Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Young Victoria, A Review

The four of us went to see "The Young Victoria" tonight, because there is really rather a dearth of movies that all four of us want to (or can, even) see. And I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Honestly, I thought I knew all there was to know about Queen Victoria, and her times, just by osmosis. She was queen for practically ever, and what is there to learn about her romance with the man who became her husband, Prince Albert. Turns out, I was wrong--her early years were completely new to me.

George III was the longest reigning monarch before Victoria, and he lost the colonies, went mad, had his oldest son as his regent off and on until his death in 1820. His eldest son became George IV, and since he had no living legitimate heirs, the crown went to his brother William IV. Although William IV had 10 living children, they were all born out of wedlock with his longtime mistress and were not eligible to inherit. Victoria was the daughter of yet another of George III's sons, the Duke of Kent. Said duke died shortly before his father George III, and so Victoria was raised by her mother.

The Duchess of Kent was originally from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and could easily have returned home to Germany after the death of her husband. However, it was apparent even then that Victoria stood a good chance of inheriting the throne. George IV had no heirs, was estranged from his wife and she was presumably too old to have children. William IV took the throne at age 64 and had no living heirs either. So it looked possible that not only would Victoria inherit, she might also inherit while still a minor, which would probably mean her mother would act as regent.

Victoria's mother was advised, controlled, and possibly sleeping with an Irish military man named Sir John Conroy, and between them they kept the young Victoria isolated and dependent. Their plan was to keep her weak so that they would control her through regency in her youth, and possibly continue to control her even afterwards. The plan backfired, however, because Victoria resented and hated both Conroy and her mother, and because William IV managed to live until after Victoria's 18th birthday and no regency was necessary.

There is a wonderful scene at William's birthday reception when the King (ably portrayed by Jim Broadbent--that man is a treasure! Is there any movie he doesn't improve?) stands up and denounces Victoria's mother and announces his intention of living long enough to avoid a regency. He is visibly ailing, and the drama of the moment is tense because Americans probably don't know if there was a regency for Victoria or not. I sure didn't.

Jim Broadbent as William IV denouncing Victoria's mother. Check the gorgeous scenery!

As fascinating as the history is, the movie is a joy for its sheer beauty. The fabrics in the clothing and furnishings are gorgeously dyed and embroidered, the actors are all lovely to look at, the palaces are stunning and the gardens and landscapes are to die for. Emily Blunt makes Victoria young, vulnerable, determined, and very very human. Paul Bettany as Lord Melbourne is much more pleasant to look at than as the albino Silas in The DaVinci Code--you can see how Victoria came to depend upon him and even fall a little in love with him. Rupert Friend makes the young Prince Albert look good, even in badly fitted plaid pants.

Would I recommend this film? Absolutely. Would I see it again? Without question! I'd watch it just to look at the costumes again and marvel at the gorgeous colors that get deeper and richer as the film progresses--I'd love to hear a commentary by the costume designer about the source and dramaturgy of Victoria's dresses alone.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

More In Sorrow . . .

I removed my first friend from Facebook today.

Sure, "unfriend" was declared to be the word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, but the experience of deleting is more poignant than the perkiness of "unfriend" would imply.

I am feeling rather sad about it, frankly.

Facebook is a relatively new addition to my life, and I joined only this year. Many of my FB friends are people I don't actually see that often, and the large FB experience is kind of like getting Christmas cards all year long. You get the occasional update of what these friends are doing, you occasionally get photos, where you can marvel at how much they have changed/how they look exactly the same/how big the kids are now. The contact isn't entirely one-way, but it's not really a medium for ongoing dialogue.

The successful ethic seems to be to treat it like an office party--be polite, don't do anything you'd be embarrassed to have your boss/mother/kids see, don't be too provocative and don't discuss money, religion, or politics. Or at least, do so with some decorum, since not everybody agrees.

This is what lead to my decision to unfriend my friend: politics. Specifically, the serial posting of hysterical, apocalyptic political tracts and rants. Someone has called it "the dog whistle of Fox News" and sad to say, that was exactly how it seemed. I'd be living my life, considering issues like health care reform, and TARP repayments, and (my personal issue) the unfathomable insistence of the Current Administration to continue the Bush/Cheney policies around Guantanamo, when SUDDENLY THERE WAS A CRISIS TO OUR AMERICAN WAY OF LIFE!! Some government agency employee that I'd never even heard of was an URGENT MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and we had to SAVE THE CHILDREN and get this person fired/exposed/jailed/exiled!

