Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Steampunking: Charitable Practicality!

I have been pointed out to this amazing technology called "Adaptive Eyewear" which aims to provide corrective lenses to as many people as possible, especially in the African countries where over a billion people live without perfect vision.

Having worn glasses since I was 9, I cannot imagine what life would be like without my glasses (though I wear contact lenses for modeling and acting), and everytime I wear my glasses, it is a sign of my privilege that I can afford to have perfect vision. Hell, I even get to nitpick over my frames.

The glasses work by way of fluid-filled lenses, which can be adjusted by the turn of a dial! Users adjusted the amount of fluid in the lenses, which changes the shape of the lenses until the user can see properly, then the adjuster is taken off. If that's not steampunked, what is? Adaptive Eyewear is a non-profit organization dedicated to making these glasses available at low cost (10 pounds / 15 dollars a pair!). Not only that, but these glasses are made so low-cost specifically for these 1 billion people on the developing world to be able to see clearly.

This means they can read, write, and therefore learn, in order to better their lives!

Here is a video that talks about how these glasses improve lives in Ghana:



We steampunks likely are very blessed, being able to buy brass buttons, and goggles (which may or may not even have prescription lenses), and snappy clothing. If you can, spare a few dollars to Adaptive Eyewear so others, too, can see the world as it is!

Cross-posted to the Redux Edition and Steampunk Empire.

Monday, September 28, 2009

But I'm Here

I curse you, I say.
What that mean? he say.
I say, Until you do right by me, everything you touch will crumble.
He laugh. Who you think you is? You can't curse me. Look at you. You black, you pore, you ugly, you a woman. Goddamn, he say, you nothing at all.
Until you do right by me, I say, everything you even dream about will fail. I give it to him straight, just like it come to me. And it seem to come to me from the trees.
That is an excerpt from The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. In the movie, it's known as Celie's Liberation Scene, where she finally walks away from her abusive relationship with the man she's married to.

Whenever I feel down, whether from plain old depression or just dealing with messed up bullshit from home, I look up this passage, and I also look it up on Youtube.

It is so powerful, that quote. It's the part where Celie finds that courage in herself to stand up against her abuser, with the backing of people who love her. It's the part where she grows ten feet tall and towers in triumph over this small man who has been trying to crush her.

And he throws more abuses at her, because he can't stand the fact that she's leaving, and walking away, he tells her just how little he thinks of her.

And she points out to him, quite succintly, But by God, I'm here.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thoughts on Feminism: Children Edition

Not all mothers are feminist and not all feminists are mothers. I know some women, feminist or not, who rather loathe children, and I know some women, mothers or not, who rather loathe feminism. The following quote comes from book 4 of Marilyn French's From Eve to Dawn, and I found it interesting:

... part of [conservative feminist] analysis seems to me to be on target: a feminist society should be centered on children. Moreover, we cannot overestimate the importance of the philosophical foundations of patriarchy, its division of experience into two distinct realms: mind, ruled by men; body, in which women are immersed. One is volitional, the other necessary; one is granted the right to dominate, the other the requirement to obey. And there is no question that in struggling to change patriarchal values, women are stumped by the so-far-immovable male refusal to take responsibility for children. All efforts at equality founder on the fact that women give birth and take the responsibility for raising children. If feminists have no yet succeeded in integrating human activities and values, the fault lies less with them than with the men who impede them and the difficulty of a task that cacnot be compassed in a generation.
I first came across this idea in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's novel Herland. In Herland, a nation isolated from the rest of the world for two thousand years and only has female citizens (they procreate through parthogenesis), and Gilman has her narrator, Van, make the observation that the entire civilization has been geared towards the raising of children - to make good people, one has to be a good person, and each adult citizen of Herland is cognizant of this, thus work in tandem in order to improve society in general, in order to better serve the children. This means they create literature (and narratives) for the children to understand, language to facilitate learning, activities that are, like, fun, and not work.

Now, it's a bit creepy to think of a world that's pretty much centered around children, but at the same time, because it's centered around children, and everyone pitches in, it also means that everyone has time to, well, center their lives around their individual selves. So it does sound rather practical.

I've come across ideas that the nuclear family is not sustainable, both from an economics point of view, and from a general family health point of view. Several adults pitching in to help with raising a few children makes more sense and ties in really well with that ol' chestnut, "it takes a village to raise a child".

I wonder what others feel about the assertion that it's the refusal to take responsibility for children that makes the patriarchy so powerful - it makes sense to me, of course, since when I think about the pater in patriarchy, it's not so much the image of the nurturing parent I see, but the master who wants to control his property - the woman whose womb he possesses to create life, and the lives she produces that he has absolute authourity over. Authourity without the responsibility.

Hmmm.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

Gordon Dahlquist opens Vol 1. with Miss Temple having been dumped by her fiance. Now, this should ordinarily scare away any reader, but as it happens, there is something about the title of the book(s) which gives one pause before dismissing this outright.

