There are some illustrations that are so integral to my memory of books I read as a kid that to say the name of a book calls them immediately to mind. Say “A Little Princess” and I think of Sara Crewe, pale little face framed by a cloud of dark hair, sitting disconsolate in her wretched attic, or a little more optimistically, of Sara, cracked bowl in hand, looking dreamily out over the London rooftops. Both illustrations are from an edition of A Little Princess I did not own–we had it in my classroom in 4th grade. I had the more prosaic Tasha Tudor edition at home (if the Tudor illustrations define your Sara Crewe, pardon my partiality) but for some reason these are the illustrations that hooked into my heart. They are by Ethel Franklin Bett, and one of the things I love is that they capture Sara’s oddness–from the beginning of the book Frances Hodgson Burnett describes Sara as odd, “queer”, a serious little girl unlike the pink-and-white Victorian girls who populate her boarding school. (more…)
December 20, 2014
December 3, 2014
I have become, in what I hope is the nicest possible way, a bit of a martinet about tone and discourse in my living room. I love good chewy discussions, but I try, regardless of my level of engagement (or frustration or incomprehension or general bogglement) not to name-call or make generalizations. And if I catch myself slipping, I try to reverse the trend. Because I really, truly do believe (in part from watching my kids, who are passionately political, but really good listeners) that we’re not going to get anywhere in solving the problems that confront us as a society if all we do is stand on the sidelines lobbing spitballs. It isn’t that I don’t find myself wanting a meme of Dan Ackroyd from the early days of SNL doing his Weekend Update routine: “Jane, you ignorant slut…”. But I don’t think it helps.
Did I say this is my cyber-living room I’m talking about? My presence on Facebook, my blogs, my Live Journal, etc? Well, yeah, because I have yet to have a person in my physical space start calling me, or other guests, names. Face to face most of the people I know well enough to invite inside know better. On the internet, not so much.
These days, I tend to step in as early as possible, pounding my cane on the floor and calling for civility and no name-calling on my turf. Just once I had a firefight break out in my cyber-space, and once was more than enough.
A few years ago, I posted enthusiastically on my Live Journal that I was going to a convention I particularly liked, and a friend of mine (since deceased) mentioned wistfully that he didn’t go to that con any more because it didn’t feel “safe”. He knew that this was a ridiculous thing to say on the face of it: he was a middle-aged, middle-class, straight, white man, successful in his day job and as a writer. But he had also been embroiled, a year or so earlier than that, in the awful mess that was Racefail. The experience had had a lasting, and not happy, impact on him. and now (he was battling cancer and working to keep all his energy for that fight) he felt the convention was “unsafe” in the way that any place would, where old wounds might be opened on either side, at a time when he had no energy to cope with them.
When I left for the convention, there had been a few other comments, mostly from friends saying “Ooh, good, I’ll see you there!” I didn’t check my email or Live Journal until the next morning, at which point there were something like 70+ responses, most of them in vehement, angry response to my friend’s comment. And it was awful. It was as if a friend at a party, overhearing another guest say something stupid, had opened the door to my house and invited all his friends in to set the dumb guy straight, and those friends had hailed other friends, and so on.*
I don’t disagree with some of the opinions expressed, but the tone, and the words used, and the way it escalated, was frightening. I suspect that if any of those posters had been in my real-world living room, talking with the guy in the chemo cap, and could see his demeanor, they might have expressed the same things, but not in the same way, maybe out of respect for his frailty, maybe out of respect for someone else’s space, and maybe because they could see both more of his intent, and of the impact their words had on him, and on the people around them.
I asked the advice of a friend at the convention, who shook her head and said that the only way she could see to handle it was to shut the conversation down. So I did.
And these days if someone comes into a discussion on my Facebook feed, or my LJ, or one of my blogs, I make every effort not to shut it down, because I want to hear what people have to say. But I will remind people to keep the tone civil, not to name call (including not name-calling public figures–that sort of thing can escalate to a fist-fight real fast), and to think before they hit Send. My cyber-house, my cyber-rules.
*thinking of it now, it reminds me of my daughter’s 16th birthday party, which somehow got into the wild on Facebook. Kids showed up who did not know my daughter or anyone else at the party. I caught a kid tagging the shed in the back yard. One boy arrived so drunk that he pissed on my kitchen floor. Stuff was broken. And yet, when I shut the party down (at my daughter’s request) most of the kids said, as they filed out, “thank you for inviting me. I had a lovely time”. They were not bad kids; they just didn’t think of themselves as being in a real house tenanted by real people, until I made it so by tossing them out. (Okay, except for the kid with the spray paint. Him I kicked out early, with extreme prejudice.)