And the post would go up, usually with a heading like "This person needs to be fired now!" There, among the rest of the Facebook feed: wry commentary of daily life, the amusingly precocious statements of kids, the mantras people used to make it through their days, the photos and videos and music links--suddenly there was this posting that can only be equated to the "red alert" klaxons of the old Star Trek series. We were suddenly under attack and PANIC IS THE ONLY OPTION!!

Followed soon afterward by a second, third, and even fourth posting of other members of the Echo Chamber of Eternal Hypervigilism weighing in on the same "issue.," using the identical source material but giving the impression that Something was Going On.

"What is this threat to Our Way Of Life," I think, and "Shouldn't I Be Aware?" I mean, I read a couple of different political and news e-magazines every day and they haven't mentioned anything about this IMMEDIATE ACTION NECESSARY item. So, I click the links. And then I read the article(s). And I truly don't get it. This? This?!? is what is SO DANGEROUS THAT YOU MUST CALL YOUR REPRESENTATIVES and LET THEM KNOW HOW YOU FEEL?

This first one I got sucked into was the Van Jones controversy. A smart young black man with a Yale Law degree and an NYTimes best-selling book on lifting people out of poverty by creating sustainable job growth in green industry, Jones was appointed to the Council on Environmental Quality to consult on green jobs creation. He also organized an advertising boycott of Glenn Beck's Fox News program to protest Beck calling President Obama a racist.

Beck retaliated, and suddenly Van Jones was moreterrifying than Osama Bin Laden. A summary of what happened can be found here, and pretty well summarizes my skeptical attitude about the whole thing. After a couple of weeks of this, Jones resigned, and THANK GOD OUR CHILDREN ARE SAFE NOW.

And I didn't get it--I still don't get it. I tried to understand and asked what was so frightening about this man. Sure, he had said some imprudent things, but what had he done? What was he poised to do? My friend wasn't able to articulate any specific threat--just a generalized horror and mistrust of anyone called "communist," "Marxist" or "community organizer." I was called naive because I didn't understand.

Kind of like the old saw "if you have to ask, you can't afford it." If I had to ask what was dangerous about a "self-avowed communist" then I was part of the problem.

There were other incidents after Jones resigned: global warming, Sarah Palin, ACORN, vaccines. All were links headed by a single sentence about how everything is a hoax and a conspiracy and "do your research." There were also posts about what she was up to while living in the middle of the chaos that is raising children--which was why we were friends in the first place.

The one that lead me to unfriend was the current tempest over Kevin Jennings. No, not the Jeopardy champion, but the "Safe Schools Czar." Republicans are calling for his removal FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHILDREN. Again, I have never even heard of this guy, but THERE IS NOT TIME TO LOSE HE NEEDS TO BE REMOVED AND NOT BE ALLOWED NEAR CHILDREN. So I looked him up. I see a man who understands the pain borne by gay school students and who works to alleviate that pain. A man who has created programs to prevent bullying and tormenting of homosexual students.

I also see a lot of people so frightened or disgusted by the idea of homosexuality that any action that does not actively discourage it is considered to be "promoting" it. I see organizations that continue to use innuendo and guilt by association even when retracting previous false claims.

So I post a link where Media Matters looks at the claims against Jennings and disproves them. I suggest that my friend look at what the facts are and evaluate the matter critically. I got this response:

Maybe you should do a little more research about what he's advocating and then decide.

That is what did it for me. The point I was making was that Jennings WASN'T doing what he was accused of. That the claims that he promoted underage sexual activity, or that he advocated pornography and dangerous sexual practices were NOT TRUE. That a man should not be fired from a government position for things he didn't do.

But for her, none of that mattered. She swallowed the nasty stories without question and lectured me on needing to do the research.

So I told her I would no longer engage and I unfriended her. Now I am feeling deeply sad about the whole thing and I'm not entirely certain why. She is a lively and highly social person, fun to be with, deeply committed to her children and an outstanding mother. She makes certain her kids have opportunities and she goes to every single one of their sporting and school events. She is generous with her time and her talents. I can't reconcile the person I know with the way she is so captivated by the politics of fear and hate. I can't believe that the woman who spends hours standing in freezing weather to watch her son play football, who drives her daughter to swim meets all over the state, has no sympathy in her political views.

