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Feb. 19th, 2017

Collie muse

Thoughts on Organizing Performances

Tonight I'll be at PantheaCon for the ritual of the Descent of Inanna performed by "House of Inanna" (my ATS belly dance troupe) and friends. It's been a fascinating experience so far, especially since I've not previously participated in any plays. Oh, I was the head of a green dragon during a play when I was maybe 6 years old, and I think I've been bit parts in other grade school plays… but that was usually a situation where the teachers were working hard to include everyone. Consequently there were often a lot of really pointless bit pieces that could be filled with the less popular kids, and I certainly qualified for that role as an awkward kid who was too smart for her own good.

Perhaps more relevantly, I have a strong understanding of teamwork due to both the horse shows my family attended while I was in school, and the occasional choirs in which I sang. I also learned about "being on" all the time while I was the second princess of Trimaris. That's all that's occurring to me off the top of my head… so yeah. This entire cycle of preparation for this ritual has been quite fascinating, and I thought I'd write down some notes for myself so that I learn good things from this endeavor — of both smart ideas I saw, and situations I would have done differently. Of course, if any of these ideas are of use to you, or you have any suggestions from your own experiences, I'd be delighted to hear from you. Also, I'm writing this as if I'm talking to myself, so the "you" being addressed below is just me.

  • The first thought I should keep in mind is this: putting on a performance seems much like a form of the project management in technology that I'm familiar with. There's a saying amongst the coders I know who're organizing timelines for their projects: figure out how long you think something will take — then double it! I suspect this goes for performances too; e.g.: if you think you'll need four rehearsals, schedule eight — and so on.
  • Make sure the folks in each part actually want to be there and want that part. Then make sure they're willing to put in the time to learn that part. It's probably better to have a role filled by someone less skilled but more willing to work their tails off, than someone extremely talented who is half-assed about the role.
  • Getting people to move in concert is harder than getting people to move individually. If you have a group chorus or troupe that are all supposed to be moving smoothly together, make sure to schedule time just for them to practice their part — and give them more of that type of rehearsal than everyone else. They'll need it — and once they finally "get it" they'll look great together! Plus knowing you care enough to work a little harder or extra with them is a huge motivator.
  • Keep in mind that just because someone can sing or dance doesn't mean they can act — and vice versa. If you have a truly beautiful dancer who is terrible at lines, for example, try seeing if instead they can dance their emotions. Be flexible to the needs and abilities of your participants.
  • If you have people who like to interrupt in the middle of rehearsal to offer their opinions and suggestions, try taking them aside later for a talk. Let them know that you really are interested in their thoughts — but in the middle of rehearsal isn't the place for that, as it disrupts everyone else. Ask them to keep those ideas in mind, and come to you with the suggestions once the practice is concluded.
  • Make sure the script and/or the music list is finished and ready for use before rehearsals begin. If you want to ask for feedback on the script or music, make sure you have plenty of time to listen and sift through suggestions so as to make the best choices that you can. Google docs are a fabulous way to share things like this. Thank everyone who participates and remember: even if you don't like their suggestions, they gifted you with their time and effort. Always, always thank them.
  • Props and set pieces can be produced while rehearsals have already started, but make sure they're all completed or nearly done before the first full dress rehearsal. That first full dress rehearsal should produce a lot of notes too: what isn't working yet, who can repair any damage, where does that prop or that costume have to be during this act and who will put them there, and so on. The second full dress rehearsal should hopefully have all those notes marked as solved… in a best case scenario, of course. By the third dress rehearsal there should be no more issues, hopefully — it should flow smoothly and well, and people can concentrate on polishing their performances rather than basic set or role work.
  • Rehearsals are when everyone memorizes their parts and learns their blocking, i.e.: where they stand or move on the stage. These don't have to be full rehearsals, of course — you can break them up by acts or by choreography or for stagehand prop movement training or whatever. Make sure everyone knows how to not block sight lines for the audience. Make sure everyone has attended at least a few of the rehearsals so they're not being taught basic parts of their role while everyone else is well past that point. If there's someone who never makes rehearsals, think long and hard about whether they're a good fit for their role, or not. Once everyone knows their part backwards and forwards, only then begin full dress rehearsals — since those should be nearly a piece of cake, rather than when the various roles are being learned.
  • Know when to delegate. If you don't have time to lead the chorus in extra rehearsals, make sure the most experienced or most enthusiastic participant knows the choreography really well — then make them responsible for organizing and teaching the chorus. Checking in periodically to make sure things are going well won't hurt, but unless there's a disaster remember to stay hands off. Conversely, if one of the chorus comes to you for extra teaching, either open those teachings to everyone, or refer them back to the assigned lead.
  • While it's true everyone has lives outside of the play/ritual/dance/whatever, make sure everyone keeps in mind that a professional, polished performance reflects well upon all of us. It will be important that everyone volunteers as much time as they can, and understands that this will take a significant chunk of effort. As a single example, in the last week before the performance there should probably be rehearsals every night, with people expected to participate in a majority of them.
  • If you're a performer, know your part. Practice it during every rehearsal you can get to, and then again later with other performers or friends if they're willing, and yet again when alone at home. If there's music, listen to it as much as you can; if there are lines, declaim them to your long-suffering family and pets! Practice your part repeatedly until it is second nature; until you can pick it up in the middle as if interrupted and still give a flawless performance.
  • If you're the director: be aware that while directing, you are "on" for your performers. Keep it positive — because whatever you say that is negative will carry far more weight than usual, and you can inadvertently crush someone through carelessness. Try hard to be kind: these people are all volunteering their time and effort to you. Try to suit people to their roles, as mentioned above. Give people a chance when you can; e.g.: if you've got someone who knows their role but is always late to rehearsal try pairing them up with someone who needs a bit more help in getting their role down pat. Sometimes more responsibility will help settle folks who're slightly careless with other people's time but good at taking care of themselves. However, also be aware that it's you that's going to have to do all the nasty shit: you're the one who'll have to "fire" someone from a role they can't fill, whether due to lack of talent or lack of practice.
  • There are lots of ways to direct. My personal choices follow: when directing, present yourself as calm and collected. Have the tools to hand to take notes, and do so re each rehearsal — perhaps even for the performance itself. Know the script inside and out. Be polite and as articulate as possible with your volunteers; don't let yourself get easily exasperated or angry. If someone is constantly flubbing their part or role, try to figure out if there's something in your instructions that's causing the issue. If not, try to figure out a non-humiliating way to better communicate with that person and help them fix things.

