Alicia Elsewhere

Today I have a guest post up on Overthinking It, where I spend too much time talking about blood and Greeks and heroes in the Harry Potter series. Have a taste!

Voldemort’s mistake is to think that shedding the blood of others will increase his power. In fact, it increases his enemies, as many of Voldemort’s victims have families and loved ones whose grief motivates their struggle against him. As in Aeschylus, there is a moral imperative to avenge a slain or injured relative. It’s as though kindred blood-ties become more activated by violence. This is why Narcissa Malfoy undermines Voldemort’s plans, why Neville refuses to join the Death Eaters and slays Nagini, why Aunt Petunia’s blood is capable of protecting Harry during all those summer breaks between books.

Read the rest!

Attention, Ladies: Michael Bublé and Josh Groban Battle for Your Love

Long story short: while driving around, I heard the same two songs back-to-back on the radio. This happened a couple of times. One song made me mad, and the other made me cry. And they're such an essential contradiction to one another that I'm going to write about it here. First Song: "Hollywood" by Michael Bublé.

A screencap from the video for Hollywood, with Michael Buble dressed ridiculously as Justin Bieber with a Bieber wig and a bright blue hoodie.

Defining lyrics:

I don't want to take you dancin' if you're dancin' with the world. You can flash your caviar and your million-dollar car I don't need that kind of girl.

Translation: dating Michael Bublé is more important than your dreams of musical stardom.

Mr. Bublé burst onto the scene at some point in the past decade as a poor woman's Harry Connick, Jr., a soulful retro crooner without HCJ's piano talent or post-Katrina heroism. He's a safe magnet for your mother's sublimated desire, which was fine when he was covering classic torch songs and Motown but is much more annoying now that he's apparently sold his soul to T-Pain for an Auto-Tune.

And this music superstar thinks wanting to be a music superstar is bullshit. Girl, just stay focused on this one dude—having a legion of adoring fans who'll do anything for you and listen to what you say is probably just going to turn you into the kind of stuck-up bitch who won't even wave specifically to Michael Bublé through the mass-media broadcasts you'll certainly be featured on. You'll probably just party yourself to death, or have your innocence corrupted by the glitz of the big city.

In short, Michael Bublé is your classic Nice Guy. The bitter kind who gets the opposite of laid by women who are too busy making decisions based on what they want rather than on what the Nice Guy thinks they ought to want.

And then I flash back to all the old songs he covers and remember that, you know, retro nostalgia tends to overshadow things like racism, sexism, and the horrors of the unimagined past.

Frankly, I'll dance with the world rather than Michael Bublé any day of the week.

Second Song: "Hidden Away" by Josh Groban.

A screencap from the video for Hidden Away, where Josh Groban looks all smouldery and emo.

Defining lyrics:

You’re a wonder, how bright you shine A flickering candle in a short lifetime A secret dreamer that never shows If no one sees you then nobody knows And all these words you were meant to say Held in silence day after day Words of kindness that our poor hearts crave Please don't keep them Hidden away

The only things I know about Josh Groban are A) he bears a remarkable resemblance to a friend of mine, and B) his astonishing cameo in the first season of Glee:

Ahem. Anyway.

Because I heard "Hidden Away" immediately after the Bublé song, I was still thinking about love in terms of music stardom and pursuing your dreams. Groban's song could be read as a love song; it could also be read as a support song for someone with superstar ambitions.

You get the sense, in that second reading, that Josh Groban would be perfectly thrilled to watch you on tv if he knew that's what you really wanted. He doesn't want to control you—he wants a person with passions and loves and the courage to express them. And even though Josh Groban has perhaps the whitest, churchiest delivery since the Reverend Carey Landry, the melody is so achingly earnest and the chord changes so archetypal that my eyes well up even trying to talk about it.

Sing it out / so I can finally breathe, Josh Groban sings. His liberation and yours are tied together: if you're restricted and limited, so is he.

Josh Groban's full and open support makes a mockery of Michael Bublé's statement that you don't need to be famous if you love yourself/date the Nice Guy. Michael Bublé is only interested in you insofar as you are interested in Michael Bublé.

Josh Groban just wants you to be happy. Yeah, it's sappy—but I can live with that.

The Videos: Where Things Go All Hunter S. On My Analysis

While writing this post, I watched the videos for both songs. Neither one was what I expected.

Music videos are a difficult art form. Sometimes they hew closely to the lyrics' narrative ("…Baby One More Time") and other times they go off in abstract, artsy, or hugely choreographed directions (Daft Punk, OK Go).

The video for "Hidden Away" is a multi-strand narrative about opening up to your loved ones: there's a father and his young daughter, a teen girl and her female friends/possible lesbian girlfriend, and Josh Groban and Maria (who may or may not be his girlfriend, or just someone he knows, it's never really clarified).

The strands are only tied together at the end, and then imperfectly: the only thing they have in common is that theme of openly expressing affection. There are many shots of Groban and his band playing in between silent story segments—it's all pretty predictable and unambitious, but for all that it's beautifully lit and pleasing to the eye. It doesn't overwhelm the song, even as it expands the theme from a simple romantic plea to one that applies to all varieties of love.

