Category Archives: Feminism

Mini Sewing Project #1: Draft Blocker

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While it’d be awesome to be able to sew this flawlessly and right out of the gate, I’m trying to be realistic.

 

In my quest to create an Agent Carter costume, I knew I’d have to undertake a few smaller projects along the way.

I just finished my first one: a draft blocker for my front door!

Skills acquired:
– Pinning fabric along a seam
– Sewing in a straight line
– Re-threading the needle
– Using a seam-ripper
– Changing a broken needle (yup! Broke one on my first trip out!)

Lessons learned:
– Oh my god this is going to take so much patience.
– No, really. SO MUCH PATIENCE.

wpid-0301151455.jpgSince I didn’t start off thinking I was going to make anything useful, I kind of just folded over one of the fabric remnants I’d bought last weekend and started sewing. It fast became obvious that I had to actually pin the edges of the fabric together if I wanted to have something that didn’t taper into a point at the far end.

Enter the seamripper. It took a little googling to figure out the most effective way of using it, but once I had that down, easy-peasy.

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Next, the tedious part: pinning along the entire outside of the folded fabric so it wouldn’t slip and become uneven as I sewed. That took about ten minutes. I played videos on Hulu while I worked on that.

wpid-0301151526.jpgOnce that was finished, it only took a couple of minutes to sew the seam, then flip what now looked like a sock flag inside out – so the hem would be on the inside. Not bad!

wpid-0301151534.jpgFinally, I stuffed it full of actual socks, those with holes and some that I’d lost the mate to, until it was long enough to fit (almost) all the way across my door. Since I didn’t feel like getting back up to grab a needle and thread and finish sewing by hand, I just tied off the very end, which I think is kind of cute anyways. And – ta-da!

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My suit fabric is meant to arrive tomorrow, so I’m hoping to share a few photos of my supplies later this week. I also have a second length of fabric and one more door that could use a draft blocker, so I might try and do that later this week-  though I’ve used up all my dead socks, so we’ll see how it goes.

For now, I’m feeling pretty accomplished. So accomplished, in fact, that I’m going to go eat a bagel pizza. Nom!

The Peggy Carter Project Continues

So. I wrote this morning (though this blog is scheduled to go up on Saturday) about preparing a costume for Halloween-slash-maybe-ComicCon-slash-maybe-other-cons as Agent Peggy Carter, SSR. Thus far, I’ve ordered a hat, a pattern and some dynamite shoes.

Now for the more ephemeral steps: hair, makeup and…learning how to sew.

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Hair: According to the interwebs, pin curls seem the way to go, and while my hair is currently a bit shorter than it would need to be (no more cuts till October, other than teeny trims!) I’ve decided it’s better to get a jump on things and just give it a lot of practice. This tutorial was the first that came up, and while I remember trying to do pin curls for a night out in Edinburgh seven or eight years ago, I also remember that being a disaster. I’m pretty sure this will also be a disaster, but it’s my first night. Cut me some slack.

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“You’re wearing my brand.”

 

Makeup: As I looked for makeup tutorials, I learned that the actual lipstick used on the show is available from a boutique in LA. Since I have a friend in LA who’s willing to stop by and pick the lipstick up for me and ship it out here, that seems sorted. Eye makeup will come along in time.

The sewing machine of Doom.

The sewing machine of Doom.

Sewing: OK, fine, I admit it. I’m actually typing this just so I can avoid going to try and figure out how to use the sewing machine a friend so generously gifted me earlier this year. My new mantra being, “What would Peggy do?”, however, I know I have to dive in and get the job done. So far, I’ve watched a tutorial about what kinds of supplies I’ll need to buy – I actually have some of them, but it seems like a trip to Joanne Fabrics is probably in order to pick up the rest. And I feel like I should have some idea of how the sewing machine will work before I head to Joanne’s, just in case it turns out that I need to get a dumbed-down version of a sewing machine for myself.

The Suit: I got a lovely email from the eBay seller I bought my suit pattern off of earlier today, saying she’d put it in the mail and I should get it early next week. Meanwhile, the same friend who bequeathed me her sewing machine has some ideas about what kinds of fabric might work.

Still no ideas for the blouse.

Well, there’s no more putting it off. Time to go read the sewing machine instructions and have a play around with some scraps of fabric around the house.

As soon as I top off my beer and start playing Captain America.

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Somehow, I think Agent Carter would approve.

Edit: The pin curls were not a disaster! My hair is definitely too short, and I need to figure out how to make them curl properly on one side of my head so I don’t get a great spronging curl sticking out at a 90-degree angle to my scalp on the right, and the part definitely needs work…but the left side actually looked pretty good! So I’ll just keep practicing and at some point may even wear them out in public! I used bobby pins instead of the duck clips the tutorial I linked to recommended, because I’m not going to go out and spend MORE money just yet, but as I get better at it if it turns out that it’s something I want to do more of, I may go out and spring for the duck clips after all. Also, I used a really nice argan oil/shea butter soft hair “moisturizer,” and it worked well, so hopefully that kept my hair a bit healthier than the grocery store gel they were recommending in the tutorial. Though a friend whose mom grew up in the 40s said they used to use beer to set the curls, too. May have to give that a shot just to see what the difference is like.

