Wednesday, August 19, 2015

My Final Word On Whether Lego Building Sets Damage Kids' Creativity

There's a new study out that purports to show that Lego building kits undermine children's creativity by providing them with only one option for the pieces included. Over at MetaFilter, the usual suspects are coming out to decry the loss of the freedom and creativity they experienced as children ("all we had were rectangles...and we liked it!"), and to share their observations about how The Youth of Today know nothing more than how to follow directions in an endeavor that requires no skill at all.

I tried to stay out of it. I didn't read the linked article, and I resisted as long as I could the temptation to read comments. I failed. But I now promise I have said my final word on the subject. This is what I wrote. Sections in italics are quotes from comments I'm responding to.

My kid was into building these elaborate Lego kits for a while. Basically, following the instructions. But once they were finished, that was it. There's no incentive to take them apart again and create something from imagination.

I hear things like this, and my answer is always: It depends on the kid. Our 14yo, The Lego Savant, loves the elaborate kits in part because he admires the way designers use pieces. He loves to see a new building technique. We got him a MOC Kit for his birthday—this Pegasus automaton—and he was fascinated by the gearing, and excited that the designer had used a couple of specific pieces in ways that had never occurred to him, that he can incorporate into his building. But that's how his mind works. He's fascinated by building, by structures, by engineering-type things. He used to always take his sets apart and toss the pieces into the general building pool, but a couple of years ago started keeping some of his more special sets on display. He told me that he can do this because his collection finally got big enough that he didn't need the pieces from the new sets. He builds all the time. He recently made a Bioshock-inspired enclosure for our Apple TV remote out of Lego; it looks very cool and helps solve the lost remote problem endemic to those things.

A lot of adults, myself included, treat LEGO sets as model sets that don't require any real skill. I don't think there's anything really wrong with that.

Lego building instructions are a gold standard. And yet...I've built many sets along with my son over the years, and it's surprisingly easy to get them wrong. Because he is better than me at that kind of thinking and perceiving, sometimes he's had to interpret instructions for me, and they are perfectly clear to him but not to me. Or he's had to look the thing over to spot a mistake I've made, and fix it. Things only seem to require "no skill" to people for whom the specific skill required is trivial.

At the same time, I don't think there's anything wrong with treating Lego as a satisfying model-building experience. If kids were building model airplanes, people would say, "What a nice old-fashioned non-screen hobby they're engaging in!" rather than "But doesn't this stifle their incentive and ability to design and build their own airplanes?" Some folks are never going to design their own airplanes, and it's fine for them to have a way to enjoy the building experience. When I was a kid and all we had were rectangular Lego, I could take the little rectangles and build a bigger rectangle out of them. That was the limit of my inspiration. Now, I miss doing sets with my son, who builds on his own these days. I might, at some point, get myself a kit just to enjoy.

It's like how, when I was a kid, I was thrilled to discover blank books. This one in particular, which hit bookstores when I was 9. More than just a plain notebook, a book that explicitly said, "This is for you to write" was inspiring to me. The Lego Savant would not be interested in this. On the other hand, our 11yo, Word Boy, carries a little moleskine with a pen quiver. And our 8yo, the Tiny Tornado, is not especially interested in either of those things, but saved up last year to buy himself a unicycle.

The thing is, no tool can invite creativity if it's the wrong tool. It is possible, through discouragement, disparagement, or punishment, to damage a child's creativity. But a Lego building kit isn't the thing that's going to do that. Small-mindedness does it. Too many rules do it. A failure to appreciate what pleases and drives the kid can do it.

This whole endless debate about whether Lego building kits are good or bad for children's creativity strikes me as one of those situations where people invest an incredible amount of energy into fretting, arguing, and judging, despite—or perhaps because of—it being trivial and beside the point. Lego is only one thing that a kid who is into creative building can and will build with; it is only one thing that a kid who likes building models can or will build; it is only one thing that a kid whose inspiration flows in the presence of a blank page, or music, or a physical challenge, will ignore in favor of other stuff.

Expose kids to a lot of things. Make resources available to them. Let them choose; don't judge their choices. Allow their interests to guide yours. Assume that if they value it, it has value, and let them show you what they value about it. Don't assume that if your kid never takes apart their Lego sets to build something new, that the set is to "blame" or that the set damaged their creativity. Accept that there are many "right" ways to use Lego, or any other tool; honor the enjoyment they get from it; watch for opportunities to support other activities that may be more inspiring for them.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

My Night of Gay Romance: I Find Myself in the "Steamy Romantic Drama" Section of Netflix

As the summer draws to a close, I find myself desperate for peace, quiet, and solitude. A couple of times lately I have simply given in to it, and not even pretended I was going to go to bed when the rest of the family did. Instead, I have sat up late—even all night—crocheting and watching movies. As I told Raider, “I need a day to myself, and the only way to get it right now is to do it at night.”

Last night, I found myself exploring the byways of gay romance on Netflix. I have returned from this journey to report on what I found.


These are the six movies I watched, in the order I watched them.  If that seems like a lot, keep in mind that many independent films run short. 


Longhorns
US, 2011; 74 minutes

A college student who thinks he’s straight has to deal with his feelings for another boy.


Production values: I think they made this movie with $40 and an expired coupon for pizza rolls. For much of the film, I thought it had only two sets: a cheap-looking dorm room, and a cheap-looking dorm lounge. Later, however, it added a porch, a cabin, and a field, so maybe they found some change in the couch or were able to borrow 20 bucks from somebody’s mom. The sound is intelligible but cheap-sounding, and sounds noticeably different in different locations.


Romance cliches: “Take your clothes off so I can draw you for my art class.”


Swish factor: Turned up to 11. Derek Efrain Villaneuva plays the campus gay activist who has a weakness for boys in denial. He is petite, fey, flaming, and so beautiful and charming I would watch two hours of him doing…well, anything really.


The Sex: Not explicit. Because the movie is exploring the boundaries of gay/not gay, it features a heck of a lot of scenes of boys jerking off while watching porn together; the action is entirely under-the-blanket.  


Why I Didn't Like It: The opening scene is so tasteless and excruciating my eyes bled. If it had lasted another 40 seconds, I'd never have watched the rest of the movie. I am embarrassed to have you know I watched that scene and didn't immediately take myself to the mikveh. Much of the humor is crude. For some inexplicable reason, we get full frontal nudity from just about every member of the cast; I don't object to this, exactly, but I wasn't sure what the point was. On the other hand,  my very limited knowledge of what penises look like has been significantly advanced.


Why I Liked It: Villaneuva, primarily. The acting ranges from wooden to serviceable for the most part, but some of the scenes between the two leads are well-done. There's a break-up scene where they're on the phone, both crying while trying not to let on to the other that they're crying, and it's quite good. This movie wins my Night of Gay Romance award for Sweetest Post-Coital Cuddle. Also, I have an inexplicable affection for the parts of the country where people wear boots and cowboy hats unselfconsciously and unironically, so I liked that. The protagonist's denial about his sexuality is both funny and familiar—after having sex with a boy for the first time, he lies there and thinks, "There is a homosexual in my bed!" And he can't figure out why it keeps happening.