In retrospect, I would say better than half her Facebook postings were extremely conservative political postings that did not admit of any consideration that there might be a different viewpoint. And when (gently! I promise I was gentle!) asked about her views, she simply reposted the same arguments.

So, I am mourning the loss of my friend--I lost her by unfriending her, but I think I had already lost her to her politics.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

So You Think You Can Gleek?

The good news is: You don't have to be in high school to be in a glee club!
The bad news is: You get to be judged by a Pussycat Doll? Seriously?

I may have to watch this show.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Dog Circus--The Final Chapter

So the saga of the lost puggle reached its end earlier this week with the successful location of a permanent home for the little guy. But not before further adventures. . .

Last Sunday I learned of a local group of puggle owners who met occasionally at large, open areas to let their dogs run. Organized through a "Meetup" website, they were scheduled to meet that very day. So I tucked the puggle into a red dog sweater against the cold and took him and Bermondsey out.

We went to the dog park first, to check that the posters were still up--there had been a grand total of NO responses to the notice and I wanted to be sure they were still up. We got to the park, and Puggle clearly knew where he was. He leapt out of the car, ran up to the gate, and wormed his way under the fence. The better to start running around and getting into other dogs' ways.

It was easy to see how he could have gotten lost from any owner that he did have, as I couldn't remotely keep track of him. Fortunately, the red sweater stood out so when he was even remotely in view I could pick him out against the snow. Although for the first twenty minutes I couldn't find him at all. He just took off and ran.

Not being a complete dunce, I had left his leash on him, so when he did pass by, I was able to stomp on the leash and get some control over him. By the time I even found him again, Bermondsey was ready to go, so we headed over to the Puggle Meetup.

Is there a better way to learn about the nature of a certain dog breed than watching about 30 of them in a room? Not with puggles there isn't. All at once I could how the two breeds contributed to the dogs. Mr. Yips was the smallest of the puggles in the room, except for one that was still a puppy. Many of the dogs were pug sized, but quite a few were more like beagles with pug coloring. A couple were black, and one was a brindle color, although most were tan with black faces and ears.

They all had similar personalities--excessive curiosity and energy. In fact, 30 puggles in a room is like watching a science experiment. Truly. At one point, a couple of the puggles started running in a big circle around the room. Since every puggle needs to know what every other animal in the room is doing, more puggles joined the first two. Inside of two minutes, every single puggle in the room was running in the circle. It was like watching a science experiment on the formation of a tornado. Literally every single dog in that room had joined the vortex and was running in a circle. It's a good thing the breed is so small, or we would have seen furniture and people sucked into the maelstrom.

Because puggles are curious. Nosy, even. Watching a room full of puggles is like watching a room full of National Enquirer reporters and paparazzi at work. "Hey! There's the Loch Ness Monster!" And suddenly there is a stampede of dogs running to check out what is going on. "Alien spaceship on the White House Lawn!" Even dogs who don't have any idea what is going on join the stampede to go stick their noses in whatever business is happening.

Bermondsey was there too, and he was totally gob-smacked. He had literally no way to relate to this frenzy of dog nonsense. He climbed up onto my lap and watched, and even that wasn't far enough away from the mayhem, because occasionally a puggle would notice "Hey! There's a dog who's not participating! What's the deal with that?" and would come over and try to sniff out the story.

Some of the puggle group members tried to make us feel included. "Your dog can certainly go and play. It's not just for puggles." Which was a lovely thought, but Bermondsey had no interest in getting into that scrum. It was like inviting a chess player to join a rugby game--there was no overlap. Eventually, I put Bermondsey on a mat on top of a large wire kennel, which kept him out of the way of the craziness.

Mr. Yips was in his element, though. I left the leash on him, at least in part so I could reclaim him afterwards, and in part because I wasn't certain I could recognize him without the leash and the sweater. The leash proved problematic, because a larger puggle grabbed it--twice--and began leading Mr. Yips around by it. So a kind puggle parent removed the leash and returned it to me.