Other edit: The sewing machine is not as scary as it looked; I couldn’t find the box of transparent bobbins my friend gave me, so today I have to go out in the cold and search the car to see if I left them out there.

Agent Carter & Aspirations of Craftiness

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Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter, Agent of Awesome.

Are you watching Marvel’s Agent Carter? If yes, awesome, we can still be friends.

If no…well, okay, we can still be friends, but I highly, HIGHLY recommend you get yourself over to your online video purveyor of choice (it’s on HuluPlus and Amazon Prime, go now, this blog will still be here when you get back) and start watching this show about a woman who’s kicking ass, taking names, and saving the world one dude at a time.

Because Agent Carter (the show) – and Agent Carter (the character) – are both awesome.

The show has an 8-episode run this spring, with the finale airing this coming Tuesday (like I said, get on it), and while watching the penultimate episode, I made a decision.

I’m going to make myself an Agent Carter costume for Halloween.

For those of you who haven’t done Halloween with me in the past, here’s the thing – for about 18 years straight, I was either a witch or a vampire or a witchy vampire or something similar to one or both of those. Only in the last couple years have I started doing “costumes,” and they’re generally the kind where it’s October 25th and I suddenly realize I have plans, and run to the closet and start rooting around for something I can wear.

“Rachel,” I hear you saying, “Calm down. It’s only February.”

Well, perfection takes time, and the sheer awesomeness that is Agent Peggy Carter deserves NOTHING LESS THAN PERFECTION. I am not going to half-ass this costume. I am going to whole-ass it. And I have a fair amount of ass with which to do so.

First up: Iconic Peggy Carter red fedora. 

Fucking. Iconic.

Fucking. Iconic.

First step was locating the red fedora. Because red fucking fedora. I posted a link to Amazon on my Facebook page, and (in a thread that’s currently 80 comments deep and still growing) asked for advice as to which of the many available choices most closely matched Agent Peggy Carter’s. I was thrilled when one of my friends – apparently he takes his costuming pretty seriously – was able to find a hat that was as near as anything we could find to something that a) ought to fit my gigantic head (HOLD THE COMMENTS ON THAT ONE, PEANUT GALLERY!) and b) was the right kind of fedora. Apparently there are multiple kinds of fedoras and this was the one that had the most-matching of brims:

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Pretty goddamn fucking iconic.

Hat. May need some doctoring vis a vis the band to get the colors right, but otherwise, check. It’s an XXL, so it may fit my giant head. Also? It was the last one the seller had in stock. 

Click. Buy. Done.

Now, panic set in, because step two is a little tougher.

Step two: The perfect 1940s skirtsuit.

Two issues, here.

Issue one:
I get really, irrationally T’d off when I read those “looks like” fashion/decor pieces that say, “Hey, this $50 Ikea lamp is *just like* this $600 Restoration Hardware lamp!” and you look and it’s like, no, the Ikea lamp is an Ikea lamp and the Restoration Hardware lamp has visibly better construction, higher quality materials, and the details of craftsmanship that make it cost an extra five hundred and fifty bucks. (Is it worth the extra cost? Probably not, from all points of view that make fiscally responsible sense. From a design standpoint? You are not getting the same thing.)

Given this, I do not want some knock-off cheap “vintage” suit that is sort-of-but-not-really-the-same as the awesomeness that is Peggy Carter’s blue skirt suit. (You saw the awesomeness of that skirt suit in the above pic, right? Because go back and look. It’s freaking awesome.) I want a suit that is as close as I can possibly freaking get to that awesome suit without spending a fortune.

After a bit of reading, I learned that the best option was, therefore, an actual vintage skirt suit from the 1940s, preferably sourced from some kind of thrift or vintage store. Which brings us to…

Issue #2:
As mentioned above, I have got a fair amount of ass with which to whole-ass the execution of this costume. And while I fully intend on continuing my healthy eating streak, so may have slightly less ass by the time we get to the end of October, I know damn well I’m not going to be fitting into any 1940s-era clothing any time soon. Modcloth and other vintagey stores just weren’t cutting it – the lapels weren’t right, the material didn’t look right…

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That’s right. Ebay, baby.

…and then I hit on ebay. Now. Compare this silhouette to the suit in the first photo.

Per-fect.

(Okay. As near to perfect as I’m going to find. And the pattern itself is for plus sizes. SCORE.)

There’s just one hitch.

This is going to require sewing. The last time I did an honest-to-goodness sewing project, I was about ten years old, and it was a puppet or something. You know: cut out the felt, sew around the edges, presto, done.

Luckily, while wandering the internet in an insomnia-induced haze earlier this morning (what, you think I have time to write blogs like this on a regular day?) I found this site, which says it shows you how to sew in step-by-step videos that start off with like, 20 videos about how to get the right equipment and how to cut a thing before you even get to the point of oh hey here’s some fabric and a thing you can make.

