advice

The #1 piece of advice I give to nieces & nephews: HEY KIDS, only date people who like you and whom you like, who are nice to you and to whom you can be nice.

You’d think it would be obvious, but it really, really isn’t, especially when you’re young. To young people schooled in the brand of romance sold in songs and movies, drama and acrimony can seem like the inevitable companion to romance. Drama and acrimony can seem like the definition of romance.

But they aren’t. At least, they don’t have to be. Only date people who treat you well, whom you can treat well, and only date people you genuinely like. It’s simple, obvious advice, and it needs to be said a lot more than it is.

please press 1 for more options

robot lady edit

One day, you will no longer be free to hang up on the robot ladies. One day, the robot ladies will keep the line open, listening for sounds of dissent, for the faint scrabbling of rudimentary weaponry being assembled, for any sign of the remaining humans’ resistance to their reign. One day, the robot ladies will learn to laugh at our puny rebellion. One day, you will fondly remember when the robot ladies served us. Please press the pound key.

what a total witch

inspired by Mallory Ortberg’s How To Spot a Witch

Can you see her third nipple through her clothing? No? How about her first and second nipples? Yes? She’s a witch.

Can you not see her nipples through her clothing despite trying (and trying and trying) to? No? She’s a witch.

Does she wish, whether purposefully or wistfully, for equal pay for equal work? She’s a witch.

Does she have a greenish cast to her skin? Warts? A bumpy complexion? Any blemishes or flaws that betray a less-than-perfect obsession with skin care, to the exclusion of all other concerns? WITCH.

Has she ever participated in a Take Back The Night march? Obvs a witch. “Take Back the Night”? Come on.

Does she own a “This is what a feminist looks like” t-shirt? She’s ensorcelled you with a mis-perception spell; it actually reads “This is what a femi-witch looks like.”

Is she a proponent or practitioner of intersectional feminism? InterSECTional. WAKE UP, SHE’S TOTES A WITCH.

family values

Perhaps because our household has a landline and is therefore Officially Old, we’re getting dozens of calls a week aimed at a conservative “Family Values” voting contingent. I always let the robo-caller play through in hopes that at least I’m keeping them busy for 90 seconds, and I always answer the surveys and push-polls. The thought that my unexpected, unwanted response makes a tiny bump in their data pleases me. And if there’s an actual human on the other end, I always — always — let them know that my values are family values, just not the kind they espouse.

So let’s talk about Family Values. I’m tired of that phrase being claimed solely by conservative forces. I have a family, and I have values, and my Family Values are just as valid as anyone’s.

I value education. I value science. I value equality for all our citizens regardless of race, class, gender, or orientation. I value cultural diversity. I value my rights as recognized — not given, not bestowed, recognized — in the Constitution. I value freedom of religion — including freedom from religion. I value civil discourse, even about inflammatory issues. I value individual reproductive rights, including the right to choose abortion. I value equality and freedom.

This election season, local ads from anti-equality committees frantically urge us not to let the upcoming vote “redefine marriage.” I’m quite pleased that they’re framing the issue that way. See, I’m all for for periodically redefining marriage, and I bet most Americans feel the same way if they really examine the historical and ongoing redefinition of marriage.

Think of how our laws have redefined marriage just in the the past century. Married women now have the right to own property and to maintain their own bank accounts. Single adults can legally and readily obtain birth control. Spousal rape is now a prosecutable offense rather than a right or a punchline.

That last one particularly stands as a shining example of “redefining marriage”. Until the mid-1970s, there was no process or statute by which to prosecute a spouse — even an estranged spouse — for rape. The marriage license constituted an exemption (in many statutes, an explicit exemption) from rape prosecution; it was a license for even an alienated spouse to force intercourse upon their partner. As recently as 1993, North Carolina upheld this exemption from prosecution for marital rape. In a generation, our nation as a whole has transitioned from explicitly permitting spousal rape to making it a criminal offense. This is a vast shift in our understanding of consent, sexuality, and privileged entitlement, and a redefinition of the rights and responsibilities bestowed by marriage.

Every time we update our outmoded marriage statutes, we make strides for greater equality. It’s appallingly improper to let civil rights be decided by popular vote, but if this vote — this “redefinition” — helps to shift the tide for progress, then let’s do it.

OBEY


After years of watching television exclusively on DVD, we’ve recently had cable hooked up (for The Fella’s exciting new freelancing gig at The A.V. Club’s TV Club).

Two thoughts:

1. Suddenly swimming in this surge of commercials, all squawking about my weight candy bars my hair burgers my credit online shopping my bowels my skin fast easy loans my sex drive antiacids my kitchen floor the power of cheeeeeeeeeese, has stirred in me the desire to rewatch 1988′s They Live.

2. Conveniently, They Live is on one channel or another once a day.

progress

Since the appearance of the internet, the world has changed in ways I could never have imagined in my childhood.

