Thursday, June 15, 2017

So Effing What?

At about this time last year, I went through a marathon X-Files viewing, revisiting the greatest alien-themed love story ever told (and realizing that Fox Mulder is kind of a dick, sadly).

Though I'd never seen it during the original airing, I was delighted to be introduced to the mediocre-yet-hilarious (and very very 90s-rific) episode Syzygy. It's the story of two 17-year-old girls, who for some astrological reason that is never well explained, receive magical murder powers. Also, everyone is really crabby, which leads to one of the greatest moments of bickering between Scully and Mulder.


One of the subplots in that episode revolves around a local pediatrician who is a cross-dresser. The small town becomes convinced that he is behind the murders because he is clearly hiding something, and everyone comes bearing metaphorical pitchforks while he is dressed up.

Watching this episode in the modern era makes the doctor's dilemma seem sadly quaint. So the man enjoys a lovely frock and some lipstick. So what? So What? is a perfectly reasonable reaction in 2017, and even though I know it wasn't back in 1996, I'm still having trouble remembering why.

Had this poor pediatrician been able to So What? about his clothing preferences in the 1990s, no one would have ever suspected him of murder. He could have done rounds in dresses, and helped kids recognize that the pants-are-for-men rule is entirely arbitrary. Being able to say "Yeah, I like taffeta and tulle and sequins and eye shadow. So what?" would have released that poor man from a lifetime of shame and embarrassment. (And yes, I recognize that this pediatrician is entirely fictional and that his lifetime lasted approximately 7 minutes of a 45 minute episode of a show. Nevertheless.)

So, I am a big advocate of doing you, no matter who you are, when it comes to that kind of biggish stuff--and when it's about someone else. For me, getting to the So What? is a little tougher.


Idle Hands


For instance, I have a deep-seated fear that I am lazy. There is a part of me that knows I'd rather sit under a shady tree with a book and a tall glass of lemonade than do anything else, and I'm horrified by that part of me. There are things to do! Items to check off of lists! Productivity to accomplish! And if I'm not productive, then I am a lazy-ass bitch who has not earned her spot on this earth.

There is a big man named Spike on his way to roust me out of bed and force me to be productive. He'll be here any minute now.

Under the sane and relatively normal surface that I present to the world, there roils a belief that my only real worth is tied to my ability to get shit done.

Of course, I didn't invent this weird-ass belief. After all, how many times have we all uttered the phrase "productive member of society"? I just perfected the neurotic reaction that dictates no matter how much I manage to do each day, I go to bed at night fearing that the time I spent on Facebook or the nap that I took somehow subtracts from my overall worthiness as a human being. Because that's a rational response.

But here's the thing: being able to proudly admit that I'm a lazy-ass bitch who would rather sit under a shady tree than *do* shit helps negate that shame. It makes me realize I get one go around in this world, and if I want to spend my time snoozing on a blanket under fluffy white clouds or under a blanket while accompanied by a fluffy white-and-gray cat, that is my choice to make.

I've been working on proudly wearing my laziness on my sleeve. It's an uphill battle, but realizing that I can be who I am--even if who I am is a lazy bitch who really will do nothing today, thanks--is pretty awesome. It helps take the sting out of anyone who tries to call me lazy, even that bitch of a taskmaster who lives in my head.

I'm lazy. So What?


Book Shame, I Hardly Knew Ye!


Of course, rooting out any kind of shame is tough, especially when you don't even realize the sensation you are feeling is shame.

I have long lamented my reading tastes in my formative years. Why did I waste my time reading (and rereading and rerereading and rererereading) Barbara Michaels and Elizabeth Peters and Susan Isaacs and Alisa Craig and Charlotte MacLeod and Mercedes Lackey and Minette Walters when I could have been filling my impressionable head with really good writers. If I'd been consuming "good' literature then, I'd be writing "good" literature now, instead of having stalled on a writing a romantic thriller for the past nine years that I can't seem to bring home, in part because I'm ashamed of it.