I keep telling myself, I have eight months. That’s like, one or two videos a day, with time for practice projects. I have eight months. I can learn how to sew a thing in eight months. Eight whole months!

If I repeat this enough times, I may actually start to believe it.

Added bonus: my mom just emailed me in reply to a note I sent her last night and said she will help me, so if I run into real problems, help is only a 2-hour drive away.

So. Suit. Sort-of sorted. I’ll have to figure out how to pick a fabric, but um, I’m going to bask in the achievement of having found the suit pattern for a day or two first. And please don’t ask me about my blouse plans yet, ‘cuz I haven’t got any. (If you have ideas, though, feel free to share…)

All of which brings us to…

Part, the Third: Heels In Which To Kick Ass.

Now we have a real issue. Thanks to last year’s back injury, I will not be wearing any stunning 2-3″ heels any time in the near future, including eight months from now. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.

BUT.

A month or so ago, when I was having a really rotten day, a friend of mine (bless her ever-loving heart) sent me a gift certificate for Zappo’s. And in an hour-long trawl across the interwebs this morning at 4am, I discovered…

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Close-e-bloody-nuff.

…these absolute stunners.

They’re not as high or as strappy as Peggy’s fantastic pumps, but you know what? Contrary to my earlier rant on delusional “this is actually that” cost-saving measures, I will compromise on aesthetics if it means not setting myself back into screaming (literally screaming) agony by re-aggravating my back injury. And these really, really aren’t that far off.

So there you have it. Obviously, this is going to be a hell of a trick to pull off. Obviously, I am nervous as f*ck about whether I’ll be able to do it at all. But I keep reminding myself: I have eight months till Halloween, I have a mother who made all her own clothes when she was younger, and even if this ends up being a complete disaster, well…

Fucking. Iconic.

Gratuitous iconic hat pic.

…I’ll still have the shoes and the hat.

 

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Guest Post: “A Response to ’21 Tips on How to Be a Perfect Girlfriend for your Guy’, by a Normal Guy

I’ve been focusing on some writing projects (more on that later, so make sure to subscribe to the blog with the submission box at right so you don’t miss it!), so apologies for the lack of updates the last few weeks. The following is a friend’s response to a practically medieval article about how women can change themselves to be the “perfect”girlfriend. I hope you enjoy it!

“A Reponse to ’21 Ways to Be The Perfect Girlfriend For Your Guy'”
By Peter Randall

1. Remember that we fancy you NO MATTER.

If you are dressed in a tracksuit and have make-up streaming down your face from when we argued last night, we fancy you. If you are dressed as a duck and have actual poo on your face, we still fancy you. Although maybe get the poo off. The point is, we find you attractive physically because of who you are much more than what you look like – imagine if that wasn’t mutual? We would have no chance. So yeah. Let the mud stay in your hair for a few days. Who cares. We still think you are the most beautiful woman in the world.

 2. Remember that your smell is the hottest smell.

Perfume is great and everything, but the best smell is you straight out of bed in the morning.

3.  Keep nagging and complaining

We are pretty rubbish. As the great Receivers of the Patriarchal Advantage, we are used to having our own way, having things done for us and everyone agreeing with us. Keep working at us. Don’t let us get complacent or turn into typical misogynist arseholes. Nag at us continually until we grow up or you have had enough and you leave us.

4. Don’t say anything you don’t mean

Don’t go all gooey if you don’t feel like it, just because you think we might need some man-couragement. We are adults (most of us) and we need to deal with it.

5. Don’t worry about asking us stuff

Saying “do I look fat?” is not annoying. We don’t think you’re fat. We think you are perfect. We wouldn’t change you for the world. We are in a relationship because we are a team, and if you need that help then you will get it.

6. Remember we are men and therefore jealous

If we get jealous, it’s 99 times out of a 100 not anything you have actually done wrong. Our engines run on testosterone, which makes us ‘brave’ and shit but also makes us jealous and angry and grumpy and all the other annoying stuff we are. So remember that although we might need to be reminded that we are the only guy for you, we should also be trying to CALM THE F*CK DOWN and be normal.

7. Don’t feel like you have to like our friends

Our friends are not us and so you might not like them. And that is fine. Do we like all your friends? Probably not truth be told. Does it matter? Does it f*ck.

8. Don’t do stuff in the bedroom just for us

If you get a kick out of something because we do, then that’s cool – but putting yourself through something for us and thinking about when it’s over? Not cool. For anyone. We aren’t actually interested in dating a pornstar. We are illogical. Men always want someone who knows what to do in the bedroom and then they get jealous because they wonder how their partner learned all that. IT MAKES NO SENSE. DO NOT WORRY. Do what you want to, for yourself, for us, for both parties. It is fun.

9. Never cook. Get takeaway.

Cooking is something that we have to do in our twenties because our metabolisms have slowed and now we are fat. But please, let’s get pizza just this one time.

