Wednesday, April 30, 2008

How Does Meaning Connect with Truth?

"How does meaning connect with truth? One language can be more potentially truth-bearing, more precise, more beautiful, richer in concepts than another. Tyrants destroy language, diminish vocabulary. A language is enlarged, improved ..., by truthful utterance. People suffer and are damaged if prevented from uttering the truth. Assent, general agreement, has a background which must be scrutinised. ... Truth and falsehood are in a perpetual engagement with meaning. Meaning is slippery and free, language is a huge place.... [L]anguage depends very generally upon areas of 'agreement', but is also continuously lived by persons. Fine shades of behaviour, imponderable evidence, looks, glances, gestures, tones, whistling. Such modes of human communication are everywhere fundamental, defeating general 'exactness', but performing precise jobs in individual contexts. Thinking, communicating, must admit the individual, the moral, the aesthetic. ... Language is full of art forms, full of values, we rely daily upon intuitions and distinctions, life passes on, we have to trust our memories, we have to trust the truthfulness of other people. ... Our private reflections, or 'inner lives', are soaked in values. Do we not therefore need to inspect and evaluate our own private thought-being, that inner which is so different from our lived outer? A sense of that separation is one of our deepest experiences. We know very little even about the people who are closest to us. We depend upon intuition and rightly accept many things as mysteries."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Religion Without God

"Emphasis is laid by Zen ... upon the small contingent details of ordinary life and the natural world. Buddhism teaches respect and love for all things. This concerned attention implies or effects a removal from the usual egoistic fuzz of self-protective anxiety. One may not be sure that those who observe stones and snails lovingly will also thus observe human beings, but such observation is a way, an act of respect for individuals, which is itself a virtue, and an image of virtue. ... The notion of achieving a pure cognitive state where ... subject and object simply exist as one is here made comprehensible .... A discipline of meditation wherein the mind is alert but emptied of self enables this form of awareness .... This is 'good for us' because it involves respect, because it is an exercise in cleansing the mind of self preoccupation, because it is an experience of what truth is like.

"... A contemplative observation of contingent 'trivial' detail (insects, leaves, shapes of screwed-up paper, looks and shadows of anything, expressions of faces) is a prevalent and usually ... 'unselfing' activity of consciousness. ... It is a place where the moral and aesthetic join. ...

"[A]bout a self-portrait of Cezanne, Rilke speaks of

"'an animal attentiveness which maintains a continuing, objective vigilance in the unwinking eyes. And how great and incorruptible this objectivity of his gaze was, is confirmed in an almost touching manner by the circumstance that, without analysing or in the remotest degree regarding his expression from a superior standpoint, he made a replica of himself with so much humble objectiveness, with the credulity and extrinsic interest and attention of a dog which sees itself in a mirror and thinks: there is another dog.'

"...'I was with his pictures again today; it is extraordinary what an environment they create about themselves. ... [Y]ou notice, better and better each time, how necessary it was to get beyond even love; it comes naturally to you to love each one of these things if you have made them yourself; but if you show it, you make them less well; you judge them instead of saying them. You cease being impartial; and love, the best thing of all, remains outside your work, does not enter into it, is left over unresolved beside it: this is how the sentimentalist school of painting came into being ... They painted "I love this" instead of painting "Here it is" ....'

"The imageless austerity of Zen is impressive and attractive. It represents to us 'the real thing', what it is like to be stripped of the ego, and how difficult this is. ... The question recurs, can such religious practice make people better? Certainly it may make them more calm, more 'collected', less given to egoistic passions, in many ways more 'unselfish'. ... But ... are you able to understand and care for other people? ... What Christians call love may on closer inspection appear to be shot with egoisms and delusions. The figure of Christ means love, but this meaning is regularly degraded by its users. ... Zen may seem cold; yet Zen art lovingly portrays the tiny things of the world, the details, blithely existing without intelligibility; this too is moral training. ...

"What is important is that we now take in conceptions of religion without God, and of meditation as religious exercise. There is, just as there used (with the old God) to be, a place of wisdom and calm to which we can remove ourselves. We can make our own rites and images, we can preserve the concept of holiness. ... We are moving through a continuum within which we are aware of truth and falsehood, illusion and reality, good and evil. We are continuously striving and learning, discovering and discarding images. Here we are not forced to choose between a 'religious life' and a 'secular life', or between being a 'goodie' and being a cheerful egoist! ... Our business is with the continual activity of our own minds and souls and with our own possibilities of being truthful and good."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Case against Structuralism

"The fundamental value which is lost, obscured, made not to be, by structuralist theory, is truth, language as truthful, where 'truthful' means faithful to, engaging intelligently and responsibly with, a reality which is beyond us. This is the transcendental network, the border, wherein the interests and passions which unite us to the world are progressively woven into illusion or reality, a continuous working of consciousness. ... It is impossible to banish morality from this picture. We work, using or failing to use our honesty, our courage, our truthful imagination, at the interpretation of what is present to us, as we of necessity shape it and 'make something of it'. We help it to be. ... Our ordinary consciousness is a deep continuous working of values, a continuous present and presence of perceptions, intuitions, images, feelings, desires, aversions, attachments. It is a matter of what we 'see things as', what we let, or make, ourselves think about, how by innumerable movements, we train our instincts and develop our habits and test our methods of verification. Imagery, metaphor, has its deep roots and origins in this self-being, and an important part of human learning is an ability both to generate and to judge and understand the imagery which helps us to interpret the world. ...

"We must check philosophical theories against what we know of human nature (and hold on to that phrase too) and feed philosophy with our ordinary (non-theorised, non-jargonised) views of it. Language is meaningful, ergo useful, it performs its essential task, through its ability to be truthful; and its truthfulness is a function of the struggle of individuals creatively to adjust language to contingent conditions outside it. ... [T]he limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being, is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Sunday, April 27, 2008

What Should Be Taught in Schools

"The Greeks were amazed and impressed by their progress in geometry, and Plato takes mathematics as a case of a high, though not highest, knowledge. It may also be seen as an image of, or standing for, any strict intellectual discipline, such as learning a foreign language. Learning is moral progress because it is an asceticism, it diminishes our egoism and enlarges our conception of truth, it provides deeper, subtler and wiser visions of the world. What should be taught in schools: to attend and get things right. Creative power requires these abilities. Intellectual and craft studies initiate new qualities of consciousness, minutiae of perception, ability to observe, they alter our desires, our instinctive movements of desire and aversion. To attend is to care, to learn to desire to learn. One may of course learn bad habits as well as good, and that too is a matter of quality of consciousness. I am speaking now of evident aspects of education and teaching, where the 'intellectual' connects with the 'moral', and where apparently 'neutral' words naturally take on a glow of value. The concepts 'truth' and 'reality' are at issue."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

"[O]ne thing I am ready to fight for in word and deed, that we shall be better, braver and more active men if we believe it right to look for what we do not know, than if we think we cannot discover it and have no duty to seek it."

