Good news about Violet

Hi, all. I wanted to update you on the situation with our cat, Violet. Regular readers of this blog will know that we've been having a very scary veterinary situation, with Violet needing to be rushed to the vet emergency hospital last week with what turned out to be bleeding ulcers. We've been having a "bad news/ good news/ bad news/ good news" rollercoaster sort of week with it, but we have some solid information now, and I wanted to let you all know about it.

The bad news is that the ulcers didn't come from nowhere. Violet has inflammatory bowel disease, and the very early stages of cancer.

The good news is that both the cancer and the IBD are very treatable, and we caught the cancer very, very early — early enough that she'll probably have a normal lifespan. (She's recovering really well from the surgery, btw, and seems more like herself every day.)

And the treatment isn't even all that invasive: no surgery, no radiation, nothing like that. She will be on chemo for a while, but that's just going to involve giving her medicine at home. We're going to have a few weeks/months of a somewhat intensive cat pilling regimen (and boy, is that going to be fun); but it doesn't seem like it'll be hard for her to tolerate.

There are no guarantees with cancer, of course. There are no guarantees with anything. But given what we've been going through for the past week, this is an incredibly good outcome. Our lives will be a disrupted for a little while, but we are breathing huge sighs of relief, and are preparing to get back to what passes for normal in our lives. Thanks to all of you for your kind words and support, and I'll be blogging at you soon!

Oh — and Violet sends her love.

Violet_2

A Parade of Weird Little Worlds: Why I Like The Olympics

Olympic Rings
Ingrid and I are not, generally speaking, sports fans. To put it mildly. (I had a brief stretch of fairly serious baseball fandom in the late '80s and early '90s, but I fell out of the habit in the strike of '94, and never got back into it.)

And yet, we are getting completely sucked into the Olympics.

I've been thinking about why.

Yes, we're watching the gymnastics and a couple of the other big-ticket events (diving is always a good time). And yes, I'm watching women's wrestling, for reasons that should be obvious. But mostly I'm being a big old dilettante, and am watching bits and pieces of the largely unsung sports.

Archer_01Archery. Fencing. Badminton. Table tennis. Synchronized swimming and trampoline are coming up later this week, and I can't wait.

I'm having a ball with this.

Some of it is that it's always a good time to watch people doing something — anything at all — really, really well. The look of pure concentration on a person's face when they're deeply immersed in something they passionately love and are extraordinarily good at… it's one of the most beautiful sights there is.

And, of course, some of it is the two-week parade of beautiful athletic bodies in tight, skimpy outfits. My libidinal interest varies from sport to sport (sky-high for divers and female wrestlers, almost nil for weightlifters and female gymnasts), but I can't be the only erotic connoisseur/ drooling pervert who's getting off on this.

But most of it is this:

Ballroom_dance_exhibition
One of the things I love best about human beings is the way we create these weird little worlds for ourselves. The world of competitive ballroom dancing. Of model train building. Of comic book enthusiasts. Show dog owners. Historical recreation societies. Contra dancing. Atheist blogging. These worlds always call to mind for me a line from Dave Barry: "There's a fine line between a hobby and mental illness." Yet at the same time, they call to mind that line from the teenage kid from "Trekkies": "People tell me to get a life. Well, I have a life. This is a hobby. And having hobbies is part of having a life."

There are anthropologists and neurologists and evolutionary biologists who think that the human brain evolved to deal with about 100 or 150 other people, tops, and I'm convinced that the forming of these weird little worlds is a way of narrowing down the dauntingly enormous and increasingly interconnected global village into something a bit more manageable.

I love that each of these weird little worlds has not just its own skills and trends and passions, but its own gossip, its own politics, its own scandals and controversies. I love how immersed people get in our weird little worlds: how the issues of historically accurate shoes at Civil War re-enactments, or gender- balancing at contra dances, can seem like life or death. I love how much time and care and passion people put into these endeavors that will never make them famous or rich or remembered in the larger world, the world outside of a handful of equally demented enthusiasts.

Bare necessities
And I love that these worlds have stars and celebrities that nobody on the outside has ever, ever heard of. If you don't do English country dancing, you've almost certainly never heard of Bare Necessities: and yet they are a band with a rabidly devoted following, across the country and around the world. And when Ingrid and I met PZ Myers on a recent visit he made to the Bay Area, we told all our friends about it with bubbly excitement… to be met with almost universal blank stares. (Stares that got even blanker when we explained that he was "a famous biologist and atheist blogger.")