10. Love is not in the details. Love is in the functionality of the everyday existence of our prostituted lives.

Now we are all working for “the man”. Our great victory is not in receiving little presents but loving each other as strongly as we do in a hate-fuelled world. If you can come home from respective shitty days at work, smile and laugh, it’s good. No one needs “a small token”. Big ones are fine.

11. Do not say thank you for thank yous, we will become evil.

If you show your appreciation every time we get off our hairy arses and actually do something for you, we would end up only being nice to you because we expect something back. Just take it if we are nice, and move on. We don’t need any more spoonfeeding than society already gives us.

12. “Stroke his ego”

Nope.

13. Don’t make us feel like we have to “be the man” in a relationship.

My girlfriend earns more than me. All year round. Does this make me not feel like a man? Nope, still got a cock and balls. Still feel like a man. My girlfriend is far more intelligent than me, and wins most debates hand down. Still feel like a man. My girlfriend knows her way around Central London better than me. Still feel like a man. The list goes on. Ultimately I feel like a man because I am a man and there isn’t really much else to it. I would still “feel like a man” in the relationship if I was in a relationship with another man. Because, biologically, I am a man.

14. “You are partners, not enemies”

Oh yeah? You try holding on to those covers at night. You try getting the last chocolate out of the box, or picking which side of the bed you want. My girlfriend is constantly my enemy. And I love her for it.

15. Have a life and Passion.

Or, in other words, be a human being.

16. Be better than all of his ex’s combined.

Wow. Way to totally dehumanise everyone else involved. Ultimately, most people’s ex’s and current partner will have some things in common because they have that person in common. They would probably be besties in another life. Well, maybe some of them. Be better than all of them combined? At what? Playstation? They are ex’s because they weren’t compatible, or they cheated, or they got cheated on, or they moved on, or your partner was a dick to them or something. Jesus Christ. Not because they weren’t “better”. They are PEOPLE. Christ. Just… yeah.

17. Do be a menace

You know what? It aint normal to not know where your partner is for an evening. Because you talk. So even if he says “going to the pub with some mates” like he doesn’t want to say who the mates are, it is perfectly normal to ask who they are. Or where he is going. It’s called conversation. And also, earlier on, there was that whole “give him a reason to trust you by not flirting or hanging out with other guys” and then now it’s all “just try and trust him if yo get all up in his grille he’ll just snog someone else” I mean fuck off.

18. Having a pleasing personality – OR BE HUMAN

“A woman with a pleasing personality puts your pleasure first”. What the actual fuck. Seriously. I can’t even take the piss out of this. Seriously.

19. Take him for granted

He loves you. You don’t need to be on your toes. You watch a ‘ton of tv’? Well, to be fair, you did that anyway, just in secret. ‘Got fat’? Great, more of my favourite person to love.

20. “work out regularly”

Yeah, please don’t get heart disease and die, work out a normal amount so you don’t die. What, you’re working out for me? Why? So you don’t die? No? Because “you’ll be the perfect girlfriend in my (his) mind”? Yeah, you sound MENTAL.

21. Don’t worry about being feminine, because you have all the right bits and we fancied you for some reason anyway

You know what? I don’t need to explain why this is ridiculous. It is madness. It is terrible. It is all kinds of shit.

Guest blogger Peter Randall also writes poetry, which can be viewed on his website at http://poemobile.com/.

 

 

“Jagannath” by Karen Tidbeck

Twitter friend @johannthors1120140705 recently went on a “diet” of all-female authors, and one of the books he discussed on his blog was JAGANNATH, by Karen Tidbeck, featuring moody, Scandanavian stories of the fantastic. Since I had a day full of flights a week or so ago,  and my phone at hand, I decided to write a few thoughts on each short story in the collection.

The first story, BEATRICE, would be at home in the magically surreal worlds constructed by China Mieville. Eerie and infused with steampunk flavor, the piece tells the tale of two love affairs. The first is between a doctor and an airship; the second between a clerk and her steam-powered stove. The conclusion reminded more a little of themes I touched on in my own short story, SWEETHEART, namely the idea of relationships that exist between creatures of unequal power.

The second tale is an epistolary story, SOME LETTERS FOR OVE LINDSTROM. From a daughter to her alcoholic father, these letters paint a picture of their life after the disappearance of the daughter’s mother. This absent maternal figure reminds me a little of a Kelpie, although the creature referred to here is a vittra. I didn’t find this story as compelling as BEATRICE, but I’m willing to give it a second reading to see if there’s anything I missed.

MISS NYBERG AND I is an utterly charming tale that starts with a balcony full of poisonous plants and ends with a tiny creature taking up residence in a young woman’s apartment. Told from the point of view of a writer friend, the story explores how authors fictionalized their lives and the lives of those around them, asking questions about how we represent the lives and adventures of those we love. While plenty of authors joke about including people and events from their lives in their fictions, Tidbeck capture the particular ethical dilemma of creating a future for someone you know in real life.

