Wednesday, February 28, 2007

For the LJ folks

Hey, I was just looking at Josh Tenpenny's friends page and it looks like BS sent most of itself out again. I apologize to anyone who feeds BarkinShaman off of Live Journal. In preparation for making my next set of hard-copy back-ups of BS I went though and screwed around with the formatting of all the posts and for some gods unknown reason Blogger decided to send it out again.

sorry sorry sorry


Let’s Talk About “Sex” Baby…

I’d like to start by making a specific point crystal clear. People who know me well (or I suppose have ever been in a room with me) will find this truth to be self-evident, but I’ll state it anyway:

I really like sex.

However, circumstances have led me to an interesting question, namely “what is sex?” Everyone thinks that they know the answer, and that everyone else’s answers are the same as theirs. It’s just not true.

I am going to be teaching a workshop at Dark Odyssey Spring Fire this April on how to have ethical erotic play that includes spooky foo. As I’ve been thinking about my workshop, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the nature of sex. For instance, and this will be too much info for some of you, I do not have anal sex with my husband. It is a source of some discontent on my part, but for reasons of his own this particular area of sexuality is off limits with him.

Some would argue that this means that Summer and I have not had sex in almost two years. I would strongly disagree. We have a lot of sex; we just don’t have that particular type of sex. However, if your idea of “sex” is based on the *insert tab A into slot B* model than you could make the argument that we have been having doesn’t count.

Even the *tab A slot B* world view has its problems. How for instance to you define what tab A or slot B even is. Many conservative arguments against gays are based on the idea that the only true sex is the penis-in-vagina variety. President Clinton brought the question of whether oral sex counts into the public consciousness. I think it is safe to say that now, over a decade later; the question has yet to be resolved in the public sphere.

It could be argued that the oral sex issue has been beaten to death. Let’s try less familiar territory. In gay sex there is a practice called “docking” in which an intact (not circumcised) man rolls his foreskin over the head of his partner’s penis. There is a tab A and a slot(ish) B involved, but is this “sex” in such a literalist worldview? I somehow doubt the current president of the United States will be accommodating and bring this question into public discourse through his indiscretions, as much fun as that would be.

I suspect that many of the readers of Barking Shaman discarded the *tab A slot B* concept some time ago. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a better grasp of what sex is.

The magnificent Lee “Bridgett” Harrington passed on this definition of sex from one of hir partners: “Did someone get off? If yes, then it was sex.” I must admit that there is an alluring elegance to the simplicity of this definition. I think it is safe to say that in most contexts it can be applied without problem. However, just in the course of my conversation with Lee, we found some circumstances this definition doesn’t quite cover.

The first and perhaps most obvious is the case of professional sex workers. If a prostitute or porn star has professional sex and someone comes, the sex worker may not really consider the experience “sex” even if they were the party orgasming.

Similarly, there are situations where one activity, even with the same people involved, can be sex one time and not another. For instance, take CBT. If, as a shaman, I engage in some form of genital torture with another person as part of a sacred endurance ritual, I would not call it sex. However, if I was shoving needles through someone’s dick to get him (or me) off, that would be different, even though the act and the participants might be the same.

The question of what constitutes sex is largely academic for most people. However, for folks involved in the BDSM or Kink communities the question takes on greater import because the lines are more blurry. A friend of a friend is a serious dom who is in a relationship with a woman who is not interested in BDSM at all. They have had several conversations about whether it is ok for him to go to play parties and flog other women. He had to explain to his partner that for him, this was a form of “sex,” and if she was going to allow him to go play in that way she needed to first understand that. It took time for her to understand what he was saying because she couldn’t imagine getting off on what to her was a non-sexual activity.

Even outside of these communities the question is not always as straight forward as we might think. In college I knew a young woman who broke up with her boyfriend because she repeatedly caught him cheating on her. What makes this weird in my mind is that he was cheating on her with himself. In this young woman’s word view, the fact that her boyfriend masturbated was a betrayal of their relationship and constituted cheating. Most of the people I am close with are rather sexually open (some would say debauched) and to us this is a crazy idea. Neither I, nor my friends can imagine telling a young man that he can’t whack off, but then we don’t really considered masturbation to be “sex” in the same way that this young woman did.

Clearly this isn’t a question that will be answered here today. I could probably write at length about how I personally define sex, but what would the point be. While we all may have different ideas of what sex is, we should each make an effort to understand our own internal process on this subject. Gaining a better idea of what we think of as “sex” will help us to understand ourselves and in some ways be more tolerant of those around us. Defining our personal concept of sex and sexuality makes it clear that we need to remember not to assume that other people share our definitions. Anything you can think of someone, somewhere, probably gets off on it.

