A Lattice of Coincidence: Metaphysics, the Paranormal, and My Answer to Layne

DebateI don’t usually debate people about their actual religious or spiritual beliefs, unless they’ve either asked me to explicitly, or have invited me to implicitly by arguing with my beliefs. (I did say “usually,” everyone, so there’s no need to rush to the archives to dig up counter-examples — unless you’d find that entertaining.) I’ll start debates about the place religion has in society, the way we do and don’t talk about religion compared to other topics, what kind of language we use to talk about religion and atheism, whether faith does more harm than good or vice versa, etc. — but for an assortment of reasons, some good and some bad, I rarely debate the actual beliefs themselves.

TelepathyBut a few weeks ago, Layne made a comment here saying that he believed in some sort of telepathic or precognition phenomenon, at least partly because of an experience he had in his teens, when he had a sudden fear of his sister’s car being hit by a train and later found out that it almost had been. I know Layne to be a smart person with a thick skin and a fondness for a good argument, so I decided to cadge an invitation, and asked if he wanted to know my skeptic’s response to his experience. He said yes (“Go ahead, hit me with your best shot” were his exact words). Here is that response.

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CoincidenceMy short skeptical answer to the experience you described would be, “Yes, I think that was a coincidence.” But I don’t actually think that’s a very good answer. Not by itself. It doesn’t sufficiently acknowledge the freakishness and intensity of your experience. And it doesn’t accurately or fairly represent the skeptical philosophy.

Besides… well, you used to be my editor. When have you ever known me to give a one-word or seven-word answer when 1000 words would do? :-)

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Royal_flushI can see that an experience like the one you had would be both intense and hard to explain. The odds against it are astronomical. It would be foolish of me to say otherwise. Yes, the odds of that particular experience — getting a sudden scary mental image of your sister being run over by a train, and then finding out that she almost had been — are very unlikely indeed.

But look at it this way.

What are the odds that SOME freakishly unlikely experience along those lines would happen to you at SOME point in your life?

They’re actually pretty darned good.

Randomness1Random thoughts about the people we know and love are flashing into our minds every minute of every day. And things are happening to the people we know and love every minute of every day. Given enough time, the thoughts and the events are going to line up — in a way that will seem far too unlikely to be merely a coincidence. (A tip of the hat to Douglas Adams on this one.)

White_vanThe problem is that the tens of thousands of times when the thoughts and events don’t line up, we don’t notice. We only notice the few times when they do. It’s the “van on the corner” phenomenon. We say, “Why is that white van always at the corner?” when it isn’t always at the corner — we just notice it when it is.

Brain1And here’s the bigger problem. Our brains are not very good at grasping statistics and probability. (That includes mine — I can’t get more than ten pages into a “Statistics and Probability For Dummies” book without my puny earthling brain exploding.) The processes of evolution have shaped our brains to understand probability, not in a way that’s accurate, but in a way that helps us survive. Among other things, our brains are wired to see patterns and connections, regardless of whether they’re there. And they’re wired to pay very careful attention to things that seem out of the ordinary. All for very good evolutionary reasons. It may not help us understand the finer points of probability and coincidence, but it helps us find food and escape from tigers.

So because this stuff is so fucking counter-intuitive, I want to give a couple more examples of this particular idea before I move on

Skeptics_guideExample 1: There’s a wonderful example from a book called The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal by Lynn Kelly. (An excellent book, btw, and one I recommend to anyone – she’s very readable, often very funny, and she doesn’t talk down to her audience.) When Lynn’s mother was in the hospital, she (Lynn) had an intense dream that her mother had died. She woke up and called the hospital in a panic



and her mother was fine, recovering nicely.

HospitalBut what if her mother had in fact died? It wasn’t completely unlikely; she was in the hospital, after all. And it wasn’t at all unusual for someone whose mother was in the hospital to dream that she’d died. But if her mother had died, Lynn says, she would have been completely convinced that her dream had been precognition or telepathy — not coincidence.

In fact, Lynn says, there was a part of her that was almost disappointed that her dream hadn’t been true. A part of her wanted to believe that the connection between her and her mother was so close, she would just know when she’d died. (I wonder, Layne, if that might be relevant to the experience you had with your sister.)

AirplaneExample 2: Here’s an example Ingrid likes to use (probably because she’s deathly afraid of flying). Millions of people fly in airplanes every day. Flying is scary (even for people who aren’t seriously phobic about it). So almost certainly a high percentage of the millions of people in the air every day have had, at some point, a strong feeling of the willies about their flight. Add to that the number of people with family and friends who are flying on a given day, and think how many of them got the willies about the flight. Then add to that all the people who, for some reason, were going to take that flight but didn’t… and think about how many of them had some sort of willie-ish experience about it before their plans changed.

Airplane_movieOkay. Planes do sometimes crash .Or almost crash. Or have some serious malfunction that requires the plane to make an emergency landing. Or have food poisoning in the fish dinner that incapacitates half the passengers and both the pilots…

Any one of which would confirm the feeling of “I knew it! I knew something was wrong with this flight!”

Airport_terminalNow, what are the odds that, in any given plane disaster, someone on that plane — or someone close to someone on that plane, or someone who was “supposed” to be on that plane but wasn’t — had had the willies about the flight? I’d bet that it’s pretty close to 100%. (And then those people — if they survive — tell the people they know about it, who then add it to their own bank of “too weird to be coincidence” stories… but that goes to pattern recognition, which is another point I’ll get to in a minute.)

