Tuesday, December 16, 2008

standing your ground

Breda had a post that generated a lot of discussion. I started to comment, but my remarks got so long, and so self-centered, that I decided it was better posted here.

I don't spend a lot of time in bars, but recently me and the Sparring Partner were having dinner at one, and it was starting to get crowded. About halfway through our meal, two women moved into the stools beside me, and their male companion wedged himself in between me and the woman nearest me. He was facing her, so we're talking full-body contact between his back and my right side, albeit through a couple of sweaters and jackets. It blew my mind--do people routinely snuggle up against strangers in crowded bars, or did he just choose me because I was smallish and female?

But I tolerated it for a minute, because I figured he was just picking up a drink or a napkin and would move on. When he stayed, and got louder, I stopped giving him space. I braced my feet against the bar and relaxed against him. It was pretty comfortable, actually. I felt his weight shift. I picked up a knife and sawed at my steak, letting my right elbow flail where it would.

After a minute or two he moved away. Neither of us exchanged a word, I never even saw his face, but the point was made. He may not have consciously realized what I was doing, because I was subtle, but I made him uncomfortable. He wasn't out to attack me or start anything, he was just playing a game of Red Rover and mistakenly took me for a weak spot. He found he was wrong and he moved on.

I work--and often, shop--in Johnson County, Kansas, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, and I swear people are ruder there than anywhere else I've been. There's an interesting public dance that takes place in stores, an elaborate avoiding of eye contact, presumably so folks can cut in front of someone else and then claim, "Oh, I didn't see you."

I've had fellow shoppers move directly between me and the shelf I was looking at and stand there--not just picking up one thing and moving on: standing. Rich blonde women out shopping with a friend are particularly good at this, without missing a beat of chatter.

"Don't mind me," I said once in a low, dry voice. "I was just looking at that shelf."

"Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't see you," the blonde said, in a line straight out of Heathers or maybe Mean Girls. Do people really talk/think/behave like that?

You bet they do. Once a guy wedged himself into the 16 inches between me and the coffee bin at Whole Foods (which I was facing, and obviously looking at), leisurely shook out a bag and started shovelling beans into it. My instinct was to move away, but of course that was what he'd been counting on. So I stood where I was, nearly touching his left elbow. When I didn't move away he got nervous, glanced over his shoulder at me and said, "Oh, am I in your way?"

I smiled at him sweetly, standing dead still and making full eye contact with the cold edge Breda described. "Yes," I said. "But you go ahead." I put a saccharine sneer in the last sentence, a mockery of what he expected a polite woman to say in that situation.

"Sorry," he said, and hustled out of there. Sorry! Maybe that one will say "Excuse me," next time.

I've hung up on customers who got verbally abusive with me--after, of course, calmly pointing out that their nastiness doesn't accomplish anything and I can help them if they work with me. Two out of three times, they will modify their behavior. Often they even apologize. The other 33% aren't worth my time--if they call back I pass them off to a superior, which is usually what they wanted in the first place.

I once ran a man out of the apartment rental office where I worked, because he was sexually harrassing my co-worker. The guy was an ex-Marine, physically capable of beating the crap out of me, but my actions were not hot-headed or lacking in calculation: he was a weak-minded bully, a part-time employee of the office, the kind who wanted everybody to like him and couldn't understand why they didn't. He was not intoxicated, he was just a loud obnoxious boor who was used to getting his way.

I was certainly not trusting in my kung-fu during that incident; I was a baby martial artist and I knew it. I was not armed with anything other than some office supplies and a willingness to fight dirty. What I was counting upon (albeit unconsciously) was the social constraints on the guy--that he couldn't afford legal trouble, couldn't afford to look bad in the eyes of the women who were his landlords and employers (he knew it would get back to the manager), and I daresay that, looking at me, he wasn't all too sure of what I was capable of. One of the old tai chi masters used to say, "Never accept a challenge from a monk or a woman." This is because, one, if a smaller person or a pacifist challenges you they must have some serious confidence in their gong. Two, even if you win, you don't win, you're a brute. And if you lose, you'll never live it down.

