A quick lesson on representative democracy.

San Jose, California, had a primary in a special election to fill an empty City Council seat.

On a day-to-day basis, city councils have a greater impact on people than who is in the White House. City councils determine police and fire staffing levels and spending priorities for services. City decisions about housing density can turn traffic from a minor annoyance to a major headache. Regulations can nurture or strangle small businesses.

Special elections usually result in low voter turnout.  Tuesday was no exception, and the eight candidate field fractured the already low number of votes. The chilly weather with threats of rain probably also hurt turnout.  As of Wednesday evening, with 98% of the votes counted, the difference between second place — and a place in the general election — and third — going home — was thirty-eight votes.

Undoubtedly there will be a recount.  Still… thirty-eight votes? For that matter, the difference between first and third was only 318 votes. If all the people who were too busy, lazy, or cynical to vote had turned up at the polls, or mailed in their absentee ballots, the outcome might be very different.

Edited to add: at 99% of the vote counted, the difference between second and third had dropped to twenty-three votes. The difference between first and third increased slightly, from 318 to 321.

And that, boys and girls, is why you ALWAYS vote.

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This is not unreasonable, right?

I went to Barnes and Noble this morning, intent on replacing books I had lost in the New Year’s Eve flood. Note that these were books I had read and reread, worn paperbacks that I had loved fiercely, with the passion one reserves for books that come along at the right time and place in your life or which for some reason echo in your soul. Two of them were by Terry Pratchett (I am planning a long post about Sir Terry, but I was sick during the few days around when he died, and so I figure that there is no rush on it), Thud! and my second favorite Pratchett, Thief of Time. (My favorite Pratchett, Night Watch, was safely placed on my bedstead.)  The other was Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which was not lost to the flood but had bent lent to someone and not returned.

Does anyone else find this weird?

Books are meant to be held in the hand, cried over, have ketchup spilled on (but not dog-eared — that ruins the pages) and loved like the Velveteen Rabbit until they become real. And, as the story goes, once a thing is real is can never be not real.

I did buy new books, as well, because to go into a bookstore and come out with only books you’ve read before constitutes an embarrassing lack of initiative.  True, one of the books was another Pratchett, Mort, about one of the best Discworld characters, DEATH, and his apprentice. Reading a Discworld book that I had never read before (there are over thirty in series, and I have read about half of them, mostly the later ones and the books involving the City Watch) seemed fitting, considering I spent last weekend rereading Men At Arms, Feet of Clay, and Night Watch.  (I had read Jingo last month, so had felt no real call to reread it again so soon.) I would have reread Thud! and Thief of Time as well, had I had the books at hand.

I also bought an Elmore Leonard novel, Riding the Rap. I have heard interviews with Leonard, who always seemed like a gruff and slightly crazy guy. The book takes place in Florida, and while I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the criminals Raylan Givens deals with, Leonard has got the atmosphere of South Florida down pat. I am looking forward not just to finishing this one, but going on and reading other in his Raylan Givens series.

Oddly enough, I have not read any nonfiction since I finished The Good Nurse in February.  I am remedying that by starting to reread The Disappearing Spoon: Tales of Love, Madness, and the History of the World told through the Periodic Table. I am embracing my inner nerd.   (The other night, a colleague asked “Stereotypically, I have to ask, have you caught up on Game of Thrones?” After answering that I didn’t watch the series, I thought…stereotypically? What? He explained “I don’t want to say you’re a nerd but…” “…I’m a nerd.” “Yeah.”)

I am still waiting, along with the rest of the world, for Hilary Mantel to finish up the third volume in the Wolf Hall trilogy. The television show will be wonderful, I am sure, but nothing compares to reading her work. (Speaking of television, specifically British television, BBCAmerica will soon be showing the third season of Ripper Street. Yes, I like grisly crime dramas, even when they are set in 19th century London.)

What are you reading?


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The Mists of Avalon reconsidered.

A few months ago, a friend was over for dinner, and among other things we discussed revelations about the abuse Moira Greyland suffered at the hands of her mother, Marion Zimmer Bradley.  “I tried to read The Mists of Avalon, because it was important to a lot of my pagan friends,” he said. “But I got part of the way through and thought ‘This is feminist?”