But the video for "Hollywood"—well, it's just weird. Apparently Michael Bublé is singing a kind-of love song to—himself? But his alter egos are singing as well? It's the furthest thing from clear or coherent. I mean, yeah, he's telling us about how false Hollywood is, but the whole video is basically having a great time with costumes and sets and action scenes. Making movies looks like a fucking blast in this video. Why wouldn't we all want to move to Hollywood? Because it's inauthentic? It's better than authentic!

See? I've been corrupted already.

But while the intended message is soupy, the unintended one is crystal clear. Women in this world are accessories, trophies, arm candy, decorative objects, anything except feeling, thinking, acting people. At the end, our Nice Guy drives off not with his best girl by his side, but in a car with three other dudebros. Dudebros, of course, are Real Authentic People, not Hollywood Types or Women.

On the other hand, anything that keeps Michael Bublé among the dudebros and away from ladies like myself is pretty okay. That guy's starting to creep me out.

This Post is About Badminton, Kinda

My senior year of college, once winter was officially gone, one of my housemates or neighbors bought a backyard games set from Walmart on a whim. And that's how I spent half my senior year playing badminton. I'd played occasionally before, like you do as a kid because—let's face it—badminton has a certain amount of whimsy built-in. Elegant rackets like the wings of dragonflies! A winged ball! That's called a shuttlecock! That makes a very satisfying thunk when struck in the sweet spot!

We even held a tournament once, though our careful brackets and fabulous prizes quickly devolved into "take a sip of your beer when anybody scores" and "this ribbon says, 'I Can Dress Myself.'"

There is a very poorly taken photo of me from this time. I have a racket in my hand and am going in for a spike shot. I'm wearing a long-sleeved grey t-shirt and an ankle-length denim skirt that looks as though it was made from a single pair of jeans. (It was not, but such were the fashions of the day.)

And it turns out, this is perfectly in line with the new badminton dress code as described in the New York Times: female badminton players are now required to wear skirts.

Naturally, as the Times hurries to explain, this is being called out as a sexist move. An extra wrinkle is that badminton is played by lots of Muslim women, who currently play in long pants. Pants would still be permitted, but only if a skirt is worn over them. And not a sheer skirt.

The reason for the change? According to Badminton World Federation deputy president Paisan Rangsikitpho:

“Hardly anybody is watching,” he said. “TV ratings are down. We want to build them up to where they should be. They play quite well. We want them to look nicer on the court and have more marketing value for themselves. I’m surprised we got a lot of criticism.”

So, just to be clear: sports marketing value = skirts = harder to play in for religious or physical reasons = women have an extra obstacle to playing well in comparison with men. Way to sell me on the integrity of your sport, sir.

But don't worry! A woman is wiling to go on record and say this isn't sexist! We're in the clear! Former world champion Nora Perry: "Being a woman myself I do not think that the rules in any way discriminate against women."

I guess I missed the message from the Feminist Hive-Mind saying that being held to different standards because I am female is not actually discrimination. Possibly because, um, that is pretty much the textbook definition of discrimination.

Intersect Story Map

Have you guys found out about Intersect yet? It's a lovely idea for a social space: you write a story from your life, and mark the time and place. Then you can browse around chronologically, geographically, or both—to see what other stories have happened in that place, or what other stories were happening around the same time. It's engaging, encouraging, and totally addictive. Here's a map of my stories so far—I've been meaning to add more, when deadlines are not breathing like dragons down my neck.

Pilot Versus Ballerina

Sometimes, if you are not a cis white dude, life will up and smack you in the face for not being a cis white dude. Even if all you are doing is sitting around typing crappy prose on your laptop.

I was doing just that when the love of my life started scrolling through the updated avatar clothing selections on Xbox Live. "Hey!" he said. "They have a cool jobs section!" And for a moment we delighted in the stereotypical avatar costumes: astronaut, farmer, doctor, pilot, professor.

They were so stereotypical that I was suddenly worried. "Switch to my account," I directed. "I bet you can't be an astronaut if you're female."

"Why would they be different?" he responded. "I bet they are the same."

We checked. They were not.

Astronaut was the same. Professor had been switched to scientist -- in a pencil skirt and lab coat with sassy red flats, rather than a tweed suit and black dress shoes. That raised an eyebrow slightly.

And then, we found ballerina. Ballerina, it seems, had replaced pilot.

You tell me what that plane looks like. Amirite?

And not just one pilot: a male avatar allows you to be either a commercial pilot (spiffy navy blue uniform) or a private pilot (spiffy brown leather bomber and khaki pants).

A female avatar means you can be a ballerina, but not a pilot.

Is this reflective of real life? Maybe if you are a girl and also five years old. But I kind of wanted to be a pilot at age five, so clearly the omgballerina desire is not innate to five-year-old girls.

Let us visit the website for the US Department of Labor! That's where they keep the statistics.

The number of dancers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 13,000. And this is without knowing how many dancers are specifically ballerinas (as opposed to modern dancers, belly dancers, nightclub dancers, etc.), which is undoubtedly a smaller number still.

