Kerouac Divides Men and Women

By Stephanie Nikolopoulos

“You should sign up for this,” my sister said, showing me an article about a bookstore that doubles as a matchmaking service. At the Brooklyn indie, lovelorn bookworms choose their prospective romantic interests based on their list of favorite authors pinned to a cork board. The article went on to point out that women never wrote down Jack Kerouac as one of their coveted authors.

My decade-long enamor with the poets and writers of the Beat Generation was about to pay off. As the only woman who adored Kerouac, I would be the vixen of the literary matchmaking board.

covercoverNow, I’ll be the first to admit I’m a girly girl. My regular weekend activity includes clothes shopping, I feel naked without nail polish on, and my favorite color is pink. In fact, it was while reading the fashion magazine Seventeen my senior year of high school that I stumbled upon a mention of Ann Charters’s The Portable Beat Reader and quickly became obsessed with all things Beat related. After reading Jack Kerouac’s road-trip novel On the Road, it only seemed natural to pack my bags and move across the country for college. As Kerouac wrote, “I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”

coverWhile attending Scripps, a women’s college in Southern California, my interest in Beat literature grew as I went on a San Francisco pilgrimage to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, infamous for its involvement in the obscenity trial over Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. When I returned, diploma in hand, to the East Coast, I attended talks by Beat writers at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City. I tucked Gregory Corso’s poem “Marriage,” in which he asks “Should I get married? Should I be good?” into my heart. That would be the poem I want read at my wedding, I thought. When I read On the Road, I connected to Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, shambling after friends, being nostalgic for events even as they’re happening, seeing beauty in the mundane, and hitting the road in his eternal quest for meaning — topics I thought both men and women could relate to.

Until my sister showed me the matchmaking article, it had never occurred to me that the author of On the Road could be a cement divider on Lover’s Lane. I had met guys who’d been inspired by Kerouac. They thrilled at the freedom of stuffing beef jerky in a backpack, wearing the same band t-shirt for days, and hitting the road with no plan but more life experience. It’s true I didn’t personally know any women who admired Kerouac, but I figured he just wasn’t on their radar since fifty years had passed since On the Road was published. There were plenty of women I knew through books who had loved Kerouac — women like Edie Parker-KerouacJoyce Johnson, and Helen Weaver, who wrote memoirs about their romances with Kerouac. Overcome with his prose prowess as I was, it was easy to overlook the parts that weren’t exactly rom-com material — the failed marriages, the refusal to acknowledge his own daughter, the fact that he lived with his mother until the day he died — particularly since I didn’t read his novels as love stories but as poetic travelogues.

Then I encountered a woman who openly disdained Kerouac — and all that he seemed to represent. It occurred to me that women saw him as a misogynist vagabond, the bad boy who had left their broken hearts in a trail of exhaust fumes. He didn’t like being tied down by responsibilities, or women. Perhaps those female readers who actually did like his writing feared adding Kerouac to their list of favorite authors for a literary matchmaking board because they didn’t want to end up with someone like him: a penniless drifter, a dreamer, an alcoholic.

coverIf I am to be terribly stereotypical, I’d say the literary crush I hear most women talk about is Mr. Darcy, the cute fixer-upper worth the effort because of his money and social standing. Sure, maybe he’s a bit aloof at first, but in the end Mr. Darcy’ll put a ring on it. Of course, dating-savvy women wouldn’t necessarily include Jane Austen as their favorite author for the literary matchmaking board: they’re smart enough to know they might scare off potential male suitors if they implied they enjoy staying in on a Friday night to watch BBC films on television, possibly having to get out the smelling salts during the “pond scene” in Pride and Prejudice.

Instead, women might disclose preferences for less polarizing authors. Female authors would be perfectly acceptable to list, so long as they’re “serious” or witty authors like Toni MorrisonTina Fey, and Jennifer Egan — and not authors whose books feature shopping bags, pearl necklaces, or candy hearts on the covers. Words like “wedding” and “feminist” probably shouldn’t be anywhere in the title either. There’s nothing wrong with reading these books — in fact, wanting to get married and being treated as equal are both positive desires — it’s just that, well, if on your first date you wouldn’t bring up the number of kids you want to have (unless, of course, you’re on The Bachelorette), then you also would probably subtly edit your reading tastes when you know you’re being judged by them. Like with clothing, it’s best to leave a little mystery.

Men’s disinterest in Austen and other female authors has, of course, been its own cause for consideration. Last year, in an article entitled “Men Need Only Read Books by Other Men,Esquire Post Suggests,” The Atlantic Wire rightly took issue with the fact that only one female author was listed in Esquire’s “75 Books Men Should Read.” However, guess which male author The Atlantic Wire specifically mentions, as if he is the driving force behind men’s exclusion of female writers: “hard-living, macho writers like…Jack Kerouac.” Interesting. I would have called him a life-affirming, sensitive author. It was Kerouac, after all, who wrote, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.”

In the past few years, culture critics have speculated that in general men read less than women and that specifically they don’t read much fiction — Kerouac presumably excluded. It appears, then, that men and women read quite differently. If men are more likely to read nonfiction, it seems likely that men are reading to obtain information. In contrast, women maybe read fiction for the entertainment of a character-driven story. And this is where it gets interesting. Every so often, social debates arise whether women are more “sympathetic” than men, “sympathetic” being defined by as “acting or affected by, of the nature of, or pertaining to a special affinity or mutual relationship.” If it is true that women are more sympathetic, either because of their genetic makeup or because they have been conditioned to be so, then perhaps women read relationally, placing themselves within the story. It would be natural then for female readers to cast themselves as the female characters instead of the male characters. In a work written by a man, the female character is usually going to be the subject of the male gaze. If that work happens to be On the Road, you’re going to end up with women like Marylou and Camille, flat characters being two-timed by hyperactive car-thief Dean Moriarty. It’s no wonder then that many women, even when they put his personal lives aside, don’t relate to Kerouac’s writing.

I don’t believe all women — or all men — think and act and read the same way, though. I never automatically put myself in the stilettos of the female character in a book. I read On the Road through the eyes of the eager narrator, Sal Paradise. Even if I didn’t agree with his every action, I desired Kerouac’s joie de vivre.

More than that, I was also the narrator of my own story, my own life. After reading Kerouac, I became the one dashing out the door for my next adventure. If I had a week off of work and wanted to take a vacation, I packed my bags and hopped on a bus or a plane. I took a Greyhound across the United States. I saw Stonehenge. I visited shrines in Kyoto. And I did it by myself, sometimes couch-surfing with friends who lived near my chosen destination before venturing off on my own to a hostel.

I was never looking for someone to jumpstart my story, to open the car door for me, to give me permission to do something. It didn’t occur to me that I needed a boyfriend or even a friend to accompany me to art galleries or readings or to make my life full. I wasn’t looking for my Jack Kerouac. I was Jack Kerouac. And so I never signed up for the matchmaking board. I didn’t believe in lonely nights. I was a reader. If I wanted company, all I had to do was pick up a book — or my car keys.

De Gustibus

By Rachel Toor

It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.

— Rabbi Tarphon

It begins when you read a piece of literature that reminds you why we read literature: an essay with sentences you wish you had written, a poem you receive like a gift, a novel that self-helps you better than any self-help book. You find yourself writing in the margin, using symbols that embarrass you (exclamation points!), scribbling YES!, and making stars, asterisks, and vertical lines to mark passages that you read and reread and read again aloud. With urgency and heat, you underline and highlight.

You elbow room for the work in the syllabus. You adjust the whole course to accommodate that one piece of writing. You can’t wait to assign it to students. It will change their lives. They will love you for this.

Then comes the day. You wait for the class to weigh in. You wait to hear from the student who always get it, the one you count on to point out what others have missed, who serves as a proxy for you and often leads the class. You wait to hear from the passionate reader whose mind, free from the itchy constraints of critical analysis, always finds something to like about a piece. You wait to hear from the student whose spoken language is tortured by notions of what he thinks sounds smart; usually you can barely figure out what he is trying to say, but that doesn’t stop him from going on about how much he got out of the reading. And you wait for the slacker who comes to class having no more than skimmed the assignment, yet who manages to say something, often funny, sometimes intentionally.

Then you notice they are all looking at their notebooks, fondling their iPads, doing anything else they can think of to avoid looking at you, with your face all kid-happy. Because they know that they are going to disappoint you. And then they do.

It was OK, one of them says.

It was too long.

I didn’t get it.

I thought it was boring, the slacker says.

The class leader claims it was sentimental, flawed.

The sentimental girl—the one who always finds something to love in a piece of writing—checks that her pen is still healthy and won’t make eye contact.

The work that induced that reaction six times, in graduate and undergraduate courses, at two universities and one medium-security prison, was an essay by the late A. Bartlett Giamatti, Red Sox fan, Renaissance scholar, president of Yale University, president of the National League, commissioner of baseball, firer of Pete Rose, swarthy smoker of cigarettes, and eloquent reader of texts, who died of a heart attack at age 51. Written when he was 40, the essay, called “The Green Fields of the Mind,” begins: “It breaks your heart. It was designed to break your heart.”

He continued: “There comes a time when every summer will have something of autumn about it. Whatever the reason, it seemed to me that I was investing more and more in baseball, making the game do more of the work that keeps time fat and slow and lazy. I was counting on the game’s deep patterns, three strikes, three outs, three times three innings, and its deepest impulse, to go out and back, to leave and to return home, to set the order of the day and to organize the daylight.”