Next up is REBECKA, and here things get dark. The story of an abused woman who can’t escape the pain her tormentors caused her, who tries to get God’s attention after repeated, failed suicide attempts. Tidbeck’s sparse prose does a service to this stark, fatalistic tale, drawing out the titular character’s anguish and desire to end her own pain in the wake of trauma. Why does God let bad things happen to people, the story asks, and does He ever answer their prayers for solace? In REBECKA, the answer is more disturbing than reassuring. If God doesn’t step in unless it’s to punish, what must one do to catch enough of His attention to be relieved of life’s pains?

HERR CEDERBERG is another miss for me, about a man who builds a flying machine. There’s something here that ties into a metaphor using bumble bees, but I’m not sure of the overarching meaning of the story. Worth a second reading, and hopefully that will uncover hidden depths. One of the frustrating things about reading books by authors in other cultures is that at times one feels as if one may have missed something through a lack of cultural literacy, and this story does give me that feeling.

Recalling both METAMORPHOSIS and a few other Kafka tales whose titles I can’t quite put my finger on, WHO IS ARVID PEKON? gives the reader a glimpse inside a rather unorthodox call center. The titular character fields a number of odd calls, but had one client in particular whose inquiries grow increasingly bizarre. Anyone who’s felt themselves disappearing into a job will recognize the deadliness of corporate culture in this short piece.

(It’s worth noting, by the way, that so far most of the stories are only a few pages long, and the mood of each piece flows well from one story to the next.)

Stories about writing are always tricky, and my feeling was that NYBERG captures the dilemmas of process more aptly than BRITA’S HOLIDAY VILLAGE, about a writer who retreats from the world to finish a couple of projects (sound familiar, anyone?) and instead cross paths with distant family. This is one of the longer stories so far, and part of me wishes there were more depth and detail about the family members. Since I’m reading this on a plane, I can’t look up what a ‘pupa’ is, but I have the feeling it may be integral to the plot.

Mental illness gets a closer look in REINDEER MOUNTAIN, about two sisters and their mother cleaning out a family home. Here, another absent matriarch – in this case, the family’s great grandmother – appeared as if from nowhere with a sense of being touched by the fairy world. The story talks about mental illness, nerves, anxiety and depression – and worse – being passed down through generations of a family, and how desperately the family tries to ignore the signs when one of their own begins a faster slide into depression and delusion. Called ‘uncanny’ in the book’s introduction, there’s certainly an air of the unusual, here. Taking on the mythic feeling of Nordic folklore, one truly feels the encroaching darkness in this unsettling tale. Family heritage is tied directly to mental illness by an old piece of clothing; it’s ultimately kept as a souvenir of the fantastical occurrence at the story’s climax.

CLOUDBERRY JAM is a fast, fey tale that once again touches on the pregnancy theme Tidbeck brought up in BEATRICE, that of women having unconventional, fantastic pregnancies that lead to odd, not quite human children. Here, the protagonist creates a child for herself, loving and nurturing it until it begins to grow in its own direction. It’s at this point in reading that the mismatched jigsaw of familial puzzle pieces starts to emerge as significant throughout the collection: human oddities, connected by blood and mythology.

With PYRET, Tidbeck strides straight into otherworldly horror. Structured as a report on a mythological creature, this story pressed all the buttons necessary to make the hair on my neck stand on end. The story ends more abruptly than one might prefer, but the lurch it leaves the reader in helps feed a gnawing sense of umease. The imagery Tidbeck creates here is truly chilling.

Next up is AUGUSTA PRIMA, an odd little Alice-in-Wonderland style tale (or maybe i just think that because of the croquet) about beings living in a world without time, and what happens when one of them finds a watch. It feels like the allegory/concept may have gotten a little ahead of the story; more development of the idea would have given the story greater impact. The characters don’t feel as sharply drawn as in some of the collection’s other stories, though the conceit of playing an endless game of croquet in the garden of memory is an alluring one.

With AUNTS, we return to themes of childbearing, family and unnatural pregnancies. Consumption, too, plays a role in this story, where we watch the ritual of three ‘aunts’ who seem to exist simply to eat and procreate in a seemingly endless cycle. Over and over they consume themselves, finally bursting open full of new life, only for the cycle to be repeated again. Attended by three ‘neices,’ in a secret garden, what do the aunts symbolize – if anything? This story seems to take place on the fringes of the world created in AUGUSTA PRIME – an added wrinkle of complexity that makes me want to go back and look for other connections to other stories.

With JAGANNATH, the final story in the collection, Tidbeck’s theme of unnatural reproduction is turned inward. Now we see from the perspective of a great mother’s offspring as they watch their caretaker, a “mother creature” that protects them from an unspecified disaster out in the real world, run down – along with their entire way of life. Dystopian and claustrophobic, JAGANNATH takes place in an isolated and self-contained environment that would be at home in Margaret Atwood’s MADDADAM.

I’m not typically a fan of author’s notes and afterwards, but in this case reading Tilbeck’s final notes was highly illuminating. She discusses her process in terms of the language she uses, the curious mash-up of British and American English, and how she chooses which phrases to translate from Swedish and which words must remain in her native tongue. As someone who struggles with speech patterns thanks to five years spent living abroad, it was fascinating to read how another writer deals with the challenge of locating her stories in a place where a hodgepodge of languages and dialects create their own distinct flavor of storytelling.

