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Saturday, 27 October 2007

The Proscenium Arch

I had a sweet singing voice as a kid -- the sort of accurate tunefulness that you don't necessarily expect to hear from a child, and a cute, wistful sense of feeling, you know the type. Oh, my pleased, proud parents! When Mum was a kid, she always wished she could sing. Her father (not a particularly nice man) told her not to be stupid, she couldn't possibly be any good at anything like that. As for my father, he loves to sing. Unfortunately he can't sing for too long without his voice getting hoarse, because he damaged his throat when I was still a baby with a few too many late nights of singing at his regular restaurant slot.

My father in particular was always very keen for me to sing with him. If he couldn't sing as much as he'd like, at least he could play the guitar for me. And thus it was that I ended up singing for grandmothers, aunts, uncles, godparents, family friends, the occasional work colleague or graduate student of my father's, and, really, all and sundry who passed through our house.

The first time my father suggested I sing for some family members, I balked. Squirming, I got up and tried to sing, only to duck away shyly. I didn't dare thus set myself up as worth listening to, and leave myself exposed to evaluation of the implicit claim. I didn't want to have to watch their real-time reaction, right there in front of me. I just ... didn't want to sing.

But I am not, and have never been, a shrinking violet. I hate that girly shyness modesty stuff. So the second time, I steeled myself, and sang. The response was positive, naturally. I do not think I really expected anything else. Responding without seeming proud was definitely one of the more uncomfortable parts of the stomach-churning experience. But it didn't put me off. Most of the time, when my father suggested I sing, I sang.

When it came to solos with the school choir, I quickly became blasé. But with small audiences, in the living room, there's always that core of fear in your gut. You can learn to set it aside to let the song through, but it never really leaves you. It was always there, from the sweet little performances as an eight year old until the day when I was sixteen and finally made enough of a fuss that my father had to stop telling me to "oh, come on, they're expecting it". On stage, it's different. On stage, you have the proscenium arch. It separates you and the audience. It frames what you are doing. It says "this isn't real", and under that cover you can be as real as you like.

Poetry is a proscenium arch. If it's a poem, you're allowed to speak floridly. If you want to exaggerate, it's merely hyperbole. If you want to spill your guts, well, nobody really has to respond to it as anything but a poem, do they? Verse is a particularly good proscenium arch: pay your dues to the gods of rhyme and metre, and you are officially excused the accusation of complete talentlessness and lack of effort.

The separation provided by my pseudonym 'Lynet' can act like a proscenium arch, too.

Nearly all forms of art have a proscenium arch of sorts. The effort to transcend that separation can sometimes mark a piece of art as particularly good, but at other times it's the cover provided by the form that allows the brilliance of honest expression. "I give to you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion," says Tennessee Williams. Well, that's what the proscenium arch is for.

I am not resigned: A meditation on tragedy.

The last Poetry Sunday at Daylight Atheism was Edna St. Vincent Millay's Dirge Without Music. The poem itself is a beautiful, sensitive, defiant meditation on death. Yet it is not of death that I wish to speak, or not death alone. Sublime though the poem is in its entirety, in the process of responding to Ebonmuse's particular emphasis on its quiet refusal to succumb to perfect acceptance of the inevitable I have been caught, caught entirely, by the final line alone.

I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned. It's a small, simple idea that might have meant very little to another person, or to myself at another time. Knowing this, I cannot be sure that I am able to explain what it meant to me. Nor can I be sure that it will mean anything to you, if I do succeed in such an explanation. I offer my attempt at explanation nevertheless.

Ebonmuse writes, almost coincidentally, in that same thread that "Paradoxically, there can be true beauty in tragedy, for all that I would end it in a second if I had the power." Let this be my starting point, for, friends, if I had in front of me the magic wand that would end tragedy forever, I could never pick it up. No, never! The sweetest moments of my life have been those when tragedy fell away. How many lines of flaccid free verse have I wasted on the taste of tears? On the way despair becomes a lens through which the simple details of the world seem unimaginably good in their detachment from your pain? The simple fact is that I am not sure my life would be worth living if it had no tragedy in it.

