Everything Happens…

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Earth at the Center of It All

Today is the funeral of Alton Sterling, the man who was (senselessly and illegally) killed by Baton Rouge police last week. Yesterday, a man drove a semi-truck full of weapons into an unarmed crowd in Nice, killing at least 80 and probably more. Last month, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub.

We all know these aren’t isolated incidents. We know that, as individual tragedies, they represent thousands of under-reported human tragedies. Or, if you want to get really nasty, they highlight the violence that we, as a species, have done to each other for millennia.

And yet, whenever these horrible things happen, someone inevitably says, “everything happens for a reason.” It could be a well-meaning person’s response to a miscarriage or a lay-off or a frightening diagnosis. It could be someone’s way of wrapping their head around police brutality, drone warfare, rape, torture…you get it. It’s a comforting idea, and I almost wish I believed it. But I don’t.

For me – a person who has never had faith of any sort, who has never believed in god, or heaven or a universal meaning of any kind – it’s a lie, and I just can’t trust a lie.

Before I go on, I want to make it clear that I’m talking about my own world view here. A lot of humanity believes that everything does happen for a reason, just as a lot of humanity believes in a god. We all engage life in individually determined ways (…which my ultimate point, but I’ll get to that). My atheist / Buddhist worldview works for me, but if you believe that everything happens for a reason that’s cool too. I’m not interested in challenging (or judging) your belief. I’m just expressing why I don’t share it.

Over the course of my life, some bad things have happened. When I was younger, I struggled with why. I clung to the idea that everything happens for a reason because I couldn’t bear for the damage to essentially be for nothing. Then I read an interview Keanu Reeves did after his girlfriend died 18 months after giving birth to their stillborn daughter. You could feel the interviewer trying to figure out how to address the almost embarrassing amount of personal tragedy Reeves had just sustained.

As part of the interview she asked him if he believed that everything happens for a reason. And Reeves, very calmly, said, “No. I believe everything happens.”

Suddenly, my attachment to the idea of a cosmic rationale dropped. Because yes. Everything happens whether it’s justified or not. Because that’s what it comes down to. It’s not about why. It’s about justifying (and giving meaning) to the unbearable things. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “everything happens for a reason”. We don’t actually mean “reason”, as in cause and effect. We mean “reason” as in, “please tell me it’s not for nothing.”

Keanu Reeves’ girlfriend died because she lost control of her car. She did not die so he could become a better Buddhist (or actor, or activist). His response was self-determined. If he became a better [fill in the blank], it’s because he chose to, not because it was meant to be.

Likewise, bad things happened to me because someone decided to do them. Not because it would make me the person that I am. My self-determined response helped make me who I am. It does not give cosmic meaning to, or justify, the events that catalyzed my response.

God does not open a window when he closes a door. There are no windows and there are no doors. In fact, there is no fucking house. There is only what we do with the horrible things that happen. That said, things do happen because something prompts them – ‘reason’ as part of cause and effect, rather ‘reason’ as higher justification. Let’s take Nice.

Nice happened because a man decided to attack an unarmed crowd. It was a random and violent example of one man imposing his will on the lives of innocent people. Those people were acted upon in a terrible, tragic way. They had no control. They are victims of a cause and effect that happened without them ever knowing. Now, in the aftermath, the survivors and family members will respond. Their responses are self-determined reactions to the individual effects of a massive tragedy. Some will find ways to a positive personal outcome. Others won’t.

I know that my emphasis on self-determination rather than on faith in a higher power may read as flimsy to those who believe in determinism. From that point of view, it would be easy to read this and say, “Ah, but Malin, what if your “self-determined” response is just part of the plan? What if the horrible things that happened did so to get you to this pre-determined point?”

Honestly, I can’t answer that because from a belief having point of view, that makes total sense. From my point of view, I respond to things based on an internal calculus that is entirely self-determined. I have no faith to trust, so I trust myself instead. So, if you find comfort in the idea that everything is pre-determined and that there is some kind of plan, do it. Take comfort. Why the hell not. Just don’t ask me to. Because, for me, there is no cosmic reason. We aren’t dominoes laid out in careful patterns. We are individual actors responding to causes and effects in a world full of phenomena that defy justification.

