Thursday, October 26, 2006

The Seal of Approval

The new Official Seal of Contrarian Bias, thanks to the Official Seal Generator. The Latin phrase, translated, says, "About every knowable thing, and even certain other things." Yeah, it's kinda like that...

I Like To Watch

It's surprising the things you think about when sitting in a downtown bar eating a chicken sandwich and watching the undead sneer on Zombie Brit Hume's face as he narrates Fox News's version of the events of the day.

When most folks use the word voyeur, they're thinking of a particular image; the Peeping Tom sneaking around hoping to find interesting things going on in peoples' bedrooms, or the dirty old man with a telescope spending far more time scanning his neighbors' houses than the sky.

I think there's more to it than that, though. Voyeurism, in a more general sense, is a nearly universal human trait, I think. What's that general trait, you ask? Well, consider this:

There is an attraction in seeing something normally hidden displayed unconsciously, especially when that hidden thing suggests something different from what is naturally displayed.

Sex is one of those things that is generally hidden, especially in modern U.S. culture, so it's probably not surprising that many times, 'something hidden unexpectedly displayed' has a sexual tone. The computer tech helping the executive secretary figure out a glitch, who notices that she's leaned over just far enough so that a hint of the thong she's wearing under her conservative skirt is visible. There's raw emotional power in a revelation like this.

But the situation doesn't necessarily have to be overtly sexual. Consider the following scene described by Eric Burns:

I watched a young guy and girl -- maybe fifteen each -- walking through the Mall, clearly on a date. He wore a letter jacket and jeans. She wore low rider sweats and a white spandex spaghetti top. They were full of attitude, doing an ancient ritual of dating. Putting on airs for each other, and for anyone who might see them. I glanced at them, and then looked away -- but they stayed close. They looked at the portrait booth. And giggling, they went in, the guy saying something sort of macho and dismissive, the girl saying something slightly coy, playing as much to the nonexistent crowd as to her date.


I glanced back at the booth, and did a double-take. There was a video screen outside, showing a live, real time video... of the boy and girl who were getting ready to pose. The kids clearly didn't know they were on television -- they had every reason to think it was private. But it wasn't. I glanced around, and saw a couple of mall workers watching. Clearly, whenever this happens, it becomes an impromptu show for the folks who work the mall.

If I were a better man than I am, I would have looked away. If I were as good a man as I'd like to be, I would have gone over and told the kids we could see them. As it was, I stayed in my chair and I watched. Had they started making out or if the boy had gone for second (or the girl offered second up), I'd have said something. But they didn't. Instead, something wholly more remarkable happened.

They became natural. They became who they are with each other. There was no kissing. There was no groping. There was instead an odd sweetness that descended on them both. We couldn't hear them, of course. But they lost all sense of the crowd they were playing to. The girl remained coy, but it was less a dance and more a sense of privacy. The boy lost almost all his affectation. This is a girl he actually liked, and he felt like he could show that without pretense, when he was in a booth with the curtains drawn.

There are elements of this everywhere, once you know where to look. Reality TV? Less about the spectacle of watching people debase themselves for fleeting celebrity and more about the audience's hope that they'll actually get to peek at something the cameras will find that the performers always intended to remain hidden. Tabloid news? Less about the schadenfreude of gloating over some famous person's misfortunes and more about trying, however possible, to find out what is this person really like? Simple people-watching in a busy public place? Who expects to be under a scrutinizing eye in a place like that? You can watch people, to some degree, be the people they are rather than the people they present themselves as.

A true moment of voyeurism is also a powerful instrument of attraction. When I've had a moment like this with someone I've been mildly interested in, I find myself much more interested, if only to find out more than the tiny snippet I've just seen. There's also a certain vulnerability involved in letting something be voyeuristically observed, and I admit I'm attracted to vulnerability.

The flip side of voyeurism, though, is exhibitionism. And until I started thinking of voyeurism in these broader terms, I couldn't describe why being included in a display of exhibitionism left me feeling so...unsettled. After all, you'd think that a voyeur would naturally seek out exhibitionists, as masochists are said to seek out sadists - someone who displays what's hidden would seem to be a perfect fit for someone who wants to watch hidden things.

Except for this: an exhibitionist chooses what to display; the revelation is deliberate.

Deliberate revelation bugs me specifically because it's deliberate - in my experience, it isn't actually an accurate reflection of hidden traits or desires, but is, at best, another layer of pretense underneath all the existing layers that are already obviously visible.

And at worst, it's a calculated revelation - something revealed because the exhibitionist believes the voyeur will find it attractive - that it will be a hook into his soul. That the powerful attractive qualities of a voyeuristic moment can be harnessed to bind someone to you that much more tightly.

"What does she want from me," I should ask myself, "that she's showing me this so freely?"

