Because it’s that time of the year: One of my favorite and most personal stories, titled “The Ladder-Back Chair,” was published this year by Mythic Delirium, and so I thought I’d invite you to read it, if you’d like. (And as long as you’re at Mythic Delirium, look around — there’s some excellent stuff there.)
I’m sorry to say that I haven’t kept good track of some of the stories I’ve read and enjoyed this year; but I’ll be coming back sometime later with at least a few recommendations.
Let’s start with one premise: Most women (hell, most men) do not have naturally red lips. Or perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Or darkly-lined eyes. Or blue-gray shaded eyelids.
There is a very funny scene in the premiere episode of upcoming Netflix series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (which I’m very much looking forward to, btw). Our heroine goes to bed, waits until her recently-wed husband is asleep, and then tiptoes to the bathroom. She puts her hair in curlers, removes her makeup, douses her face in cold cream and then goes back to bed. She wakes about half an hour before the alarm, removes the cold cream, brushes out her hair, applies her makeup (lipstick and all), and then goes back to bed and pretends to be asleep until the alarm goes off, and her husband “wakes” his fabulous-looking wife.
For me, it was a wonderful setup of a popular movie trope: That beautiful women always look perfectly cosmeticized. Women in most films — especially before the last decade or so — always have artfully placed hair, red lips and carefully detailed eyes. It doesn’t matter if they’ve just gotten out of bed or just finished cooking a five-course dinner. It doesn’t matter if they’ve been dumped in the river or a pool, spent hours trudging through a jungle, carried around by a monster, saved from a fire, pulled onto a horse, — except for an artfully placed smudge, their makeup is always perfect.
(And yes, I’m aware that everybody actually wears makeup in movies. But except for silents and early talkies — have you seen how much lipstick Bing Crosby wears in some of his earliest films? — men’s faces are carefully made up so they don’t look like they’re wearing cosmetics. But women always do — at least, to those of us who know what women look like without makeup.)
I have to admit, as somebody who has never been at all good at (or all that interested in) makeup, I harbor a bit of secret resentment about that. When I was young and inexperienced at looking for love, I was told by several young men that they preferred their women to be “natural.” I took them at their word — until I noticed that, for the most part, the women they asked out were the ones who knew how to use cosmetics to enhance their faces without looking made up. Not having that skill, I was never able to come up to their expectations of what natural should look like in a woman. Natural wasn’t what real women looked like without makeup. Natural was what the women on movies and TV looked like.
More recently, though, many women’s faces on screen have become a little more realistic. When they’re supposed to be just out of bed, or just spent two days running from evil would-be world dominators, their lips and eyes often look plainer and more natural; their hair becomes tousled and even, god help us, truly messy. I love that. I’d love more of it.
Which finally has me coming to what inspired this rant. One of the latest Netflix series to attract attention is a Western called Godless, which is about a town that is inhabited mostly by women who were widowed by the violent deaths of their husbands.
I’ve only been able to watch half of the first episode so far. It’s obviously well written and well acted. So far, it seems to be more about the male protagonists than the women, so my expectations were a little disappointed, but okay — it still could be a fine series.
However (and yes, this is petty, but screw it, I deserve to be occasionally petty if I want to) the cosmetics on the woman who plays Alice Fletcher, what looks to be the lead female role, annoyed the hell out of me.
Most of the other women up until then — the ones without too many lines — appeared to be sturdy, attractive-without-being-fashion-models characters. But Alice is different. She lives with her Paiute mother-in-law and her young son on a remote ranch where the nearest neighbor is probably several miles away. She has had a tough life. She knows how to use a gun to protect herself. She cares for a corral full of horses. The family works hard to provide for themselves.
And this down-home, hard-working, 19th-century Western woman is walking around her ranch wearing red lipstick and blue-gray eye shadow, perfectly manicured eyebrows and carefully applied eyeliner. In contrast to her mother-in-law (who is older and not a love-interest and therefore doesn’t count), she obviously spends considerable time each morning — perhaps before she feeds the horses and chops the wood and cooks the breakfast — touching up her face in case any interesting strangers show up at the old homestead.
Which, I’m sorry to say, hit one of my “oh, please!” buttons and kept pushing me out of the otherwise interesting plotline. So I’ll just let my totally personal rant ends with this: Can we please, please, please make sure our tough, hard-working heroines look like normally attractive women rather than fashion models? Can we try to remember that it takes time and effort to look preternaturally gorgeous rather than try to make us believe that some women have naturally bright red lips and blue-gray eyelids?
Just watched an interesting film called Hotel Berlin, which came out in 1945, just about the time the war was ending. It is interesting for a variety of reasons.
