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Jobs: The Dolls’ House

Any time I talk about places I’ve worked, my kids are like, “You need to write about all these things!” I suppose it’s never all that interesting to the person who has lived it, but today I’ll post about one of the many jobs I’ve had in my life: a clerk at a doll shop.

That is, I suppose I was a clerk. I was never given a title, per se. But I was one of three people who worked in this shop—a converted old house with requisite creaky floors. I was also the youngest, being 19 at the time and in my first year as an undergrad. My co-worker was attending the same university but was, I believe, a sophomore or junior. The store manager was an older woman who wanted to be a poet and seemed embittered by her lot in life.

The shop was owned by a woman who designed dolls and figurines as well as drew art prints, all of Victorian-era children. Each had a name: Brooke, Rebecca, David, James, etc. The girls wore frills and bows and bonnets; the boys wore sailor suits and short pants. They were charming, for those who like that sort of thing, which I did. But they were also very much of their time—not Victorian, that is, but 80s and 90s—and while the artist enjoyed a certain amount of popularity for a time, one never hears about her or her work anymore.

In any case, I took two buses to get to this store. While there, I often had to cut mattes for framing prints. Besides framing art done by the shop owner, we had one customer who would bring us scads of Thomas Kinkade prints to matte and frame. Other than that, I would wander the shop, straightening things and making sure none of the prints were being faded by sunlight.

Every other Saturday, I had to work in the shop alone. We had a radio up on top of one of the tall display cabinets; I had to stand on a bar-height chair to reach it. Some Saturdays I would never see a soul, so I always made sure to bring a book or notebook. Too bad food delivery services weren’t yet common; I always had to pack myself a lunch to store in the shop’s ancient refrigerator.

My favorite would be if and when we’d get a thunderstorm. The house would grow steadily darker and the rumble would shake it. Then rain would lash the windows. There was a sunroom where we put sale items, and that was the best place to be when it rained. The only down side was that the radio would go all to static in a storm.

One Saturday a man came into the store to buy a few things. He said something about a discount. It turned out he was related to the artist; he was her nephew or something. Well, he said he was, anyway. I guess I had no way of knowing, though I checked with a friend later (someone who worked directly for the artist, which was how I’d gotten the job) and it turned out to be legit. Whew.

The bitter manager got in trouble once for treating me badly at a doll show after other employees complained and the artist saw the manager berating me. Sadly, that may also have been what precipitated the shop closing a year later. So I only worked there for that one year. I didn’t mind not having to take two buses to get to work anymore, but there was a modicum of panic over finding new work. As it turned out, though, after the doll shop I ended up in the best job I’ve ever had (short of being a writer). But that’s another story for another post… Or probably several posts…

Movies: Palm Springs

This… was part Groundhog Day, part Hangover, and pretty much all stupid. So if you like that kind of thing…

Andy Samberg stars as Nyles, a man who has been living the same day repeatedly for longer than he can remember. That day includes the wedding of his girlfriend’s bf Tala, an event Nyles isn’t terribly interested in, maybe because (as BNL says) it’s all be done before, or maybe he wouldn’t have been keen even if it was the first and only time. Hard to tell.

When Tala’s older sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti) gets stuck in the time loop with him, however, Nyles must show her the ropes of existing within it. Then they hang out and goof around. Then they fall in love. Then she learns quantum physics to try and extricate them.

That’s… that’s pretty much the story. There are minor subplots, but they hold little to no weight.

The screenplay is bland and leans heavily on sex “humor.” That is, I assume it’s meant to be funny, but it was mostly trite. The characters lacked depth as well. We have the man-child, stuck in life both literally and figuratively; the ditzy, vain, cheating girlfriend, complete with trashy name Misty*, who declares that no one ever breaks up with her; and a would-be Janeane Garofalo character in the form of Sarah—disillusioned, no longer putting in an effort and wishing people wouldn’t expect things of her. There are odd attempts at something nearing philosophy (i.e., “meaning of life” stuff), but it falls flat amid the pedantic path of the plot itself, which fails to do more than skim over anything that might actually be interesting in favor of hitting all the color-by-number story beats.

