Brief Blog Break/ Open Thread/ Shameless Self-Promotion Opportunity

Ingrid and I are going to be of town for a few days for the holiday weekend. Our neighbors will be looking after our apartment and our cats, but I may be too busy to look after the blog much. I’ll check in to make sure there’s no horrible trolling, and I’ll post a piece or two and reply to comments if I have time; but if you don’t see me back here until Tuesday or Wednesday, don’t be surprised.

In the meantime, consider this both an open thread and a shameless self-promotion spot. If you have a blog and want to link to a post you’ve done — or if you’re doing something neat and want to tell us about it — go ahead and do it here. Obvious plugs for commercial products will be deleted, but if you have a book or a show or an art project or something, let us know about it.

So talk amongst yourselves. I’ll give you a topic. “Firefly” is neither a fire nor a fly. Discuss. Have a happy Labor Day, think kind thoughts about the labor movement, and I’ll see y’all when I get back!

Gratitude For Small Favors: “Evolve: Sex” (The Blowfish Blog)

Evolve
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s a review of the “Sex” episode of the new History Channel series, “Evolve”… and it talks about why, despite a number of complaints I have about the program’s handling of sex, I’m overall giving it a thumbs-up. It’s called Gratitude For Small Favors: “Evolve: Sex,” and here’s the teaser:

I suppose I should be grateful.

And I am grateful.

But it’s a bit sad that I should be grateful about something that should be ridiculously obvious — and ridiculously common.

I’m grateful for this: On the History Channel’s series “Evolve,” on the episode about sex, they say the word “penis.”

Several times. Casually, matter- of- factly, as if they were saying the word “jaw” or “kidney.” When they say, “The penis is a good example of convergent evolution,” they could just as easily have been saying, “The eye is a good example of convergent evolution.”

Ditto with the words “intercourse,” “sperm,” “sex organs,” “climax,” “ejaculate,” and more.

And, of course, the word “sex” itself.

To find out more about why I liked this show despite my complaints about it — and what exactly those complaints are — read the rest of the piece. Enjoy!

Del Martin, and What Makes a Life Meaningful

A very great woman died yesterday.

I want to talk about her. And I want to talk about some of the things that make a life meaningful.

If you aren’t in the queer community, you may not know who Del Martin was. And I’m not going to give you her whole biography here. But I want to hit a few high points before I get to my point.

The_Ladder_May_1966
Del Martin co-founded — along with her partner of over five decades, Phyllis Lyon — the Daughters of Bilitis, the very first public and political lesbian rights organization ever in the United States, back in the 1950s. Yes, you heard that decade right — the 1950s. She and Phyllis were the first and second editors of The Ladder, the DOB’s newsletter/ magazine and the first nationally distributed lesbian publication in the U.S…. also begun in the 1950s. She was a leader in the campaign to get the American Psychiatric Association to declare that homosexuality was not a mental illness. She was the first openly lesbian woman elected to the board of the National Organization of Women.

Lesbian woman
She was co-author with Phyllis in 1972 of the book Lesbian/Woman, one of the first positive, lesbian-authored books about lesbian lives, chosen by Publishers Weekly as one of the 20 most influential women’s books of the last 20 years. She was one of the first women to speak about sexism in the gay community. She was a major writer and activist in the movement against domestic violence. She and Phyl were the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the first round of same-sex weddings in 2004… and the first couple to be married in San Francisco in the most recent (and hopefully last) round, in 2008. She…

I could do this for pages. You can read more here, and here, and here, and… you know what, just Google her name. People are writing tributes to her all over the Web.

So this is what I want to say.

Like millions of other queers, I felt terribly sad when I heard she had died. It’s almost always sad when someone dies, and it’s especially sad when someone this remarkable dies, even if it’s someone you’ve never met. But as sad as it is, it’s not a death that seems tragic, or unjust. Because she got to have such an amazing life. She got to be a pioneer, someone who made real change for millions of people after her, and she got to be an influential activist throughout her life. She got to have tributes upon her death from people ranging from Gavin Newsom to Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama. She got to be part of history. A not- insignificant part.

