Quote: The Kindest of Lies

We waltzed slowly around the room, between the rows of booths, past the pool table and the chairs, never hitting anything. I guess the loser had spent so much time in that bar that he knew where everything was. He had the gift of all the best dancers: he led you so that you felt as though there was no leading or following involved … The scar tissue above his empty white eyes was furrowed with concentration, and he smelled of sweat and gin.

“Are you beautiful?” the loser whispered toward the end of the song.

I lied a little. “Yes,” I said. “Very.”

The loser smiled to himself and closed his sightless eyes.

Fulton County Blues, by Ruth Birmingham, p. 52

Props to the Bald Guys

“But … but …,” Taran stammered. “Coll? A hero? But … he’s so bald!”

Gwydion laughed and shook his head. “Assistant Pig-Keeper,” he said, “you have curious notions about heroes. I have never known courage to be judged by the length of a man’s hair. Or, for the matter of that, whether he has any hair at all.”

The Book of Three, by Lloyd Alexander, p. 24

Chronic Pain: Poorly Understood

Chronic Pain Could Have a Unique Genetic Basis in Women

You might think this article is going to tell us that women are more likely than men to suffer from chronic pain, or to be underdiagnosed for it.

It’s not.

My main takeaway is that the causes and manifestations of chronic pain are super duper complex, tied up with immune and psychiactric stuff, and (this is the only new bit of information) on a genetic level they appear to operate very differently between the sexes.

We already know, based on our experience living in the world, that women in general are more likely to get sick than men in general. We know that female athletes are more likely to suffer injuries. But this doesn’t mean that men don’t get sick or injured, just that the circumstances are usually different.

We know that different people experience pain very differently and that pain can be made worse by a variety of factors, including being clinically depressed; being hormonal or pregnant (trust me, it’s true); having red hair (sorry, Dutch and Irish ancestors!); or suffering the effects of diseases such as dengue, malaria, fibromyalgia, or Lyme disease. We know that amputees can experience pain in their missing limb, which seems really unfair, and that pain can take on a life of its own and linger in a person’s system long after the initial cause has passed.

The bottom line is, I think we all would like a world where no one experiences chronic pain. Failing that, we’d like to help sufferers as much as possible, above all by believing them. This article nudges us a little closer to that, mostly by confirming: Yep, it really is really really complicated.

I Really Do Love Lucy

(Don’t cry, Lucy, I love you!)

I Love Lucy is one of those shows that everybody feels like they’ve seen, even if they haven’t. Or perhaps they have only seen one or two episodes, such as the famous Vitameatavegamin episode:

(This one was not her fault. The “medicine” had a high alcohol content.)

That was me until recently. I started watching it with my kids because in our chronological study of history, after several years of study we have made it up to the 1950s and 60s.

The first episode came out the year my parents were born. Now, their grandkids, of the generation that loves Anime, Minecraft, and Mario, watch it and they enjoy it. In TV terms, that’s practically Shakespeare. Timeless.

I’m no comedy professional, but here are some thoughts about why the show has aged so well, and what make Lucy so good (besides Lucy herself, of course).

Lucy and Ricky don’t have kids (in the show). This makes all their marriage foibles more lighthearted. The stakes are lower. It makes for a smaller cast (basically just them, Fred, and Ethel as regulars). It means things are less complicated, and the show doesn’t have to deal with all the problems that come up when you have a multigenerational family involved. In that way, it’s almost like Seinfeld, but less bleak because they are not living in New York City.

The show doesn’t always tie up at the end. Unlike the later generations of sitcoms were infamous for, Lucy doesn’t try to “solve all the problems in half an hour.” Sometimes it does, especially in the sense that the characters’ relationships usually reconcile. But often, things just get more and more chaotic, and then end suddenly right at the most chaotic point. Here are some examples of how shows have ended in the season I watched with my kids. Lucy is in tears because she got on the cover of Life magazine dressed as a hillbilly. All the extra meat, which Lucy hid in the building’s furnace (long story), has just been accidentally cooked. Lucy’s increasing efforts to get Ricky to stop ignoring her have escalated until she is dressed as Carmen Miranda.

