Monday, May 25, 2015

Maddening Max: The Hollywood Heteropatriarchy Strikes Again!

Theron as the badass Furiosa.
Some reviews would have you believe that the new Mad Max film, Mad Max: Fury Road, is
somehow feminist due to its badass female character, “Furiosa,” played by Charlize Theron. In fact, some Men’s Rights groups have called for boycotts of the film, incensed as they are by Theron’s turn as a dirt-spattered, shaved-head, gun-slinging, ace truck driver determined to screw the postapocalyptic patriarchy.

This fact alone suggests that the film is doing something transgressive with its representation of women and women’s agency. Unfortunately, Furiosa’s fury is not nearly enough to deem this film “feminist.” If anything, the feminist buzz around the film is dangerous, as it blinds audiences to all the heteropatriarchal banalities we have gotten so used to in action films.

Additionally, the film is just bad. The original Mad Max movies (which I have only heard about, never seen) were mostly car chases with little to no plot set against the backdrop of a red-hazed postapocalyptic landscape populated by maniacs and murderers. In that sense, the new film is not really a re-boot of the original, but more a homage to it. Little has changed: the film has more car chases and less plot or character development than a “Fast and Furious” film (of which I have seen at least 3, so that’s saying something). This film dazzles the viewer with sped-up action sequences, frequent vehicular fires and explosions, and a flame-throwing electric guitar, all of which serve to make the film seem excessively “cool”—but ultimately degenerates into visual chaos and confusion that is nearly migrane-inducing.

"Immortan Joe"--is he creepy enough
for ya?
From what I could glean, “Max,” who is introduced in an initial sequence of explosions, lizard-eating, and foot-chases, is a survivor of the apocalypse and its now-vicious inhabitants. As in many postapocalyptic films, the future is now run by the worst kind of criminals who enjoy torture, death, and power. They run the world, including its natural (and unnatural) resources: water, oil, and bullets. Max is kidnapped by the “War Boys,” disciples of “Immortan Joe,” a ghastly, Beetlejuice-like weirdo who controls the water—and the sexiest women of the colony, forcing them to father his children. Wives past their sexiness in life are forced to pump breastmilk for Joe and his war boys like cows in a dairy farm.

Imperator Furiosa sets off the events of the film by taking the sexy wives and hiding them in a large tanker, pretending to be on a mission to Oil Town. When she veers off course in an attempt to get the girls to safety (all of whom look like models and are, naturally, scantily clad throughout the film), she sets off an insane, hour-long car chase/battle sequence during which she meets Max and they become allies. In the second half of the film, Furiosa reunites with her home colony, an all-female colony, only to learn that there are only about 10 survivors, most of whom are elderly, and that their home, “the green place,” is now despoiled and dried up. They have no choice but to go back, fight the gangsters of Water Town, Oil Town, and Bullet Town (very creative names), and take back Water Town for the people.

Throughout the film, I grant you, Furiosa is a total badass. Charlize Theron, despite starting out as a model, has shown over and over again that not only is she a versatile and convincing actress, but she likes a challenge. As Furiosa, she is probably one of the most interesting female characters in an action film, postapocalyptic or not, to get on screen. By contrast, Max, played by Tom Hardy, says about 10 lines in the film, and outshines Furiosa in no apparent way whatsoever.

On the other hand, it’s hard to ignore the fact, as a feminist viewer and critic, that the film centers around the fight over women’s bodies. What makes the bad guys “bad” is that they are nasty old men who want all the hot chicks for themselves. The film seems to suggest that this is a result of the postapocalyptic order, rather than acknowledging that this is happening RIGHT NOW. The girls who escape, the “wives,” have some agency, but overall they are dainty, in need of saving, and, as mentioned already, wear incredibly revealing outfits, as if Furiosa were capable of getting 50 guns for the trip to the green place, but it didn’t occur to her to get a couple of coats and pairs of pants for the girls.
I've dubbed them "the sexy wives" aka the breeders.
These women need saving.
Then there is the fact that none of the powerful compounds have any women warriors—aside from Furiosa. All the “towns” or compounds are run by degenerate men who cannot function without breathing prosthetics or who display other striking health conditions, such as missing noses or legs bloated with postapocalyptic edema. Their warrior army, who, throughout the film, call out the war cry “Valhalla!”, are all men. Meanwhile, the women of the former “green place,” a colony not expressly described but, it is hinted, was a peaceful place focused on cultivating the land and sisterhood, cannot survive.

