Better, Less Offensive History

At present I am in a library, staring out a bank of windows at a grassy field. Huge pieces of public art are scattered across the space: a driftwood horse, a strange lemon-fish-bowl assembly, and others, all shaded by giant leafy trees. Yes, I am at a small private liberal arts college. It is my ten-year reunion weekend. And someone just rode by on a unicycle, because of course they did. For the next three days, I will be meeting old friends, walking familiar and forgotten sidewalks, and staring my past self right in the face. It's the emotional equivalent of crossing one's eyes: uncomfortable, perspective-changing, and unsustainable for long periods. I don't have many large regrets, but like anyone I have a collection of small mistakes accumulated over many years, often misunderstood at the time when I made them. Most of these can be boiled down to things like People can be terrible at fearlessly articulating what they need and Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes. I liked who I was in college, and I like who I am now, but my current self is much wiser in many important ways. My past self is also much less afraid in other ways; I am trying to get some of that boldness back without ditching everything I've gained in the intervening years.

This college, where I spent four of the most vivid years of my life, also happens to be on/near the site of a famous missionary massacre during America's western expansionist/genocidal phase. These rolling hills and river valleys were taken from various NDN peoples (Walla Walla, Cayuse, Nez Perce, Colville, and others) by stealth and slaughter. The college itself -- increasingly rich and white -- did and quite probably still does an imperfect job of confronting this history in the course of student life. During my years, I spent much more time reading Ovid and Euripides than reading about the mass death of the Cayuse children from smallpox. Like the college, I am responsible in some part for not adequately confronting the past.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

When we arrived, my husband came back from a visit to the hotel's business center and told me I must visit the second floor. I joined him and to my astonishment discovered a series of paintings depicting scenes from the life and death of Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Most are blandly illustrative, but the others -- well, others are rather more appalling in their choice of subject. Artist David Manuel's website celebrates his tendency to value "historical accuracy over political correctness," and even telling you that in advance cannot prepare you for the effect of seeing these paintings. Since they are slightly bloody and almost certainly triggering, I have put them below the jump.

DavidManuel1

DavidManuel2

These images are so absurdly sensationalized that they are all but parodies of themselves. I believe them to be quite toxic. They remind me of the Pawnee murals from Parks and Recreation -- about whose defacement Leslie Knope says: "We need better security. We also need better, less offensive history."

It's a joke, but we laugh because it's accurate. Our history is full of things to regret, both personally and at a distance. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Chattel slavery. New World colonization and colonialism in Africa. The East India Company. The death of Hypatia. We have a responsibility not to sweep these things under the rug in service of our own comfort. We have a responsibility to face the mistakes we have made and the crimes we have committed. It would be easy at this point to say that I've never personally disenfranchised anyone or committed genocide, but since I also benefit daily from the actions of those who have, I'm going to let that guilty-defensive impulse rest in the darkness where it belongs.

Thoughtlessness can look exactly like malice sometimes.

And these thoughts in my mind are becoming entwined with recent conversations about the depiction of past eras in historical romance, especially in this Vacuous Minx post (the comments are legion and golden). Historical accuracy does of course matter.  Misrepresenting the past does a disservice to truth. But often, a too-perfect representation of the past risks recreating the same violence and harm. Consider how romances set in the American antebellum south so often dehumanize black characters as a matter of course. (Shout-out to Beverly Jenkins' Indigo for doing pretty much the opposite of that.) Consider the ways that aristocratic systems are ennobled (ha! see what I did there), romanticized, and democratized in historical romance. Every duke deserves his rank by merit of character/leadership as well as by birth. Every duke is also kind to his servants.

What matters, I think, are not so much the mistakes, but the mistakes we insist upon repeating. Repetition creates a space for its subject, like water drops wearing away a stone; accumulation becomes important. David Manuel's paintings depict a single historical fact: the Cayuse did in fact kill Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. But to focus on this one moment is to lose sight of the larger truth: Marcus and Narcissa Whitman were active, deliberate participants in a system whose goal was the elimination of the Cayuse people and their culture.

Similarly, historical romance has a marked tendency to focus on equalizing the oppressions of one white, straight, cis, aristocratic couple. The problem is that this is not simply one elision, in one book, by one author. It is the thousandth time this particular and very basic erasure has occurred -- which means it is not precisely a mistake. It is a tactic, a narrative necessity to make the duke palatable as a hero to a modern reader's taste. Romance authors and readers discover these rules without having to speak of them too much.

I am increasingly suspicious of rules we learn without speaking of them too much.

This campus is also where I rediscovered my love of historical romance. I wrote my first fan letter, to Julia Quinn, at a chair not ten feet away from where I'm currently sitting. Romance is an escape, people tell me -- but there are important corollary question: an escape for whom, and an escape from what? Julia Quinn's books gave me a break from the dude-centric, often joyless books I was slogging through at the time in service of a well-rounded education. Now I see what else that education tended to pass over -- and a lot of the same subjects don't appear in Julia Quinn's books, either, even if they could. Patterns shift, and escapes become cages. I still read Julia Quinn -- though I think I'm a few books behind at this point -- but I also hunger for something else. An escape from feeling like the frothy romance is the only acceptable or legitimate kind? An escape from a trope or template that is growing stale for me? I'm not entirely sure.

When I was an undergraduate, everything on campus was designed to convey the feeling: You belong here. I still feel it -- it's woven into the very ground of this campus. It's how I feel about historical romance as well. There is a way in which this belonging is true. There is another way in which it is not. This much I have found, since last I was here.

I wonder what else I have yet to learn?

___

For anyone near Washington, DC, I cannot recommend highly enough the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall. They dive head-first into historical confrontation, amplify NDN voices, and have the best cafeteria in the entire Smithsonian. 

At RT this past May, I was fortunate enough to get a free copy of Carrie Lofty's Starlight, which is a romance with a mill owning hero and a union-leader heroine in Scotland's textile industry. It definitely pulls some punches, but is still really different and enjoyable. I've been thinking I need to read the rest of the series, especially the one set in South Africa.

Bonus image: for those of you who enjoy dark irony, this screenshot comes from David Manuel's website.

Screencap that shows David Manuel's website has been built by a company called Cherokee Designs.

Countess Cover Reveal!

I have just received the cover for my next Ellora's Cave release, available from the publisher's website August 15 and other ebook retailers soon thereafter. Cover image for At His Countess' Pleasure by Olivia Waite.

I'm quite happy with it! I am especially fond of that large swirly P in the word 'pleasure,' and the luscious red of her dress. I must also admit to being initially confused about the shoulder-boob -- but shoulder-boob, you see, is totally the new sideboob. So hot right now.

How Many Does It Take?

  {Trigger warnings for discussions of sexual assault and consent issues, both of which are below the jump. Be aware that this story is also very long, though not very graphic.}

To tell this story properly, I'm going to have to tell it forwards and backwards at the same time. Because I lived it forwards, but only understand it in retrospect. Bear with me, please.

My shortest relationship lasted one month. It was with a guy I'd known for six years, shared dozens of mutual friends, had gone to college with, had been hanging out with pretty extensively for about a year before the relationship started. It was one of those long, slow builds of chemistry between friends that eventually blossoms into dating (my specialty). And it only lasted a month, despite all this, because toward the end of that month, every time he kissed me, I had to fight off the urge to punch him right in the face.

I never told him that -- how could I? How do you explain to someone you care about that every time their lips touch yours, some part of your brain starts yelling HIT HIM, JUST HIT HIM, HIT HIM NOW, HIT HIM HARD. I thought I was going crazy. But it was pretty clear that this was not a sustainable feeling -- I am human and one day my control was going to fray and I was going to do something terrible. So I broke up with him ("This just isn't working for me anymore") and we went back to being just friends. Then drifted apart, as the group dynamics dissolved and grad school took up all my time both waking and sleeping.

Fast forward a year and a half. I'm still in grad school, dating a gentleman I shall refer to as the Romanian, and I come down with a really vicious case of the flu. Backaches, fever, the whole bit. I called him to cancel the next night's date and told him I'd probably be down for a week or so (as the clinic doc had explained it to me). "Look," he said, "I really don't want to come down with this, so if it's okay with you I'll just steer clear and you can call me when you're feeling better."

