It was like this.

It Was Like This:  You Were Happy
by Jane Hirshfield
It was like this:
you were happy, then you were sad,
then happy again, then not.

It went on.
You were innocent or you were guilty.
Actions were taken, or not.

At times you spoke, at other times you were silent.
Mostly, it seems you were silent — what could you say?

Now it is almost over.

Like a lover, your life bends down and kisses your life.

It does this not in forgiveness —
between you, there is nothing to forgive —
but with the simple nod of a baker at the moment
he sees the bread is finished with transformation.

Eating, too, is now a thing only for others.

It doesn’t matter what they will make of you
or your days:  they will be wrong,
the will miss the wrong woman, miss the wrong man,
all the stories they tell will be tales of their own invention.

Your story was this:  you were happy, then you were sad,
you slept, you awakened.
Sometimes you ate roasted chestnuts, sometimes persimmons.

Jane Hirshfield
New Yorker, January 6, 2003, p. 79
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The earth can become uninhabitable.

It’s an unfortunate fact that arguing with an idiot, or with someone who’s disingenuous, is substantially more difficult than arguing with an intelligent person.  David Roberts alludes to this at the beginning of his disturbing presentation about climate change, (which, by the way, is not as boring as you might think):

The reason most people would prefer drinking battery acid to arguing about climate change, I believe, is that to engage in such an argument is akin to debating about Obama’s birth certificate.  The other side views it as a game and will carelessly lob one disingenuous argument after another.  Since it’s much easier to manufacture a disingenuous argument than to unpack and refute the same, this is a game with which most people will quickly tire.

Until recently, I thought that global warming, while politically impossible to forestall, would be an unpleasant reality yet one to which the human race would adjust.  Places like Miami or Calcutta might become unlivable, but Minneapolis would get less snow and Canadian crops might even benefit from a longer growing season.  Or something like that. Unfortunately, as it happens, not only could the rise in temperatures create a planet right out of science fiction, but there are also positive feedback mechanisms within the climate system — e.g. melted sea ice causes more solar energy to be absorbed by the oceans which raises temperatures which melts more ice — that, once set in motion by human intervention, can begin to self-perpetuate and amplify climate change.  In other words, there’s a point beyond which runaway climate change becomes unstoppable.

Now, I’m not a scientist and don’t have the chops to argue with a determined quack who starts spouting off about sun-spots and mini-ice-ages.  But at the same time, this problem is important enough that it shouldn’t be entirely ignored by “non-specialists” out of a misplaced sense of humility.  For an introduction to the subject, David Robert’s talk is worth seventeen minutes of your time.

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Humor and honesty.

There’s a story my mother used to tell.  When she was s child, she went swimming in a lake one afternoon and the current began to carry her further and further from the shore.  She didn’t feel strong enough to swim against it, and thought she would drown.  She told this story on a few occasions and I once asked her how she felt, when she was treading water, drifting further from shore.  “I felt sad”, she said, “I would never see my mom and dad or Uncle Clarence ever again.”

One time, telling the story at a gathering, a friend of hers asked, “Why didn’t you cry out for help?”

“Because I was too embarrassed!”

That was the punch line.  Laughter.

How funny should a person try to be?  My mother thought she was going to die, for crissakes.  Humor can provide a salutary perspective on things, but can also trivialize our experiences.  As Nietzsche said, “A joke is an epigraph on the death of a feeling.”  A person without humor is emotionally distant, but so is the comedian who is always “on”.

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Some will disagree, but I found this funny:

And this also:

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Depression is a manifestation of a character flaw.

For the record, the title of this post is ironic in tone. So to my chronically depressed readers, no animadversions intended. You do indeed have a character flaw if you’re depressed, but character flaws are pretty common so I wouldn’t worry about it.

I say depression is a manifestation of a character flaw not to further afflict the afflicted; I hardly want us to think of the depressed the way we think of shoplifters.  But it would be progress if our attitudes toward shoplifters became more like to our feelings toward the depressed.  And for that to happen, we need to ditch the unwarranted distinction between character flaws and a malfunctioning brain.

Most people — at least within the coastal wine-and-cheese crowd — accept that depression is not something for which blame is an appropriate response.  For example, here’s Judy Bolton-Fasman writing in the New York Times:

In the summer of 1980, I was 19 years old and had a defining panic attack that divided my life into a very clear before and after…  During one particularly long jag of crying and rocking myself back and forth for hours, my parents took me to the emergency room. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills and told me to “get a hold of myself.”

No one suggested that there could be a physical condition underlying my anxiety and depression — at least, not to me. The research that shows that anxiety and depression can be treatable conditions caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain — chronic illnesses that respond to medication like high cholesterol or diabetes — was not widely known. Instead, I confused my brain’s failure with individual failure.

