Sunday, March 16, 2008

Out and About

Ah, Eliot, What Have ye Done?
Sign in front of a local strip joint: "Come On In! WE Won't Tell!"

Teach Your Children Well:
Stop me if you're heard this one before: in front of me in the checkout line was a... marginal... woman and her young son. He was whiny, demanding a squirt gun, and twice flung it into the shopping cart that she was unloading. "You're not getting nuthin'!" she repeated with increasing volume. The third time he put the toy into the cart, with a guttural sound, she threw the squirt gun on the checkout belt, pulling out several additional dollars to pay for it.

Anyone want to guess what she taught her son? Yeah, 'persistence pays off.' But, someday he's going to be really confused when Mom has truly had enough and smacks him one. And, of course, it will be his own fault. He shoulda learned better...


The Tragedy of Immortality

I attended college back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, and one year I took an English elective in Science Fiction. My term paper examined one of the pervading archetypes of one of my favourite authors, Roger Zelazny, that of immortality. He wrote of superhuman characters who were immortal due to their supernatural heritage; of those who were immortal due to the manipulation of biology or technology; and those whose immortality was due to a genetic fluke.

That last was the story of Conrad Nomikos in the 1965 Hugo Award-winning novel ...And Call Me Conrad (later republished as "This Immortal"). It is set in the (unspecified) future after the Earth has been devastated by nuclear war. Nomikos is Greek, and it is implied that he has been around for a loong time -- maybe as far back as Classical Greece, and he may be the inspiration for numerous heroic legends throughout the intervening centuries.

Marvelous, is it not, to have lived through three or four millenia, to see so many changes and having lived through so many adventures? But as Conrad reflects on his long life, he tells us that it is mostly a process "of saying goodbye." To be immortal in a changing world means that everyone he knows and cares about dies; his familiar haunts, the streets, the cities, crumble to dust. Even the landscape changes. He tells us that the only way he can cope is to "keep moving," to keep putting one foot in front of the other, in the hope that dumb, capricious fate will eventually present him with a novel challenge, a cause with which to engage himself.

Such a long life can clearly be a tragedy. I wonder sometimes at the desperation of religious believers to attain an immortal afterlife, apparently in the hope that it will make up for the dissapointments, failures, suffering, and losses of this life that we are born into.

A sentiment similar to Nomikos' is expressed by the character of New York City Mayor Amalfi in James Blish's 1956 "Cities in Flight" quadrilogy, which takes us to the end of time and space, to the void of final oblivion. A number of humans, due to the discovery of "anti-agathagic" drugs, have lived to see The End; but their physicists have determined that they might be able to seed new universes to replace the one destroyed. Those last people are given a strict order as to how they should vent their space suit's atmosphere, how they should dismantle their suits and send their mass into the Void, and to finally press an explosive charge attached to their bodies to scatter the constituent elements from which new matter may precipitate.

Amalfi takes a different approach. I must paraphrase here, unfortunately; but he expects that his companions, in their long years of habits, in their fear and uncertainty, will follow the instructions absolutely. But he feels that he has "ridden the bolts" out of the old universe - he wants to create something new! So, he violates the Plan, simply declaring, "Let There Be Light," and activating the detonator. If I remember correctly, the final line of the series is, "And a new Universe began."

There have been movies and television programs that have touched on these themes; in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the vampire Spike carries several centuries of regrets for poor decisions; in "Highlander," the main characters contest each other over multiple centuries seeking a supernatural "enlightenment" after the final battle. But they do not dwell overlong on the consequences of their long lives. The focus is more on the powers and perils that have accrued them.

But a new program examines the personal cost of immortality, and I am hooked. It is entitled New Amsterdam, a detective show set in New York City. But the hook is the central character, John Amsterdam (Nikolaj Coster Waldau), an immortal born in Holland in the early 1600's, and one of the initial colonists of Manhattan Island.

Now, I generally despise the Fox channel because of what they present masquerading as "news;" sound bytes presented out of context, jingo, propaganda, and outright lies, all presented for viscious, voyeuristic entertainment (in my (not-so) humble opinion, of course). New Amsterdam, however, seems to have a very human soul, as it follows John on a quest whereon he reflects on his experiences and utilizes the many skills that he has learned over a four-hundred year lifespan.

In 1642, John gave his life to save a native American from a colonist's sword. In repayment, he is resurrected and given immortality in order to obtain a special gift: finding his One True Love. Once they "join their souls," he will regain his mortality so that he may enjoy a normal life with his beloved.

For truly, despite his wealth of knowledge -- he has obtained a dozen prestigious degrees -- despite his skills honed over the centuries -- despite the many people he has known, and the incredible changes he has seen -- life has lost its savor. He no longer names his pets, he gives them a number. He is cynical, and insular. He approaches all women, wondering, 'Is she the One? Is She?

