Wednesday, March 9, 2016

2016 TBR

Some books I plan to read this year, in no particular order:

  • Neuromancer by William Gibson
    • I've tried to read this book a few times, but something about it always puts me off. Nevertheless, it sticks in my head as a book I want to finish, and this year I'm damn well going to finish it. Rawr. 
  • "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" and Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
    • This title from 1997 is outdated in some of its cultural references, but from what I've read so far, the contents are stellar. In the first chapter, Tatum makes the best attempt I've seen so far at trying to get white people to understand that acknowledging racism doesn't mean they have to think of themselves as bad people. (I'm not saying she should have to convince anyone of that, but she chooses to do so, and I think it means more readers will be open to acknowledging racism.)
  • A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
    • I like Burroughs. I enjoyed Running With Scissors and am pretty sure I'd enjoy anything he's written. I found this one somewhere...probably at the Salvation Army or maaaybe a GoodWill (but probably not, because their pricing and organization is not as good as the Salvation Army's).
  • World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks
    • A friend and I found this book at a used book store. I get to read it first, and then I'm supposed to pass it off to him. He's been waiting a few months now, but I'm determined to finish THIS YEAR. Okay, this month would be better, but really, I think he's almost forgotten about it by now anyway.
  • Religion and Science Fiction by James F. McGrath
    • Okay, I stole this from someone else's TBR. The title interested me, and when I looked it up on and read the first few pages, I was intrigued. I also liked the rhythm of this writer's sentences, which is no small thing when deciding whether you want to read 200 pages of a person's writing!
  • The Gay Revolution by Lillian Faderman
    • This book was a gift from my partner's uncle, and he just happened to choose an author whose work I read--and liked--in an undergrad class ("Gay American History"). This is her newest work, just recently published, and I'm excited to see what she's got to say these days. :)
  • Trash by Dorothy Allison
    • I've read some of the stories in this collection, but even the ones I've already read deserve a re-read. Dorothy Allison is the shit.
  • So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy edited by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan
    • I love Nalo Hopkinson and this collection looks awesome. Since I started teaching college-level writing and literature classes, I've found myself enjoying collections more, because I'm always thinking, "Ooh, this would be great as a reading for class!" I'm absolutely positive my mostly-white, mostly-haven't-traveled-outside-the-state Iowan students could use some postcolonial science fiction and fantasy. :)
  • Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown
    • Again, I've been into collections recently. What caught my eye about this one was the title, which is a play on author Octavia Butler's name and one of her books (I suppose it's a trilogy, really--Lilith's Brood, containing Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago).
  • Kant and the Platypus: Essays on Language and Cognition by Umberto Eco
    • Since signing up for an abnormal psychology class (the class is normal; the subject matter is abnormal psychology...gnarf), I've been thinking about cognition and how we perceive things. Eco's recent death also reminded me that I've known of him for a long time but haven't read him, and I should remedy that. This seems like a good place to start.

Believe and Achieve: Chasing the American Beauty Ideal

[This is a short paper I wrote for my abnormal psychology class. The prompt was about the role of transformation in the perpetuation of the American beauty ideal.]

Transformation is a central principle of American society and influences our self-image in myriad ways. We expect people to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, as the saying goes, and change—transform—their circumstances. You want the opportunity to improve your lot? Come to America, where you reap what you sow. If you want something, work toward it, and you’ll get there. Everyone starts on equal footing, and anyone can achieve just about anything! (Implied: If you don’t achieve whatever it is you wish to achieve, you’re doing it wrong, you’re not putting in the effort. You could do it if you really wanted to, you lazy pig.) This idea of achievability applies to the American beauty ideal as well as to everything else.

One of the most damaging things about the American beauty ideal is that so many people believe it can be achieved. There are many reasons why it cannot, on both individual levels—as it turns out, most women’s bodies simply aren’t built to have a “thigh gap”—and on larger, more systemic levels. In Toni Morrison’s novel The Bluest Eye, for example, she explores how race interacts with mainstream American beauty ideals (spoiler alert: American beauty ideals are based on typically Caucasian features, such as blue eyes, which non-Caucasian women do not have).

Who can meet America’s beauty ideals? Older people, simply by virtue of not being young, cannot meet them: see recent criticism leveled at Susan Sarandon for showing her cleavage at the Screen Actor’s Guild awards, with critics consistently citing her age as the problem (and making lots of not-so-witty plays on the acronym “SAG”). Even models don’t meet the standards: Models in magazines are often airbrushed and photoshopped; videos showing that process have been popping up all over Facebook and other social media sites recently. 

