As some who read my blog may know already, I'm currently struggling with the process of writing my dissertation proposal. Despite writing being one of the things I do best and most easily, and for various reasons that aren't important right now, I've had some nervous procrastination issues with writing this proposal. Thus my adviser suggested I take a moment and consider carefully: why do I want to write about the subject I've chosen for my dissertation? So I've been engaging in some self-reflection.

At about the same time I was thinking about this, a family member emailed me, talking about something she'd heard recently: that there is a need for all peoples — not just the indigenous — to de-colonize themselves. As I was dashing off a quick reply to her I was first distracted and slowed, then thoughtfully intrigued by a number of associated questions which occurred to me, which were all wound up with these issues. I realized my relative had indirectly asked me some very interesting and critical questions which (also indirectly but importantly) affect my attitudes about the work I'm engaged in currently — questions such as: how do I define feminism? Why am I a feminist — and a spiritual one, at that? What is Women's Spirituality? Why Women's Spirituality instead of mainstream religion, or even "mainstream" paganism?

Perhaps the easiest question for me to answer is what I think feminism is. I no longer believe feminism is the old "equality with men" argument — although I used to. Currently I agree with bell hooks' marvelously clear definition of feminism: "a movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation, and oppression" (Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, p viii). The reason I agree with hooks, rather than still believing that feminism is the struggle of women to be equal to men, is because I understand that this old definition misses a trick. Consider what it means if feminism is indeed no more than a movement wherein women aspire to equality with men: doesn't that imply that being female or feminine is somehow… lacking?

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Being a student on a very tight budget, I am particularly fond of restaurants with cards that give you a free meal after a certain amount of purchases. My local Armadillo Willy's is very good about this, and I treated myself to a free lunch there today. As I finished ordering, a song I knew was playing on the speakers. I like singing, so I was singing quietly along with it while heading to a table; while doing so I passed a somewhat surprised-looking older woman. I smiled politely at her and got a startled smile in return, and continued singing as I seated myself.

Later in my meal, just before she was about to leave, she leaned over and politely informed me that she'd really enjoyed my little bit of singing. She found it so nice that someone still knew the words to "Sweet Emotion" by the Stones! I laughed and thanked her, and she smiled and departed.

I didn't have the heart to tell her that the version of Sweet Emotion we'd been listening to was sung by Aerosmith… ;) Read the rest of this entry »

My dissertation proposal research continues apace – sometimes stutteringly slowly, other times with a swiftness and surety which reassures me that I'm on the right path and doing the right thing. I need those moments, believe me!

This is one of those moments. I've just gotten off the phone with the CIIS librarian who's also gone through the same program I have: Women's Spirituality. She is such a marvelously helpful librarian! I had a class with her in my very first semester at CIIS, and she was tall, spare, short-haired, with a very direct way of meeting your eyes. Her voice over the phone is the same: firm and steady as she makes sure she's clearly and slowly explained something to you step by step, then checks for understanding. I feel rather as if I'm working with some Platonic ideal of the Librarian as perfectly conceptually suited to my needs! Best of all, when I had the nerdy squeal of glee at finally learning how to access tempting but previously inaccessible on-line research databases (I'm looking at you, JSTOR — you intellectual tease, you! ;-) ), she laughed and completely understood.

So, to record the wonderful information shared with me! I don't know if this is directly applicable if you're not attending CIIS also, but I suspect the basics will hold true – research librarian strikes me as one of those jobs you just don't get unless you love it, you know? So: always always always, the first step is to connect with your research librarian. Don't be shy, or embarrassed about what you want to research, or chagrined at not having reached out at the beginning of the semester, or believe you know it all already. There's always at least one new little trick that makes my life easier, every time I chat with a librarian. In fact, this time around my librarian's name, email, and phone numbers are in my cell phone database. I certainly hope I won't ever need to call for research assistance quite that precipitously, but that's not the point for me – the point is that I've spoken to her and know her now, she knows me and my subject, and I know how to reach her for any necessary follow-up – on her emphatic urging! — and that is very reassuring!

Next: when trying to find a particular book, article, or whatever, always try first to check it out from the CIIS library's on-line database. They have a simply enormous amount of access to on-line journals and databases! Articles can be received as PDFs or JPGs via email, or as physical scanned printouts via regular mail — though the latter sometimes have a cost attached. Also, from what I've seen, they are only B&W, and are sometimes extremely blurry. If I can, I shall always hold out for PDFs. I should also be sure to have the full citation information as well, since even if they don't have the article in question, the CIIS library has interlibrary loan available from its website. As a useful side-note, San Jose Public — my local library — also has an excellent website, including interlibrary loan. For books I shall go through them, since there's no shipping costs associated.

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There's an odd and disturbing trend I've noticed recently in my preferred form of brain candy; e.g.: smart female protagonists within the genre of urban fantasy. From what I can tell, when the author wishes to demonstrate via emotional shorthand just how repugnant a villainous group is, or needs to hastily add a bit of tension in the background for the protagonist… a generalized and sneering misogyny is added.

