Friday, June 26, 2009

Michael and Al

While never a huge Michael Jackson fan, I certainly knew the boy had talent. And my personal remembrance is actually a meta-fandom sort of thing. All of us nerd-boys owe Michael a huge debt of gratitude: without MJ, there was no Weird Al Yankovic. Oh, to be sure, Weird Al would have been around, and done his thing, and still been brilliant, without Michael. It's just that no one would have ever heard of him.

Jackson's fame was so outsized that a goofy, geeky, parody artist could become a really big star in his own right, just riffing off the king. The kind of adoration showered on him and other pop "gods" was always a bit irrational and hysterical (hell, I love the Beatles as much as anybody, but those screamers were downright scary), but clearly these talented folks tap into something primal and glorious in the human spirit.

Good on you, Michael. After a short and tragically troubled life, may you be at peace.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Potential

The letter of Jourdon Anderson to his former master prods me to write down the thoughts on potential that have bumped around in my brain for many years. I, like Ta-Nehisi Coates who provided the link, was so astonished by the letter that I found it slightly suspicious at first. Just too amazingly brilliant and subtle to be authored by some anonymous person lost in the sands of history. Of potential ghost writers, Mark Twain was the first to come to mind, but I could easily imagine this being written by Frederick Douglass, or Lincoln, or William Lloyd Garrison, or... But, of course it is genuine, and it is a stark reminder of something I already knew, but do not hold in my mind every day (but probably should).

Great swaths of human brilliance have always been, and still are, lost to us and our posterity by the scourges of poverty, oppression, disease, famine, and war. Is is not certain that somewhere a brilliant poet just died of malaria in the Sahel? Or that a great mathematician lived his or her whole life eking out a bare subsistence on a Chinese farm 500 years ago? Or that an astonishing musical prodigy died from a tooth infection in the Amazon last century?

How many of these people have lived and died, unnoticed and unrealized? How many Einsteins, Douglasses, Lincolns, Euclids, Baryshnikovs, Darwins, Beethovens, Leonardos, and Michelangelos have toiled away their lives in obscurity, scratching and clawing each day for their very survival?

On the one hand, the question is obviously rhetorical, an exercise, essentially, in metaphysical speculation. But in another sense, I think not. We know that, in fact, desperate poverty has been the default state for the great mass of humanity, for almost all of our history. It is only within the last few hundred years that our knowledge, our science, technology, and, crucially, our social and economic institutions, have combined to begin to change this, to alter that default state and to produce the mere possibility for people to achieve their potential. So, I would say the question can actually be answered, not with precision, but nevertheless with accuracy:

How many? Almost all of them.

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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Letter to a Christian Friend

The argument for gay marriage belongs, mostly, in the realm of equality before the law. But in the interest of dialog, I have also recently argued about matters of faith with someone from the "other side." This is taken, with some very light editing, from a private correspondence with a Christian friend who does not support gay marriage. Having spent some significant time on it, I'd like to think it might make a few points of general interest. I have not edited it for grammar, as I typically do an "official" blog post, please excuse any sloppy grammar...

So, I am pretty sure I have alluded to this previously, but I will lay it out here in more explicit detail. I happen to agree that the question of moral imperatives and absolutes is the real question that might challenge an atheist or skeptic. There are certainly other reasons that many people are religious, but I cannot give much consideration to them. My desire to feel comfort, or to be reassured, or to feel that I have some eternal existence beyond this physical body, are all things that can sympathize and empathize with as a person with feelings, but none of those hold up as any sort of reason to actually believe anything. Any sort of faith based on that strikes me as nothing more than wishful thinking. As much as I might like to believe for those reasons, I cannot given them any real weight. I also wish I was stronger and smarter and didn't have so much gray hair, but oh well...

No, but the question of morals does hit home. Now, quite frankly, that too, could, in principle, just be more wishful thinking. It is most certainly possible, from a logical, empirical standpoint, that we are just on our own, morally speaking as well. Might makes right, or whatever you want to do goes... But it doesn't have to be so, in a Godless universe. Quite simply, I say God is "an" answer to the metaphysical question, but not necessarily "the" answer.

I have proposed that the basic moral laws can simply "be," just as the physical laws of the universe can simply "be." If someone else (you, perhaps) wants to say that God made them, or perhaps that God IS them, it is both impossible and undesirable for me to quarrel with you. This is a "lawgiver God," and I am explicitly indicating both moral law and physical law, and I have no problem with this conception. I imagine we're cool so far, yes?

