Let them eat cake.

I hate reality television with the fiery passion of a thousand suns. I think it’s lazy programming and it can become exploitative and propagate negative stereotypes and behaviors (see, for example, the post Honey Boo Boo/Duck Dynasty rise in white trash pride). So it should come as no surprise that I can’t stand this whole celebrity chef thing. First, it should be said, I can’t cook. This is in no way an admission of jealousy or anything resembling jealousy, I’m just saying that watching people cook and listening to them talk about cooking is less than entertaining for me. Just a personal preference. Secondly, I am not a foodie. Largely because it’s an expensive hobby. Also because I’m a smoker so some subtleties of flavor are lost on me. Mostly, though, if I’m being honest, it’s because I have a healthy aversion to douchebag-level overuse of particular adjectives. Telling me something is “artisanal” isn’t going to make it taste any better if it’s a thing I don’t like. Sorry.

Having said all of that, I’ve been watching Anthony Bourdain’s shows on Netflix lately. I’m so conflicted. Where’s the line between reality tv and documentary tv? Is it still a cooking show if it’s about a chef who doesn’t cook? Are travel shows exploitative or, at least, disruptive? Damaging in some way?

I don’t know the answers to any of these. I do know that I dig Bourdain. The thing I think I like the most about him is that he recognizes the universally communal nature of eating. When he talks about food, he’s talking about people. When he sits down to eat with someone, he asks them questions about their lives and their culture and if he talks about the food at all it’s in the context of what it means, not what it tastes like. He doesn’t set out to find the best food in a place, but the food that’s representative of that place. I like that he appreciates the awful meals as much as the amazing ones. We could all do with a little more of that in our mindsets, I think. The accumulation of experience should be the goal, not ticking restaurants and chefs off of our to-do lists just so we can say we did.

I wish I could just travel and eat the way Bourdain does, but some of those situations are downright scary. I can’t eat things without knowing what’s in them. I might die. But I do know how to say “shellfish allergy” in about ten languages (including Klingon, in case I’m ever stranded and hungry in some backwater part of ComicCon). My real problem is that I simply don’t like a lot of foods, and they’re often the sorts of things that people put on the plate to be fancy. Fucking foodies. Balsamic vinegar, truffle oil, stanky cheese, kale, sprouts – the stuff of nightmares. I’m no Philistine. I do like good food and fine dining. But I just prefer my meal to be recognizable, you know? When I eat a burger, dammit, it should taste like a burger.

I’m from the South, and have barbeque running through my veins. For years I’ve been saying that I want to travel the back roads along the Gulf and find the very best hole-in-the-wall bbq shack. Because you know the good shit’s tucked away somewhere in a tiny four-table hovel on a dirt road fifty miles outside a town no one’s ever heard of. It’s there, waiting for me. I shall eat its face and write a book about my adventures and try to keep the location of this little piece of Heaven a secret.

That’s another thing worth noting about Bourdain. He’s aware that he may be ruining these places by calling attention to them. I think it was the Rome episode of No Reservations when some locals took him to their favorite restaurant. He refused to say the name of the place and told his camera guy to keep the signs out of the shot because he didn’t want to come back in a year and find the place overrun with tourists. I respect that so much. Having lived in Asheville for years, I learned that I could only eat at certain places during the off season, or I would go to out of the way joints that the tourists could never find (or wouldn’t want to – I frequented a lot of dives). This is one of the biggest things I dislike about celebrity chefs. Their opinions have the power to make or break a restaurant or another chef’s career. And while I respect that their palettes are highly trained, certainly much more than my own, I’m not going to run out to try the thing Gordon Ramsay said was tasty just because he said it.

I like Ramsay, don’t get me wrong. I think the thing that people forget about him, though, is that he’s as much a businessman as a chef. Possibly even more so. One needs that savvy to be successful in high-end food. Especially when the foodie zombies are making everything so competitive. That’s the real rub here. We’ve created a culture where we’re going looking for the best of the best all the time, based largely on opinions of people we don’t know. Why shouldn’t I try the thing just because some hipster on Yelp said it wasn’t good? Maybe that guy’s favorite food is goat cheese soaked in balsamic. There’s no way to know, but we’re still reluctant to go to a place with a bad review, or even to a place we’ve never heard of. It makes me sad. Good food is everywhere. So are good experiences predicated on bad food. Don’t let people tell you what to do or how to eat. Try that sketchy street taco. Pay a hundred bucks for some hand-crafted cocktail. Whatever. But try things. New things, weird things, things that will make good stories. That’s the point. Otherwise we’d all stay home and eat mac and cheese every day. I know I would.

Say all the things.

Hey. Hi. It’s me. I still exist. Mostly.

I know I’ve been posting sporadically lately. Everything’s been a little bananatown these past few months. I was recently told that lists, which are my jam this time of year, are the laziest form of writing. So, yeah, all confidence lost plus all time sucked equals no bloggenings. Sorry. I’ll be back to normal soon.

Meanwhile, shit’s not great. You know, fall and whatnot. I’ll spare you all the black wave details. We know each other. You get it. I’m really okay. Just brainfried. Oh, and I smacked my own face on a fencepost the other day. That’s exciting. Got some color in my cheeks, as the girly girls say. Even though I think they may be talking about something else. I’m exhausted. I’ve been in my head too much. I’m bored even though I’m so busy I can’t see straight. This week has been brutal.

I lost something. It was driving me bugshit, mostly because my life is lived in tiny spaces and, even if I weren’t pathologically over-organized, there aren’t that many goddamn places to hide stuff. It’s the little things that get under your skin when you’re all sleep-deprived and delicate, you know?

It was a blog. I still write everything out longhand before I type it. That Pavlovian aesthetic thing is helpful. I wrote this post last year after The Husband’s uncle was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I was pissed and sad and all fucked up about it, but I decided not to post it at the time out of respect for the family’s privacy. And also not to bring any more bad juju to the situation. Better to treat these calamities with heavy doses of loving kindness and as much mirth as possible. So I spent the better part of an evening tearing my bedroom to shreds looking for this thing, and eventually I got so upset that I was laying on the floor crying, thinking how it was just gone, how it would be just a piece of paper to whoever found it, deprived of all meaning. Of course that’s when I see a box out of the corner of my eye, and of course that’s when I remember that I’ve got almost two year’s worth of blog posts stacked up in that box and that I stashed the box under a stack of books for safe keeping. Because I’m brainfried.