Hmm… this was actually rather entertaining and enlightening for me. I think after the performance I may also add anything new that I've noticed. Hope this is useful to you too; enjoy! :)

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Feb. 14th, 2017

Collie muse

Stagecrafting fun

I did a thing! Well, I painted a thing — for my ATS bellydance troupe's upcoming ritual of the Descent of Inanna, taking place this Sunday at Pantheacon. Woo!

This is my first time creating stuff for the stage, so I'm really quite pleased with how it all came out. The object in question is a moveable and reversible Ishtar Gate, with one side relatively true to the original and the other painted so as to be a gate to the Underworld. The husband of the troupe leader built the thing of lumber and canvas, then painted the background. It's cleverly done, too — the pillars are on wheels, and the crenelated top is removable. It's light enough, though also sturdy enough, that one person can push it around on their own (if necessary — it's smoother with two folks) when the Gate is completely assembled.

If I understand correctly, the artwork was supposed to be done by the son of the troupe sister who is organizing this event/ritual. However, when I walked up and asked if I could help, he gladly accepted. I think the poor guy was just realizing how little time he had to get so much done, honestly… because over time I ended up doing all of the "Heaven" side and finishing the "Underworld" side.

As previously mentioned, our gate consists of two tall pillars with a crenelated top piece. The troupe leader and the ritual manager explained that they wanted an Assyrian dragon, a lion, and a bull on each pillar, much like there are on the original Ishtar Gate. Admittedly the lions are actually only on the walls that line the road to the Gate, but they too are lovely — so we added them as well. The Underworld side has the demon Pazuzu on it, which is a neat trick for a couple of reasons. First, in my research for visuals on him I discovered that whenever he's depicted in a full-body pose (mostly in statuettes) he is invariably shown from the front — with one single exception that I know of, which has his lower body turned sideways like an Egyptian piece of art. Fortunately that one was enough for me to realize he had a scorpion's tail along with the four wings, clawed hands, raptor feet, etc. Secondly, he's a chronologically-later Assyrian demon rather than Sumerian like Inanna is. The reason for that is: "shut up!" she explained. :)

So I first sketched in the animals from some reference photos the young man had, using light-colored art pencils — while also discovering that painted canvas is very harsh on things like pencils, crayons, and Sharpies! No photos of that, alas… but I have a few shots of the animals blanked in with yellow paint. The perceptive will notice that the bulls are anatomically correct… but also that one bull's, um, equipment is quite noticeably sized differently from the other's! This is due to the fact that my dog, Goldie, walked up behind me and cheerfully stuck her cold wet nose in my ear as I was carefully adding that detail — so I guess that bull should be happy that he's got anything at all. :)

After that beginning work was done I did the detailing work with Sharpie, and added a bunch of little touches like metallic gold paint on the horns of the bulls and the scale coats of the dragons, and red tongues on the dragons and the lions — that sort of thing. I think they all came out pretty darned well!

After that I had to finish the two pillars with Pazuzu on them. The young man had also sketched him out on both side pillars at the same time I'd done my sketches, and then later roughed in some paint — but that was all he had time to do. I was "voluntold" that I could finish it, right? I'm a sucker; I agreed. :) So I did some research on Pazuzu to see what he looked like, since the young man had only someone's "artistic rendering" of the demon… then I started by blocking out the paint roughs more so they were smooth and had clean edges. After that I did more Sharpie work — all hail the glorious Sharpie, savior of brains and patience! Once that was completed, I added a touch of color in the eyes and teeth to make the figure "pop" a bit rather than appearing very visually flat… and then I was finally done!

It took me a little over 10 hours of work — the latter half of which was spent also struggling with a nasty cold. I am, therefore, inordinately proud of myself for managing to soldier through and get it done! Admittedly, I probably overdid it, considering most stage props are far enough away that it's hard to make out details… but I really like the results, so I'm happy with it regardless.

So enough blathering! Here is our Ishtar Gate in its entirety and in its details. Enjoy, and tell me what you think! :)

Original Pazuzu rough – left
Original Pazuzu rough – right
Pazuzu paint blank – left

Pazuzu paint blank – right
Pazuzu first draft – right
Completed Pazuzu – left

Completed Pazuzu – right
Pazuzu pillar – left
Pazuzu pillar – right

Underworld Gate – complete!
Underworld Gate again – still complete!
Ishtar Gate pillars w/animal blanks

Animal paint blanks
Ishtar Gate pillar first draft – left
Ishtar Gate pillar first draft – right

Bull completed – left
Bull completed – right
Sumerian dragon completed – left

Sumerian dragon completed – right
Lion completed – left
Ishtar Gate right pillar

Ishtar Gate – complete! & w/reflection of Underworld Gate beyond

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Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Feb. 10th, 2017

Collie muse

Book review: "Introducing Ethics" by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt, pt. 3

(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

7) What are human beings really like: selfish and greedy or generous and kind?