You Will Like It If: You have nostalgic memories of your own coming out in college, are a big supporter of independent cinema, carry a soft spot the size of Texas for young flamers,  or will watch anything if it includes two boys kissing.


Happy Ending: For everybody.

Derek Villaneuva. See what I mean?

Free Fall
German, 2013; 1 hr 40 mins

A police officer who is in a happy relationship with his pregnant girlfriend has an affair with another officer.

Production Values: High.

Swish factor: There is no swishing at the police academy.

The Sex: Excellent. Director Stephen Lacant has a talent for directing sex. Both an early scene between the protagonist and his girlfriend, and a later scene between the two men, are beautifully done, capturing the emotional as well as the physical intimacy. The sex is realistic, though generally not explicit. I was impressed by Hanno Koffle's sex noises; "totally into this but distressed to be totally into this" seems like a tough mood to play and he did it well.

Gay Story Cliches: Cartoon homophobes. Somebody gets beat up. Somebody gets beat up again. Somebody else gets beat up. They go dancing at a club where the other patrons are much more flamboyant than them. People have sex in the bathroom of a gay bar.

Other Observations: Both leads smoke constantly throughout the whole movie. They roll their own cigarettes, which often left me confused about whether they were smoking tobacco, pot, both, or something else I have never heard of.

Why I Didn't Like It: Surely there are other stories to be told than "guy who thinks he's straight comes out, and it sucks." I could have done with less of watching some guy's poor family reeling in shock, and with much more of watching the two leads enjoy sex their relationship. Watching an experienced gay man pursue an adulterous relationship with a man who is, if not straight, at least not out even to himself is much like watching the doomed teenagers go into the dank and cobwebby basement of the haunted house. I wanted to take him aside and say, "Dude, you know better ways to meet men.  Let somebody else get shredded in Closet Case's Big Bloody Buzzsaw of Denial."

Why I Liked It: The leads are beautiful and have great chemistry. The acting is very good. If you like romances for the long slow build-up of attraction, you will very much like the first half of this movie. German men, when filming a dance scene in a gay bar, can actually dance.

You Will Like It If: You miss the days when movie stars could smoke like chimneys; you love men in police uniforms; you like being reminded that Germans are not all evil blondes; you like watching as smoldering glances ignite into fiery passion; you love it when the second half of a movie is all about emotional pain; you are a big supporter of movies in which gay men suffer.

Notes: You can see Max Riemelt, who plays the boyfriend, in the Wachowskis' series Sense8, on Netflix.

Happy Ending: For whom? And for what values of "happy"?  This is not Hollywood! You insult us with these questions!

Boys
German, 2014; 1 hr 17 mins

Two boys on the track team fall in love.

Production Values: High.

Swish Factor: Low. Sometimes it's hard to tell if somebody is gaying or just European.

The Sex: No sex; this is a movie about teenagers. But the kisses are nicely done.

Gay Story Cliches: Not so many.

What I Learned From This Movie and Free FallWhen casting for a German film about gay men, the ability to smolder and look yearning is much more important than the ability to deliver dialog, of which there will be very little. German men and boys flirt by running on paths through picturesque woods; I'm not sure what they do if they live in a city. 

Other Observations: I only recently learned that eating sprinkles on buttered bread is a thing people do in some parts of Europe, so I was delighted to see a character do it in this movie. The teenagers are played by actual teenagers. They are, therefore, almost unbearably beautiful, but also gangly and kind of awkward. They look like men in one shot, and like children in another. It adds a lot to the film to have teenagers in these roles instead of people in their 20s pretending to be teenagers.

Why I Liked It: The boys are very sweet. The angst is minor; one of the boys isn't previously out to himself, and there are some hurt feelings as he gets himself sorted out, but nobody has to cry in an alley. The growing attraction is well-done.

You Will Like It If: You like beautiful boys and German scenery, are fond of sweet coming-of-age stories, enjoy romance, and would like a break from boy/girl stuff.

Happy Ending? Yes.

Tiger Orange
US, 2014; 75 minutes

A man whose life has fallen apart in some way returns to his childhood home, where his sibling still lives, and they spend a bunch of time dealing with their family shit, lurching through a couple of epiphanies without really solving anything. You might have seen this movie when it starred Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney and was called You Can Count on Me, and they were both straight; you might have seen it when starred Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, and was called The Skeleton Twins, and he was gay; and now you can see it with two actors you've probably never heard of, and they're both gay.



Production Values: Fair-to-middling. Nothing fancy happens in the camera work, editing, or sound, and the film uses limited sets, but it looks good and sounds good; you won't be distracted by cheapness.


Swish Factor: Varied from character to character, and, because of code-switching, from scene to scene. Nicely done.

The Sex: Since I accidentally watched a movie that is not a romance but actually about brothers, it is certainly for the best that there was no sex.

Gay Story Cliches: Somebody gets bashed. A park is cruised for anonymous sex, but only because the character is too self-hating to be out and have a real relationship. Dad hates sissy boys.

Why I Didn't Like It: I have already seen this movie too many times, and making both the Responsible One and the Reckless One gay was not quite enough to render the story fresh.

Why I Liked It: Gay men I recognized as gay men. Including multiple men allows for a Variety Pack approach, so if you like them flaming and dressed like hipsters, there's a guy for you; if you like them right on the line of trying, and failing, to contain their swish, there's a guy for you; if you like them in business casual with just a touch of inflection and wrist, there's a guy for you.

You Would Like It If: You haven't seen You Can Count on Me, The Skeleton Twins, or any other iteration of the prodigal son lately, you're in the mood for it, and you think it would make for a nice change if everybody was gay; you support independent cinema; you think one or both of the leads is hot; you think it's refreshing when the tattoo'd and pierced Bad Boy is played by an actual Bad Boy with actual tattoos and piercings; you've always wanted to see a porn star make his Legitimate Cinema debut; you've always wanted to see a porn star but are the only person in the world who doesn't know how to find porn on the internet.
The porn star. via 

Is It Just Me?
US, 2010; 89 mins

Painfully unfunny romantic comedy about a gay writer who finds love online.


Production Values: Medium-to-poor. Sound is noticeably lower quality than you're used to; has a cheap look.


Swish Factor: Low, mostly met by the aging queen one of the characters rents a room from. Protagonist's roommate surprisingly non-swishy despite his work as a go-go boy.


Romance Cliches: Protagonist wants love but all available men interested only in sex; misunderstanding that could be cleared up easily in 20 seconds is instead dealt with via unsustainable deception.


Why I Didn't Like It: Painfully unfunny, supra.


Why I Liked It: I didn't. I mercy-killed it about ten minutes in. Its only redeeming quality was the online boyfriend, who couldn't act but whose single notea crinkly-eyed smiling good humor—was adorable.

You Will Like It If: You will not like it.



It hurts just looking at the poster.

Weekend
British, 2011; 1 hr 37 mins

Two men hook up two nights before one of them is leaving the country, and spend the weekend together.

Production Values: Just fine. Limited sets, straightforward camerawork, but nothing that will pull you out of the story.


