The Story of a Season

I have no idea why I have another Christmas story today, but I guess it simply works out that way sometimes!

My second favorite Christmas story is Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. It’s been retold probably thousands of times in hundreds of ways, so chances are you know the story already. If you don’t know it, please look it up. My favorite version (and one of the most accurate movie versions, interestingly enough) is A Muppet Christmas Carol, but there are tons of great versions out there. Even My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic recently did a good adaptation of the story.

The reason that I love this particular tale is that it’s all about the power of stories. The tool that the ghosts use to show Scrooge that Christmas is worthwhile is stories – about his own past and where his issues with the holiday came from, about the value it has for the people around him, and about what may happen in the future if he continues to miss the values that the holiday celebrates. Stories are powerful things and they make a big impression on Scrooge, as they do on the reader or watcher as well. They show us the world in new ways and ourselves in old ways we may have forgotten. Stories show our hopes, dreams, and fears. Stories let us grow and change. And those are the things that holiday celebrations with loved ones are all about.

Santa’s Love of Cheese

Today I want to share perhaps my favorite television commercial. The ad was part of a great campaign advertising cheese and was part of a series of ads all ending in either the tagline “Behold the Power of Cheese” or “Ahh, the Power of Cheese”. It’s from sometime in the late 1980s or early 1990s and was shown again during the holiday season for several years after that.

Besides being adorable, I love this ad because it tells a complete story in such a spare and simple way. There is very little dialogue and most of the ad spends time building excitement for what’s in the living room, which the little girl has seen already, but the audience doesn’t see until her parents show up. And then the dialogue at the end is only two lines long, but it tells us exactly what happens and leads perfectly to the tagline, “Ahh, the Power of Cheese”.

This isn’t the sharpest video, but it’s the best one I can find for this ad. If you know of a better video of it online that I can link to, let me know and I’ll update the post with it.

Telling Stories

It should come as no surprise to most of the people who know me that I *adore* stories. Stories of all shapes and sizes and styles. Books, legends, commercials, sportscasts, excuses, smiles – stories are everywhere. And *how* they are told *makes* the story. The same tale can change to a thousand different tales when retold in different ways.

I love listening to storytellers. As much as I like listening to personal stories, though, I often find it far more interesting to listen to someone tell a story that is not from their own experience because the stories chosen and how they are told can tell you so much more about the type of person they are. Stories are magic windows into the world around us and they let us see both beyond and inside of ourselves.

My husband would tell you that I collect books, but I don’t think of it that way. I think that I collect stories and some of them just happen to be in book form.

I wanted to share this Ted Talk because I think it does a great job of talking about the magic of stories and the importance of telling and listening to stories beyond our own experiences.

Modernizing the March Family

Over the past few days, I have begun watching the YouTube series “The March Family Letters”. This is from the same team that did “The Lizzie Bennet Diaries” and “Frankenstein, M.D.” (among others). This time they are retelling Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.

I’m twenty episodes in (just over half of what has been posted so far) and I’m not actually sure how I feel about it yet. Like the previous adaptations from this group, it’s a modern vlog retelling of the classic novel. Unlike the previous shows, I’m not as convinced by their modern updates to this particular story. I like the series, but it doesn’t feel like Little Women to me.

Since I think Meg has gone through the most change from book to show, I’m going to start with and sort of focus on her. Meg is the oldest sister and perhaps the one I identified most with in the books. She was very well-rounded there. Alcott’s Meg is a responsible woman who is clearly capable of all the things a proper woman did (running a frugal, yet inviting household, caring for a family, coping in a crisis, etc.), but also a young woman able to dream of what she wants and enjoy the little pleasures around her. She clearly feels their poverty in ways the younger sisters don’t and isn’t happy about it, but she still manages to appreciate the ways they are lucky.

