Zero-sum game: Learning to give

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I read recently that there is a backlash to e-book sales in the UK. I love the immediacy and convenience of being able to get books on my Kindle device, especially because I live in the country, and even if bookstores were more accessible, I’d find precious little to suit my tastes. I could never feed the hunger for a book a day that is my current appetite, and if I could, I would not find quite the range of things I want. Thus, I appreciate e-books, but there are moments that I long for the real thing. (I suppose this is not unlike something like … if I may be so crass, sex toys/masturbation versus actual sex. Imitation does its job and in many cases may even be more effective, but it’s more clinical. Nothing is quite the same as the real thing. And guess what? It’s National Masturbation Month now! Take note!) In fact, imitation is one of the ways we can isolate ourselves, which is the point of this meandering ramble.)

We could praise this shift – moving to more compact and “less wasteful” modes of producing information, but we lose tradition and the ritual that comes with selecting a new books – the heft of it in your hands, the smell of the paper, the thickness and quality of the paper, the artwork/design, the way the book’s spine wears and pages grow tattered. We love them in a way we will never love an e-book. As cumbersome as it was to travel with books, for example, I enjoyed taking books on the road with me and then leaving them behind in airports, airplanes, hotel rooms, friends’ houses, cafes, wondering if their story would continue – would someone else take possession of the book and get something completely new? What would happen to a book I purchased in Iceland and left in Halifax, Montreal, Mexico City? Now, this will never happen again.

We have certainly lost something – not just in consuming and loving literature but in the way we live, the way we define ourselves, the way we consume, the way we relate to and love others and ourselves and, fundamentally, the way we are. Perhaps it does not matter because the universe as a whole is just a long series of losing things – or things imperceptibly changing. But observing the moment we live in, it feels hollow. No amount of flashing lights and distractions can distract from the emptiness the culture creates.

Dubravka Ugrešić writes in Karaoke Culture:

“The very foundation of karaoke culture lies in the parading of the anonymous ego with the help of simulation games. Today people are more interested in flight from themselves than discovering their authentic self. The self has become boring, and belongs to a different culture. The possibilities of transformation, teleportation, and metamorphosis hold far more promise than digging in the dirt of the self. The culture of narcissism has mutated into karaoke culture—or the latter is simply a consequence of the former.”

“We walk through the world with our memory sticks around our necks, each of us with our own homepage, each of us with an archive stored on the web. We, are everywhere . . . And the more voluminous the archive that trails us, the less of ourselves there seems to be . . . We don’t communicate with each other . . . Oh so modern, we put things on YouTube so anyone can gawk at them. We used to send out ghostly signals of our existence, and now we make fireworks out of our lives. We enjoy the orgy of being, twittering, buying new toys, iPhones and iPads, and all the while our hunger just grows and grows. We wear memory sticks around our necks, having of course first made copies. The memory stick is our celestial sarcophagus, our soul, our capsule, our soul in a capsule*.”

“In all its manifestations karaoke culture unites narcissism, exhibitionism, and the neurotic need for the individual to inscribe him or herself on the indifferent surface of the world, irrespective of whether the discontented individual uses the bark of a tree, his or her body, the Internet, photography, an act of vandalism, murder, or art. In the roots of this culture, however, lies a more serious motive: fear of death. From the surface of karaoke culture shimmers the mask of death.”

We are indeed more alienated and isolated – both from others and, even more alarmingly, from ourselves. But with gadgets, platforms and forms of high-tech mirrors, we fool ourselves into thinking we are self-aware because we are self-involved, self-obsessed even. But it’s the superficial self we plaster all over every new social media channel and into every app – crying out for attention – and connection – but moving further away from it all the time as we turn ourselves into caricatures, and eventually, commodities. And we start to see each other as commodities for exchange.

