might pick on him was because Bowie named the poor boy Zowie Bowie. It's worth noting that even at the time he was writing this, in some ways charming, song to his son, Bowie was also calculating how he could get the maximal promotional value out of the child.

His next record, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, seemed like a radical departure. Seemingly all glam rock, if you listen to it carefully, you can hear it's just folk rock with some, for the time, weird trappings. At base, though, these are acoustic-guitar-driven singer songwriter tunes.

Take out the references to "electric eyes" and "ray guns" and you're left with what may as well be a lost Neil Young song.

Here's how "Kooks" ends:
And if the homework brings you down
Then we'll throw it on the fire
And take the car downtown
This was music for a generation that didn't want to grow up. Bowie wrote songs about kids who wanted to hide out in science fiction rather than face reality and he pretended to be gay while doing it. If you felt like an outsider in high school because of the weird new feelings that adolescent sexuality was giving you, David Bowie was your man. And if you were a typical high school kid, it probably never occurred to you that every other young teen in history had struggled with exactly the same issues. Bowie told you that your time and your struggles were unique. No one else had ever had to face anything like it.

The popular term for that attitude is "narcissism" but it isn't really. Self-absorption is probably a better term as there is no pathology related to it and, this is really important, no real shame in being a teenager who imagines his rather mundane struggles in heroic terms.

What is weird, and genuinely pathological, is to still be doing it in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. And here what ought to trouble us is not Bowie himself (as a rockstar he lived his entire life in a fantasy world) but the rest of us.

Just this morning an adult self-righteously shared this image of Facebook:

Only a few hours earlier, the same adult was wallowing in self-hatred.

But this person is hardly unique. Every day, you meet people just like this person. I wonder what is missing from their lives? Here's another image that showed up in my Facebook feed this morning.

Do yourself a big favour, grow up and stop listening to kiddie music.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Dismissive arguments and anecdotes

Carrying on with a theme I picked up yesterday: it's often very useful to be able to see magnified versions of your own faults in others.

For the past few years, I've been involved in a project that requires me to deal with a guy who does something I know I also do but he does it to such a degree that the problems with this trait become painful to behold. The trait I'm speaking of here is the dismissive argument or anecdote. This is a tactic not to respond to something but rather to get it off the table as fast as possible. It comes across as aggressive when you're on the receiving end but it's really rooted in weakness.

It really jumped out when, in a lull between more serious work we had to do, Victor Frankl came up. There were four of us sitting around just chatting and someone, not me, brought Frankl up. And this guy, I'll call him Joe, suddenly cut the conversation off and summarily condemned Frankl and then started talking about something else. I tried, because I felt for the poor guy who had originally raised the issue, to gently suggest that there might be more to Frankl than Joe was allowing. Joe then cut the discussion off even more aggressively.

It was all pretty pathetic and wouldn't be worth discussing except that we all do this. Most of us are better at it than Joe. We have the good sense to hide our insecurity and poor Joe doesn't. Frankl has an obvious moral authority because of his life story. That's Joe's problem. There is something, we'll never find out, that Frankl said that Joe finds very threatening. Anytime Frankl comes up, Joe needs to head the conversation off because it just might come up.

Joe used an argument, he seems to believe that Frankl's views are selfish and completely lacking in compassion. But he wasn't interested in putting for evidence to back up his claims. Other times people use dismissive anecdotes. The other gay, a guy I interact with on Facebook wrote, "I knew some libertarians back in university; they'e all jerks." Again, there is no intent to actually discuss the issue with you; the point is to get the issue off the table as quickly as possible.

So, when do we do this? We're not, as I say above, as obviously insecure as Joe above but we do do it. Identifying my own bad habits, my own dismissive arguments, would be a useful thing to do.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The precocious child inside me

One of the fascinating things about being back at school (I'm a complete beginner again, studying theology at the undergrad level) is seeing my own traits in others. Sometimes I see people much younger than me doing things that make me cringe and a big part of what makes me cringe is that they remind me of what I was like at their age.

And maybe more so because I can see that I haven't entirely shaken the bad traits I see.

One of these is being precocious in classroom discussion. People straight out of high school do this. They want to do well on the "class participation" portion of their final mark. But that's only part of it. This behaviour is driven by a fear of being tested. You can see, watching them, that they are desperate to establish that they are so good that the essay or the exam would be superfluous. It is so painfully obvious that they are doing this that the professors have attempted to counter this. They have made class participation worth only ten percent. Furthermore, they are careful to explain at the start of each session that all you need to do to get the ten percent is to show up at every class. As a matter of pure logic, that should be enough to discourage the behaviour but it doesn't. And it's painful to watch.

Why do they keep doing it? And why do we never grow out of this trait? I think I've gotten more subtle about how I do it but I still catch myself doing it. I find myself preparing to respond to something and realize that what I am about to say will add nothing worthwhile to the discussion. It's just me showing off. I notice it especially when what I am about to say is a digression.

Part of the answer is that conversation is often an avoidance tactic. It's a good thing that it is. We sometimes talk rather than physically assaulting one another. We sometimes talk instead of leaving. We often talk as a way to avoid being tested.

That, I think, is the important lesson. Succeeding at life is a matter of being tested. Over and over again we are tested. Sometimes we fail and sometimes we succeed but we are always tested. You cannot avoid the testing. You need to embrace it and be ready for it. The whole point of taking a course is the test. You should be preparing for it from the first class. Don't avoid tests, push yourself into them.

