Lorraine arrived at the beach. She had come to the end of Denman Street. In the distance, the violence of the dying sun had left the waterline covered in purple scratches. The soil and grass around her had the earthy smell of beets. Lorraine passed the first Izakayan restaurant to check out the second one. The first one seemed better. It had soft electric blue light, and sharp black shadows along the walls. Lorraine waited at the bar, observing the people around her.
She had had vodka today.
She remembered vodka. Vodka was always my demon, she remembered. So fitting. Of everything to have slipped over the rails with.
Maybe gin would calm me, she thought. Get me thinking straight. Alexy calmed me down once with a green bottle of gin.
The bartender was away. A group of three young men were standing close to her, speaking sometimes English, sometimes Japanese. One of them splashing beer on the floor. One of them saying, “No one ever said feeling was easy.”
“To drink?” a voice cleaves the space behind Lorraine.
She turns to the man tending bar.
“Gin,” she says, “Top shelf. And tonic.”
“We have sake,” he said, “sake, beer and wine.”
Lorraine ordered sake.
“Of course,” Lorraine says.
She’d never tried it.
“We have a table ready,” a woman behind her observes. “Follow me and I’ll bring you your drink.”
Lorraine followed her to a small table near the corner. Minutes later the woman brought her the sake, a small candle in a green glass on the tray lighting the woman’s face.
She was the most beautiful person, thought Lorraine, as she moved the candle, in the green glass, and then the sake, from the tray, onto her table. Her face the creamy white of a freshly bitten pear. Her blue-black hair reflecting the green candle light. Her bangs an edge, a cleft, revealing and obscuring two eyes as black as ore. Obligingly she chose Lorraine’s courses. She brought a soup.
A clear broth with a floating egg.
Lorraine tasted the sake.
It tasted like vodka.
Lorraine looked toward the corner. There. Lorraine. There two blue eyes are staring.
Alexy was there. Alexy’s ghost was there.
Sitting there, staring. His hands folded in his lap.
Lorraine looked at Alexy. His head didn’t turn but he was staring now directly ahead.
She looked at him. She could see his left eye, so blue. Then again he was staring. His right eye shiny metal in the green candlelight.
A steely, thought Lorraine. A marble. Oozing chrome. And Lorraine looks now as he smiles, as the eye oozes out of Alexy. He waved. He waves again.
Lorraine stood up. She sat down. The waitress came over to her.
She asked Lorraine if she was all right.
Lorraine looked at her. “No,” she said, “I’m not all right.”
The girl took a step back, focusing on Lorraine. “Hold on,” she said. The girl left Lorraine and returned cradling a large bowl. “Drink,” she said. “Squid ink.”
Lorraine took the bowl with two hands and raised it to her lips. Her eyes were reflected in the liquid. Lorraine looked up at the girl. She tilted her head back and poured the fluid into her mouth. Lorraine couldn’t gulp it down fast enough and the black liquid flowed over the corners of her lips, and up into her nostrils. Lorraine put the bowl on the table, wiping her face off with her sweater. She looked at her sleeve, then up into the girl’s eyes. The liquid poured back out of her nose. The front of her sweater was covered with ink. Lorraine stares at the candle in the green glass and the candlelight.
The girl said, “It’s no cure.”
The flame flickers with Lorraine’s breath. “Then why did you give it to me?”
“I feel sorry for you,” the girl said, sitting. “But you need to learn. Nobody ever said feeling was easy.” She glanced toward the bar. “You’ve caused a scene. You have to go.” The girl stood and walked toward the bar.
Lorraine stood. She was covered in squid ink. She noticed one of the drunk young men had pointed at her. Everyone was staring at her.
Lorraine straightened her shoulders.
“Objectify me,” she said.
The people glanced away.
Lorraine stared at the girl. She pulled on her coat and tied its belt and began heading out of the restaurant, moving as slowly, as she felt, she possibly could.
Outside of the restaurant Lorraine stared back into the inside, pacing back and forth before the windows.
I need the girl to look at me once more, for strength, thought Lorraine. She kept pacing, and finally, the girl glanced at her, but only so very briefly. “That counts,” said Lorraine, and when she was sure the girl wasn’t going to look again she walked away.
A few blocks down Lorraine heard a siren. She jumped onto the curb and looked into a store window. A casual peruser, thought Lorraine. I am a window shopper.
The siren passes by her, and by the time Lorraine is casually turning around the siren is down the street.
She crosses streets without looking to see if anyone is coming.
