Monday, December 31, 2007

Welcome to Tomorrow

Under the gun, I'll post a quick set of commiserations for everyone with the passing of 2007. And a quick set of well-wishes for the arrival of 2008. There will be more extensive posts from me in the coming days containing reflections of old days and thoughts about upcoming days.

Wisdom and good fortune for all!

Friday, December 28, 2007

How Valuable is a Stranger's Attention?

As someone who consciously spends a portion of my life listening to people, it always catches my attention whenever someone professes the desire for someone, anyone, to listen to them. My heart goes out to these people, who have muscled down a prideful position and instead given over to the idea of self-expression.

There are entire professions devoted to listening to people. It's what people pay analysts a stereotypically high fee for. That movie scene where people pour their hearts out while reclining on a couch, box of Kleenex in hand, then pop up when the hour is finished and head out, refreshed and smiling, into the world. Just the mere act of spending time with a therapist is the weekly fodder for some sitcoms even, as the more neurotic characters boast of seeing two or three analysts in sequence.

This goes on in the Real World, too, though not necessarily to the same comedic excess. I've sit in on therapy sessions and accompanied people to the office, offering a reassuring presence in the waiting room. It's the only time I ever get to read People Magazines from four years ago, so I get something out of it, too. Did you know Tom Cruise is married? To a girl, even?

One of the blogs I semi-regularly visit belongs to an acquaintance. She's not a friend of mine, though that condition is more due to our lack of shared experiences than anything else. I see her often during the week, and we're basically at the level of nodding to each other in the hallway.

She did catch me by surprise at a restaurant last month. I was meeting a group of friends there, but I was (as usual) early. I wandered the floor of the restaurant, looking for my group of friends. Instead, I stumbled upon ANOTHER group of acquaintances. They shouted hello, and I walked over to their table only to say, “This isn't the group I'm looking for!” and walked away smiling over my shoulder. While dining with my friends, she left an hour later, waving at me as she headed for the door.

Owing to my unfamiliarity with her, my reaction wasn't immediate. I assumed she was waving to someone else. After all, since when do pretty girls wave and smile at me when I'm out on the town? Seldom, that's when! When I realized she was looking at ME and waving at ME, I did a double-take and waved back, feeling like I was back in high school. No matter how suave I think I've become since then, it never quite leaves me; it comes roaring back at a moment's provocation. Always relaxed around the ladies; that's me.

I told you that story so I could tell you this one: when I read her blog (one of the few who makes semi-frequent updates) and saw her make an entry in which she craves for the opportunity to talk to someone, it started me thinking about the sort of person who makes such a declaration. Her entry is in the context of life uncertainty and past disappointments.

Had I been asked, I would have thought her a quiet and withdrawn person who keeps to their own circle of friends. Does that kind of person make declarations about their personal life on a public blog?

Somehow I doubt that the class of people who types on blogs can be distilled into a “type”, complete with “common” characteristics.

It got me thinking about one of the oldest issues I've pondered regarding blogs: for whom to we write them? There's really only two answers. Either we write them for the outside world (which can be as limited as our groups of friends or as wide as the internet) or we write them for ourselves. I think a large portion of the healing power of blogs is seeing what we write “on paper”. Similar to the magical power of speaking things out loud, only to have them become meaningful, I think that blogs afford the writers a way to express what may be difficult in other circumstances.

So I believe in the therapeutic value of having someone, ANYONE, read what we have to say. In the same way we can draw comfort and direction from a one-sided conversation with a friend, whose only responses are nodding and “hmm-ing”, I think we can benefit from writing about that which troubles us. Writing about the things that make us nervous, anxious, heartbroken, expectant, fearful, and exhausted is a way to free the words. We can liberate the words from the bouncy confines of the padded cell between our ears.

And in doing so, it can alleviate pressure. As any physics student knows, removal of a quantity from a confined space reduces the pressure in that space.

Monday, December 24, 2007

It's a Life... Wonderful and Wide

It's somewhat of a tradition in my family that we watch "It's a Wonderful Life" on Christmas Eve. Sometimes it's the day before and sometimes it's on Christmas Day itself. The exact time doesn't really matter, so long as we all get together, pile on the couches, and watch.

Tonight was no exception. With a brand new DVD-copy, lovingly restored and cleaned, it looked the best I've ever seen it. Details I had never noticed were in practically every scene. And when it got to the end, I cried, as usual.

That's no great achievement nowadays. I'm extremely sentimental and anything from a old movie to a really nostalgic commercial for soap can get me to shed at least a few tears. I don't know what emotion those tears express; all the usual ones associated with tears (sadness, pain, happiness, empathy) don't really seem to apply.

I seem to end up with the idea that I'm crying because people often cry in such situations. Which is a weird thing to think, I tell you what.

It's Christmas time again. Tomorrow morning, after we all get up, we'll head down to breakfast and spread out in front of the Christmas tree. The presents will go round and round. A good time will be had by all. For that period of time, there is nothing else in the world that's important. It doesn't matter who's got jobs or who needs to get their oil changed, or who scratched the table in August putting down a metal basket. All that matters is the family, together.

I remember a few years ago trying to explain what Christmas was like to the fine lady I was dating. We each thought Christmas was important, but for very different reasons. And no matter how hard we tried, we didn't seem to be able to put together a coherent package to show to the other person and say "this is what Christmas means to me."

It was frustrating to me, because Christmas was important. It is important. In a way, it represents all that's good about life. I'm sure it seems corny to distill it down to a sentence right out of guileless film from the 50's, but there's no better way. The feeling at Christmas is like being able to place all that's good about life and hold it in your hands. That glowing ball that fits in between two palms is the core of what life is about.

I don't mean to imply that Christmas itself is the special thing, because it isn't. Though it seems utilitarian to say it, Christmas is really just a means to an end. A reason to allow people to gather round the fire, reconnecting with old friends and family.

So much of today is sharp and cynical. The humor is pointed, people make fun of each other constantly, and we all thicken our skins. We all shrug on heavy coats to dull the impact of other people's barbs, all the while jabbing each other. We all try to score the hits first, to take the pain away from all that follows. Protected by insincerity, we feel free to advance opinions that are not our own, using them like straw men to be picked apart. Even worse, we hide our own true comments in a sleeve of sarcasm, pretending as though they're false, if only to prevent our own thoughts from being ridiculed.

The Christmas holidays, to me, are a time of the year when all that insincerity burns off like fog. If I feel and act generously, then it doesn't matter WHO knows it, or how much they kid or joke about it. It doesn't matter because the honesty and truthfulness carries the day, making it (for the length of a passing season) THE way to behave. Making it THE cardinal virtue.

It's easy to dismiss my thoughts as crazy-eyed idealism, or as the oblivious longings of someone hopelessly out of touch. I can certainly step outside myself and see the valid point. But I happen to believe that it's important to believe in the fiction (if it even IS a fiction), even for the length of a single day. It's our actions that shape us and how we behave towards our loved ones is a large part of how we treat the world.

It might be called a fiction or hopeless dream. I think, though, that for the length of time that the spirit endures, it moves us each in the best direction.

Merry Christmas to all.

Peace and honor be upon your houses and your names.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Shopping at Full Speed

This morning, I decided it was the right time to go shopping. That decision was reached by my thinking a few things:

1. I hadn't done any shopping yet.
2. Christmas Eve is tomorrow.
3. I wasn't doing anything else right then.

Shortly after 11:00 AM, I began my shopping odyssey. On my way out the door, my mom said something about "beating the church crowd to the stores." I had debated about whether or not to eat lunch before heading out, before deciding to postpone food until after the shopping. It was a good choice.

First stop, a Barnes and Noble. Unlike some previous years, I had been able to put together a working list of possible gifts for my mom, dad, and two brothers. I'd looked online earlier to see if a particular gift was available, so I had a pretty good idea of scratching off two gifts for two people at B&N. Thanks to some in-store browsing, I switched one gift for something found at the scene, and picked up additional gifts for some others.

Back to the car and down the street about a quarter-mile to Best Buy. Here I had an even better idea what to buy, though I had no idea if it would be in stock. It was, and I managed to fill out the remainder of my gift roster. I proceeded to the checkout holding pen. It's a large, roped-off area where people line up BEFORE you can be assigned to the line for your individual cashier. It reminds me a bit of the lines at Six Flags where you have to wait in line in order to wait in line.

Through a massive display of good fortune and fortuitous timing, the holding pen was empty. I was able to stride rite up to the gateway leading to the actual cashier area. There was a blue-shirted employee there whose job it was to direct traffic. After looking around at the impulse purchase items surrounding me (who buys candy at Best Buy, anyway?), I turn around only to notice that the holding area is rapidly filling up. As I get directed to lane 10, I notice that the line behind me now contains more than 15 people. Arrived at the nick of time!

