kitchen table

July 31, 2006, 2:20 pm
Filed under: Feminism, Gender, Online Community

Totally found a Sunset Island fanpage! It was last updated in 1999–amazing, a relic of Internet Past. It completely reminds me of the websites I first browsed, most of them fansites by teenage girls devoted to either filmstars, TV shows, book series, or themselves. There is a page for each other main characters with descriptions that look like they were pulled directly from the cover jacket and/or marketing literature. There’s also a frickin’ newsletter and guestbook that is still being signed. Amazing, amazing. Oh, and the “Books” link takes you to a page with a brief synopsis of every book in the series.

Cherie, by the way, looks a little crazy. God bless her though, she responded to my crazy fan letter by hand. What more could a 12 year old girl have asked for?


the notchs on our rust belt
July 31, 2006, 2:02 pm
Filed under: Buffalo, City life

I grew up in North Buffalo and, later, its Northern suburbs. My drive into the city consisted of a quick ride East on the 33 or, more often, a slow ramble through the neighborhoods of Kenmore, University Heights, Hertel Avenue, Parkside, and the Elmwood Village. These were and are neighborhoods that have experienced relative prosperity in the wake of Buffalo’s industrial collapse. Most of the residents of the large, two-family homes are white, and the neighborhoods are marked with cute cafes and bursting gardens.

Occasionally we’d take Main Street on the way downtown and I’d glimpse the abandoned businesses. It didn’t feel like the Buffalo I knew, the one sprayed with beautiful, large houses and colorful lamp-post banners. Even more unfamiliar were the abandoned warehouses along the Niagara river–we saw those as we our way to my mother’s work, a health care facility situated on the West side, near the Peace bridge. I honestly thought they were the extent of the abandoned industry, all the notchs on our rust belt.

This has changed in the past couple weeks. I am seeing someone right now who grew up in the Southtowns. We’ve been talking for a good week about the differences between our respectives “drive-ins” to the city and what effect that has had on our feelings about Buffalo. As a kid, he witnessed the last good years, when Bethlehem Steel made the drive down Route 5 smell like rotten eggs. When the stacks were pumping out thick, black smoke. He also saw the break down as the plants closed, like dominos knocking each other out. And now, as he drives in to work every day in the city, he sees the skeletons of factories–and that’s really what they look like–stretched out along either side of the highways. It’s devastating.

Last night we watched the sunset from the town beach near his house and next to the city’s skyline I could make out the peaks of black mountains, falling off into Lake Erie: slag pits. I realized that this discovery is yet another (embarassing) example of my suburban shortsightedness, the blinders I didn’t even know I had on. The kind of absence of consideration that leaves me feeling like a child, muttering “whoa” and “wow” as she stares out the window.

90,000 square feet
July 27, 2006, 4:16 pm
Filed under: Activism, Healthcare

A living wage coalition in Chicago just successfully lobbied for the passage of a law requiring big-box stores, notably Wal-Mart and Home Depot, to pay employees a minimum of $10 an hour. Additionally, at least $3 an hour must go towards benefits for employees.

This legislation seems to be part of a larger trend of laws targeting big box practices. Earlier in the year, Maryland passed a law requiring Wal-Mart–the only business in the state to fit within its parameters–to spend a percentage of its profits on its employees’ health benefits. Unfortunately, that law was overturned last week.

New York State’s Working Families Party, along with a handful of labor unions and community organizations, proposed a similiar bill called Fair Share for Health Care. It didn’t pass this session but I hear the WFP will make it top priority this fall as well. The bill had its fair share–oh god, pun totally unintended–of criticism and like the minimum wage hike a few years ago, received a lot of complaint from businesses worried that it would be bad for the mom & pop’s. I don’t really buy that but I understand some of the other criticism its received. Anyway, I’ll be interested to see how this legislation in Chicago pans out, especially in light of the news in Maryland.

