Sublimely Ridiculous: Mark Morris’s “King Arthur”

Dealy_boppersKing Arthur
Mark Morris Dance Company
Cal Performances, Zellerbach Auditorium at UC Berkeley, 9/30/06

I am, rather uncharacteristically, speechless.

Not that that’s going to stop me.

I guess I should start by saying that it’s magnificent. Much of what I’m about to say is going to make it sound ditzy and dumb, so I should make it clear from the outset that it’s neither. It’s extremely goofy; it’s utterly shameless; it will do absolutely anything to get attention or admiration or cheap laughs. But it’s not ditzy, and it’s not dumb. It’s one of the most splendid performances of any kind I’ve seen all year.

King_arthurIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which King Arthur never makes an appeareance. (His hat is often on stage, though.)

Union_jackIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which all the parts with story and narrative have been expunged, leaving behind a series of songs on the topics of (a) how we should all have lots of sex while we’re young, because life is short and soon it’ll be too late, and (b) how fabulously terrific England is.

Top_hatIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — featuring cheap tinsel curtains, sequined top hats, gym shoes with flashing red lights, and rhythmic-gymnastic ribbon routines. Among other things. Among many, many other things.

Dealy_boppers_2It’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which a magical spirit is costumed in a blue cardigan, costume-shop butterfly wings, and a set of silver sparkly dealy-boppers.

OrgyIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which women and men partner indiscriminately, and you often aren’t sure which is which anyway.

BoxersIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the naked river spirits dress in an astonishing variety of silly underwear, from pantaloons to boxer shorts.

TreeIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which the sets have no ornamentation or facade of any kind. Moving platforms are black with big yellow X’s; moving staircases are bare metal; trees are blatantly artificial and set in big wooden blocks; and the snow in the winter scene is generated by a perforated roll-up shade filled with fake snow, being operated center stage by one of the dancers.

MimeIt’s a modern dance performance set to Purcell’s opera “King Arthur” — in which, in defiance of absolutely every rule about setting dance to vocal music, the song lyrics are broadly and literally mimed by the dance movements. Not just once or twice, but over and over again.

MaypoleNow, if this were being done by college dance majors or a local avante-garde theater company, it would be pretentious and laughable. But this is the Mark Morris Dance Company, and they completely get away with it. They get away with it because they know their shit. They get away with it because they dance with genius and discipline. Every movement, even the goofiest — especially the goofiest — is flawless, fluid and controlled, powerful and graceful. They did a schottische — a fun but lumbering dance that always makes me feel like I’m wearing ten-pound boots — and made it look weightless and lithe… while still, somehow, preserving the dance’s essential dorkiness. They did a Maypole dance that made Ingrid afraid to ever get near a Maypole again for fear of being unworthy (while, at the same time, she was busily stealing ideas).

Mirror_mazeAnd every moment of it is just flat-out beautiful. Sometimes it’s simply and straightforwardly beautiful — the sumptuous and romantic partner/mirror duet between the two women springs to my always libidinous mind. And some of it is dazzlingly beautiful while at the same time being goofy and ridiculous — most notably the ensemble piece that frantically weaves and dashes through a constantly moving set of free-standing mirrored doors, looking for all the world like twenty cheesy stage magicians in a fun house mirror maze, all competing for attention.

Mark_morrisIn the end, I think that’s what capped it for me. Mark Morris and his dancers have every shred of the discipline and devotion required by high art — with absolutely none of its stuffiness and self-importance, and none of its sense that That Simply Isn’t Done, Dear. Morris clearly believes that high art and low entertainment not only aren’t contradictory, but are actually complimentary, even symbiotic. And so the gasps of epiphany and the cheap laughs don’t alternate or compete — they come together, a simultaneous orgasm of aesthetic delight.

It fuckin’ rocks, dude.

King Arthur continues at Zellerbach until Oct. 7.

Domesticity and Degeneracy

Note: This post include descriptions of my personal sex life. If you don’t want to read that, please don’t read the rest of the post.

SpankingSo on Saturday, Ingrid and I went to the “Perverts Put Out” erotic reading, where I read my “college girl gets spanked by her professor” story… which turned out to be one of the gentler stories in a program that included humiliating gang-bangs and Brady Bunch porn and burly ex-Marines in pink rhumba panties. It’s been a while since the last “Perverts Put Out,” and every one of the readers was in rare form.

Afterwards… well, I’m not going to tell you exactly what we did when we got home last night, but I will tell you that it’s now Sunday night and I’m still sore.