Lorraine noticed she had started to tremble. She shoves her hands deep into coat pockets. She starts rubbing her fingers with her thumbs. Her teeth chattering violently. Her shoulders vibrating. I think I’m ill, thought Lorraine. With her thumb, she was feeling two rings on one finger. She turns the rings on her finger. This ring, this is the ring Alexy gave me while we were at the U.B.C. And this ring, this one was his grandmother’s.
Lorraine took her hands out of her pockets.
I am, I’m quite ill, she thinks. Lorraine stops at the curb.
Maybe at the next curb.
And she starts down the next street.
When Lorraine arrives at the corner before her hotel she stops.
Before her, across the street and half a block down two workers are standing along the hotel’s glass door.
To her left is a black street. A few sunken steps, far down that block, are bathed in a soft pink light. Another entrance, Lorraine thought. The entrance to the hotel bar. Lorraine couldn’t stop shivering. Her shoulders were beyond control and her whole body jerked sporadically. She looks down at the rings on her finger.
What do these mean?
Lorraine takes the first ring off of her finger and places it on her palm. Then she places her palms together and brings them to her lips. She breathes into them, and inhales with her nose. It smells warm and wet. Like metal. She takes the ring in her right hand, looks down into the dark street to her left, steps back, and throws the ring into the blackness away from the soft pink light.
The other ring is off and following.
Lorraine doesn’t hear if it landed.
It was nearing dusk last Tuesday when I signed the lease on my new apartment.
Light still streamed through the generous sized Victorian windows of the commercial unit, advertised as a live/work apartment, poised above the infamous Grant Avenue of North Beach. The street itself was second only to Columbus Avenue, the district’s main drag, and boasted a nightlife scene that proved a magnet for tourists, gang bangers, segeway crews, yuppies, and self-professed poets who were a standard fixture at the espresso shops. The second floor station boasted a prime location for the theatricality that played out on Friday nights, when these disparate groups converged at the same local bars and fought over finite parking spaces.
The unit met all my basic qualifications: It was above ground, in the right neighborhood, bathed in natural light, could accommodate a queen size bed, and had a separate room for my child. Essentially, it was the opposite of my current place, which was a dark, concrete, basement apartment, filled only with artificial lighting that I hardly used in an effort to stabilize my electric bill, where my bed sat in the living room, providing my husband and I with no privacy because the living room was actually a storefront, on street level, where I could hear dealers selling drugs like clockwork every Thursday night and the homeless spanging as they used my front door as a headboard. Yes, the new place was good. The rent was reasonable for San Francisco. And I liked my new landlord the moment I met him.
The first thing I noticed, and it was less like noticing something and more like being struck across the face by it, was that Gavino was Italian. Very Italian. He’d grown up in North Beach and had attended the same Elementary School my five year old son would be starting at in the fall. He knew all the streets and the locals. His brusque demeanor reminded me of Mafia guys I’d seen in the movies. Like the Sopranos or the Godfather—the family-oriented part, not the bone-breaking mobster aspect. It was almost whimsical, renting from a authentic Italian in Little Italy.
He accepted us quickly, with the hitch that he’d raise the rent because we’d be living and working there, as opposed to solely working. I’d balked over the increase, but he pegged us. “You’ve got a kid, a dog, and you need two bedrooms. You’ll have a hell of a time finding a place in this city,” he’d stated frankly, with his oh-so Italian accent. It was true. Finding a two bedroom with a child and a pet was all but impossible. The last apartment I’d applied at had elected to drop the rent by a hundred dollars instead of renting to us. They wanted a single person. Not a family who feasibly needed two rooms.
I didn’t begrudge Gavino for his insight. Instead, I paid the two hundred dollars extra. Per month. And called it a day. I even offered to give him a six months advance on rent to secure the apartment when a white-collar guy from San Diego offered him a higher monthly payment.
So it was mine. For my family. Gavino talked us through the lease, giving us the highlights, as my husband and I initialed quickly, signing our rights away. Then I gave him a cashier’s check for fifteen grand, which he placed in a folder after handing us our copy of the lease, our proof of payment. His daughter was graduating from Junior High School on Friday, so we could pick up the keys on Saturday. It was all by the books. Simple. Easy. Done.
Except now I’m writing this. On Sunday. Morning. At two-ten PM. It had been difficult to wait the four days till Saturday to call for the keys. I was excited. I’d even fallen asleep Friday night plotting out where shelves and chairs and sofas would go. I was so delighted, I hadn’t even begun to dread the back-pain that moving the shelves and chairs and sofas would surely cause. When I picked up the phone at eleven AM on Saturday, I knew exactly how the conversation would go. He’d greet me, knowingly, using his caller ID feature, I’d be polite and ask how he was doing, he’d reply graciously and cut to the chase, I’d ask when we could swing by to pick up the keys, he’d name the time, we’d hang up, I’d go and pack, pile my life into boxes, and the boxes into my Ford Focus Wagon, and drive to meet him. It was going to work out.
