Friday, January 28, 2005

Short Stories by Charnas

Like many people who love the written word, I have a condition that prevents me from leaving a book store or library without being weighed down by books. This malady goes back to my early childhood when we'd get those thin papered, tissuey Scholastic Books catalogues in school. By the time I got home after school, mine would always be filled with marks indicating the many books I wanted. It was never enough to get just one. I wanted them all and I wanted them NOW!

This is something I've never outgrown. To this day I am incapable of walking out of a bookstore or library with only the book I came to get. I tend to browse and end up finding lots of things that I want. I've come across many good books this way. One of my recent discovers is Stagestruck Vampires and other Phantasms, a collection of short stories by Suzy McKee Charnas. I had never heard of Charnas before the day I found her book sitting on the new books shelf of my local library, but was drawn to it, because of the word "vampire" in the title. I have a thing for folklore and tend to enjoy vampire stories. It's taken me a couple of weeks to read through the books and I have found it pretty mixed.

There are a couple of stories that are brilliant, but the majority did not grip me as much. In fairness, this may have something to do with the fact that I was on the bus sitting in front of a loud talker on a cell phone when I tried to read them, so perhaps I will give them another chance. At any rate, even if there were a few duds in the collection, the stories I did enjoy more than made up for them. My favorites were "Beauty and the Opéra or the Phantom Beast", "Unicorn Tapestry", and "Evil Thoughts".

These stories demonstrate Charnas' gift for taking a concept or story we all know and twisting it into an uncommon perspective. For example, even though not everyone has read Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, most people are familiar with The Phantom thanks to the efforts of Andrew Lloydd Webber and, more recently, Hollywood. Charnas gives the story an unexpected twist by filling in the gaps. Using Christine's voice, she describes what happens to her in the catacombs beneath the opera.

Instead of a submissive victim, the Christine of Charnas' story subtly manages to turn the tables on her kidnapper by setting the terms of her own detainment. Indeed one could say that she exerts a lot of control over her abductor. For me, the exploration of power in the story is fascinating, especially because it flows in quite an unexpected direction.

"Unicorn Tapestry" offers a similarly unexpected perspective on vampirism - that of the therapist treating a patient. Again, the tables are ultimately turned and the therapist ends up the one in need of therapy as her concept of sanity begins to unravel. She goes from wanting to cure her patient of the belief that he is a vampire to realizing that to cure him would mean robbing him of the essence of who he is. Ultimately this shift causes the doctor to face her own idea of sanity, professional ethics, etc.

Although "Evil Thoughts", the last of the three stories I found memorable, did not speak to me as much as the first two, I really liked the idea of one's negative thoughts manifesting themselves corporeally as an infestation of mushrooms on the protagonist's lawn. The whole story is a testament to how negative thoughts can eat away at a person and demonstrates really nicely how they chip away at a person, leaving only ugliness in their wake.

So, here ends this edition of "What I Read on the Way to Jury Duty". I'm off to the library again tomorrow, so I'm sure I'll come home with lots of interesting, new things to read and talk about!

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Inauguration Day

Here I am a day late and at least a dollar short to talk about the inauguration. After what seemed like an endless primary and election season, George W. Bush has again been sworn in as President. Four more years. I will not lie and say I am thrilled about this. Quite the contrary, it worries me. When I see what he and his administration have done to this country during their first term, I shudder to think what might happen in the second. War with Iran? The first steps to dismantle social security, turning it into a savings account for yuppies while leaving the people it was designed to help behind? We already have elderly people who are forced to decide between food and medication. I can't imagine this will get better without SSC. It makes me wonder what he might do if he weren't a compassionate conservative.

And then there is the inauguration itself. We live in a time of war with soldiers complaining about not having proper gear. We live in a time of natural disasters (the holiday tsunami, California, etc.), yet we just held an inauguration estimated to cost around 40 million dollars. Isn't there an ethical question in spending that kind of money on a party in such a time? According to USA Today, Washington D.C.'s costs are expected to be at least 17.3 million. And how is this money to be reimbursed? The federal government is pushing the district to divert the funds from homeland security.

Living in a region that clearly voted for John Kerry, I did not see a lot of excitement over the inauguration. If fairness, this may also have something to do with my circle of friends. We tend to be a liberal group. I know that my city had at least a few protests, though. During our lunch break, I walked down to the park with a fellow juror to see what was happening at a rally sponsored by a local VFW group and a couple of peace organizations. All in all, it was pretty small with maybe 100 people attending by the time we got there. We stayed for an hour and helped hang Buddhist prayer flags containing the names of American soldiers who've died in Iraq. There were also flags representing the Iraqis who've died.

