Archive for May, 2011

You call him sissy and I’ll call him stronger than you

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The language we use to process our thoughts is a silent determinant in how we frame the world.* So when english-thinking people try to understand gender-related personality traits, we come upon a wall of strong masculine-feminine duality with a haphazard set of words for everything in between. Queer, transgendered, bisexual, pansy, femme, butch, gay – there is no clean spectrum to frame our identity.

And it wasn’t even until quite recently that we broke free from a very strict dualistic dichotomy. Gay boys and girls struggling with their identity had no framework to find their niche. Many felt forced to pick the set of cultural norms for the opposite of their own gender, and those who resisted often struggled with hiding their sexual orientation even if they wanted to be open and out in the greater society.

Since the late-60s we’ve been slowly moving towards an acceptance and understanding of the greater gender spectrum. Just as we have unbridled ourselves to take on whatever kind of profession or interest we desire, just as women have fought to eliminate the male-heavy roles in society, we have become more comfortable with where we lay between completely heterosexual and completely homosexual, and completely masculine and completely feminine. But we still still struggle with it because it requires a great deal of effort to put into words how we think and feel about where we are along the spectrum. The vocabulary available to us is unevenly spread across the shades of identity.

What got me thinking about this problem is what seems like an increasing number of videos, posts, and comments online by effeminate gays defending their right to be who they are. Among gay men, there is a bias against the more feminine men and a greater demand for ‘straight-acting’ gays who have little or none of the affectations of a ‘sissy’ – lispy voice, hyper-attention to outward appearance and use of body stylings more popular with females, etc.

Note that all of the terms I used in that last paragraph are relative – ‘straight-acting’ has no permanent definition, and neither does ‘sissy’ – and the latter is being pulled into words deemed totally unutterable, such as where ‘faggot’ will probably be in a decade or two.

As I began trying to understand the issues revolving the role of effeminate men in gay culture, the reality, as usual, is vastly varied and subtle. Most obviously is the wide range of identity among gay men. There is no common trait with any of them except their attraction to their attraction to other men (providing they are not bisexual to any degree).

But the biggest issue is where a gay man is on their quest to be fully accepting of their own identity. Having a sexual identity different than most other boys just when everyone is having to deal with new and confusing feelings and thoughts is only a catalyst for merely feeling different – an unsettling problem that can persist for a long time after fully coming out to family, friends, coworkers, and everyone else who matters in life. In other words, you may be honest with yourself and others about your sexuality, but you must also accept yourself as a whole because you may not have gotten over the feeling of being different.

(If you even vaguely feel this way, I suggest reading The Velvet Rage by Alan Downs – and you may want to think about talking with a gay-friendly therapist.)

So what is happening is that gays in varying states of accepting themselves for who they really are, thrown in to the same socializing and dating pool as gays fully comfortable in their own skin, all dealing with gays still coming to terms with their sexuality, plus heterosexuals in their own wide range of acceptance and persecution. And within the gay community the ones getting the short end of the stick are effeminate men who are fully accepting of themselves but who have a hard time trying to find peace and companionship. This is the group who put up with the brunt of the bullying as a teenager, the ones who are often survivors of much pain and suffering, who have fought hard for any scrap of happiness. They are often strong and outspoken – and still have trouble finding acceptance in the community they and their forebears built. It should always be remembered that among those who fought the hardest for gay rights were often the swishing, lisping ‘screaming queens’ that defined the stereotype. It was the drag queens who fought back during the Stonewall Riots, and never forget that.

That should be enough to give one pause and to think about one’s own gender biases. Our culture still holds onto the idea that it’s the manly men who are the strongest and put up with the grunt work of life – but that’s as much of a myth as the idea that we are the gender we appear on the outside. One of the greatest discoveries of the feminist movement is the role of women in history. The half of the population who stayed home while the man worked, who didn’t strap on a gun and fight in wars – they were often the ones who pushed the men and who fought for what really mattered. As recent as the Iranian election protests of 2009 it was the women who were the bravest in fighting back against the oppressive regime.

Because the primary function of language is to communicate between humans, changing our ways of expressing gender will take time. Sure, a panel of experts could come up with a whole new way of discussing identity, but if no one adopt their decisions the change will fail. Realistically all we can do is lay groundwork for future generations to better comprehend the range of who we are by doing the best we can with the words we have and let the usual mutation of slang, idioms, and clichés push into a more accepting way of thought.

