Sunday, October 27, 2013

Tai Lung is the World's Most Tragic Villain

If you're unfamiliar with the 2008 Dreamworks movie Kung Fu Panda, it is basically the world's most conventional believe-in-yourself, defy-convention, pursue-your-dreams movie. Po is a fat panda who dreams of becoming a kung fu master, and through a series of unlikely events, gets to do so. The movie beats on you and beats into you that self-confidence and willpower can overcome anything... that is, if you're the hero of the piece. If you're Tai Lung, you get to be utterly betrayed by every principle the movie espouses.

Quick background: Tai Lung is the adopted son of Master Shifu, who took him in and taught him kung fu. Tai Lung was a fantastically talented martial artist, and Shifu raised him and trained him to dream of becoming the Dragon Warrior, which one can only do by reading the Dragon Scroll. But Oogway, Shifu's master, told Tai Lung that he was unfit to read the Dragon Scroll, because there was darkness in his spirit. Enraged, Tai Lung went away and wreaked terror on the surrounding towns, until Oogway defeated and imprisoned him. Tai Lung comes back again in the movie to claim the Dragon Scroll, only to be defeated by Po.

Now (spoiler alert), there's nothing written on the Dragon Scroll. It's a mirror. You look in it and see yourself, that is, a reminder of the limitless potential that only you can achieve. Only one person knows that, however, until the scroll is revealed late in the movie. Even Shifu did not know what was inside the scroll, but it seems fair to assume that Oogway would have--he invented kung fu, after all, and he was the arbiter of whether people were ready to see what was inside. So when Oogway told Tai Lung that he was not worthy to look upon the scroll, he was knowingly saying that he was unworthy of the power of self-belief. He had no right to self-confidence. Oogway was telling Tai Lung, albeit indirectly, that his entire personality was irredeemably awful.

It gets worse. We learn in the movie that Shifu was chiefly responsible for Tai Lung's rampages. He was the one who trained him, after all, and he was the one who raised Shifu to dream of the Dragon Warrior's power. But it was exactly that desire for power that caused Oogway to reject Tai Lung. That was the darkness inside him that Oogway rejected. Between the two of them, these two kung fu masters--the elders he respected, the surrogate father he adored, the holder of all kung fu wisdom that Tai Lung must have idolized--raised Tai Lung to be ambitious and angry, and then cast him out and eventually imprisoned him because he had those emotions.

Now, Po is an entirely different sort of student from Tai Lung. He doesn't want to be the Dragon Warrior, just to be good at kung fu; he has little natural ability unless he's trained in a blazingly unconventional way, and by embracing his slapstick, ass-backwards, weirdo talent for the discipline, he is eventually deemed worthy of the power of self-belief. But before Po vanquishes Tai Lung, a returned Tai Lung beats up Shifu, screaming "All I ever did, I did to make you proud! Tell me how proud you are!". Shifu, who has been unable to achieve inner peace and who has been an emotionally stunted hermit for years because of his lingering guilt over Tai Lung's banishment, apologizes to him for the wrongs he's done, and Tai Lung snarls "I don't want your apology. I want my scroll". (Remember, Tai Lung thinks it's a gateway to limitless power, not a self-help book.) Po shows up, defeats Tai Lung, and the movie ends with Shifu achieving inner peace.

One would think that the only possible moment in the final Tai Lung-Shifu encounter (since most of it is spent beating each other up, or with Tai Lung speaking aloud every single thing Shifu's probably been torturing himself with over the years) from which Shifu could have achieved inner peace, is from Tai Lung rejecting Shifu when he tried to apologize. I think that in the mind of Shifu, this is when he can officially discharge responsibility for Tai Lung's crippled life. That's when he goes from wronged son to murderous tyrant, and when Po dispatches him, Shifu can be free. All that guilt and all that shame is just magically wiped out in one moment of catharsis. And when Tai Lung is defeated and banished, dead for all we know, Shifu can be at peace because that worry is out of his life. He doesn't feel sorry for his dead son, or guilty about the path he made him take, anymore. He's at peace.

Coda: Yes, Tai Lung is not an innocent victim in this story. He chooses to go on a rampage after being denied the scroll. He chooses to turn down the apology and beat up Shifu, and to go after Po even after the secret has been revealed. He is an actor that makes his own choices and decisions, but the entire reason for his villainy is because his teachers and his parent set him on a path towards it. That's the tragedy for me in this story.

Monday, October 14, 2013


I'm really not sure I understand the logic behind passing bills that fund chunks of the government during the shutdown. Oh? You're disturbed that things we consider necessary to the continued, smooth functioning of the country are no longer operational? Perhaps you should've thought of that before you shut down the government. The only good thing about the current lack of funding for things like cancer research and border security (that both sides unequivocally want) is that while they're offline, there's an incentive to negotiate a deal that gets the whole government back online. If I'm one of the farther-right House Republicans and the President magically signs all my piecemeal bills into law and funds the parts of the government that I consider vital, why would I ever vote for the government to reopen as usual ever again? I've got what I want. This is the kind of thing that people who shut down the government to try and force the President to roll back his signature legislative accomplishment might actually think. Therefore, the President is never going to go along with the one-bill-at-a-time thing for anything other than the most immediately necessary, or politically damaging, pieces. Therefore, I (as a far-right House Republican) should spend my time working out a deal for the government to reopen fully, not passing piecemeal funding bills that I know damn well are not becoming law.

The counterargument is that House Reps should spend their time passing things that will make the President look awful for vetoing, or the Senate look awful for blocking, and thereby gain some credibility and/or political capital. This is a stupid counterargument because 1) they shut down the damn government, an act which at least two-thirds of the country blames them for, and 2) because that's exactly the kind of unforgivably shortsighted, stupid politics that gets us into this mess. It's not about winning. It's not about making the other guy look awful so the voters choose you because you haven't screwed them over in the past week or so. It's about GOOD GOVERNANCE. You win by governing the country more efficiently and cheaply and providing a better product then the other guys. That is how you win, in which case, the country wins. Try to make the other side look awful with every. single. little. thing. you. do. and where are we? Two political parties that hate each others' holy guts and won't voluntarily work together on the basic business of the country. Is there anything more fundamentally necessary to the basic functioning of the United States then the assurance that it will not default on its debts? Could there possibly be anything, other than protecting us all from military defeat, that you would think would warrant more automatic cooperation for the greater benefit of the country? I can't think of any. It's absurd to me that this is even in question. Yes, okay, I get that we're spending far too much money on entitlements and that the defense budget has been too high for a decade, but these are debts that we have already incurred. They are coming due on Thursday. Can you think of anything more economically damaging, besides the shutdown itself or some kind of complete embargo against us, then telling every creditor the US has and every country that might lend us money in the future that we're not good for it? And to do that when we don't have to, at the behest of one half of one branch of government, is like committing seppuku for no damn reason.

I read articles all the time that go into excruciating detail about the problems that this country is facing, and it's not all just doomsaying jeremiads. Much of our infrastructure was built fifty years ago and we've done little at the federal level to overhaul it. Our health care system charges outrageous prices for basic supplies; care is amazingly expensive because nobody's told the hospitals they can't mark up supplies by hundreds of percentage points over the Medicaid price, and people who need medical care RIGHT NOW are in no position to complain about it or to demand a lower price. Our education system is awful and standardized tests might be making it worse. The national security apparatus that we funded and built is harassing American citizens at the borders, has killed Americans without trial abroad, and pushes the limits of its authority to spy on us every way they legally can. We somewhere along the line decided that money was equivalent to speech, which allows the very rich to have way, way too much influence on our elections (It also turns out that the much-ballyhooed 1% do actually have most of of American wealth). Our political campaigns take way too long and are unfathomably expensive, our districts are gerrymandered, and we're racking up hideous amounts of debt thanks to our entitlement programs and war spending. And let's not even talk about climate change. We have all these big, systemic problems that no single entity except the federal government really has the power to fix...

And what is our government doing?

Making problems for itself, trying and failing to fix the problems that it created, and then subsequently making things worse.

