Monday, April 13, 2009

on trust and intimacy

The most recent episode of Dollhouse can only be described as "ZOMG." Many interesting themes explored in that episode, and lots of new plot developments. In the opening sequence, in what can only be described as the most pandering move EVER made by Joss Whedon to his geeky male fans, Echo (Eliza Dushku) is in a "dude, this is OK for primetime?!" dominatrix outfit and trying to explain to her handler Boyd (protector, I'm not using BDSM terminology to my knowledge) about how it's not about pain or domination, but absolute trust. She is programmed to implicitly trust Boyd, who is for the time being the moral compass of the show and the only guy you can trust (maybe because of his open ambivalence about the show), and so far, that trust has never been violated, and it is as close to a paternalistic relationship as possible in that show. I am slightly reminded of the creepy Mayor from Buffy and Faith, but without the evil giant snake (literal, not metaphorical).

Trust was more deeply explored in that episode than before, through the plot device of a security leak: you didn't know whom to trust, secret messages were smuggled into the personality imprints, and Agent Ballard found out that his sweet and lovely girlfriend was actually a "Sleeper Doll" made to spy on him and kill him if necessary, but otherwise act like the perfect girlfriend. The head of security turned out to be a mole in the organization, although not to bring it down, but rather to contain its technology. It turns out that the programmable people, the "Dolls," are the only ones you can trust completely, because you made them to order and their memories will be wiped after your encounter, so you can tell them anything and feign real intimacy. So the head of the organization secretly meets with her own Dream Doll Ken, and has brief respites of intimacy and trust.

I am not going to turn this into a bullshit post about sex and vulnerability and how romantic intimacy is ONLY possible where there is ultimate vulnerability. As much as the show demonstrates how the Dollhouse makes fake intimacy and "girlfriend type" prostitutes a reality for their sad sack clients while keeping sex transactional (and see also, for an example of this in real life), I refuse to adhere to such a high stakes model of sex that almost overrides personal agency. Part of what I like about the sexual revolution, and what it has done for feminism, is to undermine the absoluteness of the proposition that sex must always carry such great emotional and psychic investments and costs, to the utter abnegation of your agency and soul. This is not unlike the scary worldview that Twilight espouses. Someone once gave me the advice, during a breakup, that I had permission to engage in "carefree fucking" in order to get over the heartbreak. I did not take that advice at the time, but amen to that! Sex positive feminism is about agency against patriarchal double standards and constraints (though I don't think it's about the overshare.) If the Dolls actually had agency, I would care less about the sex, even if it is transactional. (My feeling of repugnance to the "sugar babies" in the NYT article has more to do with my horror at their lack of desire to pay for their own Jimmy Choos and to subsidize or lower their high falutin' lifestyle, not to the work itself per se, particularly for those women who really are putting themselves through school. My views on sex work are quite close to those expressed here.) Because they do not, it is tantamount to sex trafficking, and so discussions about intimacy (which is always going to be faked and forgotten) are neither here nor there.

That said, there's still something to be said about trust in the show. The Dolls are programmed to trust their handlers and the staff, who do not always merit that trust. Indeed, one of the most unsavory plotlines involved one Doll's Handler using that speech-activated programmable trust to repeatedly rape her. Agent Ballard put all of his trust into one woman, who turned out not only to be untrustworthy, but also working for the very organization he wants to take down, and so he is himself a pawn. She has no idea she is a sleeper doll though, and he must keep up the charade, and so he is violating her trust as well. No one can trust each other, even if they must pretend to in order to keep the organization working or to pretend that the few relationships they have are meaningful. Despite the sexual nature of most of the engagements, there is no need for trust between the clients and the Dolls--the clients are to be vetted by the Dollhouse, and so the trust that exists must be between the staff and their security, to ensure that the clients pass background checks and are not the crazy sociopaths who kill like in Episode 3. It is thus interesting that the very concept of trust is disaggregated from sex and almost incidental to the relationship between clients and their Dolls (except in DeWitt's case, where she programmed a trust-based relationship into her doll), but entirely central between an individual and his or her organization. The only relationships that matter, then, are the organizational/business ones--do you trust who you work with, the people you work for, etc. Trust seems incapable of existing between those with interpersonal relationships.