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On Integrity

Woman looking into compact mirror. black and white image.

Vintage advertisement. Image courtesy favim.com

A few days ago, I was in the car listening to an interview with Tavis Smiley, an African-American social critic and all-around intellectual bad-ass. In recent years, he’s come under fire from the African-American community for holding Barack Obama publicly accountable for his failure to better address issues of poverty in America.

While knew that Smiley had become persona non grata in his own cultural community for voicing criticism of the first black President of the United States, it was only in the wake of the interview that I considered just how much intellectual integrity such a critique requires. This is a man less interested in cultural or political ideology than he is in truth. Now that is integrity. And integrity is rare.

They say that the quality you hate most in other people is the quality you hate in yourself. Conversely, I would say that the thing you admire most in others is that which you most long to have. For me, that most admired quality is integrity. Having integrity is hard. Integrity is, among other things, being willing to do the hard thing for no other reason than that it is right.

For most of my life, I had no integrity, (and no, I’m not being hard on myself). I never did the hard thing because hard things were hard – or stressful, or saddening, or difficult, or uncomfortable or, or, or…. I trafficked in excuses, both with others and myself. I was sick. I was swamped. I was stressed. I was something. Anything. Just give me an excuse, and if that excuse inspired sympathy, bonus points.

Excuses were easier than integrity. Much easier. Unfortunately, making excuses also meant that I was perpetuating a lie and creating my own mythology – a comfortable little narrative that kept me insulated from the reality of myself. And then my mythology fell apart.

Someone I know once said that if you and your self-image aren’t matching up, one of you has to change. In my case, I was nowhere near being the strong, confident, compassionate person I thought I was – a fact that became disturbingly clear after a series of painful realizations.

 

Image of Tavis Smiley

Image of Tavis Smiley, courtesy theatlantic.com. On a personal note, I love the look on Smiley’s face.

 

Once faced with an unavoidably clear picture of myself, I realized that I had three options.

1. I could accept my new, truthful self-image, disgusting warts and all.

2. I could try to delude myself back into my happy comfort zone, (no dice there, I’d already swallowed the red pill).

3. I had to change.

Now, let’s be clear. Living with the fact that I was a moody, self-absorbed stress puppy held zero appeal. I had to change, mostly because I was, (and am), too vain to settle for being less than someone I can respect.

Integrity is, for me, a hard-won import of a quality. Someone else I know is fond of saying that the danger with integrity is that you never know when you’ve lost it, and I believe this to be true. I fear the easy answer like almost nothing else. I fear my own ego and the trap of self-admiration. I fear ideologies because there is safety in belonging, even if you trade yourself in exchange. I fear spoon-fed logic because, for so long, I failed to think for myself.

Consequently, there is literally nothing more attractive to me than a person with integrity. They are what I strive to be – their own honest judge of themselves and their circumstances. That’s why I so respect Tavis Smiley, whose politics I both do and do not agree with. He is a person with towering integrity – both intellectual and personal – and that is that is the quality I most need to nurture in myself.

The Virgin & the Whore Walk Into a Bar

Modern daguerreotype. Image courtesy thedaglab.com for The VIrgin and the Whore Walked into a Bar post by Malin James

Modern daguerreotype courtesy The Dag Lab

As you can see, I haven’t posted here in awhile. This isn’t from laziness or lack or commitment. Rather, it’s the product of a happy fact–I’m super busy with work on the other side of my career, (that would be the smutty side, for those who don’t know). Posts on this blog will probably be fairly sporadic for the next little while, or at least until I finish the massive project that is my novel. That said, they will pop up as I can manage. In the meantime, you can take a peek at what my erotica writing alter ego, Malin James, is up to here. Or not.. It’s totally up to you.

Which brings me to the virgin and the whore. I’ve always loved that paradox, mostly because I’ve always felt like both–the virgin and the whore, I mean. I am equally comfortable eating ice cream with my daughter and writing articles about the death of the Dewey Decimal System, (this is a greatly contested death, FYI), as I am doing and writing any number of things that I’m not going to mention here because my mother reads this blog. Of course, you can always check out the following to get a sense of what I mean: link, link, link. Click at your own risk.

