Another Female Blogger Talks About Kili and Tauriel!

* Spoilers Ahead*

I must confess that I, along with, I'm sure, scores of other female Hobbit fans, am a huge fan of the Tauriel-Kili relationship.

Sure Tauriel is an elf and lives with the apparent heart-throb Legolas, but he is kind of standoffish, and his dad is fairly nuts, and then there's that whole class thing.

Along comes this attractive dwarf who teases her and talks poetry to her and just, well, talks to her (not at her or about her). On top of all that, he is completely captivated by her from the get-go, impressed by her warrior abilities.

Still, it's the talking to her that impresses me. I mention in my Boromir post that in only a few scenes, Jackson is able to establish that Boromir is a good guy and liked by the hobbits. He does the same thing in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug with Tauriel and Kili when they discuss the stars and Kili begins to tell Tauriel about his travels. Their easy relationship, their interest in the same things, in each other, is almost instantly established.

My second favorite scene is when Tauriel heals Kili, not the healing itself although that is lovely, and not Kili's wondering speech ("Do you think she could have loved me?") although that is very touching. It is the scene right before when Tauriel runs into Bofur on the stairs.

She takes the kingsfoil. Bofur says, "What are you going to do?"

"I'm going to save him," Tauriel says.

By themselves, the words could be meant arrogantly or passionately, but Tauriel (Evangleine Lilly) says them like she's found a purpose in life or, rather, like she has found a reason to be a elf. *I* can do this. *I* can do something for him that no one else can. I was right to come.

I have my own opinion about what will happen next (taking the book's ending into consideration) and how all of it will affect Legolas. And I think this is one place where a director's invention is completely merited. Tolkien doesn't give us much on Legolas to explain his background or motivations. Jackson and his fellow scriptwriters have gone a long way towards filling in the gaps.

In the meantime, the audience gets a great romance!

An Inside Look at Revision: Aubrey, Chapter 1 Notes

Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now being published on Wattpad! It is also available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I will be posting notes about the process of revision--why writers add things, delete things, change things. I'm not claiming my decisions were always right or wrong! These posts are rather to illustrate how writing is a process, a series of decisions, culminating quite often in work (uh-oh,  I'm going to have to rewrite that entire section!).

Chapter 1: Leftovers
Julie Manet with Cat by Renoir from Wikimedia*

The first chapter of Aubrey initially began in Sommerville before her bespelling: Aubrey and her friend Gloria go for a browse through Magician's Lane, so Gloria can purchase a potion.

I removed this initial chapter, put it back in, removed in, put it back . . . The problem was two-fold: (1) it raised issues that became moot the more Aubrey was revised; (2) it differed in tone from the rest of the novel.

Tone is one of those odd issues that is more subjective than, say, point of view. Monty Python can tell a funny story that suddenly dives into seriousness and vice versa (although Monty Python is more likely to tell a sarcastic story that suddenly dives into pure weirdness as in Life of Brian). But then Monty Python is rarely aiming for tonal cohesion. James Joyce, on the other hand, never skips between light humor and deadly, deadly seriousness.

Skipping between light humor and sarcastic seriousness is less problematic to a story's overall tone. Aubrey rests somewhere between these two points. After several female readers commented on the darkness of the current Chapter 1, I decided the switch between light and less light would be too extreme. I should start with the seriousness of Aubrey's transformation. Things could get lighter or darker from there.

And, to be honest, I like starting stories in the middle!

*The illustration for each post was originally posted alongside the blog Aubrey chapters. Each illustration was chosen from nineteenth century/early-twentieth century pictures and photographs. The tone of the above picture is definitely much less dark than Chapter 1. However, it's a girl and a cat--how appropriate! 

New Fantasy Novel: Aubrey on Amazon!

I am proud to announce that Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is now a member of Peaks Island Press's fantasy line. I will be posting chapters of Aubrey on Wattpad starting Monday, April 21, 2014. Since Aubrey has been a nearly 10-year project, with each chapter, I will be posting to Votaries my thoughts on writing and revising--for anyone who wants to experience (or commiserate with) the pain of that process! 
Budding debutante Aubrey St. Clair was merrily making her way up the social ladder of high society. And then somebody went and turned her into a cat. She is rescued by a “slum magician,” except he would happily vivisect her in order to reveal her secrets. To stay alive, Aubrey will have to figure out how to stay human. Or perhaps becoming fully human is the last thing she really wants.
Thanks to Eugene for editing feedback on the final revisions and for preparing the manuscript for distribution on Amazon and Smashwords! Thanks also to feedback regarding the blog-version from Kathryn York and Joyce Woodbury.

The impressively dramatic cover was designed by Eugene based on a delightful photo by Kezia Moore. Thanks, Kezia!

The Peaks Island Press fantasy line covers contemporary fantasy, time travel, human-animal transformation, and vampires.

Buffy, Harris, and Lots of Thoughts about the Appearances of Good Guys and Bad Guys

Darla doing her
innocent school girl
I posted this in 2006. I am moving it up because I will be discussing Charlaine Harris in my next Authors A-Z post (I discussed Kerry Greenwood in the last A-Z post).

In Seven Seasons of Buffy, a book of essays about the television show Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (ed. by Glenn Yeffeth), Charlaine Harris (of True Blood fame) writes, "The monsters [in Buffy] are all evil. The good guys are all pretty" ("A Reflection on Ugliness"). Whedon, she argues, "uses physical attractiveness to signal moral decay."

I disagree; I also consider Harris reveals a far more obsessive regard for appearance in her books than Whedon does in his work. I'll deal with the first point, then the second.

It is true that the demons in Whedon's universe transform before they attack, gaining vamp faces or serpents' bodies, etc. However, Harris's reasoning that Whedon uses these transformations because he equates ugliness with evil (or wants to make evil obvious) is unreasonable.

Here's why:

1. Harris sees the Buffy demons as ugly; that doesn't mean everybody does. Granted, the vamp faces in early Buffy are a bit cheesy, but the make-up improves and, if anything, vampires in eat-mode achieve the same coolness level as the Wraith. Okay, I happen to think the Wraith are the coolest looking bad guys ever on television, so . . . maybe not. Still--Whedon's vampires have their own cache of wowness as do the other bad guys: I'm not too hip on bugs ("Teacher's Pet"), but I do think serpents are very awesome (Glory, "Graduation Day: Part 2").

I also happen to be a big fan of Armin Shimmerman, whom Harris cites as an example of an ugly bad guy. Really? He's about as adorable as a principal can get--and he has all the good lines. ("There are things I will not tolerate. Students loitering on campus after school. Horrible murders with hearts being removed. And also smoking.")

Harris attempts to use Count Dracula as a counter-argument--sure, he's cute, but he isn't THAT cute. Dracula, by the way, is Rudolf Martin who would look drop-dead gorgeous if he were dying of plague: not much of a counter-argument.

In addition, although humans may regard demons as ugly (though that's inconclusive), that does not mean the demons do. To borrow an example from the first season (before Whedon became "sophisticated," Hollywood help him), the Master makes it clear that as far as he is concerned, humans are annoying and whining and just so darn pudding faced. He and his loyal Luke, of the lovely deep voice, never change to look human; they are too advanced for that.

I would agree that Oz's werewolf is disgusting, but I think that's more bad make-up and the inability to hire REAL wolves (which are probably more expensive than human actors) than any specific statement about ugliness and evil. In any case, nobody but Kane ("Phases") considers Oz a bad guy in his monster state, and Willow doesn't seem to have much problem adjusting to his "other" self.

There are at least three other indications--one of which Harris brushes over, the others she misses--that the "good guys" on Buffy don't always find demons disgusting: when Buffy kisses Angel while in vamp face, and when Giles confronts Buffy's come-alive nightmare of being a vampire. Buffy is ashamed, NOT because she is ugly but because the vamp face reveals one of her deepest fears. With no revulsion whatsoever, Giles looks at her and says gently, "Why didn't you tell me?"