--Plato, Meno (86 BCE)

The Buddha of the West

"Can western religion survive, retain continuity, without the old dogmatic literalistic myths, what would this state of affairs be like? ... Buddhism has no (literal, historical) central dogma similar to the Christian one, but has a large mythology, readily understood by simpler believers, used in a more reflective manner by the sophisticated. However, eastern religion has always made close links between religion, morality and philosophy, areas which western thought has tended to separate. ... The relation of religion, morality and philosophy is perhaps the great intellectual problem of the age. ... The reflective believer in the east is supported by a long tradition of thought on these matters which does not exist in the west. ... Can the figure of Christ remain religiously significant without the old god-man mythology somehow understood? Can Christ, soon enough, become like Buddha, both real and mystical, but no longer the divine all-in-one man of traditional Christianity? ...

"We must stop thinking of 'God' as the name of a super-person, and indeed as a name at all. Can we then be saved by a mystical Christ who is the Buddha of the west? A Buddhist-style survival of Christianity could preserve tradition, renewing religious inspiration and observance in a vision of Christ as a live spiritual symbol. The historical Buddha became the mystical Buddha-nature; but this process developed during a pre-scientific pre-rationalistic age. Can Christian thought and feeling consciously effect such a change now? Must we otherwise envisage a denuded existentialist 'God' as a symbol of commitment to 'religious values', or the vanishing of religion into political activity or technological utilitarianism? ... For [some people], a demonic magical Pauline Christ may be the god that the age requires rather than a calm though demanding figure symbolising our spiritual nature. ...

"Western people may now find themselves both inside and outside religion. On the one hand we increasingly see it as a historically determined phenomenon, and ourselves as emerging from an era where myths were regarded in an unreflective way as 'real', into a scientific era where, making a distinction which people in the past did not make, we treat them as symbols or purveyors of truth, though not factually true. On the other hand, if we do not want to dismiss all religion as childish fiction, we have to decide, as people in the past did not, what exactly religion is and where in the mass of religiosity and religious stuff it 'really resides'. ... One of the difficulties of a modern view of religion is that one may seem forced to suggest, and for many kind of reasons (modesty, historical sensibility) is reluctant to, that the religion of the past was for most people a consoling, though perhaps ethically efficacious, fiction. ... Of course simple faith cannot be dismissed as superstitious illusion, it may be more 'in the truth' than modern scepticism. Our huge jumbled history is a religious history from which we must learn. ...

"However that may be, one must still hold on to the present problem of distinguishing 'true religion' from the comforts of mythology, old or new. Much art and religious myth has the effect, and the intended effect, of concealing the fact of death. ... The idea of metempsychosis, transmigration of souls, in eastern religion, which may be thought of in supernatural terms of personal immortality, is in a more sophisticated sense a symbol of the unreality of the self ... The idea of the unreality of the self mediates the idea of death. ... Outsiders often help bereaved people by reminding them that they have urgent duties and must not remain in stilled contemplation of what is uniquely terrible. There are immediate tasks, arrangements to be made, others to be comforted, ordinary life at last to be carried on. Can less extreme lessons enable us to take in our mortality and see the world in its light? Can it be done through art, through meditation, through psychoanalysis, through reading books or listening to preaching?"

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

God as Super-Art-Object

"Religion may still be an answer to guilt and fear, may be expected to save us from technology; the hope of the salvation of the individual and the redemption of all fallen things remains in many forms. Belief in a personal God seemed a prime guarantee of general morality. The charm, attraction, and in many ways deep effectiveness, of faith in a personal God must constantly strike the critical or envious outsider. It is just this practical and consoling God whom the bolder demythologising theologians want us to take leave of. In doing so they may well point to the Second Commandment. 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above or in the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.' (Exodus 20.4.) This indeed sounds like a veto not only upon idolatrous symbolic visual art, but upon any art and even upon the development of a pictorial theology. The spirit of the Commandment has been observed by Judaism and Islam; but not by Christianity, where all the talents of art, not least those of the painters, have been dedicated to presenting God as a kind of super-art-object. The work of art unifies our sensibility. Its authoritative unity and thereness guarantees and stabilises our existence, while removing our petty egoistic anxiety. ... God combines the characteristics of a work of art and of a philosophical idea with those of an ideal spectator. We see in God in a magnified form the analogy between work of art and person; and Christ as God provides both personality and story. ...

"Our illusions about art and morals are in some ways similar. Do we expect too much from art? ... The material of art is contingent limited historically stained stuff. Nevertheless art is a great source of revelation. ... It is difficult for any artist not to falsify, the discipline of art must include the persistent recognition and rejection of easy natural falsification: the temptation to the ego is enormous since it really does seem here to dispose of the godlike powers it secretly dreams of. Truth is always a proper touchstone in art, and a training in art is a training in how to use the touchstone. This is perhaps the most difficult thing of all, requiring that courage which the good artist must possess. Artists indicate or invent, in the invention of their work, their own relevant tests of truth. A study of good literature, or of any good art, enlarges and refines our understanding of truth, our methods of verification. Truth is not a simple or easy concept. Critical terminology imputes falsehood to an artist by using terms such as fantastic, sentimental, self-indulgent, banal, grotesque, tendentious, unclarified, wilfully obscure and so on. The positive aspect of the avoidance of these faults is a kind of transcendence: the ability to see other non-self things clearly and to criticise and celebrate them freely and justly. ...