The men and women are different. Different from each other, that is. Nay, they are stereotypes. And by stereotypes I mean the old-fashioned kind, not the generally much less pleasant modern kind. Ricky and Fred, though perfectly capable of cracking wise, are basically straight-man types who just want to go to work, come home, and eat a good steak. Lucy, while not dumb, is obviously a bit flaky, and prone to take a random idea and run it all the way out to its ridiculous conclusion. And her friend, Ethel, is usually willing to encourage her in this. These stereotypes of men and women stopped being used in entertainment, frankly, before I was born. Or at least before I started watching TV. By the time I tuned in, the women were all super smart, capable, and morally serious, and the men were either their sidekicks, the villains, or the incompetent weights they had to drag around.

Now, I strongly dislike being treated like I’m not capable. But for comedy at least, I’ve got to say, Lucy’s stereotypes of men and women are both funny and refreshing. I actually did not realize that being “the zany one” was even a role that was available to me, much less that such a character could be beloved and not an object of contempt. Ricky seldom loses his temper (beyond an eye roll), and he always still seems to respect Lucy, even when she has (in my view) humiliated herself. The standards are a little lower for respect in Lucy. You don’t have to be genius, perfect, or even competent all the time.

A Special Valentine’s Day Excerpt from The Strange Land

If you are a father of daughters, and you are in a Mugrage novel, just be warned you might find yourself in this situation.

* * *

Hur grinned as he saw out of the corner of his eye his daughter Amal slipping away with some young man. Then he took a sharp second look at the man’s tall, lean silhouette. He darted into the dark and seized his daughter’s wrist.

She jerked back, pulled for a second between the two of them. The man realized what was happening and came to a halt. He approached, and Hur’s face fell.

It was as he had feared. Amal had her eye on Jai, Endu’s eldest son.

“Absolutely not,” said Hur.

Now it was Amal’s face that fell. “But, Papa!” She looked at him in dismay. Her face was round and pale in the twilight; her black hair was falling loose around it. She looked on the verge of tears.

Jai was not on the verge of tears. He was, as always, master of the situation. He took a step closer, looming over Hur without letting go of Hur’s daughter’s hand.

“Do you have something to say to me, Uncle?”

“I do,” said Hur. “No daughter of mine is going to marry a son of Endu. That is final.”

“Oh, Papa!

“It has happened before,” said Jai.

“I am ending it now,” said Hur.

Jai shrugged as if to say that his heart was not broken. “I will take this up with the chief,” he said. He let go of Amal’s hand. Then he walked away, trying to appear nonchalant, off into the darkness.

He stood head and shoulders taller than Hur. Hur could remember when Jai was born.

He could remember when Amal was born, very vividly at this moment.

“I am nineteen years old, Papa,” she snapped.

“I held you nineteen years ago,” he replied, dragging her back towards their hut. “I made a covenant then to protect you. And I still intend to.”

There was no further confrontation when they reached home. Amal hid herself in her bunk, white-faced and crying.

Hur’s wife looked at him with a question in her eyes. Hur cast up his hands and sank to a seat, elbows on knees. He felt weak and dismayed.

He did not say to himself, What was my daughter thinking? She was a nineteen-year-old girl; he did not expect her to think clearly. It was his job to think for her.

And he had failed, or at least left it a bit too late. “It has happened before.” Had Jai been lying, trying to rattle him, or had he told the truth? Hur thought it was the truth. He could think of a few times recently when Amal had been unaccounted for. Well, now she would hate Hur when he forbade the match. She would just have to hate him. Better that she should hate her father for a little while than that she should suffer an abusive fate.

* * *

I Just Stayed Up Late Reading this Horror Story … Oh, Wait, It’s Real

Many people have trouble loving their bodies. Not everyone struggles with this, but many do. “The outside does not match the inside.” We are given a body, and our body continues to be a stubborn fact that cannot be overlooked, and as we grow our body continues presenting us with a steady stream of stubborn facts about what sort of person we were designed to be.

So naturally, I figured Love Thy Body was going to be a healing, affirming sort of book that helps readers along the road to accepting and even celebrating the set of stubborn facts that is our particular body.