In class I ask: What is the essay about? Students understand that it’s about the ways that baseball helps us to live, the immersion in the immediate, the appeal of illusions of something everlasting. It is not that they do not get it. They get it. This is not like when I ask them to read something challenging and complex, and their distaste comes from intimidation. With difficult texts, after we discuss them in class, they often see what they had missed and, in retrospect, come not only to admire but to like the work.

At first I thought the problem was that the students were too young, or that they hated sports, or that they were plain stupid. But no. My students just tend not to cotton to Giamatti’s flavor of sweetness. He ends the essay with this comment on those who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts: “These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun.”

I love this essay. My students do not.

Bart Giamatti was my college president. Most of my friends remember the first speech he ever delivered to us, in the pomp and circumstance of Woolsey Hall, when we had been Yalies for about 15 minutes. He quoted to us the idea of the ancient Rabbi Tarphon: “It is not for you to complete the task, but neither are you free to desist from it.” We revered Giamatti and committed to not desisting from tasks, once we found out what it meant to “desist.”

When I started teaching his essay, I had passed more than 40 summers myself. I had followed baseball only once in my life, when I had lived in Brooklyn with my future ex-husband, and together we rooted for the 1986 Mets. We had a good season.

But I don’t think about baseball or my ex-husband when I read “The Green Fields of the Mind.” Instead, Giamatti’s sentences transport me back to Durham, N.C., where I had moved after my divorce. I spent hot summer evenings sitting on the hard bleachers of the old Durham Bulls’ stadium, next to my friend Scotty, listening to him talk about the Haitian revolution, about the Negro Leagues, about the inexpressible ickiness of cheeseburgers. He didn’t seem to be watching the game, but every time the crowd whooped and hollered he always knew what had happened on the field. Chipper, Javy, or one of the other boys—they were so young—had made a play. We didn’t know then, Scotty and I, how young we were.

I tell my students that the reader is always in it for herself; she will look to connect with some part of a work that reminds her of who she is, was, or wants to be. There are good and important pieces of literature, I tell them, that will not appeal because even while students may be able to see the art and craft of a work, they may not be able to read themselves into the feelings. There is a difference between taste and appreciation. And of taste, of course, there is no disputing.

As for me, I go back, again and again, to Giamatti’s essay to think about the ways in which literature helps us to live, helps us to understand the world and our place in it. I think about how reading good words makes our own better, and about what happens when I am so moved by a piece of writing that I want to sit down and write. I think about how Giamatti’s essay helps me to appreciate baseball, and how my experience with baseball—with Scotty—makes me love the essay. I realize “The Green Fields of the Mind” may not be as good as I want it to be, that my students may be right (too long, too slow, too sentimental), and I don’t care. It moves me every time.

My students are not going to resonate with everything I love. I know that. But I also know that if I pitch enough beautiful work at them, something will wallop them with the clean thud of a fast ball arrived in a mitt. Something will touch them, and that will bring them into the game. Their syntax will change in affectionate imitation; their ears will ring with riffs and harmonies. They will read in a way that makes them want to write, and their writing will be better.


[Editorial aside: My heart breaks for these kids.]

By Ruth Padawer

The night before Susan and Rob allowed their son to go to preschool in a dress, they sent an e-mail to parents of his classmates. Alex, they wrote, “has been gender-fluid for as long as we can remember, and at the moment he is equally passionate about and identified with soccer players and princesses, superheroes and ballerinas (not to mention lava and unicorns, dinosaurs and glitter rainbows).” They explained that Alex had recently become inconsolable about his parents’ ban on wearing dresses beyond dress-up time. After consulting their pediatrician, a psychologist and parents of other gender-nonconforming children, they concluded that “the important thing was to teach him not to be ashamed of who he feels he is.” Thus, the purple-pink-and-yellow-striped dress he would be wearing that next morning. For good measure, their e-mail included a link to information on gender-variant children.

When Alex was 4, he pronounced himself “a boy and a girl,” but in the two years since, he has been fairly clear that he is simply a boy who sometimes likes to dress and play in conventionally feminine ways. Some days at home he wears dresses, paints his fingernails and plays with dolls; other days, he roughhouses, rams his toys together or pretends to be Spider-Man. Even his movements ricochet between parodies of gender: on days he puts on a dress, he is graceful, almost dancerlike, and his sentences rise in pitch at the end. On days he opts for only “boy” wear, he heads off with a little swagger. Of course, had Alex been a girl who sometimes dressed or played in boyish ways, no e-mail to parents would have been necessary; no one would raise an eyebrow at a girl who likes throwing a football or wearing a Spider-Man T-shirt.

There have always been people who defy gender norms. Late-19th-century medical literature described female “inverts” as appallingly straightforward, with a “dislike and sometimes incapacity for needlework” and “an inclination and taste for the sciences”; male inverts were “entirely averse to outdoor games.” By the mid-20th century, doctors were trying “corrective therapy” to extinguish atypical gender behaviors. The goal was preventing children from becoming gay or transgender, a term for those who feel they were born in the wrong body.

Many parents and clinicians now reject corrective therapy, making this the first generation to allow boys to openly play and dress (to varying degrees) in ways previously restricted to girls — to exist in what one psychologist called “that middle space” between traditional boyhood and traditional girlhood. These parents have drawn courage from a burgeoning Internet community of like-minded folk whose sons identify as boys but wear tiaras and tote unicorn backpacks. Even transgender people preserve the traditional binary gender division: born in one and belonging in the other. But the parents of boys in that middle space argue that gender is a spectrum rather than two opposing categories, neither of which any real man or woman precisely fits.

“It might make your world more tidy to have two neat and separate gender possibilities,” one North Carolina mother wrote last year on her blog, “but when you squish out the space between, you do not accurately represent lived reality. More than that, you’re trying to ‘squish out’ my kid.”

The impassioned author of that blog, Pink Is for Boys, is careful to conceal her son’s identity, as were the other parents interviewed for this article. As much as these parents want to nurture and defend what makes their children unique and happy, they also fear it will expose their sons to rejection. Some have switched schools, changed churches and even moved to try to shield their children. That tension between yielding to conformity or encouraging self-expression is felt by parents of any child who differs from the norm. But parents of so-called pink boys feel another layer of anxiety: given how central gender is to identity, they fear the wrong parenting decision could devastate their child’s social or emotional well-being. The fact that there is still substantial disagreement among prominent psychological professionals about whether to squelch unconventional behavior or support it makes those decisions even more wrenching.

Many of the parents who allow their children to occupy that “middle space” were socially liberal even before they had a pink boy, quick to defend gay rights and women’s equality and to question the confines of traditional masculinity and femininity. But when their sons upend conventional norms, even they feel disoriented. How could my own child’s play — something ordinarily so joyous to watch — stir up such discomfort? And why does it bother me that he wants to wear a dress?

Despite the confident tone of the letter Alex’s parents wrote to the preschool parents, Susan was terrified. She feared Alex’s fascination with femininity would make him a target of bullying, even in the progressive New England town where they live. She felt tortured by statistics that indicated gay and transgender teenagers, either of which she figured Alex might become, were much more likely to take drugs and commit suicide. She began having panic attacks. “The whole thing was vertiginous,” she said. “It’s hard to put a finger on why gender identity makes such a difference to our sense of who a person is, but it does. As a parent, it’s really destabilizing when that’s pulled out from under you. And I worried that if I was having a hard time wrapping my mind around my kid, and I love him more than life itself, then how would the rest of the world react to him?”

Relatively little research on gender-nonconforming children has been conducted, making it impossible to know how many children step outside gender bounds — or even where those bounds begin. Studies estimate that 2 percent to 7 percent of boys under age 12 regularly display “cross-gender” behaviors, though very few wish to actually be a girl. What this foretells about their future is hard to know. By age 10, most pink boys drop much of their unconventional appearance and activities, either because they outgrow the desire or subsume it. The studies on what happens in adulthood to boys who strayed from gender norms all have methodological limitations, but they suggest that although plenty of gay men don’t start out as pink boys, 60 to 80 percent of pink boys do eventually become gay men. The rest grow up to either become heterosexual men or become women by taking hormones and maybe having surgery. Gender-nonconforming behavior of girls, however, is rarely studied, in part because departures from traditional femininity are so pervasive and accepted. The studies that do exist indicate that tomboys are somewhat more likely than gender-typical girls to become bisexual, lesbian or male-identified, but most become heterosexual women.

Alex was clearly in that small percentage of boys who trample gender barriers. At age 3, he insisted on wearing gowns even after preschool dress-up time ended. He pretended to have long hair and drew pictures of girls with elaborate gowns and flowing tresses. By age 4, he sometimes sobbed when he saw himself in the mirror wearing pants, saying he felt ugly.

Worried, his mother scoured the Internet for information. She and Rob found much to support their gut impulse to affirm rather than repress their son’s unconventional gender expression. Only a few years ago, such encouragement would have been hard to find, but the gay rights movement has made a big difference. Moreover, the visibility of transgender people — be it running for office or tangoing on “Dancing With the Stars” — has provided an opening for those who fall between genders. Though acceptance is not yet widespread, many school districts and local governments now ban discrimination based on gender identity or expression.

