Previously on this blog, I wrote about Caskstrength’s troubling rules for drinking like a man. Today, we’re looking at the first of those rules: No vodka.
Vodka is not manly, says Caskstrength.
“How so?” you ask.
It just isn’t.
I have harped on this for too long so I’ll make it crystal fucking clear, there is nothing manly about Vodka. Almost all domestic vodka is in fact industrial alcohol mixed with water. Vodka can only be sipped neat or taken as a shot, and even then, it is still kind of for lame babies.
This guy begs to differ:
And that’s pretty much the whole of Caskstrength’s post. There’s only two things you can think about when vodka comes up: James Bond, and patriotic Russian/Polish people. The first doesn’t count because apparently he only drinks vodka in the movies and screws up the cocktail name — obviously, this makes James Bond a total wuss, despite all the shooting and the sexing and the well-tailored suits. Wait, are well-tailored suits still manly? They weren’t for a while, but now they’re back, at least until I hear otherwise. Gender-specific trends are so confusing.
As for the Russians and Poles (and Finns — shout-out!) who claim to love vodka, well — they really just want an excuse to talk about their home country. Because all Russian people were born in Russia, and Polish people were born in Poland, and they have no business being born in America like real Americans are:
As for the Russians and the Polish, you know how every time one of those guys are telling you how great Vodka is there is a ton of, “do you know how great my country of origin is? Because I am proud of it and want to talk about it a lot.” Don’t be that guy, don’t listen to that guy.
In fact, the strangest thing about this post is what it leaves out: vodka is not manly because it is girly.
Evidence: vodka is the key ingredient in that most feminine of cocktails: the Cosmopolitan. My mother recently praised my love of vodka tonics, because they’re low-calorie cocktails, relatively speaking. A friend once assured me with great authority that the Greyhound, a mix of vodka and grapefruit juice, was considered the diet cocktail of choice for some sorority or other. Flavored or infused vodkas are largely not considered “real drinks,” which is to say they are effeminate, like chocolate martinis and such.
When Caskstrength says that vodka is to be taken neat or not at all, what he’s saying is: don’t drink vodka cocktails like many many women do. Unless it’s a White Russian, of course, because of The Dude. Unless you’re in a bowling alley, because then you’ve become That Guy.
So many rules — how will I keep them all straight?
It is summer, I just got married, and I am a writer, so lately many of my days involve A) drinking, B) writing, or C) both. Lucky me! Lately everyone has advice about these activities!
First, there is the NYT essay, which is delightful — and now, a Jezebel article, which makes me want to take issue with a couple of the points they obviously think are hilarious.
Full disclosure: at present, I am writing this and also drinking some delicious local wine. Plus that Dry Fly gin and tonic aperitif before dinner. So, hey! Drinking and writing!
To begin, the New York Times.
Honestly, I’ve read a lot about wine, and booze, and history, and the history of wine and booze, and literature about wine and booze, and so on. I am totally behind Geoff Nicholson’s point that fictionalized drinking (or history of same) is more fun than instructions on drinking correctly tend to be. (And hey! I had a recent post on that too!) His connection between drinking advice and writing advice strikes me as witty and revealing. In sum: I liked it, and have nothing besides more uninteresting praise to offer.
And now: the Jezebel article.
"The Cocktail Party," Sandy Skoglund
I read it. And the arguments marshaled themselves and marched full-tilt in the direction of this blog. This may get pedantic, but if I don’t let it out my head will explode, so in the interest of, um, not-explodey, here goes:
1. The article’s thesis: “This article makes an insightful connection between the uselessness of drinking advice and the uselessness of writing advice — let’s reduce this to a series of pithily described drinking games! Because writing a great work of literature ourselves would take too long.”
2. The David Foster Wallace game could easily kill you. Seriously, ten pages or less.
3. Jane Austen: In college, some friends and I came up with a drinking game for the film version of Sense and Sensibility: drink whenever someone dies; drink whenever it rains; drink whenever Fanny says something horrible; drink whenever an engagement is announced; drink whenever Marianne cries; drink whenever someone mentions the letter F. We poured homemade wine into thrifted tea cups and sat back. Twenty minutes later, we had to slow the game. I did not go to the partiest college, is the upshot here.
4. Jezebel knows nothing about Sappho. “Hot or disgusting”? That’s the best you can do for the foremost female writer of the ancient world? I mean, yes, there’s the “don’t prod the beach rubble” fragment, but that’s way more poetic in the original Greek, and the few complete poems we have are just stunning . . . (rambles on about love triangles and splintered selves until everyone moves on to the next in the list . . .)
5. Or Homer: ancient Greek wine was thick and hugely alcoholic, like port or vodka if you could make vodka from grapes. It was watered down with strict proportion so that it resembled the red wine we know and love today. People who drank unwatered wine were barbarians, and not worth talking to, much less drinking with.
6. Or Twilight: seriously, there’s not nearly enough blood-drinking in Stephenie Meyer for this rule to result in any drinking game worth playing
7. Any James Joyce drinking game is hilarious.
7. Any Dylan Thomas drinking game is in the poorest of poor taste.
One night, four of us ended up at Seattle’s lovely Mistral Kitchen for dinner, because the rumor mill had it that the cocktails were pretty good.
