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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.( hidden for length and triggersCollapse )
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.
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.
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?( Blah blah blahCollapse )
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.
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?
Mom: You weren’t afraid?
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.( Cut for length...Collapse )
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.( Cut for length. Read on....Collapse )
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.
Paul: I learned to do specific, useless household chores as a kid. Like iron towels.
Julie: My mom asked me to help fold towels once. Then she told me to stop because I was doing it wrong. I don’t think I ever did anything around the house again.
Just this morning, Paul and I were talking about household chores, and then later I ran into this essay about how we all need to learn to do domestic adult-type things. [ Be an adult... learn to cook] This inspired me to locate and publish this partially completed essay started about a year ago:
I recently skim-read this book while those around me played card games. I’ve had housekeeping on the brain, since getting engaged in an aggressive, hardcore effort to make the apartment livable, now that we finally decided we probably couldn’t save enough money by moving to make it worthwhile to move for that reason, and Paul’s Not-So-Excellent Elbow Adventure renders any other reason to move, for the time being, moot.
I read the introduction when the book first came out (2005) and was intrigued by some of her ideas, but then tossed it aside in disgust when some of her assumptions started to get on my nerves. Probably the most grating thing was her consistent underlying assumption that the primary keeper of the house was female. Maybe that reflects reality, but I still don’t like it as an editorial stance.
Another problem I had, is that her standards are so incredibly meticulous. Sure, she
says she’s giving a best case scenario and you don’t have to do everything she recommends as frequently as she recommends doing it. But she recommends changing bed linen more than once a week, vacuuming daily, cleaning out the refrigerator — not just dealing with leftovers and stuff but taking everything out and unplugging and disinfecting all the interior surfaces — once a week. Once a frigging week. Something I probably get to once a year, in a good year.
So, her advice leaves me with no sense of what a realistic on-top-of-things housekeeping schedule would look like for an ordinary mortal like me. (With her, every day is CLEAN ALL THE THINGS.)
Her most interesting content is her theory about why nobody knows how to keep house anymore. She claims that, when technology dramatically changed the realities of daily housekeeping in the early 20th century, the then-adult generation didn’t pass down housekeeping skills to the next generation, because they didn’t see the point. The pre-vacuum cleaner generation didn’t have a clue what to teach the post-vacuum cleaner generation. In turn, their children expected to have nothing to teach the next generation after that, because they thought it would all be done by robots or whatever. Instead, housekeeping technology has remained pretty stable since the original vacuum-cleaner event horizon, but the break in generation-to-generation transfer means that most people nowadays grow up without the faintest clue how to keep house.
This part resonated with me and with Paul. We felt like we were never really taught how to keep a house, nor were we appropriately apprenticed. Then our parents acted surprised when we turned into adults who didn’t have a clue about how to do all that stuff.
However, I would attribute the transmission failure at least partly to a different cause — the technology itself makes it possible for a sufficiently dedicated housekeeper, especially one without a day job, to basically pick up after the whole household. In Olden Times, the enthusiastic participation of every single available member was required just to keep up. So the primary housekeeper would teach the kids how to do it out of necessity, because their labor was actually required.
But — let’s face it — teaching very young children how to do housework is actually kind of a chore all by itself. And they’re kids, so they won’t be very good at it, not at first. And with school being their first priority, things won’t always be done on the preferred adult schedule, etc., and before you know it, you have the pattern we grew up with. As a young child you’re given either token chores, or “pick up your own room” types of chores, but you’re not expected to help with the more general housework. Then, as an older kid, your mom thinks you ought to be helping, but because you aren’t in the habit, you have no idea what she expects you to do. Then, when you get to be a teenager, your mom doesn’t even try to get you to help anymore. She just complains that you don’t.
Et voila, another domestically clueless adult is loosed upon a college dorm.
(Side note inspired by the Jezebel article, which includes a number of horror stories about people getting to college without even the vaguest idea about how to do laundry or cook food: neither Paul nor I was ever so clueless that we could literally not follow the directions on a washing machine or box of Kraft macaroni.)
Home Comforts contains no theories about where people do manage to get their ideas for how housekeeping is supposed to be done. Magazines, certainly, and web sites. Personally, I think a lot of people get their ideas from commercials for housekeeping products. You see an advertisement for a toilet bowl cleaner and think — oh! You need to clean toilet bowls? So that’s why mine doesn’t look like Mom’s used to!
Anyway, in theory this book should have been exactly what we needed — the important housekeeping information we didn’t get from our parents — but it’s too sprawling for reference, and doesn’t address what I see as the biggest challenge in this modern era of egalitarian households: how do you divvy up the responsibilities so that everything gets done and nobody feels burdened by that OH MY GOD WHY DO I HAVE TO DO EVERYTHING AROUND HERE feeling.