Regardless how one feels about the necessity of this war, I don't know how any one with any compassion cannot be moved by the thought of the many people who have died for it (and will die in the days to come). For me it was a sobering reminder that while the media is worried about what kind of gowns the Bush twins will wear, there are people out there dying.

Speaking of the media, I am always perplexed by their response to demonstrations. As a general rule, it seems like they try to downplay the positive aspects and hone in on any negative ones - anarchists, violence, protestors who don't know what they're protesting, etc. It seems like every time they interview someone at a protest, it's some stoned looking guy in a homemade crocheted cap; the kind of guy who couldn't find the U.S. on an unlabelled map, let alone Iraq. It gives the impression that all protesters are hippie dippy fruitcakes. Having been to a few anti-war protests at the beginning of the war, I can tell you that the majority are just normal people. The same people you see at the grocery store, work, wherever. The fringe elements may be louder, but I sincerely believe that they are not greater in numbers.

But here we are at the beginning of four more years. I can't say that I am overly optimistic, although it is my hope that people do not just shrink away, leaving the administration unchecked. I hope that Democrats will support senators like John Kerry and Barbara Boxer who step up an vote their conscience. They are the only two on the senate foreign relations committee who voted against the confirmation of Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State. I have no problem with a senator voting to confirm, if s/he believes the candidate is the best person for the job, however, these people who express a boatload of reservations, then turn around and "reluctantly" vote in support need to be reminded that they are there to serve the interests of the public. Weenie-ing out, because you're too impotent to claim a real opinion, is not representing the needs of your constituency. At best it seems a means of trying to pander to the administration ("but we reached out and confirmed your nominee") and appease those who might disagree ("well, I did go on record as being reluctant"). That is bullshit. If you're reluctant to support a candidate because you feel she is wrong, then don't support her! Unfortunately, that is all to often what seems to happen at these hearings - senators give a boatload of reasons for why they have reservations, then when asked how they will vote, they say "Oh, I will vote to confirm" as if there is no other option.

I guess I've drifted a bit from my original topic. Let's just say it is going to be another interesting (and I suspect, for me, often maddening) four years.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Civic Duty

What is new and exciting in my world (other than the fact that I am a brazen liar - this, my next post, is NOT going to be about why I am eccentric!)? I am now a Grand Juror. I know a lot of people are not happy when they are selected for jury duty, but never having gotten to serve, I am actually interested in seeing what happens. (Ok, so maybe this is a little about what makes me weird, but it's not the primary subject of this post.) Anyway, I am finding the whole experience fascinating thusfar and am learning a lot.

For example, I learned today that in a room filled with over 200 jurors I and another person were the only women I noticed who were not wearing pants. I also learned that about 50% of the people on the jury that selected me hate their jobs (and here I thought it was just me...) I also learned that if I go to jury duty without eating anything all day that around 12:30 p.m., I start feeling decidedly sluggish and have a difficult time paying attention to fascinating lectures on courthouse security. Thankfully I had already heard the lecture this morning in the general assembly room and remembered that I was to bring neither firearms nor knives nor liquor nor illegal substances to court with me. Apparently some people do. The first security lecturer (by far the better of the two and not only as a result of my blood sugar levels!) gave us examples of things they've confiscated from people at the security checkpoint, causing me wonder "What kind of jackhole comes to court with a bottle of whiskey?" I think people will never cease to amaze me.

Anyway, I think this will be an interesting experience with the added bonus of getting me away from work for a month, so I can evaluate my feelings about being there with a bit more distance. Right now I am feeling a bit burned out, which could lead to a rash decision. So, I think the time away will be good for both me and my employer, even if the company will never know it.

But back to jury duty. I am serving on a grand jury for a month. I suspect it will be a sobering experience as the jury I am on deals mostly with person on person crimes, which means (according to the judge who spoke to us) a lot of weapons crimes, rapes, assaults, etc. That has to be disturbing. We don't actually have to decide on a verdict, however. The function of this jury is to decide whether a case should even go to trial. I think I will learn a lot. Besides, it's my civic duty.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Question of the day...

If multiple unreliable sources brand you a crackpot, is it true?