Additionally, when the swim team morphs in "Go Fish," not one of our good guys judges the changed team members as intrinsically evil. Buffy is downright sanguine, putting their animalistic behavior down to their animalistic state. Harris appears to have made the leap from ugliness to evil when no such statement was intended by the writers, but Harris' faulty assumptions are hardly Whedon's fault.

I also must mention that I consider one of the truly good guys, Sid ("The Puppet"), to be thoroughly disturbing (not exactly a "pretty" good guy).

2. Harris argues that Whedon should have recognized that "evil is not so clearly denoted in the real world." She asks, "Wouldn't we learn a more graphic lesson if the monsters retained their more attractive aspects even as they showed their most monstrous behavior?" Yes, we would learn something, especially since that's exactly what Whedon did.

Now, I have my own problems with Whedon regarding Buffy (namely, Seasons 6 & 7), but I don't see any point in accusing him of something he hasn't done. The first episode of Buffy opens with sweet-faced, pretty Darla luring a teenage boy into the deserted high school. Eh hem, Harris, she certainly didn't do it in vamp mode. True, she changes to vamp mode when she is about to feed, but I'm afraid her victim doesn't have much time to react. The evil has been accomplished long before Darla changes.

Likewise, bad Angel stalks and seduces women with his "golly, gee, whillikers shucks" act multiple times and his friendliness on those occasions is terrifying precisely because the viewer knows that this is bad Angelus but his victims-to-be do not. Likewise, Ted ("Ted") is far more terrifying before we--and Buffy--learn he is a robot who can be smashed to bits. Granted, the wonderfully slimy mayor transforms into a reptile at the end of Season 3, but there is such a thing as making a show exciting. Besides, who can pass up a huge snake going, "Well, gosh" over a pile of dynamite?

Over and over again, the villains of Buffy use prettiness to obtain their ends; they also, I would argue, commit more depraved acts in their pretty states than as demons (the mayor's seduction of Faith is far more vile than anything he does, briefly, as a snake). This is backed by the fact that Buffy can sense vampires long before they change (by their bad clothing in one case but intuitively in many other cases).The transformations, quite frankly, appear to be more for the sake of fun than for the sake of making moral declarations.

After all, this IS a show about the supernatural; although I agree with Harris that Warren, Season 6, who never transforms into anything, is the worst of the bad guys (Harris perceives this as a sign that "Whedon's view is growing more sophisticated"), multiple seasons of Warren would make Buffy . . . what? One Tree Hill?

In any case, Whedon's view of evil in the early seasons is quite sophisticated (if sophistication is required) because he doesn't confuse cause and effect. Evil isn't simply evil because our heroes got hurt/bitten (outcome). Evil is directly tied to motive and process, why and how the outcome occurred.

3. Harris contradicts her premise in her books.

This brings me to the end of my problems with Harris' essay. I would still have disagreed with her essay if I hadn't known her name. As it is, I have read several of Harris's Sookie Stackhouse books. In fact, when I first opened Seven Seasons of Buffy, I wanted to read Harris' essay because I had read her novels.

I was somewhat surprised by her essay. After reading the fifth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series,  I realized Harris may not realize how completely at variance her criticism of Buffy is with the messages of her own work.

To back up: I do understand where Harris is coming from psychologically. I happen to find negative discussions over appearance rather distasteful. I was one of those unfortunate weedy teens with bad acne, and it took me a long time to realize that although teens and some adults will make fun of bad acne, even teens will respond to the unfortunate's sense of personal authority. If you act coy and ashamed, people will pick up on it. If you don't, they tend to respond to your sense of confidence.

Still, I've never shaken my distaste for discussions about people's clothes or skin care or weight. Which is all to say that I understand where Harris is coming from in her essay. It also explains why I stopped reading her books: I found her obsession with appearance distasteful.

To return to Harris's Sookie Stackhouse series: Sookie is a nice, average looking (pretty but not glamorous), normally weighted young woman who encounters vampires in her neighborhood near New Orleans. She is telepathic but otherwise fulfills the respectable role of so many suspense/mystery heroines: the good girl next door who finds herself in extraordinary circumstances.

Extraordinary circumstances that involve her being ogled by a truly stunning number of men.

Before I continue, I should state that the books are great examples of modern fantasy writing; they combine an underground world of vampires and fairies, etc. with the everyday work-a-day world. One reason I stayed with the books as long as I did, other than the ebullient Eric, was the layered society created by Harris--something I find extremely difficult to do in my own writing and always admire in other people's work.

In book 5, however, Harris begins to head Sookie down a path that so many female suspense/mystery writers seemed compelled to take: the Road of Multiple Suitors. I can only surmise, based on the Twilight series' existence and success, that female writers and their readers enjoy fantasizing a princess-quest allotment of suitors for their heroines. Too many female-written mysteries contain if not several suitors, at least two who vie, unceasingly, for the heroine's attention. I have no very high opinion of the heroines and almost no opinion of the suitors (get a life already, people).

At least Buffy's two obsessed suitors occurred at different times! Sookie, however, Sookie belongs to that echelon of female heroines who don't believe in their own prettiness. When dealing with glamorous women, said heroines (1) befriend them, thus rendering the glamorous women clawless; (2) despise them because said glamorous women are also snotty; or (3) feel dowdy in comparison at which point a suitor's ogling will reassure our heroine that she is quite attractive.

My feminism rebels!

Scully being herself!
Give me an indifferent heroine or a heroine who knows her attractions and flaunts them over a heroine who isn't into her appearance but happens to be pretty anyway and whose writer never lets you forget the fact. Give me Samantha Carter or Seven of Nine or Teyla (all completely unapologetic gorgeous women). I'll take Captain Janeway, who is largely indifferent to her appearance (except her hair), or any of the doctors from House. Give me Scully, who is so wonderful to watch, being so fastidious in her dress and so consumed with her personal interests (and Mulder). Give me Buffy who worries about her appearance but doesn't try to tuck it away! Give me Pam Ferris as Laura Thyme who doesn't let anyone, including her ex-husband, get her down!

Spare me the heroine who will say she isn't pretty but has plenty of supporting cast characters to show/tell her exactly how sexy they think she is.

In Book 5, Dead as a Doornail, Sookie goes to clean out a dead relative's apartment. While there, we, the readers, are presented with 2,000 reasons why Sookie MUST, against her own inclinations, wear skin-tight lycra pants (those pants people wear to gyms). I don't remember all the reasons--something about the cousin being a smaller size and not owning any sweats and Sookie not having a car or the wherewithall to call a cab (perhaps she doesn't have any money either; I forget) let alone time to go to Walmart and buy some sweatpants. We are presented with a trillion excuses--that any reasonable adult would be able to circumvent with reasonable ease--that force Sookie into wearing the lycra pants, which, we are assured, isn't typical of her. She doesn't usually go around showing off her body like that, gasp gasp, not because she is old-fashioned and modest, you understand, but because it isn't how she sees herself.

But *oh, a woman's burden* she puts them on anyway and then proceeds to go out into the apartment's main living area where two of her current oglers, sorry, suitors are stationed and, presumably forgetting they are there, she bends over to put her hair into a twist or a ponytail or something. And when she straightens up, well, wouldn't you know, they are staring at her. Obviously, those horny men were checking out her . . . wink wink nudge nudge.

But Sookie isn't the kind of girl to flaunt her stuff, because, you know, she doesn't think she's, like, all that gorgeous or stuff, and Harris certainly isn't totally, like, obsessed with people's appearances. (Sorry, the whole thing is just so . . . teenagerish.)

I finished the book; I've never picked up another.

Talk about pure Victorianism; the idea of the devouring gaze is tied to medievalism. But the linking of coy physicality and ogling men is pure Victorianism. The medievals, at least, didn't make it so creepy.

