Tuesday, February 23, 2010

TRYING HARD TO BECOME WHATEVER THEY ARE: Over the weekend I watched "Transgeneration," a Sundance Channel/LOGO documentary series following four transgendered college students (well, one is a grad student) over the course of a year. I'd been putting this off a) because I have an aversion to this exact kind of self-voyeurizing, reality-TV documentary (it's related to my disapproval of biographies) and b) I thought it might be depressing. But in the event, the kids were so captivating that it was really easy to sit down and watch the whole thing all the way through. Here are a few scattered notes.

First, the cast of characters: a Filipina-American from a poorer background, a Smith College student from Oklahoma, an engineering-major geek from a well-off family, and an Armenian Cypriot graduate student. Plus lots of their friends and relations. I really liked both the diversity of backgrounds and the decision to include a lot of scenes with friends. You really get a sense that these students are creating communities of other transgendered people. There are a lot of contrasts and parallels here, watching which friendships break down and which gain strength over the course of the year. This isn't a documentary about just four people; it's also about the people on whom they rely, and who rely on them.

Second, holy cats these people are desperately undergraduate! (Well, the grad student is more grown-up, but he spends a lot of time with undergrads.) They're variously self-absorbed, melodramatic, hyperpolitical, and judgmental. They're alternately dizzy and diligent, they're fumbling through first romances (you definitely get a sense of the ways in which being transgendered meant they didn't have standard high-school experiences), they're convinced they can change the world.

All of these ridiculously undergraduate characteristics do play out through their gender identities and transitions, but aren't reducible to those identities--sort of like, I was 19 when I converted to Catholicism, and I think I lived out my conversion in a fairly self-absorbed and melodramatic way, but that doesn't mean Catholicism promotes self-absorption and melodrama. Just that if you're 19 at Yale, you may well live out your conversion in ways which reflect other aspects of the 19-year-old Yalien mindset.

Third, yeah, Americans are way too comfortable on camera. TJ, the Armenian Cypriot, seemed the least likely to film himself--am I misremembering that?--and in his segments back home there were moments when someone would bar the camera from pursuing, or wave the camera away so that real intimacy could be created. Raci, the Filipina-American, also had one relative who took her aside for an off-camera conversation. But the white, non-immigrant folks seemed ridiculously at ease being filmed and, again, frequently filmed themselves as well. I suppose as a Christian I can't be too hardcore about the idea that privacy, being unwatched, is something to preserve and honor--I mean, God is always watching even when you take a smoke break!--but I just can't imagine treating the camera with the nonchalance that these kids (and to a lesser extent their parents) do.

And finally, one thing I really wish the documentary had spent more--or really any--time on is the possibility of outside pressure toward transition. There were at least two people, a friend and a doctor, who seemed to me to be pushing students to resolve their ambiguities and hesitations into clear, final narratives of transsexuality. And I wonder if parents don't also apply some of this pressure. There are ways in which "I was always already a man, and I'm taking all the possible medical steps RIGHT NOW to express that manhood physically" is easier to understand than "I'm really not sure what's best for me right now, and I'm not totally sure where I'll be in a year, and maybe I need to spend some more time in-between even though it's astonishingly uncomfortable and I know I don't want to stay here forever." It's totally impossible to tell how much outside pressure really mattered, because the highly edited nature of the documentary means we're not seeing this year the way the students saw it. But I do wish the question had been addressed.

That said, I definitely recommend this series if you're at all interested in the subject. It's available on Netflix to order or to watch instantly on your computer. ...The deleted scenes on the DVD didn't add much, IMO.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

"SET THE CONTROLS FOR THE HEART OF THE SUN": Sean Collins's picks for the 15 greatest science-fiction-based pop/rock songs. Awesome. I gave up pop music for Lent (I usually do this) so I will have to play the clips in Eastertide. [EDITED: Oh wait! Sunday is still a feast day! Excelsior.] But you can play them now!

These aren't the songs I would choose, necessarily, but the only really obvious absence (to me) is Janelle Monae. More on her soon.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I'M DANCING AS FANCY AS I CAN: I really loved the movie of The Business of Fancydancing. I mean, I loved it more than I loved The Toughest Indian in the World; I loved it more than any description could really justify, I think maybe.

