The Romantic Hero: Three Versions for/by Women

Romance OCD-Style

The first is the most common. This type of romantic hero is all about the girl. He notices what she wears. He notices how she smells. He notices where she spends her free time. He picks up on tiny clues regarding her tastes, her wishes, her whereabouts. Edward from Twilight is this type of romantic hero. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice is a dialed-down and more realistic version. This hero has an impressively retentive memory: for instance, if the heroine leaves town due to some minor misunderstanding with the hero, he will remember that she once mentioned her grandmother used to live on Bailey Island in Maine, and since her grandmother recently died leaving her an inheritance, he will cleverly deduce that she has gone to her grandmother's house on Bailey Island and follow her there.

Positives: The obsessive can be alluring. Darcy is, without a doubt, one of the most attractive heroes in all of literature and television. Colin Firth's interpretation of Darcy as intensely introverted helps to offset the intensity of his observations (and Darcy, thankfully, doesn't notice everything). Still, this particular romantic hero feeds the seductive idea that the woman is the all-consuming and constant center of the male's universe (and he is not usually written as complexly as Darcy).

Drawbacks: Unless tempered by time or some outside interest (like, ya know, an estate), this hero runs the risk of being a domineering jerk. If he isn't violent or manipulative, he might just irritate the heroine to death with all his minute "observations." And if he doesn't have a moral compass, he will simply move on to the next woman who fills his universe whenever he gets bored with the previous "all-consuming" interest.

The White-Knight or (as Shawn refers to him on Psych) "Ned"

The White-Knight flies to the rescue at the right time with the right equipment. He kills the dragon, uproots the bad guy, and, if he's a variation on the first type, remembers chocolates. But he isn't necessarily a noticing short of chap. He notices big problems like dragons, mean relatives, pirates, and the end of the world, and he tries to make an appearance at those events. He has a long and reputable history in film, including Wesley (Princess Bride) and Shrek. (I had a hard time coming up with an example from literature, believe it or not! Jane Austen's heroes occasionally perform rescues, but they never rescue the heroine--although Darcy does rescue Elizabeth's reputation--and Jane Eyre rescues Rochester. I settled for Ellis Peters' Cadfael series since men do lots of rescuing in those books but it's nice and not totally annoying.)

Positives: The White-Knight plays to male strengths. While I find it completely unlikely for a heterosexual male to remember such minor details as the mention of a grandmother's inheritance (see above), I do consider it likely for any male to render a physical service, such as finding a dog, fixing a roof, or mowing the grass. Granted, killing a dragon is a little more exciting but evolved biology has nested the desire to protect within the male psyche. (Which is a good thing, I say to any "all-male-behavior-should-be-stopped" feminists. I'm a feminist, just not that type.)

Drawbacks: The desire to protect may also be accompanied by the desire to smash things. Which is fine so long as it isn't illegal. Also, once the romantic hero runs out of things to fight, he might not be able to adjust to home life. Dragons v. lawn . . . as the princes in Into the Woods discover, once the enemy is beaten, the girl isn't quite so interesting (or as House says to Wilson, "You're right. It was the schizophrenia."). And, here's my feminism, the heroine can sometimes rescue herself. (And should in the case of Bella from Twilight; okay, okay, I promise not to bring up Twilight again.)

The Only Guy Around (for Miles and Miles and Miles . . .)

I admit a preference for this particular hero/romantic situation. In this set-up, the hero and heroine are trapped somewhere--a small community, an island, work. They may even be trapped on a trip á la It Happened One Night and The Bourne Identity. In an extended sense, Mulder and Scully belong to this situation since, although they work amongst many people and have many contacts, they are tied together by their knowledge of the conspiracy. No one else is as fully informed, as invested, or as close as they are.

Positives: First, by necessity, the emphasis is on the relationship. Because there are no other options--because no one has to prove him or herself the better match--the focus moves from "Will they get together?" to "How will they stay or function together?" which is far more interesting to my mind. I have stated elsewhere that I consider Mulder and Scully the most romantic couple in all television precisely because in (almost) every episode, the intimacy and mutual reliance is assumed rather than proved. I also find the "trapped" situation interesting due to what I learned (in my master's program) to call liminality: people who might not otherwise come in contact, meet on the edges of their cultures. It isn't the rebel factor that interests me (Romeo and Juliet disobeying their parents), it's the negotiations that have to take place in order for the involved parties to understand each other (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Drawbacks: Stockholm Syndrome anyone? I can't help but wonder, "Would they stay together if you removed them from this situation?" Is the relationship built on necessity or desire? It could depend on the participants, but without the setting or, for that matter, the thrill of the unknown, would the relationship have the ballast to survive? If you got rid of the aliens, would Mulder and Scully still have Paris?


No One Is Free While Others . . . Oh, Get a Grip

You've probably seen it, the bumper sticker that says, "No one is free while others are oppressed." Well, it is a nice thought, but it also happens to sum up what I think is wrong with so much political (and literary) discourse (and yes, I think one can refer to bumper stickers as political or literary discourse).

If one takes the saying literally, it begs the question, "Why bother to free anyone then?" Since no one is free so long as some are oppressed, then if you subtract 7 (the number of oppressed people) from 10 (the number of people), you will get zero every single time, which means that so long as a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of oppressed people exists, no one is free, and we're just kidding ourselves that anything we do matters.

To be fair, however, I don't think that's what the bumper sticker means. I think it means, "No one should feel free while others are oppressed."

In other words, it isn't the actual freedom to, you know, put a bumper sticker on a car and grouse about it on a blog that matters, it is whether or not I'm happy about my freedom. Which I am. By the way.

However, once again, I should probably narrow the meaning of the bumper sticker to the intent of the bumper sticker. I think the intent isn't so much emotional blackmail as a kind of passive activism. The bumper sticker is supposed to stop people feeling happy about their freedom and encourage them to feel unhappy and uneasy instead on the supposed grounds that unhappy and uneasy people are more likely to help oppressed people than people who are light-hearted and relaxed.

I don't buy that. My experience is that unhappy and uneasy people don't help anyone very much at all. But it makes you wonder--do the people sporting the bumper sticker feel unhappy and uneasy? All the time? Or do they, like so many of us, go home to books about self-enlightenment and finding one's inner guide and coming to peace with one's self?