PretzelsBut people don’t pay much attention when they get the willies about a flight and the worst thing that happens is they run out of pretzels… which is what happens most of the time. They only notice when they get the willies about a flight and something bad happens.

HermitThird and last example: Finally, I have an example from my own life, from my woo-woo Tarot reading days. A few months after I’d broken up with my boyfriend (first real relationship, total schmuck, very traumatic), I did a series of Tarot readings on the question, “Should I start looking for another relationship?” I was lonely and horny, and really hoping the answer would be “Yes”… but in every single reading (four or five in a row, if memory serves), The Hermit came up somewhere in the spread.

Crowley_tarot_deckAt the time, this to me was unshakeable proof, not only that I should stay single for a while, but that the Tarot was real and that a mystical force was guiding the cards. (The fact that the answer was the one I needed rather than the one I wanted only served to confirm this.) But when I started looking at my Tarot readings with a more skeptical eye, I realized a couple of things.

The_starI realized that I’d seen other patterns and runs like this, which I’d also taken as profoundly meaningful and predictive… but which hadn’t actually come true. (In a later relationship, I had a similar run of getting The Star several times in a row, a card of “hope in a difficult time/light at the end of the tunnel” — which turned out to be total bullshit. That relationship was doomed.)

Eight_of_disksPlus, I realized that I’d almost certainly gotten other runs of cards that I simply hadn’t noticed, because they weren’t very interesting cards or weren’t relevant to the questions I was asking. I mean, at some point in my Tarot years I almost certainly had a run of getting, say, the Two of Wands or the Eight of Disks in four or five readings in a row, runs that were every bit as unlikely as getting The Hermit four or five times in a row… but it was the Eight of Disks, so who the hell cares.

Cards_fanned(Statistical tangent, which I’m finding fascinating, but which y’all should feel free to skip past to the next bit if you find it tediously math-y: Now that I think about it, I wonder how astronomical the odds of my Hermit run really were. There are 15 cards in a reading [the way I was reading them, anyway]. There are 78 cards in the deck. Plus there are a couple different cards in the deck that can mean “solitude” or “independence,” so that brings the odds down a lot more. And there are also a couple of cards that can mean, “Whatever you’re thinking about is a really bad idea, get it out of your head right now.” Let’s be very conservative and say there are four cards that could mean either “solitude,” “independence,” or “whatever you’re asking, the answer is No Way.” [There are probably more, but I’m trying to be fair here.] So that’s four out of 78 cards, or about 1 in 20. What are the odds of one of these four cards coming up somewhere in a 15-card spread? If my math is right [and it may not be], it’s three out of four. Pretty damn good odds — better than even. And what are the odds of any one of the four coming up in four 15-card spreads in a row? Again, my probability math is poor, but I just called Chip and we put our heads together, and are coming up with 81 in 256
 or roughly 1 in 3. Not at all unlikely. Make it five readings in a row, and you still get about 1 in 4. Okay, this is freaking me out now. I based my metaphysical beliefs for YEARS on the idea that this pattern was ridiculously unlikely. Sheesh. [BTW, if there are any mathematicians or statisticians reading this who are screaming with frustration at my math, please feel free to correct me.])

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Brain4So enough with that idea and those examples. There are other things that compound this situation, and I want to move on to them now.

The first thing that compounds the situation is what I call the “cluster phenomenon.” (I’m sure there’s some psychological or statistical term for it, but I don’t know what it is.)

Railroad_crossingThink of it this way. Your sister didn’t, in fact, get run over by a train. She almost did. (In the strictest sense, your precognition didn’t actually happen.) Now, think of all the other things that could have happened that day that might have made you think, “Wow, that is so freaky, what are the odds of that?” Your sister might have gotten into a car crash near the train tracks. Or tripped and broken her leg while crossing the train tracks. Or been in a toy store near the toy train section when the store got robbed at gunpoint. Or someone else you knew might have been run over by a train. Or gotten into a car crash. Or… you get my drift. The odds of your particular coincidence, the one that actually happened, aren’t very high — but the odds of SOMETHING happening that might have made you think, “That is too freaky to be a coincidence,” are nowhere near as bad.

PhoneThis goes back to the “how often do you suddenly think of someone, and how often do people die” question. If we suddenly think of someone out of the blue and then find out they’ve just died, that can seem very unlikely and spooky. But if we suddenly think of someone and they give us a call, or we hear they’re getting married, or we read about them in the paper, or we run into one of their kids, or their ex calls us to say they’ve just broken up and we’ve been on their mind and would we like to meet for a drink at this nice little hotel bar they know
 any of these events, and dozens more like them, will also give us the “Woo, spooky” experience. The odds against any particular one of these events are astronomical, it’s true… but the odds of something in that cluster of events happening aren’t quite as bad. And again, when you add those odds up over a lifetime, the odds of something in that vein happening at some point in your life start to get pretty damn good.

Brain2Then the situation gets compounded further by the fact that (a) our brains are wired to see patterns and connections where none may exist (and intention, too, but that addresses the God question more than the telepathy/ precognition/ general metaphysical weirdness question) — and (b) our brains are wired to be more likely to see what we expect to see, and to explain what we see in a context we already believe.