The beauty that is in despair was an observation on which I built my view of the world. It was how I dealt with the reality of despair. Let me put this in a broader context. Human beings in general have a need to find ways to deal with the reality of pain and suffering. I do not speak here of the 'Problem of Evil' which plagues so many versions of conventional theism but rather the more simple part of us that cannot help but cry out at the unfairness and pain in the world: our own pain; the pain of those we love; all pain. Compassion can only exacerbate such a feeling. How do we deal with the incredible weight of suffering in the world? How do we deal with times when we ourselves are not sure that our own suffering will ever cease?

Religions have several different types of answers that they can give to these questions*. For example, we have the idea that we suffer because we deserve it. The notion of karma in Hinduism is the most extreme and obvious version of this. Those who suffer deserve to suffer; if you would avoid suffering, behave yourself. Believing in the ultimate fairness of the universe in this way may perhaps allow people to be psychologically reconciled to the suffering that inevitably occurs. It explains what people must do to avoid it, and gives people an excuse for not worrying too much about the pain of others. As freethinkers, of course, we may well be concerned about the consequences of people choosing not to worry about the pain of others! More importantly, however, we simply have no reason to suppose that there is any such karmic justice in place. The notion cannot be of use to us, even if we wanted it to be.

Another very common religious answer is to pull in the notion of a heavenly afterlife. Never mind that you are suffering now. Some day, you will live happily ever after, and so will those you love -- at least, they will as long as they belong to the same religion you do. This answer seems to rely on a willingness to be cold towards outsiders, but that is hardly a quality that human beings generally lack. Believing in heaven, people can struggle through, even if they believe their lives will never get better, by hoping for paradise at the end. Among atheists, the question sometimes arises whether (and when) we have the right to try to take this hope from people. I shall not try to answer that question completely, but perhaps I can shed some light on the extent to which there are atheist alternatives.

I confess I once naively placed a lot of confidence in the beauty that tragedy can produce. It's almost... karmic. Certainly it is at least a shift towards balance. After the storm, after the rain, the air is still and the grass is clean, and the shaft of sunlight coming down from the clouds can be a blessing beyond belief, even beyond belief in any God. I still do think that happiness arises in part by contrasts. I do not think I have ever thought that contrast was the only contributor to happiness, but nevertheless, my experience led me to play up this aspect of things. I had known the pain that comes when your world falls apart because you built it on false premises -- a healing pain from which you emerge somewhat subdued, but wiser and stronger. I had known small failures and deep loneliness, and found the small sweetnesses in each (I still have a radiant smile left over from when getting a smile back from a stranger really meant something). And out of this I could reflect that surely the world cannot be so bad when it gives you the soft rush of small joys in compensation for hardship.

Ah, but even Pollyanna had her moment when the 'glad game' just wouldn't work any more. And in real life the world is not required to miraculously restore to you the dearly beloved things it so coldly destroys. It is these moments when the narrative fails that are the hardest. How many deus ex machinas have I screamed at in the last few years? How dare George Eliot end The Mill on the Floss with a dubiously engineered death? (I expected better, having read Middlemarch). She's not allowed to die, she has to live. Live and suffer, Maggie. Live and suffer and show me how.

The worst tragedies are off the map. Jane Austen never wrote about what it was like when the man she loved died before they could marry. Think of it! This, at a time when marriage was the dearest ambition of every woman of Austen's age and class, to have the promise of that dreamed-of home, adulthood, security, love replaced with what might be (and, indeed, turned out to be) a lifetime of spinsterhood.

Knowing you are not alone can almost seem to make this sort of thing worse. Pick yourself up. Hearts are broken every day, Lynet, even worse than your so-narratively-wrong case. Oh, don't remind me of the sheer weight of broken hearts!

Of course, we know how Jane Austen dealt with her situation. Mansfield Park has a somewhat insipid streak precisely because our poor Jane, having given up hope in this world, was resolutely focused on the next. And since her novels improved after that low point, we may assume that she did, too, somehow. That option for making it through the rough patch is not open to me. What is?

