Michael and Scarlett

I’m sure there were things I planned to do this weekend, like go to the grocery or buy gas or just go outside and look at the sun or something. Instead, I watched three epic (and epically long) classic movies between Friday afternoon and Sunday evening: Gone With the Wind and The Godfather (Parts I & II).

One so loud, the other relatively quiet. One with a protagonist so all over the place, so outward and emotional; the other so restrained, hiding everything behind his eyes because revealing too much of yourself is a death sentence. Both movies about inheritance, really. In Gone With the Wind it’s about land, in the Godfather it’s about family. Both are about kids trying to live up to their dad’s legacy.

We don’t see as much of Gerald O’Hara as we do of Vito Corleone–and most of what we see is past his prime, the decline of his life. In Part 1 of The Godfather, Vito is on the far side of his life, but still at the peak of his power. We know that Gerald is an immigrant from Ireland. This isn’t in the movie, I don’t think, but I asked my parents (who’ve read the book) and they said that he won the land that became Tara gambling. He built up this whole estate. He takes risks, loves horses, is kinda carefree. Gerald has basically won the American Dream. He has a big estate. He enslaves people. He’s respected by his neighbors (well, other than the ones he enslaved) and has beautiful daughters all ready for marrying off. He’s been accepted by other men of his age and station. But he loses it all because the core of the American Dream is rotten. It relies on the exploitation and abuse of people. And he doesn’t prepare Scarlett to live in a world that’s different than the one he created for them.

Vito Corleone is more reserved and calculating than Gerald O’Hara. He builds his empire slowly, step by step–not all at once in a fantastic, and fantastically risky, game of cards. In Part II, his story exudes warmth, with lots of camera shots of sunsets and growing babies. It takes place in a tenement neighborhood in 1920s New York City, but there’s nothing filthy or smelly about his story. Vito has also won the American Dream, sort of, but it’s hollow. Not because the American Dream (in the world of The Godfather) is hollow, but because Vito’s methods, the power behind his business, is bloody. The violence at the core of his life means he can never make the transition to being a straight businessman. That, and the fact that America isn’t ready to accept Italian Americans as “Americans” in the same way that Gerald’s neighbors were apparently ready to accept him. After a time, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: the Corleones run into anti-Italian racism, sure, but there’s also plenty of people who know exactly what their business entails and are repelled. If Vito’s timeline is about winning the American dream, about creating and protecting his family, Michael’s timeline–with Tahoe in the winter, with 3-piece suits, with Cuban revolutions and gunshots and proper offices and hard edges and hotels– is about losing all of that.

Neither Michael nor Scarlett can truly live up to their parents’ legacy, can carry their parents’ dreams into the future, even though they are their parents’ best heirs. (Interestingly, both of these movies were made at a time when middle class parents could reasonably expect that their children would live better lives than they did. Perhaps part of the reason why I relate to both Scarlett and Michael is because I’m one of the first generation of Americans in 100 years that can expect to live more insecure, less prosperous lives than our parents did, and so I relate to the futility of their situation.) Scarlett’s first downfall is external, because her whole world catches on fire around her, and her own individual power can’t withstand that. Later on, she’s the manufacturer of her own doom and misery in a much more direct (and inevitable, and sad) way. The seeds of Michael’s failure can be found inside him, in his core where there’s something rotten. If his father hadn’t been shot, if he’d gone on to marry Kate and graduate Dartmouth and go into politics or become a college professor, maybe that core would have remained hidden for longer. But his family was threatened, and once Michael decided to keep it safe, he could never come off the battlements.

Both movies are about the transitions of those characters, the derailing of their lives into something else, and how they both surrender it (to a certain extent) and own it (in another sense). The transition moment in The Godfather is fast. I used to think it was when Michael was eating dinner with Sollazzo and McCluskey–that moment before he shoots them, when the camera does a slow push in on his face, and he’s not blinking and you can see everything coming forward for him, out of his eyes. And Sonny thinks it’s because McCluskey broke Mike’s jaw. But re-watching this weekend, I realized it was earlier than that. After the Don was shot, Michael spends one evening back at the family house, watching Sonny declare war and rage against the other four Families, watching Tom Hagen try to talk him down, watching nobody know what to do. Then he goes to the hospital to visit the Don and realizes that his dad’s about to be killed. Assassinated in the hospital. And he bends over his father and whispers (I think, I should have written it down), “It’s me, it’s Michael. I’m with you now.” He doesn’t say. “I’m here.” He says I’m with you. That’s the moment when Michael changes his entire life, steps in to save his family. The Don’s in danger. Fredo’s not up to it. Sonny’s not up to it. It’s up to him.

Scarlett’s journey is longer, which is something I really respected about the character’s portrayal in Gone With the Wind. She changes over the course of the movie, but also keeps the core of who she is. She doesn’t change enough to save herself by the end. At the beginning, she’s manipulative, doing things for approval, or because it’ll attract a man, and not out of loyalty or duty or friendship. She’s sort of kind of always…empty? When she gets back to Tara, after Atlanta burns, she becomes determined to save it, because it’s her home, it’s Tara. I don’t know if she truly felt bound to Tara before the war, maybe because (as a woman), she would have been expecting to leave her childhood home and join her husband’s plantation–not inherit her father’s. Tara is where she finds her core, and she realizes that it’s the most important thing in her world. She discovers that she’ll kill for it. That she’ll make other people hate and resent her and that’s fine as long as she gets to keep it. Where she starts telling people to do things because they need to be done, not because having power pleases her. Where she starts working herself as hard as she works everyone else. She and Michael both find out what they’re capable of, when their family legacies are threatened.