We spend all our time fighting each other on the debt limit, on the budget, on all things related to money. When we look away for a moment and stop gnawing each other raw, it's because some other huge issue--Sandy Hook, Syria--came up that captured our attention and couldn't be ignored. I ask you, regardless of politics: if a madman shoots up a school and kills twenty children and their teachers, and we can't even agree afterwards that we need to be better at making sure that mentally ill people don't get firearms, what can we agree on? We fight and we claw and we beat each other bloody and nothing gets done in the end, and when we're done doing nothing on that issue, we get back to doing nothing on the debt.

There was a Boston Globe story a few months ago that summed up, to me, everything that is wrong with our political system. When freshman Democratic House members arrived at their orientation for the 113th Congress, the DCCC told them they were expected to spend four hours a day calling their constituents and asking for money.

Four hours!

Four hours spent in a cramped little cubicle in their party's headquarters, across the street from the Capitol, calling voters and wheedling for dollars. Four hours of fluorescent lights and five-minute breaks and dialing name after name after name after name after name. Four hours of being constantly reminded, with every little thing you do, that you have to raise this money or go home in two years. Every day. At mealtimes, you eat with potential donors. On the weekends, you fly back to your district and beg for money at fundraisers. The Globe interviewed one Republican Congressman who hasn't even rented an apartment in D.C. because he's begging in his district so often. He sleeps on the couch in his office, every night.

Is it any wonder that we're so partisan? Is it any wonder that, with precious few exceptions, everyone in Congress is making every decision with an eye to their next election?

Why wouldn't they?

How could we reasonably expect even the best of them to look beyond it? How could we expect any of these men and women to make decisions that aren't in their own best interest, but might be in the country's? They either raise the money and follow their party or they're done. There's no room anymore for mavericks.

Every young, idealistic freshman Representative or newly minted Senator goes to Washington thinking they can change everything. Those four hours a day are why they cannot.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Five Drastic Ways to Make Doctor Who Better

Thesis: Doctor Who is less exciting and enjoyable when the Doctor wins every single one of his battles, and when it isn't all about him. To make the show more dramatically compelling and less character-centric, he needs to lose occasionally. (And other stories.)

Solution #1: Blow up the Earth.

I've written before about the problem of stakes in Doctor Who. It's almost a given in new-Who that during garden-variety crises, somebody will be about to conquer or destroy the Earth; during season finales, it's the universe, or all of time and space, or whatever clever-sounding sobriquet the writers have thought up for today. This is supposed to add drama by raising the stakes, but it really lessens it because there's no way the Doctor is going to lose when there's so much to play for!

That's why Steven Moffat should actually blow up the Earth. Do it in the first episode of a season, do it in the last, in the middle, I don't care. Make us think it's another ho-hum alien invasion, like the attack of the Sontarans or the Silent Invasion, when everything looks bad but the Doctor finds the aliens' one secret weakness at the last moment... and then have the Doctor fail. Let the Earth actually be destroyed. And sit back and bask in the astounded screams of the faithful.

Think about the narrative possibilities this would open. Why did it happen? Who blew up the Earth, and how? What about the Companions' families back on the world—they'd actually have to work through a significant loss that can't be timed away. What about a permanent change in the Doctor's character that isn't gone before the next episode begins, when he's actually reminded that he's not infallible? And don't tell me it would take away from possibilities, either; just go to Earth's past, or another galaxy, or anywhere at all. Blowing up Earth would completely change the show in one episode and usher in a new era of Doctor Who—different, scary, better.

Solution #2: Change the Doctor's motivations.

No matter what the villain is, when the Doctor is pleading with the Monster of the Day not to destroy Earth (right before he blows them directly to hell, do not collect $200), he invariably throws in a line about the potential of humanity and our deep character flaws, yes, but also our essential goodness. It's pretty much the same from villain to villain, and it's always felt sort of tacked-on haphazardly. For example, while it may have been true of Tennant, it's hard to imagine Eccleston or Smith actually caring about the people of Earth. It's just not in their characters. Eccleston was an embittered veteran who was driven by grief and guilt, and Smith is a happy-go-lucky mad scientist cowboy who wants to explore. It just doesn't fit with those personalities.

Making the Doctor an asshole has been tried before, with the Sixth Doctor, with disastrous and stupid results. Don't do that. Just make him a guy who cares about winning, not saving lives. He can still defend humanity and defeat villains, but he does it because he wants to prove he's better than anyone else, not because he's got a thing for humanity. It would turn a character anachronism into a strength that could turn into stronger Companion-Doctor relationships, character development episodes, you name it.

Solution #3: Give the Doctor a foe worthy of him.

Like I said above, the Doctor has to lose occasionally. Thinking back throughout all of modern Who, I count really one time where the Doctor loses. “Midnight”, which also happens to be my favorite Who episode, is a terrific deconstruction of the Doctor's motivations, behavior, flaws and purpose that ends with him being utterly defeated by a monster uniquely capable of neutralizing his greatest weapons. It's a glorious, thrilling, terrifying episode, and it's also the only one of its kind. The Doctor winning all the time is boring. We expect that he's going to solve the mystery, defeat the villains, and set things to rights (perhaps with some collateral damage along the way, but most of the people usually live). Wouldn't it be more exciting if, rather than just magically winning every single battle, the Doctor fought a foe that was actually a challenge?

A revived Master would be a great foil for the Doctor, but he needs to win sometimes. A few months ago I was shocked to read a list of the worst Doctor Who villains that prominently included the Daleks. They're great enemies! They're iconic, implacable, devious and crazy! What's wrong with that? Well, they appear more frequently than any other foe, and therefore they've been defeated more times than anyone else, to the point where they're not even a thing worth fearing anymore. Want to put some punch back in the Daleks' step? Have them overrun a human colony on some desolate moon that the Doctor can't save. Show them breaking free from Skaro, fighting dissension in their ranks, killing people by accident in their new Doctor-less confusion. You could think of a million ways to make the Doctor's villains better, and most of them start with letting them win once in awhile.

Solution #4: Build a universe around the Doctor. Have recurring characters.

We're in the early stages of this one actually happening, but we need to go further. Part of the show's charm is its ability to go off and do a completely different thing with completely different people every single week if the writers want, and I'm not suggesting that that be taken away entirely. But the Doctor needs an establishment. Like it or not, there is only so much you can do with the Doctor, a couple of Companions, and a few family members back on Earth we see once or twice a season. The Victorian England bunch is a great start, but here's why it needs to go further.

Doctor Who would be better if it was a little more grounded. I get that it's a vehicle for science-magic-y stuff, and that the changes from week to week in era and technology and enemy mean that the writers can put basically any damn thing they want and get away with it. But you get to a point where all the threats out there and all the different technologies and time periods just get kind of overwhelming. Nothing really registers because anything is possible, and therefore we're not surprised or impressed when we see anything. One really good way to draw people into a TV show is by breaking your own rules (judiciously), but Doctor Who doesn't have many to break.

And plus, it'd just be better. Think about, say, “A Good Man Goes To War”. This goes along with #3, but the schmucks that he defeated that day—who were they? Did we ever hear of General Runaway again, or the headless monks or anyone else? Did it feel like he'd really expended any real effort to defeat this massive coalition drawn together from across time and space to stop him? Nobody, no and no! Wouldn't it have been better if we'd spent a while getting to know these people, establishing how good they are and how determined they are to defeat the Doctor, and then have the Doctor beat them anyway? That, at least to me, beats seven kinds of hell out of a bunch of khaki-clad nobodies who are less interesting than almost any other monster of the week. Give me background, and I'll give you a better show.

5. Solution #5: Everything so far leads to a more story-focused show, which has less character focus. That is a good thing. Do that.

Doctor Who, for the last few years, has been all about the characters. The overall storylines to each season are hiding behind the scenes (Bad Wolf, vanishing planets), unexplained until the end of the year (cracks in the walls) or what have you. The characters are what we see, what we fall in love (or hate) with, what absolutely drives the show. The plotlines, a.k.a. “What the hell is Moffat thinking?” are always a source of interest and debate, but the characters come first. And sometimes, they just suck.