* For more information, see the Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis…or for something less dry, try “How does our language shape the way we think?” by Lera Boroditsky, or “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?” from The New York Times.

This post has been done before

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.
- Ecclesiastes 1:9

There’s a vague point when a human has learned enough about the world that they often begin to despair. We are a species capable of horrific acts, nothing we make will last forever, that even beyond the inevitability of death we all live on a tiny rock in an uncaring universe capable of destroying everything we know.

But there’s the solace of creating something new and brightening the lives of others, right? Yet one of the biggest motivators for creativity is the hope of making something new is negated by all the other inventions, works of art, buildings, and discoveries made by those before us. Not only has that great idea that came to you this morning been thought by someone else, but there’s a 95%* chance it’s already been tried. And if it’s an actionable idea, it’s probably been done better already. Want to tell a story explaining a universal truth of the human existence? Shakespeare’s already covered it and with more style and tact than you could muster. Okay, that’s not exactly a reasonable statement because you’re hampered by the existence of Shakespeare’s work, whereas he didn’t have anyone (in english) to have already covered his ground, even if he stole his plots from other writers.

Even worse, all the ideas with low barriers to success have been plucked. You don’t have to be a technology expert to see that it’s an almost insurmountable task to design and sell a tablet computer now that Apple’s iPad has been out for a year, has tremendous momentum, and has been done with a high degree of style and engineering.

Even the phrase, “Nothing is new under the sun.” has been done multiple times and with eloquent style.  The phrase in English comes from the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, which was written about 2,300 years ago and was already an old expression. I’m not even going to try to compose something better. The concept works on several levels: whatever thoughts you’re having aren’t original, whatever you made has probably been done, people act the same way they have for thousands and thousands of years, and make the same mistakes.

The one way that’s historically helped those wishing to make something new: forgetting the past. Take the curse of trying to create literature to express the human condition when we’ve already got Shakespeare. He wasn’t the first person to write about teenage love or insanity or murder or thinking too much – but he was the first one to write in English and get wide exposure. It’s important to remember that he took most of his stories from lessor works before him. His gift was to take those nuggets and polish them until they shone with brilliant language.

Sure, this advice only really works for art. You’d be dumb to forget what we already know about scientific principles, math concepts, and productive technology. But maybe it takes accidental ignorance to make a leap – perhaps forgetting that the iPad is so great so that instead of trying to catch up you make a different device that’s equal or greater in quality is all that’s needed.

It shouldn’t be too hard to see that this post is really about writer’s block. I’ve been trying to get back to writing regularly for Budaeli, and I’ve been struggling to come up with something compelling to discuss. Topics I usually enjoy talking about have already been done, and what ideas I’ve had for new posts don’t fit the style I’ve developed. There are a few essays I’m working out but otherwise I’ve been stuck.

So I’m inventing a new rule: everyone is allowed to publicly publish one writer’s/painter’s/sculptor’s/designer’s block work. And I’m using mine up now.

Yeah, yeah, it’s not a new rule. But I did a quick Google search and didn’t find any mention of a writer’s block rule, so I’m claiming it as my own.

* I totally made up that statistic.

A poor and wretched boy

Sunday, May 1st, 2011

The other day one of my favorite songs came up on shuffle and I could only remember about half the lyrics. It was “The Chimbley Sweep” by The Decemberists, a fun Dickensian ditty about an orphaned chimney sweep who gets propositioned by a widow. The worst part is I’m not even sure I ever knew all the lyrics.

As I get older I’m starting to notice limits to what I can remember. It’s not that there is a limit to space in my mind (I’m convinced that the brain is malleable enough to store vast amounts of knowledge when needed), but that I’m exposing myself to so much incoming data that I’m letting too much get forgotten. And with music there’s a particular impasse: do I hold onto my cherished favorite tunes or do I relentlessly search for new ones?

Many people give up by my age. They hold onto the songs of their teenage or college years and barely notice anything new except to deride the sorry state of music (the kids keep putting out shittier music, apparently). I know a few who even fill their iPods with music no older than Haddaway’s “What is Love.”

This is somewhat understandable. Music is an emotional medium. We attach memories and feelings to songs regardless of whether the actual song is happy or not.* For me, my comfort music is early-90s pop and alternative (even Haddaway). I also have deep attachment to mid-60s pop because it was my obsession during my teenage years thanks to stumbling onto The Beatles just as I began listening to what I was hearing. When I retreat to heal mental wounds, these are what I retreat to for soothing.