And I guess it could still do that, but you’d have to dig deep. Because mostly what this book is, is a terrifying ride through a dystopian nightmare not terribly different from Brave New World, except this one is true and is happening to us. I started to binge on this book (late at night, appropriately), but finally I couldn’t take it any more and had to start skimming. I really can’t think of a scarier book to present you with, as we approach Hallowe’en.

The two-story divide

The author, Nancy Pearcey, who is described on the jacket (and, apparently, by The Economist) as “America’s pre-eminent evangelical Protestant female intellectual,” dives right in to the philosophical developments that have served to sever human beings from their bodies. This divide goes all the way back to ancient Greek (and also Hindu) contempt for the material world and veneration of the spiritual or intellectual world. The Greeks actually taught that the creation of the physical universe was a huge mistake and was carried out by a lesser, evil, deity.

This philosophy has been with us, waxing and waning, ever since and has led to all kinds of dichotomies that even today dominate most people’s thinking:

  • Values vs. Facts
  • Morality vs. Science
  • Postmodernism vs. Modernism
  • Sacred vs. Secular

Each of these dichotomies can be diagrammed using the same “two-story” image. The immaterial thing is on top. The physical, or “real,” thing is on the bottom. The first “story” of the house (Science, say) is furnished with public, verifiable facts that anyone can access. The second story is home to all the immaterial stuff. In some of these dichotomies, the lower story is considered superior (facts; science). Some people even consider the lower story to be the only one that really exists. Thus, we are encouraged to keep our upper story “private” and not impose it on others. In other dichotomies, the upper story is given more importance. For example, in the evangelical world, “sacred” jobs are considered more spiritual than “secular” ones and this is supposed to be a good thing. Postmodernism, with its suspicion of materialism and reason, was a reaction against Modernism, which considered physical objects and reason to be all that existed; and, not surprisingly, was felt by the Postmodernists to be dehumanizing. The Postmodernists were right to stop devaluing the immaterial, but unfortunately they went in the direction of rejecting the entire lower story, leaving the sharp dividing wall in place.

The problem for human beings with this sharp divide between spirit and matter is that is splits us right in two. We are embodied spirits. But the prevailing philosophy of the last several centuries has tried to tell us that our bodies are not, in fact, really us. They are just a tool we manipulate, a machine that we drive. Our spirits are the “real” us.

I’ve never liked the phrase “the ghost in the machine.” It is supposed to describe what a human being is, but instead of capturing what it feels like to be a human being with a body, it does the opposite. It gives a spooky, lonely feeling. I imagine the poor ghost wandering the circuits of the computer, unable to make it do anything.

And that is the effect of splitting people off from their bodies. You make the spirit a mere ghost and the body a mere machine, and suddenly they can barely even influence each other.

This is “Personhood Theory,” and it is the foundation for all the horrors in the rest of the book. Personhood theory, like a good dichotomy, shows the Person in the upper story and the Body in the lower story (diagram on page 19). The Person has legal and moral standing, but unfortunately, according to personhood theory, just because you have a body doesn’t necessarily mean you are a person.

You must earn the right to live and/or have children

The most obvious example of beings who are inarguably biologically human, but yet are not considered to be persons, in our modern society are unborn babies.

“By sheer logic, in accepting abortion, we implicitly adopt some form of body/person dualism, even if we do not use those terms. Out actions can imply ideas that we have not clearly thought through. Of course, when people are making a decision about whether to have an abortion, their choice is often based on personal reasons … In discussing personhood theory, however, we are not talking about people’s personal reasons but about the logic inherent in supporting abortion.” (page 52)

“The most obvious problem for [personhood] theory is that no one can agree on how to define personhood. If it is not equated with being biologically human, then what is it? And when does it begin? Every bioethicist has a different answer. Fletcher proposes fifteen qualities to determine when human life is worthy of respect and protection (such as intelligence, self-awareness, self-control, a sense of time, concern for others, communication, curiosity, and neocortical function).” (page 53)