JAGANNATH isn’t a hard read, or a long one, clocking in at 134 pages. It took me two airplane rides to finish it, including writing these thoughts on my phone. It’s atmospheric and linguistically engaging, and the writing itself shows an artfulness.that often feels missing in newer works. By the end of the book, the stories do feel as if they often don’t quite end, instead lingering, like the concept of liminal sun mentioned in Elizabeth Hand’s introduction.

Moody and dark, the stories nonetheless hold hope for those who want to believe in an onionskin otherworld. Tidbeck has a novel coming out soon, and it will be interesting to see what she does with the longer form.

Some authors you might also enjoy:
Julian Barnes
Margaret Atwood
China Mieville
Franz Kafka
Charles de Lint

 

PS – now that the holiday shopping season is here, would you like to check out my collection of short stories, SHORT FRICTIONS? It’s currently available on Kindle and other e-readers.

Your Health, Your Advocacy: What I’ve Learned About Communicating With Doctors

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Image by caroline_1, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Recently, a friend posted this piece about doctors who “came clean” regarding the state of their ability to interact with patients during the course of treatment. It confirmed a few things I’ve learned over the course of the last year, and while I’ve wanted to write something about this for a while, it’s the piece that pushed me over the edge.

For those who don’t want to read the full article above, I’ll summarize: doctors are overworked and exhausted, drowning in medical administrative work, and this affects their ability to take a holistic and thorough approach to patient care. Patients who advocate for themselves often find that they ultimately reach diagnoses their doctors might not originally have reached.

There are two prominent examples of this in my own life.

The first example in my life where advocating for myself proved critical in receiving a correct and complete diagnosis has to do with the back injury I suffered earlier this year. I say “back injury,” but as it turned out there was a second issue that my doctors initially missed. (And I’d like to say here that I am extremely impressed by the service and treatment I received from my doctors; they were empathetic, consummately professional and fantastically coordinated in their treatment plan, and I would recommend them without reservation to anyone in the Manhattan area who required an osteopath, pain management specialist, or physical therapist. Drop me a line if you need their information.)

Initially, it was clear that I had a back injury, and as the horrific pain (I’m talking a legitimate 9 on the pain chart, only because I wasn’t passing out) I experienced started to diminish with treatment, I was sure something else was wrong. There was a second source of pain, which hadn’t been clear from the start. I was shown a diagram that demonstrated how the pain could be connected to nerve issues in my back, and we attempted treatment to address that source (which helped, if only slightly). Finally, after shuffling between two doctors (different specialties within the same practice) insisting there was something wrong in my hip, I was sent for another scan. What did it reveal? Additional issues. With my hip. Had I not kept insisting something more had gone wrong, the second issue might not have been discovered or treated, and I would still be in a fantastic amount of pain every day instead of the dull ache that currently intrudes on my day to day life.

The second example is a little more detailed and a little more personal.

I’ve largely avoided posting at length about personal mental health issues on my blog; apparently this is the issue that pushes me over the edge in that regard. It’s that important to me that people understand the critical nature of advocating for their own treatment. So here goes.

I’ve battled depression and anxiety for many, many years, beginning in my mid-teens. I’ve been on and off so many medications that in recent years I’ve had to go back and check records to determine what I’d already tried, because for over fifteen years, nothing worked. Or rather, medications and herbal supplements might briefly take the “edge” off a battery of symptoms I won’t get into here, but crushing depression always came back, and the coping mechanisms I was able to use tended to be self-destructive and insufficient. I would push forward with various doctors and medications as much as I was able, in short spurts, then despair and retreat when it became clear that I’d just spent months trying out a new treatment option that was ultimately unhelpful.

Just over a year ago, that changed. I had finally found an excellent cognitive behavioral therapist, who had recommended me to an excellent psychiatrist, and was seeing both concurrently, but as the stress of the holiday season set in, my symptoms started becoming more and more pronounced. Frequent, severe panic attacks were the least upsetting of my symptoms, which (if you’ve ever had a panic attack, you’ll know) is really saying something.

Through conversations with friends whose mental health experiences sounded similar to mine, I decided to start tracking my mood with a simple chart: every day, I checked off a box that indicated whether I felt depressed, “elevated” (i.e. more energetic/focused/productive than usual) or neutral. I tracked what medications I was taking, how much sleep I was getting, my alcohol intake, whether I had panic attacks, and more. On a daily basis. For three months. And saw a pattern starting to emerge. And rather than looking like a straight line with a few dips during depressive episodes…it looked more like a series of hills and valleys. The valleys were deeper and the hills weren’t as pronounced, but they were there.

Armed with these charts, I went back to my psychiatrist and we started having a new conversation. We started looking at different types of disorders and categories of medications. I brought up treatments that other friends had mentioned, and in an interesting turn of events one medication that had helped them wound up being the same thing another family member took (for a different reason). My doctor agreed that we would try this new treatment option.