Luckily, I had those wonderful pre-gift ideas, and didn't have to settle for "I hope they like this thing I just found". I've made some unfortunate gifts to friends and loved ones in my time, and I hate to have people needing to humor me because of inappropriate guesses in my gift selection.

Friday, December 21, 2007

This much pain had better be good for me.

It was time once again for a trip to the dentist. This morning, I drove over to the office and plunked myself into the chair. My hygenist is Sherri; she's nice, in a grandmotherly sort of way. She's always smiling and always asks about my schooling, expressing concern if things are worrisome, and pleasure towards anything that sounds happy.

But oh, how she brutalized me. I spent my checkup with my legs fully extended and clamped together at the ankles. My hands were firmly grasped around my belt and it wasn't the first time I'd been glad to be wearing a belt for an appointment. She poked and prodded my jaw and gums in all sorts of unpleasant ways.

"Pocket depths look good." I smile as best as one can with a metal hook in mouth. Pocket depths are something I've worked on previously, so this seems like good news. More poking. More pain. Turns out I have lots of plaque buildup and perhaps the very beginnings of some gum disease around my two false teeth.

As a result of that tooth-replacement, I'm no fan of dental work. All the poking doesn't endear me. But it just keeps being necessary, so I make with the grinning and bearing. After about forty-five minutes of feeling my head being abused, I was ready to divulge the location of the secret rebel base.

Sorry, Dantooine.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Blaming the Victim

There's been a major development in the latest gang-rape trial in Saudi Arabia. One of the people involved has reportedly been pardoned by the king himself! Monarchical privilege rears its ugly head! People in the streets are sure to be outraged at this miscarriage of justice; letting one of the convicted offenders get away without punishment! What is their country coming to?

I should mention now that the person pardoned was the rape victim. (SOURCE)

What seems to have occurred is that the 19-year old woman was attempting to retrieve a picture from a friend. (I say "seems to have occured" because of the unreliability of the woman's testimony, which I'll mention later.) While sitting in his car, other people got in and drove the car to a secluded location, where other men were waiting. Rapes and beatings then occurred. The rapists were all sentenced to between 2 and 9 years in prison. Because Saudi Arabia has a strict prohibition on unmarried women being in the company of any man other than a relative, she's being charged with being in the company of a "non-relative", meaning that guy she was in the car with before the actual crimes started.

The sentence for this crime is 90 lashings. Last month, the Supreme Judicial Council ordered the punishment increased to 200 lashings. In other words, she wasn't just GUILTY, she was REALLY guilty. Perhaps it was increased because, having been gang-raped, she was alone with more than one man. This curdles my stomach. A bit of further digging found that her sentence was increased because she attempted to "aggravate and influence the judiciary through the media".

What's even more strange is that this woman was with a male companion, who was also kidnapped, seemingly. This male companion will probably not be charged, because it's not illegal for a young man to be in the company of strange men alone, even if they're beating him up.

Her previous lawyer can no longer defend her, either. For his involvement, he was barred from the case, his legal license confiscated, and he himself ordered to appear before a disciplinary hearing.

All punishments are at the whim of the presiding judicial officials. Punishments for rapists can range anywhere from no time served to death. Isn't subjective legal roulette exciting?

So what important lesson do we take from this? If you're an unmarried woman in Saudi Arabia, be sure to stay with a male relative. Sure, the both of you will still be overpowered by 3-1 odds, and you'll mostly like still be gang-raped in a field while your relative is beaten by the guys standing on the sidelines. But when all the dust settles, you won't be charged with a crime.

At least, not the "company of relatives" crime. Women who are raped can still be stoned to death for amoral behavior, even if they commit no other crime.

Also, women can't defend themselves effectively, because the testimony of all women is considered hearsay. Only men's testimony can be considered objective, even in he-said, she-said crimes.

Female testimony in Islamic court is unreliable because:

1. Women are much more emotional than men and will, as a result of their emotions, distort their testimony.

2. Women do not participate in public life, so they will not be capable of understanding what they observe.

3. Women are dominated completely by men, who by the grace of God are deemed superior; therefore, women will give testimony according to what the last man told them.

4. Women are forgetful and their testimony cannot be considered reliable (SOURCE)

Wasn't the Saudi king showing mercy by pardoning the silly woman of talking with a non-relative? She should know better than to talk about it to the media, though. Next time, the judges might not be so nice.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Smell of Academia

I was moving at speed today, trying desparately to finish some last minute revisions to some comprehensive exams. Instead of requiring me to take the exams over in their entirety, the professor allowed me to redo the individual parts which were "not satisfactory". They were due, however, by 5:00 today. So I sent them off, and now am relaxing in the total muscle-loosening that occurs whenever a project is completed.

The sections needing to be repeated were academic knowledge that some students might consider unneccesary for memorization (as it was on the first exam). The watchwords of today's academics are "do you know where best to go to LOOK for information you don't know?" Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to apply to my history exams.

From the moment I stepped from my car after arriving on campus, I was following a man. Down the stairs, across the street, through the minor quadrangle, past the academic buildings... he was right in front of me. I wouldn't have paid him any attention under the normal course of things, except he was smoking a pipe.

That caught my attention, as few people walk around smoking pipes any more, what with the cigarette companies basically abandoning that long-lasting consumption habit for the more repeatedly costly cigarettes. It's also a more socially unacceptible habit in these days of "subtle" cigarettes with unflavored smoke.

My first thought was, "Oh, a pipe. How unappatizing." But as I followed him around in the trail of his own flavor, I was struck with some memories. Memories of academics turning pages on books, late into the night, and sitting around tables discussing incredibly esoteric matters.

"Is the upcoming merger of the neo-conservative left and the non-binding conservative Greens going to be anything other than a minor disturbance on the journey to full fiscal independence for the Indian Colonies?"

"I'd wager not, though the reiterative nonconformity appertaining to the escalating defenestration may hinder all future prospects until the circumnavigation of the celestial orbits."

Granted, it's still a filthy habit. But seeing a man with graying hair and thickrimmed glasses smoking on a pipe while possibly thinking thoughts that require effusive thinking got me into the academic spirit.

That smell is just something that suggests grandfatherly knowledge and dusty books. I hope we continue to make small quantities as a society so that future generations will know exactly how the flat at 221B Baker Street smells.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Power Outage! (Brief)

My power just went out, so it may be a long night of snapping tree limbs and downed power lines. There's not much ice to be had in my suburb (it's still 32 degrees), but apparently it gets worse as one heads north.

Yahoo weather has been very unhelpful (and illogical!).

Note the current temperature, high, and low.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

It's a beautiful day in my neighborhood

Here's the view this afternoon of my tree and the winter that lies beyond.

Is it pronounced "Closer" or "Closer"?

I just got finished watching the movie "Closer". I'm glad that this isn't an audio format, because then I'd have to pronounce the title, which can be alternatively "closer" to reflect approaching nearness, or "clozer" as a person who closes something. I can't recall any of the press regarding this film, so I can't recall what the producers thought. And the film has no commentary track, so I can't tell what the director or writers thought. I can see either pronunciation being correct, as there are elements of both words in the story.

The idea of the film is like the romantic comedy to end all romantic comedies. Serious star power, with a power quartet of leading actors (Jude Law, Clive Owen, Natalie Portman, and Julia Roberts). A couple meets another couple, sparks fly, partners get exchanged. It's as old as Shakespeare and beyond.

But this isn't a film sculpted out of cotton candy. It's set in London, but not the London of romantic comedies where the Beatles always seems to be playing and all the main characters continually walk past British flags. This would be the cold and sterile London of reality, where it looks as if the sky were replaced by a thick gray blanket just out of the range where one might be able to see the threads.

It's tempting, I'm sure, to classify the characters in this movie as "not good people". They cheat, lie, betray each other, and are sometimes unrepentant. That's what happens if you compare this movie with a list of life sins and a clipboard. Yes, they are all of these things, yet the movie isn't really ABOUT any of them. Things that would be major plot points in other films (sleeping with a prostitute) are brushed aside in favor of the bared watch-workings of the characters dignity and psychology.

I think all of the characters strive for normalcy, but have no idea how to navigate the traps of life in order to get there. Each of them are empathetic and each has less-than-glamorous aspects of their personalities.

The movie creates a good "real-life" fable, because it doesn't think it's a movie. Probably because it started out as a play. Everyone keeps making decisions that will last a lifetime, but finding out the choices only last until the next turn.

It might exhausting for the watchers, though. I kept getting trapped by my own conventions. So many comedies seen. So much need for a happy ending. When the movie does drift back to romance, it's usually a setup for a confrontation. A diverting of expectations, something that might be called a deceptive cadence in music.

