Further Thoughts on Fashion and Style

So as I should have expected, my recent post on fashion and feminism generated a rather substantial volume of conversation. Much of it quite vigorous. (In fact, as of this writing, the fashion post has substantially more comments than my post on diplomacy and accomodationism. I think this is hilarious. I love you guys.)

And of all the comment debates and conversations that this blog has generated since it switched over to Freethought Blogs, this is the one I feel most inspired to respond to. Which I also think is hilarious.

A lot of people made a lot of points in this conversation. Some of which I take issue with, some of which I think are valid. I want to get into a few of these… and I want to start with one of the most valid ones.

Namely, the distinction between fashion and style.

When I talked about fashion in the original piece, a lot of people thought I meant “the dictates from the fashion industry about what people should and should not wear.” Do’s and don’ts. What’s in and what’s out. Fashion magazines; women’s magazines; celebrity fashion icons; celebrity gossip magazines obsessively examining this week’s red-carpet looks under a microscope; designers telling women what to wear this month and what kind of body we should wear it on. Etc. And this, these folks argued, was not a form of personal expression that could be likened to a language. This was a form of oppression. They made a distinction between style, i.e. the individual ways that a person expresses who they are through their clothing and other personal adornment… and fashion, i.e. what some self-appointed arbiters in society tell us about how we should be expressing ourselves, and indeed what we should be expressing. Nobody quoted Lester Bangs — “Style is originality, fashion is fascism” — but they certainly could have.

I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.

In my original piece, I used the word “fashion” instead of “style” somewhat deliberately. I wasn’t just talking about one person’s individual expression — I was talking about the cultural vocabulary, the global conversation that goes on through clothing and hair and makeup and jewelry and shoes and other forms of personal adornment. I was using the metaphor of language to talk about clothing and personal adornment as a shared vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate. And “fashion” seemed like a better word for that than “style.” (I also couldn’t resist the title “Fashion is a Feminist Issue,” with its echo of the famous book “Fat is a Feminist Issue.”)

But yes. What I was trying to get at is probably closer to what many people think of as “style” rather than “fashion.” (Especially since the word “fashion” seems to rub so many people the wrong way.)

And in fact, this discussion has given me a new way of looking at the distinction between fashion and style, and a new way of looking at the entire issue of using language as a metaphor for fashion and style. This is a new idea for me, one of my “thinking out loud” ideas, and I want to run it by y’all.

Here’s the idea:

Fashion is a language.

Style is what we choose to say in it. [Read more…]

Fashion is a Feminist Issue

Can you be a feminist and still care about fashion?

As some of you may know, I’m pretty interested in fashion. I spend a fair amount of time and energy (and probably more money than I ought) on my wardrobe and appearance. I pay a fair amount of attention to other people’s style: admiring it, analyzing it, deciding if I can steal it. I watch TV shows about fashion. I read books and blogs about fashion. I buy fashion magazines, and even subscribe to a couple. (It would have been just one, but we got a two- for- one deal when we subscribed to Vogue and got Glamour thrown in for free.) At big public events, Ingrid and I will spend many happy hours checking out/ commenting on other people’s outfits. Fashion has become one of my central hobbies.

And in general, I find fashion to be a fascinating form of expression. A language, even. Not in the literal Chomskyan sense, of course — we’re not born with a fashion module wired into our brains, the way we’re born with language modules — but in a metaphorical sense. In the sense that many extremely useful parallels can be drawn between the two. In the sense that different articles of clothes are assigned meaning more or less arbitrarily, in the way words are assigned meaning — not because those meanings bear some connection to objective reality, but because we all more or less agree on their meaning. (It doesn’t matter why, historically, a suit and tie means “I am willing to treat social conventions with some degree of respect, and expect in return to be treated with respect myself” — that’s what it means now, regardless of its history). In the sense that the meanings of these clothes shift over time, the way the meanings of words shift over time, rendering them even more arbitrary. (The meaning of makeup on women, for instance, has shifted over the decades from “prostitute” to “brazen” to “fashionably cutting-edge” to “entirely conventional.”) In the sense that these meanings change depending on how we combine them — the “grammar,” if you will (jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt). In the sense that these meanings can change depending on context (jeans at a rock concert mean something different than jeans at a funeral). In the sense that different cultures assign vastly different arbitrary meanings to clothing. (A short skirt and stiletto heels mean something different in Manhattan than they do in Cedar Rapids… and something very different again in Dubai.)

In fact, fashion and style are so much like a language, I’m always a bit baffled when people say things like, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the clothes I wear.” It’s a bit like saying, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the words that come out of my mouth.” But that’s a point for another time.

Here’s my point for today. Fashion is a form of expression. A language of sorts. An art form, even.

It’s also one of the very few art forms/ languages/ forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men. [Read more…]

On Being Age-Appropriate

What does it mean to be age-appropriate?

And should we care?

Dress_shopping Since I’ve been losing weight, I’m having to do a bunch of clothes shopping. Which means I’m having to completely re-think what kinds of clothes I want to wear. The kinds of clothes that looked good on me when I was fat just don’t anymore, and a bunch of things that looked suck on me when I was fat are now looking pretty great. (I am so happy to be wearing jeans again, I can’t even tell you.) And I’m having to re-think, not just what looks good on me now, but what I personally would like to wear.

But since I’m doing all this sartorial exploration at age 48, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means for clothing to be age-appropriate. And, indeed, what it means to be age-appropriate in areas other than fashion.