Swish Factor: Nobody swishes, per se, but both leads read gay in a very satisfying way. As you know, I like gay-presenting men, and this is another movie that knows "queeny" and "straight-acting" are not the only two settings.


The Sex: Excellent and realistic. I figure the top four ways that men get each other off are handjobs, blowjobs, frottage, and anal sex. This movie featured all four (Free Fall also had realistic sexual variety). I liked that they communicated during sex; there's a bit of "this OK?" and a bit of "go ahead," and one awkward position change that doesn't detract from the overall hotness of the interaction. I have never seen a movie in which one guy hands his partner a jizz rag in so matter-of-fact a manner; in fact, I'm not sure I've ever seen post-coital cleanup in any movie ever.  I think things like that, and the awkward position change, are important from an educational perspective. I'm not even kidding.

Miscellaneous Notes: Both this movie and Boys feature the two leads riding double on a bike. This is another one where people rolled leaves in cigarette papers and smoked them; sometimes these guys had a tobacco cigarette and a joint going at the same time. They don't have packs of cigarettes in the European Union?

Why I Didn't Like It: These two used so many drugs that I got uncomfortable watching it. There is a lengthy and tedious coke-fueled conversation about assimilation v. radicalism in the context of marriage equality; it's nice to have characters who know and care about this kind of thing, but boy howdy listening to them go on about it was dull. I wanted both of them to please, please, please clean up their scruffy beards.

Why I Liked It: Recognizable gay men. Both leads out and experienced; no coming-out angst (though there's some difference of opinion about PDAs). A nice acknowledgement that attractive people come in more than one flavor, in that one of the leads likes "little" men, and the other lead is a slender little guy.

Awww, baby.
You Would Like it If: You like realistic sex in a romantic context; English accents rev your motor; you like gay men who remind you of actual gay men; you like the pace and tone of independent films; you don't mind bittersweet.

Happy Ending? Take a look at this poster and tell me what you think.


If You Were Going to Watch One, and Only One, of These Movies

Boys, for sure, though I am sad you won't get to see the beautiful flaming miracle that is Derek Villaneuva; if you want the sex, go for Free Fall, but feel free to fast forward or quit in the second half. 

Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Tiny Tornado Reviews It's So Amazing

I am generally a big fan of the excellent sex education books by Robie Harris, It's NOT the Stork, for young kids; It's So Amazing, for kids seven and up; and It's Perfectly Normal, a book about puberty for older kids and teens. I particularly love the illustrations by Michael Emberly, which are simultaneously charming, playful, and explicit. It's Perfectly Normal includes a picture of a girl masturbating, for instance. Her lower half and hand are covered by a blanket, but she has the sweetest expression on her face. I love the thought that went into how to portray things like this explicitly and clearly, but respectfully and tastefully. All of the books use appropriate, explicit language for body parts; include racially diverse people in their illustrations, including mixed-race couples and families; and include drawings of nudes throughout the life cycle. Sex is described as both physically and emotionally pleasurable, something a lot of sex ed materials forget to mention. A cartoon bird and bee act as commentators throughout the books, with the bee standing in for kids who are uncomfortable talking about these things. The enthusiastic bird can't get over how cool it all is; the bee just wonders when they can stop talking about it. It's a clever device, giving modest or reluctant children (I have one of these!) a point of connection.

So, recently, when the Tiny Tornado, age 7, asked how a friend got pregnant, we read through most of It's So Amazing together. He found it fascinating. But he also had a criticism of it, and he asked me to please write to the people who made the book to tell them about it. He asked me to use his real name, but also tell them that he is the Tiny Tornado.

 This is the letter I sent:
Dear folks at Candlewick Press: 
Recently, we learned that some friends are having a baby. My 7-year-old son Y (also known as the Tiny Tornado) asked about how a person gets pregnant, and so I pulled It’s So Amazing off the shelf so we could read about it. Y enjoyed the specific, detailed information about how egg and sperm come together, and the illustrations of a developing fetus that let him imagine what our friends’ baby looks like now, and will look like over the coming months.

On page 11, though, the book says, “every boy is born with the parts that will make millions of sperm.” Y immediately said, “That’s not right!” He knows this because, based on his anatomy, we mistakenly believed he was a girl, until he informed us, very clearly and as soon as he could, that he was a boy. Y is a boy who was not born with the parts to make sperm, and he wishes that your book said that there are boys like him, and girls who were not “born with the parts that store millions of eggs.”

We had the older edition of the book, but learned that there was an updated 15th anniversary edition. We were disappointed to find that the newer edition contained almost no substantive changes; and that it still said “all boys” and “all girls.” TT said, “Mom, you have to write them a letter and tell them they’re wrong.” I promised him I would.

We love these books for the respect they have for kids, for their commitment to complete factual information, and for the fearlessness of the illustrations. We will keep reading them, discussing the ways they do and do not apply to members of the family. But TT wanted to let you know that he exists.

I read him this letter and he approved it.
Sincerely,

Su Penn

mom of the Tiny Tornado
A recent picture of a characteristically humble TT.
p.s. If you want to know about how Y told us he was a boy, and how we came to understand him better, you can read this short 2013 article from the Quaker magazine Friends Journal.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Rainbow Rowell: An Appreciation

This is not a book review. I don't want to spend any time talking about the strengths and weaknesses of Rainbow Rowell's writing; though no writer is perfect, right now I don't care about Rowell's imperfections.

What I care about, and what I want you to care about, are her prodigious and unique strengths. The reasons why I love her books, why they stayed with me for months after I read them the first time, and why I was happy to spend half a day re-reading two of them, Fangirl and Eleanor & Park, so they'd be fresh in my mind as I wrote this. Why I could totally sit down sometime in the next two weeks and read them again to get my money's worth before I have to return them to the library.

I give Rainbow Rowell the full tape-flag treatment.

Without further ado, and in no particular order, some things I love about Rainbow Rowell and her books.

1. She goes full Nebraska.

Rowell lives in Nebraska, and so do her characters. Even in her novel Landline, in which the main characters live in the Los Angeles area, they're from Nebraska. Her characters grow up in Omaha or Lincoln, or in tiny western towns, and they go to college at the University of Nebraska, where they have a tendency to fall in love.

I'm not from Nebraska, but it feels like home to me when I read Rowell's books. I have lived most of my adult life just down the road from a land-grant university; going about our daily business, we routinely drive past vast fields subdivided into what I think are grad student turf-grass research plots; paddocks holding flocks of sheep and herds of cows; and the Poultry Teaching and Research Center, which always—always—inspires a tired joke about just what they're teaching the chickens in there. When I was young, and "what are you studying?" was the kind of question you asked new people, the answers included Forestry; Fisheries; and, always my favorite, Swine-Herd Management.

Like Michigan, Nebraska is at least two states: the cities, and the Everything Else. Awhile ago, I was chatting on-line with a friend who lives in the Boston area, and he was asking me what it was like where I live. I described our little suburb. He asked what was to the south. I said, "Farms and small towns." To the east? "Farms and small towns." To the north? "Farms and small towns." To the west? "Land-grant university, declining industrial city...then farms and small towns, all the way to Lake Michigan."