I don't know. Perhaps, they are continually unhappy about the state of the world. Maybe they never let up. Maybe they badger people in banks and at cocktail parties. Maybe whenever someone tries to tell a joke at work, they growl, "There are people in this world who aren't allowed to joke," or maybe they get together with like-minded miserable people and receive mild jolts of happiness as they bash everyone in the world who doesn't think exactly like them.

On the other hand, perhaps they don't think they need to feel unhappy and uneasy since they have gotten other people to feel unhappy and uneasy. Which doesn't work on me (despite the fact that I am quite suspectible to reports about my own failings). Whenever I'm driving behind one of those cars, I grumbled, "Well, I am free, and so are you."

Whatever their motivations, people who instruct everyone on how miserable everyone should feel seem to being buying into an erroneous idea that is fairly wide-spread. It goes something like this:
People who change things are rule-breakers who step outside the cultural box; therefore, the only way to change things is to break rules and step outside the culture box; that means pointing out to people how unhappy they should be with the ways things are.
Yes, (point one), there are people who cause shifts in thinking, re-evaluations of cultural norms, changes in government. The mistake is in confusing the outcome--Shakespeare's plays, the Protestant Reformation, Jane Austen's novels--with the actual process. There is no guarantee that the actual process involves rule breaking or disgust with the establishment or dislike of one's culture, and it may involve misery only incidentally. In any case, adopting an attitude of change doesn't make one bit of difference to the outcome. One doesn't become a great painter by hosting art parties at the Met. One becomes a painter by painting. And there's no guarantee that any greatness will occur--just that one will produce a lot of art.

Likewise, one doesn't become a great political figure by labeling oneself edgy or revolutionary or miserable. One becomes a political figure by actually doing something, which usually involves a great deal of hard work. (No, sticking a bumper sticker on your car doesn't count as "doing something.")

The most amazing thing about Galileo, for example, wasn't that he was FIGHTING THE ESTABLISHMENT in some hey-where's-my-change-inducing-bumper-sticker sense but that he didn't realize he was. He was seriously surprised when his book evoked criticism from the Catholic heirarchy. After all, he'd dedicated his book to the pope. Perhaps he should have seen it coming, but the point is, he was too busy doing his thing, working hard on his ideas, to realize it was coming.

Granted, change-invoking people have been known to call attention to themselves and their supposedly outside the box thinking. But not always. Dante had serious, hard-core political opinions, but he wasn't sitting around going, "Hey, guys, why don't we rehaul the whole system--you know, get rid of kings and emperors and popes entirely. Huh, what about it?"

Unfortunately, the actual history of individuals often gets lost and replaced by a summary of their achievements. In the case of literature, sometimes even the commentary on the achievement replaces the actual achievement! (But that's a subject for another post.)

"But," the why-won't-you-feel-bad-for-being-white-and-well-educated? folks might argue, "if it wasn't for us look-at-how-bad-things-are types, the changes wouldn't continue," which is rather like administrators arguing that if it wasn't for the billing, the doctors wouldn't be able to perform surgeries. Well, okay, maybe there's some truth there although I have my doubts. I think most long-term change is effected by people who get up, go to work, and enable their culture/nation/neighborhood/family to survive. Because the changes have to go somewhere and if the culture doesn't survive, that's a whole lot of nothing for them to go.

My final thoughts on "No One is Free While Others Are Oppressed" is: Have the guts and the maturity to admit when your culture benefits you! I suppose a bumper sticker that read, "I'm free even though others are oppressed" would be tactless but "I'm free, and I'm not going to whine about it because that won't help anybody who is truly oppressed in the long run because in order to help them, I have to be able to recognize real freedom when it bites me in the tuss" might overrun the bumper.

I could settle for, "Isn't freedom great! Let's share it!!"

One of the Dumber Arguments I Have Heard

At the risk of being radically misunderstood, I must comment on an argument that I have run across many times regarding homosexuality.

The radically misunderstood part is that my comments have nothing to do with homosexuality itself. I don't intend to address homosexuality per se at all on this blog. If you want to witness people calling each other names go to some political pundit's blog.

But I am an English teacher, and I get tired--oh, so tired--of illogical arguments. And I consider this particular argument to be illogical.

So, here we go: I recently picked up Neal Boortz's book Somebody's Gotta Say It. He's a libertarian. I'm a libertarian. Why not? I became rapidly disenchanted. There's a few too many assumptions floating about the book, which is probably why I don't read books by pundits in the first place.

This particular assumption goes something like this: Homosexuality is not a choice (this is the claim part of the argument; it can be refuted or supported) because no one would choose to be ostracized by society (this is the silly part of the argument).

No one would choose to be ostracized by society.


Oh, yeah?

This is not the first time I have encountered this argument; it always astonishes me. Even when I was in my 20's and supposedly more naive than I am now, I never could give credence to this argument or take seriously the people who proposed it.

My first thought is always, Uh, what about the history of, I don't know, the human race?

The fact is people have been making choices that ostracize them from their societies, families, cultures, and planet earth since, well, since the first scientist made a claim that annoyed his government and the first hippie went over the proverbial wall and the first artist sat around going, "I'm not going to hunt bison. I'm going to paint them."

The Impressionists ostracized themselves from the powers that be in the arts--until they singlehandedly created the picture postcard industry. (Okay, not really.) Thomas Hardy ostracized himself from British society when he published Jude the Obscure (although it could have just been Hardy's personality; he ostracized himself from his wife as well). Tons of religious leaders (including Joseph Smith) ostracized themselves from 19th century American society with their unique sexual practices. And then there's all those people who have changed their political parties or their religious affiliations or, gosh, their dietary habits and ostracized themselves from their families/friends/societies.

According to the "No one chooses to be ostracized" argument, the chick from My Big Fat Greek Wedding would never have even contemplated marrying a non-Greek since the moment she did WHAM! possible ostracisim.

Now, you could argue that the chick from My Big Fat Greek Wedding didn't suffer very long from her decision but what's the rule here? If people don't suffer long, it must be choice, but if they do suffer long, it isn't?

The second possible refutation would be, "But, Kate, most of your examples are edgy, culture-changing personalities. What about ordinary people who just wish to live within the status quo?"

Well, I believe that even ordinary people who want to live within the status quo are desirous of an identity. You don't have to be a teenager or Picasso to define yourself by what you are not or by what will meet your desires.