The Meg portrayed in “The March Family Letters” is rather different. She is clearly still a highly responsible woman, but at times it’s almost too her detriment in ways I never felt it was in the book. She feels older and almost bitter in some ways and when she talks about girlish pleasures (parties and fashion), it always seems to have a sarcastic quality instead of being genuine pleasure. I like that she is both working towards a career (although I question if any of the March girls would work so hard towards a career she doesn’t actually want) and wanting the family and kids future where she can be a stay-at-home mom. I’m just not so sure I see Meg in this young woman who is paranoid about poverty enough to study something she doesn’t care much about and who seems to not see the point in things that exist only for pleasure.

In the series, John Brooks (Meg’s eventual husband) is transformed in Joan Brooks. I am not sure about this change yet, although I very much like Joan’s character. The problem is that she doesn’t feel that much like John Brooks to me. I’m also not sure what it means for Meg’s future in the story. I love the idea of them having a relationship and getting married and all, but part of Meg’s story was that she was the conventional sister. She led the life she was expected to lead and was happy in it – she was the proof that you could absolutely be happy in that role, which I think was a really important element of the feminist message of Alcott’s book. She clearly shows through Meg that you can be feminist and conventional at the same time – it doesn’t have to be a contradiction. The point is to be able to choose whatever you want, and that means conventional choices are allowed too. So what does this change do for Meg’s conventionality? On the one hand, if done well it could go a long way to giving a normalizing image of a lesbian relationship, but on the other hand it is unconventional in the world we live in today and so the very change in and of itself changes the quality of Meg’s conventionality. I suppose I’ll have to wait and see.

Jo is definitely different in the series from in the book. Instead of being a tomboy, she’s a hardcore feminist. I think that Alcott would absolutely have approved of this and it definitely makes sense. The only issue I have with it is that the change (so far, at least) sort of erases Jo’s personal struggles with the very fact that she is unconventional. I found those struggles to be a particularly fascinating part of the book and hope they aren’t gone entirely. There’s presumably a lot of show left, so perhaps we simply haven’t seen it yet.

Beth is still the sweet, quiet, shy girl from the books. Because of this, we don’t see her that much except when she is singing and playing her guitar. For the fiction of the vlog, that makes a lot of sense. I have little idea, however, if the rest of her personality and character are there to be found or not. In the books, she cares for kittens and dolls, is too shy for school and stays entirely at home, and is happy simply surrounded by her family. Elements of this are here, but the character is older and I think that changes some of these things. We don’t see the kittens or dolls and I have no reason to believe so far that she did not go all the way through regular schooling, but we don’t know. I’m also not sure how they’ll handle her later. I think I need to wait and see more of Beth to really have much opinion on her, but I think she’s a particularly interesting challenge for a project like this.

They’ve done a great job with Amy. We’ve seen precious little of her physical vanity, but her flamboyant and artistic nature as well as her inability to compromise have absolutely come out. Overall, she definitely “feels” like a modern Amy. I’ll be interested to see how they handle her character development, but so far I think she’s probably the one who feels the most accurate to me.

Obviously, I fully intend to watch more of this series. I don’t feel like it is as close an adaptation as some of their previous series’ were, but I think that they are doing some really interesting things and I want to see how they end up working out. One of the virtues of the show is definitely that if you don’t know the source material, it is still fully watchable. And for me, the very fact that it does have me thinking so much about the changes and similarities is one of the biggest draws for this kind of project. The analysis itself is one of my favorite parts of the experience.

If you are interested in watching this show or any of their previous adaptations (they’ve so far done Pride and Prejudice, Sanditon (one of Jane Austen’s unfinished works), Emma, Frankenstein, and Little Women), check out Pemberley Digital on YouTube.

Thoughts on Living with My Headache

Pain is an ever-present reality of my life. I have had the same migraine-like headache for fifteen years. Every day it hurts. Everything has the potential to affect it, too. An awkward position might make it worse, a pair of mittens might make it better, but nothing makes it go away. And believe me, I’ve probably tried every remedy or type of medication you’ve ever heard of for headaches and probably dozens you haven’t.

