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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Along Came a Spider

A long time ago, a mortal called Arachne angered a god. Arachne was a great weaver, who even boasted that she was a better weaver than the goddess Athena, who was apparently a weaver, in addition to being the goddess of roughly everything. Seriously, goddess of wisdom, warfare, Athens, architecture, and apparently weaving too. There's all these gods who only have one job, and then there's poor Athena, doing all the hard stuff. I mean, Ares. Being the god of war is his only job. So how come Athena's got to do half his job for him even though she's got got all that other mess going on? Isn't that just like a man?
Anyhoodle, Athena, despite being way too busy for this nonsense, hears Arachne's boasting and challenges Arachne to a weave-off, which I'm sure is way more badass than it sounds. When she sees that Arachne actually might win, she employs a new strategy - tearing up Arachne's work and then ripping her face off. Like one does. 
Eventually, once she's done mauling the lady, Athena decides that's not good enough and turns her into a spider for good measure. That's why Arachnida is the name for the biological class spiders belong to, and why we've got words like arachnophobia. 

Of course, Arachne isn't the only one who gave her name to make a word. A word that comes from somebody's name is called an eponym. And it turns out Arachne's not the only one who inspired an eponym with some drama involving weaving. Who knew something so domestic could be so controversial? 
The word Luddite was first used to describe some nineteenth century textile makers who, feeling their jobs threatened by new knitting and weaving technology, got a little out of hand. In a futile attempt to block the inexorable flow of progress, Luddites ran around smashing the looms and frames. The movement got their name from a young man who may or may not have existed, Ned Ludd, who may or may not have started the trend some decades before. Nowadays, a Luddite is a person who opposes the tyranny of technological advancement.
Ned Ludd's pretty lucky in the eponym department. Hopeless as the cause may be, at least he's remembered for fighting for what he believed. He could do a lot worse - think of poor Prince Albert.
Who did not, by the way, have or invent the eponymous piercing. The men who developed and popularized the piercing just made that up. Probably because they wanted to avoid the possibility of giving their own names to the procedure.  

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Show Me the Money

I was at amazon.com today, where I was most certainly not removing the smut from my browser history. Not that I would be trying to remove the evidence if there was, hypothetically, a bunch of smut in my browser history; just so that I could open Amazon and not be flooded with images of heaving bosoms and improbably muscular pectorals. That is why I would have been doing what I was not doing.
Anyway, I discovered this tag: $9.99 boycott. Assigning a tag to something on Amazon is sort of like giving a micro-review of a book. If a lot of people gave a book the same tag, then that book would show up when other users searched for books that have that tag. The 9.99 boycott tag was part of a campaign to demand that publishers charge less for books. All of this is in the past tense, since Amazon discontinued the feature. I would assume because it let users encourage each other to spend less money, and that's not great for business.
I don't get the whole idea of people getting indignant over having to pay high prices for things they don't need. First of all, ebooks and the devices that read them are pretty much indistinguishable from magic. The idea that we can purchase an entire library's worth of books and read them without leaving the comfort of the toilet is something technology geniuses weren't even dreaming of when I was a kid. Less than 20 years ago you needed a dozen floppy disks and a degree in computer science just to install Windows, and you paid through the nose for the privilege. Now, the tens of thousands of books that Amazon just gives us for free aren't enough; no, we're entitled to pay however much we decide we should have to pay for the sweat of some writer's brow.
This doesn't just apply to ebooks either. Every few months, the hoax that Facebook is going to start charging for its services flies around, with all manner of righteous indignation and threats to boycott. Facebook is freaking science fiction at our fingertips. For no money, at all, I get to interact with my far away friends in ways that a year's salary worth of postage stamps wouldn't allow. I get to coo over baby pictures from friends around the world the moment they're taken. Watch videos of that one thing my friend in China's dog can do. Not to mention playing hundreds of video games, all for free, a million times more technologically advanced than the games that used to require months of careful parent manipulation to own. How are we entitled to this? You know, capitalism is based on this principle where people make things and other people pay money for them. If people don't make money for delivering magic into our hands, they don't have much reason to keep delivering the magic. No, the billionaire owners of these companies aren't hurting for cash. They could eat Faberge omelets every morning for breakfast and not feel the slightest pinch. This does not, however, make them obligated to throw free things at our feet. Especially considering that, while Facebook execs can spend the rest of their lives swimming around in their giant money bins ala Scrooge McDuck, there are thousands of regular working stiffs like me, who also expect to get paid. And dude, I am hurting so bad I can barely afford to fill my giant money bin with nickels.  Also, Facebook does not now nor does it ever plan to charge for its services, so you can expect to continue enjoying cat videos and blog posts and recipes and chats and videos and so on without paying a dime. Which reminds me, there's this other whole magical treasure trove of information called Snopes.com, which can tell you that the story about Facebook charging is a hoax in less than the time it takes you to join a Facebook group on Facebook to tell Facebook that you refuse to pay for Facebook
Now, I do think it's pretty rotten when corporations gouge people for stuff they can't live without, like the companies that overcharge for things like diapers and formula just because they can. To express my outrage, I totally boycott diapers and baby formula. But are smut consumers really entitled to get all indignant over the price of their mommy porn? It's not as if you can't get heaving bosoms and smooth, hairless pectoral muscles at the library, used book stores, or your friends' houses. Is it really not enough that Amazon lets me get around paying for my Fabio fix by "borrowing" ebooks from my friends? 
Or if you're really in a bind, being forced to choose between formula and grey-eyed dream oats, you can always cruise on over to the Fan-Fiction sites for a free sneak preview of the smut you'll be reading on Amazon next.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Rules Are Rules