My reaction to this? Pure, overwhelming, unadulterated relief.

This was also puzzling. Isn't a willingness to help a friend/lover when they're sick one of the most abiding tests of character we have? But there I was, feverish and shaking, so relieved I was almost crying with it. No, not relieved -- reprieved. It was a feeling of safety out of all proportion to the circumstances.

And then I remembered the last time I'd been this sick.

During the third week of that month-long relationship, I'd been sent home from work with a three-digit fever. It was a warm spring, and I was alone in a basement apartment with no air conditioning. Shortest relationship guy -- let's call him SRG because it's nothing like his actual initials -- offered to drive me to his place, where there was an adorable slobbery dog, video games, air conditioning, and someone to make soup for me. This sounded just fine -- remember, taking care of someone you love when they're sick is a moral virtue -- so I took a quick shower to make myself at least slightly respectable and hopped in the car.

I settled in on the couch (beside the dog) while he made me soup and Theraflu. I'd never had Theraflu before, never even heard of it, and quite frankly it struck me as the most marvelous invention ever on account of the way it took all the aches and pains and put them away for a few hours. This was the best I'd felt in days. I should also mention the kind of Theraflu I'd had was the kind chock-full of acetaminophen, and that I'm slightly sensitive to painkillers. Any pain I feel can be killed with just a single Advil -- that's half the recommended dose for adults.

So there I am, finally able to breathe again, feeling fully human for the first time all week, and SRG turns to me and says, "We should totally make out."

I stared at him, blinked a couple times to make sure I'd heard correctly, decided from his expression that he wasn't joking, and attempted a sarcastic, "Um, I'm not really in the mood." Because not even the Theraflu can take away the fever, and I promise you I am still super-contagious, and it is all I can do to stay upright and awake right now, and you think I have the energy for sexytimes? I should also point out that we had not slept together yet -- I was and am a slow mover. At the time I was also a virgin (for a given value of virginity, admittedly -- thanks, Catholic upbringing for making me terrified of spontaneous pregnancy), which SRG was fully aware of.

But he still really, really wanted to make out. "Come on," he says. "It'll feel good." And various other things, all gentle and friendly and smiling. But I do not remember the actual words, because my fever-addled, Tylenol-blinded brain was focused on the one overriding question: What part of this is hot to you? Is it the misery? The listlessness? The fact that I have forgotten to brush my hair in two days? The way I'm only half-involved with what is happening in my own body right now? I could not honestly find in me one single scrap of sexual interest, and was boggled that SRG seemed to be focused exclusively on nothing else.

I kept trying to gently, cordially, smilingly decline making out, but I was exhausted and weak both physically and emotionally, and it was increasingly clear that none of my objections were being actually taken as objections. That the ability to prevent sexytimes was incumbent upon how long I was able to resist, and that the subject was not going to change until I gave in.

"Okay," I finally said. When what I meant was: Let's get it over with.

We went downstairs to his room. Then, deliberately and with turn-off aforethought, I proceeded to attempt the most lackluster kissing anyone has ever achieved on purpose while knowing better. The squid tongue, the sloppy drool, the dead-fish hands, no head tilt, no rhythm, no involvement from anything below the neck. All while keeping a timer running in my head, trying to judge when I could finally try and call a halt, trying to figure out how long was long enough.

And then I started to fall asleep. The Theraflu was working.

Now there was some urgency -- at that moment the worst thing I could think of was falling asleep in this room, with this man. I abandoned the countdown. "I'm getting pretty sleepy," I said, trying to sound apologetic. "I think I'll just take a nap." At this point I realized my shirt was off. I honestly do not remember how or when that happened, and that lack of memory creeps me out to this day.

He agreed and left the room. I like to think my Terrible Kissing Olympics had something to do with it, but I'll never know. I spent an hour laying beneath the covers, shivering, while the aches came back and the sore throat made its presence newly felt. Soon after he drove me back home and I went straight to bed.

Two years later, the realization that the Romanian -- who I had slept with -- found nothing appealing about a feverish girlfriend felt like the best gift he could have given me. It felt safe. I had no idea what to do with this at the time.

Several more years pass. I get my masters, meet Mr. Waite, get married, become an erotic romance author. (Virgin --> married --> erotic romance author = less than five years. That's gotta be some kind of record.) There's a lot of talk about consent in the online romance community, and it builds on things I gleaned by reading Savage Love and Control Tower by Mistress Matisse, both of which appeared in The Stranger during my high school, college, and grad school years. I start noticing how refusals are treated in Romancelandia. I start catching up on the state of feminism online, which is best described as a glorious, frustrating mess. Most importantly, I start reading the stories of other women -- women who've been raped, women who've given in under pressure, women who've felt obliged to submit to men who felt entitled to sexual gratification, no matter what the woman thought about it at the time.

I learn that what happened to me -- what SRG did to me -- qualifies as sexual assault.

I have no cogent idea what to do about that either. I feel that even thinking the term is taking things too far. I go through the laundry list that many of you will by now be very familiar with. It was no big deal, right? I mean, it's not like I was physically hurt. Maybe I didn't make myself clear enough. So many people go through actual rape. It's condescending and patronizing of me to equate a little making out with what happened to a real victim. I should have told him to stop asking. I should have pushed him away. He's a lawyer now and you haven't seen him in years -- what's the point of bringing up old stories and tainting this guy's reputation among those of you who know you in day life and not just via the internet?

And then I remember his girlfriend previous to me -- another college friend. They'd dated since day one of freshman year, and they were that couple that everyone knows is going to get married as soon as they graduate and were going to live happily ever after. My college has a ridiculously high percentage of alumni marrying other alumni, and SRG and Previous Girlfriend seemed tailor-made to fulfill that prophecy. But, strangely, they'd broken up in rather a mysterious, dramatic fashion, details of which were only vaguely sketched in. I remember something about her running out into the snow during a Christmas trip with family, and breaking up with him via phone. At the time it was shockingly inexplicable: what on earth could this nice, normal guy possibly have done to push things to such a point? None of our friends -- and I was closer with his friends than with hers -- could make sense of it.

From where I sit now, the idea of what happened there chills me to the bone.

Suddenly I feel very grateful for whatever wordless part of me started yelling. The hitting voice saved me from something very ugly. I don't like to think about what would have happened if I hadn't listened. I had a great deal invested in this relationship -- again, we were very close friends and were hanging out with the same group of close friends.

SRG did try to get me back, about a month after we broke up, by telling me he'd been about to tell me he loved me, and what did I think of that? And I had one moment to feel terrible, and another moment for the hitting voice to yell some more, and then I realized it was totally possible for me to shrug and purse my lips in sympathy and say, "Oh, that's too bad." And he sat there and waited for quite some time before realizing that was all he was going to get. Even at the time, I felt kind of proud of that.

Since then, I've told this story to a handful of people -- Mr. Waite, certain others, once to a roomful of friends just to see if I was brave enough to get through it. (True story: it was a little awkward.) The fact is that this event lingers: the hitting voice was the first symptom, but was by no means the last. There's a lens now when I look at the world, a color I couldn't see clearly before. A current friend now lives two houses down from where this took place, which I only learned when I went to help assemble ribbon flowers for an upcoming wedding. My hands shook so hard the entire time that I burned myself pretty seriously with a glue gun.

My hands are shaking now as I type this.

The reason I'm telling this story today is because of many things. I've been thinking about telling it for a while. But last night I watched Senator Wendy Davis filibuster a ridiculous abortion bill in Texas, and read about the entwined misogyny and racism in SFWA, and on top of all this crap I found an Awl interview about Redditor Ken Hoinsky funding a seduction manual on Kickstarter and I read the following sentence by Maria Bustillos: I can think of a thousand ways whereby a woman could easily (easily) extricate herself from such a scenario if she were an unwilling participant.

Which: I am glad that Maria Bustillos thinks there are a thousand ways of saying no. I just wish SRG had cared to listen when I said it.

Also, if you're arguing that no coercion is implied by Ken Hoinsky's advice, maybe pick a word that is not "extricate." We lit-crit types notice verbs that give the impression one is pulling free of clinging tentacles, or tangling threads, or sticky substances.