As thousands of pundits have noted before me, the world is becoming ickily homogenous, filled with depressingly interchangeable supermarkets and strip malls, processed foods and chain restaurants. But the weird little worlds of hobbyists and enthusiasts are a bulwark against that tendency. Whenever I despair over humanity losing its quirkiness, all I have to do is read the Carnival of the Godless, or go queer contra dancing, or turn on "Project Runway" and watch the contestants pissing themselves with excitement over some fashion designer I've never heard of.

And what I love about the Olympics is that, for two weeks every four years, I get a peek inside a dozen or so of these worlds.

Modern_pentathlon_pictogram.svg
I love finding out what the strategy is in weightlifting (yes, there's strategy — I know, it was news to me as well), and that it's forbidden in Olympic weightlifting to lubricate your thighs. I love learning that a round of play in archery is called an "end." I love discovering the existence of a triathlon-style sport that combines running, swimming, fencing, shooting, and equestrian… and learning that it was invented as a narrative of a soldier ordered to deliver a message on horseback.

And I love how intensely immersed the athletes are in their worlds, how hard they work to become so superbly good in them with so little in the way of obvious payoff.

FencingI mean, it's easy to understand why you'd want to be a famous gymnast or a multi- medal- winning swimmer. If you succeed, you actually get a fair degree of fame and fortune in the larger world. But if you sacrifice years of your life to become the absolute top of your game in archery or fencing or badminton, nobody is ever going to know about it but your immediate circle of family and friends, a handful of other archers and fencers and badmintonites… and every four years, some weirdos like me, who could care less about Michael Phelps's eight gold medals but get intensely sucked into the women's saber competition for about fifteen minutes.

I love that they do it anyway.

(P.S. Tivo helps with this a lot, btw. I can't believe I ever watched the Olympics without it. Tivo lets you watch all the weird events you want to watch… and skip the ones you think are boring.)

Ballroom dance photo by Petr Novak, Wikipedia.

CSI: Deuteronomy

How to handle an unsolved murder, Old Testament style.

Deuteronomy 21:1-9:

Cow 1
"If in the land which the Lord your God gives you to possess, any one is found slain, lying in the open country, and it is not known who killed him, then your elders and your judges shall come forth, and they shall measure the distance to the cities that are around him that is slain; and the elders of the city which is nearest to the slain man shall take a heifer which has never been worked and which has not pulled in the yoke.

And the elders of that city shall bring the heifer down to a valley with running water, which is neither plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley.

And the priests the sons of Levi shall come forward, for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to him and to bless in the name of the Lord, and by their word every dispute and every assault shall be settled.

And all the elders of that city nearest to the slain man shall wash their hands over the heifer whose neck was broken in the valley, and they shall testify, 'Our hands did not shed this blood, neither did our eyes see it shed. Forgive, O Lord, thy people Israel, whom thou hast redeemed, and set not the guilt of innocent blood in the midst of thy people Israel; but let the guilt of blood be forgiven them.'

So you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, when you do what is right in the sight of the Lord." (Revised Standard Version.)

Got that, everybody?

So. There are two things that immediately leap to mind about this passage.

Life of brian
Okay, three things, since the very first thing that leaps to mind is a totally baffled, almost hallucinatory, "What the fuck?" It makes so little sense that it almost doesn't parse at all. When Ingrid first read it to me (it's the opening quotation to the book she's reading, "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets"), I thought I was hearing it wrong. It reminds me of nothing more than the Prophets Row scene in "Life of Brian." "At this time, a friend shall lose his friend's hammer. And the young shall not know where lieth the things possessed by their fathers that their fathers put there only just the night before, about eight o'clock."

But I think we can take that as a given. So after the hallucinatory bafflement fades a bit, here's what immediately leaps to mind about this passage.

One: This sure blows to smithereens any ideas about the Bible being eternal, perfectly true forever, as useful a guide today as it was when it was written.

NYPD_logo
As Ingrid pointed out: How exactly would this principle operate for an unsolved murder today, in, say, New York City? If a body washed up in the East River, would they measure whether it landed closer to Manhattan or Brooklyn to decide which city had to slaughter the heifer? Would the mayor have to personally do the slaughtering, or would it be okay for the city council to take care of it? Or could it be delegated to a special department: a Department of Unsolved Murder Heifer Slaughtering, to replace the Cold Case Squad? And given the number of unsolved murders in New York City every year, would they have to keep a special feedlot to raise cows specially for the unsolved murder sacrifices?

Two: How was this ever useful? Even at the time it was written? Even in the Bronze Age?

What a weird version of justice this is. Somebody was murdered, you can't punish the person who did it — so you punish a cow?

God Monty Python and the Holy Grail
And what a weird vision of God it is. Why do the city elders have to explain to God that they weren't responsible for the murder? Doesn't God already know? Besides, is God really going to feel better about the injustice of an unpunished murder because an unworked cow gets slaughtered in an unplowed river valley? And if they didn't perform this ritual, would God really punish an innocent city just because it happened to be the closest to where a dead body was found?