Again, I am not going to argue here whether homosexuality is right/wrong, choice/non-choice. I simply don't believe that since people don't like negatives, every negative effect in their lives is therefore not the result of a personal choice. I realize that many people don't anticipate negative effects. But there are still many, many people in this world who anticipate the negative and still make the choice.(For several years after breaking with the Catholic Church, Martin Luther suffered intense psychological depression; he believed he was hounded by the devil--how's that for a negative effect?)

To go to the furthest extreme of this argument, let's take drug or gambling addicts. They ruin their healths, go into debt, lose their jobs, disappoint their families, and, possibly, undermine the fabric of society, yadda, yadda, yadda, and what, you think they did it because they didn't get a buzz? It just kind of happened to them?

Here's my stance: I think discussions about human nature would go a lot better (meaning, from my perspective, make more sense) if all arguments would start from the proposition that culture is not the final determinant for how a human being will behave: destructively or not.

Audience Studies, Inc.

In writing this post, I am joining several bloggers who have posted about Audience Studies, Inc. Thanks to said bloggers for helping me track down the information posted here.

I recently joined the odd 400 people or so who agreed to watch a sit-com and then report back to Audience Studies, Inc. I was wary when I took the initial call but agreed, mostly because, as I told the young man on the phone, "You can always get my address out of the phone book."

(That poor young man--I don't think his heart was in the call; when I questioned him as to Audience Studies, Inc.'s resume, he said, in a very embarrassed voice, "I can give you a 1-800 number to call." The young man knew, as I discovered, that Audience Studies, Inc. only communicates what agrees with its "story." )

So, Audience Studies, Inc. sent me a DVD as well as two booklets with pictures of products. And I immediately figured out that Audience Studies, Inc. wasn't interested in learning about my reaction to the sit-com; it was doing product research.

Now, I have no trouble with product research. If Audience Studies, Inc. had called me up and said, "We're going to send you a failed CBS pilot from 2005 that we purchased for a nominal fee as well as a bunch of ads and commercials and frankly, what we really want to know about is your reactions to the ads and commercials," I would have said, "Oh, sure, that's sounds interesting. Go ahead." I like commercials.

What is bizarre about this whole thing is how completely Audience Studies, Inc. has created a fake story in order to try to get (supposedly) unprejudiced reactions to products. First of all, the company goes to the trouble to obtain the sitcom (why it doesn't simply create its own is beyond me--the episode was so bad, at first I thought it was a basement production, which kind of impressed me. But the episode I was sent, which I turned off five minutes in because that's what I really do with bad sitcoms, was from "The Rocky LaPorte Show." Don't blame Rocky. It was the dialog and plot that stank.)

Secondly, the booklets of products are printed as "Prize Booklets" complete with "Prize Entry Forms" that you are supposed to fill out (multiple choice fashion) and just coincidentally keep by the phone for when Audience Studies, Inc. calls.

Thirdly, the "Program Evaluation" is not in any way designed to solicit survey responses. It contains questions like "Which character did you like best?" "What parts of the show or the idea should be changed or updated?" No survey company of this type would ask such open-ended questions!

I can't figure out whether Audience Studies, Inc. honestly believes that people won't see through this charade or whether people honestly don't see through it. All the bloggers I read had seen through it, but then bloggers already show a degree of media awareness and saavy. (Which is why they are susceptible to viewing the sitcom in the first place.)

Again, the irony is that I'm a big fan of market research, and I would have helped a request in that area. But I draw the line at so much icky snake-oil salesman patter. Either cough up the dough for a non-failed pilot, people, or come up with a better schtick.

Nice Humor/Mean Humor

My brother Eugene recently had a guest post on The Motley Vision, "On Humor and the Literary Novel." A question was posed in the comments about why some "mean" jokes make us wince while other "mean" jokes make us laugh. In other words, why does just about every character on Everybody Loves Raymond make my skin crawl but Cox and House don't?

I've pondered this question for awhile, and here's my answer!

I think the difference lies in the intent of the joke (sarcastic diatribe, insult, pun, whatever). I don't mean the intent of the joke to the jokee but the intent of the joke to the audience.

In most of Everybody Loves Raymond, the jokes are made to make the jokee wince with embarrassment. More than that, the intent of the joke is to make the audience complicit in the jokee's embarrassment. The joke is the embarrassment.

Shakespeare, who did everything, employed this kind of joke (as well as all the other kinds). The treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night is precisely this type of humor. The joke lies in Malvolio's embarrassment. Which is why, I think, that particular part of Twelfth Night is rather problematic. However, that's just me. There's plenty of evidence (reality TV shows, Three Stooges, Roman games) that human beings enjoy watching other human beings suffer.

That being said, I also think a lot of people feel as I do and prefer the non-embarrassing joke. In Scrubs, for example, Cox belittles J.D. with his "Mary Janes" and "Buttercups," but the intent of the name-calling is not to embarrass J.D.--that is, not to embarrass J.D. before his audience (us). This works partly because J.D. is the narrator and therefore controls the audience's perspective. If he wants us to see him humiliated, there must be a reason. It works also because J.D. doesn't embarrass easily. Finally, it works because, if you've watched the show long enough, you know that Cox adores J.D. (and that Cox and J.D. are actually very similar; I didn't realize how much until the episode where Cox talks about seeing himself sitting on a throne while a conversation is going on--"He's J.D.!" I thought although J.D. is fundamentally kinder and less angry-guy).

This same principle is at work in House. In my post on Cox, Becker & House, I make the argument that everything House says is intrinsic to his personality. He doesn't belittle his interns to make the audience laugh; he belittles his interns because that's how House deals with life.

The point being that in both House and Scrubs, the jokes are not at the expense of the jokees. In fact, the jokes often backfire unto the jokers.

In a tangential kind of way, I think this same principle applies to sex jokes. I almost always wince when American comedians tell sex jokes. Said comedians are almost always aiming for result #1--make the audience wince or laugh with embarrassment. The jokes aren't even funny; they just make people laugh because the jokes are "daring."

In contrast, British comedies like Red Dwarf and Black Adder and Vicar are replete with earthy humor, but the humor is not used to embarrass the audience and rarely to embarrass the characters. Jokes about sex seemed to be used more for their useful metaphorical content than anything else. Consequently, I find them far less leering and salacious.

