Sunday, 29 November 2009

An Advent

[To the folks from Elizabeth Esther's blogstravaganza: this current post, "An Advent," won out over a close competitor for the monthly carnival slot. That other post is featured here. It represents what is perhaps another facet of my blogger-personality, appearing as differences in topic and perhaps style. In this case, I am discussing the intersection between people with disabilities and cultural ideals of sexiness. I talk about Aimee Mullins, conjoined twins, where 'sexiness' comes from, and moral reactions to these things.]

Today is the first day of the liturgical year, beginning with the season of Advent. If you are interested in what Advent is, I will yet again encourage you to visit Conversion Diary, which is quite likely one of the Internet's best wikis on all such things, even though it's not officially a wiki. I won't be talking too much about Advent as a general topic, though. Rather, I want to talk about this Advent, which marks or is marked by a unique advent for me.

(In case you didn't visit Jennifer Fulwiler's blog, I should at the very least tell you that Advent is the first season of the liturgical year and one during which we prepare ourselves for the birth of Christ, celebrated on 25 December. The end of the liturgical year, a season known somewhat anticlimactically as Ordinary Time, is the time in the liturgy during which we recall Christ's reign on Earth. Thus in the turning over from this last Saturday to today, we move from Christ's reign to a pre-Christ's reign time, a sort of harkening to the Old Testament which is itself a preparation for Christ. That's not a pre-Christ's reign time in that during this season the sacrifice is somehow moot and we're all for the next few weeks damned. No. It's rather a symbolic sort of thing, a remembering sort of thing. Anyway, Advent is a time of New Year's resolutions--or positive personal change--as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, both as born in Bethleham and as returning again at the end of all things.)

This Sunday, you may recall, is the first Sunday that I became a server at Saint Thomas' Anglican Church. If I were asked to give my denomination, I would say either that I was baptised and confirmed Lutheran or that I am non-denominational. I recall three churches of which I would have called myself a regular member of the congregation: the Lutheran one (St. Paul's) previously described, the evangelical/non-denominational/student church (Bethel) at school, and St. Thomas' here in Fort McMurray. Bethel did not have an alb-clad worship team, but St. Paul's did and during the last two years of elementary school and to a lesser extent the first year of high school, I served there as an acolyte. (I was also Assistant Minister once, but I don't remember much about that.) Anyway, one thing I missed when going to Bethel was the ritual, the altar space, the formal roles, and, as a sort of crystallization of all of that, the alb itself. Here at St. Thomas' we have both the energy of Bethel and the ritual of St. Paul's, and when they called for servers (of which 'acolyte' is in the Anglican church a subtype), I volunteered.

I completed server training a few weeks ago, but in the first two Sunday's following that the other new servers served, and then last Sunday there was a baptism and so one of the girls from the more experienced lot served for that. This Sunday, then, was my first day as a server. It is my luck (solely a figure of speech, I'm sure) that my first day as a server was the first day of Advent, and thus the first day of the liturgical year. Truly a day of firsts.

As far as St. Thomas' itself goes, this is also a time of turn-over. It doesn't match up as neatly as my first, but it's still interesting. Rev. Fraser is going to be consecrated as a Bishop soon and presiding in Athabasca. Thus St. Thomas' will be out a priest. (Rev. Leslie Hand will still be 'our' priest, but she can't always make it Sundays due to commitments at another church.) Today was the second or third worship that I have attended which Rev. Fraser did not himself attend. Rather, the deacon and one of the lay-readers (David and Lori respectively) made up the worship team with myself. Fraser will be back for some more Sundays, but not many more. The sort of service we had today will be more and more common, and so while it's not an actual first, it is among the first and is a taste for what will follow in a few weeks.

However, this leads into a more human story. That is, because Fraser was absent, we did not have communion this Sunday. The sort of service I prepared for was a communion service, and the cues I was watching for were communion service cues. This means I got awful lost and confused when I realized that a central part of the ritual would simply not be there, and so I had no idea when to do things. For instance, in the three songs before communion, you prepare the table during the second song and receive the offering during the third song. So I know that when the priest starts getting ready for the sacrament, I should be getting out the bread box and then the flasks, and then on the song after that I will get the offering plate, receive the offering, and place it on the altar. But since we had no communion, the pre-offering liturgy would be different and my other cue (the priest preparing the sacrement) would be missing. So I was lost.

After some fumbling, though, and some kind guidance from David, I got everything done on time. The good news also was that Lori hadn't led service very many times before and she was nervous too, though she certainly didn't show it.

There were other fumbles than that, but not major ones. David and Lori were very nice (and presumably still are) and it all worked out, and likely no one in the congregation was the wiser.

In a way I was disappointed that there was no communion. I would have liked to have helped prepare the host. It seems magical to me, and I wanted to be part of that. Now, I dislike your common Christian sayings because I fear that through overuse they have lost their meaning. Notwithstanding this, it occured to me during service that this disappointment is another instance of God's plans superceding our own. I had wanted to be part of communion as a way of strengthening my own bond with Christ through that ritual. The whole process was something that I craved, and I craved it solely because I wanted it to make me feel more connected to Christ. This I did not get. Rather, I served during a service without a communion. My focus was on other things then, like singing loudly enough and praying loudly enough and getting my cues right. I was forced to trust that David and Lori, and through them God, would help me perform this role properly and help me help the congregation worship during a time of transition.

I am not saying that I was in the main disappointed, but it wasn't what I was expecting. And don't get me wrong: I have not walked away from this saying, "Now I can trust God and trust the worship team! I am now focused on helping the congregation and not myself, and I can now find Jesus in the service elsewhere than in the host!" It would be nice if these were true, but they aren't really. I don't trust well at all and I barely think of the congregation and on a bad day I have a hard time finding Jesus anywhere, even in the host.