It suddenly hit me this week how very ashamed I am of my literary tastes. That bitch of a taskmaster in my head is apparently not just mistress of impossible to do lists--she is also arbiter of literary worth. She has me convinced that there was some sort of bright and immutable line separating "good" literature from "bad" literature and that I was doing nothing more than indulging my baser self by staying on the wrong side of the line.

WTF?

No, seriously, WTF, taskmaster bitch? I can't like shit that I like?


The Divine Ms. Barbara Mertz

Image courtesy of NYT
My book shame realization came to a head this past week as I was considering the long career of Ms. Barbara Mertz, aka Barbara Michaels, aka Elizabeth Peters. Between 1967 and 1987, Ms. Mertz wrote two books a year, a pace that only slowed down slightly through the 1990s and 2000s, until her death in 2013.

All told, she wrote nearly 80 books of romantic (and sometimes slightly paranormal) suspense, and I believe I have read every single one of them. After reading Crocodile on the Sandbank when I was about 13, I was hooked, and I would borrow one or two of her books from the library just about every weekend until I finished her oeuvre and started over again with the stuff I liked best.

Her heroines are funny and smart and really well educated and her heroes are funny and kind of arrogant and also remarkably well educated. Her books are painstakingly well researched, and I know what I know about subjects as varied as the gold of Troy to vintage rose gardening to designer jewelry to seances to Egyptology to pre-historic American history to Ozark magic to country music because of her. She loved animals and included cats or dogs in most of the books. Nearly every one of her novels ended with a young couple in love.

Ms. Mertz is probably my biggest literary influence.

(I actually had to take a deep breath before writing that.)

I love her books and they have shaped how I think about stories, and I've been pushing that away for a long time. The novel I've been trying (unsuccessfully) to write since 2009 is very much influenced by her books (Into the Darkness in particular)--which means I'm probably going to have a much easier time of things if I recognize and embrace my love for her books rather than run away from it.

So, here it is:

I like to read and write well-researched romantic suspense novels.

So. Effing. What?


Now, was that so hard?

If you'll excuse me, I need to go sit under a tree with a glass of lemonade and a Barbara Michaels novel.

(And taskmaster bitch, you'll kindly have a seat and keep your damn mouth shut.)

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

13 Minutes to Midnight on September 13

2016 (And no, I don't know why he is sleeping on the floor)
2015
2014
2013

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Friday, May 27, 2016

Gillian Anderson as Bond Is Just Like Heaven

Earlier this week, fans jumped on the idea of casting Gillian Anderson as the next Bond. Whether she would be Jane Bond, Dana Bond (my personal suggestion as a nice hat tip to the series that made her a star), or James Bond, since the only reason James is a masculine name is because we have decided it is so, I have never been so excited about a pop culture rumor in my life.

Just considering Ms. Anderson for the role has seemed to turn the world on its side, only to reveal that the world itself is bigger and more beautiful and far far more exciting than the upright version I've been living in for 37 years. This is the feminist sea change I've been waiting for.

Is Bond "Quintessentially Male?"


Last night, I was unable to sleep because someone was wrong on the internet

I had expressed my delight about the Gillian Anderson Bond rumor on Reel Girl's Facebook page, where people come to talk about gender equality in the fantasy world. More than one person suggested that writing a new story/franchise about a female spy played by Gillian Anderson or Priyanka Chopra would make more sense, since James Bond is quintessentially male

When I responded that James Bond is anything we want the character to be because that's how fiction works, another commenter stated that changing Bond's gender would be taking away the fundamental characteristics that makes James Bond James Bond. She likened it to changing Superman's origin so that he no longer came from Krypton, and was simply a hard working reporter, or making Dr. Who an accountant instead of a Time Lord.

But why is Bond's gender identity or genitalia one of the character's defining characteristics, like Superman's Kryptonian origins or Dr. Who's powers? 

