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Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
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There’s this thing they used to make you do in school — maybe they still make you do it, I don’t know — which involves reading a story, and then writing about what it means. We call this activity English Lit,. This will shock absolutely nobody, I know, but I happen to be naturally good at this thing. It comes so easily to me that, as a kid, I was vaguely astonished that they bothered to give me a grade for it. It felt like cheating. In college when all my other plans crashed and burned, it meant I could switch back to my comfort zone of English Lit and emerge, barely, with a BA in my teeth. I still do this thing, this English Lit thing, in an informal way, just for fun.

In the parlance of modern Internet fandom, English Lit is like writing a “meta” — looking at a story in terms of its themes, metaphors, unexpected symbolic connections, relationship to larger social forces, etc. And there is nothing wrong with looking at a story that way. But it meant that when I wanted to write my own stories, I intuited that what you would do is reverse the process: start with the meaning you wanted people to take away from it, and work backward.

But that’s actually not how stories are built.

It’s like trying to build a cathedral, and starting with the gargoyles.

More on this topic, I Am the Walrus, and vampire facials, all behind the cut...Collapse )

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Part of the Clarion West 2014 Write-a-thon series.
Sponsor me, sponsor another writer, or learn more about the Write-a-thon

One of the most important things that I learned at Clarion West was the difference between story and plot. It’s not really intuitive to separate them, because they’re so closely linked in a successful finished work. I’m sure there are many writers who never bother to consciously make the distinction. You might think it would be the sort of distinction that an English Lit degree would have taught me to make, but no. Even from a critique standpoint, the plot and the story are treated as pretty much the same thing.

But they’re not.

More words and now TWO pictures of Gene Wilder...Collapse )

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Against Against YA


From Slate, by Ruth Graham:

As The Fault in Our Stars barrels into theaters this weekend virtually guaranteed to become a blockbuster, it can be hard to remember that once upon a time, an adult might have felt embarrassed to be caught reading the novel that inspired it. Not because it is bad—it isn’t—but because it was written for teenagers.

Oh, good! A controversy I can dig my brain into that is completely irrelevant, non violent, actually sort of fluffy and entertaining — but also relevant to my interests: whether it’s “okay” for adults to read YA novels. (Adult friends: please read my upcoming YA novels. It’s okay.)

Just for you, my darling! Many words behind the cut...Collapse )

Some people enjoy reading lit fic. Others, I suspect, enjoy the feeling of superiority they get from knowing that they are the sort of person who chooses to read serious literature, when they could be reading something fun.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


What did I learn at Clarion West? [1]


We were having lunch at Elliott’s Oyster House for Father’s Day and talking about the upcoming Write-a-thon. Mom asked me, “so — did you get anything out of Clarion West?” I goggled at her for a moment, then said, “of course!” The conversation moved on, but I determined that one of the things I needed to do during this Write-a-thon was a “what I learned at Clarion West” series.

This was a slight conflict with the other thing I needed to do during this Write-a-thon, which was a daily writing, less dorking around on the Internet, pledge. Because, probably the number one most important thing I learned during Clarion West is that I needed to spend a lot more of my time writing. I needed to make it a priority — daily, pretty much. It’s a weird mental trick, putting my brain into writing space — I have sometimes, only half-jokingly, called it a “temporary voluntary psychotic state.” If I don’t practice all the time it gets a lot harder.

And — I know there’s kind of an anti-Malcom-Gladwell sentiment swirling about on the Internet these days, but I think he was onto something with the 10,000 hours rule. It’s not that 10,000 hours is precise or magical or guaranteed, but getting really good at something often requires both 1. More practice than you would ever believe, and 2. Not practicing wrong. Clarion West helped me with both.

Life disruptions will get me out of the daily writing habit, though, and giant festering piles of stress will sometimes crush it out of me. When it gets hard just to get through my day, it gets harder still to face the gentle hum and blinking cursor of the laptop. And I have to get back to writing productivity, because I have SEQUELS to write, dammit! (Yes, Waking Up Naked in Strange Places has sequels planned. )

So, that is my Write-a-thon pledge: Writing Lent, which means six weeks of daily writing, plus no Internet or other blatant goofing off except on Sundays. Because that’s how Lent works, I think, but I was raised evangelical Protestant so I probably have no business WHATSOEVER doing this. Anyway, every Sunday, look for a new post explaining one thing I learned at Clarion West. But on not-Sundays, I will be cloistered in my Cave of Writing (that is, my bedroom).

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Because I’m a creep


About a week ago, yet another violently disturbed young man killed a bunch of people for no reason.

Yes, he was a misogynist of the most toxic kind, with a grandiose and visceral hatred directed at both the women who denied him his “rightful” share of their affection, and at the other men who got all the affection he felt entitled to. And yes, shortly before his murder spree, he posted a manifesto of Unabomber proportions, and a video suicide/homicide note. Both of these express a fairly clear purpose to his hatred, through a messed up nice-guy-ism so on point it sounds like parody:

I don’t know why you girls aren’t attracted to me, but I will punish you all for it.

It’s an injustice, a crime, because I don’t know what you don’t see in me. I’m the perfect guy, and yet you throw yourselves at all these obnoxious men, instead of me, the supreme gentlemen.

I will punish all of you for it.

So, he said that he was going to kill people because he wanted to punish the women he thought he deserved, who wouldn’t date him, as well as the “obnoxious men” they dated instead. But is that really why he went on his massacre? Who can say?

Sure, the “Men’s rights” and “Pickup artist” online forums that he frequented are full of men (and sometimes women) expressing very similar ideas about the inherent depravity of the female sex — they’re shallow, vain, stupid, scheming, amoral, good only for one thing, ought to be deprived of their sexual autonomy, etc. I would post specific examples, except I don’t want to make myself vomit. You can find plenty of them chronicled, for purposes of mockery, at (now “We Hunted the Mammoth” but will still get you there).

Anyway, in spite of all their vitriol towards women, and all their dehumanizing and sometimes violent rhetoric, most MRA types aren’t mass murderers. Most of them probably aren’t serial killers either. I suspect that a lot of them are sociopaths, but let’s be clear — the overwhelming majority of sociopaths are not killers of any kind. (Although they are often rapists, and MRA forums are disturbingly full of rape apologetics, so there’s that.)

No, it takes something special to turn an ordinary hate-filled and empathy-free young man with an imaginary list of grievances and a narcissistic sense of entitlement into a spree killer. What that thing is, we still don’t know. But we want to know. In the early days after a massacre, you can always see pop culture struggling to answer the question “why?” and shape a senseless event into a narrative that we think we understand.

Immediately after Columbine, for example, some people tried to make it retribution for bullying — yet, eventually, evidence revealed that the killers were just as likely to be the bullies themselves. Other people tried to make it be about wearing trenchcoats, or listening to Marilyn Manson, or playing video games. But, based on the killers’ own writings about why they did it — they did it to feel important. They did it for the infamy. If any external social force is to blame for the Columbine massacre, that force is the media, which frequently turns spree killers into darkly glamorous antiheroes.

The media, unsurprisingly, thought that “goth culture” was obviously far more culpable, and pushed that narrative pretty hard.

Do all spree killers kill for the same underlying reason? A silicon chip inside their heads that gets switched to overload? Or can we take their manifestos at face value and assume they kill for exactly the reasons they tell us, weird as those reasons might seem?

The world of MRA types, sometimes known as the manosphere, has responded in a predictable fashion to any suggestion that Rodger might have killed people because he took all that normalization of extreme misogyny a little too seriously. They’re blaming feminists.

Feminists are, somehow, not only the cause of the original rampage but are also shamelessly, SHAMELESSLY attempting to hijack this tragic event, which clearly had nothing whatsoever to do with misogyny, for their own nefarious anti-misogyny purposes. [Men’s Rights Activists respond to the Elliot Rodger murders with a hearty “Nothing to see here! Move along!”]

Many voices in pop culture — not only in the dedicated manosphere, but also the mainstream media and social media — don’t want to believe that Rodger killed a bunch of people because he hated women for acting like autonomous human beings. He told us that’s why — but they don’t want to believe him. They do, however, believe him when he tells us that he hated women so much only because he was lonely and sexually frustrated.

Maybe this really is the fault of the crush who rejected him, the women who didn’t want to date him, all the women who “creep shame” guys they find creepy. If he’d just gotten some real affection, some sweet understanding, so the thinking goes, he wouldn’t have felt like he needed to start killing — he would have been happy in a relationship!

Except… that view makes no sense at all when you look at it from the point of view of any of the women he might, potentially, have dated. I realize this might be a little advanced for some of you, or seem suspiciously like feminism, but you really need to try a little empathy here. After all, you’re urging us — women — to empathize with the romantic frustrations of a man who turned out to be a mass murderer. That’s kind of a tall order, really.

You want us to understand how much it hurts. How lonely it can be.

We do. Of course. Because we’re lonely too. We get rejected too. Just like you. We’re awkward at parties and nervous and shy talking to people we find attractive. We dream of mating with somebody we think is better than we are. Sometimes we get downright obsessive about people who simply don’t want us. We cling to false narratives about relationships and how they work, and buy self-help book after self-help book looking for that magic key that will make it all work out.

Just like you, we blame our dating failures on ourselves, and search desperately for something we can fix — wardrobe, makeup, fitness routine, even plastic surgery. Or maybe we focus on the ways our behavior might be putting potential romantic partners off, and get obsessed over “The Rules” or somesuch.

Except, wait a minute. You dudes — you don’t actually do all of that. If you can’t get the relationship you want, you blame women. And when women can’t get the relationship they want, they blame themselves.

But let’s think about Elliot Rodger in particular. Let’s say I meet this guy at a college party and we hit it off in person, so I check out his online activities. What I find there creeps me out, so I try to end the budding relationship right there. I might even try to let him down gently: “You’re a nice guy, but…” I wouldn’t be saying this because I think he’s actually a nice guy. I would be saying this because I’m afraid he might kill me or something if I make him mad.

I’ve met guys like that. They seem mostly normal if you talk to them in person, but they have really disturbing ideas that they post online, put in newsletters, or sometimes allude to in person without quite going into the full gory detail. I back away slowly, feeling a bit grateful that they actually showed me their gross maggot-infested underside before I had to find out the hard way. I don’t want people like that in my life. Seems pretty sensible, right? From my point of view? Why would I want to date a guy who seems creepy and disturbing?

Or, let’s say we meet at a party and he creeps me out right from the start. Maybe he’s handsome and superficially charming, but you know, Ted Bundy was handsome and superficially charming. Maybe I notice the little signals that tell you somebody is a sociopath. Maybe he actually says something misogynist out loud, and I cut him off, because I have a strict no misogynists policy in my dating life.

It might seem weird to you dudes out there — who routinely profess complete bafflement as to what women want in a dating relationship — but I don’t actually want to hang out with people who hate me. And I’m a feminist, so I don’t date patriarchalists either.

Am I being judgmental? You bet. Why shouldn’t I be? Don’t you make judgments about who you want to hang around with? Don’t you usually hang around with people you actually like spending time with, who bring something positive to your life?

