So a priest, a rabbi, and a rapist walk into a bar…

November 20, 2013 Comments Off on So a priest, a rabbi, and a rapist walk into a bar…

I am all about Louis CK, so it showed up on my radar recently when some idiot columnist used his bit about child molesters* out of context—I hadn’t seen the bit before, so I went and watched it.

Now, in unrelated news, I am reading a terrible book from 1975 with the compelling title How to Say No to a Rapist and Survive. (Try checking that out from your local library if you really want to get the fish eye.) The author, Storaska, is cringefully fettered by being from the 70s; although he is trying to be sensible and middle-of-the-road, he turns out to be the poster boy for what we in the 21st century like to call “victim blaming.” The introduction is about how one night he passes an alley where an 11-year-old is getting gang-raped and charges in, karate chops a-blazin, lays waste to the miscreants, scoops up the dazed little girl and strides manfully to her house (where he presumably deposits her in her tearful mother’s lap, shares a solemn handshake and a look of manly understanding with her father, and strides back out into the night, never to see any of them again). His book is about how women can prevent this terrible crime from happening to them, but, as the dust jacket explains, “psychological preparation ahead of time is [their] best weapon.”

One strategy is to treat a rapist as a sentient being. Accordingly, in Chapter Two, he tiptoes toward the shocking point—bear with me, here!—that… rapists are people, too. I know I know I know I know!! That’s CRAZY talk! But Storaska points out that

[The rapist] is, after all, a human being. He looks like a human being, acts like a human being and talks like a human being. In fact, the only important difference between the rapist and his fellow human beings is that he does something they don’t do. He rapes.

And here is where I came back to Louis CK. And back to my last blog post, because it will no doubt surprise you to learn that this is something that has been on my mind recently. Storaska goes on and on about The Rapist, as if that were the most prominent feature of their personality, or their life, but when you start talking about a group of people like a species unto themselves, you get awfully used to the distance that creates.

If we weren’t so well acquainted with The Rapist as a stock character in A Modern Urban Parable, we might recoil less upon learning that someone we know was arrested for rape. If we weren’t so well versed in the litany of There Is Nothing More Evil than a Child Molester, we might experience less cognitive dissonance when, say, a beloved university professor resigns over two prior convictions for attempted sexual abuse of children. Not that rapists and child molesters aren’t villains, but when we think of them as a clade we aren’t related to, it reduces our capacity to handle them conceptually. This is what I was driving at in my last post.

Here is what appears to have happened with my former choir director: People thought he was the most artistic humble genius who has ever walked the earth, at least in that county. But then they found out he was a Child Molester. Oh, no! Wait, is he the most perfect person ever or is he a disgusting worm who isn’t fit to shine Hitler’s shoes?

*heads explode and everyone cries*

But that’s because he was a Child Molester. It freaked people out because a person they admired didn’t fit into the Child Molester slot. If the Child Molester archetype didn’t exist, it just would have been an (extremely) unpalatable discovery about his character, like if you find out after 10 years your partner was only pretending to like Firefly. No matter how hard to process, it’s still a part of a larger whole. But the way we talk about Rapists and Child Molesters, the archetype cannot but eclipse everything you already know about a person. Maybe we could stand a little less deliberate demonizing. People are always people—the public is always sort of surprised to figure this out—and acknowledging that doesn’t have to get in the way of justice. It’s tempting to disown people who do terrible things, but the more we do so, the less we are really doing to make sure those things never happen again.

*Video transcript: “[I have] two children and the thing that scares me most is that they disappear. There’s nothing that scares me more than them disappearing—that’s every parent’s worst fear. Now, why do kids disappear sometimes? I think it’s because somebody took ’em and had sex with ’em, and once you have sex with a kid, you gotta toss ’em, because people hate folks who have sex with kids more than pretty much anything. If you murder somebody, folks will find you a reason. ‘Ah, you were upset, you didn’t have a, you were dehydrated, whatever.’ So, here’s the thing, so if you had sex with a kid you gotta chuck ’em out, because if the kid tells anybody you’re screwed. So I can’t help thinking that if we could take down a few notches the hatred for kids-having-sex people, at least you get the kid back.”


Now You See Me

November 6, 2013 Comments Off on Now You See Me

The other day when I logged into Facebook, a girl I’d sung with in high school had posted a news article about a former choir director being suspended because of a 20-year-old conviction for attempted sexual abuse of children. Here is what she had to say about it:

This breaks my heart. I don’t believe it for a second! I sang with his daughter and he even directed my choir. He is such a great director. All [name of our old choir] singers would agree!!

