Visible

You are in a room with the Invisible Man. You can’t see him, of course. He is quiet and stealthy and moves around. Your best chance of keeping track of him is a spray bottle of water mixed with food coloring. You guess where the Invisible Man is and spray in that general direction. If you guess right you will catch him on the move: the mist will briefly outline an arm, a head, a distorted torso. That’s not him. That’s the water. He’ll move on and through it, but you’ll have a sense of where he is and what he’s up to. Doing this is second nature.

The thing is: you are invisible too. In fact, everyone is invisible. Everyone carries spray bottles filled with colored water. Back in the olden days people didn’t have spray bottles and so carried around sacks of flour that they would throw into the air to outline their fellow invisibles. For obscure and forgotten reasons, any diffuse material tossed into the air to reveal other people is called “noise”. What today the water misters spray–the same bottle you use to water your plants–that is also called noise.

You have a body. You can’t see it, but you have a sense of its shape, the space it occupies. The vague distorted shapes of the Invisible Man that appear through the noise, they clearly arise from the same sort of thing as you. Almost the same, but not quite. And he is thinking the same about you. What would it be like to see things directly? You can’t even imagine. Throw some noise at it. It will become as clear as it will become.

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Top Five Suspended 4ths

  1. “Ziggy Stardust” intro riff
  2. Stop-time lead-in to the “Stairway to Heaven” solo
  3. “Lead break” from “Anarchy in the U.K.”
  4. Bar 4 of “Honky Tonk Women”
  5. Most of the rest of the Keith Richards’ career
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Tales from The Day After Tomorrow

At the corner of the bar is a video screen. For still sober customers it offers video poker. Drunker ones may opt for a simpler spot-the-differences-between-the-pictures game. In this mode it displays two photographs side by side. They are mostly identical, but there are subtle differences: a foot angled differently, a missing boat on the bay in the background, an awning lacking its stripes, and so forth. Your task is to tap the spots on the screen where the differences lie. The task is timed and gets harder as you progress. Eventually you lose, and the machine insults you.

The pictures are all vintage pornography. About half are women with enormous fake breasts and 80s bouffant hairdos. The other half are men with astounding mustaches in varying degrees of tumescence. When the female pictures come up, players might chirp, “Boobie hunt!” When the male pictures come up, they might chirp, “Dick hunt!” The assumption of the video screen makers is that their user base will be about 50/50 male/female, and a mixture of gay and straight, weighted towards the latter. The assumption furthermore is that any given user will be mildly turned on by about half the pictures and bemused by them all. The intent is for everyone to go away happy. That’s how they make their money.

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Urquhart-o-reffic!

Maybe it’s no surprise that I’m becoming a Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart fan. She is one of the regular writers on queer/gender issues for Slate, and I’m part of the liberal-educated-gentrifier demographic that finds in Slate a pretty much direct expression of our subconscious. So I start off on her side, but she then goes on to win me over. Urquhart doesn’t try to be funny, but will land on funny in a natural and unforced way. (cf. The long term goal of the LGBTQ movement is “the annexation of every letter of the alphabet”.) She is plain-spoken and trenchant, and even though she doesn’t find anything new to say about gender issues (because that is impossible), her personal spin on them–often informed by her identity as a butch lesbian–is refreshingly novel.

If you never do a Google search on Vanessa Vitiello Urquhart, you may be forgiven for thinking that the cute “butch lesbian” stock photo model with the mohawk that accompanies many of her articles on Slate is in fact Urquhart herself.

There in the em-dashed aside of the preceding sentence is a clue as to what I find appealing about Urquhart. Whenever I hear the phrase “her identity as a butch lesbian” I instinctively cringe. It’s not an aversion to lesbians that provokes this reaction, but an aversion to cliché. A string of code words like that presents itself and I immediately assume I know the direction the conversation will go. There will be a dissection of familiar inequities. Some cultural artifact will be located on the empowering-to-problematic spectrum. The interactions between male and heterosexual privilege will be minutely parsed. The notion of privilege itself will be held up to withering scrutiny. We will treat it the way Christians treat their notion of sin–as the defining flaw that lies at the heart of who we are, a thing to be acknowledged and condemned, both in ourselves and (perhaps slightly more so) in others.