There’s a common notion that a person is one particular thing–a mother, a teacher, a daughter, a parent, a slut, a virgin, a whore…you get the picture. I would contest this notion though. I think that, much as Meredith Brooks sang in her song, “Bitch,” (what a rockin’ good title), most of us are both sinners and saints. It’s only when we get too attached to one static identity that things get complicated and often unfulfilling.

Yes, I’m a mother and, I hope, a good one, but that doesn’t mean I can’t write things that would make my own mother supremely uncomfortable, (sorry mom–definitely don’t click those links). It doesn’t mean that I can’t have an identity outside of motherhood that many might find unorthodox at best, and somewhat distasteful at worst.

After years of wrestling and apologizing, the fact is that there’s a lot of dark in me–there’s anger and sex and rage and violence. But there’s also a lot of light. I’m nurturing and empathic. I’ve got compassion on tap. These things should be in violent contrast. They shouldn’t be able to coexist, and yet they do, quite naturally, in me, just as they do in most people. All you have to do is choose the two, (or three, or four), contrasting archetypes that resonate with you.

Of course, nothing is never as simple or easy as that. But that’s sort of my point–personalities aren’t static things. They are constantly in motion, acting and reacting. Really, when it gets down to it, personalities are simply a series of reactions, habituated over time. So, the virgin and the whore are part of who I am, and it’s only in cultivating both of them equally that I can truly be whole.

I wanted to give a quick, but very sincere thank you to Eric Mertens at The Dag Lab for letting me use one of his beautiful images in this post. You can see more of his work by clicking here. Mr. Merten does old-fashioned daguerreotype portraits in his lab in Oakland, CA. The work is gorgeous. Please, go check it out. 

Little Demons

Medieval woodcut. Image courtesy www.cvltnation.com

I don’t have big demons. I don’t have monsters, or addictions, or obsessions, or compulsions. I like to drink, but not to excess. I love pleasure, but not to my own detriment. I have patience, (hard won), and a certain amount fallible perspective, (also hard won). I am stable and strong, (extremely hard won)…

What I have instead are little demons. Little demons aren’t the demons that make you hit rock bottom. They’ve never pushed me to the edge. I’ve never woken up in places without knowing how I got there, (though I have woken up in places that I didn’t expect), and though I have quite a lot of regrets, I wouldn’t take even one of them back. Little demons don’t care about big things like that. They’re different. They’re quieter. Silkier. They are, by definition, small. But there are often quite a lot of them, and they all sound like the voice of reason in your head.

Let me unpack that a bit. Most people have a little voice of reason – the one that says, isn’t two donuts enough, you moron? and seriously, babe, DON’T sleep with your best friend. Sometimes we listen and sometimes we don’t. Sometimes the voice is wrong, but more often than not, it’s dead right. Whether or not you listen to your gut, your conscience, you instinct, or whatever else you want to call it, is up to you, but you can trust that voice, almost implicitly, if you listen carefully enough.

Little demons mimic that voice. They tell you to be careful when you should take the risk. They tell you toss the dice when you should call it a night. Little demons tell you, with the conviction of god (if you believe in that sort of thing), that you should do the opposite of what is wise at any given time.

They convince you that you know it all when you know nothing, or that you know nothing when you’ve got it dialed in just right. They tell you that you’re brilliant and then undermine your worth. Little demons offer input and whisper “truths”, but the perspective they have is skewed. They shadow the lens of your perception and make it hard to see.

I’ve been thinking about my little demons a fair bit of late. My little demons like to keep me safe. In fact, that’s the only program they run, because that’s what little demons really are – inculturated values, programs that we literally absorb as we grow up. Did your mother have issues with body image? Odds are there’s a little demon pushing that button in you. Did your grandparents overcome hardship? Did your father succeed, but at a heavy cost?

The experiences of those we love inform who we become. They color the house we grew up in and the lessons we subconsciously learned. That’s what I mean by “programming” and “inculturated values”. That said, they, and the effect they have, aren’t inherently negative. They just are. It’s the amount of influence we allow them to have that matters.

