Happy Holidays, everyone!
There are some lovely traditional Christmas songs; this is not one of those, but it’s my favourite, the way Die Hard is now so many people’s favourite Christmas film.
Writing. Cooking. Reading.
Happy Holidays, everyone!
There are some lovely traditional Christmas songs; this is not one of those, but it’s my favourite, the way Die Hard is now so many people’s favourite Christmas film.
I have yet to emerge from my post-election hideout from the real world, but I think the worst of the comfort food phase is over. Or should I say best? There were a lot of indulgences in there, among them: pie. Lots and lots of pie.
Yet I don’t have much of a sweet tooth. (My tooth is very, very salty.) One of the reasons pie has always appealed to me is that you can moderate the sweetness and offset it–a fresh fruit filling, a buttery crust that verges on savory, a hint of almond in the cherries or whisky in the apples. But I also really love coconut cream pie so go figure.
The two rules of pie crust: mess with it as little as possible, and keep it as cold as possible. I happen to like mine made with all butter and no sugar, like this one from the NYT, but there are plenty out there that use shortening or sugar or egg (for a tart crust) and really, those are just lovely too. Make it all by hand or do 90% of it in a food processor. Roll it out between sheets of parchment, plastic wrap, or silpats for a process that’s nearly as mess-free as buying one from a store. The flavor and texture rewards are so worth it.
My favorite from this most recent craze was a batch of sour cherry hand pies. The cherries were from my aunt’s tree–from last year, in which it had produced a prodigal crop of the pale ruby gems–and had been frozen after processing. I thawed a quart of them, drained them, cooked them down with barely a cup of sugar and a cornstarch slurry made with lemon juice, and then let them cool. I stirred in a little almond extract just because.
Baked in individually-sized portions for the maximum crust-to-content ratio, they came out like every cherry pie I’ve ever wanted. Tart then sweet, ending with a fat roundness from that buttery, buttery crust, their only flaw was insufficient quantity. Okay, and some of them were falling apart because I am terrible at shaping hand pies (all the good ones were made by a lovely friend/kitchen goddess helping me). But still. Perfect.
Like many small girls at the age of four or five, I went through a phase of wanting to be a ballerina when I grew up. This was preceded by having wanted to be one of those people who bags groceries and then a football player, so I’m sure my mother was relieved by this. Me being me, however, I was always determined to do it myself, without the need for actually learning what was involved in the art from someone who knew what he or she was doing. This resulted in a dislike of the ballet class I was duly enrolled in, and permanent damage to the big toes on both of my feet because I was certain that I could master pointe work if I just learned to balance. I retained a desire to possess one of those pink-and-white ballet boxes and a fondness for wearing leather-soled ballet slippers around the house, but soon after this I discovered Laura Ingalls Wilder, L.M. Montgomery, and Robin Hood, and moved on to even less practical daydreams of being an adult in times other than the one in which I lived.
I didn’t pay much attention to ballet again until I was sixteen and happened to see a brief Vladimir Malakhov performance on television one Sunday, back when the A&E channel in the US actually showed Arts and Entertainment programming. I waited patiently for a repeat, or other performances; the only thing that I could find were recordings and screenings of the Nutcracker. Finding these interesting but not especially inspiring, I gave up and returned again to my books and music.
The Christmas before last I saw an ad that PBS was airing the film of Matthew Bourne’s production of Sleeping Beauty. I noticed the costumes more than anything else–all sparkly and lace-trimmed goth aesthetic–and set it to record. I had other things on my mind at that time and didn’t bother to watch it for a couple of months, but when I did, I was hooked. I did like the costumes and the twist on the classic story, introducing vampires and other new elements to an old fairy tale, but I loved watching the dancing. It isn’t classical ballet by any means–lots of dancing barefoot, and I don’t remember any pointe work–but this was my gateway drug. It was like discovering a new genre in fiction I’d never paid attention to before, learning the terminology, the different periods of dance, watching enough to distinguish between the styles of specific choreographers and dancers.
I have learned enough to have preferences, but I’m still an amateur, not a proper fangirl yet. I haven’t found anything that bores me in the field–every production I’ve seen yields something interesting in terms of the techniques of the dancers, the way the movements tell a story, the costumes. I have acquired five different performances of Swan Lake, without meaning to specialize in a particular piece; the thing about relying on the handful of fairy-tale-inspired ballets that keep drawing audiences back generation after generation is the consequent need to reinvent and reinterpret the stories to keep them alive. There are classic versions with sumptuous sets and costumes, and there are stripped-down versions with modern choreography and, Matthew Bourne’s production, most of the genders of the roles switched.
I recently read Jennifer Homan’s Apollo’s Angels (2011), in order to learn something of the history of the art. I do recommend it as a thorough introduction to the origins and different regional styles of the art through the centuries, but I disagree strongly with her assertion that the art is dying if not already dead. Choreographers such as Christopher Wheeldon and Wayne McGregor are hammering out new ways to tell stories through dance, and dancers are again becoming prominent pop culture figures, drawing new audiences and more importantly inspiring new generations of dancers–Natalia Osipova and Sergei Polunin, Steven McRae, Carlos Acosta, and most of all Misty Copeland, are known to audiences beyond dedicated ballet aficionados, and are bringing ballet back to international prominence. There are companies such as the BalletBoyz, who created a dance to commemorate the centenary of World War I, and the collaboration between the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet to create a new version of Handel’s Acis and Galatea, with the singers shadowed by dancers who illustrate the opera as it is sung.