By "really like" I presume the question asks what would people be like if they were allowed to mature without distorting outside influences. Under that presumption, I think people would be a mix, but would lean towards generosity and kindness, because in the long run it feels better.

We are, after all, social animals. If you're selfish and greedy enough, no one will want to be around you or share with you, and you'll end up bitter and alone. If you're generous and kind, studies have shown you'll experience beneficial, enjoyable chemical changes within your body. Thus, not only will others prefer your company and share with you, but you'll feel better about life and yourself.

8) Are some people "better" at morality than others, or is everyone equally capable of being good?

I think everyone can be moral, given the opportunity and some personal introspection. It's a form of behavior which can be trained, after all. If we can teach autistic children how to get by in society, surely we can teach morality as well.

9) Are there good ways of teaching children to behave morally?

Of course. Ways of teaching which encourage and reward moral action, and which emphasize human dignity, are to be preferred over painful correction applied by the self-righteous. As R. S. Surtees noted, "More people are flattered into virtue than bullied out of vice."

10) Does anyone have the right to tell anyone else what goodness and wickedness are?

If we are speaking of adults and not children, then I see a difference between "tell" as in control the actions of another, and "tell" as in a gentle reminder. If what the question means involves the former definition, then no — no one has an absolute right to define goodness and wickedness for others. That way lies tyranny.

On the other hand, I don't have a problem with someone who, upon seeing me about to do something wrong, quietly murmuring to me, "Are you sure you want to do that? Won't it hurt someone else if you do?" I feel this way because I know I may not have all the facts, and I don't really want to hurt anyone else without reason.

A gentle reminder, however, is as far as it goes for me. I feel people must make up their own minds. Once they have the facts, it's their duty as well as their responsibility to make their own choices, and live with the consequences of those actions.

The sole exception for me is the case of children. In order to protect children, adults have to control their [the children's] actions until they [the children] can make good decisions for themselves. However, even there I think the smart adult will do their best to allow the child to search out the facts and learn to make those good decisions themselves.

Invitation

That was interesting! Hope it was of some use to you all. If you should care to comment regarding your answers to the above ten ethics questions, I would love to read them. Enjoy! ;)

 

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Feb. 9th, 2017

Collie muse

Book review: "Introducing Ethics" by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt, pt. 2

(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

2) What do you think is the best answer to the question, "Why should I be a good person?"

For me, it's that doing what's right makes me feel good — because I've deliberately chosen to accept personal responsibility. I know that may not sound like much to some folks, but I'd far, far rather people do what was right because they decided to, rather than merely due to fear of some social or religious reprisal.

That form of behavioral coercion will last only so long as the fear continues. Doing good out of choice, though, means even when reprisal isn't an issue the conscious moralist will still do what is right.

As well, I was recently delighted to read of a study where the scientists proved doing the right thing truly is a nicer feeling than doing known wrong. Apparently when you do the right thing, and you know you are so doing, your brain produces chemicals which make you feel good. How nice to hear the randomness of effective evolution has produced something so beneficial for us both individually and as a species!

3) Is ethics a special kind of knowledge? If so, what sort of knowledge is it and how do we get hold of it?

I'm not sure how to define "special knowledge," so I'm not really sure how to answer this part of the question. I don't consider it, for example, "special" in the sense that it can only be discovered due to deific interference. I believe ethics are quantifiable and researchable.

In order to get hold of it, I'd recommend studying those you consider admirable and ethical, and doing research into what others throughout history have defined as ethical, in order to get a broad spectrum of definitions. Once you've got that information, you can make educated, deliberate decisions as to what ethics are for you in the here and now, and how you will implement them in your own life.

4) Is morality about obeying a set of rules or is it about thinking carefully about consequences?

The latter. Obeying a simple set of rules is just obedience and/or fear of reprisal. To be moral I think one has to both recognize the potential for immorality, and actually choose to be moral. Furthermore, a rules set can become outdated — even immoral itself — as times change.

For example, take a culture which believes patriarchal bloodlines are of critical importance in both tracing legal property transmission and ensuring the survival of all the individuals which comprise that family line. In that situation, adultery potentially cheats the bloodline, steals from the entire family, and threatens everyone's survival. Stoning adulterers (especially the women) might be the horrific type of punishment necessary to scare all women into never raising their eyes to look at any man but their husbands.

However, in a culture where family is not critical for survival, women are not the property of the family's males, and marriage is freely entered into and exited, adultery is a far less important concept. Instead of being property theft from an entire male family line and a threat to everyone's survival, it has become more simply a broken promise between two individuals. It is still wrong if it involves dishonesty, but in that situation killing someone by beating them to death with a rock seems excessive — immoral, in fact.

Therefore I conclude: morality is about thinking carefully about consequences, in order to avoid wrong actions.

5) When people say "I know murder is wrong," do they KNOW it is wrong, or just believe it very strongly?

This question brings up two questions in my mind: 1) What's the difference between "know" and "believe very strongly"? and 2) Umm… wouldn't you have to ask each person individually, in order to know for sure? ;)

More seriously, I'd guess at least initially people may believe murder is wrong because they've been taught so. However, once they've had some relevant personal life experience, such as surviving a violent physical attack or losing a loved one, they would be far more convinced of this.

6) Are there any differences between moral laws and society's laws? If there are, why is this?

Of course there are differences. A society can be no more moral than the most influential individuals of which it is comprised. If you have enough immoral individuals in a society (at least as we define immorality), its laws will reflect what they believe — and be immoral.