The number of pilots and flight engineers, male and female, employed in the US in 2008 was approximately 116,000. That figure is higher almost by a factor of ten.

Exaggerated scenario one: if we assume both professions split evenly on gender lines, then you still have nearly nine times more female pilots than female dancers. It is much more likely that you are a female pilot than that you are a female dancer.

This is not a thing just anyone can do to their spine without years of expensive training.

Exaggerated scanario two: assume all dancers are ballerinas, which is clearly ridiculous, but bear with me. Where is the statistical point where you have a better chance of being a ballerina than a female pilot? In short, plug 13,000 into 116,000 and see what percentage comes out.

11. Eleven percent. You have a better chance of being a ballerina if less than eleven percent of pilots are female.

Of course, these statistics are just an illustration, because the avatar costumes are not about reality. They are about social norms, and policing gender boundaries. Girls should want to be ballerinas, because ballerinas are super feminine. They shouldn't want to be pilots (and boys should want to be) because pilots are super masculine.

Feminine, in this case, means: cultured, graceful, thin, and sexually unobtainable.

Masculine, in this case, means: gruff, rational, arrogant, and aggressively sexual.

In addition, as the love of my life pointed out, pilots make a significantly higher amount of money than ballerinas, with a significantly lower chance of on-the-job injury. (According to the BLS, professional dancers have one of the highest chances of being injured nonfatally at work.) So women are expected/encouraged to choose a profession in which they must conform to an impossibly high physical standard, with very little monetary recompense.

I have flown planes. I have taken ballet. Flying is much more fun. I would love to dress my avatar in a bomber jacket and black boots -- like I dress in real life.

But apparently that's not very feminine.


Some facts we learned in the course of tonight's research:

  • Googling "female pilot uniform" brings up quite a bit more porn than you would expect. Yes, even more than that.
  • Googling "male pilot" brings up a lot of whales (oh, I get it) and no porn. At least, not before I got tired of scrolling down.
  • Googling "manly pilot" introduces you to early aviation pioneer Charles Manly. So that's pretty neat. No porn, though you do get a cartoon of shirtless anime guys kissing.
  • Googling "man" does not bring up Don Draper in the first three pages. We kinda thought it would.
  • Googling "men" gets three images of Don Draper on the first page alone.

The Calculus of Medical Notes: Disability and Higher Education

Imagine, for a moment, that you are a graduate student teaching assistant in an undergraduate film class at a large state university. You are poorly paid, and entirely untrained. You have a full courseload of your own, and you are teaching a subject in which you have no expertise. Though your union contract stipulates you may only work a certain number of hours per week, this simply means the professors who are in charge of you assume you will work as hard as necessary to finish whatever they assign you within that set length of time. They will expect you to adapt to their plans, and they will not change those plans even if it becomes absurdly obvious that ten allotted hours is not enough time to grade sixty ten-page papers, read all the course's assigned texts, and create a discussion plan for two class sections. You are also the first line of professorial defense against the unwashed hordes of undergraduates, and so you are the one the students come to with doctor's notes, parents' notes, emails from home when they are sick. At some point, one student will come to you with a note from a doctor or a professor or the school's disability office. That note will say: there is an issue I am going to have, which conflicts with certain expectations for this class. Will you adapt those expectations?

Strangely, even though you do not have a lot of status with the professor, you have a great deal of power over an individual student's performance in your class section. You can cut them slack, or let them swing.

And the following calculation plays itself out:

  • The issue is either true or false.
  • You can believe this issue is either true or false.
  • You can adapt or not adapt the professor's expectations.

Here are the permutations:

  • Let's say the issue is true. You believe it is true. You adapt expectations (excusing certain absences, extending deadlines, making films available outside of class, and so on). Result: you feel pretty good. These changes don't tend to impact your own life to a large degree, since you're not really being graded here and the student in question is. (There are TA evaluations, but it is an open secret that these are just a bizarre end-of-term ritual, the paper equivalent of a Guy Fawkes bonfire.) You have made their life easier, and your own life is not harder for it.
  • Let's say the issue is false, but you believe (for one reason or another) that it is true. You adapt expectations, and still feel pretty good about the results.
  • Let's say the issue is true, but you believe it to be false. You adapt expectations because you are lazy and overworked. It's easier just to give in. You don't feel as good, but things are easier for your student anyway, regardless of how you feel.
  • Let's say the issue is true, and you believe it to be false, and in a burst of misguided self-righteousness you refuse to adapt expectations. Your student's life becomes more difficult as a result, and this disproportionately impacts their grade and even their life outside of class. If you handle this badly enough, your student may complain to one of the many offices that can make your own life infinitely more difficult. If you are enough of an asshole about it, you may be fired or have your funding pulled.
  • Let's say the issue is false, and you believe it to be false, and you refused to adapt expectations. You may feel smarter for a brief, fleeting second, but mostly you just feel grumpy. Your student hates being called a liar, and resents you for the rest of the term. Nobody's life is improved.

