Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Better late than never (for a principled stand)

Apparently I'm the last person in the world to discover Common Dreams.

I stumbled onto it following this link on why one of my favourite bloggers, L-girl of We Move to Canada (linked at right), won't be watching the Olympics this year. There's been a lot of discussion about the benefits, drawbacks, and justification (or lack thereof) for a boycott of the Games: does the West have a right to throw stones? is it a good thing that the world will be taking a good look at China at this crucial moment? will a boycott only, in the end, hurt our own athletes and China's poor? Of course in each conversation you get the inevitable mix of quackery, non-sequiturs, and concern trolling.

The title story on Common Dreams today, "China Using Olympics as 'Pretext' for Crackdown: Amnesty," corroborates the worst of our suspicions about what's going on over there, and provides as good an occasion as any to share one of my many Stories From When I Was In India to explain why I will be joining whole-heartedly in the boycott - and why you all should, too.

When I Was In India, I met lots of other people who were away on Big Trips - many of which were much bigger than mine. One of the most interesting people was a Canadian woman in her mid-20's who I met in Dharamsala. She was on her second year-long trip through Asia. On her first trip, she'd come through China, among other countries, and when I met her, she was still debating whether or not she was going to return on this trip.

Her family was Chinese by background, and she spoke a little bit of Cantonese. We talked a lot about where we'd been - and she'd been everywhere - but she had a bit of trouble speaking clearly about her time in China. All her sentences seemed to U-turn mid-way, veering from rants about the poverty to rhapsody about the quiet generosity of the people she met, and then from romantic descriptions of the coast to terse protests against the uselessness of the newspapers. She sounded like she was scanning her own comments, maybe her own feelings, for the exact wording that would leave me with an accurate impression of her time there without falling into any of the many pits that we all tend to fall into when talking and thinking about China.

The last story she told me was this one.

She was on a train somewhere in the interior - I forget which province. It was packed. About an hour before she was supposed to be getting off, she looked in her bag and noticed that her iPod was gone. She reported the loss to a railroad employee in the car, who told her to sit still for a moment and disappeared into the front of the train. The conducter stopped the train in the middle of nowhere. A few minutes later, the conducter and the man she's approached for help climbed into her car and began searching people. They were doing a sweep of the entire train, looking for her missing iPod. In the car behind her, they found it. The rail employee returned it to her and told her the situation was being taken care of. Out her window, she saw the conductor pulling a young man away from the train. He was bleeding heavily from his face but was still struggling. Two other men in rail uniforms followed. One of them pulled out a gun and shot the man point-blank in the head. They left his body there, and the train kept moving.

When she told me this story, I was so shocked that I didn't ask her any questions. She said she almost ended her trip after that, even though she was only a few months in. But she felt like she couldn't leave.

I have no framework for thinking about what it must be like to live in a place where the state has that kind of power, or where one word from a foreigner can (unintentionally) get a man killed. I don't ever want to need a framework for that.

I know this story is undocumented, and that anyone reading it is automatically hearing it at least two times removed from its original source. It's anecdotal and unverifiable. But I remember so clearly what she looked like while telling this story - this petite Canadian girl who had no reason to lie to me.

I do think that some folks are onto something when they point out that the attention China is getting over the Games has the potential to help the Chinese people. A huge part of that will be education (at least of the West, most of which hasn't been following China too closely until the last few years) about what's going on.

On the 8th, my TV gets turned off. I hope yours will, too.

Pretty sure that's illegal

I'm apartment-hunting in Toronto. I just had a landlord tell me over the phone that he wouldn't allow me to come view an apartment because I was living with three girls, and he wanted at least half of the tenants to be guys.

This was the place.

Fuck you, guy. Seriously. Just fuck right off.

Who wants to help me find out who to complain to?

Friday, July 25, 2008

My love-circus includes some hesitations

I can't tell you how strange it is to suddenly see "The X-Files" everywhere.

I was a serious fan of the show back when it was still on the air and I was still just a pup (I was only 16 when the show ended, and 14 or 15 when I stopped watching). A year and a half ago, for reasons that were mostly about procrastination , I started rewatching old seasons after not having thought about them for years. Nabokov said that only the rereading counts,* and he was right.

In short, I was surprised how easy it was to come back to the series - and how rewarding. I became a casual viewer around the age of 9 or 10 and an afficionado by 12. The 22-year old me

Rebecca Traister owns up to her fandom and has mini-essay up about Dana Scully, crush object. Feministing Community member Starzki6 has a list of reasons why the character was great (both via).