While he chases a petty criminal through the subways of New York, Amsterdam appears to suffer a heart attack, but he awakens with the certain knowledge that She must have been near. But, how to find her? If he finds her, how to woo her?

With the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam transforming into the English-dominated city of New York, thence into an international metropolis, the changes in period and culture, mores and expectations, serve as as the frame for John's memories and experiences in collision with the fulfilment of that long-ago promise: finding his True Love.

Can't you tell, I like it very much?

Check it out.

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Monday, March 10, 2008


A recent diary on the Democratic political blog Daily Kos regarding New York Governor Eliot Spitzer's fall from grace by patronizing an escort/prostitute raised some questions regarding which I have mixed feelings. Oh, yes, I am a heteromale -- although I like to think of myself as a 'sensitive New Age kinda guy,'I do have a Y Chromosome, which may make a difference in my considerations.

Beyond pretty much any other issue, I think that the issue of sexuality is one of the most divisive that there is. One that is, I suspect, insolvable at the core. The social and emotional components of our expectations seem to have little to do with the biological drives, and appear to be just a rough cultural overlay as to how the biological exchange occurs. Those might synch up with some recent (possibly biological) evolutionary tendencies toward "altruistic" or cooperative behaviours, but although these ethics are highly emotionally charged, I see little historical evidence that they have mastered our biological imperatives.

Simple animal facts: most males of most species are larger and stronger, enabling them more often to get their way against the smaller and weaker, including both women, and competing males. Females in most species give off some "signals" (often pheromones, maybe even in humanity) from time to time. Males become excited, and seek activities that result in the release of that excitement.

Necessary biological side effect: reproduction. Pregnant females, and females with dependent offspring, are more vulnerable and need security, i.e., the provision of defense against predators, shelter, and sufficient nutrition. Various strategies develop to keep a person or group - usually male - around who can provide for those needs,including providing further sexual gratification.

Have I missed anything?

What do men biologically want of women? The pleasure of release of the stimulation. (Other gratifying add-on niceties are appreciated, too.) Is this "objectification" and "dehumanization?" Does this make our intrinsic biology evil? Or, is evil something that can only be determined from a cultural perspective?

So: we seem to have reached a state of cultural evolution where we (or at least, we "Liberals") believe in an intrinsic worth of (most) individuals, and that exchanges between people should be as non-coercive as possible, relatively respectful, and "fair") and I'm not about to try to define that last element at this time!). The rules of these exchanges are heavily indoctrinated, are encoded in both overt and covert contracts, and reinforced by various levels of punishment for transgression. But often, as to the levy of consequences... "it depends on what your definition of is, is." Patriarchy and power mostly still hold sway. To deny that is, I think, to deny reality.

But I see two basic problems regarding sexual exchange and the respect for individual and group sexual human rights: first, "One Rule" does not rule them all. Even in one nation, there are micro-conflicts of culture. If all parties are consenting to some sort of exchange, is it legitimate? How many removed from being "hurt" (and I am right now not talking about physical harm; let's just consider emotional, social, or financial repercussions) is the boundary between a legitimate and an illegitimate exchange? Hurt your spouse and our children: one level. Embarrass your relatives, your neighborhood? A community who may or may not know anything about you but for "what I read in the papers?" The national and international stage?

There may be impediments to some people obtaining gratification: if you can't effectively compete, are you required to accept self-stimulation as the only legitimate outlet? Some people have higher or lower sex drives; are they permitted only a certain number of sexual acts with certain valorized partners? Is monogamy all that is allowable? Is "Free Love" just a fevered hippie pipe dream? What about consenting expressions of perversity?

I think it is clear that we must consider enslavement, and coercion by physical, mental, and emotional abuse, and other non-consensual acts as illegitimate, condemnatory, and enforceably illegal. But what about unpopular or marginal choices? Should a consenting adult be allowed to participate in activities frowned upon by the majority's morality, to engage in risky behaviours, or make unpopular choices? Can a woman legitimately make a choice to participate in sexual exchanges for financial remuneration (for the financial medium grants one power in our civilization)?

Because of the history and structure of our (patriarchal) cultures, do women have authentic freedom to make such choices? Hmm, escort service at $5000.- an hour, turn X number of tricks, invest in that stock portfolio, get out of the biz in Y number of years, vs., work at a (perhaps) thankless public school teaching position for $45,000.- a year gross, minus inflation and rising property taxes?

How much truth is found in stereotypic statements like these?

