Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Many Sins of Frances "Baby" Houseman

A strange thing happened to me this week. I was taking a Buzzfeed quiz on Facebook, as I often do despite swearing that I would never take another because I know myself better than any internet quiz could possibly know me, and I was informed that if I were a character in the movie Dirty Dancing then I would be Lisa.

Lisa? I thought, aghast. I'm Lisa? Vain, shallow Lisa? I'm Lisa?

Adding insult to injury, the little writeup of Lisa that accompanied my results informed me that Lisa sometimes "makes poor decisions".

Hey, wait a minute... I thought, placing myself in Lisa's fashionable shoes. Lisa makes poor decisions? You got a lot of nerve, Buzzfeed quiz. Lisa's not the one dancing across the ballroom with a statutory rapist and part time gigolo. All Lisa did was try to land a husband with potential for future success. How did Lisa end up getting such a bad rap?

Then I remembered something that I learned earlier in the summer, when I watched Maleficent: Sometimes, you might think a character is one way, but it turns out that they're something completely different, and you just had a crappy narrator. For example, you might think someone is a plotting, powerful sorceress who revels in her evil ways and laughs in the face of goodness, but then you find out that she's actually just a completely reactive, somewhat traumatized assault survivor who feels really bad about everything, cries sometimes, and really likes being a nanny to her ex-boyfriend's kid, and you kind of feel bad for her. Was it possible that Lisa got a similar deal? Especially given that the movie is narrated by Lisa's sister, "Baby", rather than Lisa herself?

What might we learn if we watched "Dirty Dancing" from Lisa's point of view?

My family and I decided to find out.


Our story begins in the car, and our first glimpse of the Sisters Houseman telegraphs their roles immediately:


Lisa, on our left, is a shuddering mass of insecurity, battered by a lifetime of familial abuse in the form of lowered expectations. Lisa's family has made it clear to her that she has no purpose, no destiny other than to be pretty enough to marry a man. There's no college in Lisa's future, no goals to attain. Lisa, worn down and unable to fight back after years of psychological damage, is instead driven to pursue an increasingly unattainable standard of beauty. Why else would she be trying to comb her hair and maintain its style in a moving car with all of the windows open?

The first time Lisa speaks, it is an expression of agony as she realizes that she has, once again, failed:


Lisa has not packed her coral shoes. The armor of fashion that she wears to defend herself from a cruel world that belittles and dismisses her suddenly has a chink, a flaw, a shoe sized hole that someone can fling an arrow through. And who does the flinging? Her sneering, faux intellectual sister, Baby. Not only does she immediately belittle Lisa's existential crisis of identity, but she takes the first available opportunity to remind Lisa of her place in the family and the world that night at dinner, accompanied by the cruel laughter of her parents.

Dr. Houseman explains, "Max, our Baby's going to change the world."

Sensing the exclusion of the other Houseman daughter, Max attempts to pull her into the discussion. "And what are you going to do, missy?"

Before Lisa can express a hope, a dream, or even a thought, her smirking sister taunts, "Oh, Lisa's going to decorate it."


Baby talks a good game in public for most of the movie, telling stories of Peace Corps aspirations and ambitions toward social justice, but in private she's a monster whose scheming heart and conniving ways would give Lex Luthor pause. The Housemans haven't even been at the resort for an entire day when Baby commits her first transgression:



Followed immediately by theft.


You may have carried that watermelon, Baby, but who paid for it? Who paid for it?

Like a bee to the hive, Baby's black heart is drawn to a den of sin: lustful dancing, underage drinking, and rampant drug abuse and there, in the eye of the storm, she finds the terrible yin to her yang: Johnny Castle. Unlike Baby, who cloaks her depravity in sweater sets and sweetheart necklines, Johnny openly telegraphs his rebellious lawlessness through a selection of black outfits in this sea of resort colors, a sinister shadow driving the only black car in the Kellerman's parking lot. It's no more surprising that he later turns out to be a gigolo, statutory rapist, and suspected thief than it is that Baby loves him; her blackened soul would accept no less.

Despite Baby's constant duplicity and undermining ways, Lisa continues trying to befriend her sister, asking her to cover while Lisa takes an innocent walk on the golf course with Robby, the waiter. Baby absently agrees, Lisa's problems of no concern to her. Later, Baby witnesses Lisa's moral purity in spurning Robby's sexual advances on the golf course, and she flies into a dark rage. Barely an hour goes by before she's engaged in clandestine late night meetings, bankrolling an illegal medical procedure and endangering the life of a dance instructor that she perceives as a rival for Johnny's affections, and then masterminding a conspiracy to defraud the staff of the Sheldrake Hotel out of a salary contracted to someone else.