I work at a rape crisis center now, and I’ve learned all about victim blaming—or so I thought. But this is the first time I’ve seen how bitingly you can blame the victim without even trying, without even knowing who the victim is. See, this former director behaved inappropriately with me in private voice lessons.

He was maybe the greatest director I have ever had. Things I learned in his choirs have stayed with me and made me a better singer years and years later. Believe me, it breaks my heart that he of all people acted the way he did. But if you’ve never experienced a violation of trust like that from someone you deeply admire, you have no idea how much that breaks my heart.

Fortunately I went home, told my mom I was uncomfortable, and she suggested I not go back, and that was the end of it. I never had to deal with people who didn’t believe me, or with the fallout of accusing an upstanding and beloved member of the community of sexual misconduct. That’s why it was such a bolt out of the blue to have someone say about my story, “This can’t possibly be true. Every single person who knows this man would take his side against anyone else.”

The girl who posted this is extremely sweet and I always liked her a lot. I know she didn’t write it to hurt me; she just never knew I existed. She never knew there was a victim. And I understand that saying you don’t believe it is a way of expressing that heartbreak, more along the lines of “I can’t believe it” rather than “I don’t believe it.” But god, it hurt to read.

I sang with his daughter too. I know he’s a great director too. I don’t hate him and I don’t wish him ill. Here is my point: it is possible—because I’m doing it right now—to acknowledge that he was the best director I ever had and that I’m pretty sure he was a genius and that I loved being in his choirs while at the same time acknowledging that he was guilty of really awful misconduct. It is possible to hold two apparently contradicting ideas in your head about the same person. That’s what truth is: it’s complicated and counterintuitive and sometimes it doesn’t come anywhere close to setting you free.

The comment thread on her post is full of sad people talking about how he’s such an example of having learned his lesson. Well… I’d love to agree, but no. People with his problem are notoriously difficult to reform. Chances are excellent that I am not the only person in twenty years that he’s taken advantage of. The sad part is not how society can’t let people off the hook once they’ve learned their lessons. The sad part is that society thinks people learn their lessons. The sad part is that society’s first reaction on hearing about a man molesting children is “oh, that can’t be, we like him.” The sad part is that people say things like “I don’t believe it for a second,” as if tweens often conspire to frame respected community members out of spite.

I didn’t write this to shame people for feeling regret about the way things are. I wrote this because I hope that everyone will remember that people are complicated, and that despising and condemning one aspect of them doesn’t mean that you can’t still admire what you always admired about them. I hope that people will think twice before assuming someone’s innocence at the expense of their victims. It was very hard to write this—and would’ve been harder if my experience had been worse—just because one person I knew a long time ago tossed off a Facebook status about it. Don’t put that burden on victims, especially invisible ones. No matter how much it broke your heart that this news has come up, I can guarantee I feel worse than you do (for many reasons). Someone commented, “This situation is so unfair.” Actually, it isn’t. You don’t have to like it—I don’t—but it is not unfair.

And if you sang with me in high school and you hate me a little bit for this post, that’s okay, especially if it means that when your best friend or your sister comes to you with worse news than mine, you might choose to say (and think), “I believe you,” rather than “But he learned his lesson twenty years ago.”

Life is pain, Highness.

August 25, 2013 Comments Off on Life is pain, Highness.

I am not an excessively cynical person—rather the opposite, in point of fact—but even I am aware that terrible things happen daily to people who don’t deserve it, and there is nothing you can do. Your sister might die in a car crash five minutes from now. Previously unnoticed cancer might suddenly metastasize in your body. There might be a serial killer in your neighborhood tonight—whose turn is it to take the dog out after dinner?

Maybe it’s because we’re periodically very aware of all the things that might go wrong in the world and affect us and the people we love that we go so berserk when we think we’ve found a scapegoat. The plaintiffs in the trial I served as juror for in June wanted restitution after a doctor missed something that killed the man of the house a week after his ER visit and subsequent hospital admission. We can all understand the impulse. I agree that in a case of wrongful death it may be reasonable to supply a certain amount of money to offset the expected paychecks that will no longer be forthcoming. I will even grit my teeth and agree that that amount may include the money you would have saved because the guy was handy and fixed everything himself (although where does that leave people with all thumbs and their families?).

But the plaintiff’s lawyer made it clear to us that if we didn’t include at least as much money for “loss of society and companionship” as we did for lost paychecks, we were denying our shared humanity with the deceased. He explained gently that the best translation they had found for that crazy legalese was “heartache.” Wouldn’t we all, he implied, feel a little better if the doctor who callously consigned our loved one to the pits of whatever-it-was-that-killed-him really shelled out because of it?