Lesson learned for the future, anyway.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Coming Up - More Self-Torture!

Seems like I've been getting a bit down and even a bit 'emo' in these posts of late, so I figured it was time to leap in whole-bore.

Yep, I'm signing up for NaNoWriMo.

I knew this was for me as soon as I read the following in the FAQ:

If I'm just writing 50,000 words of crap, why bother? Why not just write a real novel later, when I have more time?

There are three reasons.

1) If you don't do it now, you probably never will. Novel writing is mostly a "one day" event. As in "One day, I'd like to write a novel." Here's the truth: 99% of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel. It's just so far outside our normal lives that it constantly slips down to the bottom of our to-do lists. The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away all those self-defeating worries and START. Once you have the first five chapters under your belt, the rest will come easily. Or painfully. But it will come. And you'll have friends to help you see it through to 50k.

2) Aiming low is the best way to succeed. With entry-level novel writing, shooting for the moon is the surest way to get nowhere. With high expectations, everything you write will sound cheesy and awkward. Once you start evaluating your story in terms of word count, you take that pressure off yourself. And you'll start surprising yourself with a great bit of dialogue here and a ingenious plot twist there. Characters will start doing things you never expected, taking the story places you'd never imagined. There will be much execrable prose, yes. But amidst the crap, there will be beauty. A lot of it.

3) Art for art's sake does wonderful things to you. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It makes you want to take naps and go places wearing funny pants. Doing something just for the hell of it is a wonderful antidote to all the chores and "must-dos" of daily life. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.

I can tell you, partly from experience, that everything above is true.

- Saying 'I'll do this cool then when I have time' is a great way to convince yourself never to do some cool thing. Make time, or don't bother talking about it.

- Expecting the first thing you do in any new endeavor to ring with beauty and elegance is a sure way to frighten yourself into never making an effort. If a baby waited until she was sure she wouldn't fall to start to try to walk, she'd still be crawling at 23.

- Doing art fot the hell of it is its own reward - I've seen this over and over again when doing community theater. You don't do community theater to make a profound artistic statement, or pave the way to a burgeoning professional career. You do it because getting together with other people to create something is fun and exciting and does things to you that simply don't happen in other ways.

You'd think that after being on the planet as long as I have, and supposedly learning all this stuff before, that I wouldn't have to keep learning it over and over again. Ah, well.

One thing I won't be doing, though, is posting updates on my NaNoWriMo progress on this blog. As far as I sse it, setting a personal goal of writing 50,000 words in a month is bad enough without trying to write extra words about how easy/hard/surprisingly fun/whatever it turns out to be. When it's over will be soon enough to talk about the experience.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Intro to Critical Thinking

I am appalled at the gullibility of the Bush-haters. In a repeat of the days before the 2004 election, a "scientific" study has come out before the election this year claiming that 655,000 Iraqis (100,000 from the 2004 study plus 555,000 since then) have died due to the conflict in Iraq since March 2003. I did some number-crunching and found that you would have to believe that an average of about 779 Iraqis have died per day since 2004. That's 5,453 per week. Where are all the bodies and/or graves? Why aren't Iraqi morgues filled to overflowing? In short, where is any physical evidence at all that this figure is the slightest bit accurate? I think there is none.

- Jason E Hubred, in a letter to the editors of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

First off, I'd like to thank Mr. Hubred for attempting to use critical thinking skills.

It's not actually easy, which is why educators all want to teach critical thinking skills in school - it really does take a while to get the hang of asking good questions and looking for good answers to those questions. So if you're someone who isn't accustomed to using critical thinking skills - perhaps you're a neo-conservative, or you're six years old - here is a handy three-step guide to basic critical thinking.

1. Look at a statement.

2. Ask yourself what might be wrong with that statement.

3. Check to see if your presumption is accurate.

I highlight #3, because that's the key - you have to be as skeptical of your own thinking as of those people you are criticizing. Your own thinking is just as capable of being prone to distortions, quick-and-easy answers without foundation in reality, and other such flaws as anybody else's thinking.

In this particular case, it's not hard to see where Mr. Hubred went off the tracks - he seems to believe that a death rate of 5400 people per week would overwhelm morgues, funeral homes, and other such support services. However, he's missing a few key points:

- Iraq is similar, in both size and population, to the US state of California: Iraq covers nearly 169,000 square miles with a population of about 26 million (estimated as of 2005), while California covers nearly 159,000 square miles with a population of about 37 million.

- In 2003, there were about 240,000 deaths in California.

See where I'm going with this yet?

There were about 4600 deaths each week in California in 2003. Do you remember any stories about how overwhelmed the state's funeral homes and morgues were? Of course not - in fact, the story was, in fact, the age-adjusted death rate in the US was at a record low.

