Middlesex

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middlesex.jpgby Jeffery Eugenides
Farrar Straus Giroux; September 4, 2002

Middlesex is one of those books that was recommended to me so many times that I put off reading it out of spite. It was recommended as a great novel, a Pulitzer winner, another novel by the author of The Virgin Suicides, and a novel about an intersexed individual. That last one is the really important one. I took a year-long seminar on the moral and legal position of intersexuality in the U.S. my first year of graduate school, and I've been very interested in the challenges and bigotries faced by intersexed people ever since.

And, to the extent that it is a novel about an intersexed person, I liked Middlesex. I thought Eugenides portrayed his intersexual narrator, Cal, as a complete person facing a very serious and very complicated relationship with his body, without making him a freak, and I appreciated that. The last third of the book, in fact, was great.

But man the first two-thirds were slow. Starting in early 20th century Europe, with the emigration of Cal's paternal grandparents, the book slogs through three generations of tedious family history, all of which lends very little to Cal's particular story. Besides making it a mediocre 550 page book that could have been a very good 250 page book, the first sections also give the reader (or at least gave this reader) every reason to put the book down and not pick it back up. It was only the hope that eventually it would actually get to Cal himself that kept me reading, and having finished Middlesex, I'm off fiction for a while. At some point, the self-indulgence just gets to be too much.

All of that being said, I think Middlesex is worth reading. Intersexuality is a subject that has not been adequately dealt with in our culture, and Eugenides' fictional account of it rang very true in comparison to the multiple non-fiction accounts I've read (see Intersex in the Age of Ethics and Lessons from the Intersexed, for example). I believe fiction has much to add to this discussion, and for that reason if for no other, I'm glad Eugenides wrote this book.

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Four words

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It's a meme, which I'm trying to cut down on, but it's one with some content, and I'm a bit brain-dead today, so I'm going to try it. It came from Frog. You get four words and have to write something about each one.

If you want to play, your words are Kleenex, cold, minnow, and sober.

The words Frog gave are:

squeegee: When I played volleyball in high school, we did a fund raiser where we hired ourselves out to wash people's windows. It was horrible. A whole day of window washing. If you were lucky, or, more likely, popular, you got a squeegee. If you were me, you had to use newspaper and got newsprint stains on your hands.

ridiculous: Maybe I should be ashamed to admit this, but ever since I read and saw Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, when something frightens me that shouldn't (the dark, mysterious lumps on the dogs, Mark being a few minutes late, whatever) I think about the bogart scene and say "ridiculous!" to myself. It helps.

muffin: When I worked at the bakery in high school, we made these awesome upside-down muffins. You put a scoop of "smear" (made from shortening and brown sugar, I think) in the bottom of a muffin tin, followed by a good handful of chopped dried fruit and nuts, and scooped bran muffin batter over it, then baked. I think people thought they were healthy--bran, dried fruit, nuts. We didn't advertise the smear.

rhinoceros: I kind of feel sorry for rhinos. I mean, they are nearly as ungainly as elephants, but have none of the grace or beauty or brains. Or at least they don't seem to. I don't think I've ever actually watched an Animal Planet special about them, but for some reason I think of them as kind of mean.

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Atticus on the hunt

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These are just too funny. Every night, a tiny lizard comes and sits on the screen on the outside of our french doors and tortures Atticus. And every night, Atticus tries to attack him through the door. Observe:

Atticus on the hunt


Air Atty

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Calling all bike geeks!

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gus.jpgIf you are a bicyclist, and a supporter of small businesses run by fantastic people, please check out Rainy Peak Bicycles & Apparel. One of my very favorite cousins and her partner run this great little shop, and I'm told bike dorks are going buck-wild for her cutter bike pants and cool hats. Everything is hand-made, and your dollars go towards the care and feeding of a very, very cute Border Collie. Go spend some money.

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5 years

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Grace_Mark.jpgI'm a day early for Love Thursday, but I'm blogging about love today anyway, because it's September 20, which is Mark's and my fifth anniversary. We've been together for five years today. We actually knew each other and were friends for four years before that, too, so we're really coming up on our relationship's decade mark. Which is quite a long time, if you're 27.

I don't write a whole lot about Mark here, because it's personal, and because it's hard to put into words without sounding sappy. I was out with friends last night when the subject of relationships came up, and I said something about how glad I was to be partnered off so I didn't have to deal with dating and all that crap, especially in the age of online dating, which scares the crap out of me (not in a bad way--I'd do it if I were single, but it is just one more complicated realm that I am glad I don't have to deal with). One of my friends said that might be true, but he's seen Mark and I together, and our relationship isn't just about it being convenient to be partnered--we truly like each other.

And we do. Mark and I get along. We understand each other. And, so far, we've grown up in really complimentary ways, which is more than most people can ask for. We're both pretty different than we were five years ago, and we fit together in a much different configuration that we started out with, but it's worked, so far. We've been able to make it work, together. It hasn't always been easy--in fact, the first couple of years were really goddamn difficult--but recently it has been easy. He's easy to love. Usually, he's even easy to live with.

It's been a good five years.

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More on female bullying

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In the comments to that last post regarding It's a Girls World, my friend Scand asked an interesting question. As I have been a bully myself, what would I have said I was angry about, if asked, during my bullying days?

I wish I had an answer. But I don't. Part of the problem is that my experiences with bullying, both as a victim and a perpetrator, are very hazy. I know I came home from school crying and never wanted to go back and had no friends at times, and I know I participated in a "slam book" and was a terror to other girls at other times, but I don't have any really specific memories--certainly no memories that are clear enough that I can tap into how I felt at the time.

I'm surprised by how clear man women's memories of their childhood bullies seem to be, and I wonder what it means that mine aren't. I honestly don't feel like I was scarred for life by being bullied as a child. It was horrible at the time, I'm sure, but I don't think I suffer from it as an adult. Many women clearly do. What made my experiences different? Was it just that I didn't undergo the kind of terrorizing that some women did? Or is it that I was sometimes on the other side as well?

