Runway Recap: Shades of Mediocrity

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 3, “Welcome Back (or not) to the Runway.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.

In these Runway Recaps, I’m trying to focus on the designs and not the drama. But it’s going to be tricky this week. Having spent last week gushing over the shiny happy candy challenge and what an exciting batch of designers we had this season and how much I was looking forward to the rest of the competition, I now haz a giant sad. The designs this week were so vague, my eyes were having trouble focusing on them. The good designs were boring. The bad designs were boring. Only one of the middling designs wasn’t boring — and it was badly made enough to not really be worth commenting on. (Although, of course, I’m going to anyway.) This week’s designs were almost universally executed in shades of mediocrity. Like emptiness in disharmony.

Yes, I know: team challenges are tough, and it’s hard to get that blazingly unique vision thing when you’re forced to collaborate with someone who was randomly picked for you out of a hat. But then I think about Chris and Christian in Season 4, and that giddy, exuberant, magnificently artful, “made of silky sunset clouds and the essence of pure joy” piece they teamed up on, which years later people are still talking about. And I think about Jillian and Victorya, also in Season 4, and that lavish, bad-ass, magnificently elegant, “soldier in the army of awesome and every coat I’ve ever bought since has been an echo of it in my mind” coat they teamed up on, which would have won that challenge by a mile in any other season and only lost by the bad (and yet freakishly awesome) luck of being on the BEST SEASON EVAR.

Sigh. Sorry. Nostalgia for Season 4 over (for the moment, anyway). I think I’ve made my point… which is that “Team challenges are hard!” is a pathetically weak excuse. ([cough] Elena! [cough]) So let’s get back to the pathetic weakness. [Read more…]

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

I wrote this piece four years ago, and thought it would be appropriate to repost it now. I’d probably write it somewhat differently now than I did then (less star-struck about meeting PZ Myers, for one thing); but in the interest of not being a revisionist swine, I’m leaving it as is. Enjoy!

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.

Archery. 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:

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.

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.

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.

I 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.

Runway Recap: Did The Wrong Awesome Designers Make the Top Three?

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 2, “Candy Couture.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.

So did the wrong awesome designers in the “make clothing out of candy” challenge make the top three this week?

In last week’s Project Runway recap, I was definitely on the snarky and bitchy side. For which I won’t apologize: being bitchy and snarky about laughably bad designs is part of the fun of being a Project Runway fan, and in any case, bitchy snark is my birthright as a queer American. I could easily go there again this week: wondering rhetorically if anyone in the known universe had even a microsecond of doubt about who was going home this week, or declaiming with horror and dismay about why Andrea’s shapeless paper smock thing irrelevantly slapped over the nightmare bustle didn’t catapult her to the bottom three.

But I don’t want to go there this week. Like Mr. Darcy, this week my mind was more agreeably engaged. I’ve been meditating on the very great pleasure which an unconventional materials challenge in a group of talented designers can bestow. The guessing game this week wasn’t, “Given what should be the easiest challenge of the whole damn season — make any design you want, inspired by a piece you made at home on which you had no time or money constraints — which crappy designer is going home?” The guessing game this week was, “Given what is typically one of the more difficult challenges of the season — make an outfit out of unconventional materials, in this case candy — which delightful, imaginative, surprising, freakishly beautiful design is going into the top three?” [Read more…]

Runway Recap: Did The Wrong Crappy Designer Go Home?

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about last Thursday’s episode of Project Runway: Season 10, Episode 1, “A Times Square Anniversary Party.” If you’re a fan of the show and you haven’t seen it yet — you stand warned.

So did the wrong crappy designer go home this week?

Ingrid and I have been debating this question at some length. We don’t have any doubt that both Beatrice and Lantie should have been the bottom two designers. (I disagree about the third slot: I actually had a certain amount of respect for Kooan’s original look, especially for its roots in Japanese “fruits” street fashion, and thought Buffi should have been in the bottom. Ingrid disagrees: she has a soft spot for Buffi’s shiny, candy-colored ’80s style.)

But the big question is: Of the two truly appalling sets of work, did the wrong crappy designer go home? [Read more…]

Blogathon for SSA: America’s Best Dance Crew, and the Great New American Art Form

I am of the opinion that hip-hop dancing is America’s great new art form.

I like the music fine, although it interests me somewhat less than it used to. (I liked it better when it was more political and less commercial.) But the dancing… the dancing is another story.