Then, I expect, we get not so cool rather immediately after this. Terms, please: yes, in spite of my apparent "agnostic" concession in the above regard, I nevertheless would use the term "atheist" because my understanding of the "theistic" God is that the concept goes well beyond the "lawgiver God" that I designate above. A God that actively intervenes in the world, takes note of individual behavior, passes judgment on us, helps or fails to help us (or even when he's not answering our prayers, it is all according to some inscrutable "plan")??? I think this is all extremely unlikely. In my view, this is all NOT merely abstract metaphysical reasoning, I think the notion of an activist, interventionist, and benevolent God is actually subject to empirical analysis, and that that conception of God does not survive the encounter with facts in very good shape.

But let me not make the general case here. This has been my own preamble to an assault on the specific notions about sexual "sin." Is it really your contention that the creator of the universe concerns him/herself with how and with whom we rub body parts together? Apparently so, and the rather obvious proximate source for this belief appears to be these ancient texts, purporting to represent God's revelation to humanity. Really? That's where you're going to hang your hat!? You've already acknowledged, then, how you have no scriptural basis for condemning polygamy. How about stoning as punishment for adultery or fornication? How about slavery, explicitly endorsed in Leviticus? How about the genocide of the Israelites against the Canaanites?

OK, on those last two, I'm slipping back into the general case, but I think they remain rather difficult questions, to say the least... back to the main. Why, WHY would God make these rules!!?? Even more to the point, why would he make them, and then turn around and make people who, profoundly and deeply in their very nature, passionately want to break them!!?? I really think this God, if he existed, would be a real sick bastard. Having heard both directly and indirectly the stories of a good many gay people, almost all the stories I have heard indicate that there were signs from a VERY early age. And this is no surprise to me. Although I knew nothing of sex until much later, I do know that by 5 or 6 years old, I was interested in girls. And I was not just modeling adult behavior (although it was partly that, no doubt). I mean I was intrinsically fascinated by girls and women in some way that my fellow boys simply did not interest me. And as I have said, the stories of gay people I have heard are just the same, only it was the same and not the opposite sex that caught their eye in this way. If you think God made people (and I don't, but you do), then God made gay people. He made them, and then told them they could not act on their deepest sexual desires. While I guess I feel fortunate to not have been given that particular curse, I would have to call Him a bastard for cursing so many in this way.

The only rational basis for these proscriptions that I know of (and I use "rational" a bit loosely, here) is the purely teleological theory of sexual desire: God made sex in order to ensure the propagation of the species, and any other sexual expression is therefore a perversion of His design. Whew. Uh-oh. Guess I am cursed after all. Everything I have ever done in this regard, which was not specifically intended to at least theoretically produce a baby, was ALSO a perversion, right? Which was your point, in saying that we are all sinners... Well then, here is where I will call you on a different inconsistency then, why pick one perversion and single it out for moral (or legal) distinction? Either non-sanctioned sexual practices (anything other than married vaginal intercourse, apparently) are a "big deal" kind of sin, or a "little deal" kind of sin. If it's no big deal, then let the gays alone, let them do what they will, just as many of us do. If it IS a "big deal" kind of sin, then let's get right on in there and make sure all us heteros aren't doing any non-reproductive rubbing...

And consider, yes, the animals. In particular the dolphins and the bonobos, who are both observed to engage in non-reproductive, same-sex pairings. I think, in this instance (as with myriad other instances, in fact all instances I know of), evolution makes a whole lot more sense than some sort of divine design. Our brains evolved to enable all sorts of complex, social behaviors, which, in the aggregate, have enormous payoffs in survival and success. Sex has become, in part, one of those many forms of complex, social behavior, and it has, in many contexts at least, been divorced from its direct link to reproduction. A byproduct of our big, creative, adaptive brains. Not, I argue vehemently, a sick joke by a cruel God.

I will close out with more high-level theological musings. Do I assault your Christianity, per se? Well, I don't know, you may feel that I have, and perhaps it's true. But I really, truly do NOT object to the "lawgiver God." Not at all. But what I believe we should strive for, in talking about those laws, is to look for the deep structure laws, the ones that get at the core principles of what it means to be moral. I think worrying about where people put their genitals is WAY off track. It's there (in the Bible) because the people who wrote that book were quite concerned about it, for reasons that are not always clear (though I have my theories), but have nothing to do, in my view, with the will of a benevolent God.

I would take a cue from Jesus, in fact. He swept away all the arcane, Old Testament Jewish proscriptions about food in single sentence (I paraphrase from memory): "A man is not made unclean by what goes into his mouth, but by what comes out."

