Friday, August 29, 2014

Ice bucket thing

I know there are a few people who read this that don't "know" me on Facebook, so if you ever wondered what I looked like wet, or what my older daughter's most unhinged cackle sounds like, here's your chance.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Beach (a true story, in verse)

The Beach (a true story in verse)

O sun! O pitiliess, idiot sun
Shining, warming everyone
Swimming in Lake Michigan
But only burning me

My beloved, my beautiful daughter
has wet sand with which to scour
the reddened skin of he who’d begot ‘er
Yes, poor peeling me

O sand, o sand, my hair has gotcha
My ears, my mouth, I could use a scotch
There’s even sand in my… hey! watch!
Who just threw water at me?

A little girl, apparently unsupervised
hair the colour of my sand-reddened eyes
A grin at my daughter, promising surprise
And a squirt gun pointed at me

With mud, with guns, we were arranged
From shore it must have looked quite strange
Super soaker in my face at point-blank range
As I sat in the Michigan sea

You red haired devil, where is your Mom?
And Sana, I don’t want sand in my bum!
I hate the beach! This place is dumb!
So to the land I did flee

I grabbed my shoes, picked over the shells
To the facilities to make myself well
Forgetting that if the beach is hell
The men’s room there is Hades.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

The long ride home

Per Travis’s comment on my previous post, and stealing an idea from a Facebook friend, I present you, my loyal readers (sic) with a photo-essay. The conceit is to take a photo at ten-minute intervals during a bike ride. I selected the ride home from Amynah’s work/Sana’s pre-school, as I do it all the time and was not, today at least, carrying Inara.

I was hampered in my “every ten minutes” plan, in that I was not wearing my watch. Also, I wasn’t always near that which I wanted to photograph at the appropriate times. So, this doesn’t really follow the conceit at all.

Photo One: I leave Amynah at the Pschiatric Institute where she spends her days. They let her out for weekends, and have been very good at humouring her belief that she’s a professor there.

Photo Two: The Oakley Boulevard overpass over the Eisehower Expressway, looking east. Below me is the Blue Line “L” train that Amynah and Sana take in less clement weather. A gentleman panhandling for change blessed me with the spirit of God right after I took this shot.

Photo Three: This is the portion of the Green Line that runs down Lake Street. There’s a fantastic bike path running down either side. The visual effect of the bridge, plus the shadows makes it a little like biking directly into an M.C. Escher sketch. Last week in this neighborhood Amynah and the girls and I were biking along and came up on two twenty-something gentlemen weaving back and forth across the lanes, projecting an attitude that seemed to welcome whatever trouble society would care to give them. We caught up to them and one of them looked over at Sana: "Hey girl! You look like you're having fun. You guys got the whole family out! That's great!" They blew through a red light and got ahead of us - when we caught up again, one was standing guard while the other urinated unabashedly on an elementary school. I waved and wished them a good day.

Photo Four: This is a railway underpass somewhere in the Kinzie Industrial Corridor, where the fishmongers warehouses are surrounded by razor-wire fencing. Initially I wanted to take a picture of a pothole so deep you can see Chicago’s original brick roads, but it didn’t turn out. Instead, I took a shot of this: it’s hard to make out, but this is a fairly elaborate bed. Amynah goes under this bridge a lot, and she told me the guy who made this thing got chased out by some gentlemen who appeared to be gang-affiliated. They’ve since moved on, and this guy’s set up his home again. I’m not sure, but it might be the same guy who blessed me by the Interstate.

Photo Five & Six: This is in the “Ukranian Village” part of Chicago, which is still a magnet for Ukrainian immigrants today. Every time we pass by this church, Inara informs me that she intends to celebrate her birthday here. I don’t have the heart to explain to her the half-dozen reasons why that probably won’t happen.

Photo seven: This church is the next block over. Sana has claimed it as HER birthday church. It’s a lot more elaborate than I could capture from my bike - the things positivily bristling with towers. Right after I took this shot, a trio of ten-year-old boys rode by on BMX bikes, the most twig-chested of which was singing Chamillionaire’s “Riding Dirty” in a surprisingly convincing baritone. 

Photo 8-9: Chicago is “mostly” on a conventional grid pattern, but it does have a few diagonal streets, to which the local architecture has had to adapt (and let me tell you, you haven’t lived until you’ve tried to turn left on a bike at a five-point interstection).

Photo 10: HOME! (almost): Peaking over treetops of the actual Logan Square from which my neighbourhood takes its name is the Illinois Centennial Monument, steps from my apartment. There’s about a hundred other things on this corner that probably would have made for a better photo, but guess which idiot you know wore his jeans today and was desperate to get home and into a shower so just-take-the-damn-photo-already-and-move-it? Me, that’s who.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Really Inara? Not even the Venus Flytraps are cool?