As I see it, these are the things that define Bond:
  • International espionage
  • Loyalty to Britain
  • A casual attitude toward sex
  • Ruthlessness and aggression
  • A license to kill
  • Bad puns
  • Martinis
  • Gadgets and cars
Not a single one of these characteristics is quintessentially male. Though Bond's sexual attitudes have been incredibly misogynistic in nature since the character's creation, that does not change the fact that they reflect Ian Fleming's (and possibly Albert Broccoli's) discomfort with casual sex and with women far more than they reflect some intransigent property of the character. Bond already has changed a great deal in that regard, considering the fact that audiences in 2016 will no longer accept a lesbian character named Pussy Galore who "turns straight" after a literal roll in the hay with Bond.

Bond's quintessential maleness in many people's minds (including my own mind, had Anderson's casting been a suggestion made back in the 1990s) shows how sexist WE are. We cannot imagine a woman who is devastatingly competent, has casual sex, and is willing to kill and torture while throwing off smug one-liners. We cannot imagine it not because a woman cannot do this, but because we have internalized the idea that the world will not allow it.

A New World Is Not Enough

So why not leave the Bond franchise alone and create a female spy who kicks ass, takes lovers, and generally makes the world a more badass place?

Honestly, I would happily watch that movie and probably buy the Blu-Ray. But it's not enough. Because creating a new character who we have decided ahead of time is female means that many of our assumptions about women and men will be baked right into the story.

If we create this female spy character, then perhaps her badassity will stem from the fact that she was raped. Or she will be fighting sexism and glass ceilings left and right so that the story feels more "realistic." Ultimately, writing a new female character means that we will start the exercise with all of the same old assumptions we already have. It will be a small step in the right direction, but casting Gillian Anderson as Bond, the Bond, the shaken-not-stirred badass spy we already know will overturn the world and change everything.

I truly believe that we need stories about badass women that are rooted in our current world. I loved the HELL out of Mad Max: Fury Road, and it is based on many of the above assumptions--rape as backstory, fear of men as the source of anger/courage, and the reality of sexism and the loss of sexual agency. It is an important story (with guitar flamethrowers) that was told well and that makes my heart sing--but it still does not provide us with a world free of our assumptions.

But I need, and my boys need, and we ALL need to see stories that throw out all of our assumptions about gender (and race and age and beauty and any number of other harmful assumptions). That's the only way to make the world open up to us.

The best and most efficient way to throw out those assumptions is to begin gender-blind/race-blind/assumption-blind casting of iconic characters. Creating a new world for a female spy to inhabit will not do it.

Further Up and Further In

The only way to describe the feeling of lightness and freedom I experienced when hearing this rumor about Gillian Anderson is to turn to another British author.

In C.S. Lewis's final Narnia book, The Last Battle, Narnia is destroyed, only for Aslan to show the characters that the real Narnia is still very much there, and it is much bigger and grander and deeper than the Narnia they knew and loved:
The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more. I can’t describe it any better than that: if you ever get there you will know what I mean.
It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right forehoof on the ground and neighed, and then cried:
“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia is that it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in!
(Considering the fact that C.S. Lewis's Narnia/heaven was closed off to poor Susan for committing the awful crime of caring about lipstick and boys, I can't imagine he would be pleased at my comparison. Perhaps if we could figure out a way to harness the energy, the UK could solve the energy crisis through the power of Ian Fleming and C.S. Lewis spinning in their graves).

Casting Gillian Anderson or another incredible British actress in the part of James Bond makes me feel as though the world has opened up, revealing a larger, more complex, more beautiful, and freer place than the one I have lived in so far. I want that world for my boys and myself, and I'm greedy. I don't want to get there in small incremental steps, but in a giant upending of the world--an upending that popular culture can provide for us.

There is so much to explore further up and further in, and I don't want to wait another minute to get there.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Structure of Insomnia

There are four acts to a sleepless night.

During Act I, you still feel a sense of calm and optimism. Sure, you have not been able to fall asleep in your first 10, 20, 45, 90 minutes of lying in bed, staring at your ceiling fan as it squeaks through its endless air-stirring repetitions. But the night is long, and your rest will come. You know you can still sleep well and awake refreshed with your alarm.

Act II begins with a snack. It can seem incredible to you that your body would initiate the hunger sequence at a time when you would normally be sleeping the sleep of the weary and just. But since you're up, you figure you might as well explore the cookie jar or see if that chicken is as good cold as it was for dinner.