Clearly, in the postapocalypse, peaceful people aren’t tough (or something). Why not make the colony strong and vital? Why not have 100 survivor women to take back to Water Town? Or even 50? Instead, we get a paltry handful (maybe 10?).  I’m always left wondering if the filmmakers consciously decided to keep the green colony survivor group small, or is it simply that the filmmakers could not envision an entire colony of tough, brutal women survivors to begin with?

Instead, on the journey back to Water Town, about half of the green place survivors are killed in brutal ways on the road back to redemption. Luckily, so is Joe, his bloated body presented to the remaining leadership of Water Town as proof that his reign is over. Furiosa and Max share a final, farewell glance that is, thankfully, devoid of any romantic overtones. The movie at least gets that right: there is no sexual tension between our two heroes. They are joined in their mutual quest, for as long as it lasts, and then they go their separate ways.

For myself, I wish I could have my $12 back, and I wouldn’t even need one more parting glance to know that a true postapocalyptic vision would be one where women are part of the power structure, actively molding it and controlling it. Instead, this film, like so many others, suggests that the new world order would simply be the one we have now.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Don't Mess with Texas

20 Things I've Learned About Texas (in the 1st 2 months...)

1. People are REALLY proud to live in Texas--they put stickers on their Toyota trucks that say "Made in Texas" to prove to all the Ford & Chevy drivers that they are still supporting Texas.
2. Trucks.
3. "Don't Mess with Texas" is the slogan of the anti-littering campaign.
4. 90 degrees does, eventually, feel cool.
5. People really can't drive worth a crap.
6. There is lots of scary wildlife, like, everywhere, including tarantulas in the park.
7. Every taco imaginable can be found here.
8. Not everyone talks with a twang.
9. Cowboy hats are practical headwear, especially for balding Texans.
10. There are sidewalks, but you wouldn't want to walk on them, because you'd melt.
11. Your car is always dusty.
12. "Maine Root" is actually a Texas product.
13. Central Market is better than Whole Foods.

14. Beer is cheap here. So is gas.
15. For a state that seems so proud of its rebellious heritage, there are a lot of rules/laws to follow.
16. Kolaches & Czech/German culture that pop up in random places.
17. Everyone wants you to go to New Braunfels.
18. Everything is better in Austin. Except for the people who prefer San Antonio.
19. There are cacti everywhere. And palm trees. It's kind of like Phoenix, but more humid.
20. "Six Flags"theme park is named after the six flags over Texas, showing the different flags that have been flown over Texas throughout history. (Laredo has SEVEN, 'cause we're special.)

Next week: the Laredo edition!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

On Moving & Being with Yourself

I took a walk today, and I saw a dead dog. On the sidewalk. Lying stiffly in a pool of blood.

And I had no one to tell it to!

I could probably just stop writing right there, and this would be enough to justify my blog post, but instead I will keep going. Because I’m living alone for the first time in…well…forever, and I just need to tell someone something. Anything. But since that would be boring, I’ve opted for telling you all about moving and being alone, which I have optimistically re-named, “Being with Yourself.”

Hmmm….that could sound dirty. But you know what I mean. Being by yourself implicitly suggests the aloneness of the endeavor. Being with yourself suggests that you are your own best friend, boon companion, onlooker, mutual friend, etc.

I’m still working on that part…

I have never lived on my own; after I left home, I had roommates throughout college and afterwards, in that strange period of time when you are Becoming an Adult, also known as the show “Girls,” I also always lived with others. Even if I didn’t talk to them very often, there was always a Presence there to speak to. Though there were times when even roommates did not seem like enough. Living on my own again reminds me of the times when I lived with roommates who had their own lives, leaving me frequently at home to fend for myself, which often ended in listening compulsively to Dido and Coldplay and bemoaning my post-college aloneness.

For the last six years, however, I have had a constant companion in the form of my wife and best friend, K. For the last six years, in fact, we have barely been apart (not in a creepy way…but with a touch of co-dependence, I will admit). Three weeks apart when I traveled to visit relatives abroad? That last week was always so painful and drawn out! And now here we are, living apart, 1200 miles apart, in fact, and though it could be worse (we are, at least, in the same time zone and on the same continent and country), it feels strange to be missing that ever-present witness to my everyday, humdrum existence.

It doesn’t help that I am also currently adjusting to living in a new place, in a new state, with a new job. I moved last year and that seemed like quite the move, but moving with someone, it turns out, is quite preferable to moving alone. I mean, with only myself. (Think positive! or is it “Think positively!”?) Even when you know no one, you still have that person who is required, by law and love, to accompany you as you get lost in new neighborhoods, go to bad restaurants, and get stared at by the locals who, through some kind of 6th sense, innately know you don’t belong.