Invariably this is not a genteelly over-protective patronization, either – no, this is misogyny so pointlessly widespread, so two-dimensionally vile, as to be worthy of a group of mustachio-twirling Snidely Whiplashs. I find this disturbing because I do not like my social group becoming not only the accepted victim du jour in modern fiction of this type, but also the preferred group – rather like the Russians were in all the early James Bond movies.

I first noticed this "effect" in a movie, oddly enough: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Set in an alternate world in about 1900, where characters from our literary classics are real people, we see Mina Harker treated repeatedly like crap because she's a woman… but despite the world ostensibly being in the Victorian age, men of color are treated as peers of white men. What a great message: all men should have the right to treat women like dirty laundry! Read the rest of this entry »

Some years ago a friend asked me why I didn't like pulp — why, in fact, I pretty much loathed it.

It gets stuck in your teeth, and makes the orange juice too thick, I replied. Admittedly, I can now confess my sense of humor still needed work at that time. What can I say… I was younger then.

Haha, very funny; you know I mean pulp fiction, my friend said. Why do you despise the genre so?

At the time I simply said it was because there were no good action roles for women, and the fortuitous events which occurred to the protagonist went well beyond coincidence, instead being more a cruel destruction of one's suspension of disbelief. As an example of this stupidity (which, alas, was not unique), in the book I'd just read the protagonist just happened to arrive at the unpassable mountain pass on the one single day per year that it was even remotely passable. Further, upon learning that special suits would still be required to forge through the pass, the protagonist was delighted to discover just enough suits waiting there for he and his small group of companions — and look! What a coincidence — they all fit perfectly too!

Okay, my friend said, that does push the boundaries a bit. But was there anything else that was bothering me about pulp fiction?

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Blurred Millenium Falcon

A very blurred shot of the Millenium Falcon — as it flies by at warp speed… :)

In exchange for a huge honkin' load of electronics recycling, my household received four free tickets to the San Jose Tech Museum of Innovation's current exhibit: "Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination." So we invited a friend and went to see it last weekend. It will still be around until March 23rd, so catch it while you can if it interests you. Honestly, after wandering through the very nice series of displays, I'd have to conclude there wasn't really much in the way of science in Star Wars… but then that's not why we went to see the movies either. :)

There were several of the ship models there, which were fascinating to compare and contrast. Shape gave clues as to whose side each ship belonged to. Also, because the camera would be traveling quite close to the models in some cases, the detail on those was amazing. Interestingly, there was no correlation between model size in this world, and the comparable size of the ships in the movie world. For example, the Millennium Falcon's model was much larger than those of the triangular Imperial Star Destroyers — and was much more battered and weather-beaten in appearance… if you can call a space ship weather-beaten.

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Today has been an extremely fruitful day so far! Not only did I tremendously enjoy my first American Tribal System belly dancing class with a new teacher, but she's willing to barter with me for the training! That means I can actually take the class, thank goodness — especially considering my tightly budgeted finances as a doctoral student. Further, during the class I had a small mental revelation which explains a few things I'd wondered about for a while now. Any day where I have a fun, lightning-bolt mental moment is a good day!

I'd actually taken one ATS class years ago, which was quite interesting, but not as fun as this class. There were a couple of reasons why, which I realized after the class when I had a moment to think about it. For one, the class this time was smaller, which allowed for more personal attention and encouragement from the instructor. Unsurprisingly, I consequently also never felt lost or left behind — a big win! For another, I have no idea what quality of dancers the two instructors were… but without question, for a rank beginner like me, this teacher today was far more helpful, friendly, personable, encouraging, and… well, instructive.

As class was ending, the instructor said something which really clicked for me: she mentioned that she'd been an air force brat for a while, and thus knew what it felt like to be the new kid. That was why she made an effort to welcome newcomers and make sure they were comfortable: she understood how unpleasant it can be to be the outsider.

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More thoughts while ill

28 Jan 2014 In: Ethics questions, Random

Some time ago I wrote a posting (which I've since lost track of) where I mentioned that in restaurants where you're supposed to get your own silverware and napkins and stuff, it seemed to me that men either always sat down and waited on the women to put together a place setting for them — or only got silverware and napkins for themselves. Out of curiosity I asked several friends about that, and was somewhat puzzled at the results. After all, if the one woman I asked agreed with me, but all of the handful of men disagreed… clearly there was a disjoint in how folks were seeing things. So, since I'm that way, I just watched whenever it occurred to me.

Results: two of the men I asked have changed their behavior so they deliberately make a point (to themselves — there are no trumpet fanfares or anything) to help out at restaurants by making sure they bring over the necessary silverware and napkins for partners and friends. Funnily enough, one of the men I asked still does not lift a finger to help, despite insisting that men and women both always do that sort of thing. Also funnily, the woman I asked reported to me (which is why I'm writing this now) that she started not getting the silverware and napkins, in the hopes that her partner would help out — and his reaction was to start getting the necessary utensils only for himself. ;-j

I think there's an entire category of experience, such as benefits which are believed somehow innate to the person, which the privileged simply do not see… and if it is brought to their attention, they'll indignantly deny it — and to them, what they're saying at that moment is true. I find this almost creepy. It makes me worry about what I do that takes unfair advantage of others. It also makes me wonder: how on earth do we effectively communicate this injustice to those who benefit from it — such that they either start sharing, or pulling their own weight? Almost inevitably it's been my experience (including my own experience with this sort of privilege) that the initial reaction is something along the lines of indignant denial and/or anger. That's not really helpful for creating change… but I don't now recall what precisely happened to me to wake me up, to open my eyes, to my own privilege. I can't communicate what I don't well recall, unfortunately.