Also, consider that within the first page we are given Miss Temple's reaction to the breakup, but also a little, less-than-flattering tidbit about her: "The manner of dismissal she barely noticed - indeed, it was just how she would have done such a thing (as in fact, she had, on multiple galling occasions)- but the fact of it was stinging."

We are given scrumptious details about her breakfast and the little relationship before its end, and Dahlquist is all about the details. He notes the food she's eating, how she eats it, the furnishings, the nervous gazes of aunt and maids, everything.

Because Miss Temple is not the kind to just weep, and because she is, ultimately, petty and prideful, she sets off to find out why her fiance has dumped her. Thus starts her adventures. Or misadventures, I should say.

From the start, we are shown what Miss Temple does which sends her hurtling headlong into a dangerous situation which she might never have been aware of, if it hadn't been for her petty pride. She follows her ex-fiance out to the countryside, rides with strangers, pretends to mingle, and causes shenanigans.

Within this first part, she has hitched a ride, trampled through backrooms, stripped of her clothes, and almost raped. I'm not too pleased with the rape scene, although it was gruesomely portrayed and she wins, with an "all-weather pencil", no less. I don't know what it is but it sounds awesome.

Dahlquist has structured both books very tightly: first, Miss Temple, who meets Cardinal Chang in a train on the way home from her misadventure in the boonies. Then, a shift to Cardinal Chang's perspective, and what he was doing out in the boonies, too, and his further misadventures, where he meets Doctor Svenson. The next part is, of course, Doctor Svenson and his side of the story. Halfway through the book, the fateful meeting where they collide with each other, and Cardinal Chang says, "No blood. No princes. Shall we send for tea?" One and a half pages later, Miss Temple follows up, "Were you in earnest about the tea? I should like some very much. It is always best when discussing serious matters to do so around a teapot." The second book also presents itself similarly, showing all three sides of the story before converging into the three of them (now four!) coming together for a final showdown.

There is so much detail, both in description and plot, that even with the three of them meeting to discuss what they have seen, they still cannot reconcile all the stories to create the larger story. The reader is then compelled to read further to find out more, and how the twists and turns affect our heroes. And what a plot! It involves alchemy and magic stuff, and science and tubes and metaphysical nonsense I don't even want to know about. But the loving detail that goes into it all is brilliant. There is a lot of violence (obviously) and plenty of (very) lurid descriptions.

The language is another key thing I want to point out - you can tell this authour loves words. Loves them. Many words, with multiple syllables, even though probably no one actually can say them without getting out of breath but they are still such a pleasure to read. Much abuse of the word "and" (like myself, really), and I do not recommend this book for Hemmingway fans. The sentences are long and not easily parsed, and the language is rich. It's like reading Dickens but better.

The characters, oh man, the characters, where do we begin? Let's start with the antagonists - all scary people with perfectly believable motivations of greed and lust and power. All tragically bound up by their assumptions of their impermeable positions, and each of them having their own little plot twists. Even then, each antagonist, from the Contessa to the Comte, to Miss Temple's ex to the German prince, to the whores they pick up to serve them through the Process - each of them are creepy, and alternately pathetic. The more one finds out of them, the more one wants to dislike them, and the less capable of it one is.

Doctor Svenson starts off the most sympathetic character of them all - a spy sent to keep an eye on an idiot prince, who has to fumble with the prince's fumbling. He's had his personal tragedy, he's scared of heights, and he loves smoking. He's also the most formal, and most polite of all the three heroes. A doctor-surgeon, he sounds pretty fucking capable, when he's not being sentimental about his personal tragedy (which actually has relevance to the plot in the second book!). There is some business of his falling for a woman towards the end of the first half, who becomes part of their team, although she plays a lesser roles. I'm still not sure what I think of that.

Cardinal Chang is our Gritty Anti-Hero - an assassin for hire, a generally violent fellow, although not wholly unpleasant; after all, the first time Miss Temple sees him, he's reading poetry. Go figure. I was very disappointed to find that Chang was not, as one might suppose from the name, Chinese, but that his eyes have been slashed before, making them slitted, like a Chinese's eyes. As a result, he wears dark glasses, adding to his mysterious profile (and admitedly, looks pretty hawt on the cover of Vol 2). Disappointment aside, I was pleasantly surprised to see his character development go from cold-hearted, practical killer to someone who, while still maintaining his Bad-Assery, has feelings, expressing concern for his new companions.

Miss Celestial Temple - we don't find out that's her full name until halfway through the first book, when she invites her new compatriots to call her by it - is an island girl, from the tropics, and thus not disposed to the societal niceties that she ought to be held by. She recovers from her shock of finding her ex embroiled in some crazy scheme quite nicely, and rather than play helpless heroine, she takes action and gets pissed off. And does she ever! And Miss Temple is underestimated everywhere - thought a whore by the people she runs into in her first adventure, thought petty by her ex-fiance, and generally all-round assumed to be no threat.