Although I agree whole-heartedly with both articles, especially Traister's (she picks up on the sainthood arc, coins the helpful phrase "walking pheromone," and shares my opinion that Mulder 2008 would be in Guantanamo Bay right now), I'm a little surprised by the unequivocally positive tone of both pieces.

I suppose it's because in rewatching the series, I remembered what I think was my first self-consciously feminist moment - and it was in criticism.

There's an episode in season five called "Kill Switch," and in it, a hardcore-sexy techie named Esther Nairn helps the agents and their bizarro associates (the Lone Gunmen) hunt down a big artificially-intelligent eye in the sky that's trying to blow them all up. Turns out it lives in a trailer, go figure. Scully bristles in Esther's presence to the point of being catty, asking of her, "What was your role in this? Were you the bass player?". With all due respect to Kims Deal and Gordon, D'Arcy Wretzky, and Melissa Auf Der Mar, I remember thinking, "God, that's so typical. They've made her all territorial when other women are around." This feature of Scully's character - who could stare a sociopathic serial killer into the ground if he was a he - wasn't a one-time thing. In "War of the Coprophages," a series hilight, she doesn't give a thought to joining Mulder in person until she finds out Dr. "Her Name Is" Bambi Berenbaum is on the scene. Further examples exist; I'll have mercy on more casual fans by not listing them.

In my 'rereading,' I've found more than that to object to on feminist grounds.

This is the character who I still think of when I consider who I want to be as a professional woman. This is the character who helped me understand that there is sometimes reason in faith and madness in everything. This is the character who lived and thrived at the exact point where chaos intersects with order, who was able to find the infinite possibilities within the natural world both beautiful and horrible, who looked at a world governed by chaos and still saw human responsibility everywhere. I believe in the cosmology of this character, very seriously. She gave me the sense, back then, that some day, I wouldn't need to conceal my intelligence anymore,** and also that if you can run as fast as everyone else and are going to be the most competent person in the room anyway, you might as well wear those 3-inch heels; you go ahead and wear whatever you want.

But so many of the character's flaws were heavily steeped in gender stereotypes.

For one, she had a Daddy complex. I'm not referring to "Beyond the Sea," in which her father has just died - that episode is beautiful. I'll even forgive the uncharacteristically teary "Was he ever proud of me?". But he keeps returning, and with each stroke her family life (and its apparent effect on her psykollergy) gets a little more patriarchal - and pathetic. After she returns from being abducted ("One Breath"), at the moment she's closest to death, she has a totally non-sequitur vision of her father saying a bunch of crap that has nothing to do with anything except to present the possibility - assumption? - that the only reason she's thinking of letting go is that she wants to be back with him: "We'll be together again, Starbuck, but not now." No mention of anything she might have unresolved in her life, just a monologue about his feelings for her and then that.

And while I usually wouldn't dignify season seven with a reference, the episode "En Ami" has the single most cringe-worthy moment of the whole series, bar none, which completely reaffirms what I'm talking about here. You know it's bad because in the scene before, her building attendant provides totally unprovoked and irrelevant praise: "She's a great girl - independent as they come, you know, but a great girl." Nevermind what that "but" is doing there, we have a Smoking Man quote to get to.

And I quote:

"You're drawn to powerful men but you fear their power. You keep your guard up, a wall around your heart. How else do you explain that fearless devotion to a man obsessed, and, yet, a life alone? You'd die for Mulder but you won't allow yourself to love him."

Throw in the fact that her brother hates her boyfriend (yah yah, he's not her boyfriend, blah blah blargh) and that putting the star at the top of the Christmas tree is "man's work," and I rest my case.

Other than the Daddy complex, my major complaint about the way the character is written regards those few cases when she does start acting irrationally - and all of them, to a one, are about woman-stuff.

In season four's "Never Again," she begins to wonder if she's being held back by everything she's compromised for Mulder (the premise is appropriate and right), but explores it by maybe-sleeping-with a creep she meets during an investigation and getting a tattoo. Bad girl! (/sarcasm.) The episode ends by showing how much Mulder takes her for granted, but the writers just don't seem to be giving her any more credit than he does. She was always good with kids, right from season one, but after she finds out her cancer has left her infertile and her (suddenly found) daughter dies, the writers played up the children-make-me-vulnerable-and-a-little-over-emotional dynamic way more than was necessary to give the character depth and indicate that the loss of Emily was formative and profound: on the contrary, it was just about drama. Drama that, more often than not, just felt tacky.