Rowell pulls her characters from both Nebraskas. In Fangirl, Levi is a Range Management major from a ranch in western Nebraska, and Cather is a writer from an Omaha family where word-play is a source of pleasure and connection. Cath finds it hard to accept what she sees as Levi's limitations, cringing when he sends her a text that mis-uses "your." Levi gets mad at Cath when he thinks she's squandering an academic opportunity because it comes so easily to her.

Why this matters is because Rowell gets that people who fall in love are not necessarily alike. Levi and Cath don't fall for each other because they have so much in common; they do it through kindness and compassion, which comes easier for Levi than for Cath. It also matters, this whole Nebraska thing, because Rowell gets that those of us in the vast middle of the country are living important stories and meaningful lives. She doesn't move her kids to New York or Chicago to give them adventures; she lets them live their adventures at home.

2. Rowell gets that young people hurt each other through ignorance and carelessness more often than through malice.

In Fangirl, Levi says to Cath, "I'm not really a book person." She replies, "That's the most idiotic thing I've ever heard you say." Forty or so pages later, Levi is anxious because he hasn't been able to read the book for an English test and the friend who is supposed to help him study, Cath's roommate Reagan, has forgotten. Cath cannot fathom the idea that Levi is unable to read a book . "I've never finished a book," he tells her. "I can read. I just can't read books."

"So pretend it's a really long street sign and muddle through it," she tells him, and he replies, "Jesus. What have I ever done to make you be so mean to me?"

Cather's not being mean on purpose; she loves books so much and finds the written word so congenial that she simply can't imagine it being different for Levi. Not to read books is a moral failing, and so is studying with a friend in the hope of being able to pass a test in Young Adult Literature without actually reading the book.

A few pages later, she apologizes to him. "I'm sorry," she says. "I didn't realize we were having a serious conversation until we were."

This is how it really happens, in my experience. As young people step out into the world, they encounter all kinds of things they've never had to be aware of before. In Cath's case, it's Levi's learning disability. In Eleanor & Park, Park grows up in a comfortable middle-class home where the furniture matches the curtains, and he doesn't understand at first that he might actually put Eleanor in danger if he shows up at her house and Eleanor's step-father finds out about him, that she resists letting him write down his phone number for her because she has to protect everything that matters to her from Richie and can't risk Richie seeing the number and wondering about it. Later, Park can't deny it when Eleanor says that she embarrasses him. He loves her, but when he sees her through the eyes of other kids at school, or his mother, or even himself when he first met her, it bothers him. He is ashamed of this, but can't just make it go away. He struggles with it.

3. Rowell writes girls who are strong and awesome even when they're flawed.

Rainbow Rowell has a talent for loving her characters, even the not very likable ones, and she recognizes that people can be awesome and messed up at the same time. I especially like Cath, the protagonist of Fangirl, as an example of this. Cath has anxiety severe enough that she begins her freshman year of college with a plan to live on peanut butter and protein bars for as long as she can, so as to avoid the terrors of the dorm cafeteria. She has an identical twin, Wren, whom she has decided is the pretty one, and Wren's decision to room apart at college has left Cath feeling rejected and unmoored.

It's not hard to see why people like Cath: she's funny, smart, and cuter than she thinks she is, though, to be fair, her roommate Reagan ultimately befriends her from pity. "I feel sorry for you, and I'm going to be your friend," Reagan says. Cath replies, "I don't want to be your friend. I like that we're not friends." Reagan says, "Me, too. I'm sorry you ruined it by being so pathetic."

More important to me, though, is that Cath is a freaking expert at setting boundaries. Early in the book, she comes home to find Levi waiting outside her door. She's met him once, when he was in the room with Reagan the day she arrived at school, and he assumes that Cath will let him in to wait for Reagan to get home. She doesn't. She tells him, "I can't just let strange guys into my room. I don't even know your name."

She just wants to be alone, but she's also resistant to the kind of social pressure that would lead many, if not most, of us, to let him in, even if it made her uncomfortable.

Her golden moment comes later in the book though, after their first kiss. A few days after she and Levi kiss for the first time, she sees him kissing someone else at a party. They eventually have this conversation about it:
"Cath..." he said. "I'm so sorry. 
She wasn't quite sure what he was apologizing for. He looked up at her, from the top of his eyes, looking genuinely sorry—and sorry for her. "It was just a kiss," he said, pleating his forehead. 
"Which one?" she asked. 
Levi pushed his hands to the back of his head, and his bangs fell loose. "Both of them." 
Cath took a deep, shaky breath and let it break out through her nose. "Right," she said. "That is, um... good information to have." 
"I didn't think—" 
"Levi." She cut him off and looked him straight in the eye, trying to look stern despite her tears. "I can't thank you enough for bringing me [to the hospital]. But I couldn't mean this more: I'd like it if you left now. I don't just kiss people. Kisses aren't...just with me. That's why I've been avoiding you. That's why I'd like to avoid you now."
This is awesome. Her insecurity about her attractiveness, and a desire to save face, could easily lead her to pretend that kissing him was casual for her as well, or to decide that even if he was less invested than she was, she should keep seeing him anyway. She doesn't do that. She tells him the truth, and she gives him the boot.

4. Rowell's other characters are also complicated

With the exception of Eleanor's stepfather Richie, who is a straight-up bad guy, Rowell writes characters who have complicated strengths and weaknesses, who are both compassionate and prejudiced, whose love is not always an easy gift to receive. I especially like Park's parents, Mindy and Jamie. Late in the book, Park reflects that he has never been sure his father loves him; Park is slender, punk, a little effeminate. Even after he starts dating Eleanor, he still wonders if he might be gay. On the other hand, he thinks, it's obvious his parents love each other.

The relationship between Mindy and Jamie is a real strength of this novel. Mindy, who came to the US from Korea as a young woman to marry Jamie, values order and niceness to such a degree that she finds Eleanor, who is fat, dresses strangely, has a sarcastic sense of humor, and for a good half of the book doesn't even own a toothbrush, almost unbearable. Jamie, on the other hand, likes a certain kind of manliness; to be a pussy is just about the worst thing he can think of. Park, sadly, is kind of a pussy.

Mindy and Jamie each keep the family on-track by pushing each other aside and taking over when they have to. When Mindy starts ranting about Eleanor, saying she is not welcome to come to the house again, Jamie shoos Park outside, and comes out a bit later to say that Mindy has re-thought things and Eleanor is welcome. When Park discovers he likes wearing eyeliner, and his father is angry and disgusted with him, trying to force him to wash it off before school, Mindy vetoes him. "You tell me Park all grown up now, almost man, make own decisions. So let him make own decisions. Let him go."

It doesn't fix things; Jamie doesn't speak to Park again for weeks. But it lets Park be himself and it prevents Jamie from breaking things irrevocably. Jamie and Mindy do this for each other again and again.