That’s part of what makes it all so much fun.

On the Edge of the Village

Readers of Barking Shaman are familiar with my questioning of identity. The very first BS post was about the hard-to-define nature of my personal identity.

As I have written about before, most notably in “Undercover :-)” the eclectic nature of my life makes my interactions with other people simultaneously easy and hard. In this essay, I’ll be looking at that subject from a different perspective.

“Outsider” is a word that has defined my sense of self to some degree or another for my entire life. It is a role in society that had become familiar to me before the spooky shit even became a notable part of who I am. Being the barking guy sets one out as different pretty quickly. Being the barking, overweight, nerdy, gay (and flaming) guy takes that to a whole new level. Once the gods got involved it went to another level still.

However, even before the spooky crap, I discovered that there is a real power to being on the outside. Being the flaming barking kid added a new set of social complications, but it also removed a significant number of social pressures as well. Once the option of fitting in is no longer on the table there is really no obstacle to being you. If some of my friends in high school enjoyed my company because of the novelty of being around someone who regularly screamed about Flying Penis Man in the mall, well there were many more who just liked that I pretty much had no need to try to hide who I was.

Once the gods got involved though, things got far more complex. Even in a historical context, the shaman is almost always an outsider. The title of this post is a reference to the fact that in many tribal communities the shaman’s home was on the outskirts of the village far from other people’s homes. In my opinion, adjusting to this role is one of the most common reasons that people fail to make it through shaman sickness. Unfortunately, failing to make it through shaman sickness often involves dying or at least going totally bat-shit crazy.

Living where my family does (while being who we are), has gotten me thinking a good bit about the subject of being outsiders. The addition of several taboos, some specific to one or another of us, others applying to all three of us, have complicated our existence in Middle America. In the case of some of these taboos, I can clearly see their purpose beyond separating us out from other people, even though that is a side effect. Other taboos I suspect exist for the purpose of making us different. All this raises an interesting question, namely what is the specific spiritual value of “difference?”

I suppose that a fairer question would have been to ask whether there is a spiritual value to being an outsider. However, part of being a spirit worker is accepting that sometimes the gods know what they are doing. Since the condition in question seems to be so prevalent in both modern and historical traditions of spirit work, I’ll work from the perspective that there is some reason.

The first and foremost reason I believe that the universe makes us different from society is that if we are going to be doing spooky work it helps not to give a shit that we are doing weird spooky work. If the only way we were set apart was that we were doing spirit work we could easily come to resent the work for setting us apart. As this would be counter-productive from the perspective of the gods, it makes sense for us to be set apart in other ways as well.

Witness the prevalence of body modification in the spirit work community. A significant number of spirit workers I know or have worked with have in some way modified there bodies in the service of the gods. In my own case, I have tattoos, a brand on my leg, and stretched piercings. I can explain the spiritual reasons behind each mod. While tattoos are perhaps the most common body mod I have seen among spirit workers, they are far from the only ones. Most of the modified spirit workers I know are required by their patrons to explain the spiritual significance of their body mods if asked, further setting them apart. A permanent body modification also makes it harder to tell the universe to f-off and try to leave the spooky shit behind. Other ways I’ve seen spirit workers set apart include the prevalence of non-traditional professions, relationships, gender-identity, and sexual practices.

But aside from making it more palatable to be doing this weird spooky crap, is there power to be found in the role of the “outsider?” I think that there is. For one thing, many of us find ourselves in the position of ministering to other people. The outsider perspective can be a valuable tool in doing that kind of work. Being an outsider also makes it easier in my opinion to be honest with clients, even when being honest means being brutal. It can also be important to be recognized as “different” by people who come to us for spirit work. There aren’t any Master’s Degrees in being a shaman (none that count at least) yet people need to feel that a spirit worker is “qualified” the way that they expect their doctor or therapist to be qualified. Being perceived as different and spooky can in a strange way make people feel more comfortable and confident in our skills.

I’d like to put forth a theory though. I believe that being an outsider in society in one way or another makes the literal working with the spirits or gods easier. The non-human are the ultimate outsiders in society. Being already disconnected in some way from other people makes it easier to make the jump to working with the spirit world. I also think it makes us more trustworthy to the spirits. In a more specific example, the fact that as a shaman I am “dead” in some not-small part is an essential component for me in my interactions with the literal dead.