Maybe he tries chatting up a friend of mine after he strikes out with me. Maybe we talk about him later. Maybe she is thinking about dating him, and I advise her not to. I tell her he creeps me out. I tell her he strikes me as kinda serial-killer-ish. Am I creep shaming, at that point? Or am I just, you know, ONE HUNDRED PERCENT OBJECTIVELY CORRECT, BECAUSE SERIOUSLY, THIS GUY TURNED OUT TO BE A SPREE KILLER.

There’s no way you can reasonably spin this into an argument that women ought to give more time and attention to guys who seem creepy, that we should give them a chance to prove they’re not the creeps they seem at first. Instead, it’s proof positive that we should run away screaming at the first sign of creepiness.

We’ll never know if Rodger would have killed without the manosphere out there egging him on, reflecting his worst impulses back at him, normalizing his violent and dehumanizing thoughts, patting him on the head and telling him “yes, yes, you’re absolutely right, women do owe you their affection and they are lesser beings than you, and if you were a real man you would be able to manipulate them into doing whatever you wanted, so get out there and manipulate!”

But we do know those MRA guys are creepy and disturbing. Am I shaming them? Not hardly. They have no shame. But they ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.18 Entropy

And now, it's time for everything to fall apart -- and Spike and Anya to get it on -- in Entropy!

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.18 EntropyCollapse )

Prop 1 Karma

These signs went up in the Northgate area, on the meridian of Northgate Way and 5th avenue. Who put them there? Did they get permission? Did they have to pay for it? What would have happened if Paul and I had gone out one night and removed all the "No on Prop 1" signs like we talked about?

I know what the anti-Prop 1 sign is supposed to communicate. But what I got out of it was this: Sixty bucks, really? Damn, you right wingers are petty.

I'm not really surprised that Prop 1 failed, any more than I was surprised when the teapartiers seized the House of Representatives in 2010. Weird, mid-cycle, less obvious elections tend to get a bigger turnout from that contingent.

Why? I don't know. Some of it has to do with who those people are -- older, less busy, less poor, etc. Poverty itself imposes a huge cognitive load, of the kind that causes people to miss deadlines and so on. Sometimes the right wing engages in active voter suppression of the populations likely to vote in favor of a more liberal or progressive agenda. Many low-income and disadvantaged voters effectively disenfranchise themselves -- they believe, with some cause, that nothing will ever change for people like them, and as a consequence give up trying.

But sometimes it seems like mostly what's going on is this: spite is a weirdly powerful motivator.

It's rare to find a voter who will openly claim "I vote the way I do because I'm short-sighted, vindictive and selfish." And yet if you look at most of the "reasons" people give for being against Prop 1, there isn't much more to them than that. Oh, Metro is too "inefficient" so they don't "deserve" any more money. The drivers get paid too much. It's not the right KIND of tax. We already pay too much in taxes!

None of those are reasons. They're after-the-fact justifications, and pretty pathetic ones at that. None of these people did a cost-benefit analysis and concluded based on evidence that the overall cost to the region of a sputtering transit system amounted to less than $60 per person per year. I mean, I would think rational people would be willing to pay $60 a year just to help keep crappy drivers off the road, but that's not how they think of it.

It's simple: they don't want to spend their money supporting public transit. They'll spend $600 in gas to save $60 in car tab fees, and count it as a victory.

It's like the Koch brothers -- they're willing to spend millions influencing elections, in order to avoid spending millions in taxes. Do they come out ahead? Nobody knows. But that's not the point. The point is that they WANT to spend their money gaming the system, rather than promoting the general welfare. In part, that's because they have so much money that the money itself doesn't matter to them anymore. What they want to do is "win" the way they perceive winning.

This sort of thinking has become really common among the right. I think, at one time, their self-image was that they were tough, but fair and practical. They framed their policy recommendations as, "this is the correct approach, even if it hurts some people." But nowadays their attitude seems much closer to "this is the correct approach BECAUSE it hurts the people we want to see hurt."

How do you govern a society where a significant, and motivated, chunk of the electorate feels that way?

It's tempting to engage in psychoanalysis, to try to figure out what the hell is wrong with people, and to hope that you can just get through to them somehow, with a compelling enough argument, a plethora of indisputable facts, or an emotionally powerful appeal.

But, no. Some of those people can be reached, sure, and we shouldn't write them off forever -- but changing hearts and minds is only going to pay off in the long run. Today, the way you win elections for progressive and liberal causes, is by turning out the voters who want those things.

This is where I think Prop 1 really failed. April is already "owned" by tax day. Voting isn't on anybody's radar. Only a tiny percentage of eligible voters turned in a ballot, and of those people, the vindictive right wing outnumbered everyone else.

Anyway, I can be vindictive too, and have appealed to the powers with a series of tweeted curses. Alas, #Prop1Karma did not become a thing. I suck at this hashtag business.
If you voted against #Prop1, may the only convenient route from your house spend ten years blocked by never-ending roadwork. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may gridlock make you late for everything you ever try to get to. Work. Concerts. Court dates. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may your car get stolen whenever somebody with no car needs it to get somewhere.
If you voted against #Prop1, may you get a $60 parking ticket everywhere you take your car. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may gas go up to $10 a gallon. Only for you, though. Okay, I don't really know how that would work. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may the parking rate where you work go up to $30 a day. Assuming it's not there already. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may your next car be a "lemon" -- and the car after that -- and the car after that -- #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may a person too old to drive plough a 1970s Cadillac right into the center of your living room. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may everywhere you drive be blocked perpetually by people on bicycles, skateboards & rollerblades. #Prop1Karma
If you voted against #Prop1, may your car throw a rod when you don't have the money to fix it, forcing you to rely on public transit. #Prop1Karma

Under the Skin


Short answer: atmospheric dark fantasy with some memorable scenes and Scarlett Johansson naked, but slow and lacking in story. Cautiously recommended, as long as you’re prepared to be kinda bored.

Longer thoughts below — spoilers ahead.

Read the rest of this entry »Collapse )





I have a theory about art movies — that they are boring on purpose, and boring in a particular way, in order to signal “this is an art movie.” So they always have plenty of long suspended moments, usually well-filmed, during which there is no dialog and nothing in particular is happening. Professional cinema reviewers never seem to mind, either — it’s rare for glacial pace and lack of incident to be singled out as flaws.

It makes me feel like a cretin sometimes, to be sitting there watching a movie — this one, or Beasts of the Southern Wild, or Brokeback Mountain, or Martha Marcy May Marlene — and be thinking, “this is good, but it could be less boring.” It’s almost like being able to put up with boring art, without calling it out for being dull, is recognized as a signal that you are a person with taste. You are a person who is not bored by art movies. You are better than those restless yahoos squirming in the back, who just came because they wanted to see Scarlett Johansson take her clothes off, and are whispering to each other about how horrible this movie is and they should have seen the new Captain America instead.

Really, I think I wouldn’t have been bored at all if it had been a little more up front with the story. There’s a fine line between “enigmatic” and “completely opaque” and I think this movie falls too much on the opaque side. But that’s another way of signaling that we’re watching an art film, isn’t it? Make the audience work to figure out what’s going on, and give them lots of time to think really hard about it.

Every review of this movie calls Scarlett Johansson’s character an “alien,” but they must be getting that from the press kit or something, because there is actually nothing in the movie to tell you what kind of inhuman predator she is. She lures men into a puddle of black goo, and her true form is person-shaped black goo, and she has a silent protector/boss/cleanup man who rides around on a motorcycle — none of that signals “alien” to me. If it’s important to know that she’s an alien, in movie terms, we don’t. She could be some weird predatory selkie. (The movie is set in northern Scotland. I wasn’t sure if the frequently unintelligible accents were intentionally thematic.)

The movie has only one real plot turn, about halfway through, when she lures a severely disfigured man back to her place, and fails to finish him off. We see him start heading into the black goo, and then later we see him running naked across a field. After that point, she no longer picks up any victims and her body seems to be breaking down — she’s clumsy, unable to communicate, and eventually literally disintegrates as the Scarlett Johansson outer shell sloughs off to reveal the creature underneath. She shows signs of going native, ordering a piece of cake that she literally can’t eat, displaying fear, and trying to have sex (which ultimately fails, because, it is strongly implied, she lacks an opening in the appropriate place.)

Now, the scene where she picks up the disfigured man is really lovely. Her script is exactly the same as it always is — she displays no awareness at all that he’s not the usual average-looking guy unable to believe he’s getting hit on by somebody who looks like Scarlett Johansson. His wary disbelief, and ultimate acceptance that it must be a dream,  is genuinely touching. But why doesn’t he get absorbed by the goo? I’ve seen several reviews that assert she takes pity on him and lets him go, but there’s not a moment in the film where we see her make that decision. So I was convinced that it was just the mechanism breaking down somehow. If the breakdown is caused by a change in her — an infection of humanity, perhaps — that’s a pretty important thing that the movie should actually have shown us.

Still, as I indicated above, I cautiously recommend this movie, if you’re willing to put up with being a bit bored. Many of the scenes are really memorable and creepy, and the score is fantastic. It’s an interesting movie to have seen, even if the act of sitting through it in the first place is sometimes dull.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


Zombies of the patriarchy


Here are some ridiculous things that conservative anti-feminists recently had to say about feminism:
Conservative Women Celebrate Women’s History by Criticizing Feminism.

I can’t believe how much staying power these narratives have. The anti-feminist right has been making the same claims since I was a kid.

I’ve never understood why they do it, especially the women. I sorta get why some dudes would be — patriarchalists, I guess? — since a patriarchy puts them in charge of everything, and people like power. And I get why people who were raised that way and don’t know anything else would just accept it and try to get on with their lives. But I don’t get why women who could choose to be something else, choose to be patriarchalists. What do they have to gain?

I also wonder why patriarchies and patriarchal thinking are so common. Why doesn’t it ever seem to go the other way? Matriarchies are rare, and I literally cannot think of a single toxic, oppressive example on par with the toxic patriarchies that are still depressingly plentiful.

(Some wags out there will no doubt suggest that the women’s studies department of many colleges could be regarded as a toxic matriarchy, but I think that kinda proves my point. How much power does any women’s studies department actually have?)

I see various theories floated for why patriarchy seems to be a kind of default — oh, it’s because men are stronger, or because women use too many of their resources taking care of babies. But those theories never seem to adequately explain the phenomenon. After all, it’s not like tiny, weak, single-parent men or tall, childless, ass-kicking women are automatically excluded from participation in the patriarchy.

So this is my theory: the patriarchal instinct is driven by an urge to seize control of the reproductive capacity — which necessitates diminishing the autonomy of the women who are “keepers” of that capacity. It’s a deep-down, gut-level, sub-rational primate kind of thing, which gets turned into elaborate abstract social narratives and structures. You know, because humans do that.

It gets long and I talk about sexual assaultCollapse )

I don’t know how to kill these zombies of the patriarchy, these stupid, destructive ideas that never seem to go away. Maybe a flamethrower.