We know there have been and are societies which condone(d) slavery, torture, physical abuse, or other acts we now consider immoral, for example. Also, we should remember that the concept of what is moral changes depending on which society we address, and in what time period. Even in our own society, slavery once used to be considered not just normal, but religiously moral.

 

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Feb. 8th, 2017

Collie muse

Book review: "Introducing Ethics" by Dave Robinson & Chris Garratt, pt. 1

(A review written in August 2005 of a book suggested by the Philosopher's Café group I used to attend. This review, while not that enthralling, is referenced in a later and better blog I wrote on torture. Both are creepily pertinent to today's issues)

An extremely quick read with humorous cartoons on every page; this book presents ethics in a very non-threatening manner. As is the norm for the "Introducing [X]" series, a bit about the personal lives of the various philosophers is offered along with a quick slice of their beliefs.

It was nice to learn something about the private lives of these people, as I feel that helps make them a bit more memorable, and sometimes helps the reader put their writings into some understandable context.

As an example, my half-guilty liking for Marx (who is not mentioned in this book) came from learning of some of his personal beliefs, as opposed to the half-demonized, half-reified renditions which are usually taught today. That particular re-writing of history bothers me — especially since it was so immediate and annoying that the dying words of the poor man are reputed to be, "I am not a Marxist."

However, while this book does mention quite a few historical philosophers and their ethical cogitations, I found it on the whole a bit disappointing and shallow.

Admittedly, I understand this very quick over-view is going to happen of necessity in any popular culture series, let alone one titled "Introducing…" but how many folks will think that's all they need to know or learn of such enduring and complex issues? How many actually go on and do more research? I wish it were a bit clearer that these books are just suggestions on where to go to find some real studies of ethics.

All a very elitist viewpoint, I know, so to be fair I'll address the ten questions stated in the book as constants through the ages. It'll be interesting to try, and I like mental challenges. If all you're looking for is a review of this book, then that's it. If you're interested in ethics as well, please feel free to read on! ;)

The Ten Ethics Questions

  1. Are there certain kinds of acts (like torturing children) which are always wrong? If so, what are they?

The problem I have with this is context. For example, I'd hope most people would react with horror to the deliberate infliction of pain and damage on a child. However, using that definition of torture would include circumcision. I don't think circumcision is really necessary for the majority, but I know there are folks who do. Are they unethical? By their sights, no, but by mine, yes.

Also, I know of at least one case where I didn't like the torture, but I would have condoned it. A nurse I knew spoke of a medical ethics class she took with a number of burn ward nurses. An example was brought up in the class of a child with terrible burns across most of his body, who had to undergo an extremely painful procedure on a daily basis, so he'd survive.

The nurses who had to do this to the poor child were all struggling with their own personal ethics. It was easy for them initially — they were helping the boy get better, after all. However, as the days passed and they had to deal with the horror of a child who would rather the pain stop than that he survive… it became harder for them to maintain their initial certainty, in the face of screamed demands that they stop torturing him, and that they allow him to die in peace.

In that context, I'd have to modify my initial statement somewhat. The sort of act which maliciously inflicts deliberate pain and damage — i.e. they're hurting someone else because it makes them feel good to do so, and/or they want to show their power over others — that's always wrong.

So of course, then we have to cope with the self-righteous, such as those who constantly denigrate or beat their children, "for their own good." By their own lights, they're doing it because it's the ethical, right thing to do. Where to draw the line? In these cases, I use Martin Luther King's criterion: do these actions destroy human dignity? If so, they are wrong and should be stopped.

Sniping verbally at someone (even if you somehow believe that's not malicious) until you've shattered their self-confidence isn't teaching — it's destruction. It shatters human dignity. On the other hand, the nurses mentioned above struggled with their ethics because of the combination of the injured boy's pleas, and their powerful belief in his humanity.

They did not act out of malice; to them he was worth fighting for, and saving. Their difficult efforts were required to ensure his continued life and human dignity. I was glad to hear he later thanked them (even though it took him a while to get over the experience) for his survival and recovery.

So who defines "human dignity"? After all, if a culture or religion defines children or women as not yet human, then how can they have human dignity? In these cases, I prefer to err on the side of conservatism — if it could be human, or is somewhere defined as human, then let's treat it as such.

What's the worst that happens — we find out later we should have beaten someone whom we were instead kind to? Horrors. I can live with that far easier than the alternative.

So, let's answer the question precisely: acts which deliberately inflict painful damage and denigrate human dignity are wrong.

 

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Jan. 14th, 2017

Collie muse

Mansplaining nonviolence, part 2

I found myself somewhat disturbed when the older white male speaker confidently asserted that Gandhi was the first person to really codify nonviolence. Had the speaker never heard of the extensive uses of nonviolence, both interpersonal and inter-clan, by many of the indigenous peoples of North America? The Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) in particular leap to mind; as far as I know the whole point of their Confederation was to end the inter-clan violence and codify peaceful discussion as a better means of resolving conflict. This occurred well before the arrival of the colonizing whites, and the Haudenosaunee were wildly successful at it… to the point that historically much of our democratic processes are based on learnings from them. You'd think a history (I think?) teacher might want to know about the oldest, still-extant, true democracy in the world today, you know?

Puzzlingly, the speaker had previously mentioned Standing Rock as an example of the success of strategic nonviolence, noting with admiration several cases where the protestors even went to the lengths of aiding the very police and militia who were frequently violently oppressing them. Did the speaker think this was due only to the teachings of Gandhi? If so, with all due respect, he's not a very good teacher of history!

