Sunday, June 26, 2011

Critical Notice: RuPaul, Workin' It

The full title of this work is Workin' It: RuPaul's Guide to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Style.  I bought it after hearing RuPaul as the celebrity guest on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me!

I didn't know much about RuPaul, but I found his philosophy of life very appealing (his? hers? from what I understand, they're equally appropriate).  Basically, that philosophy combines a kind of insistence on living in the moment -- not as "mindfulness" but more as "fabulousness" -- together with a healthy dose of "also, don't be an asshole."

Not everyone appreciates the important distinction between being "sassy" and being "bitchy," but RuPaul puts it front and center, explaining in Chapter One of the book how, early in his career, he had to rewrite the whole script for the VH1 fashion awards in 1996 because the writers thought a drag queen had to be bitchy and mean.  I'm committed to anti-meanness, so I'm all over this.  I also liked the way, on the show, he talked about the politics of drag, and how he got into performing that way as a transgressive political act, which I thought was sophisticated and smart. 

So I bought the book, thinking it might have some real life advice for me on living fabulously.

Results:  overall, a little mixed, but definitely some great and intersesting moments:

Most Mom-Like Advice

Be punctual! When you're late you're disrespectful of others and disrespectful of yourself.  Also, stand up straight and don't smoke!

Most Surprising Intimate Moment 

This would be the description of RuPaul's first colonic irrigation.  OK, I wasn't surprised a discussion of this weird trend appeared in the book, because there's lots of "health" advice of the kind you typically get from celebrities, and who knows why, but celebrity health is all about removing everything from your intestines in whatever way possible.  

What surprised me was that in the middle of a description you would almost call "family friendly" in its blandness, we get the following:  "She then instructed me to insert the tip of the hose into my rectum.  Well, I'm no stranger to ass insertion.  'Just the tip?' I asked." 

It's pretty much the only reference to sex in the whole book, which makes it awesome.  You go, RuPaul.

Most Actually Useful Advice

The most actually useful thing in the book is the reminder that you can't be fabulous without being healthy, and health is often boring.  OK, she doesn't put it like that, but it's the same idea.  Go to bed early, get plenty of sleep, eat right, and don't drink too much.  Only then will you have the basic materials you need to put on a pair of huge false tits and two huge wigs (yes! two!) and get through the day.  Or do whatever other difficult thing you need to do in life.

Also useful is the emphasis on effort that is worth it.  If you love beauty, it's worth it to work at making yourself and your surroundings beautiful.  It may be kind of a pain, but most good things are kind of a pain. 

This view of things is, I think, important in its contrast to the "harmony" view of life, in which all the good things are sort of similar and fit together.  I've never bought that.  Some things are bad, but you do them because the outcome is so good.  That is not mysterious, so I don't know why it's so often denied.

Anyway, if things are a pain, you can count yourself lucky that, unlike RuPaul, you don't have to get up at 4am, wear super-giant false eyelashes all day, and get regular colonics.

Also, stand up straight and don't smoke!

Most Depressing Detail for Femininity and Feminism

I was distressed to learn that RuPaul never eats in public when she is in drag.  Not distressed because of anything this says about RuPaul, but distressed to think that femininity involves ideals that are actually incompatible with basic activities needed for survival.  This is shocking, but I think it is true.

Traditional ideals of femininity and feminine beauty involve a certain kind of delicacy that's impossible to combine with anything that verges on being a little gross.  Indeed, RuPaul says part of the problem is if you're trying to talk and eat at the same time, it's kind of disgusting.  Just so.  And it seems to me that somehow it's OK for masculinity to be a little disgusting -- indeed, if current movies are any guide it is part of masculinity to be a little disgusting.  But not for femininity. 

Now that women live in the world, this is a problem.

I don't know what the answer is.  I'm not ready to give up on femininity altogether.  I take it the very existence of drag shows femininity has interest and appeal beyond functioning to harass women who want to do things and eat in public. 

So maybe a combination of changing ideals and more workable compromises.   Certainly we can say that with respect to changing ideals, having someone in the public eye who is six foot four and buff and wearing a dress can only help. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Modern Reading

I got an iPad -- an iPad 2, to be precise.  I got the black border and the pink polyurethane cover, so it looks like this:

Nice, huh?  I love my iPad and I use it all the time.  I use it to read and mark up student work with a stylus; I use it to read scholarly papers with my "Papers" app; I do the Times Crossword on it, and I use it to find my way places with the maps feature.