Telepathy2So if we’ve already had a freakishly unlikely experience that we’re chalking up to telepathy or precognition, we’re more likely to explain other weird experiences with similar paranormal explanations. And once we’ve started doing that, and have started creating a mental pattern and a mental context for thinking paranormal or metaphysical experiences are real, then there’s a cascade effect/ feedback loop. The more we believe in something, the more we see of it — and the more we see, the more we believe. (I think this is what Nina was getting at when she talked about having had intense transcendent experiences, but not thinking of them as religious because she wasn’t brought up to see things in a religious context.)

Pretty_womanLike with the Tarot. There were so many times when what I thought was a clear message from the cards turned out to be wrong. (The time Chip and I asked the cards what movie to see and were given the unmistakable message that we should see “Pretty Woman” leaps to mind…) But when the cards were wrong, I always blamed myself and figured I’d mis-read them. I only went “Woo, spooky” when they were right.

Prayinghands(BTW: While I am mostly talking here about less conventional spiritual beliefs, I think this principle can apply to many traditional beliefs as well. I’ve heard and read many religious believers defend the power of prayer in this exact way. When their prayers are answered, it’s proof of God’s love and works; when their prayers aren’t answered, then God moves in mysterious ways. I know that’s not the way everyone experiences prayer — but it’s not uncommon.)

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All of which is a very long way of saying this:

Probability_book“It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” is not, by itself, enough evidence to support a hypothesis of telepathy or precognition or metaphysical energies. It’s too easy to explain unlikely-seeming coincidences with all the stuff I’ve been talking about: long-term probability analysis, the cluster phenomenon, and pattern recognition.

ScientistSo in order to tell whether telepathy or precognition or other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena are really true, or even plausible, we need to look at them as hypotheses about the world, and test them accordingly. And we need to test them carefully, using the best testing protocols, to screen out unconscious interference and the placebo effect and all that good stuff, and to make sure the results are consistent and replicable.

Skeptical_inquirerAnd so far, when that kind of testing has been done on telepathy and precognition and other paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena, the results have been the same: Zip.

Apollo1Which all brings me back to the point I made in The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — that given the overwhelming historical pattern of natural explanations replacing supernatural ones and not the other way around, it’s many, many orders of magnitude more likely that any given unexplained or weird phenomenon will have a natural explanation than a supernatural one.

TuberculosisThere’s a standard in science that scientists cite a lot (it’s something I believe Carl Sagan first wrote): “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” If a scientist claims that, say, tuberculosis isn’t caused by exposure to bacteria but by an excess of chicken in the diet… well, that’s an extraordinary claim, one that contradicts everything we think we know about the disease, and that scientist is going to have to come up with a MASSIVE body of hard evidence to support their claim.

Brain3And while claims of telepathy and precognition are certainly common, they’re still extraordinary. They contradict everything we know about how the mind perceives and processes and communicates information. (Admittedly, there’s a huge amount we don’t know about how the brain and the mind work — but there are some things we do know, and telepathy and precognition don’t fit into the picture.) It’s a claim that requires extraordinary evidence to support it… and “It just seems too unlikely to be a coincidence” isn’t enough.

Now, of course, you can argue that pattern recognition works the other way too: that when you’re predisposed to NOT believe in the paranormal or metaphysical, you’re less likely to see it.

Which is true.

Russian_psychic_diagnosisBut that’s kind of the beauty of the scientific method. If your testing protocols are good, the results are going to be the results, regardless of your expectations. When CSICOP (now CSI) tested the Russian psychic diagnosis girl, I’m sure they were pre-disposed to think her claims were full of shit — but if she had in fact been able to diagnose serious medical conditions just by looking at people, she would have been able to do it, regardless of the researchers’ expectations. (In fact, while they did set up the test to control for educated guesses and picking up physical clues and other non-psychic explanations for her “diagnoses,” they also set up the protocols to give the girl the benefit of the doubt.)

Of course, you can argue that these kinds of metaphysical phenomena aren’t predictable or consistent in the same way that physical phenomena are. But (a) I’ve never seen a good explanation of why that would be.

Question_mark_head_2And (b) even if that were true, even if paranormal/ metaphysical phenomena were “shy” but real… even if it were true, how would that information be useful, either on a day-to-day level or in a larger philosophical sense? How would it change the way we live, or the way we understand the world and our place in it? How would we be able to study and explore these phenomena in any meaningful way? How would we ever know whether any particular freaky experience was one of the real metaphysical ones… or just our brains playing tricks on themselves? Or simply one of the seemingly bizarre but ultimately explainable coincidences?

For all the reasons I’ve talked about here — and more — “I can just tell,” or, “It just seems obvious to me,” or, “It’s just too unlikely to be a coincidence,” simply aren’t good enough answers to those questions.

Credibility and the Duke Rape Case Fiasco

DukeI was going to chime in on the weird fucked-up-edness of the whole Duke University rape case fiasco. But the SmackDog Chronicles already said pretty much what I wanted to say about it. So I’m just going to point you to his blog instead. The quotes that really struck me:

But what really saddens and angers me about this case is that it simply reimposes all the usual memes and biases about sexually proactive women and women who do sex work voluntarily; in effect, if you are overtly sexual and happen to be violated in any way, you can expect to have no support or sympathy from the general public and damn near little or no support from the “feminist community”
especially if you happen to be a person of color, poor, or a sex worker or sex entertainer. And especially if your perpetrator just so happens to be either White or a person of privilege who has the full weight of his privilege behind him.

and

All of this makes my duty as a sex radical, a radical Black man, a feminist sympathizer/supporter, and a sex-positive activist that much tougher
but also that much more important. If there ever was a time for a sex-positive Left perspective, it is now.