Yes, this is one of my “thinking out loud” pieces. Deal with it. :-)

*

Tongue In writing and thought about fashion and style, the idea of being age-appropriate is very common. And my reflexive reaction to this idea has always been, “Fuck that noise. Why should I obey society’s strictures about what I should wear at what age? Any more than I obey its strictures about what I should write or who I should screw or what god I should believe in?”

800px-DocMartens But I’m also feeling increasingly uncomfortable in the kinds of clothes I wore in my 20s and 30s. A part of me does think that, if I want to wear ripped fishnets and Doc Martens, or mini skirts and brightly colored patterned tights, or black leather motorcycle jackets with chains, I should bloody well be able to do that. But another part of me — a larger part — has been feeling genuinely uncomfortable in outfits like that. They don’t make me feel sexy or creative or tough. They make me feel like an idiot. Like a batty middle-aged lady who’s trying too hard to not look her age.

So I’ve been looking at this question. Trying to decide what I really think about it, and trying to put what I think into words. And while I think there is some validity in that “Fuck what society says is age-appropriate” resistance, I think it’s also ignoring some important realities about fashion.

The main one:

I think fashion is a language.

Language Fashion is a language we use to express different concepts about ourselves, and of our relationships to other people. Fashion is part of how we say “Person who accepts social norms” versus “Person who defies social norms.” Fashion is part of how we say “Sexually liberated” versus “Sexually conventional.” Fashion is part of how we say “I want attention” versus “I want to blend in.” Fashion is part of how we say “Masculine” versus “Feminine.” (Whether we’re male or female or neither/both.) Fashion is part of how we say “trendy urban hipster,” “suburban soccer mom,” “ex-hippie,” “Fortune 500 CEO,” “heavy metal biker chick,” ” organic farmer,” “gangster rapper,” “college student.” Etc. Etc. Etc. Not to mention all the nuances and balances and combinations of all these extremes: “I want to express my sexuality in a way that challenges gender norms,” “I want to stand out in a way that commands respect,” etc. Fashion is even part of how we comment on the language of fashion itself: part of how we say “I care about the language of fashion and want to stay current with it” versus “I wear clothes so I won’t be naked.”

And of course, we use different fashion language in different contexts. (Again, just like regular language.) We dress differently at Thanksgiving dinner than we do at a nightclub; we dress differently at a baseball game than we do at a funeral. (Most of us do, anyway. If we don’t, that’s a form of language as well.) Fashion isn’t just about expressing who we are individually: it’s about expressing who we are in different social situations, how we do or don’t fit into different niches, how we feel about those niches.

It’s a language with different meanings in different cultures and subcultures, obviously. (Just like the regular kind of language.) The meaning of a short skirt and stiletto heels in Manhattan is different from their meaning in, say, Dubai. And obviously, it’s a language that changes. (Again, just like regular language.) The way we use clothing to say “respectable matriarch” or “cheerful if somewhat flighty young man” is different now than it was 20 or 50 or 200 years ago. And as part of society, we can and do have an impact on how that language does or does not change. (More on that in a bit.)

Jeans But the fact that the language of fashion changes, and that it varies from culture to culture, doesn’t alter the idea that it is a language. A language uses commonly- understood, generally agreed-upon vocabulary terms to express particular meanings, and combines those vocabulary terms in different ways to clarify those meanings and express their complexities and subtle shadings. Which is exactly what fashion does. “Fish” means something different from “laundry,” not because the meanings were handed down from on high, but because we all more or less agree on what those words mean. In the same way, jeans mean something different from a business suit… because we all more or less agree on what that fashion vocabulary means. And jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with Doc Martens and multiple facial piercings, and something different again from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt… because those combinations clarify the meaning. (Jeans being the fashion equivalent of the word “run,” with approximately eleventy thousand possible meanings that have to be clarified in context.)

Girl_at_fence And part of what this language expresses is age. An outfit that expresses “10-year-old” is different from one that expresses “25-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “48-year-old”; different again from one that expresses “70-year-old.”

And that’s where dressing in a way that’s age-appropriate starts to make sense.

When I dress in a way that says “25-year old,” I feel like an idiot — because I’m saying something that isn’t true.

I want to dress in a way that expresses love and respect and value for who I am, and for the age that I am. Dressing in the language of a 25-year-old doesn’t do that. It makes me look like I’m trying too hard. It makes me look like I’m trying to look younger than I am.

Mannequin_girls Our culture places a high premium on youth, especially for women. It assumes that sexuality and creativity and exuberance belong to the young — especially for women — and that becoming older means becoming asexual, conventional, and boring. It’s an idea I have tremendous problems with, and always have, even when I was younger. It’s an idea I want to loudly and passionately defy. And I think part of my “Fuck that noise, I’m going to wear ripped fishnets and Doc Martens if I bloody well want to” attitude was coming from that defiance.

But the more I think about it, the more I have to re-think that stance. Because I don’t think dressing like a 25-year-old makes me look like I’m defying our ageist society. It makes me look like I’m agreeing with it. I don’t think it says, “I think middle-aged women are gorgeous and hot, and fuck the society that tells us any different.” I think it says, “You’re right, society. Looking gorgeous and hot means looking like a 25-year-old. If I want to express my gorgeousness and my heat, I need to look as young as I can.”

Ageless-desire-juliet-anderson-dvd-cover-art So if I want to express my position that middle-aged women are gorgeous and hot and sexual, I need to find a way to do it in the fashion language of middle-aged women. I need to find ways to say, “Middle-aged women don’t have to look like 25-year-olds to be hot.” My sexuality and my feelings about my body are very different than they were 23 years ago. They’re calmer, more sophisticated, better-informed, more secure, less boisterous, less about seeking attention, less about wanting to explore a hundred different things all at once. I still want to dress in a way that expresses my sexuality, and my feminism, and my defiance of gender norms. I just want to do it in a way that expresses how I feel about those things now — not 23 years ago. And I want to dress in a way that honors my middle-aged feelings about these things — not in a way that obscures them.

