Does nature really abhor a straight line?

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When you see a hill, a tree, a shimmering blue lake, what’s the first thing to cross your mind? Do you think:

“Damn, that’s pretty.”

Or is it more like:

“That would look better with a Starbucks.”

Who was the first person to look at a grove of trees swaying in the breeze, cock her head to one side, and see them in her mind’s eye, stripped of leaves and stacked six feet high to create a wall, a hut, a house?

Who was the first person to look at a crossroad and envision a stop sign, giving birth to order and disorder and lawyers in one fell swoop?

Who was the first person to imagine a strip mall, and did it look as bland and cheap to him as it does to us now?

What I’m really asking is: are humans naturally disposed toward order? And if so, is that a unique trait, or are bird nests and dolphin pods just variations on a theme? Is it just opposable digits that helped us dominate landscapes, or is it something deeper, an innate need to categorize people into neighborhoods, cities, countries, to shoehorn knowledge into words, papers, books?

Or, put another way: does nature really abhor a straight line, and if it does, does that make us unnatural?

(Inspired by a quote I read somewhere–possibly in Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky, but don’t hold me to it–that could be paraphrased as, “An ordered life is one that wasn’t lived”. Or maybe, “An ordered life suggests that you were preparing for death all along”. Either way, it was striking.)

HIV named 30 years ago

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Sunday was an important day, and I missed it. It was the 30th birthday of the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

Not the virus itself, obviously, which had been around for decades. Just the name.

That chronology of thing-first/name-second reminds me of the history of homosexuality, which seems apropos. Same-sex attraction had been common since the dawn of time but was only given a name in the late 19th century. Then it became something that could be dissected, discussed, treated. It became a legitimate, identifiable threat to mainstream straight folks, not like the vague sin of “sodomy” that anyone was guilty of committing.

I digress.

On May 1, 1986, the journal Nature published a letter from a team of researchers struggling to come up with a name for the virus that causes AIDS (which went through its own nomenclature crisis and was once known by the charming acronym GRID, or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency Disease). The virus had been identified by researchers three years earlier, but it took them until 1986 to prove that it was the cause of AIDS. And thus, they needed a name.

The letter was entitled “What to call the AIDS virus?”, and it listed seven issues related to their decision to go with “HIV”. Among the more interesting was issue #2:

(2) Though the name should clearly link the viruses to the disease with which they are associated, it should not incorporate the term “AIDS”, which many clinicians urged us to avoid.

The scientists didn’t bother to explain why they were urged to avoid referencing AIDS in the virus’ name. Was there uncertainty in the scientific community about the link between HIV and AIDS? There still is today, though not among reputable scientists. Or were the clinicians trying to distinguish between AIDS-related opportunistic infections that already had perfectly good names like encephalopathy and Kaposi’s sarcoma and the virus that opened the door to those infections?

Maybe I’m being nice, maybe I’m being too naive about the heterosexism and homophobia that ran rampant in the medical community of the day, but I choose to believe the latter.

Anyway, happy birthday, HIV. Here’s hoping that you live to see very, very few more, you little, microscopic asshole.

Transphobic ‘bathroom bills’ reveal what’s on men’s minds (and it’s not good)

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Most of the opinion pieces I’ve read about America’s current spate of transphobic “bathroom bills” employ the same handful of criticisms. To wit:

  • The laws discriminate against an already-marginalized group.
  • The laws are especially harmful to young people coming to grips with their own trans identities.
  • Forcing trans men and trans women to visit restrooms that align with the sex they were assigned on their birth certificates invites more confusion than legislators have bargained for.
  • There are no documented cases of anyone ever misusing trans-friendly bathroom policies to harass women.

And less frequently:

  • These hateful pieces of legislation do nothing to strengthen sexual assault laws. Sexual assault was, is, and will remain illegal, no matter where it takes place. If right-wing legislators really want to protect people against predators, there are far more effective ways to go about it than targeting trans people.

All important points, to be sure.

But what I find weird and, frankly, downright offensive in these discussions is the appalling, retro stereotypes they perpetuate. The proponents of these bills/laws are usually men, who talk about women as if (a) they weren’t in the room, and (b) they were completely incapable of identifying and defending themselves against sexual predators.

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Jonno and me, 15+ years into our relationship, on our second 'official' anniversary, at the top of Provincetown's Pilgrim MonumentThe first anniversary is always the most important. After that, we think in multiples of five. Five, ten, 25, 50, 75: those are the anniversaries that get noticed. Those are the ones we celebrate or mourn.

I can’t be certain why that is, but I’d guess that after a while, the process of remembering becomes too taxing. It requires too much effort to get worked up by something that happened so long ago: a marriage, a death, the founding of a nation, a natural disaster. It’s all in the past, right? There’s no need to pull out the confetti or the photo that makes you cry every single year.