It should be obvious that this is a very, very slippery slope. I am sure that, as you read Fletcher’s list, examples sprang to your mind of adults who seem to lack these qualities in greater or lesser measure. It would be funny if this wasn’t a life-and-death topic. Obviously, these qualities are not present (as far as we can tell … and, honestly, how the hell would we know?), in newborns. Thus, bioethicists (and was there ever a more ironic job description?) are already deciding that newborns do not make the cut. Waston & Crick feel that newborns should not be “declared human” for three days after birth because some genetic conditions do not show up until then. So-called bioethicist (and the irony deepens each time I type that word) Peter Singer says “a three-year-old is a grey case.” (page 54)

But the difficulties in earning their humanity presented to babies and toddlers are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualities like self-awareness and a sense of time can be lost to conditions like dementia, brain injury, severe mental illness, and the list goes on. If someone who has previously been acknowledged as a person loses these qualities, does it then become moral to kill them? Personhood theory presents no logical impediment to their being “declared” nonpersons by whatever authority once declared them persons in the first place.

The qualification that is most frightening to me is “intelligence.” What the heck does that mean? Who determines it? When I read excerpts from eugenicist Margaret Sanger (founder of Planned Parenthood), I get the impression that her ideal society would give everyone an IQ test and sterilize, not just the lowest scorers, but everyone who scored average or below. Every time, I can’t help but wonder whether I would meet her criteria for sufficient intelligence to be allowed to reproduce. Probably not … after all, how intelligent could I be when there are several major points on which I disagree with Margaret Sanger?

You don’t get to say what kind of being you are

Once we have thoroughly severed personhood (upper story) from the body (lower story), it follows that our body is not at all a part of who we “really” are (the only “real” things being the upper story — our experience, thoughts, and feelings). This concept is applied consistently by the transgender narrative, which “completely dissociates gender from biological sex” (p. 197).

Because the trans narrative insists that the body does not matter — that it is not the “the real you” — some transgender people do not even bother to change their bodily appearance. A friend introduced me to a local musician who identifies as genderqueer. He appears completely masculine except that he wears eyeliner and sometimes a woman’s blouse or skirt. Yet he insists on being referred to as “she” and her.”

Ibid, p. 200

This man is not pushing the envelope. He is a person who sees clearly the logical implications of the trans world view and is following them (almost) all the way to their conclusion.

(And, by the way, that’s convenient for him, because one of the lousiest things about being a biological woman is female hormones, and I think it’s a little unfair that a person should be able to call himself a woman and not experience the joys of those, but I digress.)

“So,” you say, “What’s the problem? It’s all about personal choice. The individual should not be bound — repressed — oppressed — by his or her body and society’s response to that body.”

Pearcey understands the emotional appeal of this motivation:

The goal is complete freedom to declare oneself a man or a woman or both or neither.

The sovereign self will not tolerate having its options limited by anything it did not choose — even its own body.

Ibid, p. 210

Of course, having a body, having that body be an important part of your identity, and being among other people who have a certain response to the total package … all of these are important elements of what it means, and has always meant, to be human. But no matter. Individuals may fairly say that they don’t like what it is to be human, that it is a rotten experience, and that they think they have figured out how to fix it by completely denying the reality of their bodies. Onward! How can this be a problem for anyone who values individual autonomy?

The problem arises thusly. By seizing the ability to declare ourselves whatever we may want to be, we have created an awesome new power. And awesome new powers seldom remain diffuse, in the hands of every individual. When an awesome new power arises, so will a supervillain to try and monopolize it.

These legal changes [Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity laws] do not affect only homosexual or transgender people. In the eyes of the law, no one has a natural or biological sex now; all citizens are defined not by their bodies but by their inner states and feelings. Your basic identity … no longer follows metaphysically from your body but must be determined by an act of will.

But whose will? Ultimately, it will come down to who has the most power — which means the state. “It does not matter what you or I mean by the word ‘gender,’ explains Daniel Moody. “The only opinion that counts is that of the state … In law, our gender identity is defined without reference to our body.”

By rejecting the biological basis of gender identity, SOGI laws empower the state to define everyone’s identity.

Ibid, p. 214

If that’s not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard, I don’t know what is.