(Some of my specific strategies about that, btw: Revealing cleavage or legs, but not both. Or wearing clothes that are slinky and clingy, but that don’t show a lot of skin. Or wearing black patterned stockings instead of ripped fishnets or brightly-colored tights. Or wearing clothes that are high-necked but sleeveless, showing off and eroticizing a different part of my body than the standard ones. Or wearing clothes that are sexy, but well-made and classy. If y’all have other thoughts on this, I’d love to hear about them.)

Now. All that being said.

High-heels-x-ray I do think it’s completely valid to resist and refuse some particular aspect (or aspects) of the language of fashion. I am, for instance, passionately resistant to the idea that high heels are an obligatory part of being a respectable woman. I think high heels are our era’s version of corsets and foot-binding — a way that our culture cripples and immobilizes women in the name of beauty and desirability — and while I don’t criticize women who choose to wear them, and even occasionally have fun with them myself (hey, I wear corsets sometimes, too), I have grave objections to the idea that all women must wear them all or most of the time if we want to be taken seriously. Fuck that noise.

But there’s a difference between resisting some particular form of the language… and resisting the very idea of language itself. Feminists, for instance, resist the idea of sexist language like “policeman” and “fireman,” and press for these words to be changed to “police officer” and “firefighter.” We don’t, however, resist the very idea of there being words to express “someone who enforces the law” and “someone who fights fires.” Similarly, I object to the idea that “woman who respects social norms and expects to be taken seriously” should be expressed with “shoes that impair your mobility and will ultimately cripple you if you wear them for too many years.” But I don’t object to the very idea of expressing the trope, “woman who respects social norms and expects to be taken seriously.” That’s a valid concept that many women want to express. (Some more than others, obviously…)

Rebelwithoutacause And if what you want your clothing to express is “rebellion against social norms, including the social norms of fashion” — then mazeltov. That’s a valid concept to express, too. But I think that if we want to express that, we have to take responsibility for the fact that that’s what we’re expressing. It makes no sense for me to say, “When I wear fishnets and ratty mini-skirts and sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them [I actually used to dress like that, btw], I’m just expressing myself, and I don’t care what anyone thinks”… and then get upset when people treat me like an unpredictable space cadet who doesn’t care if people take me seriously. Any more than it makes sense to say, in words, “Did you know that Picasso was a Scorpio, just like me, that’s why we’re both creative and love the color blue, and yesterday I was having the most amazing psychic conversation with a bluebird outside my window”… and then get upset when people treat you like an unpredictable space cadet who doesn’t care if people take you seriously. If we’re going to say “Fuck the social norms” in the language of fashion, we have to expect that people who do respect the social norms are going to react accordingly.

TweetyOf course our clothing expresses who we are. It does that because it’s a language, with commonly- understood vocabulary terms that express particular meanings. Without that language, there’d be no expression, and sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them wouldn’t express anything different than cowboy boots or Doc Martens or Gucci loafers. It doesn’t make any more sense to say, “How dare you make assumptions about who I am just because I’m wearing sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them” — any more than it would to say, “How dare you make assumptions about what I mean when I use the word ‘fish.'”

And — to bring things back on topic — in the language of fashion, sky-blue Converse high-tops with Tweety Bird on them don’t just mean something different than Gucci loafers. They mean something different on a 25-year-old than they do on a 48-year-old.

Sarah six feet under There’s a bit from the TV show “Six Feet Under” that always stuck with me. Sarah — Ruth’s sister, the fifty-something free spirit who runs the artists’ colony in Topanga Canyon — says, “Somewhere along the line, I started to realize I was no longer the youngest or prettiest girl in the room. For a while I satisfied myself with being the most intriguing
 but eventually I just became the one in paisley.”

I don’t want to be the one in paisley.

BoobquakeI don’t want to be a batty middle-aged lady who’s trying to hang onto her youth. I want to be a comfortable, confident middle-aged woman who loves herself the way she is; who sees herself as part of society even as she’s critiquing it and trying to change it (indeed, whose critique of society is a central way she engages with it); who’s unconventional and adventurous but in a more thoughtful way than when she was younger; who loves her body and her sexuality and lives that out in a way that’s calm and secure; and who values her age and the knowledge and experience she’s gained from it.

That’s who I want to be. And in the language of fashion, that’s what I want to say.

Still trying to figure out how to do that, though.

Thoughts?

(Related post:
The Aging Slut)

Part of the Show: Atheist Transcendence at the Edwardian Ball

I had one of my atheist epiphanies the other night.

Edwardian ball 2010 It was at the Edwardian Ball. Quick bit of background: That’s not Edwardian as in King Edward VII, but as in the artist Edward Gorey, known for his finely detailed, hilariously ghoulish depictions of Victoriana, Edwardiana, and ’20s flapperdom. The Edwardian Ball started years ago as a little nightclub gig held in honor of Gorey by the self-described “pagan lounge” band Rosin Coven, and has mushroomed into a massive, magnificent, weekend-long event, with live music, ballroom dancing, costumes, art, exhibitions, absinthe cocktails, trapeze performances, weird taxidermy displays, and more. It’s where the Goth, steampunk, ballroom, and historical recreation society scenes collide in a magnificent explosion, and it seems to have become one of the “can’t miss” events for all these cultures in the Bay Area.

