The Introvert Parent

There are roughly a million articles online discussing the common characteristics shared by introverts. I suppose introverts are the ones sitting around writing all day, so that's probably why there seem to be a disproportionate amount of articles about them.

There's usually a reference of some kind or another to something I'll call the gas tank. The idea, as it goes, is that introverts can be just a social as anyone else, but that they have a limited amount of energy to do so. It's like a gas tank that, once empty, takes a long, long time to refill, and there will be no socializing until the tank is at F.

This isn't just applicable to socializing. It applies to anything that requires a lot of mental or emotional energy, anything that requires interacting with anyone other than ourselves. And it's a very real thing. It is very often the bane of my existence.

I'm not moody, I'm an introvert.

What's difficult, then, is realizing that the time you spend with your child is siphoning the tank.

I love my son more than I can possibly explain and I love spending time with him. But it is exhausting; it would be exhausting for an extrovert, let alone an introvert.

That's hard to reconcile, because no one wants to think of the time they spend with their child as being a problem.

I don't know how it is with other introverts, but I also have a habit of burning brightly when I engage with people. I am all in and often over the top. I'm a man of extremes and when I'm switched on I will be as on as is humanly possible.

With my son, at least, I'm choosing to be that way, but the end result is still the same. Whereas I might actually enjoy interacting with my son, I'm still tapped dry. And I never burn brighter or hotter than when I'm choosing to.

It's a difficult realization to come to, the idea that something you ostensibly love doing (spending time with your child) can also be sucking you dry.

To follow the metaphor to its end, I need time to refill my tank. But being a parent means not having a ton of time for yourself, which means refilling can be that much harder -- and take that much longer.

If I had a dollar for every time I said to myself that I needed to start going to bed earlier then I could quit my day job and I'd have plenty of time to refill. As it is those few hours after my son falls asleep are the only time I'm able to prepare myself for the next day, and that time is often not enough.

I'm regularly running past F and after a few days or weeks of that, I start to lose it.

It seems like a simple matter of being overwhelmed, of thinking that perhaps the work/life balance is off or the division of labor is off. Or maybe my son is just having a hard time lately or maybe I'm just moody for some other reason that I can't put my finger on yet because I'm painfully oblivious to my own emotions. The reality, though, is that I've been running on empty for days and I've reached my limit.

So I try to take long lunches at work. I try to leave early. I try to steal a few extra quiet moments to keep myself afloat.

And I try to make sure my son never sees me grinding to a halt.

 

Joss Whedon, Role Models, and Toxic Masculinity

I could say that becoming a father has made me more keenly aware of what a huge problem toxic masculinity is in our society. I could also say that it's hard not to think about it given that our current president is the poster boy. But the reality is that it's something I've battled with my entire life.

Here's a tiny piece of why toxic masculinity is a problem.

It's important to point out that there are a lot of reasons why the allegations against Joss Whedon are troublesome, but I'm going to focus on the thread that has hit closest to home to me. Because I think there are a lot of people like me - males of a certain age and with certain limited social skills - who are reacting to this theoretical news in a very specific way.

Calling Joss Whedon a role model might be overstating it, but for many of us he meant a lot. It's not just that we connected with his work, it's that he seemed like us: a sensitive nerd who didn't fit the ideals of what a "real" man should be. This is a guy who would cry while writing scenes for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This is a guy who loved musicals. This is a guy who had kind of this quiet lisp when he talked and chose his words very carefully. And he found success doing something he loved.

I'm not going to say that's unusual in a general sense, but it is in specifics. Bill Gates is certainly not boiling over with testosterone and he's made a comfortable life for himself doing what he loves. But I don't know that many people feel a creative and emotional connection to Gates' creations. That component made Whedon different.

For that matter, the fact that Whedon seemingly wore his emotions on his sleeve made him different. Someone like Gates, for example, or even Zuckerberg seemed in control of their emotions. Whedon was a big ugly mess of feelings and he told us it was okay to be like that. He told us you could be happy without being a "real" man.

It would be easy to dismiss his importance to a certain segment of the population. And it's easy to dismiss how meaningful that is. If you haven't noticed what a problem men are in this country then you aren't paying attention.

There's a Twitter thread by a woman who paints faces for children. In the thread, she talks about how a little boy asked for a butterfly, but his parents wouldn't let him get it because it wasn't something a boy should get. They made him get a skull.

It's a fucking butterfly. He's a little boy.

Whedon should never have been framed as a feminist icon or even a champion of feminism. I don't know that any man should ever be placed on a pedestal for being a feminist; that would be like celebrating people for not shitting themselves over the course of a day - it should be expected.

Whedon was a gateway figure, though, an easily accessible, unoffensive man who seemed to think that women should be treated just like men and went out of his way to make shows about them. At the very least, he was sending a better message into the TV world than the creators who had come before. He wasn't so much improving anything for women, but he was trying to elevate men.

One of the key components in leveling the playing field is removing all the assholes from said field and the only way that's going to happen is if we stop making more. We need to bring an end to "boys will be boys" and all the macho bullshit that has been fed to them their entire lives. And we need to make sure that those kids who are trying to be better don't give up.

That's what Whedon was. He told us that being emotional was a virtue. He told us to embrace who we really were and to treat others with respect. He told us that you could be a great man without being guided by your dick.

It was nice while it lasted.

I've said too much.

If you will indulge me for just a minute, I am going to briefly mention something about the television show Gossip Girl, but you should be used to that from me by now.

I rather unabashedly enjoyed Gossip Girl.  It had two things going for it from the start: it was produced by OC/Chuck creator Josh Schwartz, and the voice over (from the titular character) was done by Kristen "Veronica Mars" Bell.  So I was on board right off the bat.

Now, it seems like I would have jumped ship pretty quickly, given the target demographic of the show was probably thirteen year old girls.  But a) I have a weird love of teen melodrama and b) my enjoyment of a show is generally determined by whether or not there is a character I can vicariously live through, see also: Chuck, Buffy, et al.  In the case of Gossip Girl, it was Dan Humphries, a teenager who fancies himself a writer.

All ridiculousness aside, there was an actual storyline about writing that struck a chord in me.  Long story short, Dan wrote a book that was fiction, but was very clearly about himself and his friends.  And he said a few not so flattering things about the people in his life.  He had to defend himself over and over again, generally going to the "I changed things for the story" argument which, I think, is a legitimate one, given how often I do that myself.

Anyway, it got me thinking about how much writers share about their own lives, and the self-imposed ceiling on such things.  Take a book like Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis, for example. It's easy to see just how much of it is autobiographical, to the point that you wonder how people in Ellis' family reacted when it was published.

Here's the funny thing about writing: they say truth is stranger than fiction, but fiction is often more upsetting.  I wrote an entire book of non-fiction and, aside from a few spots here and there, none of the people in that book were upset with any part of it.  Yet had I taken artistic license with any of it, twisted it to serve my purposes and slapped a "fiction" label on it, I would bet fat stacks of cash that those same people would be incredibly upset.

The problem, of course, is that it's hard to separate fact from fiction when the fiction hits so close to home.

This all got me thinking about how I censor myself.  There is a ceiling for my honesty, a ceiling on how directly I'm willing to address people I know.  I'm am very aware of who will end up reading my work, or at least who could end up reading my work.  I'm aware of how what I write might upset the people in my life.

I wonder if that is diminishing what I produce.  I know that there are aspects of my life that are worth writing about that I have never even considered putting down on paper for fear of the fall out.  There's a clear disconnect between what every day people consider polite conversation and what writers consider fodder for stories.  That is to say, writers consider everything fodder for stories.

There's an episode of Californication where Hank Moody finds out his dad died.  In the flashbacks, we see that he and his dad never got along, and that they eventually almost quit talking completely because his dad was so upset about the fictional father figures Hank wrote about.  He assumed (probably correctly) that every father figure in all of Hank's stories were based on him...even though all of Hank's stories were works of fiction.

People always do that.

I wrote a book about a decade ago and in that book is a married couple.  My parents assumed that the married couple were two particular friends of mine who were, at that time, the only friends in my life that were married.  Those characters weren't my friends; the thought never even crossed my mind.  But my parents filled in that blank for themselves.

The glamorous version of a writer is the one who is estranged from his or her family and who doesn't have any close friends that have been around for more than a few years, or at the very least not from before the writer became famous.  This is because the writer has cut all ties with his or her past, and is thus free to write about those people or analogs for those people when ever she or he wants.  Being an honest writer means being free from the influence of others.

But that's not really possible, is it?

Or maybe it's just not possible for me.

Years and years ago I shared some short stories with my parents.  I was living in Los Angeles at the time and they were (and are) back in Ohio, so the added distance made me feel okay with giving them some of my work.  Besides, I figured if my end goal was to get these things published, they'd end up reading them, anyway.

Months and months later my parents sent me a letter (an attachment to an e-mail, actually) where they expressed concern with some things I said in one of my stories.  They didn't mention it specifically, but I have no doubts they were referring to a story in which the main character has sex with his then girlfriend and certain things happen, certain things that seem kind of specific to both myself and another person who had been in my life.