You get into passive-aggressive roommate standoffs. Well, it’s sure not MY job. Nope, not MY job either. Then the person who is more easily disgusted, more efficient, more organized, or just more irritated by STUFF everywhere gives in and cleans up. By some strange uncanny coincidence, this is usually the female roommate. Nobody involved is obnoxiously patriarchal enough to actually declare “well, you’re the chick, so it is your job actually,” and yet the end result is exactly the same. So what do we do about that? I have no clue. No clue at all.
One problem with domestic chores is that if you are succeeding at keeping on top of them, they become kind of invisible. Cleaning is about the disgusting grime buildup that isn’t there; straightening is about the discarded pair of pants you don’t trip over; paying bills on time is about the service that isn’t cut off and the creditors who don’t call to harass you. So it can feel like you’re not being rewarded at all for something that is actually a lot of hard work.
That’s probably why, of all the domestic chores there are, cooking is the one I actually got into. Cooking involves so many cool things that make it inherently fun: knives, fire, chemistry, books, research, experimentation, fruit, vaguely witchy jars of herbs, etc. And the reward when it works out — delicious food — is immediate and tangible. So I think I have a pretty good handle on cooking… when I’m functional enough to have a handle on anything.
The theme this year is pirates. I just realized I am on no pirate-related programming. So I will throw this out there: a few years ago I was saying that pirates are the new zombies are the new vampires. Steampunk is the new pirates. I don’t know if there’s a new steampunk.
Supernatural Horror and the Influence of Lovecraft – Fri, Oct 4; 11 PM – 12 AM (midnight)
Others Among Us – Sat, Oct 5; 10 AM – 11 AM
Much Ado About Whedon – Sun, Oct 6; 1 PM – 2 PM
Trapped by the Taliban (or: Who are you to tell me where to be on my own planet?) – Sun, Oct 6, 3 PM – 4 PM
See you at the Delta Vancouver Airport Hotel 3500 Cessna Drive, Richmond, BC.
Some things are weirdly predictable. A woman will write something about how much she hates being told to smile by strange men — such as [Smile, baby!] and [This morning a man told me to smile] — and the comments section will be full of guys telling her that being told to smile is no big deal and she shouldn’t dislike it so much. Nice work, random internet dudes! Not only do you want to tell me what to do with my face, you want to tell me how to feel about it when I get told what to do with my face! Say something else obnoxious — you could hit the jackass trifecta!
Anyway, why are you arguing? You should be taking notes. “Women hate being told to smile, okay, lemme cross ‘smile, beautiful!’ offa my list of fantastic chat-up lines.” Is there a particular reason you resist the knowledge that women hate being told to smile? It’s true, whether you accept it or not.
Maybe you are one of those “smile!” guys and you don’t want to think of yourself as a jerk. Fine. If you have never previously suspected that women hate being told to smile — if the merest inkling of a notion has literally never ever crossed your mind — I retroactively pronounce all past “smile!” incidents as the result of naivete, not jerkishness. But now that you know women hate it? Cut it out.
The cited articles and discussions tend to zero in on the “smile!” phenomenon as sexism and street harassment, and in the defense of “smile!”ers, some people point out that being ordered to smile isn’t always guys doing it to women they don’t know. This is true. Sometimes it’s your sweet but slightly annoying great aunt, or the person checking your groceries, or whatever. Sometimes people tell men to smile — I guess. I’ve never seen it happen, but whatever.
I always hated “smile!” for very Wednesday Addams reasons — I feel keenly the innate oppressiveness of the falsely cheerful mien. World, I am not smiling because I don’t feel like it, and why on earth do you think I ought to feel like it? You wanna see me smile, do something amusing. Telling a stranger to cheer up or smile might be kindly meant, but is actually a thoughtless thing to do — some of the people walking around not smiling have very tragic things going on in their lives that are absolutely none of your business.
If you wouldn’t tell a friend “smile!” or “cheer up!” when you knew they were coming home from a funeral, don’t say it to strangers whose circumstances you don’t know.
Being told to smile, no matter who is doing the telling, feels like being told that your own authentic feelings are invalid and don’t matter. Another person sees that you do not appear to be cheerful, and what they do in response is order you to appear cheerful for their benefit. If you are a “smile!”er, and you wonder why people hate being told to smile, imagine how they would react if you told them “dance, monkey, dance!” It’s pretty much the same thing.