I love it passionately. Ingrid and I never miss it if we can possibly avoid it. And last night, I had an epiphany about why.

The Edwardian Ball is a near-perfect example of what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.

When you don’t believe in God or an afterlife — when you don’t think that the meaning of your life is determined by a perfect divine force, and when you think that humanity is just a tiny, fragile, absurdly mortal fragment in the immensity of space and time — you have to seriously rethink the whole question of what life means. The meaning of life isn’t pleasing God and going to Heaven, or perfecting your soul for your next reincarnation, or working towards the enlightenment of the World-Soul, or anything like that. And humanity isn’t a singularly beloved creation with a special destiny. We’re just an unusually complex biochemical process on one small rock whizzing around one nondescript star in one of billions of galaxies. And when that star goes Foom in a few billion years, that biochemical process is destined to go Foom along with it, with no traces left but a few bits of space junk floating in the vast emptiness of the universe.

The Edwardian Ball looks at all this, and says, “Let’s celebrate.

“And let’s connect.

Edwardian ball 3 “Let’s spend hours putting together magnificent outfits, so other people can look at them and go ‘Oo!’ Let’s spend years learning and practicing and playing music, so other people can dance and be happy. Let’s spend years learning and practicing and performing trapeze and acrobatics, so other people can gaze in astonishment and admiration. This is what we have to work with: the matter on this little planet, the energy from this average star, this tiny lifespan before each of us dies, this not- much- longer lifespan of the planet before humanity is boiled into space. What can we do with it? What are some of the strangest, funniest, most beautiful patterns we can work this matter and energy into before we have to go?”

The Edwardian Ball is one of my favorite examples of Stone Soup culture; of people who know that the party will be more fun if they bring their share of it. It isn’t just about hearing other people’ music, watching other people’s stage shows, looking at other people’s art. Everywhere I looked, people were dressed to the nines: in rigorously accurate historical costumes, in fanciful imaginings of fictional history, in elegant formal dress, in irreverent and hilarious re-interpretations of formal dress, in complicated technological marvels, in artfully lascivious displays of flesh, in elaborate configurations of black on black on black. And people were dancing, creating a delightful whirlpool of giddy, ridiculous glamour whizzing around the dance floor. The audience was as much a part of the event as the performers. This event is not about sitting back passively and waiting to be entertained. It’s about participating — being part of the show.

Which is exactly what I think of as the atheist meaning of life.

Roy batty tears in rain When I’m in a despondent mood, I sometimes get depressed about the “closed circle” nature of human endeavor. I’m not naturally a very Zen, “in the moment” kind of person; I’m ambitious, forward thinking, and I like to think of my affect on the world as possibly having some life beyond my immediate reach and extending past my death. It sometimes makes me sad to remember that, even if I mysteriously became the most famous and influential person in the history of the planet, it’s still a closed circle — because life on Earth is a closed circle, and there’s no God or World-Soul to carry my thoughts and experiences into infinity. Like the replicant Roy Batty says in Bladerunner: “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.”

Edwardian ball 9 The Edwardian ball reminds me, “So what? So what if you’re spending hours on your outfit just to be seen and admired by a couple thousand other people, whose outfits you’re also admiring? So what if you’re working to make life a skosh more joyful for people who’ll be dead in a few decades anyway, and whose descendants will be boiled into the sun in a few billion years? Don’t those people matter? And don’t you matter? The odds against you personally having been born at all are beyond astronomical. Beating your breast in despair because you’re going to die someday is like winning a million dollars in the lottery and complaining because it wasn’t a hundred trillion. You’re here now — and those other people are here now. Experience your life… and connect with theirs. Even if it’s just to spend a moment admiring the marvelous outfit they spent hours putting together.”

The Edwardian ball reminds me that permanence is not the only measure of consequence or value. The Edwardian ball reminds me that, as fragile and transitory as they are, experience and consciousness are freaking miracles. And the fact that we can share our experiences and connect our consciousnesses, even to the flawed and limited degree that we do, is beyond miraculous.

Let’s participate. Let’s be part of the show.

And here’s the final thing that struck me this year about the Edwardian Ball: All this celebration and magnificent silliness isn’t done by ignoring death.

Evil_garden Quite the contrary. Images of death are all over the Edwardian Ball. There are elaborate dioramas of animal skeletons and bizarre examples of the art of taxidermy. There are skulls and other death symbols incorporated into costumes all over the dance floor, and into the art all over the theater. The stage show this year was an elaborately costumed acrobatic/ trapeze interpretation of Edward Gorey’s “The Evil Garden”… a story in which the characters are strangled by snakes, eaten by carnivorous plants, and carried off by giant moths.

This event is not about dealing with death by pretending it isn’t real or shoving it onto the back burner. This is about dealing with death by transforming it into art, and costume, and ghoulish humor. This is about dealing with death as if it were an urgent To Do reminder. This is about dealing with death by incorporating it into life.

I’m not saying everyone who attends or creates the Edwardian Ball is an atheist. It would surprise me tremendously to find that that was true. I’m saying that for me, as an atheist, the meaning of life is to participate in it as fully as I possibly can; and to connect with others as richly as I can; and to minimize suffering and maximize joy to the greatest degree that I can, for myself and anyone I can connect with. Sometimes that means staying up until four in the morning writing about atheism and sex. Sometimes it means singing the James K. Polk song to my best friend’s new baby. Sometimes it means doing copywriting and website maintenance for a hippie/ punk/ anarchist publisher and book distributor. Sometimes it means cramming twenty people into our apartment for a sit-down Christmas Eve dinner. Sometimes it means going to see our friend’s co-worker’s band as a dutiful favor, and becoming obsessed fans overnight (how we discovered Rosin Coven in the first place). Sometimes it means donating money to earthquake relief in Haiti.