(And in fact, as Ingrid pointed out: How would the elders know that the murder wasn't committed by someone in their city?)

And I'm back to my totally baffled, "What the fuck?"

Ingrid keeps saying that I have to be fair: that I have to remember the time and place this was written, and not judge people with a Bronze Age view of the world from my own modern perspective. They didn't have the information or understanding about how the world works that we have today, but that didn't necessarily make them stupid or crazy. Grossly mistaken, yes, but not stupid or crazy.

But in a way, that's exactly my point. So much of the Bible is written with this sympathetic- magic, burnt- offering, appeasing- the- temperamental- Gods mentality of thousands of years ago. I mean, fending off the wrath of your god for an unpunished murder by sacrificing a cow? With all the weird details about exactly what kind of cow, and where? It's like the Greek or Norse myths. We're not talking about a metaphorical scapegoat here, people. We're talking about an actual, literal scapegoat.

Cow 2
Or, in this case, a scapecow.

Now, a lot of progressive Christians would no doubt respond by saying, "You're not supposed to take the Bible literally. It's a divinely inspired metaphor, a history of an evolving understanding of God over the ages. Not all Christians are fundamentalists, and it's unfair to critique all Christianity based on a literal interpretation that many of us don't adhere to."

My usual response to that argument — and the response of countless other atheists — is, "If you're going to cherrypick your sacred text, how do you decide which parts are divinely inspired and which parts are human error? And if you're deciding just by using your own instinct and judgment, rooted in the morals of your society, then how is your sacred text any different from any other book of philosophy or history or guidance, where you take what you need and leave the rest?"

I will, in fact, make that argument again here. In fact, I just did.

But there's something else I want to say as well. And that's this:

How is this passage a useful guide — even as a metaphor?

What is the general principle of life that we can take from this passage? That when you can't punish a wrongdoer, it's an acceptable substitute to punish someone else instead? Or to go through a formalized ritual of punishment that bears no real connection with justice, but looks sort of like it?

Or is the principle at work here a basic "appeasement of God" concept? That God is angered by the injustice of an unpunished murder… and therefore you have to give him sacrifices to chill him out, even if you had nothing to do with it?

Bible
It's not just that this passage is completely useless as a literal guide to modern law enforcement. (Although I am getting a kick out of imagining the "Law & Order" episode where the real killer is never found, and Jack McCoy has to go out to the slaughterhouse to wash his hands over a dead cow and remind God that it wasn't his fault.) It's completely useless as a metaphorical guide to justice. It's completely useless as any kind of guide to anything. I can get more inspiration and guidance from an episode of "Project Runway" than I can from this irrelevant, batshit, Bronze Age guide to life.

Atheism in Pop Culture: “Old Time Religion”

This one should be fun. In fact, I think we can make it into a contest.

Give-me-that-old-time-religion
It's the pagany folk nerd song parody of "Old Time Religion."

(You know. "Give me that old time religion/ Give me that old time religion/ Give me that old time religion/ It's good enough for me.")

I've loved this ever since I first heard it. Apart from just being silly and fun with many ridiculous rhymes, it's a neat reminder that Christianity really isn't "that old time religion" — many religions are much, much older. And it has a nice, gentle, "making fun of everyone equally" quality that I'm very fond of.

Technically, I suppose it's not atheist. It's more "pagan/ disrespectful of organized religion." And technically I suppose it's not pop culture, either, unless you consider folk nerd song parodies to be pop culture. But I don't care. The subject of Druids came up at work the other day, and this verse popped into my head, and I decided I had to share with the rest of the class:

Druidic_ritual_Stonehenge_2
Let us worship like the Druids
Running naked through the woo-ids
Drinking strange fermented fluids
And that's good enough for me.

(Give me that old time religion, etc.)

There are about eight hundred thousand verses floating around in the folk nerd world and on the 'Net, but not all of them are gems. Here are a few that I'm particularly fond of:

Aphrodite
Let us worship Aphrodite
In her silky see-through nightie
Though she's mean and somewhat flighty
She's good enough for me.

Let us sacrifice to Isis
She will help us in a crisis
And she hasn't raised her prices
And that's good enough for me.

Let us all bow down to Buddha
There's no other God who's cuter
Comes in copper, brass, and pewter
And that's good enough for me.

Let us travel to Valhalla
In Volkswagens, not Impalas
Singing "Deutschland Uber Alles"
And that's good enough for me.

Kali_Devi
Let us sacrifice to Kali
Let us worship her, by golly
To ignore her would be folly
And that's good enough for me.