And then there's this gem from the same piece: The literary aspect of this thing, where the parameters are on the woman's side, say like in Pamela, or Pride and Prejudice, the woman's resistance is in part to do with her imperfect understanding of herself, as well as of the man. But she comes to understand herself, and she comes to understand this man, and that is the basis of her acceptance. Both the man and the woman learn, and change.

This takes the cake for Most Pretentious Way of Saying "She Really Wanted It." I mean: "imperfect understanding of herself." Come on.

Pamela, for one thing, was written several centuries ago by a dude, and should by no means be used as an ethical guide for the modern datescape. Pride and Prejudice is an excellent novel and one of my favorites, but the aggressor in that novel is not Mr. Darcy. It is Mr. Collins, who uses every kind of social pressure to try and get Elizabeth Bennet to marry him. He winks at her first refusal, saying he's sure she'll accept the second time. He mentions that without this marriage her family will become destitute upon the death of Elizabeth's father. He deliberately misunderstands her statements, hears what he wants to hear, and its only because of her father's support that Lizzie's refusal is allowed to stand. Whereupon Mr. Collins goes off and marries her best friend, a woman with even less ability to refuse him, and remains self-satisfied and loathsome to the end.

Ken Hoinsky's book, quite frankly, will make Mr. Collinses -- or worse -- of every man who takes its advice. I'm thrilled that many of the comments on Bustillos' piece seem just as appalled as I was by the content of the text. I understand Hoinsky has apologized, but I honestly can't bring myself to click play on that video without getting queasy so I'll have to trust the transcript on that one. And trust is a harder thing for me than it used to be. I can't even trust fictional heroes who send up red flags, much less real-life strangers who have the potential to foment a great deal of harm by proxy. I've learned to grit my teeth and let pass the many Hoinsky's of the world, because life is short and I've got books to write. But something about watching him get an even bigger platform to demonstrate his profound lack of Getting It was just a step too far for me today.

You know who else doesn't Get It? SRG and the many men who've done similar things, who are doing them right now to women and other men. SRG to this day probably thinks he did nothing wrong. I wonder if he even remembers the incident, or if it was just a momentary blip. Ken Hoinsky had no intention of encouraging rape and sexual assault, he says. But this shit happened to me. This shit, shit precisely like this, was a damaging moment in my life. And you watch Ken Hoinsky trying to put the pieces together in the interview, and genuinely attempting to get it right, and he hasn't been at it nearly long enough to understand, and he's kind of awkwardly chagrined, and that is not fucking good enough. This is not an abstract, theoretical puzzle: this is not like being wrong about Kant and then laughing at yourself because you learned you were wrong about Kant. This is about the fundamental safety and humanity of half the human population. I didn't understand it when it happened to me, but that did not stop it from hurting me. Rape culture is phenomenally difficult to, ahem, extricate oneself from.

But yesterday one Texas senator decided to stand up and speak out, and by midnight there were millions of us standing and speaking with her. A chorus of voices raised in support and protest. Today came the news that DOMA and Prop 8 were both dead. While this doesn't take away the Court's shame for invalidating the Voting Rights Act earlier this week, it's good to know that we have fewer battles to fight than we could have. And suddenly we know how strong we can be when all of us stand up, when every voice is raised, when all of us speak at once.

So it's time for me to speak.

In writing this, I've had to constantly resist the impulse to apologize. Sorry for thinking this is a real problem, I want to say. Sorry for being traumatized by one April afternoon, by a relationship that barely even existed. Sorry to those of you who know whom I'm talking about, who may now feel like you have to choose sides. Times like this I take comfort in my small blog readership, I really do. I know I've been lucky: I wasn't physically hurt or scarred, the assault was never repeated, it dazed me but didn't tear me down. But the sheer ordinariness of this incident is haunting. And what we don't need, precisely what we do not need, is a dude telling other dudes to just go ahead and grab a woman, touch her without asking, ignore unstated and stated boundaries, she'll secretly like it, she'll respect you for it, this is what it means to be a winner, this is what it means to be a man.

That advice will hurt people, guaranteed.

I am not the first person to say this and I will not be the last. How many of us does it take?

 

The Point of This Quick Post is that Land Crabs are Super Creepy

We here at Olivia Waite like to think we've learned a lot from romance novels over the years. And one of our recent favorites, Carla Kelly's Beau Crusoe, turned out to be more accurate than we knew at the time. Behold: land crabs!

A picture of a small land crab, perched on the threshold of his burrow.

This particular land crab lives in the Virgin Gorda Yacht Harbor in the British Virgin Islands. (That's the West Indies, to you historical types.) That hole he's sitting in is actually his home. Normally I love crabs and find them fascinating -- not to mention delicious -- but there is something about watching a crab the size of your face scurry sideways into a hole in the ground that is just creepy as all hell. There is the unmistakeable impression that the crab is only waiting until your back is turned and then -- attack!

In sum: we should all read (and write!) more good romance novels with critters that are both real and terrifying.

Things to Read While Olivia is on Vacation

We here at Olivia Waite are going to be spending the next week on a boat in tropical waters, drinking rum and eating fish and snorkeling -- though not all at once, obviously. (That snorkeling mask really gets in the way of a cocktail.) There will be very few showers, very many cold bottles of beer, and always the soothing wash and slap of the sea.

Lately, I've been meaning to write up a post on the state of romance scholarship today. I'm a huge lit-crit nerd and overthinking par excellence, so the new field of popular romance studies is pretty much the greatest gift academia has given me in my lifetime. Since blogging will be tricky in the islands, this seems like a good time to highlight some of the things I've been reading in this brave new world of romance geekery. I've scheduled posts that link to some of my favorite works of romance scholarship available for public consumption. I hope you enjoy, and I'll try and post a few photos and stories during the trip if I get the chance!

While I'm gone, of course,  you could always try one of my books, which are short and steamy and rather charming, if I do say so myself.

Leap Day Birthdays And Other Calendrical Shenanigans

When we here at Olivia Waite hear that Leap Day is coming up, surely we're not alone in thinking, "Frederic finally gets a birthday!" Because if anything is always culturally relevant, it's the nonstop patter-filled story of an uptight young British man finding true love after being mistakenly apprenticed to pirates in his youth. Poor Frederic won't be free of the indenture until he turns 21—since he was born on February 29, it will take him about six decades. Pity the poor soul with a Leap Day Birthday!

A recent episode of Parks and Recreation (Knope 2012!) titled "Jerry's Sweet Sixteen" was based on the same premise: perennial joke-butt Jerry Gurgitch was born on February 29, so from a very technical standpoint he's only had sixteen birthdays.

Of course, the Leap Day Birthday does not mean Jerry has not spent sixty-four years on this planet as it revolves around the sun. The Leap Day Birthday is an aberration that reveals the way we culturally build the idea birthdays: you can live however long you want, but the anniversary of the date you were born is the important day, and if that day comes around only once in four years then those years somehow don't count toward your total age. Like dog years, but in reverse and for people.

Annual birthdays of course were invented by the ancient Romans. This is quite true: according to Denis Feeney's wonderful and mind-bending Caesar's Calendar, the fact that Ovid shares a birthday (and a calendar day) with his brother is the first documented instance of the same date occurring with precisely 365 days between. This was made possible by the recent invention of the Julian calendar (which included leap days, and eventually fell to the Gregorian calendar). Before then, the ancient Greeks would celebrate the date of their birth every month, which sounds like a pretty transparent justification to have symposia all the time with your friends. Hey, οινοχορος! Βring me more birthday wine! It's the 15th again!

Before the Romans began to standardize the calendar, each nation, region, or city-state kept its own history on its own time, with its own reckoning. This sounds terrifyingly chaotic—but it bears pointing out that after the Gregorian calendar was contrived in the 16th century, it took centuries for other nations to adopt its use. Which is to say the date varied from country to country during the periods we like to call the Renaissance, Enlightenment (don't forget the French Republican Calendar!), and Industrial Revolution. The US adopted the current calendar just in time to screw with George Washington's birthday, and Greece only changed calendars in—wait for it—1923.

Let me say that again, because it kind of blows my mind: Greece has not been using the Gregorian calendar for a full century yet.