Ah, well, I have options Jane Austen did not have. My life need not revolve around a relationship (hey, hers didn't either and she still managed a lot!). I can have a career. While away the hours until I die. I know I ought not to go gentle, but the imperative to take a hold of life seems hard, sometimes. If I keep working, will life stop feeling so flat?

And so I read Dirge Without Music, and, being asked to fully comprehend "I am not resigned", realised that I had pushed away that part of it the first time I read through. It hurts, not being resigned. How many times have I told myself that I'll just have to lump it?

Oh, help me, for I am not resigned. I am not resigned, and if I were resigned, not all the calm precautions and shaky rebuilding would ever be enough to restore the shine to my broken world.

Take me back, world of narratives and dreams. I know that beautiful things can die worthlessly. I know that many dreams disappear from our lives abruptly without so much as a 'goodbye'. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

When I finished crying and went outside, the sunshine seemed less incongruous. The grass was clean, the air was still, and my remembered loss still wasn't worth it, but I -- I wandered down the street with my radiant smile just a little bit easier than it was.

*I do not mean to imply that the non-religious ways of dealing with pain that I give later are not just as deeply felt by those with religion, too, of course -- L.L. Barkat's recent post would be proof against that assumption.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Blog Evolution Meme...

... with a digression into how I came to like strict poetic forms.

Tobe tagged me, so here we go. I'm supposed to pick five posts from my archives that display how my blog has evolved over time, and then tag five more people to do the same. Like Tobe, I'm going to take the opportunity to go over some history.

I started blogging in February, but I'd been reading blogs for months before that -- my usual starting point was the Carnival of Feminists. Then I found a link to Alon Levy's Abstract Nonsense somewhere in the archives of Alas, A Blog. Abstract Nonsense was the first blog I started reading regularly. Alon's a sharp guy, it's a pity he's not blogging any more. At any rate, reading even one blog regularly makes you somewhat anchored to the blogosphere, and I decided I wanted a place of my own.

Elliptica has always been a bit hodge-podge, usually with several different subjects evolving at the same time. It serves as my presence on the blogosphere, my home base from which to visit other blogs, my space to voice my opinions or explore different lines of thought. It was originally going to be called Parabolica, but there's already a blog of that name (it's in Portugese, though, so I can't tell you what on Earth it's talking about). As noted on my About Me page, I like conic sections. They're pretty.

So. Post number one: Matters of Identity. Definitely one of my better early posts. I think it's appropriate that I start by quoting a feminist post. The central useful idea here is the way statements about gender have a hard time not being normative. I like being a girl (though I really ought to start thinking of myself of as more like a woman than a girl, I suppose) but as a feminist I naturally worry about the ways in which that can confine me.

I started off blogging quite a lot about mathematics. However, mathematics posts are always more work than the other stuff I toss off. If I'm explaining something I understand well, I spend ages figuring out how to explain it interestingly to someone who knows less than I do. If I'm trying to explain something I don't understand so well, I have to keep looking things up. Nevertheless, I really ought to go to the effort of putting more maths up here -- heck, it's on my subtitle, isn't it? And I really do love the stuff. "But if you can't picture it..." was a bit of a gift, really -- a subject coming up in coversation that many non-mathematicians might want to know about, and about which I do have some breadth of understanding.

My blogging about feminism took something of a downturn after my post on Celebration of Female Desire Week. Why? Well, there's one central question that every young woman who cares about feminism has to answer. It kind of split feminism down the middle in the eighties, and it's still going strong. The point is this. On the one hand, increasing freedom of and openness about sexual expression means that women have the chance to ask for more equality (and more of what they would like) in their sexual relations. That's a good thing. But on the other hand, the sexual revolution hasn't precisely got rid of the idea that women who have sex outside of wedlock might be deserving of less respect. When it comes to the virgin/whore dichotomy, there are parts of our culture that seem to interpret the sexual revolution as simply placing all women in the latter category. And thus, within feminism, we have the Sex Wars. Should women avoid sex, or certain types of sex, for so long as many people view it as degrading to the woman involved? Are there other ways to deal with this? The early posts on my blog have several takes on this issue, some heartfelt, some tentative, but this was the final post that wrapped it all up for me. And after that, I just wasn't thinking about feminism quite so much any more, and the topic of feminism went quiet for a while.