I find Miss Temple's character to be most compelling, of course, seeing as she's one of the few great female characters I've come across lately. Miss Temple, although impulsive, acts, and fights against any attempts to strip her of agency. Her feelings are complicated - she doesn't love her ex anymore, but she's still worried about him, that idiot. She's mad at him for dumping her, but she's always hurt at the rejection, and wants to know why. Maybe because I've been there before, but I couldn't bring myself to be irritated at her - she was too real. At points, she was too much to be real: the vicious reaction to being raped, the collectedness after all she's been through, the ingenuity of her ideas - these were too much to be real, and yet - these are what I think ordinary women wish they would have in Miss Temple's situation. Miss Temple is almost like a wish fulfilment fantasy come true. (All the more remarkable that it was written by a man.) And of course, she starts things off again when in Vol. 1, slightly more than upset (she cries! oh, our sympathetic heroine), she splits off from Chang and Svenson to try to find things out on her own. So petty! So immature! Yet, it's that same kind of bravado I wish I had, and I just couldn't fault her for it.

And of course, the attendant baggage of being a woman - while arguably all the women involved are women of agency, each of them with their own stories, the specific things done to them, happening to them, are obviously occurring because they are women: Miss Temple's rape (and subsequent molestation), the Comte's experiment on Lydia Vandariff, and the transformations of the three women. There is similar sexual sway held over a few of the male characters as well, but none of them described quite as grotesquely as what happens to Miss Temple.

But for all that happens to them, it's luck, or the way events happen, or just force of will, but all three characters survive. Not only that, but they regroup, and even though they're exhausted, worn out, hungry, mind-fucked, they still have the presence of mind to keep their wits, and they bust out. And somehow it does not seem contrived at all.

And then there is a bit of a surprise ending (moar plot twists! huzzah!) and everything goes to shit. However! Our four remarkable characters are still alive, and there is still one more book to go! I must get it. Well, clearly, you know, after all the villains are defeated, there is that business of unravelling all their shenanigans. And of course, I am very hopeful that Chang and Miss Temple hook up...

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: No Choice But Seduction

I read my first Johanna Lindsey book when I was 11. It was The Magic of You and was the first Malory book I read, though it's the fourth one in the series.

The not-so-cool thing about romance novels, which is a reason why I don't pick them up much nowadays, is that rape is generally cloaked under this rose-tinted romantic overtext. Bad enough that as I grew older, I really did think romance was about the whole being-swept-off-feet stuff and completely forgot to include a personality.

Except, of course, Amy Malory actually did have a personality, but this review is not about her.

No Choice but Seduction! What a problematic title in the first place! I mean, if you do enough readings on the whole concept of seduction, it's easy enough to see it's pretty darn close to rape! The title is also a misnomer, because Boyd Anderson, hero of the story, actually has a choice besides that, and he actually really does his fucking best to not resort to that. Why do I have to give props to a fictional hero for not being a douche?

Which is one of the positives of the book - Katie Tyler, our intrepid heroine, has a personality! And and and! OMG flashback to Heather Corinna's An Immodest Proposal in Yes Means Yes, female desire! How about that. Big plus.

I finished the book in five hours. Lindsey's books are really easy to read that way (especially moving into the 90's when her books got funnier and had less drama) and I really loved the family angle taken in this story - then again, it's a reason why I like the Malory series. I picked it up on the recommendation from Tariq's wife (we had a conversation about romance novels through him one evening. I think it made him feel baffled and used) who told me, "it's her best one this decade!" and I had to agree. I'd been giving up on Lindsey, especially after the disappointment I suffered when Drew Anderson turned out to be a huge complete fucking douchebag.

So back to Katie Tyler and Boyd Anderson! Katie is a highly imaginative woman who's out for adventure now that she has money and no life. Boyd wants to settle down. Shenanigans happen which end up with Boyd treating Katie like crap, and Katie gets to flounce out on him later on in front of his extended family.

That's where Lindsey's cleverest piece of writing comes up - Katie sees Boyd on his knees begging for forgiveness and she shoots at him to scare the shit out of him. "Unfortunately," Lindsey writes, "this all happened later in her imagination, and not in a room full of people."

BRILLIANT! It was quite a turn in the narrative and I love cheeky little things like that.

Personally, I do find it interesting to see characters from past novels show up, interacting with each other. Because it proves, you know, there's a life after marriage. For example, Rosalynn, from Book Two of the Malory series, doesn't have a clue what to spend her money on! LOL! This totally did not show up in any of the other books but it was a neat thing to add in this one, I guess. After Amy's story was written, suddenly in other books, she starts getting feelings. Going all clairvoyant-y, you know (their great grand-mother was a gypsy). This didn't really show in the book she was featured in, and would've been nice to have gotten a story developing that, but whatever.

