Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A Graph of the Heart

As my hometown just won a major sporting event, I'm moved to write about kinesthetic motor intelligence, or the use of information through the sense of touch, muscles, balance, and movement to learn about the world.

It's not a subject I see written about or discussed frequently among Humanist communities where there are lots of sweat pants and not much s
weat. This probably helps explain why I didn't even know the Phillies were in the World Series until a week ago. Humanists tend to value intellectualism, especially scientific inquiry, philosophical skepticism, and general curiosity about the natural world. But what about the personal knowledge which can be gained through the experience of shaping our physical bodies? Humanists tend to value camaraderie built on shared social concerns. But what about the value of sportsmanship and the ecstasy of physical engagement? Perhaps many Humanists undervalue sports and other physical activities because we long to balance out the over-embrace of sports (often to the degree of cult-like fanaticism) alongside anti-intellectualism in mainstream American culture.

A few years ago, the Matrix movies inspired the creation of The Animatrix, a collection of nine short animated films set in the fictional Matrix world. One, "World Record," caught my attention in particular.
It featured a champion track runner, Dan Davis, who escapes the virtual reality of the Matrix through sheer kinesthetic motor intelligence. In an intense race, understanding of how his body works, its strength, speed, and in pushing it to its limits, Davis rips away the sham of the virtual world. When he suddenly awakens in the "real world" he is shocked, frightened, and confused, and I felt a deep sense of compassion, realizing that on top of having no literal concept of what he had achieved, in the "real world" his olympian muscles were atrophied and left him at the mercy of the machines. Yes, I know, the lesson is an oldie in the realm of science fiction - but a goodie!

I once dated a computer programmer who bragged about his rejection of exercise. Ironically, he later dated a woman who was so athletic that he, too, came to love biking and other physical activities long after that relationship dissolved.

People get physical for all sorts of personal reasons. My brother Geoff originally got involved with exercise and weight training to be more competitive on his high school wrestling team. As match day came closer, he'd fast and run in a garbage bag to knock off as many pounds as possible for the weigh-in. Later Geoff developed aspirations to become an actor, an unforgiving profession which requires constant physical maintenance and control. Over the years Geoff has become increasingly sophisticated about both his diet and body sculpting. Many of his former classmates didn't even recognize him at his ten year high school reunion and remarked that he had "changed the most" in his appearance. Geoff currently does an hour and a half of yoga a day and bikes wherever he can. His passion for yoga even inspired a side career, working toward certification in Budokonyoga with founder Cameron Shayne (pictured below engaged in Zen meditation.)

Two guy friends of mine both got involved in weight training to bulk up their naturally slim physiques. Just as too much fat is deemed unattractive by conventional standards of beauty, being too skinny - particularly in men - is considered undesirable.

My dad used to walk constantly, to the point of benefiting from the high of endorphins that physical activity releases. Years ago when he was a smoker, he'd manage to quit for short spurts of time by walking half a day's journey to his brother's house, spending the night, then walking back home the next day. The intensity of such extensive walk would actually take away his cigarette cravings for the following three weeks! Today my dad insists that walking is not enough. Just as his marathon walks didn't help him quit nicotene permanently (years of weaning himself off with chewing tobacco and then nicorette gum did that,) his walks weren't enough to ward off heart disease. After bypass surgury, my dad has become the model of physical health. His 10% fat vegan diet and morning workouts at the recreation center are treated with religious devotion.

I never had great coordination, but I was naturally thin, so in high school I ran track and cross country. I hated competition, but enjoyed the energy a good run would give me that lasted the rest of the day. The continued jogging for years after high school, until at the age of 23 I developed plantar faciitus. Plantar faciitus is the most common cause of foot pain. It involves an inflammation of a ligament which stretches across the arch of one's feet. Mine is probably caused by high arches which caught up to me as I slowly gained weight with age. At first I went into denial about the pain, continuing to run and making the problem worse. Eventually it got bad enough that I had to quit regular jogging for good, but after several years I've learned to manage and prevent the pain through simple exercises, good shoes, and a night brace. Losing my ability to run lead to years of foregoing regular exercise, which for the most part didn't matter since I, like my father, always walked a lot. But after graduate school, I got a job commuting. I gained fifteen pounds, suffered from frequent migraines, and became generally miserable about my body. I made a lot of excuses about why I couldn't exercise, but eventually my excuses ran out. It has taken a while to get into a consistent routine, but I've finally found a nice mix of biking instead of driving whenever possible, and doing regular pilates and some yoga.