It's a good film, and an excellent one to watch on a cold December day with ice whipping around outside. It's not for kids, though, or those with weak tolerance for sexual conversation. It is an adult movie, not in the sense of having graphic nudity everywhere. The characters are adults and act like adults and don't care whom they hurt. In retrospect, it's a sad story full of people who get disappointed, which is often connected with being "an adult", anyhow.

How much "humor" is too much?

There's a strange vibe amongst my friends this year. I'm sure this particular vibe has arisen in other years in other places, but I've really noticed it this year; the fact that I've noticed means I've more sensitive than previous times... or that it's really bad this time.

The issue is a certain type of humor I'm going to call "disingenuous irony", because I like naming things to give myself a better grasp. It's sweeping its way through a segment of my friends and acquaintances and I find it distasteful. This humor involves the teller knowingly saying a ironical statement in a serious tone of voice and deriving pleasure from catching people off-guard with what would otherwise be offensive or hurtful proclamations.

Obviously, this borders very closely to actual irony (not to be confused with sarcasm). The important difference is that humorous ironical comparisons are acknowledged by the audience as being ... well ... ironic. If I tell people that I slept with a man two days ago, but everyone already knows we were both rooming in a hotel room during a band trip, that's an ironic statement. If I tell people I won't sit next to Jill because she sleeps around a lot and might be diseased, that's just mean, even if Jill does move from bed to couch during the night to ease her back and she's currently suffering from the flu.

This disingenuous irony often seems to be a passive-aggressive way to say the statements that our poor id is busily writing at his home on Pituitary Street: sentences that otherwise aren't acceptable in everyday conversation or even acceptable to say about friends. This brand of humor has its own red-headed stepchild: non-ironic reversals. This is the "your mother is so fat" version of irony, in which the teller says some sort of objectionable statement ("I can't help it that you're a bitch"), then when the hearer reacts, the teller quickly follows with "Just kidding!". Bonus points are awarded if the teller "apologizes" in a shocked or affronted manner (often with pitch of voice raised and hands raised to ward off something), as though the hearer is overreacting to a "joke".

I'm not a fan. I know this entry sounds like a cross between an article from Emily Post and a psychological journal, but it's an important matter to me. Well-executed humor is one of the greatest pleasures in my life, whether it's me delivering the joke or someone else. So it vexes me to have people apparently attempting to be "witty", and just plain doing it wrong. Worse, it reflects poorly on them. In light of some interactions over the past couple of months, my initial impressions of people have been altered, simply because they use deceptive humor too liberally.

That brings me to an important point: everybody has the opportunity to laugh however they see fit. However, because humor is a significantly public pursuit, I believe it reflects poorly on tellers to bring down the audience. I practice an much more self-deprecating version, which strives to bolster the audience's comfort at the expense of me looking like an idiot.

For example, if I were asked, "Have you ever heard of Tcherpnin?" (a composer whose name is pronounced CHARP-nin), I'd invariably say "Isn't that what you do with dull pencils?". The hearer would smile wanly as a barely-passable acknowledgment of my attempt at humor, possibly even rolling their eyes a bit. In that situation, the irony and humor comes from the understanding that, in spite of what I just said, I'm smart enough to know what I'm talking about. That's the hope, anyway.

Those previously-mentioned warped methods of humor really bother me. Enough that when I hear this in a conversation:

A: Sorry I took the last close parking spot.
B: I still think you're a dirty whore.
A: What did you just say!?
B: I was kidding! Geeze.

it's a negative mark on the Social Clipboard under Person B's name. And there's a serious disconnection here, because no doubt Person B thinks they're being social.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Verbally Abusing Women: What if she really does ask for it?

This morning I had the most surreal experience of the past month, if not the last year. A friend who's taking a speech class asked if I would help her in Friday's class. I said sure, while thinking I would probably be asked to chance slides or something while the main speech was going on.

How wrong I was.

She explained that she was going to have a skit to proceed her speech, and I was to be the other half. Yay! A fun scene. I haven't had much of that in the past 10 years, since leaving behind the drama classes and play productions. But this dialog was different. In it, she played herself; at least, herself as she was a few years ago, at the height of her struggle with an eating disorder. I was playing the personification of the eating disorder. I was the nasty disparaging voice she heard that always told her she wasn't good enough.

This isn't going to be the fun lark-in-the-park I first anticipated.

My part consisted of being relentlessly cruel and abusive towards her for ten lines or so, with her meekly acknowledging the verbal abuse I pile on. I called her fat, called her a bitch, and showed general disgust for how much of a "fucking fat-ass loser" she is.

You may or may not know this, but I'm not a person who swears gratuitously. I know many people who use "colorful metaphors" as flavor text, using them as the only operational adjective in the vocabulary. I'm not that guy. If I have to resort to swearing, I've kinda admitted defeat; that's the way I perceive it. I should be able to make my displeasure or disbelief completely apparent without using words that may shock and offend some people. I suppose that would make me prim, by some people's standards.

I hesitated accepting this role, because I wasn't sure I wanted to be berating one of my friends. It's not something I'm comfortable with. When I asked her if she wanted to have an image of me berating her in her mind from now on, she responded with confidence. She said that one of the reasons she asked me to do it was BECAUSE she knew that I was not the sort of person who would ever say these words and mean them. That's a fine compliment which humbled me, so the least I could do was call her a fat bitch in recompense. I think I got the better end of the stick.

Anyway, we went to class this morning and I stood towering over her, raining invective on her. It's acting, at it's very finest. I never doubted that I'd be able to say the words, but I did doubt whether or not it was a good idea. I had another flash of that as I was throwing scorn at her. Right about the time I was telling her she was a waste of space and friendships, she (having had downcast eyes since the beginning) subtly tucked her chin towards her shoulder in an even bigger display of submission and self-worthlessness. And all the warning lights in my brain came on again. Brightly flashing.

I started shaking with a combination of adrenaline-fueled exertion and quasi-yelling, and a giddy sense of the entire room starting to roll clockwise. I stopped holding my index cards with both hands, but with only a single hand, it was shaking too violently to read. Back to two hands.

In a half-second, my superego came back and calmed me a little bit, reminding me that it was just make-believe. We finished the dialog and I sat down while the actual speech occurred. I had to grasp hands with myself just to keep the anxiety from making me drum my fingers.

I'm still of two minds on it. The actor in me loved the chance to get to be something I'm not; to embrace a character who is completely outside my experience. That's what draws me into acting in the first place, and this was an outstanding exemplar.

But the friend in me gets nauseated from saying those things to a friend. Or anyone at all, really, even in fun. I can be hurtful. I can say hurtful things. I certainly have before. But each time, it leaves me hollowed out. Each time, I broke a little something inside of me. I felt that little twinge that happens when you go contrary to your nature. And being asked to do it on demand fills me with an initial reaction of "no way." Because on some level I can't set it aside.

After I finished, my friend instantly raised her head, smiled, and said "Thanks." That was enough to break the pall. I remembered that it was all water off the proverbial duck. Hateful words, but not heartfelt from my end, and of (hopefully) little-to-no impact on her end. Thank goodness she smiled, or I'd have been trapped in a self-designed prison of compromised principles.

She offered to buy me dinner as a thank-you, so you can be sure this episode ranks right at the top of the most bizarre and disturbing things that have ever earned me free food.

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Self-Evaluation Cascade

I love writing blog entries that make people comment. Some people give verbal feedback ("I so agree!") and some give written feedback ("Here's my annotated list why you're wrong and you suck"). Occasionally, people who write blogs respond by writing entries that reference me directly, regarding something I said. The entry then spins off into whatever they have to say about that subject or into other areas altogether. It's all very flattering, mainly because I love the idea that something I say causes other people to ponder a particular point.

This time, it's come full circle. Last Tuesday morning, I wrote THIS about a beautiful woman and beauty in general. Then I left town to begin my Thanksgiving holiday. That entry figured tangentially into Minx's entry of the same day, located HERE. In much the same fashion, this entry I'm writing now touches on some of the issues raised in my mind after reading her entry. Everybody confused? Super; let's begin.

Beauty is a hot topic in our culture. We're in the middle of a continuing skirmish between physical beauty and other types of beauty (which are often described only by focusing on characteristics other than physicality). In the beginning, based on the aesthetics of the time, there was a Thought: pretty people are fun to look at. Then came Counter-Thought: we're focusing too much on pretty people; what about everyone else? Then came Counter-Counter-Thought: all well and good, but sex still sells advertising, and we're here to make money. CCCT: You're shallow. CCCCT: You're jealous.

And so on.