Jeez I’m not great at this blogging thing. I feel terrible about it, because I originally started doing this to write about my life in Strasbourg, and I got a certain amount of mileage out of “new baby” in Los Angeles, but at a certain point “new baby” took up all my mental energy and my distaste for Los Angeles left me uninspired for topics. Then my blogging muscles atrophied. Plus, I got more competent at travelling, thus losing the wellspring of my writing inspiration: travel mishaps.

All of which is a shame, because I now live in a new city that I love, and have a whole new genre of mishap about which to write, namely parenting-related ones. 

As I am still awaiting permission to work in this country, I am home most days with Inara while Sana and Amynah do their various things at the University (pre school and professoring, respectively). I get two days a week during which Inara is in a small local daycare, both so that she has kids her own age to hang out with, but also so that I get some mental health/writing days.

This week, I put Inara on her tricycle and we toddled off to the daycare, only to arrive at an empty house - they were closed for vacation. I’m sure, technically speaking, they had told me this, but since we ourselves were focussed on preparing for and then embarking upon our recent visit to Edmonton, this crucial fact appears to have slipped my memory.

So: a day with Inara, no plans, no routine to fall back on. On a whim, I decided to bike to the Garfield Park Conservatory, which the Internet tells me is one of the jewels of the Chicago Parks system (which is saying something).

Accordingly, I took a quick look at Google Maps, loaded Inara onto the bike, stopping for a brief chat with our mail carrier beforehand. She looked at me as if I were crazy. I'm not sure if it was in a "that's a lot of biking" way, or a "you're going to get yourself killed" way.

This is where “travel mishaps” and “parenting mishaps” converge. Only after the fact did I discover that Garfield Park is supposed to be in one of Chicago’s more dangerous neighbourhoods(See Footnote) - which might explain my perhaps paranoid sensation that, when I took a wrong turn en route, the young gentlemen who appeared to be conducting business on the street corners greeted the sight of a gray haired dude in cargo shorts on a bike with a Elsa Princess Doll in the basket and a chattering three-year-old in the rear seat with the gape-mouthed amazement they might greet the spectacle of a rampaging flock of ostriches.

It was, nonetheless, a pleasant enough ride and the Conservatory itself was wonderful - there were lots of pretty flowers for Inara to get mad that she couldn’t pick, noxious berries she couldn’t eat, and exotic trees for her to ignore, saving me from reading any of the helpful signs up (Jens Jenssen something something landscape artist something something?). She did love the koi pond, and expended a great deal of energy outside chasing a chimney swift. 

So, anyone considering visiting me in Chicago should know: if plants are your thing, we have them, apparently.

(*)  Given that someone in my neighborhood recently felt they had  good reason to put up a homemade poster on our street corner reminding passerby that dogfighting is both cruel and criminal, I really have no idea how to judge which neighborhoods are good or bad anymore.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Professional writing

Hey, I don't often write here about what I write elsewhere, but here is something I wrote, published elsewhere, now advertised here.

That elsewhere is, which is one of the more reliably funny sites on the Internet, and I am delighted to have made their cut. It isn't often I get to take my preoccupations of history, over-thinking pop-culture, higher education and France and make a big joke out of it all, but I think I managed.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Apparently, I REALLY liked Frozen.

Prompted by a Facebook conversation with my cousins, and having just seen the movie with Sana, I was inspired as a writing exercise, to write about the Disney movie "Frozen." It is far out of the normal concerns of this blog, but since I wrote it, I thought I might as well put it out there, so that my readers can see happens when ninety percent of my household's pop culture intake is Princess related.

The headline question of Akash Nickolas’s Atlantic article on the storytelling innovations of Disney’s “Frozen” was “Did Prince Charmingreally need to be reinvented?” Nickolas saw the “bad prince” of that movie as a manifestation of how society tends to devalue the interests of girls and argued that subverting the Prince Charming trope was yet another example of “shaming girls’ fantasies” ­– part of a dishonorable tradition that sees the narrative clunkiness of Star Wars forgiven while the ham-handed writing of Twilight books is eviscerated in the popular media.

That proposition that “women’s” stories are mocked for faults ignored in entertainments catering to boys cannot be doubted. And there is also no doubt in my mind that a huge component of that is due to a discomfort with girls’ sexuality: look at how Carly Rae Jepsom and Justin Bieber were treated by the media when they first came out. Both made bubble gum pop, both catered to the same young, largely female demographic, - heck, both were even Canadian. Only one was made the constant butt of Late Night comedians, because only one of them was a crush object for little girls. No one would care about the saccharine blandness of Bieber’s music were it not for the gender of his fans.