Rainbow_fistAll this is reminding me of the Lynn Griffiths case. (I tried to find a link about it, but it happened in the pre-Internet days, and I couldn’t find anything on the Web.) Back in the ’90s in San Francisco, there was a very public, all-over-the-news incident of a lesbian named Lynn Griffiths who had been badly queer-bashed. The gay community and the gay press was all over it, in a “See, this is what homophobia looks like, this is what we have to be afraid of” way. And when the police started commenting that there were holes in her story, the community got irate about police insensitivity.

CrazypersonExcept it turned out that there were holes in her story. Because it didn’t happen. She turned out to be kind of a nutjob — she injured herself, and claimed she was gay-bashed to get attention. When the holes in her story started getting impossible to ignore, she actually did the same thing a second time — and then, in the face of increasing anger and incredulity, fled the state.

Which just made it harder for everybody. Because it’s not as if queer-bashing didn’t — doesn’t — happen. But after this incident, everyone who really did get queer-bashed — or who fought against anti-gay violence — suddenly found themselves a little less credible.

And it’s not as if African-American women, and sex workers, and African-American sex workers, don’t get raped by privileged white guys. But now the ones who do are going to have a much harder time of it. There are thousands of times that this happens, and it never makes the papers — but this is the case that people are going to remember.

But… oh, just go read the piece on the SmackDog blog. He says it better than I can. And it’s a really good blog generally, and worth checking out.

Gratuitous Provokery and ’80s Nostalgia: Kathleen Parker and Religious Imagery in Art

Chocolate_jesusSo conservative pundit Kathleen Parker recently wrote a column about the latest art kerfuffle, the Chocolate Jesus (a.k.a. My Sweet Lord). While I actually agreed with at least some of the gist of her piece (Catholics shouldn’t be issuing death threats over religious imagery they find offensive — kind of a hard point to argue with), she also made this comment:

“Catholics have been under siege by the secular culture for years, confronted with everything from rock star Madonna’s antics to “Piss Christ” to a Virgin Mary painting adorned with elephant feces. All were intended to provoke — gratuitously.”

Piss_christThe “gratuitously” really ticked me off. Her point seems to be that recent disrespectful or mocking use of Islamic imagery in art (like the Danish cartoons) is okay because it’s critiquing the way the religion has been manipulated by power-hungry jerks… but disrespectful or mocking use of Christian imagery in art? Well, there’s no point to that at all. That’s just gratuitous, offending for the pure purpose of being offensive. (She also seems unaware that neither the Piss Christ artist nor the elephant dung Virgin Mary artist intended their art to be disrespectful or mocking.)

So I wrote this letter to the editor in response. It didn’t get published… but what else is a blog for, if not to share my unpublished rants to the editor?

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Holy_virgin_maryThe fact that Kathleen Parker (Opinion, 4/6/07) would characterize artists Chris Ofili (“The Holy Virgin Mary”), Andres Serrano (“Piss Christ”), and Madonna as “gratuitously” provoking about religion makes it clear that she hasn’t bothered to do even minimal research on any of these artist’s intentions. All these artists (even Madonna, for whom I have no great love) have discussed the ideas and impulses behind their religious-themed art, and upsetting people for no reason other than to upset them is not among them.

The sad fact is that religion enjoys an absurdly privileged position in the marketplace of ideas. Religion and religious institutions are tremendously powerful in this country — and yet it’s assumed that religion should be exempt from the criticism, commentary, and even mockery that are commonly leveled at powerful institutions. I understand that Ms. Parker is provoked by certain uses of religious imagery in art — but just because she doesn’t see their point doesn’t mean they’re pointless.

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Madonna_2But now I’m sorry that I wrote the letter before I consulted with Ingrid. Because, as usual, she completely hit the nail on the head. “Piss Christ and Madonna?” she said. “That’s what she’s worked up about? What decade is she in, anyway? That is so ’80s.”

And she’s right. Outrage over “Piss Christ” and “Like a Prayer” is such a 1989 time capsule, I almost expect to see it on VH1’s “I Love the ’80s.” It’s almost quaint.

The Weirdest Little City in the World: Our Trip to Reno

RenoarchAt the risk of sounding like a third-grader’s social studies report: Reno is a land of contrasts.

SlotsIt’s a city whose entire reason for being is to suck money from out-of-towners. (That’s even true historically — according to a plaque we saw on the river, one of the city’s founders was a gold rush prospector who realized there was more money to be made fleecing other prospectors than there was actually mining for gold, so he built a toll bridge… and later a hotel.) At the same time, they want you to feel happy and pampered and like you’re getting something for nothing, so you’ll relax and dump your money into the slots… and come back next year and and get happily fleeced some more.

So it winds up being a profoundly weird blend of glitzy and depressing; chintzy and luxurious. Everyone’s really friendly, and everyone takes really good care of you and treats you like you’re a movie star… and it’s actually hugely fun, even when you remember that it’s all part of the Great Fleecing of the Rubes.

We had a ball.