Nineteen years old and depressed, Ms. Bolton-Fasman was obviously in severe emotional pain and should have been treated more compassionately by her doctor — but not because her depression came from “her brain” and not “her self”.  That’s a silly distinction.  Ending up in an emergency room because you’re severely depressed is no less a personal failure than ending up in jail because you’ve stolen expensive jewelry or ending up unemployed because you’re too hung over to show up for work.  Mental illness carries less stigma than it did a generation ago because we now look at the brain with a more powerful microscope.  Look at the brain with an even more powerful microscope and all individual failures will be revealed as brain failures.

This isn’t just intellectual masturbation and the question of free will isn’t just an intellectual game.  It affects the way we think about privilege, because if there is no free will then there can be no distinction between “earned” and “unearned” privilege.  All privilege is unearned.  All unequal outcomes derive from unequal opportunity.  Moreover, human nature being what it is, a belief in earned privilege has the pernicious effect of distancing the happy and well-off from the unfortunate.  Compassion becomes pity.  Respect becomes condescension.  Me and my friends have struggled heroically with depression; those people over there are just lazy.  

This doesn’t mean that everyone should be treated the same.  There are very good practical reasons why a doctor is paid more than a janitor.  There are very good public policy reasons why some people should be incarcerated.  We don’t want people who are stupid and emotionally unstable in positions of power and authority.  But these are pragmatic reasons for inequality that have nothing to do with cosmic justice.

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A double standard.

I was thinking some more about Jill Filipovic’s post about Feminism  + Housewifery.  It was a thoughtful post in which she discussed, among other things, the way in which personal choices have societal consequences:

[M]any feminists, unfortunately, are complicit in supporting a choice model over an egalitarian one. While how one individual sets up her family may be private, the aggregate is not; and it’s tough to argue that the housewife model is simply a private choice made within families with no outside influence and no greater consequences.

The greater consequences entail women having less power, and she’s particularly frustrated with men who perpetuate this dynamic:

And we see it – women and men. We end up building our lives around it. I’ve spoken with many of the bright young single men who are on the receiving end of high-level male mentorship. They often express a desire to have kids and a stay-at-home wife, and they ALWAYS couch it in gender-neutral terms — “It’s not that I expect my wife to stay home, it’s that I think one parent needs to stay home with the kids when they’re very young. I don’t want my kids taken care of by strangers.” And when I would say, “Well then why don’t you stay home?” the response was, “Well I would, but at the point when I’m having kids I’m going to be at a crucial point in my career and I can’t just take off a few years, so it’s not about gender, it’s just about the fact that it would be impossible for me.” To which I would say, “Well what if she had a career too, and taking several years off would be damaging to her career?” To which they would say, “Well we would obviously talk about this long before we got married, and I just wouldn’t marry someone who was in that position. It’s not sexist — there are tons of women who would love to quit their jobs and stay home, and it’s their choice, and if both partners agree then how can you say it’s sexist? It’s a private family decision.”
It’s private. I choose my choice. She chooses her choice.
I do in fact reserve most of my anger and vitriol for the men in these scenarios…

What Jill is saying raises a question:  To what extent, and in what way, is it acceptable to criticize others for their personal decisions about the partner with whom they want to share a  relationship?  Because that’s what Jill is doing.  She’s angry with bright young high-status men who would prefer a stay-at-home wife.  She thinks they’re interested in the “wrong” women, and is not shy about saying so.  But this is a double standard.  Consider, for example, the imaginary conversation I had with Fake Amanda Marcotte last year, in which I criticized some of the personal relationship decisions made by women:

Amanda Marcotte:  But that’s up to her, Miguel.  If she wants to make shitty choices in who she dates, and “overvalue” confidence, or “social dominance,” or whatever, that’s her fucking choice.

Steve Buscemi:  She’s got a point, Miguel.  Her fuckin’ choice.

Amanda Marcotte:  And women aren’t obligated to shape their sexual desires to fit your social anxieties.

Miguel:  I’m not saying women have that obligation.

Amanda Marcotte:  Bullshit.  That’s exactly what you’re saying, you just don’t come out and say it explicitly.

But isn’t Jill asking successful men to shape their sexual desires and marry the “right” women?  (The “right” women being those who, like Jill, have successful careers.)  Frankly, I think it’s hard to reconcile what Jill says about men who want stay-at-home wives with what Fake Amanda Marcotte said about women who want to date assholes.  It’s a huge double standard, to which Julia Serano alluded:

I have heard many feminists critique men who prefer women that fulfill the sexual object stereotype.  Many of these critiques (rightly, I think) suggest that the man in question must be somewhat shallow or insecure if he’s willing to settle for someone whom he does not view as his intellectual or emotional equal.  What I have seen far less of are critiques of women who are attracted to sexually aggressive men.  Perhaps this stems in part from the belief that such comments might be misinterpreted as blaming women for enabling the sexual abuse they receive at the hands of men.  While I can understand this reluctance, I nevertheless feel that it is a mistake to ignore this issue, given the fact that many men become sexual aggressors primarily, if not solely, to attract the attention of women.  In fact, if heterosexual women suddenly decided en masse that “nice guys” are far sexier than “assholes,” it would create a huge shift in the predator/prey dynamic.