I considered the modern, female mystery/suspense version of the devouring gaze creepy. Not the lycra pants, you understand. I would have applauded a Sookie who put them on because she didn't want to run to Walmart and didn't care what she wore OR a Sookie who thought, "I've got a darn fine body. I'm gonna go flaunt it!" In the Regency romances I read, the heroines often dress up to impress their rake husbands; they never pretend that isn't what they are going!
Speaking of Victorians, here's a species that knows
how to flaunt its stuff!
That's Steve, by the way.

What I find creepy in Harris's and similar type mystery series is the heroine's Victorian-like ingénue innocence. She never actually engages with the impact of her appearance--it's all happening to somebody else. Look, the reader is constantly being instructed, look at how much she doesn't care about appearance. She isn't shallow and trite like those snobby glamorous bimbos. She doesn't know she's pretty at all. But notice how often other characters comment on her hair, her face, her body. Oh, wait, here's another conversation where her looks are praised . . . oh, my, she's so terribly, terribly surprised. She can't believe that anyone noticed her boobs in that push-up bra she was forced to wear! 

Because she's an idiot? Or because women have a double standard?

Case in point: I recently (2006) picked up a Kerry Greenwood novel. Kerry Greenwood is an Australian writer who produced the Phryne Fisher mysteries, an interesting series (and great television show!).

Greenwood has come out with a new series with a heroine, Corinna Chapman, who is an unrepentantly size-large baker. She certainly isn't into all that model-type starving that her assistants practice. Nope, that's not her style. Take her as she is.

And I respect that. I like that attitude in people. Except Corinna has a handsome boyfriend with a washboard stomach about which the reader is reminded incessantly.

No reason why she shouldn't have a handsome boyfriend with a washboard stomach except it fits into my beef with Harris and all female mystery writers who play this particular game. For instance, in the mysteries with two suitors, one suitor will sometimes be a bit homely (the best friend the heroine grew up with), but the other suitor will always be a hunk; neither suitor will be especially nerdy or especially plain or an especially bad kisser or especially plump.

So, the heroines of these series aren't obsessed with appearance, but can the writers truly claim they are not?

Doesn't look like it.

My Favorite TV Dad

The 1960s established three classic TV Dads (possibly more, but these are the ones that lasted): Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) from The Dick Van Dyke Show, Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) from The Andy Griffith Show, and Steve Douglas (Fred MacMurray) from My Three Sons.

Of the three, my favorite is Andy Griffith's Andy Taylor.

This may seem rather surprising; it surprises me! For one thing, Andy Griffith, while a notable performer, is not the best actor of the three. So I've been pondering my reaction for awhile, and here is the result of my pondering.

Fred MacMurray as Steve Douglas

I encountered Fred MacMurray in sleazy, amoral, charming bad guy mode long before I encountered him as a good dad. I saw him initially in The Apartment and then in Double Indemnity. He is terrific in both. When I watch him in My Three Sons, I find him believable, but part of me can't help but wonder, "Maybe he's selling bogus insurance on the side."

It doesn't help that I think selling bogus insurance on the side might make the show more interesting.

Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie

Dick Van Dyke is a phenomenal performer. The Dick Van Dyke show gave him an opportunity to showcase his amazing comedic talents. And he is very funny. I just don't believe in, well, the entire family. Mary Tyler Moore chills me and their awful whiny son makes me want to turn off the TV (children actors tend to fall into three categories: cutesy/whiny, natural, and too-clever-by-half; I'm not a fan of cutesy-whiny).

Both Rob and Steve do their fatherly duties, but those duties never seem real. Kid has a problem, Dad tackles problem with heart-felt talk. Moreover, both fathers are always perfect in their discipline. Of course, they are right. Of course, their kids come around.

Andy Griffith as Andy Taylor

Andy Taylor, on the other hand, acts like a real parent. He disciplines Opie when necessary, but he never seems to be acting out of some god-like place (I parent; therefore, I am!). Rather, he seems to be utilizing whatever tools come to hand. And he often seems uncertain if the approach will work.

And he doesn't discipline all that often. His interactions with Opie range from reading to him to encouraging him to dance to participating in his adventures to getting annoyed when Opie asks too many questions. Opie doesn't make random appearances from some back room where he has been stored, waiting for his lines nor is Opie's sole purpose in life to demonstrate what a great guy his father is. He exists as a human being in his own right. 

To put it in script-writing terms, Opie participates in conversations--not just conversations with his peers or conversations about his day with his dad or special heartfelt conversations. But actual conversations.
In one episode, Andy is complaining about Aunt Bee's wig. "If a 10-year-old boy can notice it's a wig . . . !" he tells Aunt Bee. 
Standing on the stairs behind Aunt Bee, Opie says, "12."

"12-year-old boy," Andy continues.

"I'm starting to like it," Opie says.

"Don't you have something to do?" Andy snaps at him.
Andy doesn't talk at Opie or down to him. Their dialog is off-the-cuff, almost absent-minded. "Hi, Dad." "Hi, Ope." The conversations, moreover, take place while Andy is doing other things like talking to Aunt Bee or getting his hair cut or filing stuff in the jail. Quality smaulity time. Between "sitting down with my dear son(s)" and "yeah, my kid is around even when I'm doing other stuff," I'd take the latter over the former any day of the week. Being a family isn't about taking the kid on a ride; it's about saying, "So, whatcha up to? I'm doing this."

The closest equivalent to The Andy Griffith Show is really Home Improvement (rather than the very funny-but-also-a-showcase-for-a-performer The Cosby Show). My Three Sons seems to be rather like Full House.

It does help that Ron Howard was a remarkable child actor. I didn't understand until I watched The Andy Griffith Show why, when I was growing up in the 80s, Ron Howard was seen as America's kid brother, the one who became a director! I understand it now.

Ron Howard falls into the natural category. Jonathan Taylor Thomas, of Home Improvement fame, falls in the too-clever category (and was gifted enough to pull it off). Interestingly enough, both these boys (mostly) gave up acting. JTT has appeared on Tim Allen's Last Man Standing.

Latest Publication: "Cold Passion"

My short story "Cold Passion" was just published in Tales of the Unanticipated, #31. This is my second story with TOTU (the first was in Issue #29).

File:Walhalla (1896) by Max Brückner.jpg
The story references Niflheim from
Norse Mythology; hence this picture
of Valhalla by Max Brückner.

"Cold Passion" is a sci-fi "What if?" tale. I love writing these, no matter how improbable. This particular tale happens to be one of my few sci-fi tales that also uses real science!--specifically neuroscience.
Lillian grows up trapped in a society where emotional extravagance represents good citizenship. She hopes to find refuge in a non-emoting exile and uses the vulnerable memory-emotion link of a fellow student to retrieve classified information. His memories reassert themselves as Lillian prepares to take the final step.
"Cold Passion" is also a satire. I wrote it shortly after I first started teaching and became the recipient of dozens of students' sob stories.

It Doesn't Have to Be The Best--I Like It Anyway

Arguments over "this" versus "that" (restaurants, shows, artists, musicians . . . ) usually turn on points of quality. Participants will customarily take refuge in the argument, "This is good, and if you don't think it is good, it's because you don't get how good it is." I encountered a commenter on Amazon a few years ago, arguing that if people criticized a specific season of Dexter, it could only be because THOSE people like trite shows, like, you know, the ones on CBS.

The commenter's argument was rife with logical fallacies--false extreme, ad hominem, ad stupido.

However, the typical response to a commenter like this is to say, "No! I don't like trite shows, and I still thought this season was bad! I know what 'good' is!"

But the truth is, I love trite shows. So what?