Crock_potAnd today, we woke up surrounded by cats, and we had breakfast and read the Sunday paper at our favorite local diner, and we went to the stationery store and the grocery store and the cheese store, and we made chicken stock and vegetarian chili while we wrote our last few much-belated wedding-gift thank-you notes and watched the Simpsons.

White_picket_fenceI’m not sure why I’m telling you all this… except it’s gotten me thinking about degeneracy and domesticity. I think people often assume that the one precludes the other. We tend to assume that when you make sybartic sensual pleasure a priority in your life, you have to accept instability and chaos as part of the package. And we tend to assume that when you settle down with a partner and a mortgage and a Sisyphian list of household chores, you have to accept that boredom and predictability are the natural result.

But I don’t think that’s true.

I think you can have both. I know you can have both. I’ve had both, just in the last 48 hours.

BookersWhat I do think is that when you try to have both, you don’t get to have either one to the most lavish extent that you might. Marriage and a mortgage has definitely put a dent in (not to say virtually eliminated) my slutty, casual-sex catting around. I just don’t have time. And making sure that we have sex and dancing and and parties and good food and good liquor and porn writing and reasonably frequent cultural outings in our life does mean that our home life is rather more chaotic than one might like, with piles of junk all over the living room and a chore list that’s just getting longer and nowhere near enough sleep. The domesticity isn’t as domestic — and the degeneracy isn’t as degenerate — as I might have hoped for in a perfect world.

Yin_yangBut that’s okay. I refuse to accept that the pursuit of loving domesticity means boredom and quiet desperation, and I refuse to accept that the pursuit of sensual pleasure means restlessness and instability. And I adamantly refuse to accept that the two things are incompatible and that I have to choose one. I do, however, accept that the pursuit of both means compromise. I can have it all, as long as I accept that none of it will be perfect.

Perverts Put Out returns — and I’m reading!

GretaCome hear me read dirty stories — along with faboo sex writers Simon Sheppard, Carol Queen, Kirk Read, Charlie Anders, horehound stillpoint, and Lori Selke — when Perverts Put Out returns to San Francisco! Perverts Put Out was a long-running sex-writer forum/salon thing, which ended prematurely when host Bill Brent inexplicably decided to do what he wanted with his life and moved to Hawaii. But now Simon Sheppard and Carol Queen are reviving it as a benefit for the Center for Sex and Culture — and they very kindly invited me to be one of the readers at its debut!

Perverts Put Out always had a great and hilarious variety of sex writing — fiction, non-fiction, poetry, queer and straight, kinky and somewhat less kinky — and the return engagement promises to keep that tradition alive. I’m thrilled that it’s back, and I’d be going even if I weren’t reading. It’ll be on Saturday, September 23, starting at 7:30 pm, at CounterPULSE!, 1310 Mission St. (that’s at Mission and 9th, near Civic Center BART) in San Francisco. Admission is a $5-$15 sliding scale to benefit the Center for Sex and Culture, but no-one will be turned away for lack of funds.

I’d give you a taste of what I’m going to be reading, but I haven’t decided yet. Probably the story about the college girl getting spanked by her professor, but I might change my mind…

Are We Having Sex Now or What?

My apologies to my RSS people who get this twice. Something screwed up with my FeedBlitz feed, so I’m posting it a second time. Enjoy!

SevenWhen I first started having sex with other people, I used to like to count them. I wanted to keep track of how many there had been. It was a source of some kind of pride, or identity anyway, to know how many people I’d had sex with in my lifetime. So, in my mind, Len was number one, Chris was number two, that slimy awful little heavy metal barbiturate addict whose name I can’t remember was number three, Alan was number four, and so on. It got to the point where, when I’d start having sex with a new person for the first time, when his cock first entered my cunt (I was only having sex with men at the time), what would flash through my head wouldn’t be “Oh baby baby your cock feels so good inside me,” or “What the hell am I doing with this creep,” or “This is boring I wonder what’s on TV.” What flashed through my head was: “Seven!”

FourDoing this had some interesting results. I’d look for patterns in the numbers. I had a theory for a while that every fourth lover turned out to be really great in bed, and would ponder what the cosmic significance of this phenomenon might be. Sometimes I’d try to determine what kind of person I was by how many people I’d had sex with. At 18, I’d had sex with ten different people; did that make me normal, repressed, a total slut, a free-spirited bohemian, or what? Not that I compared my numbers with anyone else’s — I didn’t. It was my own exclusive structure, a game I played in the privacy of my own head.