But boy, was it a weird ball. It was so eclectic it was almost dizzying. A rough itinerary:

TrannyshackTrannyshack Reno. We decked out in our best glam-slut-trash outfits (for one night we said “Screw this aging gracefully crap”), took a cab to one of the diviest gay bars I’ve ever been to… and spent the evening getting very drunk, groping each other, schmoozing with the drag queens, ogling the dykes, and watching a scary San Francisco drag show in a smoky, crowded bar. It was an epiphany. If I believed in God, I’d call it a religious experience. I even had half a cigarette. (And yes, I appreciate the irony of going to Trannyshack in Reno when we could go any week we wanted to right here in San Francisco. But the Trannyshack bus happened to be in Reno the weekend we were there, and we couldn’t not go.)

Hot_rock_massageHot rock massages at the hotel spa.

BeaujolaisDinner at a lovely little French bistro.

PneumaticBreakfast at the punk rock vegetarian diner.

Donner_lakeA failed attempt at a nature walk.

Rock_my_rideDinner at Harrah’s Steakhouse, followed by the Harrah’s tittie show. (We were hoping for topless girls in feather headdresses, but the theme of the show was custom cars, so instead we got topless girls in G-strings with racing stripes. Not to mention the worst stand-up comedian I’ve seen in years. I mean, I realize that being the comedian at the tittie show has got to be one of the most thankless jobs in show business… but oh, my God. Whenever he was on, I kept leaning over to Ingrid to abjectly apologize for dragging her there, and for the rest of the evening and the whole next day I had the lines from the Muppet Show theme stuck in my head: “It’s like a kind of torture/To have to watch this show.” The tittie girls were fun, though. Although I do wish they’d been in feathers.)

AwfulawfulThe Awful Awful burgers at the Little Nugget Diner, where the food is huge and delicious, and the service is refreshingly surly.

As to gambling…

BlackjackI realize it’s profoundly weird to go to Reno and not gamble. But I’m just not that interested in it. I’ll make a bet with a friend about whether the Red Sox will win the Series this year… but casino gambling just doesn’t grab me. Either it’s slot machines, which require no skill and are therefore passive and boring… or it’s something like poker and blackjack, which do require skill, and at which I am therefore going to suck.

Five_dollar_billHere’s what I did instead. I took a pull on a one-dollar slot machine. I won five bucks on my first pull. And I walked away. I took the money and ran. I quit while I was ahead.

And I spent the rest of the weekend gassing on pompously about how I’d quit while I was ahead.

Which was WAY more fun than actually playing.

*****

Oh, a quick restaurant roundup for those who might be going into the town:

Beaujolais_2Beaujolais. This was the lovely little French bistro. Easily the best meal we had in Reno. I haven’t been to a lot of French restaurants, so I don’t have many points of comparison there… but I have been to a lot of seriously good restaurants, and this was one of them. The asparagus soup was one of the best things I’ve eaten — not just in Reno, but anywhere.

Pneumatic_2The Pneumatic Diner. This was the punk rock vegetarian diner, on the second floor of a seedy apartment building that would give David Lynch the willies. (Note: You can, in fact, take a direct stairway to the diner without wandering through the labyrinthine hallways of the scary apartment building — a fact I wish we’d known beforehand.) Pretty darned good. A little on the chewy side of the vegetarian-cuisine spectrum, but not at all bad. And the punk-funk-lefty atmosphere was a refreshing change of pace from all the cheap glamour and excess.

SteakhouseHarrah’s Steakhouse. This was good. This was a very good steak. This place has been talked up an awful lot, and it didn’t quite live up to the talk — it wasn’t among the five best steaks I’ve had in my life, although it might have been in the top thirty. But it was a very good steak. And the vibe is fabulous. Very much the 1950’s vision of a classy joint, complete with hot towels and at-the-table flambeeing. Great if you want to pretend to be Frank Sinatra or Freddie Corleone.

NuggetThe Little Nugget Diner. Home of the Awful Awful Burger (so called because it’s “awful big and awful good”). A nothing little greasy spoon in the back of a second-string casino… with a wall full of reviews, articles, and “best of” citations for their burger. And yeah, it’s a damn good burger. Again, not one of the five best I’ve had in my life… but a fine burger indeed, with kick-ass fries. And a whole lot cheaper than the Harrah’s Steakhouse. (Huge, though. We could easily have split one and been perfectly happy. I had it at around one this afternoon, it’s now after ten, and I’m still not really hungry.)

Many thanks to Chowhound for all the tips. Eating in Reno can be truly scary, and Chowhound made it very doable.

“She Loved…” An Excerpt from “Bending”

ThreekindsAnd now, a dirty story.

I’m going to be away from my blog for a few days while I take care of some other stuff. So instead of starting another big heavy discussion topic, I thought I’d give you a nice dirty story to tide you over for a few days. (Family members and others who don’t want to read my porn: Now would be a good time to stop reading.)

This is an excerpt from my erotic novella “Bending,” part of the three-novella collection Three Kinds of Asking For It edited by Susie Bright. FYI: While I usually illustrate my blog posts with lots of pictures, I’m not going to do that here. I want you to be able to picture the characters yourself, the way you imagine them, so I’m leaving this one picture-less. Have fun, and I’ll be back blogging next week!