Root causes
July 26, 2006, 8:13 pm
Filed under: Activism, Buffalo, City life, Film, Racism, Radio

On of the guests on Talk of the Nation this afternoon was James Allen Fox, a criminal justice professor at Northeastern. The topic was the increasing violence in American cities. During his segment, one of the callers spoke about moving out of New Orleans and into a town in which the sheriff and another official were called out on their lack of “political correctness.” The caller kept referencing this idea of “political correctness” and said that he was willing to move his family to an area that had less “political correctness” because “thugs don’t come” to those neighborhoods. Just so you get it right: “thugs” don’t come to neighborhoods where the sheriff isn’t concerned with being “politically incorrect.”

Perhaps one of the pitfalls of having this “PC” shit enter our vernacular is that it is clearly being confused with racism. Thugs—don’t you mean black men, sir?—don’t reside in neighborhoods where the officials are politically incorrect (i.e., racist).

Blah. The segment with Fox was great though, good discussion about the root causes of violence. The man is really on the money. I tried to call in but it was too late; what I wanted to share was a plug for a documentary made in Buffalo. Forgotten City is written and directed by two young men, Addison Henderson and Corey Green. Both were born and raised in Buffalo. Story goes like this: Addison’s friend was murdered by Korey’s. After the death, the two came together to make a documentary about Buffalo, its segregation, economy, and violence. I saw the film a couple weeks ago and it was excellent. Time after time, the individuals in the film cited the lack of jobs as a major cause of violence, drug use, and racism within the city. Jobs, jobs, jobs. It ‘s almost incredible at how often it was the answer.

I think it’s an important film to see, copies are available on the website. If you’re involved in any sort of community where you are—campuses, non-profits, churches, etc—I think it’s worth it to have a screening and discussion.

Susan Be Stolen
July 25, 2006, 2:54 pm
Filed under: Feminism

I will be happy if I never hear an inspirational, Susan B. Anthony quote again. The NOW conference was filled with Susan B references–as introductions to speeches, as reasons to continue the fight, as the epithet to an annual report–and frankly, I’m bored with them. This is not to dismiss what Anthony and her contemporaries accomplished but come on, let’s please stop with this heroine-worship and open up our treasure chest of other women’s stories. I can’t decide if what I witnessed was a function of generational differences–second wave feminists and their lovefest for suffragist leaders, the women they grew up admiring–or theoretical differences–liberal feminists and their lovefest for women who, while admirable, are nonetheless the acceptable faces of a movement that was once-upon-a-time unacceptable.

I’ll take it even further. Allowing Susan B. Anthony, as an iconic figure, to dominate in such a way is like accepting Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks as the faces of the Civil Rights movement. Parks and King were important, no doubt, but their work only scratches the surface of the story. Their dominance in the discussion is a purposeful distraction, keeping the Civil Rights movement easily categorized and convenient for the high school history books. It doesn’t explore the challenges to hierarchal, top-down organizing that groups like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee made, it doesn’t allow us to see beyond the tired narrative of the Chosen One, the Great Leader. Similarly, the theft of Susan B. Anthony by racist, patriarchal institutions–not to mention mainstream, corporate institutions–distracts us from having a dialogue about what she and her comrades really did, including their failures. It’s a disservice to Anthony, to the feminist movement.

I’d like to hear from Emma Goldman more, Ella Baker, Septima Clark, and Carolyn Heilbrun. And these are just the heroines in my small education–who else is out there? In what other mouths can we find the words?

Fan Fiction, Fantasies, & Francesca Lia Block
July 23, 2006, 10:53 am
Filed under: Feminism, Online Community

Note: I wrote this piece in February, posted on a different space. I thought it might be relevant to what I want to write about in the coming weeks.

Meditate on this: last year, my senior year of college, I held a pancake breakfast on the first weekend everyone was back in town. My apartment was crowded—it was a single after all—and we all spent the morning catching up, eating breakfast foods, and glowing in pre-semester optimism. After awhile, the crowd cleared out and a few of my closest friends remained. Somehow, a copy of an old short story I wrote surfaced. It was written in 1994, when I was eleven; it is the only copy of said story known to exist.