Some feminist objections to the phenomenon of women being told to smile zero in on the idea that telling a woman to smile means you are telling her that you think she ought to appear decorative and emotionally available. But I think it’s even worse than that. Telling other people to smile can be a signal that you want them to take a subordinate social role. The higher status primate tells the lower status primate to smile, right? It doesn’t go the other way. (“Smiles, everyone!” — Mr. Rourke) That’s why your auntie is annoying when she does it (as your older relative, she is sort of in a socially dominant position by default) and that guy you don’t know can ruin your whole day.
Who wants to go around conceding the alpha primate role to random males on the street? Not me. Who wants to get called a bitch when they refuse? Not me, again. But if a guy genuinely thought that he was being nice when he told me to smile, why would he get so bent out of shape when I refuse? He wasn’t being nice to me. He wanted me to be nice to him. He wanted me to pretend he was boss for a minute. Well, no dice, buddy. You wanna call me a bitch? Whatever. Guess what? I AM a bitch. But I am not YOUR bitch.
That’s also why even seemingly innocuous things like “smile!” can be street harassment, and also why street harassment is part of what is called “rape culture.” A guy who wants to assert his dominance by forcing a smile is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through crude remarks is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through a subway grope is on a continuum with the guy who wants to assert his dominance through rape.
Most “smile!” men probably aren’t actually potential rapists, no. But if you are a “smile!”er, here’s the problem — remember how I told you that telling strangers to “smile!” can be downright cruel, because you don’t know them and you don’t know what misfortunes they might be suffering? Well, keep in mind that they don’t know you, either. They don’t know that you’re not a rapist, or mugger, or serial killer, or con man, or drug-addled to the point of violence, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or whatever.
They know only one thing about you — that you are obnoxious enough to tell strangers to smile. Can you blame them for assuming the worst?
Over at Amazing Stories, Paul Cook decided to poke the anthill with a post titled When Science Fiction is Not Science Fiction. He says a number of rather silly things about science fiction that isn’t really science fiction, but the silliest is this bit right here:
Another writer well-praised (from every corner) is Lois McMaster Bujold. Her great work is the Miles Vorkosigan series. These are supposed to be military science fiction stories, but they are really at their core Romance novels. At first, they were military science fiction novels of a higher order than most. But the romance elements creep in very early on. Bujold tips her hand in the eloquence of her language (normally a good thing) and the attention to detail that only women would find attractive: balls, courts, military dress, palace intrigues, gossiping, and whispering in the corridors. All of this is right out of Alexander Dumas.
So… Lois writes stories which appear to be military science fiction, but they are really secretly romance novels, although they used to be better-than-average military science fiction, with secret romance elements, which include deceitfully eloquent prose, and ICKY GIRL STUFF, just like Alexander Dumas (who is known for writing girl stuff).
There, did you follow all that?
Genre policing is my least favorite type of artistic criticism, especially when gender essentialism gets involved. Arguments about whether something is really science fiction (or whatever) are at best pointless, at worst downright offensive. Cook strays heavily into offensive territory here, with his petulance and misogyny and weird paranoia. Oh, poor baby, did somebody trick you into reading about human relationships by promising you exciting space battles instead? My, how you’ve suffered!
Tell me — is Star Wars really science fiction? By what measure? The science? Because there isn’t any. It’s science fiction because it’s set in space. That’s pretty much it. Also? The Empire Strikes Back is basically a romantic comedy, WITH SPACE BATTLES. Which is pretty awesome, sure, but it hardly makes the case that smooching and exciting space battles somehow don’t belong together.
Or maybe you think Star Wars is one of those things that isn’t really science fiction, because there’s no science in it. What about Star Trek? Is that science-y enough for you? Even though teleporters and warp drives don’t exist, and probably can’t exist? When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote about Mars, was that science fiction? Well, there’s no science to it — the more we study Mars, the more certain we become that it does NOT have a vigorous and diverse ecosystem including human-like life forms. He was just making stuff up. How about alternate history novels? Are those science fiction? Well, where’s the science to them? What about time travel stories, are those science fiction? Really? Do you seriously think back-and-forth time travel is scientifically plausible?
The point I’m getting at, is that almost any well-known science fiction story or trope could be said to be not really science fiction, by somebody who felt like making that claim. And the bulk of SF fandom is still not going to care. Star Wars fandom is not going to disappear from the halls of Norwescon just because a few pedantic nerds wail to the heavens that it’s really science fantasy, or whatever. The science fictional aspects of the most recent Star Trek movie were atrocious, even by Star Trek standards, but the point isn’t that it’s not really science fiction. The problem is that it’s not any good.
Regarding works of Lois, I might even know, sort of, a bit, what Mr. Cook is talking about — earlier books in the Vorkosigan saga were more likely to be swashbuckling military-ish space adventures, while later books more often have plots driven by romance or intrigue. But it’s still romance and intrigue set in a high-tech spacefaring culture, or rather, several different cultures which often clash in interesting ways. You might not like them as much as the earlier books, but it’s not because romance in space is inherently less science fictional than military battles in space. It’s just a different kind of story — set in space. Is that good enough for Star Wars? Why isn’t it good enough for the Vorkosigan books?