So, even though it may not make a whole lot of sense, here’s a thing I wrote almost a year ago:

Once upon a time I met a sweet, goofy boy during a Magic tournament at a comic book shop. There may have been Jim Beam involved. I married him. This latter fact has nothing to do with the Jim Beam. What I didn’t realize at the time is that you don’t ever just marry a person, you marry their stories, their baggage, their hangups, their annoying habits, and all their future selves. More to the point – you also marry their family. And I hit a goldmine. I mean seriously, I won the in-law lottery. And for the longest time I thought there was no way they’d accept me – the bisexual, Atheist, liberal, metalhead writer girl with too much eyeliner on who drank a lot and hitchhiked for fun. The girl with mental illness. The scifi enthusiast. The one with all the piercings in her face. The one most aptly described as “over there in the corner by herself.” And they wanted to take me to church, these people.

They did. They dragged my ass to church. But not to change my mind. Just to show me who they are, where they’re coming from, and what they stand for. From that I learned so much more than I would have ever thought I could. They didn’t just accept me, they embraced me. They love me. They’re never going to question my beliefs or my politics or my dirty mouth, because they trust in some kind of goodness they see in me, one I didn’t really know was in there. So now I’m stuck forever with this big bunch of badasses who are putting all of their energy into changing the world. All day, every day. It’s intimidating, but it gives me something to strive for.

So when his aunt Ginger married Greg, we were living in North Carolina and didn’t get to see the family as often as we’d like. It took a while for us to get to know him. Not to like him, because he’s nothing if not immediately likeable, but to really know him and understand how he fit into this big, constantly changing family machine. Truth is, I thought he was a weirdo just like me. Well, not just like me, obviously. But interesting, and with a depth of unexpected stories. He’s an honorable man. I saw goodness in him, and suddenly I understood better how I must have seemed to these people so unlike myself years before. Odd, but worth the effort. Someone whose stories you want to hear, who you know you can trust and laugh with and hug.

And now he’s sick. I would say he’s “dying,” but we’re all dying. We should really just stop using that word exclusively for the ill. He’s sick and it makes me sad. It makes me angry. When people lament about bad things happening to good people, I always think we should stop saying that, as well, because good things and bad things happen all the time to everyone. Nevertheless, this sickness makes me want to punch a wall. There’s no logic to it at all, but somehow this seems unfair. Not that I wish cancer upon anyone else, someone deemed a bad person. Mostly I just don’t think we have a psychological mechanism for dealing with the suddenness of tragedy, with the prospect of having a Greg-shaped hole in our lives, in our story, in our machine. It’s not the thing itself, but the idea of it that’s hard. Sickness and death are parts of living. We’ve had them both since the beginning. It doesn’t get easier. It never will.

But I’m comforted by knowing that this family shines with a golden light like no people I’ve ever met. I’m comforted knowing that Greg and Ginger have built a wall of friends and community and faith that will keep the darkness out. I’m comforted knowing that he’s a scrappy Scottish bastard who will fight this thing tooth and nail, with everything he has in him, laughing all the way. And so will we all, for his sake. I’m ready. Bring it on, cancer. You have no idea who you’re up against.

In August, Greg died. I wanted to send this to Ginger when it happened, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to be the one to make her cry again. But, still, I should have said all the things. I should have posted this when I wrote it or, better, said all the things to his face. I shouldn’t have ever deluded myself into thinking there would be time. Time is not a thing we’re promised. But such is life, and these are the everlasting regrets of wordy people. The self-editing and the “what I should have said” goes on forever.

Last week, my best friend, the very first friend I ever made on the face of this planet, was diagnosed with cancer. It’s early, and it’s a pretty treatable flavor of cancer. I’m confident. He’s tough as hell and will fight a bitch even if he has to fight dirty. And yet. It makes me want to say all the things. Doesn’t it? When you get news like that? Just so you know you did it? Aren’t we all walking around being fucking cowards, not saying what we want to say all the time? I certainly feel cowardly. Or weak. Or something.

And while I’m sure this particular friend with this particular cancer is going to be okay on this particular occasion, what if it hadn’t been this thing? This thing that can be stopped right now? What if it had been a bus or a murder or an aneurism? I don’t wish those things on anyone, obviously, but they happen every day. What if I never get my deathbed confessional moment?

I didn’t when my dad died.

I didn’t when my friend overdosed.

I didn’t when my other friend ate a shotgun.

I didn’t when my other uncle wrecked his motorcycle.

I didn’t when my cousin got run over by a tractor.

I didn’t, even, when my grandmother’s brain was so riddled with holes that she was gone long before she was gone.

Shit happens. People die. All people. What’s the line? “On a long enough timeline the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” It’s a truth I’m comfortable with. It’s all that life shit beforehand that’s hard. So tell your friends you love them. Visit when you can. Hug often and vigorously. Don’t put off saying those things that linger and tickle in the back of your brain. Tell complete strangers on the internet that hilarious story about the time he stole your sister’s car and got busted because he left the keys in it and had to break the window in the Hardee’s parking lot at two in the morning (absolute truth, and still funny twenty years later). Hold them when they cry. Laugh at the world, because we’re in this together. Call your mom. Send that silly birthday card that only you two would get. Buy the sad-looking guy alone at the end of the bar a drink. Ask him if he’s okay. Life is short. Fill it with kindness. Fill it with unforgettable moments. All we are is the memories that other people carry. Make them count.

And they lived happily ever after.

You know that nursery rhyme about Peter, Peter, Pumpkin Eater? You think that’s about a dude eating his wife? Consider. He:

  • Had a wife but couldn’t keep her (because bitches be expensive, yo – needing food and shelter and shit all the time)
  • He put her in a pumpkin shell (as a connoisseur of pumpkin products, I’m sure old Pete had a reliable recipe for delicious, flaky crust at the ready)
  • And there he kept her very well (leftovers for like a week! Totally worth it)

These are the things I think about when I can’t sleep at night. But I had a reason, I swear. I wasn’t just contemplating spousal homicide and cannibalism to relax.