We think of Scarlett’s transition as the moment when she pulls the carrot or turnip or whatever out of the ground. “I will never be hungry again!” And that’s the turning point, the moment, maybe. But after that–when she sticks to it, when she starts working, when she finds the steel in her spine–that’s a whole process. And she owns it. The war changes her involuntarily, but this is the moment when she chooses to change herself. She could have stayed the same, and in the process, lost everything. Instead she chose to change, in that moment, and while it didn’t fix everything for her–far from it–it gave her enough to get through that particular time.

These movies are obviously about a lot of other things. I haven’t talked about Michael’s abuse of his wife, or the racism and historical revisionism in Gone With the Wind. We haven’t talked about iconic movie lines or Rhett Butler. I haven’t really talked about the books at all, or how both of these movies are better than they have any right to be. Gone With the Wind was made by a director who had never been to the South (and didn’t go to the South until after the movie was completed and he attended the premiere in Atlanta). The Godfather is a story of an immigrant family made by a guy from Michigan. And yet both movies manage to capture something both universally human, and something particular to the times and people whose stories they tell. They’re both movies about bad people that the audience ends up loving and rooting for. But now I’m sitting here thinking about Scarlett O’Hara and Michael Corleone crossing space and time and fictional realities to sit down and have dinner together, and wondering what they would say to each other–if they would know how alike they are.

Fiction Free Write

I signed up on a mailing list from storyaday.org to get a writing prompt every day for the month of September. Yesterday was the first day I actually tried one of the prompts (I set a timer for fifteen minutes, which is why it just kind of stops), which came from excellent writer and human Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked how it turned out, so here it is. The first sentence in quotes is Mary Robinette’s:

“Of the things that could go wrong while crocheting, opening a portal had seemed like a low probability.”

Especially since she had just learned to crochet this morning and was, if she was honest, still unclear on the distinction between crocheting and knitting (why do you need multiple ways to make cloth out of string and sticks?). An hour of laborious work had given her a pitiful start on the potholder she was supposedly making, but then, spooling off the yarn she had strung together, a sparkly little void opened, dripping off her crochet needles like extra-dimensional drops of water. They held together into a little window that was about as big across as the palm of her hand.

Well, she thought. That’s interesting. She poked her fingers through the window. It was raining, over there in Wherever. As she pulled her hand back through and marveled at the water on her fingers, she smelled damp grass and decaying leaves. Rain. She leaned down to try and see into Wherever, but the window was too small to get a good look. Just a closeup of tree bark. Of course her first interdimensional window through time and/or space would faceplant her into a tree.

If I keep crocheting, she thought, maybe the portal will get bigger, and I’ll be able to see more.

If the portal gets bigger, she replied to herself, what if it starts sucking this world into it, like a hole in the side of an airplane? What if I fall into it and it turns out the portal is 30 feet up in the air?

Do you even know how to close it? another part of her asked. Open it further or close it completely. You can’t leave an interdimensional portal through time and/or space open in your living room. Not even a small one. “What’s this?” “Oh, nothing, just my portal.” “Really? Where does it go?” “I dunno, it just opened up one day and then I did literally nothing about it and went back to watching The Good Place for the fourth time.” “Ah ha. I see. Yes, I can see why you would make such a discovery here, in your living room, and then do nothing.”

She stopped the internal hypothetical conversation because it was starting to sound too much like an XKCD comic strip.

So she kept crocheting. In another hour, she had a wobbly doorway about the size of her cat (now there was a whole other set of worries: a cat that travels through time and/or space by disappearing through a portal to chase birds). Big enough that it was less like looking through the peephole of a door and more like looking through a small basement window. Still, there was the tree, which looked like a pine or a fir or something carniverous (no, not that word, the other one. Conifer-us) and she could see the horizon and a hill nearby, and hear the patter of the rain coming down through the leaves, and knew she could go through the portal without falling to her death.

How many possible deaths do you cross off the list, she wondered, before you had an acceptably low number of possible deaths, such that stepping through an unknown magical portal into an unknown land didn’t seem like a suicidally mad thing to do?

On the other hand, and again, the other part of herself told herself, are you really going to just…not go through? How long does the list of possible ways to die have to get before you decline to enter the magical portal in your living room?

I should call NASA, she thought. I bet they would know how to explore it. Or at least do a risk assessment.

NASA can’t even explore the Moon. You’d be better off calling Bezos or Musk or some other mad billionaire.

So they can make money off of it and then toss in a car for shits and giggles? No thank you.

Well, before you go in, just remember to text somebody about where you’re going and when you expect to be back, so they can report you missing and/or avenge your death if you don’t return. Basic safety.

From Greek myth. A frightened and wild-looking Kronos eats one of his children.

Saturn, by Goya. 1820-ish.

There’s a painting by the Spanish artist Goya. It lives in the Prado Museum in Madrid, but you’ve probably seen somewhere. It’s a very famous painting. You can buy it on t-shirts and mouse pads and things. The Prado website just calls it “Saturn,” though I’ve also seen it called “Saturn Devouring His Son.” On a dark background, the Titan Saturn (the Roman version of the Greek Cronus), an old man, wild and desperate, is shoving a bloody, helpless body into his mouth.

I was listening to a podcast about the myth of Cronus eating his children this past week, and (perhaps using the Goya painting as an inspiration) it was very detailed in its description of how Cronus’ body changed and failed him after he started eating his children, who could not die, but who he also could not digest. How swollen and distended his belly became. How he became bedridden, trying to hide from the other Titans how uncomfortable he was, how weak. Cronus, who castrated his own father with a sickle, and was afraid of a prophecy that said that he would be deposed by his son in return.

