Monday, December 31, 2012


Whenever anything good gets trendy with public intellectuals I get worried. Lately forgiveness has become a big thing and, in their usual fashion, the sort of people who write "think pieces" for the press have made what seemed like a pretty straightforward good seem quite dubious. I haven't a lot of say about the subject just yet, except that it troubles me a whole lot that I keep reading about forgiveness being something good for the person forgiving as opposed to the one who needs to be forgiven.

For now, I only recommend a good piece on the subject by Theodore Dalrymple, a teaser follows:
One would not expect a person who talks so much of forgiving herself to have anything valuable to say about forgiveness. She does not consider the possibility that incontinent forgiveness, deemed good in itself regardless of the act to be forgiven or the attitude of the person to be forgiven, means that no human behavior is beyond the pale, that nothing is unforgivable. This is to turn forgiveness into a kind of inalienable human right of the wrongdoer (a profoundly un-Christian view, incidentally).

Friday, December 28, 2012

A little light culture: A few words in favour of traditional dating culture

Over at a site called Thought Catalogue, a writer who signs herself Megan Boyle has made a list of all the people she had sex with. If you read the whole thing, you'll quickly notice certain patterns begin to emerge.

Here, for example, are some key lines from her descriptions of her first five ten lovers:

  1. "I was convinced that this ruined my life for awhile, but I don’t feel that way anymore."
  2. "Never kissed me, unless I asked."
  3. "Sex was kind of routine, but okay, he was a mechanical kisser."
  4. "I had a big crush on him, but he didn’t want to date me."
  5. "We hooked up twice. We were really good friends. I wish we hooked up more. I wish we were still friends."
  6. "It only happened once. It wasn’t good."
  7. "Derek was Jess’ ex-boyfriend and one night we stayed up all night talking, I forget how that happened. ... It was dry and unmotivated, I remember thinking “why am I even doing this?”
  8. "It was really good, I was very attracted to him and he was a great kisser. I had a big crush on him that didn’t go away for awhile."
  9. " I was drunk and I didn’t want to and I think I started crying and made him stop."
  10. "He was persistent and I think I was really bored the whole time."
This is a real train-wreck of a life that Megan has going. The obvious question is what is wrong?
Before getting to that, though, we need to discuss what isn't going wrong, that is to say the things here that might appear like alarm bells that aren't.
  • I don't think, for example, the fact that some of her early sexual experiences were disasters is a problem. This is pretty normal and I suspect most women (and men) have at least one truly horrible, pride-destroying encounter in the past.
  • It is also not significant that two of her lovers, such as #5 above, are other women. (She also admits to two others but doesn't seem to think they really count.) Again, this is probably normal. It's not something most women are going to be inclined to talk about, first of all because they are ashamed and second of all because guys would get cheap thrills from hearing about it. My experience, however, is that a lot of the women I have gotten to know really well have, like Megan, confessed to such a thing and I suspect that the the ones who haven't are probably just being discreet. Furthermore, while we don't talk about these things, it's pretty obvious that our culture long ago accepted that this is a pretty normal part of a girl's sexual development and accommodated itself to it.*
  • I also don't think we should read too much into the crude betrayals or lack of concern for the greater impact of her sexual choices (such as having sex with her friend's ex-boyfriend or her ex-boyfriend's two brothers) that Megan reports. It's obviously a problem that she does these things and seems to do them over and over but they are a symptom of a disease rather than the disease itself.
  • I also don't think it's a problem that Megan's most satisfying sexual experiences have clearly been with men who pushed her to do things she wasn't quite sure she wanted to do. She is, not surprisingly, in denial about this. I suspect an awful lot of women are like her. There is a life lesson for women here but I don't think that is the root cause of her problems.
We might get all macho, of course, and argue that the problem is that Megan just hasn't met a good lover. That isn't completely crazy as we all tend to learn more from our successes than our failures and you have a big problem if you don't have any successes. But Megan has had good lovers. The problem is that she hasn't managed to have a satisfactory relationship outside of sex with them.

There, I think, we have the relevant symptom. And we can begin to see where those women who defend traditional dating culture have a point. Look at some selected lines from her descriptions of some more of her lovers and I think you'll see the problem:
  • "Then I thought I was in love with him and we had sex one night. He gave me an orgasm. Then I told him I was in love with him and he rejected me."
  • "I broke up with him and treated him poorly towards the end, then immediately regretted it and drunk dialed him a lot. I regret a lot with him. We met at the wrong time."
  • "We sometimes had ‘dates,’ which were confusing. I was never sure if they were dates or we were just hanging out, but 97% of the time they would end in sex."
  • "We had a lot of fun together, he would make me breakfast and dinner and liked to be sung to. It felt like a relationship but it wasn’t. I wanted it to be, so I ended it."
  • "He mumbled a lot and didn’t make eye contact. I tried to get him to leave for about two hours and he finally did at four in the morning. Never responded to his text messages or calls after that."
  • "I was the aggressor. I wanted to date him. We had sex maybe twice, but a lot of nights we would make out or I would blow him and he would tell me to go to sleep. ... He never went down on me."
  • "He only mentioned to me once that he had a girlfriend, and it was to tell me that they broke up, but I inferred that it was probably a more ‘complicated’ situation than that. We hung out and hooked up a few times this summer, but I wasn’t sure if it was a ‘just sex’ thing and honestly I’m tired and bored of wondering this all of the time with guys, so I wasn’t motivated to find out what he thought." 
The thing that really jumps out at you isn't so much the life lessons to be taken from these experiences but Megan's stunning inability to take them. It doesn't help to be really "savvy" and experienced about sex if you don't have a clue about basic relationships. Getting to the sex before you have the other stuff worked out is the problem. What women like Megan need is a return to traditional dating.

I mention above that it is women who defend traditional dating culture and that is important. Men, for the most part, don't have any brief for traditional dating culture because we don't tend to think there is anything in it for us. It's a feminist issue.

That is a jarring notion and I doubt many feminists see it that way but it is.

The second problem here is one of a lack of self respect. I said that I thought the horrible experiences Megan describes here are pretty normal and I don't think these are a product of the sexual revolution of the hook up culture. In the first ten lovers listed above, there are three guys whom she ends up having sex with even though she doesn't want to.

What is new is not that these sort of things should happen to women—bad things happen to everyone—but that we live in a  culture where no alternative exists, a culture where a "date" means, "We'll hang out a bit and then we'll go back to your place and you can blow me and I won't reciprocate and I'll tell you to go to sleep so you'll stop bothering me afterwards". And when he does this over and over again, the only response Megan has is to consider it "confusing" as opposed to what it really is which is abusive and manipulative.

This also should be a feminist issue but it isn't for this isn't date rape. The problem here isn't guys who didn't understand the meaning of "no" but of guys who were never told "no"**. Megan needs a sense of self worth that will enable her to grasp that she is too good for a guy who doesn't want to kiss her. If you have to ask a guy to kiss you, he shouldn't be taking your clothes off.

In her notes at the bottom of the piece, Megan notes that her oral sex giving-to-receiving ration is 9:3. Actually, it's worse than that as she seems to acknowledge other men whom she gave completely un-reciprocated oral sex to that she doesn't think count as people she had sex with. Again, I can see how a girl might do this once or twice just to get the experience. (I use the term "girl"rather than "woman"  intentionally.) What is missing is any learning process leading her to realize that what she has is too precious to keep doling it out.

Related to that, persistence sure works with Megan. Keep pushing and you'll get her even if you are an obvious creep such as the guy who wouldn't kiss her, or the guy who wouldn't/couldn't make eye contact, or the guy who followed her home the night she didn't want to have sex but she let him anyway. A little of what used to be called "playing hard to get" and what would more accurately be called "holding out for what you are worth" would go a long way here.

When you do the math, she has had these twenty-three partners (plus some "don't counts") in 60 months, or five years. But don't write her off because she is exceptional or because you think she is a slut. There are lots of women like her and anyone who went to college anytime in the last four decades has seen women like her.

And I'm quite sure she isn't a slut. To be honest, I think she'd be happier if she were a slut because a slut would hold out for better sex than Megan has gotten. She's just a lost and confused little girl living in a culture where the game is all rigged against her. The people who rigged it meant well but it didn't work out.

* As incorrect as it is to point this out, it's also obvious that our culture does not think this is okay for boys (although it obviously happens sometimes anyway). Our culture not only ignores situations where there is a serious risk of sex between adolescent girls and young women, it actively creates such opportunities and we just don't do that for boys.