The intermission is actually quite lovely. Sated from your midnight snack, you have a moment to enjoy the fact that nothing but you and the night bugs are awake. It is as if you are the only inhabitant of a strange planet called night, and you revel in the solitude. There are no ringing phones, no crying children--nothing to spoil the beauty of your sleeplessness.

Act III is when the cursing begins. Shit! Shit! Shit! you whisper/shout at yourself, as if you can yell yourself to rest and achieve sleep through overwhelmed and frustrated anger. The fact that you must be quiet to avoid disturbing anyone else in the house while hollering at your stupid, wakeful brain only adds to the misery of this portion of the evening's entertainment.

Now is the time to count all of the deadlines and appointments you will miss in the coming day and rail against the unfairness of your insomnia. If you're the crying type, your tears will fall hot and fast and desperate as you plead for the Sandman to come visit you in time to save the next day from the jaws of unproductivity.

Finally, Act IV finds you settling in front of the television set, accepting your wakeful fate. Your face may still be tearstained, but on the bright side, when else will you catch up on those F Troop reruns or learn an amazing new way to earn passive income with only a $600 initial investment?

As the sun rises the next morning, you realize you have reached the other side of night, still wakeful. You are alone, the solitary inhabitant of night who can handle no more than a touristy visit to the day.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Passover, Prince, and Immortality

By Scott Penner (Flickr: Prince) via Wikimedia Commons
We lost another immortal yesterday. Another icon of my MTV childhood gone far too soon. He joins Bowie in making 2016 a damn hard year for music.

Prince died the day before Passover begins, which strikes me and my weird thought processes as important. I was just telling my rabbi the other day that I consider the Passover seder to be a kind of time travel. During the seder, it is stressed over and over again that each of us Jews were there in Egypt:
We were once the slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, and our Eternal G-d brought us out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm.
We even tell our questioning children that we do all we do during the seder and during this season "because of what G-d did for me when I came out of Egypt."

We also end each Passover seder by proclaiming "Next year in Jerusalem!" It is our yearly reminder that next year's seder is already linked to this year's and last year's and all that came before. Each seder is a link in a millennium-spanning chain of history, that stretches long before I or my mother or my grandmother or my ancestors-lost-to-history were born, and long after my great-great-great grandchildren will pass away.

Each spring, I become my ancestor who followed Moses out of Egypt, as well as my offspring who will tell my child's child's child what happened in Egypt so long ago. Taking part in the Passover seder each year helps to cement my own immortality by continuing the retelling of this important story.

By Arthur Szyk (1894-1951), via Wikimedia Commons

Prince did not share my faith, and I have no idea if he ever sat down to a Passover seder or even enjoyed a bowl of Bubbie's matzah ball soup. But his life and his music embodied the lessons I take from Passover.

First, Prince has achieved immortality through his art in much the same way that the seder offers immortality to those who retell the story of Passover.

Listening to Purple Rain or 1999 or Raspberry Beret or Little Red Corvette or Nothing Compares 2 U or Let's Go Crazy evokes a time and place in Prince's life and the lives of his fans and the lives of those who come after who discover his genius and the lives of the artists who influenced Prince and the lives of those artists who have been and will be influenced by Prince.

The music and the story it tells is a pebble dropped in the water of history, rippling out into forever, just as the hurry to make portable snacks for a trek through the desert continues to ripple through my own life and the lives of every Jew each spring.

By Center for Jewish History, NYC, via Wikimedia Commons

And then, of course, there was the way that Prince freed himself from expectations in every area of his life.

Passover is a holiday all about claiming freedom. Matzah is both the bitter bread of affliction and the sweet taste of freedom. Enjoying matzah is a way of rubbing the Pharaoh's nose in our liberty. "How you like them apples?" is what each crunchy bite of matzah seems to say, because we may have nothing but flour and water to use to make our food, but damn if that plain food doesn't taste good as we are heading to a new life of sweet freedom.

