Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Path Most Travelled

If I am not master of my life, not sultan of my own being, then no man's logic and no man's ecstatic fits may force me to find less silly my impossibly silly position: that of God's slave; no, not his slave even, but just a match which is aimlessly struck and then blown out by some inquisitive child, the terror of his toys. There are, however, no grounds for anxiety: God does not exist, as neither does our hereafter, that second bogey being as easily disposed of as the first. Indeed, imagine yourself just dead- and suddenly wide awake in Paradise where, wreathed in smiles, your dear dead welcome you.

Now tell me, please, what guarantee do you possess that those beloved ghosts are genuine; that it is really your dear dead mother and not some petty demon mystifying you, masked as your mother and impersonating her with consummate art and naturalness? There is the rub, there is the horror; the more so as the acting will go on and on, endlessly; never, never, never, never, never will your soul in that other world be quite sure that the sweet gentle spirits crowding about it are not fiends in disguise, and forever, and forever, and forever shall your soul remain in doubt, expecting every moment some awful change, some diabolical sneer to disfigure the dear face bending over you.

-Nabokov, Despair

The terror of his toys! That was a very long, and difficult, excerpt to type, but fucking hell, if that doesn't genuinely capture my feelings on the subject then nothing does. Still, it is a heady, multi-faceted, problem, so let's give it its do.

Our Brains

We are born from nothing into something. This is what we know. We find ourselves here, and time gives our lives a narrative continuity, and we embellish a bit, and this is our lives. But we have a tool, our brains, and I believe in this tool. When I see movement in the brush I damn well take into consideration the idea that it might be something intent upon eating me. But the brain is imperfect. So I consider the fact that it, that thing in the bush (if, indeed, there was some thing in the bush,) might not. One of the problems with this approach rests in the fact that we do not have unlimited time. In one scenario we end up being the waste that some thing drops along its path as it ambles towards the watering hole (or whatever the modern equivalent is) and in another we look weak and foolish and betray that character to the rest of our tribe. So many factors come into play. How can we manage them all?

Our Conscious Minds

We have these remarkable semantic engines and they have one obvious purpose; they generate meaning. In fact, they cannot help but imbue almost every existential gesture with meaning. My mother's Social Security numbers become the square root of the winning lottery numbers that my horoscope, when interpreted using the numerological techniques of the Jewish cabalists, using the time honored practices of gematria, have cleverly enticed from the fabric of being. Such numbers! Maybe I will buy a refrigerator. We see patterns everywhere, even where they are not. But what I may not be getting across is that this is the best, in some respects the very best, that we have. We obviously have an itch. What will we use if not our conscious thought processes? A deck of cards. The position, or perceived position, of the stars. The intestines of an immaculately disemboweled fowl. Because meaning is everywhere. Isn't it?

Our Unconscious Minds

The unconscious mind does not know death. It does not apprehend existence on those terms; it can't. But there it is and it damn well determines a huge amount of us. And why not? We really wouldn't want to be in control of our every heartbeat, much less the manner in which our cells divide, or the tactics used by our mitochondria as they fuel our basic structure. But that is merely the physical component of unconsciousness. What we actually do, what we actually are.... Well, there is not much to suggest that we have a lot to say about that either. I mean, really, right now, as you read this, you must feel some sense of control. You went to Starbucks because you like the feel and taste of coffee; you rented that DVD because the reviews were promising; you bought Advil, instead of Tylenol, because... because the label is blue, not red; and the thread count on those sheets was 250; and that lasagna was organic, or at least thought to be organic; and... and your mom used to use Tide. And you yelled at her because you were right, because she would not, could not, listen. And all of those thoughts about all of those people. And sex... well, fuck that.

Our Brains, Again

Everything we do, everything we feel, everything we are, is funneled through the physical structure of our brains. There are no detours. Lose an arm and you are still Ted. Lose a brain and you are nothing. Soul? We'll get to that. Regardless, can you actually see the brain as a perfectly functioning unit? The frontal lobes are a little too small and the adrenal glands are a little too big (to quote Hitchens, yet again) and sometimes I think that we are lucky to ever make it from our homes to the grocery store without bloodshed, flames, and tears. And how could it be different? Three pounds of grey porridge housed in an obsolescent casing; is this what we are banking on? Well, what are the alternatives? At the risk of sounding facetious, let me tell you. It is something else, something grander. Something other than human.