But Gavino’s phone didn’t even ring. Didn’t give the option of leaving a message. No. The automated female voice simply replied, “The person you are trying to reach is not accepting calls at this time. Please try your call again later.” After my first three failed attempts to reach him, I decided to Google him, out of curiosity. Sitting on the back stoop, coffee in one hand, my iPhone balanced on one knee, I pecked in his full name—the one I’d made the cashier’s check payable to. As the page loaded sluggishly, a testament to AT&T’s lousy reception, I considered what I’d find. Perhaps a Facebook profile, or Yelp reviews about his properties, maybe even an article or two about his work in the community. Two long sips of home-brewed coffee later, and the search results were in.
I had found him. Too easily. His name came up in the first listing, surrounded by words like ‘allegations,’ ‘prosecuting,’ and ‘gunned down.’ I stared at the tiny screen, zooming in with thumb and fore-finger to be sure.
Apprehensively, I touched the link. Pixel by pixel, the article from SF Gate, a source I deemed reasonably credible, came into view. Briefly scanning the page, I gathered that the article was about a corrupt San Francisco District Attorney, who had posed an inordinately low bail for a murder suspect.
Dread consumed me. I dashed inside to my laptop, spilling the contents of my insulated mug across the stoop in my haste. Inside, the screen flickered to life, and I pulled up my browser with the same article, and opened a new window, searching his name again. The second reference fell right below the first, the hundred and sixty character description calling him a ‘violent man’ who ‘locals feared.’ The third link had a title that referenced ‘La Cosa Nostra,’ with my new landlord’s name credited as a figurehead. The forth link showcased his name and read ‘Find me in the White Pages,’ but the fifth link was titled ‘San Francisco Mafia.’
It was almost laughable. According to multiple sources, my new landlord, the man I’d just bestowed with the entirety of my savings, who would be in my life for the next twelve months of the lease term, the man who’d promised to not raise my rent for five years and had said “I give you my word,” instead of putting it in writing, was in fact a made man, protected by bookies and corrupt cops alike, with a wrap sheet long enough to easily fill a paragraph—let’s try that out—including drug charges, stolen goods, credit card fraud, money laundering, illegal gambling, assault with a deadly weapon—not to mention he’d been the subject of an FBI investigation and was acquitted by a deadlocked jury of murdering his wife’s lover on the street in broad daylight.
I could only think one thing: I’d been right. Only this time, there was no satisfaction in it. How would this sound when I told my husband, whose sole dream was to be a cop in San Francisco and bust bad guys?
“You know how I said Gavino reminded me of a Mafia guy?”
“I was right!”
No, I was sure being right was worth absolutely nothing. Nothing compared to fifteen grand.
After reading through sixteen articles that all seemed to corroborate the first story, I tried to think of my next move.
I’d given Gavino everything: my tax records, bank statements, pay stubs, previous places of residence, addresses of my nearest family members—even my ‘call in case of emergency’ contact. He’d given me a P.O. box and a cell number. Both of which were difficult to track and easily disposable. I did have a signed lease, though. And photos of the checks I’d given him. Checks he’d already cashed and had cleared, according to my online banking profile which was now at an all-time low. And I had the number to the commercial real estate broker who’d introduced us. Not thinking about how the conversation would go, I dialed the broker, whose phone prompted me to leave a message. I did not. I didn’t know much about the Mafia but I was pretty sure they didn’t like people prying into their business—asking questions. The real estate broker had already put me in touch with Gavino. He knew we’d exchanged numbers. What would I say now?
“Uh, yes, I’m calling because I gave Gavino six months up front plus deposit and now he’s not taking my calls. Oh, and I discovered he’s a member of La Cosa Nostra. You know, like, the Mafia. Honestly, that kind-of makes me nervous, what with someone who is comfortable admitting to murder having my entire savings and my not having keys to the apartment. So call me back. Thanks!”
There wasn’t really anything I could do. Except continue to call Gavino. Which I did. With little restraint. Five minutes would feel like hours, and I’d break down and call again. I quickly grew to hate the woman with the voice on his non-personalized answering machine message. With her feigned manners, her stuffy voice, and her, “Please try your call again later.” You betcha. I plugged in Gavino’s name as a contact and called him every hour. On the hour. All day Saturday. Until nine o’clock. No luck.
