Not Everything Means Something: Virginia Tech

Virginia_techRemember how, when the Virginia Tech shootings happened, I didn’t want to say anything right away except “my deepest sympathy goes out to the families and friends of the victims”? I didn’t want to rush to judgment about what happened and why?

Jon_carroll_bookA couple of weeks ago, Jon Carroll wrote pretty much the thing I’ve been wanting to say, and I wanted to quote it here and talk about it a little. The main gist of his piece was about the stupidity of using the tragedy to support the anti-immigrant agenda — a sentiment I heartily support. But what really jumped out at me was this:

To get this out of the way: I don’t think the tragedy at Virginia Tech means anything at all. I think it’s just a tragedy. There are 300 million people in America, and some of them are crazy and violent. There are always warning signs that the crazy person might do something crazy and violent, but usually the warning signs do not presage slaughter, or they presage a basically harmless manifestation, like room trashing or poster defacing. How is one supposed to know which warning signs are the warning signs? One cannot know. The ratio of warning signs to acts of mass murder is just too large.

Bad things happen in life. People grieve. The pain is entirely and absolutely real, but the pain does not require meaning. Would it ease the loss of the relatives of the deceased to know that the killer was a product of an abusive foster care system? No, it would not and, anyway, he wasn’t. He was a brooding student who thought about death, and I knew lots of people like that. They became graduate students. They took up golf. They worked in regional theater.

So here’s what I’ve been wanting to say:

Joan_didion_white_albumI think that we — and that absolutely includes me — have a tendency, when terrible things happen, to try to figure out how and why they happened. We do this, quite reasonably, so we can see if the terrible thing can be stopped from happening again. And we do this because we want and need for the world to make sense. Because, as Joan Didion so famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Because to accept the idea that some things happen for no real reason, we would have to accept the idea that we can’t control the world. We’d have to accept the idea that we can shape the world to some degree, but we can’t always stop terrible things from happening — and for that matter, we can’t always make wonderful things happen, either.

And that can be a truly terrifying thing to accept.

LightningBut the reality is that not everything happens for a reason. Or rather, sometimes the reasons aren’t very reasonable. Sometimes the reason is “that’s how the world works sometimes.” (In this particular incident… well, the human brain is a complicated thing, and sometimes things go horribly wrong with it, and some people become seriously and violently mentally ill. As best as we can tell, it’s almost certainly an inevitable by-product of human evolution.)

BrainAre there things we can do to minimize the number of terrible things that happen — or to minimize their bad effects when they do? Absolutely. And we have a moral obligation to do so, as well as we can. (When it comes to the Virginia Tech shootings, my money’s mostly on “better funding for research into the treatment of mental illness.” Gun control is probably on the list as well
 although as Timothy McVeigh proved, a smart and determined person can kill a huge number of people in a short time with no guns at all.)

EyeBut I think we also have a moral obligation to see the world as it is, as well as we can. I think we have a moral obligation to not use everything that happens in the world — good or bad — as a stone to grind our axes on, as evidence of why our opinion is right and everything should be done our way. I think that, if we’re going to try to prevent terrible things from happening and minimize their effects when they do, we have to start by knowing what we can prevent and what we can’t. Like the AA serenity prayer says: we have to have the serenity to accept what can’t be changed, the courage to change what can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

I think seeing the world as it is, as well as we can, is an essential first step in deciding how to act in it. And as painful and terrifying as it is, I think a crucial part of the reality of the world is that not everything happens for a reason, and not everything means something.

And I think the tragedy at Virginia Tech may well be one of those things.

Daily_kos[Before I close: I can't write about the Virginia Tech shootings without citing one of the most powerful and moving things I've read about it: An atheist at Virginia Tech, by Daily Kos blogger Mapantsula (an atheist and a professor at Virginia Tech). The piece was written in response to Dinesh D'Souza and his particularly revolting anti-atheist axe-grinding in response to the massacre. D'Souza's comments are one of the reasons I'm flinching away so strongly from the "Virginia Tech would never have happened if everything in the world were done my way" punditry... and Mapantsula's response is just stunning. Read it.]

Ogle Therapy

CircleI’ve been thinking a lot about this whole “how to maintain your sexual self-esteem when you’re a short, chubby, middle-aged woman” thing that I was talking about in The Aging Slut. It’s such a complicated circle — thinking that you’re hot and being confident in your hotness makes you hotter, thinking that you’re dumpy and being insecure about your looks makes you dumpier… but then how do you break out of the dumpiness/ insecurity circle and break into the confidence/ heat one?

I was re-reading what I wrote in Woman Eats Brownies, Gets Laid:

Jennifer_hudson… what I wind up doing is seeking sexual affirmation, not by looking in the mirror, but by looking at other women who look like me. When I catch myself drooling over some hot babe with a nice meaty body that I’d really like to get my hands on, I remind myself that other people — especially other women — probably feel the same way about me.