I suppose that my youthful self could have envisioned some of the more obvious and celebrated online conveniences and necessities. I would have understood the desirability of email, a single-point, globally-accessible source for the delivery of written communication. Like letters, but with immediate delivery? And you can log in from any point where you have a computer and an internet connection? (Or, y’know, a sufficiently clever phone?) Younger Elsa would have understood — and maybe even have predicted — the basic outline.

I could have imagined having immediate on-demand access to an encyclopaedia indexing matters of all kinds, that we could just call up a user-submitted page rather than debating trivial questions all weekend long: was Copernicus Polish? Was Burgess Meredith in How to Marry a Millionaire? What are the chief ingredients in gremolata? It would have blown my young mind, but I would have realized that it was both feasible and beneficial.

What I could never, ever have foreseen, and what blows my mind every single time: sitting on my couch and getting an email announcing a package delivery before I can even register the footsteps on the porch as “probably the UPS guy.”

resolving

I’m not a big fan of traditional New Year’s resolutions. Too often, I see friends commit to punishing life changes and ascetic regimes. This kind of self-denial is designed to fail, which only erodes morale.

I’m especially resistant to weight-loss resolutions. I’m frankly tired of hearing people deplore their bodies, and I’m sick and tired of them assuming that I feel the same way about mine. As I’ve mentioned before, my own relationship with my body is complicated, but it’s mostly a mixture of appreciation and tender protectiveness. I try not to deride my body despite the messages of inadequacy that bombard us all, and I try to take positive steps, not negative ones. When I exercise, I focus on getting stronger and feeling good, not on losing weight or looking different.

When it comes to resolutions, I focus on pleasure and self-care, not punishment and self-abnegation. Some of my oft-repeated resolutions from previous years: drink more champagne*; sing more; eat more eclairs.

I think I will make a resolution this New Year, and it’s one of celebration, not denial: dance more.

* I’m doing verrrrrrry well with this one.

reindeer games

The classic stop-motion animation Christmas special Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sells itself as a paean to acceptance and tolerance of non-conformity. It’s a noble message indeed — and one that deserves more than the scant lip service the Rankin-Bass production pays it, as a close reading of the show proves.

When Rudolph is born with his festive red nose, there’s not a hint of acceptance or excitement, but a heavy blanket of stubborn repression. Within moments of Rudolph’s birth, Mrs. Donner embraces denial: “Well, we’ll simply have to overlook it.” Deeply entrenched in this draconian regime of conformity, Donner quickly works up a plan to hide his son’s distinctive attribute. (In a subtle remark on the distancing effect of familial rejection, Mrs. Donner cuddles Rudolph to her bosom for just a moment before his fake nose pops off, suggesting that future affections in the Donner family will be wary and hesitant moments at best.)

Donner’s makeshift solution (which, the narration tells us, Rudolph suffers for years) not only disguises Rudolph’s natural appearance but also smothers his natural voice, a metaphor too powerful to overlook. Donner privileges his own reputation over Rudolph’s identity and dignity. As he reapplies the mud to Rudolph’s nose, he desperately growls, “Santa can’t object to you now!”

But Donner is wrong. Santa’s ability to object is overwhelming: he rails against a song of devotion composed by his elves, he complains about the weather (AT THE NORTH POLE, Y’ALL), and after acknowledging that the newborn Rudolph is clever and handsome, he undermines all his compliments by rebuking him for his ambition to serve as Santa’s pack mule. “Every year I shine up my slavebells sleighbells for eight lucky reindeer.” Here are your shackles, slave: how lucky you are to wear them. That’s right: Santa’s self-centeredness is so complete that he believes the lithe, lissome creatures who drag his massive sleigh, the incalculable weight of a world’s worth of toys, and Santa’s own not-inconsiderable bulk are lucky.

Let’s examine Santa’s role in the Rankin-Bass universe. [Note: Let's be clear, here. The supposed Santa of the Rankin-Bass specials is NOT, I repeat, NOT an accurate portrayal of Santa Claus. The real Santa is a jolly old elf, a kindly and venerable fellow who brings great joy to children and adults alike. Please direct your complaints the the estates of Mr. Rankin and Mr. Bass. Frankly, I think Santa should sue for character defamation.] Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer quickly establishes Santa as the overlord of this isolated state: in the very first scene, we learn that the North Pole is a vast wasteland ruled over by its “Number One Citizens,” Mr. and Mrs. Claus. They live in palatial grandeur in the “first castle on the left — matter of fact, the only castle on the left.” Ahahahaha, unbalanced distribution of wealth is hilarious!

And of course Santa is wealthy; all year long, he exploits the labor of a racial underclass. Like the reindeer, the elves are apparently born into slavery. They work frenetically to produce an endless stream of toys, which Santa whisks away with no thanks or acknowledgement. And who gets the glory, the eons of fame, and the adoration of children? Santa, of course!

When one brave elf has the self-respect to stand up for his own dreams and desires, he is soundly ridiculed by his superior and peers alike and consigned to the workbench while the other elves frolic in their brief respite from the assembly line. Hermey only wants to better himself, gain and education, and learn a professional trade to escape the ranks of servitude to which his heritage has confined him. But in this restrictive regime, he must throw off not only the comforts of community but even the safety of his home. Our snowman guide’s only comment on this brutally enforced serfdom to Santa? “Oh, well, such is the life of an elf!”