I shook my head and agreed with him — after all, excusing the rape of a little girl as the result of an irresistible part of nature is disturbing — but later I remembered that I thought it was feminist when I first read it. So did a great many women — the book came out in 1982, when I was a senior in college, and it was the rage among my friends, all of whom considered themselves feminists in good standing.  Even today, reviews of it talk about it as an important feminist work.

I unearthed my copy and decided to reread it. I would be more critical this time, and stop and ponder when I come across passages that strike me as non-feminist.  Once past the (short) Prologue, it took me all of a page and a half.

Igraine thinks about when she first was married (at fifteen) to Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall, he was kind to her in spite of “her hate and fear.” All women of Avalon have destinies, as priestesses or to be kept virgin for rituals, or to be married to cement alliances. I continued to read, with increasing discomfort. And I came to realize…

Matrilineal societies are not, in and of themselves, feminist.

The recognition, and yes, celebration, of women’s sexuality, is not in and of itself feminist, especially when that sexuality is used to broker power. Morgaine keeping herself virgin at the command of Viviane so that she may give herself in ritual is no different from Gwenhyfar keeping herself chaste for her wedding bed.

The identification of the Divine as feminine is not in and of itself feminist. Maiden-Mother-Crone may be less oppressive than Madonna-Whore, but it is no less reductive.

Women-led spaces that mirror patriarchal power structures, as found among the priestesses of Avalon, are not feminist.*

In short, matriarchy is not in and of itself feminist.

Avalon is not a rejection of Glastonbury, the island of the monks, but an inversion of it. The Mists of Avalon is not the tale of a feminist, women-centered utopia overthrown by the evil forces of patriarchy, but a story of a manipulatively oppressive (albeit women-centered) regime supplanted by a crueler and less subtle one.

I think I need to go read some Ursula LeGuin ….

*Pagan communities have seen controversies erupt in the past few years over “women-only” rituals that have excluded transwomen as not really women. In one of the more offensive quotes on the subject, a defender of women-only ritual stated in 2011 that “But if you claim to be one of us, you have to have sometimes in your life a womb, and overies and MOON bleed and not die… Women are born not made by men on operating tables.” (Aside from transphobia, reducing the essence of womanhood to biological imperatives defines womanhood in ways that feminism worked hard to break away from. I find this statement to be non-feminist in the extreme. And no, I do not think that not being pagan makes my criticism invalid, any more than a pagan’s observation that Catholicism is rife with homophobia would be.)

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Odds and Ends, Movie Edition.

We are now in the winter early spring of our cinematic discontent…

On the one hand, February and March are deserts of bad movies… On the other hand, I have a couple of weeks after the Oscars to catch Birdman.

I did see a movie this weekend which had received acceptable reviews.  I knew that Entertainment Weekly had given Kingsman a quite respectable B. I did not check out Rotten Tomatoes, which I should have. I was not sure exactly what the movie was about other than it involved Colin Firth as a spy, and that it had Mark Strong and Samuel Jackson.  Colin Firth was dressed in exquisitely tailored bespoke suits, and Mark Strong (who has been one of my favorite actors since Stardust) spoke in a beguiling Irish brogue, so it seemed like a safe bet to risk 26.50 (two adult tickets plus Fandango’s fees) and two and a half hours on. I forgot to check the level of violence in the film. Mistake.

Even Colin Firth in gray worsted cannot make up for heads graphically exploding, or for most of the victims being people of color and the heroes all white, or Samuel L. Jackson’s ridiculous lisp. The movie also gave me nightmares and cold sweat. I wasn’t screaming when the Caltrain ran over me in my dream, but that’s only because I could not breathe.

I have specific rules for movies with graphic violence (defined to mean any movie with explicit blood and gore): the violence must be unavoidable to the story, must not feel choreographed, and must not be terribly cartoonish. Steven Spielberg’s  Saving Private Ryan, Martin Scorcese’s The Departed, and David Cronenberg’s exceptional A History of Violence, all meet those requirements. And, among recent releases, Selma.

Speaking of Selma, one theory of why the movie was essentially overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences speculates that it was the victim of a badly run “campaign.” Specifically, that the film’s studio failed to get the screening DVDs to voters in time. Seriously, people? I remember when “screeners’ were not sent out, and voters actually had to gasp! go to a theater to see the nominated films.