There's no way to say this without coming off as an opinionated ass, but I've never had a problem with that before. River Song is not a compelling character to watch, in my opinion. Neither is Amy Pond. I don't like their acting, I don't like the way they're written, I think they're generally unexciting. Not bad, not good, just mediocre. But we're stuck with them for multiple seasons because the show is about watching the characters interact in weird situations, not watching characters play through a story arc. To put it another way, very few things influence the characters' (Doctor and Companions') decisions outside of the needs of the moment. There's no overarching plot that governs a season, and there should be.

It doesn't mean the end of character-centric play, either. Look at shows like Lost or Battlestar Galactica, which balanced excellent characterization with a general sense of where the story was going. Yeah, they could be tangled and convoluted, but they also had a general direction they were going in. Doctor Who could benefit from that. It would give the characters room to grow and develop in directions determined by the storyline, rather than fumble along from standalone episode to standalone episode all the time. (One thing I've noted for years is that any change or growth in the Doctor's character in particular usually lasts until the end of the episode, no longer. They rarely reference previous episodes by name, and rarer still by their behavior. This isn't a good thing.)

So what's my vision for Doctor Who? It's bold. It's unafraid to mess with your head. It builds a universe for the Doctor, gives him enemies to fight, establishes that he isn't invincible and in so doing, makes him more relatable. And it pumps up the stories, which despite Moffat's brilliance and incorrigible scheming, have been the weakest part of Doctor Who for a good long time. 

Friday, September 13, 2013

God of Ice, God of Fire (Game of Thrones)

I was thinking, on my way to work, about what Melisandre said about there being only two gods (in Book/Season 3). Instead of the Seven and the heart tree gods and the Drowned God and Tyrion’s god of tits and wine, she says there’s only two: the god of fire and the god of ice. Neither are particularly nice gods, but if you have to back one, you’re going to pick the god that allows people to live over the god whose servants kill and revive everybody to fight in their army, and probably wants to cover the whole world in ice because that’s just how those sorts of gods normally do.

Bolstering Melisandre’s claim, besides the fact that the Others exist and reanimate people, is her magic. We have seen the red priests do things that no other religion in Westeros has even come close to matching. They see the future in the flames (supposedly), they spawn shadow-babies (assuredly) and raise people from the dead (repeatedly). And there’s this interesting idea in this universe that their magic is of a particular kind, that asks the victim—not so much the user—to pay a part of his or her life as price. Melisandre gives up the baby, literally, but she’s otherwise unaffected; Stannis, whose life force she drew on twice, is guttered like a candle. He’s permanently depressed now. And Beric spoke of how it feels to come back each time—he loses a part of himself. We didn’t see him before, so it’s hard to really say, but I’m prepared to take his word for it. R’hllor’s magic is all about drawing from somebody to create these miracles.

And yet those are the key words: magic and miracles. Because if we’re taking these incredible events as substantiation for Melisandre’s claims, then we also have to ask: what about all the other spooky things we’ve seen happening around Westeros and Esteros lately? The lamb people reviving Drogo at the cost of Daenerys’s baby. The warlocks who conjure chains from thin air and live forever. Jaqen H’Gar changing his face. These are clearly magic, and there’s no visible connection to the fire god. So how do we know who to believe? If a red priest and a warlock had a chat, the priest might say “Here’s how it is. Your magic comes from the existence of the dragons. Dragons are creatures of fire, and their emergence into the world at this time when the great war is coming is clearly not a coincidence. They were brought here by R’hllor to fight the cold god. Your power comes from them, even if you got burned by them that time, which makes you servants of the Lord of Light.” And the warlock might say “No, no, you’ve got it all backwards. You couldn’t do any of this shit until the dragons came into the world, could you? They are the true source of all magic, fire and not-fire. Their presence is what allows you to perform your little rituals, and your red god is just another god.”

Who’s to say which is right? There is corroborating evidence for the priest’s point, which is that no other Westerosi religion has yet performed a verifiable miracle. Things like Cat praying for Jon to die and him getting sick and then her reversing course and praying for him to live and Jon subsequently surviving are great stories, but a skeptical nonbeliever would certainly wave them off as coincidence. But whether the red priests’ acts come from R’hllor or from the dragons is to explain them as a miracle or as magic, and that brings to mind some cool historical comparisons.

As best I understand it, in the Christian religion, the miracles of Jesus are not considered magic. Multiplying the loaves and fishes, healing the sick, rising from the dead, etc. are the power of God working through Jesus, not some warlock casting a spell. They’re divinely ordained events that occur because God wants to manifest his power in a way we can understand, and they come directly from Him. Magic, on the other hand, is drawn from other sources; Satan is the most recent, but before he was a thing, Christianity was trying to outshout the pre-Christian gods of pagan Europe by saying that their rituals and whatnot were just idolatry. The things they did weren’t miracles because only God could do those, and since He obviously didn’t give you permission, you’re committing blasphemy by defying him and turning to other powers. Miracles are thus understood to be different from magic, and they’re therefore okay for Christians; they were and are reputed to occur all the time at saints’ shrines, and even a garden-variety priest can perform the miracle of transubstantiation, and produce the body and blood of Christ out of some wine and a wafer. If it’s from God, it’s okay; if it’s from something else, like the lamb men’s death magic, it’s not okay.

This makes me wonder, by the way, what the historical Muslim perspective on miracles and magic has been. I’ve only ever read one biography of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, which was written for Christian Westerners by a Westerner and takes a very secular view of things. Things that any Muslim believer would accept as a miracle, it sort of skirts around or explains away in other fashions, the better to not put off a suspicious Westerner. The one thing it can’t really explain away, though, is the miracle of the night journey. That’s when Muhammad is picked up and physically transported from Medina to Jerusalem, hundreds of miles away, and there ascends to heaven to meet with various prophets and finally God Himself.

Obviously this wasn’t a miracle witnessed by anybody except Muhammad, like his original visit from the Lord when he was meditating on his mountain. There are corroborative details, though, in an odd way: he said that while he was flying over the desert, he saw caravans and camels in the desert below, and predicted when he got back that they would arrive in Medina at such-and-such a time. Islamic tradition records that they did, and everyone was amazed and took that as proof of his journey. And you can explain that away any number of ways if you want, like he’d known about them in advance, or one of his friends had helpfully supplied the information, or he’d gotten one right by sheer luck and that sort of outshone the others that he’d missed, whatever whatever. But for a believer, it was more than enough. 

That would very clearly be a feat performed by God for Muhammad, like His decision to speak with Muhammad in the first place. Muhammad was very clear throughout his life that he himself was just a guy, and that God was doing all the hard work. So if miracles are allowed the way they are in the Judeo-Christian portion of the tradition, is magic outlawed in the same way? Djinni were an acknowledged part of the jahiliyyah, pre-Muhammad world, 

On the other hand, 

So are Melisandre’s rituals magical or miraculous? Is it only fire-based magic that works for R’hllor, or are all of the magical events in Westeros somehow connected to the fire god? Did the dragons appear to fight Melisandre’s war, or was that just coincidental? (And if so, where did Dany’s powers come from, anyway?)

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Networking is Freaking Magic

I'd like to tell you a very short story.

Between January and August of this year, I submitted at least 150 job applications. About 50 of those came in February, and 100 more came over this summer. I applied to jobs on both coasts and in the middle, jobs with nonprofits, government agencies, corporations, Americorps affiliates, you name it.

This yielded me five interviews, two in person, one over Skype and two on the phone, none of which resulted in a job. One resulted in a flat-out lie about whether I was being considered for the position; that was McMaster-Carr. The others were polite, bland and fruitless.

I've always had a kind of instinctual aversion to networking, because I felt that it's another form of relying on others to do something I could do myself. Plus, the idea of yanking on my connection to someone else and producing a token never appealed to me. I wanted to make it on my own merits, not to get a job because my parents knew somebody or because my old boss did. That was my thought process.