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Bending
Copyright 2005 Greta Christina

She loved being bent over. More than any fiddling that might precede it, more than any fumbling sex act that might follow. The moment of being bent over was like a sex act to Dallas, like foreplay and climax blended into one swooning, too-short moment. A hand on her neck, pressing gently but firmly downward, felt like a tongue on her clit; a voice in her ear, telling her calmly and reasonably to bend over and pull down her pants, felt like a cock in her cunt.

She always masturbated in that position. She sometimes masturbated by getting in that position and then doing nothing else. She would stand by the arm of her sofa, by the side of the bed, at the edge of the kitchen table; and she would bare her ass, slowly, and slowly bend herself over… and then she would stand there, bent over, hands on her hips or behind the small of her back, thinking. Thinking about what she looked like, thinking about what she felt like. Thinking about the feel of the air on the skin of her exposed ass. Thinking about hands on her thighs, paddles on her bottom, dicks and dildos in her asshole and her cunt. Thinking about what a dirty hungry girl she was. Thinking, until she came.

The furnishings that crowded Dallas’s apartment would be a dead giveaway to anyone who knew what to look for. Sofas and armchairs with wide, firm backs and arms; tables and dressers that were all waist height; a small but varied collection of hairbrushes, vintage and modern. A padded table she had had made for her, its height easily adjustable so her head and torso could be raised or lowered as the mood required. It could pass for a sewing or card table. She called it the bending table. She tried not to use it too often, for fear of using up all the magic.

It was hard sometimes. She saw a video once, where a man bent a woman over a toilet and shoved her head in it while he fucked her in the ass. She thought she would pass out. She watched the scene ten times, pale, wet between her legs, a shaking hand on the remote. She watched it ten times, and then took the video back to the rental place and never watched it again. It made her stomach hurt, the thought that this act had happened — literally, physically, factually happened — to someone who wasn’t her.

She did have lovers. Many of them over the years. Dozens if you counted them all, more if you counted very carefully. More than one of these lovers had accused Dallas of being a black hole, an accusation she felt was deeply unfair, not to mention inaccurate. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to give anything. She simply felt that what she did have to give was sufficient. Her pain, her submission, her ass in the air presented like a jewel on a satin pillow, her willingness to do almost anything a person could do in that position… Dallas felt that all of this was a tremendous gift. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to give anything. It was that she had yet to find a lover who wanted what she had to give. She found this tremendously annoying. Hurtful, too, for sure, and frustrating at times to the point of despair, but mostly just annoying as hell.

And the accusation that “you only like to do one thing” completely baffled her. It wasn’t one thing, she argued to herself on her way home from a particularly frustrating squabble. It wasn’t one thing, any more than so-called regular sex was one thing. Being bent over was a whole field of things, an entire genus, with a zillion details that could vary. Wriggling and weeping versus serene submission; being gently guided to the edge of the bed versus being shoved onto the floor; jeans and cotton panties yanked down to her knees versus a flimsy skirt slowly pulled up to reveal her sluttily un-pantied bottom… these were distinct sex acts, obviously and self-evidently, as different as, say, intercourse and oral sex seemed to be for the rest of the world. The portion of the world that she’d been fucking, anyway.

Certain details about her lovers didn’t much matter to her. Male, female, neither or both, any of these were fine. Age, race, height, weight, occupation or lack thereof, smoking habits, voting habits, all those things that kept showing up in the personal ads; none of them made much difference to Dallas. Lately, it was beginning to make less and less difference whether she even found them attractive. It was beginning to matter only whether they were willing.

For example.

There was Daria, the photographer. Daria loved seducing people into taking things a little too far, loved getting them to sign the release and then leading them, step by gentle step, from a tasteful, soft-focus nude session into something she’d have to take to Amsterdam to get published. She loved the blush, the not-so-reluctant reluctance, the shame and relief on her subjects’ faces at being exposed at last. She was good, and she got what she wanted a lot. And God knows she got good pictures out of Dallas. She got a whole book’s worth of pictures out of Dallas, a book she’d have been hard-pressed to get published even in Amsterdam. But she never got the blush. She had Dallas doing things that almost made her own bad self blush, and she talked to Dallas in a low voice about how many people were going to see these pictures and know her dirty secret, and through it all Dallas just smiled, a beatific half-smile like she was gazing on the face of the Holy Virgin. Daria even got out the video camera, a last resort if there ever was one, and she told Dallas about all the filthy leering perverts she was going to sell the tape to on the Internet, and Dallas just spread her asshole wider, and smiled wider. Daria did finally get the photos published, some of them anyway, and she sent Dallas five copies of the book, and Dallas sent back a very sweet thank-you note with an order for ten more copies at the twenty percent discount agreed on in their contract.

There was Jack. That was good for a while. Jack liked a lot of different things, but he was happy to oblige Dallas as long as she was happy to oblige him back. It was pretty damn fun, actually; he knew where she lived, so he could keep her on the hook for hours, groveling on the floor begging for his cock, smacking herself in the pussy and calling herself a cheap whore, bound on her back with his Jockeys in her mouth while he jerked off in her face and told her what a good girl she was. As long as he held out the promise of bending her over and doing things to her from behind, she’d do just about anything for him, and do it with a song in her heart. But he knew her heart wasn’t in it. He knew that all she really wanted was the bending over part, and someone who craved it as much as she did. And he didn’t. It was perfectly fine, but he didn’t have that sort of dedication to the one fetish. His fetish was variety. And ultimately, what he wanted was someone who wanted him, someone desperate for his particular cock, his Jockeys in their mouth, someone who wasn’t just lending him their mouth as a trade-off for his hands on their ass. So the two of them broke it off. They were still friends, though, and they still did it sometimes, when her ads were running dry and his boyfriend had other plans.