Del-martin_phyllis-lyon
Plus, she got to have a 50+ year relationship with the love of her life.

And she got to marry that love of her life. Not so special for most people. But think about what the world was like when Del and Phyl were starting as lesbian activists. It was the ’50s. Homosexuality was still illegal in every state in the country. Homosexuals were still being put into mental institutions. The thought that one day, gays and lesbians would be able to get married, anywhere in this country, anywhere in this world… it must have been unimaginable. It wasn’t even on the radar. They weren’t fighting for the right to marry back then. They were fighting to not be put in jail, to not have their bars raided, to not lose their jobs and their children, to not be given shock treatment and lobotomies.

Greta and Ingrid City Hall wedding 2008
Think about what the world was like for queers then. And for all the messed-up crap, for all the work that still needs to be done, think about what the world is like for queers today.

Del Martin got to see the world change, in ways that at one time it probably wouldn’t have even occurred to her to dream about. And she got to be part of that change.

And she got to die at a ripe old age of 87, with her beloved at her side.

What a life to have lived.

I’m not saying that being an influential activist and important historical figure is the only way to create meaning. There are countless people who live and die unheard of by anyone but their immediate circle of family and friends… and their lives have tremendous meaning. Del Martin’s life isn’t the only way to have a meaningful life.

But it sure is a damn good one.

Recently in this blog, this Christian lackwit — excuse me, I do so try to criticize ideas and not insult people — this Christian with some truly lackwitted ideas, said, among other things, that atheists have no hope.

I want to say this: I have hope.

No, I don’t have any hope that I’ll get to be immortal and live forever after I die. I believe that’s a false hope, and I have let go of it. But I have much hope, and many hopes. And one of my greatest hopes is that my life will be even half as meaningful, and half as rich, and have half as much impact on the world around me, as Del Martin’s.

Nclr_logo
In Del’s memory, donations can be made to the National Center for Lesbian Rights’ No on 8 fund, the campaign to stop the same-sex marriage ban ballot initiative in California in November.

On Not Being a Crank

How do you be a critic without turning into a crank?

Any kind of critic. Social, political, cultural, whatever.

George carlin
When George Carlin died, HBO ran a marathon of all the stand-up specials he’d done for them, from the late ’70s until shortly before he died. We didn’t watch all of them, but we tuned in and out throughout the day, getting sort of a smorgasbord of his career over the decades. And I noticed a pattern.

In his later years, Carlin had improved his craft by leaps and bounds. His mastery of language, his perceptiveness about society, the cleverness of his barbs… all had sharpened to a razor-like edge over the years. (Not that they sucked in his earlier days…)

And yet, his later performances were not nearly as much of a pleasure to watch. The content had become increasingly negative, to the point where the shows got overtaken by jeremiads… not just against great social ills and hypocrisies, but against anybody who didn’t do things the way Carlin did, or who cared about things other than what he cared about. He’d turned from a fiery, uncompromising social critic using his extraordinary skill with language and humor to chip away at the greed and lies of the power structure, into an old man railing about modern technology and how nobody does things right anymore, and yelling at kids to get off his lawn. (Doing it exquisitely, I hasten to add.)

He’d become a crank.

A brilliant crank, but a crank nonetheless.

And I want to know: How do you avoid that?

I’m beginning to see crank tendencies in my own self. And I don’t like it. I’m finding myself more and more likely to see, and think about, and talk about, flaws. In everything. Movies, music, food, books, bourbons, blogs, decaf lattes, ideas, people. Even things that I like, I’m finding myself critical of: not entirely negative, necessarily, but hyper-aware of their imperfections… and hyper-willing to talk about them.

And I’m doing it in situations where it’s not always appropriate. Increasingly, I’m having to remind myself that I am not being asked for a thorough, unblinking, rigorously honest analysis of pluses and minuses when I’m asked a question like, “How do you like the soup?”