"Art is artificial, it is indirect communication which delights in its own artifice. The work of art is, to use W. H. Auden's words (he is speaking of a poem), 'a contraption'. But it is, as he goes on to say, 'a contraption with a guy inside it'. The art object is a kind of illusion, a false unity, the product of a mortal man who cannot entirely dominate his subject matter and remove or transform contingent rubble and unclarified personal emotions and attitudes. ... Art expands our present consciousness and teaches us to live inside it. We seek in art of all kinds for the comforting sense of a unified self, with organised emotions and fearless world-dominating intelligence, a complete experience in a limited whole. Yet good art mirrors not only the (illusory) unity of the self but its real disunity. ... Good art accepts and celebrates and meditates upon the defeat of the discursive intellect by the world. Bad art misrepresents the world so as to pretend there is no defeat."

--Iris Murdoch, Metephysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)


"The Oxford Dictionary describes the mystical as 'having a certain spiritual character or import by virtue of a connection or union with God transcending human comprehension'. All right. I would say ... that a mystic is a good person whose knowledge of the divine and practice of the selfless life has transcended the level of idols and images. ... This may or may not accompany belief in a personal deity. ... But, someone may say, what can we do now that there is no God? This does not affect what is mystical. The loss of prayer, through the loss of belief in God, is a great loss. However, a general answer is a practice of meditation: a withdrawal, through some disciplined quietness, into the great chamber of the soul. Just sitting quiet will help. Teach it to children. ...

"Schopenhauer ... expresses a new (modern) definition of metaphysics or metaphysical craving (one which would also be acceptable to Plato) when he speaks of our finite nature together with our passionate desire to understand 'the world' which we attempt to intuit 'as a whole'. Metaphysics may thus be connected with a mystical state. ... Wittgenstein uses the idea of the work of art, the ability to see the world sub specie aeterni as a limited whole, to explain what ... harmony is like. ... The ability ... to see (or feel) depends on keeping close to the reality of the world, accepting the facts and following the stream of life. This is described as 'mystical'. With the 'limits' of our 'finite nature' we are able to feel or intuit the world as a whole, though not as a totally comprehended whole. We are at peace with the world, as we are with a work of art."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Fact and Value

"A misleading though attractive distinction is made by many thinkers between fact and (moral) value. Roughly, the purpose of the distinction ... is to segregate value in order to keep it pure and untainted, not derived from or mixed with empirical facts. This move however, in time and as interpreted, may in effect result in a diminished, even perfunctory, account of morality, leading (with the increasing prestige of science) to a marginalisation of 'the ethical'. ... This originally well-intentioned segregation then ignores an obvious and important aspect of human existence, the way in which almost all our concepts and activities involve evaluation. ... [I]n the majority of cases, a survey of the facts will itself involve moral discrimination. ... Much of our life is taken up by truth-seeking, imagining, questioning. We relate to facts through truth and truthfulness, and come to recognise and discover that there are different modes and levels of insight and understanding. In many familiar ways various values pervade and colour what we take to be the reality of our world; wherein we constantly evaluate our own values and those of others, and judge and determine forms of consciousness and modes of being. To say all this is not in any way to deny either science, empiricism or common-sense. ... A proper separation of fact and value, as a defence of morality, lies in the contention that moral value cannot be derived from fact."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

The Moral Life in the Platonic Understanding of It

"The lover, Plato says, reveres the beloved as if he were a god. When Christopher Isherwood asked his guru if it was all right to love boys, the guru replied that Christopher should regard his loved one as the young god Krishna. How does this go in Christian terms? ... To see Christ in those you pity or even in those you hate may seem a more intelligible charge than to see him in those you are madly in love with; where the sacred image might appear as an unwelcome or irrelevant obstacle or else as blasphemously degraded! In such a context Christian western puritanism instinctively envisages as sinful aspects of carnal love which eastern religion has more freely spiritualised. ...

"The concept of anamnesis appears in Plato's Meno in the context of asking whether virtue is natural or whether it is something that can be taught, and answering that it is neither, but comes by 'divine dispensation' or 'grace'. This does not of course mean that virtue is a matter of luck, but that it comes as the reward of a sort of morally disciplined attention. ... Anamnesis, spiritual memory, belongs to the individual who 'remembers' pure Forms of goodness and beauty with which he was familiar 'face to face' (not 'in a glass darkly') in another existence. These journeys of the soul, as described in the Phaedrus and in the tale of reincarnation at the end of the Republic, are of course mythical ideas, similar to the concept of Nirvana in Buddhism. ... The solitary private moral agent must be his own authority, continually doing it all, over and over, for himself. ...

"The moral life in the Platonic understanding of it is a slow shift of attachments wherein looking (concentrating, attending, attentive discipline) is a source of divine (purified) energy. This is a progressive redemption of desire: and sexual attachment in the ordinary sense can be one possible starting point for the overcoming of egoism. The movement is not, by an occasional leap, into an external (empty) space of freedom, but patiently and continuously a change of one's whole being in all its contingent detail, through a world of appearance toward a world of reality. The importance Plato attaches to studying, whether in intellectual work or craft, is an instance and image of virtuous truth-seeking activity."

--Iris Murdoch, Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals (1992)

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Choose Your Favorite Theocracy

In the UK, Pink News reports that last February US ally Bahrain, one of the more liberal and democratic Muslim nations in the Middle East, proposed a crackdown on homosexuality, which it views as a "threat to society and Islamic values."

For decades now, homosexuality has been a crime in Bahrain (since the days when it was a colonial outpost of Great Britain), but the new proposal calls for increased police vigilance in stopping homosexuals at the airport before they can enter the country and encourages teachers of school-age children to identify gay-acting children and punish them accordingly.

The ban on homosexuality is viewed as a means of protecting Islam, not as the tired old vestige of colonialism that it is.

Lest we Americans feel too smug, yesterday on conservative talk show host Dennis Prager's radio broadcast, Prager asked televangelist John Hagee, a valued supporter of Republican presidential candidate John McCain, whether he stood by his 2006 statement that Hurricane Katrina was God's judgment against New Orleans for permitting gay celebrations like Southern Decadence.

Hagee reconfirmed his previous statement, noting that the hurricane struck because New Orleans was a "city that was planning a sinful conduct."

We'll have to wait and see whether Hagee's remarks draw the same fire onto McCain that pastor Jeremiah Wright's comments on American racism drew onto Obama.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

My 1990s

I remember V holding my hand under the table at Trader Jon’s.

I remember driving to New Orleans with V to see Todd Haynes’s movie Poison at the Prytania Theatre.

I remember partying at the Warsaw Ballroom on Miami Beach with G.