BTVS Episode Poll: 6.17 Normal Again


"There's a world of strength in your heart, honey."

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.17 Normal AgainCollapse )

Bonus question! We see Buffy working at the Doublemeat Palace for I think the last time. Who kinda thought she quit when she walked off the job to go chase demons with Captain Charisma?

Sunday Morning Coming Down


Walking Tours of Northgate: Tour #1: My house to QFC
Vintage photographs taken on December 1, 2013, starting at 8:47 in the morning

1. Head south on 3rd Ave NE

This little spur of 3rd Avenue Northeast starts at Northgate Way and terminates at 115th in a permeable cul-de-sac. Why do we call them that, anyway? Huh. It means, literally, “bottom of the bag” in French. Cul-de-sacs are also called “dead end streets,” which is also the name of a fairly awesome Kinks song.

2. Cut diagonally through Hubbard Homestead Park from 3rd to 5th and 112th

The pedestrian walkways through this park zig-zag in a peculiar fashion which I believe is meant to mimic the path of a spring that used to be on the land. Apparently, when they first went to create the park, they thought the water would still be there. Nobody knows what happened to the water. Is somebody stealing it, Chinatown fashion? No updates as of yet.

3. Turn left onto Northgate Way. Walk .3 miles to the corner of Northgate Way and Roosevelt Way.

The parking lot in the foreground is where they sell Christmas trees in December. This walk was taken on the first day of December, however, and obviously there aren’t any Christmas trees for sale yet. Sometimes this lot also has people selling decorative rugs, or Seahawks memorabilia.

You can see a Patty’s Eggnest location right next to the QFC. Impressively, this is the first restaurant to last more than a couple of months in that building. It’s not a large restaurant and gets really crowded once the Sunday morning after church crowd starts to trickle in. And it really does seem to be an after church crowd, too, which is a little unexpected for Seattle, coming in at number 3 on a list of least religious US cities. Who is less religious than we are? Tampa, Florida (#2) and Portland, Oregon (#1).

4. Leaving QFC, you can see a TJ Maxx across the street

I’m not really sure what they sell at TJ Maxx. I’ve never bothered to walk all the way across the parking lot to find out.

5. Almost home, and the park is still empty

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Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.16 Hells Bells

Not to be confused with Hells Belles, the all-female AC/DC cover band.

"Oh my God, Buffy, look at its arms!"

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.16 Hells BellsCollapse )

Bonus question! Have you ever been forced to wear a truly hideous version of a bridesmaid dress or similar formal attire?

Bonus question! Did you know SMG could juggle?

Frozen and other Disney princesses

Score! The in-flight movie was Frozen.

It’s not merely a critically acclaimed and reasonably successful Disney movie, it’s a bonafide Disney phenomenon — their most financially successful animated movie so far and also incredibly popular and iconic with its target demographic of teen and pre-teen girls. What is it about this movie that resonates? Why does it work?

Before I saw it for the first time, what I knew of the general storyline, and the casting of Idina Menzel as Elsa, led me to think they set out to make something with an appeal similar to Wicked (the stage musical), but for kids. I became certain of this when I heard “Let it Go” — a song that is about as perfect a “like 'Defying Gravity,' but not quite” as you’re likely to find, including the fact that it occupies the same point in the story. Which is not to say that I think either the movie or the song felt stale or derivative — I enjoyed them. But my impression that this movie has Wicked buried deep in its DNA probably influences my view of some of its themes and situations.

Wicked is, at its core, a story about the the relationship between two contrasting “sisters”: the dark and the light. Frozen is about two actual biological sisters: the warm and the cold. As in Wicked, it is the outsider sister (cold, dark) who has most or all of the magical power. Also like Wicked, although romance features in the plot, other characters are mostly catalysts and complicating factors. The core story is about the sisters’ arc: closeness, followed by division (in which the power of the outsider sister takes a threatening turn), and completed by reconciliation.

Also like Wicked, Frozen has some very gay-friendly themes. In fact, Elsa — the cold sister — not only has a magical “coming out” arc that maps so closely to real life that it’s barely a metaphor, but also the character — the actual character — might be gay. In Wicked, one of the points of division is that Glinda and Elphaba compete for the affections of the same man. In Frozen, a point of division is that the warm sister (Anna) is so starved for love that she’s ready to marry a man she just met, and her sister thinks she’s insane (for the record, Elsa is right about that). But there’s a genuinely decent man waiting for her later on in the story. Anna has two love interests. Elsa has no love interests. Yes, that ties neatly into the cold/warm theme, so it doesn’t necessitate gayness on Elsa’s part. But it doesn’t argue against it, either, especially given her story arc.

Notice the misdirection in this pre-release poster.
Two princesses -- two dudes!
And what is Elsa doing in the background?

And what is that arc? As a child, she has a powerful difference which frightens her parents. To hide it, her parents keep her locked away. The slogan they instill: “conceal, don’t feel.” At Elsa’s coronation, an emotional confrontation with her sister sends the power spiraling out of control. Now, everybody knows. She runs away, and grandly declares — with a Broadway show-stopper — that she’s going to embrace her power completely, although it will mean living in isolation. She creates a fabulous sparkling world of glamor for herself to inhabit. But her sister shows up to tell her that it’s not that simple. Her isolation is freezing out her entire kingdom. Eventually, Elsa discovers that the secret to controlling her power is to embrace love, the warmth in her heart — “conceal, don’t feel” was exactly the wrong thing to do. Now controlled, her power becomes a source of delight for everyone in her kingdom. They have learned to accept her, and she has learned to accept them. Yay! The end.

In fact, it’s not just a coming out metaphor — it’s also a strong argument for reconciling with family and friends afterward.

I thought I would see what thoughts other people had about Frozen specifically from a feminist standpoint. The first article I turned up was this: [The problem with false feminism ] which takes Frozen to task for being a frustratingly fake falsely feminist flick. For example, it claims that Anna’s clumsiness is the “de facto flaw for heroines who aren’t fully-developed enough to have a real flaw  [..] Anna’s clumsiness doesn’t move the plot. “ Except for, you know, the accident with her sister’s power that kicks off the entire thing. Was the essayist still waiting in line for popcorn during that scene?

And this — “she’s vain, believing absolutely in her ability to talk some sense into Elsa despite having had no relationship with her sister for what looks like roughly ten years.” Vain? Wow, that is some harsh spin to put on an act that I saw as born out of loyalty and affection. Whenever anybody asks her directly why she thinks she can make a difference with Elsa, her response is “she’s my sister.” That doesn’t sound like vanity to me. That sounds like love, and since that is clearly what the scriptwriters intended (love being overtly established as the solution at the climax) I think I’m sticking with my interpretation.

It takes all the aspects of Frozen cited as unusually feminist for a Disney cartoon, such as “she doesn’t marry the prince at the end!” and points out other Disney cartoons that have done that same thing. It did not succeeded in convincing me that Frozen was awful, or unfeminist. Instead, it convinced me that the entire Disney princess ouevre is more feminist than we often give it credit for.

This makes sense to me, just as the barely-concealed gay-friendliness makes sense to me. Disney, for all its reputation as a the world’s leading G-rated family-friendly marketing behemoth, is not at all on the side of the cultural conservatives on the religious right. Those guys are way too divisive. Disney wants to be universal. Yes, they want to be universal so they can sell stuff to literally everybody on the planet. They’re not driven by deep moral conviction. They’re driven by capitalism. But they embrace capitalism’s great virtue: it doesn’t much care how you live your life, as long as you’re spending money to do it. Disney is not interested in telling you what you ought to want — it’s interested in figuring out what you do want, and then selling you lots and lots of it.

So, when it comes to a Disney Princess [™] movie, Disney has a few goals. It wants to make box office, which involves appealing to the target demographic without alienating or boring their parents or their brothers. It also wants them to be successful over time — Disney is in the business of creating iconic characters and situations, so that they can put them on t-shirts and lunchboxes which you will buy forever. Perhaps ironically, this actually gives them a motivation to strive for artistic excellence. But most of all, Disney wants the target demographic to love the movie all to pieces, to fixate on it and obsess over it, to drag their families to it multiple times, buy the soundtrack, decorate their rooms with images of its characters and dress up like them for Halloween, Mardi Gras, birthday parties.

When you add that up, what you get is a movie that has to have humor, adventure, and a strong story, in addition to being a power fantasy for the target demographic.

The Disney princesses are not self-consciously feminist by any means (although both Pixar’s Brave and Frozen seems headed in that direction), in part because Disney is not progressive — they’re not ever going to be out in front leading the way on social change, because that would risk alienating people. But they also need to be right on top of things when the culture does change. They can’t afford to be too far behind the curve, and have a princess who feels too old-fashioned for the target demographic to relate to. So, they serve a feminist cause by accident, by striving to give little girls what they want, and recognizing that what they want is a power fantasy.

Yes, it’s a power fantasy that involves fabulous gowns. But they also want to be able to blast you with their awesome winter powers whenever they feel like it. The prince? They can take him or leave him.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

BTVS Episode Poll: 6.15 As You Were

Wow! From out of nowhere! Just in time for Saint Patrick's Day! The return of the late Season 6 Buffy polls!

"My hat has a cow."
BTVS Episode Poll: 6.15 As You WereCollapse )

Bonus question! Have you ever worked at a job that left you "stinky"?

A New York Times essay attempts to make The Case for Filth:

A recent, large cross-national study on the subject by an Ohio State sociologist found that “women’s housework did not decline significantly and men’s housework did not increase significantly after the mid-1980s in the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands.” [..] So why won’t men pick up a broom? Why won’t they organize a closet?

Beats me. And, frankly, I’m DYING for a plausible answer to that question.

At least one thing is becoming clear: The only possible solution to the
housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it.

Oh, I see. You’re not going to attempt to answer the question (why can’t men pick up a broom?) and just leap to the age-old slacker roommate copout: hey, if it bothers YOU, then YOU should be the one to clean it up.

Actually, he goes one further: if it only bothers you, and not me, it’s inappropriate that it bothers you, so don’t bother cleaning it up. Which, frankly, is a line that ought get any roommate kicked out on his rear. Or at least on the hook for whatever it costs to hire a cleaning service.

Cleanliness feels organic while being highly constructed. [..] the relativism of hygiene over time is amazing. [..] There exists no agreed-upon definition of “what has to be done” in a household.

True enough. So why should the person with the highest filth and chaos tolerance, and the lowest standards for what constitutes a livable habitat, automatically “win”? Isn’t the real answer for the members of the household to come to some sort of agreement about what has to be done?

You may have had this argument yourself: Should housework be measured by the time spent on the task, or by effectiveness? What is necessary work and what is puttering? Should work that is physically taxing, like yard work, count more than work that isn’t, like the dishes?

An excellent question. I think this couple that decided to start bidding on on domestic chores might be heading in the right direction, though. Because once you have to put a dollar value on how much you don’t want to do a thing, that tells you exactly how much the chore is worth to you.