Immediately after reading Minx's entry, I started thinking about myself: am *I* beautiful? The thought came because I was reading her descriptions of how she perceives herself: as an invisible woman. Socially invisible, that is, neither hideous nor jaw-droppingly gorgeous enough to stand out from the crowd.

It's very difficult for me to contemplate my own beauty. It seems very vain and rather like writing one's own letter of recommendation: how do I be honest? The other difficulty is that I'm bad at evaluating the attractiveness of my gender, having had little practice.

I'm tall, which statistically works out to a plus. Women usually prefer men who are taller than they are. I'm overweight, which should be a minus. However, I think I get partial credit for "carrying it well", as has been said to me many times. I think this is code for "still looks OK".

I usually have a beard. This has been referred to by women as either a plus or a minus. People have commented that my face is the right shape for a beard, but others have said that it looks silly on me. We'll call this even, as there's no compelling opinion one way or the other, and it's about as easy to have a beard as NOT have one.

Oh, and I'm balding. Bald may be appealing in some people (Patrick Stewart or Yul Brynner), but the half-hearted in-between stages aren't really appealing to anybody.

Personality: Now we get into the hard stuff. I'm known as being intelligent, which is a plus. I'm know as being caring; also positive. Add witty and reliable to the positive heap. I'm known as being acerbic, oblivious, and unmotivated. Sometimes overly sarcastic. Those all go in the minus column.

I could go on picking at myself, but that's not my real goal. In my experience, I'm not handsome enough to tempt people to just come up to me and introduce themselves. My appeal seems to be mostly contained in my personality and other parts of my brain. This has always been... well, not a point of pride exactly... more like a confirmation of the way the world should be run. I've always been very pleased to be valued for what I have to offer, rather than looking good while doing it.

This leads to an interesting result when I've been complimented on my looks. When significant others and just-plain others have told me that I look handsome or pretty, it seems to read in my mind as an affirmation of who I am. My brain doesn't really treat it is "I look good", but more as "My total package is very appealing." In order for me to actually feel physical compliments, they have to be bordering on unromantically specific. ("I really like your nose; it compliments the strong frame of your eyebrows and chin.")

I don't think I'd know what to make of someone who considered me beautiful. My view of my own beauty is so transitory and frankly optional, that I'd be concerned that the people would quickly lose sight of whatever it was they saw. Not only that, but I'd be on unfamiliar ground. Relationships that fluctuate based on what stupid things I say: I can handle that. But something based off of something I can't control, to a large degree? Unsettling.

So, I'm thinking I'm not generally handsome. Just somewhere in the middle. Of course, for a guy, this is completely acceptable. All our sitcoms and celebrities reinforce the idea that middling men can have bombshell women. The Simpsons, King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond, Family Guy, Roger Rabbit, Billy Joel, Lyle Lovett, K-Fed, Dennis Kucinich, Donald Trump, and the list goes on and on.

So, by that scale, I'm doing well. I'm intelligent, industrious about my industry, and passionate about my ... er... passions. And society tells me that's enough. I've said it before, and it bears repeated proclamation: I've found it laughably easy to be a decent guy. Men who behave badly make such huge waves that it becomes trivially simple to just be nice.

And in the absence of smacktacular beauty, being nice is a wonderful substitute for a guy. I don't know why it doesn't work that way for women, but I'd imagine it has something to do with "default perceptions". Mainly that women are ALREADY supposed to be nice, so if they're trying to hang their hat on that, it's not going to be noticed. Lucky for me, the standards for men are in a completely different scale. It's easy for me to do the limbo when I can just walk under the 12 foot bar. I wonder why so many other people have trouble?

Of course, smart women aren't merely content to just obtain decency from their partner before matrimony. So I can't afford to rest on my laurels. I've got to get out there and advertise. Otherwise all the savvier gentlemen will act in my place.

P.S. The included self-photo at the top was one of several I took while trying to find a picture to send to my place of employment. It's among the worst of the lot, with my face completely washed of color, double chin showing, great expanse of forehead, and a very strange expression on my face. I include it because this may or may not be how I look most of the time. Obviously, I'd look better under better lighting and with a friendlier angle, but wouldn't we all? This is just me as I am.

This second picture was taken 30 days prior, and looks much more like I think "I" look.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Beautiful Woman's Geis

One of my good friends has a serious social problem. This problem effects all aspects of her interaction with people. Few days go by before she is once again reminded of her liability.

She's beautiful.

Seriously and profoundly gorgeous, even. She receives a lot of attention because of it, and a lot of that attention is negative. No woman I know is more likely to provoke an after-the-fact response than she, just by virtue of passing through a room.

To be certain, many of the guys are single, and who better to reflect on a beautiful woman? But some people have girlfriends and wives, yet still they comment. This used to trouble me, but I've shoved it aside in the past few years. I think part of it has to do with fitting in. Nobody wants to hear about how much people love their wives; that sort of talk inspires envy in other men. But everyone can rally around the idea of appraising a woman who nobody has a chance at. There's a (reluctant) distance of impartiality. So when all men, single or otherwise, can put their heads together and agree on something, it creates bonding.

I'm sure there's an element of "fly on the wall" wistfulness when we think about the conversations that the other sex has once we leave the room. We all have a curiosity to know what the other gender thinks about us. From my experience, men only vocalize physical appreciation when amongst other men. You will hear "Wow, does she fit into that sweater!", not "Did you hear how efficiently she gave directions?"

Interestingly, some men do have more mundane appreciations of women's non-physical characteristics, but the men must be prompted before they'll reveal them. "She seemed really nice" and "it's flattering that she shows interest in me" and "man, she's smart... and shouldn't consider someone like me" may get thought, but remain unvoiced. It's a pride thing, I bet.

So back to my friend. Whether she knows it or not, she leaves lots of lustful guys in her wake. Many is the time she's passed left a small conversation only to have one of the guys look longingly at her retreating figure, mumbling something lecherous. This sort of talk annoys me in a way I have a hard time defining: she's not my sister nor my girlfriend, but I still feel guys should keep those sort of comments to themselves. It seems very rude to me, especially considering the comments are only directed to the other guys, who are supposed to nod reflectively, adding their own similes.

I'm not immune to her effects, by any means. It's not that her looks are intimidating, as I often hear beautiful women described. I feel no intimidation or subjugation. What I do feel is distracted when I try to have a conversation with her. Honestly, I just haven't been around that many beautiful people, so it's rather difficult to ignore when it's two feet from my face. In addition, there is something inherently flattering, too. Here she is, talking to me: aren't I lucky! I assumed it was far better odds that she would NOT talk to me, so here I am, beating the spread!

I realize that this whole article skirts the edge of satire, but I'm trying to be serious about this; it is a problem for her. She's mentioned to me that she feels continual scrutiny during her day. She can feel the eyes of the world staring at her when her back is turned. She can't help hearing the rapid intake of breath if she bends over to pick up a notebook, even though when she turns around, no one is looking at her. She can't go anywhere or do anything without it being examined.

I must admit a certain perverse pleasure in eating with her in restaurants, because one can't help but laugh when people start taking the long way to the bathroom just to pass by the table. Or to scan around the room and count the number of eyes I can see looking back in our general direction. I would imagine this phenomena is like a small-scale version of what it's like to eat dinner with a celebrity, and have the entire cafe wondering if they're seeing the girl who did that thing in that movie; you know, the movie with the horse and talking cow?

So how does she escape? She puts on a pair of sunglasses and a nondescript jacket. Then she vanishes from the plateau of Aphrodite into the crowds of middle-America. Obviously, when she tries to look presentable, there's nothing she can do to stop people from talking about her and staring. There are people who like watching her rummage in her locker, and drink from the water fountain, and push an audio/visual cart around, and a ton of other completely harmless and non-sexual things. She's the sort of person who probably gets her picture taken surreptitiously by camera phones often, without even realizing.

Perhaps part of the allure is that everyone knows she's totally committed to her current boyfriend, and really has eyes only for him. She's a safe target because she's completely unavailable. Strangely, there's been very little envy directed towards this fellow, possibly because he's a good guy and nobody wants to be "that guy" who tries to steal someone from someone else.

But knowing today's society, I think that might be a foolishly optimistic appraisal. Just yesterday, a friend was telling the story of how his girlfriend cheated on him with his ex-best friend. He had a host of names for her, but "The Scavenger" is the only one I can recall that didn't have swearing in it. She's accounted to be a beauty, this "Scavenger", but all he sees in her now are the lies. Eye of the beholder, indeed.

NOTE: The picture accompanying this entry is a painting depicting a rusalka. The rusalka is a spirit from Slavic folklore who lives in a lake or river, enticing men to their doom with her unnatural beauty.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Contentedness Is Warm Oatmeal

I spent this morning's breakfast wearing comfortable pajamas and eating hot oatmeal. I am now in an excellent mood.