I remember throwing a wildly successful party for S and her Nashville friends—in which guests (gay and straight) ranged in age from 18 to 68.

I remember an answering machine full of taunts and threats the morning my picture appeared with a newspaper article about gays in Pensacola, in which I criticized the local police for harassing gay men.

I remember M, C, and I being arrested for “disorderly conduct” and then M and I successfully defending ourselves in court against the trumped-up (and politically motivated) misdemeanor charge.

I remember my mother’s slow, humiliating decline into vascular dementia as the worst part of my life so far.

I remember getting my first glasses (bifocals) at a mall in Augusta.

I remember chicken, lamb, couscous, almonds, fresh fruit, and hot sweet tea at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant in Philadelphia.

I remember drinking caiparinhas with D at the Oba-Oba Bar in Madrid.

I remember being struck speechless by some Goya paintings at the Prado.

I remember dinner at J’s, meeting author John Berendt along with some of the characters who populated Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.

I remember M buying me ice cream after I found out my mother had died and telling me that whatever feelings I had just then were perfectly all right.

I remember the funeral home director delivering my mother’s cremains and my thinking how much like a pizza delivery the moment was.

I remember driving home with Ripley at 8 weeks old—he yelped a little and then fell asleep in his cardboard box and, when he awoke, it was as if we had bonded long ago.

I remember wishing Robert Altman happy birthday in 1997 while he was shooting a scene with Kenneth Branagh and Robert Downey, Jr., at Forsyth Park, close to where I lived.

I remember nudity, drinks, and a terrific view of the sunset over the Pacific while hot-tubbing with V and A in San Luis Obispo.

I remember my first and so far only experience in hiring a rentboy—a dancer at Saloon 1 in Key West—a stunning physique and probably the most competent and service-oriented professionalism (of any profession) I’ve ever encountered.

I remember being captivated by a young blond stripper at Boxer’s, who danced to White Town’s “Your Woman.”

Monday, April 21, 2008

My 1980s

I remember making out with B on his sofa, his white shirt undone to the belly, with CNN playing in the background (his idea of aphrodisiac noise).

I remember finally telling my parents I'm gay. My mother did not put a bullet through my head, as she had promised.

I remember quitting a teaching job--with no other job prospects--because the college administration wanted me to cave to hyper-conservative students complaining that an English text I used contained an essay using the words "vagina" and "clitoris" (moreover, the essay was an argument against pornography, and I had never assigned the essay).

I remember being caught in Atlanta in a snowstorm with S.

I remember picking up a GQ model from Atlanta in Savannah, bringing him home to my place in Hampton, SC, and then accidentally running into him two months later at a mall in Atlanta. (I bragged about this conquest so tiresomely that a friend set a place at Thanksgiving dinner especially for the issue of GQ, propped open to the relevant pages.)

I remember drinking scotch and listening to music with D, stripped to our skivvies in front of his crackling fireplace.

I remember getting a pink slip just a week after getting a "merit raise"--all because the college dean found out that I was participating in an AIDS fundraiser.

I remember enjoying my first snort of cocaine with M and R at a cast party in Charleston.

I remember a complete stranger buying me a bottle of champagne for my birthday in New Orleans.

I remember D drunkenly screaming outside my apartment door at 3 o'clock in the morning. I let him in, but the next day I asked him, "Where do you want me to drop you off?" He said, "Oh, so that's how it is." And I said, "Yep."

I remember dancing with L for the first time at the Pharr Library, Atlanta.

I remember watching David Byrne dance with a floor lamp at the Talking Heads concert in Charlotte.

I remember standing in perfectly clear still water at Pensacola Beach and watching a school of neon-blue fish swim around my legs.

I remember getting my hair clipped on Pensacola Beach by a cute hippie stud with no shirt on--amazingly hot--and the beginnings of a new fetish.

I remember A biting the buttons of my shirt on the living room floor at S's place.

I remember feeling heartsick as I placed my vote for Dukakis and then watched the local Christian college pull up with six Greyhound buses full of Republican voters.

I remember T's funeral. T taught little girls ballet before dying of pneumocystis pneumonia, and his pint-size pupils occupied the first two rows of the funeral chapel. The back two rows were his gay friends. When the minister quipped, for the little girls' benefit, "I bet you that already Tommy's had every angel at the barre," the back rows exploded with inappropriate giggles.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

My 1970s

I remember dancing to Don't Shoot Me I'm the Piano Player in my bedroom.

I remember scanning the male starlets pictured in After Dark magazine as possible leads in a never-made film adaptation of Mary Renault's The Persian Boy.

I remember riding girlfriend-style on the back of D's motorcycle.

I remember being dumbstruck by pictures of Jeff Aquilon in GQ magazine.

I remember masturbating while listening to Jethro Tull's Bungle in the Jungle.

I remember watching The Boys in the Band with L, even though we kept an empty seat between us.

I remember my mother, a volunteer with Anita Bryant's Save Our Children campaign in Dade County, saying she'd put a bullet through my head if she ever found out I was gay.

I remember my fundamentalist pastor catching me in bed with B.

I remember collapsing in my dorm room at Bob Jones University.

I remember being complimented in grad school on an essay I wrote on John Gardner's Grendel, in which I compared the Dragon to W.C. Fields.

I remember jumping from the roof of a three-story building (no harm done).

I remember a mouse running up my arm when I tried to light the pilot light of my oven.

I remember throwing up in a ice cream shoppe at Disneyland.

I remember reading Crime and Punishment while serving jury duty.

I remember eating at a restaurant called Elephant Walk, in which a fake volcano erupted on the hour.

I remember ordering chef's salads with 1000 island dressing at Denny's after midnight.

I remember driving from Miami to Key West with L.

I remember trying heroin with complete strangers in the parking garage of a shopping mall near Hollywood, FL.

I remember burning a pot roast to cinders, having forgot all about putting it into the crockpot.

I remember making out with K while listening to Gerry Rafferty's Baker Street.

I remember J's helping me throw a silver wedding anniversary party for my parents.

I remember running into Robert Conrad (my boyhood hero) at a hotel restaurant in Miami.

I remember driving home with my friends after seeing a midnight showing of Halloween.

I remember watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show with L, with no empty seat between us.

I remember giving L several books of B Kliban cartoons while he was in the hospital recovering from hepatitis.

I remember letting my male Christian friends "hypnotize" me (and me, them) so we could do things with each other we would never have considered doing otherwise.