The rumor mill underestimated by a mile.
The cocktails were more than good: they were fantastic. Maybe the best cocktails I’ve ever had: well-crafted, unique, and utterly delicious. And because the list was only eight items long, and because we’d all ordered different drinks in the first round, and because nobody was driving anywhere for the foreseeable evening’s future, we managed to taste everything on the menu in the course of an hour and a half.
The bartender Andrew noticed, and graciously allowed us to taste something he was planning to put on the new menu due out the following week. It was something that had the smokey taste of whiskey, but none of the burn, and we just could not figure out how he’d done it. So we asked, and he was kind enough to explain the process and a bit of the chemistry and all of us were starry-eyed and dazzled.
It was a lovely evening, and as soon as I got home I subscribed to the feed on Caskstrength, Andrew’s blog. For a while, it was perfect — he talked about creating a Tom Waits-inspired cocktail, and chainsawing ice, and other such specifics. He introduced me to the word “dipsography,” writing about drinking, which is a much-needed coinage in this new cocktail renaissance of ours. Then, just when I thought the blog and I were bestest buddies, or at least could talk intelligently between one another, this post came up, introducing a short series of posts: ten rules for drinking like a man.
Also known as: ten things you can say to make Alicia’s head explode.
The only thing I can do is take them apart one at a time, beginning with the intro post.
Problem No. 1: Man = Ideal
When people say, “drink like a man,” they never bother to explain that this is for a given value of “man.” It’s assumed you know this value already: a man is strong, rugged, powerful, successful, and so on. In a word, man is an ideal person. For a woman to drink like a man, she must first disown her own identity. She cannot be soft, quiet, passive, sweet, or fruity. Of course, she has to be all those things, because she is female, and those are the ideal feminine qualities. So if she doesn’t drink like a man, she deserves scorn. If she does drink like a man, she deserves scorn.
As Caskstrength’s Andrew has it:
The world of drinks, drinking and bars fit nicely into 2 small compartments: ” T.G.I. Mc Flingers in a strip mall,” or, “Don Draper,” where do you stand?
No options there for a woman, because when Don Draper is the gold standard a woman will always be found lacking. (Especially by Don Draper himself.)
Drinking like a man: it is a trap.
Problem No. 2: Men drink, women don’t.
Men, It isn’t your fault no one taught you what to drink. We are going to fix that now. Ladies, if you see a man break any of these rules you can be assured he is egotistical, close minded, weak, lacks creativity and thusly a bad fuck.
Ah, the age-old double standard for alcohol consumption: men drink, and women don’t. Women are not to follow these rules themselves, that sentence implies — they should be occupied analyzing what a man’s choice of beverage says about him as a person and a lover (by which we mean, ultimately, father). Because of course something like romantic compatibility can be reduced to the simplicity of a set of rules no more complex than your average teen-written internet quiz.
But I pose to you, evaluate the man who has placed a menu in front of you offering up an, “X-TREME MANGO MOJITO,” do you really trust him with with high quality and impeccable taste?
This sentence brings up an interesting point: often, people order from a cocktail menu. A menu is pre-designed, pre-arranged, and the person ordering from it is discouraged from asking the menu item to be altered. What the woman is supposed to do is critique the man she’s dining/drinking with (though, as we’ve seen, she’s not really supposed to be doing any of the drinking). She’s not encouraged to critique the person who put an X-TREME MANGO MOJITO on that menu in the first place, although there is a strong case to be made that it is the taste of the menu’s creator that should be faulted. To fault the person who orders from the menu, and not the menu itself, seems to ignore the larger context in which the drink order occurs. The same goes if women are supposed to reward the person who orders a “manly” cocktail — and we still don’t know what that is — but not to reward the creator of the menu. She is supposed to ignore the larger context, as if it didn’t exist.
In the same way, she is supposed to keep herself clean and thin and mostly hairless. She is not supposed to ask why women have to be clean and thin and hairless, when there is no correspondingly significant pressure for men. She is not supposed to ask what this system does for her personally — she is just supposed to follow the rules.
Telling women to focus on the immediate situation rather than the larger context is often also a trap.
Problem No. 3: Turns out all this is geared toward one specific dude.
I left a comment on Caskstrength, to this effect: “Hey, dude, this kinda leaves the ladies out in the cold, cocktail-wise. Know what I mean?”
And he replied — very graciously, I might add — that the series was directed at a personal friend, for personal reasons.
Which is very sweet, helping out a friend like that. I also have a friend, and this friend is terrified of kittens. So, rather than personally helping this person conquer their fear of kittens, or even writing a post explaining how to help this specific person conquer their specific fear of kittens, I have written a post that details all the ways in which kittens are harmful and should be thrown out the window of a moving train.