I believe that accepting the idea that being different has spiritual and magical value, rather than just being another difficult side effect of this kind of work, is essential to having a good attitude toward the work that the gods want done. Not that it is an easy thing to do. However, the gods have amply demonstrated their willingness to take options away. Witness the aforementioned taboos. As long being different is going to be a factor in many of our spiritual lives, we may as well work to see the bright side rather than engage in the mental and spiritual equivalent of closing our eyes, spreading our legs and thinking of England.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Slight Hitch in the Plan (and my chest)

When I wrote "How do You Define "Quality of Life?"" I had no idea that I was coming down with the flu, which has now struck all three of us. Due to this unfortunate eventuality I won't be able to write much in the way of a post for this evening as I had promised.

I don't want to leave you with nothing though so I give you this quote I found in "Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors." The book is an incredibly well-written account of one of the finest moments in the history of the United States Navy and is a must read for anyone interested in the study of heroism and bravery.

When Great men blunder, they count their losses in pride and reputation and glory. The underlings count their losses in blood.

Theodore C. Mason, Battleship Sailor (1982) as quoted in Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James D. Hornfischer (2004). p.358

Monday, February 19, 2007

I Guess King Arthur He Ain’t

Let’s begin by making one thing perfectly clear: I have never served in the military. Leaving aside the minor issues of my fondness for cock and predilection for barking like a dog, not to mention a childhood history of using psych meds (most of the meds used to treat Tourette are on the military’s “never mind” list), I don’t think the military has much use for someone who can’t even lift his cat without major pain. Long before my neck injury or even leaving for college, I spoke with a Coast Guard Reserves recruiter. I was rejected because of the TS and having taken the drugs most commonly used to treat it, but looking back now I think my swishy hips and bent wrist would have constituted “telling” under DADT.

All that said, for spooky reasons I have studied physical and magical combat in a tough school. Before my injury I was a pretty damn good hand to hand and knife fighter. Now, while not a competition grade shot by any stretch of the imagination, I am quite competent with a variety of firearms. As a combat magician I have been in combat situations which left their own kinds of scars (that’s right kids, cut up your astral body bad enough and it scars too).

My reason for bringing all this up isn’t just to make myself feel better in the face of my second bout of bronchitis in a month. Instead I am trying to establish a foundation from which to criticize… His Royal Highness Prince Harry of England.

Actually I suspect that it is not Prince Harry that deserves my distain but rather the British government and perhaps some elements within the Royal Family.

The reason for my vitriol is that His Royal Highness is deploying to Iraq soon with the rest of his regiment of the British Army. Troop Leader Wales as he is known by his soldiers has been trained to command four tanks and eleven men. How will those men he has trained with and commanded going to feel when they are sent into combat sans the Prince. That’s right, as second in line for the throne of England, Prince Harry is not eligible for combat duty. He is too important.

The media has proudly pointed out that the Prince (and his brother who also is a military officer) is continuing a long line of military service. His father was a navy pilot. His grandfather abandoned his Greek and Dane royal titles to serve in the British military in WWII and his uncle served on board an aircraft carrier in the Falklands War. When the British government wanted to remove Prince Andrew from his dangerous posting during the Falklands War the Queen and Prince Phillip supposedly overruled the government in order to keep their son on that aircraft carrier.

These recent military exploits, and let’s be honest the Falklands War wasn’t Britain’s most dangerous hour and while flying planes is a dangerous practice it is unlikely Prince Charles was ever in anymore jeopardy then if he had become a tour bus driver, are only the surface of the British Royal military tradition. To make a broad and historically dubious generality: there is a historical tradition both in and out of the British Isles that members of the ruling family lead their troops into battle.

If we accept that broad generality, than should the current generation of British Royals have chosen not to join the military it would have been a break with family tradition. However, to join the military but be held out from combat surely makes a mockery of a traditional role of royalty that goes back millennia. It would be one thing if His Royal Highness was in a non-combat position within the military. That would be a way to get the invaluable experience of military training and contribute something back to the country without putting himself at great risk. However, Prince Harry is trained to command tanks for gods’ sake. I don’t think there is such a thing as an administrative tank commander.

My partner Summerwind, who lived for many years of his young life under British rule (first in England then in Hong Kong before the hand off to China) assures me that this all makes perfect sense from a British perspective. He has rightfully pointed out that the House of Windsor doesn’t do a whole lot of governing anymore. Rather, they are a symbol of Great Britain and the embodiment of British fortunes. While they don’t make law anymore, they still fill the traditional role of sacred kingship in the sense of being the country. Summer says that it could be devastating to the moral of the British people to loose a crown prince in combat.