As I mentioned in my previous post, I believe that one of the root causes of female-to-female bullying and aggression is unresolved anger. Women aren't allowed to be angry, and we have ever so much to be angry about. I think this is part of the reason girls who don't fit a stereotypically feminine mold are often singled out for aggression--they make a good target for other girls who wish, consciously or not, that they didn't have to fit that mold either. Even as an adult, with what I hope is more awareness of my motives and behavior than I had as a child, I can sometimes feel myself becoming angry and resentful at women who are somehow able to live outside of boundaries I feel corralled by. Could the same thing that makes me resentful as an adult have made me a bully as a child? Is that part of the equation?

As I mentioned before, there seem to be two current leading theories of why girls bully each other. The first is Simmons' theory, that girls are not taught how to argue or fight in a healthy way and so they begin to act in mean, petty, passive-aggressive ways. The second, discussed in Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight, is that female aggression is based largely on competition. Women and girls are nasty to each other out of jealousy and competition for scarce resources (time, jobs, men, whatever). Tanenbaum's reasoning resounds with me as much as Simmons' does, but again, I think there is more to it. I think it may be less about "scarce resources" and more about resentment of other girls and women who seem to be getting off easier when it comes to being female.

I truly believe that just being born female in this world is enough to keep you mad for a lifetime. The unending, heartbreaking unfairness of it is enough weight all by itself to piss me off, before any details even come into play. As women, we are reminded a thousand times a day that we are considered inferior, and that everything is going to be harder for us simply by virtue of our sex. So perhaps seeing other women seem to deal with it easier, not be bothered by it, or fit naturally into roles that we have to contort ourselves into feeds into this anger, and we (wrongly) target those women for being better contortionists, rather than blaming the guys who created the boxes.

It's not a perfect theory by any means, but instinctively it feels reasonable to me. As a 27 year-old woman who has given a lot of time and thought to being a woman, I can admit that I'm angry all the time. Every day. And it is a lot to carry around. I hope that I don't take it out on other women, but if I am honest with myself, I know at times I have. And how much harder is it if you can't admit that you're mad? Or if you don't even know you're mad, or you do, but you have no idea why? It's not really surprising that the helplessness and confusion leads to misguided rage.

But how to get beyond the rage--or, better yet, use it for something constructive? That's the real question. And I still don't have an answer. For myself, all I can do is try to take people one at a time, for who they are. Try to err on the side of kind. But I know it's not enough. It's never enough.

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Ata the lap dog

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Atakan, our younger dog, is completely convinced that he is a lap dog. I think in his mind he weighs about 10 lbs. In reality, he weighs about 120 lbs, I think. When these pictures were taken, it felt more like 300.

Ata on Grace's lap

Ata on Grace's lap 2

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It's a Girl's World

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girlsworld.jpgI've long been interested in the subject of female aggression, or, put simply, why women and girls are so damn mean to each other. This interest is largely personal, as I've been on the end of a quite a bit of female-to-female bullying, both as a child and as an adult, and I've been on the bully side more often than I'd care to admit as well. It's partially theoretical or academic, though, as the more involved I've become in feminist academic and social circles, the more sure I am that the biggest barricade in the way of real feminist change is, in fact, women's attitudes towards each other.

Which is a fairly controversial statement, really. A lot of feminists do not see it that way, and many are even insulted by the idea, as they think it implies that it's women’s own fault they are oppressed. Which isn't at all what I mean. I believe that the ways in which women abuse each other are highly patriarchally conditioned.

A lot of scholars on the subject of female bullying agree. There are several good books about this, the most famous and easily accessible of which is probably Rachel Simmons' Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (others worth checking out are Phyllis Chesler's groundbreaking Woman's Inhumanity to Woman and Leora Tanenbaum's Catfight: Rivalries Among Women--from Diets to Dating, from the Boardroom to the Delivery Room, which focuses on the competitive aspects of conflicts between girls and women). In her search for an explanation for the way she was treated and the way she treated others as a girl, Simmons interviews girls of various ages, races, classes, and backgrounds, as well as does significant secondary source research. She comes to the conclusion that the best explanation for the passive-aggressive nastiness young girls show each other (behavior including spreading rumors, exclusion, trying to turn others against someone, etc.) is that girls aren't taught any other way to express disagreement. In short, girls don't know how to fight in a healthy way, so they fight in a supremely unhealthy one.

Simmons and her theory make a guest appearance on the most recent piece I saw on this subject, the CBC/National Film Board of Canada Production It's a Girl's World. This short film alternates between interviews with and footage of a clique of 10 year-old girls in Montreal and their families and interviews with the family, friends, and tormentors of 14 year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley, a British Columbia girl who committed suicide after being bullied. Filmmaker Lynn Glazier simultaneously explores the most serious possible consequences of bullying, telling the story of the Wesley case, and the sources of bullying behavior and how it plays out, observing the Montreal girls.

The most interesting part of the film for me was Glazier's footage of the Montreal girls' parents (mostly their mothers, as (tellingly?) only one father seemed to be involved). Their reactions went from taking the situation very seriously to completely avoiding reality and brushing everything off with "they'll outgrow it." Especially interesting were the very different reactions of the parents of the two biggest bullies in the group. One set of parents was very pro-active, talking at length with their daughter about her behavior, keeping her home from activities if she did not socialize nicely, etc. The other mother denied that her daughter would have anything to do with bullying behavior until very late in the game.

The parents of all of the girls in the group got together on several occasions to discuss the issue, at one point bringing Simmons in as an "expert." In what I found to be the film's most telling scene, the girls' parents sit around a table, watching footage of the group of girls having a discussion about bullying with Simmons. In the discussion, the girls display typical behavior--one whispers to another behind her hand, several gang up on another and tell her she should be talking, one belittles another for not speaking up. Then the mothers display very similar behavior, one brushing off another's concerns, a second drilling a clearly upset woman about her parenting tactics, and several sitting quietly, looking as if they wished they were anywhere else.