After seven months of frustration, by pure chance, I was invited to a reception in Cleveland Heights for a local candidate for City Council (her name is Melissa Yasinow, and you should vote for her if you're eligible to do so) by the head of a young nonprofit who I'd just met for coffee. I accepted, went to the reception, met the candidate, met her brother through her, met the head of another local nonprofit—Global Cleveland—through the brother. The head, Joy Roller, asked me to come into the office to tell my story of why I'd come to Cleveland, and I accepted. When I got there three Mondays ago, she offered me a temporary job as their administrative assistant while they searched for a full-time candidate; because I'm good at what I do, I soon became the full-time candidate. Now I'm about to sign a contract that'll pay me an adult sum of money to do an adult job.

One hundred and fifty job applications, five interviews, no results.

One random connection, three sub-connections in a single night, and a great job three weeks later.

Networking. Freaking. Works.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

This Is How I Cook Caribbean Black Beans and Rice

  • Peppers are basted with olive oyl and in the oven. Now to start on the rice.
  • Water's on the stove. Time to chop some stuff while I wait for it to boil.
  • Aaaand my shorts are on backwards. This is a good start. I wondered where my pockets were...
  • Ack! The cheese fell out of the fridge and attacked me while I was getting the green pepper. Stupid cheese, you're not even a part of this recipe.
  • Rice is in! Stirring with my grandma's antique wooden spoon that has been passed down for three generations. I deem this dish worthy of its usage.
  • Using about twice as much green pepper as the recipe calls for, because I'm worth it.
  • (Also a bit more red pepper because I had this half a red pepper sitting in the back of the fridge that I forgot about, and it'd be a shame not to use it.)
  • I am rethinking that first decision. That's a shitload of pepper. Oh, well.
  • "Slice the garlic paper-thin with a paring knife." The hell is a paring knife? *Googles*
  • Wikipedia: "A small knife with a plain edge blade that is ideal for peeling." Well, all of our knives are either serrated or goddamn gigantic. Guess I'll make do.
    I rescued the rice from being Lawrence Welked in a sea of bubbles. Still a lot of water in there. Going to cook a bit more.

    Garlic's chopped. Thought process: "All right, paper thin... Well, for some very liberal definition of paper thin... Okay, I can make this work... Ah forget it WHACK WHACK WHACK WHACK"
    Sweet mother of plants, this is so much more cilantro than I needed. The recipe calls for three tablespoons and there's like, a fern here.

    Time for another round with the world's shittiest can opener. Black beans, emerge!

    (Also: the "preparation time", meaning before things get into the slow cooker, is 30 minutes for this recipe. Considering that the red peppers have to be baked for an hour before they ever touch the slow cooker, I'm not sure the writers understand how time works.)

    Update: pepper's been ground, cilantro is ready, salt is ready. About to rinse the black beans. 
    (The beans: "BLORP".)
    Halfway through slicing up the peppers baked in oil. Heavens to Murgatroyd, these things are hard to cut.

    I love the SOUND that sautéeing vegetables makes. Just this wonderful crackling, hissing noise.

    Well, the green peppers are going to be a bit firm. I thought putting in the garlic for two minutes was a dumb idea, because it's gonna brown if you have it that long, and the fact that I chopped it up pretty small didn't help. I don't think it'll be that big a deal, though.

    Now comes the payoff, where I ADD ALL THE THINGS

    Cilantro: Bam! 
    Salt and pepper: Wham! Wham! Black beans coming down like an avalanche! Vinegar coming in! Hot sauce, co... hot sauuuuuce. Takes forever to get out of the bottle! Okay, here we go. Everything's in. Now we stir. Wait, I somehow almost forgot the rice. In you go, rice!

    (Update: It was delicious and I'm still eating it a week later. This went well.)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Syria and the Expansion of Executive Authority

Just a little thing to keep in mind regarding Syria and armed intervention: 

President Obama said today that he would ask Congress for permission before going into Syria, although he maintained that he does not need to do so. That latter fact puts him in the category of every single president since Richard Nixon, all of whom have maintained that the 1973 War Powers Act--pretty much the only piece of legislation on the books, at least as far as I'm aware, that sets realistic limits on the power of the President to commit American troops to combat--is unconstitutional and we don't need it. (Presidents, most notably Ronald Reagan, have usually ignored even that flimsy restraint without consequences.)

If you're concerned about the gradual accumulation of power by the executive branch, which has been happening essentially since the U.S. was created, that's a good place to start. Think about it for a second: Obama is maintaining that he has the power to make war upon a foreign country... and it is a war, if a small and one-sided one, euphemisms be damned... without the consent of Congress. Even though it says right there in the Constitution, in Article I, section 8, clause 11, that Congress shall have the power to declare war.

Any justification of that expansion of Presidential authority must inevitably come back to some form of the following argument: "Well, making war is a big deal. But little things like this, where we only kill a few thousand people while losing perhaps none of our own, that isn't a big deal. Congress doesn't even need to be consulted for something so minor."

You know why the power to make war is vested in the most fractious and squabbling branch of government? Because the founders, in my interpretation, set things up so that when the United States goes to war, there's supposed to be a really, really good reason. Like a "The survival of the country is at stake" kind of reason. This is not it. The most important thing we'll be defending is our credibility. Is that worth killing a few thousand people for? Is that worth making war over?

Coda: Chemical weapons aren't the reason, either. As we just found out, the U.S. is perfectly fine with letting an ally use chemical weapons if it serves our interests, and ignored Saddam's later use of them against his Kurdish population. The fact that we publicly said we didn't want them used is nothing more or less than a threat to our credibility. If the use of chemical weapons is so abhorrent and such a threat to people around the world, why is the United States's closest ally saying "I'm not going to get into that heaping pile of crazy?" Why hasn't the international community responded with something more than empty outrage? Because it doesn't matter. It's an atrocity whether the victims are being killed with bullets or with poison gas.

Again, think about this for a second. The best estimates are that more than one hundred thousand people had died in this war before chemical weapons were ever used, as far as we know. If the deaths of all those people didn't prompt an intervention, why is the use of poison gas going to do it? It's not like the people killed by gas are any more dead than the people blown up with explosives, or killed with knives, or guns, or anything else. The United States made a foreign policy choice not to get into the war when it began, and we've stuck to it for two years, because a) it's hard to see how intervention could end the war in a way that helps, and b) Syria is only marginally relevant to our national interests. The use of a new and different way of killing people does not change those reasons at all.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Passing of a Bicycle God

Jesus. Christ. 

You guys, I may have actually seen Jesus today. 

It may not have been Jesus. It may have been one of the American Gods, a god of steel and stone and bicycle-tire rubber. Like, a pale shadow of the god across the sea in the old country, from a place of savages and dancing flames where they sacrifice three virgins to a monstrous bicycle idol by the light of the full moon. I don't know. But I really cannot say for certain that this cyclist is not that being.

He was not very impressive to look at. The bike he rode was pale pink, the paint cracked and flaking. The back of his seat, which was the only part of it I saw, was torn and had some stuffing coming out. From what I could tell of the handlebar cords, they were somewhat rusted over. The guy himself wasn't wearing a helmet, just a backwards gangster baseball cap and a black T-shirt with an orange messenger bag slung across his back. His legs were bronze and skinny, maybe as wide around as a large zucchini (singular: zucchin?), and without any real muscle visible to the eye when he was at rest. But when he was on the move, guys, holy fuck.

We were going down the Euclid Corridor, which leads from Cleveland proper into the Outer Rim territories, and goes from city to wasteland to medical palace to suburbs. It's maybe four and a half miles from the city center to the Cleveland Clinic, and this guy was just tearing up the road. I mean it. Chunks of concrete were flying into the road, hitting cars, pedestrians, things were exploding in his wake, as I live and breathe.

My bike has twenty-one gears. I was on gear 19 and he easily, easily, outpaced me. Just sped right on ahead as if I was standing still. Okay, I thought when I caught him at a light, I accept your challenge. Gear 20. And he whizzed right on by me again, without apparent effort. Fine, you fuck, Gear 21 it is. I'll pedal my absolute hardest and I will catch up to you, you bastard, see if I don't. And I kept up with him. Barely. I kept up with him for maybe a mile of stops and starts before he signaled right, sweat shining on his forehead in the sun, veered right and was lost to me.

