Saturday, December 31, 2011

Things To Read On The Internet

The last few weeks of term sent me a little wild. I hadn't managed my time too well, and I had a huge amount of work to pull off in not very much time. Because I have only two registers of discourse – dry understatement and wild exaggeration – I lamented my plight in grandiose terms, wishing only for some free time in which to sleep and watch TV to my heart's content.

Well, I got what I wished for, and in true Aesop fashion, it's biting me in the ass. I've had two weeks of hols so far, and I'm bored as shit.

I'm spending about half my time with some of the only friends who are still around, and as long as I'm with them – watching NewsRadio and Futurama, playing an assortment of zombie-related games, even doing their damn dishes – I feel okay. But then I go back to my ghostly quiet dorm building, and it gets to me. Part of me wants to laugh maniacally and turn cartwheels naked in the corridors, because I HAVE THE WHOLE PLACE TO MYSELF; part of me wants to just crawl into bed and hibernate until everyone's back, because I have the whole place to myself. This ambivalence is doing strange things to my head, and I'm afraid I might find myself doing something drastic to alleviate the boredom.

So, as always in times of crisis, I turn to my best friend: the internet.

Perhaps you too, dear reader, find that at two AM you are still awake, cursing the ceiling, wondering if that odd noise in the walls is a monster in your walk-in closet or a monster in someone else's walk-in closet, talking out loud to the spider in the corner. If so, may I recommend to you some of my favorite things to read on the internet of late.

Mark Does Stuff began a couple years ago as a little Buzznet community with a simple premise: Mark would read the Twilight books, chapter by chapter, and review them. What none of us knew going in was that the Twilight books would make Mark very, very angry. His reviews were funny, they were furious, and they were heartbreaking, pouring out the bitter memories of his abusive childhood.

Then Mark read Harry Potter, and we learned that the only thing better than angry Mark was squeeing fanperson Mark. Now there's a whole Mark Does Stuff community, based around Mark's chapter-by-chapter reviews of books and episode-by-episode reviews of TV shows. He's done a ton of stuff, including Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, The Hunger Games, His Dark Materials, and A Song of Ice and Fire, but at the moment he's reading Lord of the Rings and watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The hook is, he's never been exposed to either and has no idea what he's in for. He makes wild predictions, he makes snap judgments as he goes along, and it's all incredibly entertaining for the fan of this stuff who knows what's in store for him.

Actually the whole Slacktiverse blogging community is a goldmine of interesting things to read, but the Left Behind deconstructions are the undisputed highlight. If you're unfamiliar with the Left Behind books, Fred Clark the Slacktivist is happy to explain to you precisely why they are the Worst Books in the World – in excruciating detail. He reads them with a fine-tooth comb, picking apart each agonizing page to demonstrate exactly why these evangelical bestsellers are (in his words) “evil, anti-Christian crap.”

Fred's been at it on a weekly basis for eight years now, and he's only just finished the second book. At this rate, his deconstructions of the full series should keep us entertained through 2067. If he can continue to be as viciously insightful and witty as he has been so far, I'm content to keep reading him for the next half-century. (The best part is, he's spawned some top-notch emulation of the obsessively-detailed-deconstruction format, especially from Ana Mardoll, who's doing a terrific job on both Twilight and Narnia.)

Don't be fooled by the rather off-putting design. FerretBrain is a hell of a lot of fun. The “Random” button in the sidebar is your best friend. On more than one occasion, I've been up past three in the morning, hitting that button over and over, skipping past the articles that don't interest me (mostly the ones on videogames) and reading with fascination the ones that do. The FB crew review a lot of fantasy novels, but also movies, TV, comic books, theater, and sometimes just whatever is on their desks. The site's selling point is that the reviews are just so damn good. They're detailed, thought-provoking, concerned with combating -isms, unafraid to express very strong opinions, and quite likely to challenge some of your warmest and fuzziest feelings about the things you love.

Some of my very favorite FerretBrain articles:

Harry Potter and the Doctrine of the Calvinists is possibly the crowning achievement of an extensive series of highly critical and really very excellent articles on the most popular books in the world. In fact, why don't you read them all.
Don't They Shine Beautiful? is a very long and absolutely brilliant essay on Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (as filmed by Tim Burton). You'll probably need to be a bit of a musical theater geek to appreciate this one, but if you are it's well worth reading.
It's Not Easy Being Green reviews a book I've never heard of and do not intend to read, and by “reviews” I mean “completely shreds”. Actually any article categorized as “Minority Warrior” or “Fantasy Rape Watch” is likely to be golden.

Gosh, just writing this up has made me feel a lot better. See you sometime in 2012 – assuming I ever manage to extricate myself from TV Tropes...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

My First Christmas

I hadn't really been thinking about it until the end of term, when suddenly everyone was going home for the holidays and I wasn't. That was when I realized I was thinking of my Lonely Christmas almost as a rite of passage: as something necessary, something I had to do.

Partly it's because my older brother spent Christmas away from the family two years ago – the first time we weren't all together – and so it seemed natural to follow in his steps.

Partly it's because I have some friends who are quite open about how much they hate Christmas – how tense and miserable it is to bring unhappy families together under the immense pressure of knowing it's supposed to be The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year – and I've always wondered how it feels to be unhappy on Christmas.

And I think there's a theological reason too. I think that, as everything I learn about God convinces me more that God stands with the poor, the outcast, the lonely, the oppressed, it just doesn't seem right to mark God's coming into the world by being all warm and happy with my family.

Christmas isn't supposed to be warm and fuzzy.

The first 22 Christmases of my life couldn't have been warmer or fuzzier. I gathered with my parents and brothers, ate and drank gluttonously, tore open an abundance of presents (none of which, casting my mind back, I can even remember), and sang about the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

On my 23rd Christmas, I actually thought seriously about the little Lord Jesus.

Like most people with a Classics degree, I am unconvinced by the nativity narratives of Matthew and Luke. They're riddled with historical implausibilities, and are probably somewhat tortured back-formations designed to make Jesus fulfill the messianic prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures as translated into the Septuagint. The Christmas story is not convincing as historical truth (which is not to say it must be historically false, just that it probably is); but as aesthetic truth, as theological truth, it shines a great light in the darkness.