** Feminists do recognize this on some level and you can see this in amount effort to make all sorts of things that are not "no" count as the same as if the woman had said "no". This, not surprisingly, has led to incredible abuse beginning with the ongoing fantasy of pretending that college campuses are rape factories where more women are supposedly raped than we find in the most crime-ridden  neighbourhoods. What feminists fail to note or appreciate is that our culture has put women, especially women at universities, in a position where they have to explain and justify their "no" instead of simply stating it. The problem is not that men fail to understand no but rather that every "no" gets greeted with an actual or implied "why not?" as the burden of proof has been shifted to women. You can see this in Megan above who reports finding herself in the middle of sex before it occurs to her to ask "Why am I doing this?" Women were better off when the default position was "no" such that both the man asking for a  "yes" and the woman who might grant it would have to justify that answer to themselves and to one another.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Friendship, sex and morality addendum

 By the way, anyone who reads the "science" article I linked to in my earlier post will notice I ignored one major conclusion:
Men were much more attracted to their female friends than vice versa. Men were also more likely than women to think that their opposite-sex friends were attracted to them—a clearly misguided belief. In fact, men’s estimates of how attractive they were to their female friends had virtually nothing to do with how these women actually felt, and almost everything to do with how the men themselves felt—basically, males assumed that any romantic attraction they experienced was mutual, and were blind to the actual level of romantic interest felt by their female friends.
I ignored that mostly because I think this "science" is bogus junk science, as is pretty clear if you note the sarcasm in the original post. Above and beyond that, I'd like to remind you of a bit of genuine science wherein men and women were hooked up to sensors that measured their level of sexual arousal and shown sexual images. At the same time, they were given pads where they were asked to record their subjective feelings of arousal to see how these corresponded with the objective readings. Then men's objective and subjective responses corresponded very closely.
All was different with the women. No matter what their self-proclaimed sexual orientation, they showed, on the whole, strong and swift genital arousal when the screen offered men with men, women with women and women with men. They responded objectively much more to the exercising woman than to the strolling man, and their blood flow rose quickly — and markedly, though to a lesser degree than during all the human scenes except the footage of the ambling, strapping man — as they watched the apes. And with the women, especially the straight women, mind and genitals seemed scarcely to belong to the same person.
Mind and genitals scarcely seemed to belong to the same person! Remember that any time you hear or read reports of what women say they are or are not aroused by. Live long enough and you will eventually get bored of stories of women having affairs with people they insisted they weren't attracted to. I know it's not nice to keep pointing it out (as I do) but women are often very poor judges of what does or does not turn them on.

Friendship, sex and morality

"Science" is at it again, telling us things we should have been able to guess without being told:
New research suggests that there may be some truth to this possibility—that we may think we’re capable of being “just friends” with members of the opposite sex, but the opportunity (or perceived opportunity) for “romance” is often lurking just around the corner, waiting to pounce at the most inopportune moment.
This from an article entitled "Men and Women Can't Be 'Just Friends'".

The thing we should notice right away is how morally evasive the language is in that quote. The "opportunity" is lurking? This as if an opportunity for "romance" is something that happens to you, as if "opportunity" was an intentional, willful being waiting to trip you up, as opposed to, for example, something you yourself might be held accountable for.

Again and again we're told that sexuality is a major part of our personality and yet again and again we read articles that treat the practical consequences of this as if they were unexpected discoveries. Heterosexual men are attracted to women. We are attracted to all desirable women. And heterosexual women are attracted to all desirable men plus they have the added complication of sometimes being attracted to other women in a way that heterosexual men are not attracted to other men. There are no exceptions. It doesn't matter that the person in question is someone you are not supposed to be attracted to—that she is just a  friend, that he is your best friend's boyfriend, that she is your niece, that he is your son—the attraction is there and it is real.

There are powerful social taboos in place to help keep these things from getting out of hand but don't kid yourself, take them away and all hell would break loose.

And it is important to remember that the more you care about a person, the stronger the erotic pull will become. Remember the old line about the girl who has personality? Well, it's true. Years ago I read an interview with a photographer named Peter Gowland, who was famous for what used to be known as "glamour" photography. He said he made a point of evaluating a model before he got to know her because personality was so powerful that it blurred his ability to judge whether a woman was "objectively" beautiful. And it's just as true in your life—the very things that make friendship better make the sexual attraction stronger.

We comfort ourselves with the notion that sex is a purely physical thing and that the intellectual and spiritual aspects of friendship are something else. The truth is that these things make us more attracted to one another. Any real friendship between a man and a woman will increase the sexual attraction between them.

You wouldn't guess this following the culture because Hollywood treats the intellectual and spiritual as the opposite of erotic but watch carefully the next time you see two people fall in love and you will see that it is just these things that make the erotic possible. But in real life a relationship based on shared interests has more real erotic power. Any time your lover tells you that he or she spends time with another person because they can really talk, you need to worry.

Religious moralists make the same mistake from the other end of the telescope. They worry that fantasy sex is the enemy of erotic love, failing to see that fantasy sex only works because it systematically excludes the possibility of a real relationship. It's the real relationship that we need to be careful about. If your wife helps herself reach orgasm by imagining she is chained to the wall of a dungeon while men in leather masks have their way with her then you have nothing to worry about and she has nothing to feel guilty about. If, on the other hand, she sits on the couch and moons about how her work partner Joe, if she wishes he was there so she could really talk about things, then you both have a problem that needs to be fixed right away.

I started off by saying that science was merely telling us something we all already knew and that is what should comfort us. Our sexuality really is omnipresent and we are, or should be anyway, comfortable with dealing with the consequences of this. Romance and sex aren't opportunities that lurk around the corner; they are choices we make. You can make them consciously or you can drift into them. You can allow a friendship to just develop and suddenly find yourself kissing the person and wonder how things got this far. This happens all the time.

Or you can choose to be consciously aware of what you are doing and develop the sorts of habits and and practices that will ensure such a thing doesn't happen.

The odd thing is that the better not provoking erotic love when it is morally required that you should not, the better you will be at making it happen when you really want to.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Feast of Stephen and universalism

If you worship at the North Pole or the shopping mall, the Feast of Stephen might be a bit of a mystery to you. In popular culture it gets a brief mention at the start of the Christmas carol "Good King Wenceslas"
Good King Wenceslas looked out,
on the Feast of Stephen
If you wonder enough to look it up, you'll find that means December 26.

Even good Bible-believing Christians don't spend a lot of time thinking about Stephen. For most he shows up as a footnote in the story of Paul.  In Acts, we learn that Paul, still called Saul at this point, approves of the stoning of Stephen. The way the story gets spelled out, that tends to become the proof that Paul/Saul really was a bad guy before becoming Paul the Apostle, who is a certified good guy.

But what of Stephen himself who was stoned to death?

We were discussing mental illness and suicide here the other day in the comments. The popular view that all suicides are mentally ill came up. It is a view without much evidence to back it up. There are, of course, suicides who suffer from mental illness such as depression or bipolar syndrome. There are many more people, however, who show no signs of mental illness and commit suicide. In fact, the majority of suicides show no signs of mental illness before killing themselves.

The popular retort to that, which I heard for the first time way back in Grade 6, is that only someone who was mentally ill would commit suicide and that, therefore, the suicide itself was all the proof we need. You can't argue with someone who pushes that kind of circular logic. That said, a few reminders are due.

The first is to point out that the argument really is circular and, therefore, invalid. The claim is that suicide is the result of mental illness and the proof that suicides were mentally ill is that they committed suicide. This is no argument at all. People who make this claim are really only saying that they really, really want to believe that all suicides are the result of mental illness.

From that flows the second reminder. For if we ask ourselves, "Why are they so determined to believe this?"  the answer is pretty clear. Everyone can see that suicide is an awful thing. To kill yourself because you see no hope is the ultimate sin of despair. Thus the desperate need to believe that the people who do this are mentally ill. And if there is no outward evidence of mental illness, they'll invent it claiming that there must have been something, perhaps only a temporary bout of it at the moment of suicide.

What is happening here is a desire to avoid the existence of real moral evil in ourselves. These days we have no trouble imagining real moral evil in those with who we disagree politically. My friends and family bombarded Facebook with moral denunciations of Wayne Lapierre in the days leading up to Christmas. To read what they wrote you would think that Lapierre was like Hitler. But that there is real moral evil in anyone else outside these cartoonish effigies (Lapierre the man bears no resemblance at all to the straw man all my friends and family hate with such passion) is something no one wants to face.

And it is telling that we describe Hitler as a "madman" after all—evil that needs to be diagnosed isn't really evil.

That belief, that real people aren't really evil, is called universalism. It comes out in the claim that perhaps no one is in hell or that we can at least hope that no one is there but it is really rooted in a deep fear of confronting evil in our own hearts. The need to have cartoonish effigies to hate goes hand in hand with this fear.

It's worth considering, in that regard, that the Church makes a point of remembering Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on the day immediately following the day it celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus. The people who stoned Stephen to death were scared of him because of what he believed.

And they stoned him. In the modern world we have sanitized the death penalty. Whether we approve of or reject capital punishment, we see it simply as a matter of whether a person deserves death for what he has done. For most of human history, simply being killed would have been seen as getting off easy. Punishments like stoning and crucifixion were not meant merely to kill the person. They were meant to humiliate and destroy him, to quite literally dehumanize him, in front of others. That is still the way it is done in large parts of, for example, the Muslim world.