This equation points pretty clearly in the direction of adapting the class rules whether or not you believe your student: if you give your student the benefit of the doubt, on the whole it will make everyone's life easier. There is the tiniest chance you are being lied to, but if you had enough pride to care about that you would not be a TA in the first place, working for peanuts, living hand-to-mouth, and walking around like a sleep-deprived, addle-brained, thrift-store-clothes-wearing zombie.

And in my experience, people tend to make up stories about things other than permanent disabilities. Getting sick, cars breaking down, that sort of thing: temporary, designed so you don't ask any further questions. Casual, everyday excuses which you only see through when you run into them at the karaoke bar later that evening -- a fun not-awkward experience for everyone!

Meanwhile, the person who comes to you with the signed doctor's note about a learning disability that means they would like to be able to take notes on a laptop despite the professor's vehement statements that this is prohibited -- that person is certainly telling the truth. They know that you are likely to ask questions about polysyllabic medical terms and obscure collections of capital letters and precisely what accommodations they require. You will probably have to email the disability office, if your student has not already done so. They know there is a possibility you will refuse to help them, and they know that once they tell  you they are disabled there is no going back. It is a vulnerable thing to confess, and is not done lightly.

So when I read things like this post, which partly deals with ableism in the classroom, I get mad. If you as a professor or instructor have the time and energy to be that malicious, that thoughtless of another human being's difficulties, you have no business working in higher education. Funny how ivory towers never seem to have elevators or wheelchair ramps.

Hamm Reduction

Here is what you discover when you start reading the latest ode to Jon Hamm from Details magazine:

  1. Hamm swears at bikers.
  2. While wearing madras shorts and a baseball cap.
  3. Because they impede him from going 140 in his borrowed fancy car, a silver Mercedes that is not yet available for purchase by the public
  4. While avoiding parking tickets, apparently by the sheer force of Hamm's manly will
  5. Before returning to the Malibu beach house he's borrowing for the weekend with the girlfriend who likes all the same things he does, and their German shepherd mix.

Let me stop right there.

In The Mommy Myth, Susan J. Douglas spends a chapter outlining the weird formality of the celebrity mom profile. They read identically: the celebrity mom dotes obsessively on her kids, and even though she's hard-working and financially independent and has a very visible career, she still thinks her children are her greatest achievement as a woman and as a human being. It's as though we need to be reassured that when given enough power and money (same thing, really), a woman will 'naturally' choose to become a wife and mother (but most importantly a mother).

With Jon Hamm (and George Clooney, and that one time in Vanity Fair with Shia LaBeouf until he became a target for mockery), we get the men's version: the retro-dude profile. Instead of having adorable children, he is "piecing together his résumé, quietly building a career and a life." Instead of decorating a home, he is "never in danger of taking the easy way." His words have "the weight of a benediction" because his is the voice of authority. But of course, he is also Everyman: "Not self-consciously handsome. Not a dick. A normal guy . . ."The Mercedes-Benz fairy tale

Here is the difference between the celebrity mom profile and the Hamm piece: the former is all about the actress' personal life, her children and her home and her feelings. The latter is about his career, his talent, and his plans for the future. Nevertheless, both the celebrity mom's maternal warmth and Jon Hamm's self-assurance are supposed to be 'natural,' and effortless. In reality, both gender poses require a great deal of time and energy. Yet the reader is encouraged by the celebrity profile to view this effortlessness as the reason for the celebrity's prominence, the base of their fame and fortune. For example, this sentence from the Hamm profile:

What's startling about Draper isn't just the physical man-ness Hamm projects as the chisel-chinned messenger sent from the past to save us from casual Fridays and Twitter. It's also the way Hamm imbues everything Draper does with a sense of complicated, conflicted adult-ness.

Real men, you see, are tortured -- Don Draper by his false identity, Jon Hamm by the loss of both his parents and his knowledge that his chosen industry is fickle, that he will have to keep on his toes and work hard. Good thing that hard work is an acceptably masculine activity.

Real men are also leaders, particularly of women:

"One of the greatest pleasures of the job," Weiner says, "has been to see Jon create the character of Don Draper. He's smart, deep, and a natural leader. I can't imagine making the show without him."

It is ambiguous whether "smart, deep, and a natural leader" refers to Jon or his character. And there's more:

Elisabeth Moss, who plays Peggy, says the whole cast considers Hamm "the leader of our little gang. We do defer to him. If there's something that we need to fix, we go to Jon.

"It's funny," she adds. "There definitely are a lot of similarities between how Jon and I get along and the relationship between Don and Peggy. But Jon doesn't yell at me as much—thank God. That would be a bit rough."

That there is a difference between Jon and Don -- oh god, are the names really that similar? -- the author acknowledges, but only just: "It occurs to me that this is why Weiner keeps journalists off his sets: so nobody will realize that the reason his cast is so good is that the 'actors' are actually split-personality cases who've fully inhabited their roles."