Another damaging thing about advertising’s impossible image of ideal beauty is that so many people believe they ought to achieve it. Even if you could change your body to fit popular beauty ideals, why should you? Parts of it are possible to achieve: you can change your eye color with designer contact lenses, your hair color with dyes. You can slice off a couple of toes so your feet fit the most fashionable shoes. You can even be a born-again virgin, because we have surgeries for that, too. But why?

There’s nothing eternal or objectively right about whichever beauty ideals are currently in vogue; there’s nothing wrong with having a body that doesn’t match those ideals--except that, of course, when you’re consistently told and shown that there is, it’s hard to think so. Even if you manage to think so, it’s hard to feel it.

Perhaps it would be easier if you could fit popular beauty ideals…but then again, maybe not, because I think the very nature of an ideal is that no one can actually meet it. If your breasts are “perfect,” your legs aren’t quite right; if your ass is “amazing,” people will sneer because your nose is too big (or too small), your lips are too thin (or too wide), your fingers are too tapered (or too short, too blocky). The ideal is beyond you; the ideal is beyond everyone. 
People enjoy the metaphor of life as a rat race, so here’s a variation: You’re a pig chasing a carrot. The carrot is the American beauty ideal, always dangling a foot ahead, and the point is to make you move in a particular direction. The point is not and has never been about you actually reaching the carrot. If you ever reached the carrot, it would be made of sawdust.

It’s taken a lot of work for me to get where I am in terms of how I think about my body, with lots of reverberations for my sexuality and within my intimate relationships. I read a lot of books on body and sex positivity. I only date people who like—not just tolerate—bodies like mine. I wear horizontal stripes despite my mother’s insistence that “heavier” women shouldn’t wear horizontal stripes. I make sure my porn collection includes fat chicks (even though, yes, I also worry that I shouldn’t have a porn collection).

The most healing I’ve found has probably come from the annual women’s music festival my wife and I have attended each year from late high school through this past summer: women-only, clothing optional, and the widest range of body shapes I’ve ever seen in one place.
It’s taken a lot of work for me to get where I am in terms of how I think about my body, and I’m still not nearly where I’d like to be. I cover up a lot. I find myself standing in front of my bathroom mirror and somehow, without meaning to, I’m saying things out loud: “You’re disgusting, you’re gross, you are a fat pig. No one could possibly find you attractive and anyone who says they do is lying.” I know some of this comes from my mother, from those times at dinner when I reached for seconds and she pushed her nose up with one finger, snorting, and said, “I would have seconds, but I don’t want to be a pig.” I don’t blame her—she’s not the root of it, even if she’s part of the root of it for me—but at least I can see it now, and that’s something, I think.

I try to interrupt the self-judging process and replace the negative statements with something a little less awful: “Okay, you know, you like your eyes and your hands, you like your shoulders, and anyway, you’re not a piece of meat. You may not love certain things about your body—which is all about social norms, by the way, Feminist Studies major—but put it all together with attitude and experience and you actually find yourself pretty sexy most of the time. Some of the time. And so do at least a few other people. So don’t rag on yourself so hard.”

It kind of works. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it does something. I don’t know. Often I end up raiding the fridge. Then I watch half a season of NCIS (while eating chocolate frosting), because I’m used to the characters and it’s comforting (as are the fries I’m eating after running through the frosting)—except that I can’t help noticing that all the women are slim (perhaps because unlike me they aren’t currently eating macaroni and cheese) and put together, and their hair looks like it’s straight out of an Herbal Essence commercial (and that’s after chasing down criminals and surviving three gun fights). So maybe I go for a walk, which feels pretty good until I start feeling like people are looking at me. And, anyway, it doesn’t redeem the frosting and the fries and the macaroni and cheese, does it? Disgustinggrossfatpig. Even on a good day, even when I feel like I’m doing something healthy, those thoughts are there. I’m not really sure how you get rid of it all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

computer-mediated relationships

As you'll have picked up from the title of this post, I'm thinking about computer-mediated relationships. I guess they're not just straight-up COMPUTER-mediated. They start that way, but they tend to also end up becoming Ventrilo- and/or Mumble- mediated, Skype-mediated, phone-mediated.

What kind of feelings can you have for someone you only know long-distance?  