The trick is to figure out which of those values are inherited and which are native to you, the finite individual. Once you know that, you can listen to your gut more closely. You can tell the difference between your own instincts, and the little demons that would keep you safe, or push you to the brink.

I’d like to say that I’ve developed an ear for my own little demons, and to a certain degree, I have, but it’s far from 100%. I still get tripped up. I suspect I always will, just as I know that my daughter will carry some of the results of my experiences with her, regardless of how hard I try to control their influence. I can’t immunize her any more than my parents could immunize me. The little demons, the programs, the inherited values, are as much a part of the human experience as breathing or death.

My goal then, ultimately, is to make choices on my own terms – to listen to my reason, rather than the programs I learned. My hope is that, in doing so, I’ll give my daughter the tools she’ll need to do the same for herself.

Defining Literature

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide, image for Defining Literature post by Malin James

Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses. Cover image for James Joyce: A Critical Guide

Tuesday was April 1st, which means that no one on the internet could be trusted, including Sparky Sweets, PhD., one of the awesome minds behind Thug Notes, a weekly series on YouTube in which Dr. Sweets systematically breaks down the Western Canon, 4 minutes at a time, in a gangsta version of Cliff’s Notes.

At some point, I’m going to do a post on why I love Thug Notes, because the show is doing something incredibly important, but for today I’m going to focus on Tuesday’s installment – Summary and Analysis for Stephanie Meyers’ Twilight… APRIL FOOL’S! It was actually Huck Finn masquerading as Twilight. I laughed my ass off – they got me 🙂

Anyway, a friend posted the link to my Facebook wall and there followed a short thread in which people enjoyed the joke. One commenter also mentioned that it’s important to get kids to read “real literature”, (I’m paraphrasing). The thread ended when another commenter posted that she had greatly enjoyed the Twilight series, and felt that the definition of “literature” is “in the eye of the reader.” This, of course, got me to thinking..

This small disagreement points to a larger scale dispute in Western publishing, education and culture. Why do people read? Are certain books more valuable than others? How, in fact, should we define “literature”?

While I don’t think that the definition of literature is in the eye of the beholder, I do think that the value of a book is. The commenter who had enjoyed Twilight did something that is perfectly reasonable – she enjoyed Twilight. That series was not designed with any greater purpose than to be enjoyed. As a result, it’s value lies in how well the reader enjoys it. This reader enjoyed it a great deal, so Twilight is legitimately valuable to her – just as valuable as Anna Karenina or Huck Finn is to someone else.

The value placed on a book is personal, and it has to do with two things – the reader and the book’s intended purpose. The Firm, Cuckoo’s Calling and the entire Danielle Steel catalog were written to be enjoyed and consumed, and there is great value in that. Vehicles for escapism are, actually, valuable. It does not, however, make them literature, and here’s why:

Literature is a specific kind of fiction. Literature can, and often does, entertain, but it has a twin purpose –  to examine something in some way. This examination can be anything from the American dream (The Great Gatsby) to the nature of sexual submission, (The Story of O). Literature doesn’t want you to escape, it wants you to engage, and therein lies the difference.

The problem comes when people assign judgements to these two different purposes by devaluing a fun read, like Twilight, while falsely elevating “literature”, like Ulysses. In fact, what I like about Thug Notes is that it topples the ivory tower that literature is placed on so often – literature can, and should, be enjoyed. It just also asks you to think, or analyze, or ponder, or consider.

If you’d prefer to get lost in a story and escape, read an awesome book – that’s great. If you prefer cultural commentary with your enjoyment, read literature. Better yet, read both. Enjoy both. And find the value in both. Really, when it comes down to it, just read. That’s the most important thing.

Knee-Jerks, or Elle and the Belle Knox Interview

I was going to post something on gotcha questions and how they are both overrated, (as rhetorical tools), and valuable, (as nudgers of social change). However, I’m putting that aside for a second because I got a distracted by my own annoyance.

Why am I annoyed? Because of an interview. Or, rather,  by certain public responses to an interview.

Yesterday, Elle.com published a bit of very timely journalism. Rachel Kramer Bussel, an editor and journalist with a well-established track record in the area of sex and culture, did an interesting, insightful interview with Belle Knox, “the Duke porn star” who was outed by a fellow student awhile back.