Transgender activists have also pressed for changes in the psychiatric establishment, which still officially considers children’s distress over gender identity a mental illness. Now the American Psychiatric Association is reviewing the diagnosis of “Gender Identity Disorder in Children” for the next edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Critics, though, condemn the association’s choice of Dr. Kenneth Zucker to lead the inquiry. Zucker is the head of a well-known gender-identity clinic in Toronto and the most prominent defender of traditional interventions for gender nonconformity. He urges parents to steer their children toward gender-typical toys, clothes and playmates and advises them to prohibit behaviors associated with the other sex. Zucker’s academic articles assert that while biology may predispose some children to gender nonconformity, other factors — like trauma and emotional disorders — often play a role. Other contributing causes he cites include overprotective mothers, emotionally absent fathers or mothers who are hostile toward men.

Transgender advocates and sympathetic clinicians argue that telling children in that middle space to abolish their cross-gender interests makes them more distressed, not less. There is also little to no evidence that therapeutic interventions change the trajectory of a child’s gender identification or sexual orientation. Clinicians who oppose traditional treatments contend that significant gender nonconformity is akin to left-handness: unusual but not unnatural. Rather than urging children to conform, they teach them how to respond to intolerance. They encourage parents to accept their children’s gender expression, especially because studies show that parental support helps to inoculate gender-atypical children against ostracism and deflated self-esteem.

Just how many parents choose this approach over the traditional no-tolerance one is unknown. What is clear is that in the last few years, challenges to the conventional model have become increasingly common in the United States and Europe, in medical publications and among professionals and parents themselves. “The climate has changed,” said Edgardo Menvielle, head of one of the world’s few programs for gender-nonconforming youth, at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington. “A lot of parents don’t even go to clinicians anymore. They go to Web sites and listservs, which influence how they think about gender. More parents decide that making their child conform to a gender will damage his self-esteem, and I’d agree. I would argue it’s not even ethical to say to a child, ‘This is the gender you must be.’ ”

In Washington, Menvielle runs a support group for parents that he founded with a psychotherapist named Catherine Tuerk. When Tuerk’s gender-atypical son was a child three decades ago, she consulted a psychiatrist, who told her to keep her son away from girl toys and girl playmates, and to encourage aggressive behavior. So she and her husband signed up their gentle boy for karate and soccer and took him to psychoanalysis four times a week for years. He became sullen and angry. At 21, he told his parents he was gay. In time, she and her husband viewed their efforts as unwitting abuse. Tuerk vowed to help others avoid the same mistakes.

Alex’s mother, Susan, found Tuerk in her Internet search when Alex first begged to wear a dress to preschool. After a long phone conversation with Tuerk, Susan bought her son a few dresses. To Alex’s irritation, people on the street often mistook him for a girl. “I just hate being misunderstood,” he told his baby sitter. When his parents asked if he wanted them to refer to him as “she,” he said, “No, I’m still a he.”

Susan and Rob wondered if Alex would eventually become transgender. They knew more doctors were giving puberty-blocking hormones to pubescent children considering a transition to the other sex. The hormones not only buy time but also spare the young teenagers the angst of developing secondary sex characteristics that feel terribly wrong to them. Even Zucker supports hormones for teenagers who want to become the opposite sex, because mounting evidence indicates it best eliminates their misery. Yet many question whether adolescents are mature enough to make such life-altering decisions, especially when the drugs’ long-term effects are unknown.

Though Alex was a long way from facing those decisions, the possibility hovered in Susan’s mind as she watched his emotional upheaval that autumn in preschool. He became obsessed with a particular lavender dress and fell apart whenever it was in the wash. Alarmed, Susan and Rob decided to limit dress days to Tuesdays and Saturdays, telling Alex he couldn’t fairly expect them to launder it more often. Their fuller reason was more complicated. For one thing, they didn’t have the emotional strength to take him out in a dress every day, to deal with the double takes and the implied judgments. For another, they had noticed how, depending on his mood and his clothing, Alex comported himself in very different gendered ways. While they continued to furnish Alex with toys and activities from all across the gender spectrum, they hoped that more time in boy clothes might help him feel more comfortable with society’s expectations for his biological sex, especially given the likelihood that he’d grow into a male-identified adult.

Still, it was hard not to wonder what Alex meant when he said he felt like a “boy” or a “girl.” When he acted in stereotypically “girl” ways, was it because he liked “girl” things, so figured he must be a girl? Or did he feel in those moments “like a girl” (whatever that feels like) and then consolidate that identity by choosing toys, clothes and movements culturally ascribed to girls? Whatever the reasoning, was his obsession with particular clothes really any different than that of legions of young girls who insist on dresses even when they’re impractical? Or any different than tomboys who are averse to those same clothes?

No one knows why most children ease into their assigned gender roles so effortlessly and others do not. Hormone levels might play a role. One hint is provided by a rare genetic condition known as congenital adrenal hyperplasia, or C.A.H. The condition produces high levels of androgens, including testosterone, early in gestation, and can create somewhat male-like genitalia in genetic females. Girls with C.A.H. are typically raised as females and given hormones to feminize, yet studies show they are more physically active and aggressive than the average girl, and more likely to prefer trucks, blocks and male playmates. Though most turn out to be heterosexual, women with C.A.H. are more likely to be lesbian or bisexual than women who weren’t bathed in prenatal androgen.

Genetics might also be a factor in gender expression. Researchers have compared the gendered behavior of identical twins (who share 100 percent of their genes) with that of fraternal twins (who share roughly half). The largest study was a 2006 Dutch survey of twins, 14,000 at age 7 and 8,500 at age 10. The study concluded that genes account for 70 percent of gender-atypical behavior in both sexes. Exactly what is inherited, however, remains unclear: the specific behavior preferences, the impulse to associate with the other gender, the urge to reject limits imposed on them — or something else entirely.

Whatever biology’s influence, expressions of masculinity and femininity are culturally and historically specific. In the 19th century, both boys and girls often wore dresses and long hair until they were 7. Colors weren’t gendered consistently. At times pink was considered a strong, and therefore masculine, color, while blue was considered delicate. Children’s clothes for both sexes included lace, ruffles, flowers and kittens. That started to change in the early 20th century, writes Jo Paoletti, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland and author of “Pink and Blue: Telling the Boys From the Girls in America.” By then, some psychologists were arguing that boys who identified too closely with their mothers would become homosexuals. At the same time, suffragists were pushing for women’s advancement. In response to these threatening social shifts, clothes changed to differentiate boys from their mothers and from girls in general. By the 1940s, dainty trimming had been purged from boys’ clothing. So had much of the color spectrum.

Women, meanwhile, took to wearing pants, working outside the home and playing a wider array of sports. Domains once exclusively masculine became more neutral territory, especially for prepubescent girls, and the idea of a girl behaving “like a boy” lost its stigma. A 1998 study in the academic journal Sex Roles suggests just how ordinary it has become for girls to exist in the middle space: it found that 46 percent of senior citizens, 69 percent of baby boomers and 77 percent of Gen-X women reported having been tomboys.

These days, flouting gender conventions extends even to baby naming: first names that were once unambiguously masculine are now given to girls. The shift, however, almost never goes the other way. That’s because girls gain status by moving into “boy” space, while boys are tainted by the slightest whiff of femininity. “There’s a lot more privilege to being a man in our society,” says Diane Ehrensaft, a psychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, who supports allowing children to be what she calls gender creative. “When a boy wants to act like a girl, it subconsciously shakes our foundation, because why would someone want to be the lesser gender?” Boys are up to seven times as likely as girls to be referred to gender clinics for psychological evaluations. Sometimes the boys’ violation is as mild as wanting a Barbie for Christmas. By comparison, most girls referred to gender clinics are far more extreme in their atypicality: they want boy names, boy pronouns and, sometimes, boy bodies.

Some cultures develop categories for those whose behavior doesn’t fit gender conventions. In Samoa, biological males who adopt feminine mannerisms are accepted as a third sex, called fa’afafine. In the U.S., some who occupy that “middle space” call themselves “genderqueer,” but it is hardly a well-established cultural concept.

“People rely on gender to help understand the world, to make order out of chaos,” says Jean Malpas, who heads the Gender and Family Project at the Ackerman Institute in Manhattan. “It’s been a way of measuring someone’s well-being: ‘Are you adjusted? Do you fit? Or are you unhinged?’ The social categories of man/woman, boy/girl are fundamental, and when an individual challenges that by blurring the lines, it’s very disorienting at first. It’s as if they’re questioning the laws of gravity.”

So it is for Moriko and her husband, who struggled for years to understand their son’s attraction to girls’ clothes even though it made him a social pariah. “I was sad and I was scared, really scared,” Moriko said. “This kind of stuff is not in ‘What to Expect When You’re Expecting.’ I didn’t know what to do, what to think or what was going to happen.” They took their 7-year-old son to a New York City psychologist, hoping for guidance and support. Instead, the therapist blamed them for their son’s femininity, saying Moriko was emotionally detached and her husband too absent. She advised them to confiscate the boy’s dolls and girlish clothes and to find him male friends. They followed her instructions, but their son was miserable, and they ultimately rejected the therapist’s analysis. “It became clear this couldn’t be the right way,” Moriko said. “It was damaging all of us.”

By the time her son was 9, Moriko and another mother had started a support group for families looking to accept, not change, their children’s gender expression. They offered one room for parents to talk and another for the children to play. Today more than 20 families are in the group. A few of the kids now take hormone blockers. A few others have come out as gay. Moriko’s son is still wavering.