Fine, I thought. I, sir, will remember you. I raised my hand in salute to his freakish biking ability and watched him recede into the heart of Cleveland Clinic. At this point, in my mind, he was still mortal, not yet godly. The divine light had yet to shine from his eyes and his hands. He was forgotten for all of two minutes, while I struggled up the hill on Cornell, to the little plateau at the intersection of Murray Hill... and there he was again. He'd gone the long way around, who knows how many blocks out of his way, and still made it to my intersection at *precisely the same time as I*.

I was impressed. But the true proof of his divinity lay directly before us. There is a hill, leading down into the heart of Little Italy, whose name has been forgotten by Time. No man can surmount this hill without paying a terrible price, for the old spirits of the hill are wroth at man's feeble attempts to conquer it. Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary never came to the base of Murray Hill, because they could not. It was beyond their power to achieve.

This deity in human flesh attacked the hill as though it were a huge, heaving monster and he the knight to slay it. He raced up the hill, and when I say raced, I mean that Lancelot of the House Steroid could not have caught him. I followed him, spitting obscenities and pedaling like a man possessed. I have never taken that hill at a gear higher than 17, but fuck it, I went to nineteen. I was puffing, wheezing, sweating, pushing as hard as I ever have, blazing up the hill compared to me on any other day, and watching this madman on a bike outrace me like it wasn't even a thing. The trees on the park side of the road were cracking and falling backwards, away from the road, as he went. Cars were being blown off the street. A murder of crows arose behind us and sent up a nightmarish chorus of their rackish caws. Thunder rolled in the sky, time slowed, reality bent, and still he kept on, guys, he kept pounding and grinding to the top of the hill. And then, my friends, do you know what he did?

He kept going.

Like it wasn't even a thing.

I was spent. I was done. I wasn't contemplating just laying down and dying as a thing I really, really wanted to do, but it was definitely one of the options I was obliged to consider. A three-legged, broke-dick dog could've beaten me home from the top of that hill. I was just out. And there goes King Bicycle on his raggedy pink machine, flying ahead like nothing alive until he was lost to view.

I know not what god or demon I followed home from work today, but of this I am certain: it was not of this natural, corporeal earth. No man can do the things I saw him do. It could have been Jesus, it could have been Loki, it could have been some nameless god from the nightmare wild before men had words to clothe it. I don't know. But it's here, in Cleveland, and that means no man is safe. Weep for your little cyclists, men and women. Weep for the cyclists of the world.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Agency and Feminism in Gladiator (And Other Stories)

I'd like to talk a little bit about agency. This, if you're a fan of the humanities, is likely one of your favorite words. If it isn't, then read on, and I'll see if I can put it into some kind of useful perspective.

Agency is the one who does. Agency is the ability of a person, a character, or a people to determine their own destiny. To deny a people agency is to relegate them to helpless victimhood. For example, to describe the Jews who died in the Holocaust, or the Native Americans who died in the Columbian Exchange, as simple victims is to deny their agency. The Jews fought back, ran away, broke through barbed wire, hid, led armed uprisings and, in some cases, acted as police for the Nazis and became some of the most vicious and brutal oppressors of their own people. But whatever they chose, they chose; they were not wholly at the mercy of the Nazis. Various tribes of Native Americans fought, made peace, allied with the U.S. and with its enemies, signed treaties, led an anti-white American religious awakening, formed political entities and unions and resisted American attempts to eject them from their land. Often unsuccessfully, yes, but they chose. They were not wholly at the mercy of their tormentors to the east.*^*

To put this in terms of fictional characters, which is where we will be for most of this post, Tony Stark has agency and Pepper Potts does not.* Stark is a billionaire genius playboy inventor who, when he needs to make a major change in his life, designs an invincible crime-fighting suit and flies halfway around the globe to save helpless souls in Afghanistan. Potts is Tony's secretary. She is intelligent, beautiful, charming and indispensable to Tony, and she also has very few choices in the Iron Man movies about what she does, where she goes or the direction her life will take. She follows Tony. Yes, she occupies a different socioeconomic class than Tony, and thus has less choice over her life's direction; yes, she is a supporting character in a movie, and supporting characters are called that because they don't have a lot of agency. But that's what a character without agency looks like, and in a disturbing number of my favorite movies, women generally have far less agency than men.**

You've heard of gender-swapping, right?*** Where you take a work of fiction and swap the men for women, and vice versa? Well, I had the idea earlier today of keeping the genders the same, but changing which characters have agency. Male characters would be relegated to relatively submissive roles, when they had previously assumed dominant ones, and females would emerge from the shadows to dominate the plot.****

Take one of my favorite movies and one that I recently watched, Ridley Scott's highly decorated Gladiator. There is only one female character worth noting in that movie, and a minute ago, I honestly had to go to the Wikipedia page to look up her name. It's Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), by the way. She spends most of the movie "living in a prison of fear", with mad emperor and brother Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) constantly either trying to seduce her or threatening to harm her son. When exiled ex-general Maximus (Russell Crowe) returns to Rome as a gladiator, she brokers a meeting between him and a sympathetic senator, Gracchus (Derek Jacobi). Other than that, she doesn't do anything worth noting in the movie. The story is about Maximus, not her.

Look at the character of Lucilla, though. Look at the way she acts. When Commodus attempts to seduce her, pressing her down on a bed, her face is impassive, stony. She doesn't say anything. When she finally gets up and walks away, leaving him crumpled on the bed, it feels like a release from prison... but she has to walk back into prison sooner or later, every time she enters his presence in truth. When Commodus obliquely threatens her son and slowly, menacingly explains to Lucilla how her son will die if she doesn't reveal her part in the conspiracy against Commodus, she can only stand there and cry. She doesn't argue back, deny her part or anything similar. When Commodus grandly lays out his vision for the future, which includes marrying and raping Lucilla, she can only sit there and not utter a word. Even when she brings Gracchus and Maximus together to plot against Commodus, she barely says a thing after the introductions; the point is to bring the powerful men together, not for her to speak (even though she's the Emperor's sister and theoretically holds some power herself).

Lucilla completely lacks agency. She would never have worked against Commodus if Maximus had not returned from the dead and given her a champion. And although both Commodus and the former Emperor, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) praise her ruthlessness and leadership ability, the praise is a hollow echo given her actual role in the film. All of her decisions are based off of Maximus's deeds or centered on fending off Commodus's advances; she has few emotions save for a desire to protect her son and some affection for Maximus, plus fear of her brother. She is not a mover and shaker; that is for the men.

Now consider what an agency-swapped version of Gladiator would look like, even if we left the story intact. Imagine Lucilla taking an active hand in government, arguing with Commodus about the best policies to pursue as Emperor. Imagine her as the center of the conspiracy against Commodus instead of merely its facilitator, reaching out to bring Gracchus and Maximus together and planning their moves against Commodus; imagine her standing up to Commodus, or even fighting him in the arena. (If that's too strong, perhaps assassinating him in one of the MANY OPPORTUNITIES SHE HAS TO DO SO--we see Commodus willingly drinking a sleeping potion that she mixes and hands to him, for example, and barely even asking what it is.) Imagine her taking charge, becoming a political force, the plot of the movie centered around her. That is agency.

I know I have a long way to go when it comes to both writing female characters and thinking about women's and gender studies (WGS) issues, but it seems to me like we have far fewer female characters with agency than we do male characters with agency, both in Gladiator and outside it. A comprehensive evaluation of everything in culture is beyond my abilies, but if anyone can point me towards media in which female characters have the kind of agency I'm looking for--actively driving the plot, not depending on male characters for everything--I would be very interested to see it.