The Oceanic Feeling

Even Freud admitted to experiencing something like an oceanic feeling in the presence of the wonders of existence. Not much of one, but still. I get it. I have been on beaches that have drawn that out of me. I am listening to Phillip Glass as I type this and his music makes me feel something like that once in a while. Your newborn baby's gurgle. The way the puppy looks at you, just on the verge of understanding. Sublime drunkenness. The way she straightens the sheets after you came in her mouth near the end of that marathon fuck session. The way you feel after having that dream about the impossible waves and the empty houses. I know this feeling. It is my soul. It is our souls. It has to mean something. If it doesn't, then what does? Right, what does?


Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard, who was a Christian, wrote this. God forbid. Still, he was right. There is nothing that is not free from to the smudging fingerprints of interpretation. Even the idea is impossible. We can narrow our constraints but... is Einstein really the best, or most relevant, or least pernicious, physicist? Jerry Rice the best football player, ever? What does that even mean? How is he better than Anthony Munoz? At catching? Sure. But at blocking? Where does Ulysses stand in relation to the Divine Comedy? Is penicillin better than The Rite of Spring, or is Vermeer's green more important than gunpowder? I know that some things are easier to manage than that, but the process remains the same. We have limited tools with which to apprehend an expansive and unwieldy set of variables and it should be no great surprise that some well-intentioned idiots start grasping for magical sources.


Probabilities are a funny thing. Intuition, which I value highly, has been shown to be not only inconsistent, but to be so far from accurate that it begs the question why we would rely upon it at all. And yet it is there. I use it. You use it. It feels right. But we are wrong. I'm not talking about the type of thing where that guy at the bar is giving you a creepy vibe. I mean something else. Let me give you an example. Fighter pilots, top gun types, have instructors who work them through the difficulties of their wildly complex jobs. When a recruit makes a terrible mistake his instructor yells at him, hoping that this will help the recruit to perform better. It makes sense. But it doesn't, mathematically. When a recruit does exceptionally poorly he is merely behaving at the lower end of his ability spectrum. It happens to us all. Some days you just don't function well. That is why batters who hit the ball correctly one third of the time go to the Hall of Fame. Or, is it actually more random than that? Probably, but, none the less, the math suggests that after such a poor performance, regardless of the external stimuli, you WILL perform better. Obviously, taking into consideration your overall performance, the yelling appears to make sense. It doesn't. You would have improved regardless. But the instructors, when confronted with this line of thinking, could not accept it. How could the yelling not make a difference? What, then, finally does make a difference?


God. The guy who knows everything. The guy who can do anything. You want a sunrise that brings tears to your eyes? He's the guy. You want your daughter to make the cheer-leading squad? He's the guy. You want evidence of meaning in your life? He's the guy. It can't be you, because that would be cruel. It can't be nothing, because that would be a joke. We didn't come from monkeys. We are not sacks of protoplasm. We aren't that vulnerable. Thank God for helping me to understand my addiction. Thank God for curing my lupus. Thank God for helping my sister with her thing. Thank God for helping those poor Haitians. And, thank God for the food on this table...

...and the food that is not on another table. And thank God for the mutant cells that are killing my daughter. And thank God for my team losing the Davis Cup. And thank God for Pastor Redburn fondling my penis when I was an altar boy. And thank God for algebra, and giraffes, and incest, and emeralds, and marshmallows, and Rachel Weisz, and the flat tax, and.... Well, really, just thank you God. You've been a great help and I couldn't be happier that we created you.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hell is Other People

While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.
-Eugene Debs

On my best, most enlightened, days I figure people are doing as well as they can in difficult situations with limited resources; on my worst, I want to chew their eyes out of their fucking heads. Most days I am somewhere in between.

I tend to find relief from this manic fluctuation in movies, books, and drink. They are consistent and provocative. They help me to think and to understand what I am thinking and, more importantly, to contextualize my thinking. They can also highlight human absurdity and provide strategies for dealing with it. They are why I don't have pieces of eye in my teeth.

