Monday’s recommendation

1. The kids went out of town last night with some family friends. Without us. As far as I can tell, they are having a great time. I expect that the children will be monstrously behaved on their return, but I am very glad that they have their own relationships with people. I want them to learn how to relate to others when their parents are not there. In other words, it’ll be good for them, belike.

2. I’m making a renewed effort to post to GoodReads. I think this link takes you to the list of books I’ve finished? I’m not at all sure what good the reviews I write would do anyone. I mean, I’m not describing what happens in the book, or anything. Ah, well.

3. Due to the lack of children in the house, thus obviating the need for a babysitter, Tern and Cavorter and I went to see Scott Pilgrim vs. The World last night. I loved the movie. I am, apparently, a huge Edgar Wright fan, since I like Shaun of the Dead, love Scott Pilgrim, and LOVE Hot Fuzz. I did think Scott Pilgrim was an idiot, but he grew on me over the course of the movie, as I think he is supposed to. Here are my main conclusions on watching the film, though. First, no-one should have ever dated 22-year-old me. Second, I don’t want my kids to date either Scott or Ramona. Third, my kids are likely to BECOME Scott and Ramona, because everyone sort of does for a while. Fourth, if my exes form a League, I won’t be the slightest bit surprised. At all. Ever.

4. If you like steampunk and are pining for a great long-form story to read, I highly, highly recommend Gimmors and Devices. It’s a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Richard II, steampunk-style. It is imaginative, transformative, and fanfic. It is amazing.

Scattershot of history

I have a cold, which means I am watching a lot of documentaries and reading a lot of history. I’ve watched a doc about the Civilian Conservation Corps. One about the Louisiana Purchase. I’ve started Ken Burns’ Civil War. I’m reading Peter Fleming’s News from Tartary. Also still working my way through histories of the Raj and The Great Game.

I appear to be working my around to greater knowledge of two things. The first would be the history of Central Asia. India, Xinjiang, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, India, etc. Not a comprehensive history, certainly, but more than I’ve ever previously known. I now know, for instance, where and what Xinjiang is.

The second thing is a knowledge of the Victorian Era worldwide. Much of this is co-current with the history of Central Asia. But I’m also picking up some history of the Race for Africa, and European history and politics during that time. A bit. A smidge. There’s a lot of it. Ditto American history. For instance, the U.S. Civil War is part of the Victorian Era. Eep.

In other news, I appear to have started writing a novel. I don’t even know.

Iowa

A few years back my sister moved to Knoxville, IA. It’s a small town in south central Iowa, an hour from Des Moines. If you’ve ever heard of Knoxville it’s because you’re a sprint car racing fan. Knoxville has a prominent track, and hosts the sprint car nationals every year. The nationals were last week, as it happens, and I’m glad my familial visit this week missed the chaos.

I have a fairly new nephew, a couple months old, and this week was the trip down to go visit and meet the kid. My kids love these visits, not only because they love trips, love hotels, and love eating in restaurants, but because they truly love playing with their cousins. My niece is now about 20 months old, more or less, and walks and talks and plays. The new kid is the least fussy baby I have ever met, and consented to be held by his adoring cousins with only a mildly Churchillian expression on his face.

It was a good visit all around.

Part of the interest in the driving, though, was from unexpected stops and unexpected memorials. Between the five people in the car, and the road food, we made a number of bathroom stops. This means occasionally pulling off of Interstate 35 onto a two-lane county road and turning in the direction of the distant grain-mill tower, betting that a gas station will be in the vicinity. But these little forays are usually rewarding.

At one stop we pulled up to the gas station and couldn’t help noticing the war memorial across the street. It was fairly new, and very well kept. On it were the names of all the armed forces servicepersons from that town. The town could not have been more than five hundred people. And on these four black marble slabs were hundreds of names. The last names, we saw kept repeating. Generations of men and women who kept enlisting to serve. One name was marked as a P.O.W.-M.I.A. Around five had been killed in action. Those who served as nurses were marked, too, showing who chose to serve by doing their best to heal.

I went inside the gas station and remarked to the woman behind the counter that the memorial was very nice.

“Where are you from?” she asked me.

“Minneapolis,” I replied. My out-of-town status was evident from the question, clearly.

“It is,” she said. “I have two uncles, my grandfather, my father, three brothers, and two sons on that.”

I nodded. There wasn’t a lot to say to that. “It’s lovely,” I repeated.

She nodded and went into the back as my kids came out of the bathroom. J and I took the kids over to look at the names, to pay our respects.