November 19, 2014
As I have done a lot lately, I spent the past weekend with my aunt and uncle, helping them with some household stuff. My uncle is an emeritus professor of anatomy at UCLA; my aunt ran the Chancellor’s Communication Service. Both have decades of involvement with the university, and both of them are much accomplished and smart cookies.
At one point, as we were eating lunch, I was discussing my current search for employment, and a couple of jobs in which I am interested. My uncle seemed puzzled, because most of the jobs I’m looking at play to strengths other than my writing–like herding cats and coming up with new ways to organize stuff. “But what about your major skill? What about writing?”
I allowed as how I cannot–or at least have not been able to yet–make enough money from writing to support my half of the household ship of state. And my uncle seemed very surprised. See, he published a book back in 1976 and he’s still getting royalties from it. It’s still a major contributor to their household income. To my uncle’s credit there was no tone of “so what the Hell is wrong with you,” but he was puzzled. (more…)
November 16, 2014
I saw Interstellar last week, a hugely ambitious, very heady film about…oh, kind of everything. The future of the human race. Striving. Time. Love. Space. Loneliness. Duplicity. Ecology. Parenthood. It’s beautiful to look at (well, Christopher Nolan) and well acted, and curiously soggy in places when Nolan attempts to be genuinely affecting. And the dialogue is mixed so low in places that I swear I missed some important plot points (when you’re married to a sound engineer you learn to notice these things). Overall I enjoyed it, but I don’t think it warrants the kind of ecstasy that greeted Inception (or even the Batman films). I give Nolan points for trying, and it’s useful to know that even a smart smart person can make a film that is a mixed success.
But it got me thinking about time, and how time acts in certain circumstances. Or rather, how we perceive time in certain circumstances. Which, of course led me to thinking about writing fight scenes.
No, stay with me. There’s a link. The photo above is from The Duellists, one of the most beautifully fight-choreographed movies ever. It’s about two soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars who, over a period of fifteen years, fight in an ongoing duel (using pretty much every form of weapon available to them). It was Ridley Scott’s first film, and the choreography is by William Hobbs, who also did the choreography for the Zeffirelli Romeo and Juliet, and for Richard Lester’s Three Musketeers and Four Musketeers (and Ladyhawke and Shakespeare in Love, and… Hobbs is really good. If you’re interested in sword play at all, seek his work out). One of the things I love about Hobbs’s work is that he uses the setting. If there’s mud, or uneven ground, it’s going to feature in the fight (that magnificent farce of a fight on the ice in Four Musketeers, for example). And unlike a lot of fight choreographers and directors these days, Hobbs’s fights are generally measured enough, and shot with enough distance, that you can see who’s doing what to whom. One of my chiefest irritations, in watching scenes of choreographed violence, is when the camera gets right in there and you can’t parse the action. Drives me nuts.
Except. There’s always an except. At the same time that what I think of as the churning-metal school of fight choreography and filming irritates me, it does represent, much more than the full-screen shots, the furious insanity of physical crisis, the way that time breaks into two pathways.
Ever been in a car accident? Time speeds up so fast that you can’t tell what’s going on. It’s like being on the inside of a blender, watching as the world whirls around you. At the same time, time slows to a crawl, and you find yourself thinking about what’s going on. At least, that’s my experience, and it works for fight scenes and scenes of physical danger, too. The best film representation I’ve seen of this is in the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes films, where time shifts between the furious chaos of a fist fight and Holmes’s mathematical plotting out of how he’s going to bring his opponent down. Two timelines, intimately intertwined.
Don’t believe it? I’ve had it work in my own life. Mumbledy years ago I was going to a friend’s house for dinner. As I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time and it was November, it was dark. As the friend I was going to visit was interested in costuming, and I had been given a beautiful, very sharp knife to wear with a costume, I had the knife in my pocket to show my friend. So: dark street, me trotting along, when I am mugged. Faster than I could realize what was happening, I was rolling on the asphalt of the street with my assailant, tussling per who was going home with my purse, while my mugger’s buddy was keeping a lookout and instructing his friend to “hurry up, man.” The physical part of the confrontation probably took less than a minute, at the end of which he ran off with my bag.
During that maybe-60 seconds, as I was rolling around on the ground with this guy, I was also thinking. Clearly. With a weird sort of cool rationality that I only seem to attain in a crisis:
- I have a knife.
- I could pull the knife.