To me, it was that scene, more than anything else in the film, which really drove the point home. Not only is bullying a dangerous, extremely harmful force in childhood, but we don't necessarily outgrow it. This is bad for us, individually and collectively, and bad for our kids. How can we expect a group of 10 year-olds to learn to disagree constructively and treat each other with respect when their mothers can't do it either? And who polices the mommies? Where does it end?

The same thought entered my mind watching an interview with one Dawn-Marie Wesley's bullies and her grandmother. Both the teenage girl and her grandmother did little but make excuses, saying that Dawn-Marie engaged in the same behavior, it was normal, doing everything but calling her suicide an overreaction to a completely average situation. With an attitude like that coming from the adult in her life (her grandmother), how could the teenage bully ever expect to be any different?

I don't completely agree with Simmons' bullying theories. Or, I agree with them, but think they are only part of a very complicated picture. I can certainly see her argument for girls' passive-aggressive behavior being largely due to not being socially able to be out-and-out aggressive, but even if girls were to be more "masculine" in their behavior towards each other, to bully with fists and punches more than glares and whispered rumors, we'd still have a problem, you know? And I believe a lot of that problem comes from the massive unresolved anger many woman and girls carry around with them. We're right to be angry--we live in a world that systematically devalues us at ever turn. The problem is that we turn that anger on each other, because we're too afraid to band together and turn it on those who really deserve it. The boys. We spend so much energy attacking each other, standing in our own and each other's way, and it's time and energy we could spend attacking them. But keeping us at each other's throats is all part of the plan, isn't it? It's much easier to dominate a population hell-bent on dominating each other.

The answers the film suggested were ultimately unsatisfying, at least to me. While I was glad to see the Montreal girls' parents taking bullying seriously and talking to their children about it, I don't much think it's going to help, even in their specific cases, much less overall. Forcing a girl to apologize for her past behavior, or encouraging her to make other friends if the ones she has are mean to her, don't really address the issue. I never heard any mother tell her daughter she was right to be mad, or offer to help her figure out who she was really mad at. And I'm not surprised. I've spent a good deal of time thinking about this stuff-more than most, probably-and I still can't figure out who to be mad at most of the time. I only pray that if I ever have a daughter, she and I can both learn.

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Quinceañera

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Quinceanera movie posterQuinceañera is a movie I've been looking forward to seeing for a while, based on the several times I saw the previews before other films. A girl's coming of age story! Based on the tradition of the quinceañera, which I've always thought was cool! I was stoked.

Then I heard something about how the pregnancy in the film occurs without sexual penetration, and I became less stoked. Why can't the virgin just have sex? But I wanted to see it anyway.

And I'm glad I did, because it's a great movie. For the most part, it's a subtle and multi-layered story with good writing and excellent performances, intertwining stories about two teenage outsiders, Magdalena (Emily Rios), who finds herself pregnant after having almost-sex with her dumb-ass boyfriend Herman a few months before her quinceañera, and her cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia, who I remembered from the couple of times he was on The Shield, and who is just brilliant in this), a tattooed, pot-smoking "bad boy" whose real crime, we find out early in the film, is that he's gay.

Rejected by their parents, Magdalena and Carlos both go to live with their great uncle Tio Tomas, played by the estimable Chalo González, who was so good I could hardly believe it. A life-long bachelor, Tomas is described near the end of the film as "a saint" and he clearly is one, willing to take in these broken kids and help them make themselves whole again, learning how to take care of themselves and each other.

My only major complaint about Quinceañera is the bad dialogue in several of the scenes with Magdalena and her girlfriends. A seeming loop of canned-sounding bits about clothes and boys doesn't do these girls, or this film, justice. It makes no sense for Magdalena to be such a strong, interesting character and have all of her friends be wind-up dolls. Given how much I liked the film in general, though, that's a fairly small complaint.

Filmed on a budget of $400,000 on location in Echo Park, L.A., Quinceañera was a first film for most of the cast (Chalo González reportedly had to tear up his SAG card in order to participate, as the rest of the cast was not in the union). Written and directed with surprising sensitivity towards both women and Latinos by two white guys, Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, it successfully addresses racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and the clash between (and melding of) old and new values in the urban Latin American community, all with an amazing sense of sincerity. It's a must-see.

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Love Thursday

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Karen, the force behind one of my favorite blogs, Chookooloonks, has recently started something she calls "Love Thursday." The idea is that every Thursday, bloggers around the blogosphere will post pictures that show love, or tell stories that show love, on their blogs. There is also the option of participating in the Love Thursday Flickr Pool. I think it's a great idea, and Karen's own Love Thursday posts have so far been an amazing and inspiring, so I thought I'd try it out for myself.

Chance.jpg

For my Love Thursday, I give you Chance, who probably taught me personally more about love than any other creature who has ever lived or ever will. Knowing Chance made me realize things about myself and what I am capable of that I otherwise never would have guessed. And I don't just mean about loving dogs, but about loving people, about wanting to be the kind of person who takes care of people and of animals. Not only did I love Chance, but I love the person he helped make out of me.

I miss him every day. Love is beautiful, and happy, the way Karen has shown it so far on Chookooloonks, but love is hard, too. Love means loss. But it's worth it.

Grace_and_Chance_close_up.jpg

Grace_and_Chance.jpg

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Texas will miss you, Governor Richards

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ann_richards.jpgI'm so sad about Ann Richards' death yesterday that I haven't been able to figure out what to say about it here. As a woman, as a "progressive," and as a transplanted Texan, I've long admired Governor Richards' work and looked to her as proof that sometimes Texas can be something good, even something great. We'll miss her.

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Bait and Switch

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Bait and Switch book coverby Barbara Ehrenreich
Metropolitan Books (September 6, 2005)

Much as I loved Ehrenreich's previous bit of class-conscious undercover work, Nickel and Dimed, and much as I admire her in general (we did go to the same school, after all), it took me a long time to get around to reading her newest work, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. A number of my acquaintances read it and didn't like it, their criticism ranging from a perceived lack of dedication to this project on Ehrenreich's part through criticism of her hubris in expecting to get a middle-class job with false or no credentials at all, but it wasn't really these criticisms that stopped me from picking it up. Really, what it came down to was that I didn't understand why Ehrenreich would bother with this project. I mean, given the work she did trying to understand what it was like to be part of America's working poor, why would she then revert back to (in my mind) wasting her time with the middle-class?