Happily, in real life, that is not usually the case. If anything, we trust our significant others, family, and friends more than we trust those whom we are associated with more formally and transactionally. A contract (for employment or services) may be more formal, but it is not inherently more "trustworthy." It is a good, if naive thing to believe more in your partner than you do in your employer. One can always get shafted by the organization, and one can easily get betrayed by a partner, but no one would have relationships if we didn't believe in that particular script of romance that compels our suspension of disbelief so that we can ignore the appallingly high failure rate of relationships and marriages and believe our own to be different and a non-statistic, and makes us trust our partner more than we would anyone else, despite there being not much statistical difference in the likelihood of one person to fail you over another.

I can name only a few people I am truly intimate with, and whom I trust implicitly to not leave my side in a time of crisis. But they're a fair few, and I've cut out the people I don't trust. I don't know if I'm as lucky as or luckier than most, but I feel pretty good about that.

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Wednesday, April 08, 2009

do you choose your hobby, or does your hobby choose you?

My hobbies:

  • Reading for fun, mostly fiction
  • Knitting, if poorly and slowly
  • Hiking/walking
  • Baking
  • Cooking
  • Blogging
  • Board games.

The reason for my choices: I don't read as much fiction (mainly because I don't read as much "for fun" anymore) as I used to, but I maybe read a novel or collection of short stories every two weeks to a month, and it this is reading that is "not work," and it's not mindless internet surfing. I had to take an extended break from knitting because of my hands, but I'm back to it after giving up on working with super fine yarn with a pattern for a while, and enjoying the ease of bulky weight yarn in a basic garter stitch and will hopefully finish at least one of the three projects I'm working on. I walk at least nine to twelve miles a week even though I don't have to, and I like to go for hikes when I can. I bake at least once a week, and I get pleasure from kneading dough from bread, making elaborate cakes and pies, and tossing together a basic cookie or brownie, and it's an activity I'd feel like I'm missing from my life if I go for more than a week without it. I hesitate, because I cook almost every day. A hobby should be a regular activity, but when it boils down to basic sustenance and is like just another daily task, is it really an avocation? TD convinced me that my approach to cooking was hobbyistic: I research recipes and compare them to come up with the best combination of techniques and ingredients, I often write my own recipes, I experiment and improve until I get "the best" recipe, and I like to host dinner parties. I'm constantly on the lookout for new things to make and new cuisines to try, and so it's never about just fueling the body, but making an experience that is both nourishing and social. Thus, I think that my approach to cooking is more hobby-like. Blogging...well, but of course!

I used to make paper crafts, but that was back when people seemed to like getting handmade cards and decoupaged boxes. I used to make mix tapes, but then I moved all of my music to external drives and forgot to aggregate them. Besides, after a few years, you realize that you're just flooding your friends' houses with junk. I used to run, but after a while my knees gave up and now I just walk 9-12 miles a week. Some hobbies just die after a good run (word play!). Sometimes you stop doing some activity with sufficient regularity. Sometimes you just realize it's just not for you.

What is a hobby?