I don't tend to make much use of my heat. I can get away with this because the windows are good quality and trap a lot of heat. Also, I wear clothing in layers and have many blankets around. Currently, the outdoor temperature is about 46, and the indoor is right at about 61.

I keep my "domain" this chilly to save money and energy. Many days, I don't spend a great deal of time here. I used to switch off the heater, but then I'd have trouble remembering to turn it on when it's subzero. As a compromise, I set the thermostat as low as it can go (59 degrees) and leave it there.

For the most part, my body is excellent at maintaining its temperature. I can be pleasantly warm in most climates. But to show me that nothing is for certain, my body also very rarely gets "cold flashes" where it isn't possible for me to get warm enough. Perhaps this is some sort of balance for menopausal women everywhere. When I'm seized with this chill, I'm unable to warm myself, no matter how many blankets I'm under, clothes I'm wearing, or people I'm snuggling with.

What's also strange is that it's one of the few times in my life when I feel small. Not that I'm small from huddling for warmth (though that also happens), but when I'm cold, I just feel like there's less of me. I feel thin, like the wind passes right through me, and I feel that wind has blown away most of me, like sand from a castle. It's rather unnerving, adding psychophysical strangeness to an already-agitated body.

All this describing is making me cold! Time for a hot shower, preceding the final opera performance.

Friday, November 16, 2007

"Aren't there any *nice* girls at that school?"

While I was home, I showed my parents a formal picture of me sitting in with a local band. I'm there on the right; just follow the glare from the big forehead! All of us look good, in our matching outfits. My mom looked at the picture and said, "Oh, there you are."

And seemingly in the same breath, she said, "That's a cute girl," pointing to the girl standing behind the tympani. I bob my head noncommittally. She consults my middle brother for a second opinion. He also nods, making vaguely-positive mumblings. If my father were involved in this conversation, his next question would be, "Is she single?" My response, an honest "I don't know. I don't really know her," would be met with a scoff of slack-jawed disbelief. "Just get out there and say 'Hi'!"

My father is always looking out for me. Whenever my parents visit for concerts or recitals, he usually spots someone on the stage who'd be a "possible" girlfriend. "That girl in the back; she's pretty." These observations always seem brought up as though I've got myself buried so far in books and solo pieces that I've never REALLY looked at any of the women who surround me on a daily basis.

This declaration of girl-noticing is actually a rather large unasked question. When my parents say, "That girl is cute," it's their way of saying, "so how come you aren't dating her?" I'm sure most parents quiz their children about their romantic lives, eager to know if anybody's going to be brought home to meet the parents. Then wanting to know when the engagement will be. Then the wedding. Then the children. Then the next visit!

If I point out that that pretty girl in the back is engaged to one of the trumpet players, my dad will say "hmm", in a way that means either "Engaged, eh? Doesn't that sound like fun?" or "So you hesitated and missed your chance with that one, huh?" depending on the prevailing wind.

I love my parents dearly, but I hope they understand that those thoughts rattle around in my head all day. It's really not possible to be single and NOT continually walk around in this cloud of your own thoughts about relationships and attractive people. As they say, nobody thinks more about relationships than the people who aren't in one, but want to be.

Which is why, when I saw a cute girl earlier this evening, all I could think about was my father's voice saying "Does it hurt to say 'hello'?" Of course, it doesn't hurt. Unless uncomfortable anxiety counts; does it count?

But it also didn't get me any closer to figuring out if she's single. I'm saving that for the next meeting, which will no doubt begin with "Hello. Again."

I'm suave that way.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Life in the Pit

It's time for the fall opera. It's a big deal at the university, involving many different departments who don't usually have anything to do with each other. There's a set-building crew, there's vocalists everywhere, and there's 30-40 musicians trapped under the stage, wondering what's happening above their heads.

Last year's opera was "Susannah", loosely based on the story from the apocryphal story of Susannah and the Elders. It ends with people being killed and betrayed. This year, to find something lighter, "La Boheme" was chosen. It ends with people being betrayed and dying, an important difference; there's no malicious killing in this new opera. "La Boheme" has one of the two main opera plots: people fall in love, then die. Compare with "Le Nozze di Figaro", where people fall in love, then get married.

We did a week of rehearsals by ourselves, with just the orchestra learning the music. The next week was devoted to having the various cast members come to sing their parts, to get the feel of working with the orchestra. This week has been all the final staging and run-throughs. Tomorrow night (Wednesday) is the final dress rehearsal for the "Friday/Sunday" cast, and performances start on Thursday night.

We're playing a reduced wind orchestration, which means there's only two trombone instead of four, two horns instead of four, etc. In spite of the reduced numbers, we're still all crowded in. I'm actually in the doorway leading out of the pit, sitting on a different level than everyone else. I'll try to remember to bring my camera, because it's funny.

It's always strange to sit in a pit and play for an unseen spectacle. We hear women (and men) screaming, people laughing, lots of clomping around, breaking glass, slamming doors, and every once and a while, flakes of fake snow come raining into the pit onto our stands. All this happens as we're steadily moving from "Number 26" to "Number 27", so it's a bit dry on our end.

The music is good, of course. There's a reason this is one of the 5 most performed operas. But we can't really play loud, as we'd easily overwhelm the singers, even in our reduced form. So, the nights playing eventually comes to feel like you're singing while wearing a ski-mask; some sound gets through, but it's a little confusing for the listener. I spend a great portion of my time with a mute in and at ppp. In fact, I'll go so far to say that I have never played a piece with so much time spent in-mute. It's certainly above 80%.

More updates as we approach the first downbeat.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Armistice Day

As I was writing in the date for the previous entry, I noticed today was the 11th day of the eleventh month. Further, I was writing it during the eleventh hour.

In 1918, that particular time was the start of the ceasefire ending World War I. 1.1% of the world's population died as a direct result of the fighting. That would be close to 70 million people by today's population.

The last man to die in battle in France during World War One was a Canadian, shot dead by a sniper at 10:58 AM.

(Less than) 55 Questions Answered

1. Is your second toe longer than your first?
No, both my feel slope from big to little toe.

2. Do you have a favorite type of pen?
Calligraphy pens. I love any kind of pen that slightly scratches along the paper

3. Look at your planner for May 14, what are you doing?
I don't think there's anything on that day. Seven months away?

4. What color are your toenails usually?
Slightly translucent, and that what color they ALWAYS are. Unless I've just stubbed my toe.

5. What was the last thing you highlighted?
I can't remember the last time. Years, certainly. I don't own any highlighters, and it's been a very long time since I've used them for anything. I thought about this when I was watching other people studying for comps and using them, realizing that I can't remember the last time I've touched one.

6. What color are your bedroom curtains?
Off-white venetian blinds.

7. What color are the seats in your car?
Um, tan. Except for the various stains.

8. Have you ever had a black and white cat?
No. Grey, orange, brown, dark brown, and so on.

9. What is the last thing you put a stamp on?
I mailed my $100 check to the symphony to secure a slot in the audition.

10. Do you know anyone who lives in Wyoming?

11. Why did you withdraw cash from the ATM the last time?
I pulled out money from an ATM to pay for tolls on a recent trip to and from Topeka.

12. Who was the last baby you held?
I'm sure it was Alana, who may also be the most recent baby I know of. My shirt fell victim to a leaky diaper for my trouble.

13. Do you know of any twins with rhyming names?
I know very few twins, and none of them have rhyming names.

14. Do you like Cinnamon toothpaste?
I certainly don't mind it. I'm assuming this is talking about Close-up, which is the only cinnamon paste I know of. It's a valued memory from my childhood. I get taken back every time I happen to use it.

15. What kind of car were you driving 2 years ago?
The same car I currently have: my sturdy Accord.

16. Pick one: Miami Hurricanes or Florida Gators:
Neither sound like nice things to be around. And yes, I know they're sports teams, not harmful disasters.

17. Last time you went to Six Flags?
Hmm, it was a few years ago... though I can't remember the reason. I think a friend had an extra ticket. It's all been downhill since my father's old employer stopped renting out the park for a day. Such short lines!

18. Do you have any wallpaper in your house?
None. Everything is a neutral off-white. I have to compensate with wall art.

19. Closest thing to you that is yellow:
The cover of the local Yellow Pages is blue... I mean, yellow.

21. Who is the last person you wrote a check to?
A pianist, for services rendered regarding a trombone studio class.

22. Closest framed picture to you?
I have a framed print of a picture of Kylemore Abbey in Ireland.

23. Last time you had someone cook for you?
Let's see. I visited my parents last weekend, and they put fresh vegetables on store-bought pizza, but I don't think that counts. It was probably whenever I was visiting them previously.