I was dismissed as an alternate before deliberation, and although I was disappointed not to be able to share my nausea with the rest of the jury, it seems it’s for the best that I wasn’t present. They voted to award the family $850,000 for “heartache” alone. I’ve never heard of anything so appalling. There is such a thing as emotional damage that should be reimbursed by the justice system: ordinary grief when your husband dies unexpectedly is not it. Courts should only award emotional damages when the suffering in question was so unthinkable and terrible that throwing money at the sufferer is the only thing you can possibly think of that might ameliorate it. I keep trying to give concrete examples, but people balk when I do, so all I’ll say is, think prolonged, excruciating, repetitive, sadistic. Suddenly dropping dead in the arms of your son is far from the worst way to go, all things considered.

Yes, it’s sad. But it’s not the legal system’s job to make everyone feel better. It’s not the case that there is money to be had to salve every wound, and it’s just a matter of getting a slimy enough lawyer to manipulate a jury into giving it to you. The joy the wife will feel when she gets her check for $1.6m is nothing like the joy she would feel if her husband walked in the door (I presume). To suggest that it is is deeply offensive to me. Shit happens and it’s terrible and NO you don’t get any money for it. That’s called life. It’s one of those awful unpaid internships and “heartache” is part of the deal. Who do you think you are, that you are entitled to a lollipop and a pat on the head from the justice system? Give me a break.

I was upset for days after one of the other jurors (the only one, apparently, who thought like me) called to tell me what they’d decided. It still makes me angry. I like to think I would have laid rhetorical waste to that room, and made them make the right decision. But who knows. Maybe it’s better I didn’t get a chance to try. I kind of wanted to end this post with a crack about how I should sue for emotional damages, but now that cuts too close to the bone. What a BS trial. What a colossal misuse of the system.

Premature Review: Harlot’s Ghost

February 4, 2013 Comments Off on Premature Review: Harlot’s Ghost

RRRRGH. What an obnoxious book! I’m on page 796 of 1128 and I am going to finish it but by god I won’t do it quietly. Norman Mailer is supposed to be a 20th-century literary giant, but I will probably never voluntarily pick up another one of his books. I was very excited because the first 80 pages were gorgeous, lyrical writing concerning the narrator’s life in Maine, his love for his wife, an ambiguous suicide, and the ghost that haunts their house. It’s beautiful, nearly magical-realist, and reminiscent of Nabokov, in that it’s awfully pretentious but so so good at what it’s trying to do that you can ignore it. (I can, anyway.) But that whole chunk turns out to be just a preface to the rest of the book, which is much, much, MUCH longer and in large part worthless. It goes back to the narrator’s childhood and how he ended up joining the CIA (his father and godfather are both major figures) and what he does after he gets there. It’s strange—the plot is good but I find an almost complete disconnect between the story and the writing. Not to mention I don’t have any personal stake or even background in the Cold War or the Bay of Pigs or the Kennedy assassination and therefore have a hard time finding the period intrinsically interesting—I need an entertaining foreground.

The main issue is this: people just don’t talk like that!! Mailer does, actually, give the characters discrete voices, which is astonishing given how alike they all sound. They are all pretentious, pontificating, self-absorbed people who talk the same way in person, on the phone, and in writing. This is true of the narrator and his godfather and his wife, which makes sense given their characters, but it is also true of the narrator’s über-macho, thoroughly-Company father as well as the narrator’s lover who is having simultaneous affairs with him, JFK, a mob boss, and a millionaire. The chapter I just finished consisted of a letter from the father, who writes, “Found myself in low spirits over Thanksgiving. Kept thinking of Mary, my old sweet whale of a wife, and now she’s lost to me. She is thinking of getting married to a little Japanese businessman who is probably sitting on more wealth than the state of Kansas, and here am I, old blow-spout of the other half of this beached-whale duo, feeling egregiously elegiacal. Clark Gable died last week, and I discovered to my surprise that I had always felt a large identification with the man. Now, comprehend it. I really don’t know anything about Clark Gable…” And goes on about how he never realized how much he liked Gable except that from time to time he would have imaginary conversations with him. It’s not that your father might not suddenly send you an uncharacteristically confessional letter that takes forever to get down to the business he’s supposed to be writing to you about and in fact that would be incredibly interesting, character-wise, but NOT if he talks like this! Of all the people who can understand the phrase “egregiously elegiacal,” the subset of people who are capable of easily producing that phrase to describe a specific state of mind is probably pretty small, and the sub-subset of people who have the temerity to actually let that phrase out of their mouth (or pen) is smaller still. Ridiculous that every character in this novel seems to come from that same subset regardless of upbringing, intelligence, or place of origin.