Let us worship Zarathustra
Let us worship like we used to
I'm a Zarathustra booster
And that's good enough for me.

This next has always been my favorite:

Loki
Let us sacrifice to Loki
He's the old Norse god of chaos
Which is why this verse doesn't rhyme, or scan
And that's good enough for me.

And to show that it's an equal opportunity song parody, there are at least two verses on Christianity:

Let us all bow down to Mary
For she hasn't lost her cherry
And she cures the beri-beri
And that's good enough for me.

Let us worship like the Quakers
(silence)
(silence)
And that's good enough for me.

I wrote the next two myself:

Bacchus
Let us now form up a caucus
So that we may worship Bacchus
For his followers are raucous
And that's good enough for me.

(Alternate last line: "For his followers will fock us…")

Let us sacrifice to Hades
Looking spiffy in his shade-es
He's a devil with the ladies
And that's good enough for me.

My good friend Rebecca wrote this one:

There's a graven image of Ba'al
That I bought for my front ha'al
At the graven image ma'al
And that's good enough for me.

And my good friend Nosmo King wrote this verse, totally on the fly the first time he heard the song, earning the eternal admiration of all the drunken folk nerds at that particular party:

Yin_and_Yang.svg
Let us walk the path of Tao
Though it hasn't got much wow
But it's in the here and now
And that's good enough for me.

So now it's your turn! At parties we keep singing the same ones again and again, and we need new ones. Plus we desperately need some from the atheist pantheon of made-up religions, and I'm having a hard time rhyming "flying spaghetti monster" and "invisible pink unicorn." (I'm about halfway there on Russell's Teapot — something about "It's impossible to see, but" — but so far I'm failing to come up with a last line.)

So chime in with your verses! The winner — picked entirely by me at my own whim — will get a free copy of any of my three books that they want: Paying For It, Three Kinds of Asking For It, or Best Erotic Comics 2008. Entries must be made in the comments by August 31. Have fun, y'all!

(Druid photo by La Repubblica.)

Update

Hi, all. I just wanted to give you an update on why I haven't been blogging in the last couple of days. Ingrid and I are currently dealing with a veterinary emergency. We had to take our cat Violet to the emergency vet on Tuesday morning, and she had surgery today. They found two bleeding ulcers, which they removed.

The good news is that the surgery went well, and she's currently stable. We visited her tonight after the surgery: she was doped up, but she definitely recognized us and was happy to see us and be petted by us. They don't know for sure when she can come home, but they said "soon." We're hoping that means tomorrow, but don't know for sure.

The bad news is that we are not out of the woods yet. They don't yet know why she got the ulcers, and that's kind of a big question. Cats apparently don't get ulcers very often (it's not like they have a lot of stress at the office), and when they do it can be a sign of something bad. The vet did a zillion biopsies and other tests, and will have results for us in about 3-5 days. So while she seems to be out of immediate danger right now, we won't know for a few days whether we're looking at a larger problem or just at a basic recovery from surgery. I'll keep you posted.

In the meantime, I may not be blogging much in the next couple/few days. I'll try to put some stuff up from my archives or do a repost or two, but this is taking a lot of time and attention as well as emotional energy, and not yet knowing what we're dealing with is very difficult. It may be a few days before I'm back to my usual bloggy self. In the meantime, give your pets and other loved ones a hug. I'll talk to you soon.

Living Each Day As If It Were Your Last

Homer Simpson
There's an episode of the Simpsons — I can't remember which one right now — where Homer is reading some book on how to be a successful go-getter, and he sees this piece of advice: "Live each day as if it were your last." And in the next scene, he's sitting on the curb, sobbing heartbrokenly, and crying out, "I don't want to die."

I'm sure you've all heard this at some point. "Live each day as if it were your last." It's the sort of folk wisdom that it's easy to nod along with sagely, without really thinking about it.

And it's the sort of folk wisdom that, once you start thinking about it, doesn't actually make any sense at all.

Drug_cocktail
Back in the early '90s, when the AIDS cocktail first came out and people with AIDS suddenly started having a decent life expectancy, a lot of those people were suddenly stuck with a happy but not inconsiderable problem: They had run up enormous credit card debt. In some cases, they had even quit their jobs. They had been living on the assumption that they weren't going to live more than a few months or a year… and if you're not going to live for more than a few months or a year, then why the hell not run up tens of thousands of dollars in credit card bills? So when it turned out that this wasn't the case, and that they were probably going to live for a while, they were kind of screwed.

They had been living each day as if it were their last. And while that made a certain amount of sense when they only had a few months to live, once they had a reasonable life expectancy, it turned out to be a really bad idea.