I knew that my peformance as server would not transform me from someone feeling lost and distant from God into a zealous and whole 'little Christ' who is pumping the Spirit out to the congregation. While I am sure that the sow's ear can become a silk purse as much as water once became wine, the transformation from me into Super-me nonetheless seemed a little unlikely even in light of that. I was, however, hoping for some magical connection, some sudden and undeniable affirmation of my community in Christ. Rather, what I did learn, if it was learning, was a lesson that is integral to Advent: that I am not there yet; that I need preparation and that my change is a process, not an event; that I have a long way to go.

I read Narnia books and see how exciting it is that Aslan comes in at the end and turns them into heroes. What I conveniently forget is that Edmund had to wallow in the Witch's prison. That Eustace had to become a dragon (or become disabled and disfigured, which you get by reading what it's like for him to be dragon) and then undergo what amounted to torture at Aslan's claws. That Aravis and Shasta had to trek across the desert with lions hot on their heels (like Jonah, in a way). That Polly and Eustace had to fight a losing battle amidst sorrow at the ends of times. That they had to do all of these things before they became knights (or friends) of Narnia.

The question, of course, is what sort of change is needed? I don't know, but I suppose neither did Edmund, or Eustace, or Aravis, or Polly, or Abraham, or Hosea, or Peter, or Paul. What I do know is that I will start paying better attention to the liturgical year. I don't know what to do to observe that, but at least I will keep an eye on it. And I will stop expecting magical transformations at the appropriate time, not because they can't happen but because they likely won't if you're looking for them.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Some Tired

I am some tired.

Old Fashioned Christmas was today, and I'm wiped. I serve in church tomorrow and fortunately I have the day off after that. I'm back in on Monday, of course.

That's all, I guess. I'm puzzling over Coriakan. (If you know what he represents, don't tell me!) Years ago yet I first started trying to work it out, but I have never managed it. A friend of mine told me it would be better if I figured it out myself.

Bah. I should go to bed.

Friday, 27 November 2009

7 Quick Takes (XIX)

1. On Saturday, I went in to work in the morning. I continued on my project until 1, at which point I went home. I got some movies in the afternoon, and of them I watched Drag You to Hell (or Drag Me to Hell? I can't recall). It wasn't very good. The plotting and pacing needed work, since the climax and the final scene both lacked the emotional impact one expects. Also, the special effects were sub-par for what we expect these days. Or, at least, some of them were. Not all, I guess.

2. On Sunday, I went to church and stayed afterwards for lunch, during which I had a talk with a kid about his Lego and then had another conversation with the deacon. That afternoon I watched Labyrinth, which I enjoyed overall. I still find the movie soundtracks from that era to be counterintuitive. I found I was unimpressed by the battle sequence at the end, due in all likelihood to the fact that the sequence was hampered by the use of puppets. (Necessary in the situation, I understand well enough.)
I did things in the evening that I can't recall. In the later evening I watched Children of Men on the TV. I enjoyed it, but that night I went to bed imagining apocalypse and I was a bit unhappy about it. (Normally thinking about apocalypse doesn't effect me much, since it's all just hypothetical/fantastic, but for some reason I was feeling impressionable--hypnotic?--enough that it did bother me.)

3. Monday. What happened Monday? Well, all this week we've been preparing for our event, Old Fashioned Christmas, which is happening tomorrow. This has had everyone running around busy and stressed.

4. I stayed late on Wednesday. I do remember that. I didn't stay too late, mind, but we got some help from a local landscaping firm. They lent us workers and a cat and we wanted to utilize this as well as we could. However, it gets dark too early to work very late. (Twilight is around 4-5, I'd say. After 5 it's pretty much dark.)

5. Hmmm. While a lot has been going on at work, not much of it is worth comment. It's all just events preparation. I put up lots of Christmas lights; I arranged a Christmas village we had donated and, with ample help, put up Santa's sleigh and Rudolf in a biplane. There was also lots of carrying of things back and forth and suchlike. Today I spent some time arranging floodlights onto buildings. It's been that sort of thing.

6. The homeschoolers came this morning for to present their completed projects. At least, those who could make it did. We had five kids, three of whom read short stories/picture books and two of whom had video assignments. I think it went well. It was stressful trying to get it together in the midst of events preparation, though.

7. I was going to stay late today to continue setting up, but in the end didn't. My Mom, who has the van, usually picks me up. I got the receptionist to call her, but apparently the message didn't record or something. I'm not sure, really. Anyway, the boss goes out and gets me at five to five saying that my ride's here. I was unprepared for that, but the boss said go home anyway, she'll see to it that everything gets locked up. So I went home at the regular time. It felt odd, going home so suddenly without any closing ritual. I felt like the day was unfinished. That feeling faded quickly enough, though.

I swear stuff has been happening outside of work--at any rate, I'm not getting enough sleep--but I can't recall what. Sorry.

At any rate, the event is tomorrow. And then, on Sunday, I am serving at church.

Fare thee well.

Friday, 20 November 2009

7 Quick Takes (XVIII)

1. This weekend I worked on my SSHRC stuff. This meant that over the course of Saturday and Sunday I did a number of on-line form filling, but I also did an interesting activity: I composed a bibliography of sources that I have not read. Not only have I never read them, I haven't even held most in my hands. I found them in library catalogs and on-line databases. I am still unsure as to whether or not the process expected you to have read them or not. As far as I can see, they can't expect you to have. It still seems absurd to me that I'd have to go through this. Anyway, I got 45 of them or some such thing. It was a lot of work.

2. I mailed the package off on Tuesday. I hope it got in on time.

3. And now, for the first time in a long time, I have something like free time again. The next due date is not until January. I will of course work on this earlier, but it will be a more relaxed process. To celebrate my free time, I wrote that very long post on Tuesday about disabilities and sexiness. If you follow, you know the one.

