407. Three Cheers for Sex

January 16, 2015

Sex is our ultimate activity. Without it, none of us would be here. Generation after generation, our ancestors have engaged in it, as our descendants will after us. Sex is a big deal. The biggest of all possible deals. The single most important of all human engagements. We are born of it and to it.

At the same time, we seldom talk about it. Why is that? Sex is in a class by itself that exists beyond words. Sex is more a matter of urges and emotions than it is an intellectual concept. It is certainly pre-verbal. Our progenitors had sex long before they had words. Words come after sex. Before sex, we talk about anything but, as if it never entered our minds.

We may not put it into so many words, but we think about it all the time and see it all around us. And lay plans with sex at the heart of the evening’s activities. All those candle-lit dinners, moonlight cruises, shared entertainments, shopping sprees, exotic vacations, new cars, engagement rings—what do they share in common if not an allusion to sex?

Each in our own way, we are all sexual beings, taking a particular place somewhere along the sexual spectrum of desire and fulfillment, appetite and release, as our parents took theirs, and their parents theirs. Even if childless couples, gays, and lesbians may not raise youngsters of their own, they contribute more than their share to communities that do, fairly meeting their generation’s obligation to its children.

Our sexuality is driven by the same life force that fuels our metabolism. Beyond that, it is a response to hormones that drive formation of the specific organs, body shapes, and urges we all exhibit in one way or another. Not that sex acts are consciously grounded on reproduction, which is often the last thing on partners’ minds when engaging in sexual behavior.

In fact, most of the time, we are trying our best to make sure that not one sperm reaches the egg it aims to hook-up with. Even without some form of birth control, the odds of a sperm’s being successful in meeting up with the egg of its dreams are inversely astronomical, that is, hugely minute.

A sexual engagement may be aimed at reproduction, but much more commonly that is not on the mind of either partner. Sexuality is more often aimed at gratification of passions, the sooner the better. The mind is thinking: soon, sooner, and now!.

If things work out to mutual satisfaction, particular pairs will want to stay together to make the passionate moments last not for seconds but for days, weeks, or a lifetime.

If they make a contractual agreement to do so, that’s what we call marriage, meaning our families and communities respect their intentions, and so back them up for the long term. At one remove, a community shares the joys of its members’ passions. Engaging on the deepest levels of physical intimacy, those members enable others to imagine and then perhaps realize their children and their grandchildren.

So do sexual engagements spiral through the decades like propellers driving ships ahead through vast oceans. Attraction and affection are one dimension of life, love and desire another, enduring passion and release a third. This is equally true for heterosexual couples, gay and lesbian couples, transsexual couples. The commitment to caring engagements is the essential ingredient that resolves the tension of being alone and unattached. Caring engagement, along with creativity and adventure, seems to be a good part of the meaning of life.

I remember watching young solo snowsledders race around turns that blocked their view of any machine that might be coming against them. With a lady riding tandem, that same turn was invariably negotiated slowly and cautiously. Which is it to be, devil-may-care, or we’re-in-this-for-the long haul? That depends on our age, and our committed engagements.

The art of life is in surviving reckless youth to reach the promised land of mature relationships.

 

 

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

 

My posts frequently begin as a shimmering in my consciousness, a kind of beckoning glow or maybe low hum from one direction or another. I can’t call it a thought—more a proto- or incipient presence that might, if I stick with it, evolve into a thought. Language usually isn’t involved from the beginning, but emerges sooner or later. I feel a kind of yearning to pursue something. Yes, to be engaged in an activity leading I don’t know where but fascinating from the start. You see, I can barely express how ideas come to me. Something latent within me wants to get out. I am not the agent, merely the channel.

 

I don’t know how ideas originate any more than where words come from. It just happens in some indeterminate way. I don’t make it happen, it happens to me. First I am drawn or excited by something, I know not what. I get a sense of its latency, then get out of the way so it can emerge on its own.

 

OK, so what started this off? A foggy sense that the function of territory (or its monetary derivative) is to promote sexual activity, sending sperm cells rushing toward egg cells, sparking embryogenesis, the mixing of genes, birth, and the onrush of life. Reproduction, like consciousness, is always situated in a specific set of circumstances. In this case, within a given territory shared by a wide variety of life forms all using it to the same end—to glean enough calories derived from solar energy to perform the creation dance and so kindle a new generation.

 

I keep coming back to this same shimmering kernel of awareness. I can gaze at the woods, contemplate the stars, indulge in sexual yearning, or track my own consciousness—and I end up at the same intersection in my mind where all life comes together. As if all thoughts were one thought, all consciousness one consciousness, all actions one act. Attraction and procreation are integral to everything we do, connecting us to ourselves, one another, our place on Earth.

 

I see that life keeps creating the same situations over and over. There is method in its diversity because its end is always the one end. Boy-meets-girl is ever the same story: Let’s match gametes and see what comes of it. What happens is life. With us, the object is to give the smallest human cell (sperm) access to the largest human cell (egg) at an appropriate time in a supportive environment rich in the necessities of life—food, drink, shelter, and a big enough sample of the social order to stack the odds in life’s favor.

 

I remember my friend Jan coming to Boston from Hungary in the early 1950s and taking up with an Irish girl from what some considered the wrong side of town. “Wrong” in that by prevailing custom their gametes weren’t supposed to get within range of each other. But Jan did it, as Thomas Jefferson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and just about every other person you can name did it in his or her time. If gametes that are not supposed to meet didn’t meet, what would humanity do for recreation in a world without soap operas, novels, movies, or gossip? Where would advertisers place their ads? Clearly, the economy would collapse if boys and girls always behaved as they were supposed to. At some level we are aware there’s little future in just saying “no.” I’m not advocating teen sex so much as taking precautions against conception and sexually transmitted diseases. As a thought experiment, picture your day with the sexy parts (real, imagined, sublimated) left out. In a very real sense, sex is life.