The interview reveals Ms. Knox to be a thoughtful, self-possessed young woman who sees herself neither as a victim of her choices, nor of circumstance. Her grounded lack of entitlement was unexpected in the face of Ms. Bussel’s questions, which were insightful and wide-ranging. Clearly, a great deal of thought went into this piece and what emerged was the portrait of a real young woman, with a brain in her head. But this doesn’t matter. What matters is that she was a porn star. Apparently, this devalues EVERYTHING she might have to say.

Elle.com is in the process of receiving a bit of flak for running an interview with, in the words of one concerned reader, “an over-educated whore.”

So, why am I annoyed? Because of the name-calling? I don’t like it, but no. Because of the stigma placed on a young woman’s sexuality? I really don’t like that, but no there, as well.

The source of my annoyance is the blatant lack of thought displayed by many of the people who have posted negative comments in relation to the article. To put it bluntly, it’s fairly clear that many of them didn’t bother to even read the interview before opining. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and ran with it. Much quicker and easier to skip all that reading and head to the comfort zone of righteousness and outrage.

Righteousness and outrage are emotional drugs. They feel good, especially when we get together with a mob of like-minded people carrying torches and sticks. The quality of the journalism doesn’t matter. What many of the commenters did was see is “Belle Knox”, link it to “whore” and then judge Elle for having the temerity to run a piece of journalism that offends or threatens a particular set of sensibilities.

But here’s the thing. In this case, it seems that it isn’t the interview that offends so much as the fact that it was published at all. When it comes right down to it, this post, (okay, rant), isn’t about Elle, or Belle Knox, or porn. It’s about thinking, and how so many people in our culture just don’t.

So, here’s what I propose. If you don’t want to read something, don’t read it. But keep your thoughts to yourself. Consider reading, (or listening, or watching), to be your ticket to voicing your opinion. If you don’t like the coverage, or the interview, or the film, or the book, or the show, that’s perfectly fine. But know what you’re disagreeing with before you open your mouth. Let it be your disagreement – considered and full of your thoughts – rather than the unthinking disapproval of your demographic, whatever that happens to be. Let your brain off the leash and take it for a nice, long walk. It might feel really good.

Grit

gritA few days ago, I was driving along and I heard an NPR article on the radio. It was about a quality called “grit” and how important it is to cultivate this quality in children.

The notion of grit, which was originally coined for the John Wayne movie, True Grit, been defined by researchers as a character trait involving resilience and determination against all odds. It’s a quality that has been slowly bred out of recent generations, in favor of a cultural emphasis on nurturing a sense of specialness (for lack of a better word) in children.

The formalization of research into “grit” is a clear backlash against the increasingly obvious inadequacies of helicopter parenting. The generation currently entering the work force is entirely unprepared for the realities of the adult world, i.e.: things are not always easy; you are *not* entitled to special treatment; indeed, you are *not* special, (at least, you are no more special than the next person). In short, this generation lacks grit – that special something that causes a person to dig in their heels, take responsibility and overcome obstacles. It’s a stereotypically American trait, and the reality is that many younger Americans have never had the chance to develop it.

And that’s what I find curious. The article outlined various school programs designed to “teach” grit. I’m not actually certain it’s something that can be taught. I am, however, fairly certain that it’s something that can be cultivated.  The notion of grit comes down to determination in the face of challenge. The development of this quality hinges on the habituation of an impulse – the impulse to overcome. As such, allowing children to struggle a bit, to be challenged, to figure things out for themselves, teaches two things:

1. The first is that a person’s worth is not in how much they win, but rather in how hard and how well they fight. How much do you want that passing grade? That place on the team? That skill in dance, or music or art? How hard are you willing to work? If you work the like devil, and don’t get what you want, do you want it badly enough to get back up and go for it again?

2. The second is that the world needs to be actively engaged. One of the side-effects of helicopter parenting is that the child never learns to engage the world for themselves. They learn to sit passively by while their parents engage for them, i.e.: their parents talk to their teachers; their parents do their projects; their parents talk them on to the team. No where in there does a child learn to advocate for themselves.