- I don’t want to kill this guy unless my life is at stake
- I don’t think my life is at stake, just my purse
- If I pull the knife and don’t use it, this guy might take it away from me
- And he might not have my scruples about using it
- Okay, then, no knife
- Is there anything in my bag I cannot immediately replace?
- Not really
- Okay, then. Let him take the bag
At which point I released my hold on the bag and he ran away. Deeply shaken, but not hurt, I went to my friend’s house, called the cops, and had half an hour of shaking horrors. But the moment I let go of my bag and the mugger ran away, time returned to its normal flow.
Writing a fight scene should include all of this stuff: the breathless chaos, the weirdly clear thinking, choreography that lets you, the writer, know where all the body parts of all the players are at any moment, without the characters necessarily being aware of it. A fight is a physical event, and a mental event. And sometimes, as the phrase goes, time stands still, even if your characters don’t.
October 15, 2014
I was going to write about my current obsessive hobby of beading, but then Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was on TV. And I was appalled all over that I let my impressionable daughters watch it when they were small, and impressed that it didn’t seem to do them any lasting harm.
My family watches a lot of movies, and many of them are old musicals from the 40s and 50s. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a 1954 MGM musical based on a short story by Stephen Vincent Benet called “The Sobbin’ Women.” Out in the pioneer northwest, a man decides he needs a wife, goes into town, finds one, marries her (she falls in love with him; what his feelings for her are is unclear), and brings her home to cook and clean for himself and his six half-civilized brothers. Millie (the wife) civilizes the boys a bit, and eventually, after meeting some nice girls from town at a barn raising, the boys (led by big brother Adam, who read Plutarch’s “Rape of the Sabine Women”) go to town and kidnap the girls. The townsfolk are prevented from rescuing their daughters until the pass clears (convenient avalanche), but Millie staunchly defends the girls’ virtue through the long winter that follows. In the end, everyone winds up married. The lesson about being kidnapped? “They acted angry and annoyed, but secretly they was overjoyed…”
No, this is not a feminist movie. It’s pretty much rape-culture with music.
Why watch it? It’s pretty, the music is pleasant (although the lyrics are just passable:”Can’t make no vows to a herd of cows…”) and the stars work hard. Mostly, it has spectacular, athletic, muscular dancing. The barn raising dance, in particular, is just…wow. You briefly forget all about the political incorrectness of the surroundings and just gape in awe.
My daughters loved Seven Brides. It also led to interesting conversations. Oh, we had interesting conversations about all sorts of movies, which often led to what I call “Well, dear,” explanations. As in: “Mama, why are all those men in turbans so angry with Shirley Temple’s grandfather?” “Well, dear, the British occupation of India…” A movie like Seven Brides required several conversations, which led to more “Well, dear” moments (“No, honey, girls couldn’t vote in America until 1919.” “But that’s not fair!!!” “No, sweetie, it wasn’t.”). The fact that the hero of Seven Brides is apparently a sociopath who doesn’t understand why his behavior is reprehensible until he has a daughter of his own, led to its own subset of conversations, as did the fact that the brothers start out regarding Millie as a food-making, clothes-washing robot. (“Well, what are they doing?”)
Many of the films I loved and watched uncritically when I was a kid now reveal their age and the deep wells of misogyny of the time. When my older daughter was about eleven, Adam’s Rib, one of the great Tracy-Hepburn comedies of the 40s, was on. “Ooh, let’s watch. It’s fun.” It is fun, but it’s also blisteringly anti-feminist, and treats the heroine’s job (she’s a lawyer) with a kind of “isn’t that cute” contempt that is mind-boggling. The plot revolves around a couple, both lawyers, who are on opposite sides in a case, with Hepburn defending a woman (Judy Holliday) who discovers that her husband has a mistress, and tries to kill them. (The fact that Holliday and the “other woman”, Jean Hagen, are playing essentially the same character, is part of the joke.) The jokes are classist as well as sexist…the more I talk about it, the more appalling it looms in my memory. And yet. The movie works because the cast–all of them, Tracy, Hepburn, Tom Ewell, Hagen, David Wayne, and Holliday–are so amazingly good. With lousy actors it would be a dreary, humiliating mess.
Julie watched it and turned to me with dismay. “Do all those men realize they’re condescending to Katharine Hepburn?” We had discussions. We did agree that while the movie made fun of Hepburn’s character’s passion and intelligence in the cause of her client, it also made it clear that what drew Tracy to her in the first place is that same passion and intelligence. The movie also makes great hay of Tracy behaving like a manipulative creep–although it suggests that he’s using women’s tricks to get what he wants.
