Tuesday, January 22, 2008

all we have is an old ball of string

There is a certain kind of children's story, a formula that is quite popular. The quintessential example of it is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: the story of a child who is perfectly ordinary in our world, who travels through a magical portal to another land, where they play a key role in the battle between good and evil. There was a time when almost all the stories I read followed this pattern, promising another world, a world where struggle had meaning and bravery was worth something. I wanted so badly for this to be true that I'm sure that if wanting could make anything real, this would have become real.

It didn't, of course. Looking back, I wonder if my desperation was a yearning toward a better world, or fear spurring me to get away from the situation I was in, although maybe that question isn't even a true question; maybe it was both. I thought for a while that I had a grip on things in the real world that I wanted enough to keep me from wishing I was away, but these days I'm feeling it again: the urge to escape, to run away, to abandon my life to become a different person in a world where the colors are deeper, the pains fiercer and the joys brighter.

The problem is that everything that I want to escape from is what I would take with me. My physical pain, my bad skin and limp hair, my aspie personality and my preoccupation with death are not things I can separate from myself and so I am stuck. My prison bars are made of my flesh, and even if a doorway opened in front of me and I walked through it I would be imprisoned exactly the same.

I tell myself this over and over, but the desire to drop everything and run won't leave me alone. I hear a roadtrip in the music on the radio, I walk to the mailbox and the decaying leaves on the lawn smell of old-growth forest paths. The distant sound of the highway sounds like the ocean, the heating oven shimmers like the empty desert, and the ache to be somewhere else is almost physical.

This afternoon I went to the park. It was freezing cold and the park was empty, although there were footprints in the dusting of snow that said that one or two people had been there before me. I wrapped myself up in a scarf and walked along taking pictures of the brittle, brown plants. There was a spot where, looking through the leafless branches, I could see that off the paved running path there was a break in the bushes that could be walked through; the snow made it through the brush where branches had been pushed aside, highlighting the way like a white ribbon. I'm not usually one for trampling on wildlife off the marked paths, but there was no one else in shouting distance today and I couldn't resist the sensation of leaving what I knew.

In the end, the way came out again and I was back in reality, still the same person I've always been. I think there probably is no way to escape.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

I'm finally feeling better after being sick for a week; I have a phlegmy cough and I'm still blowing my nose every so often but I think the fever is gone at last and I don't feel as miserable as I did. The great thing about being sick is that you can get better, and once you get better life just feels grand. To celebrate, I went for a walk around the block.

Unfortunately, although it's sunny and cheerful-looking out, it's about ten degrees. My feet are still frozen into little blocks. The sky is terribly gorgeous, though.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Sweet Potato Soup

I made this soup yesterday. It's kind of like chowder and super tasty, so I thought I'd write the recipe down to prevent my forgetting it. It's easiest if the potatoes are left over from something else, but there's nothing wrong with cooking a potato for the soup, they don't need to be cold or anything.

1 already cooked sweet potato, skinned and mashed
1 stalk of celery, chopped
1/3-1/2 medium red onion, chopped (sweet onions would probably also work but I like red ones)
some butter to fry the onions in
1/2 cup frozen or canned corn
1 cup (or so) milk
some water
salt to taste
black pepper to taste (I use maybe 1/2 a teaspoon)

You can add more vegetables as you have them. This soup began as a kind of leftover mashup, and this is what I had. I can verify that it's good this way, though.

First, fry the onion for a minute or two in a pot, then add the celery and fry for another minute or so, so the onion is more than halfway translucent and the celery is still crunchy. Remove from heat, and add the potatoes and corn. I never manage to mash the potatoes properly, so at this point I make sure there aren't any large chunks left in the potatoes by poking them around with a spoon. Add milk and enough water to make the soup the consistency you want it, which will depend on the size of the potato. Last time I made this I had a rather small potato and it took maybe a cup of water, although I can't be sure because I just stuck the pan under the faucet and filled it until it looked right. If you don't use enough water, the potato will suck it all up and instead of soup you'll have mash.