I managed to speak to the organizer of the meet-up and told her the story of poor, abandoned Mr. Yips, and she was shocked, appalled, and ready to help. She promised to send out an email to the group with his story to see if anyone could help. And that was the single best way to find a home for a lost puggle. Because it turns out that people who have puggles LOVE the breed, and people who have only one puggle want another one so they can have Doggie Buddies.

Because the email went out on Sunday afternoon, and in 24 hours I had six people who were interested in adopting Mr. Yips, three more people who wanted to help with the search for a new home for him, and one person who couldn't take another puggle, but offered to help with vetenary bills and neutering, as well as dog sitting over the holidays if necessary.

It was the kind of thing that makes you think that people are not such a bad species after all. I mean, it's embarrassing to belong to homo sapiens if one of them would leave a little dog alone and naked in a dog park. But when people come out of the woodwork to offer assistance of any kind, you have to realize that people are not all bad.

On Monday night, someone had contacted me about meeting Mr. Yips and introducing him to the puggle they already had. "Frankie" was four, and they had been thinking about getting a second dog to be a companion. So I took Mr. Yips over for a "puggle play date."

And even though he was not the dog of my heart, I started to have doubts about leaving him there. Because Frankie was aggressive and nosy, and suddenly Mr. Yips was being treated the way he had treated Bermondsey. Although, to be fair, Mr. Yips could give as good as he got, and did, while poor Bermondsey just suffered.

I left Mr. Yips there so the craziness could settle down, and within a couple of hours I got a phone call that they wanted to keep him. The only caveat I had was that they had to let me know how he was doing, what they named him, and if there was any problem, I would take him back.

Mr. Yips has been there for the rest of the week, and is now named "Vinnie." (I know--Frankie and Vinnie, it sounds like an episode of The Sopranos or something!) The owners even sent me some pictures of the two dogs, and have told me that they have settled down. Vinnie's sweet personality is showing through, and they are very happy to have him.

"Vinnie" is the one facing toward the camera--you can see he is a smaller, less stocky guy than Frankie, although they are both on the small side for the breed.

"Vinnie" is the one asleep on the blanket.

So a Merry Christmas After All. Especially for Bermondsey, who is very happy to have his house back the way he likes it--quiet, with him as the only dog.

Number Slutting, Plus 1

OMG! It turns out that my last post was number 1000!

I have a thousand blog posts. Wow. I'm boggled.

CORRECTION: I have a thousand AND ONE posts now!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Dog Circus--Part 3: What's My Name?

Trying to keep the Loaner Dog off the bed this morning sounded like this:

Get down.
Go ahead, get down.
Dog, get down


I'm thinking we should maybe start calling him "Gold Digger."

Dog Circus--Part 2, or The Dog Wars

What is the hardest part of bringing a new dog home? Oh yeah--what happens at night. Where does he sleep? Does he sleep? Or does he keep you up all night with the whining and the scratching and the "but I want to be with YOU" nonsense.

I was forcibly reminded of this last night. I had managed to forget about this, so I had not made any plans about what to do with "Mr. Yips" come bedtime.

Baby gate? Didn't work. As demonstrated by the crash from downstairs and appearance of Mr. Yips on the bed.

Baby gate with a chair in front of it? Didn't work again. No crash this time, but the mini-thunder of paws coming up the stairs. And the appearance of Mr. Yips on the bed.

Now this is no fool of a dog, either. Because when Mr. Yips arrived upstairs, each time he checked the location of the Local Competition (that would be Bermondsey, both times in his own bed underneath ours), then he jumped up and snuggled himself next to me.

Oh yeah. Suck up to the Alpha--a key strategy for success in the pack. And he had the little touches right too. He found me, then positioned himself on the side of me away from Capt. Sweetie (because he's going to be clear about wanting to be "protected"). He curled up in the crook of my knee, and like sprinkles and a cherry on top of it all, put his little, trusting head on my knee.

Oh, he was good.

But while he had arranged matters to his own satisfaction, they were not universally approved. The Board of Directors of Chez Evil were consulted, a vote was called and taken and Mr. Yips' motion failed. So I brought the kennel up from the kitchen, and that's where he spent the night.

It went remarkably well. Mr. Yips went in happily, made a few sounds, and settled in and slept the night. So, more information--he has been kennelled.