I remember watching divers diving, while eating at the U of Miami cafeteria. I also remember a guy coming to freshmen composition class there in only his Speedo and flipflops, his hair and body still dripping wet.

I remember a neighbor pulling a gun on me once when I was trying to break into my own house late at night, having locked my keys inside.

I remember reading Thoreau's Cape Cod and Melville's Moby-Dick while vacationing on Cape Cod.

I remember my mother buying me Coca-Cola bookends for my birthday.

I remember celebrating the Bicentennial on Calle Ocho.

I remember poetry meetings with the Snarks, through which I got to meet Gwendolyn Brooks, Olga Broumas, and Donald Justice.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

War Criminal

In a time-honored tradition of dumping bad news late on Friday afternoons, when news outlets can't or don't give it much play, President Bush admitted last Friday that he knew about and approved a clandestine 2003 meeting of the White House national security team, including VP Cheney, to detail and support the practices of waterboarding and other "enhanced" interrogation techniques, applied to terror suspects, incarcerated without trial or habeas corpus.

Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention defines war crimes as "willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including ... causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, ... or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial, ... taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly."

The Convention defines "protected persons" as those "who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals."

Persons not protected by the Convention are citizens of a nation not bound by the Convention and citizens of a nation that has normal diplomatic relations with the nation into whose hands the citizens have fallen.

Article 147 also legally defines "torture" as "the infliction of suffering on a person to obtain from that person, or from another person, confessions or information. ... It is more than a mere assault on the physical or moral integrity of a person. What is important is not so much the pain itself as the purpose behind its infliction."

The article states further that "by 'inhuman treatment' [specific to the treatment of nonmilitary captives--which the White House has claimed the detainees are--i.e., they are not POWs] the Convention does not mean only physical injury or injury to health."

In March 23, 2003, when five US soldiers were captured and videotaped by Iraqi troops, President Bush warned that "the people who mistreat the prisoners will be treated as war criminals." Iraq, in response, promised to respect the Geneva Conventions in its treatment of the prisoners.

Three years later Bush called the Geneva Conventions "vague"--yet called on Congress to back even looser, more permissive definitions of "torture" and "inhuman treatment."

And, now, in 2008, he admits oversight in 2003 to the willful dismantling of the humane protections of the Geneva Conventions, as they apply to captured military and civilian citizens of an antagonist nation.

Dear International Court of Justice: You may draw up the paperwork now. Thanks!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Honest Ob

So this morning I wake up to NPR, and what I hear is this--a focus group of Pennsylvania women talking about candidates Clinton and Obama--in particular, wouldn't you know, Obama's statement about small-town Americans growing "bitter" over the apathy of the Clinton and Bush administrations (one has to guess that Reagan is hardly worth remarking on, on this matter).

As I said yesterday, it's a comment I don't understand all the fuss about.

But what caught my attention this morning was one woman who said that when she first heard Obama's statements, she thought, At last, somebody's speaking truth! But then she had a second, sobering thought, which was Oh, no, I can't believe he just said that. (I paraphrase, though without exaggeration.)

Now, she says, she's leaning towards Clinton, because she fears that Obama may be "too honest" for the general election.

Excuse me?

"Honest Abe" Lincoln must be rolling in his grave!

Of course, no chance of Honest Abe making it on America's campaign trail today. Not only might he be "too honest," but also he never smiled for the camera, and scarcely a sound bite (or even anything amusing) is to be found in all his Gettysburg Address.

Perhaps more troubling (to me, anyway) was the failure of the NPR interviewer to follow up with a question--such as "Do you really believe honesty is damaging in American presidential politics? Why?" Instead, the reporter's silence indicates that the woman had said nothing exceptional, nothing worth further inquiry.

So, this is how it is, is it?

McCain says he thinks the war in Iraq might go on for another 100 years, fine with him if it does, and the debate is only over whether he's getting his numbers right. Clinton lies bald-faced that she was caught in a crossfire in Bosnia, and she's given some good-natured ribbing over it. Obama says people the elites have taken advantage of for decades now, shipping their jobs to China and India and their sons and daughters to Iraq, are bitter (I might have said "pissed off"), and, all of a sudden, the man's not worthy of the presidency.


Is this what the country has come to?

All I got to say to that Pennsylvania woman on NPR is "You've got one thing absolutely right, then. Clinton's the one for you!"


Check out today's blog by Sam Stein at the Huffington Post: "Hillary Clinton on Working Class Whites in 1995: 'Screw 'em.'"

Tuesday, April 15, 2008


“Our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there’s not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are going to regenerate and they have not.

“And it’s not surprising then they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

--Barack Obama, in San Francisco, CA, last weekend

It's been almost a week now, and the pundits can't get over these remarks. Clinton called them "elitist," fearing that they reflected the public's worst impression of the Democratic Party (the same anti-liberal nervous-nellyism we saw when Howard Dean's "yell" caused the DNC to piss its pants four years ago). This morning I heard a sound bite of McCain stating that the remarks were an insult to the workers on whose shoulders this great nation has been built--or some such shit platitude.

Call me out of touch, but I don't have a problem with what Obama said. I'd say he pretty much hit the nail on the head. Maybe I'm just an elitist, since I grew up in trailer parks and military housing and now teach at a fancy community college in the South.

Frankly, I can't decide which is the greater insult to small-town, working-class people: McCain's easy, on-script platitudes or Clinton's caustic hypersensitivity? They're both the sort of anesthetic response to the challenges real Americans have to face that Obama alone wants to talk frankly about.

McCain and Clinton seem to think their job is simply to remind us what "a great people" we are and talk vaguely about saving the US economy, when what they really mean to save are corporations, of which regular Americans are growing increasingly suspicious.

And they're pissed that Obama was not successfully weeded out with other out-of-touch candidates, like Edwards, Gravel, Richardson, and Kucinich, who were silly enough to think Americans really want a change.

Instead, McCain and Clinton break their necks to pass themselves off as the next Bush That Is Not Actually Bush.

(And why the constant harping on the fact that Obama made his remarks in San Francisco? I haven't heard coverage yet that's failed to mention the city's name. I couldn't tell you where Obama was when he delivered his riveting speech on race, but for some reason everybody seems to think I need to know that he's been to San Francisco lately and said some things to some people there.)