Now in many cases my allegiance with the American left is more a matter of tribal affinity than political conviction, but when it comes to gender issues I’m a believer. I’m a capital-F Feminist because any movement that seeks to improve the lot of half the human race is targeting the right bang-to-buck ratio. I want the culture to embrace a rich taxonomy of sexual identities on general it-makes-life-more-interesting grounds. I believe that transhumanism is the theory, and transgender is the practice. Even the modern academic concept of gender as a cultural construct rather than a direct expression of biological dimorphism (it’s a performance, see?) appeals to the Saussurean linguist in me. I buy this world view as something deep and important, and want to be able to discuss it without being hobbled by the language of a freshman dorm sensitivity orientation.

That said, you’d think an essay entitled “I’m a Butch Woman. Do I Have Cis Privilege?” would have me screaming for the hills, but Urquhart delights. I’m not going to summarize her argument–the piece is short, so just read it yourself–but the quick version is that the answer to the rhetorical question posed in the headline is “Yes”, but not in a ritual ablution kind of way. Instead she locates herself in a complex web of power interactions, acknowledging what is troubling about it, without making that diagnosis the point. “A Lesbian Dilemma: All My Heroes Are Men Who Hated Women” addresses a similar issue in the arena of writing. Urquhart’s literary heroes are men like Ernest Hemingway or Christopher Hitchens for whom a blithe dismissal of women is a flaw inextricable from the bull-headed contentiousness that appeals to Urquhart in the first place. Her finding them “problematic” is only one aspect of a complicated relationship with their work. Gender is an issue in itself, but also an inroad to the tricky business of admiration.

Urquhart is a feminist and a lesbian, and has the cultural left affinities that tend to go along with this, but she is also butch, which means she sees herself as masculine and thinks of this as a positive thing. The aspects of masculinity she embraces–“aggressive, competitive, logical”–are certainly not the sole province of men, but it strikes me as reasonable to collect them around a pole of masculine behavior that may tug at us all. Hers is a sympathetic point of view for those of us who believe that gender differences are a complexity that enriches life, rather than a problem to be solved.

Apropos of nothing, I always thought it would be great if a campus LGBTQ organization hosted a meet-and-greet barbecue event just so they could call it the LGBTQ BBQ.

–Aha! So you’ve just latched onto Urquhart as a female stalking horse for your political correctness concern trolling.
–Yes. That is exactly what I’m doing. May I continue?

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Life Lives You

Like a lot of people, I’ve become a big fan of Hyperbole and a Half in the past couple years, and like a lot of people I was initially drawn in by cartoonist Allie Brosh’s account of her struggles with depression. Mental illness memoir is heavily-tilled ground at this point, but through a combination of plain-spoken humor and winningly primitive drawings she finds a new way to tell an old story.

What Brosh does particularly well is describe the sense of dissociation that depression brings. The hate-everything-too-tired-to-get-out-of-bed feeling is definitely something you’re experiencing, but it is also so odd, so out of proportion to your observable surroundings, that it also seems like something your brain is doing to you. It is as if some alien has taken temporary control of your emotions and body and is dragging you along for the ride. The simultaneous awareness of this dissociation and inability to express it is the crux of Brosh’s hilarious bit about the dead fish.

Our current understanding of depression focuses on the biochemical aspect of things, and even if you take this framing to be the latest swing of the nature/nurture pendulum, there are depressed people who are clearly helped by drugs or electroshock therapy. For them, depression is like a tumor, something part of your body but not part of you. Though originating in your flesh, it at some point becomes separate, so that its removal allows the real you to reemerge.

But what is the real you? Presumably the undepressed one. The one that sleeps eight hours a night, has friends and a job and proceeds through the day on an even keel with a sense of measured optimism. As a way of getting through life, this is the right attitude to adopt, but take a step back and you see the Cartesian dualism underlying the common sense. You possess an essential core that is distinguishable from both external buffeting and internal malfunction. This is the familiar improbable story about the little homunculus that lives inside your skull, steering your body like a puppet, except this homunculus is fundamentally happy.