I acknowledged their concerns, but I was a bit put off, not because they were worried about the content of one of my stories, but because months had gone by, which meant they didn't really think these stories were going to get out any time soon to reflect poorly on me or anyone else in my life.

Funny enough, that story has long since died on the vine.

My father tends to assume that 90% of what I write is true.  My mother seems to assume that at least 50% of it is true.  They're both overshooting.  Generally speaking, my writing takes a small grain of my life and grows it into a field.  Perhaps 10% of my fiction really happened.

Still, I do wonder if the fact that there's a limit to what I'll write about might be holding me back.  But I also wonder if any of the things I don't write about are actually worth the real impact it would have on my life.

We can claim that we write for ourselves all we want, but in the end that's never entirely true -- at least not for most of us.

I'm the worst artist

I really am.

I don't mean artist as in a person who draws things. I mean artist as in person who creates art.

Periodically, I think about artists who seem to operate on a different plane of existence than the rest of us. You know the people I'm talking about: the ones who seem unable to think rationally, who don't function in our accepted reality, the ones you talk to and you think "how have you not died yet?"

I am not one of those people. I am horribly responsible. I've spent most of my life not making my happiness a priority. I have spent most of my life not making my art a priority.

I will never be on of those artists. That ship has sailed. I'm sure the potential to be like that was once within me, but it was driven out of me at an early age.

There's a tangent I could go on here about how a certain demographic of people have been producing most of the consumed art in our country for a long, long time, and how their particular demographic allows them to get away with being how I described above, while others are not so fortune. But that would a long and wandering road, so I'll leave it alone (for now).

For most of my life I actively hated people like that, the "artists" who seemed at odds with reality. I hated people who acted like they had no responsibilities, whose sole drive was creativity. These are people who are drifting through life focused on amorphous things like "their art" while the rest of us are working for a living.

There's an entire subset of those people who also seemed to only do things that made them happy, which also annoyed the hell out of me.

I've mellowed in my old age and I've gotten to a place where I can say that I envy those people. I envy anyone who is able to commit to their art to that degree and, seemingly, never question it. No, it's not that they never question it, it's that the question doesn't even exist.

I know, though, that being present in this world has and will make me a better father and probably makes me a better husband. And I suppose that's a trade off that many of us make, although I don't know how much of an option it was for me. This is who I am. I don't feel like I gave anything up to be this person, at least with respect to my family.

Hm. I just typed "my family" in reference to my wife and my son. It's so strange how the focal point shifts as we get older. It's such an empowering thing to say.

Still, I can't help but wonder what I might have created had I been one of those people, one of those strange, off putting people who drift through life, who are able to see the world through drugs even when they're not taking them.

I suppose that's what it boils down to. I know that I have walls. Some of them were built by others, some of them were built by me. Some of them were built for survival, some were built over time. But they exist. I am not the purest form of myself because I can't be and because I was never really given a chance.

So I wonder what it would be like if I had no walls. If art is letting the energy of the universe flow through you and that flow is hindered by the walls we put up over the course of our lives, what would I be able to create were I free and clear? What was doomed before I ever got to a point in my life when it might be born?

And yet I can't use the word "born" without thinking of my son or any future children my wife and I might have. And I can't think about them without the understanding that those walls keep me grounded. There are, perhaps, too many of them, but in the end that's better than having none at all. My life was built by walls and by my careful navigation around them.

I will never be a brilliant artist, but I'm fine with being just a pretty good one who has an amazing family and an amazing life.

Curse of the Dabbler

I've met a lot of writers.

I only know that they are writers because they tell me they are writers and they only tell me that they are writers because they have just learned that I'm a writer. And I've written most of these people off as dabblers.

Let's face it, in the internet age there are millions of dabblers, and that's not restricted to people who claim to be writers. We live in a time when you can learn how to do almost anything by watching a video on YouTube. You can learn about almost anything by visiting web sites; anything you can imagine has at least a dozen sites dedicated to it.

And that's great, really. But it creates a lot of "jack of all trades, master of none" types.

The other day I was listening to Sonic Youth as I drove to work. It made me think about the fact that Kim Gordon wrote a book that I'd yet to read and how I'd read a few non-fiction books recently about bands and that I really enjoyed them. And it made me think about my own experiences with music and with a "scene" and how writing about that would be fairly easy for me and probably a lot of fun.

But I was never thoroughly invested in music the way you have to be to end up writing a book about it. I'm sure I've got a few funny anecdotes about being in garage bands and being the target demographic for grunge, but I don't have the depth of knowledge or experience needed to write an insightful book about any period of any genre of music.

I dabble in a lot of things. I spend far too much time reading and thinking about comics. I've even written some scripts. Yet I've never published a comic.

I work in SEO and I know more than the average duck, but I don't dive into it the way most successful SEOs do. I know enough to stay current, but I'm not online networking or participating in conversations about the field. I like it well enough, but that's all.

And, as much as it pains me to admit, I'm ultimately a dabbler when it comes to writing. I'm an extremely invested dabbler, but a dabbler nonetheless. Or maybe amateur is a better word. Because for as much as I have written in my many years putting finger to keyboard, I've never committed the way that's necessary to actually be successful (the sheer number of times I use the word "actually" is probably a good indication).

I've never had a set writing schedule. I've only managed to actually track my work for a few months at a time. I seldom set writing goals and when I do I don't ever meet them. Heck, one of my new year's resolutions for 2017 was to submit short stories every month. Guess how many times that's happened so far? None.

There's no question that I need to write. If I go too long without writing, I get crabby. Nicole can tell when it's been too long. It's an outlet that I have to have. But as far as an actual interesting that I pursue, I'm a glorified dabbler.

Really and truly there is only one thing in my life that I am not a dabbler in: being a father.

I don't think I ever realized that I'd never fully committed to anything until our son was born. Don't get me wrong, I'm committed to Nicole, but it's different, as that's a reciprocal relationship. My commitment to her is returned by her commitment to me. It's not like music or writing are sticking with me through thick and thin. They don't care.

That's not to say that Sam doesn't reciprocate, but he doesn't understand it. He doesn't realize that I'm giving him anything different than I would give to any other aspect of my life. He's not putting the time and effort into me, not really. It's a conscious one way street, but a subconscious two way street.

It's opened my eyes, though, to what I'm able to accomplish when I commit. It's too little too late, really, as my time is now dedicated to just a handful of things. So knowing this about myself is bittersweet. I wish I'd been more focused in my younger days, but at least I'm able to focus now, when it maters most.

My 10th grade English teacher told my parents that I was very smart, but lacked focus. That never really changed, not until my son was born. And while I wish I had realized this sooner, I'm grateful that I'm aware of it now and that I'm able to give my all to being a father.

I Hate Short Stories

Every second I stare at this bookshelf is another second that I won't spend sleeping.

Nicole is an avid night reader and it's rubbed off on me.  When I finish a book, I tend to wait until bed time to figure out what I'm going to read next.  And that was my dilemma tonight.

I have a lot of unread books.  It is ridiculous that I keep buying books given how many unread books I have, but I suppose that explains how I got into this mess.  Over the course of the next month I will only get more.

One of the books waiting for me is short story collection.  Since I do, in theory, write short stories and I did, in practice, go to graduate school to learn how to write them, I try to read as many as I can.  I subscribe to a few literary journals (chock full o' short stories) and I buy various collections like this one.

But I'm having a hard time finding the motivation to open it up, and I think it's because I might actually hate short stories.

I've realized that short stories are the most pretentious of literary formats.  There is a very specific window for a good short story, a very specific line that has to be walked, which makes a good short story extremely hard to write.  What's worse is that everyone writing short stories knows this, and the simple fact that they do know it makes it all the more pretentious.

The problem is that short stories can easily go one way or the other: too much or not enough.  Too much and it destroys the point of the format.  And, unlike poetry which is smart enough to engage the audience to the point where they are filling in any blanks, short stories that are too vague fail at what they're doing.  Poetry, at least, has a certain clarity to its vagueness.  Short stories do not.

There's a code, some kind of combination of chromosomes that make up a good short story and the slightest mistake here or there can ruin the entire line.  One bad sentence can sink a short story.

Even worse, short stories exist in their own, self-perpetuating reality.  The majority of people reading short stories are people who write short stories.  The majority of people who edit literary magazines are also people who write short stories.  The people teaching short stories are, yet again, the people who are writing short stories.  Aside from Playboy and the New Yorker, the only people who actually seem to care about short stories are the ones who are writing them, and I can't imagine I'm the only one in that group who periodically hates them.

Why are they so problematic?  They're supposed to be easier to write than, say, a novel, right?  They are shorter after all.  But that's the problem.  Because they're shorter, every single word matters.  Think about that.  This is a format that is taunting a group of people who are already, by and large, neurotic to write something in which every single word can be scrutinized over and over again.  Short stories are the finger print on a glass sliding door.  They're the tall book in a row of short books on your book shelf.  They are an endless well of doubt and revision.