One day, my friends and I were out antiquing, for reasons I'm not clear on. It's not like we can have nice things (see bit about Puck eating laptop cords in previous post). Luckily, this shop wasn't particularly full of nice things. Couple of ratty wigs, the same collection of broke down pillbox hats you find in every vintage store, some random high school art class assignments and, swear to god, a fur-lined chandelier (I'm not sure which is more shocking: that it exists, or that I didn't buy it).
In one room, we came upon a coffee table with something on it that appeared to be a vaguely vase-shaped arrangement of pointy glass shards.
Things you find when you Google
"glass shard vase"
The group of us happened to have recently seen the cinematic masterpiece Hologram Man about a dystopian future in which prisoners are put into holographic stasis instead of prisons. Because sure.
Now in this film, several people, holograms and non-holograms alike, get thrown very far. In all but one of these instances, the person being thrown landed on a coffee table, which subsequently broke. The reason the acting, special effects, premise, etc. were so terrible was that the movie used up all its budget on coffee tables. If only the director hadn't insisted on Faberge tables.
5000 Russian peasants starved
to death so you could smash
this table.
This made me remark to my friends that if the coffee tables in Hologram Man had held glass shard vases like this one, the movie would have been a whole lot more interesting.
One of my friends replied "Sure, this is Chekhov's coffee table."
Oh that's where I was going with this. Totally forgot.
Okay, well despite my having been a theatre major and an English major at points during my college career, I had never heard the expression my friend was perverting, "Chekhov's gun." Probably because I spent most of my high school and college years concentrating very hard on not learning anything. At least I succeeded at something.
The expression "Chekhov's gun" refers to the rule in drama, first articulated by Anton Chekhov,  that if a gun is shown in Act 1, someone will be shot in a later act.
I have come up with a couple of very important corollaries to this rule.
  • The Coughing Corollary: In any period film, if a character coughs even once, they will be dead of consumption before the film is over. Name me a single work in which this is not the case.
    • There was a sub-corollary for about two decades in mainstream films in which if a character coughed once, and that character was even a tiny bit gay, that character had AIDS. 
    • I mean, actually, for most of that time, if a man was gay in a mainstream film, he already had AIDS.
  • The Terminally Transgender rule: While TV and films make clear that transgender-ism isn't necessarily fatal, it can be, if untreated. Angel in Rent, Hillary Swank's character in Boys Don't Cry, an episode of pretty much every crime drama.
  • The Transgender Terminator: Those trans people - death and mayhem follow wherever they go. When they're not busy dying in touching and inspirational ways, it's because they're out on a killing spree. Silence of the Lambs, Psycho, The World According to Garp... Public service announcement: Trans people are no more likely to horribly murder people than, say, gingers. Okay, maybe gingers are a bad example, what with the soul stealing...
  • The Condom Curse: In the world of movies and books, if you have sex without using a condom, there is a 100% chance you are pregnant. Unless you're trying to get pregnant, and have sex without a condom, there's a pretty good chance you're infertile. Sorry kids.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Fear Itself