Even while the author takes care to note Hamm's versatility as both a comedic and dramatic talent -- coupled with another gushing quote from a woman, Sarah Silverman this time -- he is eliding the distinction between Jon Hamm and the character he has helped create:

Hamm tends to talk about the collaborative nature, the teamwork, of showing up and being a part of something. "This isn't a very solitary experience," he says. "You can't just go into a room and act by yourself. You need an audience to play off of, you need someone to write the material." On cue, Elisabeth Moss, in full Peggy regalia, joins us on the folding chairs. I ask her if there's a Don Draper School of Acting.

"He doesn't say too much," Elisabeth/Peggy says sheepishly.

"Not since you stopped fucking it up and got it right," Jon/Don says, and they both crack up.

Still laughing, Hamm gets up. As he ambles toward the set, the actors' reserved parking spots come into view. The SLS, its wings tucked primly away, is shining like some golden trophy in the sun.

Despite the majesty rays there, the article goes out of its way to note that Jon Hamm has not yet achieved instant-recognition celebrity status: the folks at the burger joint he and the author eat at fail to make a fuss over his presence, which leads the author to conclude that Hamm has not been recognized. (Though if Hamm eats there frequently, it might be simple politeness on the part of the employees.) The author connects the two personalities of actor and character in such a way that Jon Hamm is the Clark Kent to Don Draper's Superman. Only, instead of leaping a tall building, he comes out of the phone booth and shoves a check into his mistress' cleavage.

The article's reader is encouraged to think of Jon and Don as two aspects of a single personality. It is Jon Hamm who has brought Don Draper out of the sixties to save us.Jekyll and Hyde: who doesn't want to be that/those guy/s?

Save us from what, though? From "casual Fridays and Twitter"? Really? The messianic tone of the article is all the more unsettling because the threat Jon/Don will save us from is never explicitly named. Though we can guess.

Jon Hamm does seem to have a surprising amount of dislike for Twitter, which seems odd. He feels luckier than "the Twilight kids or Miley Cyrus or whoever" presumably because he is older, and manlier, and thus more able to handle the pressures of public scrutiny. Even as Hamm laments the invasive curiosity of the public, in another quote he states that being a porn star is equivalent to selling one's dignity -- without a shred of self-awareness that he is, after all, a man who is paid to do things with his body while other people watch. Has nobody ever mentioned to Jon Hamm that he and Miley Cyrus have essentially the same job?

To go back to the parallel with the celebrity mom profile for a moment, it's probably not a coincidence that we specifically frame actors this way. If gender is a performance, who better to embody its most rigid forms than our most well-known performers?

All images via the Vintage Ad Browser.

Nathan Rabin Fails at Modeling and as a Human Being.

It may seem like a clever move to self-deprecatingly refer to your own article as a "lousy blog post", but it doesn't mean the phrase does not ring true. If there is one set of ads I would purge from all the internets given the chance (and the POWER), it is the marketing campaign spat forth by American Apparel. They look like the stalkerish photos taken by serial killers and kidnappers, or else they have contorted models into poses that look not merely painful but even injurious, or else they have weird classist vibes that I try very hard not to ponder at any length. They are train wrecks, and so naturally I can't not look at them.

Which is also why I read Nathan Rabin's recent AV Club post: "Death by sexy: a middle-aged man in an Eat Pray Love promotional T-shirt auditions to be an American Apparel model."

I thought there might be some small bit of revelation in it, some piece of information that could illuminate a corner of the world. And there was, but not in the way I wanted.

Looking uncomfortable on a beach -- I could model for American Apparel!

Our Author dresses in his worst clothes. He makes fun of the female models while praising their looks, and ignores the male models entirely. He describes the aesthetic of AA ads as being uncomfortably close to child pornography, but appears to have no problem finding this sexually appealing. He talks at length to one hopeful model in particular -- and this is where my bit of revelation comes in.

Martha (a pseudonym) is seventeen, and has been modeling for four years. Let that math sink in a little bit. She is described as "Giddy with the hubris of youth," but she's not the one throwing Greek tragedy terms around and attending modeling auditions as a whimsical prank.

No, Martha is here to get paid. She doesn't model full-time, as she's soon to be a senior in high school, but her mom's been unemployed for two years and modeling helps pay the rent every month.

Let's be clear: this girl is helping keep a roof over her family's head.

Mr. Rabin doesn't care.

He wants to talk about her photos:

She then rifled through her portfolio. It was remarkable how different she looked in each photo. Her fresh-faced, well-scrubbed look of pure Americana was eminently mutable. It was as if her face and body were unformed and unfinished and could only be completed by a stylist and photographer fitting her into their predetermined vision. She could be whoever they wanted her to be.

In short, she's a good model. This is her job. Our Author, who is in no financial straits himself and who has already admitted his own inability to look like anything other than what he is (a writer), nonetheless feels perfectly comfortable looking down on this girl:

She noted sadly that Abercrombie & Fitch wanted to buy one of her photographs, but she didn’t have the rights to the photos they wanted to buy; those were held, I suppose, by the photographers who took them or the modeling agency or the clients that bought them.“Shit, man. I could have been an Abercrombie & Fitch model,” she muttered.

I tried to console her. “Eh, I’ve done a lot of campaigns with them. They’re not so great.” But she did not pick up on my sarcasm.

