Monday, August 20, 2018

Astrology and Crystals: I Hate Them (Because I'm a Gemini)

In my last post I talked about the leather subculture.  The leather subculture, because it is a counter-culture, rejects a lot of basic societal structures.  For example, leather folk are often very anti-religion.  This makes sense especially when you consider that organized religion is not all that friendly toward queer culture; a lot of leather folk, especially the gay men, have experienced systematic prejudice at the hands of organized religion, and have wiped their hands clean of it.

However, in order to make sense of the endless void and abyss that awaits us once we die, a lot of leather folk turn to... non-traditional belief systems.

Specifically I'm talking about astrology, but I've also seen crystals and oils make the rounds.  Today I want to talk about those things and why they INFURIATE me.

It's not just my FaceBook friends who peddle these ridiculous beliefs.  Because I make a lot of posts and read a lot of sites about fitness and wellness, my FB feed has become clogged with snake oil "supplements" claiming to help with weight loss.

Say it with me, folks: DIET AND EXERCISE.

The only way to lose weight is with lifestyle changes, not with products.

There is no magic pill or wrap or shake or vitamin. Don't waste your money.  (It's no coincidence that many oils and supplements of questionable origin that are not FDA approved come from predatory multi-level marketing schemes.)

The astrology thing in particular bothers me for two reasons: one, it removes personal agency.  Two, it's so incredibly easily disprovable.

In general I'm against any system that categorizes people because it's an over-simplification of personality and creates rigid labels that deny people their full human complexity.

Yes, even Myers-Briggs.

Side note: I am an "INTJ" personality, which, according to the Myers-Briggs website, means that I dislike rules, limitations and traditions, and believe that everything should be open to questioning and reevaluation.

 Damn it.

The reason for this post is because recently, while talking to the 2019 LA Pup Pack, someone mentioned they were a Gemini.  As usual, it was an excuse for a shitty personality trait.  People often use astrology to explain away their flaws.  The thing is, if you're aware of the flaw... why not work on it?  In this circumstance, Green said, "I'm bad at deadlines."  (The deadline is over two months away.)  Green has TWO MONTHS to get their shit together!  And meanwhile, Green had implicated me (and another person who was born in May) in that shitty personality trait.

Right here, we see the problem with astrology.  In a single sentence I destroyed the notion of Geminis having a trait by pointing out that I don't fall into that.  And Green's response?  "Oh, you're the other kind."

So Geminis are either good or bad at deadlines.

That doesn't sound like it's a "Gemini trait."  That sounds like it's literally every possibility that exists

On a side note, I love how Yellow popped in and blurted out what I was thinking, although it was pretty harsh.  And, props to Green, they took it very well.

Green went on to say that they hate labels... which is weird considering that at that point, the phrase "as a Gemini" had come up three times already.

Finally, when it came up YET AGAIN, I asked them to stop.

And they did, which was nice.  Still, it put me in a very awkward position to have to ask them to stop in the first place.

Aside from disliking labeling people, I dislike the justification of shitty traits based on arbitrary demographics.  Have some agency; work on your flaws.  And for crying out loud, don't implicate others.  Saying "as a Gemini..." immediately, by extension, implicates all other May babies in whatever you're about to say.  So you're not only abdicating your own, personal responsibility, but that of others, as well.  And that's not okay.

The only explanation for the continued belief in such a ridiculous set of beliefs is superstition; take, for example, B.F. Skinner's Pigeon Superstition experiment, in which he got pigeons to do elaborate dance rituals to get rewards.  The rewards were distributed randomly, yet the pigeons continued to believe there was some sort of causality to their fancy footwork.

Astrology can easily be disproven with a single question: Why isn't everyone born in May exactly the same?  But this has not made people any less convinced there's some truth to their horoscopes.

Look no further than FaceBook, where you will see tons and tons of posts that say things like, "the following signs will do ANYTHING for their families," and then proceed to list half of the signs.  I hate these.  They apply to everyone and create such idiotically broad generalizations that ANYONE can identify with that.  It's manipulative and, I hate to say it, it works great on people with simple minds.