Monday, December 21, 2015

What is this image selling?

It wouldn't do to have a lingerie ad at the top of the blog over Christmas, so let's consider this image.

I'm guessing that's New York City and that it was taken by a highly skilled photographer, probably a professional. Someone, somewhere, probably owns the rights to this. It showed up in my Facebook feed courtesy of a group called Do Something. Perhaps it is their photo. More than 29 thousand people had liked it by the time it showed up in my feed.

It's nicely composed. Most of us, I know I would, would try to compose the picture so as not to have the reflection of the city and the passing person in the shot. The genius of this shot is that this person is in and that they are anonymous. You can tell nothing about them.

But what is it selling? Normally, I'd be cynical. As near as I can tell, Do Something are the business of helping people to feel morally superior without doing much to earn it. But there are hidden depths here.

Let's start with the Gospel.
Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink. And when was it that we saw a stranger and welcomed you, or naked an gave you clothing. And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you? Matthew 25: 37-39)
As one of my favourite Dominicans likes to remind us, this teaching precludes all instrumentality. The people whom the King welcomes into his kingdom are just as surprised to be included as the people whom he will later reject are surprised to learn that they rejected him. That means that you can't know who to befriend if you want to befriend Jesus. It may seem perfectly obvious that the starving kid in Africa is  the person you should comfort but perhaps it's actually comfortably well-off co-worker you don't much like who is having a bad day for reasons you believe are entirely his fault. That means, as the Gospel so often reminds us, that you can't earn your way into heaven.

So what can you do?

I'd start by going back to that photo and quibbling about the word. Character is not a way of acting but a way of being. How you treat those who can do nothing for you is a sign of character; it is a marker for character. But it is not character. Character is something you are. Or, to be more honest, it is something I am trying to become.

You can't treat others well in order to be a become a better person. If you try that, you will be used, exploited and abandoned. No, to acquire character, you have to believe that you could be something better. And what that something is was revealed in its fullest character beginning some 2019 and years ago when a child was born.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

What is this image selling?

Well, lingerie obviously but it is rather interesting that it uses being the object of voyeurism as the hook. This from a Chantelle page that you can see here. Chantelle make very good lingerie (much better than anything you'll find at Victoria's Secret) at the price point that you should expect to go with very good.

The line of lingerie being pushed here is called Idole and, because it's black, this particular set is called Idole Noir. It's probably just an accident that "Noir' conjures up film noir but this image and the others in the series all fit that accidental conjunction terribly well. The girl herself is very white. Her lips are the only thing in the photograph that are neither black nor white. I can make it into a black and white image and it won't look jarringly different

I put it to you that the single most significant thing about that photo, and this is surprising, given that it is a lingerie ad, is that the most erotic thing in it is the woman's face. Her body is surprisingly normal with healthy body fact both on her stomach and on her face. But notice that neither her pubic hair not her nipples are showing and she is wearing sheer lace! In real life, both would show quite prominently through this underwear. The entire erotic interest is her face and what makes you interested in her, whether you are a man or a woman looking at her, is what this woman is feeling.

We cannot make any generalizations based on this. Chantelle obviously are very good at delivering what some women want. "Some" meaning enough for them to make a whole lot of money in a very competitive field. If we can draw one conclusion from ads like this with absolute confidence and that is that there are a lot of women who want feel the feeling the facial expression on the woman in the picture corresponds to. And I don't have to explain what that feeling is to you do I?

I'll tell you why I think neither pubic hair nor nipples ever show through sheer lingerie in ads. It's because the thing a woman wants to know about is not what it feels like to be seen in her underwear but what it feels like to be wearing this underwear under her clothing. It's not the creep who peers through windows that interests her but the men who look at her when she is fully clothed in public spaces. That is why the erotic interest is directed at her face. The value of the lingerie is not what it will look like when she is partly clothed but in what it can make her feel when she is fully clothed.

As I say, not all women want this. I suspect that most women don't. But enough do to make lingerie a multi-billion dollar industry and this ad is for those women.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Things to say "no" to: other people's feelings

I was discussing passive-aggressive behaviour yesterday and said that the way out of it was to be bluntly aggressive and say "no" more often. One of the big reasons we end up saying "yes" to things we don't want to do is because we worry about the effect it would have on other people's feelings if we refused.

Repeat after me: "I don't care about your feelings."

That may sound like the sort of thing a real jerk would say. It isn't. In any case, it rarely or never needs to be said out loud. It's useful to say to yourself though as it will help you keep focused on what you should be focused on. And that is actual behaviour. It's either acceptable or it isn't. Other people's feelings, on the other hand, are their responsibility alone.

They tell you about their feelings for a number of bad reasons. They tell you because the advice columns tell them not to criticize others' actions but instead tell people how they feel about them. "When you do X it mades me feel ... ." Why is that wrong? It's wrong for two reasons. It's wrong because talking about your feelings will lead others to take you less seriously. If they agree to stop doing X because of your feelings they will begin to see you as a tender little flower who needs to be protected. It's also wrong because there is no necessary connection between a particular feeling and the actions it is responding to. Or, to put it another way, "I feel threatened" does not mean "you threatened me". I might simply be over-reacting.