Merriam Webster:

Main Entry: 2hobby

Function: noun

Inflected Form(s): plural hobbies
Etymology: short for hobbyhorse
Date: 1816
: a pursuit outside one's regular occupation engaged in especially for relaxation

Now, I would link this word to an even older word, one that signifies, as hobby does, a distinction from one's occupation, or vocation, with its root in the Latin vocare:

av·o·ca·tion           Listen to the pronunciation of avocation
Function: noun

Etymology: Latin avocation-, avocatio, from avocare to call away, from ab- + vocare to call, from voc-, vox voice — more at voice
Date: circa 1617
1archaic : diversion , distraction2: customary employment : vocation3: a subordinate occupation pursued in addition to one's vocation especially for enjoyment : hobby

So, I would distinguish a hobby as something that is not done for work, something that is done for enjoyment, and something that is some type of activity, such htat it can be called a "pursuit" or "subordinate occupation." That is to say, "napping" is not a hobby. Nor is "sitting in a chair." I would not necessarily put "watching television" as a hobby, even though it's how I spend my about 3 hours a week of my time. No, it must be some activity that is not passive. For instance, "getting massages" is not a hobby! It must be something you do, not something that is done to you.

Now, onto the italicized hobby...board games. Because I have a partner whose company I actively enjoy, I thought that a great addition to our repertoire of "hanging out" would be semi-structured activities that we can do together. Most of our hobbies are separate, which is great for independence, but it would be fun to share recreational hobbies. He sails competitively, whereas I sail half-assedly and often enjoy just sitting on the bow, being awesome (again, passive). He plays music, whereas I am growing to accept the idea of being a groupie. Most of my hobbies are solitary, save cooking, and while we enjoy cooking together and hiking on occasion, sometimes you want a rainy afternoon hobby that will stretch your mental muscles and be "interesting." Which is why I decided six months ago, to add board games to my/our list of hobbies ("my" because it's something I've wanted to do for a while, "our" because it is not as much fun playing alone).

Dude, what was I thinking? I never grew up playing games and don't have that competitive game playing streak nor gaming, strategic mind. My dad, unlike most Vietnamese men, hated gambling and would rage against any one of us if he found us with a deck of cards. I grew up in a limited English household, and did not have board games. I never played those games American children grow up playing (what is this thing called "Chutes and Ladders"?), and didn't play any games at all until high school, when the other Asian kids busted out the Tien Len. Eventually, when we had the first round of nephews, we loosened up and got Scrabble (which we used to teach English and build vocabulary, forgetting about scoring), Monopoly (which I find boring and excessively capitalist), and Taboo (which I love to this day).

I am just not good at playing games! We got Carcasonne, and after 4-5 attempts, we are still playing "practice games" because I am just not catching on quickly enough about the rules and how to lay the tiles strategically so as to advance my position and box TD into corners. He is insisting that it'll be more fun for the both of us (more competitive and evenly matched, less frustrating for me) if I let him play with a handicap (either an extra meeple or 10 point lead for me, or I get to refuse a tile and draw another). I feel, how to put this delicately, like an idiot. TD says that practice makes perfect, and that the reason I am not good--yet--is that we haven't been playing enough, and I haven't quite internalized the rules and strategy. I think that part of it also (besides the aforementioned reasons about how I may have been socially conditioned to lack game strategy) is that I have poor visual spatial skills, such that I have a hard time picturing the entire map of the terrain and how my tiles will best fit. He has a point though, that perhaps practice makes one a better player, and that at least with this game (which has an element of luck of draw), there is no inherent talent for it that makes improving an impossible goal. I don't need to win every time, I just need to improve and not be frustrated by the feeling that I don't know what I'm doing. I remember when I first did LSAT logic games, I was at 33% accuracy, and by the time I took the test, I scored nearly perfect (one wrong). So I guess that logical, strategic thinking can be learned and improved upon (even if I have forgotten how to do most of the logic games and even if I think that they're all kind of lame).

In any case, I'm going to stick with this hobby, for now. I just ordered Ticket to Ride, and I'm thinking of San Juan next. Playing tips for these games (and especially Carcasonne) are appreciated, as is general advice on how to think like a gamer.

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undeclared blog hiatus is OVER

I've been busy, blog weary, and my hands hurt. But I just got another round of shots and I am PUMPED! So I am back. Sorry for the long and undeclared absence and silence. I just figured that if I had nothing interesting to say, I shouldn't say anything at all. I mean, who wants another post on carpal tunnel?

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