So why does anyone write them, particularly if no one reads them?  Is it the challenge?  Is it the fact that so many writers take classes on writing at some point, and those classes place emphasis on the short story?  Because we are trained that we only have a few months to complete a story?  Because books are for the masses, the plebes, and literary journals filled with short stories are for the chosen few?

And then there's the larger issue: why doesn't anyone read them?  Even if the format wasn't determined to destroy itself by maintaining some bizarre standards of readership, why are people choosing much, much longer books over short stories?  Record companies are able to make money producing nothing but compilations.  Why doesn't this theory also apply towards short story anthologies?

The simplest answer I can give is this: stopping.  It would seem odd that someone would be more likely to commit to a three hundred page novel than a fifteen page short story.  But that's the case.  It's the case because the reader wants to be in control, at least to a certain extent.  And with a novel, you can pick and choose where you stop and where you start.  Yes, there are those who prefer to stop at chapter breaks, but there's no sense of urgency to get to that chapter break, there's no feeling that you'll lose something if you don't get that far.  A novel is so long that you aren't going to read it in one sitting, so you don't worry about whether or not reading it in multiple sittings will ruin the experience.

The same cannot be said for short stories.  A short story demands it be read in one sitting.  For that matter, it demands you pay close attention to it.  A short story is difficult reading.  Sure, it can be extremely rewarding reading for that very fact, but it still requires effort, it requires flexing brain muscles that most people aren't interested in flexing while they read.  Reading short stories is work.

Perhaps that's the main problem: short stories have been examined and scrutinized to the point that they no longer contain the simple joys of reading, the simple joys of writing.  You can examine a novel to death, too, but ultimately it's so large and wide reaching that people are going to take from it what they want.  For that matter, the market for novels is much larger.  A book about wizards and a book about spies and a book about war and a book about politics can all co-exist, can all find space on a bookshelf at a store, while short stories seem so limited, or, at the very least, segregated by genre.

Hyperbole aside, I do like writing short stories, at least initially.  The constant examination that comes after the first few drafts, however, tends to suck all the joy away.

But I recently submitted a short story to a contest that is, in my not remotely objective opinion, the best short story I've ever written (a claim supported at least somewhat by my wife, who is actually a harsh critic).  The high I felt after "finishing" it was incredible, and I guess it's the reason why lunatics continue to write in this abused format.  Because reading it and writing short stories isn't for everyone, and doing either makes us feel special.

It also makes us pretentious and crazy.

Faith No More's "Angel Dust" is Gloriously Adolescent

I don't mean that the album is transitional, I mean that the album is the perfect encapsulation of being a teenager, perhaps more specifically a white boy not living in a city.

I would love to think that my teen years were grunge, but that's probably more the romanticized view than anything else. The reality is that no single record portrayed the overall creep factor of raging hormones than "Angel Dust." No other album dipped into the inner and outer turmoil the same way, to the same degree. This wasn't just "I'm lonely and sad and no one will ever love me." This was "here are all the fucked up things going through my head."

"Land of Sunshine" comes off as this horrible double edged sword of "congrats, grad!" and "you might be right, you might be insane." They seem to be such disparate ideas, yet it's exactly how any weird teenager feels. On one hand, you're focused on a theoretical future where you might actually feel good about yourself. On the other hand, you regularly feel horrible and you're pretty sure you shouldn't, but you can't help yourself.

Follow that up with "Caffeine" which, among other potent lines, includes: "Relax. It's just a phase. You'll grow out of it." It's like a fucked up user manual of reassurance. Yes, you are a freak, but it's cool.

The beauty of "Midlife Crisis" is that it's exactly the kind of song someone terrified of a theoretical midlife crisis would write. I can remember being a teenager and being terrified that I would end up like my parents who, at the time, were probably experiencing their midlife crisis. In some ways this was the greatest fear that a white kid in the suburbs could have: becoming another suburban parent.

And this leads beautifully into "RV."

When I listened to this in high school, I thought it was fun, a cool song that was making fun of sad, white trash. Listening to it now, though, I realize how poignant it is, how complex the song is not just lyrically, but musically. What starts off as a caricature becomes a real person by the end, particularly with that last line. It some ways, this is a cautionary tale, a warning that listening to your parents isn't necessarily a good idea.

While "Smaller and Smaller" instantly conjures images of bugs that will not die, the song itself is something of a rural anthem, a musical take on the plight of the farmer who is slowly being beaten down by the modern world. Again, this record isn't about the city folk, it's about those of us in the suburbs and the country.

"Everything's Ruined" comes back to the idea of family being an investment and parents looking at their children as a way to increase the status of the family name, not to mention the the family fortune. Again, for a kid in the suburbs whose life has been mapped out, this was like heroin. Th song is telling us that if we don't turn out the way our parents want, they will consider the whole ordeal to have been a waste.

Is "Malpractice" about how horrible it is to try to appeal to the masses? Maybe?

"Kindergarten" is clearly about a kid who is held back in kindergarten, but in this case it seems as if he will never get past kindergarten no matter how old he gets. This is stunted adolescence taken to the next level; this is perpetual childhood, but not in a good way. This is the story of a person who needs to grow up, who wants to grow up, but is unable to move forward. This could very easily be about a teenager, but setting it in a kindergarten makes it substantially more resonant.

Faith No More's greatest accomplishment could be getting straight teenage boys across the country to sing "I swallow" at the top of their lungs. "Be Aggressive" might be about more than blowjobs, but it would take a better person than I to dig into it.

I played soccer in high school. I was pretty good at it, too. Every year my school had an awards banquet for the sports that played in the fall, which was usually dominated by football. But after the main banquet, the individual sports had their own awards ceremonies. I remember that my brother, who was the assistant coach at the time, told me in confidence that the MVP voting had been a tie between me and another guy, and that we'd likely have to vote again. But that never happened and the head coach gave it to the other guy, apparently because he felt like it. Had I just voted for myself, it would not have been an issue.

Anyway, on my way home that night I listened to "A Small Victory." At the time, it was mostly for the vague references to sports and competition. Listening to it now, I see that it's about someone who just cannot win, but at the same time questions why competition is something that drives us. My reading is that, in the end, the continual loser is the one who realizes that this competition is meaningless, but the winner won't listen to reason.

Sounds about right.

As near as I can tell, "Crack Hitler" is about a drug lord. The lyrics paint a pretty good picture, from setting the song in Miami to the briefcase, the high speed chase, to evil lurking in every person's heart. Calling the song "Crack Hitler" is certainly sensational, as crack was still destroying communities like the plague and, well, Hitler is Hitler. So if we're looking for a crossroads of awful both near and far, this is a good one.

The brilliance of "Jizzlobber," aside from the name, is that it encompasses the entire album.  Again, this is teen angst delivered with a different type of self-loathing that we got from other bands of this time. This is a dirty song with a dirty title and dirty lyrics and we all felt dirty all the damn time when we were teenagers. And this song was Faith No More looking over the 11 other songs on this album and saying "you are disgusting, but we get it."

Closing the album with a instrumental piece called "Midnight Cowboy" is just about perfect. Aside from the fact that it's the perfect come down after such an intense album, the reference to "Midnight Cowboy" hammers home a lot of what this album was about. The layered, heavy music over top of the kind of simple melody you would expect to find being performed at a quaint, old world restaurant summarizes the album nicely: we are following a pattern that has always existed and it really is more fucked up than ever.

"Angel Dust" is the perfect teen angst record for a specific demographic and it was more telling than I realized at the time. It's not the way I wanted to feel or even how I thought I felt, but what I actually experienced every day. And it transforms me back into a teenager every time I hear it.

Kids' TV is crazy smart now and yet still antiquated

A few weeks ago my son was lifting a stick of some kind so that the car he'd placed on it would roll down and, in theory, knock away whatever it was he'd place in front of it. I'm a little fuzzy remembering this. What I do remember is that his aunt was visiting and he was sitting on her lap at the kitchen table.

The car wasn't able to knock that thing out of the way, so I asked him what the car needed more of.

"Momentum," he said.

He's three.

His aunt was a little stunned. And probably a bit worried, as she's going to be a mother in a few months and here's my son setting a bar that probably seemed high, but which really isn't, not for kids these days.

My son knows what momentum is because he learned about it on Blaze and the Monster Machines, a STEM focused cartoon featuring a bunch of monster trucks. In each episode, Blaze and his friends must win races and solve problems using science, or a reasonable facsimile. And there's always at least one musical montage in each episode, which is amazing, not just because the songs are kind of catchy, but because they are about the scientific principle featured in the episode. So I've heard songs about structural engineering, inertia, angles, light, and so on.

It's pretty great, really. And the toys are fairly cheap, which is even better.

But for as advanced as the show might be with regards to science, it's still wallowing with the rest of society with regards to gender.

Blaze is the star and is, of course, a boy monster machine. He has a group of friends, who are also all monster trucks: Zeg, Darrington, Stripes, and Starla. They each have a gimmick: Zeg is a dino truck, Darrington is a daredevil, Stripes is a tiger truck, and Starla is a cowgirl. Starla is also the only girl. And you will never guess what color she is.

The fact that this is a STEM focused show just makes this all the more troubling.

