10.15.2017

what i'm reading: turtles all the way down, the new book by john green

I don't usually write about a book while I'm still under its spell, but there are always exceptions. John Green's Turtles All the Way Down is an exceptional book.

One reason Green's writing is so powerful is that he conjures both the specific and the universal at the same time.

The Fault in Our Stars, for example, is about two teens who have cancer, and how they fall in love and have a relationship, even with the awareness of their own looming mortality.

The Fault in Our Stars is also about how we all love, even with the awareness of our own mortality always looming, be it far or near. We humans must love and be loved, and we must lose our loves, and they us. That is the paradox of homo sapiens sapiens, the animal who knows it knows. TFIOS is about nothing less than the human condition.

Green masters both of these, at the same time, and wraps it in an accessible package that is easy to read, to understand, and to love. The specific lives are vibrant and authentic, and the universal truths are recognizable and powerful.

Green brings that same duality to his long-awaited new youth novel. Turtles All the Way Down is a book about a girl, Aza Holmes -- her struggles to cope with her mental illness, while trying to be a good friend, find love, and cope with life after the sudden death of her father some years back.

And it is also a book about mental illness -- how it might feel, what it might make us do, how it might be survived, how our society frames it, how it impacts everyone in its sphere.

And it is a book about all of us -- our doubts, our fears, our self-hate and, we hope, our acceptance of ourselves. Aza wants to know how anyone will ever love her, given her limitations. Don't we all.

When I count the people in my life, over the course of my lifetime, who have been affected by mental illness, it becomes a long list. I think most people could say the same. We are only just beginning to recognize the prevalence and reduce the stigma of mental illness. Turtles All the Way Down will stand as soldier in that important and necessary battle.

You'll notice I haven't written at all about the plot of this book, only the themes. The plot is excellent -- strange enough to be unique and unpredictable, and authentic enough to be convincing. You should read it to find out.

10.14.2017

update: the gay cop on barney miller comes out, plus an adorable child sex worker

About a month ago, I wrote about an episode from the late 1970s-early 1980s sitcom "Barney Miller", in which the squad discovers that an officer from their precinct is gay. To my surprise, Officer Zatelli returned to Barney Miller -- and he came out, right there in the squad room.

That's Zatelli (Dino Natali)
on the right, blurting out: "I'm gay!"
In this follow-up episode, gay couple Marty and Mr. Driscoll return to the squad room after a long absence. Driscoll's ex-wife is trying to prevent him from seeing his son, and the couple comes to the 12th Precinct for help. When they find none, Driscoll collects his son anyway, and the ex-wife is pressing charges; Officer Zatelli happens to be there.

While the plot device bringing these characters together was a bit clunky and obvious, the episode, which aired one year after the first gay-cop episode, demonstrates a bit of social progress. When the mincing Marty makes a sarcastic comment about the squad room decor, his partner Driscoll says, "Can we stop perpetuating the stereotype for a moment and get on with this?" Wojo's homophobia is on display again, but this time it is even more isolated, as no one else has a problem. Even the plot line is progressive, acknowledging Driscoll as a loving and positive influence in his son's life.

And then it happens. When the ex-wife goes on bigoted rant about "those people" and their "degrading, unnatural lifestyle," Zatelli tries to ignore it, then suddenly blurts out, "I'm gay!" It was a funny and poignant episode. It marks Marty and Driscoll's final appearance on the show.

* * * *

In my earlier Barney Miller post, I mentioned that the show re-used actors for multiple characters. In Seasons 6, 7, and 8 (the final season), this became completely ridiculous. The same actors show up repeatedly, playing different complaining citizens and arrestees. A criminal from one episode even turns up as a new detective in the 12th, which -- with the "retirement" of Fish (Abe Vigoda), the disappearance of any female detective, and the death of actor Jack Soo -- had gotten a bit empty.

If you go to the "full cast" link on the Barney Miller imdb page, beginning with John Dullaghan, look how many times those actors were all used! In that entire list from Dullaghan down, all but a few recurring roles have multiple character names listed for each actor -- many as many as 5, 6, or 7 roles!

In a show that sometimes had recurring characters, this became downright confusing. I can't imagine a TV show doing this now.

* * * *

The Barney Miller marital rape episode was puzzling, but, as it turns out, not uniquely strange: how about an episode featuring a child prostitute, played for laughs?

In "Call Girl," from Season 6, young Tasha Zemrus plays Rhonda Haleck, a sex worker so young and innocent that when asked for her age, replies "Fifteen and a half." She is a bit tough and wise-cracking, but appears squeaky-clean, well dressed, and well fed, in a way that a teenage street-walker would not.