I have another friend, who is a woman. This woman — let’s call her “Balicia” — has been on the wrong side of way too many “here’s how to drink/think/read/write like a man, because we all know men are teh awesome” conversations. She doesn’t mind learning how to drink/think/read/write better, but it really bothers her when “better” = “like a dude,” because it is a very short step from “traditional masculine-coded areas of know-how are an ideal everyone should strive for no matter their gender” to “men are inherently superior because of a wiggly thing between their legs.”
You see how this works. It’s Refute-A-Thon 2010 all up in here.
Because if I don’t try and speak out on things like this, they will drive me crazy. Andrew at Caskstrength is truly an authority on his topic. His knowledge is beyond vast. He may well be one of the best bartenders of our generation; he is certainly the best bartender whose drinks I have ever had the privilege to consume. And when someone whose work I admire turns around and says something so regressive and hurtful, well, it makes me feel like I’ve been stabbed in the back, just a little.
Here’s the list of upcoming posts:
Rule 1: No Vodka
Rule 2: No “Tinis”
Rule 3: No Light Beer, unless…
Rule 4: Jack Daniel’s Is For Pussies
Rule 5: Read the Cocktail List
Rule 6: Cash, the Etiquette of Dollars
Rule 7: Own Your Drink and the Glass It Is In
Rule 8: Order Champagne, Often
Rule 9: Own a Flask And Good Home Barware
Rule 10: Know Your Limits
Through the magic of the internet, I go to help bottle the 2008 vintages at Guardian Cellars on Friday, July 16. Guardian Cellars was founded not too long ago by a police detective, Jerry Riener, and the wines are unfailingly delicious and complex. I had no idea what to expect as a bottling volunteer, but this seemed like a good opportunity to see a side of the wine industry that most casual oenophiles never get to see.
Some thoughtful individual put on a satellite radio station for us volunteers, which meant the entire day had a commercial-free soundtrack, about which I have taken notes and the best parts of which I shall reproduce for you in this post.
We could fill, cork, foil, and label about 60 bottles a minute on average, which means that during that Pink Floyd song I saw about 360 bottles of Guardian’s Gun Metal vintage go by me on the conveyor belt.
Imagine that someone has taken a taco truck the size of a semi, and filled it with H. R. Geiger’s sleek modernist interpretation of the Crayola factory from that one Mr. Rogers episode. There is just enough room for a good-sized person to stand on either side of the central conveyor belt’s long slender parabola. Two partially open-faced glass cubes with metal frames hold small, cylindrical platforms that cradle the wine bottles while they’re being filled, corked, and foiled. Leading to these are large plastic screws to regulate how quickly the bottles on the belt enter the belly of the machines.
It works like this: bottles start empty on one side, are loaded onto a conveyor belt that runs them through the filling machine, the corking machine, past two people who put on the loose foil caps that are so annoying to get off at home, into the machine which seals the foil caps tightly against the bottle, around the corner, past the quality control person who checks to make sure the bottle is full and the labels are clean and accounted for and the foil cap is not askew, to the two people at the end who put them in cases of twelve and load those cases onto a long ramp of alarming slenderness and speed. A push, and a case of wine shoots out of the truck and into the waiting arms of other volunteers, who slap another couple of labels on the case and stack them carefully into palettes of either 3 or 4 cases’ height. Then someone comes around with a very small, sleek forklift, and the palettes are taken, I don’t know, presumably storage somewhere for aging, but I could never tell where they ended up.
I spent the first part of the day foiling. This is a fiddly business that is simultaneously tedious and terrifying, which made it actually very pleasant. Sort of like meditation with an adrenaline rush, though I know that’s paradoxical.
You have in one hand a stack of delicate foil caps, which if you squeeze too hard — read: at all — will become useless and must be thrown away. The silver Guardian Cellars cap must be checked for spots and extra dribbles from the darker blue dye used to highlight the crest, which has a tendency to run. You must also check the crest on the top for flaws, and then put the foil cap on the bottle.
And you must do all this in the space of one second, as the bottles speed by you on the conveyor belt. It was repetitive, but there was always the looming chance that something would go horribly, catastrophically wrong, and always the sound of bottles clanking heavily together and reminding you that glass is fragile and red wine stains don’t come out of anything.
Helpfully, the foilers were fairly close to the radio, which meant of course that I was singing along and dancing in place a little every time something I knew came up. The other volunteers, who were all a little older than me, gave me indulgent looks and assumed it was on account of the coffee. But it wasn’t.
“Suite Judy Blue Eyes” has always been one of my favorite long songs, on account of the awesome. After the satellite radio played it, the radio host explained something about the album cover (which I had never seen until I looked up the Youtube video just now). Seems the names go Crosby, Stills, and Nash, but the people are sitting in the order of Nash, Stills, and Crosby. They realized the error just before the album went to press, but when they went back to retake the photo, the house had been torn down. People were getting Crosby and Nash confused for years after this.
Also: the logo for Crosby, Stills, and Nash was designed by Phil Hartman, who was a graphic designer before he turned to acting. Learn something new every day.
Prompted by the memory, I checked once more to see if a karaoke version of the song were available, even though I’d checked before to no avail — hey voílà! For the first time ever, it was!