Maybe it's that I'm always kind of obsessed with the nature of time, or maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but thinking too hard about calendar changes and moving dates and adding/vanishing days is starting to make me fundamentally nervous. Wednesday doesn't exist, not really! It's all just a vast conspiracy by popes and world leaders and elite historians and astronomers and, um, people who enjoy being able to make plans in advance, I guess.

Therefore, as a pleasing distraction, and since we've been talking about time and Romans and Doctor Who, here is a picture of Rory Williams as the Last Centurion. Because nothing is more comforting than a devoted geek in Roman garb.

Ah, that's better ...

The Classic Seattle Snowpocalypso

We here at Olivia Waite have lived in the Seattle area all our life. Over the course of our three decades, it has become apparent to us that there is a peculiar dance that occurs on the rare occasions when we get sudden and huge amounts of snow. It happened this way in 2008, in 1996, and I even remember it happening that one memorable year when we were in third grade and all but two family members were in Hong Kong. I like to call this dance the Seattle Snowpocalypso.

A winter scene from near my home. Heavy snow blankets the ground and the towering evergreen trees, while a lone streetlamp casts a warm, golden glow over part of the scene.

1. Confusion

Is it really snowing? Will it stick? Should I leave work now and stock up on food? What if I leave work now and everyone else leaves work now and we all get caught in traffic and then it really starts to snow? Can I get home without using the Metro bus system? Because if I need to bus home, I should probably do it now, right? Rather than waiting for conditions to worsen and getting stuck on a bus with angry strangers and possibly sliding down a hill and dangling over the freeway? I'm going to see what my Facebook friends are doing. The gods have mercy on you if you have kids to pick up from school.

2. Acceptance.

It's definitely sticking now. They've got three inches on Capitol Hill, and Delphic weather oracle Cliff Mass says it's only going to get worse. I'm on my way home—either fighting my way by inches along an arterial street or crammed onto a bus whose windows are so fogged that nobody inside can tell where we are. Screw this, I'm getting off. Don't even care if this is my stop—I'll hoof it if I have to.

3a. Horror

Knowing that if you slip and break your leg on a slippery patch of sidewalk, it will take ages for an ambulance to arrive. Driving's no better—not with the looming threat of black ice on a twenty-degree grade. That awful moment when you feel the road take control of your car away from you as easily as breathing. Stepping gently on the brakes and feeling the wheels lock but the car keeps moving forward. You knew Seattle was a city on a hill—several of them, technically—but you've never quite realized that means that to get anywhere you must go either up a hill or down a hill. This is a tremendously bad idea and you will have no part in it. Once you get home, you worry about the possibility of power outages. Spoiled food. The story you hear every storm of someone trying to cook indoors on a charcoal stove and dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.

3b. Delight

The city becomes an archipelago of neighborhoods, islands of light in the darkness. The break with mundane routine makes all other social rules seem immediately more flexible. People walk to the bar nearest their house in search of warmth and society, greeting each other with all the effusive delight of those who have survived some great calamity. Impromptu snowball fights and sledding runs are common. This is Seattle, so lots of people have plenty of outdoor winter equipment for mountain climbing and skiing and showshoeing and the like. Crampons become as common here as Uggs are everywhere else. With vehicles immobilized, city streets become accessible to pedestrians in ways that only seem possible in the golden glow of an imagined small-town Main Street. People walk boldly down the center of the street, knowing that no harm will come to them.

4. Knee-Jerk Self-Justification

Family and friends in Oklahoma and Nebraska are making fun of the way we drive in the snow, are they? Well they are giant flat boring places with square city shapes. Our city is a series of hills with mountains on three sides, two lakes, and an ocean. Because of the geography, our streets are necessarily steep and wiggly. Anytime it snows here, it means there is also ice. Especially when it snows for more than two days. Few people have big trucks or heavy off-road vehicles because, duh, it is a city and parking large vehicles is a right pain. There are only a handful of snow plows, and they have to move slowly and carefully on account of those aforementioned hills. So tell you what, Nebraska and Oklahoma, instead of mocking what you do not understand, how about you drive up and down one of the mountains in your state and post a video of that to show us how it's done. Oh, you don't have a mountain in your square, snowy state? Well. (Drops microphone, walks away.)

5. Disillusionment

The snow has turned to rain. Melting happens slowly, as though even the weather is exhausted by the thought that the fun is over and we have to get back to the dull grey winters that wear us down so long before spring comes around to green things up again. And it's almost February. February is the worst. I'd go sit by a fire and drink some single malt for comfort, but I have all this catching up to do from the work days I missed sledding down Queen Anne Avenue. At least I can listen to this appropriately poignant Finnish tango while I work.

Have Yourself A Sexy Lady Christmas, I Guess

We talk a lot every October about "sexy" Halloween costumes, but lately I've started to think a lot about the "sexy" aspects of the Christmas season as well. Part of it is on account of this notorious monstrosity, but a lot of it is about songs that get a lot of play at this time of year, like "Santa Baby" and "Baby It's Cold Outside" and "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)." And then the hopefully-not-last episode of Community up and brought us this masterpiece:

The good people at Persephone Magazine have already talked about this bit and laid out why it's troubling that incompetence is so hot right now. So they've got the infantilization angle covered.

Which means I get to ask: what is the deal with all the sexified lady Santas?

For instance, when you do a search for sexy Santa on Google Images, here is the first set of results.

First screen of Google image results for the term "sexy santa."

Eight ladies, two dudes, and one shot of normal Santa with a sexy lady in his lap.

That is a ridiculously high proportion of sexy ladies to sexy dudes, and it's pretty representative of the results that follow. And that's without quotes; if you add quotations to the phrase "sexy Santa" one of those dudes gets replaced by a sexy lady, and one of the ladies gets replaced by an even sexier lady (assuming sexiness can be quantified by measures like approximate amount of clothing and proximity of ass to camera).

How do we know those ladies are really Santas? Let's recall our Santa identifiers:

Typical Traditional Santa:

  • dude
  • fat
  • white beard
  • wears long sleeves, pants, and fur because it's cold at the North Pole (and also in Rovaniemi, his office in Finland)

Typical Sexy Santa:

  • lady
  • thin
  • clean-shaven, and we're not just talking about the face anymore
  • wears clothing that, to put it mildly, would not be useful in the warding off of hypothermia

The only indicators that these sexy ladies are supposed to be sexy Santas is that they are wearing red clothing with white fur trim and the occasional black leather accent. And a hat. Really, the Santa hat is doing all the work in most of these photos.

It begs the question: are we expecting these sexy ladies to perform the same kind of duties that Santa does?

My answer would be: no. For one thing, there's rarely a sleigh or a reindeer or a pile of presents or anything that might imply travel or gift-giving. These sexy lady Santas are presented as if they themselves are the gift, something to be unwrapped and enjoyed by someone else (hence the "box" innuendo in that Community clip). They're not going to do anything—they're inviting the viewer to do things to them, in unmistakeable accord with the primacy of the male gaze.

The sexy lady Santa, then, is an illustration of how sexual objectification can unmake reality as we know it. In order to be "sexy", a fat bearded dude becomes a thin hairless lady. A shirt becomes a corset or a bra top. Pants become panties, or a skirt if you're lucky. And the very thing that defines Santa—traveling around the world to bring presents to children on Christmas—gets replaced by cheesecake poses and come-hither pouts, passivity in place of activity.

It's enough to make a Scrooge out of anyone.

All I Want For Christmas Is: Boooo!

The year was 1995. I was in eighth grade. Christmas was approaching, and with it a holiday party hosted by a friend of mine, with both boys and girls invited. Including my first crush.

And oh, my friends, I had it bad. Granted, it was mostly based on the fact that he'd accidentally introduced me to the Beatles' Abbey Road—but the more I look back, the more legitimate that appears as a reason to fall in love with someone.

I was an absolute bundle of nerves, sitting in the tinsel-drenched living room while we all opened presents and sipped hot cider, when onto the stereo came a song I'd never heard before: Mariah Carey's All I Want For Christmas is You.