There’s a lot of myths about power and how to use it, and some of them are about how power corrupts (hello, King Midas), but very few myths about it turning somebody grotesque, misshapen, monstrous. It makes me think a little bit of No Face in Spirited Away, eating customers in the bathhouse, or even of Chihiro’s parents, eating enchanted food until they turn into pigs. Jacob Marley, maybe, weighted down in the afterlife with chains and locks. It also made me think of the episode of The Simpsons when Springfield legalizes gambling and Mr. Burns gets even more filthy rich, and starts taking on qualities of Howard Hughes (oddly, it doesn’t make me think of Howard Hughes, who clearly had some mental illness stuff going on in addition to his enormous fuck-off levels of wealth and power, but Mr Burns has the privilege of just being cartoonishly evil).

A square of four images: No Face from Spirited Away, swollen and misshapen from overeating; Chihiro's parents from the same movie, turning into pigs; Jacob Marley from A Christmas Carol, chained up and pale; and Mr Burns from the Simpsons, bearded

Being corrupted has consequences, eventually.

What if the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth was a metaphor for power, and not just greed?

There’s a song that’s been running through my head basically since DJT was elected, but especially since George Floyd was murdered and America started going to protests instead of our jobs (because so many people had lost their jobs). It’s called “Timebomb Generation” by the hardcore band Strike Anywhere, and it was released in 2001. “What does it mean to take their power and push it away?/To overcome this culture and the lies they tell them everyday?/Find a voice for a better future and a place for you and I to face our fears/Fall down to rise back up.”

America is sick. For awhile we could call it polarization, division, culture wars, whatever. It started with racism, and it started with white people having power and wanting to keep it, and with every cultural revolution, white people scrambling to keep their power. Even if it harmed us economically, even if it harmed us spiritually. I suppose if we couldn’t be bothered about the physical and emotional trauma that we were inflicting on millions of African-Americans and Native Americans and Chinese people building railroads and Latino migrants in hieleras, it is particularly white-girl-naive of me to think that we would give a shit about our own spiritual, mental, and economic wholeness. We put billions of dollars into colonialism and imperialism and imprisoning and disenfranchising a huge part of our population, instead of building a system of empowerment and liberation that would surely benefit everyone. Right now in multiple police departments across the nation, officers are turning on the citizens they ostensibly protect with weapons of war because the citizens had the audacity to say that they don’t want to be policed any more, not this way, not at this cost. We cannot build a system of justice because we are too invested in our system of power, and too afraid to try anything else.

America is a wild-eyed, broken, bow-legged old man, terrified and eating his children in a futile hope to keep the world from changing.

Cronus created his own demise by eating his children (Greek myths are full of people who try to escape from fate and end up creating it). Next to him was his sister/wife/victim Rhea, losing child after child to his endless fear and appetite. Her desperation grew, and out of it came anger, and then vengeance, and a plan. Out of it came Zeus, and swaddled stones, and eventually, a warrior who could depose his old, sick, corrupt father.

What if Cronus had made different choices? Interestingly, in Greek myths, characters are often both ruled by fate and yet entirely in control of their own destiny. What if Cronus had accepted his deposition from power as inevitable, even beneficial, for the continued health of the universe he ruled over? What if he nurtured his sons and daughters, raised them to be a family, and work together?

What if he took the power and pushed it away?

How do we both acknowledge the power that we have, and use it to the benefit of those who have none…and then push that power away? Not in the silly context of saying “I renounce my white privilege!” as if that’s all it takes, but if we as a culture truly reckoned with what it would take to dismantle that system that gave us all this power, and corrupted us deep into our souls?

And what would the world be like if we did?

Once Upon a Time

It started with a boy , and it started on a very particular Sunday .

The name of the boy is lost, or was never known, certainly not outside the
original conspirators. This is as it should be.

The news went out that a Royal Ball had been announced for Sunday. Decrees proclaiming a holiday were posted in the town square. Supply wagons had been trundling to the castle, day after day, food and decorations and bands and extra cooks, all working flat out to prepare for the upcoming celebration. Lutists and flautists could be heard practicing late at night, soft music dancing on moonbeams as they sought not to wake the town.

Maybe it was one of the boys in the tavern, or the stableyard , or one of the delivery
boys. Again, his name is lost to us. Perhaps it went like this: looking across the square at the market stalls where the ladies held up frocks and skirts to see what would suit them
best for the ball, he stared for a little too long. Perhaps after school let out, a crowd of boys clustered around a sign to read the Feast Day Proclamation and start planning their attendance (the event was open, anyone could attend, from the richest miser to the poorest churchmouse), and one boy sighed, and looked wistful; or perhaps he said, jokingly, to disguise his true desire, “I wish I could wear a dress.” Or, “Wouldn’t it
be grand if we all went in dresses?”

As for why, we don’t know that either. A popular schoolmaster had recently been shamed when it was revealed that his out-of-town sweetheart was not a beautiful lady, or, in fact, any sort of lady at all. The school boys had arisen as one and refused to go to school or do work of any kind until their master was reinstated. One particularly obstreperous lad was heard to declare that he did not give a ewe’s left buttock who the schoolmaster monkeyed about with, everyone should just mind their bloomin’ business. So perhaps they wanted to support their friend, or their schoolmaster. Perhaps something else.

Regardless, on the day of the Ball, twelve boys in glittery skirts, rouge and eyeliner, and
plaited hair stepped onto the dance floor. Hovering behind them were various giddy sisters and girl cousins who had donated skirts and paints and hair-ironing skills, who had hurriedly let out or taken in bodices and skirt lengths.

If the boys had been laughing, or cutting up, or teasing each other, it would have been boys doing boy things. But it wasn’t. They behaved as they always did. But they did it in dresses. It’s hard to dismiss something as a prank when it is so earnestly and seriously done. Lady Havishton was scandalized, but then, she is always scandalized by something, so nobody paid much mind.

