This Is Not My Beautiful Life

This past Sunday was an almost perfect day.  Gray and damp, with that special push of wind that seems to scour your bones gloriously, enlighteningly clean as it passes by, passes through.  It was a little warmer than it should have been, the unseasonable mildness the only hint of the dis-ease that has riddled the weather this past year even more than those before.

The earth is shouldering its way into the death-sleep of winter, grumbling uncharitably to the too warm air.  Not that the air can help it, not really, the only sign it’s even aware of the unrest its disordered behavior causes a certain apologetic sadness in the rain it scatters heedlessly into earth too swollen or too parched to swallow it in.

And this is the way a year ends, stepping into the dark and laying down, sullen-unwilling and grateful-tired.  People, carried along with it, some fearful of the dark, looking forward to the clamoring holiday clangor of light’s last gasp; some few eager for the dim rest that winter affords.  Working on a personal photography project, I find myself wanting to stop the car, wherever it is I’m going, to take pictures of trees, aflame or enflamed with autumn’s descent into winter.  To capture the most beautiful colors, the ones nature offers only parsimoniously on such a grand scale, an eyeblink of the year before snatching them all away again, hoarding them for the flowerbeds of industrious gardners.

I never stop though, something about which I felt a vague sense of existential discomfort, that needling in the hindbrain signaling something that needs to be examined, teased apart and considered fully.  The trees, the colors, the cacophany that is fall in the northern midwest, it is one of those things that makes the world beautiful.  Beauty that helps to ease * some of the the economic and social discomfort that are the day to day realities of our state.

But it’s not what makes the world around me mine.  Beauty, to me, is sort of an aesthetic anasthetic.  My mind processes something as visually pleasing to a general ‘audience’ and then stops thinking about it, unless otherwise prompted.  As if beauty were not only objective, but an end in itself.   I won’t go into the whys and wherefores, but I will say that it is that acceptance of soialized beauty as a cognitive stopping point that is the source of a great deal of my own alienation.  I find the beauty that ‘everyone sees’ in things, and thus exclude myself from the world they inhabit.**

So this project has a two-pronged approach.  The first is that I (try to) take a self-portrait every day, unedited and largely unprepared for, and then make myself look at them until I can accept the photographic evidence of myself-as-object-in-the-world – because oh, yes, there is a decidedly philosophical bent to this.  The second is to take pictures of the world: not the world as ‘objectively’ beautiful, but as subjectively mine.

I will write more about this oddyssey as the whim arises, but my early stage evaluation is thus: it is an interesting journey that I’ve set myself on.  Interesting in the engaging sense, but also with a sense of nervousness, an awareness that I am uneasy about what I will find.  I know the whole of the journey will not be simply acheiving a sense of engagement-with-the-world, but then going forward with it.  That is what stirs a susurrus of dormant dread in the belly.  Rather appropriate for the witching season, eh?

*Not my state, but a very good piece.  You should go read it.

** If ony body dysmorphia were a rational thing, I might have conquered it already.


Friday Five, Sausage Edition

  1. I caught up on my HBR queueueueue (she knew how to start spelling it, but not how to stop.)  I think there might be one of you out there that looks at my google reader starred items, and probably stopped looking because it’s been about 80% Harvard Business Review.  That’s because in the past three days, I’ve caught up on about 90+ entries.  It’s actually a really interesting – and totally non-nauseating! – source of business news / info / trends.  I recommend it, actually.  Many posts are applicable to more than just their primary subject, talk about the personal as well as the personnel, and some don’t read like business articles at all.
  2. Apropos of the VP debate, which I did not watch, but read the twitter feed while it was going on: an excellent post which I’ve seen referenced on Facebook, but I finally got around to reading through metafilter, about the difference between opinion and argument.  A difference that a lot more people need to learn, really.  Some of us (me) need to be reminded of it occasionally, as well: I am in charge of finding reasons why I am right, no one else. 
  3. Also through metafilter, GLOSS: an online resource for “lessons [that] are developed for independent learners to provide them with the learning/teaching tools for improving their foreign language skills.” The language selection is actually quite impressive – all the usual suspects with others like Pashto, Urdu, Punjabi and Hausa as well.  Time to polish up my German skills, and learn some French, too. 
  4. Two blogs that I’ve recently added to my list:   Study Hacks (through Wandering Scientist, but I think it might also have ben mentioned elsewhere, maybe Gretchen Rubin) but I started reading back through it for posts like this.  Number two: Raptitude This piece, posted to metafilter I believe, lured me in.  This piece made me stay for coffee.
  5. The office manager in my building is totes going to make one of these using all first gen (i.e., Keaton) sets.  Just a reminder that nerds are awesome.
  6. And a bonus: if you use dates as file identifiers, like many of my projects do, you probably (should*) use the (YY)YYMMDD format.  If you do that for today, you’ll notice something that  think is nifty that everyone else probably really doesn’t care much about: 20121012.  Twenty-twelve-ten-ty-twelve.   Yes, I am easily amused.