I would take his phrasing and suggest a reformulation for this context: A man or woman should not be judged by the places they put their sexual organs, but by the love that flows from their heart.


Sincerely, and with much regard,
Ronald

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Nerd = Gay, A Post Script

A few items arose in the discussion of Nerd = Gay that seemed, collectively, to warrant a separate post.

First, while I certainly intended my tone to be light and whimsical, some of my themes were at least slightly serious and heavy, and I would hate anyone to get the feeling I was being whiny about some awful adolescence. Far from it, I was generally a very happy kid, and enjoyed the company of my (mostly nerdy) friends. I was, in fact, rarely picked upon. And not being among the very popular crowd, well that is most of us, after all, isn't it? The people who treated me with decency (or better) far outnumbered the meatheads, although the latter group can make a big impression. And, in fact, there were even some among the athletic, beautiful, and popular crowd who always treated this nerd boy with respect, kindness, and even generosity. I appreciated it then, and I still do.

Second, as my gay-nerd friend Heath discusses in an illuminating and entertaining confessional (note: a little "adult" in parts, but nothing too shocking by modern standards, IMO), there are many qualitative as well as quantitative differences between the gay and nerd experiences. I am absolutely sure it is true, and I really never meant to imply otherwise. I only stand by what I wrote in that the specific parallels that I cited do seem to me to be legitimate. In no sense did I mean to suggest that they were the whole story, or even the bulk of the story. I.e., I think what I wrote is fairly true and accurate, but it is certainly not a comprehensive description of the gay experience (or the nerd, for that matter), nor did I intend it as such. I suppose any confusion on this front may stem from the title "Nerd = Gay." It certainly seems to state an equivalence, doesn't it? The title was intended as tongue-in-cheek, and it seemed like, well, an awfully nerdy touch to put it in the form of an equation! (Heath responds, in kind, with a Venn diagram. Très magnifique, mon ami!)

Finally, to get back to the fun stuff, my friend Sharon suggested an addendum to define exactly what is nerdiness. Well, a comprehensive test matrix would be beyond the scope of this text, but I might leave you with a list of some of my own traits and experiences, as a member of the true nerd de la nerd. You can see this as a sort of "...you might be a nerd" list in the style of Jeff Foxworthy. However, each of these statements is factually true. I am NOT making any of this up.

Some non-random (stochastic at best) Nerdphemera vis a vis Ronald

I have, in fact, worn glasses held together with tape, paper clips, twist ties, and once, in sixth grade, a rubber band.

At age 20, I stood 5 feet eleven and one half inches, and weighed 120 pounds.

If there is a circumstance in life for which an appropriate quote cannot be drawn from either The Simpsons, Raising Arizona, or a classic rock lyric, I have not encountered it.

Late in high school, I did actually memorize all the elements of the periodic table, in order. (Yes, including all known lanthanides and actinides.) I forgot it fairly promptly. (This is as far as I can go now: H, He, Li, Be, B, C, N, O, Fl, Ne, Na, Mg... ouch!) I could not, however, sing Tom Lehrer's "The Elements," but my friend Heath could do a pretty good job, as I recall.

3.14159265359. That's all for me.

Once in college, I saw a girl wearing a sweatshirt with the following printed on it

ΣΚ

Upon observing this, I thought, "Summation of K... hmm, wait, what is K? Boltzmann's constant? No, that makes no sense. What are the limits of this sum? What the hell does this shirt mean?"
I still have my original paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings, purchased circa 1981-82, water damaged when my apartment flooded in 1988.


Also, my copy of Cosmos, purchased at around the same time.

Finally, returning to the Greek letter theme, I recently was amused when I encountered an onion ring that had formed a perfect lower case theta.


As always, peace out.

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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Nerd = Gay

Yeah, yeah, I know. Any meatheads who literally said this back in the day would say, "See! I told ya, Poindexter!" But most of them don't read very much. No, I don't actually mean that nerds are gay. At least, not all of us are. (I do, in fact, have a number of close friends with the honorable distinction of being both.) It's just that I recently began noticing what I believe are some interesting parallels in the nerd experience and the gay experience.