I can't say that reading the book completely answered that question for me, but it did shed some light on something I hadn't expected--middle-class or "professional" joblessness as a cottage industry. It makes sense, in a country where those who have can buy just about anything, that newly unemployed professionals would assume they could buy themselves into a new job, but it's not something I'd ever given any thought to, and it's the subject that Ehrenreich ends up delving into the deepest in this book, given that she is not able to actually find a professional middle-class job.

For those who don't know Ehrenreich's work, what she did in Nickel and Dimed was go "undercover" as a middle-aged woman with very few marketable skills, in several parts of the country. In each city, she found a minimum wage or slightly better job (waitress, house-cleaner, Wal-Mart employee) and tried to live on what she earned. She had a lot of trouble, and I thought the book brought a lot of things to light about how hard it is to make it in America as a low-wage worker. Many people were offended by this book as well, saying Ehrenreich was "posing," that as a highly educated and relatively affluent woman, she doesn't get it, etc. I disagreed with these criticisms, for the most part, because I think she had a very sensitive eye towards those around her and the truth is, for better or for worse, that her audience is likely to believe things coming from her, a journalist and author in good academic standing, that they would not necessarily believe coming from someone who was actually writing from the working poor class.

In Bait and Switch, Ehrenreich plans to employee the same techniques to infiltrating the middle-class business world. The parameters she sets for herself, when she goes about looking for a job with her falsified resume, are that she will take the first thing she is offered in a business environment that is steady, benefited, and pays $50,000/year or more. Then she goes about looking, utilizing all sorts of job finding services, support groups, career coaches, etc.

And she doesn't find anything. She spends months, jumps through all the hoops, including make-overs and faith-based networking events, and puts in hundreds of applications, but her only job offers are for direct sales positions with no security. So the book morphs, and rather than being about having a middle-class business job, it's about trying to find one.

In my mind, that makes it a better book than it likely would have been. I don't think the seedy underside of desk jockeying is quite as interesting as Ehrenreich started out believing it might be. I've done it for a number of years now, and there's really not much to say about it. You sell a little piece of your soul, I guess, but you don't sell your physical health or your sense of security, and it's basically a pretty easy ride. Once you're employed, that is. Getting a job is the hard part, the interesting part, and the part that I was happy to read about in this book.

Some of the criticisms I've heard regarding the reasons Ehrenreich couldn't find the type of employment she was seeking are probably correct, but I think she did a better job acknowledging them than some. For example, she knew from the outset that her age (I believe she is in her 50s, but I'm not completely sure) would be a problem in her job search. This is a well-established fact. She acknowledges late in the book that the type of jobs she was applying to may have been a far reach for the experience listed on her mostly-fake resume, and I think that was likely a factor, especially given the tight job market she was attempting to enter. It seemed to me that by the end of the book, Ehrenreich was aware that the goals she set out with weren't completely reasonable, and I agree with her.

I suspect some of the criticism of this book comes from middle-class Americans not wanting to believe that their particular industries could be infiltrated by someone who has little or no actual experience, the way Ehrenreich did with working class occupations in Nickel and Dimed. People who make $50,000/year are far less willing to believe that anybody could do their jobs than people who make $5.00/hr. From my experience so far, this simply isn't true. My professional jobs may have been harder to snag, but they haven't been any harder to learn. My college degree has granted me entrance, sure, but the stuff I learned in college has had very little to do with what I've actually done on the job. Most jobs, from what I've seen so far (with obvious exceptions), are comprised of a number of tasks that can be learned by just about anybody of average intelligence and willingness. You may not understand the whole picture, but in order to do what you're actually employed to do, you don't have to. And I still hold that waiting tables is by far the most physically and mentally challenging job I've had yet.

To wrap up, I think this book is worth a read. It's not the groundbreaker Nickel and Dimed was, and I hope Ehrenreich turns her talents back towards a population that actually needs help for her next effort, but it's still interesting stuff, and well-done on the author/investigator's part. You can sense her learning with you as you read, just as you could in Nickel and Dimed, and I like that.

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No Shame in My Game

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No Shame book coverby Katherine S. Newman
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. and the Russell Sage Foundation, 1999

Katherine Newman's No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City is one of those books I've been meaning to read for quite some time. I first encountered excerpts from it about a year ago, while taking a class on Family Policy that focused heavily on urban poverty, but we didn't read the whole book for class, so it found its way to my personal reading list. A year later, I actually picked it up from the library and started reading it.

It's quite good. Newman is an anthropologist at Columbia, and she and her team of graduate students spent the better part of two years talking to hundreds of employees, managers, owners, and job seekers at several fast food restaurants (pseudonymed "Burger Barns" in the book) in Harlem. Newman's goal was to bring the perspective of the working poor into the poverty debate, which at the time of her research and writing (the second half of the 1990s), was heavily centered on welfare reform. She and her students work hard in the service of that goal, logging hundreds of hours of interviews and even, in some cases, taking jobs at "Burger Barn" themselves in order to get a better view of the culture and the employees.

Along the way, in a combination of anecdotes from her interviews and evidence from academic and popular sources, Newman dispels several myths--that anyone can get a job in the fast food industry, that only teenagers who aren't trying to fully support themselves (much less anyone else) work for minimum wage, that people who work full-time year-round make enough to support themselves, and that an education is a magic panacea for all employment ills. Newman painstakingly chronicles the hurdles her subjects must overcome in order to even get a job at Burger Barn, much less move beyond minimum wage, and points out key differences between the unlucky job seekers she interviewed and those who were actually employed. She also makes a strong argument about the moral conservativism of many of Harlem's poor residents, and how strongly work is equated with dignity, just as it is--or is supposed to be--in America's middle class.