And unlike the antidepressants I’d taken on and off for over fifteen years, the new medication worked.

I don’t mean like, “took three months to build up then gave me moderate relief,” either. I mean, two weeks after I started titrating up this particular medication, I was already feeling better. Within a month I had cut down significantly on separate anti-anxiety medications. Two months in, when my back went out and I found myself lying in bed for the better part of four months (before I could undertake even limited/minimal physical activity), I was stunned at how well I was able to maintain a positive outlook (with obvious, justifiable, and normal bouts of self-pity and sadness).

I felt like myself again – the self I hadn’t seen much of and had been trying to get back since things started going south in my mid-teens. Coupled with regular CBT sessions, the new medication brought me back to a place of emotional equilibrium, of being able to step back from situations and consider things from a more objective viewpoint without flying off the handle or melting into an emotional puddle. I let go of my self-destructive, unhelpful “coping” mechanisms, and didn’t miss them.

And none of it would have happened if I hadn’t taken an active role in figuring out what was going on, and advocating for myself with a doctor who, while (again) extremely competent, would not have had the information she needed to help make an accurate and overlooked diagnosis. Furthermore, a few months in, when I was feeling kind of physically gross, a friend mentioned that the medication I’d started taking could result in depleted amounts of a necessary vitamin, and I went to my Primary Care Physician to request a blood test. It turned out my vitamin levels were low, and I started taking supplements. Probably not life-threatening, at least in the short term, but if I hadn’t sought out that information and brought it to my PCP’s attention, I wouldn’t have known – and after taking the vitamins for a short while, I again felt an improvement in my day-to-day physical activities.

Finally, a third example, from the life of a friend who has recently gone through a heartrending and difficult experience: in the aftermath of her ordeal, she had a gut feeling that something was still wrong, but nothing showed up until she insisted the doctors perform a specific scan. When they did? They uncovered an issue that could have put her life in danger further on down the line.

What I’ve learned from my experiences and those of the above friend and others is this: we are all the best advocate for our own health. We are the ones who, barring actual cases of hypochondria, know when something is wrong. (And even a hypochondriac knows something isn’t right, it’s just that they think it’s something physical instead of mental. The signpost is still present.) It is our responsibility to both communicate with doctors about our concerns in a firm and informed manner, and in a way that helps guide them towards correct diagnoses and effective treatments

This doesn’t mean running off to Google and arriving at the doctor’s office with stacks of printouts from WebMD. It doesn’t mean insisting “I have XXXXXX disease because such-and-such.” It does mean doing some basic research, talking to others, keeping records of our own fluctuating bodies and minds, being aware of our own “normal” and our own “abnormal,” and in some cases, leaving the care of one medical professional for the care of someone who will listen to what we have to say.

In my own experience, I found I received better responses and care when I brought facts to my doctors’ attention rather than pointing them in the direction of a specific diagnosis (or making suggestions of potential sources of discomfort, rather than end-of-line diagnoses), and this makes sense: by presenting my own “diagnosis” as fact, I would narrow the scope of what my doctor might look for. Walking into mental healthcare professional offices and repeating a diagnosis that I’d been given at age 17, for which no treatment had been effectively found, resulted in doctors looking for solutions to that problem. Walking in and saying, “I don’t feel well in X, Y and Z ways, and here is some raw data I’ve collected, what do you think?” resulted in a real dialogue about me and about my health, without (to as large a degree as possible) the baggage of what had turned out to be a years-long incorrect diagnosis.

It’s not always easy to speak up when you feel your doctor may have overlooked something, but if they’re a good doctor, they’ll be glad you did. If they’re not, or if they’re dismissive, or otherwise make you feel as if you’ve done something wrong by advocating for your own treatment? Then you know it’s time to look for a new doctor. Looking back, the doctor who had made the first incorrect diagnosis about my mental health disregarded the most important question I asked her, and while I can hardly blame my 17-year-old self for letting the question go, if I’d known more at that time in my life I would have looked for a second (and third, and fourth, and…) opinion.

If speaking up on your own behalf is not something you feel capable of doing, then bringing along a friend or relative who can advocate for you is another solution to this problem – but it still relies on knowing yourself, knowing your body and mind, and being willing to communicate with another person about your thoughts and feelings in an open and frank manner.

Have you had experiences where advocating for yourself with a medical professional resulted in learning that your gut was right when it came to your diagnosis? If so, and if you’re comfortable sharing, I’d be interested in hearing about it in the comments below.

Politics & The Act of Clicking

You may have heard this before, but in today’s world, the most powerful currency you have is your attention. It’s also the thing most internet content producers (*waves* Hiiiii!) covet: to know that, for a few moments at least, they have your undivided attention. Websites use metrics like “unique visitors” and “time spent on page” and “shares” and “likes” and “friends” and more to quantify the size, demographic and engagement of their audiences. And in the case of for-profit websites: your Facebooks, your Huffington Posts, your random looney conspiracy theory sites – these metrics translate directly to ad sales. Hell, even unprofitable outfits like mine benefit from being able, for example, to pull in sponsors for blog posts, or prove to theater companies and authors that I have readers who’ll pay attention if I review their product/ions. And if you’ve ever seen me go ballistic on poor customer service or a bad product (Aereo, anyone?) you’ll know that social media reach tends to be helpful in those areas, as well.