What I suspect — especially because of the unfortunate gender essentialism in the quote above — is that Mr. Cook is simply not thinking his own prejudices through. Space battles get an automatic pass as science fiction because, you know, they’re space battles. That’s what his inner fourteen-year-old boy wants to read about. Space romance, though? That’s automatically not really science fiction. Why not? Because romance is a less scientifically accurate proposition than laser cannons? I very much doubt it. No, it’s because his inner fourteen-year-old boy doesn’t want to read about that stuff.
Genre policing is one of those insidious gatekeeping activities, like fandom policing, that simply cannot end well, and if you catch yourself doing it, you need to sit down and engage in some deep soul searching. Why do you presume yourself to be the authority here? Why do you think the rest of us will cede that authority? Why do you expect your arrogance to go unremarked? Who died and made you keeper of the flame?
(Now that I have updated the website, I am doing some electronic housecleaning. Sometimes I run into a fairly complete, but unpublished essay, such as this one.)
So, we saw the new Tron movie.
I have inexplicably fond feelings for the old one. I saw it as a teenager, but even then I realized 1. It wasn’t very good, and 2. Jeff Bridges was great. Sure, it was kinda stupid, but it looked cool and it had David Warner as the villain.
The new movie is stupid, and still looks cool. But it doesn’t look new and innovative cool. It looks like the old movie with !Hey! Wow! Computer effects have really come a long way, haven’t they! added on. When Tron was the only movie that ever looked like that, it seemed cooler.
This time, the villain is creepy computer-de-aged Jeff Bridges as a rogue computer version of himself. Which isn’t as cool as David Warner, who has that sneering contemptuous British way of being a villain (like Alan Rickman as Snape) that I love, because it always makes me feel a little bit like he deserves to be the villain, because other people really are that stupid.
Evil De-Aged Jeff Bridges (EDAJB) plays something like a computer program Hitler, what with his own Triumph of the Will moment, and a lot of talk about purging and perfection, and it ends up being just insane, because we are just talking about a computer program here aren’t we? I mean, what can he actually do? Other than prevent our heroes from getting back to the real world?
The movie makes a really pathetic attempt to manufacture real-world consequences for its dream-world logic, by inventing some kind of — spontaneously generated computer life form that will save the world because — and EDAJB wants to prevent this life form from — ah, I don’t even know. The list of things in this movie that make no sense is so long that it’s pointless to try to dissect it. It’s like pointing out the logical fallacies in a Sarah Palin tweet. Where do you even begin?
So, this movie is stupid and makes no sense and I didn’t like it, and the original movie was stupid and made no sense and I liked it anyway. Maybe it’s just me. I’m not a teenager anymore. And maybe it’s that young whoever (starring as the son of Jeff Bridges’ character Flynn) is no Jeff Bridges. And even in this movie, Jeff Bridges is no Jeff Bridges. I mean, “phoning it in” doesn’t even begin to describe the uninvolved-ness of his performance. Every line he delivered, he gave the sense of looking at his own mouth, thinking, whoa, did I just say that?
But it seemed to me while I was watching it that the movie wasn’t so much crushed under the weight of its own stupidity, as it was crushed under the weight of its own weightiness. Maybe it was that I was watching it on an IMAX screen six stories high, with funky 3D glasses on. But a lot of it seemed to reflect the trend in big action movies these days, which is that they are inexplicably boring.
It’s like everybody thinks they’re making The Dark Knight (which I didn’t even like much) even if they’re making Tron 2. So everything is heavy and important and solemn and whatnot. Everything is so meaningful. And deep. And requires swelling music. Mood lighting. And people yelling each other’s names.
I mean, I know you have to stop for a quiet moment every once in a while to let the mayhem sink in. But you have to have the mayhem first in order for that to work. It seems like modern action movies are all quiet moments where we’re supposed to feel some kind of deep emotional thing.
The moments where the makers of Tron 2 actually have any fun at all are few and far between.
This is actually a post about writing, but I’m going to start out talking about Bikram Yoga.
There is a pose, called standing head to knee. It’s supposed to go something like this:
1. Lift one leg and balance on the other with a locked knee.
2. Reach down to grab under the lifted foot with a firm, locked grip.
3. Keeping your hands locked under your foot, kick out the lifted leg so that it is at about 90 degrees from the standing leg.
4. Curl your torso down until your forehead is on your lifted knee.
5. At the final stage, your lifted foot will be flexed back, your lifted leg will be just as straight and locked as the standing leg, and your arms will be slightly bent.