Return the pot to heat and warm it until just before boiling. Add spices to the point where it's a little salty and slightly peppery. Before you add the salt this soup will be pretty sweet, but it takes a surprisingly small amount to make it taste like chowder so don't get too enthusiastic. When it comes to the pepper, though, enthusiasm isn't a bad thing; I always end up adding more in the end. Garlic powder is optional.

This recipe makes approximately two servings, but of course you could make a huge pot of it if you happen to have several left over sweet potatoes.

Friday, January 11, 2008

No more moon in the water

The ads on top of the blog here were all about meditation today. I don't think I've written anything about meditation... perhaps I did and don't remember it but that wouldn't make much sense since I've tried meditation as a relaxation technique and I fail utterly at it, so what would I have to write about? A more reasonable explanation is that Google's ad picking mechanism is utterly irrational.

However, I did pick up a book of Zen koans from the library the other day, and I've been reading it. Needless to say, I don't understand it. Here is a koan that I don't understand:

No Water, No Moon
When the nun Chiyono studied Zen under Bukko of Engaku she was unable to attain the fruits of meditation for a long time. At last one moonlit might she was carrying water in an old pail bound with bamboo. The bamboo broke and the bottom fell out of the pail, and at that moment Chiyono was set free!
In commemoration, she wrote a poem:

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break
Until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


This is like something out of a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin. I mean, look at it one way and it's a bunch of kids with no sense. Look at it another way and it's everything that is good about humanity, it is freedom out of oppression, it is life out of death, it is music giving people hope.

From the video:
I stopped trying to define punk around the same time I stopped trying to define Islam. They aren't so far removed as you'd think. Both began in tremendous bursts of truth and vitality but seem to have lost something along the way. The energy, perhaps, that comes from knowing that the world has never seen such positive force and fury and never would again. Both have suffered from sellouts and hypocrits, but also from true believers whose devotion has crippled their creative drive. Both are viewed by outsiders as unified, cohesive communities when nothing could be further from the truth... Like punk, Islam itself is a flag, an open symbol representing not things but ideas. You cannot hold punk or Islam in your hands, so what could they mean besides what you want them to?

Sexist views in the video game industry

Via the f-word, I came across this editorial on sexism in the video game industry and also this blog post responding to it. The editorial's point was that video game companies are stupid for not marketing to women, because women do in fact play video games; the blogs point was, well: "Have you ever noticed how the instant someone points out that you shouldn’t treat women gamers like trash there’s instantly a swarm of commenters who trip all over themselves to be the first to reply “yes, you should!”"

As much as I'd like to pretend that this set of posts sparked a philosophical chain of thought and now I have something deep and meaningful to contribute on the subject of women who play video games and the designers/marketers who (fail to) market to them, I don't really have a conclusive contribution. I would like to have a solution; what I do have are some random thoughts on the subject.

+ Like the guy in the original editorial, people often assume that women don't like to play first person shooters or "violent" games because 'women are naturally nurturing and social.' I think women are actually just as violent as men and there are many other factors that influence the choices women make about gaming. One huge factor is the way games are made for and marketed to young men only. Another factor is the way those young men have been trained to believe that video games are an environment where the most vile and hateful conversation is funny. Battle Net is a more misogynistic, racist, homophobic environment than anywhere else I've seen on the Internet.

+ It seems like women are "casual gamers" by definition; so when it turns out that women play MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, instead of admitting that women can be hardcore gamers, people insist that MMOs are casual games. The women I know who play MMOs are often very expert and spend enormous amounts of time and energy ingame, so much so that we joke about addiction and obsession and not having real lives.

FPS games are seen as more "hardcore" than MMOs. I think this is partly because they're seen as more masculine. The big FPS that came out this winter was Team Fortress 2, which is innovative for a FPS because there are nine classes with different abilities that you can pick from to play in a fairly stereotypical 2 team battle scenario. Here's a picture of the nine different classes; apparently the designers of this game are not aware that only half the population of the world is male. I can't help but think that "testosterone" is associated with "hardcore" in the minds of people who design video games.