Greta edwardian ball 1 And sometimes it means dressing up like a character in an elegantly ghoulish fictional world, drinking absinthe cocktails, and waltzing the night away with my beloved wife, in a ballroom full of taxidermied animals and beautiful nerds who spent hours on their costumes.

I think I can live with that.

Related posts:
Atheist Meaning in a Small, Brief Life, Or, On Not Being a Size Queen
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence
For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour
Why Are We Here?

Strange Religious Imagery In My Neighborhood

Ever since I became an atheist, I’ve been increasingly conscious, not just of how unsupported religion is, but of how deeply strange so much of it is. You know how religions that you’re familiar with seem relatively normal, but religions that you’re unfamiliar with often seem deeply bizarre, even surreal? Along with a lot of other atheists, I’ve found that when you step back from all religion, even the ones you’re familiar with, they all start to seem pretty strange. (The Eucharist? Really?)

And ever since I got an iPhone, I’ve been noticing this strangeness show up in imagery all around me. Having a camera on me 24/7 has made me start paying closer attention to the look of the world around me generally; and it’s definitely made me start paying attention to some of the more striking and unusual religious imagery in the neighborhoods where I live and work.

I’ve been taking photos… and I thought I’d start sharing some of the better ones. (You can click on them to enlarge if you like.)

Lazarus

This is the one that started it all. At first I thought it was supposed to be Jesus, and I even had a blog post all ready to go about the artist who took the phrase “Jesus H. Christ on a crutch” a little too literally. Fortunately, before I made an ass of myself, I did a little Googling, and discovered that it’s not Jesus. It’s Lazarus.

Still an odd thing to want in your home, though.

Death

This is Death. There are many, many sculptures of Death available for sale in my neighborhood. I’m especially fond of this one, because of the owls perched at his shoulders, and the sack of money at his feet. (He’s Death. What does he need with money?)

Alien meditating

No, your eyes do not deceive you — this is a space alien, meditating. Click to enlarge — the spaceships over his shoulder confirm it.

Poseidon

This is Poseidon. Fairly straightforward, actually. But I find it deeply and delightfully strange that, in the midst of the predominantly Christian, Eastern, and woo religious imagery in the neighborhood, someone decided to include Poseidon in the mix. I also like the scuba diver at his feet.

Angry goddess

I’m not sure which Goddess of Wrath this is, but I definitely want to stay on her good side. Especially as she seems to be giving birth to… I don’t know what that is. A dreidle with the face of another god, perhaps.

Death 2

Death again. I could do a whole series of Death Images In My Neighborhood. With this one, I like the blending of the Death iconography with the Justice iconography; and the bony foot resting on the world just adds that special touch. And the fact that Death is wearing a skull around his neck is almost comically self- referential, even if it does have just a smidge of overkill. As it were. Dude, you’re Death. You’re a skeleton in a black cloak wielding a scythe that’s apparently the size of Jupiter. You really don’t need a skull around your neck to make yourself look more ominous.

Rabbit in sky

The Great Rabbit in the Sky. Borne up on clouds by pudgy, podlike little angel- demon things.

Three symbols

No one of these is particularly unusual: I just like their juxtaposition. It’s sort of like those “Coexist” bumper stickers in street-art form. “Can’t we all just get along?”

And now for my very favorite, the religious image residing in that part of our neighborhood that is our living room:

Obama candle 1

The Obama Prayer Candle.

These showed up everywhere in our neighborhood between the election and the inauguration. I’m not sure what the intent was behind them, or if they were self-mocking or serious, or what. But we just had to have one. More precisely, Ingrid just had to have one, and I griped about it and was secretly delighted. (Don’t tell her.)

Anyway. I feel like I should sum these up in some clever or insightful way. But it’s almost three in the morning, and I don’t think I have anything to add at the moment other than: Religion. Weird.

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review

I’m a little slammed with deadlines right now, so I’m re-running an old piece from back when my blog was smaller, one that a lot of you may not have read. This is one of my very favorite pieces — I hope you enjoy it, too.

Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage: A Review
by Greta Christina

A Dadaist masterpiece.

CoffeepotThis brilliant, unsettling work of contemporary installation art sets itself firmly within the Dadaist and neo-Dadaist tradition. With its blind alleys, impossible turns, and trajectories that lead nowhere, it echoes the functionless functionality of Meret Oppenheim’s “Fur-Lined Teacup,” Marcel Duchamp’s “Impossible Bed,” and, more recently, Jacques Carelman’s “Coffeepot for Masochists.” The influence of M.C. Escher on the piece is undeniable as well. Traffic patterns mysteriously blend from opposite directions; narrow passages twist in on themselves; and the piece as a whole seems to contain and entrap itself in a way that appears to be physically impossible.

EscherYet while “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” makes no attempt to conceal these classic influences, it nevertheless escapes being derivative. Both the gargantuan scale of the installation and its interactive nature give it a forcefully penetrative quality that differs significantly from smaller works of Dadaist and neo-Dadaist sculpture (which one can, after all, turn one’s back on). Once engaged with this unique work, it becomes virtually impossible to distance one’s self from it emotionally, or even physically. This quality is experienced in the details of the piece as well as in its massive scale. We particularly see it in the confusing and labyrinthine “exits” — indistinguishable from the “entrances” and even co-existent with them — compelling the participant’s awareness, not merely of the impossibility of escape, but of the absurdity of even contemplating it.