Big_numbersThen the numbers started getting a little larger, as numbers tend to do, and keeping track became more difficult. I’d remember that the last one was Seventeen and so this one must be Eighteen, but then I’d start having doubts about whether I’d been keeping score accurately or not. I’d lie awake at night thinking to myself, well, there was Brad, and there was that guy on my birthday, and there was David, and…no, wait, I forgot that guy I got drunk with at the social my first week at college…so that’s seven, eight, nine…and by two in the morning I’d finally have it figured out. But there was always a nagging suspicion that maybe I’d missed someone, some dreadful tacky little scumball that I was trying to forget about having invited inside my body. And, as much as I maybe wanted to forget about the sleazy little scumball, I wanted more to get that number right.

BackrubIt kept getting harder, though. I began to question what counted as sex and what didn’t. There was that time with Gene, for instance. I was pissed off at my boyfriend David for cheating on me. It was a major crisis, and Gene and I were friends and he’d been trying to get at me for weeks and I hadn’t exactly been discouraging him. So I went to see him that night to gripe about David. He was very sympathetic of course, and he gave me a backrub, and we talked and touched and confided and hugged, and then we started kissing, and then we snuggled up a little closer, and then we started fondling each other, you know, and then all heck broke loose, and we rolled around on the bed groping and rubbing and grabbing and smooching and pushing and pressing and squeezing. He never did actually get it in. He wanted to, and I wanted to too, but I had this thing about being faithful to my boyfriend, so I kept saying No you can’t do that, Yes that feels so good, No wait that’s too much, Yes yes don’t stop, No stop that’s enough. We never even got our clothes off. Jesus Christ, though, it was some night. One of the best, really. But for a long time I didn’t count it as one of the times I’d had sex. He never got inside, so it didn’t count.

MartyrLater, months and years later, when I lay awake at night putting my list together, I’d start to wonder: Why doesn’t Gene count? Does he not count because he never got inside? Or does he not count because I had to preserve my moral edge over David, my status as the patient, ever-faithful, cheated-on, martyred girlfriend, and if what I did with Gene counts, then I don’t get to feel wounded and superior?

Years later, I did end up fucking Gene and I felt a profound relief because, at last, he definitely had a number, and I knew for sure that he did in fact count.

LesbianThen I started having sex with women, and boy howdy, did that ever shoot holes in the system. I’d always made my list of sex partners by defining sex as penile-vaginal intercourse. You know, fucking. It’s a pretty simple distinction, a straightforward binary system. Did it go in or didn’t it? Yes or no? One or zero? On or off? Granted, it’s a pretty arbitrary definition; but it’s the customary one, with an ancient and respected tradition behind it, and when I was just screwing men, there was no really compelling reason to question it.

HitachiBut with women… well, first of all there’s no penis, so right from the start the tracking system is defective. And then, there are so many ways women can have sex with each other, touching and licking and grinding and fingering and fisting — with dildoes or vibrators or vegetables or whatever happens to be lying around the house, or with nothing at all except human bodies. Of course, that’s true with sex between women and men as well. But between women, no one method has a centuries-old tradition of being the one that counts. Even when we do fuck each other there’s no dick, so you don’t get that feeling of This Is What’s Important We Are Now Having Sex, objectively speaking, and all that other stuff is just foreplay or afterplay. So when I started having sex with women, the binary system had to go, in favor of a more inclusive definition.

OneWhich meant, of course, that my list of how many people I’d had sex with was completely trashed. In order to maintain it I’d have had to go back and reconstruct the whole thing and include all those people I’d necked with and gone down on and dry-humped and played touchy-feely games with. Even the question of who filled the all-important Number One slot, something I’d never had any doubts about before, would have to be re-evaluated. By this time I’d kind of lost interest in the list anyway. Reconstructing it would be more trouble than it was worth. But the crucial question remained: What counts as having sex with someone?

Question_markIt was important for me to know. I mean, you have to know what qualifies as sex, because when you have sex with someone your relationship changes. Right? Right? It’s not that sex itself has to change things all that much. But knowing you’ve had sex, being conscious of a sexual connection, standing around making polite conversation with someone thinking to yourself, “I’ve had sex with this person,” that’s what always changes things. Or so I believed. And if having sex with a friend can confuse or change the friendship, think of how bizarre things can get when you’re not sure whether you’ve had sex with them or not.

Dividing_lineThe problem was, as I kept doing more different kinds of sexual things, the line between Sex and Not-sex kept getting more hazy and indistinct. As I brought more into my sexual experience, things were showing up on the dividing line demanding my attention. It wasn’t just that the territory I labeled “sex” was expanding. The line itself had swollen, dilated, been transformed into a vast grey region. It had become less like a border and more like a demilitarized zone.