So, in that sense, Nickolas is correct that the entertainments of girls are subject to a critical rigour that boys are not. But is Prince Hans of Frozen a reaction to that criticism? More to the point, is Prince Charming, in any form, really that central to the “Princess” fantasies of little girls?

The very short answer is no, not in the Disney movies that created him nor in the folklore they pilfered in order to do so. Can you name any character trait of the Prince in the original Snow White movie? Of course not; he has none. Even in the original fable he shows up only after Snow White has been poisoned: Disney introduced him earlier in their version to make his habit of kissing non-consenting coma patients less creepy. And in the Grimm version it isn’t some magical “true love” kiss that saves the Princess, it is the clumsiness of the Prince’s servants. He essentially wrests the Princess’s unresponsive body – which he had never laid eyes on before - from the seven dwarves that had been diligently caring for her. In carrying her coffin away his porters slip, thereby dislodging the poisoned apple from Snow White’s throat.

Prince Philip of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty is a similar cipher – he at least is brave, in that he fought a dragon, but he defeated it only because he’d been given a magic sword and shield. Other than that – another young man feeling entitled to plant kisses on unconscious women. In the original story, Sleeping Beauty had been asleep for nearly a century before her eventual rescuer was even born. That is somewhat creepier, but at least in Grimm’s version, he didn’t wake her with a kiss: they actually talked for an hour or two before getting married (at least in one sanitized version of the story – the Italian version is much more brutal. More on that later).

The examples go on: in the story, Cinderella rejected her suitor three times before he tracked her down and browbeat her into marriage, in the movie he doesn’t even search for her in person. In the Little Mermaid “Prince Charming” nearly marries another within a day of meeting her, in the book he goes through with it, causing Fish Girl to die.

Can you spot the elements not found in Hans Christian Anderson's "Snow Queen"?
So, to Nickolas’s central question: did Prince Charming need to be reinvented? The answer is, he already had been. Disney’s “Prince Charming” was the reinvention, for the Princes of the original stories were anything but. Snow White’s Prince forced her mother to wear red-hot iron shoes and dance at his wedding to her stepdaughter until she died (if Snow White objected to this barbarity, no record of it survives). Sleeping Beauty’s rescuer eventually led her to live with his mother-in-law, who tried to eat her own grandchildren.

Even with Disney’s conventions, it was inevitable that “Prince Charming” would be undermined the instant he became an actual character in the story, rather than a deus ex machina swooping in at the end.

Prince Hans was not the first not-particularly-noble Prince to occupy that role: the sometimes amphibian Prince Naveen was a womanizing layabout, the genie-enabled “Prince” Ali was a imposter and a thief, and “Flynn Rider”/Eugene Fitzhubert of “Tangled” a professional criminal. Every single one of them had a discernible personality. It is a fairly stock “charming rogue” personality, but even that is more than the prototype Prince Charming for whom Nickolas yearns.

 The Princes acquiring a (shared, transplantable) personality is a mere side-effect of a happier event, namely the Princesses in question developing characteristics and agency of their own. Again, can you imagine the Disney versions of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty having a conversation? 

“You like animals? I like animals too! What about housework – do you do that? Me too! My hobby is being verbally and physically abused – what about yours?”

Belle: “I like to read!”

[Awkward silence]

“And sing!”

[Dainty cheers!]

That started to change with the Little Mermaid. Mind you, her hobby was, if I recall correctly, plundering undersea graves for their riches, but it’s a start. Modern audiences can no longer accept the notion that girls should marry the first person to wake them up, and so Princesses are given time to actually get to know their Prince, and become agents in their own stories.   And the more the Princesses became real people, the more their love interests needed to be real people as well.

So, hardworking underprivileged Tiana gets the lazy scion of royalty Naveen, cloistered innocent Rapunzel gets the hardscrabble man-of-the-world Flynn and Princess Anna – denied the natural bonds of family and starved for human affection of any kind – gets the cynic Hans, for whom family was a real obstacle and affection a tool for his own ends.

In that sense, Hans’ villainy was required for the story: he was the ying to Anna’s yang. In other ways, his role in actually advancing the plot –menacing Elsa, betraying Anna ­– could have been filled by any generic baddy. His relationship with Anna was superficial, and thus so was the betrayal that Nickolas decries. This was by design, because the movie was ultimately about the relationship between the two sisters.

It is that relationship – and not Hans’ knavery – that is Frozen’s true innovation, overturning not only Disney’s own established tropes, but also those of the fairy tales the Mouse Kingdom mangled to do so. And it is here that Nickolas’s contention that there is a “Prince Charming” fantasy object for girls goes from being wrong, to being wrong-headed.