It is from a novel by Vicki Baum, a Jewish Austrian writer who came to the U.S. in 1932 when her novel Grand Hotel was being made into a Hollywood film, and then who (quite naturally, under the circumstances) chose to stay. The novel from which Hotel Berlin was taken was actually written as a follow-up to Grand Hotel, and the two films would make a fascinating double feature.
The two films do have several things in common. They all take place in the lobby and rooms of a large, high-class hotel in Berlin, and they all concern the intertwining lives of a variety of people staying in or working in the hotel. And all the stories, in the end, follow a theme: In the earlier Grand Hotel, which was written in 1929, it is how the lack of and pursuit of money affects people’s lives. In Hotel Berlin, it is about how people cope with the waning of the Nazi regime.
In TCM’s commentary on the film, it is noted that this is one of the few films made during the war where both the good and the bad people are all German — and where both the good and bad are painted in complex shades of gray. A German general who had been a loyal member of the Reich until he lost all faith in his leader, and who took part in a failed coup, tries to escape his fate when he is discovered. A leading actress, who was quite happy to enjoy fame and fortune during the regime, switches sides back and forth in an effort to survive. A woman who became a hotel prostitute when her Jewish fiance was killed gives up her security when his mother comes to her for help. An escaping member of the underground depends on the actress for help — and then finds out that she may have betrayed him. And none of these people are portrayed as either completely sympathetic or totally inhuman. For the era, that’s unusual.
On retrospect, this becomes an even more interesting film, both because of some of the things we now know, and because of current events. For example, a Jewish woman walks into the hotel (after removing her star), is recognized and is told to go back to her section; when the film was made, the extent of the death camps were not yet generally known (or it is possible that the Hollywood producers, many of whom were European immigrants, were still hoping that some of their relatives were alive somewhere).
At the end of the film, two Nazi officials in plain clothes stroll out of hotel on their way to the airport; they are going to fly to South America, where they want to plan the re-emergence of the Nazi party there and in North America.
The film ends with a quote from a speech Roosevelt made in October 1944 that “it will be necessary for [the German people] to earn their way back into the fellowship of peace-loving and law-abiding Nations.” And I can’t help but fear that, considering recent events, this statement may, now or in the future, apply to the United States people as well.
Capclave is a small reader-centric convention in the Washington, D.C. area that Jim and I always look forward to. This year, it is taking place this coming weekend, October 6-8, at the Hilton Washington DC North/Gaithersburg, with Guests of Honor Neil Clarke and Ken Liu.
I’m on two panels and a reading, all of which are Friday afternoon/evening. We’re actually planning to show up on Thursday (so that we can take our time driving down), so if you plan to be around, let us know — we really like hanging out with old and new friends at cons!
Friday 4:00 pm: Writing on the Job
Panelists:Brenda W. Clough, Barbara Krasnoff (M), Joshua Palmatier, Lezli Robyn, David Walton
Is it better for a writer to have a non-writing job to save his/her writing energies for fiction or to use writing skills to make a nonfiction living on the idea that any writing improves fiction writing? And when should you quit your day job? Hear writers discuss the relationship between their day job and their writing.
Friday 7:30 pm: Reading
(I’m not sure which story I plan to read…)
Friday 9:00 pm: Handling Rejection
Panelists: Sarah Avery (M), Kate Baker, Barbara Krasnoff
You put your heart and soul into that book or story and the rejection letters are pouring in. Where do you go from there? Panelists discuss how they handle rejection.
You wouldn’t think I’d be nervous about setting up new tech. After all, as a tech reviewer — both as an editor and writer — I’ve spent most of my professional life setting up and testing new tech devices. And for the most part (except for the Microsoft Surface that got knocked off a desk a year or two ago), I’ve been able to unpack them, set them up, review them, and pack them up again without a great deal of trouble.
However, when it comes to something I actually paid for — something that I bought for my own use and am going to keep, rather than return after a week or a month — that’s a different story. Then I’m suddenly staring at the box that is sitting on my office floor or desk and wondering at what point I should unpack it — and what I’ll find when I do. Will I accidentally drop the phone the moment it’s out of the box? Knock over the monitor while I’m setting it up? Accidentally scratch the tablet?
For example, I just unpacked and set up a new display to use with a small Windows convertible tablet/laptop, a task it only took me over a week after it was delivered to get around to. Part of it was that I was too busy finishing a couple of freelance articles to deal with it — but I’m sure that another part of it was worrying what to do if the monitor didn’t connect properly to the docking station, or had some pixels missing, or somehow needed to be fixed or returned.
Perhaps this nervousness can be attributed to what happened years ago, when I bought a Gateway computer — and the monitor was, well, not up to par. (Gateway was once a fairly well-known company selling mail-order computers.) In those days, we used CRT monitors, which weren’t only not nearly as reliable as LCDs are today, but they were damned heavy; so unpacking and setting them up was not easy for somebody who didn’t have a lot of upper-body strength.