Camryn_manheimAnd so lately I’ve been doing something I’m calling Ogle Therapy. When I see an attractive woman who looks something like me — forties, chunky, strong muscles, big tits and ass — I make a point of taking a moment to look at her. And I mean really look at her. I try not to be obvious and obnoxious about it, but I take a moment to enjoy the view, to luxuriate in her hotness and really take it in… and to remind myself that if I can look at this woman in this way, then chances are at least some other people are looking at me the same way.

I realize this isn’t much help to the heterosexually-inclined. But I had an opposite-sex version of this experience the other day — and it gave me a whole new perspective on this question.

Weight_benchI was at the gym, getting ready to use the bench press (my favorite weight set — it’s so fucking hot). Both benches were being used, so I waited… and while I waited, I watched the guys who were benching.

Rock_hudsonOne was a very short, skinny, wiry guy in a Picasso T-shirt, in I’m guessing his late thirties or early forties, benching about 85 pounds. The other was a tallish, youngish (early 20s), well-muscled guy in a college sports team tank top, conventionally handsome in a frat-boy/ Tom Cruise/ Rock Hudson sort of way, benching about 150 or 175.

PicassoAnd if a fairy godmother had appeared to me at that moment and said, “You can have sex with either of these two men — pick one,” I would have picked the short, skinny, Picasso guy in a heartbeat.

He just looked… I don’t know. Interesting. Smart. A character, a guy with a mind of his own. Like someone I could relax and have a conversation with. Like someone with potentially interesting ideas about sex. The other guy looked… bland. Not bad or anything, but just kind of boring.

Beauty_mythBut it occurred to me: It wouldn’t surprise me at all to find out that the short, scrawny guy was insecure about his looks. Every bit as insecure as I can be. The beauty myth doesn’t just hit women, after all. It wouldn’t surprise me to find out that he was comparing himself unfavorably to the big, beefy guys at the gym, just like I compare myself to the slender young women.

And yet here I was, thinking he was the hottest thing in the weight room.

And I realized: If I’m hot for the wiry little slip of a guy in the Picasso T-shirt, chances are someone at that gym has looked at the tough, chubby, forty-something dyke with the scary Jabberwock tattoo and thought, “Yeah, I’d do her.”

And for the rest of the evening, I was back on the confident/hot circle.

So at least sometimes, it works. What works for y’all?

Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence

Waltzing1I had this little “atheist/ naturalist moment of transcendence” recently, and I thought I should try to write a little bit about it. I’ve been realizing that I spend a fair amount of my time as an atheist writer talking about what I don’t believe in — why I don’t believe in religion, why it often pisses me off, etc. I’m generally very much okay with that; in fact, I think it’s completely appropriate for the early stages of a social movement.

But I want to start talking a little more about what I do believe in. I want to share the positive side, too. This moment last weekend was a classic one, and I wanted to write about it.

Ecd4I was at a wedding last weekend, a wedding of friends in the dance community that I’m part of, at which there was oodles of dancing. (This picture is from our own wedding, btw, as we didn’t take any pictures at our friends’.) I was dancing in a particularly good set, with a particularly good partner, doing a dance I’m particularly fond of, and I was getting that special transcendent brain/body fusion that I only ever get from dancing…

…and I was suddenly filled with this sense of wonder and awe — that out of atoms and molecules, here we were managing to create the experience of joy.

1st_waltz_1To me, the idea that consciousness and emotion and experiences like ecstasy and joy are physical, biological phenomena — it doesn’t diminish these experiences. On the contrary. It makes them more amazing, more awe-inspiring. We are made up of essentially the same stuff as rocks and water and dirt and stars… and yet, out of this stuff, out of these atoms and molecules, we can be aware of ourselves, and of one another, and of the world around us. And we can shape that awareness, and create experiences that bring joy and delight to ourselves and one another. We can make vows to stick together for better or for worse… and we can dance for hours celebrating those vows, using our bones and nerves and muscles to generate connection and meaning, transcendence and joy.

That is just fucking awesome.

Fetus_da_vinciMaybe we’ll understand consciousness someday. Maybe we won’t. But even if we do, I don’t think that understanding will have to diminish our sense of wonder and awe about it. After all, we pretty much understand how human reproduction works (although many details are still being filled in); and yet the fact that soon, a new person is going to become part of our family (my sister-in-law Cynthia is pregnant), a person who didn’t exist a year ago but who right now is in the process of coming into existence… I’m still struck dumb at how totally fucking cool that is. It’s a physical, biological phenomenon, and yet it almost overwhelms me at times with how freakishly miraculous it is. She’ll be a whole new person, with her own consciousness — and she’ll have her very own capacity to experience joy, and to bring it to others.