A fine example of human absurdity is the American prison system. Right now there are well over two million Americans in jail or prison. A little less than half are in for non-violent crimes. The United States has the highest documented per capita rate of incarceration of any country in the world. If we weren't so busy watching mentally disabled people run through obstacle courses on television, we might get the idea that something has gone horribly wrong.

You don't have to be Michel Foucault to understand the problem. There are people at every level of the incarceration process and people are normally bad at thinking. Our frontal lobes are too small and our adrenal glands are too big, to quote Hitchens, and we are lucky to have made it this far. We are only barely removed from our hunter/gatherer status and, if the Berkeley study is to be believed, a full 98% of our thought is unconscious.

Take Chad, the twenty-seven year old, unemployed bartender who has been up for two weeks, feverishly reorganizing his sock drawer and who may have been spanked once as a child. He gets into his Chevy Cavalier and heads out to Longs at three in the morning because he can't feel his eyes. On the way he notices that people are looking at him funny. He pulls over and grabs a screwdriver from his glove compartment. He strolls over to Jenny, who has no business being out at three in the morning anyway, and plunges the screwdriver into her neck.

Brian, the police officer whose lust for guns and loud noises has put him in good stead with the rest of the guys and whose GED certificate hangs proudly on a wall in his mom's trailer, springs from his patrol vehicle and gleefully tasers Chad while beating him about the face and neck with his baton.

The arrest report hits Virginia's desk and she thinks back to college, where a guy named Chad (or was it Chaz?) may or may not have date raped her. Her psychiatrist had tried, on several occasions, to explain to her that the sex was consensual and that she was really mad at her step-father, Chet, but she had stopped going to therapy and, anyway, what do psychiatrists know? She is a new Public Defender and she has so many cases. And her dog, Ribbons, has seemed lethargic lately.

When she has her first meeting with Ron, she can't help but notice that he looks a little like Chuck Woolery. He can't help but notice that she won't be much of a challenge. Ron is 6'3", has all of his teeth, and sings baritone for the First Presbyterian Church of Fresno. His golf swing has a natural left to right. His friend, Travis, thinks he heard him say the word 'shit' once. He will be a congressman in seven years.

The courtroom is quiet except for the persistent humming of the air conditioner. The Honorable Judge Judith Flester is sweating like a Kings of Leon roadie at Bonnaroo. She has never masturbated and often wonders if there isn't something wrong with her "down there." Every workday, a full slate of TiVo'd daytime television is waiting for her when she gets home. She calls it her 'routine' when she talks to her scrapbooking friends.

Chad is sitting next to Wayne on the bus to Corcoran. Wayne remembers reading somewhere that Corcoran is the most troubled of California's 32 state prisons. He ran over a Japanese woman named Miyako in the Rite-Aid parking lot in Bakersfield. He blew a .32 on the breathalyzer and was dutifully flogged. Chad is wondering whether Wayne is gay or not and if those rumors about prison rape are exaggerated. The bus smells a little like Wayne's gym.

Capt. Wiggins has patrolled Level IV housing for eighteen years. He relentlessly jacks-off to a Nickelodeon web-site he stumbled across, while googling Mike Nichols, and secretly hopes his wife will catch him. He has roughed up countless inmates over his eighteen years but becomes queasy at the sight of blood. He thinks this is ironic. He isn't exactly sure what ironic means.

Gunther is carving the symbol of the Aryan Brotherhood into Wayne's ass. It is Gunther's second ass carving of the day and he is starving. He is the son of a dentist and, like Ron, has incredible teeth. When he was eight, he saw his sister touching the neighbor's dog's penis and he couldn't stop laughing, even at dinner, and he got in trouble and was sent to his room to think about it. In prison, the fork is commonly considered the best tool with which to make a weapon. Gunther prefers the tightly rolled newspaper and as a result is known around the yard as "The Editor." He has no idea why.

There are some unfortunate tattoos on Chad's upper body. One is supposed to represent a mermaid going down on Uncle Sam, but looks more like an aerial map of Finland. Gunther mistakes it for an Asian gang symbol of some kind and shoves his weapon of choice through Chad's left eye. As Chad is convulsing, he wonders if his life will flash before his eyes and dies. Gunther is sent to the hole, for one month, where he will not think of anything.