Read as a narrative affirming God's presence, God's total identification, with the poor and the outcast, the Christmas story is a purveyor of profound theological truth.

God in the form of a newborn baby: God is with the helpless.

God born in a stable, laid in a manger: God is with the homeless.

God born in an occupied territory of a mighty empire: God is with the oppressed.

God on the run from a murderous tyrant: God is with the refugee.

Compared to the suffering of most people in this world, my Lonely Christmas was hardly lonely. I have a family that loves and misses me, though it is 5000 miles away. I have friends who welcomed me into their home. I have more friends who let me know they were thinking of me.

But I am still a stranger in a strange land, and in that small way I feel an abiding kinship with the God who took on human form, with its weaknesses and sorrows and limitations, in order to bring the constant and unfailing word of hope to me and to all humankind: you are not alone.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Alternative Seasonally Depressing Playlist of Sadness

'Tis the season to be jolly and joyous, and all that, but for some of us it's actually rather melancholy. Maybe it brings up painful memories, maybe the family gathering's full of tension and misery, maybe the family gathering's taking place 5000 miles away from you, or maybe you just get really bad SAD. Regardless of why (or even whether) we're glum, we can all agree that cheesy holiday songs are the absolute last thing we need. So I've knocked together a little playlist for an hour or so of anti-festive wallowing: Anna's Alternative Seasonally Depressing Playlist of Sadness.

Over the Rhine, “Latter Days
A friend who's had an unbelievably awful year introduced me to this song recently, and no wonder. It's five and a half minutes of pure aural heartbreak. Hardened sociopaths have been made to tearily beg their victims' forgiveness by this song. Cthulhu himself weeps when he hears this song. “Latter Days” reduces me to a quivering ball of jelly, bawling on the floor under my desk as I clutch my knees to my chest and rock back and forth.

Roxy Music, “Avalon

Diana Ross, “If We Hold On Together
Oh my God, Littlefoot's mom.

XTC, “This World Over
My family's Christmas letter this year began: “Although the world sometimes seems to be in imminent danger of falling apart economically, climatically, and developmentally...” We're all a little obsessed with the end of the world, and as we enter 2012 it seems entirely appropriate to get emotional about it. (Any song that reduces my beloved London to “a sea of rubble” is hitting me where it hurts.)

Joy Division, “Eternal
Call a friend before you listen to this, the apex of a brief, talented, and incredibly depressing musical career. Seriously, buddy system.

Coil, “Broccoli
I don't even listen to this song. I almost didn't link to it, because it's just too cruel. When I hear it, I'm reminded of listening to it on the London Underground after watching Grave of the Fireflies, and nobody needs to be reminded of that.

Joni Mitchell, “Both Sides Now

Scotland Yard Gospel Choir, “Praying Is A Heartache
Cut from the same cloth as “Latter Days”, “Praying Is A Heartache” is SYGC's most beautiful song and the highlight of their 2009 album ...And the Horse You Rode In On. Yeah, I'm going to keep shamelessly plugging SYGC until somebody agrees with me that they are just the tops.

Peter Gabriel, “A Different Drum
This song doesn't even have words. The lyrics are all, “oh-whoa-whoa-whoooooa...” If music can evoke the transcendent, “A Different Drum” definitely does.

Ever suffered a distance-enforced break-up? If you're someone I know, probably – we all seem to have done it. Relive that pain. Wallow.

House of Love, “Man To Child
Stop it. Just stop it. The world doesn't need more emotions, House of Love; it needs fewer, so quit trying to create them.

Antony & the Johnsons, “You Are My Sister
You don't need to have a sister to be moved by this song. You don't even need to be a sister. As long as you have a friend close enough to be considered an honorary sibling, I defy you to listen to this song without at least getting a little something in your eye.

Adele, “Turning Tables
Forget the sappy, overexposed, overrated “Someone Like You”. “Turning Tables” is the Adele song with the most raw feeling behind it.

Wicked cast, “For Good
This is, like, the song for our jet-setting generation. If you've ever cursed the very existence of friendship because one party or the other always leaves, give this song a spin and shed a tear or two. Nobody's judging. Even those tedious people who say they hate musicals get verklempt at this song.

Dixie Chicks, “Wide Open Spaces
Ever had a mother? Ever left her? Yeeah, good luck keeping those eyes dry, buddy.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Bacon-Flavored Strawberries: Gene Marks Is Socially Constructed, And So Are You

So the latest face-melting jackassery doing the Tour de Shame on the SJ blogosphere is this prize putrescence, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid”. It's exactly as skull-crushingly awful as you'd expect: a rich white dude bragging about how he would be way better at poorblackkid-ing than poor black kids are, and if only people who actually are poor black kids would be as good at poorblackkid-ing as this rich white dude would totally be, then they could all be rich white dudes too. Or: “If I hadn't been born at the top of the heap, I'd've pulled myself up here by my own bootstraps!”

Obviously this is pukatronic, in more ways than I can possibly enumerate, but I think the thing that frustrates me most about Poorblackkidgate is the utter lack of self-awareness. Postmodernism is older than the Beatles; it should be old hat by now, and yet apparently people – people who are given a platform and are listened to – are still unwilling or unable to acknowledge that they are socially constructed. A rich white dude cannot say, “If I were a poor black kid...”, because it is meaningless. If he were a poor black kid, he would not be the person he is. He would have different opinions, different personality traits, different ways of expressing himself. In writing his article, he envisions Himself – Gene Marks, rich white dude – transplanted into the body of a poor black child, all his beliefs and morals and experiences and viewpoints intact. It's a breathtaking failure of imagination.

Ours is a very individualistic, libertarian, self-determinative society. We all like to think that our Self is this essential inner truth which simply is. Time and time again, though, it's been proved that most (if not all) of our identity is socially constructed.


Born this way” seems like a nice sentiment at first. Don't discriminate against me, because I didn't choose to be gay any more than I chose to have big feet. Well, that's problematic of itself (it smacks of apology: if I could choose, I'd totally be straight!), but “born this way”? Demonstrably not. Ancient Rome didn't have Pride parades, because Ancient Romans didn't have the cultural category of “gay”. They had gay sex, just like every human society, but they had no concept of “gay” as an identity. If I'd been born in Ancient Rome, I would not be gay, because the categorization of sexual orientation did not exist. My sexual desires might be the same as they are now, but they would not be framed as ontological gayness. I would not be gay.