Moriko’s son will soon enter eighth grade in his Long Island public middle school. Most of his friends are girls, and he dresses just like them: skinny jeans, black eyeliner, light lipstick and off-the-shoulder shirts from the girls’ department. (Moriko makes him wear a tank top underneath.) When his teachers asked which pronoun they should use when referring to him, he said masculine. But he doesn’t want to be called a boy, or a girl.

“This is a kid who is smack in the middle,” Moriko said. “His feet are getting bigger, his voice is starting to deepen. He doesn’t want to start blockers. We don’t really know what’s next.” She sighed and then started to cry. “His therapist said to me, ‘I know you’ve been living without a gender box for a very long time, and I know it’s frustrating and confusing, but right now, he just doesn’t want to be in a box.’ I’m not trying to label him, but it’s hard not to wonder what he is, if he’s not a boy and he’s not a girl. Sometimes I worry that not being in a box isn’t healthy, either, even if the box is ‘gay’ or ‘genderqueer.’ I just want to be able to wrap my head around some concept. I know I have to be patient, but sometimes I feel like an emotional hostage, because as his parent, it’s my job to help him be whatever he wants to be, and I can’t do that if he doesn’t know where he’s headed.”

Gender nonconformity is a touchy subject, and parents who celebrate it in their children can be judged harshly. When J. Crew ran an ad of its president painting her son’s toenails neon pink, with copy that read, “Lucky for me, I ended up with a boy whose favorite color is pink,” one commentator said she was exploiting her son “behind the facade of liberal, transgendered identity politics.” Then there was Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, the Toronto couple inadvertently caught in a critical spotlight when word spread that they wouldn’t reveal their newborn’s sex because they wanted to free him or her from gender expectations. The idea came from their 6-year-old son, Jazz, who has insisted for the last three years on picking his clothes from the girls’ section of the store.

“I didn’t go into parenting thinking I wanted to deconstruct the notions of gender with my children,” Witterick told me. “I had enough life experience to know that the way we construct masculinity sets men up to either be victimized because they’re wimps, or to be victimizers to prove they’re not. But I will freely admit to you that the first time Jazz selected a dress off the store shelf, I did not know what to do. There were beads of sweat on my forehead.”

Ellen R. and her 10-year-old son, Nick, live in a small New Jersey suburb. Nick sometimes spends hours a day drawing gowns for his 36 Barbies and designing them for himself or his dolls, using fabric, ribbon and rubber bands. For a while, Nick was able to keep his interest hidden. But one day in second grade, a friend stopped by unexpectedly and saw Barbies sprawled in the living room. The boy ran out of the house. In school the following day announced to the class, “Nick plays with dolls.”

“Everyone looked at me,” Nick told me. “I wanted to yell, but you’re not supposed to yell in school. So I said it wasn’t true. But no one believed me.” He was quiet for a while, concentrating on an uncooperative lock of a Barbie’s hair. “He was my friend. That was the worst part of it.”

In the two years since, Nick hasn’t had a single play date.

Ellen’s conviction that Nick shouldn’t be ashamed of who he is runs deep. Yet she nonetheless battles a fear of being shunned. “When your kid’s girly in preschool, the other parents might think it’s cute. But it’s not cute once your kid is in elementary school, especially the older he gets. I sit next to parents at events, I volunteer with the P.T.A., and it’s hard not to wonder, are they out there making fun of me and my kid?”

For other parents, the discomfort is even more intense. When Jose was a toddler, his father, Anthony, accepted his son’s gender fluidity, even agreeing to play “beauty shop.” But as Jose got older and it became clear his interests weren’t just a passing phase, Anthony recoiled. He struggled with confusion, disappointment and alienation from his own child, who called himself a “girl-boy.” Though Anthony tried to hide it, he often cringed when he saw Jose prancing in a neighbor’s flowered dress or strutting in a friend’s wig.

Sometimes, Anthony fled wherever Jose was playing. Other times, he confronted his boy. If Jose walked outside carting a Barbie, Anthony would scowl: “Do you have to carry it allthe time?” Once when Jose was 3 and wearing a dress every day, Anthony pleaded: “Jose! You’re a boy! You’re not a girl — you’re a boy!” and then started to cry. Jose slipped out of bed, padded over to his weeping father and patted his head. “I just didn’t know how to relate to him,” he recalled recently. “I didn’t know how to be the father of a girl inside a boy’s body.”

Anthony and his wife, who live in New York, found a supportive listserv and began seeing a psychiatrist, who urged them to allow Jose to play with toys of his choosing. In a therapeutic compromise, he suggested letting Jose wear whatever he wanted at home, but restricting dress-wearing in public to shield him from derision. The summer after kindergarten, Jose and Anthony attended a retreat for gender-atypical children. Seeing how happy the boys were running around in girly clothes affected Anthony deeply. Afterward, he and his wife joined a support group and enrolled Jose in a prestigious ballet school, where he is thriving. His talent makes Anthony proud.

Jose is almost 9 now. He’s interested in Legos and in cartoons of boys who fight crime and evil aliens. He rarely reaches for a dress, and he’s happy to be a boy, but he still plays with dolls. Anthony is fine with all that, though he reluctantly admits that he’s still distressed when his son talks or moves flamboyantly, and he’s not sure why. Anthony has apologized to Jose. “I’ve told him that I was just close-minded. I say: ‘I really didn’t get it. I didn’t know anybody like you, so it took me a while to get used to it. And I’m really sorry.’ And more than once, he’s said, ‘I forgive you.’ ”

Boys and men do have more latitude these days to dress and act in less conventionally masculine ways. Among straight men, long hair and (certain) necklaces and (certain) pairs of earrings are almost normative, at least in some communities. Plenty of men wax their eyebrows, get manicures and wear pink. In some parts of the country, these shifts have provided an opening for boys who buck some gender norms.

James, for example, is a 14-year-old boy who from age 5 to 10 had long hair, wore feminine clothes and was frequently mistaken for a girl. It was an error that seemed neither to bother nor delight him. By fifth grade, though, he had abandoned most of his skirts. A year later, he was so adamant about being known as a boy that he ordered his parents never to mention his feminine past around his friends.

James is now nearly six feet tall, and his voice is low. His hair still falls down his back, and he dyes the ends pink. When he is with male buddies, they play video games and create digital animé characters. When he’s with female friends, they playact, using wigs and high voices. They brush and braid one another’s hair.

At a coffee shop near their Cambridge home, his father told me that he initially discouraged James from wearing dresses in public as much to protect his own ego as that of his son. But his embarrassment has long since turned to pride. “He’s just this very brave person,” the father said. “I’ve learned so much from him. . . . In college I remember wondering why the femme gay guy wouldn’t just act more butch so people wouldn’t give him a hard time. I didn’t think it was right for people to give him a hard time, but I thought, Hey, you bring it on yourself. Now I know that’s wrong. My son showed me this is part of core identity, not something people just put on or take off. And it’s not their job to make sure we’re all comfortable.”

One day this spring I went to a playground with an 8-year-old boy named P. J. A pink ribbon with sparkly butterflies held back his thick black curls, which he occasionally flipped dramatically. He was wearing a serpent-and-skeleton bike helmet, a navy Pokémon T-shirt, black-and-pink stretch pants, a fuchsia sweatshirt and an iridescent heart necklace. As he and a friend raced happily around the park in a loud game of tag, they accumulated new pals.

After playing for half an hour, a few kids huddled to catch their breath and finally introduce themselves. One 10-year-old girl’s eyes opened wide. She turned to me, the closest adult. “Do you know she’s a he?” Yes, I nodded. Certain that I’d misunderstood, she pointed at P. J., who was right next to her. “No!” she said. “She is a he!”

P. J.’s parents allow him to wear dresses in public, which he does judiciously, based on how likely it is he’ll be hassled. (Yes to the dentist’s office; no to his grandparents’ place.) In school, however, his parents say he can wear anything but dresses, figuring that one item has more TNT than all pink and sparkly things combined. P. J. told me he wears “girl” shirts (he used his fingers to make quote marks) three days a week and “boy” shirts the other two. Most of the time, he chooses pants that are pink or purple. Despite the fact that his parents paid for a half-day of gender-diversity training for the staff at P. J.’s school, he is still sometimes teased on the bus or during recess. “Some of the boys in school make fun of me,” he says. “They keep asking,” and here he switches to a whiny voice, “ ‘Are you a boy or a girl? I forgot.’ And then they ask again the next day. They can’t just forget after one day. They’re just trying to be mean. They say I should cut my hair because it makes me look like a girl, and looking like a girl is bad. It’s not their business, but they say it anyway.”

P. J.’s favorite video game, Glory of Heracles, features an ambiguously gendered character that P.J. described as a girl who wants to be a boy.

“Do you feel like that?” I asked him one day at his house.

“No, I don’t want to be a girl,” he said, as he checked himself out in his bedroom mirror and posed, Cosmo-style. “I just want to wear girl stuff.”

“Why do you want to be a boy and not a girl?” I asked.

He looked at me as if I were daft. “Because I want to be who I am!”

By way of explanation, he told me about a boy in his third-grade class who is a soccer fanatic. “He comes to school every day in a soccer jersey and sweat pants,” P. J. said, “but that doesn’t make him a professional soccer player.”

He’s right: no one looks twice at the soccer-star wannabe, whereas boys like P. J. or Alex are viewed with distress, especially the older they get.