One big part of my love was the star: Evan Adams. He's got a cocky, vulnerable, punchy grace. If you like Robert Downey Jr. but thought, "What if he were brown?" then I think this guy will push your buttons. The supporting actors are also really lovely but this movie is carried by its star.

But also. I know I missed a lot in this movie. I only listened to part of Sherman Alexie's commentary track, but even that short bit emphasized how many nuances I missed. What I saw was a movie about how we negotiate our unchosen identities, especially those identities which our surrounding culture lies about and tells us not to love. I saw a movie about the inevitable betrayals of the writer: Philip Roth territory (is "Agnes Roth" a callback? it must be), only with even more dead people in the wake of the writer. I saw a movie about loving someone with privilege you don't have, and how you can love him and reject him and evade him, and how he doesn't know what he's doing. (I've been on both sides of that maypole dance and I recognized both.)

By now you want to know what this movie's actually about, and I can't blame you. A gay American Indian writer who has transformed his, and other people's, reservation experiences into pricey lit (Quality Paperbacks with bright white pulp) returns to the rez for a friend's funeral. It's an experimental movie with some Marlon Riggs touches. I don't think the camera needed to swirl quite so voraciously during some of Seymour's (the author's) interview with a combative black inquisitrix.

But overall... this movie showcases the way the given order breaks your heart, only the movie has better pacing and more consistent acting. I don't know if I'd call it subtle. I'd definitely call it brilliant, and that matters a lot more.
I WANT TO LIVE IN A BATHYSQUID: OK so I have inchoate problems with "steampunk" as a thing--even though you could argue that the fantasy novella was influenced by that whole aesthetic, since it's kind of late-nineteenth-century England with magic and without colonies, which is four whole kinds of problematic--but this specific movie... this is something I predict that I will love with a stupid love.

Via DLB.
FEAST OF ST. JULIANA OF NICOMEDIA, a patroness of women in childbirth.
Odd to think that the piece of you I know best is already dead. The cells on the surface of your skin are thin and flat without blood vessels or nerve endings. Dead cells, thickest on the palms of your hands and the soles of your feet. Your sepulchral body, offered to me in the past tense, protects your soft centre from the intrusions of the outside world. I am one such intrusion, stroking you with necrophiliac obsession, loving the shell laid out before me.
--Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

SUNRISE, SUNSET: I recently had reason to look at the archives of MarriageDebate, and it made me think that you all might be interested to see how our site has changed over the years. On the one hand, we're not a great example, because MD started as an attempt to host the best possible debates about gay marriage--when I was brought on board, my mandate was to make the site 50/50 pro- and con- on that, while keeping it fascinating and broadly-focused.

As years went by it became more of a clearinghouse for marriage- and sex- and gender-related stories and op-eds and blog posts and whatnot. That was great insofar as gay marriage is in no way the only (or, I would argue, the most important) marriage debate of our time. So we were able to broaden our focus. On the other hand, the debate became more static (I think in part because one's stance on gay marriage became an identity issue, like gun ownership [in the US], rather than a philosophical issue on which people from lots of different identity-categories could take divergent views without feeling too much like traitors) and I wish we could have continued drawing out the best respondents from both sides.

Any old how. Our archives are confuzzled right now, but here I go:

Our second week of operation. (The first week only has two posts.) A lot of stuff immediately prior to the gay-marriage court decision in MA; a lot of exchange between Maggie Gallagher and various people, esp inc Jonathan Rauch and Norah Vincent.

Week of 2/8/04: Goodridge (MA gay marriage), cloning, competing understandings of "liberation"; Federal Marriage Amendment still relevant at this time, thus all the familiar "process" arguments appear as fed-vs-state rather than judicial-vs-legis/vote.

Week of 2/6/05: culture, 14th amdmt, bisexuality (at Yale!); right vs. norm, who is kin?, more Maggie, lots of religion.

Week of 2/5/06: Brokeback Mountain (inc Maggie's take), we have comments but I don't know why, penguin lust (and stranger things!).