It got me to start thinking of how to quantify aspects of domestic service, starting with what a professional would charge. So, taxi service from my yoga studio on Capitol Hill to our apartment in Northgate — that would be about 30 bucks, so I’ll call “Paul picking me up from yoga” a service worth thirty bucks. Then I found that experienced house cleaners charge thirty dollars an hour. Of course! One hour of housework is worth a ride from yoga. It makes so much sense.

Except, I think scrubbing a toilet is worth more than that. I think that’s worth, oh, fifty or sixty bucks an hour. Maybe a hundred.

In an essay in New York magazine on the subject of housework in his own marriage, Jonathan Chait defended male indifference to housework as a question of having different standards than women.

Funny, that. Another male writer has the same premise as this male writer: the problem with unequal gender-based division of housekeeping labor is that women have unreasonable standards compared to men. If women were just reasonable, like men are, we wouldn’t have this problem.

Do guys have any answers to any questions that don’t boil down to “nagging women should back off and let men do whatever they want”?

When I cook, my wife tends to be responsible for the dishes. But she hates removing the cutlery from the dishwasher. [..] Every well-managed household is full of such minor insanities.

Sooo…. he thinks “The only possible solution to the housework discrepancy is for everyone to do a lot less of it,” yet here is is just a few paragraphs later, talking about a “well-managed household.” How exactly does he think a household gets well-managed without housework? Space aliens?

Households do not spontaneously organize themselves without effort. The managing of a household is, in fact, housework, just as surely as scrubbing a toilet. If he’s unable to recognize that, no wonder he thinks the solution to unequal division of labor is so “simple.”

in “The Second Sex,” Simone de Beauvoir identified housework as the key impediment to the liberation of women: “Woman is doomed to the continuation of the species and the care of the home — that is to say, to immanence.” [..] “The healthy young woman will hardly be attracted by so gloomy a vice,” she writes. [..] Simone de Beauvoir was wrong. Millions of young women are deeply attracted to the gloomy vice of domestic labor. Martha Stewart has made an empire of immanence. The bizarre phenomenon of modern young women proudly making their own candles, knitting and raising chickens

Um, no. Chores such as emptying the dishwasher are housework — knitting and raising chickens and stuff are hobbies. If you can’t tell the difference, you have no business talking about domestic labor, because clearly you don’t understand the problem.

I’ll give you an example: I cook as a hobby. I also cook as not a hobby. But cleaning up is never a hobby. Dishes and all that is domestic labor. I would like my husband to do the dishes when I cook, but it’s never happened. (And I think I really would feel better about this state of affairs if it were worth money to me… like, yeah, honey, you get the homemade pizza for free, but cleanup afterward is thirty bucks an hour. You’re welcome.)

The fantasies of domestic perfection are the feminine equivalent of “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and beer ads. Domesticity is the macho nonsense of women.

What a pithy, yet entirely nonsensical, statement.

Knitting is much more equivalent to, say, going out to your garage and building a cabinet — a domestic activity that was once necessary (because you couldn’t just go to the store and buy that stuff) and now is done for entertainment value.

Dieting and fitness are the macho nonsense of women. FYI.

And, in this light, it is not surprising that men have not started doing more of it.

Yeah, if you define housework as “frilly Martha Stewart domestic niceties that nobody actually needs to do unless they feel like it” it’s not surprising that men aren’t doing more of it. BUT WHAT ABOUT SCRUBBING THE DAMN TOILET? Paying the bills? Laundering towels and bedding? Dusting? Vacuuming? Taking out the garbage? Getting rid of unneeded items on a regular basis to keep the house from looking like an episode of Hoarders? Trying to make sure that flat surfaces — tables, chairs — don’t fill up with junk and stay that way so that they become unusable for their intended purpose? What about cooking? Cleaning the kitchen? Making sure there’s food to cook? Getting rid of spoiled food? Replacing lightbulbs?

Do you want a list? I bet your wife could provide you with a list.

The future probably does not involve men doing more housework.

Sigh. Probably. But don’t try to tell me that’s not bad news, okay? Don’t try to tell me it’s no big deal that we still haven’t answered the question about why men can’t seem to pick up a broom.

Here is the good news: Men’s behavior may not be changing, but women’s is. According to a 2000 study by University of Maryland sociologists, time-diary data from American adults show that the number of hours spent on domestic labor, not including child care or shopping, has declined steadily since 1965. This finding is mainly due to declines among women, both those with jobs and those without jobs. They have cut their housework hours almost in half since the 1960s.

Three plausible explanations for that: 1. Labor-saving devices. 2. Weird stuff women used to do that didn’t really need doing (ie ironing sheets). 3. Households drowning in chaos and resentment.

Number 1 is great. Number 2 is the premise of this essay. But number 3 is the problem. If women are doing less housework, but that means households are less functional and people are unhappy, then nobody is actually winning.

Caring less is the hope of the future.

Error. Insufficient data. He assumes that the reason for the decline is entirely #2.

Housework is perhaps the only political problem in which doing less and not caring are the solution, where apathy is the most progressive and sensible attitude.

You know, this sort of condescending nonsense is exactly what the term “mansplaining” was invented to describe. See, ladies, the problem isn’t that men aren’t doing their share — the problem is that you care too much! Be more like men — who are, naturally, in this as in all things, the default measure of reasonableness — and just force yourself to care less!

Fifty years ago, it was perfectly normal to iron sheets and to vacuum drapes. They were “necessary” tasks. The solution to the inequality of dusting wasn’t dividing the dusting; it was not doing the dusting at all.

Ironing sheets I’ll grant you — but not dusting? Seriously, dude. Some of us have allergies.

The solution to the gender divide in housework generally is just that simple: don’t bother. Leave the stairs untidy. Don’t fix the garden gate. Fail to repaint the peeling ceiling. Never make the bed.[..] A clean house is the sign of a wasted life, truly. Hope is messy: Eventually we’ll all be living in perfect egalitarian squalor.

Okay — listen — apathetically giving up on domestic maintenance and living in filth and squalor is not the sign of a progressive and sensible attitude. IT’S A SIGN OF DEEP DEPRESSION. It’s not normal or desirable and I’ll bet you anything the writer is not actually okay with it. Nobody enjoys tripping over random junk every time they go upstairs, or staring up at a disintegrating ceiling all the time, or sitting on an unmade bed, or dealing with a garden gate that doesn’t work every time they come home. That’s why rich people hire housekeepers and stuff.

I’m guessing that the writer simply assumes that a maintained level of moderate chaos — like most households have — is the result of unchained domestic apathy. His praise of “filth” and “squalor” makes sense only if he has no idea what true filth and squalor really are — if he thinks that everybody can just give up domestically and you still somehow have a household that is “well-managed,” where people do things like cook and empty dishwashers.

Maybe he’s never seen a true real-life “bachelor pad” household that conducts itself as he’s recommending. But I have. THEY ARE FAR MORE DISGUSTING THAN YOU CAN IMAGINE. It gets to the point where you can’t use any objects and don’t want to touch any surfaces. You walk inside and inhale dust, rat droppings, spoiled food, dirty socks and start coughing and don’t want to take off your coat or sit down. They look bad, smell bad, and don’t actually function very well as households. The level of chaos generated when people don’t ever clean up at all for a prolonged period is stunning.

But it’s true that only guys seem to end up living that way. Why? We still haven’t answered that question. Why are men so frequently unable to stir themselves to grow up and grab a broom? It’s not merely the addictive nature of video games and Internet porn, is it?

And if men are generally more tolerant of filth than women — for whatever reason — it is NOT EGALITARIAN TO ORDER THE WOMEN TO BECOME MORE LIKE THE MEN. That is pretty much the opposite of egalitarian, actually.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Single ladies


Okay, okay, I couldn’t resist dissecting this very special February 14th message in the Wall Street Journal (?!?) from somebody I’ve never heard of before: Susan Patton: A Little Valentine’s Day Straight Talk: Young women in college need to smarten up and start husband-hunting.

First of all — what is this deal with middle-aged women feeling the irrepressible need to give college women condescending and sexist advice? First Emily Yoffe, now Susan Patton. I’m sensing a pattern. I think it’s born of a mixture of envy, regret, and privilege.

The source of the envy is obvious: college women are young, young, young, but still adults. These middle-aged scolds want to be the college women. Duh. Of course. I want to be a college woman. Well, okay — I want the youthful-but-mature body and endless future possibilities of a college woman. But I don’t want to be quite as stupid as I was during college. Isn’t that what literally everybody ever over the age of 38 or so wants? Well, it’s not gonna happen. Just accept it and move on.

Regret? I haven’t read the Patton essay carefully yet, so I don’t know what she regrets. It is either not following the advice she’s about to give, and she thinks her life would now be better if she had followed it. Or, her regret is that she did follow the advice she’s about to give, and she’s worried that she didn’t have to do that, that her life would have been the same or better if she’d just done what she wanted. Of course, humans are creatures of paradox, and capable of feeling both emotions at once.

The privilege: these are wealthy-ish women at the height of their professional careers. Their memories of college, and young adulthood immediately after college, are dim and remote. They didn’t have to go a hundred thousand dollars into debt and graduate unable to find a job, back when they went to school. And their current social circle is privileged enough that neither their own children, nor the children of their friends, are in that position either.

A lot of this lifestyle-lecturing is based on that kind of privilege — the idea that your choices are never constrained by outside circumstance, and certainly never by economic circumstance. For example, all the endless whinging about whether women “should” work outside the home when they have young children — that is an upper-middle-class problem if ever there was one.

So, diving into the essay itself:

Another Valentine’s Day. Another night spent ordering in sushi for one and mooning over “Downtown Abbey” reruns. Smarten up, ladies.

Wow, that’s pathetic. I assume she’s portraying her vision of the single life — but is that actually what she does on a VD when she’s not dating? Or is it what some hypothetical single woman who doesn’t exist does? And that cheesy “smarten up, ladies” — am I supposed to care what she has to say after that? Am I supposed to see myself in that picture?

Despite all of the focus on professional advancement, for most of you the cornerstone of your future happiness will be the man you marry.

Um — citation needed?

Listen, only a relatively privileged person could pretend that it’s all about love, never money. The rest of us know that it’s both — we know that a failed career can destroy a marriage just as easily as the other way around. Most couple fights are about money, and even the ones that aren’t about money per se are about things that could probably be solved with enough money. Like housework — if you’re rich enough, you can just pay somebody to do that stuff, right?

Anyway, I think women in this culture are getting exactly the opposite message — that  the main thing that will make you happy is finding the right man — and not being encouraged to focus enough on their careers, or on money management, or any of that stuff. Diamonds aren’t really a girl’s best friend — the resale value on gemstones isn’t super great — but diamonds as a metaphor for having your own independent source of wealth? Absolutely.

But chances are that you haven’t been investing nearly as much energy in planning for your personal happiness as you are planning for your next promotion at work.

We’ve all internalized the rom-com stereotype of the man or woman who is too focused on their career to date, or to maintain a relationship they already have. But how common is that really? Without actual data, I have to assume that the writer is one of those sad, deluded people who believe rom-coms show real life the way it totally is.