For that reason, last summer, as Alex’s parents contemplated his start at the local elementary school, they feared children there might bully him. So they decided to forbid dress-wearing to kindergarten. Alex didn’t take it too hard. By then, his dress requests had petered out to every few weeks anyway, and he typically wore boy clothes, though he still liked wearing a rainbow-bead necklace and nail polish. Besides, his parents had told him that socks, shoes, nail polish and jewelry were up to him — a way to express himself while safely testing the waters.

Toward the end of the first week of kindergarten, Alex showed up in class wearing hot-pink socks — a mere inch of a forbidden color. A boy in his class taunted, “Are you a girl?” Alex told his parents his feelings were so hurt that he couldn’t even respond. In solidarity, his father bought a pair of pink Converse sneakers to wear when he dropped Alex off at school.

Alex’s teacher, Mrs. C., jumped in, too. During circle time, she mentioned male friends who wore nail polish and earrings. Mrs. C. told them that when she was younger, she liked wearing boys’ sneakers. Did that make her a boy? Did the children think she shouldn’t have been allowed to wear them? Did they think it would have been O.K. to laugh at her? They shook their heads no. Then she told them that long ago, girls weren’t allowed to wear pants, and a couple of the children went wide-eyed. “I said: ‘Can you imagine not being able to wear pants when you wanted to? If you really wanted to wear them and someone told you that you couldn’t do that just because you were a girl? That would be awful!’ ” After that, the comments in the classroom about Alex’s appearance pretty much stopped.

It took Alex several weeks to rouse his courage again. And then, about once a week, he would pull on his pink socks and sparkle kitten sneakers and head boldly off to kindergarten.

On Thin Ice: Two Russians Skate Off the Reservation

A loin-clothed homage to Aboriginal peoples backfires.

Wall Street Journal

JANUARY 28, 2010, 7:55 P.M. ET,

Russian figure-skaters Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, who have been favorites to win gold medals at next month’s Vancouver Olympics, thought they had found an admirably multicultural theme for their ice-dancing routine—an homage to aboriginal peoples. In it, they leap and dance and spin to a hip-hoppy track of sampled didgeridoo sounds while wearing loincloths over bodysuits painted with pseudotribal designs.

They have now learned the hard way that the politics of multiculturalism are tricky: The pair were denounced last week by Australian Aboriginal activists who don’t like outsiders dabbling in their traditions. Bev Manton, chairwoman of the New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council, declared the skaters had co-opted “a foreign culture, and used [it] inappropriately.”

Who can argue with that? After all, there is rarely anything indisputably appropriate in figure skating, an endeavor famous for mawkish overemoting and sequined unitards. The Russians’ aboriginal fantasy is hardly the first or most egregious lapse of taste on ice.

But the Aborigines’ complaint goes far beyond the assertion that the skaters’ routine is corny or crass. The more serious accusation here is that the Russians are infringing on the cultural property of Aborigines. “We see it as stealing Aboriginal culture,” said Sol Bellear, a member of the Aboriginal Land Council. “It is yet another example of the Aboriginal people of Australia being exploited.” Ms. Manton said the performance is “not acceptable to Aboriginal people” because it is “offensive.”


James O. Young, professor of philosophy at the University of Victoria in British Columbia and author of the book “Cultural Appropriation and the Arts,” doesn’t see it that way. I asked him about the kerfuffle and he said that for Aborigines to take offense at such a hapless effort at cross-cultural kitsch is rather like a Parisian boulanger getting in a huff when an American tries to ask for a croissant in fractured French. That is, it’s unreasonable.

The Aboriginal gripe is a variation on an argument that has nagged jazz and popular music in America for most of a century. We’ve been told not to celebrate the endless cross-pollination of musical cultures, not to see it as a welcome force for integration in the old melting pot, but to view it instead as theft. For example, the “blues is black man’s music, and whites diminish it at best or steal it at worst,” wrote jazz critic and Rolling Stone magazine editor Ralph J. Gleason in 1968. “In any case, they have no moral right to use it.”

Gleason was unintentionally belittling the blues. To say that a style, an idiom, or a cultural aesthetic is the province of a race or ethnicity is to give it a status beneath that of art. Would we be elevating Beethoven’s odes if we asserted that orchestral romanticism is the sole province of Teutons? When he was a young man, jazz saxophonist Phil Woods expressed to bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie his worry that, as a white man emulating Charlie “Bird” Parker, he was misappropriating an idiom to which he had no claim. “You can’t steal a gift,” Gillespie replied. “Bird gave the world his music, and if you can hear it you can have it.”

Hipster-band-of-the-moment Vampire Weekend liberally borrows from the staccato arpeggios of African pop, much as Paul Simon did with his “Graceland” album. The preppy Columbia University grads who make up the group have created something new and different out of the mash-up of cultures, a genre that, with postmodern irony, they call “Upper West Side Soweto.” We can furrow our brows and harrumph that they have inappropriately co-opted a foreign idiom, or we can marvel at the endlessly jumbled global culture that mixes Locust Valley garb with township grooves.


T.S. Eliot endorsed the idea of artistic theft, with the caveat that “bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” I don’t think we need to demand that cultural interlopers make something “better” than the sources that inspire them. That would be the real insult—borrowing on the premise that one will be improving upon the original. Instead, it should be enough that a poem or a song or a dance or a play makes for something different—even if it is different in the excruciating way that the joke auditions on “American Idol” give us different takes on famous pop songs. Goodness knows the Russian Olympic skaters have done at least that much (unless there is a thriving tradition of Aboriginal ice ballet in Australia that I’ve somehow missed).

Aboriginal activists met earlier this week to weigh their options and decided that the Russian ice-dancing routine “while offensive to Aboriginal people, is not illegal.” That’s a relief—though we can expect the Russian pair to be treated as cultural criminals at the Olympics nonetheless. Which is a shame, because even as we celebrate the great multiplicity and variety of cultures in the world, there is a case to be made that we all share in them.

“My people,” writes Princeton philosophy professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, “made the Great Wall of China, the Chrysler Building, the Sistine Chapel: these things were made by creatures like me, through the exercise of skill and imagination.” By “my people” Mr. Appiah means that biggest and most catholic of tribes, “human beings.”

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The Meaning of No Meaning :: Jennie Yabroff

By Jennie Yabroff | NEWSWEEK
Published Jan 15, 2010
[From the magazine issue dated Jan 25, 2010]

Joshua Ferris’s first novel, Then We Came to the End, a comic look at work culture during economic upheaval, was a bestselling National Book Award finalist that propelled Ferris into Next Great American Novelist territory. So when you hear that his new novel, The Unnamed, is about a man named Tim who is periodically overcome by a compulsion to walk without stopping until he collapses from exhaustion, you’ll probably say, “Yes, but what is it about?” The affliction must be a metaphor for something larger. Addiction, maybe. Looming environmental catastrophe. The search for God. After all, a smart and agile writer like Ferris has to be smuggling a Big Idea under his seemingly straightforward premise. But what if the book is about nothing more than a man who takes really long walks?

When we talk about the difference between “high” and “pop” culture, we often mean that one requires the work of interpretation, while the other is a ready source of easy pleasure. Certain writers, artists, musicians, and filmmakers are assumed to have intentions beyond simple entertainment: The Metamorphosis can’t really just be about a guy who wakes up one morning transformed into a beetle. It has to be a metaphor for self-alienation. (Unless it’s about the Holocaust. Or capitalism.) Anyone who has taken an introductory course in literary theory can play this game, and feel all the smarter for it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it deepens our appreciation of the work.

When we evaluate a work first and foremost for its subtext, we can overlook the power of the text itself. “To interpret is to impoverish,” Susan Sontag wrote 50 years ago, arguing that the best way to engage with a work of art is not to analyze or unpack it, but to take it at face value. Sontag believed cinema, with its capacity for total sensory immersion and its designation as mass, instead of high, culture, was the art form most likely to resist the deadening effects of interpretation. But today even the most mainstream movie is ripe for pseudo-serious analysis: consider the recent essay collection The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies, a compilation of academic papers about the cult favorite The Big Lebowski. Rather than film, the most interpretation-proof form of art is nonfiction: memoir, documentary, and, at its most mass level, reality TV. It is possible that the current popularity of nonfiction art is due to just this freedom to consume it whole, without first having to figure out what it “means.”

Consider if Ferris’s novel were published as nonfiction: the true story of a man with a life-destroying condition that baffled medical doctors and psychologists alike. The story’s success would hinge on how effectively Ferris conveyed the pathos and terror of Tim’s affliction, not how cleverly the writer disguised his true concerns. In fact, The Unnamed could work as nonfiction. There’s enough medical detail to make Tim’s condition plausible, and while some events are fantastical, they could just be the result of his mind’s erosion by his disease. (Taken this way, the book resembles Into the Wild, a nonfiction account of a young man who hiked deep into Alaska for unknown reasons.)

Even more than a cure, Tim craves a diagnosis, words to describe his condition. The reader, too, begins to crave the catharsis of comprehension—if not for Tim, at least for ourselves. In the middle of one of his walking spells Tim buys a bird book: “Name a bird and master the world. Reveal nature’s mystery and momentarily triumph over it.” It’s tempting to read this as Ferris’s commentary on the futility of the search for meaning, both in literature and in life. After all, Tim abandons the book in less than a day. But to say Ferris’s message is no message is still an act of interpretation. Maybe sometimes it’s best to just let the birds be birds. And the beetles be beetles.