We started watching “America’s Best Dance Crew” almost by accident. We were staying overnight with some folk dance friends, and we watched an episode because our hostess was. But we got hooked immediately. We went very quickly from “America’s best what now?” to “We must never ever miss an episode of this show, no matter what happens.” Within a couple/ few episodes.

I love how it blends artistry and athleticism. I love how it is taking what is essentially a folk art form and, through time and attention and discipline and community, is transforming it into high art. I love that, no matter how high the art gets, or how wide-ranging its influences are, or how diverse its practitioners become, it never seems to lose touch with its urban street roots. I love how it blends serious-as-a-heart-attack discipline with playful, exuberant joy.

This is, in my opinion, the great new American art form. Like jazz, or abstract expressionism, or rock and roll. If you’re not paying attention, you’re missing out.

This post is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Donate today!

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

Blogathon for SSA, Switching Gears! Mad Men and The Office

The blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance is going well. As of this writing, we’ve raised almost $60,500! But I’m greedy. On behalf of the SSA, anyway. So I’m switching it up. I’m going to switch this to a regular blogathon, with one post every hour until midnight Pacific time. Plus I’m going to keep on putting up a kitten picture for every $100 we raise!

I’m starting off with some quick musings about “Mad Men.” I just finished watching the season finale of “Mad Men” for the second time. And it occurred to me: Pete Campbell on “Mad Men” reminds me an awful lot of Michael Scott on “The Office.” The minute I decide that he’s a despicable, totally unredeemable villain who borders on sociopathy, he does something human and decent that makes me have compassion for him, and even almost like him. And then the minute I start having compassion for him, he turns around and does something despicable. It’s like riding a moral rollercoaster. It’s one of the things I like best about the show, in fact: its refusal to cast the world into simple heroes and villains, and its ability to make you identify with the heroism and villainy in all of us.

(This counts at the 3pm post. The next non-kitten post will go up at 4pm Pacific time.)

I’ve posted some quotes talking about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome, and why they deserve your support. If you have a story or a comment about why the Secular Student Alliance is so awesome — post it in the comments, and I’ll post it in the blog! Along with kitten photos, of course. Support the SSA!

Mad Men, Sex Work, and the Ownership and Freedom of Women: “The Other Woman”

Spoiler alert: This piece has spoilers about the most recent episode of “Mad Men.” If that’s not okay with you, don’t read it.

What made this last “Mad Men” episode so upsetting?

Ingrid won’t watch “Mad Men.” She watched the first bunch of episodes with me, but then she dropped out: she found it too harrowing, the lives too miserable and trapped. Normally I don’t agree. I mean: yes, it’s harrowing, yes, the lives are miserable and trapped. But I find it encouraging to think about how much has changed since then — and as trapped as they are, at least some of the characters are beginning to make that change happen, for themselves and the rest of the world.

This last episode, though? “The Other Woman”? Even I was cringing at. Even I felt bludgeoned at the end of it. (Peggy’s escape notwithstanding. Which was totally awesome.)

And then I read Amanda Marcotte’s analysis of the episode on Pandagon, and I started wondering: Why was I reacting this way? Why is this episode different from all other episodes? Had I internalized the idea that prostitution is inherently degrading and shameful, and that it would be a dreadful tragedy for a “good” woman to engage in it? [Read more…]

Thanksgiving Religious Debate — All in the Family

Ingrid saw this on Facebook, and it was too priceless not to share. It’s a clip from an “All in the Family” episode from the ’70s… where the families get into an argument about religion and atheism. It’s amazing:

a) how relevant it is — the exact same argument is happening all over the Internet today, and probably at Thanksgiving dinner tables all over the country;

b) how casual they are about mentioning Mike Stivic’s atheism — it’s just assumed to be the case, and the “A” word gets used almost in passing, without any fanfare;

c) how skillfully Mike and Gloria shred the problem of suffering.

Enjoy — and have a happy Thanksgiving!

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

Gay Mafiosi and Group Marriage Monotheists: Sex, “Caprica,” and a Changing World

This piece was originally published on the Blowfish Blog. I never reprinted it here, since it was very topical, and by the time the reprint rights had reverted to me the show was no longer on the air. But the Blowfish Blog archives are apparently no longer on the Internets, and the original piece is no longer available. So in the interest of completism and making all my published works accessible, I’m going ahead and posting it here.

Caprica 1 Well, I wasn’t expecting this.

I’ve recently gotten sucked into “Caprica,” the prequel series to “Battlestar Galactica” airing on the SyFy Channel. (Yes, this is about sex — hear me out.) I hadn’t planned to put yet another hour-long drama on my TV schedule, and Loki knows I don’t have time for it; but I watched fifteen minutes of the pilot when I was channel surfing, and I got hooked. I’m such a slut. Give me a complex, thoughtful, nuanced exploration of consciousness and selfhood, and I’m anybody’s.