The last time I moved somewhere totally new and was totally on my own was when I moved to New York City for my MA. I, somewhat naively and mistakenly, believed that since I was going to school and living in Brooklyn, I would automatically make fast friends with everyone else in my program. NYC is, however, a heartless mistress; people move there with friends or they go to school there, they stay, set up networks, and then get so entangled in them that they find little time for newcomers. It’s an insular world, and, while I enjoyed certain aspects of life in the City, it never felt like home. When I packed up and moved to Long Island, it was with a certain relief: here were trees! clean air! and, luckily for me, other desperate, lonely phd students who were eager to make friends—like I was.

Many people have written about how it’s harder to make good friends the older that you get. I’m not sure that is true; sometimes I think it depends on where you are and what you do. Between academia, which attracts certain kinds of lonely intellectuals, the outcasts growing up who are constantly searching for friends who understand the lifestyle, and roller derby, which is centered around bonding and friendship in addition to sportsmanship, it was fairly easy to adjust to life in Tennessee.

Here in Texas, however, I feel, at the moment, adrift in space. I check Facebook addictively to see who else is out there, online, feeding off the meager energy of virtual life. If I put something online, then it exists; if I don’t, then, it would seem, it doesn’t. I know that with time, I will meet more people, make friends, get settled. I don’t doubt that. But how can I come to terms with being with myself, all the time, without being just lonely?

And who am I supposed to turn to when I see a dead dog on the sidewalk?

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I Heart Tennessee...No, really!

As my time in Tennessee comes ever more swiftly to an end, I am prone to reflecting on the last 10 months. When we moved here with K. last August, it was both exciting and terrifying to be in a new place. We moved with nary more than a carload of stuff and spent the first two to three weeks in Cookeville alternating between cleaning our new home (which was rather disgusting, as if the people who had lived there previously just gave up on taking care of it once they realized they were moving) and spending our savings on furnishing it from the ground up. We had jettisoned so much of our stuff in the move that we had to buy almost everything from scratch, from shelves to soup ladles, from couches to kitchen cleaners.

When I recall that first month of living off Subway sandwiches, killing cockroaches multiple times a day, not knowing hardly a soul…I hardly want to move again. But when I remember how quickly and pleasantly we made new friends and established ourselves at work and in the community, I feel a bit better about our impending move. K. and I meet and make friends easily, we open our homes to people, we get involved. We also, I think, search out people like ourselves, thinkers, doers, creative folks, etc. We taste the local cuisine and patronize local businesses, preferring local over chain whenever possible.

Many people both here and in New York look at us askance when we say that we moved from New York to Tennessee. They all seem to be thinking, “Why would you do that?” I remember having the same thought when I met a woman in Maryland who was part-owner of a local business there but fondly reminisced about her youth in New York City. “Why did you leave?” I asked her aghast, my 23-year-old brain unable to comprehend why anyone would leave the most amazing, creative, sociable, cutting-edge place in the world.
Awesome view of New York, which I also love.
After living in Tennessee for ten months, however, I think I have the answer. And that answer is, that creative and awesome people are everywhere—and so are small-minded assholes.

New Yorkers, after all, are notorious for believing they live in “the best city in the world.” I was told multiple times while living there a version of the following sentiment: Everything that is the best in the world is here, so why leave or live anywhere else? or If it’s not in New York, it doesn’t exist. But when I moved to Long Island, I encountered the same attitude: Why go to New York City when we have so many amazing things here on Long Island?

One of my favorite Long Island anecdotes is actually K.’s. She went in for a check-up, and the doctor, a handsome man from the South, was playing some classic jazz tunes on his in-office radio: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, that type of thing. After he left, the nurse helping out leaned over to K. and said, with a thick Long Island accent, “Can you believe this music? I mean, what a hick!” We cackled and cackled over this response later because, to us, it was obvious that this nurse was the hick; what cultivated, cultured human being doesn’t like Louis Armstrong?

Case in point, hicks, or small-minded folks, are everywhere. You don’t have to go to Tennessee or anywhere else a New Yorker might consider “the boonies” or “flyover country” to find hicks. They are in your backyard. They are the people who refuse to leave New York because “why bother?” They are in New York City just as much as they are in the Tennessee hills or in London or in China or in a village in Provence, Peru or Polynesia.
An asshole by any other name is still an asshole.
Conversely, there are also educated, questioning, creative, curious, intellectual, fabulous, fashionable and free-thinking people everywhere as well. Here in the wilds of the Upper Cumberland plateau, I have had the pleasure of meeting writers, artists, philosophers, thinkers, poets, actors, readers, vegans and vegetarians, organic gardeners, musicians and many more category of open-minded, wordly people who, for one reason or another, live here and not anywhere else.