Treating each other as commodities, and treating ourselves as objects we must market and ‘improve’ so we can place the highest value possible on ourselves (but in a way that somehow empties us of self-esteem), started as a pet peeve for me but has grown into a full-blown worry as the trend has accelerated in the digital age and become its own form of epidemic. Dehumanized automatons cataloging themselves online for consumption in one form or another. I am no less guilty of committing this commoditization crime, subscribing to the “marketplace” idea of love or care. We convince ourselves there’s an endless supply of other, better, more interesting options, and so teach ourselves to dehumanize – that there is nothing to treasure, and nothing to trust in. It’s not a new idea, attempting to assign an ROI to people, to cut losses. It’s a game of emotional preservation, but it’s also a perversity. Eventually it does become about summing up balance sheets and ensuring you’re not playing a zero-sum game. And what in the hell does that have to do with care, love, compassion, feeling? It’s not just treating others this way – it’s an internal devaluation that leads us there in the first place.

Erich Fromm captures these very concerns in his The Art of Loving – and did so long before the advent of the internet:

“Modern man is alienated from himself, from his fellow men, and from nature. He has been transformed into a commodity, experiences his life forces as an investment which must bring him the maximum profit obtainable under existing market conditions. Human relations are essentially those of alienated automatons, each basing his security on staying close to the herd, and not being different in thought, feeling or action. While everybody tries to be as close as possible to the rest, everybody remains utterly alone, pervaded by the deep sense of insecurity, anxiety and guilt which always results when human separateness cannot be overcome. Our civilization offers many palliatives which help people to be consciously unaware of this aloneness.”

“At any rate, the sense of falling in love develops usually only with regard to such human commodities as are within reach of one’s own possibilities for exchange. I am out for a bargain; the object should be desirable from the standpoint of its social value, and at the same time should want me, considering my overt and hidden assets and potentialities. Two persons thus fall in love when they feel they have found the best object available on the market, considering the limitations of their own exchange values. Often, as in buying real estate, the hidden potentialities which can be developed play a considerable role in this bargain. In a culture in which the marketing orientation prevails, and in which material success is the outstanding value, there is little reason to be surprised that human love relations follow the same pattern of exchange which governs the commodity and the labor market.”

It’s not just technology that has created this, as evidenced by Fromm’s observations from the 1950s. But technology sprays fuel on the fire and changes. Ugrešić highlights how technology radically changes the perception of everything. I relate, having succumbed to the same mindless tv addiction she describes and am now “clean”. I take it a step further to say it has changed our perception of who we are – how we are – what we are capable of (so much more in some ways, but so much less in others):

“It’s a notorious fact that technology radically changes one’s perception of everything, including time. Thirty years ago I could wile away the hours on the cinematic aesthetics of Andrei Tarkovsky and similar directors. Today I am ashamed to admit that my eyes have simply been weaned off them; the shots are too long, too slow, and the plot, if there is one, plodding and ambiguous. I used to love all that auteur stuff, but today I don’t have the patience. In the intervening time I’ve become hooked on cinematic “fast food.” Flowing in my veins, this fast food has changed the rhythm of my heart, my attention span, and the rhythms of my respiration. The truth is that I overdosed on television, and so I don’t watch it anymore. I’ve been clean for a while now, and I don’t miss it a bit. But I do watch lots of documentaries—it doesn’t matter what they’re about, the most important thing is that they’re “slow food,” that they offer me the illusion that what is happening on the screen really is happening. The way I read has changed too. At first I was surprised when friends told me that they were going to speed-reading courses. Now I’m thinking about enrolling in a course myself. My eyes are too slow, the computer screen just gets richer and faster, and my attention span is ever shorter. From the sheer quantity of information my memory is getting worse and worse. It’s not just that I have no idea what I consumed on the Internet yesterday, it’s that I don’t remember what I sucked up five minutes ago.”

Should we be alarmed? It can be argued that laws, social mores, technology of earlier ages also came along and changed things. Airplanes, telephones, cars, inheritance laws, vaccines, and so on and on. Every generation predicts the end of civilization (or possibly something slightly less hyperbolic but nevertheless negative) because of change. But change is inevitable. Does it matter, for example, if young people’s brains end up being wired differently because of their affinity for devices? Does it contribute to this disconnection people my age and older are screaming about? Does it matter that taking notes in longhand will make the information stick if young people never really learn to write? Should these be the things we get upset about? Should we listen as Pope Francis chides the digital world for acting as a roadblock to “learning how to live wisely, think deeply, and to love generously”?