The point of making the death as horrible as possible was to win the moral battle and not just to kill one person. It was to create a horrible moral drama that would put the person killed even further into the wrong as you killed him. When the Elizabethan English killed Catholics, for example, they would slowly strangle them on a rope until they were just short of death and then pull them down and do further cruel things to them such as disembowelment. They sought to destroy all hope in the mind of the person they were killing, as well as in any of his supporters who might be watching.

(It's worth noting, by the way, that no human instinct more closely related to this than the hatred of Lapierre that swamped Twitter last week.)

Is there a hell and are there people in it? Well, if it was up to human beings, the answer is "yes". We've made it and we have put people through it. But would God do this? For all eternity?

It seems to me that it is enough to know that I might end up there and that the only thing standing between me and the gates of hell is God. I don't have an argument for that. It is what I want to believe.

In any case, we celebrate today, the death of a man whose killers did everything they could to send him to hell.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A little light culture: from our department of fearless predictions

The new film of The Great Gatsby, due out this summer unless it gets delayed once again, is going to be awful. There are just too many obstacles.
  • Novels make bad movies. The genre calls for a TV series.
  • Gatsby is particularly resistant to filming as it relies heavily on description and, while that might seem like a natural for a movie, turning descriptions into films never works.
  • Baz Luhrmann is directing and he is a bombastic fraud who makes everything he touches into the worst sort of sentimental tripe. He embodies flaws even worse than those Fitzgerald saw in 1920s New York.
  • What you can hear of the soundtrack in the preview is enough to make you throw up.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The new champion

For a long, long time, the most popular post I had ever written was a write up on an episode of Mad Men called "The Summer Man". It won't keep that status for much longer though. Another post I wrote responding to a silly attitude towards social security has been steadily gaining on it and will pass it to become number one on the hit parade sometime today.

By the way, the blog periodically passes thresholds that cause search engines and blog monitoring sites to pay more attention. I have never, as I've said before done a single thing to promote this blog. I just wrote it and people found it and the number of people who read it has steadily increased. It's still small beer and I rather like that. That said, it's going to cross into a higher bracket real soon and that will bring all sorts of attention, most of it probably unwelcome. Note to readers: we can expect a lot more trolls in the new year.

Manly Thors Day Special: Not about Newtown

Regular readers will have noticed that the names "Newtown" and "Sandy Hook" have not appeared here. Except for this brief mention, I don't plan to bring them up. I would judge that as of today we do not have nearly enough information about what happened, how it happened or why it happened to even begin to reach conclusions let alone create policy.

And yet, conclusions have been reached and policies proposed. Never in my lifetime has so much logic- and fact-free argument been produced so quickly and propagated so much as has happened since last Friday. The president himself was saying there are things we "have" to do within hours of the event. And by some bizarre coincidence, the things that suddenly became important to do after the event turned out to be precisely the things he and his party wanted to do before the event.

Considering not the event, but the reaction to it, I thought of a Dostoevsky quote I saw quoted on another site.
But let me tell you, the whole trouble stems from immaturity and sentimentality! It’s not the practical aspects of socialism that fascinate him, but its emotional appeal – its idealism –what we may call its mystical, religious aspect – its romanticism…and on top of that, he just parrots other people.
We might get hung up on the word "socialism" here but you can take it out and plug in "liberalism" or "progressivism" or even "conservatism" in its place.

I'm sorry to have to report that the article at the other site where I saw the quote went on to exemplify perfectly all the things that Dostoevsky singles out in that quote. This, in any case, is not an argument about left versus right. There are good, solid arguments for being on both sides. The problem is that we don't hear them because an entire generation of men have grown up like Pyotr Verkhovensky, who is described in the quote above. Men who have grown up immature and sentimental. Men who love to wrap their silly little views, which they just parrot from others in the first place, in romantic robes as if they were fighting racism or really doing something about the gap between the rich and the poor.

Well, not actually doing anything themselves you understand but running around repeating and retweeting things that they first heard others say or tweet. And getting increasingly angry and contemptuous of all and any opposing views as they did so.

You really don't want to be like that.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Wednesday Talkie: Before Sunrise

I think the film noir well is getting pretty dry so I thought I'd switch to another genre. Talkie, of course, originally meant a movie with synchronized sound. But no one ever called them "soundies"! Very quickly, the early sound pictures became feasts of talk.

In a sense, this is trivial. Nothing should be less surprising that human beings would respond to an art form that included talk. It is similarly unsurprising that one of the very first things people did after the invention of photography was to take pictures of naked women. Talk is as fundamental to human beings as the winning photographs in a competition featuring Aubade lingerie. Everybody responds to this, even the people who claim they hate the stuff.

Okay, but what specifically do I mean by "talkie"? Well, this line from Wikipedia accidentally captures all the elements:
A Summer's Tale (1996) has most of the elements of a typical Rohmer film: no soundtrack music, no closeups, a seaside resort, long conversations between beautiful young people (who are middle class and educated) and discussions involving the characters' interests from songwriting to ethnology.
Some elaboration:
  1. There are talkies with soundtrack music, most infamously Paris, Texas, but I think that movie proves the point. The soundtrack is beautiful but it doesn't fit. It would have been a much better music without it.
  2. These movies use self-conscious cinematic techniques in a minimal way for exactly the same reason they use minimal soundtrack music. Everything important has to be accomplished with talk. They are the opposite of the artfilm style. If you really like the movies I call talkies, you're probably underwhelmed by Citizen Kane.
  3. These things need a beautiful setting but they also need a setting where people are thrown together in unusual ways. People summering at the seashore, people escaping the war in Casablanca, people arriving at a country house unaware who the other guests will be, travelers meeting on a train.
  4. Beautiful young people is another way of saying these movies depend absolutely on the possibility of sex and love. My Dinner With André* is not a talkie even though it consists of almost nothing but talk.
  5. These are movies about starting conversations with people you don't know. The only way you can do this is by discussing stuff and hoping they like the stuff you talk about.
And then there is the big question, what do people do when they talk? I can't answer that but most people can understand why the idea of "just being able to talk" is so seductive. I think most people will remember, assuming they are not still living it, that moment of adolescence when they thought, "Wouldn't it be nice to just cut past the bullshit and really talk to one another." People usually think this when they get a crush on someone and wish they didn't have to live with the uncertainty. They want to go straight  past the conventions and say something like, "I really like you, any chance we could get to know one another?"

Except, not really. The problem with saying something like that is that the girl might say, "Get away creep?" Or, if you are a girl, the guy might laugh at you and then text his girlfriend saying, "Guess who just offered herself to me?"

The talkie is a genre because a series of artificial elements all fit together in a way that feels comfortable and natural even though it isn't like real life. Just as we willing surrender our disbelief and cheerfully prepare to go along for the ride when the cowboy rides out into the frame, so too when the man or woman in a transitory setting strikes up a conversation. The unusual location means that you can have conversations you wouldn't normally have. The lack of or minimal soundtrack and cinematic techniques means that the thing to be accomplished has to succeed or fail by means of conversation. The lack of existing social ties between the principals means that the conversation has to take off in quirky ways. (And this is the major stumbling point for people who hate the genre.)

A digression, sometimes Apple is sooo stupid. The latest version of iTunes won't let you do screen captures from movies you are watching.

Anyway, I got started on this because I rented Before Sunrise, a movie that came out the year I was married so I didn't see it for the simple reason that I did not need any outside help with romance. Two people meet on a train and talk. Trains are good. Trains are the opiate of college-educated white people. Trains make very little sense in the modern world but we love them. Cities all over North America are headed for bankruptcy because college educated white people want them to have light rail transit systems that don't even begin to make sense.

Our hero and heroine don't just meet on a train, they keep getting getting on trains and streetcars all through the movie.

But let's back up. These movies work a little like porn. You've daydreamed about sex right? In your daydream, the sex always happens. That makes it very different from real life. Look, you could be sitting in a café and thinking about having sex with that person right over there and thinking it would be really nice but you only do this because you are reasonably confident that life won't call your bluff. If she or he walked over and said, "This might sound strange, but I really want to have sex with you," you'd most likely balk.

Those social conventions and all that seemingly endless manœuvering that has to happen before you can begin to really talk that just seemed like "bullshit" when we were adolescents is actually really important. Take it away and we get really nervous and with good reason.

Everyone whose ever gotten on a train alone has looked at other passengers and thought about striking up a conversation with them. But no matter how much you want it, you wouldn't do it if it moved too quickly. You have no idea who this person is and they might be a crashing bore or crazy or creepy or be married or ...

There is a fantasy element here.

One of the things that makes possible is the Nabokov gambit. I refer here to an incredible (literally) moment in Lolita where the protagonist is about to exposed only the woman who might expose him is hit and killed by a car just in time to save him. This should be a moment of complete narrative failure causing us to close the book and think, "I'll read some trashy murder mystery instead". And you might actually do that. That is exactly what I did the first time I tried to read Lolita.