JugglingWhich is a strange place to live. Not a bad place, you understand, just strange. It feels like juggling, or watchmaking, or playing the piano — anything that demands complete concentrated awareness and attention. It feels like cognitive dissonance, only pleasant. It feels like waking up from a very compelling and realistic bad dream. It feels the way you feel when you realize that everything you know is wrong, and a bloody good thing too, ‘cuz it was painful and stupid and really fucked you up.

ExplorerBut for me, living in a question naturally leads to searching for an answer. I can’t simply shrug, throw up my hands, and say, “Damned if I know.” I have to explore the unknown frontiers, even if I don’t bring back any secret treasure. So even if it’s incomplete or provisional, I do want to find some sort of definition of what is and isn’t sex.

OrgasmI know when I’m feeling sexual. I’m feeling sexual if my pussy’s wet, my nipples are hard, my palms are clammy, my brain is fogged, my skin is tingly and super-sensitive, my butt muscles clench, my heartbeat speeds up, I have an orgasm (that’s the real giveaway), and so on. But feeling sexual with someone isn’t the same as having sex with them. Good Lord, if I called it sex every time I was attracted to someone who returned the favor I’d be even more bewildered than I am now. Even being sexual with someone isn’t the same as having sex with them. I’ve danced and flirted with too many people, given and received too many sexy would-be-seductive backrubs, to believe otherwise.

Brain_1I have friends who say if you thought of it as sex when you were doing it, then it was. That’s an interesting idea. It’s certainly helped me construct a coherent sexual history without being a revisionist swine and redefining my past according to current definitions. But it really just begs the question. It’s fine to say that sex is whatever I think it is; but then what do I think it is? What if, when I was doing it, I was wondering whether it counted?

ArousalPerhaps having sex with someone is the conscious, consenting, mutually acknowledged pursuit of shared sexual pleasure. Not a bad definition. If you are turning each other on and you say so and you keep doing it, then it’s sex. It’s broad enough to encompass a lot of sexual behavior beyond genital contact/orgasm; it’s distinct enough to not include every instance of sexual awareness or arousal; and it contains the elements I feel are vital — acknowledgement, consent, reciprocity, and the pursuit of pleasure. But what about the situation where one person consents to sex without really enjoying it? Lots of people (myself included) have had sexual interactions that we didn’t find satisfying or didn’t really want, and unless they were actually forced on us against our will, I think most of us would still classify them as sex.

Two_brainsMaybe if both of you (or all of you) think of it as sex, then it’s sex whether you’re having fun or not. That clears up the problem of sex that’s consented to but not wished for or enjoyed. Unfortunately, it begs the question again, only worse: Now you have to mesh different people’s vague and inarticulate notions of what is and isn’t sex and find the place where they overlap. Too messy.

Bad_sexHow about sex as the conscious, consenting, mutually acknowledged pursuit of sexual pleasure of at least one of the people involved. That’s better. It has all the key components, and it includes the situation where one of the people involved is doing it for a reason other than sexual pleasure — status, reassurance, money, the satisfaction and pleasure of someone they love, etc. But what if neither of you is enjoying it, if you’re both doing it because you think the other one wants to? Ugh.

IntercourseI’m having a bit of trouble here. Even the conventional standby — sex equals intercourse — has a serious flaw; it includes rape, which is something I emphatically refuse to accept. As far as I’m concerned, if there’s no consent, it ain’t sex. But I feel that’s about the only place in this whole quagmire where I have a grip. The longer I think about the subject, the more questions I come up with. At what point in an encounter does it become sexual? If an interaction that begins non-sexually turns into sex, was it sex all along? What about sex with someone who’s asleep? Can you have a situation where one person is having sex and the other isn’t? It seems that no matter what definition I come up with, I can think of some real-life experience that calls it into question.

Sex_partiesFor instance: A couple of years ago, I attended (well, hosted) an all-girl sex party. Out of the twelve other women there, there were only a few with whom I got seriously physically nasty. The rest I kissed or hugged or talked dirty with or just smiled at, or watched while they did seriously physically nasty things with each other. If we’d been alone, I’d probably say that what I’d done with most of the women there didn’t count as having sex. But the experience, which was hot and sweet and silly and very special, had been created by all of us, and although I only really got down with a few, I felt that I’d been sexual with all of the women there. Now, whenever I meet one of the women from that party, I always ask myself: Have we had sex?