Is the loss of tradition, ritual, care going to objectify everything and everyone? Have we already crossed that line? We already “value” everything that is instant or fast. We cannot seem to handle things that are ambiguous or hard. Where do we find hope in this landscape?

Maybe it’s in all those people who take up knitting; all these “rebels” embracing old-fashioned books and letter writing; maybe it’s the neighbor planting a garden. And at the core, perhaps, it is also extending the sense of humanity and connection – building love, which is actually one of the most difficult things. No wonder we run in terror.

Fromm again:

“This attitude — that nothing is easier than to love — has continued to be the prevalent idea about love in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

Fromm poses a question, which he may actually, in some measure, have answered himself:

“Here, however, an important question arises. If our whole social and economic organization is based on each one seeking his own advantage, if it is governed by the principle of egotism tempered only by the ethical principle of fairness, how can one do business, how can one act within the framework of existing society and at the same time practice love?”

The answer, as I see it, apart from finding a way to love, is to cultivate true giving. The two go hand in hand.

“Nothing’s free unless it’s freely given” – Charlie Hilton, “Pony”

We can only love if we give freely, and we can really only give freely by loving. Actively. And through both, we can feel alive.

“Love is an activity, not a passive affect; it is a “standing in,” not a “falling for”. In the most general way, the active character of love can be described by stating that love is primarily giving, not receiving.

What is giving? Simple as the answers to the question seems to be, it is actually full of ambiguities and complexities. The most widespread misunderstanding is that which assumes that, giving is “giving up” something, being deprived of, sacrificing. The person whose character has not developed beyond the stage of the receptive, exploitative, or hoarding orientation, experiences the act of giving in this way. The marketing character is willing to give, but only in exchange for receiving; giving without receiving for him is being cheated. People whose main orientation is a non-productive one feel giving as an impoverishment. Most individuals of this type therefore refuse to give. Some make a virtue out of giving in the sense of a sacrifice. They feel that just because it is painful to give, one should give; the virtue of giving to them lies in the very act of acceptance of the sacrifice. For them, the norm that it is better to give than to receive means that it is better to suffer deprivation that to experience joy.

For the productive character, giving has an entirely different meaning. Giving is the highest expression of potency. In the very act of giving, I experience my strength, my wealth, my power. This experience of heightened vitality and potency fills me with joy. I experience myself as overflowing, spending, alive, hence as joyous. Giving is more joyous than receiving, not because it is a deprivation but because in the act of giving lies the expression of my aliveness.”

*See also Hal Hartley’s 1998 film The Book of Life.

Sexuality

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In my experience, anyone who avidly, eagerly gives voice to his own ‘sexual generosity’, talking it up, is fooling himself. Why would you need to brag if your prowess speaks for itself? Also in my experience, straight men are the only people who, generally speaking, do this. (Always exceptions, of course.) They are, quite often, as with many other aspects of life, a lot of talk and very little action – and this mismatch between saying and doing leads to a whole hell of a lot of dissatisfaction and frustration.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to me or anyone else to learn that a recent survey concludes that lesbians give women far more orgasms than men.

“You could say that straight women are least likely to achieve orgasm during sex, but it’s just as true to say that if you have sex with a straight man, you’ve chosen the demographic least likely to make you come.”

I’m ignoring the “you’ve chosen” statement above, as most people don’t choose their sexual orientation or the ‘demographic’ from whom they seek sexual pleasure (although I grant that anyone could at any time choose to have an experience with just about anyone if they want to). But clearly the idea that it’s a choice is still something pervasive for a lot of people. When I shared the original article via social media, there was the inevitable comment: “So are you converting?” Could there be a more idiotic question? It’s no wonder things are the way they are in the world. Even if there were a choice, this assumption that someone would choose the option where she gets more sexual completion ignores all the other parts of interaction and relationships?! As if the orgasm is the only thing that matters to anyone in the long run. I guess we know where the person who would ask this question places importance.