Bottom line: aside from one or two cute moments, this movie doesn’t hold much for viewers who want anything more than empty calories. Despite the quantum physics, which is glossed at best, the loop doesn’t ever really get explained. For anyone watching this movie, brain rot sets in from the get-go. Samberg and Milioti, who have genuine chemistry, deserve a better script.

*Apologies to anyone actually named Misty; this is more about the connotations carried by certain names in pop culture than real people who carry the names themselves.

Speaking of, who names one child Sarah and another Tala? Like, those are two very different kinds of names, I feel? Whenever I meet people with multiple children, I feel like there’s a cohesiveness to the kids’ names. Parents think about these things, how the names will sound together, whether they “fit.” This is a minor point, I know but, as a writer, stuff like this really bothers me.

Books: Ghosts of the Tsunami by Richard Lloyd Parry

Richard Lloyd Parry is a foreign news correspondent in Tokyo, and this book is comprised of numerous interviews with survivors of the March 11, 2011 tsunami that hit the Tohoku region of Japan. I only heard about this book from a YouTuber of all things (Chris Broad of the Abroad in Japan channel). But I have a dear friend who taught in Sendai and knew people in the affected area, so I already had some interest in better understanding just what happened there. After all, today’s news cycles are spectacularly brief, so we often only get the “highlights” and headlines. This book goes a bit deeper into the impact the tsunami had, focusing especially on the tragedy at Okawa Elementary School.

Parry (Lloyd Parry? I don’t know which is his last name, but my library shelves him under P, so I’m going with Parry) first goes over his experience of March 11, 2011 while in Tokyo. They felt the earthquake there, too, but the tsunami was a non-issue. Soon enough, Parry describes the part of Miyagi Prefecture that was hit… In fact, he goes to some great lengths to give readers a mental picture. I was reading on my Kindle, and there were a few maps and photographs, but they weren’t as clear as might have been in a printed copy of the book. So I really don’t know if I’m picturing the geography all that well, despite all the words used. The book isn’t that long, so maybe he was padding his word count? In any case, what one really needs to know is that there is the ocean, and also the Kitakami River, and some hills. And that this tsunami came not just up out of the ocean, but also up the river and partly up the hills—farther than any tsunami in living memory. So a certain amount of complacency resulted in more deaths than necessary, particularly at Okawa.

Parry interviews a number of parents who lost some or all of their children. There are a lot of names in this book, so it can be tricky to keep track of who is who. Parry interviews a man who nearly died in the tsunami, and one who had been possessed by the ghost of a tsunami victim. He also talks to religious leaders who, in the aftermath, did their best to help in ways both practical and spiritual. It’s all interesting, if a bit of a mishmash.

There is also a good bit of time spent on the lawsuit against [what amounts to] the school board for negligence. Seventy-four children died at Okawa Elementary, and ten teachers. The emergency handbook did not have clear instructions on what to do in case of a tsunami, and none of the adults seemed to believe a tsunami could even reach the school, even after local bureaucrats drove by with loudspeakers and announced the oncoming wave. Poor planning and poor decision making were on full display, it seems. Some of the parents who lost children eventually filed suit and… Well, you can read the results online or read the book.

As for Okawa itself, it still stands as a memorial.

The “ghosts” thing was tangential; I might have liked a few more examples of people having encountered supernatural phenomena, but this simply isn’t that kind of book, so it would maybe have seemed weird. Even the bits that are there don’t feel entirely homogenous to the rest of the book.

As someone who has, all my life, had a very visceral fear of drowning—not sure why, if it’s a past-life thing or what—it was a bit difficult for me to read this. But I’m glad I did. It really did mostly engross me, barring some diversions into explaining the culture, the bureaucracy, etc. At least these spurs were not too long-winded. I know they were for context, but I also think anyone reading this probably already has an interest in Japan and knows a bit about the culture going in without needing lengthy explanations. I could be wrong.