Most people’s jobs are not some kind of really intense hobby, where they can just arbitrarily decide how hard they’re going to work at it. Most people need jobs to pay the rent and buy food, basic survival stuff. And if you’re not advancing in your career, a lot of the time you’re moving backwards.

What are you waiting for? You’re not getting any younger, but the competition for the men you’d be interested in marrying most definitely is.

What? There are women out there getting younger? How incredible! What happens when they reach year zero? Do they get handed over to a terrifying knife monster thing like in Hyperion?

Also, her heteronormativity is really starting to get on my nerves. But here’s the thing — once you make both partners the same sex, you’re forced to eliminate a lot of sexist assumptions. Like the idea that men have to focus on their careers, while women have to focus on their love lives. BUT WHAT IF THEY’RE BOTH WOMEN??? Then everybody has to focus on both, which, you know, is how the real world actually is.

Think about it: If you spend the first 10 years out of college focused entirely on building your career, when you finally get around to looking for a husband you’ll be in your 30s, competing with women in their 20s.

What is this “looking for a husband” business? You don’t look for them. You just stumble across them while you’re doing other stuff. Love isn’t a project — it’s not a thing like mid-terms where you can really buckle down and study for it and be sure to pass. Sure, there are some behaviors that enhance your ability to find love — like meeting new people — but that in no way suggests that you should have “finding a husband” on your life goals checklist. In fact, people who have “finding a spouse” as a primary motivator tend to come across as desperate and creepy. All of us, men and women alike, are more attracted to people who’ve got their own business together. We aren’t drawn to people who are generically needy.

And addressing the second part of her statement — are you “competing” for men in their 20s, or men in their 30s like you are? I mean, if she’s talking about a shrinking dating pool, as more men get married off, that’s one thing. But if she means to be implying that you’re “competing” for men your own age against younger women — dude, that’s gross. And super outdated anyway. Unless those men in their 30s are very financially successful, or rock stars, or whatever, the women in their 20s aren’t going to be particularly interested in dating them. Because, you know, those women have their own careers to work on. They’re dating guys as young and hot as they are.

That’s not a competition in which you’re likely to fare well.

Speak for yourself, buster.

If you want to have children, your biological clock will be ticking loud enough to ward off any potential suitors. Don’t let it get to that point.

What kind of 1950s Playboy nonsense is this? “Ticking loud enough to ward off any potential suitors”? Men your own age won’t want to date you because they know you’re ready to get busy having kids? What if they want kids? And if they don’t want kids, and you do want kids, should you be getting married at all?

You should be spending far more time planning for your husband than for your career

How many times do I have to tell you? You should spend NO time planning for a husband. The act of trying to find a husband should be identical to the act of living your life. Husbands are not the prize waiting for you at the end of a successful video game, okay? They’re people. The way you “earn” awesome people is by being an awesome person yourself.

and you should start doing so much sooner than you think. This is especially the case if you are a woman with exceptionally good academic credentials, aiming for corporate stardom.

Really? Why on earth would that be? I’ve got to hear this.

finding a life partner who shares your intellectual curiosity and potential for success is difficult. Those men who are as well-educated as you are often interested in younger, less challenging women.


Because that is a pretty bold, far-reaching assertion that doesn’t fit my own observations, or any data that I’m familiar with, or common sense, or, really, anything.

And how does that work anyway? Well-educated men want women who are young and stupid, while poorly-educated men want women who are older, with good careers, who can support them? Or is she really saying that no men at all are looking for well-educated women? Well, that’s sad, if true. But I doubt it’s true.

Could you marry a man who isn’t your intellectual or professional equal?

Define “equal.”

But the likelihood is that it will be frustrating to be with someone who just can’t keep up with you or your friends. When the conversation turns to Jean Cocteau or Henrik Ibsen, the Bayeux Tapestry or Noam Chomsky, you won’t find that glazed look that comes over his face at all appealing.

Oh, come ON. There is literally no couple on the face of the earth (I’m guessing) where one partner doesn’t get glassy-eyed over some topic near and dear to their spouse. If you marry a guy who’s “beneath” you, presumably it’s because you’re compatible overall, even if your education or earning potential or whatever aren’t perfectly matched up. But I’m getting the distinct impression that she doesn’t think it’s bad if HE is smarter, better educated, or higher-earning than SHE is. The challenge is the woman finding an equal-to-superior man to marry. It’s an outdated patriarchal equation that only goes one direction.

And if you start to earn more than he does? Forget about it. Very few men have egos that can endure what they will see as a form of emasculation.

I’ll acknowledge that this has traditionally been a problem for couples in the past. But is the solution for women to make sure they never “marry down”? Or is it for over-sensitive men to grow up? Over the course of our lives together, Paul and I have frequently swapped which partner was earning more, as we dealt with layoffs and other career setbacks. It’s not like we could have planned in advance for all of that. You just have to deal — or not.

So what’s a smart girl to do? Start looking early and stop wasting time dating men who aren’t good for you: bad boys, crazy guys and married men.

Well, I agree that young women shouldn’t date crazy guys and married men. But I’m having a hard time imagining that dating crazy guys and married men is the number one reason college women aren’t finding husbands.

When you find a good man, take it slow. Casual sex is irresistible to men, but the smart move is not to give it away. [..] The grandmotherly message of yesterday is still true today: Men won’t buy the cow if the milk is free.

Sputter. Sputter. Sputter.


If you’re going to claim some decades-outmoded bit of advice is “still true,” you first have to prove that it is, in fact, true. What does “buy the cow” even mean in the modern day? Put a ring on it, as Beyoncé might say? So a guy won’t marry you if you’re already boinking each other?

Hands up, all currently married couples who never had sex with each other before marriage.

Once you’re living off campus and in the real world, you’ll be stunned by how smart the men are not.

I’ve never observed that. Maybe she needs to know more nerds.

You may not be ready for marriage in your early 20s (or maybe you are), but keep in touch with the men that you meet in college, especially the super smart ones. They’ll probably do very well for themselves, and their desirability will only increase after graduation.

So, what — single women in their thirties are supposed to have a roster of guys they crushed on in college who they can call up when they’re feeling lonely? Jeez, that’s pathetic. Or is she recommending keeping a list specifically of smart guys you didn’t crush on — the ones who struck you as too nerdy or awkward or whatever — in the hope that by the time you’re ready to settle, they won’t already have found someone?

Okay, that’s even more pathetic.

Look, keeping in touch with college friends is great if you manage to do it — and meeting people through people you’re already friends with is still the best way I know of to hook up — but again, if you’re doing it all through some mercenary desire to acquire a mate as if he were a merit badge or something, I can only imagine it backfiring spectacularly.

Not all women want marriage or motherhood, but if you do, you have to start listening to your gut and avoid falling for the P.C. feminist line that has misled so many young women for years.

Here it is — the overt anti-feminist content that we always seem to expect when overprivileged middle-aged women lecture female college students. Feminism! That big bad boogie-oogie! It lied to you!

Tell me which one sounds like more of a lie 1. You have to be able to take care of yourself, which includes earning your own money, because you can’t count on having a man around to do it. 2. You have to devote yourself to finding the right man, and trust that everything financial will work out all right based on his earnings potential, because of course you won’t ever get divorced or anything.

She’s already identified well-educated men as wanting women who are “younger, less challenging.” So if she’s right about that, and you do find such a man when you’re both in your twenties, what’s to stop him from divorcing you when you’re in your thirties, and running off to pursue some less challenging 22-year-old? Nothing. Congratulations, you focused on your marriage instead of your career, AND NOW YOU DON’T HAVE EITHER ONE.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


All about werewolves: Part 2


Do you like werewolves better?

Not really. Look at my book collection — I have a ton of vampire fiction but very about werewolves or other shapeshifters, except as adjuncts to vampires. But that might be another thing driving this book. I’ve tried writing vampire novels — believe me, I’ve tried! — they weren’t very good. Maybe with vampires I never found anything new to say.

What did you find to say about werewolves?

Well, I mentioned the lycanthropy panel that got me interested in writing about werewolves. Then there was the folklore book that got me interested in writing specifically about Cajun werewolves. The final ingredient in the mix was the early 1980s TV show, The Incredible Hulk, with Bill Bixby. I absolutely adored that show when I was a kid. For the first time it occurred to me that it’s basically a werewolf story. So that gave me the emotional resonance that I was striving for.

One of the things on that show that worked for me was the tension between what the audience wanted to see and what the character wanted to have happen. Because the audience wanted to see Hulk Smash! And the audience trusted the Hulk to behave more or less heroically — to non-lethally smash only those who deserved it, to protect the innocent, that sort of thing. But David Banner didn’t trust the Hulk the way the audience did, in part because he was never able to watch the Hulk in action. And he hated the Hulk. The Hulk destroyed everything else in his life. He became this guy who can’t hold a real job, can’t hang around any one place too long, can’t get too close to people. He couldn’t even pursue science, which always seemed to me the greatest tragedy. Here’s a brilliant researcher who ends up working all these odd jobs and manual labor because of the Hulk thing.

Another thing that worked was the way that show used rage and anger. Now, a lot of werewolf stories use the rage metaphor — it’s probably the go-to metaphor for werewolves — but they’re usually working with a different kind of rage. You could call it “drunken barfight rage.” It’s a specifically masculine type of rage, and it’s triggered by nothing and serves no purpose. There’s a Jekyll-and-Hyde aspect to it. The werewolf could be trying to protect his girlfriend one minute, shapeshift, and then be trying to eat her. You can’t see the human personality in the wolf at all.

But in The Incredible Hulk, he always had really good reasons to get angry, and you could clearly see the Hulk sharing values with David Banner. But the Hulk was still dangerous. The Hulk threw temper tantrums on such a grand scale that innocent people could easily get hurt whether that was the Hulk’s intent or not.

So, that was the kind of rage metaphor I wanted. Righteous, maybe, but dangerous all the same.

Are wolves scary?

Yes and no. The problem with animal monsters — especially in movies and TV — is that animals are cute and we like them. Yeah, even an animal that could kill you. The big predators are just as adorable as everything else. So I think we get a sense in horror that we can’t show real wolves acting like wolves because then everybody’s going “awwwwww….” and it’s not scary.

But to me that paradox is the interesting part of an animal monster. I mean, what makes a real wolf scary? Partly that you don’t know what it’s thinking. You don’t know what motivates it. You can’t fully anticipate what it’s going to see as a threat. It’s a mystery, and mystery is scary. A real wolf can turn instantly from a friendly-seeming animal that you want to pat on the head, to a monster trying to rip your head off.

That’s what I was going for.

One of my influences was also these feral cats that we cared for in Bellingham as part of a catch-spay-release population control program. They got to know us very well, and would act almost like pets — rubbing themselves against our legs and purring and begging for treats and all the things pets do. But if you scared them, they would scratch you. And it would be incredibly sudden — half a second to go from purring to attack mode. Imagine that same unpredictability with a supernaturally strong animal the mass of a human. You could go instantly from awwwww to ARRRGH! The turn is what’s frightening.