Here are three more things I love, even though they frankly just aren't that good:

Hershey Bars

My mother, a true chocolate snob, can't stand Hershey Bars, and to be honest, I don't much care for Hershey's big Symphony Bars. But I quite like the simple, small, waxy Hershey Bars. I have no idea why. They are frankly not as good as Ghiradelli--or, I suppose, even Lindor (though I don't care for Lindor, which I consider far too cloyingly sweet). I think my preference for Hershey Bars may be rooted in nostalgia--it takes me back to my childhood. Ah, the days when chocolate bars were less than a $1!

Pre-Raphaelite Painters

John Everett Millais
Don't get me wrong--the Pre-Raphaelite painters were good in their own way (and Millais was one of the best). But aesthetically speaking, they're not even in the same ballpark as someone like Degas or Brueghel. Even at their best, I still prefer them at their worst--that is, I love the Victorian storytelling aspect of Pre-Raphaelites as opposed to any possible artistic merit anyone of them might have.

Edmund Leighton
When I went on study abroad in college, we visited the National Gallery to see, I believe, a Rembrandt exhibit. I was rightly impressed. Rembrandt is way up there with the best of the best. We then visited the Tate, where many Pre-Raphaelite paintings reside, and I was fascinated! So many stories!! Give me more!!

Star Trek Actors--All of Them

Star Trek actors range from startlingly gifted to workaday average to just bad. I don't care. I love them all.

One of Shatner's most harrowing
scenes in Search for Spock.
I must mention William Shatner at this point. I don't place him in the "just bad" category. In fact, I would place him on the left side of workaday average. And I have to admit, I don't really understand people's criticism of Shatner. I mean, I get the joke and laugh along with everyone else at Galaxy Quest (which actually focuses more on the top dog's personality than his acting). But that dialog . . . that suddenly stops . . . in the middle . . . for no reason . . . good grief, Robert Culp does it all the time on Columbo, and nobody made fun of him! (As far as I know.)

Jonah Goldberg, Calvinism, Genre Literature, and Anthropology

In response to Eugene's post "Dancing Girls," I am moving this post (from 2008) to the head of the line! It has been only slightly edited. The comments (and objections) are still relevant.

I just finished Liberal Fascism by Jonah Goldberg. In Liberal Fascism, Mr. Goldberg traces the historical link between progressivism, fascism, and liberalism. The history is interesting, Mr. Goldberg's points are more than a little valid, and the tone of his tome is relaxed, intelligent, and much less in-your-face caustic than, say, Ann Coulter. He's readable plus you don't feel like you're in the middle of a screaming match like with so much political pundit writing.

And man, is he insightful! While reading the book, I kept going, "Yes! Yes, that's exactly how I felt in my master's program!" This particular quote caught my eye:
[O]ne of the main reasons I've written this book [is] to puncture the smug self-confidence that simply by virtue of being liberal one is also virtuous. At the same time, I need to repeat that I am not playing the movie backward. Today's liberals aren't the authors of past generations' mistakes any more than I'm responsible for the callousness of some conservative who championed states' rights for the wrong reason well before I was born. No, the problems with liberalism today reside in liberalism today. The relevance of the past is that unlike the conservative who has wrestled with his history to make sure he does not repeat it, liberals see no need to do anything of the sort. And so, armed with complete confidence in their own good intentions, they happily go marching past boundaries we would stay well clear of. They reinvent ideological constructs we've seen before in earlier times, unaware of their pitfalls, blithely confident that the good guys could never say or do anything "fascist" because fascism is by definition anything not desirable. And liberalism is nothing if not the organized pursuit of the desirable.
I concur. There are few things in this world as bizarre as listening to a liberal tell you how horrible and close-minded and disgusting conservatives and Republicans are and then, in the same breath, tell you how much the said liberal hates various groups. (And no, I'm not exaggerating.)

In my master's program, I referred to this attitude--"whatever I say is tolerant no matter how intolerant it sounds because what I'm saying is de facto tolerant"--as Calvinism although maybe that's unfair to Calvinists. Still, the approaches bear a similarity: rather than behaving a certain way, one adopts certain attitudes or positions. If I gain a conviction that I am saved, I must be saved.

And this attitude, oddly enough, dovetails into a completely different subject I've been thinking about lately: the belittlement of the science-fiction and fantasy genre by "sophisticated" writers.

I used to read articles by Orson Scott Card and Stephen King about so-called sophisticated writers belittling genre literature, and I'd get all worked up about it, but in my heart of hearts, I didn't believe it was that big a problem. However, in just the past few years, I've had similar experiences whereby I've encountered "sophisticated" writers declaring that fantasy and science-fiction pieces are just soooo childish--not real and reputable and profound and sophisticated like the stuff they write and read.

I have found these statements bewildering, to say the least. I've always assumed "sophistication" to mean something like "a broad knowledge of the world" which, unless one ignores most of history and World Literature, includes fantasy and science-fiction (the first English novel was a fantasy: Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney, and one could argue that The Tale of Genji is fantasy although in a somewhat different vein).

Knowledge, by the way, doesn't equate to "liking." I have no trouble with someone who doesn't care for fantasy, who prefers, for example, Henry V to Midsummer Night's Dream, but there is little to no point in saying, "Midsummer Night's Dream would be so much better if it wasn't for the fantastical elements." What, the lovers are supposed to take a road trip across America and find themselves instead? I'm sure Shakespeare could have written that sort of thing if he'd known about it, but it would kind of ruin the play. (And despite assumptions to the contrary, it wouldn't automatically make it more insightful.)

I think that what Goldberg defines as "smug self-confidence" is at work here. Rather than formulate intelligent, sophisticated arguments about the immaturity or non-insightful nature of fantasy and science-fiction, supposedly sophisticated critics and writers have simply decided to define fantasy and science-fiction by those terms. (This is marked by the fact that when they do decide to like a piece of fantasy, they redefine it as "magical realism.")

But why, I've asked myself, create the definition in the first place? It is hardly necessary for someone who likes contemporary, "realistic" (see this post for my discussion of what constitutes "realism"), hanging-out-suburbia fiction to even have an opinion about fantasy and science-fiction writing.

I've decided (and this brings us back to Mr. Goldberg's criticisms of modern-day liberalism) that humans have an intense fear of not-being-cool.

Yes, yes, I know, we all of think of that fear as an adolescent trait, but I believe the fear of not-being-cool is simply more vocalized, more honestly admitted to, in the teenage years. The hold of "the cool" never really leaves us. It is the fear that somehow one will fall out of favor with others of one's tribe if one supports that which is not tasteful, profound, appropriate, sensitive.

Now, "cool" isn't the same as "legal." We are not talking about murder or theft or even breaking a religious commandment here. In other words, we are not talking about actual crimes or deeds that result in a literal outcasting. Rather, breaking the rule of "cool" results not in ostracism but in a lack of empathy. Dissonance occurs. One is no longer "one" with one's group.

This happened to me in high school on several occasions. On one occasion, I was reading Izzy Willy Nilly by Cynthia Voigt. The cover of my edition was "teen friendly," a well-coiffed girl sitting in a chair; the cover blurb was, for lack of a better word, "teen-fantastic." In other words, the book didn't look even vaguely sophisticated. All the "sophisticated" people I hung out with then were reading Thoreau. One of them picked up Izzy Willy Nilly and said, "Oh, what are you reading?" in a "this is just toooo pathetically teeny-bopperish" tone.

I wasn't being ostracized, but I was being informed of the "right" tastes of the group. However, another student spoke up and said, "It's a good book," and the incident passed. It wouldn't have worked on me anyway. I was as susceptible to peer pressure as the next teenager, but it never occurred to me not to read exactly what I wanted. (I got "uncooled" again when I read Gone With the Wind, which to be honest, was rather a waste of time. I never did read Thoreau.)

But I still wonder, Why the need to "uncool" people? To say, "If you do this, you aren't a neat, sophisticated, with-it person like us"?