Of course, it is a lot easier, perhaps, to find these people in big cities. And cities also provide other kinds of built-in conveniences like arts newspapers or LGBT publications, a plethora of organizations putting together events constantly, maybe a wider variety of shops catering to your person interests and needs. Still, I have found charming bookstores, comfy cafes, enlightened conversation, and delicious local eats right here in my proverbial backyard, along with the greenery, rolling hills, lakes and rivers that make it clear to me why artists, thinkers and writers would choose to live here rather than, say, Nashville. There a few more beautiful views than the green hills and clear streams of our very own Putnam County here.
A view of Center Hill Lake last fall when we visited the Appalachian Center for Craft,
a satellite campus of Tech, where students can study weaving, blacksmithing & woodworking,
among other crafts. The public can take workshops there, too.

When I tell people that I really will miss Cookeville and our friends here, many of them seem doubtful. “Well,” they say, “You are just good at finding the bright side of things.” And maybe that is true; but maybe it is also true that there are good things to be found nearly everywhere.
Cane Creek Park, on the western edge of town. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Backpacking in the Smokies; or, How I Almost Died Many Times in the Woods

OK, so maybe my subtitle is a little on the alarmist side….there was probably never any real danger of my dying while hiking in the Smokies last week, though spending even a night in a tent in a forest is generally enough to give me the willies.

Why do we put ourselves through this? This question was on my mind the whole time, starting, many weeks ago, when K. first suggested we go backpacking in the Smokies when her sister L. and brother-in-law C. came to visit. We’ll just find an “easy” or “moderate” trail, we’ll reserve our backcountry campsites in the Smokies ahead of time, and we’ll pray it doesn’t rain the whole time. Easy-peasy.

Backpacking is never an easy endeavor, however. First off, choosing a trail without ever having walked it before can be treacherous. You have to read the topo maps very carefully with an eye to elevations; you have to research the trail online and see what previous people have reported. What is “moderate” for some might be “treacherously exhausting” for others. Then you have to figure out how to pack food that is a) light, b) doesn’t spoil, c) is not disgusting, and d) can be eaten uncooked or cooked over a teeny tiny gas stove. You also have to pack clothes for all kinds of weather (luckily in the Smokies we don’t have to worry about snow in May, at least not at our elevation), your tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, said stove & pots, a pump to clean the river/lake water, emergency whistles & blankets, Swiss army knife, toilet paper, camp spork…the list goes on and on.

It takes a lot of preparation to leave civilization!

We decided to hike around in the Lake Fontana area, which is actually in North Carolina, though much of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is actually in Tennessee. It sounded like it would be nice, with few other campers to contend with. Plus, to get to the Hazel Creek Trail, we would be taking a ferry—exciting! There would be lots of access to water and the weather was promising. The ferry was a little expensive, so we figured we’d just hike back to our car over the course of days 2 & 3.

Day 1 would be a “short” 5-mile hike to a campsite, day 2 would be backtracking plus an additional 4 miles to the next camp site, and day five would be 5 miles. Sounded a little daunting to me (I kept thinking about my first time backpacking when we went the wrong way down the AT and ended up having to go up switchbacks and rock scrambles in the rain, camp in an undesignated site, and backtrack the next day, during which I could barely move because I was so sore), but K. assured me it was an easy-to-moderate trail.

Ride the Dragon

Our first adventure happened on the way to the ferry. In all our planning, we had never really looked closely at the roads we would be driving to and from the Park. Of course, I think we knew, vaguely, we’d be driving in the mountains, but compared to the Rockies, the Smokies seemed like they should be relatively easy. We rented a car so we wouldn’t have to worry about mechanical problems and set off. We were in a bit of a hurry to catch the noon ferry and contending with losing an hour by crossing into Eastern Time when we started seeing signs for the “Dragon.”

WTF is that? we said. Is that some not-so-subtle reference to the KKK? There were lots of signs signaling twisty roads, but for a while, nothing happened. We were gaining some elevation when we saw a photographer sitting next to a car that had a big URL on it. They were taking our photo! WTF srsly!? Then, around another turn, there was another photographer, and a little further up the road, another. Suddenly, the road turned into nothing but hairpin turns, one right after the other. I was driving, which was good, since it meant I wasn’t getting carsick by all the turning; it was bad, though, when suddenly I pushed down on the gas pedal and nothing happened.