Not long ago, I took something called The Magical Personality Quiz, which can be found at:
(Sorry I can't make this a link, but blogspot clearly hates me and won't allow it to happen no matter how hard I try! Perhaps my public, aka the two people I force to read this, can help me with this problem)

As it turns out, people like me (namely mermaids with phoenix shadow creatures) are "...usually regarded by others as benign eccentrics or as plain weird." Some of my best friends are benign eccentrics (BE's), so it really comes as no great shock that I should be one too. Frankly, it explains a lot.

Besides, "benign eccentric" is way better than say "violent sociopath", "raving lunatic", or even "former CEO of Halliburton". Some of the world's most unappreciated wonders, have been created by eccentrics. Take for example, House on the Rock in Spring Green, WI. This bizarre house, which is now a museum, was built by a wacky (and clearly eccentric!) man called Alex Jordan. Jordan was declared by his more evil, less eccentric nemesis, Frank Lloyd Wright, to be unfit "to design a cheese crate or a chicken coop". To dispute this assessment, Jordan decided to show the esteemed architect/rat bastard a thing or two by designing and builing a structure that has since grown into a large museum housing Jordan's original 24-room mansion along with a series of increasingly bizarre additions made by his son, Alex Jordan Jr (clearly a BE in his own right).

The original mansion reminds me of nothing more than a movie set of a 60's bachelor's love nest with low ceilings, narrow hallways and intimate little nooks that make a person half expect to see Hef amble around the corner wearing a smoking jacket and sipping a martini. After the son started adding on, things started to get really weird (or is that VERY benignly eccentric?). His additions include what claims to be the world's largest carousel. The carousel stands in the shadow of winged mannequins suspended from the ceiling, wearing toga-like dresses that only manage to succeed in covering 50% of the angels darkly nippled breasts. Another room features a giant sea monster in the middle of a hall built to mimic the decks of a ship. The walls of these decks which display model ships and memorabilia are an homage to the voyages of doomed vessels such as the Lucitania and Titanic. Of course, the museum declares the Jordans eclectic geniuses rather than a crackpots with a lot of money, but that's not my point. My point is that being a benign eccentric isn't all bad. After all, sometimes it can get you a museum. But back to me...

After laughing with a friend about being a BE, I good naturedly accepted my rightful place among their ranks and promptly forgot about it. At least I forgot until yesterday when I opened my daily horoscope from, which informed me that it "may be difficult for you [me!] to separate the fruits of your labors from the fruitloops of your own irrational fears and longings." Me? Irrational fears? Now, listen. I may sincerely believe that aliens will suck out my brain through the moonroof in my car if I dare go out without my trusty foil helmet, but I am not one for irrational fears (except where buttons and small paper clips are concerned, but there are good reasons for that cannot be divulged here, for I fear this blog may be watched).

The thing is that its not only the internet and tarot websites that think I'm quirky. When I shared my two unreliable sources query with a friend, she supportively assured me that I must be mistaken - there have to be more than two entities out there who think I'm a crackpot. So, counting her, that makes at least three votes for eccentric. Someone once told me that if something happens once, it's fluke; twice, a coincidence; three times, then you'd better start considering whether there isn't some veracity in it. So, I have looked as deeply into my soul as 23 minutes will allow and have come to the conclusion that perhaps I am a little unique, a character or even a BE, if you will. But feeling the compulsion to create a sweeps week like cliff-hanger, I will not tell you why until my next entry.

Friday, January 07, 2005

And still, I live

Nearly a week has passed since I nervously posted my first entry here. Considering that no one but the few friends I have given this address will ever read it, the nervousness was probably a bit superfluous. That's just what happens when you're crazy. Love me, love my neuroses. Anyway, I am happy to report that contrary to my fears, allowing someone else to read my thoughts has not caused me to shrivel up and die like a shame-filled, salted slug on the sidewalk. I live on.

Why is it that the things we are convinced will be terrifying are never really so bad in retrospect? I am trying to ease into writing a general blog here, in the hope that I will eventually work on and post some more creative endeavors. I don't know what this hang up is that I have about letting other people read anything I've written (other than e-mails - I can write e-mails of epic proportions). I'm fine with work that is academic, whether based on interpretation or fact. There I always have my research as a backup.