But mostly, I use it to read.  Books, that is. I use it to read books.  Remember books? I'm always amused when people are like What Do You Use That For That You Can't Do On a Laptop because the answer seems so obvious:  I read books.

I don't know about you, but the idea that I would read a book on my laptop sitting at my desk ... it's almost laughable.  I read on the sofa, I read on the bed, I read on the subway, but I don't read at my desk.  I mean, I'm at my desk all day working.  I'm not going to spend my leisure time there too. 

Reading books on the iPad is fantastic.  I would say for me it's better than reading books on paper.


There is one thing I don't like about reading books on the iPad, and that can be summed up in one word:  e-bookstores.

There's no problem for works out of copyright, which you can download free from  And, of course, I do this all the time, and it is amazing.  I would never read the lesser-known Louisa May Alcott books if I had to buy them from a store and carry them around.

But for books in copyright, it's bad.  The main problem is DRM, or digital rights management, and the way it affects your "ownership" of the book.  There's an informative wikipedia discussion here.  But the essence of the difficulty is perhaps better conveyed through a descrtiption of the mechanism and the story of Orwell's 1984 on the Kindle.

When you buy a book on a Kindle -- or on the Kindle app on the iPad, as I do -- the book is downloaded to the device by a syncing mechanism in which the device syncs with your account at Amazon.

It's not like iTunes, where you can move the file around yourself.  You can't move this file anywhere -- you can't copy it from your laptop to your device, or from your device to your laptop, or from one computer to another.  All you can do is sync with your account.  You can sync any device -- I mean, I have my kindle books on my laptop, in the Kindle Application, and on my iPad, in my Kindle app -- but in both cases the books come from my account at Amazon and cannot be directly moved.  Obviously, this is to prevent you from giving the book away to all your friends for free, posting it online, or -- OMG, pirates! -- distributing it over some peer to peer network or whatever.

This means that your books on your device are always syncing with the books on your account.  As
this article in The Times explains, syncing giveth, but it also taketh away:
"Digital books bought for the Kindle are sent to it over a wireless network. Amazon can also use that network to synchronize electronic books between devices — and apparently to make them vanish."
And that's what happened with 1984. [Insert your own observations and jokes about "irony" here].  I guess the publisher who made the books available on Amazon didn't have the rights, and when whoever did have the rights complained, Amazon responded by taking the book out of people's accounts, and thus, next time they synced, off their Kindles.

Amazon says it'll never do that again.  But really, is their assurance sufficient?  Don't you think it's creepy that whoever sold you the book can control it at any time, indefinitely into the future?  Obviously they could change things around, delete smutty or politically sensitive material at any time. What if they're asked to do so by the government?  Surely they'll comply.

Sorry, but this arrangement is completely nuts. 

All the ebooks companies I know of work this way -- at least, all the ones with books I want to read.  I made a vow that I'd buy only scholarly books on the iPad and that I'd buy new novels on paper.  But I've already broken it.  Who wants to cart a bunch of paper and cardboard on a transatlantic flight if they don't have to?

We need a new system altogether, but until we get one, e-bookstores should throw people like me a bone by offering "bundles."  With a bundle, you buy the ebook and the book book together, for more than either separately but less than the two would normally cost together.  I get convenience and peace of mind, the bookstore gets more money.

Obviously I'm alone in a wilderness here, since no one is offering these.

When I first got my iPad, I tried out books on three of the big systems:  Kindle, iBooks, and Kobo.  Though I love Apple I gotta say the iBooks system is the worst, on grounds that you can't even read your book on your computer, only on your iPad.  Sorry but that is dumb.  The Kindle system is pretty good -- though they have some weirdo format they use, instead of the standard ePub.  Not that that matters, since given the DRM insanity just mentioned, you can't transfer the file or do anything with it anyway.  Still, wouldn't it be nice to at least know the book was in some standard readable format?

I had high hopes for Kobo -- books are in standard ePub format, and they company is proud of the way their books are available on a range of devices.  So far so good.  On the other hand, they don't have all that many books.  New bestsellers, fine.  Books on moral particularism, not so much.

At first I was committed to going with them whenever I could, but then I discovered something about the Kobo app which made me stop dead in my tracks and run screaming back to Amazon.  And it is this:  the Kobo app actually congratulates you on making it through a book.