From an anthropological standpoint, the need for people to hold certain tastes in common could bind the group together; still, you'd think the need to eat and not die would have a slightly stronger hold. I suppose people are more likely to find food together and not die if they hold ideas in common, but an excess of common ideas could also stagnant the group.

And I think, too, such "cool" agreement (as opposed to blatant ostracism) is largely superficial as a binding mechanism. I have remarked elsewhere that I found the supposedly uniform culture of Brigham Young University (a church-run university) more conducive to open discussion than other more liberal institutions (hey, BYU had protesters of the Gulf War and protesters of the protesters!). A society that holds fundamentals in common seems to be more ready and more tolerant of dissent than societies that don't. (Update: actually, from a historical perspective, the key to tolerance seems to be size and a fluctuating population; Salem, Massachusetts burns witches; larger towns and cities don't.)

So, while I haven't solved the purpose of "uncooling," maybe it explains why fantasy/science-fiction writers seem to be more open to different types of writing than "sophisticated" writers. Like conservatives, fantasy and science-fiction writers are forced to defend their beliefs so often, they learn what they believe. Rather than being grounded in an "I say I'm saved, so I am saved" mentality, they are grounded in something tangible. Which is a much healthier place to be than the mindset of "I'm so tolerant, everyone fall down and worship my tolerance!"

More Character Actors: Hey, Weren't You on Law & Order?

I've mentioned how much I admire working actors, actors who might not have reached crazy celebrity status but work consistently, maintaining strong television careers.

Many of these actors were Law & Order regulars. Sometimes they were the villains; sometimes the victims; occasionally, they were the lawyers!

Dennis Boutsikaris
Moriarty and Boutsikaris

I first encountered Dennis Boutsikaris on Law & Order's "The Corporate Veil"; he actually appears in an earlier episode, but he is more on display in "The Corporate Veil" (as the family lawyer). He has a  memorable voice that can suddenly descend into low gravel. He is also an attractive physical actor. At one point in "The Corporate Veil," he slumps onto a couch in a graceful, elegant move.

Boutsikaris also appears in "Monk Goes to the Asylum," one of that show's funniest episodes  (Monk: "By the way, in case we don't get a chance to talk later, just want you to know — except for the murders and your trying to kill me, you really were the best doctor I ever had."). He recently guest-starred on Person of Interest in one of Season 2's best episodes "In Extremis."

Joel Polis

Joe Polis appears in a second season Law & Order episode "Blood is Thicker." He plays Dr. Friedman and does a fine job as the adulterous doctor who nevertheless demonstrates a finer moral sense than the aristocratic family of the victim.

I love his voice although when he showed up in Castle's season three episode "Knockdown" as Detective Raglan, it took me a few minutes to recognize him (that beard!). He plays the mystery show circuit all the way back to Diagnosis Murder. He also showed up on Home Improvement as Tim's boss. He's been around!

Steven Culp
Elliot and Webb

Steven Culp actually, did not show up on original Law & Order (rather amazingly) although he has shown up on Law & Order: LA. Culp was a JAG guest star for almost a decade. Since then, he has become a regular on the mystery show circuit from CSI to NCIS to The Closer to Criminal Minds. He quite honestly doesn't have the range of, say,  Boutsikaris, but I get a kick out of anything he does; he has that Charles Grodin-like aura--"ordinary" guy with deadpan delivery.

Good Things to Say About The Man Who Knew Too Much

Another great Hitchcock film!

Truth is, my favorite Hitchcocks are not necessarily his best. I adore Dial M for Murder with the snarky Ray Milland, the elegant yet warm Grace Kelly, and the self-effacing Robert Cummings. I love Rear Window. I quite liked Rope when I was younger and saw it multiple times.

These are all good movies, but they don't have the finished wholistic feel of Notorious, Shadow of a Doubt, and The Man Who Knew Too Much.

What's so good about The Man Who Knew Too Much?

Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart

Jimmy Stewart is an amazing actor, a  Tom Hanks progenitor--the guy who can play everyman with full individualistic flair. Or maybe it's the individual with full everyman flair. Whatever it is, both Stewart and Hanks capture the everyman experience without American Beauty ennui: oh, look, everybody, I'm being NORMAL. They just are normal.

In fact, there's an extremely funny comparison here. In The Man Who Knew Too Much, Jo (Doris Day) and Ben (Jimmy Stewart) go to a restaurant where they have to sit on low cushions. Jimmy Stewart delivers about 2 minutes of pure physical humor when he tries to sit comfortably on the cushions and keeps sliding to the floor. It reminds me of Tom Hanks in You've Got Mail trying to get comfortable on his father's new couch. 

Stewart is perfectly cast as the husband/father in The Man Who Knew Too Much with Doris Day as wife/mother. Doris Day is a particularly fine choice here. She has all the appearance of a 1950s cliche, but her character (and possibly the actress herself) is India-rubber tough.

Not tough as nails. Rather Jo McKenna exudes brassy good cheer which masks high-strung intensity which in turns covers a strong, endurable will.

The suffering parents of kidnapped children have, of course, been done a billion times by now. In 1956, it was still fresh and new enough that Day and Stewart were operating without all those television cliches (I'm not opposed to television cliches, by the way; I'm just impressed by Day and Stewart). They managed to capture the fear, desperation, and resilience of this all-American couple without hitting a single wrong note (ha ha--sorry, you have to see the movie).

The Camera Work

Yes, yes, everybody praises Hitchcock's camera work, but I actually noticed something this time!

Many of the Marrakesh scenes use the blue screen effect or whatever the equivalent was in Hitchcock's day. It is obviously not-on-location. I shrugged my shoulders when I saw it; eh, so, CGI has improved since then.

But then, a little later, Jo and Ben walk through the Marrakesh marketplace with Drayton and a police officer behind them--that is, regular characters. Yet Hitchcock deliberately presents Drayton and the police officer as if they are part of the rolling, outside Marrakesh shots.

It is very cool. It deliberately emphasizes Jo and Ben's role as innocent tourists--look at those people wandering blithely through a PBS special! (Since, after all, they are exactly the type of people who watch Nova and Nature.) It underscores their innocence, making their exposure to spies and assassins and kidnappers that much more inexplicable.

The one rough spot in the film occurs towards the end. Right after the denouement at Albert Hall, Jo and Ben could easily have whisked themselves to the ambassador's house to find their son. It would have taken a single line of dialog (the inspector saying, "You should go with that guy!")

Instead, there are several minutes of pointless conversation with police characters who don't need to be paid off in the slightest (one thing about kidnapping stories: the audience will care about little but the parents and child).

Que Sera Sera

It's great! Apparently, it wasn't Doris Day's favorite song, but she sure does it justice.

Hitchcock: Hey, Sometimes He Was Less Than Perfect

The famous scene in Suspicion: great visual!
I'm currently reading through A Year of Hitchcock: 52 Weeks the Master of Suspense by Jim McDevitt and Eric San Juan. I don't share McDevitt and San Juan's adulation of Hitchcock--however, I appreciate their analysis which focuses on the art of story and film rather than on meaning (in other words, they don't over-intellectualize Hitchcock).

Besides which, one of them makes a great point in his review of Suspicion.

The story behind Suspicion is that Hitchcock originally wanted Cary Grant to be a killer, but the studio balked, so he had to switch to the current ending at the last moment. The authors of A Year argue that this is pure folklore. Hitchcock always intended the ending as it now stands. He started to put about the rumor of studio interference when the ending was panned by critics.

Why is the ending criticized? Because (and having seen the film several times, I agree with this), "[The ending] is not entirely unpleasing as it is, but given the way Johnny is portrayed--as a calculating conniver--Hitchcock's [supposed] suggested ending would have been more in line with the story, not to mention far more satisfying."

I don't necessarily agree that it would have been more satisfying: a con turns out to be . . . a murderous con. Ho hum. But I do agree that it would have made far more sense.

