31 May 2011

Religion (2): Funeral

Sara writes:

My Grandma’s funeral was today. We met at her church, talked for a while beforehand.  She was right there — her body — with the casket open. (This is a very odd thing.  I see why some people would be comforted by the final image of a loved one at rest, but I couldn’t stop thinking of the technical aspects: the hidden stitches, the chemical fillers.)

She was wearing a black blouse covered in silver sparkles, which gave the eerie effect of movement.  She looked like she was breathing. Turns out Grandma had bought the shirt for herself, fairly recently. (When she was at least 90.) I’d love to be buying old-lady-glamorous pieces for myself when I’m 90.

My reaction to the service was mixed. The good: It was exactly the service Grandma would have wanted. It’s her funeral, after all. That’s exactly what it should be. Also, it was illustrative of who she was, and we don’t always get such a transparent window into the way someone thinks. For my grandma, her church was a gigantic part of her life, so to see that church in its workings was to understand her better.

The bad: Grandma and her pastor and prayer partners are pretty convinced (why do I say “pretty”? They’re completely convinced) that my dad and most of the rest of us are going to hell. I say “most of the rest of us,” but unfortunately they did focus on my dad, and that really brought him down. He was ready to be so happy for Grandma to be with Jesus and Grandpa, but now he sees that what is essentially a disagreement over policy brought a great deal of heartache and anxiety to her in her final days.  She was certain that once she died, she’d never see him again. Amazing.

The pastor actually opened the whole service by talking about how Grandma always prayed for her children, that they would be saved. She was very concerned that they wouldn’t be going to heaven with her. We started to laugh (as we do), thinking this was light-hearted, but through the ceremony the pastor drove home again and again that this was nothing to laugh about. That Margie was tortured by the idea of never seeing her loved ones again. (“If any of you want to talk to us after the service, we’ll be here.” For Christ’s sake.)

To focus on this with a person grieving the loss of his mother is just heartless.

After the service, we asked my seven-year-old nephew what he thought about it.  “I think that pastor just wanted more people to come to his church. It was all about Jesus and the church, not Grandma.” Astute kid.

Turns out that the pastor never even talked to my family about what they wanted from the service. Sure, he knew Grandma well, but it’s bad form for the family not to be counseled. Of course, we’re all headed to hell anyway.  Our counsel probably isn’t worth much.

Their faith is an interesting mix of openness and exclusivity. “It’s not about religion; it’s about relationships. Your relationship with Christ.” That sounds fine; disregard the trappings of religion, and focus on your spiritual connection with the higher power. I can get behind that. But with that pithy saying out of the way, what they really believe is that “The Lord Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and only by accepting him as my salvation from sin shall I reach God and Heaven.”

The ONLY is very operative. And my dad saying that he believes in Jesus, and that his curiosity about other religions and how other people find God doesn’t negate his Christianity… That doesn’t hold water with them. If he’s open to other paths to God, then he isn’t on THE TRUE PATH. All other paths, no matter how paved with love, kindness, and generosity of spirit, evidently lead to eternal damnation.  Thoughtful consideration = doom.

This isn’t news, you know.  You know.  But this day has taken my abstract ideas about the harm that exclusive viewpoint can cause, and painted them in stark contrast on the people I love more than anything in the world.  Those ideas have led a very loving, sweet, thoughtful, faithful woman to have anxiety attacks on her death bed.  Those ideas have thrown a cloud of fury and recriminations over what would have otherwise been a celebration of a life well-lived.

Rob writes:

“Religion. It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion.” -Jon Stewart

Deep breath.

My antipathy toward religion is well-documented. In the last month I’ve had several...mmm...let’s call them “spirited” conversations with my Born Again father on the subject, and at this point, Pavs, I’m just about done. Here’s the thing: I’ll never duck an open discussion on a topic I know something about, but in the case of religion, discussions are almost invariably frustrating because I don’t feel I’m operating on the same plane of reality as my interlocutor (but really vice-versa, if you catch my drift). Religious people don’t necessarily lack the faculty of reason, but it never ceases to amaze me how they allow themselves to lapse into non-reason simply because they imagine that faith serves as a sturdy surrogate.

It doesn’t. Faith---religious faith, anyway---isn’t reason. It’s the assiduous exercise of one's imagination. Which is fine. Believe in all the fairy tales you want. Believe in Santa Claus if it makes you feel good. The argument from utility (belief provides comfort, etc.) is as old as religion itself. But please let’s separate unsubstantiated belief from the kind of scientific, progressive thinking that allows society to move forward.

Couple things about the funeral. First, I’d never advocate removing people’s right to have a service of the sort described above. Of course I wouldn’t. I may not like it, but I can stay away. If the deceased was a Jesus Freak---as was the case with my own grandmother, whose funeral I attended a few years back---then by all means, have a Jesus-freaky funeral. That’s your right (this is America after all, blah blah blah).

Course, whenever I hear stories like the one you've related, Pavs, I'm compelled to exercise my right to hold forth on what I see as a foolish fixation on the part of the religious: the notion that they will survive their own deaths by propitiating the right divine father figure, and in just the right manner (which, incidentally, is different for everyone). That difference is one of the reasons believers meet up each week: so they can get on-message. So they can calibrate their brains to lock on to the same pre-conceived “truth.” No new information. No critical thought. Just computers downloading the same program over and over and over. Did I mention I think this is a bad idea?

Alas, just when I start to feel fired up, I find I lose steam. Everything’s already been said. Besides, I’m speaking to the choir, so there’s not a whole lot to hook into. I find it peculiar (read: fucking absurd) that we even have to have these discussions in 2011, and especially at the national level, in the contest for the White House. I listen to the mindless and unconstitutional Jesus speak from the likes of Palin and Bachmann (and sadly, Obama, though to a much lesser degree), and I just think, fucking hell, this is like having presidential candidates who are Dungeons and Dragons enthusiasts and really, truly believe we can solve our country's problems with a twelve-sided die. It’s full-on, batshit lunacy to me, and the older I get, the harder it is for me to laugh at it.