At the same time I fall into the other camp, the new music obsessives. The ones who are always searching for a new experience. There’s a moment with some songs, just after hearing it once or twice, before you have every part memorized,  and you play the song again and there’s this feeling of bliss (or melancholia, sometimes the feeling of sadness or nostalgia is just as strong). And then you play the song to death; but like a hard drug its effect diminishes over time, encouraging continuous pursuit of music that makes you high. There’s even scientific proof that I’m not the only one who feels euphoria with music.

This second group is where music lovers start but eventually age and memory slow down the rate of absorption…sometimes. It used to be there rate of new music being produced was low enough that one could go an entire life in pursuit of new music. Diehard fans like John Peel could pull this off when the barrier to releasing music was still high.

Nowadays it’s almost like there’s more musicians than listeners and more genres than words in a dictionary. And the technology that makes it easier to find music…makes it easier to find music and it’s a whole new form of information overload. My Amazon wishlist – one that consists of only music, has 372 items of albums and tracks, and even if I bought them all I doubt I’d listen to every minute of every recording.

So there’s the songs I already know and enjoy, songs I love but haven’t heard enough (like “Chimbley Sweep”) and songs I haven’t heard but may like just as much. And the latter group can be split into songs that have already been released and I may know about, and songs just being released but I just don’t have the time to process yet. Sometimes this means months or even years go by before I get to great songs that everyone else has played to death.

As a result I have an grotesquely complex system for managing my music:

  1. My iTunes library, which has 21,160 tracks, 1,220 of which have a play count of 0.
    1. Playlists of newly downloaded tracks for absorption sorted by year and month,
    2. A favorite songs playlist,
    3. And about 19,000 songs I haven’t heard in over a year.
  2. Channels for finding new music:
    1. Satellite radio
    2. Friend recommendations
    3. Music posted to Tumblr
    4. Bookmarks of music videos on YouTube
  3. Rdio for listening to whole albums or tracks again to make sure they are good, with several dozen albums and tracks queued up
  4. Three Amazon wishlists for music (regular music, showtunes, and comedy albums) used to be in that mix, both for finding new music and for rediscovering tracks I’ve already heard. But I got rid of that for different reasons.**

In case you haven’t noticed, this is an absurd situation. And probably very familiar.

As part of a larger effort to curb my time wasted on sorting the information that comes my way every day, I’ve instituted a few changes:

  • Canceling my Rdio subscription (this was partly a “why the hell am I paying for this?” decision). It was nice to have the opportunity to listen to whole tracks before purchase but it required yet more time to listen to new music. I may go back later after I’ve reacquainted with my existing library.
  • When I had Rdio I would listen to music there and then mark music I really liked as “High Priority” on my Amazon wishlist. So now I removed all but those high priority tracks. And from no on only music that I respond strongly to gets added.
  • In addition to my favorite songs playlist, I also have a “Songs to Sing” list for songs I want to memorize. I also have a heavy rotation list where I dump music I listen to regularly, and a smart playlist that pulls up highly-rated tracks that haven’t been listened to in over a year.
  • More confidence that I’ll still hear great new music through merely paying attention and the acceptance that I won’t get to hear everything and that’s okay.
  • I deleted half of my iTunes library.

Okay that last one isn’t true. The cost of storing the music is far lower than the convenience of having all that music to listen whenever I want.

No matter what happens, music will always play a major role in my life. Most of my waking life will be filled with its sweet sounds, and my job is to be open to new experiences and cherish my favorites – without going insane.

* For many years I thought Blind Melon’s “No Rain” was a happy song, and it made me happy, until I heard the lyrics. And Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” has such an uppity beat it still puts me in a good mood despite being about a new marriage already falling apart.
** As much as I loved going through statistics of my listening habits, only offered cursory opportunities for me to find new music. It might just be how my brain works, but I only occasionally found new music because of the site’s ability to match my listening habits with my friends (Andy McKee’s Art of Motion and Ratatat comes to mind). But that wasn’t why I stopped using the site. It was taxing my attention – I was worrying about things like what music was showing up for my friends to see and what that might say about me to others. I tried to just not care but I couldn’t help massaging the data to improve my image, never mind the likelihood that no one cared anyway. So I deleted all my data and stopped tracking my listening. While I occasionally wish I could go through that data, the freedom to not care is more beneficial.