Or, as C.S. Lewis wrote in Screwtape Letters (see my post about C.S. Lewis' non-repressive nature), sexual humor gives rise to incongruities. There are people who tell sex jokes because they want to talk about sex (American comedians), and there are people who tell sex jokes because they want to use the incongruities (Monty Python and all those guys). So I have never seen any comedy with Ben Stiller, and likely never will, yet I think the beginning of Monty Python's Meaning of Life where the teacher gives an in-depth sexual education class to a bunch of TOTALLY BORED teenagers is absolutely hilarious and far less "dirty" (for lack of a better word).

All About Christmas

I love Christmas, all of Christmas, even the consumer bits like crowded malls. Not that I go to the crowded malls very often, but when I go during Christmas, I let myself enjoy the experience--no "I'll just be a minute" thinking; you have to let yourself be pummeled by other shoppers; you have to be prepared to wait in lines for twenty minutes; you have to get used to feeling overheated and sweaty. It's all part of the experience.

The only Christmas experience I can't say I like is getting stuck overnight in an airport, which happened to me once. There was really nothing redemptive about the experience. It just stank. But otherwise, I really, really like Christmas.

So below is a list of Christmas books/movies/traditions for your perusal:

1. The Bishop's Wife with Cary Grant (Movie)

The movie, which is practically plotless, is about an angel who comes down and goes ice-skating with an (Episcopalian) Bishop's wife, which somehow ends up convincing the Bishop that he should concentrate on connecting with his flock instead of building his big cathedral.

Best moment in the film: Cary Grant, named Dudley, sits down with the Bishop and his wife at the dinner table. The Bishop's favorite dog gets up and moves from beside the Bishop's chair to beside Dudley's chair. The Bishop looks nonplussed, and Dudley grins at him. Cary Grant is such a goofball that Dudley's grin, far from looking angel-like, is more of the "devil-may-care/boy, aren't we having fun!" variety. And he just keeps grinning. It's very funny.

2. "Journey of the Magi" by T.S. Eliot (Poem)

I know T.S. Eliot is considered terribly politically incorrect these days, but he was a good poet. "Journey" is told from the point of view of one of the magi; it's a sad poem about the death of an age: a unique perspective.

3. Miracle and Other Christmas Stories by Connie Willis

Not one of her best short story collections, but fun anyway. She makes gentle mockery of things like It's a Wonderful Life and the Christmas card obsession. One story is about a woman realizing that people are being taken over by aliens; she figures it out because they've started being nice to each other during the holiday season--at the post office and the airport, etc. The best story is the last, "Epiphany" which is about the Second Coming of Christ and how all the imagery in Revelations, instead of referring to some cataclysmic event, refers to a Carnival. The Christ figure is the guy who drives the Carnival truck. (See below.)

Connie Willis has her own list at the end of Miracle. It includes, naturally, the Christmas story as it appears in the New Testament and, furtherly naturally, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson.

4. Fireside Book of Christmas Stories (Book)

I used to read from this all the time growing up. After I got older, I would get it out of the library every year until my mother got me my own copy through Amazon. My favorites are "The Pasteboard Star" and "The Husband of Mary." The latter is nice because Joseph doesn't get a lot of press, and he must have been a pretty cool guy.

5. Buffy (TV show)

Specifically "Amends" when Angel is saved from suicide by unprecedented snow in Sunnydale. Whedon willingly took on issues like sin and redemption--the natural outcome, I suppose, of creating a (sort of) consistent mythology. I think this creation of mythology may be one attraction fantasy/sci-fi holds for viewers/readers--the genre isn't afraid to tackle Joseph Campbell-like/religious ideas that, otherwise, get cloaked in sentimentality, angst or glib phrases. Touched By An Angel, for instance, was far less spiritual than either X-Files or Buffy.

6. Holmes for the Holidays (Book)

A collection of Sherlock Holmes stories written by admirers, not Arthur Conan Doyle. However, Doyle did write "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," a Christmas story, which justifies take-off Holmes Christmas stories, if such justification is necessary. My favorite from Holmes for the Holidays is "A Scandal in Winter" by Gillian Linscott. It is fantastic. It is not told from Dr. Watson's point of view, yet it captures Holmes perfectly.

7. Speaking of mysteries . . . (Books)

Tied Up in Tinsel by Ngaio Marsh
Hercules Poirot's Christmas by Agatha Christie
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers (which actually begins at New Years)

8. Church Mice at Christmas by Graham Oakley (Book)

Not all in print anymore but The Church Mice series are incredibly funny picture books--one of those series where the illustrations coupled with the dry, tongue-in-cheek text provide a great deal of between the lines humor.

9. The Little Princess (Movie)

No! Not the Shirley Temple version (gag gag) but the BBC version which is now impossible to track down. It isn't really a Christmas movie, but the second half starts at Christmas time. There's some great scenes with the family next door, including discussions of going to the pantomime, as well as some very ironic scenes showing the disparity between the "Christian" values of Miss Minchin and the way she treats her staff.

10. Last but not least, some traditions from our family--

Weird fruit from California plus coffee table books.

Sweet cereal for Christmas (and only at Christmas).

Santa and his village set that had been played with so much all the reindeer had two or three legs. It was Santa and his specially challenged reindeer!

Star Wars' presents two years in a row, including a lightsaber that didn't look anything like a "real" lightsaber: I must have thought I could actually request and get a heavy metal object that produced a laser that slashed through people's bodies. Kids are very odd. Recently, I saw a lightsaber at Border's that actually looked more like the "real" thing. I even considered buying it but decided that shelling out $100 for sentimental reasons is not altogether a smart idea.

The Sears catalog--and I've just dated myself.

Woolworths crèche.

Weeble-wobbles & the parachute men in our stockings.

The mechanic peered over [Mel's] shoulder. "Oh, an ad for that crazy carnival," he said. "Yeah, I got a sign for it in the window."

A sign. "For behold, I give you a sign." And the sign was just was it said, a sign. Like the Siamese twins. Like the peace sign on the back of the kid's hand. "For unto us a son is given, and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Prince of Peace." On the kid's scarred hand.

It got very dark. They continued west, through Glorieta and Gilead and Beulah Center, searching for multicolored lights glimmering in a cold field, a spinning Ferris wheel and the smell of cotton candy, listening for the screams of the roller coaster and the music of a merry-go-round.

And the star went before them.