Not satisfied, she then ruins Lisa's only chance at love by threatening to have Robby, the waiter, fired if he doesn't stay away from Lisa.

She also physically assaults him in his workplace.


Baby may talk a good game about helping underprivileged people, but she certainly has no problem with class warfare, does she? It took her all of thirty seconds to remind Robby, the waiter, that she could have him fired, because he is an employee, and she is a privileged member of the resort's leisure class. Her word wouldn't be questioned, and they both know it, even before she drives that point home with a strategic icewater pour.

Eventually, as it was doomed to from the start, Baby's illicit house of cards collapses, pulled down by the mounting weight of her parade of lies. She steps over Penny's weeping, bleeding body, watches from the comfort of the porch as her lover beats and humiliates Robby, the waiter, informs on the elderly and infirm Schumakers to divert suspicion from herself and her lover the sex offender, and then somehow convinces her parents to forgive her of everything with a few slick dance moves.

Where does all of this leave Lisa?


Before the final curtain, we see Lisa clinging to a desperate moment in the spotlight, yearning, trying, striving just for a moment to be recognized.


Minutes later, Lisa is once again upstaged by her sister.

Baby may have had the time of her life, but all Lisa got was a ruined vacation.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Postal Pride

Guess what I got at the post office today?

mail experiment 1

That's right. I got a sheet of Harvey Milk stamps.

I'm not sure how these are being sold or distributed at your post office, but I wasn't sure if they even had them at mine. The counter at my post office has a little display board that says, "The following stamps are available" and shows one of each stamp the post office allegedly has for sale. I checked the board by the first clerk and didn't see the stamp, so I checked the board by the other window and didn't see it there, either. Finally, I asked.

"Oh. Oh, yes, we have those."

They just don't advertise it or display them where any of the other stamps are. You have to go to the counter and ask for them, like a 1950's teenager buying condoms at a drug store, but I refuse to be ashamed. I asked if they had the Harvey Milk stamps in a voice deliberately loud enough for the entire room and entire line to hear, and I got my stamps.

You may have heard that this particular stamp has not been without controversy. Reactions from my friends have included, "Who's Harvey Milk?" and also "Why is it a big deal that he got a stamp?" I'm not going to answer the first one, because I assume your Google isn't broken, but I will answer the second one: It is a big deal because it says that gay people matter. It says that our contributions to society are important. It says that someday, any one of us could be on a stamp, just like any other important American.

It is a big deal because it says, in a small way, that we are equal.

Everyone isn't happy with this, of course. There's been the usual grumblings about deviants and perverts and agendas and lifestyles, and the loudest grumble came from the American Family Association, which urged their members to mark any mail featuring the stamp "Return to Sender". Their full press release is included in that link, as well as their letter to their members. It advises them to "Refuse to accept mail at your home or business if it is postmarked with the Harvey Milk stamp. Simply write ‘Return to Sender” on the envelope and tell your postman you won’t accept it."

OK, AFA. I'll call your bluff.

Now that I have my stamps, I went to the AFA website, and was advised that donations could be mailed to this address:

mail experiment 2

I've prepared a card:

mail experiment 3

mail experiment 4

And I've used one of my stamps:

mail experiment 5

Your move, American Family Association.

Monday, June 2, 2014

I Caught the Most Fish

In late April, my parents came down for what is turning into their annual pilgrimage to the South. I mean, it's three years in a row. That has to be enough to start calling it annual, right? Especially if they're already planning next year? In a change from past years, this year they decided that rather than stay in a hotel they would rent a vacation cabin in Pigeon Forge, and I would come stay with them there. That way, we could have more family time, rather than us going to do things and then me hustling them back to the hotel.

It worked out well. We sat around, read books, went shopping, cooked meals together, and also dad and I went fly fishing.

Yes. I went fishing.

And I caught the most fish.

I'm getting ahead of myself, though.

My dad decided to hire a fishing guide, something I encouraged him to do after I met one while waiting for a delayed plane on my way home from my trip to Providence last fall, and he invited me to go, too. It turns out that no one actually expected me to say yes, but my dad and I rarely do things together. This is mostly because we live 14 hours apart, and also because when I go home to visit it's usually during hunting season, when my parents spend all day in the woods and I lay on the couch reading books. Even though I dislike the water and kind of hate boats, I figured that Dad would have a good time, and if I got bored I could just take pictures of the river.