4. Jumping back, I went to church on Sunday, and one of the other training servers was up there. She's a youngun. I made sure to give her a thumbs up just before she helped prepare the Host.
The sermon was on not worrying about the future: Jesus said there will be wars so we oughn't to worry too much over that, and the world won't end. In part of this, the priest (I'm still unused to that designation) suggested that global warming was a joke. He seemed to imply that the carbon dioxide in question came from exhaling. Now, I've discussed global warming before and won't do it again, but I do think he was a bit off on this. Saying, "Don't worry, it's part of God's plan" is legitimate in a sense, but the impression I walked away with was that he was saying we shouldn't really worry about doing anything about environmental destruction, ethnic conflicts, terrorism and counter-terrorism, and all the assorted other things which quite likely threaten the integrity of civilization as we know it.
I think that we can and are obliged to try and prevent 'apocalypse'--not world-shattering destruction, but huge political/ecological/cultural changes that damage people's integrity. And on environmental apocalypse, let's not forget that we're been given custody of the earth, and so far we've been pretty bad custodians.
I think he's right to tell us not to let fear drive us. We as a culture are too driven by fear (especially considering how relatively little we have to fear). But I'm worried about the implications of passivity that might result.

5. At work I've begun to write text fragments for my virtual exhibit. Though this is work that I "like" doing, it gets difficult, typing at a computer all day (and yet here I am doing it again). For the last few days I've been doing bios on assorted priests (Catholic) that came to Fort McMurray, and some of these are so interesting. The lives of either Father Maurice Beauregard or Father Bernard Brown could be made into successful movies (there's already a bio on Beau called Father Maurice Beauregard, OMI: Life is wonderful...). The history of Fort McMurray can be very interesting--as likely can the history of any community be, if given the right attention and presentation.
<Edit 11 Mar 2013: I have recently received a message that Father Maurice Beauregard has committed sexual assault against minors. I have been unable to corroborate this, but nonetheless I want to emphasize that sexual assault is heinous and inexcusable and that I would not endorse a figure that I knew to be guilty of that crime. At the time that I originally wrote this post, I had heard of no such allegations.>

6. Today was Charlie's last day. Charlie (pseudonym) works at Heritage Park, seasonally. He's going on his 4-5 month winter vacation. Good for him. He officially retired a while ago, but hasn't stopped working.
Oh, and I held a baby today. I think it's the first time in my life. I just thought of it as a cat, and it worked out fairly well.
(I'm just kidding: I thought of him as a cat. I did know his gender.)

7. I am reading a bit again. Still in Isaiah. I am trying to finish my Lovecraft collection for Christmas. I'm on "The Shadow over Innsmouth." It's the second last in the collection. I have for the moment abandoned Heart of Darkness. I prefer Lovecraft's torturous style to Conrad's, I suppose. I'm thinking Rebecca or Moby Dick or lullabies for little criminals or maybe something about more trash lit next.
I am also repeatedly drawn to Frye. I'm not sure why. I think reading Fyre too much will destroy my own writing. I was trying to get something going where there were four characters, each with equal head-space time. Each of these four characters would show the story with a different emphasis and a different structure. One character's story would be a tragedy, one a satire, one a comedy, and one a romance (using these words in the sense Frye does--for tragedy, think Wicked or Hamlet; for satire, think Gulliver's Travels or The Miller's Tale; for comedy, think Pride and Prejudice or As You Like It; for romance, think Indiana Jones or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight). The whole structure would be a romance, since that's the structure best suited for containing all of the others, and thus the character who was the romantic hero would be somewhat more prominent, though not by much. I was working on four-fold symbols and such, but the whole structure got just too complicated. I might return to such a project when I'm better at novel-writing (for a novel is what this would have to be), but in the meantime I need to move on. I feel as though I should return to the YA project I started for the UBC application, but I'm not so sure about it right now.
I'm also trying to piece together a Frye-based understanding of the horror genre, and it's not easy. I think this is a rare thing: sometimes it's on the border between romance and satire, which shouldn't be possible. Lovecraft is certainly satire (not in the sense you'd think of it, but in the sense of Frye's definition), though in a strange and fantastic way. But I think it can go either way for other authors, and that should be impossible. (There's also a strong case for tragic, in some stories, but not most.)

Anywho, away I go.

Quick Takes Queen.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Sexy Body, Disfigured Body

Aimee Mullins, who I have referenced here before, asked a question in her TED talk on her 12 pairs of (prosthetic) legs. Actually, she asked three questions. They are, "What does a beautiful woman have to look like? What is a sexy body? And interestingly, from an identity standpoint, what does it mean to have a disability?" I started to think about this over the course of about a week. Not only was I wondering about the answers to her questions, but I also had a few questions about her questions. I'll try to explore these with you here.

1. What is a sexy body? What is a disabled body?

The most obvious way to answer this question is to Google these terms. But I don't think you have to. I think you'll know what you'll find, especially in the case of the former. This won't answer our questions, though. Neither question--sexiness, disability--is easily answerable. Likely, neither is answerable at all, in the end.

First: sexiness. Or, if you prefer, beauty or physical attractiveness. (If you don't want to follow my reasoning, jump to the next bold point.) They say, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and, whatever that person who originally minted this phrase meant, it has a truth different from that most people accept. Most people think it means that everyone has their own standard of beauty, which is of course somewhat true. However, there is another interesting element to this which I think becomes more clear if I say, "Beauty is in the mind of the beholder." Beauty is not, at least as we experience it, a quality inherent in an object or person. Rather, it is an interpretation of that object or person. People have said this before of all sorts of things, such as colour, but this is really a different matter than colour. A thing, of course, is not red itself. That is a psychological interpretation of the lightwaves we receive. But all things that we experience as red do reflect that particular wavelength. They are in a sense red after all.