Now there are two human characters on Blaze. One is AJ, who drives Blaze, which is strange in and of itself, as none of the other monster trucks have drivers (but I suppose AJ is the stand in for the audience). The other human is Gabby, the mechanic. She fixes everything. And, yes, she is a girl. But kids don't watch the show for the humans, they watch it for the monster trucks.

I've written before about how the Paw Patrol has token female characters that are generally ostracized when it comes to toys. Even a show like Yo Gabba Gabba, which is praised as being progressive, falls into this trap. Take a look at the main, fictional characters. There's a red one, a blue one, a green one, and a yellow. That all makes sense, yes? But then, I suppose in an effort to add some gender balance, there's a fifth character, Foofa, and you'll never guess what color she is. The fact that Toodee, who is blue, is also female doesn't offset Foofa, who also looks like a flower.

And it should be noted that Yo Gabba Gabba and Paw Patrol are fantastic shows that, while they're not STEM based, are focused on teaching children to love music and dancing and encourage kindness and love. Both shows also do an excellent job of including a diversity of human characters.

But the gender inequality is astounding and I don't understand why it still exists. Even if you assume that these shows are "for boys," that doesn't lessen the impact of having just as many female as male characters who are also just as capable and can come in a variety of colors. My son needs to see that in the shows he watches (thankfully, he sees it around him in the real world).

If we're looking at ingrained sources of inequality, children's television is probably a solid barometer, and what it's saying about gender roles is not great.

 

My wife challenges me to blog about Cars

My wife, who, as you no doubt know by now, works at Pixar, pointed me in the direction of this article on the "existential quandaries" caused by the world of the Cars movies. I told her that I thought the questions the writer offered up were really obvious and that my questions are much deeper.

So she basically told me to prove it (although, sad to say, she's heard most of this before).

But first, let me address the weak sauce of that other article.

  1. 1) Even if the cars had killed off the humans, there's no reason to believe it happened recently, thus no reason to believe that the characters in the Cars movies were responsible for it.
  2. This is not a question.
  3. Yes, cars die, a car crash could kill them, they get old and break down and die. That seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?
  4. Cars reproduce. The evidence is clear. Cal Weathers bears a striking resemblance to Strip Weathers, aka The King aka Cal Weathers' father. I realize that the idea that cars have some kind of version of sex is freaky, but get over it.
  5. See #4
  6. This assumes that Mack's trailer is a part of him, even though he's actually a tractor trailer that can (and does) separate from the trailer portion. The actual living part of Mack is the tractor part. So McQueen does not, in fact, spend time inside Mack.
  7. This is just wrong. There are a lot of different animal analogues in the world of Cars, tractors just happen to be one of them. And just like animals in our world, they have different levels of intelligence.

Okay, now that we're done with that (I mean, come on, that's just shite), let's get down to the real brass tacks.

Full disclosure: I'll be focusing on the first Cars movie, as it's what started this all. Also, this quote from Grant Morrison should clarify my stance on a few things:

Questions about what the cars eat or how they reproduce feel so obvious and pedestrian to me and, besides, what difference does it make? Digging into it doesn't really expand our thinking in any way, does it? I mean, unless car fetish becomes a thing.

Here's something about the original Cars movie that I haven't been able to figure out:

What is it saying about money?

The basic premise of the movie is that race car Lightning McQueen, who is self-centered and focused on winning the Piston Cup, mostly for the fame and fortune that will come with is, gets stuck in a small down in the desert that is on the verge of going under. The town was bypassed by a new highway, so there are no customers for the few remaining businesses.

Over the course of McQueen's stay in Radiator Springs, he learns that there's more to life than just wining the Piston Cup and being famous. He learns to think about others. He is even challenged: when was the last time you ever thought of anyone other than yourself?

So before leaving the town for his big race, McQueen helps his new friends out, but that involves spending money at their stores.

It should also be pointed out that during the entire movie most of them are regularly pitching their wares. Flo constantly suggests that everyone is thirty, thus needing to stop at her cafe. Her husband, Ramon, tells McQueen multiple times that he needs a new paint job. At one point, the town is lined up, watching McQueen fix the main road, and each of them delivers a line that has to do with their business. What they sell is what they are.

And so it makes sense that McQueen's only avenue to help them is by buying their stuff.

In the end, McQueen sets up his new racing headquarters in Radiator Springs, revitalizing the town.

So is money good or bad? Is capitalism a problem or a solution?

The town is only dying because capitalism has decided that a faster route is needed through the desert, no doubt to transport goods across country. So capitalism decides that the town is an acceptable loss in the face of improved service and, in theory, more money.

And yet capitalism saves them. While McQueen turns down a big new sponsor to stick with the people who backed him when he was a nobody, it's still his fame that brings Radiator Springs back to life. And its his money that wins over the people in that town, as he ultimately has little interaction with most of them beyond buying their stuff.

It would be entirely justified to suggest that I'm reading too much into Cars, but a) I've seen it like 200 times and b) the whole thing is about money. From McQueen's desire for more, to the lack of it in the town, it is the oxygen that keeps everyone in this movie going.

I once referred to Cars as the "Bernie Sanders of Pixar movies" and I think that's where I've landed with regards to the Cars philosophy on money. Capitalism is good when it's balanced by a sense of community.

Which is great, except that the world is full of Chick Hicks.

I just want you to tell me how awesome I am

I would guess that most people, in general, surround themselves with a bubble.  It's probably a bigger bubble for those who are self-conscious or who engage in any kind of activity in which they're offering up a piece of themselves to complete strangers.  But, let's face facts, we're all looking for validation in some form or another, so at some point we have to let the bubble go.

I'm not great about sharing my writing.

Part of that might come from my time in grad school.  A big chunk of what you do as a graduate student in creative writing is share your work with your class.  The vast majority of the feedback you got in those two years came in workshops.

Run and go watch the beginning of Wonder Boys real quick.  Go on, it will take two minutes.  Back?  What you just watched (assuming you own Wonder Boys, as it's not available streaming anywhere online, even for money) is a pretty accurate depiction of what a creative writing workshop is like.  Generally speaking, none of the people in the workshop are very good writers, thus being in the workshop, which makes the feedback they give suspect right off the bat.

Everyone in a workshop wants to seem smart, so everyone in a workshop tries to do that by making really amazing, incredibly critical points about your work.  Half the time, the points aren't even particularly valid, but they just keep digging, trying to find something that will make them look good in front of the professor.

Even worse, we're all writers, so we all suffer from the same fragile egos.  If you hand us something that's genuinely good, it destroys us, because what we've turned in is shit in comparison.  So we hate you.  And we're not good at hiding our hate.

It kind of surprising that anyone who goes through workshops ever shows their work to anyone ever again.

The workshop is a good example of the difficulties with getting good feedback.  Getting feedback in general has never been easier.  The internet is awash in writing communities that you can join and share your work with.  It's awash with these communities because it's awash with people who want to write books, and they are very eager to get their work read, so they're very eager to read yours.

The problem, then, is figuring out how valuable that feedback is.

It's a lot like trying to find something to read among self-published books.  These days, anyone can self-publish.  Even money is no longer an obstacle -- talent certainly isn't.  I don't say that to be mean, but absolutely anyone can publish a book if they want to, but we all know that everyone can't write.  Most people can't even fashion an e-mail correctly.

When it comes to my work, my wife, Nicole, is the only one who reads all of it.  She's a fantastic editor, who, beyond all other things, possesses a sense of story.  That may sound obvious, I know, but you'd be surprised at how difficult it can be to just tell a story.  Writers want to write.  They want to pull out every trick in that writing box and go to town, but that often gets in the way of telling the story.  My wife sees right through that shit and she calls me on it.

I've yet to really delve into the online world of peer editing.  It's entirely for the reasons above, not to mention the fact that I can't imagine having time to read some one's book, which is something I'd have to do to be fair.

I did, however, fork over ducats to have a published author read a few chapters of Master of the House*.  I realize that things like this are generally frowned upon by the writing community, but at least this way I knew what I was getting and who was giving it to me.

Even then, though, I have to take his feedback with a grain of salt.  As the aforementioned writer said, "So please follow your own muse, though I do hope that you will find these comments helpful."  In the end, the most important feedback is the kind I give myself.  Because in the end, that might be all I'm left with.

* It was excellent feedback, I should add.  It's also done wonders for my confidence, which might be the most important thing I could get out of it. 

Feeling Guilty About Nostalgia

nos·tal·gia

näˈstaljə,nəˈstaljə/

noun

noun: nostalgia; plural noun: nostalgias

    a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past, typically for a period or place with happy personal associations.

By its very definition, nostalgia suggest that you wish things could be the way they were before, or that you could go back there, back to that time that must have been better than the time right now.  I mean, why would you long for something that's worse than what you've got now?

Parenting makes nostalgia feel wrong.

A memory came back to me recently, or, rather, came to the forefront, as it was never missing.  It's a nice memory, one that I've never really considered before.  I can't remember ever really wrapping myself in this memory, ever really taking the time to think about it and revel in its embrace.  It was always there, I'd just never given it the time.