+ A common characteristic of game design is the idea that if men are playing, they prefer to play a male character, while women are supposed to prefer playing female characters. I don't think this is actually true, though. I know personal anecdote doesn't prove points, but nevertheless, in my experience people tend to pick characters of either gender based on things other than identification with the character's gender. For example, I know men who play female characters because they tend to be smaller, so your character takes up less space on the screen and you get a better view of what's going on. I know women who play male characters so they can fit in with misogynistic male players more smoothly. I know people who play both male and female characters based on the way the character looks, for example men who roll female blood elf paladins because the male blood elf model is ridiculous looking and you have to be a blood elf to be a paladin. Anyway, the point is, marketing things to women by including female characters would probably be so unexceptional to male video game players that they wouldn't even notice it as something to do with equality.

My take on the situation is definitely not authoritative, as I don't play games from large swathes of the market (RTS isn't my thing and console games are out when you're too poor to afford a console). From the little I've seen, though, it seems like it would only take a very few changes in perspective by designers and players for the video game world to be exceedingly more egalitarian.

Which would be nice; it would make my world that much more comfortable if I could play games like TF2 without feeling like I'm contributing to my own oppression.

Monday, January 07, 2008

A Failure of Imagination

There's a liquor store in the area here called "Dirt Cheap Cigarettes & Beer." Classy name notwithstanding, they're pretty scuzzy; they don't even have a website or anything. They do run TV ads, though. I saw one on Comedy Central the other day, during a routine by Dave Chappelle. I was sitting next to my husband, and there were a few of his friends over to plan for a D&D session they were going to have (my husband is a bigger nerd than even I am), although mostly we were just sitting watching Dave, because he's such a fabulous comedian.

These ads were of the cheap, not-made-by-an-agency variety, with the store owner standing in front of a still picture of his store talking about the specials they had. Pretty unremarkable until it got to the ending slogan, "The More She Drinks, the Better You Look." As in, "shop at Dirt Cheap, because the more she drinks, the better you look!"

I was shocked. Now, I grew up in a fairly liberal area, and didn't watch television growing up, so maybe I was sheltered from some of this kind of thing. But on the other hand, I was a woman in the Army, and I've encountered a number of 'women belong in the kitchen or giving blow jobs' types, and even more 'all women are liars' types (many of whom, oddly enough, have been women). Anyway, naive or not, I was shocked. The idea that a company would choose to associate itself with rape, would choose to advocate rape as a way to convince people to buy its products, just shocks me.

The ad itself, however, didn't upset me as much as the reaction to the ad of the people I was with. Now, we were watching comedy, and sometimes when you've been laughing for an hour things that you wouldn't normally find funny make you laugh. So when the ad got to the punchline and everyone laughed, I said something; I don't remember exactly what I said, but it was probably something along the lines of a rather humorless "I hate those ads. It makes my skin crawl to know that people think advocating that kind of thing is acceptable."

The response I got was not what I expected. The guys I was with defended the slogan. "It just means she'll appreciate you for buying her such great liquor. You might as well say, The More He Drinks, the Better You Look. Its a trashy slogan but they mean it to be funny. The store is just saying alcohol lowers inhibitions." I pointed out that in fact if someone doesn't want to sleep with you, plying them with alcohol until they can't say no is rape. RAPE. And everyone turned to look at M, who is male, a binge drinker, and has a few nasty stories that I keep trying not to hear, and bust out laughing. "M, you're in trouble now!" they said. At first I didn't get it- why was it so funny to say that M is a rapist? And then he says, "You're right, you're right- I'm a rape victim. Poor me!"

All this leads me to develop a hypothesis: discrimination is a lot like physical pain in that it's very difficult to believe in. These guys aren't bad guys; with the exception of M, none of them would ever approve of an actual rape of anyone, ever, and I only exclude him because he binge drinks to the point of unconsciousness and that has a serious effect on your judgment (speaking of which, why do girls always get told not to drink lest some asshole take advantage of them, but boys are never told not to drink lest they become the asshole?). All four of these guys have always treated me with the utmost respect, and I believe that while they may assign me motives and inclinations based on my gender they really do consider me a real person. They don't think rape by alcohol is funny because they're evil, they think it's funny because it doesn't happen to them.