They say that you know you're in love when all the songs make sense. In this case, not only was Mariah singing what was going through my head at the moment, she was doing it while I was sitting in the same room as the love object in question. The effect on me was a shocking, profound, and secret happiness—the sense that someone understood what I was feeling and had put music around it. I bought the single and learned the words. Singing it felt dangerously expressive, even if nobody else was in the room.

It's been one of my favorite Christmas songs ever since—even though I would be soundly rejected when I later worked up the nerve to ask my crush for a date. That never felt like the important part, somehow—what mattered was that I was putting words around my own romantic feelings for the first time, even if I had to borrow someone else's words to do it.

Skip forward to 2011. I've married a lovely man (unrequited crush < thoroughly requited passion) but that Mariah Carey song still gives me goosebumps of happiness. And then Twitter tells me it's been recently covered by Justin Bieber and the video features Mariah Carey.

Despite my better instincts, I couldn't stop myself from watching.

You will be unsurprised to hear that the video is terrible.

I am not going to rant about the ravages of Auto-Tune or Justin Bieber's melodic cop-outs in the second verse. (Though I could.) Instead, I'm going to tell you how they've killed all the power of this song in some very specific and very troubling ways.

First, The Original Version

The song has two official videos. The first is a home-movie-style romp with snow and sledding and an astonishing number of baby animals. It is flirty and fun and warmly intimate.

Mariah throughout is active: she's wrestling Santa in the snow, running, sledding, opening presents, laughing, waving her arms, snuggling with bunnies, and scratching reindeer under the chin. There's not a lot of skin shown (she's got an off-the-shoulder dress at one point, but is wearing it with gloves and leggings). Her smile is frank, open, and friendly. She's sexy, to be sure—but it's the kind of sexy that happens when someone feels good about themselves and the people around them. It feels like a glimpse into a happy, fulfilled life. Actual presents are either adorable baby bunnies, or just an excuse for the kids to put boxes on their heads and make people laugh.

The other Mariah video ups the sex appeal with a little 1960s black-and-white glamor. The aesthetic is a callback to classic girl groups like the Ronettes—a visual reference which would also be picked up later by Alicia Keys' stunning Every Little Bit Hurts and, of course, Beyoncé's Single Ladies.

In her achingly good book Where the Girls Are, author Susan J. Douglas talks about girl groups and sex and girls' experience: "In the 1960s, pop music became the one area of popular culture in which adolescent female voices could be clearly heard." Groups like the Ronettes, the Shirelles, the Supremes, and so on sang about women and girls' approaches to sex and romance, whether traditional ("Goin' to the Chapel"), assertive ("Be My Baby"), or wary ("Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?").

It's pretty clear that the Mariah Carey, Beyoncé, and Alicia Keys videos mentioned above are explicitly weaving their voices into this pattern of female expression. Mariah is front and center at the microphone, in control, making her desires plain. She sings with her whole body, so even though she is on that stage for the whole song, she is neither static nor trapped. Note that this video is also completely free of dudes, even though it's ostensibly a love song addressed to one.

{An aside: The parallels between the power Douglas ascribes to girl-group music and modern explorations of romance reading are pretty interesting. Both are things enjoyed primarily by women, and which serve as a source of bonding and way of navigating the tricky waters of dealing with men and relationships. Both are also ridiculed in the culture at large. In a familiar echo of the constant dismissal of romance, Douglas cites a male music critic discussing girl-group music: "I feel this genre represents the low point in the history of rock 'n' roll."}

The other significant element of this song is its disdain for commercialism—gifts are explicitly dismissed in favor of love, lust, affection, seduction, whatever you want to call it. "I won't even wish for snow," claims the lyric. The idea of Christmas as a time of shopping and buying and money matters is entirely pushed aside in favor of sexual satisfaction. (And if you ask me, there's a clever little double entendre when Mariah sings that "Santa Claus won't make me happy / with a toy on Christmas Day").

This message is more subversive than it may appear. It refutes both the stereotype of the woman as a money-grubbing gold-digger, and the stereotype of the woman as a passive object of sexuality. She's a complete subject, in both grammatical and Foucauldian terms.

And those are basically the two halves of the song: a woman's desire, and the unnecessary nature of presents.

So it makes total sense that it would be covered by a teenage boy standing in the middle of a mall.

The Bieber Variation

I can't compete with the brilliance of Linda Holmes' satirical riff, but there are a few points I'd like to set down.

At the risk of echoing Arrested Development: Who is the "you" in that chorus? Is this really supposed to read as a romance between forty-one-year-old Mariah and seventeen-year-old Justin Bieber? Because whether or not you intended to portray a romance between our two singers, a word that you are going to see tossed around a lot is: uncomfortable.

Or else the romance is between Justin Bieber and a Nintendo DS. I'm not sure that's any better.

And just what is with this one shot in the middle of nowhere?

A screencap of Mariah Carey, wearing a Santa hat and large snowflake earrings. Her head is tilted up and to her left, her eyes are closed, and her lips are parted. She leans slightly forward, and the frame cuts off her shoulders and collarbone before her bodice starts so that she appears to be naked.This is a screencap from the video. It looks as though Mariah is singing, but she is not. This is a brief clip that is inserted at around the 1:08 mark. It is so short as to be almost subliminal, but during that brief window Mariah appears to have a tidynice little orgasm. In a cutout Santa dress. While we watch.

And this takes place between all the pose-y, cheesecake shots of Mariah flashing booty at the camera, which start to feel really creepy by the time four minutes full of them have passed. She's not romping in the snow anymore. She's not owning the stage, or dancing with her girlfriends in Nancy Sinatra boots. She's trapped against this one mystery wall being leered at by a gaggle of high schoolers.

And presumably by the audience, or at least a portion of it. The whole thing reeks of the male gaze.*

*{Aside: sometimes, when I think of the male gaze, this is what comes to mind:

People who have boobs might as well be carrying the One Ring.}

The only explanation for this colossal misstep is that someone wanted to hit as many demographics as possible: Bieber will appeal to the teenage and preteen girls, and Mariah Carey will appeal to middle-aged women who remember her from their youth, and if we sex her up we can get all the straight men and boys watching too. It's a trifecta!

But Bieber & Pals at least get to do something in the video, even though it looks like they're trashing a retail store during the holidays to the dismay of the Macy's daytime staff, who will have to clean up all those boxes they're flinging around. Let's hope there's nothing fragile in there! Meanwhile, Mariah Carey must be content to flirt with the camera in close-up, and we have lost all track of what we're supposed to be feeling and what the song's story is trying to tell us.

And oh, there is product placement everywhere. All I want for Christmas is to mob-rush a mall at midnight where teenagers start handing me gifts for free. I guess that's not as catchy a song title, though.

TL; DR

Maybe being a grown-up these days means you're doomed to see new versions of old things that fail to resonate with you in the same way. (I'm looking at you, Star Wars.) And it's true that holiday albums can be a wasteland of retreads and tired old melodies worn thin from overuse. But this cover feels so nakedly contrary to the original song's theme and presentation that it could be a parody, if it were funny for even a single moment.

It's not Bieber's fault, either. If this were merely a Justin Bieber cover of a popular Mariah Carey tune, that would be one thing. I don't expect pop stars not to make albums they think will sell. I'm an author; I have no stones to throw from my house with the Buy My Books welcome mat on the porch. I also have no particular antipathy for Justin Bieber, who must be having a hell of a time with the voice changes in a frighteningly public setting. (Can you imagine?)

If they'd written a new song, I could have dismissed it easily and gone about my day. If I had never heard the original before, I would not have cared enough to write almost two thousand words about these two different versions and what they mean for our future. But I care, and I cannot exorcize my disappointment except by talking about it. This is the uncanny valley between pop music as a product for sale and pop music as an experience in our lives.

Last Night On Project Boobway

We here at Olivia Waite enjoy Project Runway. It's fun to watch someone else struggle with the killer combination of creativity and deadlines, and it's equally fun whether a designer soars to the heights of fashion glory or crashes and burns in the Valley of Michael Kors' Caustic Semi-Wit. It's also fun to watch the normally hidden process of clothes being designed—at least, until it inevitably bumps up against the reality of women and the fashion industry's general attitude toward them.

Saying last night's episode bumped up against female body issues is like saying the Titanic bumped up against the iceberg.