I hesitate to even bring up the awfulness that is "Milagro," a season six trainwreck. But I will because it confirms my suspicions about the writers' discomfort with the character's personal side, and helps show the ways I think they did her wrong. I admit that consistent characterization had been all but thrown out the window by this point, but come on. A guy who claims he's a writer is stalking Scully. He leers at her nauseatingly in the elevator (the camera participates - we get close-ups of her eyes, her parted lips) and she leaves all aflutter, unnerved but more than a little flattered. He corners her in a church (having deduced from her muscular calves that she jogs and where her route would likely take her) and she flees, scared but turned on. The episode's 'narration,' provided by Stalky McCreeperson, tells us as much: "But if she'd predictably aroused her sly partner's suspicions, Special Agent Dana Scully had herself... become simply aroused. All morning the stranger's unsolicited compliments had played on the dampened strings of her instrument until the middle 'C' of consciousness was struck square and resonant. She was flattered. His words had presented her a pretty picture of herself, quite unlike the practiced mask of uprightness that mirrored back to her from the medical examiners and the investigators and all the lawmen who dared no such utterances."

Yes, Stalky McCreeperson, please, give me what all professional women want: break through my shoddy respect-wanting veneer and mumble inferior, mock-poetic prose about how much you know you turn me on. Give me a "pretty picture of myself," preferably one you painted, because the real one - the one that I call my life - is just so, you know, unsexy. And definitely move into the apartment next to my partner's so you can watch me more closely. (That happened.)

Eventually they get ahold of the guy's manuscript. Mulder informs Scully that it ends with her doing a naked pretzel. Let's ignore the fact that this means Mulder actually read the entire, graphic, sexy thing, because that's problematic itself. When Mulder dares point out the obvious - that the guy's a creep, probably dangerous, and in this case, probably responsible for a few deaths, she defends him: "Why couldn't he have just imagined it, like he said? Like Shakespeare or Freud or Jung? I mean, maybe he has a gift and has a clear window into human nature."

I seriously resent being asked to believe that such an awesome character could suddenly dissolve into this desperate-for-attention wreck who wants to believe her stalker is Shakespeare and imagines that people who have "a clear window into human nature" look through it and see that nice, put-together girls like her really just need a little intrusion. How funny that you mention Freud - he had some thoughts on this, incidentally.

I'm left with the sense that so much of what made the character of Scully so loveable for little proto-feminist me came not from the writers but from Anderson. The writers knew how to write Scully the professional but not Scully the woman. Sure, she had epiphanies, but the Big Ones, the ones that seized The Truth with a capital 'T,' whether it's The Truth About Aliens or The Truth About The Teliko, were almost always Mulder's. The show itself so often seemed to take delight in setting Scully up to be wrong, getting the audience to roll their eyes at her, and then shove the truth up in her face in the last five minutes of the episode. But in those same moments of revelation, we see Anderson's Scully, and Traister's:
Mulder's desire to believe was so expansive, his credulity so flexible, that it's not as though he was ever going to have either shaken from him. But Scully's surety was solid, stable, rigid; every time she saw something she thought she'd never see, we saw it crack, sparks fly from it. She was forced to question herself, grow, change. In short, she got the better arc, and her journeys were always, by dint of the setup, more intricate and moving.
Anderson's, and Traister's, and mine.

Of course, in all of these criticisms, I'm asking perfection as if it's a shame to be merely great. I just wish my Scully hadn't been as under-estimated by her writers as by the institutions they sought to villify.

And somehow I've ended up revisiting another tradition I haven't touched in a decade - spending upwards of an hour on a Friday night talking about the X-Files online. Ahjeez.

I'm 15 again, and I'm seeing "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" in 1 day, 23 hours, 36 minutes.

UPDATE: 1 day, 23 hours, 35 minutes.

UPDATE: 1 day, 23 hours, 34 minutes...

NB: All quotes and episode titles taken from Red Wolf.

*Michael Ondaatje agrees with him and uses a nice translation.
**Let's have the discussion about what it means to be a "smart" young girl some other time.

Sneaky activism

So I've got this job. I work at a fairly large bookstore which I have nothing but contempt for, except for the part where I enjoy the work environment and get to borrow books for free.

And also except for the part where I get to passive-aggressively direct browsers to books I think they should read. The new policy, to get me through the day, is to shelve books that I don't like with only the spines facing out and to turn the ones I do like so that the whole front cover is visible. This practice does comply with proper merchandising procedures... more or less.

So, new add-on feature: "Spined and Fronted."

Spined today:
Wendy Shalit, "Girls Gone Mild."
S. Fred Singer, "Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years."
"Gossip Girls": the entire series.