I also totally buy that Hitchcock didn't see this while he was making the film and revised history to blame the studio after the fact.

Why? Because of Psycho.

To me, Psycho shows the same defect as Suspicion, only with Psycho, Hitchcock got away with it, it being a story that doesn't really hold together, no matter how many times you see the film. The beginning and the end feel like two different films; the murderer's motives are over-explained when Hitchcock would have been better served ignoring motive (since psychopaths may not make sense, but they do show consistency, and trying to explain Norman just highlights his character's utter inconsistency). If Psycho hadn't been acclaimed--and Hitchcock turned unnecessarily into a demigod by French intellectuals--I'm sure Hitchcock would have found someone to blame for misleading him.

Don't get me wrong. I love Hitchcock films. I've seen Rear Window so many times, I've put myself on a Rear-Window-Time-Out. I think Notorious is one of the finest Cary Grant films ever made. And I personally consider Shadow of a Doubt to be one of the best films of all time.

The excellently scripted, acted, and filmed uncle-niece
relationship in Shadow of a Doubt.
But that shows my writer's bias. The scriptwriter for Shadow of a Doubt is Thornton Wilder, and the superb storytelling shows. It isn't a flawless script but it is possibly the best out of all Hitchcock's films--deep without slowing down, complex yet tidy. (I'm excluding Rebecca which came ready made.)

My view is grounded in bias: I want story, and I'll take it at the expense of almost everything else. However, although I don't care for Psycho, considering it massively overrated, and although I think that Hitchcock's payoffs are sometimes less impressive than proponents of Hitchcock try to argue, I can't really fault him.

Hitchcock was a director/a camera/an eye before anything else. 

A good film needs a good story, but the truth is, many filmmakers become filmmakers because they love visuals. Their modus operandi isn't the same as the modus operandi of the intellectuals and critics that cause them grief; their modus operandi is images: what we see, how we see, what we are guided to see. And Hitchcock truly was a master here. The fact that he also attempted--to varying degrees--to tell a decent story (and wasn't afraid, until the intellectuals got hold of him, to tell a simple story) is to his credit. I consider most of his films to be classics--just, some are better than others.

Dumb Ideas About a Smart Subject

I just finish a rather dim essay in an otherwise excellent book Living With Shakespeare. Most
of the essays are written by actors, directors, and producers. Overall, the collection is a refreshing, insightful, non-"literary" look at Shakespeare by people who basically keep pointing out that Shakespeare needs to be performed in order to be appreciated.

A few of the essays towards the end of the book are written by academics. They are in all honesty not quite as good as the previous essays although some are okay. One of the not so great ones starts going on and on about the danger of "naming" things.

This is not a completely ridiculous subject--even if it falls into the but-we-couldn't-even-have-this-argument-if-we-didn't-do-it category (like arguments about democracy and free press). A named thing can be forced into a category it doesn't deserve. My third grade teacher decided I was Disruptive and made my life unbearable. So the topic deserves consideration.

Where this author's essay falls to pieces is when he argues (1) "naming" is a masculine activity, to which feminists are, according to the male author, rightly opposed; (2) naming things takes humans away from nature.

Adam Naming All the Animals
(1) The dopey argument that naming is a masculine activity rests on backwards reasoning. Adam named things in Genesis and/or male scientists have usually named things (because historically, there have been more male scientists than female ones); therefore, women--who have been left out of all this naming--are not namers.

This is just silly--like arguing that because most published scholars (historically) have been male, women prefer oral accounts (which are supposedly more "real" or valid or something).

These types of arguments ignore context, as in, What happens when the playing field is leveled?

For example, I occasionally run into Humanities-type people who argue that because so many Humanities instructors are liberal that proves that conservatives aren't interested in the Humanities. But it's backwards reasoning--which came first? Do people remain in programs where they are made to feel inherently unwelcome? (I did when I got my master's because I already had very strong ideas about literature; I was prepared to disagree with people who thought they knew better. If I hadn't . . . ?)

Rather than reasoning backwards, all anyone has to do is observe: it is clearly human nature to "name" things (and one of the funner parts of being human!). For me (a female adjunct), 70% of teaching is figuring out the best way to explain a concept. Often that means pinpointing the best example or activity or media clip. But much of the time it comes down to honing the best definition: How can I explain this thing so the majority of my students will understand it?

A fascination with "naming" things, people, ideas, and fantasy worlds has absolutely nothing to do with gender.

(2) The author is all in favor of supposed feminist anti-naming because naming things takes us away from nature. When we categorize and name things, we stop being a part of the great circle of life.

There's some validity to the idea that certain situations have to be dealt with instinctively rather than intellectually. Cesar Millan and Thomas Phelan both argue, individually, that one should not try to intellectualize discipline with either dogs or small children. Cesar continues the argument by requesting that owners stop thinking, "Don't do that, Spot (my cute little dog that I treat like a child)" and start thinking, "Tssst, animal."

But removing the name from consideration isn't some kind of instantaneous the-forest-now-loves-me magic trick. Go ahead and hug a tree; the bear will still eat you, whether you call him something or not. ("I'm an animal too! I have no name for you! We both live in nature together!!" Chomp chomp chomp.)

Yes, Shakespeare does tackle the problem of "naming" and how it can unfairly define us--like Juliet pondering Romeo's name--but Shakespeare never pretends creating names and words for the world around us isn't absolutely necessary to survival and, for that matter, to being human. He is far more likely to ask (the far more interesting question), "What do we do with names?" than the far less interesting question, "O why must people name and categorize?!" (insert beating of the brow).

As the book's essays collectively point out, You want to understand it? You've gotta let it sweep you up, name and all!

The Theory of At Least One

This was originally posted in 2006 (I'm still working on the date feature!). Here it is again:

I believe in what I call the Theory of At Least One. The Theory of At Least One means that there is at least one person out there who thinks a certain way or supports a certain cause or has a certain hobby. I believed this long before I became a web surfer (which appellation I really can't claim; I prefer other people to do the surfing and then tell me what sites are cool to visit). In other words, the Theory didn't grow out of me studying the Internet, it grew out of my understanding of human nature. But the Internet backs up the Theory.

Basically, the Theory of At Least One can be described by the phrase, "Well, there's at least one person out there who thinks . . ." But the important thing about the Theory of At Least One is that it doesn't, necessarily, refer to things like conspiracy theories. And it also doesn't, necessarily, refer to a small group of people or fans all agreeing on something. It refers mostly to the individual. So, I will think to myself, "Well, there's at least one person out there who makes gorilla sounds on the underground." Or, "Well, there's at least one person out there who thinks Happy Gilmore is an existential poem about the futility of life." Or "There's at least one person out there who owns a dog named Tolstoy." Or "There's at least one person out there who thinks that some minor soap star is the best actor in the world."

The Theory of At Least One doesn't apply, particularly, to craziness. I'm sure there's at least one person out there who thinks he/she is an alien (possibly, more than one person!). Nor does the Theory apply to deliberate fantasying, like those of us who created our own stories to add to Tolkien's universe. Rather, the Theory refers to the idiosyncratic nature of human beings.The Theory of At Least One keeps me humble. It also kept me from being overwhelmed by the machine-like and didactic certainty of the Marxist feminist thinkers who occupied my college classes for two years. (Everyone else didn't believe in anything much; I believed in something but became tongue-tied in exasperation when face to face with the bandwagon of socio-politico-economico determinism.) Anyway, the Theory of At Least One isn't an answer to higher education's insistence on external causation but it does represent, for me, a basic underlying belief in human individualism. (I'll leave discussions of free will and such for another time; to paraphrase Neo, I believe in free will because I want to.)