I guess the idea behind this bit of folk wisdom is that you're supposed to do the things that matter to you now, and not wait until it's too late. Okay. Fine. Except — what if the things that matter to you are things that take time and patience and discipline to accomplish? What if the things that matter to you are getting a book contract, or a nursing degree? Making sure your kids can go to college? Deciphering the genome of the coelacanth? Winning a gold medal in badminton? Building a scale model of the Battleship Potemkin in your garage?

Vacuum cleaner
Let me put it this way. If I were to live each day as if it were my last, I wouldn't have spent three hours this weekend cleaning the house. I wouldn't have gotten up at 8 a.m. on Saturday to take the cat to the vet. I wouldn't try to get book contracts, or drum up publicity for the books I've already written. I sure as well wouldn't go to work: I like my job reasonably well, but not enough to spend the last day of my life there.

And yet, doing these things is what makes the things that matter to me possible. I love having a home with Ingrid, a home that's a welcoming place to share with each other and with our friends and family. I love our cats. I love writing, and getting my writing out into the world to be read. And I love having food and clothes and a roof over my head… and I'm grateful that I can do it by working with a bunch of hippie punk rock anarchist book freaks.

The ability to make plans and sacrifices, to set aside what we want right this second in order to get something we want even more later on, is crucial to human happiness. People who can't do it tend not to be very happy.

You might think that, as an atheist, the "live every day as if it were your last" philosophy would be appealing. After all, in the atheist/ humanist world view, this is our only life. There's no pie in the sky when we die — so why not just live for the moment?

Credit cards
But that's not how I see it at all. And I don't know any other atheists or humanists who see it that way, either. In a humanist philosophy, this life is the only life we have — so we have to make the most of it. All of it. Not just this day, but all the days we have. Life is short and limited, and we should make the most of it… but that doesn't mean getting twelve credits cards and running off to Amsterdam. It means doing the things that give our lives the most meaning, the things that connect us with the world and make our mark on it. Some of which involve patience, and sacrifice, and deferred gratification.

Besides, being a humanist means being a realist. And unless you're very old or very sick or happen to be hanging off a cliff by your fingertips right at this very moment (in which case, what are you doing surfing the Internet?), the reality is that you probably have a little while yet to live. Yes, you could get hit by a bus tomorrow and die, and that's a reality too. But living as if that were true, instead of just a slim possibility, is out of touch with reality.

Now, if you're talking about life being precious and not wasting it on trivia, then I'm with you. It's something I pay more and more attention to as I get older. Life is short, and I could get hit by a bus tomorrow: do I really want to spend today watching "Law & Order" reruns?

And if you're talking about living in the moment, as opposed to living for the moment, then I'm totally with you. It's one of the great challenges of my life, actually: learning to get the hell out of my head and actually experience my life, instead of analyzing it to death all the time.

Fresh_vegetables
But I don't think that's about cashing in your life savings and buying a hot air balloon, or whatever. In fact, I think it's a much more interesting challenge to be in the moment and fully experience your life, not when you're going up in a hot air balloon for the first time, but when you're making dinner, or walking to work, or rubbing the cat's belly. Being fully present in the ordinary dailiness of your life — the things that ultimately give it meaning even though they're not that special or exciting — that's the cool stuff.

Yes, I want this day to be a day that matters, a day that I've lived fully. But chances are I'm going to be alive in a couple years. And I want that day two years from now to be a day that I live fully as well.

I don't want to live this day as if it were my last.

I want to live this life as if it were my last.

Tee Hee, You Said “Bonk”: The Blowfish Blog

Bonk-cover
I have a new piece up on the Blowfish Blog: a review of the new Mary Roach book, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. It's titled Tee Hee, You Said "Bonk", and here's the teaser:

If ever a book was tailor- made for me to enjoy, this is it.

I’m a huge science nerd. I’m a huge sex nerd. How could I not love a book called Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex?

Well, let me tell you how. Exactly.

First, I should disclaim for a brief moment: Bonk is not a terrible book. The subject matter — the history of the scientific study of sex, and some of the more interesting examples of its current state — is a compelling one, loaded with fascinating ideas both about sex itself and the appallingly/ entertainingly conflicted attitudes society has about it. And the author — Mary Roach, celebrated author of Stiff and Spook — is no slouch. She’s a thorough researcher and a clear, chatty writer, adept at taking complicated and potentially boring scientific ideas and making them accessible to the lay reader.

Please note that I refrained from making a childish, Beavis and Butthead- esque sex joke about the "lay" reader.

Which brings me to the problem.

To find out what my problem with this book is, read the rest of the review. Enjoy!

God’s Will, and Pathetic Excuses for Bad Behavior

Mystery of gods will
So what does it mean to say that something is God's will?