My journey toward a regular exercise routine really took off with exercise videos. My brother recommended a yoga instructor, but that didn't work out. I'm not a huge fan of yoga. I become easily bored and frustrated with long poses. To be honest, most of the videos I've tried have ended with me shouting obscenities at the screen and deleting them from my Netflix cue within the first twenty minutes. What can I say, I'm picky. But I've found one instructor I like a lot.

Instructor Ellen Barrett(pictured here) did a series of videos through the NYC fitness center Crunch. My favorites are Fat Burning Pilates, Super SlimDown, and Burn and Firm, and I couldn't tell you how many times I've watched each one - each at least once a week for the past three months, with no sign of boredom. I've lost the fifteen pounds I gained the last two years, and much to my joy and relief, am no longer commuting.

Obviously everyone has to find their own comfort zone with physical activity. We're not all shaped the same way, and we all have our own limitations. Just as I found myself cursing at videos of the yoga instructor my brother adored, I'm sure many would find Ellen Barrett's classes corny, or a real bore. One friend of mine who happens to be heavy told me about a yoga class uniquely tailored for overweight people that she enjoyed.

The coolest part of biking, pilates and yoga for me is that I find myself flexing muscles that before I wasn't even aware of. I'll be rubbing a print and realize that I'm toning my abs, or walking up steps and feel the strength I've gained in certain leg muscles. It reminds me of when I learned something in math class as a kid, and then suddenly had an opportunity to use what I learned in real life. Indeed there is knowledge to be gained through exercise; the term "kinesthetic motor
intelligence" makes a lot of sense. It is my hope that the type of knowledge I gain from all this physical activity will help me deal better and even conquer some of my fears of pregnancy.

Of course what anyone gains from intense physical engagement is quite personal. Experiences can be described, but not shared. As in art, opposed to math, the emotional connection to physical activity is penetrating. If I wake up sad but have to bike an hour downtown and then back again, my mood is elevated and I go to bed at night content and happier to be alive. The dancer and choreographer Martha Graham wrote, "Every dance is a kind of fever chart, a graph of the heart." May we all recognize the joy and necessity of dancing every day.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Universality of Blue Skies and War

This month my Humanist group's movie night featured Michael Moore's latest film:Slacker Uprising. The documentary follows Moore's tour to energize the young and politically apathetic to vote for John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election. It is mostly a series of speeches and musical performances by Moore and other celebrities who participated in his tour's rallies.

I was most moved by Joan Baez singing "Finlandia" not least of all because she said the song was the Finnish National Anthem, and yet the lyrics talk of how the skies in other lands are as blue as in "my land" and then goes on to wish for peace in and between all nations.

Alas, Baez got it wrong. I did a search for "lyrics Finland national anthem" and kept finding a song with completely different lyrics. I then found this comment about the performance on YouTube:
Hate to put a damper on a touching performance, but not only is "Finlandia" not the national anthem of Finland, its original Finnish lyrics are in fact made up of very traditional patriotic sentiments of a small nation's struggle against tyranny.

Joan Baez is in fact singing a Methodist hymn composed to the same tune. Even us Finns can only dream of saluting our country with such universal sentiments of solidarity and peace between nations.
This disappointment aside, I contemplated the lyrics of the USA's national anthem - a beautifully-worded poem about war. Beautifully-worded poems about war are a lot like beautifully-painted art about war: they romanticize and glorify that which should never be romanticized or glorified.