This morning, however, we are seeing the re-escalation of hostilities in the Who Gets To Be On The Bed With The Alpha War. Bermondsey has currently established his Maginot Line on the Western Front, conducting trench warfare from under the bed. Capt. Sweetie has done excellent service in picking up the interloper and dropping him back on the floor as often as Mr. Yips jumps up.

In an attempt to engage in some Fifth Column work, Mr. Yips has sought out Sursels in her room. This is an inventive tactic, since the Allies (a term which here means "Bermondsey") have not recognized nor sought out this potentially strategic alliance with the kids in the family. So any inroads the Axis Dog makes with these lesser powers means he can establish bases from which to safely conduct his continued assaults with the goal of achieving Alpha Dogdom.

It's a dog's life in the modern army.

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Dog Circus-- Part I

First, let me attempt to excuse my actions here, by saying in full disclosure that I have the mother of all head colds, and the result is that my brain activity is rather sporadic. I actually woke up this morning with so much pain in my head that any noise--and I mean any noise--felt like an assault with a blunt instrument. Yes, even the sound of the sheets when I pulled up the covers made my head ache. So, I'm pleading diminished capacity here.

Then, after a solid dose of Sudafed and Tylenol (both (TM)), I ran into the need to exercise the dog. Of course, I had no need to exercise the dog, but HE did, and he made it clear to me that I was expected to fulfull my obligations--head cold or no. So, I decided the most efficient way to maximize the ratio of canine activity to human inactivity was to go to the off leash dog park.

So that's what we did.

It was colder today than it's been yet this winter and something about the weather and the time made the park more empty than usual. Bermondsey and I made it around our usual track when a nice looking lady with a beagle and a Airedale asked me and the other dog walker "Do either of you have a Chihuahua?"

Well--OF COURSE NOT! But she went on to describe a dog that had been following her and her two dogs for about half an hour--the salient points that I heard were "small," "no collar" and "shivering." She also bandied about terms like "abandoned" and "abused," and I was suddenly in her power.

So I helped her go look for this dog--and we found him. Not a Chihuahua, at least, but what turned out to be a puggle--a "designer dog" that is a cross between a pug and a beagle. There was indeed no collar, and he looked naked and cold. Yes. I am a sucker. And an idiot. But my heart is in the right place.

Because the Nice Lady managed to snag him. And then we had a problem. Before we grabbed him, we could have called Animal Control and reported a stray dog and gone home in the glow of A Good Deed Done. I was actually calling Animal Control when the Nice Lady nabbed him, but once he was no longer actually straying, it seemed silly to let him go to have somebody else try to capture him.

This is where I clearly let my soft head and my soft heart reinforce each other. Because Nice Lady wasn't actually from the area, and so she had no idea where to take this dog. But I did. So I did the Grand Gesture, and the Noble Thing, and I took this dog to my car to see if we could find his owner.

Okay, so the idea wasn't immediately a stupid one. Dogs have chips, mostly, so they can be returned to their owners if separated. I knew how to get to the Humane Society. So I put Bermondsey and Naked Dog into the car with the intention of getting New Dog scanned, then taking the resulting information and returning him home to his (presumably) loving home.

This first sign that things were going to go badly was the way the two dogs behaved in the car. New Dog had Doggie Business on the brain, and ended up chasing Bermondsey around the car. WHILE I was driving. In fact, Bermondsey had jumped from the front seat to the back seat to the front seat to THE TOP OF THE DASHBOARD in about 40 seconds while trying to avoid the nose of New Dog.

I pulled over, got Bermondsey down onto the floor, and tucked Lost Dog under one arm as I drove with one hand toward the Humane Society. However, in less than a mile, I spotted a "Pet Hospital." Huzzah! They would surely have a scanner! Odds were good that Shivering Dog would have a home in the vicinity! Let's pull in and get this taken care of!

No chip.

No chip.

I am beginning to revise my assessment of the situation.

Small naked dog, alone in dog park. No collar. No coat. No chip. Not neutered. As Wayne Campbell would say; "FISHED YOU IN!"

It is not unheard of for people to abandon their dogs at a dog park, in the hopes that some dog lover with more heart than sense would rescue said animal and give it a new home.

Veterinary assistant sold me a slip leash with which I could tie Abandoned Dog to a seat belt and at least lower the level of mischief while operating my vehicle. I also leave my name and contact information in case someone contacts the nearest vet to look for a lost dog.