In other words, our brains see a person and think, based on assorted qualities our sensory receptors pick up, "That's a sexy person." (If you want to hold onto an essentialist theory of beauty, you of course can. God or Platonic principles or what ever defines universal beauty can make a thing beautiful--truly, inherently beautiful--and then allow our brains to perceive that. Or, there is such a thing as beauty, somehow, derived from something, and it is to our reproductive advantage, somehow, to be able to perceive that, and we have evolved to be able to perceive it. The relevant point is that it's still a process that goes on in our brains.) In this sense, beauty is in the eye of the beholder--but that doesn't mean it's entirely subjective. To the extent that our brains operate the same, sexiness, even though interpreted, is objective; to the extent that our brains operate differently, it is subjective. The degree of difference isn't just genetics, of course, but also individual personal experience and cultural factors (and I'd argue that culture factors are way bigger than most people think). Anyway, the upshot is, 'sexiness' is partly universal, partly cultural, and partly individual. So we can answer 'what is a sexy body' in part, but only in part.

Now, there are all sorts of theories about facial symmetry and hip-waist ratios and things. I don't want to get into those, because I think that they are no more than contributing factors. A girl whose enormous, unibrow-laden, protuding forehead is perfectly symmetrical isn't going to win any beauty pagents. Meanwhile, I wouldn't say Helena Bonham Carter is the most beautiful woman in the world, but she's made it pretty well in Hollywood. But her face isn't perfectly symmetrical. Not at all. So I think we can say these sorts of things contribute, but aren't absolute.

I think here we need to fall back on what I said before. A lot of it is cultural. We are trained to think of particular people--often whole, 'healthy,' young, thin people--as beautiful and others as not beautiful. There was a time when overweight girls were considered sexy by some (Renaissance). There was a time when husky women were desirable (frontier, pre- and revolutionary Russia). There was a time when effeminate men were considered beautiful (ancient Greece, some Renaissance). Sickly girls also had a vogue (Victorian). It is true that some people we just won't find all that attractive anyway for biological reasons. But I don't think that's the case for people without legs. So long as we aren't actively repulsed by them, there's no reason we can't find them attractive. Listen to Aimee Mullins talk--just the first few minutes--on training repulsion.

That's not a real answer, but it's all I've got for now. I'll also note that I purposely trained myself not to be repelled by people with prosthetics and people with assorted facial disfigurations, etc. As a kid, I simply couldn't deal with anyone who looked 'disfigured' or 'deformed,' as I put it.

So what is disability? You'll notice I used "disfigured" in my post title. This is to emphasis a point: disability suggests a definition which rests on whether a person can perform as well as a typical person can in those tasks deemed part of everyday life. So we have people with missing limbs or people who are shorter than usual or what have you or blind people. This definition works well if you're only thinking of amputees, but it breaks down in other areas, at least if you want to talk about attractiveness. People with albinoism are not in any way less able to perform typical tasks, but they are often considered unattractive. Conjoined twins are often less able to do particular things, but they aren't always. Sometimes the only thing they are less able to do is to be alone, and I hardly think that counts. Aimee Mullins points out that people without legs are far from less able. They have now become more able. And then blind people, one of the largest demographics of people who are part of the disability--or different ability--activism movement, are often indistinguishable from sighted people, including in the realm of attractiveness. Disability is not the issue; it's 'looking weird' that is.

What definition can we use, then? Well, one possibility is, People who are visually atypical in some significant anatomical or pigmentational way, which is distinct from race, gender, or age. Another, less politically correct but I think more to the point, definition would be, People who would fifty years ago have been in a freak show, and now would be on the TLC network.

Where am I going with this? Good question. This is where: the fundamental question is, can a person who stikes us as so visually atypical also strike us as attractive?

Of course they can. If you care to, you can find all sorts of fetish literature about amputees and conjoined twins and human-animal hybrids (not possible yet, I know, but they would fit in this class if they did exist--and they were once thought to exist) and goodness knows who else. There is fetish literature about dragons doing R-rated things with luxury vehicles, so I guess we oughtn't be surprised.

But what about a 'normal' person, who doesn't have such fetishes? Well, I hope by now the pictures I've been putting in have answered that for you. There's no reason they can't, so long as we don't allow ourselves to be repulsed by them. And those fetishes may not be so off topic. I wonder if the forbidden-ness, the taboo, even the repulsiveness itself contribute to the fetish. If you look it up, people can be attracted to some pretty repulsive things. A Freudian analyst might talk a lot about the repression of certain disallowed desires being exagerated through a fetish. My point being, we might be naturally inclined to feel that these people are attractive--that these are sexy bodies--but we think we shouldn't feel so, and are as a result confused and repulsed. Consider the on-going cultural debate about whether the Medusa was beautiful or hideous. C. S. Lewis, for instance, calls the Medusa beautiful long before Cixous does. The classical painters painted her as such. And yet she's also a figure for ugliness--and disability.

Can a disfigured body be sexy? Sure it can. But we must let it be so.

2. Who becomes sexy?

And, of course, unless we find ourselves desiring that element which is different, the body must be sexy even without the disability. By now you'll likely have noticed that most of the people I've shown on here would have been attractive without their particular difference (or not, if you don't find them attractive). A 500-pound person will likely not be considered sexy, unless obesity turns you on. That's just a fact. And if a person is just generally what we'd consider unattractive, whether for cultural or hardwired reasons, then that they have a plastic arm isn't going to make much of a difference one way or another. If they could somehow grow that arm back, it won't help.

Which begins to put stress on Aimee Mullins implication that allowing the disabled to be beautiful is a victory. It seems that it's only a victory for those who are beautiful.

And I don't think this is going to push us into saying, Well, now that the legless are beautiful, people with distortions on their faces can also be beautiful. Because, I'm sorry, but by standard societal definitions, they can't. Not yet.

[I recognize that someone will come around with the argument that, if you fall in love with someone who is unattractive because of their personality, you will begin to find them physically attractive by magic, almost. I am absolutely sure this is true. Love is magic. I think we can also agree that that is beside the point. We already said we're not talking about the subjective. We're talking about quasi-objective attractiveness, in as much as it exists.]

So, if only some disabled people get to be beautiful, why should we value it at all?

3. Why sexiness?

Two reasons.