I don't mean that they think rape is OK as long as it happens to other people. I mean, when something doesn't affect you constantly, you don't really internalize the significance. It's the same way with pain. I am in constant physical pain; I am not able to let this completely slip my mind, ever, because I have to govern my movement so that I don't make it worse. However, I'm not always in excruciating, 'dowse me in gasoline and light me afire' pain; usually I just get a low, diffuse ache that flares up and down. When it's been awhile since I've pushed myself into real pain, I forget what it's like when my mind is overrun with agony. Once I forget, I start to disbelieve. I start to think, "pain isn't so bad. I should go for a walk. I should go to the grocery store. A neat band is coming to town, I should get tickets and go, it'll hurt but hurting isn't important."

My situation is unusual because as soon as I forget, my body reminds me. I forget what it's like to walk around the block, but then I do and I remember. However, when you don't get reminded on a regular basis, not only do you forget, but you start to disbelieve in the existence of pain that blocks rational thought with fire. Pain shrinks in your memory like everything else does, until it fits the lines your mind draws to make sense of your life. Agony doesn't make you mentally healthy, and so you stop believing in it. You can see this in doctors who refuse to prescribe certain pain medications, relatives who insist that an aversion to pain is actually laziness, disability systems that don't treat pain as disabling, physical therapists who insist that although they don't know why I'm in pain or how to treat it effectively, it's better that I be in pain than rely on assistive devices like a brace or a wheelchair. They aren't in pain; they don't believe in it, and they act accordingly.

I think that the mind treats discrimination the same way it treats pain: the experience is too awful to be borne, so it gets shut away. The memory is manipulated and bleached until it's bearable, and you end up not believing. This unfortunate feature of the brain, I think, is responsible not only for good men who laugh at rape jokes but also institutionalized injustice as it exists in our country today.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

After the agony in stony places
The shouting and the crying
Prison and place and reverberation
Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
He who was living is now dead
We who were living are now dying
with a little patience

G'Kar is dead. Not the television character, the blogger, who wrote at Obsidian Wings. He and two other American soldiers were killed in an ambush, the first casualties of 2008.

Its funny how on the internet you can talk to people, briefly, about things that matter very much to you, and then drop away again, anonymous and perhaps forgotten. I don't comment frequently on other peoples' posts; my thoughts are too slow and I always find that after thinking for a while about my reflexive reactions to what I read, I reconsider. Nevertheless, I read, and find an odd one-sided friendship in eating the thoughts of strangers. You get to know people, even if you never really talk to them. You read their thoughts and those thoughts become a part of your own thoughts, and even if you disagree you have still become a different person because you read what they wrote.

I read what he wrote, and now he's dead.

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
-But who is that on the other side of you?

Friday, January 04, 2008

the birds can always fly

These pictures don't fully communicate what it is to be standing on the brown earth, the air so frozen all the water is wrung out of it, watching the pastel grays and blues and oranges of the sunrise, alone but for the cold, a subtle presence encroaching on the boundaries of self, turning everything translucent and alien. These pictures don't do this justice, but they are what the camera captured.
A lot of blogs have been doing an end of the year thing where the writers pick out their best post of the year and repost it, or pick out their favorite post by someone else, and link to it. I'm not much for this end of the year nonsense, and I don't have a post of my own to put up again. I suppose I shouldn't even pretend that I think this is the best post I've read all year; I don't think you can make that kind of statement when you can't remember 85% of the year at all, although I suppose you can't stop people from saying these things anyway. All that aside, here is a post from Elizabeth at Screw Bronze!, that says some of the things I would like to say about pain. Her pain is not the same as mine, but the experience of agony marks us in the same ways and what she writes is true.

Things happening for no reason at all.
I tried to write a post today, about companionship and the elusiveness of genuine human contact, but it turns out my quota for angst is already full. I suppose I should write about the Iowa Caucuses as an alternative, but I think I will save my rant about Huckabee for some other time- preferably after he gets his ass handed to him in New Hampshire.