The boys wore their gowns all night. The next morning they reappeared in their usual trousers and jackets, though some with a smudge of rouge still next to their noses, or black edging to their eyelashes. They declined to explain themselves beyond a vague shrug.

The next year, there were fifteen boys, and instead of wearing their sisters’ dresses, they
had procured their own.

Fiction Friday–A Tiny Space Opera

hubble1This is another flash fiction story from a Chuck Wendig flash fiction challenge, which he apparently posted in 2015 and I happened upon it in 2016 or something and thought it was current so I wrote half of a thing, and then finished it in 2017. Here’s the thing. Note that I read basically no space opera/military sci fi/battles in space thing, so please do not write to me telling me that I got space opera wrong. Also, because this is the internet, the grammar error in the first sentence is deliberate and I’m not fixing it.


Me and my platoon strapped ourselves into our seats and snapped our face masks in place. Hyperdrive jumps are liable to get bumpy on exit and re-entry, so we all checked to see that the barf bags were handy, and each of us hoped that we wouldn’t be the one who had to use one (and then get roundly mocked for it).

The commander and the pilot were up front, programming the hyperdrive. I put my head back and tried to go to sleep. They’d sounded Reveille hours before the usual roll out, ordered us to ready for maneuvers. Nobody, not even the commander, had been told of the mission beforehand. The element of surprise was vital, we were told. No leaks. Surprise attack. We’d storm their shores and end the war. We weren’t the first to trip off to battle, just the next wave. Commander said he’d have orders when we came out of hyperspace.

We all bit down, the pilot engaged the hyperdrive, all of our insides lurched backwards and then caught up. The ship went dark, and all that all of us felt was eerie nothingness for an unknown period of time.

And then–lurch, shudder, and an alarming cracking noise from elsewhere in the ship–we were out of hyperspace. We braced ourselves, unbuckling from our harnesses and going for our guns, sure that we were dropping into a firefight and were about to go out the gangway.
Instead, nothing.
Silent space.
We looked sideways at each other, out of power and out of knowledge, just dumb stupid soldiers who didn’t know what to do if they weren’t fighting.

We could hear the commander cursing at the pilot, double checking coordinates. We waited.

And then, we were descending, entering atmosphere, watching the sky change color, become something recognizable as sky. We were ordered to shelve our weapons. The ship landed, the hatch opened, the air hissed outward. We exited the ship by the gangway, blinking in the bright light. It didn’t look like we were going to die today after all.

The commander pointed towards the…well, off toward some direction on the compass, anyway where he could see the rooftops of a town, maybe two klicks away. We formed up and fell into step. Nobody said anything. Nobody knew (except the commander) if we were deserters, if we were lost. Just that, so far at least, we didn’t seem to be dying today.

Fiction Friday–“Something Scary”

A writer I follow, Chuck Wendig, often posts Flash Fiction challenges on his blog on Fridays. I got this one from a January post, so I can’t submit a link to it in his comments as he says to do, but I’m posting it here anyway because fuck writer’s block. Since Wendig is mostly a science fiction author, I decided to try writing a science fiction-y story.


Morning routines should be routine. Even when you’ve got a chronic, potentially life-threatening illness, there are certain things that just always happen, and a morning routine is one of those things. Even if–especially if–your chronic, potentially life-threatening illness is kept in check by (among other things) a neural net of brain implants in your cerebellum and temporal lobe that keep you breathing, blinking, standing, walking, talking.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update neural software, brush teeth, shower, get dressed, make lunch for later.

That is my routine. Every morning.

I like routine.

And then one day. Just some stupid regular Tuesday.

Wake up, coffee, toast, update–

stutter stutter stutter blank

Wake up, coffee–but there’s already coffee. I already made coffee but I have to make coffee again.

Coffee, toast, up–

circle circle circle circle blank

No, brain, I already made coffee, why are we making coff–

Some corner of my brain knows that this is not the routine but I can’t–

coffee toaste up–

blue blue blue blue

I am crying now. Coffee toast coffee toast what was wrong why can’t I stop–


cycle cycle cycle cycle

Somebody help me, somebody come check on me–

error error error error


Flash Fiction Friday: The Scary Stuff

DSC01787.jpgWriting Prompt: “Remember a time when you were scared, where you felt like you were experiencing something strange/supernatural/preternatural. Something scary, something real.”

