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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Who's the Sexiest, and Why Do We Care?

It’s been a few weeks now since I saw the big news. I’m sure most of you have been thinking about it nonstop since then, too, but for those of you who haven’t, I’ll reiterate.

Scarlet Johansson has been named Esquire Magazine’s Sexiest Woman Alive for the second year in a row.

Okay, headlines like these are the reason I changed my home page to Science Daily. Even if I were a man, I can’t imagine caring who the Sexiest Woman Alive is. Unless, perhaps, she lived on my block, frequented the same grocery store, and was inclined to laugh at my stupid jokes, leading me to believe I actually had a shot. But then I wouldn’t need a magazine to tell me how hot my neighbor is.

But it got me to thinking. Are other animals having these discussions?

“Now that is the Sexiest Walrus Alive!”

“Look at the tail on that mouse!”

“What a fox!”

Well, of course they’re not. The so-called "lesser" animals would never waste time they could be spending ensuring their own survival seeking out the most attractive coyotes west of the Mississippi, especially when they were never actually going to sleep with them.

So why do people do it? Why do we rank our fellow humans? Why do we obsess over Most Beautiful or Most Handsome?

I don’t know the answer, myself. I can’t really even guess. I’m personally inclined to believe it’s got something to do with having too much time on our hands. Because in the animal kingdom, true leisure is very rare. Even playtime is generally believed to constitute training or preparation for the “real” world. But what useful purpose does choosing the Most Beautiful People in the world serve? It can’t be meaningless; there must be some point to this worldwide yet relatively new phenomenon. There were very few celebrities in the 19th century, after all, and the few there were weren’t especially attractive.

But perhaps there is some evolutionary reasoning behind the beauty contest. Maybe it’s not about objectively evaluating someone’s good looks, or choosing the person with whom you’d most like to have sex. Maybe what it’s actually about is offering up a model for the rest of us to emulate; an example for us ordinary women. See, here, they tell us, look at what qualities of femininity Scarlett Johansson possesses. If you can imitate them, then you will be sought after by all of the other men who agree that these characteristics, taken together, constitute “sexy” and your odds of having quality offspring will increase. In effect, maybe we’re supposed to learn by example; perhaps it is a training exercise of sorts.

But then what’s in it for the men (I mean, beyond the obvious)? Maybe if you’re a man, there’s a biological benefit to having an ideal imaginary mate in mind so you can measure your real-world potential mates against her. Or perhaps male humans are designed in such a way that they aren’t entirely sure of themselves when it comes to selecting mates, and maybe having the consensus of other men as to what constitutes a good woman boosts a man’s confidence that he’s made a sound choice.

Or who knows? Maybe it simply boils down to the fact that most mammals, male and female alike, like shiny things.

It does make one wonder how other animals would behave if they enjoyed as much leisure time as modern-day humans. Of course, there already are a few other species that experience lives of even greater leisure than ours. Our pets. Yes, the dogs and cats and goldfish of the world have plenty of hours in which to mull over the mysteries of science and the meaning of pop culture. They can spend the whole day daydreaming up a romance between themselves and the tabby cat next door or the bitch down the street if they choose. I wonder if they do…  

The Sexiest Walrus Alive?

Saturday, October 19, 2013

On Books: Valley of the Dolls

On Books: Susann, Jacqueline, Valley of the Dolls, Bantam Books: New York, 1967.

I decided to read this book after chancing across the movie version on television and realizing, to my surprise, that it was not a horror story, as I’d always thought it was. (I suspect that as a child I got it confused with a book written by V.C. Andrews, of whom my older sister was very fond.)

I’m not going to bore you with the plot points – it’s an engaging if overdone exploration of the high-pressure and sometimes cutthroat world of show business – but I do want to point out that it was hardly the first story of its kind, and certainly not the best. Think The Bad and the Beautiful, Sweet Smell of Success, and, of course, the masterful All About Eve. Indeed, when you look back on the number of motion pictures that revolved around the stresses of Hollywood ladder-climbing in the middle of the last century it makes you realize that this was actually a fairly new phenomenon at the time, wasn’t it? The big stars of Broadway or film experienced fame on an entirely different level than the entertainers of the nineteenth century or before. While it may be argued that, owing to technological advances and the invention of social media, modern performers are subject to even greater stresses, this is a quantitative rather than a qualitative change. And indeed, one only has to glance at the headlines to realize that the entertainers of today have just as many issues with drugs and backstabbing as those of Hollywood in its infancy.

In any case, plot aside, what was really striking about the novel is what jerks the men are, and what idiots the women are. In fact, the jerkier the men, the more idiotic the women become. No, strike that. The women are idiotic in their own right, too, independent of the men. And sometimes the women are jerks, and the men are idiots. Really, what man would ever go on about how he loves a woman for herself, and then in the next breath declare that he loves her for her breasts? What woman would ever decide to give up on having children because she’s reached the ripe old age of thirty? I mean, I know we’re talking about fifty years ago here, but biology hasn’t changed that much. And the attitude towards women, especially coming from a female writer, is just unbelievable. At one point one of the main characters gains a lot of weight, and everyone – men, women, and she herself – refer to her as a useless “sack of blubber.” To paraphrase, “He can’t be in love with her; she’s a pig!” Trust me, if you read the book, it’s clear that this was not ironically intended.