On the drive home we pulled off at a rest area which turned out to the be Franklin County Civil War Memorial. This memorial remembers the soldiers who served, regardless of what side they fought on. Walking paths are marked with marble stones engraved with excerpts from letters the soldiers sent home, back to their families in Iowa. Iowa “lost more soldiers per capita than any other state, north or south,” according to the plaque. Again, J and I walked the kids around the paths. We read the letters aloud to the kids — or, rather, J read them aloud. I was sniffling too much.

There’s a line, in one of Lois McMaster Bujold’s books, where she has a military person say, “it was around that time that soldiers began looking like children to me.” I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist. I look at the Civil War Memorial and I think of the woman in the gas station, of her whole family going for soldiers of one sort or another. It’s not a choice I could ever make — I have never, in my life, been able to meet the health requirements. Nor have I ever pined to be told what to do without thinking about it. And, I can’t say I want my kids to choose military service, either. I don’t really want them to pick a profession whose stated purposes involve someone’s death.

But I do want my kids to grow up with a sense of service. I want them to be adults who understand that we are stronger together than alone, that there are things in one’s life that cannot be done by one’s self, that require the effort of the group. That, sometimes, they will be on the receiving end of that effort. And that sometimes it will be their turn to give. Maybe they’ll send a check to a charity a couple times a year. Maybe they’ll volunteer to read books to seniors, or to kids in hospitals. Maybe they’ll foster rescue animals. Or maybe they’ll end up working for Medicine Sans Frontier, and find themselves in exactly the sort of danger I hope they would avoid by avoiding military service.

So we get out of the car in the heat of midday, in Dows, IA, and we walk past the sculptures of giant bullets made to look like ears of corn, and we tell the kids that the world is full of people who do impossibly amazing things, just because they think such things are important. Because the thing needs doing; and because they can.

Youth and beauty

You know, I remember being able to tell which teenagers were attractive and which were not.

When I was, oh, about age ten to age twenty-two, I could tell you which of my peers were good-looking and which were not. I could specify the traits of sexy looks — the exact hair styles, the minute distinctions of jaw shape or shoulder breadth — possessed by individuals around me. I was not particularly mean about this. It was just Fact. There were some people who were good-looking and some who were not. Mostly I kept my observations to myself, but I had them, and I knew what they were.

I remember this knowledge.

I don’t seem to possess it any longer.

On Sunday evening my family and I went to see the summer show of Circus Juventas. Circus Juventas is the performing youth circus arts school at which my kids take classes. The spring show is the recital, in which all students including my kids take part. The summer show is a Cirque-de-Soleil-style extravaganza put on by the best students from among the older kids. It’s really good.

This year’s show was titled Sawdust, and was an homage to the heyday of the travelling rail-circuses. Two elderly men, Tony and Willie, gave the narrative structure of the show as they reminisced about their days in the travelling circus to a kid they meet in a park. Tony and Willie are, in fact, Willie Edelston and Tony Steele, famed trapeze artists in their youth. Here’s a YouTube clip of Willie:

Let me just say, both of these guys were desperately short. :) I always think that, when I see how tall Dick Greyson is in the comics. He should be SHORTER, he was a FLYER.

Anyway, moving on — the plot of Sawdust is that Tony and Willie, as boys, run away to join the Rapinski Circus. There they find work as roustabouts, fall in love, have rivalries with the strongmen, and get in trouble with the ringmaster. Yet they prove themselves to be good enough to join the acts while making allies of the other performers and winning over the girls they love. And, at the end, the evil ringmaster is mauled to death by tigers, so it’s a happy ending all around.

The youthful Tony and Willie were played by two great performers, whose acts I have been watching practice for the last year as I sat through my kids’ classes. The whole cast, in fact, was really good. And it’s always fun for me to see the specific acts I’ve seen in rehearsal come together for the show.

The last act of the show was the flying trapeze act. And Tony Steele — I think it was Tony, I had trouble telling him and Willie apart — went up and did a couple passes on the trapeze, to huge applause. This 87-year-old guy, doing trapeze. We should all be so lucky.

But, back to my point. Youth.

I am certain that the kids in Circus Juventas can tell which of them are attractive and which are not. I’m sure they could iterate the physical flaws of themselves and their peers. But I can no longer see those things. To me, they just look young. And youth is reasonably beautiful.

I wonder when that ability to see ugliness in youth slipped away from me? I don’t miss it, certainly. I can still see differences in how people look, and I do make judgments, but the judgments are of a different sort. I look to see if the stranger I am talking to looks mentally stable, for instance, or threatening, or like they are going to proselytize to me. And, yes, among my peers, I find some attractive and others not. I’m not saying I’m blind to appearance, not at all. But that hyper-critical auto-judgment of relative looks, that sense of position and ranking based on microscopic details of hair and body fat and blemish, that fell by the wayside at some point.

