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.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Book Report: Queers Dig Time Lords

Sometimes I can't let go of a book until I've written about it. If it gives me ideas, I have to work them out a bit before I feel done. I have a few books that have been languishing on my table because I haven't had the time to do this. I tried just putting them back into the library bag anyway, and they made little sad noises, and the knowledge that I had unfinished book business hurt my brain. I'm going to try to write about them, but quickly, because I have other stuff to do.

First up: An anthology called Queers Dig Time Lords, a "celebration of Dr. Who by the LGBT fans who love it." Like all anthologies, this one includes too much and is wildly uneven. Its 27 essays include far too many that are essentially autobiographical anecdotes about the role Dr. Who played in lives of young queer people. The first few are interesting and invoke at least some shared memories; probably every queer kid who was exposed to books and TV has this same relationship, if not to Dr. Who, then to some other work that aroused interest and hinted at possibilities. Ask any lesbian of about 50 about Harriet the Spy, Jo on Facts of Life, or the wonder that was Cagney & Lacey, for instance.

The trouble with these familiar stories, of course, is that they're familiar. I found that the fun of reading about a shared experience shifted quickly into impatience. It didn't take me long to start skimming any essay that started with a quick precis of the author's childhood circumstances, not willing to invest in a full reading unless I saw some hint that this one was managing to say something new, or different, or unusually insightful.

The strongest essays in the book are the ones that deal less with an individual's relationship to the show, and more with questions of what it means to perform a queer reading, and what it means for a show to allow—or, sometimes, to disallow—that queer reading.

It's been my experience that this idea of queer people actively engaging with creative works in order to situate ourselves and our experiences within them, and to use them in our formation of self, is one that straight people have a hard time grasping. One time on Facebook, I mentioned the Holy Trinity of the pre-coming-out teenage lesbian of the late 70s and early 80s: Jodie Foster in anything, the aforementioned Jo, and Buddy on the show Family. A straight friend of about my age commented, "Huh. I don't remember that plotline." I wanted to shake her and say, "Don't you get it? It wasn't a plotline. Nobody gave us plotlines. They gave us girls who were just the least bit less girly than all the other girls, just a little bit tougher, who had something of a way about them that spoke to something in us we hadn't so much as named yet. We turned them into role models and objects of affection."

Yes:


Hell, yes:


Oh, hell yes.


Two out of three of these actresses are out lesbians now, by the way.

It's been my experience that heterosexual people not only struggle to understand how very important the possibility of queer readings are to us, but that they can be actively hostile to the possibility. Last year, in a MetaFilter conversation about this essay on Harriet the Spy, it took only until the third comment for people to start denying the possibility of a queer reading of Harriet or the Boy with the Purple Socks,  or suggesting that claiming a queer reading was akin to thinking Bert & Ernie on Sesame Street are gay. As a queer person, it's hard to hear people denying something that nobody is claiming as a fact. Nobody says, I don't think, that Harriet M. Welsch or Janie is a lesbian. What so many of us experienced in the late 60s and early 70s, as 11-year-old proto-queers ourselves, was that Harriet, changing out of her school clothes and into jeans and ratty sneakers, and spending her afternoons going to places she wasn't supposed to be, called to us. And what we understand now is that she called to that part of us that was queer.

I remember loving the illustrations in that book. When I was in early elementary school, girls were still being forced to wear skirts to school, though by the time I was in late elementary school this was no longer true. I have friends who remember forced skirt-wearing as traumatic, as a denial of their identify and self-expression (myself, I liked skirts except for the need to hold them up when hanging upside down on the monkey bars). But then there was Harriet, who came into the world in 1964—just one year before I arrived—looking like this:


I didn't know which I wanted more: to be her, or to be near her.

The thing straight people seem to have trouble understanding is that a queer reading of a work doesn't foreclose any other readings. If you loved Harriet the Spy because it included a girl who was a scientist or a sweet, nurturing boy who cooked or, like a whole generation of writers of assorted genders and sexual orientations, because you really understood what was up with Harriet and that notebook and her need to observe and to write down what she saw, that's fine and good. It doesn't take anything away from you for little pre-pubescent lesbians to grab onto Harriet and hold on tight. But for those little lesbians, it can mean everything to have a hint, here and there, that who they are and what they want exists in the world. Harriet the Spy was one of those hints.