For anyone who is interested in poverty studies, this book isn't to be missed. Though the slice of American poverty Newman chooses to focus on is quite specific, narrowed down to just a few blocks in Harlem, many of the arguments she makes can be broadened to include all of the working poor in this country. Where they can't, if you feel you need more perspectives, I'd highly recommend David K. Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America (Knopf, 2004), which takes a broader look at many of the same questions Newman addresses.

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Orlando

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orlando.jpgAfter hearing of my love for Tilda Swinton, and my particular fondness for her androgynous turn as the Angel Gabriel in Constantine, my friends S. and T. highly recommended her earlier take on androgyny, Orlando. Excited to see Swinton in a leading role, I quickly moved it to the top of my Netflix queue and when it came I waited only a couple of days before sitting down to watch it.

And I pretty much hated it.

Based on a Virginia Woolf novel, Orlando is the story of a young nobleman, Orlando (Swinton), ordered to stay young by a fairly creepy and pedophilic Queen Elizabeth the First. Somehow, he magically does so. How is not explained. And he proceeds to live through nearly five centuries, changing scenery, clothing styles, and sex.

Yes, changing sex. One morning in Turkey, Orlando wakes up a girl. This doesn't seem to bother him, and again, how it happened is completely unexplained. Being female proposes more of a problem for him than being immortal, however, as his family property is threatened, being as a woman couldn't legally own property in England at the time. Apparently a 250-year-old man could, though.

To further confuse things, Orlando (now female) has sex in 1850 or so, is pregnant during what seems to be WWI scene, and has a small child in what looks to be the present. So it isn't just Orlando's shape shifting and non-aging that causes confusion, it's the movement of time in general.

Perhaps reading Woolf's book before seeing the film would help it to make a bit more sense. Even if it had made sense, or if there had been some explanation for the way events progressed, though, I'm not sure I would have thought much of the film. It was beautifully filmed, and Swinton was great as always, but there just didn't seem to be much story to it. The things that could be explored in a story about the same person straddling two sexes and five centuries are endless, but Orlando didn't seem to really want to get into any of them. So it was not only a confusing film, it was a disappointing one, as it could have been so much more.

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Savers: North Austin

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5222 Burnet Road
Austin, TX 78756
(512) 323-0707
Store Hours
Mon - Sat: 9 - 9
Sun: 10 - 6

I drove past Savers on Burnet probably 200 times before it occurred to me to wonder what it was. When I looked it up and found out it was the same thing as what we from the Pacific Northwest call Value Village, I was stoked, as VV was one of my favorite thrift spots in Portland.

Trips to the store have dampened this excitement. Either I've changed, or Savers is no Value Village.

Savers is a good thrift store for people who don't actually like thrift stores. It's clean and ostensibly very organized (although the last time I was in, it wasn't actually very organized at all). They try, to the extent possible, to seem like a department store. Things are organized by size, then by color. They tend towards newer clothes when possible. You aren't going to find much vintage or funky here--mostly just whatever you could have gotten last year at Old Navy, worn by someone else a few times, and quite a lot cheaper.

And if that's what you are going for, this store is probably fine. It's a little more spendy than less "department store" thrift stores, but not that much. Items are priced individually, so there are no hard and fast rules, but generally shirts run in the $2-$5 range, pants and skirts in the $5-$7 range, and dresses in the $7-$9 range.

Plus-sized offerings are separated out here, as everything is by size, and there seem to be more of them than there are at many other local stores. As Savers buys their stock from other thrift stores, this is probably intentional. Still, I didn't find anything must-have in my size on a recent trip.

It should be noted that this is primarily a clothing store. There is a furniture section, a house wares section, and a book section, but all of them are pretty piddly and I wasn't at all impressed with any of their contents.

This isn't a store I visit often, but it might be somewhere I would add to the list were I to introduce someone new to thrifting. The search is easier, due to the organization, and most of what is on the racks is recognizable in terms of brands and styles, which is probably comforting to a new thrift shopper.

One final note--the dressing rooms are TINY closets, and they have a ridiculous three-item limit in them. Disregarding this limit will earn you the venom of a not particularly pleasant staff. So be forewarned.

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God in the details

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One of the phrases my non faith-inclined mind has long pondered is "God is everywhere." Change-ups of this phrase, such as "God is everything" or any of the various admonishments about carrying God around in your heart have similarly confused me. If I can't even find God in a church, who can find Him everywhere? Everywhere? Even in the bathroom?

Yesterday, I witnessed something that brought these truisms to light a bit more.

I was at Target, browsing the clearance racks, trying to find some camisoles before they clear out for the winter. Two women and a pre-teen girl were browsing the rack next to mine. "Keep looking," one of the women told the girl. "He wouldn't have shown us that skirt if he hadn't meant for there to be a shirt to go with it."

Who was he, I wondered, looking around for their male companion. Could he come and find me some of those cute cropped pants in black and in a 16?

Then, eavesdropping further on their conversation, I realized it.

They weren't talking about him, they were talking about Him. They didn't have a male shopping companion--at least not one I could see. They were carrying their shopping coach around in their hearts.

And sure enough, one rack over, He found them a shirt to go with that skirt.

As I drove home (without having found what I was looking for, unsurprisingly), I pondered their faith-based shopping initiative. I make no claims to know what God wants. I don't even know who God is, or if God is, much less His internal desires. However, it seems to me that if I were a supreme being, I'd get a little bit irritated at being called upon to assist in trolling the clearance racks at Target. Or assist in winning a football game. Or assist in any of the millions of other details of people's lives that I was constantly being bugged about. When you are responsible for an entire world, seems like you'd have to focus on the big stuff.

This may well be just one more example of why I'm never going to understand faith. Weirder even than praising in a church, in my mind, is connecting a supreme being to everything I do and everywhere I am. I can't imagine it being anything more than an annoyance for both parties, creator and created. Then again, the folks I was listening in on went home with a bag full of clearance goodies and I didn't, so who knows?