Further, I found myself disagreeing with his referring to the Standing Rock movement as concluded or "finished" – simply because the veterans had arrived. Let me be clear: I understand what he was trying to say, and I agree that once you have the culture's enforcers on your side, your cause is going to win in the long term. I also agree that it's quite likely the cops and militia at Standing Rock were and are reluctant to treat veterans the way they treated the protestors. Quite frankly the cops have clearly dehumanized the protestors to the extent that they – the people in power — were willing to lie about having used mace, tear gas, and fire hoses on the protestors… even when shown film of them doing so!

But I think the speaker (deliberately? I did point it out) missed a critical and extremely important element of this reluctance: the protestors were considered 'nonhuman' because they were predominantly women and people of color. The veterans, though… were predominantly white men. White men and their allies may be willing to viciously 'punish' those who do not conform and bow to their superiority… but equally they usually emphatically do not wish to do damage to those that look like them. The white male face is the face of power and authority to them – not the face of the criminal, the terrorist, the rebel-rouser. Frankly I think the speaker missed the forest for the trees when he tried to present this only as the cops "respecting" the veterans for their courage and service. On the other hand, it doesn't surprise me at all; I doubt the white male cops and their allies have ever really thought about their disdain and cruelty toward those who look different than they. Privilege is ordinarily invisible to the privileged.

Let's unpack one last assumption made by the speaker's conclusion that once the veterans arrived, the Standing Rock protest was finished and won. The folks who started the protest were, as I think I've stated previously, mostly people of color and women. The veterans were predominantly white men. So what does this tell us, as women gathered to learn about nonviolence for the Women's March — which is being held to protest the stated goals of the incoming president, senate, and house majority – which goals are to effectively oppress women and minorities and force them back into silence and submission? What this older white male speaker was (perhaps unwittingly) telling us was that we can protest all we'd like but it won't make a whit of difference… until the white men arrive to rescue us once more! – from yet more white men.

Fuck no. I flatly refuse that conclusion; I will not allow myself to hold such a deceitful and disempowering belief, and I will do my utmost to fight it. I've done the research! The only time women have successfully fought off male oppression and violence against women and children is when they – the women – band together in mutually supportive groups that refuse to allow the violence to occur. This is not simply one study I'm referring to, either – in case after case studies have shown that women cannot consistently depend on their relatives, or other men, or law enforcement, or even the justice system – none of that works dependably because our culture is all about white men's desires. It was, in fact, predominantly created by white men for white men. Whether it means to or not, our culture consistently ensures and enshrines the flourishing and continuance of toxic masculinity. Thus the only dependable means of stopping male violence, time after time, is women working together to make it stop.

That, however, was not the worst case of this male teacher's mansplaining. The one I remember with the most exasperation was painfully classic: towards the end of the presentation one of the many women in support roles was taking questions. One of the questions was: why does this group of supporters of nonviolence wish those who walk with them at the Women's March to all walk in silence? She was starting to answer the questioning woman… and the older white man actually walked up and cleared his throat to interrupt! When they both looked inquiringly at them, he told a story about a kid who discovered how powerful being silent in the face of aggression could be.

The truly embarrassing thing was: the story had literally almost nothing to do with anyone there! It was about one of the white male teacher's teen students – the quarterback on the school's football team – who was at a bar where someone got drunkenly aggressive with him. He remained silent throughout and, according to the teacher, found the next day that his social status had "shot through the roof – through the roof!" due to his restrained behavior.

So… the older white male demanded attention for his story and interrupted the explanation being made by a woman to another woman… so he could tell about a privileged boy athlete – to a mixed crowd of predominantly middle-aged and older women and (some) men of color. It was, frankly, embarrassing to watch.

Further, women are classically the silenced and ignored social class within patriarchal cultures. For men to tell women they must march silently is, to me, not empowering at all – it is simply re-inscribing patriarchal attitudes about the "proper" behavior of women. It felt somewhat like: "we men have decided silence is powerful – therefore you women must not speak because we cannot be upstaged whatsoever!"

So that's my impression of the talk. I was disappointed in it, but at least I got a few books and names to research later. Also, for completeness, here are the quotes I liked. The second one is an old favorite, while the third really spoke to me. As the speaker noted, the fourth is also quite applicable to today's situation as well:

"If a law in unjust a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so."
~ Thomas Jefferson

"Be the change you wish to see in the world."
~ Mohandas Gandhi

"The War on Terror is the terror."
~ James W. Douglass, Resistance & Contemplation: The Way of Liberation.

"The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant."
~ Maximilien Robespierre

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Jan. 13th, 2017

Collie muse

Mansplaining nonviolence, part 1

I will be marching in the San Jose Women's March on the 21st of January, mostly because traveling to Washington to march is financially currently beyond me. Consequently when I heard there was free nonviolence training being offered in association with the march, I eagerly signed up. Not only do I want to be prepared ahead of time for the march itself (though the police are not at all concerned that there may be violence), but also I believe learning more about nonviolence as a form of protest is an extremely valuable idea.

I went to the training yesterday. It was… interesting. Mostly. I'm glad it was free, though; had I paid for it I would have been mightily annoyed. In retrospect, I think the nonviolence training group is not actually closely associated with the march, but rather is a group which intends to participate in the march, and thus offered this free training to everyone planning on attending… in order to gain access to that extensive group of people. Apparently if they can produce 100 people wearing their characteristic scarves (which they had for sale at the talk for $10) then they'll be allowed to lead the march.

To be fair, there was a handout which gave me something new: I did not previously know about the ACLU of California phone app at www.mobilejusticeca.org which "allows users to record law enforcement in real-time, alert other users to nearby law enforcement encounters, and to submit videos and incidents to the ACLU." I particularly like that it lets you set an automatic 'turn off' on your phone after recording something — so if a belligerent person demands your phone it shuts down and they cannot simply delete the recording.