First, that there is no reason we can't bestow a privilege on some when we are unable to give it to all. It's not fair, but it would be ridiculous not to push for empowerment when not everyone in the demographic will be able to share it. It would be like saying, Let's give women the right to an education, and then someone saying, No, you can't, because those women over there are too old to start learning new things, and those women over their are so mentally handicapped that they wouldn't benefit from that education. (They have advanced learning disabilities or something.) It makes no sense.

And sexiness can be empowering. As much as people talk about beauty being a limit for women in some fields, I'd suggest you try being really downright unattractive before saying that. If you think you aren't taken seriously when you're pretty, at least people listen to you (or pay some sort of attention to you). At least people don't openly mock you for how you look, which I've seen happen.

Second, if we see some disabled people as attractive, we might be more willing to think of them--and by extension their whole demographic--as people. That is, we might think 'disabled person' over 'disabled person.' Grammatically, that is rendered 'a person with a disability,' which is the language differently-abled activists are pushing for. Hopefully, if we see a really hot albino guy walk down the street, we're less likely to think of people with albinoism as 'freaks.'

4. Why not sexiness? (I'll tell you.)

Notwithstanding what I've said so far, I think there's still a problem a number of problems, and I'm likely missing some.

While we're busy training ourselves to think of some disabled/differently-abled/disfigured/anatomically-or-pigmentally-atypical people as attractive, we're simultaneously training ourselves to think of being attractive as an important goal. That is, we're educating ourselves in the culture that worries about how people look in the first place. We're not breaking out of the system which discriminates by appearance. And before Jon breaks in here, I'm not talking about the movies. Whether we agree with Jon or not on cinema (and if you don't know Jon or what he thinks about cinema, don't worry about it) doesn't matter: I'm talking about real life here. I think it's fair to say that while enjoying an attractive person's appearance is not culturally destructive, discriminating based on it is. So we need to be careful when worrying about who is sexy that we don't by mistake brainwash ourselves into thinking that sexiness is somehow more important than, or even worse a contributing factor in, a person's humanity and their right to respect and compassion.

I revealed a particular issue earlier indirectly. There is a sort of thin edge where people who are too attractive aren't taken seriously and people who aren't attractive enough are avoided or ridiculed. Even if you found that happy medium, it would only be successful in that context; presumably, you'd be still unable to compete with those who were 'too attractive' in the other context when it comes to romantic rivalry, etc. In the end, the only thing we can say for sure is that we don't want to be in the lowest half of the attractiveness food chain. The hope, of course, is that we can somehow get out of this scenario, but if that is possible (which you might have cause to doubt), we certainly can't do it if we're at all worried about whether we're sexy when have a disability.

And then there's the issue of encouraging lust. At this point some of my readers will likely be thinking, Uhp, he's playing the prude card again, and from those readers' perspectives that would be somewhat true. There are a number of reasons why I think encouraging lust is problematic, but since some of them are religiously derived I won't fool myself into thinking that they'll be persuasive to someone outside of that context. I want to clarify here, though, that I'm not condemning the experience of physical desire. In the right situation, physical desire is a good thing--and that's biblically supported, in case you were unaware of that. But, at least from a Christian perspective, there is a problem with putting all this focus into making yourself (as a person with an atypicality of some sort) sexy, into discerning who is and who is not sexy, into allowing/encouraging/forcing yourself to feel physical attraction toward a person with a disability; the problem is the encouragement of an over-active libido. In our culture, there's already that threat. We don't need to fan the flame. But I think you can make secular arguments against allowing ourselves to be too sexually active, having to do with destroying our relationships, driving our desires into unattainable fantasies, and hampering our abilities to be romantically and sexually loyal to our partners. I haven't developed these arguments largely because I haven't seen the need to on a personal basis. They exist, though. I've heard about them.

(And in case you're thinking that I'm thus a hypocrit for writing this at all and for putting up all these pictures selected for their ability to arouse you, I say this: you're likely right. I do hope I'm making a point in all this that transcends that, but that's not to say on some level I'm not doing this just so I can think about pretty girls. The naked vanities, and everything, right? My only answer can be, "Orges and onions.")

This, then, is the crux of the question I have about Aimee Mullins' question: If we do allow that a disabled body can be a sexy body, then we are forced with a particular dilemma, which is between choosing the short-term empowerment of sexiness at risk of keeping ourselves in a destructive and discriminatory culture, or striving for other forms of empowerment which have concerns like ability and accessibility, added perspective, inherent worth, compassion, and meaningful relationships. Do we feel that worrying about sexiness as empowerment is in the end empowering, or does it just cause more problems?

There are some further lines of inquiry which are pertinent, but not so directly related that I will give them the space here (as I've so clearly gone well beyond the reasonable length limits of a blog post). You'll notice one of my photos is of an African-American woman who has albinoism. There is no way to discuss her attractiveness without bringing up race--is she beautiful because she is 'white'? The on-line discussion about the attractiveness of the Hensel twins (a pair of dicephalic conjoined twins) has, if not been exhausted, at least been exhausting. The first picture shown on here is of a prosthetic designed to be and marketed as 'sexy.' It avoids what is apparently called 'the uncanny valley'; that is, things which are close enough to looking real to sometimes 'trick' us but not close enough to really convince us are uncanny and make us uncomfortable, and the designers tried to avoid that when making this arm. Other designers strive for something verisimilitude instead, as you can see in other images. The point, then, is that whatever we decide about the moral worth of this question, in the end we cannot stop at the general principle but must then begin to untangle it on a specific level--race, uncanniness, privacy and individuality. These questions are not inseparable.

Which would be a perfect segue into the one problem I have with the feminist movement (Jon and I have discussed this), which is that there are so many other facets to identity that to focus on gender alone for your emancipation seems like a case of poor resource management. But that is getting off-topic and must be saved for another post. This one is way too long as is, and I need to go to bed.