I also know someone in the greater leather community who is into crystals.  Like horoscopes, crystals are one of those things that seem to me something that should have long-since been disproven.  I know next to nothing about crystals and, being a Gemini and therefore inherently curious, I decided to have an open mind and ask this crystal-believing person to explain to me how they work.

They explained that the body is made up of "chakras" which are, conveniently, arranged in a rainbow, and that you can strengthen chakras by using crystals of correlating colors.  (This sounded to me, so far, like it had been written by a preschooler.)

They offered to do a "cold read" on me.  This involved holding my hands and staring into my eyes for an uncomfortable amount of time.

At the end they suggested I needed orange and light blue, which correlate to sexuality and communication.  They said that they felt that I had trouble "feeling heard" and communicating myself, and also that the power of orange crystals could help with my gender dysmorphia.

Okay, so, full stop.

First of all, if you're reading my blog, you're probably already HYPER aware that I EXCEL at oration.  I am an author, both by hobby and by trade.  I write for fun.  I write for money.  I give presentations and classes and speeches at events and, trust me, I'm the guy you want to hand a mike to.  I have NEVER felt unable to make myself heard.  Words are my materials, and I am a master craftsman.

The saddest part of this utterly inaccurate statement was that this person had been a judge at my leather contest, and had complimented me on being incredibly well-spoken.  So I have no idea whether this cold reading was a) something that they told EVERYBODY, or b) based on some strange notion that perhaps I was secretly hiding a speech insecurity and that my incredible ability to communicate was over-compensation for it.

Second of all, I took some offense to the idea that I needed a magic sex stone.  Yes, I'm androgynous.  Yes, my gender is one of those bizarre non-binaries that people love to wrap their entire personalities around.  But guess what?  I'm not defined by my gender.  I don't really need my gender or sexuality to define me.  I don't need a label for it.  And I don't experience any sort of body dysmorphia; my body is what it is, a vehicle that I'm piloting through life, and I think it's a pretty good one, even if I'd prefer one that was taller and beefier.  A big assumption was made about how I feel about myself and I didn't like that at all; it was a stereotype.  That because I don't fit into a traditional masculine role, I must have some sort of sexual dysfunction or insecurity.  Wrong.

So, in conclusion, I determined that crystals are stupid.  (Although I will admit, very pretty.  I had a geode on my coffee table.  It helps my room decoration / interior design chakra.)

I think that everyone needs to believe in something to make sense of the world.  And that's okay.  Whether it's "traditional" organized religion, or crystals, or astrology, if it brings people comfort, that's okay.  However, these things should NEVER be used to justify the abuse of another person (as traditional religion has done), to replace scientific or medical treatment (as crystals have done), or to justify crappy personality traits, make decisions for you, or lump people into categories (as astrology has done).

Ironically, the same people who have abandoned religion for its problems have ended up emulating it in their own beliefs. 

At the end of the day, there's nothing wrong with beliefs, so long as they aren't harmful.  If a person is a Christian, for example, that's okay.  What's not okay is using those aspects of their personality to treat another person badly.  And if someone likes essential oils or crystals, that's okay, too.  So long as they're not destroying their finances in a multi-level marketing scheme or denying themselves legitimate medical treatment in the process.

There's comfort to be had in beliefs and I'm glad that I have such a wide berth of people to expose me to theirs.  That being said, as a Gemini?  I'd rather not take part.

Monday, August 13, 2018

LA Leather Pup Title

In a previous post I talked a bit about leather culture.

Here's another leather-oriented post.  This one will focus on leather pups, a subculture within a subculture.  It is somewhat NSFW so consider this your first and last warning before you start scrolling.

 This is about a NSFW as it gets.
If this doesn't make you angry as fuck then you are broken as a person.
I fucking hate minions.

If you are unfamiliar with leather culture, I can summarize it in about two paragraphs.  Post-WWII there was a movement of gay sexual liberation, in which leather had a heavy component in terms of protocol, dominance, and experience, with various types and colors of leather indicating various things.  Men had leather from the war and its ubiquitous presence as motorcycle safety gear made it a commodity that could ostensibly be useful in "vanilla" life; because of the criminalization of homosexuals during the '40s and '50s, leather culture was a closed subculture designed to allow gay men to explore BDSM dynamics in a safe, insular environment.  Aspects of the lifestyle included homoerotic masculinity, hierarchical seniority, respect for protocol and service, and community-based support.