The presentation itself started with a large, nervously smiling, white man welcoming us all and making a joke: he'd told his teenaged son last night that he was going to be at the presentation on nonviolence for women attending the upcoming Women's March. His son apparently gave him a skeptical look and said, "OK, Dad… so you're going to get up and mansplain to a whole bunch of women?"

Those wacky teens, amirite? Cue laugh track.

To this man's credit, he did not actually mansplain anything – he simply introduced the older white man who was the one who mansplained to us all. This new guy was a teacher at some local school, and had his credentials read before he started the presentation. He was the only one to be so introduced, and I guess the credentials were nice enough, but honestly? I didn't care. I wasn't there to admire him – I was there to learn about nonviolence. Unfortunately even that was going to disappoint me, though I did not know it at the time.

The PowerPoint presentation started out interestingly enough. A slide pointed out how ineffective either violence, vandalism, or vulgarity is in effecting social or personal change, and there were some other slides which delineated the various types of nonviolent protest and persuasion: diplomacy, petitions, etc. The various forms of noncooperation were also noted: consumer boycotts, strikes, embargoes, social & civil disobedience, etc. There were some quotes I liked (they're at the end of this blog), and I am familiar with a book they highlighted: Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan. I'm glad they mentioned it, as the research is both fascinating and excellent – mostly due to Chenoweth apparently being a former "hawk" who was converted slowly and reluctantly via the empirical evidence to the cause of civil resistance rather than violent revolution. As the speaker noted of the book's message, the media generally never inform us of how nonviolent revolutions are twice as successful as violent ones in achieving their stated goals – and how this dramatic difference extends across both interpersonal and international situations. I guess violence is simpler and more exciting for the media to cover?

The speaker had a few slides regarding Gene Sharp's work – apparently he's considered to be sort of the father of civil disobedience — and I learned there were two types of nonviolence: strategic and principled. Both are excellent and useful tools, but apply in different situations. For example, Sharp is apparently the main proponent of strategic nonviolence, which tends to be based on "people power" and is a temporary commitment where the people withdraw their consent to be governed, in order to ensure a change in leadership. Strategic nonviolence is of value because it requires less training and discipline and leads to quicker, albeit also culturally 'shallower,' results; the 1980s Philippines is a good example of this. Gandhi, on the other hand, is most commonly associated with principled nonviolence, which aspires to more slowly change hearts and minds via deep cultural change accomplished through the Law of Redemptive Suffering and a life-long commitment to the disciplines of Satyagraha (or "truth power") and Ahimsa, or a lack of desire to harm others. A good example of its use in the US is the Civil Rights Movement.

Also, all of the above is of necessity just a quick & dirty version of complex subjects, as I was scribbling notes madly during the talk.

So pretty clearly from the above what we, the women planning on attending the Women's March, would most need to learn about would be Sharp's strategic nonviolence, right? We were, after all, a group of predominantly women – classically the social group required to manage both a job and the home, which means being always short on time — so quicker training would usually be better for us, I would think. Further, we weren't looking to change the entire democratic process here, or force sweeping cultural change. We were, as far as I could tell, just looking for a means of ensuring no violence occurs while we march to state our belief that (despite the religious convictions of all those rich arrogant old white men currently holding power) women are human too — with all the rights, privileges, and dignity which accrue to that state. Further, learning about strategic nonviolence was fine with me; I like learning new things.

Except… we then spent the next hour and a half of the two-hour presentation… being told about Mohandas Gandhi.

I will not deny the speaker's commitment to the cause; he was clearly moved several times as he watched clips from the movie Gandhi with us. However, I'm deeply unconvinced this was really the best way to teach strategic nonviolence for an upcoming, peaceful march. For example, how does watching movie examples of extreme violence perpetrated against the determinedly nonviolent help us learn about strategic nonviolence? Further, the movie was made by Western white men. Were any of Gandhi's family, close friends, or followers consulted on this (rather sanctifying) version of the man?

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Nov. 18th, 2016

Collie muse

Book Review: "A Circle of Quiet" by Madeleine L'Engle (pt. 3)

(originally published 15 November 2004)
 Still, like L'Engle, I hope we all continue learning throughout our journey of life… and I hope I have a long journey yet to go. I too want to constantly and happily relearn the importance and wonder of touch, of exploration and closeness with those you love.

I love her occasional turn of phrase, as well, as she describes wonderful creative concepts. Read this one, for example — her imagery is as lovely as her acceptance of the beauty of myth-making:

If we are not going to deny our children the darker side of life, we owe it to them to show them that there is also this wild brilliance, this light of the sun: although we cannot look at it directly, it is nevertheless by the light of the sun that we see.

If we are to turn towards the sunlight, we must also turn away from the cult of the common man and return to the uncommon man, to the hero. We all need heroes, and here again we can learn from the child's acceptance of the fact that he needs someone beyond himself to look up to.

Yes, exactly. I tend to rather agree with her belief that children's books should be good enough for adults too — censorship, no matter what the reason, is bad. As an example, I resent it when I hear a bunch of undersocialized male computer game designers consider games for women to be 'dumbed down' regular games. If it's not interesting enough for them, why would they think it would be interesting enough for anyone else? If there is no joy in the creation of an object, why would there be any joy in its consumption?

I also love her version of 'write what you know': "Our projecting from the tangible present into the 'what if' of the imagination must be within the boundaries of our own journeying." That's been my experience also, and paradoxically is one of the reasons I've stuck to intellectual speculation. Still, despite my fear that I've not had enough journeying to write believable fiction, I too believe mystery can be beautiful in and of itself.