Especially if it's something done by a person, or people?

And double especially if it's something done by, you know, you?

There was an amazing and heartbreaking story on This American Life this weekend. A longish, complicated-ish story, but the short version is this: Two babies were accidentally switched at birth. The parents of one of the babies figured it out almost immediately. And yet they didn't say anything about it, to anyone — not the kids, not the other parents, nobody — for over 40 years.

Their reason? Well, that's part of the longish, complicated-ish story. (The full story is available here if you want to hear it.) But the short version: The father — an evangelical minister, a fact that'll factor in soon — didn't want to embarrass the doctor by calling attention to his mistake. And the mother was very sick for months after the birth: she didn't have the strength to go against her husband (who was apparently a difficult man to go against), and by the time she recovered, she felt it was too late.

So. Here's where the atheist blogger gets her dudgeon on.

Forty plus years later, these parents finally decided to tell. A terrible, disruptive event, as you might imagine. The evangelical minister father wrote to the other mother, apologizing for essentially having stolen her daughter and raised her as his own…

…but at the same time, saying that it was God's will.

?!?!?

You know, I have come up with some truly shabby excuses for my bad behavior in my day. I'm human, and I am not immune to the siren song of deflecting blame and guilt onto other people. Or onto bad luck, and accidents of the universe at large. But this? This takes chutzpah of a Herculean scale. This one has got to go in the Rationalization Hall of Fame. I'm actually somewhat awe-struck. Or I would be, if I weren't so appalled.

Sawzall_large
I mean, by that logic, you could say that anything you did was God's will. Stealing someone's car. Sleeping with their spouse. Carving their liver out with a Sawzall. Shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die. Anything at all that you do — the most selfish, wicked, fucked-up shit imaginable — could be defended by saying that it's God's will.

Of course, this inevitably leads to questions of free will and God's omnipotence, how can any of us truly have free will if it's all part of God's plan, yada yada yada. But right now, I'm just focused on the astonishing abdication of personal morality and responsibility.

And this isn't from just any old hard-core evangelical Christian. This is a minister we're talking about.

In a way, it's a fascinating version of that classic half-assed excuse, "Well, it all turned out for the best." In this case, of course, it didn't turn out for the best. A lot of lives were pretty badly fucked up by these people's actions. But if it's God's will, then by definition it turned out for the best. If God willed it, and God is all-good, then it must be the best. Q.E.D.

Which, again, could be applied to anything at all that you do. Or anything that anybody does.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again:

It's a good thing this guy's not an atheist.

Because if he were an atheist, he'd have no sense of responsibility, no basis for morality, and would act as if he could just do whatever he wanted.

Sexual Freedom In A Shopping Bag: “Sex And The City”

Sex and the city posterThis piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. And yes, the movie came out two months ago; but I have to wait two months before reprinting the stuff I write on the Blowfish Blog, so suck it up.

The problem isn’t that it's sexually conventional.

The problem is that it's sexually conventional… while giving itself airs about being sexually modern and cutting- edge, and pretending to offer innovative, category- breaking, woman-positive insight into sex and relationships.

That's only one of the problems, actually. This is a movie loaded with problems. In fact, I would argue that the "Sex and the City" movie is essentially a series of cinematic problems loosely strung together with some pictures of pretty clothes. But this is my Blog and not the New York Times or Film Threat, so the problems with the sexual politics are the ones I'm going to talk about.

I should tell you right now: I am not a fan of the show. At all. I've seen roughly a dozen episodes, and every one made me want to throw the remote through the TV screen. So I did not come to this movie with the proper, unbiased film- critic attitude. I came thoroughly prepared to despise it and everything it stood for.

But I've come to movies before with that attitude, and have found myself pleasantly surprised.

Not this time.

And so we come to the problem at hand. The attitudes about sex in the "Sex and the City" movie are deeply conventional, as facile and unimaginative as anything else in the movie … and yet it presents itself, in this smug, self-congratulatory way, as an example of brave, ground- breaking, "I am woman watch me fuck" sex- positivity for the modern age. It offers glib platitudes as if they were profound insights, and its approach to sex is as consumerist and status- oriented as its approach to… well, everything.

Lots of spoilers, btw. Consider yourself warned.

Shoes
Let's start with just one small example. There's a bit in the movie where Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) is interviewing potential assistants, and she goes through an amusing parade of blatantly terrible candidates before she hits on the perfect Jennifer Hudson. She meets the brainless ditz who doesn't want to do any hard work. She meets the scary, obsessive, borderline- stalker fan. And then she meets the ridiculously over-qualified gentleman in the impeccable suit, with the outstanding credentials and the beautiful manners and the business degree from Harvard or wherever, the guy who you're wondering why the hell he's applying for a job as Carrie's personal assistant instead of at a brokerage or something… until he gives her a simpatico smile, and the camera pans down, and you see that he's wearing pink spike heels.

