The Third Gender and the Fourth Estate

Can a writer effectively compose a first person narrative story but from voice of their opposite gender?

There are a lot of interesting questions people struggle with in the NaNoWriMo Facebook group, and this is just one of them. Most of the responses are fairly predictable. "Yes… I can…I'm told they're accurate, too, from my male readers….There is more difference within genders than between…."

The discussion drifts off to sexuality.

I added my two cents with

Wow! I came at this from a very different perspective than most of the other people on this thread. My first thought was, "It all depends on whether you are cis or trans".

This, of course, led me to thinking about gender being socially constructed. If we are creating new worlds, we can also create gender constructs as we please.

I wonder how many of the forum participants get the reference to "cis or trans" or "gender as a social construct".

On Wednesdays, I speak with my eldest daughter who is teaching in Japan these days. Recently, she went to a conference on gender equality there. During our discussion of her experiences, I mentioned an interview I had recently listened to where the speaker identified herself as being in a third gender. She was a western woman in a strongly patriarchal Muslim country. In the country, there were acceptable roles for men and for women. Yet, she, as a western woman, could participate in activities traditionally reserved for men as well as in activities traditionally reserved for women.

My daughters and I often speak about social constructionism and I've been planning to weave the idea into my novel for NaNoWriMo. As my mind wanders along this path, I bump into the Constructivism philosophy of education, and I start thinking about social constructivism. Writing a novel is a great opportunity to experiment with challenging social constructs. How do writers create or reinforce social constructs? What role does the fourth estate play in shaping the third gender?

I must admit I've always had problems getting past Orlando "slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters". Yet the idea of Virginia Woolf's Orlando has alway intrigued me. At this point, I don't expect to have an Orlando like character in my novel, but we shall see.

#NaNoWriMo - Breaking the Transhuman Apocalyptic Singularity Filter Bubble

We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, #NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Just straight through writing. You can save the editing for later.

The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote a mystery in Second Life, and made the goal of 50,000 words. Subsequent years, I've started off on story ideas that were not clearly thought out enough, were too close to home, or I just didn't have the time. I've tried various variations on NaNoWriMo and am preparing for this year's attempt.

I've been thinking of writing some sort of psychological political philosophical treatise pulling together thoughts on aesthetics, politics, the genome, the biome, great awakenings, transcendentalism, transhumanism, the apocalypse, the singularity, social constructs and social contracts, neural networks, group therapy, attachment therapy, filter bubbles and a bunch of other ideas.

The starting point I've settled on is a campaign for State Representative. I will draw from my experiences running for State Representative last year, as well as experiences with other political campaigns, but I need to remind everyone that what I'll be writing is fiction, trying to weave together a lot of different ideas. If you find that a character sounds a lot like you, attribute it to good writing and not being a commentary on you. If you have ideas you want to share, make them about ideas and not your thoughts about different people.

With that, here is the general idea: In a fictional district, based loosely on the area I am from, there is a long time incumbent State Rep. His twin brother is a mayor in one of the towns in the district. His father was a Congressman. No one wants to run against the incumbent, so a political philosopher decides to run, but a completely different kind of campaign. No lawn signs, door knocking, palm cards,, advertisements, or any of that sort of stuff. Just discussions. Discussions about anything and everything. Discussions aimed at bring people with different viewpoints together, modeled on Chicago dinners, and aimed at breaking filter bubbles.

One of the towns in the district is a suburb where many college professors live, so there are lots of chances to talk about the genome, the biome, social contracts and social constructs.

I have a lot more ideas built into this, but I'll save some of them for November. Now, here's my ask: what sort of things would you like to talk about at a filter breaking dinner discussion organized by a long shot candidate for state representative? What points would you like to see gotten across? What conflicts would you expect?

As you can see by my comments about transhumanism, singularity, and the apocalypse, this is wide open. Let me know your thoughts!

Smoke on the Water

(While National Novel Writing Month has passed, I've written the following in the style I was exploring during the month. While it is based on my general recollections of junior high school, I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the memories.)