I used to be terrified of the dentist. I mean light-headed, sick-to-my-stomach, terrified of the dentist. I had a root canal once and I was shaking so hard that the entire chair was shaking, even the light over my head was shaking. I think I cried.
Then I couldn't afford dental care for a long time. My mouth hurt and broken teeth collected in my head like overdue bills. And when I finally had the funds to get back in the black, dentally speaking, there were a whole lot more abjectly terrifying visits to the dentist. Every time I went, I'd sit in the chair and quake - heart rate speeding, stomach roiling, and hands shaking so hard I couldn't hold the magazine still enough to read it. 
On one of those visits, a hygienist saw my shaking and said "yeah, Novocaine does that to me too."
Wait, what?
Turns out that first of all, the stuff they stick in your gums is totally not Novocaine. Dentists stopped using Novocaine something like 30 years ago in favor of more effective and less allergenic topical anesthetics like lidocaine.  (Fun fact: Google Chrome's spell-checker flags lidocaine as a misspelling. Right-click for suggestions, and you get Novocaine.) 
Lidocaine is in the same family as its predecessor Novocaine and both descend from cocaine. That is not, however, why the stuff my dentist shoves in your gums makes me shake. Seems that most dentists use a solution of lidocaine and epinephrine - also known as adrenaline. The thing  that controls your fight or flight response. Among epinephrine's side effects: increased heart rate, high blood pressure, and tremor. 
It wasn't so much that I was afraid of the dentist; it was that the medicine the dentist gave me made me experience the physical symptoms associated with fear. I was afraid of fear itself.
In addition, I was afraid of the dentist. Just not shaking-, panicking-, hysteria- afraid.
Reframing is a psychological term for changing emotions or behaviors by changing your response to the thing that triggers them. For instance, I was once very angry with someone and texted my friend Maya to ask her to remind me why it's a bad idea to beat people about the head with heavy things. Maya suggested I pretend the person with whom I was angry was a Zen master giving me a particularly difficult kōan. 
A kōan is an exercise used in Zen Buddhism meant to stimulate great doubt, which is supposed to lead to deep thinking and eventually enlightenment. Kōans are stories or questions that appear to be nonsensical and unanswerable riddles, like "imagine the sound of one hand clapping." However, Buddhism holds that they are not nonsense at all, and that finding the insight to find the answers leads to awakening. 
It has just occurred to me that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is essentially a kōan. The doctrine holds that when a priest consecrates bread and wine, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ, even though they appear unchanged. It always irks me when people speak derisively about the sacrament - with many going so far as to mock the Catholics for practicing cannibalism. The Eucharist is a sacred mystery that Catholics begin to ponder as children and ponder throughout their lives. Perhaps it is a reminder that all things are sacred - and thus all things are the body of God. Or perhaps it is a reminder that the people are now the vessel that holds the divine. Or perhaps it is a tool to find the insight that leads to awakening.
Another kōan: I must once again replace my laptop power supply because Puck once again chewed through the old one. Yet I have not murdered Puck; in fact, I love that stinking cat like you can't believe.
Okay, maybe that one is a nonsensical and unanswerable riddle.
In summary: dentistry>pharmacology>psychology>Maya>Buddhism>Catholicism>Cat story.

Monday, April 8, 2013

And speaking of evangelism...

Once, several apartments ago, there came a knock at the door. We were sitting upstairs and could see through the window that they were carrying suspicious pamphlets - so with all self-respect we could muster, we quickly ducked out of sight and pretended we weren't home.
Thing is, the door wasn't locked, and apparently wasn't latched, because the door swung open the next time they knocked.
So they left. Without pulling the door shut. Good thing we were only pretending to not be home. 
That story doesn't really have a point. Other than "who the hell does that?"
Also, there was a client at the group home who called them "door-to-door God salesmen."

This post quite possibly brought to you by the Vicodin that the dentist gave me.

Sunday Morning Message: Confessions of a Loser


Here are my notes from the message I gave Sunday morning. 

Warning: This message was intended for a UU audience. I talk a lot about my faith in the blog because obviously, my faith's important to me. But I try to avoid saying stuff that could be taken as evangelism - I came to Unitarian Universalism because there was a hole in my life where faith was supposed to be. If you don't have that hole - either because you already have a religion or because you are happy with having no religion, I'm certainly not going to try to make you think you do, or that I know what will fill it, if that makes sense. 