But of course, if you don’t mark every anniversary, if you let them slip by, they become less important. The events they commemorate become vague in our memories. They people those events have touched become forgotten, overlooked.

As of today, Jonno and I have been together 19 years. I admit, we’re not planning a blow-out celebration (not that we ever do, honestly). I don’t think we’ve even bought each other gifts. But I’ll do my best to spend the day thinking about him and not taking him for granted.

Happy Valentine’s Day, From Neil deGrasse Tyson

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You know the tradition of ending fortune cookie maxims with “in bed”? Try doing the same with this one.

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

— Neil deGrasse Tyson

Once again, courtesy of Brick’s not-so-work-friendly blog.

Last Meal

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Tomorrow, or the day after, or 50 years from now, you will have your last meal. I will, too.

I just hope I don’t see it coming.

I hope the last meal sneaks up on me like a stranger in a bar: an unexpected thing, perhaps good, perhaps bad, perhaps completely forgettable. Most of all, I hope my last meal doesn’t seem like a last meal.

It’s not the “last” part that bothers me. I don’t mind the thought of death, the muscles of my jaw going taut, drawing my mouth permanently closed, preventing me from taking another bite. I don’t mind the thought of my tongue rotting away, tastebuds unused and withering. I don’t mind staring at the end: as long as I can say a few goodbyes, I’ll be able to eat, no problem. Then again, as my waistline will tell you, that’s never been a problem.

No, it’s not the “last” part of the last meal that’s tricky. It’s the meal itself.

For a vegan — even a casual one — I’m notoriously nonchalant about my eating habits. I’m not picky, and I don’t require variety. I could eat the same thing for breakfast, lunch, and dinner all year long. Maybe longer.

For a meal to be a last meal would make it seem significant, and I’m terrible when it comes to legitimately significant things: birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, funerals. To imbue a meal with significance — a simple plate of food? I’d be paralyzed.

How would I choose? What would I choose? Would I go light, so I could face my end comfortably? Would I go heavy and gluttonous with a big blowout? Would I throw ethics to the wind and wrap it all up with a steak and a cigarette? The most likely options include:

  • Tomato sandwiches
  • Mac and cheese
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Gumbo (vegan, prepared by my husband)
  • Ziti (baked, also prepared by my husband)
  • A giant bowl of Vietnamese bún with lemongrass tofu from Tan Dinh
  • My grandmother’s blueberry cobbler (which would require some work with a spiritual advisor, since she’s been gone for nearly 30 years, and no one bothered to write down her recipes)

But who the hell knows? Faced with so many choices, I’d probably just forego the meal and meet death on an empty stomach.

I Wrote A Book For Casual Vegans Like Me

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casually vegan FINAL3A couple of years ago, I wrote a series of posts about my own, casual approach to veganism. Recently, I went back to those posts, trimmed a bit here, expanded a little there, and voila: it’s now a book called Casually Vegan: A Beginner’s Guide to Imperfection.

I did it for a couple of reasons. First, I’d never published an e-book, and I wanted to see how difficult the process was. (As it turns out, walking and chewing gum is harder.)

But more importantly, in my own small way, I wanted to help change the dialogue around veganism. As with any system of beliefs or practices, there are lots of self-righteous vegans out there, and plenty of revering and shaming going on: “Oh, she’s not vegan, her luggage has leather tags.” Or, “I’m a really good vegan: I’d never touch yeast.”

That drives me nuts because we’re all humans, and we have a limitless capacity for screwing up. Also, even if we could agree on what a “perfect” vegan might be, it’s impossible for anyone living in the 21st century to be one. You’re going to take a cab or fly on a plane with leather seats, you’re going to find yourself at a dinner party and mid-way through realize that the host used chicken broth in the lentils.

Rather than playing the more-vegan-than-thou game, I think we’d do better to acknowledge our missteps — maybe even laugh at them — and use them to figure out where the edge of the path lies. It sounds hippy-dippy, I know, but I firmly believe you learn far more from failure than from success.

And last but not least, I think that some vegans go so far in their quest to minimize harm to animals that they forget humans are animals, too. Caring for animals and caring for humans aren’t mutually exclusive. They’re not even different sides of the same coin. They’re the same side of the same coin.

Bottom line: maybe it’s better to eat a slice of that cake that your grandmother made with butter and eggs than to turn your nose up and accuse her of being Hitler 2.0. You’ll make her happy, and you’ll still be doing more than many people to make the world a kinder, gentler place.

Anyway, if you want a copy of the book for yourself or you need a quick holiday gift, it’s a whopping $2.99 on Amazon.

Atheist Aesthetic

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“After sleeping through a hundred million centuries we have finally opened our eyes on a sumptuous planet, sparkling with color, bountiful with life. Within decades we must close our eyes again. Isn’t it a noble, an enlightened way of spending our brief time in the sun, to work at understanding the universe and how we have come to wake up in it? This is how I answer when I am asked—as I am surprisingly often—why I bother to get up in the mornings.”