I knew it was silly to behave in this manner. After all, he’d given me no reason not to trust him. He’d presented himself as the kind of guy I’d want to drink espresso with in a quaint cafe in North Beach. The sort of cafe he’d ended a man’s life in front of…
I called my brother just to hear a phone actually ring and pick up. He laughed when I told him what I’d learned about my new landlord. He told me not to worry. Yet. When I informed him I’d already given Gavino the money he changed his answer. By the end of the conversation, I’d used so many hot words that I wondered if the FBI would start looking into me.
I rolled out of bed this morning, wanting to call Gavino, but decided to wait until after eleven. I busied myself cleaning house and packing boxes, as if he would eventually answer his phone, give me the keys, and I’d have a place for my family to move into. Regardless, I’d have to vacate my current place. I’d created a stunning blog for it and found someone to take over my lease in a day in the dark—PG&E had shut off power to the entire block but I made for such a persuasive real estate agent, I had rented it anyway. This was before I’d met Gavino. Before I’d been accepted at a perfect flat across the street from my son’s new school, before that owner had decided to sell instead of rent, before we’d searched for weeks on end, before being rejected by the manager who chose the single guy over us, before I’d spoken to the real estate broker who introduced me to the Mafia.
As I placed knickknacks carelessly into boxes, I tried to console myself with reasons. Reasons why Gavino’s message machine suddenly wasn’t operational. Why he hadn’t called on the day he’d agreed to give me the keys. I could blame it on a dead battery, on it being the weekend. Maybe he’d reformed. He was Italian—he could be in a Catholic service right now. A Catholic service in another country.
I tried not to blame my feelings on his past. I told myself I’d be concerned if I gave that much money to anyone and they didn’t follow through. Which was true. But his past did matter.
I’d always considered myself a formidable adversary. At five feet eight inches, I wasn’t physically intimidating—but my personality was strong-willed, resilient, fearless. I wasn’t timid, didn’t shy away from confrontation, and was ready to stand up for myself, even if that meant taking a few blows. But when I weighed my inner strength against the brutal force of organized crime, I couldn’t help but feel a little inadequate. And I had a family to protect. A child. I had to think about them before myself.
How well would my son do without a home? With parents struggling to provide shelter? Without my savings or six months of rent, we couldn’t afford to live anywhere else. So the risks cut both ways.
I called Gavino at eleven, at twelve, and at one, plus a few times in between, for good measure. Still no ring. No message. No answer. All I wanted was a chance, a couple phone rings. A chance at asking for the keys to the apartment I paid for.
My husband had said not to worry until Monday. If we couldn’t get a hold of Gavino then, we would call a lawyer. We’d accuse him of Grand Theft—taking our signed lease and checks to court to begin a lengthy trial with a criminal who has had all previous charges mysteriously dropped.
I am not as reasonable as my husband…
While he’s at work, I’m plotting my move against the mob. I’m fantasizing about breaking and entering. I’m considering placing severed horse heads atop four-hundred thread count pillows. I’m Googling street warfare,
Molotov cocktails, and airfare prices to Argentina.
I am packing a suitcase instead of cardboard boxes.
It’s just too hard to find a place in San Francisco.
We started "Action Fiction!", in conjunction with The San Francisco Writers Community and Fiction365, a year-and-a-half ago, and candidly no one is more surprised than us that it's turned out to be this good.
We know it would be good - don't get us wrong - but this good? Magic good? Inspiring performers and writers alike to new heights, good?
No, honestly, that was a surprise to us too. But the shows have been consistently that great.
They've also gone largely unnoticed, despite the pretty big crowds we pull in, so we're pleased to see reviews when they come up.
So thank you Evan Karp, and SF Weekly, for this one. We promise to keep 'em coming.
And FYI, we're trying to convince Benjamin Wachs to have "Fiction Badass" tattooed somewhere.
Hey, remember how the internet was going to end racism? How the digital revolution would close the gaps between the haves and have-nots? Maybe eliminate money altogether?
It’s cute when little children assign their toys superpowers. It’s nothing but trouble when grown-ups do it.
Today we’re told that digital technology will change everything about the study of literature: quantifying it, taking out all the messy subjectivity, and reveal stunning new insights.
The case is made, most recently, by Marc Egnal writing in the New York Times.
“Can the technologies of Big Data, which are transforming so many areas of life, change our understanding of American novels?” he asks.
Notice how no one who asks that question ever says “no.” It’s a giveaway that we’re playing games rather than engaged in serious scholarship. Serious scholars do not ask questions to which they are already messianically convinced of the answer, unless it involves ordering off a menu or tenure.