"I claim that rape exists any time sexual intercourse occurs when it has not been initiated by the woman, out of her own genuine affection and desire." -- Robin Morgan, MS. Magazine Editor
"Heterosexual intercourse is the pure, formalized expression of contempt for women's bodies... Rape is the primary heterosexual model for sexual relating. Rape is the primary emblem of romantic love. Rape is the means by which a woman is initiated into her womanhood as it is defined by men. ... Rape, then, is the logical consequence of a system of definitions of what is normative. Rape is no excess, no aberration, no accident, no mistake -- it embodies sexuality as the culture defines it." --
Andrea Dworkin
"No woman should be authorized to stay at home to raise her children. Society should be totally different. Women should not have that choice, precisely because if there is such a choice, too many women will make that one." -- Simone de Beauvoir, author of "The Second Sex"
"Being a housewife is an illegitimate profession... The choice to serve and be protected and plan towards being a family-maker is a choice that shouldn't be. The heart of radical feminism is to change that." - Vivian Gornick, author, University of Illinois

Some scholars have suggested that "Romantic Love," and presumably, "hot" sexuality, is a historical aberration, and that most unions -- even the "consensual" ones -- should be viewed as practical affairs. To share resources, and to allocate role-duties (of which men have traditionally gotten the lion's share).

I certainly know women who seem to genuinely enjoy their sexuality; should our values be concerned with establishing above-board contracts, spelling out expectations? or is that cold, callous, and objectifying? How should we ponder sexuality: focus on the pleasure, or the serious responsibility? How obtainable are the idealistic notions? What if the spouses "turn a blind eye" to affairs, because other than in the bedroom, they've "got it made?" Are these all dupes who are disempowering themselves?

Various pundits have noted that the rich and powerful, the celebrities and the politicians, are 'not like us.' No, they are just like us. This biological conflict is at the root of our humanity.

Actions have consequences, no matter how some try to minimize them, ignore them, or spin them. Those consequences may be of a greater, or lesser, degree. They may precipitate chain reactions that may range from annoying to disastrous. It would be nice to have hard and fast answers, like some
religions believe were enunciated by a Supreme Personality, writ in fire, or graven in stone. How pleasantly simple! But few of us Liberal-types live comfortably in that world.

I have tried to couch this diary with questions and qualifiers; I don't know what the Truth is, nor do I want to promote here any position other than non-coercion and respect. But sexual self-expression and the circumstances thereof so often colours our political perspective, that I think we should ponder this well.

Sunday, March 09, 2008


I'm sure that I must have heard jazz in the background of my childhood, likely performers like Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as closely-associated music from Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, and Ray Charles. However, until my practice wife introduced me to the electric fusion of the Mahavishnu Orchestra in the mid-1970's, I was not particularly conscious of the genre.

One of the groups that we then discovered was "Return to Forever," lead by keyboardist extraordinaire Armando Anthony "Chick" Corea. Best, yet, we had the chance to see him perform numerous times at the Summer Jazz Festivals at the Saratoga Performing Arts Centre.
After the wife and I went our separate ways, I had the opportunity to see Chick play a variety of duets and ensembles at different venues. One of his favorite companions was vibraphonist Gary Burton, who, he relates, met Chick at a jazz festival in Germany thirty-five years ago when the organizers asked for volunteers for a jam session, and they were the only two to agree!

Over the years, my opportunities to go out and see live music have declined; a new wife, a child, a mortgage, 'workin' for the man,' that sort of stuff. I've missed it. 2008 has seen an upturn in my listening fortunes, however; in January I took my daughter to see "Big Brother and the Holding Company," who gave the world Janis Joplin, and in February got out to see a regional reggae group, "Crucial Massive." I also saw an advertisement from the Bardavon 1869 Opera House in Poughkeepsie: coming on Friday March 7th: Chick Corea and Gary Burton!! My daughter is now of an age of reasonable self-sufficiency, so I had the fine opportunity to go on a date with my wife for an evening of jazz.

I must admit that I have no understanding for the specifics of music; I have somewhat of a "tin ear," and the language of this art, like higher mathematics, is beyond me. But I know what I like! Some music even translates itself into visual phenomenon for me, curves and arabesques, colours and syncopated flashes, and that enhances my enjoyment. And Chick and Gary are virtuosos! Beside which, the two are obviously close friends; they were not only playing music for their audience, they were playing with each other with their music. They joked, told snippets of stories, they percussed the piano together, and on the encore Chick and Gary both played the vibes together!

They performed selections from their original duet album "Crystal Silence," as well as from their new "More Crystal Silence," and "No Mystery." "Alegría in Hawaii" was a flamenco-based tune, and they shaped pieces around Alexander Scriabin's "Preludes 4 and 6." Jazz masters such as Bud Powell, Bill Evans' "Waltz for Debbie," and Thelonius Monk's "Sweet and Lovely" were source material for other numbers. Such masters of their instruments, such attention to their craft! Gary's mallets flew so fast as to strobe, Chick threw back his head, eyes shut, mouthing the rhythm and stomping his feet! The audience was entranced, and entirely appreciative. And, all too soon, it was over.

As we walked back to the car in a steady rain, my wife commented at how fine a performance it had been, but she wondered, "How did they get so old?" Well, we've all been around the sun thirty-five times since I first discovered them, dear! For the record, Chick Corea is 66.

But this I know with certainty: they made me happy. How refreshing! I've got to do this more often!

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