However, Prince Harry is the same young man whose grandparents refused to evacuate London during the Blitz because if the citizenry couldn’t leave than they wouldn’t either. I know that there is a huge difference between the war in Iraq and the Blitz of London (although I bet the Iraqis could find some similarities awfully easily) but that doesn’t change the disparity between Elizabeth II’s refusal to leave London and keeping Prince Harry out of combat while his fellow troops go off to fight. All that changes is the scale of people affected.

What will it mean to the troops who serve with the Prince when they go off to get shot at and kill strangers while he stays in as safe an environment as you can have in what remains essentially hostile territory. Imagine the resentment of coming back from a bad patrol, dirty and bleeding, knowing that the man who could be your future king (obviously a concern or he’d be allowed in combat) stayed behind so he wouldn’t get hurt.

I’m not British, and unlike Summerwind I’ve not even had the experience of living in another country (or in his case, three). However, unlike the majority of my countrymen I believe that done right, there is value to be found in the monarchy model of government. Even in the extremely watered down form that the British still have a monarchy there is a spiritual and magical role played by the existence of the royal family.

The British schoolboy in Summer says that it makes sense for Price Harry to be held back from combat duty because of the potential damage his death might do to the country’s moral. At the same time though, the spirit worker in me wonders about the damage to the luck and fate of his country caused by his or far more likely his government’s unwillingness to risk his death when so obviously willing to risk the death of his subjects and comrades.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Enter Goths Smiling

Picture a room full of goths. Make it a small dance club, a crowded small dance club. There’s a band performing and the club is far more crowded than normal, enough so that the air conditioning system is running even though it is fifteen degrees outside and a blizzard is scheduled to start within hours.

Got that in your mind? Ok, now picture all those people smiling.

That’s right, smiling.

Sounds pretty crazy but it is a sight I saw myself a few nights ago. Even crazier, it wasn’t the first time I saw this unusual sight. Personally I have now experienced this phenomena three times. That is because I have seen the Cruxshadows perform live exactly three times.

There is a good chance that you have never heard of the Cruxshadows, and an even greater chance that you’ve never seem them perform. Fortunately for you that will have no effect on the rest of this essay. The Cruxshadows are alternative/darkwave/goth band who have been playing music for about fifteen years. Like many bands in their genre they seem to be more successful in Europe than the states, although their most recent single got in the Billboard Top Ten Singles when it was released.

Aside from the fact that I am generally quite fond of their music (after all, Fire and I drove two hours to see them and then three hours home in a blizzard and considered it worthwhile) what amazes me about the Cruxshadows, and their singer/songwriter Rogue is their ability to bring joy to a crowd generally resistant to outward expressions of such (or really any) emotion.

At the recent concert I watched with amusement as an attractive young woman clearly struggled to maintain an air of angst/impassivity for a solid several minutes before abandoning all pretenses and grinning like an idiot.

The image that stands out above all else from the evening though is of Rogue standing in the middle of the crowd on a bar stool. At this point I should mention that he periodically steps into the audience and walks and dances through the crowd while continuing to sing using his headset microphone. He went and got a swiveling bar stool and spun himself around in circles while singing using only his own movements. People who know me will be shocked to discover that the reason this stands out in my mind is not directly related to the sight of Rogue’s gyrating hips.

Rather what stands out is his total confidence. This is a pretty risky, albeit impressive stunt. For a band with their punishing tour schedule, an injury to the singer could be disastrous. However, I don’t believe Rogue was ever really in any danger whatsoever. There is no doubt in my mind at all (and I suspect the same could be said for him) that if he had lost his balance he would not have hit the ground. There simply isn’t any way that the audience would have let that happen.

I have seen other performers who possessed incredible “presence.” Rogue, and to a lesser extent the rest of his band (especially the electronic violin player, Rachel who is unbelievable) are exceptional but not alone in this area. It is not the remarkable blend of intimacy and power over and with the audience that is most significant in my mind. Instead it is what the band seems to do with it, namely make people feel good. One might even say good about themselves.

Don’t misunderstand me for a moment; the Cruxshadows do not sing exclusively happy songs, far from it. I may be wrong, but right now I fail to think of a single song of theirs that I would call “happy,” weird perhaps (try listening to the song “Carnival”) but not happy. At the same time they generally lack the brutal despair of say, early Nine Inch Nails. Their music tends to revolve around the human condition, sometimes in a mythological context sometimes not. One of the finest songs I have ever heard honoring the sacrifices made by soldiers and warriors is “Winterborn(This Sacrifice)” off of their album “Wishfire.”