What frightens people, and makes them reluctant to admit to their social construction, is that they think this would make their identity/selfhood somehow less valid. It doesn't. My being gay isn't any less real for being a social construct. President Obama's blackness isn't any made less significant by race being a scientifically nonsensical category. Social realities are still realities.

Saying, “If I were a poor black kid, I'd pull myself up by my bootstraps to reach the position I'm in today” ignores social realities. It's pure fantasy. It's like saying, “If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, it would be a bacon-flavored strawberry.” You're imputing the properties of bacon to something that is not bacon, and thus what you are saying is nonsense. If this piece of bacon were a strawberry, chances are very good it would taste like a fucking strawberry.

This is why I got so angry back in August at the rhetoric demonizing the rioters in London. To dismiss criminals as sub-human “scum” is to completely overlook the social construction that makes breaking the law unthinkable for you but quite doable for them. To say, “If I were a poor black kid I'd work really hard and get good grades” is to utterly ignore the social construction that makes bootstraps seem like the solution to you but unrealistic for, you know, actual poor black kids. It's the Enlightenment fallacy I wrote about last time: assuming that your (probably straight/white/rich/cis/male) reality is everyone's reality.

Recognizing that you are socially constructed does not make you not socially constructed, any more than recognizing your privilege makes you not privileged. What it does do is give you the critical tools to identify the way specific aspects of yourself are socially constructed, to understand therefore that other people are constructed differently, and to sympathize therefore with their point of view. It confers on you the epistemological humility to see that yours is not the only, nor even the definitive, reality. It empowers you to question everything you've always been told about how the world works, both explicitly and implicitly, and to see in what ways power differentials and systemic injustices are shored up by cultural reification.

It's arguably the most important tool you can have, and – unlike BOOTSTRAPS!!1eleventy – it doesn't require you to begin from a particular social location. If Gene Marks were self-aware, he wouldn't be talking about bacon-flavored strawberries.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bad Science, Bad Hermeneutics

In light of Joel's excellent piece on Dawkins et al., and Echidne's smackdown of the latest pseudoscience from professional troll Sacha Simon Baron-Cohen, I think it's time for me to rearticulate my problems with Enlightenment-style rationality.

Don't think I'm in any way an enemy of reason. I adore logic, reason, systematics, scientific principles (there's a reason my brother calls me The Spock). Unfortunately, the Enlightenment pursuit of pure reason, though I'm sure thoroughly noble in intent, gave rise to the most pernicious evil to plague modernist thought: the myth of objectivity.

For example, my own interest in debunking bad science is intricately entwined with my feminism, anti-racism, etc. I freely admit that it's agenda-driven, because it stems from my most basic, deeply-held convictions about the world (the personhood, equality, dignity, and rights of every human individual).

Every act of the intellect, whether it's science or a reading of the Bible, has as its foundations certain assumptions about the world. It couldn't exist otherwise. Any claim to a value-free, unbiased, objective study of anything is at worst totally mendacious and at best coming from a place of unexamined privilege. Hell, if there's one incontrovertible sign of unexamined privilege, it's a belief in your own objectivity.

Think about some of the things that have been considered Totally Objective Reason-Based Agenda-Free Science:
  • That women's delicate ladybrains were inherently inferior to men's
  • That black people were biologically inferior to white people
  • That trans people were only really trans if they conformed to very rigid gender roles – otherwise they were just confused
And many, many more, many of which still sadly have a grip on the fevered imaginations of certain privilege-denying populations, and all of which have been thoroughly debunked by rigorous deconstruction of their agendas.

This is the true value of postmodernism: that it debunks the myth of objectivity by acknowledging that the observer is also an actor. Meaning, we say in postmodern lit theory, is constructed at the moment of interaction between reader and text; which means that any interpretation is as much a product of the reader as of the text, and any honest reading has to acknowledge what it is the reader is bringing to the table. There's no such thing as “just what's there” – there's only what you see.

The same is absolutely true of scientific inquiry. I'm not saying the methods of rationality aren't sound – I'm saying that, as commonly applied, they don't go far enough. Even as you turn that laser-like judgment and doubt onto the subject under critical inquiry, turn it also onto yourself.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Nobel Prizes vs. Friends

“How can I be in the top 1%? I don't study that much. I mean, are the kids in Michigan schools that stupid?”
– Lindsay Weir, Freaks & Geeks episode 18, “Discos & Dragons”

“You're a good student, right? Do you ever think how powerful you could be if you never watched TV?”
– My friend Tyler

I always thought that one day someone would find me out. Surely my final high school exams would reveal the truth. University had to unmask me. At grad school they'd see right through me.

I'm starting to think they never will.

For as long as I can remember, people have been telling me I'm brainy. I vividly recall the other kids in kindergarten saying I should skip first grade (as it turned out, I skipped what would have been second grade). I topped the class throughout school, and over the years I've amassed a not inconsiderable collection of scholarships and academic prizes.

And the whole time I've been waiting, just waiting, for someone to point out the emperor's nudity. For me to max out my academic prowess. For my grades to reflect the amount of work I put in, not the vast ability to intellectually BS I was apparently born with.

I'm starting to think it will never happen.

I haven't always carried the guilt of the lazy A-student. As a prepubescent, I actually did work jolly hard. I consider my 13+ Common Entrance exams (which I took at 12, yada yada) to be the pinnacle of my academic career, because I studied hard and reaped my just reward. Everything since has felt unearned.

And yet the A grades and the accolades have kept coming, even as I've coasted through on the minimum of effort. I've mastered the art of working just hard enough to make people think I am very smart, and no harder. It does make me wonder, as Tyler said, what I could have accomplished if I'd kept on working as hard as I did when I was a preteen.

But I didn't; and actually TV's not to blame (I didn't start watching it until a few years later). The correlation I can pinpoint – the major factor that changed in my life at the same time that I started to coast academically – is that I started having friends.