*Disclaimer Paragraph*
This is most certainly not an attempt to show strict equivalence, or to argue that nerds have it "as bad" as gay people growing up, or in society, etc. First, "who suffers more" is just another form of pissing contest, and I try to avoid those. (Unless it's "who's the biggest nerd in the room/state/solar system," in which case, beware!) Second, gay people definitely have had it harder. Nerd behavior has never been religiously or legally condemned, as far as I know, unless you count belief in evolution, or the Copernican solar system. Third, my gay nerd friends win this battle hands down! And oh, yes, is it OK if everyone would just read "gay and lesbian" everywhere that I write "gay"? If not, I guess I can come back and use find/replace.
*End Disclaimer Paragraph*

I base this on comparisons of my (necessarily limited) second-hand understanding of the gay experience to my extensive, first-hand experience of nerdhood. You understand at a fairly young age that something is different about you, but you can't quite define it. There follows a significant awkward period usually involving some degree of social isolation and stigma, including derision and, occasionally, threatened or actual violence. Unless you are well-closeted and successful at "passing"!

Yes, I do believe there is some sort of nerd equivalent of the "closet," although it may seem oxymoronic at first--what is a "nerd" if not a set of public behaviors!? I would hold that nerdiness is actually a frame of mind and part of identity, and doesn't necessarily require public display, or even acting on the impulse in private, much like being gay. I think it is a very rare occurrence, much rarer than closeted gay people, but some nerds are socially gifted enough to recognize and suppress their tendencies in public and get away with "normal," or even "popular." (A close inspection of our new President might be revealing. I have my suspicions.)

Then, of course, there are the "flamers." These are the people that are so obvious that everyone knows from an early age. Indeed, the rest of the world usually recognizes the young flaming nerd at least a little before they know it themselves, or at least before they admit it to themselves. (**Ronald coughs nervously, adjusts glasses, pulls at collar in the style of Rodney Dangerfield.**)

Young nerds in the typical school milieu do typically find at least one or two kindred spirits and form their own little circle. This is like gay people in some small conservative, rural place. Quietly and carefully, they generally seem to find one another, and form a tiny community. Sometimes they do not, perhaps, and such a person may feel that they are the only one in the world. But then they see Star Trek on TV, and they know others must be out there...

From this perspective, I would say that arriving at NCSSM in the fall of 1983 was, for me, the nerd equivalent of moving from a tiny, conservative southern or midwestern town to, say, San Francisco's Castro, or Greenwich Village, or Midtown Atlanta. Holy cow! There are really others like you, a whole, real, vibrant community, where you can act like yourself in public without getting mocked or beaten up by some dim-witted thick neck. This is also not to say that everyone there was a nerd, just as not everyone is gay in the aforementioned locales. There were, in fact, athletically and/or socially gifted people who were as popular there as they always are, but we nerds were numerous enough to stand on our own, and with our own measure of pride.

The final parallel strikes me in the realm of broader public acceptance and social change. Nerds and gay people are as old as humanity itself, we have always been here, just not always acknowledged and/or accepted on our own terms. Just as we most certainly would have had much less great art, music, drama, architecture, and many other things without gay people, we also know that when the Pharaoh commanded his great tomb to be constructed, or the President said we were going to the moon, it was the nerds who made it happen. (I am most impressed that the ancient Egyptian nerds were able to do their calculations without the benefit of glasses! They must have computed in large glyphs.)

The integral of snake-over-eye-over-water from foot to owl, d-feather is equal to the square root of Anubis
But I believe that in my lifetime, and especially the last 30 years or so, we have seen great strides in acceptance all around. Look at the difference between Jack on "Three's Company" (not even actually gay, just pretending in an offensively stereotypical way) and Will from "Will and Grace," as cool and likable a character as you are ever going to see. And of course we could go on. As for the nerds, we have seen the coming of the PC and the "Internets," which have put us front and center in the technological and social revolutions of our time. Yes, nerds were always there making sure the lights came on or the engine started when you turned the switch, but the computer has put us right in everyone's face, literally! When the richest man around is a flaming nerd, and someone like Steve Jobs comes off as super cool, you know the world has changed.

Finally, another very personal note. I was recently given a chance to view ancient footage of yours truly, getting his geek on at the very zenith of spazziness. It was a bit of a shock, indeed. Arms flailing in wild gesticulations, eyes bugging, I was quite the piece of work, and I suppose I still am. I fully understand why girls would, say, cross to the other side of the hall, and why guys would laugh and mock (actual violence not excused). But if you observe the picture with care, you will see something else that matters--my friends laughing. And if making your friends laugh isn't good enough reason to be a spaz, then I guess nothing is.

Peace out, ya'll. Or, if you prefer, live long and prosper.

Dorkus Q. Ubernerd & friends, 1985

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