And, oh, by the way, don't miss Sam Stein's blog at today's Huffington Post, "Obama Outraises Clinton among Small Town Pennsylvanians."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

This Morning's Sermon: Mark Twain on Religious Morality

“During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after doing its duty in but a lazy and indolent way for eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumbscrews, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood.

“Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch—the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything. At Salem, the parson clung pathetically to his witch test after the laity had abandoned it in remorse and tears for the crimes and cruelties it had persuaded them to do. The parson wanted more blood, more shame, more brutalities; it was the unconsecrated laity that stayed his hand. In Scotland the parson killed the witch after the magistrate had pronounced her innocent; and when the merciful legislature proposed to sweep the hideous laws against witches from the statute book, it was the parson who came imploring, with tears and imprecations, that they be suffered to stand.

“There are no witches. The witch text remains; only the practice has changed. Hell fire is gone, but the text remains. Infant damnation is gone, but the text remains. More than two hundred death penalties are gone from the law books, but the texts that authorized them remain.

“Is it not well worthy of note that of all the multitude of texts through which man has driven his annihilating pen he has never once made the mistake of obliterating a good and useful one? It does certainly seem to suggest that if man continues in the direction of enlightenment, his religious practice may, in the end, attain some semblance of human decency.”

--Mark Twain, excerpt from “Bible Teaching and Religious Practice,” 1923

Friday, April 11, 2008


As just one sign of how bad things can go at the end of the year, even after seven years of George W. Bush, the Republicans are running neck to neck with Democrats for the 2008 vote.

Republican candidate John McCain favors continuing a war 65% of Americans oppose, and still he is at least as viable a Presidential candidate as Democrats Clinton or Obama.

In a recent poll in New York, voters favored a John McCain/Condileeza Rice ticket over a Barack Obama/Hillary Clinton ticket 49% vs 46%.

What this factoid appears to suggest is that both Democrats together can't match the Republican nominee plus somebody tight with the present administration, however loathed we say it is.

On potentially crucial issues like gay rights, the death penalty, education, and campaign reform, the three candidates are hard to distinguish.

On health care, supposedly a key issue in 2008, the candidate offering the most health coverage to the most Americans is running third, so far.

On Iraq, McCain proposes no change in policy, famously estimating that that war, which the US unarguably started for no true or just reason, could continue for another 100 years.

On the use of torture or extreme interrogation techniques, McCain seems to be moving away from his stance three years ago, when he disagreed with the White House over torture. (Because the US does not regard detainees in the war on terror to be military combatants, the Bush Administration does not regard Geneva Conventions against torture and humiliation of prisoners as applicable.) A couple of months ago, however, McCain endorsed the Army Field Manual standards on “enhanced interrogation techniques,” formerly proposed by Donald Rumsfeld.

McCain is perhaps the best Republican nominee for President in 44 years. Still, one has to wonder how someone who has managed to distance himself so little from the present unpopular President, even creeping closer to Bush’s worst policies over the past three years, has managed to escape guilt by association with GWB, as Gore once faced and Clinton still faces over WJC’s publicly disgraced Presidency.

Perhaps we can expect a little less self-righteousness from the right about the sanctity of marriage and religious values—since Clinton and Obama have been married just once to McCain’s twice.

Further, McCain, nominally a Christian, says he has never been “born again” and was never baptized, though he sometimes attends a Baptist church in his home state of Arizona.

I doubt the good Christian Republicans will see these as the selling points I do. All the same, Reagan’s dysfunctional family life and lack of even church attendance did nothing to diminish his allure for the religious right in the 1980s.

Until the US media stop soft-soaping their analyses of war hero McCain, and lighten up on their coverage of Obama’s patriotism and Clinton’s views on Monica Lewinsky, both inane considerations at this point, we can expect nothing to change in America, in Iraq, and in countless interrogation centers across the world in our lifetimes.

Sweet and Tender Hooligan

In Michigan, attorneys for 22-year-old Steven Scarborough succeeded in convincing jurors that Scarborough killed 62-year-old Victor Manious in a “gay panic” after Manious made unwanted advances on Scarborough.

The jury convicted Scarborough on a lesser voluntary manslaughter charge, with a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison, with the possibility of parole, instead of first degree murder with life in prison, no parole.

According to Scarborough, Manious assaulted him and knocked him unconscious. When he regained consciousness, Scarborough said, he found Manious in his underwear on top of him, which violated Scarborough’s Southern Baptist beliefs, he said.

Despite the fact that the two met in a gay bar and left for an apartment belonging to Scarborough’s friend of seven weeks, Justin Robinson, the trauma of the alleged sexual assault so shook Scarborough that he then stashed Manious’s body in the trunk of his car and used the man’s credit cards for a few days of shopping and dining out with Robinson.

The easy verdict marks one more in a long string of cases proving that murder is not really murder when the victim is perceived as gay. In fact, two hours before reaching the verdict, jurors had requested information about the possibility of an acquittal.

Sentencing is scheduled for May, and it is expected that, because spiritually-minded Scarborough has several prior felony convictions, the judge’s sentence will be long.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

A Common Cold

I was at my worst when I woke up this morning, but now, barely five hours later, I'm feeling relatively fine. Still the occasional unproductive cough, ticklishness in the chest, but no more sense of exhaustion and stiffness.

I've missed two days of work now--plus I couldn't join friends for dinner and a show last night.

I have a cold. Yesterday afternoon I went to my doctor, whom I haven't seen in over five years. She didn't recognize me. She's a pleasant person with a pleasant, tolerant manner, gentle in reminding me that once a person hits 50 it's recommended that he have annual physicals.

Her assistant checked my weight, blood pressure, and pulse. She looked into my ears, nostrils, and throat. She listened to my chest and my back. Every time she said that a part of me looked good, I blushed with pride.

I told her I had a cough at about 5-minute intervals, no trouble breathing through the nose, muscle aches--though nothing riveting, sore throat, slight nausea, chest congestion, and had awoken Monday night covered in cold sweat.

She really couldn't say what it was, exactly. Tissue swelling looked minimal and I had a healthy color.

I had a cold. A virus, perhaps, probably nothing bacterial, but she would write me a prescription for Biaxin I could cash in a week if the symptoms did not subside by then. She thought the sore throat was the effect of breathing through my mouth while sleeping, due to nasal congestion--nasal congestion I was somehow unaware of, apparently. She would give me some sample nasal sprays to use once a day.