Contrary to my prep school math teacher's predictions, I am never going to win the Nobel Prize for mathematics. But I am going to spend my leisure time with other humans who enjoy my company. My younger self might have been disappointed with my current self for making that choice, but I'd say it's a pretty fair tradeoff.

Of course, seeking validation through academic achievement is such a deeply ingrained part of my personality that if the tradeoff were, say, having friends but getting Bs, I'd be significantly more hesitant. But as long as the choice is Nobel Prizes or friends, I absolutely and without regret choose friends.

* * *

Having said all of which, grad school has just opened up a serious can of whoop on my ass, so if things are a little slow here at GCG over the next couple weeks, please bear with me. I'll be back on top of stuff just as soon as I can.

Monday, November 21, 2011

27 Days Later

That's all I fucking need, I think furiously. I check my planner: 27 days. Lately the intervals have gotten a few days shorter, hovering around the textbook 28, but flow duration is still longer than average. I've had 17 days off.

Looking at my planner, I remember what I thought last month, and the month before, and the month before that: That's all I fucking need. I think back over the past decade. Ten years – that's approaching half my life – I've been putting up with this monthly exodus of dark matter, and not once have I been able to feel anything remotely positive about it.

Every month: That's all I fucking need.

Fifteen years old, in the bathroom, crying and cursing my body for its monthly betrayal, uncontrollable, infuriating, pointless. Twenty-one years old, in the bedroom, being upbraided by my girlfriend for my squeamishness about bodily fluids. All the years in between, growing into feminism, learning to deconstruct my internalized misogyny, reading Steinem, finding out that many women see this as something empowering, something beautiful, something to celebrate.

I don't find it empowering.

I don't find it beautiful.

I don't want to celebrate it.

I'm utterly sick of trying not to hate it. I'm sick of trying to locate some essential femininity in it. Sick of trying to see it as emblematic of the life-giving facility of the female body. Sick of trying to view that same facility as a source of power rather than a source of visceral horror, something I would gladly relinquish given half a chance.

I hate it, this thing my body does. I want to be rid of it.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Dear NBC: About Community

No rational human could deny that our world is a very sick and broken place. (Well, maybe some dead white guy could.) Wars rage; people are beaten and raped; children die of preventable diseases; vast social and economic injustices crush lives in every way, from the smallest microaggressions to the ongoing famine no one is talking about in the Horn of Africa.

Yea, this brief tragic life is a vale of tears.

And yet, in the midst of all this horror and suffering, there arise, like shimmering soap bubbles on the wind, tiny glimmers of hope and beauty. These small moments of grace must be cherished like the fragile butterflies of love and happiness they are – not trampled under the jackboots of dream-crushing.

Community is one of these delicate flowers of blessing putting forth tentative blossoms of joy on the dung-heap that is this world. Last year I proved, using the most stringent scientific method, that Community is the best sitcom on television, and everything I said then holds true with cherries on top.

NBC, I understand that you are a business. Profits are your priority, and in comparison to the other three big networks you are struggling. But please, spare a thought for the bigger picture. In these times of unprecedented corporate greed, when the spiritual and artistic aspect of human existence has been almost entirely subsumed by the money-grubbing of the wealthiest among us, it is absolutely vital that Art be fostered wherever it raises its precious head.

Will future generations judge us on the profits we posted for this quarter, or on the lasting legacy of sublime emotional truth we produced?

Community is a flickering candle-flame in the long dark night of the collective human soul. For all our sakes, don't snuff it out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

So, You Have A Crush On Me.

You're my friend, or perhaps a casual acquaintance. Or maybe you've just seen me at a bar or something. Whichever, something's gone awry in your brain chemistry, and now your feelings toward me are a little more than friendly.


Do not ask me out. Do not offer me a drink. Do not tell me you have a “thing” for me, as though telling me will somehow absolve you of the guilt you feel over mentally straying from your SO. Just don't.

I will not acquiesce to your advances. I am, with all the best will in the world, not interested. I do not need this information.

Prior to your outright telling me, I was not aware of your feelings for me. I have not picked up on your social cues. I cannot read the signs (and if I could I wouldn't believe them).

Your telling me changes things. Whatever stage of friendship we were at, whatever good thing we had going on, you ruined it. I value our friendship/acquaintanceship/strangership and I don't want it ruined by an aberration in your brain chemistry.

Repress those feelings. Squash them down inside. Turn it off like a light-switch. Your culture may tell you that it's healthy to get these things out in the open, but I'm telling you: if you just suppress it hard enough, it will go away. Or, you know, it won't; but either way I won't have to deal with it, and that's what matters.

In all seriousness, I'm frustrated by the concept that a close friendship will or must evolve into a romantic relationship. I think it's because our culture confers ultimacy on romantic/sexual relationships, and this necessarily entails devaluing friendship: think how many movies and TV shows you've seen where the protagonist throws over career, friends, and everything else for the sake of a romantic partner.

I wear flannel and dungarees and am pretty openly gay; and yet, even in this queer progressive community, my very close relationship with a male friend is constantly read as romantic (it honestly couldn't be less so). Thanks, wider culture.

In high school, I categorized my strong feelings for a (male, gay) friend as romantic, even though I had zero physical designs on him, because I'd internalized the cultural messages that any strong feelings I had for a boy must be construed as romantic. I didn't yet have the deconstructive tools to maintain a very intimate but wholly platonic friendship.

Now I do; and now I know that, for me, friendship – not romance, not sex, but real true friendship – is the ultimate in human relationships. And that, in essence, is why I don't want people crushing on me.

Monday, November 14, 2011

BRB, Sobbing Forever

"'Community' Benched".


Excuse me. I... I need to be alone right now.

(And yes, I know it's not technically canceled yet, but springs to mind something about writing and walls.)

Friday, November 11, 2011

"Wings on a Pig": The Inevitable Rise Of The Christian Left

I know I link to him all the time (it's because he's awesome), but the very reverend Mr John Shore has a new book out. It's called Wings on a Pig: Why the “Christian” View of Gays Doesn't Work, and you all who are able should definitely buy it, because it is a most excellent collection of Shore's refreshingly direct essays on the topic of homosexuality and Christianity (ending with the clearest, most brilliant, most faithful and biblically-sound refutation of the clobber passages I've ever read), interspersed with letters of testimony from gay Christians, one of which may or may not be – well, they're anonymous...