*This keeps things like correspondence, which I generate in massive quantities, and deposit tickets, which I also produce rather prolifically, together by date in chronological order.  So you don’t have April-August-December-February-January-July-June, or worse, January-October-November-December-February.  When you produce a LOT of these files, these things matter.

Also, I did this today. I will NOT tell you how long it ook me to figre out how to take a pictureof my phone case with my phone Just send coffee.

Your Monday Meta Maunderings

It has come to my attention that the queuing feature over at tumblr has been out of commission.  Which I would say is the reason that you’ve not seen anything there lately, except for the fact that I haven’t added to it in a while, and I’m fairly sure it ran out of things.  So my current excuse is that I am waiting until queuing is fixed to add things to it.

Cariad and I finally saw The Avengers this past Friday.  If you haven’t seen it, go out and do so, immediately.   Go to the early or late show and get it cheaper, whatever, just go see it.  If you are not a fan of any of the comics (though if you aren’t, I’m a little confused as to how you ended up here, but I don’t ask these questions, because I don’t always want to know the answer,) you will still love the movie – the writing is tight, and it’s well-paced and phenomenally acted.  If you are a fan of any of the comics, then you’ve probably seen it already.  If not, what could you possibly be waiting for?  It is made of quite a lot of win.

Now, thanks to the rabid fanbase over at tumblr, I’d actually seen quite a lot of the movie in various gifsets.  Then again, I am spoiler-proof — rather, knowing outcomes and such has no bearing on how much I want to see a show or movie, because I am there as much for the production as for the story.  Which is a damn good thing, these days, since very few new stories are making it into the public feed.  Which is a rant for another day.

No, today’s post is actually about this image, which I’d seen a lot of on tumblr:

 Usually presented as a sort of tongue-in-cheek, isn’t-he-quaint-and-adorably-dumb sort of way.  Ha-ha, even when faced with proof of other gods, he refuses to believe in anything else.  Just further proof that patriotism is blind and dumb.


Now, I’ll admit to being a Captain America kind of girl.  As much as I like Superman, and that’s quite a lot, Captain America is as close to number one as I can reasonably be expected to place a single hero.  I may be biased, is what I’m saying.  But still…

To put the caption in spoiler-free context, what Cap actually says is:  “There’s only one God, ma’am, and He doesn’t dress like that.”  He is referring, of course, to Thor and Loki.  Now, keep in mind that they bear little actual resemblance to the Thor and Loki of Nordic myth.  I know this because a) Thor is a genuinely nice guy in these movies, and b) Loki shows no signs of giving birth.  Ever. 

If I wanted to take the cheap way out, I could even go so far as to point out that they are, technically, Asgardians rather than gods.  That is, beings from a higher plane of existence than ours.  Even Tony Stark takes the lesser path and calls them demi-gods.  But that is, as I said, the cheap way out.  They are both able to command a great deal of power which humans are not naturally able to access, and are, to all intents and purposes, indestructible.*  So we’re going to call them gods.

So why do I get annoyed at the implication that Captain America is a hopelessly dated yokel when he says there’s only one god?  Because of the difference between immanent and transcendent, and because of the very important point of belief.

 The god that Steve believes in  cannot be absent, He is omnipresent.  He cannot be selfish, He is omnibenevolent.  He cannot be wrong or ignorant, He is omniscient.  The god that Steve Rogers believes in, is transcendent.  You can’t touch Him, see Him, hold a conversation with Him… unless you have faith.  Faith, i.e., belief, is necessary.  Steve Rogers’ God exists with or without it, and may even choose to intercede in some way without requiring the belief of the intercessee, but the only way to deliberately bring that God into one’s life is via faith:  “Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel,” to quote the Devil’s Dictionary.  This is the God that Steve knows. 

Thor and Loki are immanent.  They are there, indisputably.  They can be touched, argued with, disagreed with.  They can be absent, selfish, and ignorant of the true nature of facts.  Most importantly, Neil Gaimain’s American Gods aside in a different universe, believing in them seems almost trivial.  It’s like believing in the postman, as Terry Pratchett would say.  I mean, really, can you really imagine Nick Fury standing on the deck of the helicarrier with his eye shut tight and his face screwed up, believing in Thor enough so that his powers don’t desert him in the middle of a fight?  Exactly.