We’ve been watching Once Upon a Time. It’s cheesy, but the good (mostly) kind of cheesy. If you’re unfamiliar, a basic rundown: All the fairy tale characters you know and love are real. They live in a parallel universe to ours, called the Enchanted Forest, of course. The wicked stepmother/all-powerful witch from Snow White goes beyond her boring poisoned-apple shenanigans to get revenge, and sends all the storybook folks to populate a small town in Maine, where they don’t remember who or what they are and cannot leave. I can’t fathom a more horrible fate. Eventually, a strange young woman comes to town, ostensibly just passing through. But since no one just passes through, the witch (who is now the mayor of this weird little magical antfarm) takes notice and figures out that she’s the long-lost daughter of Snow White. Where did she come from? Where has she been? It’s a mystery, and soon turns into a battle of wills, a classic fight between good and evil, when this young lady breaks the spell that’s been holding the whole town in thrall. I don’t want to give anything away, because it’s all secrets and lies and machinations. The first season is full of fun moments when you get to figure out who’s who and what story you’re in this week. It’s pretty great. Cheesy, but great.

But I find myself having to suspend disbelief more than I normally would during a cheesy fantasy show, because I’m deconstructing the fairy tales. Once Upon a Time relies heavily on those watered-down, sanitized versions of the old stories, the ones that everyone knows because they’re squeaky clean and family friendly. I have major beef with the Disney Corporation for perpetuating that banal crap just for the sake of getting kids to buy toys. Fuck you, Walt. Could’ve been original. Could’ve stuck with Mickey and his cast of weirdo friends and done something truly innovative (like Warner Brothers did – ooh, does it burn, Walt? I hope it does). But no, you had to go and rip off a bunch of public domain shit so you wouldn’t be forced to pay a writing staff a decent wage, you cheap, anti-Semitic fucker.

Oh! And then you made up all that shit about lemmings! You’re a monster!

Ahem.

What was I saying? Fairy tales. So, fairy tales are the bastard children of parables, meant to be cautionary, in general, and simple enough that they could be easily spread by the illiterate masses. You know, like Buzzfeed. They’re grim and gory and I love them. For example, in Cinderella, the sisters whose feet wouldn’t fit in the slipper? They chopped off their toes, they were so desperate to bang a prince. Crazy. Delightfully batshit. The point is, you tell your kids a story about a big bad wolf and maybe they’ll stay out of the forest where there are actual wolves. There’s a reason these tales exist, and the world was scarier then in a lot of ways. On the other hand, there are more of us now. We’ve got rapists and murderers and kidnappers and human traffickers and genocide and war, still, but at least the likelihood of a small child happening upon a toothsome creature is less. Seems like, anyway. Maybe not, I don’t know. Either way the big bad wolf still applies, even if now he’s a metaphor for horror instead of a literal reality.

And that’s kind of what bothers me about Once Upon a Time. To use the cleaned-up versions of these stories takes away so much potential. It could have been so dark and so gritty. But people wouldn’t have understood. There’s always been a little murder and mayhem inherent to fairy tales, sure, but the twisted details from the original source material could have made for so much awesome. It could have ended up being awful and seemingly hamfisted, though, given that we’re so used to the Disney versions where everything always turns out happy slappy. I don’t know. Just seems like a wasted opportunity.

On a similar note, I feel like the show is a little whitewashed because of this Disneyfication. In season two, Mulan shows up. Which is fine, whatever, she’s a hardcore warrior chick and I like what they did with that character. But she’s also the only character from a non-European fairy tale. By that point in the show they had already pulled in Peter Pan and a couple of folks from Alice in Wonderland, opening up a whole world of literary characters and tropes to be used however they wish. And with the vast richness of global folklore, the possibilities are endless. But we get Mulan? Why? Because she’s the only non-white storybook princess anyone is familiar with. Because Disney. It’s infuriating. Oh, and a small agro aside here (spoiler alert, sort of) – the only two black people on the show both play bad guys. So there’s that.

Having led with all my criticisms, let me say that I do quite like the show. I like Jennifer Morrison and I lurve Robert Carlyle in everything he does. The puzzly bits, the figuring out who’s who and how they’re connected is really fun. And it’s fairy tales. Magic and monsters and twue wuv. How can you not love fairy tales? The cheese factor is high, but it’s only, say, Supernatural-level high, which is still well within the acceptable limits. So check it out. The first three seasons are on Netflix. Try to keep your ire down if you have a literature degree. And stop watching Disney movies! That shit will rot your brain.

The root of all evil.

I hate money. I really, honestly do. I hate that not having enough of it stresses me out, because otherwise I’m super laid-back. It pisses me off that money does that to me. And it’s not that I want lots of things or fancy things. I’m perfectly happy only owning one pair of jeans. But knowing that I will eventually need another pair when these give out makes me twitchy. I may not be able to afford them. That’s all I want from money, to be assured that I can get the stuff I need when I need it. Keep my tummy full on a semi-regular basis. Keep the heat on. Keep my dogs healthy. Keep my car running. I’m a simple person. Furthermore, I’m not judgmental about other peoples’ lives. Do your thing. I don’t care about race, religion, sexuality, whatever, so long as nobody’s telling me what to do. But I do have one prejudice that I can’t shake, try as I might. I fucking hate rich people. Not your average, normal rich person. I’ve known lots of awesome folks who happened to have quite a bit of money.

No, the sort of rich people I can’t stand are those who purposefully and willfully swindle and scam and climb to great heights on the backs of other people. Those who always want more, more, more, who are never satisfied, despite having so much they couldn’t ever spend it in their lifetime. Those who fuck over people without enough and couldn’t care less. CEOs who cut hours or benefits for wage workers while paying themselves and their cohorts huge bonuses. Politicians who pay millions for campaigns wherein they say they want to cut welfare and healthcare because if you’re poor you must be lazy. The white-collar fucks at the Giant Evil Bookstore who routinely keep employees at thirty-eight hours a week so they won’t have to offer health insurance, and who held sales contests where the winning store would get an all-expenses-paid vacation for the manager – a dude who makes six figures and I couldn’t afford groceries. Those kinds of rich people? Fuck those people.