*^*It didn't really fit anywhere in this post, but consider Avatar. That is a perfect example of a movie with an agency-less indigenous population. The Na'vi aren't entirely victims--they end up winning the war, after all--but they only fight back and win because Jake Sully organizes them and gets them to do so. Imagine a movie depicting a helpless, primitive, frightened tribe of Cherokee who is at the mercy of the U.S. Army until Daniel Boone swoops in and saves them, and how that would play in the current politically correct environment. For an encore lesson in how cultural values change over time, imagine the version of Avatar that would've been made 200-ish years ago, when Andrew Jackson was warring against the Seminoles in Florida and kicking the Cherokee out of Georgia. That Avatar would most likely have celebrated the virtues of white expansion and lionized Jackson fighting against the savages. Now one of the most ballyhooed movies of the 2000s depicts a native tribe successfully defeating white oppressors, with white leadership no less. Man, cultures change a lot over time.

*Disclaimer: I haven't seen Iron Man 3, so take this paragraph as applying to Iron Man 1, 2 and The Avengers only.

**For another example, consider Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog and the character of Penny, who is powerless until Captain Hammer helps her open a new homeless shelter, and spends the movie being sought-after by two men. Imagine a movie where she actively played her suitors off against each other.

***This wasn't what I was looking for definition-wise, but it's really interesting, if a bit

****Yes, I get that not all movies feature men alone determining the action, and that to say so is as sexist as if it were actually a thing. It just occurred to me recently, though, that in The Prestige, Gladiator, Collateral and several others of my absolute favorite movies--which tend to be about guys, for guys--female characters are side characters while men drive the plot. That's where this post is coming from, and what this paragraph refers to. It doesn't mean they aren't fantastic movies that I love; it means, though, that they have hidden flaws in spite of that.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Last Thoughts From FEMA Corps

I feel like there’s not a lot left to say, in terms of having a final FEMA Corps sum-up catch-all blog post. Most of the things I could say have either been said already in this space, or else they’d just feel redundant being expressed here. So let’s throw out a final list, say, of a few things that I’ve learned in the past ten months.

-Horrible puns are a never-dying form of entertainment. (my team may disagree with this.)
-The South is green and full of funny bugs.
-There’s nothing so pathetic as a team that has lost its cohesion.
-People, specifically Americorps people, are capable of astounding acts of friendliness and generosity, made all the more amazing by their apparent and complete lack of seeming put-upon.
-Communication may just be the most important thing there is. If you can’t talk about the important things with your family, friends or team members, you might as well not be talking about anything at all.
-There’s a ridiculous amount of talent in the Corps, stuff we only see occasionally. Artists, painters, writers, musicians, football players, Frisbee players, swimmers, martial artists, EMTs, jugglers, the list is almost endless. They’re everywhere. Americorps got a good group together, here.
-Building off that, it turns out that people who want to spend a year doing community service are generally pretty awesome individuals. Sean, Rii, Jimbob, Ashvin, Michella, Badger, Tommy, Michael, John, Malinda, Katrina, Chelsea, Shaun, John Joyce, Joey, Christina, ‘Bama and everyone else… thanks for being wonderful, and thanks for being my friends.
-There’s nothing more important than leadership when you’re talking about an Americorps team, and there’s nothing more painfully evident then when it fails.
-If you can’t fit it into a red bag or your backpack, it’s probably not necessary for you to live, at least in the lifestyle we take pride in.
-Your van is your home. Treat it accordingly.
-If you don’t make an effort to understand or interact with the people around you, you’ll have a shitty, lonely experience. That’s just how it works. You’re responsible for your own social outreach.
-Bloodless language beats you down. By the end of the year, I was speaking in a ‘initiative’ and ‘moving forward’ and ‘not as good as we would’ve liked’ FEMA/NCCC/generic-corporate timid linguistic jambalaya like everybody else. It’s so hard to say anything straight out in this culture.
-Sometimes, when you join Americorps, you meet the president. Sometimes, when you meet the president, you look like an utter goon. Sometimes, when you look like an utter goon in your most-publicized photo with said president, it gets promulgated all over FEMA Corps, and NCCC, and FEMA too, and you have to explain every time someone sees it that that’s just the way your mouth works when you smile and you simply are not good at pictures. So it goes.
-There’s nothing cuter than Amerelationships. Dalton and Katrina, Joe and Tiffy, Malinda and Chris, I’m looking at you.
-A lot of things you’d never consider eating, or at least would have quite a bit of distaste for, become your dietary staples and even enjoyable because that’s what’s on the damn table tonight, eat it or don’t.
-I can’t wait to be cooking and buying everything I eat. Seriously.
-Getting an account with a local Mississippi bank in the early days of the program was a really dumb idea. Get a national bank, for crap’s sake.
-There is always time to throw the Frisbee around.
-My housing wasn’t my housing until the Battlestar Galactica flag was up on the wall.
-I used to think that FEMA Corps was secretly an indirect subsidy for Wal-Mart, since that’s generally where our groceries come from (or someplace else really cheap). Now I know better. The federal government is really using us to prop up Extended Stay Motels.
-Oatmeal’s a pretty awesome breakfast food if you do it right, and also if that’s the only thing the motel provides in the morning, so like it (see above).
-I read, at some point during the year, this funny and instructive little catechism: when liberals think of government, they think of Social Security and Medicaid. When conservatives think of government, they think of the IRS and the DMV. After working with FEMA for eight months, well, let’s just say I can see both sides of the argument pretty well now.
-I’ve said this before on here, but here it is again: Never, ever, ever will I buy a house or live in an apartment that would be flooded if anything less than a tsunami came through my municipality. Put me on a hill, I’ll risk the lightning strikes. At least you don’t have to muck and gut the home and make sure every last particle of mold and every granule of damp plasterboard and wood is removed from your empty shell of a basement before you can even think about rebuilding after one of those.
-There’s nothing that just slowly sucks the life and the energy out of you like having nothing… whatsoever… to do at work.
-The Upper End is a shitty bar, but it’s the only game in Vicksburg, so sometimes you just have to go anyway. Unless, that is, you want to go to a casino and leave in the morning owning nothing but your pants.
-If you want something done right, bloody well do it yourself or give it to one of the competent people around you to do. Anything else is a waste of a task.
-You could not pay me to live in New York City. Seriously, if I was offered a good job on condition of moving there, I would turn it down in a minute unless I could a) work from another state or b) there is no b. Nearly five months was far, far more than enough to convince me of this.
-Personal space is a finite and negotiable commodity.
-Leadership is communication. If you’re not communicating, and well, you’re not leading.
-There’s nothing more nightmarish than driving through Manhattan, after a hurricane, with no power in the city, lit only by reddish flares, when you have no earthly idea where to go because you’ve never been here before and your housing is in New Jersey.
-Atlanta is an awesome city, New York is horrible, Frederick (MD) is pretty nice, Vicksburg (MS) is charming, Anniston (AL) seemed cool, Emmitsburg (MD) was alright and Hartford (CT) would probably have been nice if we had been there for more than a day.
-There’s no geek-out moment quite like the one where you notice you’ve been driving from Frederick to Winchester, VA daily… and that you cross Antietam Creek and the Potomac River in the process… as you go down the Shenandoah Valley… past Harper’s Ferry and just a hair away from Sharpsburg and Gettysburg… yeaaaaaaaah. All the Civil War history you could possibly ever want, well, you’re driving through it.

Final Five, the important ones:

-Living on a ship is awesome.
-Sometimes, you meet the most wonderful and important people in your life by total random chance.
-If you want something done right, bloody well do it yourself or give it to one of the competent people around you. Giving it to an incompetent person only wastes time.
-Having said that, you can only do so much.

-I’ll never forget this year, this place and these people.  

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Voyage is the Most Astonishingly Sexist Thing in the World

When I first read Fantastic Voyage, I instinctively blamed it on the 1950s. While researching the book for this post, I learned that it came out in 1966, and was appalled. The lone female character, Cora Peterson, is as helpless a put-upon sex object as I have ever seen in any medium. The book isn't even eligible for the Bechdel Test because there's no other female character she can converse with. Her activities consist of the following: puppy-like adoration for her boss, iciness towards the male protagonist, screaming, being an assistant, screaming, being useless in emergencies, screaming some more, and finally warming up to the protagonist after he saves her life a few times.