Photoshopped image of Kate Winslet from GQ, where her belly and thighs have been erased significantly, but where the photoshopper forgot to do the same with the reflection in the background.

Linda Holmes from NPR's Monkey See blog has written a brilliant piece about designer Olivier's glaringly antagonistic attitude toward female body size; I could say the article is written from a feminist perspective,  but really it's written from a realist perspective:

This is partly just a guy who says dumb things on television without thinking, but it's also partly about a very real part of the fashion industry, which is how much it has to do with anything women would actually wear — and how much it's supposed to. Perhaps it's just art, and you might as well demand that all your models be seven feet tall, because when you make art, you can make it however you like.

This particular show, though, specializes in the idea that clothes are for wearing, not just for looking at. And in this strange little moment, Olivier suggested that they aren't for wearing or for looking at, at least if the person looking is a woman. They're for his expression only, and if you don't shut up and wear them quietly, he just doesn't know what to do with you.

Olivier's special target for rage is: his model's supposedly giant boobs. But once she showed up, her boobs looked pretty average-sized to me. But suddenly everything was about boobs. The A.V. Club noticed this as well:

The only significant change with the arrival of the wives is that now, EVERYONE is talking about boobs. No matter what the question is, “boobs” is the answer, like one of those Match Game ’74 episodes where everybody on the panel is all liquored up.

When I was growing up, I knew that bigger boobs were supposedly better from a cultural standpoint. I also read a lot of young-adult books and romance novels where the main characters were fairly flat-chested and learned to love their smaller size. We've all read historicals where the heroine's rival is a voluptuous Other Woman with prodigious cleavage and a way less virginal attitude.

It started to reach a point where being small of boob started to seem, well—classier. More educated. More refined. Audrey Hepburn helped, not to mention the ever-skinnier supermodel. Men like women with huge boobs, the story goes, but women like women with small ones. Big boobs are so—big, you know? They're too obviously sexy. Slutty, even.

Certainly the question of men liking larger boobs was not helped by one of our husbands on Project Runway, who must have spent fully five minutes acting like an overgrown frat boy and talking loudly about how much he enjoyed his wife's massive rack. And then motorboating one of the dress mannequins.

As though his wife's cup size were something he personally had the right to boast of. (Achievement unlocked!) On national television. And then to talk about how his wife's boobs were why he fell in love with her.

I found this appalling.

I've been on both sides of the Boob Divide: I was a B-cup for many years and am now, um, significantly more well-endowed. And it's true that now that my boobs are bigger, I feel less intelligent. Because growing larger boobs obviously means that my body spends less time building and repairing the cells and synapses of my brain. They'll probably be rescinding my masters degree any day now ...

Oh wait that's not even the slightest bit true.

And the one constant, on the spectrum between heroines are small and slender and real women have curves and this NYT trend piece on small cup sizes is this: your boobs define who you are.

And I for one say nuts to that. I've had different cup sizes in my lifetime, and so do my heroines. Some women are curvy and some are surfboards but all of us—all of us!—are real.

Lessons From Disneyland

And so it was that Mr. Waite and I spent a day at Disneyland.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: "Shuttle to Disneyland. A parent behind me: 'That's called a scab.' To the Magic Kingdom!"

As you can see, the day started off perfectly. A child learned something new! We had our sunblock and various layers, but not so many things that it was burdensome to walk for long periods. We also had two tickets for both Disneyland and California Adventure, courtesy of two very generous friends. It was determined that in return for their generosity, we would find them some sort of awesome souvenir.

But until then, grand adventure beckoned!

And then we learned that both Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean—our two top priorities for the day—were both closed.

But there was ... the Matterhorn.

Tweet from Disneyland. Text reads: In line for the Matterhorn to face my childhood demons. #Disneyland #badwithrollercoasters When I was about eight or thereabouts, my family came to Disneyland. It was when they were still building Splash Mountain, if that helps. So the Matterhorn was basically the scariest roller coaster at Disneyland.

Either I had to go along on the ride because my parents refused to separate the family in a place so crowded—it's true I had a notable tendency to get myself lost—or I had some fit of mistaken pride that I could rise to the roller coaster's challenge. Either way, I was horribly, horribly wrong. By the time the cars rolled to a stop, I was in tears and hysterics.

So of course, after two decades, I had to have another try.

Disneyland Tweet. Text reads: No wonder I was terrified of the Matterhorn as a kid: that was terrifying! #Disneyland #stillbadwithrollercoasters The first thing you do on the Matterhorn is ratchet up a steep tunnel in the dark. Pitch-black. Creaking, clanking, ticking sounds that are far from reassuring. You could go left, or right, or plunge into the depths at any moment. I felt the adrenaline kick after three seconds and had to tell myself to breathe normally.

Finally, after an eternity, we found the light. Two glowing Yeti eyes, with a roar, as we began to wind along steep mountainous curves.

I loved those monster eyes—anything was better than the darkness.

And then my seatbelt decided to loosen. So every time we went around a curve, I came up off the seat a little bit. Only my own grip on the bars inside the vehicle was keeping me attached. This was still not as frightening as that initial blind climb.

Soon enough, we were done, and I climbed off the ride with shaking joints and a noticeable lack of breath.

At some point in the course of life, we learn that our childhood memories don't always match up with reality. Yards and playgrounds were not as big as we remember, monsters were not as realistic as memory paints them, facts we put together ourselves from hearsay and conjecture are revealed as glaring mistakes (like how I thought soufflé was pronounced SOFF-ull for an embarrassingly long time).

At some later point, apparently, we have to face the fact that our younger self was right about something.

Childhood Olivia was right: I am not good at roller coasters.

Something else I was right about: Cruella de Ville is awesome.

Picture of a golden-haired, pale-skinned moppet with a dalmation puppy toy. The girl is unwisely offering the puppy to a white-fur-coat-clad, red-gloved, black-and-white-haired woman with pale skin, who more often goes by the name of Cruella de Ville.

We saw a lot of characters on our walk through two parks. Male characters tended to be encased in costumes: Mickey, Pooh (adorable!), Pluto, Goofy, Buzz Lightyear. But most of the female characters are princesses, who are very human and very interactive. And it was only at the end of the day, just before we left to see what California Adventure could offer (turns out, booze), that we spotted Cruella de Ville at the gateward end of Main Street.

I had no idea they had a whole set of villains. Most of them are found only seasonally and in specific locations—but we lucked out, and here was Cruella, trying to get the little girl to give up her dalmatian puppy toy.

It must be challenging to be a Disney character—staying sweet and cheery underneath all that makeup and in that costume and with all those screaming children. More challenging still to be a villain, to walk the fine line between giving children a bit of a chill down the back of their necks and making their experience (and by extension, their parents') a torture and a blot upon the memory.

We watched Cruella for a few minutes, and she was fantastic: pleasant and approachable, but with a sinister air they never let the princesses play with. Look at the way she's holding her hands in the photo above—any woman who wears red gloves and uses her hands that gracefully is probably up to no good. Even kids can figure that part out.

Disneyland: The Blog Experience!

You guys, I am at Disneyland! It was something of an accident.

Mr. Waite is in Anaheim for a week-long conference. I was going to tag along anyways, because we are the kind of couple who can't even spend one night apart without a lot of mooning and sighing and sad puppy dog eyes (not even counting the actual sad puppy dog eyes of our actual sad puppy dog whenever we are separate).

So I looked at the map to see what kinds of things I could get up to while he was off networking and glad-handing and giving inspiring supervillain-esque speeches.

And the map said, "Magic Kingdom Highway."

And I said, "You're across the street from Disneyland?!"

And he said, "Am I?"

And I said, "I'm coming with."

And thus, a vacation was born.

So I'm writing this post late on Sunday night, and scheduling it for Monday (today). Tomorrow, you can find me at Nine Naughty Novelists for a guest post (hooray for guest blogging!) and then on Wednesday, I will be posting photos and impressions from the Magic Kingdom.

Until then, just imagine that I'm doing something like this:

Screencap from The Little Mermaid: Ariel, a pale-skinned mermaid with red hair and a purple seashell bra, poses triumphantly on a spar of rock, while waves burst climactically behind her.