After the first wine, I volunteered to be one of the people slapping labels on cases at the foot of the long ramp. Seriously, every time something plunged down the ramp, I expected it to slide heavily to the ground with a crash and an explosion of new red wine. One of the guys stacking cases (a heavy-lifting job) made sure I got an extra label slapped on the back of my t-shirt, which was fine with me because the Guardian labels are truly beautiful, with elegant type and a feeling of strength (as befits a cop-turned-winemaker).
Due to a time crunch, we were going to be bottling Baer Winery‘s 2008 Maia as well, which was just fine by us. Baer Winery uses wax rather than foil caps, and the waxing is done much closer to the release date, so for a change I volunteered to put the filled bottles in the cases. This turned out to be a fast-moving, muscle-y job that strained, peculiarly, the area right between my shoulder blades. Arms, check; hands, check; back, check; shoulder blades, ow ow ow ow ow . . .
The Maia bottles tapered inward from the shoulders to the foot, so that they were smaller at the base than where the neck met the body. This meant that if bottles got clumped together on the conveyor belt — as was frequent at at least three points of the process — the feet would slide closer together and the bottles would tilt, and sometimes the bottles would fall over. This was always startling, and loud. But sometimes, when the clump had yet to reach critical mass, you could hear the faint tinkling and look at the clattering feet and the bottles would appear to be tap-dancing.
With Gun Metal, Alibi, and Maia safely stowed and the palettes of crates held together by saran wrap, it was time to break for lunch. Jerry had gone around earlier asking whether we wanted tacos, burritos, or quesadillas, with steak, chicken, or veggies. These were all magnificent, with perfectly salted, warm tortilla chips and just the right amount of salsa. We retired to the tasting room, whose walls were covered in concert posters that hinted the soundtrack here was going to be a little more modern: Vampire Weekend, Broken Bells, the Decemberists, the Drive-By Truckers, Green Day, and Modest Mouse.
The other volunteers were mostly already known to each other, and all of them seemed older than me. Some, like Laurie, are frequent bottlers for many of the wineries in the area, to the point where it sounded like a full-time job on its own. Others, like Wayne, were fellow newbies. We settled pretty easily into a comfortable mode of conversation over our delicious, delicious Mexican food.
The day’s final bottling was Grand Rêve Vintners Collaboration Series III, a pure Syrah made exclusively from Red Mountain grapes. I’d not encountered this vintner before, probably because it makes very exclusive, very limited runs of very high-quality wines, with very high-quality winemakers. Like the obscure author that every author you love has read and loved unbeknownst to you.
We ran out of foil caps before we ran out of bottles. This felt catastrophic at first, but then it became clear that nothing could be done, except mark the boxes with the unfoiled bottles once they came off the line.
After this last bottling, we returned to the tasting room in the front, where there were buckets of Gun Metal and Collaboration for the tasting. Jerry talked briefly about what the new wine was like now and what it might come to be in the future. We were each given four bottles of wine — a common volunteer gratuity which I had nevertheless not expected — but none of these bottles are drinkable right away.
I always forget: WINE = GRAPES + TIME.
The three Guardian wines (two Gun Metal and one Alibi) must wait a year until we open them. The Grand Rêve we have to cellar for — and this is a quote — 3 to 5 years. It has its own adorable little prison sentence. So I’ve locked it in a cabinet downstairs; in addition to being cool and dark and friendly for wine aging, it seemed appropriate.
I’ve been going strong on my RITA reading, but somehow or other (wedding, honeymoon) have fallen behind on the actual writing-up of my thoughts. So this post is going to tackle two RITA winners — plus, a bonus book! — for reasons that should become obvious.
Ultimately, what I’ve taken away from these three books is: location, location, location.
First up: The Sandalwood Princess, by Loretta Chase. Brief admission: Loretta Chase is currently my number-one favorite romance author, and for the past year and a half I’ve been reading everything of hers I could get my hands on. This one was a new one, and unlike many of her others it moved around a lot from place to place: India, onboard ship, a country manor house, and India again.
From a writers’ craft standpoint, each of these locations provided a framework for a different part of the story:
India holds the initial moment of contact, where the thief-hero steals the titular princess statue from our heroine. But it is also the home of the sly, elderly whose failed long-ago romance is the impetus for the plot, and a foil to our hero and heroine.
On the ship back to England, our hero masquerades as a servant, a deception which succeeds but which does not prevent the heroine from stealing the statue back from the false master she believes to be the real thief. It is also a space where neither the hero or heroine is entirely at home, and being jarred out of a familiar setting leads to more intimate conversation than each might otherwise have permitted.
Once in England, the heroine realizes the statue is missing and follows the heroine north to find an opportunity of stealing it back — which means convincing the heroine he was fired by his master once the statue disappeared from the ship. She hires him as a secretary/butler, which allows them to spend hours together in a cozy domestic setting, enjoying one another’s company and falling even more deeply in love.
The thief ultimately has to steal the statue back, for some reason, and everybody goes back to India, where the final twist is revealed and both romance plotlines find a resolution.
Ultimately, the locations are a shorthand for the developing relationship, as often happens in romances (I’m looking at you, Pemberley, and every manor house descriptive passage you’ve inspired in two hundred years). It’s usually a pretty good trick, even when the seams show.