Anyway, the Theory of At Least One can be applied broadly or nit-pickily: at least one person today in Maine is glad it rained; at least one person is out there in Portland protesting something (despite the rain). At least one person somewhere today is thinking of watching all their Star Trek DVDs from the beginning. At least one person is vomiting at work. At least one person is wishing they could meet David Hasselhoff in person (really, I bet there is). I least one person is writing an angry letter to CBS News. At least one person has just decided that Tim Farrington is absolutely the best writer of the last fifty years. At least one person has just decided that he or she will never watch baseball again.

Every show ever made has at least one fan who thought it should never, never have gone off the air. Every book ever written has at least one reader who cried and wished it would never, never go out of print. Every actor has at least one fan. Every episode has at least one detractor and one enthusiast. And so on and so forth.

At least one person will read this blog. (It's a hopeful kind of philosophy.)

Kate Tries to Navigate HealthCare.Gov: Updated February 22, 2014

February 22, 2014
I'm starting to do my taxes, and this is what I have discovered so far . . . I think.

First, the Health Insurance Tax Credit is not automatically folded into the 1040 form--even TaxAct, which is a fairly reliable program, required that I find and fill out an extra form: Form 8885. However, since I didn't purchase any Health Insurance in 2013, the form is irrelevant. This leads me to believe--and please correct me if I'm wrong--that if I do purchase insurance through the Marketplace to avoid the March deadline, I will have to pay for it out-of-pocket before getting reimbursed in 2015. Since my entire problem with health insurance stems from my inability to pay for health insurance right now, this doesn't help.

Update: According to the IRS, I can have Marketplace tax credit paid directly to the insurance company--this would be 2014 tax credit on the return I would file in 2015; consequently, I wouldn't be able to see how purchasing health insurance might affect my refund/income until 2015 (after the deadline). Also, in order for me to get this tax credit, my 2014 income would have to remain absolutely stable--if it varied at all, I could be surprised with a very big bill in 2015. 

This is called "awful budgeting" and "lack of transparency" when places like Enron do it, and when places like Enron do it, people get very, very upset. So why is it okay when our government does it?
Call me naive, but I honestly thought that TaxAct would present the following questions as part of the regular Federal form: "Do you have health insurance?" "Did you purchase it through the Marketplace?" "Will you purchase health insurance through the Marketplace in 2014?"
In sum, I find it bizarre that ObamaCare receives so little notice on the current tax forms although such disingenuousness is part and parcel of Washington's approach to the issue (it isn't a tax! it's a . . . .). If this insurance is so important, shouldn't I at least get some credit/recognition for getting health insurance before the deadline? And if I don't, why should I bother? I realize that these tax forms reference 2013 income, but it IS being filed in 2014, and the deadline for getting health insurance is March 2014, not December 2014. So I'm going to be penalized in 2015 for something that I didn't have for 9 months of 2014 and wasn't required to have for 3. Am I the only one who thinks this is all kind of odd?

My penalty for not purchasing health insurance, according to TaxAct, will be $200.

My employer is required to decide whether or not to give me health insurance by 2015. Since all I need is catastrophic health insurance (which is all the Marketplace can offer me in any case), I rather wish my employer would at least present us contract workers with that option (perhaps at a group cut rate). However, I'm not holding my breath.
(The adjuncts' union HAS forced the college to agree that adjunct hours won't be deliberately cut to avoid this issue; I'm not a fan of unions in general, but I have to give ours credit for this one. The college's pretense that it had "suddenly" discovered a need to limit adjuncts' hours per semester for reasons completely unrelated to health insurance was hard for even a sanguine Libertarian like me to take. I doubt the college system can afford health insurance for all adjuncts, but a reduction in hours would destroy my ability to be an adjunct at all--ironically, when one considers Obama's supposed love for education and educators. Besides, I rather dislike bureaucrats haphazardly inventing rules to try to avoid the consequences of their own behavior. If current academic powers-that-be don't like using adjuncts, then change the system! I wouldn't like such a decision, but I would respect it.
But of course, rehauling the system would negatively impact the powers-that-be. Ain't politics wonderful.) 
February 14, 2014
Towards the end of December, I finally got access to my eligibility results.

I am not eligible for Medicaid, which I knew before I applied. I occupy a not atypical position in American society: I'm not poor enough to get breaks but not wealthy enough not to care. For example, I make too much money in the Fall and Spring to be eligible for a break on my student loans--but not quite enough money to make it easy to pay such loans (however, going any lower would mean not paying the interest, so it actually isn't worth getting a break anyway).

In general, I save up for eye care and wait for things like semi-free clinics ($10 for flu shots!) which serves me well.

And will continue to serve me. As far as I could tell in December, if I get the cheapest (and most useless plan: see below), my health tax credits will pay for it all: $162/month.

I have decided to wait until I do my 2014 taxes (which I always do before the due date). I don't know if signing up for healthcare now will reduce my 2014 rebate or not (these days, I almost always get a rebate). Depending on what TaxAct tells me, I'll make my decision then.

By the way, to enroll in a healthcare plan, be prepared to fill out a trillion more documents: yup, just logging in is just the start! I tried going on today to finish the forms (my opinion about dental care, whether I smoke, blah, blah, blah) and . . .

It isn't working.
Consistently may be the hobgoblin of little minds but there's something almost comforting about the consistent ineffectiveness of large bureaucracies. 
December 12, 2013
My application has been submitted! I have eligibility results!

I can't view them because the screen isn't working. But I have them!!
When I consider what Amazon is doing right now with the Christmas rush--and the fact that everything I have ordered has been shipped on-time, even ahead of schedule . . .

Let's just say, I can't speak to capitalism's ethics (at least, I won't right now), but efficiency-wise, when it comes to Big Government:

The trains don't run on time.
December 5, 2013
I have been checking on my application here and there over the past month +. It is still in progress. (I can finally access the website using Firefox rather than IE.)

The website currently declares, "Enroll by Dec. 23 for coverage starting as soon as Jan. 1."

So I went to log-in.

It didn't work.

I don't mean my info was wrong. I mean, the website just kicked me back to the same log-in page (several times).

Do the people who designed the website believe what is posted ON the website? 

I have my doubts. 
October 22, 2013
I knew it! Very good article from Yahoo about the Marketplace's problems:
October 17, 2013

Over the past week, the Marketplace has been down more than it has been up.

My application is still in progress.