It was about forty years ago that I went to my first junior high school dance. It was around the time that my parents were breaking up and my mother drove me in old green Chevy pick up truck to the regional high school. With anticipation and apprehension, I dressed up in some nice school clothes. I didn’t have any fancy clothes to speak of, it wasn’t a fancy sort of dance, and I probably would have felt even more awkward if I had to where something nice. My older brothers, already in high school, and having been to various school dances made snide comments, and my younger sister, still in elementary school and a Partridge Family fan wanted to find some way that she could go on such a grand adventure. My mother sensed my uneasiness at the event, and told her to stay home as she drove me to the dance.

Back then, I was a nerd, before it was cool to be a nerd. I enjoyed talking about academic subjects, especially math. I had gone from playing clarinet in the school band to alto clarinet, on a journey that would lead me to saxophone, bagpipes, and any other instrument I could get my hands on. Yet actually performing, or for that matter, sufficiently practicing the clarinet, was something that terrified me, almost as much as talking to a girl, or letter her know that I liked her.

The drive to the school was a little over seven miles. It was fifteen minutes of just me and my mother. She tried to get me to talk about who would be there. I mentioned some of the boys that I thought would probably be there, but didn’t mention any of the girls, especially not mentioning the girls I thought were cute or hoped to dance with.

Like so many school dances, this one took place in the gymnasium. The room wax dark and decorated with crepe paper. Up near the front of the gym, the band was set up at the east end. I walked around a little the large room for a little bit to try and find my friends. Like all the boys, they were on the north side of the gym. We stood around and looked timidly across the floor to the south side where the girls were gathered in similar clusters. Some of the more popular and self possessed kids took to the dance floor. They seemed to be having a good time, and I longed to join.

We did not listen to much music at our house. There was an old radio in the corner of the kitchen that we would listen to on snowy mornings to hear if there was a school cancellation. We eventually got a small record player and we listened to records we checked out of the town library. My sister purchased a single or two, and it seemed like there would be weeks on end that I heard “If you’re going to San Francisco…” playing over and over on the record player.

I remember listening to the Beatles when we checked out one of there albums and I would mangle Hey Jude, horribly. Some of my neighbors, older boys that were closer friends with my brothers and played in one of the many typical high school bands, would endlessly try to get me to sing Hey Jude a little better, but I just couldn’t tell what I was doing wrong. I also listened to a bit of Simon & Garfunkel. “I am a rock” seemed to capture my social abilities of the time.

At the dance, there would be various songs that the band would play that would encourage me to ask a girl to dance. When “She was just seventeen” came on, my heart would go boom as I crossed the room to ask one of the girls to dance. I would be terrified that they would say no, and perhaps even more terrified that they would say yes. Yet instead of dancing through the night, we would dance one dance, and then awkwardly exchange niceties before retreating back to our respective sides of the gym.

Another song that I really liked to dance at in those says was “Smoke on the Water”. I didn’t know what the words were. I just recognized the four measure riff and anticipated singing along to the chorus, “Smoke on the water, fire in the sky”. When the familiar opening chords were played, I would walk across the floor and try to get someone to dance with me. I was more comfortable with this song. I could simply enjoy dancing to it, without worrying about everyone looking at me or what my partner might be thinking.

When the dance was over, my mother would pick me up in the green pickup truck for the long fifteen minute drive home. She would ask if I had fun and whom I danced with. I would mumble about having had a good time and maybe name a girl or two that I danced with.

The days have passed and my two eldest daughters have been through their school dances. Perhaps I was projecting, but it seemed like Mairead’s experiences at school dances mirrored my own. Miranda seemed to have a much better time at the dances and would be much more talkative afterwards.

All of these memories come to mind, as I visited a blog I enjoy today. The Modern Historian has blog posts about things that have happened this day in history. Today is the fortieth anniversary of the Montreux Casino fire in 1971 that smoke on the water is all about.

Instead of looking for the old grey portable record player we had as a kid, I typed “Smoke on the Water” into Spotify and listened to the original, as well as a bunch of interesting covers of it, from a workout video to a bagpipe cover.

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The Experimental Memoir - Day 27

It was a foggy grey morning as I tried to get out of bed. Assorted aches and pains made it hard to get going and I was rushed when I finally got up. Our dog Wesley was playing outside. The neighbors’ dog, Avery had come over and the two were playing. This morning, a third dog was in the yard, an English Mastiff belonging to some other neighbors. I showered quickly and headed off to church.