Instead, it turned out that I actually liked fishing.

Our day started early, because we had to drive all the way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park from the Tennessee side to the North Carolina side. I've never made the full drive before, but I've driven most of the way, and had to argue Dad into leaving early because he wanted to believe the guide, who side the drive would only take 45 minutes. Sure it does, if you speed, but I know that people who speed go straight to a special burning seat in hell, just like people who take more than ten items into the "Ten Items or Less" line at the grocery store. I blocked us an hour and a half of driving time, which let us set a leisurely pace and chat all the way there. Dad hadn't been through that part of the park before, and it has really spectacular views through the high mountains, so he got to look out the window the whole way since I drove, and we ended up getting to Cherokee fifteen minutes early.

We were supposed to meet the guide at the Cherokee Fun Park parking lot:

Cherokee Fun Park

which did not look at all fun. It looked kind of sad and run down, like pretty much everything in the few parts of Cherokee that we saw did.

I have to go back there with my camera and nothing to do, soon.

Anyway, the guide met up with us, and then we followed him to a parking area where we left my car and he drove us downstream, so that when we finished we would be back at my car and could drive home. I'm sure we impressed him as serious outdoorsmen, arriving in a Volkswagen Beetle with a gold star on the rear antenna.

frozen star

(The star didn't have ice on it at the time. I just don't have another photo of it.)

Our guide was thrilled to find out where I worked and that I had actually spoken to some of the football coaches over the last few years, and we spent the whole first hour or so talking about the Vols. I can do that, because I've become semi fluent in sportsball discussions. During that time he also put the boat in the water:

fishing (1)

and then put me in the boat:

fishing (2)

There I am, friends. I'm on a boat, and I managed to go the whole day without singing, "I'm On a Boat":

fishing (3)

Dad brought his own poles and his own flies, so it was clear that he didn't really need any attention, and the guide focused on getting me up to speed.

"Joel, your dad says you've never been fly fishing before. Do you know anything about it?"

"Yes. I've seen 'A River Runs Through It', because Brad Pitt was in that movie."

Silence on the river. And not the kind of silence that means we're all communing with nature. More of the slightly awkward kind of silence.

"Uh... but, uh, other than that, nothing. I've never done it before. I've only fished off of docks."

And so our guide started with the basics. I learned to overhead cast, and then sideways. I learned to correct my line, and how to let my fly drift. And then, eventually, I hooked my first fish. And that's when we had our only bit of trouble, other than the times that Dad and I accidentally hooked each other's poles when we both cast at the same time instead of taking turns.

See, I'm left handed. That may not seem like a big deal, and it's something Dad often forgets because I am the only left hander in my family, but it meant that the poles that the guide brought to teach me to fish on were all set for right handed people, which means that when I hooked a fish, popped my fishing pole to set the hook, and then started trying to reel it in, I turned the reel in my natural left handed direction, rather than the direction that right handed people would crank the reel in.

Which meant I was letting the line out instead of reeling in the fish.

After a rapid correction, the guide got my sinister, gauche left hand under control, and suddenly:

fishing (4)

I caught a trout.


fishing (6)

The guide said that you had to hold it when it was your first fish, kind of like how Jennifer Grey had to drink the blood of the first deer she killed in "Red Dawn". (My mom says that's not actually a real tradition, and that you don't have to drink the deer blood, but I remain dubious.) I wet my hands (you have to, or else your hand rubs off the slime coating that helps protect the fish from parasites and injury), held the fish, and then threw it back in the water.

And then I caught another fish:

fishing (5)

And another:

fishing (8)

And by the end of the day I was doing overhead casting like Brad Pitt in that movie, and I was all, "Oh, hey, another fish jumped onto my line," and I ended up catching the most fish: seven rainbow trout and one brook trout, the only brookie of the day. Dad kind of implied that he somehow caught fewer fish than I did on purpose, so that I could bask in the glow of my accomplishment, but it's not like you can shake the fish off rather than reel them in, so I think he was maybe saving face a little bit.

What's important, though, is that Dad and I spent an entire day together, and we didn't argue or squabble or get on each other's nerves. He got to introduce me to something he loves, and I loved it, too. And he emailed all of his friends, and sent out the pictures to everyone, and he was so excited to come back to the cabin and tell Mom all about it.

And that's really all I wanted to get out of the day.

But I also caught the most fish.