You know what, though? I’m ok with it. It doesn’t ruin my life. Do I do things differently than I might if it wasn’t a factor? Definitely. But it’s the reality of my life and there is no changing that. Even if it stopped tomorrow and I could eat spicy food every day and start listening to metal bands and whatever else I’ve been missing, it wouldn’t change that this has been the reality of my life for fifteen years.

While I would like it to stop, I’ve long since given up waiting for it to do so. It will stop in its own good time and not before, no matter how much I might want it to do otherwise. Fretting and raging and pouting won’t help. All I can do, is cope with it the best I can and keep going.

The hardest lesson was that I can’t wait for it to stop. Not in the sense that I’m eager for it to do so (although that is true as well), but in the sense that not doing things in the expectation that I can do them when it goes away is pointless. I can’t put my life on hold because I have a headache. Believe me, it’s tempting to do so a lot of the time. But it’s the reality I live with – the reality of my life – and if I wait for it to stop, I’ll have missed my life without really having lived it. And that seems much, much worse to me than any amount of pain.

This does not mean that I ignore it. That would be just as bad as waiting for it to go away. This is the reality I live with, so I have to actually live with it. That means that it affects choices I make, and that’s ok. Everyone has things that affect choices they make. I may choose not to eat spicy Thai food because it makes my headache worse just as my mother may choose not to eat crab because it makes it difficult for her to breathe. This is simply the way it is. Everyone makes choices based on factors in their life and this is simply one of mine.

I like to picture my headache as a person. He’s tiny (he has to fit in my head, after all). I’m not sure why my headache is a man, but it always has been to me. He has long reddish blond hair and a long, thick braided beard (something like the dwarves in every Tolkien-esque fantasy world). I think of him as a tiny Viking warrior. He’s very muscular and sort of stocky, but he has a nice smile. That’s always struck me as odd, but maybe it’s not so much. He’s part of me, after all, and smiles are incredibly important to me. He’s also not malicious. He doesn’t mean to hurt me, it’s simply the only way he knows to try and escape from being trapped in my skull. He’s trapped in this miserable situation and just wants to escape. I always sort of see him in pain as well. The more pain he is in, the more he needs to escape, and so the more he hurts me in the process of trying to do so.

I’m not sure why I started picturing this little man trapped in my head, but it helps to do so. It gives me a focus for my feelings about my pain. Sometimes I get really angry with him for hurting me so much. Sometimes I hate him. Other times I feel really bad for him. I feel like if I could make his pain go away, mine would as well. A lot of times I just want to give him a hug. I think a big part of the value of him as a image for me is that he gives me someone to share my experience with in a way that I can with very few others. He knows what it feels like too, what it’s like to be in pain you have no control over for years and years at a time. He reflects not only the physical experience for me, but also the emotional one.

Maybe that lack of any control is the hardest part of the whole experience of having a headache for so long. I can affect it in small ways – I can take the sharp edge off sometimes with peppermints, I can choose to avoid certain types of music because I know pounding rhythms will make it worse – but when it comes down to it, I can’t control it. I can’t make it go away, even temporarily, and I can’t even control how bad it is most of the time. It simply exists, regardless of whatever small changes I may be able to predict or cause.

While I don’t like my headache and I do wish that it would go away, I am largely ok with the reality of it. For both good and ill, it has been a factor in shaping who I am. It is the reality that I live with and part of the lens through which I see the world. There are a thousand factors like that in anybody’s life. This one may loom large in mine, but it isn’t all there is and it doesn’t define me. It does affect me and my choices, though, and there is no escaping that. For almost half of my life, this has been a big part of my reality.

And you know what? I like a lot of what my life has been for the past fifteen years. There are definitely things that I want to change moving forward (headache among them, although that isn’t a change I can control), but overall I think it’s been a pretty good fifteen years. I have had a lot of time when I was happy and, overall, I think my impact on the world has been more good than not. My life isn’t perfect and I have a lot of things I’d like to do and things I’d like to change, but if that wasn’t the case, I guess I have to wonder what the point would be.