Louise Fitzhugh, by the way? A lesbian. A butch lesbian, my hand to god. And she wrote a book, Amelia, that was about two girls falling in love. She couldn't get it published and the manuscript is lost. But it existed. She wrote it. I'm glad to know it.


My point is that we had so little. And so many young people coming up today still have less than you might think in terms of access to stories, role models, images of the erotic that speak to them. Queer readings allow us to take that little and make much of it. In a good essay in Queers Dig Time Lords, "Bi, Bye," Tanya Huff writes:
There are complaints from the, shall we say, straighter parts of the world, that if you're queer, you're always trying to find the queer subtext. To that I say, 'Well, duh.' Everyone wants to find the 'me-shaped door' that lets them into the story. Unlike those straighter parts of the world, we have to search for it because if it's there at all, it's usually buried deeper than the pea in The Princess and the Pea. (p. 87)
In addition to Hoff's essay, which focuses on Jack Harkness, I very much enjoyed Amal El-Mohtar's essay "Sub Texts: The Doctor and the Master's First and Lasts," which, among other things, explores the way that the Stephen Moffatt Dr. Who closes off expansive queer readings of subtext by providing explicit, but limited, queer text. She writes:
...when you're a queer woman of color...consuming film and telelvision and books is often like being handed beautiful, elaborately sculpted meals with bits of cockroach poking antennae and carapace out of the sauces and souffles. You try to eat around the bugs...but you can't quite get away from the fact that they've flavored the dish and will probably make you sick. But you have to eat, or go hungry.... 
If consuming media was like picking bugs out of impressively prepared food, subtext was like a waiter slipping me some ingredients on the sly with a knowing wink and suggesting I make something myself. 
In many ways, it was even more freeing to me than explicit representations of queer desire, because it allowed, even depended, on my participation and imagination. By drawing me into a world of potentials which I could have a part in determining, it gave me power. (pp. 63-64)
For El-Mohtar, there is something to be preferred about the old Dr. Who, when he was portrayed as a more-or-less asexual being; no story about his loves or his sex life could be denied, because none were being told. Everything was still possible. "Since Stephen Moffat became showrunner," she writes, "the reboot has favored token explicitness over the vastness of subtextual potential, especially where men are concerned.... To take Series Six as a case in point, Canton Delaware III has a black male lover whom we never see, and the existence of whom is delivered as a punchline; we get a gay male couple...who have no names besides 'the fat one' and 'the thin one,' also presented as a wry joke." (p. 65)

She's naming an important phenomenon here: that, on the one hand (and not just in Dr. Who), it's exciting, almost dizzying to have so many explicitly named gay and lesbian characters show up in our media. On the other hand, most of the time explicit naming is all we get. El-Mohtar writes, "Ultimately, I long to be shown as well as told about queer relationships. So often we only get one or the other—shown same-sex desire that dare not speak its name, or told about same-sex desire that dare not show its face.... Russell T. Davies in Torchwood has given us a lot of queer sex without meaningful queer relationships; Steven Moffat has given us queer characters in relationships who never so much as hold hands on screen." It's a complicated trade-off between having almost no representation at all, but the freedom to imagine what isn't named, or having representation that falls short of what is needed and simultaneously, by telling a story, forecloses some of possibilities of the collaborative queer audience.

Brit Mandelo takes the idea of collaboration between audience and work even further in "Torchwood, Camp, and Queer Subjectivity." Her essay opens, "the first thing I saw of Torchwood was a clip excerpted from the opening episode of the second season." If you are a fan you know immediately which scene she's talking about:



If you don't care to learn by clicking, I'll tell you that this is the scene where Captain Jack Harkness is reunited with Captain John Hart, and they demolish a bar in a passionate eruption of kissing, fighting, and drinking. Mandelo says it's camp. And not only that, but so is everything else in the show. And this is important for queer folk because we get camp. She says, "The interrelationship of camp and gay culture hearkens back more than just a few decades, and...some of the first stuff we may have seen that looked a little bit like us came in the form of campy, over-the-top comedies." (p. 157)