This girl is hard up. She is at a crossroads of several systems that have let her down: the crappy economy, the copyright system that allows other people (very probably male people) to hold the rights to images of her body, images that could have eased the financial burden on herself and her mother.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Astonishing Narcisissm, Our Author is sad she doesn't laugh at his joke.

This erasure of Martha and her human experience is a colossal failure on the part of Our Author, both as a writer and as a human being. The whole post started with this paragraph:

It’s hard not to be moved by the print ad’s haunting images of desperation and sadness. Who were these emaciated young people with their gaunt flesh squeezed into gold lamé leggings, their dead eyes pleading for mercy and compassion? Why did a major chain choose advertising redolent of child pornography from the '70s? Were these runaways all right? Had Charney forced them into lives of prostitution, drug dealing, and pornography? Should I purchase American Apparel clothing, or report its owners and advertisers to the proper authorities?

There seems to be some acknowledgment here that American Apparel models are victims of systemic failure. And -- how lucky for his story! -- the intrepid journalist's impression that AA models look desperate and hungry proves to be actually true in real life. This narrative arc should write itself: "I thought Americal Apparel models looked desperate and exploited -- turns out, they are actually desperate and exploited."

But Our Author seems to forget all his concern for these models as soon as he actually meets on in person.

Is that whole early paragraph just a joke? There is a huge disconnect between Our Author's empathetic response to the pictures early on, and his total disregard of Martha (not to mention all the other models auditioning, who barely rate a description). What exactly is supposed to be the purpose of this piece? Rabin claims that he "wanted to experience the weirdness of an open call for American Apparel models firsthand." But we don't hear about anything particularly weird -- unless your definition of weird includes Nathan Rabin, a bald white dude who likes movies.

This is what happens once Our Author's number gets called for the audition:

The gentleman strained mightily to force a smile and nervously asked, “Do you have any questions for us?”

Yes! Now was my chance to uncover the location of the underage models being kept in cages and forced to be sexy 20 to 23 hours a day! I was in a position to demand answers! I was going to take this whole house of cards down with me and expose the shocking, scintillating, titillating truth.

But “Uh, no, I guess not” was all that came stumbling out of my mouth.

It's funny because . . . because exploitation is funny? Because women in cages are funny? Because a journalist failing to be a journalist is funny? Because there is a gap between Our Author's lurid imaginings of being a writerly hero rescuing sexy teens and his actual ineffective behavior? Because disappointment on every level is hilarious, apparently?

At press time, the most recent comment was: "Nobody cares and this is a shitty story." Which sums it up pretty well.

Coverings: Best and Worst

Introduction: I read books, and as a consequence I look at a lot of them. I look at more books than I read, in fact! Sometimes looking at books makes me want to say things about what I see. So there will be an ongoing series on this blog to talk about book cover design. And the name of this series is Coverings. Don't laugh. That took me like ten minutes to think up. You don't want to hear about the options I discarded. This afternoon I stopped at the library to pick up my egregiously large pile of books on hold. In the two minutes I spent there, somehow I found both the best and the worst covers I have seen in some time.

Both made me laugh right out loud.

Man, it's been years since I've been actually shushed in a library. That takes me right back.

The first, worst cover: Eternal Kiss of Darkness by Jeaniene Frost.

Hey there, Creepy Stare-y Dude, either you've got yourself an old-fashioned nosebleed or you should really wipe the ketchup stains away before you try to seduce the girlfriend.

Add in the inexplicably cliché blue-skinned people (what is this, nighttime in a silent movie? Avatar? when did "blue skin" become code for "scary preternaturals"?) and the magenta text (eye-popping in a bad way) and you have yourself a mediocre cover-turned catastrophe.

I've saved the best for last: The Fuck-Up by Arthur Nersesian:

This cover, of course, is so deliberately bad that it turns brilliant. Especially since the obvious mistake in centering that bold sans-serif title underscores the title's meaning. What's more, the invisible F has the added benefit of softening what might otherwise be a more provocative and troubling cover. As is, it looks funny, and then sad. Even before I've read one word of the novel, the cover has told me a story made of only half a word and a great deal of wit.

Plus: gray. There are very few gray book covers out there. Especially a dull, slate gray like this. It's unique and impossibly boring at the same time -- a perfect combination. I am so excited to read this book that I can hardly stand it -- which is precisely as the cover designer hoped.

A Bechdel Test for Historical Romance

Lately I've been thinking a lot about the Bechdel test and what it reveals about the film industry. And there's been at least one post I could find on a Bechdel standard for video games as well, which is interesting, even though I could dispute a whole bunch of points in the post (such as: whether or not fighting is acceptable as interaction between female characters). And it goes without saying that many movies and games do not pass either the original or Bechdel 2.0. There's a recent Bechdel variation for dance music (a song has to be about something other than "drunk behavior and hookups") and one for the television industry, which says that in order to pass every episode of a show has to have two named female characters who talk about something other than a man.

And then -- of course -- I got to thinking about romance novels. How might the Bechdel test apply?