Point being, I'm going to put on my skinny tie and knock on your door. If you don't want to hear it, just pretend you're not home.
---


I am a loser. Have been all my life. 
I grew up in a frugal, religious family, one that didn't prize superficial things and had no interest in keeping up with the Joneses. We read books instead of watching TV, we shopped at Value City, and we devoted a whole lot of our time to church and the sacrifice and service that goes with living one's faith. 
And then I went to grade school. I was a Sesame Street kid in a WWF world. I tripped over my feet at dances and was terrible at sports. I played basketball for three years in grade school and scored a grand total of three points. For all the years put together. I never learned to talk like the other kids – I intentionally picked up the bad spoken grammar habits that I can't kick to this day (like using "me” as a subject pronoun). I swore. I tried to use slang, though I was generally at least a year behind the curve (you jive turkeys). But I couldn't keep from peppering my speech with big words no matter how I tried. In fact, I couldn't stop saying words no matter how I tried. You may find this hard to believe, but I used to talk way too much; and when I talked, I said what was on my mind.
Once, when some of the other girls jeeringly asked if I was going to try out for cheerleading that year, I replied that no, cheerleading is sexist – jumping up and down praising boys for their achievements rather than trying to achieve things on their own – I had more self respect than that. In retrospect, this was probably not a wise thing to say in front of a horde of pubescent cheerleaders who already hated my guts. Man, cheerleaders can kick.
Being a loser in grade school was rough, but I can't imagine being the person I am if I'd been popular. The thing is that eventually I came to accept that I was always going to be a loser – that the cool kids were never going to like me. You know that Janice Joplin lyric "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose”? If I couldn't win no matter what I did, then I got to play the game how I wanted to play it. I listened to the music I wanted to listen to, watched the TV I wanted to watch, and read the things I wanted to read. I never felt peer pressure because I had very few peers. And I got to live my conscience – be a feminist, renounce bigotry, be friends with the other losers.
The ending to my loser story, by the way, is a whole lot happier than most other losers. Or at least, it came sooner. Instead of going to the same Catholic high school that all my classmates went to, I made a clean break and went to an all girls' school as different from my grade school as night and day, and then I just fell in with the right crowd. There were so many losers at my high school that we couldn't even fit at the same lunch table.  We used to joke that the only peer pressure we felt was to eat tofu. 
It wasn't utopia of course, it was high school after all, but it was a hell of a lot better than before.
Actually, being connected to a vast network of freaks, geeks, and other assorted weirdoes was probably my first taste of what it was like to be a Unitarian Universalist.
You see, Unitarian Universalists are kind of losers. 
If all of the world's religions got together to play baseball, when they picked teams, UUs would undoubtedly be picked last. And fairly so. You know we'd just be out in right field picking wildflowers and wanting to know if the animal whose skin was used to cover the ball was killed humanely. 
Unitarian Universalists  make up only .3% of the American population. It takes fifteen minutes and a flow chart to explain what we believe, and John Adams was elected over two hundred years ago and we're still bragging about it.
Actually, John Adams was kind of the quintessential Unitarian loser. According to biographer David McCullough, he was "Not a man of the world. He enjoyed no social standing. He was an awkward dancer and poor at cards. He never learned to flatter. He owned no ships… there was no money in his background, no Adams fortune or elegant Adams homestead.” McCullough goes on to state that John Adams wanted to be liked, wanted to be popular, but his conscience and sense of duty to faith and country always got in the way. Some people thought he was obnoxious; a gadfly. McCullough says "…he loved to talk. He was a known talker. There were some, even among his admirers, who wished he talked less. He wished he talked less." 
I was in eighth grade when we watched the movie musical 1776. It begins with John Adams giving an impassioned speech to the continental congress about the need to take a vote on declaring independence. He closes the speech with a flourish, and the entire congress stands up and sings "Sit down John, sit down John, for god sakes John, sit down!" Sitting in my eighth grade classroom I thought "Holy cow, that's me!" Twenty years later, I realize "holy cow, that Unitarians!"  See, in the musical (which is a very exaggerated and fictionalized account), everybody else wanted to debate army uniforms and whether or not to open a window. They were stalling, dragging their feet, afraid of sticking their necks out and doing what they'd come to Philadelphia to do. Tellingly, the "Sit Down John" song ends with one congressional delegates singing "Will someone shut that man up?" and John Adams crying "Never!”