October 8, 2013
The system has been down (or at least has admitted to being down) for 24 hours now. The current message: We're currently making system improvements. Please try again after 10:00 AM Eastern. 
I'm afraid the fire sale of Live Free or Die Hard is looking less and less of a possibility. Why do people assume that the answer to a big inefficient problem is big inefficient government? And where's Harold Finch when you need him?
I was able to get on around 11:00 a.m.; my application is still being processed. I'm not sure if this is because the system was down or if several days is typical. If each application must be individually reviewed . . . I may not know if I have coverage until March 2014! (Except that I'm supposed to have the option of signing up for whatever they offer me on January 1, 2014.)
For the sake of clarification, the cheapest insurance currently available would cost me about the same as a car payment: $240 or so a month (I would save $70 because I don't smoke). This sounds great except it comes with a $5,000 deductible. I don't pay anything even close to this amount on my doctors' appointments per year, so basically . . . my life wouldn't change. (Now, if I HAD $5,000 a year extra . . .) Even the best plan in Maine--$373/month--comes with a $650 deductible; believe it or not, I don't spend even that much per year on medical bills. In fact, if the government just GAVE me $500, I would be able to see my eye doctor, my dentist, and maybe even get a check-up! 
Catastrophic Care--which is all I really need (in case of a $50,000 trip to the hospital)--would cost me only $40/month less with a $6,000 deductible.*
To sum up, whatever I do, I will mostly be paying to keep the government off my back. Granted, this is what I did all those years when I had health insurance through my workplace (I am currently a contract worker; my employers have until 2015 to decide whether or not their contract workers qualify for healthcare.) Though that health insurance actually paid for visits to a primary care physician. And of course, all I saw back then was $30 coming out of each pay-check. Ah, the difference immediacy makes . . . !
At this point, I have no idea what the Marketplace will offer me. I have a sneaking suspicion that it won't cover anything I actually use, so I'll . . . be paying to keep the government off my back. But right now, this is a wait and see game.
*I can appreciate that without health insurance, somebody--possibly me for the rest of my life--would have to pay that $50,000 hospital bill; however, I dislike politicians trumpeting how great it is that everyone has health care--come on, what does that REALLY mean?
October 7, 2013
The system fails to recognize my password. It then fails to "find" the website. Good thing I have until March 2014! (That's about how long this will take.)
October 4, 2013
I got on about 10:30 a.m. and was able to begin the application. I was stopped by not having all the necessary information (to provide accurate information, you do need tax forms, paychecks, etc.). I have not been able to get on again since. (It is now 4:10 p.m.)
As I mentioned before, the site is quite user friendly--though there are still bugs--just not accessible. There is something downright unsettling about the government being inefficient, tedious, and long-queued even online.
What--do bureaucrats take an oath or something? Do nothing in a timely fashion!
My personal theory: politicians are highly unrealistic. They said to each other, "Well, even though we've been going on and on about all the uninsured people in America, most people get insurance from their jobs, and they won't try to apply for a cheaper option because they will realize how important it is for poor people to get insurance, so they will get insurance the ordinary way, and besides, they have until March to get this done, and you know how people put off doing their taxes, and the IRS never has these problems."
In other words, politicians forget the basic rule of self-interest and free lunch. If there's a free lunch, people will want it.
8:00 p.m., using Internet Explorer, I successfully applied (I did have to start the process over). The system went kerplunk before it could offer me eligibility options.
Interestingly enough, between this morning and this afternoon, instead of having to enter my income employer by employer, the system was able to deduce my income from my 2012 Federal Tax submission. Well, duh! I mean, why ask me about my 2012 taxes in the first place if the system couldn't make the comparison all on its own?
Live Chat is now up and running. 
Back on! At this point, the program can't decide if I have eligibility results, if my application is still in progress, or if I should be forced to start all over again with the application process. Presumably, the bugs on this part of the process will be ironed out in a couple of days.
October 2, 2013
At 7:00 a.m., my log-in was successful. I was taken to an empty User Profile page (empty as in a big, blank, white screen). 
8:00 a.m., the site is now under maintenance.  
10:00 a.m., still under maintenance. U.S. Citizens broke the Machine!  
So much for the Matrix.   
At 12 p.m., I gained access to my account. I then tried to verify my identity--which failed. At 1:00 p.m. I was able to enter my phone number after numerous tries--identity now verified. (Maybe.)
7:00 p.m.: User profile not working.
9:28 p.m.: The friendly "Please stay on this page" notice has now been up for over 2 hours. This notice usually gives way within a few minutes to the log-in page. Methinks the machine 'tis truly broken. Luddites throughout the world rejoice! (But doesn't it kind of disprove every evil-government-conspiracy movie ever?)
Live Chat is still down.
Trying to access the account: 
Unfortunately, the site wouldn't recognize my log-in name or password. I requested a "reminder," and it still hasn't arrived (it never arrived).

Out of curiosity, at 11:00, I called the Help line. My estimated wait time was less than 5 minutes. While waiting, I had to listen to blurbs about the Affordable Healthcare Act.

My call was answered! The obviously working-from-a-script answerer used my phone number to connect me to an address. She then started to give me a spiel about where I could find more information on the website.

"Woah," I said. "I don't need this. I just need to know why I can't log in even though I've created an account."

"I'm required to give you this information," she said.

I guess the script then allowed her to stop trying to give me information and just talk to me.

"There's a lot of people on the website right now," she said.

"Is that why I can't log in?" I said. "Because the little note on the bottom of the page says it's because my information isn't valid. But is the real reason because of the number of people on the site?"

"Yes," she said. "Again, I apologize--"

"It's not your fault," I said. "I just wanted to know if that was the reason."

She would have sounded relieved if she hadn't sounded so tired.

"Yes," she said and then her voice lifted ever so hopefully: "You could try tomorrow!"

I suppose that's why they hired her: the eternal optimist. 
I'll say this: The interface is much more user friendly than, say, FAFSA or anything associated with the IRS.

But then FAFSA actually works.

And, okay, I have to say this: if a for-profit business went live on the Internet with these bugs, it would lose all its customers within a few hours. There's nothing like a captive audience! (Did the creators or the bureaucrats funding the creators think the traffic wouldn't be as heavy as it is today?)

The sign-up process:
I realize that trying to access on Day 1 is pretty silly, but I figured, hey, why not?!
Around 3:00 p.m., I went onto the site using Firefox. I started the sign-up process, but the security questions part of the sign-up process was blank.

I pulled up Internet Explorer and restarted the sign-up process. A page appeared telling me  that I would be transferred to the sign-up page once things got less busy (this is the electronic equivalent of waiting for your number to be called at the DMV--in a room with a linoleum floor and Formica chairs.)

The process didn't work on Internet Explorer either (even after I updated to IE 8).

I returned to using Firefox (which I prefer). This time, I hit "Live Chat" and ended up back in a waiting room.

I requested Live Chat at 3:23. At 4:32, I received this message: "Please be patient while we're helping other people." At 8 p.m., Live Chat shut down completely: "Sorry, Health Insurance Marketplace Live Chat isn't available right now. We apologize for the inconvenience. Please try again later, or call our Customer Service Center at 1-800-318-2596. We look forward to helping you."

9:30 p.m. The website changed slightly, becoming a little less DMV, a little more Walt Disney: "We have a lot of visitors on the site right now, and we don't want you to lose your place in line. Please stay on this page."

10:10 p.m. After two failed attempts where Marketplace couldn't recognize my answers to their (very limited) questions, I now have an account!

LOTR--The Books This Time--Mordor

So far, I have covered Galadriel, Boromir, Orcs, Fatty Bolger and others, poetry, war, the Ring, and Frodo.

I now turn to Mordor. 


Some of the most impressive passages in the books involve Sam and Frodo's trek across Mordor. The description is gripping, suspenseful, and fairly gut-wrenching. It is also utterly modern.

Tolkien wields language with terrible exactness. High people speak in high romantic language. Low people speak in the vernacular. Saruman and his orcs speak like politicians and mobsters.

The chapters covering Sam and Frodo's trek are the most modern-sounding of all the chapters. The writing is steady, remorseless, and completely free of romance. Tolkien employs almost no tell--lots and lots of show. And the journey seems endless: a trudging, terrible march that both hobbits continue out of loyalty to a promise rather than any great belief in the journey's outcome.

It is, in fact, the most heroic part of the novel.

Sam's Most Heroic Moment--Closely
paired with his decision to
give up the ring.
As mentioned in the last post, Frodo does not finish the quest with a noble act; he doesn't get rid of the ring. However, Tolkien's chapters make clear that Frodo and Sam's true heroism here is in the trek--their unstopping endurance. Nothing else in the books is so closely detailed. Nothing else in the books is so minutely followed. The Riders ride. Gandalf dashes about. Aragorn makes kingly appearances. People fight. Stewards kill themselves. And all the while, two hobbits slowly, inexorably make their way to Mount Doom.

It's mind-blowing.

Tolkien also clarifies a point that the movie (by necessity) brushes past. When entering Mordor, both Sam and Frodo ponder its desolation, remarking that it isn't much of a civilization. Tolkien as narrator explains that neither Sam or Frodo can see (1) Mordor actually does have towns and businesses, even fresh water and some food production (to the southeast); (2) Mordor receives a  tribute from lands held under its dominion; these goods come up from the south on roads far beyond Mount Doom. (Mordor is really big.)

In later posts, I will address the ending at Mount Doom as well as the eagles--yup, I'm going to discuss the eagles!