Sunrise_apolloFormed out of the molecules of the earth, and the heat and light of the sun.

It just blows me away.

SunriseP.S. If you want to see some more writing about the positive experiences of being an atheist, I encourage you to check out the new Humanist Symposium at Daylight Atheism. It’s a carnival of positive atheist blogging, a roundup of blog posts that “celebrate the virtues of atheism and promote the philosophy of humanism as a beneficial, attainable way of life.” The host was kind enough to include my Why Are We Here? One Agnostic’s Half-Baked Philosophy piece in the inaugural edition — and I’m feeling very much honored, as I’m in excellent company. This is a seriously cool carnival, and anyone who wants to see some beautiful, thoughtful, positive atheist philosophies of life is strongly encouraged to check it out.

The Truth about 4/29: What “They” Don’t Want You to Know

Macarthur_mazeThis is serious, people.

Really, really serious.

Really.

4/29truth.com: A Campaign to Expose the Truth of 4/29

Spread the word, people! The so-called “media” is stonewalling this story. (We all know who THEY’RE controlled by, don’t we?) And be sure to read the comments — that’s where the REAL truth about this so-called “accident” starts to unfold.

No, really.

(Thanks to my dear friend and fellow truth-seeker Chip, for opening my eyes to this. You’re the real hero of 4/29, man!)

Sex Crazed Sex Goddesses of Sex: Women Who Like Sex, and the Men Who Don’t Appreciate Them

Id_rather_eat_chocolateDan Savage (of the Savage Love sex advice column) did this very clever thing recently. He ran a column pretending to agree with the proposition that women across the board simply aren’t as interested in sex as men… and then waited for the letters to pour in, from legions of outraged women with high libidos insisting that they, you know, existed. (I almost wrote him one myself.)

But what struck me about these letters wasn’t so much the raw fact of them. It wasn’t that plenty of women do have high libidos, or that the problem of differing libidos in relationships cuts across gender lines. Like, duh.

Women_who_love_sexWhat really struck me about these letters was how many of these horny women got insulted and jeered at by their male partners for being horny. Women who love sex, and who’ve had male partners who didn’t want sex as often as they did, wrote to Dan saying they’d been called nympho, whore, a dog in heat.

Real_men_dont_eat_quicheIt’s hard to know what exactly is going on with these guys. Is this some macho thing — the men get freaked out because men are supposed to be the sex-crazed ones who want it all the time, and if your woman wants it more than you do then that somehow makes you less of a man? Is it just a generic “blame your partner for your problems and differences” reaction — you know, the classic “we want different things, I’m perfect, therefore my partner must be fucked-up” logic? Is it something else entirely?

I really don’t know. I’ve never encountered this exact phenomenon. I’ve never had a sex partner of either gender insult me for wanting lots of sex. I’ve never had a sex partner call me a slut or a whore or a nympho or a dog in heat — except in a good way.

Casual_sexBut I have encountered something similar. Back when I was (a) screwing around a lot and (b) at least sometimes screwing around with men, I ran into this scene a fair amount: Men who said they wanted casual, no strings-attached sex — but then got totally weird once we’d had it. (“Weird” meaning avoiding eye contact, being distant or jumpy when they’d been friendly and relaxed, doing the approach/ avoidance dance, and just being generally, you know, weird.) This wasn’t true across the board… but it happened often enough for me to go, “Hm.”

GraduateI’m not quite sure what that was about. Maybe these men thought they wanted casual sex… but really wanted some sort of love and commitment. Maybe they really did want casual sex, but didn’t want me to want it as much as they did — like the fact that I was so okay with it was a blow to their pride, I wasn’t supposed to be able to walk away from their sweet, sweet loving so easily. Maybe the sex stirred up feelings and emotions for them — not necessarily true love, but some sort of tenderness or vulnerability — and my freewheeling, sang-froid attitude was actually making me an insensitive jerk. (Like I wrote in my 1996 piece Being Single, “There are times when I feel like a caricature of a straight man, and an asshole straight man at that.”)

Get_laid_nowAnd maybe any or all of this was true, for any or all of these men — but because men are supposed to be the ones who want casual sex, when it turned out that they didn’t want it as much as they thought they did, it made them feel less manly.

Just like not wanting sex as much as the woman in their life might make some men feel less manly.

ThinkerBut maybe not. Maybe I’m talking out of my ass. Thoughts? Men — have you ever been involved with a woman who wanted sex more than you did, or who wanted sex to be casual when you weren’t sure about that? If so, what was that like? And women — have you ever been with guys who wanted it less than you did, or who didn’t want something casual when you did? And what was that like? And if you’re gay or lesbian, has this ever been an issue — have you had these kinds of differences with partners, and how did they play out? And if you’re bi, how does that play out differently? Nosy minds want to know.