The cultivation of determination and resilience, (i.e.: grit), empowers young people. It teaches them not only that they have a voice, but that they can use it. This isn’t to say that they will always win, but they will have engaged.

The bottom line, to my way of thinking, is that grit is a fundamentally important quality. It feeds ambition, and determination, and by extension, success. Beyond any external measure, it also informs how you engage the world, and how you conduct your life. As such, I’m pleased to see an emphasis being placed, once more, on it’s cultivation. I’m just sad that it’s fallen so far by the wayside that special programs need to be instated to ensure that grit sneaks back into our culture.

Vital Parts

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

Image courtesy of http://lareviewofbooks.org

We just finished watching Season 3 of Game of Thrones last week-end – because we don’t have HBO, we always end up binge-watching it on disk when it’s finally released. I have to be honest though. Binge-watching wasn’t the easiest way to experience this time around. The show keeps upping the ante (which is great), and so this season was fairly relentless as far as bad things happening to EVERYONE goes. Just to give you some perspective, this is coming from the woman whose brain went, “aw, bummer”, and kept eating popcorn when Ned Stark lost his head.

So, for those who have yet to see Season 3:  This post is spoiler-dependant, so if you don’t know what happens, and don’t want to know what happens, (all five of you), be warned. And for those of you who haven’t been sucked into the cultural phenomena that is GoT (possibly a saner life choice), I’m going to give a quick run down of the two plot points I’m going to talk about. They are:

1: Jaimie Lannister’s Be-Handing

2: Theon Greyjoy’s castration and torture

jaime-lannister

Jamie the Kingslayer

Fun times, right? Ok. So for those who don’t know this already, Jaimie Lannister is widely considered to be the deadliest man in the Seven Kingdoms with a sword. He’s a preternaturally good fighter, so much so, that that is, up to this point, who he is – the Kingslayer.  There’s a lot one can say about him, but for the purposes of this post, that’s enough.

Theon Greyjoy, on the other hand, is the weak, insecure, son of

FYI: That's Theon's sister

FYI: That’s Theon’s sister

the Lord of the Iron Islands, a hard-assed enclave of seafaring bad-asses. He clings to this identity because he is hostaged out to a rival family as a boy. By the time he reaches adulthood, he has identity issues, an over-inflated sense of his nobility, and an over-fondness for prostitutes (and pretty much any other woman willing to let him at her).

Now, going back to bad things happening, (because bad things happen to everyone on this show. It’s endemic). So far, since the show began, the apparent protagonist has been imprisoned and be-headed, (Ned Stark, Season 1); an exiled princess has been sold into marriage to a barbarian by her insane, creepy brother; the King of Westeros has been murdered by his wife so that he won’t find out that his children were actually fathered by her twin brother, (love those Lannisters); various women are raped, almost raped, and often killed; babies and children are murdered; and, of course, there’s the Red Wedding, wherein a good chunk of the protagonists are slaughtered at a feast. I could go on.  So what makes what happens to Jaimie and Theon different?

In most of the cases I listed above, the characters are either killed outright, or left intact enough to move on from whatever violin befell them. This is not the case with Jaimie and Theon, because Jaimie and Theon are stripped of their vital parts.

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

Jamie Lannister, Post Be-Handing

When Jaimie’s sword hand is cut off, he loses not only the hand, but his ability to be the man he had been. In short, he loses his identity. Suddenly, the deadliest man in seven kingdom cannot defend himself against a rag-tag group of course soldiers. He is vulnerable in a way that is unnatural to him, which makes his attempts to fight left-handed so difficult to watch. It’s not the hand that disturbs so much as the dismantling of his identity. Luckily, for Jaimie, this dismantling leads to an interesting evolution as a character and he becomes, arguably, a more complex and nuanced man as a result.

Theon Greyjoy is not so lucky. Through a series of Terrible Decisions ™, Theon finds himself in the custody of a sadist, being punished for betraying the man he swore loyalty to as king. Over the course of days, Theon endures psychological and physical torture that softens his already fairly weak mind, until the day comes when he is fully castrated, and his severed parts are sent to his father in a box. Shortly thereafter, he accepts a new name from his captor. He ceases to be Lord Theon Greyjoy, heir to the Iron Islands, and becomes Reek, a “pile of meat”.