--Connie Willis

CSI, Haggard and Fun Television

CSI: Vegas

So far, this season of CSI: Vegas has been all over the place. It has produced rather pointless dramas--glitzy but utterly substanceless. And then it has given us some good episodes, such as last week's about the priest. When the priest says to Grissom, "I wanted to be a father and a husband," I thought, "Yes! Finally, a believable motive!" When Ballykissangel had Father Clifford contemplate leaving the priesthood, they couldn't come up with a plausible motive, and the show suffered. In order for a believing, committed priest to leave the priesthood (and not lose his concept of his own soul), he would have to believe that he was "called" to another role in life. CSI got that bit of psychology dead on; the other interchanges regarding religion were also well-written.

On the other hand, the episode with the evil teenagers was awful in terms of plot development and preachy dialog. I mean, what was that all about? I felt like the writers sure wanted to say something, but sure didn't know how to say it, so we got a bunch of platitudes instead. Again, the episode relied too much on the visuals. Don't get me wrong. I think the music video quality of LV's visuals can be downright stunning. But I start feeling manipulated when the visuals take the place of plotting or insightful dialog.

I do like the way Grissom and Sarah's relationship is playing out in the workplace.

Rider Haggard

Rider Haggard was the original Da Vinci Code guy. He didn't write gnostic-gospel type stuff, but he wrote the original archealogist chase novels. And I have to say, Dan Brown looks pretty wimpy in comparison. In She, which I'm reading now (Haggard also wrote King Solomon's Mines), Haggard invents an ancient text, obligingly translates the ancient text into Greek letters, then translates that into Greek cursive and THEN, translates that into English. There's about a chapter of this kind of thing in She. Well, thank you, Haggard. This creation of a whole imagined past is much more in the Tolkien tradition than the Brown tradition.

Poirot and Cool Television

I was watching a Poirot episode the other day. Hastings and Inspector Japp are walking along a wharf. They skirt a couple of men playing a chess game with huge pieces. I've seen this episode before, but this time, I thought, "Wait a minute," and backed up. Yup! Two guys in 30's style dress, playing chess with human size chess pieces. I went back a few more frames and yup, you can see them from the window of the hotel before the close-ups.

This is so cool. You see, Poriot is a period piece, and the episode is set at a seaside resort. What the chess pieces mean is that someone, whilst researching 1930's seaside resorts, came across this huge chess piece stuff and decided to stick it in the episode. For all of 1 minute!

I love that. I love that people care to do stuff like that. I love that there are writers and craftspeople and set designers and directors out there who think that it is worth the expense to hire two non-speaking actors, design extra props (or borrow them from somewhere) and film a sequence including said props, even though the props are mainly background. All for the sake of . . . ambience, tone!

Of course, this sort of thing gets really expensive, which is why Joss Whedon, who does it quite often, makes networks nervous. But I love it that there are people who think it is worthwhile to do stuff like that.

Pet Peeves

Friendly Drivers

Don't get me wrong. I always appreciate a driver who lets me into a single line of traffic on a right hand turn. Mucho thanks. What drives me crazy are extra friendly drivers who try to get me killed.

Here is the scenario: you're trying to make a left hand turn out of a driveway or a shopping center across two lanes of traffic. It's all very legal, but if the lane you want to turn into is at all busy, it can be a bit, well, tense.

Friendly driver comes along and stops. Usually, the friendly driver stops in the lane closest to you. So now you can't see the second lane. On top of that, none of the cars behind the friendly driver have a clue why the friendly driver stopped, so they start to go around the friendly driver. In the meantime, the lane you want to turn into is jammed with cars (or it temporarily clears but you can't get to it because of all the cars going around the friendly driver).

And the friendly driver looks at you and waves. Like "Go on. I'm looking out for you." The more you stall, the more puzzled the friendly driver gets. And because there's several inches of glass, metal and air between you, you can't yell, "I don't want to die!!" Because there is no way you are going to get safely across that second lane of traffic AND find the lane you want to turn into magically clear. All of a sudden like.

It's one of the few times in my life when friendliness doesn't exert much pressure on me. In the case of friendly drivers, I consider what they are doing so incredibly dangerous, I don't much care how they feel. Neither do I feel obliged to play "No, you go. No, you go" hand signal games with them. So I just ignore them--eyes to the sky--and eventually, they go away.

I'm all in favor of courtesy on the road. What I'm against is people who try to exercise noblesse oblige on the road. It's one thing to do it when you're walking into a restaurant. It's quite another when you are dealing with a ton of steel.

Sitcoms in Syndication

Why don't they show them in order? I have probably seen the same Frasier episodes about four times now, but I've never seen the continuing storyline for when Roz gets mad at Frasier and takes another job. I would prefer to watch shows like Frasier in syndication, rather than renting them, but I get frustrated at the lack of consistency. (I consider syndicated sitcoms to be the equivalent of eating cotton candy; I enjoy them very much as freebies, but I'm not going to invest in the stuff--except British sitcoms, that is.) Does showing episodes out of order really pay off for networks? Or do the TV people show the episodes based on requests?

The Gerund

It's evil. The gerund is the -ing form of the verb. My family and I have discussed reasons why college freshmen feel compelled to use the gerund in every single sentence that they write: "Singing, I was in the middle of thinking about going to my uncle's to be seeing him." My sister Beth suggested that we ask students questions that invite the gerund response: "What are you doing?" "I'm snorkeling." If anyone has any ideas on the subject, please let me know! The gerund must be stopped!!!



So a few weeks back, I decided to try to watch the Tonys. *Snooze.* Sorry, I fell asleep just thinking about it. It really was unbelievably dull. I can only surmise that (1) the theater industry pouts and whines until television networks agree to run their private nobody-has-a-clue-who-these-people-are-except-other-theater-people awards ceremony; (2) the entertainment industry, including television networks, honestly believes that viewers are consumably interested in its every move, including boring awards ceremonies.

It was Dull, and yes, that's Dull with a capable DDDDDDDD. Actually, I happen to think that the Oscars are Dull too. I really wonder about the poor stars who have to attend such ceremonies. At least I can read, eat, clean, take a shower, write while the TV is on. Someone told me once that the Oscars and Tonys hire "fillers," people to sit in empty seats. Stars can go out and mingle in the lobby but the theater will always look full. That lobby must be packed! I can only surmise that stars go to these things because they get to attend parties afterwards. Which I think sounds equally dull, but I'm willing to concede that beautiful people standing around with other beautiful people getting drunk is more interesting than sitting in a dark theater for three hours.