Aside from the excitement of seeing words what I wrote in eInk, I think it is a super-important book. (Did I mention that I contributed to it?) On the ground, the issue of Teh Gays really is causing major upheaval in America's churches (and to a lesser extent, if only because of the vastly lesser role of religion in UK society, in Britain's).

This makes me think there's a very striking disconnect between the theologies of my queer progressive Bay Area seminary and the theologies of Middle America. Here, we don't talk about whether God has a problem with gays, because we're all gay or gay-adjacent. Here, admitting “actually I believe that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human and that he died for my sins” is tantamount to outing yourself as a paid-up member of the Religious Right. Here, being a far-leftist as well as a Christian does not make you a *~~*special snowflake*~~* (you should see the amount of activism and support on our campus toward the Occupy movement).

And yet, during my two years in a conservative Christian church, being a far-leftist gay Christian did make me a *~~*special snowflake*~~*; and, for tons of people all across this country, the same is true. The testimonies in John's book assure me of that.

Even so, I do have hope for the future of Christianity in this country. While I was living across the Pond, getting all my US news from The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, The Rachel Maddow Show, and AlterNet, I very much got the impression that the Religious Right was the primary – if not only – vocal Christian movement in the States. Progressivism, of course, went hand-in-hand with secularism – a universal extrapolation I, like many others (including prominent theorists who really should know better), made from the example of Western Europe.

But that's not how things are going in America. Religion is still a hugely powerful force in this country, uniquely so among industrial nations, and that's not changing anytime soon. (Did you know how much effort and money the '08 Obama campaign put into religious outreach? Because it was a lot.)

What could – and, I hope, will – change soon is the tide of religious feeling. Contrary to the messages of much of the media, the religious left is a dynamic force in the United States, and I believe it's on the rise. It may still be a smallish force, but it's gaining momentum among the young people and on the internet and in the queer-progressive-heretical seminaries and everywhere that people are having the courage to consider the issues for themselves, seek out resources like John's book, and defy the party line of Christian conservatism.

The religious left is here, it's queer(-friendly), and it's not going away.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Happily Ever After

My grandmother likes to say that, if she ruled the world, she would outlaw ending fairy tales with “...and they got married and lived happily ever after.” Instead, they would end: “... and they got married, and some days were better and some days were worse, but they both worked jolly hard at it and forged a loving mutual partnership, and I guess you could call that happiness.”

Of course, if I were writing fairy tales, they wouldn't involve marriage at all. The happily-ever-after would be something along the lines of “...and that lonely little girl grew up to have multiple kickass friends on several continents, and they were most excellent people.”

Then again, maybe calling that a happily-ever-after is a little premature. As Herodotus put it, “call no one happy until ey dies.” So, natch, I've been thinking: what is happy?

Since I started grad school, I'm happier than I've ever been. I love California, I love my studies, and I love my new friends (I TOTALLY HAVE FRIENDS HERE, YOU GUYS). Never before have I so quickly and easily found a place where I slotted in, made friends, felt at home: in both high school and undergrad, it wasn't until my second year that I really got comfortable, whereas here I felt totally settled by my second month.

That doesn't mean some days aren't difficult (though so far I've only had one really awful day, and most of that was fury at a profoundly horrible decision on the part of the UK government), and it certainly doesn't mean I'm in a perpetual state of bliss. I'm still human and this is still a human situation.

The thing about happiness – or this thing that I'm calling happiness while I'm still alive, at any rate – is that it necessarily carries with it an undercurrent of sadness. I've noted this at other times when I would characterize my general state as happy (final year of high school, spring through fall of my second and third years of undergrad, my summer 2010 travels around Europe with the then-girlfriend): true happiness is, for me, always accompanied by an awareness that this too shall pass.

Maybe it's different if you're a real, settled grown-up with, like, a career and stuff, but as long as you're planning your life in increments of two or three years, every period of joy you find also brings you the pain of knowing that it will be over soon. I'm in a two-year master's degree program; even next year won't be the same, as some of my friends will have graduated, and the year after that – who knows?

And that's the looming shadow of mortality. Any day, any minute, I or one (or all; oh hai, San Andreas fault) of my friends could snuff it, and it'd be sayonara to this precarious happiness. Any account of the good life has to encompass the tragic transience of human existence; and that knowledge, I think, is what transforms mere surface happiness into the deep, sorrow-tinged contentment that is joy.

This too shall pass: it's a source of sadness, and it's a clarion call to carpe diem, to make the most of this fleeting delight for as long as you're graced with its presence.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Quiet Days

Almost every other day, somebody says to me, “Are you okay? You're very quiet today.”

Recently, after a pleasant dinner with the gang, one friend (who prides herself on her emotional astuteness) texted me: “I can't help but notice that you didn't look okay earlier.” My repeated assurances that nothing was wrong seem to have convinced her only that I am unwilling to share with her my deep emotional pain and trauma.

So I asked another, less emotionally-charged friend if I had looked somehow not okay at dinner. He said to me, “Sometimes you're very talkative, and other times you're very quiet.”

Well, duh. Why does this confuse people?

When we were teenagers, my very best friend, who I have known my entire life, used to say pretty often, “You're very quiet today.” I wondered how many quiet days I would have to have before she cottoned on, but I attributed her repeated confusion to her extroversion (in contrast to my textbook introversion).

Some days, I have a lot to say. Other days, I do not. What is odd about this? What is unusual about this? Do most people have things to say every day, or do they just force themselves to keep talking even on days when they have nothing to say?

I like good conversation, but I am not afraid of silence. I talk when I want to, and when I don't want to talk I don't. In this way I can (mostly) avoid those instances of mindless babbling where I listen to myself talking and think, “My God, would you shut up?”

Some days, I am talkative. Other days, I am quiet. This is entirely logical. Why do people find it so baffling?

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Four Short Records I Love Extremely Much

I often hear that the millennial generation doesn't listen to whole albums. Apparently the advent of iPods and lolcats has shortened our attention spans and – look, a plushie Cthulhu!!