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I have a nasty cold. It is no fun. I intensely dislike feeling like my head has been stuffed full of cotton wool and my brain is out vacationing in Timbuktu without me. Regardless, I'm trying to stay awake so I go to bed at a reasonable hour and don't wake up at 3 am and remain unable to go back to sleep. I also don't want more of those unpleasant dreams where something is trying to possibly kill me and in my head I say, 'Oh HELL no!' and snap myself awake breathless and with adrenaline racing through me… and then once again I can't go back to sleep for hours, as my brain obsessively fixates on the dream and how it was going and how I would have escaped and was that really what was happening and blah blah blah.

So right now my brain is still chugging along, albeit very slowly, and coughing up the occasional random thought at about the same speed as my usual coughing fits… and it occurs to me: I don't seem to like what most folks like in literature. I remember a shared-universe book series years ago called Wild Cards that had multiple authors. A friend asked me what my favorite and least favorite characters were, then played a recording of an interview with the series editor for me. It turns out the two characters I most despised — and I use that term deliberately — were the two most popular with women. I still don't understand why someone would want to, for example, become the inamorata of a space alien that treated you like a slave or pet and was willing to effectively give you a psychic lobotomy in order to protect himself… and I was equally mystified as to the popularity of the male pimp character that used both his prostitutes and other women as nothing more than sexual batteries to power up his abilities. Very odd.

I also read but was not entranced by Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn. Don't get me wrong; I'm on his mailing list and I'm thrilled to hear he's finally doing well, and that the books and movie are having a fantastic tour. However, when people talk about how much they loved the story, I don't really get it. It was interesting and somewhat mythic, true. It gave me a wonderful line that I occasionally still use ("Never run from immortal things. It just attracts their attention")… but for me the story was not entrancing; not the sort of thing I remember fondly years later.

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The apparently overwhelmingly powerful need to control women which some men appear to have is painfully expressed yet again in a form which is recorded by anthropology professor Barbara Tedlock's research for her 2005 book Woman in the Shaman's Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion & Medicine. Granddaughter of an Ojibwe midwife and herbalist, and a noted shaman in her own right, Tedlock traces the roots of twentieth century anti-feminine rhetoric in shamanistic research — from psychoanalyst Geza Roheim's disparaging descriptions of Hungarian women shamans as "witches… just pretending to be healers" (Tedlock quoting Roheim, 28), his profound influence upon religious historian Mircea Eliade's startlingly misogynist work, and the subsequent deliberate downgrading of feminine shamanic paths by ensuing (male) researchers and historians.

Indeed, Eliade's deceptive and biased language reveals a truly unscholarly distortion of empirical data in order to force it into his chosen interpretive framework: the shaman as a solitary male practitioner self-initiated into techniques of ecstasy. As Tedlock notes, Eliade worked under a number of serious self-imposed limitations: "he never met a living shaman and went out of his way to deny shamanic status to women, calling them 'sorceresses'" (Tedlock, 64). Within Eliade's biased paradigm, masculine shamanism was limited to "soul flight — which he regarded as not only transcendent but also phallic" while the "penetration" of possession was "immanent and assigned to women" (Tedlock, 72). In this misogynistic perspective we can still see the active, strong threads of ancient Greek prejudice regarding male as active penetrator, female as passive receptacle.

In contrast, Tedlock's work is remarkable for the transparency of her hermeneutics of interpretation; as she herself notes, "At the heart of shamanic practice is the active pursuit of knowledge" (Tedlock, 23). At no point does she attempt to hide behind a false objectivity to cloak her research in a more mainstream pseudo-scientism — her skillfully related personal narratives are vivid and engrossing, revealing the experiential nature of her emotion and intuition. Equally, her prodigious scholarly evidence is both fascinating and impeccably meticulous, disclosing a keen grasp of standard science's argumentative intellectual reasoning. Through discussion of modern research regarding both neuroscience and the biochemistry of healing and altered consciousness, the author smoothly links her reclamation of the feminine in both religion and medicine, to support her assertion that women are considered to have special powers which men do not. She grounds that female shamanic primacy in women's physicality, as elucidated by actual women shamans speaking on the sacrality of menstruation and its ensuing isolation.

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Bestiaries depict mythical, moralizing animals, but are also potential allegorical sparks that can bloom into brilliant mental bonfires. My bestiary is this mythologizing animal's fascinated exploration of beauty & meaning in the wonder of existence -- in the hopes of inspiring yet more joyous flares of intellectual passion.

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Collie’s Bestiary