More significantly, the fact that the piece functions — although barely — as an actual parking garage merely serves to highlight the more disturbing aspects of the work. Poised on the liminal region between function and non-function, it forges a connection between creator and audience that is interactive and yet singularly hostile. Unlike typical artwork which attempts to create a bond of understanding and insight between artist and viewer, “Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” seeks to entice and enfold the audience members, only to frustrate and alienate them. It is a self-contained paradox, a connection which seeks only to sever itself.

TowelsThe location of the installation in a literal urban shopping center brilliantly underscores this contradiction. The dreamlike — or rather, nightmarish — qualities of the work are thrown into sharp relief when one contemplates this juxtaposition. One wishes to accomplish simple tasks of survival or comfort: buying towels, or a coffee maker, or even merely bread and milk. And yet the “parking garage,” a construct ostensibly designed to facilitate these tasks, instead thwarts the participant at every turn, and tasks which should connect one with the warp and weft of one’s life instead become distancing and enervating. The audience participates in the work, even becomes one with it, and yet is entirely at its mercy. It is a vivid, haunting metaphor for modern civilization and its self-negating contradictions.

Bedbathbeyond“Ninth and Bryant Parking Garage” is located off of Ninth Street between Bryant and Brannan, adjacent to Trader Joe’s and Bed Bath and Beyond, in San Francisco. The installation is scheduled for an indefinite run.

For No Good Reason: Atheist Transcendence at the Black and White Tour

Black and white tour 3
I know. Most people don’t connect Morris dancing with transcendence, atheist or otherwise. Most people who have seen Morris dancing connect it with cacophony, silly outfits, and beer. But I had a moment of atheist transcendence at the Black And White Morris Tour a couple weeks ago, and I wanted to talk about it.

A quick bit of background. Morris dancing is a more or less harmless addiction that takes the form of dressing in colorful outfits, strapping bells to your legs, and dancing in smallish groups (usually six or eight people), clashing sticks together and/or waving hankies about. It’s an English folk tradition, and while many Morris dancers will tell you entertaining lies about how incredibly ANCIENT the tradition is and how there was probably Morris dancing at Stonehenge, it’s actually about 500 years old or so. My darling Ingrid is deeply involved with it, but I love her anyway.

Black and white tour 6
Now. Typically, a Morris outing involves one or more teams each dressing in their own distinctive team outfits, each team performing their own dances. But the Black and White Tour is different. Everyone just dresses in whatever combination of black and white strikes their fancy. And the dances are common ones that many dancers know: so pretty much everyone on every team can dance just about every dance, all together.

And this year, it was magnificent.

Black and white tour 1
I don’t dance the Morris myself anymore. High impact, bad knee. I was just there to watch and hoot. And this year, I was gobsmacked. I’ve seen a lot of Morris dancing in my life — Ingrid’s done it for years, and I did it for years before she did — and while I enjoy it, I’ve also seen enough of it to last me several lifetimes, and am not easily impressed. But this time, I was more than impressed. I had my breath taken away. It was one of the most beautiful and memorable things I’ve seen in my life.

And it was all for no good reason.

Which brings me back to atheism, and the atheist transcendence.

Black and white tour 2It’s hard to describe what exactly made this day so breathtaking. Part of it was that it was such a beautiful blend of individual expression and group coherence. So much of life stresses one at the expense of the other: the individual submerges their own expression to go along with the group, or the individual says, “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine,” and does what they want regardless of the effect on society. The Black and White tour somehow managed to hit that rare, perfect, synergistic balance between the two: the joy of working together, and the joy of being yourself.

Black and white tour 8
The exuberantly imaginative interpretations of the “black and white” theme are a perfect example. It was a specific enough vision to give the group a coherent look, while at the same time allowing a tremendous amount of room for personal expression. The fact that it was an inter-team event helped as well: instead of one or maybe two sets dancing at a time, there were often four or five sets of six or eight dancers all dancing in a row, turning an already flamboyant dance form into a lavish, extravagant spectacle. And the fact that the performances were mostly by mish-moshes of people who had rarely, if ever, danced together before somehow added to the goofy, boisterous glee of it. It wasn’t about precision or team pride. It was about joy.

Black and white tour 5
And partly, it was just beautiful: the black and white of the dancers capering in the sunlight, against the Victorian white and glass of the Conservatory of Flowers and the green, green grass of Golden Gate Park. It looked like some wild, arty circus had come to town.

But much of what made it so magnificent was the sheer, beautiful absurdity of it all.

There is no good reason on this earth to do Morris dancing. It is an utterly pointless activity. Okay, you get some exercise and social contact… but really. You can get social contact anywhere, and you can get better exercise at the gym. And you don’t have to strap bells to your legs and wave handkerchiefs around like an idiot to do it. It isn’t constructive, it isn’t important, it doesn’t produce anything. All it produces is joy.

Which, if you’re an atheist, is kind of what life is like.

There’s no purpose or meaning to it, other than the purpose and meaning we create. In a few decades, we’re all going to be gone, dust in the ground or ashes in the wind. In a few million years, the earth and everything on it will be gone, boiled away into the Sun. And if the physicists and astronomers are right, in a few billion years the Universe will essentially be gone, dissipated into a thin scattering of atoms dotted throughout vast stretches of empty space. There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, no prize in the CrackerJacks, no final chapter that ties up all the loose ends. And there’s no big daddy in the sky to shake your hand at the end of it and say, “You done good, kid. Here’s your blue ribbon.”