And I’m wondering: Is this a natural result of the work that I do? Is one of the job hazards of being a professional critic that you start turning into a personal one? Or a permanent one?

Your movie sucks
The way of crankery can be very tempting. For one thing, it makes life as a writer so much easier. Any writer worth their salt can write about things they don’t like, in a way that’s entertaining and funny. Witness the success of the Roger Ebert books, “I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie” and “Your Movie Sucks”. (Both of which have pride of place in our home, on the shelf in front of the toilet.) The hard job is writing enthusiastically about things that you do like without just stringing together a list of superlatives and sounding like a sap. (And the insanely hard job is writing about things that are mediocre. How many ways are there in this world to write “Formulaic but passably pleasant” without wanting to shoot yourself?)

And some of it is that being critical is a quick ‘n’ easy way to feel smart and superior. Especially if you have any sort of connection to hipster culture, which defines itself by what it doesn’t like almost as much as by what it does. (If not more so.)

And, of course, it could just be that I’m getting older. And for reasons I don’t at all understand, an awful lot of people get crankier as they get older.

And then, some of it may just be that I’m having a very, very, very long year, the sort of year that I hope I’ll be able to look back on one day and laugh grimly about, and my natural perky “glass half full” realistic- optimism has been getting just a tad irritable.

But I think that a lot of it is just habit.

Anatomy of criticism
I’m a critic. Professionally, I mean. It’s my job to, you know, criticize: to look at pros and cons, plusses and minuses, goals met and unmet, goals worth and not worth reaching in the first place. And I’m writing a lot on a topic about which I am very critical indeed — namely, religion.

All of which I’m basically fine with. I’m definitely not of the “if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” school. I think many not-nice things are important and need to be said.

But I feel like I need to watch this trend. I need to watch the degree to which it affects my personal life. And I don’t want it taking over my professional life completely. Thirty years from now, I don’t want people reading my blog (assuming that I have a blog in thirty years) and thinking, “Wow, she sure is a good writer — but she sure does complain a lot.”

Any thoughts?

Olympics
The best idea I’ve come up with about this is to make an effort — a conscious, disciplined effort — to at least sometimes write about things that I like. I’ve even thought about turning it into a series: the “Things I Like” series. That’s sort of what I was doing with my recent Olympics piece. I could easily have written a piece of that length — hell, longer — about all the things I don’t like about the Olympics and the media coverage thereof. It would have been interesting, and it would have been valid. But it wouldn’t have been all that original — my critiques have all been made before, many times and by many others. And mostly, I just didn’t feel like going there. I was already starting to think about this crank issue (I’ve been thinking about it for a while now); and since I was, in fact, having a good time watching the Olympics, I decided that this time, I wanted to go to my happy place.

But I’m looking for other strategies for crankery avoidance, other than just Occasionally Write About Stuff I Like. And I’m wondering how other incipient cranks deal with this. Writers especially, but really anybody. How do you stay critical of society as the years go by without turning into a curmudgeon? How do you stay realistic about the half-empty part of the glass without getting absorbed into it?

What are your thoughts? What are your strategies?

And while I’m thinking of it: Would you, in fact, like to see a “Things I Like” series in this blog?

I’d love to know. It would take me to my happy place. Thanks!

“I will try not to sing…”: Joe Cocker With Subtitles

I don’t think I have anything to add to this video.

Mostly because it makes me laugh so hard I can’t talk.

It’s probably funnier if you’ve seen the movie “Woodstock” (or heard the album); but it should still be a darned good time if you haven’t. BTW, the joke doesn’t start until about 30 seconds in, but it’s worth waiting for and not jumping ahead.

Video below the fold, since putting videos above the fold mucks up my archives.

[Read more...]

“People of Faith”: Religion as Ethical Misdirection

El_greco_the_repentant_peter_3
Ever since I started writing about atheism and religion, I’ve been troubled by the idea that being a strongly religious person, in and of itself, makes you a good person.