I stuck it out for the first half because some of the musical numbers were okay. Unlike the Oscars, there was no main host (or if there was, I forget who), only a series of announcers. They came out in two's and some of them had little patter routines. And some of those routines were pretty stupid. And some of them were okay. The funniest routine involved the Monty Python musical folks.

And then a man and a woman, I forget their names, came out with a puppet. Who was the puppet? A Republican. A Republican puppet! We know all about that!! Har har har.

And I turned the channel.

It wasn't so much that I was offended, although after two years of grad school, I'm pretty sick and tired of liberal angst. It was that it was so dumb. You see, there are clever zingers and then there are not so clever zingers and then there is pre-adolescent idiocy, like kids who think it is hilarious when you say the word, "Poop."

In other words, there was nothing about the "joke" that was remotedly funny, other than a bunch of actors got to call the President of the United States (yes, it was aimed at George Bush) a puppet on National Television. (Oh, gosh, we're so funny.) But there was nothing else behind the "joke," except, well, animosity. The delivery wasn't especially good (it wasn't Grodin or Stephen Wright, who can make you laugh just by saying the word "pizza"). There was no play on words. No juxtaposition of ideas. Nothing particularly hilarious.

For example, there's a bumper sticker that I see quite often: "I need a good florist who will send two bushes to Iraq." I don't agree with the sentiment, but I think it is really clever. Nice play on words. Nice zing. An excellent capsulation of concept and message. Very well done. But saying the equivalent of "Oooh, the president is a potty head," that's not funny, that's just really, really, really pathetic.

And the TONYS crowd laughed heartily. And I thought, And I'm letting myself be bored by what these self-absorbed morons are doing? And changed the channel.

There are a vast number of actors on Broadway that I admire and respect. But there's also a vast amount of silliness. Unfortunately, the Tonys (and the Oscars) usually show the entertainment industry at its silliest.


The Theory of At All Least One

I believe in what I call the Theory of At Least One. The Theory of At Least One means that there is at least one person out there who thinks a certain way or supports a certain cause or has a certain hobby. I believed this long before I became a web surfer (which appellation I really can't claim; I prefer other people to do the surfing and then tell me what sites are cool to visit). In other words, the Theory didn't grow out of me studying the Internet, it grew out of my understanding of human nature. But the Internet backs up the Theory.

Basically, the Theory of At Least One can be described by the phrase, "Well, there's at least one person out there who thinks . . ." But the important thing about the Theory of At Least One is that it doesn't, necessarily, refer to things like conspiracy theories. And it also doesn't, necessarily, refer to a small group of people or fans all agreeing on something. It refers mostly to the individual. So, I will think to myself, "Well, there's at least one person out there who makes gorilla sounds on the underground." Or, "Well, there's at least one person out there who thinks Happy Gilmore is an existential poem about the futility of life." Or "There's at least one person out there who owns a dog named Tolstoy." Or "There's at least one person out there who thinks that some minor soap star is the best actor in the world."

The Theory of At Least One doesn't apply, particularly, to craziness. I'm sure there's at least one person out there who thinks he/she is an alien (possibly, more than one person!). Nor does the Theory apply to deliberate fantasying, like those of us who created our own stories to add to Tolkien's universe. Rather, the Theory refers to the idiosyncratic nature of human beings.The Theory of At Least One keeps me humble. It also kept me from being overwhelmed by the machine-like and didactic certainty of the Marxist feminist thinkers who unfortunately over-accompanied my college classes for the last two years. (Everyone else didn't believe in anything much; I believed in something but became tongue-tied in exasperation at the way everyone else just fell on the bandwagon of socio-politico-economico determinism.) Anyway, the Theory of At Least One isn't an answer to higher education's insistence on external causation but it does represent, for me, a basic underlying belief in human individualism. (I'll leave discussions of free will and such for another time; to paraphrase Neo, I believe in free will because I want to.)

Anyway, the Theory of At Least One can be applied broadly or nit-pickily: at least one person today in Maine is glad it rained; at least one person is out there in Portland protesting something (despite the rain). At least one person somewhere today is thinking of watching all their Star Trek DVDs from the beginning. At least one person is vomiting at work. At least one person is wishing they could meet David Hasselhoff in person (really, I bet there is). I least one person is writing an angry letter to CBS News. At least one person has just decided that Tim Farrington is absolutely the best writer of the last fifty years. At least one person has just decided that they will never watch baseball again.

Every show ever made has at least one fan who thought it should never, never have gone off the air. Every book ever written has at least one reader who cried and wished it would never, never go out of print. Every actor has at least one fan. Every episode has at least one detractor and one enthusiast. And so on and so forth.

At least one person will read this blog. (It's a hopeful kind of philosophy.)

Things I Wished I Liked . . .

Eggplant: Seems every time I'm in a restaurant, they are serving things with eggplant, things I normally like. People tell me it is good, and I imagine if I didn't know eggplant was in the sandwich or the salad or whatever, I would be fine. "Umm," I would say, "that has an interesting texture." As it is, the minute I hear eggplant, I start thinking slime, which isn't fair to eggplant. Or to slime, I guess, depending on your point of view.

Andre Norton: When I was a kid, there were TONS of Andre Norton books in our local library. They always had great covers and really fascinating plot summaries. I would try one, and get bored, try one and get bored. I wish I could have found them the most fascinating books ever; all those books just waiting to be read--sigh . . .

Drew Carey: Actually, I like Drew Carey, and I really enjoyed the improv show he sponsored. But I could never get into the sitcom. I tried. I really tried. I wanted to find it funny since there were a number of actors on the show that I find individually funny (like the guy who does the Fig Newton ads). But I never did. In fact, watching the Drew Carey show was rather a surreal experience. Usually, I know why I don't like a sitcom: too silly, too unintelligent, too many potty jokes. I could never figure it out with Drew Carey. I would sit there, thinking, "I know this is funny. I know this is supposed to be funny. Why am I not laughing?"