Because Boyd spends most of his time in the book being either stupid to Katie or seasick (go figure), there's not a whole lot of interaction between them until much later. And sadly, the funniest scene doesn't featuer them, but Boyd with the two famous Malory brothers, Anthony and James.

Here's where the stupid should sink in: Boyd's so desperate to get Katie's attention he decides to ask help from Anthony and James, formerly London's premier rakehells. (Give this a moment. I laughed, and then facepalmed.) Anthony's daughter, Judith, has just been rescued by Katie, so the Malory family is rather favourably disposed towards Katie at the moment. Nonetheless, James and Anthony give Boyd advice on how to seduce Katie anyway. (Not that this is supposed to help, the two of them are pretty confident that Katie's too strong-minded.) So, wait, this young woman helped your daughter out, and you're gonna teach this fellow how to seduce her? Gimme a break.

Moving on to the funny, though, James tries to give Boyd a lesson on how to look at a woman (you know, that typical look which is supposed to melt women's panties off them, or something). "Show him how it's done, Tony," he tells his brother.

"He's not my type," comes the reply. And then relents and gives Boyd the Look.

LET THE HOMOEROTIC SUBTEXT SINK IN.

I had to put the book aside to howl silently in laughter. Homosociality in action, anybody?

About a little past halfway through, I took a moment to realize, "OMG IT'S BEEN HALF THE BOOK AND NO SEX HAS HAPPENED YET WHUT?"

The seduction eventually does happen - even with Katie's participation, it doesn't count because Boyd tricked her, even if it wasn't completely related to the result (does it, doesn't it, you decide) - and Anthony, who has in the interim found out Katie is his daughter as a result from a past indiscretion, comes bearing down on the two, horrified that he gave Boyd tips to seduce his own daughter (double standards, BOO, Sir Anthony! BOO!) with James.

Katie, having found out Boyd's ruse by now, is pissed off, and stalks off onto James' ship. She has a happy reunion with Anthony, and it's great, you know. Turns out, Katie's mother, even though she was terribly in love with Anthony at the time she got pregnant, eventually did end up with a happy life, and Anthony is happy to hear this, having been angsting over how horrible life must have been for her after the breakup. This is nice, you know? I mean, how much dreariness can one have in life? They go back to London, where Judith is waiting to latch on to her new sister Katie. Happy times.

There is a coda, of course, with Katie being reunited with her maternal grandmother and finding out why her mother ran away in the first place (which was just another consequence in a long line of shit that oughtn't not happen), and everything was handled really well - as it should have been because most of the people involved are adults.

Satisfying read. Boyd holds up well in trying to be a decent human being, Katie's half-interesting, the sex is okay, and the backstory is good.

We're running out of Malorys.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quick Observation

I was reading the New Strait Times article on the sexuality survey done by University Malaya and mostly skimmed it at first, since there was a graphic with tables and stats.

My first thought was, "those kids pictured on there are white." Did I miss a memo stating that the default stock Malaysian is white? Or do we simply not have stock pictures of young, healthy Malaysian teens? Or do we not give a shit that we, too, default to white as representative of a population at large?

I give the article kudos for fairly neutral reporting, although I'm quite sure there will be some hysteria over the fact that out of 2005 girls, around 100 are having sex, and that since the mean age of marriage is now higher, it means many more years of premarital sex. Being well aware of the values back home, unless they have changed, there will definitely be some hand-wringing over this.

I must admit, though, the sight of Datuk Aminah Abdul Rahman's face cheers me: a woman leader!

And, "female youths" FTW. I'm not sure why, but I like the phrase.

h/t cycads

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Fun With Glow Magazine, October 2009

Yay! I have a sneaking suspicion that I am not receiving every single issue of glow magazine, which is a shame, because then we could be doing this every month, but that's okay. I still like reading it, and I like the coupons, and it's time to go through the pages again and check out just how multi-racial our media can be!

Cover page: white
white
white
white
white
white
white
white
white
white
white
white

Ooooooh, Penelope Cruz!

white, white (well, maybe mixed?), white, brown-skinned PoC!

white white Asian, white white, white
white, oooo Rosario Dawson, and Scarlett Johansson, white, white

Plenty of bottles. I like looking at bottles, some of them are really creative and pretty!

white, PoC, white, white, brown?, whitewhite, white

Ooooooh, I love this: a bunch of silhouettes. I think that's very nice, since I can imagine any ethnicity in them but no natural black hair!

white
product product product!
white, white, whitewhite, white, white, white, possibly brown? white, white, white, white

couple shot! <3 white, white, white, and some weird article on "what your choice in guys really says about you" and some glow readers =D

white, white, white, white, white, white, photograph with a whole group of white women,

!!!!!!!!! a Diet Coke ad with a black woman! And what looks like natural hair !!!!!

Aaaaaand we're back to white. A cookie. Free lipstick.