Add in that Iraq is technically a war zone, and as such, not everyone who dies is treated by a mortician or taken to the police station for an autopsy - how many mass graves have you heard of in Vietnam, Kosovo, Darfur, etcetera, etcetera? - and no, it's not surprising that we're not seeing that kind of information.

And of course, even if that kind of data did exist? We still wouldn't see it - recall that the administration doesn't even allow photographers to show the coffins of dead US soldiers returning from Iraq; why would they publicize overcroweded morgues in Baghdad, assuming they even exist?

Now with all that said, Mr. Hubred does brush past a point that is worth making - the death rate in California may not be all that much lower than the death rate in Iraq among alleged war casualties, but who else is dying in Iraq? Are the 5400 war-related deaths per week in addition to another 4600 or so non-war-related deaths? Just how easy is it to seperate 'estimated war-related deaths' from other deaths?

Those are all interesting and valuable questions to ask. And Mr. Hubred doesn't bother to ask any of them - he's content in using his minimal critical thinking skills to assume he's made a bruising political point and leave it at that.

I don't avoid discussing politics because it's rude or conversationally dangerous to do so. I avoid it because too much of what passes for 'political' conversation is basically this kind of tit-for-tat first-grade level critical thinking. And frankly, most first-graders can think of more interesting things to talk about anyway.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006


I used to be so much more openminded
And I used to like to fall in love
And they tell me I was so much sweeter and kind
But once is enough
- Lyle Lovett, "Once Is Enough"

I'm officially old.

The designation 'old' can be put on someone or something from outside; I remember being in elementary school and imagining the year 2000, then realizing I'd be thirty-four in the year 2000 and imagining how old that would be. But just because someone calls you old doesn't make you old - any more than someone calling you stupid, smart, or happy makes you any of those things.

There are others who use some variation of 'you're only as old as you feel' as a way of remaining, in some fashion, perpetually 'young'. Even if it takes them two minutes to get out of bed in the morning, and they have to swallow some concoction in order to get their bowels to move regularly, they're still only as old as they feel and dagnabbit! You get the idea.

But for me, the realization came when I finally admitted that I fall into a category I've long used to identify others as old. I'm bitter.

I didn't think this would happen like this. For one thing, I used to be, if not happy, at least some reasonable facsimile of happy. I remember being told as I child that I smiled a lot. I was generally the guy who joked, got along, and tried to keep things light. Fall off the horse, you just get right back on, that kind of thing.

In fact, if I thought about getting old at all, I figured I'd become not the 'bitter old man', but the 'dirty old man', leering at young girls and their short skirts from my senescence. Heck, I might even be one of those old guys that young girls like to hang around with, because I could keep it light, I smiled a lot, and I generally was the kind of guy who made other people feel good about themselves. And if I was a bit creepy from time to time, well, you just had to know me - I'm harmless, really.

I think the harmlessness was part of the problem, in retrospect.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm far from perfect. I've made more than my share of mistakes, and done plenty of stumbling. I was a likable guy, though, and my heart was in the right place, and I was lucky enough to have friends - incredible friends, who'd go out of their way to help me get back on my feet, help dust me off, and pass along words of encouragement as I tilted back into the arena, ready to battle with another monster of my own imagination.

Then I started pushing them away, one by one.

At first, I deluded myself into thinking that this was for their own good - after all, they can't always be there to support me, and the longer they stay around, the longer it'll take for me to be able to stand on my own two feet. Friends I've had for years, in some cases even decades, suddenly stopped hearing from me. When they'd occasionally try to check in, to see how I was doing, I'd respond curtly, in a brief, minimalist tone - the same tone one uses with a telemarketer on the phone to say, nonverbally, "You know, this isn't really worth my time. Could you just take the hint and hang up now?"

Now, I realize I was setting up an impossible task - despite everything my friends have done for me, if they really liked me, they'd do the work of keeping in touch, asking me how I am, offering assistance whether I need it or not. I imagine some of them got the idea that being my friend was only less Herculean than cleaning the Augean Stables. And, little by little, they got the message.

So what happened that finally got me to figure this out now? Why the sudden realization, when I've been doing this for years and years now?

Oddly enough, the Twins.

When the Twins made an improbable comeback to win the AL Central Division, I dismissed it - it wasn't a Twins comeback, it was a Detroit choke. I did research that showed that, of the last 7 teams that won 19 of 20 or more games during a regular season, only one even advanced to the World Series much less won it. I read the Twins blogs cheering about the accomplishments of the ballclub and snickered. Sure, some of the comments were snickerworthy, such as the occasional "this is the best Twins team EVAR". Others who were more circumspect I snickered at as well, even though they made decent points. I refrained from pointing out those points and trying to refute them, though, as I'd already all but worn out my welcome in the Twins blogosphere with the first Contrarian Bias.