© 2010

Beatles: Rock Band; Impressive Review

THERE may be no better way to bait a baby boomer than to be anything less than totally reverential about the Beatles. So the news that the lads from Liverpool were taking fresh form in a video game (a video game!) called The Beatles: Rock Band struck some of the band’s acolytes as nothing less than heresy.

Luckily, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, along with the widows of George Harrison and John Lennon, seem to understand that the Beatles are not a museum piece, that the band and its message ought never be encased in amber. The Beatles: Rock Band is nothing less than a cultural watershed, one that may prove only slightly less influential than the band’s famous appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. By reinterpreting an essential symbol of one generation in the medium and technology of another, The Beatles: Rock Band provides a transformative entertainment experience.

In that sense it may be the most important video game yet made.

Never before has a video game had such intergenerational cultural resonance. The weakness of most games is that they are usually devoid of any connection to our actual life and times. There is usually no broader meaning, no greater message, in defeating aliens or zombies, or even in the cognitive gameplay of determining strategy or solving puzzles.

Previous titles in the Rock Band and Guitar Hero series have already done more in recent years to introduce young people to classic rock than all the radio stations in the country. But this new game is special because it so lovingly, meticulously, gloriously showcases the relatively brief career of the most important rock band of all time. The music and lyrics of the Beatles are no less relevant today than they were all those decades ago, and by reimagining the Beatles’ message in the unabashedly modern, interactive, digital form of now, the new game ties together almost 50 years of modern entertainment.

With all due respect to Wii Sports, no video game has ever brought more parents together with their teenage and adult children than The Beatles: Rock Band likely will in the months and years to come.

One Friday evening last month I invited a gaggle of 20-something hipsters (I’m 36) to my apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, to try the game. After 15 minutes one 25-year-old said, “I’m going to have to buy this for my parents this Christmas, aren’t I?” After nine hours we had completed all of the game’s 45 songs in one marathon session. On Saturday afternoon, I woke up to watch a 20-year-old spend three hours mastering the rolling, syncopated drum sequences in “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Thirty-six hours later, near dawn Monday morning, there were still a few happy stragglers in my living room belting out “Back in the U.S.S.R.” Good thing my neighbors were away for the weekend.

I grew up in Woodstock, N.Y., steeped in classic rock, so I had a head start on my younger band mates. (I suspect many parents will enjoy having a similar leg up on their progeny.) Yet I watched the same transformation all weekend long. We would start a song like “Something” or “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and as it began, they would say, “Oh yeah, that one.” Then at the end there would literally be a stunned silence before someone would say something unprintable, or simply “Wow” as they fully absorbed the emotional intensity and almost divine melodies of the Beatles.

Not only was the game serving to reintroduce this music, but by leading the players through a schematic version of actually creating the songs, it was also doing so in a much more engaging way than merely listening to a recording. It is an imperfect analogy, but listening to a finished song is perhaps like being served a finished recipe: you know it tastes great even if you have no sense of how it was created.

By contrast, playing a music game like Rock Band is a bit closer to following a recipe yourself or watching a cooking show on television. Sure, the result won’t be of professional caliber (after all, you didn’t go to cooking school, the equivalent of music lessons), but you may have a greater appreciation for the genius who created the dish than the restaurantgoer, because you have attempted it yourself.

Previous music games have been about collections of songs. The Beatles: Rock Band is about representing and reoffering an entire worldview encapsulated in music. The developers at Harmonix Music Systems have translated the Beatles’ scores and tablature into a form that is accessible while also conveying the visceral rhythm of the music. In its melding of source material and presentation, The Beatles: Rock Band is sheer pleasure. The game is scheduled to be released by MTV Games for the PlayStation 3, Wii and Xbox 360 consoles on Wednesday, the same day the remastered Beatles catalog is slated to be released on CD.

Mechanically it is almost identical to previous Rock Band games. One player sings into a microphone, replacing the original lead vocals, while another plays an electronic drum kit and two more play ersatz guitar and bass. (The new game supports up to two additional singers for a potential maximum of six players.)

In the game’s story line mode, players inhabit the various Beatles as they progress from the Cavern Club to Ed Sullivan’s stage; Shea Stadium; the Budokan in Japan; Abbey Road; and their final appearance on the Apple Corps roof in 1969. Unlike in previous Rock Band games, players are not booed off the virtual stage for a poor performance; rather the screen cuts to a declarative “Song failed” message. Previously unreleased studio chatter provides a soundtrack for some of the menu and credits screens, but there is no direct interaction with avatars of John, Paul, George or Ringo.

The colorful psychedelic dreamscapes used to represent the band’s in-studio explorations are particularly evocative, though they serve mostly to entertain onlookers rather than the players themselves (who will be concentrating on getting the music right rather than looking at the pretty pictures).

Of course almost nothing could be more prosaic than pointing out that playing a music game is not the same as playing a real instrument. Yet there is something about video games that seems to inspire true anger in some older people.

Why is that? Is there still really a fear that a stylized representation of reality detracts from reality itself? In recent centuries every new technology for creating and enjoying music — the phonograph, the electric guitar, the Walkman, MTV, karaoke, the iPod — has been condemned as the potential death of “real” music.

But music is eternal. Each new tool for creating it, and each new technology for experiencing it, only brings the joy of more music to more people. This new game is a fabulous entertainment that will not only introduce the Beatles’ music to a new audience but also will simultaneously bring millions of their less-hidebound parents into gaming. For that its makers are entitled to a deep simultaneous bow, Beatles style.

[From New York Times article “All Together Now: Play the Game, Mom“]

The Pleasures of Rereading :: David Gates


Published Jun 27, 2009 From the magazine issue dated Jul 13, 2009

Above the table on which I’m now writing hangs an old framed print showing Mr. Pickwick’s street-smart servant, Sam Weller, prophetically pointing out to his chubby little master—in tights, gaiters, and spectacles—a vast, teeming mob of tiny figures: the characters Charles Dickens was to create in the novels to come after The Pickwick Papers. I still haven’t identified all of them, but I see Fagin and the Artful Dodger from Oliver Twist, Little Nell and her grandfather from The Old Curiosity Shop, the sanctimonious Mr. Pecksniff from Martin Chuzzlewit, the choleric Major Bagstock from Dombey and Son, and Bob Cratchit from A Christmas Carol carrying Tiny Tim. Ah, and that must be the mad old dealer in secondhand clothes from DavidCopperfield. His name, in what appears to be an odd self-tribute, is Charley—Dickens names another madman in that same novel Mr. Dick—but I remember him best, as you will if you’ve read the book, for his greeting to young David: “Oh, my eyes and limbs, what do you want? Oh, my lungs and liver, what do you want? Oh, goroo, goroo!” It’s because I can’t get enough of characters like these that half my Dickens paperbacks now have their covers held on with duct tape.

Top 100 Books: The Meta-List

The other day I went to the bookstore and laid in a couple of newly published volumes I’ve been eager to read—Samuel Beckett’s letters and Blake Bailey’s biography of John Cheever—but I’ll be spending most of this summer revisiting all of Dickens yet again. (So far I’ve gone through Chuzzlewit, Bleak House, A Tale of Two Cities, and Little Dorrit; next up, Oliver Twist.) This time I’ve got an excuse—I’m teaching a Dickens course in the fall—but I’ve never considered that I needed one. Most of the “joys of rereading” pieces you come across tuck in an obligatory apology for indulging in the “childish” pleasure—this is a bad thing?—of “obsessive” repetition. You often hear a distinction made between strictly literary rereading, the kind of close study scholars and writers undertake, and the “comfort” reading relegated to the beach, the bathroom, and the bedroom. But is there really such a sharp line between the respectably energizing and the shamefully narcotizing? I’d never put Dracula on a syllabus, or read myself to sleep with Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable. (Though some people might find it a sovereign cure for insomnia.) Still, I suspect that the most widely reread writers in English have been Dickens, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen—hardly a month goes by without my revisiting one of them—who combine the sleepy-time comforts of story and character with all the challenge and complexity, the inexhaustible newness, that anyone could ask for. I’ve taught them all in the classroom, while in the bedroom their books have slipped from my hands as their stories shaded into my dreams.

In a recent New York Times op-ed in defense of rereading, Verlyn Klinkenborg lists some of his old favorites—he turns out to be a Dickens hound too—and concludes: “This is not a canon. This is a refuge.” And in an even more recent New Yorker piece, Roger Angell refers to “a sweet dab of guilt attached to rereading. We really should be into something new, for we need to know all about credit-default swaps and Darwin and steroids and the rest, but not just now, please.” Most of us, though, have our own musical canon—or why do they sell so many iPods?—and no one feels guilty about listening to, say, Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” just once in a lifetime. My own list of perennial rereads ranges from Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and Galen Rowell’s In the Throne Room of the Mountain Gods—about a K2 expedition that entertainingly falls apart over the climbing team’s acrimonies—to John Dean’s Watergate memoir Blind Ambition and Brendan Gill’s magazine memoir Here at the New Yorker, to Humphrey House’s biography of Ezra Pound, A Serious Character, and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson. This is beyond a refuge. It’s a world, with continent after continent, each as densely populated with heroes, villains, and oddballs as that Dickens print on my wall. They give me a circle of friends and acquaintances far wider, and in some cases far deeper, than I—or anyone—could have in what we’re pleased to call the real world.