When I was a kid, I used to creep out of my bedroom at the top of the house, descend five flights of stairs into the basement, climb up on the washing machine, and creep out of a window that had a broken latch and didn’t stay locked.
I couldn’t have told you why I did this, exactly. I was a kid, and it was forbidden and exciting. I liked the way the air was cooler and fresher at night. I liked being the only person awake, walking through a neighborhood with no one else but me, the raccoons, and a couple of foxes. I liked the way shadows pooled under bushes and on the lea side of garages. And it was always hard for me to sleep, as a kid. It felt like I was always awake and never sleeping. So I broke out of the house, and I walked.
Sometimes, I would walk to the park about a mile away from my house and play. There was a pile of equipment on top of a hill in the center of the park—swings and a jungle gym and a metal slide that gave uncareful kids second degree burns on their butts in the summer. I would walk there and sit on the swings and swing back and forth, tilting my head back, watching the stars rock in and out of my vision. Sometimes I’d lie on the bottom of the slide and just stare up there. I don’t remember thinking about much—not about how far away they were or about wanting to travel among them or anything like that—just that staring up at the blackness made the static in my brain feel quiet.
This one time, though.
It was a usual night. I’d snuck out and was swinging on the swings, and was just thinking about heading home, scuffing my feet in the gravel to slow the swing down, when I happened to look down at the hill instead of up at the sky and there was a man there. He was lying flat on his back, in overalls and heavy work boots, hands laced behind his head. I could see the shadow of prolific whiskers across his cheeks and down the front of his shirt.
I froze. I had never, not once, seen another human out on my late night wanderings. Sometimes a car, but never someone out walking. Not even an insomniac dogwalker. Being able to forget that other humans existed was part of why I liked going out.
The man didn’t move.
I wondered how long he had been there, and then realized that he must have been there longer than I had, and that I just hadn’t seen him when I arrived, because if he’d walked up the hill while I was swinging I would’ve seen him. He’d just been there, not moving. Had he been listening to me? Was he asleep? Was he dead?
I hopped off the swing and took a few steps toward him, stopping at the end of the playground gravel, trying to see his face. Was he awake? Was he dead?
I couldn’t see his face. He still didn’t move.
I should leave, I thought.
I took a few hesitant backward steps, moving away from him. I didn’t want to turn my back on him.
At the edge of the playground, I turned and ran. There was a soccer field between me and the street and I sprinted across it, faster than I ever had during soccer practice. When I got to the sidewalk, at the true border of the park, I turned and looked, wanting to make sure he was where I’d left him.
He was. I could see the tan of his boot’s soles in the moonlight. But he was moving. He was…expanding. Rising up. He was taller than the playground equipment. His arms were out, huge and growing, and his shadow fell like wings over the soccer field. He took up the whole sky. I could feel him staring at me, like a mouse feels the eyes of a hawk. I have no idea how long that moment lasted. It could’ve been seconds or hours. I didn’t move, couldn’t breathe.
And then he was gone, wings rising and disappearing, the stars re-emerging. The hill was empty.

West Wing Weekly, the Ladies, and Stories

westwing“You have to know what the stereotypes are in order to avoid those stereotypes.” –Jonathan Green, Visual Director for 2016 Porgy and Bess revival

I’ve been listening to The West Wing Weekly, a podcast in which the two hosts watch one episode of the West Wing each week and discuss it. (Side note: If you like political drama at all, The West Wing is totally worth your time.) The hosts are Josh Malina (who also starred in the show starting in the…fourth season?) and Hrishikesh Hirway, who also hosts the podcast Song Exploder, and they regularly bring in former castmates and writers to talk about their experiences on the show. One of the people they talked to during the first season was Janel Moloney, who played Donatella Moss, Josh Lyman’s secretary. And she said something that got me thinking.
Basically, from day one, one of the things that Janel put into Donna’s character as a primary motivating factor was the idea that Donna was in love with Josh. Episode directors independently came to the same conclusion early on and planted the seeds of Josh’s love for Donna, but for most of the series, these feelings were only ever implied, not acted upon. And Janel noted (almost casually) that even though she knew that Donna was in love with Josh, she was not eager to have that story play out, because as soon as it did, Donna would lose a lot of avenues for where her character could go. If Donna and Josh started dating, that would be the end of Donna’s story, because she would have to quit her job, and of course Janel would lose her job too. Later (after Janel became a cast member, instead of just a recurring character), the character of Donna got new arcs and grew a lot as a person. But early on? Dating Josh (the most obvious storyline that basically everyone wanted) was the worst possible thing that could happen to Donna.
Sharon Lawrence, who played ADA Sylvia Costas on the 1990s police drama NYPD Blue (which is also totally worth your time), said something similar. She was cast in the pilot, in what was not supposed to be a recurring role (kind of like Janel Moloney, now that I think about it), but was brought back as a recurring character and potential love interest for Detective Andy Sipowicz, and eventually became a cast member. And I love Sylvia Costas the character. She’s smart, she’s outspoken, she doesn’t let anyone push her around. She faces her fears and doesn’t let them rule her life. She’s one of the few female characters in a male-dominated show (and a female professional in a male-dominated profession), and she’s this wonderful shining light of femininity and strength. But once she married Andy Sipowicz–and especially after they had a baby–she faded away. As Ms. Lawrence put it, the mystery of her character was basically solved by her marriage to Sipowicz, and there wasn’t much place else for her to go, so she was written out. (I hope I’m remembering what she said correctly, it was an interview that she did for a DVD extra for one of the NYPD Blue DVD sets, which doesn’t seem to have made it to YouTube). Her femininity, her female-ness as a character, worked against her, even though they told a story for her that millions of women have experienced: Sylvia had a baby and then went back to work, and then wrestled with her desire to stay home with her kid instead, and eventually decided to do that, before going back to work as an ADA much later. And that’s something that a lot of parents (moms and dads) struggle with, and it was nice to see it depicted on screen. But it was also a shame to lose such a wonderful character.
By contrast, Jill Kirkendole, a female detective on NYPD Blue, was a mom from the beginning, and a love interest to basically no one (she dated a male ADA character for awhile but I don’t remember that being a primary arc of the show, just something that was sort of happening in the background). From her very first case in the squad, her experience as a mother was something that informed her work as a detective, gave her an ability to read people and understand them. Gave them a way to understand her, too, when she was trying to get information out of somebody. Her experience as a mom informed her work as a detective in a way that Greg Medavoy’s status as a dad never seemed to inform his. She also made friends with another female member on the squad (Diane Russell) and that allowed for some female energy and Bechdel-passing episodes.
It’s one of the things you don’t think about in stories until you’ve seen and read a lot of stories: The bones of so many stories are the same, and the beauty shows up in the way that they’re told. And sometimes it’s just the nature of the stories, the nature of narrative. Joseph Campbell has examined this to an extensive degree in books like The Hero With A Thousand Faces. I remember learning in high school about the seven different types of stories (man vs man, man vs world, man vs self…I forget the other types). There’s a certain amount of same-ness, or of parallel-ness, that’s unavoidable. But then there’s the same-ness that’s bad and unhelpful. Why are so many brown-skinned characters terrorists? Why are so many black male characters drug dealers? Why are so many white women mothers? Why do so many fantasy books take place in a feudal English Tolkien-esque landscape?
Representation matters, as I’ve heard over and over on the internet. And it does. There are so many different stories being lived right now, so many people having so many different lives. They all deserve to be a story, to tell their story, to see their story (in one way or another) represented in popular media, whether that’s a television show or a comic or a novel or a video game or a history book. Our capacity to speak for ourselves is enhanced when we see characters who go first, who speak our stories for us, who validate our existence and experience. But in the obverse, our capacity to empathize is enhanced by knowing another person’s story. This is to say, diverse stories don’t just matter to marginalized people who need more stories like theirs. Speaking as a white person, reading stories about and essays by and tweets of people of color has helped me alter my perspective enormously when it comes to the question of racism and race in the United States. Were those stories written for me? No, not always. Maybe almost never. But art and stories make eavesdroppers of all of us, and Junot Diaz and NK Jemisin have taught me things that I never would have had occasion to know otherwise.
The thing about representation is, for me at least, it’s almost never an obvious thing. Maybe this is because I can find stories that are close enough to me to get by; maybe it’s because I tend to be a little oblivious to subtleties. But you go through life, not necessarily cognizant of what you’re missing, until someone smarter than you comes along and shows you this character, and you didn’t realize how badly you needed to see this thing that you didn’t know existed. Who knew I needed somebody like Amy Farrah-Fowler on The Big Bang Theory? (At least up until she started falling in love with Sheldon, at which point I lost interest in the entire series.) Who knew how badly I wanted to meet Jessica Jones, before she arrived? Certainly not me. Why have I been so fixated on needing a Black Widow movie? I’m not even entirely sure, but apparently there’s a gap in my life that only Scarlett Johansson can fill.
I’m tired of female characters who stop being on television the minute they become mothers. I’m tired of female characters whose primary story arc is falling in love with the leading dude. One of the reasons why I love The West Wing is the fact that it largely resisted those tropes for most of its run, and as a result, many of the female characters from the first season survived all the way to the last. As I try to get back into writing my own fiction, I don’t know how much I’ll fall into these tropes myself because of failures of imagination and empathy, or how much I’ll be able to dodge them just because I’m a different person writing different stuff. Nobody wants to think that they’re writing stereotypes, and yet somehow our collective artistic unconscious ends up full of stereotypes. Sometimes we don’t even know they’re stereotypes until someone cracks them open, like an egg, and reveals they’re hollow.