Brosh opens her best piece, “Depression Part Two”, with a description of the exuberance she felt as a small child. It’s an experience we all recognize–playing with toys, making up stories–but she brings out the way the happiness is so unbidden. “I didn’t understand why it was fun for me, it just was.” Childhood exuberance is something visited from the outside that she runs with. Depression is its inverse–the closing of one spigot and the opening of another. This still squares with the story of the happy homunculus, though, because she’s talking about herself as a child. When you are young and unformed, you have no essential core, and can be buffeted about by external happiness. Later, that sense of contentment solidifies into the true, internal you. Things can go wrong which cut you off from this true self, but it’s still there somewhere. Maturation is the process of moving the happiness inside.

Definitely the right attitude to adopt. It’s impossible not to believe in the little person inside your skull, so you might as well posit its essential contentment. But consider another possibility, one that may very well be true even if you never fully feel it. The sense of unbidden external happiness that Brosh presents as a feature of childhood is actually just a feature of being alive. If you as a fully-formed self-determined adult feel exuberance, it is just because some particular set of external circumstances and brain chemicals have aligned. It falls into the same you-but-not-you category into which we put adult depression. For that matter, why focus on extremes like exuberance and depression? Sure it’s at those emotional high points when we feel like we’ve temporarily surrendered control–the homunculus has taken its hands off the wheel and let the world steer for a moment. But what if that’s the case even in our unremarkable moments? No homunculus, no steering wheel, not even a clear distinction between the parts of the world that lie inside and outside of your skull. You don’t live life. Life

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Comedy Club Time Machine

  • A microphone illuminated by stage lightsThe other day my friend was wearing a blue dress and a beret and carrying a box of cigars. I said,“What’s all that for?” and she said, “I’m applying for a job as a White House intern.”
  • Her boyfriend is so unsuccessful he makes Kato Kaelin look like Lee Iacocca.
  • Dan Quayle likes living in Washington, D.C. He’s just not sure how to spell it.
  • Jesus what a dump! Who’s your interior decorator–Billy Carter?
  • I was trying to catch a flight to L.A. last week, but I got there late and was still halfway across the airport when I heard someone get on the loudspeaker and announce the final boarding call for my plane, so I turned to the guy next to me and said, “Want to see my O.J. Simpson impersonation?”
  • “Your secret is safe with me or my name isn’t Linda Tripp!”
  • The definition of “chutzpah” is a boy who murders his parents then asks for mercy because he is an orphan. In Spanish the word is “Menendez”.
  • I wish I worked in the classified branch of the archeology ministry of the People’s Republic of China so that when people asked me what I did for a living I could just smile enigmatically and say, “Ancient Chinese secret.”
  • Henry Kissinger, Muhammad Ali, and Idi Amin walk into a bar and the bartender says, “What is this–a joke from the 1970s?”
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Dear Virginia

Read the following answer to the question “Is Santa real?” for a kid who is old enough to be levelled with. It’s warm-hearted, eloquent, and sweet. It’s also deeply, deeply icky.

Letter-to-Children-about-Santa-Part-1

Basically the lesson it teaches children is that the way to face an unpleasant truth about life is not to accept it head on, but instead to construct a mythos that allows you to keep your feelings unhurt at the cost of a more elaborate and tenuous relationship with reality.

Letter-to-Children-about-Santa-Page-2

Sorry to be Grinch here. Most of what this letter says is broadly-speaking true, but it’s not the way I’d put it. I have a particularly guilty conscience on this point because I don’t have children myself, but have spent the past several Christmas Eves at my friends’ house composing notes from Santa and taking bites out of Christmas cookies. I get to have all the fun of the Big Santa Lie without ever having to face the consequences. If I did though, I hope I would handle it like this.

–You’re right. There is no such thing as Santa Claus. Your mother and I pretended that he was real because believing in him brought you a lot of joy, and seeing your joy brought us a lot of joy. It’s a strange little game, and someday you’ll play it with your children.

And if at that point, my child were to look me in the eye and say, “But isn’t that lying?” my heart would swell with pride.

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