All of which is to say: the elimination of Net Neutrality is class warfare and blatant corporate power grabbing. (Sorry I sort of buried the lede with my little rant there.) If you don’t know about Net Neutrality, you’re probably not going to have to worry. The odds are it won’t exist for too much longer. But here’s a basic rundown: The FCC classifies certain systems, like phone lines and radio waves, as common carriers. That means that, in addition to limiting the market share any one provider may have, all information transmitted by those systems must be treated equally. As of right now, internet service providers are common carriers. They want to change that. Their proposal involves creating a two-tiered internet, where some websites will be given priority over others. Those sites will pay to have their information sent to the front of the line, so to speak. Additionally, internet service providers will offer a high-speed connection to those who can afford to pay more. That last thing might sound like it’s already the case, and in some areas, that’s true. But most places in the US only have one or two ISPs available, and their services aren’t different enough to really matter. There is no legitimate competition. If this goes through, and Net Neutrality is eliminated, then everyone everywhere will feel the slowdown unless they can pay to get in the fast lane. Also, if you run a website or an online business and can’t afford to get onto the faster tier, but your competition can, you will pretty much become invisible. The FCC is accepting open comments on this issue until September 15th. I suggest you get thee to fcc.gov/comments or email openinternet@fcc.gov ASAP, friends, and tell them what you think.

This is abject fuckery. It’s like saying you can only use the passing lane if you drive a certain brand of luxury sedan. And why? I don’t feel like it’s necessarily intended specifically to squeeze money out of the lower classes, although that will certainly happen and the fallout from it is going to be incredible. Rather, I think this whole situation is yet another example of telling the rich that they deserve better than the rest of us. More to the point, it’s telling the rest of us that we don’t deserve what the rich have. We are, simply, not good enough.

Now, this may just sound like some techy, geeky thing that I’m upset about because I live on the internet. You may not think you should care. But let me tell you how this is going to go down. Say there’s a small business owner. Future Vanessa, let’s say, with her little used bookstore and online rare and collectible book business. Old FV can’t afford to get her website on the top tier, even though she does a healthy trade. Some other behemoth company, let’s call them Cramazon, they’re obviously on the top tier. FV’s website is slow and at the bottom of all the Google searches. Cramazon is quick, which, because we’ve trained our monkey brains toward instant gratification, is going to seem like better customer service. Therefore, people will go there instead. Because FV’s losing money, she can’t afford top-tier internet access anymore, either. Her email, banking, business, and entertainment are all painfully slow and little FV, Jr. can’t do her homework because everything takes a million years to download. You’re like, “So what?” at this point in my story. What I’m saying is that we increasingly rely on technology for every single aspect of our lives, and those resources should be equally accessible by everyone, and not give any one business an unfair advantage over another. What’s the endgame here? What is the goal of this change? Why would anyone want to make it harder for small businesses to have an online presence? Why would we want to make it easier and faster for businesses that are already successful to get even bigger? If we’re going to say that we’re capitalists, we shouldn’t be putting up roadblocks that prevent people from making money. That’s absurd. The bottom line is that people with money want more money. And yeah, sure, nice stuff is great. I love a man in a beautiful bespoke suit. Granted. But I like poor kids having shoes and books more.

Have you ever noticed that rich people don’t look at how much things cost? That they have no idea what’s in their bank account? Because it doesn’t matter, there’s always enough. When I worked at the Giant Evil Bookstore, I knew to the penny how much I had at any given time. I also knew what city all my bills were mailed to, so that I knew which day to post what, according to when payday was. “If this smaller bill is due before the big one, I can mail the small one on Tuesday so it’ll come out of the bank account on Thursday, leaving me $4 until I get paid on Friday, so let’s cross our fingers that the big bill I mailed on Thursday doesn’t come out until Monday, and maybe we’ll have enough left to buy gas to get to work this week.” It’s constant and it’s fucking exhausting. Rich people don’t deal with that. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s not only a monetary gap between the upper and lower classes, but an ideological one, as well. A psychological one. When you tell the guy on the street who just asked for a dollar to get a job, do you realize what that entails? A shower, clean and presentable clothes, enough food to think straight in an interview, and possibly a printout of a CV. Oh, and a job to apply for. It’s not like they’re just handing those out lately. When you say that people on welfare are lazy and don’t want to work, that may be true for some of them. But others are already working, working their asses off, and minimum wage is a fat fucking joke. When you say folks should go back to school so they can get a better job, realize that there are only so many hours in the day, rent still needs paid, and student loans are a crippling debt that can stick around for the rest of one’s life. Going back to school doesn’t guarantee a better job. It’s a huge gamble, and often a risk not worth taking. Meanwhile, bullshit like this Net Neutrality thing just reinforces what poor people are told every day: We don’t care about you. You aren’t worth caring about. You’re less than us and you always will be.

So, to whomever came up with this brilliant fucking moneymaking scheme, to whatever minions of Satan decided this was a good idea, to whichever group of capitalist scumfucks run the world from a series smoky backrooms, to the sorts of bigwigs who treat people like commodities and regularly step on others for the sake of your bottom line, I have this to say to all of you, a story I hope with all the hope I can muster comes true: One day, in the not-too-distant future, both you and your corporation are going to have top-tier internet access, as befits your rank in society. Some poor person, some anonymous genius hacker with a piece of shit, obsolete laptop and a lot of time on his hands, hacks your service. Maybe he’ll start just to see if he can do it. Maybe he wants to look for jobs or apply to school or just get some pirated Game of Thrones or something. Whatever. Oh, but once he’s in he’ll become mad with fast service. The power! And he’s going to go exploring. He’s going to backtrack from your wifi to your harddrive. He’s going to spelunk about in your email and your address book and your bank accounts. Ooh, the bank accounts. The investments. The credit cards. He’s going to drain them, slowly at first, so you don’t become alarmed. He’s not greedy, he doesn’t take it all for himself. He doesn’t want to be rich. He doesn’t want to be like you. Just a little donation to a local homeless shelter here, a tiny endowment for a scholarship there, the sorts of things a fucker like you would do to try to look good in your community. For the tax writeoffs, of course. And since it looks innocuous enough, your accountant doesn’t send up any red flags. But then, as our hacker hero’s confidence grows, there will come a day when you are bled dry. You’ll go to buy another car you don’t need or go to a fancy meal with no intention of tipping your server. And lo! Your card will be declined. And your other card. And your other card. You’ll figure out that something’s wrong and you’ll head home, only to find that everything you own is being repossessed. You didn’t pay your bills. Your lights are off. Your phone’s disconnected. You don’t have any food. Your house is in foreclosure. How do people live like this? you think. Then, oh, what a sweet, sweet plot twist, and this is my favorite part, really: the FBI shows up. Seems that they have some questions about your former computer’s harddrive. There was some truly evil, sick shit on there, my man. I don’t know where it came from, you say. I’m innocent, you say. Too fucking bad. Because our hacker friend, as I believe I mentioned, is a genius. A genius with a grudge, no less. So, now, you can’t afford your high-powered attorney. You get the same exhausted, overworked, court-appointed schlub as all the indigents you never cared about. You go to prison. Of course you do. You’ve lost it all. You’re surrounded, day in and day out, by people who have been routinely fucked over by yourself and others like you their entire lives. And boy, do they hate you. They make your life a living hell. And, while I’m not a spiteful person most days, when I hear about how far you’ve fallen? I. Will. Laugh.