01 March 2011

Religion (1): The Pope

Rob writes:

As reported by the Irish Times on 23 February, the head of the Catholic Church has been charged with crimes against humanity. In their more than sixteen thousand-word document (20-plus pages) submitted to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court at the Hague, two Bavarian lawyers allege "three worldwide crimes which until now have not been denounced ... (as) the traditional reverence toward 'ecclesiastical authority' has clouded the sense of right and wrong."

And with that, reader, the objective part of this blog comes to an end. Now I beg you to dip into your personal Treasury of Merit and indulge me while I re-type a bit of the above. 

The traditional reverence toward 'ecclesiastical authority' has clouded the sense of right and wrong.

God damn, that felt good to write for its clarity and truth. 
Moving on to the three charges. The Pope is allegedly responsible for:

(1) "the preservation and leadership of a worldwide totalitarian regime of coercion which subjugates its members with terrifying and health-endangering threats."

(2) "the adherence to a fatal forbiddance of the use of condoms, even when the danger of HIV-AIDS infection exists."

(3) "the establishment and maintenance of a worldwide system of cover-up of the sexual crimes committed by Catholic priests and their preferential treatment, which aids and abets ever new crimes."

My, but these lawyers have a way with words.

Of course, we should all anticipate the outrage of (some) Catholics, especially the suits and the hatted, who will play the hurt feelings card and rebuke those who dare criticize their faith, as though it's a morally defensible position to say that ideas and beliefs exist which are exempt from scrutiny. Hell, there may even be Mormons, Christians and Jews who come to the defense of the Catholic Church, lest this trend of applying rational criticism to religion continue unabated and touch their own belief systems.

I'm going to digress here, but I'll bring it back around. I promise.

One of the sad realities of life, one that drives me insane, is the fact that ordinarily moral, right-thinking people are so easily depraved by their religious beliefs. An easy example is circumcision. Who in their right mind would look at a perfectly healthy infant and dream up the idea of hacking away at its genitalia? It's a barbaric and painful practice, obviously done without the child's consent, callously performed because of tribal tradition, (American) social pressures and grossly overstated fears around "cleanliness." As further evidence of the breakdown of human moral fortitude in the face of majority opposition, I personally know several rational, intelligent individuals who renounce the practice of female circumcision, yet can't be bothered to come to the defense of mutilated baby boys. This double-standard is nothing short of batshit, and illustrates a larger point that I want to return to in the context of this Catholic fiasco.

Steven Weinberg, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, has said: "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

In the case of circumcision, religion is a necessary prerequisite only in the sense that it was (arguably) religious nutjobs who thought up the practice in the first place. For the irreligious, however, fear is a perfectly serviceable stand-in for religious brain-washing. Fear of non-conformity, of not fitting in with the tribe. Fear of infection. (Course, while you're lopping off the end of your kid's dick, why not cut him open and take out his appendix, too? Or his tonsils? Why not put him in a fucking bubble? Or maybe you could just teach him to wash his johnny off from time to time.)

Circumcision is one of myriad examples of how religious inculcation translates over time into a fucked-up moral compass. Always with religious belief---especially in "revealed" truth---comes the danger that otherwise clear-thinking people will abandon the faculties of reason and compassion. In the case of holding down an infant under a sharp object, the break is brief. But in the case of the Pope, and many within the Catholic Church, the break appears to be somewhat more permanent. That it's even thinkable to a so-called civilized person in the twenty-first century to deprive Africans of condoms where AIDS rates are alarmingly high; that it seems conscionable to the leader of an organization which claims more than a billion members to offer asylum to known pedophiles within that organization should cause the words of Steven Weinberg to ring in all of our ears non-stop until those wrongs are righted. Well, "wrongs." I think I'd rather call them crimes, and thankfully, at least two brave Bavarians agree, and are doing something about it. Respect to Gert-Joachim Hetzel and Christian Sailer. You're doing the Lord's work, gents.

Sara writes:

Confession:  I was raised Catholic.   (While I’m at it: Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned.  It has been 22 years since my last confession.)

Long story very short, when I began my independent study of the church and learned about its worse-than-checkered past, I left. 

I was overjoyed to see the article you forwarded, because a law suit may be the most logical way to confront a gigantic organization about its faults and crimes.

(Although the suit has been brought against the Pope, this is really a condemnation of Catholicism, with Pope Benedict as the figurehead.  Not incorrectly.  If “Pope, the Figurehead” gets the benefit of having the single direct line to God and being able to pass down His laws and decisions, it also serves that he’s the single focus of an indictment of Catholicism.)

One point the attorneys make to illustrate the coercion factor (charge 1) is that the church “acquires its members through a compulsory act, namely, through the baptism of infants that do not yet have a will of their own.”  This is good business sense — and the church is nothing if not a successful business, purported to be the largest landowner in the world.  Of course it’s completely unethical.

This manner of growing an organization is hardly unique to the Catholics, though.  Many religions gain the majority of their new members by enthusiastic procreation.  One could argue that most social organizations follow lines of inheritance. 

The difference here is that, rather than simply allowing for passive “I do what I do because it’s what I’ve always done” recruitment, the church threatens to send members’ children to the bowels of hell if they’re not baptized.

I’ve witnessed firsthand the near-panic that a devout Catholic can feel after her baby is born, before the parents can corral the entire family for a baptism.   Those perilous few weeks are a gaping window into an eternity of damnation for this innocent little soul.  If it weren’t so heart-wrenching to witness what these parents honestly feel, it would be silly.  As it stands, it’s just infuriating. 

Point three (charge 3) is also intrinsically linked to The Business Of The Church, and is no less evil for it.  Nothing justifies the quiet shuffling of priests that resulted in the boys of multiple parishes suffering the abuses of the same broken pedophiles.  There’s nothing new to be said about how awful this is.

Charge 2, however — the continuation of the anti-contraceptive protocol — is simply one more instance of the church being mired in the tar pits of its own policy.  