And the show has had some surprising plot developments in the sexual arena — developments that were all the more surprising for how unceremoniously they were introduced.

A quick precis, for those who aren’t familiar: The weekly science fiction TV series, “Caprica,” takes place in a world that’s eerily parallel to Earth. But the world has some interesting differences from ours, and at the time this story takes place, they’re a few years/ decades ahead of us. Technologically, and socially.

And “socially” is where the sex comes in. (Caution: Spoiler alert. Multiple spoilers. Suck it up.) There’s a major gay character in “Caprica,” and there’s a major polyamorous character. And the way these characters and their sexualities get woven into the story shows a huge leap forward in the way our culture has started to view alternative sexualities… and an enormous leap forward in how we view our sexual future.

Let’s start with the gay character.

Sam-adama There’s an equivalent of the Mafia in “Caprica,” a criminal organization called the Ha’la’tha. One of the story’s major characters, Joseph Adama (Esai Morales), is a renowned defense attorney with deep connections to the Mob, and his brother, Sam Adama (Sasha Roiz), is one of the Mob’s enforcers.

And a few episodes into the show, we learn that Sam is gay.

But this development isn’t presented as a shocker. It isn’t presented as The Big Gay Revelation. Here’s how we find out: Sam’s young nephew William (Sina Najafi) is at dinner with Sam and his husband, Larry (Julius Chapple), and he’s asking them why they never had kids. That’s it. That’s the Big Gay Moment. It isn’t even remotely a big effing deal. It’s just the moment in the story when we find out more about Sam Adama and his home life… and Sam’s home life includes his husband, Larry.

Sam adama larry And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that Larry is completely accepted as Sam’s husband, by Sam’s brother as well as his nephew — and, as far as I can tell, by everyone else in the story. When Joseph is desperately trying to find Sam, he calls Larry — just like you’d call anyone’s husband or wife if you were desperately trying to reach them. Joseph is freaked out that he can’t reach his brother… but his attitude towards Larry, and the fact of his marriage with his brother, is entirely nonchalant. And as of this writing, there’s nothing in the story to indicate that Sam is in the closet, or that his Mob colleagues have any issues at all with his gayness.

This would be surprising enough for any character on a mainstream TV series. (If the SyFy channel counts as “mainstream,” that is.) Even when a TV series is gay positive, it almost always has to make the gayness a major plot point or the central defining feature of the gay character in question. A gay character in mainstream TV is almost always The Gay Character.

Sam-adama-kills1 But given the character of Sam Adama, this fact is downright flabbergasting. Sam is a freaking Mafia enforcer. He throws trash cans through store windows, and kidnaps the wives of industry leaders, and murders politicians by knifing them to death in their sleep. The guy wears wife-beaters, for heaven’s sake. He’s about as far from a gay stereotype as you can get. You might expect to see a gay TV character who’s a graphic designer or a struggling actor/ waiter, or even a doctor or a lawyer. But a gay character who’s a macho thug? Entrenched in a criminal organization based on macho thuggery?

This, to me, speaks of the normalization of homosexuality… more than a hundred episodes of “Will and Grace.” It speaks of a world that recognizes the simple fact that anybody can be gay. It speaks of a world that recognizes that gayness is only one part of a gay person’s life… and often not the most interesting part. And it speaks of a world that recognizes the fact of gayness as a simple fact of human life.

Sister-Clarice-Willow So that’s the gayness. Now let’s move on to the group marriage. There’s another interesting major character in “Caprica”: Clarice Willow (Polly Walker), the headmistress of an exclusive private high school, the Athena Academy. (Caprican society is largely polytheistic, believing in a version of the old Greek gods.) And, as it turns out a few episodes into the show, she’s a member of a group marriage.

Now, Clarice’s group marriage isn’t treated quite as casually as Sam’s marriage to Larry. It’s introduced with a bit of… not fanfare exactly, but surprise. One of Clarice’s students, Lacy Rand (Magda Apanowicz), comes to her house for a visit — and discovers that she lives with multiple husbands, and multiple wives. And Lacy has a little frisson of nervous excitement when she realizes this. “I knew a few kids from group marriages — it’s cool,” she says… in a voice indicating that she actually doesn’t actually know that much about group marriage, and thinks it’s “cool” in the sense of “edgy and slightly outre.”