Oh, sure, romances are jam-packed with female characters, usually -- but usually those conversations revolve entirely around men (or marriage, or babies, which are weak passes for that third rule, in my opinion). And I tend to read historicals and especially regencies, where women's official lives historically really did center around marriage and family and only the lower classes had that tawdry making-a-living thing to consider but we don't really write romance novels about the lower classes unless they end up in the upper classes at the end.

Of course, the whole point of the romance genre is the union of hero and heroine, however that is accomplished. It's important to remember that the hero spends quite a bit of time talking about the heroine with other characters. It's not like the heroine is a secondary consideration the way a female character can be in, say, an action flick. And so maybe the Bechdel test needs to be tweaked for romance novels the way Daniel Feit tweaked it for video games.

All this goes back to the age-old question of whether or not romance novels are feminist texts, or tools of the patriarchy. Whether they subvert or support gender roles and the accompanying expectations. This question is entirely unanswerable, because for every romance novel that does the former you could name one that does the latter. I have come to believe that reading and writing romance novels are very feminist acts. Because there is nothing that the chauvinistic, patriarchal elements of literary culture devalue more than romance novels and the women who read them. You don't need me to tell you this -- every romance reader has had that moment of revelation, where a new acquaintance sees a shelf or coffee table sporting a sunset-hued, mullet-bedecked, cleavage-revealing cover and gets that "I'm mentally taking a step back" gleam in their eye. They see a romance novel and question your taste, your intelligence, and your connection with reality. This is starting to change, thankfully, but even now the experience is far from rare.

Romance novels are written for women, and by women, and many millions of women get together in the world or on the internet and talk to one another about them. In some sense, then, it hardly matters what the texts themselves say, or even whether they're any good (and let's face it, not all of them are).

But sometimes, you read about a hero who's a little too alpha, or a heroine who's a little too self-sacrificing, or you start to worry about the dearth of LGBT characters (who tend especially to be erased/effaced in historicals, though increasingly less so in contemporaries) and you remember the rape-y romance days of yore and realize that we should probably still keep an eye on things from a feminist standpoint.

So what would a Bechdel test for historical romance novels look like? One thing the original Bechdel never really gets to address is what counts as a conversation. Imagine two ladies in a drawing room: "Tea? Yes, please. I like your dress . . . So how do you feel about [insert dudely protagonist here]?" Technically a pass -- but it feels like a cop-out. Yet a startling number of movies fail even something this simple -- which is where the test proves that it is powerful, even when it seems overly simple at first glance. To really separate the wheat from the chaff we need something as revealing about historical romances. Where is the point at which today's historicals have a tendency to let down modern readers?

Where else? Sex.

I'm going to keep the first rule pretty much intact: a historical romance should have at least two female characters.

The second rule of the original Bechdel, that the two characters talk to each other, may need a little more clarifying when we consider novels, which tend to be much wordier than movies. (Get a load of Captain Obvious here.) It's nearly impossible to think of a historical romance where two female characters don't talk to one another, since the divide between gender roles is usually much starker than in either contemporary romances or the modern, real world. We need something more specific.

I would suggest that we begin by considering the absence/insignificance of the Evil Other Woman.

You all know the EOW. She is beautiful, but in a slutty, shameful way, and is frequently described with the word "overblown" or something similar. She's catty and competitive and gossipy and immoral and blatantly attempting to steal the hero from under our heroine's nose. Sometimes she's an ex-lover, sometimes she's a current soon-to-be-jilted mistress, sometimes she's just after a man she wants and doesn't care whom she has to hurt to get him. (One of my favorite tricks of Julia Quinn's is that the Evil Other Woman in three of her novels is the same woman, Cressida Twombley, née Cowper, and she's more of a social than a romantic rival.) And usually, when the EOW is around, there is a scene with her and the heroine where she reveals what a completely rotten person she is underneath that sexy façade. I'm not saying a good old-fashioned argument can't pass this part of the test -- I'm as big a fan of the epic takedown of Lady Catherine de Bourgh as you're likely to find -- but it's critical to note that Lady C. is not a romantic rival, and that most of that conversation is about Elizabeth herself and what she does or does not want. Whereas with the EOW, you get a polarizing, binary system along the familiar lines of virgin/whore, with the hero blithely existing as a prize for women to cut one another's throats for.

In short, I don't think that should count. So, part two: two female characters have a conversation that is not about their mutual sexypants feelings for the hero.

And now, the third part, which is the tricky bit. I think even historical romances should be judged on their level of sex-positivity.

There are two kinds of sex in historicals: hero/heroine sex, and the sex everyone else is having (premarital sex, adulterous affairs, homosexual sex, orgies). For the purposes of this analysis, we are going to ignore rape, pedophilia, and the like -- because it doesn't count as sex anyways, does it. DOES IT.



Hero/heroine sex is always good, redemptive, and/or irresistible. If there are hero/heroine sex scenes that are unsatisfying or creepy, these are 'fixed' in the course of the plot. (For instance, in Mary Jo Putney's The Rake, where the heroine thinks the hero is only attracted to her when he's drunk.) But the sex between secondary characters, or between the hero/heroine and other characters in the past, can be presented as good, or terrible, or dirty, or immoral, or any number of other things. These secondary sexual scenes provide a much clearer window on the sexual morality of an individual book, much more so than the scenes between hero and heroine.