But if you don't do that, Nabokov has got you. When you hit that moment that is too too much but decide to go on anyway, you commit yourself. You agree to actively make efforts to make this work.

This is how women agree to help with their own seduction. It's why actually asking her on a date or asking her to come up to your room afterwards is so imprtant. At neither stage does she agree to sex but she does make it a little bit harder to back out.

The moment in this movie is when the guy who has been talking to the girl on the train comes back to her and asks her to get off and spend time with him in Vienna. It's not credible and couldn't not be credible in a million years but if you go along with it you are committed to making the story work.

Ironically, because there is so much willful fantasy with a certain porn-like quality in talkies, it is very important they have no sex scenes. There can be sex but portraying it destroys the thing because the movie is about anticipation.

The other thing about these movies is that they are more sensitive to spoilers than any other genre. There are certain details that would ruin it forever. So I won't. Before Sunset isn't great but it's pretty darn good.

* I think I will have to cover My Dinner With André at some point, though, because understanding why that film fails goes a long way to explaining what it takes to succeed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

She said she'd never been in trouble or even in town ...

I've never known a woman who didn't hate this song. Pop this on the sound system and the woman with you will give you a look chillier than liquid nitrogen.

I understand completely. If I were a woman I'd hate it too.

But the thing is, I love it. I even lived it back in 1990* and not only never regretted it, have come to see it as the single smartest thing I ever did in my life.

* Just so there is no misunderstanding, the younger girl in question was older than twenty at the time.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Another image: What is it selling?

Here is an ad that popped up on a site I was reading this morning:

My first thought was, "If she is one of the dangers then I, for one, welcome our new female overlords".

The more profound question is, "Why use an image of a sexually aroused woman to get men to watch a video about something that is supposedly a threat to them?" It's not just that she is hot. The primary thing is that that expression screams surrender. If your dinner companion looks at you like that, you both know that she is yours for the taking.

That, by the way, is what the video the ad links to is selling: Buy our testosterone-boosting products and you can nail girls like her. That's a bit of a letdown isn't it?

She's faking the look. The giveaway is that her pupils are tiny and not dilated as they would be if she were really sexually aroused. That and the clearly visible evidence that everything about her is fake—her hair is dyed, her foundation is on as thick as Marcel Marceau's, and so forth.

There is another level of fakery at work here. That picture suggests that  she is in some sort of newsroom reporting. You think that maybe she is the one who will narrate the video. She isn't.

The people who put together this picture really know their stuff. The only thing they got wrong was her pupils . If you looked at that mouth and didn't have the same predatory thought I did, then you aren't a man. Notice also the beautiful match between her wide-open eyes and "eye-opening video". That's important because that is the real selling point. It's not about them opening your eyes—it's about you opening her eyes and other things big and wide.

The thing is this: the impulses that would lead us to click on this video are exactly the things that make us weak and malleable. She isn't really for sale and we are just a suckers for bait and switch. How could surrendering to those impulses make us stronger?

(Here's are a few rude questions: Do you spend a lot of time looking at pictures like that but very little time figuring out how to make the woman you actually desire in real life  look at you like that? Do you feel safer looking at that expression in a picture where you know that she isn't actually looking back at you? Are you maybe intimidated by the thought of actually living the experience of having a woman looking at you like that because of the expectation of performance from you she might have?)

Here's another thought, women can easily dress and make themselves up to project sexual arousal. It's easy to see why they do it: most of the time sexual status is a more valuable to women than actual sex. But why would it be in your interest to pursue a woman who is very good at faking sexual arousal? And if you turn on your critical thinking apparatus, you can look around the classroom, office and coffeeshop and quickly ascertain which women are more practiced at projecting sexual arousal.

As I've said before, you wouldn't want a woman who never does this. Women who never consciously use the tricks available to them to raise their sexual staus probably don't like or have weird hang ups about sex. That said, the other end of the bell curve is just as reliable an indicator that a woman's sexual response is not healthy. I take it that sex matters to you and not just as pleasure but as a shared pleasure that brings you and the woman you love closer as a couple? Why then would you be interested in a woman who is really good at using her body to lie about the thing you treasure? You want a woman who actually does surrender when she outwardly signals surrender.

It's easy to see what your first response to that picture would be would be and why it would be. But even a tiny bit of critical thinking should tell you that the thing inside the cereal box isn't going to be as big and shiny as the picture of it on the outside of the cereal box.

Friday, December 14, 2012

A little light culture: Jeremy Irons reads Brideshead

It has taken me months to get this one up. While driving to and from our vacation destination last September, the Lemon Girl and I listened to an audiobook of Jeremy Irons reading Brideshead Revisited. I cannot recommend this one too highly.

One caveat, Irons puts a slightly different interpretation on the characters than the famous TV series. That's a good thing because it is slightly different and significantly better. Irons obviously really gets the book and obviously really loves it. Listening to his version will increase your enjoyment of this magnificent book.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Hypocrite is spelled H-A-T-H-A-W-A-Y

For sheer chutzpah, this has to take some sort of prize
"It was obviously an unfortunate incident," she continued. "It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One was that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it--and do the decent thing--sells it. And I’m sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants, which brings us back to 'Les Mis,' that's what my character is, she is someone who is forced to sell sex to benefit her child because she has nothing and there's no social safety net.
Here's what you need to do to fully grasp what a great steaming pile of lies that quote is: read this phrase from Ms. Anne Hathaway, "we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants", then Google "Anne Hathaway" and click on images. Don't go searching for the "wardrobe malfunction" that inspired her to respond this way or the too many other times such things have happened to her. No, look for the shots where everything worked out exactly as she planned. And ask yourself, "Is this woman an "unwilling participant" in the commodification of her sexuality?

If Matt Lauer had even the tiniest bit of professional integrity, he should have hit her with, "Do you seriously expect us to believe that you wore a slinky dress with slits that go way up and no panties, and did not foresee that this might happen? And now you want to get self-righteous and tie it all to the plight of the poor and the welfare state. Stop lying and grow up you shameless exhibitionist. You're not even remotely like a poor woman in the 19th century who had to sell her body to feed her child, you're a spoiled brat who has everything she possibly could dream of and still doesn't have the moral maturity of a five year old."

Manly Thor's Day Special: Male and female he made them

in my family we all fill out a Proust questionnaire every four years and one of my sisters keeps the past years' responses on file. This was the year to do it again and she let us have a peek at our past answers. No, I'm not going to reveal any secrets. But I did notice something rather intriguing regarding these two questions.*
  1. The qualities you most admire in a man?
  2. The qualities you most admire in a woman?
The thing that struck me is that although the entire extended family has answered the questionnaire twice, no one has ever given the same list of admirable qualities for men and women. One of my nieces, a university student very much inspired by her liberal professors, lamented the fact that she could not give the same list for both but admitted that, no matter how much she tried, there were things she admired in men but could not admire in women and vice versa.

Coincidentally, I was rereading an old article from the New York Times about research into women's sexual arousal patterns. At one point one of the researchers used transsexuals (people who believed themselves to be women trapped in male bodies) as a test group for her studies and a funny thing happened.
These trans women, both those who were heterosexual and those who were homosexual, responded genitally and subjectively in categorical ways. They responded like men.
To put it bluntly, a man can get an operation that will make him look more or less like a woman (very few transsexuals are even close to convincing) but her/his body and your brain will still respond like a man's body and brain. The article continues:
This seemed to point to an inborn system of arousal. Yet it wasn’t hard to argue that cultural lessons had taken permanent hold within these subjects long before their emergence as females could have altered the culture’s influence. “The horrible reality of psychological research,” Chivers said, “is that you can’t pull apart the cultural from the biological.”
That's a terribly roundabout and evasive way of saying, these subjects "responded like men" because they are men. If you were born male, you can entertain the notion that you are really a woman trapped in a man's body and pay huge sums to have your body altered to make it more female looking but the inescapable fact is that you are a man and you will always be a man.

And that makes you different from women. It also changes the way others will see you.

Neither of those conclusions would not have surprised anyone alive any time from the dawn of civilization up until the 1970s.

* Contrary to what you might think, there is so specific list of questions. Not all Proust questionnaires are alike and you are free to make up your own if you wish.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The dark ages

At the very end of After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre makes an analogy that even he admits is a little outrageous. I've never thought we were really on the cusp of such a moment and I don't think we are there yet. But I can see how, with just a few more steps down into unsustainable nanny statism, we could get there.
It is always dangerous to draw too precise parallels between one historical period and another; and the most misleading of such parallels are those drawn between our own age in Europe and North America and the epoch in which the Roman empire declined into the Dark Ages. Nonetheless certain parallels there are. A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify with the maintenance of that imperium.
That's a good point but it lacks something. And it lacks something because MacIntyre never quite shook off Marxism and he never grasped that people enter into social arrangements out of self interest. The thing he misses is the important role that taxes and culture played in this turning aside.