Or maybe it's because records these days are just too long, ever since CDs expanded the possible length of an album well beyond the 45 minutes afforded by vinyl. Like, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a great, great record, but it's 68 and a half minutes long! Who has that kind of time?

Luckily, there are some very excellent records out there seemingly designed specifically for the ears of the easily-bored millennial. None of the following albums last as much as 40 minutes, start to finish, but they are all super great and brilliant.

Felt – Forever Breathes the Lonely Word (1986) [32 minutes]
Okay, obviously this record was not designed specifically for millennial ears, because it is all old and stuff, but it is so FRICKIN' AMAZING that I couldn't leave it off the list. Just – I don't care if you never do anything else I tell you; go listen to this record. If you're not in love within the first 30 seconds of “Rain of Crystal Spires”, you're beyond all help.

Scotland Yard Gospel Choir – Scotland Yard Gospel Choir (2007) [26 minutes]
You know those times when you sort of imprint on a record, and you get a little obsessed and you just want to inhale every moment of it? It happened to me when I was sixteen with Orange Juice's You Can't Hide Your Love Forever (44 minutes with bonus tracks, so it doesn't make this list, but you should definitely listen to it); and it happened when I was twenty with Scotland Yard Gospel Choir. Bonus hipster points for being a self-titled second album.
Stand-out tracks: Everything You Paid For”, “Aspidistra

Soda Fountain Rag – It's Rag Time! (2008) [30 minutes]
Fair warning: this record is super-twee. The label's called yesboyicecream, for God's sake. But if twee's your thing (and, let's face it, looking at the list so far it's very obviously mine), I defy you to listen to Soda Fountain Rag without a huge goofy grin all over your face. The songs are catchy, very adorable, and – especially “Army of Silent Kids”, “Escalator”, and “Oh Brother!” – apparently about my life.
Stand-out tracks: Don't Kill The Clowns” (live – not great sound quality, but you can still tell how terrific the song is), “Go!

Tim Kasher - “The Game of Monogamy” (2010) [39 minutes]
On paper, this is everything I would hate: straight white dude makes an entire album of navel-gazing about his divorce, like he's the first person ever to go through that. But this self-confessedly solipsistic little offering is, well, really really good. (See? Proof that I don't hate straight white dudes. Just boring straight white dudes.)
Stand-out tracks: No Fireworks”, “Cold Love

Friday, October 28, 2011


At the moment I can't cope with any of my feminine-coded clothes or accessories. I can't even carry a purse. I can't hack anything coded feminine. Everything I wear, I have to question whether it's coded feminine. Everything I carry, I have to question whether it's coded feminine. My slouch as I walk down the street, my stance as I stand on the BART platform, my body position as I sit watching movies beside a friend: is it coded feminine?

All the time – all the time – I am thinking this, and it's doing my head in. I'm worried that it's a manifestation of internalized misogyny that's making me reject “girl stuff”. I'm frustrated that all the subtle coding in the world won't stop me from being read on first sight as female (until I can get my hands on a binder, anyway). I'm despairing at the knowledge that one big bearded guy wearing a skirt is doing more to shatter the patriarchy than I'm doing with every aspect of this obsession that's consuming my waking life, because “person read as male choosing things that are coded feminine” is a billion times more transgressive than “person read as female choosing things that are coded masculine”.

I hate that gender performativity has us being read as one of two options, when I want to be read as something else. I hate that I can't stop thinking about it, no matter what I'm doing. I hate that “male” and “female” are still seen as important categorical distinctions, even as I find them increasingly arbitrary and irrelevant.


I can't stop overthinking my new friendships. When somebody says or does a certain thing, I find myself thinking: This is what a friend does, right? This person is doing friend stuff with me and considers me a friend. How long until I say something so irreparably stupid that I ruin it forever? Or have I finally got this friendship thing figured out?

Without wanting to speak too soon, I think I have a couple of pretty great new friendships going here in California. I've been here just over two months, and there are definitely a few people who seem to regard me as a full-blown friend. It's weird, though, that, at a time when I'm doing better than I've ever done at the friendship game, my tics and stims and awkwardness in casual interactions have gotten significantly worse.

Like, I went to a burger place where I'd never been before. That should be a simple interaction if ever there was one: you order your food, the cashier tells you how much it costs, you pay, the cashier hands you your food. And yet it was excruciatingly awkward. I just couldn't seem to do it right. When faced with conversational awkwardness, some people start babbling, but I BSOD – just freeze right up and forget how to make words with my mouth.

Like, the other night (we'd been drinking), one of my new friends asked me, “What do you think will happen if you let go of your collar? Do you think you're going to float away?” Like, I was getting funny looks on BART yesterday because I couldn't stop stimming. Like, the other day someone unfamiliar with the guide to not touching jokingly grabbed me by the shirt, and thinking about it still gives me the heebie-jeebies.


Shit, I wish I could just switch off sometimes.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Hell: Still Not A Thing

Back in March, I weighed in on the Rob Bell hubbub that was then storming the Christian blogosphere. Half a year late to the party, commenter “everdox” has this to say:

Sadly Rob Bell has made an attempt to contend with the will of God, and recreate in his own mind, the will of man and not God. We do not understand God, therefore all questions of sorts such as: would an all loving God create an eternal hell? Are off limits.

[snip – proof-texts]

Furthermore, read the book of Jude. I pray that God will lead you to a clear understanding of what is happening. Universalism can disguise itself as love all it wants, but is quite possibly the most cunning system satan himself has ever cooked up. Universalism opens the door to living life outside of the ten commandments amongst everything else Jesus talked about, because of the simple fact that we will all be saved.

This is clearly not the case.

[half a dozen more proof-texts]

My go-to blogger on this topic, Mr John Shore, rebuts these arguments more eloquently than I ever could:

“God Can Love Me; God Can Send Me To Hell. But He Can't Do Both.”

What Francis Chan (And His Ilk) Get So Terribly Wrong About Hell

(please read this one, everdox) Is God's Justice Different Than Ours? Hell, No.