There are so many amazing dancers that it would take too long to go into even a handful here–aside from those mentioned above, Eric Underwood, Zenaida Yanowsky, and Lauren Cuthbertson are always well worth watching. Vladimir Malakhov is still a prominent figure, more as a director and advisor these days than a performer, although his Caravaggio (2009) is as vital and enthralling a performance as anything done by younger dancers. My current favourite, though, is Edward Watson. There’s something shallow in a lot of the emotion portrayed in a lot of the stories told in ballet, generally a necessary side effect when the aim of the art is making such strenuous and difficult movement look effortless. Watson has a particular gift for making the emotions his characters are possessed by feel real, especially the darker ones–grief, fear, desperation, and madness. His performance in Mayerling, as the hedonistic and unbalanced crown prince of Austria who is obsessed with his mother, abuses his wife, and eventually kills his teenage mistress before killing himself, is as compelling as it is disturbing; he is even more magnetic as Gregor Samsa in Arthur Pita’s adaptation of The Metamorphosis.
Alongside the old standards of fairy tales, there are new works appearing every year based on literature, from Shakespeare to Lewis Carroll to Virginia Woolf. There are also works that follow Balanchine rather than MacMillan or Ashton in dispensing with a storyline altogether in favour of pure expression and form. Next time you’re looking for something to watch online, give a ballet a try–it isn’t all tutus and sugarplum fairies and Tchaikovsky. Now there are sets decorated by Swarovski, costumes by prominent fashion designers, music by Jack White. I’m entirely convinced there’s something for everyone, if only everyone would give it enough of a chance.
Whenever you see a film made from a book, the standard response is “the book was better.” This is usually true, to be fair; the problem is that it’s such an automatic response these days I often wonder if the person telling me that has actually read the book. (These are usually strangers who are unaware that reading novels is about as vital as eating to me.) However, it isn’t invariably true. There are some perfectly good films that have remarkably little to do with the book that supposedly inspired them (Easy A, 10 Things I Hate About You, Clueless) and some excellent films that alter the story they are based on in minor or sometimes drastic ways but turn out to be so good that I can’t bring myself to care (The English Patient, The Princess Bride). And then there are films that are so, so much better than the book, such as Body of Lies (2008), The Assassination Bureau (1969), and most of all Last of the Mohicans (1992).
I’ve never understood why James Fenimore Cooper is still taught in schools–a book having been a bestseller during a certain period is not the same thing as it actually being a great novel. (Imagine Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer being taught in high schools.) (Actually, don’t. If that ever comes to pass, please don’t tell me.) Cooper apparently felt no burning need to write or create stories, nor demonstrated any particular talent for it at an early age; he was reading a novel one day and decided it was no great challenge, so he sat down to write his own. His lack of any inherent genius for the form shows in the inconsistency of his characterizations and many other flaws. I tried to read The Last of the Mohicans when I was fourteen, found the female characters unbearable, and gave up. Later, the year I studied American Lit in high school, on the one day my English teacher devoted to Cooper and the other early American writers we would not cover (we read Hawthorne and several poets from the time instead), he explained that Cooper’s novels contained a number of lovely descriptions of the long-vanished New England wilderness, but not much else worthwhile, and referred us to Mark Twain’s essay “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” (Very much worth reading, if you haven’t already.)
I can’t think of any other instance where so poor a novel has been made into so compelling a film. I have a feeling that the film of The Last of the Mohicans is variously dismissed by critics and adored by some fans solely as a visually stunning romantic adventure (emphasis on the romance), due mostly if not entirely to the famous scene of Daniel Day-Lewis shouting at Madeline Stowe “No matter how long it takes, no matter how far–I will find you!” I’ve always found this to be decidedly unfair; there’s a lot more to the film than Hawkeye and Cora’s undying love, dramatic and gorgeous as it is. It is about the reasons that the American colonies rebelled against Britain, without being about the revolution itself; it also offers a wealth of detail about people lived in the 18th century, and particularly attitudes towards women during that time, again without being preachy or even intentionally feminist. I have no idea whether Cooper had any intention of earnestly mourning the loss of the indigenous American cultures that European settlers wiped out, but those who made the 1992 film evidently did. Alongside the love stories and the conflict between settlers and the military, the film dramatizes some of the more subtle methods used eradicating native cultures and populations. Most people know about the smallpox blankets, the Trail of Tears, and the massacre at Wounded Knee, but the damage done by alcoholism, the exploitation of native populations as servants and cat’s-paws, the co-opting and whitewashing of indigenous traditions aren’t common knowledge in the same way. The titular Last of the Mohicans at the end of the story is a man mourning his only son, and the end of his tribe with him, but the grief is simply personal; it is the loss of a culture. It feels wrong to me to say I like this, but in the same way I treasure Dark Hour of Noon and the film Wit, I find it valuable–it is beautifully done and important to revisit, even when it is hard to do so.
There are a thousand other things to like about the film. The sharp little glints of sarcasm in the dialogue, particularly those between Hawkeye and Cora; Jodhi May’s excellent turn as Alice, making what could have been an insipid and useless character compelling and heartbreaking; Eric Schweig, just because; the soundtrack; the locations where the filming took place. Seriously, you could watch solely for the views of the Blue Ridge mountains and you wouldn’t be wasting your time.