It's not clear whether he's a drag queen, a transvestite, a fetishist, or just a guy who likes to wear women's shoes. That question is never answered, or even asked. Carrie's reaction — and the reaction of the movie itself, the reaction it's trying to create and assuming it will get from its audience — is reflexive, unthinking rejection. Of course he's not qualified. He's wearing heels. Next.

Now. To be fair. Even if you're the most progressive, sex-positive person on the planet, you might find something a little inappropriate about a guy — not a transsexual, but clearly a male- identified man in a man's suit — wearing pink high heels to a job interview. You might see it as inserting a note of sexuality into a situation where it's not really called for. But on the other hand… well, if you were interviewing for a position as Carrie Bradshaw's assistant, wouldn't you wear the best pair of heels in your closet? And if you were a writer who was famous for being a shoe-obsessed fashion victim, would you really reject a job applicant out of hand simply because he — and not she — shared your passion, and showed it? It may have been a miscalculation… but it's hardly cause for the automatic ridicule, revulsion, and rejection that the movie presents it as. If you're really a cutting- edge woman with modern sexual attitudes, a guy in spike heels should not be that big a deal.

But let's take a larger example. A clearer example. An example that's not ambiguous, and one that's actually central to the plot and character development (such as they are) of the movie.

Samantha
Let's take Samantha.

Samantha (Kim Cattrall), for those of you who've never seen the show, is the shameless slut, the woman who "acts like a man," the one with the sexual appetites and attitudes of a Casanova. As the movie begins, she's been settled down for years with a man she loves, and loves to fuck. But she's starting to feel restless — for a number of reasons, but one of the biggest is that she still has a roving eye for pretty men. She feels that her relationship is forcing her to suppress an essential part of who she is — the part that likes to pick up cute guys for casual sex. And so she ends her relationship: sadly, regretfully, but clearly believing that it's necessary.

Now. Did anyone else see this movie? And at this point in the story, did anyone else want to stand up and scream, "For the love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, will you PLEASE try non-monogamy?"

Opening up
I'm not saying non-monogamy is for everybody. I'm not saying it's the perfect answer to all problems in all relationships. I'm not even saying it would have solved this couple's problems. But if a central problem in a relationship is that one of you really likes to fuck around and feels stifled when you can't — if one of you truly loves the other and wants to stay with them, and at the same time genuinely feels that you can't be true to yourself if you don't have the freedom to be a big slut — then non-monogamy should at least be on the table. It might not work, your partner might not consider it, it might not be what you ultimately want… but at the very least, the concept should cross your mind.

But it never crosses Samantha's mind. Samantha — the proud slut, the sexual adventurer, the one of the four friends who supposedly has the most sexual knowledge and experience — seems to have never even considered this option.

And none of her friends suggests it to her.

I'm going to indulge in a little cultural stereotyping here, so please forgive me. One of the big themes of the TV show (and a lesser theme of the movie) is that these four women are… well, let's not say "fag hags." Let's say "modern cosmopolitan women with lots of gay male friends." Therefore, the fact of non-monogamy cannot have escaped their notice. Non-monogamy isn't universal in urban American gay male culture, but it's certainly very, very common. And anyone who's familiar with that culture knows it. Yet none of these women — not Samantha, and not any of her friends — considers Samantha's dilemma and thinks, "Gee, she acts like a gay man anyway — why shouldn't she try having a relationship like one?"

I could go on.

Sushi
I could talk about the idea that combining sex with food — what Dan Savage calls "faux naughty, boring breeder kink" and Susie Bright calls (I'm paraphrasing here) "a vain attempt to get your lover to go down on you" — is wild and kinky and adventurous. Not that there's anything wrong with combining sex with food, and not that sex is a competition… but if that's your idea of cutting-edge modern sexual adventure, you need to go someplace where they're doing flesh-hook suspensions and anal fisting.

I could talk about the displacement of sexual affection and emotion into consumer goods and status symbols: the way all four main characters use an elaborate system of hieroglyphics where objects — jewelry, clothing, beautiful apartments — stand in for emotions and relationships…. with the attention focused almost entirely on the objects, at the expense of the actual emotions. And I could talk about how this is presented as normal, reasonable behavior. Comical, yes: but comical in an "isn't it funny how we all do this, what a silly universal human foible" way. (Yes, we all invest certain objects with symbolic meaning…. but the "Sex and the City" women transform this tendency into a vapid consumerism so extreme as to be grotesque. A far cry from the cutting- edge rethinking of sexual culture they supposedly aspire to.)