Ooooooh. A quirky little girl with what appears to be very frizzy hair! Ooooh, it's a "stuff your kids can do for Halloween" type dealie! Let's go: white boy, that cute frizzy-haired girl (she may be mixed!), white blond girl, Asian boy in a, uh, side-kicking martial-artsy pose. And a white baby.

White, products, and white. And white on the back cover.

Join us again next time glow magazine gets into my mailbox!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Steampunking:What's a Wardrobe Worth?

One of the greatest punk contradictions is this: that the DIY look of the punk fashion is often copied and commercialized. From being a bricolage, something made with one's own hands (and thus, pretty darn cheap to put together), it becomes yet another capitalistic venture where the one with the most money gets the best look.

I daresay this part of the punk ethos is difficult to maintain within the steampunk subculture.

There is a certain look to a steampunk; it involves either the time, effort, and handicraft skill to put together accessories or a wardrobe worthy of the name, or the money necessary to buy said accessories or wardrobe.

I invest a great deal in my wardrobe: if I feel I won't be wearing it on a regular basis, I try not to buy it. This has led to the purchase of many work-suitable shirts from Suzy Shier, several black pairs of trousers (ranging from size 2 to size 10, which is slightly more than embarassing), good jeans, and such-like things.

But I do splurge, oh my, do I ever. Recent purchases are blouses of all sorts, making up for the number of skirts in my wardrobe (which I hardly wear. I love how skirts look on me, but unless they have pockets, they aren't part of my daily life).

I like the steampunk aesthetic, yes. But I don't do the persona bit. My steampunk wardrobe is dismally... mainstream. I have a few pieces?

But it bothers me when I see photoshoot after photoshoot of people decked out in finery. And it's not just sour grapes.

Firstly, it reminds me that this subculture is still subject to the influence and values of the mainstream culture. Hence, we are still judged by our appearance: if we look steampunk enough, if we don't.

The only upside is that we generally do look good.

Secondly, it reminds me that, like mainstream culture, we in our steampunk subculture will have our haves and have-nots. It is less marked for us, because some of us choose to take on have-not personas. Also, in a steampunk shoot, everyone's going to look steampunk in some way or another.

But what about our have-nots? Our peers who would like to be able to participate, but can't, for whatever reason? What about our peers who wish they could buy that awesome one item, but need to pay rent? Steampunk literature has been about dealing with this issue, of course - the proletariat uprising against upper classes - but what regard do we have for a steampunk who tries to look as good as our peers but can't manage it?

Thirdly, as in mainstream culture, we are still encouraged to consume resources in pursuit of our subculture's style and aesthetic sense. We often associate consumption with monetary purchases that is thrown away, but time is also a resource that a privileged person will have more of.

Many of us buy clothing and accessories from stores, which are in turn handled by crafters. The crafters use what may well be new material, for the pursuit of this aesthetic. This, in itself, isn't really that bad. I would hope that the crafters know where their raw materials come from, and be responsible with that sort of thing. I also hope that we, as consumers of their labour, appreciate them, and continue to support these crafters, who painstakingly work on these items for our glee.

I am not one against capitalism. I am, however, against a wholesale industrialization which renders people into objects, part of a larger machine that is a factory. Which, ironically, is what happened in the Victorian era. There will be some industries which cannot help this, and this is fine by me. But there are other industries, such as the fashion industry, in which we would do well to buy from artisans.

There will be those of us who deny that clothes don't make the steampunk, just as in mainstream, there are some who believe that clothes are just clothes. But we know that our clothing choices (or lack thereof) are indicative of many things about us: how much care we put in our appearance, how much money we have in what we can afford to buy, our talent for putting together a wardrobe that is considered acceptable by our audience.

What is our wardrobe worth?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Eat Shit, Or Ruin an Afternoon?

People reading this blog have probably read Melissa McEwan's post, The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck, which discusses dealing with sexism which happen on what could be called a micro-aggressive level - sexism that comes from not from random men in our lives, but men we love and care for, who shock us with the misogynistic things that come out of their mouths.

My dad, although he is made of Awesome™ and Win™, and my brother, slightly more typical than my dad, have occasionally sprung such unpleasant surprises on me in the past. Usually it's my dad, circulating emails filled with stereotypes, counter to what I know to be my reality. He means well, and just wants to share a laugh, but I have written back angry emails telling him, no, this isn't funny, and this is why.

There used to be a time when he would have a very long CC list, and I would hit Reply To All.

Yes, all, I Ruined Afternoons.

=/ In retrospect, I didn't do a good job of it. I didn't have the words necessary. I quite possibly wrote too-long paragraphs. I did my best to make it personal, but it was incredibly difficult to make personal something that is not in another's sphere of experience.

I was told to keep quiet, not go against my father, who is, after all, elder than me and deserves my respect and love for having supported me throughout my life.

I said, yes. He did all that, and I am showing how much I have learnt from him by speaking out against injustice when I saw it. Because my dad taught me some things: I have value. I should do good. I should never be afraid to go beyond other people's expectations. I should never judge myself by the yardstick others use.