Life is about struggle. It’s what makes it interesting and worthwhile. Stories without struggle aren’t interesting and we are all living stories. When we don’t have something to struggle with, people tend to get bored and start struggling with the very lack of challenge. We constantly find or invent new problems because that’s what life is about. My headache is simply another struggle in my life and the lives of the people who care about me. I think that I’m stronger for having had such a challenge. That doesn’t mean that I’m exactly grateful for it or anything, but it does mean that I’ve made a sort of peace with it.

I expect that my headache will continue to be a challenge in my life. And that when it does stop, learning to live without it will probably be a challenge as well (as odd as that sounds), because suddenly a lot of things will change all at once. I hope I get to face that challenge someday. Even if I don’t, though, I know that my life is worth living and that it’s ok both to flounder and to hate the pain, as long as I keep living and learning through it all.

The Problem with Finding a Doctor

When was the last time you had to find a new doctor? Do you remember the process you went through to find that doctor? Did you get to speak to any doctors before going in to have full-fledged appointments with them? Or did you simply call the receptionist and get an appointment where you ended up in an exam room with someone you’d barely met three minutes ago poking at you and asking very personal questions?

It seems to make so much sense that a prospective patient should be able to meet or speak to a doctor before deciding to become an actual patient and be examined by them, doesn’t it? So why is it not the way our medical community works?

Call up your doctor’s receptionist and ask for an appointment to meet the doctor, just to talk. Such an appointment would probably only need something like a fifteen minute slot (you can say a lot in fifteen minutes) and no nurse or exam room at all – simply a few minutes with the doctor in their office or over the phone. Most likely you will be met with confusion at such a request and an “our office/Dr. Smith doesn’t do that kind of thing” response.

Why is that? A doctor is someone who you’ll need to share your most intimate secrets with. Who is really only going to be able to do their job well if you are comfortable with them and who you are only going to go see if you have no ambivalent feelings about. How are we, as patients, expected to form that kind of trust relationship so quickly with someone we aren’t even really given the chance to meet?

Whenever I need a new doctor (which has been frequently in the last five years, as I have moved twice to new states and have a chronic condition that requires me to have a set of doctors at all times), I do research first and find a list of people who might be the right fit for me.

I have a pretty good idea at the point about what I’m looking for in each type of doctor that I need. My regular doctor has to be able to explain things clearly and simply to me, they have to respect me and my unusual issues (ideally, they will have heard of my condition before I walk into their office and mention it), and they have to be willing to work with my other doctors. On the other hand, my neurologist doesn’t have to be able to explain things so well, but he or she does have to make me feel confident in the treatment I’m receiving, like they understand my specific condition and like they do not consider me a fascinating science experiment.

Once I’ve found a few possible candidates, I start making phone calls. I ask every receptionist if there is some time that I can call and speak to the doctor or if the doctor can give me a call back. Never has this question been answered in the affirmative. I’m starting to believe that doctors simply do not have telephones.

After that, I ask for an appointment to meet the doctor – one that will only consist of talking and will have no examination as part of the appointment. I have only once ever been told this was possible, and it still required me to go through the whole weighing/blood pressure/pulse/temperature thing as well as spend ten minutes discussing my medical history with a nurse. If I was only there to meet the doctor, why do I have to share every intimate detail of my life with some nurse I may never see again if I decide not to return to this office?

For nearly every doctor I have ever had I have had to start by making an exam appointment. While examining someone may be a perfectly amiable way to meet a person from the doctor’s point of view, sitting there going through the “who are you and why should I trust you?” questions in my underwear is not a particularly good way to make me feel comfortable or inclined to return.

I don’t feel like I’m crazy in wanting to get to have more agency and comfort when it comes to meeting and choosing a new doctor, either. A doctor is someone that I am expected to share every single intimate detail with, especially when something is going wrong, and someone that I am expected to be comfortable with looking at and touching every inch of my body, no matter how private or sensitive.