But it has a downside: it can make your hero and heroine seem like they are an entirely different person when they are in a different location. Sometimes this is important, and can shake up a complacent character — again, PEMBERLEY — but sometimes it just starts to feel a bit whiplash-y for the reader. “Wait — who the hell is this person with the same name as that person I was just getting to know? That person would never do this. What’s going on?”
Unfortunately, this is what happened in The Prince of Midnight by Laura Kinsale, which was absolutely jam-packed full of things. Anything that could be made interesting was interest-ified within an inch of its life.
The hero is a half-deaf hermit and former highwayman still wanted in England, whose best friend is a tame wolf. The heroine is the only survivor of a family wiped out by a malicious pastor’s oppressive cult in her home village. (No, really.) They meet the totally squicky Marquis de Sade, and later a group of aristocratic snuff enthusiasts — and, to clarify, not the “Oh look at my tiny dandyish habit” snuff. The “Oh look at me choke a woman to death during sex” snuff.
But I’m getting off-track.
I stumbled upon another Kinsale romance, An Uncertain Magic, which had the same rampant busyness. (Psychics! Repressed memories! Revolution in Ireland! The Sidhe! An adorable brandy-drinking pig!) What’s more, it had the same unconcern with locations as the first one. Kinsale’s places feel ephemeral, as though the characters are only tangentially rooted there. Perhaps this is because the couples in both novels are somewhat unrooted themselves: there’s a lot of things that happen on the road, or in houses being falling down or being rebuilt, or in inns and waystations and the like. And I have to admit to being really, really fond of the hero from Prince of Midnight, mostly on account of how different he is from the usual alpha hero. (Very broken, and more than a little sad, and very aware that his desperation is not attractive, which paradoxically makes him quite attractive as a character.)
And maybe it’s something about the way the two authors (Chase and Kinsale) think of characters. Chase’s style is a much more invisible thing, a mostly realistic narrative voice. Kinsale, though, is a little more fluid and suggestive, a little more poetic, which can be very effective but which always kind of reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s description of reading the human mind as “trying to nail fog to the wall.” You get all these rich and evocative phrases, but the thread of a specific character’s personality tends to wax and wane, disappear and reappear.
Frankly, much as I love an evocative phrase, I want to keep my writing as rooted as possible. Maybe when I make it through all the relevant RITAs I’ll start by taking apart a particularly admirable scene or two from some of my favorite novels. Hey, who ever said a comparative literature degree couldn’t be useful?
Internet personality quizzes are my Achilles heel. I enjoy finding out what interval best embodies my complex individuality (major 7th, as it happens) and what the shape of my letter A’s says about me on a fundamental level. If I’d been around in the late eighteenth century I would have been totally into phrenology, though it pains me to admit it. But there’s something eternally seductive about the idea that my self is just a code waiting to be decrypted. I’m always looking for the key.
So when Twitter alerted me to the existence of I Write Like, I jumped all over it. Into the machine went my favorite part of a blog post on my recent honeymoon in Helsinki.
But wait. I had put in a sex scene — and a very purplish one, at that. We’ve already seen Dan Brown’s name, and someone else on the internet has gotten Stephen King, so modern (male) genre authors are totally bring-uppable. Is Lovecraft really the closest thing this site could get to a romance author?
Online I found an excerpt from Danielle Steele’s The Journey, and put in a goodly chunk of text.
At this point I was getting a horrible feeling that whoever built this site did not think women could write anything significant, memorable, or worth imitating.
Of course, modern romance authors are still kind of ghettoized, sure. So I went classical, and pulled the start of chapter 38 from Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. The one that begins, “Reader, I married him.” Who does Charlotte Bronte Write Like?
At this point I started to go a little crazy, throwing anything and everything into that damn white frame on the site and growing increasingly sure that my outrage was more than just a figment of my imagination. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own:
If you’ve noticed there’s an elephant in the room, sipping tea and wearing an empire-waist gown and arguing that the choice of who to marry is screamingly important when it’s the only real choice you get to make in your entire life, you’re correct. I’d been avoiding putting anything by Jane Austen in here, because honestly it would break my heart to see Jane Austen writing like James Joyce, or Dickens, or frakking Lovecraft. But the question had to be answered.
Jane Austen’s beautiful, perfect opening scene from Pride and Prejudice:
In conclusion: no female author has ever produced anything important unless they are Jane Austen.
A sly thought occurred. I went back to the Gutenberg Project, and looked up the truncated and very sarcastic History of England that Austen wrote in her youth. I entered this passage:
“The Character of this Prince has been in general very severely treated by Historians, but as he was a YORK, I am rather inclined to suppose him a very respectable Man. It has indeed been confidently asserted that he killed his two Nephews and his Wife, but it has also been declared that he did not kill his two Nephews, which I am inclined to beleive true; and if this is the case, it may also be affirmed that he did not kill his Wife, for if Perkin Warbeck was really the Duke of York, why might not Lambert Simnel be the Widow of Richard. Whether innocent or guilty, he did not reign long in peace, for Henry Tudor E. of Richmond as great a villain as ever lived, made a great fuss about getting the Crown and having killed the King at the battle of Bosworth, he succeeded to it. “
We wanted to sing karaoke tonight, but since coming to Finland our ability to stay up past eight in the evening has been severely compromised. Strategically, we opted to not walk a billion miles in the morning, wrapped ourselves in hotel towels, and tried out the Finnish sauna instead.