24. Have you ever applied for welfare?
Never. Also, never unemployment. I wouldn't know where to begin, but it would probably start with internet research, which seems laden with irony.

25. How many emails do you have?
Assuming this is referring to individual emails, I have hundreds. A friend and I discovered two different ways to deal with them, as my mail tends to remain in the INBOX folder, while hers gets systematically shuffled to sub-folders relating to sender or subject. She became apoplectic when I told her my inbox currently consisted of 347 messages.

26. Last time you received flowers?
Boy, I can't recall a single specific incident in my entire life. Though, I do have a memory of a fairly recent occurrence where someone picked a dandelion and gave it to me. I don't remember when it was, though.

27. Do you think the sanctity of marriage is meant for only a man and a woman?
Wow, a heavy question! And here, I was filling this thing out to avoid heavy questions. Short answer, NO, if marriage is the civil arrangement. Long answer, SOMETIMES, if marriages are defined as the blessings of a particular religious faith.

28. What kind of milk do you drink?
I suppose it's 2%, though I only really DRINK milk with cookies or other deserts.

29. Do you play air guitar?
No, and I also don't play air trombone or air piano.

30. Do you take anything in your coffee?
Hold the cream, sugar, sweetener, milk, ... and the coffee.

31. Do you have any Willow Tree figurines?
I assume these are some sort of toy. I don't own any of these. However, I do own a celtic rune that is the glyph for willow, which represents wisdom, longevity, and acceptance.

32. Have you ever owned a Beanie Baby?

33. Last person you spoke to from high school?
I suppose that would be Matt. If we count emails, I've been in contact with several other high school friends who have recently contacted me on Facebook.

34. Last time you used hand sanitizer:
It's been years. My parents used to keep some in the kitchen, but I never really got used to using it. I don't use lotion, so it felt strange to be putting something all over my hands that I wasn't going to wash off.

36. What color are the blinds in your living room?
Same off white as are in all the windows.

37. What is in your inbox at work?
The schedule and attendance sheet for my students.

38. Last thing you read in the newspaper?
The news. I usually sit and read the paper from front to back, not counting classifieds or real estate listings.

39. What was the last pageant you attended?
Probably the Miss Webster Pageant 8 or 10 years ago. It's my hometown competition that coincides with the Fourth of July celebration. I think I had friends running.

40. Where is the last place you bought pizza from?
The grocery, frozen food isle.

41. Have you ever worn a crown?
Only the Burger King crowns. And only because people like to see how silly Andy looks in them.

42. What is the last thing you stapled?
I stapled together my exam answers right before I turned them in.

43. Did you ever drink Clear Pepsi?
If I did, it wasn't very memorable.

44. Are you ticklish?
Yep. Feet, around my waist (for whatever reason), and the roof of my mouth, which is the most statistically "ticklish" part of the human anatomy. Now you know!

45. Last time you saw fireworks?
This past Fourth of July.

46. Last time you had a Krispy Kreme doughnut?
Sometime within the two years, probably. I don't buy donuts, but on occasion there have been some at functions or other receptions.

47. Who is the last person that left you a message?
Tony Bennett! He called to tell me that he could be heard on one of the local radio stations singing Christmas music. Let me tell you, I was surprised.

48. Last time you parked under a carport?
Under a carport? I can't recall. I park each night in a garage, if that's what they're looking for.

49. Do you have a black dog?
No, nor do I have any other color of dog.

50. Do you have any pickles in your fridge?
At least two varieties.

51. Are you an aunt or uncle?
No. I do have cousins who have kids, but I don't think that makes me anything.

52. Who has the prettiest eyes that you know of?
This is a puzzle. On one hand, to really see a person's eyes, one needs to get very close to them. I don't have anyone that I regularly see that close, as that's a fairly intimate position. But the same closeness can been seen in photographs, which can be of people I've never met before. Doing a random image search of "pretty eyes" yields many eyes that are very pretty, which is a very unromantic answer, I know.

53. Last time you saw a semi truck?
I see them driving everywhere in town, and I live close to the highway, too. Also whenever I drive across the state.

54. Do you remember Ugly Kid Joe?
No. I have no idea who this is, but he had cruel friends at school. That's for sure.

55. Do you have a little black dress?
No. Though I do have a little black address which is attached to my front door. To be honest, I'm not a fan of black dresses, even though they're supposedly the Swiss Army Knife of women's clothing. It looks good on Audrey Hepburn in that iconic picture from "Breakfast at Tiffany's". Perhaps that's too high of a standard for black dress appreciation.

You might be a dictator if...

...mysterious masked gunmen open fire on non-violent protests by your opposition.


Saturday, November 10, 2007

Incoming Sickness

I woke up this morning much like other mornings. I was caught somewhat off guard by a awful lot of drool on my pillow. If I lived with a big dog, this might be no surprise. Unfortunately, even though I live with no pets, the true meaning still isn't a surprise. It's always a warning sign that I'm sick, since having a stuffed up nose and constricted throat forces me to breath through my mouth.

Sure enough, after I started moving around, I felt the particular brand of tightness in my throat. I was beginning to experience what I associate with "being sick", which is a strange condition that happens once or twice a year. I'm sure that sounds facetious, but I'm quite serious: whenever I get sick, it always seems to be varying intensity of the same complaint. It always involves a stuffed up nose, raised body temperature, and sore throat. I'm sure there's a way to classify this as a cold or other seasonal malady, but I just know it as sickness.

It comes and goes, and I have yet to be able to pin it on anything. I'm not consistently around sick people when it happens, I've been very good at washing my hands lately, and my diet is swinging back over to "healthy". In fact, if there's a good time to be sick, this is it. I have very little to accomplish in the next week, other than nightly opera rehearsals. Hopefully if I just lay low and avoid licking doorknobs, I'll be fine by the time Thanksgiving rolls around.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Doh! A deer!

Coming home this evening, the road was foggy. Around one corner, I suddenly found myself driving towards a deer in my lane. The deer was clearly doing less than the posted minimum, and also seemed to be operating without headlights. As I approached, the deer stopped moving altogether. I slowed to a stop, but the deer still showed no signs of forward motion.

Just wanting to get home, I honked my horn. That did the trick, and soon I was on my way again. I tell you, if deer can't be bothered to pass safety inspections and proper road safety protocols, I don't think they should be allowed on the roads.

I know it's a controversial position, but I stand by it. The buck stops here, and that's turning out to be a driving hazard!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Oh, yes. Now I remember...

I sat at home tonight.

Things gradually fell together in such a way that nothing was going on this evening. I was able to spend time cooking dinner. I ate it watching a movie. I finished it off with the last remains of a container of ice cream (about 10 spoonfuls). Then I made a cup of tea.

And I smiled after everything. I smiled each and every time I walked past the indoor/outdoor thermometer, noting the falling temperatures. I actually chuckled out loud when the temperature finally fell below 32 degrees; chuckled in the way people do when something long awaited happens. Because I'm a strange guy, the falling temperatures make me happy. I thrive on it, in a way that never fails to make people laugh at me, because of my boyish enthusiasm for biting winds, falling temperatures, and overcast skies.

I was alone, which is certainly not surprising. I've spent the better part of most of the previous four year's nights alone. What is surprising is that everyone else missed out on a good time. I certainly enjoyed myself immensely, eating good food and relaxing in a way I haven't been able to do a whole lot of.

And yes, it is a Tuesday night, when most people are saving up for their weekend partying. Or even still recovering from their previous weekend partying. I wrote a letter today, another activity I enjoy. The groove was somewhat lost in a tedious rehearsal, but I recovered well enough by nightfall (which now comes before dinner, since the DST change).

Shortly after my exams, I received a very nice note. A friend who moved away from town to embrace her inner fabulousness sent me a email to let me know she was doing well. Actually, a stranger reading the letter wouldn't think she was well: she speaks of not really knowing anyone in her new town, speaks of missing all her friends she left behind, and mentions that she's no longer seeing her "boyfriend", even though they still have feelings for each other. Doesn't that sound like she's having a great time?

What most people won't realize is that simply by writing, she's communicating a sense of comfort. She never writes when she's depressed, only when she's ruminating. She mentions a particular conversation she and I had over falafel and baklava, where she felt so smothered by the expectations of her relationships she could hardly speak. For worse or (hopefully) better, she has finally made a choice; a choice to stop sitting on the fence, torn in several directions. Relationship or not? One guy or the other? Safety or adventure? Admiration or passion? And perhaps most importantly, does she feel like her own person, making choices she believes in, or just someone who only reacts to other people? If a person has no definite opinions about what direction to proceed, it's very easy to be lead by others who seem to have a good idea where they're going.