Endeavors that involve thoughts, ideas, and imagination that are purely my own are more difficult. I suppose it's the vulnerability factor. Letting someone read one's inner outpourings is a little like being naked in front of someone for the first time. Sure, you want the closeness that comes with it. You want the him to think "Isn't she lovely? I just can't get enough of her", but inside you're wondering things like "Is he going to be grossed out by my cutlets?"(If you don't know what a cutlet is, see the previous post). Or maybe you don't do that. Maybe I am just neurotic. But back to nudity...

The thing is that this first moment of fear is fleeting. Vulnerability passes, and as long as no one has left the room screaming "My eyes, my eyes!", suddenly you feel pretty comfortable. Suddenly you feel like maybe your cutlets don't stand out as much as you thought. I'm hoping that sharing a bit more of my writing will be the same way.

The other reason I want to do this is that I am completely devoid of self-discipline. When it comes to writing, I talk big, but don't actually get enough of it done. I have ideas that have been rolling around in my head for years. Again, I think it's a vulnerability thing. As long as I don't finish a project, it is still in progress, therefore it cannot suck. When you don't ever finish anything, you're never forced to be honest with yourself about its quality. Basically, I am a literary (or maybe just a trashy novel) chickenshit. Still, when I see that there are authors who can build a career on writing really bad novels about orgy loving vampires, I think I should be able to pull something together. I suppose time will tell.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Alpengack, Sacagawea and 2005

When I was younger, doing something on New Year's Eve was important. Cool people went to exciting parties, losers stayed home to watch Dick Clark. Even spending the evening with strangers at a trendy venue was preferable to being home at the stroke of midnight.

I remember one year when a college friend invited me to a party in L.A. Excited to be invited to what was considered an A-list party, I went out and bought the most expensive bottle of cheap champagne my teaching stipend could afford. It should be noted here that even a regularly priced bottle diet coke is expensive when your monthly income amounts to exactly $1178.56, which must be divided between rent, tuition payments, books and food.

In those days, I thought expensive equaled good. As it turned out, the other 23 year olds at the party were far more interested in the keg of beer than they were in my elegant libational offering. Even though it was too dry and too warm, I ended up drinking most of the bottle myself, for I was cosmopolitan and appreciated the good things in life, even if my peers didn't. I would have drank the whole bottle, but was forced to share when a drunken, 70's obsessed frat boy (even then, I hated frat boys) from UCLA staggered over to have a taste of the elegant life and grill me on my feelings about Peter Frampton before spontaneously falling off the couch back he was sitting on and passing out. What a rewarding evening.

A decade later, my idea of a fun way to welcome the new year is decidedly different. For one, I am no longer willing to spend an evening drinking crap, no matter how expensive it is or how much it makes my nose tickle. Furthermore, I would rather spend my time with people I love than feeling uncomfortable among strangers, even if they are reported to be "cool". The truth is that I have never enjoyed large groups. Being shy by nature, they stress me out. I do much better on an individual basis, especially with strangers.

So how did I spend New Year's Eve 2005? Doing a massive wardrobe overhaul with my two closest girlfriends. They are the kind of people who, instead of being offended when informed that the embroidered shorts they are modeling make them look like something the Alps gacked up, begin singing "The Lonely Goatherd" at top of their lungs (and this is without the benefit of alcohol). They are people who see no shame in driving cross country wearing bunny ears and blue tinted sun glasses and laugh hysterically at the idea that the little bit of skin between a woman's bra strap and underarm is technically called the "cutlet". They are also people who wanted to come over and clean up the syringes and mess left by the paramedics when my father died, so my mom and I wouldn't have to.

They are my friends, the people who really matter. I would trade a thousand parties for an evening of hanging out with them, laughing so hard that the little area behind my ears starts to hurt. And I say this despite the fact that one of them was actually with me and did nothing to stop me when I made the misguided purchase of a dress that in retrospect made me look like a pasty, badly turned out Sacagawea about to lead the Corps of Discovery westward. The sad part is that I really only began to realize that something had gone badly awry with my fashion sense when the worst dressed person in my office informed me that it was "a great dress", then tried to buy some pelts from me in exchange for beads.

And my friends? Well, at least they had the decency to make me throw the dress away when we were staging our New Year's episode of "What Not To Wear". That's the important part. That's what friends do: let you look like an ass for long enough to laugh and point at you, but make you stop before any real harm is done (or anyone who is not them makes fun of you). If every New Year's Eve sees me laughing as much as I did this past one, I hope that they all are just like it!

P.s. Just for the record, I still hate frat boys.