There was B.J., a butch top who’d call herself that to anyone who would listen. She loved having cute girls bend over for her, loved to beat them until they cried prettily and begged her to stop. But Dallas never would. Oh, she’d cry alright; she’d cry and whimper, scream and wriggle, yank frantically against her ropes or beat her fists on the bed. But she never asked B.J. to stop. Not once. B.J. would beat her until the welts ran together; but when she dropped the belt and sneered, “Had enough?” Dallas would inevitably draw a breath and say, “No, sir. I can take more.” Like it was a fucking gift or something. B.J. didn’t think it was a fucking gift. She thought it was a challenge, or a mockery even. The last time Dallas said it, B.J. shrugged in disgust, tossed her paddle into her bag, and said “Fine. You win.” She picked up her bag and her motorcycle jacket without another word, while Dallas stayed in position, bent over with one foot on the floor and the other splayed out on the bed, looking over her shoulder with a puzzled expression. B.J. gave Dallas one last withering look and slammed out the front door — and hovered in the hallway, waiting for Dallas to run out and call after her. She stayed long enough to hear Dallas make herself come, quickly and loudly. She didn’t stay long enough to hear Dallas pick up the phone and call Jack for a lengthy gripe-fest about asshole tricks who thought sex was a competition.

There was Jeffrey — Jeff, Jeffrey, he didn’t care — who met her through her ad online. He couldn’t believe his luck; they’d been talking in the coffeeshop for maybe five minutes when she looked him up and down and said calmly, “So if I take you back to my place now, will you bend me over and fuck me in the ass?” At first he thought it was a scam, thought her boyfriend would jump out from behind her door and mug him or something; but she sighed impatiently and said “Fine. Your place, my place. A motel. Whatever,” and he dropped a twenty on the coffeeshop table and took her to a motel down the block. And then he really couldn’t believe his luck. The door shut behind them, and she tossed her purse in the corner, jerked up her skirt, flopped over the dresser, spread her ass cheeks apart with her hands, and started begging him to stick it in. She didn’t have to beg him twice. He scrambled out of his pants, shoved a condom onto his dick, and hastily guided himself into her open, gentle asshole. He fucked her slow and sweet until she squirmed and bucked and whimpered for him to fuck her hard and fast, and then he slammed her, five or six good slams before he came. But then she started getting weird on him. She stayed bent over the dresser even after he pulled out, and she started talking about him putting things into her ass. She had some things in her purse, she said. When he went silent she started sweet-talking, saying they could do it anywhere he wanted, on the floor, against the wall, in the bathroom over the toilet seat. Her voice trembled a bit when she mentioned the toilet seat. When he stayed silent, she looked abashed, said she knew she was hard to deal with sometimes, said she could see why he might be angry, said if he felt like he had to punish her she’d understand. At which point he remembered an urgent appointment, scrambled back into his pants, and made the most graceful thirty-second exit he could muster. He wasn’t sure, but he thought he saw her reaching for her purse as he closed the door.

There was Betsy.

Threekinds_2Most of the rest of the story concerns Dallas and Betsy. If you want to find out what happens next, you’ll have to buy the book.

The Martians Explain Consciousness

BrainThis is one of the smartest, most perceptive things I’ve read about consciousness and our understanding of it, and I just had to pass it along.

Martian“Suppose you’re a medieval physicist wondering about the burning of wood,” Pat likes to say in her classes. “You’re Albertus Magnus, let’s say. One night, a Martian comes down and whispers, ‘Hey, Albertus, the burning of wood is really rapid oxidation!’ What could he do? He knows no structural chemistry, he doesn’t know what oxygen is, he doesn’t know what an element is — he couldn’t make any sense of it. And if some fine night that same omniscient Martian came down and said, ‘Hey, Pat, consciousness is really blesjeakahgjfdl!’ I would be similarly confused, because neuroscience is just not far enough along.”

Brain_cellThis has stuck with me ever since I read it. It’s a quote from a New Yorker article by Larissa
MacFarquhar (2/12/2007) , called “Two Heads,” about philosophers Paul and Patricia Churchland, who were among the first modern-day philosophers to argue that philosophers needed to pay attention to science — and in particular to neuroscience — to understand how we think and why we think that way. (I’ve been meaning to blog about it for a while, but I kept waiting for the New Yorker to get their shit together and put the article on their website; but all they have is this abstract. Dummies.)

Anyway. The reason I love this passage so much is… well, a lot of reasons. I love how humbling it is. I love how simple and obvious the analogy is, and at the same time how completely it fucks with my head.

But mostly I love that it said what I was trying to get at in my piece The Unexplained, the Unproven, and the Unlikely — but so much more cleverly and succinctly.

Big_bangThis is what I’m getting at when I gas on about how the fact that life is full of mysteries doesn’t mean the answers to those mysteries are metaphysical. But this passage really gets across the overwhelming, awestruck quality of all the things we don’t know, will never know, can’t know. It’s not just that there are things we don’t understand. It’s that there are things that we don’t even have the basic tools to understand. There are things that we — you and me and everyone alive today on this planet — will never understand, or even come close to understanding. There are things that we — the human race — may not understand for hundreds of years, and may indeed never know. Big, important things, like consciousness and free will and the origins of space-time.