Finally, the sexuality that made the book so sensational at the time is horrible, just horrible. It makes you wonder if the author ever had a satisfying, or indeed, even a vaguely pleasant sexual experience in her life. The women hardly ever want or enjoy intercourse, but that’s okay, says the novel, because they get their satisfaction from “pleasing their man.” Ugh! If this is the kind of example of liberation that women were given back in the sixties, it gives me new respect for my mother’s generation. How heroically well-adjusted they were, it seems to me now.

It’s so offensive that it’s actually worth reading, if only to get a sense of the cultural context. I promise, you will be eternally grateful that these days you can get a wrinkle without wanting to kill yourself. That you can have enough self-respect not to have to lay down like a doormat to “hold on” to your man. And that men nowadays don’t expect you to.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

"Found Money" in Burningword Literary Journal

My short-short "Found Money" has been published in Burningword Literary Journal:

Like many of my flash fiction pieces, Found Money is based on events from my own life; it's even featured in my memoir On Hearing of My Mother's Death Six Years After It Happened. And, like some of my other autobiographical pieces, at first I wasn’t sure if it really worked well as a fictional story. It actually started out as a considerably longer piece, seven hundred words or so, but somehow I just couldn’t get the middle section right. It sketched out the background of what had happened in the weeks before I found the money, which was itself a story worth telling – in fact, I eventually expanded it and turned it into a separate section of my memoir without fictionalizing it. But to someone who didn’t know the original story was taken from true events, I think the longer version came across as overly dramatic, or at least overdone. After it was rejected by a couple of journals, I took another look at it and decided to cut out the middle altogether. This shorter version I think works much better.

What’s conspicuously and intentionally absent from this piece is any kind of emotion. I don’t think you can afford to have feelings when you’re quite literally starving, and during most of this period in my life, it’s safe to say that the emotional part of my mind was effectively switched off. But I cried when I found that money. Oh, how I cried.

I will never forget the people in that restaurant, either. They only spoke to one another in Chinese, so I have no idea what they said about me, if anything at all. But they went out of their way to be kind to someone who was obviously homeless, and probably very dirty and smelly, and that touched me deeply.

That day marked a turning point in my young life. Not because I found five dollars; a loaf of bread and a small jar of peanut butter later, it was gone. The more important thing I found on the sidewalk that day was something I hadn’t even realized I’d lost. Hope.

* * *

"Found Money" is one of the stories featured in my autobiographical short story and essay collection Stories from My Memory-Shelf: Fiction and Essays from My Past (only $0.99 Kindle, $5.99 paperback). To learn more about it, please visit the book's webpage or subscribe to my newsletter.

Found Money

Saturday, October 5, 2013

On Science: Preventing Pedophilia?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about biology and how it relates to human affairs. I think there’s a tendency among humans to believe that we are somehow special, unique in the animal kingdom, and perhaps in some ways we are. But there’s no doubt in my mind that however complex our brains, our bodies must still operate via the same mechanisms as those of the “lesser” animals – with chemical reactions, nerve signals, and so on. And the more I learn about what’s transpiring in the world of science, the more I suspect that psychology, as it is currently understood, no longer offers the best explanation for human behavior. Or, rather, that a person’s psychological makeup is not derived in any spiritual or subconscious way by the inner workings of the mysterious concept that we call “mind,” but by biological forces operating outside the level of our consciousness. In fact, the more I think about it, the more I suspect that human affairs are more biological than we give them credit for, and this study I read on Science Daily seems to me a case in point.
The scientists found that juvenile mice secrete a pheromone in their tears that drastically reduces the sexual behavior of adult mice towards them, a “protective” shield, if you will, against mating activity from full-grown males. There are obvious reasons why, biologically speaking, it would be foolish for adult mice to try to mate with prepubescent mice, even supposing that mice are not subject to the same social strictures as humans.

But that got me to thinking. Clearly humans don’t have the same olfactory systems as mice. They do, however, have similarly well-founded biological objections to adult-juvenile pairings. Isn’t it therefore logical to suppose that people also have some as-yet-undiscovered mechanism that precludes adults from desiring intercourse with children? And if this is the case, wouldn’t it also be logical to propose that pedophiles, rather than being victims of psychological unbalance or damage, might instead be genetically defective – unable to perceive the signals that make the rest of us sick to our stomachs at the very thought of what gives them pleasure? And if this were true, is it even possible that pedophilia might turn out to be a treatable condition after all?

Of course, there’s a huge difference between people and mice. The study concludes that the pheromone makes it possible for the mice to discriminate in favor of full-grown partners. It doesn’t, however, offer any evidence that, in the absence of the pheromone, the mice will actually prefer juveniles, which I believe is what most human pedophiles do. For humans, therefore, it can’t simply be a matter of not receiving the “hands-off” signal when it comes to children. Is there another force at work here that we simply don’t understand? A chemical signal, perhaps, that the young exude and that is sexually irresistible to adults who are susceptible to it? It’s not so far-fetched. Look at new-baby smell – it’s clearly one of the many “cuteness” factors that make people want to take care of the little buggers. And think of how different the world could be if there were no sexual predators; if it were possible to simply shut off whatever triggers that lust within them. This, to me, would be an avenue worthy of scientific exploration.

Human sexuality is incredibly complex. And, as we’re learning more and more, so is the sexuality of other animals. People are into all kinds of crazy sexual behaviors that seem to have nothing to do with reproduction. But maybe that isn’t the case at all. Maybe we, as humans, simply haven’t yet figured out the “why” of those things we call pleasurable; maybe, at bottom, there’s some biological sense to them after all.