If the state can legally declare a man to be a woman because he says he is, it could, in theory, legally come to my house and declare me not a woman, even though I’ve borne three children.

“Oh, come on. No one is going to do that.”

It is already happening. Not to me personally, but to much more vulnerable people.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the case in Texas where a father and mother are locked in a custody battle over their school-aged son. The mother insists the son is transgender, though he seems perfectly happy to identify as a boy when he’s with his dad. The courts have, so far, sided with the mother. This is just so tragic I don’t know where to start … but the big question is, In what sense is the little boy in this story making any kind of choice at all?

There are no such things as mothers and fathers

Until now, the family was seen as natural and pre-political, with natural rights. That means it existed prior to the state, and the state merely recognized its rights. But if the law no longer recognizes natural sex, then it no longer recognizes natural families or natural parents, only legal parents. That means parents have no natural rights, only legal rights. You, as a mother or father, have only the rights the state chooses to grant you.

Ibid, p. 213

This, of course, is a tyrant’s dream.

I am sure you have heard people make serious arguments along these lines: “Some people should not be allowed to have children” (by whom?); “There is no such thing as other people’s children”; “It takes a village to raise a child.” (I agree with that last one, but only when the village is an organic social unit, made up of lots of nuclear and extended families. When Hillary Clinton says “a village,” the village she has in mind is the national government.)

The people making these arguments wish to build a society-wide utopia. In other words, they are budding totalitarians.

The ideology of choice [being the only determining factor in forming a family] has ominous political implications. For if children must be chosen, if they do not belong to their biological parents as gifts from God, to whom do they belong? Answer: the state. If you read scholars like Ted Peters carefully, you consistently find statism lurking as an underlying assumption. In one passage, Peters writes, “Society places its children in the care of rearing parents as a trust.”

Stop right there: Society gives us children? Society gives us its children? This view reduces both parents and children to atomistic dependents on the state.

The totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century all sought tight state control of education, down to the earliest years, to inculcate unquestioning acceptance of the regime’s ideology.

History shows clearly that when biological bonds are downplayed in favor of choice, individuals end up forfeiting choice to the state. Demanding freedom from natural relationships means losing freedom to the state.

Ibid, p. 231

I would have to call that an unexpected outcome, wouldn’t you?

Yes, some natural families do really stink to grow up in.

All bureaucratic group homes for children would stink to grow up in.

Now that Pearcey has pointed this out, though, I can see this theme of a totalitarian utopian state undermining natural family bonds in all kinds of dystopias. Brave New World is the most obvious, where people are encouraged to sleep around, babies are grown in a lab, and the terms mother and father are considered obscene. But there is also The Giver, the YA book by Lois Lowry, in which babies are assigned handpicked parents after they leave their “birth mother” (which is a low-status role in their society … sound familiar?), and babies who are not thriving are euthanized.

This theme even surfaces in 1984. In that book, Winston’s neighbor is a rather simple-minded man who is enthusiastically in support of the Party. When Winston ends up in the Ministry of Love, there to be re-educated (sound familiar?), he is shocked to see his neighbor also there. The man has been turned in by his children, who claimed that in his sleep he would mutter, “Down with Big Brother.”

So, yeah, I recognize this theme from dystopian literature. I just didn’t realize, until I read this book, that legally and philosophically we were quite so far down that road.

The Virtues of Dominion — Alastair’s Adversaria

In response to Aaron Renn’s recent conversation starter over on the Theopolis blog, I’ve written on the subject of what is missing in many Christian approaches to masculinity. What the manosphere and others of the teachers that Renn identifies recognize is the importance of manliness, of the traits that make a man apt for the […]

The Virtues of Dominion — Alastair’s Adversaria

A characteristically abstract, but still fantastic essay about the masculine virtues that our entire culture is so afraid of.

Hey Young Writers, Don’t Expect your Significant Other to Read your Stuff Necessarily

Hi young writers. This post is going to be loosely written (and it’s late going up) because this week was … whew. Well, it was a week.

This is just a little tip for how to be happy (happier, at least) in your life as an artist or novelist.