Screeners undermine the Oscars in a couple of different ways.  First, I am convinced that they lead to lazy viewing. Sitting in your living room (or home theater — this is Hollywood, after all) and watching with a cocktail in your hand is a much different experience that seeing the same film in a theater with other people. I have always felt that Crash was favored over much better movies (Capote, Good Night and Good Luck) perhaps because viewing a movie on your television requires less discipline that watching the same film in a cinema. (Yes, I saw all three of those movies.  Both Capote and Good Night and Good Luck had better writing, acting and directing than Crash; Capote was more far more nuanced and thought-provoking, and Good Night and Good Luck had better cinematography.) I have never seen Brokeback Mountain, so I have no idea whether is is a better film than Crash, though the outcry after the latter won Best Picture indicates a lot of people thought so.)

Also, DVD viewing favors some movies over others. The opening shots of Star Wars, where the Imperial ship goes on and on, is far less impressive viewed on a small screen. As far as this year’s Oscar contenders go, to take the two I actually saw, The Imitation Game loses nothing by being watched at home. On the other hand, the scene of the marchers facing off against law enforcement and vigilantes on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma needs the large screen to really work on an emotional level the way that it should.

Even theaters have come to the conclusion that movies are better shown on a big screen: Fathom Entertainment runs groups of classic films at selected locations.  Watching All About Eve with other movie buffs is more rewarding than simply catching it on Turner Classic Movies. I’ve done both recently. And All About Eve is not an epic movie, the way that Selma or Lawrence of Arabia are.

The Oscars are not the Emmys.  They should reward movies that need to be seen larger than life.

DVDs can also turn a communal experience into a solitary one. Recently, I’ve seen movies at theaters that were empty other than myself and a couple of friends.  While this allowed us to talk during the previews, it also felt… empty.  Being part of a group of strangers laughing or cheering together provides part of movies’ magic.

To get back to the Oscars, Neil Patrick Harris fell disappointingly short of the (admittedly high) expectations that most people had of him. It just goes to show that writing award show material is an art, and that even hosts as gifted as NPH can only do so much to rescue the writers. Some of my favorite moments seemed ad-libbed, such as when NPH observed, following J.K. Simmons’ win for Best Supporting Actor,  “He won an Oscar. [followed by the ending music for the ubiquitous Farmer’s Insurance commercials which feature Simmons].” (The ending magic trick, which explained the laborious ongoing joke about someone watching the box, was cute. It almost made the gag work.)

Simmons, one of my favorite character actors, gave one of my favorite speeches, by ignoring the usual litany of people who get thanked (other than his family) and instead admonishing people to “Call your mother. All of you.” Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay and opportunities struck a chord (certainly with Meryl Streep, who was shown cheering Arquette on), as did Graham Moore,the screenwriter of The Imitation Game basically providing a live “It Gets Better” video. (Streep has a sense of humor, and was the good natured butt of one of the better jokes of the evening: “The Best Supporting Actress category has four outstanding actresses, and in accordance with California law, Meryl Streep.”) John Legend’s and Common’s performance of and acceptance speech for the song “Glory” were both staggering. And Lady Gaga once again showed that yes, her usual pop material notwithstanding, the girl can sing. In one of the “aw, how cute”moments, she seemed genuinely overwhelmed by Julie Andrews’ reception of her performance.

Turner Classic movies has been running its “31 Days of Oscar.” As a result, I have been able to patch a few holes in my cinematic experience: I’ve been meaning to see Gaslight, The Philadelphia Story, and North by Northwest for years, and now I have. I also saw Gigi again yesterday. Later this week they are going to show Shakespeare in Love and Chicago, and next Monday are going to run the Lord of The Rings trilogy in sequence. TCM is a great channel. Give me TCM, DVR so I can see movies that air when I’m at work, and a rum and coke, and I am a happy camper.

My next quest is to find out which theaters are showing the live-action and animated short films. The only one of either category that I’ve seen is the (winning) animated short Feast, and that only because it was shown before Big Hero 6. (And, boy howdy, was I glad that Big Hero 6 got Best Animated Feature, although I would have been okay with How to Train Your Dragon 2 winning. Also, it was about time that Alexandre Desplats won Best Score for something.)

Is anyone of you up for hunting down a good foreign film? I was thinking of maybe Ida, which in addition to wining Best Foreign-Language Film was nominated for Best Cinematography.

See you at the movies.

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It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Unfortunately.