And very importantly, I could talk about the idea that when you deny your partner sex for months — and are snarky and dismissive when they want one of those rare times to be more than just routine — you nevertheless don't bear any responsibility when they cheat on you, and have the complete right to present yourself as the sole injured party. The movie seems to think it's being super- modern for acknowledging that one-time cheating shouldn't be met with inflexible unforgiveness… but it never considers the possibility that, when you deny your partner sex for months — with no sympathy, and no good reason. and no end in sight — then maybe, just maybe, you don't have the right to expect them to stay celibate forever.

I could go on. But I think you get my drift. The sexual consumerism, the default assumptions about sex and gender and relationships, the mocking revulsion at anything that resembles actual sexual transgression… it all adds up to a conventional, reflexive, not very imaginative view of sexuality.

Subvert the dominant paradigm
Which is fine. Not every sex comedy has to subvert the dominant paradigm. But not every sex comedy pretends to. Not every sex comedy offers a preachy little homily at the end about breaking down categories, after it's spent two hours reinforcing almost every sexual category in the book. Not every sex comedy smugly pats itself on the back for being more feminist and sexually progressive than "Leave It to Beaver."

What gets me mad isn't the retrograde attitude. What gets me mad is the retrograde attitude being packaged as sexual revolution in a Gucci shopping bag. The fact that this glib, shallow, vapid piffle is being presented as the new erotic feminism — the fact that this is what's being offered to women as a ground- breaking vision of sexual possibility — that's what made me want to throw my popcorn through the screen.

P.S. For an even more vicious — and, if I'm to be honest, much funnier — review of the "Sex and the City" movie, visit my friend Nosmo King's blog, Faster than the Speed of Satire. And then tell him to get off his ass and blog more often.

Good Stuff, or, Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival #2

Carousel horse
And it’s time for another round of Stuff I Saw On The Blogosphere, And Liked, And Think You’ll Like Too. Otherwise known as Greta’s Sporadic Blog Carnival. #2.

A Natural Selection, by Olivia Judson of the New York Times Blog. On examples of evolution taking place in our lifetime, in an observable time span. (I especially like the example of the Croatian lizards: it seems to me to be a wonderful counter to the idea that sudden jumps in the evolutionary record indicate divine intervention. This is a pretty drastic evolutionary change in a short period of time… and there’s no reason to think it’s the result of anything other than descent with modification.) Via Pharyngula.

Cereal Box Science, by Jens Hegg of Please Hold, Your Call is Very Important To Us. On why you need to be careful when reading commercially- motivated or self- serving “science”… and how to recognize it. Via the Tangled Bank carnival.

I’m Only Going To Be Alive Once, from Susannah Breslin’s
Letters from Johns. In the Letters from Johns project, sex customers write in anonymously describing their experiences with sex workers and explaining the reasons they’ve done it. This is a particularly thoughtful and articulate example.

Need a Babysitter? Don’t Call God!, by The Chaplain at An Apostate’s Chapel. Why do so many Christians believe that God helps them find parking spaces and car keys, but doesn’t protect children who are being abused? An idea that’s been expressed before… but The Chaplain expresses it uncommonly well here, with articulate intellect and passionate anger.

Back into the secondhand smoke fray, this time with a Scottish brogue! by Orac at Respectful Insolence. On a large, rigorously- done study measuring the effects of workplace smoking bans on rates of acute coronary syndrome… and on the results, which were so striking they amazed even Orac.

Doctor Bashing by Steven Novella at Neurologicablog. A defense of doctors and the medical profession against outdated stereotypes… and a discussion of how confirmation bias works to bolster bigotry. Via the abovementioned Respectful Insolence.

Who Can Discuss Sex Without Discussing Damage?, by Dr. Marty Klein at Sexual Intelligence. Dr. Klein asks, “Is there any point in talking about cars without mentioning car accidents? Certainly. Is there any value in discussing the Golden Gate Bridge or Niagara Falls without bringing up drowning or suicide? Of course there is. So why do so many people find it impossible to tolerate a serious conversation about sex that doesn’t include human trafficking, rape, kiddie porn, and child molestation?”

And, of course, for the six of you who may not have read it already, The Great Desecration, by PZ Myers of Pharyngula. In which PZ desecrates a cracker (and gets an unimaginable shitstorm of death threats and hate mail as a result). A thoughtful and well-written piece, with enlightening information on the anti-Semitic history of host desecration. (See also this piece by Ebonmuse of Daylight Atheism, On Desecration, in which the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy deplores PZ’s cracker desecration as not only unethical but unconstitutional. No, really.)