Black and white tour 4
And yet, here we are. We were, against wildly astronomical odds, born. The chances against any one of us having been born are so high as to be laughable; the chances against there having been life on this planet at all defy description. No, there’s no purpose to it, if by “purpose” you mean “being a cog in someone else’s machine.” There’s no reason for it to have happened, except that it did. And the meaning of it is whatever meaning we create. The meaning of it is to diminish suffering and create joy and connection, for ourselves and for each other, for as long as we’re here.

We can do that in our work. We can do it in our art. We can do it in our friendships, our relationships, our families. We can do it in politics, charities, community involvement. We can do it with cooking. We can do it with fashion. We can do it with sex.

Black and white tour 7
And we can do it by dressing in ridiculous outfits, strapping bells to our legs, and dancing in the park like fools.

For no good reason.

Other pieces in this series:
Dancing Molecules: An Atheist Moment of Transcendence

Photos copyright 2008 by Tiffany Barnes, of White Rats Morris team in San Francisco. You can click on any of the photos to enlarge, or you can see the whole slideshow if you like. I’m a little sorry they’re all by Tiffany, actually: they’re gorgeous pictures, but it means there aren’t any of her, and she had one of the best outfits of anybody.

The Necessity of Humor: Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica
As insanely observant readers of this blog may have noticed, I’ve recently started watching “Battlestar Galactica.” (I haven’t seen any of this season yet — I’m midway through Season 2 on the DVDs, for once I’m going to watch a TV series in order — so please don’t give anything away.) I like the show a lot so far. It’s everything the critics and fans say it is: it’s smart, imaginative, well-written, richly detailed, emotionally and morally complex.

But as much as I’m enjoying it, I can already tell that it’s never going to be one of my all-time favorite TV shows. It’s never going to be, say, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” or “The Simpsons,” or “The Office.” I’m not going to watch it again and again; I’m not going to read books on its philosophical/ sociological/ political perspective; I’m not going to watch every director’s commentary, or indeed any of them. I’m not even 100% sure that I’m going to watch the rest of the series. I like it, I respect it… but it’s lacking something that I find essential in a long- running narrative.

It’s lacking humor.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The problem isn’t that it’s dark. Some of my favorite TV shows have been very dark indeed. “Buffy” is dark. “Six Feet Under” is dark. And while it’s technically a comedy (and is in fact very funny), I think “The Office” is one of the darkest things that’s ever been put on television. But all of these shows brought the funny as well: sometimes in the form of comic relief, sometimes woven into the darkness so closely the two were indistinguishable, but passionately, and skillfully, and in generous doses.

And to me, that’s essential.

It’s not just that humor makes a dark story bearable, offering relief and making it easier to watch. That’s true; but other things offer this as well. (Sex, for instance… which “Battlestar Galactica” has in trumps.)

It’s that humor is a central part of life.

Democrituslaughing
Humor is one of the main pillars that supports us; one of the main nutrients that sustains us; one of the main threads running through our lives. Even in dark times. Heck, especially in dark times. The ability to laugh and make jokes in a sad, frightening, terrible time is crucial. It gives us strength. It gives us perspective. It reminds us of why the bad times are worth getting through. There are times in my life that I can’t even begin to imagine having weathered without my sick, morbid, fucked-up sense of humor.

To spend literally years telling a sprawling, wide-ranging, ensemble-cast story without exploring humor is overlooking a fundamental reality of what makes us human. It’s like overlooking love, or conflict, or fear, or friendship. It’s not just a disservice to the audience. It’s a disservice to the characters. Humor doesn’t just make a dark story easier to watch. It makes a dark story ring more true.

I’m not saying that every narrative — every novel, every film, every ballad, every graphic novel — has to have humor. They don’t. I’ve read/ seen/ heard some wonderful, completely satisfying ones that haven’t. But a long-running television show is different. If your show is an hour-long drama, you have about twenty hours a year, and you have it over the course of (hopefully) several years. It’s a unique art form, with a uniquely large scope. To spend that much time telling a story and still leave out the humor is like, I don’t know, spending all day cooking Thanksgiving dinner and leaving out dessert. It can be a delicious dinner, but it still leaves you feeling like you aren’t quite full… even if you ate for hours.

“A Different Way of Knowing”: The Uses of Irrationality… and its Limitations

Brain_with_symbolsThere’s a trope I’ve noticed in debates about atheism, about skepticism, about science. And the trope goes something like this:

“Logic and reason isn’t everything. Not everything in this world is rational. Not everything that we know in the world is known through logic and reason. Sometimes we have to use our intuition, and listen to our hearts. There are different ways of knowing than just reason and evidence.”

The thing is?

I actually think there’s a lot of truth to this.

And I still think it’s a terrible argument to make against atheism, skepticism, and/or science.

Let me explain.

Love_heartssvgThere are absolutely areas of life in which logic and reason don’t apply. Or don’t predominate, anyway. Love, of course, is a classic example. The classic example, probably. Nobody decides who to fall in love with by making a cool appraisal of the pros and cons. Nobody decides who to fall in love with, period. It’s an emotional, irrational, impulsive, intuitive, largely unconscious act.

Personally, I think a lot of people would benefit from a little more rational, evidence- based thinking in their love lives. It might stop them from making the same damn dumb mistakes over and over again, for one thing. But ultimately, decisions about love are made with the heart, not the head. And I wouldn’t want it any other way.