 

Turn, turn, turn.

A few weeks ago I was sitting on a beach on Maui. It was just about as beachy as beachy gets: hot, muggy, flowers having sex all over the place. I was reading the complete Sherlock Holmes. Again. I brought that book on vacation precisely because I’ve read it before, to avoid missing anything by getting all caught up in a new and exciting book. Problem is, Sherlock Holmes is the least sitting-on-a-beach-on-Maui book ever written. It’s all fog and rain and dark city streets and roaring fireplaces. Lots of coats and upholstery. Now, I can’t say off the top of my head what constitutes a good beach read, but I know this wasn’t it. Perhaps I should hang out on more beaches, call it research. But I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and because we’re coming up on fall again I figured I should try to nail down what exactly makes a book seasonally appropriate. Books are like pumpkin spice or Christmas lights. When used in the wrong weather they’re horrible.

Obviously the setting of the book has a lot to do with it. Something like Sherlock Holmes or Susanna Clarke’s brilliant Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell should be read in late fall or winter. They just feel chilly, like you want to cuddle up with them on a gray day. On the other hand, On the Road or Summerland by Michael Chabon are definitely summer novels. Lots of outdoor shenanigans. And some books aren’t really seasonal because they span a long enough period of time. The Lord of the Rings, for example. Or because the season is irrelevant, like Hitchhiker’s Guide.

There’s the rub, though: I think of Hitchhiker’s Guide as a summer book, for absolutely no other reason than having read it in the summer, every time I’ve read it. There are some things that stick in my head and I don’t know why. A few years ago, I was looking for a book outside of my comfort zone and I asked my buddy Janet for a recommendation. She suggested Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which, to my understanding, is set in New York around the time of 9/11. I told her I didn’t want to read it right then because it was hot outside and New York is cold. Obviously she looked at me like I had three heads, but being very forgiving of my quirks and tics, she helped me find something else. But I thought about it later, because I got to thinking about 9/11, and I know for a fact that it was hot out that day, both in New York City and where I was in North Carolina. So what the fuck, brain? A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Last Exit to Brooklyn, The Great Gatsby, The Basketball Diaries – all set in New York in the summer and all decidedly summertime reads. I have been to New York City in the middle of the summer and it was hot as fuck. I got on the wrong train and had to walk thirty blocks and the soles melted off of my sandals! But my automatically thinking of New York as cold remains, however illogical.

And then there’s the genre thing. I was looking at books in several airport bookstores on my travels (it’s a compulsion, I have to look) and I definitely noticed a preponderance of horror and mystery titles. Being that I was traveling in July and August, I have to wonder if those stores were catering to the vacationing crowd specifically, or if their stock looks like that year-round and they’re always catering to the weary traveler. Either way, why horror and mystery? Sure, they pump out a lot of cheap paperbacks, but have we gotten so CSI-brained that murder and gore are considered fluffy beach reading? Because I know that I, personally, tend to read more horror in the winter. That whole “dark and stormy night” thing, I guess. I would expect vacation-y books to be lighter fare, junk food for people who only get this one week off a year and want to unwind. But to each their own unwindings, I suppose. I have, in fact, been laughed at in the face for suggesting that science fiction can be as high-minded as canonical literature, so read all the stabby stab you want while you’re at the beach. Fluff is super subjective.

There are books that confound me, though, that would seem better suited to one season but absolutely aren’t. The Stones of Summer is a perfect example. If you can get your hands on a copy I highly recommend it. Obviously, it’s set in the summertime, but it falls squarely on the list of books I would suggest for reading deep in the fall, but before it gets wintery. An October book, for sure. There’s something almost mournful about the way he talks about summer, probably because he’s using it as an allegory for lost childhood (which sounds heavy-handed but is beautifully done). And there are little nods throughout, little moments when he says something that makes you feel like summer has been trapped, caged the way that we tend to hold onto memories of childhood. One line, about a boy sitting on a wall and idly kicking his feet: “He was silent like screaming roses growing in glass houses.” If that’s not a line that belongs to autumn, I don’t know what is.

This all might be just in my head, you guys. And I think I might have a little bit of a seasonal bias because I have a literature degree. My tendency was always to read things over the summer that were as far removed as possible from what I studied in school, all that boring but important shit. Which is how I ended up reading everything by Kurt Vonnegut in about six weeks one year. One does not walk away from that marathon unwarped, my friends. Point is, in the fall, my brain wants to buckle down and get serious, do some work. I start itching for nonfiction or some heavy piece of classic fiction. It’s Pavlovian, almost. And it’s funny, really, because it’s different now that I live in a different climate. I feel like I should be seeing changing leaves and smelling woodsmoke and drying tobacco soon. But there’s none of that here. There’s not going to be one morning when I wake up and the smell is right and the chill is right and I know it’s definitely fall. The light is…what? Leaner, maybe. Gentler. And one day it will start raining. But that’s it. My brain doesn’t know what to do with that. A grouchy wee bugger, my brain.

Anyway, lesson learned. No more Arthur Conan Doyle at the beach for me. I’ll keep you posted on what seasonally anachronistic things I run across this coming winter. I’ve promised to not buy any more books until I get through the forty or so I have sitting in a box, so we’ll see how that goes. It will be a trying experiment, I’m sure. Brain and I will get through it somehow. We always do.

 

A sweaty-toothed madman.

*Trigger warning: this post contains references to suicide.*

I didn’t want my first post back to be about suicide so I’ve held on to this piece and by now I think everything that’s going to be said has been said about the death of Robin Williams. But I’m going to say some stuff anyway. I was absolutely gutted when I heard. My sister is a huge fan and I was actually sitting on her couch looking at a framed, signed photo of him when her boyfriend told us. That was a surreal moment. I was so sure we’d get to watch him grow old, turn into the wacky grandpa everyone wants.