Week of 2/11/07: A short and random selection of links on family diversity, de-facto parenting, cousin marriage in Islam (Stanley Kurtz), and a bit more. Slim pickings really, and if I had more patience I'd find a more-representative week.

Week of 2/10/08: Canada!; divorce; polygamy; schools w/r/t gay marriage; fathers; contemporary problems with... how to put this?... men.

Week of 2/8/09: sex differences, sex scandals, sex vs. food, sex when you're a chick, sex that makes lots of babies, sex on campus, Prop 8, the "Octomom." And sex.

I also think this NYT piece and this post, about competing compromises, look very strange at the moment. You can get lots more about these compromises if you go here and here and scroll about a bit. It's really worth it.

Current front page: The college gender gap (correlating with the "mancession," as much as I hate that term); divorce, abstinence, paternity leave. And I'll be posting more links soon.

If I might be permitted a philosophical conclusion, I'd say that you can't have a marriage debate without also having a sex debate and a sex-difference debate. You have to talk about sex, and about men and/versus/plus women.

I'd be interested in any other observations you all have about the changes at md.com and/or in the broader marriage debate over the years....
I'll be all alone on Valentine's Day. Spooning a bottle of wine... putting up pictures of Margaret Thatcher....
--an adorable homosexual, overheard near home 2/9

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

In June of 1945, with memories of Nazi book-burning still vivid, a group called the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the United States and Canada excommunicated Rabbi Mordecai M. Kaplan, after which they burned his newly published Sabbath Prayer Book. Although Kaplan is less known (and less read) today than his contemporaries Martin Buber and Abraham Joshua Heschel, he was in many ways the most radical Jewish philosopher or theologian of his era. So it is good to see that his first book, the influential "Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life," has just returned to print. Published by Rabbi Kaplan in 1934, it is a masterpiece of 20th-century Jewish thought.

Although Kaplan grew up in an Orthodox home (he was born in Lithuania and arrived with his family in New York when he was 8) and served as a rabbi at Orthodox congregations, his increasingly un-Orthodox thinking led him in 1922 to found his own congregation in New York, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism (SAJ). There, and at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a senior (and sometimes controversial) faculty member for more than 50 years, Kaplan continued to refine the ideas set out in his 1934 work.

As its title implies, "Judaism as a Civilization: Toward a Reconstruction of American-Jewish Life" reflects Kaplan's effort to redefine how modern American Jewry thinks of itself. Judaism is not only a religion, Kaplan stated; it is a people with its own history, identity, culture and civilization. Moreover, like any civilization, to remain vital it must continue to evolve to meet and adapt to the challenges and needs of each new generation. It must be reconstructed, so to speak--or else risk losing its purpose. ...

A believer in gender equality long before the term political correctness became a cliché, Kapan in 1922 "invented" the modern-day bat mitzvah--in which 12-year-old girls (like their male counterparts, 13-year-old boys, at their bar mitzvahs) symbolically accept the religious responsibilities of adulthood—when, at Sabbath services one Saturday morning, he called his oldest daughter to the pulpit and had her read from the Torah scroll. Since then, of course, this then-unheard-of custom has become an accepted, even expected rite-of-passage among Jews in all but the Orthodox branch of the faith.

...Most controversial of all, he rejected the supernatural concept of God in favor of a naturalistic view of a transcendent power behind nature and within us that helps us aspire to the highest level of moral action and ethical behavior. Kaplan was no atheist (as his critics asserted), but his definition of God as "the power that makes for salvation" allows for a broader interpretation of the potential for goodness that lies within each individual.

"IT IS THE LAST DREAM OF CHILDREN TO BE FOREVER UNTOUCHED." In other news, I finished the draft of the novel. This epigraph brought to you by the Zami: A New Spelling of My Name Foundation, and also the letter Q.
I THOUGHT THAT IF YOU HAD AN ACOUSTIC GUITAR THEN IT MEANT THAT YOU WERE A PROTEST SINGER: For some reason my American Conservative column is about gentrification, and why all my oldest friends don't talk to me anymore. It's also about U Street, sex as the new politics and vice versa, melodrama, extremism, love, communards, and regret. Oh I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible--

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