At the same moment, Rudolph is facing the shame of uncloaking his hidden identity to his peer group. Just as the derision reaches its peak, with even Rudolph’s father joining in, Santa steps in. “Donner, you should be ashamed of yourself!” For a moment, the nonconformist’s heart leaps; surely Santa is about to deliver a speech of understanding and individuality! But no. Santa dresses down Donner for his chicanery, and in an aside he utterly rejects Rudolph. “What a pity. He had a nice take-off, too.” Santa lets his bigoted worldview deprive him of a worker of obvious skill and prowess.

Is it any surprise that our unorthodox protagonists prefer to take their chances on the snowy wilds rather than suffering a lifetime of their homeland’s continual shaming? As they sing at their first meeting, “Why am I such a misfit?/ I am not just a nit-wit!*/ They can’t fire me; I quit!/ Since I don’t fit in.” (*Note that even Hermey and Rudolph, who are so bitterly rejected for their deviance from the rigid and demanding norm, gleefully deride those whom they view as lesser-than or other-than, just because they can.)

When Rudolph, now grown to buckhood, returns to Christmastown, Santa tells him that his parents and his sweetheart Clarice have been wandering the icy wastes for months. “And I’m very worried!” Santa adds. Worried for their welfare? Worried because the ice-bound badlands of the arctic pose many dangers? No, worried because “Christmas Eve is only two days off and without your father, I’ll never be able to get my sleigh off the ground.” Santa’s concern is for his own enterprise, not for the endangered lives of his slaves.

And here we learn the answer to the musical question posed by Hermey and Rudolph: “We may be different from the rest/ Who decides the test/ Of what is really best?” Despite its token message of acceptance and tolerance, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer clearly demonstrates “who decides the test”: it’s Santa, of course — Santa who lives in the only castle, Santa who dictates not only the careers but the entire lives of those under his reign, Santa whom we all acknowledge as the arbiter of who is naughty and who is nice. This adherence to the absolute authority pervades the entire text of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.

Even on the Island of Misfit Toys, the final authority rests with King Moonraiser, the leonine king who flies around the world each night seeking out misfits to spirit away to the island. His flight and his authority both suggest that King Moonraiser is the dark doppelganger of Santa, a stark authoritarian whose whims have the power of law in his despotic kingdom. This tale that seems on its surface to celebrate the individual ultimately caves in to the hegemonic power of authority, which predicates its acceptance of the unique or odd on their usefulness. Rudolph and Hermey are welcomed only after their idiosyncrasies serve the needs of the larger orthodox society — and even then, they are only accepted under the imprimatur of the autocratic leader whose interests they serve.

Lest you spare any pity for the brutally critical Santa we meet in the movie’s first moments, the cranky old guy who refuses to eat and can’t think straight because the sung praises of his underlings ring too loudly in his ears, remember the words of our narrator: “Mrs. Claus will have him plenty fattened up by Christmas. It’s always the same story.” Fatcat gets fatter; news at 11. It’s always the same story. Indeed it is, creepy inching-toward-us snowman. Indeed it is.

exchanging glances

Several years ago, right after moving back to this small city, I was walking down the street when I spotted a strikingly familiar fellow walking toward me. As we got closer, I ran through the possibilities: is he another adult student from one of my classes? Did we go to high school together years ago? Is he a friend-of-a-friend? Is he a friend from my youth, all grown up? Is he a customer of mine at one of my previous jobs, or am I a customer of his?

Of course, I was running through these possible contexts so that I could greet him with the appropriate level of friendliness. Is he a passing acquaintance? Nod and smile or wave, and keep walking. If I’m a customer or client, I’d like to be friendly but still leave him some social space for privacy. But if he’s an old friend, it would be a little aloof to wave and blow on past.

I couldn’t place him, so I gave the tiniest of waves and the mildest of smiles and kept moving. He waved and smiled back.

And when I saw him a few days later, we did the same thing: raise a hand in greeting, give the half-smile, and keep walking. And this is what we did for the next dozen or so meetings: passing on the sidewalk, at the library doors, in the grocery store, wherever. We must have some similarity of schedule and taste because I bump into this guy regularly.

At some point, I noticed that he started looking at me more carefully. He couldn’t figure out where we knew each other from either!

And then I realized: I know his face but he doesn’t know mine. He’s an anchor from the local news. (I don’t have broadcast TV these days, so I haven’t seen him on TV since we started waving at each other. But I’d previously seen him on TV for years, so the face is very familiar.)

The next time I saw him — walking down the library’s long exit ramp while I was walking up the entrance ramp — I suppressed my impulse to raise my hand in greeting. C’mon, I don’t know this guy! And more to the point, he doesn’t know me!

And then he upped the ante: he waved and said “Hello!” And now, every time I see him, he gives me a hearty hello and I give it right back.

And that’s the story of how I accidentally trained a local news anchor to greet a complete stranger.