Tuesday, October 25, 2005


I suppose y'all have heard the recent ubersexual nonsense? The ubersexual is apparently the dialectic synthesis of the classic cave man and the modern metrosexual. Ubersexuals are not into all of that fancy, pseudo-gay stuff; but they can still read and wear nice suits. Rush Limbaugh gave this idiotic notion a boost by commenting that "This is what men were before feminism came and neutered them". I translate this to mean: back when women were socially and legally forbidden from participating in traditionally male activities, i could still pretend to be masculine just by smoking cigars at my private club.

The ubersexual idea seems to be just a step away from the equally stupid idea of the "alpha-male". The key feature of the alpha-male is that he tends to get all of the women that other men (supposedly) want. Though not essential, the trappings of alpha-maleness often include financial independence, expensive toys, and excessive testosterone. The term obviously derives from that used to describe the dominant male in animal social groups who gets to mate with the females. Though some women seem to be completely taken with the alpha-male sort, the rest of us have another term for this type of man, which oddly enough also begins with the letter "a".

Much of my own mental model of masculinity comes from my great grandfather, on whose 90th i was born. He was a farmer, but also worked in factories and warehouses. He hunted and trapped on his farm, and he raised his own hunting dogs. He was the sort of man about whom people told stories: like how he would put a steel girder over one shoulder and hold it with one hand while using the other to climb a ladder. Or how he got a job with the county in his 80s mowing the ditchbanks mostly because he was bored and restless. He was physically strong, didn't say much, and he took care of his responsibilities. He never owned a Porsche, a Rolex, or a set of golf clubs.

But honestly i don't know much about my great grandfather's life, and given where and when he was raised it's very likely i'd have found some of his beliefs repugnant (The great Lakota chief Sitting Bull was murdered in 1890 on the day of our shared birthday. My great grandfather would have been 17 years old on that day, and i sometimes wonder what he thought about it). To me masculinity isn't really an intellectual concept, that is, i don't think there's a particular set of beliefs that are masculine. But apparently a lot of people do. Limbaugh thinks his conservative beliefs are masculine, whereas liberal beliefs are feminine. I suppose that this derives from conservatives' putative championing of self-reliance, but it seems to be very pervasive in political thought these days. Pro-war is masculine, anti-war is feminine. Small government is masculine, big government is feminine. The pro-business viewpoint is masculine, the pro-environmental viewpoint is feminine. Our esteemed governor here in California knew exactly what he was doing when he described his opponents as "girly men".

I'm not sure if the political right intentionally manufactured this situation, or if they just leverage it to their advantage (there is a depressing number of men out there who are convinced that their masculinity is in danger). The thing is: people think of Limbaugh (or Karl Rove or Pat Robertson or Bill O'Reilly or Tom Delay, etc.) as the embodiment of conservative principles, but i can't really imagine a less appropriate representative of masculine ideals. Beyond being male and ostensibly straight, Limbaugh doesn't possess a single characteristic that i regard as masculine.

To be fair, masculinity is an incredibly tricky concept. I recently went to see the movie A History of Violence, mostly because i have a man-crush on Viggo Mortensen (he was Aragorn for god's sake). His character in this movie is truly masculine including, paradoxically, his innate ability to kill people. That's why masculinity is such a hard concept to reconcile with human society: it's almost impossible to think about without considering violence. While hurting the helpless is loathsome and cowardly, it's undeniable that the ability to defend one's self is a masculine trait. If you've read this blog before you probably know that i think self-defense is also a good thing, but i think that even justifiable violence isn't always good. This is why i don't think masculinity can be thought of as instrinsically good or desirable. People might find it to be attractive or repugnant, in the same way that they might prefer blond hair or brown eyes, but i think it's a morally neutral concept (no pun intended).

While i don't have a well-developed description of what precisely is masculine, when i think of masculine ideals i'm reminded of my favorite of Heinlein's Lazarus Long quotes (though note that he says "a human being" and not "a man"):

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion,
butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet,
balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying,
take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations,
analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer,
cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Game

I can imagine a not-so-distant future when somebody will release a piece of software, probably in the form of a game, that simulates an extremely realistic milieu, not just with accurate physics and realistic environments, but also with convincing yet modifiable character behavior. There won't really be a point to this game, or any sort of pre-defined game play. It'll simply be an imitation of life, with the ability to remove certain strictures of reality.

It'll be possible to be whatever you want in this artificial reality. You can be Superman, or Albert Einstein, or Angelina Jolie, or Michael Jordan. But you can also be an assassin, a drug dealer, a rapist or a pedophile. It'll be entirely your choice, entirely your universe, and (unless there's an on-line mode) entirely private. The game would quite literally be limited only by your imagination.

What interests me about this scenario is that the game could have any or all of the supposedly negative aspects of games like GTA, but there would not be a "publisher" to demonize for supplying the content. Those who feel that violence in video games causes violence in the real world would have to modify their argument if the game had no intrinsic violence but only what the player chose to include. Yet you know for certain that the same people who want to regulate the sale of violent video games and movies would oppose the game.