FloggerFor instance: When I was first experimenting with sadomasochism, I got together with a really hot woman. We were negotiating about what we were going to do, what would and wouldn’t be ok, and she said she wasn’t sure she wanted to have sex. Now we’d been explicitly planning all kinds of fun and games — spanking, bondage, obedience — which I strongly identified as sexual activity. In her mind, though, “sex” meant direct genital contact, and she didn’t necessarily want to do that with me. Playing with her turned out to be a tremendously erotic experience, arousing and stimulating and almost unbearably satisfying. But we spent the whole night without even touching each other’s genitals. And the fact that our definitions were so different made me wonder: Was it sex?

Lusty_ladyFor instance: I worked for a few months as a nude dancer at a peep show. In case you’ve never been to a peep show, it works like this: The customer goes into this tiny dingy black box, kind of like a phone booth, and they put in quarters, and a metal plate goes up, and they look through a window at a little room/stage where naked women are dancing. One time, a guy came into one of the booths and started watching me and masturbating. I came over and squatted in front of him and started masturbating as well, and we grinned at each other and watched each other and masturbated, and we both had a fabulous time. (I couldn’t believe I was being paid to masturbate — tough job, but somebody has to do it…) After he left, I thought to myself: Did we just have sex?

QuarterI mean, if it had been someone I knew, and if there had been no glass and no quarters, there’d be no question in my mind. Sitting two feet apart from someone, watching each other masturbate? Yup, I’d call that sex all right. But this was different, because it was a stranger, and because of the glass, and because of the quarters. Was it sex?

I still don’t have an answer.

Copyright 1992 Greta Christina. Originally published in The Erotic Impulse, edited by David Steinberg, Tarcher Press.

Erotic_impulseA lot of you may have read this already. This is probably my best-known, most influential, and most widely-read piece of writing. It’s been reprinted numerous times (including a butchered version that appeared in Ms. Magazine with the references to kinds of sex they don’t approve of taken out), and it gets studied and assigned in several college and university courses. (Google “Greta Christina” + “Are we having sex” if you don’t believe me.) But Susie Bright suggested that I put it on my blog as well as my Website, since this is where a lot of people are finding me these days. And I think she’s right — I always tell people that if you were just going to read one piece of my writing, this is the one to read (this or Comforting Thoughts About Death That Have Nothing to Do with God), and I try to make it as widely available as I can.

Queer Contra dance for everybody, Sunday at Ashkenaz!

Contra4“Square dancing just got fierce.” -San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Contra1If you’ve heard me yak on about this Queer Contra dance thing I’m helping organize in the Bay Area, and you’re curious and want to check it out, our first dance of the new season is this Sunday at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, from 6 to 9. And before you ask– the dance is aimed at queer folk, but we genuinely welcome anybody of any sexual orientation.

Contra2And also before you ask — you absolutely do not have to have any dance experience whatsoever to join in our dance. We are very beginner-friendly; all the dances are taught and called; and there are always lots of beginners at our dances, so you’ll be in good company. (All ages are welcome, and we don’t serve hooch.)

Contra3If you haven’t heard me yak on about contra dancing, here’s a little more about it. Contra is a boisterous, flirtatious, energetic dance form that’s related to both American and English country dancing. (Try to imagine a Jane Austen hoedown.) It’s danced in a set of two parallel lines; each couple progresses up and down the set, so everyone gets a chance to dance with everyone else, making it friendly and social. (You don’t need to come with a partner — lots of people come to the dances alone, and we switch partners quite promiscuously throughout the evening.) The music is lively and bouncy, similar to both old-time American and traditional Scots-Irish, and we always dance to live music. The SF Queer Contra is “gender-free,” which means anyone can dance with anyone regardless of gender, and anyone can take the “lead” or “follow” position in any dance.

Contra6_1And it’s more fun than a barrel of monkeys. (I’ve always wondered about that phrase, by the way. A barrel of monkeys doesn’t actually seem like that much fun to me.) It’s joyous and boingy, flirty and friendly, goofy and exhilarating, and I always leave the dance with a gigantic grin on my face.

Contra5You can visit our Website for more info about who we are, or to get a feel for the dance by looking at more photos. (If you visit our Website, don’t be fooled by our out-of-date calendar — we know, we’re working on it, it’ll be updated soon.) And again, our next dance will be at Ashkenaz in Berkeley, which is at 1317 San Pablo Avenue (near Gilman St.), from 6 to 9 pm. If you’re a newcomer, it’s good to get there early if you can, to get more of the teaching. Admission is 10 bucks on a “pay what you can” sliding scale, and nobody is ever turned away for lack of funds. Drop me a note if you have any questions. Hope to see you there!