I lived alone at 1716 Edgemont St. for four months before Nicole moved in.  I knew, or hoped, that would be the case when I moved into that apartment.  Nicole had helped me find it, after all, and my goal had been to find a place that she would consider to be Nicole friendly.  She was also my impetus to move, as she'd shown me that I could actually get a one bedroom apartment for the price I'd been paying for a studio.  Besides, the studio I had been living in was and always will be tied to my single days.  Nicole and I were serious by this point; it was time to grow up a little bit.

The apartment was the top floor, corner unit.  It had clearly been two apartments, a studio and a bachelor, that someone had combined into a single, one bedroom apartment.

The living room had been a studio at one point as evidenced by the hole in the wall that once housed a Murphy bed.  It was the wall that separated the room from the kitchen and that hole was the perfect size for an entertainment center, or a TV stand, which was the extent of what I had.  Still, it was nice to kind of have the TV, DVD player, etc. back inside the wall and not taking up what little space there was in the room.  My old futon was across from the TV as a couch.

Since it was a corner unit, both exterior walls for the living room were made up of windows, tall windows that let in a ton of light.  It was particularly great at night when the lights from the street light up the apartment; it was instant mood lighting.  In the summer time, these windows were all that kept me from expiring, as the cross breeze alleviated the heat just enough to keep me alive.

The bedroom was set parallel to the living room with the kitchen and bathroom in between. It contained perhaps the most interesting aspect of the apartment: the bedroom closet. It was a stand alone storage box that they'd just stuck in the corner of the room and attached to the walls.  It was completely out of place and it didn't even go to the ceiling.  There was probably a good four feet between the top of the closet and the ceiling.  We used that as storage.

The cats used it as a launching pad to jump onto bed.  We called them Kitty Bombs.

A note about my bed: I bought it for $1100, which was the most I'd ever spent on anything in my apartment, let alone a bed.  I had, up until that point, been sleeping on the aforementioned futon.  But now I was in a one bedroom apartment, not a studio, so it made sense that I should have a bed.  Besides, if this was really going to be a Nicole friendly place, it should probably have a comfortable bed.

I really loved that apartment, even if it was on the fourth floor and the elevator was the size of a port-a-pot, which made moving in a form of legal torture.  For the first nine months, we had to park on the street. When Nicole got a job working nights, I got up in the wee morning hours so we could park her car together, as I didn't want her walking back to our building alone late at night. Then I'd go back to bed for a few hours before getting up for work.  It was a banner day when we finally got a spot in the lot behind our building.

Like I said way up there at the top of this thing, I lived in that apartment alone for four months. It was the last place I would live alone.  Nicole moved in that August and we have lived together ever since.

But the memory that's been coming to me lately is from the time before that.  It's a false memory, actually, or rather a symbolic one, in that it represents an idea of a time in my life.  It's the memory of my first night alone in that apartment, no doubt bolstered by the memory of any night I spent alone in that apartment, of which there weren't many.

It would have been warm.  It was summer in Los Angeles, after all.  The windows would have been open.  I didn't have blinds, so light would have been pouring in from street lights, buildings, and parking lots.  The apartment was just off Sunset, so there would have been plenty of street noise.  I walked around with all the lights off, just enjoying the sounds of the city, enjoying the moment.

I would have felt so great in that moment.  I had a new place with an actual bedroom.  I had a new bed.  I had a girlfriend.  I was pushing thirty and life was getting better every day.  It was a fantastic moment in my life.

But it was one without my son, one where I was technically still single.  I feel guilty when I feel nostalgic about such things.

I'll admit that there are times when I would love to have moments like that, moments of what can best be described as enjoyable nothing.  An hour of time like that would go a long way.

But I wouldn't give up anything I have now for that, so even that twinge of longing makes me feel bad.  The greatest thing I've ever done is to be a dad.  Nothing has ever been better than this.

Not that I watched it much, but there was an episode of "How I Met Your Mother" where the guys were talking about fantasizing about women and the one married guy said that he couldn't do it, because he would have to create an elaborate story that involved his wife dying so that he would be single again to have sex with this theoretical woman.  The other guys gave him grief for it, of course, but that's exactly how I feel.

I feel like longing for the past is a betrayal of my present and I never felt that way until I became a father.

Ten years from now, I wonder if I'll feel bad about feeling nostalgic for this moment.

I hope so.

Because that will mean my life is even better than it is now.

Why Jack Daniels?

I've consumed a lot of whiskey in my time. I would say that for some people I'm known for it. It's certainly played a large role in my life.

The first whiskey I ever drank regularly was Wild Turkey, as it was the shot I ordered whenever I went to my regular bar in college. I don't know who originated the "shot and a beer" action plan for the start of the evening, but I followed it.

And Wild Turkey was cheap.

I'm sure I initially consumed whiskey in 7&7s and Jack and Cokes, as all early drinkers do. A particularly awful morning after and some sage advice from my grandfather got me to switch to whiskey and water, which eventually led to whiskey on the rocks, which is now often whiskey neat depending upon a) the whiskey and b) the weather.

I enjoy Scotch and will periodically have a decent bottle of it around the house, but there is only one type of whiskey that is always in our bar: Jack Daniels.

So why, of all the whiskeys I've enjoyed in my lifetime, is it Jack Daniels that I drink the most?

Well, there's the price, of course. It's not the cheapest in the world, but it's still very affordable, particularly when you buy the large bottles like I do. And it's good. That helps.

But there are plenty of whiskeys out there that are reasonably good and reasonably priced. In my years of drinking whiskey, I've noticed something about Jack Daniels: it transcends demographics.

You can go into almost any establishment, regardless of social standing, and order Jack Daniels, because everyone has it. Lower class, upper class, dying middle class, blue collar or white collar, I've drank Jack Daniels with every group and have never had anyone say a disparaging thing about it.

It amazing, really, because try to think of anything else that travels between social classes the same way. Hell, water doesn't even move up and down the ladder the way Jack Daniels does.

I have no idea how the marketing people at Jack Daniels have managed this. Is it a masculinity thing? Is it just manly enough for everyone to enjoy it without being so manly that it puts people off?

Perhaps it's the fact that it's American, which I realize is a trick word as it's often co-opted for horrible things. But Jack Daniel's is produced by an American company and brewed in Tennessee. It's technically straight bourbon, but is labeled as "Tennessee whiskey" and there's nothing more American than refusing to label yourself in any way that doesn't involve the U.S. of A.

There's probably also something to the fact that Jack Daniel's is brewed in a dry county, which means you can't actually buy it there. There's just something so American about that, too.

So maybe that's it. Maybe Jack Daniel's is sewn into the very fabric of our being as Americans, so much so that we can't lose it regardless of which way up the social ladder we go.

And maybe I'm just a man of the people.

The Great American Novel

I blame grad school.

Or maybe it was the 90s. The 90s, as a decade, could be the source. They at least contributed.

Why does everything I write have to be important?

Let's be honest: it's not. The book I wrote about my grandparents is certainly important to my family, but I doubt even the few hundred people who read it ever think about it. It didn't change any lives.

I am fascinated by writers who have solid careers doing what they love by regularly releasing books that don't have a ton of depth. There's an entire world of romance and fantasy books out there that seem to fill a void that comic books once maintained: disposable entertainment. The books aren't meant to change the world, they're simply meant to entertain, and there's nothing wrong with that. It's actually pretty great.

So why can't I write any of those?

Why am I the kind of writer who agonizes over every line? I have short stories that I've edited at least a dozen times. Better is the enemy of good, which is usually a positive, but not if there's never an end in sight.

This is why I find short stories so infuriating, although I suppose they're simply a concentrated dose of my overall neurosis. Space is limited, so every word must matter. Every. Word. Must. MATTER. And by "matter" I mean have deep, resonance. Otherwise what's the point?

Which is exactly the point. Not everything has to be life altering. It can just be enjoyable.

What's particularly perplexing about my inability to just write for enjoyment (for both me and others) is that these days I almost exclusively consume stories that have no deeper truth, no stunning insight into the human condition. I mean, maybe they do, but I'm certainly not digging to find it. I'm enjoying the surface. That's all I want, at least on a day to day basis.

What I read has always influenced what I write, just as what I listen to has always influenced what I play on my guitar. Yet I'm unable to take that step towards being able to write something that's just enjoyable. A good story can just be a good story, but apparently that's not enough for me.

It does beg that age old question (and by age I mean like 15 years): Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music? In other words, am I trying to write something deep because I feel like I have something deep to say? Or do I feel like I have something deep to say only because I keep trying to write something deep? What if I don't really have anything to say after all?

When do I stop with this nonsense?

Because, to be honest (and this is taking a whiskey induced turn), I'm kind of tired of this tortured artist act. I'm tired of the alcohol and the writing and rewriting and editing and rewriting and editing and rewriting and writing and editing and for fuck's sake just finish a fucking story and be done with it. It is killing me, perhaps quite literally, if I were to ever get my liver examined. Lord knows it cannot be good for my mental state.

I want to be able to write for the fun of it and for that to be enough. I want to be able to write sober, to write during the day, to not feel like anything I write under those aforementioned circumstances is less than what I write in the opposite of those aforementioned circumstances.