John_henry_fuseli__the_nightmareOr take art. The part of us that loves music, images, stories… it’s not a logical part. Not entirely, anyway. A huge amount of it is personal, emotional, visceral. And it should be. Scientists and art critics and philosophers can analyze why different people like different things in art, and they’ll come up with useful observations… but the actual experience of art isn’t mostly analytical.

Sure, there are some commonly-accepted criteria that can be applied to art. Plus, the degree to which we appreciate art emotionally or rationally can depend on the art… as well as on the appreciator. And certainly our appreciation of art can be increased by a better understanding of its history or structure. But ultimately, art either moves you or it doesn’t. And when it does, the experience of being moved is not a rational process. It’s subjective.

And most artists will tell you that an essential part of the creative process is getting the rational part of their brain to shut up for a while. While the editing or modifying process often involves a critical, rational eye, the actual creation part of art comes largely from a non-verbal, non-linear, non-rational place. The experience of art is not primarily a rational one… for artist or for audience.

RaspberriesI can think of oodles more examples. Humor. Sexual desire. Friendship. Sentiment and nostalgia. Tastes in food. I think you get my drift, though. Many of the most central, most profound experiences of human life are things we experience emotionally, intuitively, irrationally.

But have you noticed a pattern to these examples?

They’re all matters of opinion. They’re all matters of subjective experience.

None of them is concerned with trying to understand what is true. Not just what is true for us, personally, but what is true in the external world. The world we all share, as opposed to the ones in our own heads and hearts.

And these questions — the questions of what is true in the external world — are where logic and evidence leap to the forefront.

ThinkingThis is why. We know — as well as we know anything — that the human mind can be fooled. It is wired, for very good evolutionary reasons, with some interesting distortions of reality. Among other things, it’s wired to see what it expects to see; it’s wired to see patterns even when none exist; it’s wired to see intention even when none exists.

And intuition, especially, is a deeply imperfect form of perception and understanding. Yes, it can often be a powerful tool for making leaps and seeing possibilities we couldn’t even have imagined before. But it can also be a powerful tool for showing us exactly what we expect to see, and telling us exactly what we want to hear — regardless of whether what we expect or want are actually there to be seen and heard.

Radiohead_ok_computerNow, for subjective questions, these imperfections aren’t particularly important. If you think you’re in love, then you are in love. If you think you like Radiohead, then you do like Radiohead. If you think broccoli tastes like fermented essence of evil, then it does. To you, anyway. With subjective questions like these, there’s not really a difference between “what you think is true” and “what really is true.” Or if there is, it’s not a crucial one.

But when we’re trying to figure out what’s true in the real world — not in the subjective world of our own feelings and experiences, but in the external world — there is very often a difference between what we think is true and what is true. An important, measurable difference.

And if we want to understand what’s true in the real world, we need to acknowledge, recognize, and correct for that difference. When we don’t, it’s disastrous. Think of all the people in history who “intuitively” knew that black people were mentally inferior to white people; who “intuitively” knew that mental illness was caused by demonic possession; etc., etc., etc. The human race’s track record of trying to answer non- matter- of- opinion questions about what is and is not true in the external world by “listening to our hearts” is a pretty abysmal one.

So if we’re trying to understand the external world, we need to be very, very careful to screen out bias and preconception as much as humanly possible. And the best way we have to do that is with logic, reason, and the rigorously careful gathering, examination, and analysis of the evidence.

Man_using_microscopeIn other words — the scientific method.

Which — with its double-blinding, careful control groups (including placebo controls when appropriate), transparent methodology, replicability, falsifiability, peer review, etc. etc. — has specifically developed over the decades and centuries to do one thing: eliminate bias, preconception, and human error, as much as is humanly possible, in order to get the closest approximation of the truth that we can.

It’s true that the history of science is full of stories of scientists coming up with important insights and breakthroughs in irrational ways: through dreams, sudden revelations, etc. Yes, irrational inspiration can be an important part of the scientific process. But it’s an important first part. After all, the history of science is also full of scientists coming up with ideas through irrational inspiration that then turned out to be full of beans. (Nikola Tesla comes to mind.) You just don’t read about them as much.

Inspiration gives scientists ideas, points them in new directions. But they then need to test those ideas and directions. And they don’t do that intuitively. They do it using the scientific method: rationally, logically, and rigorously.

So what does all this have to do with atheism?

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A Reality Show About Art: Project Runway

Dvd1It’s somewhat alarming how quickly this happened.

I went from catching the last half hour of a rerun on the TV at the gym, to obsessively Tivoing every new episode plus every rerun from every single season that has ever aired… in the space of about four weeks.

I’ve sucked Ingrid into it as well. And we have totally gone to the bad place, watching hours-long marathons and even renting the season we missed on Netflix. In a matter of a few weeks, this silly reality show has become like “The Daily Show” or “The Office” — one of the very few TV shows that I never, ever want to miss.

So here’s the thing about this show, the thing you might not be expecting, the thing that surprised the hell out of me:

“Project Runway” is actually smart and interesting.

Tim_heidi_2Yes, it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff. But it’s fun, entertaining, easy-to-swallow pop culture fluff with some thought and substance behind it, and with perspective and light to shed on the reality of the human world.

Maybe I’m just rationalizing. But I don’t think so. And I have backup for my opinion. I mean, the whole reason I watched the damn show at the gym in the first place was that I’d read more than one article, by more than one smart and thoughtful TV or culture critic, with a headline reading something like, “Project Runway: Actually A Good TV Show.”

Subhead: “No, Really. Stop Laughing. I’m Serious.”

So here’s my Grand Theory of what I think makes “Project Runway” smart and interesting:

It’s a reality show about art.

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