I’ve been troubled by the idea that phrases like “person of faith” or “man of God” are supposed to be understood to mean “good person.” Pretty much by definition.

Well, there’s a story in the news that’s turning this irritation into a full-flown outrage. And it’s making me realize what, exactly, it is about this trope that I find so troubling.

From the AP, via PageOneQ (via a comment on Daylight Atheism, where I got this story as well as the idea for this piece), we have the charming story of David Davis. Florida high school principal. Who, when a student told him that she was being harassed by other students for being a lesbian, told her that homosexuality was wrong, told her to stay away from children, and outed her to her parents.

Gay_flag.svg
And who, when the girl’s friends expressed their support for her by wearing gay pride T-shirts and buttons, interrogated them about their own sexuality and the sexuality of other students… and in some cases, suspended them.

And we have the story of the community who, when the school district was sued by the ACLU for this behavior, and Principal David was reprimanded and demoted, expressed righteous outrage and anger towards the girl’s family and the ACLU, and backed Davis up… because he was a Christian.

Saying things like:

“David Davis is a fine man and good principal, and we are a gentle, peaceful, Christian, family-oriented community.”

So today, I want to talk about religion as misdirection.

Carter the great
In stage magic, misdirection is a central skill in which the audience’s attention is focused on one thing to distract their attention from something else. You do something that looks big and interesting and important with your right hand; people don’t notice the less flashy but genuinely important thing you’re doing with your left.

I bring this up because I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection. It creates an illusion of good, ethical behavior… which distracts the observer from the question of whether this person’s actions really are, in any useful, real-world way, ethical and good.

Think about the quote above. Think about what it means to look at Principal Davis’s actions, and call them fine and good, gentle and peaceful.

Bully
What is gentle and peaceful about responding to a teenage girl who tells you in confidence that she’s being bullied — by bullying her some more? By blaming the victim? By ignoring her complaint, betraying her confidence, and telling her that she’s a bad person who can’t be trusted around children?

And what is gentle and peaceful about using your position of power to silence the girl’s supporters — a.k.a. your detractors — by interrogating them about their own sexuality and kicking them out of school? It’s not even Christian; at least if you take the whole “Turn the other cheek” thing to heart. (And, as Ingrid points out, it’s more than a little sexually creepy as well. In any other context, a high school principal going around asking his underage students about their sexual practices would be fired so fast
it’d make your head spin.)

And yet, the people of this Florida community have been misdirected into thinking that Davis is a gentle, peaceful person. He’s a Christian, after all. And in their mindset, “Christian” means “gentle, peaceful person,” de facto and by definition.

Card_trickReligion, essentially, is serving here as the big flashy gesture done with the right hand, that distracts from the actual moral behavior that’s being done with the left. It’s the shiny show of fineness and goodness, gentleness and peace, that keeps people from seeing that the actions being done are, in fact, brutal, hurtful, domineering, and evil.

And it creates a misdirection so strong that it can effectively replace the entire notion of right and wrong. When hard-line religious believers slander atheists by saying that we have no morality, insisting that there can be no morality without belief in God… well, what is that but a substitution of religion for ethics? What is that but a replacement of your own moral instincts and perceptions with obedience to somebody else’s code?

This is a point Ingrid keeps making. When religious believers accuse atheists of taking the easy way out, her reply is, “Do you know how hard it is to live the way I do? It would be so much easier to just do what some book says — or to do what some leader tells me about what the book says. And it would be so much easier if I could always convince myself that God wanted me to do what I do. To actually think about my hard moral choices? And take responsibility for them? And live with them for the rest of my life? That’s not the easy way out. That’s harder than you will ever know.”

I’m not saying all religious believers do this. There are certainly believers — usually of the more progressive, less fundamentalist variety — who think that God created them with a moral compass and bloody well expects them to use it themselves. I’m not saying all religion is ethical misdirection. I’m saying that some of it is. Way, way too much of it.