And I mean nothing. I pumped it and pumped it and still nothing. The car slowed down to almost a stop as we went uphill around another turn. There was a turnoff area just ahead—up the hill. We were all starting to freak out when someone asked, “Is there gas?” I looked at the gas meter—E! Totally and completely empty. In our rush to get to the ferry on time, combined with the fact that it was a rental and had a different display that I wasn’t used to, I had completely neglected to note where we were on gas.

For a moment, I think we were all shaking. I mean—there we were, on a curve, up a hill, with no gas, on a one-lane-each-way road roaring with motorcyclists who were taking the curves like they were no biggie. K.’s sister stood on the other side of the road to warn motorists of our inanimate vehicle blocking the road, and luckily, for us, very quickly a grizzled Vietnam Vet named Eddie pulled over and declared (after informing us that we “can’t park here” and learning that we had run out of gas) that he would help us. He drove a beat up sedan that had seen much better days, the backseat of which was home to four fat Chihuahuas. Eddie himself looked like he had seen better days, but he was friendly enough and his own volunteer spirit encouraged 2 motorcyclists, both young men in their prime, to pull over and help push our car up the hill to the pull off area. Afterwards, Eddie drove C. to the nearest gas station and returned him with a gallon (they only had a 1 gallon canister!) and then followed to the gas station to make sure we got there ok.

At the gas station, we learned that we had been driving on Route 129 AKA “The Tail of the Dragon.” Next to the parking lot stood a chained dragon with a sign “The Dragon: 318 curves in 11 miles.” ‘Nuff said!

Flora and Fauna

Finally, with a full tank of over-priced gas, we arrived at Lake Fontana Marina. We were able to take the later ferry, at 3pm, and enjoyed a fried lunch at “The Pit Stop,” the only place around that seemed to offer anything other than chips and trail mix. The ferry ride was lovely—cool breezes and beautiful views of the lake made us all feel that the trip was worth it. We were joined on the ferry by an older couple who were staying at the camp site right next to the ferry landing—the one I had hoped we would end up staying at! No such luck…we still had miles to go before we slept.
The view of the lake from the ferry.
The trail was an old road, so it was nice and wide, shaded by trees on either side. It followed Hazel Creek, so the sound of the rushing water filled our ears along with the chirping of birds and rustling of leaves. It didn’t take long, though, for my pack to feel heavy. We stopped to take some photos at a bridge, and K. declared she thought we might be more than half way; when we checked the map, it turned out we were only a third of the way to the campsite! It was a beautiful hike—but it was also hot and muggy and our packs, it being the first day, were the heaviest they were ever going to be. Somehow we managed to make it to the campsite, though for a little while I seriously considered throwing my pack down and howling in frustration.

The evening and night passed without incident. We slept to the sounds of the rushing creek after a long day of driving and hiking and no bears or other fauna disturbed our slumber (though a deer approached our campsite at one point). The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and reluctantly (on my part) left for the rest of our adventures.
Hazel Creek & the woods. Gorgeous.
Day 2 was our “hard” day: 10 miles in one day (it was supposed to be 9 but it was more like 10). The first five were not so bad; the trail was flat and even and a little downhill even. We stopped to have lunch by an abandoned house, after which we stuck our overheated, rather battered feet into the creek for a bit before packing up again—and heading straight for a hill.

Well, maybe this hill is the only one, we said to each other. It’ll probably even out—and it did, occasionally. For the most part, we were climbing up and up—and it was tough. I’m not gonna sugarcoat it; that was a hard day. We did get a little bit of an adrenaline jolt, however, when we saw a gigantic rattlesnake on the trail!

K., walking on the left side of the trail, passed by it without even noticing. I, however, was walking on the right side of the trail and spotted it when I was about 2 feet from it. I jumped backwards with a loud shout—but not so loud that I didn’t hear its distinctive rattle, which gave me goosebumps even in the heat.

It was a massive snake with big brown diamonds down its thick body. It was at least as thick as my arm, if not thicker in the middle. It slithered to the right, off the trail, but not before giving us a warning look and rattling its tail a bit more. We didn’t need to be told twice though! No stopping to take photos here—it was time to book it up the trail. And we did, only to spent the next hour debating what we would have done if one of us had had the misfortune to get bitten—especially given that we were in the middle of nowhere on the trail and hadn’t seen a single soul since lunch.