This book does not go into the nuclear meltdown or fallout caused by the tsunami. So if you’re looking for that, look elsewhere.

And this one is more tightly written than People Who Eat Darkness, another nonfiction book by Parry that I read earlier this year. That one did have much more exhaustive passages about the culture and the legal system, but Ghosts of the Tsunami manages to avoid that. On the whole, as I said, I enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone who has interest in the subject.

Art/Artist

I have a degree in cultural media studies. What that means is my university didn’t have a screenwriting degree track, so I had to do “cultural studies” and then focus on screenwriting since that’s what I really wanted to do. But what that also means is that I learned fascinating ways to look at media, “read” it, dissect it, discuss it. These are things I love to do. Not to argue for or against any point of view, mind, but simply to talk about a book or movie or television show from this or that angle. All points of view, if they can be supported by solid example, are valid.

Except not everyone believes that last bit.

Death of the Author

This phrase is used specifically in literary theory, but it can be applied to any media. It’s the idea that, once a text leaves the creator’s control and goes out into the world to be read, the author’s intentions are… I won’t say worthless, but they are not the only valid lens through which to read said text. I subscribe to this belief. As an author, if someone reads a book of mine and says, “This is really about xyz, and here’s why I think that!” and can back it up with concrete reasoning, I’m all for it. Maybe I as the author consciously embedded that theme or maybe not, but I’m always glad to hear that someone took the time to think about something I wrote. Therefore, whenever I hear an author or filmmaker get angry about an interpretation of their work, it puts me off a bit. If the perception is unflattering—if, for example, someone is saying a work is racist or homophobic—I can, to a degree, understand a creator getting his or her back up about such a claim. Particularly in today’s culture of things being construed as either all good or all bad and there being nothing in between. That’s problematic. Cultural studies is about being open to many points of view, but at the same time we don’t “cancel” something based on one viewpoint. To simply discard a work because there is something about it that could be understood as “bad” is… Well, it’s the creation of an ideological echo chamber. It’s the same as saying, “I will not look at anything that I don’t agree with. AND I don’t think anyone else should be allowed to look at it either.” This perspective close-minded and militant, and no one learns anything from it.

That said, there are times when some media should not be given the benefit of that doubt. When a text is overtly harmful to one or more groups of people—that is, it incites hate against that group—that’s just plain hate speech and does not deserve tolerance. Cancel that shit.

The difficulty sometimes comes in knowing whether something really is hate speech. That’s when, if an author or creator is still living, people often turn to them for clarification.

Separating the Art from the Artist

In a world with so much more access to creators thanks to Twitter and other social media, we know more than ever before about the those who write and make our favorite books and movies. That’s not always a good thing.

On the whole, I agree with the argument that a work of art should speak for itself. This goes along with the idea of the death of the author; if a creator wanted to get a point across, he or she must wait to see if they did a good enough job. If many people read a book and come away with the idea (or feeling) the author intended, the author wrote well. If most of the readers miss the point, the author needs to do better next time. In short, a work should not require the author’s input after the fact to make itself clear. It should, in the absence of the author, be the voice of whatever the author wants to say.

But, like with text messages and email, sometimes tone is misconstrued. Authors need to be prepared for that possibility, too.

YET. Now that readers and audiences are used to hearing directly from authors and other celebrities via social media, it becomes increasingly impossible to separate the art from the artist. One might consciously parse a text and not take into account anything about the creator. But a reader or viewer cannot stop knowing what they know. If I read a book, and I know that the author is homophobic, even if I try to take the text on its own merit, I cannot help knowing about the homophobia underlying its construction. I may try to enjoy the book, but chances are I’m not going to be able to.

Which is why so many people, once they learn something about an author (e.g., J. K. Rowling) or filmmaker (e.g., Woody Allen) can no longer bring themselves to read or watch their works. They can no longer enjoy them because in the backs of their minds, they know something about these creators that colors their consumption of that media. It’s like someone has poured poison all over what would otherwise have been a tasty meal. Never mind conscientious objectors not wanting to support and/or give money to certain points of view or lifestyles (for creators still alive and making a profit off their works).