It wasn't that taxes were too high in the late Roman empire—although they certainly were too high—but that the government could no longer deliver the protection that people expected in exchange for those taxes. This was felt first on the outer edges of the empire and then more and more towards the centre.

At the same time, the culture was changing. Simple social relations that didn't seem like they were the foundations of Roman society, the way the military was organized for example, were being changed and these changes had far-reaching effects. MacIntyre goes on to say that the people who turned away from the Imperium began constructing new forms of community but that gets things backwards. It was precisely because those new forms of community already had begun to exist that people could turn to them with greater dedication when the empire started to fade.

MacIntyre's analogy is not appropriate at this time because even the most incompetent governments, excluding perhaps Greece, have been able to continue to deliver basic social protection so far. But it's not had to see how it could all start to crumble very quickly. If it did, self-interest would move people to start looking at other social arrangements. To use the over-used cliché, life as we know it would end.

But something would take it's place.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Sorta Political: An Honourable War

During the second Iraq war, I was visiting a house in the country. My host and hostess were an Anglican clergyman and a school teacher. It was a setting right of of a traditional British cozy novel. My host and hostess were, and are, as liberal as liberal can get and I spent a lot of my time dreading the inevitable moment when the war would come up. I knew they would not only condemn it but that they would do so in a fashion that implied that anyone who supported the war was a moron and a monster.

I spent the weekend preparing myself for it. My plan was to politely and quietly say that I supported the war when the moment came but that I would not enter into any argument about. In the end, I as spared. Not because the comment was not made but because the comment that was made was so outrageous all I could do was stare in silent wonder.

My host and I were watching TV when it happened. The History Channel was on and a teaser played for a show about the American Civil War and my host said, "What a stupid waste of time that war was."

He was serious. I realized, with a jolt, that I was in the presence of someone who genuinely believed that no good had ever come of war. Even the ending of slavery was not enough to justify it. There was no need for him to say what he thought of Iraq or for me to respond to it.

I didn't argue with him but I suspect I can guess how it would have gone. He would have insisted that slavery was outmoded and would have disappeared anyway. He would have argued that even if the war had brought about the end sooner than any other means that it wasn't worth the huge loss of life that was involved.

 I say all that by way of a preface to something Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote the other day:
And from the moment the first shots were fired, the black imagination conceived of the Civil War differently than the rest of the country. That difference continues up to the present day. Were I not the descendant of slaves, if I did not owe the invention of my modern self to a bloody war, perhaps I'd write differently.
That difference continues up to the present day! It does. Coates sees the Civil War as an honourable war. He believes he owes "the invention of my modern self" to war. That is the way an ancient Greek would talk about the war with Persia, the way an ancient Roman would talk about their wars of conquest. It is the way the English used to talk about defeating the Spanish Armada or Waterloo. And it is the way Americans used to talk about the Revolution and, ahem, the Civil War.

But to believe in honour is to believe in shame and we are much less inclined to do that anymore. We no longer believe in a public virtue that you can and should be shamed for.

The funny thing (funny as in tragic) is that if the Civil War had to be fought again, I'm pretty sure most liberals and even some conservatives would oppose it. Liberals mostly don't believe in shame. The only shameful thing, in the modern liberal view, is to be intolerant and unaccepting of others or to be a hypocrite. They'd condemn the racism inherent in slavery but they wouldn't go to war over it.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Another image: What is she selling?

The short answer is "salvation!".

That is Mary Magdalen, one of my favourite saints. What makes her different from a lot of other saints is that she was believed to have been a sinner.

That is more complicated than it seems. First because all the saints believed themselves to have been sinners. If there is one thing about them that distinguishes them from you and me it is that that they were far more willing to condemn themselves as sinners than we are. They condemned themselves as sinners for things most of us would let go by. But the objectively told stories of their lives makes them sound like like paragons of virtue or, more than occasionally, rather boring.

Mary Magdalen, on the other hand, was widely believed to have really, really sinned and, even better, to have sinned in a sexual way. The Bible, however, gives no clear evidence of this. To make the sexual sinner story work calls for a lot of analogy and tradition.

Or you could just look at her face above. Whoever that look was intended for felt it in his hip pocket. At first glance you might think the look is intended for you but she doesn't quite make eye contact with you. Someone else is getting that privilege.

All of which is all the more shocking when you realize the scene this picture is meant to represent. That is jar of nard she is carrying and with which she will anoint Jesus (either upon the head or the feet, depending on which Gospel you read). In the Gospel of John, Judas complains that this nard could have been sold for an amount about equal to about years wages.

Now, as I say, you have to believe that Mary Magdalen and the woman who anoints Jesus with the nard are one in order to get the narrative implied here and the Bible gives no evidence for this. If you do, though, the story gets quite rich. It isn't just that the nard is worth so much that makes it fascinating but that this woman has some. How did she come by it?  Was it a gift to her or did she (wink, wink) earn it?

If she did earn it, it's rather late in the story as all this happens just a few days before Jesus is crucified suggesting that, although the Magdalen may be a repentant sinner, she wasn't exactly a reformed sinner.

Everything we think we know about the past is wrong
Carlo Crivelli, the painter, is, in theory, an early Renaissance painter. His style and technique, however, were a throwback in his era.

That he would have identified with Mary Magdalen is clear from his first documented appearance in history when he was imprisoned for having abducted and committed adultery with the wife of a  sailor in 1457. The "abducted" in his charge was almost certainly there to save face for the woman and her husband. Oh yeah, he painted the above picture a little more than a decade after his arrest.

As I've said before, we tend to take the middle ages and the early Renaissance as being as they wished themselves to be. There was far less unity of thought or morals during these eras than we imagine. They were also far wiser about sex than we like to pretend: Dante had a wife and mistresses in addition to Beatrice whom he is famous for not having. We tend to focus on the latter story because he wrote more about her.

The point being, those eras could give a more honest account of a repentant sinner than we can.

Friday, December 7, 2012

A little light culture: Reluctant modernists

We all get really basic things wrong from time to time. It's forgivable to use words such as "fulsome" or "scatological" incorrectly, as most people do. But what happens when we start using a word such as "hate" wrong? Nowadays, when you hear someone accuse someone else of being "full of hate" you can be sure that at least half the time the hatred is being projected on to a relatievly innocent figure by the person condemning them.

Oh well.

Here is a far humbler, perhaps, example. Here is Ta-Nehisi Coates using a word in a way that shows that he hasn't the vaguest idea what it means:
Continuing our conversation, I should point out why I even find Chandler worth grappling with, in the first place. I think plotting—keeping a story moving—is an underappreciated among those who take the novel as an art-form. 
The word he doesn't get is "plotting" which most definitely does not mean "keeping a story moving". 

It's even more embarrassing than that because plotting was something that Chandler was not very good at. He had a limited set of plots and he tended to use them over and over again. The Big Sleep was assembled from plot elements Chandler had used in his short stories for the pulps (compare it with his stories "Killer in the Rain" and "The Curtain" and you'll see what I mean.

Chandler's weakness at plotting is also evident in that one of the more notorious plotting mistakes in crime fiction occurs in this novel. Chandler piles up a lot of corpses and then forgets to explain one of them. Early in the book, the Sternwood family chauffeur, a young man named Owen Taylor, is killed but the murder is never explained. Actually, it's far worse than that, it can't be explained. There is no way you could rewrite the story so that Owen's murder is explained that wouldn't destroy the coherence of the rest of the story.

I think this weakness at plotting is a consequence of modernism. To be a modernist is to lose faith in any sort of natural arc to human life. Without this faith, plots stumble because the writer has no sense of authority: "How dare I end up with the couple happily married when so many marriages fail." Note that this did not trouble Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope even though there were plenty of bad marriages in their day. Conversely, there are lots of good marriages in our day. And yet no current author feels comfortable with the marriage plot. The facts haven't changed but our interpretation of them has.

Chandler wanted to write about a happy marriage and he was on his way with Poodle Springs, only he chickened out. I think he originally meant it to be his answer to Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man, which is about a successful marriage. But he couldn't do it. He choked.

What Ta-Nehisi Coates calls plotting and isn't is "a something else" that we use to replace our sense of there being a natural moral arc to our lives.
And here you can see how Coates makes his mistake about "plotting". To "hold a scene" or "keep a story moving" you need to be able to keep adding things to the narrative that feel right to the reader. That can feel like plotting but they don't, as I hope I've made clear above, actually have to be right, they just have to feel right so you keep reading. Plotting actually has to be right.

In his post, Coates cites a long passage from The Big Sleep and it is telling that one detail bothers him. It occurs in these paragraphs:
Eddie Mars said gravely: "If you're not playing any more, you must let me send someone home with you."

The girl flushed. Her cheekbones stood out white in her face. Then she laughed off-key. She said bitterly: "One more play, Eddie. Everything I have on the red. I like red. It's the colour of blood."