You guys, saunas are hot hot hot hot hot. I was worried about breathing, but equally worried about, you know, not breathing. “Oh my god,” said Charles, “feel my hair. My hair is hot. I can feel my hair getting hot. We’ve only been in here thirty seconds.” I felt his hair. He was right.
“There’s an hourglass here on the wall,” I said. “We can time our stay. I give us five minutes, tops.”
“You’re on.” Another thirty seconds went by. “Does that hourglass actually work?” asked Charles.
I tapped the glass. Nothing happened. I tapped harder. A little blob of sand went plop from the top into the bottom. “Doesn’t appear to,” I said.
“Hand me that dipper of water,” said Charles.
“You’re going to make it hotter?”
“I’m worried we’re going to die.”
“I want to throw water on the rocks too.”
“Here.” He handed me the dipper.
Three or so minutes later, we had had enough. It felt like we had been swimming, or shoveling coal in the belly of the Titanic, or some such. Our hotel-issue slippers were going squish from humidity and floor condensation. That said, we felt pretty amazing — to me, it seemed as though I had been given a thorough massage, but on my bones rather than my muscles. As though I had been turned into a limp plate of spaghetti and then rebuilt in human form. It was very intense, but ultimately pleasurable. I only wish there had been the traditional birch twigs as well as the dipper.
Refreshed, we went to the Design Museum and saw the amazing, weird, hilarious, highly technically skilled work of Oiva Toikka. Our favorite were the owls:
The rest of the afternoon was spent writing blog posts on revised Bechdel tests (me) and the implications of misunderstood ethnic food (Charles). For dinner, we wandered into a likely-looking place that turned out to be weirdly posh, like a gourmet diner from a Ray Bradbury carnival as directed by Tim Burton. I snuck a photo of the creepy chandeliers.
And then — it was time for karaoke. Or rather, it was past time: they were supposed to start at six, and it was already nearing seven. We hopped on the tram, hopped off, didn’t see the place, circled around, found it, and went in.
The bar was called Satumaa, which translates to fairyland and is also the title of a famous Finnish tango from a famous Kaurismäki film. If there is a better name for a Finnish karaoke bar than Satumaa, I cannot possibly imagine what that name could be.
We were the first singers there.
The internets had led us to believe that Satumaa was an upscale karaoke joint, with some serious talent. The latter was becoming obvious by the time we left, 1.5 hours and 5 songs later, but as fo the rest it must be stated honestly that the place was a dive. A lovely, perfect, cozy, wonderful dive. We were instantly at home. The English language selections were plentiful, and many of the tracks had the old karaoke videos from the laserdisc days, which I have sorely missed in this era of the CDG. Like the part of “Take My Breath Away,” where the chick in the video begins to sing along while looking right back at the karaoke singer? Weird! Hilarious!
And the sound! Oh, the sound. Somehow, the microphone gods made this tiny thirty-foot space sound like a stadium. Like you were using your full voice but not losing any of the little, subtle touches either. By the time we left, exhausted and happy, the following things had happened:
a Finnish woman with a rough voice and thick accent had done “Kashmir” and “Hit the Road, Jack,” both of which were actually really fun even though her voice wasn’t the greatest
a Finnish dude who nervously rocked back and forth from one front foot to one back foot had done the best Robbie Williams I’ve ever heard.
the assistant host and a girl who was clearly a regular had performed a close-harmony duet by Celine Dion and Barbara Streisand. Dion! Streisand!
I can’t decide whether it’s a shame that Satumaa is halfway around the world from home, or a relief to know that a measly half the globe is as far away from good karaoke as I can possibly get.
Our third day in Helsinki, and my body has adjusted enough that I am not having random spells of dizziness from sleep deprivation. Plus, I am still sleeping incredibly soundly on this impossibly comfy hotel bed. Hooray!
What’s more, today’s weather looked beautiful, so we put on sunscreen before we left the hotel. This turned out to be smart.
From the waterfront you can take a short ferry ride to Suomenlinna, the island fortress that once defended Helsinki against the Russians, the English and French (oh, Crimean War, with your slippery unremembered facts), and the Russians again during World War II. We meandered down to the dock, sampling free buy-our-food bribes from market stalls all the way. Finnish sweet peas are practically a dessert item, they are so lush and tasty. I was mesmerized by the beauty of vegetables.