A bunch of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" books.
Marjane Satrapi, "Persepolis."
Tim Weiner, "Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA." (which I'm still reading and loving)

Been a good day. (See also: below.)

Slate and my literary education at their most useful

There's something very Shakespearean about the Bush administration, isn't there? 7 solid years of arrogance* and finally we have an outside chance of maybe, just maybe, seeing this story of hubris conclude as all Shakespearean stories of hubris must: with an impeachment. Er, downfall.

Dare we dream? Dare we? It's probably too early to get excited about the judiciary committee agreeing to let Kucinich (glad to see he's keeping busy) and others make their case for holding a full impeachment hearing. Still, I admit, I'm surprised it even got that far. I thought impeachment was just for lying about sex - I didn't realize it could also be used for things like gross breaches of the constitution and lying to the public in order to start wars of aggression (which I think used to be known by another name: treason).

But lest thou, O committee of our hearts
Be phased by the sprawling and unweidly
Dramatis personnae of this long tale,
The team at Slate presents this helpful guide
To who is who and who is on who's side.
On behalf of Canada, may I say
The world is watching, so impeach away.
Only a sucker would let off Gonzales
And you don't want Canada thinking you're ballsless.

Slate's Interactive Guide: Crimes and Misdemeanors. I'm taking this as an apology for not firing Will Saletan.

Iambic pentameter is hard. Leave your Shakespearean plea for impeachment in the comments.

*I'm assuming that this is better classified as a Shakespearean tragedy than a comedy. Of course, at 11pm and 11.30 every Monday through Thursday, I'm reminded otherwise.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

In which I claw my way back out of total mental stasis


Things have been a little slow since I've been home. I culture shocked pretty bad for about a week - every time I saw the colour white I was stopped in my tracks. Any street without pedestrians made me feel like I was living in a post-apocalyptic zombie world. For the first few days, I smelled everything - the Toronto airport, Canadian trees, my house, our car, you. Then, after it faded, I was desperate for days at a time to smell anything at all. I slept poorly, waking up in inky silence. One night, in a groggy half-delirium, I woke up thinking I should be able to hear my heartbeat, but there was just silence. I took my pulse at the wrist. Still there. Slid back into sleep, felt silly in the morning - silly, but also empty.

It's been more than a month since I got back and I've spent it unemployed and claustrophobic. I've been to Montreal and Toronto twice each, looking for company and a new home respectively. I've been job-seeking, emailing, sorting photos. I've done a little reading, but less than 200 pages. Mostly, 've been haunting the house feeling increasingly unsettled and useless.

All of which has reminded me that idleness one of the quickest harbingers of poor mental health... at least for me.

A few big things have happened in the last few days. First, I got hired. It's nothing to be of - just a lousy retail gig, actually one I was offered once in high school - but there's a paycheck coming in my near future. There's no emoticon indicating "sigh of relief," is there? I guess that's because 15-year olds rarely contemplate paying law school tuition and Toronto rent without any savings. Kids these days.

I also had my first orientation day at Osgoode, which feels too much like home for me to accept the nickname 'Oz.' Its homeliness is good and bad. I felt sincerely welcomed and inspired by what I heard, but not challenged.* I know without equivocation that I will eat these words over the next few months, but that doesn't stop the feeling now.

I also found my notes for a writing project I had started dreaming about during the months before I left. I still like it, and it still scares me. So, great. Included: a note from a former co-worker in response. "I think you're on to something." You know, I might be.

Perhaps most importantly, while I was in Montreal last weekend I made a pact with a friend. We both tried to think of something that we knew in our minds that we could do if we worked at it, but which seemed completely unimagineable at the moment. We both needed a bit of a kick-start in our lives, and this seemed like the way to do it. She came up with doing a triathlon next summer. I came up with running a marathon.

This, in 2009, is going to be my marathon. I have well over a year to train for it - enough time to prepare if I work at it consistently, not enough time to drag my feet. I have new running shoes and I've started my jogging training plan. I run three times a week for the next 8 weeks when I adjust my schedule based on my fitness level. By that time, my free York U gym membership will have kicked in.

So far I'm excited and feeling good - about everything. In this spirit, I present a new post tag, inspired by my unspeakable love for Simon Pegg: "Run, fatgirl, run."

All this to say, I'm resurrecting this blog. All previous entries from my India trip are now going to be tagged with "India" and archived. I'm hoping to post substantively at least once or twice a week, depending on how school is going. At the moment, I'm bursting with things I want to talk about - mostly the things I always talk about: politics, pop, and progress.

Stay tuned.

*Budgetary challenge not included.