Lady of the Flies

April 13, 2009 § Leave a comment

Love on the flyPeople are frequently interested in my romantic situation (husband in Florida, boyfriend in over his head). It is peculiar and not without advantages, though the good stuff tends to add up while the bad multiplies, but the oddest thing that’s happened, and this concerns me as a writer, is that I’ve wrung so much drama from the past 9 years (or it’s wrung me; I haven’t always been the prime mover of the theatrics), that sex, love and romance, while still powerful in my life, are no longer the heavyweights in my imagination. I’m far less curious about what other people are up to, about the ‘mystery’ of someone’s marriage or arrangement. I don’t think I know everything—I just think I know everything that matters to me.

And having said such a vainglorious thing, I’m not sure if I want to be right or wrong about this. It’s nice to think the future holds surprises (she said tepidly, sitting in a hardback chair on the stage, hands folded in her lap, as abysses yawn and monsters stalk), but then surprises aren’t always nice, are they?

From one of my favorite science blogs—this is about flies—

“The influence of crowds can even sway a female’s decision based on completely arbitrary factors. To show this, Mery dusted two groups of males with either green or pink powder, creating bodies that no female would ever come across in the wild.  She placed a voyeur female in a glass tube, and in an adjoining tube, she put a coloured male and a second virgin female. Inevitably, the two flies mated, providing a sex show for the lone female to study. Later, the couple were replaced with another pair – a male of the other colour, and a female that had recently mated and wasn’t up for it. 

After all this voyeurism, Mery gave the solitary female a choice between pink or green males. She found that the female was twice as likely to mate with males from the colour that she had seen having sex before. If she watched green males getting lucky, she favoured green males; if pink seemed to be the colour-of-choice for other females, she went with pink. If the partition between the two tubes was opaque, so she couldn’t see the neighbouring shenanigans, she didn’t have any preferences for either colour.”*

Fashion always wins. The other woman knows something you don’t. We’re all confused about what we’re supposed to find attractive. Choose your lesson.

It’s interesting how science, which would never have advanced so far so fast without our hyper-rational, individualist civilization, is quickly tearing down the intellectual foundations of same. The human brain, not much more advanced than the fly brain, is impulse-driven, fast and sloppy, and expert at making up justifications after the fact. This is the rule, not the exception. Economists have just learned this; it’s a big eureka moment for them. No wonder the market doesn’t work! People are nuts!

Reason and considered choice are on the way out as the trusted foundation for human behavior. We can handle this for now. Scientists can genially say they don’t believe in free will, in the self, or even in consciousness, yet have no problem using those sturdy constructs to function and thrive. Apples and oranges, they say. My work, my life.

Because they are scientists, and not writers or artists, this isn’t hard for them; they tend not to have spent so much time hanging around with their demons. They haven’t given them names and histories, or ceded them territory; haven’t created symbiotic relationships to coax a win from a lose; they haven’t, in short, fooled themselves that they’ve corralled their irrational side into a binding agreement (renegotiated every one to three years).

Once those of us with the big crazies stop believing in progress of the emotional kind, in incremental acquisition of control, once we realize we’ll always like the guy with the pink dandruff if the other females do, and no power in heaven or on earth cares, or thinks it’s fate, or is saving us jewels of happiness for later—then I think we’ll storm the laboratories, grill the scientists for dinner along with their experimental animals, and erect temples to Asmodeus (lechery), Beelzebub (gluttony), Leviathan (envy), and Belphegor (sloth).

And the whole thing will start again in several hundred years.

* Ed Yong, flies get the buzz on sexy mates from each other


Brain Edits

April 7, 2009 § 3 Comments

“Yet as scientists begin to climb out of the dark foothills and into the dim light, they are now poised to alter the understanding of human nature in ways artists and writers have not.”  The New York Times, April 6, 2009the-brain

Or to be more precise—they are now poised to alter human nature in ways artists and writers have not.

I’m used to the revision process. When I was young, I resisted it, too attached to my words, especially the bits that stuck out like shiny metal from a teenager’s face. Eventually, it became my favorite part. I liked knowing I could improve something; I liked the deft snips and rearrangements that could keep the body of a story intact while making it mean something entirely different. Revision becomes fun when you realize it’s not only work but play. That’s where the scientists are now. But what drives change in the world? Necessity, utility and boredom—perhaps most importantly, consumer boredom. Birds have brilliant plumage for the same reason designers create new styles: Buy me. 

My brain, edited, would not only be less of a minefield for me, it would be a different aesthetic experience for you. Maybe you enjoy my writing but wish you could just tilt the tone a bit, or shake out the parts you’re sick of.  I wish she’d stop writing about THAT so much. Stop trying to be funny. Stop trying to be serious. Be the same but surprise me more.

 I can think of many discrete ways of editing my husband, mother, lover, siblings—not for better or worse, but for change and highlight. If you’ve ever worked in Photoshop, you know what I mean. It’s not that you’re changing the soul of the image. Of course not. But: lighter or darker?  What if you dialed up the blue of her eyes—and turned that guy behind her into wallpaper?

I might go a little nuts editing myself. Weed out all the memories that hold me back with their whisper of failure and the ones that embarrass me with their generic drone. Take out the days and months I was bored; the hangovers; most of 1983. I’d be sleek and wily, smart, ready to pounce on the future and bat it from paw to the outfield. I’d be happy to inform you I’d forgotten when we met, that we met, what you were like on the job or in bed, and why you think you matter.

Naturally someday I’d want to return to the trashed bits, sift through them like the stuff you leave in boxes in your parents’ attic. I mean, maybe you do matter, 1983. I know there were some good days; otherwise I would have slit my wrists. There must be vast pages of forgotten hours adding to parts of myself I treasure. You know how it is when you learn something so thoroughly you forget what it was like not to know it? You feel ignorant again; only being confronted with a real novice does the awareness of expertise return. If you can never see the base of the mountain, how do you know what counts?

Trauma reappearing in dreams and phobias sounds grim, and is, but think about that other complaint we have, that human life is too short for the species to learn much—for example, that war sucks. The only reason teenagers know this even vaguely is the horrifying stories told by their elders. These stories haven’t stopped war (partly because they’re often dishonest). On the other hand, we’re not starting a war every five minutes. Not quite.

Think of the Binghamton carnage. Watching TV coverage, for the susceptible, is drama and action without emotional consequence. What if that happened to you when you were told, We excised this memory at your request, but for your information, here are the facts. Maybe you’d take the stripped skeleton and over time feel nostalgia for imaginary flesh. Maybe you’d say, I wonder what that felt like? Maybe I should let myself be raped again.

If this sounds implausible, remember that lots of women have rape fantasies, just as lots of men and women have murder fantasies. We know we don’t want our fantasies to become true because we’ve heard the unvarnished stories. There are so many of these, we think we don’t need them; we can imagine how we’d feel. But are you sure that’s true? What if personal stories of horrors disappeared, or became very, very old?


Francisco Goya, Great Deeds Against the Dead

Francisco Goya, Great Deeds Against the Dead





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