It was around this time that I took my favorite photo of the trip so far: a closeup shot of the Havis Amanda statue on the Helsinki waterfront. I cannot seem to stop taking photos of this statue, from whatever angle the light allows, no matter how many times it tests the limits of Charles’ patience and causes him to gently cough and remind me of time’s inexorable passage:
The last time I visited Suomenlinna, the entire ocean was a bleak expanse of treacherous and impassable ice, with a heavy blanket of undisturbed snow and a lone swan winging over the silent sea. Today it was thronged with people, having picnics and swimming and drawing and playing with puppies and herding small children through sprinklers and kayaking and generally making the most of a perfect summer afternoon by the water. The soft breeze did its best but the sunlight was fierce, and our greatest relief came from finding a rocky beach and dipping our feet in the Baltic Sea. (Or Gulf of Finland, if we’re being technical.) You’ll be shocked to hear that the Baltic Sea is really cold, even in the height of summer.
Once we had lunch and returned, we were astonished to note the dark and ominous clouds looming up behind the city, and were glad we’d gone out adventuring while the day was young. Little did we know that the first thing to fall from the sky would not be raindrops, but a small and still temporarily alive fish.
He plopped down in front of us, still twitching and panicked, when we were crossing the street two blocks from the harbor. It might have seemed more of an omen if we hadn’t also noticed the loud cry of disappointment from the seagull who had dropped him. But it was still pretty weird.
Now it is dinnertime, the heavens have opened, and the great thunder god Ukko is throwing rocks in that great bowling alley in the sky. Good thing the restaurant in this hotel is delicious.
Upcoming: museums, architecture, and a Finnish karaoke palace.
There are ten-hour plane flights, and there are ten-hour plane flights. This, thankfully, was the former. I spent at least half of it watching Clash of the Titans and then Percy Jackson and the Olympians and crafting a messy and unreasoned analysis of the films’ different interpretations of Greek mythology and its pertinent themes, because that is what my brain does on vacation. Charles plowed through the first two Harry Potter books and Zamyatin’s dystopian We, all before the wheels touched down in Amsterdam.
Seriously, why is it Medusa who's looking at a reflection here? That's not how it goes, movie-based-on-book-based-on-myth!
Confidential to the waiter in the ridiculously upscale bistro on the second floor of the Amsterdam airport lounge: Despite the “Please Wait to Be Seated” sign, you work in an airport. If I’m ordering a Sauternes in an airport, it’s a good bet I’m not really that picky about my Sauternes. You do not really need to warn me in hushed tones that the Sauternes is “far too sweet.” I mean, as opposed to every other Sauternes, everywhere? It’s a dessert wine! Sweetness is a desirable characteristic! Also, when you have a couple unfamiliar Dutch and Belgian beers on the list, and we ask you for a good beer recommendation, it is not acceptable to say, “Heineken, of course!” simply because you have cleverly deduced we are Americans. We are from Seattle. We know Heineken is not the best you can do.
The pumpkin soup, however, was delicious.
We went on to Helsinki. Our luggage, we discovered much later, decided to hang around the Netherlands for a bit longer. Probably getting irresponsibly stoned in a hash bar somewhere. Our luggage knows nothing about moderation.
So there we were, Charles and I, sans clothes, sans toothbrush, sans spare pair of underwear even though I knew I should have packed an extra in my carry-on like a smart and prepared adventurer. I reminded myself that we were newlyweds on our honeymoon and the underwear was probably mostly optional. To make change for the bus, we bought some surprising chocolates, chocolates that looked dark and delectable but which shattered as soon as you lay tooth to them and rained cloudberry liqueur over your entire hand. Sticky-fingered and now awake for upward of 20 hours, we took the bus to the central railway station and decided to find our hotel by means of our two sets of unshared, four-year-old memories.
Shockingly, it worked.
Hotel Glo Deluxe Room
Now all we had to do was stay up until our luggage arrived. It was 3:30 Helsinki time. Our bags were supposed to be on the 5:00 flight from Amsterdam, which would mean they’d be landing at 8:30, and certainly, the girl at the help counter assured us, delivered to our hotel before 11:00 in the evening. In between, we had a whole city to explore and a thousand possible options for dinner and entertainment.
We passed out cold at 6. The phone woke us at 10:45, groggily and gladly we greeted our errant bags, and returned to our ludicrously comfortable bed. (Though what is up with the two twin comforters on a queen-sized bed thing?) At 4 in the morning, Finland time — that’d be 2 in the afternoon for Seattle folk — we woke up, much refreshed, wide awake, and with three solid hours of quiet to kill until breakfast was served. The time change, she be a fickle mistress.
Helsinki is a town full of fiddly façades, unexpected parks, and statues. Sometimes these elements combine themselves, like so:
Today was a reconnaissance day, where we mostly just wandered blithely around until our feet hurt, then ate some things, then wandered some more, then ate some more things. We tried reindeer sausage, and some kind of tiny breaded whole fish, both of which were tasty, though the former made Charles feel evil. Soon it will be time for dinner, which will be fancy, because I insisted on doing the fancy dinner earlier in the week while my clothes were still in decent shape and not all sweaty from the heat.
Because, and this shouldn’t have surprised me, it is fairly warm here. It rained in the morning, quite hard at one point, but now there is a wash of blue sky that looks like it’s here to stay until the sun goes down at, I don’t know, midnight, or whenever the hell it feels like it. Finland is balmy — who knew? I am grateful for the dozen jewel-toned tank tops I packed, and might pick up another dozen at the H&M next door while we’re here.