Sure enough: “After conducting research with Google’s Ngram database, which tabulates the frequency of words used in more than five million books, I believe the answer is yes.”
By tabulating the frequency of the use of words like “submissive, pious, domestic and pure” to describe women, along with “women’s rights,” Egnal claims to have made new discoveries about 19th century American literature. I won’t go into this too deeply – by all means read it yourself if you want to understand the claim. (Read the article he’s summarizing if you want an even better understanding: though it’s notable how much less bold his claims are in the academic publication than in the mainstream one. Another sign of an academic who, deep down, believes in the hype more than the subject.)
Egnal has two problems with traditional literary scholarship. First, there are just too many books. It is impossible for one person to read them all. Second, subjective bias is always a threat.
And certainly, both of those are issues. But what’s remarkable is that the proposed method –applying “Big Data” to the study of literature – solves neither of them. In fact, it makes them both worse.
Consider the problem that there are too many books for any person to read. Absolutely right. But the solution Egnal proposes is to have literary scholars read fewer of them. Instead of people reading books and accompanying scholarly studies, he’s having Google search them – which is the equivalent of reading an index, to the extent it can be considered “reading” at all. The end result is not a single additional book read.
Far from being an improvement to literary scholarship, this is a step down from Cliff Notes. Go ahead and do a key word search of the Bible. Now – can you tell me what it’s about on the basis of that data? Do a search of The Great Gatsby … for anything you want. Can you summarize the story? Do you have a sense of Fitzsgerald’s tone? His sense of humor? His opinion about human nature?
In fact, you are far more likely to colossally misunderstand a book you haven’t read after drawing conclusions from an Ngram search.
Thus the “Big Data” approach doesn’t solve the problem that not every scholar can read every book; instead, it suggests that scholars need to draw more conclusions on the basis of a larger number of books they haven’t read.
Are we sure that’s progress?
More to the point: the more literary scholarship shifts to database expertise, the less time literary scholars will have to read the actual books in question. If the whole problem is that there’s only so much time to read, then asking scholars to spend more time in databases doesn’t help. It’s counter-productive.
Once again technophiles, having failed to actually use computers to improve a task, have redefined the task so that it’s limited to something computers can do. It’s slight-of-hand, not progress.
The issue of subjectivity in the study of literature is an even more absurd example. The idea that not reading a book will enhance our objective knowledge of it is a satire worthy of Mencken.
Consider Egnal’s data from the 19th century novel regarding the role of women. Based on Google Ngram searches, we know that words like “submissive, pious, domestic and pure” to describe women peaked in the early to mid-1800s, while the term “Women’s rights” emerged in 1848 and did not peak until 1884.
So … what does that tell us?
Go ahead. Come up with your theory. Whatever it is.
Now … prove it.
I mean, this is “objective,” right? So there has to be some way to demonstrate that your theory for what this data means is better than my theory, or vice-versa. Doesn’t there? Because that’s what “objective” means – that it’s empirically verifiable by anyone.
But while the list of facts presented … word usage … may very well be objective, none of the conclusions are. Nor can they possibly be because, and I hate to keep emphasizing this, WE HAVEN’T READ THE BOOKS.
Far from eliminating subjectivity from literary scholarship, Big Data is creating more of it by asking more people to come up with more sweeping conclusions that there is no way to verify about books they haven’t read.
Look, this isn’t complicated: literary scholarship is what happens when people who have studied the history and context in which books were written read those books deeply and propose ideas about them. Over time a body of knowledge develops as ideas are proposed, argued over, refined, discarded and … in a few cases … accepted, and then stand the test of time.
At the heart of this is the reading of books by actual people. Put as many books into databases as you want; come up with as many grocery lists of words as you like – people reading books deeply will still be the heart of the endeavor.
That techno-utopians can’t see this … can see everything but this … is suggestive of just how little they think about the actual subjects they’re trying to improve.
They were sitting in the Subaru on the side of the road and it was snowing. If you looked at the parents you could see that both of them had teeth that were crooked, and all of their children did as well.
What will we do?
I’ll go in and straighten them myself with a pair of pliers, said the husband. I’ll straighten them.
Oh, Mel,” she said.
“Well, we have to get his teeth straightened.”
He is lazy. He can do the work.
LAZY IS NOT A REAL THING. LAZY IS FALSE.
LAZY IS A FALSE CATEGORY. IT IS LIKE: BAD. INSUFFICIENT.
Parked in the Subaru: Two parents, both with crooked teeth, both with many degrees.