Luckily, that didn’t happen. Instead, slowly but surely we made it finally to the next campsite, which was practically on the banks of one of the inlets of the lake. It was beautiful there, though we made sure to set up camp and eat dinner in a more timely fashion than the day before. And a good thing we did, because somewhere around 8:30, the sky clouded over, the wind picked up and we felt a couple of rain drops.
A view of the lake from our campsite.
After a moment, they stopped, and all of us crossed our fingers that maybe Mother Nature was just faking us out.

No such luck. Fifteen minutes later, we heard a crack of thunder and a lightening flash. We started cleaning up a bit faster, but the food still needed to be hung up out of the reach of the bears. Moments later, big, fat raindrops began to splatter all around us—and on us—and most of us, except C., ran for cover in the tents. I got in just as the heavens ripped open and sent forth a fury of rain. K. joined me in the tent moments later, already half soaked. We pulled everything we could into the tent and hoped the rain fly would hold.

We heard C. running around in the rain for a while, hanging the food and securing our stuff, and then there was just the sound of the rain and thunder and lightening. I had already changed into pjs, which is a good thing, because changing clothes in a backpacking tent is pretty much only achievable in a horizontal position. K. changed, and we lay down—there was not much else we could do. It was about nine pm.

The rain raged on and on. After a while, I noticed that the sides of the tent inside the tent were went with rain drops. We pulled out our trusty camp towel and dried off what we could. It was just rain that had come up under the fly and gotten in through the mesh of the tent.We managed to stay dry, but the rain never let up. When it became apparent, though, that our rain fly was solid and we were not, as I feared, going to get hit by lightening or float away on a rivulet or rain water, we just went to sleep. At 9:30pm.

The next day, we woke up to a very wet world. The campsite next to ours was also occupied. The people next door had been on a boat on the way to the campsite when the storm had started! K. and the others claimed to have heard them arriving (and setting up camp in the rain) the night before, but I had apparently slept through it. In any case, we cleaned off what we could and set off, noting with some dismay that it was 5.6 miles to the Lake Fontana Dam—not 5. At this point, all our feet were sore, our shoulders were sore, our packs were wet, and L. had twisted her ankle the day before.

We didn’t have any cell reception, either, so we couldn’t call the marina to pick us up by ferry; we’d just have to walk, a prospect I didn’t particularly relish.

Trail’s End; or, OMG We made it!

The trail the 3rd day wasn’t as hard as the second half of day 2, but we were definitely tired and sore and moving slowly. Oddly, I seemed to have finally found my rhythm on day 3—figures it wouldn’t happen until the last day. Not that it was an easy day—the trail constantly dipped down and then pushed us back up.

I often wonder how it is I can work out, go for runs and play derby and still get winded going up hill, but I do. I don’t like hills and they don’t like me. But slow and steady wins the race—or so I think to make myself feel better.

Unfortunately, we were going pretty slow—and we didn’t have any lunch packed. I don’t know if we forgot it or if we thought we’d be back by lunchtime, but we had to make do with granola bars and trail mix. Funny enough, I’m not very hungry at all while hiking with a pack on—it doesn’t usually hit me until I’m resting, so I was ok.

After 2 days of hiking and not seeing any other hikers, we finally ran into some hikers—or should I say, horseback-riders. They informed us that we were getting close to the trail head. Then we passed a couple hiking (with nothing to drink on this sweltering day but a bottle of Coke!) who said they had only been hiking for about 10 minutes. Of course, they had been going downhill, with no packs, so it took us probably another half an hour to get to the trail head—but we made it! The line of cars in the parking lot was a welcome sight.
We also saw tons and tons of moutain laurel along the way. Pwetty.
By then, L.’s ankle was swelling and she was tired, and, frankly, we were all about ready take our feet off, eat a horse, drink a lake (of beer…), and sit in some air conditioning. So, when the couple from the trail showed up, we coerced them gently into giving K. and C. a ride to our car at the marina. And thank goodness—I don’t know if I could have walked another 1.5 miles to the car! (Somewhere along the line, our counting of the miles on the trail got off…not in our favor, either.)

The Wonders of Modern Civilization

When we got back into the car, I could hardly believe how good the air conditioning felt. When we got to the dam and used the public restrooms, they seemed like the most amazing thing—which, after doing it in the woods for 3 days, it kind of was. It’s astounding how quickly living without the comforts of civilization loses its novelty.

That’s not to say that sleeping, eating, and hiking in the woods don’t have their charms (though admittedly shitting in the woods is never charming). The woods were beautiful, and we pretty much had them all to ourselves for 2 days. It’s frightening to think that if something happened out there, there would be no one (and no cell coverage) around. But isolation and quiet can also be restful and beautiful, and we certainly got big doses of those out in the Smokies.