It's hard to define camp for folks who aren't familiar with it, and I think it's impossible to ever define it briefly, but Mandelo does a pretty good job:
...the sense of camp in Torchwood is part of its distinctly queer ethos, part of what makes it speak directly and understandably to me. If we take camp according to the terms I've been applying to it throughout—exaggerated, theatrical, parodic, ironically nostalgic, over-the-top in reference and performance alike—it's pretty obvious where Torchwood fits on the continuum; John Barrowman's performance of Captain Jack Harkness alone dings every point on the checklist. (p. 158)
This is a nifty point, that queerness is not just about content but about style. ("Of course it is, dear," my inner gay man says, saluting me with a martini glass and sardonically raising one perfect eyebrow.)

I thought, when I started this, that I was going to crank out a quick three paragraphs so I could finally return the damn book to the library. That didn't happen, obviously. Probably because this question of queer readings is more important than you might give it credit for. It's not just a game. It's a survival strategy.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Throwback Thursday: My Wedding Day

I recently pulled a bunch of old files off a computer that was being retired, and it's been kind of fun to dip into them. Today, for Throwback Thursday, I share a write-up of Raider's and my wedding day, which happened when I was about five months pregnant with the Lego Savant. I was a grad student at  the time, and was taking an expensive anti-nausea medication because I was very sick during that pregnancy. I ran out of prescription coverage, and we hoped I could do without the meds. That turned out not to be true, so we decided to get married to get me on Raider's health insurance.

I remember that Raider proposed to me on the stairs, which I had made it only halfway down before being unable to proceed. I called to him and he brought me saltines and applesauce. In my memory, I felt like I might throw up. In Raider's memory, I had thrown up, and since he's the guy who had to clean up, we might trust his memory over mine. We had a running joke earlier in my pregnancy where, after a bout of upchucking, we'd say something like, "At least if I had to throw up in the living room, I made it to the wastepaper basket!" Then that had to be downgraded to, "At least I made it off the rug and onto the hardwood floor," like a cat with a hairball. And so on.

What we both remember is sitting on the steps, feeling discouraged that my nausea had come back so quickly after I went off the Zofran, and we remember the words of Raider's proposal: "I think it's time for that shotgun wedding we've been planning."

This report was written to friends and family.

The Romantic Engagement, February 4, 2001

Really, this will be quick. I just want to let people know that I've now been off my anti-nausea meds for six days, and after several days of feeling worse and worse, I started throwing up again yesterday. I feel like all I did yesterday was cry. Today I feel more cheerful, though still nauseated.

I talked to my practitioner about less-expensive medication options, and it turns out that I have very few. Apparently most of the available ones are related to compazine, and my bad reaction to compazine back in December means I can't take any of them.

Therefore, Raider and I are going to get a marriage license on his lunch hour today. I called the district court for information about civil ceremonies, and it turns out it's so simple that by the time I got off the phone I had made us an appointment for Friday afternoon. That's a weird thing to put in your calendar: "Wedding, 2:30 Friday." Especially since I picked Friday afternoon instead of Friday morning because I already have an appointment on Friday morning, and this way I don't have to cancel it. And then, of course, I should add: "Pharmacy, 3:00 Friday." My coverage under Raider's insurance is effective as of the date of the wedding. Woo-hoo.

It struck me funny that the scheduler at the district court didn't blink at all when she asked me when we wanted to get married, and I said, "Um, sometime in the next week, I guess? Is that possible?" I wanted to say, "Really, we're not rushing into anything. We've been together 7 1/2 years, it's just that I'm taking this really expensive medication my insurance won't cover anymore." How's that for a good reason to get married? Perhaps we should work it into the vows.

I don't feel very good about getting married this way, but it seems like the best choice right now. And Raider keeps framing it as "once this is done, we'll be legal next-of-kin," which does feel very positive. Perhaps we should work that into the vows, too: "Raider, I hereby take you as legal next-of-kin, with all the rights and obligations pertaining thereto, including the right to take a very expensive drug and have it paid for by your health plan." Then I throw up into a nearby potted plant, and then Raider says, "Su, I hereby take you as legal next-of-kin, in sickness (obviously) and in health (someday, with any luck)." And then the magistrate pronounces us, and the waiting ambulance rushes us to the Sparrow Professional Building pharmacy, where I fork over $800+ for my medication and pop one on the spot; then we rush to Human Resources at CoreComm Formerly Voyager.Net, slam the license on the desk, and say, "Sign us up, and by the way may we please have a claim form?"