On the other hand, I don't resent attempts to comprehend mystery — intellectual challenges are beautiful and wondrous too, after all. So I agree with her that disagreement does not necessarily equate to misunderstanding — more than once I found myself empathizing with her lovely conceptual descriptions (as with the beauty of mystery), then wincing at the examples she gave.

Conclusion

On the whole the book was interesting, if somewhat self-indulgently rambling. Unfortunately what I most got from it was mildly interested disagreement. I happen to agree "an acceptance of contradiction is no excuse for fuzzy thinking. We do have to use our minds as far as they will take us, yet acknowledging that they cannot take us all the way." Nevertheless, I think she gave up on her mind far too early.

In the end I couldn't agree with her assessment of philosophy, even as I empathized with her delight in learning. I respected her dedication to her craft, but I felt King's On Writing was a better writing tutorial. I think she'd do much better to stick to fiction, rather than books of this sort — although upon reflection, I can't really say this isn't fiction also.

Still, it is my hope she would understand I disagree without desiring to threaten, as she herself notes in a listing of elements of maturity. It's a challenge to retain the "ability to judge and dare creatively," and for that I value the book — it made me think, even if my thoughts were mainly disagreement or puzzlement.

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Nov. 17th, 2016

Collie muse

Book Review: "A Circle of Quiet" by Madeleine L'Engle (pt. 2)

(originally published 15 November 2004)
 The nature of creation & Self

On the other hand, I did admire the courage of someone willing to continue doggedly to write, even when she sold nothing whatsoever for an entire decade. I don't know if I'd have that kind of determination.

Also, some of her speculations on the nature of concentration rang true to me. I've often felt the focus of a child at play closely approximated the focus of an artist (or other unselfconscious adult) at work. Perhaps that's why it's so easy to lose yourself in activities you love — you're actually playing, not really working per se. As she notes:

The concentration of a small child at play is analogous to the concentration of the artist of any discipline. In real play, which is real concentration, the child is not only outside time, he is outside himself. He has thrown himself completely into whatever it is that he is doing. A child playing a game, … is completely in what he is doing. His self-consciousness is gone; his consciousness is wholly focused outside himself.

When we are self-conscious, we cannot be wholly aware; we must throw ourselves out first. This throwing ourselves away is the act of creativity. So, when we wholly concentrate, like a child in play, or an artist at work, then we share in the act of creating. We not only escape time, we also escape our self-conscious selves. [italics hers]

As someone who throws herself whole-heartedly into play and projects I really enjoy, I could certainly empathize with this. It would be interesting to see if any brain studies had been done on the centers of self-awareness for children and adults at play or at work they love. I've often felt really good computer programmers have this sort of fugue, or unselfconscious focus, for example.

I'm not sure, however, I entirely agree with her even here. She mentions when receiving "an overdose of praise, my conscious mind is at first startled, jolted, and then it simply swats the words away, like a fly, a biting fly: it knows such words are dangerous."

Up to here I'm with her, even though I know this self-effacement is a cultural construct taught to women in general and some artists in particular. As she herself states, it's who you are which truly makes an impression, far more than simply what you or someone else says of you.

However, when she asserts a complete lack of self is absolutely necessary to creation… she loses me. How can she say this, yet state later a lack of positive self-image is detrimental to a child? Her example is particularly sad to me, having been there myself — a teacher who simply assumes you're not bright enough to produce the work you've produced.

And yet even here she half jars you out of sympathy, and half resonates. Like her, it has been my experience also that the most compassionate, most real people are those who can transcend hubris, who understand individuality doesn't equate to self-absorption.

Yet still: if there truly is no Self whatsoever in creation, then wouldn't it logically follow the greatest works of creativity should be formed by the most selfless — for example, children at play? -and in fact, all works should be of equal value as long as they were created without Self being involved?

Further, I'm shocked at her dismissal of intellect as completely disassociated with love and art. I couldn't create without thought, even if I usually let my Self go while creating. I'm not sure she really does either, to be honest, especially after her little fictional story based on her reality.

My Self may be elsewhere during the joy of creation, but I fall back on both emotion and intellect — feeling and training — in order to create. Further, she herself states the artist must have detachment and involvement, both linked by compassion. I've always found compassion to be an intellectual exercise best expressed through emotion. To favor one over the other is to cripple the whole individual — hysterical over-emotionality is as warped and dangerous as a logic stifled of all humanity.

To state intellect is useless to creation is an assertion I find unconscionable — I've no desire to trade the beauty of truth (whether intellectually or emotionally understood) for a comforting lie, no matter how cold the truth may initially seem. Is it not, for example, simply emotional hubris to assume the universe is all about God, and God is all about me? And how is it she can deny Self in creation on the one hand, then insist creators are responsible for the effects their creations have on others?

Life, the universe, and everything

Still, it feels like her heart is in the right place. As she herself notes, "an eagerness to believe ill of others in order to feel virtuous oneself is to some extent in all of us." I may disagree with her on some subjects, but that doesn't make me (or her) right. I'd love to have a long discussion with her, to find out if I'm misinterpreting her writings.

Furthermore, I think she puts her finger right on the essence of starting a good story or myth: "In a good story we find out very quickly about the hero the things we want to know about ourselves." Admittedly, she doesn't really do that in this book, but there are indeed gems there to find.

For example, I agree parenthood is a responsibility which cannot be abdicated simply due to fear of being disliked by one's offspring, or the desire for simple, 'feel-good' solutions to complex issues. I have emphatic agreement also regarding abandonment of the dying lessening the still-living, and how death is as much a fearful terror as a wondrous, great adventure.

Like her, I also try to live my life embodying the belief in the small, unremembered acts of kindness being more important than impersonal, generalized, public charities. Harder still is the attempt she mentions to not exclude those who've hurt me. To be honest, I don't think I'm as loving about that as she seems to be.