I never expected to blog much about atheism. God doesn't exist, already. Big deal. But then I wandered onto Daylight Atheism on one of Ebonmuse's sure-fire eloquent days. My somewhat clumsy response, overflowing with enthusiasm, would end up requiring two follow-up posts as I thought, and re-thought, clarifying my exact position over time (go down to the very bottom of the comments each time to find the 'links to this post' if you want to follow the fallout, there).

On my birthday, in March last year, my sister got me a copy of The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry. Witty and informative throughout, the book had one section called What is Form and Why Bother with It? (subtitle: Stephen gets all cross), which completely overturned my view of strict poetic forms. I know I was told by more than one primary school teacher not to bother with rhyme -- understandable perhaps, given that bad rhyme really is terrible. But then, oh, how terrible, how self-indulgent is the bad free verse that you can end up producing by just 'writing what comes' and expecting it to be deep philosophy. It's a simple fact that in both cases, a little understanding can go a long way. And in my case, after reading Stephen Fry, I realised that I had really only ever written one poem that stood up to much scrutiny.

One poem. A modified haiku. Not just any modified haiku, but one written with some understanding of the traditions of the haiku form, because my mother, many years before, was briefly very interested in haikus. In fact, when I did my first ever Google name search, I found I'd written a haiku of my own back then that was very much a precursor to this one. Oh, the new haiku broke almost every rule in the book -- it had two verses, it involved the poet rather than confining itself to a description of nature, and, hey, forget 5-7-5! It was still a haiku, though. If you're interested, it went like this:

In warm grass
Fascinating water swirls

Thinking of you
Still made me feel like this

That, my friends, is a poem with form.

So, armed with a new knowledge of rhyme and metre, I struck out into the world of villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets. And you know what? Rhyme gives you ideas. Metre distracts your mind and leaves your subconscious free to work. And any form will very quickly force you to learn the all-important task of editing your thoughts to fit, which leads you naturally into the elusive skill of re-writing without losing the good stuff you already have.

So I had a blog, and I had some rapidly-rising poetic skills. Poems, blog, blog, poems... inevitably, I ended up posting some. The first one I posted was a villanelle, and I'm not at all sure that a single line of that poem would pass muster if I was writing it now. It was still a lot better than anything I'd written previously. However, for my fifth and (regrettably) final choice of archived post, I'm going to give my sestina. It is difficult to be ashamed of a sestina, because they are fairly hard to write in the first place. The only real restriction is on the final word of each line. You have six lines per stanza, and six words with which lines are allowed to end. The exact order of these words varies according to a strict pattern which ensures that each word will occupy each placing in the order exactly once (nice mathematical connection, there). For example, you will see that the final word of the first line of one stanza is always the final word of the last line of the previous stanza. The second line of the stanza ends with the same word as the first line of the previous stanza. Confused?

Let me put it this way. If the ordering of final words in the first stanza is ABCDEF, the next stanza will have the final word of each line in the order FAEBDC. The next stanza is CFDABE. Continue for six stanzas and, trust me, each word will have occupied each position exactly once. Then you end the poem with a three-line stanza in which you include two of your chosen words per line, and you're done.

The six words I chose are "words","fear","mother","lost","daughter", and "well". That last one has a nice variety of meanings to cycle through. So if you're really confused, here it is without further ado: Daughter's Sestina. Oh, and do me a favour? Read it out loud. I don't care if you feel silly. Whisper it, if you must. Because, though I say it myself, the poem has some rather cool metrical effects that found their way in by accident while I was trying very hard not to write in iambic pentameter. You don't have to be consciously aware of them, but if you're just skimming over it with your eyes, you probably won't be aware of them at all. So, please...

And that's all I have space for! A pity, but when your blog is evolving on several tracks at once, it's difficult to get the whole story across. Now, who to tag? L.L. Barkat has been blogging about blogging for a while already, so I'm not sure if this meme would feel too much like more of the same; JD2718 might be a decent bet, but Kelly says she's been tagged already, C.L. Hanson has already done it, um... oh, heck. I'll take the easy way out. Open tag. If you want it, take it.