Overall though, after that trip, I am soooo thankful for all the comforts of modern civilization…and not dying on a mountain in the Smokies.
A view of the Smokies on the Cherohala Skyway on our way to Chattanooga for more civilized adventures.

Monday, April 21, 2014

It’s a Dog’s Life

Last week, our dog died.

It was a rough week, to say the least. Our nine-month-old puppy Bingley died quite suddenly, after a week of being mysteriously ill. He progressively got weaker and weaker, had trouble getting up and lying down, and seemed to be constantly in pain. Our vet and his colleagues were mystified, as were we. It was harrowing to watch our lovely Golden Retriever, who had been so lively, rambunctious, and playful, start acting like a dog ten years his age with an advanced case of arthritis. After only a couple days of being ill, we realized that we might have to put him to sleep, which only increased our distress. We ended up not having to put him to sleep, because he died before we could get him to the vet last Monday.

Last Monday was one of the most painful days in my life. For people who have never had a dog, this might sound strange. For a long time, I was one of those people—a dog-free person. I had always liked the idea of a dog, but I’d never had the chance to own one. I grew up dog-free, as my father was adamantly against having a dog or a cat in the house. While I longed for a cat or a dog, until I had my own, I didn’t quite understand how people grieved over the death of their pet. Until you are a pet owner, you don’t really understand how animals affect our lives.

K. and I adopted Calliope in 2010 when my desire for a pet reached a fever pitch. She was a kitten and utterly adorable and kooky. Everything she did was delightful. I was genuinely surprised to notice that she had facial expressions, that she could look bored one minute and alert or playful the next. She would come down the stairs in our apartment on Long Island to greet us when we got home. If I was in one room and K. was in another, she would frequently nap in between the two rooms, as if trying to share her presence with both of us (or guarding us in case we unexpectedly decided to feed her, I suppose). There was nothing better than when she would deign to come and sit on my lap while I read and nothing worse than when she got occasionally sick. The thought of having to put her down would immediately sicken me and raise a lump in my throat.

I had a similar experience with Bingley, though in some ways, getting used to having a dog was a much larger hurdle than a cat. Except for the nighttime crazies that occasionally caused Calliope to wake us up repeatedly in the middle of the night, her behavior and habits were easy to get used to. When we got Bingley in September, it was a whole different ball game. Bingley was a puppy, only eight weeks old, and he seemed like a being from another planet.  People warned us that a puppy was a lot of work, but I thought if I prepared myself mentally, it wouldn’t be a big deal. I was wrong!
At first, Calliope and Bingley did not get along.
Gradually, they struck up a tentative detente.
After one week with Bingley, K. and I wondered if we’d made a mistake. This was a lot of work. It was a lot of work, and despite his cuteness, sometimes it felt like there was little payoff. Puppies that small don’t really relate yet to humans; they are still more attached to their siblings than their owners. Part of socializing a puppy is making him aware of humans and their responsibility towards loving those humans. Gradually, Bingley figured this out and became more interested in us. He also got house-trained and learned (sort of) how to walk on a leash. As he grew, he only got handsomer, his fur got softer, and, with some puppy obedience courses, learned how to sit, lie down, shake, and stay.
Tiny Bingley pup at 10 weeks!
Even more so than Calliope, Bingley could imitate human expressions. Apparently, this is something dogs learn to do by watching us. Dogs have been living with humans for many more thousands of years than cats, and they have evolved to be human-oriented. They can read our faces and expressions, they can follow a finger to where you are pointing (a cat will just keep looking at your finger), and they want to please you. Bingley, being a Golden, had this last quality in spades. He was still a puppy, so naturally he goofed off a lot, but he really did want to please us. And he could manipulate us a little, too. He had eyebrows he could move up or down to look sad, confused, hopeful, and happy. He could move his ears to look alert, relaxed or playful. I swear, he could even smile.

Any of this stuff sounds like hocus pocus if you are not a dog person. Until you live with a dog, you can’t understand what us dog owners are talking about. But once you have a dog, you create a dog-shaped space in your life and in your heart, and you start loving other people’s dogs, too. You start to appreciate the animal-human bond that enhances so many of our lives. Even going to the zoo or seeing animals in nature has taken on a new vibrancy for me. Suddenly, these animals seem more alive and more important to me than before I had a cat or a dog. My childhood pets (2 somewhat boring guinea pigs) could not prepare me for the love I would gain for animals once I had Calliope and Bingley.