You know, I liked you better before our conversations centered around dentistry.
I likewise. I find the whole dentistry angle unfulfilling. Bland.
Can’t we get rid of these kids? Can’t we get some new ones?
Maybe we could pretend. Pretend that we have all new kids.
Let’s rename them. Let’s. Tonight we’ll announce it.
So that night the kids all got new names. Henry became George, Linda became Michelle, David Became Leone and Frankie became Theo.
The children picked up on it not so quickly. It took some getting used to.
It is possible to do the academic study of popular culture well. It just isn’t common. My hypothesis is that all too often the academic study of popular culture is undertaken by scholars who really just want to write fan fiction.
In 2001 a whole bunch of academics so enjoyed “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” that they created an online journal (“Slayage”) dedicated to “Buffy Studies.” It was every bit as poorly written and conceived as the name implies, and came across as the loving work of people with graduate degrees who wanted to say “Wasn’t that series SO COOL!” at the top of their vocabularies.
Here’s a paragraph from (at the time) Loyola library student Hilary Leon’s article “Why we love the Monsters: How Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Wound Up Dating the Enemy” (PDF):
“Drawn inexorably by their slaying duties into the world of the creatures they fight, Buffy and Anita spend much of their time among those who are not human. In her roles as necromancer, police advisor, and executioner, Anita is surrounded by criminals, killers, and practitioners of the dark arts. She is also, inevitably, faced with non-humans who do not fit her original, rather simplistic definition of “monster.” Buffy faces a similar dilemma: her closest contact with undead activities in Sunnydale turns out to be himself a vampire, a fact she discovers only after their first passionate kiss. Neither woman intentionally seeks a lover among her enemies, but for each a variety of factors culminates in an unexpected and powerful attraction to the predators she is sworn to destroy.”
That’s not academic study – that’s a less interesting plot synopsis. The conclusion, after 7 pages of this: ”Rather than being forced to choose between the humans and the monsters, Buffy and Anita accept the complexity of their roles, and ultimately address both sets of responsibilities: to humankind, and to their own passions.”
It’s text that could come straight off the boxed set.
“Slayage,” incidentally, has continue on, and is now the bi-annual “Journal of the Whedon Studies Association.” Which makes me laugh in a way that also makes me cry.
I was reminded of “Slayage” when reading that a book of essays called “Dr. Who and Race” – a book taking the position that Dr. Who is “Thunderously” racist – will come out in July. Chapters include:
- Doctor Who, cricket and race: The Peter Davison years
- Baby steps: A modest solution to Asian under-representation in Doctor Who
- They hate each others’ chromosomes”: Eugenics and the shifting racial identity of the Daleks
The book’s criticisms of Dr. Who’s racist attitudes, according to media reports, include the issue that there has never been a non-white Doctor, that a 2011 episode included an “inappropriately slapstick take on Hitler” and the fact that Peter Davison’s fifth Doctor (from the 1980s) was obsessed with Cricket, which … something something … British Empire.
One wonders, sometimes, if academics studying popular culture ever realize how they sound to the people in popular culture. Does that never happen? Or are they just absolutely shameless? Because I’m so embarrassed for them that I’m going to have a hard time getting up in the morning.
I know, I know, I shouldn’t criticize a book I haven’t read yet. But … come on, people: Dr. Who’s been on television for nearly 50 years straight. Finding racist content on television from 1950 - 1990 is like finding White Trash at Wal-Mart. The fact that white actors were cast to play minority parts was a common TV practice; referring to primitive cultures as “savages” was the language of the time. Easy jokes at the expense of minorities were a staple of damn near every television show that played for a laugh. It was wrong, devastatingly wrong, but it had everything to do with the media culture and nothing to do with Dr. Who specifically as a show. You could probably write the exact same book about Sesame Street. Really take that cricket loving Muppet down a peg.
As for a critique of the new Dr. Who … well, give it a shot, I guess. But you’ll find plenty of shows on TV now with fewer minorities, fewer inter-racial couples, and less to say about colonialism. Which makes it look suspiciously to me like they’re writing a book about Dr. Who just to write a book about Dr. Who.
Again, academia as a kind of fan fiction.
But that bit about Hitler? From the episode (I presume) “Let’s Kill Hitler”? Yeah, it was a week episode. But dammit, the line “Do you think Hitler's still in the cubbard?” was funny.
You have to laugh. Thunderously.
I once knew a pro-domme who had all her prospective clients call an untraceable number that got forwarded to her business cell so that she could talk with them before agreeing to meet in person.
“I can tell,” she said, “instantly, from their opening words and the sound of their voice, whether this is someone I should do business with.”