Vampires vs. Werewolves — who’s sexier?

Wow, that’s a tough one. Vampires have seductiveness built into their monster MO, so there’s that. But werewolves are fit and spend a lot of time naked. So I guess… do you prefer your sex to be all dark and swoony? Or super… athletic?

Climate has to be taken into account. Like, in Louisiana it makes sense that people would go for vampires, because it’s hot there and the vampire is room temperature. But in Forks? No way. You’d go for the werewolf — somebody to keep you warm at night.

Of course, vampires have to seem sexy in fabulous outfits, which is kind of a no-brainer, while werewolves have to seem sexy when naked, which takes a lot more poise and, let’s be honest, working out.

A naked person can seem really vulnerable, which fights against the whole “monster” business. There’s an episode of Firefly which starts and ends with the captain having screwed up and he’s abandoned on this planet stark naked, and it’s very funny, but one of the things I like about it is that he manages to act like the captain even without his clothes. He’s obviously still the captain. That’s the kind of vibe you want from werewolves.

Which might be another reason that vampires always seem to dominate. They aren’t losing their wallet and keys all the time.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

All about werewolves: Part 1


At one point while I was working on an earlier draft of the book, when I was completely stuck on the plot, I wrote this little self-interview. [Edited to remove spoilers]

Where did you get the notion for having two kinds of werewolves — natural born and bite-infected?

When I first realized I was writing a werewolf novel, I spent a lot of time thinking about the mechanics of it. I didn’t want to take anything for granted. Full moon or not? All three days or just one? Can they change at will? Do they remember being the wolf? How do you kill them? Does silver do anything? How vicious are they really? Natural-born or transformed with a bite?

Originally I only had natural born, because I wanted an isolated colony of werewolves going back hundreds of years. Also, I felt that the protagonist needed to be — not having all these things happen because of something new that was introduced, but discovering a potential that was there all along.

So, I had natural-born wolves. But then, during a much earlier version of the plot, I was looking for a reason why her werewolf relatives would be antagonists toward her at first. Then it hit me, what if natural born werewolves sometimes bite people, and that creates a werewolf? Maybe even of a slightly different character? They’d feel the need to contain the outbreak, right? And that might involve killing the infected. Even if the werewolves in general aren’t bloodthirsty, this is something they’d take very seriously.

The instant that idea hit me, I knew it was right. I’m sure it’s not original — nothing is, right? — but I had never seen it done before, myself.

Also, traditional bite transformation werewolf stories have a logistical problem for me — where did the original bite come from? There has to already be a werewolf right? And yet the story is always structured as if “oh, hey, look out, NOW there’s a werewolf!” So, what was the original werewolf doing before the story started? Why didn’t they have the same problem with the bodies piling up?

But if the original werewolf is an adolescent girl who has just barely started changing shape, that answers that question.

Why werewolves?

The genesis of this book was a panel on lycanthropy at the 2009 Norwescon, with editor and writer Greg Cox, who knows as much about both vampire and werewolf fiction as pretty much anybody on the planet. There were two topics that came up that I found really interesting. One, was the question of why it’s always vampires and THEN werewolves. I think it’s pretty obvious why it’s always vampires AND werewolves, because those are the monster tropes that appear to be human most of the time. It makes their stories feel more relevant. But why are vampires always first? Why do they dominate?

The second question, was wondering why there’s never been a truly breakout werewolf novel. There’s no werewolf Dracula or Interview with the Vampire. The closest thing is the later books in the Twilight series, but of course, those followed the model of having vampires first.

We didn’t answer those questions in the panel, but it got me thinking about them. Usually, when I’m thinking about that kind of a question — a question of literary genre or trope — I try to answer it by writing a story. So I was already kicking around the idea of writing a werewolf story when I went to New Orleans and found out there were Cajun werewolf legends.

Bingo! I had all the elements and started writing. Originally I thought it was going to be a short story, but when I hit 8,000 words and wasn’t done, I decided to keep going.

Tell me about Cajun werewolf legends

I first saw them mentioned in a book called Gumbo Ya-Ya, a 1945 compendium of Louisiana folk tales. The section on Cajun legends has a bit about the loup-garou. It’s just a couple of paragraphs, but it shows a few interesting things — you can see how in the older folklore vampires and werewolves weren’t always all that different from each other. For example, the loup-garou have that OCD counting thing usually attributed to vampires (used wonderfully in Bad Blood, one of my all-time favorite X-Files episodes. And, of course, Sesame Street.) It also has the kind of dada-insane stuff that you get from great folklore. Like, the loup-garou can summon giant bats to ride on. Giant bats! And if you want them to go away, throw a frog at them. Why would a werewolf be terrified of a frog? Absolutely no idea.

I continued doing research on the legends, and found out the Cajun loup-garou is often called the rougarou, which was the word I settled on because it distinguished them from a regular movie werewolf.

The next time I went back to New Orleans, I had a swamp tour guide who mentioned the rougarou. In his version, it was a tale his grandmother told, and the werewolf was always female. I think he mentioned them having red hair, which is where I got that part of it.

Are your werewolves terrified of frogs?

No. And they don’t ride giant bats, either.

But that would be awesome!

It just didn’t seem to fit in the modern world. Maybe they rode giant bats two hundred years ago.

So, why do you think vampires usually dominate the paranormal world?

One theory I have is that it’s the movies: vampires are pretty much the easiest monster to do on screen. Werewolves are hard to do right. Even in good movies, the wolf effects are often terrible. And the movies drive our collective pop culture imagination, so it becomes a reinforcing cycle. Fewer books means fewer movies means fewer books means fewer movies.

Another reason might be thematic. Vampires at least since Dracula have been symbols for the parasitic ruling class, and you can see this reflected in a lot of paranormal fiction: their world might have werewolves and vampires and zombies and witches and necromancers and fairies and everything you can imagine, but the vampires always seem to be the ones in charge. They have hierarchies and territories and pseudo-nobility and ruffled shirts and all that.

Werewolves, on the other hand, are often portrayed as rugged vagabonds — they have a pack structure, but it’s primitive and sort of “wild” compared to the vampires.

A lot of our monster stories are concerned with the question of what it means to be human, which we examine by looking at creatures who aren’t. Vampire stories interrogate the relationship between the intellect and the spirit. So they touch on questions of life and death and wondering if we have a thing like a soul, wondering if there is any transcendence, or gods. Vampire stories often have a strong religious theme.

Werewolf stories interrogate the relationship between the intellect and the body, or the animal brain. What I like to call the monkey brain. Humans are obviously animals in a biological sense, but our self concept is uncomfortable with that fact. We set ourselves apart from other animals. We have all these phrases — to be a “mere animal” or “like an animal” is a bad thing.

We perceive the intellect as being in charge. It’s always nattering away up there. But there’s a lot of evidence that our animal brain is really the one driving the van most of the time, and the intellect is just hanging around making up excuses for it.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


I’m not sure when I learned to hate team sports as a participant — it was probably some time in elementary school. You know the story — pretty much every nerd lived through it — unpopular, uncoordinated, and inevitably picked last. The thing is, I wasn’t completely unathletic — I went hiking with my family and took dance classes and even got a Presidential Physical Fitness award one year.

But team sports demand a certain kind of ability and attention that I was never very good at. Softball, for example, requires standing around doing absolutely nothing for very long stretches, then being ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ENGAGED AND READY when it’s your turn at bat, or when a ball in the outfield happens to come near. Volleyball requires watching constantly for a ball that may or may not come toward you. Soccer and basketball require running back and forth constantly in pursuit of a ball that you may never touch.

I am still not good at that kind of thing — being constantly at the ready for something that might or might not happen at an unpredictable time. My brain gets bored and wanders off to think about something else. So, I wasn’t good, largely because I wasn’t paying attention. This created a negative feedback loop — I was mocked for not being any good, and I didn’t like being mocked, so I disengaged further from my surroundings, and my performance got even worse.

(Although once, when I was 10 or 11, when some kids wouldn’t stop making fun of me, my disengagement strategy failed and I was CONSUMED WITH RAGE instead. I threw the bat at them and walked off the field. I don’t know if the bat actually connected with any of them — I was far enough away that I think they had plenty of time to duck. Once my anger wore off I was terrified that I would be in trouble. But the next day I went to school and everybody acted like nothing happened. AND THEY NEVER MADE FUN OF ME AGAIN. See kids? Violence is the answer…)

My immediate family didn’t watch sports on television, unless it was the Olympics. On the rare occasions when I did see televised baseball or football, I thought they seemed as boring to watch as they were to play. It was a bunch of standing around, and then something would happen. Football had the added disincentive of being utterly incomprehensible. But I didn’t yet hate it. I just didn’t care.

High school was when I learned to hate football.

I didn’t hate it because of the game itself — I went to exactly one game, and thought it was too cold to be sitting outdoors, and spent most of the time reading my book. I still found the play of the game incomprehensible, but that translates to boredom and indifference, not hatred. I started to hate football because of the cult surrounding it — the elevation of football above all other pursuits (including both drama and academics), the near-worship of the players (until their cocaine scandal, anyway), the phenomenon of female cheerleaders. And — worst of all — this thing called SCHOOL SPIRIT.

Who invented this blasphemy? When? And, for the love of all that is good in the universe, WHY?????

School spirit was this thing that seemed vaguely to be about being really into your school — at the expense of all other schools — which struck me as the stupidest thing ever, since the school you happened to be going to was based entirely on an accident of geography. So, in order to display that I cared deeply about my school (as opposed to all other schools) I was supposed to do things like wear a silly hat on Silly Hat Day during this thing called “Spirit Week.”

And this deep caring was supposed to revolve — not around academics, or arts, or community service, or anything at all that might in any way pertain to our school’s fitness to prepare us to venture out into the world as adults. School spirit didn’t seem to be about making school itself a nicer place — being kind to each other, or picking up litter, or planting a garden. No, school spirit was about one thing and one thing only: whether or not our school’s team prevailed during an upcoming athletic contest, usually football.

But the thing that made school spirit really intolerable, though, was an abomination called a “Pep Assembly.”

Just seeing those two words together still make me shudder.

Now, I’ve got nothing against “pep” in and of itself. Some people are naturally peppy — it’s their way, and good for them. But I am not such a person. I’m — well, how can I possibly explain how naturally un-peppy I am? I take after my Scandinavian ancestors, and even at my most cheerful I tend to strike people as somewhat dour. I’m also sorta gothic, and not the perky kind either. When my family watched the Addams Family movies, they instantly pegged Wednesday as me in a black wig. I’m not just un-pep, I’m ANTI-pep. And I dislike intensely any attempt to jolly me out of my natural demeanor. My seriousness and introversion and general lack of peppiness IS NOT A PERSONALITY FLAW that I am obliged to overcome, okay? GO AWAY AND LEAVE ME ALONE.

Also, I am really distrustful of a certain kind of scenario — when there’s a person standing up at the front of a big stadium and trying to get everyone in the audience on board with a certain attitude and agenda, and using all these groupthink manipulation techniques to make it happen.