When I get condescending remarks telling me, what do you know? I want to reply, look, my parents didn't raise a fool.

But these are from strangers, which I can handle. I don't live by their yardstick.

Occasionally, I will open my inbox, and I will be greeted with stereotypes that I might have laughed at in more ignorant years past, but these days, leave me with a sense of despair, why Dad? Why?

He has written back to me a few times since, saying to the effect of, "okay, sorry, this isn't your kind of humour, I won't send such things to you in the future."

And as much as I love him, my heart sinks, because I know whatever I have said hasn't really been heard or understood. He's still going to spread the misogynistic jokes around, and he's still going to be part of the perpetuation of a culture that devalues women, makes women targets of mockery.

This post is going to Ruin His Afternoon, if he ever reads it.

But I am so tired of Eating Shit.

Monday, September 7, 2009

There Was No Script: The Girl at MacDonald's

One day, I was in MacDonald's, joining a lineup. In front of me was this young woman, possibly in her late teens, early 20's. She wore a tank and jeans. Her expression was totally spaced out. She had a twonie in her hand.

She asked the woman in front of her, "do you have any change?" to which the answer was a negative.

She turned to me, asking the same question. I didn't have change either.

She went around me to ask people behind me the same thing. Then came back in front of me.

I asked, "what do you need it for?"

"I just want to get a burger, that's all."

"I'll get it for you," I said.

When we got to the counter, she ordered a cheeseburger, a large fries, large drink, and a McFlurry. I ordered a medium fries and a second cheeseburger. I paid, and we sat down together. She ate intently, still completely spaced out. I asked where she was from, she said, "Bridgewater," a town which is an hour or two's drive from Halifax.

How'd she get in? With a friend.

What happened to whoever drove her in? She shrugged.

Where's she going to now? She didn't know. Try calling some friends.

Did her parents know she was here? No answer.

She wasn't forthcoming with answers. She didn't ask for anything else. I finished my fries and gave the other cheeseburger to her, on the off-chance that she would save it for later in case shit didn't turn out right and she was stuck hungry again. She didn't thank me or anything. She was still spaced out.

I didn't know what to do. I wanted to invite her back to my place but I still had some volunteer commitments, and besides which, in what is classist of me, I didn't feel I could trust her with my stuff, and a part of me was a bit mad she wasn't more gracious. I wanted to give her some numbers to places she could find shelter at, but I don't know any. I couldn't even give her some cash to tide her over.

I left feeling hideously guilty.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review: Julie & Julia

You know, there are cute movies, and then there undeniably pleasant movies. They're to be enjoyed. Every second is an enjoyable second. Sometimes, you may laugh out loud. You may feel for the characters. The ending is a happy, cheerful ending. You come out, you feel good, and you move on.

Julie & Julia looked like it promised this. Without being a chick flick. I went in hopeful, and I came out pretty darn happy.

WARNING: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS.

I was paying extra special attention to the movie credits. I only saw two recognizable names: Meryl Streep's and Amy Adams'. However, I took note of the other names - several women. In fact, more women than men! I had a good feeling from then on.

Meryl Streep was a delight to watch as the overly tall, ever slightly so awkward, stumbling foreigner in a foreign place, who nonetheless maintains her dignity, her stubbornness, and determination to master the art of cooking. Julia Child is portrayed as a remarkable woman, who takes things that happen with optimism, even a bit of naivete, and great equanamity.

Amy Adams was the slightly less sympathetic cubicle-farmer call-center worker Julie Powell, working desperately to deal with the horrible calls she gets from people who need help. The montage scenes of her answering calls is really quite pathos-filled. Julie lives with her husband in a small apartment above a pizza place. She feels like she's in a rut, and what does she do? Give herself the deadline of cooking Julia Child's recipes from the latter's book.

The movie starts off with the two women moving into their new homes with their husbands. Both are moving for their husbands' work, and both are somewhat... "less accomplished"? They depend on their husbands for the majority of the income, I'm guessing, even in Julie's case.

The camera switches in between Julie and Julia's lives, making it clear whose story it is, and making it clear, the stories hardly intersect at all. The closest Julia ever comes to acknowledging Julie's existence in the movie is a phone call from an editor towards the end. Julie's life, however, is ruled by her devotion to her project, to master Julia's recipe book.

We follow Julia's mastering of French cooking, faced with discrimination from the French head of the cooking school who treats expat wives with contempt, as if they don't know how to crack an egg. It continues with her meeting Simone and Louisette, with whom she goes on to collaborate with a book on cooking, a massive project that was to take only two years, and eventually becomes seven, as they try to ensure its comprehensiveness. Julia corresponds with her penpal, Avis. Women talking to each other! And in an era where they have been erased out of in history books as being unimportant!