One of the more unusual, though certainly not unique, problems afflicting fans of the film is that when it was released on dvd, for some reason it was decided to release a different cut of the film. Then, when the blu-ray came out, a definitive director’s cut was released (because apparently Michael Mann hadn’t made up his mind when he did the first director’s cut…). There are at least three (possibly four) versions of the film; the second, the first dvd version, cuts some of the best lines. (They did the same thing with the new Ghostbusters. It’s quite maddening.) The differences between three of the versions are discussed in detail here, if anyone is interested; if you can get the original theatrical release, I recommend that one, at least to watch first. After that, the Definitive Director’s Cut restores some of the missing lines, if not all. The first Director’s Cut is still the film, still plenty to see and enjoy, but definitely the worst of the three.
I had plans for Tuesday night. I had a bottle of decent prosecco chilling in the fridge and a bottle of very nice single malt, a lovely gift from some friends, ready to celebrate. The day itself turned out stressful for other reasons, and by the time it was 5 pm I was extremely on edge and feeling unaccountably panicky. By 10 pm I was feeling quite sick. I didn’t get a lot of sleep that night, and then on Wednesday morning I woke up to find myself a part of American Horror Story: Politics.
I believed the polls to the extent that the 25 to 35 percent chance of a Trump win bothered me; for those of you dismissing Nate Silver’s calculations as inaccurate, at no point did he discount a substantial possibility of Trump winning, even if it was never more than 50 percent. What I couldn’t believe as the vote came in was that so many women would tolerate a man such as Trump has shown himself to be–on camera, on the record, unfiltered–as president. I knew there were women who supported Trump, I saw them on television just like everyone else, I know a few personally, but I thought we had reached a stage as a country, as a culture, where a flat-out majority of women, regardless of race or ethnicity, had more respect for themselves than that. I have never been so bitterly disappointed to be wrong.
I don’t blame the Democratic party. I don’t think they’ve done a great job, I think Debbie Wasserman Schultz has done plenty of harm, but to believe that Bernie Sanders would have won where Hillary Clinton failed is to discount the common voiced again and again by conservative media and the conservatives I’ve spoken to personally that there is no daylight between socialist policies and Stalinism; that if we have universal, single-payer healthcare and repair our infrastructure and improve education, the next step is pogroms and gulags. You know, like they have in Denmark and the UK. It is also to discount the poisonous anti-Semitism that came out into the open during the months of Trump’s campaign. Having Sanders as a candidate wouldn’t have eliminated any of that.
I do blame the media, to an extent; I blame the thousands of hours given to obsession over emails that revealed very little more shocking than John Podesta’s recipe for creamy risotto and Hillary Rodham Clinton and Huma Abedin having a weakness for creme brulee. Clinton had already faced Congress a number of times over what happened in Benghazi, and then over the server; none of the recent so-called “revelations” brought to light anything substantial that wasn’t already known. Little time on television media platforms was given to covering each candidate’s policy proposals and actual political experience, and how these things would impact our lives in a practical sense. They could have done so much better. The thing is that we don’t force them to do better; we’re abandoning print media ostensibly because the online versions are cheaper and more convenient, but we don’t seem to be reading much of anything that delves deeply into facts. The problem isn’t that CNN, MSNBC, FOX, etc., are feeding us poison; the problem is that they’ve become the ‘circus’ part of bread and circuses, alongside reality TV. There are still voices on each of the cable political stations worth listening to–Shep Smith, Rachel Maddow, Christiane Amanpour, Sally Kohn, Joy Reid–but no one hour of news coverage or commentary per day is going to be sufficient to present a full picture. The television news media found that we preferred name calling, demonstrations of shock and outrage, and fuzzy human interest stories to confronting uncomfortable facts and searching for constructive ways to resolve problems, and by god have they given it to us. Enough of it to drown a democracy. So yes, they may be to blame, but so are we every time we discount a story of what’s actually happening in favour of watching Bill O’Reilly or Chris Matthews spluttering in outrage over their offended sensibilities. It’s all well and good to remember how nice it was to grow up as white boys in places where most women stayed home and minorities were barely visible (if present at all), and secure jobs that paid enough to support a family were available the day after you graduated high school, for those who didn’t want to go to college. The constant indulgence in nostalgia for those experiences discounts everyone else whose opportunities were denied in order to make that life possible, and it doesn’t do a damn thing in the way of confronting the fact that technology has moved on, demographics have changed, the pressures and dangers we face now are wildly different, and people are no longer content to be pushed aside and suppressed so that straight white men can continue to dictate the terms of everyone’s existence. We don’t live in that world any more, and this desperate pretense that we can somehow go back there is causing us very real harm.