So please tell me how I can do that.

And if I can't, please tell me who to blame.

Plight of the Pushover Parent

Here's a humorous column on getting your toddler to call for daddy at night instead of mommy. I have no doubt that this is an actual issue in many households.

It is not a problem for us.

Early on this was intentional. The demands on a mother during those first few months after having a child are unbelievable. There were just so many times when I couldn't appease our son no matter what I did. The bond between mother and child can never be understated. It's also something I don't think fathers can ever truly understand.

But that bond can cut both ways, as the child makes continuous demands of the mother, demands which can periodically be filled by the father.

Any dad worth worth anything at all will relish these opportunities, even if they're a bit rocky to start. Our son wanted his mommy whenever something was wrong and instead he regularly got his daddy and he was not happy about that, not at first. He would get mad at me when I went to get him in the morning, telling me he didn't want dadda, he wanted mama.

I still remember the first time that flipped.

It was my morning to sleep in, or what passes for sleeping in when you have a child. Nicole went to get our son out of bed and she was greeted with "Don't want mama, want dadda!"

So I got up and went to his room to get him out of bed.

I couldn't let a moment like that pass by.

We are at the point now where our son usually calls out for me (there are rare instances when he calls out for his mom, but she a) is strong enough to ignore him when it's not serious and b) could sleep through world war 3, so often doesn't even hear him). And every time I have to fight the urge to run to him. I have to calculate whether or not he actually needs something or if he's playing me.

That's the thing about toddlers: they are master manipulators. It's frightening, really, and our son is quite adept at it, which shouldn't be all the surprising given who his father is.

Needless to say, I end up running into his room multiple times in any given night.

This has gotten better recently, as he's falling asleep faster and not waking up as many times at night. But when he does, he calls out for me, just as he does when he wakes up.

This is only one example of how wrapped around my son's finger I am. And I know that it's not really a good thing and that I need to stop.

But that's the thing about pushover parents: we can't help ourselves. We don't want to be a pushover parent. Even if we're conscious that we need to be less weak with our children, it's hard for us to stop.

No sane person wants to get up four times a night -- and that's after the three times I go in there before he even falls asleep. No sane person wants to feel like they constantly need to be "on." No sane person wants to be responsible for their child being spoiled.

But, in the end, parenting is all about defeating your lesser self. Being a parent means constantly having a gut reaction to any given situation and then considering if that gut reaction is correct or not and then acting appropriately. It's how we become better parents, how are children become better than we ever were.

So I try. With everything I have, I try not to be the pushover parent. Because I don't want to be like this. I know it's not good for my son, just as I know that it's not good for me.

About That Pixar Jacket I'm Always Wearing

"After all, you're not Kyle without the Pixar jacket."

I'd just gotten out of a meeting and had left my jacket in the conference room. One of my co-workers alerted me to this fact and pointed out that my jacket had become one of my most prominent features next to, I would imagine, my beard, my glasses, and my crooked nose.

It never gets horribly cold in Northern California, not like it does in Ohio where I spent the first 24 years of my life. There are a few months in the summer when it can be oppressively hot. But during the remainder of the year, I can get away with wearing the same jacket out of the house every day. It's black and it says "Pixar" on the back.

My wife works at Pixar. She actually bought two jackets, one for each of us, but at this point I'm the one who wears them, both because she owns a variety of other jackets to choose from and because I sometimes misplace one and have to wear the other.

I regularly get asked if I work at Pixar, a legitimate question given the jacket. My response is something like "I don't; my wife does."

I have to imagine that most people would stop wearing a jacket that gives people a false impression, and certainly it would make sense for me to wear something else given that I do not, in fact, work at Pixar, or particularly enjoy talking to strangers.

It's not just that I wear the jacket, it's that I wear it all the time.

So why?

Sure, it's an awesome jacket, but there are other awesome jackets out there that won't cause people to ask me questions the answers to which are unsatisfying to them (most people are very eager to talk about Pixar).

I suppose there's something to the fact that it's unique, and thus marks me as a singular person.

But none of that would matter if it weren't for one simple fact: I'm proud of my wife.

I'm more than happy to tell people that I don't work at Pixar, just as I always follow up that statement with "my wife does." Sometimes people ask me more, and I'm happy to answer their questions.

What does she do there?
What's it like there?
Did she work on X movie?

While nothing I say to them will truly do my wife justice, the fact of the matter is that I'm bragging about her. I'm basically walking around in a jacket that says "ask me how awesome my wife is!"

And that's come to define me, in a way, and that's fine. I've gotten used to being defined as my son's father; I have no problems being defined as my wife's spouse.

The jacket is a daily reminder of how lucky I am.

It is also, if I may be so hyperbolic, a lesson in having a goal and working hard to accomplish it. My wife has known she's wanted to work in movies since she was a little girl (I think she says she was 10). She now does just that while living in an area where there aren't a lot of options to work in film. There are a lot of fish that want to swim in that very small pond and she's one of the few that got in.

So it's not just a jacket for me. It's a reminder of what's important, of what's good in this world: not just my wife, but all the lessons I can learn from her. And it's a reminder of just how good I have it.

"After all, you're not Kyle without the Pixar jacket."

I really wouldn't be.

The Bizarre Fear of Female Toys

My son loves Paw Patrol. Heck, I love Paw Patrol. I love the theme song. I love the characters. I love reading into every episode in a way that is probably unhealthy (it's a Canadian show and they seem to face off against an eagle on a regular basis...).

But for as great as the show is, it falls into the same trap as every other cartoon/toy line: a baffling refusal to embrace female characters.

The main Paw Patrol team consists of Chase, Marshall, Rubble, Rocky, Zuma, and Skye, all led by the human, Ryder. Each member of the team is associated with a type of vehicle or job, and each has their own color from the rainbow. For those who don't know:

Chase wears blue and he's the police dog.
Marshall wears red and he's the firefighter/EMT dog.
Rubble wears yellow and he's the construction pup.
Rocky wears green and drives a recycling truck.
Zuma wears orange and has a hovercraft, the only water vehicle.
Skye wears pink and flies a helicopter.

Oh, and they all have catch phrases, some of which rhyme.

If you look at that list, you can probably guess the gender of each of those dogs. Only one of them is female and, of course, she has to wear pink. I suppose the fact that she's not the baking dog is something.

This bothered me when we first started watching the show, but they eventually introduced a new pup, Everest, who, as you might imagine, is the mountain climbing dog. Oh, and Everest is, in fact, a girl. Her color is kind of purple to round out the ROY G BIV of it all.

But Everest isn't part of the main team, so she only shows up periodically. Still, at least the writers were aware of the fact that only having one girl was a problem.

It was apparently a different kind of problem for the people who make Paw Patrol merchandise.

Their problem was having icky girl (or two) in the mix.

We got my son underwear for Christmas because we're in the potty training phase. His underwear features every character of the Paw Patrol...except for Skye (and Everest, for that matter). One pair has a head shot of every pup but Skye, but features a paw print where another picture would/could be. So it's not even a matter of math.

Nicole actually bought our son a bottle that featured the Paw Patrol. He saw it in a store and wanted it. It's pink. It has Skye and Everest on it. That kind of leads me to believe that the addition of Everest was just so they could branch out into making products for girls as well as boys, when the reality is that it shouldn't matter.

I pointed out the gender bias in Paw Patrol to the mother of one of Sam's friends and she was not happy about it, although she had never noticed. And I think that's telling. I think that a lot of people don't notice, particularly when it comes to toys for toddlers.

Sure, people were rightfully up in arms when there was no Rey action figure after The Force Awakenings was released, but a big reason for that is that adults were buying the toys, and adults were certainly watching the movie. To some extent, we don't really expect such behavior from the people who produce shows for young children.

My son also loves Blaze and the Monster Machines, which features exactly one female truck, whose die cast figure is the hardest to find and, because of this, is also the most expensive. She is also featured in the fewest adventures, which is all the more sad given that the show is focused on STEM, a field that women are regularly barred from.

My son also loves Cars. The average person would probably have a hard time even naming one of the female cars in either of those movies. The third movies, at least, seems to promise a new, prominent female character.

It's funny: the one time a debate about pink toys and my son came up, it was my wife who was hesitant. He received a gift of a toy that he already had, but the one he had was pink. My wife wondered if we should keep the new one (which wasn't pink) and get rid of the old one. They were identical in every other way. We kept the pink one.

But it's so ingrained in all of us, even those delightful Canadians who produce Paw Patrol.

For International Women's Day this year, my son and I both wore red.

Maybe that's how it gets better.

Rewatching Buffy: Season Seven

The seventh season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer isn’t as bad as the sixth, but in some ways it’s more painful. It’s more painful because it starts off strong, then falls apart completely. It’s more painful because this is it: this is the last season of Buffy that we will ever get, and it doesn’t live up to what’s come before.