The survey attempts obvious explanations, e.g. women intimately know the anatomy of other women, so of course they will give each other more orgasms. I tend to agree with the article in that it criticizes this glib conclusion. Every woman (and man) is different and responds to stimuli differently. Even ignoring interpersonal, individual chemistry, it does not come down to mechanics and technique alone, although those factors help. The article points out – not that this will come as any surprise either – that heterosexual sex is, implicitly, focused on the man’s pleasure and outcome first and foremost, so when it’s done for the man, the whole experience is done.

And, as poet Howard Nemerov will remind us anyway – and this is probably true for all of us, no matter our orientation, gender or age – “We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.”

Reading Pornography in Old Age
-Howard Nemerov

Unbridled licentiousness with no holds barred,
Immediate and mutual lust, satisfiable
In the heat, upon demand, aroused again
And satisfied again, lechery unlimited.

Till space runs out at the bottom of the page
And another pair of lovers, forever young,
Prepotent, endlessly receptive, renews
The daylong, nightlong, interminable grind.

How decent it is, and how unlike our lives
Where “Fuck you” is a term of vengeful scorn
And the murmur of “sorry, partner” as often heard
As ever in mixed doubles or at bridge.

Though I suspect the stuff is written by
Elderly homosexuals manacled to their
Machines, it’s mildly touching all the same,
A reminiscence of the life that was in Eden

Before the Fall, when we were beautiful
And shameless, and untouched by memory:
Before we were driven out to the laboring world
Of the money and the garbage and the kids

In which we read this nonsense and are moved
At all that was always lost for good, in which
We think about sex obsessively except
During the act, when our minds tend to wander.

Stud service & choosing adventure

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In fluff-journalism/women’s magazines and similar trash, headlines promise us wisdom and insight into topics like “sex after 40”, as if there is a visible and tangible threshold over which people (women in particular) cross after 40. If we are to believe the spate of coverage, it would seem that once the line is crossed, you’ll become invisible, sex will be harder to find or have and might have physical complications for one reason or another. And men too will face their own complications. I may exaggerate here – it’s not always directed at someone who is 40, but maybe to the 50+ set, 50 being the age that the AARP has declared as “senior citizen territory”. And all of this designed to stir up self-doubt and make us wonder if we’re normal (as if we haven’t been wondering that our entire lives) and whether we need this pill or that cream to normalize ourselves and our sex lives.

Is sex, or finding sex or sex partners or people to date, marry, fall in love with, or having sex, really any different at a more “advanced” age?

I am not 70 yet, and maybe all of this will change in the coming decades. But for now, no. There are other people in the 40-something age bracket who also want to have sex and are in the same situation. There are people in lower and higher age brackets who also want to have sex, even with people in their 40s. Just like all the other ages and times in one’s life. It’s almost exactly the same now to meet people as it was when young. The venues have changed, the way our lives are arranged have changed, and we tend to have a lot more baggage, more peccadilloes and preferences, and possibly less patience or tolerance for nonsense. But we’re the same horny people (most likely) as we were when we were 20. (Yeah and somehow this came as a surprise to me when I was much younger meeting people in their 40s, 50s and so on.)

I refer you here to the German film (leave it to the Germans) Cloud 9 (Wolke 9) if you’re left with doubts. It’s a lot of elderly people (people 65 and much older) having sex and having affairs. You will see what I mean.

Different concerns perhaps arise – or don’t arise, as the case may be. Haha. (But there’s nothing big pharma won’t try to cure for you if you’re a middle-aged man.)

For example, a woman spends so much of her younger life thinking about birth control, but it becomes less of a concern later, until it is no longer a concern. Maybe this late-life/still-fertile time is a little complicated because pregnancy is unlikely but still possible, and would not be welcome (less welcome than at 25, 30 or even 35). One friend recently treated me to a semi-lecture on fertility the other day, also reminding me that if we wanted to have a child together (or truer to say, if I were to request stud service), the window is closing, but is not closed. For me, though, it is closed. I have closed it. Another friend, the Schwarzenegger-soundalike (god help me, I can’t listen!), when I mentioned something about people having kids in their 40s, dismissively said, “Yeah but that time is over, no?” Yes. The answer is no.