I cried a lot on Tuesday night and most of the day on Wednesday. I’ve had a few breakdowns since then. I argued with friends who tried to tell me that it’s not as bad as it looks, that Trump’s supporters want at heart the same things that I want–safety and security, and the freedom to live in peace. I argued because I’ve been watching for months as his supporters have targeted journalists who spoke out against Trump with anti-semitic attacks, images of their faces, their children’s faces, superimposed on images of gas chambers with Trump flicking the switch. Threats of rape, beatings, lynchings. Children being told by classmates that they’re going to be deported once Trump wins. The LGBTQ community now has a vice president who believes that their respective sexualities can be tortured out of them, and the fear that their right to marry, so recently and so hard won, may be taken away from them. Trump has threatened to repeal libel laws so that he can sue those who criticize him, and on Wednesday implied that he would require all Muslims to register with the government (because that’s never gone wrong before…). In my worst moments, I wonder about the prospect of violence and what could happen where I live, a predominately conservative neighbourhood in a predominately liberal city in what was, as of last Tuesday, an almost evenly divided state, if the voting reflects the state as a whole. The rest of the time I am worried mostly for my friends who are part of the LBGTQ community, who are immigrants or the children of immigrants, who are people of color. I am a heterosexual white woman; I’m not an obvious target to the people I fear, at least not yet. It is up to me, then, and the other women and men like me, to support those who are targets–to put ourselves between the people who are the targets of the bigotry Trump’s campaign has enabled and those who seek to do them harm. I’d like to think it would be enough for this shielding will take the form of arguments, protests, votes, and petitions, but given the people Trump is appointing to his transition team–including Peter Thiel, a man who has publicly expressed admiration for Apartheid–I wonder how soon we’re going to have to act as human shields.
By mid-Wednesday I started to feel better. Anxiety and grief take a very real physical toll on me; I find it hard to sleep, hard to concentrate, hard to sit still at times, and my body has a knack for producing physiological reactions to my emotions. I can’t afford any of that right now. I started to play more energetic songs that I liked, even if I didn’t feel like listening to them, and I started to map out what viable options are left to protect what I value in the face of a government that appears entirely committed to taking most of that away. I will renew my second passport, as that remains legal for now, but I have no intention of leaving at the moment. This is my home; moving our household overseas is not an appealing prospect for myself or my father, even if it remains an option. I believe that the arc of the moral universe does indeed bend toward justice, although I worry about how long it is going to be. I believe the rise of these nationalist governments is the death throes of a white, male-centered supremacy that sheer force of numbers is in the process of overwhelming; the question is how many people will it take with it before it dies out.
The media has now by and large taken the tone that as Trump is president-elect, we must accept and learn to work with him. I refuse to accept this in the sense of treating any of the policies he has threatened to impose on us as normal, as a simple conservative alternative to the progressive policies President Obama pursued. It drove my mother mad for years that the conservatives she knew refused to treat the president with the respect he was due as holder of the office because he was black, because he was liberal, because of his education; I am not willing to engage in similar hypocrisy. When Trump is inaugurated as President, I will be willing to call him such; I don’t think it’s of much use to dispute the legitimacy of the electoral college at this point, however little I like it. I will not engage in violent protest, and I will not condone or connive in others committing violent acts against Trump or his supporters. I will, however, continue to protest, in whatever ways I can. I will write letters. I will donate to causes supporting the rights that the GOP is threatening to take away from us. I will not stand silent if I witness someone being attacked for their faith or their sexuality or the color of their skin. If I can get to a protest or a march, I will participate, as I have done before. If any conservatives happen to be reading this (unlikely as that is)–to those who are mocking and insulting liberals for questioning whether they want to stay in the U.S., for wondering if our rights are going to be taken away, for fearing the worst is coming–if you’re wondering what hypocrisy looks like, take a long look in the mirror. Conservatives have been whining for years about Obama was coming for their guns, which never happened, and there were plenty of conservative media figures who *promised* they would leave when Obama was elected but didn’t. We’ve already witnessed reproductive rights being rolled back, by some of the same people Trump is bringing into his administration. We already have evidence that our fears our justified.
Things will get better. In two years we have a chance at taking back either the House or the Senate, if not both; in four years, if Medicare is privatized, Roe v. Wade overturned, the ACA repealed, gay marriage once again prohibited, journalists are silenced, if we’re in a trade war with China and NAFTA is repealed, all of which Trump and/or other Republican leaders have promised in the last months and weeks, I hope that the combination of those of us who are angry enough now and those who will have buyer’s remorse over voting for Trump will make a Democratic victory a certainty. The party does need work, but we have a number of strong candidates rising through the ranks. The problem is it will not get better in time for the women who are going to die or be left severely ill from botched abortions if Roe v. Wade is overturned. For the people who are going to die all over the world as a result of accelerating climate change, from worsening economic inequality and the other financial consequences of lowering the U.S.’ tax rates across the board, from losing their health insurance, from any wars that Trump escalates or instigates. For the people who are going to die of their injuries after attacks by people who now believe that anyone they look down on is now fair game, as happened to a Saudi Arabian college student a couple of days ago.
This is the song that kept running through my mind on Tuesday morning, and I was so looking forward to posting it again and again, any excuse I could find, on Wednesday, instead of being unable to shake the lyrics of “This is not America”. This is the first political song I understood in political terms, being old enough to have a grasp, if not a full understanding, of the events that inspired it. I played it again and again back in 2008 following Barack Obama’s election, and I hope that I will get to irritate all and sundry with it the day after election day 2020, along with a clip of Daveed Diggs shouting “We Won We Won We Won We Won.” Because we will. I hope we will all be there to witness it.
I haven’t met many varieties of alcohol I didn’t like, but whiskey is my favourite. It will get you plastered, certainly, if that’s what you’re looking for, but drinking it solely to get drunk is really quite a waste; it is best when savoured slowly, and well worth the time and patience to learn the distinct qualities of the different brands and types, be it American, Canadian, Scottish, Irish, or Japanese, single malt or blended, rye, Kentucky bourbon, etc. (If you want to know what decent whiskey tastes like, avoid the aberration that is Fireball at all costs.)