Then we went to the Humane Society. And by the time we got there, Weasel Dog had the slip leash around his hips and has nearly broken free and is nearly within nosing distance of Bermondsey, who has taken to huddling deep into the foot well of the front passenger seat. Nobody is happy with this turn of events.

Now, the Humane Society has its own problems and budget crises, etc. etc. So when I walk in with Somebody Else's Dog, I am informed -- immediately--"you can leave him here but we can't tell you what happens to him."

This is brilliant. For them. Because here I am, a Concerned Citizen hoping to reunite Lost Dog with Grieving Family. There they sit, Non-Profit Agency in era of lost jobs and home foreclosures, dealing with a lot of surrendered pets. If they can get me to NOT turn this dog in, then that is one less animal they have to deal with. So, without ever saying anything like "not adoptable" and "euthanasia" or "budget cuts and financial shortfalls" they sucker punch me right in my soft heart and make it impossible for me to leave said Problem Dog on their hands.

What would my kids say if they found out I had done that?

So the intake worker gives Naked Dog a collar, and the AHS store sells me a "recycled" leather leashe for $2, and I'm headed back home. I do have a list of the web sites the AHS recommends for connected Lost Dogs to Found Dogs. So I go home and connect to the internet.

I go to the "Lost Dogs" bulletin board, and don't find This Dog missing, so I post a "Found Dog" report.

I go to Craigslist and scan the "Lost Dogs" bulletin board, and don't find This Dog missing, so I post a "Found Dog" report.

I go to "," lather, rinse, and repeat.

I check with a couple of rescue organizations, but it looks like there isn't much they can do. See above, re: lots of surrendered animals, few adopters, plus "no foster homes."

Posters! I haven't made posters yet! I snap a picture with my camera phone and start to make a poster to put up in the park. After all, if someone lost him at the park, that's where they will look for him again.

Meanwhile, I have put Mr. Puggle's leash around a door knob and closed the door. He can reach food, water, a cushion--but he can't reach Bermondsey. This seems to be a good solution, until I hear the sounds of growling. That Dog has chewed through the leather leash, and is back to chasing Bermondsey.

So I grab the Other leash, tie it to the first one, and give him a rawhide bone. Back to making a poster!

And then the mayhem starts again. Yup. Chewed through the second leash as well.

So I go to fetch a baby gate. The babies are now 13 and 16, so the gate is pretty far back in the accumulation of history that is our basement. I manage to winkle it out and set it up. I print out the posters and go fetch the "babies" from school.

We are home half an hour later, to find the baby gate has been breached. Poor Bermondsey--he's got to feel like the French at Agincourt. We drop off backpacks and computers, re-establish gate fortifications, and head out to put up posters.

When we come back, the gate has been breached again, this time in a fashion that locks both dogs on the wrong side from food and water. And Bermondsey remains Not Very Happy About All This.

As I write this now, Other Dog has been in the house for about ten hours. I have learned some things about him. He only eats dry dog food--he actually didn't even touch any of the wet I put out for him. He is used to wearing clothes to go outside--I got out a dog jacket that Bermondsey wears when his hair is short, and Clothing Optional Dog doubled his tail wagging. Jacket means outdoors! Outdoors after eating is good!

He was not an abused dog--rather the opposite. As we ate dinner, Comfort Dog went into the parlor and settled himself luxuriantly on a cushion. After dinner, and Capt. Sweetie and I enjoyed the fire, Spoiled Dog splayed himself full on his back, and proceeded to serenade us with a collection of snores and tongue clicks.

He is immediately territorial, or defensive, or something He barks at unfamiliar sounds and at intruders. How he knows WHAT sounds are unfamiliar, or WHO is an intruder is not clear.

Right now, he is sleeping in the same room as Bermondsey, and they are doing a good job of ignoring each other. This is not a bad dog--this is a dog somebody has put some effort into. But it's 11:00 p.m., and nobody has called looking for him.

To be continued. . . .

That, however, was not the foremost thought on his mind. No, he was busy checking all the dogs in the area in case any of them just happened to be female. It was apparently a bonus in his little mind if she was in heat.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Steig Larssen and the Feminist/Misogynist Dichotomy

I'm revisiting Steig Larssen's book The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo these days, and not of my own volition. I reviewed it on my book review blog some time ago, and recently received a comment in response to my review of the sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire.