Part 2 of the setup has always given me trouble. Everyone else in class seemed to be able to lift their leg until their thigh was parallel with the floor, and then reach down and clasp their hands under the foot with no trouble. But even when I could finally get my hands down to where it seemed like they should be able to clasp under my foot, it felt like my knee was being jammed into my armpit, and I had to sort of…crawl my fingers together awkwardly to get them barely clasped, and usually I would lose my balance in the meantime. If I managed to get my fingers together, I could usually kick out, then adjust my fingers to have a stronger grip.
Once my leg was kicked out I didn’t have any more problems. But the setup was killing me.
I tried for the longest time to figure out why I couldn’t do the setup “right.” Did I have freakishly short Tyrannosaurus arms? Was I not bending my torso down far enough? Did I not have enough flexibility somewhere? If so, where? I couldn’t seem to locate the exact point of the problem. It felt like I was doing the same thing everybody else was doing, and somehow not getting the same results.
So I tried something else. I tried clasping my hands first and lifting my foot into my clasped hands with my knee still outside of my arm. The teacher didn’t tell me that was wrong, so I kept at it. Once I was comfortable with that, I was able to slide my arm to be outside my leg, achieve a setup that looked more or less typical, and proceed from there.
I have done standing head to knee this way hundreds of times, in front of perhaps a dozen different teachers, and none of them have ever told me that my method was wrong.
Then, one night, I had a new teacher who told me I shouldn’t be kicking out yet, because my hands were “on the side.” I wasn’t quite sure what she was talking about, but assumed she must be calling me on my nonstandard setup, the first teacher in seven years to do so. So I immediately felt kind of unfairly picked on — if nobody else had ever told me it was wrong, what was her problem? But I also had the hope that maybe she would be the teacher who could finally help me figure out why I couldn’t seem to get into the setup in the standard way.
She said, “you should do it like this” and showed me the usual method. I got a bit frustrated then, because I’ve spent seven years being unable to do that, in spite of spending a lot of time trying to figure out how. So I said, “I can’t do it that way.” A lot of teachers take that as a cue to work with you briefly to try to figure out why you can’t seem to do a pose in a certain way, but what she said was, “well, keep working, you’ll get it eventually.”
Suddenly, in my head, I was screaming at her. NO I WON’T YOU IDIOT I’VE BEEN TRYING FOR SEVEN YEARS ARGHHHHHH!!!!!!!! I felt such a rush of negative emotion that I seriously considered just walking out of class.
But then I got ahold of myself and realized that if one of the key points about Bikram Yoga is learning to process physical discomfort (specifically, the sensation of exerting physical effort in a ridiculously hot and sweaty room) then processing emotional discomfort had to be a part of that too. So I stayed, and went through all the poses, and thought really, really hard about why I felt so negative.
First, I asked myself why I took her criticism so badly, when usually I like teachers correcting my poses — it makes me feel like they’re paying attention, like they care. But usually they are telling me to do something that I can easily do, once my attention is brought to the matter — like lifting my chin, or shifting my weight. So I don’t usually feel the frustration of being told to do something that I already know I can’t manage.
Most of the teachers are regulars, so I know them and they know me. I think that establishes a comfort level with the act of being corrected.
I probably bristled most at the way she told me to keep working and I’d get it eventually. Not only did it seem disrespectful of my seven years of trying, in which, no, I hadn’t managed to “get it,” it also conveyed an assumption that I was brand new at this and implied, subtly, that I must therefore suck at it.
When we went into our first inverted pose, standing separate leg stretching, I felt even worse, like I was about to burst into tears. And I was able to suddenly pinpoint my emotion as shame. I felt as if the teacher had shamed me, and it felt like the worst thing ever. It felt like I wanted to die. And I realized that this same emotion, of poisonous shame, is the thing that strikes at me whenever I get a fiction rejection (or even think about getting a rejection).
Not ordinary disappointment: deep and bitter shame.
So I thought about shame, as a noun, a thing you feel, and also as a verb, a thing that is done to you. I think we have an idea in our society that shame is a useful corrective, that you can actively shame a person into better behavior. Look what happens if you object to fat shaming, or slut shaming — the shamer will inevitably claim that they’re just concerned about the self-destructive behavior, is all. Just trying to help.
It is true that people sometimes get publicly shamed for engaging in truly bad behavior. But it rarely has the vaunted “corrective” effect — they don’t learn a lesson, they just slink away to lick their wounds and rise again.