Juggling to Abbey Road

This is just cool. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything: it’s just cool. It’s this guy, Chris Bliss, doing a choreographed juggling routine to the “Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End” sequence at the end of Abbey Road. And it’s just neat. It’s one of those things, like the Thorax Cake, that makes me happy to be part of the human race. I haven’t been feeling very happy about being part of the human race lately, so this was a welcome shot in the arm. Enjoy! (BTW, you really have to have your sound turned on to get the effect, so don’t watch this at work unless your boss is either really cool or not around.)

Love the Inventions, Hate the Inventors: Smacking Around Mark Morford, Round 2

Markmorford_1Once again, the otherwise smart and funny SF Gate/SF Chronicle columnist Mark Morford has written a column revealing a strange and unsettling brand of New Agey religious intolerance. This time, his target is the stupidity of science — in particular, scientific studies that confirm common sense and common knowledge, and scientific studies that attempt to understand mystical and religious experience.

So once again, I’ve taken it upon myself to smack him around. Here’s my latest letter to him. Enjoy! (And let me know if you think my “persecution of Galileo” analogy went too far…)

Dear Mark,

Ned_flandersThis is getting frustrating. I usually love your column, and usually feel that we’re on the same side. But this is now the second time that you’ve written something intolerant and insulting — not to mention flat-out factually inaccurate — about people who don’t share your spiritual views. You’re beginning to sound like a New-Age version of a fundamentalist Christian, and I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be doing that.

MushroomI’m referring to your August 4 column, “God Is In The Magic Mushrooms,” in which you refer to the Johns Hopkins study showing that taking psilocybin mushrooms can create profound and life-changing mystical experiences. To me, this study was a beautiful example of how science and spirituality can connect, can come together to provide new information and create insight. But instead, you chose to use it as another opportunity to be snarky and bitchy and disdainful about science, with comments like “studies that merely reinforce ageless common sense,” “the illuminating shortcomings of science itself,” “the Science of the No Duh,” “smacking us upside the scientific head,” “science peering over the edge of understanding and jumping back and saying, ‘Holy crap.'” And so on, and so on.

Earth_orbitYour dismissive remarks about scientific studies that confirm obvious, self-evident, common-sense conclusions are a good example. See, one of the most important things scientists do is investigate the obvious — because the obvious isn’t always true. It used to be obvious that the sun went around the earth. It used to be obvious that black people were inherently less intelligent than white people. It used to be obvious that ulcers were caused by stress and best treated with antacids and a bland diet. These things were obvious — but they weren’t true. It’s important to actually test the things we think are true (the ones that are testable, anyway)… because they might not be. And that’s the value of the scientific method — it short-circuits pre-conceived notions. It tells you whether or not the thing you believe is true, regardless of how strongly you believe it. It doesn’t do this 100% perfectly — the history of science is full of bad experiments whose methodology and results were warped by unconscious bias — but on the whole and in the long run, it does it pretty damn well.

Professor_frinkIf your point is that science is limited, that it can’t completely explain every single facet of human experience — well, duh. But if your point is how stupid and blind scientists are for thinking that it can… that’s kind of a pointless point. The reductionist scientist who thinks science and logic can answer all questions and solve all problems — that’s a straw man, a cartoon character. I’ve never in my life known or read a scientist who thought that. I’ve never known or read a scientist who didn’t care about art and emotions and ethics and ecstasy and so on, or who believed science could answer all life’s mysteries. If you’re going to argue against science, then at least do so against science as it really is — not some made-up Professor Brainiac from a New Yorker cartoon.

Lsd25What’s more, your “three choices” of ways to look at the experience of psychedelic drugs are not only pissily judgmental — they’re also seriously limited. I could think of half-a-dozen more just off the top of my head — and not one of your three comes close to describing my own life-altering experiences with hallucinogens. (For me, the mind-bending kicker was the revelation of just how profoundly my perception of reality could be altered simply by a minuscule amount of foreign chemicals in my brain — and the corresponding revelation of just how much of my perception of reality was my perception, and how little of it was reality.)

BrainAnd since you seem to think this study somehow proves the objective reality of mystical experience, I feel compelled to point out that it does nothing of the kind. In fact, it could easily be argued that this study does the exact opposite — it demonstrates that mystical experience is a mental process, a function of the nervous system that can be induced by the consumption of a chemical compound. I’m not sure I would make that argument — but it’s not an unreasonable one.