She's a good girl, which is a comment I don't intend to be condescending. She's intelligent, talented, and cares deeply about other people. She also lacks an ability to assert herself and a tendency to place herself in situations she doesn't want to be, simply to avoid disappointing people. She seeks a calm place inside her own self, trying to set aside all the things that just don't matter.

She also wrote to tell me that she still reflects on all the conversations we had. Like so many other people nowadays (including me), she embraced the opportunity to talk to someone who would actually listen. I am never quite prepared about how much that means to people. When I have the opportunity to talk to someone who actually listens to what I'm saying, and reads my body language, and understands about the things I *don't* say, it's a relief. An exhalation of some unwittingly held breath, somehow.

If this were a Hollywood screenplay, she (stunningly beautiful and coquettishly shy) and I (an inexplicably muscled busboy who's actually an oil tycoon) would both realize that we're made for each other, and, after approximately 90 minutes of spilled food and obnoxious "best friends" played by comedic actors, we'd end up kissing while sitting under a fountain. As the credits crawled across the screen, the audience would be basking in the assumption that we'd end up married and happily ever after.

That's on screen. Out here in reality, it's quite a bit different. She is attractive, certainly, with eyes that have a mosaic-pattern of green, brown, and gold. In spite of that, however, we're not made for each other. She has long-term independence and trust issues. I'm mired in contemplation of my own magnificence while trying to stay away from as many people as I can. Not to mention there isn't any romantic attachment to begin with. It's the un-match of the season!

Still, we seek each other out because we appreciate each other's company. In the game of "man and woman", it's nice to have a break now and then. Plus, it's never boring to hear what someone else thinks about things I feel are important.

I got a bit distracted from what was supposed to be an entry about how relaxed I was following a meal and repose. It should be obvious that one of the things I do when I'm relaxed is think and, more recently, blog. I'm going to ramp up entry publishing, trying to make up for the previous light month. I'd like to get back to a once-a-day or every other day schedule. We'll see how that goes!

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Deck the halls with spiders and bats.

Today's Halloween, and on my way into campus I browsed across a radio station playing Christmas music. They're now doing continuous music through Christmas Day.

I like Christmas music, but there's really something strange about hearing Burl Ives in autumn. Listening to the music for a bit, it didn't have the "Christmasy" effect that I usually associate with hearing music of that season. I guess it's just that it has to be my choice to hear the music; I have to be somehow "prepared" to listen to it and receive jollyness.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Act III: Chaos strikes, following the two acts of foreshadowing

What a month! What a week, even!

I'm almost through, but not quite. Still ONE more concert and ONE more test. I was doing well until this week, when little things started to fall apart. It was rather like having someone shoot a squirt gun at your sand castle, gradually making it disintegrate.

I made the decision to put off one of the examinations. Well, I didn't really make the decision; there simply wasn't enough time in the month to accomplish it along with everything else. Luckily, it's a take-home one, which I have no doubts about being able to pass the first time. Still, it was a disappointing realization that my beautiful and highly organized plan was starting to fray at the edges.

The decay came to a head on Thursday, when I spent 9 hours in a row playing my trombone. It's not physically fatiguing (trombone almost never is for me), but it was a serious drain on my mental sharpness. Having to pay attention for that long, especially if part of it is a recording session that involves tedious repetition, is a headache.

I flopped into my computer chair at home after 10:00 pm and checked my email. A message from my academic adviser; I wonder what she has to say? I should have waited to open it. The message was her saying that I had failed three-quarters of the History examination and that I would have one last chance to retake it. "Be sure to wait until you feel ready," she says (un)helpfully.

I frowned, and read the rest of my emails. Phone bill due. Gig opportunity. University announcements. I opened the web browser, still frowning. The oddest sensation of a bee, buzzing somewhere in the back-right quadrant of my skull. I start proceeding down the line of my friend's blogs. Oh, Minx has a new post. [buzz] A nice long one, too; those are always really good. [buzz] I start reading the post. The first sentence loops in my mind. I start reading again. [I have to retake the history exam] What's she writing about? Something about high heels? [buzz exam] I lost my place and started reading again. [exam again buzz]

Then I realize that my eyes aren't focused on the screen anymore. They're looking towards a glass of water just to the left of the monitor. They aren't focused ON the glass, but just drifted left of the screen, like a car with poor alignment heading slowly but surely towards the highway median.

Without belaboring the point any further, it was a bad night for me. I was unable to do any other studying for the first half of my trombone exam, scheduled for 8 AM the next morning. I was unable to do anything at all, really, except turn the reality over and over in my brain. I went to bed by 10:45, and I stared at the ceiling until 2 AM. Unlike other nights, when I'm actively trying to tell myself "I need to sleep", this night was just me running mental laps. I had no idea what time it was. I just kept on thinking. I was in bed, motionless, but my thoughts were busy pacing the room.

Eventually, I woke up. I thought about the failed exam.... and wasn't mad. I didn't emote anything. "Very odd!" I thought. "This was such a big deal last night." I took a shower and thought about the failed exam. Still nothing. "Weird," I thought.

The trombone exam went well. Questions were asked that I could immediately gather all knowledge about and pour out an essay extempore. I remember thinking, "Gosh, this must be how it's supposed to work for all the other stuff I'm supposed to know!"

Then the Friday night concert. Today I finished the last of the projects for the trumpet professor. Tomorrow is another concert. Monday is the last test.

And then, seemingly some four years late (but in fact two days early), October will *finally* end.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

This is a Virtual To-Do Notice

I'm leaving this entry empty, so I can come back in a week and talk about WHY it's empty. I sat down to write something, then decided that writing on it wasn't the correct thing to do. When I get around to writing the proper entry, there will be reflection on WHY I almost "did", and WHY I ended up "not".

For now, bedtime!

The picture of the kitten is not related, but is just really cute.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Playing "doctor" leads to needing OB/GYN

WARNING: This entry contains discussion of under-age intercourse and sex toys.


King Middle School in Maine will be the first middle school in main to make a full range of contraception available to the students (also known as 11 to 13-year olds). That headline was enough to get my attention to the article. I was thinking to myself, "gosh, is this too early for serious preventative sexual equipment?" Surely these kids don't really need to be instructed on the finer points of sexual activity and have to worry about taking hormone pills or playing around with funnily-shaped balloons.

I was wrong. Oh so wrong.

In the last four years, the three middle schools in Portland, Maine reported 17 pregnancies. This figure does not include the unknown number of miscarriages or terminated pregnancies. I have nothing snarky to say here, because I don't know WHAT to say. I'll have to settle with being shocked that the experience of some kids aged 11 is so completely outside my own experience. Further in the article, these Portland schools have been offering condoms since 2000, and one quarter of all health centers nationwide that service children older than 11 offer some form of contraception.

I don't remember at what age I first learned that there was this thing called "sex" that people could "have", and that it related to babies somehow. I remember taking a high school health class from a teacher who vaguely reminded me of Don Knotts, who assured us that V.D. and sex were serious business. He also assured us that even though everyone should wear their seatbelts while driving, he never did because he had once escaped a fiery wreck only by virtue of not having to undo his belt.

In sixth grade, I remember that my homeroom teacher was pregnant and eventually was replaced by a long-term substitute. I don't recall if I knew what generated pregnancy, but it wasn't a point of discussion amongst us kids. I'm sure some people associated a case of "the pregnants" as one would get "the measles", only with the side-effect of occasional baby discharge.

One of the parents says, "This isn't encouraging kids to have sex. This is about the kids who are engaging in sexually activity". It's definitely an unfortunate line to walk. Can you afford to expose all the children to sexual knowledge in the effort to get the few who really need it? Or can you afford to continue fiddling as Rome burns, ignoring the fact that kids are having sex and having babies?

I suppose the trick is that the parents can't control their children all the time. I'm sure there are VERY few parents who believe that pre-teens having sex is a "good" thing. I bet no one wants their babies to be having babies, at least hopefully not after they've read the medical problems with having pregnancies at that age. But the parents can't hover over the children 24/7. At some point, you have to trust that your child, armed with whatever knowledge you have given them about sex, will decide not to do it. I'm sure most students just don't care. However, I suppose that by giving instruction and availability, you'll provoke some kids to say, "Hmm! What's all this 'sex' I've been hearing about? Perhaps I should try it!"

I suppose parents can only trust that they've given their children enough knowledge and direction to have the kid say, "No, I'd rather play with my robots than worry about that stuff." Or parents can simply plug their ears and shout MY CHILD WILL NOT BE HAVING SEX, BECAUSE THEY JUST WON'T.