Silly feminism: It would just make my life a lot easier. Besides, it's instant-pesto no-responsibility: you can blame men and society and bosses and George Bush and economics! So many roads to self-justification. And I could get along with people in my college. But I have neither the inclination or the lack of humor that would allow me to perpetuate such a fantasy. (No ideology that can't survive a hearty laugh is worth the time it takes to argue its merits.)

Chips: They are one of those easy snack foods. A sugar-fiend like me can't (and shouldn't) eat donuts and brownies 24/7. Chips would be a good substitute. But I've never really cared for chips: potato, dorito, etc. On the other hand, not caring for chips gives me a faint feeling of superiority. Well, okay, I don't have the best diet in the world, but at least I don't eat chips.

The Da Vinci Code: I'd liked to read it. I get it out of the library every now and again. Three weeks pass, back to the library it goes. I understand it is a fun, fast read. But unfortunately, I know just a tad (not a lot, just a tad) too much about early Christianity, and I'm afraid that I'll spend the entire book going, "Oh, puh-lease" which kind of spoils the adventure/fun-read part of the equation.

Networking: Which would make job hunting and fiction publishing a whole lot easier.

Tom Cruise: But I just can't. I think he is kind of skanky. And not because of the whole Katie Holmes/Christian Science thing, or whatever it is. Personally, I find the tabloids' attitude here rather disgusting. Taking photos of stars in bathing suits is one thing; constantly harassing a Hollywood star about his beliefs is another.

That said, I don't care for Tom Cruise. Whenever I catch a glimpse of him in a movie, I always get this faint suspicion that here is a guy who feels really, really sorry for himself. The movies always seem to be about misunderstood men who are being persecuted by their wives or society. And, okay, there's a genre for that, but the men are always these James Bond types. And I simply can't watch a James Bond type movie AND feel sorry for the hero at the same time. It's too weird. But, like Andre Norton, the movies usually seem pretty interesting so I wish I could get into them.

Music: I am, I'm sorry to say, one of those people who hears a song on the radio and says, "Oh, yeah, I like that," and then never remembers the title or the singer or half the lyrics for that matter. I have enormous respect for people who enjoy music (any kind of music) and become well-versed in performers and styles. It seems very relaxing and another form of entertainment. Kind of like abstract art. But I require people and plot in my art forms, which is probably why I prefer the Pre-Raphaelites and musicals. Still, I consider it an aesthetic failure on my part. (I feel the same way about poetry, more or less. On the other hand, I don't care for the cubists, and it's pretty fine with me that I go on not caring.)

Exercising: I like to swim, but I'm afraid it's more splashing about in the water kind of swimming. I find any other kind of exercise dull in the extreme. In college, we had to do one cardiovascular exercise three times a day for twenty minutes. I chose walking, and I just about died with boredom. I'm not really a nature girl. And I can't get into houses or buildings. I like scenery, but you know, scenery, backdrop to my life. As it was, I didn't develop a habit (the point of the exercise), I just developed a dislike for walking to places for no reason. Which is a pity. One of these days it will come back to haunt me. (It should come as no surprise that I took golf and fencing for my next two gym classes.)

Widescreen format: Oh, wait, I've already talked about that.

CDs v. Cassettes and other things

So, on the subject of previous rantings, and at the risk of sounding like a Luddite, I much prefer audiocassettes to CDs. I listen to a lot of books on tapes, and CDs leave a lot to be desired in this category. You can't, for instance, take them out of one machine and put them in another and have them start from the same point. It's harder to fast forward to a specific spot (I realize this has more to do with my machine than the available technology). As a teacher, I prepare a lot of material at home, and then take it in to the college where I use the available machinery there. It's a real pain in the neck to do this with CDs (with DVDs too, but I really like DVDs, despite the whole widescreen issue). Instead of just sticking the thing in and hitting play, I have to put it in, find the correct track and then, often, fastforward within that track to the right location (or, if the machinery is dated, listen to the track until it gets to the right spot and hit pause). The beauty of audiocassettes is you don't have to do that. You can cue to a very precise position on, say, a Wednesday, and still have the stuff ready to go on Friday.

I think the solution (and again, the technology appears to be out there, I just don't have it) is to create systems where you can mark your place on a DVD or CD. The only problem there is, like rewinding, the renter has to remember to unmark the DVD or CD before returning it to Netflix or the library or wherever. Otherwise, the next person who watches it will be carried instantaneously to the scene with Frodo and the eagles or the blowing up of some ship or whatever.

On a completely different subject, does anyone actually read the blurbs on the backs of books? Not the summaries but the parsed out quotations of reviews by famous people? I don't think I've ever bought a book in my life based on those quotations. Perhaps, they're like eye candy. We expect them to be there, but nobody actually reads them. In any case, what do we expect them to say? "This book is kind of good but I didn't care for the middle." Or, "Read this book only if you have absolutely nothing else to do." Maybe the quotes do say that, and nobody reads them closely enough to know it. (Actually, occasionally I have looked to see who, rather than what, reviewed the book, but that's usually after I've already started it.)


I Get All Philological

There's a thing about swearing that puzzles me, but I'm not going to get to that first.

First, I'm not a big fan of it. I lived next door once to a woman who had fights every single night with her boyfriend. Every single night. EVERY SINGLE NIGHT. He would come over, and something would happen, and she would run after him into the parking lot, and they would scream at each other, swearing up one side and down the other. And it was unbelievably tedious. I was also getting no sleep, but I don't think I would have minded so much if they had actually yelled interesting things at each other. But it was just "&%$#" and "!@*&" and "$%#! your car" when I was hoping for accusations of infidelity and the mention of his third child by another woman and her best friend's confession of what he said to her. But nah. No juicy gossip.

The second reason I'm not a big fan of swearing, fictionwise, is that 9 times out of 10 (the 10th being Stephen King or Heathers), it isn't used well. That is, it is used by lazy writers (or young ones) as a way of avoiding the (difficult) task of writing persuasive dialog. Instead of figuring out how to make a character express his anger, they opt for swear words because (1) it's realistic (oh, yawn) and (2) it's easy.

I'll bypasss the whole realism argument (and my annoyance with fiction writers who can't seem to figure out that they ARE writing fiction). When Stephen King argues that his fictional milltown workers talk like milltown workers because that's how milltown workers talk, and he thinks nothing of it because that's how he grew up, I actually buy that argument. He is reproducing a vernacular that is as common to him as saying "The rains of Spain fall mainly on the plains" is to Professor Higgins. And the excessive use of the f* word in Heathers (as noun, adverb, adjective) is an effective and satiric reproduction of high school talk (with all the accompanying self-consciousness).