The season premiere is probably the most metafictional episode in the show’s history, and with good reason. Joss Whedon addresses the problems of Season Six head on, practically speaking directly to the audience. The “magic is like drugs” bit is dismissed in one line. Dawn suddenly starts acting like a teenager and not a child. Xander and Buffy fall into the type of familial routine that makes perfect sense (but without romantic entanglements). And the ending does a fantastic job of tying together the previous six seasons by promising us big things for the final year.

Side note: When the episode originally aired, people questioned the “Big Bads” that the First Evil impersonated at the end. The issue was that Drusilla was one of them, when most people consider Angel to have been the “Big Bad” of Season Two. But Drusilla is the motivator behind everything that happens in Season Two, even being indirectly responsible for Buffy and Angel getting all groiny with each other, so I think it works.

The first seven episodes of Season Seven (maybe that’s a sign?) are, by and large, quite good. The “Selfless,” “Him,” “Conversations with Dead People” trifecta is a great run, and showcases all the best qualities of the show. “Selfless” delves into Anya’s past in a way we’ve never seen before, and walks a fine line between comedy and drama. On paper, “Him” should be horrible, but it’s so well executed that it’s one of the funniest episodes in the history of the show. “Conversations with Dead People” is intense from start to finish and raises the stakes for the entire season.

Honestly, after “Conversations with Dead People,” I felt like the show had returned to greatness, and this, its final season, could end up being its best ever.

But then it all went to hell.

The show became entangled in a quest to become something it’s not.

The potentials storyline is not, in and of itself, bad. If anything, it takes Buffy’s story to its logical conclusion. It’s taking the fact that she is something of a new generation feminist icon in the real world and making that literal in the fictional one. She is empowering women with actual super powers. Sure, it’s a little on the nose, but it fits with the show’s framework. The problem is that the introduction of a “Slayer army” becomes a logistical nightmare.

An army needs an enemy, and The First’s assassin priest guys (“Harbingers”) are perfectly fine. They’re introduced from the very start of the season and they do a decent job of carrying out The First’s wishes. But they’re not lethal enough to be a real challenge to Buffy, so in come the Turok-Han, or “uber-vamps,” as the gang calls them. Giles claims that the Turok-Han are what Neanderthals are to humans, which, sadly, makes no sense. The vampires of this world take on the physical form of whoever they possess. They don’t evolve. It would make more sense if the Turok-Han were the physical forms of the vampires in the other dimension, the bodies they leave behind when someone is bitten.

But that’s actually a minor quibble, all things considered. The real problem is that it takes everything Buffy has to defeat a single Turok-Han, and that’s after she has her ass handed to her the first time around. Why is that a problem? Because, in the series finale, the Slayer army is able to take on an army of Turok-Han that outnumber them by at least ten to one. Based upon what just one Turok-Han could do, the Slayer army should have lasted all of about ten seconds.

Whedon himself addresses the issue in the commentary for the finale, saying he thought the story trumped the continuity problem. He’s wrong. Yes, there are plenty of examples of story trumping continuity errors, but this one was so painfully obvious that it made the entire finale battle seem ridiculous. Given that this is a world of magic and mystical weapons, how hard would it have been to incorporate a spell of some kind that either de-powered the Turok-Han or amplified the new Slayers? After all, they’d already introduced the axe, which was something of a deus ex machina on its own.

Worse than the Turok-Han, however, was Caleb the Evil Priest. Because if you’re going to create a bad guy to go up against a strong female, it should be someone in religious garb. And, hey, if he’s religious, he should totally be from the South, too, because those religious types from the South just hate women. I like Nathan Fillion as much as the next guy, but this was an unfortunate role for him.

Bad villains don’t necessarily mean a bad season, though. The problem is that from about Episode Eight on, the show is more or less only about the coming war with The First. It drags on endlessly, to the point where it seems like every episode features Buffy giving a painful speech to the Potentials. The mystery of whether Giles is the First or not isn’t remotely suspenseful, as the answer is obvious from the start. In fact, it’s also dragged on so long that it makes no sense; days (on the show) go by without it being addressed, and there’s simply no way he would have gone that long without touching a single thing. Also: Dawn speaks Sumerian. I don’t know.

Perhaps most infuriating is the return of a problem they had towards the end of Season Five. Yes, I realize that Buffy is the main character. I realize that she has a wealth of experience that she can share with the Potentials. That’s great. She should totally train them. But when it comes down to planning a war — a war that involves dealing with multiple supernatural elements with deep roots to the past — she is not the best qualified.

That would be Giles. And I know that a lot of people would have freaked out about the older man leading the army of young girls, but that’s the situation we were dealt. Buffy is still the field general, Willow is still the key to the plan, but Giles should have been the guy who organized it all. Instead, we get the group divided up into pairs that featured Giles teaming up with principal/vampire hunter Robin Wood, and de-powered, untrained Anya teaming up with non-powered, meek Andrew — because those teams make sense.

That’s not to say that the last 2/3 of the season were all bad. The return of Andrew is nice. Bringing back Faith is good. Some of the Potentials had, well, potential. Dawn is substantially less annoying than last season. I don’t hate Kennedy the way that most of the Buffy fandom hated Kennedy. It was good to see Angel.

I don’t know. It was a disappointing way to end the show. But I won’t lie: I still got choked up. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has meant an awful lot to me over the years. I’m still friends with people I met because of this show. I’m still writing about it a decade later. I’m still re-watching it.

Maybe that’s enough.

Rewatching Buffy: Season Six

The criticism that Season Six of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is bad bothers me. Oh, not because it isn’t bad – it’s god awful. No, it bothers me because people seem to think it was bad because it was “dark.” But heavy storylines can work perfectly well – there’s nothing inherently bad about serious stories. No, it was bad because it had all the nuance and subtly of a drunk frat boy. It is the worst season of the show, if for no other reason than it was the one time that, while watching it, I nearly changed the channel (and no, it wasn’t during “Doublemeat Palace”).

In fact, the initial “dark” story is actually a really good one. Buffy died and went to heaven, but her friends brought her back. That is such a wonderful idea and one which could easily have taken an entire season to dissect. How would you feel if you were ripped out of heaven? How were her friends supposed to know that’s where she was? It’s a great story idea that is, sadly, boiled down to Buffy acting out in an effort “to feel something.”

Which begs the obvious question: why would she not feel anything? Why would coming back from heaven have made her numb? Wouldn’t it have been the opposite? Wouldn’t the harshness of the mortal coil actually have been too much for her? If anything, she’d be overly sensitive to a world in which bad things happen and people regularly feel horrible. It would be too much for her to take. This idea that she can no longer feel makes no sense, and it quickly becomes clear that it’s just a device to get her together with Spike.

Because, really, there had to be something to get past the fact that Buffy being with Spike is unbelievably stupid. It was still stupid, of course, but the writers could at least point to a reason.

And speaking of Spike, his big quest to get his soul back yet again tramples all over the mythology the show was so determined to establish. Spike is a completely different person than William, an evil person, and not someone who would attempt to kill himself so William can reclaim his body. None of it makes any sense but, you know, they had to find a way to keep Spike on the show and they were running out of ideas.

Giles has clearly been photoshopped into this picture.

Giles has clearly been photoshopped into this picture.

Unfortunately, Buffy and Spike don’t get the worst of the horror that is Season Six. That special hell is reserved for Willow. That special hell hits its peak in the single worst episode of Buffy, “Wrecked.”

I realize that people like to point to “Doublemeat Palace” as the epitome of bad Buffy, and I don’t deny that it’s awful, with its horrible story and purely-for-shock-value sex scene. But it didn’t insult my intelligence. It offended my eyes a bit, but it didn’t treat me like I was stupid.

The same can’t be said for “Wrecked,” which is an entire episode premised on the horrible metaphor that magic = drugs. Got it? Because Marti Noxon (who is credited as the writer of this episode) is going to bludgeon you over the head with it as much as humanly possible, because either she thinks the audience is stupid or she is just that bad of a writer (while there is evidence to the latter; she also wrote the wonderful “I Only Have Eyes for You” from Season Two).

Even though we’ve already seen Willow out partying with fellow witch Amy and using copious amounts of magic, apparently that’s not enough for us to catch on. So we’re introduced to Rack, who is basically a magic dealer. He operates out of a rundown home, complete with junkies hanging around, hoping for their next fix. He loves Willow, of course, because she smells like strawberries. Make of that what you will.

At this point, the metaphor has already been abused to the point where, upon my original viewing, I was bleeding from my ears. And then Willow agrees to take Dawn to the movies, but she’s not feeling herself, so she wants to get right first. Dawn hangs out at the crack house, waiting for Willow to come out. I wonder if McNulty knows about this place.

Willow comes out and Dawn has a hissy fit (as Dawn does more or less all season long) and, because you’re stupid, the point of all this gets bulldozed home when Willow drives under the influence. They get into an accident, of course, and Dawn is hurt and Buffy gets all mad and Willow hits rock bottom, but not really.

Wait, I’m confused, magic is like what now?

Even though he leaves for a ridiculous reason, I’m kind of glad Giles went back to England, or who knows what would have become of him?