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Salvation Army: I-35

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5329 N I H 35
Austin, TX 78723
(512) 451-7156
Closed Sundays

I'll come right out and say that I don't like The Salvation Army. Their politics suck, and their stores generally do, too. Occaisonally they are good for furniture (there's another Austin location I'll review at a later date that has some good furniture options), but usually they aren't worth the time and self-loathing shopping there requires.

This particular Salvation Army, located right across the parking lot from the Texas Thrift Store, is worse than usual. The stock is sparse and the store smells really bad. The most recent clothing I saw was at least a few years old, the quality was bad, and the organization was, as far as I could tell, non-existant. Even the furniture stock was poor, nothing worth a second look.

I spent less than five minutes in this store, yet felt pretty confident I had seen everything they had to offer, and I left feeling vaguely unclean. This is one you may as well skip.

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Texas Thrift Store

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5319 N I H 35
Austin, TX 78723
(512) 380-0025
9:00AM-8:00 PM, 7 days/week

This is an old-school thrift store, more like the ones of my youth and less like Austin's rather uppity Goodwill network. There is a lot of crap here. Clothes that are torn, stained, or just plain nasty. Things that smell like moth balls or need to be washed really badly. The whole place is fairly dirty and not very well organized, and the dressing rooms are tiny and atrocious. I wouldn't even attempt to use the bathroom here. The book and houseware sections are not worth your time. This is a store that requires patience.

However, if you are a patient type, it's worth a gander. Why? Because it's cheap. Shirts are generally $.99 to $2.49, pants and dresses under $5.00. Plus they do that thing were a certain color of tag is 50% each day, so you can definitely find some bargains, if you are willing to look. On my last trip, for example, I found a fantastic mod-style vintage dress for $4.49.

There is no seperate plus-sized section in this store and in general the larger sized offerings are minimal. Also, the store has a no returns policy--everything is sold as is--so be sure of your purchases.

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Rebels with a Cause

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Rebels with a Cause movie posterIn our continuing exploration of documentaries about the radical groups of the 1960s and 1970s, Mark and I watched Rebels with a Cause the other night. Made in 2000 by former Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) member Helen Garvey, the film is a semi-romantic montage of present-day interviews with people who were active in SDS and video clips from the time when SDS was active. A dozen or so members of the organization talk the viewer through from SDS's conception in the early 1960s through its disintegration and the rise of the Weather Underground in the late 60s/early 70s.

As I've mentioned before, SDS is an organization I know quite a bit about, as I studied the "second wave" feminist movement in undergrad and a lot of it was connected to SDS. Because of this, many of the people who were interviewed were familiar to me (Tom and Casey Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Bill Ayer, Bernadette Dohrn, etc.), as were many of the stories they told (the sit-in at Columbia, the organization efforts in Newark and other cities, the Days of Rage, etc.). Even having heard the stories before, though, it was interesting to hear and see them told again. This film also included perspectives from people I hadn't seen in other films or read in many books (including early SDS president Alan Haber), which I thought was fascinating.

The really interesting part for me, though, is the feelings about having been in SDS (and, in some cases, the more violent Weather Underground) portrayed by the participants 30+ years later. Most of the people interviewed for this film seemed proud of their participation, if slightly in awe of their younger egos and naiveté. However, many of them were also very anxious to align themselves with SDS's history of non-violent resistance and community building, while distancing themselves from the tactics of the Weather Underground. While this is hardly surprising, given the professional careers of some of these individuals, as well as their general tendency towards pacifism, I still find it disappointing. Ayers and Dohrn, both first members of SDS, went on to become leaders of the Weather Undergound, and it seemed almost backstabbing for the other interviewees to disavow them. What this comes down to, of course, is an argument about whether "those who make peaceful revolution impossible [will] make violent revolution inevitable" (JFK). The Weather Undergound believed that to be the case, as do I. As did, I'd suspect many disenfranchised, fed-up SDS members by the late 1960s. But it's not something they want to cop to now, and that disappoints me.

As has been the case before in my study of these people and this time period, I found Ayers and Dohrn to be the most compelling speakers. It's easier for them to speak honestly, I suspect, because they are semi-sheltered in privileged careers (both are professors). It doesn't seem accidental, though, that the most compelling members of SDS are the ones who went on to become Weathermen. Whether you agree with the tactics of the Weather Underground or not, you have to admire the dedication of people who were willing to put their lives on the line for what they believed, and I think you can still see some of that dedication in Dohrn and Ayers.

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In uniform

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I wrote my first anti-uniform piece when I was 16. I was a member of a local newspaper's teen team, and I fought to be assigned the anti-uniform stance in a point-counterpoint article (front page of the section!). As a picture to accompany the article, the girl who wrote the pro-uniform side was given a small budget and told to go to Target or Wal-Mart or wherever and buy clothes she would consider an appropriate uniform for high schools. I was told to come in my own clothes, whatever I thought best reflected my typical style. Then they took our pictures back-to-back and printed our pieces. She came in navy pants with an elastic waist, a plain white polo shirt, and plain dark shoes. I came in jeans I inherited from my stepfather, a hand-tooled leather belt from the 70s (with someone else's name on the back of it), a striped v-neck, and Birkenstocks. We were equally comfortable and able to move around. We were equally "covered up." We both felt, I assume, that what we were wearing said something about ourselves as individuals.

More than ten years later, I have no idea what my "opponent" (whose name I've forgotten) thinks about dress codes and uniforms. As for me, though, my stance hasn't changed much. Now, as then, uniforms make my skin crawl, and I abhor dress codes. It's not so much about the mystical ability to "express myself" through my clothes as it is about control. The way I see it, dressing is an extension of body autonomy, and I don't want someone else telling me what parts of my body need to be covered, by what, etc. It irritates me in employment situations (which are, mostly, voluntary) and it enrages me in schools (which are, mostly, not).

I spent much of high school pressing the dress code issue. My high school did not have a particularly stringent code, but certain things (midriff tops, shorts or skirts that were too short, spaghetti strap tanks, hats, etc.) were not allowed. I wore all of them at one time or another. It wasn't about being sexxxxeeee, or about showing off my body. It was about testing boundaries. It was about exercising my own autonomy, and seeing how far I could push.