It still has a reputation for being a man’s drink, which is a pity; happily, this seems to be changing. (There is an organization dedicated to introducing more women to whiskey in its many forms, and cocktails made therefrom, called Women Who Whiskey. If you’re interested and over 21, do join up.) If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you’ll know what an old fashioned is, but there are many, many more whiskey cocktails to enjoy. It also makes a good digestif and is awesome in Irish coffee, although I strongly recommend not trying this if you have anything you need to focus on in the following hour or two, and workplaces generally frown on the practice. With good reason. I personally believe that it’s demented to spend more than two or three hundred dollars on anything meant to be eaten or drunk, unless doing so for charity, but when it comes to whiskey I do at least understand the pricing given the aging process, the rarity of older whiskeys, and the fabulous decanters used for some of them. Happily a good quality bottle of scotch can be had for $40 or so.
So if you haven’t tried a good whiskey before (and you’re old enough to do so and not driving afterwards–seriously, I can get tipsy on a couple of mouthfuls on an empty stomach, and I drink often enough to have a moderate tolerance), make this your week to ask a trusted bartender or knowledgeable friend to recommend you one. My current personal favourites that are commonly available are Glenmorangie, Highland Park, Maker’s Mark, Knob Creek, and Redbreast; everyone has their own. On Tuesday evening we might all need one.
My parents always referred to themselves as expatriates. They were both born in London, England, but met by chance in Atlanta, GA. Neither had planned on staying in the U.S., but that’s what they ended up doing, I assume because they had good jobs and were uninclined to cope with the financial upheaval of moving back–they were happy with their jobs, and a few years later Britain was grappling with the energy crisis (if there’s anything my mother hated, it was being cold). Eventually they had me, and bought a house, and here we stayed.
I read somewhere recently that people who take up residence in a new country refer to themselves as expatriates when they look down on the country they’ve come to, whereas self-described immigrants look up to and admire their new home. I never thought much about my parents’ preference for the word “expatriate” over “immigrant”. I doubt they considered it in any conscious sense–it has a ring to it, and evokes British colonialism in a way that they remained faintly (or very, in my father’s case) nostalgic for and makes me distinctly uncomfortable. My mother considered applying for citizenship at one time and studied for the exam, but never went through with it, because time or, later, physical energy was always lacking; my father has never wanted to. When I was growing up we listened to Garrison Keillor and watched every minute of Ken Burns’ The Civil War many times over, we celebrated Thanksgiving without fail and looked forward to the Boston Pops concert every July 4th, but the most important tastes and traditions in my household growing up were the ones they brought with them from England. Whenever my mother heard certain Americanisms creeping into my speech, she would correct me constantly until I stopped doing it, from saying “ben” instead of “been” when I was eight to interspersing every sentence with three or four ‘likes’ when I was fifteen. (Oddly, she never objected to me saying “Y’all”.)
I was born in Atlanta, and so the appellation “expatriate” has never applied to me. I never thought of myself as an immigrant either, or the child of immigrants, until I recently, but I always knew myself to be foreign, “not from around here” despite my birth. People recognized my accent as not local, but, unless one of my parents was with me, could rarely tell where it was from–some asked if I was Canadian, but most people assumed I was from up north. Until I corrected them, that is, as I’ve always been insufferably proud of my heritage. For a long time I wished I had been born in London like my parents, that I was fully English; but I did, after all, grow up here. I may be able to change my accent at will, but I can’t entirely eradicate either part of the blend, no matter how much I concentrate, and I no longer wish to. I am American as much as I am English.
I know what it is to be subject to xenophobia, albeit such experiences have been rare for me. I remember occasions growing up when my mother would be pointedly ignored by staff when we were out shopping. When I moved to Scotland I encountered a regular, if not universal, assumption that because I was American I wasn’t as prepared for university as everyone else, and that St Andrews lowered its standards in accepting students from the U.S. because we paid more in tuition. When I visited Japan, there was one occasion when I was standing in a queue to pay for food and the person behind me insisted on pushing the edge of the tray she was holding into my back, no matter how many times I stepped from one side or the other to get out of her way. These incidents were few and far between and by no means characteristic of the reception I’ve found wherever I’ve traveled, but few though they are I found them maddening, infuriating, sometimes to the point that they kept me up at night. I can’t imagine the frustration of having to live with such behavior on a daily and weekly basis; I’m not surprised that persistent racism has been linked to PTSD and other psychological disorders in PoC.
I started to think more carefully about the question of immigration and personal identity when I returned to the U.S. at the end of 2006 and endured the 2007 presidential election. I started hearing frequent references to the “real America”–a specific segment of the U.S. population distinguished by a particular income bracket and living in the land-locked parts of the U.S., or at least that’s what I thought the phrase meant the first few times I heard it. Its meaning seemed to morph and grow the more Sarah Palin and other politicians and media figures used it, and like a lot of such catchphrases, it was used more exclude than to include. The real America wasn’t the liberal strongholds in California and the east coast; the real America wasn’t respected universities and research institutions; the real America wasn’t communities where a significant percentage of the population spoke English as a second language, or had dual nationality, or retained any sort of multi-ethnic character. It didn’t include me (liberal elitist, apparently), or many of my friends (not white or not Christian or, like me, liberal elitist). Palin lost the election for McCain, but the idea persisted, under different names, taking on additional implications. Mitt Romney’s dismissal of the “47%” who would vote for President Obama in the 2012 election revived the idea, giving it different parameters–which bore little resemblance to his technical definition of this group as those who don’t pay income tax, as most of the states with the highest populations of non-payers are reliably red states, not blue ones. Now we have Trump, and the “real” America–the Americans who want to “make America great again”–is predominately white, Christian, and heterosexual. Where does that leave us, the “not real” Americans, who still comprise a majority even as the race grows a little tighter?