Xander and Anya break up for no real reason. One of the more nuanced sub-plots of the show – that of Xander’s abusive family – is turned into a ridiculous spectacle, completely destroying it. And even though Xander saves the world from evil Willow at the end of the season, he would have been better off going to England with Giles. I’m sure they could have found a reason equal to “I can’t feel anything,” “magic is drugs,” or “you won’t grow up with me around.”

Was there anything positive to take out of this season? Well, the Trio were okay for a little while. But, again, the complete lack of subtly during the season hurt them. There could have been really interesting things to say about nerd culture and misogyny, but it got buried under a cave-in of heavy handedness.

The musical episode was fantastic, of course. I loved the hell out of it. Was it worth watching the show I loved deteriorate? Would the reality introduced in the wonderful “Normal, Again” be the better one? It’s a toss-up.

Stand-out episodes: “Once More with Feeling,” “Normal Again”

Rewatching Buffy: Season Five

Season five of Buffy is my second favorite, behind the third season.  It's more consistent than seasons two or four, but the overall story arc (and the main villain) pale in comparison to season three.

Dawn Finally Arrives/Origins of the Slayer

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but I liked the addition of Dawn to the cast.  Giving Buffy a sister changed the dynamic of the show in a positive way.  In some ways, it could have been seen as desperate, as the show spent all of season four floundering around, looking for a direction.  And perhaps that's why this season works for me -- from the first episode, it's about something.  There's a level of cohesion across all 22 episodes that we hadn't seen since season three, and season five actually does it better.

The cohesion comes from Buffy digging into the origins of the Slayer, something that was hinted at in the season four finale.  This show has always worked best when it embraced its mythology, but it often seemed to shy away from that, perhaps as a way to gain new viewers.  But staying on the surface is why season four (and season six) were so hard to enjoy.  The drama was manufactured, which was all the more frustrating when avenues for organic drama were available.

Dawn was sent to Buffy because she's the Slayer (side bar: technically speaking, she should have been sent to Faith, but I guess the monks did their research before assigning the Key to a protector).  It has nothing to do with who Buffy is, it has to do with her lineage.  In one, simple move, they've expanded Buffy's role beyond the city limits of Sunnydale.  She has a larger part to play in the world, and this season goes along way towards making that clear.  High school is over Buffy; it's time to grow-up.

Thanks to a shockingly well written premiere featuring Dracula, Buffy becomes motivated to find out what she is even before Dawn is introduced.  And with Buffy's new found enthusiasm for being a Slayer comes new found motivation for Giles, who spent all of last season as something of a hanger-on.

Speaking of hanger-ons, this season actually manages to accomplish the nigh impossible task of making Spike relevant and, better yet, making his continued existence seem less unbearably stupid.  Giles can provide Buffy with all the information in the world, but what she needs are details from someone who actually lived it.  Spike telling Buffy about the two Slayers he's killed was some of the best stuff of the season.

Granted, that also forces us to ignore the fact that Spike, who has killed two Slayers, should have been dusted by now, but we do what we can.

The Scooby Gang

The introduction of the idea that Spike is in love with Buffy actually works initially because it's a response to his inability to kill her.  He's obsessed, and since he can no longer express that obsession through violence, it twists into a perverted love.  It's nicely done and almost makes up for the last season of Spike, but it's sadly soon flipped into another mind numbing story line that is, thankfully for season five, fleshed out the most in season six.

Willow arguably receives the least screen time of the Scooby Gang, which is fine, as they are able to focus on her relationship with Tara and her dynamic with Xander and Anya more.  Willow coming out in season four was enough of a change that just dealing with that over the course of season five was enough.  They did a nice job of slowly showing her increasing power, too, without resorting to the stupidity coming next season.

Tara and Anya both get nice spotlights.  Both stories are rooted in the characters' pasts and both make good use of their connections within the Scooby Gang.  While Tara's episode was more emotional, Anya's ends up working better, if only because it captures the group dynamic better.

Xander finally gets the episode that we've been waiting for since he was introduced.  Honestly, Xander peaks in season five, which was great at the time, but unravels in the next season.  While he was adrift at sea all of last season, he comes into his own in season five, and suddenly he seems like the most stable member of the group.

Riley is all but largely destroyed in season five.  His story makes up much of what went wrong during this season.  He could have been an interesting addition to the group, particularly when placed at odds with Xander, but he was entirely defined by Buffy, and he wasn't going to survive like that.

In the End...

Despite all the positives, the cracks definitely begin to show during season five.  Perhaps because of the meandering nature of season four, the writers spend a lot of time placing the focus on Buffy even when it's unnatural.  Like it or not, there are times when Giles is more qualified to make decisions than Buffy.  It's not meant to be a slight against her, it's just that he's smarter and more experienced.  Giles is also willing to make hard choices that Buffy just won't.  This creeps up again in season seven.  I appreciate that Buffy's the titular character, but so was Angel on his show, and they were able to push him aside when it made sense.

As much as I loved the musical and a handful of episodes from season seven (like the premiere, "Him," and "Conversations with Dead People") it's hard not to feel like Buffy would have been better served by ending with season five.  Sure, we'd need an extra episode to wrap things up, but given how powerful the season five finale is, and how mediocre (at best) the final two seasons were, you have to wonder if they should have gone out on top.

Stand out episodes: The Body (top 5), the Gift (top 5), The Replacement, Fool For Love, Checkpoint

Rewatching Buffy: Season Four

It was the best of episodes, it was the worst of episodes.  It was Buffy: season four.

What can you say about a season that includes both Hush and Beer Bad?  That includes Restless and Where the Wild Things Are?

I have this theory that the writing staff on Buffy did not have typical childhoods.  My theory holds that they didn't have the same college experiences that most of us did, nor did they have the same twentysomething experiences that most of us had (it's easy to see in Whedon himself, as his background is fairly unique).  This made it very hard for them to tell "college" stories and, later, "twentysomething" stories.  This explains why season four is so hit and miss and why season six is so bad.

All that said, even the worst season can be saved by a qualified overarching storyline.  Season two is constantly referred to as being great, when the reality is that it's only great because of the main plot.  This, of course, is of no help to season four, as the big storyline is horrible on almost every level.

There's a common complaint that Buffy failed when the characters graduated, that the show was unable to expand beyond it's central metaphor of high school as hell.  I disagree.  I love season five.  I think the show's failure comes when it tries to expand beyond its borders.  The show is at its best when it's telling small stories.  The characters are the key.  No one is tuning into Buffy for the fight scenes -- no one.  They're tuning in to see what's going on with their favorite characters.

Season four attempted to expand the mythology, but did so without using a character as the focal point.  Yes, an argument can be made that Riley was that focal point, but Riley was a brand new character that no one ever had the chance to get to like.  Expanding the world by incorporating the Initiative and then making the only access character someone brand new to the show was a bad idea on almost every level.

Notice how the expanded mythology worked in season two -- because it all came through Angel, a character we knew.  To a certain extent, the same could be said for Faith in season three and, appropriately, Buffy in season five.

On the big character arc front, there's not much to write home about.  Obviously, the big one is Oz leaving and Willow dating Tara, but even by the end of the season that relationship is still too new to really appreciate.  It's easy to forget how groundbreaking it was when it originally aired, though, which makes it a pretty big deal.

Giles finally gets a girlfriend, or at least a friend with benefits and, hey, look, there's a non-white character on the show! Whedon often gets criticized for having a vanilla cast (as Mr. Trick says in season 3, "...strictly the Caucasian persuasion in the 'Dale.") which is underscored by an expanding cast that stays white. As the new additions are ultimately added as romantic interests, I have to wonder if the show ran into a road block with the network regarding interracial relationships.

The biggest development for the show is the evolution of the relationship between Xander and Anya and the eventual addition of Anya as a core cast member.  She's a fantastic character who is unique among the Scooby Gang.  It's something they never manage to achieve with Riley and something that takes more than a season to achieve with Tara.

And speaking of characters finding their role on the show, we come to perhaps the biggest problem: Spike.

Spike initially helping the group doesn't bother me.  After all, they appear to have a mutual enemy.  Given that, it doesn't seem strange that they'd keep him alive, let alone take care of him.  They need information.

But as soon as Buffy discovers that Riley is a part of the Initiative, Spike should be dust.  There's no reason for him to be kept alive.  At one point, he becomes suicidal and Willow intervenes.  Now, I appreciate that Willow is a kind, gentle soul, but let's think about all of the things Spike has done since he was introduced in season two, let alone the things he did before he came to Sunnydale.

It's absolutely insane that Spike is left alive.  Once you start forcing a show to change for the sake of a single character, you're in trouble.  It's less problematic in season five, but becomes intolerable again in season six.

I would love to say that season four worked as a metaphor for the transition some of us make the year after we graduate from high school, but it simply wasn't good enough.  There was transition there, for sure, but it came in the form of the writers not really having any idea what the show was about anymore.  They knew the characters well enough to write some funny bits, but they spent most of the season desperately searching for drama, and when they couldn't find it, they manufactured it in a way that was untrue to the show.

Still, by the end of the season they'd found their footing.  They managed to bring the gang back together while strengthening them.  The finale did an excellent job of setting up the fifth season, laying the groundwork that they so desperately needed for season four.