She was attentive, intelligent, and empathetic.

This morning the coughs seem to threaten to become productive. Some are explosive, snapping my whole body like a whip. But overall I feel more energy than I've felt in a week, so I take that as a hopeful sign.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Needing God

One of the most puzzling arguments for the existence of God is that without God life has no meaning and no moral center.

First, I’m not sure that need is any kind of basis for supporting a claim of God’s existence. The world has many needs that are left unmet. My needing a kidney donor would do nothing to ensure that one exists.

Second, and more to the point, I don’t agree with the assumption that meaning and morality come exclusively … or even primarily … through religion. Lots of people are religious without any sort of meaning conferred to their existence—otherwise, why would they need books like A Purpose-Driven Life?

Religious morality, so called, inspires a cold sense of self-righteousness, risk aversion, and intolerant austerity that I can’t accurately call “morality” at all, especially since it too frequently manifests itself in hatred, arrogance, unexplored personal potential, thin-skinned vengefulness, and callous violence.

It seems to me that meaning in life comes from introspection and the courage to live up to reasonable standards one sets for oneself.

Morality derives from reason, from the need for community and interdependence—as many have pointed out, it boils down to Treat Others the Way You Would Want to Be Treated, so far the best guidance we have for getting along with other people without resorting to domination or capitulation.

The one moral precept that seems to matter, then, is Respect for Others, and I’m not convinced that Respect requires religion or that religion, judging its fruits rather than its stated intentions, is even conducive to the fostering of Respect.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Full Frame Documentary Film Festival: Four Capsule Reviews

FLYING ON ONE ENGINE (dir. Joshua Z. Weinstein) focuses on Sharadkumar Dicksheet, a wheelchair-bound plastic surgeon who travels once a year to India to repair cleft palates on children. His camp-style tour visits rural areas, where in a week the doctor performs hundreds of surgeries, working in the operating room for 12 hours at a time. In India, some Hindus honor him as a god, and he's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize eight times. What makes the film unlike what you'd expect is Dicksheet himself. In his 70s and frail in health, he still has an ego big as all Asia, sniping at his assistants like a temperamental diva and complaining that Nobel winners are far less deserving of the honor than he. His compassion is visible in his amazing service to the poor people of his native India (and the touching gratitude of the people he helps), but his demeanor remains disdainful, aloof, and calculating.

BE LIKE OTHERS (dir. Tazan Eshaghian) looks into the lives of transsexuals in Iran. Iranian religion and law, if not its culture, tolerate gender reassignment surgery, which is funded by the government. It's the only option available for men who want to be with men or women who want to be with women. Homosexuality is severely repressed, however, punishable with imprisonment or stoning. In private, a number of the pre-ops confess that if they lived in the West, where homosexuality is tolerated, they would not consider the surgery. Most are rejected by their families and communities--even former boyfriends--and turn to "short-term marriages" (religiously approved prostitution) to survive. Many commit suicide. For Westerners, the trans world of Tehran looks like an alternative universe--but the homophobia and religious guilt should be familiar to many.

THE BODY OF WAR (dir. Phil Donahue and Ellen Spiro) is a painfully intimate look into the life of Tomas Young, an Iraqi War vet paralyzed by a gunshot wound his fifth day in Iraq. The movie focuses on Young, his wife, and his mother, and their attempts to draw attention to the injustice of Bush's war. I loved all four movies I've seen at this year's festival, but this one is by far my favorite. It's a tearjerker--and a pisser-offer. Young is a bright, witty, and articulate guy, in constant misery and pumped full of drugs which cause him to feel lightheaded. At one speaking engagement, he jokes, "If I say a lot of uh's and stammer in my speech, pardon me if I sound ... Presidential." His life is further complicated by the fact that his younger brother is heading to Iraq next, and his stepfather is a right-wing Dittohead, who sees nothing wrong at all with the way Bush has conducted his wars. The filmmakers don't romanticize or sentimentalize Young's plight, and the young man is courageously frank about intimate effects of a life lived in a wheelchair. Intercut with the episodes of Young's life as an activist is Sen. Robert Byrd's rousing 2002 speech to Congress, pleading with its members not to abdicate their Constitutional responsibilities (for declaring war) to the President. The film indicts not just the President, but especially the Congress who gave the President unprecedented powers of war--as well as all the other Americans who kept their heads in the sand, while revenge, greed, and mendacity wrecked the country. Several scenes of this movie will remain in my head for months to come, I'm sure.

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD (dir. Werner Herzog) places the dry-witted German director in Antarctica, where he determines not to make just another penguin movie. Instead, he focuses on the outcasts and philosophers who wind up working odd jobs at the southernmost point on Earth. One interviewee, a linguist, muses on the irony that he has ended up on the one continent with no languages. Typical of Herzog, the film is obsessed with eccentricities and mania--the strange underwater world under the ice mass (stunningly photographed), the wild and wooly adventures of some of the people working in Antarctica, and the unusual scientific studies in which they (often dangerously) engage. Herzog questions whether mankind's time on earth is almost at an end, as most scientists now predict. In the end, the camera relents and directs our attention to the penguins, but mainly to one "insane" loner penguin, fleeing the pack, heading on a suicide mission to the icy mountains.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Kimba, Mon Amour

In Altus, Oklahoma, in the early 1960s, weekday afternoons after school belonged to Tarzan. Every day, around 3:30 or 4:00, the local TV station showed highly condensed versions of the old Johnny Weissmuller MGM adventure films, just before the evening news and Yogi Bear or Top Cat.

In the movies featuring Johnny Sheffield as Boy, I imagined myself as Boy, and somehow in my mind, though vaguely, the main coupling in these films was Tarzan and Boy--forget Maureen O'Sullivan, forget Brenda Joyce--Janes I and II.

I still have a vivid recollection of a dream in which I clutched Tarzan's feet while he trapezed a path through the treetops of Hollywood's version of Africa, from which I awoke with a prepubescent hard-on.

I have another, embarrassing memory of trying to convince a skeptical classmate at school that Johnny Weissmuller was my big brother, not even realizing the man was born 49 years before me--even Boy could have been my father.

The proto-homoerotic aspects of my Tarzan/Boy fixation were subliminal for me as a child--naming of them as such, of course, came much, much later.