Leather culture revolved madly around leather bars.  (The "gay biker bar" trope is there for a reason, folks.)  In order to drum up business, in the 1970s, leather bars began having "title contests," pageants designed mostly to bring in patrons. The competitive element made the title contests more interesting to watch and provided a structure for multiple hotties to go through multiple costume changes on the stage.  However, the contests soon went beyond merely being a bar gimmick.  Contests became regional in nature and "winners" held on to their title for a year, during which time they operated as a sort of liaison for the community and a pillar of what the particular community stood for.

 Y'know, wholesome stuff.

Nowadays, there are probably thousands of titles.  You can read about the original, Mr. International Leather here; it's been around since 1979.

In this day and age there are leather titles for bars, dungeons, regions, states, subcultures, and everything in between.  There's titles for boot blacks and bears, daddies and drag queens, the city of Cincinnati.  There's a leather title for rubber and a leather title for latex.  There's a leather title for just about everything nowadays.  If you go to a leather bar you'll probably meet a leather title holder, past or current.  (Most leather titles are, like a beauty pageant title, "active" for one year.)

So now that we're all on the same page, I'd like to talk about one of my favorite leather titles: LA Pup.

Los Angeles Pup is a title contest that is part of LA Puppy Pride in November.  Leather pups are pretty much what you think they are.


At Valley Pride last weekend I was asked by a cop what was up with all the people in dog masks.  (She was very openly curious and non-judgemental about it, which was awesome.)  I explained as best I could that leather pups are a subcommunity of leather folk who enjoy emulating dogs because dogs are, among other things, playful, loyal, and eager to please.

Dogs experience a world of unadulterated joy and delight in their usefulness there. 


It's a good place to be, roleplay-wise.

So much happiness.

LA Pup's mission statement is "to help build a non-oppressive, open-minded, and optimistic community in Los Angeles," one that strives for inclusive spaces where people can engage in animal roleplay without shame.

Lots of pups have trouble confronting their own self-consciousness.

So why am I telling you all about how great it is to be a dog?

...I decided to run for the title.

My previous title, Inland Empire Leather Ambassador, was fraught with drama.  That wasn't any one particular person's fault.  It's just that, in small circles, drama is bound to happen, and I was not yet entirely equipped to handle it.

 I got into some reeeeeal trouble.

After a year of learning and practicing diplomacy, learning when to shut my face and when to stand up for myself, I realized that, even though I'd had a hard title run, I had grown enormously as a person.

Although my title run has been hard I genuinely believe that the challenges it has given me have helped me grow as a person and get better at managing conflict.  I an a conflict-adverse person who generally loathes disagreement of any sort, so this has really thrown me out of my comfort zone. But I think learning to accept that not everyone will like me has been beneficial. I think I'm more confident and honest now... especially about issues that matter to me. 

 Dog awareness.

The title "Ambassador" means always putting my best foot forward. But having the title has helped me be a more conscientious person who is more mindful of his words and actions. I think the title has grown me more than I have grown my title.  And that's a good thing.

I am now nearing the end of my title and if there is one thing I have learned, it's that I don't have to live my life with an intention not to offend. Some people may not like my ideas or beliefs. That's fine. I offer them respectfully and with the intent of making the world a better place. Having done all I can to present them considerately, at this point, if people are offended, it is entirely their own problem to deal with.

Standing up for your beliefs is not meant to be easy. If it were, it would mean nothing.

The LA Pup title is one I'm looking forward to because I've always identified as a pup.  "Tony Bark" has been floating around LA for years.  I've won two Best in Shows (as a human pup) and volunteered at every event under the sun.  I've attended conferences, taught classes on human-animal roleplay, produced, and MCed conventions.  I've been in the community and this year, I decided to run, because the title will give me the visibility to do more.

Above: Tony Bark
Below: Ruby as the Iron Pupper

Running for the title involves going to a few photography events, being an active volunteer in the community, and of course the title contest itself.