This led to watching more Tracy-Hepburn movies: Pat and Mike, Woman of the Year, Desk Set. In all of them, Hepburn’s character is a working woman: an athlete, a reporter, the head of a TV network’s research division. And in all of them, in the end, the path to romance keeps coming up against career, pretty much to the detriment of career. Until she gets her priorities straight, of course. After each film the discussions flew thick and fast, and led to Julie at one point holding up White Christmas, of all things, as a better movie on feminist terms, because no one thinks for a moment that there’s anything “cute” or out of line about the two sisters in the show having jobs. Except that the jobs are as two halves of a sister singing act, I pointed out. If one of them had been a brain surgeon or a politician I doubt the people around them would have been so understanding.
There are no right answers to how to handle old material. I will still watch Seven Brides, and Adam’s Rib, and White Christmas, and the rest, and enjoy what I find to enjoy in them. And I’m glad I showed them to the girls; I kind of think that seeing the films encouraged the discussions that led to both of them becoming feminists (and they are, boy howdy). Another mother might have refused to give them shelf space; as I said: no right answers.
But honestly, how does anyone get away with condescending to Katharine Hepburn?
May 13, 2014
A billion years ago (actually 24) I worked as a ghost-writer for a psychiatrist whose specialties were 1) working with women with serious psychiatric disorders (schizophrenia, bipolar depression, etc.) who were the mothers of infants, and 2) infant depression (you will be unsurprised to know that they are frequently linked). About the time my older daughter was six months old, I quit–having my nose that deep into psychiatric dysfunction in infancy meant that every time my daughter hiccuped I was afraid she might be going into a decline. But during that time I learned a lot about psychiatric theories of infancy. Paul (the doctor in question) had a theory that one of the things adaptive (that is, healthy) parents do for their children is to “preview” upcoming developmental markers. For example, a father holds his infant up on her feet for a moment, letting her feel the weight on her feet and see the perspective that will be hers when she learns to walk.
At the time, with a six-month-old in the house, I wasn’t sure that this held water, although I did a local news segment where I was the mother demonstrating previewing for the rapt interviewer. But after all these years, and two kids, I’m a believer. And the really big thing that I think parents preview for their kids is parental obsolescence. Because if you do it right, what you’re training your child to do is do without you.
When we were living in New York City and my daughter was seven I let her go to the corner store to buy milk by herself, for the first time. Before you call Child Protective Services–we had rehearsed this; when we went to the store together I would give her the money and let her carry out the transaction. We drilled on street crossing. And that day (unbeknownst to her) I shadowed her to make sure she was crossing the street safely, and that no one scooped up the morsel of adorableness that was her. Four years later, when she decided she was able to meet a friend and take the subway to school on her own, I did the same thing, watching to make sure that she was paying attention and had her wits about her.
A few years later we moved to San Francisco and her younger sister started wanting to walk to school on her own; I went through the whole routine all over again. By the time she started middle school she was confident about her ability to navigate the bus trip to her school (and back again).
All this previewing and letting out of the tether is not without its anxiety for the parent. Every time one of my girls tasted a new sort of freedom–overnights, going to the movies with friends, driving, getting home on her own after a party–I really wasn’t off duty until I knew that she was safely home. Because I may be letting out that rope, but I’m still at the other end.
Of course there are aspects of previewing that are neither so anecdote-worthy or appealing to the kid. Keeping track of a bank account? Maybe not so interested in learning about that, Mom. Until she is. My older daughter went into a panic at 15 because she didn’t know how to rent an apartment. A few years later we followed after her, giving her a nudge here and there, and muttering cues, but there to help but not muscling in to take care of it all. I’m thinking about this a lot because my younger daughter will be heading off to college in three months. Unless a piano falls on her head. Our job, the last eighteen years, has been to gradually let her see a vision of a world where she’s doing it all herself–while being near enough to help if it’s necessary.
It’s an interesting balancing act. I don’t anticipate to ever be completely off the hook, parenting-wise, not while there are telephones and email and ichat and whatever other avenues of communication may yet appear. I actually don’t want to be completely obsolete.
May 7, 2014
May 2, 2014
This is apparently true: a Long Island elementary school cancelled the annual-year end kindergarten show because it would distract the kindergarteners from preparing for college.