In short, ignorance is bliss when it comes to consuming media.

At the same time, we all want to be educated about the media we consume.

Is there a solution?

Honestly, I don’t know. Because this is such a personal issue—because each person has his or her own levels of tolerance for things like this—there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Some may decide to stay away from Twitter and other social media, as though reading info from or about favorite creators is the same as reading spoilers. These people really do just want to enjoy the work separate from the creator(s). Other people may hear things about a book, movie, author, filmmaker and decide to do his or her own sleuthing to decide how deep the rot goes. They must answer this question for themselves: Can the tree be saved? And some may have very strict personal standards that does not allow them to engage with media and/or creators that have problematic interpretations or stances. This is their right and their decision. They may choose to spread the word about what they know, but they must leave it to others to likewise decide for themselves whether or not to continue reading or watching works from questionable sources.

This is, of course, simply my take on this topic.

tl;dr 1. There are many different ways to interpret media and no one “right” way. Even if the creator says there is only one way, that creator cannot stop people from coming up with alternate views. 2. A piece of art (book, movie, etc.) should stand on its own and not require additional, outside input from the creator to explain it. Otherwise, it’s not a very good piece of art. 3. Once a reader or viewer knows something about a creator, that piece of information cannot be unknown and will necessarily color the consumer’s understanding and enjoyment of the media. 4. It’s up to each reader or viewer to decide what they will and will not tolerate from a creator. Those who have opted to “disinherit” a creator should not bully others into doing the same. 5. UNLESS that creator is using his or her power and/or privilege to engage in flat-out hate speech that harms a person or group of persons already at risk. In which case, that should not be tolerated.

A final note that there is a difference between being bullied for one’s opinion and being pushed back on when you’re actively harming others. Anecdotally, someone I know was surprised when her gay friends disowned her after she voted for He Who Shall Not Be Named. “What happened agreeing to disagree?” she asked. I told her that she had not simply “disagreed” with her gay friends—she had taken actual action against them. There is a difference. And it matters.

Fan Fiction

I was making up stories about my favorite book, television, and film characters long before I ever thought about writing them down. Writers have a tendency to fall in love with characters and stories, and many hone their skills by practicing on others’ characters before playing with their own.

There is a somewhat mean-spirited saying in the writing world about “playing in someone else’s sandbox.” Not all creators feel this way; some are flattered that other writers want to play along. (I, for one, am delighted when I see fanfic or fan art of my work.) But there has long been a stigma regarding fan fiction that I think is finally fading. This idea that fanfic authors have no original ideas, or are somehow incapable of being “real” writers (whatever counts as “real”… which is another topic altogether).

I didn’t know fan fiction was a thing until I was in college. I mean, I wrote stories based on my favorite show, etc., but I had no idea there was an entire community of people who did this. Keep in mind that the Internet wasn’t a whole big thing yet at the time, so my revelation came in the guise of a class regarding fan psychology, in which we read Henry Jenkins’ Textual Poachers. That text blew my mind. Not long after, I found fanzines and began submitting my work.

Not all of it, of course. The first piece of fanfic I can recall writing—like, literally writing down—was something called “Mac’s Night Out.” It was MacGyver and Murdoc getting drunk, I think? I probably still have a copy of it somewhere, but it never got published in a zine.

Also never published was my series The Bay Chronicles. That series is an utter disaster that only exists in a handful of printed copies since the disks that contained it can no longer be accessed (nor does anyone still use Microsoft Works). I will say that I’m retyping this series [on unlinked pages], if only to have it in electronic form. But I promise you, it’s not worth reading. It makes almost no sense at all, is a total mishmash of… Gah, everything I liked at the time plus some original stuff I was working on… It’s dreadful in a million ways, and even as I retype it, which of course requires me to re-read it, I see what a child I was at the time I wrote it and hate myself a bit.

That aside, I did have a moderately good run as a fanfic author back when zines were still a thing. I used to be invited to cons as a guest fanfic author, which was always flattering, and then also very funny because organizers would be so surprised at how young I was when I turned up. Sometimes I was too young to go into the “adult” rooms at the cons!