The primary purpose of the folk tales passed down from European peasants to their children, collected by the Brothers Grimm or imagined by Hans Christian Anderson, was to provide instruction to children both about the evils of the world, and about their duties to the world. The original tales were as brutal as the times out of which they were born – thus, in some Italian versions of Sleeping Beauty she was raped into consciousness.

But the point of almost all of the “Princess” stories was to prepare young women to leave their families. And to do so they had to a) be prepared to accept that “fate” would provide them with a husband they would love (as they rarely had any choice of their own in the matter) and that b) they needed to cast aside their own families for their “happily ever after.”

Parents, and their step-proxies, are uniformly absent, evil, or useless in both the Disney movies, and the stories on which they are based. Mothers (edited into step-mothers to make the stories more digestible for the parents reading them) are depicted as particularly malign. Fathers are usually ineffectual against their daughters’ abusers or conveniently dead.

This carries on a long tradition of societal misogyny in which independent women – the Maleficients of the world - were suspicious at best, but it helped solidify patriarchal culture in another way. They sent the message that it was wrong for daughters to trust their mothers if they were to become mothers themselves. Submit to your husbands ladies, and don’t listen to the older woman who has already made her way in life, might have your better interests at heart, and might  effectively subvert your man’s authority over you. Mothers-in-law are threats to the sovereignty of a husband over his wife – thus why they remain a bogeyman in popular culture today.

To reach their destiny, in other words, women have to walk away from their natural inheritances and turn their backs on their natural affections. Nickolas’s counter example of boys’ equivalent fantasy objects, comic books heroes, makes the contrast even more explicit. Spiderman needs to avenge his failure for his father figure (Uncle Ben), Bruce Wayne is avenging his father and striving to match his contributions to Gotham, Superman is driven by his father’s words and wisdom, Tony Stark the scion of the Stark dynasty, Luke Skywalker hero worships his conception of Annikin, and his reconciliation with Vader saves the galaxy. It is in embracing their inheritance, and accepting their power, that men become their true selves in these stories.

Not so for girls. Removed of the distracting gore of the source material, Disney’s movies make this subtext of fairy tales fairly explicit. After Snow White’s Evil Stepmother dies by misadventure in the movie, Snow White logically became the de facto Queen. Yet she walks away from her throne (or rather, is carried), to become the consort of prince she just met in a country whose name she is not even told. Sleeping Beauty was betrothed at birth – it was happenstance that she was rescued by the Prince she had to marry anyway.

This isn’t just a technical point: to achieve their “destiny” in Disney movies, the women not only need to abandon their legal and familial inheritances, but also their essential selves. Rapunzel had her healing power taken away from her by her “prince” in order to be saved, Ariel gave up her kingdom, her friends, and her very body to hook her two-legged Kingfish.
Now THERE's a romance.

Getting back to Nickolas’s article, let us be clear: “Prince Charming” is a Disney invention, not a timeless fantasy of little girls. And it is absolutely ridiculous to assert that girls want “Prince Charming” over nuanced storytelling in an article predicated on Frozen breaking box-office records. Prince Charming is a trope invented by Disney that is sending a very specific message, and the particulars of the “Prince” had been undermined even by Disney long before Frozen.

Despite that undermining, the underlying message that “your man is your destiny” had remained constant throughout every Disney princess movie until this year’s offering. Even here, men folk are not being hard done by: Anna and Elsa’s father is portrayed as good-hearted if wrong-headed. Anna gets an actual love interest, one who was prepared to risk death to try and save her. While no expert in such matters, he was equally handsome, by cartoon standards, as Prince Hans, and at least as brave. Princess Anna – and by extension, the little girls for whom she was an avatar – was not denied her rescuing hero. So, if Anna and all the little girls bobbing along in her spunky wake were not denied a “Prince” at least as princely as Aladin’s Ali or Rapunzel’s Flynn, to what was Nickolas objecting?

Anna and Elsa were the first Disney Princesses to have any important siblings at all (Merida, having been conceived by Pixar before being bought out by Disney is not canonical) and the only ones with sisters. Again, Brave aside, they are the only Princesses that had any real family by the end (Rapunzel’s parents were aspirational objects, not people: they didn’t even have lines in the movie).
In short, Anna and Elsa saved each other: they gave up nothing – not their inheritance, not their family, not their true selves and not Elsa’s magic powers. The faceless interchangeable Prince Charmings were a Disney invention, the Princes of Grimm Brothers are artifacts of a culture based on the subjugation of women. Neither are in any way “fantasy” objects demanded by little girls – they were stories we made up in order to scare and control them.

For centuries, little girls have been told to fear their own strength, to fear the stranger, to fear the woods and even other women. In Frozen Elsa could not be controlled and, with her sister, conquered the fear that caused her such pain. In doing so, they upended centuries of lies, and struck a blow against a much greater evil than Prince Hans.