“Oh, come on,” I told her. “That’s not possible.”
“Isn’t it?” she asked. “Because you say that, but your life has never depended on it. You’ve never agreed to meet someone in a place full of dangerous toys, not knowing if they’re a psychopath. You’ve never been stalked by a cop. I’m not saying I could do it on the first call, or the 50th, but by the 150th I started to figure it out.”
I hesitated. “You’re saying that you can tell everything about a man by the first thing he tells you, and the tone of his voice.”
“Everything I need to know. Yes.”
I shook my head. “I want to say that’s not possible.” But if she said she could do it, she probably could.
“People aren’t as complicated as you want to think,” she said. “You think complexity means free will. You want to be free, so you don’t want to be predictable. But most of what you’re focusing on is trivial. Most of what we distract ourselves with, from day to day, is trivial. It’s the stuff we do to fool ourselves, to convince ourselves, to distract us from the urge to get down on our knees and pray or to stand on a mountain and curse. But when you get past all that, there are very few types of people, deep down.”
“What types are there?” A fascinating woman saying fascinating things is irresistible. I’m sure she knew it.
“Most people are harmless. Some people intend to be harmless, but are dangerous; they can’t help themselves. Some people are dangerous, but keep themselves in control. And then there are the people who are dangerous, and mean to be. Those are the worst in person, but they don’t do the most damage. It’s the well meaning people who can’t help sabotaging themselves, or bringing chaos around them, who are the most trouble.”
I nodded. “That makes sense.”
She smiled. “You’re thinking about the people you know, aren’t you?”
I almost said yes.
“Then what?” she asked.
“I’m wondering …” this was hard …”if this helps explain why I’m so unlucky in love.”
“Ah,” she said, and there’s such sympathy in it I thought I might cry. “You really don’t know?”
I chuckled. “I’m … I’m actually kind of surprised that I’ve been able to look like I do.”
She took a deep breath. “You’re the type who’ll never call. The type who’s such a mess inside that you think you’ll destroy anything you come in contact with, destroy it from the inside out, like an unquenchable fire carried by a kiss. So you make a sacrifice: you wall yourself up. You put up towers made of stone and cover them in glass shards, and you stand at the top, staring through the arrow slits at the world. And occasionally you ask “why can’t I have that?’”
There was a long silence between us. “Oh,” I said. “Because, I knew that.”
She nodded slowly. “I thought so.”
“I was just hoping there was something else, too.”
“Sure,” she said. “I’m glad to hear it. Because I’d always thought it was tragic in that noble sense, that you’d make that wholly unnecessary sacrifice for us all, but fairly impressive that you’d found peace with it. But …” long pause … “if you didn’t know … that would be kind of …
“Pathetic,” I said.
Her expression didn’t change. She looked me straight in the eyes. “Yeah.”
“Well,” I said, “I was there way ahead of you.”
“Good,” she said. “Good. I wanted that for you.”
“Yeah.” I tried my best to smile.
“Someone like you,” she said, “would never call, or ask for help.”
“No,” I said. “Obviously.”
“It’s impressive,” she said.
“Thanks. I build a good castle.”
“Did you hear what happened to Deena?” she asked.
“Now, which kind of person is she?” I asked.
She rolled her eyes. “Okay, I said, obvious question. She takes everyone down with her.”
“Exactly,” she said, and told me the story, and an hour later it was like the first part of our conversation never happened.
But I remember that there are five kinds of people in the world, and have learned to identify them at a glance. It’s amazing what you can see through an arrow slit, if you know how to look. Which, I think, is what she was telling me the whole time.
The trouble is, see, we keep losing all our poets to those there woods. The nymphs and the dryads, they can’t get enough of them. They tease them and torment them and sing to them, until it makes them mad with want, and well, that’s when they go. Sort of like sirens, I guess.
They’re not all good poets, necessarily. Some of them can just stack a couple of metaphors on top of each other without grating on your nerves. But they take them all, even the not-so-good ones. . . I was going to say they take even the bad ones, but they don’t: I guess because a bad poet isn’t really a poet.
And this is a problem for us, you see, because we like poetry: life’s just not so worthwhile without it. Some of us like the long epic ballads, ships and sailors and final fights, you know. Others, like our mayor, they’re minimalists. Keep it short, they say, no excess words. The flowery stuff is for the gardens. But the fairies in the woods, they’re not picky as to form: they take ‘em all, all the works, and all the poets. There’s almost nothing left. Martha O’ Donnahue, she lost two sons to the woods, and one of ‘em could play the fiddle too, she had a book of poems buried in her back yard. Kept it there for years, but they found it all the same. Once we were famous for our poets. When they take away our poet children, they take away our civic pride, too.