Washington Crosses the Delaware byEmanuel Leautze

Ever come across the entire lyrics of Star Spangled Banner? Check 'em out. Throughout the poem, there's images of death: havoc, blood, gloom, grave. And yet these are intermingled with the ever-present and triumphant image of the waving flag (victory not only justifies the carnage, it exalts it), and the reassuring message that a Higher Power wanted the new nation to triumph and thus made it so. We end with:
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: "In God is our trust":
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wa
O'er the land of the free an
d the home of the brave.
How reckless and arrogant must people be to assume not only that a just God favors their nation over others, but that this favoritism justifies one of the worst of man-made horrors: war.

Paintings which glorify war often do the same. They present the "good guys" in a way which makes them seem supernaturally fated in their struggle (note the glowing light around Washington as he towers above his companions) and even when there is the depiction of dead or mutilated bodies, they are prettied-up caricatures, which distance us from the disturbing realities of war violence.

Thank goodness more contemporary artists such as Francisco Goya and John Singer Sargent, and countless journalistic photographers, broke from this absurd and harmful tradition by presenting images of war as the gruesome and frightful reality that they are.

Francisco Goya,
Los Fusilamentos del 3 de mayo en Madrid

Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Harvest of Death

John Singer Sargent, Gassed

As I contemplate the lyrics of my own country's national anthem, I can't help be reminded of other songs about America, and wonder if there aren't some far more appropriate than a big glorification of war and claim that God is firmly on our side for an official national anthem.

Probably the most popular is "America the Beautiful" (sung amazingly by Ray Charles.) This song, like our anthem, has a lot of beautifully-worded and descriptive poetry, but instead of being about war, it is about the landscape. And while it does mention God, at least it doesn't assume God is on America's side, but rather, it asks for blessings. Sadly, if you look at its lyrics in their entirety, not only is the song largely a prayer (not exactly a choice anthem for the most religiously diverse nation in the world - including 15% nonreligious - and the first to establish church-state separation,) but at some point it, too, romanticizes the Revolutionary War as little more than a glorious battle between victims and tyrants:
O beautiful for glory-tale
Of liberating strife
When once and twice,
for man's avail
Men lavished precious life!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain
The banner of the free!

Whether the Revolutionary War caused more good or ill, war is never something to celebrate, and the circumstances of war are never so purely noble, or black and white.

Back to the movie. For a liberal like me who is depressed-to-the-point-of-feeling-numb by the longterm negative impact the Bush administration's War on Terror and Iraq, watching
Slacker Uprising was more bitter than sweet. I went door to door for MoveOn in 2004 and spent all day at the polls. When I saw Philly carrying Pennsylvania for Kerry, I rejoiced and truly believed he would win. The loss just put me in a state of emotional deadness, which is how a lot of political apathy starts.

Michael Moore must have a clear understanding of the apathetic, because as the film came to a close, all those speeches and musical performances had actually got me to feel again. As if Kerry were losing the election all over again, for the first time I felt tears start to whell up in my eyes. Worse yet, while I felt sad, I also felt helpless and hopeless, and it was just at that moment that Moore ordered his audience to buck up, and with a smile on his face said,"There's no crying in politics!"

If only that were true.

But hey, even if it isn't true, hearing that made me smile instead of cry. And I signed up today to work the streets on election day. Whether there is crying in politics or not, there should always be hope.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Read to your kids about gay penguins for banned book week

A few months ago I discovered a book while browsing the children's section of a local book store. The title was And Tango Makes Three. The cover featured a delightful watercolor illustration of a family of penguins.

I picked it up and read it, perhaps because I'd recently seen and loved the movie Happy Feet, and was quickly struck by two surprises: first, that the penguin parents on the cover were two male penguins, and that the story - about their pairing-for-life and eventually "adopting" a needy egg - actually happened at the New York City's Central Park Zoo.