An Elk in a Puddle

If this works, it will be a video of an elk calf playing in a puddle. I got it in an e-mail. I have no idea where the original comes from. If you think it's somehow violating a copyright you own, please let me know.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Disabilities and Sexiness: A Post Promise

I'm in the midst of stressful applying. Occasionally I have taken brief forays into the Internet today, when I was feeling a momentary bout of ADHD, to find images which related to Aimee Mullins' question, "What is a sexy body?" Her context, of course, was prosthetics and disability, and so that was my challenge: find images which defied our usual conception of a 'sexy body,' as she put it, by qualifying without fitting into the usual conception of normativity or wholeness.
I can't write my thoughts on this tonight (time constraints). I'll leave you with a few questions, though, and then the pictures I found, and then I'll write up my analysis (for lack of a better word) when I have time.

Is beauty/sexiness a legitimate form of enpowerment? How are we defining sexiness? Are some disabled/differently-abled people still unsexy, and what of them? To what extent is the decision to measure acceptance along the lines of sexiness immoral?

And I'll even talk a little about the question, What is beauty?
Now, case study pictures (you'll notice that I didn't limit myself to subnumary limbs, but also included people with atypical physionomies or pigmentations):

Friday, 13 November 2009

7 Quick Takes (XVII)

1. I am way behind on my SSHRC application. It's not even funny. Seriously. I do NOT want to do this. I have been applying for way too much lately.
OK. Sulk over.

2. It was Remembrance Day on Wednesday. As I live in Alberta, this means that I got Wednesday off. This should be true in all of Canada, but I know it's not in Ontario.
In case you aren't perfect like the rest of us and you live elsewhere in the world than the Great White North, November 11th, Remembrance Day, is a memorial holiday to the survivors and casualties of the World Wars and the other armed conflicts in which Canada has participated. We wear poppies and have a moment of silence at 11:00. (11:00 on the 11th day of the 11th month.)

3. On Monday, I ran a program for the homeschoolers of Fort McMurray. I had been told to expect two children and one parent. That was not good news.
Eight children came out. This was good. The program was only for the morning, but I think altogether it went well: the kids had fun, they learned something, and the parents didn't have to do too much work, which should be a good thing for homeschoolers. One of the students returned today to work on his project.

4. Switching back to Wednesday: I watched Taking Pelham 123. It was enjoyable. It wasn't amazing, but it was enjoyable.

5. In regards to pretending to try to complete my SSHRC application (which, did I tell you, isn't going well?), I took out some books from the library. Overall my library books have been unsatisfactory, but I am pleased with John Donne (of course). I hadn't read some of these before. I do like this dude's stuff. I think to an extent I want to write some out here for your reading.
I am less happy with Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology. They have one entry about personality formation which is even somewhat related to what I want, but the ideas in that article had already been uncovered in Shakespeare's day, for Pete's sake, and appears to have only recently been discovered by formal psychology. For goodness sake. I first encountered these ideas reading literary theory, not psychology. Seriously.
Anyway, the psychology reader has nothing in it about cognitive dissonance or what happens when the self-concept is challenged, which are ideas that I would be able to use. Alas, alack, oh well.

6. And speaking of books, I am in Isaiah. If you have been following along, then you'll have noticed that I've thus been through Ecclesiastes and Song of Solomon. I've read Song of Solomon tons of times over before, but I kept it in my readings just because I like it so much and, anyway, you always get something new out of any honest, careful re-reading, especially when what you're re-reading is as polysemous as the Bible. (Onions and ogres, here.)
Song of Solomon, if you haven't read it, is beautiful. It is fairly non-narrative. It has multiple speakers and sometimes (usually) it's hard to tell where one ends and one begins. Generically speaking, it is an epithalamion, or a wedding poem. Some of the blazons are a bit funny to us (such as likening the bride's hair to a herd of goats on a mountainside), but you must try to remember what they'd mean in a context which measures wealth in terms of agricultural bounty. Not only is it theologically meaningful, it's just plain beautiful love poetry. If you haven't read it, I encourage you to do so now. It's not long; you'll be able to do it in one sitting. You'll just have to come to it without expecting anything like a clear narrative. Don't try to figure out what's going on in terms of the whole story, but just try to figure out what's going on at the very moment you're reading.
Realization: according to Wikipedia, people with Catholic Bibles will not have known I was in Isaiah by now if I'd still been reading Song of Solomon this weekend, as the Catholic apocrypha has the Book of Wisdom following Song of Solomon. Huh.

7. I need to be working on my SSHRC. Did you know that? Also, I don't want to.
Hmmm. #7. Well, it hasn't been snowing here at all this week. The snow hasn't melted from last week, but it's been not too bad otherwise.
Oh! In the song I'm listening to right now: Home is behind/ the world is ahead/ and there are many paths to tread/ through shadow/ until the edge of night/ until the star are all alight. What is it? No cheating!
UPDATE: I liked the comic a lot (actually, I said, "Epic Yes!' out loud), but I think Tycho's last paragraph here is hilarious. At around this point the hypothetical nerd meter in my room is screaming red alert.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

What has 12 legs, 2 arms, and runs very fast?

Aimee Mullins.

Cait linked to a Ted Talk a day or so ago, and I ran into this one at the same time. I'm not for transhumanism in general, but I do like this technology.

I should maybe warn that there is some nudity.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Escapism and Issues

I am trying to understand the role that literature (which to me simply means verbal or narrative art) plays and what sorts of values it should aspire to, and in the last few days I had some thoughts. I'll try to relate them. [Note: my photo selection is not at all based on the works I discuss in the nearby paragraph but instead based on the general topic, as it relates to Pan's Labyrinth, a movie which I think has a very nuanced view of stories as 'escapism.']