The significance of Theon’s castration has been well-covered. This piece in the LA Review of Books is especially interesting, so I won’t stray too  far down that road. That said, there is a point I want to make.

Theon_SexWhile Jaimie’s identity is challenged, it remains, fundamentally, in tact. He is still Jaimie Lannister and his reputation, pre-maiming, is strong enough that it helps see him through afterwards. Theon, however, does not and cannot recover from the loss of his sex organs for two reasons. The first is fairly general. When he is castrated, Theon loses the thing that identifies him as a man – a great loss to any male, but one especially difficult for Theon, who relies on sex to assert his wobbly sense of power and prowess. The second is that, when he  loses his reproductive organs, he ceases to be his father’s true heir, because he can no longer sire children. In fact, his father abjures him on those grounds after receiving the box that contains those organs. So, the loss of a penis is, for Theon, not just the loss of important bit of anatomy, it’s literally the loss of his manhood, of his personal identity, and of his legacy and identity as a Greyjoy, as his father’s son.

Unlike another character, Varys, who becomes a powerful spymaster as a result of castration as a boy, Theon’s identity was established enough at the moment of the loss, that the severing unravels him. He really does cease to be Theon Greyjoy in that moment, and becomes something entirely else. Something far less.

In the end, for both Jaimie and Theon, it’s the loss of these vital parts that disturbs. Beheadings and slaughters, no matter how violent, end in death. There’s a finality there. It’s not personal. There is no specifically ironic justice to be endured. For Theon and Jaimie, their losses are intensely personal to the point of irony, (in a truly Dante’s Inferno sort of way), and they are made to live on after.

It’s interesting, and heart-breaking, and it makes me think about what are, for me, my own vital parts, and what I would do if they were suddenly and violently taken away. I don’t know. I can’t imagine. And I’m grateful to live in a world where it is very like that I won’t have to find out.. that said. if anything is to be gotten from GoT, it’s that no one is really quite safe. Bad things can happen to anyone.

Blind Spots

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Blind Spot. Image courtesy of pegasusnews.com

Last week-end I had lunch with a friend and, as always, the conversation was great, ranging over everything from books and education to politics and religion. It was a fabulous time, full of recreational thinking and awesome insights, including one that I hadn’t known to expect: My blind spots are back.

I’ve got cultural blind spots so big that I often get lost in them  before I even know I’m off the map.

This isn’t a new realization. I get it every so often, usually when I stop thinking on autopilot and encounter something contextually unexpected. In this case, it was a Coke ad, or rather, the response to a Coke ad.

During the Superbowl, Coca-Cola ran an ad featuring Americans from different cultural backgrounds doing normal people things, like dancing and swimming and laughing, while the song, “America the Beautiful” played in the background. It was nicely done and inclusive. Honestly, I barely thought about it. But a lot of people did and here’s why:

“America the Beautiful” was sung in multiple languages. Apparently, this wasn’t ok, because the response on Twitter was, shall we say, vitriolic. You can see both the ad and a selection of vitriolic tweets over at Public Shaming, (a site that does, I must admit, have a left-leaning slant).

So, all of this goes down and I’m mostly unaware. I’d seen the ad but, like I said, I didn’t really think about it, mostly because I don’t drink soda. So when my friend referenced the openly racist nature of the Twitter response, it took me a second to process it, because it honestly didn’t make sense. I mean, what kind of problem could people have? Right? It’s Coke. Whatever.

See? Blind Spot.

Here’s the thing. I live in California. I grew up in San Francisco  and, for the most part, the only other places I’ve lived were New York City and West Hollywood. In short, I have always occupied a socially liberal bubble. (There was a brief, nine month stint outside of Dallas but, in that time, the bubble ceased to exist, which was interesting. It re-inflated after I moved back to California).

Without imposing a value-judgement one way or the other, let’s just say that I’m not often forced to process differing cultural views. Sure, I went to Catholic high school, but it was in 1990’s San Francisco, so all five teen pregnancies were accommodated without judgement or fuss (right down to special desks) and not one, but two gay male couples went to prom (without getting killed with sticks) in the four years that I was there. Homosexuality, multiculturalism and sex where just part of my landscape and, to a great degree, they remain so.