Absence Makes The Blog Grow Fonder

This is going to be a terrible post. I'm going to write it anyway. Events of the past two weeks have been more than a little manic—there were weddings and hospital visits and well-run committee meetings and last-minute opportunities I tried to seize with both hands. it was the most overwhelmed I've felt since graduate school. (If you handle stress by making jewelry and watching sitcoms for hours on end, graduate school is kind of a rough go.) And for the first time since I started this blog a year ago, I let my posting schedule lapse. And lapse. And lapse some more. And with every day that passed, the pressure grew.

Obviously, what I needed to do to get back into the swing of things was to write the Best Blog Post of All Time.

This, as should be obvious, is not that post.

A slanted, narrowly-focused image of the Queen of Clubs from a German deck: a drawing of a pale-skinned woman with blond hair, in a an old-fashioned high-necked gown, holding a bright red flower in her right hand.

When you're trying to write the Best Blog Post of All Time, this is when you learn that all your ideas are completely trivial and uninteresting. You have no wisdom to impart, unless by "wisdom" you mean "ability to look through Etsy listings for awesome things." Or "hey you guys you won't believe this but weddings are an epic party."

Or "hey you guys you won't believe this but living through an episode of House is not as much fun as it sounds, even when your husband is tall and scruffy and handsome like Hugh Laurie and—bonus!—has to wear a temporary eyepatch that makes him look like a sexy supervillain."

Or—and it's entirely probably I will go on and write this post—"hey you guys, I keep hearing these two songs back to back on the radio, and they have got me rethinking everything I thought I knew about Michael Bublé and Josh Groban."

{Ed note: there is a much funnier response to this exact process from the ever-glorious Hyperbole and a Half.}

None of these felt big enough, ambitious enough, real enough to be my first post after a fortnight's absence. This post is neither big nor ambitious—but at least it has the virtue of being real.

Times like this, I am reminded that I am still very new to the process of being a Professional Writer. As in, I'm still learning precisely how to do revisions—the sticky, gory, long-form kind where you juggle several strands of a story that does not go precisely from A to B. The kind where you realize you've just mixed your metaphors—juggling strands, come on—and the whole thing falls apart as a result. And it's really tempting to throw myself into a novella with five steps of plot and then just work on character and scene development.

But that's not how I'm going to get better.

So I'm writing this post knowing it's not the Best Blog Post of All Time, because it needs to be written if I'm going to pick myself up and keep going. And I'll muddle through those revisions, and revisions on the other works in progress, and throughout I will remind myself that completely restructuring a 50,000-word manuscript is an investment in time and patience. And I will cut myself some slack, and when I get really down I will put away the computer and pick up my beading needle and make something like this Dragon Bangle from Nancy Jones' brilliant pattern.

Because sometimes in life, there is a Falling Down. That's inevitable.

You just have to remember about the Getting Up.

Seattle's Two-Day Summer

There is no happiness so potent as being out in Seattle on a sunny day. It's a contagious, city-wide feeling, as though the sluggish, mossy blood in everyone's veins gets replaced by champagne. It's lucky this past weekend was clement, as two of my close friends were getting married in an outdoor sculpture park. It was so beautiful, in fact, that I got off the bus early and walked an extra mile just to be out and about and ended up following this woman for five blocks:

An intersection in the city. A brunette woman with slightly dark skin faces away, wearing a lime-green print sheath dress. She has a large red tote over her right shoulder, and is carrying an orange bucket full of long, thin balloons for the making of animals.

We had our hair and makeup arranged and got the bride laced into her gown and met up with the groomsmen and groom. A limo took all ten of us up to Kerry Park for photos, and then to the Olympic Sculpture Park for more photos. By this time it was nearing 5 p.m. and was about 80 degrees—we bridesmaids were totally happy in our strapless, jewel-toned gowns, but the groomsmen were a bit sweltery in three suit layers.

By this point, too, we'd been out in the sun for most of the day, but the makeup folk had given us plenty of sunblock and nobody was burnt. Instead, we swam through an invisible ocean of good cheer, a collective good mood shared with not only our fellow wedding party members but also the other people walking through the park around us. Dogs played in the chilly waters of Puget Sound, children ran around shrieking happily, passers-by stopped to gawk at the bride in all her glittering beauty.

And then it was time for the ceremony.

I think it's safe to say that the bridesmaids were more nervous than the bride, which is unusual, but everything went perfectly and soon we were standing on the patio, drinking daiquiris while the setting sun turned everything bright gold, including me:

Background is an outdoor patio. Olivia, normally pale of skin, glows golden in the setting sun. Her hair is red, her gown is bright yellow, and her earrings and necklace are glittering amber.The sun went down, the toasts were made, and the band began playing. Mr. Waite and I danced until my feet could dance no more, and didn't get home until midnight.

Nighttime in the pavilion at the Olympic Sculpture park. A white wall to the back is covered in colorful raindrops, and in front are the members of the Portage Bay Big Band. They wear white shirts and dark vests and hold various musical instruments.

It's raining again now, of course, but that's alright. We Seattleites are built for endurance. It will take more than one pleasantly rainy Monday to bring us down from our vitamin-D high.

Pekka Janhunen's Electric Solar Sail

We here at Olivia Waite may have spent our academic life wading through the humanities, but we've got a soft spot for science as well. Even—especially!—the sciences we don't understand. Just ask our college physics professor, poor man. One of our favorite subjects is space—NASA, moon landings, science fiction, anti-gravity, constellations, all that good stuff. We even watched a few episodes of Ancient Aliens before we had to stop because we were yelling at the tv hard enough to break something. (The entire show can be boiled down to that moment in The Core when Aaron Eckhart says the entire premise of this movie couldn't even happen, and megadouche Stanley Tucci cocks an eyebrow and says, despite all logic and reason: "But what if we could?")

And today, idly doing research along the interlinked pages of Wikipedia, we found out about the beautiful, simple, mind-boggling genius of Pekka Janhunen's electric solar sail.

A simple black-and-white line diagram of how the electronic solar sail is designed to work.A primer: the sun is constantly throwing off a stream of positively charged ions in a stream we call solar wind. Regular solar sails are very thin metal or mirrors; because there is no atmosphere in space, the ions push against the thin material of the sail and create force, propelling the spacecraft forward.

So basically: you're sailing on light instead of on wind as Earthbound sailboats do.

As if this were not awesome enough, Pekka Janhunen (hän on suomalainen!) has taken it one step further: his electric solar sail is not a large sheet of material—instead, his design uses a number of long, thin wires tethered to the spacecraft and flowering outward. Electrons are pulled from the wires and fired away using an electron gun, which means the wires themselves are positively charged, which in turn means they repel the ions in the solar wind. Because of the electrical field around the wires, the ions react as if there were an entire sail there instead of just a thin wire outline.

And this is not only elegant and simple and damn brilliant—it is lovely.

A view of space, black and starry, with golden gusts of solar wind in the lower and left side of frame. A tiny spacecraft sits at the center of a starburst of glowing green electric wires, with arrows indicating the direction of ion movement and the pressure of the electron gun.

So beautiful! So poetic an idea! Sailing with invisible sails, on the light from a star, through the vastness of space …

... Until Somebody Loses An Eye.

We here at Olivia Waite love books most, but we've also got a huge soft spot for games. Board games, video games, word games, fictional games—you name it. So when the always-intriguing ROFL Initiative mentioned an upcoming blogfest on this very subject, we hopped right on board. A light blue box with two rolling dice and light blue block text reading: It's All Fun & Games Blogfest, June 6, 2011.

So here are, in order, my three favorite games and why:

1. Carcassonne.

This was a board game first, but since we live in the future I play on Xbox 360 because the system does all the fiddly scoring for me. This game is the perfect balance of chance and strategy: you can do a certain amount of planning, but the random tile generator thwarts any really intricate long-term hopes. You have to stay agile and quick on your feet, ready to shift directions if the tiles aren't working with you.

I play, on average, about thirty or so games a day.