Don't get me wrong: i think most of the stuff in GTA and similar games is awful and i wouldn't let my kids anywhere near it. I also admit i'm on the fence about who should and shouldn't be allowed to purchase this stuff (in principle, i think prohibiting the sale of M-rated games to minors is reasonable and not necessarily a violation of First Amendment rights). But i'm concerned about the tactics that will be used when the "content" of the game is invented by the player. This will happen some day, and i fear that certain political factions will discover the need to monitor people's behavior in private environments.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

My Running Heroes

I noticed a couple of days ago that my blog had passed its first birthday, because the Chicago marathon was on Sunday and i blogged about running it last year. The winner of the women's race this year was Deena Kastor, who i truly admire. She's a great runner (she also won the Bronze medal in last year's Olympic marathon and she's in a completely different realm than all other American women in the 10000 and marathon). What i really like about her though is that she seems to have a life. Unlike her more famous British counterpart Paula Radcliffe, who might be the greatest marathoner ever, Kastor doesn't have much of the rock star in her. But i sort of get the feeling that after her running career, she's going to be much happier. Kastor likes good food and good wine, and she plans to open a restaurant post-running. I find that combination of intense focus and varied interests to be admirable.

I doubt that anybody has ever pursued distance running as a means to fame. Outside of running circles there are maybe a handful of runners (not counting sprinters like Carl Lewis or Michael Johnson) that people can name. Pheidippides. Roger Bannister. Steve Prefontaine 'cause they made movies about him. Maybe Frank Shorter or Bill Rodgers if you're old enough, or Sebastian Coe or Steve Ovett if you're British and old enough. Maybe Olympic legends like Paavo Nurmi, Emile Zatopek, Abebe Bekele or Joan Benoit (or Zola Budd for the wrong reasons). But for the most part even the best distance runners of today are not household names. How many people know the name of the world record holder in the marathon, or 10000 meters, or 1500 meters, or mile? (Hint: they're all African on the men's side).

For somebody my age it's easy enough to admire the amazing accomplishments of some runners (like Paul Tergat's sub 2:05 marathon or Paula Radcliffe's 2:15), but my running heroes tend to be people who have accomplished amazing things that are on the fringe of the world's competitive elite. Foremost among these runners is Ed Whitlock, a Canadian who, at the age of 69 became the oldest person to run a sub 3-hour marathon, and then became the first person to run sub-3 after the age of 70 (he was almost 73). I can't really explain to a non-runner how impressive this is. You can consider that a 2:59 marathon is an average of about 6'50'" per mile for 26 miles, and then you can go out to your local track under the most favorable conditions and run the fastest mile you can. But you still won't understand, because you won't know the vast, almost unbridgeable difference between a 7.20 mile and a 6.50 mile when you string together 26 of them. And this dude is 74.

Another of my heroes is Pam Reed, the two-time outright winner of the Badwater Ultra. I admire her both because she's an amazing ultra-distance runner, and also because she's the mother of 5 sons (holy crap, it makes me tired just thinking about it). For good measure, she's the director of the Tucson marathon. The Badwater is a race that starts in Death Valley and finishes, 135 miles later, at about 9000 feet up the side of Mt. Whitney. In her first attempt, she beat all comers, men and women, and beat her closest competitor by 5 hours.

The physician/running writer George Sheehan once wrote "Success rests in having the courage and endurance and, above all, the will to become the person you are, however peculiar that may be. Then you will be able to say, I have found my hero and he is me" I'm not quite there yet, peculiar though i might be. I think the secret is in the courage part. Will and endurance you can prove just by getting up every day and training, but you can only prove courage by doing what your body and mind are convinced you can't.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Learning Light Saber from Yoda

This past weekend my martial arts school sponsored a couple of seminars with our Great Grandmaster, Wong Gong. He's the highest ranking sifu in the system that i study (Choy Li Fut kung fu). He's a small man, and at 78 he's not quite the athlete he probably once was, though he's still amazingly spry and fit. But he has an undeniable presence. He speaks little English, but he has such remarkably expressive movements that groups of people at the seminars would break into applause when he'd nonchalantly toss off a tough maneuver, or they'd laugh when he'd speed through a long series of moves that he obviously realized nobody could duplicate.

Unlike most sports, there is no retirement from the martial arts, and it seems almost supernatural to see a man who's been doing something at a world class level for 60 years. The comparison to Yoda is inevitable. At this stage, he has a very refined economy of movement and such complete balance and stability that he looks as natural doing a form as he does walking.

He also performed at our annual exhibition, which was interesting this year since there were 5 generations of sifus. It's both inspiring and a bit depressing to see how good some of these folks are. I've always been a fair athlete-- i've got decent eye-hand coordination and i've never been too out of shape-- but there's stuff these people can do that i just can't do. The fact that almost nobody else can do them either isn't that much consolation.