We follow Julie's nervous start at her blog, her complaints, her little successes, her excitement at getting comments from people she doesn't know. She talks to her friends about the project and has to fend off a mom who is patronizing about the project. She still has to deal with her full-time job. She has breakdowns where she screams in exhaustion and frustration and throws tantrums and flops to the floor. Yet, as much as I want to hate her for it, I can't, because I know how real that feeling is. And Adams portrays it in such an earnest way.

We are given peeps into Julia's personal life - her sister, whom she initially tries to introduce to a man as tall as she, but instead, falls in love with a shorter man like her own husband. The suspicion her husband faces as someone who has gone to China. The classes she, Simone and Louisette give to other expatriate wives like herself.

Everyday stuff. You know. And I ate it up. The epic stories are very nice and all, but following lives through the years, the plodding everyday, the little triumphs and small frustrations, they are also nice. Very nice.

Julie & Julia portrays the lives of women as perfectly normal human beings, subject to all the flaws of being human, yet their own persons. Not some hypersexualised entertainment, or caricatures of what men assume women are like. There are no catfights in Julie & Julia. There's some disagreement, some dislike, but never any catfights.

And of course, the dialogue is a dream. The lines struck me as so simple, yet some of them are hilarious! And best, the humour is wickedly delightful. "The damned thing," exclaims Streep as Julia Child, "is as hot as a stiff cock!" There is a brief montage of all four of them taking Tums or something similar to deal with how much they eat.

(I must admit that when Eric Powell tries to interject with the commiseration of "Well, men don't really care about that sort of thing", and Julia's friend exclaims, "OMG! Who's talking about men? Who cares about men?!" I cackled out loud. I was the only one in the theatre to do so, too, but it was devastatingly funny to me, because sometimes, I just want to scream the same thing.)

One of the best things about the movie? Well, yes, it passes the Bechdel Test, which makes this movie a dream come true in that respect. There's also this: Julie and Julia don't have fucked up, dysfunctional relationships.

They don't! They have loving husbands who have their own lives and work without expecting them to just be stereotypes. These husbands are portrayed as actually spending their time with their wives, not trying to run off to be with the guys. Their husbands are in the same scene, more often than not, rather than absent. When Julia gets weary, she puts her head on Paul's shoulder. When Julia gets upset, Eric sits with her and instead of doling out advice, helps her process her thoughts. These husbands give sympathy. Most of all, these husbands aren't afraid of showing, to the public, just how much they love their wives.

You know, all these supposedly feel-good movies about misunderstandings and couples fucking up and reconciling, about couples treating each other shittily and then realizing they love each other, or one partner treating the other shittily and then realizes they've been behaving like a little shit only towards the end? These movies have nothing on the feel-goodiness of the love relationships in Julie & Julia. The couples are in love from the start, and they show that love throughout, and they are still in love toward the end.

Oh, sure, Eric at one point walks out, and we can understand why, because the strain of Julie's project has been wearing down on them. Yet this isn't protrayed as some high dramatic tragedy, but as just another one of those things which could happen to us. And Julie reacts not by screaming and continuing to degenerate because he's not there, but by sucking it up, getting her shit together, apologizing and just getting back on track.

I think this is an important thing, because we're so often given stereotyped relationships where the pair are stilted human beings. Given how much movies influence the culture which inspires it, I think Julie & Julia have made an amazing contribution. If we're gonna have to live in a society which favours monogamy and upholds a single love as a categorical good, we ought to have movies which portray this love in a realistic, positive manner.

Now, clearly, since this movie is about the lives of two women who love to cook and are just making their way in their world, it doesn't address issues of race. Julia Child is in Europe most of the movie, so of course, we don't see her interacting with PoC. We do see her interactions with Madame Bassart and the French people at the market.

It does touch some on class, dealing with the frustration Julie feels at her call-center job, although being upper middle-class myself and having never dealth with that before, I don't know how realistic it is.

Is this movie worth watching? Oh yes.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Star Trekking Across The Meaning of Hair

Recently, on the Spock/Uhura LJ comm, there was a bit of a kerfuffle on Uhura's hair.

By a bit of a kerfuffle, I mean, A LOT OF FAIL. Here's a brief summary of all the usual arguments that come out of the woodwork as a result of any discussion of racism.

Much like Fatima Mernissi's observation of the "Size 6 Harem" in Scheherazade Goes West, wherein control of women is done through dictating how she must look like:
... The Western man manipulates time and light. He declares that in order to be beautiful, a woman must look fourteen years old. If she dares to look fifty, or worse, sixty, she is beyond the pale. By putting the spotlight on the female child and framing her as the ideal of beauty, he condemned the mature woman to invisibility.
So is it done to black women - not just the usual caveats for beauty, but also on what her hair means.

It boggles the mind how intelligent, smart people can totally miss the point: if it really was just hair, then the afro would be a perfectly acceptable hairstyle choice. Then natural hair wouldn't be a big deal.