But, as I've said, 9 times out of 10 it isn't satiric or matter-of-fact reproduction, it's an attempt to bypass real dialog, kind of like in Star Trek: Next Gen; every time the crew visited a new planet and encountered a new species, they would inform Picard, "There are these monster looking creatures, Captain. They're impossible to describe." As Phil Farrand points out in his Nitpicker's Guide, they aren't that hard to describe: tall, hairy, snout-nosed creatures of the humanoid variety wearing baggy pants. The real problem is lazy script writing.

So now that I've taken care of my overall reactions, here's my problem: the philology of swear words. What I mean by that is when people object to swear words based on their origins.

The exchange goes something like:

Person #1: *&%#
Person #2: You know that originated amongst drug lords in prison who used it during torture!

Huh? What on earth does that have to do with the price of oil at Cumberland Farms?

It isn't just swear words, of course. And it's not an approach to language that I particularly understand. It might be interesting to philologists, but in terms of meaning (how the word is used; what people hear/think/assume when you use it), it is hardly relevant. Every word we speak meant something else, something more or something less once upon a time. Every word originated sideways or tortorously from another word. But if you head straight for the birth, bypassing the word's current meaning, you end up with people who want to write "womyn" instead of "woman." Language itself becomes, in some weird 1984 way, dangerous not because of what people actually hear but because of what people, unconsciously, unintentionally, are actually saying. It's that strange right-brain/left-brain thing again where everything becomes literal but in a tangential, subconsious way. So if you write "woman" instead of "womyn", you are unconsciously but literally partaking in the patriarchal ethos of Western civilization. It does not matter if your meaning and the meaning that is heard arouse no feelings about the patriarchal system one way or the other. Language becomes a matter of semiotics, not communication.

Which I'm not a big fan of. Swear words, as bad dialog writers know, have meaning that is often completely unattached to what the words originally or even concurrently mean. An expletive is an expletive for a reason. Besides, it is entirely possible that if you went back far enough, you'd find the word didn't have a negative meaning at all. And if that is the case, is it still a swear word?


Okay, I don't want this to sound catty. Because I don't mean it to be. I think beautiful people are enjoyable to look at. I think beauty is an asset. I also think beauty can make life difficult so I don't necessarily buy into the idea that beautiful people have easy lives. Nor do I buy into the idea--however tempting--that beautiful people are automatically shallow. Beauty has merit, as Michelangelo's David and Grace Kelly prove.

Okay, that being said, there's been a lot model stuff about lately, and I find it odd that, well, really, the models aren't what I would call drop-dead gorgeous or anything. I am talking about the women. The men on television right now all tend towards a specific type. It happens to be a type I have a yen for (Supernatural brothers, Wentworth Miller: more stocky, harsh-featured blokes--think Sean Bean and Ted Levine--than pretty boys although the younger Supernatural brother is borderline) and so I notice them (I preferred older Angel to younger Angel, for instance. I also really like Nick from CSI with mustache--I'm not a big mustache/beard gal, but it really works on him). And, too, there aren't, to my knowledge, any Victoria Secret male models. So I'm referring to the women, and they seem, well, very pretty--don't get me wrong--but mostly the kind of girls I went to High School with. Rather ordinary looking in a perfect-features kind of way. But not striking.

Now, to give you an idea of what I mean, I consider Jeri Ryan (7 of 9) to be a truly gorgeous woman. And also unique. A little unusual. I always recognize her. And if you've ever seen The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (which I watched recently), the woman who plays Sheila Fentiman is classically lovely--in a Kate Winslet kind of way--and noticeable. But the models turning up lately--I can't tell them apart: oval face, straight nose, long hair, wide smile, slightly pouty lips. Same same same. And I wonder, because I haven't the faintest idea, is this a current tread? Has the model industry always been like this? Or are models more in demand now so the pool is wider? Has the industry veered away from the admittedly startling Angelina Jolies? Is it a politic decision--choose a type that everyone thinks nice (because the biologists have shown that people do respond to a particular blending of features) rather than someone who shocks? Or, like the men I mentioned, do most unusually beautiful people just end up on T.V.?

Take Katherine from CSI: Las Vegas--she's getting older now, but you can tell from her bone structure that her looks aren't just makeup and glamour laid over rather ordinary prettiness. When Teri Hatcher pulls her hair back, you can see she's got the same underlying quality. "Willow" still has the most beautiful eyes of any woman on T.V. And I think that Kari Matchett is one of the most stunning (and unique) women on television (Nero Wolfe regular, now on that ABC show, forgot its name).

Of course, television has its own penchants. The women of House and Bones all share a similar look: small-boned, finely drawn features. (Rory from Gilmore Girls is starting to get the same look.) Gorgeous but you've got to think modernist school rather than Rubens. (They are also more the types who grow on you--you become aware of how stunningly beautiful they are over time.)

Maybe, with TV, it's that there's a difference between looks and presence, and if you've got presence, you go into show biz. But maybe that's not fair to the modeling world which is very high pressure. Maybe, with modeling, it comes down to whether you can wear the clothes (such as they are), in a back-atcha kind of way, rather than whether you can act or sing or whatever. But these models don't strike me as even having that Julie Andrews "here I am" quality. Julie Andrews is a lovely but certainly not drop-dead gorgeous woman. But good grief, whenever she shows up on anything, she effortlessly carries the scene. She's got that regal bearing and ageless features. But maybe that's a different kind of beauty. After all, of the Star Trek gang, Nimoy and Lenard aged the best in that craggy old guy way. And Brent Spiner has the sexiest back in all of television, shoot all of showbiz. Really--the guy's face is pleasant to look at it, but watch old Star Trek: Next Generations, and his physical build just blows you away. Someone figured it out, because, unlike Picard (who they started putting in jackets--which looked good) and Riker (who just kept doing that burly big guy thing), someone tailored Brent Spiner's uniform to show off his exceptionally fine physique.

Which is getting away from the topic. Except I really have nothing more to say. This is just a rambling series of queries. Which I shall place under "Fares and Festivals," partly because I have very few posts there and partly because, although my references are mostly from television, the issue is a broader, cultural one. What is beauty? Does it change? In what way? And so on and so forth . . .