Is it any wonder, then, that Cap thinks rather little of Thor and Loki as gods?  They argue a lot.  They wear silly clothes to conform to some arcane standard of fashion set by other people.  Loki is motivated by ambition – can you imagine the Judaeo-Christian God harboring ambition?  He has Everything, quite literally.  That leaves nothing for ambition to covet.  Thor is there to take Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes.  God, being God, cannot commit crimes, and certainly can’t be taken anywhere – since He’s omnipresent – to atone to himself for commission of said non-crimes.

So when he says “There’s only one God, ma’am, and He doesn’t dress like that,” Steve is not, actually, being simplistic or stubborn.   More importantly, he is not ignoring reality in favor of his own imaginary friend.  For him, God behaves a certain way, exists a certain way. Thor and Loki are real, but to his mind, they simply aren’t gods.  Which, when you consider a universe that contains Captain America, the Hulk and people like Storm or Wolverine – which Steve Rogers’s world does (or theoretically will – there’s been blessedly little crossover in the movies, but some of it did happen) – Thor and Loki aren’t that special, really.  God still is.

Steve Rogers became Captain America because of who he is: that kid from Brooklyn who doesn’t like bullies, and doesn’t think he’s all that special.  Captain America is special, and Steve knows this, while at the same time believing in his heart of hearts that Steve Rogers isn’t all that special, or different – or at least that everyone else would do the same right thing, when it came down to it.  Remaining true to his core personality, his core beliefs, is essential to him remaining Steve Rogers.  Because without Steve Rogers, Captain America is just propaganda, and propaganda is the worst kind of bully there is.

* (This may be a spoiler, which is why I’m putting it down here.) Making them both excellent chew-toys for the Hulk.  And can I just say that the look of happiness on Thor’s face when he realizes that the Hulk is actually a challenge, one that he doesn’t have to hold back on, and can really all-out brawl with the way the warriors of Valhalla are meant to – that look of gleeful anticipation was *perfect.*

This Is Why I Don’t Read The News

So, I was doing some work-related research yesterday afternoon, and came across this in an I-couldn’t-really-avoid-it kind of way. I’m only linking out of courtesy, because I think this is the worst kind of reporting: the kind that encourages people to think of this as a legitimate thing to argue about. It was published on the Detroit Free Press’s local news, under Oakland County news. Now, there have been articles posted since that I haven’t read, and don’t intend to. This is written in reaction to a single article, mostly to process what it was about the article that made me so incredibly angry.

The gist of the story is that an older student at Oakland University, in a “critical writing” class, used an open ended diary style prompt to write about his sexual fantasies about the professor teaching the class. The school suspended him, for two semesters, citing sexual harassment. Now this individual wants to sue the school, on the grounds that the professor didn’t specify such a limitation, and he was within his rights as a student to write about this, and turn it in to the teacher.

I’ve italicized the last bit, because that’s what makes all the difference. Given an open-ended assignment, I can write about whatever I want. I can write all the sexually explicit material I want to. But what I need to keep in mind is that at some point, in a writing class, someone else is going to be reading it. That makes some topics dicier. If I want to write about extreme violence in a general, non-specific way, fine. If I write about performing or enjoying extreme violence as perpetrated on a specific person, it becomes problematic, particularly in a class setting. Taking it one step further, writing about performing gross acts of violence against the specific person currently reading the piece is, by most rational and reasonable people, considered inappropriate. You would at least change the names and identifying factors, no?

But of course, this guy wasn’t threatening violence, he was just talking about sex, right? Even if the scenarios he proposed were not quite equal or of dubious consent, it’s just sex. Surely sex and violence are different things? Well… No. Merriam-Webster defines violence thusly: 1: a: exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (as in warfare effecting illegal entry into a house) b: an instance of violent treatment or procedure. 2: injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation. Ignoring for a moment the problems inherent in dictionary definitions*, sex without consent can fall quite easily under definitions 1B and 2.

Let me say that again: sex without consent is violence.

And let’s not be unclear here, this student did not have consent. His entire case is likely hinged on the fact that he believes he did. He asked if there was any topical restriction, and the professor said no. The news story does not specify whether he asked if sexual themes were off limits, but I’m going to assume the answer is no, because that is an awfully relevant fact to leave out. This, however, is not consent. Explicit acts require, by their very nature, explicit consent.

Let me enlarge the picture a little to explain that statement. Let’s say I am a middle manager in a reasonably large sized company. One of my employees comes to me and asks what plans I have for the weekend. It’s a harmless, small talk sort of question, and I answer truthfully: nothing much, I’m open to suggestions. Would it then be considered reasonable for that employee to show up on my doorstep, naked? Backing off a tad, would it then be appropriate for that employee to suggest, in graphic detail, what he would like for me to be doing that weekend? It doesn’t even have to be sexual fantasy for the answer to that question to be no. Not appropriate.