So I'm not going to argue from logic and rhetoric and theology why I think everdox is wrong (though I will say, their first paragraph is awfully sad. Questions are off limits? What a tragically, crushingly restrictive response to human inquiry and intellectual activity. Spinoza's doing somersaults in his grave). I'm just going to explain why I, personally, psychologically, cannot possibly believe in hell (hell in the fire-and-brimstone-eternal-torment sense, that is, not the hell of self-awareness). It boils down to this:

Either I'm going to hell, or nobody is.

I've been living inside this head for twenty-wev years. I know exactly how terrible of a person I am. I know that I am totally self-obsessed, that I'm a hypocrite whose actions aren't in line with my beliefs, that I kind of have a soft spot for “Party in the USA”. If the universe is a merit-based operation, then I'ma burn, baby, burn.

“Exactly,” says the Christian right. “You deserve to burn, but because of God's grace you won't.” (Well, they say that until they learn that I'm an unrepentant gay-sex-haver, but since I am now happily and maybe permanently single we can get past that.)

“That's fine,” I say. “We're on the same page re: grace. I suck, but God's merciful. Fantastic. Here's my problem: why me? If God picks and chooses who gets saved, why the hell would God pick a douchebag like me? Why does God's grace apply to me but not to my best non-Christian friend, who is a demonstrably superior human to me in every measurable way?”

“Um,” says the Christian right. “Mysterious ways... beyond our comprehension... faith not works... can we talk some more about how gay sex is totally icky?”

You see, I can accept the part where all people miss the mark. (That's what sin, hamartia, actually is – missing the mark, falling short, failing to measure up.) I can accept the part where God, in mercy and grace, forgives us even though we don't deserve it. I cannot accept the part where God arbitrarily dispenses that mercy and grace according to whim, saving some of the mark-missers and condemning others just for the lulz. God is vast, ineffable, beyond human comprehension; but that doesn't mean that God is a capricious tyrant whose justice is diametrically opposed to human logic and ethics.

I mean, have you ever heard anyone argue for the existence of hell who thought they were going there? People who want hell to exist want it for other people. That right there should be ringing all your alarm bells. The traditional doctrine of hell is self-righteousness crystallized.

It must be nice to have the self-confidence to say things like, “Hell exists but I'm not going there.” Unfortunately I carry with me a constant awareness of my own crapness, so for me it's more like, “If hell exists I am definitely going there.” Since the salvific action of Jesus Christ assures me that I am not going there, hell ipso facto does not exist. Quod erat demonstrandum, verbum sapienti sat est, nunc est bibendum.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Guide To Not Touching

America generally is a much more touchy-feely place than Britain, and progressive seminary in the East Bay Area might be the touchy-feeliest place of all. This makes me super-uncomfortable, so I've thrown together a brief Guide To Not Touching for my new friends. Bookmark this page, and if you see me and feel inclined to get touchy-feely, consult this guide first.

  1. No unsolicited hugs. Whether we're in church, doing something specifically hippy-dippy, or we just happen to bump into each other, don't hug me. You're great and stuff – this doesn't mean I don't like you – but wanton hugging is weird for me. You don't French all the friends you run into; I don't hug all mine.

  2. No sneaking up. If you're approaching from outside my field of vision, or if I'm really absorbed in something and haven't noticed you, speak to me. Don't clap a hand on my shoulder. It freaks me out and I have to fight the urge to punch you.

  3. No friendly poking or prodding. I get that some people like to poke their friends in the rib, or punch them lightly on the arm, but that's not a friendly thing for me. I find it aggressive and it sets me on edge. Personal bubble, okay?

  4. NO TOUCHING MY FACE OR NECK. Ever. Under any circumstances at all. My hitting you is a reflex reaction to your touching my face or neck; you've been forewarned, and I admit no liability.

  5. No rubbing my stomach. This means you, Tyler.

  6. Ask. If you want to hug me, ask first. Give me space to refuse, and don't be offended if I do. I do like hugs, but they're quite an intimate thing for me and I don't want them every day. On a very special day, I might be up for hugs. Under ordinary circumstances, “Go Team Venture!” is an appropriate level of physical contact for me. If I'm feeling extra twitchy and anxious, I'll want nothing more than a nice distance-keeping Vulcan salute.

I know it seems strange to you physical people, but this is my deal. If it helps, think of me as a brain in a jar – it's what we'll all be in a few years anyway.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Walking Dead Season 2: Why I Won't Be Watching

It’s no secret that I love zombie movies. Not just the stone-cold classics of the genre, or even the flawed-but-interesting – I’ve gotten entertainment of some kind from the absolute dregs of zombiedom, your Hard Rock Zombies and your Nudist Colony of the Dead; the very words “zombie movie” guarantee my unconditional interest. So I was excited last year when I heard that AMC was bringing long-running comic book series The Walking Dead to the small screen. The wonderful World War Z proved that zombies can be artistically and commercially successful in book form; surely this would do the same for TV. A digestible six-episode first season? Directed by Frank “Shawshank” Darabont? On the network that gave us Breaking Bad? BRING IT ON.

I really, really hated it.

My biggest issue with The Walking Dead season one is that it was boring as shit. Maybe it's my fault for being too well-versed in prior incarnations of the living dead, but nothing about the plot or situation was new to me. I'm not asking zombie filmmakers to reinvent the wheel; just do one little thing I haven't seen before. If you're not doing anything new or interesting with your zombies, then do something new and interesting with the setting or the characters. Unfortunately, TWD failed on this front as well. The show was all about your standard boring white cis dude and his boring white heteronormative family, and because all the zombie stuff was so tedious I had nothing to distract me from the steaming garbage pile of sexism and racism that accompanied it.

Okay, so white dudes have these two totally beloved tropes of theirs, which I call “sleight-of-hand sexism” and “slight-of-hand racism”. Here's how it works.

Our protagonist is a white dude. He is not racist/sexist because he does not use the n-word or the b-word. Our antagonist is another white dude, but he is racist/sexist. You can tell because he uses the n-word and the b-word, and is cartoonishly over-the-top in his proclamations of the inferiority of women/POC. The women/POC are terrified by Overtly Racist/Sexist White Dude, but luckily our White Dude Messiah is on the scene to save them! Racism/sexism is denounced. White dudes feel good about themselves (because they would never use the n-word or the b-word, and therefore they are not racist/sexist). Everyone's happy.