For instance, in a romance I finished recently, a secondary character was being blackmailed by the heroine's father. The victim's secret was that his dead older brother, the heir to a title, had preferred to sleep with men. When the heroine learns this, she is shocked and appalled and disgusted. And I felt a little let down, because the heroine and the hero had spent about half the book struggling with their inability to be in a room together for five minutes without clothes flying off and orgasms happening all over the rug. Who were they to judge someone else's attraction? I know, it's historically accurate for people of the early nineteenth century to consider sodomy appalling. But we do not live in the early nineteenth century, and there's plenty of room in romance for a little anachronism. There always has been.

Another example: Cheryl Holt's A Taste of Temptation, which opens with one of the more tired romance-novel clichés out there: our heroine is applying for the position of governess, and is cornered and groped by the hero's half-brother. Our hero, despite having just lectured his half-brother to stop groping servants and being such an idiotic horndog one page earlier, calls the heroine a flirt and a trollop and has her booted out of the house without letting her explain that being flirtatious and being grabbed are not the same thing. They never get around to clearing this up, because later they get too distracted by accusing one another of liking sex, as though liking sex were something you didn't want in a romantic partner. (Side note: while looking at reviews of Cheryl Holt's other books, I found one that supposedly has a really wonderful historical treatment of a lesbian romance. The book is in the mail, and a report is forthcoming.)

A case on the opposite side: Gail Carriger's paranormal steampunk romance Soulless, which I cannot recommend highly enough. At the end the sexy werewolf hero ends up sans clothes and surrounded by a coterie of frivolous gay vampires, who keep finding excuses to drop things so he'll have to bend over and pick them up. And our hero smiles, and knows what they're up to, and indulges them anyway. Silly vampires, he seems to say -- go ahead and ogle. It does not freak me out, or threaten the very fun sexytime I shall have with my soon-to-be-wife.

The third criteria, then, goes something like this: sex between the hero and heroine should not be presented as morally superior to every other kind of sex. Sex itself is not inherently dirty; it is a human need. Hero/heroine sex can still be special and mind-blowingly awesome -- because we all like reading about awesome sex -- but it is not in a separate, special moral category of its own.

This means: a secondary character trapped in a loveless marriage is not automatically vilified for having an adulterous affair. Homosexual sex is not presented as inherently horrific, or at least it should not horrify our main characters. A hero does not get jealous if the heroine has had satisfying sex before she met him, and the heroine does not consider the hero's greater sexual experience a moral failing that her true love/sexual purity must correct.

So there we are, a rough Bechdel for historical romance: 1. Must have at least two female characters. 2. Who talk about something other than their mutual sexual interest in the hero. 3. Whose sexual relationship with the heroine is not presented as intrinsically more moral than other sexual relationships.

Authors I can think of off the top of my head who pass this test quite frequently: Julia Quinn, Loretta Chase.

Vodka is for Lame Babies -- Take My Word For It

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:

Not manly. At all.

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?

Rules to Write By/Rules to Drink BY

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.

The Drink-Like-A-Man Trap.

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.

A quote:

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

I can hardly wait.

900 Bottles of Wine in the Truck: An Internet Mix Tape

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.

RITA: Kinsale, Kinsale, and Chase

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?

Women Like Writing, But Nobody Writes Like Women.

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.

I write like Chuck Palahniuk

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Um, really? I tried again, with a snippet from my rant about Red Dead Redemption.

I write like Dan Brown

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

This was going from bad to worse. I broke out the big guns. And by guns I mean penis -- I put in the steamy sex scene from my historical romance work-in-progress.

I write like H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Obviously I should be working on a Cthulu love story. As Maggie Stiefvater said, "Kraken are the new vampires."

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.

I write like Kurt Vonnegut

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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?

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Like hell she does. (For one thing, she lived about a century earlier than Joyce.) I put in the opening paragraphs from the same book.

I write like Charles Dickens

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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:

I write like Oscar Wilde

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Virginia Woolf, Orlando:

I write like H. P. Lovecraft

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

By analogy, then, I write like Virginia Woolf, I guess, but this thought was merely a damp handkerchief against the vast Sahara of my frustration as I kept going.

A poem from Emily Dickinson:

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale:

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth:

I write like J. D. Salinger

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Okay, that passage is pretty famous. I kept going.


I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!


I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Mansfield Park:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Northanger Abbey:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Sense and Sensibility:

I write like Jane Austen

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

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. "

I write like James Joyce

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Damn it.

Saunas and Songs

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. Like evil jellyfish.

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.

Island Fortress and a Rain of (One) Fish

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. Put all these foods in a bowl and hand me a fork.

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: Havis Amanda, or Merenneito (the Mermaid)

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. Here, 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.

High and Dry in Helsinki

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 whos looking at a reflection here? Thats 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:These guys have it so rough.

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.

Prostitutes, Villains, and Video Games: A Rant

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.