Interestingly, when I moved to college, where there was no dress code (literally none, we had naked students at Reed), I started caring a lot less about my clothes. I had my own uniform, of a sort--baggy cargo pants or BDUs, a t-shirt, a hoodie. I did a few wild things with my hair, pierced my navel (not allowed in high school), got my first tattoo (also not allowed), but basically, I kept myself covered up and didn't think much about it. As an adult, working in professional environments, I wear clothing that is, by and large, appropriate. I do wear sleeveless shirts and dresses, which some people find inappropriate (particularly because it shoes my upper arm tattoo), but none of my employers have had any problem with this, so I guess it's fine. Having the freedom to dress the way I see fit hasn't turned me into some kind of monster. If anything, it's let to me chilling out about the whole situation.

Dress codes and uniforms, in most cases, are about control. They generally come about through dictates rather than community processes, coming down from a superior as rules for inferiors. This is the case in schools, in places of employment, and in prisons. I object to this kind of control. I buck against this kind of control, and I think a lot of people do. And moreover, I think we should, particularly women. Because in truth, there's not much difference between someone with power over you telling you to cover it up and telling you to take it off. Either way, someone who is not you is exercising control over your body decisions, and I think it's right to fight that.

My basic premises are as follows:

1. People should be left to dress as they see appropriate, with the exception of dress codes needed for safety reasons and uniforms needed for identification purposes (i.e. police officers, fire fighters, etc.);
2. If left to their own devices, people will generally dress in a way that is deemed "appropriate" for whatever their position/station is;
3. If left to their own devices and not dressing "appropriately," people generally aren't hurting anyone or anything anyway.

I honestly don't understand what is so hard about that. It seems to me that uniforms and dress codes are just unnecessary rules in nearly all cases, and I don't see any point to restricting people unnecessarily. The so-called benefits of dress codes seem mostly invented to me (safer? less distracting? less classist? really? are you sure?), and the drawbacks are much larger than people realize.

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The Duggar Family

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DuggarsLast evening, I was sucked into two hours of programming about the Duggar family. Jim Bob (nope, not kidding) and Michelle Duggar are an Arkansas couple in their late 30s who "decided to let God decide how many children they would have." So far, the count is 16--9 boys and 7 girls, ages 17 through newborn at the time the show was filmed. And they all have names that begin with a J. Seriously. Joshua, Jana, John-David, Jill, Jessa, Jinger, Joseph, Josiah, Joy-Anna, Jedidiah, Jeremiah, Jason, James, Justin, Jackson, and Johannah Faith.

At first, I was watching the show because the logistics of life with 16 children fascinates me. I mean, how do you cook for 18 every day? What about clothes? How much does this whole enterprise cost? And that part of it was interesting. I kept watching, though, because I was both intrigued and aghast and what wasn't being said about the family.

The Duggars are fundamentalist Christians. This was clear from the program, if you were paying any attention (the girls all have long hair and wear long dresses, the children are home schooled, Michelle's speech is interjected with claims that this or that is a miracle, etc.), and any lingering doubts are cleared up by the family's website. However, the two hours of programs I watched never mentioned the family's faith explicitly, either as a reason for their having so many children and living their lives the way that they do (which it is) or in passing.

The Duggars write this on their website:

When we are out together we get questions like... "Is this a school group?", "Are they all yours?", "Are you Catholic or Mormon?", "Don't you know what causes this?" These questions give us many opportunities to share with others the hope that is in us, that children are a gift from God. We did not always view children as a gift. Michelle & I did not have any children for the first 4 years of marriage.

We chose to use the birth control pill. After our first child was born, Michelle started back on the pill, shortly after, she miscarried. We found that sometimes the birth control pill will allow you to conceive, but then cause a miscarriage.

We then realized we had the same heart attitude about children as those willfully choosing abortion (wanting to make our own plans, live our own lives, children could be a bother or interruption).

We searched the scriptures & found that God says, "Lo, children are an heritage of the Lord: & the fruit of the womb is his reward. As arrows are in the hand of a mighty man; so are children of the youth. Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them" (Psalms 127:3-5).

They make it clear, when left to their own devices, that they have so many children because they believe that's the way God wants it--i.e. they believe birth control is wrong. They also make it clear that they are happy with the publicity their large family attracts, because it gives them the opportunity to prosthletize. Why, then, were the programs about them so devoid of clear references to their religious beliefs?

While watching the Duggars, I couldn't help but think of the DeBolt family. With a total of nineteen children, the majority of whom were adopted, and the majority of whom were also special needs, the logistics of the DeBolt household were even more impressive than the Duggar's. However, in the DeBolts case, their organization was fairly low on the list of things I found to admire about them while I watched their story. In the case of the Duggars, it was just about all I could come up with. Watching the Duggars gave me the creepy feeling of being trapped, as long-suffering Michelle gestated, birthed, fed, and raised one perfect blond Christian soldier after another, all under the watchful eye of her patriarchal politician (yep, that too) husband. Looking at the Duggar's pantry, stocked with more food than the general store in my hometown, I felt disgusted. Watching the construction on their new 7,000 square foot house (where there is still just one boys' bedroom and one girls'' bedroom) felt like watching a Wal-Mart go up.

The DeBolts adopted children from all over the world, many of whom had few other options save institutionalization. They opened their lives to these kids not because they were afraid their God would smite them otherwise, or because they were building an army of people to think just like them, but because they knew they were needed and that they could help. I suspect that there was some underlying Christianity in the DeBolt household as well, but it never forced girls to do girls' work while boys did boys'. Each child in the DeBolt household seemed clear in his or her role, not just as a member of the family, but also as an individual. The Duggar children, however, when asked about whether or not they felt their individuality was stifled, were hard-pressed to come up with something more than "some of us love pickles, some don't" to prove their senses of self.