In W. H. Auden’s essay “The Guilty Vicarage”—collected in The Dyer’s Hand, which I’ve kept on my night table for years—he analyzes his self-confessed “addiction” to whodunits: “I suspect that the typical reader of detective stories is, like myself, a person who suffers from a sense of sin.” I share Auden’s fondness for Sherlock Holmes and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, but his reading habits could hardly be more different from mine. “I forget the story as soon as I have finished it, and have no wish to read it again. If, as sometimes happens, I start reading one and find after a few pages that I have read it before, I cannot go on.” I’ve reread all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and many of the Father Browns, more times than I could count, and I seldom have fewer than a half dozen of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries there on the night table next to The Dyer’s Hand. In fact, I never travel overnight without one or two in my bag. And, as far as I can tell, without a sense of sin.

Lovers of these stories—can we not call them addicts?—often note that part of their appeal lies in their comfortingly familiar atmospheres: Holmes and Watson’s rooms on Baker Street, with the “gasogene” (whatever that is) and the Persian slipper filled with pipe tobacco, or Wolfe’s townhouse on West 35th, with its kitchen on the first floor and its plant rooms on the roof. But the real draw is the people: the arrogantly rational Holmes (whose impenetrable reserve compensates for God knows what); the stolid yet insecure Watson; the petulant, sedentary, impossibly erudite Wolfe—a fellow rereader, whose office is lined with favorite books—and his Watson, the hyperkinetic, never-insecure Archie Goodwin, wielder of one of the most engaging first-person narrative voices in all of fiction. And don’t forget the villains. Not just the recurring archenemies—Dr. Moriarty and Arnold Zeck (Wolfe’s Moriarty)—but such wonderfully nasty specimens as the fraudulent “solar priest” exposed by Father Brown in The Eye of Apollo, or the drab middle-aged lady in Stout’s A Right to Die who turns out to be a murderous racist. I’ve just spoiled two endings, by the way, but they were spoiled for me years ago without diminishing my pleasure a bit.

In the books I reread over and over, I always come back for the people, and often simply for their voices. I return to Ball Four just to hear Joe Schultz, manager of the hapless Seattle Pilots, tell his players to “pound that ol’ Budweiser.” Or to Peter Golenbock’s Dynasty: The New York Yankees, 1949–1964, to hear the team’s former third baseman Clete Boyer lamenting his eroded skills. “And it’s a shame,” he tells Golenbock. “Like old ballplayers—like myself. I should quit now. But s–t, I have to go back to Japan for the money. I hate to be embarrassed like that, to just hang on, hang on for the money.” Or to Donald Honig’s Baseball When the Grass Was Real, to hear the long-retired pitcher Wes Ferrell reminisce: “But I’ve still got those memories. I played against a lot of great stars. You name ’em. Ruth, Gehrig, Greenberg, Simmons, Foxx, Grove, DiMaggio, Cochrane, Feller. I saw them all. And they saw me. You bet they did.” Honig’s book also has a brilliantly told Ernest Hemingway anecdote, from Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer Billy Herman. When the team was training in Havana in the 1940s, Hemingway, who “took a lot of pride in all this manly stuff,” invited some players to his house. Late in the evening he cajoled pitcher Hugh Casey into a “friendly” boxing match, sucker-punched him, kicked him “in the balls,” then challenged him to a duel: ” ‘We’ll use swords, pistols, whatever you want. You pick it.’ And he’s dead serious about it …c The next day Hemingway’s wife brought him down to the ball park. You never saw a man so embarrassed, so ashamed. He apologized to everybody. ‘Don’t know what got into me,’ he said. Well, I can tell you what got into him. About a quart.”

I also reread Hemingway’s own stories, to hear his characters’ voices again—he’s got an even better ear than Billy Herman. There’s the narrator of “After the Storm,” who’s the first to come upon a sunken ocean liner, but can’t get down there to loot it. “Well, the Greeks got it all. They must have come fast all right. They picked her clean. First there was the birds, then me, then the Greeks, and even the birds got more out of her than I did.” And “the girl” in “Hills Like White Elephants,” whose lover is pestering her to get an abortion. “Would you please please please please please please please stop talking?” (That’s seven “please”s. Who says less is more?) But my favorite is the lumber-town prostitute in “The Light of the World,” with her addled aria about a once famous prizefighter. “Did I know him? Did I know him? Did I love him? You ask me that? I knew him like you know nobody in the world and I loved him like you love God. He was the greatest, finest, whitest, most beautiful man that ever lived, Steve Ketchel, and his own father shot him down like a dog.” In all of short fiction, she has only one serious rival for my affections: the spinster postmistress in Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.” “Papa-Daddy woke up with this horrible yell and right there without moving an inch he tried to turn Uncle Rondo against me …c All the time he was just lying there swinging as pretty as you please and looping out his beard, and poor Uncle Rondo was pleading with him to slow down the hammock, it was making him as dizzy as a witch to watch it. But that’s what Papa-Daddy likes about a hammock. So Uncle Rondo was too busy to get turned against me for the time being. He’s mama’s only brother and is a good case of a one-track mind. Ask anybody. A certified pharmacist.” If you’ve got Talking Heads on your iPod, why would you want to hear this loony music only once in your life?

And it’s not just the characters who’ve become my companions—it’s also the writers themselves. Some of them, I feel, I would never have wanted to deal with in person, but on the page, they’re some of my favorite people to hang out with. In Strong Opinions, a collection of interviews and letters to editors, the arch-mandarin Vladimir Nabokov sets me straight again and again about Conrad (“I cannot abide [his] souvenir-shop style, bottled ships and shell necklaces of romanticist clichés”), Freud (“Let the credulous and the vulgar continue to believe that all mental woes can be cured by a daily application of old Greek myths to their private parts”), and “the corny Philistine fad of flaunting four-letter words.” I never weary of his reply when asked about his “position in the world of letters”: “Jolly good view from up here.” And in The Sixties, the last of the posthumously published journals by Nabokov’s friend (and sometime enemy) Edmund Wilson, I get to keep company with the august curmudgeon when he goes to see Yellow Submarine—”Amusing but almost two hours of animated cartoon is perhaps a little too much”—and a performance at a Paris music hall. “I… sat through the first act of a show that … consisted of American-type entertainment of the coarsest and most raucous kind: a jazz orchestra; everybody doing the twist; women torch singers, tremendously applauded, who … would sing with the microphone in the right hand, like a piece of garden hose.” Still, huff as he did, even in his last years Wilson was always game to check out something new. Not—ahem—like some of us.

It might be that the shame attached to rereading has less to do with all the new books you feel you ought to be encountering than with what your choice of old books reveals. In my case, I can see a strong tendency toward nostalgia (for the New York Yankees of my childhood; for the sum-mer of 1973, when I watched the Watergate hearings on television) and toward Anglophilia—which appears to be my favored form of multiculturalism. I can’t help but notice the glaring whiteness of all my most-reread authors; it might be righteous to pretend otherwise, but it is what it is: as John-son said, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.” And for a heterosexual, I seem to have quite a taste for all-male subcultures (baseball, mountaineering), mostly male adventures (The Lord of the Rings, Moby-Dick, the Watergate saga), male solitaries (John-son, Philip Larkin, Father Brown), and male couples (Holmes and Watson, Jeeves and Bertie, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, Mr. Pickwick and Sam, Frodo and his Sam). Then again, maybe having a taste for Hemingway says it all. I suppose I could go on to look at why I’m always rereading Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, or Tom Piazza’s True Adventures With the King of Bluegrass, or Paul Fussell’s Thank God for the Atom Bomb and Other Essays, or certain stories by Cheever, Bruce Jay Friedman, Flannery O’Connor, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner. Not to mention Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon, his eminently rereadable rereading of some of the all-time great rereads. The simple answer is that they give me joy. They fill me with the voices of people I know, thousands of them—many times the number in that old Dickens print—the real and the imagined, the living and the dead. Heaven may be like this eventually, but why wait around when it’s right here, right now?

Rapture of the Nerds

The Coming Superbrain

Published: May 23, 2009
The New York Times

Mountain View, Calif. — It’s summertime and the Terminator is back. A sci-fi movie thrill ride, “Terminator Salvation” comes complete with a malevolent artificial intelligence dubbed Skynet, a military R.&D. project that gained self-awareness and concluded that humans were an irritant — perhaps a bit like athlete’s foot — to be dispatched forthwith.

The notion that a self-aware computing system would emerge spontaneously from the interconnections of billions of computers and computer networks goes back in science fiction at least as far as Arthur C. Clarke’s “Dial F for Frankenstein.” A prescient short story that appeared in 1961, it foretold an ever-more-interconnected telephone network that spontaneously acts like a newborn baby and leads to global chaos as it takes over financial, transportation and military systems.

Today, artificial intelligence, once the preserve of science fiction writers and eccentric computer prodigies, is back in fashion and getting serious attention from NASA and from Silicon Valley companies like Google as well as a new round of start-ups that are designing everything from next-generation search engines to machines that listen or that are capable of walking around in the world. A.I.’s new respectability is turning the spotlight back on the question of where the technology might be heading and, more ominously, perhaps, whether computer intelligence will surpass our own, and how quickly.

The concept of ultrasmart computers — machines with “greater than human intelligence” — was dubbed “The Singularity” in a 1993 paper by the computer scientist and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge. He argued that the acceleration of technological progress had led to “the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth.” This thesis has long struck a chord here in Silicon Valley.