My friend Stephen, perhaps because of his reputation for biting sarcasm, was chosen to read aloud “Love at Sea,” the multi-chaptered debut of a young authoress named Whitney. The plot goes like this: two best girlfriends, who are in love with the teen superstar J.R. (quite obviously modeled on Jonathan Taylor Thomas), conspire to find a spot aboard the first ever teen celebrity cruise line. Along the way, they successfully meet–and win over–J.R. and another teen celeb (quite obviously modeled on Andrew Keegan, hello hotness), get their single parents to fall in love (now they’re sisters!), and confirm that their friendship is the stuff of which dreams are made.

The main character, whose name is Amy, looks like me except she’s prettier, thinner, and richer. Her best friend is also pretty and thin but not so much so that she competes with Amy’s features. Amy is bossy and through just a few exchanges of dialogue with her single father and her best friend, it becomes quite clear that Amy is a huge bitch. She is a beautiful and blessed bitch though, who dreams of becoming a marine biologist (like me at that age) and wins the heart of the most popular teen celebrity J.R. At the end of the story, he gives her his home address and Amy, ever the expert on celebrity phenomenon, knows the value of this gift is priceless. I think they kiss at the end too. It goes without saying that I probably creamed my pants all the way through the last page: it was the life I would have created for myself if someone told me I could have everything I wanted.

There are many points of embarrassment for me and as Stephen read, I cringed. The plot is totally unrealistic, on various accounts, including the fact that the characters find flights to Florida and room and board on a cruise ship for $400 each. I can let this slide though; it’s kind of cute that my understanding of expense was so out-of-touch. I can even snort at the line that went something like this: “J.R. danced with the handicapped cruise guests, to be nice.” What really gets me though, and makes me want to toss myself over the rail of my make-believe ship of dreams, are the masturbatory qualities of “Love at Sea.” I was totally obsessed with Jonathan Taylor Thomas; I had a “clip-out love letter” to him published in Teen Beat and his face covered the walls of my bedroom. I had seen an advertisement in Teen Beat, or Tiger Beat or whatever-beat for a cruise on which teen celebrities like JTT would sail. I couldn’t go though, and not because it cost more than $400: it was reserved for handicapped children and/or folks with cancer. I wished that I had cancer at that point or at least enough tragedy in my life to garner a spot aboard the cruise. Instead, I wrote, “Love at Sea.”

It was “Love at Sea” that I thought of this morning when reading an essay in the most recent issue of Bitch: “Me, Myself & I: Fan Fiction and the Art of Self-Insertion” by Keidra Chaney and Raizel Liebler. The first few lines grabbed me right away and my tradition of reading the magazine cover to cover in order was thrown out the window: “It’s a secret rite of passage for many girls, particularly those who are aspiring authors: penning imaginative, often unspeakably bad fiction starring unrealistically perfect heroines…She tends to bear uncanny resemblance to her creator.” They were talking about Amy; they were talking about me.

Chaney and Liebler go on to describe a fan fiction phenomenon called “Mary Sue:” a female character that basically fulfills the author’s fantasy version of herself and/or her idea of the ultimate woman. She is always beautiful, often intelligent, frequently ass kicking, and without fail, the center of whatever scene through which she breezes. They demonstrate how Mary Sue, who gets her name from a landmark Star Trek fan fiction piece written in 1974, has not only popped up in contemporary media fan fiction—including television, film, and literary media—but fiction throughout the past few centuries. “Proto-Mary Sues” have been traipsing throughout literature as long as women have needed an escape from the contradictory, confusing and “unrealistic standards…women and girls” have been forced to follow. She cannot be passed off as another vain undertaking from the hopelessly self-absorbed world of adolescence—there’s something to this Mary Sue chick.