Wayne can tell you, quite convincingly, that those rumors about prison rape are not exaggerated.

And this may be as good as it gets. It's a truism that ours is the worst legal system in the world, except for all the others. Still, common sense dictates that prison can't possibly work, much less rehabilitate, as long as we do stupid things like locking up violent offenders with the non-violent; as long as we continue to adhere to mandatory sentencing or participate in wars against drugs and vice; as long as one shining asshole with a head full of atavistic nonsense still believes in the death penalty; we are doomed. Whether they are well-intentioned or sublimely idiotic, people will fuck up complicated problems as long as there are people left to fuck them up. Sartre was right.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Casual Lesbianism as a Narrative Device in Film and Television

We have all seen it before. The new nurse on that show that you watch once in awhile is having trouble fitting in. She seems competent, has a way with the patients, and she was the one who suggested a percutaneous transhepatic cholangiography which got the doctors thinking about Wilson's disease, and saved young Michaela's life. But there is something about her and the other nurses can't quite place it.

Three episodes later, the nurses will be at a booth in their local pub, laughing and drinking tankards of gin, and one will glance toward the bar. A look of astonishment will come over her face. She will reach out to get the other nurses attention and the music will take a peculiar, almost playful, turn. Of course, there, in the corner, will be the new nurse. She will delicately brush the hair from the forehead of a small blond thing as she leans in to kiss her flush on the lips. Back in their booth the nurses will share confident, knowing smiles. Cut! Break to the Prilosec commercial.

When you see this in movies or on tv, it is easy to get the impression that something has been explained. That it isn't merely a concession to the idea that more lesbians (dwarves, Hungarians, hermaphrodites, albinos, lepers, business women, etc.) need to be represented in the media. That there is a meaningful subtext. But what could that possibly be?

The obvious answer is that television executives have a keen understanding of my desire to contemplate the idea of attractive young women going down on each other. The less obvious answer is that the writer's were trying to create a sense of "otherness" in the character. Our new nurse will win the respect of the hospital's staff, and may even befriend another nurse or two (Platonically, and not without a scene or two of Sapphic awkwardness) but she will never fully be one of them. The other nurses, doctors, and by extension the viewers, will always see her through the prism of short haircuts, studded leather, ersatz penises, and the awful specter of fisting.

By "otherness" I don't mean the solipsistic, can one consciousness ever truly know another, type of thing. I mean the guy in the black hat, he's the bad guy, type of thing. I'd like to lay this all at the feet of Basic Instinct because it is such a wretched film, but the history is richer and the trend is more deliberate. And it is meant to be obvious; you immediately know it when you see it.

The "guess who doesn't belong" time line in Hollywood films goes like this:

1930's: Dark clothing, visible scars, eye-patch, limp.
1940's: European ancestry, monocle, unusual way of smoking cigarettes.
1950's: Black, poor, leather jacket, sunglasses.
1960's: Colorful clothing, sexually active, tinted sunglasses, high.
1970's: Make-up wearing male, androgyny, a single false eyelash.
1980's: Men holding hands, blotched skin, lisp.
1990's: Women holding hands, unwashed hair, lack of affect, ice-pick.
2000's: Brown, poor, not American, out.

This is not to say that some things haven't changed. If anything, there has been a kind of corrective backlash. The lesbian nurse will turn out to not only be the best on the staff but will be a constant source of wisdom for the young doctors she works with. The hemophiliac midget will win several bronze medals in Beijing. The one armed girl will marry the dyslexic Iranian jockey and they will run a successful bed and breakfast in Fresno. Hell, the writers may as well wear t-shirts that say: See, we're not prejudiced. We're enlightened.

It is as old as Christ and nearly as effective. If you want to make a character genuinely stand out, then describe them as having sex in a way that most people don't. And for the male audience, this is especially true of female sexuality, which is mysterious and messy and consequently more terrifying. So, the next time you see a bright young paralegal smiling at your favorite female lawyer on that other show you watch once in awhile, you can be sure that she is there for a purpose.