Prince's refusal to be bounded by the conventions of our society is a similar nose-rubbing. I suspect that he, like David Bowie, had to deal with violent pushback at points in his career because of his unconventional and idiosyncratic fashion, his gender-bending, his unapologetic sexuality, and his refusal to be labeled. But being completely himself despite the constrictive expectations of society must have tasted so incredibly sweet, despite the pushback.

May we all embrace such freedom to be ourselves.


J and I are in the midst of moving stress this Passover. We forgot to RSVP to our synagogue's congregational seder. I have not bought a single box of matzah, nor have I worked to clean out the chametz in our kitchen. We considered just skipping Pesach altogether this year.

But then an immortal died. And I was reminded that it is my job to teach my children that they were there when G-d brought us out of Egypt with a strong hand and outstretched arms and with signs and wonders. Telling the story of our exodus helps to cement my sons' immortality, another link in their chain to history and future, and I can't let them down.

So, we will give LO and BB a seder this year, moving stress be damned. I want them to remember that the freedom of being themselves both tastes sweet and promises a kind of immortality, no matter what kind of violent pushback they may face.

Mourning Prince (and David Bowie all over again) is mourning the death of those who can show us the way. But they will never truly be gone, just as the story of my ancestors' escape from Egypt will never finish being told.

That's because they, too, left us with signs and wonders.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Opus and the Great Green Room

LO and BB tend to cycle through favorite books. For a long while, LO requested Katy and the Big Snow every night. Some weeks, it's The Cat in the Hat. For an interminable several months, BB wanted only the inane Thomas the Tank Engine books.

But over and over again, both LO and BB return to Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, with pictures by Clement Hurd.

Before he died, my father and stepmother recorded themselves reading Goodnight Moon to LO, and it is the kids' preferred method of hearing about all of the items in the great green room. (Some of that preference might be because of the button they can push that invites them to re-record the story by moving the switch to the unlock position, which only occasionally gives me a heart attack at the prospect of losing Dad's recorded voice.)

But like generations of children before them, the boys love reading about the red balloon, the kittens, the mittens, the little toy house, the young mouse, the bowl of mush, and the little old lady whispering, "Hush."

On the day before Dad died, J, LO and I camped out in his hospital room, along with Dad's best friends and my devastated stepmother. We had brought board books along with us to read to LO, including our (non-pre-recorded) Goodnight Moon book. We read it to LO several times during that afternoon.

When we buried Dad three days later, his dear friend Kate read this poem she wrote, which was inspired by Goodnight Moon and our repeated readings of it to LO at my father's bedside:

Jim and Good Night Moon
April 7. 2013

Good night room. Good night moon.
Good night cow jumping over the moon.
Good night light and the red balloon.

Good night Broker. Good night Friend. Good night Brother…this is not the end.
Good night Grandpa. Good night Dad. Good night Husband…our hearts are so sad.
Good night Buddhas. Good night Beer. Good night Barn Pictures; all things you held dear.

Good night Room. Good night Moon.
Good night dear Jim. This was much too soon.

Good Night All. There is too much to say.
Safe Journey, friend Jim. Help Guide our way.


I don't remember reading Goodnight Moon as a child, but it is now inextricably linked to my parenthood and my father.

This morning, the connection deepened again. Berke Breathed's 2015 revival of Bloom County--which I SO wish I could discuss with my Opus-loving, Bill the Cat-voting dad--has introduced everyone's favorite penguin to a new line of work: as a support animal. November 20th's strip finds Opus reading a (somewhat edited) Goodnight Moon to a sick kid in the hospital.

It's hard to know how I feel about this. I was amused by the cow's big fat tush, and I love the kid's puzzled reaction to Opus's revision. Seeing Goodnight Moon read in a hospital setting (fictional though it may be) brought tears to my eyes. Re-reading Kate's beautiful farewell to my father makes April 5, 2013 feel like today. Knowing my sons will know their Grandpa Jim through his voice whispering, "hush" is bittersweet at best.

But with the week's horrors still fresh in my mind, I am so grateful for the gentle pleasures of a support penguin, a great green room at twilight, and my father's familiar voice.



Perhaps we can go home again, if only to say goodnight.