I fit the definition of the so-called “anchor baby”. My parents were never citizens, and when they arrived in the U.S. they had high-school educations. However, no one ever accused them of being under-achieving or lazy. They had high-paying jobs that could, after all, have gone to U.S. citizens, but no one ever accused them of “stealing American jobs”. No one ever hissed or shouted at us to go back where we came from. This is what white privilege is; in a crowd I am accepted, whereas people who can’t–or have no desire to–conceal their accent or the color of their skin or their hair are not. People of color, from various backgrounds and heritages, are every day told to go back where they came from, that their parents must have been engaged in illegal activities to earn a living, that they don’t belong here, even when in many cases they were born here, as I was, or come from families who have been American citizens for generations, centuries. Now there is talk of rescinding birthright citizenship, which would make me and everyone else whose parents came and remained here legally, never breaking any laws or avoiding any taxes, no longer Americans in fact as as well as in the minds of Trump’s supporters. I find this monstrous, coming as it does from the mouths of politicians and members of the public who constantly criticize the President, democrats, and liberals alike for not understanding or respecting the Constitution.
The backlash against Barack Obama snowballed, as calls grew for immigration reform, as gay people were granted the right to marry, as our arts and culture began to better represent the country’s demographic reality. Now the backlash has gained not just a local habitation but a name: the alt-right. The people comprising this group are not by definition Trump supporters, nor do I imagine that all Trump supporters would define themselves as alt-right, but there is a significant and frankly quite frightening overlap between the two. The past few months have brought a barrage of defensive pundits, Trump supporters, and Trump surrogates–not to mention a broad variety of thinkpieces from left and right alike–insisting that Trump’s popularity is rooted in the economic grievances of working-class Americans. If I hear one more such tirade I think I’ll scream. I know that the ramifications of the Great Recession and economic policy over the last several decades has fueled a great deal of this bitterness. What I would like some of the people writing these thinkpieces and arguing this point in the media to acknowledge is that while financial strain may have been the spark, the tinder and now the fuel is a strong desire to return to the America before Obergefell v. Hodges, before Roe v. Wade, before the Civil Rights Act. I do not hear Trump supporters on television discussing the complexity of U.S. tax law and how it has given major corporations and manufacturers incentives to move jobs overseas, where they can pay their workers less, or admitting the damage that trickle-down economics has done. They do not discuss how Donald and Ivanka Trump have taken advantage of the cheap labour available overseas to increase their own profits from their clothing and fashion lines. Instead they talk about building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, complain about NAFTA as though it Bill Clinton was responsible for it (he wasn’t–it was George H. W. Bush who signed the treaty), and suggest instigating a trade war with China. There is a lot of heated discussion about severely reducing or stopping immigration (from some countries) and doing more to deport those who have arrived in this country illegally, but I’ve yet to hear Trump or any of his surrogates present a practical policy proposal to do this. Many of Trump’s suggestions over the past few months have been just as irrational and ridiculous as the idea of having open borders, but any time this point is made in the media it is dismissed as ‘liberal bias’ rather than a reflection of a decent grasp of policy, law, and economics.
Trump and his son Eric have many times retweeted and reposted comments and slurs against Hillary Clinton and a variety of other targets that originated from white supremacist and neo-Nazi accounts. Trump, despite crowing about how ‘the blacks’ love him, last week noticed a black supporter of his in the audience at a rally, called him a thug, and had him removed. The man hadn’t said anything; the color of his skin was enough to identify him as an enemy. There’s a bumper sticker of a figure representing the confederate flag delivering a roundhouse kick to another figure representing the pride flag, the image of which is making the rounds on the Internet. Anti-Semitic harassment of journalists and anyone who doesn’t support Trump have surged, particularly online. Kurt Eichenwald found himself the subject of a barrage of attacks and harassment when he began reporting on the many questionable aspects of Trump’s personal, financial, and business history, including one email that included a flashing image capable of inducing an epileptic seizure (Eichenwald has been very open about his struggle with the disorder). A politician who considered running against Trump decided against it after receiving images of his adopted daughter superimposed on pictures of gas chambers and other violent scenarios. Children are being harassed at school, and some schools have cancelled classes for the day of the election. These attacks aren’t manifestations of the desire for greater economic equality; they are the product of racial and ethnic hatred, a belief that being white, Christian, and heterosexual makes a person superior to any one with a differing skin color, creed, or sexuality.