Shame is a weapon — a way of removing status from somebody. But that means it’s far too easy to ignore shame that could teach you something (hello, Paula Deen) on the grounds that it’s just mean people trying to hurt you, and also, far too easy to internalize shame that really shouldn’t find a purchase at all (witness the way teenagers shame each other to the point of suicide over things like having last year’s hair or being too good in math.)
Street harassment is a way to shame women for having the gall to walk around in public without worrying about it, almost like they think they’re men or something. Gay people have pride celebrations to counteract traditional attempts by society as a whole to shame them just for being gay.
On the Internet, sometimes people get shamed for being jerks, but just as frequently — maybe more frequently — the jerks are the ones trying to shame people for pointing out their jerkishness. Shaming becomes a contest: who is more alpha, who is allowed to shame whom. It’s retaliatory. You try to shame me, I’ll shame you back. Or, I don’t care what I did, I still refuse to feel shame because I refuse to acknowledge that you have any shaming authority here.
We can feel shamed even when that was not at all the intent. Crit groups, fiction rejections, a teacher making a pose correction — none of these people intend to make us feel shame. But if we’re sensitive to it, we feel it anyway.
Shame hurts. It’s one of the most painful emotions we experience. But, just like depression, shame lies. We seem feel the most intense shame when there’s no good reason for it, and wrap ourselves in thick bubbles of self-justification when we really do harm others.
Even when shame is felt appropriately — as a response to bad or thoughtless behavior we have engaged in — it seems likely to prompt avoidance rather than amends. The problem with shame is that it’s too painful. It hurts too much. So we avoid situations where shame seems like a risk– we avoid speaking up, going out, yoga classes, crit groups, or submitting our fiction.
Well, I reject shame.
Get thee behind me, and all that.
I’m not saying I’m completely over you — emotional habits are hard to break. But I think I recognize you now, you dirty liar. And I’m trying hard not to listen to you anymore.
[inspired by this Slate article: Mermaids are not the new vampires]
The concept of something being the “new vampires” is almost exactly like the concept of something being the “new black” — it’s a joke. There is no new black. There is never a new black. Black is black for a reason. Vampires are vampires for a reason.
Sure, for a while I was joking that pirates were the new zombies were the new vampires, but it was a joke. And pirates and zombies can walk on land, and are traditionally seen as monsters, or at least anti-heroes, so that puts them WAY closer to vampires at the outset.
If mer-people are your deal, great. No problem there. But mythological tropes aren’t infinitely malleable — they don’t all mean everything at the same time. For the most part, you can’t take a vampire story and plug in a merperson instead. And if the myth you choose doesn’t affect the story you tell, why use the myth at all?
There’s a reason vampires rule the world of fantastical fiction the way they do. I can’t tell you for sure what that reason is — I have speculated wildly about it on many a convention panel, and my go-to explanation is: vampires are a potent symbol of ambivalence, and we live in a deeply ambivalent age.
Similarly, I have a go-to explanation about why werewolves always seem to play second fiddle to the vampires who are otherwise their close mythological cousins: because of the way cinema dominates our collective mythmaking, and vampire visual effects are just plain easier to do well than werewolf effects. So vampires rule the theater, and this causes them to dominate in written literature as well.
But those are just educated guesses. There’s something ineffable about what makes certain narrative tropes resonate. They just do. Maybe, in a different social and physical environment — the Waterworld world, for example — merpeople would be the go-to myth.
Only, in that world, they would probably be terrifying/misunderstood undead monsters who threaten our concept of ourselves as humans, and instead of being, generically, “fish” people, they would actually be humans who sometimes turn into GIANT MAN-EATING SHARKS.
Saw Pacific Rim on Sunday… another movie I wanted to love, and unfortunately didn’t. Guillermo del Toro! Nerd obsessions! Giant monsters! Mako Mori! Idris Elba! It looks pretty and there are some parts of it that work great, but overall I was bored too often and surprised and delighted too little.
(Spoilers, I’m sure, follow.)
Yes, you can still support me (or anybody else) in the Clarion West 2013 Write-a-thon. If you support me, I will give you a cookie! Well, not actually a cookie. You get a book that I wrote for Nanowrimo in 2008, plus groovy illustrations. Personally, I would rather get a book than a cookie, but it is entirely possible that I am a freak. And now I’m sad, because I imagine your little faces lighting up at the possibility of a cookie, and then I told you it was going to be a book instead, and you’re all disappointed. In fact, this is all so cruel, I should probably delete it. But I won’t.
Never listen to me.
Anyway, the thing that I have been working on for the past several weeks of the Write-a-thon is: synopses!
A synopsis is something that people expect you to be able to write, if you have a novel to sell. I discovered this after writing a novel and sort of maybe a little bit trying to sell it. But the process was ghastly beyond belief. It seemed impossible to explain what the novel was about in any way that didn’t make all the events sound boring and stupid. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to write 100,000 words, compared to how hard it was to write five pages about those 100,000 words.