- Yes Means Yes, Jaclyn Friedman & Jessica Valenti, Seal Press, 2008, p. 237

In other words, what Jill is saying about men marrying stay-at-home moms — how they set up their families may be private, the aggregate effect is not — applies, mutatis mutandis, to women who date assholes.  Aggregate effects of personal decisions shape the culture.  In fact, many of these bright young men who so aggravate Jill are probably unwilling to damage their careers with the “daddy track” precisely because the aggregate effects of preferences shown by women has convinced them that risking their high-powered careers would be a blindingly stupid move.  You can’t make economic success the test of whether someone is a man or a “boy” and then be surprised when men get nervous at the prospect of damaging their careers.  In other words, a man isn’t going to give up The Power if he suspects that The Power is the reason you’ve taken notice of him in the first place.

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Getting pegged.

Clarisse Thorne wrote something once that stuck with me.  She said that “kink sex could be love sex as well”.

I had a pretty nice experience a while back.  A woman came over to my place, we smoked a little pot and she pegged me.  It was a really “sweet”.  It wasn’t anything earth shattering.  We weren’t in love and she’s not my partner.  It was more of a one off thing.  I almost felt as though she were doing it for me, as a favor.  There was one point when I made a moaning sound that was ‘feminine’ (for lack of a better way to describe it), and she perked up and smiled a bit and looked down at my eyes.  “Uh huh” she said, in recognizing that kind of moan.  She smiled.

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Men and boys.

Last fall there was a post in Glamour by Mindy Kaling on Why You Need a Man, Not a Boy.  It was the sort of tripe you often find in popular magazines, and typically I couldn’t care less.  But this particular article was featured in The Hairpin — Thank You Mindy Kaling — and then promoted by Jill Filipovic over at Feministe — Straight to the heart.  Here’s a snippet:

When I was 25, I went on exactly four dates with a much older guy whom I’ll call Peter Parker. I’m calling him Peter Parker because, well, it’s my story, and I’ll name a guy I dated after Spider-Man’s alter ego if I want to.

Peter Parker was a comedy writer who was a smidgen more accomplished than I but who talked about everything with the tone of “you’ve got a lot to learn, kid.” He gave me lots of unsolicited advice about how to get a job “if The Office got canceled.” After a while, it became clear that he thought The Office would get canceled, and by our fourth and last date, that he clearly thought it should get canceled.

Why am I bringing up Peter Parker? Because he was the first real man I dated. An insufferable yet legit man.

Peter owned a house. It wasn’t ritzy or anything, but he’d really made it a home. The walls were painted; there was art in frames. He had installed a flat-screen TV and speakers. There was just so much screwed into the walls, so much that would make you lose your deposit. I marveled at the brazenness of it. Peter’s house reminded me more of my house growing up than of a college dorm room. I’d never seen that before.

Okay, this is PROBLEMATIC.  But isn’t it just fluff?  Aren’t I “eagerly reading way too much into this”?  Well, considering that feminists critique society by critically examining things such as sitcoms and pink toys, a fluff piece that purports to separate men from “boys” might be worth a look.  So consider the writing above and what it says about the first real man, the first legit man that Mindy Kaling dated.  What behaviors did he show that qualified him as a fully adult man?  Let’s review:

- Talked down to his date in a condescending, belittling way.

- Was unsupportive of her career.

-  Assumed she was incompetent and would fail.

-  Had a mortgage, a flat-screen TV, speakers, and a bunch of stuff screwed into his walls.

Nope, nothing wrong here.  Unless you think that men should be valued for more than having the cash, the credit rating, and a solid ability to bargain, and…

…Wait a minute.  Where have I heard that before?  Oh right, Amanda Marcotte!

[Pick Up Artist] guides read like guides on buying a car—show up looking like money, demonstrate to the salesman that you fill out the checklist of requirements to get a car, talk down the price (which PUA guides suggest you do by insulting women, hoping the loss of esteem in their product will cause them to sell at a lower price), and you’re done.  Actual improvement of one’s self is as strange an idea as suggesting that you have to have good character and a tight waistline to get a car.  You just need to have the cash, the credit rating, and a solid ability to bargain.

Isn’t it funny how these transactional ideas of relationships just seem to pop up out of nowhere?

Okay then.  I think I’ve filled my sarcasm quota for the day.  But seriously, this is the sort of thing that makes men think feminism is humbug.

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