When the Twins lost Game 1 - a game that the blogosphere thought was all but in the bag with Johan Santana starting - I was beside myself with pleasure. I even kicked myself a bit for not posting something talking about everyones' misplaced hopes, not just in Santana, but in the allegedly 'great' defense of Jason Bartlett, who booted a routine double-play grounder that, in some explanations, led to Frank Thomas's second homer of the game. But I kept my mouth shut - these folks had heard more than enough from me, and it was actually somewhat disconcerting to think of myself as chuckling over the misfortune of so many whose only crime was that they didn't agree with me. Maybe all I needed was a fresh perspective; something to blow out the bad taste of the stadium extortion nonsense and the overexuberance at a team that fulfilled the Chuck Tanner theory of baseball - if everybody has a good year, we'll win.

So I went out to Athletics Nation, one of the top Oakland A's blogs. There, I saw a community, perhaps loosely-connected, but clearly joyous at the prospect of having their team, dismissed as sad-sack small-market kids unable to compete in the 'post-season' suddenly break through, validating all their hopes. It was nice, even refreshing to read those comments.

Until Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau hit back-to-back homers to tie Game 2, bringing back a flood of old doubts and pre-emptive wailing. And I realized I was enjoying their displeasure much more than I'd enjoyed their happiness.

That's when it hit me that I'm now, officially, a bitter old man. I'm getting pleasure from the misfortunes of others, even if those misfortunes are nothing more than misplaced emotional angst over the fortunes of a baseball team. And I asked myself, when was the last time I was genuinely happy for something good that happened, in my life or anybody else's?

Six months ago, it turns out. One of my last friends visited me to watch me in a musical. She drove eight hours to visit, slept overnight on a fold-away futon, dressed like a knockout to come to the show. I was on a cloud.

Then she left. Since then, we've barely spoken, and what little we have spoken about makes me think that she didn't really enjoy that trip, and isn't excited at the possibility of making another, or having me visit her, for that matter. Just as I thought we'd been getting closer, she realized that we were farther apart than she'd ever anticipated.

We started drifting apart. I started doing all those little things to her I've done to all my other friends I don't feel the need to keep anymore - the curt responses in IMs, the distance, the long stretches between communication.

Tonight I removed her name from my friends list in Yahoo Messenger. When I finish this essay, I'll take her number out of my cell phone. She's already demonstrated that she's uninterested in reaching out to me anymore, so that means we'll never speak again, or if by some miracle we do speak, I'll simply refer to tonight as the day I surgically removed her from my life, and she'll get the message - loud and clear.

This is what I like now. This is the only thing that gives me any real pleasure anymore - looking down at the misfortunes of people, even my own misfortunes, and chuckling that the poor fool should have known better.

When I worked for the county in funeral assistance years ago, I wondered how it could be that a man could die and have nobody to mourn him, not one person to contact who would know or care. This wasn't a rare event, either - it was a weekly event. I could imagine someone becoming estranged from his family, but I couldn't imagine someone so disconnected from life that they'd lost, or never bothered to keep, any friends.

Now I know where bitter old men come from.

Monday, October 02, 2006


I was walking downstairs with a basket of laundry in my hands, headed for the basement laundry room in my apartment complex, when I happened to glance out through the glass-paned front door. Sitting on the sidewalk, looking at me with what seemed an intent glare, was a small, pale cat.

I stopped. When something is paying attention to you, it draws your attention. When that something is attractive, as most cats are, it tends to draw your attention more surely. At least it draws mine. I stopped, put down the laundry basket, and looked back at the cat.

It was simply sitting in the middle of the sidewalk leading up to the front door, gazing out of the darkness of the evening into the light of the foyer in which I was standing. It looked right into my eyes, seemingly unafraid. When I turned to face the cat, its head dipped, just slightly, in a way that suggested to me that the cat was considering moving closer. Was it hungry? Thirsty? Simply curious what would be inside this brightly-lit foyer? I thought about letting the cat in, getting it a bowl of water (I don't generally keep milk).

I took a step toward the door, and the cat reacted. Not to move forward, but to step to the side. Now, suddenly, it was wary and cautious. I paused, but my own thoughts had overridden any conception of what the cat might be thinking, and after a moment I continued toward the door, reaching out and turning the knob.

The cat began trotting off to one side of the building as I opened the door - not coming closer to the door, but moving quickly and deliberately away. There was a look on its face that almost spoke, as if to say, "Are you crazy? Thinking I'm going to let myself get stuck in there? Bye!"

After another moment, it was gone.

I stood there, holding the door open, thinking that perhaps the cat might return. I looked out at the space where the cat had last been before vanishing out of sight around the corner of the building and hoped. Then it dawned on me, as it has dawned on me before in situations not altogether unlike this one, that the cat was gone, and all I was doing was holding open my apartment foyer's front door like an idiot.

I shut the door, and went on with my life.