The Ceremony, February 9, 2001

I think the baby might have had hiccups this morning. I felt movement that was very regular in exactly the same place for 2-3 minutes, which is not something that has happened before. Cute.

I wrote a huge long e-mail yesterday all about the Wedding Day, and just as I was finishing, lost it in a computer crash. Sigh. Normally I’m really good about saving as I go, but of course you have to get zinged every now and then. I suppose I could just write a short version for you now, since re-writing a thing that has already been written is so tedious. I think the short version would be something like this:

License gives my last name as "Pen" (but my father's as "Penn") and states Raider’s birthplace as the imaginary town of Bismarck, South Dakota. These errors are corrected. Quick drive from county clerk office to courthouse. Glamorous lunch at Arby’s on the way. Romantic ambiance at the courthouse: Guy in handcuffs, many lawyers, and disgruntled people involved in lawsuits share the waiting room. Many tedious jokes about "last chance to back out." Ceremony: 27 seconds flat. "Raider, you may kiss your bride"--blech. Vows otherwise unobjectionable. Also unmemorable. No ID requested from any party involved, bride, groom, or witnesses, at any time during entire process. Bride, groom, and witnesses convinced there is a lucrative scam in that fact if only we can figure it out.

Let’s see…what is worth expanding in that? Cora found a blue marble in the parking lot at Arby’s and we decided that counted for my something new and something blue. When it became clear that neither Raider nor I had brought any cash, we thought for a moment that the 10 bucks for the wedding might have to be the something borrowed, but fortunately the court takes checks. When I got my receipt from the clerk, it read "Received from Su Penn. On behalf of Penn, Su," which struck me funny. The clerk then yelled "Hey, Mike, feel like doing a wedding?" which made all four of us laugh.

Since we did not want to repeat vows or exchange rings, the service consisted of Raider and I holding hands, each being asked a short question to which we replied "I do," and then Toots and Cora signing the wedding certificate in triplicate, two copies for the county clerk and one, with a gold seal, for us. The question we were asked was quite acceptable to both of us, though the whole thing happened so quickly that we have some trouble remembering it. On the way out to the car, we were trying to recreate it, and I said, "I remember we promised to support and encourage each other in all the conditions of life, but there was something else…I just can’t remember it…what was it?" Toots said. "Uh,  love." Oh, yeah. I find it interesting that a purely civil ceremony requires us to promise love, support, and encouragement. I mean, we've been loving, supporting, and encouraging each other for 7 1/2 years. But I guess now it's a legal obligation.

The wedding was sandwiched into quite a busy day. I got up in the morning with 4 pages of my 5-page paper still to write, and suggested to Raider that if he drove himself to work I could re-claim the round-trip drive time to write. At 9:50, I went into the kitchen for a glass of juice, and noticed the time. At that point, I had 6 pages of my 5-page paper written. "Why was I worried about finishing this?" I asked myself. "We have three hours before we have to leave for the wedding."

Back at my computer, I suddenly remembered I had a massage at 10:30. OK. So I wrote for another 20 minutes, put on my coat, and reached for the car keys. No car keys. Ever since the key broke off in the ignition last year, there has been only one useable key for our car, so it's very important that people not leave it in their pockets but hang it on its special hook by the door. Imagine my disgruntlement upon discovering that Raider had not left the key hanging on the hook. "That darn Raider took the key!" I said to myself. Then I remembered that he had, of course, taken the key because he had, at my request, taken the car. Great.

I stole Toots's car, hoping that this would not be the one morning in 20 when he had an appointment or an errand to run before noon. My massage was lovely, and left me with a very pleasant feeling of physical and emotional well-being. It also left me with massage hair, a special oily, spiky look I get after she finishes massaging my scalp. This ended up being my wedding coif, as I had to use the hour between the massage and leaving for the wedding to finish my paper, print it, proof it, and print it again, leaving no time for hair-washing. My paper was coming off the printer just as Toots was thundering damply down the stairs after his shower which was just as the clock was chiming 1 p.m.