I've been producing "Puppypalooza" for years.  
We herd a human sheep!

Running for the title also requires you to put together an "auction basket" for a silent raffle.  This helps offset the production cost of the production.  Initially I was worried about this but, $700 worth of sponsorships later (and counting!), this is no longer my biggest concern.  It turns out that if you ask politely, most places are more than willing to help a pup out.  Then again, maybe leatherfolk just really, really like pups.  There's a huge pup community in Los Angeles; last year's title contest had an attendance of 200-300 people and this year we expect to break 300.  I guess it's nice to see a contingency of leatherfolk who are optimistic, cheerful, relatively free of drama, generous, and... well... you know, doglike.  Leatherfolk just love human pups.  What's not to love?

The title contest itself takes place over a weekend, and is comprised of an informal meet and greet, some private interview questions with judges, some public questions and speeches...

...and a fantasy/scene production.  I'm still figuring mine out.  Plus like, four or five costume changes.

Mine are literally all Iron Man.  I might try to incorporate a Barky Barnes or Thorgi just to mix shit up, though.

So far I've found the whole thing to be a really energizing and engaging process.  I'm working alongside 7 other contestants plus last year's winner and the two producers of the contest. 

 Above: Pup Rush, the 2018 title winner, who is about the nicest husky you'll ever meet.
 Below: the contestants for this year.  Can you spot the Tony?

It's been fun.  And I might actually have a chance at winning this thing!  Paws crossed.  In any case, it's been a good use of my time lately and I'm happy to be a part of it.  Be prepared for future blog posts about my title run.

This title will finally answer the age-old question: who's a good dog?

Monday, August 6, 2018

ABBA and Socialism

I mentioned in a previous post my recent shift in how I view socialism.

 Socialism and "The Swedish Model" came up last week during a camping trip because there were a few Swedes on the trip who had benefited from growing up in a "socialist" country but had some interesting insights to offer about it.  The most fascinating, by far, revolved around ABBA.  But I'll get to that in a second.  First, let's talk about socialism.

The "s-word" is one often said in a negative way, particularly by those who are more financially conservative.  They point to failed socialist countries like Venezuela or North Korea (which, I would argue, failed due to the totalitarian government and political corruption, not socialism, but tomatoes, tomahtoes).  

But socialism is a fairly poorly understood concept, perhaps because it's so incredibly broadly defined.  Socialism is any structure featuring social ownership.  In this sense, social security is a socialist entity.

Governments should serve people and not vice versa.

FDR's "New Deal" in the 1930s created both social security and unemployment insurance.  Unemployment payments, like social security, is another example of socialism in America.  Public works projects created by the New Deal were likewise socialist in nature.  If you rely on the fire department, post office, or public schools, you are already enjoying socialism.  We all pay into these programs and we all benefit from them, either directly or indirectly.

Yet people are still scared of socialism, so much so that being labeled as a socialist in America politics is something of a slur.  At least, it is among conservatives and the prior generation; more and more millennials are coming around to socialism as more and more jobs become automated and the market becomes less and less able to accommodate its workers.

The example young Americans like to point to when lauding socialism's benefits is usually some Scandinavian nation, such as Norway or Sweden.  Interestingly, though, Sweden is not a socialist state; it is merely a state run by the Socialist Democratic party and has never declared itself socialist.  It remains a democracy; the rise of its far left political powers in the mid-sixties was peaceful and without fatalities, making it markedly different than, say, the USSR or East Berlin, in which socialism paved the way for violent totalitarianism.

Here is one excellent article on why Sweden isn't a true socialist state (and arguably never was).  Sweden isn't a socialist country because it has maintained private ownership of productive assets.

Since the 1930s, Sweden has been controlled by a socialist party.  Interestingly, by the way, in 1936, Marquis Childs wrote Sweden: The Middle Way, in which he argued that the "Swedish Model" of government and economics was one that combined the safety net of economic socialism with the rewards of capitalism, and it was this book that helped influence Roosevelt's New Deal.