It drives me up the wall. If Mailer wants to make the narrator a puling self-absorbed pedant with self-esteem issues and a penchant for luxuriating in descriptions of his own state of mind the way a drunk will sit in his own urine, then okay. If he wants to include a couple other characters cast in a similar mold, then okay. But they cannot all be the same! You could have the narrator describe reading the letter, thinking, “My father appeared to have been in an egregiously elegiacal mood,” but when the letter writer describes himself as egregiously elegiacal after pages and pages of wiretap transcripts where the trashy chick describes breaking up with Frank Sinatra (who earlier called her “kind of scintillating” but perhaps “too square for me”) by saying, “Frank, I adored the tenderness you offered. But I made the mistake of thinking that such intimacy was for me. Last night I realized that you feel kindred emotions for all women. They are part of your music. It just broke my heart when I realized it wouldn’t be me alone,” and pages and pages of letters where a character describes her impenetrable theory that every psyche is composed of two opposing parts, and native Uruguayans holding forth (in English) about “the fluvial nature of corruption” and saying things like “A modest stream helps to flush away the filth even as it elucidates the seductions of light” on top of all the pretentious language that the narrator uses to describe everything else in the book, it’s so unrealistic I can’t keep reading. Scintillating? Kindred? Elegiacal? No, sorry, I don’t buy it. Not only do people not actually talk like that, but they certainly don’t quote themselves talking like that on the phone. The girl’s quoted accounts of her affairs to her friend are tightly structured and include graceful mid-sentence speaker tags, although if you actually listen to the way anyone talks, especially to a close friend, that’s not how it works. Yes, it takes skill to pinpoint an emotion, state of mind, or abstract philosophical concept with perfectly precise words. (“Egregiously elegiacal” is actually a fantastic description of a mood.) But as a novelist, it takes much more skill to pinpoint these things in a character without using ridiculously highbrow language that is not in their idiom. Authors like Barbara Kingsolver can do this, and it’s like watching someone make a polished jewelry box with a hatchet. It’s a miracle. And if they can do it without your noticing, well, that’s the greatest magic in fiction.

Mailer has made one overt concession to different conversational styles, which stands out hilariously. One of the FBI transcripts has the friend ask what the girl wore to a party, and she replies, “I chose a turquoise blue for my gown, and shoes to match.” And her friend says, “Oh, my God, with your black hair! It had to be stunning. I can see your green eyes setting off that turquoise blue.” “It took some thought,” says the girl. “I’m so envious,” replies her friend. “Did you meet anyone new at the party?” Everything about this is funny to me. It’s clear that Mailer has absolutely no interest in fashion, absolutely no clue what girly-girls talk about, which is totally forgivable except when you’re trying to write a believable girly-girl. It’s funny that he thought what they were saying was so frivolous and unimportant that he never realized how stilted and graceless this dialogue is. He probably dashed it off and never looked at it again. He didn’t even bother to add an elision in the transcript (as he does several other places) noting that the girls chatted about clothes for ten minutes. Or even five minutes. And even I, who am not actually a girly-girl, found the description out of character and hopelessly inadequate. What kind of gown? How was it shaped, how long was it? Did it have a foofy skirt? What kind of neckline? What jewelry did she wear with it? Tell me all about the shoes! Real girly-girls would have so much more to say than “what color was your dress?” “blue” that this was probably the moment where I completely lost patience with and faith in Norman Mailer. I no longer expect the writing or the storytelling to improve, although I am curious to see what happens when we get to Dallas 1963.

It will be a long slog but I will finish it. I just couldn’t wait that long to vent about the stupid pretentious writing. But to balance out the bitterness of the rest of this post, I will now share my very favorite passage from the opening, about driving home along the Maine coast. Maybe after you read this you will understand how very disappointed I am. Enjoy.



On that moonless night in March, returning to the Keep, I took the road from Bath to Belfast, the road that goes by Camden. In every cove was fog and it covered one’s vision like a winding sheet, a fog to embrace the long rock shelf offshore where sailing ships used to founder. When I could no longer see anything at all, I would pull the car over; then the grinding of the buoys would sound as mournful as the lowing of cattle in a rain-drenched field. The silence of the mist would come down on me. You could hear the groan of a drowning sailor in the lapping of that silence. I think you had to be demented to take the coast road on such a night.