5. Rowell accepts that she can't save her characters from unsolvable problems.

This is true in Fangirl, in which Cath and Wren come from a family touched by mental illness and abandonment in ways that can't be fixed with an epiphany on page 247. It's true most heart-rendingly when Eleanor and her four younger siblings talk about the possibility of Eleanor leaving home.
"I can't take you with me," she said, "if that's what you're thinking." 
"Why not?" Ben said. "We'll just hang out with the other kids." 
"There are no other kids," Eleanor said. "It's not like that." 
"You don't care about us," Maisie said. 
"I do care," Eleanor hissed. "I just can't...help you."
6. Rowell wrote a fat girl. An actual fat girl. Who fell in love and was loved without needing a makeover.

And Rowell insists, when people ask, that yes, Eleanor is actually fat. I'll let Rowell speak for herself on the subject.

Edited to add: Another nice touch is that Park's attraction to Eleanor is actively due, in part, to his appreciation of her specific body. The scene where he sees her in her too-tight gym uniform at school and is overwhelmed by this glimpse of her body, and by the possibilities of the long zipper down the front of the uniform, is so nicely done. This is to say, Park isn't attracted to Eleanor despite her weight. Her body, exactly as it is, is beautiful and exciting to him.

7. Rowell is a master of the slow build.

Rainbow Rowell is especially talented at describing how love and attraction grow. She's not in any hurry. Nobody is struck dumb at first sight by the beauty of their beloved; nobody falls head-over-heels in a weekend. They might like each other, but they have to get to know each other. In Eleanor and Park's case, Park is horrified by Eleanor when she gets on the school bus for the first time, and isn't sure he has enough social capital to survive letting her share his seat. They warm up to each other slowly. Very slowly. Their relationship begins with him realizing that Eleanor is reading his comic books over his shoulder on their bus rides, and him deciding to read a bit more slowly to be sure she can keep up. It's the very definition of tentative. By the time her characters fall in love, you really get why they've fallen in love.

8. Rowell knows how to write about sexual attraction.

Part of the slow build in Eleanor & Park is the two of them discovering their attraction to each other. Rowell writes this beautifully. The book alternates between Park and Eleanor's points of view, and when their attraction comes to a head, Rowell gives us a masterful little tennis volley between the two of them:

Eleanor
[Park] laughed again. His face completely changed when he laughed. He didn't have dimples, exactly, the the sides of his face folded in on themselves, and his eyes almost disappeared. 
"Just wait," he said.
Park 
That morning, in English, Park noticed that Eleanor's hair came to a soft red point on the back of her neck. 
Eleanor 
That afternoon, in history, Eleanor noticed that Park chewed on his pencil when he was thinking. And that the girl sitting behind him—what's her name, Kim, with the giant breasts and the orange Esprit bag—obviously had a crush on him.
And later, there is another exchange of quick observations like these:

Eleanor
Park was just her height, but he seemed taller.
Park
Eleanor's eyelashes were the same color as her freckles. 
9. Rowell's girls are interested in sex.

I can't tell you how many young adult novels I've read in which sexual activity takes place in a kind of fuzzy place where a girl doesn't quite understand what's happening and isn't clear about her own volition or desire to be there. Have I ever read a young adult novel, before Rowell, in which girls look at boys with hunger, and crave touch? If I have, I don't remember it.

Thank God for Rainbow Rowell. Her girls are sexually interested in the boys they like, and whatever hesitation her characters have about sex is not about virginity or purity or sluttiness or reputation. Eleanor's attraction to Park is so strong and earthy that she is repeatedly taken with the desire to bite him. "You're so pretty, and so good," she tells him on the phone one night. "And you make me feel like a cannibal." Another time she thinks to herself, "Don't bite his face. It's disturbing and needy and never happens in situation comedies or movies that end with big kisses."

Here is one of my favorite passages, from early on, when they're completely overwhelmed because they're holding hands for the first time:

Eleanor
Disintegrated. 
Like something had gone wrong beaming her onto the Starship Enterprise
If you've ever wondered what that feels like, it's a lot like melting—but more violent. 
Even in a million different pieces, Eleanor could still feel Park holding her hand. Could still feel his thumb exploring her palm. She sat completely still because she didn't have any other option. She tried to remember what kind of animals paralyzed their prey before they ate them... 
Maybe Park had paralzyed her with his ninja magic, his Vulcan handhold, and now he was going to eat her. 
That would be awesome.
When she sees Park in eyeliner for the first time, in the salon his mother runs out of their garage, Eleanor loves how it makes him look. The next day, when she sees him wearing it in the wild for the first time, she's overwhelmed:
When Eleanor got on the bus, she was in a good mood. "You're here! I thought maybe you were sick when you weren't at my corner." He looked up at her. She looked surprised, then sat down quietly and looked at her hands. 
"Do I look like one of the Solid Gold dancers?" he asked finally, when he couldn't take any more quiet. 
"No," she said, sidelong glancing, "you look..." 
"Unsettling?" he asked. 
She laughed and nodded. 
"Unsettling, how?" he asked her.

She kissed him with tongue. On the bus.
Edited to add: the girls in Rowell's books make different decisions about sexual activity, and none of them are presented as wrong, or bad, or damaging. In Fangirl, for instance, Cath is inexperienced, but her sister Wren has had sex with at least one high school boyfriend, and at least one college boyfriend. Reagan and Levi slept together while dating in high school; part of why they broke up was that Reagan, in her own words, kept cheating on Levi. But now, a couple of years later, they're good friends, and Reagan routinely dates multiple boys. This is refreshing.