Oh yeah, except the women/POC. You know, the people who have been denied agency? Who have to be rescued by the White Dude Messiah because they are so helpless in the face of oppression? Whose only role is to show how awesome the White Dude Messiah is, because he nobly rescues them from the other white dude?


In its second episode, TWD featured a textbook example of sleight-of-hand racism. In its fourth episode, there was a scene of sleight-of-hand sexism. Both of these scenes, intended to show us how totally not-racist and not-sexist the show is, serve only to accentuate (to those with the slightest understanding of systemic oppression) just how racist and sexist the show in fact is.

Where else is it sexist? Take the opening scene of episode four. Two women are having a conversation. It's not only horribly written (stilted and unrealistic), but it also fails the Bechdel test. It feels like a scene written by the kind of jerk-offs who say they just can’t write women characters (because they see them as women first, characters second).

Where else is it racist? Apart from throughout, what with the foregrounding of our unspeakably boring White Dude Messiah protagonist and the silencing of POC, I actually shouted at the screen in episode six: “OH, WAY TO KILL OFF YOUR ONLY WOC, SHOW.” Of course the show's only WOC was fridge stuffing. Why would I think she could be anything else, in a show written by and about white dudes?

Ultimately, the show's attitude toward people who aren't white dudes is encapsulated in the White Dude Messiah's words to another white dude in episode six: “Your wife didn’t have a choice. You do.”

Say it with me: because she's a woman!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

"Room" For Improvement

Last night I went to a movie theater in Oakland to see The Room. (If you're not familiar with The Room, well, this might not be the blog for you, but this might give you some idea.) I've seen it on the big screen before, in London, but this time was special: writer/director/producer/star Tommy Wiseau, the finest auteur of our time, was there in person. Getting to meet him, shake his hand, get his autograph, and have a photo taken with him is definitely one of the high points of my life to date.

A couple of things struck me about the audience for The Room. First, everyone was exactly the same age – members of the “are you being sarcastic, dude?” “I don't even know anymore” generation. Second, a lot of them were kind of douchey.

When Tommy took questions before the movie, most of the askers – a group, I note, comprised exclusively of dude-identified humans – were out to be as obnoxious as possible, trying to make themselves seem hi-larious. (The dude who suggested The Room 2 should be a zombie movie, so undead Johnny could tear Lisa apart? Bitch, please.) And when it came to the movie itself, things got even worse.

Maybe it's because the cult of The Room hasn't been around as long in the UK, so people are more joyful about it and less vicious, but when I saw it in London the audience riffing was a lot less mean-spirited. This time around, there was just so much vitriol directed at the character of Lisa. I myself am hardly immune to getting carried away in the excitement of audience participation and shouting something I regret a moment later, but the full 100 minutes of dudes hollering “slut” and “whore” was a bit much. There's a fine line between mocking the movie's misogyny (“because you're a woman!”) and actively participating in misogyny yourself, and these dudes were way over the line.

It's a funny thing about fandom: if you were a nerdy kid who liked a lot of music and books and movies and TV shows that the kids around you had never heard of, meeting a fellow fan of these things was incredibly exciting. “Wait, you know all the words to Tommy as well? INSTANT BFF!” There's still a part of me that wants to believe anyone that likes the things I like is a kindred spirit. Certainly I have had and do have some very deep and meaningful friendships based primarily on a shared enthusiasm for MST3K or the Coen brothers or Sharktopus or Ursula LeGuin. Hell, for me a necessary component of a good friendship is the frequent saying and hearing of the words, “You were right. [Venture Bros/Veronica Falls/Community/Margaret Atwood] is AWESOME.”

However, “douche” and “person that likes the things I like” are not mutually exclusive categories, and that's a hard lesson.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Dear "The Big Bang Theory": It's Over.

I hate you, The Big Bang Theory.

I've not always hated you. (I've always criticized you a lot, with good reason, but I've not always hated you.) A couple Decembers ago, when my relationship was falling apart and winter was doing its usual number on me, I marathoned your first three seasons. You've never been a good show as such, but you were an adequate guilty pleasure.

I mean, I was always troubled by your broadness, your reliance on lazy stereotypes, and your tendency to invite the audience to laugh at your characters rather than with them. (NERDS LIKE TYPICALLY NERDY PURSUITS! AHAHAHA!) But I put up with all that for the same reason my queer sisters suffered through five seasons of The L Word: when mainstream representations of people like yourself are so rare, you take whatever crumbs you can get. And also because Sheldon was awesome.

(Remember when Sheldon was awesome?)

Last year, though, you were in serious decline. The twin headlights in the darkness of season four were Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch, both criminally underserved as Penny's friends Amy and Bernadette. And now you've completely lost the plot.

You've always kind of mocked your characters, but it used to be in an affectionate way; now it's just outright contempt. It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia this ain't – you're not a dark, edgy show about horrible people doing horrible things; you're a fluffy three-camera sitcom for mindless entertainment, and You're Doing It Wrong.

Look at How I Met Your Mother. It's always been better than you, of course, but the comparison stands because it too is a show well past its prime, coasting on its six prior seasons of audience goodwill. (Again, not like Always Sunny, whose seventh season is completely killing it and, if it continues like this, might just be the best thing to happen to television ever.) HIMYM has gotten lazy and is spinning its wheels, but – ideological problems aside – is still a pleasant, unchallenging watch, because it doesn't hate its characters.

You seem determined to make your viewers hate all your central characters. You've stripped them of every non-loathsome characteristic, reducing them to cartoonish bundles of broad tics, unfunny running gags, and unbelievable interactions.

And you're just so fucking offensive.

I've put up with so goddamn much of your shit. For four seasons I've overlooked your dumb gender essentialist stereotypes, your constant racism, your sneering at nerd culture; and I just can't take it anymore. The four episodes of season five that have aired so far turn the racism and slut-shaming up to eleven, but it's the most recent episode that was the final straw for me. It was so irredeemably loathsome on every level that I no longer feel even the slightest pang of regret in saying:

Fuck you, The Big Bang Theory. I hate you and will never watch you again.