Anyone with an objective brain can see that forbidding condoms to Catholics in danger of contracting AIDS is a death sentence.  That's unconscionable and illogical.  Stupid on all counts.

Now, it’s my understanding that as much as the holy teachings would have it otherwise, the Catholic church is primarily a giant political machine.  Like most political machines, this one can be influenced by its constituents.  If it becomes obvious that the members of the church think and act as a great majority in a direction contrary to that of church teachings, God will eventually tell the pope that He agrees. 

It just might take 300 years for Him to get around to it.

Now, there are good people in the organization.  There are good priests in the organization.  That doesn’t mean, though, that the organization shouldn’t be taken to task for the ridiculous stances it takes.  

Well, you know what?  Keep your ridiculous stances.  It’s just the ones that are actively hurting humanity that have to be addressed.  So I’ll add my thanks to yours, Rob.  Job well done, Bavarians.  (I need to learn their names; I keep picturing these august attorneys in twee little Robin Hood caps and woolen knickers.)  

To Gert-Joachim Hetzel and Christian Sailer:  Thank you for fighting the good fight, from one who instead decided to dismiss the whole organization and look the other way.  Yours is by far the more noble and effective tactic.

22 February 2011


Sara writes:

We ended our last blog with a question of nature vs. nurture, if you'll recall.  Frankly, the topic is way too debate-class for my taste.  I also find it tedious to cycle through a litany of arguments when I know the answer is going to end up in the "a combination of both" range.

However, a branch of this discussion that is very much on my mind is how it relates to parenting techniques: comparing the results of helicopter parenting vs. hands-off parenting.  (Again, the answer will be "a combination of both," but the nuances of when and where one should swoop in to the rescue are very interesting to me.)

A couple weeks ago, I cleaned out our library’s supply of books by Jim Fay, who pioneered this “Love and Logic” approach to teaching. He was a principal, I believe at an elementary school. He got tired of kids being rescued by their helicopter parents, not so much because they didn’t experience concrete consequences (although I bet that was irritating) but because the child learned that they’d always be rescued. That’s not only omitting a powerful potential lesson, but actively teaching something that’s going to make this kid’s life hell when they finally decide to join the real world (at 16, 18, 24… Whenever they move out of their parents’ basement).

My instinct is to hover like a Black Hawk. Always be just a foot away, intercept any danger or conflict before it becomes real in any way. I know this isn’t doing anyone any favors, though. I’ve trained myself to keep back, observe, and only step in when sharp objects are perilously close to eyeballs.

The cool thing about these books I’m reading, though, is that they do take it beyond just switching off helicopter mode. They propose a really interesting combination of total support and empathy along with a healthy dose of real consequence. An easy example is one of preparing oneself for the elements: Instead of fighting over wearing a coat, you let your child choose whether to wear one (or shoes, for that matter). Share what you’re going to do, and perhaps why (“Man, it looks cold. Think I’ll wear my coat today.”). Let the child do what he will.

Let’s say it’s 30 degrees outside, and the boy decided he didn’t want to mess with a coat. You still go out, you play, you do whatever you planned, for as long as you know you’re not actually endangering your child. He might be uncomfortable.

I’m all for that. That’s the “Logic” bit. The nuance that I’m appreciating reading about (and have yet to totally put into practice) is, oddly enough, the “Love” bit.

To make this really work, you’re supposed to suppress the natural tendency to lecture, and really empathize with the kid.  When you get on a “Well, you should have thought of that before! How many times do I have to tell you?” soapbox, the child’s brain shuts off in irritation, hurt and anger. Now YOU’RE the problem, not the coat. If you’re just empathetic (“Aw, bummer. I hate it when I’m cold.”), the brain is still open to learning mode. Then the little person can still think, internalize a lesson and apply the new knowledge to the next situation that comes up.

Funny: We’ve been applying the Logic side pretty regularly since our first child was 6 months or so. (If she’d hit us, for example, we’d put her down and walk away. There’s your consequence.) But as the kids get older it gets harder and harder to remain neutral, much less genuinely empathetic, when they’re total pills. Consequences are clear: If you race your car on the dog, you get a time-out (and perhaps a nip from a pissed-off Dane). As far as showing empathy instead of total frustration when it’s the fifth time this has happened in twenty minutes? My instinct is to let the dog do the teaching.

I can absolutely see how Love and Logic would work, and I love the theory. It’s just going to take a lot of practice, training, sleep and coffee (fatigue and patience have an inverse relationship, I’ve found).

So, to circle back to helicopter vs. hands-off: I'll be attempting strategic hands-off doused in love and empathy.  We'll see how this goes.


Rob writes:

One of the things that fascinates and annoys me about conversations involving child-rearing (heh heh, I said “rear”) is that we as a society seem to hold that area of discourse off-limits in terms of our willingness to criticize. It’s a sacred cow, territory we dare tread only on tippy-toes and eggshells. Even when the president’s wife promotes positive methods of raising children, Sarah Palin is able to get away with publicly criticizing her, which I realize is utterly political, but the underlying message is: “Don’t tell me how to raise my kids.” And it’s a message that seems to resonate, whether or not you agree with Palin’s politics.

By the way---tangent!---on this matter of my kids. Any time I hear a parent stress the word "my" before "kids," I want to say to him (or her): Hey dick (cunt), you're the guardian of that child, not its owner. Raising children is about stewardship, not property rights.

But it's true. Parents don’t want to be told by society how to raise their kids. And yet, nothing could possibly have greater repercussions for society at large. Try to think of something that impacts society more than how our children, and our neighbors’ children, are raised. The race of the child? Nope. The religion with which it's raised? Close, but no cigar. Its socioeconomic status? Of course not. All you need to prove the point is to accept that a child’s blackness or whiteness is less important than how he’s raised; that being raised Catholic doesn’t remotely guarantee a good girl; that poor kids can grow up to be contributing members of society, despite their financial disadvantages.

I’m not saying that good parenting is a guarantee---I reckon determining what “good parenting” even means would require some application of the scientific method---but it is more at the root of society’s goods and ills than anything I can think of, and I’d be wildly curious to read any well thought-out opinion to the contrary.