On the way, I listened to a segment on the radio about a man who had lost most of his short term and long term memory. He had been an accomplished musician and researchers ran a set of experiments to find that while his ability to remember many things had been drastically diminished, his ability to remember music was only slightly impaired. They spoke about using this to help him put back together parts of his life, such as musical reminders to take medication or musical associations with certain people. This made me think of Peter and the wolf.

For the past month, I’ve been writing a lot about memory. I haven’t talked so much about remembering things other than words, events and facts, other that a brief literary reference to remembering a Madeleine. I’ve spoken about how people have complemented me on my memory and asked if I had a photographic memory. In many things, I do have a strong memory of facts and events, but my memory is not photographic, and I’ve had difficulties memorizing things by rote.

Musical themes are a different type of memory. They come back at odd times. The playful theme from Peter in the Wolf comes back to me as I write this. There is a song, by David Mallett that comes to mind as I write this as well. It starts off

I knew this place, I knew it well,
Every sound and every smell

The song leads me to another song, Dave Carter and Tracy Grammer’s “Gentle Arms Of Eden”. The sounds and smells as memories of home.

One year, my spring term in college started on the Monday after Easter. I rode with some classmates from Connecticut out to Ohio. We stopped at lunch for our Easter Dinner, surrounded by truckers at a truckstop in the middle of Pennsylvania. I remember the colored Easter Egg that came with the meal. It was the first time I had dinner on a major holiday away from home. It seemed somehow bleak; incomplete.

My mind wandered to Easters at home. The small colored wicker basket filled with artificial green plastic grass, on which were placed various candies. I remembered one Easter when while we were at Church, our big white Samoyed dog, got into the basket. When we got home, he was multicolored in many pastels shades. It was disappointing to lose the candy, but it was funny as well. I thought that perhaps what was missing at the truckstop was the familial, but I now think there was something else missing.

Years later, Kim and I spent our first Thanksgiving together. We had been dating for about five months. Half way through that time, Kim’s mother passed away after a long battle with cancer. No one seemed up for the big traditional Thanksgiving gathering at Kim’s grandparent’s house. Kim and I went up to New Hampshire and had a nice Thanksgiving dinner at an Inn in Vermont. The food was very good, but there was also something missing there. In that case, what was missed most was Kim’s mother and the big family gathering around her. Yet there was also something else.

It came home to me this Thanksgiving. Kim’s parents had just returned from a trip abroad, and were not up for Thanksgiving dinner there. So, we had Thanksgiving dinner at a small local diner. This is a diner that Kim’s family has gone to for ages, and is one of the first places Fiona ate out at, as well as being the place she has probably gone out to eat more often than any other place.

The dinner was good; nothing to complain about but nothing to rave about either. Again, something was missing. I didn’t realize what it was until we had home baked Thanksgiving dinner a couple days later. Walking in the house, you were overwhelmed by the smell of the turkey that had been baking in the oven for hours, mixed with the whiff of pumpkin pies that had been baked earlier. Memories are more than just thoughts and words. They are sounds and smells.

At dinner this evening, I spoke with Fiona about music. We talked about key signatures and time signatures. We looked at staves and notes and talked about their names.

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Five Kernels of Corn

(For those just joining in, this month I've been writing an experimental memoir as part of National Novel Writing Month. Today's entry includes political commentary so I'm sharing it more broadly.)

It was a period of prosperity and protest. I would sit in the hard wood pews of the big white First Congregational Church and look out over the quad to the student union of an ivy league college. It was the world I grew up in. In the evenings, on our small black and white television, we would hear Walter Cronkite tell his viewers how many U.S. troops had died in Vietnam that day. A few years later, he would be telling us about how many U.S. students had died in the United States protesting that war. Yet Vietnam and Kent State were worlds away to an elementary school kid raised by fairly conservative parents.

We were still going to church in those days. My mother would bake bread for communion. This was the Protestant style of communion, with grape juice in little shot glasses and small cubes of bread my mother had baked. Years later, my father left the church because of its opposition to the war in Vietnam. He had a square peace sign on the back of his truck proclaiming Peace thru Victory and had supported Barry Goldwater.

At Thanksgiving, we would sign hymns, like “Now thank we all our God, with heart and hand and voices”. We would sing about gathering together to ask the Lord’s blessing. On our way home, we would sign about going to Grandmother’s house, even though there were no snowy woods to go through.