One of the things I like about Battlestar Galactica is how it deals with or presents important philosophical questions without being a 'philosophy story.' That is, the writers create a plot that is 'purely escapist' and develops characters who are believable and who elicit our sympathy or condemnation, and yet with these elements they model important issues which we are asking in modern philosophy. 'Model' is an important word here, for while there are certainly conversations on philosophical subjects (I'm thinking in particular of an interrogation scene) or minor speeches (such as Lee's to Commander Adama and President Roslin on authority's legitimacy), more often the writers express these questions in the characters' decisions, responses, emotions, and conflicts. This is more like philosophy in action, and the conversations and speeches are either short or are also laden with personal, emotional, contextual, or otherwise non-discursive subjects. So the questions about how authority gains legitimacy are enbodied in a society trying to determine that, which is in turn portrayed by characters jockeying for position, characters picking sides (or not), characters obeying or rebelling, characters performing acts of terrorism, and characters delivering or responding to media and propaganda. Legitimacy of authority is a big trend in this, but not the only one: fate, artificial intelligence (and emotion), love, the roles of the police and the military, the role of religion in society, identity, ethics and justice, metaphysics, and theology are all also addressed in this series (or at least the first season of it).

This is something I liked about it, but again what I most valued was how it was embodied by believable characters in exciting situations and emotionally strenuous relationships. It would perhaps be 'pure escapism' if it were not for the fact that the issues it addresses are relevant to our own political and social situation.

Last night my opinion of this was somewhat shaken. I watched Crossing Over, a movie about the experiences of illegal immigrants in the United States. A number of characters are in the US illegally or are seeking citizenship--an Australian actress, a Jewish-atheist musician, two Muslim families, a Chinese family, a Mexican woman, and an African orphan and refugee--and they spin out a number of overlapping mistakes and heroisms. It's a very good movie, and unlike Battlestar Galactica, it highlights and discusses current political-social issues directly. It is not a documentary; it has narrative and characters and a standard Hollywood film style. I'll be honest: I am not a fan of the documentary style. I like good cinematography and I like narrative. But the issues and stories it addresses are not hypothetical or disguised or in any way removed. The writers are discussing these issues as present, real, and pressing issues. Similar movies include Crash, City of God, Hotel Rwanda, and The Soloist. Though fictional to greater or lesser degrees (some are autobiography or biography, but they're nonetheless conveyed in a fictional and not biographic style), they act like documentaries in that they present us not with hypothetical scenarios but with a look at what's going on in the dirty, broken, and hopeless parts of the world. In the end, what makes Crossing Over different from Battlestar Galactica is not that the latter has good characterizations and models its concerns in plot instead of mouthpiece speeches. No, Crossing Over does that just as well as Battlestar Galactica. The difference is that the more realistic dramas do not have an epistemic quarantine.

In Battlestar Galactica (or, if you're tired of or unfamilar with that example, we can say Chronicles of Narnia or Harry Potter), the concerns are emotionally relevant but are easily seperable from the real world. We can develop ideals or what have you that do not impell us to act any differently or think any differently. It is more difficult to do this with Crossing Over or Crash. In these examples, you can't fail to connect the signifier and the signified because it's not even a metaphor. It's explicit. The house-elves in Harry Potter might be the poor servant class in aristocratic England (or plutocratic North America), but it might not be. There's no sure connection and no immediately practical response. Sure, Harry Potter teaches us that we shouldn't be prejudiced and Battlestar Galactica asks us to think about the difference between elected government, military authority, and policing civilians, but it doesn't give us much to go for applying those lessons. But that homeless person who talks to himself in The Soloist might as well be the homeless person who talks to himself on your own street corner. There's no doubt at all about how the movie thinks you should respond to that homeless person. It's harder to separate the realm of ideas from the realm of reality. They're tied up together. There is no ivory tower.

Now, that's not to say that watching Crossing Over will turn you into an immigrants' rights activist. But your own everyday hypocrisy is harder to tolerate when you do watch it. It likely will push more people toward humanity than Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter will.

So do we throw out escapism, even of the Battlestar Galactica? For a while there, I was thinking that it was less valuable. Dealing with issues in an epistemic quarantine is interesting and all, but is it any good?

Today I finished Madeleine L'Engle's A House Like a Lotus. I started reading it as research for the YA project. It's a coming-of-age sort of thing and the protagonist is a sixteen-year-old girl, so it's not my usual fare. I've had some trouble while reading it, mainly a sense of my own inexperience and inadequacy, which I won't relate here. For what it is it's a good book and it has lots of peripheral benefits, namely ideas and information that are valuable. (All L'Engle's books are packed with ideas and information.) In A House Like a Lotus, I encountered this: "When we are listening to stories, then it s the story center of the brain which is functioning, and the pain center is less active. I go into the children's wards of hospitals, where there are children in great pain. When I am telling them stories they laugh and they cry and in truth their pain is less. Mine, too." Empathy, loving connection to other people, just plain distraction, can heal. I experienced this volunteering with children. Their chaos, their stories, their ample and immediate needs and desires, overwhelmed me so much that my own stress and exhaustion were forgotten. That is not to say I felt no stress or exhaustion or self-consciousness or embarassment or desires of my own, but somehow these were all less important. For two hours a day, these kids were not the most important thing in the world; they were the world. It helped immensely. Escapism is escape, and sometimes we need to escape ourselves. When we are in pain and when we need time to heal, or when we are exhausted and we need time to rest, escapism can provide that. And, I think, the best escapism is that which teaches good, honest, hopeful things, too: that which teaches love and sympathy and hope and courage. Because escapism needn't be mindless. It can be, but it needn't be. It must only take us outside of ourselves; if it can heal in other ways, give us hope and teach us empathy, it is even better.

So things like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter, if they do their jobs right (get us outside of ourselves and teach us hope or love), are good. They are not better than things like Crash or The Soloist, but neither are things like Crash or The Soloist better than escapism. They serve different purposes. One stirs to action; they other heals. They both teach (ideally), but they teach different things. One teaches us about specific problems and how to deal with it. The other asks hypothetical questions and provides hypothetical answers.

Of course, as time goes on things like Crossing Over become more like a serious-minded escapism. Take The Grapes of Wrath. It's certainly not 'fun' escapism, but it does take us out of the situation we have now. The Great Depression is long over, and its survivors are mostly dead. But it happened. It sits somewhere between the two. We must take it as metaphor if we are to apply it, but we also know it as history.