I’m glad for women like Michelle Obama (and their male counterparts), and really anyone with a voice who’s taking an active role in shaping society’s understanding of what it means to raise a child well. For my part, I lack the patience for such a role, as a recent encounter in a bar well illustrated for me.

By way of setting up the story, I give you two quotes from Louis CK’s HILARIOUS (which is both the name of the film and an apt description of the same):

“Kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit. They’re the most vulnerable, and they’re the most destroyed by being hit, but it’s totally okay to hit them. If you hit a dog, they will fuckin’ put you in jail for that shit. You can’t hit a person unless you can prove they were trying to kill you. But a little tiny person with a head this big who trusts you implicitly---fuck ‘em.”

Louie continues, in response to someone who defends hitting his kids as an effective way of getting them to do what he doesn’t want them to do:

“That wouldn’t be takin’ the fuckin’ easy way out, would it? How ‘bout talkin’ to ‘em for a second, ya fuckin’ retard? What are you, an idiot? What are you, a fuckin’ ape? They’re a pain in the ass? Well, you fucked a woman and a fuckin’ baby came out of her vagina, now you be patient.”

I don’t know about you, reader, but that shit makes me want to cheer. If nothing else, my love of Louis CK will be well documented over the lifetime of this blog. But anyway, my story.

So it's last December, and I’m at a bar in downtown Klamath Falls, Oregon (read: bumfuck nowhere), waiting for some friends. At some point, the subject of kids comes up, and I say to the bartender---you know what I do? I basically steal from Louie; that is, I paraphrase some of the lines quoted above, and I do it almost theatrically, confident that no one within earshot could possibly argue that it’s a good thing to hit children.

Except maybe the large fellow wearing the skin-tight Wranglers and cowboy hat three feet to my left.

“What, you don’t think it’s ever okay to hit a kid?” he drawls. He's one of those guys who moves and speaks super-slowly, giving one the impression of a wound-up snake ready to strike.

“Um, no,” I respond, matter-of-factly. “I don’t.” 

Dude looks at me like I've just said the stupidest thing he’s ever heard. He looks at me like I've said I don’t think it’s right to feed kids every day. “Well, how do you suggest dealing with ‘em when they get outta line?” he asks. I can hear in his tone that he wants to call me “smartass.”

“By reasoning with them---” I start to say, at which point dude looks at his old lady, then the bartender, and snorts.

“You ain’t never had kids. They don’t know what reason is.”

And I’m thinking, “Yeah, because you lack the patience to teach them, you fuck.” I can feel his temper, though, so I turn away and say nothing. I know he’s willing to smack his own kids around, so it isn’t gonna be a stretch for him to take a swing at me. I go back to my beer, fuming, wallowing in the ironic fact that I want to punch this bully in the face for hitting his kids---kids who will grow up with the understanding that hitting people they disagree with is an acceptable first response. And maybe that’ll affect me, and maybe it won’t, but it’ll affect someone.

And that’s one of the reasons I think it’s okay---hell, it's necessary---to talk about what constitutes good parenting. Because fuckstick parents raise fuckstick kids, and they fucking affect the rest of us.

As for you, Pavs, I’m inclined to just nod and agree with what you’ve written above. I know you, and I know you’re an exceptional person and parent, and I’m not worried about your kids. I trust that your methodology for raising them is thoughtful, compassionate, sound. But that shit isn't the case for a lotta-lotta parents out there, and a lotta-lotta monsters are being inflicted on the rest of us, and I think it's time we all get our heads out of our asses and ask ourselves: What's the better plan? Pouring millions of tax dollars per year into locking these bastards up? Or maybe---juuust maybe---should we as a society stop relying on band-aids and start working toward that precious ounce of prevention?

I know. I'm a lunatic.

Sara writes:

I LOVE your Louis C.K. excerpt (and the man himself). That’s spot-on.

And your friend at the bar, re: kids not knowing what reason is — that’s just maddening. We all have an animal nature as well as the potential for higher thought. Using your unfair physical advantage to scare a kid into doing what you want is just your lizard brain zapping his lizard brain. Short-circuiting the possibility of higher thought.

I’m not saying a squalling two-year-old is ready to be reasoned with, but there are techniques for waiting out the storm until his brain surfaces again. Then he sure as hell can learn. And if you’re not teaching him the power of words and thought, then you’re teaching him the power of the fist. And someone else’s kid is going to pay for that in middle school.

Here’s the hurdle, though, to raising the overall level of child-raising in America: I can’t think of something that’s more personal than parenting. I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but for myself and most of my parent-friends, the gravity of creating and raising a person coupled with the dearth of definitive instructions makes for some massive insecurity. (If that wasn’t obvious from our last post.)

It’s like you’ve been given a set of Tinkertoys (or my personal favorite, Capsela), told that you’re responsible for building something that will determine the happiness of the person you love most in the world — and impact the lives of hundreds of other people. With 20 sets of conflicting, vague instructions.

You do your best, right? And then move the hell on, because dwelling on the potential for making a poor choice is maddening.

But when someone says you’re parenting incorrectly, it strikes deeper than a simple criticism of technique. It snaps you back to that insecurity, and frankly feels like an implicit criticism of your children, and stand the fuck back when that happens.

So, you’re right. We need to have more open discourse about parenting techniques, and the responsibility parents have to raise children who won’t screw up other people (at the very least). There are clearly better ways and worse ways to raise children. I just wish I had a better idea for how to get around knee-jerk mother-bear reactions, so those ideas can be heard and considered.

What would work? Widespread research, perhaps coupled with institutionalized education of expecting parents. (How else to mandate that parents-to-be stop and think, even for a few hours, about how they’re going to teach their kids to be people?) Sounds suspiciously like big government, though. Good luck getting people to listen to ideas coming from that corner.

Hm. We need to get the Love and Logic guru to come up with a plan whereby bad parents see immediate consequences, get empathy, consider their choices and learn from their mistakes. Evidently it works for two-year-olds.