This is Cora Peterson. She is the assistant of one Dr. Duval, and is described as such. She is twenty-four years old, has a master's degree and is an experienced medical technician. And yet, when Grant first sees her in person... this happens.
[An Army superior] was talking in a low voice, carefully controlled. "And aside from that, doctor, what is she doing here?"
"Miss Cora Peterson," said Duval [the doctor], icily, "is my assistant. Where I go professionally, she accompanies me professionally."
"This is a dangerous mission..."
"And Miss Peterson has volunteered, understanding full well its dangers."
"A number of men, entirely qualified to help, have also volunteered. Matters would be far less complicated if one of those men accompanied you. I will assign you one."
[Duval launches into long description of how Peterson is "a third and fourth arm" to him, and a very capable technician and he needs her]
Grant's eye moved to Cora Peterson again. She looked acutely embarrassed, yet stared at Duval with the expression Grant had once seen in a beagle's eye when its little boy owner returned from school. Grant found that intensely annoying. (35)
To review: a superior officer tries to keep Peterson from coming along for no reason other than her gender. Instead of defending herself, she stands meekly by and lets Duval speak for her. Later on, when the officer is speaking to a colleague alone, he tosses off this exchange:
"What's wrong with the girl, Cora Peterson?"
"Nothing, why?"
"Your voice was loud enough... Do you know of any reason why she shouldn't be on board?"
"She's a woman. She may not be reliable in emergencies. Besides... [the doctor is an ass, and I objected at him because reasons]." (44)
Please note "the girl". There's no reason on earth why Peterson is a "girl" instead of a woman, to pick out the least disturbing thing about that passage, and yet that's what male characters call her throughout the book. Oh, and on page 54, she thanks Duval for "arranging to have me come", and apologizes to him for being "the cause of unpleasantness between yourself and Dr. Reid". Sigh.

At the book's beginning, Peterson is cool towards Grant and attracted to Duval, the main male authority figure in her life. At its end, she is warm towards Grant and they leave hand in hand. What happens in between?

Grant hits on her mercilessly and unprofessionally throughout the first half of the whole novel. There's some odd male gender issue here where Grant plays himself up to her as a masculine lug instead of an intelligent human, and that shows up in this exchange:
"If you have any footballs you want strung, you let me know. Us physical types are good at that kind of unskilled work."
Cora put down a small screwdriver, brushed her rubber-gloved fingers together and said "Mr. Grant?"
"Yes, ma'am?"
"Are you going to make this entire voyage hideous with your notion of fun?"
"No, I won't, but... Well, how do I talk to you?"
"Like a fellow member of the crew."
"You're also a young woman."
"I know that, Mr. Grant, but what concern is that of yours? It's not necessary to assure me with every remark and gesture that you're aware of my sex. It's wearisome and unnecessary. After this is all over, if you still feel called upon to go through whatever rituals you are accustomed to performing before young women, I will deal with you in whatever fashion seems advisable but for now..."
"All right. It's a date, for afterward." (51)
So that happens. One would think Grant would have learned his lesson, but on the next page...
"Oh, if you could only frivol," he breathed, and fortunately she didn't hear him, or, at least, showed no signs of having done so.
Without warning, she placed his hand on his... [and moves it out of the way of a laser].
Grant said, "You might have warned me."
Cora said, "There is no reason for you to be standing here, is there?"
She lifted the laser, ignoring his offered help and turned toward the storeroom.
"Yes, miss," said Grant, humbly. "When near you henceforward I shall be careful where I place my hand."
Cora looked back as though startled and rather uncertain. Then, for a moment, she smiled.
Grant said "Careful. The cheeks may crack."
Her smile vanished at once. "You promised," she said, icily, and moved into the workroom. (52)
So a few takeaways here:
-'Seriously, shut up, I'm a member of the crew like you are.' 'Okay, pardon me while I flirt with you some more.'
-Note the language in Cora's long speech. It's part of her icy (continually described as icy, cold or, on page 93, "the ice-queen of some polar region lit by a blue-green aurora") demeanor. Read: professionalism.
-This isn't the last time Cora randomly touches Grant. She leans over him to plug in his seatbelt, and later clings to him desperately when Grant saves her during turbulence in the sub.
-Also, Cora is called by her first name throughout the novel, including by the narrator, after Grant asks her if he can. Nobody else is. Everyone else ('everyone else' is all males) goes by their last name.
-Grant is also constantly watching her and making "appreciative inner comment[s] about her beauty" (107) throughout the first third of their journey, whenever he has a chance.

From this point on, the dominant subplot of the book is Cora screaming and Grant saving her from things, and continuing to flirt with her. (Cora yanks Grant's seatbelt. "I was checking to see if you were being tightly held." "Only by the harness, but thanks." (65))

Here are a few:
The approach of the next [whirlpool] made Cora scream in shrill terror. (85)

[Grant saves her from sliding across the floor into a wall, or something, as she] clutched at his shoulder and seized the material of his uniform with viselike desperation. (86)

The laser over the working counter was swinging loose on one hook, its plastic cover off.
"Didn't you bother securing it?" demanded Grant.
Cora nodded wildly, "I did! I did secure it! I swear it. Heavens..."
"Then how could it..."
"I don't know. How can I answer that?"
Duval was behind her, his eyes narrowed and his face hard. He said, "What has happened to the laser, Miss Peterson?"
Cora turned to meet the new questioner. "I don't know. Why do you all turn on me?" [more brouhaha]
[Owens comes in] "My God, the laser!"
"Don't you start," screamed Cora, eyes now swimming in tears. (107-8)

And at that moment, the lifeline twitched and snaked upward, its end flashing past, and out through the opening.
Cora screamed, and kicked herself desperately towards the opening.
Michaels pursued. "You can't do anything," he panted. "Don't be foolish..." (117)

[After getting thrown across the lymphatic system] She was managing to breathe now and heard her own name. Someone was calling. Carefully, she made a pleading sound. Encouraged by the sound of her voice, she screamed as shrilly as she could: "Help! Everybody! Help!" (149) (This is at least sensible, but she doesn't try to free herself when she gets stuck or anything, just waits for Grant.)

[When saved from that predicament and back in the ship after nearly getting squashed by antibodies] Cora was breathing in deep, shuddering gasps. Gently, Duval removed her headpiece, but it was to Grant's arm she clung as she suddenly burst into tears.
"I was so scared," she sobbed. (154)
This is what happens. And it's not like she's performing feats of heroism in the meantime, either. Every heroic deed-doing surgery, piloting the ship, rescuing people, resupplying with oxygen, etc.-is done by Grant or Owens or Duval. And Grant just keeps hitting on her and hitting on her, eventually with her consent. Eventually she 'warms up', that is, she begins to respond to his advances.
[She's lying on a cot] "I'm all right now. I'm just malingering, lying here."
"Why not? You're the most beautiful malingerer I've ever seen. Let's malinger together for a minute, if you don't think that sounds too improper."
She smiled in her turn. "It would be difficult for me to complain that you were too forward. After all, you seem to make a career of saving my life."
"All part of a shrewd and extraordinarily subtle campaign to place you under an obligation to me."
"I am! Most decidedly!"
"I'll remind you of that at the proper time."
"Please do. --But Grant, really, thank you." (157-8)
 Does that sound massively creepy to anyone else, bantering or no? But by the end of the book, Grant and Cora are leaving the military base "hand in warm hand" (186). She's no longer an "ice-queen", and she's no longer excessively formal with Grant. She also displays no traces of her previous attachment to Duval. In short, the hour (or few hours) they spend together changes her entire personality with regards to Grant. She falls for him because of his relentless flirting and because he saves her life several times; she's a bag of useless female-ness at every critical moment in the book; she is continually belittled and disrespected by her colleagues and superiors and seems to accept it as normal (except for one irritated speech to Grant), and she ends up with Grant like a good love-interest should. As Clay Davis might put it, sheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeit.

Monday, July 1, 2013


What do I want to be when I grow up?