Which brings us to the question of how websites get these clicks. In some cases, they’re purely organic. People list a search term and Google points them at my site. Some people click through from my Facebook page. Others have subscribed to the blog, or follow me on Tumblr or Twitter (most of my hits come from Twitter).

Once in a while, a random reader will repost or link to my site and suddenly I’ll see a surge of traffic – examples of this include my post about Amanda Palmer’s fundraising efforts, David Tennant’s accent in the US series of Broadchurch, or my essay on how much I can’t stand the Hunger Game novels.

Now, here’s the thing. While I don’t run this blog directly for profit (though there is that donate button in the upper right hand corner, hint hint), many websites are profit-generating machines. The Gawker family of sites, Buzzfeed, and others far more offensive – they’re notorious for “clickbait” article titles – titles that try to lure in readers by posing inflammatory questions or statements. You click, they get another unique visitor, their readership numbers go up, and they look more attractive to advertisers. While you don’t fork over cash to read their content, you do ultimately compensate their efforts with your attention.

Screenshot 2014-10-18 12.40.01

A screen grab from the Jezebel article on one toxic website; this link directs the reader to a separate write-up on the topic — one that doesn’t take place on the individual’s website.

Which brings us to what I’m going to call toxic clickbait. This goes beyond the annoying top-twenty lists that make you click through fifteen slides of celebrity haircuts instead of featuring them all on one page (more pages, more clicks) and beyond news-neutral articles from hysterical hate-spewers masquerading as news organizations, and involve people actively posting inflammatory, offensive and outright disturbing material for the purpose of getting as many clicks as they can. Even when this is a secondary purpose, and they actually believe the garbage they’re spewing, the mere act of clicking on their page actually helps support what they’re doing.

We talk a lot about affecting corporate ethics with our dollars – boycotts of socially liberal or conservative businesses, supporting small or local operations, etc. – but what people don’t talk so much about is affecting the tone of discourse on the internet, in whatever minor way possible, by consciously and actively deciding what we support with our clicks.

This was all brought up the other day when a friend posted a horrible and offensive piece she’d found from a horrible, offensive blog, talking about why women with tattoos were worthless, damaged “sluts.” She posted it on Facebook with a comment about how awful it was, and before you knew it, there were a dozen or more comments from those of us who read it and realized the post had been made by someone who was not only a deeply disturbed misogynist, but who was probably profiting off our outrage. After the first handful of comments, a few people started chiming in with admonitions not to click the link – and the discussion turned instead to sites that critiqued the piece and other posts made on the same site.

Most of those critiques refrained from posting links to the article in question, although many referred to it by name. Why? Because most people are too lazy to go to Google and seek out an article that isn’t right there for them. Which, in these cases, and in my opinion, is a good thing.

Not citing the piece you’re writing about or commenting on is antithetical to most of us who grew up writing in hyperlinkable text. And yet, there are some pieces and people that are just so toxic that to direct others towards them is just spreading their pollution. What’s more, people who are used to having rational, informed debates and engaging in discourse with those who don’t agree with them are trained to consider both perspectives, so deciding not to click on a potentially offensive story seems like playing the ostrich; sticking your head in the sand and just ignoring the problem instead of engaging it head-on.

And yet there is no way around it: avoiding engagement of any kind with toxic sites might be the only way to deprive them of the “oxygen” of unique page visitors, and the only way to ensure their writers don’t get rich off the bile they choose to spew.

It’s a problem I really don’t have a solution to: “spending” my attention on sites one agrees with only contributes to the increasingly narrow set of views we’re all exposed to, creating silos and echo chambers and over-curated content streams. And while many of us enjoy reasonable discussion with those who don’t agree with us, being exposed to new points of view and considering the perspectives of others, it’s hard to tell whether the “opposing side” is willing to have a civil conversation until you’ve already started to engage with them.

How do you handle the darker side of internet opinion pieces, websites and political arguments? And I mean the really ugly stuff: misogyny, racism, homophobia, toxic nationalism, class prejudice…? Do you avoid it entirely? Do you read links from The Daily Mail and shake your head? Do you pass links on to your Twitter followers and Facebook friends in order to shred the “arguments” put up by bigots and monsters? How do you balance talking about issues that need to be called out with not supporting those who spread hate?

I’m interested in hearing how others deal with these issues; if you have any thoughts or want to talk about how you approach the political act of following hyperlinks to toxic clickbait sites and other “hate speech”-style articles, please share in the comments.

(Note, please, that that is decidedly not an invitation to post toxic content. I will be the judge of what constitutes toxic content. Toxic content will be removed.)

Within that framework, I look forward to hearing from you.