Men know this: it's one of the fundamental assumptions of American society and our court system. Even a man who is an abuser in private is hestitant to unleash on a woman he doesn't have total control over. If he'd been the kind of man with utter disregard for the rules, he wouldn't have been in there trying to schmooze my co-worker: he'd have been manhandling her, and my attack on him would've been a lot more blunt and heavy-handed. Probably with the brass desk lamp.

I knew, also, that people act like that because they think you are in customer service and you have to take it. They are counting on you not making a scene. And they are oh-so-surprised, when you call them on their behavior, to find that the world does not, in fact, move over for their pleasure. It bears mentioning, I think, that I have never been fired from a job. In fact, in every customer service job I have had, I quickly get a reputation for being the Doberman on a chain; the one that difficult customers get handed off to.

I don't insult them. I don't fight back. I am utterly unaffected by everything they do, and this makes them back down, somewhat bewildered, because I am not following the pattern they set up that allows them to get what they want.

Prideful? Yes, sometimes. But for each incident I mention here, there were 10 or 20 lessor offenses that I let slide. Some violations of common courtesy are simply too flagrant to go unchallenged. Usually I only engage when my sense of fair play has been offended, and I only respond proportionately. Sit would call it "acting in harmony with an opponent."

So I support Breda in her assertiveness. She's got a troll over there trying to tear her down, and other people saying she went too far. But, bottom line, nothing came of the incident except she gained a little more confidence in herself. She'll assimilate the incident, learn from it, and have better judgment next time. In my opinion, that is worth a few million words of rhetoric about preparedness, and probably a few thousand rounds at the shooting range.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

speaking of Trace....

I got to give a shout-out to Rich Horton, short-fiction reviewer for Locus, who not only did a nice write-up on "End of the Line" for that magazine, but has also described it as a favorite novella of the year in at least two online venues, one of those being his Livejournal, The Elephant Forgets.

"My favorite novella this year [from Baen's] was by a new writer, Holly Messinger. "End of the Line" (February) is a fantasy Western, about a man who can see ghosts who encounters spooky creatures on a trip west. Messinger is apparently planning more stories in this series."

Planning, yes. Executing... not so much. *sigh* It's either write for love or sew for money, these days.

Thank you, Rich. That means a lot to me, considering the quantity of fiction you slog through every year. I'll buy you a drink next time we're at the same Con.

oooh, you know I can't resist this

I am a Steampunk Adventurer! (Actually, they say "Explorer," but "Adventurer" is more appropriate to the vernacular.)

The Explorer

39% Elegant, 31% Technological, 57% Historical, 64% Adventurous and 17% Playful!

"You are the Explorer, the embodiment of steampunk’s adventuring spirit. For you, clothing should be rugged and reliable, and just as functional as it is attractive. You probably prefer khaki or leather, and your accessories are as likely to include weapons as technological gizmos. You probably wear boots and gloves, and maybe a pith helmet. Most of what you wear is functional, and if you happen to wear goggles people had better believe that you use them. In addition to Victorian exploration gear, your outfit probably includes little knickknacks from your various travels. Above all, you are a charming blend of rugged Victorian daring and exotic curiosity."

Is anyone surprised by this? Hmm. Suddenly I have a strange urge to book a tour of Egypt.

Steampunk Style Test via Breda

In related news, I actually wrote a bit on Curious Weather yesterday. Maybe it's a trend.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

what did he just call her?

We've been watching True Blood in our house. It's the kind of show that's just good enough to make you wish it were better.

My husband's read all the Sookie Stackhouse books. I've browsed most of them, since they pretty much live in our bathroom and/or on the head of our bed. They're nicely written, sweet and light, which for me makes them slightly cloying. I tend to write with a light touch, myself, not sure why--I'm certainly not squeamish, but neither do I believe in wallowing in nastiness.