It’s been a couple of weeks, and in that time the internet has filled up with stuff about artists and comedians, their high rate of mental illness, their propensity for substance abuse, their suicide statistics. I feel like this is all fairly common knowledge, but we tend to forget about it until another one bites the dust and it gets thrown back in our faces. We ignore it as a day-to-day reality, as something we could help with, until it’s too late and we are forced to mourn. The fact is, the limelight burns. No amount of celebrity or money will fix the inside of someone’s head. Power won’t hold your hand and tell you everything will be okay. The love of millions won’t make you any less lonely in the middle of the night. Fame doesn’t check to see that you’re taking your meds.

People talk about suicide like it’s selfish or cowardly. I disagree. Life is fucking hard. Not in a pedestrian, gotta-pay-the-bills kind of way, although that does pose its own set of struggles. No, I mean that all of us, to a man, are tasked with making the most of our century or so on the face of this rock. That’s fucking daunting. Some folks just aren’t up to it. They quit. They leave us and it’s heartbreaking, but never, ever think that it’s lazy. I suppose a good percentage of them have some sort of faith in an afterlife and it’s comforting to think that it will all get better in that other place. That the pain will end and that we can exist beyond it, outside of it. I don’t believe that myself, but I don’t begrudge anyone that comfort, that little piece of hope. That’s powerful stuff, one of the engines that drives the world.

None of which is to say that I support suicide as a decision in general. But to judge someone’s life based on their death is absurd. These people aren’t weak, they’re tired. They’re not cowards for being unable to face another day, not when every day brings nothing but suffering and the promise of more misery. Sometimes there just aren’t any bright spots in the darkness. I don’t know that it’s really suicide that we have a problem with as a culture, but the aftermath. Death happens all the time. It’s a part of life and it will come for every single one of us. To make the decision as to when and how is not selfish, even if it seems so to those who get left behind. But it makes us feel like we weren’t enough to live for. Because we weren’t. That’s rough, but it’s true. I think it’s tremendously selfish and unhealthy, the way that we make suicide about the living.

(Having said all of that, I want to make it clear that suicide is a final solution and not an idea to fuck around with lightly. I’m not a fan of the practice, even if I do my best to understand it. If you are considering killing yourself, please talk to someone – a friend, a shrink, a stranger on the street. The number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 800.273.8255 in the U.S.)

Back to my point.

Mr. Williams’ death is sad. I’d like for us all to do our best to think not about his death but about his life. He lived and breathed to make people happy and that is, frankly, a pretty tough gig. The world can be shitty, can seem overwhelmingly negative, and there’s more than a little temptation to give up on doing our parts to make it better. It’s hard work being a force for good. So let’s not be sad in thinking that he chose to leave us, but be happy that he lived at all. Furthermore, the man was a fucking wizard. He could do anything. From his frenetic standup to his most subtle dramatic roles, it all seemed equally effortless, as natural as breathing for him.

My favorite of his films is Dead Poets Society. It’s a beautiful movie. Maybe it’s because when I first saw it I was going through a heavy Whitman phase. Or because I went to a shitty school and wept knowing that I would probably never have a teacher like that (I did, but not until college). Whatever it was, that movie sticks with me. I’m a grownup now and a lot of my friends are teachers. Much love and respect guys, I do not envy you your jobs. But I’m absolutely positive, in the squishiest bits of my little heart, that they will be someone’s Mr. Keating. And I hope whoever it is has the balls to tell them what kind of an impact they made. We should all do that more often. Anyway, I love that movie. Makes me want to write poetry and take walks in New England snowstorms.

What I think I like most about Robin Williams, though, is that almost without exception his films meant something. Popeye aside, if he did slapstick, it was in service of a great story. He brought levity to heavy subjects, a credit to his acting as well as to the great scripts he chose. Awakenings, Dead Poets Society, The Birdcage, Good Will Hunting, What Dreams May Come – disease, art, identity, genius, and death, all made funny and beautiful.

Because life is funny and beautiful.

It is absolutely critical that we remember that, you guys. Look up from your day occasionally and take a second to recognize what an amazing and powerful creature you are. You, a cog in this weird universal machine. You, a glitch in the matrix. You, with your flaws and your fuckups and your irrevocable mistakes. You, with your stories and your triumphs and your victory, every day, over entropy. Remember, most of all, that “to live” is a verb. You do it, it doesn’t happen to you.

 

The triumphant return of Rantypants McGee.

I’ve been away. I’m back now, feeling much more human, for the moment. I don’t think I realized how much I needed this trip. I’ve got no further plans to leave the face of the planet anytime soon, though, so your bloggening needs can all be accommodated.

I wanted to write a bunch of posts before I left and post them while I was away. But I was brainfried and didn’t write them. And I don’t travel with a computer anyway, so the logistics weren’t great on my part there.

And then I figured it would be okay because I’d come home with all kinds of interesting and blogworthy things to say, full of energy and writery juices. Not so much. I am, miraculously, fairly angst-free at the moment, and my best work seems to be born of friction.

But I learned a lot on these adventures, so I thought I could just make a list of those things, both epiphanic and mundane. You people love a good list. It’s like you’re reading my mind. However, somewhere between #1 (guava flesh will make you constipated but the skin is a laxative) and #15 (the story about pulling over at two AM to take pictures of a church sign in South Carolina that read “Close our borders. Even Heaven has a gate”) it all started to feel bloated and selfish, like those torturous evenings of looking at someone’s vacation photos. Only way more verbose.

So I decided to take a breather and unpack, clear my head. From the Tetris-like depths of my bag I unearthed a tiny notebook that I had honestly forgotten about, and found a drunken scrawled mess that I forgot I wrote. It’s weird and it feels like kind of a downer, but I like it so I thought I’d put it up here. Also, apparently, drunk me likes to add 90s music playlists to her writing. She’s so clever. Here goes:

That one moment, or: culture shock.