Flash Fiction

Another piece written 5+ years ago, for my zine, which is now an e-book, but I didn’t put this piece in the e-book. Disclaimer note that this is short fiction.

The only thing my mother left that day was the dirty dishes in the sink. I’ve wondered about that for years. If you plan to kill yourself while your kids are at school––if you plan to go down in the basement and hang yourself from a rafter––why do you clean the whole house from top to bottom, finish the laundry, put everything exactly in its place––but then leave the dirty dishes in the sink? It’s just bizarre. She didn’t leave a note, which was also a little bizarre, considering how meticulous she was generally. All that was left was an immaculate house with dirty dishes in the sink. And if you plan to kill yourself, why would you do it when you know it will be your children that find you? I mean, come on. We come home from school to an empty house and assume that Mom is running errands. Grab Nilla Wafers from the cupboard. Argue over whose turn it is to do the dishes. Go down to the basement to find the football––and there’s your mother, looking like a grotesque parody of a piñata. It was like some major kind of fault line in Time, with the dishes sitting there between Before and After. Sometimes I could hear her talking, behind a closed door, through the phone just hung up; leaving a message on the answering machine just erased. We all drifted around the house like ghosts, pale and sad, and I felt like there was more than one death lurking in the corners of the house. Nobody wanted to touch the dishes. They sat there for days. I came downstairs to find food at three in the morning, and the light when the refrigerator door opened threw the dishes into sharp relief, dark shadows high on the wall. And suddenly I hated her, hated the continual reminder, hated reaching back to the time of Before. Without realizing it, I hurled her dishes against the wall, shattering, exploding.
I want to destroy you, destroy myself, banish the ghosts that haunt my every step, every movement, every thought. Shatter your image out of every cup and saucer. I will take the jagged shards and carve your name on my wrist so that with every beat of my pulse I can kiss you, every single beat for the rest of this life you left me in. This dark and interminable place where at any moment I will trip and fall into an abyss, a pit from which nothing returns. And I recognize it now, the pit that you fell in, and I don’t know if I can avoid it. I don’t know if I want to. And the only reason I don’t is because I hate you. I loved you so much and it never made a difference; I want to stop loving you so much because then the hate will stop too. It’s a good thing you’re dead because if I saw you again, I might kill us both.

The Eyes of Abraham

When the Wolves Come Out of the WallsI sit very still in the center of the bed, trying to not make creases in the hotel bedspread. Daddy is pacing and mad and I don’t want him to see me so I stay very still. My shoulder and my ribs hurt because he picked me up by my elbow and I hit the side of the door, I think by accident, on the way in here. I was under a blanket when he brought me in. It was supposed to be a secret. Nobody was supposed to see me. But I guess somebody did. He’s just finished yelling out a crack in the door at the cops, telling them that he was in here and I was in here and he had a gun in here and if they tried to mess with him at all, he’d kill me first. Then he slammed the door and locked it and started pacing.

I am not even blinking, hardly even breathing. But I’m glad to he said this because at least we’re telling the truth to each other. He’s telling the truth. He’s not telling me that everything is fine out of the side of his face and smiling at me with blank eyes. He’s not buying me popcorn and Mickey Mouse ears and making me wonder where he’s hidden the whiskey or how long until he buys more. He’s not making me check under the bed for hiding places for when the whiskey does show up and he gets all red-faced and shouty and sweaty. In this moment, threatening to shoot me, my dad might be the most honest he’s ever been.