And some escapism is tragic. Although I cannot define, understand, or account for catharsis, I have experienced it to be true. Tragedies are cleansing. (I have not experienced satires to be, though. I suspect that they can be wholely toxic if they are not well-designed to be informative. Maybe I'm wrong, though.)

There is a spectrum, then. We have pure, light-hearted, mindless escapism on one end, and sober, realistic, present, almost documentary drama on the other. In between we have tragedies, romances, metaphorical dramas (sci-fi like Battlestar Galactica and fantasy like Harry Potter), historical dramas of the more serious variety (Defiance, for instance), and biographies from other eras that read like fiction (Night, Survival in Auschwitz). Each along this spectrum has a particular function, and is valuable according to how well it performs this function, not according to which function it performs.

But we must also be aware of which ones we need. When we need healing, we need those which heal. Orphaned and injured children need stories that heal, not challenge. Complacent and affluent people do not need that healing as much: we need to learn empathy at the very least. We need some challenge. Of course all of our affluence (and you, dear reader, are more than likely wealthy beyond the average human's wildest dreams; the average human's wildest dreams include adequate nutrition, and I think most people with an Internet connection have that) does not sheild us from hurt, and so we need some escapism of the mindless variety. But most of our escapism should teach us something because we do not need it to do otherwise. This is where Battlestar Galactica comes in. And we also need to know that we must watch Hotel Rwanda or The Soloist, not as escapism but eye-openers. (It is possible that some of my readers are in fact in places of real suffering on a daily basis and have been throughout their lives. They are obviously exceptions to this. Having an existential crisis, though, does not make you an exception.)

This is my conclusion: we need to challenge ourselves, yes. And I mean 'we' as in you the reader, me the writer, and the society we represent. We can handle the challenge. We would be morally abhorent if we failed to challenge ourselves. But we also need escapism for those times when we need escape, when we need healing. And we will need everything in between.

And if a book or movie does not heal, does not provide hope, or does not give direction to some current crisis, but rather fosters only pessimism, despair, hatred, or some other dangerous untruth, than as far as I am concerned it has no value at all and ought not be read (or written).

Friday, 6 November 2009

7 Quick Takes (XVI)

1. I did not go to a Hallowe'en party on Saturday night. Instead, I worked on my UBC application until I burnt out, and then I watched Cape Fear on the telly. That's not a bad movie, by the way. I wouldn't say it's scary (though obviously it's supposed to be), but not bad at all. I had one of those unique experiences where I could recognize that that was Robert DeNiro, but he wasn't just an actor. I often feel that way, that the character is overwritten by the actor (when the actor's famous). Though DeNiro could come quite close to doing that, he didn't. The accent helped.

2. On Sunday, I stayed after church for server training. Servers are similar to acolytes. (Well, properly, an acolyte is a server who is at that moment performing a specific function, that is, carrying and lighting the candles.) The other two server trainees were kids, just above the age eight, I'd say. I felt a little silly. The call for servers said you could be between 8 and not dead (or, later, that was refined to between 8 and 108). The three servers St. Thomas' has now are I'd say around fourteen. I think I mentioned one of them before. That one turns out to be named Becky.
Anyway, the training was very informative. The format was a bit kiddish, but I did get along with the two kids. The one was the daughter of a sometimes lay-reader, who I also mentioned here before (she noticed I had paint on my hands), and the other was the son of the priest. (I wrote 'minister' and had to change it to 'priest.' Though the Anglicans do not hold Catholic theologies about the roles of clergy, the terminology and hierarchy remains the same. It will take some getting used to.)
Though the other two will be paired with the current fourteen-year-old servers, I am going to be sent in on my own right off. The priest is confident in my ability to jump right in.
As a sign-up gift, we were each given a new Bible--God Sightings: The One Year Bible. It is NLV, which I'm not the biggest fan of (give me the King James or the NRSV), but I'll manage. What is cool is the format. It's not arranged in canonical order but rather into day's readings. So at the beginning we get "January 1," which is Genesis 1-2:something, Matthew 1, Psalm 1, and Proverb 1. Each day has an Old Testament reading, a New Testament reading, a Psalm, and a Proverb, such that you complete each of these within a year. I will continue my strict OT readings until January, when I will get cracking on this new program.

3. Wednesday night, I sent out my UBC application. It is done at last. 25 pages of a YA novel, 25 pages of last year's fiction, 25 pages of polished blog posts to fulfill the Creative Non-Fiction component.
I burnt out doing this.

4. And I mean that. I'm sick again. Yessiree. I'm aching and stuffed up and coughing and have chills.

5. Some of those aches and weaknesses likely come from the fact that I dug out a trench on Monday. It's a longish story, but I spent around three hours digging out rocky earth in the snow. All in all, I'm glad I did it. I somehow feel vindicated by doing manual labour that no one else at work will (those who would have were absent). But I was sore afterwards.
Here's how it happened: the boss asked me to talk Keith (a gas-line guy from the gas-line company) about a trench that needs to be dug. I said, "I don't think that's his job, though." She said, "I know." And that's when I clued in.
I got very dirty, I can tell you.

6. Today I found out that my homeschoolers program at work is going to be attended by about one family. Which is a bit disappointing, to say the least. That's two kids. We had no idea what to expect, but we'd thought more than this. In the long run it doesn't matter to me, since I'll still get what I need out of it. It's just a bit of a shame that a program I'd been working on (or trying to work on, but kept getting called off for miscellaneous other stuff) for weeks isn't going to be received by as many as I'd hoped.
Anyway, they come on Monday, and I went in to work today only to prepare for this program. Once I'd had the room set up, the worksheets printed off (I liked making those), and all the artifacts set out, I caught the bus home. Boss' orders.

7. And then I watched something like 5 hours of Battlestar Galactica. The first season, that is, since that's the only one I own at the moment. I should be getting the next season for Christmas.
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