As the commenter pointed out--I said I hated Dragon Tattoo and yet I gave it a B+. Which startled me. I remember hating it, and I have absolutely blocked out why I would have given it a B+. Is grade inflation so prevalent that I would give such a good grade to a book I would warn people away from reading? I mean, not only can't I recommend it, but I can't even go with the relatively moderate "Give it a shot and tell me what you think of it."

No, I found Dragon Tattoo to be so overwrought, so offensive, and so stupid on so many levels that I feel it is my public duty to save people from picking it up. "You will never get those hours back again," I would tell anybody. "Well, I might recommend it, except for the fact that the main character is an idiot and a Mary Sue with an inexplicable success rate with women, and the fact that much of what passes for prose is actually shopping lists, and that the mystery solution is so obvious that you will guess the perp about five hundred pages before the hero does, and the fact that there is a disturbing amount of horrific torture and murder of women which is graphically detailed. . .Actually, there really IS no reason to read this book, and there is no explanation for why it has been so well reviewed."

And I thought I had been harsh when I told someone that another book "was not a complete waste of time." I think Dragon Tattoo is a complete waste of time.

Now, Dragon Tattoo is the subject of a thoughtful article about the state of book publishing: "Dead, brutalized women sell books." Apparently the received wisdom in the world of publishing is that people like to read about rape, torture and murder of women--so much so that even a book where the victim is male has a woman's (dead) body on the cover.

Obviously, this is disturbing. I, for one, do not like to read torture porn, and I read a lot of fiction. Yet somehow the sense at the end of the article is that rape and murder and mutilation of women is about all that is keeping book publishing solvent. That can't be true, can it? It was only about a year ago that we learned that women buy and read a substantial majority of fiction in the country, and really, how many of them would choose violence if they had a realistic choice?

I can believe that women like to read thrillers, or mysteries, and the ones that are being published are also increasingly violent--which they read because they are what is available. That makes sense to me. The Silence of the Lambs was incredibly gory, but it also had a psychologically complex relationship at its heart, and maybe the torture was something some readers waded through to get to the parts that interested them: the relationship between Clarice and Lecter.

Unfortunately, the lesson taken seems to be "Gore sells" and we get a rush of other books that have all the blood and none of the relationships. And we read those books, because they are reviewed as the best of what is now being published.

There is a debate about whether the Steig Larssen books are "feminist" because they contain a strong female heroine who fights against the bad guys who are murdering and raping other women. Does a kick-ass dame in a leading role redeem a novel from being torture porn? Does the use of fictive violence against women serve as evidence of cultural disapproval of such violence, or is it a way to make such violence marketable in a way that straight misogynistic horrors couldn't be sold?

When an author wrestles with horrors, the activity is fraught with risk. I mean, there is a justifcation for representing the problem one is condemning, at the very least so the reader knows just what the writer is against. The problem comes when the writer turns out to be better and writing about the problem than writing about the condemnation of the problem. And I think that is what happened in Dragon Tattoo. The prose about sexual mutiliation, dismemberment and torture was so much more lively and engaged than the rest of the book that I was left with the sensation of having been subjected to a creep show under false pretenses.

Maybe that's why I was so generous with my grading--after all, my sense was that Larssen enjoyed writing about the violence, and that enjoyment overwhelmed the "moral" of the book. However, I seemed to be in the minority, since so many reviewers had recommended the book, they must have experienced it as more balanced, less celebratory of violence against women than I did.

There is an old, hoary joke about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln during the performance of "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theater. In it's entirety, the joke goes: "Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?" In the case of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I find myself in Mrs. Lincoln's shoes--there is no way to consider the book "other than that."

Something Lost--A Moment for Nostalgia

I was reading a "professional" blog by a friend of mine, about a "No TV on Sunday" rule and what the kids did instead. She writes about the newish "Nature Deficit Disorder," the idea that kids today are so overscheduled that they simply don't spend time outside.

God, parents have changed since I was a kid.

Did parents actually kick their kids out of the house back then, or am I manufacturing a memory? It seems like we spent a lot of time outside, especially during summer break--the door would open and we'd be outside for hours. I lived on a block that had a lot of kids, and we'd play games that ranged across half a block of back yards. From the bottom of the block to our back yard, there were kids in every house and we'd have to define the limits for hide and seek: "From here down to the Cowan's yard. Bobby's big tree is Home Base. No hiding in playhouses or garages or. . .okay, you can't hide inside."