I’m tired of hearing how American was founded as a Christian nation, and thus everyone should say “Merry Christmas” to all and sundry during the holiday season, school children should be required to recite Christian prayers, and the Ten Commandments should be posted on the wall in courtrooms. The founding fathers also lived in a world where it was taken for granted that only white men had the right to vote, where it was legal to enslave other people based on the color of their skin, and Native Americans were often as not ignored or massacred if they got in the way of what the U.S. government decided to do on American land. The America that exists today would be unrecognizable to the Founding Fathers–we have cars and smartphones and medical practices that would be tantamount to miracles to someone from the 18th century; women vote, being gay is no longer a crime or a form of madness, and slavery is illegal. (I guess the “ignoring Native Americans” part hasn’t changed much.) Quite frankly, I find the idea that people are nostalgic for a time when women were second-class citizens and people of color barely citizens at all rather nauseating. Every nation, every culture has committed wrongs that it must come to terms with, accept responsibility for; reverting to the conditions that gave rise to those wrongs is not going to make anything better. The United States is not the same place it was in 1775–not geographically, not demographically, not technologically, not environmentally. What this country has always done right is the struggle to fully manifest the words of the Declaration of Independence: that the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are self-evident and inalienable. The alt-right is the latest manifestation of the idea that these rights are not self-evident and inalienable, but can be denied based on one’s skin color, sexual orientation, religion, gender, and apparently, in some minds, the birthplace of one’s parents. If that is the Real America, if Trump wins the election next Tuesday, I am alarmed to think of what might happen to the millions of Americans who don’t fit into that mould, me and most of those I hold dear among them.
What is Halloween, anyway? It’s long been one of my favorite holidays, and it exercises a stronger hold on the American cultural imagination than any other. Yet it bears little resemblance to what it once was. It’s been sexed up and tamed down until it feels almost entirely divorced from its roots. A Frankenstein’s monster, if you will, that instead of barging off into the wilderness has gone for a well-lit stroll down cultivated garden lanes.
Dia de los Muertos celebrations are closer in many ways to the original European All Hallows Eve than our current trick or treating. Halloween is rooted in Samhain (“sah-win”, meaning “summer’s end”), which marked the end of the pagan year. The Celts of the British Isles believed it was the day spirits were closest to our world–just as the people of Mexico have long believed that this is when spirits not only come close to our world, but come back specifically to be reunited with their loved ones. There remains a pervasive sense of otherworldliness about Day of the Dead celebrations, whereas Halloween has become all too worldly.
It didn’t start that way. Catholics, back in the 800s A.D., tried to turn the pagan Samhain into All Saints Day and held a vigil the night before. Called All Hallows Eve, this is what became our Halloween. It got a bit smushed up with another Christian holiday (All Souls Day) as well as old Roman days of the dead, and the roots of the modern holiday–costumes, trick or treating, bobbing for apples–grew out of a variety of traditions that immigrants brought to the New World.
Halloween proceeded to spend much of the 20th century evolving into a secular holiday, and the 21st devolving into commercial-dom. And yet there’s still some kernel of the original intent: using treats to placate mischievous children is not far off from using them to placate spirits, and Halloween still serves as a marker between the season of plenty and the season of wither. Half-bare branches and the scuttle of dry leaves in the gutter are as much a part of the holiday as jack o’lanterns and candy bars.
Costumes today may not be intended to confuse demons, but the trend towards satire does convey a sense of cultural exorcism. And then we have aspirational costumes–superheroes, royalty, pop stars–which seem uniquely and almost touchingly American. They suggest a world where everyone is encouraged to dream big and rewarded when they do.
Our Halloween may not be spooky. It’s no solemn reminder, as it once was, of the thin veil that separates us from eternity. It is a glittering daylight heartthrob vampire, not the monster you run from in darkness. Still, it’s a time to celebrate strangeness, to get a peek at what scares or amuses those around you, and to look at lots of extremely adorable small children.
I would like to see a return to honoring this liminal time. This Halloween, take a moment to think about our year sliding towards darkness. Watch a scary movie and feel how close you are to panic at any moment. Wear a mask to the grocery store to understand the mask you wear every day. Wear a “vote for Trump” button. Make Halloween weird* again.
*Suggesting something supernatural; unearthly.
‘Sounds emitted from the bushes: weird uncanny sounds made by unknown animals, for all sorts of things lived in forests.’
Synonyms: uncanny, eerie, unnatural, supernatural, unearthly, otherworldly, ghostly, mysterious, strange, abnormal, unusual
Vampires actually aren’t my favourite paranormal theme: I much prefer ghost stories. The trouble is that ghost stories made into films are usually rubbish, in my experience; there are a few notable exceptions, such as The Others, but on the whole they’re a disappointment unless done tongue-in-cheek. I’ve never found werewolves a particularly appealing theme either, again with the occasional exception such as An American Werewolf in London. Vampires are the reverse–often (although not invariably) dull in fiction, but frequently excellent as subjects for film stories. As supernatural/paranormal type films go. When I was a teenager, The Lost Boys (1987), (Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), Interview with the Vampire (1994), and From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) were the best recent offerings of the genre; after that the focus seemed to shift to ghosts and all the horror films inspired by The Blair Witch Project (1999) and Saw (2004). There were the Underworld and Blade franchises, and the occasional silly or incredibly dark vampire film (Van Helsing, 2004; 30 Days of Night, 2007), but while Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel were going strong on television, there was a bit of a dip in production of films about vampires.