Eddie Mars smiled faintly, then nodded and reached into his inner breast pocket. He drew out a large wallet with gold corners and tossed it carelessly along the table to the croupier. "Cover the bet in even thousands," he said, "if no one objects to this turn of the wheel being just for the lady."

No one objected. Vivian Regan leaned down and pushed all her winnings savagely with both hands on to the large red diamond in the layout.
Now there is obviously something very good about this but note what Coates does not like:
 I could have done without the remark about red being the color of blood. Often I feel like Chandler is going for the bomb, when what he really needs is first down. But the drive as a whole is pretty gripping. This is probably my favorite scene in the book—just as poetry. The details feel just right. They aren't piled on to make you believe. Chandler believes for you. 
(Before being critical, I should note that that observation about the details not being "piled on" is very astute on Coates' part. A lesser writer, or Chandler himself in weaker moments, would have piled the details on here. See Joyce Carol Oates and Bob Dylan for examples of writers who can't stop piling on. I hope to return to this.)
Well yes, the remark about the colour of blood is a jarring, stupid and it breaks the flow. But jarring and stupid is a big part of Vivian Regan. It's when things like that slip out that we know she's lying and she's lying here. This whole "gripping" scene is an act that she and Eddie Mars play out. She wins because the wheel is crooked.

It's not clear that Vivian herself realizes all of this. She's not quite in control. Mars, on the other hand, is very much in control, which is why the resolution of the story is worked out between the men and not the women.

There is, as I've noted previously, some misogyny behind this but, that acknowledged, if you haven't met some women who sometimes or often behave as Vivian does here, you haven't been trying, and that remark about red being the colour of blood is perfect.

To take it out would make the scene smoother but that would be a problem because it shouldn't be smooth. It should grate. If there is anything generally wrong with the sort of movies men like these days it is that they are too smooth and major moral problems that should break the flow the way Vivian's stupid remark does here get smoothed over by the narrative: when in doubt, use a montage. 
I could go all sorts of places here but I'll stop instead and had the floor to Chandler himself for he said what really needs to be said about the effects that Coates likes and why they were powerful. The bit cited below is from an introduction to a collection of Chandler stories from early in his career. These stories were published in pulp magazines and these were, for Chandler, a kind of writing school. Late in his career, he told us what he learned there.
I don't think this power was entirely a matter of violence, although far too many people got killed in these stories and their passing was celebrated with a rather too loving attention to detail. It certainly was not a matter of fine writing, since any attempt would have been ruthlessly blue-penciled by the editorial staff. Nor was it because of any great originality of plot or character. Most of the plots were rather ordinary and most of the characters rather primitive types of people. Possibly it was the smell of fear these stories managed to generate. Their characters lived in a world gone wrong, a world in which, long before the atom bomb, civilization had created the machinery for its own destruction, and was learning to use it with all the moronic delight of a gangster trying out his first machine gun. The law was something to be manipulated for profit and power. The street were dark with something more than night. The mystery story grew hard and cynical about motive and character, but it was not cynical about the effects it tried to produce nor about its technique of producing them.
The key phrase in all of that is "long before the atom bomb". Chandler, writing in the 1950s about the 1930s, wants to be clear that he is not with the progressives who would ban the bomb or institute gun control as if it was the technology that threatened civilization. He would have been unable to forget that it was the progressives who had banned alcohol leading to the earlier lawless era (a point progressives themselves have found all to easy to forget right until the present day).

Chandler is a reluctant modernist. Like Proust and Eliot, you get a sense that he would be happier if he felt he could continue as an unreconstructed romantic but he obviously feels that isn't possible anymore. I don't think he—or Proust and Eliot—ever gets around to explaining why they don't feel it's possible anymore. They just don't and perhaps the feeling was so powerful they didn't think it needed to be explained.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Manly Thor's Day Special: Washing the bathroom floor

We have an old-fashioned tile floor wherein you have to seal the tiles every few months. We have this because we wanted it and had it installed at considerable expense. It features a kind of octagonal tile that used to be featured in every public school in the land and is now only made by one plant in Texas and we waited three months to get it.

And did I mention that it has to be sealed periodically?

The problem is that I didn't redo it this summer. And then I waited as months went by, watching the dirt getting ground in, but not doing anything about it.

Today, I finally did something about it. It's whiter than white again. It had to be washed four times to get it whiter than white again—three of those times on my knees scrubbing. WHich is why I haven't been blogging.

There are several lessons about manliness here and I think you are smart enough to figure them out for yourselves. I am off to learn about Benedictine spirituality with a book in one hand and a glass of Benedictine (what else?) in the other.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


Eddie Vedder is living proof that someone can have a magnificent voice and be a lousy singer. He, as Dorothy Parker famously said of Katherine Hepburn, runs the gamut of emotions from A to B, he cannot enunciate to save his life, he is incapable of singing anything requiring any suppleness and he manages to make everything sound the same.

And yet he has a magnificent and powerful voice.

He also thinks Christians are selfish. He expresses this thought at the opening, ironically enough, of a song called "I am mine".

Before we read the lyric, let's look at a dictionary definition of "selfish": concerned chiefly with one's own personal profit or pleasure at the expense of consideration for others. That's from the Oxford Concise Dictionary.  Note the two elements that it takes to make selfish: 1) you have to be chiefly concerned with your own pleasure and profit and 2) you have to be so at the expense of a concern for others.

So let's look at the opening stanza:
The selfish, they're all standing in line
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time
Me, I figure as each breath goes by
I only own my mind
The song was reportedly written in response to an accident where nine men who were crowd-surfing during one of the band's shows were crushed and suffocated to death by the crowd.  That in itself is interesting. Here is how Wikipedia describes it:
"I Am Mine" was written by vocalist Eddie Vedder in a hotel room near Virginia Beach, Virginia before the band's first show after the Roskilde tragedy in 2000. Vedder said that he wrote the song to "reassure myself that this is going to be all right."
Well, you can understand the sentiment. A horrible thing happened the last time the band performed and Vedder needs to think about what happened and morally analyze it before he can go out and give another show. He's not the most eloquent man in the world with his remark that he wanted to "reassure myself" but I think he deserves some slack here.

Where he doesn't deserve any is the opening couplet. How does he go from facing this emotionaly and morally charged situation to slagging others who had nothing to do with it?
The selfish, they're all standing in line
Faithing and hoping to buy themselves time
 It's not hard to see how he got there. He's confronted with nine senseless deaths and the the possibility that he may be at least partially responsible for them. So he's thinking about these things and Christianity comes up because it has a lot to say about what death is and why and what morality has to do with death. But then he lashes out and calls these people selfish? Where the hell does that come from?

And note the stolen bases. Vedder goes from the fact that Christians pray because they are concerned with their own fate after death (store up treasure in heaven) to concluding that they are selfish. Looking after yourself is not selfish. Looking after yourself to the exclusion of any concern for others is. No doubt some Christians do that but it's not as if there are aren't enough Christian acts of charity for it to be plainly obvious that one hell of a lot of Christians aren't selfish.

So why is it so important for him to slag Christians?  Because there is a part of him that worries that we're right. And that makes him feel guilty.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Down time

I've been without Internet since about eleven last night, hence no posting.

Just a short thought today, torn from today's headlines:
Emmy-winning TV news producer William “Howie” Masters III — son of the famous Masters and Johnson sex researcher — glumly pleaded guilty yesterday to masturbating in front of parkgoers last May.
Let's flash it back to September:
William H. Masters III — son of the Masters and Johnson sex researcher — who was busted Saturday for allegedly exposing himself to two female undercover cops while kayaking in Michigan, was also arrested last May on charges of masturbating in Central Park, The Post has learned.

Michigan authorities said they plan on showing photos of the Emmy-winning TV news producer, who’s known as “Howie,” to other women to see if he’s the same flasher who whipped it out in prior incidents near his family’s ritzy vacation home on Lake Huron.
There is something especially pathetic about this one. This guy had it all and he threw it away for what must be the tawdriest, most humiliating crime imaginable. And even getting arrested once was not enough to stop him. Five months later he was caught again. And there are almost certainly other incidents where he got away with it. Probably a whole lot of such incidents.

The first question to cross my mind was, Did his upbringing have anything to do with it?

The second question is, "Did he have no self control at all?"  He's married to a beautiful woman. He's rich enough that he could have affairs and get away with it. What possessed him to do the sprt of thing that, I'll be blunt, complete losers with no social skills and who often have mental problems do?

Or could it be that the incredible freedoms and power and access he had is what assisted his downfall. Perhaps he lived his entire life never being told that he couldn't do somethings because it was simply wrong to do those things.

This is a cute little detail, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, you can watch Mr. Masters and family members and guests walking on the beach back in 2007. I won't post it here but you shouldn't have any trouble finding it if you want to see it.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Checking her out

I dedicate this post to Lynn and Anna-Maria who were roommates of mine back in college. Seven women and men shared the house we lived in and I don't think a single week went by in which Lynn or Anna-Maria didn't make some snide comment about how men never cleaned up. This was much discussed among us because no one else in that house, male or female, ever saw either of the two do so much as rinse out a coffee cup in all the time we lived together. They may well have been the biggest slobs in the history of college students, and that isn't hyperbole.