Clarice willow lacy rand But at no point is there any implication that Clarice could get into trouble for bringing her student to her group marriage home. Or indeed, for being in a group marriage in the first place. There’s no indication that she’s endangering her job — her job, I’ll remind you, as the head of a high school, attended by underaged teenagers and everything — by being in a group marriage, and inviting one of her students home to visit it.

It’s more than a little comparable to what being gay is like now. Here on Earth, I mean. Being gay is still a little bit shocking (for some people), still a conversation piece (more so in some parts of the country and the world than others). But, at least with the more politically moderate people and places, it’s entirely legal, more or less accepted, only mildly surprising, and not something that will get you drummed out of town or fired from your job for corrupting the morals of the children.

Caprica group marriage And like Sam Adama’s gayness, Clarice Willow’s group marriage isn’t presented as the most interesting or important aspect of her character. It’s played a little more for curiosity and titillation than Sam’s marriage with Larry; especially in the scene with four people all in bed together (switching partners at an unspoken signal — this seems to be an “everyone’s on a schedule of who sleeps with whom” version of group marriage, not free-form polyamory), and in the scenes when it seems like Clarice might be trying to draw Lacy into the arrangement by introducing her to one of her younger, dishier husbands. But the group marriage is presented as a familiar arrangement in this society, if a somewhat unusual one. And it’s presented as an essentially unthreatening arrangement. The fact that Clarice turns out to be a monotheist — now, that’s a serious threat to Caprican society. (Especially from what we know from “Battlestar Galactica” about how this story turns out.) The fact that she has multiple husbands and wives — that’s seen as relatively normal.

And all of this is a huge departure for mainstream TV dramas. Even in “Big Love,” the most famous current TV show featuring multiple relationships (it’s the show about Mormon polygamy), the fact of the characters’ polygamy is the central defining feature of their lives, and the lynchpin on which the entire storyline turns. I’m hard-pressed to think of another TV program aside from “Caprica” in which multiple relationships are seen as a standard, if somewhat edgy, form of romantic interaction that a stable society could incorporate… and in which same-sex relationships are seen as so normal as to need no further comment.

Now. It could be argued that these two characters still perpetuate stereotypes about unconventional sexuality… since neither of them is exactly a moral paragon. Sam Adama is, after all, a Mafia enforcer, a criminal who threatens/ beats up/ murders people for money. And Clarice Willow turns out to be involved in an extremist monotheistic terrorist organization. (In “Caprica,” again, the society is mostly polytheistic… and monotheists are looked upon as dangerous, radical religious fanatics with an inflexible morality and a close-minded hatred of anyone with different beliefs. Much the way Islam is seen in much of the Western world.) It could be argued that these characters perpetuate the stereotype of sexual minorities as amoral: self-centered pursuers of their own desires, with no concern for decency or social stability.

Caprica-cast But… well, I have two Buts here. One is that in “Caprica,” pretty much all the characters are morally ambiguous. This is a complex, thoughtful, nuanced story — morally as well as in other ways — and it doesn’t trade in obvious villains and heroes. Sam Adama and Clarice Willow are morally troubling characters… but so are Daniel Graystone, and Joseph Adama, and Lacy, and Zoe, and Amanda, and pretty much every single character in the show. Sam and Clarice are fucked-up people doing terrible things for noble reasons, or what they see as noble reasons… and in this story, that makes them fit right in.

My other “But” is this: Yes, Sam, and Clarice are morally troubling characters. But there’s no implication that their sexual lives are the cause of their moral shakiness. What makes Clarice bad is her religious fanaticism, not her unconventional marital arrangement; and at this point in the story, it’s not even clear whether her husbands or wives are even aware of her involvement in religious extremism. And Sam Adama’s marriage to Larry is one of the best things about him: a humanizing element, giving his character motivation and depth. Their ethics are deeply problematic; their sexuality is fine.

It’s wonderful to see. And it’s especially wonderful to see in a science fiction show. “Caprica” is technically set in the distant past; but it’s clearly providing an “alternate reality” version of humanity’s future. I so want science fiction to be more visionary about sexuality than conventional fiction… and all too often, it so is not. (The various iterations of “Star Trek,” for instance, were so far behind the curve on gayness, it was embarrassing.) It’s a nice sign of how far we’ve come sexually that a regular TV series — and a critically acclaimed one at that — could be this imaginative and forward- thinking about sexuality, and still get on the air. And it’s comforting to think that “Caprica’s” vision of a sexual culture might someday be ours.

If the Cylons don’t get us, that is.