So, a pep assembly is basically a hideous monster shambling forth from the demonic realms of my worst nightmares: an event where high school students are compelled to gather in a stadium and allow themselves to be manipulated into displaying the attitude of “pep” in the service of “school spirit.”

I assume most of you have suffered through this. Cheerleaders prance around down at the stage level and exhort members of the audience to shout in unison, usually divided among “teams” based on age cohort. “Seniors! We’ve got spirit, yes we do! We’ve got spirit — how about you! Now sophomores! Louder!”

And you couldn’t get out of it, either. Or — maybe you could have, but you’d need a note from your parents or something. This activity was compulsory. The only way to get out of it was to retreat into the privacy of my mind — and yes, I did bring a book.

The idea was obviously to be to get us invested in a tribalistic school identity, but I still don’t know what exactly that was supposed to accomplish. Was it believed to decrease dropout rates or vandalism? Was it held to be a safe outlet for teenage aggression? Was it a tradition for the pure sake of tradition? Was it a particularly big deal during the 80s because of some Reagan-era embrace of a retro conformist 50s vibe? Was it meant to summon the Great Old Ones?

I still have no idea. But I hated pep assemblies with the burning fiery passion of a thousand exploding suns.
This intense negative emotion associated with team spirit in general and football in particular lingered. As an adult — even just a college-student-type-adult — I was grateful that nobody tried to make me care about sporting contests, or experience anything called “pep.” It was entirely opt-in, and I always opted out. The first time I was ever in the same room as the Superbowl, I was already dating Paul and one of his siblings hosted a Superbowl party. I enjoyed the party, but couldn’t tell you what teams were playing or who won. I don’t even remember the halftime act.

When the Seahawks went to the Superbowl previously, I didn’t even know it was happening until I started seeing people dressed up for it — in jerseys and team colors and so on. That was actually my first inkling that adult football fans were more like nerds dressed up for the midnight Fellowship of the Ring movie opening than anything else. There was something very different about team spirit that was truly voluntary. It seemed more like something people did just because it was fun. You root for a particular team for the same reason that you put five bucks down on a horse race: because caring, just a little bit, about the outcome makes the game itself more exciting.

But I didn’t actually start watching football myself until 2008, and it was the New Orleans Saints that did it.

The spring of 2006 was my first post-Katrina trip to New Orleans. (Also an important turning point in my life — whole story to come!) We were driving on the outskirts — possible to or from the airport — and saw a banner set up where the Saints were currently practicing (a high school, I think) that had their logo and said: The Saints Return to the Superdome. and gave a date. This simple banner struck me as very moving, an important expression of tragedy, hope, and loyalty. For the first time I noticed that the Saints logo, the fleur-de-lis, was also the emblem of the city, and that the gold in their color scheme was one of the Mardi Gras trinity.

I started to notice the Saints in a way I hadn’t previously noticed any team, not even the Seahawks. I was following the livejournal of docbrite, a huge Saints fan, and I know some of that started to spill over. The Saints and New Orleans seemed to have a meaningful relationship that went beyond a simple fan/team kind of thing. Then, that year or possibly the next year, the Saints had a good season and I made a vow that if they went to the Superbowl, I had to watch it — I mean, really sit down and watch it, not just drink beer in another room and come inside for the better commercials.

They had an even better season in 2008. For the first time ever I had the experience of seeing the tail end of a game at random and getting caught up in what was happening. Technical innovations, such as images showing which team was in control of the ball and what line they were trying to hit, made the game much less incomprehensible. And once I displayed any interest at all in football, my friend Ulysses was eagerly waiting to watch games with me and explain the finer points of what was going on. Then, in 2009, the Saints WON THE SUPERBOWL! WOOHOO! My vow had clearly paid off. And after that I had the habit of often watching football games with my friend Ulysses, as long as either the Saints or the Seahawks were playing.

I never came to care all that deeply about football per se. And I do get easily footballed-out if I watch too much of it too frequently. But I did come to really admire the skill of the NFL players, especially their stunning feats of athleticism. They often rival gymnasts and ballet dancers for inspiring moments of pure “wow, can the human body really DO that?” awe.

So, — as I originally wrote this, I was planning to watch today’s Superbowl, which now is watched. And in spite of participating, and hearing some truly bizarre noises come out of my own mouth in response to many aspects of game play, I still feel a bit like the hype is for people other than me. I enjoy that everybody’s so into it, without 100 percent feeling it myself. It’s able to seem cute and fun because participation is one hundred percent voluntary. Even when I watch the game, nobody expects me to display anything like “pep.”

Also, as an adult, there’s booze.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Victim blaming 101


This Slacktivist piece on the victim-blaming inherent in certain kinds of advice [When good advice goes bad] prompted an epic comment mudstorm in which I briefly participated, kinda regretted it, stewed for a while, and started writing this essay.

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Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Nightmare in cerulean


This morning I had a serious anxiety dream right before waking up, so I’m going to write it out in the hope of making sense of it and then I’m going to post it because why not?

I worked in some kind of natural history or science museum, but not in any professional capacity. I was a retail clerk or a stock girl. I think my duties varied. My immediate supervisor was an older man who resembles nobody I know personally, but he might have been an amalgamation of many Republican politicians: a gentleman in his sixties, with a brown suit and patriarchal ideas.

He wasn’t impressed with my work. I kept trying to tell him that I wasn’t doing well because I wasn’t being given tasks that I was skilled at, but he laughed and thought I had delusions of grandeur. After all, I didn’t have a science degree. There was no possible way I was capable of anything more.

Our funding was going to get cut and I was pretty sure I would be fired. Also, I had a trip to Europe planned, and my supervisor was convinced that I was going there to stay. I kept overhearing him tell people about it and I knew I had to correct him, because there was no chance I could keep my job if they thought I was moving to Europe. But I couldn’t seem to get anyone to listen to me. When I spoke to them they would smile and walk away.

Within the museum, which was vast, people traveled by putting themselves into little padded chambers like space coffins and shot themselves through pneumatic tubes. When my dad arrived in one of these tubes I was relieved at first, because I thought he was going to help me. But he got talking to the other scientists and nothing really changed.

My mom arrived too and we decided to bond by going to some do-it-yourself cosmetic laboratory. The idea was that you would go around to different stations and tell them what you wanted in your concoction. But I was shocked when I saw that the lab was full of really toxic chemicals. I started to get worried about how casual she was being with the substances — leaning in close to sniff them, touching them, even tasting them.

Then I realized there were cats in the lab and I was really appalled, even though I was happy to see the cats. One of them twined around my ankles and this caused me to lose my balance and inhale a really huge amount of one of the chemicals, some crystals that were intense cyan or cerulean blue. I felt them going down the back of my throat. They felt gritty and tasted harsh and bitter and alkaline. These sensations were very real.

I spit out all the crystals that I could, but the back of my throat still tasted terrible and I was sick to my stomach. I ran to the bathroom and saw that my face was white and swollen, very tightly stretched and shiny. I was barely recognizable. I thought I looked like I had the mumps. There was a blue stain at the corner of my mouth. I was afraid I was going to die.

About this color.
This is the color of death.

I ran to try to get help from my dad. I found him in a casino, I thought at first. But it turned out that the person who responded when I called out for “McGalliard” was my grandmother. I was glad she was doing better, but I had to go find my father. He was in a different casino. He said he could help me and I was so relieved.

I followed him to what I thought would be a lab with the ingredients that could cure me, but it took forever — all the ingredients were scattered in different buildings in the compound. We went first one place, then another, and I didn’t feel any better. Then we had to go someplace all the way at the other end of the compound and we got on the company bus. It was being driven by Orlando Bloom as Legolas.

At first I was happy to see him, but then I realized that he was dressed up for Rocky Horror and giving lessons in striptease and pole dancing, which would have been fine except that he didn’t seem like he was concentrating on driving the bus. In fact, at one point he JUMPED OFF THE BUS.

It careened out of control, and came within inches of hitting several cement pillars, then came to a stop. He got back on the bus and explained that he had done that on purpose as some bit of stunt driving, and everyone was laughing and applauding and I was thinking, but what about my cure?

If only I had worn a face mask, I thought. Why didn’t I wear a face mask?

Then I woke up.

The lesson is clear: always wear a face mask when working with dangerous chemicals.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Santa Claus is real, and he is not white


Santa Claus
Every Christmas season, at least one movie will come out where the main thrust of the story is an argument demonstrating the virtue, in fact, the absolute necessity of all children everywhere believing in the literal existence of Santa Claus.

Yet every adult connected with this venture knows that Santa Claus does not, in fact, exist.

What’s up with that?

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Santa Claus is real
As a child, raised in evangelical culture, I thought that spiritual things had to be literally true, or they weren’t true at all. That was why I couldn’t believe in Santa, because it seemed obvious that there was no possible way he could literally exist.

But I see things differently now. I know that Santa can be real without being a literal fact. He’s real because we make him real. He is a spirit of kindness, plenty, generosity. He is a spirit of innocence, who protects innocence. He’s a childhood friend. You can sit on his lap and confess something other than your sins: your desires.

Santa Claus is not white, of course. He’s whatever you are, when you become him. A Santa Claus who was only one thing, who was IN FACT one particular genotype, wouldn’t be real at all.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Street crime


When I was eighteen and a college freshman away from home for the first time, I learned that I was supposed to be afraid to walk alone in urban areas after dark. I learned this on the phone with my mother. I was telling her about my experiences settling into college life, and we had an exchange that went something like this:

Mom: You walked across campus? By yourself? At night?

Me: Yeah…?

Mom: You weren’t afraid?

Me: Why?

Mom: (pause) You could be attacked.

Me: I… guess. In theory.

Mom: Promise me you won’t do it again.

Me: How about I don’t tell you about it anymore, and you can pretend I don’t do it?

(I didn’t mention that I had already walked at night by myself in downtown Bellingham, because I worried she’d blow a gasket.)

Anyway, the news that I was supposed to be wary of such activity came as a complete shock. It had never come up before — as a teenager, I lived in way-out-there suburbs without a car of my own, so there was nowhere I could go alone unless it was walking distance, and there was nothing walking distance except more suburbs, and there was certainly no reason to go there at night.

One of the things I loved most about college was that I could go where I wanted, when I wanted, full stop. I could walk to the store, or the movie theater, or the coffee shop. I could walk to a friend’s house. I could walk to Denny’s. I had, for the first time in my life, freedom, and autonomy. That was adulthood, baby. There was no way I was giving that up. Anyway, my mom was a big worrier about everything, so I figured she was the outlier.

At some point — I must have been home for the summer or the winter holidays — at her urging, I accompanied her to a self-defense class. I don’t remember if this class was specifically for women, or if it was coincidence that all attendees were female. We learned how to use something called a kubotan, which is a little black plastic stick that you can use as a keychain, and as a weapon.