Young Rhonda, sex worker, getting schooled by
Sassy Black Prostitute, sitcom edition.
Rhonda lives at a group home, and Detective Dorsey (played by Paul Lieber, the above-mentioned sometimes criminal, sometimes detective) uncovers the odd "coincidence" that numerous underage residents of the home have been arrested on similar charges. He accuses the avuncular adult who runs the home of pimping, and vows to watch him closely. (You can watch the episode here.)

Yet despite this suspicious revelation, Rhonda is sent home with the older man, and everyone has a good laugh at her cute little jokes.

Can you imagine a sitcom today playing child prostitution for laughs? Sex workers are a regular part of Barney Miller. They are always clean, well-dressed, and sassy. Some readers may remember Mary Tyler Moore's character Mary Richards getting arrested with a bunch of sex workers. They were also clean, well-dressed, and sassy. I guess that was the 1970s sitcom version of prostitution, more Neil Simon than Charles Dickens.

10.05.2017

alds begins today

This Red Sox team has been driving me crazy, seesawing between amazing and horrendous. I don't have a lot of optimism right now, especially after our dismal showing against Houston ... the team we meet in the first round of playoffs.


Dear Red Sox,

Please be amazing.

Love always,

A fan with no expectations

10.04.2017

thoughts on the latest u.s. gun massacre

As part of my continuing efforts to post here rather than -- or at least in addition to -- Facebook, here are some thoughts on the latest horrific massacre in the US, the country music festival in Las Vegas.

First, the inevitability of recurrence. When hearing about mass shootings in the United States, the worst part -- the most tragic, the most outrageous part -- is the certainty of knowing that nothing will change. That it will happen again, and again, and again.

A solution is known, of course. We won't end the culture of violence that permeates the US, but we can end access to large numbers of deadly weapons. The fact that the vice grip of a deadly special interest group outweighs the basic human rights of life and safety speaks volumes about the US political system. The congressmembers and senators who are bought and paid for by the NRA can never wash the blood off their hands.

Second, the true body count. Allan and I were talking about what it might have been like to be there. I admit I don't usually do this. I usually think about these massacres on a social and political level, somewhat removed from true empathy. But thinking a lot about the survivors, I know that every one of them will have PTSD. Many of them may never recover a fully healthy mental state.

Given the cost of mental health resources, the lack or absence of public mental health support, the survivors may or may not find help for this condition.

However high the final number of dead and wounded, the true numbers will never be known.

10.03.2017

rip tom petty

The death of Tom Petty is terrible, shocking, dare I say heartbreaking news. From the moment I heard those unmistakeable first notes of "American Girl," I was hooked. I was a teenager when Petty first fought the battle to hold down the price of records. (Archival story about that here.) It would be the first of many battles for him, and he was always on the side of the good -- musicians and fans.

I didn't like all his music, and disliked some of his biggest hits, but once you saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers live, you never forgot them. They were a bar band, writ large -- pared down, straightforward, bash, pop, and plenty of swing. I loved Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell, and the energy between all the performers was electrifying.

This is a really sad and unexpected loss. The teenage American girl inside me is devastated.

9.28.2017

things i heard at the library: an occasional series: #25

A customer approaches the information desk, hopping mad. "You must kick this man out of the library! You must make him leave!"

I immediately get up and come around the desk, immediately on high alert, thinking, call security, call 911. "What's going on?"

She leads me to the offending man: "He is sleeping! In the library!"

I relax. Me: "That's all right. That's not against our code of conduct."

We reach the man. He is asleep. That is all.

Mean customer: "You allow this? You allow a homeless person to sleep in the library? That's disgusting!"

Me: "As long as he's not bothering anyone or breaking any rules..."

MC: "Libraries are for studying! Or relaxing with a book! Not for sleeping!"

Me: "Libraries are for many things. Different people use the library for different reasons."

MC: "No! No! That's disgusting! In Canada! A man sleeping in the library! I never thought I would see such a thing!" 

She holds up her tablet, pushes it at me. I take a step back. 

MC: "Show me! Show me where it says it is allowed to sleep in a library!"

Me: "We don't have a list of things you are allowed to do in the library. We have a list of things you're not allowed to do. And sleeping isn't on the list. As long as he's not bothering anyone--"

MC: "He's bothering me! It's disgusting!"

Me: "This is a big library. Perhaps you can find somewhere to sit where you won't see him. Would you like me to help you find a good spot?"

She continues to rant: place for relaxing, disgusting, in Canada, and finally asks for the name of the manager. 

I get business cards and write down names and extensions. 

MC: "So if I come to the library and I fall asleep, this is perfectly all right with you?"

Me: "Yes, of course."

MC: "So this is a shelter? People sleep here all night?" 

Me: "No. We close at 9:00 pm and we ask everyone to leave at that time." That's it for me. This has gone on long enough. "Is there anything else I can help you with?" 

She stomps off.

What a compassionate soul.