11 February 2011


Dear reader,

It has now been three weeks since our last entry. I would like to say that the delay is rather more a result of the subject matter of this entry than any disinterest on the part of Sara or myself. This was a tough nut to crack, and I don't know that we cracked it after all, but we did approach it honestly, and we filtered nothing.

NOTE: The video linked below is NSFW, or kids, probably, for that matter.

Rob writes:

Let's kick things off by clarifying our thoughts on the Die Antwoord video. Is it, or is it not, pornographic? For my part, I'd rather call it juvenile than pornographic, but then I don't like the word "pornography" to begin with. It's too subjective, as illustrated by Justice Stewart's famous "I know it when I see it" line. I'd be well out of my depth in any formal discussion of the law, but it seems to me we've done a decent job of defining murder, rape, arson, and so on. When it comes to obscenity, though? Not so much.

So what is obscene? What's pornography? Surely it can't be defined in terms of physical arousal or revulsion. If that were the case, anything and everything would be on the table to be classified as porn. By the way, if you'll indulge a quick tangent, I'd like to point out an irritating double standard where this sort of thing is concerned. To wit: I flipped past SCHOOL TIES the other day---that beloved, early 90s piece of shit---and was reminded that not only is there a naked shower fight between college guys in the film, but the motherfucker's rated PG-13! And I'm sitting there thinking, Jesus Christ, imagine the public and critical response to a PG-13 film that featured a nude Brooklyn Decker tussling with an equally unclothed Megan Fox in a dormitory shower. (Hang on. Let me just picture that for three and a half minutes, maybe four.) The point is, I'm sure there are plenty of gay dudes, and maybe even a few chicks, for whom SCHOOL TIES is perfectly serviceable beat-off material, and yet I've never once heard anyone crack wise about the gratuitousness of that shower scene. Which I'm sure would happen with my hypothetical Decker / Fox picture. Which I am now going to write.

Anyway, back to the question of what people and politicians consider to be obscene. My response to that is fairly simple: Who. Fucking. Cares. Because it's the wrong question. So what are the right questions?

Question #1: Hey, grown-ass men and women, why don't you quit being such pussies, and instead of endlessly bitching about the "offense" you took to a film or painting or political cartoon, how bout you just change the channel or stay the fuck away?

Question #2: To parents: You mind doing the rest of us a favor and stop expecting everyone else to "protect" your kids from the big, bad world?

Parents, raise your own fucking kids. Take responsibility for your progeny. Talk to them honestly, instill them with values, and try not to smack 'em around too much, and you know what? They'll probably turn out fine, pornography or no. And by "fine," I of course mean "average," which ain't great, but I'm sure it'll be enough to allow them to meet someone they like, crap out two or three kids of their own, get divorced, and then live vicariously through their grandchildren before they die. And the planet will magically continue to spin.

Sara writes: 

Man, I LOVE your view of family and humanity. It warms my cockles. 

So. Die Antwoord. I...I really don't know how much I can say about that. I find it super-disturbing, but I suspect it's more because of the juxtaposition of so many ridiculous penises with the freaky monster-rat imagery. I'd have to agree that it's more juvenile than pornographic, but I'm sure as hell not showing it to my kids. Ever. Even when they're 40. I don't think I'd ask anybody to watch that.

I know I'm basically Prudence McIronpants. There's a little, razor-thin slice of the porn market with which I'm comfortable: Mutually respectful lovey porn and mutually respectful accidental porn (think pizza boy, repairman, etc. "Hey, looks like you're here." "Yeah, looks like you're here too." "Hey, check it, I'm naked!" "Guess we should have sex."). I'm aware that the rest of the pie (and now everything I write, I'm going to be seeing with a 13-year-old boy's eye for innuendo, so, sorry about that) is chockfull of images and situations I'd rather not see. Combinations of fluids and holes and subjugations that have nothing to do with my concepts of love, sex or pleasure.

I don't really mind that it exists. Well, evidently I do, but I know I'm not at liberty to curtail other people's behavior or viewing habits. 

Where I see an actual problem is in that window where what I'd consider obscene porn (and I'm as subjective as Justice Stewart here) might shape someone's view of how the sexes should interact. I don't know how valid that is, or how often it happens. But it seems likely to me that seeing something...disrespectful, for lack of a less judgmental term---seeing something disrespectful, multiple times, without a proper filter...that could make an impression.

Here's the thing: I'm not convinced that young people have their self-and-everyone-else-respect bases totally set up. I worry that seeing something that denigrates women, for example...Without some sort of filter noting that it's fucked up, will they know, KNOW KNOW KNOW that it's fucked up? Or on some level would it be intriguing? And would they have been intrigued without having seen it? On their own, created the thought?

I don't have an answer. It's something I'll have to work on, because give me 10 years and I'll have some curious kids on my hands. I'm doing my best to teach them to think critically, discern and consider, but I don't really know how it's going to work.

Rob writes:

Dear Prudence,

Glad you came out to play.

I realize I sometimes come across as a misanthrope, but that really isn't the case. I've got a lovey-dovey streak in me a mile wide. It's just difficult for me to square what I've seen around the world with the golly-gee-aren't-we-all-precious-snowflakes mentality I encounter so frequently from Portland to Los Angeles (my two favorite cities, by the way). That said, your kids will no doubt land on their feet, thanks to you and E., and be far better than average. The girl's a shoo-in, from what I can tell. That must make you happy. Anyway, moving on.

You wrote:

"Seeing something disrespectful, multiple times, without a proper filter...that could make an impression." 

Again, for me, the answer's pretty simple (and I'm speaking generally, not specifically to you, Pavs): Parents, raise your kids. If you teach your kids that respecting others is a virtue, and you outline what that entails, then they'll recognize disrespect when they see it (and probably recoil). Course, if you come down too hard on them, smother them, use guilt and shame---religious or otherwise---as tools to get them to do what you want them to do, then your efforts will be at odds with your purpose. You worry about young people seeing something that's fucked-up "without some sort of filter noting that it's fucked up." To that I say: The filter is you. Parents are the filter.