This is probably the same booklet
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Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


I grew up in southern California with a full quartet of grandparents, something Paul envies. My mom’s parents, Bernice and Judson Phillips, lived in Brea, near a park with a jungle gym shaped like a rocket ship. Grandpa Judd and I shared a birthday, and we celebrated together nearly every year.

My dad’s parents, Laura and Fred McGalliard, lived in Santa Ana, near the Santa Ana River trail, and we sometimes rode our bikes to visit them. Dad’s parents were devout followers of two religions: evangelical Protestantism, and Disney. If Mom’s parents had religious beliefs, it was never obvious. My family followed the religion of the elder McGalliards, and when we lived in Santa Ana, we went to the same church they did. (Churches, if you count Disneyland.)

When I was twelve, my father got a job with Boeing and we moved to King County, Washington, way out beyond the east hill of Kent. In a brand-new house mostly empty of furniture, we got the news that my mother’s father had lung cancer.

About a year after his initial diagnosis, my grandfather was gone.

When the subject of God was brought up — as it will be, during wakes and funerals and the like — my grandmother Bernice’s only expressed opinion was this: “If God is so great, why would he take my husband away from me?”

She mourned him for the rest of her life. I think she was convinced that the universe was a sadistic bastard, and she was never going to forgive it. Sometimes it drove me crazy — she was so negative all the time, and so stubborn in her resolve never to even try to be happy again. Other times I admired her determination.

Toward the end of her own life, my brother Mike and I visited her in the nursing home where she lived after a stroke left her unable to stay in her own house. We were chatting, and she said, “I don’t think you live on after you die.”

“Why do you say that, Grandma?” Mike asked.

Grandma made her sour, I-don’t-like-that face. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”

I don’t remember exactly where the conversation went after that — hugs, maybe. Maybe my brother quoted Grandma’s favorite saying back at her: “Well, what do you know for sure?”

Wow, I thought. Grandma is an existentialist. Suddenly her fondness for the absurdist comedy of Monty Python, which I had previously considered delightfully out of character, made total sense. I felt great kinship with her, and also a pang of loss. Why had I never noticed before? We could have spent the last twenty years bonding over Kierkegaard and Sartre.

Then again, my grandmother was never much of a scholar — it might not have made any difference to her.

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Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.

Room 237 and The Shining


A few months ago I saw the movie Room 237, a documentary about obsessive super-fans of Stanley Kubrick’s movie The Shining, who have watched it more times than you’ve seen Star Wars and developed interesting interpretive theories about Kubrick’s film. These range from the relatively plausible (small incongruities aren’t continuity errors — they Mean Something) to the jaw-droppingly bizarre (it’s Kubrick’s way of confessing that he helped fake the moon landing).

Most movies of that type would really be about the fans — showing them, letting us into their lives — but this movie is focused on explicating their ideas. We hear their voices as they talk about their theories and what led to them, layered on top of scenes that are mostly from The Shining and other Kubrick movies. (Although there is one hilarious clip of Stephen King freaking out at a television set which I am pretty sure is from Creepshow. This is used to illustrate the fact that King himself is not a fan of the Kubrick movie.)

If that premise sounds interesting to you, I would recommend Room 237, although it drags a bit at the end.

There was one peculiar recurring theme in what the fans had to say: several of them indicated that they didn’t like The Shining the first time they saw it. So if you don’t like a movie the first time, why watch it again? And again? And again? I don’t know. In a couple of cases it sounded like they were Kubrick fans who felt like they must be missing something, if they didn’t like a Kubrick movie. But I was intrigued by the idea that sometimes great art isn’t something that you perceive yourself liking right off — maybe you even think you hate it — but there’s something odd about it that won’t leave you alone, and so you keep going back to it, and eventually you realize maybe you do like it, but it’s a strange new sense of the word “like” that was so unfamiliar to you that at first you didn’t even recognize it as liking.

Kinda how the bickering couple falls in love in a romantic comedy, come to think of it.

I’m always a bit wary of artistic interpretations that are too sweeping — oh, this IN FACT means that — but the theories in Room 237 got me thinking about what I would say the film means, if I had to write an essay on the topic.

It’s an indictment of the modern patriarchal nuclear family. I saw the central metaphor as one of isolation: the snow isolates the Torrances from the rest of the world, reflecting the way the nuclear family unit is isolated from traditional community supports, while the hotel’s huge spaces isolate them from each other.

I wanted to test my theory by seeing The Shining again, but it was late and I needed to catch a bus so I started reading the book instead. Was the book an indictment of the patriarchal nuclear family? It definitely conveyed the sense of a fundamental taint or curse passed down from father to son (Jack’s father to Jack — and, based on the pre-press for the sequel Doctor Sleep, from Jack to Danny). A lot of the book’s conflict is centered around traditional ideas of manhood and the man’s role in the family. The reason the Torrance family is at the Overlook in the first place is that “winter caretaker of spooky hotel” is the best job Jack is able to get after a series of serious career screw-ups related to alcoholism and fits of uncontrolled temper. And one reason they don’t leave when things start to get weird is that their financial prospects would be so grim if Jack fails, once again, as a provider. The whole family is trapped by their dependence on Jack, who in his turn often feels burdened and resentful of their needs. But at the same time, whenever his wife Wendy challenges his authority, he becomes even more angry and resentful.

So you have two fundamental ideals at war in the patriarch’s heart: I need to protect and provide for my family, but I am also the authority figure who needs to keep them in line.

These ideas can seem like they’re in harmony when everything is going right — if the patriarch and the rest of the family agree about what to do, no “keeping in line” is needed and so he can go on perceiving himself as the source of authority. But when things start to go wrong, these ideals come into conflict, and one value has to yield before the other. Which is the greater value?

In a heartwarming family comedy, authority might yield before protection. In a horror story, Jack’s psyche breaks down to the point where he’s trying to “keep them in line” by WHACKING THEM TO DEATH WITH A ROQUE MALLET. In fact, one of the interesting things that happens in the book is that in a brief moment of lucidity during the climax, Jack whacks his own face with the roque mallet until it is mostly unrecognizable. This both reinforces the idea of the hotel’s evil as a possessing force, and provides an explanation for why Danny’s clairvoyant “shining” has been showing him this moment for months, but he was never able to recognize the identity of the monster coming for him. (Of course, it is strongly suggested that he probably could have recognized the monster, had he really wanted to.)

Last week, Paul and I saw The Shining at Central Cinema. It was fun to see it on a big(ish) screen. I was too young to go see horror movies when it came out, so I’ve previously only seen it on video. The theater experience really enhances a few notable elements of the film — for example, the way the Torrance family seems lost in the vast, echoing, mazelike corridors of the Overlook hotel, or the disorienting effect of the strongly geometric carpet patterns. The movie’s shots tend to be framed very symmetrically, which is probably why it works to do that thing where you project The Shining running backward onto the same movie running forward. (Which I missed when it played at SIFF, but I saw a few moments of it in preview, and it looked oddly fascinating.) Kubrick repeatedly uses Jack’s image in the mirror in a way that seems to suggest both that he is being reflected back on himself, and also that his identity is changing, becoming an evil inverse of itself.

The first time I re-read The Shining, years after reading it for the first time and years after seeing the movie, I was a bit embarrassed to realize that the movie’s pivotal scene — where Wendy finds that all Jack has been typing this whole time is “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy ” over and over — was not actually in the book. It’s such a concise, poignant, chilling, and darkly hilarious depiction of writer’s block exploding out of control to become insanity — how could that not be in the book? But it isn’t. In the book, Jack’s writing project is a history of the Overlook Hotel, which leads to him doing endless hours of research instead of writing. This functions as the book’s mechanism for sharing the Outlook’s troubled history with readers. It works fine in the book, but doesn’t have the jaw-dropping gut-punch of Wendy’s discovery in the movie.

A movie always practices shorthand — a long string of degradations and atrocities throughout the hotel’s history all get filtered down into one: Grady, the previous caretaker, who murdered his wife and twin daughters before killing himself. (Creepy twin girls in blue dresses is another indelible image that pretty much belongs to the movie.) Of course, of all the atrocities to keep, this is the one that not only pertains most closely to Jack’s situation, it is also the one that furthers my “indictment of the patriarchal nuclear family” theme. Jack and Grady’s ghost have a conversation in an unsettling red bathroom, during which Grady expresses the idea that a man has to “manage” his family at all costs — which includes murdering them if they won’t obey.

One big difference between the movie and the book — the book Shining is mostly an alcoholism metaphor, and Jack-as-patriarch has a clear Jeckyll and Hyde dual nature. When he’s good, he’s genuinely good and the family is very loving — but with the evil influence of the hotel, bad Jack eventually wins. The movie Shining has almost no emphasis on the role of alcohol addiction as a force in its own right. The menacing hotel seems like an extension of Jack’s fragmenting psyche, rather than the other way around. Jack has actually been deranged and abusive the whole time, and what happens is that the mask of normalcy comes off.

I noticed something interesting about the staging of the scene immediately after Wendy finds his “manuscript.” She is carrying a baseball bat because Danny’s harmful encounter with one of the ghosts convinced her that there was a dangerous stranger at large in the hotel. When Jack confronts her with the full force of his murderous insanity, she is obviously emotionally broken and overwhelmed, but she doesn’t put down the baseball bat. She eventually uses it to knock him down the stairs and into unconsciousness. But I realized that there was something about the staging of her emotional breakdown that led me to expect her to give up and drop the bat, which made the fact that she doesn’t seem surprising. That must be an expectation that was set up by watching other movies and TV, although I couldn’t think of any specific examples.

Anyway, throughout the climax, I liked the way Shelly Duvall played Wendy as a terrified and broken person who nevertheless kept fighting. Usually, when horror movie victims fight back it’s shown as arising out of a more badass and determined emotional state — you know, “I’m not going to be a victim any longer!” But Wendy doesn’t make an emotionally bold stand like that. She screams and cries and jumps and yelps, and keeps fighting anyway. (I’m less happy with the fact that Kubrick is reported to have emotionally abused his actress in order to get that performance.) (Also, this movie seems guilty of the “only black guy in the movie gets it” cliché, when Scatman Crothers’ character gets axed to death by Jack while the same character in the book survives.)

A huge difference between the movie and book is that in the book, Jack’s murderous rampage causes him to neglect the boilers, and the hotel blows up. In the movie, Jack freezes to death in the hedge maze, and the final shot is of a photograph on the wall of the hotel, taken in the 1920s, showing a man who is clearly Jack. Nobody is 100 percent sure what that’s meant to imply — a reincarnation theme? Or the idea that the hotel’s ghost world exists outside of normal chronology, and that when Jack’s essence is absorbed into it, he suddenly exists in hotel world at every point in its own timeline?

Anyway, I think it’s significant that in the book, the hotel is destroyed and this will never happen again, while in the movie, the hotel will continue just as it always has. The destruction of the Overlook seems to imply that we can get out of the patriarchal abuse cycle, and addiction can be overcome, even if both things come at a great cost. The ending of the film is more bleak — Wendy and Danny might have escaped, but the forces that trapped and endangered them remain as powerful as ever.

Originally published at Goth House. You can comment here or there.


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