If this sounds high, I should explain that I use it as a punctuated break in my writing process. If I write two hundred words, I've earned a game. Carcassonne feels like a break, but each game is over so quickly that it doesn't really pull me out of the writing frame of mind and I haven't lost more than five minutes of time. (How many writers can say that about, oh, Twitter?) After two or three game-breaks, I usually get so caught up in how the words are flowing that I forget to take a game-break until three or four hundred words have gone by.

It's safe to say that Carcassonne is largely responsible for the fact that I have two books and three other completed manuscripts of various lengths and genres. Now if I could figure out the right break rhythm to use for revisions, there'd be no stopping me.

2. The World According to Ubi

Ubi is what would happen if a bunch of Freemasons tried to invent the Trivial Pursuit of geography circa 1985. Ubi is the Latin word for "where," and it is the first word of every question. There is a large map covered in numbered hexagons. You are asked a trivia question, and to find the answer you take the reticle that red hexagonal lens) and place it over the part of the map where you think the question is pointing. Your answer is the number of the hexagon (and, sometimes, the particular lettered segment of hexagon).

The game is very, very hard. Not least because maps have gone through great changes since 1985.

Here is a sample question: Ubi Hard-Hearted Hannah?

And to answer, you have to know or guess that there is a song, "Hard-Hearted Hannah, the Vamp of Savannah." Then you have to find Savannah, Georgia on the map, line up the hexagons just right, and answer in numerical form. Done right, there is a very inefficient secret code waiting to be written using this game as a key.

Each right answer gets you a piece of the pyramid, and when your pyramid is done, you win!

 

Pieces of the board game The World According to Ubi: a triangle box with a giant human eye, four red-block pyramids, a red hexagonal lens, and a map covered in numbered hexagons.

You see why I name-checked the Freemasons.

But this game also manages to ask two trivia questions in one, which as a trivia junkie is like automatically making my cocktail a double at no extra charge. Plus, you can ask hard-hitting critical questions like, Why is there a category for the Americas, for Europe, and for Water -- but Asia, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia are lumped together under Universal?.

And some of the questions are fake, such as: Where was the last unicorn sighted? It is a board game that enjoys messing with the players' heads.

3. Murder

In my first two years of college, I hung out with a lot of theater kids because they were interesting and always up to some kind of trouble. We lit alcohol on fire, climbed onto the roof of the theater, and played a ton of this game, which requires nothing other than a willingness to lie to your friends and hope they're deceived. Theater kids have that in spades.

One person is the Narrator, one person is the Murderer, one person is the Sheriff, and the rest of the players are Townspeople. The Narrator chooses who is who while everyone keeps their eyes closed. The game begins when the Narrator asks the Murderer to open their eyes and point to someone—that person is now Dead. The Sheriff now has a chance to open his/her eyes and indicate which person is suspected of being the Murderer, and the Narrator tells them whether or not the guess is correct. The Townspeople then "wake up" to find one of their own has been killed, and have to nominate one person to execute for the murder. If they are right—they win! If they are wrong—they go to sleep, and the Murderer strikes again, and the next round of arguing starts. Nobody knows who the Sheriff is unless the Sheriff happens to be killed.

If you play with witty people, this is a lot like having your own personal Thin Man accusatory dinner scene, which is enormous fun.

And it turned out that these interesting friends of mine thought they were far more interesting than I was. Which was a sad revelation—but it also gave me a huge edge in this game. It was assumed that since I wasn't particularly good as an actor, that I wasn't particularly good as a liar either.

Turns out I'm a much better actor and liar when I'm writing my own dialogue.

I look back on this game as an early crash course in clarifying motivations and agendas for fiction-writing.

Snakes In The Stacks

  The information desk at the indie bookstore where I used to work is a concrete fortress. Black, pitted surfaces and a waist-high counter made me feel A) totally safe, and B) oracular, like the Pythia at Delphi. For an hour a day, I could survey the vastness of my domain and solve book-related questions for the print-loving suppliants who came to ask for help.

A giant question mark sign labeled INFORMATION hangs over a wide space full of shalves and books.But, like gunslingers in the old West, such power invites challengers.

One day, a thin young man in his late teens or early twenties approached the information desk. I remember thinking that he looked, well, intense. "Can I help you?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm looking for a book on snakes."

"Snakes in the wild or snakes as pets?"

"Snakes like this."

And he held up the tiny snake wrapped around his right hand.

At this point time seemed to slow down. I was able to look very carefully and very quickly at a host of important details: the snake was flicking its tongue in and out and bobbing its snakey little head, so it was definitely alive. Not a fake snake. A real live snake, six inches from my nose.

The young man stood there waiting patiently for me to scream, or faint, or generally lose my bookstore cool.

Unfortunately for this young man, I had recently gone to the zoo. And I remembered one of the things I learned from the reptile house. "Ah," I said, voice steady and calm. "I see that's a baby king snake, with one of the peculiar color variations from being bred in captivity."

The young man blinked. "Um," he said. "Yeah."

"We've got the books you're looking for right over here."

I walked him over to the nature section and the shelf of snake books and then returned to my concrete fortress. Less than a minute later, the young man and his snake were on their way out the door—the snake looked calm and complacent, but the young man looked distinctly unhappy.

I saved all my pity for the snake.

The cover of The Encyclopedia of Snakes by Chris Mattison.

 

The Amazing Glass Sculptures of Lucio Bubacco

We here at Olivia Waite did not sleep particularly well last night. (Dear dream dictionary: what does it mean when you dream that the bottom of your foot is pink and black and flaky like a grilled salmon? We are totally stumped.) As a direct result, we are a little slow of brain this morning, so writing the incisive, thoughtful blog post we wanted to write seems a bit beyond our capabilities. The warm, sleeping puppy snoring in our lap is hardly helping matters.

So instead, here are some pretty pictures of the work of Lucio Bubacco, an Italian glass artist. I've never seen anything like them.

Cream glass winged figures with clear glass supports.

A goblet surrounded and supported by the figures of cream-glass angels and red-glass devils.

A white glass woman opens her legs for penetration by Zeus in the form of a white glass swan.

A dark purple glass woman with hand outstretched, and sinuous purple glass snakes for hair.

A black glass figure of a woman, Daphne, whose arms are becoming branches, hair leaves, and legs the roots of a tree. The black glass figure of Apollo attempts to embrace her as she transforms.

Ed Emberley Helped Me Draw This Penis

We here at Olivia Waite spent a lot of time recently thinking about libraries. (The short version: go libraries!) And then we read this morning's xkcd and had a flash of memory: there was one set of books we requested and checked out over and over as a kid in the Sno-Isle Regional Library System. Those books were the addictive and life-changing drawing books of a gentleman known as Ed Emberley. Here is his lovely website, which features the dragon I spent entire months drawing all over my school notebooks—a dragon that is almost certainly a direct ancestor of Trogdor the Burninator. Here is how Ed Emberley changes the lives of kids everywhere: if you can draw a circle …

A black circle on a white background

… and a triangle …

A black triangle, point-down, on a white background

… then you can put them together to make an ice cream cone …

A triangle beneath a circle, to suggest an ice cream cone… or a bird …

A circle bird head with two smaller circles for eyes and a triangle for a beak

Or anything else you like.

And thus the terrifying idea of drawing a complex, living, moving creature—bird, snake, dragon—is reduced to a simple question of lines and shapes. You take things apart into circles and squares and V-shapes and U-shapes, and then you put them back together! You draw anything you can see! And if you're a total nerd, which I definitely was, you can whip out your ruler and your compass and you can make those circles and straight lines precise to the point where others question your mental stability.

And now, for the first time ever, please allow me to introduce the hero and heroine of my forthcoming Ellora's Cave erotic historical romance "Generous Fire":

A stick-figure man in a top hat and cravat. Text reads: Frederick Topper, headmaster, quietly commanding.Side view of a stick-figure woman with chignon, high-necked dress, and a downcast face. Text reads: Caroline Tisdale, Latin instructress, hiding her passionate nature, good luck with that.

It's a wonder they didn't ask me to design the cover, eh?

The trouble, of course, is that I never lost the habit of dividing things into circles and squares and lines as I grew older, which makes for some doodles that would never make it into one of the vaunted Mr. Emberley's books:

A half-circle and lines that look like a penis, with two circles for balls.Happy Monday, everyone!