My body is saying no, no, no.

Not only is my body saying no, so is my mind, my lifestyle, my freedom, my flexibility and everything I have worked to cultivate. I have my life almost exactly the way I want it – why would I want to ruin that now? Every part of me now screams out with the realization that that time is over, if it ever existed. But I had to learn the hard way.

What purpose does this serve now, though, going over the sexuality of middle-aged people and the merits of childlessness? I woke up with these thoughts in my head, turned over to read more of Congo: The Epic History of a People, but still felt like I had to mull this stuff over.

What purpose? None really. Only that it ties in (if only by a thread) to one of the things I try to remind myself of daily: Life is short (how did I arrive in my 40s already when, as a child of six, I would stare at the clock and think what an eternity ten minutes seemed to be?) and, if you are able, you should prioritize the adventure. Whatever adventure it is you choose to go on. For some, that adventure is becoming a parent in middle age. For others, it’s running off last-minute to faraway places spontaneously and continuing to see the world. For many, it’s to “dare” to be a sexual creature after 40. The adventure is different for everyone.

And that comes down to one of the biggest, but possibly most rewarding, challenges of life: Really knowing yourself and what you do and do not want.

Photo (c) 2007 Byte Rider used under Creative Commons license.

Why I Changed My Mind – Saffron Burrows

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Emblazoned in my memory is the image of Saffron Burrows as the kind of vulnerable villainess, who, if memory serves, does redeem herself in the end, in the film Circle of Friends. I haven’t seen the film since its release back in … 1993? 1994? But the image, accurate or not, has remained. Recall if you will that I had misgivings dating back to that film about its starlet, Minnie Driver, as well – and overcame them in a big way. Burrows, as the beautiful temptress, thwarts the whole “inner beauty triumphs” story (at least temporarily) that propels Circle of Friends. And Burrows has been held, in my mind, to that femme-fatale, bad guy standard of the character she played (testament to her performance, though, that it had that kind of staying power) ever since.

My opinion has changed, but it is not like it ever made any dramatic shifts because it is not like I ever hated her or actively avoided her films or multiple recent TV appearances. She has always been sort of low-key, turning up when I was not expecting to see her, and always making an impression. She might fall victim to the misguided idea that beauty of her type could not possibly come with the kind of talent she has. I don’t really know, but seeing her recently in Mozart in the Jungle, I felt oddly moved by her portrayal of Cynthia, a flawed, complicated woman who is seductive and unapologetically in touch with that side of herself but who also gives generously of herself with whatever she can offer. At least that’s how I interpreted her character. Seeing her in this role made me go back and re-evaluate other places I have seen her. There are quite a lot of performances, and none really stand out – but she always brings something different and fresh to her roles.

While I don’t necessarily evaluate actors and other “stars” based on their personal lives, Burrows’ public openness and fluidity about sexuality and relationships has been refreshing. Despite being someone who seems quite private (but also political), she recently revealed that she married her female partner and has long been a voice for equality. Being in the public eye, it’s hard to keep such matters secret, and her love life has been mentioned here and there in the media before (with well-publicized romances with men, such as Alan Cumming, who himself wed his same-sex partner a few years ago. And of course, he was the actual “villain” in Circle of Friends, although villain might be too strong a word!). Burrows exudes a kind of “accepting” vibe – seeming very in control while being open and welcoming. I don’t know her, so this is just imagination. But this is the kind of confidence that her most memorable characters convey (in particular her Mozart character). Worldly but not jaded, a seen-it-all but still loving taking it in attitude.

Considered, reconsidered – I’m really impressed with Burrows. Her work speaks for itself, but by extension, I think her public handling of her relationship and situation is brave in that it can actually be difficult to recognize how and when to “live an honest life” – whatever that means. And sometimes that means not really defining yourself the way people expect you to be defined (that is, putting yourself in one box or another).