True Blood is truly wallowing. It's full of nudity, vulgarity, obscenity--and I'm sure there would be profanity, except the absense of anything approaching faith on this show precludes anything to profane against. Whoever was in charge of researching "Southerners" should have picked up on the fact that a lot of those ignorant backcountry folk still believe in God--whether they live by the Word or not. The only hint of religion in this story, for better or for worse, are the bigoted TV evangelists who talk about vampires being soulless creatures of the devil.

Other critics have said that the show's tone is uneven; rather I would say that it has no tone. It seems to be trying so hard not to be didactic that it comes off as extremely superficial, even detached. The books satisfy their core audience by being breezy and blithe; bad things happen but the sunny, slightly innocent nature of the heroine colors everything. Sookie as narrator is there for the reader to see and feel through; she gives events weight and purpose, but she's an insulated personality, she protects herself and the reader from the worst of the filth.

On the show, we don't have that filter. So there's no unifying tone; in one scene we get Sookie's breezy cheer and in the next we get her brother Jason's skeevy head-scratching stupidity. There are moments of sudden violence that would be shocking if they weren't so disconnected from everything else that goes on. Sookie damn near gets kicked to death one night, but gets up the next morning completely unaffected.

There's a lot of stuff going on in each episode. Bill and Sookie (I swear it sounds like he's calling her "Sucky" in his badly affected southern drawl) are falling in love, Jason is having butt-naked kinky sex with every hot slut in town (some of these scenes are so ludicrous, the SP turned to me and said, "We must be doing something wrong,"), Sookie's best friend Tara is coping with her alcoholic mother and her unrequited love for Jason, both factors which lead her to spend a night in the arms of her boss, Sam, who is carrying a torch for Sookie.

Then there are some other characters wandering around to facilitate the main characters' raisons d'etre: Sookie's wise and understanding Grandma, Jason's string of hot sluts whose names don't matter, because they keep ending up dead, a trio of evil vampires who menace Sookie and serve conveniently as murder suspects, Tara's flamingly gay/proudly black/casually drug dealing cousin Lafayette, who provides comic relief, eye candy, and anti-anti-stereotype in one effervescent chocolate-coated package.

Sadly, none of these characters, with the possible exceptions of Tara and Lafayette, even come close to transcending their cookie-cutter functions in the plot. This is probably because, as my husband assures me, the latter two were minor characters in the book, and have been substantially revamped (pardon the expression) for the show.

At any rate, Bill and Sookie just bore me. Anna Paquin has two expressions--sweetly wide-eyed and wide-eyed with horror. Stephen Moyer doesn't even have that range; he just glowers. He's rehashing every comatose broody vamp who's come before him (he even looks a little like David Boreanez, but at least Angel served as a useful straight man once in a while--Bill Compton is just a lacramose dud).

And I must say... although I rolled my eyes when people complained about the swearing in Deadwood, and I don't even blink at Jennifer Carpenter's potty-mouth in Dexter, something about the vulgarity in True Blood seems dreadfully affected. It all seems affected, including the actors' accents, which makes the swearing stand out more. Although I have certainly known and worked with my share of rednecks, people just don't generally swear that much around strangers and co-workers. HBO is trying too hard.

That includes the vampiric effects on the show. Switchblade fangs? Puh-leese. And we could do without the hissing, too. I'm sooooo tired of vampires spitting at each other like cats and throwing their heads back when they bare their fangs. Do animals do this? Hell, no. Joss Whedon was the only one who could make his vampires look dangerous and not ridiculous--he made them animal-like, hunching their shoulders and growling like tigers. Alan Ball's vampires pout and purr and occasionally lurch in stop-action across the screen when they're supposed to be moving super-fast. It's not effective, it's confusing.

Anyway. I'll probably watch more of it, but only if it's on in the background. It's not engaging enough to pull me away from my sewing, but not so stupid or annoying that it offends me. Ironically enough, my favorite part is the intro, a pastiche of honky-tonk and Southern Baptist documentary footage overlaid with Jace Everett's song, "Bad Things." It's pitch-perfect: the tone, the images, the schizo visuals. Pity the show didn't adopt some of that flavor.

(Warning: some nudity)