And you know what? Nobody's going to shut UUs up either. For better or worse, whether popular or unpopular, the UUs don't shut up. And you know what? We've been on the right side of history since our inception. We openly advocated freedom of religion while governments were burning heretics. We were abolitionists when people were being lynched for opposing slavery. And the very year that Hitler took power, the American Unitarian Association passed a resolution stating that they "greatly deplore the persecution of Jews in Germany as a violation of equity, tolerance, and humanity.” But come on, that's a no-brainer, right? Nope. When Unitarians passed that resolution in 1933, a whole lot of people in the US were behind Hitler. The US was a much different place then, with a whole lot of the most respected scientists and institutions embracing the concept of eugenics – improving the world by removing undesirables from it. Early in Hitler's reign, American scientists were openly praising Hitler's trailblazing work in purifying the human race. 
Unitarians didn't just pass resolutions either. Unitarians and Universalists all over the world gave time and money to help endangered people escape the Nazis as well as to provide care and comfort to refugees. Despite our tiny numbers, members of the Unitarian and Universalist service committees, working closely together, helped save a thousand or more lives. 
Unitarian Universalists were also some of the strongest supporters of the civil rights movement in the 60s. While many religious leaders condemned the cause of racial equality, and leaders of the more sympathetic but predominantly white Northern churches were calling the actions of civil rights leaders "unwise and untimely,” Unitarian Universalists were out on the front line. 
James Reeb, a white Unitarian minister living in Boston, was one of those front line soldiers. One night, he saw television news coverage of police attacking Civil Rights demonstrators in Selma, Alabama. The next day, Reeb learned from a local office of the Unitarian Universalist Association that Martin Luther King had put out a call to clergy all over the country to come to the aid of the protesters in Selma, and James Reeb was on a plane to Selma that same evening. He was dead within a few days, clubbed to death by white supremacists, for the crime of participating in a demonstration against discrimination. Martin Luther King called Reeb "a shining example of manhood at his best," and that "he demonstrated the conscience of the nation." 
Of course, learning about Reeb made me think about a more recent civil rights protest, this one in 2009 to oppose Arizona's newly enacted immigration laws, the most draconic in the country at the time. Once again, the Unitarian Universalist Association put out a call. Ministers and other religious leaders were called to go to Phoenix Arizona to protest the legislation, with a small number of those leaders, including UUA president Peter Morales, engaging in an act of planned civil disobedience. This group, 29 in all, blockaded the prisoner intake entrance to a Phoenix jail, one of the facilities to which undocumented immigrants are taken upon arrest.
I had mixed feelings about this, as did a lot of other UUs I talked to. It all seemed a bit over-dramatic and attention-seeking. What was the point, other than to make something of a strident public display? It seemed to me like it would just confirm the opinions of those who think we're annoying. 
But then the stories began trickling back from Phoenix. Those arrested talked about the conditions in the detention center where they were taken. They said the place was filthy. They were kept overnight, crammed together in small cells with no place to sit or lay down. Even though the law required they be given sleeping mats after a certain number of hours, they weren't, and those who demanded them were put into isolation. People were denied medical care, including their needed prescription medications. By all accounts, the members of the group who were minorities were treated noticeably worse.
I guess what really changed things for me was hearing the story of Melissa Carville Ziemer from the UU congregation in Kent, Ohio. I was passionately opposed to the legislation already, but my opposition had been abstract. I shouldn't have been surprised at the horrible conditions in the jail, but I guess I'd just never seen this stuff as something that happens to real people. Hearing this story made me feel called to speak out where I'd previously been silent. To donate to the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. It even got me thinking about the rights of prisoners in jails and prisons around the country, a cause that has been important to me ever since.
So I guess what I'm saying is that Unitarian Universalism is a lot like the weird creative kid who talked to herself and spoke her mind without regard for social standing. Maybe what I'm saying is that this congregation is a lot like the group of friends that weird creative kid made in high school – a big mess of weird creative kids who came to school covered in paint, lived their beliefs passionately and unapologetically, and peer-pressured each other into eating tofu. 
I guess what I'm saying is that Unitarian Universalism is a lot like the portly, unpopular guy who (once again in the words of biographer David McCullough) "could be high-spirited and affectionate, vain, cranky, impetuous and fiercely stubborn." A man who was "ambitious to excel- to make himself known" but had "nonetheless recognized that happiness came not from fame and fortune, but from ‘an habitual contempt of them,' as he wrote."
I'm proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. I'm proud that we step forward when more prudent people retreat. I'm proud that our kids are passionate, creative, and kind people. I'm proud that people think we're weird, strident, even annoying. I'm proud of our congregation in particular; our rag-tag bunch of weirdoes and misfits, who come to church covered in paint, live our lives passionately and unapologetically, and peer pressure each other into eating tofu. 

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