It's worse than this, really, because the Kobo app also encourages you by congratulating you on making it partway through a book.  It's like, "Hey, You've Read Some of a Book! Way to Go! Do You Want to Post this News to Facebook or Twitter?!"

That's just about the most depressing approach to reading I can imagine.  I was reminded of it yesterday when I encountered this similarly depressing thing at the Times --actually called a "Riff."  The theme is that we have Stockholm Syndrome with long novels.  We don't want to finish them, but we feel we owe them.  We slog our way through.

I'm a reader, and just in case anyone thinks that's what modern reading is like, let me tell you, it isn't.  If I don't feel like finishing a novel, you know what I do? I put it down and stop reading it.  Yes, that's right: if I don't feel like finishing a novel, I put it down and stop reading it.

This doesn't happen often.  But it happens sometimes.  Just often enough to remind me that I'm doing tihs for fun and I don't need a gold star on the fridge for finishing a novel.  Kobo People? Are you out there?  Are you listening?  I'm trying to tell you.  Modern reading: it doesn't have to be a status update.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Timothy Ferriss And The 15 Minute Female Orgasm

The Four Hour Body is like a fitness book written by a highly curious, experimental, obsessive-compulsive control freak.  That sounds funny, except in many ways, who better to write a book about fitness?  The author, Timothy Ferriss, is not only willing to try anything and experiment on himself, but also obsessive enough to carry out the experiments -- doing nutty things like testing his blood sugar every five minutes as he eats minutely varying amounts of various substances.

The book covers a lot of ground.  And since Timothy Ferriss not only wants you do be fit and healthy, but also to live The Good Life, there's a certain amount of discussion about how to Have A Good Sex Life.

Honestly, as a female reader, my hopes weren't high, because in the early chapters of the book he describes hanging out with the guy who wrote that book The Game.  Neill Strauss.  You know, the book about picking up women that gives advice like "always say something insulting to a beautiful woman."  The book that assumes only 8s, 9s, and 10s are worth bothering about and if you're a man doomed to date a 6 you've really got problems.

But I was pleasantly surprised.  Ferriss doesn't just want to tell his male readers how to pick up women; he wants to tell them how to make a woman have a good time.  I suppose it's a pretty sad indictment of most pop culture that you get points for not just wanting the girl but also for wanting her to have fun, but there it is.  Really, reading magazines like Maxim you get the impression that not only does your average guy not know what to do to make women happy and sexually satisfied, he doesn't really care either.

So points to Ferriss for that.  And, I would say, further, points for the way he goes about finding out his answers.  I said that he's experimental and obsessive.  Basically he goes and talks to a whole bunch of female experts on female orgasm to find out what exactly is needed to get a girl off, and then he practices.  Because he's curious, he's willing to go to the ends of the earth to ask informed people what the answers to his questions are.  Because he's experimental he's willing to ask actual girls to let him perfect his technique.  Because he's obsessive, he's willing to practice and hone his technique until he has a Sure-Fire-No-Fail-No-Mystery Technique for making sure a woman has an orgasm during sex (my phrasing, but that's what it is).  In 15 minutes or less.

Again, pretty sad indictment of the rest of pop culture that you get props for asking women about women's orgasm, but I think you do.  Your average nutty guy experimentalist is so much more comfortable talking to other guys than talking to women, they'd rather talk to Dr. Male Sexresearcher than Ms. Female Sexologist any day of the week.  But Ferriss goes right to the source:  women who know what they're talking about.  And he listens to what they have to say.  So that's good.

The only question I had about the whole thing was:  Sure-Fire-No-Fail-No-Mystery 15-minute orgasm?

Because as you can imagine, the technique is pretty specialized.  There are diagrams.  You have to have the woman staying pretty still and and the man doing a series of very precise things.  It's kind of like, I don't know, repairing a pocket watch, or polishing a really really tiny and delicate piece of silver, or getting the last piece of paper out of a jammed photocopier.  Just to give you a sense of things, Ferriss says, "Limit the session to exactly 15 minutes.  I used a kitchen timer."

I get wanting knowledge and technique, I applaud the way he goes after it, but isn't it weird that even with all this there's no part of the activity that involves just asking the woman in question what she'd like?  Sure, maybe she wants a Sure-Fire-No-Fail-No-Mystery 15 minute orgasm with a kitchen timer.  But then, you know, maybe she doesn't.

Funny how hard it seems to keep in people's minds:  if you want to know what a woman wants, why not ask her?