CandleflameJust like the medieval scientist couldn’t have understood about fire.

And even if an explanation somehow appeared to us — an accurate, rational, completely scientific/ naturalistic explanation — it might not even make sense.

I keep trying to come up with some perfect, pithy way to conclude this. But honestly, all I can come up with is: Woo. Freaky.

Dream journal, 4/3/07: Ingrid’s Wedding

Wedding_dressI dreamed that Ingrid and I were visiting Ingrid’s relatives in Arkansas. She had a couple of old friends there who she was still in touch with, and one of them was a guy who, for complicated legal or logistical reason, needed to get married. So somehow it got decided that Ingrid should marry him, right away, within the next few days.

ChurchAt first I went along with this, and didn’t think it was a big deal. But as the dream went on and the wedding plans moved forward, I got increasingly upset. It started occurring to me that Ingrid’s marriage to this guy would have real legal standing, greater legal standing than our domestic partnership. And the wedding was happening in a church, apparently to make Ingrid’s fundamentalist relatives and the groom’s fundamentalist relatives happy… and I was getting very weirded out by the fact that Ingrid was going along with this. The dream ended with me at the church just before the wedding, feeling like I had to keep our relationship a secret even though most people pretty much knew about it (a bunch of the other wedding guests were glaring at me), and not sure if I was supposed to sit in the front row with the family or sit in the back as if I was just another guest, and getting very freaked out and and hurt and increasingly sure that this was a very bad idea.

California_flagThis was obviously a pretty upsetting dream, and I was very relieved when I woke up (although bummed that Ingrid had already left for work and I couldn’t ask her to reassure me). I also woke up remembering that, in fact, California law says that domestic partners have to dissolve their partnership before one of them can re-marry — which helped bring me back to the reality that Ingrid would, in fact, never do this. (It sometimes takes me a while to realize that my dreams aren’t real and don’t make sense.)

Reality note: Ingrid has fundie relatives in Mississippi, not Arkansas. I have no idea why my dream-brain translated that into Arkansas.

Does The Cage Disappear?

PleasurepainWe saw this play about S/M at the Magic Theater on Friday, called “Pleasure + Pain.” Despite the somewhat obvious title, it wasn’t half bad; at times on the obvious and overwritten side, and definitely in the “plea for understanding” vein… but with complicated and nuanced characters, and some genuinely interesting ideas.

And one of the most interesting ideas was one that wound up bugging me the most at the end… and it’s what I want to talk about here. (Warning: Big time “giving away the whole dramatic ending” spoiler alert.)

Pleasurepain_cage_2The device I found so interesting was this: To represent the fantasy life of the main character Peggy, they had a hunky man in a cage, with whom she was playing in various kinky ways. Or at least, he was in the cage at the beginning of the play. As her fantasy life began intruding more and more into her real life, the man in the cage escaped, and kept showing up at inopportune moments, refusing to go quietly back into the cage and trying to get her to come into the cage with him… and he switched from being a submissive to an increasingly insistent top. It was a surprisingly effective way to express the experience of having your fantasies becoming harder to ignore, and more demanding of your attention — to have them made into a physical presence, both in the form of the man and the form of the cage itself.

And now comes the spoiler. At the end of the play, Peggy finally allows herself to experience and explore her submissive fantasies. At the end of this scene, she finally steps into the cage — and the bars of the cage dramatically fly apart, and go clang in pieces on the floor.

Broken_chainNow, this bugged me for two reasons. Partly, I thought it was just really bad theater. So obvious, so heavy-handed, so unoriginal. Yes, yes, when you finally allow yourself to be who you are, the bars of the prison fly open and you’re free. Thank you for sharing.

But what really bugged me wasn’t that the symbolism was so obvious.

What bugged me was that it was wrong.

CageIf the cage represents the place that her sexual fantasies have in her life… well, you know, when you come out in some sexual way, it’s not as if the divide between fantasy and reality disappears. It’s not as if your fantasies suddenly become reality. One of the hardest, most complicated lessons that adults have to learn is that acting out fantasies is NEVER the same as the fantasy itself. Sometimes the acting out is disappointing; sometimes it wildly exceeds your expectations; sometimes it goes off in some totally other direction that you would never in a million years have expected.

HarlequinBut it’s not the same. When you come out — as queer or kinky or a fetishist or whatever, but let’s say kinky for the moment — you still have the cage in the corner, with all your fantasy characters in it. You still have the cage, with the adoring and perfectly compliant submissive beauty… or the cruel but loving master/mistress who’s completely fascinated with you and always knows exactly how much you can take… or the cruel and heartless tyrant who doesn’t give a damn how much you can take… or the wide-eyed innocent weeping and struggling over their defilement… or the wide-eyed innocent gasping with joy over their defilement…

Snape(Or Alan Rickman as Snape. Boy, folks, that one is just not going away…)

And you still have your life, and your partner or partners, who have their own cages with their own characters that hopefully overlap yours… not 100%, but enough.

The bars of the cage don’t fly apart. They just get tangled up in your life: sometimes in a complicated and beautiful weave, sometimes in a hopeless mess, and hopefully in a way that’s interesting and fulfilling and satisfying. But the cage in the corner of your life — and the people in it — are not going anywhere.