I found both the writing of the story and the illustrations so adorable that the book stayed in my mind. I added it to my wish list, with the intention to purchase once we have children, or perhaps to buy as a gift for the children of friends. And when I started this blog I figured that I would write about it, but hadn't yet found a relevant context to bring it up. Then, this week on Radio Times (10/3/08, hour 2), in honor of the American Library Association's Banned Book Week, I caught Marty Moss-Coane mentioning this title in a list of books which have been either "banned or challenged" in public libraries.

I should expect that a children's book about a healthy, functional family involving a gay couple would raised criticism from social conservatives, but I couldn't help feeling outraged. First of all, this story wasn't made up in some contrived fashion - it really happened. Second, everyone, including kids, should know that homosexual behavior happens in the animal kingdom. It's just a biological fact for goodness's sake! And third, it is a sweet story about the spirit of family. The story is relateable to anyone with has not only homosexuality, but adoption, or any other unconventional grouping, such as a live-in grandparent or close friend in their household. In other words, this book is about what makes family a good and important thing: behaving in a loving way toward each other.

Social conservatives criticized Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials for being anti-Catholic, but I just read it, and I find these critics lacking in imagination and artistic sense. The triology obviously uses a lot of the tone, imagery, and terminology from the history of Catholicism to address the abuse of innocents. While I read certain portions of the book, I found myself thinking of child soldiers and human trafficking. The abduction of poor children from the streets by the "Gobblers" reminded me of a segment I heard on the radio last year about a group of Muslim extremists in Iraq who would desensitize new recruits by making them kidnap children who sell wares in the subway and then murder them. Children are among the most vulnerable in our population, and so they have always been victims. The abused in Pullman's trilogy could represent people from any culture or time in human history. Why did Pullman use Catholicism? Oh, gee, maybe because in the church's history it has often abused its power (just like most powerful institutions in history.) And all those elaborate costumes, titles, and rituals which just makes it perfect for fantasy fiction writing. Not to mention that when we recognize bits of our own world in speculative fiction, it makes the story more real for us.

I find myself thinking back to when the art exhibition Sensation was exhibited in New York City, and the outcry from Mayor Guiliani and other Catholics about Chris Ofili's Madonna:
One of his paintings, The Holy Virgin Mary, a depiction (portrait) of the Virgin Mary, was at issue in a lawsuit between the mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art"Sensation" exhibit. The painting depicted a black African Mary surrounded by images from blaxploitation movies and close-ups of female genitalia cut from pornographic magazines, and elephant dung. These were formed into shapes reminiscent of the cherubim and seraphim commonly depicted in images of the Immaculate conception and the Assumption of Mary. Following the scandal surrounding this painting, Bernard Goldberg ranked Ofili #86 in 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America. Red Grooms showed his support of the artist by purchasing one of Ofili's paintings in 1999, even after Giuliani famously exclaimed, “There’s nothing in the First Amendment that supports horrible and disgusting projects!”
Ofili is of Nigerian decent, and in Nigeria elephant dung is regularly used in religious artwork and other ritualistic objects. In an interview, Ofili mentioned being raised Catholic and how the emphasis on Mary being a virgin made her a sexually charged figure for him, especially when he would go to museums and see painted versions of the Madonna (often of models who had slept with the painters who depicted them.) In this context, Ofili's paintings aren't offensive; they make genuinely unique and thoughtful observations about how some people come to understand religious icons through a subjective point of view.

But more important than this background info on Ofili's ethnicity and what he says about his own work is the work itself. So here, look. Does this look like something made to be blatantly offensive to Catholics? (The elephant dung, btw, are the 3D pieces on the bottom and the stone on her necklace chain, not that anyone would know that if they weren't told.)

Just as the gay dad penguins in And Tango Makes Three are a part of the story discovered along the way, the pornographic imagery and decorative use of the dung are parts of an image that tell a much greater story with a much more broad and nuanced meaning.

What is with the lack of imagination on the part of so many social conservatives? Do they just not understand what fiction and art are and do? They need to stop censoring what kids see and grow up themselves.