So it’s just as inappropriate for a student to submit to a teacher graphic descriptions of acts that they have fantasized performing on that teacher, or having the teacher perform on them. In essence, this student was submitting graphic descriptions of the ways he wanted to do violence to the professor, in specific. He didn’t bother to change details about the object of his attention, or frame it in a non-confrontational way. He wrote explicit fantasies, and turned them in unedited for her to read. If he’d saved it for his friends, it’s still inappropriate, but the dynamic changes, it becomes less threatening. If he described the same acts, and suggested performing them with someone else, still not entirely appropriate, but forgivable, particularly within the confines of creative writing, though not necessarily Critical Writing, what the class dealt with**. But confronting the specific person with what you want to do to them is not only not the least little bit appropriate, it’s downright aggressive and threatening.

This brings us to the problem of power dynamics, particularly in the case of making threats. When an individual or group that is not considered powerful makes a threat against a more powerful entity, it is rarely taken as presenting a serious danger. For instance, a small child threatening to hit a parent – the threat is serious, and needs to be dealt with, but actual bodily harm is unlikely, even if the child follows through. However, threats from individuals or groups that are powerful enough to do real damage – say, a teenage child to the parent – are a different matter. Even if they are not, in and of themselves, more powerful than those they threaten, the threat is perceived as real, and often frightening.

But he’s the student, right? He’s the one in the subordinate position, she in the dominant one. Which is true, at least partially. She is in a position of power, in a limited sense, i.e., within the classroom, or during the semester. However, gender dynamics being what they are, he is in a position of power in an unlimited sense. That is, men***-as-exemplars-of-their-group are considered to be in a position of greater power than women-as-etc. at all times and in all places. (If you disagree, then may I respectfully suggest that you reference any one of the numerous stories about the panel testifying about birth-control being made up entirely of men. That is a precise example of what I am talking about.)

Bringing this into context, a female student writing such things to a male professor would probably not be considered threatening – women are not seen as inherently threatening when it comes to sex, and are in a position of unlimited inferiority. This is not to say that some women aren’t sexually threatening, no doubt every person I know can come up with someone they know who is, but the power dynamic here is, simplistically, from a position of limited power to one of greater power. If the male professor was offended, and the female student suspended, the chances of it making news are slim, except perhaps as a mode of questioning the professor’s masculinity. In this case, however, the power roles were reversed. A man sexually harassed**** a woman, steps were taken that were within the rights of the institution, and now he would like to claim, in essence, that his right to sexually harass a woman, based on non-explicit consent, is being infringed unfairly.

He would like to claim that he has a right to do violence to a woman, full stop. Even if it is reframed in terms of defamation of character – i.e., that his character is impugned by the whole thing – the essential argument remains the same. His character can only be defamed if he was accused of something he was within his rights to do. He would like to claim that he had a right to free speech within the classroom. Which he may well have, though the more private the property, the less the right applies, but Oakland University need simply cite codes of conduct. If he violated school rules, the school can kick him out. End of story.

Now, I am, more or less, desensitized to this kind of behavior – even with a fantastic husband and wonderful friends, there are no end of strnagers who would like to remind me of what choose not to live with. What gets to me is not that this person thinks he has a right to do violence to any woman. It’s not event hat he can find a lawyer to defend his right to do violence to a woman. It’s that a journalist wrote about it, without a single quote from the woman in question or attempt to frame the situation from her perspective or the college’s, in terms that imply that the man has legal standing to sue. Not only that, a newspaper published it, featuring it on the local news web page in such a way as to imply that it was newsworthy.

Say what you will about the trustworthiness of journalists and newspapers, but there is an implicit stamp of approval placed on a story when it is published. Above and beyond factuality or whether views expressed are those of the newspaper, the newspaper is saying that the story is worthy of its readers attention.

It’s not. Or at least, it shouldn’t be. The fact that the paper thinks it is just becomes a sad little commentary on how far we have to go before we’ll actually live in the post-patriarchy.

* Primarily problems of circularity or questionable sourcing, but that is, in itself, and entirely different argument.

** I cannot find a description of the actual class, but Critical Writing is usually writing that deals with the reading, interpretation, and critique of some kind of literature.

*** In general, not in specific. Not all men are in this position, but most are. An argument of exceptions to the rule holds no water, you must unilaterally disprove the rule.

**** Sexual harassment, as legally defined (v. weakly, for the record) in the U.S. is any discrimination in workplace practices that singles a group or individual out based primarily on their gender. Some workplaces have chosen to expand the definition to include harassing behaviors of a sexual nature, or harassing behaviors that exclude one gender in its entirety for some reason or another. My guess is that this case was handled under the latter type of regulations, as it was the school that handled it. For the purposes of this already overlong essay, we are going to accept the qualification of this behavior as sexual harassment, and move on.