I’m riding down a two-lane backroad with three other humans. I’m not quite drunk. I’m smoking. All four windows are down. Something metal is playing on the radio and we’re going very fast. It’s warm. It’s raining. I’m laughing. My arm is hanging out the window and a lightning bug slams into it and dies a hopeful, wonderful, laughter-filled death. Suddenly I look around and wonder what year it is. These are my friends, this is the right road, this is the appropriate beer, the right Volkswagen. But wrong model, wrong guns, wrong cigarettes, wrong album, wrong combination of couples. The song changes. I’m tired. I’m older. I can’t live from awesome moment to awesome moment anymore. I have a husband and bills to pay and places to be. Dogs to pet. Snuggles to receive. Plans to make. A life to build, so they tell me. I want to cry, to quiver for the girl with all that potential, not so very very long ago. The one who loved warm nights and fast cars and cute boys and cute girls and loud music and cheap wine. She was fun and I miss her. Lots of people miss her. Sometimes I think about her and I wonder where she went, what she’s doing, if she died, who the fuck this person is who took her place. Imposter, poser, usurper. On the other hand, maybe she wasn’t good enough to live in the first place. Perhaps she was a figment all along. Some retroactive construction of my adult imagination, a defense mechanism created to justify later bad decisions. I don’t believe in regret. I believe wholeheartedly in wasted and missed opportunities, just not the mourning of them. Our eyeballs are in the fronts of our heads for a reason. Keep looking forward because forward is all we have. Thus it has always been and thus it shall always be, amen. No amount of Nine Inch Nails and fast cars on beautiful backroads will ever change that. No reason to be sad about it. Just accept that it’s been twenty-five years and Trent Reznor has a kid and two Oscars and the march of time is massive and terrifying and unstoppable. It is not chaos. Let it wash over you like rain. Roll the windows down. Breathe smoke. Laugh. Hold your friend’s hand and tell him you’re glad he’s alive. Take a whole summer night and enjoy it from beginning to end. Your time is precious. Measure it in lightning bugs. Measure it in rock songs. Measure it in winding roads. But measure it. Don’t just let it go by unnoticed. Please, please, please. Measure it…

 

Mini infoburst, and a heartfelt apology.

Hello, friends. I realize it’s not blog day. And I realize that I’ve left you hanging for two weeks with no explanation. Sorry about that. I should’ve given some warning. I’m on vacation! Hooray! Trust me, we’ll all like me better after I’ve taken a month off from my life. I spent ten days in Hawaii, came home for two days, and this evening I’m leaving to hit up the east coast for two weeks. It’s crazytown. I have much to tell you about. Now your line is: “Like what, Vanessa?” Well, I’m so glad you asked.

– Reading Sherlock Holmes on a beach in Maui feels weird, and other summer vs winter book arguments.

– Missing ComiCon again but flying through LAX that weekend, celebrity hunting, and how fucking weird is southern California?

– Buying a new ukulele, my mother’s ongoing struggle to get me to pronounce “ukulele” correctly, real music vs tourist music, bluegrass.

-Travelling during fire season, road closures, rockslides, and other menacing environmental factors.

– The first of (hopefully) many installments of short stories written about pictures of abandoned buildings in Appalachia. If I can wrangle my little sister into a documentarian adventure while I’m there.

And many more! I’m so stoked. My brain really has enjoyed this bit of rest. But I am sorry that I left without warning. My bad. Mea culpa. Next time I’ll plan ahead a little better. Right now I have to go get ready to be slingshot once again off the surface of the planet. Yay, physics!

The cage is full.

 

I finished Orange is the New Black the other day. I wanted to write about it that week, but I thought I might go back and watch season one again first, just to be thorough (read: because I was really pissed that it was over and wanted more more more, dammit!). And then that didn’t happen because I went on a weird documentary bender. More about that soon. If you haven’t watched Orange is the New Black, you are missing out on a big fat heap of awesome, my friends.

A brief rundown: Piper Chapman is an average American young woman – early thirties, adorable boyfriend, lives in New York, runs a soap company with her best friend (a nod to Fight Club? Anybody? No? Is it just me?). Thing is, she’s a convicted felon. Her ex-girlfriend was a drug dealer and at some point Piper carried some money through customs for her, and the ex ratted on her. Such a low-class move. But Piper owned up to it and took the heat. The first episode is about her saying goodbye to her life and showing up at the penitentiary to serve a fifteen-month sentence. And then the madness begins. The whole premise of the show is that juxtaposition between a normal girl and a setting so outside her worldview. I think a lot of people from her social milieu would never expect to find themselves in prison (unless they’re perpetrating white collar crime), and honestly probably don’t think about prison that much at all (unless they’re lawyers). It’s a vaguely menacing, faraway thing. Like war or starvation or Detroit. This show is, essentially, about culture shock.

What I like about it most (besides the fact that it’s a Netflix original so doesn’t have to bend to the whims of any network bullshit – you go Netflix! Do you!) is the storytelling structure. Piper’s sort of Les Miserables-ish accidental felon situation is just the through-line, but there’s a huge cast of characters and in the tradition of prison culture, we do not ask what they’re in for. Each episode has flashbacks cut in between the main story, focusing on whichever character is most relevant to Piper’s plotline at the time, and one by one we get their backstories. But until that character has her individual episode, we don’t get any information about them. Only after her episode will she have explicit dialogue about her past. It’s very well done, and moves the present action along by showing us that character’s motivations or weaknesses, something that the people in the prison may not even know. There are a lot of “oh, shit, that changes everything!” moments.

So, I know what you’re thinking. “Hey, Vanessa, aren’t stories about women’s prisons usually porn?” Why, yes, that’s certainly a thing. They even address it in one episode directly, when Piper’s boyfriend does a radio interview with an Ira Glass-ish reporter. Because of the whole bisexual thing, I think, there’s some relationship tension that the reporter wants to address, asking about “women’s prison tropes.” Such excellent euphemizing. There’s definitely some sapphic action in the show, so if you’re delicate about that kind of thing you should keep your fast forward trigger finger at the ready. I think they’ve handled the prison sex issue pretty well, overall. While it does seem gratuitous at times, they’ve done well to avoid any porn-ish-ness. Because none of us can deny that that’s a thing that happens, right? Might as well be realistic. This would be a completely different conversation if we were talking about a show about men in prison, though, so there’s that.

See how I dodged that Insufferable Feminist soapbox just then? I don’t know who keeps leaving that thing laying around, but I’ve been tripping over it a lot lately. On the other hand: this is the part where I’m supposed to say “something something strong female characters.” And sure, fine, that’s totally true. But in a cast full of women, using that rings hollow as a compliment. What I like more than the characters being female is that they’re, each and every one, bad guys. Some worse than others, granted, but how many other shows can you think of where even the hero is a villain to some degree? I can count, off the top of my head, only maybe six characters who aren’t convicted felons and a couple of them are more villainous than the inmates, without question. It fucks with one’s perception of the generally accepted standard of good and bad. Holy bigger picture, man.