Nelson_hahaI am particularly puzzled by the fact that you accept on its face the validity of the Johns Hopkins study — and yet at the same time you mock it for being redundant and pointless. Don’t you think that’s a little hypocritical? And do you really want to be making fun of people who are trying to understand how human consciousness works, in the most careful, most rigorous, most unbiased way they can? When scientists come up with a result that surprises them, and acknowledge their surprise with humility and awe, do you really want to respond by pointing and laughing at what ignoramuses they are? Do you really want to be one of the kids in the schoolyard making fun of the nerdy Poindexters and how they think they’re so smart? It seems to me that the researchers in the Johns Hopkins study were very respectful of the spiritual experiences of the study’s subjects — do you really want to be returning the favor with contempt?

GalileoMore to the point, do you really want to be taking the position that dumb old scientists don’t know anything about the real world, the important world, the world of the metaphysical divine whose reality always trumps the mundane physical? Because when you do that, you ally yourself philosophically with creationists. You ally yourself with the Pope who made Galileo recant about the earth orbiting the sun. And I’m pretty sure you don’t want to be doing that. I’d bet dollars to donuts that if you read a fundamentalist Christian screed about science that had the same level of snide, pitying superiority towards non-believers that your piece did, you’d be foaming at the mouth.

But here’s what truly puzzles me about your piece.

IpodYou love technology. Passionately. You’ve written in glowing terms, and at great gushing length, about the coolness of iPods, and electric cars, and Macintosh computers, and hundred-dollar vibrators, and so on and so on.

ScientistSo what I want to know is: Who do you think makes those things? They’re not conjured into existence by New Age gurus or neo-pagan covens. They’re created by scientists and engineers. They’re created by people who think it’s important to know if their observations about the world are accurate, and who take the time to make sure that their theories work. They’re created by people who think and work more carefully, more patiently, more rigorously, with more respect for reality and more willingness to be proven wrong, than I could ever imagine being capable of myself.

Have a little respect for them.

Greta Christina

Hurricane Katrina, and What Government Is For

Whenleveesbroke_1So I’m watching “When the Levee Broke,” the Spike Lee HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina (which you all absolutely have to see, by the way), and what with that and the one-year anniversary, it seemed like a good time to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while, about what government is — or what it should be, anyway — and about people who think government is a bad idea.

FirefighterHere’s what I think government is. Or rather, here’s what I think government should be, and what it actually is at least some of the time. I think government is/should be the structure with which a society pools some of its resources for projects and services that benefit that society, but are too big to be handled privately by individuals or small groups. And it is/should be the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.

ConstitutionThink roads. Sewers. Parks. Fire departments. Public health services. Law enforcement, even. God knows I have mixed feelings about law enforcement as it actually exists in our society — but as Ingrid pointed out recently, when there’s a Ted Bundy on the streets, you want there to be people whose job it is to catch them. It’s pretty much spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, actually: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

Katrina_1And think emergency services. For fuck’s sweet sake, think emergency services.

BushExcept we have a government — a federal government, anyway — that’s run by people who think government is a bad idea. We have a government run by people who think government should always be as small as possible, that taxes should always be as low as possible, that government is at best a necessary evil. (Or who say that’s what they think, anyway. I think they’re big fuckin’ hypocrites, but that’s a different rant.)

Katrina_peopleAnd when you see what happened a year ago in New Orleans, you see why government run by people who think government is a bad idea is a criminally bad idea.

Atom_1Because when you think about what government is — or what it should be — you realize that people who think government is a bad idea are essentially opposed to the idea of pooling resources. To oppose the very idea of government, to think of it as at best a necessary evil, is to believe in the philosophy of “Every man for himself.” It is to believe in the philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It is to believe that sharing is bad. It is to believe in the atomization of society, the breakdown of social responsibility into smaller and smaller units. To believe that government is a bad idea is to believe that society itself is a bad idea.

HalliburtonIt feels freaky to be defending the idea of government when I’m watching a documentary about its callous incompetence, its inhuman detachment, its colossal screw-up on every level. And it feels ultra-freaky to be defending the idea of government when we’re suffering through what may well go down as the worst Presidential administration in history. But in a way, that’s my point. I think that government should be run by people who think government is a good idea. People who think government is a good idea are looking for ways to make it run better. People who think government is a bad idea are cynically looking for ways they can use it to enrich themselves and their buddies.