I suspect a lot of parents don't like this responsibility. I suspect it makes them uncomfortable. Which is why so many of them would rather just make all this horrible porn stuff go away. I mean, that would be so much easier than having difficult conversations, right? Uh huh, but guess what? You had the kids. You knew what the world was---at least you should have---before you had them. This is just one of the challenges you accepted when you took the rubber off and let those fluids fly. This one's on you. Sorry.

As for so-called "deviant" sex. Does anyone imagine that this shit didn't exist hundreds, even thousands of years ago? The fact that it's more easily accessible today---that is, more easily viewed---doesn't mean it's more pervasive. And, if it seems more pervasive, I'd argue that the reason is that the people who used to have to be closeted about it now have readily available outlets for that same sexual energy. And as long as they're engaging in mutually consensual behavior between adults, I say more power to them. Hell, maybe their lives are completely miserable otherwise, poor bastards, and this is the only pleasure they get. Well, better they get it online or in a dungeon than roam the streets feeling all constipated and rapey (or shit-in-someone's-mouthy). 

By the way, while I'm on rape: Every girl I've ever been with who wanted to engage in a rape fantasy (which I would categorize as something quite a bit more than merely "disrespectful")---that is, a "fuck me forcibly while I struggle to escape" scenario---every one of them was an intelligent, articulate, productive member of society, one was a bona fide feminist, and all had what I'd consider to be good-to-solid childhoods. Some abandonment issues here and there, but nothing insurmountable. My point here isn't to flaunt my sex life, but to say that everyone's got their kink. Whether or not they're with someone they trust enough to explore it is another story, but it's there for everyone. And so what.

In the last analysis, doomsday predictions about porn ruining our youth and culture generally strike me as fairly ignorant and alarmist.

Sara writes: 

OK. Here goes. 

I can get behind most of what you're saying. People should be able to do what they consent to. People should be able to get their energies out in a safe manner, as long as nobody's getting hurt (without volunteering for the position). 

Here's where I take exception:

You write, "I suspect a lot of parents don't like this responsibility. I suspect it makes them uncomfortable. Which is why so many of them would rather just make all this horrible porn stuff go away. I mean, that would be so much easier than having difficult conversations, right?"

The difficult conversations are thrilling. That's where the real growth happens. That's the real stuff: the meat of life. What makes me uncomfortable is simply the fact that as much as a parent might do to ensure she's raising a happy, adaptable person, there's no guarantee at all. Parents absolutely are the filters, as you say, but I'm not convinced the filter is bulletproof. It's that uncertainty that makes me peek into the dark corners and wonder if my efforts will be ambushed at some later date, when I have even less control over the child's outcome than I have now.

I'm a code monkey, you know? I write a certain bit of nonsense into a program and I get a result. Wherever I put that bit of nonsense, as long as I account for other potential parameters, I'll get the result I'm looking for. To shift from that control and predictability into the world of growing a whole person, with countless and unimaginable future parameters, hoping hoping hoping that what I'm trying to instill will be able to withstand whatever trauma life throws into the path of the child...That, my dear, is phenomenally frightening.

Which is why, I'm sure, I haven't enjoyed thinking about this or writing about this, and why this post has ended up taking a month. I'd much rather close my laptop, walk across the hall and squeeze the shit out of my little guys, while I can. While I have more control over their "user experience" than I ever will again.

So, see  ya. I have three warm little bears that need squeezing.

Rob writes: 

I would be wildly interested to study the differences between folks who were raised by hands-off vs. helicopter parents. Based strictly on my own experience, and firsthand accounts of those I know and have listened to, I'm inclined to say that kids with helicopter parents (endlessly hovering, micro-managing) fare worse than those mostly left to their own devices. I have no hard data to support that statement, only anecdotal evidence, but I feel fairly convinced that Nature deals each of us a hand, and the best a parent can do is not fuck a kid up. Yes there's love, and yes there's cuddling, and yes there's a sense of family, of unity. But Nurture isn't necessarily as nurturing as it sounds. Something to consider in the context of this discussion.

Sara writes: 

Let's also consider it in the context of our next discussion. Can of worms you cracked there, my friend. To be continued....

20 January 2011

Miss America

Rob writes:

How do you feel about the Miss America Pageant?

Sara writes:

I don't like the Miss America Pageant. The question is "why," and that's hard to clarify. Here's what I know:

1. It's useless. It contributes no appreciable gain to society. One might point out that plenty of other "forms of entertainment" are useless. I'd agree, but we're only talking about the MAP.

2. We already inherently judge each other based on appearance. This tendency is evolutionarily programmed into us ("will he/she make a good mate? Will he/she compete for my mate?"), and is encouraged too much in other avenues already. The last thing we need is to advertise and glamorize and essentially institutionalize that habit.

3. I'd comment on the competition being an exploitation of women, but ultimately these are all grown women choosing to parade in their skivvies to receive a verdict on their value. It's up to them. 

However, at some point (probably when each of these girls was about four years old) a mother took her little girl to a pageant, dressed her up, put her in age-inappropriate makeup and taught her how to smile, dance and walk for the judges. A mother taught her daughter that this is how she can find value in herself. A mother decided that, of all the paths available to her daughter in fucking AMERICA in the 20th goddamned century, this would be the most enriching and fulfilling. So I unequivocally object to the Miss America Pageant on those grounds, on behalf of not only the 50 little girls these contestants used to be, but also the thousands of little girls they competed against and trampled on their way to the "top." That is inexcusable.

Rob writes:

Cheers, Sara, and good grief. Why good grief? I'll tell you why, god damn it. Because you have planted a flag squarely in the center of the territory most commonly regarded by intelligent people as "right." What you've written is smart, compassionate and smart. And not dumb. How am I supposed to disagree with you? Fuck my life, but here goes.