You may or may not end up having one of those amazing literary marriages where the person you married is also a writer, or at least an avid reader, and where they “get” books and specifically your genre, and where you get to bounce ideas off them, they read your drafts, and they are your harshest, most loving critic and your biggest fan.

Such marriages do exist, I am told. Stephen King has said that his wife does this for him. I think it would be tremendous to be in such a relationship, and when I hear about such marriages, I admit I am a little jealous.

But this is not a must-have for your writing life.

Some people are readers and some just … aren’t. If the person you are with does not happen to be a person who reads fiction for fun, then trying to force them to read your stuff is a ticket to misery.

Unless they are conversant in fiction (and preferably in your genre), they won’t get out of your novel what you were hoping. And you won’t know whether this is because your novel has failed to communicate as you had hoped, or whether it’s because your s.o. is not among your intended audience. So you could end up in despair over a novel that’s good (or has the potential to be good) because your s.o. didn’t enjoy it, or you could end up discounting legitimate criticisms on the basis that “he/she just doesn’t get me.”

Which leads to the second point. Showing your work to close family members puts an awful lot of pressure on the relationship. We all know how much of ourselves we pour into our works of art, how emotionally charged they become. We all know how hard it can be to accept criticism from people we see only occasionally, let alone people we have to live with. Even if your s.o. is capable of giving informed feedback, do you want to make the relationship about his or her opinion of your work? Are you that emotionally strong, that capable of detachment?

Some people are, apparently. But, “know thyself.” Perhaps you aren’t. This is especially true if you are younger rather than older, and it is especially true in the early days right after you have finished a manuscript (or while you are working on it). I don’t know about you, but my tendency is to show my work to others too soon, at which point it is still a little rough and also I am still a little too excited about it to think clearly.

Another potential problem: if your s.o. is concerned about what other people think, then your work may be emotionally loaded for him or her as well. They may be thinking, “What if this is published before the world? Will it be misunderstood? Will it make my spouse look bad? Will it make me look bad?” This might always be an issue, but it’s going to be exacerbated if you are showing them early drafts, when all they can see is the roughness, not the glory that is in your head.

But, you ask, why in the world would you date or marry someone who doesn’t “get you”? Well, first of all, while your work is very important to you, it is not all there is to you. Secondly, it’s possible that the same s.o. who does not “get” your work when he or she sees it in draft or idea form, will manage to enjoy it when it has been vetted and edited by people who know what they are doing, published in all its glory, or made into a Hollywood blockbuster (ha!).

Thirdly, consider that if you are an author or an artist, there might be benefits to marrying someone who has a different calling … perhaps one at which it is actually possible to make a living, for instance.

I always kind of assumed that I’d meet some poet type in the English department in college and marry him and we’d go on to live a Bohemian poet life together. I’m frankly really glad that didn’t happen because I am happy not to be in academia right now. The man I married does share my values and many of my interests, and he does enjoy a good story, but he is not a reader. He’s got social skills and practical skills that I don’t have. I am happy to have him. We like each other. We can build a life together, raise our kids, go on camping trips without bonding over my writing. (He also doesn’t get the point of visual art. He is never going to rave over one of my paintings. I don’t expect him to. I hope for that from other visual artists.) When I do publish my books, maybe my husband will read them or maybe he will wait for the audio book, but I don’t expect him to get super excited because he does not normally go around reading sci-fi or fantasy or any fiction, really. He takes in stories through audio and movies. He is not part of my intended audience.

I hope this is helpful to you.

And to any family members who have read my drafts and are now trembling in your boots: It’s OK. I’m over it. I’ve moved on.

“Don’t Eat My Family”

Here is Ikash, who was a teenager when he was the protagonist of my novel The Strange Land. Now he is a husband and father, and he is doing what husbands and fathers do … trying to protect his family from the scary things in the world. (Of course Hyuna could help with this too, but as you can see, she recently had a baby, so she needs him to do the heavy lifting.)

This exact scene does not happen in my third book (at least not yet!), but it does illustrate his basic stance throughout that novel.

The black and white drawing did not scan great … a lot of detail was lost … but I needed something to post.

Are you perhaps feeling like this right now?