Monday, 15 October 2007

Humanist Symposium #9: Illustrated Edition

The party has moved to Greta Christina's place. She's done a lovely job, with readable, informative summaries -- and her always-handy pictures (which are a staple for her, and one of the things that makes her blog stand out). See you there!

Monday, 8 October 2007

I am not a fan of beauty standards for vaginas.

Marty Klein, a sex therapist, writes a forthright and often very likeable blog on the politics of sex at Sexual Intelligence. His latest post, however, seems to me to miss an important point:

Unfortunately, a rising chorus of so-called feminists and gender theorists are dissing women who make the “wrong” choices about these things. Claiming they know women better than they know themselves, they decry women who shave, wax, implant, bleach, pierce, or otherwise change their sexual bodies.

These body-modification fascists say all those activities are a response to “cultural pressure” (especially from selfish, obsessed, insecure boyfriends and husbands), and that no adult woman could possibly decide to do these things on her own. They say that any woman who pierces her labia or gets breast implants has been “manipulated.” Oh, you know women—unable to think for themselves. Unable to think, period.

Well, I’m tired of it.

Klein is attacking the most extreme form of feminist distrust of body modification. I think he's correct, as far as it goes, to say that some women do make these choices for their own good reasons and for their own enjoyment. But that's not the point. I'm not going to decry the choices of individual women. Try to be confident in your own body, and then have fun with it however you like. The real issue here isn't individual choices, though. It's overall beauty standards. And I am not a fan of beauty standards for vaginas. Full stop (that means 'period', if you're American).

I am not a body-hating kind of girl. When my mother, a couple of centimetres shorter and a few kilos lighter than me, says that she needs to lose weight, I collect up the sense she taught me, remember that I have a BMI of twenty, and believe it neither of her nor of me. When I read in a magazine that "cellulite is a problem that affects many women, causing unsightly bumps on the upper thighs", I chuckle at the thought of what the writer of the article would say about my stretch marks, left over from when my bum had its growth spurt, and then reflect that I actually rather like my barely-visible tiger stripes, souvenirs from of the year I got a waist. When I went to the mall on a horrible rainy day in my grandfather's baggy old anorak that makes me look twice as big as I am, and a couple of pimply awkward scarecrows of teenage boys started making pig noises at me, I walked on by and paid no attention. And I have hairy armpits. They're not very hairy. You wouldn't mistake them for a man's armpits. But the hair is there, and it's easily visible if I raise my arms. I even have the gall to wear sleeveless tops when I go out dancing.

I am not a body-hating kind of girl, but if we're going to have beauty standards on my vulva, then I despair for myself. Here, of all places, I feel vulnerable. Face it, my vulva is fundamentally messy. I can make it clean (for all of two minutes if cervical fluid counts as 'dirty', which it probably shouldn't), but tidyness just isn't an option. And I don't want some beautician or cosmetic surgeon out to make a buck to make me feel like I ought to try to change that. I want to be able to like it the way it is.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

Carnival of Mathematics #18

Thanks to JD2718 for including my post 'A Sequence' in the 18th Carnival of Mathematics.

EDIT: Okay, now I'm actually reading the stuff that's up. There are so many funny ones! Did you know there's a whole blog called Rigorous Trivialities? Parallel parking in terms of Lie Groups is rather pretty, actually. Or look at this post ("and before long, you’ve learned the first few weeks’ material of a course in real analysis and all confusion has departed" ... actually, now I'm worried that might not have been a joke. Are there people for whom all confusion has departed after the first few weeks' material of a course in real analysis?).

Friday, 5 October 2007

A Sequence

Start with the number 1.

To get the next number in the sequence:
(1) Go to the nearest integer strictly greater than the number you're on.
(2) Subtract the fractional part of your original number. The fractional part is the part that would be a fraction if you wrote the number in the standard 'composite' fashion (rather than an 'improper fraction'). For example, the fractional part of three and a half is a half; the fractional part of one and seven eighths is seven eighths.
(3)Take the reciprocal. (The easiest way to do that, as anyone with any mathematical fluency will tell you, is to write it as an improper fraction and then 'flip' the fraction -- put the bottom number on the top and the top number on the bottom. For example, three and a half is equivalent to 7/2; the reciprocal is 2/7. If you don't know why three and a half is 7/2 then, um, I'll be happy to explain in the comments...)