When Bingley was sick, Calliope started acting funny. First, she didn’t seem to realize that anything was wrong; instead, she noticed that Bingley no longer chased her if she tried to drink from his water bowl, so she started drinking from it. But when he got a little sicker and it was more obvious that he was in pain, Calliope starting acting anxious too. She kept approaching him, as if waiting for him to start playing with her. If he started whimpering at night, she would race around the house or jump on K. to wake her up. She could sense something was wrong; she was not just some dumb animal.

Of course, both she and Bingley are “dumb” in the sense that they can’t speak to us in words. One of the most frustrating things about Bingley’s illness was that he couldn’t tell us how he felt, where it hurt, or when it had started hurting. He could look into our eyes, but we could only guess what he would tell us if he could speak. Sometimes, I think that because animals can’t speak, we underestimate them. Maybe everyone should be a pet owner at some point, because it teaches us humility: just because a being cannot speak, doesn’t mean it can’t communicate, teach us something, or enhance our lives.

Despite all my initial fears when we first got Bingley and the little daily frustrations about how many toys and doormats he destroyed with his voracious chewing abilities or the cost of boarding him when we traveled, there is no doubt that Bingley enhanced our lives. He made me get out of the house in the mornings even when it was 20 degrees out, because I wanted him to have his daily walk. He encouraged me to go for more walks and hikes. He allowed me to be friendly to strangers. He helped me make friends. He showed me that I had infinite amounts of love to give. When he died, I felt like a part of me died, because he had changed me and my life so much for the better.

He was my first dog, but I don’t think he’ll be my last. I’ll always remember him, but now that I have a dog-shaped space in my life, I don’t think I can manage to stay dog-less for long. Now that I’m a “dog person,” being without a dog doesn’t make me feel dog-free; it makes me feel dog-less: I’m somehow less for being without a dog.

RIP Bingley: July 17, 2013 – April 14, 2014. You were a good dog, and you will be missed.

Our happy pup, the day before he started getting sick.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Heart of Darkness: The Musical!

It seems lately that just about any book or movie is fodder for musicals. Recently, I heard that the 80s black comedy Heathers, starring Winona Ryder and Christian Slater, has become a musical as well as boxing movie Rocky.

Heathers? Rocky? Really???? Why!? Are we really so creatively bankrupt that instead of writing new musicals, we can only convert other cultural artifacts into slightly-altered new ones, full of badly-timed song-and-dance routines? And who decides what books or movies would make a good musical? It sounds to me like some of these people come up with ideas when they are either high or drunk.

For example, who would ever have thought that Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple, in which rape is a major theme, would make a good musical? You'd pretty much have to be drunk or high to come up with that. Yet, apparently, it did  make a good musical, so successful, in fact, that it is on national tour right now.

On the other hand, it is an Oprah production, so perhaps its success was a foregone conclusion.

These weird choices for musicals make me wonder what other completely inappropriate, weird, or bonkers texts we could change into lucrative, big budget Broadway musicals with the added perk of completely draining the original of meaning and/or converting something odd and original into something shiny, polished and big-budget...

How about, for example, Heart of Darkness: The Musical!, featuring catchy tunes like "Mastuh Kurtz, He Dead" and "The Horror! The Horror!"?

We could then follow up that bouncy production with a thematically-appropriate follow up, Apocalypse Now: The Musical! We'll have people humming, "I love the smell of Napalm in the morning" quicker than you can say "South Pacific" three times fast.

Now that I think about it, As I Lay Dying is just waiting to be converted to a musical, starring James Franco, of course. He ruined the movie adaptation...why not ruin the musical, too?

But these are only books...what about movies? Heathers and Rocky and Clueless (yes, apparently also becoming a musical...though that one I would actually agree to see) were all movies first. So maybe movies are a more appropriate genre to adapt to the musical genre.

We could have, for example,

Schindler's List: The Musical! (lots of opportunities for big group numbers)
The English Patient: The Musical! (what a great dance number the cutting off the thumb scene would make!)
The Shining: The Musical! (with memorable tunes like "All Work and No Play Makes Jack a Dull Boy")
Naked Lunch: The Musical! (I'll let your imagination run wild with that one...)

...and the list could go on and on. Virtually anything could become a musical. I mean, why not take memorable commercial personalities and let them get in on the action? We could have Geico Gecko: The Musical! Flo, the Progressive Girl: The Musical! or Eat Mor Chiken: The Chik-Fil-A Cows Musical! 

Hilarity ensues.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. I'm chock-a-block full of these ideas...if any Broadway producers would like to hire me, just send my secretary an email. I'be happy to suggest more if you ever run out of ideas...

...after all, there's no horror in making there?