Which is why when I encounter a response like the one on Twitter, I get thrown off. Because, due to social self-selection (i.e.: having friends with similar cultural beliefs) and geographic location, I’m essentially insulated from opposing beliefs, which is why the media – both social and otherwise – is so valuable.

The Internet is essentially my safety net. Through regular news scrapes and general browsing, it ensures that I’m exposed to the world beyond my ideological nose. I just can’t get lazy – it doesn’t work if I only read my favorites (sorry Slate, Salon and Nerve). My surprise during lunch with my friend was a wake-up call, one that I periodically need, because, for all my talk about discourse, I’ve been getting mentally lazy and complacent. Apparently, to paraphrase Doc Holliday, my hypocrisy knows no bounds.

So, more than anything, this post is a reminder for me to get off my mental ass and see what’s going on beyond my comfort zone. Because blind spots are scary. They’re a weakness. Blind spots are where things hide. As someone who hates surprises, I need to reclaim a bit of that territory before something unexpected bites me on the ass. Figuratively speaking, of course. I’d prefer to be the mountain lion, and not the deer.

Moderation and the Art of Earthly Pleasure

Epicurus, c.300 BC

Epicurus, c.300 BC

A warning right up front, this post is going to be pretty loose and off the cuff, so please forgive any glaring generalities. I’ll try to keep them at a minimum.

Last night, I caught part of the PBS program American Experience. It’s an interesting show and while I don’t often watch it, it always contains some food for thought. This episode, The Amish: Shunned, was no exception.

To be frank, there are many points on which I disagree with the Amish religion. I’m afraid that I just can’t view a community that so deliberately rejects progress, education and individual thought as terribly sympathetic. That said, it’s a valid culture based on a valid, if shockingly medieval, set of beliefs and I’m not going to waste time nit-picking it to pieces simply because I disagree. What I am going to do is examine one tiny corner of those beliefs – the avoidance of pleasure – because this principle has ramifications beyond the Amish community.

One of the Amish church members interviewed for the program brought up the issue in terms that implied the inherent logic of pleasure avoidance. He said, (and I’m paraphrasing now), “it’s human nature to avoid pain and pursue pleasure, as if that’s going to lead to happiness. Well, news flash, it’s not.”

Now, on the surface, I can see how this would be an easy notion to buy into, particularly from a conservatively religious points of view. If our nature is telling us to pursue pleasure, and our nature is essentially animal (i.e.: sinful), the only way to heaven must be to transcend our animal nature and pursue spiritual purity (per whatever terms your religion defines). Now, disregarding the ironic hypocrisy that this has historically led to (witch trials and murder aside, the attitude very often leads the abstainer to become addicted to the very pleasurable emotion of social righteousness), there is another, different angle from which to view the issue.

I’d like to propose an more Epicurean take on the question of earthly pleasure. The Greek philosopher, Epicurus, believed that what he called “pleasure” is the greatest good. Now, this is where it gets interesting. He also believed that the way to attain such pleasure is to “live modestly and to gain knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of one’s desires”. In other words, moderation leads to pleasure, which in and of itself, is a form of transcendence.

I’m not going to say that this point of view is more valid than the strict path proposed by the Amish or any other conservative religious group. I would say, however, that the Epicurean approach is equally valid and potentially more healthy. Know what you like, know what you don’t and find your limits – know where you overindulge and gently lead yourself back. No judgment. No drama. The maintenance of moderation requires awareness, which leads to presence in the moment, which can lead quite directly to lovely moments of clarity – every day transcendence. And yes, even spiritual and earthly happiness.

Pleasures aren’t inherently dangerous. Pleasure are simply pleasures. It is up to the individual to moderate the degree to which he or she partakes. To ignore pleasure is to reject one of our species’ greatest gifts – joy. Joy in food, joy in sex, joy in clean fresh air and warm fires at night. These are all valid pleasure and part of the equally valid human experience. Surely, if there is a god (as an atheist I don’t believe there is, but I respect those who do), that force would want us to enjoy the full spectrum of our lives, rather than reject half of the gifts we were given.