He pauses in his pacing to look at me, and I look at him. I hope he sees that I am being good. That I am being quiet. That I don’t need to be shot today.

He puts the gun down on top of the TV and sits next to me. He pulls me on his lap and I go, even though it doesn’t feel right, even though the muscles in my legs are so stiff that they hurt, even though I don’t fit on his lap like I used to.

He pats the side of my head with a big, soft palm. “Don’t be scared, baby. We’ll get out of this. It’s okay.” He wraps his arms around me and all I can see is his grey cotton shirt and all I can breathe is the smell of his sweat and his cigarettes.

“Daddy?” I ask, my voice muffled against his chest.

“What, baby?”

I sit up on his lap so I can look at his face. “If you shoot me, will I see Mommy?”

His fists tighten, one around my arm, the other around my leg. I squirm and try to curl up so he can’t hit me in the face but he shakes me and forces my body flat, off his lap, flat on the bed, his whole body over mine, one of his big hands moving so it’s over my chest and pinning me. He doesn’t care if he’s pinching or pressing or hurting. I can feel his breath in my face and I look in his eyes that my mom says look so much like mine and I know that however much he loves me, there are other things that he wants more. That he’d trade me for.

“No. You won’t see your mom. You won’t see her because she’s in hell. She’s in hell but if I kill you you’ll go to Heaven with Jesus, you’ll go to God and wait for me, right?”

I nod a little, as much as I can. “Right.”

“Don’t ever mention your mom again.”

I nod again. “I won’t. I’m sorry.”

He stands up and I roll on my side, the air coming between us, back into my lungs, and I realize I’m about to pee my pants. I roll off the edge of the bed and land on my feet and head for the bathroom.

“Leave the door open,” he calls to me, and even though he’s a boy and I’m a girl I do what he says. He’s holding the gun again. Standing next to the window and trying to move the curtains aside just the tiniest little bit to see what the police are doing.

My mom is dead. My mom’s dead and that’s why we’re here. My dad picked me up from school on Monday and said she’d been in a car accident, so the court case was over, and what did I think about going to Disneyland? I said okay even though it wasn’t, and we drove through Utah and Nevada, and we had to stop at a Wal-Mart to get me things because Daddy hadn’t brought any clothes for me and he said we couldn’t go by the house, and when I started to cry about my guinea pig and about Mommy he hit me on the side of the head and said not to cry, because we were together again and were going to Disneyland and we were going to have fun and be together forever, that nobody could take me away from him. He said he’d call the neighbors about the guinea pig, so I took a deep breath and stopped crying, and tried to not think about Mommy.

I’d always wanted to visit Disneyland and my dad knew it. But the castle wasn’t a real castle and the pirates on the Carribbean ride were just robots and Winnie the Pooh was just a guy in a suit. But whenever Daddy saw me looking sad, he’d ask what I had to complain about, this was Disneyland and I had to have fun. So when he handed me hot dogs and popcorn and soda I ate them, even though I don’t like soda and I couldn’t taste the popcorn.

The rides were fun though, especially the fast ones like the Matterhorn and the teacups where I went so fast it spun my thoughts out behind me and left them behind for a little while. Being with my dad always made me feel like I was trying to hold a bubble in my hands, but now it was worse, now I had nowhere else to go, with my mom gone.

I finish peeing and flush and wash my hands. The hotel room phone starts ringing. Daddy paces in front of the television, gun in his hand. I perch carefully on the edge of the bed and resume my posture of not being a bother, of not being there at all. Of hoping that, if I get invisible enough, when the policemen pop the bubble I won’t be the one on the receiving end of the results. I can see the tension building. I can see that something’s going to happen, even if the cops can’t. He doesn’t have any whiskey. He doesn’t have any whiskey and his hands are shaking. The phone keeps ringing, long past the eight rings I’m used to hearing. I count. I can’t help it. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.

Daddy picks up the phone. “Yeah, here I am.” His eyes light briefly on mine, looking flat and green, like the ocean he took me to. “I’m fine, she’s fine. We just want to get out of here.” Pause. “You can call me Abraham.”

When he says this, I know that I’m dead. My dad’s name is Russell. I don’t know where Abraham has come from, but I know all the things that my dad does when he’s mad or drunk, and they’re bad enough. Abraham might do new things or different things that I can’t stop. My father is still talking and I vaguely understand that it’s about me and my mother and how much everyone’s trying to hurt my dad but my ears have cottoned up so I don’t really hear what he’s saying. Knowing that I’m going to die is drowning everything else out.

My dad hangs up the phone. And paces. I can see his lips moving and I hope that he’s praying. He rests his elbows on the television, his back to me, and bows his head.

I see the muscles in his arms bunch up and I try to bolt, but my legs aren’t under me and he’s faster. Faster than me. Always has been. I fall on my side as he lands on top of me on the bed and pins my hips between his legs. His left hand is over my mouth and my nose and I try to scream but all that comes out of my mouth is a snuffling noise. I grab his wrist with both my hands and the tendons in his arm are stiff like wooden dowels and his hand doesn’t move. His other hand still has the gun and he presses it to my temple and I freeze, the cold steel of the gun hurting my head, then it gets warm, the metal turning the same temperature of my skin.

I can’t move. I can’t breathe. His hand over my face is so large that I can feel one thumb on my ear, his four fingers lost in my hairline. I can’t even blink, my eyes are wide and fozen. I stare at his face which is in a grimace like an angry chimpanzee, all his teeth showing and his eyes almost shut. All I can see is a glimmer of green around his pupils. My vision starts to go black around the edges until all I can see are his empty, empty eyes.