Toots and I quickly discovered that one of the problems with quickie weddings is that there is so little time to think through the details. For instance, Toots and I knew we were supposed to pick our friend Cora up at 1, but neither of us had been told whether we were collecting her at home or at work. We guessed work, and were fortunately correct. Then we discovered that no one had told Toots that we were also picking Raider up, so he had had no opportunity to clear out the Supplemental Storage Area in his car so that a 4th person could sit there. This was quickly accomplished in the parking lot at CoreComm Formerly Voyager Dot Net, in the steady rain which had by that time been falling for over 12 hours.

The rain made us grateful we had decided against the outdoor wedding in the park.

After the wedding, we dropped Cora back at work, put my paper in Dr. Arch's mailbox, and went for ice cream. Then we decided it might be a good day to finally get my birthday present, a $50 CD shopping spree I had been promised in October but had been too sick to take advantage of. So Toots, Raider, and I wandered pleasantly in and out of used CD shops in East Lansing (in the rain), picking out CDs. "What a pleasant day we're having!" we kept saying to each other, meaning that we had enjoyed eating ice cream and were enjoying wandering around town together.

When we got home, we discovered that, not only had Raider's 120 megabytes of memory, ordered only the day before, arrived days before he expected it, but the new computer books he had ordered from Amazon.com and anxiously awaited all week had also arrived. "What an exciting day for you!" Toots gushed enthusiastically, knowing how much fun Raider was going to have installing his memory and reading his new books ("Programming the Perl CGI" and "Learning Red Hat Linux."). We kept laughing at ourselves because we kept saying what a great day it was, completely forgetting that we had been married in the course of it.

Of course, we weren't feeling romantic about the wedding and it didn't represent a new level of commitment for us. Raider and I commented that it didn't feel much more significant than the last time we were in the county seat, last August, to execute a quit-claim deed. But one significant thing is that I did, on Friday morning, re-fill my prescription and start taking my medication again. If past experience is any guide, I should start feeling better today or tomorrow.


I will say this about the last two weeks: although I have been nauseated all the time, my stomach has hurt, and I have, on occasion, thrown up, it has not been nearly as bad as it was in the fall. I've been able to have pretty normal days, to continue to go to classes, run errands, do my housework, do my animal chores (and some of Raider's, since he's been sick with a cold all week). But it has also been two weeks of feeling steadily worse each day, so who knows how bad it might have gotten--I am very glad to have my little pills back.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Edison Robotics: Early Review

Quick recommendation for the Edison robot. I kickstarted the project ages ago, and got our robot just in time for Christmas, but you can now order from the company website. Edison is a little two-wheeled robot with built in sensors. He comes pre-programmed with several typical robot programs like obstacle avoidance, clap-controlled driving, line-following, light-following, and being controlled by your TV remote. In a very nifty innovation, these programs are activated by having him drive over barcodes, so it's easy to get started without having to hook him up to a computer, and it takes only a second to change from one program to another.



This means that Edison is very nearly instant gratification, because figuring out how to get him doing these cool things is easy peasy lemon squeezy; the Tiny Tornado, for instance, is Edison-independent after about ten minutes of practice with me. TT is building mazes for Edison to navigate with his obstacle sensors right now.

But! Edison is also programmable with free downloadable software, for kids who are into that. I don't know the limits of his programmability. And he has stud and tube connectors that are Lego-compatible.

There are three downloadable books for Edison. The first is You're a Controller, and teaches the basics of using the preset programs; this is what TT and I have used, and it's well-designed and clearly written. The second is You're a Programmer; there's a draft on the Edison website. And the third, which is forthcoming, is You're a Builder, which will focus on Edison's Lego compatibility.



The website also has a free downloadable mat to print, about 24x36", which includes a line-following maze and the preprogrammed barcodes.

I strongly recommend Edison if you've got a kid interested in robotics. It costs only $49. For $89, you can get two, and make them interact, for instance with the robot version of Sumo wrestling. It avoids both the cost and the start-up challenges of Lego Mindstorms, so it's great if you're just into casual robotics play, but seems like it could be a great first robot for a kid who will develop a more serious interest.