If you are currently shoveling your way through the muck of high school, or bursting into college to find new discoveries in every shining day, or making your way for the first time in the cutting, formal, salaried world of professional employment, then I daresay it is not too much presumption to say that like me, this question has perhaps crossed your mind once or twice. If you are like me in more specific ways, this question has bothered you ever since it became clear that school would not last forever, and no matter how drawn-out and full of painful self-discovery it was, that it was an incubator you were loath to leave. You asked yourself that question and then shrank from it, burying your unease in your studies and in the endless minutiae of social interaction. Only when you were forced to take notice, by the oncoming wall of college applications or the flat barrier of college graduation or the end of an Americorps term, did you seriously consider the most childishly simple question of them all as the stunningly life-defining choice that it actually was. And if you're like me, you've made it this far without ever quite articulating an answer, be it in your head or by your actions or to your relatives or to the world. 

The answer is supposed to be found in the things you love to do, your passion. Now, there's a word that's been turned inside out. Passion is for lovers, for stolen kisses, for spicy-hot endearments whispered in the night, not for the bloodless prose of cover letters and résumés that reduce a person to a set of numbered accomplishments. Passion has no place in the antiseptic land of results and paychecks. Yet they say you're supposed to follow your passion, to take what you love and make it something you can live on. Follow your passions, they say, and do what you love. And my answer has always been the same. 'How can I? I have so many.'

I was always sort of jealous of people who knew, unequivocally, what they wanted. It didn't have to be employable, rational, or remotely accomplishable. I envied those people who had married their talents to their desires in such a way as to lay their chosen path out before their feet. Hell, I knew a guy in high school who wanted to be a professional bowler. Eighteen years old and he wanted to bowl for a living, because that's what he liked and it's what he was good at. I'll not sneer at bowlers, but theirs isn't exactly a life most of us envy. But I envied him, because right or wrong, he was walking a path. He was following a dream, the way you see people do in the movies. I have no idea if he made it or not. 

I never had that in high school. I just knew I was going to college, and presumably I'd figure out the rest of my life in the next four years, emerging from my chrysalis with a degree and a plan. Instead I chose English as a major, precisely because I figured it would enable me to hold off on the choice a little longer. Everyone loves a writer, said the liberal-arts angel on my shoulder, and that skill will let me get into any number of potential careers. (If all this sounds head-slappingly naïve, well, I was. I didn't hear the song "What Do You Do (With A B.A. in English)?" until it was far too late to switch.) 

All around me, people were getting their shit together, or at least seeming to. My best friends went to law school, one after another. People were picking something they liked, something they enjoyed and wanted to do. My problem is that I could never choose among the many, many subjects I enjoy. In my heart, I've always loved being a dabbler in many things, a master of none. Communication, there's something enjoy. Writing. Writing essays, blog posts, academic papers, haikus, six-word obituaries, fifty-page theses. There are very few things I don't like to write, let's put it that way. But that's not a realistic, steady, salaried life direction. Passion only gets you so far if you also want the stability that a real-person job can bring. 

That brings me up to the present day. I'm applying for things all over the country, things I really want to do, jobs I never imagined people having. (My current favorite is that of an anthromorphic cat-person that writes about science for children, even though it really is an unreachable dream job for someone with my just-out-of-college-and-not-really-applicable-anyway qualifications, even though I know I would be happier writing and researching for a living than just about anything else.) I'm looking for a passion, not because I don't have any of my own to go out and live with, but because I need a cause to throw myself behind. I don't much care what it is. I have these general ideas of wanting to make a difference, wanting to help people in some way, somewhere in the world of nonprofits or politics or (heaven forfend) salaried writing, but I don't know how to translate that into real life. And I know that nobody does, which just makes me more and more irritated that I can't figure it out and others are making it work somehow. That's the passion that I have, dissipated and undirected as yet, but indisputably there. Point me at a target and I'll give you all I have. I just need to know where to begin. Or, more accurately and honestly, I want someone to tell me where to begin.

I know what I'm supposed to be doing right now. I'm supposed to be figuring it out. And I'm doing my damndest, trust me. I'm trying to remember that this decision-of where to get my first real-world job, that is-is only one step in a long, long chain, and that the process and product of that long chain of decisions doesn't establish my identity or make me more or less of a person than any other facet of my life. But it's hard to think that way when all you want to do is go and live on your own like people in your age group are supposed to be doing, not staying at your parents' home for the twenty-third summer in a row while you figure your life out. It all starts with the job, for me, and that's what I'm trying to get to-and the job and the passion don't have to necessarily coincide. It's a first step, not a life-defining choice. One big part of this time in my life is remembering that.


Monday, June 17, 2013

The Seven Stages of Golf

Golf is a tragic game. We know this. We understand this. We know how hard it can be to deal with the pain and the incomprehension and the frustration that golf can all too easily inflict. But it may help you to know that you are not alone in your despair. Tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of golfers suffer annually from golf-related malaise. In this helpful article, we present the Seven Stages of Golf, a guide to a common path out of your golf-related stress and anxiety that numberless golfers have taken before you. Read on, dear golfer, and know that you too will make it out of the golf-related abyss one day.

Shock and Denial

"There's no way I could have possibly hit it that poorly, is there? It moved like three feet! Come on! There's no way that the evidence of my eyeballs could be accurate! Okay. I will, har-de-har-har, give it one more shot. Maybe I can just get back on the fairway..." *sound of a golf ball thwacking into a tree* "Are you kidding me? It ended up behind me? This game is broken. I want a refund. Your physics engine is awful."

Pain and Anger

"This is ridiculous. I hate golf. Who could possibly have designed a game so clearly meant to torture and convulse the human spirit? Is it Satan? It's Satan, isn't it. This game is meant to give glory to the Devil. Dear fuck, I'm bad at this. Can someone hand me a kitten? I need something to punch."


"Okay. I know what I'm doing wrong here. I'm tensing up in my shoulders, topping the ball, and not swinging all the way through. So basically if I do everything about my golf game differently, I'll be fantastic at it. Can I trade in my arms for other arms? I think I'd be better at this if I had longer arms. Okay, here we go. Time to hit a good shot for a change." *thwack* *splash!* "See? Told you. Longer arms. It's in the fucking lake because my arms are insufficient. Fuck you, genetics, you ate my golf success."


"It is time I just said this out loud. I will never be good at golf. Okay? It just won't happen. Golf is not something you get better at. You don't get better at being punched in the dick. That is not a skill that you can train. There are no dick-punchedness goals to which you can aspire. God, the numbers on my scorecard are like ACT scores. There is no way this will ever be fun. Is it time to putt? Should I even bother?" *putt* *rollllllll* "Oh, look, eight feet past the hole. When will I ever learn?"

Crazy Not-Caring

"Oh look at me, la la la la, I'm using a putter when I'm three hundred feet from the hole. Why not? I suck anyway! Yayyyyyy! I'm in the sand trap? Bring on the driver! Hack, hack, hack, hack! Fuck it--I'm digging a hole in the sand and putting the ball on the lip. You can't stop me because I'm Batman. Time for a tee shot? Okay, I'm hitting this thing as hard as I can. I barely care what direction it goes in. Duck, fools! Death from above!" *whock* "Holy hell, I'm on the green. Now why couldn't I do that when I gave a damn?"

Somewhat More Constructive Not-Caring

"I could not be less emotionally invested in the flight of this ball. It is not a thing that I care about. I'm just going to hit it in a general east-southerly direction and see what fate decides to do with it. Trees in the way? Eh, what do I care. I picked up this ball from the forest, and the golf gods have decreed that the ball must one day return to the forest. Circle of life or some shit."

 Philosophical Acceptance

"You know, golf is a cruel game. It isn't meant to bring you happiness, at least most of the time. But when you hit that one great shot--and I know you know what that feels like, even if it's only happened once--doesn't it make up for all those bad shots? It does. It really, really does. Darkness just makes the light shine brighter, amirite? Oh, c'mon, don't be like that. This game has a lot to teach us about life, about struggle and sacrifice and yes, about joy, too. This isn't so bad. Lighten up, [stage 2 person]! This is fun!"

(Rough outlines of the stages gently borrowed from "7 Stages of Grief". Be kind to parodies--they're how we deal with golf.)