Past Camden, a wind sprang up, the fog departed, and soon the driving was worse. With this shift in the weather, a cold rain came. On some curves the highway had turned to ice. Going into skids, my tires sang like a choir in a country church surrounded by forest demons. Now and then would appear a shuttered town and each occasional streetlight would seem equal to a beacon at sea. Empty summer houses, immanent as a row of tombs, stood in witness.

I was full of bad conscience. The road had become a lie. It would offer traction, then turn to glass. Driving that car by the touch of my fingertips, I began to think once more that lying was an art, and fine lying had to be a fine art. The finest liar in the land must be the ice monarch who sat in dominion on the curve of the road.

Chicken and Black Bean Stew

January 24, 2013 Comments Off on Chicken and Black Bean Stew

2-3 cloves garlic, smashed
1 onion, sliced
~1 lb chicken, chopped
2 cans black beans, half-drained
lots of spinach
green onions, sliced
cilantro, chopped

Saute the onion and garlic briefly, then add the chicken and brown. Add the beans and spices (~1/2 tsp each), cover, and simmer for 10-15 minutes. Add spinach, combine, and cook until wilted. Serve over brown rice with green onions, cilantro, and hot sauce.

Got Politics?

November 14, 2012 Comments Off on Got Politics?

What I learned from this election is that I have no political opinions because every election I’ve voted in (okay, so not all that many) has been dominated for me by human rights issues, which are not politics. It reminds me of the Confucius quote in The Diamond Age: “The ancients who wished to illustrate illustrious virtue throughout the Kingdom, first ordered well their own states. Wishing to order well their states, they first regulated their families. Wishing to regulate their families, they first cultivated their persons. Wishing to cultivate their persons, they first rectified their hearts. Wishing to rectify their hearts, they first sought to be sincere in their thoughts. Wishing to be sincere in their thoughts, they first extended to the utmost their knowledge.”

Everything starts at the bottom. Before I can even begin to care about reducing the national deficit—which seems like an enormous problem to me and one that I can’t believe everyone isn’t panicked over—I need to feel safe in my personal rights. I need to know that I will have free access to birth control and abortion services if I need them. I need to know that I will be allowed to marry a woman (odds are it will be a man, but I like to keep my options open). I need to know that I can say whatever I want without fear of government retribution and that I deserve the same pay as a man. When my own life is safe and in order, then I will be able to learn and care about politics. Not before.

Hopefully sane Americans have sent a successful message with the trouncing of Romney/Ryan, not to mention Akin, Mourdock, Rivard, et al.: Can we please talk about politics now?

Skill Inflation

September 7, 2012 Comments Off on Skill Inflation

Some days it seemed like my teenagehood consisted largely of being told how grateful I should be that I had food, a house, etc. I rolled my eyes and sighed and said “Mom…” But apparently I was successfully brainwashed because I find myself saying it all the time.

One slightly convoluted application of this came up for the first time (and has recurred many times since) when Simon and I went to see a friend’s senior piano recital. She did a great job! She played a crazy piece that made no sense but somehow sounded exactly like birdsong. And I thoroughly enjoyed the recital because she was my friend, but Simon came out of it critical because he’d been comparing her to all the world-class pianists he hears all the time. It made me sad that we don’t applaud skill anymore because we have usually seen or heard something better. If this were the 19th century, when young ladies were expected to play the pianoforte at parties for the entertainment of the guests, and my friend had sat down and played the bird song, everyone would have had a collective seizure of ecstasy and proposed marriage on the spot (I imagine). But because with the touch of a button I can listen to Philippe Entremont or Ivan Moravec, everything magically becomes a lot less impressive.

I try to make an effort to be conscious of pleasures that show up somewhere on the spectrum, not only those that light up the ends. The same way you can be grateful for having macaroni and cheese from a box to eat even though it’s not as good as the filet mignon you had at that four-star restaurant that one time, you can appreciate a decent pianist who has worked hard even though she isn’t Glenn Gould, or avidly follow the star of the high school basketball team even though he isn’t Michael Jordan, or enjoy a book by the local author even though she isn’t Barbara Kingsolver. Don’t let constant access to excellence make us snobs about everything. And just because no one will think you’re the next Sir Laurence Olivier doesn’t mean you shouldn’t audition to play Hamlet. In the face of the current monumental struggle for everyone to understand politics and economics, history and literature, science and religion—in short, Everything—on a planetary scale (because otherwise how will you know who to vote for or which countries we should declare war on?), it is useful to turn everything off and remind yourself that even what is not excellent is still very, very good.

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