 9. I don't think Rainbow Rowell is afraid of the queer reading. God knows I'm not.

Back in January, when I read Eleanor & Park for the first time, I kind of live-blogged it on Facebook. Here's what I wrote:
Today's book is Eleanor & Park, which is very good and chock-full of feelings in a way that is going to leave me pretty well wrecked, I can tell already. 
Have there ever before been two protagonists before who fell in love while arguing over whether the X-men comics are sexist or not? Probably not. It's awesome. 
I'm really hard on books. Books that get ecstatic reviews seem to me like they suck. Books I like are often nonetheless part-sucky. So when I'm reading a book I think is amazing it's a really intense and kind of overwhelming experience. There's good evidence Eleanor & Park is going to break my heart. I hope David and the Tiny Tornado bought ice cream and/or chocolate at the grocery store. 
Eleanor & Park is very close in tone, plot, and story beats to this really terrific Steve/Bucky high school AU fanfic I read awhile ago, with Eleanor as Bucky and Park as Steve. A little weird to be thinking, "I haven't read anything as good as this award-winning national bestseller since that one fanfic." But there you have it.
I think Rainbow Rowell knows about uncanny proto-queer magnetism. Eleanor and Park are totally playing out the story of a boy and girl who are into each other in part because of this unspoken queerness they both have. Especially given that it's set in the 80s. The music, the comics, the faggy boyfriend... So familiar. 
Park's beautician mom has just put eyeliner on Park, and Eleanor can't look away from how pretty it makes him. One of the things this book is about is how a relationship between a boy and a girl can still be queer. It's awesome. 
Park wears eyeliner to school the next day. Eleanor loves it. Reviews I've seen call this a story of "misfits" in love. Misfits seems to me like code for a word they either don't know because they don't see what I see, or that they're uncomfortable using. 
"Surely," I think, "I can't be the first person to notice Eleanor & Park is a queer romance." So I google and find lots of people explaining very earnestly that Park is totally not gay and one of the great things about the book is how stereotype-busting the heterosexual leads are. I don't know these kids' sexual orientations. But whatever they are, "heterosexual" does not begin to cover it. 
Heart only semi-broken. I think my head-canon that these kids are some kind of queer means they can't really figure themselves out until they're apart and away from Omaha. 
Because David is a lovely guy, he patiently listened to me tell him all about Eleanor & Park, and how I imagine the story might go on. Eleanor's in Minneapolis by the end. Meaning she is in one of the many midwestern towns that somehow became hotbeds of amazing lesbian culture from the 70s through the 90s: the twin cities, Iowa City, even right here in Lansing. Eventually she must find her way to Amazon Bookstore, right? How could she not? Maybe she forges a bi identity; maybe she can't hold out against the pressure to just be a dyke for the next decade or so. Park wants her to come back to Omaha, and she misses him, but she's smart and a realist: she knows she's better off where she is. Park doesn't do too bad in Omaha. He's already in touch with what Eleanor called an Omaha she never imagined: the punk record shop, the coffeeshops, the part of town where neither of them seem as out of place as they do at the high school. He goes to college, maybe at Nebraska or one of the lesser Ivies. He's on his way to class one day and there's a flyer for the campus gay & lesbian group masking-taped to the door of the building. He doesn't want to stand there to write down the info, so he pulls the flyer down and takes it with him, and he goes to the next meeting, and there you have it. He graduates, heads to grad school in New York or San Francisco. It's not even special. This is what we all did back in the 80s. The Midwestern Queer Kids version of the Game of Life. 
(If you don't care for my queer reading of the book, that's OK but I don't need to hear about it. I had some things to say on the subject of queer readings recently. And I am 100% sure that Rainbow Rowell would approve of my notional explicitly queer fan mix of her wonderful novel. As Cath says about Simon and Baz, "When I write them, they're gay.")

Thursday, April 30, 2015

For Friends Who Say They Miss Me On Facebook

What we’re watching and listening to at our house:

THE LIVE KITTEN CAM

This is a live video feed of a mama cat and five kittens (now three days old) at a rescue in British Columbia. We’ve been running this on the TV when we’re not using it for anything else. We have learned from this that it is possible to be unable to tear yourself away from a screen on which five kittens are doing nothing but sleep.

Me, texting our housemate C yesterday: “We have a live feed of 2-day-old kittens on the TV.”

10 seconds later, their dog Winnie comes thundering up the stairs, closely followed by C, who pauses in the kitchen doorway and says, “This is relevant to my interests,” before plopping down on the couch.

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS, THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME: TRACK 2

I had never heard of The Mountain Goats until my friend Chandra put one of their songs on a mixtape for me a few months ago, but I liked that one song enough that I've been listening to their other stuff as well. The Life of the World to Come is a 2009 album of songs based on Bible verses. I’m being pretty well blown away by it, though it’s taking me a long time to get to know the album because I keep getting caught up in listening to the same song on repeat for awhile before I can move on. Right now the song that has me driving home the long way to hear it one more time is "Psalm 40:2." (Link goes to song, not Bible verse.)

When I was teaching creative writing, one of the biggest challenges was Christian students turning in reams of cliches and dead language. It’s not only because I’m a Quaker that I don’t think it’s worth writing a poem if it’s just a weak re-tread of imagery from the NIV. This is true of much Christian music as well, I find: it’s not bad, it’s just not at all fresh. I think that’s why I like a song like Old Crow Medicine Show’s “Firewater,” off their last album, which does something really interesting with the imagery of communion.

So one thing I’m liking about The Life of the World to Come is that John Darnielle is so good at doing interesting things with the biblical language and contemporary settings. "Psalm 40:2” starts:

Pulled off the highway in Missouri,
Lo our hearts were heavy laden.

This song makes me want to drive to Julie’s house, bang wildly on her door, wave the CD in her bewildered face and yell, “OH MY GOD JULIE YOU HAVE TO HEAR THIS SONG!” like we are enthusiastic teenagers. Because Darnielle could hardly have written a better Dean Winchester theme song if he’d tried. Again I link to the song because it is best listened to. But here are the lyrics. They’re good lyrics, but perhaps only Julie will think, “Wow, yeah, Su is so right about this song!” and join me in fantasizing about creating a fanvid set to it. 

Pulled off the highway in Missouri, Lo our hearts were heavy laden.
Made for the chapel with some spray paint for all the things we’d held in secret.
Lord, lift up these lifeless bones.
Light cascading through the windows, all the rainbow’s heavy tones.

He has fixed his sign in the sky;
He has raised me from the pit and set me high.

Left that place in ruin, drunk on the Spirit and high on fumes,
Checked into a Red Roof Inn, stayed up for several hours
and then slept like infants in the burning fuselage of my days.
Let my mouth be ever fresh with praise.

He has fixed his sign in the sky;
He has raised me from the pit and set me high.

Each morning new; each day shot through
with all the sharp small shards of shrapnel that seem to burst out of me and you.

Head down toward Kansas, we will get there when we get there, don’t you worry.
Feel bad about the things we do along the way, but not really that bad.

We inhaled the frozen air.
Lord, send me a mechanic if I’m not beyond repair.

He has fixed his sign in the sky;
He has raised me from the pit and he will set me high.

In an interview I read while googling for lyrics confirmation (though bless John Darnielle for his clean enunciation), the interviewer says, “I couldn’t tell if it was a song about a crime spree or just a really seedy road trip,” and Darnielle says, “Well, you know, I don’t want to say it’s this or that, but both of those are in the right neighborhood,” and I thought, “Ha, he doesn’t want to admit he’s been watching Supernatural.” Only the Red Roof inn doesn’t fit, because Sam and Dean would never stay at a chain motel. Back me up here, Jules.

It’s actually a good interview, worth reading. Darnielle says, “If you’re into music, you’re into religion, some way or another,” and he says, “What is it like to feel as though you’re covered in God’s grace, even when you’re doing things like desecrating a chapel?” and he says, “One way you can get really close to God is to sin as hard as you can.”

THE MOUNTAIN GOATS, THE LIFE OF THE WORLD TO COME: TRACK 11

The other song I have really spent a lot of time with is “Isaiah 45:23.” It has been a real comfort to me. This past year, since my pain has gotten so much worse, I have been profoundly discouraged. I haven’t been suicidal, but I have sometimes felt burdened by life. Unable to reconcile myself to my diminishments. Afraid that it would get to be too much for David, and there would be no one to care for me at the times when I can’t care for myself. The only time in my life I have ever regretted having children is at these moments when I resent the way they tie me to life for the duration of their childhoods; when, more accurately, I live in fear of failing them. I’ve never actively considered suicide, and I’ve never been self-destructive the way I’ve seen friends who are toying with the idea be, but I have now and again felt that I would not much regret a fast-growing cancer or an unfortunate patch of ice on a dark highway.