— Richard Dawkins

Quote via my friend Brick’s very sexy, thoughtful, work-unfriendly blog.

Magnification

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Sex therapists are fond of saying that size isn’t everything. They’re right: size isn’t everything. Size is the only thing.

Seeing the world through your everyday eyes, at 1x magnification, you take it all for granted:

  • The dust in the utility room that never goes away.
  • The dingy white baseboards, peeling and cracked.
  • The armchair you pilfered from your parents for your first apartment and never returned.
  • The book of mediocre photography that an ex-boyfriend gave you two weeks after you’d met, five months before you broke up.
  • The people at work, on the sidewalk, in your bed, who circle you like electrons, reliably invisible.

Every time you see these, your eyes slather them in a thin layer of varnish. Every time, they become fuzzier, until the world looks like the edges of a Doris Day movie: vague, shadowy, unremarkable.

But zoom in and observe the magnificent horror of the dust mite under an electron microscope, the chaotic fibers that make up the pages of every book on every shelf in every house. The arms of that chair, at very close range, reveal long-dead cells of trees — trees that might’ve lived for centuries, and could’ve lived for centuries more if some average-looking lumberjack hadn’t risen from his breakfast table and decided, screw the sickness he could feel coming on, screw the allergies and the lack of sleep, he was going in to work that day because he needed money for rent, food, his wife, a baby crib, some meds. Witness the skin of your lover, constantly shedding, renewing itself, as if he is saying, “I’m remaking myself for you”.

Or zoom out, see your house from 10,000 feet, as the roof that badly needs patching joins a patchwork of roofs, the crazy quilt of your block, with highlights of blue swimming pools, green oaks, little red Corvettes. Go higher, until all you see is the lights of your street snaking their way to the edge of the city, then zig-zagging around hills, beside rivers, across dirt roads that dead-end like faint capillaries overwhelmed by trees.

Higher still, the picture is obliterated by clouds, feathers of moisture that will eventually fall on your roof and perhaps leak into the attic, onto the old steamer trunk you bought at Goodwill a decade ago, stuffed with high school memorabilia, and will never look at again. Float farther out, and farther still, until the blue marble becomes just another reflection of the sun in a universe of bodies creating and reflecting light, playing catch with luminescence across billions and trillions of airless miles.

And somewhere out there, in some cozy corner of the dark, is a couple caught in the first blush of love, looking up at the sky, our planet, your house, sharing secrets, exchanging alien kisses, weeping alien tears beside a methane sea because they have not yet begun to ignore one another and realize that it is all overwhelmingly beautiful.

World AIDS Day Reminder: It’s The Stigma, Stupid

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AIDS and the virus that causes it have been around for at least a century. But in 1981, the syndrome that was first called GRID, or Gay-Related Immunodeficiency, began affecting large numbers of people in the West — specifically, white, middle-class people. Soon, it was dubbed a “global phenomenon”.

Today, more than 34 years after its first mention in the New York Times, some scientists are still trying to identify the origins of AIDS. I’m sure they have good reasons for doing so, but to me, it seems like a waste of time, energy, and money. In my decidedly non-scientific view, searching for the source of AIDS is little more than an encouragement to point fingers. Communities always want to blame disease on outsiders; once we can definitively say where AIDS and HIV “come from”, we can say, “It’s not our fault, it’s theirs”. In the process, we remove ourselves from the obligation of doing anything about it.

The actual science of AIDS is far more important, and it’s something we know much more about. With every passing month, we uncover new details about how HIV works, how it evolves in the human body, how it’s transmitted from cell to cell. We also learn its weaknesses.

Over time, such discoveries have made HIV a chronic, manageable disease. If you’re HIV-positive and take your meds, you can live as long as your HIV-negative peers. (Granted, access to those meds isn’t always easy, but it’s getting easier.) Once your viral load is suppressed, it’s also nearly impossible for you to pass the virus to others.

What’s not manageable, what hasn’t evolved over the past three decades, has been the stigma surrounding HIV. As you can see in the video above, HIV-positive people are still called sluts, still told that they “deserved” to contract HIV, that they’re vile, diseased, unlovable.

That’s not just mean-spirited. It directly contributes to the spread of HIV. Stigma scares people from getting tested, and it prevents sexual partners from speaking honestly with one another about HIV status.

So, next time you’re skimming through Grindr or Scruff or Growlr, take a good, long look at some of the profiles there. Guys who describe themselves as some variation of “clean” are probably dicks (and not just because they are what they eat). Guys who say that they’re on PrEP or poz or undetectable are a far better bet. At least they’re willing to talk, and I don’t know about you, but nothing turns me on quite like chatter.