We can usually tell our poet boys right off the bat. In my experience, they’re quiet, shy sorts, though sometimes you get a talented hell-raiser that nobody likes. Now a days, some people say we should be protecting them: keeping them away from the outdoors, or tying them up to their older brothers so that they don’t wander off. One lady who lives down by the edge of town, she even says we should send them away as soon as they write their first stanza, keep ‘em safe. But the majority opinion takes no stock in that. It’s not that they’re being kidnapped: they choose to go. And if they choose to go, how could we stop ‘em? I’m not so sure I hold with that, I think that maybe the fairies are cheating somehow, but that’s how we do it: we wait and hope that one of them will want to stay.
Somehow or another, though, they all go for a walk in the woods. Some of them are warned not to. They’re told by their parents, or their young friends, what might happen if they do. It usually happens after their first good poem, whenever they find the poet in themselves. Some kids write nice little ditties soon after they learn to read, other kids can wander their legs off in those woods, and it’s only after they hit puberty and pour their hearts out onto paper and make good sense with it that the fairies touch them. The poem’s the thing, see. The fairies don’t take promises.
Now, we don’t know how they all get the idea of going walking in the woods. Different folks have different theories. One lady says there must be something about those woods that attracks the poetic temperment. Man who teaches in the schoolhouse, though, he says he thinks the faries sing to them, and they follow the song into the woods because they’re curious. Our blacksmith, his brother was a poet, he says he thinks they send little farie’s out into our village, and that they invite our poets down for a chat. We’ll probably never know. One way or another, though, they all go walking down there.
Not that it’s always the first trip that gets them. It often takes more than one; it depends on a variety of factors. If they stay in the main woods, it’s the dryads they’ll be talking too. If they go down by the river, it’s the nymphs. Beautiful women, both, but it can make a big difference, so I hear. Dryads are better singers, but they like to take it easy, while nymphs are cavorting and flirtatious. They’re shameless, the lot of them. They’ll tease the poets and laugh at them, show them magical kingdoms under the rivers or in the branches of trees, and offer them anything their hearts desire. That’s enough to get some of them right off the bat.
Others, though, maybe they have a profession they want to get back to, or feel lonely for home. Maybe they love their parents, or they’ve got a sweetheart. Maybe they’re just plain afraid. Whatever it is, they say no. But they always change their mind. From then on, they’ll hear invitations whispered at night, and every time they see the forest, there’ll be a shapely arm, gesturing them back. Sometimes they go on a second visit, and still come back. Nobody’s ever come back from a third: by that time, those poets are just mad with desire, they can’t sleep right, can hardly eat. It’s worked that way for years – they’ve got those boys’ numbers.
When it’s a girl poet they’re after, well, then they have to go to a lot of trouble. It’s all women spirits in that woods, so they have to import. They bring in mischievous young pucks as handsome as willows who whisk them up and dance them through the forest, deliberately catching her clothing on briars and thistles. And from then on, wherever she turns, she’ll have a handsome suitor from the forest waiting on her whims; fairy pucks can sing like dreams, they’re charming as the devil, and know a thousand and one soft spots on the skin to touch at each opportunity, to massage each moment, to caress in the darkness. They have everything but depth, and can be anything except sincere. I’ve never known what girls see in that type, especially poets. But it never fails. All the pucks ask is that they follow them into the woods, and so they do – and they don’t come back.
Now it’s just the rest of us, left alone. And mothers don’t know what to hope for. Do they want their children to have thoughtful tongues and observant natures? How clever can your child be if you want to keep him? But, of course, there’s another pain too, and an uncertainty that we don’t like to talk about. But it’s a mirror that we can’t help looking in to every time we loose another poet to the fairies.
What is it they offer them that we can’t? Why do we mean so much less to the most beautiful minds we have? A nice hot fire, home cooked meals, family and good company at night: these are our staples, these are our lives. We always offer them freely: it’s all we’ve got. Yet not a poet in decades has stayed. What more do they want?
An old man writes a terrible book about his wife.
He publishes it himself and takes it to the bookstore.
The bookstore clerk says it’s a terrible book and insults the old man’s wife.
The old man’s wife gets sick and dies.
The old man burns down the bookstore.
The old man writes another terrible book and takes it to the bookstore in its new location.
He tells the clerk he’s written another book.
The clerk says, “What’s it called?”
“It’s called Fire,” says the old man. “It’s called Fire.”