Then came Twilight. Love the series or hate it–I’m closer to the ‘hate it’ end of the spectrum, although I did read all of the books in a single binge during a fit of depression–Stephenie Meyer did bring vampires back to the forefront of pop culture. The first book in the series came out in 2005; in 2006 there was a sudden burst of vampire films, and the vogue has remained in effect since then, dominated, of course, by the film adaptations of the books. Lots of these films are dross, of course, but there have been a few gems in the flood.
Let the Right One In (2008) was in theatres at the same time as Twilight. Everyone I knew went to see Twilight; few people I spoke to had even heard of Let the Right One In, which I felt to be a crying shame, because it’s an excellent film regardless of genre, and so much more interesting than its more famous rival. Most vampire films incorporate some element of sexual attraction in their vampires, or else make them horrific, repellent creatures (Coppola’s Dracula manages to do both); Let the Right One In takes a different approach, telling the story of a lonely boy who befriends what he thinks at first another similarly lonely child; the sweetness of relationship between the two makes the child-vampire Eli’s predatory nature all the more eerie. The two kids in the lead roles, Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, are brilliant–Leandersson is currently studying theatre and seems intent on pursuing acting as a career, but Hedebrant seems to have abandoned acting for music, which is the film world’s loss but, I presume, music’s gain.
Byzantium (2012) flew even further under the radar than most of the artier vampire films. I remember reading a review of it and thinking I wanted to see it, but somehow I got it into my head that it was a tongue-in-cheek vampire story about a girl’s boarding school. (I have no clue where I got this idea. All I can think is that I was reading a preview or review of American Horror Story: Coven, which started at about the time Byzantium would have been released on dvd, and I conflated the two in my memory. It wouldn’t be the first time my mind has played such a trick on me.) I forgot about it until I noticed it playing on one of the film channels and recorded it; even then it took me a couple of weeks to get around to watching it. I particularly regret this–it’s one of those films that would look particularly good on a big screen.
Byzantium isn’t tongue-in-cheek in the slightest, but neither is it a blood-and-guts horror film. It’s a little like Twilight in being at its core a romance between a vampire and a human, but it’s also an engaging, if flawed, thriller. This time the tension isn’t between vampires and their human prey; it’s between the race of vampires, here a sort of eternal Victorian men’s club a la Boodles or The Athanaeum, and the only two female vampires in existence, who are being hunted down for violating the rule of the order (i.e. that only men should be vampires). It’s a feminist vampire story, something that, to my knowledge, is entirely new in the genre, unless you count Buffy. It isn’t perfect; Gemma Arterton’s and Sam Riley’s characters are well-acted but inconsistent in their aims, and their respective about-faces at the end of the story, though necessary for the conclusion, make little sense psychologically. Saoirse Ronan and Caleb Landry-Jones, on the other hand, are pretty much perfect. (Landry Jones, unprepossessing as Banshee in the X-Men franchise, is absolutely magnetic as the terminally ill Frank, and would be worth watching even if the rest of the film were terrible.) The film also features Thure Lindhardt and Jonny Lee Miller being evil and Tom Hollander and Maria Doyle Kennedy being cluelessly human. Its greatest weakness is its title–Byzantium is ostensibly the name of a bed-and-breakfast in a small coastal resort town in Britain, which presumably opened some time in the sixties or seventies. I can’t imagine an English family opening a B&B called Byzantium in any decade, even the swinging sixties. A bar, maybe, but not a B&B. Interesting and evocative as a title for a vampire film; completely at odds with the tone and locale of the story that the film unfolds.
The best and most recent of my favourites of the genre is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive (2013), which features Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous lovers (Adam and Eve), Mia Wasikowska as Swinton’s wayward (well, possibly psychotic) younger sister, and John Hurt as Christopher Marlowe. (The Christopher Marlowe.) There is some existential angst and fear of a mysterious plague that is killing vampires, but mostly the story is a snapshot of what Adam and Eve experience during the course of one of their rare reunions, on this occasion interrupted by Eve’s younger sister Ava. There really isn’t much in the way of gore or terror in this one; it is instead littered with a wealth of cultural references and gorgeous cinematography. It is the most accessible of Jarmusch’s films, and the most elegant of Tom Hiddleston’s–well, except perhaps for his turn as Henry V in the BBC’s The Hollow Crown (swoon). I’d like to add a superlative for Tilda Swinton, but when is she not unheimlich and beautiful in a performance?
There are certainly other excellent vampire films, but if I covered them all we’d be here all day. (If you haven’t seen The Hunger, do, because–well, David Bowie is in it, do you need another reason?) Also, if you’re looking for a novel dealing with vampires that is not modeled on either Anne Rice or Stephenie Meyer, I strongly recommend Lauren Owen’s The Quick–a bit steampunk, a bit literary, all kinds of awesome. And of course there is the original, Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Margaret got me hooked on Brandi Carlile. During one of my visits to Boston she played songs from Carlile’s first couple of albums over and over again; all I could think was how much she sounded like a female version of Ryan Adams, and while I wasn’t hooked, I was definitely piqued; when I got home I started looking up music videos, and realized that I’d seen “The Story” before. To be entirely honest I was hooked when I read that she had a tattoo of the Auryn from The Neverending Story on each arm; I figured that no matter what she sounds like, she’s a girl after my own heart.
I really fell in love with the music when she released her third album, Give Up the Ghost, which remains my favourite of hers. “Before It Breaks” is the loveliest of the songs therewith; there’s no music video for it, but this is an excellent performance, imperfect audio notwithstanding.