Of course, in general, I do agree with you, but I am wary of the fact that I think I agree with you in part because I'm supposed to. Because I've been socialized to. Because of the years and years of knee-jerk liberal inculcation I received at our hippie university and whatnot. (In fairness, much as I detest labels, I admit that I'd be more accurately described as a liberal than a conservative. But let's save that taxonomic breakdown for a later post.)

I'll address your points one by one. I'll even adopt your numbering convention because, after all, Math is a wonderfully dispassionate language, one upon which we might all find common ground.

1. This first point is a difficult one to respond to, as I don't quite feel qualified to quantify what quanstitutes an "appreciable gain to society." I mean, the motherfucker makes money. We live in a money-driven society. We are avid consumers. We are, most of us, wildly acquisitive. It wouldn't be hard to justify the pageant on purely financial grounds, but I find that I lack the desire to pursue that argument. That's okay, though, Pavs. I have more than enough vitality in me to poke at points two and three.

2. So you wrote this sentence, regarding the fact that we judge one another based on appearance: "This tendency is evolutionarily programmed into us, and is encouraged too much in other avenues already."

I have to ask, Pavs, as I take the side of the doomed devil: if some tendency is evolutionarily programmed into us, how can it be bad to encourage it? Considering the fact that said trait was selected by nature to become and remain a dominant one. Was nature wrong? Is God wrong?

These are massive questions, and will inevitably lead to a discussion of morality and belief, which I look forward to having, but for now I'll just nudge you for your assertion that the last thing we need is to institutionalize our natural-born, or, if you prefer, god-given impulses. What else would you expect us to do?

3. Everything you say here feels correct (and I'm glad you avoided the exploitation argument). I am personally most sensitive to the bit about mothers inflicting pageants on their little girls. I really feel you there. However, as a man, thinking about the Miss America Pageant, I also feel other things. Things my more left-leaning friends may well think of as "caveman-ish," or "horrible," or some such other judgy adjective for describing the way I was born. Oh, liberals. Oh, my politically incorrect cock. I will expound. Get ready to want to punch me in the face.

First off, it is biologically impossible for me to argue with a chick who can play the piano and looks good in a two-piece. There is a part of me (give you one guess where it resides) that couldn't care less about the social ramifications of the show. I want pretty faces. I want ass. Give me my pretty faces and ass, God bless us all. That said, I'm pretty sure the Miss America Pageant isn't remotely what it used to be, in terms of what it means to dudes. Which is to say, I used to beat off to the grainy black and white teaser ad in the TV Guide when I was twelve, but with the advent of the internet, it's like, who needs Miss America for jack material anymore? Not I. Not when I can go online and watch last year's winner pull a train on the New York Knicks if I want to. (I do not want to. But it wouldn't be wrong if I did. But I don't. Wait, do I? No.)

Hang on. Now I kind of do.

I'm going to turn it back over to you now, Pavs, before my non-argument devolves any further. School me, buddy.

Sara writes:

First, thanks for making Math a proper noun. Makes it feel like you're talking about our buddy, Math, who helps clarify things when the going gets vague.

You know, I thought when I was first responding to your question that I should go into more detail about the evolutionarily-programmed bit. Thanks for calling me out on that.

The question of evolutionarily selected traits being "right" or "wrong" is probably worth its own attention in a separate discussion, but I will give the single trait we're talking about here some focus now. Judging. (Ah cripes. Note to selves: talk about judging and superior vs. average in the Ayn Rand context another time.)

I have no proof handy, but it makes sense to me based on observation and my own theorizing that we are evolutionarily predisposed toward judging other people based on their appearances. Those people who successfully judged their potential mate as being strong enough to carry/support their offspring likely had more viable offspring make it to the reproductive age.

However, just because this was a valid trait in the past doesn't mean it should continue to be encouraged. To wit (thanks in advance, Math!):

1. It's possible that traits encouraged by natural selection are no longer necessarily desirable. Case in point: Men are evolutionarily predisposed to spread their seed as widely and frequently as possible. In today's society, though, that can have negative repercussions (unwanted pregnancies, disease, the dissolution of a desired relationship). It would directly improve the quality of some men's lives if they could corral their impulses. (Note that I said "some men." Have at it, Rob.)

2. With this in mind, I'd argue that the trait of judging based on appearances is one that's ripe for a manual override. It is potentially harmful, often simply incorrect, and fails to take into account many of the more important qualities a person can have. (Like "a rich inner life." Or "wisdom." Or "judgment." "Humor." "The intelligence and stability to make enough money to financially support a family." For example.) These things aren't so easily handled by the Miss America Pageant's format.

3. I don't see anything wrong with attempting to rise above our base natures. Again, a topic for another discussion, but in short: Humans have incredible potential. The art, philosophy, dance, music, science we've explored... Our limits are as yet untouched. If we're to invest time and money and training in some national "institution" (although I don't really think the MAP can handle that label any longer), why not focus those energies in one of those directions? This as opposed to spending millions of dollars in production and advertising to shove our children's noses back into the primordial soup.

Rob writes:

Sara, I adore you.

Your response calls to mind an interview with Richard Dawkins I watched once. I'll have to paraphrase, but in it Dawkins discussed why Creationists are wrong when they assail Evolution on the grounds that "survival of the fittest" is bad for humanity, and why (they say) that is Science's fault. First off, the notion that Science ought to be held culpable for the truths it discovers is completely absurd. Second, Dawkins noted that he rejects the notion that we must or should be slaves to our impulses as other animals are. Of course we can reflect on our own behavior. Of course we can aspire to improve. Whatever that means for us as individuals and a society. This seems to be what you're driving at, and I'm with you.

Still, I think your notion of a "manual override" of Judging Based On Appearances may be too optimistic. Of the five senses, humans give primacy to the ocular one (seeing is believing), and I don't see that changing.

I look forward to our continuation of Nature vs. Nurture and Superior vs. Average in a more instant-messagey format. I like the idea of a rapid-fire, dual-perspective blog.

Sara writes:

Ah, thanks for the Dawkins interview reference. I'll have to check into him.

And you're right: my manual override may be premature. Is premature. (I don't think I've ever dated someone without a bit of Judging Based On Appearances.) But reaching is good, right?