I can't help but feel that shouted sentence upon learning that a Topeka, Kansas high school was forced to stop distributing free condoms to students this week, after the district learned that the program was entering its second month. The district apparently has a policy against providing contraceptives. No doubt this is in-line with abstinence-only education which is recommended by the government. Perhaps the feeling here is that if students are mature enough to have sex, they are also mature enough to go to a drug store (on their skateboards) and buy condoms themselves. Or maybe they get an older student to go in for them, in case they get "carded", as with buying beer.

Maybe we just need a change of spin. We all agree "condom" is a sexually-charged word. You can't even talk about it to kids without having them running off to the nearest cloakroom. So, perhaps we need to do what America does whenever we wish to defuse a situation like this: change the name. Remember the fiasco of the french fries turned "freedom fries" in the wake of... France saying we shouldn't attacking other countries? Well, it's time to re-badge all these smutty devices.

For example: in Alabama, it is illegal to sell sex toys. It was signed into law in 1998, and reaffirmed in 2004 by the Appeals Court. Under the "Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act", it is prohibited to distribute "any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs for any thing of pecuniary value", which underscores my belief that any law preventing obscenity must itself contain obscene imagery. In light of this prohibition, most sex toys are sold under the banner of "adult novelties" across the United States. In Texas, for example, it is illegal to sell sex toys unless they are marketed as "adult novelties", which basically means you can't describe what you're supposed to do with it. People who do describe it risk being arrested as "smut peddlers", which makes me laugh (though I'm probably supposed to shake my head and cluck my tongue).

I also laughed that a similar law in Georgia allows that a physician may prescribe the use of a sex toy for therapeutic purposes, but (and I quote) "the allowance does not apply to a therapist who only has a Ph.D."

Plain Andy, Revisited

Private Journal Entry from October 12, 2004. Originally written in blue ink in a blue-covered notebook. I present it mostly unaltered. Brackets [] will indicate anything I add or replace for clarity or anonymity. I post this here because I happened to stumble upon this entry from almost exactly three years ago, and found it interesting.

*** *** ***

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Boy, has it been a while since my last journal entry. I resisted it, because I feared it meant a return to the distant and anti-social tendencies that inhabit the dark side of my personality. I've come to the conclusion that these entries were never the source of the problem, only a symptom. So, perhaps as long as I can keep my head above the metaphorical water, it might be bearable.

Doctoral study in Kansas City! Who would have predicted? I assumed I would never bother getting this far, but then I realized I might actually use it. I think it will be a good career move. And who knows, maybe it will exercise some of the old Eagle Scout demons. Or, it will become a new Eagle Scout demon. Whee! [I never completed my Eagle Scout rank in Boy Scouts, a fact which was a point of considerable discussion and frustration in my family.]

It's fantastic to be on my own again. Living by myself and being responsible has its good points. There's a strange sort of symmetry between what happened four years ago in Columbia, and what's happening here and now. Moving to a new town and school, only acquainted with a couple of people, including a recently married trombone friend who has a baby. I spend a fair amount of time with [this friend and his child], usually Wednesdays after my lesson. I do it partially for the fun of being there, and partially for the purpose of starving off that feeling of being alone. It's hard to escape from that feeling. It's gotten stronger since [a friend's suicide attempt]. It would be nice to have someone to break it down with. I would do it here [i.e., the journal], but I'm wary of only getting regurgitated information that yields the one perspective I already have. I've tried reaching out to friends, but it didn't work. I think it was a problem with my delivery. Or maybe it's just me.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Is this the House that Mozart Built?

I had an audition today with the local symphony. I started the morning off by pacing through my house. It wasn't out of anxiety, as much as just being unable to think of what to do with my time. Eventually, I walked out the door to have a casual lunch, always mindful of one of the guiding principals of audition day: thou shalt not drink too much water.

It's a guiding principal because the greatest stumbling block to an audition is the workings of your own body. These workings can be either mental or physical; both are equally effective at DISTRACTION, which is the killer. If you are distracted, then you are more likely to not have every single thing go as planned, and all it takes is a single thing to go awry to start the house of cards collapsing.

The biggest mistake some people make is to drink lots of water. Water helps alleviate stress ordinarily, especially because we tend to "forget" about drinking water when we're worrying about other things. But in an audition setting, where you must (at a particular time) do something, you can't afford to run to the bathroom while the committee is waiting for you to begin your fourth of five excerpts. It's the same reason they won't wait for me to relieve myself during Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, simply because I have dozens of minutes with only rest.

The audition process was a study in the contrast between front of house and back of house. We waited in chairs set up in the lobby. Fancy mirrors, glass chandeliers, Rococco architecture; all very fancy. As we were individually led to the warm-up rooms, we pass through the doors into the rear stage area.

The paint is peeling. Things of all shapes and sizes clutter the hallways. Old risers, cardboard sheets, metal racks, and so on. The warm-up rooms are dressing rooms, complete with twelve-foot mirrors and stray eyebrow pencils on top of shelves only I can see. By the way, DUSTY!

The bathroom is approximately five foot by six foot. It contains an old pullchain toilet adapted to a single flush lever, and a single with a single off-center nozzle with two taps. Everything feels old. When I was in England, we stayed in a converted nunnery. These accommodations were similar.

Strangely, only yesterday I was in the OTHER performance venue for the symphony: the concert hall of one of the local community colleges. I was performing with a brass band, and the facility is beautiful, back and front. Funny how things that are new and costly feel and appear nicer!

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Give the people what they want ... they come trying to copy for homework

By far the most common search terminology that leads to my sight is "my mistress eyes meaning". This, and variations of searches concerning the title of Shakespeare's Sonnet CXXX, leads me to believe that I really need to appease these searchers who are hard at work laboring for minutes upon minutes to find an internet site that gives free papers for copying.

I love Sonnet 130, but over the years it has become one of the "greatest hits" of the 150. Most people know "Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?" (or at least know the first line), but when TV writers have shows with students in high school, inevitably this is the sonnet they pick to be written on the blackboard while students decide which of their classmates to murder and which to have sex with (hopefully not in that order). At least, that's what I get from watching FOX promotional material for "The O.C." I may be wrong.

At any rate, from the depths of crudity, let's get the immortal verse.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damask'd, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground:
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare.

So, what's this sonnet about? This is one of the sonnets of the oft-called "Dark Lady" set. Possibly you think of all sonnets as being about simple love, over and over. In fact, Shakespeare's sonnets have at least two different intended subjects. And that most famous of sonnets, number 18 ("Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?")? Well, it turns out it's in the section directed towards the "Fair Youth", a young man of the narrator's acquaintance. It has been variously analyzed as a fervent homosexual advance or as a bizarre kind of platonic love.

Let's set the homosexuality aside and focus on the sonnet at hand. This is a kind of parody sonnet. The sentiment of the author is sincere, but it is mocking the style of earlier sonnets. The previous master of sonnets, Petrarch, had an entire category of sonnets known as a catalog, where the author lists the various wonderful traits of his beautious love. Sonnet 18 is a catalog sonnet, too, but a positive one ("thou art MORE lovely and more temperate"). Sonnet 130 is a companion piece, showing that though his love is not beautiful, she is appreciated. The dark lady depicted in this not considered by the standards of the day to be beautiful. In fact, the object of affection is on the losing end of all the comparisons.

In the first line, the author explains that his mistress' eyes lack the "poetical" luster of all the other ladies. Coral, considered in the Elizabethan day to be a very faint pink, is FAR redder than her lips; her lips lack the color which was associated with vibrancy and energy. At a time when proper ladies stayed out of the sun and wore tons of clothing, pale white skin was considered a perk of the upper classes. Thus, the mistress, whose breasts are dun (a flat brown color) has not the brilliant complexion of other ladies.

Nobody compares ladies' hair to wires (don't try this at home, married types!), so the "black wires" is not a particularly complementary sign. Roses patterned with red and white are not to be found in her face. The next phrase has a curious softening: "in some perfumes". What, not all? The first hint that the author still finds praise amongst all her plainness. Either that, or the author has experienced some hellacious perfumes in his day.

This softening of the catalog continues through the rest of the sonnet. He loves to hear her, even though he admits that music (considered to be a refreshing art at this time) sounds better. And he's never even seen a goddess. He's surely seen other women, those considered beautiful. To me, this suggests that he doesn't see the other fancy women as anything special; certainly nothing like earthly goddesses.

The last couplet allows the author to tip his hand. Even though he thinks that she loses on all the comparisons to other, more beautiful things, in his eyes she's still as rare and highly valued as anything else.

This is a very accessible sonnet, simply because it refutes all the fancy language and simile present in many other "love poems". People today don't go around telling other people that their eyes are like the sun. It's probably sexual harassment or something. So here's Shakespeare's contribution to the natural beauty movement, currently en vogue. Even though society has different standards of beauty, the author sees only that his love is rare and beautiful.