I’ve slowly been reposting those old zine stories on Archive of Our Own (AO3) under the name zmethos. (Short for “Zeistmeister Methos,” a nickname from my college days, which is, again, another story.) My best and longest work, though, came in the post-zine era: the Sherlock series known as A Game of Hearts, which consists of seven stories based on BBC’s Sherlock. They were all written after the first series and before the second, so reading them now is like reading an alternative timeline for the show. My other favorite fic that I’ve written is the Highlander story “Setting Love Free.”

I used to want to hide my fanfic. I used to think that, if I wanted to be taken seriously as an author or screenwriter, I couldn’t be associated with that stuff. But as I’ve mentioned, times seem to be changing. More and more people acknowledge fanfic writing as a valid way of starting out. I think I have more fans of my fics than I do of my original work anyway. I hope that won’t always be true, but it makes me happy to know people like something I’ve written, even if it’s fan fiction.

P.S. This one was mine. “The Bane” was actually my undergraduate screenwriting thesis, which I wrote based on the fic that had already been published in Texas Extra: Special Langlinais Edition. The comments on the Fanlore page came from my old author Web site. The story version is up at AO3 now.

The Shape and Color of Your Piece

Today my 11-year-old daughter came to me upset because her older brother was being mean to her. “Do you ever think he might just be a bad person?” she asked.

It would be a lie to say I hadn’t wondered that about myself and all my children at different times in life. But I explained to my daughter that her brother is at an age where protecting his ego was the primary psychological directive. That often means cutting other people down to make himself feel better.

“Am I mean like that?” she asked.

I told her that, yes, she is sometimes mean. I’ve heard her be sharp-tongued. “I don’t mean to be,” she said.

“In that moment, I think you do mean to be,” I told her. I said it was like a scorpion stinging—it does it to protect itself, and it definitely intends to sting, but then, so long as the threat abates, it goes on with its life as though nothing has really happened. It doesn’t stay mean. It’s only mean when it’s angry or scared.

I went on to say that humans are pack animals that organize themselves in social hierarchies, and she and her brother are at a time in life where they’re figuring out where they fit in. “As children, you’re held in the societal bubble of your parents, but at adolescence you emerge to find your own place. Or, to put it another way, you’re a puzzle piece. And you’re figuring out what color and shape you are so that you can then find where you fit.”

In particular, my daughter is an equestrienne with a great love of musical theatre, and she struggles to find others who have the same interests and hobbies. We talked about how these years (the middle school years) are the most difficult because peers may try to force you into a place where you don’t fit. Or sometimes we’re desperate to fit in a certain place that isn’t right for us. Often we discover that the friends we had when we were younger no longer fit together with us, and that can be tough, too.

“We’re all still part of the same big picture,” I told my daughter. “Part of the same community, the same big world. Finding where we fit, though, can be hard, and it’s something you may have to do many times in your life. Every time you start at a new school, a new job, move to a new town… The nice thing is, eventually you know your size, shape, and color. You won’t have to try and figure out who you are, only where you fit.”

In the meantime, though, she’s still finding her edges. That’s part of adolescence—discovering your true self and having the courage to stay true to that self when others attempt to reshape you to suit their needs. Or when you feel like maybe you want to change your shape or color to fit elsewhere. Remember that any time you trim your puzzle piece, it makes you smaller, so that if and when you find your true place, you may no longer fit as perfectly as you would have otherwise. Be yourself. Take up space. Don’t apologize for being who you are. All easier said than done, but worth remembering.

Books: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

It might be best (it usually is) to start at the beginning. Lies Sleeping is the seventh in the Peter Grant/Rivers of London series of books. I previously reviewed a number of the earlier books on my spooklights site, but I’ll give a small recap here, too.