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

Nov. 16th, 2016

Collie muse

Book Review: "A Circle of Quiet" by Madeleine L'Engle (pt. 1)

(originally published 15 November 2004)
I came to this book with great expectations. Perhaps if I'd not loved A Wrinkle in Time so much, or hadn't been informed this book was a fabulous exploration of the wisdom of the maturing woman, I wouldn't have felt quite so much vague disappointment later.

Unfortunately, I did; I don't feel the book lived up to that glowing assessment, especially since I know mature women who truly are wise.

Beauty is truth, not terror

There were a couple of things L'Engle wrote of which I simply couldn't fathom. For example, her stated initial atheism fades over time into a sort of uncritical, dewy-eyed worshipfulness of "god," and I couldn't figure out why. Was this part of her life journey? If so, I must respectfully put forth that mature wisdom does not automatically equate to uncritical acceptance of comforting myth.

As she notes in the book, she apparently defines the possibility of life as "cosmic accident" as being untenable, since that'd mean it was nothing more than "everything's a bad joke." I'm not sure why our being a cosmic accident is necessarily a bad joke, though. Doesn't that make it all the more wonderful, all the more precious, that due to — perhaps in spite of — the "wild unpredictability of the universe" we are indeed here? Shouldn't it nudge us more closely to a true reverence of the beauty and mystery of life?

Another expression of L'Engle's puzzling conversion to uncritical acceptance of the existence of "god" is her mentioning Sartre as being depressed by the "'is'ness of an oak" — that he somehow feels it diminishes him to realize the oak will exist and continue to be, even should he not be.

I admit, I find his attitude as puzzling as hers, which is stated as: "the perfect 'is'ness would be frightening without the hope of God." Why? 'Is'ness just is. It is beautiful in and of itself. Why must she lessen or cheapen this extraordinary miracle of chance and being, by ascribing it to a human deity? She goes on to say:

Man is; it matters to him; this is terrifying unless it matters to God, too, because this is the only possible reason we can matter to ourselves: not because we are sufficient unto ourselves — I am not: my husband, my family, my friends give me my meaning and, in a sense, my being, so that I know that I, like the burning bush, or the oak tree, am ontological: essential: real.

Again, why? She almost seems on the right track (at least as I see it) with the necessity of human interaction and caring — and then suddenly, there's that need for a watchful father again. Why can't the caring, the mattering of those dear to us suffice? What's wrong with a simple joy in existence, within the ontological beauty of here and now?

The oak doesn't need some deity's "mattering" any more than it needs ours. Might we learn something from this? Isn't it rather shortsighted to assume the oak needs our benevolent over-lordship? -as shortsighted as assuming we ourselves need a big daddy beaming paternally over us too? Is this nothing more than a childlike need to be important and cared for by something bigger than ourselves — to self-justify our own delusional importance in the universe?

Furthermore, why be terrified of the wonder of the universe? Why not marvel incredulously at it? Why this peculiar need to assume someone who manages it is also managing us? As a simple example, I find it hard to believe a deity which created wonders as vast as the wide-flung galaxies, and as mind-bogglingly complex and tiny as the unfathomable energy powerhouses we find in mitochondria — is carefully glaring at us, to be sure we don't have sex until the appropriately dressed priest-guy waves the starter flag of marriage over us! Why can't we and the universe just "be," the same way the old oak just "is"?

Fiction or fib?

I also found some of her writing quite disconcerting. At one point she writes for several pages of an incident in the tiny, insular New England town she lives in. It's heart-wrenching — the sneering between the newer "touristy" arrivals and the "old guard" may be bad, but when the house of one of the newcomers burns, one of the old guard harms himself in a heroic rescue of the children.

And then, just as you're feeling warm and touched by how human kindness triumphs… she tells you the whole story is a fake. She goes on to describe how less dramatic incidents from her actual life informed the story, but assures her readers the heroic rescue, while indeed fictional, would surely have occurred given a chance to do so.

I admit, there was a strong feeling almost of betrayal at finding the whole thing was made up. I would not have minded half so much had she not said from the very beginning she was going to conduct a writing exercise — but unfortunately she did not do so. If she was trying to show up her readers as being as uncritically accepting of her writing as she appeared to be of god, then she certainly succeeded with this reader… but I didn't believe her again past that point.

The whole thing had an extremely unfortunate dampening effect on my enjoyment of the rest of the book. I found myself mentally reviewing what I'd read so far, wondering where else she'd been deceptive as well; and repeatedly reminding myself she was probably not being entirely truthful in her (theoretically) autobiographical writing.

This had the additional effect of making me no longer believe her assertions. For example, she refers repeatedly to writing in her journals (both incidents in her life and fictional snippets), and of going back to them to support assertions she made to her family or friends about this or that. Also, and perhaps unsurprisingly, no one else was ever, ever allowed to touch the journals. Consequently, I found myself feeling sorry for those people fooled by her, due to her insisting what she'd written was truthful.

I wonder if she even realized what she was doing. Did it make her feel more special somehow? She does mention that as desperately necessary for individuals. Still, I feel memory is fallible enough as it is, without her baseless assertion that writers easily have total recall, followed by her writing down fiction and passing it off as fact.

Does she not realize this cheapens truly valuable statements such as, "We must make it evident that maturity is the fulfillment of childhood and adolescence, not a diminishing; that it is an affirmation of life, not a denial; that it is entering fully into our essential selves"? I find that a laudable goal, but when it's mixed in with existential nonsense and deliberate story-telling (I'm not sure it can really be labeled lying) then it's hard to find the jewels for the dross.

Originally published at Collie's Bestiary. You can comment here or there.

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