Once I started poking around on the Internet, I saw that much has been written about the Duggars already. A lot of it is not very flattering, but makes a good point about the inherent selfishness in reproducing the way that the Duggars have, and the flawed Christian logic in their doing so. Much as I dislike the tone of some of these articles, as well as their focus on the kids and Michelle as the problem, rather than putting the blame with Jim Bob, where I'd bet it actually lies, I have to agree. What the Duggars have done isn't an example of Christianity the way I see it, no matter how they may be held up by Focus on the Family and the like as a beacon of hope. If the Duggars were truly in it for the good of the children, and of the world, and felt that they had infinite love and resources to give to kids, they would have done something much more like the DeBolts. If children are indeed the heritage of the Lord, that means all children, not just the ones in your own bloodline.

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Goodwill: North Lamar

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Goodwill North Lamar picture5555 North Lamar Blvd.
Austin, TX 78751
512-451-2306

Store Hours
Mon-Sat: 9:00am - 9:00pm
Sun: 11:00am - 7:00pm

The Goodwill at North Lamar is the swanky new store that replaced the smaller store that used to be basically across the street. It's right next to Half Price Books now, too, which is certainly a boon.

Oddly, even though this store is bigger, newer, and cleaner than the old store, I have visited it several times and not had nearly as much good luck as I used to have at the old store. The women's clothing section is very large, but very skewed towards small sizes, and the plus-sized section, which is mixed up with the maternity section, is pretty much a joke. I haven't bought a single item of clothing for myself at this store.

House wares is similarly large but disappointing. There's lot of space, but many of the shelves are sparsely covered, and a lot of what they are covered with is no-two-ways-about-it crap. I'm not sure if this speaks to the stores donations not meeting its space requirements or what, but it's disappointing.

The book section is pretty good--better organized than is usually the case--but not as large or well-stocked as the MacFarlane store. Also, the pricing is higher here, with paperback books mostly marked at $2.39, rather than the $1.59 or $1.99 I've found at other local Goodwill stores.

The dressing rooms at this store are typically Goodwill (I think they might actually be the same modulars they used in the old store). I used the bathroom on this trip, and it was pretty bad, but not as nasty as the one in the old store was known to be.

Edited to add: I forgot to itemize my bounty! For around $12, I got a short sleeved, striped Dickies shirt and two paperback books (both about grizzly bears) for Mark.

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The Mercy of Thin Air

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mercy of thin airby Ronlyn Domingue
Atria, September 13, 2005

Razi, the narrator and protagonist of The Mercy of Thin Air, is dead. The story moves back and forth between memories of her life before she drowns in the late 1920s and her observations on the present, over seventy five years later, where she lives "between" life and death. In common parlance, Razi is a ghost--she has no physical form, but she can see, hear, and smell everything around her in the living world, as well as moving objects and herself telekinetically.

At the beginning of the novel, Razi takes up residence with a young couple, Scott and Amy, by following a bookcase she knows from her life move from an estate sale into their home. As Scott and Amy's story unfolds in the present, so do Razi's memories of what happened between her and her fiancé, Andrew, in the years before her death. Slowly, the connection between Razi's past and her "present" become clear both to her and to the reader.

The Mercy of Thin Air is a good book. It's a bit reminiscent of The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I loved (and, I'm told, Alice Seibold's The Lovely Bones), in subject matter and in its deft navigation of the line between being a believable love story and just being goopy. It's a book about the supernatural in which the supernatural is not the point, and I like that. It's a quick, easy read (took me two days), good for a plane, the beach, or before bed down time. Not something I'd recommend a chapter-a-night approach to, though, as I found it very difficult to put down.

The Mercy of Thin Air is Ronlyn Domingue's first novel.

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Goodwill: MacFarlane

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MacFarlane Goodwill8965 Research Blvd.
Austin, TX 78758
512-832-0004

Store Hours
Mon-Sat: 9:00am - 9:00pm
Sun: 11:00am - 7:00pm

One of the things I want to do with this new blog is re-instate my previous attempts at cataloging and reviewing Austin's thrift store offerings. I'm a thrift aficionado; I've thrifed in several cities, and Austin is by far the best I've seen. Still, some places are far better than others, so a series of Austin thrift store reviews may be helpful. If nothing else, it will help me keep track of where I've been and whether I liked it. And give me a chance to show off my thrift store scores.

The Goodwill on Research Blvd, called the MacFarlane Goodwill, is my go-to thrift store. It's huge, it's fairly well-organized, it's reasonably clean, and they have a big book section. All of these are important attributes in my book. The pricing is the general Goodwill item-type pricing they all seem to be doing now ($6.99 for pants, $5.99 for skirt, $1.99 for paperback book, etc.), which is fine--at least it makes things easy when you are shopping. Given this pricing scheme, though, I really really wish they'd stop putting price tags on the book covers. They are impossible to remove.

My latest trip to this thrift mecca was on Saturday. I wasn't looking for anything in particular, which is, in my opinion, the best way to thrift shop. I spent about an hour and a half in the store. One thing I noticed is that there are a good number of plus-sized clothes mixed in to the regular clothing sections, and the quality of these items seems to be higher than that of the plus-sized clothes in the plus-sized section. This is worth taking into account, I think, given the difficulty of finding quality plus-sized clothes second-hand. It seems that, in some stores at least, the best finds are not in the plus section at all. I'll definitely keep this in mind.

I came home with the following:
-a long khaki skirt, Old Navy, size 16, perfect condition
-a pair of sailor style wide-legged pants, Isaac Mizrahi (Target), size 18, new with tags
-a pair of khaki Banana Republic slacks, size 16 long, perfect condition (though weirdly over-starched)
-a set of four Pilsner glasses from Crate & Barrel
-three paperback books (Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake, a memoir about being part of the first generation of interracial adoptions, and the last edition of a woman's history essay compendium), all in very good condition
Total cost = approximately $32, including tax

Weak spots in noticed were in men's short sleeved shirts and shorts (which is probably seasonal) and house wares (lots of old Tupperware taking up shelf space). I used the dressing room, and it was reasonably clean. I got no impression of the employees of the store on this trip.

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