Up and coming: the Lutheran cathedral, the Russian cathedral, maybe Suomenlinna and fortress cannons, the waterfront park, a purported Lenin statue that I may have dreamed on the plane ride back my first trip, and any one of a hundred different museums.
Let’s talk about video games, and the ladies in them. And by ladies, I mean prostitutes.
Back in 2008 (Ye Olden Dayes, it seems), Rockstar Games took a lot of heat on account of Grand Theft Auto IV, particularly the fact that within the game, you could hire a prostitute, have sex with her, kill her, and retrieve your cash. To many people it felt — oh, what’s the right adjective — heartless. To many other people, it was hilarious, and titillating.
At the time, I was mostly indifferent. There are so many other issues with the Grand Theft Auto universe (racist stereotypes, the Madonna/whore complex, gratuitous violence and destruction), that it felt like the only proper response was the same one you see when you look up the goofs for the disaster movie The Core on IMDb: “Since almost all of the ‘science’ in the movie is entirely erroneous, we are prepared to accept that the movie’s universe *must* have entirely different rules – it’s the only possible explanation. It’s just for fun.”
I shrugged and went on with my life. And recently, Rockstar Games put out a very impressive Western, Red Dead Redemption. The critics have been gushing. And one of the things you tend to see as you explore this world is a man abusing a prostitute (wearing a white corset and black stockings, because she’s Ye Olde-Tyme Hookere) and threatening to kill her. You then have the option of killing the guy, in which case your honor rating goes up, which means nuns might later hand you amulets that prevent your enemies’ bullets from doing too much damage. (There’s that Madonna/whore thing again!) You also have the option of killing the girl, but you lose honor for doing so.
It felt as though this was a clever way for the gamemakers to atone for the offense their earlier game had caused. And then, I learned about this:
This is much, much worse, even if you watch the video on silent and miss all the little catcalls the two narrators throw at this totally fictional, voiceless, doomed woman (“That’s some hot stuff going on there”). Even when you realize the narrators are much more upset at the death of their equally fictional, equally voiceless, equally doomed horse than they are at the death of the woman they dragged out here to kill.
The primary reason this is much, much worse than killing prostitutes in GTA is very simple: this is now an Xbox Achievement.
Gamerscore is a fascinating phenomenon. Achievement points are accumulated by playing games: finishing a story, a part of the story, getting a certain number of kills, or anything else the gamemakers thought to include. Getting an achievement does not actually earn the player anything except a digital badge and an ever-increasing score, visible to the other players on Xbox Live. It is about pride, and competition, and a mark of enthusiasm. And since the number of achievement points possible on a given game is public, there is a strong drive to get all the achievements possible within the scope of a particular game.
Watching a woman die in an explosion of blood and splatter is worth 5 points. This is the lowest Xbox achievement value it is possible to have, except for one brand-new, snide achievement in Split-Second that is worth 0 points. (Reminds me of this post on the ever-amazing Tiger Beatdown.)
In GTA, you can kill the prostitute, but you have no real incentive. The cash values are pretty small, and there are plenty of other ways to earn money. You have no incentive at all that extends outside the world of the game.
But with this achievement in Red Dead Redemption, the gamer’s pride is at stake. Completionists are going to throw that woman LITERALLY UNDER THE TRAIN for five measly points just so they can say they’ve got every achievement in the game. This woman is now a sacrifice.
But she’s fictional! you will say.
You do not get the achievement if you hogtie a man and throw him under the train. It is very specifically gendered.
But the achievement’s called “Dastardly!” you will say. Obviously it’s a reference to Snidely Whiplash! It’s funny!
You know what would have been funny? If you tied the woman up, put her on the train tracks, and a heroic blond Mountie rode up and rescued her and carried her off into the sunset. But no, this is a dark game, a game about justice and violence and killing people who deserve killing — so the woman has to die.
And this is an important and not-yet-perfectly-untangled knot in the history of narrative. When you read a book whose morality is questionable — Lolita, for instance — you might get so put-off by the story that you can’t even finish the book. If you do finish the book, you still cannot be held accountable for what happened in the course of the plot.
With a sandbox game, like GTA IV or Red Dead Redemption or Fallout 3 or to some extent my beloved Fable 2, you are definitely responsible for some (though usually not all) of the main character’s choices. The protagonist’s morality reflects back on you in a way that movies or books can’t, not even books of the Choose Your Own Adventure variety. Now, with Fallout 3 and Fable 2, being evil comes with an in-game cost: in the latter, for instance, you can sacrifice 10 people in the Temple of Shadows and get a corresponding achievement, but there is also an achievement for NOT sacrificing at the Temple of Shadows and for saving the Temple of Light instead.
There is absolutely no in-game cost to the Dastardly achievement in Red Dead Redemption. If you pull out your shotgun and shoot a townsperson, the law pursues you for a little while; same if you steal a horse. But hogtie a woman and leave her to be squished by a train — nobody bats an eye.