What made the women interesting was that neither was lying. They really believed what they were saying. I think of them when I stuff like this:
When it comes to checking out competition women should not worry about men checking them out - but women instead.
The story concerns a study that used new computer technology that follows eye movements to see how men looked at women and how women looked at other women. The conclusion, apparently meant to be surprising, is that when men meet a woman they mostly look into her eyes whereas women, upon meeting another woman, scan her all up and down looking at her body and especially breasts more than looking at her face.

I don't how this could be news to anyone who ever was in high school. As I've said many times before on this blog, women dress and behave the way they do because they are in competition with other women, You can't compete without checking out the competition.

Again, as I've noted before, put a bunch of women in a room together and all the women will steal glances at the woman with the best breasts in the room (and she, as all women know, is often not the woman with the largest breasts). There is an instant pissing match about these things. Furthermore, if the woman with the best breasts makes a thing of showing off her dominance you can be sure the others will react like a bunch of whipped puppies. (Which is why women collectively act so as to prevent such a thing happen. They are usually successful at this too.)

One of the most blatantly decisive such matches I ever saw was among a group of Christian women meeting in a church group. None of them would ever admit to caring about such things. Not even the woman who demonstrated dominance. And, like Lynn and Anna-Maria, it may be that they honestly didn't believe they cared about such things but you sure could see it from outside. It may even be that the supposedly "pure" church function actually made a form of cutthroat competition that normally wouldn't be seen anywhere, save perhaps backstage before a wet t-shirt contest, possible.

To get back to the main point, if this is so obvious, and it is to anyone who takes the trouble to actually look, why do men still get the blame?

Well, most men don't notice because they look at women. I'm leaving here in a few moments to take part ion a class with about five gorgeous women. It will be very easy for me to notice those women and very hard to notice how they look at one another. No man needs any incentive to glance at Christina's  body but it takes a deliberate and unnatural effort to make a point of watching how other women look at Christina.

Another big part of the answer is intentionality. You look at a woman's breasts in a far different way when you are doing so for pleasure than when you are checking out the competition. I remember being in a room with a bunch of stand-up comics back in the 1980s while they were watching a tape of another comic in action. When they thought his material was good, they'd nod grimly and say, "That's funny". That's how women look at other women's bodies, especially their breasts.

My experience is that women are much better at assessing other women. Often when out with the other women I will be forced to see this. A while ago at a choral concert, for example, I commented about a woman who was there in a far sexier dress than any other women in attendance. Nothing so wild as we often see on the street, just more revealing than any other woman in the room. I, in an almost knee-jerk fashion, made a disparaging comment. I didn't think the Lemon Girl was even aware of this other woman's presence in the room as she was reading the music programme but she calmly said, without even looking up, "What's wrong with that, she has an amazing body."

I looked again and realized that she was right. At no time could The Lemon Girl have done more than a quickly glance at this other woman but she had managed a far more thorough and balanced appraisal than I did.

My appraisal was primarily moral: who was she and what kind of person was she. Who is she and what is she, or could she be, to me.

And that is why men's attention to women's breasts gets a different type of attention. If a man and woman meet for lunch and she sees him glance at her breasts when he thinks she isn't looking, she can be sure that he is thinking how much he would like to caress them and remove her shirt and bra and then ... And that is a rather intimate and invasive thought far different from what other women do.

Competition from other women is threatening, of course, but, if you think about it, an awful lot of what we call civilization consists of conventions meant to limit what women can do by way of competing. A point that becomes painfully obvious when someone fools women into fighting for the "right" to go topless.

Friday, November 30, 2012

A little light culture: Moral mythology

Most of us imagine that we would have been the ones to have been different had we lived "back then". "Transport me back to 1831 and I would have grasped the human dignity in everyone and spoke out against racism." The truth is, almost certainly not. If you had been alive in the 19th century, you would have been a racist. If you'd been an adult in 1954, you would have had all the sexist attitudes of the era. If you'd been either a Protestant or a Catholic in the 17th century, you would have been baying for the blood of the others.

Which is all another way of saying: If you and I had been present at the crucifixion of Jesus, we wouldn't have done a thing to stop it and might well have cheered it on.

It's so easy to forget this and to transform history into an occasion for dividing the sheep and the goats. You can see that attitude at work in a post about the American South following Civil War that Ta-Nehisi Coates has up today. It's not any particular argument or factual claim that is wrong with it. It's the deep need to cling to history as the justification of current political attitudes.

Coates writes:
When Kushner says the Ku Klux Klan came out of an unwillingness to forgive the South, I don't know what he means. The Klan was founded in 1865. Johnson was still president. There was nothing "unforgiving" about his posture to the South.
Well, yeah, I can sorta see that. But I can also see how the Reconstruction could easily have been more generous and how that might have made a big difference. Kushner is perhaps wrong but her isn't crazy and the level of outrage Coates displays here tells us more about him than anything else.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Manthly Thor's Day Special: The monthly movie

This month's feature is not neo noir. It's a full-blown chic flick called Your Sister's Sister. No, the title isn't explained during the film. It centers on two women who are half-sisters, sharing the same father but different mothers.

The plot is complicated and not very credible. It features far too many scenes of people sitting down and having heart-to-heart conversations like people just don't have in real life along with some ridiculous twists and turns ultimately winding up with a happy ending that would have made Walt Disney puke but that many critics loved because it has two sisters, one straight, one lesbian and one wimp living together living happily ever after.

If you are an upper-middle-class white person, you will recognize the set up. A guy is still depressed a year after his brother's death. His best female-friend ( but not girlfriend) suggests he go up to a vacation home that she describes as "my father's". Now this is a situation rich with potential for unusual couplings and that is exactly what happens for he arrives at the cottage to find the second sister, a lesbian who has just broken up with her lover, and a bottle of tequila. Tequila is consumed and the two end up in bed.

The guy is a complete dweeb. He is angry, bitter, unemployed and he finishes in less than 40 seconds. It wasn't good for her. She seems surprisingly comfortable with this however.

The problem though is that it is impossible to see why any woman would find this guy attractive. When his bike breaks down later in the film, he has a temper tantrum that would shame a three-year-old boy.

Let me make a wild suggestion, though, that this movie isn't really about what it appears to be about. Just as a lot of teen horror movies are really about sex, this is really a movie about women remaining friends even in the face of sexual relationships which challenge best-friend-forever friendships because they are so much more intimate. There is a whole lot of complication and other stuff camouflaging the thing, but that is the real subject. And that is why it is such a pack of lies. In real life, best-friends-forever are always rapidly surpassed and supplanted by sexual love.

You can see why it hurts. When one ceases to be a child, one puts away childish things but it isn't easy to do so. It's not that you can't still be friends but the nature of the friendship changes. And it is that which this movie sets out to deny.

It's not a movie that attempts to confront any deep issues about this. It pretends to be doing so by creating all sorts of awkward moments but it never shows how people get over awkward conflicts. It simply says that this can happen and that then everything can somehow be made okay somehow. Exactly how that is is hard to say but it apparently involves lots of walking around the beautiful scenery outside the vacation home while acoustic guitar music plays on the soundtrack.

It's one of the marks of chic flicks that there is no real moral responsibility. The guy is not in a relationship with either sister. He's just a friend so there is no reason for the other sister to hold back aside from the obvious awkwardness that would come from such a situation (well that and her being a lesbian). So when the upset comes, it isn't result of any betrayal, for there has been none. No, the upset is because the first sister has long been in love with this man but has never said so out loud to anyone. This is tough on anyone but, on the other hand, we've all done something like this at least once and the relevant moral lesson is: you snooze, you lose.

Further complicating the thing is that the second sister broke up with her ex because this other woman wasn't interested in having a child. This fact trickles out only accidentally late in the movie because this second sister has been lying to everyone about everything. She, in fact, is responsible for the sole genuine act of betrayal in the film. She sees our wimp guy as a potential sperm donor and doesn't ask him to use a condom. When he brings the operation to a halt because he doesn't have one, she says she thinks she knows where to find one and slips off and then comes back and slips on. She won't let him put it on himself because she has taken a moment to poke it full of holes out in the hall.

If anyone has the right to be genuinely angry, it's the guy. But he isn't. Instead he goes to the first sister and tells her that the most important thing the relationship between sisters. He assures her that he simply does not matter and is so horrified at the thought that he might have been the cause of tension between the two women that he cries. Then he rides off on his bike and cruises around the island where the vacation home is located.

Sadly, he does not run into a gang of Hells Angels who do the world a favour by stomping his sorry ass to death and then feeding the carcass to crows. He does however have the aforementioned spittle-flecked nutty because his crappy bike breaks.