His tears drip onto my face and the gun clicks as he pulls the hammer back with his thumb. He can’t see me anymore. I try to pull his fingers off my mouth, to turn onto my back, to do something to change this situation. The noise that comes out of my mouth is a high whimper. I can’t look away from his eyes, so finally I squeeze mine shut. I wait for either my breath to run out of the gun to go off. I feel like time has paused around us, like we’ve been here forever. There’s no cops outside, no hot California sun, no memories of Disneyland or road trips, no 5th grade back in Longmont. Only his legs pinning my torso and the warm muzzle of the gun at my temple.

The gun fires and the world gets dark and heavy, a weight on my chest and my shoulders and my head. I think I’m dead and that death is dark and smothering. I wait for something to change. For Jesus to come find me or my mom or something.

Then I realize I’m breathing. I realize I can hear my heartbeat against my ribs.

I squirm to one side and sit up. My father slides partly off the bed. His eyes are open and empty, a sea gone quiet. I can see the whites of his eyes now. His cheeks and next to his nose are still wet with tears. I scoot away when I see the blood on both sides of his head. I follow the blood with my eyes to the wall. There’s more colors than I expect. Red and dark red and grey and white. I slide off the edge of the bed.

My dad has locked the deadbolt and the bar lock. I have to stretch to reach it. I pull on the doorknob with both hands and heave backward with my whole body weight before the heavy door groans open. I blink in the bright California sun, and step over the threshold. When my eyes adjust I realize that big heavy guns and full-body shields and robot helmets with dark visors are all staring at me. I can’t count them. If they’re saying anything I don’t hear it. I stand still and stare at them.

From behind the wall of armor steps a robot. Then he swings his gun behind him and lifts his visor and I see that he’s a man. He half-hunkers down to get closer to my level and smiles gently. “Hi, honey,” he says. “Are you hurt?”

I look down at myself, then back at him. The sight of my shirt makes my stomach and my liver try to trade places.

He holds out a gloved hand. “Come here, baby.” I step towards him and he scoops me up, so fast my whole body stiffens and I want to bolt. Then I’m distracted by the other robots—I know they’re police but I keep thinking of them as robots until they take off their helmets—charging into our hotel room and shouting with their guns out. It’s like TV. But the policeman who’s holding me is walking briskly away, arms protectively around me, holding me close to his torso. His vest is stiff and implacable, the pockets chunky against my knees. His belly feels like cardboard, or like the soft-not-soft stuff they use to carpet the school playground. Nothing like the fleshy softness of my father’s. He talks into his radio as he carries me past police cruisers and more police cruisers and more police cruisers. I hear the harsh squawk of radios talking police language that I don’t understand. Everyone seems tense, standing behind car doors, hands on hips or on guns, but the further away we get from the hotel room the more I see clusters of men just standing around talking.

The policeman adjusts me so that I’m sitting on his hip. “I’m Sergeant Hassan,” he says, smiling at me. “Can you tell me your name, hon?”

I look at his face, at his black black eyes, at the small tracks of sweat lining the inside edges of his helmet. It feels like I haven’t said anything for years. I tried to say things to my dad but that didn’t count somehow. “Shea,” I manage to say from the back of my throat.

When he smiles, the corners of his eyes crinkle. “Hello, Shea,” he says. “It’s good to be able to meet you.”

We arrive at an ambulance that has its back doors open and two people in blue shirts waiting and a stretcher inside. Sergeant Hassan tries to hand me to the woman in blue, but my fists have wrapped around the edges of his vest and won’t let go, so he clambers awkwardly up and sits on the stretcher and coaxes me into sitting beside him. He has straps around his thighs and I slip my hand through one. Now that he’s here and he’s nice and I’m safe, I don’t want him to go anywhere.

“I don’t think any of the blood is hers,” he says to the woman in blue. I sit tensely while her hands in dry rubber gloves move swiftly to take my blood pressure and put the cold stethoscope under my shirt on my back. She tries asking me questions, I think, but my ears have cottoned up again so I don’t say anything. She shines a light in each of my eyes and gently fingers at the tender places on my cheeks where my dad’s hand was, then massages my scalp. Then she climbs out of the ambulance to talk to another policeman who’s taken off his helmet. It’s just me and Sergeant Hassan on the stretcher. I don’t want to talk anymore. Maybe never again. My dad’s dead and my mom’s dead so I assume I’ll stay with Sergeant Hassan forever. And be safe.

After my mom and me left my dad, at first it was good. It got better. I got to sleep in my own bed all night. I never got woken up. My mom, who had moved to Longmont to be with my dad and so that he could be near his family, started talking about moving back to Wisconsin to be near her family. Started talking about going back to school. She smiled sometimes. Started talking about next summer, next year. It was like she could see the future. I couldn’t see it myself, but I thought it was nice that she could. It made me feel like maybe I could think about going to the water park in the summer.

And then my dad came and picked me up from school, and everything sucked in close again. I tried to imagine tomorrow and couldn’t get there. There was only ever the next hour, the next meal, the next night. I couldn’t see into the future like my mom could. When I blink, I see my father’s eyes, stamped on the insides of my eyelids.

I want to sit here with Sergeant Hassan forever. But I don’t think they’ll let me do that. Grown-ups always want to take you somewhere. And maybe my sergeant doesn’t want to stay here on this gurney. Maybe he wants to leave. I tighten my grip on the strap on his leg and he looks down at me. I look up at him. “Now what?” I ask.

He looks down at me, and his eyes look sad and old. He thinks for a long time, until I think maybe he didn’t hear me after all. “It’s going to be hard, Shea,” he says, “But I want you to learn to laugh again.” My confusion must show on my face, because he pulls me into a hug. “One day, it’ll be okay,” he says. “I promise.”