Kid world was full of rituals that got passed on as new kids entered the neighborhood. My family moved onto the block when I was six, and we left the summer after I turned nine. In those years, only one other family moved in or out, so the pack of kids was pretty stable and large.

How to choose who is "It."

One kid was the tapper, and would decide "one shoe" or "two shoe." We'd sit in a circle with our feet in the middle, and the tapper would tap (0r pound) one shoe per syllable.

My mother and your mother were hanging up clothes.
My mother hit your mother in the nose.
What color was the blood?

The owner of the foot the tapper landed on would select a color. Speed was important, so favorite colors were often chosen. For some reason, we never tried to stump the tapper with hard to spell colors, which would only have increased the randomness factor anyway.

B-l-u-e spells blue and you are Not It.

Two shoes was harder to game--you couldn't immediately tell if "blue" or "orange" would end up back on your own foot, thus freeing you from being It. But it took so much longer. Or maybe the tapper would just use the shorter, non-interactive chants.

Ink-a-bink, a bottle of ink
The cork fell out and you stink
Not because you're dirty
Not because you're clean
But because you kissed a la-dy
Behind a magazine.

Another advantage to the Two Shoe Tap was that by the time you were finished, all the available kids were usually present. Otherwise, one might show up in the middle of a Hide and Seek round, and of course you had to start a new one. New Kid was always It, which means the previous It would have to all in all the hiders.

Ollie, ollie income free/New Comer!

This sucked if you had a really great hiding place, unless you could sneak around and emerge o from somewhere else, in order to keep your hiding location secret. The New Comer had a to lean against the tree, cover his/her eyes and count. "A hundred fast, or fifty slow." I always counted to a hundred as fast as I could, using my fingers to keep track of ten batches of ten.

Of course, hiders didn't just wait to be found. Their goal was to get to Home Base before they were tagged by It. So the hiding place had to be one where you could keep an eye on It in order to make a break for safety, preferably while It was not between you and Home Base.

While I lived there, we had to create a rule to prevent Its from loitering around Home Base, just waiting to catch the dumb or unlucky. So a mandatory "run around the house" was instituted, although you could strategically run only half-way around and double back to catch the incoming hiders who might have expected you to be on the other side of the house.

When a hider made a break for Home, It could either tag the hider, or call out hider's name and then try to tag Home first. Once the first hider was tagged, the rest of the hiders tended to burst out all at once--because we saw we were safe from being It, or because we were so far away we only saw the other hiders coming out of hiding.

Kid game rules were intricate and strictly observed and enforced. Cheaters who counted to fifty fast, or who didn't run all the way around the house were not allowed to play, which was a harsh sentence, since there were never any other kids around--we were all of us hiding and seeking. Cheaters were lonely outcasts, leading a bleak ex-patriot life of isolation. It was better to fail to catch any hiders and be It twice in a row than to suffer the stigma of being a Cheater.

Games like this tended to fall apart around 6 p.m., as the voices of mothers lifted across the air. "Susie! Kristin! Supper!" "Dinner-time!" The voices of the mothers were pitched high and lilted from yard to yard. Each mother had her own tune and syncopation, so even if you couldn't distinguish the words, you recognized the source. One father, over on another street, had a whistle like a Morse code: short short short long, all the same pitch, that you could hear for blocks. Except for him, the callers were all mothers. Fathers only got involved if you didn't turn up fast enough, and that was the International Symbol for "Oh jeez, are YOU in trouble."

My kids have never had this kind of freedom. Almost all the yards on our block are fenced in, so there is no way to roam up and down the block like we used to. The world has changed as well, and the mothers work away from home now too, so neighborhoods are pretty dead during the day time.

When my parents bought their house, they went into the back yard and counted the swingsets in the back yards to confirm the high percentage of kids available. On the block my kids have grown up on, there was only one other swingset. Currently, there is only one other family with kids at home--we have two lovely gay couples, four houses where the kids are out of high school or even out of graduate school, two apartment buildings and two triplex rental units. The neighbors are all lovely and the diversity is wonderful.

Still, I miss my experience of a tribe of neighborhood kids on my own kids' behalf.