Meanwhile, the girls make up and the first sister offers to help the second one raise her child if she is indeed pregnant. (As always seems to be the case with chick flicks, the movie is pro-choice in the abstract but adamantly anti-abortion in practice.) The movie spends an entire fifteen minutes running time on this reunion. There is no real apology or any real facing of moral facts and there could not be because there isn't anything to apologize for. The only person who has actually been betrayed is out riding his bike around like he wasn't important enough to be allowed to speak or get involved. The two women, meanwhile, are not upset because of anything either has done to the other but because, well, because they are very upset.

They eventually calm down to the point where they can stand to be in the same  room with one another, although not speaking. And then, after a lot more acoustic guitar, the second sister apologizes to the first by saying, brace yourself, "Sorry". And that's it.

It ends with all three blissfully happy together watching the second sister pee on a stick and and they all wait to see if it turns blue.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Ta-Nehisi Coates on misogyny in Raymond Chandler

Over that the Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been reading Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. I think it's safe to say that Coates doesn't get Chandler but that is not necessarily a bad thing as he makes some really challenging points about other issues, particularly manhood and sexuality.
I think to understand misogyny one has to grapple with the conflict between male mythology and male biology. There is something deeply scary about the first time a young male experiences an erection. All the excitement and hunger and throbbing that people is there. But with that comes a deep, physical longing. Whether or not that longing shall be satiated is not totally up to the male.
That's a good place to go and Coates does a good job of drawing out the pain that comes with getting an erection when you don't want to have an erection. Read the accounts of boys who are molested by older men or women and you will begin to grasp the full horror of it.

That said, I think Coates goes a little off track:
Laugh now at the boy at the middle school dance, who gets an erection on the slow number (God help him if he has orgasm.)
Well, no. Because you always do get an erection when your thirteen years old and you have that first slow dance and, provided you haven't made poor wardrobe choices, no one need know.

Except the girl, of course. She always knows. She isn't stupid and when she feels the boy's erection grow against her stomach, she knows exactly what is happening. And I can't speak for everyone but I can tell you that in the slow dances I had in the years in middle school, I always got an erection and not once did any girl pull away or leave the dance. They all pushed more firmly against me once they were aware of it. The only ones who did not where the ones who never got close enough to cause an erection in the first place.

This is one of these things that most people know about but no one talks about. There were teachers at these dances who saw it as their job to separate couples who were a little too close but those teachers never let on they knew anything about any actual stimulating going on. And neither did the girls. That was one of the rules, you could do the slow dance if the girl said yes. Then you could get closer if she allowed you. And then ... but you could not mention the erection that you were both so aware of. That was right out.

The ultimate thrill was if she parted her legs so you could slip one of yours between hers and feel this intense heat on your thigh when it pressed against her crotch. And that, given that this was all you got in those days, was about as intense an experience as a young man could imagine.

(One of the things that was really intoxicating and really educational when you were learning about girls in those years was that the vast majority of girls would push back against your erection while slow dancing but never admitted it to anyone. This is a valuable lesson because there are always sexual things that most women do but that they don't let on to others, especially to other women. Sexual relationships trump all other relationships for intimacy with spectacular ease as a consequence.)

Now, the point here is not just to linger on some erotic memories, although it is amazing the way these furtive experiences stay with you for decades. No, the point is that this whole game gets played out without anyone admitting it's going on. No boy in grades 7-8-9 could possibly admit that he had an erection while dancing with a girl and no girl in those years could possibly admit that they had willfully caused a boy to get an erection while slow dancing and that she enjoyed having this power.

But here is the thing, already in those years there are boys and girls who don't get it. Some are grossed out by it, some are so shy they are humiliated by it, and some never get asked to dance or accepted to dance with because they don't have the social skills to be accepted in the first place. (And that experience, not the getting of erections, is the source of most misogyny, as well as most man-hating coming the other way.)

And that is tremendously important. You are supposed, as I've already noted, to figure out that you don't acknowledge what is happening. But you are also supposed to grasp that when the dance is over, it's over. You don't, as some boys do, follow the girl like a lost puppy because you are so overwhelmingly swept up by what has happened. You also don't, as some boys do, brag about what happened. (And you live with the very real pain that sometimes follows without complaining too.)

Even more than that, you need to know how to play the give and take. You need to read her responses well enough to grasp just how far you can go. And when you misread her and she stiffens or moves away, you are supposed to pick up the hint right away.

Back to Coates,
Masculinity's central tenet is control—and perhaps most importantly, control of the body. Nothing contradicts that edict like erections. It unmans you, it compels you through sensations you scarcely understand. And it threatens to expose you, to humiliates you, in front of everyone. 
That's only partly true.  Masculinity's central tenet is control (and notice how Coates isn't at all bothered that he is being sexist here) but erections don't unman you. You can't control when you have an erection and you can't control when you don't. No, what unmans you is your own lack of self control after your erection has been stimulated by someone else, in this case by a young girl pushing her stomach up against it. That's the real test of control.

At that age we are all working out the game whereby we allow others to play games that get us heated up and the tricky social manœuvers that go with completely losing control. And even then it gets tricky. I knew both men and women in university who went gaga over their first sexual partner and proceeded to make complete fools of themselves because they were so wrapped up in their own feelings that they failed to see they were not reciprocated. (Which, if you think about it, is the lesson you are supposed to start learning back in middle school when the slow dance ends and the girl thanks you and walks away.)

But what about the other side? What about girls then women? Are they supposed to be learning any lessons about self control and about reading men's responses? Again, I remind you that Coates was not at all bothered by the sexism implicit in his claim that, "Masculinity's central tenet is control". As if femininity doesn't have to worry about these things. (One of the things that drives Chandler is that, already in the 1930s, our culture was liberating women from old strictures but failing to hold them morally accountable as any free being should be. The Sternwood sisters who run wild with no self control, while a little camp, were highly prophetic.)

The problem with the way Coates sees these things is that it's so atomic. Men, are like elementary particles brushing up against women and neither is supposed to have any understanding of how the other thinks. But that's nonsense, you can figure out what the other person is thinking without talking about it. Let's go back to that slow dance in middle school. You will earn a girl's contempt if you don't pick up on body language that is meant to tell you to back off a bit. But do you what is also true? You will earn the same, and quite possibly more contempt, if you fail to recognize and act upon signals to push a little further.

You can figure what is going on in other people's heads from observing them. And you can predict how they will react to you. You can't do it as consistently as you can predict , say, the response of billiard balls when they are hit by other billiard balls, but you can read people and respond to them on the basis of non-verbal clues. And that is a huge part of being a sexual adult when you consider how often the verbal clues you do get are simply not true.

Chandler's portrait of the two Sternwood sisters is a misogynist but it's misogynist in a way that Coates might find hard to criticize if he teased it out a bit more. We see this right from the opening of the novel when Marlowe goes to meet General Sternwood who lives in an orchid room. The general has to live there because he has been unmanned:
'You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple paralyzed in both legs and with only half his lower belly. There's little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider, and the orchis are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids?'

'Not Particularly,' I said.

The General half closed his eyes. 'They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.'
This is perhaps a good opportunity to remind you what orchids look like. Here, courtesy of Wikipedia, is a white orchid:

If you don't think of a diminutive term for a cat also used to refer to female genitalia when you see orchids , there is something deeply wrong with you. You may not choose to say it, for example if you are with your mother and grandmother at the orchid show, but you will think it and Chandler is counting on your making that association.

Coates correctly notes elsewhere that Chandler also trades in anti-gay remarks, although he fails to note that these are pretty mild by the standards of the era. I've been reading Death by Ecstasy by Dame Ngaio Marsh, published three years before The Big Sleep in my sick bed and she makes Chandler look gay-friendly by comparison.

And what should not surprise us as there is a huge homoerotic streak in Chandler. He keeps it safely sanitized of actual sex, but this fiction is all about male-male bonds. Over and over again these stories comes down to some relationship between two men and that relationship is an intense one with erotic overtones. (If you read the book as opposed to remembering the movie, the sexual tension between Marlowe and Eddie Mars in The Big Sleep is more convincing than that between Marlowe and Vivian Sternwood

They are also about war and that will seem even odder because Chandler hardly ever mentions the war. Anyone reading his books would never guess that Chandler fought in the first world war and experienced the sort of horrors that would make most of us crawl up in a fetal position and cry the rest of our lives. But, although he never talks about it much, that experience is what his writing really springs from. It's about the bonds that form between men doing difficult things together and there is an unmistakeable homoerotic undertone that goes with these interactions. The thing about Chandler is not that he makes anti-gay statements but that, in making them, he protests too much.

Jasmine's basement
A girl this time, not a flower. Back in grade eight, a bunch of us swam until dark then we went down to Jasmine's basement and danced. And a girl named Joanne Roberge agreed to slow dance with me. That was pretty much the sum total of our relationship but I'll never forget her. She had all the social skill necessary to make the interactions work. And she had other skills too ...

This was the song that was playing that night when I danced with her:

It sure beat trench warfare.