The Swedish model of socialism is one in which there exists a social welfare state, ensuring that people have access to healthcare and educations, but it remains an open market.  Sweden's capitalism has remained strong and, unlike other socialist or Marxist states, Swedish socialism has failed in its attempts to control cultural aspects of the state such as media or music.

The funniest example of Swedish socialism's failure to create a true communist state is probably ABBA.  That's right, the band.

See, Swedish socialism tried really, really hard to infiltrate education and culture in the 1970s and 1980s without much success.  RUM (The Swedish Federation of Young Musicians) was established in 1973 to try to drive cultural unity.  The government pushed, for example, Swedish jazz to be a cultural export, and it was jazz and classical music that was taught in the schools.  But without the heavy-handed approach of a totalitarian government, instead, they got death metal and pop bands... ones that were wildly financially successful and really threw a wrench into the whole "socialism" thing, because, in a perfect socialist model, super-fame, stardom, and windfalls of money don't have a place.

Attempts to rein ABBA in proved unsuccessful; having won Eurofest in 1974 with their hit song "Waterloo," ABBA's fame was bigger than Sweden's attempts to achieve true socialism.  The Swedish people loved ABBA and they were proud of having a rock band that represented their tiny country of then about 8 million people.  ABBA was popular in America and West Germany, capitalist countries, with multiple top singles on the Billboard charts in the late '70s.

The lyrics of many of their songs flew in the face of Sweden socialism: songs like "Money Money Money" and "Winner Take All" saturated Swedish culture and proved impossible to root out.

Sweden purposefully tried to achieve socialism in the late 1970s and early 1980s with 85% tax rates and formal laws aimed at redistributing ownership.  The result?  They lost ABBA, who dissolved in 1982.  ABBA had a British manager; one member of ABBA ended up moving to the UK, while another ended up moving to Switzerland.  (Note that the divorce of two of ABBA's members played a huge role in their break-up, and it might have occurred even without the pressure of new Swedish tax law.)

Sweden also lost Björn Borg, the world's top tennis player, who moved to Monte Carlo, although, hilariously, he later moved back to Sweden to buy an island and create a private fashion label that is only slightly less popular there than Calvin Klein.

Another point for the free market.

The attempts to rein in superstars like ABBA not only failed but in some ways influenced some of the popular aspects of the band.  For example, declaring "fantasy" outfits as deductables to their income, claiming that it wasn't possible to wear the same outfits onstage as in their normal lives, ABBA ended up with increasingly more extravagant outfits for their performances, which became a signature style of the band.

Tax attorney (shielding his eyes): "Okay, okay, I'm deducting, I'm deducting!"

Nowadays, Sweden's tax is around 50-60%, making it one of the highest in the world but allowing the country to keep some semblance of an open market.  So it would be fairer to say that Sweden is more socialistic than purely socialist.

Sweden's not perfect, but their model of government-- a democracy with a lot of heavy-handed social programs-- has led to their country being among the happiest in the world.  

So where do I stand on socialism?  Clearly, true socialism doesn't work and has too much room for corruption.  But having social programs and a big safety net for the citizens of a country seems to be a good thing.  ABBA sings about how winners take it all, and losers have to fall.  But maybe that isn't the case.  Maybe the "Swedish Model" proves that social programs can be instituted in a way that protects a country's most vulnerable citizens while allowing an elite few to achieve financial greatness.  Socialism as a government may not work, but socialist programs might.  And maybe it's about time that we took a chance.

"I work all night, I work all day / to pay the bills I have to pay.
Ain't it sad?  
And still there never seems to be/ a single penny left for me.
That's too bad.
Seize the means of production and abolish private ownership of property." 
- ABBA lyrics, probably

(Side note about me: I am not a politician, a historian, or an economist, so I am writing this from the perspective of a largely uninformed person who talked to a couple of Swedes last week and thought that our drunken, half-remembered conversation made for an interesting think-piece.  I could be way off-base here; I've done my best to cite sources but take everything written here with a grain of salt and, as always, do your own research.)

(Side note about ABBA: The band has said as recently as 2010 that they will never allow their music to be used politically and that they had absolutely no interest in supporting any party or position.  Sorry, ABBA.)