I’m not as surprised by this as I might have been twenty years ago or so. At that time, when I was living in New York City and my husband and I were looking for a preschool for our older daughter, we were told–with a straight face–by the head of a Montessori school that my kid couldn’t hope to get into Harvard without the help her fine preschool. I don’t doubt that it was, and still is, a fine preschool. But my daughter was a little over two, and my goals (written on the application, which we ultimately decided not to submit) were for her to socialize with her peers, learn to work in groups, use her words, and perhaps be reading-ready by the time she reached kindergarten age. I don’t think we were the audience for this particular school.
April 28, 2014
When you’re a kid, and later, if and when you’re a parent, you sometimes hear the term “bad attention.” As in, “We know you like attention, Lochinvar, but setting Mary Lou’s braids on fire will only get you bad attention.”
Bad attention: the sort of attention that goes down in your permanent record, that possibly keeps you out of a job or the college of your choice, the sort of attention that maybe comes with media attention and perhaps a lengthy jail sentence.
There are those, I know, who believe that all attention is good attention because, well, attention, right? And this belief feeds into the sort of marketing rhetoric about doing something different, something that will get your novel (or submission) noticed. In my slush-reading days, this meant I sometimes encountered submissions that were strung along over weeks with postcards that said “LOVE’S UNDERWEAR DRAWER is coming!” or “Only two weeks until you can open LOVE’S UNDERWEAR DRAWER!” etc. This did not, in fact, ensure a closer or more sympathetic reading when the manuscript finally arrived. Quite the opposite, in fact: when LUD finally did show up, people were hard put to give it a serious reading, although we tried, honestly. In trying to stand out from the crowd, the author of Love’s Underwear Drawer had shot herself in the foot; no one could take it seriously.
In the same way, approaching readers or people you want to blurb your book with some high concept attention-getter is very likely to backfire. Last week I, and a bunch of other BVC members, got an email for which the subject line was “Death Threat ;)” Most of us didn’t even see it because their spam filters pulled them out. My spam filter is not that diligent, and I got it and even opened it. Like the Elephant’s Child, my curiosity is sometimes ‘satiable. At the top of the email, in letters generated by Ransom Note Generator, was the message “I would kill for a review from you. Target must be an asshole.” Below that was the first chapter of a novel the author hoped I might read and blurb.
Um. Let’s just unpack that a little.
First of all, in this day and age, when even the most mild mannered of us encounter people who might have an erratic relationship with reality, an email labeled “Death Threat” (even with the winky emoticon) is likely to be, at the very least, unsettling. I was unsettled. And yet, because I was curious, I clicked through. But the “I would kill for a review from you” in faux ransom-note style creeped me out. I closed the email, trashed it… only later, when I thought about it, did I fish it out of the trash, smooth out the metaphorical wrinkles, and re-read the header. Line two made no sense (it is a sign of my disordered sensibilities that I thought “Target” referred to the chain store). I looked at the other people on the distribution list, realized that all eight of us were BVC members, and inquired as to whether anyone else had noticed the email.
As I’ve said, spam filters caught it for some of us. Most of us trashed it unopened. I may be the only one who was dumb enough to open it (at least one person suspected it contained malware of some devious sort). It was only on Saturday that someone parsed the second line of the headline: The writer of the email offered to kill someone in order to score a review, but only if the intended victim was an asshole. Okay, then.
So the email was discussed. The unwisdom and out-and-out ickiness of the email was discussed. No one thought it was particularly funny or witty and at no time did any of us decide we wanted to read the book. As a matter of fact, the consensus was that we wanted to not read it.
Much like the based-on-a-real-writer author of Love’s Underwear Drawer, the sender of the “Death Threat ;)” email was a little too clever for his own good. The best way to get attention, really, is to write something terrific, but we all know–or at least, we fear–that that won’t be enough. The same people who believe that publishing is populated by Big! Mean! Gatekeepers! may also believe that their only resort is to do an end-run around the gatekeepers by being clever. By being different. By being really interesting. By being memorable.
And that’s what the second grade teacher was talking about when he talked to little Lochinvar about Mary Lou’s braids. Lochinvar might be memorable, but only because the teachers of the third, fourth, and fifth grades will all have heard about him, and drawn their own conclusions, long before he joins their classes.
October 17, 2011
There was a day, a few years ago, when I was walking Emily, the household dog, across the overpass that spans the highway near our house. We were on the far side, starting down the ramp to the sidewalk, when I observed a middle-aged woman on the street below us. She was walking her dogs, two affable looking German shepherds. When one of them stopped to do what a dog stops to do, the woman picked up the leavings in a plastic bag, as one does. And then she did something curious: she went over to a large SUV and tidily tucked the plastic bag under the windshield wiper. Then she walked away.