I email the various managers, knowing they will all have the same reaction that I did. I thought, I made a good career choice. The day a person who may have nowhere else to go can't sleep in the public library would be the beginning of the end of librarianship for me.

9.24.2017

what i'm reading: news of the world by paulette jiles

After burning through several excellent nonfiction books in rapid succession, I have a small pile of novels waiting for me. Here's the first of, I hope, several fiction reviews.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles takes place in the American West, a few years after the end of the Civil War. The US South is an angry, wild, and dangerous place. Former slaves may be free according to the 15th Amendment, but white settlers may have other ideas. And the war on the indigenous peoples of the west rages on.

Against this backdrop, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a widower, a veteran of several wars, and a printer by trade, travels from town to town delivering news. He reads stories from newspapers to assembled frontier audiences, who pay a dime each for the enlightenment and entertainment.

Ten-year-old Johanna Leonberger has been orphaned twice -- once when Kiowas killed her frontier family and took her captive, then again when the US Army "rescued" her. Although blue-eyed and fair, she is Kiowa through and through.

Captain Kidd agrees to take temporary custody of Johanna and to deliver her to some Texan relatives 400 miles away, people she has never met and who have not been searching for her. The journey is long, rugged, and dangerous.

News of the World is the perhaps predictable story of the coming-together of the Captain and Johanna, but it never feels predictable. It feels very specific to these two people, who the reader very quickly comes to care about. There's some suspense, and adventure, and loss, some good guys and bad guys, but not in predictable ways. Throughout, the characters feel complex and authentic.

The story also carries a lot of commentary on how children have been viewed and treated over the ages -- often just as a source of free labour, and ever in danger of exploitation, as children the world over are today.

This is a lovely book, and also a very fast read. I see that Tom Hanks is producing and starring in the film adaptation. Do yourself a favour: read the book first.

the strange case of the barney miller rape episode

Watching Barney Miller as my comedy-before-bed sleep aid, I was stunned and amazed by an episode called "Rape" -- Season 4, Episode 15.

A woman comes to the station house, agitated and distressed. Captain Miller, with his usual calm and professional demeanour, leads her to sit down. When he hears "rape," Barney says, "Oh boy" -- as in, oh my, this is serious. He says, "Do you think you can give us a description of the man?"

She pulls from her bag a photograph. There's a brief sight-gag, as the photograph is in a small frame. She says about the photo, "That man is an animal. A degenerate. That man is... my husband." The laugh track booms. Barney rolls his eyes and says, "Oh boy" -- as in "we have a fruitcake."

Barney: "Mrs. Lindsay, are you sure?"

Woman: "What do you mean, am I sure?"

Barney: "I mean, I know you're sure this is your husband. But-- Nick, would you get Mrs. Lindsay a cup of coffee?"

Another crime victim who happens to be in the station house at the time says, "Kind of weird, isn't it? Raped by her husband?"

The woman defends her case to the detectives, and for a while it seems like the show is a lesson about the legitimacy of marital rape -- that the audience is going to learn about marital rape along with the detectives of the 12th Precinct.

"I have some rights, don't I?"
Barney says, "Mrs. Lindsay, we're in kind of a gray area."

She replies through gritted teeth: "What's gray about it? I didn't want to, and he made me."

Eventually, Barney is persuaded to treat the incident as a crime. Detectives bring in the rapist-husband for questioning, and an assistant district attorney appears.

The ADA is a woman, and a feminist. The rapist-husband's defense lawyer acts as if he's never seen a female attorney before. Even Barney is surprised. In 1978 New York City, I don't think the presence of a female ADA would have been shocking.

The ADA says to the victim, "I want you to know we're going to do everything in our power to see that your rights as a human being are preserved."

The woman says with feeling, "That's all I want."

Barney tells the ADA that the law is unclear, and questions why she wants to treat this as a "test-case". The ADA stands strong, and the live audience applauds and cheers -- a little. Dietrich (Steve Landesberg) speculates to the husband that in the future, "Rape will be known as committing a Marvin Lindsay" -- a statement that acknowledges that rape has been committed.

Up to now I have found the episode creepy and uncomfortable, because I'm not sure whose point of view the show is condoning. Then it goes off the rails.

Barney appeals to the woman in one of his famous heart-to-hearts. These little chats -- usually used in minor, personal issues -- often persuade complainants to give the other person another chance. The woman, formerly so angry and self-assured that she marched into a police station, says to her husband, "You want to know how to treat a woman? Ask him," pointing to Barney. "Go ahead," she says to Barney, "tell him how to treat a woman."

Barney has a heart-to-heart with the husband. The couple reconciles. He's going to take her out to dinner and buy her flowers. Suddenly she doesn't care that she was forced to have sex against her will. She'll be more willing if he buys her dinner first. The end.