At the point in my life when I wrote, “Love at Sea,”—and as it turns out, other equally ridiculous stories—I was devouring young adult romance series on almost a daily basis. I read the Sunset Island series by Cherie Bennett—a collection that stretches into over thirty books—at least three times, and I found myself so infatuated with a sensitive, blind character named Ben from Katherine Applegate’s Boyfriend/Girlfriend series that I was moved to read all of her books at least as many times as I read Sunset Island. There were other books and series as well but the important point is that they provided me with a world devoid of the not-so-pleasant realities of class, race, or gender. If a problem ever arose for the heroines from Sunset Island, Maine—like when the parents of the children they nannied were pressuring them to spend an entire week on a yacht with Billy Joel and his wife Christy Brinkley (I kid you not) or when their band mate (yes, they were all in a band) died of AIDS—it was quickly fixed with an intimate campfire or girls-night-out where they could cry, profess their love for each other, and move on. But before I knock these books into next week, I want to also credit their authors with helping me become a better reader; it was precisely the escape that they provided which allowed me to read two 150-page books a day. Furthermore, they can also be credited with helping me become a better writer since I was clearly, when I wrote, “Love at Sea,” imitating them.

It has been my experience, mostly an experience that exists online, that the creation of Mary Sues extends beyond the written word for women of fan fiction. In 1999/2000, I was deeply involved with the Francesca Lia Block fan community. It functioned mostly as an email listserv and through my relationships with other men and women in the fan community, I was better able to deal with some tough shit in my life (notably, an eating disorder). Part of what held all of us together was our love for Weetzie—the main character in FLB’s most popular series, Dangerous Angels. I was not alone in wanting to be Weetzie: she was beautiful, funky, and successful and she literally lived in a magical cottage. Weetzie influenced how the women (and few men) on the listserv talked, wrote, dressed, and acted. We discussed making replicas of Weetzie’s outfits; we wore fairy wings in public like Weetzie’s daughter Witchbaby; we made food that fit the description of Weetzie’s picnics. FLB has said, in interviews, that Weetzie was a character that borrowed heavily from her own experiences; I’m sure there are aspects of Weetzie’s life that Block herself dreams of realizing. Weetzie is Block’s Mary Sue. If you need further convincing, read Block’s highly-anticipated return to the Weetzie Bat series, Necklace of Kisses, published last year. Weetzie feels estranged from her family and the life they have created together. The stress and reality of motherhood and long-term partnership have taken their toll on her fantasy world: Weetzie has a mid-life crisis. However, instead of separating from her partner—like Block did recently from her husband—Weetzie meets a magic mermaid and a whole slew of fantastical characters, who help lead her to the final scene of redemption: a wedding with her long-time partner in which she wears vintage Chanel and her necklace of kisses. (Okay, take some time to puke—I did when I read it firsthand.) Perhaps the only way Block could experience the fairytale end she has long wished for—supported by those pesky “unrealistic standards” of perfection and power, as described by Chaney and Liebler—is to create it for Weetzie.

I could go on here for much longer: my relationships with a number of female writers and media-holics (I’m looking at you Kim, Courtney, & Corrie), most of whom I know exclusively online, could support further discussion on the matter. Will support further discussion on the matter. What I want to keep in mind now though, as I close, is that something is going on with this art of self-insertion. It’s easy to think, as we make a Gilmore Girls mix CD or write scenes for Hermione-themed Harry Potter fan fiction, that we are wasting time with a stupid obsession. As Chaney and Liebler point out, fan fiction seems to be a female-dominated scene. We know from history that dismissing female-dominated scenes as a “waste of time” is at its worst a function of a sexist culture that consistently denies women equal access to the halls of legitimacy (among other things, like equal pay) and at its simplest a lazy excuse. We can debate the literary value of fan fiction if you like but first, go out and buy yourself a copy of Bitch and read the essay that begins on page 52. If you can’t find Bitch, look in the back row behind Vogue and Lucky, and if you have some extra time, clear some space for it at the front of the rack.

breathing, becoming
July 23, 2006, 10:27 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Heading back to Buffalo today, I’ve enjoyed the repreive from my insane work hours. I don’t think I realized, since the point of this visit was to attend the conference, that it would be so vacation-like. It helps to come to Brynn’s apartment, with its overflowing bookshelves and librarian posters and clean, cream walls.

I feel renewed by friendship and feminism, sleep and stretching, breathing, becoming.