Artificial intelligence is already used to automate and replace some human functions with computer-driven machines. These machines can see and hear, respond to questions, learn, draw inferences and solve problems. But for the Singulatarians, A.I. refers to machines that will be both self-aware and superhuman in their intelligence, and capable of designing better computers and robots faster than humans can today. Such a shift, they say, would lead to a vast acceleration in technological improvements of all kinds.

The idea is not just the province of science fiction authors; a generation of computer hackers, engineers and programmers have come to believe deeply in the idea of exponential technological change as explained by Gordon Moore, a co-founder of the chip maker Intel.

In 1965, Dr. Moore first described the repeated doubling of the number transistors on silicon chips with each new technology generation, which led to an acceleration in the power of computing. Since then “Moore’s Law” — which is not a law of physics, but rather a description of the rate of industrial change — has come to personify an industry that lives on Internet time, where the Next Big Thing is always just around the corner.

Several years ago the artificial-intelligence pioneer Raymond Kurzweil took the idea one step further in his 2005 book, “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” He sought to expand Moore’s Law to encompass more than just processing power and to simultaneously predict with great precision the arrival of post-human evolution, which he said would occur in 2045.

In Dr. Kurzweil’s telling, rapidly increasing computing power in concert with cyborg humans would then reach a point when machine intelligence not only surpassed human intelligence but took over the process of technological invention, with unpredictable consequences.

Profiled in the documentary “Transcendent Man,” which had its premier last month at the TriBeCa Film Festival, and with his own Singularity movie due later this year, Dr. Kurzweil has become a one-man marketing machine for the concept of post-humanism. He is the co-founder of Singularity University, a school supported by Google that will open in June with a grand goal — to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

Not content with the development of superhuman machines, Dr. Kurzweil envisions “uploading,” or the idea that the contents of our brain and thought processes can somehow be translated into a computing environment, making a form of immortality possible — within his lifetime.

That has led to no shortage of raised eyebrows among hard-nosed technologists in the engineering culture here, some of whom describe the Kurzweilian romance with supermachines as a new form of religion.

The science fiction author Ken MacLeod described the idea of the singularity as “the Rapture of the nerds.” Kevin Kelly, an editor at Wired magazine, notes, “People who predict a very utopian future always predict that it is going to happen before they die.”

However, Mr. Kelly himself has not refrained from speculating on where communications and computing technology is heading. He is at work on his own book, “The Technium,” forecasting the emergence of a global brain — the idea that the planet’s interconnected computers might someday act in a coordinated fashion and perhaps exhibit intelligence. He just isn’t certain about how soon an intelligent global brain will arrive.

Others who have observed the increasing power of computing technology are even less sanguine about the future outcome. The computer designer and venture capitalist William Joy, for example, wrote a pessimistic essay in Wired in 2000 that argued that humans are more likely to destroy themselves with their technology than create a utopia assisted by superintelligent machines.

Mr. Joy, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, still believes that. “I wasn’t saying we would be supplanted by something,” he said. “I think a catastrophe is more likely.”

Moreover, there is a hot debate here over whether such machines might be the “machines of loving grace,” of the Richard Brautigan poem, or something far darker, of the “Terminator” ilk.

“I see the debate over whether we should build these artificial intellects as becoming the dominant political question of the century,” said Hugo de Garis, an Australian artificial-intelligence researcher, who has written a book, “The Artilect War,” that argues that the debate is likely to end in global war.

Concerned about the same potential outcome, the A.I. researcher Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, an employee of the Singularity Institute, has proposed the idea of “friendly artificial intelligence,” an engineering discipline that would seek to ensure that future machines would remain our servants or equals rather than our masters.

Nevertheless, this generation of humans, at least, is perhaps unlikely to need to rush to the barricades. The artificial-intelligence industry has advanced in fits and starts over the past half-century, since the term “artificial intelligence” was coined by the Stanford University computer scientist John McCarthy in 1956. In 1964, when Mr. McCarthy established the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the researchers informed their Pentagon backers that the construction of an artificially intelligent machine would take about a decade. Two decades later, in 1984, that original optimism hit a rough patch, leading to the collapse of a crop of A.I. start-up companies in Silicon Valley, a time known as “the A.I. winter.”

Such reversals have led the veteran Silicon Valley technology forecaster Paul Saffo to proclaim: “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

Indeed, despite this high-technology heartland’s deeply held consensus about exponential progress, the worst fate of all for the Valley’s digerati would be to be the generation before the generation that lives to see the singularity.

“Kurzweil will probably die, along with the rest of us not too long before the ‘great dawn,’ ” said Gary Bradski, a Silicon Valley roboticist. “Life’s not fair.”

[A version of this article appeared in print on May 24, 2009, on page WK1 (Week in Review, page 1) of the New York edition (of the New York Times).]

A Hero for Our Time :: Walter Kirn explains the lasting appeal of Lebowski’s Dude

In 1998, when the Dude shuffled into the nation’s movie theaters wearing a bathrobe, slurping White Russians and licking the residue of 10,000 joints from the fringes of his filthy mustache, there was no way for us to know what he’d become: the first, most convincing cinematic superhero for an age of quagmire and stalemate. Compared to the Dude, the typical superheroes of our day feel less and less reassuring, and even ominous. Billionaire playboys who mask their true identities while turning themselves into gigantic armored flying boners aren’t the solutions to violence, we sense, but embodiments of the traits that cause it.

The Dude’s approach to conquering evil was to let it conquer itself while he takes a bath or crashes on the sofa. There was no fight he couldn’t run away from and no challenge he couldn’t brush aside. His testosterone, it seemed, had turned to two percent. His motto, “Take it easy, man,” was no inflammatory call to battle but a brilliant reminder that, in times of stress, one always has the option of not stressing. In its own way, the Dude’s lifestyle offers of radical critique of America’s tension-wracked, self-defeating culture. He doesn’t have an adjustable-rate mortgage, the only ID he carries on his person is a supermarket discount card, and it’s hard to imagine him wearing out his fingers hitting “refresh” on Perez Hilton’s Website every time Denise Richards serves Charlie Sheen with another 16-page petition.

The Dude’s lesson, in its heroic essence, is that as long as grown-up men don’t get out of their pajamas – or, if they do, immediately don bowling shoes – the world will be a better place. That his hotheaded best friend, Walter, disagrees with him bums the Dude out, of course, but not profoundly. The militaristic nut deserves some latitude. Of the countless haunted Vietnam vets served up by Hollywood over the years, Walter is the most volatile yet lovable, a hand grenade in the shape of a stuffed bear.

The friendship between the Dude and Walter is founded on the law of basic loyalty, which may be the only law the Dude respects. Eventually, when things heat up, the peacenik joins forces with the psycho, the draft dodger lines up with the GI, and the festering wounds of Vietnam are truly and spiritually healed. Blessedly, this healing doesn’t require a full-scale bombardment of Iraq, which was thought by some politicians at the time to be the most effective way to recapture the national self-confidence lost in the rice paddies of Nam. No, what brings the Dude and Walter together is their discovery of a common enemy. If the pair of them represent two species of the trampled grass-roots American, then the wheelchair-bound, Cheney-esque millionaire Lebowski is a pressurized tank of social herbicide. Lebowski isn’t fussy about destruction; he wants to clear the ground of bums and oddballs so he can smoothly roll across it, unimpeded, unopposed.

If the movie is about anything (and plenty of folks thought it wasn’t when it came out, though now there are some who think it’s about everything), it’s a satirical repudiation of the deadly male obsession to level, flatten and lay waste so as to lord over what remains. This phallic triumphalism spooks the Dude. Fears of castration assault his porous psyche like armies of chattering, wind-up, joke-shop teeth. A hungry ferret is tossed into his bubble bath. A fumbled joint nearly incinerates his pants. Mimes with gigantic scissors invade his dreams. In the meantime, Lebowski’s performance-artist daughter, Maude, is plotting to discard him like a turkey baster once she’s managed to water her parched womb with his precious bodily fluids. And then, of course, there are all the toppling bowling pins, scourging the Dude’s subconscious with every strike.

That the Dude can decline to engage with such assaults on the ramparts of his masculinity is one of his distinctive superpowers. It elevates him above his strutting counterparts like Batman and Iron Man, whose costumes center on a bulging codpiece. The Dude is a softy for the most part, while Batman and Iron Man strive incessantly for the grandiose tumescence that makes our world so dangerous in the first place. The Dude understands this fateful truth. The pushy hard-ons of the elites were precisely what got us into Vietnam and then, years later, sent our soldiers against Saddam Hussein, first to cut him down to size, and then, when that operation didn’t satisfy, to cut him into bits.

The Dude won’t have it, though. He rejects absolutism in all its forms, embraces half-assedness, and even grants Walter a final sloppy hug despite the fact that his shellshocked outbursts have indirectly killed their bowling partner. The Dude is not Jesus, but if he were to meet the Son of God, he’d let him finish the last roach from his stash. If ours is truly “a world of pain,” as Walter repeatedly asserts and the nightly news bears out, then the Dude is one of those saintly underachievers, those holy screw-ups, who make it somewhat bearable. His greatest powers are not to use his power and to acknowledge – serenely, without resentment – that, in the end, he doesn’t have much power.

Forever may he stagger. Long may he weave.

By Walter Kirn

[Page 41 inset to The Decade of the Dude: How The Big Lebowski – the Coen brothers’ 1998 stoner caper starring Jeff Bridges as an L.A. slacker called the Dude – became the most worshipped comedy of its generation, a great article by Andy Greene, Rolling Stone issue 1060 >> September 4, 2008]