* * * *

The episode aired in 1978, when marital rape was still considered a "private matter" -- a "domestic disturbance", if that. Kind of makes your head explode, doesn't it? It was all in keeping with the legal view of women and children as property. By the way, this is why second-wave feminists said "the personal is political".

Barney Miller, the sitcom, is a man's world. In the first few seasons, there is a rotating spot used for a female police officer, played first by Linda Lavin. The female cops are always very emotional and highly strung, but they are also good detectives, and discrimination against them is often acknowledged. Those characters fade away after a few seasons, and never return. Barney's wife Liz, played by Barbara Barrie, also fades away. The recurring character of Bernice (usually Florence Stanley), Fish's wife, disappears when Fish (Abe Vigoda) retires. And other than that, female characters are either crime victims or criminals, and the female criminals are usually sex workers.

Looking online for references to this episode, I found this discussion on Democratic Underground, from February 2010. Some commenters claim the episode was groundbreaking, airing the issue of marital rape for the first time; others think it's fine except for the laugh track.

But it isn't just the laugh track, and it isn't just the eye-rolling. The worst part of the episode by far is the positive-outcome rape scenario. That's when a victim decides the rape was OK or not really rape -- in this case, because hubby promised to wine and dine her next time. (Incidentally, I expected to find a definition of "positive-outcome rape scenario" online, but did not. Maybe it's called something else now? TV Tropes calls it "when victim falls for rapist".)

A writer on Critics at Large examines the live audience's response, and sees the episode as a watershed -- and as feminist.
For the first half of the episode the fact that the husband is accused of rape is a laugh line, but the raucousness of the audience track is at odds with the script and characters who are responding more with questioning looks (and genuine questions of law) than comical disbelief. And by episode's end – even though the accuser herself has walked back her charge – the audience forcibly applauds the young female Assistant DA's personal conviction to push established legal boundaries forward.
The same writer references another Barney Miller episode that was strongly feminist, which (for me) makes the rape episode all the more strange.
An earlier episode exposes the same, disconcerting dichotomy. Even more restrained in its scripting, in season two's "Heat Wave" a wife (played by Janet Ward) comes to the 12th to report her husband's physical abuse and struggles visibly with signing the papers. The centrepiece of the episode is a comedic but psychologically nuanced monologue where she oscillates between loving memories of courtship and righteous anger and fear, leading to her walking out without signing – throughout all of which the 1975 audience laughs with distressing nonchalance. But in the final scene, after a long beat, the door opens again and with wordless determination she signs the paper that will send her husband to jail.
When the actor Ron Glass died, HuffPo ran a piece arguing that Barney Miller is largely a show about empathy. The value and the challenge of empathy is indeed a constant theme of Barney Miller -- and the writer points to the rape episode as a strange exception.
Barney Miller aired from 1975-1982, so the social mores of the time are obviously much different than they are today. You’ll occasionally see notable examples of this, like an episode where the detectives are flabbergasted at the idea of a woman accusing her husband of rape (marital rape was still not a crime for years after it was a plot point on Barney Miller). However, besides a few exceptions here and there (like the aforementioned marital rape plot, which paid some lip service to the fact that it was, indeed, an actual issue in some cases, but mostly treated the wife’s complaint as frivolous - the wife turned out to just want her husband to be more romantic during sex), the show somehow manages to not really seem all that out of date on most issues when you watch it today.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ever-awesome TV Tropes puts it in perspective, listing the Barney Miller rape episode under both "Black Comedy Rape" and "Marital Rape License".

I'd be shocked if any sitcoms today used marital rape as a punchline. Wingnuts would say this is an example of censorship through political correctness. I'd say it's an example of the power of feminism to change our world.

rotd: thank you celina caesar-chavannes for speaking out on body-shaming

Today's Revolutionary Thought of the Day is very unusual, in that it belongs to a member of government. This thought should not be revolutionary. It should not even need to be uttered. Nevertheless, it is and it does.
It has come to my attention that there are young girls here in Canada and other parts of the world who are removed from school or shamed because of their hairstyle.

Mr. Speaker, body-shaming of any woman in any form from the top of her head to the soles of her feet is wrong.

Irrespective of her hairstyle, the size of her thighs, the size of her hips, the size of her baby bump, the size of her breasts, or the size of lips, what makes us different makes us unique and beautiful.

So Mr. Speaker I will continue to rock these braids. For three reasons. No. 1, because I’m sure you’ll agree, they look pretty dope. No. 2, in solidarity with women who have been shamed based on their appearance.

And No. 3, and most importantly, in solidarity with young girls and women who look like me and those who don’t. I want them to know that their braids, their dreads, their super-curly afro puffs, their weaves, their hijabs, and their headscarves, and all other variety of hairstyles, belong in schools, in the workplace, in the boardroom and yes, even here on Parliament Hill.

Celina Caesar-Chavannes, Member of Parliament for Whitby, Ontario