Voting_boothThe big devil’s advocate question, of course, is why all those big social projects — roads, sewers, parks, fire departments, public health, law enforcement, etc. — can’t be handled privately, by business or charity? That brings me to the second part of my “what government should be” theory — namely, the structure a society uses to decide how its pooled resources should be used. The problem with big social projects being handled by the private sector is accountability. I want to have my roads maintained, my fires put out, my immunizations delivered — and my emergency services provided — by people I can vote for, and vote against. And I don’t want them handled by people whose top priority is not roads or fires or immunizations or emergency services, but profit. (If you want a top-notch example of why social services shouldn’t be delivered by the private sector, watch the part of the Spike Lee Katrina documentary that talks about how the insurance companies completely shafted Katrina victims.)

TaxesAre there problems with government? Fuck, yes. Massive ones. It needs to be fixed, and pronto. But it needs to be fixed by people who believe in it. So the next time someone’s running for office by promising to reduce government and cut taxes, think about whether that’s what you really want from your people in office. Because if there’s a better way for a society to pool its resources and decide how those resources should be used than a democratically elected government, I can’t think of it.

Tee Corinne, and my other mothers and fathers

Corinne_dreamsSomeone I never knew died on August 27, and I sat at my computer at work yesterday writing an obituary and trying not to cry.

Corinne_cuntIn case you’re not familiar with her, Tee Corinne was one of the earliest pioneers of the modern lesbian and women’s erotica movements — in photography, writing, and art. She’s probably best known for the “Cunt Coloring Book,” but I mostly knew her from her photography. She was one of the first women to create sexual images and writing for women, from a woman’s point of view, outside the male-driven porn machinery — and to do it publicly and shamelessly.

And by “one of the first,” I don’t mean she was doing it before it was cool. I mean she was doing it before it was being done. Her doing it is one of the things that made it possible for the rest of us to do it. She paved the way. She made a space.

I never met Tee Corinne. But she’s one of the people who made my life easier.

Corinne_intimaciesNo, strike that. She’s one of the people who made my life possible. I’m not a pioneer — I’m an early adapter, but I’m not a pioneer — and I know myself well enough to know that I wouldn’t have had the nerve to step into those woods if there hadn’t been Tee and people like her cutting through the brush and stamping out a trail first.

I feel bad that I never took the time to write her while she was alive and thank her. So I want to do that now — not just Tee, but all the people who’ve made talking about sex, and making art about sex, and providing/getting accurate information about sex, that much easier. I always get pissy when young sex writers/artists act like it’s always been this easy and don’t acknowledge the debt of gratitude they have towards the people who came before them. So I want to say thank you now.

Corinne_intricateI want to say thank you, not only to Tee Corinne, but to Joani Blank and Betty Dodson, to Pat Califia and Honey Lee Cottrell, to Felice Newman and Frederique Delacoste, to Priscilla Alexander and Scarlot Harlot, to Michael Rosen and Mark I. Chester, to Layne Wincklebleck and Kat Sunlove, to the founders of San Francisco Sex Information, to Nina Hartley and Annie Sprinkle, to Isadora Allman and Susie Bright. And I know there are more. I know I’m forgetting some people, and for that I apologize. If you think you should have been on this list, you probably should have.

To all of you I want to say: I am not an ungrateful child. I am more grateful than I could possibly say.

Spanking for Stagefright

Spank_3I don’t generally expect to get turned on by the New Yorker. But I just read this in the 8/26/06 issue, in John Lahr’s article about stagefright:

“(Carly) Simon has found that physical pain often trumps psychological terror. ‘If you have something that’s hurting you physically, the pain is the hierarchy,’ she said. To that end, she has been known to take the stage in tight boots, to jab her hand with clutched safety pins, and even, just before going on, to ask band members to spank her. At a celebration for President Bill Clinton’s fiftieth birthday, at Radio City Music Hall, in 1996, Simon, terrified of following Smokey Robinson, invited the entire horn section to let her have it. ‘They all took turns spanking me,’ she says. ‘During the last spank the curtain went up. The audience saw the aftermath, the sting on my face. I bet Olivier didn’t do that.'”

Horn_sectionSo does anyone else find this (a) totally hot, and (b) somewhat baffling? I mean, I get that stagefright is freaky-ass stuff, and I get that not everyone obsessively eroticizes spanking the way I do. But if I were suffering from severe stagefright and looking for some physical pain to snap me out of it, I’m not sure that “ask the entire horn section to spank me” would be the solution that would leap to mind.

I’ll have to remember it, though. The next time I do an erotica reading, I’ll have to insist on getting a spanking beforehand to cure my stagefright. Of course, I’ve never suffered from stagefright in my life… but that’ll be our little secret.