I look forward to more, too. Until then.

15 January 2011

Random Question

Rob here. Thanks for dropping in.

Before I get into the titular thrust of this entry, I want to kick things off by illustrating for you, the reader, just how cloying my relationship with my friend Sara can be. To outside eyes, I mean. Not to mine. For me it’s an absolute dream. I’m being serious.

Okay. So, two days ago, Sara and I were chatting online about children. I was saying how I hate them and she, having three kids of her own, was being her usual magnanimous self. Taking nothing personally. Hearing me out. Letting me vent about an obnoxious four-year-old I wanted to stuff in a sack and heave into a river. Anyway, at some point we agreed that it might be fun to capture our chats in a more permanent forum, if for no other reason than to remember them later ourselves, and thus began the process of launching this masterwork you see before you. Which brings me back to cloying.

Jesus Christ, you should have seen us. Or, more accurately, read us. Sara’s near Seattle and I’m in Los Angeles, but we might as well have been holding hands and skipping gaily round a maypole, the way we were expressing our bold-faced, excessively capitalized delight. And don’t even get me started on our use of exclamation points.

But we were. We were excited. We are, I daresay, excitable. So we flapped our hands over fonts and background photos; we tittered about our display name. We must have been the giddiest people on the planet to embark on a literary endeavor with such massively limited potential for readership and none whatsoever for cash.

You get it, though, don’t you, reader? The saccharine celebrations tell you all you need to know. Our puppy faces are dead giveaways. Sara and I are doing this, writing this, strictly for love.

And hate. Of children. But that’s me, not her. And I’m getting ahead of myself. There was a question. Oh, yes! The random question!

Here’s what happens. You set up a blog with Blogger, and in the Profile Edit page, down at the very bottom, Blogger poses a random question, the answer to which you’re meant to clack out in a box, using no more than 1,200 characters. The ostensible purpose of this exercise is to help readers of your blog gain a clearer understanding of who you are. Like, as a person. Based on how you’d respond to finding yourself sitting in your jammies at the annual White House Correspondents’ dinner. Or some such silly conceit.

In any event, Sara and I were game. We want you to know us. Really know us. So we agreed to tackle Blogger’s hard-hitting random question, and pass our responses on to you. (Also, by the way, please leave your own response to this question in the comments section. I know it’ll help us know you better. Which is a lie on my part.) And the question is:

Which is more important to you and why: flexibility or expandability?

Right. This question makes me think instantly about my dick. Sorry for that, but it’s true. Honest admission: I sometimes wonder whether I have Tourette’s Syndrome. The most recent manifestation of this dread disorder would have been yesterday, during the hyper-happy process of naming this blog, when I suggested to Sara, only half-jokingly, that we might want to call it “Single Fuck Married Chick Ass Cock Olympics.” But I digress.

Expandability is more important to me than flexibility, of course. No guy I know has any desire to fuck a twisty straw, and neither do I. I think that statement will stand on its own. And powerfully.

Fair enough. That’s my answer and my first entry. I welcome you, the reader, and my writing partner, Sara. Here she is now.


Ah, Rob. You charm me to bits.

So. Reader. You know now about our motivations, such as they are, for the blog. (I suppose I’m going to have to get over my aversion to that word now. Not only does it make me think of the Borg when I write it, but because it’s short for “weblog” it makes me feel like someone who calls pizza “za.”)

Rob wasn’t overstating our giddiness at setting up this little project. I don’t know if I can quite convey the feeling, but I can hope that you’ve had it yourself, in which case all I need to do is remind you of it. Did you ever get a glowy, melty mass at your core, spreading just behind your breastbone, in anticipation of a grand adventure? That’s what I feel when I see the image Rob picked for our site. Taking off into the great unknown.

The not-knowing is the key. We have some pretty fundamental differences, Rob and I, so it’s fascinating (to us) to see what the other thinks about the questions we hold in common. How do we see the answers differently, and where do we converge? That’s how our conversations began (“What do you think about this?”), and the reason we’ve maintained them is because the answers have been pretty interesting.

I hope you find the same.

To answer the question at hand today, I actually came to the same conclusion as Rob, but for somewhat different reasons. Heh. “Somewhat.”

Surprisingly enough, I didn’t think of genitalia when I read the question. The concept of expandability actually gets right to the quick of a pretty important, basic tenet of my approach to life.

I mean, flexibility makes your life pleasant. It smooths the waters around you when you can bend enough to see someone else’s point of view and allow them to maintain it without a fight. And the ability to roll with whatever is happening around you makes for a more contented mind. People who are thrown by change end up disoriented and unsettled for much of life…because as we know, the one constant in life is change.

Forced to choose, though, I’d have to say that expandability is more important. And here’s why:

We honestly could die at any moment. The plane I’m on right now could crash. My brain could spout an aneurysm. My heart could seize. I could slip down the stairs and break my neck.

I don’t mean to be morbid—just realistic. Our days are numbered, and that number could be anywhere from 3,000 to just one.

And holy shit, what a world we get to participate in for however many days we have! There are so many places to see, languages to learn, books to read, instruments to play. I still would like to learn to crochet, surf, do a great butterfly stroke. My Spanish is spotty at best, and that needs to be remedied. I haven’t spun under the rain in a while, and my library queue is backing up. I hear the Mediterranean is beautiful, and I’m incredibly ignorant about Asia. (What a huge area of the globe to be ignorant of. Need to fix that.) Indian cookery! Why don’t I have a go-to Indian recipe yet? I did learn two new constellations this summer, but can’t recall them right now. (A couple of c-somethings, below Cassiopeia. One of them is a square.) Unacceptable.

So much to do.

So, although I know life is more pleasant when I can bend enough to get along with the people around me, and can flip-turn when life calls for it (knocked that one off the list last year, btw), I could live life as an inflexible asshole if I had to. I can’t imagine, however, living a life with static horizons. Without expanding your mind, your skills, your experiences, you might as well breathe from a stale paper bag for 80 years.

And that ain’t living.