There are several ways of writing this as a mathematical formula. If x is the current number, then one way of writing the next number is

1/[_x_ + 1 - frac(x)]

where frac(x) is the fractional part of x, and I'm using the underscore for a floor function, which takes the nearest integer less than or equal to the number (floor function plus one gives the nearest integer strictly greater than the number, as required by the description above). If you're trying to follow without much mathematical experience, I'll give you for free that one over a number is always the reciprocal.

That's not necessarily the neatest formula; tidy it as desired, if you like that sort of thing.

Now go play.

No, seriously. If you're an experienced mathsy type, try to prove that the sequence contains every possible positive fraction exactly once (yes, people, sequences like that are possible). I did it in four hours -- working with a friend who was obsessed with Fibonacci numbers :-). Another friend of mine got it by himself in three, but our proof was nicer. And the Fibonacci numbers may or may not be a clue.

If you need a reason to go play, look at the sequence:

















It's just kinda cool. Any and all patterns may or may not be useful for proving you've got every fraction in there....

Monday, 1 October 2007

Womanhood, masculinity, and books thereon.

When I was sixteen, my mother got me a copy of 'Woman's Experience of Sex' by Sheila Kitzinger. I was slightly embarrassed, shelved it spine-backwards and didn't touch it until two years later when I suddenly realised that I was probably old enough to have sex and really ought to know more about it. Kitzinger's fascinating, sensitive and only slightly dated look at how women feel and behave sexually was exactly what I needed, and when I finished it I jumped enthusiastically into any sexual parts of 'Our Bodies, Ourselves' that I could find. Alas, the latter was just a little too clinical. New Zealand has perfectly good sex education and I've already had the details of every sort of contraception enumerated to me a few times over. It was the emotion that I wanted to understand.

I was aware, though, that there was also another side to the story. Kitzinger sifted through statements from hundreds of women on what sex meant to them and presented them in a book, allowing some sort of validity to the whole broad range in true liberal fashion (for all that her own middle class status -- and, indeed, her feminism -- definitely acted as a lens). The book she ended up creating was, for me, almost a map of the possibilities of womanhood. It was invaluable. But if that is woman's experience of sex, what is a man's? Books like Kitzinger's, like 'Our Bodies, Ourselves', like Natalie Angier's 'Woman: An Intimate Geography' (which is also excellent) are frequently touted as essential reading not only for women but for lovers of women. As a heterosexual woman, naturally I am interested in finding the male equivalent.

Gee, but you men got short-changed! Well, okay, you still have a bit more money, more political power, dramatically less chance of being labelled a slut -- but I think you're missing out on this particular point. I did find one halfway decent book for men: 'Secret Men's Business' by John Marsden. Secret, huh? I read it anyway. Sorry, but I considered my curiosity to be an entirely benevolent impulse to understand what you guys feel like in bed (and outside of it). It was quite good (not actually all that sexist, either) but it seemed to feel the need to cloak any and all advice with the authority of the Great (And Somewhat Mysterious) Notion of True Masculinity. Which is a pity, because the freedom to deconstruct or discard the Acknowledgedly Silly Notion of Femininity whenever we feel like it is one of the best aspects of the liberal feminist tradition.

Perhaps I'm just holding every book on masculinity I find up to feminist standards. Celia Lashlie's book 'He'll be OK' about bringing up teenage boys was also very good, but Lashlie is a feminist. And it would be better if men were speaking for themselves. (Lashlie recounts an amusing exchange with the principal of an all-boys school. After the two had agreed that men need a movement of their own, the principal remarked slightly wistfully "I don't suppose we could get you to do it for us?" No, says Lashlie, no, we couldn't. Nice try, though.)

I am aware, of course, that the sensible thing to do would be to find a nice man to have sex with and then ask him how he feels about it. Indeed, relying on books rather than reality would be a sorry way to live. Ah, well. I'll get there.