The current book gave me the usual fits when I tried to write a synopsis for the original completed draft. But when I wrote the most recent draft, I wrote the synopsis first. I did it that way just to get a sense for whether it would work as a YA novel, and loved the new synopsis so much that I had to write that version of the book.
Even though I’m a natural “pantser” [The Great Debate: Are you a planner or a pantser?] I found that I was able to use the synopsis as a foundation for the novel, even though I have always previously failed to write from an outline.
I think this is because I (perhaps mistakenly) thought outlining was mostly about mapping out the plot. But my synopsis was more about making sure the story hit the right emotional notes, and that it sounded like it would be fun to read. Sure, there’s plot involved, but it’s plot in service to the story. It’s not “this happens, then this happens, then this happens,” which is what my synopses always turned into when I tried to write them for finished work.
And, at the end of it, I felt I had a better novel, and a decent synopsis.
Now I’m a believer. I have vowed NEVER AGAIN to write a whole novel without a decent synopsis in hand.
This recent Slate article [Save the movie!] suggests that an over-reliance on the beat sheet from Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” books is ruining Hollywood movies, but I think it’s completely wrong. The problem with dull blockbusters isn’t that they are following Snyder’s beat sheet — it’s that they aren’t following it.
I admit, when I read the first book, I was a bit skeptical. Sure, the dumb “family comedies” that Snyder was talking about, and that represent what he himself liked to write, follow that formula to the letter — I had observed this ages ago. And I certainly believed he was giving good advice for people seeking to write spec scripts, where we can assume a studio executive will flip to a particular page, hunt for the “correct” element, and toss the script aside if it isn’t found.
But good movies, especially movies in their final form after editing and rewrites, those were surely more varied… weren’t they?
(break for length)
The short of it: I didn’t write any blog posts because I was too busy actually writing. So, in the interest of remaining entertaining, I am posting an essay that I started long, long ago, and somehow lost the first half of. This essay is about the relationship between writing-writing, Goth House, and my submitaphobia.
But I was waiting for something, and in my head I told myself I was waiting for me to write something that didn’t suck, but that’s probably a lie.
When I graduated from college, my thinking was, hey, I’m finally out of school, I don’t have homework, I can just go home from my stupid job that I hate and write fiction and stuff and then I’ll start submitting. Finally. But I wasn’t writing much. I didn’t seem to have a lot of ideas. And I was still at the phase where I thought, you get an idea, then you write it down. So I thought I had writer’s block. Maybe I even did. I do know that I was deeply unhappy for a lot of reasons.
That’s when I started cartooning. I was drawing the genesis of what became Goth House. Cartooning seemed to bypass whatever it was that felt like writer’s block, maybe because I could doodle if I didn’t have any real ideas? I still don’t know.
Over the next bunch of years, I drew Goth House and I wrote fiction, neither one in a particularly disciplined fashion. Goth House appeared in Throwrug and in self-published collections. The fiction — I don’t know, every once in a while I would write a short story that I didn’t hate, send it out a couple of places, fail to get it published, get discouraged, and give up.
Yeah, I gave up really easily. I think it’s that after a couple of rejections (or, let’s be honest, even one rejection) I would stop believing in the story. I would decide that it was an inherently bad story and probably didn’t deserve to be published.
I actually finished a novel. It took about three years. Several people read it and didn’t hate it. So I figured, I’m on the road now, baby! I’m making it happen!
You can probably guess the rest. A couple of rejections and…
Moving right along to 2001 and the Philadelphia Worldcon — during it, somehow I had this magic lightbulb go on in my head that told me I needed to go to Clarion West. I got laid off in late 2001, so applying for the 2002 workshop seemed like perfect timing, like the universe was just falling into place.
But in 2002 I didn’t get in. The universe clearly had it in for me.
For the first half of 2002 I was unemployed, and started doing a lot more work on Goth House. That was when I started the website. I was using gothhouse.org to work on web design and programming techniques, as well as computer art techniques. That was also when I wrote my first story that GOT PUBLISHED SOMEWHERE YAY, largely because Paul, as he puts it, stole it from me and sent it off to Talebones.
I’m on the road now, baby! I’m making it happen!
I was writing more short stories I didn’t hate. (And failing to send most of them anywhere.) But I wasn’t getting anywhere with a follow-up novel. It seemed like I could advance any idea to about 40,000 words and then hit a brick wall. I was starting to feel like the first novel was a trick that I didn’t understand and couldn’t repeat, like hitting a bullseye the first time you throw a dart, then all your other throws go into the ceiling or land in the beer.