 

Earlier, I approached this topic through my winter appreciation of cleavage (Reflection 50, posted January 16, 2009), asking myself: Now where does that come from? There I wrote:

 

Cleavage is a way station to babies. I don’t have a lust to go that far, but I do enjoy the way station. A little bell goes off in my head when there’s cleavage in the neighborhood. I don’t see it so much as just know it’s there. By a kind of sixth sense. Which is reassuring. Beyond admiration, nothing is expected of me, much less required. I go about my business, the cleavage bearers about theirs. It’s a great arrangement with no strings attached.

 

Sex is right up there with the urge to eat, drink, breathe, be active, and sleep—all necessary to life. Consciousness is ever on the lookout, our autonomic nervous systems do the rest. Judging by our reproductive success, the system really works. But, strangely, it is often hard to appreciate our individual involvement in the life system because of the almost subliminal level at which we become aware of it. If it came at us in bold words, colors, shapes—like stop, caution, or yield signs—it would be easier for us to take responsibility for the results—and maybe even manage ourselves better than we do.

 

It all starts with that little inside shimmer or shiver. Nothing is spelled out, we just know something’s on. So we make our play to see if we can’t facilitate things a bit. Since it takes two to tango, we have to make sure that the other is keeping with us by stirring his/her desire to our level—or that we’re rising to theirs. We each help create a situation that encourages the other to complement our actions through mutual fulfillment. Done right, it’s a great game. As Richard Grossinger writes in Embryogenesis: Species, Gender, and Identity (North Atlantic Books, 2000): “In searching together for their individual identities, [male and female] collaborate across their gap of tissues in fathomless, transpersonal acts” (page 516). Well before chromosomes are merged in the fertilized egg, minds are merged as if that union of souls were the real thing. Evolution grants us the illusion that we know what we’re doing, when very often we have only the faintest of clues.

 

So what is sex all about? Reproduction, certainly, with as much gratification as possible strewn along the way. I view gay and lesbian sex as ancillary to reproduction in freeing same-sex couples from responsibility for the follow-through of sex so they can see to other vital matters for which active reproducers have little time or energy. Reproduction entails caring not only for the zygote, but its potential for developing into a blastula, a gastrula, an embryo, a baby, a child, a youth, an adult, who will go on to play the next round of the game her own way. All starting with a shimmer in someone’s awareness. Some dim little spark of pre-consciousness with the potential for carrying genes and life forward.  

 

Where does that spark come from, that glint of desire? Evolution tends it as carefully as the Chinese did the Olympic Flame in 2008. Everyone knows it matters. Richard Grossinger says this:

 

We must finally accept, in light of the harsh reality of being born and dying, that what we are is a continuation of what the universe is, so all our wishes and fears could not be irrelevant to cosmic process; else how could they have occurred? Our wild hopes for rebirth, our dread of hell and extinction are part of the universe too.

          The journey is unknown; the path is unknown; what will happen is unknown; what it all means is unknown. This is our only solace in a fathomless, cryptic universe.

          The inevitability of death is the same as the inevitability of birth. The forces that brought us here, that acknowledge and cling to life, are the forces that will take us from here. If we shun and vilify our certain deaths, then we must in some way deny the fact of our life.

          We are in the hands of the gods anyway and, if they are not able captains, we were in trouble long before dying; we were in fact in trouble before being born (page 724).

 

Which guarantees full employment for our left-brain interpreters. As mere motes in the universe, we are incapable of knowing how the material universe translates into sexual desire. Are genes or chromosomes alive? No, they are mere molecules. Is DNA alive? No, a long strung-out molecule, but matter nonetheless. Are proteins alive, the products of DNA? Well, they contribute to living bodies, but in themselves do not reproduce, so, no, they are not alive.

 

But somewhere along there in cells equipped with mitochondria, ribosomes and nuclei, DNA enables reproduction, protein replacement and repair, intake of food, and removal of waste. According to an arcane formula, matter is brought to life. And the potential for consciousness and sexual reproduction come along with it.

 

Picture sperm cells racing toward egg cells as if fully conscious of what they were doing (all but one rushing to their deaths; the one that hits the mark getting its genes past Go onto the board for another round). Picture the one egg cell consciously hoping for Mr. Right to make it on time. What are we but gametes up on two legs, walking around looking to get laid? “Our” consciousness is gamete consciousness. Ultimately, territory provides the energy and opportunity for sperms and eggs to meet up, for fertility, nurturance, growth, consciousness, life. All right here on our home planet. Which start to finish, sponsors the whole project.

 

Our consciousness is Earth consciousness. The shimmer and hum that first grab our attention are sights and sounds of ancient seas inviting the first beings to make the leap from an assemblage of molecules to animate life. It makes no sense to think ourselves off the Earth; we are its creatures, born and bred to this place. The spark has been passed for over three billion years. We are Earthlings in every intimate detail. Beyond that, we can’t know enough to ask how we got here. We have no choice but to take care of the territory that takes care of us. Anything else is unthinkable.

 

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Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

 

Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.

 

Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.

 

Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.

 

Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.

 

But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.

 

Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.

 

Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.

 

Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.

 

Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.

 

Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.

 

This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.

 

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