And I’m not saying this misdirection is conscious, either. Most of the time, I think it probably isn’t. I think many religious believers themselves are convinced that they are good people, and that the strength of their religious faith makes them so.

The-wizard-of-oz
But in a way, that actually makes it more insidious. After all, if someone consciously knows that they’re being deceptive, there’s always a chance that their conscience will catch up with them. But if they’re completely mired in their own rationalization, it becomes a self-perpetuating circle that’s almost impossible to break.

Religion can create an ethical misdirection so powerful, it fools even the magician.

And that scares the crap out of me.

(These ideas were largely inspired by the Imaginary Virtues piece on Daylight Atheism, which everyone has to go and read right this minute.)

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #3

Carnival
So what the heck — let’s have another round of Cool Stuff I Saw on the Blogosphere and Wanted to Share with the Rest of the Class. A.k.a.: Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival, #3.

The Real Religious Terrorism, by Sarah Braasch at Freedom from Religion Foundation. A vivid, chilling story of a childhood as a Jehovah’s Witness. Exhibit A in what atheists are talking about when we say religion gets a free ride: if parents treated their children this way in the name of anything other than religion, society would universally recoil in horror. Via Friendly Atheist.

The XY Games, by Jennifer Finney Boylan at the New York Times. (No, it’s not a blog post — so sue me.) On gender testing at the Olympics… and why it’s testing for the wrong thing.

Militant Atheists, by Al Sweigart at CoffeeGhost. A nifty, funny video on why the phrase “militant atheist” is both inaccurate and bigoted. Includes a faux newsreel, which is always a good time. Via Friendly Atheist.

Negative Energy Research, by Skeptico. Psychics and other woo practitioners often claim that their abilities and effects disappear in the face of rigorous testing because the presence of skeptics produces “negative energy.” Here, Skeptico proposes an experiment that would test this effect. Does the presence of a skeptic have a negative impact on psychic ability? And if so, under what conditions?

McCain Antoinette, by Waymon Hudson at The Bilerico Project. John McCain has created an image of himself as a maverick “everyman” — but his disconnected ignorance about the economic realities of ordinary Americans are closer to Marie Antoinette’s mythical line, “Let them eat cake.”

The Internal Clitoris — What a Woman’s Cock Really Looks Like. An anatomy lesson from Susie Bright, with visual aids by Betty Dodson.

And Sophisticated Urban Indoor Camouflage, on ErosBlog. Naked woman, beautifully painted to match the wallpaper. Gorgeous and strange. (The rest of the gallery that the image is from is neat, too.)

Happy reading, y’all!

The Eroticism of the Olympics, and the Inherent Hotness of Variety: The Blowfish Blog

Please note: This post, and the post it links to, discusses my personal sexuality and sexual practices — not at great length, but in a certain amount of detail. Family members and others who don’t want to read about that stuff will probably want to skip this post.

Naked gymnastics
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog. It’s about the eroticism of the Olympics, and the astonishing variety of beautiful forms that the bodies of top-level athletes come in… a variety that, in and of itself, I find erotic. It’s called The Eroticism of the Olympics, and the Inherent Hotness of Variety, and here’s the teaser:

It’s all too common in our culture to mistake athleticism for body fascism. “Physically fit” is too often used as a euphemism for “approaching a single ideal of perfection that all bodies are supposed to aspire to.” I’ve fallen into that trap myself: I’ve definitely felt lumpy and out of place at the gym as a chubby middle-aged lady in a weight room full of Venuses and Adonises. (It doesn’t help that I work out at a university gym, populated largely by grad students in their twenties.)

But watching the Olympics is a lovely, sexy reminder that even top-level physical fitness comes in a delightful variety of forms.

To find out more, read the rest of the post. Enjoy!

A Clowncar Named Desire: Sex, Humor, and Ellen Forney’s “Lust”

This review was originally published on ALT.com.

Lust
Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads From Seattle's The Stranger
By Ellen Forney. Introduction by Dan Savage.
Fantagraphics Books. ISBN 978-1-56097-864-8. 168 pages. Hardcover. $19.95.