I applied for Clarion West again a couple of times. In 2006, I wrote and drew what was, in my opinion, the best combination of Goth House story and artwork to date: Percival and the Brain. Then I got to attend Clarion West (at the last possible minute, which is an interesting story in its own right, to be told here eventually). While I was there, I discovered a curious thing. I had all this unstructured time, and anticipated spending at least some of it cartooning. Drawing about my experiences and so on. But I didn’t.
I discovered that the part of my brain that invents cartoons is mostly the same part of my brain that invents stories.
I guess it shouldn’t have been shocking — cartoons are a narrative visual art, after all. And didn’t I originally start cartooning in order to cope with writer’s block? But I was still surprised by it. It wasn’t a time issue, it was a brainspace issue. In the years since, that has remained true. The more time I spend writing fiction — the more dedicated work I put into it — the less cartooning I get done.
I tried to keep up with the general plan I had for where the Goth House story was going, but I didn’t like any of my artwork and couldn’t seem to get the story to flow visually. My cartooning muse seemed to have deserted me. When I got a new day job, the website really went into a decline.
It would be nice to report that I swapped one muse for another, and maybe I did in a way — I was writing more stories I didn’t hate, and managed to complete a second novel. But I still wasn’t sending out my stuff. I used to think the problem was that I didn’t like my stories, but as I liked my stories more and still wasn’t submitting, I knew that wasn’t the problem. I thought the problem was that I didn’t quite know what to do — where to send it, how that whole publishing thing worked. But as I knew more writers and editors, and had a better grasp of the process, and still wasn’t submitting, I knew that wasn’t the problem.
At some point, I realized the problem was me — my own whacked-out emotional state. I have submitaphobia. I mean, an actual phobia, where I get all heart-racing and sweaty-palm stressed out about the very thought of sending something out. I’m trying to get over it, but it’s hard. Most advice to writers about overcoming submitaphobia boils down to “don’t have it, because it’s stupid.”
Thus ends the original essay. Anyway, on the good news front, I have some insight into the fear, which will be dissected in a future post. I have been considering how to revive the Goth House series, if only to finish out the story already planned. So far, I’m working with the idea of doing a much higher text-to-picture ratio, like The Christmas Truce or Alex in Punditland. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.
As part of my birthday shenanigans, we visited the newly remodeled Sundance Cinema in the U-district. (It used to be the Metro) It is now 21-and-over, and you can get a cheese plate and beer and drink in the theater. Also, reserved seats, and really nice big seats with lots of elbow room between them.
Two thumbs up for the theater, although I imagine it will be a disappointment to 18-20 year old UW students.
We saw The Conjuring. I wanted to love it, I really did. I was promised good, old-fashioned haunted house scares, plus Lili Taylor, in a horror movie with nearly universally good reviews. The early scenes, which featured the creepiest of all creepy dolls (who always follows you…), an engaging early-seventies style, and a likable and natural-feeling family moving into the eerie house (the dog won’t come inside!) kept my expectations high. Then…
Dear Facebook, you are broken. You have frustrated me so much that you have made what is supposed to be a PLEASANT SOCIAL EXPERIENCE (ie people wishing me a happy birthday) into a nightmarish exercise in dysfunctional computer interfaces and annoyance that ELICITED AN ACTUAL PRIMAL SCREAM OF FRUSTRATION. Seriously. My throat hurts now. Facebook, if you were a thing, I would throw you across the room. (I was able to resist the temptation to throw the computer across the room)
On my timeline it tells me that 27 people have wished me a happy birthday. Then it shows me the five or six most recent wishes. Then it says there are “23 more” in a clickable link — which, when I click on that link, shows me only ONE name of somebody else who wrote on my timeline.
I started poking around to try to find out what the bleedin’ ‘ell was going on, and this BLEEPITY BLEEP popup inviting me to “Explore Graph Search” won’t get out of my everlovin’ way. No, Facebook, I do not want to explore graph search. But there is no “get the hell out of my way you stupid popup” button. There is only a “Take Tour” and “remind me later” button.
DO NOT REMIND ME LATER. DO NOT MAKE ME TAKE A TOUR. TELL ME WHY YOU ARE BROKEN AND HOW TO FIX YOU, STUPID STUPID FACEBOOK.
Anyway, the upshot is: I love you guys, and I hate Facebook. So if I fail to acknowledge your birthday greetings, it is because Facebook is broken, and now I’m all stressed out, and possibly the neighbors are calling the cops because they heard the scream and thinks somebody is being axe-murdered. And when the cops show up, I can say: no axe murder, just Facebook. And they will nod in understanding.
If you would like to talk to me on something less broken than Facebook, here are some other places that aren’t Facebook, which is broken.