The idea of good and bad is changing. I don’t know if it’s our cultural climate in general, or the success of Breaking Bad, but lately we love a story about good people doing bad shit to get by, don’t we? What’s that about? Maybe it’s our shitty economy or whatever but I think there’s a lot of “just keep your head down and get through this” kind of stories popping up in America right now. Audiences can relate. Things are tough all over. You gotta do what you gotta do. Pick an aphorism. The bottom line is, if we paid teachers what they’re actually worth and/or (preferably “and”) had a functional universal health care system, Breaking Bad would never have happened. We’re breeding bad guys by making it hard for good people to make it. At some point I want to get my anthropologist friend to write a guest post about our prison system. Now would be the perfect time, but she’s busy this week going off to become a teacher so she can more actively participate in the elimination of the school-to-prison pipeline. Good on her. Thanks, buddy. Some other time, for sure. It’s interesting, terrifying stuff.

Anyway. If you’re into character-driven drama/dark comedy with shit tons of ladies being bad guys (and really, who isn’t?), check out Orange is the New Black. There are two seasons on Netflix so far, with one more due out next summer. Be warned: you will want to binge watch them all in one sitting. Remember to take breaks for showers and food and sleep, okay?

 

An ellipsis only has three periods. Always. Seriously.

Last week I posted a long and ranty and semi-political diatribe about food. It is currently siting in the number three spot on the list of all-time most-read posts (after this one and this one). Thanks, you guys, for continuing to read my stuff even when it seems like I’ve gone off the rails. Especially when it seems like I’ve gone off the rails, I suppose. It’s why I keep doing this, despite all the many, many times I’ve wanted to stop. Giving up is always the easier path, and I’m going against my nature each time I don’t choose it. Thank you, thank you, thank you. A special thanks to those of you who have chosen to share my work with others at some point. That’s the biggest compliment I could receive, honestly.

However. It does have a downside. Last week, a friend shared my ranty food piece on her Facebook page. She’d never shared a link to my blog before, so I was touched. A friend of hers (who, for the record, I do not know) commented on it thusly: “Hmmmmm…..this geek has WAY too much time on her hands….” Well. That’s a thing you could say. But why? Putting aside the fact that it’s patently untrue, it doesn’t mean anything. It certainly doesn’t speak to the subject matter or the quality of my writing in that piece. She could have given an actual opinion like “this is boring” or “I do not care about this at all” or “what a piece of shit,” and I would have been happier. Saying I have too much time on my hands is basically saying that I should have found a better use for said time, right? Better how? More in line with her personal interests? More in line with whatever it is people who live in normal civilization do in their free time, with their access to amenities and activities? Apparently working really hard on a piece I quite liked about an issue that means a lot to me was a waste of time. Who knew?

I spent two whole days resisting the urge to comment back. Since I don’t know her, and our mutual friend is someone I care about and didn’t want to offend, I struggled with this demon kneejerk snark reaction that will surely be my downfall someday. I fought that motherfucker hard. But seeing as how taking the high road comes even less naturally to me than taking the more difficult path, I decided to blog about it instead. Because if I’m going to burn someone down, I’m going to do it on my turf. Verbosely. And with vigor.

Insert malignant stare and steepled villain fingers here.

Ahem.

Dear Semi-anonymous Facebook Commenter:

I sincerely appreciate your reading a post on my blog last week. It means a lot to me to know that I’m acquiring new readership. Moreover, I’m glad to see that you provided me with some feedback. After all, art is defined by the boundaries of criticism and I welcome every opportunity to hear what people have to say about my work. I would like to congratulate you (if you haven’t done so already) on so immediately having such keen insight not only into the issues I addressed in that one particular piece, but also into my lifestyle. I do have too much time on my hands. Wallowing around in my golden pool full of money only eats up a small portion of my day, and I find myself having to wile away the hours by staring blankly into space, pondering life’s deeper meaning and speculating on human nature. Such pesky distractions. And a plight that you are most certainly aware of, having taken up some of your own copious free time to formulate your thoughtful and articulate critique of my writing. Tell me, how big is your golden pool full of money? I’m sure, with the Golden Pool Full of Money community being so small, that we would have much to discuss. And so much time in which to discuss it! I would also be interested to hear your further pithy deconstructions of the modern written word. It is up to us who are blessed with the luxury of too much time to maintain the critical standards of art, obviously, since the time requirements for free thinking are far too much for the common man. Their having to slave away brainlessly like they do saddens me, it truly does. Perhaps I will see more of your clear and very helpful commentary on future blog posts.

Lovingly yours,

Vanessa Howe

I feel so much better now, you guys. Yes, yes, that was petty and childish. But cathartic. And fun.

Look, I can take criticism. I’m not saying that people won’t or shouldn’t have negative reactions to some of the stuff I write. If everyone loved everything I wrote, I’d be a rock star novelist by now, right? I’m not, and the odds aren’t good I ever will be. Meanwhile, I’m pretty tough, and I know which comments to hang onto and which to ignore, what is useful and what I should let roll off me. Criticism is vital, or else we get lost in our own little world. No one can create in a vacuum. Furthermore, we as consumers need criticism; it’s often how we dig through the murk of an over-saturated media establishment to find the new thing we might want to try. But if you’re going to provide commentary, actually provide it. Have an opinion and a real point of view. I’m not one of those Pollyanna people with their “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” philosophy. If you don’t like a thing, say you don’t like it. It would be too much for me to ask for polite, cogent discourse, but don’t just say something, anything, to fill space. That’s like carving “Billy Bob wuz here” on a picnic table or a tree. It’s almost masturbatory, just acknowledging your own presence and not actually contributing anything to the conversation at hand. I think this is a huge problem in the culture we’ve created online, given the anonymity that commenters hide behind (*cough*fuckingcowards*coughcough*). The comment threads on the whole internet sound like one long nightmarish episode of Beavis and Butthead and I’m starting to feel like there is no escape.

Anyway. I just had to get that off my chest. I don’t know why it got to me so badly. As always, please direct all your rage and indignation to my comments section.