Is it so much to ask that I be able to speak to such a person before committing to this kind of relationship with them to make sure that I believe that I can trust them and feel respected by them, even when spread nearly naked on a table in front of them? I don’t think that it is and I find the fact that our current medical establishment treats patients like such a thing is insane absolutely disgraceful. If there is anything that indicates a disrespect for the patient, it’s this attitude that the patient doesn’t even have the right to speak to a doctor and decide if they are comfortable before being expected to strip down and submit to whatever exam is recommended.

A Plea for Poor Girls in YA

Dear everyone in YA publishing,

*Please* can we get some books about scrappy poor girls with lots of character instead of an endless string of books about debutants and girls “suddenly thrown into the lap of luxury” and the like? They’re fine once in a while, but I’m more than a little tired of a constant parade of “poor little rich girl” stories and photo covers with tacky prom dress-clad models (including many who are trying pretty pathetically to look historical in their tacky mall prom dresses).

Please, somebody go back and remember that some of the best stories have been about overcoming challenges that have nothing to do with pretentious boarding schools or arranged marriages to Venician dukes or not being able to get this season’s “It” bag because your mother has decided to cancel your sixteen credit cards in a cruel and completely unwarranted bout of insanity.

Some of the best stories have had to do with overcoming hardships like finding ways to afford necessities, escaping enslavement or crushing prejudice, and coping with the basic and universal truths of growing up (achieving greater independence; increasing responsibilities; changing relationships with parents, siblings, friends and romantic interests; etc.). There are so many great stories that have *nothing* to do with being pretty and rich and privileged and some of those stories are so incredibly valuable.

Little Women has been a classic almost since the day it was published and the girls in that story have almost nothing. The book *starts* with a comment about there being no money for Christmas gifts and one of the most memorable moments in the book is Jo selling her hair to have money to pay for her mother’s trip to nurse her sick father who has been away fighting in the Civil War. No riches here – just character building through family and life experience.

Today it seems like YA shelves are filled with series books about private academies with cute uniforms and too much money to spend on dances and teas, flouncy historical fictions about second daughters who need to marry rich men for vague reasons that are never fully explained and (inexplicably) normal girls who are suddenly thrown into lives of lavish wealth and excess for reasons that are somewhat unclear and probably don’t matter anyway. Many of the books feel more like excuses to drop the names of designer labels or describe fancy parties with corseted women and dashing Darcy-clones than like actually interesting stories.

Most of us do not wear Chanel dresses to drink too much with our dreamy boyfriends and historical fiction tends to be more interesting when there’s more to it than a couple of bratty girls in corsets flirting too much and trying to get proposed to fastest. Story matters and for a good story, you need conflict. I’m absolutely not saying that a rich girl can’t have conflict enough in her life for a good story, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to work a little harder to show it to me. A poor girl has conflict built into her daily life, even when her family and friends are as loving as can be.

Besides, I really want stories that illustrate that there’s more to life than Dior dresses and making sure you have the handsomest guy on your arm for the party. I want characters with depth and personality, characters I can relate to and sometimes even aspire to be like, characters who I can learn from. I want more than fan fiction and ads for Vogue and everything in it.

There is so much possibility out there, please tell a more varied set of stories! I am tired of every cover having a fancy gown and every description including the words “incredible wealth” or “exclusive boarding school”. Give me some public school girls, some scrappy inner city kids, some farm girls, maybe even some soldier girls and characters with *gasp* jobs at retail and food-service places. Give me stories about the kinds of people I see every day and the kinds of girl I might have been had I lived in another era.

From an avid reader

I Miss Stan Berenstain

I miss Stan Berenstain. Since his death, his son Mike has been writing the Berenstain Bears series with Jan (Stan’s wife, who has been writing the series with Stan since early on) and what used to be a great series about common childhood experiences like sibling rivalry and bullying and bad dreams has become filled with constant preachy Christian titles.

Now, I don’t have anything against Christian books or anything, but I liked that it was a more or less secular series that any kid could read and relate to. Now new titles are all about finding the Christian version of God, learning to pray and going to Sunday School.