This song should not be comforting, and it probably wouldn’t have been if I’d heard it for the first time a few months ago. I think it could only be a comfort now that I am feeling a bit better, emotionally at least: I have a capacity to be comforted, now, which I think I did not have over the winter.

Anyway. The song is about old age, but it speaks to me as a person with chronic pain. As is always true with music, the song is more than just its lyrics, so if you’re interested I recommend listening to it. But the first verse and chorus go like this:

If my prayer be not humble, make it so.
If these last hours the spirit waits in check, help me let it go.
And should my suffering double, let me never love you less.
Let every knee be bent; let every tongue confess.

And I won’t get better, but some day I’ll be free.
Cause I am not this body that imprisons me.

I’ve never been one for the “at least we’ll be free in death” model of religious comfort, but right now, accompanied by a very mellow acoustic guitar, it works for me.

THE VIEW OUT THE WINDOW

While I was writing this, a male cardinal was hunting out the best tidbits on the ground under the feeder and feeding them to his mate. It made me very happy. It seemed like a thing that was worth being alive for. A few months ago I’d have scoffed at the idea; I’d have called it paltry, and the worst kind of false comfort, to suggest that five minutes of watching birds woo could be enough validate the whole enterprise of living. But sometimes it is. I am glad to be alive to see those cardinals.

THE JOHN ADAMS MINISERIES

Yesterday, someone posted this question at AskMetafilter: “How did you come to terms with your chronic pain?” I was drawn to the thread, of course, but for the most part I found it too painful to read; right now, I have very much not come to terms with my pain. But in what I did read, a couple of people talked about trying not to fight it too hard; one person said, "I kind of have workaholic tendencies. Being too sick to work led to me making my peace with playing video games and watching movies and doing the things I could do, even if they weren't the things I felt I should be doing or wanted to be doing.” Another said, "Give yourself a certain point of experiencing pain and then say, 'fuck it. I'm binge watching X' and do whatever makes you feel comfortable.”

I’ve been enjoying having time off from school, and having few other commitments, though I sometimes fret that I’m wasting my days. I feel that I'm not fighting hard enough against my pain. I should be doing more with the Older Two, I think, who have been so neglected; I have taken to thinking of myself as an unschooler again, if only to paste a not-very-convincing bandaid over my failures as a homeschooler. And yet, at the same time, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to be catching up on movies and TV shows; it’s a form of exploration I haven’t had much time for in years. And it’s exploration that can be done from the couch, and paused when the need to nap comes over me suddenly and irresistibly, as it tends to do. Word Boy watches with me, much of the time; we've gotten even closer, this past year, than we were before. The Lego Savant watches on his own, usually, often late at night when being a teenager keeps him awake long after the rest of us are sleeping, but we watch many of the same things, and we talk about them. The relationships, at least, are OK; the family, at least, is fine. What else matters?

This epic stretch of downtime has let me finally get around to watching the John Adams miniseries. This is relevant to my interests! I was a political science major, once upon a time, and in my Third Grad School Foray, colonial American lit was one of my things.

The first two episodes, dealing with the time before the Revolution, and leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, had me absolutely enthralled. I thought the first episode did a marvelous job of evoking colonial Boston as an occupied city, and during the second episode I was on the edge of my seat to see if they would sign the Declaration. I told David, "It's amazing how suspenseful this is, given that I already know how it ends."

Once the war starts, though, the series slows down. I found the third episode, set during Adams' time as an envoy to the French, deadly dull. It takes some doing to make the decadent and dissolute lives of pre-revolution French aristocrats boring, but I was grateful for the fast forward button. The show never fully recovered for me; I liked the remaining four episodes well enough, but never loved them again the way I had the first two. Adams himself becomes intolerable; Abigail Adams did a good job of calling him on his shit, but if I could have jumped in, I'd have told him to stop spending so much time fretting about how he'd be seen by posterity, and more time doing—I know not what. Anything but fretting about his historical legacy, I suppose.

I found myself getting very worked up when he signed the Alien and Sedition Acts. I was talking to the screen. I know he signed the damn things, and yet I did not want him to do it. It has always been astonishing to me how quickly and completely the very men who accomplished the Revolution and wrote the Constitution betrayed it. The Constitution was ratified in 1787; Congress passed, and Adams signed, the Alien and Sedition Acts one year later. The Acts made it more difficult to become a citizen; empowered the President to deport or imprison people on suspicion that they were dangerous; and restricted speech critical of the federal government. Those portions still in effect empowered the government to inter Japanese-Americans during World War II.

I had forgotten how deeply betrayed I always felt by the Alien and Sedition Acts. I still do, even though I have lived long enough to know that no body or organization lives up to its ideals. Nor does any person live entirely up to theirs, I suppose.

I'm kind of worked up about it, though. I may have to get a bumper sticker that says, "Down with the Alien & Sedition Acts! Down with President Adams! Jefferson 1800!"

Google tells me that my bumper sticker should more rightly say, "Republicans! Turn out to save your country! Down with the Tories! Down with the British Faction!"



I'd have been a Republican in 1800, I hope. The alternative is unthinkable.

I have just remembered I would not have been allowed to vote in 1800. This is something of a damper on the spirits.

The other day, I wrote to some friends about my deep love of Soviet propaganda posters like this one:


It says, "PRINT-WEAPONS OF THE PROLETARIAT."

I found my love of Soviet propaganda a bit disturbing, like I am a bit too sympatico with people who collect Nazi memorabilia. But watching John Adams reminded me that I actually love political propaganda of all kinds, even if it's unsavory and supports ideas I find abhorrent. The opening credits of John Adams are over a montage of political cartoons and flags of the era, and I really enjoyed watching it. Every episode, I'd watch this one go by, and I'd think, "That would make a nice tattoo."


I was not the first to think of it. I also wasn't wrong. This is a nice tattoo.


In my days as a political science major, I collected posters and campaign buttons. I had an "I Like Ike" button that switched to showing his face at certain angles, and I had a "Nixon/Lodge" button. I had a G. Mennen "Soapy" Williams green polka dot bowtie. I was partial to buttons from losing campaigns; I had one for some guy named Fitzgerald who ran for governor of Michigan sometime before 1984 and at least one Adlai Stevenson pin.



I wore at least one of these every day.

During the 1984 election, I went to a campus Young Republicans meeting for the sole purpose of getting campaign materials, and for years afterward hung the "Reagan/Bush: Bringing American Back" poster I scored in every room I lived in.

And young people today think they invented irony.

Thank you, internet. Here's my poster:

It only occurs to me now, quite belatedly, to wonder how many times this poster kept me from getting laid.

Also on my walls during these years:




I'd had that Sesame Street poster since I was a little kid. Sesame Street was so new when I was little that when my mom took me to register for kindergarten, the principal of the school hadn't heard of it.

I had this poster up as well, and wore the matching button unironically. I was proud and happy that in my first election I got to vote for the first female major-party candidate for VP.


And I was not kidding around when I wore my Shirley Chisolm campaign button:


Looking for that image, I was reminded that Chisolm's slogan was "Unbossed and Unbought." Right on!