But the strongest of these feelings surfaced once while watching one of the later films of the series, Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, starring Johnny Weissmuller, Brenda Joyce, Acquanetta (how can you not love that name?), Johnny Sheffield, and Tommy Cook as Kimba, the Leopard Boy.

In it, Tarzan battles the Leopard People, who are, for all intents and purposes, early anti-globalization activists--a cave-dwelling cult determined to halt the encroachment of "civilization" into the heart of the African continent. Critical theorists may notice that the film manages to displace Tarzan's own earlier antipathy to Western society, having already rubbed elbows with big-city life in 1942's Tarzan's New York Adventure, after 10 years of fighting capitalist greed in the form of ivory hunters (i.e., colonialist robbers of third-world natural resources).

In 1945, when this film was shot, both Sheffield and Cook were young teenagers. In TatLW, Boy acquires a playmate and a rival in Kimba--someone dark-haired and olive-skinned to Boy's Anglo-Saxon blondishness, someone slender, agile, and sinister to complement Boy's beefy, brash heroism. Both of them scantily clad, with the unruly curly hair of all child stars of the day.

From that day on, this was my image of the ideal relationship--two athletic youths, playmates and rivals, one the shadow of the other. The scene when Boy discovers Kimba's treachery and the two fight hand to hand and chest to chest was a touchstone of my earliest onanist scenarios. Kimba, with his leopard's claw weapon, has the upper hand until Cheetah bonks the kid on the head with a branch, allowing Boy to subdue him and lock him in a handmade cage.

Just the fact that Kimba was a child villain--something I had rarely seen before--excited me, because by then Hollywood had assured me that villains and villainesses were the most interesting people in the world ... they had all the wit, all the taste, all the jaded charm, all the best lines, and, more often than not, spectacular death scenes--I especially liked the ones who fell off precipices--or, better, those who were hurled to their deaths by monsters of their own creation.

Villains, I already knew, may have short lives, but they had miles of exoticism and fashion sense--much preferable to the dumb, earnest do-gooders who would ultimately triumph.

The only other evil children I knew of were in Village of the Damned and an occasional episode of Twilight Zone--and these too enchanted me. The thought of one day being an evil genius--or at least playing one on TV--inspired me to apply myself diligently to books and homework, because clearly you had to be an intellectual if you ever were to succeed as a criminal mastermind.

Some years later, in sixth grade, I got to play Gary Martindale, "a scheming young man" (I quote the program), in a "mystery-comedy in three acts" called It Walks at Midnight. In my country abode, ominously called "Deep Shadows," I, along with my evil sister Elinor, terrorized a "nervous bridegroom" and his "bashful bride," with the help of the "ape boy" Jocko Wiggins, played by the handsomest boy in sixth grade, Kenny King. Kenny couldn't act his way out of a paper bag, but, thanks to beneficent hormones, already at age 12 had beautiful biceps and eye-catching pecs; in short, he looked splendid in his leopard-skin loincloth.

What is more, the ape boy turns out to have a heart of gold after all--it turns out he's been hypnotized or I forget what--and he helps out the miserable newlyweds. In the climactic scene, I imperiously command Jocko to follow my orders and the hunk lifts me off my feet and carries me offstage--moments later, I scream offstage left--yes! the ape boy has hurled me to certain death from the precipice upon which Deep Shadows rests!

So my glorious death was offstage. OK. Still, every night I got to swoon into Kenny King's bare arms.


At the end of Tarzan and the Leopard Woman, Kimba redeems himself (a disappointment, frankly) by killing Mongo, the corrupt "brains" behind the Leopard Woman and her cult, shortly before he too dies in the cave-in that crushes the rest of his people. Fade to Tarzan, Boy, Cheetah, and, oh yes, Jane, the happy jungle suburbanites, safely in the clear light of day, living happily and dully ever after.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

OK Sex

This morning after listening to both sides of a student debate on sex education in public schools, in which both sides had at least one person state that this, that, or the other had the effect of making sex "look OK" to teenagers, I had to intervene and ask, "But isn't sex OK? It's pleasurable, legal, and beautiful, what about it is not OK? and why would we want teenagers to get the impression that it isn't OK?"

Two or three students looked at me as if I had just farted the alto line to "Bells Will Be Ringing." But gradually everybody seemed to get my point and began to think twice about how they worded their ideas.

It's America, I tell you. Americans have it so fixed in their minds that sex is intrinsically bad that we can't imagine sex education that doesn't paint as dark and bleak a notion of even "God-sanctioned" vaginal intercourse (in the missionary position, no less) as possible.

Even students arguing the side supporting comprehensive sex education repeatedly named STDs and unwanted pregnancies as the focus of sex ed--not one word on sex as fun, rewarding, enriching of relationships, or self-defining.

All in all, though, I was pleased with the debates in all three classes today. My 11 o'clock class did a bang-up job in debating whether prostitution is inherently exploitative--both sides raised excellent points.

On days like today I begin to feel the students are learning something of value.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Bomb

Today we had a bomb threat at the campus where I teach. I know, I know, it's so 1970s' junior high school, I could cum in my bellbottoms. I mean it, boyo, very clever April Fool's Day prank--you could have knocked us over with a feather.

So for an hour faculty and students stood out in and around the parking lot discussing fly-fishing, something called Steel Erection, and the drought (an ever-popular topic in central North Carolina)--occasionally threatening to just split and pick up a few beers somewhere.

One thing I can say is that, though the bomb threat failed to break the monotony of the semester post spring break, it did expose the depths of monotony that afflict us faculty and students alike. Even a hilarious prank or a near-tragic brush with mass destruction failed to get a rise out of any of us.

Speaking of getting a rise, this morning, my office-mate Jim and I discussed the etymology of the expression "bone up on," only to find none of the possible origins was convincing or half as titillating as we had hoped. Apparently the expression dates back only to the 19th century (its first documented use in a letter sent by General Custer's wife), making it even more surprising that its genesis is shrouded in mystery.

Yes, we are that bored.

This afternoon I graded six causal argument papers (about all I could stomach in one sitting). Some of them are wonderful--it helps that everybody had to pick a topic relating to human sexuality--but some students managed to make even sex boring--one of today's papers helpfully pointed out that teen pregnancy and STDs are 100% attributable to sexual activity.

Yes, some of them are that slow. Another reason, perhaps, the erotic tension between professors and their students is far short of Greek nowadays.

“Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring.”
--Edward Gorey


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