The sky is blue. The air has a lovely crispness, hanging around what feels to be the low sixties. The hills have turned that beautiful emerald green that first seduced me when I visited Stanford, and the buds on the trees are swelling, getting ready to burst into flower.

This is a not a good thing.

Weather happens in patterns. The Northern California weather has given us day after day of clear sunshine.  Some days the thermometer has risen into the high seventies in San Jose and elsewhere in the South Bay. Even days that are gray and overcast, as Tuesday was, produce no rain.

In addition to sunny days, the lack of rain has resulted in “Spare-the-Air Days” which cause problems for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma (which would include me). Some members of my family get migraines on days with heavy pollution.

I realize that to my friends in Boston and Washington this may seem like whining. We’re not having to dig out from snowstorm after snowstorm, or, as is the case in parts of the South, finding ourselves stranded in our house by ice sheets. We certainly do not risk hypothermia when we head out of the house.

I’m looking down the line. Already the highway signs flash reminders that we are in a severe drought. We face even worse. (I do not understand why in the world we have not already been hit with mandatory water rationing.) This summer is going to be brutal; I don’t even want to think about fire season. I would dearly love to have even a quarter of the precipitation of Boston this winter, especially if it fell in the form of snow adding to the Sierra snowpack.

I wish it would rain.

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We failed him.

The first execution of 2015 happened on January 12. Georgia put to death a Vietnam veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He had no prior criminal record, and danced around the street yelling “Shoot me!” before pulling out a rifle and killing a twenty-two-year old deputy sheriff, who had stopped him for going 98 m.p.h.

Andrew Brennan was not simply any Vietnam vet. He had been awarded two commendations and a Bronze Star for his service. He was diagnosed with PTSD in 1984, and later, bipolar disorder.

No one can say what Brennan was thinking when he shot the deputy. Clearly, the demons which so often control people with mental illness had hold of him.  PTSD and bipolar disorder take prisoners, and Brennan was one.  Brennan’s attorneys argued that the jury at his trial had not been given adequate information about his military service and his mental illness. (Given that the trial happened in Georgia, perhaps the jury would not have cared in any case.*) The attorneys also argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that veterans with PTSD constitute a special category of prisoners, and should be spared for that reason, an argument that the Court found unpersuasive.

What happened that day in 1998 in Laurens County was horrible, and I do not want to minimize the death of the young officer.  Deputy Sheriff Kyle Dinkheller should not have been shot.  Andrew Brennan should have received the mental health care he so clearly needed.  Dinkheller’s death was, as Brennan’s attorney said, a terrible tragedy.

Deaths involving law enforcement pose more problems than other murders. Society (or at least white, able society, to be honest) often views the shooting of an unarmed or mentally ill person as a sad but necessary event: we want our police, rightly, to be able to defend themselves. Had Dinkheller shot Brennan when he pulled out the firearm, it would have been, as the cop shows say, “a good shoot.” Hopefully, the shooting would have ignited a discussion about the treatment of veterans, and our national failure to adequately provide mental health care for those who need it.

Leaving aside the moral and ethical concerns about the death penalty in general, killing the mentally ill is repugnant.  Killing a decorated veteran whose mental illness was at least in part caused by the very service for which he was decorated verges on the grotesque.

We teach soldiers to kill.  We send them to foreign lands where killing is a necessary skill to survive. We place them in harm’s way, and subject them to the horrors of war.  We fail to give them adequate care, mental and otherwise, when they return.

And then when they turn that training on someone stateside, especially a law enforcement official, we execute them.

God forgive us.

*Yes, I know that that shows a prejudice against Georgia. I feel the same way about Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi. Many people in those states think differently about the death penalty than elsewhere.

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One of those days.

What’s worse, I had already gone to the Starbucks which is our pre-shift meeting place, to get some writing done.  I will be stuck here for hours, unable to work. I will also have to explain to my boss why I can’t work, which I hate doing. (Hopefully, it won’t look like I am crying by the time he gets here.)

I should have known this was going to happen. Last night, a perfect stranger asked with some concern why I was shaking so badly.  I had to explain that  it was more or less normal, simply a benign tremor exacerbated by medication. (I suppose I could have snarled “mind your own business,” but the man looked on the verge of calling for medical help. He was honestly trying to be caring towards a fellow human being, which I applaud.)

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