A few years later, I was not at all ironic in my love for this poster:


It meant the world to me that I was at that march. I think it was my Woodstock, my 1963 March on Washington. By the next big march, in 1993, the gay community had been discovered as a market. I remember coming up out of the Metro and being amazed by all the branded materials around: beer companies handing out protest signs with their logos on them, coupons and ads with glossy good-looking gay male couples on them. I had very mixed feelings about this. It may have been partly my youth and naivete, but in 1987 it felt like a community march, and by 1993 we were collaborating with the mainstream. I think I am the right age to feel very acutely what has been lost along with all the gains of the past few decades.

David has just messaged to invite me and the kids to lunch. Therefore this is not exactly what you'd call proof-read. But so be it.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gas Mask: A Book People Should Read

A couple of months ago, my friend dan recommended Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gas Mask, a book I'd never heard of by some Canadian guy I'd never heard of. I'm glad he did, I'm glad I read it, and I'm glad to upgrade author Jim Munroe to the short list of Canadian Guys I Have Heard Of.

Authentic Canadian Cover for Purists


Cover for the American Release


Flyboy is about Ryan, a Toronto college student whose secret power is that he can turn into a fly. He meets Cassandra: she's a waitress, a single mom, and the former singer for a famous-in-certain-circles punk band. She can make things disappear.

It doesn't take much reflection to figure out that Ryan's superpower kind of sucks. Flies are annoying, but powerless; they can be fairly easily swatted, or trapped, purposely or accidentally. This is underscored from the first scene in the book, when one of Ryan's roommates smashes a fly on Ryan's bedroom wall, leaving behind a bloody smear that never gets cleaned up. To further complicate things, Ryan returns to human form buck-ass naked, and, if he's been a fly for very long at all, covered from head to foot in a layer of viscous green slime.

On the other hand, it takes Ryan and Cassandra awhile to figure out just how awesomely powerful she is. They join together as Superheroes for Social Justice, and lend their powers to the social and political action they're already part of, a community of young activists who deface offensive billboards and attend hastily-organized political meetings in the damp basement where they also attend terrible poetry readings when they're not busy organizing this year's Take Back the Night March.

As someone who was part of a community just like this back in the 90s, when the book takes place, I found Ryan and Cassandra's community very familiar and comfortable, and would hand it to my kids to read with the introduction, "Just imagine that everyone in this book is a lesbian, and, except for the superpowers thing, this is exactly what my life was like in my 20s."

Cassandra and Ryan don't want to hurt anyone; their goal is something more like civil disobedience, and shaping creative punishments to fit the crimes of the powerful. For instance, angry that the police did not respond to the organizers' request that officers assigned to the TBTN march be female and unarmed, they march the route, Cassandra disappearing each officer's gun as they come into sight. They then introduce themselves in their thrift-store superhero costumes and make a statement to the press

The news coverage, when it comes, focuses on Cassandra's looks, and they punish the newspaper's sexism by driving around late at night, disappearing newspaper boxes. Ryan drives, and after awhile Cassandra slips into inattention, looking up quickly and doing her thing when Ryan tells her they've reached the next box.

This inattention is how she accidentally disappears a mailbox.

R & C are so conscientious that the disappearance of the mailbox bothers them on its own merits: "What if there were personal letters in there?" one of them says. But from there, the "what-ifs" pile up. What if instead of a mailbox, there had been a person there? Cassandra already knows she can disappear people; her power manifested when she accidentally disappeared an uncle who was trying to molest her when she was six. She and Ryan start speculating about the limits of her power. "Could you disappear the sun?" Ryan wonders. Cass doesn't want to think about it.

The superhero storyline is fun, and thoughtfully played out: Ryan's relatively weak power makes him, inevitably, the sidekick, and it's a lovely thing when a straight white guy ends up the sidekick to a bisexual woman. As a fly, he can observe (he helpfully retains his brain and ability to read), but his power to act is very limited, and there is a tense scene in the book when he is witnessing something terrible and can neither escape from having to see it, nor stop it. Cassandra's power, on the other hand, is almost infinite. She is ultimately faced with knowing she can stop a terrible thing, but only by doing a terrible thing. Can she do it? Can she live with herself if she does?

I don't love this book for the superhero stuff, though. I love it for the way that Ryan and his male friends are trying to navigate their relationships and their place in the community they've chosen. They are white guys trying to be decent white guys, and their efforts are touching. They want to be supportive of each other but aren't sure where the lines are; they want to be decent to the women in their lives, but aren't sure they know how. Ryan's friend Jack gives him The Female Eunuch to read at one point, and I admit that touched my crusty old battle-hardened feminist heart.

I love a moment, too, when Ryan, just getting to know Cass, is so overwhelmed by her vocabulary and intelligence that he has to curl up in a ball for a minute. A few pages back, he was admiring her looks, but it's her brain that renders him speechless. Ryan and Cass meet with one of her exes, who is territorial and hostile with Ryan. Later, Ryan wonders out loud what it means that he didn't feel threatened by her behavior, whereas he thinks he would have if she'd been a man.

Cass says, "It means you don't see a woman as a realistic competitor for a sexual partner. It means you're a little bit sexist, and a little bit homophobic."

Ryan thinks, "Ah. Good to know." (paraphrased from memory here)

I have three sons, and I would give them this book to read because they would be into the humor of it, and the superhero stuff. But I would really like them to see, too, the way Jim Monroe portrays male friendship, female friendship, community, and romantic relationships. 

I did roll my eyes at Cass's Perfect Fiction Baby. As is so often the case in books and movies, Cass is a single mom who rarely suffers the real challenges of single motherhood. She says, "Just let me put the kid to bed and I'll be right back," and emerges from the bedroom a peaceful five minutes later. When adult conversations need to happen, the child entertains herself endlessly with toy cars; when an adult conversation has to happen in a restaurant, the child interrupts only once, and then only briefly, despite having nothing to entertain herself with but a napkin and a pair of chopsticks. Cass's apartment comes equipped with a Child-Loving Older Woman Who Lives Alone In The Apartment Downstairs, and who is so delighted to watch Cass's child that neither Cass's job, nor her social life, nor her political activism, have to suffer; Cass can set her own schedule and be relied upon to keep it, while the grandmotherly neighbor picks up the extensive slack.

I get that these kind of fictional children are an expediency that allows writers to include children in characters' lives while telling stories that are not primarily about parenthood and children. Along with everyone's bathroom habits, most of the meals they eat, the haircuts they never mention getting unless it's central to the plot, and the bills they must be sitting down to pay at least sometimes, most childrearing challenges take place off-stage so as not to bog the story down. I'm still in a stage of parenting, though, where I'm very aware of the enormous disconnect between these fictional children and the real thing, and so I can be forgiven an eye-roll or two.

You can buy copies of the book at Jim Munroe's website, No Media Kings, and I recommend you do. Munroe offers a pay-what-you-can ebook option as well. dan also recommended Munroe's book Angry Young Spaceman, if I recall correctly, and I look forward to reading that next.