Up until a few years ago, I had long hair. I had stopped cutting my hair starting around 1999 and was simply leaving it as it is because the whole perming, styling, trimming, and whatnot, got too much for me. I really couldn't be bothered and it was easier to tie my pony-tail into a loose bun. People were often shocked at the actual length of my hair.

(This made no sense because a lot of my Indian friends had similar lengths of hair in thick braids. I would very much have liked to have braided my hair the way theirs did, but my Chinese hair was woefully thin.)

Eventually, I began hearing, "your hair is too long. You need to cut it. Why won't you cut it?"

I never did because they never really gave me a real reason to. But these exhortations came from my oldest friends. (Newer friends never really cared.) Everytime my hair came up in discussion, I would leave feeling betrayed, because my long hair was so much an identifying part of me.

Except that, you know, if there's a part of you which is different from the accepted norm, clearly, there's something wrong with you, so that little thing which makes you oh-so-different, even if it's actually the most normal part of you, has to be changed. Because, you know, if you want to be taken seriously, as a professional, you need perfectly coiffed hair, although it should look like you didn't spend TOO much time on this perfectly coiffed hair. It's superficial to spend too much time on your hair.

And there is a lot of perfectly coiffed hair in Star Trek. From Uhura to Counsellor Troi to Janeway to Jadzia Dax to T'Pol. Most of these women are not black, so the politics of hair probably does not apply as intensely. Yet it would be remiss to ignore that we still hold them to the same standards of hair as we would for clothing and body-shape.

And it is definitely remiss to dismiss the hair politics inherent in the depiction of iTrek's Uhura - if it's really just hair, then why isn't Uhura depicted with an afro? I give a thumbsup to the diversity of the cast, but really now, wouldn't it have been way cooler to have seen Uhura with a 'fro? The commentary coming out of the woodwork in response to that would show whether or not it's really "just hair".

In this day and age when 'nappy' is still not considered "ideal", I don't think anybody gets to say "it's just hair" when fen point out, very reasonably, that Uhura's hair is a big deal. Uhura is a cultural icon. Nothing about her is "just" something.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Colourblind's Problematics: A Further Response

Because I apparently cannot go without a disclaimer, I wish to make clear that what I said in the earlier post is merely opposition to the idea of doing away with race entirely. On the flip side of the coin, it is clear that differences between races in Malaysia have been a wedge between race relations.

These differences however, are played up by specific people, for specific reasons. There is no good reason why Chinese are apparently controlling the economy and why the Malays apparently control the politics and why everyone else are just SOL. That's how power plays itself out, how people retain power and refuse to let go of it, even though it is obviously detrimental to whole swaths of the population. There is no goddamn reason why I should have to note what my race on any sort of application in Malaysia - it's irrelevant for most administrative reasons.

Except, of course, for that strange affirmative action policy in place which insists that Malays need to make a specific percentage of the top-most tiers. (Which is strangely skewed only for businesses, since political administrations are under no strain to ensure the same is done for other races.)

But AGAIN! That policy is only in place because of some morons in power who think it's a terrible, terrible tragedy if Malays were to lose a hegemonic position within our great country because - because - well, because Malaysia belongs to the Malays first, right? Or something so completely outdated like that.

So, just because I say that doing away with the concept of race is bad idea doesn't mean I don't recognize that race is played up for horrible fucked up reasons in Malaysia that is truly screwing us all over.

Another issue that I wish to touch on (and this is totally a sucky segue but there was no other way to discuss it short of another post) is that it made me think about how much emphasis some of us place on individuality, whereas others will place emphasis on communalism.

When I lived in Malaysia, I was an ornery, ornery little rebel, and my maternal grandmother once called me "outlandish", although the term she used is more coded for "white". I didn't fit in. I was either too confrontational, or too loud, or too different. In a way, I both celebrated and resented my difference. But I felt that just being myself drove others away.

It was a relief to me to come to Canada and find that my difference did not drive wedges between myself and others the same way it did in Malaysia. I made friends. I grew up, grew apart, grew close with others of similar interests. Even now, when I say I seek out people like me, I'm often referring to people of a similar ideology, educational background (MOAR ENGRISH MAJUHRS!).

But you know, sometimes, I'll come across a fellow Asian, and I won't lie, I, too, like asking the question, where are you from?

Recently, on the bus, I saw a woman who looked like a Malay - face, tudung, and her language, accent, slang. She was talking on her cellphone for the entire duration of her time on the bus, but I listened with hunger to those words I so rarely hear.

Is it because I am in a space where I don't have family and/or community members breathing down my neck that I crave the sense of community? Of having people to be there for me?

Is it because I've so much time as an individual, that not, finally comfortable with who I am, am ready to deal with the random shit that inevitably gets flung around within community spaces by people de-sensitized to each other?

Who knows. All I know is that for all the talk about individual differences, there are still many of us who are drawn to other people, people like us, whether commonalities of interest, race, heritage, nationality, culture, and I know this isn't a bad thing.