It was a world of Robert Frost and Norman Rockwell. It was a world where the pilgrims looked large, and many could trace their families back to the early days of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Traditions were strong and important. We were not like the well off families living in town. We lived up on the top of Henderson Road, a ride from town. Later, it would make it more difficult taking the late bus home from band, which would drop me off a mile and a half from my house. I would wear cast off clothing, from older brothers or friends in the church with older kids. We would shop the Women’s Exchange for used clothes for the kids and at factory outlets that were really part of an old factory, and not a trendy shopping mall.

Kids used to make fun of me for what I wore, but that too, just seemed like part of daily life.

At Halloween, we would dress up in whatever costumes my mother could make and visit our neighbors. Several were elderly and it was an important time for them to have visitors. I kept trick or treating for years, partly just because I knew it was important, and I would sit down and talk with them as they offered me an apple. At some point we started trick or treating for Unicef. Living on a poor section of the hill, we didn’t bring in as much as my friends who lived downtown near the nice houses, but it was important for each of us to do our part.

When Thanksgiving came around, we would get a little envelope at church that we would bring home. It was very much like the pledge envelope that we would put our nickels and dimes in for church. Back then, it was important for even young folks to learn to give a little bit back to their church and to their community.

Yet the envelope that we would bring home was different. We would save it until Thanksgiving Day, and then open it. Inside would be five kernels of corn. We would open the little envelopes and hear about how the early pilgrims had had to ration food and were unsure if they would make it through the winter. We would hear about how through hard work, cooperation, and through kindness shown to them by the natives they made it through the winter. It was a time of moral stories around the family table.

Thanksgiving was not about opulence and abundance, it was about survival, and although I never thought of myself as coming from a poor family, uncertain about where the next meal came from, it was part of my family history. My father’s father had died when my father was twelve and they face difficult times. My mother had lived through The Depression on a small New England farm beside the Connecticut River. The second hand clothes I wore were simply the way everyone got clothes, I thought.

Looking back at those days from today’s lens, it seems so different. Some have started to point out that Thanksgiving is not a day for Native American’s to be thankful. The settlers brought with them disease and war and wrecked havoc on Native American life. Others have drawn contrasts between what happened when the Europeans came to North America and people trying to enter our country today.

Yet it seems as if the key point of the debate is being missed. Those pilgrims facing hunger and possible death, as represented by the five kernels of corn, survived because the people already in the land helped them out. Perhaps we should be more like those Native Americans, and instead of building a larger fence, and passing laws to make it more difficult for the new comers to our country, we should be helping them out.

Likewise, the five kernels of corn should be a reminder for us to be thankful, not for the new flat screen television that we had to fight for Thursday evening amidst a large crowd of shoppers, but for the simple sustenance we receive in difficult times.

Connecticut soup kitchens, which provide today’s equivalent of five kernels of corn, lost food to spoilage as a result of the power outage. The needs for food of the hungry increase in our state even as donations go down.

On Thanksgiving Day, I saw a tweet from a church in Bridgeport, inviting anyone and everyone who would be thankful for a hot meal to come enjoy a free Thanksgiving day feast, complete with roast turkey and all the trimmings. I retweeted the message because it occurred to me that the meal in the church hall in Bridgeport would probably be closer to an authentic Thanksgiving meal that the large feast immortalized in the painting by Norman Rockwell.

My mind wandered to those dour old Pilgrims who came to this country out of love of God, and not the love of money that dominates so much of the political discourse. I thought of those who knew that the key to survival was the ability to cooperate with one another and help them out, and not to take advantage of ones neighbor. I thought of those for whom giving back to their community was a Godly responsibility.

Where have we gone wrong? My idyllic childhood faded as my parents separated. Some blame the demise of the American family on our decline; the lack of dinner time discussions about five kernels of corn. That seems a bit facile and incomplete. What caused the American family to decline in the first place? Even if that is the case, what can we do now to revive our country?

I talk with my kids at the dinner table, and I’m sure they roll their eyes as much as I rolled mine when I was their age. We no longer have Walter Cronkite telling us all we need to know about the days’ news, and perhaps we need each of us to tell the news. Perhaps Walter Cronkite and the dinner time discussions are merging into a new form, the blog post. Yet I look at a lot of the blog, and I’m not so sure.

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