It's completely hot.

And it's completely hilarious.

That's a hard combination to get right. Sex and humor are a tricky combination. I've written about this before: a big part of sex is about building up tension, and a big part of humor is about breaking tension, so they're two great tastes that don't always taste great together.

But comic artist Ellen Forney makes it work.

Watch me undress
For several years, Ellen Forney has been illustrating the adult online personal ads of the Seattle alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger. In Lust: Kinky Online Personal Ads, she collects the best of these cartoon illustrations…in a nasty, silly, sexy, filthy, shameless, constantly surprising, and joyfully exuberant display of the unbelievable variety of human sexual desires. From "Pirate Wench" to "Panty Bear," from "Pull My Hair" to "Watch Me Undress," from "Have You Been A Bad Boy?" to "Force This Top To Be A Bottom," from "You Are A Mechanic" to "I Like Knives" to "Erotic Hypnosis" to "My French Maid," Forney's comic illustrations are a hot, hilarious, thoroughly delightful parade of human libido. If you've been playing the adult personals for any length of time, you'll find this book both inspiring and hysterically familiar. And if you've never run or answered a personal ad in your life, you'll still find it… well, both inspiring and hysterical.

Super sluts
Like I was saying, "sexy" and "silly" is a combination that's hard to pull off. But Forney has the knack of it. She has an unerring eye for the overlapping ground between sex and humor — namely, playfulness. What's more, she has the ability to make her subjects seem completely human — imperfect, vulnerable, goofy, hopeful — in a way that's loving and friendly, and that actually makes her subjects seem even more sexy. And the shamelessness and pure adventurous spirit of these advertisers is simply inspiring. (Anyone who runs adult online personal ads absolutely needs to read it… if only to get some new ideas.)

But Forney is more than just an enthusiastic appreciator of the astonishing variety of human sexuality. She is also an exceptionally skilled comics artist, with a distinctive, immediately recognizable style that is a major part of the beauty and eroticism in this book. She has a strong, bold, sensual line that seems like it was born to draw sex. And her drawing and design skills are on proud display here. From the text of the BDSM ad written into the ropes tied around a naked body, to the lush Art Nouveau styling on the "Hairy Girl" ad, she shows inventiveness, imagination, and serious artistic chops. She clearly has a deep respect for sex, and is clearly thrilled to be using her considerable talents to illustrate dirty personal ads.

And the fact that the comics are illustrating real-life sex — or at least, real-life sexual desires, at least some of which must have gotten translated into real-life sex — gives them a tremendous amount of erotic punch. For me, at least. I've always found real-life sex stories to be hotter than fiction: reality gives a sexy story an immediacy that makes it very hot indeed. These aren't unattainable fantasy figures; they're real people, looking for some real action. I love looking at these cartoons and imagining, in detail, what the people behind the ads actually wound up doing. I love thinking about which ads I might actually want to answer, and what might happen if I did. And I love imagining what kind of cartoon Forney would draw if I ran an ad myself. Yum.

Foot fetish
I should tell you that not all of these comics are explicitly sexy or dirty. Many of them are, but a lot of them aren't. And they're not all meant to be. Many of these cartoons are just supposed to be funny. So if you're looking at this simply as a stroke book, you may find it disappointing.

But I found Lust to be not just intriguing and funny and beautiful, but extremely arousing as well. And I found that even the silly, funny, non-explicit cartoons add to the overall eroticism of the book. Ellen Forney has found a way to turn the goofy, absurd, "what would this look like to space aliens?" side of sex into something hot, enticing, and erotically inspiring. It is sexy, it is unique, and it is not to be missed.

(Disclosure: Ellen Forney is a contributor to a book I edited, Best Erotic Comics 2008, as well as the cover artist for that same book. The Lustlab Ad of the Week feature, alas, is no longer running; but you can find many of them in the Lustlab archives on Forney's blog.)