Anyway, if you are local and get a chance to see a Circus Juventas show, I highly recommend it.

Somber week

It’s been a week for deaths among the families of friends of mine. Today is the funeral for one of them, so after I drop off at his day camp I’m heading to the church. (I don’t have to reprint Always Go to the Funeral again, do I?)

In other news, the day camps for the kids have gone really well. The only downside, in my view, is that now our house is full of Projects, all of which need places to go, places to be stored. Sigh. But the kids have really loved the experience, and we’ll do it again next summer, I expect.

My gaming group did character design last night for the steampunk campaign I’m GMing. I have to laugh — I’ve been gaming with these people a long time, and we can largely predict the kinds of characters we will make, in any setting, in any campaign. For instance, regardless of the game or setting, I will play a slightly curmudgeonly jack-of-all-trades who is skilled at mechanical things, has a motorcycle if possible, has dark hair and dark eyes, is a brawling fighter (a tank,) and is impatient with others.

Every. Damn. Time.

I could rattle off what my fellow campaigners play every time, but I’ll leave them their secrets.

Not a victim: The Runaways

I recently watched the movie The Runaways. Starring Dakota Fanning and Kristen Stewart, this movie tells a version of the story of the 1970’s teen all-girl band, The Runaways. The movie was based in large part of the autobiography of singer Cherie Currie (played in the film by Fanning,) and had considerable input and assistance from Joan Jett (played by Stewart.)

The thing about this movie is, there’s no way it could have been more exaggerated than what really happened. I also recently watched the documentary, Edgeplay: A Film About The Runaways. Directed by Vicki Blue, aka Victory Tischler-Blue, a former bassist from the band, the documentary features Cherie Currie, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Lita Ford — everyone except Joan Jett — discussing in very frank terms what their life as a teenage band was like. As well as the relationship with their manager, Kim Fowley. Fowley himself also appears in the documentary.

That’s the band. From left to right, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, Joan Jett. They were between, oh, sixteen and nineteen years old when they played with this lineup. In both the non-fiction and fiction accounts of the early days of the band, everyone recalls Kim Fowley telling them that he would make them famous. He did; they were, and in some circles still are. The Runways changed the face of rock-and-roll. But Fowley’s other promise — that he would look out for them on tour — was not so clearly upheld.

I also recently watched The Runaways while listening to the commentary track. The commentary is provided by Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning, and Joan Jett. They are all, it is clear from the recording, sitting in a room watching the movie together. It’s also clear that this is the first time they’ve seen this cut of the film, and they are not certain whether this will be the theatrical and dvd release or whether more editing is still in progress. The commentary is frank, profane, and fairly intimate. All three women try to explain how they feel about the project, about the band, and about the characters. Now, I’m generally not a really huge fan of actor commentaries because so many of them focus on what was important to the actors on a given day — how late filming went, how uncomfortable the makeup was, how many revisions the script went through. But, while there is some of that on this commentary, there’s also a lot of thoughtful explanation of the meaning and intention of the scenes.

Thoughtful, but not really articulate.

I was impressed with the intelligence of all three women as they discussed the film. Yet none of the three were particularly good as explaining what they were trying to say. I found myself calling out words to them as they fumbled and struggled to express what they meant. I have to say, I wasn’t really surprised by that, though. Jett has always interviewed as someone who would rather let the music speak for her. And Fanning and Stewart are still somewhat young, and both their lives have been largely consumed by careers as child actors. I was pleased to find, though, that neither Fanning nor Stewart come across as dumb — as long as one is willing to overlook Stewart’s near-constant profanity.

That’s Kristen Stewart on the left, and Joan Jett twenty years ago on the right. Stewart pretty clearly idolizes Jett, respects the hell out of her, and was honored and terrified to make the film. It was fascinating, though, listening to the respective reactions Stewart and Jett had to the moments in the film in which the character of Cherie Currie, played by Dakota Fanning who was sitting in the room with them, has sexual relations of various sorts with the much older guys surrounding the band. Stewart gets angrier and angrier over the course of the film, until she shouts at the guy on the screen to get the profanity away from her. She clearly feels that the relationships are wrong. That Currie was taken advantage of, or abused, or lacked the power in the dynamic. Stewart wants to protect the Currie character. Wants to save her.