I have spent the last several days trying in to grasp and explain the effect that the concert had on the crowd. There was clearly a good deal of energy and foo flying about, but at the time and in retrospect I have been unable to pin down exactly what it was. I will say this, if in the middle of the concert Rogue had told everyone to take off their underwear and put it on their heads they(we) probably would have. If he’d told them to go kill some guy they(we) probably would have done that too. Where the real power was though is that there is no way he would have asked that and that is how he got such power in the first place. He conveys an intimacy and with it a trust that as a shaman I know I should distrust, but instead find comforting even in retrospect.

As a shaman, I would love to know what about Rogue and the Cruxshadows inspire these feelings. However, as an audience member, I honestly don’t want to know. Attending a ritual and being able to enjoy it purely as a participant, rather than analyzing its effectiveness/structure/spiritual impact is a privilege that one gives up when one becomes a spirit worker. This concert was a rare opportunity to recapture some of that feeling of magic (rather than foo) and I see no need to look behind the metaphorical curtain.

Friday, February 16, 2007

How Do You Define “Quality of Life”

Readers of BarkingShaman may have noticed that it has been some time since my last post. The reason for this is simple: Lunesta stole my brain. Those of you who watch television will remember the creepy advertisement for this particular sleep aid in which a big glowing luna moth repeatedly flies by. I can personally attest that the atmosphere of that ad is really what one feels like falling or trying to wake from a Lunesta assisted sleep.

The reason that I am sleeping the sleep of the glow-y moth is that I haven’t really been sleeping otherwise. An examination of the time stamps on some of the older BS posts will bear out my point. Unfortunately, I simply can’t get the clouded feeling out of my head through the course of the day. If I have also used morphine (on the advice of my doctor) this is even worse.

On the other hand, let’s make a list of the downsides to using Lunesta:

A) Thought processes are indisputably slowed throughout the day.

B) Within fifteen minutes of taking a Lunesta my mouth fills with a bitter metallic taste. Drinking or eating is extremely unpleasant. This taste lasts for in excess of 36 hours after taking one Lunesta. Aside from just sucking, this has also caused severe dehydration.

C) I shit you not. When I started this list I had four things to list. Three of them were mundane and the last will be spooky. However (and I swear I’m not making this up), I no longer can remember what the third point was.

D) I think my spooky shit is suffering from the sleeping drugs and mental dulling. I have learned to address this sort of thing before She addresses it for me.

E) I think what C was supposed to be was that the cognitive dulling has made it very hard for me to do things like keep up with BarkingShaman or my business. Honestly, I am not sure if that is what it was or not, but I think so.

F) Nope it wasn’t. I just remember what I was going to say. I have had a headache for the last several weeks. The doctor says it is unlikely to be caused by using the Lunesta (although admitted that dehydration was a possibility) but I remain unconvinced. It isn’t as bad now, but it is still there after over two weeks. The doctor I saw (while mine was in Honduras) explained that I had a complicated medical situation so anomalies like multi-week headaches had to be expected.

So how do you define “quality of life?” At what point does the frustration of not being able to do the work I need to do (or remember where the fuck my wallet is for that matter) overcome the increased comfort of being able to sleep at night. Lunesta is supposed to be non-habit forming but I must confess that the prospect of a full night of sleep is tempting beyond belief. I suppose you could say that it is the sleep that is habit forming not the Lunesta, but the idea of not taking it tonight fills me with anxiety.

So in the interest of maintaining a useful quality of life (and not getting my ass kicked by a certain deity) I am making this pledge: Today is February 16th. There will be another BS post tonight (meaning before next dawn not midnight) and it won’t be one of these “in my life” posts. Rather it will be an actually commentary essay like most of the posts in BS. In addition, there will be an essay post on the 22nd, 24th, and 26th.

The only exception is that there is a chance we may be going to Portland ME tonight to see the Cruxshadows again since Summer was sick when Fire and I went on Tuesday. If I am going to a concert tonight then I won’t be posting this evening.

If I can maintain a quality standard of writing, and I can tell that I have failed in this post compared to previous ones, then I will continue to use the Lunesta and work through the fog. If however, I am unable to even successfully write for BarkingShaman than the Lunesta will have to go and another option sought out.

-Wintersong Tashlin