It's different than being with them in a physical space.  Acknowledged and agreed.  But does that make it "less," or just...different?

In online relationships,* you spend a lot of time picking the other person's brain, getting to know how they think and feel about things, and all the other stuff I normally consider way more important than, say, holding hands or hugging. (Don't get me wrong; holding hands and hugging are important...physical connection is important. But when I think about whether I know someone, I don't think as much about whether I know the feel of their fingers intertwined with mine--I think about whether I know their thoughts and ideas, whether we've really talked, whether I have a sense of who they are and what they care about. Can I predict what they'd probably say in a given situation? Yeah, okay, I know them pretty well.)

I think the biggest problem with online relationships is that they build fast. Normally, I wouldn't consider this a problem, but when an online relationship builds quickly toward a point where, in an IRL situation, you'd be ripping each other's clothes off...uh, well, you can't DO much about it.  All that tension goes right through the roof, and you can't do anything with it.  

It's kind of like building toward orgasm...and then falling back.  And building...aaaaand falling back. And allllllmooosssttttt oh god fuck yea-...aaand falling back.  This can produce an epic orgasm if you do it a few times, but if you do it for a few months, and you never get to have that fucking orgasm...yeah, you're going to be out slaughtering innocents to slake your rage.  I'm serious, here. This kind of edging is not ultimately pleasant, but in fact makes you want to beat someone's face in.

Once you hit this point, if you can't get together in the regular old physical world, things get shitty fast. You start snipping at each other, you get moody and don't know why, you start avoiding your computer and phone without meaning to. 

To me, this is the most problematic aspect of internet-based intimacy. I think you can be incredibly close with someone if you're talking to them all the time, especially if you're "really" talking--talking about things that matter to you both, rather than just chatting about the small details of your day. But what do you do when you hit that gotta-rip-your-clothes-off point, and you're whatever ridiculous number of miles apart?

Maybe that's the next step we need in technological advance. Where is the ability to manipulate your brain into thinking you're touching another person? I imagine some people would object that that's not real...but honestly, what's real, anyway? All that shit's going on in your brain in one way or another, even when you're "actually" touching another person's body; how is anything not a "simulation"?  GIVE ME LONG-DISTANCE TOUCH MAGIC. WANT.

*This is based on my own personal experience. This obviously will not apply to all online relationships, because relationships are between people, and we all do things differently.  Again, this is coming from my unique perspective. Gosh, get off my case, imaginary reader. The fuck.

Saturday, February 22, 2014


I'm trying to educate myself about computers, networking, programming, and related subjects. The thing is, it's sort of my unexpected secondary area-of-focus, and I'm totally non-expert in it. I'm such a n00b, it's embarrassing. I've picked up bits of knowledge here and there, but then someone will mention something incredibly basic about hardware or Cisco classes or god-knows-what and I'll be standing there with a blank look on my face, clueless. 

Friday, February 21, 2014

My First Coursera Course!

coursera logo on laptop screen
I'm currently enrolled in the Coursera course Internet History, Technology, and Security, offered by Dr. Chuck Severance of the University of Michigan.  It's my first Coursera experience; a friend recommended that I check it out.  She'd taken a handful of courses (ranging in subject matter from What a Plant Knows to Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Comparing Theory and Practice to Dino 101: Dinosaur Paleobiology) and had good things to say about them.  And the classes are free, so the worst case scenario for me would have been a bit of wasted time.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

oh nooooes technology

I just brought home an armload of books from the Science and Engineering library at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Actually, I get many armloads of books from that place, as do my wife and our partner.  As a grad student, you can take out a nearly-unlimited number of books, and you get to keep them for a long time.

Have I mentioned that the three of us share two rooms in a San Francisco apartment?  There's not a whole lot of extra space.  We've got books everywhere, on every surface . . . and on every topic, from the poems of Elizabeth Bishop to Polygamy in Primetime.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

postcards and today's social media

I just read a fascinating comparison of the postcard and "today's social media," by which one means such things as Facebook, Twitter, and texting.*

Apparently, postcards were used as a quick form of communication in the early 20th century.  People would send postcards to see if, say, someone wanted to go out that night...which gives you a sense of the timing we're talking about.  The postcard/current-social-media connection would never have occurred to me, because in my experience postcards move much too slowly to be used that way.  If I sent a postcard to the guy next door, it would probably arrive two days from now. I've never had a reason to question whether that was always the case.