Jett, on the other hand … Joan Jett was actually romantically and sexually involved with Cherie Currie at the time. The movie, the documentary, and all the autobiographies agree on that. Jett doesn’t talk about it, but she acknowledges it. So, what she is watching, in this room with these two young women, is the character of her ex-girlfriend having sex with these vastly older men. Something that Jett was absolutely aware of at the time. Did she think Currie was being molested? Raped? It doesn’t seem that way, though Jett doesn’t really talk about it much. It’s a long, long time in the past, and none of them stopped it at the time.

Of course, they were all drunk or drugged most of the time. Jett mentions that while cocaine is a much more cinematic drug, “we were all ‘ludes people.” Underage, drunk, and on drugs, their powers of consent were significantly impaired by today’s standards. Consent to the sex, consent to the travel conditions, consent to the interviews and the photo shoots and the performance schedule, consent to any of it. While I watched Edgeplay and The Runaways, I shared Kristen Stewart’s reaction to a lot of it — get the hell away from them. I wanted to stab Kim Fowley every time he went off on one of his abusive, profane, demoralizing, de-humanizing tirades at the girls. I wanted to stab all the roadies who had sex with them and gave them all the drugs they wanted. I wanted, like Stewart so clearly does, to protect them.

Yet none of The Runaways seem to think they needed protection.

Well, maybe Jackie Fox does. Lita Ford wouldn’t have traded any of it for anything else. Sandy West, as much as she felt things could have been better for them, treasured her time in the band and spent the rest of her too-short life attempting to continue a career as a musician. Cherie Currie has managed to make a life for herself with some acting, some performing, and is now a chainsaw artist. She doesn’t hold any grudges, not even against Kim Fowley — who she really doesn’t like.

At the end of the movie, the Kim Fowley character (played by Michael Shannon) says that he expects all the girls to end up pregnant in trailer parks now that they’ve fired him. Joan Jett’s only remark on that was a quiet, vicious, low-voiced, “I showed him.”

None of The Runaways think of themselves as victims. They signed up to be made famous, to be in a world-famous and game-changing rock-and-roll band. They were, and they did, and they accepted the conditions under which they achieved those things — however abusive Stewart and I think those conditions were. Were they victims? Were they collaborators? Or were they autonomous human beings who could make their own clear-eyed choices, however bad I think those choices may have been?

Do you remember being sixteen, seventeen? Do you remember being twenty? Do you think you were making fully autonomous choices as a competent human being? Did you think so at the time?

Would you do it differently now?

Would you, though? Honestly? Without the choices you made then, you wouldn’t be who you are today. Without the choices Jett made, we wouldn’t have Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, we wouldn’t have “Cherry Bomb” or “I Like Playing With Fire.” We likely wouldn’t have a vast amount of Riot-Grrl-style rock. Without the choices Stewart has made, she wouldn’t have the money and fame from Twilight that lets her make Adventureland and The Runaways. Maybe she’ll regret making the Twilight movies in thirty years, but I kind of doubt it. It will be a part of who she is, a part of what brought her to whatever future lies in store. The choices everyone made brought Stewart to getting private guitar lessons from her idol, Joan Jett, on the set of a movie they both dearly wanted to see made. I doubt either of them would unmake those choices.

Saturday rain

1. It’s drizzling. This is not as difficulty-producing as a thunderstorm, but it is a bit drear.

2. We have one week of summer day camps to go, for the kids. Next week is the challenging one, when the kids are in two different camps in different parts of the city at the same time. Hmm.

In general, the day camps have gone well. Both K and M are a little more tired at the end of the day, and there are a few more behavioral issues each day. I expect it’s the strain of being well-behaved and focused among strangers. The only real downside I am seeing, though, is that now there are all these projects that require some sort of storage or placement in our home. Meh.

3. The preliminary meeting to discuss the forthcoming steampunk GURPS campaign went well. I think we’ve reached a meeting of minds. It’s a 150-pt campaign, with up to 60 points of disads on top of that. TL5, with some tweaking. I am allowing Gadgeteer, with some limitations, and Inventions as-is. The campaign will take place on the Orient Express in 1899, steaming across the Balkans towards Constantinople. Why are our characters on the train? What brings them away from their homes and to the Greatest City in the West? What secrets are they hiding, and what will be revealed?

I’m kinda excited.

4. J has cut my hair this morning. As usual, it looks almost nothing like the last haircut, but looks just fine.

5. Almost all of the caterpillars have cocooned. Soon the tank will be moved to its home in the garage, or under the back steps, and I will have more of the dining room table back for my office.

6. I need to go do some dishes before I go to work.

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