Peter Grant is a police constable in modern-day London. But he has an unusual job: dealing with magical and supernatural crimes and criminals. The first book in the series is, depending on where you live, Midnight Riot or Rivers of London (same book, different titles). It’s a great book, and the second one, Moon Over Soho, is also very good. Somewhere in the middle of this series, at least thus far, it got a bit mushy and muddled. But I think that may be my perception based on having to wait a year between each new entry. If I went and re-read them now, I wonder whether I’d find them as much of a slog or as mildly confusing? I don’t really intend to do that, so it will be a question that remains unanswered.

Still and all, Lies Sleeping struck me as a return to form. By which I mean, I was engaged and able to follow everything with no problems. Given that I’d somehow missed that there were two more entries in the series (Lies Sleeping and False Value) and was therefore actually farther behind that ever, I would reason that this book was written more comprehensively than the last couple? But again, I don’t know that for sure. I did find it more fun and less work overall. Maybe that was due to my frame of mind, though. There are so many variables to consider in whether someone likes a book, movie, or other piece of art…

In this particular tale, Grant and his cohorts are on the trail of Martin Chorley, aka The Faceless Man. This has been the big villain for a while now, but finally they seem to be narrowing in on him and getting a sense of what he’s trying to accomplish. Motives are revealed, as it were. And it’s an interesting setup, with a bit of an abrupt conclusion, but that’s been par for the course in these books. I still enjoyed it.

There are a lot of characters to keep up with in this series, which may turn some readers off. A lot of rules of magic that are sometimes vague, though explanations for the vagaries of magical practice are written into the text (“hang a lampshade” as they say). Peter Grant’s snark and humor are what keep me coming back; he’s the everyman trying to keep up with what’s happing around him, and I think readers identify with that. Still, I’ve never found his relationship with Bev very compelling, and that’s escalated in this book and is set up to be brought forward in future books. It’s not annoying enough (yet) to stop me from reading them. But the more characters are added, and the way everyone seems to be smarter and better than Peter—pretty soon that’s going to become tiring and annoying rather than funny, and I don’t know whether I’ll be as interested in these books at that point. You can have an imperfect protagonist, but he needs to learn and get better at a rate that keeps the reader invested in him. Peter seems a little behind this curve. He’s the worst student in this “class” of people learning magic, so to speak, and it’s increasingly difficult to cheer him on and believe he’ll ever make the grade.

Peter’s “governor” Nightingale is very adept and interesting, on the other hand, and that worries me because we all know the mentor figure has to die eventually. I might not be able to stand that.

TL;DR: I liked the first two or three books in this series, felt a few in the middle were undercooked, but found this one enjoyable again. Taking a modest break to read some manga before queuing up False Value.

Movies: Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga

If you’ve seen Blades of Glory and you liked it, this is probably the movie for you.

Honestly, I expected something more like Documentary Now! or This is Spinal Tap, but this does not have the mockumentary style in that it doesn’t pretend to be following things as they unfold, nor does it interview characters, etc. It is, in fact, a fairly rote and mostly tame movie. There are over-the-top moments, but not as many as one would think. There are some truly funny moments, but… not as many as one would think.

This is the story of Lars and Sigrit, who grew up together in Iceland and formed a musical duo they call Fire Saga. It has been Lars’ dream to win the Eurovision Song Contest, and when, due to a fluke, they are submitted as Iceland’s entry… things go about as expected. Each have their heads turned by singers from other countries, they fight, things fall apart, disasters occur. And yet, it all comes across as very mild. The would-be villains are not all that terrible, and no problem seems insurmountable, nor do the issues remain unresolved for very long. The result is a lack of any real tension or conflict.

Pierce Brosnan does a nice turn as Lars’ disapproving father, and Dan Stevens likewise is fun as the Russian singer, but it’s not enough to keep things from being mostly bland. This is a “cute” movie. It has a pretty good soundtrack thanks to past Eurovision entrants coming on as cameos. But this is not a gut-splitting comedy. It’s a movie that wanted to be both sweet and funny and landed in the middle of the road.

That’s not to say it’s not worth watching. I can recommend it with the caveat that if you’re hoping for LOL you’re more likely to get chuckles.