I stared at it from several angles. Yup, there were several dead pixels on the screen; meaning that there was these tiny black spots that would never go away. I called the company and told them about the problem. They agreed to exchange it — so I repacked the monster, schlepped it downstairs to be picked up and then carried the replacement upstairs.
Yep. More dead pixels.
Called the company.
Luckily, Gateway tended to be a good company to deal with. They didn’t mess around; this time, they simply sent me a higher-end third-party monitor that not only worked, but lasted me for years (until LCD displays became ubiquitous). I’ve always been grateful to them for that. (My back was grateful as well).
That was then, and this is now. My nice new display — which weighs a whole lot less than my old CRT — seems to be flawless (at least, until I knock it off its stand, or spray coffee on it, or offer it some other indignity).
I just discovered that I’ve been writing about new tech for longer than I thought.
My mother and I have been slowly going through boxes of papers, photos and memorabilia that were saved from the house when we moved. One of the things we found last time was a pile of magazines and clippings that had my byline on them — most from the 1980s.
Among them, to my surprise, was a clipping from my very first job at Signature magazine, where I worked from 1976 to 1977 as an editorial assistant. Signature was a travel and dining publication that was sent out to people who had the Diner’s Club credit card, which was mainly used by folks on an expense account. Besides doing simple editing, I was assigned short pieces to write — for example, descriptions of restaurants that had recently agreed to take the Diner’s Club card.
But this article, which appeared in the December 1976 issue, wasn’t about food or travel — it was about an exciting new entertainment technology called a videodisc that would let you actually watch a movie on your TV set whenever you wanted to. The article also described another technology called Betamax, which could record TV programs directly off the set for later playback, but which was too expensive to be practical. (It retailed for $2,295 — about $9,800 in 2017 dollars.)
Besides reminding me how much things have changed, I now have evidence that I was — at least, occasionally — a tech writer straight out of college. Who knew?
Back in the early 1990s, it was the habit of most of the Ziff-Davis publications to take their staffs on “retreats” to interesting places. The idea was to get everyone together alone for several days to discuss strategy and bond — but it was also a great excuse for an all-expenses paid vacation. Which is how I ended up spending several days in Bermuda.
I don’t remember that much about it, weirdly enough. Other retreats, such as those to Key West and to London (the last we took) are vivid in my memory, but of the Bermuda retreat I remember very little — except for the few minutes I met the artist Alfred Birdsey.
We had the afternoon to ourselves, and whatever it was that other staffers were doing didn’t appeal to me, so I rented a bicycle and decided just to explore a little. As I was pedaling along, I spotted a sign for the Alfred Birdsey Gallery. I had enjoyed visiting crafts and art galleries on my vacations to Cape Code and other places, so I thought I’d see what it was about.
I found it to be an open shack and yard crowded with water colors, sketches and other artworks. I walked over, not sure whether it was open or not, when a thin, older man with a highly irritable expression came over and asked what I wanted.
I told him that I was interested in looking at the artwork. He shrugged dismissively, and told me to go ahead — obviously, as yet another obnoxious tourist, he didn’t think much of me.
Looking around, I thought most of it was interesting, but not much more than that. The colors were bright, and they were nice representations of various places on the islands. I wanted to buy myself a remembrance, and a gift for my parents, and this would be the perfect place — but I didn’t see anything I really liked. Until I saw two paintings, not as “photographic” as the others, one mostly in blues and the other in greens and yellows.
I asked him if I could find out the price of two of the paintings. He sighed, and asked which ones I wanted. I pointed.
He looked at me again. “Why do you want those?” he asked. It was a surprising question, and I don’t remember what I answered — I probably stuttered something inane about the colors and the mood. I knew next to nothing about the language of art and artists.
He told me that he was happy I chose those, that he was tired of people who just wanted paintings that were “no better than photographs” and he’d be happy to sell them to me. I don’t remember the price; it was probably less than they were worth. And just before I left, he grabbed another painting and insisted I take it with me.
When I got home, I immediately got the two paintings I had chosen framed. One is hanging in my living room; the other is with my mother. The reason that I am writing this is that I just found the third — which I had forgotten completely about — in a roll of posters that had been saved from our basement flood.
That’s all. There isn’t really anything else to say. Apparently, Birdsey had lived in Bermuda most of his life and was known for his impressionistic pictures; he died a few years after I met him. I will have the third painting framed — I need it done carefully; it’s been rolled up for over 20 years now and I want it preserved. And I want to remember the irritable artist who made me feel special for a little while because I appreciated his style.