I thought there were a few issues with the series before (the book where Momma decides to get a job is a particularly problematic title), but most of the time it did a good job of keeping Brother and Sister on equal footing without making them the same person and of respecting the feelings and troubles of children without vilifying their parents or teachers. That’s (sadly) not something that I find nearly enough. I simply want to continue to be able to recommend and count on this series for those great qualities.

True, all those good titles are still there, but now almost every new title coming out (and new titles are often the ones that monopolize the shelves in bookstores) are these super religious ones. That’s simply kind of disappointing. And I guess that’s what I wanted to say about it today.

Geek Girls and the Pillar Effect

This is something that I wrote on Google+ in response to this article and I felt it was worth reproducing here.

Geeks are a somewhat insulated community and while they often trot out the “I’ve been persecuted” thing (and it’s often something very real that they’ve experienced elsewhere), it’s not something they are generally dealing with inside of that insulated community.

Geeks may have been picked on in high school, looked at funny or laughed at in college, etc., but when they are together as geeks they can appreciate each other’s geekiness and generally don’t pick on each other for it. Walk around GenCon and you’ll see that for the most part, even strangers are sharing their love of whatever game or anime or science fiction series with each other, not laughing at each other for those very things.

Female geeks, however, are not afforded that same respect. They get treated like they don’t understand the most basic of things, like they couldn’t possibly appreciate the awesomeness or complexities of whatever it is they are passionate about and, often, like what they like is “cute” or somehow lesser than what “real” geeks like. Even when it isn’t so explicit, there is a distinct feeling of being a second-class citizen within the community.

Female geeks often experience the very kinds of prejudice and outsiderness inside the community that the geek community so reviles when someone outside the community does it to one of them.

How is the pillar effect that girl geeks experience substantially different than when the popular crowd is nice to the nerd in high school in order to get homework help, but never really invites him to the parties or lets him sit at their lunch table?

Twain on Patriotism

This is a brilliant passage from Autobiography of Mark Twain, dated January 24, 1906, about what patriotism and responsible voting means.

“But we don’t have to vote for him.”

Robinson said “Do you mean to say that you are not going to vote for him?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is what I mean to say. I am not going to vote for him.”

The others began to find their voices. They sang the same note. They said that when a party’s representatives choose a man, that ends it. If they choose unwisely it is a misfortune, but no loyal member of the party has any right to withhold his vote. He has a plain duty before him and he can’t shirk it. He must vote for that nominee.

I said that no party held the privilege of dictating to me how I should vote. That if party loyalty was a form of patriotism, I was no patriot, and that I didn’t think I was much of a patriot anyway, for oftener than otherwise what the general body of Americans regarded as the patriotic course was not in accordance with my views; that if there was any valuable difference between being an American and a monarchist it lay in the theory that the American could decide for himself what is patriotic and what isn’t; whereas the king could dictate the monarchist’s patriotism for him—a decision which was final and must be accepted by the victim; that in my belief I was the only person in the sixty millions—with Congress and the Administration back of the sixty millions—who was privileged to construct my patriotism for me.

They said “Suppose the country is entering upon a war—where do you stand then? Do you arrogate to yourself the privilege of going your own way in the matter, in the face of the nation?”

“Yes,” I said, “that is my position. If I thought it an unrighteous war I would say so. If I were invited to shoulder a musket in that cause and march under that flag, I would decline. I would not voluntarily march under this country’s flag, nor any other, when it was my private judgment that the country was in the wrong. If the country obliged me to shoulder the musket I could not help myself, but I would never volunteer. To volunteer would be the act of a traitor to myself, and consequently traitor to my country. If I refused to volunteer, I should be called a traitor, I am well aware of that—but that would not make me a traitor. The unanimous vote of the sixty millions could not make me a traitor. I should still be a patriot, and, in my opinion, the only one in the whole country.”

Twain’s autobiography is fantastic and I highly recommend it (although it’s also heavy, so be careful not to drop it on yourself, it could probably break a foot without too much trouble!). This passage is one of the most brilliant ones I’ve come across and I simply had to share it.

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